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March 22, 2012

A Few Words about Journals





As announced a few posts ago, I’ve embarked on the writing of a new memoir on that time-honored subject, Japanese chicks. More or less a sequel to How To Pick Up Japanese Chicks and Doom Your Immortal Soul, the book delves into my odd relationships with college girls here in Yokohama, picking up where HTPUJCADYIS left off, just after the turn of the millennium. The first step in what passes around here for research, then, was to dig out and re-read my journals from those years.

The journal is something that I’ve kept and preserved since I was sixteen years old. I started out writing by hand on foolscap, then cycled through a typewriting phase and a printing-from-a-word-processor phase before finally going paperless in 1994.

It hasn’t been an unbroken string. I laid off it through the latter half of the Eighties after my then-fiancée stumbled upon some purple passages detailing my hopes and dreams for a female coworker. More recently, I discovered that I have mislaid all of 2007.

The question that pops into any journal-keeper’s head from time to time, I suppose, is “Why am I doing this?” Even as one types or scrawls highly personal musings onto a screen or into a heart-sticker-bedecked notebook, the compulsion to do so often outraces any sense of purpose. The case against keeping a journal is self-evident: When accused of a crime, you can’t be… Well, consider the case of Alyssa Bustamente, who entered the following remarks in October 2009 when she was a fifteen-year-old high school sophomore:

"I just fucking killed someone. I strangled them and slit their throat and stabbed them now they're dead. I don't know how to feel atm. It was ahmazing. As soon as you get over the "ohmygawd I can't do this" feeling, it's pretty enjoyable. I'm kinda nervous and shaky though right now. Kay, I gotta go to church now...lol."

Appalling, right? I mean, here I’ve journalized well over a million words, and now this punk comes along at fifteen and casually dashes off an entry far more concise and compelling than anything I’ve managed in four decades. And, to be sure, there’s the whole randomly-killing-another-kid angle as well.

But back to the question of why so many of us keep journals. I think there is a fairly limited range of motivations, each of which is tied to the critical question of audience, as the following chart illustrates.

Motivation Audience Exemplars
A. To process unpleasant realities Your present-day self Alyssa Bustamente; me.

I’d like to think that I delve a little deeper into conscience (“Colleague M clearly wants me dead. But why? Is it what I said in that meeting two years ago? Should I grovel?”), but again, gotta give it up for Bustamente, who makes for by far the more gripping read.
B. To store names, dates, etc., for future reference Your future self Me, Andy Warhol.

I used to try to convince myself that this was my prime motivation, since the “processing unpleasant realities” dynamic is not something a teenager can readily cop to. And indeed, the journal has proven more useful in the writing of memoirs and prep for reunion parties than I could have imagined. In Warhol’s case, the fact that he couldn’t be bothered to actually write the thing (He dictated it.) sort of tips one off to a lack of serious soul-searching. The only unpleasant issues he works through are dental ones. (I’ve only read the juicier excerpts myself but word on the street is this: If you go through the whole diary, you’ll very much feel that you’ve undergone a particularly drawn-out root canal along with a difficult, possibly autistic artist.) In between drillings and fillings, you do get some delightful dollops of bitchiness: “I mean, Richard Dreyfuss? I mean, if he's a sex symbol, I don't know what the world is coming to.”
C. To influence posterity Posterity (duh) Ronald Reagan; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

The Reagan who emerges from The Reagan Diaries is every bit the insuperable optimist you would expect. Some will cynically say it’s just another case of the old actor playing to the crowd. My suspicion is that Reagan wrote exactly what he would have written were he keeping a personal journal instead of one for the historical record. (Well, in a private journal, he may have cut loose and written out naughty words like “hell” instead of writing “h--l.”) That’s just the kind of guy he was. I’ve still gotten no further than the first White House year, but the most discouraging word I’ve run across so far not aimed at Nicaraguans or Cubans is a denunciation of Tip O’Neill’s “bluster.” After visiting his recently–shot-through-the-head press secretary Jim Brady, Reagan writes, “He looks well.” Now that, my friends, is optimism.

Speaking of being shot in the head: The Columbine killers were every bit as intent as Ronald Reagan on speaking to and influencing subsequent generations, if a tad less sunny in outlook.
D. To hone writing chops Yourself; writing workshop instructors Me again, Jim Carroll

Being on the whole somewhat less optimistic than Reagan, I always write in my journal on the assumption that I’ll be assassinated in the midst of an entry and excerpts from the thing will be typed into a crawl on Fox News. So, though I seldom go back and edit, I do make an effort to produce clear and error-free prose.

Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries famously grew out of his journals. With the making of the DiCaprio-starring film version, he may have inadvertently influenced Harris and Klebold, who in turn may have semi-vertently influenced Bustamente, thus bringing us full circle.


Motivations aside, what’s really in it for the journal-keeper in the long run? The ultimate good, I think, is a good that perhaps none of us were anticipating when we started. Flipping through entries written ten, twenty-five, forty years ago allows one to see one’s journey in perspective—sort of like the Facebook Timeline, only effective. It’s a perspective that non-journal keepers will always lack: they are those folks you always hear about who are doomed to repeat the failures of history by failing to learn from them.

