Friday, December 24, 2010

Now I Know Why My Son Calls Me Krampus

This past week I was once again rattling my ping-pong ball brain around in my skull, trying to knock loose from my miserly sub-conscience another of his multitude of ultra-creative, neuron-growth-stimulating ideas for my Tuesday evening English class. Last month I decided to broaden my students’ vocabulary as well as their intercultural awareness by showing them photos of my recent trip to California. This worked well for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that it gave my students a way to feel they were fully participating in class without having to say anything more than ooh and ahh.

With the Christmas season upon us, and with Japanese society in general not having the slightest clue how to properly celebrate, I wanted to incorporate a Christmas theme into our ninety-minute lesson that usually ends up lasting no more than an hour because someone, like the teacher, is always late. Singing Christmas songs seems an obvious option, but after teaching that Beatles class earlier in the year I knew no one would be able to hang with a tempo any quicker than ‘Silver Bells’ and personally I know my sanity wouldn’t survive the class because they don’t allow spiked eggnog in the building. Last year I asked them to translate a children’s Christmas book; my preparation for this consisted entirely of plowing through all the Santa and Snowman and cartoon ‘Zheesusu’ stories my wife had borrowed from the library and picking out the shortest one. Two hours later my students were bleeding through their foreheads trying to translate the sounds Maisy the mouse, Tallulah the chicken-like thing, Charley the alligator and Eddie the elephant made as they walked through the snow. No disrespect to Lucy Cousins but I will not be trying that again.

This year I am arguably older and wiser, and I thought it would be interesting for my students and quite easy on my ping-pong ball if I put together a list of little-known facts related to Christmas. But when I sat down to a piece of white paper, pen in hand (my printer is broken, has been for two years and isn’t getting better), it occurred to me I know pretty much jack about Christmas beyond church and Charlie Brown (not to downplay the significance of either of these). So I turned on the laptop, made a cup of hot chocolate and folded an entire load of laundry waiting for it (the laptop) to warm up, then googled and scribbled down the most easily-explainable bits of Christmas history and trivia I could find before my son came in to demand I let him use the pc to watch Barney, one of the dozens of DVDs we have from the US that won’t play on our Japanese DVD player.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Luxury: The New Spirituality

Enjoy Nature Without Having to Deal With it

Our chosen route out of Phnom Penh.
A number of years ago I flew to Cambodia to meet up with two friends who were riding tandem bicycles around the world. This was to be my first trip to a country without any semblance of a sanitation department so naturally I was pretty excited.

I'd travel with them along a common route: Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and the venerable temples of Angkor. Our mode of travel would be something less than standard. On the first day we pedaled just shy of 100 kilometers, along undulating dirt roads cutting across tree-studded plains baking in the heat, with only an occasional village to keep us on the more pleasurable side of dehydration.

At breakfast (plates of rice and mystery on a wobbly table at a roadside shack) my cycling buddies poured small packets of oraange something into their bottles of purified water. ‘Electrolytes,’ one of them said in response to my inquiry. Pixie dust, I told myself. But okay. These guys were biking around the world, they needed a lot of electrolytes. I was only there for a week. And besides I was no hotshot cyclist, I was just a hotshot. Plain water was good enough for me.

At our guest house that evening, curled up and clutching my stomach, unable to keep down so much as a leaf of Cambodian lettuce, I pondered the real-life effects of cellular osmosis and how I might ask for electrolytes at a drug store in Cambodia.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

It Was a Beautiful Day in Sydney

It was a beautiful day when my friend got on the train in Sydney three days ago. He was heading west to the Blue Mountains, a tranquil place touched by God. He was alone. He was feeling okay. Better than he had in a while. The world passed by outside his window. I wonder if it looked any different to him.

I went down under to see him in September, 2009. It had been a while, and it was a great excuse to travel. We climbed aboard that same train, along with my wife and my wonderful son. My friend had just returned to school. Both our lives had changed dramatically since our days teaching English in adjoining classrooms, where we could listen to each other conduct class and then roll with laughter on the walk home as we criticized each other mercilessly. In the seven years since our roads had narrowed. Yet our horizons remained wide, despite the haze floating over them from time to time.

My friend got off at Katoomba Station, where people still take your tickets and trade friendly words. The crowds were light, this being a Monday; there were plenty of empty seats in the coffee shops and cafes along Katoomba Street. My friend could have stopped somewhere, to rest his legs and treat himself, to ponder the beauty of the day. But like all people with places to go, he didn’t. He walked on, with an ease in his step that had been missing for far too long. A lightness that would disappear if he decided to just go home.

There are shuttle buses that run from the station down to the visitor center at Echo Point. It would have saved us time. But time, as much as the Blue Mountains themselves, was why we were there with our friend. So we walked Katoomba Street together. My wife and I took turns with the stroller, our friend ambled along behind us, visibly amused by our indifference to, or ignorance of, the length of the walk we were undertaking. ‘I would have pulled up stumps at the first sign of a beer,’ he’d later joke to his family. But if he did at the time think the walk might be too much he never gave any indication. Or maybe I’m not too good at picking up signals. And I wish to God I were.

