Tag Archives: Japan

Wrestling

Inertia (noun) ii-ner-sha
Definition: Lack of movement or activity, particularly when movement or activity is desired or required
Reference: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/inertia

Keen-eyed observers will quite rightly point out there’s been little movement on Thunder Road. Less progress than along the South Eastern Freeway during peak hour. Fewer words shared than during a silent meditation retreat.

I don’t want this blog too become a moan. Far too many past posts already focus on my frustrations with work-life imbalance or my inability of late to quarantine enough hours for clear-headed creativity.

But it’s something I wrestle with. Often. As a father/husband/allegedly mature adult, can I really allow myself an author life when the financial rewards are generally paltry?

I know other writer friends face the same dilemma. Some are reluctantly choosing to walk away from their vocation. To pay bills rather than pay attention to the stories shimmering in their consciousness. Tales that require countless hours to chart.

Adding to the angst, trade law changes proposed for the book industry by the Federal Government may sound the death knell for many literary careers. (See also: http://bookscreateaustralia.com.au/)

For my part, I am massively relieved mooted changes to the terms of copyright have apparently been abandoned. As a journalist and author I’m not the most practical or handy bloke. I’ve never built a house or factory that I can leave to my children. The novels I’ve had published may be the only things I’ve constructed that I can pass to my family – so the threat I’d lose ownership of my work, possibly after a fleeting 15 years, was devastating.

So where am I at? I’m working full-time, carefully choosing words that may appear in an app inside a mobile device, somewhere beside you, some time soon.

I’ve been learning about Viking culture, via a Danish exchange student staying at our home and now hosting my son.

And I’m following the fortunes of the North Melbourne Football Club, filing occasional match reports for The Footy Almanac.

Meanwhile the manuscript leading the pack of several pieces I have in progress is languishing but, hopefully, mentally marinading until the time is right to heat and serve.

I was lucky enough to visit Japan again recently and my research there will bolster the speculative fiction story I’m so keen to complete. We spent an afternoon at a sumo tournament and, as I type this, my epiphany has taken the shape of a mighty wrestler.

When a rikishi (contestant) enters the ring, there’s much tradition to be honored (and posturing to be enjoyed) before a bout begins. Salt is tossed liberally to purify the arena. The brow is mopped. Sake is slurped. Chests, bellies, buttocks or thighs are slapped, thunderously. The wrestlers may drop into their pre-attack crouch and give their opponent a death-stare, only to rise and lope back to their corner. Then begin the rituals again.

The build-up lasts longer than the battle. The rikishi only wrestle when they’re good and ready or their opponent is utterly psyched out. Perhaps that’s where I’m at. I need to throw salt. Purify my arena. Get my mind clear. Lower myself into writing position. Charge forward like an enraged bull. And wrestle my manuscript into submission.

Sumo wrestlers watched by officials

Sparking joy, turning back time

Living in Tokyo for a week taught me that you can live comfortably with a lot less stuff.  In Australia, for example, our living room is the epicentre of activity throughout daylight hours but redundant once we trudge off to our bedrooms. In Tokyo, once the day was cleared away, we rolled out our futons. The living room became the bedroom.

This spacial awareness was renewed by a New York Times article on Marie Kondo. Ms Kondo is a declutterer who recommends you look at each of your possessions and ask, “does it spark joy?” If the answer is no, you get rid of the item.

In a burst of enthusiasm over summer I began throwing stuff away with a ruthlessness that would have been inconceivable without the ‘spark joy’ philosophy. As an author who stores scraps and detritus that might one day inspire a story, Ms Kondo’s guidance that paper never sparks joy was truly liberating.

As I shredded, I found a bag of cards from my 21st birthday. I paused the paper cull to flick through them. Then sat cross-legged on the floor and began reading them properly.

This personal time capsule contained friends, family and acquaintances from a decade long gone. There was an ex-girlfriend and a couple of unrequited crushes who all still own a piece of my heart.

There were names I didn’t remember. Not even a little bit. That felt wrong.

There were friendships that have endured all manner of change and challenge – and flourished – and those that have fallen by the wayside.

