Friday 01 February 2002

Back with a vengeance

Seems like the enforced hiatus did wonders for Burningbird:

The second reason was irony. I soundlessly pull a posting whose content was about Dave soundlessly pulling a posting. Try putting that on your scales and see if you don’t get jello. Call it weblogging’s first performance art and title it “Silence of the Postings”.

Not only do we get some handy metablogging on the art of Doing a Dave, there’s also the throwaway reference to performance art, which I thought no-one cared about anymore. One of my more dubious claims to fame is that in a previous incarnation I shot a performance art movie—Rules and Displacement Activities, Part II—for Australia’s most highly-regarded conceptual artist, Mike Parr.

Mike’s most recent performance work, after years of concentrating on self-portraits in a range of more conventional media, was Water From The Mouth. Last year, he lived “in a contained environment at Artspace for ten days, completely deprived of food and contact with the outside world,” a work described as “the pinnacle of his performance career” as well as “possessed of the gritty reality that is missing from the current crop of ratings driven Reality-TV survivor shows.” Something to shoot for, Shelley.

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Saturday 02 February 2002

En-route to Nagasaki

En route to Nagasaki

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Sunday 03 February 2002

I miss Bolo!

This Wired story about a new game by The Sims creator, Will Wright, set me thinking about Stewart Cheshire’s Bolo:

Imagine a simple 2-D tank game based on an island made up of grass, swamp, and water. This island is completely surrounded by deep sea that can only be accessed with a boat. There are bases to refuel on. Drop mines and create craters. Pillboxes shoot at unfriendly tanks. Farm trees to build roads or walls which take damage when shot and eventually turn into rubble.

Bolo battlefield

When I worked at FirmwareDesign, we frequently played Bolo: during lunchtimes and after work on a Friday afternoon. I was never a great player—Herman Coomans used to allow me a handicap of two Brain allies—so I’d usually get soundly trounced but I’ve never enjoyed playing a computer game more.

Although there is a WinBolo, not surprisingly—as you can see from the screenshot—the aesthetics are all wrong. If I ever win the lottery, I might invest as much money as it takes to create a proper Windows port. On the other hand, I could resurrect my old Macintosh or buy a new one.

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Monday 04 February 2002

Adonais

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
He hath awaken’d from the dream of life;
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings. We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

Shelley, Adonais: an Elegy on the Death of John Keats

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Tuesday 05 February 2002

Building on a solid foundation

I’ve just been back and re-read Jake’s post about the role of the bassist in “holding the whole band together, while at the same time creating the tension curve for the whole group—determining what’s most important at any given time. There’s still lots of freedom for everyone, but the foundation is clear at least some of the time, and if everyone is listening to each other, it’s clear most of the time.”

At the end, Jake adds “I’ve gone on for far too long, and you can make whatever metaphor you will…” I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a marvellous metaphor, directly applicable to any kind of collective creative endeavor, and I would have been happy to read a lot more. Jake explains something about music and creativity that I’d been unconsciously aware of but never truly understood. Thank you.

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Friday 08 February 2002

Brian

Brian sells The Big Issue outside the Newtown supermarket

On my way home yesterday afternoon I photographed Brian outside the supermarket, where he sells The Big Issue most days, apart from Mondays and Fridays when he switches his beat to Newtown railway station. The Big Issue, an Australian offshoot of a UK publication, is an “independent current affairs magazine with a sense of humour sold by the homeless and longterm unemployed on the streets of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.”

Brian is no longer homeless though he does have a great sense of humor and he has been “unemployed” for a number of years—if you define unemployed as selling his magazines for six to eight hours a day, thirteen days a fortnight. He receives half the cover price of AU$3 (US$1.52) for each copy he sells. He’s invariably cheerful and ready for a chat. I tease him about his smoking (he keeps promising to quit), I threaten to report him for not wearing his badge (on the cover of the magazine it says “Please buy from badged vendors only”), and I pretend to have bought the magazine from another vendor. It’s all water off a duck’s back.

