Monday, December 31, 2007


Watching a two-year old and a three-year old jump on a bed, into the pillows, bouncing back up again, then repeating the action ad infinitum, is a cautionary lesson in age and innocence. Who doesn't like to jump on a mattress and crash into the soft comfort of a couple of giant cushions? Who hasn't done that at least five, ten times in a lifetime?

Problem is, most of us haven't done that in about twenty, twenty-five years.

It's lost its thrill, most likely.

But to a two-year old and a three-year old, it's all thrill. (Or tragedy.) They haven't done this kind of thing repeated times. They aren't jaded. It's a fun and strange and novel enterprise, this jumping-on-a-bed-thing. The looks on their faces cannot be faked, or manipulated; the great thing about kids in general at that age is that they can rarely fake anything, despite their parents' often desperate prompting for decorum's sake -- if they don't want to say hi, they don't. If they don't like you, they don't pretend that they do. And when they want to jump on the bed, well, they will, goddamnit, and they will enjoy it.

As the New Year dawns, watching those particular kids do that particular action (repeatedly) seemed like a lesson to me, or for me, or for all of us. If getting older means accumulating experiences so that we can better prepare ourselves for all that life has to offer, good and bad, then it can also mean, or should also mean, that a necessary regression is sometimes in order, so that we don't forget that which we once embraced. (Kind of like how Robin Williams' alien character on Mork and Mindy was actually aging backwards. No wonder he was such a goofball...)

I'm not saying that we should all jump on our beds in our underwear. (Though please, feel free, if the mood strikes.) But the simple things are sometimes the best things, and the best things are sometimes those that hit us in our oldest, child-like parts.

So, for the coming year, I wish you one, two, possibly even three jumping-on-a-bed feelings, if only to remember the thrill of a distant, simpler past. (And some pillow-fight sensations thrown in for good measure, because those are even cooler, though slightly adolescent in their ferocity.) Acknowledge them when they arise. Savor them. Go back to being an adult for a few more weeks. And then repeat.

Happy 2008!

Saturday, December 29, 2007


One of the startling truths about getting older (if not wiser) is realizing that a lot of the cliches you've heard secondhand from parents and teachers for most of your life are actually true. Drinking too much Coke actually will make you fat. Saying 'please' and 'thank-you' really is important. And time truly, completely, convincingly DOES fly by as your past gradually dwindles and dies.

Just last night, I watched the Jerry Seinfeld documentary Comedian, about his efforts around the turn of the millenium to start a new comedy routine from scratch, and at the end of the film, Seinfeld is shown driving down the highway towards a meeting with Bill Cosby, and Seinfeld marvels at how strange life is, at how, when he was a little boy, he used to sit in his room and listen to Cosby's records over and over again, and now here he was, going to meet the man, not as a fan but almost as a peer.

I suddenly remembered: I'd done the same thing.

(Listened to Cosby's records, I mean. Not met him as a peer.)

Listening to records is not only a lost art, but so is listening to stories on records, comedic or otherwise. I used to have a small record player encased in a bright blue box, and quite often I would sit on my bed, crack open the book, and marvel at what I could hear. I had stories about the Incredible Hulk; I had records replaying the Star Wars trilogy; I had comedy albums found in the basement of my house, leftover relics from the sixties and seventies. And, yes, I had Bill Cosby in one of his most famous stand-up routines, pretending to be Noah, relating how God came down and ask him to build an ark, of all things.

("An ARK? Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight. What's an ark?")

My friends and I would sit for hours (or what seemed like hours), and laugh ourselves senseless. We'd take the arm of the record player and move it back and forth across the grooves of the spinning black disc, looking for the best part, the funniest part. No rewind buttons here. (When I was very little, I thought that every time I placed the record player's arm on the disc, a light went off somewhere, perhaps in some underground studio, and a DJ-like dude would instantly start transmitting the signals necessary for me to hear Bill Cosby's comedy. I thought records were simply another form of radio.)

There's something nice about the notion of a summer afternoon in my memory, bright and warm, punctuated by the sound of children's laughter, while Bill Cosby told a story through the modern technological marvel of a rotating black disc. (And, since I wasn't a churchgoing kid, Cosby's narrative of Noah and his ark was pretty much the closest I ever got to that story, so it was, most likely, my first introduction to Biblical history -- and good-natured skepticism, too. Aha! So Cosby's the reason I'm agnostic... )

But nostalgia can be dangerous, too, I suppose. Today's kids, grown old, will fondly remember firing up various videos on YOU TUBE, while their children's children will have sonic and sensual experiences implanted directly into their brainwaves. Many of the university students I've taught in the last little while in Japan, the YOU TUBE generation if ever there was one, have never even seen a real, honest-to-goodness record, the same way I'd rarely seen a phonograph machine. (I still shake my head when some of my students tell me their ages: "What do you mean you were born in 1989! That's impossible! I was starting high school then! Back To The Future II had just been released!")

This is how it should be. Time marches on. Life moves on. The records of last year turn into the eight-tracks of last week, followed by the tapes of two days ago and the CDs of yesterday. (And do I remember the first time I listened to a CD? Indeed I do.) And now CDs, too, are becoming obsolete, almost quaint.

Perhaps the most memorable thing about memory itself is that we can compare what once was with what now already is, and within that comparison, for better or for worse, we can see how far the world's come.

Or, at the very least, how far we've come.

Friday, December 14, 2007


One of the reasons that I'm trying to study Japanese every day is that I'm getting tired of English. Which sounds really pretentious, but I don't mean 'tired' in the sense that I'm a master at it, that I've cracked the code of its various permutations, that I've read every book of the past three hundred years published in the language and have thus decided that all that needs to be said has already been said, so it's time to move on. But one of the dangers of reading a lot for an extended period of time is that you start to see certain patterns, and the underlying mechanisms behind the patterns, and you begin to realize that certain modes of expressions have started to lose their novelty.

But how can an entire language, especially when it's the only language you can speak to any degree of fluency, lose its thrill? Language is the laser beam that strikes at the core of our consciousness, or mine, anyways, and it's pretty much all I've been interested in, other than movies, and running, for most of my life, which means that I've had a laser pointed at my psyche for a good thirty years, give or take.

And yet there comes a point when you realize that because you don't know as much as you think you do perhaps it's better to take a breather and find out what it is that you don't know, and why. Which means that my interest in another language is not truly connected to the fact that my knowledge of English itself has reached a tipping point, an overflow point, but almost the opposite: the older I get, the more I read, the more I teach, the more I realize that I don't have a fucking clue as to what's really going on when I read English, or write English, or speak English. When you're younger you read a lot and you write a lot and you begin to think that you're, if not the bomb, as the kids say, at least a little stick of dynamite. Or a match. Let's say a match. Ready to ignite. The teachers praise your work, and you study 'Creative Writing' at university, and other kids in the class (for that's what we were at twenty, twenty-one years old -- kids) say this is good and this is great and I was moved when this character did this thing, and you begin to think that perhaps you know what you're doing, inner voices be damned.

It was only approaching age thirty that I realized that all of my own internal rhythms and instincts regarding my own writing ability, or lack of it, had mostly come from instinct and shooting-in-the-dark, essentially. Teaching ESL for years and years has most definitely modulated the way I speak and write, in that the words that come out of my mouth and the words that emerge from the pitter-patter of my fingers on the keyboard tend to be slightly more coherent, logical and pointed than they were a decade ago. When you teach ESL, you have to choose what you say quite carefully, or else you'll get a roomful of blank stares for minutes on end. Somehow this seeped over to the way I write my blog entries, in that I'm much more conscious of what I'm saying and how I'm saying it. Which is what anybody writing ANYthing -- a letter, a book, a blog entry -- should be thinking about in the first place. But if something comes easily for you, you start to think about it less and less, and that's dangerous, because you start to think that what you do might, in fact, be good, and when you start to think you're good at something, the universe will show you that you're the back-up act to the ventriloquist at the Legion Hall in Virgil, Ontario on a cold and windy February Saturday night. I'm sure of it.

What this means is that the abundance of books and blogs out there in the world can have a kind of paralyzing effect. There's so much amazing shit out there to read, endless reams of the stuff, and yet there's so much utter trash alongside it, most of it online, that I'm constantly reminded of the fact that there are thousands and thousands of others out there who are better at what they do than I am, and that there are an equal multitude that can barely spell, let alone complete a coherent thought, but it all comes out in the wash, anyways. Meaning, the danger of becoming somewhat proficient at one thing is that you start to forget there are other things out there, equally valid, probably more interesting, and one thing that bothers me about English and its practitioners, including me, is that they fetishize the language. They glorify its components. They marvel at what it can do, and how it can make us feel, and the gateways into our interior consciousnesses that it can open with its special key. Immersion in any one discipline quickly intoxicates the senses, but it slowly but steadily poisons you, too, because you forget to come up above water and see what other islands are out there to explore.

Writing English well requires a certain discipline and concentration that I'm not sure I possess, but I'm not sure it's actually necessary anymore, because anything online comes with its own set of rules and regulations, none of which require competence. Accessibility is now the ultimate democratic equalizer. This is a good thing. I don't read English for the grammar, but for the emotion. The flip-side, though, is that if the grammar is poor, if the spelling is wrong, the emotion won't come through. But we're also in an age where emotion is not necessarily what's being aimed at, because most of the blogs by professional writers that I read tend to be focused on being clever, which, as Norman Mailer once pointed out regarding sportswriters, leads to a certain kind of death. Novelists have pages and pages to expand upon a certain selected theme, whereas those who write columns -- now blogs -- are forced to write shorter, which means snappier, which usually means they are trying to be witty, and there's nothing more painful than forced, unnatural wittiness.