Katoomba Street runs straight as an arrow, down a long hill and right back up another. There Katoomba Falls Road forks off to the right, leading past Maple Grove Park to Cliff Drive, Prince Henry Cliff Walk and a hundred places to stand and look out over the canyon below and the miles and miles of Blue Mountains running off into forever. Continuing on Katoomba Road brings you to Panorama Drive and Echo Point Road, which terminates at Echo Park and more breath-taking views from the cliffs that rise hundreds of feet straight up from the canyon floor. Behind the visitor center a path through a grove of gum trees leads to the Giant Stairway, a treacherous descent for anyone let alone a guy carrying his two-year-old son in his arms. I don’t know if my friend walked out to Echo Point three days ago; if he did perhaps he would have recalled our hike down those steps.

Our days teaching together had come to an end, but my friend and I kept in touch. While he maintained an appreciable collection of video games he felt not the slightest compulsion to get a cell phone. This, upon closer scrutiny, can actually appear quite congruent. He claimed to be a strong introvert, though no one who knew my friend would ever be inclined to agree. At work, at parties and on the street, he was never one to temper his boisterous urges. Which seemed to work in his favor until he said the wrong thing to the wrong person in a nightclub in Tokyo. He came to the next afternoon, no recollection of the last 24 hours. He’d suffered damage to his brain. He’d need immediate surgery. They scoured the surveillance tapes but the culprit would never be known.

No matter where my friend stood along those cliffs, he would be able to see Federal Pass Track, the trail that took us along the floor of the canyon. The ground was too rocky and rutted for the stroller; my wife and I shared kid-carrying duty while my friend folded up the stroller and carried it by his side in one big hand. Up ahead a cable car waited, for anyone not too keen on hoofing it back up to the top of the cliffs. My friend looked at us. We looked at him. He couldn’t believe we were actually going to pass on the cable car, but he smiled and followed us up another comically long and winding staircase. We’d end up walking back along Katoomba Street, all the way to the blessed benches on the platform at the station. ‘You guys are gamers,’ he said, collapsing in his seat. ‘I’d have never done that myself.’ Then after a moment he added, ‘Thanks.’

If I could choose one thing I would want going through my friend’s head as he looked down onto Federal Pass Track, this would be it.

As we made our way toward Echo Point I listened to my friend explain how he hoped to regain the Japanese he had learned over six years and then lost in a second. He was also studying German as well as economics and was looking forward to finishing his degree and getting a steady job teaching, at a high school or maybe a university. ‘Uni,’ he called it, in the common Aussie vernacular. But the headaches just wouldn’t go away, and he couldn’t concentrate no matter how hard he tried. He had a girlfriend, though she lived clear across the far side of Sydney and he only saw her so much. Over the years his old friends had all drifted away. ‘No worries, I need to put all my energy into my studies anyway.’

And he tried.

My friend stood out on those cliffs, somewhere. And maybe he did for one moment think about our time together there. Maybe he even smiled. But the weight of the life he was trying so hard to fend off became too much to bear. And the vastness of the Blue Mountains looked so peaceful.

It was a beautiful day in Sydney.

God be with you, my friend.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

World Cup Blogging in Surreal Time

The evils of the Internet, not to mention the social media, have gotten their claws into me. Ten years ago I could watch any major sporting event on tape delay without having to worry in the meantime that Yahoo or or half the facebook world would ruin it for me. Now here I am, awake and on  my undersized couch at 3:30am for the Germany-Spain match.

I didn't drink coffee ten years ago either.

I am actually pretty fired up that I decided to set my alarm. That tinny electronic version of Canon broke in half the worst dream I can remember having, ever. It involved a conversation - a conversation! - about global warming. Who has dreams like that?

Well the match is underway, so let's get to it.

I predict a win for Germany because they don't have anyone with long hair. This is my infallible barometer for predicting success on the football (soccer) pitch (field). Sound crazy? Look at Holland. Half their team doesn't even have hair. What other explanation can there be for a country of ten million people living in constant danger of being flooded into oblivion making it to the World Cup finals? It helped that they were up against Uruguay in the semi-final; Uruguay, a country of three million people and, apparently, no barbers.

This hair formula works for individuals too: all-time leading scorer in World Cup play? Ronaldo, with only that wedge of hair on his otherwise clean-shaven head. Germany's Klose and Mueller are right behind him. Klose's hair has gotten shorter with each successive goal he has scored, check the replays from 2006 if you don't believe me. Mueller's put the ball in the net three times in the last two matches, but then he didn't shave and thus yellow-carded himself right out of today's match (game) against Spain, who does have the neatly-trimmed David Villa on their side as well as the tamed golden mane of Fernando Torres, but if a couple of those guys don't visit the team stylist at halftime Spain is done for. It's as simple as that.

Maybe they've already made their appointments, because early on Spain seems to have the time-of-possession edge, despite being interrupted in Germany's territory by some nut job who decided to run onto the field less than four minutes into the match. I'll never understand some people. He should have at least made some kind of deal and run out in front of three billion people waving a Budweiser banner for some cash.

We're already thirty minutes in and while both teams have had their chances there have been no serious scoring threats. Okay, Puyol from Spain was given a great opportunity on a perfect cross from the right side but he had long hair and his header went flying way over the crossbar.

Since the match started I've been feeling a bit off. Normally a 3:15am alarm will do this to me - if a 3:15am alarm were normal. But I just realized what it is. I'm not hearing those kazoos. The TV is turned way down, sure, but I can hear the Japanese announcers just fine. Two weeks of World Cup play and my brain has tuned out the noise. It took me almost a full month before I was sleeping through my baby's nighttime screaming sessions. Lucky for me my wife doesn't care about the World Cup and hasn't had the selective hearing training that I've had.

