Sunday, December 28, 2008


"The Filipino people," she said, shaking her head. Stopping herself short. "They do not value life."

We stood in the kitchen of her modest stone house, as her daughter-in-law puttered around the kitchen, preparing food for her two small children. (This was in a village in Ifugao, a northern mountain province of the Philippines. If it could be called a village. What do you call houses snaked along the edge of an endless highway?)

The night before, on Christmas day, a cousin of a cousin, a relative of a relative of a relative, had drunkenly stumbled along and been hit by a truck just a little bit down the road from this house (The van I had been traveling in had stopped so the driver could say hello to this same man only a few minutes or hours before he was killed.)

Nobody was sure who had hit him. The driver hadn't stopped. It had happened late at night, along a winding, mountain highway road that was completely dark by dusk. No street lights for miles and miles, not this far up.

"They found his insides on the road," she said. "And his tongue, too."

She was worried about her son. He had been drinking rice wine all day the day before, since early morning, had eaten nothing, collapsed at some point during the night, and was now too sick and ashamed to come downstairs. She feared that someday he would wander along this same road. Get hit by a truck in the dark. Dead before dawn.

I thought about she had said.

That the Filipino people do not value life.

I knew what she meant. Everything is closer to the ground here. People ride on tops of vans that careen down spiralling country roads. Seatbelts are optional. Kids play basketball on the side of the highway. Drivers are reckless, if not completely insane. Dust and diesel perfume the air. There is the sense that the future is already here, and, in its present state, at least, it does not seem offer much, so why bother?

But life is not only about planning and precaution, and its value does not stem solely from how we try to bandage ourselves against time's inevitable assault.

I think of another person I met that Christmas night, a clerk for the local election office. Upon meeting me he sheepishly said that he hoped that I was able to adjust to the Philippines. He knew that it was a third-world country, and that it might be difficult for me.

Apologizing, essentially, for the poverty.

And that is another aspect of life here, a certain decency, a desire to put other people at ease. A welcoming.

In the west we insulate ourselves, cocooned within our houses and cars, our finely-tuned budgets and carefully worded blogs.

Here, people are on top of each other. A dozen or more to a house. Cities teeming with chickens and cows and orphans and executives jostling for the same simple space.

There's nowhere to go, so you learn to inhabit the realm of others more easily.

This is not to say that such proximity doesn't breed avarice and selfishness, greed and resentment. One only has to glance at the headlines of The Philippines Inquirer each and every day to recognize that blunt reality. Poverty is not pretty, and the kindness and generosity of the poor sometimes seems like a conscious way to keep pushing against the darkness that stains the streets.

And yet, how strong the bonds of family are here! How readily people are able to accept one another's faults and imperfections. They may not have much of a future, but they do have each other.

I keep thinking of that winding mountain road. A drunk man hit by a car on a dark Christmas night. A worried mother looking out the window at the pavement, wondering if her oldest child would someday meet the same fate.

Anxious, yes, but there was a guest in the house, and she made sure that a bowl of cookies and crackers was kept full throughout the afternoon.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


A few weeks ago, myself and nine of my Japanese co-workers took a test designed for non-native speakers of English who wanted to teach English as a second language. My company offered the course to the Japanese university students enrolled in its program, but only one student signed up for the course, and a minimum of ten people were mandatory in order for anybody to take the test, so myself and some of the other Japanese office staff were recruited just for the hell of it.

The test itself wasn't all that difficult for a native speaker of English, as it was mostly designed to test common-sense ESL teaching competency, of which I, admittedly, have little, so I was thrown by a few questions here and there. What threw me even more, however, was the checklist at the beginning of the test, where you were supposed to put a checkmark in the little box next to your native tongue.

I realized I am, and will forever be, hopelessly illiterate.

And ignorant regarding most of the world's languages.

Below, in alphabetical order, are the languages that I had never even heard of. (Please feel free to play along at home and raise your hand or ring the bell whenever you come across a language that sounds even vaguely familiar. Two points for each language, and no cheating.)

Amharic. Assamese. Aymara. Baluchi. Bambara. Bemba. Bihan. Efik. Ewe. Eaeroese. Fulani. Ga. Gilbertese. Gujarati. Hausa. Ibo/Igbo. Igala. Kannada. Luba. Luo. Luxemburgish. Malagasy. Malinka. Malayalam. Marathi. Marshallese. Malinka. Malayalam. Oriya. Ponapean. Quechua. Rajasthani. Riff. Shona. Sindhi. Swiss German. Tatar. Telugu. Tigrinya. Trukese. Tulu. TupilGuarani. Ulithian. Wolof. Yoruba. Yao. Yapese.


How did you do?

Four points? Eight?

Me, I knew that people spoke German in Switzerland -- but I didn't know that 'Swiss German' could actually be considered one's native language, and that it was different enough from German German to be thought of as something else altogether. I knew of Luxemburg -- but I didn't know the people there spoke their own language. All the other languages simply sound vaguely African, or Asian, or just plain foreign.

And even though I've lived in Asia for close to ten years, I'm still thrown by my own ignorance.

After all, those languages were all listed at the front of the test because people actually speaking those languages wanted to teach English. And here I am, already an English teacher, and not even aware that these languages existed.

A similar thought was pounded home for me a week or so ago when I was reading an article in the New York Times about a new biography of McGeorge Bundy, one of JFK's confidantes and collaborator in the Vietnam fiasco. At one point Kennedy's bipartisianship was pointed out by this quote of his: "I don't care if the man is a Democrat or an Igorot."

This phrase stopped me cold because I've been living in a house with a bunch of Igorots in the Philippines in between my jaunts in Tokyo for the past few years. I knew that word. I understood that word, and the people it represents. It had an emotional connection for me, whereas only three years ago I had never even heard of an Igorot. (Igorots being one of the tribal peoples of the northern Philippines.)

I doubt you could find many North Americans today, let alone political leaders, who could tell you where the Igorot people live. That Kennedy was able to throw such a quote out in casual conversation, and expect it to be understood, made me think that we've (or maybe just I've) lost something in the intervening forty years of development, civilization, progress.

A knowledge about the wider world, perhaps.

A desire to know its peoples.

Another example:

Last year I was teaching at a university in Saitama in Japan, and in one of my classes were a handful of friendly, vaguely Turkish-looking people who were decidedly not of Japanese origin, and they told me that they were Uighurs, and I smiled, and nodded, and eventually had to admit that I had never heard of their people, at all, and it turns out they were Chinese citizens who occupied a western corner of that massive, impenetrable country, had an autonomous government, were spread across the world, and incidentally occupied a considerable portion of Toronto, where I went to university.

And I had never heard of them.

Taking this test, and reading through the vast names of languages I did not know, had never before considered, would never learn, reminded me of the Uighurs I had met. About how ignorant I felt, confessing that an entire peoples' -- their peoples' -- history and culture was a blank slate in my brain.

I understand that it's a big world, and I am only one, and they are vast and many.

But still.

Language after language, unknowable. Illiterate in all of them. (As are, most likely, you.) We only have so much time, and capacity, and distance is a detriment we cannot cross.

And so many of their speakers desperate to teach English.

I lay awake the other night wondering what it would be like if everybody, everywhere, spoke everyone's language. Every word of every tongue. No strange vocabulary. All concepts complete. Almost intimate. A perfect grounds for communication.

I tried to imagine a person for each language I had read on that meangingless test. Were they black, white, brown, yellow? Could a speaker of Tulu and a speaker of Yapese somehow be able to chill out with a beer and a smoke and solve the world's problems?

If we all knew what everybody was saying, would anything change?

Probably not.

Still, confronted by a vast sea of languages that remained insufferably foreign, I wondered if it would be worth it to try and learn them all. To put a dent in the distance that lies between us, however hollow it might prove to be. It would take a lifetime, perhaps two, possibly three, to achieve such a feat of linguistic power, but who is to say it could not be done?

What a thrill that would be! The one human on earth who could speak to any other person on the planet, no matter their age, race, sex, location, language, whatever.

Everyone an ally. Noone impenetrable.

Not possible, I know.

Yet in those drifting minutes before sleep, listening to the sound of a distant train rumble along the rickety tracks, I could almost hear that medley of languages melding together, and I thought, if I listened close enough, and tried hard enough, a single meaning could be found. A single voice might be heard, one similar, if not identical, to my own.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Roger Ebert recently commented on one of my comments on his journal over at, saying that he's read this blog, liked it, and bookmarked it, which I mention a) because it was incredibly nice of him to even take the time to read this humble little assemblage of words and b) because it meant a lot to me. More than I expected.

His words, I mean.

The words he wrote about this blog, the words he writes now, and the words he wrote years and years ago, in the annual collection of his movie columns from the Chicago-Sun Times that I used to receive for Christmas each and every year all through adolescence.

I had always loved movies, and I had always loved writing, but it was Roger Ebert's writing about movies that opened up a new way of thinking and feeling about both subjects.

And I use those words deliberately.

Thinking. Feeling.

My household only received the local paper, The St.Catharines Standard (delivered just before supper each and every night, ready to read right after school and just before dinner), and it had a decent-enough movie reviewer, the local film-prof from the local university, but it was Ebert's books that showed me that one could think about, write about, and feel about movies in a whole new way, one that was not about academic analysis or snide, sarcastic one-liners, but something deeper, that 'deeper' thing that all teenagers yearn for and look for and hope to find sometime soon. You could use films, Ebert was hinting, to learn about life. About yourself. About your friends, and family, and the world around you. If you watched them carefully enough, you could even access parts of yourself that had otherwise remained humble and hidden. He altered something for me, in other words. Helped me arrange a new alignment within myself.

