pray for rain

August 20, 2012

Last time turned out to be the emptiest of promises, and what can I say, I really have no excuses for not writing. For somebody who portends to have writerly aspirations, my output would make even Harper Lee snigger with condescension. The last six (or is it seven? Eight? Nine?) months have been a series of fits and starts, roller coaster mood swings and making long-term plans with only a short-term grip on the direction my life is taking.

What I haven’t been doing is watching movies. The other night (admittedly, after a six month-long streak of purely visceral recreation, I probably wasn’t in the best state of mind)  I made the deliberate effort to sit down with one of the ‘classics,’ i.e. movies that people like to bang on about in university lectures and expensive quarterly journals costing $17.95, but which few regular people have ever actually seen. Films like The 400 Blows and anything by Godard used to inspire a sense of youth, freedom and sexual energy, even when they were dealing with hefty socio-political themes. But The Rules of the Game, for all its melodrama and comedy, just grated on me. Chekov’s gun makes it’s painfully obvious appearance about halfway through the film, in the guise of a kinetic hunting sequence where our heroes and heroines go game shooting on the grounds of the chateau. Hares scatter haphazardly through the tundra as Renoir’s camera tracks them from its stationary vantage point, the objective spectator; the obvious irony is that the characters become the indelible victims of their frivolous whims, and end up turning their guns on themselves.

Is the point simply that, regardless of class, we are all subject to the same tantrums of the heart, the same irrepresible hedonistic urges, the same desire to subvert the ‘rules’ of polite society? Cause that’s what I got out of it, and beyond this pretty simplistic message, all I could see were melodramatic and immature society types geeking out on their own egos. Call it what you like, but the upper class (at least in post-WWI France) are/were some pretty unbearable people. At least with Altman’s Gosford Park (which obviously took The Rules of the Game as its primary source material), we have the added  visceral thrill of a murder mystery to spice things up.

Not enjoying movies like The Rules of the Game makes me wonder about my intellectual well-being; have I literally grown out of the stage of my life where I cared about academics? Or is it more like a muscle that needs to be trained and routinely exercised in order to be maintained? In truth, it’s probably more a case of investing too much time and energy in more immediate and temporary gratification; I’ve been looking for cheap thrills in music, sport and life. A game of football, for instance, contains all the narrative qualities of a good book (in my opinion), with its rich history of rivalries, alliances, double-crossing, defecting and corporate influences, combined with the way the games themselves ebb and flow, evolve and reach a climax. This is something I plan to go into in more detail later. But I will just say that I don’t really buy Chomsky’s idea that institutionalised sports are an opiate for the masses, satisfying our collective bloodlust, in lieu of governments not being able to get away with waging meaningless wars (at least not all of the time). People like me enjoy sports not only as a physical spectacle – which, by the way, speaks directly to our animalistic instinct to seek out the fastest, strongest, most ruthless member of the tribe – but to our simple appreciation for a good fucking story.

Those are the kinds of tangents I need to distil into more focused and specific entries into this here blog, if I’m ever gonna make it in the cut-throat world of journalism. But then again, major news corporations pay idiots to blog about weekends in Vegas, so what do I know?

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The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler is, even by Chandler standards, highly revered. As well as being his longest Phillip Marlowe novel, it’s also the most fatalistic, the most world-wearied, the most introspective and the most cynical.

Marlowe, the archetypical post-depression era private eye (and vehicle for Humphrey Bogart’s illustrious career as the smooth-talking, womanising, gun-toting detective) is in rare form here. He is cunning and yet optimistic. He knows when to wax lyrical, and he knows when to keep his trap shut. In this day and age it may be harder to believe that women may respond to his gruff manner, constant rebuffs and infinite cynicism by unfastening their bathrobes, but believe it or not, there is an element of romance in Chandler’s writing. It’s not all fast talking and high trousers. As the web of lies and scandal spins itself around him, Marlowe becomes involved in an ever- tenuous struggle to keep his own cool, to hold on to his standards and of course to keep doing his job. It may not be glamorous work, but for Marlowe it seems that in an increasingly fractured society, the private eye beat is the only yardstick by which he can measure his own morality; by remaining honest whilst digging to the deepest recesses of the most corrupt and sordid of characters, Marlowe seeks his own redemption more than that of his misdirected clientele. He knows better than to assume that the coyer the smile, the more innocent the girl.

I guess that leads to my only real criticism of The Long Goodbye; Marlowe himself is often prone to the kind of sentimentality that is incongruous with the sordid line of business he is in. I doubt anybody charging twenty-five dollars per day would repeatedly stick his neck out to such dangerous lengths in order to adhere to some unspoken moral code. He is, at heart, too optimistic to be believable, when his worldview is so sharply cynical and fatalistic. I suppose in that sense you could argue that his optimism acts as a counterbalance and thus a plot device to propel the story – a lesser man would either get dead or give up, and then there’d be no story to tell. Marlowe, and indeed Chandler, don’t necessarily adhere to the adage that “the tragedy of life … is not that the beautiful things die young, but that they grow old and mean,” sage wisdom though it may be.

The violence in Chandler, unlike, say, Hammett, is brief, often takes place behind closed doors or just barely within earshot, and is over in a matter of a few lines. Hammett prefers the dynamic, protracted kind of action sequences, characterised by lots of sneaking around, silent pursuits, foot chases and noisy, bloody gunfights that often result in less people living than dying. On the contrary, more often than not Marlowe just happens upon violence. Indeed, the novel’s most violent moment comes very early on, and the remaining 400 pages sometimes seem like they are, to use the author’s own words, recovering from that one big hangover.

With the violence out of the way early, it allows Chandler and Marlowe room to take their time. Despite the novel’s length, there are days where he does little more than visit a bar and pick up a newspaper; there are extended sequences where he spends time following the faintest of scents in the hope of uncovering some unlikely connection that will link itself to the case. In many ways its languid mood is a reflection of the heat of the Californian summer, and of course this sultry atmosphere is as much a character in Chandler’s writing as Marlowe himself. The measured pacing and heavy atmosphere allow for a lot of reflection, a lot of dialogue and a lot of commentary. Chapters often end abruptly with sarcastic quips such as “[c]ops never say goodbye. They’re always hoping to see you again in the line-up,” but they usually come just as Marlowe has reached the end of his patience, or has had a little too much to drink. After all, what would the hard-boiled genre be without a resigned fatalism? Marlowe is a loner. The nights that he doesn’t spend alone are spent sprawled out drunk one somebody’s couch, for instance, or in resigned talks with marked men who are not long for this world. Under these circumstances it’s understandable that Marlowe would become jaded. Chandler was writing at the pinnacle of Hollywood’s decadence and depravity; before gangs and poverty infiltrated and when rich socialites legitimately ruled the roost, not corporations. There are class struggles aplenty and it’s clear that no amount of refined manners can cover up the inherent flaws in the imaginations of the upper-class. Chandler is a working class author for a working class audience who makes no secret of his disdain for extravagant tastes and lifestyles.

