Sunday, July 29, 2018

MANGA REVIEW: After Hours Vol 1 and 2 offer more than "Story A"

Erica over at Okazu created the term "Story A" to define the whole high-school girl meets high-school girl and they fall in love and the story ends set of yuri stories. It's the basics, it can be wonderful, but it can also be boring and insipid. So it's nice when a yuri manga comes around that offers something different. After Hours volumes 1 and 2 do just that.

After Hours centers on Emi and Kei. Emi is 24, out of work, and feeling out of place at a club when she's ditched by a friend. She starts talking to Kei who suggests they go somewhere else for a drink. That somewhere else ends up being Kei's place where Emi spends the night and the two hook up. We come to find out that Kei is 31 and a DJ who also holds a typical job during the day. So here we have a manga about two adults and what happens after they get together, something nearly unheard of in the yuri world so obsessed with rosy cheeked high-schoolers endlessly making eyes at each other (which, I'll admit, I love too).

The art has a mixture of some scratchy textures, occasionally nearly photo-realistic backgrounds, and  interesting looks to the characters (I always appreciate when I can easily tell characters apart). It has a well put-together yet edgy aesthetic that plays into its subject matter of DJ and night-life culture more than some moe or a polished/simple art style would. This is a plus.

I liked volume 1 well enough and was interested in reading volume 2, but volume 2 really offered some intrigue. We get to learn a little more about Emi who hasn't shared anything with us the reader or with Kei at this point. It seems she's a college graduate, with a current boyfriend (yikes!), living with him in an apartment, and as we knew was out of work in the graphics/web-design field. In volume 2, she makes the choice to leave her boyfriend and is forced, financially, to leave her former apartment. Kei finds out about the boyfriend and is understandably hurt. The way their relationship responds to this is the very cute ending of volume 2. But mostly, I liked the idea that there was a realistic, but complex background to Emi, one she needs to account for. I am curious what her life was like. I get the impression that it was a typical middle-class life from high-school to college to dating the nice boy, getting a job...and for some reason it didn't fit. I hope volume 3 will offer more peeks into her past life. I'm also curious to understand more about her sexuality. Will this be the rare yuri that explores bi or pan-sexuality? If it did so thoughtfully, that would be a cool addition to the narratives out there.

Either way, this series is doing more than I expected it would, with nice art, winning characters, an interesting story, and a story set in adulthood (albeit early adulthood). I'm giving volume 1 a 7/10 and volume 2 an 8/10 (due to its increased complexity with Emi's backstory and the curiosity that piqued in me about what her former life was like and why she's seemingly rebelling against it - is it rebelling or finally finding herself - maybe we'll find out in volume 3). So glad that this was translated into English to continue getting a broader selection of yuri (and josei/shoujo in general - are you mad that I count yuri as part of shoujo and josei? Am I wrong for doing so? That would be another interesting thing to research and get feedback on if anyone wants to take me up on it). Can't wait for volume 3 (December I think! Yuck!)

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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

MANGA REVIEW: The Bride was a Boy - adding another, different trans narrative to our worldview

I was so excited to read "The Bride was a Boy," and while it was good, it didn't quite live up to my (maybe impossible) expectations. Just a few weeks ago, my wife and I had a discussion about what we'd do differently with our wedding if we were to do it all over again. The biggest thing that bothers me is that I didn't look like me. I mean, I looked like the me everyone knew. I wore a nice black suit and all that. But when I think about what I would rather have worn, I could never come up with a man's outfit that would feel right, until I start thinking about wedding dresses. If only my wife's groom was a bride! So needless to say, the title alone had me curious.

So "The Bride was a Boy" is about a trans-woman (Chii) who meets a man just as she's starting her transition and the story of coming out to him, dating, and getting married. The art is chibi/super-deformed (I'm sure I'm getting the terms wrong, sorry) and very very cute. I actually really like the way Chii did the art here. She looks cute and feminine and while I have no idea what she might look like in reality, I love that she presented herself so wonderfully cute. It suggests a strong self-image and happiness that she gained from her transition. There are backstories to her times growing up as a boy and some of the various stages of transition, but one really gets the feeling of how much self-confidence the transition has brought, both in the storytelling, but in the cute way she depicts herself. I love that.

The book was originally a four-panel web strip. In book form, there is additional commentary provided about LGBTQ issues and the laws and processes in Japan. I found the cultural perspective, and its differences from American LGBTQ culture and law fascinating. At the same time, some of this proved problematic in that some of the gender identity definitions were translated as universal facts rather than culturally bound to Japan and so someone who may be starting their own gender exploration in American society reading this may misinterpret some of these passages.