All of which has made me tired of English. I remain enamored of its possibilities, but sometimes I feel like starting from scratch, to clear my head once and for all of the past thirty years of books and scripts and articles and essays and novels and memoirs and anecdotes and poems and novellas and plays and word after word after motherfucking word.

So what do I turn to?

More words, of course, only these ones in Japanese, which I've been studying, off and on (mostly off) for close to six years, that I need to know in order to understand what's going on, but what I like about learning another language is that I'm forced to relinquish all that I know about English and let it give way to another, alternate mode of expression. One whose rules I only vaguely understand. So as I'm trying to make my through a book about American baseball manager Bobby Valentine's resurgence with the Chiba Lotte-Mariners baseball team here in Japan, I have to start from scratch, or close enough, and grope my way through the linguistic dark to make sense of anything. Four pages a day is what I'm after, and sometimes I get it, and sometimes I don't, and I'm now at the point where I can read an article from Baseball Weekly magazine on the train and sort of understand what's being said, which to me is a minor sort of miracle after years of trudging through the deep and cold snow of the Japanese language tundra. There are still many, many Chinese characters I don't know, and there's always a couple of dictionaries glued to my side, but making my way through a foreign language with linguistic snowshoes strapped to my feet is a means by which I can reset my brain to zero and start again. Begin anew. Come at the world and the languages within it in a fresh and virgin way.

The irony, of course, being that I can't understand any Japanese at all without somehow comparing these new pictographic symbols I see with those other alphabetic symbols that I grew up on, and so with this kind of unusual convergence I'm able to consolidate and actually mesh together in a mental chain-link fence the various loves of my life. I can take all the English that I know and throw it out the window in favor of Japanese, and yet when trying to learn Japanese I have no choice but to use English as my guide. The deeper one dives into English, the more you realize how arbitrary and senseless the whole thing is, 'thing' being the language, why 'hand' means 'hand' and not 'fish', but when you study something like Japanese you suddenly see that no, no, it's not arbitrary at all, in fact, because the Japanese have a word for 'hand' too, and it's not the same word as 'fish' in their language either, and so you start to sense the underlying structure beneath language that language is always groping towards, those Platonic forms of emotion that we use letters and words to express because we have no other choice, outside of music, to get those sensations across. (And by 'Platonic' I mean in the Greek philosopher way, not in the Jack-and-Janet-from-Three's Company way. Just clearing that up, because words can be funny that way.)

So by telling English to go fuck itself, in favor of Japanese, what I'm actually doing is embracing English all over again, because the more I study one language the more I realize that you can't understand your own thought processes without first understanding how they work in another language. It'd be like thinking popcorn was the only food, and then learning to taste raspberries. Now there's some comparison that's going on. Now I can tell the difference between what is tart and what is merely sweet, or between that which satisfies versus that which is merely functional.

(And besides all this pretentious-linguistic-contortional stuff, there's also the fact that attempting another language is a good way to keep the brain fresh. Not stale. Bread from this morning, rather than bread from three, even four days ago. All of these articles talking about how mental agility is a key component in combatting Altzheimer's. I figure I need to keep my brain poppin' so that just in case they haven't found a cure for Altzheimer's by the time I'll need one, my noggin' might still be functioning at a semi-literate level.)

So when I attempt Japanese I can get down on the carpet and play with the kiddies, in a sense. These new words in a mysterious voice are my action figures, and the grammar structures are the scenarios that the child in me will now attempt to create. English will be the theoretical but potent link that fuses what I'm learning with where I've come from. Not much different from when I added a new Star Wars character to the pre-existing universe that existed on my living room rug.

If all writing is about invoking emotion, which I think is its ultimate worth, if not function, then trying to read writing in another, alien scrawl is about seeing if new emotion can be created, continuously. I can learn a new word for 'heart', and 'love', and 'courage', and 'dignity'. And by doing so, suddenly those English words become fresh and vital again. I have two ways of approaching the world now, two modes of armour. All of my twenty-seven odd years of reading and writing is swept away by the tide yet returned to the shore, instantly, in a new and varied form. All of my old cynicism and frustration about reading and writing in my own language can smoothly melt away like snow in the spring, because suddenly each foreign word, in Japanese and English, has a new fraternal twin. Thoughts and concepts keep being born as I read each and every sentence, so in a sense I keep being born, too.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


I'm reading an old biography of French-Canadian hockey great Guy (rhymes with 'bee') Lafleur that I picked up at the Blue Parrot bookshop inTakadanababa, in Tokyo, and only a few pages into the life of the legendary sporting icon I learn that Lafleur chose the number ten for his childhood jersey almost by accident, and I suddenly, almost startlingly have a memory of myself, playing soccer, choosing the number of my shirt, age six or seven, and then deciding on the number ten precisely because it was Lafleur's number, the one he made famous. ("World famous all across Canada," as Mordecai Richler wryly noted, in another context.) I seem to see my old yellow soccer shirt with the white number 'ten' stencilled on the back. Something I hadn't thought about for years. Probably decades.

Was I a Lafleur fan back in the day? I can hardly recall. His career was winding down as my life was cranking up. But I do, I do, I do somehow remember choosing that soccer jersey because it was Guy's number, or somebody telling me that it was Guy's number, and therefore good, therefore valid, therefore significant, and as a Canadian kid, I knew that Guy was the man, the dude who was Gretzky before Gretzky. (And was Maurice Richard after Richard was finished being Richard, too.) I remember Guy as one of the last players allowed to not hear a helmet, during his final stint with the New York Rangers, after playing for decades in Quebec with the Canadiens and the Nordiques. The crowd chanting 'Guy, Guy, Guy' during his final game, his blonde hair whipped by the indoor arena's wind looking oddly out of place amongst a sea of high-tech helmets.

And here, sitting in Japan, far from home, reading a book about hockey, I remember all the games I played, year after year, winter after winter, from age seven to fifteen. House league hockey. Pay your fine and play your games. Talent optional. (It certainly was with me, anyways. Not good enough by far for the travelling teams that made their way to Welland and Niagara Falls, Port Colborne and Fort Erie.) All those weekday morning practices, up at five, the air chill and the morning dark and the day stretching out before us. (How blunt and bracing an arena is at such an early hour!) How sweet, too, the sensation of blades on ice, the skates on our feet tugging us this way and that, almost against our will. All those Saturday and Sunday morning games. My parents waiting with a Coke after the win or the loss. Being a defenceman meant I could sit back, and watch the action up ahead, and daydream about what I would do later in the day. What movies I would watch at the Pen or the Lincoln Mall. Learning, at age twelve, how to body-check, how to brace oneself when giving or taking a hit. Having my kneepad slip while trying to deflect an opponent's shot, the slapshot slapping directly into my knee. The only time I lay on the ice, unable to get up. Remembing, too, my final games, during my second year of high school, and how I actually played a game of hockey the day before an indoor 800 metre race at York University (where I would run many more races as a student five years later). Other runners incredulous that I would do such a thing, risk such an injury. Me, gradually realizing that if running were to be a focus, then hockey would have to be left behind. Not such a loss, at the time, as I was giving up my mediocre career as a weekend hockey player for a shot at a halfway decent running career.

How many times have I been on skates since I was fifteen? Twice, I think. Only twice. I rarely miss it. I almost never think about it. But there are times, like tonight, reading about Guy Lafleur, and his childhood in small-town Quebec, when my own life is thrust into another's narrative.

The singularity of our existence comes into play. We started there, and now we are here, and let us look at what was in between, and dare to recall that which has stayed dormant.There was a time when I played hockey once a week for years and years and years. There was a time, too, when I had to decide what number I wanted-- and I chose, for me, the number ten. Because it was Guy's number.

I remember that.

I didn'r realize until about twenty minutes ago that I did, but now I do.

My six-year old self made a decision, and my thirty-two year old self has somehow reclaimed its essence, or attempted to.

We forget so much of our lives. Daily life so often strips us down, laughs at our nakedness, leaving inside of us only the fierce and noble moments that somehow, rigidly, remain intact between the walls of our memories. But there are other times, too, the quiet moments of childhood that pass by unnoticed, that all too often get lost in the annual lurch for school supplies and the accelerating mad dash towards the driver's license.

And yet the number ten has so slyly managed to slip through the cracks of my mind. Shining white against a yellow jersey.

Guy's number.

I remember that.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Just what is a blog, anyways?

It seems to me to be, quite obviously, a new form of information, a new style of written communication that lies somewhere between a diary and a newspaper column. A diary, because most blog entries are, by and large, more or less, for better or for worse, somewhat random collections of stray thoughts on various topics and events that are clouding our brains on one particular day. But it's also more of a column, the kind one would find in the op-ed pages, because if it was nothing more than a diary entry, we wouldn't be publishing it electronically, wishing and waiting and hoping for outer views on inner thoughts.

Many blogs are simply random collection of the day's events, with the odd humorous anecdote thrown in. But today's Japan Times informs me that the number one language for all blogs being written in the world today is, start the drum roll, Japanese. And I don't mean percentage-wise; I mean that the total highest number of words written in blogs in the entire world is not that of English, but Japanese. Think about it. That's kind of, I don't know, astonishing. There are a billion speakers of English, and a hundred and thirty million speakers of Japanese, and they're blowing us out of the water, big-time. The Japanese are blog crazy.

Curiously, however, the content of their blogs is, perhaps not so curiously, much the same as the Japanese themselves: reserved, withdrawn, somewhat shy. Listings of this and that, with very little emotional baggage presented for public display and commiseration. The blog is thus an extension of the Japanese personality, unwilling to burden any potential readers with the confusing emotional underpinnings that form the bedrock of even the most innocuous western blog entries.

