Tag Archives: fear

Five Years Later

Earthquake tree

The afternoon of March 11, 2011 was pleasant enough. The weather was mild and I had spent some time at the gym. I was on my bicycle pedaling home when the world started to shake. It didn’t stop for a really long time, off and on for days and days that melted into weeks and months of aftershocks. (Details from my perspective are available on my earthquake blog or in magazine form at Shaken Up in Tokyo.) While all of that was quite frightening here in Tokyo, it was nothing compared to the unspeakable devastation caused not by the earthquake but by the following tsunami that hit the Tohoku region up north. Five years later, thousands are still living in temporary housing and only a tiny dent has been made in reconstruction.

In April of 2015, I was with a group of people a few days after the massive quake in Nepal. Some of them were bitching about how the Nepalese government hadn’t prepared enough for the crisis. I said softly, “You can’t prepare for a major earthquake.” One of them turned to me, smirking, and said, “Yes, you can.”

I turned away, stunned, feeling like I’d been kicked in the gut. I wanted to say, “Japan has some of the planet’s most sophisticated earthquake prediction technology. The greatest experts in the field have concluded definitively that it is just not possible to predict a quake. Mother Nature will not be pinned down that way. Since it is not possible to know where or when a quake may strike, or how big it will be or whether or not it will cause a tsunami, it is not possible to prepare for a major quake.”

Instead, my generous side told me he probably wasn’t really aware of what had happened here and couldn’t know what I and so many others had lived through. I do admit, though, that at the same time, my less generous side wanted to gently remove the frosted cocktail from his hand and pour it over his smug face.

What I learned from this experience:

1) Whenever possible, be kind. I know it’s not always possible; I’m no Dalai Lama. But you can’t know what kind of pain the person standing in front of you is carrying with them and you should never assume they aren’t. Dead baby jokes are funny until you tell one to someone who’s lost a child.

2) When you don’t know what you’re talking about, shut the fuck up.

A Tale of the Over-Sized

I was in 41C, on the aisle, nearly at the back of the plane. The middle seat was empty. It was almost time for departure when a large man, not tall but quite round, came lumbering down the aisle.

Honestly, I think airplane passengers should be sorted by size rather than economic advantage. Of course, that means I will be banished to cattle class for all eternity, but at least I’ll be stashed back there with other small people. I figured this man, when he started to relax, would spill over into my seat and I’d end up spending the flight with my head hanging out in the aisle, where I’d be buffeted by the beverage cart and arrive in Tokyo battered and bruised and in a very bad mood.

Judging by the man’s looks and dress, I guessed he was something Southeast Asian, Indonesian perhaps, or Malaysian. I glanced at the tiny seat and briefly considered offering to move over. When a young man on a plane in Germany came hobbling down the aisle on crutches, I did that without thinking, and even asked one of my colleagues sitting behind us to help with the crutches.

This man was carrying an over-sized souvenir bag from KYOTO, which he tossed into the overhead bin and in so doing nearly whacked me in the face with the over-sized briefcase he had slung over his shoulder. I pushed it away, annoyed, and got up to let him sit down. He put the briefcase on the floor for a moment, but it did not fit under the seat and left no space for his feet, so he picked it up again and put it in his lap. Then he unzipped it, stuck both hands inside it, and started fiddling with something.

I figured the cabin attendant would come along and make him put the briefcase away, but when she came for the final seat belt check, she stopped at the row ahead of us and turned back toward the front of the plane. “That’s odd,” I thought. The man continued to fiddle.

A little later, another attendant came from the back of the plane. I tried to catch her eye, but she turned away after checking the row behind us. The man continued to fiddle.

What the hey? Are they in cahoots? But how is that possible? I remembered noticing the man, the only one in the airport not wearing a suit, chatting with someone in the stand-by lounge, so no one could have known until a few minutes before that he would even be on the flight.

The plane started to taxi. The man adjusted his position in the seat and his case opened slightly. I glimpsed a string of beads. Then I glanced over his shoulder and saw that the sun was setting. Ah. Mystery solved. But if he was such a good Muslim, why was he flushed and smelling ever so slightly of alcohol? Or could it have been fruit juice?

The man finished fiddling, zipped the briefcase, piled his over-sized arms on top of it, closed his eyes, and didn’t budge for the rest of the flight.

A lot of things went through my head. Was I wrong to think he might be up to something? What possible political or religious motivation could there be for causing trouble on a domestic flight full of suits? But if I see a situation where there is potential for something VERY BAD to happen, don’t I have a moral obligation to try to prevent it? At the same time, don’t I also have a moral obligation to mind my own bloody business?

I even tried to look at it from his point of view. Perhaps he felt more comfortable breaking airline rules than praying openly. And it all worked out well for me. With his arms on the case instead of crowding me off the armrest, I was spared the attack of the beverage cart.

In the end, it was a non-event, a confluence of coincidental circumstances, a simple case of over-sized imagination on my part. Thank goodness.