Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Into summer he slid, with elegance and grace. Begone, spring's indifferent sprinkling of warmth and dew in equal, sloppy measure! Farewell, winter, whose memory even now is enough to chill one's bones to the very white of their deepest marrow! Mere months ago, true, but winter's abscence does not make the heart grow fonder. (Some truisms are not true for all altitudes.)

A deep, bubbling hot tub -- this was the summer in his mind. It would froth at the surface, be scalding to the touch of his toe, and eventually, as all summers do, as all summers must, it would give way. His body would soothe the most tempermental of pools, until access was immediate, a quick slick dip into the tub of June and July, with a dash of August thrown in for good measure.

(Although, if he were honest with himself, if he took the stand in the courtroom of his soul, he would admit, hand firmly placed on the Good Book to make the oath official, that August itself held a certain gentle grip on the firmament of his soul. For despite the roads that backed black heat like fire from the sun itself, and in contradiction to the blue skies and yellow suns that made each day the picture-postcard view of summer that we mistakenly remember from childhoods that did not truly exist, there were nights in that mischievous month, especially towards the end, when a cool came into the air that surely had no place in this season of all seasons. It was autumn's extended family, coming for an unexpected, and most certainly uninvited, visit. A tug at the back of the neck, leaving a touch of what one could swear was almost frost. A wind pushing the screen door shut, a breeze that passed the border between cool and cold and entered the country of unnaturally crisp. An occasional cloud in the sky that had the dark and bragging belly of December's lazy son. August was still ahead, but he would not be fooled so easily by its welcome, steamy embrace, not when the hug that lingered left a cool that stained one's skin blue too soon.)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


By means of linguistic descent, we dwell even deeper. Jack had his beanstalk, urging him up; we have but words, tugging us north. To where? How far into the sky? From which plateau do we leap, and where shall we peak?

If such mismanaged attempts at communication start at age one, or two, or even three, as they most certainly must, then tracing back the tangled roots of our frustrated jumps into human intercourse, face to face, word to word, tongue to tongue, can begin to seem like the naive attempts of amateur anthropoligists. For who can declare, with any degree of arrogant certainty, where the words come from? From our families, our friends, our teachers, our neighbours -- all of the constellation of aggravating grown-ups who hover around our little infantile lives like bees around honey. We do not ask for language to be bestowed upon us like a plate of the finest meat laid at the feet of the most docile king. No. Language is hoisted upon us, a mugger in reverse slow-motion: swiping our words back to us one by one. Gently, true, but not without a considerable amount of damage done to our still forming, molding, musy little psyches.

Imagine a child torn between ten, twelve, fourteen different countries, passed from parent to parent and adult to adult, random and kin, with the ease of a basketball changing hands on the fastest of courts. One language is heard, snatched, gulped; another falls out of one's slick little hands and goes splat on the hardwood. No matter. Another will follow as surely as shit follows fart. Hundreds and thousands of words from multiple languages jammed together in the most unappetizing of stews. What would happen to an infant's mind? Would they be fluent in five or ten languages, or merely middling in many? Put another way, what would the nature of their thinking be? When one's sheer thoughts are as fluid as the most nimble of sperm than by what means can conception take root? Would thinking itself become a mere blip on the screen of their emotional psyche? Would such a child be held hostage by their emotions, feelings and flickers of anger and passion that have no linguistic counterpart?

Words are all that we have. So binding are they! Futile and senseless our lips can seem to be. Sounds strung together by the tongue and the teeth and the constant of spit. Somehow we are expected to forge a life of togetherness (ha!), a link between you and me based on how much saliva we manage not to expend while profession our passion and devotion to each other. Even as these words are typed my lips are tight, prim, closed. No sound is being emitted. And yet still the words come. No sounds, only words. Once again, man has found a way to tamper with the will of the gods.

Soon, in another vacant, but approaching, era, speech itself will prove unnecessary. Robotic, computerized communication will tie us together like rope on a hostage. (And the savior will be...) Children will learn to speak, but will they dive deep into the mass of their own psyche, with words as their guides, nouns as their nuances, verbs as their vectors? Or will they allow the surface of sounds to form the base of their actions?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Bill Murray in THE RAZOR'S EDGE

Bill Murray is the ultimate example of an actor who somehow manages to consistently exist separate from the story and even himself, operating within and outside of his own jaded, snarky, searching persona. Always at the exterior of the action of his stories, nose smooshed against the window alongside his audience, staring bemusedly at, and eventually hilariously commenting upon, the world that we, as viewers, watch him watching. He is of that particular existence, but not one with it -- our avatar, in essence, an existential, undercover operative looking for a way out of, and a path into, humanity's lonely, comedic heart.

For the first forty or so minutes of his 1984 drama The Razor's Edge (based on Somerset Maugham's novel), his very presence, usually a delight, instead seemed a distraction. The story of a young man psychically scarred by his experiences in World War I, unable to alleviate such anxiety in the upper class American milieu that raised him and expects much of him that he is not willing to relaese, Murray seems almost too modern, too Murray, to be believable. He searches for his very self amidst poverty in France, coal mining in England, amongst monks in India, and throughout I thought: Murray sticks out. He is not at one with this cast and these sets.

Blockhead that I am, it was only an hour into the picture that I instantly realized what should have suspected from the opening credits -- that this dislocation completely and utterly appropriate. Even necessary. The Bill Murray that we know so well from SNL and all his comedic films most certainly does not belong in the hoity-toity, upper-class world that awaits him on all sides in this film. His persona bobs and weaves through Europe and Asia like a boat adrift, and rightly so; to contain Bill Murray is to cage Bill Murray.

As a child, I avoided this film; its sombre art on the front of the video box hinted at a melancholy within Bill Murray that I did not want to admit was what had remained so intruging about him all along, in Meatballs and Caddyshack, Stripes and Ghostbusters. Murray as a monk? I wouldn't have clued in, not at ten, or twelve, or possibly even twenty. Having bobbed back and forth a bit in the years since (and having even taught monks myself), I can now understand what understated wit and wisdom Murray brings to his portrayal of a man lost in his own sea. There is still something awkward about Murray's prescence in this picture -- a crooked piece that does not fit into the larger puzzle. He shouldn't be here, not in Europe, not in the 1920's, not when Ghostbusters had been released only months before to international, boffo box-office. Which is exactly the point. Indeed, after The Razor's Edge bombed, Murray himself took a self-imposed limbo of his own, hanging out in France, exiting the movie industry altogether for four years. To some extent, this film reminded him of where he was not supposed to be.

Perhaps you are not where you are supposed to be, either; nor, perhaps, am I where I should finally belong. The film speaks to those feelings, while Murray sticks to the sidelines of his own starring role, allowing our own glee at his calm, sardonic wit to balance us ever so delicately upon the razor's edge of the gloomier, deeper themes that the film so carefuly speaks to so elegantly.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Early morning runs afford even the drowsiest of athletes avenues of inspection that otherwise remain the domain of the peeper lurking behind the proverbial bush. Even the occasional light glowing dimly in the upper-floors of a modest two-story home at such an early hour are flashing signals that initiate the most illicit of suspicions: What is one doing up at such an hour? (The runner himself rarely asks such a question; he knows what he is doing.) Who are they doing it with? And do any of their intimates suspect the truth? All of these thoughts remain as vivid and as red as a flashing NO VACANCY sign when one is forcing the body to do what only minutes before sleep disavowed. Views from the street gain perspective and weight the earlier one runs.

