Friday, December 30, 2005

The Backstroke of the West

What would happen if, long time ago in the faraway galaxy, a bootleg copy of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith got taken to China, had Chinese subtitles put on it, and then had computer-generated English translations of the Chinese subtitles added to it? Star War -- The Third Gathers -- The Backstroke of the West would happen.
(Note: there are some naughty words in a few places on the linked page.)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

'Tis better to give than to receive

A few days before Christmas, a member of our ward brought us a Christmas basket from the ward. Actually, it was a box, but doesn't a Christmas basket sound much nicer? And it was nice. There were a couple of bottles of sparkling apple cider, some fruit, some candy and snacks, and a $50 gift certificate to a grocery/department store. No doubt, the brother who brought it to us and his young son went home feeling very happy and full of Christmas spirit. Perhaps sometime they will even, as I've heard others do, bear testimony of the joy of giving and the wonderful spirit they felt.

How did I feel? Humiliated. Angry. Sad. I didn't ask to be anyone's charity case. I didn't ask to be on my ward's poor list. I didn't work hard all year, make more money at my business than I've ever made, finally leave the Federal Poverty Level well behind, and begin to feel good again about how I provide for my family just so my ward can come along and shove their charity in my face. Just so they can say, "Don't start to feel too good yet kuri, because as far as we're concerned, you're still poor. You're still on our charity list." Just so I can be reminded of all the things we don't have instead of all the things we do. Just so I can see the disappointment in my wife's eyes. Just so I can be undermined in front of my children. Just so my church leaders can feel good about themselves and happy and complacent about how they brought some Christmas cheer to the poor people.

So yeah, Merry Christmas, Bishop. Merry Christmas, EQ Prez. Merry Christmas, ward. Next year, just leave me alone.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Whore of Mensa

When I was 14 or 15, I got a book of short humorous pieces by Woody Allen called Without Feathers. I already liked to write, and I liked to try to be funny, but this book had a huge influence on my style, to the extent that I have one. Although many other people, especially Mark Twain, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin, have had a big impact on what I think is funny and what I do to try to make people laugh, even today, nearly 30 years later, I can hear echoes of Without Feathers in a lot of my humor.

There's a lot of good stuff in the book, but my favorite bit has always been the hard-boiled detective parody "The Whore of Mensa." You can read the story on-line here, or you can even listen to Jeff Goldblum read it here (scroll down to Program #9).

Monday, December 26, 2005

Sneaky bastards

In America, we mostly celebrate our holidays in one of two ways, namely by getting drunk or by buying a lot of stuff. I don't drink, and I'm not usually very much into the whole consumption thing, so I often feel somewhat alienated during our national holidays. Last month, though, for the first time ever I went shopping on "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving. (For those of you who don't live in the States, that's the big day for sales here. We celebrate Thanksgiving by stuffing ourselves beyond repletion with mass quantities of stuffed poultry, and then we celebrate the day after Thanksgiving by purchasing mass quantities of discounted consumer goods. Although the exact connection escapes me at the moment, all this is in recognition of our Pilgrim forbears, who were rescued from starvation by their Indian friends until such time as they were ready to engage in genocidal war against them. But I digress.)

I needed a new computer, and I was going to spend about $1,200 to get a good one on-line, but I saw that Circuit City had a decent one -- not as good as I'd planned on, but decent -- for about $600 (after rebates). Basically, I'd be getting the monitor (a 17-inch LCD, which would run at least $230) and a cheap little printer ($60) for free. Not only that, they were advertising "18 months with no interest."

So I head down to Circuit City at about 4:45 a.m. -- because for some reason all these sales start at like 5:00 a.m. -- and the line stretches across the front of the store and all the way around one side. (This is a really big store, mind you.) At this point, I'm ready to turn around and go home, because I hate to wait in line for anything. But I'm going to be saving about $300, or even $600 if I figure in what I'd been planning to spend. That's a lot of money to me either way, so I decide to suck it up and wait. So I get in line, and at 5:00 a.m. it starts to move, and it's pretty orderly – there's none of the pushing and shoving and trampling you sometimes see on TV.

