Monday, May 30, 2005

artist town of North Adams, Mass MoCa, and the Vermont Country Store

The first few days of our New England trip was nice--with occasional light showers and temperature in the upper 50s, the area was at the height of the spring. Everything was in bloom. As we drove along hilly, winding roads of New England, we cleansed our zoot-permeated lungs with the sweet floral air.

We took MA2 from the crazy rotary hell (a.k.a. Boston) to North Adams in the northwestern corner of Massachussetts. The trees along the route had just started to open their tiny young leaves, and their extensive color range, from everyday lime green to less common yellow to unusual orange brown, made it look like autumn foliage. Slight haze in the air softened the contours of everything, adding to the typical lethargic feel of the area.

North Adams is an artist town, which used to be a lumber mill town along a small river. Many of the mills have been converted to artist residences, studios, and above all, the excellent museum of Mass MoCA (Museum of Contemporary Art), preserving the aging red blick walls and sturdy industrial structures inside.

pink madness I
The largest studio complex is located on the northern edge of the town. Around the old factory building, there are several huts and barns that have been prey to the residents artists' whims. One gutted hut was painted dark blue and dark green inside and outside, another barn was entirely painted with all sorts of pink hues (cf. the photo above).

that way please
In the center of the small town, along the river, is the Mass MoCA, also a converted large-scale lumber mill. Much of the "mill" feel, such as layers of paints left on exposed brick walls and girders that run across the high ceilings, is well preserved, giving it a delightful difference from many of the buildings designed principally for museums. The rooms are spacious, at times even huge (enough to fit eight exploding Ford Tauruses hung from the ceiling at various angles), and natural light generously stream through the numerous large glass windows (when it is appropriate, of course). The picture is one of the signs in the parking lot.

oh nooo
Its exhibits of contemporary art are playful and evocative, including this tiger exhibit by Cai Guo Cian. An entire room is dedicated to the single work, for it consists of about half a dozen fake, arrow-striken tigers flying all over the place in all sorts of poses--they definitely takes up some space. Reminiscent of both that nightmarish painting of Dali's and some of the traditional Chinese sumi painting of the emperors' tiger hunting, it is an exhibit fun to walk around. One of the tiger even attacked me as I took this one above. Another exhibit of note is the creepy silicone creatures by Patricia Piccinini. Of the two on the exhibit, "The Young Family" is particularly stunning and unsettling. Featuring a family of a hybrid chimera of pig and human, the sadness and exhaustion on the face of the strangely male-and-old-looking mother and the texture of their skin (meticulously recreated down to the tiniest pore) are beyond comprehension. The piece by itself could very well be worth the visit to the museum. (These two photos are taken by my boyfriend.)

From there on, we drove up to the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, on the way to which we couldn't resist to allow us to be touristic and dropped by at a Vermont contry store. Run by some large-scale corporation, but nicely disguised as a locally-owned store, it is obliterating the real, community-owned counterpart across a street, which seems to have its own reasons to be doing not terriblly well. The country store is a fun place to wander around, especially the colorful sections of all sorts of candy jars. If I were a kid, I would not leave the place until I got some in my pocket!

jelly beans

Saturday, May 28, 2005

real smoky BBQ in Maine, YWCA Boston, three sons' homage to their Italian mom

Here are some more great inns and restaurants in New England. Hopefully my fridnds won't get too jealous upon reading these... My mother did. Hah.

>Beale Street Barbeque and Grill
We dropped by this Memphis BBQ place in Bath, Maine, on our way to Acadia National Park from New Hampshire. It wasn't planned, but the wonderful smell of their smoke house in the back of the restaurant, which happened to be next to a public parking, was just irresistible. And it was a telltale sign of good Southern BBQ. The shredded pork literally melts in your mouth. The cornbread isn't one of those chokingly dry, pasty, yellow sponge, but a moist and flavorful delight. The excellent spicy smoked sausage has a perfect accompaniment of home made baked beans, rice, and refreshing cole slaw. Especially the taste-bud-caressing harmony of the spicy sausage and tomato-flavored rice, which is far from the usual overcooked, soggy, bursting-around-the-edges fare. With many choices under $10, it's a great lunch stop, especially when you've driven for too long without proper supply of food (like we did).

>Boston YWCA's Berkeley Residence
It's a YWCA, so there's no frill. And it costs you $90 for a double room. Then why bother?

Well, because $90 is an impossible deal in the heart of Boston. We did several searches for hotels under $100 in Boston, and all we got were two hotels in some unheard-of suburbs where the nearest public transportation is two miles away, if at all. On the other hand, the YWCA is on the edge of the South End residential neighborhood, and less than five T stops away from everything. Such hip streets as Newbury and Boyleston, which are studded with restaurants and boutiques and are fun to roam around, if a bit too overpriced to actually participate in their commercial buzz, are within walking distance. We enjoyed all the amusement of the city which should have been out of reach if we had stayed at one of the suburban hotels for twenty dollars more.

