Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Why do we so often want the cool side of the pillow? For sheets and blankets, we request and require nothing but warmth. We simply need to be contained for a few hours in their piled-up abundance of slightly stacked heat. Pillows, however, play by their own rules, and we have somehow all agreed that the pillow is boss. This is bullshit. Why should we let these little sacks continually mess with our heads?

Even on the coldest of winter nights, I will suddenly awaken and try to make sure that the pillow is touching the side of my cheek of with its own coolest face. Something must be going on, physiologically speaking, but I don't speak physiological, so I'm perpetually stumped. Does the cool side of the pillow counterintuitively react with the warm touch of my cheek, which in turn has been heatened and heightened by the protective covering of my sheets?

It makes sense in the summer, in the glory of your gotchies, in the buff of your buffness, to want that cool pillow to give up its chill. But why in the winter? Why do I still demand that silky-smooth coolness?

There have been times in the past few years when I've slept for months on end with nothing more than a glorified bean-bag for a makeshift pillow, and, even though I know I'm asking too much, I still toss that bean-bag thingee over and around and back to its first side while I try to get some non-existent coolness to come up to me. All for nothing.

Do bean-bags not, like, contain the capacity to harbor such cold? Maybe not. I'm no expert on stitching together the stuff of our lives. I just know that pillows -- both as an ideological concept and as a verifiable noun that exists as a thing --  seem to be these softly magical lumps of inert nothingness that nevertheless manage to quietly defy all biological norms. Pillows appear to have entered our universe from this other, alternate, ulterior mode of existence where fluffy collections of feathers have somehow gained the right to mess with our most intimate and tactile sense of our bodies and selves. The right side of my head and the span of my neck nightly longs for and requires their softly cold nudge of communion.  

Monday, January 26, 2015

An Intergalactic Balzacian: George Lucas and THE PHANTOM MENACE

Leave it to the French to stick up for STAR WARS. Specifically, THE PHANTOM MENACE, Even more specifically, Jar Jar Binks -- a character I will continue to vigorously defend, though the heavens fall. In THE PEOPLE VS.GEORGE LUCAS, a documentary that examines what led to the widening gap of appreciation between the filmmaker and his fans, a couple of French cineastes make some very acute observations, ones that counterbalance the widely held view that Monsier Binks is nothing more than a sad joke. What these dudes are really getting at is the interplay of tones that this film allows to bubble up, and it's this constant back-and-forth play between the serious and the silly, the mundane and the mystical, the action and the speechifying, that gives THE PHANTOM MENACE its curious shape and content.

People do tend to forget: THX-1138, AMERICAN GRAFFITTI and the first STAR WARS film all introduced brands of cinema that no one had quite seen before. EPISODE ONE's in-retrospect role as the first story of six is enough of an odd narrative ploy to necessitate a closer look, but it's the film's uneasy balance between the spiritual and the political, the alien and the royal, the upper-class and the grungy world of merchants, that makes this Lucas's own Balzacian world of galactical observation. Just as Honre de Balzac crafted interlocking novels that examined French society in all its various levels of exceptionalism and discrimination, so, too, does THE PHANTOM MENACE serve as the first part of a series of stories that examine how various species of being, whether they be crudely profane or religiously elegant, all somehow contribute to both the enforcement and destruction of an entire mode of life.

One of the French film critics in THE PEOPLE VS.GEORGE LUCAS points out that much of the dislike towards Jar Jar Binks probably revolves around the apparent incongruity of his presence -- what is this goofy, burlesque character doing in the midts of this fantasy space opera? Sure, the argument goes, C-3P0 and R2-D2 were comic relief in the original trilogy, but Jar Jar? Too dumb, too silly, too much. Yet this out-of-placeness is precisely what makes the character's role so important. While ultra-serious Qui-Gon Jinn is conversing with Anakin's mother, discussing all things potentially Jedi, Jar Jar is being a dink; this foolish Gundan seems to do nothing but goof off. The other characters treat him the same way they seem to always treat the droids -- as an annoying afterthought. (Think of the way that young Anakin so casually says goodbye to C-3PO -- a robot he practically CREATED -- when he leaves Tattooine, a shot  in the film that lets us literally view the encounter through C-3PO's eyes, as his master so indifferently takes his fnal leave. For the only time in the entire STAR WARS saga, we see through the droid's eyes, just as in REVENGE OF THE SITH we actually see through Anakin's point of view as Vader's dark mask is implanted.)

Jar Jar's role is that of a subservient goofball, one who provides the comic kick that young children adore, but he's also key to understanding Lucas's thematic intenet when it comes to these films. As another French film critic points out in the documentary, Jar Jar's presence serves to combine the burlesque and the serious in the same narrative flow, a tone and contrast which was not appreciated very much by true fans of STAR WARS. In my mind, it's this very incongruity that highlights the societal critique that Lucas is undertaking.

THE PHANTOM MENACE introduces us to various life forms on different planets, among them: the most distinguished royals and government officials occupying the same territory as the oversized underwater creatures on Naboo; an array of esteemed Jedi Council members in the hallowed halls of Coruscant; Jedi masters and apprentices and junkyard scavengers on Tattooine, in addition to a slave woman and her son borne of a divine birth. This is not one society, but several, each unknowingly interlaced with the other.

We thus have an extremely odd mix of societal strata -- the solemn, suitably stiff exterior of the Jedi and Queen Amidala; the nutty silliness of Jar Jar Binks; the focused discipline of the Master and Padawaan Jedi on their appointed task; the directly exuberant joy of children at play; the scheming scavengers and their practiced deception; the version-one Stormtroopers and their basic mechanical movements, devoid of advanced armor or strategy. This is a film that allows all of these extremely divergent styles of characters to ineract with a kind of controlled abandon. Lucas is exploring a universe in which the political, religious and peasant/serf classes (and their adjacent capitalist ilk) co-exist within the same frame of an SF fantasy epic. That their presence -- embodied by the varying acting styles employed to represent their different economies of expression, from the dry matter-of-factness of the Jedi council, to the rather stoic delivery of the Jedi, to the gee-whiz stylized exclamations from the children of Tattooine, to the exaggerated mannerisms and vocal ranges of the Gundans, all wrapped up in a straight-faced sense of grandeur appropriate to an overblown serial's delusions of thematic grandeur -- makes for an uneasy alliance within the same frame is illustrative of how this universe operates, how it allows such contrasts. We witness the highest and the lowest of the universe, their parallel  stories constantly cross-cutting, while the characters themselves often occupy the same scene of engagement. That these aliens come in different forms of audienceendearment is to be expected; that they embody different thematic and narrative purposes might take a little sorting out.

Much of the criticism directed against THE PHANTOM MENACE has to do with racial stereotyping -- that Jar Jar Binks is a black-slave stereotype, that the junkyard merchant Watto is an Arab (or even Jewish) caricature, that the trade-envoy aliens are Asians in blatantly shoddy disguise. (That last accusation I still can't see for one second, and thus won't address further.)

 One can't deny that Jar Jar is a goofy servant of some kind, or that Watto is unsavory and suspiciously not-to-be-trusted, but rather than see these as emblematic of grotesque caricatures swiped from real life, I view them more like archetypal  representations of familiar storytelling tropes. These (extremely) other-worldly beings come fully equipped with exaggerated features, strange voices, ungainly shaped bodies, but to reach out and apply these distorted physical representatios to real-life racial groups seems, for me, to ignoe key aspects of what the characters embody in the ultimate function of the narrative.

Do Jar Jar's people, the Gundans, resemble African tribesmen? Perhaps, but only partially. Does Watto's voice sound distinctly accented? Yes, but with good reason. These particular examples of aliens repesent characters who lie at the heart of their own worlds, but nevertheless live and are relegated to the societal fringe. It takes the triumph of their final battle to give the Gundans' some above-water recognition, and Watto's role as a junk-dealer (and slave owner) has relegated him to where the buisness is most brisk -- the dusty, seedy markets of backstreet Tattooine. In this univese, whether it be on Naboo or Tattooine, it is the marginalized aliens that, for good or for ill, cause the most ruckus and reform. A critique of modern-Earth cultures, or an examination of science-fictional realms of exclusion?

 It is themtatically telling that the final battle features so-called 'primitive' tribes, like the Gundans, defeating the electronic battle-droids, and that Watto must make a living trading slaves and selling junk to survive on his planet. Any real-world racial similarities to these alien characters, one could argue, might actually have a point, one of cultural commentary  -- that these various planetary societies only allow certain kinds of lifeforms to gain entry and exit to various chambers of power and legislation.(We see that the Jedi Council is comprised of various odd-looking aliens, but the universe is vast, and perhaps it's discrimination of some kind that's kept Blotto in the illicit world where he resides, and forced the Gundans to remain under the sea.)

In EPISODE II, Jar Jar, so instrumental in the final battle of EPISODE I, unknowingly casts the vote which allows Senator Palpatine to take power. The innocents of society, brave in their good intentions, are often abused by the process and exploited by the wicked. I see these filmic depictions of alien servants and illegal money-makers as examples of how various strata of society delegate, abuse or ignore those who might actually have something to add to the culture as a whole. Jar Jar Binks is a hero at the end of the first film, and a dupe by the middle of the second; Watto is a slave-trader who merely fulfills the role that all around him -- including visiting Jedi and merchants -- expect those of his ilk to embody. Do Jar Jar and Blotto hint at real-world racial types? That's debatable, and perhaps worthy of debate. I'm simply arguing: These aliens and their visual broadness identify them most clearly as 'other', and it's this 'otherness' that the so-called 'noble' characters like the Jedi and politicians take note of and dismiss. For me, these widely-sketched beings are less of a 'racial' stereotype, and more of a subtle depiction of 'racism/alienism in action. (Not unlike the droids being excluded from A NEW HOPE's cantina, with nobody else 'normal' around giving much of a shit.)

