The Fish Man

The Fish ManI like drawing fish almost as much as birds.  The big cartoony eyes and odd colors and shapes–they are a ton of fun.  As a kid, my friend’s  father would buy fish from the market during Lent and the guy who sold it, no shit, looked like a grouper.  He was a hairy fucker who wore a Dago-t  and had moles all over his face and neck the size of dimes and a lower lip that protruded and always had a Lucky Strike sealed to it with spit.  His name was Louie and whenever something surprised him he’d say, “Fuckin A?”  For instance:

“Hey Louie, the Sox won.”
“Fuckin’ A?”

“Hey Louie, It’s going to rain.”
“Fuckin’ A?”

“Hey Louie, the precinct captain is banging your wife.”
“Fuckin A?  Poor bastard.”

He was a funny guy who really knew his fish and once taught me how to eat a smoked chub right off of the bones.  I loved the fish section of the market; all of the different colors and pungent smells and pink fish flesh seemed alien and otherworldly to me.
When I went to the Tsukiji market in Tokyo, it was an all out assault  on the senses; a  blinding sensation of motion and temperature and speed and ice–the fish laid out for the restaurateurs, often still writhing in ice-bins, their scales a repository of refulgent, shimmering light.

Fish are mysterious and beautiful to me-.  Later in my Tokyo trip, I spent time feeding the koi in Ueno Park, which are considered the royalty of aquatic life in that culture even though they are basically carp.  I love looking at fish and the way they move.

My dad took me to watch the smelt fisherman on Lake Michigan as a little boy once.  He told me to notice how many different languages I heard at Montrose Harbor as we walked the dock.  There were Greeks, Mexicans, Poles, Ukrainians, Slavs, Swedes, Italians.  It was one of those activities that brought out all of the tribes in a peaceful collaboration rooted in their native countries.  It was also magical.  I remember looking under the dock and seeing the silvery whir of bait fish, moving so quickly as to be indecipherable.  My dad was not a fisherman, nor am I.  It was just something he knew about and shared with me.

I love watching those fishing shows like The Deadliest Catch, even though they’re fishing for crabs, it is dangerous and hard work.  In the fish market in Tokyo, I saw any number of guys up to their elbows in fish-guts; butchering tuna, amberjack and eels.  It is hard dirty work.

It is also a reminder that the seemingly pastoral world beneath the sea is actually  around-the-clock  murder-.  There is nothing gentle about the ocean.  The truth of it is  little fish get eaten by bigger fish.  Those fish are devoured by still bigger fish and on and on.  The salient lesson seems to be, “Don’t be a fucking guppy.”

This piece is called, The FishMan.  His super power is he eats the shit that falls into the pond.

Published in: on June 20, 2010 at 11:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ueno Park Red Bird

Ueno Park Red Bird

I was thinking of my friends in New Orleans as I made this piece, the beads and ornamentation, the echo of Lafcadio Hearn who left New Orleans to live in Tokyo, find much alike in those places.  Some of my collectors have whined that the Japanese things have been too decorative and too pretty.  Maybe there is something to that…who knows.  Myself, I feel like they are good representations of the Tokyo I experienced, as elegant and ornamental as that place may be.  I love the graphic sensibility of Japanese comics and graphic art; the more, more, more of it.  If it is not for you, well, this is what makes a horserace, and I give not a fuck.

New Orleans is also like this ñ color and shapes and sweat and nature all commingled into a lovely kind of sweet gumbo for the eyes.  I’m especially happy for my other city in the wake of the SAINTS . . . BOO YAH!!!!!!  It is the indication that this holy place is back.  My friends from NOLA texted, called and e-mailed their collective joy from all parts of the city yesterday, and I was overjoyed and over the moon for them.  I also made a neat pile of cash on the game ñ the Saints being 6-point dogs.  I’m betting more than one bookie lost his shirt yesterday.

I go to places like New Orleans, Tokyo and New York for sanity, for the joy and the mysterious poetry of those streets.  It is odd how I feel at home on the streets of New Orleans and Tokyo, and like a foreigner on the streets of Chicago lately.  At times there seems to be this untethering of my belonging to this city.  The desire to wander is more and more part of my work and make-up.  I have been the dutiful son to Chicago; I feel like I have done my bit here and I want to put the rest of the world in my work and see it with my own eyes.

