Category Archives: Life in Tokyo

A Whammy of a Vagary

Many times over the past months, as I’ve been poked and prodded and obviously in pain, I’ve been asked, “Gaman dekimasuka? (Can you stand it?)” The word gaman could roughly be translated as ‘endure’, but it’s more than that. I think ‘suck it up’ is closer.

I’ve heard stories of things happening in the States that would not, could not, ever happen here.

Me bandana

Case 1: Standing in the supermarket checkout line, the man behind you notices your bandana and starts to chatter. “Oh, do you have cancer? Are you doing chemo? My wife went through that last year. What kind of cancer do you have? Hers was ovarian. We were back and forth to the doctor’s office so many times natter, natter, natter, blabitty blah blah…”


Nora and Haruki

Case 2: My friend Nora and family, Japanese husband and two kids, are visiting her hometown of Seattle. She is standing in line at a Starbucks, holding her daughter’s hand. Her baby boy is strapped to her chest. It is the late 1990’s. Adopting Chinese babies is all the rage within the yuppie community, which thrives in Seattle. Nosy Stranger leans forward and says, “What a cute baby! Did you adopt him from China?” Nora smiles and responds, “What, this little tyke? Heck no. I picked him up at Walmart. It’s so much easier than going through an agency. Imagine all the paperwork you can avoid! And everything’s made in China anyway. Just cut out the middleman. I’m thinking of returning him, though. He’s cute and all, but he makes an awful lot of noise and he smells funny. Good thing he’s still under warranty, right?” Nosy Stranger makes carp face, opening and closing her mouth as she tries to respond.

OK, my bad. Nora didn’t say any of that. It was her making carp face. How do you respond to something like that? “This is my own…I mean, he isn’t adopt…”


But as I said, these things would not, could not, happen here. As part of the gaman culture, Japanese people are brilliant at not noticing things they are not supposed to notice. To Westerners, this often makes them seem like hollow, insensitive robots. In fact, they hate high prices and traffic and screaming babies and their bosses and their neighbors just as much as anyone else, but they suck it up for the sake of harmony. This is neither a weakness nor a nobility. It is just how it works. And because of it, personal interactions with strangers are rare.

As a foreigner, I am used to sticking out, being stared at, the unwilling focus of silent attention. I was a little worried about going out in public, being the bald lady in the bandana. But people have done a phenomenal job of ignoring me. A couple of times, women have looked directly into my eyes and smiled a sincere warmth and encouragement that needed no explanation. The other day, the pharmacist complimented my scarf and earrings combination, ever so quietly, as she handed me my pills. But that’s been the extent of anyone acknowledging my condition. I am grateful for that.

A healthy dose of gratitude makes the vagaries of life so much easier to swallow, and cancer is a whammy of a vagary.

Some Days

Some days just hum along minding their own business and making very little difference to my general outlook and attitude. Other days I feel like a human yo-yo and need to make plus and minus columns just to get a vague understanding of what karma is throwing at me. Today was one of those days.

It started off well enough. I did a short morning wake-up yoga class followed by a rather pleasant meditation where I joyfully hit the zen zone a couple of times. Nice.

Then I discovered a message from a friend saying let’s have lunch tomorrow. The thing is, Messenger tells you what time the message came in but not what day, so I thought it arrived at 7:11 last evening when in fact it had arrived at 7:11 this morning while I was still dancing with the dream fairies. So I thought tomorrow was today but it turned out that today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow. When I arrived in Shibuya there was, of course, nobody there. Well, no. That’s not quite right. There were gazillions of people there, but none of them were waiting for me.

I felt a bit foolish, but decided to make the best of it. I’d been hungry for pizza for a while and there isn’t any good pizza in my neighborhood. Both Pizza Hut and Dominoes have deteriorated so badly that I’d rather eat the box. The Japanese pizza places are almost as bad but in a different way; they put things like corn and potato and curry sauce on their pizza. I’m pretty sure that’s illegal in many parts of the world.

