Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Julia Childs and the Curvature of the Earth

'How are you doing?' was the first thing my mom said last week as I emerged from the Immigration & Customs Chamber of Secrets at Newark International Airport.
My first thought: Is my shirt still on inside out?
The trip from home in Fukushima to home in New Jersey takes 20 hours give or take, barring any minor setbacks - like missing my plane. This almost happened in 2003 when I decided to save 20 bucks and take the local lines from Shinjuku to Narita-in-the-Sticks instead of jumping the airport express in Ueno. An hour later I was squeezing the blood out of my fingers gripping the door handle as my unusually aggressive taxi driver hit the hyperspace button and somehow got me from the train I abandoned in a panic to Narita's Terminal One a full 20 minutes before departure time. Well worth the $120 cab fare. The good people with the plastic silver wings pinned to their crisp blue uniforms then whisked me through to my gate, virtually bypassing any sort of security screening procedure. If I ever turn terrorist, I thought, just get to the airport late.
This week was the first time I wasn't flying direct from Tokyo to Newark. Our two-hour layover in DC would, thanks to air traffic, become four and a half. After twenty-five hours on the move I bet even Superman might not have his cape on straight.
But I like flying. Even long flights. Especially long flights as it means I am spanning oceans and continents. And getting two full meals plus a mid-flight snack, most likely consisting of a mix of pulverized food and chemical glues and lacquers I wouldn't eat on the ground if I had a gun against my temple but I readily devour at 550mph and 30,000 feet. Plus flying, for me, constitutes a sort of mental rejuvenation process; a shift in environment that tosses my awareness into a sort of parallel bars routine where half my thoughts spin and twirl along the esoteric while the other half of me grips desperately to hard, uncolored reality - like how amazing is it that a plane this big and heavy can soar so high...and how equally amazing that if we were to suddenly find ourselves doing a screaming nosedive we are supposed to think that tucking our heads between our knees might help.
High above clouds, land and sea I find myself doing things I never do when my feet are on the ground (where human feet really belong if you think about it): I watch sit-coms, at least for as long as I can stomach the stupidity; I look for video games to play; I order ginger ale. These things, though, take a back seat to the magazine in the seat pocket in front of me.
Airline magazines are a breed apart - an ambitious mix of travel and artistic creativity, the two things I am constantly trying not only to incorporate into my life but assimilate into my very being. Like religion, for some people. Or facebook. The articles themselves run the gamut in both subject matter and delivery, and in the course of reading one of these magazines my belief in my own creative capacity is confirmed then destroyed then resurrected again, on occasion more often than the person in front of me with the eye shade thing and the self-serving inability to speak English will ease his seat back forward then slam it back into my knees.
Literary picking on this most recent flight included an overtly self-deprecating, subtly haughty bit from a guy who claimed to have flown over 100,000 miles by age two and thirty years later wasn't showing signs of slowing, as well as a fascinating article (fascinating in that the writer seemed to take both himself and his subject seriously) about an artist whose most recent accomplishment (according to members of certain twisted circles) consisted of an empty room with a clear plastic yogurt cap affixed to each of the room's four walls. Immediately upon finishing this second article I asked the flight attendant for four packs of peanuts.
Mind awash in conflicting visions of my own future, I ripped open the hermetically sealed plastic bag next to my thigh and plugged in my headphones. On every other flight between the US and Japan the plane had been equipped with personal TV screens for every passenger; today the whole lot of us would be subjected to the whims of the troll working the VCR down in the plane's bowels. I was neither overjoyed nor particularly despon to find the upcoming movie would be a more or less true story about a directionless young woman who, in a rash moment of direction-seeking, started a blog about her quest to cook up 547 new recipes in 365 days a la Julia Childs. In the course of her culinary pursuits she developed a following, wrote a book and, obviously, ended up with a movie.
Staring out at the crescent moon hanging in the deep blue of space, the fuzzy orange glow of the sun still hiding behind the gently curving line of the Earth, I thought about foreign lands and finished books. I pondered brilliance and banality. I connected imaginary dots between life in the present and life's incredible potential.
And I wondered what really, truly mattered to people.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

There's only one thing worse than being talked about...

And that is not being talked about.
I might never know whether being a psychology major was the beginning of my search for meaning in everything around me or if it simply exacerbated my condition. Either way, I think the ill effects are in remission.
Some things came easy to me when I was growing up: spelling and running 10K races and biting my fingernails until they turned red and stingy underneath. Other things didn't come too readily - like knowing how to tell people to piss off. I hated disagreement; I feared confrontation. At school and on the playground and in my own backyard I began to keep to myself the words and ideas and thoughts and feelings that could possibly turn someone against me.
By the age of ten I had learned to survive by hiding myself away.
Only in moments of complete self-assurance could I open up. Then I would spill all over and give people real reason to tell me to stick it.
At age forty I think I am finally excising the last remnants of these devils from my soul. Easy to say, perhaps, when 90 percent of my social life is played out on a computer. (Such is the existence of an expat in a small town of socially-inhibited people but that's a story for another day.)
Twenty-six years ago I was working at the George Washington University Hospital as a doorman. The job was part of a sort of experiment they were running - an attempt I suppose at making an inherently unnerving place a little more comforting and user-friendly. To me it was a corridor to a free grad school degree. One sweaty summer day there on 23rd Street between Washington Circle and I Street this guy struck up a conversation with me, overtly enchanted by my role there at the hospital. 'You should write a book about your work here,' he said with a big white toothy smile. 'Call it The Entrance.' Six years later I started writing that book.
For hours at home, or on my computer at work at the Boulder Municipal Courthouse before I finally bought my first PC, I typed and thought and typed and thought and deleted and typed some more. I started staying home on Friday nights because I wanted to write this book - which became for me a sort of cathartic autobiography. I spent two years I think, slowly cranking out this introverted Jerry Maguire manifesto. And the week before I moved to Japan I took my pile of paper to Kinko's to have it bound so I could send it to my mother - which I might never had done if I hadn't blurted out to her during a rare phone conversation many months prior that I had actually decided to try to write a book.
Though at times I entertained the possibility of turning this into something, I didn't write this convoluted explanation of my psyche in an attempt to have it published. The idea of being a writer per se hadn't ever even entered my head. I wrote for myself, to clear my head and clarify my ideas and maybe see what kind of person I was able to admit to myself I really was. I wasn't even sure I wanted anyone else to see it. But in that impetuous, unthinking moment I told my mom I was trying to accomplish something - and from that moment on I felt I had something to live up to. And though I didn't realize it at the time, this would prove a driving force behind my dreams.
Since slogging out that long-winded piece that I did in fact title The Entrance, I found that I love to write as much as anything I've ever done. Writing is creating; writing is exercise for both the head and the soul; writing, for me, is a source and a product of self-expression. It is enjoyment on a different plane than riding my bike or traveling overseas or swilling beers and tripping over my Japanese, but it is fulfilling nonetheless.
Now to make it my livelihood.
I was hesitant at the outset to tell people I was trying to write a novel. Then I tossed around the disclaimer that I was not trying to get published, I just wanted to see if I could write a book - though I more or less already had. The real question was: Can I write a good book? If I couldn't I felt better having the I-wasn't-really-trying bit in my back pocket. And failure would become a much less harrowing proposition.
Today I tossed out on facebook for all to see that I am starting my own publishing company. Reactions, I expect, whether I hear them or not, will run the gamut. And now, I know, that is good. Now my family and friends and six potential degrees of separation all know I am striving for something. Something called a dream.
Still, just like that first book, I'm not doing it for anyone but me.
But everyone will know it if I give up.
Somehow, that drives me.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Getting a Life in Japan

