"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The crowbar protocol -- An environmental plea

Those of you who know me know that while I'm in favor of environmentalism, I'm not exactly a hardcore tree-hugging, bunny-coddling, Gaia-worshipping, vegan eco-guerrilla.

I admit that plastic and concrete have their roles to play in life's rich pageant and that if we want computers, flat screen tv and air travel, there will always be some industrial wastes and fossil fuel to deal with. I admit that I could do more, but I recycle, I take public transport almost everywhere (easy to do in Tokyo) and try to avoid excess packaging (very tough to do in Tokyo). I don't think eating meat or using disposable diapers or throwaway chopsticks made from farmed poplar make me an evil person.

I think that if women must wear cosmetics, which going by most of the women I see, they must, then I'd rather the stuff be tested on cute lil' fluffy bunnies than third world children. I think the Kyoto accord is good, but could go farther, and would love to have an electric or fuel cell car.

In short, I would consider myself a moderate environmentalist.

So it may shock you to know that I am very close to taking a crowbar to some windshields in this city on the basis of my environmental beliefs.

Tokyo is situated in a sort of coastal bowl that traps warm wet air in a thermal inversion. In summer temperatures in the mid 30s are the norm, with humidity around 80 to 95 percent. Smog builds up to the point that on bad days the sky can be a brownish yellow and the government advise old people and children to stay indoors. Obviously changing the geography and the weather patterns are not really options, so you would think cutting down on air pollution would be a priority. And for some it is.

But for the truck drivers, delivery people, tradesmen, salesmen and taxi drivers of Tokyo it clearly is not. Like many people in this country, they spend long hours at their jobs, not working, but sleeping. Obviously when you work 12 hours a day, every day, a little siesta at lunch or even on company time is a nice thing. People in my office (you know who you are) regularly nod off at their desks. But what about those who aren't in the office? What do those who spend their day out of the office do for a place to sleep and dodge work? Use a park? Go to a movie? Spend an hour getting coffee at Starbucks? Nope.

They get in their cars, vans and trucks, roll up the window, crank up the air conditioning and sit there with the engine running. For hours at a time, pumping filth into the air, driving up the temperature and making more smog.

Few things piss me off more than to walk along the sidestreet next to my home and find it nearly bumper to bumper with cars parked with their engines running, spewing exhaust into the air and radiating heat. What is worse is seeing the same vehicles there when I come home two and half hours later.

I'm thinking of getting a small notice printed up in Japanese to ask them not to run their engines, but I fear the response will be to dismiss me as another annoying foreigner who doesn't understand Japanese ways.

That's why I'm leaning more and more to the crowbar protocol idea. A notice that reads: "Turn off your engine you lazy, inconsiderate, selfish shithead or I'll smash your windshield with a crowbar. You are poisoning the air I breathe and I will consider it self-defense to smash the hell out of your car and even you if that is what it takes to get you to shut off the engine. If you need an air conditioned nap so badly, go home or to the mall or the donut shop -- because if I see your vehicle here ten minutes from now, with the tailpipe smoking and heat dissipation haze hanging over the hood and your white socked feet up on the dash and you snoring in the driver's seat, you will soon be picking windshield glass out of your hair."

Then all I have to do is walk along the row of parked cars, tapping tires and maybe windows, very gently with my three-foot tempered-steel crowbar and smiling a crooked smile.

Of course I could opt for the cyber vigilante method and email time-stamped digital photos of the snoozing employees to their companies head offices, since the company name is often on the door of the car or van. Sure, it would probably lead to fewer confrontations with drivers upset that their nap has been disturbed and far less police involvement, but there is something so satisfying about the crunch of a heavy iron bar on supposedly shatterproof glass that I just don't know if I can deny myself the pleasure of pursuing my own Buford Pusser/Steven Segal style of environmentalism.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Hornby's 'Long Way Down' not up to scratch : Book Review : Features : DAILY YOMIURI ONLINE (The Daily Yomiuri):

Hornby's 'Long Way Down' not up to scratch
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
A Long Way Down
By Nick Hornby
Riverhead Books, 352 pp, 24.95 dollars

Perhaps it is the result of seeing so many liberties taken in adapting his previous works for the silver screen (About a Boy, High Fidelity), but Nick Hornby's latest novel, A Long Way Down, reads more like a preliminary draft of a screenplay than an actual novel.

