Thursday, December 29, 2011

OPERATION KASHGAR (working title)

Since writing "Hand to Hand Combat" (previous post), in which Spymaster Wang spars against Sergeant Li, I have written three chapters of a spy thriller. This is a new departure and involves writing without a text to be translated ("The Battle of Chibi") or adapted ("Heaven is High"). This process has been engrossing and while writing it was hard to imagine doing anything else. I do not wish to clutter this blog with all of the writing, and all the re-writing, and so have taken advantage of the "preview" feature in Createspace and Authonomy, two websites of great help to writers.

The previews on Createspace have an upper limit on length

while those on Authonomy have a minimum length required

Both websites allow, indeed invite, comments.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hand to Hand Combat

While writing "The Battle of Chibi," I had to deal with scenes of battle and single combat.  Fortunately, I could rely on the text I translated to fill in the details.  Nevertheless, writing out those scenes brought to mind scenes from Homer, Tolstoy and Tolkein, among others.  Since then I have given more thought to writing such scenes.  Although I still think such writing cannot compete with video images, here is the first piece of imagined hand to hand combat that I have ever written; it may find a place in a new (long term) project to write a spy thriller.

Spymaster Wang clasped his right fist in his left hand and made a slight bow as Sergeant Li reciprocated.  Immediately the two men began a series of slow arm and body motions that might have been those of ordinary men and women at their morning taijiquan (Tai Chi) exercises that could be observed in a park in any Chinese city.  As they moved around each other in the bare, medium-sized room that served for the Spymaster’s weekly test for his readiness in hand to hand combat, the pace of their movements grew until these were so fast that fists, arms and legs were all a blur.
Sergeant Li made several flying and spinning kicks, at times even using a wall or two for leverage or positioning.  His blows were aimed at particular pressure points and, had these landed precisely, would have inflicted varying degrees of pain.  Some of them could have maimed or even killed the Spymaster.  The Sergeant’s footwork was sure and no observer would have doubted or mistaken the force behind his feet, fists, and knuckles.  
The Spymaster forced his mind to empty itself of all thought. 
Act without desiring the results of your action!
 Japanese Zen Masters taught this.  Chinese Chan Masters had taught the Zen Masters, and they themselves had learned somehow, somewhere this kernel of insight that pre-dated Lord Buddha himself.  But there were so many thoughts that demanded his attention, quite apart from a lifetime of deep and disciplined thinking that distinguished the Spymaster from most of his predecessors and peers.  Nevertheless, for now, this was the imperative of combat.  Thought might make man wise, but thinking while in close combat would very likely also leave him dead.  The combatants relied on instinct, intuition, “muscle memory”—“the Force.”
A swift thrust from Sergeant Li connected, barely missing one of those pressure points as his target moved slightly, just a small sideways jerk and at the last second; the Spymaster winced even as he continued the whirring ballet of combat.  His movements could not compare in speed and athleticism with those of the Sergeant’s; he moved more economically, mostly to deflect the thrusts and kicks that the Sergeant sent in a ceaseless, apparently effortless, barrage.  Once or twice the Spymaster whipped out a jab or slashing blow; he usually connected though never yet at the intended target points.  Sergeant Li grunted at those few instances. 
Why am I doing this? 
The thought burst through the Spymaster’s grimly controlled consciousness of nothingness.  But this thought was now only a dangerous distraction; nothing could exist for either man except for the ebb and flow, and eddies, of their movements, so fast as to be a blur--balletic, potentially lethal.
These weekly bouts were observed by no one.  Few even knew that they took place.  Commander Chen of a nearby army corps, who had been asked by the Spymaster to find him a sparring partner and had searched among those who trained his own men in hand to hand combat until he found and recommended Sergeant Li, was one who did.  The Commander was among the handful of men that the Spymaster really trusted; they had been school mates for a decade and the bonds forged between ages five and fifteen survived subsequent decades of separate political education and military training.  Very occasionally they had called on each other for favors, usually when survival was at stake and such favors critical, maybe perilous, acts.  Finding and recommending Sergeant Li had not seemed to be such a favor—until the Commander learned that the Sergeant had a well-concealed obligation to a Comrade Commissar Wu, someone known to be trying to replace the Spymaster with a protégé.  When he learned this, the Commander immediately relayed the information to his friend and was stunned that the Spymaster chose to continue the weekly exercises.  The two men could not yet find a convenient occasion for discussing this distressing matter.