I love watching sports on Japanese TV; all the relative terms the commentators use are actually the English words, spoken in the Japanese syllabary. 'Deh-viddo Bee-ra ga ref-to sigh-do ni, ku-rossu boh-ru, headin-gu shoo-TOH!' (Please email me directly for the official translation, as well as the incidental distinction of being the first person in history to officially comment on my blog.)

It's already halftime. What happened? No yellow cards? These guys better try harder in the second half.

It's 4:15am now, and despite the thick rainy-season cloud cover it's getting light out. This doesn't bode well for me in terms of getting any sleep once this match is over. My son still isn't old enough to understand that wake-up time is based on how late daddy was up the night before, not on some silly solar event.

Okay, second half is starting, I've got another cup of coffee by my side and...wait a minute! Fernando Torres is still on the bench! What is Spain's coach thinking? Fernando just recently got his hair cut! There are plenty of crossbar-clearing hippies still running around out there. I think we are beginnning to see why Spain has not been living up to its Number One ranking lately.

For those of you who still doubt my reasoning, ask yourself: Did Pele ever need a hairband?

One of Germany's players is named Schweinsteiger. Now, I was a mere German language and literature minor in college, meaning I could get by if I was able to discuss in German the relative pros and cons of German beer. (This of course made easier by the fact there are no cons.) But if I recall correctly, Schwein means pig while Steiger means someone who climbs or mounts. Check the math yourself, but personally I would not be out there in front of half the TV-owning world with the name 'Pig-mounter' on my back.

While we are on the subject of names, what is up with David Villa having his full name across the back of his jersey? Anyone who actually cares who is who out there will probably be astute enough to understand that big Number 7 under the Villa means it's David. On the other hand, there's also a guy named 'Xrvi' on the Spanish side. He should have his full name on his shirt just for the fan interest factor.

Twenty minutes into the second half, Spain is getting some solid chances but Neuer the German goalie keeps turning them away. I can deal with 0-0 matches if guys are getting dirty out there.

SCORE!! Spain goes ahead with a borderline insurmountable 1-0 lead on a header off a corner kick. Strange thing is, Puyol put it in. This is the same muppet who headed it over the crossbar in the first half. He must have gotten a trim during the break.

I'm rooting for Germany by the way. It often happens that I don't know who I want to win until the match has started and I find myself pulling for one side or the other. Today was no exception to that, and I just now realized why. The German and Dutch languages are similar enough that opposing players can hold a decent argument with each of them speaking their own language. With two completely different languages at work - say, English and Japanese - it is much more difficult for two people (soccer players, husband and wife, etc.) to get a good jawing going. If Uruguay had beaten Holland I would be rooting for Spain now. And yes, I would be able to hear the players yelling at each other now that I've tuned out the chorus of kazoos.

Ah, the Spanish coach is coming to his senses - he's putting Fernando Torres and his neatly-trimmed coif into the game. But hold on...he's taking out David Villa? He's got shorter hair than the new and improved Fernando! And that tiny trianglular goatee Villa is sporting can't be the problem, that thing is barely long enough to merit a dab of mousse, even in Spain (but would get one in Italy).

Germany's got three minutes left to put the ball in the net. Spain took out both Portugal and Paraguay with 1-0 efforts; I didn't think that would be enough against the impeccably-clipped German scoring machine.

Now Spain is making a substitution with less than a minute of extra time remaining. This is what used to happen in town league basketball games. What, did someone's mother complain that her son wasn't getting any playing time? And there's the final whistle, and he's still on the sideline, jumping up and down as if to ward off the barrage of pulled muscles his 8 seconds of playing time would bring.

Great, so now I'm looking at a World Cup final consisting of inarticulate arguments and a probable 1-0 score as Spain doesn't seem to know how to do anything else. Unless of course their coach takes my call and sends Puyol to the Cape Town Barber Shop before the weekend. Or Holland continues to put their receding hairlines to work. Who hasn't noticed how many of their goals have come off of headers? (Except for their first goal against Brazil, which was a gift as a long-haired defender got in the goalie's way allowing Sneijder's pass - that was in no way a shot - to end up in the net.)

So it's coming up on 5:30am, it's light out, the clouds are even clearing and the family is still all asleep. I suppose I could try to get a little more shut-eye but recently my son has gotten into this early-to-bed-early-to-rise cycle and has been waking me up at 6:00 by sticking his face into mine and saying 'Daddy let's eat breakfast!' Not even a gentle shake or a nice easy good morning or even a kazoo which would be fine since I can't hear those anymore. Just a blunt, grinning 'Welcome back to the new world order, dad. I want cereal.' And another day will be lost in the vortex that is parenthood.

So maybe it's good that I have to wake up in the middle of the night to watch these games. This is my time. The next Olympics are in London, which means a lot of the best stuff will be on in the wee hours here in Japan. If I'm really lucky I won't be working at all by then. Of course my second son will be pulling the same wake-up call routine that his older brother is throwing me now.

But that's cool; at the end of the day I love being a dad.

