Tuesday, October 20, 2009

more books

I won't be turning this blog into a book review. There are enough of those, plus I'm not that deluded about the value of my literary opinions. Surely I do have them and I'll argue argue them to no end, perfectly aware of their abject subjectivity. If it is in fact subjective. For all my liberalism, be it innate, inbred or consciously assumed, I really do feel like there is a concrete aesthetic in the universe: some things are simply more beautiful than others. As far as I'm concerned, there is no argument here. It just is so. I don't care who you are, as writers go, James is better than Rowling. Not just smarter or more complicated or more mature or has been around longer. He's just better.

Now, If you adhere to the notion that there is no basis for such a judgment because we all know that in this postmodern world there is no privileged position in the universe, know this: Einstein wasn't talking about you because you are wrong, and the reason why I can say that is because I am not. Unraveling the flawed logic here is not worth it. I know my condescension casts doubt upon my very contention a priori. (The latin is here to amuse and/or confuse [as is that rhyme] according to a whim, so don't get distracted, supposing that reading this post is not, in fact, a distraction.) The subtextual tension lies, however, in whether such a conspicuous acknowledgment of my own tenuous argument refutes or bolsters my earlier assertion. Heh, heh. I love spewing rhetoric. I just Kant stop myself!

Wretched. Wretched.

Enough already. Continuing, I recently found two books at a used bookstore near my apartment. The store is one of a national secondhand hand bookstore chain called "Book Off." Smile if you like--your reaction is not wrong. Just remember this isn't a English speaking place. The name is English because all Japanese just happen know a lot of English for a few reasons, not the least of which is that anyone born later than the mid 70's has had a minimum of 6 years of English study in school. Everyone who reads the store front understands "book" as in "book" and "off" as in "discount," so for Japanese customers "Book Off" is actually quite a descriptive, straightforward name devoid of innuendo. We should be a little magnanimous in our tolerance for the English foibles of another country and be happy they even make an effort at all. We should also be happy they didn't use the name of their sister store that sells used AV gear and computer ware called "Hard Off." Video games and computer programs are sold at "Book Off," by the way, so you needn't be concerned about the existence of a "Soft Off" as well.

Whatever the "Off," I bought the only two English titles for sale among the vast racks of Japanese books, manga and porn: August 1914 and The Island of the Day Before. Just how these two eclectic, heady tomes found their way into a used bookstore squeezed between a McDonald's and a conveyor belt sushi joint along some rural highway in Nara, Japan might be enough material for a third eclectic, heady tome. I bought them out of jocular desperation: I'm out of things to read, since my Japanese literacy leaves much to be desired and Tr**a won't lend me any more books, as those she's lent in the past somehow don't ever make it back to her.

Dad used to, and I'll bet he still does, keep a log of who's borrowed what book when, and I'm sure my name is still listed 6 or 10 times in delinquent glory therein. Maybe Tr**a should try that. My policy is to never lend a book outright. I either give it away (something painful that I try to avoid) or people borrow it from my house without asking, knowing that I won't notice it missing right away and even when I do, I'll just think I misplaced it in one of the 8 other places I pile my ever growing collection of books. Now I have two more.

I can't help but but wonder about these books. I think they bespeak some things about some elements of the ex-pat crowd. First of all, they smack of a sense of self-importance. These are works of two of the hardest reading authors I've ever encountered. They both make me feel guiltily stupid about how much I'm missing on each turned page. (Some of you will know the article I stole that from. I say, "good for you." Revel in your elitism. I certainly join you! More of you will not know the reference. Again, "good for you." Any perceived originality will just polish my urbane veneer.) Somehow, with all the much more accessible writers around, the store's English section consisted of Solzhenitsyn and Eco and no one else.

One could, of course, pick up an English novel at any good new bookstore, but those books are mostly self-help and psudo-political rags (Rich Dad, Morally Triumphant Dad, The Closing of the American Mouth and other such ilk), Victorian classics, complete with TOEIC rating, or airplane reads. Though ex-pats read whatever popular fiction is around--we are no more immune to Dan Brownanity than anywhere else--there is always a section of us that fancies themselves above such commonness. These are the people who only order from Amazon, or worse Exlibiris, after reading the NY Times book review with the hope that their less intellectually pretentious foreign friends will be impressed when they come over for exotic Tex-Mex burritos or shepherd's pie and see the pompous display of erudite, though unread, texts decorating an Ikea bookcase.

