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.

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…

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.