So there is a place in Shibuya, kind of a long walk in the wrong direction, but it has nearly authentic New York pizza sold with attitude by the slice and they even have pink lemonade. I indulged and, feeling better, I made the long trek back to Shibuya to go to a specialty shop I’d been meaning to visit. Of course, they’re closed on Wednesdays.

Big sigh.

I’d also been wanting to look for some orange essential oil. Unfortunately, I dread shopping even more than going to the dentist. But I decided to suck it up and forced myself into some twee shops selling scented soaps and body gels and myriad other goops and glops that I would never use in a thousand years even if the Easter Bunny left free samples on my doorstep. In fact, I found lots of orange oil but the prices were staggering. Literally. With one shop lady hovering over my shoulder, I looked at a price tag and nearly fell over.

Not wanting to know what further shocks the Goddess might have in mind for me, I bought some ponytail holders, tucked my tail between my legs and scurried for home.

As a thank you gift for my costume work, the cast of Big River gave me a charming sketch of Huck and Jim.

Huck and Jim

For some reason, the sketch really speaks to me. I feel like some days I am a little white boy with a sassy attitude; other days I am a big black man with a heart of gold. Metaphorically, of course. Some days I am up; other days I am down. Some days I am up and down. Some days. Other days. Days flowing together as the Big River that is my life.

Rush Hour

imagesMaking my way into the station, much too early in the morning, I descend the stairs, the sound of a thousand pairs of feet echoing around me, the thundering hooves of Tokyo’s workforce stampeding toward another day.

On the platform, the doors slide open and I shuffle into the car, a human zip file compressed among wool and down, beginning to sweat even before the train moves. Walls of jumbled body parts press against me from all sides, one to my left exuding a delicate camphor, one to my right reeking of old onions. Someone behind me sneezes and I feel his breath on the back of my neck.

A wave of sadness washes over me. I am a little mouse, caught in a trap, unable  to move, helpless and vulnerable.  A tiny moan escapes my lips. Tears fall. My reflection in the window wipes them away. Those around me pretend not to notice as we experience these unintended intimacies.

I remind myself that every soul sharing this violation must hate it as much as I do, but that thought does not comfort me. Comfort is home, my bed, my cat, my fuzzy socks, my favorite sweater, cold wine and warm cheese, not this oversized sardine can circulating around the city less elegantly than blood circulates through our veins.

Station after station streams past. People get on, people get off, a faceless blur like sand on a beach, roiling, eddying, always changing yet always the same. We grains of sand all look alike, bundled in our winter wear, but in the end are isolated individuals with nothing in common but misery.

I cannot fathom how some people do this every day. I suppose you can get used to anything if you have to, but I want to get used to this morning agony almost as much as I want to stick toothpicks under my fingernails.

Phone Zombies

I’m getting increasingly fed up with people paying more attention to their phones than to where they’re going. I just discovered that there is a name for these people: cell phone zombies.

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I spend a lot of time running around town, fighting my way through crowded stations, up and down staircases, dashing to catch trains, and the number of zombies trying to impede me is growing. I am ever-so-tempted to slap the backs of their phone-bearing hands from underneath so the phone goes sailing over their shoulder, hopefully crashing into a wall or falling into a sewer.

The funny thing is, I never really concerned myself with zombies. I don’t believe in ghosts and monsters. I figure there are enough real horrors in the world. There’s no sense in worrying oneself about threats that don’t exist. But phone zombies are very real, and a very real threat.

I heard the zombie population has grown so big that Sony Pictures wanted cash in on it and decided to do a series of films about phone zombies: Night of the Living Phone Zombies, The Texas Chainsaw Phone Zombies, Rosemary’s Phone Zombie, Silence of the Phone Zombies.

Unfortunately, nobody showed up for the auditions.

They were all too busy staring at their phones.

Death by Noise

140916_1511~01A few months ago, the Powers That Be tore down two old houses next to mine, subdivided the land into three small plots, and construction has begun on two of them.

This is how I’m going to die.

They, or rather, one guy with a staple gun, started a few weeks ago on the furthest away. It’s the most gawd awful cheap construction, nothing but a pile of plywood boxes held together with staples. They built some like that near where I used to live and there were cracks in the outside walls before the owners had even moved in. Most likely this house will fall down long before the owners can finish paying for it. I guess you get what you pay for, but still, I feel bad for them.

