Why I Find the Fight Scenes in Return of the Condor Heroes 1983 Disappointing

I recently saw the entire 1983 TV adaptation of Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ (or rather San Diu Haap Leoi since it’s in Cantonese), a.k.a. Return of the Condor Heroes, starring Andy Lau as Yang Guo (or rather Yeung Kuo, since it’s in Cantonese – you know what, I’m not going to try to keep track of the Cantonese names, I’m sticking with Mandarin).

In the Hong Kong wuxia TV shows of the early 1980s, they clearly put a lot of effort into fight choreography, and make it really seem like the characters are making lots of physical contact with each other. Additionally, unlike 21st century wuxia TV shows, there was no CGI in the 1980s, which makes the fights look more ‘real’. A lot of people really like the early 1980s wuxia fights, and I can see why.

So what are my problems with the fight scenes?

The first problem is that it is monotonous. After a while, all of the fight scenes just seem to be the same. Though I have my own criticisms of the fight scenes in newer wuxia TV shows, at least they have more ~variety~ so I do not feel like I am watching the same fight over and over again. For example, in the 2006 TV adaptation of there is the fight scene with umbrellas (is there an umbrella fight in the original novel? No. Do I care? Not really).

My favorite fight scene in the 1983 adaptation specifically is when Guo Jing is taking Yang Guo to the Quanzhen monastery. One of the reasons it is my favorite is that it displays more creativity than most of the other fights.

Another problem is, well, notice that my favorite fight scene in is Episode 3. Out of 50 episodes. Having the most satisfying fight so early in a TV show is not so great.

Take a look at this fight scene in the final episode where they are trying to rescue Guo Xiang. Aside from the weird lighting, there is nothing special about this fight scene. It’s just a bunch of characters using standard fight moves that the viewer has already seen a zillion times by this point. It is as if the fight choreographer was tired at this point and was just phoning it in.

Yet another problem with the fight scenes is that the emphasis placed on them is sometimes out of proportion to how important they are to the story. For example, while I really liked Guo Jing fighting the Quanzhen monks in Episode 3, that is a fight with relatively low plot value. So it is jarring when key fights which have very high plot value are cut short. For example, when Xiaolongnü fights Golden Wheel Monk the first time, it’s a big deal. There has been a lot of plot build-up to this specific fight, and the outcome changes the direction of the story. In the original novel, this fight scene is about 10 pages long. Yet in this TV adaptation, the fight is only about a minute long. It was a let down for me.

I also do not like the 2014 version of this fight. I definitely prefer the 2006 version of this fight over both the 1983 and 2014 versions because at least if feels epic. I also prefer the 1995 version because a) Gordon Liu is the best Golden Wheel Monk and b) it feels like Xiaolongnü is in greater peril in this version than in other versions, which makes the fight feel more exciting.

An additional problem is that sometimes a character is totally beating everyone up in one scene, and then in the next scene they are concerned that their fighting skills aren’t good enough. Or the reverse, in which a character is totally losing against a relatively weak opponent, and then in the very same episode they are winning against a stronger opponent. For example, just before Xiaolongnü gets into that fight with Golden Wheel Monk (which she wins), she gets into a fight with Huo Du, which she loses (by the way, this Xiaolongnü vs. Huo Du fight does not happen in the novel – the 1983 TV show made it up). She has no improvement in her skills between the fight with Huo Du and the fight with Golden Wheel Monk, and it is clear that Huo Duo < Golden Wheel Monk, so this makes no sense. The novel does not have this kind of inconsistency – if a character beats an opponent they were previously unable to beat, it explains how that happened.

Speaking of which, not explaining how the characters get better at fighting is another problem. Okay, there is ~some~ explanation in the TV series, but not enough for the viewer to appreciate the logic of how the characters are developing their fighting skills. In the novel, there is enough explanation that it is interesting for the reader. In the TV show, the explanation is so minimal that it fails to be interesting.

