2013-08-25

Haruki Murakami - The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Hi, again, Mr. Wind-Up Bird,
It's three-thirty in the morning. All my neighbors are sound asleep, but I can't sleep tonight, so I'm up, writing this letter to you. To tell you the truth, sleepless nights are as unusual for me as sumo wrestlers who look good in berets. Usually, I just slip right into sleep when the time comes, and slip right out when it's time to wake up. I do have an alarm clock, but I almost never use it. Every rare once in a while, though, this happens: I wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep.
I'm planning to stay at my desk, writing this letter to you, until I get sleepy, so I don't know if this is going to be a long letter or a short one. Of course, I never really know that anytime I write to you until I get to the end.
Anyway, it seems to me that the way most people go on living (I suppose there are a few exceptions), they think that the world or life (or whatever) is this place where everything is (or is supposed to be) basically logical and consistent. Talking with my neighbors here often makes me think that. Like, when something happens, whether it's a big event that affects the whole of society or something small and personal, people talk about it like, "Oh, well, of course, that happened because such and such," and most of the time people will agree and say, like, "Oh, sure, I see," but I just don't get it. "A is like this, so that's why B happened." I mean, that doesn't explain anything. It's like when you put instant rice pudding mix in a bowl in the microwave and push the button, and you take the cover off when it rings, and there you've got rice pudding. I mean, what happens in between the time when you push the switch and when the microwave rings? You can't tell what's going on under the cover. Maybe the instant rice pudding first turns into macaroni gratin in the darkness when nobody's looking and only then turns back into rice pudding. We think it's only natural to get rice pudding after we put rice pudding mix in the microwave and the bell rings, but to me that's just a presumption. I would be kind of relieved if, every once in a while, after you put rice pudding mix in the microwave and it rang and you opened the top, you got macaroni gratin. I suppose I'd be shocked, of course, but I don't know, I think I'd be kind of relieved too. Or at least I think I wouldn't be so upset, because that would feel, in some ways, a whole lot more real.
Why "more real"? Trying to explain that logically, in words, would be very, very, very hard, but maybe if you take the path my life has followed as an example and really think about it, you can see that it has had almost nothing about it that you could call "consistency". First of all, it's an absolute mystery how a daughter like me could be born to two parents as boring as tree frogs. I know it's a little weird for me to be saying this, but I'm a lot more serious than the two of them combined. I'm not boasting or anything, it's just a fact. I don't mean to say that I'm any better than they are, but I am a more serious human being. If you met them, you'd know what I mean, Mr. Wind-Up Bird. Those people believe that the world is as consistent and explainable as the floor plan of a new house in a high-priced development, so if you do everything in a logical, consistent way, everything will turn out right in the end. That's why they get upset and sad and angry when I'm not like that.
Why was I born into this world as the child of such absolute dummies? And why didn't I turn into the same kind of stupid tree frog daughter even though I was raised by those people? I've been wondering and wondering about that ever since I can remember. But I can't explain it. It seems to me there ought to be a good reason, but it's a reason that I can't find. And there are tons of other things that don't have logical explanations. For example, "Why does everybody hate me?" I didn't do anything wrong. I was just living my life in the usual way. But then, all of a sudden, one day I noticed that nobody liked me. I don't understand it.
So then one disconnected thing led to another disconnected thing, and that’s how all kinds of stuff happened. Like, I met the boy with the motorcycle and we had that stupid accident. The way I remember it - or the way those things are all lined up in my head - there’s no “This happened this way, so naturally that happened that way.” Every time the bell rings and I take off the cover, I seem to find something I’ve never seen before.
I don’t have any idea what’s happening to me, and before I know it I’m not going to school anymore and I’m hanging around the house, and that’s when I meet you, Mr. Wind-Up Bird. No, before that I’m doing surveys for a wig company. But why a wig company? That’s another mystery. I can’t remember. Maybe I hit my head in the accident, and the position of my brain got messed up. Or maybe the psychological shock of it started me covering up all kinds of memories, the way a squirrel hides a nut and forgets where he’s buried it. (Have you ever seen that happen, Mr. Wind-Up Bird? I have. When I was little. I thought the stupid squirrel was sooo funny! It never occurred to me the same thing was going to happen to me.)
So anyhow, I started doing surveys for the wig company, and that’s what gave me this fondness for wigs like they were my destiny or something. Talk about no connection! Why wigs and not stockings or rice scoops? If it had been stockings or rice scoops, I wouldn’t be working hard in a wig factory like this. Right? And if I hadn’t caused that stupid bike accident, I probably wouldn’t have met you in the back alley that summer, and if you hadn’t met me, you probably would never have known about the Miyawakis’ well, so you wouldn’t have gotten that mark on your face, and you wouldn’t have gotten mixed up in all those strange things… probably. When I think about it like this, I can’t help asking myself, “Where is there any logical consistency in the world?”
I don’t know - maybe the world has two different kinds of people, and for one kind the world is this completely logical, rice pudding place, and for the other it’s all hit-or-miss macaroni gratin. I bet if those tree frog parents of mine put rice pudding mix in the microwave and got macaroni gratin when the bell rang, they’d just tell themselves, “Oh, we must have put in macaroni gratin mix by mistake,” or they’d take out the macaroni gratin and try to convince themselves, “This looks like macaroni gratin, but actually it’s rice pudding.” And if I tried to be nice and explain to them that sometimes, when you put in rice pudding mix, you get macaroni gratin, they would never believe me. They’d probably just get mad. Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you, Mr. Wind-Up Bird?
Remember when I kissed your mark that time? I’ve been thinking about that ever since I said goodbye to you last summer, thinking about it over and over, like a cat watching the rain fall, and wondering what was that all about? I don’t think I can explain it myself, to tell you the truth. Sometime way in the future, maybe ten years or twenty years from now, if we have a chance to talk about it, and if I’m more grown up and a lot smarter than I am now, I might be able to tell you what it meant. Right now, though, I’m sorry to say, I think I just don’t have the ability, or the brains, to put it into the right words.
One thing I can tell you honestly, though, Mr. Wind-Up Bird, is that I like you better without the mark on your face. No; wait a minute; that’s not fair. You didn’t put the mark there on purpose. Maybe I should say that even without your mark, you’re good enough for me. Is that it? No, that doesn’t explain anything.
Here’s what I think, Mr. Wind-Up Bird. That mark is maybe going to give you something important. But it also must be robbing you of something. Kind of like a trade-off. And if everybody keeps taking stuff from you like that, you’re going to be worn away until there’s nothing left of you. So, I don’t know, I guess what I really want to say is that it wouldn’t make any difference to me if you didn’t have that thing.
Sometimes I think that the reason I’m sitting here making wigs like this every day is because I kissed your mark that time. It’s because I did that that I made up my mind to leave that place, to get as far away as I could from you. I know I might be hurting you by saying this, but I think it’s true. Still, though, it’s because of that that I was finally able to find the place where I belong. So, in a sense, I am grateful to you, Mr. Wind-Up Bird. I don’t suppose it’s much fun to have somebody be “in a sense” grateful to you, though, is it?