Looking at The Island, I feel good seeing that there are only creases halfway through the spine, because now I know I won't be the only person who has owned the book trying to project an air of I'm-better-than-you-ness but never in sooth finished reading it, though that isn't so important since books like these aren't the kind you could ever chat about if you were to finish. I mean, how much can you say about something you didn't really get and no one else has read?

Looking at this, quite a lot, it seems, while affording, no less, a chance to drop an "in sooth" with grace and panache.

This leads to another thing the books say about ex-pats: a conclusion deduced from the two titles themselves. The two books are both the work of well established, fairly famous writers, though neither book is its respective writer's most well known work. Most of the Japanese ex-pat community do have college degrees due to several visa/immigration issues, so it's entirely within the realm of possibility that some, hopefully many, of these primarily liberal arts graduates will have had found themselves confronted at one point with A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch or The Name of the Rose in some history or literary survey class and might, thus, not only remember the story and its writer but even be able to spit up some of the insights their professors had. Because of this, it would be dangerous to display one of those more well known books if you haven't read them. But many ex-pats feel the need to showoff academic acumen they don't posses, so for them, it's better to flaunt something that will impress by association with out risking exposure as a scholastic fraud.

What is, however, a readily apparent fraud is how much I have written about two books I have yet to read a page of. I'm amazed how much there is to say about nothing. What would be even more amazing is if someone actually read this much of that nothing. What more could I then say but "thanks" and "my condolences."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I almost posted a schlock of drivel I wrote on some unused handouts on the train home since it's been about two weeks since my last addition and I'm trying to be remotely consistent for now. In the context of some things that are going on with someone close to me right now, however, it didn't seem appropriate at the present. My ceaseless inanity can be put off for a while, I think.

I may end up mentioning or alluding to some pretty private matters here, so I hope I don't offend the person I'm writing about. I don't think it will, though, and I'll try to be delicate.

What is not a delicate matter is this: one of my closest friend's best friend from home is dying, a victim of, as far as anything makes sense, a strike of malice from one of the Universe's many hammers of random abuse, in this case, pervasively aggressive leukemia. I don't want to dwell on the ludicrous lack of fairness in this world and how much things like this rattles my struggle to maintain a sense of justice and ethical morality in the midst of this flimsy fabric woven by our existence. It is perhaps enough to say simply that this sucks.

I don't really know my friend's friend (C--) all that well. I met him only once; therefore, admittedly my level of direct emotional investment is rather limited, though that does not mean the gravity of everything is lost on me in any measure. I am instead involved in this indirectly, in that I am emotionally invested in what my friend (S--) is going through with C--. And there has certainly been a lot to go through over the past months of treatments, remissions, relapses, financial absurdity, etc. Throughout, I have watched S-- wrack himself with guilt and geographically imposed impotent frustration. I've tried to be supportive, but what can I offer besides empty platitudes and empathy?

Totally unequipped to succor S-- in any meaningful way through his ordeal, his reaction to C--'s situation astounds me, despite what should be crippling grief.

S-- and I are in many ways polar opposites. He's highly competitive. I am not remotely so, at least not anymore. He did well in school. I barely found school most days. He was a key member of nationally ranked H.S. football and wrestling teams. I spent most of my time watching the girls' team members as I lost 80% of my H.S. tennis matches. S-- is a ridiculously skilled leader and organizer of people and events. I loathe responsibility for others. He built and runs a successful business. I'm not sure if I can even spell "business." He can make fantastically good Mexican food from scratch. I can eat Mexican food. He pledged for a frat in college. I had bit parts in three plays in college. He has earned the respect and esteem of his peers through tireless efforts on their behalf. I beat people into submission with misused hyperbolic vocabulary and oblique derision.

In short, had I met him in Jr. high or high school or college, I would have despised him with unmitigated vehemence and gone to extraordinary lengths to see him groveling swine-like in craven humiliation before the masses.

Luckily, we met at a time when I could see past my petty prejudices and appreciate people who possess qualities that I think are important, which for S-- are a fecund sense of humor, unfailing loyalty, and good natured tolerance and generosity. This is not to say that S-- is not without his faults, he was in a frat after all, but I am surely in no position to judge another's shortcomings, crusty sack of deficiency that I am.

