Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

Good King Wenceslas

December 9, 2011

My single favorite Christmas album is an old cassette tape given to me years ago by the friend who goes by “Marquee Movies” on this blog. Back during the years when I was attending Shirone Lutheran Church in Japan, I would often teach during the day on Christmas Eve (Christmas is just a plain old workday in Japan), then drive the twenty or so miles from the university to the little Lutheran church. Now, normally that drive wouldn’t take long; but Christmas Eve is a strangely special time in Japan. For whatever reasons, the Eve (not the day itself) has become, in Japanese pop culture, a time when two things happen: 1.) young couples go on hugely lavish dates to magnificent hotels or the upmost upscale restaurants they (usually the guy) can possibly afford; it’s the one night of the year when money is expected to pour out of wallets like Niagara Falls. And 2.) husbands come straight home from work so that the family can have a fancy dinner together (which is supposed to include Kentucky Fried Chicken among all the other feast items — expensive sushi platters, wine, cheese, caviar, etc. ) — and for dessert, there’s Christmas cake.

Stores take orders for Christmas cakes months in advance. If you haven’t ordered yours well ahead of time and try to search for one on Christmas Eve Day, you may be out of luck — the shelves in bakeries, department stores, and ice-cream shops are looking pretty barren. The cake can be of any flavor; it’s generally decorated beautifully. The point is, it’s CAKE — it’s what MUST be eaten on Christmas Eve, along with Kentucky Fried Chicken. (My students were always shocked and greatly amused to learn that these customs did not come from the U.S.A., since they firmly believed they were doing what all Americans do on Christmas Eve.)

Anyway, my point is that city streets and the roads to the suburbs are gridlocked with traffic starting in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Cars creep along, bumper to bumper. So my twenty-mile trip to Shirone Lutheran Church could easily take three or four hours on Christmas Eve. Enter that wonderful tape Marquee Movies gave me! I would settle in, thinking the joyful thoughts of Christmas (church service and trombone-playing ahead, followed by a Christmas cake party at church, followed by a late-night feast with friends, followed by presents — and all in celebration of the birth of the Savior, Who provides a point to everything). I would settle into this long, long car ride. The car was a little island of warmth in the cold and dark. Sometimes snow would be falling outside, drifting large and soft and feathery into the bare rice fields. Sometimes the moon would be glimmering on the Shinano River, which paralleled my road. I would inch my way to church, immersed in the best Christmas music that Marquee Movies could assemble. And my favorite among the selections was a carol that had fascinated me since childhood:

“Good King Wenceslas.”

The funny thing about it is that it’s become a good, solid carol, firmly entrenched in the canon, but it doesn’t mention the Nativity. It seems to be associated with Christmas because the song’s story takes place on the feast day of St. Stephen, December 26th. If you’re willing to trust my Internet research, the tune is of Finnish origin, from the mid-1500s, and the text was written by John Mason Neale and published in 1853.

Wenceslas was King of Bohemia in the 10th century — a martyred Catholic king, assassinated by his brother Boleslaw (whose name, I can’t help noticing, is just like “Coleslaw,” but with a “B”–it definitely sounds like Monty Python material). Wenceslas is the patron saint of the Czech Republic, and his saint’s day is September 28th.

Bear with me, and I’ll include the words for you here. I hope they’ll carry you back to your childhood, as they always do for me:


Good King Wenceslas looked out

On the feast of Stephen

When the snow lay round about

Deep and crisp and even;

Brightly shone the moon that night

Though the frost was cruel,

When a poor man came in sight

Gath’ring winter fuel.


“Hither, page, and stand by me,

If thou know’st it, telling

Yonder peasant, who is he?

Where and what his dwelling?”

“Sire, he lives a good league hence,

Underneath the mountain,

Right against the forest fence,

By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”


“Bring me flesh and bring me wine;

Bring me pine logs hither.

Thou and I will see him dine

When we bear them thither.”

Page and monarch forth they went,

Forth they went together

Through the rude wind’s wild lament

And the bitter weather.


“Sire, the night is darker now

And the wind blows stronger;

Fails my heart, I know not how,

I can go no longer.”

“Mark my footsteps, good my page;

Tread thou in them boldly;

Thou shalt find the winter’s rage

Freeze thy blood less coldly.”


In his master’s steps he trod

Where the snow lay dinted;

Heat was in the very sod

Which the Saint had printed.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure

Wealth or rank possessing:

Ye who now will bless the poor

Shall yourselves find blessing.”


That gives me gooseflesh even now! Christmas carols just don’t get any better than that. I love it for the way it gives us a glimpse beyond the walls of this world. In the ancient stories and songs, Saints are essentially magical people. They can perform miraculous feats . . . banish dragons (Saint Columba sent the Loch Ness Monster packing!) . . . and in this case, melt the snow underfoot and warm up the ground for us poor little pages who stumble after them in awe. I know that sort of happening appears in many tales. It reminds me most recently of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke; in that film, the Shishigami, the most sacred Wild creature/god of the forest, leaves hoof-prints in which flowers sprout up.