So now I feel like I’ve said just about everything I have to say to you, Mr. Wind-Up Bird. It’s almost four o’clock in the morning. I have to get up at seven-thirty, so maybe I’ll be able to sleep three hours and a little bit. I hope I can get to sleep right away. Anyhow, I’m going to end this letter here. Goodbye, Mr. Wind-Up Bird. Please say a little prayer so I can get to sleep.

2013-08-10

An Example

As an example to go with my last post, today we happened to be driving, we had to go way across town, and the bus routes are really inconvenient. At one point, we were approaching an intersection. We had a stop sign, and we stopped and waited because a woman and a young girl were coming up the cross-street from our right on bikes. A car full of young boys pulled up behind us, started honking at us, and then floored it around us into the intersection as we were trying to yell at them that there were people coming. They came within about a foot of nailing the woman, with the girl who was probably her daughter right behind her. They then accelerated and went around her, leaving both her and the girl frightened, stopped in the middle of the street, stunned.

This is not abnormal. This happens daily. Not only young boys do this. Grown men do this. Old women do this. Much of the population is willing to risk the lives of other people to shave a few seconds off of their travel time, and this is seen as rational, acceptable behavior by many people.

Fuck that.

2013-08-09

Riding a Bicycle in America

Taking the kids home

It's hard to explain the stress of riding a bicycle in America. The danger is often measured simply in number of deaths of people riding bicycles, and it is assumed that if that number is low, that it is safe, and that people riding bicycles are therefore well-accommodated. But the actual stress of riding a bicycle for transportation in America is much more complicated.

In thinking about this, I'm reminded of a story I heard about Billy Corgan, the lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins. When he was growing up, he lived with his father and step-mom. His step-mom was violently abusive of him, sometimes. Other times she was fine. He made the comment that the real emotional trauma for him didn't come from the abuse itself, which was infrequent, but from never knowing when it was going to come. The constant tension and uncertainty.

