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.