Thursday, January 19, 2012

GIVE ME THE TIME OF DAY

Is there any sight as sad and as sweet as a solitary orange traffic cone, under the glow of a streetlight's soft golden lamp, two mute friends at attention, the night their lonely dark cloak? Perhaps the vending machine just down the road has its own desperate charm. Coffee and cokes, sports drinks and fresh water, all bottled up, arrayed in short rows. Awaiting coins. A few clinks. A deposit. Do those plastic tubes feel anything at all as they fall to their shelf just a few drops below? Surely a fate such as this must be viewed as quite grim.

Yet you, too, when looked at by night, when watched while you sleep, might possess a similar pity. Drooling, picking. Moaning, sighing. For seven, eight, even nine hours? Do we still exist when we can't even claim to pretend that we know what we do? I suppose I could set up a camera to catch every moment and gasp. Set it up right by your bed, or my own for that matter. Post it on YouTube. So the world could then see -- who we are, when we are nothing at all but our deeply sleep-selves. Could be a kick. Or a fright.

For what if we view that ourselves in that time are nothing more than slightly, presumably smelly (if not rank), robotically slow-motion, barely functional variations of a traffic cone, a street lamp, a vending machine? Kind of colourful. Mostly mute. Dull, to be honest. Oh, but our waking selves, so full of ourselves! That is a sight, you might say! (I don't know about you, but I like to think that I live just by day, but surely the night, too, has its own secret claims.)

I like to believe and implore: Don't look at me as I rest. Give me the time of day. I'll be up for you then. (Even an orange traffic cone gains more glimmer by noon.)

Monday, January 02, 2012

ENVIABLE POSITIONS: A BIRD ON A ROOF AND A PHILOSOPHER'S LONG CONFESSION

This morning on my run I noticed a small black bird perched on the edge of a very large building. Just sitting there. How many feet above ground this building was, I'm not sure, but neither you nor I would lounge and relax as this bird did so well. Was it planning its next flight? Had it sat there before? Was this its usual crouch? How come I often fall to the ground while tripping over small stones, yet this bird with the brain the size of my left testicle (I'm estimating here)can somehow rest assured that its poise and its wings won't just once let it down? To sit, on the edge, of a building. Good lord. And not be contemplating suicide while doing so. That must be the mark of an ignorant kind of small genius.

Don't mind me. Just my own form of philosophical gunk. Mostly because I just finished reading a rather wise book by Brian Magee called CONFESSIONS OF A PHILOSOPHER, and it's got me thinking again about all the questions I ask myself when the lights lose their glow. Magee, a British writer, former MP, television host, and, it goes without saying, a keen philospher, examines the arc of his own life through the prism of his philosophical obessions that began at a rather young age, starting around the time when he confided to his sister that it was rather bewildering how he could never remember the exact moment he fell asleep each night, and she responded, rather exasperated, that NObody does, silly. Thus began his questioning of life and its endlessly enigmatic, befuddled, bedazzling mysteries.

I can make my own confession here, which is that I couldn't quite follow all the summaries and encapsulations of the famous philosophers he's studied and revered throughout all his long years -- Kant, Schopenhauer, Karl Popper, etc -- but he does a workmanlike shop of making even an imbecile like me get the gist of the central theories. And I'm comforted by the fact that the book ends on an almost tender note, with Magee confessing that, after decades of study, he's no longer closer to understanding any answers that have arisen from his intellcttual pursuits -- but at least he's found a way to ask more interesting questions.

Just what I like -- no answers. The older I get, the less answers I want. Just give me questions -- better questions, more colourful questions, more infuriating questions. They cause me to ask more quesions, and more, and when somebody actually tries to answer life's puzzles, I find myself exasperated, almost pissed off. "Don't GIVE me your 'truths'," I always think to myself. "Let me formulate my own lies."

Take death. One section of the book -- I can't remember which, and I can't remember who he's quoting, and I'm lovin' this because this is not school and I don't need a footnote, woo-hoo adulthood, and screw academia! -- formulates a wonderful notion concerning death, namely, that we'll never know what it's like. Think of it this way: When we're alive, it's literally impossible to experience what death will be like, as we're still alive during the pondering, and when we finally die, the 'me' that is so concerned will no longer be around to experience it. This is true irregardless of whether or not you're a religious believer or a fervent atheist; if you think there's an afterlife, whatever makes you 'you' will most definitely be transformed into another, non-material self, and if you're an atheist, well, you DEFINITELY won't be around to experience it, because there's nothing to experience at all. I find this kind of hypothesis (which he acknowledges is only just that) almost comforting. We'll never actually get to know death at all. "What a rip!" as we all used to say. Yet what a relief, too!