Alas, the handful of lights spotted this morning in homes here and there likely allude to nothing more than the anxious patriotism of a world at war amidst football's greatest fields. Japan playing Denmark. Japan loses, Japan leaves. Japan wins, another day is won, too -- as if the sun itself would dim, then darken, if the national team left South Africa in an early exit that only confirmed the country's suspicions that they are not up to snuff at this level of play. (If such passion and pressure can still be deemed 'play'!)

Teens and college students staying up late, planning to skip school. Salarymen staggering in from the last train home only a few hours before, saying 'fuck it', grabbing a beer and flipping on the TV, another sleepless night a necessity when the World Cup demands one's full attention. Housewives with nothing better to do decide to stay asleep while their spouses and children do what men are born to do -- root.

On this morning, unlikely it is that any steamy alliances are the source and the light behind those glowing bulbs I spy in a collection of houses that serve as feeble illumination against the dominant dark. Physical passion gives way to sport. A round ball kicked repeatedly half a globe away by young men far from home keeps the country alive and alert. Empires rise and fall upon such traditions -- as do electricity bills, on certain summer nights.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


The desperate times contain the leanest of moments. They also serve as the psychic springboard from which we can vault outwards and upwards towards, if not a higher height, at least a plateau on the same vista that shares a similar view. This is what one would like to believe, what we hold true in our most immature of hearts, the same way that a child holds a stuffed animal tightly to his chest in the belief that shared pain, even via imaginary characters, lessens the sting and softens the slug. If we were to believe otherwise, that down times lead only down, that the steady staircase of our torment spirals only further down, descending always, ascending rarely, if ever, then how would one make it through the day? Entropy is the name of nature's game, but we choose to look away from such a stunningly familiar fact, as if the sun (which we take notice of only in its absence or in its ever-shining arrogance) will not burn our retinas should our eyes focus on more familiar sights with less intensity and greater saccharine. One can stare at a waterfall for hours, suffering only the gentle, repeated slap of boredom and a slight deadening of the senses that even the most beautiful of sights will inevitably engender in the restless, finicky gut of our lives. (If even the most awesome of sights dulls as rapidly as an informercial cutting- knife, no wonder the world so soon lacks its lustre!)

The desperate times contain the luckiest of moments, too. It is only when the reservoir of good will and back-up strength has been depleted within us totally and completely that another layer of our humanity is uncorked. As if the light flashing empty in your car signals not the need for another injection of oil but, rather, serves as an acknowledgement that your vehicle has reached a point where forward motion is highly unlikely, so another means of automation must soon be unearthed. One thinks that a gasless car cannot move, but no! Think of how far it can be pushed! One need only open the door and allow the most burly of friends to assist you in your slow (but steady!) shove down the road. Not practical, not likely -- but possible! No gas means no quick motion, of this I grant, and perhaps it is not even technically legal to accompany an ally down a suburban road by pushing and grunting his car for hours on end.

No matter. It can be done. Emptiness need not preclude momentum. When we have reached the limit of our limit, one can all too often be shocked to discover another trap door, another secret entrance to the brave, resistant side of our psyches, a small, dim (but still visible!) room containing water, rope, aspirin, a blade. Another hole can be dug, a ladder made, a window forged. Sunlight can be seen. It will not last for long, but a glimpse of light after the longest of nights need not endure to be ennobling.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Every day on my early-morning runs I am almost sideswiped by a long-haul truck barrelling through the night towards who knows where. This is my fault, not theirs. The hour is early; the streets are dark; my thoughts are drifting; the trucks are fast. I should be more aware, if not alert. Before sunrise, life takes on different shapes and assumes altered forms, and I am not always conscious of those mechanical beasts that share the road with my all too human awkwardness. Suddenly turning a corner, they seem strong and I feel weak. Perched at a stoplight, these trucks look like sullen beasts tied to a stake, their revving engines more like the frustrated growl of a bulldog itching to pounce than a manmade device emitting its hum. These cannot be mere trucks. Under the moonlight, they seem almost elemental, forces of nature's darker allies, modern cyborgs, merged mutations of metal, animal, and everything else that lies within man and beast.

Of course, they are trucks.

Who are their drivers? And who is waiting for them on the other side of elsewhere? I've never managed to catch even the slightest glimpse of a recognizably mortal form behind the oversized wheels they twist and turn throughout the unending night. Who drives who -- the truck or the man?

How lonely such a night must be! From here to there and back again, always on a tight, strict, deadline, delivering essential goods to indifferent employees, their fellow, waiting watchmen of the night who mask their lifelong yawns behind girlie mags and take-out dinners. One living on the road, indefinitely; the other slumped behind a desk in uniform-blue, eternally, occasionally wondering: if this is life, than what, dear god, is death? After-hour highways stacked with racing messengers, racing against life's clock. Sleepily realizing: The jig is up, because the clock aways wins.

Unless there's only one truck. Sometimes I believe this. Day in, day out, the trucks I see, the rigs I spot, blend into one another like waves the sea. Any distinctions are irrelevant. One truck, one life, seems identical to another. Perhaps there is only one driver for all of Japan, humanoid in form, barren in spirit, genetically engineered to do what humans cannot: endure a life of unending motion.

This could be the reason why I've yet to see a face in front of the windshield's glare. There is no face to be seen. If I wave a hand in a friendly wave, I will receive no reciprocal, perfunctory acknowledgement. (Robots don't do small-talk.) The truck will maintain its path through the end of the night. I will keep running. The path of our mutuals days is actually a closed-loop, only simulating change, merely replicating the exterior of difference, abolishing any nuance. The two of us will not meet again. Until the next morning, when it begins all over again, for the first time.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


For a few moments he wanted to stay in bed and linger over the numbers, roll them around his mouth, chew them with as much ease and relaxed satisfaction as a sneaky child munching candy on the sly, far from the stern gaze his rigid parents. (Who among us does not want to ease into, and endure, such moments for as long as possible?) However, as clearly as the numbers tasted to him -- as startlingly fresh and vital as cold river water on a hot summer's eve -- clear, too, was the realization that the world was waiting. Out there. For him. Something to see and taste around every corner.

Within seconds after this realization Brody was up, showered, dressed and out the door, almost in a single bounce of joy and glee and simple possibility. He wondered if this was how the most content of rabbits must feel as they hippity-hopped their short little lives away amidst a forest of grass and green. Today's day was a beautiful day -- sunny and vibrant. The city was still quiet, as it should be at five after five on a Sunday morning. The occasional red newspaper delivery truck rounded a corner every few moments as Broday walked along, wandering nowhere. As he studied the stack of rope-bound newspapers that hurtled through the air, he wondered if the newsprint, too, seen from a distance, would have a certain tangible taste. If numbers could open up a world of delectable possibilities, perhaps letters, too, had their own intrinsic nourishment?

