Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Ghost in Love

The Ghost in Love, by Jonathan Carroll, is probably the most fun and fascinating magical fantasy novel I've read in a while. Cory Doctorow wrote a great review of it over on BoingBoing, which is how I found out about it, and I agree with everything he says there. There's something else that really colored the whole reading experience for me, though.

Normally when I read a fantasy or sci-fi book (or series), I expect to spend some extra time and effort in the beginning, just to get mentally situated. You have to get your bearings, figure out how this fictional world works, see what are the basic assumptions, structures, premises, etc. After that, you can coast a bit more, just absorbing the story as story.

That's not the case with this book. In terms of this particular quality, the entire book feels like a first chapter. You think you're okay once you've got the idea that a guy accidentally didn't die when he was supposed to, and then he coexists with his ghost, who can be seen by and communicate with dogs but not humans. But it just keeps going from there. You're constantly trying to figure out what's possible or not, and why on earth various things are happening. This could have been frustrating, but I found it more enthralling than anything else. It puts you in the same boat as the main characters, after all, who are also trying to figure out how their world is being rearranged. So it really sucks you in and makes you feel a part of it (similar to the way MirrorMask created such a good feeling of dreaming). I also like it just for the sheer flow of ideas. The author isn't going easy on us, or holding anything back, but just letting us drink from a fire hose of imagination. That's fun.

I'll mention one other interesting point, as long as I'm here. Carroll's writing style at times feels very simple, like very straightforward, fairy-tale storytelling. Overall, that's probably a good thing, since there's enough complexity in the content that you don't need more in the presentation. But every once in a while he'll come up with a real zinger of a line that just hits you right between the eyes, and is all the more powerful for the simplicity of its environment. Example: "Like any illness, when happiness has run its course, time is needed to recuperate from it -- sometimes an entire lifetime."

This was the first Jonathan Carroll novel I've read, but I'm thinking I should go find more. If anybody has any recommendations, let me know.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Walking Meditation and a Glass Half-Full

Yesterday I went to a 1-day meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City. It was my first time there, though several people (Mom, Alice, Eric, Jill) have been telling me about it for a while. It's a good place. The format and feel of the retreat was rather different than the 1-day I'd been to at the CVC's South Bay Hall, so it was an interesting contrast.

Most significantly, the sitting periods were shorter (45 minutes) and they alternated with periods of walking meditation. I don't think I was terribly interested in the idea of that much walking at a retreat, but I found that I really appreciated the opportunity to practice mindfulness in a different physical context. Also, it provided a physical break from the sitting, while keeping your mind focused on meditation, rather than having complete breaks between sessions. That gave it a different sort of continuity, mentally at least, if not physically.

Gil Fronsdal gave the talk at the end of the day, but the part that I think I most needed to hear was something he just quickly noted in his morning welcome. He pointed out that as your meditation practice improves, you can actually go through a phase of having it feel more frustrating. For example, if you're just daydreaming the whole time and not noticing, an hour could potentially pass pretty quickly and stresslessly. But every time you do notice your attention wandering, you have to bring it back to focus. If you're catching it every time, that could easily happen dozens of times in that same hour. And that's incredibly frustrating, because you constantly feel like you're messing up and starting over. So you just need to remember that the correct comparison when you're learning is not to absolute concentration, but to absolute daydreaming, or whatever your mind would otherwise be doing on its own. Appreciate the number of times you were able to rein in your wandering mind, rather than worrying about the number of times it wandered off.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hot Chix Dig Environmentalists

Do you know someone who is both male and environmentally clueless? Then start training him using the power of positive associations, and get him this for Christmas: The Hot Chix Dig 2009 Calendar: Fighting Global Warming One Pinup at a Time. You can also just buy it for anybody who likes this kind of thing. :-)

The whole Hot Chix Dig project is a clever idea, and it doesn't stop at calendars: check out the rest of their galleries, and the blog as well. I know several of the lovely ladies who've been involved and I'm glad they've had a lot of fun "using [their] best assets for an important cause." So go support them! And follow some of their environmentally friendly tips while you're at it!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

LASIK Anniversary

As of today, it's been a full year since I got LASIK surgery. The short update on it is that I'm still immensely happy with the results, and getting it done was one of the best things I've ever done for myself.

My eyesight is still excellent. The only lingering side effect is that my eyes still tend towards dryness. I mostly only feel it when I wake up in the morning, a bit more so if I'm dehydrated, say from exercising or something. But I keep some eye drops around for when I need them and it's not a big deal.