I get inside, but just because Circuit City has approximately 40 times the usual number of people in the store, apparently that's no reason to open up any extra cash registers or anything like that. That might cut slightly into profits, and for what, customer convenience? Perish the thought. No, it's business as usual, and everyone who wants to buy a computer is supposed to get in this one long line, so I do. There's actually only about 14 people in front of me. Today's biggest promotion is get a free (after rebates) laptop if you sign up for two years of AOL. The laptop is pretty crappy, and I'd pay more to not get AOL than I would to get it, but the line in front of me consists of about 12 people who lined up at Circuit City at 4:00 a.m. to get a free (after rebates) laptop and 2 people who know anything about computers and want the same one I'm getting. The three of us pass the time by sneering at the free (after rebates) laptop/AOL people.

Fourteen people doesn't sound like many, but signing up for AOL apparently requires submission of a credit card, a complete credit check, and the signing away of parental rights to your firstborn child, because it takes like 15 or 20 minutes to process each free (after rebates) laptop/AOL customer and send him or her on his or her way with a crappy computer and a contract for two years of indentured servitude to AOL. It takes 5 minutes each for my fellow non – free (after rebates) laptop/AOL customers to make their purchases.

Finally, at about 8:00 (seriously), it's my turn. I tell the guy what I want and ask how to get the 18 months with no interest. He says I have to have a Circuit City credit card. Of course, I don't have one, so I ask how do I get one. He says go to the customer service counter and apply for one. He gives me a voucher, so if my application is approved I can get my stuff right away. So I go to the customer service counter, where, naturally, there's a line of people waiting to sign up for credit cards and get 18 months with no interest. I fill out the application while I wait, sneering at the occasional customer who walks towards the exit with a telltale laptop.

At last, it's my turn. I'm processed without a hitch. It turns out though, that I'm not just getting a Circuit City store card, I'm getting a Circuit City/Chase Visa card, with an $8,000 line of credit. The idea, apparently, is that I'll run up big bills on the Visa, while Circuit City gets a percentage. Yeah, right. I use my new credit card to pay $1,049 for my new computer, monitor, and printer that will eventually cost around $600 after rebates. I walk out of the store at 9:00 a.m. with my equipment and the eight receipts I need to get my rebates. It's the only time I'll use that card, at least until I need something else from Circuit City with 18 months of no interest payments.

But have you ever wondered "Why rebates? Why don't they just give a discount?" I think the answer is pretty obvious. The stores and the manufacturers hope some customers will forget to send them in, or lose their receipts, or fill out the forms wrong, or throw away the boxes with the "original UPC codes," or whatever. They're trying to trick people into thinking they're getting discounts that they end up not getting.

And the "18 months with no interest"? Another trick. Take a look here:
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See where it says "Accumulated Deferred Finance Charges"? What that means is if I haven't paid off the whole $1,049 within 18 months, I owe them 18 months of interest. That's right. If I haven't paid off the balance, interest doesn't accrue beginning when the 18 months are over, it's been accruing the whole time, so all of a sudden I owe them another $200 or whatever. Now, they do say that in the fine print, so no one can say they didn't warn them. It's all perfectly legal, of course.

And here's another lovely bit of trickery. If you divide 1,049 by 18, you get 58-point-something. So my monthly minimum payment should be about $59, right? Uh-uh. Take a look at this:
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That's right. The minimum payment is $27, not $59. They deliberately try to guide you into not paying off the balance in time to avoid the big interest payment, the sneaky bastards. Well, I'll have my balance paid off before then, so it won't hurt me. But making money by tricking customers used to be the province of sleazy, fly-by-night operators. I wonder when it became standard procedure for major corporations like Chase and Circuit City.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Sorry about that

Everything should be back to normal now. Sorry.




OK, I fired my editor

I can't believe he rewrote my whole post.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The importance of a good editor

Many writers become wealthy and famous and are recognized for their talents, but few editors can say the same. ("Few" being a polite way of saying "none.") This is an injustice. An editor is vitally important to a writer. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that a writer without an editor is like an author without a reviser. Not many people realize that some of the most famous words ever written in the English language were actually written by editors. This includes not only such famous words as "a," "an," the," "with," and "for," but actual entire sentences and even paragraphs. Consider the following great writings.

The Declaration of Independence. Every educated person is familiar with the stirring words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." What people don't realize is that's only what it said after an editor had improved it. As originally written, that sentence actually read, "We really, really hate King George."

The Gettysburg Address. Many myths have sprung up around this famous speech, including the story that Lincoln wrote it on the back of an envelope while riding in a train. Untrue. What Lincoln actually wrote on the back of an envelope while riding a train was his "to-do" list. He gave that to his editor, who turned it into the words we all know: "Fourscore and seven years ago…."