It is commonly known that the Japanese concept of harmony, often depicted by the character ‘Wa’, is a prevalent aspect of society and culture here. The idea appears in the uniforms worn not only by junior high and high school students but by the women working in banks and on tour buses. The businessmen all wear the same color suit – a blue so dark it’s black – with a necktie to match. Some of them get a little crazy and wear dress shirts with pinstripes but this is not a practice for the meek. Punctuality is a kind of religion here; it is not uncommon to hear a very polite and formal announcement at the station that a train is running two minutes late. I don’t know how many times I’ve been on my way to meet a friend somewhere and gotten an email on my cell phone at the very stroke of our agreed meeting time: ‘Where are you?’ Back in my early days here I made the mistake of strolling into a lunch party fifteen minutes late. Everyone was seated quietly around the table, hands in their laps, staring at their food.

Japanese people are perhaps even better known for being interminably polite. No matter how fervently I try to explain to them how stupid their rules are, they will just keep smiling and bowing and telling me nicely that since the letter I am mailing is smaller than the standard size envelope I have to pay double postage. True story, and fully representative of the ‘rules, not reality’ approach to life here.

After eight years you’d think I should have seen it all, at least the broad strokes if not the infinite number of ways this Japanese manner of thinking can apply. Last night reminded me how much I still have to learn.

The topic for our English class was ‘Drinking with your co-workers.’ Yes, there are some common faces of life in Japan I can live very well with. For an hour my students fought and struggled to explain their opinions about whether Mark, a Canadian software engineer working in Tokyo, should make it a point to go out and socialize with the other people in his office after hours. (Personally I couldn’t comprehend Mark’s dilemma.) The idea behind this practice is that it facilitates understanding among co-workers which translates into a more productive and - why not use the word here? – harmonious work environment. (Mark, apparently, would rather go off and curl up with a pile of manga in a private booth in an Internet and comics cafĂ© somewhere.)

As the class wound down, we came to the general concensus (of course) that Mark should at least go out with his colleagues once or twice a month. Okay, fair enough.

The revealing moment, however, came in the last few minutes of class as one of the students got on the subject of how Japanese people love to work, which in and of itself is not a bad thing but often results in Japanese people having scant free time to go out and – to use the expression they’d just learned – get a life. A life apart from not only work but co-workers as well. (Ah, so maybe Mark had a point after all...) He went on to say that he believed a lot of Japanese people felt this way, but no one has the mental fortitude (not the term he used) to rock the boat (not this one either) and put himself before his work on occasion. ‘Well, Hiroyuki,’ I said, looking into his eyes. ‘What’s the solution?’ He looked around the room. Everyone was watching, waiting for him to say what they were probably all thinking themselves. He looked back at me and opened his mouth. ‘There should be a law...’ He went on to explain that it just wouldn’t work if some people went out and got a life while others were still working – or drinking with their co-workers. He suggested the government should put a limit on time one needs to devote to his working life. That way everyone will have an equal amount of free time to enjoy as they pleased.

The Japanese Wa strikes again.

We ended class by deciding on the date for our ‘Bo-nen-kai’, the traditional year-end party all Japanese partake in - with their co-workers. We worked backwards from December, to find a Friday that everyone had free.

Our Bonenkai is next Friday, barely past the midpoint of November.

But that’s okay. Because then everyone will be able to make it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Running Naked Once More in Motomiya

First off, let me say that the Motomiya Naked Festival has little to do with anyone being totally naked. It does, however, have a lot to do with everyone being a little naked. Confused? Well so was I the first time, seven years ago, standing there in a strange woman’s house, stripped to my boxers, hands raised high above my head as she proceeded to wrap ten meters of white cloth around my mid-section. This is what an adventurous spirit in a foreign land will get you.
‘Ugokanaide ne, shibaraku.’
How could I say no?

A couple weeks before I’d found myself an active participant in a Japanese festival for the first time. The Fukushima Inari Jinja Matsuri too involved the carrying of a mikoshi, a miniature replica of a Shinto shrine that somehow weighs as much as the real thing. A hundred or so intrepid Japanese had gathered on a Monday morning, towels tucked under their festival jackets to pad their shoulders against the weight of God, to carry out the raucous yet subtly spiritual act of hauling around town this lead-heavy lego set with the trembling gold-plated rooster on top.
As my spine contracted under the sheer weight of the thing, the washcloth I’d brought doing nothing to keep my collarbone from being crushed, I thought this must be what it feels like to pledge a fraternity.
Little did I know Animal House was waiting further south.