I'm going to need more coffee though.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Daddy the Hypocrite

There goes my dad, off to the supermarket on his bicycle. What a liar. Three hours ago he told me it was closed so he wouldn't have to go buy me ice cream. 'Maybe tomorrow,' he said to me in that condescending high-pitched voice. 'We can go together, okay?' Fine, but you're kidding yourself if you think I'll forget by morning, old man. It's like the guy thinks I was born yesterday.

I totally caught him whispering to my mom (like I can't hear him over the sound of my trains smashing into the walls) that he just needed to go get some soy milk. I know that was a dish of poo-poo too because a little while ago I found some in the fridge. I only wanted a sip – fair trade for the neg on the Breyer's I’d say – but nooo he said, tossing me some line about taking care of my week-old cough. He has a cough too but he still shovels in the meuslix and milk every morning while he tries to make me eat that hot water and rice stuff. 'And don't drink out of the carton,' he tells me though he does it every day. So I ask him to get me my cup and he throws this attitude like it's my fault I'm not tall enough yet to reach the cabinets. Then when I try to help clean up and put the milk back in the fridge he starts in on the Save Energy routine. 'Hurry up and close the door, all the cold air is getting out!' Right, Mr. Eco-Life, leaving your laptop on while you slip out the door.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Right & Wrong - World Cup Round-Up

My first son is some kind of perceptual wizard. After sleeping through his little brother’s all-night a capella performance last night, not only did he have the wherewithal to wake me up at 5am to play cars, but had the previous evening strategically machine-gunned his toys all over the living room floor so I could catch the end of the US-Ghana match as I lined up Thomas the Tank Engine for another head-on collision with a green convertible driven by Ronald McDonald. A rather long and confusing explanation, you say? Welcome to my recent life.

I’ve got the England-Germany game on; Wayne Rooney is flopping around like a Gulf coast pelican.

It’s already taking me forever to write this. Number 8 on Germany looks like a cartoon character and I can’t figure out which one.

I played soccer for years growing up. Or should I say I was allowed to play soccer. My personal brand of it which, while not pretty, was basically harmless to the other players, on both teams. But nothing I pulled – inadvertently – compares with the circus known as this year’s group stage.

Forget those big kazoos, I’ve tuned them out by now, more or less. Still, South Africa better not hold their breath if they’re hoping to host the Olympic Games someday. Or wait, maybe that’s exactly what they should do.

I really have no business trying to give a rundown of events up to this point; between trying to keep my older son from feeding his little brother his pillow during the 8:30pm matches and digging around in a darkened kitchen for toothpicks to pry my eyelids open for the 3:30am games I miss a lot. Regardless, with the usual theme of decent soccer painfully absent from the group stage I am relegated to tossing out a completely and unabashedly disconnected review of the curious debacle happening in Africa, where people in the stands can be seen wearing winter coats.

Five minutes into the first match, South Africa – Uruguay, my only thought was of the hairstyles of the players on the field. I thought I was looking at a Black Music Stars of the 80’s convention: Milli Vanilli and Terence Trent Darby everywhere.

Algeria gets my vote for dirtiest team of the tournament; Ghezzal with his two yellows in ten minutes was only the icing on that ugly cake they baked up against Slovenia. On the flip side, Cameroon wins for fielding the coolest if not the most effective bunch of footballers. The Netherlands gets my nod for the best player names, Van Der Vaart and Klaas Jan Huntelaar among them. Gotta love the double a.

Fashion has been a rather hot topic around Boerland these days. Four years ago Italy seemed to stand out with their skin-tight jerseys. (Of course Italy, what would you expect?) Now it’s on ongoing international display of ‘look-at-my-pecs.’ Some will argue that the tight shirts are tougher for the opposition to grab and pull on; I also read a comment about them decreasing wind resistance – presumably so these guys can hit the ground even harder before writhing around in the agony of their fake injuries. But it’s obviously all a marketing ploy. I’ve never seen so many women in the stands before.

Speaking of women in the stands, what was up with all those Dutch women in their bright orange mini skirts being arrested? Banning bare legs while touting their ability to continue blowing their kazoos fifteen minutes after the game has ended; never mind the Olympics, South Africa isn’t going to get Pat Sajak on location if they keep it up. That sideline slogan – STAY ALIVE – SOUTH AFRICA – might not be helping either.

Everyone (okay, all eleven people in the US who cared) was up in arms about the goal that referee from Mali took away for offsides in the US-Slovenia match. Much worse though was Kaka from Brazil getting sent off when an opposing player next to him pulled a Wayne Rooney, throwing himself at the turf after Kaka’s elbow brushed against his non-wind-resistant jersey. But even this is understandable – it’s a fast game, the refs are bound to miss stuff like that. What I found absolutely unforgivable was the German coach and his assistant not being carded for their matching navy blue cardigan sweaters in the match against Serbia. They weren’t moving that fast, I don’t know how the refs missed it. Then tonight they switched to matching blue v-necks and were yet again able to get away with it. Now that they’ve disposed of England I can only speculate as to how they are going to flaunt their apparent disregard for decency when Germany takes on Argentina, who will undoubtedly beat Mexico as Maradona will manage to punch the ball into Mexico’s net without being called for it.