(At first I read only his reviews about movies I had actually seen. Then I soon realized that I was interested not so much in Ebert's opinion itself, but in the way that he wrote, the simple cadence and rhythm that I quickly realized was not so simple at all, and so I started to read the reviews of films that I hadn't seen, too, just to listen to the workingclass music of his words. Ebert himself is fond of saying: "A movie is not what it's about, but how it's about it." His writing helped me unearth another truth: "A piece of writing is not what it's about, but how it's about it.")

He's been on Letterman and Leno, Oprah and Conan, but it was always his writing that stuck to me. It was spare and accesible and emotional. I liked that part the most -- the emotional part. Siskel once said that he was the reporter and Ebert was the columnist. I admired them both, but behind Ebert's words you could somehow sense its heart, and hear it beat.

I met Mr.Ebert a few times in Toronto about ten, eleven years ago, once at a book signing at Theatrebooks, and another time during the Toronto Film Festival, where I ambushed him at the Varsity Cinemas as my friends and I waited to watch Emilio Estevez's film The War At Home, asking if he had any advice for a young writer.

I used to lay sprawled across my bed on lazy, snowy Sunday afternoons on gray December days and slowly, methodically flip through his books, re-reading the reviews a dozen times and more, checking with a blue pen all the movies I had seen in the indexes at the back, and now knowing that my writing in this little space has been read by this same man, who taught me a lot about movies and writing and life...


It feels like an odd little circle has been completed, one that began at the age of ten or eleven and continues in its erratic arc and orbit to this very day.

Roger Ebert helped teach me: that linguistics aside, aesthetics aside, perception aside, opinion aside, even skill aside, in the end all good writing is simply about heart. If you can't hear its steady, persistent beat behind the words, then your original intent will flatline fast.

If it ain't got heart, it ain't got anything.

Oh, and that advice he gave me, at the Varsity Cinemas?

"Keep writing."

I have.

And so has he.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


This, from the final sentence of today's lead story on, commenting on the death of the world's oldest lady, Shelbyville, Indiana resident Edna Parker:

"Coincidentally, Parker lived in the same nursing home as 7-foot-7 Sandy Allen, whom Guiness recognized as the world's tallest woman until her death in August."

Those final few words are extraordinary.

Think about it.

The world's oldest woman, and the world's tallest woman, lived in the very same place, in the very same small town, together. What are the odds of that, that two people with such distinct records, such odd records, would share the same roof, the same shower, the same toilet?

This unusual fact should have been the first sentence of the article, not the last. It's proof of how absurdly aligned life is with our own bizarre sense of what's outrageous and compatible.

Earlier today I was watching on youtube Oprah's interviews with Cormac McCarthy, the author of No Country For Old Men and The Road and All the Pretty Horses and all those other books that are so good that you just sigh and shake your head and wonder why all those other words by other people are floating around when all we need are these ones by this one. McCarthy was talking about how in his life he had been fortunate enough to receive an abundant amount of good luck. Whenever he was in a jam, he had somehow always been able to get out of it. He was housesitting for some folks, and not only did he have little money, he had no money, nothing, nada, until the doorbell rang and some deliveryperson was kind enough to hand over a cheque for $20, 000 for some literary grant he had won. Oprah said something about how strange such luck was, or words to that effect, and McCarthy said, in essence, sure, but if you had a chart of all the people in the world, and their luck, there would be somebody with all the luck at the top and somebody who had the worst luck in the world at the bottom and everybody else would be somewhere in between. In other words, everybody's got their fair share of luck, and it's all doled out in random, irrational portions, but what can you do? You work with what you're given and you go from there.

Luck, and random, blind chance is common in life and yet so often overlooked, or diminished. How phenomenal it is that the world's oldest woman and the world's tallest woman lived in the same home in Shelbyville, Indiana. What are the odds of that? How strange. How simply odd. Proof that life has its own, uneven system of distribution. All of the cities in the world! All of the shithole hovels and gleaming penthouse suites. So many crevices and canyons and tenements and mansions that that old lady and this tall woman could have inhabited. And yet they were there, together, if not at the same time, at least in the same place. Putting ketchup on the same dishes to dip their frozen supermarket fries into.

We are all somewhere aligned upon that scale, that luck scale, and perhaps there is another scale that measures and gathers incidents of shortest and tallest, oldest and youngest, and sometimes those scales interact and intersect and find themselves stranded together in Shelbyville, Indiana, and whoever designs those scales -- God or fate or Blind Luck himself, ruler in one hand and pencil poised over crisp white cosmic paper in the other -- sometimes says, after a long hard day of hemming and hawing and sketching and erasing all of our cruel little destinies, in a moment of bored desperation, looking for a little levity before calling it a day: "Ah, fuck it. Why not let the tallest lady and the oldest lady alive share the same damn showerhead. That ought to be fun."

But fun only if we can actually notice the immensity of shit like this, the galactic ridiculousness of it all, and not let dry facts and computer-screen blather roll over us like high school math class did on warm June mornings, when summer waited for us only days away and felt so close that we could sometimes smell the swimming-pool chlorine drift through the room and mingle with the chalk-stuffed equations lying dormant on the whiteboard. Close enough to grasp.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


'Pop', as Canadians call it, or 'soda', as most Americans dub it, isn't all that popular here in Japan, so perhaps this new line of Pepsi products found at my local FamilyMart is designed to stoke some interest?



Tempting, but...

Monday, November 03, 2008


A few weeks back I was sent to Nagoya for ten or eleven days, filling in for a sick teacher at an all-women's university in Japan. (They still have those here.) I caught the shinkansen, or 'bullet train', there and back, and on my return to Yokohama, after settling into my seat, I soon realized that everybody around me was smoking.

Exactly how and why I stumbled into the smoking-car of the shinkansen remains a mystery. (They still have those here -- places set aside for smokers.) And I was too whipped to walk to another car and find another seat. (My ticket was for a non-reserved seat, so technically I was well within my rights as a tax-paying American to sit up and stand up and find another place to rest my body. And actually I'm not a tax-paying American, just a Canadian in Japan, but it sounds better the first way, because nobody ever talks about their rights as Canadians, let alone a Canadian's rights in Japan, so it would kind of stupid to just, like, put it out there, that phrase, so it sounds more natural, more confident, to consider myself a tax-paying American.) So I sat there and let the smoke settle around me in gray-purple clouds of condensed ash.

I started to wonder about the smoke itself -- the particles and atoms and molecules and all that sort of stuff. What if they were conscious? I don't think they are, because nobody's ever proved that atmos and nuclei have a thinking, beating brain within their structures. (Which makes me think: Are atoms made up of atoms? Are cells made up of smaller cells? And where do quarks fit in with everything? Isn't everything essential unstable and separate on the sub-atomic molecular level? If that's so, how could the train remain solid, hovering above the tracks, when way down deep we're all somewhat sliding in that mysterious ether of life?)

Still. It's entirely possible that the tiny particles that make up smoke are, in fact, alive and alert. A strange existence, that would be. Pumped out into the air after being sucked through a tube and into someone's mouth. Hurtling around left and right, back and forth, your ultimate destination a cosmological crapshoot. Of course, if they were alive, these atoms, I'm sure they'd be small, so tiny that their brains would barely register as brains, but still -- they might be able to feel something, regardless of their size. I've read somewhere that mosquitoes only live for like a day, so maybe the lives of smoke particles are the same, and maybe their receptivity towards pain is roughly equivalent to that of a mosquito's.

And then I suddenly realized that my existence was not so different from these tiny bubbles of smoke. There I was, stuck in a train, rocketing through time and space. If I were an atom of smoke in somebody's mouth, expelled into the atmosphere, I'm sure the experience would be roughly equivalent to me as a full-sized human, sitting comfortably in a bullet-train. The only difference being that I knew my end point. I knew where I was supposed to finish. The atoms in the smoke were shit out of luck, in that regard, and as the train belted through the dark Japanese night, past silent towns and indifferent mountains, I made a conscious decision not to curse the smoke or the smokers surrounding me. Everybody's got it a bit rough.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


The problem with starting a blog is that you're supposed to continue writing the blog, daily, or else people stop reading and move on to other, more interesting blogs, leaving your intermittent ramblings and infrequent posts hanging off a tree on some virtual but nevertheless tangible cliff in cyberspace. Or perhaps I should say that starting a blog isn't a problem, but continuing one is, because it's easy to start something, to take that initial big-toe dabble in the deep-end, but somewhat more mundane and difficult to continue, which involves follow-through, patience, dedication, intent. Commitment, in other words.

But what is one 'committing' to, when it comes to a blog? If you're a published author, you're basically comitting to creating something interesting every day so your fans will keep on clicking onto your site and, hopefully, when your new book arrives, they'll be tempted, if not compelled, to buy it, because they've been reading your words every day and you've therefore infiltrated their brain and consciousness in such a way that to not buy your book will make them feel guilty everytime they read your latest blog entry. If you don't have a book to plug, which I don't, then there must be some other, compelling reason to keep your blog going. If it's just a list of your daily habits, then it seems to me that a blog is little more than narcissism writ small, projected large. Better not to commit, and type nothing, then commit, and tell everybody what you thought of the latest political tornado that seems to be hovering on the horizon, interspersed with what you think of Obama and Pailin and the faltering economy, words and opinions that are multipled a milllion times by a million bloggers across the Internet, so if you're adding anything to the conversation, it's little more than a faint echo of everybody else's electronic voice. (Which in and of itself is an elitist thing to say, I know, because the great benefit of blogging is that it gives ordinary people access to the world, and who's to say that somebody's isolated opinion on the weather or the economy or Palin might not strike some other person in Pakistan or Pennsylvania as insightful or even moving, but I guess I just mean that it's not for me, that style. I used to keep a diary about what I thought about life, but only I read it, and I don't want this to be a diary, because, quite frankly, my diary was fucking boring to begin with.)