Work started on the closest plot a few days ago, two guys this time, with the obligatory staple gun, plus a nail gun. Everything is being done with power tools. Gone is the sound of a hammer hitting a nail. Instead of Dueling Banjos, we have dueling staple guns, a fast forward kacha-kacha-kacha attack on the senses, not unlike a woodpecker attacking a tree, without any of the charm.

No more the gentle voo-bah, voo-bah of Bill Cosby’s Noah building the ark. Instead they have electric handsaws that produce a high pitched screeching whine that is threatening to rip my brain out through my ear canals. Take the sound of a dentist’s drill, amplify by a thousand, and don’t forget the delightful way the sound goes on and on as it ricochets off the surrounding houses.

One of the guys is bronzed and muscled and had an attractive dusting of sawdust on his black tank top today. That didn’t stop me wanting to go test my kick boxing skills on him. I fantasize that they will suddenly see the light, lay down their tools, and join the peace corps. Don’t they realize I only quit smoking a few months ago? Don’t they know I’m living with a crazed feline who attacks my feet when I’m asleep and produces poo more pungent than the chicken I left in my gym bag last summer? How much patience am I expected to have?


I just learned a new word: Gun-Tama-Chi-Bara-Gi. It refers to Gunma, Saitama, Chiba, Ibaragi and Tochigi Prefectures, and infers that while those areas are included in the Great Kanto Plain, they are Japan’s unsophisticated outback and the people who come from there are yokels and hayseeds. The cool kids all come from Tokyo; a few from Yokohama are also acceptable.

FYI, I have lived in Tokyo for all of my many years in Japan, but of course, that goes without saying.

MapofkantoThe irony here is that when I was small, I lived in a big old farmhouse five miles from a tiny town in Pennsylvania. When I was nine, we moved to Pittsburgh, which for me was a big step up in the world. In case you don’t know, as image and reputation go, the only thing worse than Pittsburgh is New Jersey.

On top of that, I hate crowds and am slightly claustrophobic. You can’t begin to grasp the concept of crowded until you’ve ridden a Tokyo morning commuter train or attended the annual Tamagawa fireworks. And everything is smaller here, the houses, the food, the people. There’s an elevator at a studio I work in that I can’t ride because it’s only slightly larger than a pair of coffins. I’d rather climb the four flights of stairs, even when my knees are hurting.

There was an elevator that small in my hotel in Venice, where my room was on the sixth floor, but after getting crammed into it with an over-sized German couple, I took the stairs. And I nearly had a panic attack when I went into the tomb chamber in the great pyramid at Giza.  The chamber itself is big enough, but the passage to get to it is terribly narrow and one has to maneuver past over-sized tourists both coming and going.

So how did a Pennsylvania yokel end up in Tokyo? Or Italy, or Egypt? Or any of the dozens of other countries I’ve been to?  I guess I just decided to go. I think I’m part cat; I always have to see what’s around the next corner.

What really baffles me is people who don’t–and don’t want to–go anywhere.

Twitchy Goof

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAI finally got a shot of her in sunlight.
Too bad you can only see one of her lovely green eyes.

The volunteer lady calls now and then to check up on us. Last time she called, she said Twitchy was discovered living alone in an abandoned house 5km from the crippled nuclear power plant. I’m not planning to think about that last part too much, but the first part explains a lot. She’s got a tiny notch in one of her ears, but otherwise she’s perfect. I have never seen a feral cat that didn’t at least have scars on its nose. Perhaps she had a private entrance and somewhere safe to hide. So she knows what houses are but not what people are. Most of the time when I walk past her, she looks at me as if to say, “What ARE you? What are you DOING here?” But the look has softened from offended to just perplexed.