To be honest, I can’t recall much of that first experience in Motomiya with any particular clarity – and not just because of all the sake. Japan was still a novelty for me, every day a potential typhoon of sensory input. A trip to the supermarket could still make me feel like I’d eaten some bad mushrooms. Letting myself be thrown into the fray of this small town’s annual plunge into cultural insanity would be like any given rugby match in college, though with the excessive drinking done before the game, not after.
So rather than try to piece together my fragmented memories of that fateful day in the Fall of 2002, allow me to relive, in much greater detail, the events of this past weekend.

I was still in the car when the vague feelings of dread began. This would be my seventh time joining the circus, and every time I’d felt the same (except for that first time when I had no idea what was coming and thus the dread was not at all vague). Today, though, I also had a sore ankle to ponder. Would it turn the coming melee into a pure nightmare? What if I turned it or got stepped on? Why the heck had it been bothering me for the past week anyway? As we pulled off Route 4 and dipped down into town I decided to stop thinking about it.
Every other year I’d gone to Numa-san’s home for the unceremonious ceremony of getting dressed for the party. Numa-san, however, had been promoted to Deputy Grand Poobah for the day and would be prancing around in a suit and tie, carrying only a small paper lantern, a bottomless cup of sake and envelopes of money the townsfolk would be tossing him for good luck. I felt a dull ache in my ankle as I walked toward Takeda-san’s home. I wanted to be a Deputy Grand Poobah too.
I pointed out the wooden name plate on the porch wall next to the door. ‘Is this it?’ No, wrong first name my wife said, continuing down the short, narrow, cement-lined street, our two-year-old son in tow. I shrugged and kept walking. The sound of a metal storm door opening spun us both around.
A slender woman in a white sweater and long brown hair stepped out and waved to us. ‘Konnichi-wa! Takeda desu! Do-o-mo! Haitte kudasai!’ How did she know it was us?

Takeda-san is a fireman for the Motomiya FD and hadn’t been able to participate in recent years due to his work schedule. (Somehow I got the feeling he was still way ahead of me in line for Deputy Grand Poobah.) This year, in Numa-san’s absence, he’d be leading the Date-machi neighborhood group. He’d asked me to be at his house at 3pm to get ready. It was now 3:05. Punctuality rates high on the Japanese scale of priorities.
Takeda-san was sitting in his kitchen wearing white boxer shorts and a white t-shirt.
On any other day this would have been weird.
An old man was sitting on the raised tatami floor of the living room, glancing back and forth between the TV and me. A woman who looked too young to be his wife but too old to be Takeda-san’s entered the room with big smiles and hands eager to do something. The woman in the white sweater was padding around in circles between the kitchen and the living room, straightening up the clutter that is so common in Japanese homes I’ve come to believe there’s a law of some sort. So the name on the plate next to the front door must be the father’s, I reasoned, with the four of them living together. Not at all unusual in Japan. And there were four chairs around the kitchen table. How quaint.
Then suddenly another old man appeared through the sliding glass doors leading in from the tiny backyard. I looked at the framed pictures of Takeda-san’s four children and got back to thinking about my ankle.
‘Please, change your clothes here,’ Mrs.Takeda said, motioning to the living room and reaching for the sliding partition doors. Then she paused. ‘No, please, this way.’ And she stepped toward a door leading, I think, to a hallway. ‘Or no...’
Mr.Takeda sat at the table bent over, clipping his fingernails. The old man kept looking at me. Mao Asada, Japan’s figure skating darling, was doing a short program on TV.
The old guy in the sliding glass doors had disappeared. The older woman was still smiling, ready to help – with what I had no idea.
I looked at Mr.Takeda. I thought about what we were going to be wearing while parading ourselves through the streets for the next six hours. And I proceeded to strip down to my boxers, right there in front of Mao.

So I’m standing in my underwear in the Takedas’ living room. Mr.Takeda stands up and walks over. ‘Get down on your hands and knees.’
You don’t say no to a Japanese fireman. Especially one who may be your Grand Poobah someday.
The doorbell rings and two more guys about my age show up. They walk into the living room to see Mr.Takeda standing over me, my hips pinned between his thick calves as he grunts and yanks on the ten-meter swath of white cloth he’s wrapping around my body. They say their konnichi-was and proceed to strip down to their boxers.
The old man is torn between us and Mao.
It’s getting a little chilly standing in the kitchen watching Takeda-san wrestle with the other two guys. I can’t really help my wife dress our son up in the festival outfit she brought for him. I can’t really move, actually. Takeda-san wraps a tight cloth. The cold is making me have to pee.
I duck into the dark hallway. I feel like Indiana Jones, staring at a bunch of closed doors, having to choose the correct one. I go for the one tucked in under the staircase.
I crack the door open. There’s a toilet inside – and nobody on it, thank God. I throw the door open to duck in – and a whirring sound comes at me as the lid to the toilet seat rises like the door to a haunted tomb opening up. Then a green light appears, reflecting off the water. Straight out of a bad horror movie. Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Emerald Crapper.

Back out in the living room the older woman was preparing four cups of hot tea. The mysterious old man from the backyard was now in the kitchen. ‘Forget tea, here you go.’ And he cracked open a huge paper carton of sake. Four guys in boxers and white cloth squeezing our internal organs into a fine pate gathered in a circle, glasses out, ready to warm ourselves against the impending idiocy with an introductory layer of insobriety.
We tossed back two full glasses each and stepped out into the street.
My wife took a couple pictures of me and Yamato, also decked out in white boxers and white cloth around his protruding belly. Mayumi had been up until 2am the night before making the tiny shorts just for this occasion; to see him standing there was worth every ounce of effort.
The other guys chuckled and pointed and cheered in between long sucking drags on their cigarettes. From the end of the street Ishikawa-san came hobbling along, pack of smokes tucked into the cloth across his chest, ready, more or less, for the evening.