For example, in the section explaining the definition of transgender, the author stipulates that is specifically applies to to people who are undergoing or want to undergo a physical transition. While there has been a long history within the US trans culture of who is included and who is not in the label, the general movement is to be inclusive including those not transitioning, those with and without dysphoria, non-binary and non-gendered people, amongst others. So the definition included here is limiting. It goes further to explicitly exempt people who simply experience a mismatch between their internal gender identity and their assigned gender which to me is concerning. However, if viewed within the Japanese cultural framework, perhaps this is how those terms are used there, it just isn't a good fit for US audiences. Personally, I adhere to the broadest view of trans as being anyone whose internal gender identity is not strictly identical to the junk in their pants. They may or may not experience dysphoria, they may or may not want to or actually transition, they may or may not even have a binary view of their gender. Let's be inclusive! Here's a great article on the topic: https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/08/not-all-trans-folks-dysphoria/

Also, she states that in English they are referred to as "transgendered" rather than "transgender" but does make the caveat that the terms are used differently in different cultures and countries. The author also uses the term LGBTs (with the plural "s") and refers to it as the essentially the Japanese equivalent to LGBTQ or LGBT+ (etc...). I could not find any online verification of this, but it may be due to few LGBTQ articles in English about Japanese norms. The explanation of the Japanese law in regards to officially changing one's legal gender status was fascinating. It requires that to change documentation from one gender to another, that the individual not only undergo a physical transition, but that they be rendered incapable of sexually reproducing. YIKES! That sounds like a pretty big human rights violation to me. This is known as the Gender Identity Disorder Special Provision.

The book also talks a lot about the implications and intertwining of marriage and transition. In Japan, same sex marriage is illegal, so a biologically male and female couple where one transitions to the opposite sex (say male to female) would then make it impossible to be both married and have their gender status legally changed (because then they'd both be the same gender legally and couldn't stay married as a same-sex couple).

The other perspective of this narrative that was somewhat troubling to me was the overall bias towards presenting trans individuals as nearly universally gay, as in they were sexually attracted to the people of the same gender as their biological sex ie: a trans-woman attracted to a cis-man. I'm am super happy for each author to tell their story and share their narrative (more on this in a moment), but I did feel that in the explication sections (rather than the personal narrative section) it was dominated by the trans+gay perspective (I'm also not sure the best ways to talk about this, so forgive my clunkiness. I guess it's actually that since a trans person IS their gender identity that they are "straight" when their partner is of the opposite gender identity, even though that gender matched the trans individual's original biological sex - so complex, we don't have good language for this, so my apologies).

Anyway, the perspective of a trans individual usually being with someone of the opposite gender as their internal gender identity isn't universal. It certainly doesn't match my experience as a bio-man, attracted to women, but who self-identifies as female (my high-school girlfriend used to call me a lesbian in a man's body - this was before we knew the term trans!). So am I hetero? Am I gay? Not that I need to see my narrative reflected in hers, but in the sections of the book that seek to explain to the audience the terms, world-views, etc...I again felt there were limitations and exclusivity (unintentionally I'm sure) and wondered again how much of this might be culturally bound.

That all being said, what about the good stuff? There was lots of it! I read a review that panned the book because they felt it presented the story as too happy and that everything went too easily (the surgeries, the family and boyfriend acceptance, etc...). The reviewer's point was that since many, maybe most, trans and LGBTQ people encounter lots of struggle and heart-ache along the way, presenting a happy-go-lucky-person+easy-going boyfriend+accepting family+successful transition story undermined others' experiences.

That's a load of crap for several reasons. 1) Who knows, Chii's experiences may really have been relatively easy for her compared to others, she's allowed to share her narrative, and wouldn't it be nice to believe that some people's experience aren't awful? 2) We need a diversity of trans narratives. It is incredibly important that we don't force a single trans narrative on the world. It is important for the general public to not be dismissive of experiences that don't match the common narrative. But it is especially crucial for people just beginning their journey who may fail to see themselves represented in the commonly published and pushed trans narrative.

That narrative goes like this: "I was 2-years-old, I realized I wasn't a boy (or girl) and I started wearing girls (or boys) clothes right then and there." That's certainly a valid and real narrative. But it is not everyone's. It is certainly not mine. I always felt different than the other boys, but had no idea why. I also love many traditional boy things (and many traditionally feminine things). It wasn't until I was about 20 that I finally put the pieces together that what felt different is that I wasn't a boy, and now at 38 I'm just beginning to really think about what I might want physically different in my life, if anything. All along, the only narrative published (because it's an easy sell on TV) is that of the kid who starts cross dressing as a toddler. Well, that does psychological damage to all those whose journey is different. We need as many and as varied narratives out there as possible so that people find themselves reflected and so others have a chance to learn about the infinite variety within the human condition. Thankfully, Chii does a great job talking about just these points.

She starts with a question she often gets about how "lucky" she must be to understand both how men AND women feel. Of course, since she identifies as a woman, and therefore IS a woman, she admits she doesn't know a damn thing about how men feel, and rightfully so (I'm with her on this!). But by that same token, she's wise enough to admit that she can't really know how ANYONE else feels, that whats she does understand is how she feels. She is never attempting to say that her feelings are universal nor is she a spokesperson for anyone else's experiences. My favorite moment was a wonderful passage where she introduces herself and at first says she "was a boy" but then corrects herself to say that at one point she just "looked like a boy." Again, not speaking for anyone else, but that moment felt so true. I may look like a boy but I have never been one!

Along the lines of needing multiple narratives in the world, Chii herself states that in her past she knew she wasn't comfortable with her gender but couldn't identify with any of the people and stories she was seeing on the internet in her research. Their narratives didn't match hers and was a source of confusion. All the more reason why it's important that as many diverse experiences are out there for people to connect with.

The wedding planning also had some truly heart-breaking moments, even if they were presented comedically. A poignant moment is where Chii doesn't want pictures and videos from her youth in a montage video because they are all of her looking like a boy. Her fiance is very accepting, as he is throughout (and he even has a little endnote of his own to reflect on the story where he corroborates the depiction of events in the story). But one cannot help but feel sad that a huge chunk of a person's life story leads to such distress.

