This is for some special friends.
You know who you are.
I’ll try again when I get back.
I hate sales calls. Really. I truly despise them. The whole concept of inviting yourself into someone else’s private residence, and insisting that they buy stuff they didn’t ask for is so invasive that I am truly offended.
On the other hand, one of the few advantages to being a befuddled foreigner is that I can pretend I don’t understand when I don’t want to. But I at least try to be civil. After all, these people are just doing their jobs. I doubt many little boys and girls look up into the night sky and dream of becoming telemarketers. There must be some reason why they ended up there. Perhaps they were politicians in a previous life.
But there are limits. The one who just called blathered away at me about high speed internet service then asked me if I was the “internet user” in the house. I told her politely that I had no idea what she was talking about. That’s what I said, too. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand what you’re talking about.” Her response was, “When will there be someone there who does understand Japanese?”
I don’t know about current telephone etiquette in other countries, but as far as I know, that took rudeness to an echelon so highly elevated that I’d be surprised if an atom of oxygen has gotten to the silly woman’s brain in the past several decades.The Japanese that I spoke was perfectly fluent. Maybe it’s high speed internet that I don’t understand. Or optical fibers. Or any of the other words I pretended not to understand.
So I told her there wouldn’t be anyone like that here until at least next week. She said she’d call back but I doubt she will. After I hung up, it occurred to me that maybe she did know I was lying and was playing a cat and mouse game of who can out-rude who. I hope I won.
I spent some time in Europe years ago, and being a big fan of museums, saw a lot of church art. There’s a lot of it to see. And I love it, especially the Renaissance. The understated elegance, gentle pastel colors, small-breasted women with realistic hips and thighs…. There are so many Madonna and Child paintings, I started to think they were pre-Facebook albums of endless baby pictures that at root had nothing to do with Mary or Jesus and more to do with mothers showing off their babies.
Still, I loved them, but once you’ve seen your 4000th Madonna and Child, they start to blend into one big renaissance nursery school. And then I saw this one by Raphael.
Not only is mom wearing two of my favorite colors, in loosely draped comfort no less, her hand is resting gently against her baby’s side. But more than that, his palm is resting against her chest, making just the slightest depression in the fabric, so open, so trusting, so safe and secure. It touched me more than the thousands I’d seen before or since.
When I was small, my mother would hold me on her lap and run her finger along my not-yet-greasy little girl face and say quiet things. All these years later, I remember that feeling of warmth and trust and safety and security. And now I look back on that blissful innocence and I’m grateful for it. I’m also starting to understand why women like fur coats.
I was riding a train the other day and standing in the corner by the door at just above the height of my knees was a little boy, I would guess about four years old. Judging by the intent look on his little man face, he was coping with some sort of crisis.
His mother knelt in front of him, speaking softly. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but watched his brow knit as he tried to come to terms with whatever the problem was. Then I noticed his open hand resting on his mother’s arm, not holding on, just resting. As much as he was struggling, it seemed that gentle touch was keeping him tethered to his mother, the reality of the train, the city, the world, as he tried to make sense of whatever was bothering him.
The parent-that-never-was in me felt a pang as powerful as I’ve ever felt anything and it left me panting.
And then it was gone, filed away with all the other impossible, improbable, unexpected, inevitable chances that might have been, possibilities that have come and gone, opportunities taken and lost. It was decidedly another dent in the armor, a vulnerability I didn’t know I had, but from that I think I can find strength. I’m developing into whoever it is I will be on this next leg of my life’s journey, and as I grope for the future, I hope that little guy found a handhold to grasp onto and moved on, as we all inevitably must.
The producer had told me a narrator named Hara was coming from Tokyo and that he’d pick us both up at the hotel in the morning. When I got to the lobby….
Producer: “You guys know each other?”
No, actually. We’d never met, but had known each other peripherally, through other connections, for years.
