Friday, April 29, 2005

just a few things...

When I first started this blog the posts came out of me in a long stream. All I had to do was turn the faucet and let them pour out. But in the past few days the essays have been getting tangled, all my ideas getting wrapped around one another. Although I’m not fully satisfied with it, this version of “off the grid” is the best thing I could mangle out of all the scraps clattering around my head. “tonari na no ni (but we’re neighbors...)” came fully formed out of my unconscious one night as I stood on the back stairs of my apartment building watching the apartment lights flicker on and off inside. Basically I've straitjacketed myself to only writing these "serious essays", and anything that doesn't quite work out stays a scrambled mess of half finished paragraphs on my laptop until I can bang out a satisfactory version.

Someone (Dad?) said they really liked my post last week about cults in Japan. Which is kind of funny, because I almost didn’t post it, and still have very mixed feelings about it. It didn’t really convey my essential feelings on faith and religious conviction, which is that they are flexible and permeable enough to justify just about anything, evil or good. I would have liked to include a little bit on Toyohiko Kagawa, the Christian speaker, activist and philosopher who practically addressed unemployment and poverty in 1920’s Japan by establishing a massive network of food and work cooperatives. He even went on several lecture tours around the US in the 1930’s and was welcomed enthusiastically by progressive Christians across the country. That’s pretty cool, huh?

One cool thing about blogger is that you can travel in time and date your posts for the past, the future, whenever. I have decided to take full advantage of this and date posts by the time they were basically finished, not when they were posted. So don't call me a liar when you see posts zooming around like Marty McFly.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

tonari na no ni... (but we're neighbors...)

They told me before I got here that you had to buy several packages of soba noodles whenever you moved into a new area, and present them as gifts to your neighbors. Whoever thought this one up had a pretty weak sense of humor, the logic being the word soba can mean both “buckwheat” (as in noodles) and “immediate vicinity” (as in the weirdos who live in your building). Like the infamous used schoolgirl underwear vending machines, I think this was cooked up by a gang of sauced Australians in a gaijin bar back in 1987, because as far as I can tell, no one has given a bag of buckwheat noodles to a total stranger since the late 19th century. Asking Japanese friends of mine about this they’ll scrunch their forehead and go “yeah, I think I’ve heard about that too. Huh.”

Coming back from several months in the north country studying just how to properly make those soba noodles, I briefly considered reviving the custom, and then realized that all my immediate neighbors are Nepalese. That is, the ones that I’ve met.

I know my neighbors mostly through sounds that creep through the walls: the warble of a salaryman tunelessly wrecking some karaoke ballad from the club on the second floor, a crank turning on the ancient metal units that heat our baths, the endlessly upbeat soundtracks to Bollywood movies.

The few times I have met someone on the stairs they avert their eyes and adjust their thirty-dollar baseball cap or just stare forward with such intensity that offering a meager konnichiwa would be like asking if their Mom is free tonight. My educated guess is that they are mostly kids fleeing from some backwater town that lives precariously off of lumber and a few small workshops assembling lathe parts and doing quality assurance for Nissan. They came to college in Tokyo to study anthropology or international relations, woke up after four years a graduate, and now get their clubbing and grocery money selling designer shirts or Starbucks coffee. Life is cigarettes between shifts and your friend’s art opening this Friday. I think they only stay in Saitama long enough to catch a night’s sleep or stir up a bowl of instant ramen. But we all have to suffer through the building demolition next door, maybe it would be nice to stop and chat about the pricks with the jackhammers and steam shovels that have been rocking our building awake each morning.

