Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Katrina

The Katrina disaster really shows us the good and bad of humanity. People are helping, doing what they can. Then there are those who choose to sit on the sideline. Worse, there are those who loot and shoot police officers. It brings me to a question: How ready are we, as a nation, to handle a major terrorist attack?

Monday, August 29, 2005

Seriously

One of my faulty programming is that I constantly think or fear that people don't take me seriously.

I've always felt this way since I was little. I had a lot of say, and got a lot of insight from my experiences and the way I see the world, but I always felt that my parents didn't take me seriously. I could understand that when I was a little boy, but as I aged, and as I became an adult, I still felt that way. Usually, our conversation would go something like this:

"Mom, I got you a juicer."
"What for?"
"So you can make fresh vegetable juice every day. It's good for your health."
"You and your American nonsense."
"You should also exercise every day. Join a health club or something."
"It's a waste of money. We walk already."
"But not enough. You need to be more active."
"We're old. We don't have to be active."
"Also, you have all the free time now, why not go somewhere, do some traveling?"
"We're too old now. What's there to see? It's a waste of money."


Sure, they'd brush off my ideas or suggestions. And I'd feel like I'm a little boy again, not being taken seriously, even though I know I am right. The irony is that after a few years, they're now juicing every day, walking for a least an hour a day, and going to aerobic dance class four times a week. They look and feel healthier than they did 5 years ago. And now they take occasional tours.

Of course, it's all their ideas. They don't remember I suggested anything.

And I'm okay with that. I'm glad that they're active and healthy. But it still hurts when I feel like I'm not taken seriously. Combined with the feeling that "I'm always right," I have big issues.

Related to that, I always think that in order for people to be impressed with me and take me seriously, I have to accomplish something extraordinary. I can't tell you how many times when I go to a client, they'd give me the dubious look and say something like, "Did you just get out of school?" (Don't get me wrong, I like looking younger than my age, but...) I feel like I have to work EXTRA hard to earn their trust and their respect, even though I probably have more experience than they do. It's part of the reason why I'm sort of an overachiever when I'm driven, and a slacker when I'm not -- it's exhausting when you try so hard to impress.

I chalk it up to insecurity. I think. I'd like to think that I'm a very confident person. I do what I do and I'm good at what I do. I know that. At the same time, I doubt myself constantly, feeling that people are not going to take me seriously.

So...

I got a publisher in about 10 months. I consider it a pretty good track record, considering it's my first book. But the publisher is a small press. It's not Random House or HarperCollins or St. Martin's. Maybe it's just me, or maybe I'm too sensitive, but I do feel that people's initial reaction to "my book is being published" is a "Wow, congratulations. Who's your publisher?" Then when I said, "it's a small press in California called Behler," I could almost hear the thud in their brains. Then the 'Oh, well's that inevitably come out of their mouths. And the imaginary "congratulations anyway." Almost a sympathy.

I know it's silly. I've accomplished what I set out to accomplish and I should be proud of it. And big houses don't mean anything sometimes -- a lot of new writers' careers get squashed by the weight of their big publishers. I have worked for small companies and big companies, and I know their respective pros and cons. Sometimes it's actually better to start out small.

I have been around the blocks a few times, and have seen and met and worked with celebrities. I don't usually name drop, and you know why? Because I don't think it matters. It doesn't mean so-and-so is a better person than I am because he's a celebrity, or that I'm more impressive because I have worked with him. To me, they're just people (and they are) -- some of them really nice, down to earth.

But dammit, big companies do SOUND so much more impressive, don't they? And who doesn't love celebrity stories? In this world, and in this culture, brand name is king. Do you want to drive a BMW or a Toyota? Do you want to wear Prada or K-Mart? Do you want to work for IBM or some small company that no one has ever heard of? It's a state of mind.

I know all that. I'm an intelligent person. But sometimes I think my heart is dumb as a doornail.