That is what it's like to ride a bicycle for transportation in America.

You constantly know that:
  1. All it takes for you to die or be seriously injured is for one person to not be paying attention for 5 seconds.
  2. The majority of the population believes that they are in complete control while driving well beyond their ability (often doing multiple other things at the same time), and that of course nothing like killing or seriously injuring someone could ever happen to them.
  3. The majority of the population sees you as an inconvenience, to be passed by whatever means necessary, including breaking the law dangerously. This happens to me almost daily, being passed illegally. Not infrequently, the person in the car passing me illegally nearly collides with other cars, people crossing the street ahead of us, etc, who are all following the law.
  4. The infrastructure (roads, intersections, parking, signage, etc) often creates conflicts between people driving and people riding bicycles or walking. For instance, bike lanes which, by law, a person on a bicycle has to use, that end on the near side of an intersection, and force people riding bikes to merge illegally in the intersection with traffic going potentially 20mph faster than them. Or on-street car parking that blocks the view of everyone on the road or sidewalk at an intersection, and makes it frightening to even pull or walk out into a road at times, since you don't know what's coming, and it makes it a surprise for people in the road when you do pull or walk out into traffic, because they couldn't see you sitting there waiting.
  5. The law is lenient towards people driving, as long as they are not drunk, and as long as they don't hit-and-run. If they are sober and stay at the scene, they are not likely to be cited with much, even if they seriously wound or kill someone. This means that 1.) people only associate irresponsibility with drinking. If you're sober, you feel you're being responsible regardless of how you're driving, and 2.) people have no motivation to be careful, because they know if they cooperate, they probably won't be held responsible for much. It is, for the most part, the responsibility of the person walking or riding a bicycle to make sure they just stay out of the way.
It's not that people walking and riding bikes are dying left and right (actually, most of the people who die on the roads each year - 35,000/yr in America - are in cars), or even that it's very objectively dangerous to ride a bicycle or walk around, it's just that you know that nothing is in your favor when it comes to avoiding injury, except your own vigilance and skill, and that a simple mistake by someone going 35mph could result in you ceasing to exist. The majority of the people driving are doing nothing proactive to prevent injuring themselves or other people, nor is the physical environment around you built to prevent or account for mistakes by the people using it, however good their intentions may be (we all make mistakes, have lapses in attention, etc).

That's simply how it is. It may not be objectively very dangerous, but it is stressful, and mentally and emotionally taxing.

2013-08-07

Karuta (かるた)

Karuta is a Japanese card game, often played by children for educational purposes, but also played by teens and adults competitively.

The most common form played competitively uses 100 poems by 100 different poets. Each of these poems are split into two parts. The second parts of each poem are written on 100 different small cards, making up a deck.

The match is between two people, and one deck of cards is used. Each player lays out 25 cards randomly, so a total of 50 cards are laid out in the playing field. There is a reader, who reads each poem (all 100), both the first and second half, with a pause between each half.

The players must listen carefully to the poem from the first half, and as soon as enough of the second half has been read to uniquely identify the poem, each player must try to hit the card with the second half of the poem written on it before the other player does.

Because Japanese is a very syllabic language, the cards are referred to as one, two, three, etc syllable cards, meaning they are uniquely identifiable after one, two, three or more syllables. This classification may change depending on which cards are on the playing field, and which cards have already been read, since eliminating all cards but one that start with a particular syllable then makes the remaining one a one syllable card, when before it may have been a two syllable card.

The goal is to eliminate all the cards on your own side of the playing field first. If a player takes a card from the opponent's side, they then pass them one of their cards. If a player hits the wrong card, they are penalized by having to take a card from their opponent.

After the 50 cards have been laid out on the playing field, the players are given time to memorize the positions of the cards. Because all 100 cards are read during the match, the players must be very aware of which cards are actually laid out in the playing field, and which cards have already been read by the reader, because if the reader reads a card that is not on the playing field and they hit the wrong card, they are penalized. It is also important for speed's sake, to have an idea of what area the possible cards are in as soon as possible, so having a mental map of the playing field is important.

The players are allowed to lay out their own cards on the playing field in basically any order, and there is strategy based on their own handed-ness, the opponent's handed-ness and their own strengths and weaknesses in defending and attacking cards. There are also the nuances of the voice of the reader and their rhythm that the players must adapt to, as well as the physical strain of having to sit on your knees for something like an hour at a time (and in tournaments, sometimes for 5-6 matches in one day) while slightly bent over and making swipes and lunges with your arm.

Here's a little video showing pieces of a match.