Of course, with The Long Goodbye, Chandler not only proves himself a master of prose but also of plotting. It may seem that all the dead ends and cold trails are all tied-up nice and neat with a little pink bow on top, until we are forced to reflect deeply on the fates of all the characters in the book’s final pages. What was long since dead and buried may just resurface; likewise the glimmers of optimism gradually flicker out. There is a deep sadness embedded within these pages, between all the sharp wit and criticism, and in many ways the title of the novel itself suggests what is to come – a protracted, heart-wrenching outward sigh that can indeed only end in one very particular way.

cupid’s poison arrow

February 15, 2011

Dunno if anybody ever told you, but Valentine’s Day in Japan is arse-backwards. Of course, the time-honoured tradition involves pimply teenaged dudes trying to woo girls that are way out of their league by buying them gifts, flowers, or serenading (and creeping the utter hell out of) them with an acoustic guitar from their front lawn (I guess they are just hoping for some Rapunzel-type moment, but I’ve only ever met one girl with hair that long, and I sure wouldn’t want to serenade her, nor would I want to repel up the side of her house by holding onto her hideous rat-tail lock of hair, and without doing that how the hell else do these guys expect to actually get into these girls ‘ bedrooms without having a full-frontal collision with an irate father?), but all of that is not without a certain awkward and charming romance.

Yes, dear readers, Valentine’s Day here in Japan is sadly little more than another way to reinforce an embarrassingly outdated social hierarchy and (like almost everything else) utterly void of any real emotion. Giggling girls exchange tacky trinkets instead of  receiving charmingly misspelled love letters, and repressed female members of staff are constantly reminded of their status as doting and passive sex-objects by being expected to ‘gift upwards’ to their male co-workers, who (naturally!) all enjoy a higher social status than they do. Females are expected to give gifts to males on Valentine’s Day, while the males sit back, relax, smoke their cigarettes, play slot machines and daydream about other ways in which they could slow down the country’s birth rate.

Sweet, sweet guilt.


I know this is true, because when I came to work this morning and found chocolates on my desk from the beautiful young Japanese teacher who sits opposite me, my male co-worker actually joked about the chocolates being from him as he gorged himself on his own bounty. I felt so guilty, and I don’t even want to eat these things because of it. But how can I repay the favour without a) going against the grain of my adopted society, or worse, b) looking like a smitten fool? Is there any way to show your appreciation for women, not just in Japan but in any society, without a sexual or at least a romantic connotation? I’ve heard stories about extremist vigilante feminists who don’t like having doors held open for them.

Let’s be honest, part of the fun of Valentine’s Day, and the romantic world in general, is the gamble that you take every time you put your heart on the line in front of somebody. Where would the fun be if we were guaranteed success every time we asked somebody out? It’s a delicate interplay of emotions, appetites and manipulative skill that dictates the outcome of even the most vaguely romantic social interaction.I’m pretty sure Valentine’s Day would give even Christmas a decent run for its money in the biggest-selling Hallmark-endorsed fake holiday stakes, but it’s sad that in this country it has slowly transformed from the one day of the year where people could get unashamedly romantic into yet another rigid institution, and, at least for women, a veiled opportunity for them to exercise their femininity by exchanging sweets and cards with each other, away from the prying, lecherous eyes of the men that govern them.

A final thought (what am I, Jerry Springer?): I’m told that on White Day (March 14th), males are expected to return the favour of the bounty they received on Valentine’s Day. Although, except in the increasingly rare cases of genuine romance, it seems to me that the function of White Day is not so much to return a favour as it is to unburden oneself of the guilt of having received a gift for no reason whatsoever on Valentine’s Day in the first place. The end result, naturally, is that men get away guilt-free and women get a nice gift to pacify their wild and unpredictable emotions. And everybody gets on with their lives. Seems like a fair trade to me.

This probably all sounds like a huge whinge. It’s not. I actually had a pretty great Valentine’s Day with a pretty special person. As a foreigner, I am in the priveliged position of being able to look upon these precedings with an objective sense of irony. Before y’all attack me for being a Nippon playa-hata, just keep in mind that these rants are not intended to be anything more than mildly entertaining. Yoroshiku, ne?

phoned in

January 19, 2011

Music-wise, 2010 saw the high-bandwidth/lo-fidelity indie revolution come full-circle. Just when you thought it was safe to admit to liking a few bands that had cracked the mainstream, indie kids thought the most appropriate course of action would be to start making music so unlistenable that simply to be able to tolerate it for the length of one (90-second) song indicated either an existence on a higher astral plane of musical enlightenment, or (more likely) a rejection of the convention of music itself, in any given scene, and a subscription to nothing more than painful self-effacement in order to prove some kind of anti-establishment political stance, like hippies who chain themselves to trees and defecate in their pants, or more appropriately, that god-awful “interior semiotics” video that went viral. Their only raison d’etre would be to serve as secret handshakes for entry into the indie elite.

Last year, liking bands that had only ever played one show, under a tarpaulin strung up beside some friend of the band’s step-dad’s caravan, in front of nine fans, and had the show bootlegged off a mobile phone recording onto a series of twelve hand-labelled cassette tapes, and then broke up because they felt they had already sold out too much, so they dispersed and then congealed into six separate side-projects (two each)…liking those kinds of bands became not only cool again, but a necessary requirement for having your opinions cared about.

The highlight and culmination of my year in music was probably when I met that one-man-band Duck Tails in Tokyo, who had just come off playing some shows in Melbourne. I asked him where he played and which bands he played with, and I hadn’t heard of any them. He did compliment me on my jacket, though, which I guess is validation enough for me.

Well, the anti-bourgeois battle plan kinda backfired. Sucks to your assmar, Duck Tails. Pitchfork decreed that bands like No Age and Beach House be unleashed upon the world, and that they be loved, and the ever-reliable legion of blog trolls played along, saturating my beloved internet with wave after Wavve of shitty repetitive lo-fi three-chord noise. The irony, of course, is that it’s now cliche to be into those very bands who were only forced into existence to try to avoid getting fans in the first place.

Luckily a few sage hands showed up to save the day. Here is a brief list of some of my favourites from last year.

best albums of 2010

The Gamits – Parts (click to stream entire album)

It’s fitting that my album of the year is also the biggest surprise, best throwback album, and comeback album of the year. The Gamits have proven once and for all the validity of modern pop punk. This album is gritty, heavy, catchy, but most importantly, it’s meaningful; here is a band that was pushed into obscurity when pop-punk and emo took off on a worldwide scale, and years down the track they have reformed and released a deeply personal, punishing, haunting album that blows away everything they did in the past (which was already very good in it’s own right). It flew under the radar when it was released, and I think The Gamits would almost prefer it that way, because Parts is a huge middle-finger to what pop music has become over the last few years. Put your prejudices aside and give this album an honest go – I doubt you will be disappointed.

The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt

I almost stumbled on this one, yet there’s something about The Wild Hunt that came to define the first part of 2010 for me. You will either love his voice or hate it, but there’s no denying this kind of songwriting. There is a starkness to most of the lyrics and they carry an elemental preoccupation, rife with references to weather and landscapes; everything seems very personal, but at the same time it’s hard to pin down. Of course it also helps that Kristian Mattson is also a damn fine geetar player.

Tame Impala – InnerSpeaker

I feel like a dork for including this, but these guys put together one dreamy, breezy album so free of pretension you will forget what year it is.

Robyn – Body Talk

Swedish pop with attitude, enough said.

Miami Horror – Illumination

The latter half of this album isn’t nearly as engaging as the first, but Miami Horror deserve praise for taking some brave steps away from big-beat electro on their debut album. Singles ‘I Look to You,’ and ‘Holidays’ easily take their places among the best Aussie tracks of 2010.

Sufjan Stevens – All Delighted People EP

Sufjan at his elaborate, intimate best; despite it’s extraordinary running time, this EP is remarkably cohesive and melodic, which is a first for him.

The National – High Violet

Like all their albums, High Violet is a slow-burner and one that takes a good while to sink in. It goes without saying, but The National are deceptively complex and reward repeated listens, and High Violet is no different.

