Tuesday, August 31, 2010
This is something you learn best out in the country, where time is measured in sun, moon, stars and the size of leaves, where there are no schedules, streets or 50th floors, no scramble intersections. When you move from the city out into the countryside, further from the need for minutehands and closer to the actual time of day - as quietly and naturally registered on your consciousness by the entirety of sky - you begin to acquire the ancient awareness that is inborn in us all and was once lifelong from the start: that you are in charge of your time, as opposed to when you agree to a salary. The aboriginal employment arrangement is a very different one, one we all yearn to practice -- when we make our million -- when we retire --
But at whatever age, once in the wildflower meadow's thrall we begin to perceive the aboriginal nature of idleness, the Eden of ideas. All of history's great creators were masters of idleness, but they were only idle to the busied eye. They were idle where it matters. One who hasn't mastered the art of idleness has been living secondhand, without a firsthand.
Idleness punctuates the new idler's life, gives it organic pace and pause, imparts perspective on what once was a blur, enables snapshots, moments of assessment and redirection, the creation of a mindmap of the life's path. Thus the idler learns of life from the inside, where it's lived and where it happens, rather than from the outside, where it is chronicled by a timeline of arrivals and departures.
It is a blessing now and then to stop mid-task, the way all deep tasks are designed, sit back against a tall tree, the way all tall trees are designed, and let the moment's momentum take its course as you ride the timestream like a twig, letting eternity itself assert your part in it.
When at last you return, you come bearing gifts.
Sunday, August 29, 2010
OF LIGHT AND AIR
Let me say at the outset that I'm not a nice guy right across the board, there are politics, bureaucracies, bony heads etc. to be addressed, after all, so it's more of an elective thing with me; but when it comes to natural beauty-- well, I'm putty in mother nature's hands.
Like this morning, when I was out moving closer to the house a stack of year-old mixed firewood ready to burn this winter, using the wheelbarrow to move the larger pieces and just arm-carrying the smaller pieces to a stack of smallwood nearby. As per my plan, all I had to do was get an armful of smallwood and carry it between the big old oak and an old cedar to get to the smallwood stack. Piece of cake, firewood-movingwise, but with the first armful of smaller pieces I turned to take that route and saw, inches away, strung between the oak and cedar (I must be getting better at hyperception), a perfectly proportioned garden spider web, an armspread wide, glistering gold and red on the sunlit air, with the architect sitting big bright green in the middle, waiting for breakfast.
I'm a sucker for the beauty of spider webs and all the work and deep wisdom it takes to build them, so no way could I barge through that (self-generated!) tour de force. Instead I went around the oak and the stepladder that's on the other side there and stepped over the pile of firewood on the ground by the ladder, a pile that has to be moved also, to reach the smallwood stack and deposit my armful there. Then I went back around pile, ladder and tree to get another armful and another and so on through the morning, the bright green webmaker all the while observing me bending and rising, coming and going around, that large vague shadowshape out there in the vast elsewhere, perhaps grateful in some cosmically spiderial way for the sparing of that artwork from needless destruction, but all the extra work I was doing was a grain in the oceans compared to what that anciently learned architect had wrought of light and air between two trees.
Made my task seem easier, actually, so I was grateful too.
Friday, August 27, 2010
MENAGE au SQUASH
I do love vegetables, but not in that way. Fact is, I have little direct knowledge of squash eros beyond the stamen and pistil of it, the bird-and-bee basics, and I wasn't sure when I planted my squashes this year whether they'd grow much at all, let alone reproduce, the seeds being foreign (American), a status which - as I know from personal experience - can pose interesting problems whether or not you're of the gourd family. New language, new culture etc., especially in Japan, the most different country in the world, can present quite a challenge even for self-labeled intelligent beings like ourselves, let alone the more vegetatively oriented species.
Back at the beginning my squash plants (straightnecks, crooknecks and sunbursts) were naturally uncertain as they emerged from their hulls, sent up leaves and looked around. These parameters were not familiar. Alien vegetables can have difficulties with different soil, to say nothing of temperature, sunlight and insect life (do seeds have jet lag?), maybe even magnetic orientations. Plus it was rainy season here then - no rainy season where they came from - and there's different birds and bees here, plus monkeys, and no squash bees that I know of.