A group picture and we were off.

Around the corner was the neighborhood shrine, a temporary set-up just for the festival, with a plethora of bottles the neighbors had placed in front as a sort of offering – to God or each other or themselves I’m not sure. The elders had begun gathering, eager to give us a warm, sake-soaked send-off. How many years of festivals had they survived, I wondered as I accepted their gifts of rice wine and beer.
More rock heads in underwear appeared, shaking out their shoulders and rubbing their hands and commenting on the chill. Yamato was jumping around, half naked and oblivious. Talking and laughter. The glug-glug of alcohol.
Slowly the sound of drums floated up through the air.
Down the street the white pickup truck appeared, grumbling under the weight of a half dozen shrine priests and their collection of festival worship accoutrements: tree branches, wood carvings and a big huge drum. The truck stopped in front of Date-machi’s humble sake-laden shrine. One robed man stood facing the altar and waved a stick with white paper tied to it back and forth in deliberate rhythm. Other old men in different colored robes played an assortment of flutes, obscenely high-pitched and quite out of tune. One guy stayed on the truck to pound on the drum.
Then a quick word of encouragement from the guy with the stick and they were on their way to the next neighborhood.
We gathered in front of the shrine for our own quick prayer. The time was upon us, I knew. We bowed and clapped and bowed again, a guy with a suit and a ribbon pinned to his lapel that obviously signified his importance offered a short speech – something about gratitude and the weather and not dying today – and the elders and the women began clapping and shouting as we jogged off down the road, chanting the traditional words: ‘Washoi! Washoi! Washoi!’

Then Ishikawa-san’s lighter fell out and everyone stopped to make sure someone picked it up.

Today, in Motomiya, Japan, the sight of ten men dressed as we were jogging up the street yelling washoi washoi would not turn any surprised heads. People notice and watch, for sure, but the sight is not an odd one. For this is the order of the day. Seeing the same group of men walking quietly along the sidewalk, though, is cause for concern.
That was how it felt to this gaijin anyway.
It was only a few hundred meters up the road and around the corner to the next meeting point. And everyone was already walking. Where had the spirit of things gone?
Before turning the corner and coming into view of the folks waiting for us we resumed the jogging and chanting. They received us with cheers and clapping and more food and drink. What a crock, I thought to myself as I reached for a cup of sake and threw a handful of dried, salted fish – heads included – into my mouth.
Another couple of neighborhood groups came tumbling around the corner, and suddenly we were fifty or sixty strong. The collective energy was building. The air was cool but stable. Closer to the center of town, the milling crowds of onlookers had increased. We had a bit more sake in our blood. Voices and laughter rose up, ever louder. Perhaps the spirit was just taking its time getting started today.
Then on some unintelligible signal the guys carrying the lanterns on long bamboo poles lined up in front of the crowd and headed off up the street. ‘Washoi!” Washoi!’ I jumped in with the few following close behind. ‘Washoi! Washoi!’ The drone of voices dissipated behind me. I looked back. Forty guys were still back there, standing around and talking and finishing their sake and cigarettes. A few had begun walking.
What the evening would eventually bring I couldn’t even guess.

As the gray afternoon gave way to the dark of the early October night I did feel the soul of previous festivals return. The group got into a rhythm, working our way through the streets and the crowds. Every time we started throwing the mikoshi up and down, a spirited display if not completely rock-headed, I felt the adrenalin that can come only from extreme experience. At each successive resting point, once we got the mikoshi settled back down on those life-saving wooden horses, kind Japanese would approach me in the crowd and offer me more sake and rice cakes and beer. My ankle was all right. My shoulders were killing me. Nothing in the world, I believed in that moment, could ever compare to this.
A few less palatable aspects of previous festivals were similarly prevalent. The same guys who were overly drunk and stupid two and three years ago were drunk and stupid again tonight. The same scrawny guy whose job was to act like he had any control over a hundred guys shouting and stumbling around with a Volkswagen on their backs was at it once again, all five-foot-nothing of him scampering around like a monkey with a lantern and a Napoleonic attitude. No one can help being short, but the guys who were in there with nothing but a relaxed hand dangling from the wood high above their shoulders were making it tough for those of us actually supporting the thing to walk without tripping over their useless little feet.
But these things are part of the deal. And the wonder and magic of being a part of such tremendous pleasure and pain will always outweigh the niggling annoyances.

Yet this year something was indeed different. The faces I remembered from past years looked older. The newer faces bore the odd excitement of inexperience. The final push to carry the mikoshi through the gate at the base of the stone steps leading up to the Adatara Shrine was a struggle as dire as any I remember, thanks to the guys pushing us backward, back out into the street and into the crowds of onlookers, time and time again. They could have kept us out there all night if they wanted to. Or until we all collapsed in an exhausted heap, crushed to death at last under two thousand pounds of Shinto deity.
But they gave in finally, and with twenty-five meters of rope added to help pull the mikoshi up the long crooked staircase we hauled ourselves up to the shrine. And there, with more prayers and shouting and a few spirited ‘Banzai!’ the evening ended.

Our Date-machi gang regrouped for the run home. Or it used to be a run anyway. This time, after making our gingerly way back down the stone steps to the street, everyone began simply walking. No final bursts of energy. No more ‘Washoi! Washoi!’ Until right before turning the final corner back up our street where all the old folk were waiting to congratulate us on a job well done. At least the guys had it in them to put on one last show for them.

And as they did I met up with Mayumi and Yamato, warm-up jacket over his skimpy festival garb. I peeled it off him and held him in my arms as we bounced up the road toward the Date-machi shrine, chanting ‘Washoi! Washoi!’ far behind the other guys running the last few meters.

This, I would soon come to realize, would be the most memorable moment in a hectic evening of memories.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

I skidded to an awkward halt

near the lift and began cleaning the excess snow off my jeans. An intermediate skier (at best) taking on the expert slopes of Copper Mountain, Colorado, I’d been coloring my day with a series of spectacular falls. Only way to get better I kept telling myself, refusing to dwell on the possibility that I had no health insurance whatsoever.