I enjoyed performing This Train so much because I feel like it was a fair look at this place.  I love and hate this city, and I’ll always need it, it is my home.  But I also feel tremendously at home in New York and New Orleans, Tokyo and Austin.  You couldn’t give me other places, but these ones I dearly treasure.  This spring I’ll go to Prague and Istanbul, and I hope I love those cities as much.

In Ueno Park in Tokyo, all manner of gorgeous songbirds can be found and actually heard.  It is a magical place.  See it before you shuffle off of this planet.  You’ll thank me.

Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 10:18 am  Leave a Comment  
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Girl of the Falling Planets,

Girl Of The Falling Planets

I’ve written a lot of love poems.  This one is kind of a love poem for Japan or, more specifically, Tokyo.  It is seductive and full of secrets . . . like a woman.  It is probably a metaphor that would perplex most Japanese ñ a very male-dominated society.  The women I spoke to in Japan seemed sadly resigned to, at some point in their lives, becoming part of a man’s life as almost chattel.  Some of the young women, who worked at the hotel I stayed at, told me that their mothers and their fathers encouraged them to find a man, rather than pursue an education or a business of their own.  The encouraging thing in these conversations was that the women bristled at these thoughts.  One young woman, Sayaka, made it clear that her parents were going to have to realize that it was a new Japan; that the cultural revolution, acted out between young and old, had already happened, albeit quietly.  The young men did not desire to be salary-men and the young women wanted lives, careers and businesses of their own.  It is ironic to view this very old culture and think it has taken this long for young women to liberate themselves from old patriarchal customs and expectations.  Of course, many young women in Japan looked to American women as symbolic of the empowerment one can achieve in the new Japan.  The image of the passive and quiet Asian woman is a quickly disappearing stereotype.

In Japanese art there is no small amount of erotic content; the woodcuts and paintings of artists like Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi are full of geishas and courtesans.  Manga is full of some of the most brutal porn you’ll ever see, replete with rape-fantasy storylines that are degrading and sadly very common.  For centuries, women have very often been sex objects in Japanese art.  There are young women artists in Japan who are turning these paradigms on their head.  Mariko Mori, who seamlessly cobbles together Eastern myths and Western cultural motifs, often makes videos and photographs using herself, more often than not, as a goddess.  Work like hers points to a newly realized “Girl Power” that emboldens other young women artists.  She is a big deal–a real role model to young Japanese women . . . a woman in control of her own art and her own image . . . a woman who owns herself.

I also found out that the cherry blossom season of spring in Japan is a time when many young men propose marriage.  It is a beautiful time of year when the blossoms are in full roar and the parks are full of bright, gauzy whites and pinks, plum wine and music.  It is a lovely thing in a lovely city.  This one is for Tokyo.

Published in: on November 16, 2009 at 3:18 pm  Comments (2)  
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Tokyo Diary – Ginza District

I’ve taken tons and tons of digital shots and I have no earthly fucking idea how to load them onto my computer, because I am a moron.  I walked at least 5 miles today all over Sinjuku and Shimboyu and tonight in the Ginza district.  I also spent a little time in one of the parks which are gorgeous in Tokyo, and oddly quiet.  Public space is revered in this city because there is so little of it and parks offer respite from the crowds.  People are very quiet in the parks and these immaculately manicured places are sanctuary and lend themselves to reading and meditation.  The trees are carefully pruned and sculpted and every park is tended to like a giant garden.  They are beautiful.

I walked a great deal today and saw a lot of Tokyo in a shopping district right by Shiboyu.  There is a youth culture that is hard to discern the look of; part punk, part slacker, part skate-kid.  It is an amalgam of all of these things.  I have stumbled onto something  my host country really likes though–buttons. They are bat-shit for buttons.

My friend, Beth Keegan had a button made from a detail of one of my Drawing-Collages for the publication of Polyphony, an anthology of writing by high school kids that I provide the cover for every year.  After the opening party of the new issue, Beth gave me a baggie full of these buttons and said I ought to hand them out to friends.  On a whim, I brought them with me.  They were in my bag anyway and just for the hell of it, and I started handing them out in Tokyo.  Tipping is not accepted here, so mostly I’ve been giving out the buttons and, Jesus Christ. . .you’d think I was handing out the Hope Diamond.  They LOVE them.  And I began to notice lots of people have buttons with manga characters, Hello Kitty, monsters, anime, comics; these are some seriously button-happy motherfuckers.  From sushi chefs, to doormen, to hotel maids, to art-kids, the buttons are a huge hit.  Every time I hand one out I make a friend.  I speak no Japanese at all and I’ve managed  some marvelous conversations with people about these buttons and Tokyo and art and what they like.  I am so grateful to Beth for giving these to me and I think I’m going to have some more made.  We’ve been treated with such kindness here and such amazing goodwill.  I think to our hosts, maybe the buttons represent a talisman of goodwill.  I certainly mean it this way and it is understood.