But what I miss most about the fight scenes in the novel which do not come through in the 1983 TV adaptation is the metaphorical meaning and how it is woven into the overall story.

For example, Lin Chaoying and Wang Chongyang were in love with each other, however their romance did not work out, so Wang Chongyang founded the Quanzhen sect created the Quanzhen swordplay, while Lin Chaoying founded the Ancient Tomb sect and created the Jade Maiden Swordplay. The Quanzhen sect and the Ancient Tomb sect continue to have a love-hate relationship with each other, and the relationship gets even worse when Yang Guo leaves the Quanzhen sect and joins the Ancient Tomb sect. There is a whole subplot around Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü studying the Jade Maiden Heart Sutra so they can learn the Jade Maiden Swordplay. It seems at first that the Jade Maiden Swordplay was designed specifically to counter the Quanzhen swordplay, and they believe that Lin Chaoying did it in order to spite her ex-lover Wang Chongyang.

Then there is this fight scene:

Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü fight Golden Wheel Monk to rescue Huang Rong, Guo Fu, and the Wu brothers.

In this fight, Yang Guo uses the Quanzhen swordplay, and Xiaolongnü uses the Jade Maiden Swordplay. This is how they discover that the Jade Maiden Swordplay is not meant to counter the Quanzhen swordplay, it is meant to complement it by covering all of the weak points of the Quanzhen swordplay. Thus, when one person is using the Quanzhen swordplay, and another person uses the Jade Maiden Swordplay, and they love each other (just as Wang Chongyang and Lin Chaoying loved each other), they are invincible. I think the metaphor here is really obvious, and I think it adds depth to this scene. It also helps develop the relationship between Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü.

Does any of this come through in the 1983 TV adaptation? No, it does not. The TV show takes one of the most memorable fights from the novel, and makes it seem like it is no more consequential than a couple dozen other fights in the series.

And this metaphor continues to build. Zhou Botong teaches Xiaolongnü how to have one hand fight the other (a technique which Yang Guo could never learn because he is too smart. Intelligent people can never master the technique, and the stupider one is, the faster one can learn. Xiaolongnü has an average level of intelligence, which is apparently low enough to learn the technique). Once Xiaolongnü has mastered the technique of one hand fighting the other, she is able to have one her hands represent Yang Guo and use the Quanzhen Swordplay, and have her other hand represent herself and use the Jade Maiden Swordplay, so she is an invincible fighter even if Yang Guo is not there. This explains how she can hold out in a fight in which she is badly outnumbered.

Xiaolongnü fights using a combination of One Hand Fighting the Other, Quanzhen Sworplay, and Jade Maiden Swordplay.

It also has a very rich metaphorical meaning, especially in the context that Xiaolongnü believes that she will never see Yang Guo again and is suicidal. She is growing further apart from him in that she is pursuing a way of fighting he could never join, yet the very way she is fighting is a testament to her love for him. She is also becoming emotionally more self-sufficient in the sense that she can experience his love without his physical presence.

The 1983 TV adaptation explains parts of this, but not enough for the viewer to put the pieces together (unless the viewer has already read the novel).

If you’re curious what this fight is like in the novel but cannot read Chinese, you can read this fight scene here (note: I’ve only skimmed a little bit of this translation, so I cannot tell you how good/bad it is).

Is this the kind of thing which is better suited for novels than TV shows? Maybe. Or maybe not. Most TV adaptations of Jin Yong novels don’t delve into the narrative meaning of the fighting techniques. The exception is State of Divinity (笑傲江湖) 1996, which most people who watch wuxia TV shows agree was the best wuxia TV show of the 1990s. During the fights which are key to story development, there is narration of what is happening in the fight, and what that means (sadly, I could not find a clip online to show this). The scriptwriters made sure that, when it is important, the audience would understand what is going in the fight and the intended meaning. The fight choreography in State of Divinity 1996 is nothing special, and it does not need to be special because the script takes care of the most important points.

