Saturday, March 29, 2008


I recently read a newspaper story about a young Japanese man who makes cheese in a small town in France. He used to work on a farm in northern Japan, but he didn't like the way that they went about their business; they didn't treat the cows, or the cheese, properly. One day while watching the Tour de France cycling race on TV he saw the riders glide through a small village. The cows ignored the riders, but the Japanese man watched the cows. They looked happy. The life seemed peaceful. He went to France to take a cheesemaking course, then came back to Japan for a few years to work at a Toyota plant to save enough money to move to France for good. Eventually, he did. And now he works by himself making cheese in a tiny French town, and is considered one of the best workers in the business.

Something about this story moved me.

Japan is a notoriously group-oriented culture. To decide to just take off, move to France, make some cheese -- not an easy decision, I'm guessing. Yet, the ones who don't fit in here, TRULY don't fit in. So some of them move on and find their own life.

How much of our decisions are based on what those around us are doing? How much of our lives do we live drifting when we should be gliding?

One advantage of living abroad is that you can't attempt to do what those around you are doing, because they are of that culture, while you are merely in it. To attempt to blend in is a fool's game.

Eccentricity is often simply doing that which others would not normally do. And those 'others', invariably, are your family, neighbours, peers. Every so often, living in Asia, studying Japanese, I feel I'm on a tangent, and I wonder where the main road lies.

But now I think of that Japanese farmer in the fields of France, watching his cows, then going back inside to make his cheese. He has found his main road, a little off center.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Last week, while walking down Session Road in downtown Baguio, a city in the northern Philippines, a well-dressed lady stopped me and urged me to attend a celebration of the birth of Christ, gently but insistently pushing an information pamphlet into my hands.

For a moment I was confused, given that this was mid-March, and Christ`s birthday, as far as I know, is usually celebrated on December 25, but I quickly realized that this lady was a Jehovah's Witness, and they do things differently, those Witnesses do. Like celebrating Christ's birthday in April, I think. (I used to walk to Dalewood Senior Public School each day with a neighbourhood kid who was a Jehovah's Witness, and I remember being absolutely astounded when he told me that his family not only didn't celebrate Christmas, or Easter, but they didn't do birthdays, either.)

I thanked the lady and took the pamphlet and stuffed it into my bag. I actually felt a little bit sorry for her, because the Philippines is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, so any other branches of Christianity must have a hard time converting anybody who is already a Christian, albeit one of a different sect. (I feel the same way whenever I see the American Mormons wandering the streets of Baguio with their Filipino brethren each and every day. I would think that converting non-Christians would be a hell of a lot easier than trying to convert people who already believe ninety percent of what you believe...) With things to do, places to go, people to see, the usual stuff of life, I soon forgot about the lady and the pamphlet.

Until the other day.

For here I was, newly entrenched in my apartment in Fujisawa, Japan for another few months, and what should I find in my mailbox but a pamphlet. From the Jehovah's Witnesses. And not just any pamphlet, but the same one that the lady had given me in the Philippines, with the same photo, along with an identical layout -- the only difference being that the text was written in Japanese, as opposed to English.

The surprise is not that there are Jehovah`s Witnesses everywhere. I already knew that. (They even come to your door on Sunday mornings in Japna, too.) But hopping from country to country, no matter how often I do it, always creates a strange, almost mystical sense of disorientation within myself. One morning I'm haggling with a cabbie at the Pasay bus station in central Manila, the Philippines, trying to bargain my way into a reasonable ride at an affordable rate to the airport, and then ten hours later a Japanese gentlemen at Fujisawa Station in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, seeing the map in my hand and the confused look on my face, asks if I need any help. And this is the same day. And it's the same world. While the taxi driver I had met that morning was still in the middle of his daily shift, I had flown thousands of miles away and was in a new land, speaking a different language, shivering in a much colder climate.

My brain can never get used to this.

I soon start to see the world as large, divided, a gigantic series of Connect-Four games whose pieces never seem to align into a certifiable row that links us all and makes any kind of sense. (And if you don't know what Connect-Four even is, then I'm older than I think.)

But then, laying in bed, listening to the sounds of the trucks barreling down the central roadway aligned exactly alongside my new apartment, I think of that pamphlet. It made me feel strangely wanted, that pamphlet did. I don't know why. I have no interest in becoming a Witness, but suddenly the world became very, very small once again. Borders, boundaries, languages were erased. I could concretely link the `me` of two weeks ago with the `me` of today. Some kind of gap had been bridged, with me straddling the middle, looking closely and clearly at both sides.

Monday, March 17, 2008


In my imagination, it's almost always autumn. The leaves are falling from the trees in lazy, deliberate arcs, the wind gently nudging them along to their final resting place on the hard edges of curbs and the soft cushion of ash-green lawns. The air is becoming cooler, sooner. The night is falling fast.

