Monday, February 27, 2012

Bones in Black & White

Came across a book of remarkably stark photographs of animal skeletons in our local library the other day. 

Bighorn Sheep

Cape Hare
Bones. By Eiji Yuzawa and Akinori Azumano. 2008. You can find it here if you're interested. (All Japanese website.)

Friday, February 24, 2012

200 Posts and Counting

I realize that 200 is an arbitrary number — in and of itself no more or less meaningful than 199 or 201; but it's nice and round and gives me a convenient excuse to stop and look back at where I've been and what I've written since I started this blog in March of 2010, just about two years ago now.

When I started, I had not long before been editing a Poetry Review site called CutBank Reviews. I was also just learning how to mess around with Photoshop. Added to that, the shoe boxes of paper ephemera I was collecting from the overflow of an online bookstore I was running, and it seems now that my early posts were struggling to find their voice as some weird mixture of serious book review and in-joke. But it's not like anyone needs a review of an eight year old book. And my own artistic impulse wouldn't have been content to offer merely that anyway.

So I did Humpy the Moose meets Lydia Davis, photoshopping a Davis quote onto the cover of a children's book from the 70s I had found at the Milwaukee bins and subsequently mutilated. We make things and hope they are appreciated. A friend to whom I sent the link wondered how I knew he had been called "Moose" in high school. Of course I hadn't, but I didn't let on.

Around that time, I remember I was itching and angling to return to Japan. Living in Portland, Oregon I used to haunt the mecca of the book world, Powell's. In that section of town, the Pearl District, there's a neat Asian import store called Cargo which, at that time, had an old Japanese drug store sign out front advertising condoms. I photoshopped in the English translation. Echosquirrel said that it was much too seamless; that I needed to make it rougher so the viewer would know it had been shopped. (What does she know? Just because she was graduated from RISD?)

I had completed about fifteen eclectic posts that first spring. Then I moved to Japan.

Even though I had lived in that country for the better part of four years about a decade earlier, I don't think I was completely prepared for the shock of re-entry. Shikoku is not Tokyo. It would be like coming back to the U.S. and landing in Charlotte when previously all you had known was New York.

I threw myself into teaching English and translating Buson, a project I had begun the last time I was here. The break from the life I had been living in Portland and Montana though was severe. I found myself frozen on the blogging front; everything was too new and too bizarre for me to put down in writing.

So I went into hiatus for the better part of the year. Made one sad post in the heat of the summer and then nothing until the following February when I had the urge to resurrect my dormant Reactor.

I started thinking about the Japanese concept of sabi and the literal rust and decay all around me. I went around taking pictures here and there of the sad scene.

Then March 11th happened, the earthquakes and tsunami; the breached reactors. It was as if everything around me stopped. And the barrage from the people in the states urging me to come back. And the curiousness of being here in a becalmed part of Japan with no earthquakes, no tsunami, seemingly no repercussion at all. So I stayed here quietly. And made a contingency plan to return just in case.

My re-entry into blogging was framed, then, around the events of March 11th. Everything seemed imbued with more meaning after that. Too, I was getting familiar with my surroundings.

But it was me wanting to learn how to use my camera a little bit, and then spring is my favorite season and I just needed to get out somewhere and explore. And there were buds everywhere and if you went out late in the afternoon with sun slanting just right you could see things in novel ways.

So I started doing shorter, more naturalistic posts on the things I saw around me. Some impressionistic, some cryptic, some poetic, some just a scene in search of a voice or a tone.

I started getting interested in abandoned places. We'd go out into the countryside, in the hills, and find these little villages that no one lived in anymore. We'd cut our way through the vines and the bamboo, take out our flashlights and enter sacred dwellings where no one had set foot for fifteen or twenty years. Bats flying above the kitchen table, the teapot just where it had been left. We moving gingerly over the rotten tatami, trying to stay on the support beams of the floor.

We moved together and knew where each other were.

In July we went back to Montana and got married. A simple affair, we recited Alan Dugan's "Love Song: I and Thou" to each other in front of family and friends on a spot overlooking the Clark Fork River.

My blog went into summer hibernation.

When I got back it was hot — too hot to blog. So we'd go down to to the river in the afternoons and laze about in the hammock reading books. Every so often we'd pick our way down the riprap and immerse ourselves in the cool river. A little later we'd eat a picnic lunch at one of the stone tables under the cherry trees.

Around the middle of August I decided to climb Mt. Ishizuchi, the highest mountain in western Japan. So early the first morning of a three day weekend I rode my bicycle to a temple in town called Zuouji and, after passing through it and paying my respects, I headed up the steep trail behind it into the woods.