Am I saying ‘tell not show’? No, I’m not. The 1983 version of Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ neither shows nor tells the logic of the fighting techniques and their metaphorical/narrative meaning. Telling would have been an improvement.

Even though it was stripped of its metaphors, the 1983 version of the big fight at the Quanzhen monastery was not bad. In fact, it is one of the best fight scenes in the series. It takes up much of episode 38, which is appropriate, since it is IMO the most important fight scene in the entire novel. It breaks up the fights with little scenes which are meant to GIVE THE FEELS. I think this is good, since non-stop fighting devoid of logic, creativity, or metaphorical meaning would be boring. I dislike some of the mini-scenes the TV show made up (which were not in the novel) to flesh out the fight, and I like some of them. For example, I like this moment. I also like this part of the fight because it was slow enough that the viewer could actually follow the moves and understand the logic of how they were happening.

Still, without the metaphors, I don’t feel the 1983 version lives up to the novel. I do think it is at least better than the 2006 version of this fight. The 2006 version is more faithful to the novel in that it does not add a bunch of new material and follows the novel’s sequence of events more closely, it still lacks the metaphors, and it also fails to have the feeling of the 1983 adaptation.

All in all, while the fights in the 1983 TV adaptation have some good points, they were overall a disappointment for me. They lack many of the things which make the fight scenes so compelling in the original novel.

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Odyssey of a New Bed, Part Five (End)

As I have explained in previous posts, I decided to go with an organic cotton shikifuton for my new bed. It cost a little under 300 USD (including taxes), and I spent about another 100 USD (including taxes) to get goza mats. So let’s say my new bed cost about 400 USD. Since I continue to use an old mattress protector, I did not pay any money for that.

There is a store in my neighborhood which specializes in nontoxic mattresses. I’ve talked to people at that store, and they say that some of their customers are cancer survivors who are obsessed with removing as many toxic chemicals as possible from their homes. If you want your jaw to drop, I suggest you browse their website and see how much their mattresses cost. And that’s just the cost of the mattress, not the bed frame, mattress protector, or any other component of a bed. And those prices do not include the sales tax (California has the highest sales tax of any state in the United States). Suffice to say, I think getting the organic cotton shikifuton + goza mats was a much better deal.

However, there are other options for a organic (or at least natural/biodegradable) bed which cost a lot less than 800 USD.

1. NATURAL LATEX SLABS

Many natural/organic/nontoxic mattresses use natural or even organic latex. It is a lot cheaper just to buy the latex slabs and assemble a mattress oneself. For example, this store sells organic latex slabs at a very reasonable price (note: I am not recommending this store specifically, there are other stores which sell similar latex slabs and may have better deals, I’m just using this as an example of what I am talking about). Most people would want two or even three 3-inch slabs of latex for comfort, but that is still cheaper than most ‘ready-made’ mattresses which contain natural latex.

That said, there are additional expenses. First of all, one needs to put a mattress case on the latex slab, otherwise it will degrade very quickly. Second, though it is ~possible~ to put latex slabs directly on the floor and use them as a bed, it has been advised that this may cause the latex slabs to become moldy. It is recommended that latex slabs are used on slatted bed frames. Fortunately, basic metal bed frames can be cheap, and adding slats to basic metal bed frames can also be cheap. The total bed can easily cost less than 1000 USD. It’s not cheap, but it is a heck of a lot cheaper than most of the beds marketed as being nontoxic/natural/organic/etc.

Why didn’t I choose this type of bed: While this type of bed costs less than 800 USD, it costs more than 400 USD (unless one cuts a lot of corners, such as only using a single 3-inch slab of latex). Additionally, though multiple latex slabs would certainly be easier to move around than an all-in-one latex-based mattress, latex is heavier than cotton (and it would be more difficult to roll to discourage mold – in fact, frequent rolling may even damage the latex, I’m not sure). I also do not feel any nostalgia for latex slabs (like I feel nostalgia for the washiku bedrooms I used in Japan). Finally, though I am not currently allergic to natural latex, I would be concerned that I would develop an allergy in the future.

