Monday, February 28, 2011

The Warrior’s Apprentice (Book)

“That’s the spirit! Forward momentum.”

Mayhew snorted, “Your forward momentum is going to lead all your followers over a cliff someday…On the way down, you’ll convince ‘em they can fly.” He stuck his fists in his armpits, and wagged his elbows. “Lead on, my lord. I’m flapping as hard as I can.”
In the fourth book—plot chronology—of The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, we see Miles as a young man. After being unable to pass the physical requirements of the entrance exam for military cadets—he breaks his legs during one of the tests because of his brittle bones—Miles inadvertently forms his own band of mercenaries. While much of the book involves Miles’ well-developed ability to con people, Bujold also shows him growing up, if only a little bit.

The Warrior’s Apprentice was just an okay book for me. This was only the second book that Bujold published, and she got much better later on. On the other hand, it resolves some of the story lines started in Shards of Honor and Barrayar, so in that way it was rewarding to read.

Seventh Tai Chi Class

This week when I arrived at Tai Chi class, I noticed a little, old man with hunched shoulders. I originally thought he was the father—or even grandfather—of one of my classmates. When class began, he was in the front row, wearing bright red socks, and doing the warm up Chi Gong exercises with the rest of us. Bob made a point to explain each of the exercises before we did them. When we moved on to the Tai Chi form, our visitor tried his best to follow along. He seemed peaceful, not at all self conscious. I briefly had a flashback to when I lived in San Diego years ago and saw the Tai Chi form for the first time. After doing the form once, Bob took a brief break to talk to the man. It turns out our visitor was a veteran who was thinking about bringing Tai Chi to some of the other veterans. I wasn’t sure whether he was considering having Bob teach a class or just do a demo.

The second time around when we did the form, Bob played his CD describing the purpose and benefits of Tai Chi. Our visitor sat on a chair, watching us, taking notes, and occasionally moving his arms in sync to our movements. Bob didn’t really teach anything new to us this week.

The experience made me think. I have been troubled by all the recent articles about PTSD in veterans. While Tai Chi isn’t the answer, it could be part of the solution. In addition, there are other people who are hurting—rape and abuse victims, families with loved ones who have chronic illness, etc.—who could benefit from a session of Tai Chi, even if they never learned to do it on their own. Despite taking Tai Chi classes on and off for over a decade, I never feel particularly competent. I certainly don’t feel I could lead a group. Maybe I have gotten to the point where I at least need to mentally offer my Tai Chi practice up to God—the universe—as an instrument for the greater good.

While trying to research Tai Chi and PSTD in veterans, I found an inspiring article about Tai Chi at the Casper Veterans Administration Clinic.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Barrayar (Book)

Alas, a commando raid could not knock off for breakfast. This was it. Go or no-go? Was it bravery, or stupidity that drove her on? .... If I do not act, my child will die. She would simply have to do without courage.
Cordelia is witty, wise, courageous, and honest. Barrayar, the third book in the Vorkosigan Series by Lois McMaster Bujold and the winner of both the 1992 Hugo and Locus Science Fiction awards, continues on where Shards of Honor left off. After moving to Barrayar and marrying Lord Aral Vorkosigan, Cordelia becomes pregnant. Alas, her domestic bliss is short lived. Aral soon takes over as regent for the future emperor. An attempt made on Aral’s life, poisons both Aral and Cordelia. The antidote interferes with the bone development of the developing fetus. In desperation, Cordelia has her future son transferred into an artificial womb for an experimental treatment. Cordelia must also protect him from her father-in-law, who doesn’t want a mutant as an heir, and from Aral’s political enemies, who are involved in an attempted coup.