The rooms are bare. But it is cleaner than many hotels. It is also well-equipped for longer-staying guests (such as abundant towel racks and more-than-enough storage space), which cannot be a bad thing for a brief stay. Our room had two single beds, but it wasn't a problem--we could haul one next to the other all right. :-P For the public shower, flip-flops would be a wise idea. They would have made me much happier. Not that the shower room was filthy, but it just doesn't feel good to step in a little puddle with someone else's hair floating in it.

Full breakfast (extensive choices of cereals, breads and juices, coffee, cooked-at-the-order eggs, fruits) is included. With its minimalist and thrifty interior, dim lights, and several solitary, tired, older residents who seemed to have been there for decades, it is probably a very dipressing place to stay alone for an extended period of time. But if you have a company, male or female, a short stay will be just all right. (Yup, they now accept male guests.)

>Monica's Trattoria
We wandered into the North End neighborhood during our stay in Boston. It's been an authentic Italian neighborhood with probably the most European city scape. Unfortunately we didn't come across any "Italian grandmas chatting in the street" as our guide book stated it, due to the extremely cold and soggy weather, but the real deal of the neighborhood is its great Italian food. Ranging from cheap slices of pizza (probably excellent) to sophisticated modern Italian cuisine, with some bakeries and grocery stores, there's plenty to choose from when it comes to food. We chose the Monica's Trattoria on Prince St. Its red/green/yellow design of the wall looked promising. The menu features home made fresh pasta (such as musuroom-stuffed ravioli in herb cream broth) and brick-oven-baked pizza (roasted eggplant, plum tomatoes, and mozzarella is one of the choices). We had their daily specials--Sauteed Clam with Tomato Fettuccine and Homemade Italian Sausage with Mushed Potato Ravioli. Both were excellent--the flavors were robust, and all the ingredients were in a perfect, mouthwatering harmony. Even though it is only a decade old, it is rated as one of the best in the country. To know that the owners/chefs are three brothers, whose mom (the namesake, of course) has an import grocery store just across the street is a nice Italian touch.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

survivor of the stormy Atlantic chill

It was probably the suckiest vacation in my life. Well, in terms of weather, that is.

New England was under a thick cover of clouds for the last five days of our trip. In fact, the clouds were something of a winter storm that brought us gusting wind and incessant rain. On top of the Cadillac Mountain in the Acadia National Park, the wind was so strong that for a split second it lifted our car from the ground. (We were very relieved to see that our car was still where we parked it when we came back from the restroom.) In Boston, we ended up spending some five hours of quality time in the airport before we finally set off to the slightly bumpy flight to Chicago late last night. The last two days, with the highs barely above 45, even set the record of the coldest May 24th and 25th in the history of Boston. The gray, windy, bone-chilling sogginess of the last five days were more than enough to make me temporarily forget the first half of the trip--during which we managed to enjoy the early spring air streaming over our head as we drove our convertible. (We were lucky to be assigned a convertible for the price of a compact car at the rental car place. They must have been seriously out of cars.)

But anyway, I'm back in Chicago, readier than ever to enjoy the warm, dry, and sunny weather...

Below are some places of note from our trip.

>Polly's Pancake Parlor
Nestled in the rolling hills that eventually lead to the rugged terrain of the White Mountains National Forest, this log-cabin pancake house is a wonderful place to start the day of serious hiking. The three-inch pancakes are small enough to try more than one flour-and-addition combination, such as whole wheat blueberry (FILLED with plump blueberries) and cornmeal chocolate chip. Be daring and add some sides--especially the bacons, home-smoked at the location, are the best I've ever had. The rich smokiness, comparable to the smokiest of the smoked salmons, perfectly counters the intense flavor of the pork. It is on your way to the mountains, if you stay in Franconia, Littleton, or other nearby towns.

>Hearthside Bed & Breakfast
Located in the center of Bar Harbor, the largest town on the Mt. Desert Island, this B&B is an excellent place to stay. It has everything you would expect from a B&B, from cutely decorated rooms with lots of quaint character to fun conversation with other guests over a satisfyingly hearty breakfast. They even treat you with home-baked brownies and hot drinks at 4-5 every day. But what makes this B&B the place to stay is the owners Susan and Barry. Though extremely friendly (almost like a family), they are professionals. Our room was miraculously cleaned while we were downstairs at the breakfast table. The cleaning cart full of mops and cleansers, an unfortunate norm of most hotels, was nowhere to be seen. I would avoid the "crazy" season of late July to mid August (when almost everyone on the island is unhappy, may he be a tourist or an innkeeper), but other than that, I would definitely go back to Hearthside B&B.

