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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.

31 December, 2015

Happy New Year! - My Top Ten Books Of 2015

Well, it’s just ahead of us. I’m talking about 2016, of course. In fact, in just nine hours (here on the United States’ east coast, anyway), we’ll be toasting 2015 out and welcoming 2016 in. So, before I go no, let me say Happy New Year! I wish you a healthy, happy and successful 2016. 

This is also the time of year when all the various Top Ten lists come out in magazines, newspapers, entertainment and news shows and, of course, blogs. Not wanting to be left behind, as I do every year, here is my Top Ten list of books from 2015. Well, they’re the top ten of the books that I read in 2015 so some of them may have been published in previous years.  Anyway, here they are. Maybe you read some of them this past year too.

1. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. Translated by Philip Gabriel. Vintage Paperback, 2015 (First published in 2013)
2. Monkey King, volume 19: Masters and Disciples by Wei Dong Chen, Chao Peng (illustrator). JR Comic, 2012.
3. The Stranger by Harlan Coben. Dutton Hardcover, 2015.
4. The Wicked Will Rise (Dorothy Must Die #2) by Danielle Paige. Harper Collins, 2015.
5. Saints (Boxers &Saints #2) by Gene Luen Yang. First Second Paperback, 2013.
6. Boxers (Boxers &Saints #1) by Gene Luen Yang. First Second Paperback, 2013.
7. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. Vintage Paperback, 2014.
8. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña. G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2015.
9. Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Dairy by Keshni Kashyap, Mark Araki (illustrator). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Hardcover, 2012.
10. 1Q84 (1Q84 #1-3) by Haruki Murakami. Knopf ebook, 2011.

Honourable Mentions: The Young Elites (The Young Elites #1) by Marie Lu, Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig, We Are In A Book by Mo Willems, Guardian (Proxy #2) by Alex London

08 December, 2015

My Favourite Season, part II

Having written about the bad things about autumn in My Favourite Season, Part I, it’s only fair that I write about the good things of the season; especially after my writing about them was inspired by a reader’s response to my older post about the top then best and worst things about spring.

So, here goes - The Top Ten Things About Autumn (not in any particular order).

     1. Cooler Temps – The summer is great. I’m a teacher so it means less heavy workloads and a little time off. It also means being outdoors (which has its own ups and downs), the beach and the pool, being tanned, summer blockbuster movies and more. After a while, though, the dog day of summer come upon us, the temps gets to the high 90s and low 100s and the humidity tries to outdo the temps. So, it’s with excitement that I receive the fall. It bring the relief of cooler temps – during the day and at night and, generally, lower humidity as well. It’s rejuvenating compared to the draining effects of the extreme heat and humidity.

    2. The Holidays – Yes, I enjoy the holiday season and, for me, that begins with Halloween (not my favourite but it does begin the months-long sense of goodwill and fun) goes all the way to New Year’s; sometimes even Valentine’s Day. Giving and receiving gifts and goodwill is always nice and, whether it’s contrived or genuine, it still feels good to see and hear light sounds, less harsh voices and merrymaking.

     3. European Football (Soccer) – Generally, the European football season begins mid-August and runs to mid-May. By the time the autumn hits, around late September or early October, the season is in full swing. I’m an Arsenal fan and watch a lot of Premier League football. I also enjoy watching The Bundesliga (German League) and, of course, who doesn’t like watching Barcelona? And, with the Internet, apps and all-around better coverage, I can watch Arsenal play every week and mid-week when it has cup matches to win.

     4. The Leaves – While I hate that I have to rake the leaves and they can become driving hazards, the leaves do bring some joy. For one, when they start to turn colours, they signify the arrival of autumn and that means, of course, cooler temps, the holidays, and every other positive thing I like about the season. The leaves’ changing colours, moreover, are simply pretty to look at. They’re especially beautiful when they turn green to a velvety red. The winter is largely a grey, bleak season. The summer can be equally as bland sometimes; too bright and basically blue and white from the sea to the sky to sand to peoples’ clothes. The spring and autumn, however, offer colour and, for me, autumn is one of God’s canvases.

     5. The Smell – There are different smells in the autumn than there are in the other seasons. The cooler air makes everything feel and smell cleaner, fresher. The dying leaves also offer a certain muskiness to them that is pleasant to my olfactory sense, anyway. On really cool night, us among them, people start using their fireplaces and the smell of burning wood – not the pre-fab fake stuff – offers something cozy and soothing to me, my wife, my son and even our dog.

