Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Murakami and Running

When I picked up Haruki Murakami's most recent book, I was giddy for a continuation of some post-modern experience--elephants vanishing and all that. The English title seemed promising in this regard, "What I Talk About When I Talk about Running." The cognitive compounding of thoughts and actions appeared to point to a comically twisted, self-reflexive tale of one sort or another.

Before cracking the volume in front of our crackling fire, I admit that I had already known a little bit of Murakami's life and habits. Last semester I was given the task of teaching a course on the Introduction to Asian Literalture and in my haste to suture my own syllabus out of a pile of colleagues' old ones, it just so happened that some of Murakami's 's short stories found their way into my curricural Frankenstein. Of course, before I taught the class (more precisely, a week before I lectured on him) I hadn't the faintest idea what kind of writer or person he was. Some days before I had to tell my students something significant about him, I started flipping through his short story collections and surfing the web. Wikipeida is always a great place to start. I finally came to find out that he lived a very interesting and enviable life. At least, that is how I feel about it.

His dual-life as an athelete and artist stirred something in me that I had burried long ago and that graduate school was at present stamping further into my depths: the prospect of a creative and physically engaging existence, one balanced by the body and the mind. The two things I absolutely loved to do throughout childhood and adolescence was to write, paint and play soccer and ski. Strictly speaking, this doesn't make me compatable to Murakami, not by any stretch of the imagination. For one, he writes well and continues to race in marathons. I, on the other hand, as any of my advisors can tell you, am no paragon of the pen--seriously lacking in substance where I attempt to be most influential and earnest. Not to mention, I've practically given up on soccer and skiing (permanent injuries, money issues, blahblah). These are the shortcomings that prevent any sort of direct correlation between me and the famed author I'm referring to (and secretly envying). However, the dual-desire to exercise the mind and body is certainly kindred, and Murakami's life and writing inspires me to dust off my tired and buffeted dreams to live healthily and creatively. He was thirty-three, a ripe old Dantean age, when he launched his habits as novelist and runner. Having just turned thirty-one, I aspire to make similar adjustments for my own good. Maybe it won't be a novel and a marathon...At the very least, it has to be an engaging dissertation and the occasional lap around the tredmill.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter Break

We are privileged every now and then to get a glimpse of who we are. Like a flash of clarity we stumble over an epiphany of ourselves. It's always brief. And because the object that trips us into revelation is, in fact, us, it's usually painful too. Arguing from the analogy, it may just be the treading of the self by the self that raises consciousness. At any rate, I kicked myself today.

Sophia had just cried herself to sleep giving me a chance to finally visit the bathroom. I pushed the flimsy wood-panel door in. It floated slowly into the room oblivious of its own weight, warm billows of air cushioning its swing. Oddly enough, the bathrooms in my parents house tend to be the warmest. As I stepped in puffs of dry heat stuffed my nostrils. The sensation sent me reeling back to my childhood when I would race around our small L-ranch home in West Kingston looking for an open heating vent that wasn't occupied by a sibling (particularly an older one who couldn't be pushed around). If I were so lucky to find a vacancy, I'd plop down in front of it with a blanket slung over my shoulders and pitch a make-shift tent, letting the warm air thaw out my tummy and roll over my puckered face. Sometimes I'd bring a book along and read it shifting my weight to expose new flesh to the subtly, singeing heat. Eyeing the toilet I saw something awkwardly jammed into my toiletry bag next to the sink. It was a book that I'd recently been given by my mother-in-law that Jenny had crammed in there--who knows why. A rare gift of leisurely reading. Leisure reading--a rare gift, indeed! I'm a fourth year PhD student in Comparative Literature and can count on two fingers the one book I've read in the past few years that could qualify psychologically as a leisurely read. I pawed the glossy black cover and scanned its art: a cinematic shot of what looked to be a scruffy-looking Christian Bale being hugged by a child (I love Batman). The title read, "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy, apparently "Now a Major Motion Picture" and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Promising. Besides, everyone had been saying it was a must read. When I'd asked them why, though (I like to have explicit reasons), all I got was a pocked plot rehash. But excitement translates even better than reasons, so imprecise reviews of the novel posed no injury to its promise.