The recording only took a couple of hours. She had made arrangements to spend the night with a friend and I had to stay until the next morning to do the final program check, so we decided to spend the day together. First stop was the peace museum, ’nuff said about that yesterday. Then as we were making our way to the dome, one of us said something funny and we burst into giggles. I said, “Hey, I don’t think we should be laughing here!” And that made us laugh even more.
I was planning to head back to Tokyo the next morning after work but Sachiko asked me to go to Miyajima with her. She pointed out that it had taken four hours on the shinkansen to get to Hiroshima. Or 28 years and four hours in my case, seeing as I’d never been there before. We suddenly found ourselves on an unexpected mini vacation, some time to enjoy and good company to share it with. We both kicked it into silly gear, laughing like little girls who’d run into a clown on roller skates bearing balloons and cotton candy.
It took about 40 minutes on a charmingly rattly train and then a 10 minute ferry ride to get to Miyajima, but the journey was worth every minute. It was one of those almost impossibly perfect days. The sun was shining, the sky was clear. Buying my ticket at Hiroshima station, a wondrous feeling of freedom surged through my body. I realized that, for just a few hours, I could get away with not having a care in the world, which was my oyster and therefore appropriate for lunch, along with some freshwater eel.
I was feeling good.
Breathing the ocean scented water deep into my lungs, I used my superpowers to nearly topple this monument.
Upon landing and monument toppling, one walks past an arcade of restaurants and souvenir stands and an oddly large number of coffee shops, then one is expected to kiss a deer before entering the shrine, a lovely old wooden edifice built over the Seto Inland Sea. At high tide, the complex seems to float on the water, one of the finest examples of Japan’s traditional, elegant architecture.
We were there at low tide. We saw a lot of barnacles.
Sachiko tried and tried to get a good selfie of us with a deer, but most of them were more interested in the contents of my shirt and Sachiko’s purse, which was pretty much covered with deer snot by the time we left the island.
And that was that. We took the ferry and train back to the city, then the shinkansen back to Tokyo and the mini vacation was over. But what a treat. I can’t remember the last time I went somewhere just for fun. Thank you, Sachiko, and thank you, world.
I just got back from a working trip to Hiroshima. The work didn’t take long, so I spent some time at the peace museum and park. This is not a happy story.
I had been to the Nagasaki peace museum. I’d seen the personal belongings and photos of those innocents who died so horribly. I thought I was prepared for how it was going to feel. But what I didn’t know was that on that August day, over six thousand kids were in downtown Hiroshima doing demolition work to build, ironically, a breakfront against fires. Many of them were incinerated instantly. Some managed to make it back to their homes only to die in agony hours or days later, while their families watched. There was no medicine, no food, no clean water. There was nothing they could do.
The rationale/propaganda I had been fed was that Japan was never, ever going to give up so the bombs were dropped in the name of ending the war and bringing peace. The truth is that Japan was already done; I am told that it is commonly accepted here that the bombs were dropped as an experiment, just to see what would happen. I don’t think I can accept either of those explanations, not completely.
While I was trying to get my head around all of that, and finding it hard to breathe, a woman came up behind me with a grandchild, I assume. I don’t know; I didn’t dare to look because she said, loudly and repeatedly, “You see? America did this. All of this. This is all America’s fault.” She used that word, “America”. I just stood there listening and thinking, “You know, we can’t really blame Canada or Mexico for this, but I don’t really think it’s fair to blame me, either.” You can’t peg me as American just by looking; I’m often mistaken for German. And don’t forget that Japan and Germany were allies at the time.
As all of this rattled through my brain, I decided it would be prudent to walk away. The old lady doesn’t ever need to know that I understood what she said. I wish I could un-know about the kids.
The question that keeps going through my head, though, is this: Did they know? When they decided to drop the bomb, did they know about the kids? Did they?
I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know the answer to that.