The other night I took the front stairs for a change, a spiral staircase that curls up the front of the building from the Indian restaurant to the shady “Club Maria” to the hair salon to my floor. Rounding up to the second floor I almost swallowed my tongue. There was a tall, pale woman with a slender and smooth face whose careful makeup could not hide the years of late nights burned into her eyes. Her long black hair had probably been waved like this since the mid eighties. She wore a tight shimmery black dress that she must have ordered from the shady bar hostess catalogue; I have never seen a store that sells anything like that. She was leaning over the balcony expectantly, looking for someone. All she got was a scruffy white man grunging home from work. She said “good evening” in a voice half startled but really too weary to care very much. She had probably fled the same town as the young fashion victims on my floor, but the Tokyo of her youth had no place for wild young women but to light the cigarettes, pour the whiskeys and stroke the fragile egos of men with money. I returned the greeting and kept winding up the stairs, leaving the apparition to greet her customers.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

off the grid

The few days before I had the power turned on my fresh new apartment felt like a temple. It sat modestly among the other apartments, quiet and unassuming. Speakers became bedside tables and lamps ornamented the ceiling uselessly. I would read until the sunlight left my floor, go out for a walk, sleep early and wake up to cook breakfast at dawn. The place is humming with electricity now, music emerging from plastic boxes, refrigerator purring contentedly, images from Iraq flicking across my computer screen.

My last English student on Saturday nights is a tall, strong man rounding out his fifties who has spent his entire adult life designing and selling machines that make machines. Everything about him is big, his strong wide hands gesturing out a chemical equation, his broad voice curling around English syllables and pouring out deep low laughs, his legs sprawling under short table. Although he is ostensibly studying for the TOEIC exam, we usually end up spending our entire hour discussing Asian politics, the macro-causes of Japanese weather systems or the ideal brewing conditions for sake. This week he gave me an extended tutorial on the current state of alternative energy sources being researched by the Japanese government, all of which he looked up in his own free time on the internet. He lives alone and drives a company car.

I found myself turning this conversation over and over in my mind this past week, to think of the electricity charging through everything. It is humbling to consider that several million souls yearning and acting out their dramas of food, sex and a warm place to sleep somehow churns up skyscrapers, train lines, billions of lights. The trains run harnessed to rivers. The city shines by the grace of atoms bursting apart in boxes. Wires tangle the sky between buildings. The finest purring BMW feeds on the liquid of dinosaur bones. We live in a world of guitars that scream electricity and earpieces to bring back our hearing.

There’s a hippy friend of mine here who has a beautiful old step-action sewing machine she bought on an impulse. It’s the size of a small table, the cast iron legs framing a flat wide iron pedal at the base. The machine itself can tuck away inside the sewing section, where it has sat for several years, unused. She said one of the appealing ideas of a man powered sewing machine was that if the energy infrastructure ever collapses she could mend and repair her own clothes off the grid. Until then the sewing machine is tucked into its heavy cast-iron and oak table, her shock white Toshiba Dynabook spilling gray wires all over it.

The other day I was sitting in a café surfing the internet when the whole building went dark, the murmur of conversations hushed out in the black. The low roar of a spring thunderstorm groaned at us through the walls. We all sat quietly in our individual booths as our pupils expanded to the dim emergency lights. The staff assured us everything would be alright in a few minutes; sure enough our pupils soon seized up when the overheard lights flipped back on. After we had blinked away all the fluorescent noise the computers whirred back to life and we went back to staring at our internet consoles in silence.

But a much noisier silence than before.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

hard boiled

One of the pleasures of living abroad is the way the language gradually opens up to you, every new character opens up whole new world of meanings. The other day I learned the character for spy, which is part of the compound word tantei, detective. Suddenly I looked around and realized the entire city was flyered with posters for private detective agencies.

Or, to be more specific, one detective agency seems to have a very aggressive ad campaign, their signature black laborador sitting alertly next to the phrase: “Thanks to you, in business for 54 years.”

What kind of a perversion of the PI biz is this? Everyone knows that Sam Spade sits around his office minding his own businesses, when a tall blonde walks in spelling a yard of trouble. Since when is Sam Spade reduced to flyering the city for tall blondes?

One person who does have a firmer grasp of the gumshoe mythos is the mystery writer Natsuo Kirino. Just like everyone else, Japan loves a good mystery, and from Sherlock Holmes the daytime TV staple “Rogue Detective: Pure Intentions” the form just booms here. I started reading Japanese mysteries mid last year, when I realized that once you learned the words clue, witness, tailing and butler you could basically read any Japanese mystery out there. I knocked through a few throwaway potboilers, the weak characters and clichés only occasionally redeemed by a good plot, but it wasn’t until reading Ms. Kirino’s Kao Ni Furikakaru Ame (Face Befallen by Rain) that I realized I was in the hands of a master.

