Thursday, November 24, 2011

Getting From Point A to Point B in Viet Nam

Transportation in Vietnam is like a box of chocolates... 

After two days traveling further into the Vietnamese highlands on the rear of a motorbike, all I wanted was to chill and get to Hoi An. My butt needed a break, those bikes on those roads make for one good long vibration.

Back in Da Lat I took a leisurely last stroll around town after reserving a ticket on the 6pm bus to Da Nang – a reservation which means nothing if the bus driver decides to leave 45 minutes early. 'No problem, I put you on another bus' says the girl at the desk. She makes a couple of phone calls. I so wish I understood Vietnamese. Finally her eyes brighten and she hangs up. 'Okay, no problem. Only driver, you and one more person,' she tells me. ‘To Da Nang, you get off at Hoi An.’ Sweet I figure. Plenty of room to stretch out for the overnight trip.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What Comes of Domestic Malaise

I was rather taken aback the other day to find out it’s been over two months since my last post – not that anyone else noticed but I still feel better making up excuses for these things. You’d think without a pesky job to have to bugger off to every day I’d have more free time than Bernie Madoff and would be able to tap into my bottomless reservoir of creativity and crank something out; stuff that, while perhaps not always worth the time investment on the reader’s part, will most likely never land me in jail (now that I’ve got that little copyright infringement thing straight). But my four year old son’s YouTube kick is now entering its fifth week, and every time I pry open the old laptop these days, no matter how quietly, he hears it over his eighteen month old brother’s shrieking (due to big brother also being on this rip-every-toy-out-of-little-brother’s-hands kick) and he comes running at me full-speed, launching himself across the room and landing stomach-first on my lap, simultaneously smacking the keyboard with both hands and screaming ‘Come on, damn computer!’ (no idea where he picked that up) even though he knows damn well ‘sesame street pinball’ doesn’t start with 'slafjhlenjflab'.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Air Travel III - Thin Atmosphere Reading

People will sometimes ask me how long it takes to fly between Tokyo and New Jersey. My answer usually elicits a contorted expression and a syllable or two of pained commiseration, reactions I personally would reserve for someone in truly insufferable straits – a diehard Glee fan, for example. Or someone with a full-time job.

I don’t know why people consider thirteen hours in the air something akin to torture. First of all, in my case, I’m flying because I want to, unlike the poor saps up in the front of the plane who have no choice but to fly off to another meeting somewhere. Second, what’s so bad about being able to sit around and watch movies while people bring you food? If you’re flying with an Asian airline there’s the added bonus of free beer and wine. Plus the flight attendants are still selected in step with the time-honored tradition of chauvinistic arousal. Are you kidding me? If demurely beautiful women in flattering silky garb are bringing me free beer I’ll fly for weeks on end.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Air travel II - (sk)In-Flight

I like airports, actually. They offer such good post fodder.

I step through the door and come face to face with a half-naked middle-aged man. Well not face to face; he’s turned toward the wall so all I see is his pasty, mealy back. On the shelf in front of him is his open carry-on. He’s slathering on his deodorant. I feel like I’m at the YMCA.

The door to my stall bangs shut as I step around the corner – to see another shirtless fifty-something man bent over one of the row of sinks. His gut rests on the countertop as he washes his face. This guy didn’t make it far in the Gladiator audition process either. I take one of the sinks on the opposite wall…and there’s the guy, his back and his front, reflected infinitely in our opposing mirrored walls.

Really, this is nothing compared to a Japanese onsen in terms of proximity to naked strangers and their degree of nakedness. Still, I can’t wait to get on my flight to Tokyo.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Air Travel - Wonder & Woe

Last week I flew from Newark, New Jersey to Tokyo’s Narita Airport. (If this were a facebook status update I’d simply say ‘EWR-NRT’, assuming such snark has not yet become passé.) It had been a while since I’d flown –six weeks almost – so it took no time for the incongruous wonders of air travel, like the burn of a jalapeno, to rip into my senses once again.