Everyone here is fired up for Japan’s match against Paraguay, and rightly so. Yet in Japan, as in baseball arbitration, it’s not what’s expected to happen so much as what has already happened that seems to matter. In the lead-up to the World cup Japan was giving about as much attention to Team Okada as they were to their own country’s ongoing practice of killing over 400 whales annually for ‘research purposes.’ Then they eke out a 1-0 win over eventual 3-game loser Cameroon and the entire population is rushing out to buy Honda jerseys. The guy wasn’t even on the ‘Kirin Lager – Support the Japan’ cardboard beer display racks for crying out loud. (And maybe it’s just me, but I’m not sure he was even speaking Japanese in his post-game interview.) Suddenly he’s an icon, center of the 10-HOUR (I swear) pre-game show right before Japan got their collective attention smacked by Holland and everyone went back to meekly predicting a 1-0 win over Denmark. So perhaps now it’s a bit surprising that, having taken the Danes 3-1, Japan isn’t already building an airport to commemorate their 2010 World Cup championship.

Great, now it’s 2am and I’m wide awake because (a) I still can’t figure out who that Number 8 on Germany looks like, and (b) I’ve been eating cocoa puffs out of the box. I can probably stay awake for the 3:30 game even though we’re out of toothpicks but I know that in a few hours my son, having woken up at 5, gone the whole day without a nap and crashed at 8, is going to be replaying his early bird performance. And now his toys, strewn like the aftermath of any bar in England right now, are in a room where there’s no TV.

And he’s not going to let me get away with faking an injury.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Psychology of Doing the Dishes

Silence throughout the house at 7:45pm. If I close my eyes I can almost recall my peaceful previous life. A life of unfettered choice. Of a lone wolf, walking the wilds of this world, hunting his prey as he sees fit and sleeping where he chooses.
As I open my eyes again, to floors strewn with a miscellany of toys and a fish tank that has somehow fallen into my pit of responsibility, I have to remind myself that I chose this.
Not so long ago I was content to drift along on the currents of circumstance - which is easy to do when you are constantly landing on new and inviting shores. But even the most exciting of prospects will eventually lose their luster if their shine resembles all others that have come before. I am reminded of a kid I met in a guest house in Malaysia; he'd given up a life of criss-crossing the Pacific as a deckhand on the boats of the super-rich to spend days at a time hiking the rain forest in Tamana Negara, his boots filling with leeches along the way. 'Another day, another deserted white-sand tropical paradise,' he said, wiping at the smears of blood on his feet. 'It gets boring.'
Akita and Matsumoto don't qualify as tropical paradises, but eventually I came to understand what he was saying. So I left my peripatetic, epicurean life with the English conversation school and threw myself into the unknowns of marriage and my nascent dreams of living off the written word.
Life has since become the greatest paradox I could ever imagine.
Free from all responsibility save the ones I choose to assume, I find myself a full-time prisoner. I thought I'd hit the jackpot when my wife told me she didn't mind how much or little I was working, so long as we had food on the table. What I failed to consider was the improbability of getting a shred of thoughtful writing in with a milk-swilling, diaper-dirtying, ear-grating newborn boy around. He took naps, of course, but they never seemed to last very long. Especially to a guy who types with two fingers and has the concentration span of a coke addict.
Fast-forward to now, that little boy is running around speaking two languages - though all he ever seems to say in either of them is 'Let's play cars together.' The kid is tenacious, I'll give him that. And that newborn has been replaced with a carbon copy, save for a less easily-satiable appetite and a stronger set of pipes. The only control I have over my daily life now is choosing which chores to do and when. 'I can't hold Seiji, I'm busy filling the laundry machine with the used bath water.' 'Sorry Yamato, I can't play cars, I'm washing the dishes so we can use them again tomorrow.' And for a few more moments, my life still belongs to me.
The teaching jobs I pick up now serve as a coffee break amid the chaos of working (or not) from home. (I keep mentioning to my wife how expensive rice has become recently.)
As for the ongoing pursuit of traveling the world with pencil and paper, I take my own baby steps when everyone else has finally fallen asleep. This evening was an absolute anomaly. And, ultimately, short-lived. But they'll all fall back asleep before long, and I'll fire up another cup of 10pm joe and continue down this road of freedom I've chosen.
Once I've finished the dishes.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dumb Luck

This evening during English class with a group of relatively excitable Japanese 'shakaijin' (company employees) I gleaned yet another sliver of insight - if not a slice of actual understanding - into this place I've come to call home.

Despite the depressing trend here toward westernizing anything that can be westernized (read: culturally decimated) it is still not only possible but rather easy to find a calendar in Japan with daily notations for the traditional six-day cycle of good luck and bad luck and...whatever you call what lies in between. The luckiest days are called 大安 (dai-an), when every wedding hall and fake church in the country can get away with doubling the going rate for a eye-stabbingly boring reception or a fake Christian ceremony (complete with gospel readings that no one involved has the slightest clue about - and that includes the person reading) because everyone getting married wants to do so on this, the luckiest of days. (It just occurred to me I should check into the divorce rate in Japan.) The unluckiest days in Japan are known as 仏滅 (butsu-metsu). On these days the wedding halls stand deserted as the immigration information counter at City Hall while the fake Christian priests go hit golf balls into a massive green net hung between the dental clinic and someone's home because that was the last remaining two-meter-wide swath of unused space in the entire city, and the priests needed something to do on butsu-metsu.