Kirino’s style is, to use the Japanese, harudo-boirudo (see the title), a phrase that I like the more I use it. It is characters boiled down by life to their tough centers, to their very unrepentant essences, living lives of hard choices and disappointment. It is finding poetry in imperfect lives, in the people we end up becoming. It is urban. It has no time to spare for pretension or naivety. It is people walking in bad weather. This woman is writing my Tokyo.

More specifically, she writes a Tokyo populated by foreigners who are neither shining Aryan icons, symbols of Japanese corruption, nor racist caricatures. They are all human, making lives for themselves just like everyone else. In a book populated by gangsters, neo-Nazi’s, death fetishists and really rude secretaries, some of the most sympathetic characters are the detective’s next door neighbors and closest friends, a gaggle of Filipina prostitutes jammed into a Tokyo apartment. They are not depicted as stupid or even as exploited, but rather as totally believable girls who came to Japan with open eyes to make save some money to bring home and to experience some of the excitement of the big city. They have a kind of put-on innocence, trading CD’s with our hero-detective, always the voice of sly insinuation (“was that man who came to your door last night a boyfriend?”), but they are by no means naïve. To be naïve in this kind of novel is to wind up floating in the river somewhere.

Just to not be a total asshole, you’ll be happy to know that Ms. Kirino has one novel out in English translation, the bestseller Out. I have a feeling the translator picked it mostly because the title is easy to render into English than my crude rendering of Face Befallen by Rain. Out caused a major sensation in Japan, winning that most elusive and tricky of literary awards: it became a wadai, a hot topic, something everyone talks about. All that and no poster campaign. Harudo-boirudo.

bread of the faithful, opiate of the masses, cocaine of the fanatics

“Hey, if you can read Japanese that well, are you interested in performing a wedding? You just dress up like a priest, read some greetings and congratulations then do the ceremony in English. Hundred dollars for one hours work. You’re tall and white, so you look the part. If you ever interested in subbing for me, just call the number on my card.”

At the time I was fresh off the boat, barely a week or two under my belt and a rudimentary grasp of Japanese, and here was this short Hawaiian guy in a nasal voice offering me a faux-priest gig. I wish I’d followed up on that, at least just for the story.

Spirituality is a slippery issue in Japan, one that I don’t fully understand. Like most Americans, I came here with my categories of religion as a yes-no question. You are Baptist or Buddhist or Agnostic or Wicca: something that makes a nice box on the religion category of a questionnaire. But in Japan, the question is basically moot. You’re Japanese. Sunday walks and funerals take place at the local Buddhist temple. New Years Eve drunkenness, local festivals and coming of age days happen at the Shinto shrines. And weddings are in massive ugly banquet halls with an overworked staff, a fake foreign priest and massive cake.

The one thing I have always liked about the local Shinto faith is that you don’t ask what you can do for the gods, you ask what they can do for you. For the price of a few coins dropped before the altar and a few seconds of prayer you can buy a more fertile womb, better marriage prospects for your son or protection for your automobile. In the kitchenette at my workplace there is a small altar to ward off fires laid out in the top cabinet above the coffee machine and tea bags. Last year I visited a shrine in southern Yamagata famed for bringing luck to students taking exams. Although I wasn’t stripped down to traditional swaddling cloth and headbands emblazoned with the characters from my school, the god must have liked my five yen and bowing style; two months later I passed the national Japanese proficiency exam.