With this, she also must balance that some people knew her as a boy/man but many current friends and colleagues don't. She suggests that she is passing well enough that they wouldn't know she used to look like a boy/man unless they were to see these images from her past, which isn't how she wants to be known to them. This is further complicated with all the questions she gets from friends about whether they'll have kids now that they're married. She ultimately decides on "it's up to fate" as her response so as not to have to explain that she cannot bear children. So again, although it's presented in a lighthearted way, there is truly serious and heartrending discussion of a complex life. One does not always have to present challenges as if they are tragedies. Chii chooses to live brightly through these struggles rather than present them as black holes of morbid awfulness.

So there was a lot of good. Cute art, a winning, funny, light, heart-warming story. There was some true nuance and complexity presented. There was some fascinating explanation of the legal differences in Japan. However, there was also some explanations that didn't jive with my personal beliefs or likely the consensus approach in the trans community in the US. It was also, for all its value, a somewhat simple, perfunctory piece. That's not necessarily a criticism, but it's not necessarily a selling point either. I went into this expecting something more like "My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness" which may not have been a fair comparison, but it was one that was stuck in my head regardless. So I'm torn with how to rate this, is it a 6/10 or a 7/10? I'm not sure, maybe somewhere in-between. It is absolutely important that something like this exists and I'm thrilled that it was translated and made available. However, it's far from a master-work. But as part of a greater pantheon of narratives, it is as equally important as any, because it is Chii's story.

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Monday, July 23, 2018

ANIME REVIEW: Monthly-Girls Nozaki-Kun is a fun satire of phone-it-in shoujo manga

I will start by admitting that I misinterpreted the name of this series for a while, even after reading high praise for it, thinking it some sort of harem or reverse harem show. Thankfully, Monthly-Girls Nozaki-kun is anything but. Instead it is a laugh-out-loud dry-humor send-up of weakly written, lowest-common-denominator shoujo manga and does it within the outline of a shoujo anime! Well done, well done!

The basic premise is that Chiyo has fallen for handsome Nozaki-kun. When she tries to confess, it comes out wrong and he gives her an autograph. This is how we learn that he is actually a shoujo mangaka writing and drawing under a pseudonym, and it's a highly successful series as well (hence the title, he's publishing in "Monthly Girls" or some such fake magazine). Chiyo, a fell art student, finds herself helping with the betas (filling in the black areas in the art) and realizes it's a fun way to get closer to Nozaki. Along the way, she meets his other assistants, all other high-school students, all doing their best to cover for the nearly inept Nozaki (who can draw characters, but can't plot, write dialogue, or do much of anything else).

Each episode ends up picking apart a crappy shoujo trope or corner-cutting approach to the trash shoujo that is all too prevalent. It does this through a male lead, Nozaki, who is as tone deaf about relationships as a human can be, and can't seem to write dialogue other than "I'll protect you" followed by "Oh Suzuki-kun" over and over again between his two protagonists in the most meaningless series possible, that unfortunately looks and reads like too much shoujo out there.

What we come to find out that our heroine Chiyo, who at first seems like a traditional shoujo heroine (one whose sole mission in life is to find the perfect boyfriend), in fact might be the only person in the series with her head on straight. She ends up playing the straight man to the rest of the characters' quirks and complete lack of sense. So while she continues to pine for Nozaki, she ends up being a more intelligent character than anyone else in the show.

I also really liked that the other two female characters, both of whom couldn't give a damn about guys. One was gender-fluid (in wonderful "Princely" type looks and dress including boy tops with a long skirt), and although she liked a male character, she went about it all wrong, in the most unfeminine ways while being amazingly flirtatious with other girls in ways she never could be with the guy she liked. The other was a rough, uncouth young woman who was violent in sports but sings like an angel and completely unfiltered when telling people what she thinks. They felt more real than the endless stream of guy-crazy girls that typically fill shoujo (which by the way, I'm a huge fan of, so I'm not dissing shoujo, only crappy shoujo).

The guys too were fairly complex. Other than the air-head Nozaki whose lack of any sense of other people's emotions made the fact that his characters "speak for the girls" in his manga all the funnier, we have a third-year actor who is too short and turns to directing and a hopeless flirt who embarrasses himself with his flirtatious words. We also get Nozaki's editor and the crap he has to put up with from his completely clueless client whose garbage manga none-the-less keeps selling. Not one of the males was the brooding, troubled, bad-boy trope, thank god!

This is largely a gag or dry-humor type show, so there isn't any depth or real character development, so I was glad it was only 12 episodes, because although they were all funny (I regularly laughed out loud), it was getting a bit boring. Also in the show's favor, was a complete lack of fan service. This was a show meant and designed for fans of great shoujo to knowingly wink at and make fun of the weak trash that gives shoujo a bad rap.