Magee also does a wonderful job of exposing some of the ridiculous trends of philosophy that have overtaken the academic world in the past fifty years, none of which I can articulate at length, but most of which centre upon the study of philosophy as a purely linguistic category, with the focus on 'meaning' being reduced to the semantic explanation of how words, by themselves, in conjunction with each other, create the fabric of life.

In Magee's view, philosophy has completely lost its target; by studying the great philosophers, one is grappling with the ancient concerns, fears and hopes of man from the beginning of civilization itself. Having philosophy centre itself on language itself is a ridiculous notion because, as Magee brilliantly elaborates, we live most of our lives in a non-linguistic kind of state. We eat, fart, drive, walk, talk, all of it fueled by this vague, sort-of-fluid 'ghost in the machine' that somehow forms our notion of consciousness, but rarely, if ever, is it reduced to mere words. Think about it -- the shirt you put on this morning, the toast you almost burned, the hand in your own crotch the last time you got off. Nothing 'verbal' was going on; billions of neurons were firing together and these somehow led you to take certain actions that led to other actions, which led to sensations, both good and bad (or usually indifferently dull), and words formed no part of any of it. We use words to talk, to write, but they are approximations of that invisible 'stuff' that somehow makes up our lives, both inner and outer. Your eyes our moving down this screen; your fingers are scratching your cheek; you're suppressing the burp that so madly wants out. A hundred, thousand, million sounds, sights, smells and sighs make up each perceptual moment of your day, and this is your life, and if philosophy wants to believe that meaning itself is nothing more than words doing their own linguistic form of slow waltz, well, Magee ain't havin' it. Life is about the deep, abiding, resonant questions that cause children to wonder just what it all means. Philosophy should, at its roots, allow those fundamental seeds to still sprout.

So.

Anyway.

A good book, it is. Highly recommended.

Now back to that bird.

Does it think these things?

I don't think so.

It just sits on that ledge, letting the morning grow grey.

I would like that, too. To sit on a roof. Not worry about falling.

But I'm down on the ground, with gravel my foe as my toes find a fault.

Why me? I wonder. Why can't I rise from this earth and find a perch like that bird?

Don't know.

But if I knew, I wouldn't be able to ask those questions, would I. That bird doesn't seem to question much, if anything. He sits and then soars; I fall and ask why. Who's got the more enviable position? You tell me. (Or, better yet, don't.)

Sunday, January 01, 2012

THIRTY YEARS IN ONE MORNING

The first morning of the first day of a new year, dark and brisk, my body alive and fresh, and I hear, as I run, the voice of a man on a phone, his tone angry and sad. I can't understand everything he's saying, but these are those familiar tones that insist what language obscures. You know the ones I mean. High-pitched, abrupt, with strange shifts downwards, almost diagonally; you didn't know voices could do that sort of thing, shift ranges so fast. As I ran I glanced to my left, and noticed that the man, physically, did not look to be perturbed, or, to be more accurate, pissed off. He looked like a hundred other middle-aged Japanese men look like on mornings such as this -- small and intent, his exercise an authentic expression of a casual, yet steady discipline imposed from within. His strides were precise and fluid. Nothing random at work. He was headed somewhere. A hat on to combat the cold. If not for that voice, I wouldn't have even spared him my glance.

Yet that voice! Here I am, at least trying to pretend that I'm feeling good as this fresh year commences, and here he is, enraged and so sad. I can barely make out him saying something about 'thirty years'. That's all I can catch -- 'thirty years'. Is it a lover who finally gave him the boot last night over beers? An employee whose own self-regard has made his old boss useless and passe? A childhood friend, I thought. Japanese often cling to their old friends. (In what other country do people in their mid-fifties regulary attend elementary-school reunions?) Somebody close, of course. You don't wield a brittle voice such as his against a convenience store clerk.