I bent the book back to the first page of the story, skipping as I usually do the title and acknowledgment pages and began to read. "When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him" (4). I squinted after the third alliterative liquid: when, woke, woods. Hmmmmm..."In the dark and the cold of the night" began to stoke the fire of my suspicions. Finally the estranging conditional "he'd"! All this ambitiously crammed into the first sentence ushered an immediate verdict: yikes. I ventured above all good reason a quick look at sentence dos and was horrified to have the verdict glaringly upheld: "Nights dark beyond darkness." The nocturne cliche sent me reeling a second time, though, in this instance into a discomforting epiphany instead of into the past. In sync with the swirling water, I experienced an actual vertigo as a I realized that against all opinions and best intentions, I couldn't even enjoy an enjoyable book. I instantaneously reviewed the pleasure I'd got out of my recent light, vacation reading, Lu Xun's Nahan, Laoshe's Camel Xiangzi, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar (highly recommended), and saw what I'd become. I felt it like I saw it as if my chest had emptied momentarily transparent. What I saw haunted me as I sensed that there was no respite for me. Welcome to my winter break.

(I've since turned back and tried reading The Road again. This time I purposely let the particular stylistic issues slide by and surprisingly finished the book. It was actually quite a good story. McCarthy may not be the consummate stylist but he does have a knack for a gripping tale.)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Some Tanka (Japanese) Poems

Watching the Game

"don't bother me now!"
--I bite like the sweetest bark--
steadying a vision
always grows into cruelty,
where visions crash crismon


putting feet to ground
I feel the rush of the run
thighs piston in time
chugging forward, forward
a dream of quickness clunking

Happy toes

feet, our quiestest
selves. made to bend with the mind
now suddenly propped up
bare, cheerful, shedding their ache,
rubbing in pairs, happily


gen'rally, I need
more time...or maybe less of
it to adjust to
the quiet that requires
I cease searching, for more time.

Sketches of My Girls

Jenny as a child. And a quick sketch of Abby reading in the Church foyer.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

More sketches

Some recent fast head and figure sketches. Guess of whom?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Christmas in October?

I know...just trying to get a jump on Christmas cards this year. (Do I ever send these things out anyway?! At least I try).

Friday, July 18, 2008

Dreaming of Autumn, 18 July 2008, Taipei

I fall
and gaze
at the pumpkin sky
on a bed of crackling blades

The wind cuts a figure
of my face
The clouds I fix
with an eye

Great mounds of cream
in a steeled pan
sliding softly to a
Their edges ooze
at a million points
that following strains to a sigh

To hold this season in
my view
is a folly
I'd known from the start
Sweet clouds too gooey
to bear any message
I close my eyes
Let the breeze play
Autumn's aria
for me

Saturday, March 22, 2008

孔雀東南飛并序:A Chinese Romeo & Juliet

In preparing for my comprehensive examination in August, I've lately been reading some very old poetry. Some of it has been fun (eat, drink and be merry...and then drink some more) and some has been cliche (I love you with the passion of a burning mid-day sun--blah, blah, blah). Just today, though, I came across a narrative poem for the ages. All 好漢 apparently know this story well, but it's new to me. I've since decided to translate the poem, 孔雀東南飛并序. It's the story of a young couple torn apart by meddling mother-in-laws in an unjust feudal structure in which young women have no rights and no hopes. The young bride in this tale is tossed around like dirty laundry as she and her young husband attempt to keep their love alive while their families scheme against them for a more auspicious future that brings honor to their families but little to them personally. How will it end up? Think Romeo and Juliet. Here's the first installment:

Part 1:

A peacock heads southeast,
then hesitates to glance back home.

"When I was 13 I learned to make silks.
At the age of 14 I learned to cut patterns for clothes.
When I was 15, I could play the kong hou.
And at 16, I learned to recite the Classic of Poetry.
Then, at 17, I become your wife.
Because of this, I will always suffer.
(But not because of you). Even though you were a busy official,
your devotion to me was unwavering.
(We both know the real reason why:)

The cock would crow in the morning and I would hasten to begin my sewing,
never resting until evening fell.
In just three days, I could produce 5 bolts of cloth.
But your mother complained that I worked too slowly.
That could never be, though. I was never so slow.
Being the daughter-in-law in your home was so hard.
Your mother pressured me so.
Staying around held no promise or respite for me.
Please, I told you, go speak with your mother
and tell here to release me.
Tell her to let me return to my own home."