2. BUCKWHEAT HULL MATTRESSES

Buckwheat hulls are obviously a natural material, and can also be organic. Since buckwheat is primarily grown for food, and the hulls are not edible, the hulls would be sent straight to compost if they are not used in crafts.

Based on my experience with using a buckwheat pillow, I expect a mattress made from buckwheat hulls would also be very comfortable (for me individually, not necessarily for everyone).

As far as I know, the only seller of buckwheat mattresses in the United States is Open Your Eyes Bedding which sells a DIY buckwheat hull mattress kit. Here is a review of this buckwheat hull mattress kit. There are also some stores in Europe which sell ready-made buckwheat mattresses. The European buckwheat mattresses are much cheaper (which does not surprise me, since more buckwheat is grown in Europe than all other continents combined). Buckwheat hulls are also heavy, which means that, for people in North America (like me), buying + shipping a buckwheat mattress from Europe would probably not be any cheaper than buying + shipping a buckwheat mattress from North America.

Another interesting feature of the Open Your Eyes Bedding hull mattress is that it is made from pods which can be assembled/dissembled. Thus, if one wants to move the mattress, one could dissemble the pods, carry the pods individually, and then re-assemble them.

Why didn’t I choose this type of bed: First of all, it would cost me significantly more than 400 USD (especially including the shipping cost). Second, it requires some labor to assemble (and dissemble, when I move it). Third, though it is possible to use this bed directly on the floor (or rather a rug on the floor, since my bedroom’s hardwood floor is too slick) it is advised that using this type of mattress directly on the floor in a damp/humid climate may lead to mold (and I live in a damp/humid climate). It is not compatible with any of the bed frames we currently have, so I would have to get a bunky board or something like that (or get a totally new bed frame, which would be more expensive than a bunky board).

That said, I find this type of mattress intriguing. If the total cost were lower, I would be tempted.

3. HAMMOCK BED

This is hands down the cheapest type of organic/natural bed I was able to find. Organic hammocks can cost less than 100 USD. I would need to get a hammock frame to hang a hammock bed in my room, but even with the hammock frame, the total cost would be under 300 USD.

Hammock beds are common in Central and South America because they work very well in hot and humid climates. There is obviously a lot of air circulation under the bed (i.e. it resists mold and is not directly connected to the ground). They also contour very well to the body.

Though I have only used hammocks occasionally in my life, and I’ve never slept in one, I generally like them.

Why didn’t I choose this type of bed: Mainly, I’m not nearly as familiar with hammocks as I am with washiku bedding, so it would be more of a leap in the dark for me. I don’t know how easy or hard it is to set up a hammock bed. Furthermore, to use a hammock in colder temperatures, one needs an underquilt for insulation. Can one just use a regular quilt as an underquilt, or does one need a specialized underquilt? I’m not sure because I don’t know much about hammocks.

Maybe if I had spent 3-4 years in Central/South America rather than 3-4 years in East Asia, I would know a lot more about hammock beds, and have nostalgic feelings about hammocks rather than washiku bedding. But that’s not how my life happened. And maybe I’ll try hammock beds in the future. I don’t know whether or not I will ever try to hike the Appalachian Trail, but if I did I would be consider using a camping hammock.

This concludes my series.

I never imagined that I would have so much to say about beds. I guess I am compensating for those decades when I hardly paid any thought to my bed.

My Thoughts on The Black Trillium by Simon McNeil

Cover of The Black Trillium by Simon McNeil

I read The Black Trillium by Simon McNeil.

I first became acquainted with The Black Trillium through Simon McNeil’s blog, specifically this post (he’s also written a follow-up post now that he’s watched Iron Fist).

Anyway, back to The Black Trillium.

It’s the first wuxia novel I’ve ever read in English – that is, unless one chooses to define the term ‘wuxia’ broadly (if you make the definition of wuxia broad enough, it includes Batman, and if you make it even broader than that, then a lot of American superhero stories would start qualifying – though come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever read a superhero novel). It’s the first wuxia novel I’ve read which was ~written~ in English (unless, once again, one is using a very broad definition). For me, part of the appeal of the novel was seeing how Simon McNeil adapted wuxia jargon and tropes to the English language for an Anglo audience. Sometimes while I was reading the novel I found myself instantly translating what was written back into Chinese and thinking ‘ah ha, I know what that is’ (for example, ‘lightness skill’ obviously means 輕功).

It’s also the first wuxia novel I’ve read which is set in the future rather than the past (or an alternate universe).

Specifically, it is set in a post-industrial future. And one of the protagonists is a barbarian girl from a desert (which does not exist in our time) who learns how to use a sword and goes into scary mysterious tunnels from the industrial era. And there’s a protagonist who is a youth who must learn how to lead a group of rebels who are rebelling against a monarchy. And the current king had usurped the throne. And YET ANOTHER protagonist (antagonist?) is a disgraced son of the king, who knows that his father favors his incompetent brothers over him, and he is planning to prove that he is the most capable ruler and eventually take the throne from his father. And the king’s-son-protagonist/antagonist also has a very close friend who dies brutally and tragically in the course of the story. And there is a lot of sword fighting. And did I mention that there is a search for a mysterious old doctor who is the only one who can treat a particular aliment?

Wait a minute, is this an wuxia novel, or a girls’ comic book?

On the left is the desert-barbarian-girl protagonist, and on the right is the king’s-son-protagonist/antagonist.

No seriously, while that long paragraph accurately describes The Black Trillium, it also accurately describes Basara by Yumi Tamura, which is a shojo manga (shojo manga = girls’ comic book). It has also been adapted into an anime, though I’ve only seen on episode.

Obviously, there are some major differences, such as Basara being set in post-industrial Japan, whereas The Black Trillium is set in post-industrial Canada. With a very broad definition, I suppose one could label Basara as being wuxia, and it certainly uses many tropes which are also common in wuixa fiction, but it does not draw specifically on the Chinese wuxia tradition the way The Black Trillium does.

***

Who destroys the army’s food reserves? I don’t know. I mean, I know it was not the Black Trillium because the novel really rubs it in that THE BLACK TRILLIUM WAS NOT RESPONSIBLE, but who was? For a while I was suspecting it was Sophie of all characters. Was it Brutus? Was it Paul? I don’t feel it really made much sense for Brutus or Paul, to be honest.

Okay, maybe the novel does at some point say who burned down the military granary and I just missed it. If that is the case, then I wish the novel were written in a way which would make that plot detail more difficult to miss.

***

I do feel that The Black Trillium is missing some key things BUT it is pretty clear that the ending is meant to be the launching point for a sequel, and it is very possible that the elements which I feel are missing in this novel are intended for the sequel. After all, this novel is less than 400 pages long, whereas wuxia novels – ESPECIALLY wuxia novels with multiple protagonists/POV characters – tend to run 1000+ pages long. Complaining that a wuxia novel under 400 pages is missing some of the stuff which I would expect to see in a 1000+ page wuxia novel may be a bit unfair.

I am willing to suspend judgement on the things which I feel are missing in the novel as long as they appear in the sequel, if a sequel ever appears.

With one exception.

Before I try to find words for the one thing which I really wish the novel had regardless of any potential sequels, I am going to give an example.

In The Black Trillium, there is a character, the Wizard in Green, who is trying to find his daughter Sophie and bring her back home. Sophie does not want to go home and – this is the part which is relevant – seems to have no love for her father. Not that he displays much love for her either. Granted, he wants her to be alive and safe, but it feels like he is mechanically fulfilling a vow he made to her mother, not expressing his love for his daughter. And it’s not even clear whether he is trying to fulfil his vow to Sophie’s mother just on principle, or whether he has deep feelings on the line.

It’s pretty clear that the Wizard in Green was inspired by Huang Yaoshi in The Eagle-Shooting Heroes (射鵰英雄傳). Like the Wizard in Green, Huang Yaoshi has a wilful daughter who runs away from home so she can pursue her own goals. Like the Wizard in Green, Huang Yaoshi goes looking for his daughter. Like the Wizard in Green, the mother of Huang Yaoshi’s daughter has been dead for quite a while.

The difference is that, whereas it’s not clear that either the Wizard in Green or Sophie have strong feelings for any other human being (as opposed to mechanically following principle), it is bloody obvious that Huang Yaoshi has very powerful feelings about both his dead wife and his daughter. When someone tells Huang Yaoshi that his daughter is dead, his reaction is *cough* quite something *cough cough*. And when he is reunited with his daughter who is alive after all, it’s such an emotional scene that I broke down in tears when I read it. And even though Huang Yaoshi’s daughter ran away from home, she still clearly has some strong feelings and attachments to her father, and when ~he~ goes missing, she spends months looking for him.

I’m not saying that the Wizard in Green and Sophie have to have a relationship exactly like Huang Yaoshi and his daughter, in fact I prefer that it be at least a little different. But I would have liked at least one of them demonstrate a strong attachment, negative or positive or a bit of both, to the other. Or if not them, then for other characters to demonstrate that.

I mean, sometimes we are told that Character A is emotionally attached to Character B. For example, we are told repeatedly that Marc Antonelli are best friends, but we never see that. Their friendship is pretty much offpage until Kyle starts suspecting Marc Antonelli, and even then, the ‘friendship’ part of their relationship is only thinly evident. We are told that Kieran is very attached to his uncle, and he certainly tries very hard to save his uncle, but we see very little of them actually engaging in an uncle-and-nephew relationship. And I don’t want to spoil what happens to Kieran’s uncle so, uh, Kieran’s uncle survives-or-dies and – we see very little of Kieran celebrating-or-mourning that (I think a page or two of celebration-or-mourning would have been enough, but we don’t even get that). Savannah never seemed to have much emotional attachment to Boyd before he was in danger, and while she puts a lot of effort into helping him when he’s in trouble, it seems to be more a matter of principle than because Boyd himself is specifically important to Savannah.

And then there is the relationship between Savannah and Kieran. Okay, I’m going to do something I almost never do, I almost can’t believing I’m doing this, but … I criticize this novel for not having enough romance. I think I would have enjoyed the novel more if the romance between Savannah and Kieran had been a lot more serious and deeper. That’s right, the blogger who wrote this and this and this is complaining that a novel – an WUXIA novel no less – does not have enough romance.

Really, the thing which I felt was missing was passionate human connections. It would have been better the novel had put in a passionate human connection via a fullblown romance between Savannah and Kieran than for it to not be there at all. Okay, I would prefer it if it were expressed in nonromantic relationships, but having it in romantic relationships is WAY BETTER than not having it at all.

In fact, I think Savannah/Kyle is a fictional romantic relationship in the worst way. It has all of the amantonormativity of a typical fictional romance (yuck) without any of the rewards of a fictional romance (or at least, none of what I find rewarding, though I think many fans of fictional romance would find it just as unsatisfying as I do).

When trying to describe wuxia to people, it’s easy to say ‘oh, it’s Chinese and has lots of martial arts.’ That’s true, and I often describe it that way myself because it’s so easy. And I like martial arts and violence in my fiction. But what keeps me hooked on wuxia is not the martial arts or that it is Chinese – it’s the psychology of the characters and the passionate, deeply involved relationships. I don’t find the fights or martial arts in Wang Dulu’s novels particularly interesting, yet he is one of my favorite wuxia novelists because of the depth of character and the intensity of the relationships. What stays with me are scenes such as Han Tiefang desperately trying to explain to dying!Lo Xiaohu that he is his son, yet Lo Xiaohu doesn’t seem to hear a word he’s saying, and still (mistakenly) talks to Chun Xueping as if she were his daughter. And then he dies. (Not coincidently, Wang Dulu wrote 言情小說 – ‘sentimental novels’ – before he started writing wuxia).

I suppose this might be another roundabout way of saying ‘The Black Trillium is too short’ because most of the conceivable ways to add the passionate human connections which I feel are missing would increase the word count. However, as I said early, there is a reason why wuxia novels tend to be really long.

***

I read The Black Trillium in just two days. The first 3/4 of the novel flew by. I had to push myself to finish the last fourth of the novel, but I didn’t need to push myself too hard to get to the end.

***

The thought of writing an wuxia novel myself has occurred to me. More specifically, the idea of setting an wuxia novel in post-industrial California has occurred to me, so far in the future that the name ‘California’ is no longer in use. I’d imagine it would have many of the things I like about 大唐雙龍傳 without the things I don’t like (apparently I’d rather daydream about being the next Huang Yi than the next Jin Yong).

I have no intention of actually writing it. Writing a novel takes a ton of time and energy, an wuxia novel set in post-industrial California even more so. I want to dedicate my time and energy to other things.

But if I ever change my mind, I think having The Black Trillium as an example of an wuxia novel written in English set in post-industrial North America will be helpful.

Odyssey of a New Bed, Part 4

When I say that I am worried about flame retardants, I am particularly worried about brominated flame retardants and chlorinated tris. I found this article from 2004 helpful for understanding the chemistry of these flame retardants. I find these types of flame retardants especially scary because a) they bioaccumulate (i.e. once they are in your body they are going to stay in your body for a very long time, possibly the rest of one’s life) and b) they generally are carcinogenic and disrupt the endocrine system. I don’t want cancer, and I already have a vulnerable endocrine system. Specifically, I’m in the grey zone between ‘does not have Hashimoto’s disease’ and ‘has Hashimoto’s disease’ and I want to preserve my thyroid’s ability to make hormones so that I don’t need to take prescription hormones.

Ironically, one of the household products with the highest levels of brominated flame retardants is plastic casings in computers – and hey, I’m using a computer right now. Here is an article about brominated flame retardants in electronics. It makes me glad that it’s been over 15 years since there has been a TV in my room (well, except when I was in Taiwan, but the TV was far from my bed and I almost never touched it), and glad that I insisted on keeping computers out of my room until my mid-teens. And my keyboard, which I am using to type this post, may also contain high levels of brominated flame retardants. Great. I’m going to wash my hands after I finish typing this.

But this is about my bed, not my electronics.

And the answer is, yes, my new futon mattress contains a flame retardant chemical.

BUT the only flame retardant chemical it contains is sodium borate, more commonly known as borax. Borax does not bioaccumulate, is not a carcinogen, and one needs a fairly high dose in order to be poisoned. I don’t plan to eat my mattress, so I’m not worried about exposing myself to a high dose. The borax will make it more complicated to compost my mattress after its no longer useful as a mattress, but it is still biodegradable in some circumstances (I’m almost certain a municipal composting facility could handle it), so it’s not going to poison the world for thousands of years or something. There are some who claim that sodium borate is not ‘green’ or safe to use at home, but upon further research, I did not find those claims convincing (here is an essay about that).

Besides being a flame retardant, borax is also a bed bug deterrent. I have never had a problem with bed bugs, and I want to keep it that way.

And borax is also antifungal. For reasons I explained in the previous post, I appreciate a little extra help keeping the mold at bay. Borax is not antibacterial, so benign bacteria are welcome to live in my bed (I think our living environments already have too many antibacterial chemicals – antibacterials in my mattress would be overkill).

Of course, I learn that pillows can have flame retardants too. Where aren’t there flame retardants?

I took a closer look at my pillow and found that 1) it is 100% polyester (probably a lot less flame retardants than foam pillows, but possibly still has toxic flame retardants) 2) it was moldy and 3) it was generally gross. The last two things weren’t really a surprise since I have been using this pillow since I returned to San Francisco in 2014, and it was probably an old pillow lying about the house back then (i.e. not new), and I’ve never cleaned it, and I drool in my sleep.