Brody stopped at the corner of 15th and Haverly, a few blocks up from his apartment, suddenly struck by a thought that was both tantalizing and more than a little stunning. (He was 'stunned' often, Brody was.) What if it all went away? Even now, with the fresh air feeling good and clean as it cleansed out his sleep-struck throat, he realized that he hadn't tasted any numbers for a good two, three minutes. He shut his eyes and tried to get a grip on fifteen, a grasp of twenty-six, a little nibble of ninety-two. Nothing. Not even an aftertaste. (Or was it more like a foretaste?) Perhaps those rocking moments of only a few minutes ago (had it been so short a span?) were merely the remnants of the certainty that one acquires only after the deepest and truest sleep. The world's problems have been solved, the atom has been split, the Torah decoded and comprehened once and for all. The pillow, in that weirdly magnificent realm where sleep ends and awakeness starts to intrude, is the garden on which one plants the fruit of eternal knowledge. Until you lift your head and open your eyes.

Had he taken himself for a ride?

Monday, June 21, 2010


Canadians -- as we will offhandedly, nonchalantly, repeatedly, insistently inform you -- are a modest people. We don't waste our time waving the flag, or plastering the maple leaf onto our rear bumpers. We never brag about the greatness of our vast nation to groups of uncomfortably fidgeting strangers who nod politely, robotically. There is not an iota of hubris or vanity hurtling through our bloodstreams on its way to our underinflated psyches. (Indeed, we may not even be sure what, precisely, 'iota' refers to! No flaunting our intellectual prowess -- not us Canucks.)

We know who we are: simple (though not stupid) people.

Or so we tell ourselves, and often others.

Every country is a world of one. Canada's universe is one that relies on the wilderness to garnish our national myth. Even those us raised in cities, reared in strip malls and concrete, feel an elemental, even mystical pull towards the rivers and the trees, a tug-of-war between who we are becoming in this electronic age, and the past that keeps bringing us back to where we started. (This is what we remind ourselves.)

One wonders if the concrete, physical content of the earth -- its dust and soil, its rock and weed, the sap of its trees and the chill of firm, packed snow -- has somehow been integrated, over time, into our actual DNA. How little we understand of ourselves! It's not outrageous to assume that one sperm and one egg, remnants of even the most lacklustre lay, somehow passed along into each of us some environmental gene that mutated upon itself after generations spent sucking in and breathing out the very air of our Canadian north.

What else, after all, do we have going for us, if not the inherent synthesis of ourselves and our land?

To the outdoors we must return and retreat.

A not altogether ecstatic destination, for us 21st century pioneers, because there is something almost sinister about such a story, the national story, the story of a nation known all around the globe for the beauty of its nature. For if we link ourselves in a chain that extends from coast to coast, wrapping us so tightly in the grip of our outdoors, certain reminders of life's debt to the outdoor life gradually emerge even as we grip each other's hands all the harder.

Is it not to the earth that we return, in the end? Does not the dirt welcome home us home, finally? (Even ashes are inevitably returned to the ground or flung into the sea.) Perhaps our attachment to all things green and brown originates from an earthier, more basic place, that practical aspect of our interior life, our own individual physical plane, that intuitively recognizes that the harshness of a life in the outdoors leads, ultimately, to one place, and one place only.

Americans may have their 'manifest destiny', forever seaching for that bigger, brighter, better place that lies ahead just a little further west, beyond the next mountain, across the higher hill, but we have a destiny that tends to dampen any oversized ambitions. One that instills a kind of modest, morbid, reserved modernity.

We can't get excited about all that much. The dark forest is closer than we know. The wind is fierce. The snow doesn't seem to be stopping. Spring is far off, but it will come, short as it may be. There is that.

Usually, that's enough.

Friday, June 18, 2010


Brody awoke to the oddly metallic taste of numbers on his tongue. At first he believed it was blood -- this tangy, tart sensation that reminded him of the time he had fallen head-first down a slide during the distant but potent days of his childhood, around seven or eight, his nose bonking the edge of the curved metal and his mouth gargling the foaming red nostril spray that, secretly, despite the resulting, obligatory tears and snot-fuelled sobs, he found sweet, almost comforting.

Now he was an adult, and he did not want to taste blood. It hinted at all that was yet to come. But this particular taste, on this specific morning, was one that he rolled around in his mouth while his eyes still adjusted to the weak, almost timid morning light that gradually snuck its way between the blinds, like a shy girl sticking out her tongue in the general vicinity of her class crush.

I can taste a seven, he thought, spry and lively. That's at the edge of my mouth, the right hand side, just above the tooth that I think I'm going to have to get yanked soon. And four -- I can feel you, too! At the tip of my tongue, balancing on the edge, cool as a November night after six. Ah, and nine! You taste like someone has sneaked some rum into my coke! Right on the underside of my tongue, a hidden gem that will leave a spry, mournful aftertaste.

None of this made sense, of course. Morning thoughts never do. But in this nonsensical assemblage of numbers and tastes, thoughts and sensations, he found a clarity that had been missing for months, possibly years. Some secret of the cosmos had chosen itself to be revealed to him here, at this time, in this frumpy bed. All those mathematicians jumbling numbers around! Numbers only! Don't they realize the connections that exist between the most unlikely of allies?

Thursday, June 17, 2010


"Woe unto him who seeks to please rather than apall."

-- Herman Melville

The writer's role is to spit snot into your face and make you think that by the time it trickles down your face and touches your lips you're tasting taffy. Or, put more delicately, the author's responsibility is to pour fountains of Mountain Dew over your head on the hottest day of the year, and gradually make you realize that the sweet, piercing goodness that tantalizes your tongue is also slowly, intently dehyrdating you of your spiritual essence.

Either definition will suffice.

The problem becomes that our essential nature as human beings is that we are not defiant. We long for comprehension. We seek the simple solution because that is the most palatable one. Perhaps the neurological railway routes that line the grey and fleshy pockets of our brain tissue are physically built that way, inborn. The easiest way to comprehend is by finding a way to agree. Oh, to be certain, we are rebels; that is our novice, initial reaction. However, after a moment, a month, a year, a decade, a life, we acquiesce. (Giving way is so much more conducive to relaxation than uprising against invisible, ultimately unimportant ideological foes.) Somebody hands us a pamphlet. We nibble on an extra-spicy chicken, ignore the saucy red drool dripping down our chin, and eventually decide that whoever wrote this baby had a pretty good point. Fold it, trash it, back to the tube.

The novelist's role is to light off tiny little cherry bombs inside of our skulls and patiently stick around to see if, and when, they do their little damage. This does not mean that provocation is an end in and of itself; rather, that tiny expolosions of disturbance, couched in insight, eventually can lead to a bigger bang of comprehension. We read to escape loneliness and instead are faced with a greater threat than mere solitude. The larger issue becomes: We are alone, and not only are you not correct in your assumptions, but the answers are nowhere to be found, and your friends cannot help you, and may, in fact, be the true source of your isolation.

Such is one means of assault.

