Flatland @ Reflection’s Edge!

MJG Books, Stories 10 Comments

My story Flatland goes to Reflection’s Edge!

At the center of Flatland there was a tall sky-scraper, thirty stories high. In the skyscraper were many offices, filled with workers who spent their days typing at their ledgers, recording the business of Flatland that they could see out of their windows.

After their work was finished every day, they left the skyscraper and went to their homes. They lived in houses and farms spread around the town; the only town in Flatland.

Flatland was not very big. Perhaps as big as six football fields.

Read the full story at Reflection’s Edge.

Sagasu’s Life @ Reflection’s Edge!

MJG Books, Stories Leave a Comment

My story Sagasu’s Life goes live at Reflection’s Edge!

Sagasu was watching the child in the corner. The corner was dark, and the child was dark. Its mouth was open, always.

Sagasu was grinding butterfly’s wings. He was mixing them with chalk dust and melted ox fat. He used a pestle and mortar and he ground them so the smell of ivory burning filled the air, and he clicked his teeth and sometimes he spat into the paste.

He shaved a hammer and dropped the fine iron filings into the mixtures.

Read the full story at Reflection’s Edge.

Hole-digging, Shimoda Beach

MJG Guides, Japan Leave a Comment

I’ve always loved to dig holes. My earliest holing memory is in the back-yard with Joe as young kids, and us keen to dig a hole down to Australia, with what must’ve been toy plastic shovels. Some adult was egging us on, perhaps my Dad, and though even at the time I knew it was impossible, I still felt a certain excitement at the thought it was ‘possible’.

My Dad loves making sandcastles. I remember us on beach holidays, collecting shells to use as soldiers, arming the battlements as the sea rushed in, cheering the soldiers on like the musicians on the Titanic as they boldly played it down.

The stand-out beach-works though, the one that really captured my imagination, was one I witnessed on a childhood holiday I imagine in Staithes. There were two guys, I imagine a man and his grown-up son, in a nook on the beach between two tall chunks of rocks. They had real shovels, and were at once digging down, and also building up a wall of sand against the sea, flanked on either side by the rocks.

It was awe-inspiring to me. The sea was crashing against their wall, perhaps as tall as they were (though who knows how my memory might have exaggerated it), and they remained safely cocooned behind it, but still continuing to add to the wall, to stoke up the defences, to fend off the imminent breach for as long as possible.

They were surrounded by admirers, up on the rocks. Everyone was in awe and urging them on. To me it felt like history being written. It was perhaps the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

And I suppose that had me hooked.

My first real holes I dug on Hiltonhead island off North Carolina, on a holiday with my host family from when I was in school in Indiana. I arrived for some reason a few days before everyone else did, so somewhat randomly picked up the gardening shovel, and took it down to the beach with me. I dug my name in the sand. I made a big M. Then I guess I got down to digging.

I don’t have photos available now, but that hole was maybe 4 feet cubed. Not bad, but neither was it amazing. Still, it was enough to draw passers-by and to coax out some friendly conversation.

After that, every time at the beach I’d dig a hole. I never again had a shovel so conveniently to hand, so used plastic toy beach shovels, or driftwood, or my bare hands instead. It was always fun, but surely never very big or deep.

Until 2 weeks ago. I actually bought a shovel, and took it to a beach in Izu, for the express purpose of digging a mammoth hole. I suppose people on seeing me with the shovel- I went with 5 other friends- thought it was a bit weird, and that I would just tinker around in the sand some, make some sand-castles, and be done. I wasn’t even sure myself how big a hole I could make.

Sunday, our only full day on the beach, rolled around. I sun-creamed up. It was hot as blazes out. I body-boarded for a while, sunbathed, chilled. Then finally got out the blade, and traced a crushingly ambitious circle out onto the sand. Perhaps 7 foot in diameter. Then I got into it.