Tonight, I ate the best sushi I’ve ever had in my life.  Back home I am a middling fan of sushi. I can kind of take it or leave it.  My daughter loves the stuff, so I go out for it fairly frequently and the experience varies from pretty good, to just okay, to dog-shit.  I never got what the big whoop about sushi was.

Once I got it here, I understood.  This place is the mecca of sushi and a sushi chef here is a combination of things; an artist, a dinner companion, a griot, and, the good ones, educators.  You learn a lot about the Japanese in a really good sushi restaurant.  One learns of the high premium placed on the idea of civility and kindness; that over the sushi bar, one does not merely have a meal, but also forges a communal conversation and fosters goodwill.  At Kyubey in the Ginza district, I ate with my friends and had another of those marvelous conversations  in which neither participant spoke a word of the other’s language.  Oh,I know,  “Ka ni chi wa” and “Arivato,” but the conversation I had with the sushi chefs was more nuanced than many I’ve had with people I’ve know for 10 years.  It was a conversation held almost in pantomime and smiles and gestures and nods.  And it was warm and fine and good.  Watching these guys prepare food was like watching Yo Yo Ma play a cello, or Oscar Peterson, the piano.  It is the difference between watching an artist and a hobbyist.  There are no wasted movements in the preparation; every element is prepared with an economy of motion and speed  and temperature.  Every bite was different.

Tipping is not allowed, so we bought the chefs beers (and so did everyone else) and these guys toast their benefactors and then hammer the whole glass down in one sip.  Though I’ve not had a drink in 25 years, I still admire guys who drink like they absolutely mean to, and they mean to enjoy it, as well. After their toast, they go right back to work preparing delicately realized, and perfect sushi.  My friend, the chef, John Hogan, once told me that every great meal teaches you a new lesson. I’m beginning to know what he means.

Published in: on September 4, 2009 at 10:52 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tokyo Diary – Tsujiki Fish Market

Bird Of The Falling PlanetsTsukiji Market is the biggest fish market in Tokyo.  It is aisle after aisle of all things writhing and aquatic and edible.  It is massive with a business that is blinding; Japanese men zipping around on forklifts and 3-wheelers full of every kind of fish one can imagine.  It is marketplace, slaughterhouse, and auction block all under one tin roof.  It also hosts the freshest and best sushi to be found anywhere in the world.  You think you’ve eaten tuna until you’ve eaten it here.  We sat  at a 10-seat counter at 5:30 in the morning and ate the most buttery tuna I’ve ever eaten and then walked across the perilously slick and massive warehouse to the tuna auction and watched the Japanese version of laissez-faire capitalism at work.  Chefs and seafood buyers are given an hour or so to inspect the tuna for purchase and promptly at 5:30 a.m. the auctioneers start furiously ringing handbells and taking bids.  When a lot is sold, a man with a bucket of red dye goes around to each massive frozen bluefin tuna and designates an owner and a price.  The price of tuna is variable, like any other commodity, depending on that day’s catch.

It smells remarkably like the sea and not rank at all, but briny, in a way.  There are huge scallops, wolf-fish, monk-fish, buckets of live eels, cartoon-like, big-eyed redfish and octopus, all manner of oysters, clams, and mussels and seafood butchering going on all around you .  This is a real Tokyo experience.  Almost everyone I know who has been in this city has told me to come to the fish market.

What is striking to me is not how different Japanese and American culture are, but how alike.  The Fish Market, for me, is not different than watching traders on Wall Street yelling and screaming and trying to get theirs while the sun is out.  Our cultures do not differ at all when it comes to profit-motive initiatives.  Like America, Japan has an arduos  work-ethic  in that it is thought that work dignifies one’s life and provides one with identity.

I will say that the fish market seems infinitely more civilized than the trading pit.  As we walked around this morning smiling at the melange of activity and colors and scents, people smiled back at us.  They were well-aware that we’d never seen anything like this before and were as polite as their schedule would allow.  It is a remarkable place and has been part of Japan for centuries.  When we think of the South Street Seaport and the Fulton Markets back home, they probably have their genesis in this place of brine and grime and work.

Published in: on September 2, 2009 at 10:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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