Overall, it felt like a "light" version of something like the satire from Ouran High School Host club. It didn't have that depth, but it certainly hit all the right notes in skewering the genre through Nozaki's hopelessly awful manga. Chiyo is winning and the voice acting is great throughout. I loved the gender-non-conforming young woman on many levels (as well as the guy she likes), they were a refreshing comedy duo. The opening theme is a nice funk-inspired song that sets up the complete lack of seriousness of the show well. The art is satisfactory, if not exceptional. The only real downside was that without any real character depth or development it was a bit boring by the end (but never un-funny). With that in mind it earns a solid 7/10 "recommended" - particularly if you're a fan of shoujo manga.
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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Links for Breakfast

Sorry there hasn't been as much content here this week. I'm reading a book that will take a bit longer to finish (But is amazing!) and finishing up an anime for review. I also ordered a bunch of manga that will arrive Monday. So to keep you occupied, here are some of my favorite internettings for the past week:

Rachel Matt Thorn, the translator of Wandering Son, in an older essay she posted on Eurocentric views of manga character design. https://www.en.matt-thorn.com/single-post/2016/04/16/Do-Manga-Characters-Look-White

A documentary making the festival rounds about the town in China that makes made-to-order replica paintings https://chinasvangoghs.com/

A great concert by Chvrches posted on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-0xb__Uxrs

This article about Flip Flappers has a nnice summary of Class S https://www.animefeminist.com/escape-yuri-hell-flip-flappers-critique-class-s-genre/

This WIRED interview is about an amazing person and woman, and her story about forgoing children due to the pressures within her field is heart breaking. https://www.wired.com/story/meet-the-woman-who-rocked-particle-physicsthree-times/

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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Rochester Roc Pride Parade 2018

We went to the Rochester, NY Roc Pride Parade today. It was awesome. We were so impressed by how long it was, how many groups marched (including a lot of churches, businesses, politicians as well as social service groups and just plain fun floats!). There was even a proposal, so cute! We all had a blast. Here's some pictures to celebrate! (The winner has to be gay black balloon Jesus...just wait till you see it >_<)











Gay Black Balloon Jesus FTW



YAY Roller Derby! They're really good, we saw them dominate a few weeks ago.



It's really not a parade without pole dancers. Much obliged.




Trans and libraries (and puns) - like peanut butter and jelly



One of only three unicorn floats, somewhat disappointed by the low turnout.

My favorite sign in the whole parade!


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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: "Perfect Wisdom" by Edward Conze


"Perfect Wisdom" by Edward Conze is a collection of the "short" Prajnaparamita (Perfect Wisdom) texts of Mahayana Buddhism. Conze was the foremost translator of the Prajnaparamita literature into English. I had already read "The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom,"  his extraordinary translation of the large recensions (versions) of the Prajnaparamita. Despite it being an 800 plus page, incredibly dense and deep text, having read it first, made "Perfect Wisdom" - the collection of the short texts - much more accessible. I wonder whether people reading it in the opposite order would get as much out of the short texts not having the fully expounded large text already floating around in their heads? (note: Amazon has the title wrong which makes it hard to search for, the link is above)

Let's do a quick overview of what the Prajnaparamita literature is before talking more about its presentation in "Perfect Wisdom." Prajnaparamita literature is a large part of the canonical Mahayana Buddhist literature and is chiefly concerned with two things: 1) the importance of the bodhisattva path and 2) that nothing as an own-being. I'll talk more later about these two things after reviewing "Perfect Wisdom." The Prajnaparamita literature exists as many different length texts all making those two points. In "The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom," Conze works through the recensions in 100,000, 25,000, 18,000 and 10,000 lines as they are known and integrates them into a consistent singular text. The book I'm reviewing today, "Perfect Wisdom," covers the well known and loved Diamond and Heart Sutras as well as the Perfection of Wisdom in 700 lines, 500 lines, A Few Words, 50 lines, 150 lines, One Letter, and many other short texts. His introduction places the combination of these two books as covering the vast majority of recognized Prajnaparamita literature.

Where this book excelled was in presenting 19 (by my count) shorter sutras on the Perfection of Wisdom themes in one place. Conze's translations are always very readable and I love how when he runs into truly corrupted text (text that cannot be accurately translated from any reliable source) he just says so and may even just leave a ...?... to let you know, rather than faking it and adding in his own subjective view. He was an active practitioner of Buddhism and a consummate scholar first and foremost and in these writings, he presents text that is rendered as neutrally as possible for scholarly purposes but as readable as possible for those embracing the thought growing potential of the Prajnaparamita.

Where this book, and "The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom" struggle are for exactly the same things that are their assets: the plain and neutral presentation. There is no commentary, there is no discussion, there is no attempt to make meaning from potentially ambiguous, contradictory, or just plain difficult passages. What few notes Conze provides are there as translation notes, how he made the translations he made and the text he used to make it, but nothing about what that translation might mean. This is not a criticism of the book, just a limitation.

Having read "The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom" nearly a year earlier, and spending a great deal of time reflecting on it, I was able to take that growing understanding into "Perfect Wisdom." All the themes in the large sutra were present in various sutras within "Prefect Wisdom" but I feel as though someone just starting with "Perfect Wisdom" would be unlikely to get the same depth of understanding, and also simplicity of understanding, without the intensity of the large sutra first. I also went into this knowing the reputation of the Diamond and Heart sutras but didn't feel they were particularly extraordinary in context. However, I would love to read commentary editions that may elucidate this more. It's also possible that since the large sutra is an expounding in depth on those other two, that it served as the commentary itself.