This is where the not-really-a-diary part comes into play, I suppose, because diaries are written for one person and one person only: the person writing them. Think of growing up, and all the tv shows we watched, sitcoms and dramas, whose plots revolved around the diabolical notion of people reading the diaries of their lovers and friends, families and enemies, without their explicit permission.

Now, things seem to have tilted sideways. We want people to read our innermost thoughts; we desire strangers and friends to gaze languidly over our secret thoughts as they kill time at work or absent-mindedly surf the net in their underwear while watching TV and yapping on the phone.

What's going on here?

When I studied for a Creative Writing degree, I never even imagined such a thing as the Internet (and this was only a little more than a decade ago), let alone the capacity for publishing one's words on a daily basis from the comfort of one's own living room, dorm room, coffee shop or snack bar. I simply assumed that I would have to work to get my writing to a publishable level, at which point some publisher, on some distant day in an unimaginable future, might possibly take the risk of putting my work in print.

(Actually, I just recalled that my Creative Writing teacher from my fourth year workshop class told us point-blank at the start of the semester that he expected us to be writing publishing-level prose by the end of the term. And yet just the year before, my third year instructor had told us, also point-blank, that the average age of a first novelist was forty, so we shouldn't have any adolescent delusions about breaking into the literary field any time soon. What the fuck? I thought. We're expected to work our asses off to have publishing-level quality in our fiction so that we won't get published for, at minimum, another eighteen fucking years? One of the perils and promises of a Creative Writing program: eccentric professors pontificating contradictory maxims.)

Now, though, we've reached a point where anybody with access to a laptop can publish anything they want, at any time, for free, at whatever length, and not only does it not have to be interesting, it doesn't even to make sense, or even be properly punctuated. Multiply this actually astonishing equation with the fact that you can now post your own films made from your own phone, visible to anybody from Atlanta to Adelaide, and the net result ends up being
a new world order taking place before our very eyes.

We're becoming our own publishers, our own studios, our own rock stars and writers. A revolution is taking place, one that is growing exponentially larger by the second, and I cannot conceive of what the entertainment world will look like in, say, ten years. I sense a downfall of corporate oligarchy, one that may actually prove to be as imprisoning as it is liberating. With no gatekeepers manning the cultural gates, deciding who gets published, or what gets shown, or which song gets listened to, will there even be any benchmarks for quality? If we can publish at will, will we then have the moral fortitude to judge ourselves, censor ourselves, strive for art and perfect our souls in the process?

But perhaps I'm getting off topic.


They are slices of time, lauded for their brevity and wit, two things that I'm not good at. I like stuff long. Big books, big movies, big lives. I like falling into stories and living there, which is why I've never been a super-duper fan of poetry or the short story itself. I want to revel in the infinite. Learning another language, too, especially one as complex as Japanese, is a means by which I can ensure that I will be continually forced to descend to the depths of my stamina and will. I'm trying to figure out how to make blog entries an extension of this quest, a pursuit that somehow enlivens myself and the reader with a link to the infinite, if I may be so bold.

The irony, of course, is that blogs are, by their nature, short. And so, by our natures, are we. Meaning humans. Meaning our time on this earth. Years are passing like months, sunsets and sunrises merging and blurring from pink to gray to black and back, and yet somehow I have to believe, choose to believe, that we can some day, in some way, become eternal, that this new technology, linked to our own determination, can reach the next level, the higher plane, where day and night become one, where blog and novel are pieces and parts of the same extended whole, where nothing can die and we all can stay well, where disease recedes with time and age descends into youth, nature be damned.

Of course, I may be asking too much from you and from me, and ultimately from this, a simple blog.

Or not enough, perhaps. (For we, too, have possibilities.)


Was Thoreau right? Do the mass of men truly lead lives of great desperation? Watching the salarymen on the train each morning, you might think that this is the case. Is this where they want to be going, these men? Huddled together, smashed together, riding through the darkness to the anonymity of their offices, where they can sit side by side for hours on end, staring at blank screens with flashing cursors. Too early to be standing for so long. Too long, beginning and ending each day. Wearing suits that cost too much, and ties that tie too tight. Leaving little room to breathe. The small veins of the neck slightly but persistently bulging against the starched collars. Green against white. And the destination of this hurtling rocket? A financial core that masks the hearts of the men and women, and only demands their humanity in return. (Only!) Let us travel this train as for as it will go, to the end point, and see what we get in return. Endless days and nights that wear out their welcome. Downing alcohol in the billions of pubs that Tokyo has branded. Leaving children barely seen, lives hardly lived. Living room carpets whose colors they cannot remember, bearing stains hardly glimpsed. And up again, tomorrow, before the sun. Rewind. Repeat. And yet here, too, on this train, at a different time, a different day, there is a child, with his mother, staring out the window, pointing. At what? At another train, parallel but moving in the opposite direction. Hinting at another road that may be taken.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Early this ash-grey morning, while sipping hot chocolate at the McDonald's directly across from Iidabashi station in central Tokyo, I noticed a middle-aged woman talking to the person beside her, except that there was nobody beside her. Early forties, hair tied back in a pony-tail. I noticed her nodding, smiling, engaging in a friendly conversation, by the looks of it. But nobody was there. Only her. In her right hand she clutched a stuffed sheep. In front of her, on the counter, the latest CD case by the latest Japanese boy-band balanced itself on its hinges. She was too old for this band, I thought, covertly glancing at the teeny-bopper pictures inside the CD jacket. The lady kept smiling and talking to the air, enjoying herself. As I walked down the stairs a few moments later, my hot chocolate drunk, my day about to begin, I snuck a glance upwards, to see if she was still chatting. She was, but her face looked pained, almost anguished, the kind of short but potent wince you make when someone tells you that they just banged their finger in the bathroom door. The kind of wince that lasts for only a moment or two, but this one lingered across her features. She seemed about to cry, or perhaps she already was, only silently. (Can one weep without tears?)

Saturday, December 01, 2007


Every so often somebody says something that somehow crystallizes a concept in a way that suddenly makes sense. And, given that I'm a child of the Eighties, it should come as no surprise that that 'somebody' the other day, for me, was Michael J.Fox, who made the Thursday night sitcom Family Ties and the Back To The Future trilogy of time-travel films pretty much the highlight of my formative years. (Others worshipped the altars of Jesus or Dickens; I pretty much thought, and still sort of do, that Alex P.Keaton and Marty McFly had the world figured out.)

I watched an old interview with the actor by Charlie Rose on Youtube last weekend, one in which Fox was plugging his autobiography Lucky Me, released a few years ago, a thoughtful, funny, sad and moving examination of his childhood and adolescence in Canada, his superstar status in the States, and his eventual battle with Parkinson's Disease on the cusp of thirty.

Throughout the interview, Fox was bopping back and forth in his chair like a child with ants in his pants, unable to scratch multiple itches in multiple places. (Parkinson's does that.) Fox talked about coming to grips with the disease, and how he ultimately reached a point where he finally came to a fragile sort of peace and realized: "It's not personal."

For some reason, those words floored me.

Being around cancer the past few years, the human brain struggles to figure out how and why such things are allowed to happen. Human lives are disrupted to degrees that are hard to articulate. Fears are brought to the surface, and large things become larger while small things decrease in viability. Everything is magnified or reduced, and at the core of this expansion and reduction are ordinary human beings fighting a grim and lonely battle with microscopic opponents burrowed deep beneath their skin. One's emotional states are suddenly linked directly to which cells are dividing where, and how fast. If it wasn't so sad it would be absurd.

So at first I wasn't sure what to make of what Fox said. How could disease not be personal? It attacks the core of a person's being; it elevates what should be ignored and tends to reduce that which should be exalted. It attacks specific people in specific places. What could be more personal than that?

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right.

Part of Fox's evolution as a person was coming to terms with the fact that his superstar status in Hollywood meant jacksqaut in the face of a debilitating illness. When his father passed away in the late eighties, Fox, at the height of his fame, assured his family back home in British Columbia that he would charter the jet, make the arrangements, avoid the paparazzi, do what needed to be done to get the situation under control, while his big brother back in Vancouver essentially said: "Mike, just get your ass up here." After doing exactly that, getting his ass up there in time for the funeral, Fox almost came to blows with his elder sibling, so zonked out was Fox in his own world of fame and press clippings and fancy cars. And his subsequent understanding of the ramifications of Parkinson's disease led him to understand the fragility of his fame and the randomness of both good luck and bad.

It's not personal.

Sometimes I'll be out on a run, wondering why I've decided to run so far so early, and I'll literally start to resent the road in front of me, which is patently ludicrous. The road is just a road; it doesn't have anything against me. It ain't personal. When work piles up and paperwork becomes a pain, I start to resent the paperwork, too, as if it's a sentient being with its own malevolent intentions. It ain't personal. When bureaucracy rears its ugly head in embassies and elsewhere, I roll my eyes and curse the heavens, finally realizing: It ain't personal.

The world has its own internal geiger counter that measures frequencies and alphawaves that exist on another, impenetrable plane. Even when things do get personal, it usually has very little do with us; rather, the other person has their own issues that latch on us as a convenient target.

Perhaps it's an evolutionary tendency, or a remnant of the 'pathetic fallacy' I first heard about it in high school English class while reading Shakespeare, the literary notion that nature mirrors the protagonists' dilemmas. When we are blue, the gloomy skies mirror our darkened states, and when bliss pervades us, the skies, too, seem to celebrate the sunshine. We thus extrapolate even further, blaming and extolling not only our fellow humans but our closest surroundings, as if they are collaborators with our internal malaise. Do ants feel this way? Do deer? I don't think so. They live their lives in spite of the environment, and all other external conditions; only us elevated specimens of life start to see the heavens and the citites as instigators in our own evolution, conspirators against our journey through existence.