Going was slow at first. That wide a circle takes a lot of digging to get down even a foot. Loose top-sand, and lots of it. A wide circle was necessary though, if I wanted to go deep, because vertical sand walls collapse, so you have to let them cant in. And also, the deeper I got, the harder it would be to manoeuvre the shovel. So I went wide.

It was pretty tiring, but soon it was attracting attention from other beach-goers. Surfers and their kids, or people out walking their dogs, came by to peer in and check it out. At one point, when I was away body-boarding, apparently a whole family scrambled down into it to look around.

Then I hit water.

The crazy drunk Irish guy who had been running around like a madman chasing a little spaniel came over and eyed it up. His big older American buddy, with a lovely young J-girl wife, came by to check it out and give encouragement. He told me how he used to dig holes himself, on the beaches of Florida, as a young man. He confirmed it was fun, and great exercise. That was cool of him.

Then the little girls came. 4 of them, completely un-minded by their various sets of parents, standing around the hole, checking it out. I offered them the shovel. One of them had a go and managed to dig a little sand back into the hole. I thanked her.

Then I realized that the tide was coming in, and leapt into action. It was coming in, but slowly, and since I’d built my hole on a hump, I could see it was unlikely to reach that high. It would need some help.

So I set to work in a frenzy. I marked a channel into the sea, and I started to dig like it was a race against time, like those two guys digging up their wall to protect against the sea. Only here I was letting the sea in. I was drawing it in.

The canal grew closer. I was lengthening one minute, widening the next, watching the waves hungrily. Then suddenly, the first one slicked up to my feet, fell into the canal, and wormed it’s way about halfway towards the waiting hole. I callooed and callayed, you betcha. And got back to work.

Before long, the first torrent hit, sloshed down the sluiceway, and my hole was beginning to fill.

The small crowd gathered around; my friends, the little girls, the American and the Irish guy, all hurrahed.

We stood round the hole for a good while after that. It was like standing around a fire. Looking into the flames, their random patterns entrancing. So I found the hole, filled with water, sometimes getting sloshed by new influxes, sand collapsing, patterns shifting.

The little girls went down into the pool to check out the gross sea-froth on top. The Irish dude jumped right in and said it looked like a big beer. The American dude brought me over a Bucks Fizz, which I sipped while watching the hole do it’s thing and we chatted about the history of the area.

Soon enough, the surfer parents re-materialized, the kids dissipated, and the sun sank down. It was time to fill the hole in. It’s dangerous not to. So, fulfilled, and with the help of my friends, we filled it in in about one tenth of the time it took to dig it.

Thanks to Canadian Mike for taking these photos.

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Shimbashi Ice-Walkers

MJG Japan, People / Culture Leave a Comment

I saw something cool while passing through Shimbashi station last week on my way to work.

Two suited older foreigners, a guy and a woman, were unloading big blocks of ice from white polystyrene crates outside the JR exit, then tying them up with string. I figured it was some kind of art thing, and I like art, and had time before my next class, so decided to join the small crowd of onlookers and see what would happen next.

After they got done tying, the woman and some J-helpers gathered around to help the guy hoist his ice onto his back.

After it was hoisted, he took off walking.

Then the woman followed, dragging hers. I guess it was heavy, and maybe she didn’t want to get wet.

They walked around like that for a bit.

I tracked the woman for a while, and asked her what it was all about. She told me the stones were from Switzerland, and they were Artists for Activism. She pointed at their sign, which said ‘Artists for Activism’. I asked her what she was active for, perhaps Global Warming, but she didn’t seem to really know, and suggested I talk to one of the J-dudes organizing.

I went over to him, he spoke good English, and he gave me a flyer, which said ‘Artists for Activism’ also. The dates and places for the other events were shown on a way zoomed-out Google maps graphic, unlabeled, so there was no way to know exactly where the events would be. How very mystique/modern/cool, I thought. Also infuriating- because no way to track down other events.

