About Me

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Mabuhay! I'm an Asian American writer (Back Kicks And Broken Promises, Abbott Press, 2012), martial artist and teacher who was born in The Philippines, raised in Hong Kong and ended up in New Jersey.

30 December, 2012

Evolution of a Flight

I was never really conscious of the 'flying on an aeroplane process' when I was a kid. Back then, it was just check in, wait in the lounge, have a plate of Green Noodles at the old Kai Tak Airport, board the plane and off we were. Well, that's a process but it was just what we did, what happened. None of it meant anything, emotionally or psychologically, other than we were going on some kind of vacation and, for a kid, that's all that matters. The only thing I do recall was my parents' way of addressing the airline employees - from the check-in counter people to the flight crew to the immigration people - and it wasn't with the most pleasant of demeanours. It was probably just their way of being assertive and, perhaps, letting them know that they weren't going to tolerate anything less than what THEY felt were the proper ways to be treated on an aeroplane and by an airline; anticipating the worst while hoping for the best.

Nowadays, however, and especially over the last ten or so years, I've become more aware of my own thoughts, feelings, anxieties, frustrations when it comes to flying. And none of them have to do with the aeroplane crashing or with terrorists. I've also come to the conclusion that going on an aeroplane isn't nowhere near as enjoyable as it was as recently as the early 2000s and late 1990s. It's definitely not as much fun for me now as it was in the 1980s. And this is a sentiment many friends - so it's not just me - also feel.

How I've grown to feel about air travel and the process one goes through, really, has to do with the changes that have taken place as a result of the heightened security measures (a good thing and I welcome it but, just to be honest, it's also a pain) and the (supposed?) rising costs of fuel and aeroplane maintenancr, which has jacked up ticket prices and led to the creation of new fees for baggage, food on some airlines, etc. How long before fees are incurred for using the in-flight toilet or using the reading light? Some of the other changes have to do with the number, size and weight of the allowable checked suitcases and the kinds of things you can bring on the plane.

Anyway, here's what I go through and how I feel about it.

1. Packing.

This usually begins a day or two ahead of the departure and it's exciting to go through because it means I'm going somewhere. It might be a work-relayed trip, like my trip to San Jose last year for the USA National Taekwondo Championshisps, or a vacation but both mean I'm getting a break front the mundanity of my existence and that's always a welcomed thing. The problem lies in whether I can fit everything I need in one suitcase or not. Work trips are easier to pack for because what you need is specific. Holiday travel, though, isn't. As recently as 2009, airlines allowed two suitcases of slightly larger dimension, each weighing up to 70 pounds for international travel. Now, depending on the airline, it's between 44-50 pounds. More than that, you either have to go through the indignity of repacking at the check-in counter or being charged a fee. This is something I don't get. Did airplanes become less capable of carrying suitcases weighing 70 ponds each? I simply don't see why these, to me, arbitrary changes with suitcases took place. Sure, hoisting more and heavier bags means requiring more fuel but ticket prices have more than doubled over the last ten years, surely the airlines can recoup their fuel cost that way.

The other thing that makes this additionally annoying is the restrictions on what you can bring on the plane now. In the recent past, I could bring my toiletries on the plane with me. I prefer to so I can freshen up with my own toothbrush, deodorant, cologne, etc. Now, I have to pack them because they're too great in volume to bring on the plane and I have to check them in. That, in turn, takes a little space away from what I can put in my suitcase. Yes, I can - and did for this trip - buy the travel size deodorant and cologne but I shouldn't have to. And, what about cologne? Am I supposed to buy a travel size just for one trip, that's still in the $30-$40 range, in addition to the one I use everyday that's larger and costs already $80-$90?

2. Checking In

This isn't such a bad process. I pretty much get to the airport a the time I'm supposed to so I'm early and the waiting isn't usually that long. I also get my seat assignments ahead of time and everything is usually smooth. The worry comes from whether my suitcases meet this particular airline's size and weight rules. I check online with every flight but, one time, the check-in clerk told me my bags were too big AND heavy and she tried to charge me. I whipped out the print out from the airline's website and had to show her her own company's rules. She still tried to charge me until a higher up came over. I didn't ask for him and she didn't ask for him. He must have overheard us. Suffice it to say, my print out was correct. I'm thankful for my parents teaching me to get as much stuff in writing for everything, not just air travel, and for the higher up coming over. After the issue was sorted out, the clerk left and the higher up finished my check-in. The clerk never even apologised or acknowledged her mistake.

3. Beverages

On a long flight, there are ample supplies of water and other drinks the passenger can get from the flight crew at any time to quench his thirst. Like many people, though, I have drinks I enjoy over others. On some long-haul flights, the flight crew seem to disappear, resting like the passengers, so getting a drink isn't always so easy. A few times now, however, after I've gone through security and gotten to the 'all clear' part of the airport, where you are supposed to be able to but food and drinks that can be brought on the plane, I've had the water bottle or Coke bottle or Gatorade bottle taken from me. In some of these cases, mine was taken but others' weren't. I didn't mention that because I didn't want to screw a fellow traveller out of his thirst quenching enjoyment. On one specific occasion, I had my Gatorade taken from me by the same airport staffer who, just moments before, told me I was clear to buy it and bring it in the plane! These kinds of inconsistencies drive me even more insane.

4. Cabin Baggage

My family and I are extra careful in meeting the cabin baggage laws because we have a young son and we carry extra juice (which we're allowed to bring in the plane), food and clothes for him. What irks me is invariably an airline staffer will try to make us check something in. Again, we're following their own rules so we shouldn't be bothered about this at all. And, if we did check it in, adding it to what we'd already checked in, then our checked baggage would exceed their own weight totals. Hmm. Wouldn't that, then, violate their own check-in baggage rules and show that the plane CAN carry more than 44 to 50 pounds of checked-in baggage per passenger!

Additionally, with cabin baggage, is that sometimes I get on the plane and there's no room in the compartment above my seat for my bag. Why not? Because some flight attendant has stowed someone else's bag - someone from several rows away - into my row's compartment. Every passenger should be guaranteed compartment space at his seat. The person who can't keep his hand-carrieds at his seat is the one whose bags should be taken for additional check-in.

Other than these issues, of course, there are concerns about delayed flights, missing connections, cancelled flights, etc. As much as those are a nuisance, I can't fault the airline or airport for them. Most of those things are caused by unforeseen mishaps like inclement weather, technical malfunction, etc. Regardless, though, the passenger should NEVER have to pay to get a new flight, which I've seen happen to people. The way I see it, once the ticket has been paid for, the airline is responsible for getting the passenger from the airport of origin to the destination airport. If the original flight is cancelled for whatever reason, the airline is still responsible for the getting the passenger to his destination. The passenger should NEVER have to pay for anything else - not even accommodation and food - if the new flight is the following day or the day after that or several days later. The airlines overcharge for seats, as it is. They can afford to fulfill their duty of giving their passengers what they've paid for - safe passage from origin to destination.

Even as recently as ten years ago, there was a certain excitement to flying. Wondering what movies I'd get to watch, for instance, was a thrilling anticipation.Seeing if I could get an upgrade to a roomier seat was another. Now, though, flying has lost its enjoyment. The planes are newer, the in-flight service is, generally, more luxurious, even in coach, and the food and entertainment have also improved. But, with the negative changes in the other areas, albeit some of them precautionary and necessary, enjoying the improved things become, at least, secondary if not altogether moot.

Just get me to my destination. And don't make me have to suffer while doing so.

26 December, 2012

Favourite Books of 2012

The title of this post is a little misleading because the books I'm going to mention are some of those I read, or re-read, in 2012, even though many of them were published several years before. Also, to be perfectly frank, to have a top ten list while having only read twenty-four books this year (twenty-five, if I can finish Veronica Roth's Insurgent before 2013 arrives) seems a little silly but to fit in with the theme of my last post and of top ten lists that'll be coming up as 2013 gets closer, I figure I'll share mine anyway.

