Thursday, September 25, 2008

Fat Men Can't Sit Seiza, Vol. 2: The Funeral

AS has been mentioned, my wife comes from a very strongly Buddhist family. Three uncles are monks, and her late Grandfather was a high ranking priest at the Ryuko-tokuji temple. My first major encounter with my new family's religion was at his funeral.

Here's the story. (This is a long one...and kind of sad. But not too much.)

Not long after my wife and I first moved in together, her grandfather passed away. It wasn't unexpected, but it was of course a very difficult time. For me, however, this marked one of the strangest days I can remember.

If you have never been to a Buddhist funeral, they are really quite impressive. This one may have been more so, due to the man's status as a monk. Wearing black suits and dresses (only the older members of the family, or members of the order, wore Kimons), we went to the funeral home. There were flowers decorating the building, of course, and decorations with plaques form members of the community who had known the man all his life. Inside, there was a large altar, a stair-step arrangement of shelves of diminishing size. It was draped in white cloth and covered in lanterns, flowers, and statues of the Buddha. In the center was a large, black swathed picture of Tomomi's grandfather. In front of the altar was a small white box, about 4 feet long. Arranged around this were various bells, drums and incense burners for the priests to use in the ceremony.

Soon, the service began. We all sat near the altar, and the priests arranged themselves in front of the altar. They began to chant, beating the drums and ringing the bells. The family members, all holding buddhist prayer beads, joined in the chanting of the sutras, and I followed along as best I could. When the sutras were finished, each family member stood and went to the front, where a small pinch of crumbled incense was touched to the forehead and then dropped on a charcoal brazier.
It was extrememl;y solemn,and impressive, and above all funereal.

Then, it was time to take the body to be cremated.

We went to the crematorium. Everyone rode a bus provided by the funeral hall. The ride was long, and the beer I had drunk was starting to leave me, so I felt a little out of sorts.

The crematorium was in a beautiful little forest, on the side of a mountain. I was impressed, until I got inside.

And this is where things get...surreal.

The Crematorium lobby was a stark, echoing cave of a room. The walls were tiled in white, and the far wall had massive, iron doors set into it. Between the four doors were tiny, pathetic little vases with old, drooping plastic flowers. This was the only concession to the real function of the place--there was no further attempt at solemnity, or at addressing the fact that this was a place of mourning.

The coffin was set up to one end of the room. The guests all lined up in a semicircle around it, and the priest said another sutra. Then, we all shuffled past, lighting a stick of incense and putting it on the small white box. There was a plastic window in the lid, so family members could see the departed one last time.

Finally, when everyone had finished, out came the crematorium attendant. He was a huge, sweaty man, standing over 6 feet tall and dressed in an white shirt (unbuttoned to the third button) black dress pants and white sneakers. He loaded the coffin into the oven and led us to the waiting room.

We found cold, institutional seats in a drab room, a TV set high on the wall, and a vending machine. There was an attached Japanese style room with tatami mats and a low table, where the children in attendance promptly started up a game of cards, and the adults broke out the refreshments. I was sitting in a corner, trying not to attract attention, and trying not to think too much ("How long does it take to burn a body? Do I smell smoke, or is it my imagination? Why doesn't anyone notice how ugly this place is?").

Soon, my wife's uncle brought over a case (A CASE!) of beer, opened it up and said "Jim! Drink! For you!" and put an opened beer can in my hand. I tried to nurse it, but some kind of weird time warp saw me sucking down four beers in the two hour wait.

Eventually, the attendant returned, and then came the part I had forgotten about. The interment.

Back in the lobby, the remains were laid out on a metal gurney. It was the first skeleton I had ever seen, and in my half pissed state it was deeply uncomfortable. Then, they started handing out the chopsticks. If you didn't know, after a Buddhist cremation, the family takes special chopsticks and uses them to place the bones into an urn. Once everyone has done this, the closest relative then picks up the adam's apple and places it in the urn.