While this general absence of a metaphysical framework doesn’t seem to bother most people I know here, the country has seen a disturbing rise in cult groups lately. Probably the most internationally well known is Aum, a now officially defunct group that had a disturbing number of Phd’s and other highly successful and educated people among it’s members. They came to international attention when they launched an inexplicable terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing twelve and injuring thousands of passengers, many suffering permanent brain damage. The leader of the cult was sentenced to death last year. The author Haruki Murakami puts this as one of the turning points in modern Japanese history, a massive sign that something was seriously very wrong with the country. His non-fiction work Underground is an incredible series of interviews with survivors of the attacks, as well as several members of the Aum cult, and is one of my favorite pieces of writing about modern Japan.

On the milder end of the spectrum is Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist centered cult which started in the 1920's. They claim to have around 10 million members (one-in-twelve Japanese), have spread internationally, run a major political party and even got that pointy eared heartthrob Orlando Blume! The cult mostly consists of paying small dues, praying, leafletting and suppressing creative or independant thought, which I suppose is mild compared to launching massive terrorist attacks designed to bring about the end of the world.

One of the most long running, widespread and firmly entrenched cults in Japan was brought from Europe. Originally concentrated in southern Japan, it currently has chapters all over Japan, conducting weekly rituals that mimic cannibalism and preach of doomsday. The other day as I sat reading a hard-boiled detective novel in a coffee shop, the couple that sat down next to me looked really excited. “Excuse me,” the man said, somewhat flustered. “Sorry to bother you out of the blue, but I couldn’t help but notice that you can read Japanese.” “Well, yeah, I…” “If that’s the case, there is a book I would really like you to read. Here, I’ll give it to you!” Before I could protest he pulled a sparkling new hardcover book, the cover printed with something about “If you commit to Christ you will achieve everlasting life…” I waved my hand. “I’m OK, thanks.” “What you mean you already have it!” he said with a kind of fevered hope. “No. I have no interest in reading it.” “Oh, well, umm...” He and his female companion went back to drinking their coffee in silence.

They seem to be everywhere recently. All of the different doorways I have had in this country have been visited by evangelicals, bringing the word of god as expressed in dramatically illustrated pamphlets. One of them gave me this cool poster where a green pastured heaven populated by people and sheep of all races and cultures gradually faded to a fiery sea of burning souls. I even had a pair of Mormons at my door once, freshly scrubbed, all barbered hair, suits and mountain bikes. Those damned Americans wouldn’t shoo off as easily as the coffee shop man.

Same coffee shop, different day. A young white American with dead and opaque eyes, maybe just out of college, was sitting with a Japanese woman of the same age. He spoke in a long unbroken stream on faith versus good deeds, the Holy Trinity, Romans, the King James translation, the Matrix, joy, leaving no pauses for his companion, only stopping occasionally to sip from a sugary whipped-cream and coffee confection. She just sat and nodded, giving little affirmations when appropriate. I doubt she caught more than half of what was coming out of his mouth. Maybe she was turning over the mystery of the Trinity, the call of the faithful. Or maybe she was thinking how great those Christian weddings looked in the movies. But I suppose we’ll never know, will we. She never got a chance to speak.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

post-apocalyptic architecture

When was it that previews got better than movies? If good art keeps the audience gasping for more, previews are the hit they give you for free, knowing full well nothing matches that first high.

Maybe it’s just me, but Japanese movies, although uniformly terrible, have amazing previews. Flat bursts of high impact art; shorts that spray bullets and emotions that pierce the heart with equal force. I recently rented Appleseed, a fully CG animated shoot-em-up sci-fi anime, solely on the basis of the preview. It was a standard eye staining montage of elaborately rendered battle scenes: robot SWAT teams with automatic weapons, shattering glass skyscrapers, thumping techno beat, female action hero dancing through bullets, yawn. But, after demolishing a robot tank, the female lead’s hard boiled face fills the screen, suddenly turning black for her steely voiceover: “When the fighting is over, I want to be a mother.” Whoa.

That line was not in the movie.

In fact, the character never even expresses that sentiment in the movie.