Late last year I saw him on a Saturday afternoon selling sausage sandwiches outside the supermarket. I assumed he’d come up with a way of supplementing his magazine income but I couldn’t have been more mistaken. It turns out the supermarket chain was running a promotion for the Childrens Hospital and the manager had decided on a sausage sizzle. Brian saw him selling “about three in half an hour” and offered to take over. Through the course of that afternoon and the next, Brian sold enough sandwiches to his regulars and other locals to raise $1000 for the hospital.

Australia is full of people, rich and poor, who complain about the hand they’ve been dealt. Brian isn’t one of them. When I saw him yesterday, he had two reasons to be happy—there’s a story about him in the magazine (that’s his photo on the page he’s holding open) and today is his birthday. This afternoon he’ll be outside the station when I get off the train. I’ll look forward to seeing him so I can give him a gift, which won’t come close to repaying him for all he’s taught me. Brian is someone we call in Australia a “battler.” I’m lucky to know him.

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Another Big Issue

Poster: The Big Fashion Issue

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Sunday 10 February 2002

Never a good idea, Caleb…

to ignore the fundamental rule that a writer should never attempt to publicly defend a book against a hostile critic. Caleb Carr complains to Salon about Laura Miller’s review:

Her review of my “The Lessons of Terror” is riddled not only with references to statements made in the book that she can’t PROVE wrong, but simply FEELS MUST be wrong, as if she is reviewing something as subjective as Lady Bushnell’s latest tripe, but also with arrogant misstatements of actual facts: Japan, for example, was not reduced to surrender by either the bombing of its civilians or, finally, the atomic bombs; it had been reduced to fatal weakness by something that I’m sure Ms. Miller is utterly unaware of, one of the most underappreciated military campaigns in history: that of American submarines against Japanese naval and merchant shipping. But let’s not let facts or a shaky grounding in history keep us from being a bitchy wise-ass—THAT would get you thrown out of the club that meets at Michiko’s to watch “Sex in the City” and spout a lot of nonsense about things they don’t know.

Anyone who has read even a miniscule amount about the Pacific War understands that Japan was forced to surrender for a number of reasons, only one of which was the American submarine campaign against Japanese shipping. Suggesting this was the most important factor lays Mr Carr open to the very accusation he levels against Ms Miller: that he’s a bitchy wise-ass with a shaky grounding in history.

Among the other reasons for Japan’s final surrender were:

  • the firebombing raids cited by Ms Miller, in which—according to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey—B-29s killed 330,000 people, injured 476,000, destroyed 2.5 million buildings, and left 8.5 million people homeless.
  • the mine-laying campaign in the Inland Sea, undertaken by B-29s and carrier based aircraft that caused massive losses of shipping in the last five months of the war (1,052,177 tons compared to 235,627 tons lost to submarines)
  • the destruction of the Japanese navy in a series of ongoing battles that eventually left the most powerful ships in the fleet confined to their homeland ports
  • the gradual attrition by superior American aircraft and pilots that reduced the Japanese air force to kamikaze tactics
  • the successful, albeit costly, American strategy of attacking and capturing crucial islands in the Central Pacific while bypassing huge numbers of Japanese troops—leaving them to languish in irrelevant and inhospitable South Pacific bases
  • the deteriorating civilian morale caused by unrelenting bombing and lack of food (by the end of the war the average Japanese citizen’s daily food ration comprised 1680 calories, less than subsistence levels, resulting in a massive increase in diseases caused by nutrional deficiencies)
  • the disillusionment of Emperor Hirohito about the competence of his generals and the progress of the war together with his concern for the suffering inflicted on his subjects, both military and civilian
  • the existence of a peace faction within the Japanese government which, although initially weak and powerless, gathered strength and confidence as the war continued to Japan’s disadvantage
  • the fear amongst the civilian powerbrokers that the Imperial system was under threat from internal upheaval 
  • the dropping of the two atomic bombs which, although failing to convince the diehard militarists of American superiority, provided the peace faction with sufficient evidence to persuade the Emperor that the war could not be won.