Of course, the physics alone are mind-boggling. I’m sure Orville and Wilbur never imagined an eight-million-pound plane, loaded with another eight million pounds of people, luggage and processed dinner omelets, could make it over a sand dune let alone the Pacific Ocean. Legalized extortion (commonly known as the fuel surcharge) notwithstanding, that we can in twenty-four hours get from any semi-major city in the world to any other semi-major city not currently steeped in rioting and/or armed conflict is nothing less than an everyday miracle (until we figure out those wormhole things). Yet people will still complain about the dinner omelets.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Go Find Your Own Top Ten

Every time I turn to my twitter feed there's somebody, or several somebodies, or one hyperactive somebody, tweeting relentlessly trying to outdo all the other somebodies, linking to an article or a blog post centered around a numbered list: Top Ten Mistakes New Tweeters Make. Seven Kinds of Shoes You Should Never Wear to a Job Interview. Thirteen (13? Really?) Words You Need Right Now To Get You More Traffic!

I hate these lists, partly because I read them knowing full well they are written because research shows most people gravitate toward numbered lists when they want information, advice or more traffic. And I hate being most people. Sounds snobbish I know, but Yogi Berra wasn't like most people and look, people still remember and repeat his advice. I doubt anyone is going to remember WebBizMan for all those great numbered lists he tweeted to his 152,804 followers (149,934 of whom he himself follows, very closely no doubt). Given the choice, I'd much rather be Yogi Berra than WebBizMan.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Living As We Can - A Year in Fukushima #11

The narrow passageway inside the front door showed a familiar scene. On the table, a miniature camel from Morocco and my son’s last paper and crayon pre-school project. On the opposite wall, pictures from Vietnam in the Spring and Christmas in New Jersey. The recycling still sat in plastic bags over in the corner under the stairs. That dirty soccer ball was still there too.

Only the staleness of the air was new. That and the fact that this was now where we used to live.

Exactly three months had passed since we locked up and left. It was cloudier then, drops of rain poetic in foretelling the heavier storms to come. Today the sky bore bright patches of blue, with nary a rain cloud in sight. Yet it seemed a blanket now lay draped over the town, a dank invisible veil that fell over the streets and houses and floated right through the walls, not settling on our material world so much as invading our learned concept of existence.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Adversity

A buddy of mine was relating to me recently the story of his friend, a girl born in Southeast Asia. ‘Thirty-something years ago her family had to take off,’ he said. ‘There was all sorts of fighting going on, people being killed, and they had to sneak through the woods for days to get away, basically with nothing to their name.’ Eventually they made it all the way to America and managed, in circumstances I couldn’t imagine, to create a new life for themselves. ‘She was really young at the time, I don’t know how well she even remembers it all. But I’ll tell you what, she is one tough girl. We go running, biking, whatever, and she refuses to not keep up with me. And she’s only like this big.’ He stuck his hand sideways against my arm, just below my shoulder. ‘Dude, she’s amazing.’

I told my friend that I envied her in a way. It wasn’t that I wished I’d had her childhood instead of mine. And yet, part of me wished I did. ‘We grow up in a nice, safe place, all comfortable and fortunate,’ I said. My friend listened, staring back at me, eyes brimming with his own brand of intensity. ‘And we have no concept of what it means to be tough, you know? That idea, that understanding of what it is to have to survive…literally.’

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Home No More - A Year in Fukushima #10

Last October I decided to document some of the facets of a year of life in my adopted home of Fukushima. Three months ago that life as it was ended, replaced by something I am only beginning to come to grips with.

My mother in law was there waiting for us last night, hazards blinking, fuel-efficient car parked neatly along the curb of the mostly empty street. Fukushima City seemed unusually dark and desolate for 8:30 on a Monday night. As our bus lurched to a stop I wondered if maybe it had always looked this way.

There were nine people on our bus, four of them me and my family. Three had gotten off at Koriyama. The Tokyo-Fukushima Highway Line, I was sure, had never been this empty. The recorded messages – We are now arriving in Fukushima, Thank you for riding with us, Please make sure you don’t leave anything behind – were the same as always, which somehow made them sound odd.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Moving, Still Moving...

