Thursday, May 29, 2008


Laughter is a funny thing. There's no better sound than that strange, spontaneous, emotional outburst, especially to the ears of an ESL teacher, if only because it means that you've been understood -- never a given when teaching learners of a foreign language, believe me -- but it also can erupt at unexpected moments, when you weren't even trying to be funny.

Yesterday in class for one reason or another we were talking about video games, and how I played them as a kid, loved them as a kid, even wrote speeches for school about them as a kid, though I haven't played any at home or in an arcade since well before Clinton's second term in office. Thinking of something they could relate to, I happened to compare Nintendo and Sega.

Hilarious juxtaposition, apparently.

Nintendo, still a powerhouse. Sega, I'm guessing not so much.

Upon uttering 'Sega', generous laughter spittled forth from the class. United in their mirth, they were, while your humble scribe stood rather dazedly, in front of them --black-suited, blue-tied, and not sure exactly what was funny. (I learned Sega is not selling like hot-cakes in Japan these days.)

Nevertheless, I plowed ahead. (When in doubt as an ESL teacher, plow ahead.) I mentioned that even before the Nintendo and Sega wars of my childhood, Atari was the video-game console of choice for the discerning game player.

I was expecting much laughter at this 'Atari' reference.


Not a cackle nor a chuckle. Neither a grin nor a smirk.

"Atari?" I said.

Blank stares.

I thought they might have at least heard of Atari.

Then I remembered: These students were born in 1989. 1990. Atari was already dead and buried by the time they were sampling their mothers' teats on a daily basis.

For a little history, I added: "Back then, Atari was so popular that the movie Blade Runner, set in the early 21st century, had the company's logo as a neon sign on a building in the middle of Los Angeles. You guys know Blade Runner, right?"

What do you think the answer to that question was?

There are many, many times when I feel impossibly young -- but that wasn't one of them.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Aside from the occasional junior high school boy randomly stabbing innocent bystanders (are there ever any other kind of 'bystanders'?) at his local train station, or the crazy homeless dude who whacked me in the gut a few years back, Japan, with a population of 130, 000 people, is justifiably known as a remarkably safe country.

For the citizens? Spectacular. For news shows? Eh, not so much.

Case in point:

A month or so ago the lead story on the 6:00 NHK Nightly News -- a national broadcast -- concerned a convenience store clerk who was stabbed to death while working the late-shift in Osaka.

A tragedy, to be sure, but can you imagine an American version of the same incident?

"Good evening. I'm Katie Couric, and this is the CBS Evening News. Our top story: A convenience store clerk was stabbed to death early this morning at a 7-11 in Phoenix, Arizona."


Or how about this:

The other night there was a kind of C.O.P.S style show following a day-in-the-life of a Kanagawa Prefectural Police team. (Kanagawa being the prefecture -- similar to a province or state -- where I live.) The music was pumping and the editing was frenetic, with frequent phrases splattered across the screen to heighten the emotional effect.

And what were the incidents that demanded such a frenzied presentation?

"What in the world could this be?" the title on the screen asked. Because, get this -- there was a a man on a bicycle riding down the highway! You simply can't do that here! And when the police stopped the man and asked for his passort, they discovered that he was Chinese! And he only spoke English! When they tried to ascertain where he was headed, he kept saying, then writing, 'Osawara'! There's no city by that name! Aha! He meant 'Odawara!" That was miles away! What an odd situation!"

So the Chinese man hopped in the police car as they proceeded to exit the highway for a local road where bike-riding was allowed. And a policeman diligently rode the bicycle on the highway and met up with them all later. The Chinese man was sent on his way with a wave and a smile and a friendly musical jingle. Order was restored, and the Force was once again brought back into balance.

I jest at the types of news stories often on display, but I wonder: There actually could be some hard-hitting investigative reporting featured, but I doubt the Japanese media is allowed such access. The Japanese 'yakuza', or 'mafia', have their grimy little fingers in numerous nooks and crannies of political, economic and social life in Japan, but I don't think exposing their daily atrocities would be of benefit to news organizations. (The yakuza don't like kindly on negative exposure. Go figure.)

And just the other day a story on TV reported that a male 'host club' was busted in Kawasaki City; the clientele were all Koreans, and the staff -- young male 'hosts' whose job it is to pour drinks and provide company for lonely housewives -- were shipped back to Korea, given that they didn't have passports. A potentially intriguing story on the nature of illegal immigration could conceivably be undertaken here, given these same elements, but it seemed like a shallow, sensationalistic report. (Not that American TV is that much better, admittedly.)

Ah, well.