Amidst all this the puzzled seedlings grew tentatively, not sure of what to do or how to act, surrounded by Japanese tomatoes, Japanese peppers, Japanese cucumbers, even Japanese strawberries. So the newbies started sending up a few timid-looking male blossoms and an occasional half-hearted female blossom, when what we needed was more of a Mae West type, so nothing came of that; then it would rain hammers again. Soon a sort of leafy forlornness and stemmy homesickness seemed to set in; also the local insectry didn't appear to be all that interested. I figured I was going to have to show the squashes what it was all about, get them turned on somehow, if it came to that. I figured squash porn was the answer.
So one non-rainy morning when I was feeling frisky and there were a few halfhearted blossoms of each type I took one of the more impressive male blossoms of each variety, stripped it naked and started pollinating the female blossoms, hoping mainly that I'd at least get a few goodsize squash out of it, but if the local insects couldn't take the cue from me I'd have to keep on doing it all myself, like a cattle breeder, hoping none of the neighbors would happen by.
I don't know whether it was due to my efforts or not, but since then, those randy plants are extending in all directions, taking over the garden in venusian abandon. It's a menage au dozens out there, and I don't really want to yell out the window at night for them to keep it down...
Thursday, August 26, 2010
To couch this monocellular response in simple-minded American terms:
"I like Americans, but they are somewhat monocellular," said the former Democratic Party leader who has been a talking head for most of his life in a nation that, in terms of multiplicity, is profoundly convinced of its homogeneity, and pretty much limited to vanilla ice cream, to be simplistic. Chocolate, forget about it; cherry pie is on another planet with almond fudge, to say nothing of rice crackers everywhere for about 400 years so far; now that I call monocellular.
"When I talk with Americans," he goes on, deepening his diplomatic grave, "I often wonder why they are so simple-minded." In response to his expanding and imperceptive head, I'd say that one halfway decent Mexican restaurant for 15 million people, that's simple-minded. Show me a good Greek restaurant, don't make me laugh, or a decent loaf of bread-- no -- a bagel, a genuine bagel within a 500 miles of here. Though I could say the same in New York these days...
Or look over there, at Japanese tv, where loud is funny and garish is new for 40 years now, a budding Edo period. "When I talk with Americans, I often wonder why they are so simple-minded." It must be the extreme variety in America of just about everything one can think of, from music to food, as all the world knows by now except maybe a Japanese political talking head - that was elected overandoverandover again! Chronic lack of cherry pie and R&B will do that to a partial person.
"I don't think Americans are very smart," the head continues, cementing his country's relations with its simpleminded nuclear umbrella, "but I give extremely high credit for democracy and choices by its people. They chose a black president for the first time in U.S. history," which he once thought would be impossible.
In Japan, things really can be impossible, simple-mindedly speaking.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
The girls running to greet me fell back aghast when they parted the entry curtain and saw there the creature that spoke with my voice, saying "I'm home" and other common greetings in a normal way, compounding the surprise. From the initial shock came horror, then puzzlement, then laughter as I wore the joke out to its very end, savoring every moment of masking around in front of these quick-minded new creatures who had never before seen such a thing: it was great indeed, as masks have always been, throughout the firelight of our history.
So the trio stayed the night while their parents went to visit friends in Kyoto, the family being here for only a week this time. We got to bed early, then in the morning before heading off to the beach, happy arms dug into the garden dirt with trowel, hand hoe, shovel and pitchfork after some of the small but extra-delicious Inca potatoes that were hiding there for lunch, always right where the girls weren't looking! Happy ears as well, as I could tell by the made-up songs they sang as they dug and discovered, like ancient ancestors.
Then back from the beach we organized another late afternoon work squad, happy eyes finding all the ready cucumbers with the yellow flowers still on the ends and all the red tomatoes hiding in the big long green tangle of mystery fragrance leaves, happy hands picking all the greens and reds and putting them in the big bamboo basket, then we set up the hose out front and happy legs ran the long road downhill, flailing like a mob of gangly kids, then back up for a moment under the hose to wash the happy feet before running down again, all to the same ear-splitting squealing I heard the other day when I came downstairs with my hands full of sticker seals and became the hero of the world.
Big things happen among grandies.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
JOKE ON THE MOUNTAINSIDE
You know how in Japan when you buy a set of joke glasses with a big nose, mustache and flaring eyebrows to wear when you walk into your house at night after work while your young granddaughters are visiting, who have never in their whole lives seen such a getup, can present strategic problems.
Well the main strategic problem for me was that if the grandies heard me rumbling up from the station in the dark on my motorcycle, they might turn on the deck lights, run out on the deck and yell "Welcome home, Bobu-chan!" while I'm parking the bike masklessly, and so my joke would be shot because I'd have no time or place - with all the deck lights, sharp peering eyes and what not - to slip the facial gear on.