When disease strikes, as it will; when age steadily unfolds the red carpet for us to tread on, as it must; when day turns to night, as fortune dictates; when the sky turns from blue to grey and black (and back again), I think the net result is the same: It ain't personal.

To believe that we are being singled out for good or for bad necessitates believing that the universe itself has a particular stake in our own daily comings and goings. Those who are religious may believe that this is so, but for the rest of us, what's important is to realize that the very impersonality of life's endless array of events may, in fact, lead us to a deeper level of understanding, and empathy, and compassion. Is it personal that I have two legs and two arms and can therefore comfortably stroll to the local 7-11 for a refreshing chocolate milk, while the lonely-looking wheelchair-bound person near the station this morning must slowly roll his way home in the cool autumn air? Is it personal that I can see while others stay blind? Is it personal that cancer strikes some but not others?

What's personal is simply the person at the core of who we are, the person we invent on a daily basis, the one who must calmly do battle with life's greater opponents, who demands that we take pleasure from life's smaller joys. To think otherwise is to believe that life is out to get us, stomping us down, walking all over us, when perhaps the secret truth is that we can dictate where we stand, and why, almost in spite of life. It isn't personal, but we are.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


It is getting colder and colder here, but soon I will be warm again. My body has steadily armed itself against winter's invasive chill, as autumn abruptly sneaks and shifts into a harsher form of frost, but upon returning to the Philippines in less than a month, the sun will once again, almost improbably, inevitably blatantly, find a vulgar means by which to reclaim its rightful domain over my prickly flesh. My body will unconsciously relax, then relent. The normal systems of seasons will once again be abolished, unwillingly, by my skin's mysterious coping mechanisms. All sense of cycles, of leaves falling, ice crackling, plants sprouting and birds singing exist now in an alternate area of my life. I have not seen snow in two or three years. It is there, in other places, of this I am sure, but not on the streets I have tread. My ears have not turned pink with the brunt of February's blatant daggers. March's steady thaw means nothing to me now. The seasons shift and change from country to country with a pace that leaves me scrambling for some sense of stability. Measuring time by the shifting of the winds and the date on the calendar seems like a relic from another version of my past. By allowing a new form of weather to guide me, one that bobs and weaves from country to country across this Asian archetype I tread, I find myself looking at life again, adjusted. Like studying a new language, I am forced to recognize different ports and alternate access points. The world is bigger and wider than I once imagined it to be, with new words and unfamiliar winds. I can now step out into the day and confront subtle breezes and staggered syntax with a brazen sense of foolish confidence, for I now know that I will use each of my steps to somehow create a pace and face the confusion. I will somehow, weather willing, find my way to where it is I am supposed to be, no matter the season.

Friday, November 23, 2007


I saw a teenage student sleeping on the train the other day. A teenage boy, standing up. Leaning against the door as the carriage richocheted through the night. He was wearing a dark blue suit with bright gold buttons lining the front from stern to collar, the standard uniform of Japanese adolescents across the country, a lingering remnant of the Prussian army's influence on the orient. As he slept, being swayed this way and that way by the gentle but insistent rocking of the train, I thought: He's going to miss his stop. He' standing, but he's sleeping, and he's going to miss his stop. I was sure of it. But then, only moments later, the train stopped, and the boy's eyes popped open, and he stumbled out the door, bag in hand, jacket tucked tight. I'd underestimated him. He'd known all along where he was going, and when he would get there. He knew his path, and what was expected of him to stay on its course. I saw something that was not true, without his awareness, and believed it to be so. Suddenly I felt smaller, and wondered what unseen stranger might be watching me right now the same way I'd just watched this boy, and forming similar certainties about my life based on a casual, superficial glance. I looked at everyone around me and realized I knew none of them, nor could even guess at their depths. We were all separate but united by our walls. And the fallibility of my own judgements suddenly felt like a tonic, like cold water swabbed gently on a warm forehead.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Is Japan becoming a fascist state?

You would certainly think so, given the attention given in the Japanese English-speaking media (as small as that is, and as localized as it necessarily is) to the fact that visitors to this country, as of a few days ago, must now submit to fingerprinting and photographing upon arrival at the nation's airports. Must stand in line for an extra twenty, thirty, possibly even sixty minutes. Must be faced with the humiliation of being branded a potential terrorist, essentially, each and every time they enter the country, as the new procedure is, ostensibly, being initiated to prevent Japan from ruthless attacks by nefarious criminals.

Where are our human rights? the detractors claim. Is Japan becoming even more xenophobic? (Which is an unsettling claim, given that the country isn't always so hospitable -- legally, at any rate -- to foreigners in the first place. How much more 'Big Brother' can we get here?)

All of which I agree with.

But, sad to say, I find myself shrugging my shoulders. Not all that agitated over the new regulations. Wondering, to a degree, what the hell all the fuss is about.

Maybe if I travelled more frequently in and out of the country, I would recognize the situation as the pain-in-the-ass it undoubtedly is. Maybe if I was an ethnic minority, I would see it as a gross infringement on my rights, an attempt to keep tabs on my whereabouts, an actualization of a permanent, lingering suspicion of all things foreign.

As it is, the way I see it is: Japan doesn't fuck around.

By that I mean, they don't do anything half-assed. (Officially.) When something is done, instigated, legislated, all efforts are made to make it appear to be full-throttle, full speed ahead. (Officially.)

So if the country is trying to prevent terrorist attacks, is trying to regulate precisely who is and who isn't coming through the gates that lead to their cities, then fingerprinting and photographing is certainly a first step.

Is this fair?

I dunno.

Is it right?

I'm not sure.

But I think some of the anxiety, outrage and downright hysteria exhibited by foreign commentators here in Japan stems from something else. Something larger. A sense that our lives are not in our own hands. That there are other forces, larger forces, telling us what to do and where to go. We are little more than marionettes on the strings of an invisible puppeteer, essentially. The fury directed at Japan is, in the end, a rage stemming from our own, pathetic malleability, an unacknowledged acknowledgement that we have very little control over what we do and how we do it. We are individuals refusing to accept our lack of individual autonomy.

Whereas, from the Japanese perspective, I think the viewpoint would be akin to: We are a group-oriented society. Individual needs are secondary to those of the society at large. As a foreigner, you are entering our domain, our society, our world, and we must be sure that you are not doing anybody any harm, or plan on doing anybody any harm. You may be right: our new procedures may be nothing more than a smokescreen, an inefficient, time-consuming way to show our society that we are doing something about the terrorism problem. But if it assuages Japanese fears, if it gives the public the sense that their welfare is being considered, than your momentary discomfort, your individual anxiety, is a worthy sacrifice for the good of the whole.

And the sacrifice being: you have to wait awhile longer while being processed into the country, and you have to submit to your photos and fingerprints each and every time.

Maybe it's because I've been reading books about hyperspace and alternate dimensions and multiple universes existing only millimetres away. Maybe it's because I tend to not worry about something until it's affected me, personally. Maybe it's because the world is large, I am small, and there always has been, and always will be, exterior elements seeking to strangle me into submission. Maybe it's because I've lived in two very, very poor countries that have governments that would make banana republics look like burgeoning democracies. Or maybe it's because of the bomb blast that ripped through the Philippines' government a few weeks back. All of these ideas, incidents, tangents, give me pause, and in that pause, that gap, that space between my intellect and my heart, I find myself wondering: There is more to life to be anxious about than fingerprints and long lines.

This may be politically naive. This may be hopelessly lackadaisacal, on my part, an acquiesence to unfair government restrictions on personal liberty. I get that viewpoint, and shit -- I almost agree with it.

It's just that, the events of the past few years have taught me one basic thing: Life, isn't, fair. Life fucks us around, and does with us what it will, and while it's human, natural, even necessary to define ourselves by the events that control us, it's also essential to choose, when we can, the battles we seek to fight. The wars we want to wage. And after seeing deadly diseases work their way through human flesh, cell by cell, I think: A long line? A couple of fingerprints? An indifferent, bland, docile government deaf and blind to the concerns of taxpayers, domestic and foreign?


I cannot choose to get excited over this. I cannot choose to get perturbed over this. All we have in life are the choices we make, and for all those seeking to practically impale themselves on the riteousness of their own indignation over these new restrictions, I find myself sympathetic, but, essentially, shrugging my shoulders. Go see a Cambodian court in full swing. Count the dead during a Philippines' election campaign. You want to see human rights trampled on, watch those countries in action.

Nobody wants to be fingerprinted, or treated like a thief. And my tune could change in the future, with new tones and varying sharps and flats added to my admittedly ragged score. But I still think that the brevity of life demands a necessary degree of proportion in our responses to its inevitable invasions. Inflating our outrage over this, when life may soon have some yet-to-be-defined that waiting in the wings, makes a subtle mockery of all that is truly gross and undignified about the human experience.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Halfway through Hannibal Rising, the new novel by Thomas Harris, the one featuring the origins of popular culture's favorite cannibal, I found myself actually rooting for the protagonist, hoping that he'd kill more, even eat more, and by the end of the book, I finally understood why Hannibal had worn a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey jersey at the end of the previous installment, and the genius of this entire series of suspense books is that Hannibal's evil has been built, piece by piece, with such seemingly innocuous components, all of which wind their way back, ultimately, to the darkest parts of our innermost selves.

Critics have not been kind to this book, but I've never been kind to critics, either, and I think they're missing the point, completely, much as the filmmakers behind Hannibal, the movie adaptation of the self-same book, also completely missed the boat by altering the novel's crucial, essential, mind-blowing ending.

The central problem is that Harris is not doing what popular fiction normally does, nor what his publishers are saying he's doing. He is not interested in doing the song-and-dance slasher suspense novel, even though his stories are, ostensibly, exactly that. Instead, novel by novel, he's slowly, slyly, shoving our love for Hannibal right in our face, and, hopefully, making us wonder what, exactly, we're loving, and why, and what that may say about the nature of our souls.