They're in order but not necessarily from the one I most liked to the one I least liked. I enjoyed them all, after all, otherwise they wouldn't be on this list. Really, I'm not sure how to describe the order I've put them in. It's not as if they're all the same kind of books either; all YA, all contemporary fiction, whatever. Nonetheless, here are ten of the twenty-plus books I read in 2012 that stood out for me.

So, here they are. Perhaps you've read some of them as well; liked them as I did or, yikes, maybe hated them. What's on your list?

1. Legend by Marie Lu (2011, Penguin) (Read my review at http://juanraderbas.blogspot.com/2012/01/book-review-legend-by-marie-lu.htm?m=1)
2. Running The Rift by Naomi Benaron (2012, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) (Read my review at http://filamkickingscribe.com/4/post/2012/07/book-review-running-the-rift-by-naomi-benaron.html)
3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and Ellen Forney (illustrator) (2007, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
4. Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim (2011, First Second; originally self-published in 2003)
5. Get Jiro! by Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose, and Langdon Foss (illustrator) (2012, DC Comcis)
6. Divergent by Veronica Roth (2011, Harper Collins)
7. Age Is Just Number by Dara Torres and Elizabeth Weil (2009, Broadway Books)
8. Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (2012, Random House)
9. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (2005, Random House)
10. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1998, reprint by Harper Collins; originally published in 1962).

P.S. If I can be so bold, in the nonexistent number 11/proverbial honourable mention position, I would put my own book, Back Kicks And Broken Promises. I think it's a good book and I know some people have loved it and others (thankfully fewer) not so much. I hope it breaks into the library of talked about Asian-American literature. I believe it's a good story and offers insights into being an Asian-American. It's a coming-of-ager that depicts its male Asian-Am protagonist in a non-stereotypical way and it offers much for Asians, Asian-Ams and non-Asians alike. All that said, however, I would include it in my list, not because I think it's so great or anything like that, but because it was my first published, albeit self-published, book. It had (has) meaning for me and it has made some sales. Even if my next book is picked up by a traditional publisher and I earn a significant advance package, I think Back Kicks will always be just a little bit more special. From its first seed to when I held the first copy hardcopy, almost ten years had passed and to see an idea come to fruition, truly has some kind of impact on a person; especially when the thing that has come to fruition is a book and you're its author.

Best and Worst of 2012

Looking Back on 2012

As the year comes to a close and newspapers, music charts and movie reviewers, to name a few, start putting up their lists of bests and worsts of the past twelve months and honouring their industries chart-toppers, I've decided to take a look at my own best and worst of the year moments. I don't know if I'll manage ten (or twelve, one for each month) but there are some moments that do stand out. And, in many ways, as I'm writing this post, I'm thinking off the top of my head so the list I come with here might change if I made a new list next week, a month from now, or even tomorrow.

Oh, by the way, the items in each list are not written in any particular order. They also might not have been things I did or experienced firsthand but things that made me feel strongly about something or someone or some place in a significant way. Lastly, those items that appear in both lists...well, I'm probably happy for them that they happened but their impact or how they made me feel might not have been exactly what I would have hoped for.

So here goes - my best and worst of 2012.

The Best of 2012:

1. Publishing my debut novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises.
2. Repeating as New Jersey State Poomsae (Forms) Champion in the 1st Masters Black Belt Division.
3. My Manila Bulletin newspaper interview about my book and my life as a writer.
4. The feature about me and my book in The Filipino Reporter.
5. Hyphen Magazine - the review of Back Kicks And Broken Promises and being interviewed for a feature on self-published Asian-American authors.
6. Meeting Marie Lu, the author of Legend.
7. The removal of my father-in-law's cancerous kidney and his subsequent recovery.
8. President Obama's re-election as president of the United States.
9. Completing the first draft of my second novel, Sage of Heaven: Lineage.
10. Having the best season (final record of 12-10, second round of the country tournament, qualified for the state tournament for the first time since 2003) my high school volleyball team since I joined the coaching staff in 2003.

The Worst of 2012:

1. The Hyphen Magazine review of my book.
2. Hurricane Sandy.
3. The end of classes at my martial arts club, Bamboo Martial Arts.
4. The scare that it was my father-in-law's time to go.
5. My son's first stitches, on his forehead, just above his eye.
6. Not being able to attend the US National Championships after qualifying to compete.
7. Injuries to my back, hips and left calf and hamstring, brought on from training for the NY City Marathon, that sidelined me.
8. Robin Van Persie's betrayal and subsequent departure from Arsenal Football Club to join rivals Manchester United.
9. The rising cost of things.
10. Decreased fitness and weight gain due to number 7 and number 5, above, of the weight I'd lost in 2011, while training for Nationals.

So, there they are. Like I said, tomorrow, next week, next month, I might have entirely different items on those lists. And, some of them may seem trivial, at best. But, like I also said, they're what I came up with on the spot. Either way, I'm glad for the things on the best list and less than so of the things on the worst list.

What's on your lists?

19 December, 2012

New Adult Fiction

New adult fiction.

I came across this term a couple of hours ago, when I was reading the latest issue of Publishers Weekly (PW) on my flight from New York to Hong Kong. There was a short piece in it that introduces the term - the genre - and explains it as fiction for books that are, basically, older than YA (young adult) and younger than adult/contemporary/mainstream/literary fiction. The contents of NA (somehow I don't see the abbreviation NA catching on, like the abbreviation YA, because of the other kind of NA, N/A. I don't fancy any author wanting his or her work to be mistaken for being N/A when it is NA.) are usually centered around characters who are older teens and younger twenties who are navigating what it means to be a (new) adult. It's coming-of-age, another genre that instantly makes me think of Catcher in the Rye and the movie Stand By Me, for an older set. Coming-of-age, typically, as far as I've always known it to be, was about the preteen referred to as 'tween' in the current century) through adolescent years and center around how the protagonist navigates the mental, emotional and social changes that adolescence brings.

The term 'new adult fiction' came about in the early 2000s when a contest was held within the walls of a publisher on how to describe a particular book it's staff was working on. It hasn't really come into vogue (yet) but with its unveiling in this week's PW I'm sure it's only a matter of time before it stakes its claim in literary lexicon. NA fiction is also geared towards those YA readers who are getting and have gotten older. With this approach, I suspect some authors may expand on the types of stories they tell to keep their audience. I don't know if this necessarily good or particularly bad but it could lead to stories just being produced no maintain a fan base and not written because the author HAS to tell the story.

Personally, I like this new genre. Well, the genre, as far as the kind of books that would fall into it, isn't new. NA books have been written for decades. The identification though for books being referred to as such is new. Really, readers will like stories that entertain and move them so it doesn't really matter what you call them. I love Legend by Marie Lu, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery, and the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis, to name a few, and these are regarded as YA/children's books. I loved them today, at 43, as I did when I originally read them when I was a tween. (Legend, of course, I only read as a 43 year old because it only came out last year but I love it, all the same.)

I like the term, though, from a marketing and publicity viewpoint. When asked about my book, Back Kicks And Broken, I describe it as 'older YA;' something that's appropriate for 17+. I feel it's NA because of the intimate scenes and not because of the martial arts action or the adult material that pertains to issues surrounding the protagonist and his parents. The martial arts scenes are action but they're not violent and, from personal experience, I know of eleven year olds and younger who have been faced to deal with - and handle very maturely - their parents' divorce, extended families with parents' new boyfriends/girlfriends/spouses. Good or bad, it's the world we live in in 2012.