     6. Sweaters and sweatshirts – There’s something unique about the feel of a sweater against your skin. Blankets are comforting, soothing things. Sweaters are like wearable, portable blankets. So are sweatshirts. There’s also something stylish about wearing the right sweater with a pair of jeans and the right kind of boots that oozes confidence and security.

     7. Broadway preview season – Actually, new shows and their preview seasons tend to happen in the fall and the spring but the fall preview season lends something to the holiday season that ranks it just a notch above the spring preview season. Obviously, I’m a theatre fan. Haha! Previews are great because they’re, often, a little cheaper than post-opening night ticket. They also offer something special – a night out, a day trip into the city with the kids, an old-fashioned special occasion – but different that going to the movies or renting a DVD or plunking the kids in front of an iPad running Netflix or Hulu. I’ll go to the theatre anytime of year but with a slight nip in the air and an excited kid on one arm and my wife on the other, there’s no time like the fall.

     8. The New York City Marathon – I’ve run this race twice, was scheduled to run it a third time until Sandy hit, got inspired to run it after watching a tape-delay of Rod Dixon winning in 1983 (I was still living in Hong Kong and I was only 14 at the time), I’ve met Rod Dixon. I’ve run The Disney World Marathon as well and several Half-Marathons and other races during my running days. But, the NYCM is my favourite. It’s a challenge with all the hills and bridges. I was introduced to the distance by chance and it happened to be the NYCM I watched Rod Dixon win. I live in New Jersey so the NYCM feels almost like my local marathon. Every year, I watch it live and I get goose bumps knowing I’ve run the same streets as the pros and knowing how the other everyman and everywoman runner feels.

      9. Book Award Season – As a writer and reader, of course, I love books and stories. The fall is when the book awards season begins. Among others, this time of year, the winners of The National Book Award and The man Booker Prize are announced. All the top ten lists come out, too, (not just books of course) and I like to see which I’ve read and which I should’ve read. And, no, I’m not going to lie. There is always a moment when I imagine what if a book I write gets on one of those lists or, more amazingly, wins one of those prestigious awards.

     10. New York City – I love New York City. I’d live there if I could afford to and I’ll go in, from my home in New Jersey, almost anytime and any season. (I’ll avoid days like SantaCon that, incidentally, is set for December 12 this year.) New York during the holidays, though, as cliché as this is going to sound, is truly special. The lights, sounds, smells, the various window displays, The Rockettes all bring warmth to the heart and even melts me back to my childhood and my first New York Christmastime in 1985.

And, there you have it. My top ten best things about autumn. You’ll notice, if you juxtapose the list of things that make autumn bad and the list here – the things that make autumn good – you’ll see some of the items are the same in both lists. No one said there had to be an absolute and I think it also goes to show that not everything is all bad or all good, which makes things and people and books and movies and what have you more interesting,

So, let’s, all of us, enjoy or lament the remaining days of autumn. After that, we can take on winter.

07 December, 2015

Meaningful Things

Meaningful Things

Not because of the then upcoming movie Creed but, rather, because of the Rocky Broadway musical that ran last year, my son and I have been sporadically watching the Rocky movies since the summer. Pretty much up until October, wherever we went, we listened to the Rocky Broadway album in the car. It was much like when Frozen came out and all we listened to was the Frozen soundtrack getting to know each song’s lyrics, each musical interlude and each chant. This time it was with Rocky and, as a result of the songs, my son got curious about entire Rocky saga. As we watch them, it’s really interesting to watch Rocky Balboa’s transformation from a seemingly has been amateur boxer to the coveted Heavyweight Champion of The World.

Thinking about these movies, my favourites in terms of story and emotional impact are Rocky II, Rocky V and Rocky Balboa. I know my selections go against the grain of many critics and the general public (most people I know trashed Rocky V) but I liked them and everyone likes different things for different reasons. Interestingly, though, and not one of my favourites but one that still holds special meaning to me is Rocky IV. As a movie, it fully represents the 1980s. Cold War tensions, abundant movies with jingoistic under – and over – tones. It has plenty of flash and focused on the materialism of beauty – Stallone never looked leaner, Dolph Lundgren was (and still is) a fantastic physical specimen and Brigitte Nielsen was a babe. However, it was also, in my opinion, one very long music video (another media form that reached its peak in the 1980s). I will admit, however, that I do like a lot some of the songs on the soundtrack.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I didn’t like the movie or call it is bad movie but it’s not one of my favourites in the series. It’s a revenge movie and I think, as a whole, the Rocky story is deeper than that. Nonetheless, Rocky IV manages to hold a special place in my heart and for non-movie reasons. The day Rocky IV came out, in 1985, was the day before my first ever Taekwondo test. I was a white belt and because of my previous martial arts experience in Shotokan and Koeikan Karate and, I like to think, because of my hard work and aptitude for martial arts, my instructor was letting me skip the usual yellow stripe and test directly for my yellow belt. Before Taekwondo class that day, my sister and I watched the movie at our local cinema. I, then, went to class, hyped up and ready to train. The following day, I took my test and passed.

