Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Before classes began about a month ago, our Japanese supervisor cautioned those of us teaching the introductory writing classes that the students would need a great deal of help learning to write in English -- not because of the language itself, per se, but because of the way that thoughts and concepts are organized in English, the style and manner in which we logically connect one idea to the next, telling all you nice folks what we plan on saying, saying said thoughts, and then, in the end, wrapping everything up neatly in a bright red bonnet before calling it a day. The Japanese language is more elusive, more given to tangents, she said; it tends not to be as direct or forthright as our mother tongue.

After struggling my way through Shakespeare and Baseball, I think I see what she means.

I bought the book a) to keep on studying Japanese and b) because I like reading writing about Shakespeare, and I also like reading writing about baseball, and the combination of both topics, in Japanese, no less, sounded irresistibly odd and alluring.

One month and one hundred and fifty pages later, I finally realized that there wasn't much about baseball or Shakespeare in the book.

Mostly, it's about the American forefathers who landed on Plymouth Rock and struggled to build a life. The book touches on the roots of baseball in England, how games involving round discs immigrated to the United States along with the people who played them, how Shakespeare mentioned various ball games in various sonnets and verses in his poems and plays, and how parts of The Tempest may have been based on one of the American immigrants who helped, inadvertently, create baseball. (I think.)

But the actual amount of information on Shakespeare and baseball was minimal. The bard and the game were used as gateways into a larger analysis of how ideas, customs and sports migrate from one culture to another, and how elusive any attempt at understanding the origins of any one topic remain.

My supervisor's point was aptly proved: the book winded its way from here to there and back again, in a roundabout way that I can't quite imagine occuring in an English text. I lost count of the number of times the writer used the English equivalents of 'incidentally', and 'by the way'. Of course, I didn't understand everything, despite my dictionary's able help, but I think got, if not the gist of it, at least the gist of the gist. (If you get my gist.) And, even though it wasn't the book I thought it was going to be, it was entertaining in its own right, and I learned a little more Japanese, and I thought about topics and ideas in ways I never had before.

Which got me thinking: Most of life is like this book. We start out thinking one thing's going to happen, but it rarely does, or if it does it does so in such a way that it bears little resemblance to what we imagined was going to happen. I usually begin something convinced it's going to fail, or succeed, or land somewhere in between, and rarely am I right in my predictions, but always I make them.

I think it's a human thing to do, this notion of willful expectations. Maybe it's evolutional. We're programmed to believe that things are going to '', when we know, on the deeper, fundamental level, that that's not really the case at all. We will all grow old, and everybody around us will die, and so will we, or else an accident may take it all away from us the very next day. Or not. We may live bright and prosperous and relatively joyful lives. Either possibility is equally likely. We don't like to think of the dark stuff because doing so would immobilize us, which would lead to wild and dangerous creatures eating us in the night, and then we would be no more, anymore. Better to think we are in control, certain of our destiny, confident in our decisions. And we thus make predictions based on who we are and where (we think) we're going.

And nothing seems to work out the way I thought it would, but I remain enlightened nevertheless.

Starting university, I thought that at the age of 32 I'd be writing books in Canada or writing movies in Hollywood. Instead, I've been teaching in three different Asian countries for the past nine years.

Go figure.

But I've learned more than I ever could have imagined, or hoped to imagine. I started on one path, ended up on another, and now look towards a third, realizing that my life five years from now will probably be alien to the self typing these words.

I will start one book, one life, and at its conclusion find that it was not the one I had predicted it would be at the beginning.

I think it will be better.

That's only my prediction, anyways.

And since in the end all we have are our hopes, I might as well hope to the limit, right?

Saturday, April 26, 2008


The owner of the local used bookstore, the one just past the 7-11, the one on the way to Fujisawa Station. He sits surrouded by books, old and yellowed, stacked and sturdy, and yet every time I wander in or walk on by, he is watching television. From the street, the distance from the door to the counter seems very long, framed on both sides by books lining the walls. And there he is, waiting at the end. Hair dotted with gray. Mustache stretching across his lips. (If he were an ordinary salaryman, he would not have that mustache. Salarymen in Japan do not allow facial hair to smudge their face. It his one and only source of rebellion in the world. This is what I think, a senseless thought.) The arc of this funnel leads to him and him alone. He waits at the end for customers. He watches t.v. All those books, and he never seems to be reading any of them. Is he like a cook who never samples the goods? Has he spent his entire life reading, and has now decided to sit back, kick back, and let his brain zonk out on wacky variety shows? The books are all old and eloquent, weighty tomes on serious subjects: art and culture, politics and economics. But he will have none of it. He sits, silently, watching his television, while the customers browse and the books stay stacked.

The people who clean my classrooms. They are old, older than old. In Japan you retire at sixy, but since the life-expectancy here is higher than anywhere else on earth, that means you could very well have a good thirty years of nothing-to-do before you pass on to whatever awaits on the other side. The cleaners look to be in their mid-sixties, possibly early seventies. Do they want to be there? They are invariably polite, intent upon their work, waiting in the hallway when the schoolbell rings, eager to wipe the boards clean. Sometimes I have another class featuring the same lesson on the same room, so I politely tell them: "Sonna mama de ii desu." It's fine as it is. They smile and hurry somewhere else. Often when I walk into the bathroom between classes they are there already, male or female, furiously scrubbing the urinals. They seem happy. But in their eyes is a certain weariness. They are already old, and yet they are here, cleaning classrooms, wiping down toilets. Is this how they imagine their golden years? I want to ask them about World War II. They would have been children then. What did they see? Who were the first foreigners they met? I had an older student years ago who said the first English word he learned was 'chocolate' because the American soliders at the end of the war would throw Hershey bars to the starving Japanese children. Did these cleaners have similar stories? Of course they do. I want to hear them. But they have rooms to clean, and bills to pay. They hurry off to the next room, on the next floor, before I can do more than mutter a few feeble words of thanks.

The man I saw today in Shinjuku. The homeless man. Clearly homeless. All his goods stuffed into a bag. Shoes ragged. Shirt ripped. But his beard was neatly trimmed, almost artistic. His cheeks were clean shaven. How could this be? He obviously had recently done the deed. Perhaps that morning. Did he shave every morning? Was the shape of his beard a statement, a sign that said I may be poor, and I may have no home, but I have a beard, and it is mine, and I will show you what I can make of it, and thus make of myself. Was he mentally unstable? At one point in time he was a boy in a bed, waking to his morning light and his mother's rice. What happened in between that day and this day?

And these people, the lonely ones -- are they thinking the same thoughts about me? The foreigner hurrying to the train, his suit wrinkled and ill-fitting, his mind clearly somewhere else. What do they see when they look at me? What do any of us see when we look at each other? The illusion of judgement binds us together while tearing us apart. I don't know them at all, any of them, and I can't trust what I see, but I will keep looking.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


Spike Lee's next film, Miracle at St.Anna, due to be released later this year, is based on a novel by James McBride, telling the story of a group of African-American soldiers fighting in Italy during World War II, making it sound like a slightly unconventional war picture, but it's actually an almost astonishingly moving story of hope, faith, magic realism and childhood faith. It has the potential to be Lee's best movie since Malcolm X, I think, and, if the fantastical elements of the novel are kept intact when translated to the silver screen, it can, potentially, have a lyricism and grace that is only hinted at in some of his early work.

Part of that 'grace' comes from the novel's concluding passages, which I won't give away, but the reader is left with the sense that life is a fragile enterprise indeed, one in which the ideas of 'security' and 'risk' are essentially synonyms. Accepting that, understanding that, acknowledging that the cosmos works in ludicrous ways, but that we nevertheless have to accept life's virtues and cruelties, is part of growing up. (The hardest part, I think.)

Certainly, having been in and around and under and beside cancer for over two and a half years, I've started to think a lot about 'risk' versus 'security'. Growing up, we're taught to choose the course in life that will lead to the maximum payoff -- not necessarily financially, though that certainly plays a role, but also in terms of identity. We should chart our progress towards the route that will lead to a comfortable sense of serenity.

But what happens if you have the cancer card thrown at you? What if you're told that your life is no longer in your hands, but in the hands of multiplying cells that may or may not divide at the appropriate rate? What do you do then, think then, choose then? Serenity may not be an option any time soon; survival may take paramount importance.

There's a paradox at the heart of 'risk' versus 'security', which is this: sometimes the biggest risk ends in stability. Or sometimes the most sedate form of existence leads to an accidental, head-first trip down the stairs of your latest villa in France. To think that we control life seems to me to be a fallacy of the human organism. We control what we think, and do, but not life itself. It exists outside of us, somehow.

Thinking of cancer makes you think of death and disease and decay and degeneration on a daily basis, but it also makes you think of fragile things, and fragility has its own, autonomous grace. Being fragile, we can shatter easily, but because of that delicacy, we can also feel more intensely.

So given this fragility, how should we navigate the oceans of life? I've said this before, but I always loved the story director Robert Altman once told, about two guys sitting on top of a boat, staring at the ocean surrounding them. "Look at all that water," the one guy says. And the other guy says: "Yeah, and that's just the top!"

So much more lies beneath.

In a fragile world such as this, there is no risk, and no security. Everything can collapse all at once, and everything may simply chug-chug-chug along like before. We may be fated to simply stand solitary in the middle of all that water, somehow balanced at the top, wondering what lies beneath.

Or, abandoning any notion of risk and security, we may be lucky or foolish enough, someday, to dive deep and see what waits to be found at the ocean's core.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


Fifty pages into the Japanese book Shakespeare and Baseball, and I've discovered that baseball's roots lie in a small village in England, where maidens milking cows often threw pepples at the neighbouring farmers as they passed on by.

I think.

The danger when attempting to read anything above the alphabet in a foreign language is that there's a great possibility, if not probability, of totally misunderstanding what you've read.

The first part of the book traces the origins of baseball itself from varius games involving hard round objects that were created by peasants in England. Now I'm at the part where British folks are coming over on the Mayflower, and introducing various forms of these sports to the Yanks. And, at some point, the game of baseball as we know it was created; I just haven't got to that part yet.

How all this ties into Shakespeare, I have no freakin' clue.

But the author seems to be having a good time. As I mentioned before, when the Japanese pursue something, they pursue it, and the author mentions how he was invited to a modern-day simulation of one of the old, British-style games, this one reenacted by folks in seventeenth century outfits somewhere in New England. And, sure enough, there's the author, in a black-and-white photo, grinning broadly, surrounded by fellow sporting enthusiasts. He is pursuing his passion, and it shows.

What I like about attempting to read a foreign language is that you feel like you earn every word you comprehend. Every idea that seems to make even a fair bit of sense by the time you finally reach the end of a sentence is a cause for internal celebration. Unless I'm reading science stuff, or math stuff, reading English itself rarely feels like work; it's a groove I get into, period. But reading Japanese is so damn hard, and takes so damn long, that I feel almost, well, proud of finishing a page. It's actually quite a feeling, becoming a little bit literate after years of work. I still move my lips when I read Japanese, but that, too, is something I enjoy; I feel myself trying, and in this modern, media-blitzed age of inertia, actually feeling something is not a quality one should dismiss so easily.

So, I'll keep plugging away at it. I'm gradually realizing that this is a book about baseball, more than Shakespeare; scanning the author's credits, I see that he's also written Japanese books about Babe Ruth and the old Negro Leagues, so that's obviously his forte. Yet I can sense where the book is leading; an examination of how games and stories migrated, shifted, changed forms.

Like the reading of the language itself, that's only my 'sense' of things, and the book could quite likely change course and go in a radically different direction.

If it does, I might not understand completely where it's going, but getting lost in translation along the way will be half the fun.

Saturday, April 05, 2008


Sometimes a year or two will go by when I don't run any longer than an hour, max. My usual routine is to do fifty to sixty minutes, six days a week, resting on Sundays. (Even God took a break that day, so I sure as hell can.) For the past couple of weeks I've upped my ante and started running two hours on Sundays, because I'm starting to understand that the longer you go, the more you understand. And the more you endure, the clearer you feel. And the more you wait, the sweeter the fruit.

From the age of fourteen to twenty-one, my running routine was simple: three 'maintenance' runs a week; one or two speedworkouts; one long run. And one day off. For the past ten years, there have been a good many months where I didn't do much running at all, but I've gotten back into it in the past few years, minus the speedwork; without the motivation of a race to, um, motivate me, I find putting in the time for endless repeats less than enticing. Because I had a stress fracture in my right foot during university, and a wrecked knee while trying to train for a marathon years ago, I'm more cautious when I run. I'm older. In short, I'm slower.

Running one hour is an effort; running two hours starts to point towards something else. What that is, I'm not sure. Pehaps if I ever run a marathon, I'll find out. (I'm tempted to do so almost every single year, but I also spent most of my adolescence running cross-country and track races all fall, spring and summer long; I don't feel the urge to 'race' or 'beat' anyone anymore, so why race?)

Running long runs gives me time to think; it forces me to focus on the moment, because what lies ahead is tiring and sweaty; it makes me think about how my body feels, and why. It grounds me.

Long runs are also perfect for the aging human specimen. When you're young, you're in a rush, so speed suits the teenage runner; you want what you want, now. Getting older, you realize that the best things come to those who last. Japan's most famous baseball player, Sadaharu Oh, has a wonderful autobiography whose English version concludes with his credo as a hitter, and a human: Sometimes you have to wait. The batter can do nothing but wait for the ball to come to him; he can't hurry it forward. He has to wait.

I've come to believe that waiting is everything. You work now towards what will come later on. You won't see the fruits of your success, if any ever arrive, until many moons rise and fall. You leave your house to hit the roads in the early morning chill so that you can return once the sun has assumed its proper place. When you have a set goal of two hours to bide your time, there's nowhere to rush towards, no destination to arrive at. You simply have to wait. The achievement, if any arises, arises from your patience.

And, by waiting, you can exist in a different sphere. Running long distances at whatever speed I feel like has taught me that some things can't be changed. From this exertion emerges the metaphor for life we all seek: you will feel pain, and discomfort, and joy, and eventually it will all come to an end, and in the process you will find what needed to be found (or not -- perhaps suffering is all that awaits) , but two hours is two hours (or life is life) so there's no point hurrying. It will come at the proper point, that time will. 'It' being whatever it is you're looking for.

By waiting, you can start to see the patterns more vividly. The moon, without fail, grudgingly gives way to the sun, and, recently, as my feet come to a stop and my chest rises and falls in a familiar, sweaty arc, I often realize that spring has suddenly emerged from the ruins of the night while I paced my way through familiar motions. I didn't even know I had been waiting for a new season to emerge, but it has, and my daily, montonously physical tangents somehow make the whole ancient process new, even vital.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Wander around any bookstore in Japan and you'll soon realize that when the Japanese find a niche, they niche the hell out of it. Any hobby, interest, fetish known to man, the Japanese have written a book on it. An illustrated one. Complete with a separate guide to the illustrated book. I'm used to seeing all sorts of odd, eccentric, downright strange tomes on any number of subjects gracing their extensive array of bookshelves, but even I was surprised yesterday to find one that seemed to coincide precisely, oddly enough, with what I was looking for.

Trying to improve my meagre Japanese, I've been reading a page or two at a time from various Japanese books. (If I were to commit myself to finishing only one book, it would take me, most likely, months, so I delude myself by telling myself that the real reason I'm switching from book to book is so that I can experience different styles, unusual words, new Chinese characters, etc.) Lately I'v been reading from books written about the nature of Chinese patriotism; why kanji (Chinese characters in Japanese form) is an essential part of the Japanese language and culture; why Japanese baseball is a distinctly more satisfying brand of the sport than its American counterpart; why Shakespeare has lessons to be learned for the Japanese heart and soul. I read a page or two here and there, switch books, delve into another topic; completely opposite of how I read in English, where I read only book at a time, fiction or non-fiction.

So yesterday I'm poking around Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku, browsing through the English section and the Japanese section. There's a few books in English on Shakespeare I've been meaning to read for ages, but their prices were a wee bit, um, pricey. In the Japanese section, I noticed endless reams of books on China and Korea, but I decided to try for a little more light-hearted fair, so I found the 'sports' section and saw what there was to see.

One of my Creative Writing teachers always told us that if we wanted to get published, write a book about baseball (Or, in Canada, write a book about hockey.) The Japanese have obviously followed his advice, as there seems to be just as many, if not more, books about baseball here than in the States. Memoirs of coaches, players, fans; instructional books on how to play, how to improve, how to excel. Behind-the-scenes tomes about the people who run the statdiums, and the faithful who bleed for their teams.

And one book that knocked me out for its sheer unlikeliness.

As I've stated before, whenever I'm searching in vain around a bookstore for a title to read, I remain absolutely convicned that there's one, one, ONE book waiting that is destined for me and nobody else. (Or so I tell myself.)

Yesterday that book was: Shakespeare and Baseball.

That's right.

Shakespeare and Baseball, by Kazuo Sayama.

I thought I'd seen everything, but this takes the cake. I've been interested in Shakespeare for a while, and baseball books, more than baseball itself, has become a bit of a hobby, so you'd think I'd be keen on snatching this book. And I did. But I still can't get over it: I mean, what's the connection?!?

The cover shows the famous shot of old Billy with a baseball flinging down towards us to his left. Below the baseball is an old English ship destined, I'm guessing, to sail for the States. So perhaps this book is a chronicle of how baseball evolved from cricket? Or is it life lessons to be learned from the bard and the ball?

Not a clue.

Flipping through the book, I see pictures of the author in England, pointing at some historical sight or another.

Shakespeare. And baseball. What a combination.

So, I'll give it a go. One slow page at a time. And since I doubt it'll ever be translated into English, I'll post a blog or two about what I find when I get a chance.

That's what I love about the Japanese. Just when I'm thinking: Who the hell would write a book about Shakespeare and baseball, I realize: Now that's a book I'd want to read.

The Japanese know, and aren't afraid to admit: There's nothing stranger under their sun than themselves. (And the rest of us.) You find what you love, and go deep. Even if your own peculiar journey takes you from Elizabethean England to the pitcher's mound. (Or maybe especially for that reason.)