I’m spending what’s technically the last day of my 30s sitting on a little cushion, crossed legged, atop tatami, writing the hell out of things — this newsletter and Ridgeline and a host of neglected emails. All in prep for the first technically full day of my 40s, which involves setting off on a giant 500+km walk across Japan. (“Technically” — my actual birth moment is just a few minutes before midnight tonight, Japan time; seems silly to count today as the first day of the new decade.)
Walking Pachinko Road
This Roden’s call to action is simple: I’m running a daily newsletter, starting tomorrow, November 3rd and ending on November 29th; dispatches from my walk in Japan. It’s called Pachinko Road. You can subscribe here. The essay explaining it all is called “Let’s Walk Across Japan, Together."
From the essay:
Each day I’ll send out one photograph and a 200-words-or-fewer missive. It’s meant to be visual, short and punchy. A Low Impact™ email. Something you’ll be happy to peek at.
It’s going to be weird! We’ll meet strange folks! Eat pizza toast! Walk along highways! Play some pachinko! Smoke disconcertingly cheap, unfiltered cigarettes! (OK, maybe not that last one.)
Brevity is key. It’s meant to be an email you relish opening. I am aiming for an uncommonly high open rate.
Each day I’ll ask for your response — just a sentence, and maybe a photo of where you are at the moment you get the message. The idea is to “walk together” — to run a global, distributed walk and then, when it’s done, take my messages and photos and interweave them with your hundreds (thousands? ten of thousands?) of images and notes. I don’t know if it will work, or make a good book, but I ran a similar experiment last year — the SMS book — and I loved the results.
So come, walk with me. Let’s make a strange book together celebrating the world, in a moment where most of the world is stuck at home.
Scale, Books, Fractals
Kissa by Kissa’s second-edition pre-sale was a huge success. Thank you to the 565+ folks who hopped in to help a) unlock the public livestream breakdown (warning: ramble-fest 2020 — but I added a TOC to the video so you can easily hop around to bits that look interesting) and b) unlock the postcards for all.
To say that it was satisfying to cap my 30s with the publication of this book would be the understatement of the decade. I am so proud of where this book landed — physically, editorially, lyrically, photographically, financially — that it makes me wonder why I spent so many years banging my head against the wall trying to produce a “more normal” book.
One of the big fumbles (sort of) of my 30s was concocting a false narrative that went something like: We need someone on the outside (read: in a position of “power”) to bestow upon us the permission to be or be able to do X.
The positive corollary of assuming this narrative was that, in an effort to assuage or live up to the “expectations” of those outsiders / outside systems (i.e., the New York publishing industry), I had to ratchet up my skills, write and write until I was bleeding out my eyes. I think that slow-cook trial was necessary (I’d hardly call it a trial by fire) — it was the forcing function to apply for residencies, study at Iowa, study with Alex Chee, hole up and get used to the solitude and years-long arcs inherent to a certain kinds of writing project.
It was only once I hit a few dozen walls and failed to “publish” in the “way” I thought I “had” to publish, that I then — finally! — began to think more creatively around engaging with and owning my work and the space within which I was working. That creative thinking lead to the establishment of SPECIAL PROJECTS and Ridgeline, nearly two years ago. SP (launched as Explorers Club) was a terrifying project to undertake. The launching of it felt like the loss or death of that previous narrative I had so closely held — the narrative that the only “real” publishing was sanctioned, king-maker publishing. Bleh!
I even wrote an essay about the crushing shame of launching SPECIAL PROJECTS, which I never published. Let me quote a key passage:
So with great shame — burning shame, total shame, a nausea generating shame — I launched the program. That was a horrible night for me. I launched it and saw the first membership come in — a lifetimer for $1000 which I took to be a portentous sign, like an albatross, of nothing else good to come — then shut my computer and stuck my head in a pillow for twelve hours. Then I walked on a mountain. Then, finally, the next day, sometime in the afternoon, exhausted from all the shame, I turned my computer back on.
It felt like I had given up, failed. I was slinking into hack-mode.
What a dumb narrative to be caught in.
Thankfully, I pulled myself out of the Shame Hole and Ridgeline took off, and that led to my first giant walk last year which, I suppose, you could say changed my life. It showed me that I could do a big, hulking walk buoyed by an active (and paying!) audience. It also reminded me of the fractal nature of simple things — the “walk” was more than just a walk, it was a platform, a framework upon which to build whatever I wanted, whatever I could imagine, explore whatever seemed worthy of attention. Pizza toast? WHY NOT.
I started producing binaural audio recordings, running SMS experiments, writing articles for Wired and Eater, running so-called “Pop Up Walks” for members, and generally thinking about and reveling in the physio-chemical positivities of day-after-day-after-day moving between point A and B on a map.
From the first few steps of that first big walk, it was clear to me: Here laid an entire universe to be explored!
And then: Now, how do I pull others into this world?