The Walkmen – Lisbon

Two Door Cinema Club – Tourist History

Ellie Goulding – Lights

Chromeo – Business Casual

Editor’s note: Chromeo and Ellie Goulding both also qualify as 2010’s biggest guilty pleasures.

Los Campesinos! – Romance is Boring

None More Black – Icons

best songs of 2010

Bag Raiders – Sunlight

Miami Horror – Holidays

Good Shoes – The Way My Heart Beats

Sufan Stevens – Enchanting Ghost

Tokyo Police Club – Favourite Colour

Marina & the Diamonds – Are You Satisfied?

Yeasayer – ONE

The Walkmen – Angela Surf City

Kanye West (feat. everyone) – Monster (Nicki Minaj’s verse is the defining musical moment of 2010.)

Broken Bells – The High Road

Ellie Goulding – Your Biggest Mistake

biggest disappointments

Foals – Total Life Forever (This band’s main appeal to me was the feeling like each of their songs was the result of some mathematical equation designed for maximum tautness and efficiency. It was a world where emotions were simply not allowed. They were about as cold and detached as any rock band could possibly be. With their second album they went for a roomier and more atmospheric sound which is at odds with their cool stoicism. The result? Yawn.)

Bag Raiders (It sucks that the best track on this album is still ‘Shooting Star.’ A few others come close, but most of the album doesn’t make any impression. And what is up with that one track, ‘Always?’ That one sounds like it should be the aural accompaniment  to a Salt’n’Pepa video clip or something, featuring the worst key change and the worst lyrics released by any respectable group in 2010. Truly, truly awful.)

i just don’t get it

Sleigh Bells (The only difference between this band and a bunch of autistic 6 year-olds is that Sleigh Bells have a drum machine to make sure they keep in time.)

The Drums (Is this supposed to be cute or something? This is the musical equivalent of an ankle-high Scottish terrier that just doesn’t shut the fuck up.)

Caribou (One or two atmospheric and groovy tracks doesn’t mean anybody should give a shit. Most overrated crap of the year.)

Klaxons (They were shit back in 2006 and they have somehow gotten worse without changing a god damn thing.)

ok, you got me

The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (This album is actually pretty great.)

favourite remixes of the year

Now, I’m not pretending like I’m some expert on this kind of stuff. Alls I know is, these tracks feature some of the most insane beats you are likely to encounter and they will no doubt feature prominently when I start making my “special DJ set” appearances in 2011.

Muscles – Sweaty (Shazam remix)

Miike Snow – Black and Blue (NAPT remix)

Marina and the Diamonds – I Am Not a Robot (Passion Pit remix)

Cut Copy – Lights and Music (Moulinex Remix)

most anticipated

Bayside

Iron & Wine

Cut Copy

Kimbra

Tellison

special feature: best inexplicable cover of the year

This kid took yet another GaGa abomination and not only turned it into an actual song, but a fucking emotional roller coaster that will make your hairs stand on end.

So that’s it. I’m sure I’ve missed lots. I’m always open for suggestions so do let me know about my glaring omissions. I might post a “part two” of sorts wherein I talk about films and television and the likes, but then again, I might not. Until next time!

the chicken or the egg

October 7, 2010

Recently, after seeing some films like The Road and the powerful documentary Collapse, I found my mind to be more and more concerned with the issue of sustainability.

Have you ever paused in the supermarket, taken a step back and observed all the other consumers around you, and asked youself, ‘where does all this shit come from?’ The walls are stacked high around you with processed, brightly packaged and accessible foods, which are all mostly anonymous (product names often help to obscure the ingredients of what you are eating to a point of utter irrelevance; could any of you tell me the main ingredients in a can of Coke?), appetising and yet tantalisingly affordable.

Take one example; a box of corn flakes, one of the more innocuous staples of any given supermarket. Let’s say the supermarket you are currently standing in has twelve boxes on the shelf. And in the storeroom out the back they have another forty or so. Then in the next supermarket down the road they have a similar amount. So already we are talking about a hundred or so unopened boxes serving a radius of a couple of kilometres at most. This is obviously a highly conservative guess, based on the assumption that there are only two supermarkets in your town. And that is to say nothing of all the half-empty boxes sitting on your (and your neighbours’) shelves.

If an average box is 500g, then in the supermarkets alone we have at least 50kg of dried corn sitting around. Where does all this corn come from? To create this small amount alone would require a pretty decent patch of land.

So first, the land needs to be tilled, the corn planted, and eventually harvested. This is more than likely done by machine, a machine which was manufactured in a completely different place and then transported to the farm at a huge, irreversible environmental cost. Then you must transport this corn to a processing plant (more machines), where it is dried (artificially to increase production) and rolled into flakes by, yep, even more massive machines.

Meanwhile, somewhere else, plastic bags are being made by the millions to hold these little buggers. And there is yet another huge factory dedicated to making boxes, and another dedicated to printing the bright colourful labels. Then, of course, all these components need to be taken to the same place and ‘assembled,’ that is, the corn flakes put into bags, the bags sealed, the boxes folded, the bags inserted, the bags glued shut, and finally, stacked by the tens of thousands onto a vehicle and taken to a distribution warehouse somewhere. There are dozens of massive, heavy machines involved, huge amounts of land, at least four enormous factories, and finally a huge amount of manpower involved just to make sure those crunchy little pellets end up in a correctly labelled carton.

All this for a box of corn flakes.

Then extrapolate these numbers for every single product on the shelves in any given supermarket. I ask again; where does all this shit come from? And what if it were to suddenly disappear?

I first began to ask myself these questions long before I ever saw a movie like The Road. When I started travelling, and visiting grocers and supermarkets in other countries, I was most immediately struck by the similarities more than the differences. Supermarkets are more or less uniform across the entire developed world, with similar price points (comparatively) and similar amounts of stock on their shelves relative to the area they serve.

Admittedly, the population of the ‘developed world’ is dwarfed by those living in poverty or near-poverty without luxuries like supermarkets. Yet proportionately, it is no secret that we as consumers are all taking way more than we are giving back. We all eat an obscene amount of food, and a huge majority of it comes from supermarkets.

What would happen to us if it was all gone?

If we need such huge areas of land to produce that small number of boxes of corn flakes, I dare you to even try to imagine the total amount of land on the planet that is dedicated to making sure our supermarket shelves are constantly stacked high.

If the huge amounts of farmland and other resources required to mass-produce corn flakes, Coke, instant noodles, cooking oil, beer and wine, fruit juice, Mars Bars, whatever, became overloaded and unsustainable, the spill-over effects would likely reduce the efficiency and affordability of supermarkets across entire regions. Eventually, they would cease to be viable, and they would cease to operate. And then, what would you do for food? Does anybody under the age of thirty, living in an urbanised area, know how to grow, harvest and prepare their own food? Personally, I can’t even keep a small bonsai alive for longer than six months. Imagine if we all had to start raising livestock.

These are the feelings I am overcome with when I take a moment to myself at the supermarket. Where does it all come from, and how can there be so much of it without it ever running out?

Overwhelmingly, my thoughts were not with the corn flakes, or the Coca Cola, or even the Pringles or Mars Bars. They were with the meat products. Since these are the freshest products in the supermarket, and since they represent such a huge proportion of our diets, their turnover is orders of magnitude greater than any other product on the shelves.

More significantly, their environmental cost is greater than any other product you can find in the supermarket. And, not insignificantly, the greatest disparity is with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Frankly, I’m not surprised that the Japanese don’t eat much fresh produce. The country is barely bigger than Victoria yet they have nearly 130 million people squeezed in. Most of the places without people are utterly inhabitable. So, where are they gonna grow their apples and oranges? The prices of fresh fruit and vegetables are extortionate, and I frequently get angry that I can’t justify the cost of up to $2 or $3 dollars for an apple or orange.