These things, though, are common knowledge for even the most disinterested of the 5,000 overpaid, underworked 22-year-old brat JET English teachers here on the archipelago. Tonight, however, thanks to my students, growing more confident each week in their ability to maim the English language in new and uncharted ways, I now possess perhaps one more salmon egg's worth of knowledge about the intricacies of Japan which, ironically, just serves to confound me even further. To wit:

Another of the six days of the cycle is 赤口 (shakkoh) which, translating the characters literally, means 'red mouth.' (This may or may not be good for a few interesting visuals.) Ever eager to firm up my mental grip on my adopted home, I went ahead and asked Toshiyuki: 'So what is a shakkoh day?'

What I gathered listening to his stuttering, syntactically-disastrous explanation was that shakkoh is a lucky day - but only at noon. At first, by 'noon' Toshiyuki seemed to mean that almost immeasurable sliver of time when it is exactly noon, according to the Emperor's personal atomic clock. But I pressed him on it and he backpedaled a bit, conceding that the good luck of shakkoh could conceivably extend an hour on either side of noon. But the rest of the day was most assuredly bad luck. The rest of the class chimed in with a chorus of sounds which, in any language, could only mean one thing: 'We actually have no flippin idea what we are talking about but please accept this as our answer so we can move on without embarrassing ourselves any further with our gross lack of understanding of our own traditions.' You'd hear the same sound in the States if you asked any random group of people the functioning purpose of the Electoral College. As of now, I can only say that in Japan on shakkoh days you probably want to eat your sushi lunch on time - and eat it quick.

Then Mihoko piped up and told us all about how her grandparents would never leave the house on butsu-metsu days.

I love Japan, for all its quirks and incomprehendability. It wouldn't be Japan otherwise.

Still, I'm glad some traditions are falling by the wayside.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sarah the Brave

Unwitting is My Favorite Kind of Irony

Two weeks ago I came across the fodder for this post: an in-flight magazine article by fellow writer (fellow meaning she writes for magazines and I would like to write for magazines) Sarah Twain (not her real surname). Since then my head has been spinning with images I've been itching to get down on paper before they lose whatever small measure of their original incisive hilarity.

My ideas, unlike wine and easy listening radio, don't get better with age.

I'd have gotten to this sooner if not for the more pressing priorities I've recently imposed upon myself, like getting my novel ready for printing, making sure my son doesn't swallow any more of Thomas the Tank Engine's buddies, and getting to 200 friends on facebook. There just isn't enough time in the day. If I ever get a job this blog will really be done for.

To be completely forthright, the novel still isn't quite ready, but there I'm in a bit of a holding pattern as my patient friend Ron sorts through a few niggling formatting details for me so I won't have to. A fine attitude for a guy starting his own publishing company, I know, but I've lost track of the number of little plastic train pieces there are supposed to still be around here. Plus the tornado of inspiration of two weeks ago is down to a wispy breeze of erstwhile wit; this post will simply die if I wait longer. As will, I'm sure, both of the people who know I'm keeping this blog.

In a previous post I mentioned my unabashed affinity for airline magazines...

...and not only the ones with the sudoku still intact. Really, I enjoy panning the pages of Hemispheres or Horizons or Turbulence for the travel articles that are usually at least entertaining enough to help me forget about the four hundred dollar fuel surcharge on this plane ticket I can't afford. And I like to dive in before drink service starts and I lose all powers of concentration, so I've developed the insidious but effective habit of handing my son the emergency instruction pamphlet and telling him to start pointing to each of the ninety-eight pictures and graphics and asking my wife ‘What is this?’

Flying back to Japan two weeks ago I came across the travel article I expound upon below with the exquisite grace of your regular everyday frustrated guy from New Jersey. It was certainly entertaining, this voyeuristic trip to California's wine country, albiet in the same way as when I saw for the first time Obama speaking without a teleprompter.

It began with a photo of a misty beach spread over two pages, wild golden grass creeping toward the sand and the flat surf. ‘Three Perfect Days in Sonoma’ proclaimed the author, further teasing me with promises like ‘rugged valleys that are just now tame enough to conquer.’ This Sarah seems like my kind of girl I mumbled to myself as my son moved his finger over to the image of a cell phone with a red X over it and asked my wife ‘What is this?’

In the bottom corner of the page the bullet points for the first two days consisted of (1) sipping pinot and (2) eating oysters. Day three included seal-spotting. I guessed Sarah just wanted to start us off slowly instead of tossing us headlong into the heart-pounding conquering-the-rugged-bits.

Hope and Expections Summarily Dashed

The next page was entirely dedicated to a photo of the pool at Sarah's hotel. Then I read the first line of the article – ‘Wander the streets of affluent Healdsburg’ – and I knew that Sarah the Rugged must be one slick writer, fooling me into thinking my three days would be all glazed shopping strips and poolside nips of chardonnay before tossing me into the water at Big Sur.

'The original settlers of the Sonoma valley,' she explained, 'were lumbermen and farmers who made wine on the side, more as family tradition than as a commercial endeavor.' Okay, so maybe we'll be chopping wood and operating heavy farm machinery I tried to assure myself despite the photograph of one of Healdsburg's streets, cleaner than Disneyland and every bit as precise as a Williams & Sonoma mail-order catalog.

I was ready for the ruggedest Sonoma could give me.

But then our tour with Sarah began.