You can definitely argue that the aliens in the STAR WARS films do, in fact, have some kind of specious relationship to real-world miniorities -- although that's a a charge that I'm not altogether inclined to accept, seeing them as less of an allegorical commentary on current or past racial relations (a la STAR TREK's style of current-times storytelling) and more as an example of how, along with the droids, it is the marginalized groups on various planets in these movies who often have the most wit and facility, and are thus penalized for such skills. The droids, the Ewoks, the Gundans, Watto, the Wookies -- all of these supporting characters ultimately play essential roles in the fate of the universe. The Jedis and royalty constantly overlook the importance of the so-called 'lesser' classes, but the narratives themselves continually look to them to stitch together or unravel the fabric of their times.

It's ironic that the CGI-effect oriented nature of the prequels is often looked on with disdain -- all that glossy sheen on the screen, those too-crisp-and-clear-sparkling worlds.These episodes are designed as the first three films in a story that depict the ultimate disentegration of a carefully orchestrated galacatic reign of Jedi and government; thus, this necessitates a kind of glittering scope that then allows Episodes Four through Six to appear all the more gritty and base. A shining republic will fall, giving to underground rebel hideouts and makeshift battle plans. The prequels illustrate a staticly rigid society, and the visuals reflect that detailed confinement.

As Lucas states in one of the first production meetings featured in the official documentary on THE PHANTOM MENACE, Anakin's final space battle purposefully calls out to A NEW HOPE, its call-back structure like that of a poem -- the first stanza rhyming with the third, and so on. Episode One gives us a look at intersecting societies filled with goofy aliens and dead-serious Chancellors, stoic Jedis and scheming junk-merchants, a motley of 'people' from different worlds endlessly interacting and colliding with each other's intentions. Rather than a botched mess, THE PHANTOM MENACE is, instead, the first carefully orchestrated chapter in a story that establishes all that will fall in the two films to follow.

The last shot of the film obviously parallels that of a A NEW HOPE, with a slave boy and Jedis, royalty and sea creatures, politicians and common folk, all standing as one to enjoy their great communal triumph. This seemingly celebratory moment of rapture is both a) on a broad, galactical level, the first (and final) visual integration of all these disparate societal strata into a single frame, and b) on a personal level, an eerie portrait and foreshadowing of all the main players in the saga, those who will soon enough fiercely love and quarrel and even kill one another, unravelling and destroying forever the fragile bond they've just formed, and this single tableux provides a moment both warmly inclusive and inevitably chilling, an interplanetary society finally coming together for one shining moment before it's brutally dissolved with great force by their own greed and ambition. That's all there in this final shot (and this film), depending on long you look.

Sunday, January 25, 2015


The riff on Japanese universities: Hard to get in, easy to get out. You have to study an ungodly amout of hours during your middle and high school years to make sure that you know just enough to pass the ever-looming entrance exams, but once you're in, whoo boy. Join some clubs, show up to class, and you're pretty much set for the following four years. There's some truth to this, but there's also the reality highlighted in the current issue of AERA magazine (a Japanese newsweekly that's akin to TIME or NEWSWEEK), which is that the arc of one's life can be pretty much determined before you even enter that school. Meaning, getting into a good school equals entering an equally good company; accepted by a mediocre school, and you'll find yourself doing overtime in a ho-hum corporation; matriculating at a terrible school, and guess what? You can figure out the rest. Japan has a hiring system that's still rigidly systematic, and which classrooms you slept in as a sophomore matters quite a bit.

One of the articles in this week's AERA is titled: "Job-Searching Power Resides In The School That You Choose'. (Or something like that.) One of their graphs shows -- I think -- a listing of eighteen top universities and the leading companies to which their recent graduates entered. (Another series of graphs lists a number of jobs -- cabin attendant, lawyer, government worker, etc, -- and the particular schools whose graduates entered those chosen fields.) Corporations like Sony, Mitsubishi, JR (Japan Rail) Japan, NTT Telecom and Canon are greatly represented in almost every university's list.

The implications are pretty clear. When you go to a good-to-great school, good to great companies will hire you. Of course, this is true in Western countries as well; you have 'Harvard' or 'Yale' on your CV, and the odds are pretty good that you won't end up scooping ice cream. Yet there's still an enormous amount of other personal and professional factors in England or America or Canada that can sway a company to take a chance on one's skills or attitude. You might even email random people at the top and might even get a look if you have a bit of luck. In Japan, the hiring process is enormously rigid. Students in their third-year of university will buy their first suits and business-style skirts and begin attending numerous job fairs put on by various companies. (Unlike Western universities, in Japan, it's pretty much understood by all that most students are too busy looking for jobs in their third and fourth years to bother with all that academic stuff.) You usually choose which company you enter a year before you graduate; young Japanese are thus not just sent out into the world with a 'good luck!' and a smile the way that I was. Everything has a process, and you must follow it, period.

And part of that process is understanding that the university you choose to study at has either drastic or ecstatic implications for your future. If you go to an average school, the odds of you entering an above-average company are sort of pretty slim. This is not to say that it's a life-sentence; people do switch jobs with more and more frequency in Japan, but the system is still set up in such a way that your academic pedigree will play a large part in which place you will settle for. There are those who buck the system, becoming 'neets' ('not in education, employment or training'), or those who subsist on a diet of numerous part-time jobs, but for the great majority of ordinary people who want to earn a reasonably living in an extremely expensive country, the university that accepts you will also in some way make your life.

Of course, if this current issue of AERA is any way prophetic, the whole issue may be moot soon enough. One of the articles is about the 'robot revolution' that is occuring in Japan, with robots beginning to become more and more part of mainstream employment, not to mention domestic existence. Who needs young human workers when a robotic one works just fine?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

HENRY MEADOWS (fiction -- part VII of VII)

Listening to someone in person is mostly a matter of watching. You are undeniably hearing the words coming out of their mouth, true, but you are also gazing at that mouth, and their eyes, and the wrinkles aligned in an unsteady row at the top of their forehead, and their sudden hand motions that deflect attention away from the content of their speech. It's a game of absolutes. Both the aural and physical are unknowingly demanding your attention. Rituals are being enacted.

 Hearing what Henry had to say, it seemed as if he were disconnected from himself, his agitaed speech and its uneasy rhythms offset by the equally jittery manner in which his upper body bobbed and distracted me from his words. And always the ebony occupation of that black patch over the surface of his eye, the sight of which had once come across as so compellingly opaque, but which now seemed like nothing more than an arbitrary affectation. I knew that it wasn't; I understood that his actual eye was damaged, and that the patch was necessary to keep out unwanted dust and grime from a sky that was steadily growing more and more black with the dark bulge of pollution. Still, as the conversation wore on, as he nattered on and gesticulated with his own sense of smug glee, I knew that I was losing something. Mostly my belief in some kind of whole truth.

I wish I could tell you. For I heard of his tales of dangerous travels in backwoods India, in villages so remote that these Hindu peasants were not even aware that white people had existed; I listened to what must have a twenty-five minute monologue on the difference between the texture and durability of Swedish and Finnish ice in the darkest of winters, a distinction he discovered for himself after cracking through the surface of ponds at some point in both of those countries, almost drowning in both, a frozen death deferred. (Twice.) I watched as he grew ever more excited as he told salacious tales of professional Chinese paramours and amateur Indonesian concubines; I did my best to let his attention hold me with narratives of African riverboats hastily pieced together from the barest of twigs. How many countries he claimed to have visited (or lived in) I can't even say, but a curious effect made itself known the longer the convesation extended. With each new place spoken of, every exotic experience uttered, my mind would start to imagine, not the contents of his explorations, but instead would begin to graphically paint a portrait in my head of my own office at the department store downtown. My trusty gray stapler; my metallic pencil sharpener  firmly bolted to the right side of my desk (one of the first in Toronto, so far as I know); the slightly withered emerald plant in the corner that I suddenly remembered needed to be watered in the morning; my phone, gleaming black and expectant. Of course, I would mutter the approprtate words of sheer surprise and delight when he paused in his talk to let me utter these mandatory exclamations, but even while stating these obvious interjections, I would visualize the picture hung over the door of my office, the one featuring a fawn in the woods bathed by a sinking sun's crimson light . Trite, but moving to me. I got moved even then, while Henry Meadows rattled on. Moved to tears, almost.

"Old chap, I've said enough," Henry said, beaming, finishing the last of his beer. Smacking his lips. Slightly belching, but only slightly, as if he was self-conscious of the fact that he could have been more rude, but chose not to be -- for my benefit. He leaned back, made a grandiose decision to scan the bar and nod, and for all the world look like he had somehow come to occupy a higher residence of respectability in this place compered to these other said patrons.

And all the while, I thought: He's lying.

What a simple, likely scenario. He was lying, Henry Meadows was. He had gone nowhere. Done nothing. A dozen years is a long time, yes, but he had most probably spent it somewhere in Ontario, in small towns like Barrie or Sudbury, possibly further north in Kenora. Doing the odd mining job, or working in the kitchens of saloons, rinsing beer suds from old mugs. I can't say for certain why I believed my theory to be true, but I knew it was a sudden statement of fact, even if no verification would ever be possible. I felt like, at last, by acknowleding his own silly lies, I had grown up. Released myself from the shackles of my wondering all these years where the hell he had been. Knowing this, believing this, I could hardly ask himself to explain himself further, to justify his own life.

"What a tale," was what I said at the end. "My lord, what a tale."

"Isn't it, though?" Henry said, delighted at my own delight. "Isn't it all just the damnedest thing?"

It was.

We left the bar soon after, with a lengthy handshake and repeated backslaps. I did not see Henry Meadows again for another five years, when I happened to spot him while waiting in line one brisk autumn afternoon to see a  matinee at the Royal Theatre off of Spadina Street. My wife and the twins would be shopping downtown for most of the afternoon, and I decided that a good Hithcock picture would be quite the time killer. There was a substantial line, so I had time to let my eyes wander, and I noticed Henry right out front as the lengthy que gradually crept closer to that towering marquee.

He was sweeping leaves away at the base of the box-office window. He looked heavier than before, and sunken, as if he had lost a few inches. A sparse beard speckled his face. His clothes appeared worn and shabby. I wanted to approach him, to tap him on the shoulder, to tell him that I would never forget the afternoon he left me in the pub, nor the afternoon he returned (as I never have, at some reliably standard level of my soul), that those days had did something to my life, had aligned my own fate into a moderately modest sense of proportion, that he nevertheless still occupied a heroic slot in my heart, that I remembered the way he had reassured that sad boy on the ice when we were both children. I wanted to say all of that, and whatever more I might find.