In my imagination, winter is coming soon, so I must hurry. There are things that need to be said, and these can be expressed only when summer is a fastly fading memory, and the Canadian cold a quickly dawning reality. Snow is coming, but not yet. Frost is waiting, yet still covert. In between the haze of the heat of an August afternoon, where ice-chilled lemonade soothes the tongue and sweetly hints at a childhood dead and gone, I can drift in this autumn, and mourn the loss of summer, and dread the onslaught of ice, and find a delicate balance between the two, if only in words. But such a languid pause can only last so long, barely a moment, for if I remain static then something will be lost, something that means more than I can say, something that I am still hoping to locate, let alone present.

In my imagination, the seasons are constant, steady, cyclical in that familiar, Ontario way. Abroad, I am at the whim of unfamiliar seasons -- rainy and dry, damp and dusty -- that connect in no way whatsoever to what I know and hold dear. In the absence of my seasons, the ones that formed me, I must adjust. Adapt. Acknowledge that snow is a thing of the past, at least here, at least now. But in my head I can retreat, go back, examine the world through the prism that is most familiar.

In my imagination, life hovers between Halloween and all that comes after. (With winter invading, descending, ever so slyly!) All stories are autumn stories, poised between extremes. Behind there is the steady whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of the front-lawn sprinkler, and ahead the crisply morbid crunch of shovel-on-snow, the dreaded crick-crick-crunk of frozen-lake ice rapidly giving way to the cold water beneath, but in between, in the middle, hovering, I can look behind and ahead, my soul neither summer nor winter, cold nor warm, constant or erratic. Yes, yes, I can hover, if only for a moment, in between seasons, at autumn's remotest edge, and delve into that place where stories live, and breathe, and whimper, and wait to be rescued.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Usually we forget most of the books we read, the individual sentences that slowly and steadily build the story itself, but every so often certain lines stick out and stand out, and I've always remembered the line from The Catcher In The Rye, the one where the teenage narrator, Holden Caulfield, states how after reading a good book he wants to call up the author and have a conversation.

I always felt that way, especially as an adolescent. I'd read a book, especially one by Stephen King or John Irving, and I'd want to spend a couple of hours shooting the shit with them, asking them how they did what they did, why this character made that choice, or even simply to let them know how much their words meant to my life. (Writers were then -- and are now, I guess --my equivalent of rock stars, so when I actually did get to meet John Irving a couple of times in Toronto in the mid-nineties, my questions were usually as deep as: "So, um, I hear Owen Meany is going to be a movie?" I then knew exactly how Chris Farley in The Chris Farley Show felt in those old SNL sketches, where he would be absolutely tongue-tied while having to interview people like Martin Scorsese and Paul McCartney. "So you were in the The Beatles? They were awesome...")

Of course, back then, before email, the big writers were never listed in any phone book, their numbers not given out by 411, and the odds of getting a written letter back from them were pretty much non-existent. And who had the patience to wait? (Although my friend and I in our university days once wrote Stephen King's office in Maine kindly requesting free permission for the rights of his novel The Long Walk, and his secretary actually wrote back a month or so later, politely saying to two Canadian knuckleheads: "Um, no." I wish I still had that letter. Despite the blunt rejection, it was like a gift from the gods at the time.)

What's interesting now, though, in this brave new world of the internet, is that you actually can talk to writers, if only via blogs. (But not exclusively: Canadian Science-Fiction writer Robert J.Sawyer, on his blog, actually allows you to email him -- and he sometimes emails a quick word back, too...)

This is, of course, both wonderfully liberating and somewhat disillusioning, too.

By that I mean: In the past, writers had this near Olympian level of stature. They dispensed wisdom via narrative, and we ate it up like Christmas cookies. You waited six months, a year, four years for their new book, and then you gobbled it up as quick as you could. And then you waited some more.

Now, you can leave a comment in a blog, and that writer may very well comment on your comment, and a new link has been formed, a connection made, and these once impenetrable authors now seem very much human.

From a marketing standpoint, it's genius: You can see what the writer's thinking on a daily basis, engage in a spirited cyber-conversation with folks around the globe, and the author himself puts in his two cents, and everybody feels part of this nebulous creative process.

And yet, some of the mystery is lost.

Some of the fairy dust type-of-stuff that we want the best writers to have.

Some of the writers I grew up reading -- Stephen King, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates -- don't have much a continuous, online presence.

I like that.

It means that we can see them still as writers, and not as personalities. And, most importantly, we can focus on the work, whenever it arrives. After all, a book should be the best of person's thoughts after an extended period of rewriting, revision, pulling-out-the-hairs-on-the-head until the perfect word is placed in the proper spot. Hearing about each and every inch of progress of the latest work via the author's blog is somewhat inspiring, in the sense that it shows that this is a person who is simply like the rest of us -- working the best he/she can day in and day out. But some of the glee of anticipation is lost; while waiting for the new book to come out, I'm not sure I need to know via a blog that the author's daughter has a dentist appointment in the afternoon.

The danger of this new age is thus that the writer takes center stage on a daily basis, while the book itself recedes into the background, the stories as a whole becoming less important. (As King pointed out in one of his novellas: "It is the tale, not he who tells it.")