The premise is pure Hollywood pitch meeting: Four disparate characters, all intending to kill themselves, meet by chance at the top of a London high-rise on New Year's Eve, form a bond and proceed to try to fix each other's lives. It's sort of like The Breakfast Club meets Harold and Maude meets The Apartment.

The quartet of would-be suicides are: Martin, a disgraced, sarcastic and self-loathing TV host; Maureen, a middle-aged single mother who has devoted her entire adult life to caring for her apparently vegetative adult son; Jess, a lovelorn and disturbed attention-seeking teenager; and JJ, a failed American musician whose band has broken up.

Hornby tells the story in first person, switching perspective among the four characters every few pages, occasionally giving more than one version of the same events. The problem is that the four voices are not sufficiently different from one another.

Hornby has tried, unsuccessfully, to vary the tone and style, but the variations seem cosmetic, like a storyteller varying the pitch of their voice to suggest dialog by different characters: Martin is self-involved and caustic, but erudite. JJ is a bit bland and needy. Jess is invariably foulmouthed while Maureen is bothered by and never uses obscene language to the extent that she bowdlerizes the salty language of the others when recounting conversations.

And there are plenty of conversations. The majority of the book consists of the four characters describing their various meetings and interactions, with little time spent describing what they do on their own. For the most part, Hornby gives us a series of set-piece meetings of the four told from shifting perspectives, interspersed with expository monologues by each character detailing their reaction to the meetings.

Each of the four protagonists seem to serve fairly transparent nonnarrative purposes for the author, especially JJ, who, as an American and a musician, allows Hornby to make a number of comic observations on the absurdities of British life, rock 'n' roll and the music business. Martin's fame and disgrace allow the author to tee off on the tabloid media and the shallowness of television. As Hornby is himself the father of a severely autistic child, some of Maureen's frustration can be read as autobiographical.

Oddly enough, it is Jess, the character Hornby bears the least evident resemblance to, who rings the most true. With her, the author presents a believable portrayal of the attributes of a troubled teenage girl without resorting to maudlin cliches or stereotypes. Jess is alternately spoiled and ignored by her upper middle class parents, whom she affects to despise. She is both naive and knowing, tender and vicious. Jess is the one who pushes the others forward along the arc of the story.

Hornby takes what on the surface promises to be either a very dark and emotionally harrowing story or an inspirational story about the power of love and friendship and refuses to allow it to become either one. Darker moments are leavened with black humor and comic asides, and Hornby's innate cynicism keeps him from allowing things to get saccharine. In the hands of a lesser craftsman, this book could have been a disastrous moan-fest or a sappy Hallmark card. It is neither.

Nor is it a complete success. Hornby seems to have solved the problem of walking the tightrope by not moving too suddenly or too far. He keeps the precarious balance between laughter and tears by not delving too deeply into either. Dividing the narrative voice among the four characters seems to water down the emotional investment the reader makes in each of them. By the end of the book, we are not really that bothered about whether they jump or not.

In High Fidelity, the reader is amused by the digressive riffing on pop music and the smart dialogue, but is made to care about the eventual fate of the main character. While the tangential discourses in A Long Way Down on everything from the nature of rock stardom to the benefits of anonymous chain coffee shops are entertaining, Hornby fails to draw the reader far enough into the heads of his four protagonists to build an emotional attachment. It is as though the author is waiting for actors to breathe real life into the roughly drawn characters he has presented. Ultimately, A Long Way Down fails to live up to the promise of Hornby's earlier work.