(list of places to be continued)

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

closed for vacation

I'll be traveling in New England for a week. Am I travelling too much? Probably. :P

Hoperully I'll come back with some good photos to post and good stories to tell.

death of a son

Last Thursday, a death of one of our classmates' son shook our class. The mother told us that her son was attacked and died on previous Tuesday, and as planned ahead, she recited Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son," as tears run down her cheeks. After she left the classroom, none of us felt like continuing the recital of the poems we selected--it felt hollow and fake to do so after such an explosion of genuine emotion. The only thing that felt appropriate for the class (it was a creative writing class) and the occasion was to write. And so we did.

Trying to follow the instructor's suggestion to write a note to the mother who lost the son, I found myself troubled not by the death of her son but by my apparent incapacity of compassion. My eyes became slightly teary, but I couldn't tell if it was a genuine concern for her loss or a mere reflex at her tears. I was probably shocked and shaken by the force of erupting emotion, but at the same time it felt like a scene from a film or a book. A greater part of me was observing the scene like a curious spectator.

The first thing that came to my mind to write to Denise was my admiration at her strength, but such a comment would be no help to her, nor it would be significant. She doesn't need any interpretation or analysis of what she does or what she feels--whereas that is about the only thing I can do at this point. Thus I, so selfishly, reflect upon my own response to what shouldn't have happened but happened, questioning for the hundredth time if I am incapable of compassion. My thoughts just don't extend to her, who appears to be behind a hard, cold shell of grief that no one can rightfully penetrate. My words hesitate to reach to her. My cold intellect ponders the tragic irony of her selection of the poem ("Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes), as if I were a spectator, omniscient and detached. I do not have the courage to say anything meaningless to her, nor anything too meaningful. As a poet once said, writers steal. It is true, but it is repulsive to find myself looking at Denise break into tears and thinking how I would describe the charged air of the room, her distorted face, the tears on her chocolate cheek, and as merely a perfunctory second thought, what she might be feeling.

And here I am, writing about the "tragedy" (o, how hollow it sounds!), using it as a material to reflect upon. Or even as a trigger to think about MYSELF.

Through her last name, I managed to find a few articles on what happened to her son. He was shot in the head while he hanged out at a parking lot of an apartment in a suburb of Chicago. After a day, he died at the hospital he was taken to, where another victim of the shooting is recovering. He was twenty-one. One article linked his death to drug/gun problems of the neighborhood, without solid evidence that suggests his involvement.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Wildfire by Shohei Ooka--2. Path

This is my translation of the second chapter of "Wildfire" by Shohei Ooka (大岡昇平 『野火』). Why I started this project and what the book is like overall, check out this post.

2. Path

Large acacia trees towered over the village, covering with their shadows the roots that invaded and blocked the streets. The doors, to the houses where the residents evacuated, were closed, and the streets were vacant. Volcanic gravels glared in grayish brown, straying out the village to mingle with the green wilds, bursting with sunshine.

Along with the disemboweling desperation, I felt a negative happiness of a sort filled my body. Granted it was an ephemeral freedom of not having a place to go, but I could use the last few days of my life as I would please, not at the will of the officers.

The destination, had been in my mind. As I told the guardsmen, I would go to the hospital. Not to repeat the futile entreaty. But to see the people who "squatted" there. I didn't know what to do once I saw them, but I wanted to see the people again, who, just like me, had no place to go.

A field opened itself. Straight ahead it was limited by woods in about a kilometer, but to the right, behind a tree-less expanse of a marsh field into the distance, the volcanic mountains of the central mountain range that constituted the spine of the island heaped on top of each other, with a ridge of a frontal mountain stretching toward the back of the woods ahead. Where its undulation like a back of a lying woman gradually lowered toward the left, next to a nose-like protrusion, a rapid stream about eighteen meters in width appeared. The hills again rose across the stream, and sank along it, then curved to the left in the scenery. The sea should be behind it.

The hospital was about six kilometers beyond the hills ahead.

The afternoon sun was ablaze. The sunlit sky, so radiant that one would suspect a storm conceived in it, was filled with the roar of enemy aircrafts incessantly flying in one section. Among their monotonous buzz of honeybees, sounds of sporadic mortars exploding somewhere in the nearby mountains were occasionally mixed. To expose myself in the open field put me in the danger of being targeted by an enemy aircraft, but at this point I had no reason to fear.

I placed a hand towel under the helmet to prevent the sweat from running, slung the rifle to my shoulder with the leather strap, and continued on with spirit. I still seemed to have fever, but I was used to this fever since my younger age. Just as it once was an obstacle I had to handle with craft in order to fulfill the desire of the youth, now it was nothing more than a condition naturally to be ignored in order to live the time of my life at my disposal. Disease is nothing when there is no reason to hope for its cure.

I walked on, spitting the phlegm on roadside grasses as it welled up from the throat. I imagined with pleasure the Japanese tuberculosis germs contained in the phlegm die out one by one, scorched by the tropical sun.