 

The Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne. This does NOT exist in Japan.

 

This is a major reason why my diet, since being in Japan, has gone from ‘not ideal’ to flat-out ‘unhealthy’ over the course of the last two years. I have been irresponsible and more or less lazy in what I eat, whether I am preparing it myself or ordering at a restaurant. But even as a meat eater, I’m constantly shocked and confused at the ubiquity of meat over here. Fast foot outlets routinely advertise portions that come with ‘double the normal amount of meat,’ and it’s not uncommon to encounter items on a menu with not just one, not two, but three or four different kinds of meat on the one plate. This obviously doesn’t sound healthy, and to me, it doesn’t even sound appetising. I don’t think my concerns about eating meat are entirely new, but like so many others, I chose not to think too carefully about them. Everything runs more smoothly that way; grocery shopping and social occasions are just two of the more obvious examples. As some of my friends over here have demonstrated, a diet without meat in Japan is possible, but it’s not exactly easy.

While I had heard bits and pieces of the environmental impact of factory farming, reading Eating Animals helped me to reconcile my suspicions about the ridiculous amount of resources it costs to put cheap meat on your supermarket shelves. Moreover, though, it helped me to align these suspicions about the environment with the very real issue of animal suffering, and see them as equal parts of one huge problem. As a humble consumer, thinking about that stuff is icky and awkward, and more than a little abstracted. How could your juicy fillet of meat have ever had eyes, ears, an imagination, relationships?

Of course, no book of this nature could be completely free of sentimentality. After all, the whole thing is kind of a personal journey for Jonathan Safran Foer, undertaken for the deeply personal reasons of deciding for himself what to feed his son. And any discussion of animal welfare or animal rights is routinely criticised (and often flatly dismissed) for its sentimentality, so I will not be the special exception and pretend that my interest in this subject is wholly environmental or economical. Reading the various accounts of animal abuse at factory farms in Eating Animals – and then discovering their alarming regularity – is confronting, and impossible to ignore.

Safran Foer’s writing is not as quirky or as humorous as in his other (fiction) works, and frankly, it need not be. The material doesn’t call for it. But it is economical, and lets the facts speak for themselves. I did not feel like I was being preached to, and indeed a large part of the book is dedicated to some of the few remaining ‘honourable’ farmers, who still slaughter animals but do it with a measure of dignity that is rapidly disappearing from the Western world. It’s easy to read, insofar as the language is easy to understand. Yet this will probably live on beyond his first two novels as the book that both made the greatest cultural impact and cemented Foer’s reputation as an important modern writer. It’s part memoir, part personal oath, part love story and part scathing expose.

There will come a time where the kinds of farms we rely upon to keep our supermarkets brimming are no longer viable. Simply pausing and observing the shoppers in your local supermarket and all the unnecessary consumption going on around you will convince you of this. If you have ever stopped to consider where all your food comes from, you owe it to yourself to read this book. I don’t think I can continue to eat the meat served up in restaurants and supermarkets knowing the environmental toll it has taken and the suffering that it represents. And this is to say nothing, really, of the unhealthy lifestyle I have found myself sliding into since coming to Japan, where awareness of environmental issues and respect for different cultures and lifestyle choices is so low (how many times have you heard of someone in Japan asking for a vegetarian meal, only to be served up something with bacon or fish in it?).

I don’t want to make empty promises, and I’ve also tried not to get caught up rhetoric, both when I was reading the book and as I was writing this blog. But I can’t, in good conscience, keep living the way I have been living. At the very least, I need to be more responsible with what I eat. I’ve always prided myself on getting things done, even the ugly things, the hard things, the things that need doing. I guess this is another one of those times, maybe the first I’ve come across since moving over here, and it’s going to be one of the hard things, but this is something that I’ve suspected for a while and something that I feel I need to sincerely try.

So long.

moths to a flame

September 7, 2010

Ah, Japanese karee raisu. Perhaps the single most reliable meal ever devised by man. No matter what the occasion, a good dose of curry rice is probably the answer to all your woes. For those unable to deconstruct the horrible bastardisation of a perfectly good English phrase back into something cohesive, karee raisu translates rather clumsily as ‘curry on rice.’ Of course, this isn’t any particular kind of curry: it’s a generically tangy, mildly spicy brownish subtance vaguely suggesting that it was once truly tasty, and whose ingredients, in keeping with traditional Japanese stoic conservatism, daren’t venture beyond being potatoes, carrots, onions and beef.

Karee raisu is a culinary last resort that caters to all situations: lack of money, lack of creativity in the kitchen, lack of time to source a meal of any real nutritional value, lack of real hunger (but urgent need to consume food; see: Fuji Rock 2009). This latest batch I’ve cooked up is a doozy; I doubled the recommended quantities on the package in a front-page news worthy act of domestic rebellion, and an equally huge ‘fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me’  aimed squarely at those boring instructions printed so coyly on the back of the box. The result? Final confirmation that too much modern Japanese fast food is never enough. Here’s all that remains from my generous helping tonight (went somewhat cold as I was typing about it’s virtuousity, but it’s former splendour is still evidently visible):

I just found out how to embed mp3s into my blog, so from now on, expect this thing to be delivered not only in full color Panavision™ but also in stereoscopic surround sound!

The first little nugget won’t be a big surprise to anybody who knows how excited I was for the debut album from Melbourne electro groovers Miami Horror, or anybody who has been unlucky enough to be pulled up at a traffic light next to me over the past couple of weeks: this track, entitled ‘Holidays,’ is the best example of the group letting their pop smarts take the wheel, while keeping their indie/dance ambitions safely buckled in the child restrainer in the back seat. And don’t forget that the lead single ‘I Look To You’ features the divine Kimbra on lead vox!

What the hell, here’s the YouTube vid as well:

There are a few missteps on the album, which is a shame considering the strength of their first EP and the ridiculous amount of time they spent putting this thing together, but the good tracks are definitely worth the price of admission.

In the past, I’ve always been a little late to the party when it comes to Sufjan Stevens. With his last two or three albums, in particular the magnum opus Illinois, I felt like the hype had already swelled and receded when I finally got around to digesting it fully myself. For that reason, the whole exhibition seemed far too overwrought, too self-referential, too smart for it’s own good and kinda just not cohesive enough. Like different neighbourhoods of the area it was describing, most of the compositions felt too far removed from the ones immediately before or after them, and I was left thinking, ‘maybe I missed the boat on this one?’ Of course, there are a few undeniable heartbreakers on that particular album: ‘Casimir Pulanski Day’ and the haunting ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr.’ are two crushingly intimate songs with an emotional resonance I’ve rarely heard since Elliott Smith died.

So I decided, when he surprised all of us with his latest All Delighted People EP the other week, to jump on this train while it was still picking up speed, so that I might not miss another revelatory Sufjan event that has people up in arms proclaiming yet another second (or third or fourth) coming of our musical saviour. And this time around, it definitely struck a chord. This release is fantastic; not just in the quality of it’s tunes but it’s structure and sequencing. I never thought I could enjoy 20 minutes of what is essentially the same song…and then still want to press play again when it was all over. The two versions of the eponymous title track that bookend this release are reverential, hymnal, intimate and catchy in that uniquely Sufjanese way. Wedged between, as if almost an afterthought, are a couple of sweet little acoustic tunes that would stand tall on their own and deserve definitely not to be overlooked. But it’s the title tracks that inevitably steal the show, and for the first real time I’m drawn in to Sufjan’s wild, sunny, musical world, where small furry animals run free, there is a (double) rainbow all day, every day, and of course, a poison tree lurking in the corner of the garden somewhere, never spoken about, yet constantly tempting everyone to darkness and despair. Consider me a convert.

