Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sayonara Mt Fuji

One would be a fool never to climb Mt Fuji – but also a fool to climb it twice.
--Traditional Japanese expression

Based on this expression, I am quite a fool. This week I climbed Mt Fuji for the sixth time. It has been an annual event for me during my time in Japan. Mt Fuji is beautiful on postcards, but for climbers it is a long dusty slog. The half-way point where most climbers start is at the tree line, and above that the mountain is a volcanic wasteland. I am always reminded of pictures of Mars.

The first few times I climbed I was invited. But eventually I started organizing the trips myself. Something kept drawing me back. With around 200,000 climbers a year, Mt Fuji is not exactly the road less traveled. But for me, there is something special there. The way there is something spiritual about it, despite the crowds and the commercialism. The physical challenge. Helping each other make it through the climb. The chance of a beautiful sunrise.

And the fact that none of us belong there.

Japan can be an isolating place to live, especially as a foreigner. But despite its important place in Japanese culture, everyone is a stranger to Mt Fuji, Japanese included. All of us are focused on making it up the mountain. And despite the exertion and sometimes strained tempers, people seem more open somehow.

This week’s climb was pretty simple and straightforward. The weather was good, we had no injuries or major problems, and my physical condition is better than it has been for a while. The sunrise was beautiful. And apart from tired legs I felt fine afterwards, unlike some other times.

But more than anything, this climb felt like a goodbye to Mt Fuji. As we climbed up the popular Yoshida trail, I remembered all the people I have climbed with, people from Australia, Korea, Uzbekistan, the US, the UK, Japan, and Mexico. I remembered the deep and meaningful conversations, the arguments, the jokes. The mock swordfights with hiking sticks. And that time I decided sprinting down the mountain would be a good idea, resulting in an unexpected forwards somersault. Fortunately I walked away with injuries only to my pride.

Coming from a country whose history spans barely more than 200 years, one of the things I have always found fascinating about Japan is the length of its traditions. In the case of Mt Fuji, Japanese have been climbing it since at least the 9th century AD. And it has been a privilege to take part in it. Whatever the ups and downs of my life in Japan, I have always known that Mt Fuji was there waiting for next year.

But now, it seems likely that my time in Japan is coming to an end, and next Summer there will be one less climber. That makes me a little sad. But all good things must come to an end. Even for Fuji-loving fools.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Goodbye Harvey Pekar

"It makes you feel good to know that there's other people afflicted like you."
--Harvey Pekar

Harvey Pekar died this week. File clerk, music critic, comic book author and quite a grumpy guy, he passed away at home. He was 70 years old.

Like a lot of people, I first heard of him because of the 2003 film American Splendor, based on his long running comic series. It covered his life as a file clerk in a VA hospital in his hometown Cleveland, his relationships, money troubles, struggles with cancer, loneliness and depression, among other things.

In a way his comic was like a blog, long before such things existed. He recounted incidents from his daily life, his failures, frustrations and sufferings. For a very long time his comics didn’t sell very well, but he kept at it, year after year. He told stories about the books he read and the music he loved, about his days at work, his experiences with dating and relationships.

He said: “Essentially all I've wanted this to be is a journal of a life, because I think that sort of thing is worth recording.” I agree. Lives are worth recording. And what Harvey Pekar showed us was a new way to record a journal of an everyday person’s life.

I liked his comics, and have read or own most of them. But it was the film of his life that made the biggest impact on me.

A month or so ago, when I was going through my worst bout of depression ever, I watched it again. I can’t say that it cleared my depression away – no film, no book, no song, can do that. But watching Paul Giamatti as Harvey work his way through life as best he could really helped. Watching Harvey’s struggles definitely made a difference to me.

I think that good art is always good for the soul. As a film, American Splendor is very intelligent, with heart, artistry, and honesty. And from what I could tell, that summed up Harvey Pekar pretty well too.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Black Beauty

They say that youth is wasted on the young. That may be so, but based on my reading of the last few weeks, so-called children’s books are also wasted on the children! I am glad I have returned to reading.

After following Buck's adventures in The Call of the Wild, I moved onto Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, another classic that I had never read before. Sewell, an English invalid who cared deeply about the horses she depended on for mobility, paints a vivid picture of 19th century English life from a horse’s eye point of view, from the lush country estates of the aristocracy to the crowded and poverty-stricken streets of Victorian London.

Whereas Buck could eventually flee human society to follow the call of the wild, Black Beauty, like most of us, has no such option. Although raised in great comfort, as time goes by he must toil under a variety of good, bad, and indifferent masters. He has almost no control over his circumstances, but endures as best he can.

In The Call of the Wild, Buck forms a strong bond with one of his many masters, John Thornton. The parallel in Sewell’s novel is Jerry Barker, a hardworking cab driver who owns Black Beauty for some years. Jerry is a thoroughly decent man, who treats his horses, family, and fellow drivers with dignity and good humor.

The world depicted in the book, however, is often far from decent. There is a great deal of cruelty and suffering to be found, much of it driven by ignorance, selfishness, or the dictates of economics. The latter are especially harsh, and result in both horses and men being worked to death for the sake of a few coins.

Sewell was raised as a Quaker, and remained religious throughout her life. Several versions of the good Samaritan story occur, and Sewell is clear in her conviction that we all have a moral obligation to do right, and that to do nothing when wrong is being done is to condone it.

Sewell wrote the book primarily in the hope that its publication could improve the treatment of horses. She paints a vivid picture of the sufferings of the "dumb animals", a worthy goal, but beyond that her novel is a clarion call for decency in general. I am glad that I read it.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Blood, toil, tears, and sweat

Winston Churchill was a remarkable man. He stood stubbornly, almost irrationally firm and resolute when it looked like all was lost and the enemy would be triumphant. He refused to consider surrender.

During some very dark days he said: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory – victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”

Churchill was speaking in the grim days of 1940, referring to the struggle against Nazi Germany, but his words could equally well refer to the battle with depression, another battle that he was intimately familiar with. He fought it throughout his life, referring to it as his “black dog”. It is to the great benefit of the world in general that he didn’t submit to it, but fought it as stubbornly as he fought against fascism.

Fighting depression is a struggle. It is painful. It is protracted. And it is necessary. It is necessary because, as Churchill said, if there is no victory, there is no survival. Depression will kill if it is allowed to.

It may seem trite to compare any one person’s personal struggle for mental wellbeing with the global fight against fascism. But anyone who has experienced the depths of despair, pain, and hopelessness that depression brings will be aware just how formidable a foe depression can be. There are times it seems hopeless, when the depression seems just too strong, times when it seems like it would be so much easier to just give in.

But don’t. Stand firm. Set your jaw. Look depression square in the face. And give it the two-finger salute just like old Winston did.