So that being said, should you read this? Well, it probably shouldn't be the first book of Buddhist scripture you read.  I read many many before hand and was grateful for it. Where should you start? You can't go wrong with the first and second discourses. I love the Tathagatagharba sutra myself, and I also enjoyed the Threefold Lotus Sutra and Lankavatara sutras. I read several compilations of sutra pieces and a handful of commentaries. All of these I think gave me a better background from which to read "The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom" which then gave me a good foundation to read "Perfect Wisdom." However, your mileage and needs may vary and that's okay. There is no right order, and all these texts should be returned to again and again over a lifetime. Also, as the Buddha frequently said, the words (spoken or on the page) are not the truth, are not the Dharma (with the capital D), they are merely expressions of possible pathways to lead one closer to the lived experience that is the true Dharma. Therefore, as long as you're reading it and thinking about it and trying to put it into the practice of life, it will have immeasurable value. So, in our conventional reality, I'd give this a 7/10 "Recommended" but with some reservations in that it provides no commentary and so is not an accessible entry point. It is also limited in scope compared to the large sutra. It is however very readable and covers a very important body of Mahayana literature.

So, now that we've reviewed the book, here's a quick overview of what the heck the Prajnaparamita
literature is all about (for those I haven't scared away yet). Prajnaparamita literature is part of the Mahayana traditions of northern and eastern Buddhism such as Tibetan and Zen Buddhism.

The first of the two main characteristics of Prajnaparamita literature is the focus on the bodhisattva path. A bodhisattva is an individual who has attained enlightenment but has delayed their final death in order to assist all sentient beings with release from suffering and reaching their own enlightenment. The Prajnaparamita literature is largely targeted at helping bodhisattvas understand their role, their vow, and the ultimate truth needed to release beings from suffering.

The second characteristic of the Prajnaparamita is defining that ultimate truth. As said above, the Buddha was very clear that no written or spoken statements are the ultimate truth. That truth is a lived experience in every moment of every day. However, to arrive at that ultimate truth, the Prajnaparamita literature focuses on helping individuals let go of the idea of an own-being (or the emptiness of own-being). Own-being is defined as an inherent, immutable aspect of any "thing" that gives it the ability to be distinguished ("discriminated") from anything else - also described as an eternal and permanent aspect of a thing. The Prajnaparamita works through many thought processes to help individuals let go of that concept and instead recognize that there is no own-being (or that everything's own-being is empty) .

So where does that lead? I like to bring everything back to the four truths, the first being: "This is suffering." Our goal then should be to work to release that suffering, and that is the heart of the bodhisattva's purpose. The second truth is "This is the cause of suffering." And that is where letting go of own-being becomes essential. We suffer (or are dissatisfied) because we have desire (or clinging or attachment). We suffer and are dissatisfied when something isn't as we want it to be, we don't get something, we do get it but it breaks or leaves us, it wasn't what we expected, it dies, it doesn't like us, etc...These are results of us trying to make distinctions (what in the Prajnaparamita literature are frequently referred to as discriminations) between things. "I want this not that" or "They died, I wanted them to live forever."

When we recognize that nothing has an own-being (or that own-being is empty) then we are able to stop discriminating. There is no difference between "this" and "that" there is no difference between dying today or dying tomorrow. But, we see and hear and smell and taste and feel differences all the time, so how can everything be the same? This is where the Prajnaparamita literature reflects back on what is known as the Two Truths Doctrine.

The Two Truths Doctrine says there is a conventional reality (that which our senses observe) and an ultimate reality. It is this ultimate reality where there is no distinction. To arrive at this, we move beyond seeing an object as a fixed entity (possessing an own-being) to being dependently originated and a result of causes and conditions. Everything is made of smaller things, but not just atoms (which themselves have proven divisible) but also time and effort, thought and planning, the impact of outside forces on their growth or change over time, etc...The classic example is the table. It could just be a table (conventional reality) or it could be the wood it is made of, the sunlight and nutrients that tree used to grow, the planning and effort of the person who cut the wood and built the table, the love and experiences that person had growing up, and forever backwards infinitely. At this point, the ultimate reality is that it isn't a table at all, that it is everything that has ever existed,  and that it isn't able to be distinguished from anything else in existence.

So let's say you buy into this emptiness of own-being. What to do with it? The Prajnaparamita literature, particularly more so in "The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom" spends a great deal of time on Suchness or Thusness. This concept is certainly related to mindfulness in that we are mindful so that we can exist in a state of recognizing suchness/thusness at all times. Suchness is the present present (that was not a typo). It was best described to me as that feeling you get when you say: "Ah, yes, this is just as it is supposed to be." For me, that happens in the spring and fall, when I walk out in the early morning as the sun is low in the sky, the air still a bit chill, dew on the grass, the leaves just budding or near falling off, everything is still, and the warm orange light of the sun hits my face. I got a shiver just writing about it. You may experience suchness when you feel the warm softness of a baby's skin and say "Ah, yes, this is just as it is supposed to be." If we can get to the point of spending every moment of our existence recognizing that we are always in suchness,  what a miraculous way to end our suffering.

When we cling to own-being within objects or time, we cannot recognize their suchness, we are not living in suchness because we are always thinking about what they are not, what they weren't before, what they won't be in the future, etc...by releasing our view of the world as conventional (based solely on senses and the discriminations that leads to) and instead looking at the ultimate reality, a reality empty of own-being, then we give ourselves the chance to live in suchness and without suffering. Nothing about suchness says to deny what your senses sense, but simply to take those sensations and stop discriminating "good" from "bad," "wanted" from "unwanted," etc... and say "yes, that sensation is exactly as it is supposed to be." (this gets us into some of Nagarjuna's work on since everything is empty of own-being, including ultimate reality, all we have is conventional reality, and thus our experience of suchness comes with non-discrimination within conventional reality...but that's for another day - I'm still working through it too!)