Back in our carol, I love the pure impulsive charity of this king who spies a wretched peasant and leaps out of the castle to go and help him. Sure, there’s a lot outside the borders of the song that cynics will be quick to note: what about all the other peasants out in the cold? And what about all the other cold nights of the year? Does the saintly king have a plan for improving the lot of his people, or is he just full of self-indulgent good cheer because it’s the feast of Stephen, and tomorrow it will be business as usual? “Pay your taxes, poor man!”

Clearly, the carol is focused elsewhere, showing us something better, something beyond our winter’s cold. It may not reference the Nativity, but there is Gospel here. I’m sure scholars have written about it more eloquently in the going-on two centuries that this carol has been around, but Wenceslas displays some Christ-like qualities here. He doesn’t send the army. He goes himself; the King becomes the bringer of help, down in the snow, out in the cold. He ministers to the one in need; he “fills the hungry with good things” by preparing a banquet, the best that there is. And more, he blesses and comforts those who serve him. “Walk in my footprints. I’ll press down the snow and I’ll heat the ground for you.” Why does Wenceslas choose to take only that page along on the mission? If they’re carrying food and firewood, wouldn’t a team of servants be in order? How about a carriage? How about all the king’s horses and all the king’s men? But Wenceslas chooses to make the trek with one faithful page. Interesting, huh? He doesn’t fault the page for his limitations, either — doesn’t mind that the page points out he’s about to collapse. Wenceslas simply says, “Come on. I’ll enable you to do this.”

My other favorite part of this carol is the explanation of where the peasant lives: a good league hence, underneath the mountain, right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain. That is evocative and atmospheric. It’s a Breughel or a Bosch painting. The peasant doesn’t live up on Route 8 across from the McDonald’s. This is a quieter, greener, greyer land, a country of shadows, dappled light, scudding clouds, and mystery.

I doubt it’s a very good thing in this kingdom to live “right against the forest fence” — on the doorstep of wolves, robbers, and evil spirits. The peasant lives there because he’s poor. (I had a discussion with a local friend about this on Monday: my interpretation is that there’s no man-made fence; “forest fence” means “the edge of the forest; the barrier that is the forest.” Do you agree with me? I grew up looking across the field at a “forest fence,” which seemed a green cliff, the boundary of another world.) The landscape is marked with such wondrous things as the fountains of saints — crosses and cairns, stones, pools, and boscages, each with its own legend.

What remains in this world of Wenceslas of Bohemia, in addition to a handful of facts in dusty tomes, is a song that is still played each year as the winter solstice approaches. The portrait that carol gives us is most likely anything but an accurate historical account; nevertheless, it preserves some enduring truths. Compassion is a quality to be sought after and practiced. We are empowered with a light and warmth that radiate from beyond this world; and in the best of our actions, we are in turn blessed.

That, and there’s a fantastically cool landscape of the imagination out there, hinted at in our old legends and songs, always ready to be tapped by the storytellers and celebrated by those who love them!

So that’s my Christmas carol story. A good discussion this month might be: What are your favorite Christmas songs, and why? Do you have any memories to share with appreciative listeners? — memories, perhaps, of great times spent listening to them, and/or what they meant to you? Any Christmas thoughts/stories/memories in general are most welcome!

More Paintings

December 28, 2010

Well, here we go. As Christmas presents for some friends here this year, I decided to get out the brushes and canvases again and attempt to create one-of-a-kind, personalized gifts. (Notice that I didn’t say “great artwork” anywhere in there!) It has been relaxing and therapeutic to paint after the big push to finish The Star Shard on time. (Not that I was particularly tired of writing — but deadlines help, and the swift approach of Christmas with its need for presents was another great motivator.)

I have to apologize in advance for the quality of what you’re about to see. For one thing, these three paintings would be better if an actual artist had painted them. For another, it’s much harder than you might think to get painted images into an electronic format and post them onto a blog! When I asked about professional scanning at a couple different places, there was a lot of inhaling through teeth (which means, “You’re asking something difficult; I really wish you weren’t asking me that”). The pros were worried about shadows created by irregularities in the painted surfaces, etc. The upshot was that it may or may not be possible, but it would certainly involve sending the paintings away to the lab; it would take a long time; and it would be very expensive. [I’d gone into the first place with the merry idea of having them scan the paintings while I waited and then ordering cheap posters for all my friends . . . um, no. Live and learn!]

I tried using my own flatbed scanner — which, of course, is not nearly big enough for the canvases. They are A3 size, and it can only handle A4. But I thought I might scan the paintings a quadrant at a time and have good, digital images of the details. Again, not. For some reason, even when I played with the brightness control and weighted down the scanner lid with a stack of books, the scanned images came out very dim. Hmm.

So I resorted to taking digital photos of the paintings with my camera. Again, Murphy’s Law was strictly enforced. For one thing, it is winter in the northern hemisphere. That means that the sun over Niigata will next show its face in . . . maybe May? If we’re blessed. So I had to use the gray daylight on the edge of my tiny verandah. As I was jockeying into position, icy rainwater dripping off the edge of the roof hit the back of my coat and neatly splashed over the canvas. Grrr! (No damage, since the paintings are protected by nice finishing varnish.) I took gray daylight shots, and then I tried another series indoors by electric lighting. You’ll see a combination of both.