I can't help but still feel like a little boy left in a corner and nobody notices because I'm not the cutest, smartest, most accomplished little boy at the party. It's ridiculous to feel that way, but I do. It's not just me being "oh-so-sensitive Ray," though. It's the truth. People (some people) do treat you differently based on their perception of who you are. My own observations confirm that. It's hard not to compare, when I try so hard to become "someone special." Part of me says, "Oh fuck it. Who really cares anyway, as long as I am happy." But part of me says, "Look at me! I'm here!"

It does hurt when you see how some people treat you differently. Whether it's because of your skin color or what kind of clothes you wear. But it's the real world. What hurts the most is when the people you respect or admire do the same thing. It's human nature, and it's reality, I know, and I try not to be over-sensitive about it, but the truth is, it hurts sometimes. When that person doesn't return email or phone calls or he's avoiding your request. Or that they throw someone else a big congratulatory party but ignore you. Whether it's all in my head or it's true doesn't matter. The fact is, it hurts. To feel like you're not "important enough." That people don't take you seriously because you don't have a four-book deal with Random House.

Envy is another deadly sin.

At times like this, I have to remind myself to look at the bright side, and remember all those people who are happy for me for WHO I AM, and not what I do. I'm blessed to have people like that in my life, and I am thankful. I need to try to put things in perspective. It's true that "we all build our own pedestals, step on them, and see only the higher ones." We build expectations for ourselves, then bring ourselves down when either a) we can't achieve them or b) we're not "good enough." Someone said to me once: "There will always be someone better, bigger, stronger, cuter, nicer, more successful, or whatever than you. And there will always be someone less fortunate. Be happy for who you are and what you have."

Easier said than done, right?

In a way, I kind of admire Gwyneth Paltrow. At 32, she's accomplished a lot in her career and personal life. At age 32, she's ready to retire. She said, "Everything I set out to achieve, I achieved. I'm not one of those people who keep raising the bar for themselves."

Right on.

Then again, easy for you to say, Gwyneth. You've got your Oscar.    

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Separation Anxiety

Sure, I'm still thinking about Six Feet Under, and I'm sort of suppressing an urge to view the final episodes again on HBO. Why is that? I think part of it is that I know I would be hooked and become an obsessive viewer (I once watched a 6FU episode about 3 or 4 times). Another thing is that I know I don't want to live through the separation anxiety again. It's as if I've already said goodbye to these characters, I need to let go.

Do we all share this kind of separation anxiety? Or are some people immune to that -- they can just leave and not feel a thing?

Have you ever read a book with such great characters that you start to feel anxious (but excited at the same time) to read the last chapter or epilogue?

Have you ever left a theater feeling lost and distressed, only because the curtains were drawn and you couldn't see those characters again?

And these are just fictional characters. What about real people? Do you have a hard time saying goodbyes to your friends? Parents? Siblings? Family?

I've always had a bad case of separation anxiety. And that's strange. I mean, I left home (really, really left home) at a young age. I thought by now I should have a good handle on this particular emotion, but I don't. I dread saying goodbyes. I feel really sad and lost whenever I leave a job, a place, or saying goodbye to people I know. Not to mention people I really love. Everytime I return from visiting my parents, I have to distract myself with a lot of activities to keep myself from dwelling on that feeling of sadness and anxiety. I do better when I'm the one traveling. When it's someone else who's doing the traveling, I go beserk with anxiety and dread and sadness.

So why is that?

Are we hardwired to feel anxious because of abandonment or survival? Or are we conditioned? As a species, humans are pretty defenseless on their own. Unlike many animals, young humans need to be taken care of and nurtured until they're way into, at least, their teens. We function the best when we're with other people. We call the truly independent loners "freaks" and we doubt if they're truly happy. So, is separation anxiety an instinctive reaction to survival? Why does a baby cry when it's taken away from its parent? Clearly, we haven't taught babies what "goodbye" means. But a baby seems to understand, by instinct or by conditioning, the concept of separation, and they express anxious behavoirs. These anxious feelings and behavoirs tend to develop and extend way into adulthood, sometimes up until our deaths.

Death. Is death really that bad? Why do we fear death so much? Is it because of the unknown: Is that it? Is there anything after death? Or is it because death is the ultimate separation? From the life we know, the people we love, and the world we live in. As we take our last breath, we're saying goodbye to our own existence. Everything we know about being human. Interestingly, it's not about survival anymore, because we are dying and we know we are dying. But we still try to hold on. We're afraid to let go.