On the other hand, if I were to enmask at the station, then motorcycle up the mountain through the dark I'd be cool, because who's gonna see me sneakdriving up with huge nose and flaring eyebrows, since none of my neighbors up there drives down at that hour, so when I got home it would be a great joke whether the girls heard me and came out or not, so that's what I did.
You know how Robbie Burns commiserated with that little mouse under his plow? Well there was no big Robbie up there in my case, but I've never seen so many cars come downmountain full of wide-eyed neighbors just as I was motorcycling up into their high beams wearing a Grouchoface, probably a first for this particular mountainside. Fortunately there were no accidents, as far as I could tell, other than to my reputation as a serious foreign fellow, but the grandies never believed that anyway.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Blessed it is, on a day as clear as a baby's eyes to be out here working with oak trees, following their nature, their noble nature, right down to the ground-- the very heft and scent of integrity, the sound of tiny flames when the sections split into two, four, eight and more; then when they're stacked like pieces of cloudy gold how rich they look, how precious a mark of one's labor, rising there in the drying sun-- warmly it tells of winter comfort, tomorrows given to other things, balm for the aching muscles, then at day's end to come inside and there is food...
Sunday, August 15, 2010
THE DAYS OF THE DEAD
In America as I recall, the dead don't come back to visit the living in any organized way but rather choose their own occasions, which is very much in the American tradition, now that I think of it. In Japan, by contrast, where things often seem supersystematic, the dead all come back in the middle of August, when it's convenient for the living to take a few days off.
During these days of the dead, called obon, when the living entertain throngs from the afterlife, stores close and offices are at half-staff, everyone being busy honoring the dear departed because so many more are passing away to ancestry every year that each obsequy must accommodate a greater spectral population, thereby diluting the effect on individual spirits, who this year begin their clamor for due attention on Wednesday August 14, when they will walk through dreams, tap shoulders in the dark, knock on walls and generally get it on in a posthumous way; and in the corridors of merely earthly business, where commuters both dead and alive have spent so many decades, there will be a palpable and welcome absence, for the dead have returned not for commerce, nor for tourism, but to mingle with relatives, drink some sake, party a bit, have some rice crackers, whatever the living will offer, for the dead will eat anything after a year without a nibble.
So the living all visit their ancestral graves and ladle water over the stone and leave a drink and some flowers and snacks and burn some incense, say some prayers for the ancestors, ask their intercession in the matter of say a red Ferrari, sometimes ancestors can swing such things if they have any pull on the far shore, you do see some people driving Ferraris in this life (are there Ferraris after death?), though the ancestors in their wisdom seem to know it doesn't make much sense to have a Ferrari in Japan, where there are no straightaways of any length and the standard speed limit is about 40kph, and where the police not long ago arrested one of the living for courting death in a red Ferrari by driving nearly 240kph on an expressway, a record for Japan, and prime-time front-page news throughout the land because generally not much fast living happens while the dead are around.
If you do see a Ferrari it's most likely just sitting there rumbling very expensively in the long lines of traffic that grow and grow, particularly during the days of the dead because there is clearly a strong connection between death and expressways, where the living sit entombed for hours, idling - revving - idling with the air conditioning on, looking out the windows trying to fathom the reason. The dead seem to enjoy the nostalgia, for it happens every year around this time, the dead traveling freely while the living edge forward on the roadway, impatient to reach the toll booth, though everyone gets there eventually.
[This is becoming my traditional Obon post...]
Friday, August 13, 2010
THE COURAGE OF CIVILITY
In these humble chronicles I touch often upon the subject of civility here in Japan where, though still a strong part of the tradition, civility seems to be fading somewhat nowadays, when it is needed more than ever. And not just here. Which is all the more reason for me to do what I can to nurture civility and oppose the rationale for incivility, which is "Why me, who cares, nobody would ever do this for me... What's in it for me anyway, why should I be the only one," which is how all good societal things come to an end.
So if it's not one of the astonishingly rare times I'm feeling grumpy (like any other worthy emotion, the grumps are temporary; just hang around and I'll be sweet as cakes before too long), whenever I get the chance to perform an act of civility, I'll do it. Civility in its nature is a lot like those astonishing and encouraging mountains of pebbles by the long roadside, each pebble added by just one pilgrim traveling the sacred journey... Anyway, this morning I had another opportunity to practice civility so I did, and got a good measure back in return.