Alongside all the adventure of the political coup are moments of bungling romance and parental love. Bothari is an emotionally damaged man who would protect Cordelia at all costs. He struggles to be a good parent to the child he fathered in the war (Shards of Honor). Koudelka is a physically damaged man who struggles with his self-esteem on a planet hostile to those with any disability. Droushnakovi is a woman with a talent for being a good warrior on a planet where such skills are frowned upon in women. And, of course, there is Cordelia, perpetually amused by her adopted planet. She is sometimes fearless warrior, sometimes advice giver—domestic and military, and sometimes dutiful political wife.

From what I can determine, Cordelia will only have a minor role in the rest of the series. I will miss her. I close with one last description of Cordelia:
If she could not keep him safe, perhaps the next best thing was to teach him competence in living dangerously.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Shards of Honor (Book)

War. Romance. Honor. Politics. In Shards of Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold tells the story of Captain Cordelia Naismith’s courtship with Aral Vorkosigan. The story begins with them being marooned together on a planet that Cordelia is exploring as part of a scientific team and chronicles their attempts to develop a relationship while being on opposite sides of a war.

In this novel, Bujold takes a typical science fiction war plot and looks at it from a female perspective. Cordelia is a physically, emotionally, and mentally strong character. She tenaciously attempts to do the honorable thing. At times, the book describes the silly feelings associated with love. At other times, it deals with hard issues, like what happens to the offspring of women raped during the war. The book closes with an afterward, which I read before as a short story someplace, that describes finding and identifying the remains of those lost, on both sides, in the war, a very emotionally charged piece.

Shards of Honor is the second—or first depending upon who is doing the counting—novel according to the plot order of the Vorkosigan Saga, which earned Bujold three Hugo Awards. My first reaction was that it was an okay book. My day-after reaction was one of admiration. Bujold writes with a fresh perspective and takes on some tough issues.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Doomsday Book (Book)

“Everyone must stick to his bell.”

Bells. Epidemics. Steadfastness. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis was the winner of the 1993 Hugo Award, 1992 Nebula Award, and 1993 Lotus Science Fiction Award, as well as a nominee for additional awards. The novel is just good, all around storytelling that even people who don’t normally read science fiction could enjoy, written more like a historical or modern-day novel. I found myself living inside the story, chuckling in places and having some cathartic tears in others.

Briefly, despite half the book being set in the 2050’s, the setting is more or less contemporary, except for the major difference that there is time travel. History departments at universities have begun to send people into the past to research history firsthand. Kivrin, a plucky young student, agrees to go into the early 1300s alone for a few weeks, over the objections of her allegedly over-protective instructor, Dunworthy. After the designated time period, she is to go back to the drop off location to be picked up. But something goes desperately wrong. The reader doesn’t know what until over two thirds of the way through the book. First, despite numerous inoculations, Kivrin immediately falls ill, and, with snowy conditions, isn’t able to ascertain the location of the drop off/pick up point. Second, the tech who set the coordinates and the location falls ill before he can tell anyone what went wrong with the drop. Soon, the whole college town is besieged with a modern day epidemic of unknown origins. Both timelines take place around Christmas. The similarities and differences between the two timelines are fascinating.

The characters, both in the 1300’s and 2050’s, make the story enjoyable. Kivrin and Dunworthy, as main characters, are likeable and relatable. I found myself emotionally attached to the 1300’s characters who befriend Kivrin. The 2050’s characters are interesting and, in some cases, fun. Creating some of the charm are Colin, a twelve-year old dumped off on his great-aunt at Christmas time; a visiting group of bell-ringers; and William, who is very handy with the ladies, and his overprotective mother, who is visiting for the holidays.

I try to allow myself at least one night after reading a book to let my overall impressions come to the surface. Doomsday Book was very enjoyable to read; Saturday around midnight I toyed with the idea of staying up all night to finish the book, which I have never done before. But, there is an undertow, which I didn’t feel until after I finished the book. Periods of the 1300’s were horrible, and Willis does a good job of portraying that horror. This morning it haunts me a bit.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Falling Free (Book)

The 1988 winner of the Nebula Award, Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold, has everything an enjoyable science fiction novel should have: a little bit of a love story, plenty of science and engineering, a little humor, a lot of “can everyone work together and overcome obstacles before time runs out?” It kept me engage from the opening until the very end.

