I’ve always enjoyed reading words that are new to me. From a young age I felt that the way I first encountered a word would shape my use of it going forward. I’ve come to think of words as creatures, animals that need to be viewed and experienced in the wild to really get a sense of them. This means the dictionary is a zoo.
When in your travels you meet a new word, it’s in the province of the writer who employed it, and it functions within and relates to a much broader whole. The choice of any word above another is evidence of a writer’s sensibility; it is the grain of their tone.
Reading a scene (perhaps set at night, in a thicket), all the description, pace and existing impressions of the characters – everything – is reverberating, operating, negotiating, being drawn across strings and sounding chords. Suddenly there it is: the giant squid in the depths, a snow leopard, moonlight on antlers — a new word. Although unknown, it inhabits a territory of meaning, a length of time in the sustained tone.
Viewing a word in rich context steeps it in meaning. Like sonar, the information you already have fleshes out the form of the new word, gives it shade and tone. And then there’s the sound it makes. We all know that words can crackle and slide, bounce and cut. Merde conjures shit; pompous is best when sprayed. The sound is part of your first impression of a word, even before you “know what it means.” Seeing it artfully employed, a weight-bearing beam within the structure, a sense is gained that cannot be gleaned from a dictionary, where words are in captivity.
Of course, we don’t always have this luxury. There will always be times when we’ve got to look up a word for work or study. But whenever possible, I relish having new words slowly revealed through repeated encounters in the wild.
In which unfamiliar stimuli are likened to velocity, an octogenarian attacks with bodily fluids, and pure kindness redeems all. Japeasy is a video game.
My earlier memories of being in Japan are of speed. Even in a small fishing town new things abound, flying by like road signs, reminders that you’re in fresh surroundings.
Spend a few years most anywhere and those signs start to come less often — an apparent deceleration. Eventually those thrilling little shocks become so infrequent that you can’t remember the last one. As with anything else, you get used to Japan.
Every so often though, at odd moments, I’m struck by some detail. Today after the pool I saw two kids, maybe 5 and 7, careening around on unicycles. I know this is not uncommon here, that many elementary schools have unicycles available at recess, but it’s still wacky to see children nonchalantly piloting around on a vehicle I equate with the airplane as far as operational difficulty.
A short while before, I had been standing in the corner of the pool, gasping for breath. An elderly man arrived from his length and, locking eyes with me, made a swannish sideways dive/fall into his next lap. Far arm elongated for the plunge, near arm plugging one nostril, he calmly, blew a piece of nose candy at me. It seems bastards permeate the planet.
Still, for every such instance, acts of sheer and unmitigated kindness spring more readily to mind. A yet older gentleman morally dwarfed his aforementioned contemporary by chasing me down through a crowded station to return a wallet I forgot at a drink stand. At a friendly end-of-year party, I made the mistake of complimenting a hand-made sake vessel belonging to a rough old man. “It’s yours,” he said, still drinking from it. I stammered a refusal but anyone could tell the thing was done. He’d given it to me.
At times Japan feels like an insidious video game. You constantly feel like you’re just now really getting the hang of it. I wonder what level I’m on.