I’d driven up from Boulder alone, hoping I’d somehow run into a couple of the people I knew would also be up there that day. When I spotted Beth gliding along, heading for the space between me and the end of the lift line, I took off – and immediately crossed the tips of my skis and dropped like a rock.

I didn’t know if I wanted her to see me or not.

‘Hey, what’s up?’ I said as I caught up to her, nobody having gotten on line behind her. She turned her head, her stocking cap whacking me in the nose.

'Oh, hi...'

Silent pauses sometimes speak louder than words. In this case, it was pretty clear she’d forgotten my name.

Things like this stopped bothering me years ago.

I was single at the time, which made Beth look a bit more attractive than she might have otherwise. Plus I have this thing for healthy women in jeans, sweaters and knit stocking caps. But her allure lay more in the fact that she’d done a bit of traveling. ‘Thailand and New Zealand,’ she’d said with palatable satisfaction the first time we met. I’d tooled around Europe with a couple friends after college, and then after grad school went on a cross-country odyssey with a good friend and fellow adventure addict, but these had only served to whet my appetite. There was a whole wide world out there to see. And this girl had gone off to see part of it – on her own no less.

She was more than happy to talk about it all the way up the mountain.

At the top I looked out over the surrounding peaks and hills, down the slopes and at the little toy ski resort far below. As Beth picked out her line I envisioned two possible futures. Both of them scared the hell out of me.

‘That is so cool Beth, what you’ve done.’ I chewed the chunks of snow off my gloves and waited for her to look at me. ‘But I’m thirty.’

She raised her eyebrows. ‘So?’

Thirty and three months, actually, with a Master’s degree, a string of half-ass jobs behind me and not a glint of a career in sight. And I didn’t want to be asking myself at forty what the hell I’ve been doing with my life.

‘Yeah, but you know what?’ She adjusted her cap and looked straight into my eyes. ‘When everyone else is forty they’re going to be sitting in an office wondering the same thing.’

A year and a half later, unsuccessful in my attempts to put my education to use in Florida, California and Oregon, I found a job teaching English and moved to Fukushima, Japan. If I couldn’t land a career, I reasoned, opting for this cushy working holiday seemed like a healthy alternative. Life in a world as foreign as this would be a daily adventure. Weekends and vacation time would be devoted to exploration – across fields and over mountains, from Hokkaido to Shikoku and a hundred places in between.

After eighteen months I managed to wriggle into an even better gig, taking on short-term teaching assignments in schools from Akita to Osaka. Always meeting new people; always seeing new places. And making more money than I was spending on plane tickets to places further overseas. At times I had two apartments at once. On occasion I had two girlfriends at once. Emailing accounts of my new life to my family and friends made my adventures seem even bigger than they were. I couldn’t imagine holding down a real job let alone throwing myself into the confines of a career.

Beth, it seemed, was right on the mark.

And here I am now, back in Fukushima, two days away from forty. I’m married with a little boy and a second child on the way. I’m freelancing as an English teacher, which in this economy in this small town doesn’t translate into mounds of income. Yet I’m traveling as much as ever.

Maybe too much?

Convention would have it that I’ll soon be mired in some kind of mid-life crisis. Fortunately I have a reactionary aversion to such ideas. Besides, the very term is dangerously misleading, as it is based on the assumption that we are going to live 82.4 years. Enjoy yourself, warns the Chinese proverb. It’s later than you think.

If I am faced with any sort of dilemma regarding the rest of my existence it is balancing my enjoyment of the present with my irrepressible desire to chase my dreams. It has nothing to do with job, since by the common definition I don’t want one. It has nothing to do with retirement, which is a spiritually illusory concept as far as I am concerned. It doesn’t even necessarily involve money – though I suppose I’d go ahead and accept the wealth if it was part of the package deal of realizing my dreams.

My dilemma – the perfect mid-life crisis, perhaps – has everything to do with love. Love of adventure, of traveling to faraway lands. Love of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with my family. Love of day-long bicycle rides. Love of late-night ten-mile runs and mornings with no alarm clock. Love of envisioning the future I want for me and my family, and then giving everything I have to the long, difficult, beautiful chase. Love in the knowledge that I can have all these things.

Yet I only have so much time.

So how much to devote to each? It was such a beautiful day today – so beautiful it hurt to have to choose between a bike ride along the Abukuma River and taking a few more steps toward the completion of my novel and giving birth to the dreams in my heart. Tomorrow I’ll have to decide whether to go to Japanese class, do more writing or go on a nursery school picnic with my wife and son. Of course I can not forget the necessary evil of making money, so in the coming weeks I’ll need to choose whether to commit to a year of teaching part-time at a nearby university – if I’m lucky enough to be given the option – or continue down this uncertain road of freelancing freedom. As my son approaches elementary school age my wife and I will have to decide together what kind of education we want for him.

The devil on my shoulder keeps whispering things like equity and security and 401(k). I keep telling him to go stick his fork in someone else.

This Saturday I’ll blow out a few candles and listen to my little boy sing and have ice-cream and cake with the family I love. Maybe I’ll open a small present or two. And at some point I’ll probably think of Beth.

She’s probably got the same problems as me.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Somewhere outside of Brisbane, Australia

lies the expansive Browns Plains Plaza mall. And somewhere inside this cavern of noise and heavy people getting heavier sits a self-important licorice shop. Or so said the leather-faced woman stacking shelves in the supermarket. Judging from the state of what teeth she had left, I figured she’d been there before.

I’d never even met the guy for whom I was buying this particular brand of licorice; Graham had let us crash in his suburban Tokyo apartment earlier this year on our way back from Europe, and had invited us back for another one-night stay. In return, all he wanted was licorice. ‘Darrel Lea or Kookaburra,’ he’d requested. I’d gotten a few strange looks when I asked for the latter. Perhaps Graham had a sick sense of humor. Regardless, two flavors of Darrel Lea it would be.