The Sergeant also concentrated on keeping his mind from distracting his body.  He was fully confident in his skill as the best trainer in hand to hand combat in Commander Chen’s army corps and, even though he had never defeated the Spymaster in the two years of their weekly training sessions, he knew he had the edge in strength and speed.  He also knew that he usually recovered by the next day from each session while the Spymaster occasionally showed signs that he had yet to recover from a prior week’s encounter.  What distracted him most, however, was that he had received word from Comrade Commissar Wu a month ago that it was now time to kill or cripple the Spymaster--but he did not yet know how he could physically or morally do this.
He drove the Spymaster into a corner of the room with a series of kicks and knuckle jabs; the Spymaster deflected this barrage with a graceful combination of arm sweeps and pivots away from the attack, then suddenly he swept back in with a forceful knuckle jab of his own.  It was the only one of his blows that completely missed the Sergeant who twisted away and launched himself up one wall, then crossed over to the other so that he landed perfectly positioned to send a flying kick directly at the Spymaster’s sternum.  This time the Spymaster could not block or twist away as he had every other such occasion; his misjudged jab had left him off-balance to do either.  He barely had time enough to brace himself and catch the Sergeant’s attacking foot, stopping it barely an inch from his chest.  Without thinking, the Sergeant swung his other foot away so as to build momentum sufficient to wrench his foot out of the Spymaster’s two-handed grasp.  He landed far away enough that it signaled the end of the combat exercise.
Both men remained in control of their breathing and bowed slightly to each other.
“Thank you, Sergeant.  It was an excellent exercise.”
“Thank you, Spymaster.  I am honored.”
“You let me off three times during our match.”
“Actually sir, it was five times.  But you let me off twice.”
The Spymaster smiled grimly and said, “Perhaps I am getting too old for this.”
The Sergeant also smiled, a small smile, and replied, “I know of no one of the Spymaster’s companions who could have lasted as long in this room.”
“Next week, we shall meet in another place.  I shall let you know where, but you should come as if to this room.”
The Sergeant understood the significance of this request; he was to be unarmed.  He was not worried for he knew that his life had always been in his trainee’s hands for the Spymaster commanded resources against which a dozen armed men would not prevail, perhaps not even a dozen armored divisions.  But he closed his mind to these thoughts—his fate would be decided between the Spymaster and the Comrade Commissar.
The Spymaster on the other hand now allowed himself the luxury of thought as he left the combat room and made his way briskly to his office.  He would shower and change on the way and also stop briefly at the infirmary for the usual balms, poultices, whatever, as well as the usual scolding from his old school teacher who now served as his chief medical officer.
Is it time for a bodyguard? 
What to do about Sergeant Li?
How to engage with Comrade Commissar Wu?
Prepare for the Politburo Committee on Public Security meeting in two days.
--Especially in light of the new activity in “Operation Kashgar.”

Sunday, December 18, 2011


(flash fiction for the “back story” of a character in Harold and Maude)

The gardener appears in a single scene of the play that serves to show in another way Maude's eccentricities and how she flips Harold.  Otherwise, if this were a tragedy, it might have been the comic relief scene.  E.g., "Alas, poor Yorick, we have to dig thee up to make room for a shriveled old tree for yonder shriveled old woman, but at least yon friar has a good cask of ale...or be that a cask of good ale... Aye, whatever-r."
The gardener had come over to the States as a Filipina maid and had a sex change operation, then decided to change her/his accent; why not if you are already going through all that fuss?  The takeaway from this scene is:  Never tangle with the gardener in a cemetery... at least not without a seal for protection (you just have to see the play).
Father Finnegan must be considered the main character of this play as he shows what you have to BE in order to hold these truths to be self evident when surrounded by such mayhem.
The arc (forgive the “theater-speak”) of the story goes by this scene some distance off, maybe a light year or two.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  I would write more but I was hoping to make this into my next we could proceed if you're ready for a 40 page non-disclosure and copyright agreement that my Philadelphia (that's a town in Turkey) lawyer says I should have. 
Meanwhile, Harold and Maude will be performed March 1-25 at the Nevada Theater, Nevada City, CA as a production of Ewing Ventures.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A (Shameless) Promotion

I take refuge in the fact that various websites recommend that Independent Writers spend time on promoting (marketing) their books.  Many more or less complex marketing plans exist and some of these are for now beyond me.

