Best Birthday Ever?

happy birthday to me   Every year I make my birthday a day of giving, but this year I wanted to step it up by performing one act of random kindness/giving for every year I've been alive. It turns out that someone else had this idea before me, but I never claimed to be original. Some of my planned acts required a weekday, and some required a weekend, so I spread them out across yesterday and today. (Obviously today isn't done yet.) Here's the list of what I've done so far, plus what I plan to do, in no particular order:
  1. Gave away my most prized possessions to some people I know.
  2. Encountered a first-timer at the local European grocery store and bought him my favorite candy bar in the place.
  3. Bought coffee for the guy in line behind me whilst getting my Beloved a sandwich from a local roaster/cafe. He was getting ready to fly to Winnipeg for a wedding, and told me about his photography business. I hope I get to see some of his work.
  4. Gave gift certificates to people waiting in line at the local holistic food store.
  5. Bought a series of PS3 game add ons for a friend.
  6. Culled off DVDs and games to give away.
  7. Sent a care package to a far away friend.
  8. Leave change in the candy machines at Good Will.
  9. Leave encouraging notes in books at the library and/or bookstore.
  10. Leave encouraging notes in car doors.
  11. Left a thank you message and treat for the mail carrier. (Mail carriers don't get enough thanks. Hug the next one you see, carefully avoiding the pepper spray and the kick aimed at your soft bits.)
  12. Gave a bunch of shortbread cookies to the people at the clinic where I get treatment.
  13. Give most of my jewellery supplies to my brother's girlfriend.
  14. Give a thank you letter to the library.
  15. Give a thank you letter to aforementioned brother.
  16. Give a thank you letter to Peter Berresford Ellis, a writer and scholar famous for his work in Celtic history as well as his Sister Fidelma mystery series.
  17. Clean home from top to bottom (and the sides). This will probably spread to a third day given how much we're already doing.
  18. Cooked a meal for my mother and shared it in her home. (Glamorgan sausages, potato salad, and oat short bread.)
Some of these things, such as the first one, amount to three or four individual acts, bringing the total to 27 or more. Honest. It was a glorious time. I actually wanted to do more, but my body wouldn't allow it, especially since I ended up having to change a bathroom faucet part way through. Which I suppose counts: 19.  Replaced leaking old bathroom faucet with ceramic disc type so my landlords (grandparents) didn't have to, and never will have to again. Can you think of a better way to spend any given day?

A big indie community way up in the sky

The inimitable gals over at Duolit decided to hold a blog day in honour of their friend Julie Forward DeMay, asking people to write about something caner/inspirational/obstacle-overcome related and to tell you a bit about Julie's book and how it came about. "But, Justin, aren't indie authors supposed to work like dogs to promote their own work with no help from anyone else?" Excellent question. Answer being, well, no. But even if that were the case, Julie can't. Julie's book is a collection of blog posts she wrote while fighting a losing war with ovarian cancer. Her work is done. She's not around to promote her work. She's can't be with her nine-year-old daughter. That's where we come in.

cover - cell war notebooks

Here's the official summary for Julie's book:

January 31st is IndiesForward day – a special blogging event dedicated to spreading the legacy of Julie Forward DeMay and her touching memoir, The Cell War Notebooks.

What would you do when faced with a battle for your life? Author, photographer and creative spirit Julie Forward DeMay took on her fight with cervical cancer like she was playing for the new high score in her favorite video game, Asteroids. Inspiring, witty, beautiful and brutally honest, The Cell War Notebooks is a compilation of the blog Julie kept during the last seven months of her life. It’s a powerful read for anyone, whether your life has been touched by cancer or not. Check out the paperback on Amazon and keep up with the latest news on Facebook.

All proceeds from book sales go to Julie’s nine year-old daughter.

Buy the book here | Check out the original blog here | Visit the Facebook page here

Now, you likely know that I hate talking about myself. I use humour to provide a screen of sorts, and often use my work as a stand in for myself if someone poses a question about me. A lot of people have pushed me to talk about my Lyme journey in terms other than lab test numbers and the scientific names of tick-borne organisms, and now seems as good a time as any. This'll be short because I'm doing on the internet, and the average 'net reader will move on to the next video of a puppy eating his own poop in about 100 words from now.

The first word I ever remember spelling was "apple" when I was four or five.

When I was eight I saw Star Wars for the first time, and suddenly understood the energy and power of fiction. That's when I decided to be a writer. (Why I didn't jump to film maker I don't know.)

When I was ten or eleven I got the flu, but I never recovered, and to this day I don't remember that entire year of my life.

In the meantime I was writing thousands of words, mimicking the expanse of writers and movie makers I encountered. Dozens of galaxies bloomed in my brain, stretched their nebulous tendrils into my six senses, and beckoned me to birth them. And I did, bit by bit. I wrote my first novel, coming it at about 100 000 words, before age 20. (I don't remember exact dates or years very well thanks to my Lyme disease.) It was a dry run. I got rid of it, knowing I would return to it some day, and eventually building a seven book series in my head. It's still on my list.

I still wasn't healthy. In fact I was getting worse. In the summer of 2005 my body became a shattered husk after what I refer to as the Febreze Incident: I was sitting at home when someone sprayed Febreze a few rooms away. When the fumes wafted over to me I felt nauseous, so I tried to leave the area. The problem was that I couldn't move from the neck down. When I finally could move I only managed a few stumbling steps before I fell flat on my face. At that point I figured something must be wrong.

It took six years, dozens of doctors, scores of tests, and a whole lot learning about the true nature of mankind before we finally found out that I have Lyme disease.