I asked him what the Activism was for, but he didn’t seem to know either. I suppose it doesn’t matter that much with this kind of thing.

Anyway- I couldn’t stay to watch the whole performance, but I could get an idea of what they were doing. They had chalked out a white circle on the floor, and every time a stone melted loose, they took it over and put it on the line. I don’t what that meant either.

I love random art like this. I love modern art. Anything that makes not much sense but is innovative and shows me something I’ve never seen before- I’m a fan.


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Japanese Manga

MJG Japan, Manga / Anime / Cosplay 1 Comment

I started reading some Japanese manga recently. Here’s a photo of the ones I’ve read so far:

Here’s a rough breakdown of their content:

Crows- A blonde kid with super fighting powers turns up at the Crows school and starts kicking everybody’s asses because they get in his way.

One-Piece- A kid with special powers (GUM-U GUM-U Mr. Fantastic-style stretchy body, allowing for GUM-U GUM-U rocket punch and etc..) wants to become the Pirate King, and kicks everyone’s asses because they get in his way.

Naruto- A ninja kid with special powers (he’s got strong magic maybe) acts like an idiot and starts kicking people’s asses because they get in his way.

There’s obviously a pattern, but then it’s probably unfair to judge them poorly for this- because they’re primarily aimed at juveniles, AND of course I’m only understanding the bare minimum as I read- so only getting the broad strokes. I look at the pictures mostly.

But why? Why after 4 years am I suddenly taking an interest in Japanese culture?

Well- good question. I suppose it’s just about time. I’ve been here 4 years!! More than that to be honest. I’ve tried many times to study Japanese. I’ve had free classes, paid classes, and studied solo. I tried writing in Japanese in my diary, tried speaking in Japanese to my girl-friend, went to work as an ALT hoping I’d get serious about Japanese, tried studying Harry Potter in Japanese, tried studying fairy stories in Japanese, bought flashcards, listened to all the Pimsleur audio lessons, listened to Japanese podcasts, and etc..

But none of those really stuck or worked much. I lost motivation. That could just be my mind giving up, but I have a hard time blaming my mind when learning Japanese just never seemed relevant. Even when I was studying real written Japanese and not lesson material, I chose materials that weren’t really Japanese in the first place- Harry Potter!

All of that has been by-passing the purpose of language- which is communication. I was studying the language like it was something dead and irrelevant, since I have/had no Japanese friends, and no Japanese inputs/outputs in my life. But of course it is not dead and irrelevant, it’s happening all around me.

So, now Manga. It’s relevant. It’s vibrant and new and always changing. It’s a big Japanese export, and it helps shape the world zeitgeist. So- it’s a worth-while thing to get onto.

I think.

I guess we’ll see. So far I have learnt some new words, and guessed at many more, and ignored most. When I think about how I felt when reading Lord of the Rings for the first time at around 10 years old- It’s kind of the same thing. If nothing else, it builds familiarity with the Japanese syllabary, kanji, and high-frequency words and expressions. The high-frequency stuff I’ll see again and again, and should eventually be able to start guessing their meanings accurately. Then when I get that in the bank, and can fix the context of what I’m reading better, the low-frequency stuff should start to give up its secrets.

I hope.

Will it help me with speaking? I think it will. But we’ll see.


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The Golden Compass

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I’d heard from various reports that this movie wasn’t good, so my expectations were already lowered, but still it completely underwhelmed. It had none of the dread of the book. None of the ominous thick sense of foreboding. It was by the numbers, over-lit, over clean, overly orchestrated garbage.

What a shame. The book is amazing. The book evokes real emotion. I don’t remember precisely, but in the book I feel we follow Lyra fairly exclusively. It is the world from her point of her view. And so- it is a world full of mystery, intrigue, deception, and also with black terror and evil deeds.