Kennedy's Inaugural Address. Who can forget the immortal words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country"? Yet how many people know that the original line was "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask me about my grandchildren"? Thanks to Kennedy's editor, we have a great statement on patriotism rather than two mismatched halves of bad bumper stickers.

WMDs. "WMDs" and "weapons of mass destruction" are terms that have become commonplace, but that's not always what people called them. In fact, in early drafts of George W. Bush's speeches to convince the American people that we should go to war with Iraq, he called them "TBTWGBAKLOFs," "them big things what goes boom and kills lots of folks." Extensive testing in focus groups showed that term to be rather ineffective, and Bush's editor suggested that he change it to "weapons of mass destruction." The rest, as they say—if they don't have a good editor to stop them from using clichés—is history.

This post. This post was actually about the war in Iraq, but I'm sure everyone but the writer will agree that talking about editors is much more important, and since he won't even see this until it's published, who cares what he thinks? It's about time we editors get a little respect, dammit.

Monday, December 19, 2005

My new editor

In order to improve this blog and to enhance your reading experience, I have hired an editor to assist me. Look for better and even more entertaining posts starting tomorrow.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Hollywood occupations explained

I really like movies, and I've often wished I could work in them. Not as an actor, but as something behind the scenes, like maybe a writer, or a director, or a fluffer. But many movie jobs have really weird names that don't necessarily tell you a lot about what kind of work it is. You know, like "key grip," and "gaffer," and "best boy"? So I did some research on Hollywood occupations to see what these people really do, and here's what I found out.

Key Grip
Key grip is an important position in every Hollywood movie production. The job of the key grip is to attend parties and to grab and hold ("grip") the keys of any major cast or crew members who are too intoxicated to drive safely. This occupation requires the dexterity to sneak keys out of pockets when necessary, the agility and speed to escape determined efforts to recover the keys, and of course a strong grip to prevent key owners or misguided associates from removing keys from one's grasp.

The term "gaffer" comes from the French word "le gaffe," which means "a mistake." During the Hundred Years War, which was fought between England and France from 1337 to 1453 because neither side realized that a "French kiss" in English and an "English kiss" in French are the same thing, whenever a French soldier would perform a salute improperly or make some other error, his comrades would shout, "Ooh la la! Le gaffe!" Great hilarity would then ensue as the so-called gaffer was drawn and quartered by his superiors.
In a Hollywood movie production, the "gaffer" is the member of the cast and crew who makes the most mistakes, or "gaffes," during the production. Because our permissive modern society no longer allows drawing and quartering, Hollywood gaffers are not tortured to death. Instead, they are merely fired, and their names are listed in the closing credits so no one will ever hire them again.

Best Boy
Probably the less said about this Hollywood occupation, the better.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The most perfect girl in the world

Somebody asked people once on an Internet forum what they most regret in their lives. This was my answer...

There was a girl I saw at school when I was 19. I was on my way to the parking lot after class. She was standing on the sidewalk talking to someone when I noticed her from about 50 yards away. Walking in her direction, I saw her from behind, and I liked what I saw: jeans and a T-shirt, slim figure, cute little round butt, straight shiny black hair cut short.

Then she turned and looked in my direction. And I saw not the most beautiful face, but the most perfect face ever. My whole world seemed to pause and hold its breath. I was 40 yards away from her, and all I could see was that face. It was the kind of face I'd been dreaming of all my life. It wasn't just her perfect complexion and her big brown eyes and her full red lips and her shining white smile -- it was what I could see inside her. I knew at that moment that this was the face of a girl I could love, and who could love me.

When she saw me, she stopped talking and stared at me. It must have been only for a second or two, but it seemed to last for minutes. As she went back to talking to her friend and I continued walking towards them, I could see her stealing glances at me.

I felt like I was in that song by the Doors. When I walked past them, more than anything in the world, I wanted to say to her, "Hello, I love you, won't you tell me your name?" But I was too shy. There was no way I could go up to her and say something. I'm not sure if I managed a smile or even made eye contact as I walked by her. Somehow I knew she was watching me, but I just kept walking.

As I entered the parking lot, I knew that I had blown an opportunity, one that I could never get back. I had just seen the most perfect girl in the world, and all I did was walk right by her.

But just as I was walking past a sports car – a blue Triumph TR-7 convertible, I still remember that car like it was yesterday – I heard the sound of hurrying footsteps behind me. It was her. She'd caught up with me. And she looked at me, then at the Triumph, then back at me, smiled her perfect smile, and said, "Wish I had that." Exactly what I thought every time I saw a TR-7.