I haven't written much the last few months because I've been trying to study Japanese a bit more, which sounds pretentious in and of itself, the kind of statement one makes to make oneself sound somewhat sophisticated and oh-so-much-more worthy than those stuck in the monlingual rut of their own linguistic existence, and the statement because even more pretentious when I say that I've been reading, by and large, baseball books in Japanese, because the prose is straightforward, and the vocabulary is not so difficult, and although I'm not a huge baseball fan, meaning keeping track of statistics and who's winning and who's losing and the nuts-and-bolts of the game itself, I am a big fan of the mythology of baseball, its characters, its history, its mythic hold on the family and the North American consciousness (to those who give a shit about it, anyway), and since Japanese baseball seems to have a similar hold on the Japanese consciousness, reading about it in Japanese seems like a pretty tactile way of grasping the Japanese character itself, which also sounds pretentious, because who am I, one man, to understand a hundred and twenty million people under the umbrella of 'Japanese'? And to do so by reading about baseball, no less? (Cut to an image of me talking to myself, authentic-Scott to doppelganger-Scott, at a dimly-lit party, Authentic-Scott saying: "Yeah, I've been reading books in Japanese about baseball." Doppelganger-Scott's thought bubble floating overhead: "Who's this dickwad?")

My level in Japanese is such that I can read any given page of a pretty standard book and understand, I guess, sixty to seventy percent of what's going on, perhaps a little less, which means that there's often, if not usually, a few words in each sentence that I don't get, but what I've gradually learned is that language itself is a fairly potent, malleable force. Meaning, words have power, and those words that you do understand in a sentence -- namely the nouns and the verbs -- will carry you past all that other stuff that you don't understand in a sentence.

Which I'm learning is a lot. I majored in Creative Writing but I have a very poor understanding of English grammar itself, the labels and the mechanics and the means by which it all works. I understand and deal with language on an instinctual level, but when you learn another language you're forced to learn it, to a certain extent, on the grammatical level; your instincts from English don't necessarily carry over, and if they do, then they're probably the instincts you don't want to respond to in the first place, because Japanese is so different from English that to rely on your English grammar knowledge as a crutch is not only foolish but suicidal. It won't get you where you want to go, and will instead leave you underneath the snow-tires of the monster truck that is the Japanese language itself.

And part of the reason why I've become more interested in Japanese is that I'm trying to figure out why I read what I read in English, and why I write what I write in English. David Foster Wallace, a great writer who hanged himself to death a few months ago, was always an idol of mine in university, and he always seemed to be operating on cylinders attached to engines whose sounds I could barely hear, let alone dream of constructing myself. (The fact that these
imaginary engines were actually attached to hypothetical vehicles that moved across vast literary distances, and that I could only hear the engines but not see or sense the actual truck itself, made me feel simultaneously small and ambitious.) So when you come across a writer whose sense of the world is empathetic and so acute, and who understands and assimilates and dispenses information at such an astonishing rate of insight, you have to ask yourself: Can I do so, too?

And the answer is no, probably not, at least not as well, but that's a given, because most people in the arts are not nearly as good as those they look up to, but then it would be a quiet forest indeed if only the most melodic birds sang, or so the saying says, and I guess it's true, but then the question becomes: What kind of song do you want to sing?

In blog-terms, since I guess that's what I'm talking about, the question is then: What do you write about, and why do you write it? I've always wondered what it would be like if everybody across the earth was suddenly forced to just tell everybody else all the intimate, vile details of themselves that they purposely keep off their blogs, just to see if anybody would keep reading. Because it seems that some blogs become nothing more than vanity projects, the equivalent of the Polo shirts we all coveted in Grade 8 because that meant that you were somehow in tune with the zeitgeist of adolescent coolness. What about a day where all the blogs just became repositories of the way people truly often feel about themselves?

And yet that in and of itself is another extended form of vanity, I suppose, this notion that displayed grief and loathing and anxiety and fear is somehow special and unique. What you're actually doing when writing a blog is trying to communicate something, but that choice is what's in your control. How others read it, respond to it, react to it, is up to them. The vanity comes in the presentation, and since most of life is vanity, keeping up appearances, trying not to look like a schmuck if only so you can keep your job and not be hassled by the police for looking like a vagrant, it's simplistic and somewhat adolescent to assume that we can get ride of those instincts in the blog-world, since blogs are all about vanity.

(Except what's interesting in Japan is that most people in their blogs are very coy and discrete about what they reveal, rarely showing pictures of themselves, often not even giving their names. And yet there are more blogs written in Japanese than any other language combined. Total. I don't mean percentagewise. I mean more blogs are written in Japanese than the mass accumulation of all other words in all other languages. Or maybe it's just English. At any rate, the Japanese like to blog, but their virtual selves are a carefully encoded construction, a vanity parcelled out in selected doses spread across certain areas of interest.)

Which is all a long-winded, winding and somewhat whiny way of saying that becoming interested in another language like Japanese is helping me to become more interested in English, and vice versa, and when I write in English, I want it to mean something, and if I don't think it will mean anything, then I'd prefer not to write anything. Different parts of the brain are being activated when I try to read in Japanese, and it makes the experience of reading itself, always my greatest pleasure, suddenly new and vivid and alive in a way that it hasn't been since I was eight or nine years old, and I would like that process to be present in my own writing, even if it's only for a blog. (The experience of gradually being able to read, even only a little bit, in another langue is somewhat like finding a way to eat other than through your mouth, or realizing you could sing through your belly button. Different noises from different places.)

And so choosing not to blog about all the stuff I've been trying to read in Japanese is a choice that's made mostly because I don't think it would be very interesting, and I want my writing, whether it's in an email or through this blog, to be interesting and insightful on some level. I've also become a little bit tired of my previous essay-style type stuff, since it seems like I'm always trying to arrive at some 'moral of the story' at the end of a post, like those NBC promos from Saturday morning cartoons when we were a kid -- 'and that's one to grow on -- and maybe that particular style is also a way of pretending that the stuff I've been writing about which has been eating up your time has been actually interesting and insightful, but it seems to be my verbal tic, and asking me to stop doing it that way would be like asking me to write with my right hand, simply not possible, so I'll at least try to shake it up a bit every now and then, even if I can't eliminate it altogether.

Now, having just said all that, about what might not be interesting to you but important to me, Japanese and baseball and bla-bla-bla, I may, indeed, try to write (at erratic intervals, of course, because I'm an erratic guy) more about what studying Japanese is like, simply because that seems to be what's occupying a lot of my time these days. (Outside of little things like work, eating, sleeping, etc.) Whether or not you find that to be an interesting topic is outside of my realm of control.

But I think words matter, if only because they are the way we bridge one form of self (me) to another form of self (you). Through reading. Through writing. Words have weight. Reading Japanese makes me feel oddly connected to all those anonymous dudes and dudettes who first started to draw and shape and extrapolate from its Chinese characters all those millenia ago, and I feel oddly young when trying to understand what is trying to be said. Writing English gives me a chance to see if I can get intangible concepts into my head into a somewhat more tangible, if not likeable, form.

I know I've been somewhat lazy in my posting, and I can't promise any future topics will be interesting for you or even comprehensible to me, but if I occasionally write something that compels you to completely cross that bridge of self from 'me' to 'you', or only shamble halfway over, uncertain of whether's it's even worth continuing on to the other side, I'll be happy. Even getting somewhere halfway, whether it's in studying Japanese, writing a blog, or attempting to engage a fellow confused and struggling human, is good enough for me.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


Yesterday afternoon, while browsing in a used bookstore here in Baguio, a young Filipino man in his late twenties approached me. He seemed to be around my age -- am I still qualified as a young man? -- and normal-looking enough. (I didn't notice until later that he was clutching a small purple pillow to his chest.)

"Can I ask you a question?" he asked.

"Okay," I said.

"Do you know anything about...brain...taps?"

Slight pause on my behalf.

"Sorry?" I said.

"Do you the brain?"

Suddenly Dan Rather flashed in front of my eyes. Or an image of him, or a memory of him, ten, fifteen years ago, when a mentally disturbed person accosted him outside of the CBS studios and repeatedly asked him: "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" (This incident was later immortalized in a song by R.E.M. titled with that very phrase.)

I thought to myself: This guy's not all there.

It was then that I noticed the pillow, and the slightly dazed, somewhat placid smile stuck to his face.

"Sorry," I said, walking away, despite his polite protestations.

I could be wrong. That nice young man might not have been slightly psychotic, but I didn't want to take the risk. Playing the incident over again in my head, I wondered if somehow I was the one who was out of line, refusing to answer a stranger's simple request.

However, he didn't ask me about brain research, or books on the brain, or anything remotely rational. He inquired as to my knowledge of brain taps and wires in the brain. You know. The usual stuff you ask strangers in a bookstore.

Let's assume that that man was mentally ill.

What is it like to look through the world wielding those thoughts? Does he know that he's a crackpot? Is he aware of his problem? Somewhere in the hard-to-reach inroads of his imagination, is he conscious of the fact that his words and gestures and actions and intent are nonsensical to the rest of society?

Or is he further gone than that, I wonder. Has he reached a point where the illogical becomes logical, where simple thoughts and benign propositions have somehow become skewed and off-kilter. Every thought is an avenue leading to a dead-end, though he's always able to spin himself around and head off in another direction, searching for alternate routes.