My HTC Desire Android missile command centre has been chugging along like a champion for the last month or so, and I am yet to encounter any task that it is not fully eager and willing to perform at my behest. It really is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of mobile phones; I’ve pumped it full of ‘roids (overclocked it to 1.3ghz) and it still hasn’t faltered. I’ve put it through stress tests that would make Mr. Incredible’s knees buckle (I have cracked 1800+ on Quadrant). And that’s not to sell it’s brainpower short, either; I’m pretty sure if I pushed it, it would be equally as capable as good old saggy-titted Arny of becoming Governor of any given US state.

In fact, I’m so proud of the little guy that I’m attaching a screenshot just to show off how flexible and understanding he is to my needs and, um, desires. Notice the modern Japanese twist?

Ok. So this next thing isn’t exactly relevatory news or anything, but I feel it deserves a mention on my little blog, just once.

I’ve been known to go off on scathing tangents in the past, spouting pithy and mostly ridiculous garbage about the state of the mainstream media (and it’s audience) in the Western consumerverse, particularly in Australia. I have complained about the way news programs run lead stories featuring death, bloodshed, lies, pollution and corruption as if in some endless attempt to eventually plunge all of us into some equally endless spiral of despair and misanthropy, contrasted with some sick, twisted sociopathic shit that is apparently only included to make us all feel uncomfortable and inadequate about our own boring sex lives.

Take, for example, a random selection of headlines from the front page of www.news.com.au (Australia’s finest and most widely-read conservative news source) on my mobile phone as of this very moment, 8:45pm, Monday August 6th, 2010:

“Dad, why did you kill mum?” son asks.

Broke, scared man hides in shed for a year.

Politician’s wife exposed as prostitute.

KK (ed: who?) gets steamy with two naked men.

Long-distance romance ends in murder.

I don’t think I’m turning into one of those crackpot paranoid conspiracy theorists when I suggest that these headlines seem to be tending towards some pretty dark and violent topics. Why? It not only frustrates and confuses me on a philosophical level, but it makes me angry on a political level, too: there is so much fuss in Australia about censorship, the banning of this and and labelling of that as ‘not suitable’ for your children, or your disabled neighbour, your homosexual school teacher, your terminally ill grandparent who longs for euthanasia, your mixed-race girlfriend or your Nazi sympathiser pit bull terrier. Mainstream media and conservative politicians seem to love nothing more than telling us what is in the best interests of society, and that all these modern fancies (such as sex on TV, bad language and of course, the worst offender of them all, violent video games) are damaging the very fabric of society.

So what do they do in turn? How do they, judges of morality and final word on good taste, remedy this rot and atone for all the ills of the ‘alternative’ media? They jam violence and corruption down our throats, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 363 days per year (they tend to take Christmas Day off so they can push their pro-Christian agenda a bit harder), with headlines like the ones I quoted above. They commission ads which are, in a word, terrifying, scaring us into taking out expensive insurance policies and making voluntary super annuation deposits in case some horrible accident should befall us. And, judging by the amount of death and decay I see on the news every night, those odds are pretty high.

Then, in their most horrible act of hypocrisy and exploitation of a dumb population, already juiced up, primed and baited to swallow each and every terrifying tidbit thrown their way, the media networks present an endless parade of ‘reality TV,’ manufactured precisely to show us how scary and awful the great big world is: drug traffickers at airports, corrupt CEOs swindling honest-working employees, drug-crazed criminals attacking little old ladies in quiet suburban streets, and of course, their piece de resistance, paedophiles and rapists who are still on the loose, everywhere, in all their different guises, lurking around each and every corner, ready to pounce on your kids as they make their merry way home from school, scarring them for life and opening up your chequebook to years of expensive professional emotional therapy (because what kind of parent would you be if you didn’t provide this kind of professional help for your children?).

It’s the hypocrisy that pisses me off the most: telling us what is and what isn’t acceptable in the media, and then subjecting us to their own twisted brand of news and ‘entertainment,’ the whole while passing it off as wholesome, informative, relevant and appropriate.

I mention this because since living in Japan I have noticed that the predilection with fear and violence is not world-wide. No, friends, in two years living in Japan, I have seen less than ten ads for banks, insurance companies or anything like that. Likewise, news reports are rarely focussed on local crimes, so people aren’t constantly reminded that there are horrible violent crimes occurring just around the corner. The result? A somewhat repressed, but generally upbeat population.

Take Exhibit A. I love this ad. There is no pretension here. There is no pressure. There is no exploitation, no stereotyping, no condescending dialogue. Just a catchy jingle and some dancing around. It’s all over in fifteen seconds. And that girl is seriously such a babe.

Why can’t Australian ads be more like that? Instead, we get this kind horrible shit. Words cannot describe how much this kind of thing infuriates me. If you, humble viewer, can endure this ad from beginning to end, then you are a bigger man than I:

That was a horrible song when it came out ten years ago, and your awful amateur actors aren’t making it any better. The worst thing about this ad, though, is the singularly selfish message behind it. Complaining about your fellow citizens and whinging that you always get the short end of the stick seems to be socially acceptable these days, and even ad-worthy.

Unfortunately, that one particular car insurance ad isn’t even the worst offender. Why didn’t I include an even more offensive one? I was talking to my mum about this the other night. The absolute bottom of the barrel ads, the ones that have been making us hate turning on the television for decades, are so God-awful that neither of us could even remember the name of the company they were advertising, rendering it impossible for me to even look them up on YouTube. That really says something for the effectiveness of television commercials.

Of course, I know I’m not alone in voicing these kinds of sentiments. Michael Ruppert has far more experience (and eloquence) regarding these matters than I do.

Well, that’s enough spite for one day. I’ve been pretty busy over the last week, mostly writing and marking exams under excruciating sweatshop conditions for the powers-that-be at my school. Somebody (me, perhaps) should make a webcomic about Japanese bureaucracy, and how anything slightly out of the ordinary is ‘difficult’ and subsequently muri desu (impossible). Like for example, how I was told that a percentage mark is ‘unfair,’ so instead I should write an exam out of exactly 100 marks. That would be some pretty good material for my first edition.

Tonight I am gonna go home and perhaps get stuck into some video gamin’. By gar, it’s been a while, and that new Metroid game looks like a riot. Maybe I’ll pick up some chewing gum on the way home…

Til next time!

If there’s one thing I am traditionally no good at, or that I will do anything to avoid, it’s admitting defeat. Those of you lucky enough to have been on the end of one of my semantic diatribes will know that in my case, logic often fails in the face of blind conviction, that tectonic unstoppable force that inevitably ends in some prolonged awkward stand-off.

But guess what, blogosphere? Today’s your lucky day, cause as of right now I’m admitting to being neglectful, tactless and lazy. My lack of regular posting has nothing to do with being busy – it is only due to being uninspired, which of course is entirely my fault. I came here expecting every single day to be a tidal wave of creative stimuli, but when the initial rush of being an utter alien on a new planet wore off, and the sensation of having my new world spin by like an infinite cascading mess of encoded computer garble became de rigeur, I simply stopped trying. My lack of output has been gnawing at my conscience lately, and as someone who deeply values creativity and an analytical edge in others, I have become somewhat ashamed of my own attitude.

So here’s to yet another e-rebirth, full of hollow promises to my stockholders and Steve Jobs-like overstatement. Boom!

