Directions, Part I

As a grad student taking two translation workshops and teaching two drill sections (first-year Japanese ), I don’t have a lot of time for writing. What I can do, and have been doing since A Flight of Words, is put up old work to help maintain a steady flow of material besides just the two Japanese projects I’m indulging in.

The following is my longest completed work at about 9,600 words. There are a number of things I’d probably want to do differently if I were writing it now, and in fact it underwent several minor edits when I dug it up today. It’s also one of my first attempts at actual plot, and is over a decade old: CDs were still a major medium for portable music! Finally, the story is long enough that I’ll be breaking it up into chunks, to be posted weekly. Please enjoy.

Warning, for those who need such things: this story depicts swearing, drinking, and other shenanigans.


It was evening when they headed off, and Seth found himself recalling a chronic nightmare from his early teens. It had always been the same dizzying non-scene. Instead of the comfort of true dark it had been suffused with suffocating dimness; instead of the clarity of true cold there had been a damp chill; instead of the pleasure of solitude or company, he had been crowded by unfamiliar faces of people it seemed he should have known. Remembering, he could almost feel the unreality of dream coming over him. He wasn’t even drunk yet, although the evening would certainly culminate in a booth at the Welcome Mat. Now, not yet drunk, he found himself surrounded by half-light, chill, and strangers.

Who were these people? Most of them, he had known in high school—known them. They had made fun of each other’s faults and dreams, had eaten together at lunch and copied each other’s homework, already copied from awkwardly condescending nerds; they had told the track team to run Forrest run, told the football players to stick it and where, told each other that girl X was just a cheap ride anyway. They had known each other the way you’re supposed to know your clan. And now this.

Had Seth always been on the fringe? Had he held together with them because they were his people, or because there was nowhere else to go in the cramped world of high school? He had never thought about it before college, and thinking about it now, he didn’t know. Jeremy, the band geek, had become a steady-C music major, with a sudden Asian fetish that bordered on disturbing. Darner had started dabbling in some “urban dance” thing, taking himself and the way he moved too seriously and expecting others to as well. Even though, trying to swagger, he walked like a drunken, crippled penguin. Darner’s girlfriend Donna was mostly unchanged, but she had always been a pharmacist of sorts, and seemed to be expanding the range of drugs she handled now that she was away from home. Seth himself had given up black grunge sweats in favor of jeans and gray grunge t-shirts, but didn’t feel any different. There were a half-dozen others from the clan who might not have changed. But they weren’t here, and if anybody kept in touch with them, Seth didn’t know about it. There were others here now—Donna and Darner had picked up a couple warm bodies, and Jeremy seemed to meet an endless succession of wannabe band-girls—but who were they? Not Seth’s clan.

The group was on its way to see Dead Gun IV, in which people struck well-angled poses and then were blown up, or blew something up, or maybe said a line. Or all three, wearing designer shoes and brand-name clothing. The lines from the previews were good, at any rate. And one of Jeremy’s wannabes was on the verge of hooking up with Seth. She was a saxophonist. Jeremy had subtly rejected her because of her short hair, but she was hot enough that Seth was willing to see what happened when she’d had a few.

They were rattling down to the parking lot, where Seth’s secondhand compact and Donna’s pickup and one of the druggies’ cars waited. Jeremy had a truck too, of truly ancient years, but it had spontaneously ignited last month and he didn’t trust it now for anything more than a series of jokes. That was Jeremy, at least—not familiar, or even recognizable as a human being, but as a humorously paranoid relationship. Seth opened his mouth to say something funny and not really nostalgic at all.

Old friends

The young woman was sitting on a park bench under a tree, reading. She looked like she was in her late twenties, with dark hair that curled halfway down her back. She read by the illumination of a nearby streetlight, and the glow of it gave her an unearthly aura, a personal space inviolable to every force Seth knew. Her tanned skin shone softly: her hands, her face, her throat. She seemed to glance at him for a moment as he and the others passed by. Her eyes were distant, untroubled, dark; they were unexplored territory; in them grew virgin forests. She turned a page, reached out with one hand and lightly touched the tree trunk in a seemingly unconscious gesture, eyes on her book, so that Seth could not be sure she had ever looked up at all. That was the first time he saw her.

He forgot what he had been about to say and remained silent until they reached the theater and bought tickets.

The movie was unable to hold Seth’s interest, and he found himself restless even during the climactic battle. Walking out of the theater to the parking lot, he found that he had been developing a headache for at least the past hour, and that he was in a foul mood. He spat on the sidewalk. That was from high school, and one of those people remembered what it meant.