This trail, though well marked and easy to follow for the first few hours (I had been out on it as much as a half a day several times before) was not on the map I had. The best I could do would to be to follow the contour of the ridge for the better part of the day, making sure to stay on the highest part, and with luck I would find the trail that would eventually lead me to Ishizuchi.

I didn't blog this adventure because I'm saving it, I'm sorry to say, for a book I'm writing, fiction oddly enough, about the enchanted land I found in the interior with its fairies and magic dust and strange unicorns and other wild beasts.

When I came back from my trip, having scaled Ishizuchi, wet and stinking like a lost dog, I felt the strange need to find something, I didn't know what, so I started combing the local beaches and hills for some treasure. I stopped at a fertility goddess I found in our park and prayed. I picked up a talisman on the beach, a little stone magatama (曲玉) that I instantly started rubbing and lo and behold it worked!

In December, my family came to visit from the U.S. and we met them in Kyōto. Echosquirrel and I by chance hopped off the bus in front of Waratenjin, a temple in the northwest of Kyōto that's dedicated to safe childbirth. We walked through the torii and up the stone walkway to the temple and paid our respects.

I guess my point in retelling all of this is that sometimes the most important events or journeys don't make it in to the blog. Or they make it in in other ways. I'm going to keep blogging, though who knows where it will go or who I will be this time next year?

I must say there have been plenty of times when I've been discouraged, thinking "Oh, no one's reading. It's too much of a bother. I'm just going to stop." And then someone will leave a comment showing they've read the post and got it and cared. And that keeps me going. So thanks.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Go Out and Play in the Snow

It's been a snow-in-the-cumquats kind of week here — both of us with coughs and sniffles, impatiently awaiting spring. A smudge or scuff on the lens. A good time for reading if not much else.

Just finished Mavis Gallant's Varieties of Exile, a collection of short stories I highly recommend, recommended to me on Twitter by someone whom I now have reason to trust in matters of literary taste.

Of course I chose that title of hers for starting out. Don't we all want to see how our own exile stacks up against others'? And where else could I have found Marigold, an imaginary town whose citizens "were cut out of magazines: Gloria Swanson was the Mother Superior, Herbert Hoover a convent gardener. Entirely villainous, they did their plotting and planning in an empty cigar box."

Gallant creates a little Linnet happy in her cozy, imaginary world. But "parents in bitter climates have a fixed idea about driving children out to be frozen," ordering her, as countless parents before and since have, to "go outside and play in the snow."

Gallant's places, though, Montreal and the south of France, feel much more real than imaginary. Her stories span generations and as such her exiles are as much about time as space. You are an exile on Sherbrooke though you have lived there for forty years. There's nothing to stop the changes. The decays. The deaths. The petty happenings that make up a life.

The second book, which has also been pleasantly surprising me this week, is Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones & Butter. I tend not to be too much of a food writer reader though I do remember racing through Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential in some kind of a poor prose stupor.

Hamilton's book, or she I should say, does exhibit a rawness — whether it's cleaning up the contents of bloated, maggot-filled rat just newly fallen off the ledge onto the stoop behind her restaurant, or her description of an angry bartender who had just told her off, "his back lit by glowing liquor bottles like that black-pawed critter who has just ripped apart your garbage" — but that rawness for me equals honesty.

And happily the tender moments aren't too cheesy. Though when she starts going on for page after page about braised rabbits and broad beans and olive trees and grapes, I start to nod off and think about asking for the check.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

My New Favorite Print Mag in Japan

The Thinking Person: plain living & high thinking. The winter issue has much to be admired including an article on the preparation of a kind of snake soup (イラブー汁) in Okinawa; an Estonian Travelogue; a series of essays on 20th century Japanese mountaineers with some remarkable black and white  photographs; oh man, over 265 pages; even some manga in there and a reflection on Susan Sontag.

I'll have to do a lot of plain living to plow through all those pages. I guess I'll start with the pictures and manga and work my way up to the high-thinking pieces. With any luck I'll be done by spring in time for No. 40.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Happy Belated Birthday Charles

203 years ago yesterday, in Shropshire, Englsnd, Charles Darwin was born. Fifty years later he published On the Origin of Species, his masterwork which built up — through countless examples and anecdotes, as well as evidence from the fossil record, animal husbandry, and his own observations onboard The Beagle — the case for evolution by natural selection.

Now I don't know if he was the first to enumerate the myriad ways in which seeds get dispersed in order to propagate their kind, but he did do various interesting experiments in that realm such as immersing many different varieties of seeds in seawater for days and weeks on end to see if they had the staying power to survive trans-oceanic voyages intact and still germinate (many could, even after a month.)