Another reason I like about the term 'new adult fiction' is that those are the kinds of stories I'm writing. I've described my work-in-progress, Sage of Heaven, as YA but when I finished the first draft I felt that what I'd written is 'older YA' yet again. I can, and might, change it to more conventional YA yet but the story naturally lends itself to older YA, aka new adult fiction. This new genre gives writers like me a firmer place to belong as I slowly make my way into the world of writing and publishing. And that, in and of itself, makes me hopeful that I might actually make it. Good writing and storytelling will always win readers regardless of what category a book falls under and who the writer is but it never hurts having to place to call home.

08 December, 2012

Character Traits

"There's nothing better than a fresh plain bagel with butter."

When my son and I returned home this morning, after mass for The Feast of The Immaculate Conception and breakfast at our favourite bagel deli, I put on the television for the Arsenal v West Brom match then I put the extra doughnut and bagels we bought on the kitchen counter. Next, I opened the brown bag with the bagels - 3 plains - ripped one in half, ripped one of the halves open and buttered it. The bagel was no longer steaming and the butter didn't melt and ooze but, when I bit into it, it was absolutely delicious.

As I did all of this, I thought of a character - as yet, uncreated and unnamed - who could appear in one of my works-in-progress. My entire bagel experience wasn't just an 'in the mood' thing. I do really enjoy a fresh, cool bagel with butter, pretty much, anytime. Add a touch of grape jelly or Nutella and we're really set. What struck me, and this wasn't the first time something like this has slapped me in the face, was how much writing material there was in these few moments. I thought, too, how characters must be different and possess their own traits and idiosyncrasies; that they must be unique from one another even if they're, say, the same gender and age and ethnicity and grew up in the same town.

From my bagel experience this morning, the things that came to mind for specific character traits were enjoying a fresh, but cool, bagel with butter and the phrasing I used to express my like for bagels with butter. It dawned on me that I often express things I with "There's nothing better than..." Another thing I often say - a friend pointed this out to me a year or so ago - when asked how something was that I'd eaten for the first time or tried in a new way at a particular eatery is, simply, "tasty." I say that when it was good enough but not the best I've ever had or when it was good enough but I don't know if I'll get it there again. I also say it when I don't hate it.

I also tend to cover my upper lip with my lower one. A former student pointed this out. At first, I was self-conscious about it after she'd said something. Now, I'm just aware of it. I think it's actually part of my (self-diagnosed) minor Tourette's; along with the swallowing reflex that erupts when I'm nervous, my twitching nose tics, erratic coughs even when nothing is tickling my throat or when I'm not sick, and my occasional, spasmodic nods.

I bring these things up because, like I said about my bagel experience, I could use them for character traits. A couple of weeks ago, I finished the first draft of my second novel. There are many characters and I was extra conscious of trying to make each of them unique. It's only a first draft so there are loads of revisions to be made but I found myself sitting, staring at the computer screen, thinking of ways to make some of these similar characters different in their mannerisms and speech, and other personal nuances, while still making them real. There are books and websites that help writers sort these things out. I've tried some of them and, as a whole, I'm sure they're all very helpful in some way but we really don't have to look far and wide to find great source material for character nuance.

Just take a look at yourself in the mirror or a photograph. As many as there are topics to be discussed, there are as many opinions, thoughts and feelings in your minds and hearts on each of those topics. Why not spread those thoughts and feelings around with your characters? Many of us writers wear multiple hats throughout each day and at different times of the year. Me, here are the hats I wear: husband, father, teacher, volleyball coach, Taekwondo master, soccer fan, Broadway wannabe, track and field coach, catholic, runner, blogger and, of course, writer. From these different - some isolated and some related - parts of my life I can extrapolate, not just the 'hat' (one character might be a husband, another might be a teacher, etc) but different mannerisms, customs, feelings I have for and because of each one.

I know I feel differently about teaching now than I did when I started almost twenty years ago. I even feel differently about Taekwondo now than I did when I put on my white belt in 1985. Some of those different feelings are positive and some are negative. Writing and being a writer, too, has changed for me. It's not just something I do but it's something I've become. If I were, say, writing a story about a magazine that's about to fold, I might have one character who's older and sees things with the eyes I look at writing with now and I might have a teenager looking for his first beat and he'd seen things the way I did twenty or so years ago.

You might be thinking that all of this sounds really simplistic and that it's really obvious. I agree with you. It is simplistic and it is obvious but sometimes we need to be reminded about what is right in front or inside of us. It's just a suggestion. The next time you catch yourself, as your tapping on your keyboard, say, "What would so-and-so say/do/feel about this?" how about you first say, "What would (your name) (one of your many hats) say/do/feel about this?"

Try it. You've got nothing to lose and you might find you've created a wonderfully complex and real protagonist.

Happy writing all!

30 November, 2012


Let me start by wishing everyone who participated in the NaNoWriMo challenge congratulations. Whether you got to at least 50,000 words and finished writing a novel or not, you did make a commitment to your writing pursuits and that’s no easy feat. Many of us don’t have writing as our one and only job and, therefore, don’t have eight or more hours a day to use on writing, editing, thinking about writing, etc. I know, for me, it’s frustrating to get into a writing groove only to have to switch gears and get to my fulltime job. Now, however, with that self-imposed pressure to write at least 1,667 words a day over - and let’s face it, it is self-imposed because no one said we had to do NaNoWriMo - let’s all take that drive we reenergized our writing with and continue it the rest of our writing lives. Well, at least for the months ahead. Let’s take our manuscripts and edit the hell out of them. Let’s go to conferences, workshops and writing classes. Let’s serve as beta-readers for our fellow writers. (I am looking for some test readers so if you’re interested, shoot me an email or reply to this post.)

The month, in a strange way, worked out well for me. Hurricane Sandy killed our power so I had nothing to do but read and write. I was scheduled to run in the New York City Marathon, which, for me, would have been a six-hour endeavour. With the race getting cancelled, I was able to take what would have been running time and add it to my writing hours. Sandy also kept school closed for several days. As a teacher, then, I didn’t have to report in and had more time to write and, even when school did resume, the first couple of days were half days so I still had the afternoons to work on my manuscript. Then came Thanksgiving, with days off from work and, just this week, I was home sick. Who’d have thought being sick would turn out to be a good thing? Anyway, there’s only so much sleeping and mindless TV watching one can do. So, once my wife left to drop off our son at day care and go teach her Gyrotonic, Pilates and dance classes, I took down my Airborne, made a cup of tea and made the dash to the finish. By mid-morning on Wednesday, I’d finished my novel, albeit a first draft at 50,972 words. That’s the validated number by NaNoWriMo’s word counter. My Word application had it at 50,979 but, really, what are seven words when you’re already over 50K?

There have been claims that the NaNo challenge is a waste because it produces some really bad novels because participants are working at a feverish pace and encouraged to silence their inner editors. Well, firstly, I have to say what’s ‘bad?’ Maybe the writing, plotting, character motivations, scene descriptions, and so on have to be worked on but, whether you get a first draft done NaNo-style (Hmm, can we start a NaNo dance in the vein of Gangnam Style?) or in a less harried and more thoughtful way at a more leisurely pace, the idea is to get a first draft done. Marie Lu, the author of the highly successful dystopian Legend, tells writers not to fear writing badly when they start. Most books I’ve read on writing, in fact, and conferences and classes I’ve been to remind us that the first draft is going to be junk anyway. It’s rare - if ever - that a manuscript doesn’t need editing, cutting, revising, revamping before it can be shown to an agent or publisher or editor. Secondly, sometimes a ‘bad’ novel isn’t really a ‘bad’ novel. It’s sometimes labeled ‘bad’ simply because the reader didn’t like it. I haven’t read Mockingjay but I do have friends who’ve said it’s horrible. (I just started Catching Fire so it’ll be a little while before I can decide how I feel about Mockingjay.) Others, meanwhile, have loved it. 