The Prajnaparamita takes volumes to explore these two simple points: 1) work for the release of suffering of all beings and 2) nothing has an own-being (own-being is empty), the realization of this can allow you to begin living in suchness and releasing yourself from suffering such that you may teach and guide others in their release from suffering.

For that, I'm giving the Prajnaparamita a 10/10!
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Monday, July 16, 2018

MANGA REVIEW: Adventures with the July 2018 issue of Comic Yuri Hime


After reading a review of the July, 2018 issue of Comic Yuri Hime on Okazu, I decided, even though I
don't speak a lick of Japanese, to order a copy and see what the monthly magazines are really like. I ordered it through amazon.jp for a very reasonable price, including the shipping, which only took a couple days. I've only ever read tankobon in the US and so I was pleased how much larger the original printing size is, it really adds to the art. It's also really really thick, there's about 25 stories in it! I also had a strong inclination to order this particular issue because I just love the cover art! There's something about the mood that is just perfect. The photo to the right doesn't do the real thing justice (the colors are less vibrant in the real one which softens the mood).

So the verdict: Well, I still can't read Japanese. I guess it's going to take more than one issue to learn the language (LOL, not seriously expecting to learn it this way, folks). I really wish these would be translated because the vast majority of these stories will never see the US shores. I loved that there was a diversity of art styles and even a couple stories involving adults rather than the normal middle and high-school girls, but it really was impossible to figure out what was going on being as yuri and shoujo are largely dominated by dialogue with little overt action to provide context cues.

It was interesting to note that the advertisements were very "predatory" or salacious in nature, much more so than the majority of the actual content of the issue. I wonder who the ads are targetting?

So, as for the stories, like I said, I have no friggin' clue what was happening since I can't read the language, but, here's some summary data:



For a rating? Since I can't tell what's happening and I can't evaluate whether the messages are in line with my values, what I can say is that there are some great kisses, a fabulous cover, and it was much easier to buy on Amazon.jp than I expected (don't buy it through amazon.com or you'll pay a lot more). So I'll skip a numeric rating but it was a fun adventure buying my first monthly manga magazine.
Here's my copy, being held by a statue that used to belong to my Great Grandmother. You can see the blue post-it notes I was keeping as I was reading through.
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Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sunday Kisses

A couple of really cute kisses from this week to share with you all. Share yours in the comments or with me and I'll post them for you!

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From the July issue of Comic Yuri Hime

From Secret of the Princess

Another from Secret of the Princess
I mean, COME ON! look at that last one! So romantic!

Friday, July 13, 2018

"The Awakening" by Kate Chopin and stories of being seen

The Awakening by Kate Chopin, an under-known feminist classic from the turn of the century has always been my favorite book. I awoke today to a brilliantly written personal reflection on it on Electric Literature titled "‘The Awakening’ Made Me Realize That Motherhood Would Drown Me." I found myself very moved by this author's journey and decided to share my own in the comments section of that article. I've also decided to share that journey, in relation to "The Awakening" here with you all (reprinted from the comments section on Electric Literature):

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It was more than 20 years ago when a high-school English teacher had the crazy idea that her students should actually read quality literature in class (thank you!) and introduced me to The Awakening, a book that immediately became my all-time favorite and has continued to be to this day. 


At the time I was a man (boy actually, and unfortunately still am after a lot of wishing otherwise) who didn’t have language for what I had always experienced. It wouldn’t be until so many years later that I could put a word to it: female or feminine or woman or girl (I still struggle with the label trans because I don’t feel trans, I feel like a woman…). But that teenage boy saw himself (herself) in Edna right away. This book said and felt everything I quietly felt and never spoke out loud (and didn’t even have terms to explore and express it with).


I loved The Awakening for its prose, it’s still the most important quality I look for in a book, but I also connected to Edna in a way I had only connected with a few characters in books before, maybe Ender from Ender’s Game would have been the closest, but for entirely different reasons there. I wonder if in the 80s and 90s there had been more books with non-conforming and strong female characters if I would have seen myself more?


I so understood this woman raging inside her own body, trapped by others’ expectations, unable to put it into words, and equally unbelieving that anything could be done about it if she had. Seven months ago I officially came out to my wife and our 14-year-old daughter (who has enough on her plate with her own identity formation without having to process through her father revealing that he feels more like a 14-year-old girl than a 38-year-old man). We’re at the very early stages of growing forward as a family with this, once unspoken, now spoken, truth in front of us. 


Thinking about the article’s author’s college boyfriend and former husband and her final line “I had been seen,” I had that experience, for the first time in my life, just weeks ago. My wife and I see an amazing therapist who is helping us through the complexities my “coming out” has added to an already complex relationship (a relationship started at 18 is rarely the same one at 38, yet here we are, still together!). In that session, like so many others, we often focused on what my wife was needing and how I could help with that. This is by no means to suggest that either my wife or therapist are focused on her needs only, simply that for 38 years I have struggled to every tell anyone what I need or feel, or even been able to articulate it to myself (so much Edna in that). The therapist (she’s incredible) wouldn’t accept a single-sided focus and knowingly asked me, “So what do you need?” It took me a while, but I was determined to give an honest answer for once, not to keep it all bottled inside. I struggled to find a word for it before settling on: “permission.” 