I plowed through the throngs, a bag of groceries in each hand, winding my way through the apses and corridors of this temple of consumerism. A hundred stores packed in among the two (!) full-size supermarkets, a Target AND a K-Mart, and no sign of Darrel anywhere.

I stuffed my manly pride deep in my gut and asked the information woman.

‘Right next to the K-Mart.’

Of course it is.

Plastic bags 700 grams of licorice heavier now, I shouldered through the mobs in the food court and headed out into the warm evening, my laser sights set on the bus stop. True to form, I had no idea when the last bus back to my friend’s house was.

The timetable showed 6:10; apparently no one living in Heritage Park stays out too late. I asked a guy with grimy clothes what time it was. ‘Ten past,’ he said, odd irritation bleeding from his lips. I hadn’t seen the 543 anywhere; it was either running late or had left early – assuming this guy’s watch wasn’t broken.

I waited.

Several buses came leaning around the bend. None of them was the 543.

‘Do you have the time?’ I asked a nervous-looking woman. Before she could respond the kid next to her dug his cell phone out of his pocket. ‘6:15,’ he said. Relief and embarrassment on the woman’s face.

Waiting for a bus that wasn’t coming, I weighed my options. Take a taxi? Nah, too easy. Plus I didn’t have much money on me anyway. And Australia is oddly expensive. Call my friends and ask them to come get me? I’d feel like a ten-year-old who missed the school bus. The walk home, as best I could figure, would take an hour and a bit.

There was only one real option.

I adjusted the bags in my fingers and started running.

Five kilometers and twenty-five minutes later I was standing in my friend’s kitchen, smiling through the sweat covering my face. Gloria took the bags from my hands.

‘Why didn’t you call?’

I wiped my forehead with my shirt. ‘I didn’t have your number on me.’ A more intelligent excuse than the truth.

‘We’re in the phone book.’

She had me. There wasn’t much else to say.

‘Well, Gloria,’ I conceded. ‘Guys have this thing…’

She let out a humph. ‘Yeah, I know.’

That was the end of the conversation.

Frankly, I don’t know what ‘this thing’ is, or whether all guys have it.

I, for one, am afflicted.

Years ago, living in Longmont, Colorado, I would ride my clunky orange mountain bike to work at the Boulder Police Department at 6am – every morning, right through the winter, instead of driving my clunky but warm 4Runner. A couple years and a couple of jobs later I carried a half-keg of beer on my shoulders for the quarter-mile between the liquor store and my apartment; driving such a short distance was silly, my logic told me.

I would run to the supermarket every Sunday – then fight gravity all the way home under the weight of a week’s worth of food. I carried dressers and sofas and a console TV up the stairs into my second-floor apartment by myself; I couldn’t ask my neighbors for help because I didn’t speak Spanish, I reasoned with myself.

Transplanted to Japan, bitten by the fangs of the travel bug, my condition progressed.

I knew the hilltop hostel in Passau, Germany was full, but I had to push our loaded tandem up the half-kilometer-long hill anyway, just to ask and make sure. My wife walked along behind me, on the surface supportive and patient.

I won’t hesitate to bike across Cambodia, but I can’t be bothered with the time-consuming effort of searching for a guidebook with a reliable map. So what if a 100-mile ride turns into 130? Disassembling my bike and taking a tour bus over the mountains in Laos would have bordered on lunacy after hearing what an amazing ride it was. I’d deal with the rifle-toting anti-government rebels when I got to them.

That was hands down the greatest single day of riding in my life. And I only encountered one armed insurgent the entire way.

Last year my wife and I could have figured out the bus schedule in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, but instead we walked to the youth hostel – in the next town – my wife pushing our 11-month-old son in his stroller, me with a rucksack and a suitcase with three wobbly wheels, like the kind that make your shopping cart go haywire. (The fourth wheel was cracked and worn and wouldn’t turn at all.) We could have gotten around Morocco in air-conditioned comfort but we opted for the slightly slower, slightly more odorous local buses. Why travel all that way only to keep everything at arm’s length? We would have done the same in Peru even if we had a choice – which we didn’t.

In 2007 we could have taken a taxi from the airport into downtown HaNoi for ten bucks, but we went for the dusty, creaky 30-cent bus trip. Forget that my wife was four months pregnant. Just last week our friend in Taipei called us ‘resourceful’ for catching a bus from the airport to the subway, then walking to his place instead of having a taxi whisk us from the terminal directly to his door, avoiding the hassle and the rain. Neither of us saw anything extraordinary in it. We rather like it that way.

Even with those moments of ‘No I don’t know how the god damn ticket machines work! I’ve never frickin been here before!’

Whatever this ‘thing’ is, my wife seems to have it too. If she didn’t, we’d have a tough time traveling together. Fortunately my son is still too young to know any different. Or should I say better. At two years and two months he is a fully-seasoned traveler, having crawled and walked upon five different continents. One day, as he strikes out on his own, I’ll watch him go, hoping he too has this ‘thing.’

The worst (depending on your perspective) typhoon in years is passing right through Fukushima today. They’re predicting a foot of rain by the time all is said and done. And I have to go teach this evening, at a printer/copier manufacturing company eight miles or so from my home. We’re resuming class tonight after a month hiatus, with three new students joining the group.

My wife has a car. I don’t. Because I don’t want one. I always ride my bike, to work and the supermarket and the barber shop and everywhere else I need to go, no matter what the weather. And today, like on so many other days, I’ll be wrapping my books and extra clothes in plastic before sticking them in my knapsack and throwing myself and my bicycle out at the world.

I don’t know why I do it. I just have this thing…

Our boat lurched and slowed,

engines still roaring against the weight of the ocean. Ahead of us, a pontoon weighing as much as twenty-two elephants floated silently, waiting for another day’s adventurers. It may have been a kilometer away, maybe three. Distances are tough to judge out on the pelagic – for a land-lubber like me anyway.