One reviewer didn’t enjoy my own novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, saying it “failed to deliver.” Others, however, thoroughly enjoyed it giving it five-star reviews at Goodreads and at the publisher’s, Abbott Press, website. Among those I know who’ve read it and enjoyed it are two English professors, a boxing journalist, a black belt and a writer. The judges of the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards said Back Kicks And Broken Promises is “…interesting, well-written, and inspiring. The themes of identity, father-son relationships, and coming-of-age are nicely woven into the martial arts metaphor that serves as the organizing principle of the book."

So, bad isn’t really always bad.

But, I am writing this post, really, to say thank you to the NaNoWriMo people again. I finally signed up for the challenge this year and I can say, as NaNoWriMo does, “I won.” Now, it’s up to me to keep winning by revising, boosting my word count to get to about 70-80K and to edit and polish my manuscript so Sage of Heaven becomes the best book it can be; is enjoyed by all and not just the Asian-American YA audience it is ostensibly geared for.

Thanks to The Office of Letters and Light and congratulations to those who did and are still doing - at the time of writing this post there are still eight hours left to finish and get to be called a winner - NaNoWriMo 2012. Happy writing to all!

19 November, 2012

A Writer's Life

November, being the month of Thanksgiving, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, there have been a lot of words of thanks popping everywhere. On Facebook, there's an entire movement in which people post daily missives on things for which they're thankful. In the town I teach, several glass storefronts have similar written sentiments that customers and employees have penned.

In light of this, I've decided to say what I'm thankful for.

1. My family and that no one was hurt because of the storm. We lost power for about a week and our lives were inconvenienced because of it but no one was hurt and my wife, son and I are healthy. Growing up in Hong Kong, I've experienced some difficult storms (like Typhoon Ellen in 1983 and Typhoon Hope in 1979) but, and perhaps this is because I'm older and a parent with people who rely on me and not a teenager, I'll admit that I was nervous about Sandy. Hearing those winds, I prayed nonstop that nothing was going to come flying through our windows. 

2. I'm thankful, that even though the NYC Marathon was cancelled at the eleventh hour and I couldn't run it, for the improvements in my fitness that I gained from training. I'm also, on some level, grateful that the marathon was cancelled because, at the time, I was uncertain about whether I'd even be able to finish it this time around (it would've been my third NYCM and fourth marathon, overall). The last six weeks of training, I'd started to develop severe pains in my lower back and both hips and I was very concerned that I may have injured myself if I'd run it. I still have to see a doctor about these pains, and perhaps some kind of surgery may be required (I hope not but I've been researching and, based on the symptoms, it sounds like I have at least one acetabular fracture).

3. NaNoWriMo
  National Novel Writing Month. I'd hear of this every year, seeing tweets and reading blog posts but I never threw my hat into it until this year. And, I'm thankful for it. Since my first novel came out, last February, I've been sporadic in my writing. Some of that, I think, is from 'sophomore book blues' and some is just from being busy and, when life gets in the way, there are only so many hours in a day that writing sometimes is neglected. NaNoWriMo, though, has forced me to commit. My second novel, the first in a Chinese-American YA fantasy series, is starting to take shape. It's a story I started thinking about and working on in 2007 that is and I'm happy - and relieved - that it's coming along. 

  NaNoWriMo is a challenge. It's not as easy as it sounds - writing nonstop, suppressing one's inner editor, and pushing out 50K plus words to a first draft. If you're like me, and I think many writers doing NaNoWriMo are, you have a full-time job, a second job (and I haven't even included promoting my published book in that mix) and a family, generating time and energy to write almost 1700 words a day can be a challenge. But, that's what makes it special. That's what makes those who are able to complete the challenge say "I've won!" with the right to do so.

  So, I'm grateful for The Office of Letters and Light, the group that created and runs NaNoWriMo. Not only have they created this creature that helps writers gain momentum in their projects, it also gives me a taste of a writer's life. I already live one, insofar that I write everyday with the purpose of producing work for other people to read, enjoy, learn from, etc. I write this blog and I try to write the standard 1000 words that most people say should be the minimum a writer should produce daily. With the honour of being able to say "I've won!" however, NaNoWriMo has kept me on a pretty good schedule and, when I sit down facing my laptop, whether at the local Barnes & Nobel Cafe or in my living room office, I feel that I'm sitting down at a job about to put in my day's fill. 

 The last three days, however, have been hell. Friday, Saturday and Sunday were packed with obligations and other duties that I never got to write. I did some planning and research, which is part of a writer's duties, but I didn't get to add to my 50K word count. And, that made me anxious and angry. I've always put my writing pursuits high on my list of priorities in my life, and I still venture to being able to give up my day job to become a working and paid writer, but through NaNoWriMo the desire for that has been reinforced. It never waned but now it's more than something I know I want. It's become something I need to have. I know I'm treading on dangerous ground because if I fail I'll be devastated but, for the first time, writing isn't just something that I thought existed solely in my head and in my gut. I discovered that it's something that pours forth from my heart.

 In many ways this epiphany may not have happened without Hurricane Sandy. Since there was nothing else to do - no TV to watch, no Wii to play, no gas - and just my imagination - in the car to take me anywhere far and exciting - I sat down at my laptop and wrote. When my church, a mile or so from home, opened its doors for those without power at home to charge devices and access the internet, I was there researching and writing. 

  All my life I've called myself a martial artist. And, I am. It's the one thing I've done and believed in that I've continued to do since I was sixteen. I'm forty-three now. I believe the things I've learnt through my training - sacrifice, patience, enduring and overcoming challenges, battles with fear - have helped me in every successful pursuit I've undertaken. They've also helped me handle all the disappointments I've faced. Because of how they make me feel and what I feel about them, martial arts have 'made' me and, so, I call myself a martial artist. Today, with my enlightenment about writing and how it makes me feel alive and life isn't the same - it's worse - without my being able to do it, I call myself a writer. I used to say "I write." Now, I've become what I do.

29 October, 2012

Development in Martial Arts as I've Seen Them

Developments in Martial Arts as I’ve Seen Them

My last blog post, with my 27th anniversary having just passed, was about my longevity in Taekwondo. In this post, I am going to highlight chronologically, as best as I can remember, the major developments I’ve seen in Taekwondo and, in some cases, martial arts as a whole over the last quarter century plus.

I began my martial arts training in the early summer of 1985 when I started Shotokan Karate training at the South China Athletic Association, in Hong Kong. I’ve always been interested in martial arts and I was exposed to them at an early age with Chinese martial arts movies, a judo uniform I was given as a birthday present when I was about ten, and the talk of Bruce Lee and nunchaku demonstrations by family friends at Christmas parties.

My eventual start in formal training came to a head when my friend and his cousin and I were spending a lot of time together during my final two years of living in Hong Kong. During those years, Bruce Lee films were being re-released in Hong Kong movie houses, the original Karate Kid movie had just come out and, on television, there was a short-lived show called The Master, starring Lee Van Cleef, Timothy Van Patten and a very young Demi Moore. My friends and I did the things teenage boys do - hang out, play ball, talk about girls, and play fight with faux martial arts moves. They also have a friend, a friend of both their dads, who is also a Gung Fu master and whose name was often bandied about with Bruce Lee’s and William Cheung’s. It was one of these school friends who brought me to the SCAA for Shotokan and it’s from that point that my life, for all intents and purposes, changed.

Here is how Taekwondo and martial arts have evolved from my eyes since June 1985.


The popularity of martial arts is probably at its highest since the early 1970s with The Karate Kid, The Master and a surge of other low budget but highly entertaining movies being produced. Sho Kosugi, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal thank you very much.


