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.