The sapphire blue water slowly gave way, revealing an amoebic sprawl of emerald greens and hints of white. Meandering conversations faded as men with tank tops and girls with bikinis and men and women and children crowded the white railing keeping us safe three stories above the South Pacific. The air sat hazy, clouding the horizon as if intent on adding to the dreamy quality of the moment. Many of us had traveled hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles to see this. Most of us would never see it again. Yet somehow, even with my senses under siege by the grandeur of the Great Barrier Reef, my heart racing with the anticipation of diving into these waters, dreams propelled and sharpened by mask and snorkel and fins and unnamable emotions, my mind turned to home.

The phenomenon is nothing new to me. Travel - in a perverse way - creates in me a certain longing for constancy. Predictability. A semblance of routine. Clean clothes. My bathroom and shower and my own refrigerator. My pillow. Things that, for me, comprise ‘home.’

But the feeling is fleeting. By the time I’ve got my mask spit-shined and my feet are dangling in the water, these thoughts have long dissipated and gone. Fish and coral and God manifest await beneath my goofy rubber fins. Home is the last place I’d want to be right now.

Road signs and thin-walled houses and fields flat as lake water filling the canyons among the surrounding hills, the Japan passing by outside my bus window breathes with such familiarity now. As many times as I’ve left and returned, this adopted country of mine has always greeted me with the subtle sense that she still harbors secrets. That I’ve still got much to learn. Much to discover. That I’ve been accepted, but not yet fully initiated.

This time, though, something is different.

Our deepest thoughts are often difficult to put into words, and now is no exception. The best I can say is that it seems the novelty of Japan – and any remaining intrigue, allure, inspiration and whatever other intangibles had previously tickled my senses – has finally, after 8 years, 1 month and 5 days, worn off.

Walking across the Abukumakogen rest area parking lot to go use the men’s room – could there be a more mundane moment? – it occurrs to me that perhaps this ongoing journey I call my life in Japan had ceased to be such. ‘A working vacation’ I always liked to say, referring to my life abroad. But the blurred line has slowly been sharpening, and the vacation part has all but disappeared, leaving me with...a home? Yet for all the familiarity, this place I occupy does not feel like home – not as much as I’d like it to.

As I wash my hands and shake them dry (in Japan, paper towels are so rare as to constitute an anomaly) I acknowledge the ideas that have been building inside me for some time.

It’s true, I don’t want to live in Japan forever. It also seems fairly evident I won’t be leaving anytime too soon. There lies before me a period of life – months, a year, maybe several – that separates me from my next great adventure. It is this intervening time that is begging for my attention.

‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,’ it has been said. Now more than ever, I understand what this means.

I may pack up and move to Europe next year. I may return to the great wide American west. I might grow old right here in Fukushima. Life happens. Life surprises. I’ve been on vacation too long. And traveling overseas is not going to change what ‘home’ is or is not.

As I give up on the cool October air and wipe my damp hands on my shorts I decide I need to become more involved in the life going on around me. Make some new friends. Spend more time with the ones I have. Pick up a few more English lessons without wondering when I am going to have to tell my students I'm leaving. Put up a few more pictures on my walls without thinking about the day I’ll just have to take them all down.

Back on the bus barreling northward through the rain, I listen to my son talking about nursery school and singing songs in Japanese. My wife reaches over and holds out a half-empty tray of natto-maki, something I could not even fathom eating a mere two months ago. I pinch one between my fingers and pop it in my mouth, and resume reading the book in my hands, about a guy who runs a hundred, a hundred and fifty, two hundred miles at a stretch while living an otherwise normal family existence.

And I think that home is not so much a place, but what I do in the place I am in.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I looked up at the clock

above the windshield of the bus. It was seventeen minutes past noon. We sped past wet houses and top-heavy rice fields, heading for Sendai and the Johzenji Street Jazz Festival. Back home in New Jersey, across the Hudson from Manhattan, it was still September 11th. This moment eight years ago, smoke was still billowing. People remained on the streets, giving of themselves, for no other reason than other people needed them. Confusion still reigned. The dust, it seemed, would never completely settle.

My students and co-workers approached me with genuine sorrow in the following days. ‘I’m sorry about what happened in your country,’ they said to me in their best English. I’d arrived in Japan on September 1st. I was as far away from home as I’d ever been. But I looked into the eyes of people who knew only that I was from ‘there’; I read in the Japan Times of the condolences, the grief and the resolve so many shared with us; I watched on the news as our global friends and neighbors offered their hands, and I sensed an intimacy with the rest of the world I could never have imagined possible.

Watching those hands being withdrawn, one by one, was like a slow-motion sock in the gut.

It is not quite right to say 9/11 was tragic. Tragic events occur suddenly, randomly. Isolated from human intention. Devoid of foundation or prelude. Brutus didn’t trip over his shoelace and accidentally fall kitchen knife first into Caesar. Juliet wasn’t reaching for a Sprite. Human perception, volition and action give rise to a series of events culminating in tragedy.

To mistakenly call the events of 9/11 tragic may only be a matter of semantics. Ignoring the complexities of the preceding acts and actors, however, is a much more dangerous proposition. ‘Because they hate us’ may help anaesthetize the wounds, but will leave us with deeper, uglier scars.

A friend of mine was stranded in Europe in the days following the attacks, unable to get a flight back to the US. His reaction, conveyed in an email: ‘Considering the big picture, this is nothing.’

I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time. Did he believe that more horrific days were on the way? Was he saying that our collective and personal pain amounted to little more than a blip on the Richter scale of human suffering? Whatever the implication, I know he was not out to diminish the scope or significance of anyone’s sorrow, rage or despair. But that we alone understand what it means to suffer is by no means a claim we can make.

The world did mourn with us. I saw a small slice of it firsthand. Yet that intimacy, that global sense of brotherhood, would quickly dry up if we decided we above all others are entitled to the wounds we lick. Yes, we have our horror stories. But our country is blessed. And it hits us not when we raise our gloves to beat down the rest of the world, but when we look toward the millions of human beings who are suffering in ways we can scarcely comprehend, in places that by the grace of God we will never have to see. On September 11th, this is the sock in the gut we need to open ourselves to.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

'And can you get some rice?...'

