Monday, May 28, 2012

Welcome To This Strange New World

We interrupt the regularly scheduled programming to bring you this message:

Luka Byrne McFadden, Dragon Boy, was born exactly at noon on May 27th, 2012. A big happy birthday to him and much love to his mother.

As always, thanks for reading. If posts are little more sporadic in the next few weeks, you'll know why.

Friday, May 18, 2012

To Bison

This morning, listening to a new podcast (for me) from PRI's RadioWest, I was surprised and delighted to hear Western historian Dan Flores being interviewed about that most enduring of American iconic beasts, the bison.

Delighted because I had gotten to know Dan a little during my time at University of Montana, having spent a couple of weeks ranch-sitting for him one winter break which mostly consisted of my going out to feed his two horses every morning (both of whom would let me know emphatically with nips and snorts whenever I was late) chopping wood for the fire, and making sure the place didn't burn down from it.

Delighted also because its hopeful message at the end was in such great contrast to much of the news I've been absorbing lately. Dan actually thinks that it might be "a good century for the bison." He sees the coming decades as ones in which there will be a great crusade for restoring the American west by bringing bison back onto the landscape as wild animals. (Currently they mostly inhabit limited rangeland within National Parks or on private, commercial ranches.)

He thinks "a very large bison commons somewhere on the Great Plains is likely to be in our future," the creation of which he suggests will rival the Twentieth Century's designation of the great National Parks such as Yellowstone and Glacier. He ends by stating that in this century we will once again have bison roaming the plains as wild animals.

After finishing the podcast I started thinking about an article I wrote in a frenzy late one night for a little local monthly English language newsletter called What's New? in which I talked a little about what it means to live in the American west and take part in its vastness. Obviously the paper's not linkable (how quaint!) so I'll reproduce it in its entirety here:

Missing America’s Best Idea
Students sometimes ask me what, if anything, I miss about back home. I rub my chin for a moment thinking, before I tell them, in all seriousness, “microbrews and National Parks.” The former I can live without if I must — after all, too much choice can be just as paralyzing as none at all — but the latter causes me greater pangs of longing.
And Montana, the state I most recently called home before coming to Japan, boasts not one, but two National Parks within its borders: Yellowstone, home to geysers and grizzlies; and Glacier, named after its most obvious feature at the crest of its Going-To-The-Sun Road.
When I say “National Parks” what I really mean is wilderness. Those places where you might see more animals than people in a day; where you don't have to contend with traffic or gadgets. (And that definition would exclude Yellowstone most times of the year — at least along the roadways.)
That’s not to say that there are not some truly fantastic open spaces, forest lands, and mountain ranges in Japan. There are. And in Ehime we are blessed to have them just outside our door. But the one element that is missing is the wildness. Sure, you can see monkeys or the occasional tanuki just outside Niihama in the hills. There are wild boors and copper pheasants and mamushi (a deadly poisonous snake) up there (I’ve seen them all) but the scale of it is different. Sure you can wade for hours through sasa grass; but even still, you’re never really more than an hour’s car ride away from a village or town.
But there lots of other places in Montana or Alaska or California or Idaho that are vast and virtually no one knows about because they haven’t been designated as “National Park.” I’m thinking of the Frank Church Wilderness in Idaho or the Bob Marshall in Montana. In those places you could wander in, get disoriented, and never be heard from again.
When we say to students glibly (or they to us) “America is big country” the idea of its true vastness sometimes gets lost. You just have to spend thirteen hours driving across Montana on the interstate highway to start to get a sense of this phenomenon. You cross into it from the Dakotas, plowing through endless wheat fields, with only a rural auction or a UFO show on the radio, your eyes starting to droop, your foot heavy on the pedal, the car humming along at a hundred miles an hour and you’re not getting anywhere — ooh, there’s a house or an antelope — you turn off the interstate to relieve the intensity of the boredom. A backroad, just as boring, though now heading through rolling hills, another house, a horse, lodgepole pines. Now rolling hills, green, some scattered trees, the mountains begin piling up and they go on and on and on.
One way to get an idea of what I am talking about — short of going to the time and expense of actually visiting — would be to watch the recent Ken Burns PBS documentary The National Parks. Subtitled America’s Best Idea, it chronicles the history of the National Park system from its inception in 1864 (none other than Abraham Lincoln signed the preservation of Yosemite in California into law) to the present day.
Now if there were only some Yona Yona Ale available in the local supermarket to have while watching — I suppose Yebisu will have to do.
While we're at it, I'd like to propose a toast to bison. To their great, shaggy staring stolidity. To their increase. To their dispersal and thriving once again across the Great Plains.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Where the 994 Slave for the 6

I've gotten into the practice recently of reading the classics out loud after meals to Echosquirrel and Pumpkin (the name she has given to the round protuberance breaching the edge of the chabudai across from me).

First it was Thomas Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge with its intense opening scene of a drunken field hand selling his wife to the highest bidder and its later relentless Hardian march to gloom.

Right now we are reading Dickens's Great Expectations, a darling of a book which, fortuitously, Echosquirrel has never read (nor has she seen any of the movies) giving that opening scene of young Pip going down to the marshes to bring food and file to an escaped convict all the mystery and weighted meaning it deserves.

In between those books we read Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the only one of the three I hadn't as yet read. Well, in truth, we were only able to get about halfway through before we tired of Twain's blowhard Yankee and his ridiculous knight-errantry. The story just didn't have the crispness or moral weight or seriousness of a Hardy. I'm guessing we shouldn't have dropped so far down the scale from seriousness to comedy in our choice. That if we pick it back up later after something lighter we may be able to appreciate it more.