There were assessments of my young character and prayers for my future conduct. I hope I’ve lived up to at least some of them.

There was the name of a family member who died tragically the following year, leaving a wound that may never heal.

Best of all, there were faces I’d not so much forgotten but hadn’t considered for a long time. It’s International Women’s Day today and the perfect time to remember one of those faces, the amazing Ivy.

Ivy was a widow who lived on a sheep farm run by her son and his family. She hired me to tackle jobs she didn’t want to burden her busy son with — mainly mowing, pruning and splitting wood.

This fiercely independent, funny woman  particularly wanted me to prune a cyprus hedge that ran along her driveway for several hundred metres. When I arrived on the designated morning, Ivy was nowhere to be seen but I could hear the snapping of pruning shears.

Following the sound through her cottage garden I discovered 80-something Ivy wedged between a wire fence and the corner of the hedge, pruning with gusto. When I asked her why she hadn’t waited for me, she replied that there was a thorny japonica in that corner and she didn’t want me getting scratched.

It took me several days to prune the hedge and Ivy would insist on me stopping for morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea. Her cinnamon teacake and strong cuppa combos remain unsurpassed.

I always felt bad stopping work to eat cake but came to realise Ivy was paying me for companionship as much as gardening grunt-work. Looking back, I wish I’d sat and listened to more of her stories, rather than rushing back out to earn a few extra dollars.

We lost contact as my university studies became more demanding and I found full-time work. I learned Ivy had passed away and didn’t attend her funeral but, every time I pass her driveway (and that hedge,) it puts a smile on my face.

Her 21st birthday card is signed, ‘kind thoughts from friend Ivy’.

On International Women’s Day, in the freshly minted Year of the Ram,  I salute Ivy who befriended a boy 60 years her junior, made him laugh, protected him from thorns and made pots of tea full of smiles and stories. Thank you.

Ram2015

Warriors, worriers and the winding road

Japanese New Year traditions include the purchase of blank-eyed papier mache Daruma dolls. The recipient fills in one eye when they make a wish. Then, whenever they see the one-eyed doll, they are reminded to persevere, to fight on towards personal goals.

If the goal is achieved, the second eye is added. At the end of the year, whether goals are achieved or otherwise, the dolls are taken back to the temple they were purchased from, thanked for their service and burned.

My Daruma doll will finish 2014 with only one eye but that doesn’t mean it failed me. Maybe its lesson was to remind me to keep believing, keep working and focus on small steps towards the main goal. As the sign on the bakery wall said, ‘Look at the doughnut, not the hole.’

One eyed Daruma doll
One eyed Daruma doll

As the Thunder Road twists towards 2015 it’s a good time to review the year gone by. I’ve written a lot this year, probably more than I’ve ever managed before. I’ve spent many hours in schools, hopefully lodging a splinter or two of storytelling wisdom. I have a manuscript that’s teetering out into the world like a toddler taking its first steps. And another manuscript with a publisher, waiting to see if it slots into the complex 3D jigsaw that is a publishing schedule.

I’ve also made a return to journalism for the immediate future. Two employers came calling the day before an opportunity I’d been waiting on as an author evaporated. The universe can be less than subtle at times.

Over summer, I’ve set myself another goal, not quite the equivalent of NANORIMO but not unrelated, either. I’m writing quickly, as often as possible, about characters that danced into my consciousness and started talking. Listening to their banter has been great fun. Depending on how the story takes shape, and reactions from my intended crash-test dummies in the caravan park, I might even blog the chapters next year.

In the meantime, here are some of my reading, viewing and listening highlights for 2014:

Reading: I’ve spent countless hours in Westeros these past few years and can only doff my cap to Mr George RR Martin for his epic and detailed imagination. I’d been waiting to finish A Dance with Dragons before tackling Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North but ultimately couldn’t wait. I’m glad I didn’t. The Man Booker prize winner is visceral and confronting and worthy of multiple readings. I also finished Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy. Amazing stuff.

Watching: Am loving True Detective and The Walking Dead. At the cinemas I enjoyed Edge of Tomorrow and The Fault in our Stars, both of which had their origins in YA novels.