It started back in mid-March. Many of you know the story. My family and I left our apartment, then our hometown, and soon our country – my wife’s own, my adopted. We landed in New Jersey and tried to relax.
For a while it seemed to work.
I was home – yet I wasn’t. As with every other place I’d occupied for the last twenty years, this wasn’t where I lived, it was only where I was staying. For my wife…a place she felt eminently welcome. A place she could feel her kids were safe and loved, a place they could thrive…for a while, until it was time to move again.
We visited people. Family, friends. We stayed over, told to make ourselves at home. We were blessed, for this was a time to take time and relish our good fortune in having so many people, in so many places, who cared enough to invite us in and see, though we already knew, that we were loved. And we stayed for a time, watching, remembering what it was like to go about the business of being a family living at home.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Good bye, for now - tohoku earthquake part eight

On Tuesday morning all I cared about was getting my family out of Fukushima, far away from the radioactive mess that was percolating down along the coast. We didn’t know where we might end up when we jumped into Jun’s car. Maybe we’d go to Akita, I thought, or Yamagata – put some more miles and mountains between us and the reactors. If we really thought it necessary we could probably get to Osaka, or even Kyushu, where people had gas in their cars and the supermarket shelves were stocked and kids could play in the park without their parents worrying about what might be falling out of the sky. No place could be too far, really. We just needed to find a corner of Japan, a place we could go to be safe, where we could breathe the air and let our kids run around outside, and wait until things settled down. Then we could return home and get on with living our lives.

The long ride to Morioka – the stretches of quiet thinking time along a road through a country that seemed much more dead than alive – those four hours in Jun’s car changed all that.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hope & Reliance - tohoku earthquake part seven

The ramen shop was flooded with light and familiar smells. My wife and I, our boys between us, sat across the low table from Jun, his brother Yu and his friend (girlfriend?) Miki. We ate as we would on any night, though the cooks couldn’t make a couple of dishes for lack of certain ingredients. We talked as we would over any meal – hometowns and high school memories, jobs and friends and the soft-boiled eggs Yu had this thing about. Yamato slurped his noodles, splattering his soup. Seiji fussed and laughed and ate and refused in turns. The radiation we had run from seemed far, far away.


Yet the reason we were there wouldn’t fade from my head. Not completely. Not for a moment.

Back at Yu’s apartment we would share snack food and drink a random assortment of beer in cans. Yamato was given his first taste of video games and Harry Potter. Seiji entertained before he started tiring; my wife would skip his bath tonight and try to get him down. We talked more, about all manner of things, though somehow – as it seems to happen in Japan – we never scratched too deep below the surface. This because maybe the Japanese are inclined on all levels to remain one of the group; tipping the conversational scales in any one person’s direction, particularly their own, is not the overriding inclination.

Monday, April 18, 2011

You are getting sleeeee-py.....and irrrr-itable....Your throat is swelling shuuuut....

In a previous post I documented an hour of channel-surfing Japanese TV. Admittedly I devoted the lion’s share of my attention to the commercials because they are short and I could squeeze more material out of my self-allotted hour. I didn’t mean any disrespect to the actual programs, which by and large are always just as silly as the adverts.

Though I considered trying, it would be borderline impossible to write an equally bone-splittingly hilarious post about the programming here. Not because TV in the US is any less ridiculous than in Japan, but all four of my devoted readers live in the States so anything I say would be either redundant or offensive, and faster than you could say American I Dull down the drain goes my hard-earned fan base.

Fortunately two weeks ago my mom left the TV on in the den after the recent NCAA championship game.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

North - tohoku earthquake part six

I recognized the woman at the door immediately, despite the mask that covered her nose and mouth. I knew her daughter too, as one of my son’s many pre-school friends. ‘Konnichi-wa,’ I said, trying in vain to recall either of their names. The woman offered a slight bow, awkward enough with her daughter on her hip, forget about the underlying circumstances. ‘Kevin-san, domo.’ She handed me a small, heavy plastic bag.

My wife had said she’d be dropping by, with milk formula for our little boy. In the intervening moments I’d forgotten her name, but I remembered very clearly one thing my wife said: she was going to be driving to Sendai.

