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.