We had talked earlier in the session about where I might go next in exploring making my internal identity more external because I still have no idea what that might look like, nor that I want to (the joy of being 38 and not 18 is that as a fairly well adjusted adult I don’t have the same intense need to make everything about me externally visible to the world — so transitioning is somehow less urgent now, than it probably would have been in my teens, had I had the words about gender that I have now…). I answered her question that probably getting rid of body hair would be the first big experiment I would want to try. I’ve always hated and been embarrassed by my chest hair and leg hair — nothing feels quite so uncute as chest hair.


So when the question came: “So what do you need?” and I responded with “Permission” my wife turns, and casually said it would be totally fine if I got rid of all my hair. In that moment, everything changed. All the “momentum” (as I had been describing it to them) of the past months (now that this secret was out, it felt like we were rolling down a hill building steam toward some inevitable end), just evaporated. I felt equilibrium, I felt no rush. I had been seen. Maybe it wasn’t transitioning externally that I wanted. Maybe being an integrated, whole, person in front of those I loved mattered more: the ability to take all this inside identity and simply not have to hide it anymore.


That certainly won’t be a popular narrative, that as a trans person I might not transition. But I don’t know, truly, whether transitioning will address anything at this stage in my life, but with that simple “okay” from my wife, I don’t feel that I have to match actions to my “coming out” as an inevitable conclusion. To not transition does not make me less a woman. Here I was, sitting with my wife, and for the first time it felt like she was acknowledging that I was a woman. For her, an external change in my appearance had major implications, so this “permission” (which for all the advocates out there, I know I don’t really need anyone else’s permission —that was simply the best word I had at the time) was what Edna never had. Unlike Edna, I had been seen, not just by friends or a lover I could never be with, but seen by my wife. She would not be the fetter that held be back until I broke, but a partner, scared as all hell, but a partner still, facing this uncertain journey, with no maps and no destinations, with me.

Published in response to: https://electricliterature.com/the-awakening-made-me-realize-that-motherhood-would-drown-me-fb48f34eaf1c (retrieved 7/13/18)

Monday, July 9, 2018

ANIME REVIEW: Hinako Note fails to add substance to moe.

Sometimes I like a show with a little moe in it, as long as the characters are interesting and there is some good solid humor. Hinako Note had neither. It did have a freaky crazy (maybe good?) opening theme song, so we'll give it that at least.


I ended up watching three episodes before I couldn't take the boredom anymore. In short, it's a show about a high-school student, Hina, who is so scared to talk to people that she freezes up and goes into a scarecrow pose each time. In her youth in the countryside, the townspeople would put this trait to good use having her fill in as an actual scarecrow. Oh, and animals love her and she can even sort of talk to them (but they only make animal noises back).

She moves to Tokyo for highschool and moves into an apartment with three other girls, all of whom are required to work at the bookstore/cafe below (I think, I couldn't even be bothered to remember this detail from the first episode, my mind was wandering so much...) There, one of them suggests they start a theater company and Hina thinks its a great way to learn to talk in front of people.

It was saccharine cute but I like a little emotional depth with my cuteness. It was all moe girls acting delicate and nervous. They embody the worst stereotypes of girls and women. Instead of being capable while also being cute, they end up being cute while being objects requiring others support. Take this one paraphrased set of comments by Hina: "I couldn't possibly be an actress..." "I'm no good at anything..." There are just too many of those sort of sentiments, all said with infantile voices, as well.

There is also some periodic fan service. for example, there is no reason why walking from one classroom to the next to tell someone something should make a teenage girl breathe so hard that her chest heaves up and down while her face flushes. I'm not sure who this show is aimed at, but it would send dangerous messages to young girls, and if guys like it, then they are probably creepy old men who think girls do, or should, act this way. Either way, yuck!

Sadly the show really doesn't do humor either. There are no setups for jokes or anything like that. It's just slow and boring, but not in a way I can get behind. Some lazy and quiet shows are fine, this is just uselessly written as the slowness does not bring about a meditative mood or anything of that level of quality.

Contrast this show with Minami-ke, K-on, Sakura Trick, New Game!, Tamako Market or even One Week Friends - all heavy on the moe but all provide a lot more interesting characters and character development, comedy, and strength in their girls. Hinako Note presents delicate dolls to be protected or stared at.

I'm giving this a 5/10 "don't waste your time" rating knowing that it is bordering on a worse score because of the concerning messages for those it might be targeted at. I don't think this is just a cute moe show that didn't really work because it was boring. I think there were choices made during production to include fan service and character depictions that reduce women to objects (delicate ones, if not overtly sexual). These are not depictions of real people or real emotions.

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Sunday, July 8, 2018

LINKS for breakfast

Happy Sunday morning everyone. I'm working on some manga and anime reviews as well as a book review, so they'll be some things to follow this week. In the mean-time, enjoy some interesting articles I read this past week.

Vox has a fascinating look at  eminent sci-fi writer/grump and Star Trek-hater Harlan Ellison: https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/6/29/17518928/harlan-ellison-star-trek-grudge-science-fiction-rip

This is a student project at some university, I think. It's an interesting AI-based way of making anime girl faces from a pool of data. Some interesting combinations and some interesting flaws. I wonder how the AI will improve as more people guide it: https://make.girls.moe/#/

Some great writing advice. I actually think this did more for me after one read than most other writing advice things I've read: https://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html

Hope your weekend has been relaxing and your next week rewarding.