Very well, in exchange for a good faith undertaking to review it, I shall give away five copies of "Heaven is High and the Emperor Far Away, a Play" in print or e-format to those who send me an email (tjoa-dot-books-at-gmail-dot-com) before the end of 2011.

Please specify which version you wish (and an address if you wish a print version--I would be pleased to add an inscription if you wish) and a brief message regarding where you will write a review of "Heaven."  It goes without saying that I only expect that the reviews/blog posts, etc. will be honest.  Please accept my thanks in advance.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Journey to the West

Of the four Chinese classic novels, this is by far the most entertaining and frequently translated into English.  It is (very) loosely based on the pilgrimage that a Buddhist Monk made in the 7th century A.D. to India to study and copy the scriptures.  Indeed some such scriptures are today available only through the Chinese translations that Xuanzang made (he established a translation project upon his return).  The novel was written 700 years later and contains much of a fanciful (?paranormal) nature, mostly showing the superiority of Buddha's magical powers over others (those of the Daoists, for example).  Scholars are kind to say that it tells us much about Chinese folk religion and beliefs.  A very short translation was made by Arthur Waley and published as Monkey since in it the main character was the King of the Monkeys, one of three companions/bodyguards chosen to accompany the Monk on his pilgrimage.  Many other translations exist (easily found through online bookstores) including a recent (1980s) work by Anthony Yu, a professor (emeritus) at the University of Chicago.  Online searches will yield millions of hits, including one, not to be missed, of the recent production created by Richard Oberack and others, see musical.

Xuanzang himself wrote about his journey and this has become an invaluable source of information about the sites he visited in Central Asia (the Silk Road)--he is said to have been meticulous about distances and the time it took to travel from on site to another--as well as the state of Buddhism in those places.  The Great Tang Records of the Western Regions has been translated into French and English.  The record left by an even earlier Chinese monk-pilgrim, Faxian, who travelled to India and Sri Lanka around 400 A.D. is also available as A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, also translated into English by the indefatigable James Legge.  It is available online !  I am currently reading this but have no plans to make this or the Journey another writing project.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

E-books -- the Challenge and Satisfaction of Publishing One

I found the process of preparing Heaven is High and the Emperor Far Away, a Play for publication as an e-book both challenging and absorbing.  As many others who have done this, I prepared by reading whatever I could and made notes of the many tips and cautions.  In the end I even used the "nuclear option" to ensure that my manuscript, done on MS Word 2003, did not contain hidden formatting artifacts.  In many ways, the process had its own rewards just as the rehearsal process has joys that are different from the satisfaction of performance.

Now I am thinking I should revisit The Battle of Chibi and consider an e-book edition for that.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Heaven is High and the Emperor Far Away, a Play

About this blog/script, Aug. 26, 2011


This is the story of Shopkeeper Wang and the friends, the regulars, and the transients who visit the Yutai (Abundant Peace) Teahouse, a Beijing neighborhood institution, during the tumultuous decades of the early twentieth century.  The setting is intimate and the atmosphere, action and themes, Dickensian; it is as if someone might write about life in the American Colonies during the second half of the eighteenth century from the point of view of the working class.  We would see the toll house clerks, the tradesmen, the longshoremen, and other regulars at a neighborhood tavern in Philadelphia—as opposed to those frequented by the Sons of Liberty or by the Virginia aristocracy. 