At the edge of the woods the path diverged into two. Ahead was a path crossing over the hills straight to the hospital, to the left was one that went around the protruding nose in the woods, then went into the same valley. The path over the hills was undisputedly shorter, but I was already fed up with the route after the two round trips since yesterday. From an aimless whim, I decided to take the unfamiliar woodland path.

It was dark in the woods, the path narrow. Among the towering jungle of the tall trees similar to oak and maple, low shrubs of unknown names spread without leaving a space, stretching the vines and tendrils around. Tropical leaves, which kept falling irrespective of the season, were decomposing on the path, transmitting soft feel to the sole of my shoes. In silence, new fallen leaves rustled at my feet, as if in Musashino woods back home. I walked on, my head drooping.

A strange notion passed my mind: this path is a path I take for the first time in my life, and nevertheless I will never take this path again. I stopped, looked around.

Nothing was unusual. There, broad-leaved trees similar in many aspects to the ones in my homeland (with straight trunks, spreading branches, and hanging leaves), stood in silence, only that I did not know the names. Far before I came across here, they must have been standing thus, regardless of whether I came or not, and they will stay thus for good.

Nothing was more natural than this. And that I, who would die before long, would not pass in this hidden woods on the Philippine Island again, was also natural. What was strange was that I conceived this known fate and the fact that I pass through here for the first time as a contradictory relation of a sort.

Yet, since I left the mainland, I had been used to these irrational conception and feelings. For example, when the transport ship advanced the southern sea of June, as I gazed at the ocean, lost in thought, I suddenly found myself in a trim scenery as if in a dream.

The absolute navy ocean stretched, with the horizon surrounding it with a perfect circle, as if to raise the volume of the water. Not far away from the surface, rice-cake-like clouds were afloat with their bottoms lined up at a definite height, probably keeping a regular distance from each other. And as the ship proceeded at a fixed speed, they moved like a fan being turned around a certain viewpoint. Accompanied by the regular sound of the waves that passed by the side and the monotonous sound of diesel engine, this very regular scene seemed then to me utterly strange.

Given that, under an accidentally stable air pressure, the sun pours heat evenly on the sea surface, incessantly creating the same amount of vapor, it is no mystery that there emerged the clouds of the exact same shape at a regular position. And since I watched them from a ship which was propelled by a machinery at a regular speed, it was natural that the scenery transformed itself in a fixed manner. Although I immediately reflected thus, my excitement was slow to leave. There was a nuance of pleasant pain of some sort.

If I had been a tourist at the time, I would have fancied telling, upon coming home, my miserable friends chained to the land of Japan about this wonder of the ocean. My excitement and pain were, perhaps, based on the fact that I, having infected with the premonition of a defeat and death, could not expect to relate the strange experience to others.

It was also probably because I felt a foreboding of death at the time, that it felt strange not to walk the narrow path in the woods on Philippine Islands ever again. Such notion never strikes us whatever remote area we might wander in Japan. It might be because the possibility of coming back when we please is assumed unconsciously. Then, our so-called sense of vitality might lie in the expectation of being able to infinitely repeat what we currently do.

The tropical scenery of the Philippine Islands pleasantly rocked my senses. Softness of the lawn outside of the city of Manila, striking treetops of flame trees washed by a sudden shower, out-of-the-paint-tube sunrise and sunset, volcanoes with purple shade, coral reef surrounded by white surf, thickets swallowing the shadows at the water's edge, everything took my mind to the delight, near ecstasy. The ever-growing delight in the nature seemed to be the sure sign of my approaching death.

I thanked the coincidence that allowed me such sight of the abundance of life before I die. My life so far had been far from satisfactory, but I actually might have been blessed with good luck; the thought flashed. The word "destiny" that visited me at that time, if I didn't resist, could easily be exchanged with "God."

Apparently, such notion and confusion of senses were the result of the broken balance of my consciousness and the outside world, due to my complete lack of will to fight despite having been transported overseas in order to fight. Infantry is a profession that requires one to see nature only from the standpoint of necessity. For him, slight unevenness of the ground means a refuge to protect himself from bullets, and a beautiful green plain represents merely a dangerous distance to be crossed quickly. All sorts of natural aspects that appears to his eyes, who is dragged from one place to the other as operational plans demand, are inherently meaningless for him. This meaninglessness is his support for existence and his source of courage.

When, from cowardice or from reflection, the meaningless unity is broken, what is exposed in the crevice would be something even more meaningless for a living human being, which is to say the premonition of death.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

mother to son

Our final for the creative writing class was a recital of acclaimed poems of our choice. I had chosen "Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now" by A. E. Houseman. It is rhymed, and thus easier to memorize, I thought. I was also interested in the use of cherry blossoms as a symbol of both celebration of youth and premonition of death, seemingly common to Japanese and American literature. I went to the classroom, muttering the verse to myself.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about woodlands ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

A girl sitting in front of me turned back and asked if all we had to do was to recite a poem. I told her yes.
"I wouldn't come to the final if I didn't like this class. It's only worth 25 points," she said. "But I do, so..."

