Sunday, August 8, 2010

To Sharpen or Recharge?

This post is Part II of what began as a single post. But it was getting too long so I decided to split the story into two parts. Until I began drooling on the keyboard writing this part into the wee hours. Part III (and possibly IV) are forthcoming. Probably.

Part I, in case you missed it, ended with me sitting on a bucket between two dripping wet naked men. This should be all the update you need. Proceed.

I am a pencil and paper guy in an iPhone world. Blackberry? Piece of fruit as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never seen a Kindle outside of Amazon’s homepage. I’ve met a couple of iPhones in person but I don’t think I’ve actually shaken hands with one. I didn’t even have the slightest compulsion to get any sort or species of cell phone until I moved to Tokyo in 2003, and only then because I was falling under threat of deportation for what the local authorities were calling my ‘suspicious resistance to conform.’ (This of course based not solely on my failure to carry a ‘keitai’ at all times; I didn’t wear a black suit and matching black tie to work every day, I offered my seat on the train to old women instead of pretending to be asleep, and I showed no interest in Japanese comic books, soft porn or otherwise. All troubling tendencies for a population clinging to the psychological comfort and safety of not being expected to manifest an original thought.)

On my desk (my wife’s desk from her high school years to be specific), sitting next to my laptop (which I bought used four years ago when my previous secondhand laptop crapped out on me) is my trusty black address book. Do they even make these things anymore? I don’t know, probably. I haven’t shopped for one in a while. The plastic-ish, vinyl-ish cover on this one fell off several years ago, but I taped it back on and so far it has held. On the back page I have names and numbers of people on my Denver league soccer team. I haven’t even seen Denver in 9 years. Other numbers are of friends from when I lived in Arlington, Virginia, when George Bush – the first one – was still in office. I don’t even remember who half of these people were. And the time zone and area code map on the front page doesn’t show a single area code that doesn’t have a 0 or 1 in the middle. This thing doesn’t have a print date, it has a carbon date.

So why is it on my desk? Because my son has recently become intrigued with the concept of calling people – anyone – using our combination telephone/fax machine with the receiver with the cord. I give him my address book and let him dial any number he wants because none of them are good anymore. Except for my sisters and a few college buddies, but if he calls one of them I can jump on and say hi and save myself an overseas postage stamp.

Anyway, so I have this cell phone. It even takes pictures. It also has this memo pad function as well as a voice recorder doo-dad, but I still carry a pen and a few old store receipts around at all times in case I need to write something down – like someone’s phone number. And I could sign up for Internet service right through that little inch-thick wonder but really, I don’t need live updates on the Yankees, I don’t care that Paris Hyatt is now trending, no one on facebook needs to know that I am hot and my train is crowded, and until very recently I have never needed to check my email now. The only reason I even keep that thing with me (when I don’t forget I actually own a cell phone and leave it on the yellowing notebook I am using to outline my next novel) is in case my wife needs me to pick up some onions on my bike-ride home.

This changed, if only slightly, on my recent trip to Tokyo.

I had never felt so good after ten minutes sitting on a bucket between two dripping wet naked men. A day on your feet in Tokyo in July is not conducive to staying fresh and dry, no matter how much time you spend wandering lost through the labyrinthine and partially air-conditioned Ikebukuro underground. And though nightfall brought some degree of relief, thirty minutes combing the humid, neon-laced streets of Omiya in search of an inexpensive hotel without hourly rates and rotating beds is going to leave you feeling slimy. Enough so that you’re willing to bathe in a communal shower and hot spring (until someone starts talking to you about hourly rates and rotating beds).

Omiya, interestingly enough, was my very first destination when I arrived in Japan on September 1, 2001. The company training center was there in town, and all the newbies would spend a week there learning how to drill scraps of English into our students’ heads in such a way that they would think they were having a good time. After that initial week I’d been invited back several times to show the folks at headquarters how much I wasn’t improving as a teacher, and every time I’d paid a visit to Manboh. This was where I was headed as I stepped out into the cool midnight air and made my way back toward Omiya Station.