I said nothing. I watched him finish sweeping his leaves into a black garbage bag. He picked up the sack, slung it over his right shoulder, and hurriedly rushed into the cinema. (I thought I might have glimpsed that trusty old black eyepath, but I can't be sure.) I quietly stepped out of line, muttering apologies to the strangers surrounding me, and I and walked the other way up Spadina, not looking back. I wasn't sure where I was going, but there were a few more hours left in my afternoon before I would meet up with my family, and I wanted to fill that small space, make some good use of my time.

Friday, January 23, 2015

HENRY MEADOWS (fiction -- part VI)

Certain conversations can only be recollected, never reanacted. What I mean is: We talked at that bar for a good three or four hours, over beer after beer, one Heineken and Labatt's mixing freely with the next, and I could not even begin to tell you in detail the exact words we exchanged. This not merely a matter of time; of course everything fades sixty years, especially something as ephemeral as mere words in the air tossed back and forth between two old friends, but there is also a sort of sensory protection I believe my brain is now enacting. Images from that afternoon still highlight themselves in my mind, but after our initial awkward greetings, I'm left with a sense of the conversation, but not its concrete dimensions. Stuff has been veiled.

You might well say (and you could very well be correct): "Why would you remember a few hours of talk a good six decades later?" Yet I'm not playing linguistic games here; I'm attempting to parcel out the process by which my head does its thing. When one reaches my age, the simple fact that there is any awareness of individual acts of cognition in the first place is a pure celebratory bonus. (I've always stayed sharp, but the rise to one hundred years old will dull any blade.)

What I'm getting at is something deeper, linked to memory, and feeling, and the flutery vagueness of sensation. I can offer you the scent of those beers, the way that they filled up that pub and spread like blue smoke, as if they were the most pungent and fragrant dark ales that had ever been poured. Each sip and swallow seemed to heighten what I most needed from myself at that time. Had I any artistic talent, I could literally paint you a picture of the way that the light outside the slightly-cracked window slowly shaded, then inked the small lulls of our conversational ebbs, the sun almost waiting for any pause in the chat before another tint of the night was dabbed here and there. Our talk tempered the mood of the oncoming evening and the boozily kinetic vibe of the patrons that milled all around us like frantic fish in a tank. They were letting their afterwork lives dwindle down -- smoking their cigs, ordering another round of crisp fish-and-chips, slightly soggy with oil in some spots, Jurgen's stove-style small tic -- but our words seemed to encapsulate Henry Meadows and myself in our mutual pod of the past. I can no longer hear what someone says on the other side of a room, but I can still hear the bouncy sound of the clunky bar radio's big band music floating through the gaps in that closed-in small crowd, all those high and low notes somehow circumventing the bubble of the table we shared. It was like the universe had decided to augment the sensory aspects of this place and this time, because the cosmos somehow sensed other speaking opportunities would lag, or vanish altogether.

What I'm saying is: Conversation is a substitue for communion. I'm not sure that Henry Meadows and me ever achieved such a grandiose state, but I am certain that my mind has attempted to codify and preserve its visual essence and tilt, and I suspect that the words we bounced back and forth have receded with time to somehow compensate for this extravagance of compressed emotion and mood. I'm left with the essence of the essence, which is not diluted nostalgia per se, but something darker and denser and altogether more sad. I have to fall back on the depressingly tacticle reconstruction of words to reassemble what happened next. Mood might not be enough. Such a modified attempt to convey what we said will not offer up any kind of real truth, but it might be something like it.  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

HENRY MEADOWS (fiction -- part V)

"I thought I'd find you here," Henry said, that wry grin of a badge still intact and shining.

I should have shot back a witty retort, but such perfectly-timed lines of rebuttal don't exist in real life. (That is to say, they quite possibly could, but surely not in any of the interior lives that I've lived up to this late point in my place.) The very act of speaking itself seemed an unreasonable goal. My mouth was connected to my face, and my tongue inhabited a space in the reasonable vicinity of my assembled teeth and two lips, but somehow synching these disparate parts for an audible purpose was a task that I couldn't even begin to approach. In front of me was a symbol of something I thought I had lost -- what you could call a facsimile of a life that might have been mine, had I stepped out of myself at some point in my past, and not embraced what I later realized was my present, period. Instead of my friend, I keenly understood that I was looking at a mirror, darkly; I saw my own status as a man in the wearied glare that he gave as he sized me up.

What could he see? Nothing but the steadily-approaching-mid-thirties man that I was, one who had spent the previous dozen years or so building a settled life of some sort. Embedded in a city so eager to let the war find its space in the cozy history of Confederation that something vital in my cranium had been psychically buried along with that whole bloody era. A kind of resilience, perhaps, sunk in a grave of good will. A boldness, deferred. 'We'll get back to that bravado in a bit, but first let's not raise too much of a fuss' -- isn't that the meekly Canadian way? Or maybe I was merely reading into Toronto what I most feared in myself -- an acquiescence to civility, and all its mundane minutia. The quivering need to solidly plant myself in this town had allowed me to steadily rise in the hierarchy of the Eaton's Department store chain.

No lack of ambition in this chap, right?

That was my line as I nightly lay in bed before the dark became deep. It was what I silently whispered to my soul when the lights were all out. My own monologue, mute in its shout. Henry Meadows had escaped into oblivion, but I would soon be managing the whole of Men's Wear at both the flagship store on Bloor Street and the new John Street location. Take that, globetrotting ambition! One can find contentment in tasks that allow us to refine and mature. Henry Meadows can take a flying fuck.

Oh, if only I had said that to him! I was regretting my cowardice, but I also understood that it would be futile and absurd. I uttered nothing of the sort, of course, because this mysteriously tactile and accusatory mirror-image of myself quickly shattered in my vision, and I was left with my friend, Henry, now a middle-aged man like myself, and boy did it show.

The patch was still there, and in its brightly black sheen I could almost believe that it was the same one he had worn on the day he had left, were it not for the spider-web of wrinkles that stretched out from its edges and crawled down his cheeks. His entire face seemed to have slightly cracked, as if it had merely been an egg shell that had shattered at life's every tap. His chin was scraggly, his build a little more bulky, yet despite all his newfold creases, he was still nothing but Henry Meadows, and the smile that he wielded with such force let me know that he knew it too. He had left, but not divided.

"I don't know what to say," was what I finally said.

"Ha!" Henry spat, more of a bark than a laugh. "Good call, my old friend. What can you say at a moment like this? At the very least, order me a beer, and that will be fine for a start. I'm pretty parched."

I did as I was told, he the schoolmaster, and I his pupil. I raised the index finger of my left hand, waggled it a bit, cleared my throat with a cough, all in an almost-vain attempt to get the minimal attention required of Jurgen, the portly German barkeep, who seemed to reluctant to let his gaze wander from his folded-up newspaper that lay splayed on the counter from morning to night. He gave me the briefest of glances as I pointed at my beer, motioning for another, and I wondered where the waitress was, and why he had hired her if she would not come around.

"You look well," I said, which is what you say to everyone who you've not seen for some time.

"'Well' is a relative term," Henry said, taking off his scruffy black coat and letting it slide to his side. "I'm broke, and weary, and shell-shocked to be sitting across from you in a bar, but I suppose, compared to many, maybe most, I could even be called, shall we say, exemplary."

He laughed at that, and so did I, a genuine chuckle that felt authentic and welcome. The past and the present had suddenly tied themselves into a finite loop of completion with our mutual laugh of great cheer, as if a warning shot had been fired, an icy puddle dissolved, and I felt less than enamored with the thought of continuing to torture my spirit, wallowing in my life's lacks. We were two old friends about to share a drink, that's all, and our lives had been leading to this moment of plainspoken kinship. I told myself that our experiences were compatible, perhaps even adjacent. And I've been repeating this to myself for a good many years.   


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

HENRY MEADOWS (fiction -- part iv)

Nostalgia is almost always a sly form of disdain.

I can confidently state this -- with such blunt assurance -- because I am unspeakably old. Disgustingly old. Creeping fairly confidently up to a hundred, and at this age, one is filled up with memories, the present moment, unweighted, and the memories in the end do nothing but win. 'No contest', as folks much younger than me used to say back in the day. I'm not pronouncing that the past is better; I'm not even implying that I would rather be back there, permanently. (I'm not a lunatic.) I'm simply asserting that there is no force like the past, that ever resurgent, perpetually toxic tonic of lore. It will always come back, and will never lie down.

Of course, I'd always had distinctly declamatory thoughts like this, even as a young man, perhaps even as a boy, so it's no surrpise that I was thinking about something similarly melodramatic and portentuous the day that Henry came back into our lives with all the casual ease and bravado of a thirsty traveling cowboy shoving his way through the swinging doors of an old-time saloon. (Or at least the movie version of such a speakeasy.)

If this were a story, you would not believe the next detail, nor would I expect you to, but since there's nothing fanciful going on here (at least not on the conscious level; I am, bear with me, almost one hundred, after all, and the mind does tend to fold in on itself when you hover that close to a number so vast), you can rest assured that what happened is true, or at least as true as I can make it. He returned, is what I'm saying. He returned, to the same bar where I had seen him last a dozen years in the past. He returned, and I was in the same spot, drinking quite the same drink. He returned.

Just before he shuffled his way over to my table, I had been thinking about an image from my past, (still in my thirities, yet obsessed with what I had once been), brooding on its broad dimensions, on  a hazy picture of light, one that seemed to consist of disparate, fizzling sensations that built up in my chest and seemed to starburst themselves through the rest of my body, from torso to toes. It's odd to imagine an image as such being mostly bright light and shattered nerve-endings, but as the decades have dwindled, that seems about right. We feel before we see, and we remember what we sense, and in that moment a pure flash of childhood decided to make itself bright.

There was a darkness, enclosed and binding. My finger felt around the thin wedge of a hole. The inside of a hole. The boundaries of the hole. There was just enough space to squeeze one of my nails straight on in to the left. I somehow understood (no more than two, possibly three at the most) that if I lingered too long, something bad might ignite. I knew (then) that sensing was much more than seeing, and I understood (in the bar) that this could very well have been the first memory of my life.