I stayed moving on the path that led straight towards the big bridge, while he took the lower route, the one that wound smoothly through trees and led down somewhere dark. I heard his faint voice ranting, but it soon drifted, then died. Some small part of me wanted to go back and help. Tell him that it was New Year's Day. Life was moving forward. The phone call was already over. But what if he was drunk? Mentally ill? Worse, what if all that rage was still valid? 'Thirty years' was all I had heard him say, and thirty years is a long time. Thirty years ago I was six. His harsh night was already heading towards the first small hint of day, but I knew that those three decades of his would not soon rise out of his ditch.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

HAIKU: THIS MORNING'S MT.FUJI

This morning's white-capped Mt.Fuji

boldy bisects the sky --

underfoot frosted grass, sprouting for its own peak.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

APPROACHING A LIFE

The homeless folk around here go down by the banks of the Tama River to die. That's what I thought. You don't see them often, but they do come out at odd times, usually underneath a Sunday afternoon's blue-sky veil. On the gray-gravel path a bicycle lazily leans against its own kickstand in a teetering balance that must last all through the night; a path made of tiny grooves in dark land leads away from the small scattered rocks and forms its own makeshift route that heads down to the dirt and cut grass arranged with what might look like some love; a few tattered green tents do their best to spite wind. I noticed all this gradually, in stages, on early-morning runs before work, when I'm still sleepy and dense. (This is my excuse.) Over a couple of weeks I started to put it all together, my own puzzle in pieces: the bike; the trail; the tent. I had thought they were all random, disconnected fragments of life that somehow collect and decay without any form or possessor.

One random morning I suddenly realized that these rusted old relics, those stone trails and ripped tents, were somebody's treasured, true things. Not talismans, but utilitarian gadgets that enabled some sway. I almost felt satisfied, the way one does after figuring out how to hook up the net after an hour full of false plugs. This was their home -- those two or three rough-looking dudes I'd seen the Sunday before last, talking in short static bursts, a warm weather laugh they'd seemed happy to share with no one each other. That was the first time I'd seen them. In the charcoal-sky before dawn, they must stay snug in their tents. I actually felt warm with my insight, like a child laying down on the living-room carpet while the sun through the window heats up his small grin.

My smug thought turned to: snug? Can a homeless person ever feel snug? I remember camping trips with my father, my dark blue sleeping-bag zipped up tight, the rain on the canvas a pitter-patter of beats that lacked a strong central rhythm. That rain was trying to arrange itself, I knew, into something consistent, almost an arc, but it was erratic, and I knew that because it lacked conscious motion it could not even recognize that this route would lead only to sad drips and slow streams of slight water. The rain always sounded that way, full of persistent dumb sorrow. It wouldn't get in. It couldn't get in. Our tent had no holes, no leaks or slight rips. I was, to be sure, snug. I doubt the homeless folk were. Snug, I mean. I had a home to return to, distant but soon. These dudes were down there for tomorrow, and tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. I could beat the rain because I was already awaiting my exit. Homeless folk have nothing but entrances, and the rain, dumb as it is, can sneak through those every time.

Sometimes I thought: I should talk to them. Give them a bit of levity before they decay and get old. Allow them to josh with a foreigner, a raw bit of good mirth. They might get a kick out of me. A tale to tell. What the hell. Who can stay alive by themselves down by that stream for so long? Death could come for them at any moment, now that winter was close, their small camp no respite. My awkward dive into small talk might just give them a slight sense of chaos -- the 'gaijin' who came down for a chat and stayed for a drink. We all need that one bit of mad joy.

My dumb idea. One black morning I once again ran right by the bicycle, counted the stones on their path, caught a glimpse of the tent. I realized: At any point they could simply sneak away on the bike, take a jaunt for the day, find their way back down by the trail, and then crash for the night in their tent. Listen to the Tama River rustle and merge. Perhaps this is what they did, daily. The same way that I awake to my work and skededalled home when it's done. I had always assumed that they came down here to die. Now I wondered if they, like myself, were simply approaching a life.

Monday, October 24, 2011

THREE SORTS OF JAPANESE BEFORE SUNRISE

First was the young man sprawled out face-up on the sidewalk. Staring at the stars, if he had been awake. Almost like an accident-victim, his contorted shape skewed in the pose of a man falling through air. Arms windmilling in vain, even more pathetic because his limp and spare parts were aligned on concrete. A late night, last night. More than enough to drink for one man. Best to rest on the ground by the side of the river. One can do that here, without fear of harassment from police or pickpockets. Just let them lay.