I’d never taken a Taekwondo or any other martial arts test before and, while I had watched the test two months before mine (tests are held every two months for qualified candidates), I was nervous about mine. I’d seen how it was run. I knew what I had to do but would I be able to do it. Of course, I felt confident in my training. The fact that I was skipping a rank gave me a boost too. Before every class and test, to this day, I say a little prayer that is an additional calming influence. But, of all things, it was a popular movie, with an iconic hero-figure, that overcame his odds to triumph in the end that really kept me focused and certain.

It’s because of that that I write this post. Some of the trivial things in our lives may, at the moment or at the end, turn out to be some of the most meaningful. Maybe Rocky IV ended up doing so much and meaning so much because the character of Rocky was a familiar one and I’d just moved to America a few months earlier so he/the movie became my Mickey in my corner. Maybe the connection is simpler. I was a sixteen year old pursuing a (different kind of) fighter’s life and I’m a guy so, perhaps, there was just some young man machismo connecting with the testosterone revving scenes of Rocky and Drago training and punching the shit out of each other. Regardless, Rocky IV helped me.

So, don’t be quick to put aside the little or passing moments of your lives. I’m not saying you have to start looking for or creating meaning in everything. No. Sometimes, a thing is a just a thing. There are coincidences, after all. But, then again, sometimes they’re not.

12 November, 2015

My Favourite Season, part I

I recently received a comment about one of my older posts. The blog post was about Spring and the things I do and do not like about it. The reader's comment asked where he could find a post about Autumn. Well, since he found one about Spring here at Contemplations, I'd better help him find one about Autumn here as well.  So, here it is.

Autumn, or The Fall, is more than likely my favourite season and while I am presenting a top ten list of the best and worst of the season, please remember, that this is MY list. There are things here that are very specific to my likes and dislikes and they may or may not be the same as yours. FYI, the items in each list are not in any particular order. Here goes:

The Ten Worst Things About Autumn

1. Halloween, part one - I've never been a big fan of Halloween. Granted, I didn't do too much Trick-Or-Treating growing up but, even then, that's not why I'm not gaga about the holiday. I always found it a bit odd for strangers to go around knocking on doors, ringing doorbells and pressing buzzers for chocolate, candied apples or the like. And then there was the possibility that the person answering the door would say "Trick." Well, that's just no fun. Other people love it. My son does and I get excited with him for him but, for me, it's not my thing. 

2.  Halloween, part two - Carving pumpkins. Well, this one's a bit of a cheat. The first time I ever carved one, I did it with my son watching and helping a little bit. He must've been just over two and I'll admit it was fun. I'd never done one before, we used one of those stencil kits and we were very impressed with what we'd produced. Every year, we do one or two together; usually at a party my wife's friend hosts for the neighbourhood. But, again, it's not my thing. If my son said he didn't care for it, we wouldn't do it. For me, it's a Bucket List item. If I'm going to spend an hour or so getting mucky, I'd rather spend it seasoning meat in the chicken or gutting a fish and preparing a nice meal.

3. Erratic Weather - I put this in my Spring list too. Generally, I like the cooler weather but The Fall, as with The Spring, can produce some strange extremes. Just look at the weather this year in New Jersey. It's November and just last week we had days in the upper 70s Fahrenheit. A few years back, kind of ruining the feel of the holiday, we had a Thanksgiving Day that was high temp, high humidity and gross. Autumn should be cool. It also shouldn't be freezing. We've had Winter-like days in October as well. If New Jersey had weather like San Francisco - consistently even and cool - New Jersey would be close to being all right. 

4. Flu Shots - Flu Shots are good, I suppose. Since we started having out son get them, his rate and level of getting sick has lessened. Granted, he's only 7 1/2 and his immune system is naturally getting stronger as he gets older but some of his resistance may have to do with annual flu shots. I've taken them on occasion myself. I got one just a couple of weeks ago. But, I guess my aversion to flu shots has to do with my age, perhaps. I'm 46 and I put myself somewhere between modern and with it and old school. Flu shots weren't a thing when I was growing up. (Did they even exist?) Now, however, it's all about the flu shot. "Did you get your flu shot yet?" Yeah, getting sick and being stuffed up and sore throats all suck but one just took the meds and dealt with it. We just did what we could to prevent getting sick (good hygiene, rest, avoiding those who were sick)  and, when we did catch a bug, we did what we had to get better (rest, fluids, orange juice, medicine). I guess my problem with flu shots is like my distaste for the term 'play date.' When I was a kid, if you wanted to get together and play with your classmates or neighbours, you  asked your folks if you could go out, you went to your friend's house, rang the the bell and asked if he or she was home. Now, it's like arranging a summit meeting. 