It’s hard to keep up with international current affairs in a country where you do not speak the language. Of course, there is the infinite mystery and wonder of the internet, where tweets can actually premeditate the normal space-time continuum and updates filter through from the other side of the world before even the world’s most punctual news sources have time to catch up. However, nothing beats the palpable sensation of simmering along with the dissenters and antagonists and bystanders in the midst of a common language. Opinions, trends and perspectives are accumulated through a Babel fish-like osmosis, so that when the time comes to sit down at a keyboard and bash out yet another politically-charged manifesto, all the ammunition is already there.

My point is, don’t be disappointed if this blog lacks a political edge from now on. Yeah, like I was ever well-informed in the first place, but you know what I mean. The summer All-Japan High School Baseball Championship is approaching, and my school is only two games away from representing Fukushima-ken. Tomorrow I get a free day off to go and sit in the sun, read, cheer when I feel like it, or mingle with my students when they aren’t too busy shortening their skirts or complaining about the heat. Time moves a little slower in Fukushima-ken…that is, until the students graduate and realise that there’s nothing else to do here than to get pregnant at an early age and settle into a daily routine of kicking about town in old tracksuits, smoking, shaving off their eyebrows and going to Gusto. At which point time really slows down.

I miss Melbourne. I miss the sophistication, the cutting-edge fashion and music and the feeling that despite its grey exterior, there are hidden secrets and new experiences lurking around every turn. I miss the multicultural texture of the streets. I miss feeling like most people are on the same intellectual and existential level, and the unity provided by Australian Rules football and the outspoken pride in the fact something so local and yet so universally beloved is unique in the world. Of course for every snappily dressed hipster and hot Asian girlfriend, there are four or five race-going Melbourne Uni commerce undergrads, and at least the same number of toothless bogans stinking of Woodstock on the Lilydale train, but that all just serves to add yet another patch to the quilt.

In that sense, it’s timely that I’ll be going back there for a short break in September, and this time somebody else will be able to share in that sense of discovery and awakening that can be so overcoming when you first realise you are standing right in the midst of one of the world’s best-kept cultural secrets.

In anticipation of this, I’m noticing a slow trickle of ideas making their way into my day-to-day awareness, from philosophical one-liners to Escher-like short story fragments that are gonna take some serious unravelling. Perhaps it has something to do with repeated exposure to the electric Tokyo nightlife, or the fact that I’m re-reading The Picture of Dorian Gray (admittedly more so to arm myself with some diabolical one-liners than for some critique of decadence and homophobia) but I’ve been wanting to try harder, to challenge and analyse my own opinions and instincts and to make more of a document of them. Full disclosure here, people.

Summer over here is oppressive to say the very least; days that aren’t spent wringing out clothes made sopping by the tropical rains are similarly wasted wringing out clothes on the brink of utter ruination due to sweat caused by the suffocating humidity. This kind of atmosphere is not usually conducive to gettin’ stuff done, which is why I accidentally-on-purpose chose to join a local gentleman’s sporting collective and had my first training with them this weekend. It was good to get the wheels turning again, despite feeling at the same time like I was pulling out from some long-since abandoned station with the accumulated weight of many a winter’s worth of undelivered freight tugging behind me. Competitive sports are cathartic pursuits, and it’s actually interesting (and not wholly useless, I might add) to take note of how people’s personalities manifest themselves on the sporting field. An attacking player is more likely to be feisty in their opinions, and a creative player is almost always going to turn out to be someone engaging. These are the curious cases where, just like in life, ambition isn’t always met with success, but the inspired spark of an idea and the jolt of effort in getting it off the ground ultimately proves to be the true reward, regardless of outcome. What’s even more interesting is seeing those work-week tensions and relationship inadequacies bubble over. If only we were allowed to bash each other on the back of the legs (heads?) with a hockey stick every time something went wrong.

Holy shit the most frightening insect just landed on my wall.

I thought it was pretty interesting how Leonardo ‘Mr. Reliable’ aka ’13 year-old to Scorcese’s Polanski’ DiCaprio’s last two major roles have been basic carbon copies of each other. And to be honest, I’d be hard pressed to say whether I liked Shutter Island or Inception better – both entertained me while I was watching, but the residual images faded from the backs of my eyelids pretty quickly after they ended. In my opinion, Rian Johnson’s criminally neglected and critically underrated The Brothers Bloom does the spiral-shaped meta-fiction thing in a much more original and entertaining way. What’s more, for a serious movie positing itself as a comedy, or vice-versa, or whatever the hell it actually is, its emotional pay-off is a lot more rewarding. With Shutter Island, I was kinda just thinking, ‘lobotomise him already.’

For a good-looking guy, Leo’s certainly got that furrowed brow, too-much-whiskey-and-cigarettes thing down to a fine art. Whatever happened to that Oliver Twist-esque adolescent who so readily convinced Kate Winslet to get her considerable tits out on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner? Now he’s chasing his own over-wrought imagination around rainy warzones and I just don’t know what to think.

As for Inception, my feelings can be pretty neatly summarised with one sentence: for a movie that tries to hard to be clever, I spent more time trying to figure out all the plot deviations than absorbing the philosophical themes of the story itself. It was just too confusing without being thought-provoking enough. With movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was left in a trance, with barely-formed yet naggingly relevant existential notions swimming about my recently-pulped brain matter. That is a movie that opens doors and windows onto all sorts of territory (or lack thereof, as it were) and leaves you thinking about the big picture (really, really big). Inception had so much potential but in the end got buried beneath an avalanche of special effects, plot layers and a score containing way too much trombone.

It comes as no surprise that the best scene in Inception features the infinitely cool Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a dapper suit fighting some thug in a snazzy hotel hallway that keeps tripping over itself. I mean, who could not be into that? Even when he’s drinking gin and juice for breakfast and overdosing on The Smiths in (500) Days of Summer I still wanna date that guy. Put him in zero-gravity and I go to water.

In memoriam of my addiction to David Letterman in eras past, and in homage to the quiet confidence of my former self as demonstrated in this post, here’s a list of top 10 observations made in Tokyo last time I was there.

  1. There is a direct correlation between the severity of the blond hue of Shibuya girls’ hair and their sheer volume.
  2. Same goes for the guys.
  3. Nothing is more white than sitting in Starbucks with an iPhone.
  4. Conversely, nothing is more unbecoming on white girls than dressing up like cute Japanese girls. Just stop. That Minnie-chan bow in your hair is awful.
  5. There are more wonderful sights and sounds to be experienced in one day in Yoyogi Park than in an entire month in Fukushima.
  6. I still fail at navigating the Tokyo Metro. This is some top-serious devil labyrinth designed to lead everyone astray. I have a feeling that it’s actually protecting some magnificent unknowable secret, like the Holy Grail or the lost city of Atlantis.
  7. No matter where I am in the world, it’s comforting to be able to have a singalong to The Strokes’ ‘Last Night.’
  8. The old-school elderly Tokyoites who hobble their way from place to place must be so frightened, confused and disappointed at what has become of their once-fair city.
  9. Nowhere else in the world do business women look so damn sexy.
  10. It’s only a matter of time before I become a permanent part of the problem.

This blog has succeeded in extracting from me (like blood from a stone…or some other thing with no blood in it) a few catchy turns of phrase and points about myself that I barely realised were there. So I can only imagine the interminable disappointment it must have been for you, dear reader, to realise how selfish this whole exercise has been. But isn’t that what blogging is all about? At least, that is how it’s always been for me. And it has worked for me in the past, so I plan to keep it going as my ideas and motivation sprout, blossom, and then turn ugly. Now, to congratulate and honour your bravery and tenacity in reaching the end of this mighty quest, I shall reward you with a ‘comment’ link, with which you may do as you please.