All of us are inevitably stuck inside of ourselves, so that everything has to be made to somehow seem to make sense to us, even when we're not entirely sure what we're doing with our lives. We can thus rationalize everything on a daily basis and clumsily make the enormous puzzle pieces of our erratic live into a larger, coherent picture. It's what we need to do, if only to make it through this day before waiting for the next.

What happens when the puzzle pieces don't fit anymore? When you're stopping random people in shopping mall outlets and asking about wires-in-the-brain?

If there is a soul, an essence of ourselves, trapped inside our lonely, damaged minds, in such a case is it silently shrieking, embarrassed by its outward manifestation?

Or is it content, this soul, to sit back and allow the brain and the mind and the tongue and the lips to say whatever needs to be said, no matter how foolish or insane.

I would like to think that it's only the outer part of our human form that can lose touch with the world around us. I want to believe that there's an essence, a wisp of ourselves, that cannot be damaged or frayed. That lies in wait, knowing that other, more interesting realms lie just around the corner, where brains are never tapped, and remain free from wires, forever.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Last week I found my copy of David Foster Wallace's mammoth novel Infinite Jest in a closet in my parents' house in Oxford Station, Canada, and this morning here in the Philippines I read that the celebrated author had committed suicide by hanging himself in his home in Claremont, California. He was 46 years old.

Wallace was one of those writers who made you want to quit writing. Meaning, he was so good, so sharp, so compassionate, so bizarre, so perceptive, that anything you tried to write not only paled in comparison but seemed downright pathetic in comparison. I read him at the age of twenty and wondered who the hell this guy was, and how the hell he managed to write a 1200 page novel with dozens of pages of fictional footnotes that nonetheless remained absolutely riveting. The book was about a tennis academy, a halfway house for recovering addicts, and a film so entertaining that people literally laughed themselves to death. The notion that we are competing against ourselves to death, medicating ourselves to death, entertaining ourselves to death -- this was what Wallace was getting at. He never wrote another novel after this, but his short fiction and lengthy journalistic pieces are a worthy continuation of his singular, eclectic mind.

He was a satirist with a heart, alongside a mind that thought things that nobody else thought, or, if they did, they never said. His journalism on such diverse topics as the 100th ranked tennis player in the world, the films of David Lynch, the absurdities of modern-day cruise ships, the genius of Roger Federer, the wonders of Illinois State fairs, amongst others, made you think not only about how mundane most non-fiction writing was, but how life itself could be viewed from an alternate perspective. If you looked close enough, like Wallace did.

I got the chance to meet him when he gave a reading in Toronto in the mid-nineties. He signed my book, and I asked him for some advice on writing. He recommended taking writing workshops, which I was already doing, and really listening to my teachers, which I probably wasn't. In recent years Wallace himself taught creative writing in California. He was, by all accounts, a vigorous, inspiring teacher. As the school semester is undoubtedly just beginning, I can't imagine what his students are feeling right now.

And for all of his mathematical logic, brilliant, withering sarcasm and convoluted, meta-fictional plots, Wallace was chiefly concerned with feeling. How to feel in a synthetic world. How to not allow ourselves to be numbed to death by the corporate mendacity of modern society. How to connect to others, if only through prose.

This is the subject of a commencement speech he gave, the best commencement speech I've ever heard, or read, the type of speech that acknowledges to young people how bloody hard life is, but how there is a way to retain a smidgen of humanity, if we try very hard and stay wide awake:

Last week I was flipping through my old copy of his book. He was alive then. He's not now. That disconnect doesn't make sense to me. How we are here then, and can be gone now.

And I keep thinking: What would Wallace have made of that?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


A few months back I read an article about a female weightlifter who was forced to rearrange her life due to the unexpected demands of a son diagnosed with autism. Wailing and screaming and smearing his own shit on the walls on a regular basis, this kid, as much as she loved him, stretched the limits of her parental affection.

"This is not what I signed up for," she told her pastor.

"This is exactly what you signed up for," he said.

What does that mean, exactly? That a lifetime of caring for a non-responsive child incapable of reciprocating affection is what she secretly had in mind all along? Or is there a deeper, more philosophical layer to be discovered within the seemingly glib answer provided by her pastor?

Eckhart Tolle's book A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life's Purpose reminded me of this woman's story.

I guess you could call it a 'new-age' book (if that term is even still in use), seeing as it concerns itself primarily with questions revolving around life, living, and the ultimate meaning of everything. Oprah picked it for her book-club, and even extended her reach by doing a series of an online, interactive interviews and seminars with Tolle.

It's actually quite a fascinating examination of two facets of human existence that we all too readily take for granted: the nature of time, and the nature of our own ego.

Let's take the first one -- time.

We tend to live either in the past or the future, constantly re-running previous mistakes (or victories) in our mind, or else longing for some yet-to-arrive moment that will magically land us in that place where we know we truly belong.

As Tolle points out, though, the reality is that we live in a constant stream of 'now'. There is only ever this moment, a continuous, free-form flow of 'present tense'. There is no 'future' to get to, because we only experience life in the present.

Consider this extended quotation from the book:

"...There are three ways in which the ego will treat the present moment: as a means to an end, as an obstacle, or as an enemy...To the ego, the present moment is, at best, only useful as a means to an end. It gets you to some future moment that is considered more important, even though the future never comes except as the present moment and is therefore never more than a thought in your head. In other words you are never fully here because you are always busy trying to get elsewhere.

When this pattern becomes more pronounced, and this is very common, the present moment is regarded and treated as if it were an obstacle to be overcome. This is where impatience, frustration and stress arise, and in our culture, it is many people's everyday reality, their normal state. Life, which is now, is seen as a "problem", and you come to inhabit a world of problems that all need to be solved before you can be happy, fulfilled, or really start living -- or so you think. The problem is: For every problem that is solved, another one pops up. As long as the present moment is seen as an obstacle, there can be no end to problems. "I'll be whatever you want me to be," says Life or the Now. "I'll treat you the way you treat me. If you see me as a problem, I will be a problem. If you treat me as an obstacle, I will be an obstacle."

...A vital question to ask yourself is: What is my relationship with the present moment? Then become alert to find out the answer. Am I treating the Now as no more than a means to an end? Do I see it as an obstacle? Am I making it into an enemy? Since the present moment is all you ever have, since Life is inseparable from the Now, what question really means is: What is my relationship with Life?"

Admittedly a little abstract and hippy-dippy, Tolle's thoughts nevertheless resonate. How do we approach the present moment, since that's all we will ever have?

Tolle's approach to the Ego is equally fascinating (at least to me).

We tend to to take the Ego for granted. It's the part of ourselves that wants and needs, desires and craves recognition, or achievement, or a constant state of more.

But what is it, exactly? What is this 'self' that we strive so hard to protect?

Eckhart recommends, essentially, taking a step back from your thoughts so you can become aware of your own consciousness.


"...I usually congratulate people when they tell me "I don't know who I am anymore." Then they look perplexted and ask, "Are you saying it is a good thing to be confused?" I ask them to investigate. What does it mean to be confused? "I don't know" is not confusion. Confusion is: "I don't know, but I should know" or "I don't know, but I need to know." Is it possible to let go of the belief that you should need to know who you are? In other words, can you cease looking to conceptual definitions to give you a sense of self? Can you cease looking to thought for an identity? When you let go of the belief that you should or need to know who you are, what happens to confusion? Suddenly it is gone. When you fully accept that you don't know, you actually enter a state of peace and clarity that is closer to who you truly are than thought could ever be. Defining yourself through thought is limiting yourself."

Ah, yes, but Western society pretty much demands that we 'define' ourselves from the get-go of life, and this definition gains the most currency when it is solidified as power and strength to the nth degree. We exist in a continuous stream of antagonism in which we are told that in order to succeed, we must be better than others. When others fail, we win. That seems to be North American ethos. We must 'succeed' by harnessing our energies towards some future moment that may or may not arrive, one that is usually attained by ensuring others are not as agile as ourselves are left by the wayside. The present moment is nothing more than an obstacle to be overcome so that future 'happiness' can be ensured, independent of others, fixated only on our own longings and craven wants.

Again, consider:

"...The world will tell you that success is achieving what you set out to do. It will tell you that success is winning, that finding recognition and/or prosperity are essential ingredients in any success. All or some of the above are usually by-products of success, but they are not success. The conventional notion of success is concerned with the outcome of what you do. Some say that success is is the result of a combination of hard work and luck, or determination and talent, or being in the right place at the right time. While any of these may be determinants of success, they are not its essence. What the world doesn't tell you -- because it doesn't know -- is that you cannot BECOME successful. You can only BE successful. Don't let a mad world tell you that success is anything other than a successful present moment. And what is that? There is a sense of quality in what you do, even the most simple action. Quality implies care and attention, which comes with awareness. Quality requires your Presence..."

Success as 'a successful present moment'? This is not what we are taught in school. Success means getting, hording, accumulating, crossing the line first, leaving others in our wake.

Yet, in the midst of illness, we see that Tolle's words make sense. When one is stricken, there is nothing to 'get'. You are immobile. You are inert. All you can do is exist in the moment, independent of anything else. In a world where most believe that those with the-most-toys-at-death win, such a notion is, indeed, almost revolutionary.

Part of his approach to the 'moment' I find somewhat fascinating, if only because it's simplicity hints at a larger complexity. There is our inner purpose and our outer purpose, Eckhart believes, and most of us are obsessed with our outer purpose.