Problem #2: My preference for varnish is high-gloss. Not just “gloss,” but “high-gloss.” It’s beautiful to look at, but a nightmare to photograph. It’s like pointing your camera at a mirror. FLASHHH! That’s why you’ll see these images at all sorts of odd angles. I’m standing on my head with the camera, trying everything I can think of to avoid reflections.

Okay, I think that’s my full battery of excuses. I’m not an artist, I’m not a photographer, I’m poor, I have no patience, I live in a perpetually-cloudy region, and I like high-gloss varnish. May all that serve to predispose you to look kindly and mercifully on these humble paintings!

"What a Lot of Things You Use 'Good Morning' For!"

So here’s Gandalf talking with Bilbo at the beginning of The Hobbit. (I’m clearly not in any danger of being commissioned to do a Tolkien calendar anytime soon!) Sorry about the framing — because of the odd angle, I had to crop like mad, so you can’t see to the edges of the canvas. [This is precisely why Marquee Movies will tell you: always go with letterbox format in your movie rentals and purchases — never settle for the “pan-and-scan,” full-screen versions. Unfortunately, these are pan-and-scan versions of my paintings.]

I do like the expressions on the faces of these two. And the Shire looks sort of inviting. (It looks MUCH more so on the actual canvas, where the colors are brighter and everything looks 40% prettier.)

I like Bilbo’s fat stomach! The influence of the Peter Jackson films is quite evident in the hairstyle, huh? For that teacup, I used a color called “English Lace,” and I didn’t even have to mix it. I like the moss effect on the stone porch-thing. See my signature there in the corner? I always do it in gold, an “F” and a “D” together.

This was the outdoor shot, with a big glare on the canvas. (I took several, and believe it or not, this was the best. Sigh!) No, I don’t think that’s the Party Tree in the background. It’s just a tree. I like the purplish stuff in the hedgerow, and I hope that on your computer it looks better than it does on mine. It’s nice in the original, as is the sunlight on the grassy slopes.

The Eternal Now

This is a picture of me and my two closest friends on this side of the Pacific. (Can you tell which one is me?) It represents both Heaven and those “moments of Heaven” we experience at times in this life.

This is by electric lighting. Of course in Heaven it will be midsummer all the time (heh, heh — Mr. Snowflake is away, so I can say anything I want!) — but maybe the cherry trees in Heaven bloom in the midsummer. The sakura blossoms themselves were easy to paint: I used a large, soft brush like the tuft on a lion’s tail, and when I had the paint mixed to the precise color I wanted (white with the tiniest touch of crimson), I just puffed the brush all over, above every trunk I’d painstakingly drawn first. I like how the most distant trees seem almost a mist. (Those trunks took forever!)

What’s “Heavenly” about this image is that there aren’t crowds of people. There’s the picnic, and then just trees, trees, and trees, as far as the eye can see — and friendly blue hills in the distance. There are no responsibilities. There is only a picnic, and close friends, and good books, and a baseball and ball gloves, and time that does not pass: the Eternal Now. A golden moment unending.

This picture allows you to see the two bicycles in the foreground. The thing about cherry trees is that they bloom for a very short time. It’s like about a week at the most — and if there’s rain or wind during that time, the petals can fall prematurely. For the sakura to look beautiful, a blue sky is required. So in most places, people are very fortunate if they have one or two good viewing days during cherry blossom season. That is a large part of their allure, I suppose. Like a human life, they are here for one shining moment, and then they are gone. A breath. A day and a night, and then Eternity.

The peak of the blooming is called mankai, when every blossom is open, and the boughs look positively heavy with flowers, and every tree is poised in that one breathless instant before the pink rain of falling petals begins. If you get a blue sky on the day of mankai, you have received a wonderful gift. For this painting, I chose the moment when the first few petals are falling — the threshold between the perfect beauty of mankai and the perfect beauty of the pink rain.

The Eternal Now

And now we return to Middle-earth:

The Bridge of Khazad-dum

The classic confrontation between Gandalf and the Balrog is a favorite of artists. But I have yet to see a rendition of this scene that doesn’t ignore Tolkien’s description that the Balrog’s limbs have the coiling property of serpents. Have you seen anyone else tackle that? I’ve attempted to show that here, and I think my design is plausible.

Flame of Udun

The Balrog should be a combination of shadow and flame. See my little orcs streaming down the stairways in the background?

The Balrog

You can pretty much tell that what I love the most about this scene is Moria itself. Moria is the place in Middle-earth that I’d most like to visit. I mean Khazad-dum in its heyday, of course, before it was full of orcs. The folk of Durin! The great city of Dwarrowdelf! (Is it an accident that there’s only one letter difference between “Durin” and “Durbin”?)

Fleeing Companions

Frodo doesn’t want to leave Gandalf. Sam isn’t about to leave Frodo. Aragorn is trying to get them both out of harm’s way. We see Legolas and Gimli here, and I guess the blond hobbit must be Pippin. (Merry wouldn’t be blond.)