So there I was. She had caught up with me. She was talking to me. Smiling at me. There I was, three feet away from the most perfect girl in the world. Three feet away from the girl I'd been longing for all my life. All I had to do was say something, anything, nothing clever, just "Me too. Isn't that a cool car?" and things would take their course from there. We would talk about TR-7s and other cool cars we liked. We would laugh about our own absurdly uncool cars, her with the big beat-up old Ford pickup she was headed to, and me with my almost equally improbable AMC Hornet station wagon. Then one of us would say, "Let's go get some lunch," and we would go to some fast food joint where we would eat, and talk, and lose track of time before suddenly realizing we had been talking for two or three hours. And we would fall in love.

And all I needed to say to make it happen was "Me too. Isn't that a cool car?"

But I froze. My brain stopped functioning. No words came out of my mouth. All I managed was a lame half-smile, and I watched her get into her truck and drive away and out of my life.


A chapter from my novel not-in-progress

I decided once to try to write a novel, a mystery story. I didn't get too far, and I don't know if I'll ever pick it up again. I'm kind of convinced that my attention span's too short for such a long project. On the other hand, every time I run across this file on my hard drive and open it up, I kind of enjoy reading some parts of it, and I think, in an idle, uncommitted kind of way, about finishing it.

Anyway, here's probably the most complete scene I wrote. It still needs some polishing, probably a little bit of Japanese dialog to add some atmosphere, and especially more description (my weakest point), but I'm actually pretty happy with it. I'm not gonna set it up or anything, except to say that this scene takes place in Tokyo. It's kind of violent, so don't read it if that bothers you.

The next morning, I checked out of the hotel and went outside where a line of taxis was waiting at the curb. The driver first in line used his inside controls—all Japanese cabs are equipped with them—to open the trunk and the passenger door. I tossed my bag in the trunk and got into the back seat. A chinpira – not one of the guys from the night before -- jumped in after me and shoved a gun against my ribs. I slid to the right behind the driver. He slammed the trunk and passenger door shut with his controls and pulled away from the curb in a hurry. The chinpira said "Donto moobu!"—don't move—trying to speak English and not doing a very good job of it.

I moved anyway. I slid forward and twisted in my seat and grabbed the wrist of the kid's gun hand with my left hand. I pinned his gun hand against the back of the seat with the gun barrel angled away from me and hit him twice in the middle of his face with my right hand. I heard a loud crack when I hit him with the second punch. I hoped it was the sound of his nose breaking and not my hand. He slumped on the seat and I took the gun out of his limp hand and held it pointed down and away in my right hand. I grabbed the back of his neck with my left hand so I could slam his face into the back of the front seat, but there was no fight left in him. My hand was okay, but his nose wasn't. I let go of his neck and shoved him—not real hard—into the far corner of the back seat, where he sort of bent over and whimpered and held onto his bloody face with both hands.

I held up the gun so the driver could see it in the rearview mirror and then shoved it far enough into the back of his seat for him to feel it. It was some kind of revolver. I wasn't sure if I needed to just pull the trigger or to cock it first, but the last thing I wanted to do in Japan was to shoot somebody anyway. They get so freaked out about guns over there that I wasn't about to take a chance on having to make some kind of self-defense plea. Once the gun was out of the driver's sight I kept my finger off the trigger. I'd have put the safety on if I knew how. If revolvers even have safeties.

What next? An attempted kidnapping by two more yakuza and me breaking one guy's nose and holding a gun on the other one hadn't been on my to-do list for the day. This kind of thing was only supposed to happen in movies. So I did what I thought a guy in a movie would do. I told the driver to pull over. I tried to sound like someone who did this all the time, but I felt more like a character in the Bullwer-Lytton bad writing contest. "'Pull over!' I snarled malignantly." It seemed to work though.

The driver said, "Hey, calm down, Professor." I told him to shut up and pull over now. He pulled the cab over to the curb.

Before I could get out, he said, "Professor, let me say something."

"Talk fast," I said.

"Listen, I'm sorry about the kid back there. He wasn't supposed to pull a gun on you. We just need you to come with us to talk to my boss, and we didn't think you'd come after what happened last night."

"Damn right I wouldn't." I was on a roll with the tough-guy dialog.