Even if the US not developed the atomic bombs, the United States Army Air Force would have next turned its attention to destroying the Japanese rail system, a strategy that had significantly contributed to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Such an assault would (according to Richard B. Frank) “have required massive repair and replacement of rail infrastructure to remedy, far beyond the capacity of Japan’s resources, even after hostilities ceased.” This, together with the ongoing blockade and bombing strategy, would inevitably have compelled the Emperor to end the war, thus avoiding the land invasion that was causing deep concern to US Army and Marine planning staff.

At the risk of sounding like a bitchy wise-ass, I’ll suggest that Mr Carr might be better off leaving the Pacific War alone and trying instead to wangle an invitation to Michiko’s to watch “Sex in the City.”

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Wednesday 13 February 2002

Relieve that man of his shovel!

Not content with digging himself into a hole, Caleb Carr does his best to deepen it.

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The heart of things

Following TX Meryl’s advice, I’ve added a description to my site. The Chinese character to the left of my name is xin, heart. In Japanese it’s pronounced kokoro or shin, depending on the context. In Japanese it can mean mind, spirit, feelings, emotions, thoughts… Its diffuse “meaning” is one of the reasons I chose the character kokoro as the graphical title for my site.

It’s also the name of a novel by the distinguished Japanese writer, Natsume Soseki. At the end of the English translation of Kokoro, Edwin McClellan, the translator, explains: The best rendering of the Japanese word “kokoro” that I have seen is Lafcadio Hearn’s, which is: “the heart of things.”

Although it’s difficult to imagine someone less like Natsume Soseki, I also connect the word kokoro with the French poet, Francis Ponge, who wrote in Le parti pris des chose (which I think can be loosely translated as “the thing’s view of it”):

Out of the typographic thickets that constitute a poem, on the road that leads neither beyond things, nor towards the spirit, certain fruits are formed from an agglomeration of spheres that a drop of ink fills up.

Most of all, I think of kokoro, the heart of things, as representing the direction I hope to take my writing.

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Saturday 16 February 2002

Pudding-chan

Pudding, Newtown, 13 Feb 02

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Blogging as a high wire act

Dominic Dromgoole’s essay—on how the paucity of intervals reduces the drama of the modern theatrical event—explained why I frequently find the theater so stiff and pretentious. It also serves as a meta-commentary on blogging:

But no matter who the writer, theatre is tense. It’s intended to be a high-wire act. Actors can forget their lines, or fall off the stage, or have heart attacks and die. That, to be callous, is the fun of it. It is the essence of its liveness, that it is always on the point of collapse. It is one of the few arts whose joy lies in its potential for disintegrating in front of you. This is what the plate-spinning fraternity, with all their frantic falling over, do not realise. They are always strenuously underlining the liveness of theatre. It is already live. The audience knew that when they bought their tickets. They want to see something complex, difficult, beautiful and wise being brought off with speed, agility and grace. The achievement of that, that particular walk over the tightrope, is what makes theatre great. Being a crap mime, or a bad clown, and being proud of it because it proves how live you are doesn’t quite hit the same level of endeavour.

(via Arts & Letters Daily)

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The imaginary me

Mike Sanders asks “Who is the real you?”

We all wear masks and that is a good thing. Among other things, it helps people focus on our virtues and not on our faults. There has been much stimulating discussion on personal authenticity on David Weingberger’s blog. Or as Peter Townsend of The Who put it “Can you see the real me? Can you, can you?”