5. Work load - For me - and again this list is Juan-specific - The Fall is my busiest time of year. The easy days of summer are coming to a close, my teaching job is beginning, and my fall coaching job is on again as well. Sure, I could give something up but we do the things we need to and like to. I need to work (teaching) to support my family. I enjoy coaching volleyball (a fall sport in New Jersey). Both of these bring a lot more work - paper and otherwise - to what were nice, time-abundant days of the summer. I'm not lazy. At least I don't think I am. I just like things, like most of us, to be easier and less time-consuming, taxing, etc. All of this increased work load, too, kills my time to write and, as a writer, that's just not acceptable. 

6. Standard Time - I hate that first Sunday in November when we switch the clocks back an hour. Big deal that we 'get' an extra hour. The benefit of that lasts a day. What this does accomplish, however, is later mornings and earlier evenings and poorer health - physical and mental/emotional -  due to less light/sun exposure. I don't even know why we still do this. Shouldn't we stick to Daylight Savings Time to conserve (light) energy consumption and for healthier people? 

7. Holiday Weight Gain - Again, this is something completely within my control and it doesn't always happen but there is the potential for it. As The Fall arrives so, too, does the Holiday Season of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and others. With all of that comes partying, greater imbibing, richer and naughtier foods. Sadly, as one gets older, one's metabolism slows down so, unless you're constantly working out (as I used to) and you're super disciplined with your quantity and quality of food consumption, you're going to put on holiday weight. I think I heard once, on a radio show, that from Halloween to New Year's Day there is a potential to gain 50 pounds or more. 

8. Leaves, part one - I live in a nice suburban community where my job is only a mile away from my home and my son's school is two blocks from home. Right now, my wife still drops him off but in another year or two he'll be able to walk. Generally, our area is a nice quiet place and everyone knows who his or her neighbours are. The problem with our neighbourhood  - and I'm sure it goes in all suburbs - is the abundance of trees with loads and loads and loads and loads (you get the picture) of leaves. It's great when it's spring and summer and they stay on their tree limbs. The fall, well, that's an entirely different situation. The leaves are worse than The Tribbles!* They're annoying to look at after they've fallen and covered everything. They're annoying to rake and blow, taking time away from other more important things like writing, reading, chilling with my son and wife. (I will admit, though, as much of a pain as they are, my son and I have made it a thing we do together so it's almost tolerable.) Then, after you rake them, there's that windy day that blows the top layer of everything you cleaned up back all over the place. Yes, I could hire landscapers to do this but why? I didn't plant the trees. The town should be responsible for all of it but that's my opinion and, possibly, a discussion for another day. I could also move but, as you know if you've ever moved, that's always easier said than done. 

9. Leaves, part two - Another problem with the leaves is that they're driving a hazard. Dry or wet, they can make the roads slippery and harder to negotiate; worse when they're wet, of course. The other concern is when they're piled against the curb. There is no other place to put them until the town gathers them but until that happens they make driving difficult by narrowing the roads and hindering visibility from cars and pedestrians coming out of driveways and walking on the sidewalk. If leaves didn't fall off their trees, they'd be perfect. 

10. Blinding sunlight - Starting in Autumn and continuing through the winter, the sun is harsher this time of year than in the summer or spring. Sure, there's less leaves (there they are again!) on the trees providing shade and screening but I believe the extra brightness of the sun during these months has to do with the way The Earth rotates this time of year or the cooler temperatures or something scientific. I like longer days. That's why I yearn for that Sunday in March when we switch the clocks forward. I just don't to get blinded even with sunglasses on and the visor lowered in my car.

So, there they are - my 10 Best Worsts of Autumn. Ask me again a few months from now, I may have different things on the list. Regardless, we all have our likes and dislikes and they're predicated with our experiences over time and with what's going on in our lives in the present. Having said that, what are you likes and dislikes about Autumn?

* Click here for those non-Star Trek/non-scifi fans who don't know what Tribbles are.