Or are we all just big babies?

Friday, August 26, 2005

A Shameless Plug

My book is available for pre-order on Amazon.com now. Check it out.

The Pacific Between

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Six Feet Under

(SPOILER -- the following contains spoilers. If you have not seen the show or the final episode, please come back after you do.)

It's been almost four days, and I'm still thinking about the HBO show Six Feet Under and its series finale, which aired on Sunday. I still couldn't sleep at night, thinking about the final montage. It's crazy. I keep reminding myself: It's only a TV show. But I can't help it.

Never have I been so deeply moved, engrossed, and affected by a piece of entertainment. Sure, I have fallen in love with and touched by a book, a movie, a TV show, or a song before, but not like this. I cried like a baby at the end of Cinema Paradiso, but not like this. Not like having insomnia for four days. What is wrong with me?

I think Six Feet Under has struck a chord with so many people at such deep level because it is so REAL. And some people don't like the show also because it's too REAL for them. The Fishers and their friends and loved ones are so dysfunctional that we could all step back and say, "Gosh, I'm glad I am not like that." Then we catch ourselves, whether it's watching David lashing out on his partner Keith, or Nate cheating on his pregnant wife Brenda, or Ruth screaming at her husband George: Oh lord, we are just like them. We have our own dysfunctional moments, our own demons and torments, our own sicknesses. And they remind us of people we know. Thus the Fishers and Co. have become our family for the past 5 years.

I love flawed people. They are fascinating. In my own work, I write about flawed people. I don't like archetypical heroes and villains -- they're boring to me. So as a writer, I have immense respect for Alan Ball, and I'm in awe of the talent he and his team of writers exhibit. And I'm insanely jealous. And inspired.

Every episode presents some brilliant writing, full of metaphors, deep meanings and nuances. It's sad, depressing and funny at the same time. I'm always in awe with the writing. Then there's the acting. Six Feet Under has some of the most talented actors (Peter Krause as Nate, Michael C. Hall as David, Frances Conroy as Ruth, Lauren Ambrose as Claire, Rachel Griffith as Brenda, James Cromwell, Matthew St. Patrick, Kathy Bates, Patricia Clarkson... the list goes on and on and on) and some of the most amazing performances. Together, the organic writing and acting (and the artful production) make the show so real.

So real that we identify with these characters as if they are -- REAL.

That's why the final episode hit me so hard. Because I believed in them and their trials and tribulations. The grief they went through. The joy they experienced. The love, loss and relationships they endured.

Most important, I can project myself and my own life to some of these characters. Every one of these characters remind me something of myself. Their stories speak to me at a personal level. I think that's what great literature is all about. And I consider a great TV show great literature.

I think it's brilliant that they delivered the shocking and climatic death of Nate (a central character) 3 episodes before the finale, then let us see the grieving process unfold within the Fisher clan. For a show about death, they chose to show us life afterwards.

And that's it. Part of the impact of the show is that it's really about life. About living.

The final 15 minutes and the montage as Claire drove through the desert hit me really hard. I watched, awestruck and breathless, as each major character met his or her demise. To me, it was like watching my family and friends die. It was like having gone to 6 or 7 funerals in 15 minutes. There's that finality. The goodbyes that are so hard to say.

But most impressively, they show us how they lived their lives. It reminds us of our own mortality, that we all die, eventually. Some suddenly and tragically, and some naturally. But we all die. It's how we live and love and take it all in and remember that is important.

"You can't take a picture of this. It's already gone." Indeed. What we have, really, are feelings and memories.


The final 15 minutes also reminds me of my own life, adventures, relationships, and losses. As Claire leaves for New York for her new life, I reflect on my own departures. How I said goodbye to my friends and family when I left for the US. The sense of loss and dread, mixed with excitement of the unknown future.