For example: Let's say you want to cross the room to open the window because it's a little bit hot inside. If asked the purpose of crossing the room, most people would say: "Well, I'm doing it to open the window." Eckahrt says, in essence, no. You are crossing the room to cross the room. That's your inner purpose. Your outer purpose is to open the window; your inner purpose is to be present in the moment, and in the moment you are crossing the room, so that thus becomes your purpose.

Another example: You are ordering food at a restaurant, talking to a waiter or a waitress. Your outer purpose is to order food; your inner purpose is simply to connect with the person you're talking to. The ordering of the food thus becomes a by-product. When you are seeking to connect, regardless of the intent, then life itself becomes that much more smoother, and enjoyable, and fulfilled.

The problem lies in our ego, that aspect of our consciousness that wants to be loved (or feared). Some people's egos are plain to see, based on their cars, their looks, their expressions, their demeanor. Others are more covert, but we all have them, these egos. The secret is that everybody feels insecure inside, uncertain of life, but we have to pretend that we're not, and so the more we achieve, the more we can show others that we are not insecure, even though we are. We are slaves to this desire for prominence. All squabbles, conflicts, games and wars are founded upon this notion: In order to feel good about myself, I must prove that others are inferior. If I fail to do so, then that must mean I am inferior. So I need to train harder, work harder, to prove that this is not so.

And what is this strange, constant voice that is doing all the talking? That ego in the back of our heads. But if you are aware of that voice, conscious of its insistence, then that is the first step in rendering it moot. There is the awareness (the ego), and the awareness behind the awareness (your true being).

Or perhaps I should say, 'Being', with a capital 'B'. As Tolle states:

" As you long as you are unaware of Being, you will seek meaning only within the dimension of doing and of future, that is to say, the dimension of time. And whatever meaning or fulfillment you find will dissolve or turn out to have been a deception. Invariably, it will be destroyed by time. Any meaning we find on that level is true only relatively and temporarily.
For example, if caring for your children gives meaning to your life, what happens to that meaning when they don't need you and perhaps don't even listen to you anymore? If helping others gives meaning to your life, you depend on others being worse off than yourself so that your life can continue to be meaningful and you can feel good about yourself. If the desire to excel, win or succeed at this or that activity provides you with meaning, what if you never win or your winning streak comes to an end one day, as it will? You would then have to look to your imagination or memories -- a very unsatisfactory place to bring some bigger meaning into your life. 'Making it' in whatever field is only meaningful as long as there are thousands or millions of others who don't make it, so you need other human beings to 'fail' so that you your life can have meaning.

I am not saying here that helping others, caring for your children, or striving for excellence in whatever field are not worthwhile things to do. For many people, they are an important part of your outer purpose, but outer purpose alone is always relative, unstable and impermanent. This does not mean that you should not be engaged in those activities. It means you should connect them to your inner, primary purpose, so that a deeper meaning flows into what you do..."
(pg. 263-264)

Is this 'inner' primary purpose' to be found in constantly doing more, getting more, working more?

What of the weightlifting mother, the one with the autistic child? Her dreams of a loving, nurturing bond between herself and her child have been shattered. There is nothing for her to do, get or work towards for her child, because he will always be alone in his own little bubble.

But she has the present moment to live within, and perhaps that is enough. As Tolle quotes the secret to life from the mouth of a mystic: "I don't mind what happens to me."

You are exactly where you are supposed to be, because there is nowhere that you are supposed to go.

Tolle's work is not for everybody. It requires a belief system that is non-dogmatic, beholden to no single religious or spiritual principle, and it's out of step with what today's cultural mores deem relevant. And it is, of course, more than a little, well, flaky.

But I'm more than a little flaky, too, so I appreciate his desire to expand human consciousness. And I'll probably write a bit more about this book in the near future, so -- you've been warned!

As the title suggests, there is a 'new earth' we are all unconsciously developing. And if you believe in evolution (as Tolle certainly does) than where are humans headed? What are we evolving towards? Surely he-who-conquers-most-and-survives-with-the-most-toys-and-the-hottest-
trophy-wife can't be the point of it all. If we started as fish in the ocean, then made it up onto to land, then transformed into apes, then transcended into humans, well, what's next? This can't be the end of consciousness.

Perhaps in ten thousand years our distant ancestors will look back on us with great mirth, at these stressed, anxiety-ridden individuals so obsessed with proving our own significance through ultimately silly and pointless ritualistic games and facades. Everyone practically panicked with pride, locked into the past, terrified of the future, ignoring the present moment that truly connects us with each other, not realizing that life itself is exactly what we signed up for, and everything else is an ornament.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I didn't catch the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics last week, but the general reaction to the whole spectacle seems to have been: "Wow."

Which is what the general reaction to the opening ceremonies of any Olympics should be, but it seems like this 'wow' could have had another thought added to the end, namely: "Wow -- so this means China is serious, I guess..."

Serious about what? Global domination, becoming a world superpower, ensuring that Asia's rise will keep on rising?

Something like that.

The thing is, I feel like we in the West (even though I'm writing this in the East) constantly underestimate Asia in general, at almost every level.

How can that be? Countless books published on what seems like a weekly basis trumpet China's rise, and India's rise, and yet I feel like there's a still a certain amount of ignorance as to what Asia is all about. What it represents, where it's been, and where it's going.

(Of course, the label 'Asia' is largely meaningless, given how vast a landmass it is, and how varied the various countries underneath that generic label actually are, but we humans like to categorize, so 'Asia' it must be.)

A few months ago while working in Japan I read an interview with an American translator of Japanese, who was raised in Japan by American missionaries. She made an interesting comment, one that I'd never before considered from that particular angle. Westerners, she believes, tend to unconsciously dismiss Japanese ideas and beliefs. This is not to say that Westerners are ignorant of them; one only has to review how paranoid everybody was twenty to twenty-five years ago about Japan buying up American land and companies to recognize that the Japanese influence clearly made itself felt. Yet we tend to look at Japan mostly through the prism of its entertainment, its kitsch, its odd but alluring history. Films like Lost in Translation and The Last Samurai celebrate a Japan immersed in its own foreignness, impenetrable to western understanding. Everything Japanese is seen and depicted as either somewhat goofy, or strange, or funny, or downright weird. (Or else noble and dignified.)

Keeping what that American translator said in mind (whose name escapes me), I think it's not all that much of a stretch to extend her criticism towards the way that Westerners look at Asia as a whole. We take the strange parts, the exotic parts, and fetishize them for our amusement. Everything is either locked in the past or part of some odd, futuristic frenzy. We see the surface and the glitz, without bothering to take the contraptions apart and study the somewhat greasy and ordinary nuts and bolts that make them tick.

This is not to deny how fun the pop culture of these Asian lands can be, or negate what joy sheer entertainment, for entertainment's sake, can truly exude.

But the startled, surprised and amazed reaction to the Olympics' opening ceremony made me think that we in the West are no closer to understanding, or more importantly, anticipating what Asia is up to than we ever were, despite the advances in communications and technology.

My own pet theory? That Canada and America as countries are adolescents, full of energy and optimism to burn, and we're not all that interested in lands with cultures and traditions that were ancient even before we were born. We don't like to listen to our elders, and besides, we're not too interested in what they have to say in the first place. They're up to something, to be sure, these old folks are, but we have better things to do, and more interesting avenues to explore.

There is a big difference between countries and civilizations that are thousands of years old, complete with their own indigenous languages, and those that are mere hundreds of years old, still figuring out who they are and what they stand for.

I have a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach that we will keep being surprised by Asia in the decade to come, again and again, and we will not wonder why we are surprised, which will, perhaps, be the scariest thing of all.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Coming back to the Philippines from Japan, from a first-world country to a third-world country, I'm constantly reminded in unexpected ways about how much Filipinos love their nation, and also about how so many of them want to get the hell out.

I just saw a jeepney outside on Session Road, the main strip of Baguio City. Jeepneys are sort of pseudo-buses, smaller than a school bus, narrow, and fronted by a facade that resembles the U.S. military jeeps that originally gave these vehicles their names. The drivers of these cheap cabs (that can fill anywhere from fifteen to twenty people, or more, depending on whose hanging off of the sides) often paint the front and the rear and the sides and the tires in bright flashy colours; these are, after all, almost their homes, given how long they spend inside of them each day. (I'm guessing twelve hours, minimum, is a safe estimate.)

So you have many jeepneys painted with American basketball team logos (as the Filipinos are absolutely crazy about basketball), or characters from their favorite action movies, or vibrant images of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary.

You also often spot jeepneys illustrated with flags. The flag of the Philippines, of course, but also the national flags of the countries they want to work in, or the countries their relatives are already living in, grinding away at jobs as nurses and caregivers so they can send home the pay to their poor relatives over here.

Today's jeepney? TORONTO, it read in blue, emblazoned across a beautiful rendition of the Canadian flag, each point of the maple leaf scarlet and clear.

I've also noticed a jeepney around town with a similar design, this one declaring: CANADIAN DREAMING.

So many Filipinos work overseas that they have an official title: OVERSEAS FOREIGN WORKERS. There's a special space for their information on the custom cards they hand out in the airplane, and a special line reserved for them at immigration in Manila. Almost everybody you meet has a relative in Canada, or Australia, or New Zealand, or the United States. Most young people you talk to want to work overseas.

Again, it's not because they hate the Philippines. The Filipinos are probably more patriotic than most first world peoples, because they see the corruption endemic to their society, and it sickens them; it taints the joy and goodness that almost supernaturally emanate from the people themselves.