Both Mike’s question and his “masks” metaphor are based upon an underlying assumption that a “real me” actually exists. I used to believe this; and I spent a considerable amount of time, money, and psychic energy trying to discover him/me. In a 1996 Wired profile Sherry Turkle talks about role-playing—what I believe Mike means by masks—in these terms:

“We need a new language for it,” she says. “Role-playing sounds as if it’s something we’re putting on, playing at. I’m saying these are all bona fide aspects of our self. Good parenting will not teach somebody how to be a One, but teaching someone how to negotiate fluidly and have access to many aspects of the self. You have access to all of them: that’s the key, that’s what makes it healthy and not pathological. You learn to negotiate, to fit them together in some way. Using language of ‘cycling through’ rather than ‘building a One’ is going to be helpful to patients clinically, and help people think about their lives. It’s accepting where we are in the culture.”

That seemed to confirm what I’d long suspected. Perhaps there is no “real me,” just a multiplicity of me’s jostling for pre-eminence.

Antonio Tabucchi, Pereira DeclaresIn Antonio Tabucchi’s Pereira Declares, the protagonist—an aging, overweight, lonely journalist—visits a thalassotherapeutic clinic south of Lisbon. Over dinner, he tells the doctor assigned to take care of him that he feels “the need to repent, just as if I were someone else entirely, and not the Pereira who’s spent all his working life as a journalist…”

Dr Cardoso beckoned the waitress and ordered two fruit salads, no sugar or ice-cream please. Then: I have a question for you, said Dr Cardoso, and that is, are you acquainted with the medécins-philosophes? No I’m not, admitted Pereira, who are they? The leaders of this school of thought are Théodule Ribot and Pierre Janet, said Dr Cardoso, it was their work I studied in Paris, they are doctors and psychologists, but also philosophers, and they hold a theory I think interesting, the theory of the confederation of souls. Tell me about it, said Pereira. Well, said Dr Cardoso, it means that to believe in a “self” as a distinct entity, quite distinct from the infinite variety of all the other “selves” that we have within us, is a fallacy, the naive illusion of the single unique soul we inherit from Christian tradition, whereas Dr Ribot and Dr Janet see the personality as a confederation of numerous souls, because within us we each have numerous souls, don’t you think, a confederation which agrees to put itself under the government of one ruling ego. Dr Cardoso made a brief pause and then continued: What we think of as ourselves, our inward being, is only an effect, not a cause, and what’s more it is subject to the control of a ruling ego which has imposed its will on the confederation of our souls, so in the case of another ego arising, one stronger and more powerful, this ego overthrows the first ruling ego, takes its place and acquires the chieftainship of the cohort of souls, or rather the confederation, and remains in power until it is in turn overthrown by yet another ruling ego, either by frontal attack or by slow nibbling away. It may be, concluded Dr Cardoso, that after slowly nibbling away in you some ruling ego is gaining the chieftainship of your confederation of souls, Dr Pereira, and there’s nothing you can do about it except perhaps give it a helping hand whenever you get the chance.

Dr Cardosa’s explanation meshes better with my lived experience even at the cost of there being no “real me.”

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Couldn’t disagree with you more

Victor offers a suggestion “to revolutionise American popular culture—it would be to use a much thinner mug for serving coffee at breafast time. The thick white mugs that are used in many establishments are guaranteed to turn that first cup of coffee stone cold.”

The thick white mug is an essential component of the American coffee experience (in a diner at least, I don’t know what kind of mugs they have at Starbucks). I drink my morning coffee out of a thick white mug and the heft and feel of it more than compensate for a slightly lowered temperature.

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Sunday 17 February 2002

The woman of my dreams

“A Melbourne woman today celebrated the opening of a new Starbucks store in her home suburb of St Kilda. ‘I have always hated the taste of coffee, so it’s great that I can now get a coffee without any taste,’ she said. (The Chaser News via Meryland)

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Thick coffee mugs

Coffee cupThis is the kind of thick white coffee mug that so greatly distresses Victor. I suspect that he would find Dave’s coffee mug perfectly acceptable (Dave’s mug is made of thinner, whiter china than mine).