I'm not sure if that's quite how she put it, pregnant with our second child and her hormones popping like Jiffy-Pop. But I got the basic idea. 'And get 100% Hitomebore or Koshihikari, not the blended kind.' God forbid.
I stood in the aisle at Hashi Drug, staring down at the selection: mostly home-grown Fukushima, in five or ten kilogram bags. I've traveled fairly extensively throughout Japan in my eight years here, but for all the vast, sweeping fields, not to mention the Japanese penchant for using every square centimeter of flat land they can find to eke out a few more grains to contribute to the national haul, it is still difficult for me to comprehend feeding 120 million people this way. Then again, considering the girth of some of the school children waddling around, McDonald's and Pringles seem to have a hand in the equation.
I'll spare myself and all of you the underlying psychological dynamics, but I have a hardened habit of considering the cost per unit among different brands when buying my meusli or spaghetti sauce or coconut wafers. Money and I have never gotten along, and I need to get the most out of the few friends I have.
Today, five kilos of rice (pure Hitomebore) was going for 1680 yen. (I used to try to convert kilos to pounds and yen to dollars simultaneously to compare Japanese and US prices but the stores always closed before I could come to any conclusions.) Next to this, a ten kilo bag sold for 3480 yen. I scratched my head.
Simple math.
Vintage Japanese logic.
Before I came to Japan I read a book (didn't buy it, just read it in the bookstore over several visits) entitled Culture Shock: Japan, the words sprawled across the black cover in a devious, blood-sucking font for maximum effect. Among the many pages of information I didn't find at all shocking ('Japanese people often give fruit as gifts when they visit someone's home, beware!') was the admonition that if one doesn't understand something, one needn't bother asking why. Just accept it. Like the locals do.
I asked anyway.
For the first few weeks.
Why policemen in Japan sometimes cruise around with their lights flashing for no readily apparent reason remains a mystery to me - and perhaps to the police as well. I recall once seeing a cruiser stopped at an intersection, lights on fire and waiting to turn, and nobody coming the other way slowing or stopping to let him through. 'Not very polite for Japanese people,' I thought, followed by the question 'So what do they do when there's an emergency?' Answer, for police and ambulances and fire trucks: blast a recording over the on-board PA system asking everyone very politely to get the hell out of the way please if you don't mind and please be careful. I speak Japanese, I am sure of this.
Why do the radio stations here refuse to play an entire song? On the odd occasion they even decide to begin to play one? I never used to mind if someone switched off 99 Luftballons.
Why is the Ministry of Education so steadfastly adamant about making sure 20 million schoolchildren all learn to say 'ice', 'note' and 'maybe' for the English 'ice cream', 'notebook' and 'I have no f-ing clue.'
But just as you can't force democracy on an Islamic state (damn, I swore I'd stay away from politics here) you can't expect another culture to conform to your own ideas, no matter how right you may be. A quote from George Orwell's Burmese Days comes to mind: 'Most people can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the inhabitants.' And it is true for me at times - when I find out an undersized letter costs more to mail than the standard size does; when my mailing address changes and I haven't even moved; when I'm told I can't ride my bike according to automobile traffic laws, I clench my teeth and shake my head and curse the entire populace under my breath.
But I am also fascinated, awed and humbled by the Japanese Way. The unending politeness. The generosity. The white-gloved cab drivers. Another eight years and maybe this sarcastic, cynical, opinionated rockhead from New Jersey might learn a thing or two.
Though I don't expect to ever understand why a case of beer has to cost forty bucks.
If anyone can explain that one I'll buy them two five-kilo bags of rice.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Biking home from work last night...

...I let the full moon guide my way. Not that I'm in supernatural tune with the universe though I like to think I am. It's just that I'd forgotten my headlamp. Again. And in here in Fukushima, Japan, streetlights are about as common as a decent cheeseburger.

Now the morning sun plays hide and seek with the clouds, falling in threads through the only east window in my second-floor apartment. 700 square feet of superficial luxury: my friends gawk at all the space we have. My friends back home chuckle with undertones of bewilderment - why, exactly, you want to live there?...

I'm sitting on the floor, tapping away as lightly as my early morning motor skills will allow. Wife and son are waking on the other side of the bedroom door in front of me. I call it a bedroom because that's where we sleep. But once we fold the futons and hide them in the closet for another day our 10' x 12' tatami room turns into a playroom, dressing room and temporary dumping ground for when a surprise guest drops by. Behind me lies my office, so dubbed to make it sound legitimate to my wife. In reality it is my cave, my haven, 10 feet by 10 feet of psychological asylum. The guys out there know what I'm talking about.

Today brings with it, as all days do, chores to be done and responsibilities to assume. Fun to be had and dreams to pursue. Opportunities glaring and hidden, and, as we may lament, not nearly enough time. This is the unforgiving, unrelenting, beautiful quagmire of life. How to cash in our minutes and hours and days? Some people offer wisdom pursuant to such questions - a boon to those of us in search of gurus. This, above all, is why I am here.

I've been telling my son, ever since he had ears, what numbers one and two are. No, not that one and two. He's already got those down. The number one and number two I want to instill in his mind - and in his being - are the things I believe form the foundation of a life well-spent.

Number One is happy. Explore this world and find what makes you happy. What lights your fire. What makes your soul explode. Then strip away the excess and pursue these things with everything you've got.

Number Two: healthy. Healthy in mind to understand what happy really means. Healthy in body so you can climb mountains, cross oceans and cycle around the world, forever chasing down and grabbing hold of your own unique Number One.

The moon last night was beautiful. The breeze tumbled in warm and cool cycles. I wanted to keep riding; hold onto the moment forever. Though there will be another moon tonight, I know. The morning I now bask in borders on perfection. This Friday I will be meeting new friends from a country I have never been to. Life is good.

Life passes.

These things I tell my son as he is still learning to pedal his tricycle.

These things I tell myself, as I have only so much time.