‘I’m leaving tomorrow,’ she said in response to my casual query. I glanced over at her boxy car, already half-stuffed with blankets and bags. ‘Are there any buses running out of Sendai, do you know?’ I asked. She shook her head. ‘Maybe, but I don’t know.’ With this we both understood: I was looking for a way out of town, and while she really would like to help…

Friday, April 8, 2011

Things, We Didn't Know - tohoku earthquake part five

The subject of the text message was simple: 'Run!'


With this one word all the thoughts I'd fallen asleep to came crashing back into my head. My friend had spent the night thirty miles up the road in Yonezawa. 'We'll go further today, if we can,' he said.

If we can?...

In my head it sounded right out of a movie, too dramatic to be real. And he wasn't the only person I knew who was already heading west, away from the nuclear reactors leaking God-knows-what-if-anything into the air. A co-worker of mine, one of the sharpest and most level-headed guys I've ever met, had also hit the road. He too was with his family, making his way toward the Sea of Japan, unsure of their destination, living out of their car. 'Just to be on the safe side,' he said.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

NCAA Men's Hoops Title Game Review

Already three and a half minutes into the culmination of the greatest sporting event of the year (don't argue with me, it has been scientifically proven) and I am just now tuning in. The kids have a knack of keeping me from life's most important moments with their needy little habits - bedtime stories, clean diapers, rehydration - but they are finally all tucked in. Now my mom and her husband are in a silent power struggle over control of the TV. What about my needs?


So I'm watching the game on some Internet channel or another, no idea if I'm paying for it. Check that - no idea if mom is paying for it. Got this document window open to about the size of a playing card so I can see the entire screen. And a few key stats along the sidebar. (Quick question: How do you pronounce 'Oriakhi'?)

So UConn's Kemba Walker just got the smack down by Andrew Smith after traveling down the lane after getting hip-checked by aforementioned Andrew. Looks like we're in for some fun tonight.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Who Cares Who Matters?

The front page of this Saturday's Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger almost made me toss my oatmeal. Top and center, with a bold headline and a big photo added for extra intellectual value, was an article (two actually) involving someone I was until this Saturday morning completely, utterly and in hindsight blissfully unaware of.

It seems certain people at Rutgers University recently decided it would be a good idea to pay someone $32,000 to come talk to the students for two hours.
My first thought: 'I probably would have done it for half that.' But of course what could I possibly have to say that could rival the wisdom, the priceless inspiration, the sage life-altering advice of...a reality television mouth? With a self-given nickname that rhymes with a snack food?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Home, Neighbors, Cake & What's Coming - tohoku earthquake part four

After faking his own death Huckleberry Finn hides in a tree outside a church window, looking in on all the townfolk crying at his funeral. 'I never had any idea so many people cared about old Huck Finn,' he says as the tears well in his own eyes.


Of all the scenes of all the movies, all the passages in all the books I've ever read, this was the one that came to mind as I stared at the screen of my laptop soon after returning home on Sunday.

The population of the shelter was about half what it had been the first night. In the morning air I felt a mix of restlessness and lethargy; the aftershocks had all but ceased, and though they'd probably keep the gym open for anyone wanting to stay, I knew it was time for us to go home - utilities or no.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Morning After - tohoku earthquake part three

Morning arrived in the form of the generator's low hum; a murmur of voices; the footsteps, discernible somehow, of people at task. I crawled out of my futon (everyone I'd offered it to - elderly women, infant-coddling mothers, even the girl who literally fell asleep on her knees on the bare hardwood - had declined in favor of their own measly blankets) and looked around at a gymnasium filled with sunlight. People were up and about, moving not so much with purpose as with a desire for purpose. A few still reclined where they had slept, or not slept. Many stood in a line that stretched halfway around the room and ran right past the edges of my comforter. In shorts and a t-shirt I folded everything into a less obtrusive pile. The people at whose feet I'd just been sleeping pretended not to notice or care.


At the long tables against the far wall men and women handed out rice balls and tea. My wife was already on line, both our boys hanging onto her. I caught her eye and she motioned for me to join her; food was being carefully rationed out and they might not have given her any extra rice for a husband she'd claim was still asleep in that oversized lump of bedding over there. Although with our own leftover rice from home, along with some crackers and bread and peanut butter and juice, we weren't living on the edge of survival. Not yet.