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Saturday, July 7, 2018

ANIME REVIEW: Hinamatsuri is a really kind, sweet, funny show (unexpectedly)

I was searching for a new show to watch this week and stumbled on "Hinamatsuri" on Crunchyroll. It's about a middle-school aged female "alien"(?) with superpowers who lands in the apartment of a high-ranking yakuza and decides to move in. Honestly, I was worried that this would be a pervy show with lots of fan-service (sort of like Mayo Chiki or something) as well as one focusing on child-led violence within the yakuza. Thankfully, it turned out to be an exceedingly sweet, kind, and dryly-funny show about building relationships. Light spoilers to follow:


Nitta, our high-ranking yakuza, turns out to be a really really nice and decent guy which is put to great comedic effect in a later episode where a documentary film-maker wants to make a gritty piece about the life of a yakuza and ends up having to fake it because Nitta is so normal. Perhaps the only real flaw Nitta has is that he likes his life of luxury and remains a bit annoyed that he has taken in a psuedo-daughter who sometimes cramps his lifestyle. But it's clear, in every episode, that he actually has a soft spot for her.

Hina is the aforementioned alien, or something (child with esp?). She drops out of the sky naked in his apartment one day. This is of course where I really started worrying about the fan service - naked girl living with middle-aged man. But that was it, nakedness as nakedness (hidden behind objects too) and not exploitative or servicy in any way. Hina has a very flat personality, she sleeps through school, plays videogames, and likes to eat. Which itself, is played for excellent humor when a later character gives a doll in Hina's image the catch-phrase: "feed me." What's awesome is the hints we get that she was actually a murderous planet killer somewhere else in the universe, rather than a affectless, lazy, middle-schooler like now.

The show centers episodically around Nitta and Hina bonding, Hina pissing Nitta off, Hina breaking things accidentally, Nitta kicking Hina out, Hina in a band, Hina eating, Hina sleeping in school, etc... with plenty of gentle comedy about their growing relationship.

Where the show really shines is with the time and care it provides to two side characters, Anzu and Hitomi. Anzu is another alien(?) like Hina who was sent to retrieve her. Needless to say, this doesn't work and Anzu decides not to take Hina back, but has lost her ship (in the form of a red ball) and so must stay on Earth. Too embarrassed to ask for help from Hina and Nitta, she strikes out on her own, moving in with a bunch of homeless men in the park. This too is done with utmost sensitivity as they teach her the ways they survive and she goes from an arrogant pre-teen to someone who treasures the little things and values hard work (used in frequent contrast to Hina's slightly expectant personality throughout the show). This becomes even sweeter when Anzu is eventually taken in by a family that runs a restaurant and the way she bonds with them. Her story is carried to its funniest conclusion when she stays with Nitta for a week while her adoptive family is away and Nitta realizes that not everyone is useless or annoying like Hina because Anzu actually helps with chores, laughs, is polite, etc... even offering to pay the family to swap her. Anzu is a joy every time she's on screen in the series.

But the scene stealer is Hitomi, the sweet, smart, classmate of Hina's. Through a series of mixups she ends up tending bar (as a middle schooler) late each night at a bar Nitta frequents. The way she's both a savant at mixing drinks mixed with her constant desire to not be doing it (but failure to ever just stop) are used frequently throughout the show with her offering advice to fellow bar goers, tricking her teacher and principal into thinking she's someone else, etc... just brilliant comedy from the writers and voice actress.  But it just keeps going, she ends up getting suckered into moving out of her parents house into a luxury apartment (as a middle schooler) and gets endless job offers to help her pay the rent. She invites her mom to a party there in order to get her mom to blow the whole thing up so that she can move back home, only for her mom to be so impressed with the business connections she's made and supports her instead. She's the classic "trampled on" or  "put-upon" figure who is really straight-laced but gets sucked into everyone else's chaos. Her stories are the funniest moments within this show.

Aside from my worries about fan-service and pervy stuff (which absolutely are NOT present in this show - not a single perverted camera operator move or exploitative moment) I was worried about the yakuza. There is a scene early on with a fair amount of carnage and I was worried it was a show that would jokingly gloss-over its violence or the real-world complexities of yakuza in Japan. I couldn't have been more wrong with that either. First, there was no blood and no sign that anyone was actually hurt in that scene. It was also the only real yakuza scene in the whole show (except a funny sequence of fighting to be next in line to head their group pitting Nitta against some comrades). In fact, Nitta could have been a corporate executive and it would have made no difference in the show at all. The yakuza play almost no roll, whether they are good, benevolent, problematic is never addressed because it didn't need to be here because the yakuza were a non-factor in the plot at all. It really is just a show about Nitta and Hina and Anzu and Hitomi doing not much of anything, a comedy slice of life in a way.

I give this show a strong 7/10 (closing in on an 8) "recommended" because it caused me to genuinely laugh out loud at least once per episode (rare) and never crossed any of my red-lines of distasteful content. It is just simple, sweet fun. The middle-schoolers act like middle-schoolers including the juxtaposition of Hitomi and the bartending which is expertly written. And there seems to be the setup for future seasons which I'm looking forward to. I was really surprised just how enjoyable this show was.