I can’t imagine what she ate while she was living like that. We keep giving her both wet and dry food and unlike any cat I’ve ever met, she prefers dry. We thought maybe she’s used to eating raw food so the dry stuff is a treat–she didn’t have to chase it down and kill it and it doesn’t have any skin or bones in it. Also unlike any cat I’ve ever known, she shows no interest in going outside. Perhaps she had enough of that and likes feeling safe, which she is ever so slowly starting to do. Last night, while I was fixing her dinner, she kissed my leg.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAAs she gets more comfortable here, her name keeps getting longer. Since we realized she is a Goth and Out-Of-Focus, she’s become Twitchy Goof. A friend gave me a hard time for giving her such a silly name, but I explained that there isn’t a word in English, or in any language for that matter, that could possibly do her justice.

I Think I Can Bear It

This has been one of those weeks where I really have to fight the urge to dig a hole and bury myself in it. I’ve still got this Sword of Damocles writing project hanging over my head, although I just finished half of it. As with many recent challenges in my life, it feels like I’ve reached the summit of yet another mountain and can now begin the descent toward the goal.

Twitchy remains one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and therefore a heartbreak since we still can’t touch her. I have to remind myself that she has a lot to learn. She’s never been a house cat before and doesn’t know how to do that. She doesn’t know what petting is or how good it feels. Her survival instinct is to see everyone and everything as a threat. So we just have to wait. She’ll come round when she’s ready. Yesterday as I was getting her dinner ready, she got so excited that she touched my leg with her nose and stepped on my foot. It’s progress and I’m grateful, but patience is not really my strong suit these days.

On Tuesday, I had a tooth pulled by the Happiest Dentist Ever. He chattered away, giggling even, the whole time he worked on my mouth. I wondered if he was nipping at the ether between patients. He gave me a cute little case to carry my tooth home in. (The tooth was gross. You don’t want to see it.)

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERABeing at the dentist is like riding in an airplane. Once they strap you in, everything is beyond your control so you might as well relax and make the best of it.  So I was trying to be mature and independent. After all, that tooth had been bothering me on and off since high school, so I was well rid of it, yet I couldn’t help wishing my mommy was there holding my hand. The Happy Dentist said the tooth should pop right out. “Here we go. 3…2…1…(yank, yank) 2…1…(yank, yank)” (Eda whimpers.) “2…1…(yank) There we are!” I don’t think I’ve ever actually whimpered before.

The next day, I had a meeting and the client, who is a sweetheart, told me that basically they wanted me to do an impossible amount of work in an impossible amount of time. I am not exaggerating; she wanted 72 five to ten line monologs/dialogs written in ascending difficulty and according to strict grammar and vocabulary guidelines and could I please finish by 4:00 because she has another meeting to go to. It was 2:30.

I try to be professional and cooperative. If I wasn’t already suffering from chemical warfare in my brain, I might have laughed out loud, but my chin started to quiver, and I thought, “Oh, God. This is it. I’m going to lose it. I’m going to start sobbing right here in the office. Everyone will see me as an incompetent loser. I might as well become the bag lady that I am at heart. I will just collect my things and go sit on a bench in the park for the rest of eternity, birds nesting in my hair, dogs peeing on my ankles.”

Instead, I did carp face, opening and closing my mouth but not managing to say anything. In the end, we did as much as we could, which was most of it, but I’m not vouching for the quality.

And then it was back here to the computer slogging through the seemingly endless writing project. So I did this yesterday…

140718_1303~02…and it helped.

And tomorrow I’m going blueberry picking. I think that will help, too.
The world is a better place because of blueberries and bears.

The Out-of-focus Cat

People keep asking me what breed of cat Twitchy is. Hmmm. She’s clearly mostly Tabby, but while most Tabbies are a combination of grey/black or caramel/butterscotch stripes and spots, she’s got all of that. She is proving to be something of a food slut; maybe she’s greedy by nature and decided she wanted to be Everybreed.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAAlthough the white highlights–tuxedo shirt (Shame on you, ma, calling that a ‘bib’!), elegant finger gloves, and creamy filling–are common, I don’t know where they came from. And then there’s clearly a bit of Abyssinian or Burmese or something else exotic tossed in there. I noticed that the markings on her face and the rings on the end of her tail are quite clear. She just gets kind of blurry in the middle, so we have decided that she is an Out-of-focus cat.