Instead, the whole thing was a giant ho-hum of an action thriller, a giant mess that had something to do with humans and technology, the meaning of love, the future of mankind. Sigh. The fighting scenes were amazing, these impossible ballets of bullets and bodies, the visceral thrill of watching Newtonian physics and Euclidian geometries collide. I’m guessing they probably took a lot of time and money to make them though, because the bulk of the running time were these endless expository passages, where the CG bodies that had flown so gracefully around hails of bullets just a few seconds before were suddenly being “mournful” or “confused” with all the emotional subtlety of a porn movie extra.

Putting aside all the issues of gender and race raised in the movie (why does everyone in the future look like the product of Japanese-Caucasian couplings?), I swear to god I had seen this same damn plot at least a dozen times before. It’s after the nuclear holocaust, earth (more specifically Tokyo) has been razed to the ground, leaving a world of burned out ruins. But wait! Mankind has built a new utopia above the clouds called... wait for it...


Olympus bears more than a passing resemblance to many of the massive new development projects that pop up here; the last bit of foam from Japan’s burst bubble economy. These hyper-modernist enclaves are stunning in their hubris, sweeping and heart stopping urban centers, looking almost as clean and boring as the CG models they were rendered with. Instead of being integrated into the surrounding environment, they brazenly seek to reinvent the urban landscape, placing a naïve trust in original design over practical use. Japan’s massive convention centers all follow this “ideal city” model, as do scores of city-buildings, from Ikebukuro’s Sunshine City, and the central Kyoto train station to the epic Roppongi Hills complex. They are stupid and sterile places, and usually encounter some major unforeseen flaw: Saitama city’s Shintoshin (“New City-Center”) district creates a massive wind tunnel that bowls over everyone who walks out of the train station at its heart. The automatic rotating doors at Roppongi Hills have caused innumerable injuries and have made national headlines. Tokyo Big Site is ferociously ugly.

On a more modest scale, rural city governments build symphony halls and community centers where there is no real demand for them. TV is rife with ads for building companies that promise to build you the perfect home: a gleaming corner of perfection, from the smooth heated floors to the computer controlled ventilation. A stroll around any neighborhood will turn up a few of these gleaming little palaces, with their stink of fresh concrete and stale modernist fantasies. You can then turn the corner to find a twenty year old version of the same house, looking horribly dingy in comparison. Walk a little further down the street and you’ll find a hollowed out wooden shell from sometime in the first part of the century, abandoned for years. In the States, these would be “fixer-uppers”, dilapidated homes from a previous era, that wear a feeble dignity in their worn wooden walls, sloping tile roofs and wide tatami rooms. They were the height of fashion when they were built, the wide glass panes on the front porch’s sliding doors must have gleamed among the flat paper screens of their neighbors.

A burned out landscape of Tokyo apartment blocks or a blinding utopian metropolis that bleaches the soul: this is the dichotomy laid out in Appleseed, and for all of its artlessness, it is stunningly clear distillation of all the professionals who crafted it, the Tokyo yuppies who hacked out every bit of originality to arrive at this whitewashed compromise of a story. They are enamored, blinded and drunk on a future that erases history and looks epic as a CG graphic, but taken out of the movies and dropped into the real world these places look about as pretty as a muddy Rubics Cube.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

american skies

How can you stand it? Those American skies just keep on going, clouds quilting out patterns that roll on to the edges of the earth. It hit me hard this time around, the casual bigness of America. The stretches of forest simply forgotten between the interstate and the row houses. The freeway interchanges piled several stories high, looping in knots before pulling out to dead straight lines that bolt for the horizon. And let’s not even start on the supermarkets, SUVs and waistlines. Ten days back in America and my head starts to unravel, so tightly wound to the stamp-sized apartments, the packed commuter trains, and a sky taut and dainty, barely able to hold all the humanity under it.

sweatered skyscrapers: new york

The day after my parents met me at the airport I spent a jet lagged afternoon at their house sorting out phone numbers and gorging myself on the treasures of a well stocked American refrigerator. But by the next morning I was fingering a wallet of American bills aboard a lumbering Nixon-era rail car, creaking across the bridge to Manhattan, where I was meeting an old high school friend. New York greeted my return with a chilling rain attended by fog that sweatered the skyscrapers in a dull white. It hid the shoulders and fuzzed the edges of these 20th century behemouths, drenching the souls on the streets and the soles of my feet.