Much of the scorn heaped upon Harris this time around has to do with the fact that he is, essentially, explaining Hannibal Lecter: How he became evil, why he eats people, why he's cultured yet cannibalistic -- the whole deal. (Much the same way that George Lucas 'explained' Darth Vader in the most recent Star Wars prequels, another series that I think the critics are completely missing the boat on.)

According to his (many) detractors, Harris is essentially giving away the game, like a magician revealing his long-cherished secrets, robbing this twisted icon of his own particular mystery, taking a gothic, mythic, even iconic figure of modern horror, a symbol of our collective nightmares, and performing Freudian surgery on his literary carcass. To explain the mystery is to dissolve the mystery, they say.

Well, perhaps.

All of that would be true, were Hannibal Lecter meant to be nothing more than a symbol of ghoulish evil, a more civilized version of Jason, or Freddy Krueger, or Michael Myers.

But that would be assuming that Harris is setting out to do what it is that his critics are saying he's setting out to do.

Harris, however, is out for something larger. He's trying to explain ourselves, and why it is that Hannibal himself has become such an attraction for all of us.

The reason why his previous book, Hannibal, was so absolutely genius was because Harris flipped over like a pancake everything we loved and respected and admired about Clarice Starling in Silence Of The Lambs, this modern-day heroine whose resilience helped earn Jodie Foster a well-deserved Oscar. This symbol of feminine strength, this sympathetic character who triumphed over the premature deaths of her parents, this brilliant FBI agent who battled wits so ably and aptly with Hannibal himself, ends up falling in love with Hannibal. Running away with Hannibal. Together. The two of them. Off into the sunset. Cue the music.

This kind of stuff just doesn't happen in popular fiction. Subverting all the goodwill we've generated for Clarice? Absolutely annihilating everything we (thought we) knew about her? I couldn't believe it when I read it, and I wasn't surprised when Jodie Foster declined to return for the sequel, or when director Ridley Scott ultimately didn't end up including it in the conclusion to the inevitable cinematic adaptation.

It was as if Harris was saying: You think Hannibal is so charismatic? You think he's such a suave, attractive, sophisticated-yet-creepy figure? Fine. I'm going to allow the law-abiding woman who resisted all his ghoulish enticements to give in to her own worst impulses and run off with the dude. What do you think of him now? What do you think of her? What do you think of yourself? Are you horrified? Repelled? Tell me. Tell yourself.

Clarice Starling represented us, the readers, the watchers: watching Hannibal from a distance, but able to resist his charms. So much of modern cinema and fiction allows us to play a coy little dance with destructiin and depravity, murder and blood. We can watch it and be comforted by the fact that the monster is just that -- a monster -- and the heroes, though tempted, are able to resist, and defeat, the monster's charms.

Uh-uh, Harris responded. You ain't getting off that easy.

Similarly, in the recently released Hannibal Rising, Harris is forcing us to reexamine how far we are willing to go in our appreciation, understanding and, yes, attraction to Hannibal Lecter. We see him as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult. We see him attempting to track and torment the Nazis who tortured him as a youth and destroyed his sister. We end up rooting for Hannibal, because we can see, quite vividly, where he came from, the evil that was perpetrated upon him, and the black gap inside of him that refuses to remember the ultimate, vilest horror, and the one that explains, somewhat, to the degree that it can be explained, why he eats the flesh of others.

(I won't reveal why he eats others, because I think it's an absolutely genius psychological explanation, but I can say this: It has more to do with self-punishment than any other reason, and it can be almost understood as a form of perpetual flagellation. Which only adds layers to Hannibal's depravity; it only enhances, not reduces, the darkness of his depths.)

Those who dislike the book are free to diss it on aesthetic grounds: it's a little skimpy, and the plot meanders from here to there, and, as a pure suspense book, I've read better.

But there's something lurking beneath the surface of the words, of the story, layered beneath that precise, elegant prose that Harris so subtly weaves.

Let us look at this character, this Hannibal that you love so well, he is saying. Let us see where he's coming from. Let us peer into his darkness and see what there is -- or isn't -- left to see.

For it's no coincidence, I think, that the genesis of Hannibal the Cannibal coincides with the basest depravities perpetrated during World War II. It's not without logic, I believe, that Harris is tracking the mutation of one innocent child as he similary tracks the degeneration of an entire civilization through the aftermath of the Second World War.

By allowing Hannibal to become the hero, by generating even more empathy for his abhorrent behavior, Harris is implicating us, too. Why are we attracted to this darkness? he seems to be asking. Why do we love so longingly a vile character such as this? Can we recognize ourselves, perhaps? By peering in to Hannibal's heart, he is trying to illuminate our own darkness.

And yet, despite all of these biographical details, despite the logical genesis behind such abhorrent acts, Harris acknowledges that there still remains a part of Hannibal Lecter that can never be fathomed. By him. By us. An allowance for atrocities, whatever their justifications, can perhaps lead us into rooms that cannot be exited.

But back to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

I always wondered why, at the end of the previous installment in the series, Hannibal, Harris had portrayed his lead character wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey as he made his exit from the authorities on an overseas flight. Sure, the notorious killer was trying to appear casual, nondescript, a regular civilian type of person, I get that, but where would somebody as sophisticated as Hannibal Lecter have even found the knowledge of Canada's preeminent hockey power? It didn't gibe. Didn't seem authentic.

Hannibal Rising explains why. Not directly, but there's an interlude in Canada, a brief but important one, and though nothing is ever overtly linked back to that jersey worn so briefly in the previous book, it's all a part of the sly little puzzle Harris is piecing together, chapter by chapter, book by book.

Don't destroy the bogeyman, his critics are saying. Don't explain the monster.

Ah, but don't you see? I feel like telling the critics. Harris is not creating a monster for your literary halloween costume parties. He is trying to explain the unexplainable. He is foraging through the corners of our own psyches, so ably imagined as Hannibal's Memory Palace, the rooms in his mind that he enters at will, and the doors locked so tight that even he cannot open them.

He is shining a weak but persistent light into the darkness, and that darkness emerges not from the heart of Hannibal Lecter, but from ourselves.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


"I had a quick grasp of the secret to sanity. It had become the ability to hold the maximum of impossible combinations in one's mind."

-- Norman Mailer

There is no tragedy in the death of an old man, the famous saying says, but the death of American writer Norman Mailer at the age of 84 sure as hell feels like one to me.

He was the first writer I ever read that showed me what good writing could be, or what it should be; he was the first writer that seemed to endorse the necessity of having interests that were not only voracious in their velocity but almost random in their application. That randomness was symptomatic of his roving imagination, for here was a man who wrote novels and non-fiction about Hitler and Marilyn Monroe, Picasso and Jesus, Lee Harvey Oswald and the C.I.A., ancient Egypt and World War II, Muhammed Ali and executed killer Gary Gilmor, and only last year completed the first of a projected seven (!) volume fictional examination of Adolf Hitler's childhood, as narrated by a minion of the devil. He allowed his interests to go everywhere and seek everything.

I had the great good fortune to have him autograph his book on Picasso for me in the mid-nineties, when he dropped by the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto for a lecture and a signing. During the Q and A, I asked him if there were any similarities between Picasso and the subject of his previous book, Lee Harvey Oswald. The snooty artistes in the crowd snickered at this twenty-one year old kid's rather inane question, but I've never forgotten the fact that Mailer himself took it quite seriously, and answered it quite seriously. When I lined up and got him to sign my copy of his book, I asked him for some writing advice: "Write from the gut," he said. "And if you tell yourself that you're going to write in the morning, get up and write in the morning." He scrawled something illegible above his signature, something I couldn't recognize, so I meekly made my way back to the table and asked his assistant for clarification. She couldn't make it out, either, so she gently tapped him on the shoulder, and he looked at what he wrote, and he looked at me and smiled and said: "Sverte! It means 'good luck'," he said. (In Yiddish? I'm not sure.)

He was not only an American original but an original, period. He directed independent films and ran for mayor of New York and ran a few miles with Muhammed Ali in the early morning chill of an African morning. But everything that emerged from the man came from the core of his writing, from his stated desire to write the big book that would make Tolstoy and Faulkner and Hemingway and Stendahl his worthy compatriots.

Whenever I feel bound in by the arbitrary restrictions of life, I remember the boundless roaming of his imaginative ardor, his ability to push his own artistic talent to its own unreachable limits. He not only demonstrated what good writing could be, but also what we could be, too -- us, humans, those existential warriors he chronicled so tremendously well, and so consistently. If only we were reckless and brave enough to follow through on the courage of our own convictions, we might approach something worthy of ourselves.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


I always thought that it was kind of perverse that Quentin Tarantino cast Robert DeNiro, probably the greatest American actor since Marlon Brando, in a key role in Jackie Brown, only to have it end up being a part where DeNiro had almost nothing to say, being that he portrayed a mumbling, inarticulate ex-con who spent most of his time stoned, getting stoned, wanting sex or having sex. At the time, it seemed to me like brilliant anti-casting, in a sense, giving the audience the actor who we most want, but not giving him much to say, or do, or act.

But I just read a quote from another brilliant actor, Daniel Day Lewis, in the current issue of The New York Times magazine online, which made me realize that I had it all wrong. (Which is usually the case, I'm afraid.)

Lewis states:

People who delight in conversation are often using that as a means to not say what is on their minds. When I became interested in theater, the work I admired was being done by working-class writers. It was often about the inarticulate. I later saw the same thing in DeNiro's early work -- it was the most sublime struggle of a man trying to express himself. There was such poetry in that for me...