Some other favorite moments:

  • Ruth grieving for Nate while watching Just Shoot Me-- it's so subversive that it's sad and hilarious
  • Nate telling Claire, "Wake up, everyone's waiting."
  • As Claire snaps a picture of her family, Nate saying, "You can't take a picture of this. It's already gone."
  • Ruth asking Maggie if Nate was happy before he died -- that's one of the most heart-wrenching moments
  • The dinner toast to Nate at the end -- it's classic
  • Claire driving off as Nate runs and disappears in her sideview mirror -- the sense of "letting go" is insurmountable
  • Ruth dying on her death bed, surrounded by her family, and seeing her late husband and first-born son waiting for her -- I started to well up...
  • Ted coming to Ruth's funeral and reuniting with Claire -- how romantic and poetic
  • David seeing the vibrant, handsome vision of Keith before he dies -- the sense of eternal love and loss is incredible; it puts a lump in my throat
  • Claire dying on her death bed, all alone, but surrounded by pictures of everyone she's loved and outlived... the joy on her withered face... then cutting to the clear, beautiful eyes of the young Claire, as she goes off to the her new future

Sia's Breathe Me was a perfect soundtrack for the last 5 minutes. The haunting song gave the ending such incredibly emotional punch.

The song and these final images are branded vivid in my mind now. Can't shake them. And for four days I've been thinking about what I saw and heard, reflecting on my own life and losses. And I feel blessed.

I will keep thinking. And feeling. And loving. And living.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Question

The other day a friend of mine asked me a question (well, actually two): "Are you happy? If you were to die this very moment, would you regret about your life?"

I thought for a second, and I told him: "I am content. Can I be happier? Probably, but right now I am content. And if I were to die this moment, I'd be happy to know that I've lived my life the way I did."

This might sound like a big pile of bull crap. But that were my answers, and I didn't lie. I wasn't trying to impress him. I said what my heart believed, and I meant it.

I think regret is a very dangerous and unhealthy thing. That and guilt. Totally useless. It's not to say I don't look forward to the future or try to improve. But I am content. I think I have lived a pretty good life and there's nothing I need to change.

And that's a pretty good feeling.

A Message to a Friend

....

Believe me, I know exactly where you are and how you feel. I felt the same way when I was 21, feeling that I had wasted my life and that I was doing something I wasn't really crazy about. Then what did I do? I wasted more time. I may have a book coming out now, but it has taken me over 30 years to get to this point... and I am just starting to learn.

I think we need to remember that life is going on, all the time. We all feel like failures, maybe even constantly. But the fact is, you're only 21, and you have almost 20 years to catch up with where I am now... You have so much to learn, to do, to experience, and your writing ability is LIGHTYEARS ahead of mine. I'm just a hack and I get lucky in finding a publisher.

I don't think it's healthy to compare sob stories. I'm okay about my age and just starting to do something I enjoy and "fuck" what other people think... And you, my dear friend, do have your whole life ahead of you. Gosh, how I wish I were 21 again and able to do it all over. It's not to say I regret my life -- I think it's a great life so far, and I've learned so much. At the same time, I wish I hadn't wasted so many years doing what OTHER people expected of me.

And even if you wake up at 30 and say, "Gosh darn it, I want to do EXACTLY what I want and be happy" --- you'd still be ahead of me.

The same goes with me. It's all relative. I know people who are in their 60s and 50s who are regretting about their lives. Here, I still have another half of my life to go and I'm just starting. It's funny because my parents took me to a senior citizen center and my dad said to me, "This will be you in 30 years." And I thought, "Thank God, I still have 30 years."

Truth #67

People you love or care about always leave you, but they never leave you, really.


I have felt very close to many people in my life, from childhood playmates to high school buddies to first loves to dear friends to my family... and they always, inevitably, leave me. Either we drift apart, or circumstances separate us. My love for them has no limit, but I also understand that people move on, and some beyond this physical world, and there's nothing I can do to stop that from happening. The only thing I can hold on to is the memories we share, and the good stuff and lessons that come along with every relationship and connection.

They say "we always die alone," but do we really?

Another thought

A friend of mine, Paul, had a stroke about 4 weeks ago, and so far he hasn't made too much progress toward recovery, and his doctors might be giving up soon if he doesn't improve... and that means he may stay in this state for the rest of his life.