Overnight the sheltered masses had sat nervously, clutching their blankets and murmuring louder with each successive aftershock.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Calm Amid Calamity -- tohoku earthquake part two

I walked into the dark front hall of the Shimizu Learning Center. A man in a blue windbreaker approached, moving with an efficiency that told me he was at work though in what capacity I had no idea. What was the situation here, or anywhere else? What had really happened, and what needed to be done? I hadn't seen any damage. A distant siren bled through the hum of a single generator; outside the glass doors a circle of men dressed in shadows watched over a huge pot of water, slowly warming over a propane flame.

I suppose I expected to be received in some way, for someone in a dark blue windbreaker to ask me my name, if I was all right and did I come with any family. I waited for direction but the man kept walking, by my shoulder and out into the wind and the returning snow. More figures appeared, out of the black corridors ahead and the blustery darkness behind. A couple of them held flashlights. They traded scant words as they passed each other. No one spoke to me. No lines, no people with clipboards. Barely a sound besides that generator. The siren in the distance faded and died. Something was going on here - but what? I wondered if we had come to the wrong place.

Yet the parking lot outside was full; my wife was waiting out there with our two boys, along with enough food and blankets, we hoped, to get us through the night. There had to be others. I walked down the left corridor, drawn to a softly-illuminated doorway and a murmur of voices. At the bottom of a single step a dozen pairs of shoes lie in semi-disarray. I kicked off my battered sneakers and stepped inside.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Where Fear Lies -- tohoku earthquake part one

With a cheap driver I worked the tiny screw on the back of my son's toy microwave oven. He likes to play restaurant every now and then, making me fish pizza and croissant soup or whatever strikes his blossoming imagination. Then he tells me to 'sit here and eat'. I couldn't remember those words coming from him lately though so maybe the batteries in there still had some juice.

The sky outside was growing dim.

I am so not prepared for this.

----------------------

Quarter to three in the afternoon; my son is sitting at a kid-sized table with his friends at the Shinryo pre-school, chomping on cookies and drinking cold tea. The other kids are there with their moms. Both teachers in the room are women. I'm the only adult male, and though they all say it's great that my son could be there today with his 'O-to-san' I'm feeling a bit out of place. I stir my paper cup of coffee and watch my son interact with the other kids in effortless Japanese.

All along the coast, from Fukushima up through Miyagi and into Iwate, fishermen in slickers and rubber boots and weathered skin tie off their nets and head to bed. Their wives sit on the floor on straw mats pouring tea, alone or with friends, glancing outside at the slowly warming March weather. Young children play and shriek and eat cookies at schools just like Shinryo. All along the coast.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Bathrobes and Beer: The Japanese Ryokan Experience - A Year in Fukushima #9

Japan boasts a considerable array of accommodation options – to put it in cheesy tourist pamphlet terms. Capsule hotels, business hotels, love hotels; the Hilton and the Hyatt and the Japanese versions of such; you have your youth hostels (thirty dollars with membership) and your campgrounds (thirty dollars without); and on the traditional side, you’ve got your minshuku, with tatami floors, futons and green tea to make yourself comfy as you watch your coin-operated 13-inch television, and then you have your more upscale ryokan, with tatami floors, futons and green tea to make yourself extra comfy as you relax and watch your wide screen high-definition plasma television.

In the course of my travels around Japan, when not camping (illegally) or sleeping on a beach or a gazebo in a park (maybe legally), I’ve rucked up to many a minshuku. They give you those robes to hang out in, and dinner and breakfast are included so why not? I’m not much of a TV guy however so I never sprang for the more expensive ryokan. And if my wife hadn’t finagled a sweet deal at Azuma-So up the road in Iizaka last weekend I might very well have ended up leaving Japan – or dying – without ever experiencing a wide plasma screen while hanging out on the floor drinking tea in someone else’s bath robe.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Going By The (Immensely Popular and Profoundly Flawed) Book

We were making unbelievable time; seriously, I thought we had entered some kind of worm hole. The trip from our hostel (way overpriced – and no breakfast) back to Bratislava Station went much faster than the initial walk across town to the Linoleum Sheraton now that we knew which way was hore. We hopped a train to Trenčin, a small city with a quaint old town and phenomenal ice cream, then traveled on to Ružomberok via a silky smooth connection in Žilina. (Switzerland, I thought at this point, had nothing on Slovakia’s rail system – except maybe in the sanitation department…and in overall comfort…and on a baseline decibel level.)