Next is the white-haired middle-aged man in a shirt the same shade, seated snug in his van, his trumpet stuck to his lips like a candy so sweet he can't bear to let go lest the sweetness dissolve in cotton-candy thin vapors. I can hear the music, his music, even through the shut door. He's not very good, is what I think. Ashamed at the thought. Who am I to judge? I played that same trumpet in high school a few decades ago. Whoop-de-do. Was even worse than him. Never once got up before sunrise to practice, let alone in a truck. There is something quite sad about soft music trapped in a car. On the road, in motion, the radio's frantic mad blare -- that's one thing. Live music practiced before work, by a man in his van. Windows rolled up. Wife at home, sleeping snug. Sneaking in a few beats before breakfast, and the lengthy train trudge into work. That's something else.

Finally: the old man strolling backwards, his strong arms rising up and then down as his path meandered behind him. What did he hope to find, walking this way? Was he trying to reverse the years in some awkward form of retreat?? Always looking ahead, but each step, receding. I've never tried it. Walking backwards for more than ten steps at a time. Takes a certain kind of confidence. Knowing that you won't be tripped up by the path that waits past your own sight. He's rewinding himself, is what I thought. Somewhere, miles away, if I just watched his slow shuffle, I'd see him gradually become forty years old, and then twenty, and then five.

They seemed almost placed there. Plucked for my own amusement and awe. I had a mad thought, as I slowly jogged past them. One of those thoughts that one has when sleep is still a cousin to dreams. I would pull the young sleeping drunk man up by his arms and slap him awake. The middle-aged musician, I might knock on the window and bond with, sharing stories of trumpets and spit-valves only waiting to be emptied. The old man walking backwards, I'd join for a small chat as we both briskly walked back to where we both started out. The four of us, together. I'd convince them to join me. We could escape this whole world before the sun even knew what was up. Go on the road. Put together some sort of a show. People would pay a few thousand yen to arise before dawn just to watch us meander around endless wide sprawls of river. I'm not sure what they might get out of it. Maybe what I did. Bemusement. An odd intrigue. Even some kind of small, morning joy.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

VISAS

The cook at the little Indian joint right across the tracks from Nakano-shima station asked me if I could get him a Canadian visa. This was while he was making the nan that I had ordered just a moment before. He had arrived here three years ago from Bangladesh. I told him that I knew a Bangledeshi fellow who ran an Indian place not unlike this when I lived in Phnom Penh. I don't own this, he said. I'm just a cook. When I asked where he lived he smiled a sad smile and pointed to the floor up above. Travelling thousands of miles from his wife and three kids, all for the grand goal of schlepping his way through the day in a little restaurant the size of a halfway decent living room. Waiting for that sweet bread to bake, he told me that he wanted to go to Canada, with the visa via me, if possible. Could I do that for him? I smiled and nodded. That's what I do when I don't know what the hell to say. I don't know what you do.

Same thing happened a few weeks ago in the Philippines. A cab driver, hearing of my frigid home country, politely asked if I could sponsor him for a Canadian visa. This was after thirty seconds of small talk. Can you get me away from here, is what he was saying. Essentially. You are from a place that has money, and I have no money, or not enough, so please: Give me a break, pal. I smiled and nodded. (You know the deal by now, right?)

Two different countries, a few weeks apart, two different workers working gruelling, shit-paying jobs, and the same request offered to an embarrassed Canadian. One was cooking my food; the other was taking me around town.

Thinking of it in those terms, I feel an odd pinch of shame. As if they are my slaves of some sort. Cooking for me. Driving me here and there. A Bangladeshi. A Filipino. Catering to a rich Canadian.

Of course, I'm not rich (except compared straight with them, and so maybe I am?), and while the Bangladeshi cook was asking me to get him to Canada I said a little soliloquy to myself -- that I, too, am far from home, working in a strange land to pick up some small coin. Didn't work, that interior monologue. I don't know much about Bangladesh, except that it's far, far from the Mayberry-like childhood I once knew and loved. It's also poor, an offshoot of Pakistan, and crowded with millions of folks even more poor than this chap. (I also learned from this gent that Pakistan and Bangladesh are not the closest of friends. Bangladesh and every other country? No problem. Bangladesh and Pakistan? Let's not go there.)

I took my nan and paid him and said goodbye and didn't mention the Canadian visa to him again as I headed out that small door. Same way I didn't mention it to the taxi dude a few weeks ago in the Philippines when I stepped out of his car. Everybody wants to go somewhere, I tell myself. I can't carry on my shoulders a weight I will drop. I can't give you an entrance to my homeland when my own exit is cloaked in these shifting small doubts. Such are my internal whispers when asked for a leg up. (We all have to tell ourselves something to make the day fair.)