Thursday, January 01, 2015


I think we tend to forget how mysterious, even mystical, the act of reading can be. Or should I say the art of reading, because this blend of observation and creation requires the reader to contribute at least half as much as the author. The writer may painstakingly set up the scene linguistically so it takes place in 'the kitchen', but it's MY brain that almost aways envisions this kitchen as being the exact one that existed in my first house as a child, my seven-year old self-perceptions colouring all pages to come. How does this happen? What's going on here in this interface between words on a page and images in my head? And to complicate this idea even further, when one reads that same scene, only this time in a foreign language, what's happening at the neurlogical level? The, dare I say it, subconscious level? What, exactly, is controlling what my brain decides to perceive, almost against my own will?

If I'm trying to read something in Japanese (a language I'm still struggling to learn), in comparison to English (a language I've sort of got the basic gist of), the result is tantamount to finally learning to drive with a shift-stick when you already can drive manually. Reading English, I'm trying to appreciate the author's style, understand the moral/thematic/narrative intent, get off on the stylistic effects; deciphering Japanese, on the other hand, is nothing but groping, awkward jabs almost sexual in their clumsiness, a staccato process of stumbling along in big stops and slow starts, my brain simply hoping to catch what the main point might be. (I often compare the strained process of reading a foreign langauge to driving your car through a constant series of tunnels with the radio on; every time you come across a new word or concept, it's like the music being cut off in your car for a spell of some time as you suddenly pass through another dark tunnel, before the song unexpectedly starts up once again as you leave the tunnel behind, only to quickly realize that this road ain't nuthin' but tunnels.)

Sometimes, my brain is connecting the Japanese word to its English counterpart; at other points, encountering an unknown word, I almost-unconsciously seek to somehow integrate its purpose in the larger context of the sentence. Meaning, suss out if I'm looking at a verb or a noun or an adjective (or whatever), and see if I can recognize at least one of the kanjis (Chinese characters) that compose the new word, or try to at least guess what the word might possibly mean based on the theme of the paragraph. (It's all like some glorified board game that requires no dice.)

This process of embattled comprehension is a familiar constant, and it essentially means that my brain as I read usually kind of hurts. A pain such as this is an odd and pleasant thing. I mean, how often can you feel your brain ache? I don't mean like a headache; I mean more of a mindache. Linguistic contortions are somersaulting around in my skull. I'm grappling with concepts that sometimes can only be understood in this new acquired tongue. This, in itself, is both electrifying and, in the literal sense of the phrase, mind-numbing. A good thirty, forty-five minutes of trying to read Japanese, and I need a breather. (One can only ask so much from the thoughts that try to sustain us.)

What's interesting, too, even intriguing, is that Japanese is so fucking different from English that at times it doesn't even seem that language-learning is at work. The predominance of kanji means one is 'reading' a constant stream of 'pictures', some of which you may know the meaning to, but not the words, or else the pronunciation of, but not the meaning, or else a little bit of both, or often one or the other. 'This is reading?" I sometimes think, but of course it is, only it's done from right to left, and up-to-down, and my brain, if I'm lucky, can somehow assimilate what's going on, or at least give it a fair shot.

Which brings me back to the 'scene-in-the-kitchen' episode I mentioned earlier. As we read (in any language), our brains create pictures for us, based soley on the symbols inserted via two scanning eyes. Neurons at work. Synapses at play. Squiggles on a page, acquiring significance, even altering our moods. But what else out there in the world is affecting the content we consume?

The other day I read an article about how some scientists believe that it's our physical surroundings and sensations that literally create the thoughts that we think; the brain is connected to the body, and if the body is cold, or warm, or full, or hungry, the brain as a receiver of signals alters itself accordingly.

Thus, the chair that you're sitting in at the moment might be a tad hard. A little tough on your tush. As you shift your butt around, you either gain or lose comfort. This distracts you from my words, or else focuses you more completely. As a result, at a miniscule level, your ability to enjoy, agree or remain indifferent to my point has probably unconsciously shifted in small subtle ways, just as your buttocks adjusted themselves on your seat. My ideas are conveyed from the screen to your eyes via alphabetical blips, yet the process is slanted based solely on how you're sitting. (Add something read in a foreign language to this procedure, and who can tell what's going on with the brain and the body in such uneasy concert?)

Reading is such a familiar, intimate pleasure that, as with eating or farting, we rarely stop to take stock of what's truly going on. Our very views of the world are shifting and sliding with each word that we read. Entire mental paradigms are crumbling as we stay still and imagine. Vocabulary in foreign tongues is fucking greatly with our heads, yet your mum passing by you and your laptop will just note your blank daze. Right now I'm resting my computer on my gut, and I'm sprawled out on my futon, and my feet-in-black-socks are lazily stroking the white wall, and I'm trying to get across thoughts in English on what both that language as itself means in relation to another, and I don't know how your posture is at play as you scan these few words, but I do know that it's fun, this reading thing, this writing thing, this constant shifting from automatic to stick, this trying-to-make-sense-of-ourselves-and-our-worlds-through-the-words-that-we-use, and the whole motley enterprise, so straining and ungainly, is ultimately the kind of deep mental pool I don't mind diving into head first.


It's kind of astonishing how often money comes to mind. If you don't have enough of it (which none of us do), we spend endless hours every day calculating what we need, can afford, should allow ourselves to indulge in, at what price to ourselves; if we have more than enough (which all of us might actually possess), we stil crave a little bit extra, a litte more pad in the pants. From the time we have our first pink piggy banks, we're saving, hording, dreaming of the future. That this whole monetary system is a man-made concoction of assests is something we usually overlook. (There, hovering placidly just above your bank, is a blue sky and some clouds that do not give a shit.)

Mark Sundeen's THE MAN WHO QUIT MONEY is a fascinating non-fiction examination of Daniel Suelo, a middle-aged American who gradually decided over time to give it all up. His passport, his bank account, his money -- the whole deal. This might make him sound like your everyday 'bum' (which, truth be told, a good many folks have decided is exactly the case). Yet, from his point of view, it was a calculated, soul-wrenching decision earned over a good many years, a process, a whittling down of philosphy until he found the right blade. His lifestyle demands: Is it possible to truly live without coin in modern-day life? Can one barter and scavenge and still consider that existence? Or we could invert the question and gaze instead at ourselves: Do we consider our lives of consumption the be-all-and-end-all of what we want from this time that we must spend together?

Daniel Suelo's almost-primitive approach to living is not for everyone, or probably anyone, at least those of us who consider ourselves to be 'first-world' attendees. Having spent a good part of the last ten years in third-world countries, I do find myself sickened at times by what wealthy folks throw away -- both in terms of physical, material goods, and also related to their own sense of self. (This kind of judgement runs the risk, I know, of being some hippie-dippie load of shit, but I include myself in the caste of those I kind of despise.) Poor people are not necessarily more noble, or even humane; lack of a working economy leads to crime and corruption, and in such desperate circumstances the darkness of our hearts tends to devour the light.

I get that. There's just something, if not enlightening, at least disturbing, about quietly witnessing how others -- without all the flashy adornments of life -- manage to make it through the day with the occasional smile, while I  scoot back (with a scowl) into the consumer madness  that encapsulates how must of us co-exist. That sort of parallel view of humanity's have-and-have-nots sticks in your craw over time, an almost tangible gob in the throat that is both sweet and sour, and such a confusing, palpable aftertaste of upchuck makes a life-story like Suelo's less crazy-sounding over time. Makes me wonder about what we all need to explore. Not so much a 'back to nature' movement, but more of a stripped-down, inward tilt into what we truly want and require from ourselves and each other.