"So we decided to pull this little taxi stunt on you, but the kid got a little carried away." He glared at the chinpira, suddenly angry. He reached over the seat and slapped the top of the chinpira's head. The chinpira let out something between a squeak and a shriek and the driver threw a handkerchief at him. "Look at you, you idiot! You're getting blood all over the taxi! Clean yourself up." The chinpira picked up the handkerchief and held it to his nose, then started wiping feebly at some of the blood that was all over himself and his half of the back seat. The driver shook his head and said, "I'm sorry, Professor. These kids today just don't know how to act. And they can't fight. Three of those guys who came after you last night are in the hospital."

"Yeah, it's hard to get good chinpira these days. Face forward and keep your hands on the steering wheel."

"Sure, Professor, no problem. We don't want to hurt you. Just stay calm. How about putting down the gun?"

I shoved the gun harder into the back of his seat. If he made a move, though, I was going to drop it and fight him with my hands. I felt a lot more comfortable that way.

"OK, OK, don't get excited. Anyway, we know you've been, uh, talking with [TSS]. We want to know what about."

"So why don't you ask him?"

"We know what he says. We want to know what you say."

This whole thing wasn't making sense. "If you just want to talk to me, why'd you send those four punks after me last night?"

"Well, see, that's the problem. We didn't send those guys after you. [TSS] did that on his own." He sounded almost embarrassed now. "He wasn't supposed to do that. That's something else my boss wants to talk to you about."

"What, your boss wants to apologize to me?"

"Hey, we have our rules too, you know. I thought you were supposed to be some kind of expert on yakuza."

I'd actually written a book on how the yakuza are affected by movies and manga about them, how such depictions influence their real-life behavior, which in turn influences the movies about them, which again influence their behavior. But seeing as how I had just broken one yakuza's nose and he was bleeding on the seat next to me while I pointed a gun I didn't want to use at another yakuza, it didn't seem like a good time to be getting all postmodern. "Just movies about yakuza," I said.

"Well, that's what we're really like, you know. We do follow bushido and all that."

Before I'd met Claire, I might have gone into full lecture mode, gun in hand and all. But she'd cured me of that sort of thing. Mostly. So all I said was, "We both know movies aren't real life."

He did. "Yeah, OK, you got me there. But my boss promised that you'd be safe. We do have rules that some of us care about."

Some of us. "What about you? Do you promise?"

"Yeah. You’ll be safe. What do you say, Professor?"

I held his gaze while I made up my mind. He didn't look away. I looked over at the chinpira bleeding next to me. "Get in the front seat," I said. The driver and I watched him stumble out of the back seat and into the front. The driver growled a few insults in his direction, then turned and looked at me again. I needed to know what the connection was between [TSS] and the yakuza. "Let's go," I said. Search and destroy.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Trying my new sword

"Try a new sword on a chance wayfarer"? What's that supposed to mean? It has two meanings for me. The first comes from when I began studying Japanese. As a way to motivate us to learn to use our Japanese-English dictionaries with facility, our teacher used to have us look up the oddest words he could find. One of those words was "辻斬り" "tsujigiri (o suru)". Tsujigiri was a practice in Japan, not all that common as far as I know, of a samurai getting a new sword and hanging around a crossroads ("tsuji") until a random peasant came along, at which point the samurai would cut ("giri") the unfortunate fellow in half to see if the new sword was any good. So, literally, "tsujigiri" means "crossroads cut."

The translation my brand-new dictionary provided for "tsujigiri o suru," however, was not "crossroads cut." Nor was it "to kill a random peasant to see if your sword's a good one," nor even "practicing for battle by butchering a social inferior." It was "to try a new sword on a chance wayfarer." I've always been taken with those words. I have no idea if it was deliberate or simply a serendipitous turn of phrase by a usually-awkward non-native speaker, but the phrase seems so perfectly to capture the archaic flavor of a word like "tsujigiri." "To try a new sword on a chance wayfarer." Not to "test" a new sword, but to "try" it. Not "a random passerby," but "a chance wayfarer." We no longer talk that way, but how better to convey a sense that this is the lost custom of an ancient time, a time both more savage and more genteel than today? So this phrase is a reminder to me, one that hints to me, as a translator and writer, of the beauty of words and the "Ah!" moment that can be brought by the perfect word in the right place.

The second meaning? That should be obvious. This blog is a crossroads, my words my sword, and you, Gentle Reader, a chance wayfarer. Yet, though I want to use my words on you, you are my equal not my inferior, and I hope to interest you rather than to cut you in pieces. Unlike the samurai who saw wayfaring peasants as single-use, disposable tools to be taken without asking, I ask you please to come back again and again so that I may try my words on you. In return, I can at least promise you that the experience will be better than a slash through the torso with a sharp sword.