The other tactics employed by the most skillfull of scribblers are ones that would be not unwelcome in the most dingy of massage parlours, those places where rubs and smacks are but preludes to a longer, seedier embrace. You are coddled and made to feel enveloped by means of tactile, fleshy fingers that probe and pinch. (And what can more be heartening and alienating than the hug of a stranger?) The world is nasty, yes, but a refuge is to be found, such hands seem to be saying: You can stop here. You may rest here. The universe is aligned only with you and your psychic pain, and for that I have a cure. No unwelcome shocks or lightly tossed grenades.

And so one is gradually seduced into a view of the world that reaffirms one's own sense of self. A chaotic, uncertain realm still lies mere metres outside the oriental curtain, but an order to one's body has been restored. One can face the world head-on, like a wrestler entering the ring, confident of success because the end result has been preordained long before the lights have been raised and the great gates opened. [

It is only later, at home, resting in bed, remembering strange hands touching familiar places, that a certain pain sets in. An ache here. A sting there. One has become acquainted with physical discomforts that emerged only from the most tender of touches. Pain and pleasure are intermingled to such a degree that one can not discern which is stronger, or more likely to last well into the night.

That need to comprehend, to relax, to crash out on the couch, has been subverted in the most clever of ways, by means of an insincere sincerity, or a sincere insincerity, I'm not sure which. We are either exploded into another level of comprehension, or eased into a supple state that hides a firmer, creakier truth.

When I read a book and don't know what to make of it, or feel a strong sense of unease at the pit of my stomach, where last night's dinner waits to arise, or think thoughts that make me wonder if know anything at all, or ever will, I feel oddly elated and disgusted, and long for such a reaction again, always, forever.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Give us this day our daily dread...

Surely even the most diligent and noble-minded of teachers has found himself muttering this incantation on many a gloomy Monday morning of the soul. Especially on those days when one feels not only like an imposter, which is a benign sort of benediction, for who among us does not feel like a fraud at carefully staged points in one's life? No, the shame comes not from the certainty that one is wearing a mask that all will recognize as little more than a novelty-store goof, but from the fact that one is not succeeding even as a charlatan, that we cannot fake it as well as we used to, that the jig is up, that they are all on to us and none too happy to boot.

For if we were honest imposters, master fakers, the students sitting before us behind foldable desks would wear eager grins of anxious, almost sweaty anticipation -- for who does not love a carefully staged con, even when in on the facade? (As every magician could testify.) What the teacher fears most is not failure but success. If we succeed all too well today, then tomorrow more will be expected of us. The magician will not only be asked to extend his run, but the same customers will come back for show after show, until they slowly, almost surprisingly start to realize that there is nothing left to discover, and discounts are not within the realm of access. No money back for this particular show, ladies and gents. You have seen all there is too see, the Wizard of Oz has been revealed as the red-faced fraud behind the tacticle curtain which is the cough-drop green of the chalkboard, and guess what? Another half-semester remains! Please watch the steps on your way out the door.

An unnatural occupation, one would think, despite the fact that Socrates and his ilk practiced such an art mere millienia ago. A not-so-distant past, in the grand arc of time, so certain traditions, modus operandi, or, at the very least, schemes, should have been passed down for us plebes to copy and mimic.

But every day starts anew. You build the trust from the afternoon before, brick by brick, hoping it holds, and then mold it in place once again from today's first bell, even though the foundation itself is already looking shaky, ready to topple. The buzz of phones and the smack of gum against unbrushed teeth and the glazed eyes that are testimony to a night spent staring at a colgate-white screen are the landmines that await your every step.

Boom! Boom! Boom!

How often those explosives ignite around the edges of our lessons! Flecks of jagged metal slicing only ourselves, never the students, who wander aimlessly across the battlefield, oblivious to the carnage being inflicted upon their captain!

Even Mr.Kotter, that most illustrious alumni of the Sweathogs, must have felt literally at war with the motley sitcom morons that populated his sitcom class. They welcomed him back but loved him in return, with the kind of earnest, witty love that only twenty-two minute bursts of fictional sideswipes can spew forth. I could live inside the goodwill of that classroom, I sometimes think. The Sweathogs would see me as one of their own. I could lead them to a higher place, perhaps even a one-hour drama, should all work out.

And should my most earnest efforts fail, Howard Hesseman, always standing so firm and wise in his middle-aged mullet at the head of the class, would certainly welcome me into his fictional world, would he not? A class full of wisecracking geniuses, ready to rumble? I could handle such a group. I could be the student teacher who fumbles his way hilariously up the big-time world of homeroom teacher. A possible spin-off after two, three seasons. My own Al Gore, waiting patiently in the wings, to Hesseman's grander, more genial Bill Clinton. I think I have it in me.

Mere fantasies, I know.

For now, I must make do with where I am and what I have.

The dread is always there, at the bottom of my stomach, unseen mud beneath the surface of the puddle.

And yet, at certain moments -- rare, but there -- the cell phones go silent, the gum stops snapping, the teeth seem whiter, and the pupils of the pupils grow wide, almost against their will, as if they've suddenly seen something, if not enchanting, at least intriguing.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


I shut my eyes against the bright morning light that kept poking at my dozy awareness like a pin pricking skin. Darkness, I decided, would give me a hint of rest. Possibly a slice of cold solace. The sounds of the train would still be rackety clear, but at least the blackness would allow a moment or two of restless, indifferent sleep.

But with closed eyes came a closed conduit. Blackness was not getting in. Instead of dark I saw bright, magnetic red, the shade of blood, of ripe apples, of cherries freshly picked from trees higher than most. That dizzying effect that comes when various shades of light blend and merge with one another. Soon the redness allowed in other small, precise holes of green and blue, purple and green, each tone fighting for attention. I could open my eyes once again and allow the light to be the wide yellow of a Japanese dawn, but I wanted to watch these colours do their dance. I desired some gravity and grace to my workday blah.

Soon that old saw began grinding back and forth across the easel of my brain, the notion that the dream life is the true life, and the waking realm the false facade. Why were the lights behind one's eyelids so strange and mystic, almost independent creatures colliding in misshapen blobs of attachment and separation, whereas the light of the sun so often seemed so blunt and aloof? If sleep life is real life, perhaps the colours it creates also have a validity that we can only imagine, then dismiss, in the cold, blunt blue of a June morning in the grey city.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Another A-Team adventure finally blazes its away across a silver screen (a cinematic one, this time, as opposed to the television jewel that last gave grace to the motley team of adventurers), and while the child in me is wondering what the hell took so long, the adult in me is asking: At what point does the death of childhood begin? Does it happen in slow, seductive waves, like an ocean current that swooshes us away before we even realize we are caught in its wet, seductively benign sweep? Or is it more like an IED, a random Coke can lying by the side of the road that we kick out of boredom only to discover a blunt-force blast that lifts us out of ourselves and into another, larger world, where the sky is gray, not blue, and the gentle touch of grace on our shoulders is ash, not snow.

For what is one to make of a TV series that captivated the weeknights of one's prepubescent youth and now returns, twenty-five years later, to attempt another awkward grope, this time as an adult (albeit a cinematic one), graying and cranky, almost barren, yet still trying to cop a lusty feel at whatever the cost. Is it the media-equivalent of a child molester who comes back haunt his former victims?