"Yeah, this is probably the most fun class I've ever taken in this college. I thought about skipping the final, but you know, I just want to be nice to the teacher," I said. Then I dropped my gaze onto the poem. There were several lines that my tongue never seemed to twitter.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

Ms. Brandet, our teacher, came in, smiled to all of us, and handed back our last assignment--the drama. As everyone went up in turn to the desk to fetch their script, I continued to rehearse the lines. The language of the poem, as I go over it time and again, seemed to grow dull. I half regretted my choice.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Chasing the back of the last student going back to her seat, Ms. Brandet asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to go first. Several hands went up, but Denise was the first to go. An African American woman in her early forties with a history of writing that extended longer than the lives of many of us, her solid presence had always been an anchor to the world. Her polite, if old-fashioned, "yes, ma'am" to our instructor had been a delight to hear, soothing me into a different America. Vivid colors and bold patterns on her shirts always intensified against her dark, tanned skin.

"My poem is 'Mother to Son' by Langston Hughes. I chose this one because it has always been my favorite poem of his since when I was a young girl. It speaks so much..." she posed, and continued. "I lost my son. He was killed." Her perfect composure, complete with even a hint of smile at the corner of her lips, made me think that she was referring to a distant past. Then, suddenly a strange warp appeared on her face, as if a trememdous force gripped it, shook it, and ripped it. I saw a drop of tear run down her cheek. "On Monday I was with him in the hospital. He died on Tuesday. That was why I came in late," she said it in a breath. We were silent, not knowing if we should be looking into her eyes, as if intently listening to a well-made story. "He was my only son. I wanted to come here today because he was proud of my getting an education. He wanted me to go on."

"I'm sorry, I'm crying," she said, and recited the poem, trying to fight back the emotion that threatened to overwhelm her with sweet vigor.

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor--
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.

Tears welled up behind her black-rimmed glasses, ran down her chocolate cheeks, but she didn't stop. Surpressed by her physical, violent attempt to stay composed, her voice became at times inaudible, but she didn't stop. With her eyes tight shut, she wrung out the last lines.

For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

Calls to the boy in the poem became her calls to her son. Her fiercely shaking whisper filled the air, tore our eardrums. When she finished, everybody was hesitant to applaude, for despite its genuine power to move us, it was not a performance in its ordinary sence. Not knowing what else to do or say, however, we applauded at last.

"I'm going on. I have to go on," she repeated, then apologized again, and said she would leave the class if we wouldn't mind. Nobody answered. Nobody could answer. She briefly went back to her chair in the front row, still fighting to be calm. Ms. Brandet put her arm around Denise's shoulder, whispering something in her ears. "I had really enjoyed all you guys in this class. Hope to see you next semester, too." She was courageously polite until the end. All we could do was to give her hands. She picked up her library tote bag and left.

We couldn't continue the final after she left. Reciting poems we had chosen on a whim seemed utterly hollow and meaningless after we had witnessed such a divastating force of reality.

"I don't think anybody wants to follow that," said Jane, a beautiful mass-communication major of Italian descent said it for all of us. Many of our eyes were opaque with the threat of spontaneous tears. Some nose were rosier than usual. We blankly stared at our desks, unable to meet the eyes of the others. The only appropriate thing for me to do was to write about it. Most of us shared the feeling, and we wrote, some to be handed to Denise, others to be read only by Ms. Brandet. For a long time, I waited for the fact to sink in. The whole scene seemed unreal, from the very death of her son to the tragic irony of her poem selection, which had been made months before the incident.

I finally wrote, but I didn't hand it in. "I want to keep this to myself," I said. I was the last to leave the classroom. "It's not pretty."

"That's okay. That's not the point. All that matters now is that the writing makes you feel better," said Ms. Brandet. I thanked her, for her apt and compassionate handling of the sudden explosion of the final exam, and for her concise advise throughout the semester, smiled, and left the classroom. The parking lot felt further than ever. I hastened my steps, hoping that my liquid eyes wouldn't be too noticeable, with a reawakened suspicion unsettling my stomach again.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

new love found--portrait!

Here are two more of the photos from the Cinco de Mayo parade held in Pilsen last Sunday.

under the fierce sun
He is one of the charros (Mexican cowboys) on horseback, waiting for the parade to start at the Amoco station (of all places!). His stern expression and the flickring shadow his straw sombrelo casted on his face fascintated me. At first I kept a "safe distance" from them, using the maximum zoom of my camera, due to my poor social skills. (I am SO envious of people who know how to get friendly with their photographic subject, or anybody, on that matter.) But gradually I was drawn closer to get more intimate shots. Finally I found myself squatting on the ground about a yard from the hooves of their beautiful horses. Thankfully, they let me take thier pictures as much as I wanted, and this is my favorite among the charro shots. The focus on the embroidered sleeve, rather than the man's face is bothersome, however. There's nearly too much to pay attention to when taking pictures!