Here's Darwin on seed dispersal:
Seeds are disseminated by their minuteness, by their capsule being converted into a light balloon-like envelope, by being embedded in pulp or flesh, formed of the most diverse parts, and rendered nutritious, as well as conspicuously coloured, so as to attract and be devoured by birds, by having hooks and grapnels of many kinds and serrated awns, so as to adhere to the fur of quadrupeds, and by being furnished with wings and plumes, as different in shape as they are elegant in structure, so as to be wafted by every breeze.
Whenever I go running in the late fall or winter around here, I can't help coming back with clumps of the seed pods of this guy stuck in my gloves or socks.
We'll have to amend Darwin's paragraph to read: "Or adhere to the smart wool of bipeds."

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Couple of Old Western-Style Houses Around Town

The roof tiles and garden in front are Japanese, but the windows and weather-boards definitely are not.
Again, same arrangement, a few blocks away, complete with window sills which you never see around here. I'm not sure of the dates or history on these houses. I'll try to do some research to find out.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Giant Peach

An XSO* of mine once said to me after I related to her a particularly vivid dream: "Edward (or, Edouard, as she called me) you shouldn't confuse your dreams with reality."

I had and still have a hard time with that prohibition — I've never wanted to regard it as wishful thinking to tell myself that my waking life could be as fast-paced and fraught with adventure, danger, and romance as my dreams.

I do think she was admonishing me more for trying to figure out what my dreams meant more than for me wanting them to be actualized; for trying to impart significance on a phenomenon none of us really knows all that much about.

So the other night when I dreamed I had discovered, up in the mountains, a tree with enormous peaches, peaches the size of footballs, pink and glistening with dew, so mouth-wateringly juicy that I had to collect as many as I possibly could and bring them back down to town for canning, I wasn't quite satisfied when I woke up to look out the window at the quiet winter landscape with the bare biwa trees and even barer fields.

I did feel however, that the dream was a good omen, for what I can't tell, and there was, when I got down from the tree with the peaches in my shirt, a little steam train just off through the clearing, hard by the sea, all black and Victorian and coquettish, waiting to take me away to I know not where.

And the residue of the dream, nagging me all day, pointed me to a story I had for some reason never read: Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach.

And in that charmingly sinister story, which I won't relate in detail here so as not to bore you, the boy James escapes from his wicked Aunts (Ants as we call 'em in the Northeast) inside an enormous peach, lifted across the Atlantic from England to America by seagulls and spider thread.

I can assure you that I am not coming back in or on a giant peach, though I am waiting for someone to slip through the hedge and hand me a sack of slithering beans. Who knows what I'll do with them — I'll have to consult my dreams.

*Ex-Significant Other

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Winter Lull

In a month or two I'll head up there — 塩塚峰 & 笹ケ峰 — Salt Mound and Bamboo Grass Peaks. For now I'm lying low, staying out of the wind, mapping out my routes.

Friday, February 3, 2012


Quiet, I see, has been making the rounds in the past week. Not real quiet, the kind that hardly needs a book, just the talking of it, the pitching of it, the trotting of it out.

In her new book subtitled "The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," Susan Cain argues that there is "a severe bias against introversion" in our society. Talking, for instance, about how our workplaces are designed, she says that they have been set up for maximum group interaction — open-plan offices without walls which results in very little privacy. A playground for extroverts. A barbaric Colosseum for those more inwardly inclined.

I don't know. I've been in densely packed cafés with music blaring where I was so intensely focused on my position in chess that I literally couldn't see or hear another thing. So it's not always a matter of space, but rather one's mental focus within it.

Edward Champion has a nice interview with her here where he pushes back at some of her neat categorizations. She does do a nice job of articulating her ideas — I guess when you've spent six years researching and writing about one subject you will know your shit.

Anyway, reading and listening to some of the discussions got me to thinking about the structure of Japanese institutions. What, for example, are Japanese companies designed for? Group consensus, or individual slave labor and paper shuffling?

Here's an example of a lay-out of a typical office from JTB's Ilustrated "Salaryman" in Japan:

The only thing I can say for sure is that Japanese offices are quiet. And that probably has more to do with the temperament of the people than the layout of the space.

I regularly pass through these mausoleums on my way to teach company classes. Sometimes there are small groups talking, but never so loudly as to interrupt or bother the work of others.

I find it interesting too that the words for both company and shrine share the character sha 社 as in kaisha and jinja.

会社     =     company

神社     =     shrine