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.