Right outside Ružomberok Station we jumped on a bus (after a stuttering, embarrassing back-and-forth with the driver). The seats and aisle crammed full of students (wonderfully forgiving of our bulky bags), we stood for the ten kilometers down the road to Vlkolinec, an idyllic one-dirt-road village whose residents’ lives have been turned upside down since its appointment to Unesco’s World Cultural Heritage list. After a prying look around we would take another creaky bus back to Ružomberok for our last train ride of the day; if things continued to proceed as they had since our fortuitous encounter with that blessed street vendor in Bratislava we would make it to Liptovsky-Mikulaš in plenty of time to find a place, fire up some dinner and relax as the sky turned dark over Jasná and the peaks of Chopok Sever. We started walking, me pushing a suitcase, a loaded pack on my back, my wife pushing our son in his stroller right behind. According to the map in our guidebook, Vlkolinec was right there along the main road…

Sunday, February 20, 2011

An Hour in TV Land - A Year in Fukushima #8

The following account of my Saturday evening is completely true and totally uncensored.

The clock on the wall was ticking toward 10:30. I had just finished hanging the laundry in the living room. (Just go with it, this is Japan remember.) A familiar snoring reverberated from the bedroom, an unintentional but unmistakable message from the wife that I could go ahead and play Lone Ranger again tonight. Twenty-four hours ago I had sketchy plans to meet up with a buddy for that ever-elusive beer; unfortunately on this day, like most recent days, I had been deep into my work and the fascination of how slow my microchips move, and I forgot to get back to him. So there I stood, all alone, between two racks of wet clothes and my sleeping family. It was 10:25 on a Saturday night.

This, by the way, is not the bad part.

The bad part is, I decided to turn on the TV.

I stepped on train tracks and tripped over dinosaurs as I scrounged around for the remote. Then I fell onto the couch and clicked that baby, hoping for…well, anything. After a moment staring at a blank screen I got up and walked over to our TV with built-in VCR, which you have to turn on manually if that’s how your son turned it off. Then I plopped back down as the picture warmed up.

First thing I saw were three walking, singing pollen spores getting their lights punched out by a psychotic football player spray-painted the color of aluminum foil. After a pleasant jingle someone breathed easier, and the scene switched to a computer-generated garden. A woman in red smiled as she walked along, seemingly unfazed by the line of grinning red birds following her. They had a conversation and sang a song before another woman came on, marching down the street in front of a row of levitating tubes of some kind of crème.

At this I went downstairs and dug desperately for the last two cans of beer in the house. As I settled back onto the couch again I swore to never forget to call another friend.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Love Rules In Japan

The Choco-Laws of Valentine's Day

It's time once again for English class here at the manufacturing company. My students are sitting quietly, waiting while I scribble out a blog post idea that just came to me. The whole first paragraph is coming together in my head, I need a few more seconds to get it all down.

I toss out the old stand-by: ‘So what day is it, guys?’

I keep scribbling. And scribbling. It's not that hard a question, guys.

My students usually enjoy the easy back-and-forth. It helps them get into English mode. It’s nice for me too since I usually don’t know what day it is. As far as I’m concerned, that we’ve shown up on the same day at the same time is cause enough to celebrate.

"Let's cancel class and go out for ramen and beer!" I always say.

I’ve yet to find a student who doesn’t see this as a breach of some vague rule system.

I'm still scribbling, enjoying the extra writing time though it's getting ridiculous. I look up - and see Michiko staring back at me. Just...staring. The three guys in the class are staring at her, all of them smiling like they just figured out a secret. Something's up. And they know what it is.

And then it hits me too.

Valentine's Day!

Immediately my mouth starts watering.