I lost my physical ability, I lost many so-called friends, ultimately my wife told me it wasn't worth her sticking around, so she left. But worst of all for me was that those galaxies started to fade out. I wrote and scribbled and sketched as quickly as I could, but nothing came out properly. None of it made sense to anyone, least of all me. I felt each world blink out one by one. I swear I felt them straining to reach me, begging to know why they had to die, demanding to know why I wouldn't save them. One day the last one was gone, and I was alone.

I couldn't write more than a dozen words at one sitting, which -- along with extreme fatigue and pain -- made post-secondary education pretty much impossible. I attempted and withdrew from university twice, totalling one full year at The King's University College. There was a professor there, Dr. Arlette Zinck, who was instrumental in forming me as a writer. I was not a good writer in any standard sense of the word. I had little technical skill, and no idea how to structure anything. Dr. Zinck changed that. She spent her precious time taking raw, willing clay and gave it the direction to form itself into something rudimentary. I'll never forget her telling me, "I can't see you here," referring to university. I wasn't sure what to make of the statement, but she went on to explain that she wasn't sure how university would benefit me past a certain point. She would, of course, support me if I remained, but she was confident that I had enough ability and determination that I could reach my goals without spending thousands of dollars and hours in pursuit of a paper to hang on my wall.

I hope she was right.

In 2009 I almost died three times. I've never felt terror before that first time. I remember struggling for breath, as I often did, not really thinking anything about it. Then something changed. The pain stopped. That is terrifying. As long as I felt the burning in my lungs I knew I was alive, but I couldn't. I figured that was it. The end. Done. Finito. There's nothing like that kind of experience to bring some focus to life, and one of the things I thought was, "But I haven't written anything yet."

The next two times it happened -- one when nobody could find a pulse -- the thought I remember having was, "Screw this! I have things to write!"

To make a long story even shorter, we found out in 2011 that I have Lyme disease, and I entered treatment. Within about three months I was able to write a few hundred words per day. I was rusty, but I was still able.

Now, on good days at least, I can write or edit several thousands words without stopping. It's still exhausting, but I won't knock any accomplishment. I had chances to live and write that I'm not sure I should have had.

Well, Julie doesn't have any more chances, and I say she used her time and energies wisely.

Take a look at her book, read her journey, let it move you.

Wonders of Japan: Himeji Castle

  Beautiful, isn't it? This is the best surviving example of Japanese castle architecture. Himeji Castle has survived in its current form through 400 years of feudal wars, earthquakes, high explosives, fire bombs, and developers. Way back in 1333 a local ruler decided to build a fort on a strategic hill. 13 years later his son figured that such a dinky fort was weak sauce, so he knocked it down and built a proper castle. Like a boss. Two centuries later another local lord did some remodelling, reportedly adding a grotto, remote-controlled fire place, and epic sound system. The result was named Himeji Castle, and the Lord saw that it was good. But local rulers weren't done with the old girl yet. In 1580 a famous general named Toyotomi Hideyoshi built a three story keep in the castle. Not to be outdone, Tokugawa Ieyasu's son-in-law destroyed the puny keep and built a six story keep in its place. Then he added three moats just because he could. And with that, Himeji became the castle that it is today.

Representation of the entire complex.

  During the Meiji Era, when the Samurai were being disarmed and/or hunted like dogs, many castles were destroyed because they were seen as relics of an bygone and best forgotten era, plus they were expensive to maintain. The army gutted Himeji to make room for barracks, and the government planned to demolish the whole complex, but an important army colonel stepped in and convinced his bosses to keep the castle in the hands of the Ministry of the Army. That dude has a monument to him at the castle, as he should. When the new government officially abolished the feudal system, Himeji went up for auction. A local resident paid the equivalent of a little over $2200, planning to destroy the complex and develop the land. I don't know about you, but if I just paid two grand for a castle I'd want to do something with it besides wail on it with hammers. Once again Himeji avoided destruction, this time because demolition would have costed the a-hole buyer too much! (There's a first world problem in there somewhere: "Bought a castle, can't afford to knock it down.") Fast forward to 1945, when most of the world was finishing a scuffle. The United States bombed everything they could see was Japanese, including Himeji. Fortunately their aim sucked, and they managed to burn everything to the ground except the castle. One of the fire bombs actually landed right on the top floor, but it never detonated. The force is with Himeji. In 1956 the Japanese government decided it was time to restore the whole complex. The cost: 250 000 man-days and $52 million of today's dollars. Clearly they thought Himeji was worth it. And who can argue? In 1995 the Kobe earthquake, at magnitude 6.8, wrecked up a lot of stuff, but Himeji survived completely undamaged. There was even a bottle of sake on an altar inside remained in place.

Your basic castle hallway.

Himeji is a UNESCO world heritage site, a Japanese national treasure, and a tough old bird. Here are some other specs to ramp up the awesome:  
  • The complex is comprised of 83 buildings in total.
  • The tallest wall is 26 meters high (85 feet)
  • It's the biggest castle in Japan.
  • 820 000 people go to the castle every year.
  • A new rejuvenation project started up in 2010, and is expected to be complete in 2014.
  • The second floor of the keep alone has floorspace totalling 550 square meters (5920 square feet).
  • The three moats (two of which are still around today) are over 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) deep.
  • It housed 3000 bags of salt and 33 wells.
  • The main interior defensive element was a maze-like system of corridors and walls, which meant that the path to the keep from the main gate was 2.5 times longer than the straight measurement.
  • 84 gates. 84. Gates.
  • Several movies have been filmed at Himeji.
  • Several horrifying and charming folk tales take place at Himeji.
  • I want to visit Himeji.
  Himeji Castle, or any castle really, enters Japanese warfare well after our book, The Tale of Genji, takes place, but it's difficult to mention Japan without thinking of the brilliant white castle that has survived for hundreds of years, often by pure chance. What do you think? Are you planning a trip to Himeji in 2014 to see it when the new repairs are done?