A sense, almost erotic, of a current leaching itself out of the hole on its way to my heart. Briskly blue and diverging. I tried to poke my finger closer, further, into that hole, until my finger was knuckle-deep, and then the feeling, that static sqawl of electricty that orgasmed into pure joy, was offset by a shriek, an aural assault, and I realized that my mother was pulling my digit out of the white wall's socket, and it wasn't the electric buzz by itself that ignited my screams, but my mother's wail of panic, her purehearted moan.

Suddenly, I was no longer 'feeling' or 'sensing', but allowing my sight to seize hold, everything visible, my blind instincts abandoned, and I belatedly saw it as just a wall, a bad hole in the wall, and the smack of her palm on my cheek shook my gums like green jelly dessert, and it was thinking this thought, this after-three-beers blend of wistful and tragic spare pyschic parts, as I wondered if that childhood  moment was the exact one when the pain shifted from the sting of my face to the imminent sludge of my foot, soon to be useless and void, when Henry Meadows  slumped across the table from me with a sigh, the simple act of his presence popping my reverie, my mental splatter its wake, like a pimple that's burst after extended build-up.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

HENRY MEADOWS (Fiction -- part iii)

Before I go any further, I feel that I must bring to your attention a certain incident from our past, one of those dazzling childhood afternoons that one tends to forget for what seems like decades, until the moment suddenly emerges, intact and pristine. Only a few months ago did I suddenly understand how it must have impacted my life. Absurd! To think that momentous occasions can recede like the tide, but I suppose that's what life's steady accumulations tend to quietly erode, all those fragile incidents smothered by the years steady push.  Getting older simply means that some things have go. Yet they often straggle back, as this memory did.

We were playing hockey one particularly brittle February morning on the frozen pond that abutted our school. It must have been a weekend, because in my recollection we had skated all day, loopy with the kind of winter exhausition which comes from hours of stop-and-start skating, and I'm quite sure that we would have continued well into dusk had not the subsequent 'incident' occurred precisely as it did.

Probably seven or eight of us, three or four to a team, plus goalies in their nets. I can't recall all of the boys who were with us, but there was myself, Henry (of course), Thomas Malton (who occupies centre ice of this story, even though he was a goaltender in real life), the Kepowski twins, Wallace and Wendell, and a few of our other casual friends from grade school who had joined us for the day of good sport. (This is a convenient way for me to acknowledge that their names no longer ring any bells in the chapel of my head. They remain faceless, although I can remember the faded red and green knitted toques that they wore, along with certain whistles and laughs that wheedled out from their mouths. Time, you sly bastard!)

The important point, what I need you to know, is that Henry stood up for a boy. I wish I could recollect his name. I can't believe I've forgotten it, but there it is. A nameless boy, given dignity, is what I am left with, and what I'm passing on to you.

There was some kind of a skirmish -- two boys fighting over the puck, a quick fall to the ice, a knee banged-up and bloodied. (Or so I assumed) I watched it all from behind the (imaginary) blue line of my own defensive zone; my role was to stay back and protect. Leave it to Henry, the goalie, the ultimate stopper of force, to one-up my own part.

I recall hearing his akward skates glide from behind as they cut through the ice. (In those days, all our skates were little more than hardened felt fastened to dull sticks of steel, but Henry's were especially crude, little more than lengthened rocks bound together.) He might have said something to me. I can't be sure. Yet as he breezed by me, the freezing afternoon wind seemed to sway just a tad -- as if it, like me, paused in its lazy arc of motion to allow the silence its space. In that audible gap, he might have even said what he planned to say to the boy. Nothing filled, it though, and the silence kept its own swell.

The boy was bent over at centre ice (or as rougly 'centre' as one can get in the uneven breadth of a pond). His tormentor, or bully, or perhaps equal adversary was skating back to the other end, welcomed by chuckling comrades. I slowly made my way up to where Henry was kneeling beside the stomach-clutching kid. In the fastly-spreading dusk, it was hard to make out just what the fuss was about, but I figured he had been probably sucker-punched, and was clutching his gut in a vain effort to gather his wind.

I could have skated closer. I might have clearly heard what Henry was saying. I should have been a bit brave, or at least more of a snoop. I realized that my assumption was wrong, that the boy had not been brutalized, that the source of such mockery was the black stain that rapidly spread across the base of his crotch. His blue jeans, a luxury in those days, almost an anomaly in that part of Ontario, were wetly ebony at their vee.

Is there any shame so intense as that possessed by a child who has pissed his pants before others? The whole moment lastled less than a minute. In retrospect (do we have anything else in life but retrospect?) it was, to be sure, one boy helping another to feel like less of a chump. Something far down inside me, however, underwent a small shift of upheaval. The first few stars were peeking through the soot-grey blanket of sky, and the soon-to-be-night seemed to ink its way into the air, and I could smell the sickeningly sweet stink of his urine, lifted then settled, as scents often do. I looked at them both, Henry and the boy, for a short snatch of time, but I felt them become older, and myself gain a foothold on what came to be known as the ladder of 'adolescence'. The moment seemed to expand, contract. Everything before felt like 'childhood', and everything after 'adult-like'. The way a cola can will explode when shaken for too long and too hard -- that was now my own sense of what humans might be. It was as if the notion of compassion extended its grace, allowed itself to be seen.

And then it was over, and the game resumed, and the image of the boy -- his face, his build, the shade of his skaes -- faded even before the night had come to a close. Decades later, all that's left is the smell of his urine, so horrific in its purity, its exposed humiliation. Being truthful, I can't even be sure which image is real from that day, and which one is a sketch, but the stink of his piss, I can tell you that was there. I'd forgotten about this day for years ever after, but now I can remember Charlie skating back to his net, giving me one of his winks with that one good eye of his, the other blind one even then clothed in a black matted square. I don't know if the urine-smattered boy left the ice right away, or after some time. I do know that something brave had been done, miniature yet mature. The night got colder, and darker, practically inviting even more accidents and misfortune, but we kept playing hockey until we couldn't see where the hands on our sticks matched up with the wood.

Monday, January 19, 2015

HENRY MEADOWS -- (Fiction -- Part II)

I can safely assume that none of you reading this are as deathly old as myself, so my memories of those heady days after the end of the war are not likely to be challenged, but I often wonder if I can trust my own feverish sense of that time, and its heady afterglow.

For days, even weeks -- dare I say months? -- after everything had finally settled and dispersed like a fire slowly burning down to its embers, most of us in my memory walked around in a daze of delight. I would see strangers on the streets of Toronto, and the two of us would share a goofy smile as if we were old chums; other times, an acquaintance from back home in Kingston -- Morgan Thomas, say, that tall goofy tall lad whose slap-shot was so pure, or the butcher's boy, Crandall Fitzpatrick, he of the family that smelled always of pork -- might rush across the road simply to show me that he was still alive, back from the front, all limbs intact, and I would be delighted by his eagerness to show off, his humble bravado. I never felt any animosity from these friends for my own lack of engagement in the battlefields of Europe. It was enough that the whole bloody mess was done. Time to move on, and move on we did.

Even so, as the years have dragged on, often overstaying their welcome, I've accepted that the basic force of memory itself cannot be contained, and I'm often awakened before dawn by stray moments from my past that refuse to fit into the cozy narrative I've written for myself. Was I truly so ecstatic as everyone else all around me? I would say yes, I was -- but I need to qualify that assertion with an acknowledgement of a certain gap in my side.

In the few years after my good friend Henry Meadows left, and long before he returned, I admit that thoughts of his travels occupied my mind more than the war movement itself. This is a rather shameful thing to admit, even now, even since all (and I do mean all) my close friends and family have long since passed on, so any embarrassment I wield is now pretty much moot. When he was gone, I tried to shove the absence of his presence into a shoebox in my mind. Sometimes I succeeded, although the days at the factory were longer without his bad jokes, and his affected-but-amusing ways of expression. Within a few months, it wasn't his daily companionship that I missed, but rather the knowledge that we were exiles together. Other men at the factory were, quite obviously, not 'soldiers' per se, so I was certainly amongst a certain kind of civilian brethren, but I always felt as if he and I were separated from the others by way of our detachment from the whole dreary scene. We were, of course, secretly disgusted to be in some ways too feeble to physically defend our embattled northern land, but our mutual code of compliance meant that we had a means of reconciling this reality by the elevation of ourselves to a higher mode of expression. This is all rather self-aggrandizing, I know, but what I'm saying is this: I realized, when he left, and when he didn't come back, that I was, in fact, now and forever, as we all are, in this life utterly alone, despite my youthful pretensions of solidarity and a kind of communal endurance.

This feeling, vague but persistent, stayed with me, almost embedded itself, even as I married Joyce and had the twins soon after. We were busy with the children and work and watching Toronto become something quite other than what it had once represented. I could feel the Dominion itself come alive, shake off its fusty old coat, letting the dust and mothballs descend on the mouthy land just to the south. My memories of those years are filled with children being bathed in the warm splashes of a tub not big enough for their mirth, and Joyce's own laughter decorating our house with an almost ornamental reality, and my new job as a salesman at the Eaton's department store downtown providing a quiet, daily reprieve to what had been the constant, clanky noise of the factory, its unending smoky drudge.

These are good pictures, vital snapshots, ones I mentally take out and fiddle with more than you would care to know, but I do have to admit that throughout these good years of growth it was the space left by Henry Meadows that refused to be filled. He was now out there; he had left before the war, and remained absent after. As I settled into my life of grateful domesticity, I realized that there was another life that I was not living, and it was Henry himself who was exploring it for me. His was not some grand escape, but more of a time-out, one that allowed him to become almost legendary in my head, a fable taken from life, and although I knew he would one day come back -- how could he not? -- I also understood that he had entered other realms of living that would probably render him almost unrecognizable.