Nothing seemed to have changed; they still had the blue-tinted glass door in front, and inside they still had the same black light atmosphere, in all likelihood to shadow the fact that the kids working there would rather be anywhere but there, asking you if you wanted to go with the special four-hour marathon session they were promoting. Again the girl asked, impressively hiding her malaise with the kind of smile I am convinced only Japanese girls can turn, and again I said no, I only wanted a half hour to check my email and take obscene advantage of the free drink bar. She then used approximately forty-five Japanese words to tell me to use computer Number 9 and handed me a receipt on a tiny plastic clipboard that showed me when my time to raid the vending machines was up.

Armed with three paper cups of coffee and one hot cocoa for variety I wound my way through the dark rows of blue-tinted private booths until I found Number 9. Then, with my hands full and my coffee more or less burning my fingers through the paper cups I sat on the door handle and entered my rented world butt-first. And stepped right into the side of my chair, the physics of the next half-second allowing my coffee to bypass the paper cups and start burning my skin directly. But now was not the time for pain; I had twenty-eight minutes to go through my emails and then jump on facebook to let people I otherwise never speak to know where I was.

Before leaving Fukushima I had emailed a few people in Tokyo, explicitly asking them to get back to me (if they were going to) on my cell phone. I gave them my number. I typed out my phone mail address. I was even nice, and didn’t use any of those efficient terms like ‘tmrw’ or ‘if ur l8’ because I didn’t want to give the impression I was trying to be quick and efficient, which in my mind translates to ‘Hi I haven’t seen you in forever but no time to talk now can I crash on your floor?’ Yet here they were, all responding with incomplete sentences and a click of the Reply button – because of course that is the quickest and most efficient way to communicate. So I have to guess they assumed I could check my email from my iPhone. Or would at least be smart enough to stop in an Internet café before committing to the forty-minute train ride from Tokyo to Omiya.

As it turned out, one of my friends had in fact emailed me back earlier in the day, offering in not so many words to let me crash that night if I needed to. My first impulse was to chide him for not getting back to me on my cell phone, but this would do no good. My fault, I need to anticipate when people are going to inconvenience me like this and chide them beforehand. Then of course I’d probably be on my way to Omiya five minutes after being hung up on so the whole process is an unavoidable wash. But if I had stayed at my friend’s place I would have missed out on more free coffee than any human being of any size should be drinking at midnight. In this I was ahead of the game.

Also waiting in my inbox was a response from a woman who had time to meet up that afternoon – a woman with three zillion potential connections for me. But setting aside an hour for her might have denied me the experience that day of putting on a shirt and tie in the midday heat so I could walk into Sanseido Bookstore and get shot down faster than a Mexican driving into Arizona. And I hate missing out on those character-building moments.

After one final drink bar run – I had to try something called the Expressa au Lait – I found myself out of time and unable to let the facebook world know I was tired and ready for bed. I handed my clipboard to the girl with the smile and took out three hundred yen as she launched into a glib and very polite minute-long speech about how I owed her three hundred yen. I could have extended my time for a buck per fifteen minutes I suppose, but I was so caffeinated by now I’d end up spending the next two hours scrolling past innumerable farm game and mafia battle updates to see how my friends felt about the final episode of Lost. Personally I’d rather sit on a bucket between two dripping wet naked men.

Which is where I was once again twenty minutes later.

I’m still a pencil and paper guy at heart. But in today’s world, pencil and paper guys miss out on timely messages from friends and chances to meet up with people with three zillion potential connections.

Next time I find myself in Omiya, I may not need to make a stop in Manboh. Not to check email anyway. But even if I do decide to spring for the extra yen and hook my 5-year-old cell phone up to the web, I think I’ll continue to keep a pen and a couple store receipts on me, just in case. Because paper doesn’t go dead. And address books, no matter how old, never crash and are exceptionally immune to hackers.

In the meantime, I’ve made a pact with myself to at least up my technological agility and communicative availability on my next trip to Tokyo by ducking into a Net café every few hours. The downside is, I won’t be able to take a picture of my lunch and post it on my facebook profile.

As a pencil and paper guy, I’m okay with that.