As February comes to Japan it’s hard to miss the chocolate-covered excitement of Valentine’s Day. In supermarkets and department stores all across the country the racks and aisles explode in red white and pink manifestations of love. On the surface it looks like your typical Valentine’s Day in any number of countries around the world.

But in Japan, where showing affection ranks just below understanding football on the scale of social importance, the enthusiasm for Valentine’s Day seems utterly illogical. I've seen houseflies show more passion than these people. (It's true, I have. It was weird.)

There is an explanation, however. And it's right where you'd expect: in a thorough set of guidelines that tells the entire population how to properly express their roiling emotions.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Between Two Pictures

The day after we moved into this apartment two years ago I set up a bookcase in the living room. My family and I were fresh off an extended European vacation, and most of our material world, such that it was, still sat packed in boxes at my in-laws’ house thirty minutes away. We had no table to eat on. We had one bath towel to share. My son wanted his CDs. And with the chill of winter hanging in the March air the kerosene heater would have come in handy.

Naturally, all this would be addressed in due time.

‘We need more blankets,’ my wife yelled from the top of our new staircase as I was grabbing the car keys.

Blankets and books, I said to myself. I need a few good books.

I imagined the warm sun coming in through our sliding glass doors as I flipped through picture books of Iceland and Hokkaido and a dozen US National Parks. I had a couple of kids’ adventure books from Germany. I had a series of books on learning Mandarin, along with a variety of books on Japan – the language, the culture and a smattering of literature in the Japanese original. My wife kept handy a stock of travel magazines; I would add a few tomes on the world’s major religions. Together, these rows of printed and bound treasures would serve as the catalyst of my aspirations.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Luck & Sardines - A Year in Fukushima #7

I am in big trouble.

Something bad is staring me right in the face, and this time it has nothing to do with my son, my short attention span or personal injury (or, most recently, all three). It has nothing to do with anything I’ve done, actually. In fact, it has absolutely nothing to do with anything that has even happened yet. But I am on a collision course with destiny, and there is no getting around it. That is why tomorrow I am going to jump on the horn and set a date with my local exorcist.

To most outsiders Japan is a safe, peaceful place, decorated with cherry blossoms and veiled in a kimono of serenity. Not true, my friends. This country is a dangerous, devilish place.

Take my friend Eriko. She’s a pleasant mix of gregarious, intelligent and modest. She works at a bank, travels abroad on her own and goes to the gym regularly. She’s confident yet self-effacing, and has probably never crossed the street against the light. Yet recently she did something to warrant a trip up the road to Fudohsan Shrine for the ominous yakubarai ritual.

Recently, Eriko turned the dreaded thirty-three.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Part of the Battle - Guest Post by John Regan

Today we take a blessed break from the pointless ramblings of the guy who usually posts here to enjoy a few words from John Regan, an aspiring writer and incurable Red Sox fan.
I became acquainted with John only recently, and it didn’t take long to take a liking to his work. Anyone who writes for a living – John works as an editor for a telecommunications company in Washington State – and then goes home to craft a short story or work on a book or post to a nostalgia-rich blog has got to have passion for the art. In John’s case, this passion translates into subject matter that, well, matters. Take a look at an excerpt from the book he is working on, about former collegiate wrestler and current motivational speaker Rich Jensen, or pick an entry from one of his two blogs and dive in. You’ll see what I mean.

For his guest post here John offers a few words on his love of language and writing while touching on their concomitant labors. I deeply appreciate John’s stopping by, and look forward to seeing his name on book covers and bookshelves as he works to conquer the beasts that, in writing as in any endeavor, roam the forests between aspiration and success. Take it away Mr. Regan…

Saturday, January 29, 2011

'Hey I got a schedule to keep here!...' - A Year in Fukushima #6

Last month I stumbled across a job opportunity in Florida that seemed right up my alley. This was pretty exciting for me as jobs and my alley don’t normally hang out in the same neighborhood. The position, involving fingerprint analysis and expensive-looking machines, would jibe perfectly with my advanced (mostly in age) education. What tipped my stubborn work/life scales though was the prospect of living year-round within a short bike ride of the sand and surf. This was a place I could almost imagine being gainfully employed. So immediately (meaning within a week) I got to work on the application process.


