Thursday, May 28, 2009


News of Steven Page leaving The Barenaked Ladies was big news in Canada a few months back. It wasn't the Beatles breaking up, no, but for Canadians, it was close enough.

BNL has come to represent everything fun and heartfelt, goofy and socially conscious about Canada. When I was in high school, the band broke free from Scarborough with word-of mouth copies of their debut 'yellow tape', a homemade cassette sold at concerts and passed around Ontario. My brother would stick it in the tape deck as we drove for running workouts in and around St.Catharines. I remember how proud I was of them when their first CD came out. And when they played Saturday Night Live. And when they then hit number one in the States with 'One Week'. (Their second CD provided the soundtrack for my freshman year of university. The cold and windy North York winters were soothed by endless repeats of two or three songs on my CD player. Knowing that Steven Page and Ed Roberts, the lead singers, both attended my university made the sounds even sweeter. Even now, fifteen years on, I can clearly picture my dorm room in Winters College, and my roommate, Nathan, out and about somewhere, and me lying on my back, listening to the wind and the Barenaked Ladies battle each other for sonic supremacy.)

And now Page, the big guy, is on his own, and the others will continue on in their own specific way, shape and form.

I'm sure the newly emancipated Page will do good stuff, as will the Ladies, but still.

Some things shouldn't end.

Here's my favorite BNL song, with Page on stage singing lead vocals:

And here's my second favorite (technically a cover, but what the hell):


Early this morning, while hustling in and out of the 7-11 near my station, I found myself humming along to the muzak bubbling forth from the convenience store's speakers, and it took me a second to recognize the tune, and then I realized that it was the theme song from Welcome Back Kotter, and the fact that it had been converted to muzak, and that I was listening to such a bizarre rendition of a beloved seventies' sitcom from my early childhood in a convenience store in Yokohama, provided a much needed early-morning boost to a rainy day in May. I am now in Japan, reasonably adult, but somewhere, in some other realm, I'm still seven, on the couch, and Mr.Kotter is still trying to get Epstein and Washington, Barbarino and Horschack to sit down and shut up.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Should you ever find yourself at Shin-Yokohama station, you'll have two ticket gates to choose from in order to exit the building. Coming up the stairs, turning left will take you to the larger, swankier, busier bullet-train platform that most of the commuting hordes are heading towards. Coming up the stairs, turning right will lead you to the smaller gate that leads towards my apartment. Not many people are headed towards this gate, but it's where I end up each and every day.

Me, and the mourners, and the lovers.

The building kitty-corner to my own, more or less, is a funeral parlor. A Japanese kind . A Buddhist kind. I'm guessing. For weeks after I first moved in last semester, as I left my apartment for the five-minute walk to the station, I would often notice large groups of men and women, usually older, almost always solemn, filing towards this building wearing blacks suits and even blacker dresses. It looks like an ordinary office building, but occasionally a siren will sound, and a hearse will slowly emerge from the underground parking garage (can a hearse even go fast?) and a serious-looking man will halt traffic as a group of mourners bow deeply, almost the ground, as if they're looking for lost change, until the car has rounded the corner and continued on its way. If I'm near the building at around this time, I'm forced to stop. And watch. Death, in all its mundane, every-day anti-glory.

That's what happens if I turn right out of my building.

If I turn left, however, and mosey up the streets a little ways towards the Family Mart convenience store, I'm confronted by two or three 'love hotels', which are designed for, well, you can guess. Japanese folks often live with their families, or even extended families, so intimacy is difficult, if not impossible. To fill the gap, love hotels blanket the urban cityscape. They often look like little castles. Other times they look like, well, nothing known to modern architecture. One down the road is named, in English, 'Hotel Chapel Coconuts', and has a vaguely jungle theme, with a billboard adorned in monkeys, and tiki-lamps sprouting real, full flames, and outside TV monitors endlessly replaying what looks like Malaysian dancers bopping to their foreign, supposedly romantic, beat. (I haven't figured out where the 'chapel' part comes into play.)

Some nights after work, heading home, softly whistling under the Japanese moon that is identical to the Canadian, Cambodian and Philippines moons I'm intimitately familiar with, I imagine a couple entering one of those love hotels. Fresh, smiling, the man carrying the plastic bags full of beer and instant noodles they've purchased moments before at the 7-11. Ready for action, so sto speak. Nine months later they have a child. The man gets a job near Shin-Yokohama station, so they decide to settle in the area. The child grows up here, goes to school here, finds a job here. Fifty years later, he suffers a heart attack at home while watching the Tokyo Giants defeat the Hiroshima Carp on TV. He is given a funeral at the funeral home around the corner from where he was conceived. His life has ended where it begun.

There is an odd kind of symmetry to this morbid fantasy. Life and death, conception and extinction, forming an inevitable loop against our collective will. Not likely that such a scenario could play itself out, but it also wasn't likely that John Ritter could have been born in the same hospital that he died in, and that happened, so I suppose something like this could, too.