As the chopsticks approached, I started to panic. Not only was I not very good with chopsticks in general, I had been drinking, and these things were huge--over a foot long, and about an inch thick. I was terrified I would fumble them and cause a horrible scene.

I hung back, just wanting to watch, but my wife pulled me forward, and I took the huge sticks in hand. When it was my turn, I was numb. I kept staring at the bones, blackened and broken by the heat. Finally, I found a small piece and managed to get it into the urn without dropping it. I almost cried with relief.
When everyone had finished, and the adam's apple was in the urn, there were still bones on the gurney so the attendant put them into the urn himself.
(It gets a little gruesome after this. You're warned.)

Apparently, the cremation process wasn't as clean as I thought, because the bones were stuck to the gurney. The attendant had some trouble getting them up, so he got a large iron spatula and scraped the bones into a pile. Of course, a lot of them broke in the process, so he had to get a little shovel and a broom, sweep them up and dump them in. I just watched in shock. There was so little...ceremony to it. I really wasn't prepared for this.

The final shock was the lid. It wouldn't exactly fit, so...even thinking about it makes me a little the attendant took the shovel and the spatula and pushed the bones. They crunched and shattered and made room for the lid to go on.

The urn was sealed and wrapped and that was it.

We all went home and I was given a crash course in my new life.
Click Here to read the rest.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Terpsichorean Muse...

I like music, I think I can say honestly. I'm not a huge music geek, but I've, you know, heard things. I love me some Tom Waits, and Beethoven, And Marty Robbins. I love it all.

But every once in a while I find something special, that flips my happy switch and makes the whole damned thing seem so much nicer.

Here're a few of those for me.

My Happy Songs. Let Me Show You Them.
(Warning, Youtubery ahead)

First up, we have the world's first Virtual Pop Idol (Ahhh...Japan) Miku Hatsune, with the Levan Polkka:

It just makes me grin like an idiot, is what it does. More traditional versions are good, too.

Next up is The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, with a whole hat full of WIN.

It hits me right about HERE.
Their gala version of Life on Mars is fantastic, too.

Last up--maybe my favorite song of all time.
The Gourds, with a little help from Snoop Dogg. (NSFW language)

Seriously. Epic, EPIC music.
(N.B. I just changed the video to get a better quality song. The video's retarded...just listen. Listen REAL GOOD.)
So how about you? You got any happy music?
Click Here to read the rest.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Empire in Black and Gold, A review

Well, I finally finished my copy of Adrian Tchaikovsky's (a.k.a. Adrian Czajkowski - What are you trying to hide?! Or are you just betraying your Polish heritage to play up the possible name recognition/familiar pronunciation the alternate spelling provides? HMMMM???) new Fantasy novel Empire in Black and Gold. As has been said, I won a signed copy:

(See, he even put a little wasp...But why is there a bird there? I don't think there's a bid in the entire novel...).
So, now's the time. My Review!

Patented, solid-as-a-rock three word review: Shoulda been better.
More than three word review:
Empire in Black and Gold is an epic adventure fantasy set in a unique world, with compelling characters, an exciting premise and convoluted story. Set in a place called the lowlands, our protagonists must confront a massive empire that has slowly been swallowing all the scattered lands of humans. Finally, the Wasp Empire is at the doorstep of the Collegium, a city of learning and technology, and only one man and a few of his students recognize the threat for what it is.
There's my book blurb.

Empire in Black and Gold is a fantasy novel that, right off the bat, tells you it's out to avoid cliche like the plague. No fairies here, no dwarves or ogers or dragons. No, this land is a lod of humans...kind of. The humans of the nameless world (first point against. What's the place called?) are divided into "kinden", rather than races or species. The "kinden" are all named after insects--we've got Beetle-kinden, Ant-kinden, Mantis-Kinden, etc.