As a youth, I adored much, and The A-Team was at the top of my hand-written list of fictional idols that occupied their own Olympus in my skull. The Marvel comic books adaptation of the show, check; handheld action figures, check; larger-than-handheld size Mr.T figure, check; the team van, check. I can see that cover of the first A-Team comic-book even as I write these words, and I can remember a wintry night returning from a neighbour's house with another copy of the comic book in my hands. They were tough and funny and bizarre and resolute, these dudes were; they found a way to help the helpless and smear the corrupt. (Even if it involved a contraption that shot cabbages like cannonballs.) There was a simple joy in their audacity, perfect for an eight-year old mind that craves a bold new solution to life's problems that will be clever enough to find fulfillment in it sixty-minute doses (plus commercials). Eventually, I left the show behind (much as I would leave behind The Dukes of Hazzard and C*H*I*P*S* and The Fall Guy and Knight Rider), soon after the team itself abandoned their role as outlaws-on-the-perpetual-run and, instead, found themselves in the unlikely position of working for the United States government itself. (Such confusing defections are enough to torment a young, unforgiving mind.)

And now here they plunge once again into the pool of our collective, nostalgic memories of all things creased, folded, dropped and shredded. For surely this is a show that one has put behind oneself, no? Looking back, objectively (if such an act is even possible when examining one's own youth), the show was, I am certain, terrible. I have not seen it in a quarter-century, but rarely do the joys of one's childhood captivate the grown-up being we all, reluctantly, become. That is neither here nor there, however -- this evaluation of The A-Team's aesthetic worth. For a good portion of those years when my bed-wetting days were still not a distant memory, this was a part of the universe that invigorated my psyche. It allowed me to dream. It humored me. These are not benedictions that one should casually throw aside like 7-11 receipts. Much of life, perhaps most of life, is horrendously dull and vacant, and so to betray that which once filled you up with a primitive sort of joy is almost obscene in its reckless arrogance.

So, no. It is not The A-Team itself that I am dreading, but these new characters, these present charlatans, filled with actors looking for a quick paycheck funded by a studio desperate for a short-term hit. All valid rules for living. Life is what it is. (And was the original series made for any less bottom-line motives?)

But my heart tells me that nobody making this movie had any particular love for the original series, and it seems all too clear that when love is absent, other, less noble qualities will inevitably emerge (like the Creature from the Black Lagoon) from the muck of life. It could very well be an entertaining rush, this movie. It might even bring back fond memories, psychic mementoes that will take me back to another time. Such small thrills are possible.

Yet again I ask: at what point does childhood die? When can we let it all go? If our past keeps belching itself up at twenty-year intervals in increasingly louder, more plastic mutations, can we ever put the old comics away, switch the black-and-white TV off for good, and find something new, something present, to simulate those old feelings we once felt so much? Or is it all just a simulation in the end?

Friday, June 11, 2010


Give me your poor, your broken-hearted, your destitute and your damned. Give me the young woman on the train with the metal stubs in her lips and the sun-burned bruises on the back of her thighs. Give me the sleeping salaryman beside her, suited up for the day, although it's already lights-out at five in the morning, his time. Give me the homeless man at the station, who lives nowhere else but at the bottom of the steps to a place that leads somebody other than himself anywhere and everywhere. Give me the skinny Nigerian woman who slowly hauls her way out of the African bar at two-forty in the morning, lugging crates to the back of the restaurant. Give me my students, hundreds of them, feeble-minded and almost brilliant, energetic and lethargic, harbingers of a new age and dim, potent signals that barely light the present one.

Give me all of them. I shall not make them free, but I can possibly give them a slanted voice that, if not true, at least might be heard.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Fortune may favor the bold, but surely such a fickle fate has its own heightened sense of humor. Fortune may just as well favor the ridiculous, the sublime, the bored, the indifferent. Occasionally even the mortal, electronic gods at Yahoo pick up on such flavors in the celestial air, giving us a scent of the absurd but intricate designs that govern our lives. (Or appear to, at any rate.)

There may yet be a means by which we can diminish how fortune and fate plot our perils; alternate routes in the human map may be detected if we look at the map with all of our might.

The other day a story appeared that told the unlikely and amusing tale of a wife browsing through old photographs with her husband of a trip to Disneyland taken long ago, in childhood. The husband noticed somebody suspiciously, intimately familiar hovering in the back of the photo, an extra in the movie of his wife's life. Only that extra happened to be his own father.

Can such a coincidence be any more contrived? In a film, a play, a book, or even perhaps in the hidden safety and carefully obscured nook of our own nighttime dreams, we would not readily accept such a concoction. Life, however (or what we recognize 'life to be), needs to construct no such shields against the impossibility of circumstance. People wander in and out of each other's photographs, and, decades later, are brought together once more by matrimony.

It's all too simple to let fate get off easy in such a scenario. We can barter around empty words and familiar phrases like 'incredible', 'what are the odds', 'it just goes to show you', 'you never can tell', and comfort ourselves with the odd, innate bizarreness of the lives that we live, never pausing to acknowledge that although we may very well be the captains of our own ship, the possibility of us being players on someone else's stage, spouting lines written by our own, unknown creators.

That, too, is an easy out. The gods may very well be pushing us around as blithely or intently as we move a pawn into its next position on our chessboards, but such a possibility allows us to be the passive creatures we long to become, the fish that are gently removed from the hooks of the rods of disappointed children and tossed casually back into the water to swim another day.

Perhaps we nudge our fates in manners we cannot assess. Perhaps this woman, this wife, long ago, as a child, beamed brightly at her future father-in-law out of the corner of her mouth as the picture was being snapped. He smiled back, thinking to himself: What a grand and sweet gesture, to be smiled at by a child on the first day of spring. For days, even weeks afterwards, he felt warmed in a way that he could not explain. He was nicer to his own wife and children. He tossed the ball with his son and played Barbies with his daughter. Goodness rippled forth from his every action. The son felt loved, gained confidence, became humane in interior places where before he had been but a boy. Years later, his future wife recognized such humanity in his tone and fell for the man she sensed he might become, given time and a certain tilt on her part. Not knowing that she had started the whole cycle in motion as a child. (Are not most children indifferent to the sorrow and joy they engender in others?)

I'm tempted to take a camera, any camera, any size, and prowl the streets by day and by night, snapping random shots of ordinary people, hoping that something human in the air will somehow shift to a larger, cosmic benevolence by the click of a lens. Perhaps someone will sense what my pursuit entails, even if I can not articulate it in words. The photos will capture a spirit and, instead of diminishing or destroying its essence, as inland tribes still believe (or so I'm told), the stolen image will flash their very beings into a higher form of connection.