In the meantime, I'll relax, bask in Japan's safety, and eagerly scan the TV dial to see if any more bicyclists are found riding up and down roads where they don't belong.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Al Pacino's locker-room speech near the end of Oliver Stone's football film Any Given Sunday may not contain the complete answers to life's eternal mysteries, but it comes pretty damned close.

Outscored, outplayed, and outhustled, demoralized and deflated, Pacino seeks to motivate his athletic troops with the most over-the-top speech in the history of cinema, a speech that is more about him than about his players, and more about life itself than football. It's cornball, extravagant, unlikely, and it literally gives me chills every time I watch it.

It has a metaphor at its center that is a succint and vivid summary of all that we need to make our way through life: one play at a time, one day at a time, one step at a time.

What we need is the willigness to die for that extra inch.

"Either we heal, as a team, or we crumble. Inch by inch, play by play, until we're finished."

It's an analogy that Stone has actually stolen from himself (which all the great writers do); he uses the exact same phrasing -- the six inches in front of your face -- in his remarkable novel A Child's Night Dream, and he's recounted in numerous interviews a similar tale.

How his experience as a soldier in Vietnam left him attuned to the closeness of life and death. How a few inches to the left or to the right remained all that separated his life from that of his fellow soliders. How all we have in this world are the six inches in front of our faces.

"The inches we need are everywhere around us..."

The more I think upon that thought, the more it makes sense. I always loved this movie, and in particular this speech, but it's only as I've gotten older that I've latched onto what the speech is really saying. It's about aging, and the inches we gain or lose along the way. We move through life limited by gravity and the space we inhabit. We can never find ourselves more than a few inches away from anything or anywhere else. Our entire orbit is composed of a tactile immediacy. Its boundaries define how we view our own progress throughout the world. So little separates us from complete failure or utter ecstasy. Physically, mentally, emotionally.

A little more to the left and you lose your ability to walk. A little more to the right and you suddenly can't remember anyone around you. I lost races as a high school runner by a couple of inches, if that. Cancer cells divide and multiply an inch here and an inch there, and we watch their progress to see how many inches bigger they get on a bi-yearly basis. (From the bed to the bathroom is nothing more than a series of inches, but navigating that path while strapped to an IV tube is a perilous and frightening journey.) We live most of our lives on such a miniscule scale. The only way we can make it through is by having others help us along the way, inch by inch.

"You know, when you get old in life, things get taken from you. That's, that's, that's part of life. But you only learn that when you start losing stuff. You find out that life's this game of inches..."

What's mesmerizing about Pacino's speech is that it runs an entire arc: we start off in the darkness of defeat, and then realize the path to victory and transcendence relies on the kindness of others to fight for those same inches that limit and impede our own progress. Jamie Foxx's character, a selfish, show-off quarterback, begins the speech rolling his eyes at yet another rant by his blowhard coach. By the end, he's walking across the room straight towards Pacino -- a disciple, a follower, a believer.

"On this team, we fight for that inch..."

The scene works because of Stone's writing, Pacino's performance, and the music. Mostly, the music. You would think a grand orchestral cacophony of trumpets and drums would accompany such a triumphant spiel by Pacino, but no -- Stone is wiser than that, and a better filmmaker than that. Pacino's macho (yet vulnerable) bravado is offset by gentle, soothing, almost lovely music. It's understated in the way that Pacino himself, without the music, could never be. It's the perfect aural counterpoint to the verbal explosives the coach is firing. It raises the scene to a level of romanticism that is at once utterly incongrous but perfectly appropriate. (Despite what the media would have you believe, Olive Stone is, at heart, a poet.)

"The inches we nead are everywhere around us..."

The six inches in front of our face. That's all we have.

But if I'm willing to die for that extra inch, and you're willing to die for that extra inch, then perhaps together we can ascend.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


A few days ago, while wandering around the Nihonbashi section of central Tokyo looking for the one and only Western Union outlet in a city of fifteen million people, I almost bumped into somebody. A young lady. Late twenties, early thirties. Dressed in conservative business attire, like everybody else. I was walking towards her, and she wasn't looking ahead. Her face seemed serious. She was thinking about something, obviously. I could see that she was headed straight for me, and I managed to manouever myself out her way just before she slammed into my chest. At the last moment I saw her snap out of her own thoughts. She realized she was walking. She realized that she had almost collided with a stranger. In that moment, I saw her thoughts shift.

What had she been thinking about so intently?

Perhaps she had decided, at that very moment, to break up with her boyfriend. Or else she was worried about her senile grandmother, lost in dementia. Or perhaps the bathtub in her apartment needed cleaning. Or a superior at work had just chewed her out, and she was going to drown her secretarial sorrows in Starbucks.

She had been thinking something, and I had inadvertently, accidentally jarred her out of her own thoughts. Her almost-collision with me had managed to slide one of her elusive introspections into a different direction, perhaps never to return.