Still, I was fascinated by Twain's thought experiment of taking a character from his own region and era and depositing him squarely into the middle ages in England, six hundred years in the past. A sort of Rip Van Winkle in reverse where the character has all of the power of hindsight at his disposal.

So he looks around him at the institutions and, of course, finds them wanting. He has been plopped into a feudal system where an hereditary King with his handful of assorted important others rule the land.

Of course I couldn't help but be struck how much like our present unfortunate rule in America by plutocracy was Twain's description of this feudal England:

And now here I was, in a country where a right to say how the country should be governed was restricted to six persons in each thousand of its population. For the nine hundred and ninety-four to express dissatisfaction with the regnant system and propose to change it, would have made the whole six shudder as one man, it would have been so disloyal, so dishonorable, such putrid black treason. So to speak, I was become a stockholder in a corporation where nine hundred and ninety-four of the members furnished all the money and did all the work, and the other six elected themselves a permanent board of direction and took all of the dividends. 

Twain knew, or the narrator knew, that the only way to upend this dire situation would be to rise up in rebellion, a rebellion that would in the best case, morph into a revolution. He specifically mentions the French Revolution as "the ever memorable and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years of such villainy away in one swift tidal-wave of blood....a settlement of that hoary debt in the proportion of half a drop of blood for each hogshead of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out of that people in the weary stretch of ten centuries of wrong and shame and misery the like of which was not to be mated but in hell."

The hope now, just as the hope was in Twain's day, is that the citizens, understanding that they are free and do in fact, hold political power, agitate for the common wealth. Twain sites the Connecticut constitution which he says declares "that all political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their benefit; and that they have at all times an undeniable and indefeasible right to alter their form of government in such a manner as they may think expedient."

But I think very few people think of altering the form of government. Usually we think of switching out an elect with someone maybe a little less self-serving and mendacious. Twain goes so far as calling a citizen a traitor who sees the commonwealth's political decay and does not agitate for reform.

I think it entirely possible that we could slip — if we aren't slipping already — into a new middle or dark age where the 994 slave for the 6, where the loyalest citizen gets branded a traitor, because, well you know, revolutions, even the thought of them, are never nice.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Japanese Sweet Coltsfoot

I came across this wonderful postcard in a second hand shop a while back, rediscovering it just now in my closet as I was rummaging about for my passport. In parenthesis it reads (old style, right to left) An Akita Specialty —  Akita being a prefecture in northern Japan.

I'm guessing the designation is meant to be playful — referring to both the beauties and the fuki — though I could be wrong.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Contour Map

The Philosophy of Stripes

I don't really pay that much attention to fashion. Occasionally I check in with the Sartorialist to see what beautiful people he's found lately in this or that corner of Paris, Rome, or Tokyo. And every week I watch Bill Cunningham's On the Street, though really more for a chance to hear him say the word "maavelous" and listen to his obvious enthusiasm for getting paid to go around town taking pictures than for any fashion trends he may be spotting out there.

In his video this week, Wistful, Bill waxes poetic on the rich colors of the Manhattan spring, showing us both Japanese wisteria (fuji) and azalea (tsutsuji). He then likens the incipient fashion of bold, vertical stripes in women's clothes this season to the dripping wisteria. My first reactions was "Oh, that's maavelous Bill — but a bit of a stretch."

But then yesterday, I happened to pick up a striped book in the bookstore called, strangely, The Structure of Iki, which pretty much confirmed what good old Bill was saying:
.... (V)ertical stripes appear to the eyes as parallel lines more easily than horizontal ones. The fact that our eyes are lined up horizontally right and left makes it easier for us to follow the parallel lines set up by a design of vertical stripes running side by side, so that a design that embodies the fundamental parallel relationship horizontally appears to the right and left of one another. Somewhat more effort is required to perceive horizontal stripes, where the fundamental of the parallel relationship is defined vertically by the two lines — one below the other. In other words, because our eyes are placed horizontally, spatial relationships of objects can generally be more clearly expressed when they are oriented horizontally. Thus, in the case of parallel vertical lines our eyes clearly perceive the discrete opposition of the two lines. The opposite is true of parallel horizontal stripes. There, our eyes perceive the side to side successive continuity of a line. 
(I guess that phenomenon explains why I'm not so partial to French sailor shirts.)

The author then goes on to liken vertical stripes to light rain brought down by gravity or willow branches hanging down; conversely, he likens horizontal stripes to the heaviness of geologic strata. He sums up by saying: "horizontal stripes make an object look wider by directing our gaze side to side. Vertical stripes do the opposite, narrowing objects by directing our gaze up and down."

He does make some exceptions to this general rule; for example, a horizontally striped sash in tandem with a vertically striped kimono; or horizontal straps on sandals to offset a vertically running wood grain or lacquer.

Anyway, I'll have to write another post on the concept of iki — the author himself argues that it's not directly translatable into other languages, though smart, stylish, or chic are the approximations my dictionary gives.

The text, which originally appeared in the philosophy magazine Shisō (Thought) in 1930, has been translated by Hiroshi Nara and is nicely presented on facing pages in Japanese and English. I'm not sure of its availability outside of Japan as it appears that Kodansha International has gone extinct. Anyway, here's a link to Nara's web page at Pitt.

I'll try sharing some more nuggets from the book in the coming days — the notes are especially fascinating and informative.

As always, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Today on the Ridge

Pointing to where I'll go tomorrow.
A bento lunch from the convenience store.
A trail to a river shrine not taken.