Jeremy said, “What, I thought it was ok.” The girls all nodded except Donna, who was still humming the theme off-tempo, which she always did for kicks. The other guys said several things in favor of the lead female character and her guns. One of Darner’s crew admitted that the kung fu had been weak, but argued that the grappling-hook scene made up for that easily. Seth spat again dismissively.

Darner chipped in snidely. “Oh, what are you now, an artist? You go to Dead Gun flicks for plot, hey?” It might have been a joke at the expense of the movie, but Seth didn’t care.

“I can’t believe you posers,” he said. “It was crap! I’ll pay to see the CG, but we did better shit than some of that with a potato gun in grade six. A little quality, please!”

Always, one person didn’t like the movie when everybody else did, or loved what the rest knew was an obvious bomb. It had never been Seth before. Mr. Kung Fu started telling him that anything with a fast-cut gun-and-machete fight at two hundred feet, on the side of an office building, was quality, and Seth turned on him and said “Yeah, if you ignore the jungle groove sound track. What the hell was that?”

“Sure,” sax girl said suddenly, “you go listen to your emo rock.”

There was laughter. The world was dim, cold, alien, and laughing at him. Seth’s whole body warmed fuzzily; the air constricted around him and then went loose. All the words he knew were meaningless. He went to his car as if it hurt his legs to walk the same asphalt as his former friends.

“Hey!” shouted sax-girl. “Hey, you giving me a ride or what?”

A few choice lines presented themselves, most of them involving keeping his car free of herpes virus. But he was sick of lines, and wouldn’t have spoken even if he could. He drove away in silence. They were no longer his people.


A month later, Seth’s life and therefore his mood had not improved appreciably. He stalked into his dorm room and threw his backpack onto his bed as the door, driven by weighted hinges, slammed shut behind him. “Well, this day was sh—”

His roommate Isaac tensed slightly, hunching over a textbook. “Don’t.”

He spat into the trashcan. “Why not?”

Isaac turned and glared. “We’ve been over the free speech thing. You may have had yet another bad day, but we all have bad days and I want my room to be a pleasant place.”

“Yeah? Well, it’s not ‘pleasant’ for me unless I can cut loose. You understand? You’re so… sterile. I can’t stand it.”

Seth sagged into his chair and put a pair of headphones around his neck. With a sigh, Isaac changed the subject. “So, what happened to make your day so lousy?”

“Lost my job.”

“So? I thought you said it was a ‘crap job’ you couldn’t wait to get out of.”

“Yeah, well, it kept me in school. I don’t find another soon, I’ll have to kill my savings just to pay the next fee bill.”

“I thought that you wanted to quit here because you hated everything about it. Wasn’t that why you refused to pick a major?”

Seth was rummaging through his CDs. “That was back when Dad was willing to pay for me to go to the technical school. When I failed English last semester, he almost disowned me. ‘You’re on your own now,’ he says. ‘If you got time to party and get piss-ass drunk, or whatever it is kids do these days, then you got time to study.’ He’s not going to pay for my education if there’s no return on the investment.”

“Makes sense to me.”

“It’s not like I could help it the professor was a rat bastard who hated me.” Choosing and inserting a disk, Seth started his player and turned the volume all the way up without putting the headphones on his ears. He put his feet against his desk and tipped back, apparently listening to the music through his neck.

“Last week you were talking about quitting school and just working. I thought you—”

“You think too damn much.” Seth slammed his chair back down. “I don’t have a damn job any more, do I?”

“You keep talking about your dad. What does your mom have to say about it?”

“She’s dead.”

“Oh.” Isaac looked down at his books. “I’m sorry.”

“Goddamn crazy dad sits around writing poetry to her and telling me to make something of myself even though he’s going all to pot.”

That shut Isaac up for a while, except for another mumbled “sorry.” Finally, he came up with a non sequitur. “I have a friend who works with the student newspaper; he could find you a little gig for the time being.”

“What? I don’t want any jobs at our paper. It sucks.”

Isaac snorted. “They don’t take people who’ve failed English anyway. But the office is always looking for people who live on campus, to do deliveries in the morning.”

“Shyeah, right.”

“Seriously. You get up at four, walk a quarter of a mile to Journalism. The printer people drop off the bundles.”


Isaac plowed through the interjection. “Then you put them in the on-campus delivery truck and leave one bundle in the box at each building. Then walk back here. It takes an hour if you do it right, and they pay ten dollars a day. It’s the perfect extra-cash job.”

“You are so full—”

“That’s seven hundred a semester. That pays for the meal ticket at least. And ten dollars an hour is more than they pay the people who write the thing.”

“If it’s so good, you do it,” Seth said dismissively.

“I already have too much work to do, especially with training and classes at Serif. I can’t live on three hours of sleep a night.”

“So what about tuition?”