Taekwondo becomes a demonstration sport at the Seoul Olympics.


1. From footage of Taekwondo events from the 1960s and 1970s, it’s clear that the v-neck pullover uniform was already in existence but it became more popular and widespread as the 1990s progressed. I got my first v-neck uniform from a supplier in California that had a turtle logo. It was 100% cotton, not too thick and heavy, but hot. I like the functionality of the v-neck but, overall, I think I still like the look of a traditional jacket wraparound.

2. All martial arts use physics concepts - action versus reaction, small giving way to use leverage to win over large, etc - but in an intuitive sense. Taekwondo, however, appeared to be the first to put a scientific approach to its training. From teaching traditionally passed down kicks from the styles that preceded it - Tang Soo Do, Shotokan Karate - that include wide swinging leg motions, Taekwondo’s use of narrow motions and generating its power from hip twist seemed to become more widespread in the 1990s. Hip twist has been around for decades. Bruce Lee cites it in The Way of he Dragon and Judo uses it to generate power for its throws but, from my experience in several arts, the idea of generating the same amount of power with narrow leg movements and full hip twist versus wider leg movements (essentially a swing) with a pivot at the hips and with the opposite foot, seems to have originated from Taekwondo.


Taekwondo obtains full medal status at The Olympics. USA’s Herb Perez won gold in the middleweight men’s division to become the first winner of a full status Taekwondo medal.

1993 - present

The mixed martial arts (MMA) spectacle became widespread thanks to the UFC, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Some stand up fighters did well in the early years but MMA/UFC bouts typically are between jujitsu stylists who’ve learnt some kicking and striking and strikers who’ve studied some grappling. Really, it’s the widespread realization of the kind of training Bruce Lee espoused. Personally, I think the MMA guys are fantastic fighters but I suspect that many of them may not be martial artists. There’s a difference between being a fighter and being a martial artist. The latter can be both but someone who is merely the former cannot be the latter.

Late 1990s/early 2000s

1. There was a corruption scandal involving the World Taekwondo Federation, the International Olympic Committee and the United States Taekwondo Union (the governing body of Taekwondo in the United States that has been resurrected and is thriving as USA-Taekwondo). Any kind of scandal is not a good thing. Any kind of corruption is not a good thing. They’re made worse when they centre around something you love. In some way, you almost feel guilty by association like those involved reflect upon you as a member of that community. That’s how I felt, anyway. Regardless, Taekwondo and the involved organizations have survived and Taekwondo, as a world sport and martial art, continues to grow. It was also at this time, and partly because of this scandal, that I started to accept that martial artists are not the error-free monks and mendicants, who secretly know the ways of the world, that are portrayed in the movies. We, simply, are human beings; imperfect creatures that have chosen to fight against the demons we possess inside.

2. When I started competing, most of the tournaments around were open, point-scoring ones. After a point was scored, action stopped, the points tallied and then the bout resumed until time was over.  I suppose the point-scoring system was popular to lessen injury and to generate more revenue so people of all styles could compete. It would also, perhaps, settle which style is the best based on who won but that would invariably add to the controversy. (Personally, I believe there is no ONE best style. The style has to suit the practitioner’s personality and the style is the best if the person conquers his or her demons and achieves his or her goals through its practice.) Today, those point-scoring open events are few and far between with many more style-specific tourneys being held. Individual schools typically hosted the point-scoring events. Nowadays, most Taekwondo events are hosted by state, regional or national organizations. There a fewer individually hosted ones and the ones that still exist follow the same format as those run by the International Olympics Committee, the World Taekwondo Federation and USA Taekwondo.


I love all aspects of martial arts but forms practice (poomsae, kata) has always been my favourite. In the mid 1990s, I wrote a piece about formalized, high level forms competition. I stated that there should be some kind of event and that it should be as recognized as, say, The Olympics. In 2006, the 1st Poomsae World Championship was held. I can’t claim any influence for this but I’m glad it exists. Furthermore, high level poomsae competition here in the US has emerged in state and national championships that even allow older athletes, like myself, the opportunity to compete and become state and national champions.


Around 2010, I think, Chuck Norris came up with the World Martial Arts League. Essentially, it’s teams of fighters (I think most of them stand up fighters) and there’s a round robin of bouts across the country. I always wanted to run a school-based point martial arts tournament like this in public schools but with most schools not even having boxing in their PE classes or as an extra-curricular it’d be a challenge to promote a Taekwondo/martial arts sparring team. In 2002, I wrote a Taekwondo curriculum that was added to my district’s overall PE curriculum. I taught it in the 2002-2003 school year but, being the only qualified Taekwondo instructor, it was difficult to manage and maintain. I have spoken with my department supervisor about getting a grant to revisit this and to train instructors but there has been no further developments or discussions on this. I know of, at least, one district in Utah that has a full TKD program in its PE curriculum.

With congressional help, perhaps, this can become a reality across the country. After all, Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee has trained many congressmen and he has even had a day named after him. Grandmaster Rhee, nicknamed ‘The Father of American Taekwondo,’ has throughout his life promoted Taekwondo as a means to attain a better quality of life and as a way for children to develop character. What more could someone ask for to be included into a district-wide PE program and to be added to its list of extracurricular athletics?


1. There seems to be an abundance of girls and women doing martial arts and this is a good thing and there isn’t any real surprise at this. It’s not a surprise in the way a girl playing on a boy’s gridiron team would be. It’s natural for girls to do martial arts, especially when you think that the Wing Chun system of Gung Fu was invented by a nun and how there are Japanese weapons arts that are geared towards woman. The surge of female martial artists here in the US, though, has to be credited to women like Master Karen Eden, Kathy Long, Michelle Krasnoo, Diana Lopez, and Gina Carano. They are all confident, feminine - dare I even say attractive, hot - as well as being badass modern women who can pack a punch. If I ever have a daughter, I won’t object if she chooses any one of them to emulate.

2. Taekwondo is now a household word. When Taekwondo first came into the US, in the 1950s, servicemen who were stationed in Korea brought it back. The term ‘karate’ was a more familiar one so many of the Korean masters advertised their art as ‘Korean Karate.’ When they’d say ‘Taekwondo’ they’d usually have to explain what it is. I found this to be true even in the 1990s. Today, it’s a common term and, if someone doesn’t know exactly what Taekwondo is, he or she will surely have heard of it. It even seems to be the martial art of choice in popular culture. In movies, for instance, when a character does a martial art it seems to be, more often than not, Taekwondo. One example is in the movie The Five-Year Engagement in which Rhys Ifans’ character studies and uses Taekwondo to defend himself against Jason Segel’s character. This is a romantic-comedy and not an action film. Action films usually won’t name the martial arts the characters practice. Or, they’ll be named and there will be a wide array of arts and styles on display. In movies about everyday life, Taekwondo seems to prevail. I say this not from any kind of scientific research but from my own observations. It illustrates, on some level, how widespread Taekwondo really is.

As I enter my twenty-eighth year of being a Taekwondoist, I‘m sure there will be more developments. For one, I’d like to see some kind of equal recognition between Kukkiwon Taekwondo and ITF  (International Taekwondo Federation) Taekwondo, a reunification of sorts, if you will.  I’d like to see Taekwondo enter all public schools in physical education and as an extracurricular sport, the way wrestling exists. I’d even love to see the Koreas unified, the way East Germany and West Germany reunited, with Taekwondo having some kind of influence in achieving that.

Who can tell what’s going to happen? As a Taekwondo master, I have some say on how the future of Taekwondo shapes up by how I teach my students and how well I represent that tenets of my chosen martial art. As a student, and as a master I am probably more of student than ever before, I look forward to how it continues to shape me.