Only now, with the good grace of time, can I acknowledge the tiny thorn that drew blood in my head. The whole country wanted to shove the past into a big box and drop it right into the lake. So many dead, so best just to let that whole era of pain quickly sink into sludge.  Throughout those years, pre-war and after, I lived, worked, ate Sunday dinner, read THE STAR in my armchair that I felt I had earned, and that whole past life with my friend came to resemble what you could call a fond dream. I told myself that I had not changed all that much, even though he surely had, and I pretended that a certain anxiety that I felt was simply indigestion. Sometimes I would shoot up in bed after glimpsing Henry in my dream take off that black badge over his eye, and the light from his pupil was enough to blind me for good. Upon waking, I would shake it off, tell Joyce to roll over and sleep and don't make such a fuss, it was just a bad dream, get your rest and be still, but I also knew that the longer Henry Meadows stayed away, the less I could feel that the war was all done. What was he doing? Where had he gone? When could I know what his adventure had wrought for us all?  

Sunday, January 18, 2015

HENRY MEADOWS (Fiction -- Part I)

In the early spring of 1942, right around the time when the last remaining snowpatches of a very grey winter had finally decided to melt and give mercy to us all, a young man who went by the name of Henry Meadows decided that it was probably time to just pack up and go. He wasn't sure where. Nor for how long. A great change was in order, even if his life was already, despite its ostensible stability, functionally adrift. That there could be a focus, even an identifiable pattern, in the decision to unravel his own comfortable means of existence puzzled him, but he had long before then realized that he could reliably trust his own unconventional approach to the notion of pursuit. I had always followed his lead, but this was one voyage he would embark on alone. (I've never been good at leaving behind maps.)

So far, such seemingly illogical, one could even say haphazard reasoning had allowed him to reasonably stay put while the world all around him continued on its mad stab. I spent many an afternoon with him drinking our blandless drafts at the various pubs which used to drearily line Yonge Street in a sad staggered row, their shapeless brown forms like the perfunctory beer-blots from our fathers that stained the kitchen table-cloths of our youth, and I would gradually understood over time that there was something beyond our mutual alienation from society that had motivated his flight. While our fellow childhood friends were off fighting for Queen and country overseas, the two of us -- he blighted by the abscence of his right eye, myself crippled and inert by a left leg that was bum right from birth -- did our pathetic best for the war effort by making munitions in a small factory at the end of John Street, We daily felt a mixture of relief and panic, thankful that were were not getting blown up in some remote Italian outpost, and disgust that something inside of us was palpably shrinking, a vital part of our youthful bravado slowly chipped away as we heard secondhand that another acquaintance had passed. While we regularly enjoyed bratwurst sandwiches from Shopsy's for lunch, extra mustard a must. So when he told me over our ritual brews one April afternoon that he had decided to leave, I wasn't surprised, merely overly cautious in how I should process my response.

"This has been some time coming," I said.

He nodded, smiling. Took a long chug of his beer, and allowed the froth of his beer to give him the kind of full moustache he could never grow on his own.

"I think the factory has gotten all it can out of my ex-per-tise," he said.

"And who's going to assemble all the jeep engine parts?" I asked. "Harold? Ronald?  You trust them with the future of Canadian military transportation?"

"My boy," he said, which was his pet phrase for me, and since he always said it so jocular, I didn't mind its banality. "I don't trust them, nor the Canadian military, nor trans-por-tation itself. I just trust myself, and you should, too."

"Implicitly," I said. "You were meant for more than the assembly line."

He wiped away his moustache with the sleeve of his shirt, suddenly looking quite serious, the same intense way that he did when we played hockey on the frozen pond behind our schoolhouse when we were mere lads, him always as goalie, in charge of stopping all the hard pucks tbat aligned against us.

"None of us are meant for anything," he said, shutting the lid of his one good eye. The other was covered by a black patch with a strap that crept up to his ear.

"Which means?"

"Which means," he went on, "that Abel Crawford is dead as of last, when was it, Thursday, I believe, while we sit here and drink, all warm and content. His head blown right off, while we burp and digest. You prove to me that there's a meaning in that equation, and the next one's one me."

I said nothing. That one of our public school chums had been killed in battle was a familiar form of news, but Henry's current reaction was not. It had something palpably sullen to its cast.

"So you are off to search for meaning in a world that you've just identified as meaningless," I finally said, after what I felt was an appropriately long pause. (Henry did tend to get irritated if you didn't let his statements breathe.)

"Precisely," he said, and this time his smile was back, that smile which always bordered on the brink of a friendly sort of menace. He rubbed his hands together, took a quick look around the bar, and looked all the while as if he had unearthed some logic to life that only he understood.

"Will you let me in on your 'plan', if I can call it that?"

"I will let you know shortly," he said. "In-ter-mittently, I should add. Until then, I need to tell you something important. Will you listen to something important?"

"Of course," I said."

He leaned in across the table towards me, and I had to consciously try not to stare at his black patch. The stink of the bar, its smoky afterglow, felt very real and primal to me at that moment. I understood that, outside, mere steps away, the sun had begun to shine, and the grass of the parks had begun to flow with the aftermelt of old snow, but in here, all was glum and tainted.

"If I don't come back, I want you to know that my ambition was real. Promise me you'll remember that. My am-bi-tion was real."

Enunciating his main points, an old childhood tic that had become almost rooted to his character with each passing year. It had always amused me, then irritated me, and now seemed almost ominous in its ridiculous portent.

"And your ambition is what, Henry?"

He smiled.

"You'll hear soon enough," he said, then slightly slapped me on the cheek, as one would after shaving. He stood up, pulled on his coat, gave a last little nod, then hurriedly walked out the door and into his life. I knew that he would be gone for quite some time, but I didn't have any clue as to his ultimate intent or motive, and I would not see him again for almost twelve years. In all that time, it seems like I did nothing but wait.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


Magazines like RUNNER'S WORLD never write about spit. How to hork it, properly. The best way to get the perfect arc so that your own saliva doesn't get whipped by the wind and end up lashing your cheek. Getting enough built up in your mouth so that you can get it rid of it all without a refill in your throat only one minute later. The first few races I ran in high school ended with people pointing a finger at me, pointing out with some scorn that something was up with my face: "That's gross, bud. Better wipe that shit." One of the the first lessons I had that most of life's necessary education consists solely of stuff that nobody ever puts down in print.

You spit all the time when you run. In winter, it's a cold, half-way frozen glob of mucus that's icy-smooth and tactile; in summer, its' consistency has a tight cozy warmth that you almost don't want to let go. I almost look it that glop as an offering of sorts -- a rich, up-from-within expression of all that I've exerted. This part of me is getting out, via my throat or my nostril (the nose-snort being another example of a technique one must refine to prevent endless stoppage), and it's a nasty part of me, to be sure, but it's also an earned part, a part of myself that feels like an exit and reward for what I put my whole  body through, a minor gift-bag whose taker is nature, the pavement or the trails whose grass over the years has formed its own winding path. Nowhere else, other than on a run, can you spit and get away with it, literally, because you're running beyond your own muck left behind. In my most ridiculous moments, I have images of my stuff mingling with rich soil and dark mud and budding plants rising up. One of the most biologically pure and dense factions of my cells has added its own biological concoction to the blend of our earth. Those same cells that allow me to spell, and divide, and watch a sunset's crimson fall, all occasionally mingle towards a future mosaic of life.

I'm sorry if you find all this a bit much. (I do, too.) Yet nobody talks about the snot and saliva we discard on our jogs. There must be gallons of this shit on the earth every day of the year. In these delicate moments of maintenace, I feel distinctly human and base. High-falutin', perhaps, considering we're talking about spit, yet also low and animal-like, a perfect blend of human contradictions. Maintaining etiquette in such matters while waxing philosophical is an uneasy alliance. Kind of inane, I know. Yet somebody's gotta say it. And as long as I remember to wipe my face now and then, I should be good to go.

Friday, January 16, 2015


There used to be this dude who worked behind the counter at Prime Pics Video in the Lakeshore Street mall on the corner of Geneva Street, the same tiny plaza that housed the big A&P supermarket and a Pete's Pizza to boot. One-stop shopping, that place. He was probably in his mid-thirties, with Robocop-glasses and a Billy Ray Cyrus mullet going on in the back. Too-tight Polo t-shirts for his slightly-pudgy frame. Always seemed a bit jittery, providing a running commentary to the, in retrospect, not-so-complicated process of checking out a video: "Okay, if I could just get your card...very good...okay...and your password...super...no tape protection for you today?...okay...that's fine...everything's great...you're looking good..."

At some point my buddy, whose friend's family owned the joint, told me that the guy was fired because he stole some money out of the till to feed his coke habit. (Or so said the rumor.)  He seemed like a nice enough fellow. Didn't appear like the type who was doing hard drugs. (Not to my twelve-year old eyes, anyways, but then again my eyes have never been good.) And maybe he was a little bit too old to be working at a video store, but I'd never thought about that little fact much either, because money and adults were both mysteries back then that didn't form a path in my head. Maybe he sticks in my brain because he was the first person I even casually knew from a distance who had had some kind of tough break. Now everybody seems broken to me.

He's probably out there now, twenty-six-or-seven years later, somehow getting through life, like we all sometimes do. Or maybe he passed away years ago, his grave right at this moment covered in snow somewhere down in St.Kitts.I haven't thought about him much over the past quarter-century, because why would I? He was just a local guy who rented me some movies. Yet I suddenly woke up this morning and hoped he was doing all right.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


Twenty years on, one of the most remarkable aspects of PULP FICTION's legacy is that remains pretty much the only movie that was universally acclaimed by both the snootiest of cineastes and the most non-discerning beer-drinker. Broadly speaking, all social, racial and economic classes watched that flick, loved that flick, sometimes for the same reasons, often for others. You could appreciate its storytelling quirks on a purely cinematic level, but also investigate how it was upending recent filmic conventions. It was both high and low, crass and cultured. There was no box in its overall square that it could not in some way check solely by itself.

That's both enormously gratifying when it comes to looking at 'art', but also somehow saddening when applied to our lives. I keep thinking: Is there a single person or concept in life that could take what PULP FICTION accomplished with film and transfer it over to this plane of existence?