With a journal, you can recognize through retrospection which eras of your life were truly happy, and why; which ones miserable, and why. This knowledge can help you cope with new bad times by giving you a frame of reference; it can also make you more adept at recognizing good times as they are happening, and not just through retrospection. However, there’s no guarantee.

Here’s a case in point of even a veteran journal-keeper failing to grasp the Good Old Days while they’re transpiring in real time: In my budding “research,” I came across the following cluster of entries written in the few weeks spanning late January and early February 2001. All names—save “Prof. K”—belong to students just finishing their freshman year, throughout which I had spent six hours per week with them; of course, said names were altered. Some annotations follow.

The “A group” freshmen had a drinking party on Tuesday, which featured the usual shenanigans: I kissed one boy (Naoki) and one girl (Fumiko), told Yuka that she couldn’t begin to grasp how great she is,1 and flirted shamelessly with the recently deflowered Chizuru. Then I came home and read another 20 pages of Miho’s thesis...

Ruriko went back into the hospital with her throat problems. She managed to crawl out to attend the last class on Friday morning, and indulged me by molesting Shoko once again while I took pictures.2 There was the usual giving of useless gifts, non-alcohol-fueled merriment, and arm wrestling. (My only defeat was when I lay down for Shoko, who was desperate for points.) All my troubled relations with that group were smoothed over...3

Still a lot going on at school, such as the chance to supervise a Bible-study final exam with that squirrely old coot Prof. K., with Ruriko among other freshman luminaries in attendance. Being at school and seeing everyone keeps my mind off things...4

There was a party a week ago for Ruriko’s class. We had okonomi-yaki near Yokohama Station. I drank too much and paid too much, but I had a great time fooling around with the boys. Kenta told me he yearned to take the insanely monogamous Akane to Hawaii. I launched a paper airplane at the girls’ table with a note offering to take whoever caught it to Hawaii. Unfortunately, it was caught by the singularly uninteresting (and unaccountably boyfriended) Kaori W. I made Ken give me a massage in order to cement his [undeserved] C grade, moaning in orgasmic pleasure all along. Akane translated part of the conversation at the next table in which Shoko griped that her ex-boyfriend liked to bite her on the ass. Ruriko herself got two phone calls from [alleged boyfriend] Koji at the party. I grabbed the phone and told him I’d castrate him with scissors if I had the chance. Ruriko told me that Natsumi is still a virgin. I invited Natsumi to Hawaii.5


1 Apart from being almost unfairly gorgeous (At one point, I carried a copy of her student ID mugshot in my breast-pocket for two weeks just so I could tauntingly show it to sophomore boys), Yuka’s greatness lay in the fact that her parents had been killed in an accident little over a year prior to her admission to college. At the same time I was breaking down over trivial relationship problems, she was coping with and overcoming that.


2 Ruriko was a grabber and Shoko her favorite grabbee. There had been numerous moments during parties and ordinary English classes when Ruriko would impulsively lunge and claw at Shoko’s enormous bazooms, or sometimes at her nether regions for variety. I had taken to carrying an instamatic with me for just such occasions but had always been too late on the draw—until now.


3 In NU English classes, the final class of the year traditionally devolved into an impromptu party in the classroom, with desks pushed together and a spread of snacks and soft drinks laid out. Traditions in my classes included games and the presentation of some gifts purchased through a collection taken up by the students. (Head-warming gag gifts were a staple, with each year’s students thinking they were the first to buy me a cheesy wig or stocking cap.)

I had almost forgotten the arm-wrestling challenge (for girls only) on the last day. Hard to say which is the most amazing aspect of this: that they readily came forward one after another to take me on; that, with rare exceptions (like Shoko) I made every effort to crush them; that I maintained a fairly good win-loss record; or that beating me actually counted toward their final grade. Maybe it’s just the fact that I was forty-six at the time.


4 I feel bad about the “squirrely coot” crack, as Prof. K, a fellow gaijin who came from Iran, was one of my few cheerleaders on the tenured faculty. Only NU would think to pair up a Shiite Muslim and the faculty’s leading Commandment-breaker to proctor a final exam in a Christianity class.


5 Did I mention that I was forty-six years old at this time? Oh, and married, too.


General Comment
These few weeks fell well within a period of mental unwellness so severe that I had vowed to revisit it in my journal as little as practicable lest the re-reading pull me back into depression. (This earlier post, later republished in the free collection Talent is Optional, explores the same time frame.) And, to be sure, there was a good deal of whining mixed into the journal entries, too, but my God: Two wild drinking parties and an in-class live sex show of sorts, all of which thrust me into the midst of groups of adoring nineteen-year-old Japanese chicks (with a few kissing and massage-giving dudes thrown in for comic relief)! And when I wasn’t out flirting shamelessly with said chicks, I was using my free time (including the hours after a long bout of drinking with them) to check their theses and otherwise leading a productive, contributive life.

My reaction, in a nutshell: Oh God, please, please, please, please pull me back into that “depression”! Let me be depressed like that for the rest of my natural days!




March 24 addendum: In a post earlier this month, I wondered aloud when the last occasion of my calling someone a "slut" may have been and claimed I couldn't remember. Turns out that it was just a few months ago--last October, to be exact--in this very blog and my slut shame-ee was none other than Gary, who agreed to take part in a live chat with me. So I wanted to issue this public apology.

Gary, I'm sorry for calling you an ignorant slut. At least for the "ignorant" part.