In the actual, I love these colors of the stonework.

Nice chasm, huh? 🙂

And there you have it. Once again: if your computer works anything like mine does, if you click on any painting, you can view a magnified version of it. Click again, and you zoom in further. I haven’t figured out how to “click back out” without shutting down the whole window, though . . .

In the previous post, I introduced a quotation from Tolstoy in War and Peace and invited reactions. Thank you to those who offered your thoughts! Here’s the quote once again, and then my two cents:

“Everything I know, I know because I love.”

To love is to step forth, to reach out, to emerge from one’s isolation. It is to sense and savor the world around us. It is to embrace the joy that comes from places, from objects, from activities, and especially from other people. To love is to take a risk — for only when we love do we have something to lose. When we love we are involved; we are invested. Triumph, awkwardness, anxiety, exultation, fear, anger, joy . . . all these emotions that mark us as human beings — are they not all traceable to our loves?

In the movie The Name of the Rose, Sean Connery’s character William of Baskerville says to his novice, “How simple life would be without love, Adsol — how safe, how tranquil . . . and how dull.”

“Everything I know, I know because I love.”

I think Tolstoy was right.


September 26, 2009

One of my two favorite professors in my college days was a wiry little old Texan named Professor Charles Froehlich. With him I studied three years of Koine Greek (the language of the New Testament), a year of Latin, a history course called “The Classical World,” and Greek & Roman mythology. His influence on me would be difficult to overestimate. I’ve never known a more diligent, dedicated, skillful, and knowledgeable teacher. He remains one of the most awesome human beings I’ve ever brushed shoulders with, and yet he is certainly one of the most humble. Let me tell you some quick Froehlich stories. University teachers are, in a way, public figures, so I feel I have the right.

At graduation ceremonies, professors typically deck themselves out in the fine robes and splendid colors that they’ve earned through rigorous study. Different academic disciplines are represented by different colors, and professors can add ribbons and medals on top of that to reflect their august distinctions. Those ceremonies were always something to see, and I don’t fault the profs who dressed in their hard-earned finery. I learned somewhere along the line that Froehlich had a whole armload of master’s degrees, but I never learned that from him. At graduations, Froehlich would wear a simple, drab, brownish-black robe without ornamentation. In it, among all the peacocks, he looked like a crow. But I couldn’t help thinking of martial arts masters. The ones who are true masters never wear anything flashy, do they? That’s the sort of man he is. (He’s long retired, but still in very good health by recent accounts.)

In yearbook faculty pictures, in which the theology department would be sitting in a group, Froehlich would typically be way in the back, just inside the door, looking windblown, as if he’d ducked in for the photo and in another five seconds would be out the door again, off to more important things.

He would pass you like a speeding train on campus. Usually his necktie would be over his shoulder, blown back by the speed of his gait. But he’d raise a hand as he zoomed past you and call out a cheery “HEL-lo!” But lest you get the wrong impression from that: he was the most available prof on campus. He lived alone in a tiny college-owned house across the street from the campus. But nearly any given evening you could call his extension or knock on his office door, and he’d be there, and he’d always be glad to see you. In his book-filled office, he kept a little folding cot. I suspect there were many nights he didn’t make it back to his house at all. It was always comforting to me to be able to walk across campus at night and see the light glowing in his office window — the one lighted window in the building.

And if any prof should have kept plenty of office hours, it was he: Greek wasn’t easy. Many were the times we pre-seminary students would find ourselves baffled at some late hour, and not to have our homework done for the next day was unthinkable. So we were always popping in on him, and he’d guide us through the tangles with a quick, efficient explanation.

I remember one evening when it took him all of about ten seconds to clear up the mystery I’d been struggling over. With his half-smile, he said, “Fred, if you’d just picked up the phone, you could have saved yourself the walk over here.” But the point was, I never wanted to save myself that walk. When you’re holed up in your room studying declension charts for hours on end, you need to get out. You need the night air, the walk, and the sight of a welcoming light burning ahead of you.

When he was angry at us for being too lazy or slack, I’ve seen him break chalk against the ceiling; but far worse was simply his Look. To know you had displeased and disappointed him was in itself the worst punishment. You just couldn’t be lazy or unprepared in his presence: it wasn’t allowed. I still shudder to recall the guy who showed up on one of the first days of class wearing a hat, chewing gum, and who put his feet up onto the chair in front of him. [Shivery moment of silence.]

Professor Froehlich had a unique way of passing back papers. First, he’d staple the stack together to carry it to and from his office. When he’d hand them back, he’d pry out the staple with a little tool carried, and he’d fling the staple in the direction of the distant wastebasket. Then he’d call out our last names one by one and throw each paper sort-of-toward its owner. We’d be diving and scrambling to retrieve the gliding sheets. It’s probably hard for you to understand this if you weren’t there. Oddly, the way he did it never seemed rude. It was simply Froehlich handing back papers.