I’ve had this mug for more than twelve years and would be terribly upset if I accidentally broke it. Each time I travel to the US, I tell myself that I should buy a spare or two but I never seem to get around to it.

I just tried to find a supplier via Google and all I could turn up was the Jack Rabbit Coffee Cup (“A great thick coffee cup with the Jack Rabbit Trading Post Logo on the cup.”). One wonders where they could put a logo other than on the cup.

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Standing up to bullies

In a thoughtful essay on bullying, Meryl Yourish writes:

And so I’m going to say something that will probably piss off a lot of you out there, but here it is: Bystanders who say nothing when they see bullying going on must also bear a share of the guilt. And there are many of you out there who said nothing when other kids were bullied. I understand the reasons: You didn’t want the bully to shift attention to you, and maybe start picking on you. I do get that. But then you have to understand that you also bear some of the blame of bullying. It isn’t all on the bad kids’ shoulders. It’s also on the shoulders of the silent.

She’s right. And bullying can take many different forms. One night last year I was taking the train home after a Japanese class. A young man carrying a bible walked into the carriage and accosted a young Asian woman sitting directly across the aisle from me. He asked her a series of questions about where she was going, where she worked, whether she believed in God and went to church. I looked carefully at her reaction and it seemed abundantly clear that she was not interested and wanted to be left alone. My instinctive response was to intervene but I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t projecting my anti-zealot attitudes onto her.

Finally she looked across at me with an expression that clearly said: “I’m very uncomfortable about this but I don’t know what to do.” That was enough. I interrupted him, told him that his questions were unwelcome, and suggested he stop immediately. He stared at me, thought for  a moment, then got up and left the carriage. She caught my eye and smiled a thank you.

Then, to my amazement, people all around us started saying: “Good on you!” “Well done!” “He deserved to be told off like that!” A few even clapped. I thought to myself, “Gee, if you felt so strongly about it, why did you just sit there?”

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Nanci at the Cafe Trieste

Just after four on a muggy February afternoon in Sydney, the kind of unpleasant humidity the Japanese describe as mushi-atsui. What could be better than an iced coffee? For some reason, the second sip brought back a memory of the Cafe Trieste in North Beach in January of 1988. I ate breakfast there a few mornings before heading off to the Macworld Expo. In 1988, it seemed to be the only place in San Francisco that served proper espresso.

It was on the same trip that I discovered Nanci Griffith. On the opening day of the Macworld show, the counter where I had to pick up my press pass either didn’t accept credit cards or couldn’t change a $100 bill or something. I wandered up to a record shop on Market Street to buy a Keith Jarrett CD and get some change. When I walked inside, I was captivated by the voice coming through the store speakers. I asked a woman behind the counter who it was. “I have no idea,” she said wearily and pointed to a young man at the back. “Ask him. He’s from West Texas. He plays her all the time.” I bought three Nanci Griffith CDs and walked back to Macworld. Ever since then, I play her music all the time myself.

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Monday 18 February 2002

Blogging as radical self-transformation

The topics fly past at Keep Trying, like local stations seen briefly from the window of an express. Sometimes I’d like to get off and stretch my legs—as with the discussion about the real you (a.k.a. the unitary self vs. the multiplicity of me’s)—but we’re already too far down the track. As Shelley puts it, “There is nothing more discouraging than to become excited about something and then receive silence.” One faces a couple of choices in that situation: to continue to speak in the face of silence or to switch to a subject with more general appeal.

Today Mike Sanders deftly merged two recent Burningbird topics that generated lots of comment friction: “how much is too much [personal sharing in a weblog]?” and “blogging about your blogging.” Mike observed:

…blogging about blogging is not about blogs. It’s about life. The blog is just giving us a new mechanism of examination. Examining ourselves, examining our relationships, examining our pleasures, examining our world. And many of us are energized by the wonderment of it all.