Meaning, there must be a method by which we can somehow attempt to satisfy every end. Not to be 'all things to all people', or a two-faced brown-noser; as Christopher Hitchens said when speaking of Clinton: "He who is charming to everyone cares about nobody in particular." I'm trying here to get to a more ethereal concept of life that we can nevertheless somehow ground in ourselves. There are political candidates who change how they speak when they talk to different groups, and marketers who try to hit every demographic, but these are practical methods enforced to favor their own craven goals, and I'm trying to hypothesize if there is some kind of way to consolidate all aspects of life into one total package that results in the end being more than sum and hum of its starts? Not religiously; not scientifically, even. Something that over time becomes self-evident.

Art looks for cohesion designed to produce an effect. PULP FICTION assembled a motley convergence of parts that produced an entertainment machine which most of the world's culture as a whole loved to watch rev and burn. Life, with its religious and political and social confusion, usually lacks any kind of unifying crescendo.

Who knows? Perhaps life as a force is building towards something. Maybe the past hundred thousand years of random evolutionary development are merely the first few funny scenes in a Tarantino-like opus. The high and the low, the funny and the grotesque, the mundane and the mythical -- all of humanity's past has been awkwardly mashed together in a prelude which has led up to now. There could be a culmination coming. Reversals of plot and expectations, just like PULP FICTION did.

Life on this earth might just be gearing up for a 'furious vengeance'-style speech like Samuel Jackson gave at the beginning and end of the film, only the real words that we say would not be tinged with the threat of violence on the way. Who would give such a speech, whether it's myself or yourself or the planet as a whole, I can't say. Probably not even verbalized. Maybe it will be in our actions. A kind of group physical cohesion that leads back to the solitary mental space in our skulls, a mutually-knit sweater we spot in the rag-tag assembly of insects and animals and peoples and countries that all seem to think they're separate and distinct. Perhaps we'll wake up one day and realize that the epic movie of our mutual co-existence can tangibly work on all different planes of reality. Everybody getting something out of it. Casualties for some, to be sure, but also redemption for a few. On the whole, as the credits roll, a deeply philosophical experience, yet with a retro surf-soundtrack kind of vibe. Life as an inflated Tarantino concoction that contains something for us all. I could see myself digging that.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

THE REVENGE OF GEOGRAPHY (and its minor gifts)

THE REVENGE OF GEOGRAPHY, a non-fiction book by Robert D.Kaplan, looks at the shaping of history by examining  the very contour and location of the lands in which it transpires, arguing that it's not only 'great men' or common folk that turn the tides of fate, but also the (mostly) accidental geographical placement of where they grow up. 'We are where we live', I guess you could say, and I wonder if it might be possible to take this macro-historical-endeavor and sharpen the lens of its focus onto our own lives.

For most of us, the first eighteen-or-so years doesn't give us much choice as to where we plant our feet. Family takes care of that. I got stuck with Canada. (Not a bad place to be moored.) Abroad, mention the word 'Canada' and the response is usually a variation of 'safe' or 'beautiful nature'. Can't hurt to have a reputation to life that. And probably pretty spot-on. Looking back on my own life, it is often this sense of 'nature' that informs my memories -- walking to the bus stop while fluffy snow flakes fall on a head still shower-wet; the first honey sunshine of spring cutting through the quad and into my dorm; my feet hot on the boards of a dock as I hurry to jump into the cool lake of summer; autumn cross-country trails, leaves falling over uneven ground that I quickly trod. Thinking this way, can I even begin to separate myself from the axis of that place?

Even now, when I think of where I've lived, whether it's St.Catharines or Toronto, Manotick or Yokohama, Baguio or Fujisawa, the aural-oddness of the names contrasted so closely with each other seems to represent not only their linguistic divisions, but also some crucial aspect of their physical selves. In my head is a bewildering collision of drizzling snow and typhoon-level rain, Mekong sunshine and mountain-night shadows, the dripping sweat of Japanese summer and Ontario winter's frozen snot. Did I become one with these places, or did they use and abuse me with indifferent natural glee?

Such a hostile title -- THE REVENGE OF GEOGRAPHY. Makes sense, though. At least for a book about the cruelty of historical trends,where people are just fragile pawns in the topography that traps them. Can it apply to us, though? Individuals, not nations? Are we basically fucked, depending on where we are born? I'm not talking in terms of family or jobs, friendship or love, because we can get those, earn those, but in both the broader and more linear sense.

The old saying says: "Wherever you go, there you are." Observably true. Yet wherever we land, something else holds us up. Weather and grass and concrete all amix. We usually pass through it, endure, snapshot it and post it. How the natural concoction of elements creeps into our cells and enlightens our aims is something I'd like to take more and more note of as I continue to arrive.      

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


 “Ennui is the condition of not fulfilling our potentialities; remorse of not having fulfilled them; anxiety of not being able to fulfill them, — but what are they?...If there were no parents to make us try to be good, no schoolmasters to persuade us to learn, no one who wished to be proud of us, would not we be happier? What monster first slipped in the idea of progress? Who destroyed our conception of happiness with these growing-pains?”

                                                                                                                                                               -- Cyrill Connolly

At one point in the film adaptation of David Mamet's play EDMOND William Macey states: "Nobody's keeping score, and nobody cares." This is meant (I'm assuming) as an existentially blunt comment on the complete and utter indifference of modern society to one's own puny angst. On that level, Mamet was right, but looked at another way, everybody cares. Your entire family is keeping track of what you are doing, wondering if your progress (or lack thereof) might mean that they could have fucked-up in the way you were raised. Your friends are quietly, obsessively noting what neighbourhood you live in, and how much money you make in comparison to them. Your co-workers are casually checking your moods to see if you're in synch with their own moderate level of unease. We're all in this together, as the saying goes, but that's not always a nice motto.

This notion of competition is built-up in our systems of life from the day we are born. How soon do you learn to walk, talk; when do you leave your diapers behind and master the potty; at what stage do you no longer need the nightlight, is it too soon or just right. Then school starts, and whoo-boy. if it's not the classroom, it's the playing field, and if it's not the soccer pitch, it's the brass band, and for the next twelve years it's a mad mental race to see who's better than who in all the dumb ways that we measure progress in our lives. 

I used to come home from school soon after I started kindergarten and tell my mum that everything at Pine Grove was going just fine; only a phone call from the teacher blew my careful cover to bits. I guess I did nothing but sit in the corner and cry (although I don't remember this), so my parents racked up a system of star-points-on-a-chart, wherein if I did certain activities, I'd get a nice blue sticker, and once a certain number was reached, I could nab a STAR WARS action-figure. (That I remember, because I eventually ended up with the Han-Solo-in-Hoth-arctic-gear.) Lesson I Learned: bribery works wonders to make a system bearable.

In adult life, the bribery is our salary, and everything else that we need to make our lives hum and flow. Yet: What do we need, exactly? A nice house? A good car? A better house? A snazzier car? The envy of our peers, whom we don't even like? 

Life seems to be set-up as an obstacle course solely designed so we can validate ourselves. Justify our lives. Is it all just a grossly inflated version of Hollywood's Golden Globes? Here you have an organization composed of fifty-odd foreign journalists, the views of which nobody in the entertainment industry actually respects in the least, yet because the ceremony itself serves as a harbinger of what the Oscars might enable to their careers and their pockets, people get actively, genuinely excited about the whole banal thing. It affects salaries, careers, lives, to the point where the stars are teary-eyed and choked up because they got an award from a group that they not-so-secretly don't even consider to be all that genuine or legit. If entire business (and familial, and societal) entities and structures are set up with cheese as the goal at the end of the maze, does it matter in the end who put the cheese there to begin with? It's still what we're supposed to be after, so of course we're exalted when we get to it first.

Yet where would we be without this urge to progress? Didn't humanity as a force evolve in the first place because some humble life form slipped out of the water and made its way onto land? Without desire, there is no hunger, literally and figuratively. Perhaps it's in-built in our genes, this need to constantly, relentlessly test ourselves against others, in sports and the arts, among family and friends. If you do tune in and drop out, embracing nature as it is, look out. You're going to be getting some pretty stray looks from those all around you. (Don't you get that life is supposed to be a never-ending slog to prove our own worth via jobs and 'success' and zeros in the bank account?)

What else can we do, though? This urge to better ourselves is often humane and just; it elevates families, brings people up and out of poverty. Drive can quite often lead us somewhere actual. The competitive gene might be crucial to keeping us fed and healthy, for without it we might just sloth around on the beach and let ourselves starve to death. 

Even so, I circle back to when we used to give each other Valentine's Day cards back in primary school, and everybody would figure out who got what and from whom, and you'd tally your score, and at the end of the day you kind of knew where you stood. We were, what, seven, eight years old? Already learning about life's means of affection. Unconsciously (or overtly, with a sulk) wondering what we might do to up our own ante, so that next year's batch of folded red hearts on stapled-looseleaf would carry a little more weight in our knapsacks on the long walk back home.    

Monday, January 12, 2015


The publication of an English translation of Japanese author Minae Mizumura's book THE FALL OF LANGUAGE IN THE AGE OF ENGLISH higlights a trend in recent Japanese non-fiction, a warning shot fired over the supposed worldwide supremacy of the English language, but it also brings to mind how important language is not only to narrative, but also to our most private and personal sense of ourselves and our place.

I haven't read the book, but Mizumura, a novelist and academic, seems to be arguing we should be vigilant in protecting our own native tongues against English's constant spread -- not only for the sake of preserving one's own language itself, but also for purely artistic and aesthetic purposes. Her caution is replicated, to varying degrees, and for different purposes, in bookstores across Japan.

I've got two paperback Japanese books that I hope to start reading fairly soon, both proclaiming the importance of the Japanese language to Japan; one's title translates as 'The Theory Of Why English Conversation Is Unnecessary'(more or less), while the other proclaims 'In The Japanese Language, Our Good Fortune Lives (according to my undoubtedly clumsy translation).

From my casual, completely non-scientific browsing through bookstores over the past couple of years, these types of pro-Japanese-language (or anti-English education) books seem to be steadily on the rise, probably because of the fact that a) the ability of the Japanese to speak conversational English remains abysmally low, especially when compared to their Asian counterparts in nearby countries, and b) the Japanese government is steadily increasing the frequency and age at which young students first encounter English in school. (Although, even with these improvements, there is no real effort to close the linguistic gap with Korea or China.) Japan is falling behind in English, steadily, almost intentionally, and more than a few Japanese scholars think all that's just fine.