The movie is scatter-shot. The bad guys are carbon copies. The bad deeds are over-played and under-effective. The terror completely fails to materialize. And all the rich complexity of Dust, of Original Sin, is lost in a cartoon-ish rendering of the Magisterium, the Gobblers, and the Cutter.

The effects were shoddy. Really shoddy- blatantly unreal. Their juxtaposition with real actors really took away from any sense of wonder I’d hoped to generate. Every outfit was too clean. Every set too sharp and delineated, with no clutter, no sense of being lived in. Every contour too stark and simple.

I didn’t believe in it. Did they actually spend money on this film? On what, I wonder? The effects in TV shows like BSG are more realistic. Not once did I feel awed by anything I saw. They just gave it all to us on a platter. Here’s Oxford, whoop. Here’s how the alethiometer works, whoop. Here’s the bad guys, here’s Bolvangar (very nicely lit, and clean!). Here’s that damn monkey.

The music was cheap orchestral pap. Rising at every moment it ‘should’ rise at. Playing low and menacing to show us things were low and menacing, because from the words the actors spoke and the colors and lighting, those things were not clear.

Exposition! Too much exposition. And yet, not enough. What the hell was going on in this movie? Was there anything to care about? Exposition on stupid things that aren’t important or we can infer, with nothing on the important things. What are these witches doing? Nothing important. What about these Gyptians? Nothing important.

Costumes, dress, music, effects, sets, plot, structure, acting, makeup, battle scenes. It felt like a by-the-numbers movie made on a cheap budget for British television. It felt like one of the poorer episodes of Dr. Who (which is, to be honest, most of them).

The only single redeeming feature was the actress playing Lyra. She was the only good thing in it. But some of the lines the poor thing had to spout? Nonsense gibberish. Completely unnatural. And her speech at the end? Come on!

Did anyone on this production even read the book? Perhaps they gave it a cursory glance, but they certainly didn’t understand it. They transliterated the major events to film but with none of the feeling. None of the spirit, wonder, or dread of the book is present in this movie. It’s a shoddy farce that fails on every level. What a shame.

The West Wing

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I got done a few days ago watching my way through the whole of the West Wing. That’s 7 seasons, 22-24 episodes per season, 45-ish minutes per episode, so some 160 episodes, some 100-odd hours of TV.

That’s a lot of TV time. Imagine if I’d been writing all that time?!

Anyway- I really enjoyed it. It was like being with the crew of the Next Generation’s Enterprise again. The West Wing is the ship, the staff are the crew, and the adventures come to them in the same way the Enterprise went to the adventures. Politics, action, even military stuff, bad guys, tensions, a soap-opera edge with love interests and character development, with a liberal/enlightened world-view throughout.

Of course I loved TNG. I grew up watching it- I always figured I had more to learn from Jean-Luc than from hitting the streets outside. And recently, I felt much the same way about TWW (The West Wing). This, or be out in clubs/pubs/bars? Clubs are not nearly as interesting as TWW.

There was some fluctuation in the quality of the show, for sure. Seasons 1-4 were under the stewardship of the series creator- Aaron Sorkin. They were great, comfortable, generally warring against the religious right, and finding their feet.

Season 5, after Sorkin left, they took the crew/staff in the direction of incompetence and failure. It wasn’t fun. Josh made a severe mis-judgement that meant he was getting cut out of the loop, Leo had had a heart attack and was spending most of his time looking tiny and weak tucked up in bed, and Martin Sheen was dealing with bad MS. Everyone became weak and kind of useless.

That could be good- but it just lasted too long and was too endemic. One reason we like these characters is because they are good at what they do, they always pull it out of the hole- like Jack in 24. They’re one step ahead.

Not in season 5.

Season 6 pulls it back with presidential primaries, and season 7 rolled it home with the elections, with some great casting including Alan Alda and a lot of others- for a breath of fresh air.