He was a great recycler. Koine Greek doesn’t change from year to year, so once he developed good quizzes and tests, he could use them perennially. We’d receive photocopied tests with things like this written at the top (in his handwriting): October 5, 1982  October 3, 1983  October 6, 1984  October 5, 1985  October 4, 1986  October 3, 1987.

And he encouraged us to re-use papers until every bit of both sides was filled up.

It amazed us how he knew exactly where everything was in the Bible and exactly where everything was in our textbook. In answer to someone’s question, he’d say (off the top of his head): “I think if you’ll look at page 142, in the lower left-hand corner of the page, you’ll find the answer to that.” (And he’d also explain the answer.) He always said “I think,” but we all knew perfectly well he knew precisely what he was talking about. Moreover, he had every lesson for the entire course firmly fixed in his head. He’d very frequently say things like, “I know we are glossing over the details of that right now, but if you’ll be patient, on November the twenty-first, in about the last fifteen minutes of class, we’ll be taking that up again in a little more detail, when I’ll tell you about. . . .”

One of my favorite quotes from him is, “One of the best things about getting old is that you can blame your ineptitude on your age.” Heh, heh! As if he ever had an ounce of ineptitude in him! But it’s a comforting quote for the rest of us.

In print, it’s hard to capture the Texas-ness of his speech. We tend to stereotype Texans as cowboys, airline pilots, or oil tycoons. Imagine a Texas voice talking about Hadrian’s Wall or Pontius Pilate or deponent future (“dep fut”) verbs. Who can forget his rant about how the Huns weren’t Germans? It went something like: “Everybody thinks the Huns were Germans. They weren’t Germans! The Huns were not Germans. They weren’t Germans. The Huns were NOT GERMANS.” (That’s just the beginning, but you get the idea.)

Harper Lee tells us it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. Watching Froehlich, we learned that it’s a sin to waste even a second of our God-given time. He treated seconds as precious things. If he kept us forty seconds past the end of class one day, he’d make it up four days later, when he had gotten through enough material to let us go forty seconds early.

When we had a three-day weekend, he’d say, “That should allow you to have several parties between now and Tuesday. When you come back well-rested, we will talk about. . . .”

I still remember one late night before exams, when my friend John D. and I were burning the midnight oil in the snack bar area of the community center, studying our Greek. Like clockwork, Froehlich would dash through there at a certain time of an evening, his tie streaming back over his shoulder, to buy a cup of coffee. As he passed us and we called our greetings, he grinned back at us and said, “Don’t worry; just work.”

I hope you’re getting the picture that he was a truly inspirational mentor. He insisted that you do your very best, and as you strove for that, you realized your best was far better than you’d thought it could be.

Here’s the countdown of the three highest praises I remember getting from him (the kind that you remember and treasure forever after):

#3: “Durbin’s not a genius. He gets these high scores because he pays attention to the textbook.” (Egad, for sure, I’m no more a genius than the Huns were Germans!)

#2: One time I set an “all-time high score” on one of his Latin tests — and he would know, because he archived everything and loved statistics.

#1: The best ever was his compliment on my “Herculean Labor” (what he called our Class Projects) in Greek & Roman mythology. He said something like, “In Greek, there’s a degree of adjectives beyond the superlative. Your classmates feel your Labor should be described with such. I concur.” Flow moment! Soli Deo gloria!

Anyway, to the business at hand! At the beginning of every single class day during the mythology course, he would make us say the following all together:

“Mythology is alive. Mythology is ubiquitous.”

The point was that names and characters and events from the classical myths are all around us in our daily lives, even all these thousands of years later. They run through our literature, our movies, our popular culture. Today I set out to prove that this is true, even in Niigata, Japan in the fall of 2009. I expanded my quest just slightly to include ancient Japanese folklore as well — but the myths of the Greeks and Romans are well represented. And mind you, this was all done on a bicycle ride that took me about half an hour. If I’d searched intensely all day, I think I could have added considerably to this list. But anyway, take a look:

I agree, this one is tenuous, because the spelling is different. (I'm just warming up here.) Dido was the sister of Pygmalion; she founded Carthage and was its queen, and fell in love with Aeneas. She cursed the Trojans.

I agree, this one is tenuous, because the spelling is different. (I'm just warming up here.) Dido was the sister of Pygmalion; she founded Carthage and was its queen, and fell in love with Aeneas. She cursed the Trojans.

In Chinese/Japanese mythology, a Kirin is a fantastic creature somewhat like a horse, somewhat like a dragon. If you can find a can of imported Kirin beer, you can see a good picture of one. (A D&D Monster Manual will work, too!) Interestingly, the Japanese word for "giraffe" is kirin. Is this an acknowledgement that anything looking like a giraffe must have at least two hooves squarely in the world of myth?

In Chinese/Japanese mythology, a Kirin is a fantastic creature somewhat like a horse, somewhat like a dragon. If you can find a can of imported Kirin beer, you can see a good picture of one. (A D&D Monster Manual will work, too!) Interestingly, the Japanese word for "giraffe" is kirin. Is this an acknowledgement that anything looking like a giraffe must have at least two hooves squarely in the world of myth?