At first, this seems like some kind of arbitrary naming system; like maybe the Wasp Empire just adopted the wasp as its standard, perhaps. Not so. It turns out (eventually, muddily--point two against. I'm still not clear how the insect thing works.) that the humans of this world have somehow melded with the giant insects who also inhabit it (yes, giant insects, which barely figure into the plot at all--point three against! Use the bugs!) and taken on some of their characteristics. The Mantis-kinden have long, bony spikes sprouting form their arms, deadly grace and bloodlust. The Spider-kinden are graceful, can climb up walls, and are adept at manipulating people and political institutions (just like spiders. . .What?) and the Beetle-kinden are solid, have a lot of stamina and are cunning artificers (Again...what?) This is a central element to the story--the conflict between the kinden is as important as the conflict with the Empire. In fact, in many ways it is more important. No, wait. In this book, it is the ONLY conflict.

I have to be honest, I don't even know how to begin reviewing this book. It's a muddled mess of a story. Actually, there isn't a story to speak of. The characters are always moving, and there is some kind of development, but the plot isn't there. There's no arc, just a straight line that somehow turns into a circle. The characters are introduced, the Empire begins to menace, the characters are captured, there is a daring rescue, the characters move somewhere else, there is another threat, it's handled, the book ends and basically says: Buy the next book to see what happens! (Did I mention this is a series? "Book One of the Shadow of the Apt"--and I won't even get into the "Apt" thing yet.)

It's frustrating because there actually is a lot of interesting stuff here. The bug thing, like I mentioned, has tons of potential, but is left utterly out of the story. Why are there people like this? Why can some bug people fly but others can't? Why are there physical manifestations for some kinden, like the spines on the mantis kinden, but not others? Explore it! And show us more bugs--don't just say "There might be giant mantids in this forest, be careful!" and not show us a giant freaking mantis!

And the history. . .there is so much history hinted at. The book takes place in a post-industrial-revolution world, and this was a real revolution. The world was once ruled by the magic-using Moth-kinden, with the Spider-kinden and Mantis-kinden helping, but they were overthrown by the "Apt" races--the Ants, Beetles, and Flies--who can use machines. So now there's all kinds of hate between the In-Apt (Moth, etc) and Apt. The Beetles are the strongest at machinery; they have flying machines, huge mining operations, repeating crossbows (WHAT?!?) and they are of course in conflict with the nature loving Moths, Mantis and Spiders. That sounds like some good story stuff. . .why not devote more time to exploring the history?

Of course, I can answer that--there's going to be more books. Gotta save some plot for the rest of the series! The problem is, I have absolutely no desire to go and buy the rest of the books. I just didn't care enough about the story. I mean, I actually can't identify the main conflict of the first book. There was no denouement to speak of. The characters did develop, which is good, but...fantasy needs plot. It needs some kind progression to keep the reader coming back for more. When the progress towards a clear end stops, the reading stops (c.f. the last couple of WoT books). This book only succeeds in introducing the conflict for further books to explore; there is no real conflict for the book itself. In the end, absolutely nothing has changed between the beginning of the book and the end, except that two of the characters have sex, one of the characters discovers that another is the father she never knew, and one of them believes in magic. The world situation continues, and the books conflict turns out, in the end, to have been meaningless.

I think that's the bottom line. I won't get into the ridiculous science (sniping flying enemies from a flapping-wing flying machine...with a BOW?!?) the impossible technology (repeating crossbows?!) or the awkward sex-scene set up ("I have a mystical way of helping you discover your untapped potential...IN MY PANTS!") and just say--it takes more than a good, original idea and an agreement to write a sequel to make a good fantasy author, Mr or Mrs Editor.

p.s. After finishing this, I decided to search out some more info on Mr. Tchaikowski. It appears he's a cartoonist and RPG game designer....and the next book is coming out. Eeep. Well, if I win another contest, I'd be happy to review it...
Click Here to read the rest.