I want the book to matter. In this age of celebrity-driven garbage, where even authors have to chat up their latest work on afternoon talk shows and appear slick and stylish and oh-so-witty in two-minute sound bites, I was somewhat startled to read in an interview with Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami that he's never appeared on television. He's never had his voice broadcast on the radio. He avoids public readings whenever possible. This is the most popular writer in Japan for the past twenty years, whose name was floated around for the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, and he's never even been on TV! And he's basically saying: "I don't want to be in your face. I want my book to be in your hands. Period."

So, yes, bring on the blogs. Bring on the writers. Let's hear what they have to say.

But when I open up their latest book, the computer shuts down, the TV goes off, and I'm left with only the voice.

And that should be enough.

Sunday, March 02, 2008


For so many years while growing up the threat of university looms over our heads with this almost intangible vision of future potential and regret, passion and insecurity, that it's a little startling, ten years after graduation, to be confronted with the piece of paper that sums up what it all came down to: digits on a page, and letters on a graph.

My company in Japan for one reason or another needed transcripts of my university grades, and, because I didn't have them, I had to get them. I faxed York University kindly asking them if they would kindly send them my grades halfway around the world, and they kindly replied. (Quickly, too.)

And so now I sit in an Internet cafe in the northern Philippines and stare at what four years living at the outer edges of Toronto, Ontario amounted to:

Introduction To Filmmaking I
Introduction to Filmmaking II
Film Art: An Introduction
Good & Evil
Psychology and Politics
Aspects of Theatre
Major Authors in English Literature
Introduction to Creative Writing
Screenwriting II
Theories of Filmmaking
Science and the Environment
European & British Novel: 1880-1930
Modern Canadian Fiction
Screenwriting III
Modernism and Anti-Modernism in American Culture
Intermediate Prose Workshop: Fiction
Prose Narrative: The Novel From Behn to James
The Canadian Short Story
Studies in Contemporary Drama
Advanced Screenwriting
Senior Prose Workshop: Fiction and Non-Fiction.

And, well, that's it. Four years. One degree. Down the gown and slap on the funny looking cap, strut across the stage, pick up your diploma, and don't slam your dreams on the way out. Welcome to the world, kid. "Next!"

I'm a little astonished at the lack of, well, range in the courses I took. Outside of electives that were forced upon me -- like the ghastly 'Science and The Environment' -- and electives I willingly took in my first year, like 'Good and Evil' and 'Psychology and Politics' -- the rest of my studies revolved exclusively around books, movies and writing.

At the time, that was all I wanted to study, so I was happy as a pig in shit. (Which makes me think: are pigs really happy in all that shit? Just wondering. I'm sure even pigs would prefer a jacuzzi sometimes.)

But I've spent the last nine years in Asia catching up on all the stuff I never studied in university. Politics. History. Law. Asia. Language. Sociology. Anthropology.

And I've come to believe that it's all for the best, that it's better to suddenly confront life on its own terms, outside of the framework through which we glared at it in our late teens in early twenties. By studying narrative exclusively for four years, I was then able to view my own life as a narrative, and the world as a story in which not only I but everyone else were central characters jostling for attention. A few years after graduating I realized I was ignorant in basically everything about the world, and I had to follow my instincts from country to country and learn along the way what it was all about.

Sometimes I think that the idea of a university itself is almost a quaint one, especially in this intense Internet era where all of mankind's collected knowledge is essentially available at the push of a button. I was part of the last generation that graduated university without ever googling anything, that actually checked out books from a library when a paper was due, that had never used email or Facebook or MySpace in the downtime between classes. Today, do we need systematized sources of knowledge? Do we need courses? Maybe we should just tell kids to follow their instincts for four years, then shove them into situations that have little relevance to anything that they actually studied.

Willfully underprepare them, in other words. You think the world is one way and it turns out to be another, and another, and another, and maybe the university experience is all about building your confidence in what you know, so that when you're truly, majorly fucked over by what you don't know, you'll have some kind of artificial edifice in place that will hold you up and keep you hurtling down the rapids of daily existence.

I don't know.

There's very little, I don't know, utility that I learned from my classes, and I certainly remember more about my one year running and racing on the cross-country and track-and-field teams than I do from my four years immersed in seventeenth century literature and twentieth century film theory, but I guess that whole experience, from eighteen to twenty-two, can be used as a kind of time-gap, a necessary pause, a flimsy but somehow formidable shield against all that will come later on in life, both good and bad, glorious and banal. If you're lucky, you can simply learn a little more about what you like, and then later, after you graduate, you can discover that there actually are other, larger, denser worlds than the tiny, temporary ones you imagined were so grand and complete at such a young and foolish age.

After all, even utility has its limits, and I do know for certain that there's a great many courses from the above list that I've forgotten almost completely, and I also remain convinced that rarely, if ever, will I end a job interview by saying: "And I just want to say, sir, that if you ever need anybody that's got some big-time experience with the Modern Canadian Short Story, well, look no further, bro."

Nobody sitting across from me in a job interview would be interested to hear those words escape from my lips, but perhaps somebody somewhere in Tokyo or Manila or Manchester someday might, and understanding this elasticity of the human experience, the curiosity of the human animal, the natural urge to delve into that which is other, is what took me the longest to learn.