This is Kinshaitei, the second-closest ramen (Chinese noodle) restaurant to my apartment. Is that a picture of a Kirin I see? There seems to be a connection between this particular style of noodes (Kyushu ramen) and that image. . . .

This is Kinshaitei, the second-closest ramen (Chinese noodle) restaurant to my apartment. Is that a picture of a Kirin I see? There seems to be a connection between this particular style of noodes (Kyushu ramen) and that image. . . .

Remember these? They are Kappas, or river-goblins, still a very popular motif in figurines, dolls, toys, and advertising. These are saying "Keep our river clean!"

Remember these? They are Kappas, or river-goblins, still a very popular motif in figurines, dolls, toys, and advertising. These are saying "Keep our river clean!"

This restaurant is called "Tengu." Japanese Tengu are god-like beings that live on mountaintops. They are humanoid in form but can fly; they have bright red faces and very long noses. If you look carefully, you can see the outline of a Tengu face behind the lower set of characters.

This restaurant is called "Tengu." Japanese Tengu are god-like beings that live on mountaintops. They are humanoid in form but can fly; they have bright red faces and very long noses. If you look carefully, you can see the outline of a Tengu face behind the lower set of characters.

Going back West, look at this! This Isuzu truck is called an "Elf"! Don't ask me in what capacity a truck can be an Elf!

Going back West, look at this! This Isuzu truck is called an "Elf"! Don't ask me in what capacity a truck can be an Elf!

Look at the top, the first word under the wiper! Clio was one of the nine Muses. She was the Muse of history.

Look at the top, the first word under the wiper! Clio was one of the nine Muses. She was the Muse of history.

Cupid is the supermarket where I shop nearly every day. Son of Mercury and Venus, the Roman god of love. Notice the big heart!

Cupid is the supermarket where I shop nearly every day. Son of Mercury and Venus, the Roman god of love. Notice the big heart!

Aaaand here's the prize of today's hunt. Athena is a home furnishings store. This one is indisputable. Look at the logo: she's got the helmet, the spear, and the owl on her shoulder. This is the Greek goddess Athena, the warrior, the skillful, the wise one. You'd better believe mythology is alive and ubiquitous!

Aaaand here's the prize of today's hunt. Athena is a home furnishings store. This one is indisputable. Look at the logo: she's got the helmet, the spear, and the owl on her shoulder. This is the Greek goddess Athena, the warrior, the skillful, the wise one. You'd better believe mythology is alive and ubiquitous!

So here’s your assignment for this week: notice the references to mythology and folklore around you as you go through each day. When you open your eyes, you’ll see they’re everywhere. I won’t limit you to Greek and Roman myth. You can find elves and unicorns, too — any name, any creature from the myths or folklore of any culture is fair game. Places are good, too, such as if you pass through Troy, Illinois. The deadline? Let’s say midnight on October 1st, U.S. time. If anyone cares to keep a list and submit it by the end of next Thursday, you’re in the contest. The rule is that these have to be references you actually see — you have to spot them on signs, on TV, in newspapers, etc. — or hear them. The person who puts together the longest list is the winner.

The prize. . . . Hmm. The prize is that (aside from the prestigious honor) you get to assign the topic of the next blog post. Be as creative as you know how! [I reserve the right to refuse or modify your idea; but I will do my absolute best to accommodate your request.] Sound like a deal?

Okay. One more thing: today I discovered what might be of interest to some readers. We’ve been searching for the way a reader can become a “follower” of this blog — a way that an ordinary citizen can receive an e-mail message when the blog is updated. Here’s one way. There’s a free service called “Feed My Inbox.” This is extremely easy to use: you enter the address of my blog <> and your e-mail address. Supposedly, the service will send you notices of any updates (though I’m not clear on just what constitutes an “update” — it may or may not include comments, but I’m pretty positive it would include new posts). It only sends an update once a day (IF there’s anything new that day), so as not to fill up your inbox with bunches of announcements. If you use the service, you can enter any number of sites/blogs/addresses that you want updates on. If it actually works [I discovered it on the World Fantasy Convention’s site — they were endorsing it, so it should be legitimate], it seems like the solution for us Internetally-challenged people who are overwhelmed by the whole deal about RSS feeds. This is just a simple message that comes to your e-mail’s in-box.

All right, I’ll stop there. Look around yourself! Mythology is alive!

Tiring Colors

January 29, 2009

Here’s something that may interest all you visual artists. I’d heard that there was a different aesthetic sense of color in America and Japan. I mean, I’d noticed some intriguing things over the years: for one, when kids in the States draw the sun, what color crayon do they reach for? It’s almost invariably yellow, right? Possibly orange. From what I’ve seen in Japan, kids almost always perceive the sun as red. Are they getting that from the flag? Or is dawn the default aesthetic over here? Most of us in the States, unless we’re given reason to do otherwise, think of “sun” as the midday sun, don’t we?–a big yellow ball directly overhead. But . . . is it yellow? Isn’t it more of a blinding white? Why don’t kids reach for the blinding white crayon, and then finish off with the invisible but dangerous ultraviolet crayon?