As with any application to a law enforcement agency, the paperwork involved a lot of swearing: I swear I don’t have any objectionable tattoos (or a forked tongue, a condition actually spelled out in the ‘no bodily mutilation’ section); I swear I don’t smoke (drinking, by its non-mention, is fine); I swear I have no history of repeated marijuana use beyond ‘experimental’ (Bill Clinton clause); I swear I have no recent DUI convictions. No problem, I’ll swear to all this and lots more, just hook me up to that polygraph. Oh and by the way I’ve got that ‘high school diploma or GED’ thing covered.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Time Management 2011 ('Hey where are my keys?')

Barely three weeks into 2011 and I can already hear the shatter and crash of people everywhere tossing their new year’s resolutions out the nearest window. Normally I wouldn’t notice it over the sound of the toilet as I flush my own promises away, right along with the back end of the year’s first Tuesday afternoon beer. But this January there’s a new kind of noise around the Kato household. Yes, that sound you are hearing is the smooth, even drone of methodical, almost superhuman planning.

I’ve thrown a few resolutions on the table this year. Not casually tossed under the kotatsu, or mindlessly slipped onto my desk, under a pile of what may be last year’s city tax forms and trail of related notices and summonses. No sir, I’ve been cultivating my powers of concentration in preparation for what is shaping up to be a landmark year for me. This year, no more minutes and hours will be wasted, lost forever in the vortex of inefficiency. This year, things are going to get done, frequently and fast, with none of my valuable ‘Run & Gun Time’ wasted on YouTube or dental floss or barely-bleeding kids.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Flights of Fancy

My wife’s wallet is fat with stamp cards. Card for the gas station, card for the camera store, card for a curry shop I don’t think she’s ever even been to. She doesn’t even like curry. I myself don’t have the organizational skills to keep track of a stack of store cards, even if I did possess the inclination to hold onto them or the capacity to remember to use them. My wife hands me a supermarket card as I am heading out the door of the apartment, and by the time I’m walking through the automatic doors two minutes later (assuming I hit or ignored all the traffic lights on the way) I’ve completely forgotten about it.

Really, it’s hard to exist in Japan without amassing at least a modest collection of these insidious little gimmicks. I have a mess of them in a drawer from the haircut place up the street; I never bother or remember to bring the last one I got but I feel culturally insensitive if I don’t let them make me a new one. And every time I promise to bring my others to combine them and see what sort of discount I can get on my next cut. I may have enough to take over the place. Then once I do I am going to get rid of the stamp card system.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ringing in the New Year in Japan - A Year in Fukushima #5

That I rang in the new year five days and fifteen minutes ago means a few things. One, the synapses should be firing like jiffy-pop up there, making my aluminum foil head explode with ideas for resolutions so outlandishly ambitious I won’t feel bad about breaking them; two, my mother-in-law’s mochi cakes – all fourteen varieties, including the one with the dried bits of squid entrails mixed in – should have mercifully, magically disappeared by now, from both the fridge and the walls of most of my major arteries; and three, I should have written my first post of the year four days and fifteen minutes ago and gone to bed.


I have excuses none of this is happening. Their names are Yamato and Seiji.

My older boy won’t stop making me play trains with him, or take him to the park. I wish he’d get creative and say something like ‘Daddy, just get out of my face if you can’t turn me into a dinosaur.’ Then I can get down to some serious resolution-making – after I fiddle with the settings on my blog page a little more. The younger kid thinks he’s off the mochi hook because he only has four teeth, and cries like a baby until I give in and fix him some pulverized peas instead. This of course means it’s another plate of cooled-off, brick-of-chalk mochi for papa. Then all day they tag-team mom with screaming poopie pants and glue-eating competitions, and in an apartment this size I can’t fake not noticing that the god of hellfire is shooting out the wife’s mouth again, and suddenly I’m back on daddy duty and another day of writing is shot. So here goes another late-night typing session – evidently I didn’t place the prolific writing resolution bar high enough to justify crying a quiet ‘impossible’ to myself and just crawling into my futon.
But really, I’m glad I’m feeling motivated, because I can’t wait any longer to say that my New Year’s Eve was, in a word with countless connotations, amazing.