Why are so many so afraid of English over here? Ostensibly, one reason might be that the Japanese language is so difficult to learn that children should get a good grasp of its basics before moving on to other separate tongues. This is true, but only to an extent; children in general are remarkably, even bewilderingly good at learning two languages simultaneously (while also chewing gum at the same time), and any adjustments to the Japanese school schedule would not significantly detract from Japanese language education.

There is also a corporate, strictly-business-related consideration in avoiding anything English. Yes, the world is getting smaller, and yes, more and more companies are globalized, which makes English fluency paramount to international success, but Japan is also so strong as an economic power (currently number three in the world) that the urgent need to radically transform their way of conducting trade and commerce is not exactly keenly felt.

Another, seemingly minor but actually sort-of-significant explanation for the less-than-stellar enthusiasm for English in some quarters is a purely practical one -- namely, who's going to teach it? I mean, REALLY teach it. It's now beginning to be taught in junior high school, often with the aid of native speakers from overseas, but most Japanese teachers can't speak the language much at all, resulting in some pretty staid classes. The style is similar to the way young Canadians (attempt to) learn French in Ontario public schools -- a lot of rote memorization, with few opportunities for natural conversation. It's hard to transform one's English-education system when the scholastic culture itself can't meet the demand with a qualified supply. (The obvious answer would be to support a massive influx of even more native-English speakers to teach junior high school-level classes, but the resulting loss of jobs for Japanese educators makes this less than ideal.)

A slightly more plausible reason for this resistance to early English education in many vocal segments of the Japanese intelligentsia is due to the role that the Japanese language plays in one's sense of patriotic self. Indeed, Japanese students study the rudiments of Japanese language, grammar, narrative and poetry in a course called 'kokugo', which literally translates as 'national language'. (The word 'Nihongo' is mostly used to refer to the teaching of Japanese as a foreign language to outsiders.) If you think about the word 'English', there's no nationality attached to the composition of the word; it is what it is -- a language that's learned by everyone all over the word. Yet 'kokugo', as a word, explicitly links itself to the country itself, the state and its structure. Other than old-timers who learned the language in wartime colonial outposts, Japanese is restricted to one people and place, its study and usage almost exclusively limited to either natives or foreigners who wish to live in that country. Unlike English, the language derives and sustains its texture in a specific locale. To degrade it by diminshing its significance, to lessen its importance, or even abandon the tongue altogether (which was seriously suggested by some Japanese reformers over a century-and-a-half ago, when the country first opened up) is, in a very real, potentially painful sense, to tarnish the Japanese people's own conception of themselves.

For without language, what are we? Immersed in English from the get-go, native speakers rarely have to question its place in our heads because we don't often allow nany (or any) other languages to sneak in. Only when confronted by cultures where English is of secondary important does one start to realize that it is but one tongue of many, with its own assess and faults. Many Japanese people, especially older ones, view the Japanese language as a rich source of inspiration, a unique celebration of a specific sense of humanity; English is an intrusion, and a rather clunky one at that. In a group culture like Japan, it's obviously the language that binds the individual to another, and it separates this racial group from all others, letting it attain a uniquely distinct status. To be Japanese, is to speak Japanese, is to become Japanese. (All others need not apply.)

In essence, the Japanese language is the narrative of the Japanese people, just as native speakers of English use its idiosyncrasies to narrate the story of our lives. I want to explore this notion of 'language as narrative/narrative as life' in another blog post, but I think it's not unfair to state that who we are in our heads, the stories we tell to get by, achieves concrete form in the world soley through language written down or uttered. To even contemplate another language achieving primacy in the culture is to risk speculation of what might be lost from oneself over time, if only obliquely.
Such a loss of living-texture-via-language might be (inadvertently) hinted at in a stray comment from Katy Waldman, reviewing Mizumura's book in a recent SLATE magazine column. Coommenting upon a puzzlingly vague passage in the book, Waldman writes: "...I have no idea why Mizumura airdrops this quoted anecdote into her book — the sentence ends and she never remarks on it again. Still, its striking..."

This confusion on Waldman's part (and I'm purely speculating here) seems to me an affirmation of a particular Japanese style of thought. The Japanese language is known for its diversions and by-ways; much is left unexplained, up for you to decipher. Walmdan hints at this quality in the first part of her quote, but then goes on to admit that its very inclusion is certainly 'striking'. She wants to know more, understand more, and perhaps it's the very odd and open-ended insertion of the passage that feels distinctly Japanese. (In Japanese, I might add; an English version of the same text necessarily morphs what works in one language into an oddity in the other.)

Even in translation, we can see how a fragment of Mizumura's distinctly 'Japanese' way of thought and composition -- in both the linguistic and cultural sense of the word 'Japanese' -- can't help but be maintained. In terms of resolving how best to protect one language from another, even while welcoming another voice to the table, Mizumura's 'striking', if puzzling, composition choice in that passage seems to prove that the very essence of a person and a place can survive the Pacific gulf between language itself, and perhaps that simple idea in the end is a good place to start.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Mickey Rourke in BARFLY

I once washed dishes at Caddyshack's Bar and Grill in Manotick, Ontario. The morning and evening shift. Nothing much happened in the morning. Scraping leftover burnt toast off of the plates under hot running water, mostly. In the evenings, close to midnight, sometimes shit went down. One night, in the middle of my ten-minute break, while standing at the bar outside of the heat of the kitchen, watching hockey highlights on SportsDesk, I saw some drunk dude take his fist to the left ear of a Yuppie-looking type who had mouthed off to him just a few seconds before. Dark red blood just sort of spurted out of that ear like a sprinkler coming to life. The other regulars seated on stools at the bar looked up for a second or two, then turned back to the tube.

I don't drink, or hang out in bars much, but Mickey Rourke in BARFLY seemed to nail it for me. Written by Charles Bukowski, that derelict poet of the bottle, and directed by Barbet Schroeder, the movie sticks a charismatic drunk at the centre, then lets us watch him as he revels in his self-imposed trade. Finding an alcolohic friend in Faye Dunaway, the two of them drink, fight, sleep together, argue. Languidly look for jobs. The film doesn't romaticize Rourke's character; he does that all for himself. A not-so-subtle self-portrait of screenwriter Bukowski, we get an inflated idea of what alcohol can do for one's life. When given a choice between a shot at literary stardom and an upper-class fuck, Rouke does what's expected -- he goes back to the bottle, and let's have one more round for the road.

Soon after meeting him, Dunaway tells Rouke that he has the oddest of demeanours, as if he thinks that he's truly 'bluebood'. I got that vibe, too. His character seems to be performing for himself and the world throughout the course of the film; he delivers almost every line in the same upward swing. He is, for the most part, an amiable drunk, and he likes where he is. Rourke doesn't celebrate the life of an alcoholic; he just portrays its logic. Everything else is subordinate to the next shot of rum. Given this fact, let's just enjoy the mild buzz.

I'd somehow or other never seen this film until now, and I'm thinking that this might contain one of the two or three best performances in American cinema of the Eighties. Rourke is one of those actors, like James Caan or Charles Bronson, who doesn't even seem like he should be an actor at all, which is why he's so good. Simultaneously centred and off-base. You truly believe that this guy (both Mickey Rourke and his character) has come from somewhere else, a scary joint far, far away. That he's had a real life of some kind, not solely some cocked-up backstory. This character is a man who has somehow inflated himself even as he continues his descent. He has his own codified sense of nobility and logic. He wanders through life hungover or drunk, but he nevertheless exults in his presence as the King Of His World. I can't imagine another actor pulling this role off, or even giving it a real shot. The movie is a little bit hammy at times, and bluntly obvious at others, but Rourke is so grandiose in his full-of-shitness that he charms you to watch, just like all good drunks tend to do.

By the time the end-credits roll, he's pretty much in the same place that he began, doing the same stupid shit, cheered on and high-fived by the usual sad saps at the bar, but the movie almost made me feel that this was in fact a good end. 'Let him do his own thing', was what I was thinking, and it's a credit to Rourke that his talented scuzz of a character actually comes across as his own kind of hero, with us as his enablers. Human sleaze, if not uplifted, at least piggy-backed, with the audience the one on their knees, carrying all that dumb weight. What a performance!

We all know how this kind of life will turn out, (as do those smack-dab in the middle of it), but the film also reminds us that there's not all that much you can do, so pay your respects while you can. People are going to strike blows to the ear, and blood will gush out. They'll clean themselves up and be right back tomorrow. Until they aren't. In the meantime, let them put on their show, while we sit back and watch and nurse our own gaping wounds. BARFLY kind of gets that the human spectacle  might be sad and hilarious, horrific and humane, but at least at the bar there are fellow sadsacks around to see and be seen. Sometimes an audience is enough.


It's very hard to dissect and examine what you never encounter. I recently came across a Japanese book whose cover art depicted a Japanese fellow and a Caucasian bloke, amiably chatting above the black title font, but it's the name of the book that made my eyes pop. 'Hello, I'm a Jew!', which, in Japanese, doesn't sound quite so strange as its English translation (I'm hoping), but it's still quite the sight.

The population of Japanese Christians steadily hovers around one percent, so it's not as if the country as a whole is overtly familiar with Western religions; add Judaism to the cultural conversation, and you'll soon find that your spiritual chat will probably end pretty fast. The Japanese simply don't know all that much about the topic. Having said that, I'll contradict myself, because there are a lot of books published about Judaism in Japan, often explaining the historical and contemporary ins-and-outs of the Middle East (lack of) peace-process. Those are often pretty high-brow, intellectual-type stuff. This particular book is in the form of a 'taidan', a conversation between two prominent people about a particular topic or theme. The result is personal history mixed with historical detours, one that's much more accesible to the average Taro on the train.

