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Watching those hands being withdrawn, one by one, was like a slow-motion sock in the gut.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