Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Picture a boy right out of Rockwell, American in tone, Japanese in technique. Scene from the street, sitting at his desk, the window his frame. A child's messy plan sprawled out in front of him: pastels and pencils, papers pens. The bare, skeletal, fragments of a mobile something-or-other yet to be built. His tongue sticks out of his mouth in that form of universal concentration that spans across cultures and must be implanted within us from above upon birth.

Somebody should be painting this, I thought, walking by, glancing quickly. (Staring into anyone's home is an oddly intimidating moment. One feels somehow responsible for an open window and a desk too close to the edge of outside. Especially in Japan, where everything is at odds with itself and each other, people and buildings bisecting each other until humanity merges with train lines in flux.)

Would Norman Rockwell have been up to the task? That essential chronicler of a midwest America that may not exist? Or, it it ever did, such a time and quite the place it must have been! One where innocence at play and adults at work somehow coexisted in a common sense of balance and trust. To extend such a midcentury metaphor of decades gone by to the Japan of today seems somehow strained, mostly because an atom bomb from the forties inevitably enters any discussion of America and Japan, no matter how long one changes the topics and forces one's smile. (There are, after all, only so many topics to talk about. Even the trivial has its depths, eventually.)

Everything is amplified by these streets and this place, where American soldiers work less than a mile away from that little boy sketching his future with the chalk of today. Mere decades okay a big bomb went kaboom. It's not unreasonable to conceive that relatives of this budding artist or engineer felt their bodies burn quickly and their life slip away in such an explosion. And it's probably certain that Rockwell himself, or those from his clan, fought and died against the relatives of this selfsame child.

Oh, the reckless complexity of the past! Let it all stay dead and done, if you please. Let us watch a boy do a Sunday's good deed without considering all that has come and all that will follow. When Americans still occupy a land all its own, such concerns find their way to the front of the line. Race, and all its mysterious, ineffable irrelevance, makes me wonder why some are born here and others there. Why decisions decided by people long dead still make us sit up and look at her skin.

For now, I'll let the boy be, and let the questions of nations lay nestled in newsprint. If Rockwell had verve, it was in the life of the faces he drew with such care. They had a life beyond what we could imagine, and so does this boy I saw for a second. Even as I write these words, he is probably waking up and getting ready for school, downing his juice and packing his bag. The past has no concern for someone so young. He will step out of the frame that he does not know exists and enter his own little world of school play.