‘Step out onto your balcony at the understatedly chic room at the Hotel Healdsburg,’ wrote Sarah the Intrepid. Farm trucks 'purr' along the street, she adds, though we wouldn't be doing anything quite so rash as touching something that so recently had dirt on it. Instead we'd be heading down to the hotel lobby for some fresh granola (fresh from the box I'm gathering) and sliced fruit laid out like a mosaic in the Basilica di San Pietro. Outside we'd spot a small group of ‘spandex-clad athletes’ (a phrase which probably gives the correct visual) getting ready for a day of biking the wine country. Cool, I say to myself. Biking. ‘What is this?’ my son says to my wife. But then Sarah the Wise advises I take a walk around Beverly Healdsburg (her words) before I ‘embark on anything quite so ambitious.’ I could only squirm in my seat and keep reading.

The rest of our first day would include visiting a bookstore (beautiful Sonoma, Sarah the Learned counsels, also has brains), running our hands 'lovingly' over some copper cookware, stopping by the organic Love Farms market to see a display of ‘heirloom tomatoes’ (big deal, I've got half a casserole that's been in the family since Grandma), driving a Mercedes SLK55 convertible (automatic transmission to save your strength) to go pick up a Brie and olive sandwich for lunch (drive-thru if possible), having a 'picnic' on one of the teak tables on the patio at a vineyard, taking a guided tour at a second vineyard, then scurrying back to the hotel to relax in the hot tub or ‘indulge in a quick nap on your crisp Frette linens’. Sarah the Circumspect understands I might not be up to her level of ruggedness at this stage of our odyssey, I figure. I need to ease into our wine country crusade. The remains of Day One are best spent tackling 'the formidable five-course meal waiting in the hotel restaurant.'

I try to tell myself that is just Sonoma-speak – or Sarah-speak – for a high-carb pre-workout scarf-fest.

Next up is a full-page shot of a path disappearing into a thick forest. The first word that comes to mind when I see a trail through the woods is ‘run’ – as in take off running down the trail and don't stop until you feel yourself reaching that moment that only other people who have run until reaching that moment can understand. The first word Sarah the Supercilious thinks of when she sees a wooded trail, I imagine, is bug spray.

Day Two begins with some 'serious' coffee and a croissant. We've checked out of our understatedly chic hotel, but I don't see any camping gear for our trip into the rugged valley – as if there were any room in our little ragtop coupe what with the guide, the masseuse and the guy in the turtleneck who speaks fluent wine taking up the back seat. We'll be checking into a 'luxurious' (I already checked, this is not a synonym for rugged) room at the Farmhouse Inn, the perfect name of course for a ‘stylish Russian River idyll’ complete with a concierge (thank God we don't have to go find anything on our own out on one of the three roads out there). But before this, we will push ourselves to the limit with a stop at yet another winery to pick up some zinfandel mustard, then go for Drakes Bay oysters on the half shell at a place Sarah the Embellisher tries to pass off as 'urbane yet rustic.' I don't know if I've ever had Drakes Bay oysters – I don't even know what that means – but I get the sense they and the word rustic don't quite belong in the same area code. One more winery (remember, you're driving) for a breezy chat with the resident winemakers about traditional barrel-making and wine-stomping (Sarah the Uncalloused is thoroughly experienced in the art of chatting about traditional arts). Then back to the Farmhouse Hilton for a dip in the pool. Finally, a stop at reception to get set up with a complimentary salt scrub and milk bath because (I swear I am not making this up, these are Sarah the Lionhearted's exact words), ‘you've earned it.’ You've earned it! God be praised you hale and hearty adventurer, alive and well after a most intrepid expedition to the remotest, wildest realms known to man!

After a dinner including fig pizza, something called Black Pig Salumi and, of course, some pinot noir, kick back on the lanai and breathe in the scents of the herb garden.

I don't think I can take any more, but on Day Three Sarah the Relentless presses on. 'Go for a drive along River Road,' she commands, and ‘note the various trapped-in-time motels tucked into the shadows of enormous redwoods and feel happily relieved you've arranged fancier digs.’

Next to the word rugged in Sarah the Deluded's dictionary is a picture of someone having to press the elevator button themselves.

But wait! At Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve Sarah the Conqueror is getting out of the car! God be praised! She's going for a walk!

‘Here in the dim woods,’ she says, referring apparently to the bright green forest in the photo on the opposite page, ‘you're eerily alone.’ On a fence-lined woodchip path that makes a meticulously-raked Japanese temple rock garden look like downtown Port-au-Prince. But then, ‘feeling ready for human contact (since no one has handed us a slice of Gouda in nearly twenty minutes), hop back in the Mercedes.’ Lunch is a West County burger with fried leeks on a roadside picnic table overlooking the coast (too little too late Sarah) followed by a drive along the ‘perilous, cliff-hugging Highway 1’ (Hey Sarah the Carsick, talk to me after you try taking a night bus out of La Paz). ‘Stay on the lookout for stray cows’ warns Sarah the Crocodile Hunter as she brings me toward Salt Point State Park's Stump Beach, where there is a sign that reads ‘Strong Backwash. Sleeper Waves. Rip Currents.’

If Sarah decides to go swimming then all is forgiven.

'Watch the surf and the occasional seal.’ Did she forget to mention the ‘from the cedar deck while sipping a merlot in your leather patio chair’ or is this something we should just assume by now? ‘The air is a bit cooler here than in Healdsburg, so head back to the Mercedes and put up the top.’ Aw, is Sawah the Wugged getting a widdle chiwwy? We get on Skaggs Spring Road, ‘a byway so remote that signs warn you in advance to make sure you're gassed up.’ From there Sarah the Ultimate Survivor arrives back at the Farmhouse Inn to (I absolutely swear these are her words) ‘freshen up before dinner’ – a real backwoods-style meal of Gruyere potato gratin and beef tenderloin. Served, of course, with wine. Poured by someone else.