28 October, 2012

Happy Anniversary

Happy Anniversary

I’ve been so busy that it wasn’t until the end of the day last Friday, as I was riding home on the team bus from a volleyball match, that I realized it was my 27th anniversary of becoming a Taekwondo student. Actually, to be honest, I don’t really remember the exact date of my first Taekwondo class but I do know it was in October 1985. I can’t find my copy of the enrollment contract and with my parents living in The Philippines it would be too much to try to find the cashed cheque or bank statement from then to pinpoint the exact date. I was sixteen, we had just moved to the United States from Hong Kong and they were paying for my martial arts studies. The 26th and 16th and even the 9th of the month stand out in my head - and, funnily, they’re also birthdays of former secondary school classmates and the 16th is the birthday of one of my friends who got me started in martial arts - but it’s the 26th that sticks out the most so I use it as my anniversary.

When I think that I’ve been a Taekwondoist for twenty-seven years, it astonishes me. People do things for long periods but in today’s day and age, with so many things to choose from and so many things being seasonal, it’s hard to imagine sticking with something this long. I’m not sure of the exact statistics but I think in the mid 1980s, when I started Taekwondo, it was something like 1 in 5 marriages ended in divorce. Today, I think it’s worse at 50%. With something so sacred having such an iffy chance of lasting, how has something seemingly trivial stayed with me?

When I look at my middle school and high school students, a compartmentalized and seasonal life is evident. Fall is for football or soccer, the winter is for basketball or swimming or gymnastics, the spring is for lacrosse or softball/baseball, and the summer is for holiday. Even if the student does more than one activity a season, the activity time is broken up by days of the week and is a cafeteria of sports, arts and music. (Whether a child should do just one activity and concentrate on it at an early age or do many activities and narrow his or her focus at an older age is a discussion for another blog.)

So, when I look at my martial arts involvement and development, amidst the other things I did then and do now, it pleasantly surprises me that I’ve been doing Taekwondo for so long. I think my longevity - and I believe others who have been doing anything for as long and longer than I’ve been a Taekwondoist will tell you the same thing - is because I didn’t and haven’t given my Taekwondo evolution any kind of timeline. With sports, a person’s career ends. Even in some arts, like dance, the person’s performance career ends even though he or she may turn to teaching, choreography, running his or her own dance company, etc.

With martial arts, and not just Taekwondo, there is a finite part - found in the sports versions of them - and an infinite part. The latter is what the do (Japanese and Korean; tao in Chinese) in Taekwondo, Karate-do, Judo, Kendo and so on means. The word means ‘way’ and it pertains to a way of life; tenets of character development, etiquette, courtesy, respect (towards oneself and others) and humility that the martial artist tries to follow regardless of his successes and failures in and out of the sports side of martial arts. The do pertains as much, if not more, to the inner aspects of one’s life as it does to the outer (physical, technical and combat). In fact, in martial arts, the martial part does exist with respect to the practitioner being able to defend himself but, ultimately, it is about the battles we all have within ourselves - conflicts against laziness, cheating, bigotry, being judgmental, arrogance, impatience, the inability or lack of desire to forgive, forgiving without forgetting, pride and others.

And that’s the beauty of Taekwondo and other martial arts. It’s not like a sport that has finite goals like winning a gold medal every four years, a championship at the end of the season, setting and breaking records, beating a particular opponent. Yes, you can set goals each year to win the championship again or score more goals than the previous season but those are finite, black-and-white goals. Being human, which I believe is the greyest area of all, martial arts fits perfectly with the ever-changing inner turmoil and inner peace within all of us.

With twenty-seven years of martial arts under my belt, which, yes, is black and awards me the title of ‘master,’ I am still evolving. I may be a master in some of the technical aspects of Taekwondo. I may have even mastered and conquered certain parts of my character but humans experience struggles everyday and what I’ve learnt through martial arts helps me handle them. Do I win all the time? No, but when I lose it’s with the knowledge that I can face those demons that bested me today and overcome them tomorrow.

A Rutgers Tradition - revisited

A Rutgers Tradition - revisited

Hi friends! For some reason, my last blog post, A Rutgers Tradition, doesn't come up properly on some devices through Blogger. On my Mac desktop and Nook, the content from my NaNo, NaNo blog comes up in the A Rutgers Tradition blog. On my Mac laptop, my work-issued Dell laptop and my iPhone, everything comes out the way it's supposed to. 

Just in case it's not coming up properly on your device, you can click here to read my blog post, A Rutgers Tradition, in another location. It's my full website, filamkickingscribe.com, and the blog is fine over there.


21 October, 2012

A Rutgers Tradition

A Rutgers Tradition

There are four entries (five, if you count that number one has two definitions) for ‘tradition’ in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary and I would say that all of them are pertinent when referring to the famous – perhaps, infamous – ‘grease trucks’ at Rutgers University.

There’s been a fair amount of press surrounding these once transient lunch mobiles. I recently saw an article (in The Star-Ledger, I think) that mentioned the trucks and how they are going to be affected by the new redevelopment projects that are about to happen at my alma mater. There was also a recent article in the New York Times that addressed the grease trucks’ cultural relevance to New Jersey’s state university and how they face possible extinction in light of the aforementioned proposed changes. Those changes will take place in and around the university’s main campus, particularly at the intersection of College Avenue and Hamilton Street, across from Scott Hall, where the trucks are now permanently located; but for how long?

I don’t know if other colleges and universities have grease trucks. I suspect they do - since they’re simply lunch mobiles - but their trucks may not be as ingrained into the identity and cultural experience of the school’s students as the ones in New Brunswick are to the Rutgers student body, past and present. And, to faculty too! There really is something ‘Rutgers’ about them. If you’ve attended university in New Jersey, whether you went to Rutgers or not, if the topic of food trucks comes up, for certain, you’ll mention or think about the ones on College Ave. I don’t know what will become of them but, like most RU students who’ve walked down College Avenue and spent any time on campus, I’ve had my share of being a grease trucks devotee.

My first experience with the trucks came around November or December of my freshman year. My first two years of college, I was a commuter taking an early bus from South Orange to Newark, where I’d catch the New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor train to New Brunswick. If I were lucky, meaning my sister didn’t need the car and/or my parents were on one of their long stints in Manila or Hong Kong, I could drive and leave as late as 7:15am to catch my 8:10am class. When taking public transport, my bus was at 6:50am.

Anyway, during that time I joined the RU squash club and made friends with other Asian expat students. They were from Singapore and India and I’m still in touch with some of them. Coming from then British-ruled or formerly British-ruled cities, we played soft ball (yellow and white dot) squash as opposed to the hard ball version many of our American club-mates were playing. So, in addition to our background, we had the sport to speed along our friendships. It was one of these friends from Singapore who took me to my first grease truck. It was a Wednesday, I believe, and we’d arranged to meet after my classes on the Livingston College Campus (now the Kilmer Campus) for lunch before going to my much later classes on Douglass, the Women’s College, where my department (Exercise and Leisure Studies) was located. I don’t remember what I ate but I do remember my friend being very specific as to which truck we were going to queue up. We hadn’t just arranged to meet for lunch. We’d arranged to meet for grease truck food.

From then on, especially with the cold weather upon me, the grease trucks became a regular stop on my way to writing classes and economics labs. They were located in Murray Hall and Scott Hall, respectively, in the Voorhees Mall. I’d pick up a cup of coffee – light and sweet, of course – which would be served in one of those blue and white, Greek motif cups and a bagel with butter or a coffee roll. From these regular stops, I started to discern which trucks made the coffee exactly the way I like it, which trucks had the best French Fries, which ones had the best Taylor Ham, egg and cheese on a roll and so on. At first, you just go to whichever truck has the shortest line. But, when things don’t taste the same, you go back to the truck that gave you exactly what you wanted, how you wanted it and you keep going to that truck.