There was a "float" full of traditionally dressed children with dark skin and serene expression like he has. From behind the fence of their (massive) mothers, I took half a dozen pictures of them, also as they waited for the parade to start. It turned out that before the parade offered so much more to photograph than during the parade, mostly because the participants aren't self-conscious until it starts. Once it starts, all they do is put on artificial smile on their faces and to wave perfunctorily at the spectators.

I usually do not take portraits. Part of the reason is the above-memtioned less-than-satisfactory interpersonal skill of mine, but it didn't bother me too much. I didn't have much interest in people anyway. The Cinco de Mayo parade, however, might have changed it a hair. I'm still a same old anti-social hermit, but on that day I discovered the potential power of a portrait to strike people (as if I hadn't seen the National Geographic photo of a weeping Peruvian boy). To try to capture the elusive expressions on people's faces was so much fun, to top it all. I wouldn't be surprised to find myself sneakily pointing my camera at participants of other festivals and parades around Chicago this summer... (Plus, people aren't copyrighted, so tehre's no need to worry about security guards walking up to me furiously.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Wildfire by Shohei Ooka--1. departure

This is my translation of the first chapter of "Wildfire" by Shohei Ooka. As to why I started this and the general overview of the book and the author, check this post.

1. Departure

He hit me on the cheek. The squad leader rapidly told me as follows.

"You fool. Who in the world comes back here just because they tell you so. Tell them there's no place to go back and stick around there. Then the hospital people do something. The company can't afford to keep a tubecular like you. Look, all our boys are out looking for food. We're on the defensive. No room to feed a useless soldier. Go back to the hospital. If they refuse, squat there for however long. They can't leave you like that. If they wouldn't accept you... you die. You've received your grenade for nothing. Now that's the only service you have left."

I kept looking at his lips that became wetter as he spoke. It is unclear why he had to be so enraged when I was the one who were receiving the fatal sentence, but probably it is because of the military habit of growing excited as his voice become louder. Ever since the situation deteriorated, the anxiety they had to conceal under the mask of the officer repeatedly exploded on us servicemen. That our squad leader talked solely of food was obviously because it was his biggest worry.

There was no way the hospital would accept a patient without food, however persistently I "squatted." The provisions were scarece, and the army surgeons and the medical orderlies lived on the provisions they received for their patients. In front of the hospital had been several idle "squatters." They also had been told from their squad to "die."

Shortly after the landing on the western shore of the Leyte Island in late November, I had had a little hemoptysis. After the shoreline operation against the air force and the difficult march inland, the preexisting condition, which I had had concern about during our station on the Luzon Island, worsened. I was given five-days worth of provision, and sent to the medical camp in the mountains. At first, in front of the blood-covered injured soldiers lie on the floor of civilian houses without any decent care, the military surgeon yelled at me for my weakness to have come to the hospital just for tubeculosis. Seeing that I had provisions, however, he allowed me to stay.

Three days later, I was told that I was cured and sent back. But at the squad, I was told that they wouldn't take me as cured, that they should keep me for five days because I had taken given five-days worth of provision. I went back to the hospital. They refused me, saying that my provision couldn't be for five days, it had been spent already. Then this morning I came back again to the squad like a ball thrown back, but it is only because I wanted to see if the squad would tell me to "die."

"I understood. Private Tamura will immediately head to the hospital, and if they do not accept me, I will end it."

We generally were not allowed to show off our individual judgement as "understand," but he let me slide this time.

"Good, go strong. Everything is for the country. Behave as an imperial soldier until the very end."


In the room, a sergeant responsible for the salary was making some document at a dirty wooden box by the window. He was silent, pretending to be unable to hear our conversation at his back, but when I reported to him, he stood up, and said to me, squinting his narrow eyes even narrower.

"Good. I'm sorry it is as if we were kicking you out, but you have to consider the squad leader's position, too. Don't die in vain like a dog. Here's your provision."

From the small heap of the yams in the corner of the room, he carelessly scooped some and handed them to me. They were called Camote, a Philippine yam similar to our sweet potatoes. As I thanked him, received the yams and put them in the sack, my hands trembled. The sustainance of my life, that is guaranteed by the nation which I belonged to and which I offer my life to, is limited to these six yams. This number six had a terrifying mathematical accuracy.

I saluted and about-faced. The voice of the squad leader chased me.

"No need to report to the company commander."

For a moment, I thought it might save me if I went to the company commander, but it was XXXX. At the front, officers succumbed to the collective will of the noncommissioned officers. The room of the company commander was a step away from the room, in the annex connected by a breezeway, but the straw mat that covered the entrance was nothing but still.

"No need to report" meant that it had been settled when I was sent back to the hospital the day before. My return today, was completely unnecessary. This was purely the matter of the squad leader.