(Why the West doesn't have this kind of two-dudes-chatting non-fiction book mystifies me. Maybe it's simply tradition. We narcisstic Westerners, as raging individualists, traditionally think of a 'book' as one smarty-pants author telling us what's the real deal; in the East, in a group-consensus environment, it's natural that a subject is only comprehended if it's part of a dialogue of some sort. Here in Japan, you'll often find two notable folks from different fields -- a writer and a composer, or a Buddhist monk and a philosopher -- commenting on various aspects of national and international events, arts, sports, whatever. Published in an interview-style format, it allows you, as a reader, the chance to compare different views and see where you fit in.)

Roger Pulvers is an American Jew who received his Australian citizenship before eventually settling in Japan as a writer and teacher over forty years ago. His colleague here is Inuhiko Yomoto, a Japanese author and professor who has studied extensively about (and within) the Middle East. Together, they chat about Pulvers childhood, his first-hand experience of Judasim, what being a 'secular Jew' is all about, why peace with Israel and Palestine is such a head-scratcher, in addition to many entertaining detours about the role of Jews in American comedy and film, and why so many twentieth-century screen actors scrapped their ethnic-sounding names. The result is a free-flowing, back-and forth investigation of one man's life as a Jew, in Japan and abroad, mingled with a scholar's investigation into his ground-level experiences in a faith that is foreign.

The Japanese reading public annually ingests thousands of titles relating to foreign affairs, but this kind of intimate talk has a more delicate slant to what's an extremely loaded topic. 'Loaded' for the West, anyways, but in Japan, there's not much historical baggage attached to the role of the Jews or their place in the world. This kind of 'blank slate' effect certainly has its downsides, namely, that there remains a notion of the 'Jew' (with a capital 'J') that often seems cobbled together from outdated stereotypes -- that of the rich, moneygrubbing, financially successful insider, resulting in niche-books being published proclaiming to tell you how to quickly get rich 'like a Jew'. When you've never been around something -- whether its a person or culture -- you tend to either degrade or glorify its composition or effects. Stripped of its ethnic, historical and spiritual roots, Judaism as a concept in Japan still remains pretty vague, so the monetary aspect of the culture has been rather crudely shoved to the forefront of discussion. Japanese love to classify things, and perhaps this obsession with the finanical wherewithal of the Jewish people is a small result of that fetish.

There are, of course, Japanese academics who specialize in the Jewish experience, but for the average salaryman and his wife, the topic is not one that readily comes up over miso soup in the morning. Why would it? I can't imagine that there are a lot of Jews in Japan, and a lack of exposure to anything inevitably results in broad strokes. I barely even understood anything about Judaism until my  university days (and I still don't know all that much), and I grew up in a country and culture that was much more multi-cultural than Japan. If you're not surrounded by the actual stuff of a culture, you don't know where to begin, or even possess the inclination.

(Related to that point, I have to go back and re-read Canada's literary legend, Mordecai Richler, because while I've read most of his books, I devoured them at a time when I didn't think all that much about his Jewishness, or even understood what his ethnicity might mean to his work as a whole. Same goes for Woody Allen and Philip Roth -- loving their work, but not connecting the cultural dots, or even knew the dots were waiting to be linked.)

Mainstream books like this one, that you can find in an ordinary bookstore, at least allow the Japanese people to be introduced to a vastly different experience of life, via two people shooting the shit. I first saw a copy of this book in the university bookstore, then accidentally spotted another one on the shelf in the school's library. Some twenty-year old Japanese kid might encounter this in a similar way. buy it or borrow it, and learn something new, thereby erasing a few stereotypes in the process. Globally-speaking, that ain't half-bad. (And I wish I had come across something like this when I was that age. The world would have shrunk a bit sooner for me.)  

Saturday, January 10, 2015


It's shortly after midnight, and you're lying in bed. Frozen. An immense, paralyzing, invisible weight is pushing you down. Some kind of unseen spirit is apparently having its way with your limbs. Denying you moblity. Not allowing your legs or your arms to reach out or touch down. Scary shit.

Has this actually happened to you at any point in your life?  I'm guessing no. Not to that extent, anyways. In Japan, however, it's apparently a common enough occurence that there's an actual, honest-to-God word for the situation, what they call "kanashibari."

Which leads me to ask: Which comes first, the experience or the word? If a language doesn't have a name for the emotion or action, can the real thing even be said to exist? What we can do if we can't say what we've done?

Another example: The word 'natsukashii' in Japanese referrs to seeing or hearing or encountering something that reminds you of the past, which is essentially in English what we call 'nostalgia'. That word, the English word, is not something we pull out every time we see or smell something new that reminds us of something old. You don't often hear people mutter: "Wow, this makes me feel nostalgic." Yes, we might sometimes say "This reminds me of..." or "I remember when..." at a memory that's suddenly been nudged into place, but these are kind of clumsy phrases that lack any class. 'Natsukashii', however, is commonly used in Japanese conversation, and, because this is so, does this mean that people are more finely tuned in to their own vanished past? Because they can access this rather ordinary word whenever a nostalgic feeling bubbles up, does it thus allow them to become more sensitized to surroundings that might link them to yesteryear?

As new words creep into English, their persistent usage also often bleeds over into physical states. Think of all the Internet-related vocabulary that's popped up here and there in the last fifteen years. I'm talking about 'surfing the web' and 'browser', 'website' and 'blog', 'link' and 'clickbait', that last word especially a fond one of mine. 'Clickbait' always reminds me of 'jailbait', which in itself is a hell of an odd term to explain. There's something midly illicit and tempting about 'clickbait', a clever resonance in one's mind that tends to mimic the virtual rush that one feels when clicking on a link to a site that one feels might be of note. (Or even just fun.) All of this web-connected vocabulary did not exist when I was a teen. Now, quite obviously, it does, and it's here, and it's real, and beause I can access these terms they solidify concepts in my head that my mind can then use. They refer to actual things that have real weight in the world. Nothing theoretical to be found.

Yet it's somewhat easy, even harmless, to find cool real-life aspects of words that lack emotional punch; genuine, almost-shitting-your-pants emotions can result in psychic gaps. Another Japanese word, 'hazukashii', might must make my case. The dictionary defines its English counterparts as 'embarrassed', 'shy' or 'ashamed'. Think about that for a second. 'Shy' is quite a different level of inverted beast than 'embarrassed', which is light-years lower on the negative-emotional spectrum than 'ashamed', but one word in Japanese is suitable for all these concepts. This is quite common in the Japanese language; there are single adjectives such as this one whose specturm of meaning is considerably wider and denser than their English cousins.

What's the implication? I'm spitballing here, but because this Japanese word, 'hazukashii', pretty much contains a spectrum of feelings whose intensity varies, does this mean that a Japanese person's emotions are necessarily denser and deeper when that word is employed? If a kid's zipper on his jeans is down in class, and I point it out to him, and he mutters 'hazukashii', does the inbuilt intensity of his emotions greatly outrange what a Western student's own feelings might encompass? After all, the Japanese boy only has one commonly-used word to search for to express his discomfort, and at its base it embodies varying different levels of shame. 'Hazukashii', a word that runs the gamut from 'embarrassed' to 'ashamed', thus seems to trigger depths of emotion that allow its user to indulge in its most negative slant.

(Oh, and on a tangent, is there a new phrase I hate more than that of 'trigger warning'? Designed to warn people reading a novel or magazine article of sensitive material to come that might shatter fragile minds, it seems more akin to a parent covering their child's eyes when a love scene comes on the screen. If you're old enough to be reading a magazine article or a novel of note, you should acknowledge that not everything in life goes down as sweet as Country Time Lemonade. Such a usage, for me, seems to imply that adults need to be vigilantly on guard against anything that might slightly disturb their thin mental space. God forbid that we should have to deal with unpleasant aspects of our past or present. Such a disclaimer reduces us all to pre-adolescents who demand constant supervision. And, related to this topic, I fear that the steadily-prevalent employment of this lame fucking phrase will find a conduit into life, make its users more emotional and meek, less willing to engage in themselves or their troubles, or even life's unexpected stimulation.)

It's easy to talk about computer-vocabulary or common human emotions, but I keep thinking back to the beginning of thos post, to the possible-you paralyzed in your bed, and I'm probably contradicting my 'trigger-warning' rant, but what do you want from me -- words drive me mad, they have such flimsy ways. You see, I'm thinking 'kanashibari, and wondering if the Japanese had this experience much more often in the past, which is why that word exists? Or did the word come into being after only isolated cases, which then gave permission for people to manifest its symptoms as part of their own illnesses?

I don't know, and it's obviously a chicken-or-the-egg kind of deal, but there's another layer here that frankly makes me uneasy. This notion that there are aspects of the human brainstem that are so susceptible to mere words. That we might incorporate their meaning into our lives, our night-lives in particular. That we might brood on their implications, and mutely watch as they quickly come to life.

And I say all pf this because there are numerous emotions I feel that have yet to be named, those two-in-the-morning stirrings in the head that border on the wavy brink between death's border with life. Often we'll feel daytime moments of bliss that feel nothing less than unique, almost intoxicating, and English doesn't always do justice to that short spurt of glee, but the darker stuff also dwells down in rooms we can't find, usually in hidden locked doors that patiently wait for our keys.

Maybe we should stop while we're ahead, in terms of naming anxieties that seem to drift through our night-selves. All this linguistic-comparing and coining of funky new terms is, to be sure, such great mental fun, but goddamn, humans quite often don't handle this stuff with the care that it deserves.

You see, some Japanese man or woman tonight will awake in the a.m. from the fiercest of dreams. Nightmares no more, but suddenly realizing that they are immobile. Immediately their mind will revert (or retreat) to that word 'kanashibari'. All of its symptoms will flash through their head. They will choose to believe they are held hostage to that word.

If I could, I would sneak into that room, and mind-meld with their temple the way Mr.Spock does, then erase that sneaky word right the hell out of their brain. I don't know if this would work. I'm not sure if that distraught soul would still just lay there in great fright. I can't be certain that we dictate what words do, or if they use us for their whims. Yet I'm willing to leave some things unnamed, to let certain doors remain locked, and I'd gladly etch-a-sketch 'kanashibari' right out of existence, and all the other bad words from your head, even just for one night. 'Use it or lose it', they say, and I'd like to test that one out.