Now I’m watching Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It feels like a re-tread of West Wing season 1 so far- the same battles against the religious right framing the shows premise, some of the same lines, the same pressures, the same scenes and set-ups. Still, it’s fun, though I can already see why it was canceled. It tries to take itself seriously with the show Studio 60 as a serious instrument for culture change- but it’s just a comedy show. Sure comedy has an impact- but not nearly as much as the agenda from the White House. So, it’s a step down in relevance/importance from TWW. Plus- it’s a re-tread.

Into the Wild

MJG Book / Movie Reviews Leave a Comment

I first heard about the book ‘Into the Wild’ from my Global Issues teacher, when I was taking a Gap Year in a US high school back in 1999. She said I reminded her of the main character- Christopher McCandless.

At the time I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know anything about Christopher McCandless. I wondered why she compared me to him, generally I thought it was a positive thing- she said he was a bright young guy who sucked the marrow out of life- but there was an edge to it that I didn’t quite understand. I respected her though, her class was probably the most eye-opening class I ever took, so the comment stayed with me.

Years later I got the book- an excellent book by Jon Krakauer- and found out the ending. He dies. He’s this intelligent, gifted, athletic, seemingly loved and pampered kid, but one day he gives away his study-fund to Oxfam, leaves his car and burns all his money, and just lights out.

The mystery is- why? Why would this kid do this thing, to himself, to his family?

At first I thought he was heroic. After reading the book, I was awed by the way he lived the short life he had. He really sucked out the marrow, travelling the Western US, leather-tramping the roads, hitch-hiking, meeting wacky characters and forging new connections, always seeking and finding new experiences, enriching his life and his mind.

More recently, I started to think of him, when I thought of him, as a bit of a jerk. As immature and even selfish. Why hurt your parents like that? Why be so irresponsible with your own life like that? For what- spiritual learnings? What is that worth to the family that care about you if you die acquiring them?

That’s how I came to the movie. And for the first hour or so, the movie even reinforces this belief. He is incredibly cavalier with his own life. He blocks his family out completely. He has turned down everything they ever gave him, everything they ever made him, and decided to re-do it all for himself.

But why?

The movie answers these questions. They’re answers that speak to my own situation- why I’m in Japan. I’m not angry at my parents like Chris was. I’m out here in Japan, re-inventing myself, doing things for myself, because I didn’t know how to fit in and belong in England.

I’ve written about it on these pages before. It’s nothing really abhorrent. It’s just- not knowing who my people were. Not feeling like I was myself. Not knowing what I wanted, or where my space was to do it. So, I’m here, still searching for those things.

What my Global Issues teacher said about me and Chris being similar is true. Both looking for ourselves, for reality, for a new heritage and control over ourselves and our environment.

His final revelation- as shown in the film anyway- is one I felt myself when setting out on my proposed ‘bike tour around the world!’. It’s the reason I quit, and came back here, hoping to share my life with my then-girlfriend. But not everyone is on the same page at the same time, and that didn’t work out.

Anyway- is this a good movie? It certainly captures the spirit of Chris McCandless. It’s long, but it pays off. It shows us his reasons without over-explaining. Most importantly though- it shows us Chris as reckless carefree vagabond dominating the landscape, dominating people’s hearts, moving through and leaving inspiration and hope in his wake. We see that and while we may tsk at how reckless it is, we love him for it. His spirit is indomitable.

Then we see him brought low, and eventually to death. But even then, he comes through.

I would have loved to have met him. If he’d lived, I think he would have become a wonderful, empathic, understanding, caring man. It’s a tragedy he died.

There Will Be Blood

MJG Book / Movie Reviews Leave a Comment

A movie about a psycho. A psycho so badly damaged/deranged/lunatic that he can’t love anything, can’t value anything, and drives everyone and everything away from him.

It’s hard to say much more because to say much more infers the ending. When dealing with such a bastard- is there any hope of salvation? Of atonement or forgiveness?