The College Avenue grease trucks, you see, aren’t just a convenience for Rutgers students and faculty. They’re personal. Each semester, because you’re on a schedule, you pass them on the same days, at the same time. They’re familiar, reassuring. Regrettably, I forget his name (Abad comes to mind), but there was one truck whose proprietor and I started to get to know each other. We’d talk about football (soccer) and Taekwondo. He’d ask about Hong Kong, which is where I grew up and still call home.  And, he’d even give me free coffee on occasion. One time, as I crossed the street to get to class and the line in front of his window was life zapping long, he saw me as I passed through the truck’s back door, next to where the generator was set up. He called me over and gave me a coffee. When I reached for my wallet, he waved me off. The times I visited his truck after that, he never made mention of it and I still got free coffee now and again. A couple of times, he’d even throw in a bagel. 

The trucks become extremely personal, in fact, that a student will risk being late for class – and not just a large lecture where one can get lost in but a small lab or seminar in a much smaller classroom – by getting off at the stop closer to his chosen truck and away from the building his class is being held just to get a particularly made drink or sandwich. Even though you’re not likely to see the owner of the truck in any other setting, he and his truck become ‘yours.’ They’re part of your college experience – your Rutgers experience – and they’ll stick with you for years after you’ve stored your cap and gown. The trucks become so personal and specific that, whether you are going to be late or not,  you’ll find yourself running from one end of College Avenue to another and back to get fried mushrooms from one truck, coffee from another and a hotdog with the works from a third. This might sound impractical – ridiculous and crazy even - but it’s all part of the unique experience the grease trucks and Rutgers are. Perhaps this is one of those things you’d have to be there to really understand and appreciate. One time, when I was studying in the Rutgers College student centre, I overheard other students negotiate a food run. One said he was going to get a burger from one of the trucks, which he named. The next person asked the first if he could get the same thing for him but at a different truck. It’s crazy, but like I said, one’s relationship with a grease truck is that personal and that specific. (I didn’t but I was tempted to jump in and ask the first guy to make a stop for me.) The food from a grease truck, back then anyway, wasn’t exactly the healthiest - burgers, dogs, fries, bagels, doughnuts, etc. – but it’s quick, inexpensive and comforting. And, when you want comfort, you want a truck you can trust.

I graduated from Rutgers in 1991 and I’ve gone back frequently in the years that followed to play tennis with a classmate, watch the US Men’s National Soccer team play Colombia, and compete at Grandmaster Y. B. Choi’s annual Open Taekwondo-Karate-Kung Fu Championship, which was always held in The Barn (the College Avenue campus recreation centre). In the 2000s, I took my wife down to show her where I went to school and to listen to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Just last spring, we brought our son and I got to reminisce with a meal at Stuff Yer Face, which hasn’t changed much. We even bought him a red hooded Rutgers sweatshirt. With regard to the grease trucks, though, it was a trip in 2003 that stands out. 

My son in his Rutgers hoodie
I went to the stadium on the Busch Campus with a friend to watch Manchester United’s practice. After it was over and he got autographs and awed at some of the best footballers in the world, we drove to College Avenue for a Fat Cat. (My friend from Singapore, the same one who introduced me to the grease trucks, also introduced me to this ridiculously generous sandwich, which I have to say has gotten much smaller - by more than half - from what it was when I was an undergrad. The size and variety of the Fat Cat is one of the two things that struck me but I’ll talk about the Fat Cat in another blog post.) The other thing that struck me was the location of the grease trucks. There were far fewer in 2003 than when I attended Rutgers (1987-1991). Then, they were lined up on the quad side of College Avenue from Scott Hall all the way down to the dorms just before Brower Commons, the College Avenue dining hall. Now, they’re safely ensconced in a lot behind the bus stop across from Scott Hall on one side, at the corner of College Avenue and Hamilton Street, and frat houses on the other.

They were still there but there was something bland about my grease trucks experience in 2003. Maybe it was because it was summer and not a teeth-chattering December afternoon. Maybe it was because there weren’t many students getting on and off the D and G campus buses and rushing to class in an intense frenzy, harried the way only a self-important college student can be harried. It was bittersweet for me, to say the least. Nonetheless, my friend and I got our Fat Cats and we sat on a concrete stump to enjoy our burgers and talked about football. 

In 2012, the grease trucks are still there in that same lot. I’ve been down to Rutgers a handful of times since 2003 but I see things with an older man’s eyes. The grease trucks may not be what they used to be but at least this generation has its version of them. I hope they stay in the Scott Hall area. That’s where they’ve always started (or ended, depending on which side of College Ave you’re coming from). I don’t know where the new proposed location is for them, if there is one. I hope there is one. There’s nothing like them, especially the way they were when I was a student at Rutgers. Independently owned and rivals for the same crumpled dollar bills in students’ pockets, they form a fleet nonetheless. Lined up, front-to-back and side-by-side, separated each by a generator that purrs as familiarly as the cat you left at home and weren’t allowed to have in your dorm room, they’re there for every Rutgers student. They’re unacknowledged and unconditional friends. If you listen carefully enough, you can almost hear the generators whispering, “We’re here if you need us. If not today, then maybe tonight. If not tonight, then maybe tomorrow.”  Either way, they are a part of Rutgers – a tradition – and they should be maintained. 

I’ve rambled enough about this to the point of needing a pick me up. Think I’ll get myself a coffee, light and sweet, of course.

14 October, 2012

NaNo, NaNo

NaNo, NaNo

No, this isn’t a post about the 1970s/80s sitcom “Mork and Mindy.” Simply, I couldn’t resist using the bad pun as the title of this post. It is, though, a blog post about writing, story ideas and a great way to develop discipline in getting one’s first draft completed.

A few weeks ago I posted a blog that offered suggestions to battle writer’s block and to keep oneself writing when the proverbial brick wall is too high to vault, too wide to get around and too thick to smash through. At the time, I was having a hard time putting words on paper. Getting the ideas - the scenes - in my head into a readable first draft was too much of a chore.

I decided to revamp one of my screenplays into a novel to jumpstart my engines. I’m glad that my reverse adaptation - let’s face it, usually it’s a book that becomes a script and not the other way around - is going well but, in some ways, it’s going too well. This time of year is usually my least productive as a writer. With a teaching job that pays the bills, I’m usually swamped with assignments to grade, workshops to attend and faculty meetings to attend. I’m also a volleyball coach and the volleyball season in New Jersey takes place in the fall. With practices, matches, Saturday tournaments that run all day and bus rides to and from other schools, I don’t normally have the time to write. This year isn’t much different. I still don’t have the luxury of getting to my keyboard immediately after school. What is different, however, is the way my brain is working. The normal resignation I give myself that I’m not going to get much writing done from August to November usually shuts the literary creative part of my brain down until the end of the volleyball season. This year, at least within the last two or three weeks, my brain has been on overdrive.

And, this is a good thing. It’s a writer’s greatest fear wondering if he has another story to tell after putting out his first novel. Lately, I don’t have that worry because I’ve been popping with ideas. I know they’re only ideas and that they may not blossom into a full story, whether as part of a short story collection or as a full length novel, but at least my mind is turned on and creating. The problem now, though, is which one to focus on. I still subscribe to my tactic of switching between projects when I’m stumped on the one I’m focusing on and turn to another to keep my creative juices flowing. So, with all these ideas popping in my head, right now, I’m spoilt for choice. I do, though, want - need - one project to be my main WIP (work-in-progress).