If you don’t enjoy the discovery process, thats ok with me. (Not that you need my ok.) I agree that the introspective part of it can be discomforting. Our culture does not encourage introspection and many have not had positive experiences with it. But at the core, I think we all are growth oriented and introspection is critical to personal growth.

I agree that “introspection is critical to personal growth” though, in the world that I inhabit, I see scant evidence that “we are all growth oriented”. Still, as Mike would probably say, who am I to judge?

The use of the blog as a “new mechanism of examination” meshes with an essay I discovered via Arts & Letters Daily: Thomas Nagel’s New Republic review of Rüdiger Safranski’s Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, a biography that largely ignores outer events to concentrate on “the temporal course of Nietzsche’s inner life and his self-transformation through thought and writing.” Introducing Nietzche’s project, Nagel writes:

To take oneself and one’s world as given, and move forward intellectually and practically from that starting point, was in his view a betrayal of the extraordinary freedom that we possess as reflective beings. Nietzsche recognized that, like all human beings, he had reached consciousness with a sense of himself and a system of values that was produced by a tangled human history together with biological sources of which he was largely unaware. To take real possession of himself, to discover who he was and to decide who he wanted to be, required a bringing-to-consciousness of everything that lay beneath and behind the socially developed and educated human being—the constructed individual who handles the world with concepts, values, and methods of thought whose sources and true meanings he does not understand. It required a radical self-transformation.

There’s a difference between Nietzche’s bringing-to-consciousness of everything that lies beneath and, in Shelley’s phrase, the “complete and uncontrolled dump of self.” The latter represents Doc’s “abundance of blogging dreck” that mainstream pundits snidely emphasize. Once again, as Doc so neatly puts it, “the majority defines the entirety.” But only if you measure quantity rather than quality. The blogs I respond to are informed, articulate, gracefully written, courageous, revelatory, and radically self-transforming. And there are already too many of them for me to discover, let alone visit regularly.

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Tuesday 19 February 2002

Nobility in death

Burningbird writes:

There is no nobility in death, only in the lives we lead. Trying to make death pretty or noble hides what it really is—the loss of a life and the hurt and the pain and suffering of those who are left behind. The unfufilled potential.

That hasn’t always been my experience. My father displayed an extraordinary degree of nobility in the way he approached his death. As have certain friends whose deaths I attended. As did the men on United Airlines Flight 93, who sacrificed their lives and those of the other passengers in order to thwart the terrorists’ plan to kill hundreds or thousands in their intended target.

“Are you guys ready? Let’s roll!” said Todd Beamer. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. Or strangers. If there is no nobility in those deaths, there is no nobility in anything.

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Life and death

Burningbird replies, after reading my response to her post on nobility in death:

One clarification: I am not taking away from the nobility of the actions of a person in how they face death, or the actions they take before death. I consider these to be the last acts of life.

But to use nobility in reference in death in order to somehow make the act acceptable or more palatable—for newscasting or for politics—is wrong.

Naturally I agree with Burningbird’s second statement. And I was remiss in not referencing the original essay from onepotmeal that provoked this discussion. There are far fewer heroes in any war than the military, the politicians, or the media would like us to believe. To refer to everyone who dies in combat as a hero diminishes the true heroism of a few.

On the first point, however, I would argue that death forms part of a continuum, commencing with birth, and that there is a fuzzy boundary between “the last acts of life” and the first acts of death. It’s why I so deeply admire Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking. At the beginning of the film, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) is already dead: morally, spiritually, and—for all practical purposes, since his appeal is destined to fail—physically.

The story charts his journey through death and back towards life, which he only embraces during his last moments in the execution chamber. My guess is that many lives encompass such a death, though perhaps more compressed in time, and that in this context it is impossible to separate one from the other.

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Wednesday 20 February 2002

The Immortal Van

Van Morrison: Astral WeeksTonight SBS ran the first episode of From a Whisper to a Scream: The Story of Irish Music. Bono put into words something I’ve been feeling ever since Lindy and I walked into Alessandro and Susie’s house in Palm Beach on New Year’s Eve in 1973:

Astral Weeks is a kind of legal drugs, isn’t it?