Down the half-rotten wooden stairs, the sunlight through the trees was on the ground like fallen petals. To the side continued a shrub with flowers of faded crimson, similar to cluster-amaryllis, and in the woods beyond the shrub a few more than ten soldiers were digging air-raid shelters.

Due to the shortage of shovels, they digged them utilizing broken pots and sticks that they found in civilian houses. We were hiding in the mountainous village, as nothing more than stragglers, whom the Americans did not come to air-raid any more, but the shelters were necessary for our sense of security. Plus, we had nothing else to do.

In the shade of the woods, the faces of the soldiers were dark, devoid of expression. Some, who looked up toward me, soon diverted their eyes and resumed their task, looking down.

Most of them were the supplement soldiers who came from the main land with me. Although during the boredom of the transport ship we united in the slave's sentiment, the cotidian necessities of three-month-long station life with the KOSANHEI returned us to the same egoists as we had been in the normal society. And it inevitably became more serious as the situation worsened after our landing on this island.

When I became sick and it became clear that I only receive their favor, without being able to return them, something clearly cold flowed between us. Where the premonition of danger persists, without materializing, the retrocessive instinct of self-preservation turns human beings more egotistic than necessary. I did not feel like going to tell them my fate, which they already knew. To stimulate their cornered humanity was rather cruel.

At the foot of a tree ahead, about half a dozen guradsmen loitered. And it was all the military force left to the position of our company.

Our combined brigade, which was a part of the army corpses landed on the western coast to supplement the losing situation in Tacloban area, had lost more than half of its men to the aerial attack at the beach. Heavy firearms sank with the ships before we could unload them. Nonetheless we marched on a narrow path across the central mountains to the Browen Airfield, following the initial plan of operations, but were pushed back by remnants of a preceding army corps at the foot of the mountains. They told us that it is impossible to advance at the head, in a chaos due to the activity of the enemy commando unit with a mortar. We could not but take the south-bound course into the mountains, cutting open our passes, but at the mortar attacks from three sides on the way, came back down to the bottom again to disperse in the valleys of the area to bivouac, without anything to do. Rumor had it that the communication officer sent to Ormoc came back with an order to advance, which the commanding officer was ignoring.

The provision for twelve days we carried from Ormoc had been depleted. The corn and other grains, which the local residents left behind in the nearby villages, were consumed almost instantly. A third of the forces of the company, which was now effectively reduced to the size of a platoon, took turns to go out to the surrounding field to collect yams and bananas from the natives' farms. Or rather, to go out to feed themselves. After four or five days of eating that way, they came back with food enough to meet the demand of the remaining company while the next third went out in turn. Other companies, scattered around the nearby villages, were scavenging food in the same manner, resulting in frequent dispute over the prior right to the fields. The distance and duration of the missions grew longer.

Unable to bear the burden due to the hemoptysis, I could not join this food collection. This was why I was told to die.

I approached the guardsmen through the woods. They sat down on the ground, watching me welcomingly. It was annoying to repeat to the leader of the guardsmen that I had been abandoned by the company, but what was more torturous was to expose my misery to their indifferent sympathy. It took long to reach where they were, walking in the expectant gazes.

The lance corporal in charge of the guardsmen, however, changed his expression when he heard my formal report. This pale civil engineer, who was transferred from a construction troop in Mahchuria, was reminded of his own anxiety.

"There's no telling who are better off, you the leaving or us the remaining. We'll end up in suicide attack anyway," he muttered.

"They won't let you in at the hospital," one of the soldiers said.

I laughed and said, "if they won't, I'll just insist until they will," an exact repetition of what the squad leader had told me. All I thought was to end this scene as quickly as possible.

When we saluted good-bye, the face of the soldier who happened to exchange glances with me, was distorted. My own distorted face could have infected him like a yawn. I departed.

Monday, May 09, 2005

vivid display, blasting music, and silent crowd--Cinco de Mayo parade in Chicago

Here are several pictures I took at the annual Cinco de Mayo parade yesterday. I found a different kind of joy in photographing people, and made a vow to visit more festivals to explore this field.

parade girls
These girls fascinated me with the totally opposite facial expressions.

stern man
He was one of the charros (Mexican cowboys) on horseback. His stern gaze was complimented with his elaborate attire of traditional charros.

It was the first day of summer this year in Chicago. I felt the sun reddening the back of my neck as I stood up from the crouching position I assumed to enhance the height of the Mexican horsemen whom I was photographing. One of them had a parrot of Caribbean blue and bright yellow on his arm. Another took generous gobbles from a tequila bottle, adding to his merry mood. From time to time, some made their horses do a playful dance with a tag at the braided leather rein, clinking its silver fittings. Their traditional charro attire, which consisted of a straw sombrelo with its back defiantly bent upward, a cowboy suit with elaborate embroidery of organic motifs, a matching bow tie, and a pair of similarly embroidered boots with pointed toes, absolutely fascinated me. Partly because of the squinted eyes under the bursting sunshine, some of them had stern expressions on their faces, as if they had been on horseback in the arid desert of northern Mexico, not in the Amoco gas station in Chicago, waiting for the belated Cinco de Mayo parade to start.