So long, friends.

バベルの図書館

June 7, 2010

Lately I’ve been trying to tap back into all the pastimes that used to capture by imagination and spark my creativity before I came Japan. I realise this makes it sound like some kind of ancient legend, and in sense it is; I can hardly recognise myself in some of the blogs of old, and I find my attention to detail dwindling with every changing season, each similarly consisting entirely of overcast, windy days, every over-sweetened coffee I naively expect to be otherwise, and each and every God-awful Japanese power ballad that assaults my dignity in each and every supermarket or department store.

Living in rural Japan is, despite what overzealous travel guides and intrepid tourists may have you believe, very monotonous and uninspiring, particularly when you live in a town with a ratio of about three or four semi-trailers to every one normal-sized car. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy my job or my life here; far from it, however there are certainly times I find myself frustrated and angry as my remaining youth withers away in this oppressive ghost town. To some degree, my silent cultural rebellion has been working. I’m finding more time for exercising, reading, watching movies, and even video gaming, which (contrary to popular opinion) can be both innovative and inspirational. And of course, buying a car has helped the situation to no end.

I’ve also dived into the overwhelming and somewhat intimidating world of Japanese manga. When I say ‘dived,’ of course what I really mean is ‘cautiously dipped a single toe,’ but it’s a start. Does anybody remember those grotty underworld porn shops in the Nick Cage film 8mm? In truth, second-hand manga repositories aren’t too far removed from this kind of fetishism. Long, musky walls of paper swell and bulge with countless discarded volumes. Floorboards creak and groan while low-powered light globes barely provide enough illumination to make out the scrawl of characters along the spines. Dedicated fans, dotted like moths at seemingly random points throughout the network of caves like, spend hours reading entire series from start to finish, barely moving so as to conserve energy. Genre tags warn of all sorts of unimaginable debauchery within the hand-drawn black and white cells of the pages, and an author’s years of toil – scratching away at a dishevelled desk amongst piles of his hero’s works, on a sparse diet of convenience store instant noodles, begging for a publisher and praying for an audience – goes on sale for 300 yen for the entire series, twelve volumes, read once, immediately forgotten. But please don’t misinterpret; I believe the Japanese are lucky to have a pastime which is both so vast and rich, and so culturally unique. The breadth of material and styles which fall under the umbrella of manga is mind-blowing, spanning from the predictably trashy and vapid to highly intelligent, keenly-observed and moving.

One such notable entry is クロ號 (kurogou), a collection of short anecdotal stories about an orphaned black cat, his friends and foes, and his hapless owner. Sure, it sounds childish and simplistic, however this couldn’t be further from the truth. Our hero must deal with rejection, loneliness, disappointment, unrequited love and loss of innocence. Sound heavy? Sure, it is, but that’s what all great authorship somehow manages to do: transport the reader into another world, where separate yet parallel feelings exist as if they were our own. John K. Sampson of the Weakerthans has penned a beautiful couplet of tracks about his own pet cat, casting the creature’s own habits, needs and perspectives in a tangibly human light. Kurogou does the same. It ponders the secret life of felines and exalts their mysterious sentiment, while at the same time distilling their playful nature into its most innocent and adorable. I believe it’s out of print now, so I’ll have to hunt down second-hand copies of the remaining volumes. Looks like more tomb raiding is on the horizon.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this year I have decided to take on some added initiative with my classes and write their exams myself. I do this because of  the ludicrously regressive approach to assessments that my school takes when it comes to English (memorising a few phrases of vocab without understanding any of the underlying structure, mentally photographing a page of a textbook and then reproducing it verbatim for the test when an embarrassingly low-grade monochromatic photocopy appears with a few blank spaces sporadically added in for dramatic effect.

Of course, when I mentioned that I was making the test myself, and that it would be somewhat more challenging than what they were used to, I was met with the Japanese equivalent of a violent protest rally: stunned, vacant stares from everybody at once. I said that there would be no Japanese on the test, and more desolate confusion ensued. I seem to recall my high school German examinations, when I had to speak for a solid fifteen minutes about a variety of subjects, including a detailed analysis of a politically-charged movie called Sonnenallee about life in the GDR, which incidentally got me hooked on the Stones’ Exile on Main Street (which, aside from going on exchange for six weeks, was probably the most rewarding part of my six years spent studying German).

I just hope that this little experiment of mine generates the reward for effort that I’m hoping for. Realistically I’m probably only making enemies out of my students, and it could be many years before they realise the opportunity they had at high school to make the most of their English education, but I hope they appreciate it one day.

Ocassionally I have these uncomfortably postmodern experiences when I stumble across some beautifully manicured creature in cyberspace. Maybe it’s a blog, a photography portfolio, a delicately-worded Twitter post, or some drunken happy snap that flashes up for a few fleeting moments on my news feed in Facebook, but all it takes is a split-second and inevitably I am immediately overcome with pangs of excitement and jealousy.

Of course, it always involves a girl, always excruciatingly hip, yet always with a knowing eye to the nostalgic appeal of past eras (knitting, second-hand paperbacks, cycling); lists of preferred authors and artists so taut as to withstand even the most strenuous pretentious indie stress-test; and a geographical location that jumps off the screen with all sorts of signifiers attached: venues so underground they are literally underground in New York City, indescribably drunken nights out rubbing shoulders with the indie nomads of the world in London, the schizophrenic fashion of Tokyo.

Maybe it’s just the Photoshop talking, but then again, maybe you are so utterly compatible with this girl, you are convinced that if you could somehow just meet her, make eye contact, offer her a light, then she would instantly see in you the same  hypnotic and addictive qualities you see in her, because you are so clearly soul mates. You are convinced that this girl embodies everything you admire and yearn for in the opposite sex, and that just makes the truth all the more painful: she is so far away, so abstract, and you are, and always will be, so anonymous.

The final insult – and the fatal moment when one resigns himself back to the common existence of the real world – is the recognition of a repeated name upon the wall, a discreet hand around the waste or resting upon a knee in a photo, an ever-so-slightly too prominent link to an ever-so-suspiciously trendy blog…and with this inadvertent pattern recognition (the tell-tale signs of an unfathomably cool, probably superhuman significant other), and the realisation that these kinds of girls exist in a dimension utterly inaccessible to the likes of you.

These are the moments when one leans back from his desk and averts his gaze for a brief few seconds, and is transported from his regressive fantasy back into the world of bricks and mortar, of voices echoing from outside his door, of money and debt and obligation, and of real, tangible opportunity.

first world problems

May 17, 2010

It’s blogmania in Japanistan!

You know, at the risk of sounding like a broken record (or a poorly encoded mp3, depending on your generation), I’ve just about had it with all this iPhone talk. I got mine well over a year ago, shortly after they were released in Japan. Let me clarify on one point; while Japan will probably be the first country to manufacture a fully-automated, talking robot-maid (with a short skirt and visibly frilly underpants), or batteries that actually recharge themselves as you use them (I wouldn’t be surprised at this point), they are also surprisingly behind the curve when it comes to normal, everyday technologies that other countries have been taking for granted for years. The most obvious example of this is internet banking. That’s right, you literally can’t log into your bank account on a computer in Japan. What’s worse, is that an obscene amount of banking is still done (shudder) face-to-face. Surely we’ve advanced enough to be able to avoid any and all unnecessary human interaction, haven’t we? But I digress.