Last night I went to a performance of The Vagina Monologues. I had wanted to see it for years, so signed up for a Meet-Up, which usually means I have people to sit with and reserved seats to sit in, but when I got there, the reception people had never heard of a Meet-Up and my name wasn’t on the list. I could still get in, but had to sit at the back, which was populated with very young people. I perched on the armrest of a chair from which I could just barely see the stage between the shoulders of the people seated at the bar.
Sadly, young people have the attention span of goldfish. Before half of the performance was over, most of them were nattering away at each other. Two young women in front of me in particular seemed to have a lot to say. I struggled to hear the performers over their chatter. I tried to be patient. The generous part of me thought maybe they were close friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while and needed to catch up. But then one of them turned her head far enough for me to hear what she was saying.
“So do you use gel to make your hair so fluffy?”
“Yes, I do. I use gel.”
All right. SHUT THE FUCK UP!
…is what I wanted to say, but instead I stepped toward them and said, quietly, “Do you think you could talk about that later?” And shut up they did. But the nattering continued throughout the venue and the rest of the show.
During the intermission, a young guy, fresh out of college, showed me an app he’d written for smart phones. It was for house cleaning. You can tap on various tasks and the app will send someone to your house to do them, while displaying how much it will cost. He was very proud. But then I asked how he found people to do the actual work. He said, “Yeah, that’s the hard part. I thought you could help me with that.”
Oh, sure! My life is jam packed with people who are eager to go clean other people’s toilets. I have to beat them away from my front door with a stick. In fact, that’s one of the most popular part time jobs among both Japanese and foreigners. But if you think I’m giving up my army of sanitation engineers to some snotty nosed kid, you’ve got another thing coming.
OK, I didn’t say that. But fortunately, intermission ended just then and I had to leave before the next act was over. With luck, I’ll never see the silly git again. Leave it to a young person to come up with something so utterly impractical.
The whole experience left me feeling flat-out alienated. Granted, the performance was in a bar, but even so, is the audience not generally expected to sit quietly and listen? Is that not why we went? And it was more than just the noise; it was the sense of entitlement, of self-conscious self-importance. “Look how cool I am. I came to see The Vagina Monologues. It doesn’t matter that I’m not listening because I am here.”
Grrr. I will leave you with some sleeping ducks, because they are peace and beauty, and also because maybe if I stare at them long enough, my own feathers will unruffle.
My mother raised me on whole wheat sourdough bread, which she baked in an old juice can so it was round and had a mushroom cap. She would make me round school lunch sandwiches with that bread, homemade mayo, and lettuce from the garden. Naturally, I was jealous of the girls with their Wonder bread/ketchup sandwiches.
Remember that this is the same dope who smoked for nearly 35 years. But I seem to be recovering from all those years of inhaling poison and still have low blood pressure, normal cholesterol, better-than-normal bone density and almost all my own teeth. I wonder how the Wonder bread girls are doing.
I do find myself with some of the normal complaints of someone my age, the worst of which so far has been belly pain. Two internalists found nothing wrong and shrugged it off. Another doctor suggested that it was merely gas. I tried medication but it had unpleasant side effects. So I tried organic coconut oil. The Shamen and Witch Doctors and New Agers and Voodooists were right. The pain is gone and the plumbing works fine. ♫ Just a spoonful of coconut oil helps… ♫
So while I was allowing myself to indulge in homeopathy, I stumbled across some other left wingers touting the virtues of organic honey. While it is not possible to get a decent cheeseburger in this neighborhood, we do have a shop that specializes in honey.
We were told that honey bred from the feathery shoots of the delicate acacia flower produces the best honey in the world. The ones in the middle and left are acacia, from Aomori and Iwate Prefectures, respectively. The one on the right is ordinary supermarket honey. According to the honey lady, the supermarket varieties are 4th tier mixed breeds not worthy of recognition. To be exact, she scoffed, “Hah. That’s mizu ame (sugar water).” To use a car analogy, the first is a Toyota Lexus, the second a Nisan Infiniti, and the third a Suzuki Rice Burner.