From the starting point of the parade, a subtle waves of restlessness was transmitted through the air. The engines of the cars and motorcycles started to be heard, and so did the blasting boom boxes mounted on the "floats," some hauled by a gasping passenger car, others by trucks shamelessly displaying the sponsors' names from Insurance One to Miller Genuine Draft (which boasted two mestizo babes in gold-trimmed black sombrelos). With increasing dust in the air, the parade arrived. Several different kinds of military marching bands (and their high-school imitators) led the way, their perfunctory steps slightly betraying the spotless helmets and perfect creases. On the following floats, teenage girls in vivid traditional dresses waved hands, with occasional flips and flaps of their skirts, leaving momentary curved traces in the back of our eyes. Children in straw hats and thick woven capes waved hands on another.

A Tribune reporter approached me and asked several questions. As I gave her answers, almost automatically geared for a "good appearance on paper," a bad habit of a perpetual student, I noted her Gucci sunglasses. (She actually used my comment in her article the following day, starting it by this passage: "By many accounts, Chicago's Cinco de Mayo parade can't touch festivities in Mexico. But celebrators say Chicago is tops in one aspect: the diversity of the crowd.")

Several more floats passed by, followed by a team of Latin American motorcyclists all dressed in embroidered black leather jackets, and two dozen classic cars and lowered, tilted, bouncing cars of all sorts, and the parade came to an abrupt end. A few police officers and two street-cleaning car concluded the parade. The crowd, which seemed to be quite composed throughout the 15-minutes procession of the parade, started to disperse. With all its blasting Latin tunes and vibrant colors of their traditional outfits, there was a sense of falseness, or hollowness to the parade, as is (too) often the case with the traditional ceremony anywhere in a "developed" countries. With a few tequila-induced exceptions, people were far from the top of excitement. Cries of mandatory "Viva Mexico!" from the floats were not matched by the replies from the crowd. It is probably only natural, that the Mexican Americans, uprooted from their native land and culture, even if voluntarily, feel detached from the celebration of the independence of their native country. The tradition and the culture celebrated on the occasion were no longer truly a part of their lives. Still, the non-responsiveness of the spectators, ironically accentuated by the lively displays of the marchers, was somewhat saddening as yet another sign of our alienation from our own cultural heritages.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

"Wildfire" by Shohei Ooka--coming soon!

I'm reading John Dower's "War without Mercy," which deals with the propaganda before and during the Pacific War, both in the U.S. and Japan. It's an interesting read, though the basic idea, that both sides employed racist propaganda in engaging the citizens/subjects in the war effort, has become somewhat a common knowledge since its publication in the late '80s. (Unfortunately, the wartime propaganda and the willful neglect of certain facts on the part of the Allied forces have also become a basis of the neo-nationalistic "re-evaluation of the Great East Asia War" in Japan in the recent years.) I haven't reached the third section where the author examines the Japanese propaganda, but it'll probably be a stimulating read as well.

Reading the factual research, I thought of a book that I read years ago: "Wildfire" by Shohei Ooka. Ooka was enlisted in 1944, at the age of 35 and with tuberculosis (which shows how desperate Japan was), sent to Philippines, became a PoW at the defeat, and wrote the novel based on his wartime experience in 1951. He wrote several other novels based on his experience during the Pacific War, and is regarded as one of the earliest and finest of the "post-war" authors. The novel was controversial in several ways, including cannibalism. Cannibalism, however, is only a part of the atrocity and insanity of war. With his crisp style, his lucid thoughts, and most importantly with sincerity, Ooka takes us to the maddening tropical jungle permeated with the odor of rotting wounds and desperation of the losing and starving army.

I've started to translate the novel. With the final exams coming up, I'm not sure when I can post the first chapter, but it's been a delightful effort to translate his concise sentences, which are so different from meandering sentences of authors in the Meiji era (around 1860-1910).

Monday, May 02, 2005

audible illusion

Sinece P and I are an international couple with some language issues (mainly my Japanese-influenced pronunciation and slightly-better-than-an-eighty-year-old-grandma listening ability), our daily life is full of entertaining linguistic mishaps. One earlier incident is here.

Yesterday in the morning, when we were contemplating on what to do, I suggested that there was an antique fair going on in the Merchandise Mart, a monstrous building along the Chicago River. "What!?" His response seemed to be oddly agitated, disproportionate to only an antique fair. "An antique fair," I repeated. "Ahhh," he said in a muffled voice. (His head was behind a pillow.) "I thought you said an armpit hair was going on there."

...An enormous building, 25 floors high and two city blocks long, all full of armpit hair. That would be the thing to see!