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Language skills

This morning I took the train to Penrith—50 kilometers (35 miles) from the center of Sydney, where I live—to do some work at FirmwareDesign. I always spend the 50 minute ride doing the same thing: reading a Japanese novel.

My Japanese is adequate. I can travel in Japan for weeks at a time without speaking English, always able to buy a ticket to the next destination, book a room at an inn, order drinks and food in the tiny yakitori-ya where I like to spend my evenings. Once the owner and customers recover from the shock of encountering a foreigner at close quarters, the evenings always turn out well. I have a conversational repertoire and, even if the topic strays from my areas of expertise, I can conduct quite a complex conversation with only 50% comprehension. I learned a long time ago that the only mistake is to let on that you don’t understand what’s going on. Bluff and you’ll eventually be able to make an appropriate remark.

Reading is a problem, however, so I try to practice reading in Japanese whenever I can. The train ride is ideal. My eventual goal is to read Nagai Kafu’s A Strange Tale from East of the River in Japanese but that’s way beyond my present skills. Instead I’m reading a trashy novel, a kind of Mills & Boon or Harlequin novel for men. Imagine something eight or nine rungs down the literary ladder from Jackie Collins or Sidney Sheldon. I chose this book partly for lascivious reasons but mainly because I knew I’d understand most of the grammar and vocabulary.

Still, it’s something of a challenge. Japanese is an oblique language, in which 60% of sentences don’t have a subject. You have to infer from the context who’s doing what to whom. On the third or fourth page I realized that Reimi, the heroine, who was driving back to Tokyo with her colleague Junko at the start of the story, hadn’t bought and delivered food to the software engineers who were working back late at the office. “Shit,” I remember thinking to myself, “they’re still in the Volvo on the expressway. She’s only wondering about whether she should buy food.”

This morning the train arrived at Penrith station, just as Wakura, the unscrupulous villain, had given Reimi a glass of wine laced with an hallucinogenic drug. I gathered up my book and dictionary and within less than a minute was outside, looking through the window of the first cab on the rank at a bucket of chips wedged between the driver’s and the passenger’s seat.

“Pardon my breakfast,” said the driver as I sat down beside him. “That’s OK,” I replied. I told him the destination and relaxed back in my seat. Then the strangest thing happened. He launched into a detailed explanation about something and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. What language is he speaking, I asked myself. I listened closely but it seemed totally unrecognizable. We drove for two or three blocks, him chattering away and me nodding in reply. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about; until I heard the word “vinegar” and I realized the conversation had something to do with his chips. “Oh,” I told him, “I love the taste of vinegar on chips.”

And he was off again. “…brown sauce…” I heard him say. “Do you mean like Worcestershire Sauce,” I asked him, “or thicker?” And so I clawed my way back into the conversation. He was a Scotsman. He’d lived in Australia for 40 years and hadn’t lost his brogue, which was as thick as the brown sauce he used to pour on the chips that he bought at the fish and chip shop halfway on his way home from the Edinburgh pub where he used to go every Friday night in winter.

The fog lifted and we had a great chat. About how Australia gradually took over his heart and became home to him and his wife and three kids; about his five grandchildren and how their flat Aussie accents occasionally betray their Scottish heritage. I told him how I loved hearing Asian children in the supermarket speaking with Australian accents. He told me about having the same experience with the children of Pakistani immigrants back in Scotland. “You try to match the voice to the face and it doesn’t fit,” he said.

I’m not sure why I found it so hard to understand him at the beginning. I might still have been in Tokyo, worrying about how Reimi could avoid Wakura’s clutches (and knowing that she wouldn’t). It didn’t matter. I discovered I could carry a conversation with only 5% comprehension and everything would turn out fine.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour