Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I came across this poem yesterday; it was the base for the Babelfish poem in this post (the second of the three things), and upon rereading both the original and the Babelfish version, in this case I might (gasp) actually like the original better. It's not great, but I sort of like the ending. This was written on July 1st, 2009, over a year ago, and I admit that it was written as a reaction to a line in a poem Adam had just written, a line about a feeling of gratitude for "making me whole." July of last year was not a time when I was eager to read about someone (else) making Adam whole, and that line stung, seeming to shut me out of his life somehow just when I was finally feeling like maybe I could be a real part of it. The first part of this poem is an expression of the resentment I could neither suppress nor express to him, and the second an imagined response. So that is the context. Here is the poem.

She makes you whole, you say?
Then strip the rest away.
First your computer, you don’t need that.
Nothing but distractions
From her sparkling green eyes.
No more time wasted on xkcd,
Sports statistics, silly op-ed articles
On the election in Iran.
The TV goes too of course –
Who needs Family Guy, when she’s all the family you’ll ever want?
Speaking of which, let’s whisk away your parents;
You won’t miss them, will you?
You won’t have a thought to spare for your brother,
Off at a party with your old friends,
Crowding around your Playstation, jeering each other, laughing.
Every sunset to come is blocked from you,
Behind the curtain of her hair
Flowing down onto your chest as you lie together.
The only blossom in the world is her smile.
You need nothing else.
You are complete.
You are whole.

She alone does not complete me.
But without her,
The laughter is too empty,
The world too hopeless,
Each victory meaningless,
Each sunset too lonely to bear.
She is the board that holds the puzzle together;
She is the last term in the infinite sum,
Without which the asymptote is never,

Saturday, August 07, 2010

One Year

Happy Anniversary, Adam. ♥

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Phonetics Poem

This poem does not actually have anything to do with phonetics, except that I wrote it during my phonetics and phonology class. I set myself the task of writing a poem during class, and I think I might make that a regular thing, at least when I don't have wordplay to be doing. This is not really a positive reflection on my classes...but that rant is for another time. I don't think this poem is great but I think it came out sort of cute, enough that I'm willing to post it. ^_^; I haven't come up with a title.


You’ve cut your finger.
Just one tiny, errant brush against the paper:
But irrevocable.
The reality of the pain sears through you,
palpably, freezing time in this instant and the instant just past.
I see your mind fly to that alternate universe,
in which we had straightened the papers like we should have,
and that tiny bright red trickle is still cycling back to your heart.
I see you losing everything else, wishing yourself there;
so quickly, I lift your hand in mine,
kiss away your blood,
and as it makes its way to my heart,
gather you in my arms,
and fly with you into the night sky.
We speed toward the stars, until we tumble, panting,
onto the crescent moon.
You’d forgotten, hadn’t you, that the moon is a giant pillow.
Don’t you remember the blankets we stashed here?
Let me wrap one around us, while you snuggle one of the fluffy sheep
waiting to be counted.

This is our universe, my darling.
The air here rings with every sound.
I hear one, two, three…forty-seven wails from fresh paper cuts float up.
But listen:
There’s a little girl,
in Hokkaido, on the beach, can you hear her?
Her brother is tickling her, and she laughs, and laughs, and laughs,
until she’s laughed all the air out, and lies, panting,

and her laughter spreads to fill the whole world,
covering us like another blanket.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Dream Interlude #2

The moon is so bright. And so tiny, distant, cold. Not like before, I reflect, not like the broad hazy moon that hung in the twilight sky. So small you could mistake it for a star -- or have I? Three bright stars shine in the black sky and I am no longer sure which is the moon. I pinch my fingers together in front of my eyes, squint through the diamond-shaped hole to squeeze away the glare.

Smaller and smaller, until suddenly, just a speck where I'd thought the moon was. I hold my breath, frozen. And then -- it falls. Trailing golden dust through the sky. I start to cry out to the others in wonder but I don't need to because the whole sky now shimmers with falling stars, like a fading firework. We step out from the shelter to feel them on our skin, tiny shivers of gold, rain of pure light; refreshing, magical.

Each of us is alone, our thoughts far away, remembering every detail of the caress of the falling stars to share with the one who should be there with us. A friend's boyfriend clings tight to me as we begin to dance, slowly, under the dark sky, and he professes to me his love for her.

But I am not lonely. Because the stars are beautiful, the world is beautiful, love is beautiful; and, compared to the stars, he is not so far away.

And because I will tell him, later, as he holds me, and he'll feel the touch of the stars through my skin, and see, somewhere deep in my eyes, the miracle of that moment when the stars began to fall.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


I don't know how to think about war.

I know how to be against war, but that's easy, that's simple. I don't know how to think given the reality of war. I don't know how to think about scenarios in which every option involves death. Not just death: the conscious decision to cause death. I don't know how to get past "this is wrong" to "what is least wrong?"

Today someone told me that America had no choice but to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. That Japan refused to surrender. That the other choices would have involved more long, drawn out military campaigns that would have resulted in higher total casualty. That retreating would have meant letting a power-thirty militaristic government remain in power. That we couldn't do that, for the good of the world.

I didn't pay detailed enough attention in history classes to counter those statements with similar statements about the military strategy, alternative courses that would have resulted in a grand total of fewer lives lost.

And if I can't counter the assertion that dropping the bomb led to the fewest deaths in the long run, and if I'm theoretically against deaths, then how can I argue that dropping the bomb was wrong?

I don't know, because nothing in my life has prepared me to be able to think about the world in those terms. I can't counter that argument or accept it. So I just emerge confused. And crushingly, suffocatingly sad.

Is there any more powerless feeling than thinking that the little boy on the tricycle I saw at the museum in Hiroshima had to die that morning because it was best for the world in the long run?

I don't know how to think that. Even if it were, in some abstract sense, true. I don't want to know how to think that.

Does that mean I just want to barricade myself behind a wall of unrealistic, over-simplistic pacifism and refuse to deal with the nuances of reality? Probably.

I don't know how to absorb that kind of reality yet.

In more positive news: On the subway on my way home tonight there was a guy with the quadratic formula tattooed in large print on the inside of his left forearm. This prompted a young man standing near me with his girlfriend to discuss with her whether we can consider mathematical truths to be the most pure, irrefutable form of truth that we'll ever encounter in our lives -- if you accept the postulates, everything else follows by pure logic. She tried to counter that accepting postulates meant that it wasn't pure universal truth, and he responded exactly as I do to that point: at their heart mathematical statements are all conditional statements, conditional on the postulates and definitions you are working with, and as conditional statements are logically, irrefutably true. He then pronounced her a skeptic, and asked whether she went as far as solipsism, believing that the only reality she could be sure of was that she exists; her response: "I'm not even sure of that..." As I was about to get off at my stop he observed that I was smiling at their conversation: "This woman is smiling at our philosophical conversation," he said to her. So I laughed and apologized for eavesdropping, told them it had been very interesting, and got off the train.

An amusing little snippet of experience, and it cheered me up a lot, at least in the moment. But also somewhat sad. I liked them. And my chances of ever talking to them again are almost zero.

These lyrics are unrelated except that they also almost made me cry today, in one of those sudden floods of significance that I talked about in the previous post. I've even attempted to translate for you. ^_^

肌寒い日が続く もう春なのに

The chill doesn’t lift, although it’s spring;
This morning I woke up before the alarm.
Cooking breakfast for the three of us,
You are standing right there.

きみだけが きみだけが

Only you…only you…
are missing from my side.
Until just yesterday, you were right here watching me.

きみだけを きみだけを
きみだけと きみだけと
僕たちの 僕たちの

Only you…only you…
You were the one I loved.
With only you…only you…
My song is sung.
It should be us, both of us
passing this time together.
Continuing all by myself…
I can’t stand it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Apparently the only books I feel like reviewing on here are Todd Shimoda's novels. What I really want to say would involve spoilers and I don't want to spoil it, even for people who think they'll never read it -- I even wish I hadn't read the comments on the back cover of the book because they gave me too much of an inkling about where the story might go and I spent too much of the time comparing the plot to my suspicions, rather than letting it unfold on its own terms. So I won't say everything I want to say.

The central concept of the book (entitled "Oh!"), is 物の哀れ, mono no aware. One possible criticism of the book is that it spends a bit too much time trying to tell you exactly what mono no aware is, through both discussions between the characters and interspersed "exhibits" -- short paragraphs explaining the history and different interpretations of the concept (there's a list of references for the exhibits in the back). In the balance between showing and telling, I would have liked the book to lean a bit farther away from the telling side. JDIC, my first go-to source for Japanese words, defines it as "strong aesthetic sense; appreciation of the fleeting nature of beauty; pathos of things." As simple and inadequate as that definition is, it may have been all the book really needed to tell us explicitly; it should be the job of the story to deepen our understanding indirectly.

When I last talked about Todd Shimoda's books, I complained that 365 Views of Mt. Fuji left me feeling too desolate, like the only options are to live an empty life or to go mad, while the message of The Fourth Treasure is more positive: meaning is built up through all the little things in our lives. Distilled in the same way, Oh! is about the different ways that each person experiences the world and the overwhelming emotions it can invoke -- some successfully, some less successfully, but everyone struggling and everyone unique. In this way, the strength of the book is in its less developed characters -- the random people that the narrator meets on his quest to feel something deep. My favorites are an innkeeper who writes (mediocre) poetry and a convenience store clerk who studies accents, but there are others -- bartenders and museum curators and an aspiring translator and a go player and a performance artist who reenacts group suicides...along with the four members of the "suicide club" that initially fascinates the narrator. What separates those who find a way to live from those who decide to die? The book, to its credit, doesn't really try to offer an answer, but we are invited to muse upon whether the answer has something to do with mono no aware. It is suggested more than once that suicide for some people may be the ultimate act in a quest to feel something, to understand the most intense emotions, those which come from a sudden perception of the fleeting nature of life and the sadness inherent in the aesthetic world (whatever exactly that means). This is an interesting idea but hard for me to relate to, since I've never been able to picture wanting to commit suicide.

I'm more interested in the characters who were able to live, who managed to find a balance, a way to exist in the world with all its sadness and fleetingness, in whatever way they could -- to appreciate it, find meaning, find an outlet, find a place. And I'm more interested in the over-explained concept of mono no aware itself, because it comes closer than any other philosophy that I've encountered to saying something about the way I experience the world. I feel ridiculous writing on this blog with any sort of confidence that I understand this subtle, delicate old Japanese philosophy instinctively -- how can I know? Maybe what I think I understand isn't it. Maybe I'm just overly emotional and immature and want to latch onto something that sounds like a fancy poetic concept to make myself feel special rather than pathetic. But everything I read about the idea, everything I felt like the book was trying to say, felt so natural. Like finally, a word for those moments when I feel a surge in my chest that I can't describe, that isn't about happiness or sadness but just about suddenly feeling like I brushed against something true about the universe. Finally a word for the satisfying yet crushing sadness that anything beautiful provokes. For how overwhelming tiny moments can be for no reason I can explain.

Maybe part of my frustration is almost the opposite of the frustration of the narrator of this book: I feel so much, and yet am helpless to express any of it because...well, I just haven't figured out how. And I am not trying to claim that my emotions are somehow deeper or more intense or more nuanced than anyone else's. Not at all. I can't say anything about anyone else's emotions, just that mono no aware feels important to me. And I want to express it. And I can't.

I idiotically left the book at home when I came back to New York, so I can't quote the section I want to quote, but I will quote myself, in a blog post from last spring, and you'll just have to take my word that this almost exactly parallels a passage in the book:

And already, green is beginning to take over, more and more of the petals are on the ground becoming muddy and wilted. They'll probably be gone within a week, and I don't think I'm going to take any more pictures of them. I know I am not the first person to realize this, but somehow it hadn't occurred to me before: the cherry blossoms aren't beautiful in a way that can be captured in photographs. They're temporal art, ephemeral; their power involves the flow of time and how they come and go. Yes, they're gorgeous -- but taking pictures, in some way, just misses the point. And I think that's why I know, even as I feel those pangs of loss, that the loss is part of the beauty, and I want to experience the blossoms within the movement of time, without trying to freeze them.

So you won't see any big album of cherry blossom photos on my facebook page. But if you ever want to begin to understand them, then come to Japan -- not in the spring, but say, in January or so. Spend a couple of months shivering under a kotatsu wondering how long you can wait before plunging into the cold to get yourself a glass of water. Drive along the narrow gray roads under low clouds drizzling rain and sleet for what feels like weeks in a row. Wait until you feel like winter will never end. And then...then you'll know how beautiful cherry blossoms really are.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


In phonology class we talked about phonemic versus phonetic transcription: phonetic transcriptions attempt to capture the sounds as they are actually articulated, while phonemic transcriptions aim to represent how we represent words at a mental level, before articulatory rules transform some of the sounds. In order for something to count as a phoneme, it has to be in contrastive distribution with other phonemes. In English, the vowel known as "schwa" -- an unstressed vowel as in the first syllable of "potato" -- is not considered a phoneme because its appearance is completely predictable: it shows up when there is no stress on the vowel, and not otherwise. So it's not a distinct phoneme.

This raises the question of what the "underlying" vowels are in words that have a schwa. One way to try to tell this is by adding stress to the word, like you were saying it pointedly and angrily to someone who refused to understand you. So picture yelling "PO-TA-TO, you moron!" The first vowel turns into an "o", right? Or we can look at derived words: to find the second vowel in "metal", look at "metallic". But these options aren't always available -- what's the second vowel in "button"? It's hard to stress the second syllable without making it sound like a different word, and if we want derived words we have to make them up...can something with the quality of a button be...buttonic? How do we pronounce that? Anything we come up with is necessarily rather contrived.

So I was thinking about my name, which has in fact two schwas, and trying to determine the underlying vowels. And it seemed immediately obvious to me that the vowel in the first syllable is really an /i/ -- that is, a "long E" sound as in "me". This didn't seem as obvious to the few people I mentioned it to as it did to me, which made me wonder why I thought of my name that way.

I realized yesterday that it's because that's how my Grandma Serry says my name: Ree-becca.

So that's what my name is, underlyingly. /ribEka/

I'm still trying, however, to figure out what Adam's name is. If it's like "atom", then judging by "atomic", should it be /a/, like "Bob"? Thoughts? ^_^;