Briefly, a company decides to create genetically engineered workers for the purpose of efficiently operating in zero gravity in space. The Quaddies have four arms, the usual two plus arms instead of legs. Who, after all, needs legs in zero gravity? The Quaddies are very intelligent but trained to be emotionally childlike and docile. (This reminds me of Cyteen.) From a legal standpoint, they have no rights and are not even considered live beings. The company uses them as slave labor. Leo, an unlikely hero, first encounters the Quaddies on the Cay Habitat where he is assigned to teach them advanced techniques in welding. As one of the few adults onboard, he slowly becomes involved in their lives as a type of parental/teacher figure. When a technological breakthrough makes the Quaddies obsolete, he decides to rescue them from the company’s plans to dispose of them. The plot also shows the Quaddies growing up and taking their lives into their own hands.

The Hugo voters seemed to go through a long phase where they favored series. In order to appreciate the winning novel, the reader pretty well has to read at least a couple of books in the series. Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga has made this even more complicated. Three of the novels won Hugo awards for best novel of the year. But—oh a big but—they were not written and published in the order of the series' overall plot chronology. Luckily, the books have a handy chart in the back showing the plot timeline and the corresponding book titles. There are also some short stories in the mix. Falling Free is the first book in plot order. I have given up trying to figure out which years the books were written. Anyway, so far so good!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Dispossessed

Prisons. Possessions. Time. Sequence and Simultaneity. Circular and Linear Time. The Individual and Society. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin won the 1975 Hugo, 1975 Locus Science Fiction, and 1974 Nebula awards. I found it a relatively quiet, gentle novel that left me thinking about societal structures and individuals.

Briefly, the novel tells the story of Shevek, a brilliant physicist, who attempts to embody in his life the philosophy of Odo—the founder of his home-world. Like an Einstein, Shevek is the process of developing a theory that has the potential to revolutionize physics and spur new technologies. He lives on Annarres, a barely inhabitable, mining world—it was never clear to me whether this was a twin planet or a moon—settled by anarchists who rebelled against the government of Urras. Annarres has a relatively Socialist and Libertarian society and is isolated from Urras and other worlds. In contrast, Urras is what the people of Annarres call Propertarian—Capitalist. The people of Annarres find Shevek’s ideas “unuseful”, first discouraging him and then becoming openly hostile towards him and his family. His thinking challenges their set ways of thinking. The government of Urras, on the other hand, embraces Shevek’s ideas as a way to create technology that will give them a competitive advantage over other worlds and create profit. The book weaves the stories of Shevek’s life on Annarres and on Urras.

The Dispossessed is a wonder title for the book. It reminds me of the Taoist principle of trying to live each day open handed, not trying to hold anything or experience. Shevek has no physical possessions and doesn’t even have a society to which he belongs. At some point I would like to reread the book and find all the bits of wisdom attributed to the fictional philosopher Odo. The book infers that both the philosophies of Annarres and Urras have their benefits and their drawbacks. Despite being written over 35 years ago, The Dispossessed is still relevant today. This is a good book for readers who are feeling disillusioned about society.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sixth Tai Chi Class of the Season

Today, Mary, Marilyn, and I walked out of Tai Chi class together, talking about our experience in class. I need that. I need to hear other people’s experiences. It gives me courage, validation, and motivation. I have been including my experiences of Tai Chi in my blog this semester for other people—Tai Chi students and others trying to master a skill—who have that same need.

Despite some heavy morning fuzziness from erratic sleeping patterns lately, the beginning of the day was beautiful. The sun was warm. The temperature was above 22 degrees, whoo hoo!! The ice on the sidewalks was almost all melted. We began class with some breathing exercises, Chi Gong.