But I'm not writing this to prop S-- up (he has a pretty good sense of self-worth with any padding from me) or describe S--'s personality. After all, you either already know him or you don't and if you don't, you probably live far away. I'm writing this because of S--'s remarkable way of dealing with the refractory state of C--'s circumstances. Personally, I have trouble with grief and bereavement and the events leading up to them. I find myself so unable to process the loss of someone I know, let alone love, that I tend to shut down emotionally when I can or take whatever escape is available at the moment if I can’t. A number of problems result because of this: I miss chances to truly grieve either because I can’t get to that emotional level or because I make or allow myself to be physically absent. Then I feel guilty about that the whole while my unreleased grief slowly corrodes its way out of the cracks in my mind over the space of years.

That’s why S--‘s approach to the tragedy before him impressed my to the point that I feel compelled to write about it. When he got the news about C--, he switched in to action mode rather than be adversely affected by the sorrow and despair that were surely exquisite. Immediately and without waiting for someone else to, S--organized an online support network to create a means for the people concerned with C-- to both with him well and know what they could do for him and his family. S-- then began regular updates on C--‘s condition so all those people who were getting involved through the network know what was going on and feel that their efforts and prayers were appreciated and making some kind of difference. This required him to have regular contact with C-- and his family and throughout, as far as I am privy, has been a consummate supporter and friend, managing mundane concerns and affairs and remaining a beacon of hope and positivity.

Later when some financial pressure developed, S-- organized a huge private auction to raise money. He contacted not only people involved with the support network, but also anyone else he could about donating goods and services for the auction, while simultaneously finding a venue, applying for government permits, getting the word out to people in sundry ways, in addition to solving countless snags directly related and otherwise. Ultimately, his work was a resounding success and a huge amount of money went to assisting C-- ‘s family through his treatments. For me this was impressive because not only was it far beyond anything I’d ever dream of attempting, but he took care of everything over months from the other side of the Pacific. Ridiculous dedication. Who does something like that? I know there must be many such heroes around somewhere, but they are damn scarce around me.

S-- is not looking for any sort of tribute or lauding, and that’s not what I mean to do here. I’ve just been impressed and wanted to say something about what I’ve been privileged to witness. Maybe this is just a feeble attempt to transmit positive Karmic vibes. Maybe I’m just worried about my friend and hope he feels better through what he’s done. In spite of the Universe’s unrelenting display of evidence to the contrary, some things do make sense, truly matter and have real meaning. I merely wish it didn’t take random cosmic malevolence to get a chance see that.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


I spent the morning looking for a place that still sold film. Nothing obscure--though I'd love to have gotten a hold of a roll or two Velvia or Kodachrome 64--just some, as of now, old-fashioned 35mm film. But it was nowhere I looked. I figured there wouldn't be much of a selection, but none? Surely the turnover from out of date to retro-cool has become so quick any lag is imperceptible or at worst unappreciated. In any case, it looks like 35mil has yet to be wrapped up in the analog renaissance gestating reel to reel, 8mm, and McIntosh tube amps (as if they ever lost any coolness). My hope is for a rediscovery of Beta. You may think I'm kidding, but that would be because you don't know anything about Beta, which in my condescending opinion is on a par with video disks in vying for media supremacy.

35mm film doesn't even approach such quality, its main charm being that I've spent more time with it than anything else. Regardless, or even irregardless for that matter, I still couldn't find any. Not at 7-11, nor Royal Home Center, Japan's answer to Home Depot, nor either of the huge electronics stores out on Highway 24. I had almost resorted to cracking open one of those disposable cameras when I walked into a little corner photo lab near the station.

It looked desolate and had a tang of long unused machinery in the air: a soon to be casualty of digital. I'm surprised it hasn't succumbed already. Maybe there's a huge market for overpriced passport photos or something. In among the SD cards I finally found a dusty three pack of Fuji Film, standard fare in all respects except that the rolls were 27(?) exp. Whatever, I had some now.

This all transpired due to a rare fit of cleaning. The cat had made a mess of my box of carefully tangled audio and computer cordage, and I was then similarly possessed to pull them all out and remind myself what I had amassed over the years. At the bottom of sundry XLR's, USB's, quarter inch patches, quarter inch to mini's, RCA to mini's, Firewires, cellphone chargers, etc., I rediscovered the knockoff Halliburton containing my old camera gear. I'm extremely proud of the kit I was able to piece together on virtually zero money growing up. Opening the case, I found, all totally mold free(!), my F3 and trusty cadre of Nikkors: the barely adequate 28mm, the 135mm for showing how serious I was, the 80-200mm I probably stole during the Ms. Paxman days of Newswriting, and the 55mm f/1.2 (I love this lens--though anyone who can read the notation will know that already). All that alongside the weird bending F3 speedlight with the upside-down logo and my MD4. Fond memories. Nagging regrets.