I decided to replace it with a millet hull / buckwheat hull pillow. Since buckwheat pillows are common in Japan, it’s consistent with the washiku aesthetic of the mattress and goza mats. I also liked the idea of being able to combine millet and buckwheat in whatever ratio was most comfortable to me.

I started out with having it be a full buckwheat pillow (not millet). A lot of people report that they need a night or two to get used to using a buckwheat pillow. Not me – I thought it was very comfortable right away. Then again, I also think paperback books are okay pillows, so I’m not the most discerning of pillow connoisseurs. Then I experimented with a few different buckwheat / millet ratios. I think the main thing millet hulls add is that they are quieter than buckwheat hulls. I think the thing where hull pillows really excel (for use/comfort) is that they provide excellent support for the head, which means I move my head less when I’m in bed. I did have a problem for a little while with my ear getting sore after lying on the pillow all night, but I fixed that problem by adjusting the fill.

I also think a queen size pillow is a bigger than I need. Not that having a big pillow is a problem – it’s just more than I need.

While I appreciate the versatility of being able to have various buckwheat/millet ratios in my pillow, I think in retrospect, I would have preferred to spend less money and just buy a smaller pure buckwheat pillow (BUT definitely one with a zipper – it is important to be able to adjust/replace hulls).

I still drool when I sleep. Thus, the hulls may eventually get moldy. In fact, they will probably get moldy even faster than polyester. I suppose if that happens I could just replace the hulls, and use the old hulls as mulch in the backyard.

***

Out of the five mattresses which were in my old bed, the two old futons and the feather mattress are now gone. We arranged a bulk item pickup with the local recycling/trash service, and we got rid of some other bulky items which are no longer usable (we can request ten items be removed per pickup). I assume they will recycle the parts which can be recycled, and send what cannot be recycled to a landfill.

The box spring mattresses – including the one which was poking me in the back – are now in our basement.

Since we easily have ten items for the bulky item pickup, I did not insist on putting the box spring mattresses in the pickup. But I am irritated because I want to have space in the basement for things which are potentially useful, not mattresses which we are never going to use again, and which will become harder to move as my dad loses physical mobility. My mom is the one who insisted on keeping those mattresses, at least for now. Yes, even the mattress that pokes people in the back. She says ‘what if we have overnight guests?’ Hey, we already have a guest mattress, and we would have to rearrange a lot of furniture to make space for a second guest bed. It would be easier to put people in sleeping bags/tents in the backyard than to place TWO guest beds in our home – especially since the mattresses in question have to be moved by two people (what if my dad is no longer in good enough shape to move the mattress at that time?) whereas I can set up tents/sleeping bags by myself. And why would we want to offer guests a mattress which pokes them in the back?

At first, she was even against getting rid of the moldy futons and the useless feather mattress. However, once it sunk it just how useless these mattresses are, she agreed to have them removed.

My mom has trouble letting go of a lot of material goods, not just these mattresses. My guess is that it has to do with her childhood experience of poverty, when getting adequate clothing for everyone in her family was a struggle.

And that is why my bed was piled up with all of these bad mattresses in first place. Those five mattresses were not there because they were each contributing to my sleep. I would have slept just as well with the bottom box mattress as will the five mattresses – better, because I would not have been poked in the back. Heck, I was probably exposed to even more toxins/mold with those five mattresses than I would have been if there had only been a single box mattress. All those mattresses were there because it was a place to store them, not to serve my benefit.

I do not think my parents really thought through all of the costs and benefits of keeping those mattresses in my room. I do not blame them, because until these past few months, I had not thought through the costs and benefits of all of those mattresses myself.

If we put in another request for bulky item removal, I am going to try to persuade her to agree to get rid of these mattresses. I really would prefer to have more space in the basement.

In the next part and final part, I will talk about three alternative types of natural/simple beds which cost less than 1000 USD (i.e. are not as outrageously expensive as most natural/organic beds sold in the USA), and why I decided not to try them.