I now know and understand that I had it all backwards. DeNiro's best work had always been as characters trying, sometimes in vain, often with varying degrees of limited success, to articulate ideas that they could not find the words for: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, True Confessions, Awakenings, and even his comedic work in Meet The Parents and Analyze This. These are people who have a lot going on inside of them, but do not quite know how to put it. Or when they do speak out, it's usually mangled and inappropriate, the wrong words at the wrong time. (Think of DeNiro inviting Jodie Foster out on a date to a porno movie in Taxi Driver, then being puzzled by her sickened reaction.) When we see that struggle, we see ourselves.

Thinking, too, of one of my favorite movies, Rocky, and how each main character throughout the film doesn't know quite what to say or how to say it. (And how Stallone was capable, thirty years later, of so succesfully replicating that hesitant, groping, working-class vulnerability, stripped of pretension, in Rocky Balboa.)

Or think about some of the most cinematic characters of recent years that have touched people the most: Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II, silent and brooding, or Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, his face a blank slate strew across a world colored mad, or Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, or Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, a death-row prisoner stuck within the walls of himself, or as the mentally-challenged Starbucks worker in I Am Sam (a brilliant performance in a terrible movie), or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, limited by his own, erratic brilliance, or even Matt Damon in the Bourne movies, too frenetic and driven to announce his own insecurities, or as the lifelong C.I.A. man in the underappreciated The Good Shepherd, too duty bound by tradition and family and expectation to even hint at his own, private heart. All characters that have volcanoes churning inside of them, both pleasant and volatile and mysterious and benign, and they are not capable of saying what it is that they want, or need.

In this world of unending Facebook updates and blathering blogs, where we're constantly telling each other what we feel and how we're doing and what we're doing and what we think in extended, unasked for monologues, it's somewhat startling to comprehend that the most moving works of art are usually the ones that acknowledge the inarticulate nature within us all.

Especially when we watch such characters up there, on the giant screen, we wonder. We wait for them to speak, anticipating what they may or may not say, and when they don't say the right words, or enough of them, we are quietly pulled in. Tugged in, almost. And when they do attempt to connect it is often never enough, and their humanity, their reality, quietly becomes something else, something real that we can recognize as ourselves writ large.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


Try to follow these words, from Japanese-American physicist Michio Kaku:

Hyperspace is space beyond three dimensions of space and one dimension of time. Historically, scientists thought that Hyperspace did not exist. Now we believe that that in Hyperspace there is enough room to unify all fundamental forces. Four dimensions of space-time are too small to unify the four fundamental forces.

Got that?

How about this:

Time is like a river. It bends and flows around the universe. Time may also have whirlpools and also may fork into two rivers. In this way, time-travel may be possible. However, you have to have the Plank energy to create a time machine or the energy of a Black Hole. That is far beyond our technology.

And what about this:

We believe that a multiverse of universes exist like bubbles floating in Nothing. Each bubble forms a quantum fluctuation in Nothing. We feel that as this bubble forms, its matter is dominated by strings and membranes which create musical notes which we see as particles of the universe.

Do you get all that?

I sure as hell don't.

But I love, love, fucking love reading about it. Thinking about it. Thinking about why I love reading and thinking about it. (Because it hints at the possible, damn it! All around us is negativity and despair and cynicism, but this has the freedom and energy of possibility! Gleaming like the shiniest and most noble of my childhood marbles. 'Steelies', we used to call them. The giant ones, the ones we horded, even treasured.)

I don't understand most of what he talks about, but that's what gives me glee. I very recently enjoyed reading his non-fiction, science-for-the-masses book, Hyperspace, from the early 1990's, but I could hardly even comprehend the gist of it. Kaku talks about wormholes and other dimensions, the possibilities of travelling forward into the future or backward into the past, the nature of blackholes and the uncertainty surrounding the fundamentals of string theory. All of which is beyond me. (And maybe you, too, though I won't presume to judge.)

Nevertheless, it gets me thinking.

Fantastic images and notions to consider, chew over, ruminate upon. Our universe as one of many soap bubbles, say, floating next to another soap-bubble universe, each independent, each isolated, never to be linked.


Wormholes. Wormholes hold the key. (Perhaps.) Wormholes are how we will travel between alternate dimensions and universes that may lay little more than a centimetre next to our own. (Maybe). Literally, a centimetre, or a millimetre, separates us from another, floating universe. The problem, as alluded to in one of the quotes listed above, is that man, at the moment, at the present, at this very second, does not have the technology or energy necessary to even begin contemplating accessing or creating such a wicked-cool wormhole. (Check back with me in a couple of hundred thousand years, and we'll talk.)

What's wonderful, though, about Kaku's book, and his theories in general, is that they are based in reality. (A reality that I don't understand.) And in science. (A science that I don't understand.) Theories of reality, perhaps, but nevertheless: these are not merely science-fiction fantasies. They contain, if not depth, at the least the possibly of weight.

Crude distillations of some of his thoughts follow below:

Why haven't we encountered aliens? Or, to take a different, more intriguing tack: why haven't they contacted us?

Kaku offers some novel scenarios.

Despite the meticulously intricate nature of the cosmos, and its enormity, and its complexity, and even given the randomness of evolution, and even given all of these complicated factors, the scientific odds indicate that we should have been able to find traces of extraterrestrial life out there somewhere. The fact that we haven't indicates:

1) Perhaps another alien civilization, much older than our own, has simply blown itself up. Obliberated itself. If such a civilization were to have developed along similar lines as our own, they may very well have created nuclear-type devices; and, if they were as short-sighted and animalistic as we appear to be, they may have warred with one another and decimated one another eons ago, even before the Big Bang. (Oh, which reminds me: Kaku has some really cool stuff to say about the Big Bang. Everybody always asks: "What happened before the Big Bang? Nothing can come from nothing!" True. But perhaps the Big Bang was the result of, and had a relationship with, another, neighbouring universe. Or dimension. Our universe may be just another fold in a very complicated, very layered ensemble, so its formation, our formation, could just be another wrinkle in that fold...)

2) Perhaps there are other, alien beings out there, but they are on a different evolutionary timeline than our own. Meaning, it is very, very, very unlikely that a different, distinct form of life would have evolved at exactly the same pace as we did (Or are still doing.) Impossible, actually, for alien creatures in vastly different and diverging parts and points of space to evolve simultaneously, and at the same rate. So perhaps evolution is taking place elsewhere, in other galaxies, but these creatures are doing so at a considerable distance and at a rapidly slower (or faster) rate than us, us being humans; perhaps they are still nothing more than the cosmic dust that we once were, moments after the Big Bang, or perhaps they evolved light years before us and are undectable, or simply distant, to our humble humans.

3) Perhaps, and this is my favorite, we are simply not that interesting to aliens. Kaku has a wonderful analogy: When we see a family of ants merrily traipsing along the dirt, do we, as humans, feel compelled to bend down and say: "Here here, little fellas! You young chaps are so primitive! Let us share with you our industrial engineering designs and our computer networks! Let us teach you about YouTube and cameraphones! Let us debate the traumatic replacement of Bob Barker over on The Price is Right. Let us discuss irrigation techniques and their applicability to your daily life!" No. What do we do? We either a) ignore ants, because, after all, they're creepy little buggers, insignificant insects that hold little charm or allure, or b) we kick the ants into the dirt and watch them die.

So, and this is the interesting part, and the humbling part: perhaps there are, indeed, alien entities out there in the cosmos that are so far advanced in their development that our puny attempts at cosmic communication are nothing more than the barely-audible squeal of ants to their elevated intellectual ears. They see us, perhaps; they know we're here, quite possibly. They just don't give a shit. We are ants beneath their rapid and rumbling footsteps...

I find that notion both wildly amusing and disturbingly possible.

And that what Kaku is alluding to: the possible. Not even the probable, really: only the possible.

Another analogy he offers is that of a school of fish merrily swimming in the water, not realizing that they are in water, not knowing what water is, thinking that the ocean is the world, and they are the masters of the current. Suddenly one of their members is plucked by a giant, well, something out of their world and into another universe, one that had scarcely been contemplated even moments before. Where did their friend the fish go? Who took him? The universe of the fish had come undone, utterly and completely.

We are the fish (perhaps). The possibilities inherent in hyperspace (or the presence of aliens) are the equivalent to the human hand grasping the fish from its lair (perhaps).

When you think about it, it reduces us. And yet, at the same time, it's wonderfully liberating.

All our concerns, our foibles, our problems with the boss, the faucet that won't quit dripping, the noisy neighbour next door, the dude with b.o. in line at the bank, the fridge that won't freeze, all of that shit, is happening in a place and a realm that may be merely one fragment of a piece of a segment of a universe that exists in a floating-space bubble that, if properly utilizied, could eventually serve as a bridge between our dimension and the other ten. (Yes, apparently there are, like, ten fucking dimensions. As I said before: I don't get it. But that's the charm...)

In our smallness we can thereby better grasp the infinite.

Time-travel, alternate dimensions, different planes of reality: all may be happening, now, as we speak (and as I write), but technology hinders us from accessing such information until a few more thousands of years have passed.

Given my adolescent (and ongoing, truth be told) obsession with the Back To The Future trilogy, it's no surprise that my favorite parts of Kaku's book have to do with his speculations about time-travel, but he has a section near the end of the book that kind of chilled me. Kind of floored me.

In the past two or three years, the debate around global warming, the elevation of Al Gore to a messiah status, the realization that we may be doing irreparable harm to our plant, somewhat overshadows Kaku's ultimate conclusion regarding humanity: In the end, the ultimate end, the universe's end, we're all fucked anyways. (My words, not his.)