To get to there, I’m trying another new thing. I’m joining NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, you can get the specs and register at NaNo’s website by clicking on the NaNo image at the top of this post. Basically, though, it’s a pledge to finish a first draft of a book in thirty days. You’re allowed to preplan and even write before the month starts but, ultimately, it’s a way of having fun with one’s writing (hopefully it’s always fun, though) and blasting through one’s inhibitions and getting a story written. I’m hoping that NaNo - and my publicly stating that I’m doing it - will get my active creative juices to take charge and help creative discipline in my writing endeavours. For me, it’s about getting a first draft written. Once I have that, I find the revisions and editing relatively easy because there’s something to revise. Creating, in my opinion, is always harder.

I have to thank James Scott Bell, though, for pushing me into doing NaNo this year. I read his blog post about it this morning and, while I’ve known about NaNo for years, it’s always been something I felt was too big, overwhelming and scary to undertake. I took almost ten years, after all, to write, revise and publish my debut novel, BackKicks And Broken Promises. In fact, the idea of banging out a first draft in a month still scares the junk out of me but I’m going to give it a go and have at it. If I don’t get it done, I’ll at least learn something about myself.

So, while I have lots of ideas jotted down on paper and in the Notes app of my iPhone, for the NaNoWriMo I am going to commit to just one idea and plow through it. I’ll keep you posted on how I do and, for those of you joining NaNo as well, I wish you good luck and happy writing.

30 days, 300,000 writers, 50,000 words.

26 September, 2012

Getting Smaller

Getting Smaller

No, I wish I could say this blog is about my waistline or the number my bathroom scale reads. Although with my marathon training - even as sporadic as it is - those two numbers are coming down.

Seriously, though, this post is about the world. Last summer, I wrote about my family’s trip to Montauk and how we met a mother, her friend and their kids and how the mother and her son live in New Jersey. They live in a town not too far away from where we are. It struck me, then, as funny and odd in a “what a coincidence!” sort of way. Even before then, however, I’d already started to believe that there aren’t any true coincidences. Every event and meeting however seemingly insignificant at the time will have some sort of meaning and merit later on. Experience has led me to believe this.

Well, today, another one of those faux coincidences happened again. I don’t know the significance of it - yet - but it also reinforced how small the world really is - or has become - and how much smaller it is still becoming. With the internet and all sorts of social media, especially Twitter, the world has shrunk. We connect with people instantly and through avenues like Twitter it’s even easier to meet ‘strangers.’ I put strangers in quotes because sometimes people aren’t really complete strangers anymore.

I’m on Twitter - I think the proper phrase is ‘I have a Twitter’ -  and I’m there to promote myself as a writer and to hopefully generate some buzz about my work and writing endeavours. If you’re not familiar with Twitter, a person sets up an account, has some kind of username, follows other Tweeters (aka Twitterers) and is followed by other members of the Twitterverse as well. In my case, many are other writers and readers and we read, attend and follow many of the same books, blogs and conferences. Often, as an event draws near, we tweet about our excitement, what workshops we’re going to attend and things like that. Sometimes, people arrange to meet and those virtual friends become in-person friends. And they address each other by their Twitter handles, which makes it all one big game. So, in this regard, the world has truly gotten smaller.

With social media and the internet, we can see easily how things have gotten closer. At 43, I feel that I’m in that in-between generation; the one that manages to exist on both sides of the internet age and the smart phone revolution. I wouldn’t think, then, that meeting someone for the first time in-person would make things so small. But, then again, what do I know? I met my neighbour’s ex-wife today to find out that she grew up in the town where I teach and knows many of the people I know from where I did my senior year of high school (Seton Hall Prep) and where I work. I know a couple of the teachers she’d had and some of her classmates who ended up teaching in the district they attended. To make things more intimate, more meaningful, one of those classmates who is now a teacher is one of my best friends.

This kind of thing is probably something that’s happened to you many times. I’ve met people before who’ve known people I know but I was introduced to them by a mutual friend or at an event or occupation that we all have in common. With my neighbour’s ex, however, there wasn’t any kind of obvious connection potential.

Perhaps, only now, I’ve started to open my eyes and observe the world more clearly; observe the world at all. Maybe it’s always been this way. Then again, maybe it hasn’t. Either way, it makes for good writing material and it seems to be bringing people together. What do you think?

11 September, 2012

Beating Writer's Block Through Adaptation

Just like many other writers, I suffer from the occasional bout with writer's block and low motivation to sit in front of my laptop screen and crunch out words. In my years of writing, I know that I just need to put words down, that they'll be more junk than literature as a first draft, and that I'll be editing and making revisions until the prose is right. I've no problem with that. Some days, though, it's just harder than others to get it done.

When I started taking writing seriously, I focused on screenplays. Just like with my novel writing, I attended workshops and classes, got feedback and rewrote. One of my screenplays, Aliens Among Us, Part I: Discovery, even garnered agent interest (I think from CAA. I've moved thrice since then and the correspondence between us is something I've not looked at in years and it's all in a box in my basement) and reached the quarterfinal round of the 1996 Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition. During those years of screenwriting in the 1990s, I'd written three other scripts - Hong Kong Boy, Jenny and Holy Communion and during the sessions of tapping on keys (Jenny was written on a typewriter) I'd spent many collective hours staring at the brown wall behind the IBM Selectric and at the lonely white screen of my Mac. And, this is even with a plot outline! Some days the muse just isn't there.

Today, as I focus on writing my second novel, the muse has taken another vacation. I could be suffering from 'second book blues,' trying to sort out if I really have another story in me. I think I do. I've managed to complete four screenplays, after all, and I've managed to plot out the first in a YA fantasy series for my next book. I'm also trying to adapt my novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, into a screenplay. I am, however, also ridiculously busy (teaching, coaching, being a parent and husband and training for a marathon, among other things) and life, as many of my fellow writers who wear other hats will attest, does challenge one's writing goals. When I do get to sit down, the juices just aren't flowing right now. About fifteen years ago, when I'd get blocked, I'd give myself anywhere from 15-30 minutes to see if any words came out. If they did, I'd run with it; even if that meant hitting the backspace key as soon as I'd finish typing. If no words came out after the given time, I'd call it a day and go for a run or watch a movie. One time, when I happened to be working on more than one project, after the time was up, I closed the file in front of me and opened the other one. And the words flowed. Since then, I try to make sure I have more than one project at hand.

Unfortunately - and back then I was working on two screenplays (the same form of media) - switching projects isn't even working for me right now. I'm having a hard time with creating the draft. My novel, Sage Of Heaven, is plotted and loosely outlined (I'm not a big outliner and when I do I keep them very loose so I have room to adapt it as my characters lead me) but I'm stuck three chapters in; not in what I want to happen in the story but in how to express it, describe it, illustrate it. Heck, I'm more than stuck. I'm blank. I've started another novel - well, it's probably going to be a collection of related short stories - set in a Filipino-American community in New Jersey. Switching mindsets has helped the juices flow a little but I need a more aggressive jump start. Like I said, my difficulty right now is with creation, not with ideas.

So, what I've decided to do is adapt a work. Like I said earlier, I am working on an adaptation of Back Kicks And Broken Promises into a screenplay but I think and feel that I need to step back from it for a bit. I spent ten years working on it and it's a very pesonal story that, perhaps, someone else should write the screenplay. (Any takers? Haha!) Instead, what I'm doing is taking my screenplay Aliens Among Us, Part I: Discovery and turning it into a novel. Really, I'd love to turn it into a graphic novel but I'm not an artisit. I'm doing this, ultimately, as an exercise to get my mind back to a writer's mindset - a novelist's mindset - but if I like what it turns into I may pitch it. Who knows, right? Or, I may self-publish it directly as an ebook through something like Createspace. At least I have a fleshed out story that's more than an outline so it's not creation. It's...adaptation.

Either way, I hope the exercise can get me back to writing; writing with a purpose. If it works, I'll have found my muse and she'll be from another planet at that! (I do believe in aliens but that's a story for another post).

Happy - and successful - writing to all!