If you infuse a bottle of white wine with a handful of parsley, a little wine vinegar and some organic honey, you get Parsley Wine, the world’s healthiest sleeping pill, which also helps the liver do its job and strengthens the respiratory system. Yeah, it’s expensive, but to quote L’Oreal, I’m worth it.
The other night, I was invited to a fine dining experience in celebration of finishing a project.
My colleagues warned me that it is difficult to find the restaurant. It wasn’t, but when I got there, the name was only written in kanji. I didn’t want to walk into the wrong restaurant, so I approached the man at the veggie stand across the street. There was the usual moment of panic on his face when he saw mine, but then I said, “Is that place called Sugata?” Big smile, bobbing head. “Oh, yes. That’s Sugata.” “Thanks,” says me. “I couldn’t read the kanji.” He looked genuinely surprised, which seems so odd. He didn’t expect me to be able to speak Japanese, yet somehow did expect me to be able to read it.
Fine dining doesn’t often cross my path, so I was delighted to accept, but wary. I’m a fairly picky eater and fancy Japanese food generally involves parts of sea critters I am not comfortable with, among other things. I am not a big fan of raw fish and never eat eggplant, but there’s a reason this stuff is so expensive. I ate and truly enjoyed all the sashimi (except for the squid shiokara: Wiki definition: small pieces of meat in a brown viscous paste of the animal’s heavily salted, fermented viscera. Can you blame me?) Other than that, it was dish after dish of the finest, freshest seasonal specialties, lightly seasoned and gently teased into palatal perfection. I honestly loved the octopus; the lumps of eggplant in a crabmeat laced soup even went down fairly smoothly.
My point is, just what is the best? Is it the world’s finest honey? The freshest sashimi? A Toyota Lexus? Or bread with love baked right into its mushroom cap?
She married young, as was expected, and produced two kids. She spent her days on her bicycle, pedaling them to and from daycare, school, activities, doctors, one kid at the front, one at the back, grocery bags dangling from the handlebars, dry cleaning draped over her arm. They grew bigger, learning to feed and dress themselves, eventually getting their own bikes, finding their own friends, finding themselves.
Watching them blossom over the span of 20 years, she probably served 100,000 bowls of rice and nearly as many of miso soup, uncountable pickles, several schools of fish. She was up at 5:00 every day to start the laundry, pack the bentos, plan the evening meal. She was there for torn jeans, scratched knees, bruised egos, broken hearts.
And then one day she woke up and realized the children had grown. She sat across the table from a man she didn’t really know, her slippers suddenly feeling strange against the soles of her feet, her hair pulled back too tightly, air going in and out of her lungs but supplying no relief.
So she had herself copied at Kinkos and sent the clone home to cook and wash dishes, then sat down on an unobtrusive tree stump. She closed her eyes and waited for peace to come. Birds rested on her head, cats and clouds wandered by. Through the riot of spring’s rebirth, ivy began to creep toward her toes but on and on she sat. During the summer’s swelter, ivy snaked its way along her shins and toward her knees but patiently she sat. While the autumn leaves did their exquisite transformation, ivy made its way across her lap and up her belly but still she sat. Winter’s rain and snow fell, icy winds blew, the ivy crept over her breasts toward her neck, and yet she sat.
One spring night as the tendrils of ivy started to caress her chin, the shadow of a smile touched her lips. She opened her eyes. The full moon shone with such lurid clarity that she could see the veins in the ivy leaves, the motes of pollen dancing in the gentlest of zephyr breezes, the ants’ footprints trailing in the dust.
She shook herself free of the ivy and raised her arms toward that too perfect moon. Taking the deepest of breaths, she threw back her head, arched her spine and exhaled everything that ever was and ever would be.
And then she was gone, nothing but a twinkling luminescent dusting on the ivy leaves, which mourned her passing but grew on into the night.