When I was a kid, if I drew a lizard, a dinosaur, or Godzilla, I used a green crayon. Most kids I’ve seen drawing those things here color them brown. (I know there are exceptions on both sides; I’m talking general tendencies here.)

And then there’s the famous issue of traffic signals: though the colors look pretty much the same, in Japan, traffic lights are red, yellow, and blue. When the light turns blue, you can go. Also, a person who is “blue” is inexperienced, a rookie — like one who is “green” in the U.S.

In Japan, white is the color of death and the supernatural. In the world of manga, if a character has white hair, you can about figure that he’s a demon or a ghost or something not quite human.

So anyway, I did an experiment. This was back in the days when I used a 35mm camera that took pictures on film — remember that stuff? So I shot up a roll of film, and I had it developed, and I had prints made from the negatives, first in one country, then in the other. The photos came from the very same set of negatives. And what do you suppose I observed?

The photos printed by an American developer used distinctly warmer tones: oranges, yellows, reds. . . . The ones printed in Japan used cooler shades: blues, greens, etc. Granted, this was just one set of data — not enough to base a research paper on or anything. But I would contend that the same phenomenon is evident in paintings and graphically-designed items in the two countries. Interesting, huh?

Anyway, wrapping up this little rant on colors, and circling back to the title of the post: I often amuse myself by jotting down phrases that I think would make great titles. Tiring Colors is one such. I think I scribbled it on a napkin — “Tiring Colors — a novel.”

So here’s the point of discussion I toss out to you: imagine that Tiring Colors is an acclaimed new novel, hovering at the top of the bestseller lists. Write a few lines telling us what it’s about. Is it a literary work or a genre story? Is it for adults, children, or something in between? You don’t have to write an elaborate book report, but in a sentence or two, give us an idea of the setting and the plot. If you want, you might even tell us who the author is (a real writer who just might write such a work, or an author you just dreamed up on the spot).

Tiring Colors: A Novel. What do you think?

Blake on Improvement

June 5, 2008

I ran across this quote from William Blake:

“Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.”

For a stretch of about twelve or fifteen years, I read a couple of the popular writing trade magazines almost cover-to-cover. It wasn’t just about “studying” them — it was a form of relaxation for me. Reading about the craft of producing fiction was, I suppose, what TV is for many people. The articles gave me a warm glow, a tingle of excitement. I loved reading about the techniques and tools, the markets and trends, and I liked hearing the stories of writers who were actually doing it: setting their words on paper and selling them. It still thrills me to hold a book, to browse in a bookstore, to see a ream of typing paper or a computer monitor, to hear the click of keyboard keys and feel them under my fingertips.

Writers’ magazines definitely have their benefits. They keep you somewhat in touch with what’s happening in the publishing world. They can teach you shortcuts and the proper ways of going about things (such as submissions). They can chop a lot of time off the process of learning, which would otherwise be done by trial and error. They’re a wonderful source of resources and places to try sending your stuff. But — to finish the TV analogy — wallowing in the trade magazines has its negative aspects, too. Like TV, it can become a form of escapism. Every moment you spend reading about technique is a moment you don’t spend improving your technique, either by reading well-written literature or by striving to write your own.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, points out the mistake companies make in focusing on artificialities and secondary concerns at the expense of creating products (or services) and selling them. Instead of building a good computer, for example, they schedule a meeting to discuss selecting a committee to explore the feasibility of creating a task group to formulate a strategy. . . .

Endlessly studying writing techniques can be the same. Isaac Asimov said, “It’s the writing that teaches you.” And Asimov certainly knew. You’d have to walk quite a way to find a writer more prolific.

I’ve met “writers” who are all about networking and getting an agent and learning how to protect their intellectual properties from theft . . . but they don’t seem to have any actual material. They don’t, that is, write. I’m not sure when they’re planning to do that part.

There’s a second danger of studying too much technique. There’s the danger that you might learn it. I remember a big debate about ten years ago over the proliferation of writers’ workshops and MFA programs in creative writing. The criticism leveled against them was that they produced multitudes of Serious Writers who all wrote the same. Stories began to smell of having been “workshopped” — all the edges sanded off, all the distracting idiosyncracies plucked out, all the individuality boiled away. “Trained writers” were becoming a quite competent lot who had learned not to take any risks. Nor were the book superstores helping the matter, with their shelves of “safe bets” by a few giant authors, to the exclusion of almost anything else.

During my years of ingesting the trade magazines, I worked and reworked a gigantic novel manuscript, the infamous “second novel” (after Dragonfly, I thought I had it figured out How This Works — heh, heh!). When it came back rejected from my first publisher and two agents, I scrapped almost the whole plot and rewrote and rewrote it all again, grinding and polishing and stewing over all the techniques I knew I should be using. I “finished” it again after hundreds and hundreds of pages, after countless thousands of hours. Today, the book is rife with possibility in its ideas and characters, but the writing makes me shudder — it’s extremely hard to read because it’s been “techniqued” so much. Bleah! (Thank Heavens I was selling short fiction during those years, or I would have been pretty discouraged.)