Whenever I have such morbid, oddly comforting notions such as this, something absurd will spring me back to the sunshine of reality. Just yesterday, while walking past the east exit of the bullet train platform at the station, I noticed a middle-aged black man with a young Japanese female on his arm, accompanied by an elderly Japanese couple. The black man smiled and nodded at someone looking at him. His Japanese admirer smiled back. Why would he nod at a stranger, I wondered? As he got closer towards me, I realized that I recognized him, one of the most famous foreigners in Japan, and he was wearing a black shirt that read TEAM BILLY on the back.

So whenever I'm thinking too much of life and death, birth and survival, turning left and turning right, I accidentally run into Billy Blanks, inventor of Tae-Bo, and I'm reminded, again, that the cosmos have, if not a sense of humor, at least a sense of proportion.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


I had forgotten all about Red Rover. The game. The one we used to play as kids, on dusky summer nights when the sun was gradually setting, and the air was getting cool, and in this hint of night the mesh soccer shirts we all wore suddenly seemed far too thin, the sleeves much too short, the sweatshirts our mothers advocated only hours before suddenly seeming like missing, hidden talismans. Two teams faced each other across the field. One person would shout: "Red rover, red over, I call Brendan over!" And Brendan (or Chris, or Tracey) would have to attempt to make it across the wide and pungent grass without getting caught. Or tackled. Or touched.

But that's wrong. Because I seem to remember different rules. Contradictory ones. Ones where we were all running across the field as one, our entire team, and if somebody was caught, anybody was caught, then they automatically became part of the other team.

Did we have two different sets of rules? How could something so simple, so rudimentary as the rules that once defined a good portion of my hours suddenly be missing from the space inside of my head? I used to know this stuff the same way I now know the combination to my mailbox. That routine, boring click that opens the way to flyers and bills.

I only ask because David Mitchell's extraordinary novel Black Swan Green, about a twelve year old British boy's entry into adolescene, adulthood, life, in 1982 contains a scene featuring Red Rover, but while reading the rules struck me as different. Familiar, but English. And yet when I tried to remember the rules from my own youth, I was left with nothing but vague, wispy images; the mad cackle of childhood, multiplied; sweaty, smelly t-shirts grabbed by the neck, almost torn, as punishment for being caught.

The best fiction takes us back, not forward. It reminds us of who we were and what we lost. And since we all lose our childhood, slowly, then ultimately all at once, it doesn't take a genius to recognize Mitchell's extraordinary ability to immerse us in the vivid present of those awful, wonderful early years.

How fresh everything was! Life can become so mandatory. Even me, having lived for almost exactly a decade in three unceasingly foreign countries, having straddled multiple languages and impenetrable cities, having continually borne witness to cancer and its insidious, extended grasp on everyone around it, can become numb with the nagging, cloud-grey repetition of it all. Sometimes we need the imaginary to plant us back in the technicolor savagery and grace of the past. Of the madness of childhood.

How could I have fucking forgotten the rules of Red Rover? It's almost obscene. There were days and nights in those dead and distant days of 1980, '82, '84, when games of Red Rover, kick-the-can and hide-and-go-seek seemed like sensational means of ordinary elevation. The stupendous was so routine that we didn't catch sight of our soaring imaginations. We would simply rise through our play. Effortlessly. A blue rubber ball became the focus of our obsessions. A hockey stick with shoddy tape remained a weapon, an instrument of ego. The sandbox at my school was vast, a potential entry into quicksand and oblivion. I played marbles at recess every day without fail, shielding their prowess in a deep purple wine pouch, the steelies being the most valuable, round and shiny and globe-like in their immensity. After school, there were five or six kids in the neighbourhood around Bayshore Crescent who were more than happy to indulge again in extended versions of G-Force and The A-Team. A few years later, we could play army and First Blood, Chuck Norris and Uncommon Valor with green machine guns to the steady, insistent beat of the waves softly lapping Lake Ontario's shore, whose waters almost reached my bedroom window, where on dark and chilly November nights I could see an infinity of stars keeping watch on Toronto, the CN Tower stretching upward, somehow reaching out and towards me, leaping the gap across that glorious lake, willing me away from my childhood and my city. Soon I will leave all of this behind, I thought. I will go there, to that place. Not knowing if it was a threat or a lament.

How long has it been since I had grass stains on my shorts? Scabs on my elbows? As a kid I fell down a slide and bonked my nose, the blood flowing freely, my brother and my cousin coming back with me to my grandmother's house to make sure I wasn't dead or damaged beyond repair. Sometimes I can still taste that stinging, invigorating blood in the back of my throat, reminding me of a different time within myself. Always autumn, this time remains. Blackboard clouds bringing winter. My comics in my room -- cloaked in plastic backs, backed by cardboard, safe and protected -- and the closed chambers in my head begged to be opened so that they could let imagination work its wonder. Even lead me, if lucky, to a mental spring and summer whose sunshine would help stain the endless February to follow.