I was buying my morning train ticket at Umeda station in Osaka, the labyrinth of corridors crowded at morning rush hour with a compound of the usual office workers and chaotically rushing vacation mobs of families, tour groups etc. I went up to the only open machine, next to one being operated by what looked like the family horde of a grandmother and one, two or more married daughters with their five or six kids. It was just a glance I had in passing, but the feeling I got as they mobbed next to me was that they were not used to the big city and all these station choices, platforms, possible directions and fancy ticket machines; it all created a bit of a hubbub there among them.
I went to my machine and put the money in as their family bunch, bearing a complex of individual tickets, drifted searchingly off to find platform 10 or wherever, when I noticed on the shelf in front of their ticket machine a kid's new baseball hat. I was in a hurry, so at first it remained only a kid's hat who cares, and right away the dark portion of my brain that processes incivility said it's probably not even theirs anyway, but the brighter part of my brain immediately came up with the observation that on such a sunny day in a playland or anywhere outdoors, the owner of this hat would soon regret not having it; plus, on giving it a second look my civil self noted that the hat was of the stylishly raggedized type, no doubt carefully selected by the kid and prized accordingly. So after I'd gotten my ticket I ran after the family, tapped the grandmother on the shoulder and when she turned I said to her in Japanese "Did one of you forget a hat back there?"
She smiled and stared at me with that look I've seen many times on the faces of elder rural Japanese who are suddenly confronted with a foreign face speaking what cannot possibly be Japanese. She had not seen a foreigner in person this close for a long time, if ever, and he was speaking at her. She smiled on in friendly encouragement. I repeated my question more loudly in the station din, but her smile did not change, there was no sudden light of recognition. I was beginning to think that maybe my uncivil brain center had been right: it wasn't their hat.
After the appropriate duration for a pointless smile had passed, the grandmother turned, tapped one of her daughters on the shoulder and directed her attention to me. To the daughter I repeated my question, halfheartedly by now; but not only did she hear my Japanese, she knew instantly which of all the children had left the hat, and sent him running back after it. I bowed, satisfied, and headed off to work.
I had just gotten out of the station when I felt a tap on my elbow. I turned around and there was a boy about 10 years old standing in the milling crowd, holding the cap I'd found. He bravely looked me right in the eyes, said in Japanese "Thank you," lifted the cap, and bowed. His grandma and mother, after likely having to point me out, had sent the boy dodging through that densely hustling mob, all that way after me in that big intimidating station, then he had to go up to a big foreigner - likely the first such direct contact in his life - tap that alien personage on the elbow and address him with a loud "Domo arigato gozaimasu !" I could tell by the look in his eyes that he was doing what to him was a brave but necessary thing. A most heartening look it was, on a face so young. That look was the courage of civility. I smiled, gave him a thumbs up (likely a new sign to him), and we went our ways. Hope he gets the full joy out of his new hat, and never lets go of his courage.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
STEPHEN KING SHOULD SEE THIS
It was the oddly scrambling sparrows that caused me to notice, on a recent afternoon, that the farmer who owns the paddy a couple of fields below us across the road has done away with the usual eye-noxious glittertape as bird deterrent; nor is he using the big shiny hawkeyes, the old CDs, the plastic dead crows, the spinning PET bottle propellers or any of the various other bird-repellent gadgetry you see in the fields at this time of year, just as the rice heads are beginning to swell and the stalks to bend under the weight of their growing value, a value also recognized and prized by local wild pigs, deer and monkeys, which are easily kept away by electric fences, whereas the birds are and always have been another story.
Years ago, in a paddy up above us, the owner - one of the more artistic farmers up here - used a regular scarecrowy approach, but his scarecrow was a straw-hatted samurai farmer wielding a bloody (bamboo) sword. As I recall, though the occasional passerby was startled into appreciating the farmer's artistic inventiveness and gory originality - especially around dusk - the unmoving samurai did not convince the birds, who seemed to enjoy the safety of their sword-wielding protector. Still, it has a place in scarecrow history.
The farmer I speak of today, however, has tossed all that derivative stuff and done what is the simplest, yet most harrowing thing I've ever seen in this regard-- he took two flexy mountain bamboo rods, stuck one end the ground at each corner of the open-sided edge of his paddy (these mountain paddies all shelf outward as the slope declines) and to the tip of each rod tied the smaller end of a long and unappealing necktie.
More than unappealing, actually. That waving fabric isn't just dull the way only ties can be dull, like plain brown, blue or grey ties, or even duller, like striped school/political ties, or garishly hand-painted ties like from the 30s, or a broad yellow-and-red paisley tie like I used to wear to get out of having to wear a tie altogether; those are really nothing more than just bad ties. These I speak of are ties that Stephen King might write a bestselling horror novel about, if he lived around here. They'd be right at home in Misery. They seem to be working, too, for there are no birds around that paddy anymore; it has had an aura of eerie silence ever since the wind began to wave the threat of neckwear before local birdlife.