When we did our first run through of the Tai Chi form, I decided to focus on the energy of everyone in the class. I imagined everyone radiating little ripples of energy as they moved. A couple of times I realized that I had no clue whatsoever where we were in the sequence of the form. Lost. Totally lost. It was disconcerting. This was not a psychic experience by any stretch of the imagination. This was like being in a crowd in an unfamiliar city. My first thought was, “Kata, you are such a frickin idiot.” My second thought was that I had tried something new and it hadn’t worked out. Trying something new is good. So, maybe next time I do this on a smaller scale or in a different way. It took me a little while to get myself back. I had a brief panicked thought that I was going to stay lost forever. I had to draw my attention in very tightly, focusing on my own energy.

The first thing that Bob had us focus on today was imaging an opponent as we went through the form, focusing on the martial arts application of each movement. Perhaps I was enjoying this a bit too much, but I didn’t have any problems focusing. The next thing we were to focus on was our backs: upper, middle, and lower. This is something I need to do more often. I felt like I was just getting warmed up when it was time to move on to the next principle. The last lesson was to focus on bending our knees all through the form: both knees, all the form. Light bulbs were flashing in my head as well as in those around me. I kept on thinking that surely we were supposed to have our legs straight for particular moves. Nope, Bob’s leg was slightly bent when I looked over at him. After class, it was good to hear Mary say that she had the same experience. Bob ended the class by telling us that we should smile when we realize that we have made a mistake. The brain processes the mistake differently than when we frown. I thought, "How about when we silently berate ourselves with obscenities and pseudo-obscenities?"

I am beginning to think that I need to practice Tai Chi principles more when I am not practicing Tai Chi. Many of the principles apply to posture and movement in general. On the way home on the bus, I noticed the posture of a mailman walking on his route. Of all people, it seems to me that mailmen have to have good body mechanics so that they can do their whole route, every day of their week, with as little physical stress as possible. The learning never ends.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Cyteen (Book)

Psychogenesis. Sociogenesis. Nature vs. Nurture. A little girl growing up too fast. Post traumatic stress disorder.

The 1989 Hugo Award winning novel, Cyteen by C. J. Cherryh is a well written science fiction novel that has left me deep in thought. While many science fiction novels explore physics or alien biology, Cyteen explores psychology—particularly educational psychology—and sociology. Interlaced with all the science is intrigue, politics, and some very touching moments. Cherryh does a good job of creating emotion in her reader.

Briefly, after the death of Ari, a very powerful woman, the company she headed, Reseune, not only creates a genetic clone, but also attempts to make a replicate that is psychologically and intellectually almost identical. Using detailed records, the replicate is raised in a way that parallels the original, including losing her mother at the same age. Another major character in the story is a young man, Justin, who was abused by the original Ari and now is dealing with the young replicate as she grows up. He has a lifelong companion/adopted brother, Grant, who is an azi.

Also an intricate part of the storyline is Reseune, a scientific company that is involved in such activities as creating azi, clones of humans and animals, and tapes. Azi are humans whose genes have been manipulated.  In addition the azi are given tapes— sophisticated learning programs that utilize neurochemistry—beginning a few hours after birth. Most often azi are created to fulfill a particular purpose in society, such as military. The azi are not considered to be full adults, except in a few instances of old azi. Reseune also creates replicates for people who want a clone of themselves or a child they have lost. Although these children undergo many of the same processes as the azi—including gestation in womb tanks, they are not given tapes until they are preschool age, like most children. The azi tend to be very stable thinkers. The non-azi tend to be flux thinkers.

The psychology and sociology in the book were fascinating to me. Cherryh shows how both the tapes and life events affect the characters, particularly original and replicate Ari, Justin and Grant. Cherryh discusses and illustrates how the hormone-flux system affects learning and personality. She also illustrates how tapes and real life events affect large populations and subsequent generations. Heavy stuff at times!

