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.