“I don’t know. I’m sure the Student Center could find you workstudy on campus if you’d quit whining and ask. Go to sleep earlier in the evening and you’ll be fine. You have most of your classes relatively early in the day anyway. ‘Early to bed and early to—’”

“Just shut your face. I’ll try it ‘cause I need some cash, but if I don’t like it, I swear I’ll wake you up every morning to say how stupid your idea is.”

“And I’ll give your beer to the hall monitor.”

“Bite me, you fucking puritan.”

Isaac smiled to himself.

. . .

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Nothing like a camel and a needle, though

(Hyoutan kara koma ga deru; “A horse from a gourd”)


Used to describe something that is completely unexpected, or something that was suggested as possible at least half-jokingly, but which actually comes to pass. Note that this can’t be merely unlikely, like the weather being sunny despite a forecast of rain; it has to be something almost unthinkable, like a rain of fish… or like a horse passing through the tiny mouth of a bottle gourd.


瓢箪 (hyoutan) is a gourd, specifically the “bottle gourd.” から (kara) is a particle serving the function of the preposition “from” or “out of.” (koma) is a mildly archaic character meaning “horse,” although in modern usage it can also refer to a game piece (especially in shogi, also known as “Japanese chess”) or the bridge of a stringed instrument. (ga) is the subject marker for the intransitive verb 出る (deru, “to go/come out”).


This kotowaza was selected from the Kyoto Iroha Karuta set. A shortened version, 瓢箪から駒 (verb elided) may also be used. The “joke coming true” meaning ties this phrase to ideas of surprises in reality making lies into truth, although it can be also used in its more basic meaning of an almost-unforseeable turn of events.

Example sentence:


(“Ichiban se no hikui senshu ga dankushotto no konkuuru de kattara omoshiroi to itta kedo, masaka sou naru nante omowanakatta. Hyoutan kara koma tte konna koto da yo ne.”)

[“Yes, I said that it would be funny if the shortest person on the team won the dunking competition... but I never thought it would actually happen. This must be what they mean when they say 'a horse from a gourd'!”]

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Standing on the shoulders of giants to see far

A yojijukugo for going back to school.


Literally: warm – reason/cause/therefore – know – new

Alternately: Learning from the past. Gaining new knowledge or wisdom through (thorough) study of the past. Moving forward with new ideas, based on studying the past.

Note: It would seem logical to use (meaning “old,” and also pronounced ko) in place of , but this is incorrect. The roots of the phrase are actually in a Confucian pronouncement which uses the character .

The joy of scholarship. It's there, trust me.

The joy of scholarship. It’s there, trust me.

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…and fruit flies like a banana?

This is one of my more favorite and more commonly quoted kotowaza. I’m not sure how it took me so long to get around to it. Time flies, I guess. 8^D

(Kouin ya no gotoshi; “Light and shadow are like an arrow”)


“Time flies like an arrow.”


is light, in this case sunlight. is shadow, but also the yin of yin-yang (陰陽) and therefore representative of the moon. In other words, while literally 光陰 (kouin) means “light and shadow,” it’s probably closer in meaning to 月日 (tsukihi, “months and days”), another term denoting an extended span of time. (It can also be pronounced gappi, mean “month and day,” and simply refer to the date.)

Somewhat unusually, the compound 光陰 is immediately followed by another noun without anything else in between: next comes (ya, “arrow”). After that, the associative particle , and finally the auxiliary verb 如し (gotoshi, “just like,” “as”).

You could even say that “Light/shadow, arrow’s likeness” is an accurate semantic representation, although in English grammar this won’t fly, ha ha.


The idea of time being represented by “light and darkness” has an impact on me, and I immediately think of Genesis: “and the evening and the morning were the Nth day.” It makes sense, of course; the rhythms of sunlight and moonlight were the first things that gave us a measure of time, and proved so useful that days, months, and years remain with us even now. And on that note, I have to keep in mind that 光陰 is most likely “sun and moon” rather than “light and darkness.” Ah well.

My sources note that using the phrase to refer to the speed of some human endeavor is incorrect: this kotowaza points to the inevitable march – sprint, really – of time itself.

Example sentence:

「あああ、ヤバイ!あっという間に夏休みが終わった」 「そうだね。光陰矢の如しだなぁ」

(“Aaa, yabai! A tto iu ma ni natsuyasumi ga owatta.” “Sou da ne. Kouin ya no gotoshi da naa.”)

[“Aagh, this is bad! Suddenly summer vacation is over!” “Yeah. Time sure flies.”]