Overall, I love it. I love not being tethered to external objects for something so essential as vision. I love having peripheral vision with glasses frames at the edges. I love being able to hug and cuddle without knocking bits of metal on faces. I love not having that wall, thin and transparent though it might be, between me and the world. It's wonderful.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Few Post-Voting Notes

I'm mostly unpolitical here on the blog, but I had a few things I wanted to say now that California's propositions are counted. (Here's a good map if you want a breakdown within the state of what votes came from where.)

First of all, I'm disappointed that Prop 8 passed. I won't go into reasons since it's too late and Eric has already done a much better job of that than I could. So I'll just say I'm sorry to the people that this will affect, who I believe are mostly not the people who passed it. But this is how democracy goes sometimes, so we'll just have to take this decision for now and hope we'll get a chance to vote on it again someday.

I also wanted to say that I voted against Props 7 and 10, which didn't pass. This morning I heard someone on CNBC express surprise that California would shoot down alternative fuel bills, and they speculated that it was because gas prices had dropped so much over the last few months. To that I'd like to reply emphatically (and, I hope, accurately) that no we are not that shallow or shortsighted. We voted them down not because the issue is unimportant, but because it's so important that we need better plans to get it right. Believe me, I wanted to find an alternative energy proposition I could support.

As for the really big question of the day, I'm reminded of my first day in Romania when my host family made a point of confirming that I supported Obama. I'm looking forward to having a president I can be proud of, both at home and abroad, not to mention the first president ever that I voted for. And I'm proud of our country for finally being willing and able to achieve such a milestone. I know the euphoria will wear off, and Obama will turn out to be only human and have his faults, like everyone else. But there is still a lot of hope (and, I think, a reasonable probability) that he will at least be a very good human, and a good president.

And now that that's all over I'm left to wonder... will we ever see a gay president in my lifetime?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Autobiography of a Monee

Or: Top Secret Project Revealed
Or: Why I Love My Family

Finished Project Yesterday we had Monee's 80th birthday party and the unveiling of this year's top secret project: her autobiography. This is something she's been working on, off and on, for the last 20 years or so, so everyone knew about it in a general sense at least, but without really expecting anything at any particular time. Around March or so, when I started going up to Rossmoor to visit more often, she told me she was planning on resurrecting the project, finishing it in secret, and surprising everyone with it at her birthday. I was appointed her Secret Editor in Chief, with duties that included proofreading, editing, formatting, and general motivation and encouragement. We chipped away at it a little bit every week, then two months ago Pa and I took it down to a copy shop to get all 70 pages of it printed and bound, along with 50 pages of photos Greg had assembled for it years ago. Then we had to just sit on it quietly and not give anything away until the appointed moment. But it made a beautiful book and it was immensely satisfying to hand them out to everyone when the time finally came.

I am extremely proud of my grandmother for getting this completed. It was no small task, especially since her health was none too good back when I joined the project, and it was very slow going at times. But everything worked out wonderfully, and I'm honored to have been a part of making it happen.

After dinner, dessert, and presentation of the book, the assembled multitudes (well, moderate multitudes) got to go around the circle and share what we appreciate and love about Monee, Gramma Kathy, Mom, Kathleen, or whatever else we all call her. And while we expected (and got) very loving things from family members, I think what struck me most was the non family members. That's sort of an artificial distinction, though. The concept of "family" at these gatherings always feels very fluid and extendable. Not only did several people have significant others there, but there were also two ex-spouses and an ex-girlfriend. One of the exes was my dad, who also brought along my step-mother and step-grandmother, who I don't think had even met any of my family beyond me before.

And what comes through the most from all these supposedly unrelated people is how much a part of the family they became, right from the very beginning, being welcomed and loved right along with everyone else. Shaleece said she was nervous the first time she came to meet everyone, "but as soon as I got here, I wasn't nervous anymore." Grandma Marian said she was welcomed like an old friend in spite of meeting them for the first time. Mom talked about never feeling the slightest doubt about being absolutely, unconditionally loved, and I think it's clear that when you can raise a family like that, it extends well beyond the literal family.

Having grown up in this family, I realized that this is something I've kind of taken for granted, and it's easy to forget that not all families are like that. And it's even more impressive when you realize so much of this is flowing down from a woman who can't remember ever being told "I love you" until my grandfather came along and said it to her. So I admire my Monee all the more for that, and I'm incredibly grateful to be a part of this wonderful family, may it grow ever larger.