Realistically, though, money is hard to come by, so many have to go. Somewhere. Anywhere. Anytime an oil rig is hijacked in Nigeria, I know, absolutely know that a Filipino will be one of the crewmen. They will go to the ends of the earth -- and do, every day -- to support their families.

For most foreigners, working abroad is a lark, an adventure, a way to 'find' ourselves.

For Filipinos, working in Dubai or Liverpool is simply an economic necessity.

So, whenever I see these jeepneys, filled with locals squeezed in tight-tight-tight, I also remind myself to stare closely at the colourful exteriors on display, so often doubling as aspirations for a different, better life. They are so creatively celebrating who they are, now, and sometimes hinting at where they would like to be, at some distant, perhaps mythical point in the future.

Friday, August 01, 2008

"WHAT kind of a model, did you say?"

Having taught English in Asian countries for more than a little while now, I've become quite used to talking to total strangers about their lives, their hopes, their hobbies, their jobs -- but I have to admit that today left me a little stumped.

Usually non-native speakers of English are, understandably, shy and nervous talking about themselves in a foreign tongue, so talking about their jobs is a natural conversation starter.

Today, while eating spicy-chicken and rice at Jollibee, a Filipino fast-food staple, two young women asked if they could sit in the seats next to me. (The place was crowded as hell, as Jollibee usually is.) I said sure.

They asked me what I was doing in Baguio. I told them. I asked what they were doing in Baguio.

One was a Baquio resident, studying computers at a local college.

"What about you?" I asked the other one. Turns out she was up visiting from Manila. "Are you a student, too?" (Both looked about twenty-one, tops, so I thought it was a pretty safe question.)

"No," she said. "I'm a model."

"Oh," I said, never having got that answer in nine-plus years of the classroom. (Granted, this wasn't the classroom, and Filipinos are, essentially, native English speakers, so this wasn't a typical ESL experience, but still.)

"What kind of model are you?" I asked. (The question sounded strange to my ears, but I didn't quite know how else to word it.)

"I'm an underwear model," she said.

At first I thought she was putting me on, but no, I soon realized she was serious.

She modelled in Manila, and she modelled underwear. Had been doing so for two years, now.

I found myself stuck. Where do you take the conversation from there?

I asked if it paid well; she said it did. I asked if she wanted to do other kinds of modelling; she said she had. A shampoo commercial.

And that was that.

Usually, simply because it's such an easy topic to discuss, I probe people about their jobs, because it tells me a lot about who they are.

But asking endless questions to an underwear model felt very, very odd. (And I suddenly felt very, very old. And slightly sleazy.) She didn't seem embarrassed, or arrogant; she was matter-of-fact. Not conceited. Almost shy, the way that a lot of Filipinos can seem when speaking to a foreigner.

Even so, what more could I ask? Every avenue open to me seemed to lead either to embarrassment or innocuous questions that would inevitably sound strange, no matter the intent.

So, other small talk was made. About computer schools, and trips to Italy, and boyfriends who are nurses in London.

I said good-bye, and left them to their rice.

I kept thinking: What an odd job for such a young person, especially in a Catholic, conservative country like the Philippines.

How did she get into it? What did her parents think? Is the underwear-industry in the Philippines sleazy? Is it an entry into other, more dangerous areas? How do you train to be an underwear model? Is underwear all you model? Can you make a living just by posing in your gotchies?

Alas, some questions are better left unasked.

(Especially in a family restaurant.)

Monday, July 14, 2008


Snaps from my Cross-Cultural Communications class.

These students are second-year students, which means they are a heck of a lot more outspoken, funny, rowdy, and unimpressed-or-scared-by-the-foreign-teacher than most first-year students. (Though all were quite enjoyable to teach...)

Friday, July 11, 2008


More than a few Japanese university students have had the habit of sneaking into my classes more than a little bit late -- two, four, ten or more minutes past the beginning of class, grinning sheepishly, bowing their head, waiting for another one of my rants. The first three, four weeks, I said nothing, but time after time, in class after class, students would loudly open the door, fumble for their student card, walk to the front of the room and hold it in front of the sensor pad which would automatically bleep them present, while I hovered in front of the chalkboard, smeared in blue and white and pink powder, trying to remember what I was supposed to be teaching.

Since Japanese university students often seem like children, coddled and innocent, I had to remind them: This is, in essence, your job. You can't be five, ten, twenty minutes late. This ain't junior-high anymore. To which they would nod, nod again, nod once more for good measure, and then proceed to be late again the following week. (My favorite example: a student wandered into one of my classes after six weeks or so, a student I barely even recogized. When I asked him why he never came, he said: "This class is too early for me." It was a one p.m. class. He said it took him two hours to get to school. When I asked him where he lived, he said Fujisawa, which coincidentally happens to be where I live, and it sure as hell doesn't take two hours to get to school; one hour, door to door, tops. I nabbed him head-on. I told him if he missed any more classes, even one, he would fail. He nodded. Then asked: "Have you ever been to the Yukon? I was there last summer. So cool!" Cue the sensei's sigh...)

So today, exam day, I had a different student rush into class thirty minutes after class started. I had given his classmates some study time; the exam hadn't begun.

"You can't be thirty minutes late on exam day!" I said. "If the test had started, you'd have missed most of it!"

He was seated by now, smiling and nodding, and I noticed his shirt for the first time since he'd hurried into the room.

It was white, with big, bold, bright red letters streamed across the front: "SORRY I'M LATE!"

I laughed, my rant cut off mid-stream.

"Did you wear that because you knew you were going to be late?"

He smiled, and nodded, and smiled again.

I pointed it out to the class.

Everybody roared.

And I had a minor epiphany: Only in Japan.

Everybody always says "Only in America", but this was one of those moments that seemed quintessentially Japanese. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was the image of this student in his little apartment, rushing to gather his things, realizing he'd never make it on time, deciding that he'd better wear his "SORRY I'M LATE!" shirt to ease whatever steam I would be sure to blow off. That strangely impenetrable sense of Japanese humor mixed with the obligatory politeness of the culture. He probably figured I'd be talking at the front of the room when he walked in, and then I'd see his shirt, and all would be forgiven.

And he was right. It was.

I thought back to the past eight weeks, as I learned what it was like to teach thirty-plus students in a class, in a Japanese university, five days a week. I remembered the speeches my Writing class had given earlier this week, and how I'd planned to write a separate blog on how good they were, how confident, how assured.

Thirty students talking about water polo, and partying in Mexico City, and why smoking is terrible for you, and how homestays in New Zealand and Canada and Eureka, California changed their lives forever, and how Christian rock is the key to salvation and a really rockin' night, and why volleyball is a great sport, and why one student's South American mother is her personal hero for having had such a difficult life. Anyone who thinks Japanese are homogenous should have sat in that class and listened to teens on the cusp of adulthood expressing themselves in a foreign tongue about what mattered to them most. It made the whole semester worthwhile, those speeches did. I don't know why. I had similar sentiments teaching university students in Cambodia a few years back. Maybe it was because I'm only a decade and change past where they are right now. It seems fresh, and familiar. Or perhaps it was simply because the students revealed themselves to be who and what they are: good, funny, curious, inquisitive, eager young adults.

And that shirt, to cap it all off.

So, yes, only in Japan would a student wear a "SORRY I'M LATE!" shirt with such casual, good-natured zeal.

Me in my suit, he in his shirt, with a classful of laughs. A sunny day, in a foreign land, with summer in full swing.

There are worse ways to make a living.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable is ostensibly a business book, yes, about how unforseen events change our lives in ways that are impossible to predict, let alone manage, but he chooses to conclude his cheeky analysis with a couple of passages I found surprisingly, well, moving.

'Black swans' are those cataclysmic societal and economic events that nobody could have predicted: 9/11, the rise of the Internet, Pauly Shore's career, etc. (Everybody thought all swans were white, until black swans were discovered in Australia -- an event nobody expected, but one that nevertheless happened.)

The entire book is a challenge to conventional thinking; it's sly, cheeky and even laugh-out-loud funny at points, but it can still get a little technical for a moron like me, who dropped out of Grade 10 Accounting and never looked back. (Only because a) I didn't need the credit and b) the teacher reminded me of Jon Lovitz. I love Jon Lovitz, but the resemblance was seriously uncanny. The fact that I didn't understand anything he was teaching? That didn't help either...)

I was therefore pleasantly surprised by this passage, which is right around the corner and across the street from my own out-of-the-way philosophical alley:

...My classmate in Paris, the novelist-to-be Jean-Olivier Tedesco, pronounced, as he prevented me from running to catch a subway, "I don't run for trains."

Snub your destiny. I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered. In refusing to catch trains, I have the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that's what you're seeking.

You stand above the rat race and the pecking order, not outside of it, if you do so by choice.
Quitting a high-paying position, if it is your decision, will seem a better payoff than the utility of the money involved (this may seem crazy, but I've tried it and it works). This is the first step toward the stoic's throwing a four-letter word at fate. You have far more control over your life if you decide on your criterion by yourself.

Mother Nature has given us some defense mechanisms: as in Aesop's fable, one of these is our ability to consider that the grapes we cannot (or did not) reach are sour. But an aggressively stoic prior disdain and rejection of the grapes is even more rewarding. Be aggresive; be the one to resign, if you have the guts.

It is more difficult to be a loser in a game you set up yourself.

In Black Swan terms, this means that you are exposed to the improbable only if you let it control you. You always control what you do; so make this your end.

Since the whole book is about how so much of life is beyond our control, I love the fact that he reminds us, near the end, that we can, at the very least, control what is within our grasp; we can attain 'a true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior', if nothing else. We can choose to watch the herd go by and instead determine our own path, if we so choose, if the herd is headed somewhere we do not want to go in the first place.