The other day, I did a “big” walk from Shinjuku to Waseda, and then Waseda to Mejiro. My old stomping grounds. Twenty years ago I would have looked at you like you were insane if you said let’s walk from Takadanobaba to Shinjuku. The scale felt off — too far. Now, it’s a laughably short stroll. And so, the other day I was in a near constant state of shock — everything was so close, so small. And the worlds I used to walk through in awe, those that felt elevated, unknowable and untouchable — where I’d wander through Kabukicho or Shinokubo or Nishi-Waseda, wondering how folks built the bars and businesses they built, wondering what it would be like to live in this neighborhood or that nook of a block or that apartment up there, the one above the coin laundry next to the sento, wishing I could find a foothold outside of my own life that felt suffocatingly small — all of that, the other day, was suddenly less mysterious. No less beautiful or evocative, but simply “understood.” It had been literally years since I had wandered these bits of the city. But I now understood how those places were built, the costs and sacrifices necessary to produce them, I understood what it would take to move into neighborhood X, I knew I didn’t want to live above a laundromat, and most importantly, I recognized — perhaps for the first time in my life — that I had the acquired the “skills” to expand my own world, on my own terms. And that felt damn good.
So Kissa by Kissa, for me, is more than just a book about toast and kissa. I mean, it’s definitely also that — a book about toast. But on a more meta-plane, it’s an object built from fractal beliefs, a tangible wooden block of getting un-stuck from the strictures of pre-existing systems, a rock hammer for carving out self-owned permission within the universe of publishing and literature, and a thing meant to remind one that: a walk is never just a walk. It has sold stupidly well, and will fund the next two or three books I produce. I am overjoyed that it exists in the world. Thank you all for participating in its creation.
The goal is to keep this vibe going. To keep expanding and filling in the gaps in imagination between what is, and what’s yet to be possible. I’d still love to do something with a big publisher in New York. There are things that only they can do, at their own special scale, and folks within that system I respect the hell out of and with whom I’d love nothing more than to collaborate. But I’m so very glad to have an alternative path — one that produces work I am proud of, is financially sustainable, and demands no external permission. My hope is, ten years from now, to look back at Kissa by Kissa with an endearing sense of smallness. Of wonder in how I could have ever failed to imagine a thing like it, and whatever’s next, in the world.
Recent Media — Film and Lit
Jun Ichikawa’s Tony Takitani, based on the Murakami short story, was a delight. It’s streaming on Criterion, clocks in at barely over an hour. Ichikawa picks a few visual motifs and leans in like a motocross racer — huge windows (projections?) behind almost every scene chopping the foreground by mullion and transom, an ever-panning camera, using physical objects to swipe-cut between scenes. Over and over, he is fully committed to these decisions. The dialog / voiceover / duplicated actor component works well, turns the vibe “literary” and theatrical. It’s probably the closest film evocation of a short story I’ve seen. Even the length feels correct. Surreal and complex, you end up with a thoughtful if tendentious reading of love and marriage.
If Ichikawa’s film is the minimalist version of short story rendered to film, then Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is the maximalist side of that same coin. Once again, a Murakami short story (“Barn Burning”) serves as the foundation for the film. Go read it. The film itself stretches and embellishes that source material. Protagonist Yoo Ah‑in is, as “they” say in breathless film-speak, a revelation. Dude’s got skills. There are a few scenes that walk right up to the edge of Hey Look At Me (from a technical perspective — super long shots at twilight, for example) without going over, and subsequently knock you down. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s worth your time. These two films in combination would make for a solid night of contemporary Asian film — Japan and Korea, 2004 and 2018 — as responding to literature.
Otherwise, Fargo season four continues to impress on a micro-scale — Schwartzman and Jessie Buckley stand out as folks I thought were mis-cast but have earned their place, get better and better with each episode. Ben Whishaw has to be one of the best secondary characters of the entire series. The cinematography feels like an imbricated scale of light and volume and pattern, there’s always something for your eyes to delight in even if the story doesn’t make much sense. Which is to say, this season isn’t working for me on a macro level — too many threads, too many compelling secondary characters and too few compelling primary characters. Salvatore Esposito is so unbelievable as an insane Italian that I am tempted to fast forward through most of his scenes. And Rock has still yet to convince me that he’s a shrewd gangster. That said, I’m enjoying his leaning into the role! I just don’t entirely believe it. On a whole, still better than season three, I think. We’ll see how it lands. (My current ranking is: 2, 1, 4, 3)
Life as Protest
I’ve written this before but I constantly need to remind myself of it, so, once again: A certain kind of work, lifestyle, mode of living — in and of itself — is protest. That is, work that is curious and rigorous is implicitly an antipode to didactic, shallow bombastity. It is inherently an archetype against bullshit. That to be committed to this work or life of rigor (be it rigor focused on “art” or, as they say in Japanese, sakuhin, or family or athleticism or whatever), and to share it with the world is to opt-out of being paralyzed by idiocy, and help others who may be paralyzed find a path back to whatever fecundity of life it is that they deserve.
I’ve held this belief in my pocket these past four years. Wrapped my fingers around it as needed. Along with sane, productive, brilliant friends, a therapist, and a loving partner, it keeps me from seizing up. Who knows what this week or month will bring, but please remember: The very act of living, moving forward, not seizing up, is a protest, and a damn strong one at that. And, shit, if our collective brains are, by chance, uncoupled from the eternal low-level Doom Vibe of Unkindness in Power, use that as a boost to go even further. Take that energy and run with it. It’ll be a gift more now, than ever before. You know what to do with it.
Good luck everyone.
Be safe, be well. Thanks for following along in my 30s.