We wander in and out of other's photos, usually hiding ourselves, not wanting to ruin someone else's shot. In the forefront of our own existence and the backgroud of everyone else's. Should a camera lens be wide enough to capture the entire planet in one glorious, panoramic backdrop of smiles and waves, everyone a star, no one an extra, would that be enough to banish coincidence's frustrating, perplexing hold on our lives to a distant land where it would haunt us no more?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


A wad of gum gunked itself onto the sole of my shoe last night. I stood on the train. It crept onto the bottom of my foot. Somewhere between Ebina station and Sagamino Station. I scraped it off. A few moments later, there it was again, a glob of greenish, bluish, grayish goo. Persistent, it was. Almost insistent. Finally I flicked it off by aggressively rubbing one shoe against the other, like a praying mantis biding its time, and it finally rested, defeated, but not broken, against the side of the door. Soon someone else would come along, and its covert scheme could begin anew.

Perhaps I am being somewhat superior in my tone. Should I have said 'soul' of my shoe, rather than 'sole'? For I am almost certain that this particular piece of chewing gum was not merely an inert, passive player in its own pathetic tale. I did not intend to step on that gum; it found itself on myself. And if such a motive can be ascribed to a lowly scrap of discarded candy, who is to say that black dress shoes bought for $20 twenty dollars in the Philippines do not have their own modest depths of identity? If the ancient Japanese believed that the rocks and the rivers, the caves and the trees all contained infinite depths of awareness and their own, inscrutable form of consciousness, perhaps a lowly pair of workwear can hold similar spiritual flexibility. I wear the shoes, but they may be wearing me in turn. A somewhat disturbing thought.

There could have been magnetic wars at work that eluded me last night, some kind of subtle war between the stretchy, flexible essence of gum and the stolid, solid resiliency of cheap leather. (If leather is, indeed, what these shoes are made of; how foolish! To trod daily with a substance clasped close to one's skin whose very identity you remain indifferent to, if not contemptuous of!) If mankind can embark on centuries of apocalyptic warfare merely because our philosophies of the spirit differ in tone and structure, perhaps a smaller, subtle form of malice is being enacted between the tactile, unconscious shapes on this world.

I can claim no scientific superiority, but I know enough to state that what we see as solid is, in fact, little more than a swirling and whirling and twisting and turning mass of atoms and electrons and neutrons clashing at each other with all the miniature force of a thousand roller coasters ramming towards one their mechanical destiny at one and the same time, a free-for-all of controlled chaos held together by the most intricate of designs. And who are we to claim that the smallest among us might not possess their own form of sincere, albeit primitive, awareness?

Perhaps the restless molecules at work in that piece of gum and these pair of shoes I wear are so tragically minute that they are not aware of the physical forces at play in their random collisions. (And are we truly conscious of why we do what we do? Of who we clash with? Of those we scrape away?) I can conceive of a situation where the fluidity of the molecules locked inside, indeed forming the very marrow, of that slab of chewing gum, suddenly rebelled at the arrogant, unyielding stiffness of my shoes. Jealousy may not be limited to the human realm, as any animal lover can attest to. Atoms, too, have their own internal dynamics, and they could very well be spiritual ones. Enough was enough, the gum decided. If the shoes will flaunt their solidity, I will flare my own flexibility. Let the war begin!

Indifferently scraping that gum off of my shoe, I almost felt a sting. Of this I swear. (Even the smallest things can hold the greatest of grudges.)

On a train hurtling through the Kanagawa countryside, in the country of Japan, on the planet earth, I showed the objects of this world who was boss, I sure did, while somewhere up above, far away, in space, something similar is looking down at us, getting ready to scrub the earth off the bottom of its pride.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010


Do lost souls sometimes stay marooned inside a limbo of their own construction, forever haunting gates of former glory? Devising a spiritual escape route that inevitably coils back only to the hollow basement of one's own mendacious spirit must be a futile enterprise for the most valiant of ghosts, but for a fragile ghoul one can only imagine the frustration that must accumulate, as grungy, useless moss nevertheless accumulates atop the most obstinate stone.

Such were my thoughts while running past the melodramatically militaresque gates of Atsugi Naval Base not ten minutes from my apartment, the same base that launched Gary Powers over Russia decades ago, a crash landing that landed him in the Soviet Union and America itself into a new, more suspicious era. That fact alone would be enough to guarantee a certain degree of historical infamy for Atsugi base; the addition of one Lee Harvey Oswald to its illustrious alumni only adds to the absurd historical resonance that blandly spews forth from its gates like lazy heat waves on Florida tarmac.

Oswald. The name itself haunts me. The place itself reminds me. For here was the very spot where young, troubled Lee served while in the U.S. military, before defecting to Russia, before coming back home to plot and plan and stew and fail at almost everything he tried, succeeding only in the ultimate success that would give him any cold comfort, the murder of the president.

And myself, only minutes away on foot! To encounter the roots of one's obsession is surely a fortuitous and dangerous endeavour. For years as an adolescent I was entangled within the sticky web which is the Kennedy assassination and all its attendant lore, convinced that it was a mammoth, intricate plot conceived at the highest levels of the American government. (Such grand schemes are especially attractive to the adolescent mind, who is foiled at every turn, whether it be by the combination to his locker or the forgotten bus ticket gloating on his dresser at home!) In recent years, I've come to the reluctant conclusion that it was Oswald, alone. (My conclusion helped in no small part by Vincent Bugliosi's brilliant book Reclaiming History.) Cool summer nights in the basement of our house by the lake are intermingled with me crashed on the couch, reading long into the night about Oswald and his sad, mysteriously vacant life -- the life of a ghost long before he became one himself.

For I feel Oswald's presence as I run by Atsugi's base.

Fifty years have come and gone since Oswald last stepped through those gates. The Cold War has frozen and fizzled and faded. A new era of terror has enveloped us this past decade.

And yet those gates remain.

Hardly daunting, one must admit. The entrance to Atsugi could very well be that of a modern-day theme park. I half expect Chevy Chase and his motley clan to pull up front in a vintage Volkswagon sedan and embark on the vacation of a lifetime, 'Wally World in the Far East'. Japanese and American flags crisscross themselves in a half-hearted, insincere embrace. Families wander in and out, bored kids chewing gum while their heavy mothers pull down their tank-tops to cover their fleshy bulges that just won't fit. At one point in time, John Wayne himself, the Duke of all dukes, visited the troops here for a morale-boosting session, chowing down for a little r and r and rah-rah-rah; a photo even exists of the fabled movie star eating lunch in the cafeteria with the men in green while a young man stands distant in the doorway. Oswald himself, leaching onto history (albeit of a celluoid kind), for the first but not the last time.

On a sunny spring Sunday afternoon there is nothing remotely sinister about an American military base in suburban Yokohama, and I yet I feel a chill each and every week. I do not know where we go when we die, and I suspect that Oswald's spirit, if such a thing exists, long ago ventured into other, less hospitable realms.

And yet I cannot be certain. For once he tread these very same streets that I so casually jog upon. He was known to have a Japanese girlfriend at the time of his enlistment, her identity a secrete still. I wonder if she lives here still, a woman of seventy, holding onto a secret that is her own, dark treasure. The wrinkled, old lady I casually run past could very well be the former mistress of the assassin of John F.Kennedy, and I almost wince while writing these words, so powerful are their black impact. A life well lived with a family raised true is all well and good, but to have been the concubine of a president's murderer!