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Poem – “Litany”

A poem, in the voice of a character from a story much planned but largely unwritten.

by Davis van Zandt

Please report any of the following to the proper authorities:

  • When you see people who aren’t, in all objectivity, there
  • When you don’t see people who are (don’t be afraid to ask, it’s better than not knowing)
  • When people who aren’t there see you
  • When you see images other than the proper reflection or view (examples: trees in the oil-puddle’s rainbow, ages long dead through the window)
  • When you are lost on familiar paths, or know the way on strange ones
  • When you feel or observe, without good reason: fear, sorrow, euphoria, confusion, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, agitation, irritation,
  • dizziness, shortness of breath, chills, heat, pain (especially of the head or vitals), heaviness of the limbs, nausea, lightheadedness, loss of function,
  • the growth of supernumerary moles, digits, members, limbs or organs
  • When you are watched unblinkingly, or constantly but with blinking
  • When you or anyone you know dies, whether in reality or in a dream
  • When the Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, comes whiffling through the tulgey wood
  • When it rains, hails, sleets or snows anything other than water
  • When you or anyone prophesizes (please include text and context)
  • When you observe two or more of the following: large red sun, black sun, large red moon, large red stars, new or mobile constellations or stars, pillars or clouds of flame and/or thunder, stones moving of their own accord, words in light in any language from Appendix B, or singing as of a great choral multitude
  • When spirits or elder gods walk the earth, revealed in their power
  • When dead Cthulhu rises from his dreaming in sunken R’lyeh (joke) OR
  • When suddenly and quite without warning,
  • it all makes perfect sense.
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Although I do say so myself…


Literally: self – picture – self – praise

Alternately: Singing one’s own praises. Blowing one’s own horn. (Public) self-congratulation.

Note: Although the 賛 can be translated as “praise,” in this case it refers to a tradition of writing poetry, or something of a similar literary bent, in response to (and perhaps to accompany) a picture. Such a written piece is also called 賛. So while the meaning is unchanged, 自画自賛 refers to ‘writing a poem in response to one’s own painting’ rather than directly, overtly praising one’s own work. Perhaps this distinction gives us a little window into traditional Japanese culture.

Often negative, but here’s a book on how to put it to use!

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Not the monkey’s paw; that’s very different

A new semester will be beginning soon. (Wish me luck in keeping up with my posting schedule!) Recently I went to a welcome lunch for the new Masters students in our department. One, from China, told me about a Chinese four-character compound, 火中取栗 (“huŏ zhōng qŭ lì”; it would probably be rendered ka.chuu.shu.ri in Japanese). He told me that it referred to some reward or profit made all the sweeter by having gone through difficulty or danger to get it. (If a speaker of Chinese would like to comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts.)

I went home and immediately looked for a Japanese version. Many yojijukugo come from Chinese, after all, and I thought I could use it on a coming Wednesday. Alas, if the compound is ever used in Japanese, it’s too obscure to show up in any of my sources. Google just gave me pages and pages of results in Chinese. I did find the following longer phrase, though:

(Kachuu no kuri wo hirou; “To pick a chestnut out of the fire.”)


Doing someone’s dirty work for them, without personal benefit or reward. Taking risks while someone else gets all the profit. Going out of your way, putting yourself in danger, or otherwise taking on an unwelcome task because you were tricked or cajoled into it by the person who actually stands to gain. Being someone’s catspaw, as discussed below.


火中 (kachuu) is a compound of “fire” and “middle” and, as you’d expect, means “in(side) [a] fire.” (kuri) is a nut, specifically the Japanese chestnut. Here the associative particle is giving 火中an adjectival or descriptive function: “an in-a-fire chestnut.” The noun phrase is tagged with the object marker and acted upon by the verb 拾う (hirou), “to pick up.” Note that while I rendered the phrase above as a nut, singular, the Japanese doesn’t specify number, so “chestnuts” would be equally acceptable.


Imagine my surprise and mild dismay when I discovered that the Japanese saying is derived from the French, specifically from La Fontaine’s “The Monkey and the Cat.” I said early on in this project that I didn’t want to use sayings that had been imported into Japanese from English. It can be nice to know that they are available for use, but I’d prefer to learn, and share, about Japanese rather than about my native tongue in these posts.

That said, while English has also inherited the term “cat’s paw” from the same source, I felt that circumstances justify the inclusion of 火中の栗… in this series. It’s significantly different from the English, for one thing, and comes from a non-English source. It would be somewhat inconsistent to reject French while cheerfully accepting Chinese-origin phrases.

Example sentence:


(“Buchou ni tanomu nara, yahari jibun de itte goran. Ore ga suru to, nanka kachuu no kuri wo hirou you na kanji da.”)

[“If you need to ask the department head, then you'd better try talking to him yourself. If I did it, I get the feeling I'd just be your catspaw.”]

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