The ornate fashion items seem to be functioning like a force field of some kind, for beyond their flailing reach the sparrows are happily nibbling at the rich riceheads dangling over the identical edges of the neighboring tie-less paddies, though not one of the little rice thieves has drifted anywhere near those grasping neck pendants waving emetically in the breeze. The farmer who had owned the ominous ties must have been fully aware of their dark powers as he withdrew them from the depths of his closet to hang out in the elements where they could at least benefit him by repelling rice thieves.
How freely the birds dine at the neighboring paddies, as I say, only now and then glancing sideways to make sure that those narrow creatures of restraint are edging no nearer...
Now that I think of it I haven't seen any wild pigs around, either, and the deer are acting as strangely as the crows. Stephen, you can reach me at the email in the sidebar.
Sunday, August 08, 2010
I was awakened way early this morning by a rumble on the roof. In some places its a fiddler, but not here. Bit of an adrenalin shock to be awakened at the crack of dawn by a rolling rumble on the roof on your summer day off. Where's the rumble when it's a workday and I have to get up at this hour but might oversleep? Where is a pain in the butt when you need it? What am I talking about?
What's worse in this respect is that our roof is of tiles (which is great in all respects other than tumbling monkeys), so the rumble was tumbling me out of my sleep a lot more than it would have on, say, a strong metal roof or a slate roof, where the sound would have been a nice quiet sliding offward into silent space, and I could have gone on sleeping as per my wont, but no-- the noise, its heft and the sneakily shifting movements of the struggle led me to think it was a couple of grumpy monkey garden-scouts grappling in silence up there, grinding, clacking and rumbling the tiles as they pushed and shoved their way across the roof above my bed.
In retrospect, it was an oddly avocal fight for monkeys, but how was I to think of that, there at the edge of dawn, just dragged from the arms of Brigitte Bardot in 1960? So in the interest of saving my garden I tore myself away from the pouty BB and leaped out of bed, pulled aside the curtain and bleared into the dimness of a predawn mountainside to see what was up, just as a big black wingbeaktangle of two full-sized crows came tumbling off the roof, raveled together in a deep crow argument. I thought: today must be a crow festival.
The dark opponents fell quietly together until about halfway down they broke off and flew to the garden where they sat on different poles and at last began speaking loudly as always, arguing about corvine stuff like "It's my turn to check Brady's kitchen garbage!" the crow festival equivalent of "I was supposed to judge the wet t-shirt contest!" Anyway, all day the clouds of crows hung around here and there in bunches on trees and poles and in rice fields, chatting about old times, some kind of festival for sure, they all wore the usual costume, that black outfit of feathers, beak and beady eyes, you know the one, they seemed to get a kick out of it, made tricky noises all day long that distracted me wherever I was, I'd hear a weird sound, turn and say what was that at the door, the window, in the trees, the garden, out on the road etc.
Even now they're yakking long distances everywhere about something important in the crow culture. What could this festival be about? What's so important to crows? What could they possibly respect so much? Carrion is always randomly available, so what's to celebrate? Plus it's way too early for the human rice harvest and crows themselves don't produce anything but noise and more crows. Maybe it's a wild religious event-- but if I even hint at anything spiritual to crows, they just throw back their heads and caw, and caw, and caw...
Friday, August 06, 2010
That nameless child
lying there, not yet ten
will die soon after filming
but now as calm
at the heart of terror
as bravery can be...
torn away by the bomb,
her eyes still bright with life
turn and look upon you
with all the trust
there ever was
Wednesday, August 04, 2010
What a privilege, to live on a mountainside above a large Lake and from up here behold the majestic processions of summer storms from across the glassy water on sweltering afternoons like this one, when in the timeless karmic way this is now the place for balancing the weather--
We all know and love the beauty, the power, the spirit-magic of thunderstorms-- how reminding they are, how kin to our own deep feelings, the dark and the light in ourselves, the sturm und drang of existing, the torrents of our passions, the lightning-- we relate. Since the dawn of our story we've had the same fiery flux in all our lives.
So arise those great columns of cloud-- white softnesses tumbling upward into gold at the top of the sky; then a silver mist reaches down to the calm surface of darkening water as the brush of the rain begins to write-- the sounds around you deepen, the air itself thickens and closes in; movement is large, though you remain still, as nearer and nearer in flashes and roars is told the long poem of the rain...