For such reasons I am sometimes certain that Oswald haunts these parts. Who is to say that we do not become that which we once were, or reside in that place where we once thrived? For here it was where Oswald put his plans in motion, saving money for his Russian odyssey, studying the language, envisioning the future life he would lead, that of a great man doing noble deeds. If our soul endures past the point of physical decay, and is too craven or barren to be allowed admittance to a higher, gentler realm, then to our past it must return, if not literally, then at least to the physical plain where we once stood tall.

I cannot be sure, and I will not be adamant, but there must be dark winter nights at the gates of Atsugi when the chill of the December air mixes with the cold fury of Oswald's roaming spectre. A physical frission from a spiritual brush. He is bound to this place by his own dark rage. Always a bold, brash, insecure soul, I imagine his ghostlike self is of a similar mold, convinced that another glory lies somewhere in his future, but forever locked into a redundant orbit. Doomed to haunt tangible gates from his past that once led to only the future and now refuse to open to even his past.

Monday, June 07, 2010


"Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it?"

-- Herman Melville

Since nobody in the world I've been living in for the past eleven years -- the Asian world, the countries of Japan, Cambodia and the Philippines -- has ever heard of my hometown, St.Catharines, I tend to identify my starting point in this life as being a small city near Niagara Falls, that globally recognized symbol of natural awe and cheap honeymoons. That cascading descent of water, mamoth in scale, miniscule in interest (to me) for most of my life.

The mention of this place is sure to gain a jolt of second-hand recognition from all who hear its name, no?

Not necessarily.

On my first visit to Cambodia, long before I decided to live there, me and a handful of Japanese volunteers were guest-speakers at a high school in the second-largest city in the country, Battambang, near the Thai border. Upon telling the students that I grew up not far from Niagara Falls, instead of involuntary nods of recognition and surprised smiles I faced, instead, an adolescent sky of blank, indifferent stares. Later, in the same class, I showed the students a small Canadian flag, explaining that the red maple leaf was placed in the centre as a symbol of Canada itself. Made for a good story, I guess, true or not. The teacher then vigorously nodded his head and explained to the malleable students that the same principle applied to the Australian flag, which, as everyone knew, featured a kangaroo in the middle. I smiled and nodded. (One does not publicly deny and insult the hard-won knowledge of a high school teacher in Battambang, Cambodia.)

Natural wonders of the world attract and enhance curious minds, but I often imagine that modern-day Egyptians living amongst the pyramids must feel the way that those of use raised in the misty outskirts of Niagara Falls often feel: bored, indifferent, bluntly amused by what all the damn fuss is about. I can count on one hand, probably, the number of times I visited the Falls to see the Falls, from the ages of zero to eighteen. Come to think of it, that number may very well include my trips to the city itself (a fact which often astonishes many a foreigner I've met -- that the Falls is not merely a ready-made-photo-backdrop but is also a place to live and die and divorce and eat in.) My most vivid memory of the place as a whole remains not the time I was not saved from certain death by Superman soaring through the sky as he did to a reckless young lad playing on the Canadian side of the Falls in Superman II -- a common daydream for kids lucky enough to have grown up in the Niagara region -- but rather a night spent in downtown Niaraga Falls, watching professional wrestling in a dingy stadium in front-row seats acquired by a friend of my father's who worked for the city. Slapping the Junkyard Dog on his gigantic, sweaty back and marvelling at the a) intense and b) quite obviously pre-rehearsed and fake exploits of the tag-team of the British Bulldogs.

(Wonders of the world are all well and good for the history books and Facebook photo montages, but they can't approximate the childhood awe one can hold for WWF wrestlers. Or adulthood awe, apparently, as WWF chairman Vince McMahon's wife is spending her way to a Senate seat in Connecticut even as I write these words, I think.)

No man is a hero to his valet, and no natural wonder is wondrous to its smaller, lesser, all too human neighbours. Beautiful, yes; and not without its own quaint charm, to be sure. But as a beacon for the world's lovers?

Only now, years removed from the days and nights of my youth, can I begin to appreciate the Falls in that respectful, mythic manner. Every culture needs its own mythology, its own vantage point from which to hurtle oneself into eternity via a wooden barrel. We must all, eventually, come to terms with the soil from which we sprung. Reading Moby-Dick for the first time at the age of 34, I come across a reference to Niagara Falls, and I remember where I came from, an unknown city known very well to me and my circle of youth. Reading this 19th century classic, coming across that sudden, welcome jolt, I think not of the glorious path of another boat, the Maid of the Mist, which took us under the waterfall and gave us a brisk taste of its watery embrace, but instead of a night spent watching Emmaneul 'Webster' Lewis and Marc 'Skippy' Price perform at Yuk Yuk's comedy club in the city itself. (The absurd is so often intertwined with the awesome, is it not?)

Sunday, June 06, 2010


Shall we pity a president who must endure the musings of a famous McCartney on a Wednesday night at the White House? Surely one can imagine a less attractive way of spending a midweek evening at the dawn of summer in Washington after a winter of dreary discontent. Having one's beloved serenaded by the bard of the Beatles inevitably must secure some most deserved brownie points in that growing list of debts kept in the ledger maintained in that most exclusive, solitary club in the world: spouse of the U.S. president. And to have Sir Paul sing 'Michelle' to one's own Michelle must surely make Barack more than a little festive inside. What a conversation will be enacted later that night between the president and his wife! (Gossip is gossip, but presidential gossip between the Commander in Chief and his own wife between the sheets? Of such intimacies sonnets could be written!)

Still, one can speculate. All lives are surreal in and of themselves when aligned next to one another, but the life of the American president must somehow stand separate from the rest, if only because the nature of the profession requires daily duties that border on the narrow line separating the surreal and the tragic. Waking up to a shower and a shave and a daughter inquring as to when that 'hole will be plugged' ranks as one of the most flippant and profound comments a president has made in many years. Whereas most of us prepare for work with a sensation somewhere between indifference and a tiny, spiralling dread that expands ever outwards as the morning unwinds, the United States president must kiss his kids off to school and then proceed down the hall to a small, sterile room where black-suited functionaries blandly recite who, what and where the intelligence services of the most powerful country in the world have harmed in the past twenty-four hours, leading to a sensation in the great leader's stomach that could be similar to a cancer patient being told that there is hope, yes, but of the most fragile and tenuous kind. To start the day learning that one's secret missles have accidentally killed an Afghani family of four (which remains a specualtion on my part, to be sure, but speculation, through its very flexibility, can achieve a kind of moral truth that facts can only leer at), and end the evening by singing along with 'Hey Jude' to Paul MCartney while the television cameras capture your every moment for a broadcast, for history, for the fact that a president's job is to have his every moment frozen in bloodless time simply because that is what a president is for, to have an image we can analyze and judge, forgive or forget, to have that arc explain the span of one's day, surely must make a man sleep the sleep of the driven or the dead. Sleep like a man who has been shown the insides of the carcass he has killed, or sleep like a man who has been given a sedative strong enough to blunt a bear.