The iPhone hit Japan at least a year after everywhere else. This is a country where every single mobile phone (and every baseball-playing highschool boy) looks and acts exactly the same, so I somewhat understand their initial reticence. Alas, those phones were not for me! Shamefully, ruefully, I was actually among the first in Japan to get an iPhone. This was the second concession I had made to the Jobsian Empire, after I got an iPod Nano about 6 months before (can’t argue with that battery life).

For a while there, the iPhone and I got along swimmingly. It was just the two of us, sure we were a little misunderstood, but at least we had our privacy. Things have changed, though. Not for the better. These days, every gaijin and their girlfriend has an iPhone. And I gotta hear about it.

No offence to my friends, but the next time I see an Apple product-related Facebook status update, I’m gonna go climb the clock tower. Likewise, if we’re out having a beer or something, don’t get your iPhone out and start talking about whatever leet new apps you have, or whatever mind-numbingly shit game you’re currently playing with thirteen of your similarly unique friends, or worse still, start posting on Twitter or Facebook. Where’s the iPhone app for beating people over the head? Whatever, it’s probably jailbreak-only.

Initially, the iPhone was a niche product that only the cutting-edge and tech-savvy dabbled in. In the early days of the iPhone’s subtle invasion of Japan, I didn’t mind being a part of that privileged minority. But Apple have yet again conquered the minds of the unsuspecting public, and friends that I thought would have remained immune to their covert psycho-warfare have since fallen victim in the most horrible ways possible. People today revere and depend upon their iPhones like the repenting elderly appeal to God on their deathbeds.

But the point of this rant is not so much a refreshing of my long-standing vendetta against Apple; it’s that yet again I feel like our reliance upon technology is infringing upon our real human relationships. Even though I have cut down a lot, I myself still spend way more time than I would like on Facebook. I am proud to say I have never even visited Twitter’s home page and to be honest I don’t really even know what it is. I don’t really post on forums that much anymore, and most of my time online is spent reading about upcoming video games or watching live sports.  I am trying to take my social life, as much as possible, back to the old analogue way of doing things. Because everyone knows that vinyl sounds better anyway.

iQuit

February 12, 2010

Leave it to someone like me to leave it until sometime like now to get to know my soon-departing students. I had ground out a pretty comfortable little crevice for myself, tucked away in my quiet office with one of the other English teachers and presuming that, as blossoming young adults with graduation and fornication on the brain, my students wouldn’t have much interest in or time for chatting to a foreigner without a firm grasp of their language.

It dawned on me that the time to say goodbye was rapidly, unavoidably approaching, and that I had better make the most of what little time I had left with them. Subsequently I have been far more outgoing and active around my schools of late, inviting myself in to eat lunch with my students, taking photos with them, kicking a soccer ball around the corridors until the librarian tells us off, that kind of thing. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the last few days with my san-nensei’s have been my best as an ALT (ie. sponsored foreigner) in many months.

This change of attitude in one area of my life has been countered by multiple miniature failures in another.  As I become closer to those people in my life with whom my relationship is bound to be irreparably severed at the hands of fate, I am realising countless missed opportunities to establish relationships which were never doomed to such finality, but rather ones that I let slip due to my own pride or carelessness.

Hard to believe it’s a year since the last round of high school entrance exams, upon which a swarm of foetuses descend upon my school to sit a pointless exam that determines their ability to wear baggy pants (if you’re a boy) or teeny-tiny skirts (if you are girl). These are seemingly the most important criteria for acceptance into my school and I can’t seem to be able to pin down any other common traits amongst my students. Anyway, this year the corridors were even more deserted than last year, so I was forced to partake in my overpriced bentou by myself.

And of course, classes are as frustrating as ever. Today my students whinged and complained about having to take their ‘oral communication’ test, which (you guessed it) involves no speaking whatsoever and requires nothing more than memorising three or four words from any given set phrase and then filling in the gaps. Of course, we had been drilling these same exact phrases for the past two months, yet the students all cry bloody murder and righteously proclaim English to be ‘impossible’ whenever I ask them a question that isn’t branded onto their eyeballs (such mind-bending, challenging things like ‘what’s up?’).

This one particular class has not improved by a single fraction over twelve full months. In fact, I think they have gone backwards. The difficulty of this class started out lower (much, much lower, in fact) than what they had been doing the year before, and has remained consistently ridiculous for the duration of the year. The tests and other assessments follow the exact same formula, week in, week out. It’s at a point now where if I suggest anything that doesn’t ascribe directly to this deadening monotony, the teacher complains that it’s ‘too hard.’ I know it’s too hard, that’s why I’m suggesting it, moron. How else are they ever going to learn anything? And God help me if I suggest undertaking an assignment that might require (gasp! shock! O great hell fury!) homework.

What a rewarding, wholesome approach to learning a new language! I’ve said it before and I will repeat it again: it’s no wonder the children here hate English so much. On days like this, I hate teaching it. I hate identifying myself as a native speaker of a language that can be reduced to something so fucking sterile and lifeless.

With this in mind, I have decided that if I can bare this kind of bullshit format of ‘English education’ (I use both words reluctantly) for another year, then I’m gonna write the tests myself whether they like them or not.

By the same teacher in question, I was also told off for sitting on the ancient oil heater with one of my students before class started. God forbid I should try to relate to them outside the confines of militaristic class time. I was then also scolded for having my phone in class (not really even in class because it was during the break) when there were students sitting not three feet away from us furiously sending emails to their 好きな人 in the precious seconds before class started up again. Yeah, I love the respect I get over here as a teacher.

Perhaps I should also mention at this point that Japanese people don’t ‘get’ The Far Side. Not that there’s much to understand, I would have thought: a majority of them are basically just ‘if animals could talk…’-type gags. I gave a bunch of my students Far Side cartoons with the captions removed, and asked them to write their own, based on the picture. I had heard from a friend of mine that this kind of exercise worked well with his students. Alas, it would seem that by the time the kids have ground out their first year of senior high school, their capacity for lateral thought and well-observed humour has been well and truly beaten out of them. I even told the kids they could write it in Japanese first, and then I would help them translate, but even after that, most of the captions were nothing more than the poor victim exclaiming ‘OH NO!’ Some of the kids even asked me, ‘what’s happening in this picture?’ I nearly blew a fuse. If I told you the punchline of the author’s original joke, wouldn’t that make the whole exercise kind of pointless?

I had other notions about exposing the kids to different styles of Western journalism, social politics, cartoons and humour (all of which The Far Side embodies well), but…well, if they can’t even think of witty captions for funny drawings of animals, then I suppose maybe I’m aiming a little too high. And here I was thinking I could find something that would transgress cultural barriers! Ha!

I guess I’ve been going snowboarding a fair bit lately. After nearly throwing in the towel after numerous failed ordeals and career-threatening injuries (at least, they seemed career-threatening at the time when I needed to be snow mobile’d back down the mountain), the last few times I’ve been have been really great, and with night skiing in full swing it would appear my weekends are booked out for the foreseeable. Last night we had more snow in my little town than I have ever seen before (almost knee-deep outside my apartment this morning) and despite the cries of fear and panic from my Japanese driver, I kinda got a kick out of the whole experience.

Snow is still very much a novelty for me. I feel like it casts of blanket of tranquility over daily proceedings, as if tucking the whole town into bed at once. Snow makes unnecessary haste impossible, and I’ve noticed that it brings people together in a common fight to simply go about their business with such an unwelcome menace pervading their day.

However I admit that if I lived in an even more snow-prone region, shovelling and digging my way out of mountains of frozen white torture every morning – combined with the mere knowledge that I would frequently require the use of gumboots – this whole snow caper would probably get old pretty quickly.

Seems like I’ll be heading down to Tokyo again soon to purge myself of my sins. Until then, take care.