Consider this, from an interview with Kaku:

Our universe will die in ice rather than fire. Our universe, eventually, trillions and trillions of years from now, will reach near absolute zero, making intelligent life impossible. Therefore, we may have to escape into Hyperspace if we are to survive the death of the universe.

If I'm understanding correctly (which is never a sure thing with me, having barely survived Grade 12 Physics), Kaku is stating that the universe, our universe, which means Earth, our Earth, including your house, is doomed. Not now, of course; not even millenia from now. Trillions of years from now, the entire universe will chill out, literally, and die. Finding a way to access the upper ten dimensions of Hyperspace -- perhaps through wormholes, perhaps through technology that will exist in a trillion years -- will be humanity's only hope.

Now, I'm not knocking Al Gore. He's doing a lot of good. But perhaps the most inconvenient truth is the one stated above, that the universe, eventually, will go away. Freeze up. Crack apart. And everything in it will be gone. No matter how much we protect our planet in order to pass it on in one piece to our great-great-grandkids, it is, our planet, in the end, a goner. So saving our earth for generations a century from now, even a millenium from now, is all well and good, but the humans inhabiting earth a trillion years from now will die anyways. (Just as you and I will.) So saving the environment of the earth is not enough; for the sake of our descendants a trillion years from now, we have to figure out how to not only save the planet, not only escape the planet, but also how to escape the universe and access higher dimensions.

It all makes my head spin.

As Marty McFly said so eloquently: "Whoa. This is heavy."

But it gives me a cold sort of comfort.

Being an agnostic-bordering-on-atheist, I sometimes wonder what the point of it all is. This life. This world. So much senseless pain. Such a finite time.

But Fuku's speculations hint at other worlds, and other realms, and other dimensions. Time is not a straight line, but curve upon curve. Time is linked to how and where we are going. We may, someday, thousands of years from now, be able to go forward and back. Parallel universes might be possible -- where there might very well be another me, and another you. The road taken was took, in essence, somewhere else. Somewhere close. (Only a bubble away!)

Silly, really, but I feel less alone, considering these possibilities. I may be small, but there is much out there, elsewhere. Our time may be short, but larger avenues await us, should we dare. I feel comforted, even warmed, by talk of the universe disappearing in ice. By almost-ludicrous suggestions of accessing higher dimensions as are only way out.

I'm not sure why this is. Sometimes I'm riding home on the train, surrounded by sleeping salarymen, in a country far from home, trying to read a language not my own, and I feel: This is not where I'm supposed to be. (Where that is, I'm not sure.)

But then I think of Hyperspace, and the possibilities of realm upon realm upon realm, and Fuku's observations that all we have learned since World War II is more knowledge than that which has ever been learned in the history of humanity up until that point, and I think about his assertions that the future is vastly unpredictable, historically unextrapolatable, because who, after all, predicted the internet twenty years ago, or YouTube five years ago, and by thinking these thoughts, and by realizing the smallness of myself in the enormity of space, I can feel comfortably contained in my sleek Japanese train, sailing through the Tokyo suburbs. I can marvel at our capacity to grow. I can believe that we may destroy ourselves and our world, yes, and perhaps soon, certainly, but I can also choose to believe that we might, given time, given a trillion years or two, finally begin to understand what else is out there, and save ourselves, if we are brave enough and patient enough and pass on what we know. Hoping against hope that it will lead to the next growth, and the next, and the one after that. That my touch and your words are somehow linked in a chain that will elevate us, eventually, to higher, other realms, should we give as gifts to others the knowledge that we know.

Thinking such thoughts, as the day comes to a close and the sky grows dark, I look out the window, at the passing houses, the drifting stations, sometimes snatching a glimpse of our small and glowing moon, mine and yours. The size of a quarter, strangely hovering in the sky. Given the enormity of space, and the proximity of other dimensions a soap-bubble away, Canada suddenly seems not so far; the moon itself seems not so distant. (It fits in my palm! I think, looking through the window.) The universe may dissolve in ice at the end of time, but we are also here, now, and the moon's silver glow somehow seems to warm me more than I can say.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


I saw her through the window. She was walking away. I was standing still. She was outside. I was passing through a hallway, near a stairwell. The day was drawing to a close. The sky was shaded a slight but vivid shade of ash-stained grey. I couldn't tell her age. She may have been a teacher, or a student. She may have been middle-aged, or young. There was nothing special about her. There was nothing special about me, watching her. Nothing more than a glimpse. But I thought: I will remember this moment. An absurd thought, really. There was nothing about that instant in time to distinguish itself. Nothing worthy of memory. We should remember the important moments, not the mundane ones. But still, I told myself: You will remember this moment. You will watch her walk away, out of sight. And once she's gone, exited from the window frame, returned to her life and out of your gaze, you will go back to your classroom. You will return to your day just as she has returned to her night. And so that's what I did, and I taught my class, and that girl, that lady, that woman, age unknown, name unknown, faceless, nothing more than a distant, strolling figure, disappeared. Out of sight. But it was the ordinariness of that moment that I wanted to remember. I almost felt bad for that moment, that spot in time. I felt sorry for its plainness, as if the instant itself was separate from me, tangible and capable of being hurt. By remembering it I can grasp those few seconds and acknowledge their intangibility. By holding it tight I can slowly let it go.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


To those who think I've been rather rude in not responding to my comments recently, I can only put forth my own technical ineptitude. For some reason or another, I can't seem to post a comment on my own blog! Not sure why. The gods have it in for me? Nah. The gods have other stuff on their mind, me thinks...

In any event, your comments are appreciated! (Just not, you know, answerable. At the moment...)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


If you're ever looking for a 'ten minute haircut', I know just the place.

I've noticed these little venues a few times at various places in and around Tokyo. Little barber shops, essentially, usually embedded in the heart of a train station. The other day I was bopping back from picking up a couple of used books, and I was rushing through Ikebukoro Station -- me and ten, fifteen thousand other people -- and I saw one. One of the 'ten minute haircut' places. And me, not being particularly concerned about the latest style, the newest trend, the most current and happening hair-related fashions, figured 'fuck it'. Why not give it a shot.

What you do is, once you've wandered inside, and the automatic doors have done their opening-and-closing routine, you buy a ticket. That's right, a ticket. You put your thousand yen into the machine (roughly ten bucks), and out pops a ticket, and down you sit, and you wait.

There were two stylists, one male, one female, both in their twenties. They were hard at work on people's heads. Their motions seemed to be synchronized, these two. They finished at the same time. Took out a small mirror to show the customer the back of the head at the same time. Almost even bowed at the same time.

And then they both took out a vacuum hose and vacuumed their client's head.

Is this normal?

Is this usually done?

Do other salons, classy salons, non-ten-minute salons in other countries vacuum people's heads? I'm just wondering.

And I don't mean that it was an elegant, expensive hair dryer that had a suction cup nestled delicately on the tip; I mean it was a vacuum hose, and they vacuumed the person's head.

Soon it was my turn.

My bag was on the floor, by my chair, but the stylist motioned me to put it into the cabinet in front of the barber chair. Of course. There was a space provided. I took off my classes and placed them in a plastic case. Of course. There was a case provided. I told her how I wanted my head to look. She politely nodded and got to work.

Ten minutes later, precisely, I was done.

She took out another vacuum hose, different than the one that had moments before suffocated (but not unpleasantly) my head, and all of my hacked-away brown hair, which lay haphazardly decorating the white pristine floor, was suddenly sucked away into a whole in the side of the wall.

And that was that.

Sides clipped. Back snipped. Front closely trimmed.

And my whole head, of course, vacuumed.

In ten minutes.

How does it look?

Well, not much different actually.

By the end of the cut I was thinking: Ten minutes doesn't quite cut it. (So to speak.) I wanted it a little shorter at the back, a little closer cut on top.

But hey.

My ten minutes were up.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


A bomb blast that killed eight people and wounded seventy others in the Philippines yesterday occurred at the Glorieta shopping center in the business district of Makati, right in the heart of Manila, and I soon learned that this was the same mall at which I bought a copy of a new Arnold Schwarzenegger biography a little over a year ago, and once again the world has become smaller, and closer, and tactile.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Last week I mentioned to a group of students that I was a big fan of Haruki Murakami, the Japanese writer recently rumored to be up for the Nobel Prize in Literature (and ultimately won by Doris Lessing), and one young girl of twenty sitting in class said: "Oh, he's my neighbour! He lives in the town one over from me! He's good friends with the parents of my best friend, and she remembers him disciplining her as a child."

(What I sometimes love about living abroad, and its casual sense of displacement: I can mention, offhand, one of my favorite writers in class, and a student, offhand, will tell me that he's her neighbour.)

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is probably the most popular modern Japanese writer in the western world, if only because there are very few modern Japanese novels translated in the first place, and even though his latest book was just released here in Japan, I doubt it will be translated into English.

Why is that?

Because it doesn't fit into the perception of who he is as a writer in England and America and Canada and Australia.

The typical Haruki Murakami novel is an odd, rambling, metaphysical and philosophical exploration into the ordinary lives of ordinary Japanese people living humdrum lives, who nevertheless somehow find themselves on mysterious symbolic journeys into the underworld of our collective unconscious. (Rendered ably into clear and smooth English by translators Jay Rubin and Alfred Birnbaum.) He's like David Lynch, but without the morbidity. He's Paul Auster crossed with Raymond Chandler mixed with Raymond Carver and a dash of John Irving and a smidgen of Garcia Marquez. (In his spare time, Murakami himself has translated all of these authors into English, as well as one of his personal favorite writers, F.Scott Fitzgerald.)

But his new book, written in his native Japanese, fits nicely into none of the categories that he's known for in the English-reading world.