Why this even meant anything is because I've been mulling over making a leap to a serious digital SLR. The little Nikon S6 I've got is serviceable for what it is. Some color balance issues and no anti-shake compensation, but it's worked good enough even after being dropped into a toilet (post flush). It's just that I have a stubborn delusion that I can take a real photograph and not only press a button to record a visual reminder of a moment that was something I felt warranted to be thusly recorded at the time. Not that snapshots of our lives don't count as "real." They can, I think, be almost too real, disallowing the recollection of occasions filtered through our need to have had things been more to what we'd like them to have been, instead of the naked preservation a snapshot makes of how a moment was in cold reality.

What I mean by a "photograph" is an image wherein time, events, meaning have a fluid quality that becomes fixed only when viewed, the viewer a participant in determining the what or when of the image and whether it is significant (or not) according to their sensibilities at the moment of viewing. Not a recorded happening viewed; rather an image the viewing of which is in itself a happening. This sounds like an attempt to render a definition of aesthetics, and it'd be an utterly inelegant one if it were. No, it's merely tenuous justification for buying an expensive now toy. (Don't worry. I'm perfectly aware that my rhetorical dismissal here is just my trying to escape accountability for waxing philosophical. It will happen again.)

The model I've decided on is Nikon's D90. [Interjection: there is no camera brand but Nikon. Never mind that Adam makes his living with Canon--only Nikon offers the fine tradition of snobbish affectation I find so delectable.] Having waited this long to make my all-out digital foray however, I knew I could wait a little longer till the D90x or whatever came out and the price dropped on the D90's. Right now, I was feeling the comfortable grip of the F3 and suddenly just had to go take some pictures for the first time in I don't know how many years. Anyone can go take 8 gigs of digital swill and find one or two decent shots from among the chaff. It takes true spiritual dedication to instead spend a few minutes composing every single frame while simultaneously working out exposure and lighting factors, knowing the whole time that you'll be paying for each shutter flicker and that all the pictures will be swill anyway since you forgot to set the ISO in the first place.

Tomoko had left to teach a lesson somewhere by the time I returned triumphant from my tour de film, so as I had no domestic concerns other than the chores I was ignoring, I threw some food at the cat and set out on my shite sucking fold-a-bike to catch the last half hour of sunlight.

Japan's a great place for photos. Every angle holds the possibility of a scene pregnant with Oriental exoticism at once pierced by any number of elements of Occidental intrusion ready to beat anyone looking at the picture over the head with tired irony to the extreme that even taking the picture seems crushingly trite. I ignore irony--though not, case in point, loose alliteration. I don't think we can decide to be ironic anymore. Maybe irony as a conscious act of wit/satire/cleverness died sometime after Catch-22. Died isn't the right word, though. Everything became ironic in its being, and we're left with a world the inhabiting of which is fundamentally ironic, for we are the embodiment of irony. We're just born that way. Or born stupid. (Oh, that was mean.) Thus, my venture back into the realm of silver tarnished emulsion is not an ironic act any more than it is an act of any kind. Such is the always already deconstructed existence: constant circles and layers of self-conscious, self-reflective sarcasm spiraling ad infinitum (see Gravity's Rainbow).

What yet remained decidedly and objectively un-ironic, however, was that catching crawfish is no different than catching sand crabs, only that crawfish are slower. The rice fields that grow more and more vast the further one removes from central Nara City teem with crawfish, American as purported by their Japanese name, Amerikan-zarigani, and they probably bespeak another enormity my country has imposed on some environment. I'm sure a Holocaust of native species extinction ensued with the American crawfish's introduction into the delicate balance that WAS the Japanese rice field ecosystem. Dissertation fodder if I've ever heard any.

While holding one of the ruddy prawns up to be photographed against a backing canvas of ripening rice, lushly green and wind-wavy, I also disconcertingly discovered that I can't focus manually very well anymore because I can't see very well anymore. Today's just full of wonderment. If there had been more light, depth of field would otherwise have spared me this blurry indignity, but the sun's last rays were slip-sliding away into a Paul Simon song with loathsome abandon and it was shoot now or wait for it to get even darker, my less than rock-steady grip already a concern in this light at 1/30 of a sec. I knew I should have brought the nocturnal 55mm. Curse my narrow pockets and hate of bags.