If she hadn't have almost run into me, would she have continued along that same erratic train of thought? Who is to say? How can we know? Would a decision have been made that had now not been made because I had inadvertently caused her mind to change course and ground itself on alternate bearings?

Impossible to guess.

And you, gentle reader, as you read these words, are drifting from one thought to the next. Perhaps I have startled you out of a previous moment of bliss. Or managed to take your brain out of its daily crevice and onto a new ledge. Something important may have been on your mind, and because you flipped to my site, that thought has now been lost, never to return, stuck in the mud of your memory.

I would apologize, but I cannot.

These random twists and intersecting thoughts are the fragile, undefinable price we pay for the company of others. Helplessly losing our way and finding our path at one and the same time.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Is the universe absurd?

I don't mean our perceptions about it. I'm not talking about the way that humans see a particularly strange situation, like an old lady rummaging through a garbage can, or a child digging into a tub of ice cream with her baby finger at the supermarket while her mother pushes the shopping cart three paces ahead, oblivious. I'm not talking about the way that we shake our heads, turn to our friends and say: "That's crazy, isn't it." Then us, these humans, go back to our lives, swig our bottled ice teas, and wonder what we should have for dinner. I'm not talking about noticing life's oddities and pointing them out for the amusement of others.

I'm wondering if space, galaxies, the universe, black holes, all of that shit, has, at its core, absurdity. Absurdity as a physical property. Beneath the logic and the atoms, the nucleus and the string-theory, all the stuff that makes other stuff work, is a core of physical, tangible, irrefutable absurdity. Absurdity as a scientifically proven thing.

The older I get, the more I learn, the more I start to sense the lack of symmetry in life, and it is this absence of intent, this reckless neglect of order, that worries me. It makes me nervous because everthing appears to make sense. There are suits that fit and ties that match, blue ones with perfect red spots scattered across the silk. Trains that come on time. Weather forecasts that recommend umbrellas, correctly. It rains, and there it is, the umbrella, in your hand, just like the little man on TV predicted. Both the rain, and the umbrella. He mentioned rain, and he knew you would need an umbrella, and so you have it, and there you are: order. An illusion of logic. Feeling a hunger pang, a dull knife carving a benign scar into your stomach, you can buy a burger and ease the pain. All is right with the world. The sun comes up, goes down, shines again. Symmetry, and intent, and order, but I'm nevertheless starting to believe none of it.

This is, perhaps, a child's lament, an adolescent at the onslaught of age twelve who suddenly realizes that the homework is always, eventually due, the vacation cancelled, the black-eye bruised. Life come undone. Then we move on, adjusting. Graduating. Commencing. We start to think that life has a rhythm, a pace, and if we are not marching to this particular tune then there will be another one, after, later, in a different, more spacious venue. One where the music will eventually suit our tastes. We forget the child of twelve because we know that you cannot remain twelve forever. Reality intrudes. We confuse reality with order.

But is 'reality' a cyclone in Burma? An earthquake in China? Marvellous instruments of order, these cyclones and earthquakes. They have a ruthless symmetry that hides an indifferent, bottomless core of emptiness. The peasant in Burma and the factory worker in China both roam through the rubble, stumbling over the heads of their children. While the blue sky looms, perfect in its purity.

Is this not absurd?

If reality, if nature, has, at its basest level, such evolutionary indifference, then what are we left with? Colliding atoms and groups of molecules masquerading as entities we call humans. Victims of this sperm and that egg on one particular night. Asserting our identities to each other through business and sport, art and commerce, each of us attempting to prove, endlessly, that we have some sort of significance. No matter that the cyclone or earthquake is insisting otherwise.

The universe rages on around us, maliciously absurd, while we huddle together, cramped but alert, wondering what's next. Absurdity awaits, to be sure, but perhaps together we can wait out the havoc.

Nothing is more absurd then the blessed calm after a murderous storm, yet there always is one, this calm, which must mean something. The pause after the rage. The gap between the points of the razor. That blue sky. Those white clouds. A gentle wind, silent but insistent at our backs.

If I can feel that wind, I can make myself believe that it means more than it does. I can remember to take my umbrella on rainy days, and eat a burger when my stomach growls. I can feel the grass between my toes and the sun on back of my neck and shoot absurdity itself a dirty look. Shoot it the finger, even.

And if absurdity is a thing, a force, an entity in and of itself, at least age will allow me to become familiar with its ridiculous, clown-like face, the one it hides between the cyclone's winds and the earthquake's shakes. I can keep an eye out for its imminent arrival. I might be able to occasionally hear its plodding, stealthy approach, and even, if luck abides, somehow judge if its clumsy, cosmic, clown-shoe steps are looming, or simply squeaking, or existing somewhere in between.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


One of the most difficult parts of teaching for a relatively shy person like myself is daily dealing with the fact that thirty sets of eyes are staring at you from the moment you step into the room, and it's your job to direct their attention, focus their energies, deal with distractions and set the tone for ninety straight minutes.