And there's more:

...all these ideas, all this philosophy of induction, all these problems with knowledge, all these wild opportunities and scary possible losses, everything palls in front of the following metaphysical consideration.

I am sometimes taken aback by how people can have a miserable day or get angry because they feel cheated by a bad meal, cold coffee, a social rebuff, or a rude reception. Recall my discussion in Chapter 8 on the difficulty in seeing the true odds of the events that run your own life. We are quick to forget that just being alive is an extraordinary piece of good luck, a remote event, a chance occurrence of monstrous proportions.

Imagine a speck of dust next to a planet a billion times the size of the earth. The speck of dust represents the odds in favor of your being born; the huge planet would be the odds against it. So stop sweating the small stuff. Don't be like the ingrate who got a castle as a present and worried about the mildew in the bathroom. Stop looking the gift horse in the mouth -- remember that you are a Black Swan...

An absolutely brilliant way to tie things up, I think. An entire book detailing how erratic and unpredictable life is, filled with Black Swans awaiting us at various undefinable points in the future, and yet, here we are -- each of us, together, Black Swans one and all, improbable beings that somehow managed, against all the odds, to be born, here, at this time.

Think of the size of space, and the width of the universe, and the mass of the earth, and what would not have happened had your particular parents not met on that particular day, or not made love on that specific night.

And yet somehow you emerged, more or less intact.

Somehow you endured, up until this very moment.

Black swans await us at every turn, certainly, but there are trains we do not have to run to catch, and destinies we can shift and tilt according to our will.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Having recently read 23 Days in July, a book about Lance Armstrong's epic win in the 2004 Tour De France, thus becoming the first person to ever win six Tours (followed by a seventh the following year), I checked the internet to see what recent news I could find surrounding Armstrong, and I came across two items that highlight the vast difference between where we're going and where we should be.

The first is an article in the New York Times, wondering if Armstrong's serial dating is harming his image as a cancer spokesperson:

The second is a clip of Armstrong speaking about leaving the hospital after having completed his cancer treatment. His doctor told him about the 'obligation of the cured', which Armstrong took to mean: Hey, you're cured. The doctor burst his bubble by telling him that he didn't know if Lance would last another month, or year, or ten years. (And the doctor still doesn't know, as Lance points out -- a testament to the uncertainy surrounding all cancer survivors.) But Lance had an obligation, if he so chose, to tell his story, so others would benefit.

I don't know if Lance Armstrong is a serial womanizer. I don't know if he doped and drugged his way through all of those Tour de France triumphs. I don't know if he strangles kittens at night, or is mean to waitresses, or secretly covets illicit contraband, or if he is even a nice guy.

I do know that he is a passionate, eloquent speaker on cancer. He knows his shit. He tells his story. He doesn't sugarcoat his own survival, acknowledging that he doesn't have cancer, but he doesn't not have cancer, either. He is sincere and moving and articulate about what cancer is, and does, and the priority that needs to be put on cancer funding and research.

And here we have a culture fascinated with the fact that he seems to have a thing for blondes.

What worries me is that Western society seems to be sliding...somewhere. I'm not sure where, exactly, but that's what it reveals itself to me as -- a slide, a descent, a slimy, slippery slope that leads us to the baser parts of our inner selves. The internet seems to make everybody junior-high again at heart, eager to hear the latest gossip about anything and everything, always, as much as possible.

Cancer is one of the most serious things in a very serious world. Whenever I hear the word, I cringe and die a little. So to see one of the disease's most prominent foes slandered for ludicrous, adolescent reasons makes me think that even when faced with a fatal disease, we all still want nothing more than tabloid glee, a momentary, pop-culture recess from reality, rather than withstanding the necessary pain of examing something that has detail, and depth, and meaning.

People who've been touched by the disease couldn't give a flying fig what Lance Armstrong does or does not do in his free time.

He is not a hero, nor a saint, and whether he did, or did not, take any illegal substances during his record-breaking run at the Tour de France will forever be a legitimate issue, but for his work in cancer awareness Lance Armstrong at the very least deserves exclusion from the People Magazine mentality that has been steadily sucking the life out of us for the past few years.

He deserves it, yes, but so what? I have a feeling he'll be a staple of the tabloids for some time to come.

Or as Clint Eastwood so succintly put it in Unforgiven: "Deserves got nothing to do with it."

Nobody deserves to get cancer, either, but they do.

And blondes sell better than cancer.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


So an American, Iranian and a Russian wander around Tokyo.

Sounds like the set-up for some kind of crude ethnic joke, I know, but it's actually the scenario behind a TV variety show I occasionally catch while eating dinner.

Our three hosts, all of whom speak flawless Japanese, set out on a seemingly random jaunt through a local neighbourhood, and inevitably end up surprised, astonished, even amazed at the small restaurants, strange houses and colourful characters they come across. (I imagine the people they meet are equally surprised to see such odd 'gaijin' speaking fluent Nihongo; the two women are flat-out gorgeous, while the male American stands well over six feet and dresses like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, draped in a Columbine High School-style black trenchcoat. I keep waiting for the episode where he pulls out a shotgun and mows down some startled city folk.)

I highly doubt the authenticity of the hosts' 'surprise' at the people and places they 'happen' to locate; I don't think any show would run the risk of having nothing interesting whatsoever happen on any particular day without putting in place some plan beforehand, and the people they come across are invariably and suspiciously interesting and odd and altogether watchable.

What interests me more than the particular places they visit, however, is the speaking style of the hosts themselves.

All of them seem to be extremely exaggerated in their spoken and physical mannerisms. They express surprise and shock, glee and astonishment in a way that Iranians, Russians and Americans normally wouldn't. They point and jabber and seem genuinely impressed and delighted by each pedestrian answer to every innocuous question they pose.

They act, in essence, like Japanese TV personalities.

Which raises the question: Once you've got the language down pat, are you somehow being a kind of physical and linguistic fraud when you act like a Japanese in every other possible way too?

I ask only because, as a Canadian, the hosts' diction and deeds seem downright weird. (If not demented.) Seeing foreigners speak fluent Japanese isn't what's odd; seeing them behave like Japanese people behave -- or, at least, the way Japanese TV people behave -- is what strikes me as slightly skewed.

Having said that, I always tell my students: If you want to speak English well, imitate how native speakers speak.

But having said that, the foreigners on TV act in a way that I know they wouldn't act if they were shooting the shit in their local language, with people of their nationality.

On the other hand, If they walked around Tokyo responding, in Japanese, but with American, Iranian and Russian dialects and mannerisms, would that seem strange?

Yes. I think it would.

When you speak a foreign language, you invariably have to take on another self, and sometimes that alternate self has to behave in a way that your original self wouldn't.

Japanese are often quite mannered and reticent in formal situations. If they're speaking perfect English to a native English speaker, but maintain that same, sometimes stiff facade, commuication would be stifled, if not extinguished altogether.

Similarly, if a foreigner, speaking Japanese, were to maintain English conversation patterns, he or she could be seen as unnecessarily selfish or skeptical.

So perhaps in the end these TV hosts' habits aren't all that odd after all. They are behaving the way that people expect Japanese TV hosts to behave, oohing and ahhing over every little thing, verbal or physical, and exclaiming mightily over the smallest detail of trivia or food that is presented to them. They are using the language the way it's meant to be used, in the way that it's normally heard, and viewed. And it's good to remember, too, that TV hosts in all cultures tend to exaggerate and over-dramatize their facial expressions and spoken utterances.


I sometimes wonder.

If I'm surprised and a bit bewildered by these friendly folks, as a fellow foreigner, then what the hell does the average Japanese viewer make of them?

Sunday, June 15, 2008


I didn't listen to much rap growing up -- go figure, for a white guy from St.Catharines, Ontario, right? -- but for some reason or another I always loved the song 'Ghetto Bastard' by Naughty By Nature. (It's labelled 'Everything's Going To Be Alright' on Youtube, but I'm pretty sure the original name is 'Ghetto Bastard'.)

I have no idea how I first heard it, but I used to play it in the car when it was my turn to drive me and my friends to the movies every Friday or Saturday night. (And it was every Friday or Saturday night -- usually two on Friday night alone. Whatever opened, we watched.)

I liked the rhythm of the song, and I'd shift the sound from the front speakers to the back seat to the front again. I liked the refrain of 'everything's going to be alright'. It had a hopeful vibe.

It's only now, listening to the song again after about fifteen years, that I realize what a horribly pessimistic anthem it is; the melodic 'everything's going to be alright' is used ironically.

Listening to it, you can sense a young man's desperate lament for the horrific place and times in which he grew up: "Never gamble in a game that you can't play...Say something positive? Well positive ain't where I live...Mama said I'm priceless, so why am I worthless?...How will I do it, how will I make it -- I won't, that's how..."

Everything is not going to be alright. The ghetto is one fucked-up place. "If you ain't never been to the ghetto, don't ever come to the ghetto, cuz you wouldn't understand the ghetto."

Growing up, I'd never seen poverty. Knowing the lyrics to this song was a goof to me. Movies like Boyz N The Hood hinted at another world to me, but that was all it was: a suggestion, a tease.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and after a couple of years in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a few years in the Philippines, I've now seen a fair bit of poverty. I can almost understand what the song is trying to say. About how hopeless it is for so many people. About how stacked the deck is against most of the human race before they even begin life.

Why was I born in such a good and decent place? Why do others in the world have such a tremendously different experience of life?