And with that, rugged traveler, the unforgiving road comes to a merciful end.

Don't get me wrong, I am not at all against a relaxing few days in wine country. Sounds pretty darn good, actually. But when someone like Sarah the Manure Spreader tries to make a high-dollar weekend of wine, food and salt baths sound like a Jules Verne novel I have to call her on it.

Of course, this is all just to hide my envy. Sarah the Writer is getting her stuff in airline magazines while I'm trying to explain the concept of a life raft to a two-year-old, the wife having fled to the bathroom.

'Daddy, what is this?'...

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The True Meaning of 'Home For Christmas'.

Twelve minutes before midnight, January 1, and I am draining my second massive Kahlua and coffee of the evening. This is not typical, mind you. At least it wasn't up until three weeks ago. Come to think of it, there's not much typical about a lot of things I have been doing since I arrived back stateside for the holidays. Until I actually got here, that is; then the atypical quickly assumed a veil of normalcy. Confused? Bear with me, I'm heating up another pot of water.
Twenty-hour journey and subsequent jet lag notwithstanding, I always look forward to coming home for the holidays. The predictable inveiglements apply, of course: Mom's cooking and Dad's SUV, occasionally half-decent radio and the opportunity to catch up with friends face-to-face. And the experience of having twenty-three family members simultaneously under one roof is an occasion that really shouldn't be missed, regardless of how you feel about them. As long as there's Kahlua, I mean. But these things are more or less superficial adornments to a subtler, more gratifying and much more sinister dynamic of substituting a normally sane lifestyle with the damn-the-cholesterol-torpedoes approach to anotheer Christmas season at home.
I got off to a responsible start, actually. My two-year-old son didn't take to the time warp too readily (he was gracious about it, even if he didn't understand why the hell everyone was eating dinner at 8am), but this meant he would drag my wife out of bed and down to the basement in the middle of the night to play with Grandma's impressive collection of third-generation Fisher-Price toys. This in turn led to long afternoon naps and early bedtimes which translated into time for me to work on a couple of writing projects. On top of this, I am nlessed with superhuman powers of concentration and I have been able to tune out Mom and Dad in the background watching CSI: Toledo.
But then came the road trip. Christmas was coming fast and my window of opportunity was closing. So I tossed my family into the car and head south to DC to drop in on my sister...then headed further south into the Shenandoah Valley and the seething teeth of a snowstorm to see a couple of friends who had a couple of kids while I wasn't looking. Headed home via the Jersey shore, another sister and a poorly-plowed I-295 and voila! I was back home again, itching to get back to Google's amusing Slovenian-to-English translation efforts. My mom was even clearing out for me, taking off for Pennsylvania and her husband's side of the family for a few days. But then my wife and boy made a horribly miraculous recovery from their jet lag, and before you could say 'No Yamato you can't have ice cream for breakfast don't touch that hey GET DOWN FROM THERE' my quiet time had disappeared, leaving me with these nagging notions of responsibility, of bearing the mantle, however thin, of the caring, infested-with-holiday-cheer father and husband. This is when I first cracked the Kahlua.
With a near-empty house, Christmas Eve was indeed a mighty calm affair. On Christmas Day we attended mass, the majority of the congregation showing up fashionably late then hauling ass out the door like the crowd at the Giants' last home game this season. I think I was the only one in the entire place wearing a tie. Best dressed in the church I was, with the possible exception of the priest. In the afternoon we accepted an invitation to celebrate Christmas with my oldest sister's husband's extended family, consisting mostly of gregarious Italians whose names I successfully forget with each new meeting. I draw fair consolation that most of them forget my name too. The day after Christmas mom and her husband returned, my sister from California was flying in the day after that, and my Japanese wife was full-on into the post-Christmas half-price-on-all-Christmas-merchandise fray at Target and Kohl's. Monday was taken up by a trip into New York City, and thereafter the rest of the family came pouring into mom's quiet home, making all sorts of noise and taking away any hope of getting any writing done, even if the computer wasn't overheating with the constant stream of facebook hounds. Long before mom began slicing up the cheese and lining up the crackers for our family New Year's Eve I had accepted the probability that I was not going to get any more writing done for a while. Thus my spiral into my present condition.
My alternate life, temporary but oh so thick.
I've watched more TV in the last week than in the previous six months, thanks to the generous helpings of criminal investigation dramas available, not to mention the return of my body to a couch that takes itself seriously (while simultaneously magnifying one of the glaring voids in my life overseas). I haven't touched a bicycle since December 9th. Last weekend my legs were aching, quite literally, from inactivity - and probably still would be if not for an afternoon of walking Times Square with thirteen pounds of little boy hanging on my arms and neck. The only running I've done lately was a sprint across the street to the Dunkin' Donuts two days ago.
I am hardly repentant.
Because this is what it means to come home. I'll be back in Japan soon enough, my life once again devoid of decent TV dramas and big couches and bottles of stuff to mix with coffee. I'll get back to my writing then.
At least until my son's jet lag goes away.
The kettle is whistling again. And my mom says she really doesn't care much for Kahlua.