They say that when you have to give a speech and you’re nervous, just imagine your audience in its collective underwear, or better yet, underwear and socks. That should humanize them and thereby make them less scary.
We started a little later on this, our final day, so the trains were less crowded. Toward the end, the seats were all taken but there were few people standing, so I could look around and surmise. The weather is crap today so everyone was bundled up to their teeth, but I could see faces. And I wondered how many pairs of underpants were hurtling along the rails with mine and how those underpants matched those faces.
(Today I’m wearing green cotton bikinis. It is not possible for a woman shaped like me to buy underwear in Japan. Underpants only come in three sizes: itsy-bity, teeny-tiny and grandma. So I found a brand that fits well, lasts a long time and is commonly available in the States. Hanes for Her, cotton bikini–not high cut or low rise–size 7, assorted colors and/or patterns. Boring, I know, but reliable underwear is one of the things that makes my world a happy place. My birthday is July 2. Thank you.)
So I was looking around the car and found myself starting to analyze. I figured it was safe to assume there were at least as many pairs of underpants as there were people, give or take a few. The more intriguing question was what those underpants might look like.
Of the ladies, what percentage wore cotton? Silk? Lace? What percentage bikini? Thong? Up-to-the-armpits Grannypants? As for the men, how many wore boxers? How many briefs? How many conservative stripes or plaid? How many more risque flowers or hearts or dancing Mickey Mouses?
How many were fresh from the mint? How many torn or stained? How many had shot elastic? How many were bought in person? How many by wives or mothers or creepy uncles? How many came from fancy department stores or upscale shops? How many from local supermarkets? How many were stolen from upscale shops or local supermarkets? How many were stolen from the neighbor’s balcony?
Whatever the unknowable answer to these questions, I started to grin and couldn’t stop. As I looked around the car, peering at people’s faces and contemplating their corresponding undergarments, they would occasionally look up and catch me staring with a goofy grin on my face. Just as I’ll never know what they were wearing, they’ll never know what I was thinking. And that thought made me smile even more.
So, this begs the obvious question. What are YOU wearing?
Coming down the back stretch of this filming marathon, she’s intent, engaged, fully absorbed in the job. She’s taking this seriously, her professionalism a gleaming example for all who will come after.
She’s not thinking about Candy Crush or constantly checking Facebook. She’s not visiting the snack basket and stuffing herself with almonds swathed in creamy, smooth chocolate. She’s not getting the puppet people to take silly pictures of her and then writing in her blog.
Actually, every “not” in the second paragraph should be moved to the first one. What she’s really doing is all of that plus fake yoga in a fake chair.
But one thing in the first paragraph is true; I am more engaged. I’ve arrived at just about 300 days smoke free and all sorts of things are changing. Instead of dashing outside for a smoke at the first hint of a break, I sit calmly. I talk to people, commiserate, build relationships. I am more a part of the moment. The process of rebuilding my life, rebuilding me, means not only me looking at the world in a different way, but also me finding a different way to fit into it.
The more I learn about smoking, the more I’m coming to understand that the physical craving for nicotine is only a small part of the overall addiction. I am unlearning a whole slew of knee jerk reactions and defense mechanisms that I’ve come to realize I never really needed in the first place.
Doing this kind of work is a lot like quitting smoking. It takes patience, dedication, patience, endurance, patience, patience, patience and patience. I just need coping strategies. For this job, I have to leave my house and ride trains seemingly forever to get to the studio, then turn around and do the reverse, six times each, for a total of 12. Coming here this morning was trip #9; going home tonight, if we ever finish, will be #10. Tomorrow I get to complete the dozen. They say that only 7% of quitters make it through the first year, but 80% of those fabulous people make it through the second. This moment is significant because I am at the same point in the dozen as I am in that first year.
One more day; two more months. See you at the finish line. I know I’m going to make it.