That makes me immensely sad.

The vibrant, fun-loving, wonderful guy I know might be gone forever, but his body will still be here, lingering, merely a shell, reminding us what he used to be. And he's going to leave behind his family and his loved ones, struggling every day to cope with the aftermath.

That makes me immensely sad.

Life is so cruel sometimes, but it serves as a reminder for the rest of us that we really have to cherish every moment, be it a simple summer afternoon or a special occasion with the people we love. Make memories. Because at the end, that's the most precious thing we have: memories.

My thoughts are with my dear friend Paul. And I hope you would say a prayer for him as well.

A Thought

There are times when everything seems so clear to you, but you just don't know where to go. It seems like everything should have a point, but they don't -- or at least you won't get it until much later, maybe even years from now. There are times when you find peace in yourself, but you still feel lost.

It's time like these when you learn to take one day at a time, and just take it in. Because, really, that's all we have. Just one day. As the cliche goes: yesterday is gone and tomorrow may never come. All we have is today -- not even that... maybe just this moment. You may not know where you're going next. Or maybe you have nowhere else to go and this is it. But it doesn't matter. You have this moment. And a lot of times, that's really all that matters.

So I am taking this moment to log this entry, so that my thoughts would be frozen in time and space. And that's pretty special.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

More on Descriptions...

Personally, I think descriptions should always have movements. By that I mean movement with the plot, characters, or the moments. When integrating descriptions with actions or movements, you create a vivid picture in your readers' minds without taking them out of the story. To me, words are like water in a river or a creek... they keep moving, and should never stop and become stale.

What kind of movements, you ask? Well, either the setting itself moves (descriptions of a river, a waterfall, wind-blown trees, clouds, a lock of hair, darting eyes, etc.) or if they're static, let the characters move through/past them and note the pertinent details, but not everything. Just enough to evoke the readers' imagination.

"Evoke" is the key word, here. You want to use words (nouns and strong verbs) that are vivid and evocative, and try to stay away from useless, vague adjectives like "beautiful" or "quiet" or "incredible." Use all the senses, but you don't have to dwell on them. They're like seasoning... just a tiny pinch goes a long way. You'll be amazed how few words you need to complete a full picture.

For example, in the following passage from my book, The Pacific Between, I integrate the descriptions with the scene with movements and actions. That keeps the scene moving, never stopping long enough to make it stale:

Hell is a thousand needles in my eyes, and a thousand more in my head. I feel like hurling again, but I’m too tired to turn my head to the side. Finally my stomach settles. The thousand needles become more like a hundred. My throat is clammed shut. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I look around. I don’t recognize my surroundings. Dark and hot, a shack or a storage room. Boxes and junk everywhere. Paper and food wrappers all over the floor, and a few stacks of Hustler.

I try to push myself up, but my body is anchored in whatever I’m lying on. I close my eyes and breathe through my mouth. Breathe in. Breathe out. I’m going to make some sense out of this.

Eventually, I push hard enough with both my hands to prop myself up. A thin blanket slips onto the floor. I’m in a small, windowless room, on a worn-out couch, a few empty beer cans strewn around my feet. Heavy traffic outside.

I try to stand but my legs are weak. I wobble, then get hold of a plastic chair and steady myself. The place smells of dirty laundry and two-days-old Chinese takeout.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Descriptions

I admit, I skimp them sometimes when I read, especially when the author dwells on describing something mundane. A sunset is a sunset -- I can imagine one just fine -- unless it has some emotional resonance or moves the plot or develops characters.

Good descriptions, like the painstaking details in a movie (such as Titanic), enhance the reading experience. Descriptions can be wonderful. Vivid descriptions put you in a 3-D space and transport you to that world, whether it's an alien planet or your hometown. The trick is to find the balance. In a movie, you don't want to let the set, the landscape, cinematography, etc. dominate the story and characters. Same concept in a story -- you don't want to STOP the story cold just to describe some beautiful sceneries. There has to be a reason, and descriptions should support and enhance the story, not overwhelm it. The best descriptions are those tightly integrated into the story, and the best descriptions always contain movements.