Part 2:

You gently listened to me,
then went and plead with your mother:
"You know my prospects weren't bright.
But then we found this wonderful woman.
We bound our hair and tied the knot, sharing the same bed and pillow,
swearing that even beyond the grave we would forever remain friends.
We've been together only 2 or 3 years;
Our lives have just begun.
And my wife has been nothing but proper and kind.
Why, then, do you think so little of her?!"

Your mother snapped back:
"How can you be so thoughtless?!
This woman has no idea what propriety means!
She puts on aires and forces herself upon you.
And I have suffered with it for too long--
How dare you cross your mother!
Our neighbors have a much finer daughter.
Qin Luofu.
She is beautiful, and her figure is unparalleled.
I have already asked her hand in marriage for you.
Now, get rid of that woman, Liushi!
Send her home right away!"

You fell to your knees and plead with her again:
"If today I am forced to let Liushi go,
I will never again remarry..."

Part 3:

Your mother listened to you,
then slammed her hand down, shouting:
"How can you defend that disgrace of a woman?!
I haven't an ounce of sympathy for her.
You'll never stay together."

You listened meekly and said nothing...
then, excused yourself and came home.
You slowly explained to me what had occurred.
Your sobbing hardly let a word pass:
"It's not me! I don't want you to go!
My mother is forcing this upon us.
For now, it's best you return to your home.
I must return to my duties at government.
But I promise we'll be together again shortly.
When I return home, I will come for you myself.
Remember that I love you.
Never, ever forget what I've said: I will come for you!"

I humbly replied:
"Please...don't say such things.

"I still remember the late winter of that year,
bidding farewell to my mother and coming to you.
I was diligent and cautious in serving your mother.
My behavior was sober. I was never improper.
Day and night I continued in such a difficult way,
sad and alone, but never complaining.
I was vigilant to make no error
to repay your mother for her good graces.
And then all of a sudden, I've done something that has cast me out of our home.
Oh, what will I say when I return to my father's house?"

Friday, January 18, 2008

The taoist temple up the hill

Just a...taoist temple up the hill from our house.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Somethin' s Fishy with the Humanities

So, as probably all of you haven't noticed, over the past couple of weeks, world-renowned literary theorist and critic Stanley Fish has been spouting his ideas about the value of the Humanities in the New York Times. The problem, of course, with his gushings is that they are not gushy at all! His extolments achieve at best a trickle. And those few drops that slip from his pen, he intentionally reserves for himself and other like-minded, self-minded literary scholars. Speaking about a poem he recently unpacked (that's literary jargon for "to explain"), he writes:

"Why do I do it? I don’t do it because Herbert and I are co-religionists. I don’t believe what he believes or value what he values. I don’t do it because it inspires me to do other things, like change my religion, or go out and work for the poor. If I had to say, I’d say that I do it because I get something like an athletic satisfaction from the experience of trying to figure out how a remarkable verbal feat has been achieved."

For Fish, then, teaching and studying the humanities is all about the personal rush of exercising the heart (not the moral one, mind you) and mind--just his, naturally.

"Me, me, me"--that transparent message certainly does not need to be unpacked.

Therefore, as a view on the value of the Humanities, Fish's isn't much of one at all. In fact, it seems intentionally designed to be an argument contra that very translation of purpose and value. A sort of humanistic anti-Christ: the value of the humanities begins and ends in him--"I am inclined to like it; I'm the miracle. What about you?" This of course, is an intentional political maneuver that Fish makes, he's not that self-centered (is he?), designed to push the humanities beyond the reach of realistic and concrete evaluative measures imposed on nearly all other departments, fields of knowledge and industries. In order to justify the continued pursuit of knowledge or production, that pursuit must, in fact, produce something tangible or, at the very least, quantifiable. Stanley Fish (and he's not the first) tries to solve this problem by refusing to acknowledge the standard by openly and provocatively claiming the worthlessness of the pursuit of humanistic studies. By rendering all worth to a simple personal confession, the possibility of the objective evaluation of the worth of the humanities becomes impossible.

Ergo, the humanities are justified and safe (?!) Self-contained and solipsistic, the humanities are nothing but their own end, untranslatable and answerable to no standard other then their own internal economy.

I don't know about you, but that just feels like a really poor move. In fact, it seems down-right childish and irresponsible. Aren't the humanities designed to promote more refined gestures of communication and rhetoric? Or is this just another trope meant to achieve a surprising effect?

Unfortunately, I fear it just may end up pissing people off.