A big epiphany for me in the last year or so has been to take a deep breath, “forget” the techniques, listen to the characters, and get back to basics — to not concern myself with what’s “marketable,” but about what excites and fascinates me in a story. [By “forget,” of course, I don’t mean “forget”: I mean that techniques must assume their proper place. They become part of the writer, deep inside, like all those scales you played when you were first learning to play your musical instrument.] Tell a good story. Slosh paint around. Break the rules when you need to. Use anything and everything to get the story told.

Clifton Fadiman wrote, “Books are not rolls, to be devoured only when they are fresh.” I think we need to go back and read the great old books that have stood the test of time — books that are still with us, and that were written before writers knew the rules and went to workshops.

A final thought about Blake’s quote: I’ve heard several Japanese friends say that Japan is a country not of innovation but of skillful imitation. In the arenas of manufacturing and technology, Japanese are masters of taking the inventions of other countries, making small improvements, and then cranking out steadily better and better models every year. [For readers who don’t know: I live in Japan. This paragraph won’t make sense without that fact.] This [Japan] is a land of discipline . . . a land of regular Improvement. But in most cases, the Genius is borrowed from abroad — from lands where it’s more permissible to sit on a creek bank doing apparently nothing . . . to wander the crooked roads until the stars come out . . . to try things . . . to listen to voices in the cornfield . . . to dream.

We came in with Blake’s words. Let’s look at them again, the same words, on our way out:

“Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.”

Give me a crooked road any day, with moss growing on the stiles and branches bending low, and surprising meadows at the turns!


May 12, 2008

When you live without a car as I do here in Japan, you pay a lot of attention to the weather. What the weather is doing makes about a forty-minute difference in what time I leave my apartment to get to work. It makes a difference in what I wear (all the way down to my shoes), how I pack my book-bag, and what I carry.

So, here’s a glimpse at the first twenty seconds of my day: my alarm clock rings. I struggle free of my futon, shut off my alarm, and then cross the tatami-mat floor to my window. Instead of curtains in my sleeping room, there’s a traditional wood-lattice window covered with opaque white shouji paper. I slide it open (standing a little to one side to peek out, since I get enough attention from the neighborhood without showing everyone what I wear to bed)–and I take a good look at the sky and the pavement. Is it mild and sunny, or are leaves, cats, and small children blowing down the street in a white squall?

This morning, at about 6:40 a.m., I glanced out at the precise instant an elderly man was walking his two bulldogs. You know how people say that pets and their owners begin to resemble each other over time? This was certainly the case–this man and his dogs clearly belonged together, all businesslike gait and bouncing jowls. Yes, yes–I know that with my kewpie-like futon hair I looked a lot funnier than anyone outside–but I had shouji to hide behind. Anyway, the scene got my early-morning mind to thinking.

If I’m doing the math right, there are 86,399 seconds in the day when I’m not looking out of my window. I don’t mean that it’s miraculous that I saw a man and his dogs. There’s a steady flow of traffic up and down my street throughout the day. If I’d looked out at another time, I’d have seen something else. But the point is, that particular man, those particular dogs and I all converged at 6:40 on this particular Monday morning.

Even when fully awake, one has to wonder to what degree such “chance” alignments are purposeful.

I remember being a little kid on car trips, looking out the back window at the Midwest farmlands flashing by; and I remember being staggered more than once by this thought: I’d pick out some house on a side street of some tiny town–or I’d find a lone tree growing far out at the edge of some field–and I’d marvel at the idea that the people in that house had lives of their own. They had whole histories, families, lifetimes of experience–but they had nothing to do with me. If you grew up with siblings, you likely weren’t as amazed by this revelation as I was, being an only child. It was eye-opening for me to figure out that entire vast populations of the world were getting along fine without ever knowing or interacting with me. I’d look at the tree in the field zooming past, and I’d think (with a bit of wistfulness) that I’d never stand beneath it; I’d never climb it or know its shade. I’d never see what the world looked like from just beside its trunk.

My point is, isn’t there something wondrous–something numinous–about the intersections that we do experience in life? I’ve always had a strange, inexplicable sense that I’m living at precisely the time and in the place that I was meant to live. Perhaps it’s just that old only-child egocentrism at work . . . or perhaps it’s not.

Tolkien’s work is built on the underlying belief that certain things are meant to happen. Bilbo was meant to find the ring; thus, Frodo was meant to have it. . . .

At the end of the film The Untouchables (the one with Kevin Costner), a reporter asks Ness for a comment on his triumph as the man who brought down Al Capone. Ness says, “I was just there when the wheel went ’round.”

We live every instant in that moment: the time when the wheel comes ’round. I certainly feel it with the students I meet in my classes. Each of our lives is like a looping, curving line going in all directions, but all those lines intersect, for one brief semester, in a particular classroom. That’s something not to be taken lightly. What we do with our time matters.

For us as writers, too: we each bring our own unique background to the writing table. We are the only people in history who have done exactly what we’ve done up to that point. We’ve grown up on our side streets; we’ve seen the world from under our trees. At any given time of life, there’s a story we can write then and only then.

Need I say more? I’ll grab my pen if you’ll grab yours!