Well, I won’t say. But I’ll go so far as to say that both atonement and forgiveness pre-suppose contrition. And in this man we see no contrition. We see only black madness staring back out at us. We see someone so afraid of failure, so afraid to be nobody, so afraid to be somehow lesser than other men, that he will rampage rough-shod over those weaker than himself just to show to himself that he can.

He’s a devil waiting to be stopped. It’s almost as if he behaves so wickedly just to see if God can stop him. Will God strike him down? Will God do something to punish him, cast him low, make him repent of his sins?

The biblical tone of the title is right. This is a movie about religion. And it’s a movie about charlatans, and morals, and oil, and riches. But most of all, it’s about the chaos that bubbles underneath it all. The chaos that anyone can tap, that anyone can use for their own ends. It’s about violence, and the will to use it, suddenly, calculatedly, as a weapon. It’s about the will to power.

Thomas Anderson is a smart cookie. In Magnolia he was showing us how weak people can be manipulated. He showed us weak people are made weak by other weak people abusing them. He told us the worst crime we can commit is to abuse people weaker than us.

And that’s in this movie too. We see several instances of hatred, bile and rage splintering out of the Day-Lewis character and into other characters, who then go off the rails and splinter into hatred, bile and rage themselves. It is corrosive. The Day-Lewis character is a cancer.

It’s a good movie. Perhaps a great movie. Nowhere near as much fun as Magnolia. It’s dark and suspenseful- chiefly thanks to some powerful and bold suspense music over some of the extended sequences- reminiscent of the use of music over extended tracts in Magnolia, but much bleaker in this movie. Perhaps this is a grown-up version of Magnolia.

It’s certainly bleak. I felt down after watching it. But perhaps, not all bleak. The Day-Lewis character doesn’t manage to destroy everything.

The Shop Around the Corner

MJG Book / Movie Reviews Leave a Comment

What a great movie.

James Stewart is just so darn likable. Affable. Put-upon but bearing up. Gets riled if he has to. Talks straight, shoots from the hip, sticks up for himself. Gives the bad guy a bloody nose. But also sensitive. He’s a willowy guy- not so strong to look at, but he works hard, and he sticks to it, and he makes it come out right.

I’m trying to think of our modern day equivalent. I suppose Tom Hanks has pulled it off in the past. In You’ve Got Mail, the remake, he was perhaps a bit show-offish. But a movie like Forrest Gump, which I loved- he came through a lot like I described above- just slow-witted. Basically, a decent person.

Hugh Grant would be another.

But neither of them has quite what Stewart did. That basic decentness seems to have grown out of the times- difficult times, where you had to work hard, and no-one would help, and if your dreams got crushed- well, you had to just cowboy up and take it. I’m thinking of both Shop Around the Corner, and It’s a Wonderful Life here. Hugh Grant often plays loafers with trust funds, not hard-workers. Tom Hanks- well, hmm. Has he taken on comedies with such sad depths like Stewart did?

But it’s not only in character that the film excels. There are also some fantastic lines. Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) dogs Stewart throughout, wittily, and his comebacks are delightful. For example-

Klara Novak (Miss Novak): Well I really wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I’d find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter… which doesn’t work.

Alfred Kralik (thoughtfully): Well that’s very nicely put. Yes, comparing my intellect with a cigarette lighter that doesn’t work. Yes, that’s a very (thinking of the right word) interesting mixture of poetry, and meanness.

And one more, after him saying her illness was ‘only’ psychological-

Klara Novak: Mr. Kralik. It’s true we are in the same room, but we’re not on the same planet.

Alfred Kralik (again, thoughtfully): Uh Miss Novak, although I’m the victim of your remark, I can’t help admiring the exquisite way you have of expressing yourself. You certainly know how to put a man back on his planet.

How could you not like a guy like that? Takes an insult and just keeps on coming. Speaks of huge inner confidence.

And what an expressive face James Stewart has.

And what an ending to a movie. Sock suspenders!