It's nonfiction, to start with, and the title could be translated as: The Things I Talk About While Running. (Well, that's my St.Catharines-raised-so-cut-me-some-slack translated version of it; if translated directly from the Japanese, it might read something like: Regarding Running, While Talking, These Are The Things I Talk About. Hey, it sounds okay in Japanese...)

Is it another one of his patented dark and strange and otherwordly journeys into the unordinary minds of ordinary Japanese urbanites?

Um, not quite.

Best as I can figure out from a quick flip-through and rapid perusal, it looks to be a chronicle of exactly what the title implies: his life as a runner.

For Murakami is not only a serious novelist, he's also a serious runner; he's completed the Boston Marathon numerous times, as well as the New York one, and he's added the Hawaii Ironman Triathalon to his repertoire in recent years. He's famous for his disciplined writing and exercise routine, and the cover of the book features a photograph of the author running down the centre of a contry road, the middle yellow line splitting off into a perfectly split fork, the blue sky and green grass waiting just up ahead, beyond the frame of the photo. The book contains a series of photos of Murakami finishing various races around the world.

Serious book-aholics may ask themselves: Why, exactly, is a writer of Nobel-like qualities writing about the stuff that he thinks about and talks about while running? What's going on here? Not exactly hard-core lit, if you catch my drift.

What's going on is that Murakami has always written about his life in somewhat easygoing, easy to read Japanese prose, but none of this has been deemed palatable or marketable to western readers. (And, truth be told, he's not exactly beloved by the Japanese literary establishment either, who he's shunned and ignored repeatedly throughout the years.) I've got another little paperback sprawled across my desk that was written by him about ten years ago, all about his observations of American life as observed by him while teaching at Princeton in the early nineties. In the bookstores I've seen books by him featuring his travels around Australia and Greece. (I think.) He's written an enormous amount of material that has nothing whatsoever to with what he's known for abroad, for what his image is abroad. What his brand is abroad.

In the west, however, we want him to remain a mysterious and whimsical, brooding and fanciful Rod Serling of the modern age. We want him to fit in the box that publishers have created for him. We want to read the stories that we think fit the image of what his stories have been in the past, and the particular style that we have become accustomed to.

A book about his marathons? His love for running? What he talks about while running? That doesn't compute with what we've been given of him in English. It would be like David Lynch making a documentary about his passion for BMX racing.

One interesting trend I've noticed is that western media tends to pick and choose what they like about certain Asian artists, and they classify them, and the classification is then seen as the reality.

Japanese film director Takeshi Kitano is beloved by cineastes worldwide, but in his homeland he is better known as a former comedian who hosts silly and stupid variety shows on prime time television. Every few years he directs a movie, and it is usually strange and violent and glorious and artistic, and the western media takes notice, and the rest of Japan waits to see what goofy shit he comes up with on Saturday nights on TV.

Not that it matters much, I guess.

Maybe it's just the fact that I feel like people are missing out on stuff. (Or that I'm missing out on stuff.) On insight. On chances for reflection. I understand the economics of the situation; truth be told, there probably isn't much of a market in English for Murakami's book on his running and his various mutterings to himself while he runs. It would confuse and confound the reading public that has seen him been branded as his own, odd practitioner of a sort of eastern magic realism.

But the publishers don't give us his English reads the benefit of the doubt, me thinks; if we like a writer, we like a writer. Period. We'll read what they read, regardless of the subject. Bring it on, all of it, I say. Let us hear in English what he has to say, through the stories that have made him famous, yes, but also through his memoirs that have yet to reach the light of day in Canada and America and England and elsewhere.

In any event, were this to happen with his newest book, it wouldn't be for a good little while, so it's now my goal to make my way through his newest memoir in Japanese by the middle of December. If I can polish off five pages a day, kanji dictionary on my left side, Japanese vocabulary dictionary on my right side, I'll be happy. By the end of it, I'll probably not be able to tell you what it was all about, but my brain will be thankful for the exercise.

If I don`t make it all the way through, I'll dip back into the works of his that have already been translated into English, the stuff I'm familiar with, the style I'm familar with.

But something will be missing.

A sense, perhaps, that there's more to him, a fuller him, than the author bio on the back of the English versions of his books gives him credit for.

And therefore more to all of us, too.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Jamie Foxx looked confused. Befuddled. Slightly out of place. It's one thing to be promoting your latest flick, The Kingdom, on a morning talk show back in the States, but it's another thing altogether to be sitting in a TV studio somewhere in Tokyo, sandwiched between six hosts, all of them asking questions in a language you don't understand, with only an eager but harried translator to serve as a linguistic go-between.

I felt his pain.

I tune in as much as possible to Japanese TV to brush up on my listening skills -- which need a lot of brushing up on -- and so I was pleasantly surprised to see an English speaking guest on a morning 'wide show', as they're called, and even more pleased that that guest happened to be Jamie Foxx, who is probably the most overall talented entertainer to come along in the past, what, ten years? (Watch his diverse performances in Any Given Sunday and Ali and Ray and Collateral and Dreamgirls, and you'll soon realize that he is a startlingly good, probably great character actor. Catch a DVD of some of his stand-up, and you'll realize he's almost -- almost -- as good a stand-up comedian as Eddie Murphy.)

Alas, all his thespiatic skills were no help in Japan.

He did a good job of it, though. Played along. Answered the questions well, gamely, professionall, humorously. The way it worked, the multitude of Japanese hosts asked questions, and the translator tucked behind his ear translated them into English, and Foxx usually gave a long, rambling answer that made me think he had actually forgotten that the lady hovered beeside him had to eventually translate the response, and I felt bad for her, and she usually only bothered to translate about half of the answer into Japanese, the gist of it. And at the end of the interview, Foxx took a picture of himself and his hosts with a cellphone camera. (I think it was his own, camera, too.)

Much is made back in North America of the ostensible 'wackiness' of Japanese TV -- and, don't get me wrong, there is a shitload of that stuff. But the strangeness is more in the way that it resembles American or Canadian TV, just skewed.

Their talk shows feature celebrity guests numbering to five to twenty, and many times what happens is simply that a feature story is shown, and, in the corner of the screen, we watch the guests' reactions as they, in turn, watch the feature alongside us. Is this because in Japanese society it's important to know what everybody else is feeling and thinking before you can make your own judgement? I'm not sure. But last night there was a segment on a vicious ice storm that hit Montreal and Quebec and Ontario a few years back (with footage that seemed suspiciously like something stolen from a CBC drama), and the guests' screen-within-a-screen reactions were all perfectly, appropriately sympathetic, horrified, relieved. Which encouraged me to feel the same way. Which is maybe the point.

There are also an insane amount of food and travel shows, with guests cooking and tasting and oohing and ahhing. Major and minor celebrities alike also travel around various spots in Japan and the world, pointing out interesting sights, visiting northern Japan or the Middle East, southern Okinawa or the the heart of the Netherlands. The Japanese have an insatiable curiosity about everything, and more important, a desire to constantly improve, to know more, to do better, so there are a multitude of books and TV shows centred around improving one's skills, etiquette, and overall knowledge of the world.

Of course, part of the fun for me is trying to figure out what, exactly, is going on. My listening skills are getting better, but they still have a long way to go. The other night I flipped through a channel that featured a baby in the womb. Ah, maybe it's about abortion, I figured. The scene then cut to the panelists in the studio, who kept repeating a single word, an unfamiliar word, and so I popped open my dictionary and saw that it was the Japanese word for 'evolution'. (Which I have now, of course, forgotten.) So they're talking about evolution. Cool. The baby in the womb, evolution, that all make sense.

But then they brought out a pony-tailed expert in a suit, and he started pointing to various graphs, and then unleashed a photo of a man with three nipples. He pointed carefully at the third nipple, located just above the waist, while the guests oohed an ahhed.

Baby in the womb. A man's third nipple. Evolution. It all makes sense.

However, the next guest threw things for an even bigger loop. A woman in her thirties is introduced, alongside footage of her in the wrestling ring, throwing butch chicks over her shoulders with supreme agility and ease. Ah, a Japanese female wrestler. I got it. Then they cut to her giving birth in the delivery room. Okay, fine. But then they show her and her husband at the zoo, I guess, watching a giraffe, and it soon becomes apparent that this giraffe is giving birth, and so the scene cuts from actual footage of the Japanese female wrestler giving birth to her and her husband watching a giraffe give birth! (Have you ever seen a giraffe give birth? No? Don't.)

Baby in the womb. A man with three nipples. A Japanese female wrestler. The wrestler giving birth. The wrestler watching a giraffe give birth. Sentimental music all the while.

Gotta love it.

There are also programs that feature learning French, learning English, learning Korean, learning German, learning Italian, learning more about haiku, alongside the usual Sunday morning shows about politicians, and, of course, the inevitable Hollywood star whoring themselves out for a bit of extra cash.

A Softbank ad features Brad Pitt outside of, well, I don't know -- an office? a museum? -- arguing with somebody on the phone while the camera circles around him. We can see him mouth: `Baby, I love you. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.` He grows steadily more exasperated before hanging up and shoving the phone into the hands of a befuddled businessman walking the other way. Hmmm.

There's also one featuring Tommy Lee Jones (!) sitting on an airplane next to Dave Spector, an American TV commentator who's lived in Japan for thirty years and speaks freakishly good Japanese. I can't quite figure this one out. Tommy Lee Jones is looking grimly out the window. (Come to think of it, does he ever look anything but grim?) Dave Spector is cheerfully saying...something. Next they're in Tokyo, while Jones drinks coffee from a can and Dave Spector and a stewardness look on happily beside him.

The moral of the story is: If you're ever bored in Japan, flick on the tube. At the very least, you'll get to see Jamie Fox or Brad Pitt in cultural, linguistic limbo. At the very most, you just might be lucy enough to see a giraffe give birth.

Which is not such a bad way to start a morning, is it?