Listening: Chet Faker’s Built on Glass; Coldplay’s Ghost Stories; new CW Stoneking and official recordings of the Springsteen concert I attended.

Thank you to everyone has read my work, listened to and hosted me at schools and libraries, and stocked my books this year. Those who have attended my workshops will know I rave on a bit about the importance of spell-check and proof-reading so I’ll sign off with my favourite typographical errors of the year, sourced from entries in a short story competition I judged in October:

  • “We were being pursued by Mongolian worriers.”
  • “The uninhibited backyard was overgrown with weeds.”
  • “Mum and Dad scarified themselves for me.” (Ouch!)
  • “I must be imaging things.”

There’s already a meme out and about but, inspired by these latest errors, perhaps I should adopt it for 2015: ‘Be a warrior, not a worrier.’

 

Japan Journal #4 – Space & pace

In my home city of Melbourne the population density is estimated at 430 people per square kilometre. In Tokyo the figure is 6000 people per square kilometre.

Japan has an overall population density of approximately 350 people per square kilometre. In Australia you’re looking at roughly three people per square kilometre*. That’s right, three.

That’s ample room to swing a cat, even of the sabre-tooth variety. If you’re antisocial by nature you could stroll around your square kilometre and feel fairly confident you wouldn’t bump into a single soul.

OK, much of Australia’s red, ‘dead’ heart is desert and unsuitable for high density habitation. This is why we sunburnt Aussies stick to the coastlines where it is wetter and greener. It’s also why the density numbers for Melbourne and Sydney are so much higher than the national average — and why traffic and public transport issues are top of mind for so many people.

For all our huffing and puffing, Melbourne’s 430 people / km2 hardly compares with Tokyo’s 6000. We could learn a lot from the Japanese mega-city.

Space

My sense of Tokyo is that for all the crowding it doesn’t feel cluttered. The populace live side-by-side politely, patiently and efficiently. Space, the commodity many Australians have in abundance, is rarely wasted.

Living in Tokyo made me conscious of how we can make do with less. Why build big houses full of single-purpose rooms that are empty most of the day when you can stow your bedding each morning and turn sleeping space into living areas?

If you absolutely must own a motor vehicle, why not opt for a petite machine purpose-built for the tight parking spaces available.

A gap between buildings could fit one car-parking space — or six if you build an elevator that enables cars to be stored on top of each other. A steep, narrow sliver of land that’s probably no good for anything else could be perfectly fine for a cemetery.

Japanese garden design also reflects this capacity to optimise surroundings. Entire gardens are designed around what does NOT fit in a property. You simply ‘borrow’ scenery in the background, such as a hillside or a neighbour’s tree, by framing it with plants in your own garden.

Pace

Paths in Japanese gardens meander. The wisdom of a winding path, apart from being an excellent metaphor, is that each change of angle provides a different view. The gardener can craft several scenes from one. With this in mind they deliberately slow our progress, encouraging meditation and appreciation, rather than impatience and bustle.

The other place where this cultural prescription to slow down was obvious was in the public baths. We stayed a week in the mountains where the plumbing was often frozen solid. This didn’t matter as bathing took place at one of several local ‘onsen’.

Part of the reason I’m posting this so long after our trip is that I have been musing over the things I liked best about Japanese customs. Ten months down the track, I have to say I miss the public baths.

The onsen routine involved stripping down, scrubbing forensically in an open showering area, then moving to hot/very hot/cold indoor or outdoor pools to soak. I suspect public (segregated) bathing probably lessens hang-ups about body image but the ritual certainly had other benefits.

The onsen deliberately takes the pace off your life. It cleanses not just the outer layer but the inner, soaking up accumulated stress. As a full stop to a 24-hour period, it’s a very smart piece of punctuation.

I reckon I could use an onsen in my ‘hood.

Slow down. One step at a time.
Slow down. One step at a time.

(*I note that population data does not include those held in refugee incarceration facilities. My point is not that this would alter population density; the statistical impact is likely to be insignificant in an Australian context. It’s more a realisation that once you’re a stateless person, you’re apparently also a non-person. You don’t count in the country where you are seeking refuge.)