I thoroughly enjoyed Cyteen. Of all the Hugo winners I have read so far, it has given me the most to think about. On the down side, it is long, almost 700 pages, which could have easily been over 1,000 if the book had been typeset differently. I also feel like I need to give a warning. I found some of the content disturbing though necessary for the plot. In some people who have been psychologically or sexually abused, I would be concerned that some of the scenes could trigger some psychological issues. I am sure there are plenty of other books that carry the same concern, but I rarely encounter this in the types of books that I usually read.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Focus (Quote)

Even though I am no longer taking classes in or practicing Liuhebafa—an internal martial art— I am still finding inspiration in reading Liuhebafa Five Character Secrets by Paul Dillon. Here is a wonderful quote on focus. I especially like the imagery: feeling unfocused, imagine a tiger.

Creative Imagination (Intent) moves like a fearsome tiger.

A tiger on a hunt is single pointed, totally focused on its prey. When it moves it is awesome in its ferocity and power often bringing down animals that are larger and more powerful like a water buffalo or an elephant.

Just so, you must use this example of focused intensity when you are establishing your intention or goal. You must have the strength of purpose to stick to achieve this goal. Do not think that something is too big or too difficult to accomplish. Through experience you will see how holding onto your dream and steadily working at it can bring the most fantastic results.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Fifth Tai Chi Class of the Season

Did you ever go through one of those periods where you were feeling blah, absolutely blah? Space aliens could land and proclaim that you were their long lost queen, and you would just roll your eyes and say, “Whatever.”  I managed to eat, shower, and get to class without much incident. Before class started, I went into the Ladies Room and noticed that my ponytail was unsalvageable: a bad, bad hair day. While we initially did the Tai Chi form, Bob played a CD that he had recorded which describes what Tai Chi is and its benefits. It mildly irritated me; I couldn’t focus on the form and listen to it at the same time. I did like the section where he said that Tai Chi improves the ability to visualize.

As in previous weeks, for the rest of the class we focused on different things as we did the form. An old one, that we first focused on when we originally learned the form, was imagining that our heads were suspended from above, almost like a puppet. Conversely, we focused on sinking our weight; perhaps the most important concept in Tai Chi. This is what helps generate power. We next focused on all the big and little circles our bodies made as we moved through the different postures, working to make the circles smooth and complete. This was one of my favorite exercises of the day. We moved on to focusing on whether we were pivoting on the balls or heels of our feet and how that affected the energy in our bodies. Lastly, we paid attention to how expanded or contracted our hands were—the closeness of our fingers—in different parts of the form. I never thought about that before, and I think I might have had some of my hand positions reversed from how they were supposed to be.

We are not perky, eager students every day. We do the best we can, and forgive ourselves for not being what we wish we were. It is part of committing to a practice. Focusing and refocusing, despite any negativity, is how we grow. This is true of Tai Chi, Yoga, meditation, and, I would imagine, a lot of other practices. Sometimes it helps to admit it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Foundation’s Edge (Book)

A worthy successor to the Foundation Trilogy. The 1983 Hugo Award winning novel, Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov, keeps the reader wondering until the very end: What is really going on? Who is really pulling the strings?

Written approximately thirty years after the third book in the Foundation Trilogy, Foundation’s Edge continues the storylines of the First and Second Foundation, the Sheldon Plan, and the mule. Like the previous books, the Foundation is at a crisis point. Unlike the previous books, Foundations’ Edge contains only one story, which allows for more plot and character development, as well as more detailed descriptions. In addition Asimov has matured as a writer. The book is sprinkled with a little philosophy, a little science. At points Asimov adds some short, but beautiful descriptions of interactions between characters.

For years I purposely stayed away from reading books by Asimov; I vaguely remember that Asimov struck me as arrogant. How things have changed! I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the Foundation Trilogy and now Foundation’s Edge. The books are engaging and easy to read. If I hadn’t vowed to read all the Hugo Award winning novels, I would probably continue reading the last three books—one sequel and two prequels— in the Foundation series before going on to reading anything else.