11 July, 2015

Review of Back Kicks and Broken Promises

This was a surprise to me. I didn't know she was doing it but I got a Twitter Direct Message last May from Lauren Lola, a reviewer for the website The Wind-Up Books Chronicle. Like I said I was very surprised and I'm also very honoured that she'd do this review. Thanks Lauren.

Anyway, click the link below to read it. 

A Kind of Magic

A Kind of Magic

I said something to my son, Jude, the other day that I thought was somewhat profound; perhaps, the best advice I’ve given to him in my measly seven plus years of being a parent.

Some while ago we’d had a talk about learning. In addition to being a writer and martial artist, I’m a teacher so the value of learning and knowing what to do with what you learn is extra important. I’ve had talks about this with my son, espousing the value of knowledge and even using the old “knowledge is power” line. He seemed to get it.

Every Sunday, before his swimming lesson, we have some father-and-son time over breakfast at McDonald’s. We’ve been doing this for almost two years and each week we see a group of older gentleman sitting together. They’re variably dressed. One is usually wearing sweatpants – the kind with the elastic at the hems – and a t-shirt or sweatshirt if it’s cold. A couple others are dressed in slacks and a polo shirt. Another might be in khakis and loafers and a button down. Invariably, we hear them talking about the Sunday mass they all came from and about some of their exploits in the military. The sweatpants wearing veteran is usually sporting a baseball hat and, more often than not, the logo or insignia on it has something to do with the US Navy.

Last Christmastime, as he and his cronies were leaving, he asked Jude what colour he likes. Jude said he liked red. The man went to his car and returned with a red plush Angry Birds doll. On a future occasion, he gave Jude a yellow. Last week, he gave us baseball hats – one red, one white, one blue – each with ‘USA’ stitched on the front.  A couple of weeks before that – bear in mind that while we see them every week, these gentlemen sit on the other side of the restaurant – when they were leaving, the Angry Birds gifter passed Jude and said, “Bye, Jude.” To that, Jude turned to me and said, “How’d he know my name?” Then we both smiled and said, simultaneously, “I think he really is Santa Claus.” This is something Jude has suggested about the man since receiving the Angry Birds plush dolls. The man did tell me last week, when Jude was getting a napkin, that he has a friend who makes hats, dolls and such and that he asks our Santa Claus to help distribute them. This makes perfect sense but, hey, who’s to say? Maybe this is merely Santa’s cover. Hmm.

Anyway, back to last week. After giving us the hats and walking out, Jude stared at the man and said, “Daddy, let’s ask if he is Santa Claus.” I smiled and said that we shouldn’t. The man was already getting into his car and I didn’t want us to chase after him. Moreover, I said, “Do you believe he’s Santa Claus? We don’t need to know. If we find out, it might change stuff.”

Jude thought about what I said and took a swig from his chocolate milk before turning back to me and bringing up the whole ‘knowledge is power’ thing and asking what “stuff” knowing if he’s Santa Claus might change. I nodded and told him that this was a different kind of situation; a situation when knowing might not be power. He asked why and I said, “Because, while knowledge is power, it can also take the magic away.”

Now, whether you believe in Santa Claus or not, as a real person or as a concept, that’s up to you and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve had some interesting things happen to me that make me believe in aliens – and if that’s shutting you off and you’re leaving my blog, bye and thanks for visiting. What I meant with my answer to my son wasn’t so much about literal magic or whether there is or isn’t a Santa Claus. What I was referring to is something that’s unavoidable but also something that can be slowed and that is the innocence and emotional magic of the newness of something you love.

My son is seven and he likes many things. Among those things is martial arts and, in particular, Taekwondo. He’s been training in it for about two and a half years. I’ve been involved with Taekwondo for almost thirty years and because of that difference we experience Taekwondo in ways that our specific to each of us. His is from the perspective of something that is simply cool. I still get that but I also come to it with the wisdom of someone who has seen the ins and outs, the good and bad, the pure training and the politics, the humility with being a white belt, the awe at getting my black belt, and the struggle to maintain a white belt mind and heart after gaining ‘master’ rank.

So, while I know my son will get older and begin to see things differently – whether it’s Taekwondo, school, work, a relationship, a favourite vacation spot, what have you – I hope that he’s able to see the magic in all he does for a long time before he becomes too knowledgeable; before he becomes too wise. Once the magic of the thing’s innocence is lost it is difficult, if even possible, to get back. And, when that happens, one can get jaded. Sometimes a person needs to view things from all angles, from inside and out. Sometimes, however, he needs to view things as simply as he can and take things as they are and not worry about what might it all mean. Knowledge is great when it’s needed. So is the magic and, more often than not, the magic’s greater still.