I have reduced Lao She’s original from three acts, set over fifty years with nearly seventy characters, to a play in two acts set about twenty-five years apart with a cast of twenty (some multiple casting). The play tries, however, to reproduce as much as possible the characters and actions that Lao She created for a world of those living at the bottom edge of civility and into which corruption and exploitation roughly intrude.  This is a world of the poor and exploited caught up in the spin-cycle of world historical change.  Although the Chinese were (are) not much given to introspection, this adaptation attempts to explore the hopes, fears and concerns of the characters.  Lao She wrote in what is said to have been a distinct Beijing dialect;  I have resisted the temptation to transpose this into any modern day inner city dialect.  The adaption itself required changes to the characters and their dialog; this I have attempted to translate and adapt into standard modern English.

Act I (set in 1923) shows the Teahouse as it achieves a modest success in surviving for over twenty-five years since its founding by the Shopkeeper’s father.  Political chaos and economic uncertainty raged outside the walls of the teahouse. China under the Manchu Qing dynasty was singularly unprepared for its confrontation with the West.  This confrontation became nakedly obvious with the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century.  The court divided among conservatives, pragmatists and reformers; each faction was used more or less temporarily by the British, the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Japanese and the Americans to further their own respective interests.  The fall of the Qing dynasty and foundation of the Chinese Republic in 1911 did little to clarify the national debate.  By 1923, Yuan Shikai, the most forceful leader of the Chinese Republic was dead and civil war among the warlords and provincial leaders, always simmering, came to a full boil.  The Shopkeeper strenuously tries to keep some normalcy within the walls of the Teahouse.  We meet an assortment of regulars, as well as those that prey on them, and in particular Kang Shunzi a woman now in her late 30s returns—she had been  sold about twenty-five years ago as a young girl by her desperate family to be a concubine to a Eunuch.

In Act II (set in 1948), the Teahouse has visibly succumbed to the deterioration of the economic and political conditions in China.  During that year, inflation reached 3,000 percent.  Some of the characters are now replaced by their respective offspring who continue in similar pursuits.  The Shopkeeper and two or three others are still active, including the woman Kang whose adopted son, off stage, has left to join the Communists, while the Nationalists still retained control of Beijing.  There has been consolidation among the main national contenders for wealth and power—the Nationalists and the Communists dominate although there are factions and warlords within each Party, and of the foreigners only the Americans, the Russians and the Japanese have significant roles by this time.  The play takes on a more political tone, but not so much as to obscure the human drama of making the right choices and making ends meet.

Each Act consists of four or five scenes; there is an Intermission between the two Acts.

Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away was a familiar saying in the provinces of China, especially those to the South.  It reflects, I hope, the sense (for the regulars at the Teahouse) of how remote are our ideals from our mundane reality.  Giving this drama a Chinese face does not at all suggest that China had an exclusive on exploitation, poverty and suffering.  The characters in the Teahouse, however, show how some manage to maintain their hope, fellow feelings and even humor.

Act I, Scene 1 can be viewed in the page "Excerpts from Heaven."

Friday, October 14, 2011

Staged reading -- now to print

On October 10, 15 volunteers capped four weeks of light rehearsals (once a week) with a "performance" at the Stone House (Old Brewery) in Nevada City.  It was gratifying to have about fifty in the audience and to hear laughter and applause.  For me, it was most critical to get feedback from actors and audience.

Most comments related to the absence of a "main character" and to the absence of "action" or "conflict" to spark the drama.  My own feeling is that there are action or conflict driven drama and there are dialogue and values driven drama.  Lao She's original is clearly of the latter sort.  Chinese drama and all non-Western literature (to make a bold assertion) emerged out of cultures that have not idealized "agon" (Greek for "contest"). these cultures have never been influenced by any school of thought remotely like Western Romanticism with its "Sturm und Drang" aspect. To "act without desiring the fruit of one's actions" is perhaps the antidote to "survival shows culture."

Regardless of the above, the play is on track for publication as an eBook as well as in hard copy --see "How to Purchase."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Consolidating Blogs

To tidy up "web clutter," I have begun to consolidate blogs and web pages, etc.  First up is the transfer of the blog regarding Heaven is High and the Emperor Far Away, A Play to this blog.

Simplicity and children's books

This book is addressed to children aged five to ten. It is beautifully produced with illustrations by the author herself. The story is u...