I was talking with a fellow teacher the other day, a Brit who's into Aikido, the Japanese martial art that is purely defensive -- disarming an opponent who attacks you, rather than initiating any conflict. (Steven Seagal is the most famous western practictioner; he resided in Japan for fifteen years, was the first westerner to operate an Aikido dojo, and, aside from his terrible movies, is actually very respected for his aikido skills.) Aikido is also about controlling the energy of a situation, harnessing what your opponent is offering and what you are accepting, or rejecting, on his behalf.

Teaching's the same. It's all energy. You have thirty different, unique, complex, individuals, each of them nervous, or confident, or bored, or tired out of their fucking minds. As a teacher, they're looking to you -- or not looking to you, as the case so often is -- to tell them what to do.

It took me a long, long time to get comfortable doing this. Probably five years, I'd say, which is no exaggeration. I'm perfectly content to sit by myself and read in a room for days on end, so having to deal with four groups of thirty students per day takes some getting used to. You have to figure out what works and what doesn't, what's funny and what's not, when discipline is required and when levity is allowed.

Only recently have I truly thought about the fact that everything I say is heard by students through a filter. English is not their first language; inevitably, they're not picking up everything I say. An auditory gauze separates us, so there can never be the natural fluidity of thought and diction that occurs when native speakers of the same language stop and chill and shoot the shit. I've learned to pace myself as I speak; I speak clearly, and I pause, briefly, after each sentence. If I don't, their brains don't have time to hear that slight and subtle click that indicates they've understood what I've said, and are ready to move on and comprehend the next thought. I speak with an intent to be understood, which is rarely, if ever, the case in real life. Usually, we speak without thinking, not worrying about what comes out.

But speaking is not the only means by which we communicate. If teaching has taught me anything, it's that we can, and do, and probably should be cognizant of how our entrances and exits affect the mood of a room. The tempo of a place. The energy of a situation. If I come into class glum, with my shoulders slouched, my head resting on my chin, the class can sense it, feel it, disdain it. If I'm smiling, snapping my fingers, clapping my hands together, the mood shifts; a light ignites; a space is filled.

I fear that too often we remain trapped in our little bubbles, not conscious of how each of our movements influences the mood of those around us. Of course it's impossible to get out of our heads and into another's, but we do exist in the same space, like it or not. We sometimes forget that.

Whenever I have a big conference-type meeting with other teachers, or new teachers, I like to look around the room, scope out whose who, imagine what they're like and why they're here, and I'm also doing it to covertly scope out and see how many other people are looking around the room. Too often, not many people are. They're focused on themselves. What's in front of them.

Which is fine, of course. We have to look after ourselves first. But every room we enter is changed by our entrance, like it or not.

Sometimes it's good to remember that, if only to ensure that the energy we bring is equal to the space that needs to be filled.

Sunday, May 04, 2008


Take Poland, for example. I know nothing of Poland. A few Polack jokes, a little bit involving World War II, but other than that, zip. How can this be? How can an entire country exist as an empty space between my ears? Same goes for Latvia. Can't tell you squat. This scares me. There are entire countries, millions of people, that remain mere letters on a page in my consciousness. Black ink on white. Blips on a computer screen. I have no connection to them; they have no link to me. Their roads are untouched by my dirty boots. But I was raised in Canada, and I've lived in Japan, Cambodia and the Philippines, and sometimes I think about the rooms that I've lived in. Literally, the rooms. The beds I've slept in. The stairs I've climbed up, then down, then up again. When I think of those places, I think of those rooms. It puts things in context. I can think: I've been there. I've touched that earth. It's abstract no longer. I can localize these places within myself. And sometimes I wish that I could walk the entire globe, every country, every city, every town, every village, every valley, every street. Is that possible? I know the world is vast and a journey such as this would take a lifetime, yes, but there are worse ways to spend a life, I think. At least then I would be able to look at a globe, or stare at a map, and think that there's nothing on this planet that is foreign to me. I can think: I have been down every path, at least once. My boots have dirtied every road there ever is. I've slept in each place. I've showered under every waterfall. I've breathed the same air in multiple points of contact. Every news story would affect me in a personal way, because I'd been there, and done that. Nothing would be foreign. Then I could finally rest my weary legs content with the knowledge that I have been everywhere there is to be. Alien no longer, the world would be. I could step out my front door and know that if I turned either left or right, someplace familiar would be out there, almost waiting for me, wondering where I'd been, and what took me so long to come back.