We judge a president not by what he does, or says, but what he shows. And Obama shows a driven, intent, subdued individual who maintains a temperament akin to a tightroper walker forcefully but elegantly striding the divide between glory and certain, plummenting death. His smile is broad and white and seemingly genuine, but 'one may smile and smile and be a villian', in the words of Shakespeare, and while Obama is not a villian (in my naive eyes), he is certainly a human, and humans can drift the lines of moral certainty like wood on the water.

I can only imagine Obama listening to Paul McCartney serenade his wife. How strange a moment for the boy from Hawaii! Years ago he was a little boy visting the Big Buddha in the ancient town of Kamakura, Japan, not far from where I now live, and now he was sitting in the White House, watching a Beatle praise him and his wife. All that day he had been dealing with BP oil spills and random missles fired in Afghanistan and God only knows what else the American president deals with on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis. For a moment, everything seemed so electric and ordinary: a middle-aged man at a Beatles concert. Forget, if you can, that this was a private show (shared with the entire planet). Ignore, if you must, that only seats away from Obama, hidden from view, sat a man with the case containing the nuclear access codes that accompany the president wherever he goes. (And what a strange and ludicrous existence that job entails! Oh, to be inside of the consciousness of the man whose fingers wrap themselves around such a suitcase on a daily basis! Eternity and armaggedon at ones fingertips twenty-four seven! Was such an occupation even hinted at by him in his high school yearbook? ) Disregard, if possible, the stressed and sweaty people with sleeves rolled up and eyes slouching shut working in unknown rooms even at that late hour, downing coffee and cursing their coworkers who get to watch McCartney sing his songs while they are left with the task of designing ways to minimize the means by which innocent civilians have their heads severed and torsos splattered. All that remains, after such separation, is one Barack Obama, a smile on his face, listening to the music of, if not his generation, precisely, at least that of his era's approximate fellows.

Inside of his mind I imagine Obama returning to that day in Kamakura, Japan. A little boy with his mother in a strange land. Staring up at a mammoth stone Buddha who remains blandly impassive to all of life's disastrous follies and unspeakable (but not unacceptable!) atrocities. The American president must be a consummate actor, and so there is little indication that he is doing anything at this moment other than enjoying the rare privilege of a Beatle applauding his courage and integrity. The smile is white and the eyes are flashing that Obama flash. Tomorrow he will have to fix the oil spill. Deal with Pakistan. Scold the C.I.A. Welcome a group of overachieving inner city kids for their fifteen minutes with the president. Remember to compliment Michelle on her new haircut. Try not to scold the kids so much at dinnertime for slurping their milk, which they think is funny, and he does not. (Dealing with the Russian bureaucracy only five minutes before six is surely one way in which a family dinner can be ruined! Nothing spreads gloom like the gnarld machinations of a former Soviet infrastructure before mealtime.). For the cameras, for Michelle, for Paul, for us, Obama is where he is supposed to be, doing what he does. Inside himself, he is somewhere else, where he has to be.

Thursday, June 03, 2010


A brisk walk to the station on a cool but pleasant spring morning is the perfect means to a fresh mind, the brush to the chalkboard of one's soul. The sun is out. The birds are singing their incomprehensible, though melodious, songs. The streets are still empty. One is left with the feeling that if one's walk is true, and the pace is brisk, a certain path can be followed.

But Mailer's words read the other day come back to me, that even gods may be using us as games in their own mysterious game, or words to that effect.

This certainty I feel on an ordinary morning in suburban Japan may very well be similar to that sensation which the pawn on a chessboard feels before he is moved against his will. Who is to say that I am not merely the plaything of a higher, indifferent being? Already forces are aligning themselves against my progress, I suspect. The air is fresh and welcome in my lungs, and the sound of an approaching train is a signal that I, too, will soon step aboard, working waiting for me to disembark.

There is the uneasy but titillating knowledge that I could postpone work's monotony for a day or two, simply by deciding to miss my stop. It is possible to do. Such mistakes do happen. People fall asleep on the train, or drift away listening to music, or simply decide that is enough is enough. Work can wait. Life will, for once, take precedence.

I will do no such thing, I realize. A disrupted life can lead to only more rips in the silk of normality. The train will be caught, and the work will be done. As it was yesterday. As it will follow tomorrow. Such is the unspoken but inevitable bargain I have already made with the gods charting my progress, like fisherman looking through the water at the catch whose crispy cooking they are already planning in the depth and stink of their bellies' hungry groans. Better to appease the gods than await their wrath.

Perhaps, if I'm careful, and quiet, the shimmer and rumble of the carriage will distract the mapmakers charting my progress. I can distract them for a moment with the minutia of train-doors closing, black laptop bags being lugged onto metal rags, the dreary, droopy faces of Japanese commuters beginning again that which has no end but the final one. While the gods are looking down, bemused, at such futile, human actions, bored puppetmasters killing time at internmission, I can steal away within my thoughts and gain control of a life that remains stubbornly my own, if only in my head, the divine ones be damned.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


Reading good writing is like being allowed entry into a vast cathedral whose ancient architecture ascends ever upwards, each ledge and window offering an unseen vista that can be glimpsed only by beginning the climb. (And how forbidden is that particular act! Who has the gall to clutch one's hands around the hooks and ledges of the inside of a church? Yet reading is by its very nature a somewhat unnatural. Someone you have never met has decided to unleash their most private thoughts upon the world, inviting you inside of their innermost psyche. To peer and proke and laugh and mock. To exalt and be enveloped, perhaps.) You scale and pause and look below and see how far you've come. Occasionally, if not often, you fall. You rise and try again, grappling.

That's writing at its best, of course. At its worst, it denigrates the best within us, if only because a shoddy thing, by nature, mocks the notion of aspiration itself. In this bold new age that is neither particularly bold nor new, the net is flooded with writing of all sorts, multiplying like some kind of cancerous cell that cannot be stopped. I wonder if the internet itself might implode from the strain of all those letters alongside themselves, each attempting to paint a portrait of a particular mind, seeking.

Seeking what? There lies the question.

If writing just becomes a form of ego, then it can become nothing more obtrusive or invasive than a needlepoint hung on the inside corridor of your grandmother's house, lovingly stitched together over the course of several weekends at the family cottage. Full of emotion and heartfelt sincerity, to be sure, but lacking the edge and innovation that demands a thorough reckoning everytime one sits down at the keyboard to type or read.

More and more I'm seeing writing itself as a sacred act. (Can an agnostic feel the sense of the sacred upon entering a church? I suppose he can, if only because even one struck dumb by the essential mystery of the universe can acknowledge one's own puny impotency when faced with the collected efforts of a thousand craftsman reaching for more.) If craft gives way to communication, then in five, ten years time, will we be nothing more noble than a herd of geese flying alongside each other, intuitively understanding what the other is trying to say, allowing electronic osmosis to take the place of aggresive intent at the altar of linguistic competency?

Too late, I'm sure. Everyone who can be allowed into the internet's holy vector has already arrived, or is quietly pushing the door open. Which is as it should be. Voices unheard quickly become silenced even to themselves. I just hope that the words on the screen continuted to be viewed as the beginning of a long and astounding ascent, rather than a culmination of intent that has commenced before it has truly even begun.