Rap's gotten a bad, well, rap, lately, and I'll admit that I haven't heard barely any rap or hip-hop in the past decade. I can't judge if the tune is a classic or not.

But this song still packs a wallop for me.

I remember the teenage kid I used to be, bopping my head in beat to the music, a harmless ditty, and now, years later, the song now seems to me like a dark, angry, ultimately futile outburst against all that is unfair in the world.


Whenever anybody rings the doorbell to my apartment, a little video-monitor inside shows me who's that knocking at my door, and last week I noticed a couple of elementary-school girls in grainy black-and-white waiting for me to answer their call.

I didn't. I was kicked back on my futon, and I knew the kids were selling something, cookies or tickets or coupons, and I didn't want to buy anything, and rather than see their surprised expressions when a big scary foreigner answered the door, I decided to wait it out, knowing they'd soon leave.

Which they did. They silently, motionlessly loitered for a few moments, waiting for someone to answer the door, and nobody did, so they left. I watched it all, hiding inside. But before they left, they bowed, and said: "Onegaishimasu", which is roughly equivalent to: "Thank-you for doing this thing that I've asked you to do." (Even though I didn't do anything for them, and they said these words immediately after having had their request ignored. )

And let me repeat once again what they did, in case you missed it:

They bowed before a closed door.

Having lived in Japan about half as long as these girls themselves, I'm well aware that the Japanese bow to many different people in many different situations, including when talking on the phone.

This, though, was a first. Bowing to nobody? To a door?

Why did they do that? They weren't being respectful towards me in particular, because, for all they knew, nobody was home.

No, I think they were actually bowing before my neighbours. (Who were also behind closed doors.)

In Japan, the group comes before the individual, and the social takes precendence over the private. Since they were going door-to-door, it stands to reason that people in the neighbourhood could be watching their every move, and their every knock.

Being as polite as possible is not even being polite in Japan; it's being normal. Were you not to be polite, it would be a horrendous breach of etiquette. So not bowing before my door would alert everyone around my LeoPalace apartment that these two little girls were, in fact, not quite as innocent and cherubic as they appeared to be at first glance. By forgoing the bow, they would be revealed as churlish, rebellious brats.

That's what I'm guessing, anyways.

It got me thinking: The things we do so others will like us. Respect us. Or, at the very least, not think us impolite, odd, abnormal.

I love how old people so often say and do whatever the hell they want. It's as if they've transcended these artifical barriers of protocol we erect around us as we age and endure. Life is short, and we're all in this together, so why the hell not just get on with it and stop being obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses, both physically and conversationally? That's the vibe I get from these elderly cranks who can't be bothered with the bullshit of living any longer. (And it's an affectionate feeling I feel for these obstinate codgers, lest I'm being considered rather cruel.)

That's a Western ideal, I think, this notion of the individual doing whatever the hell they want, others opinions be damned.

Here in the orient (if it's still called that), others do, indeed, must, indeed, come first. It does matter what they think, because by doing things that interrupt the general harmony of life, you create distress for others. By throwing the stone in the pond, you create ripples that could lead to waves. Best to bow before closed doors, because then one can see that a certain civility endures, and without civility, everything else starts to deteriorate.

Which is not to say that there are not individuals and rebels in Japan. There are. But I'm guessing that they, too, would bow before closed doors, should the occasion arise.

Saturday, June 07, 2008


Congratulations to Ted, Elaine, Annabelle and the happy grandparents on the birth of a bouncing baby boy!

I'm an uncle all over again, and couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Check out for illuminating, entertaining, thought-provoking discussions on culture, society, race, class, hopes, dreams, and the various points where civilizations and people themselves intersect in all of the aforementioned areas.


There are only two things tacked to the office wall of the English Department at my university: a 2006 calendar, and a poster of Che Guevara.

Kind of a strange coincidence, because I'd recently finished reading a paperback copy of Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara by Jorge C.Casteneda. I picked it up in Tokyo because I knew that Steven Soderbergh's new film of Guevara's life starring Benicio Del Toro was about to play at the Cannes Film Festival, and I wanted to refresh my memory of exactly who Guevera was, what he stood for and what he died for. (I read another biography of Che, by Jon Lee Anderson, but that was years and years ago.)

So how does somebody whose life was terminated in Bolivia, years after successfully helping Fidel Castro overthrow the corrupt Bastita government in Cuba, before unsuccessfully trying to instigate a similar revolt in the Congo, end up on a poster in the least revolutionary place imaginable -- a university office in Japan?

Che Guevara's likeness has become the wish, the hope, the focal point for anybody who wants to create a change in themselves, or the world, even if they don't know what that change might be, or even who Che truly was.

Somebody posted this poster of Che on a wall because it stands for something vaguely heroic, and daring, and revolutionary. Something that one can't find on a campus snug as a bug in a rug in Yokohama.

So who was Che?

Good question, and one that Castenda's book does an admirable job of answering -- as much as one possibly can give an answer to what is, essentially, an unanswerable enigma.

Guevera, an Argentine medical student from relatively middle-class origins who wandered around South and Central America for a period of years, observing the poverty, gradually becoming politicized by the class inequities, until fate or destiny or just plain luck had him ultimately meeting Fidel Castro in Mexico, where he joined Castro's crazy plan to overthrow the Cuban government.

A plan so crazy that it actually worked, and that resulted in an Argentine doctor becoming one of Cuba's most favorite sons.

Why has Guevera endured?

I think it's because he failed. He attempted to liberate the Congo, only to end up defeated, in despair, starving, underestimating and completely uncomprehending the entire political and social situation of that distant, difficult land. Castro sent him into Bolivia only because he feared Che would be killed if he ended up back in Argentina, Guevera's preferred locale for the next insurrection. In Bolivia, too, Che was undermanned and out of his league, attempting to start a revolution that the people did not want and that was nowhere near feasible, let alone possible. If he had not gone to the Congo, and had not gone to Bolivia, he might have lived on in perpetuity in Cuba like Castro has done for the past forty years since Che's death, a leader revered (or feared) by all.

But that wasn't Guevera.

Guevera was a revolutionary who needed a revolution, and if there wasn't one available, he would make one, and if he couldn't make one, he would die trying. The fact that the Cuban revolution succeeded was, in and of itself, almost miraculous, making all involved somehow more than human; the fact that Che's other attempts failed only elevated him Guevera higher, as only death can do.

So a poster on a wall, a face on a t-shirt, his mug on a mug: Che, the commercial entity. Che, becoming what he always loathed, a symbol of capitalistic excess run amok. Che, who died for his beliefs, however misguided, now the backdrop for an album cover.

People can look at his face and imagine that there is something more for them than this little life we try to make our own. Somewhere, in some place, there is a jungle, and in that jungle there are men, and those men, however few, are attempting something glorious. Che's beard and beret seek out that within us which yearns for a similar destiny, but settles for paychecks and decaf.

For me, though, the most fascinating parts of Casteneda's book were not the chronicles of his revolutionary years, when he became a legend, but the earlier ones, before Che became 'Che', because that was when we can see a boy become a man.

A typical tale, of course -- childhood to adolescence, and youth to maturity.

What makes Che's life so remarkable is its unlikely path. What looked like wandering eventually evolved into purpose. What resembled aimlessness was, instead, the slow and steady accumulation of, if not wisdom, at least intent. He wandered and looked and listened and judged. (Always judging, Che was.)

As someone who has also somewhat meandered for the past few years, I felt myself wondering as I read about the whims of fate, and chance, and destiny, and despair. Had Che stayed in Argentina, he most likely would have become part of the ordinary world that he later despised with a ferocity unmatched by any other. (And yet, had he stayed, he of course would not have become Che.)

His death at the age of forty is actually misleading, because his years were full and rich, varied and intense. Chronological time almost cannot be applied to his ferocious psyche, so rich is its reach. He wanted a mythic life and a noble end. All his spontaneous yet careful searching brought him towards a violent conclusion that somehow satisfied an inner longing he barely registered, even to himself.

Yet, it is in Che's early years that I sense the acute power of myth we all long for.

On the wall in my office, on the mug at your desk, on the t-shirt of your nephew strides his later self, defiant and intense. When I look at his face as a child, surrounded by school chums, I sense a different soul. One who wants more than what he has, but is acutely unsure if the world will accomodate his outrageous demands, or provide the formula he needs to cure the ailments of an unfortunate planet.

Looking back from the vantage of history, you can stare into that boy's face and sense that this is a child who will leave everything behind for the promise of nothing. The indomitable human will, which Che believed could solve any and every dilemma. You can also discern the blank slate upon which we all begin. We begin, we move, we end. All the details in between are either destiny or chance.

In Che I sense what we, the human species, could all become, were we to branch out far enough. It leads to despair, and disillusionment, and death. In its randomness it also leads to a path waiting to be found, should we only stay true. The one tread by no other but ourselves. (Can random journeys, in fact, edge us closer to our destinies? Is all of life a circle that leads us back to ourselves, no matter how circuitous the route? These are the questions Che's story asks, should you read between the lines and take off his t-shirt.)

And still, there is that picture, of him as a boy.

He is but a child and yet everything is there, the future almost tangible in its absence, ahead of him. Just up ahead. A revolution in a far away country he does not even know exists awaits his older, unlikely, presence, barely twenty years down the line. Another life, at home, a safer life, tugs his heart in another direction. He ultimately chooses the other way, the longer way, and becomes a deity in death.

And an oversized poster on an office wall in Yokohama.

For a mere boy from Argentina, an unlikely destiny, perhaps, but no more so than mine, or yours. We are not so different.

He looked for what he needed to find, as do I. As do you.

The future, tangible in its absence.