My friend insisted on tramping several blocks through the rain to reach an East Village coffee shop thoroughly unremarkable aside from the yards of weathered hard covers lining the walls. Most of the tables were monopolized by solitary individuals crouched intently over laptops; we ate our sandwiches in a corner by the window, talking about Japanese cinema and friends from high school. Who are they now? Alcoholics and investment bankers, adulterers and electricians. Wandering out in that foggy Manhattan grid.

less fun than monopoly: atlantic city

All roads may lead to Rome, but at the Port Authority I learned that all buses depart for Atlantic City. Once our coach reached the island two or three individuals shuffled off at the municipal bus terminal, but everyone else cleared off at the last stop: the Tropicana Casino. My backpack and I navigated the lobby to the Valet Parking drop off, where we made our rendevous, a small white domestic car piloted by one of the most fiercely intelligent women I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.

This was another refugee from my suburban high school, a girl who speaks several languages and was currently cutting her teeth in her first few months as a reporter for Atlantic City's local paper. A few days before when we'd worked out a good day to meet she'd been a bit groggy. "I've got a migraine," she said by way of explanation. "Covered a triple murder yesterday." I suppose I was expecting a radically different creature from the girl I knew in high school, someone altered by a few years in California, a year in Brazil and a few months as a fledgling reporter. Her wardrobe had shifted from hoodies and bandannas to dresses that could stop a casino floor boss cold, but this was the same contrarian with a steel minded sense of justice that I'd known in high school. We spent our night touring the faded glory of Atlanic City, strolling the boardwalk in the fog, wandering in and out of casinos.

This was my first time to see a real live American casino, and my images of the sexy, gnarly thrill of gambling culled from Martin Scorcese and James Bond movies were way off the mark. To be fair, it was the off season, but they didn't shut down dramatically for the winter like the resort in The Shining. There was a steady and loyal crowd of customers hunched around half the roulette wheels. There were no fevered faces of elation at the blackjack table, no desperate wringing of hands, no one curled into absolute despair. People gambled with all the enthusiasm of mowing the lawn. A lounge singer crooned ballads on top of a piano, but her light-blue jeans and starchy blouse were more suited for dress down Fridays at the office than seducing Sean Connery.

My favorite casino by far was the Trump Plaza, which looked like Al Pacino's mansion from Scarface, all cold shiny surfaces at sharp angles, golden chandeliers, cold ego buffing every surface. But like all the casinos on the boardwalk, the Plaza had long ago woken up from the hangover of it's heydey, shaken itself awake, and begun the long slow plod of everyday business. Half the escalators were shut down for repairs, dingy orange traffic cones sitting on the imperial carpet, the repairmen off on a permanent lunch break. With no down escalators functioning we got trapped in the upper levels, trying to get down using a dusty concrete staircase that we soon figured out was for employees and fire flee-ers only. I was sure that large men in suits tucked with hidden firearms would come after us at any second, but once a female security guard saw us, she opened a fire door and let us onto the casino floor. She apologized about the escalators, pointed us in the direction of the real stairs, and wished us a nice evening.

While I had always known that Atlantic City was a lacklustre East Coast Las Vegas, I wasn't quite prepared to be so underwhelmed by the place. Gleaming shopping malls fronted casinos that looked like a Disney Land roller coaster, replete with animatronic cowboy robots miming a single routine on loop. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the gamblers: a young midwestern couple sharing a slot machine, blue haired women at the baccarat tables, a table of blue collar joes playing seven-card stud. The town itself clung to the casinos like rows of peasant dwellings nudged up against the castle walls, weatherbeaten apartment blocks and homes, neighborhoods sustaining themselves on trickles of state and casino salaries. Pawn shops swimming in hocked wedding rings dominated the strip, but the past few years have seen a few new clothing retail shops and even Atlantic City's first supermarket, businesses free of the immediate gravity of the casinos. What is a town with concert halls, Asian noodle bars but no place to buy groceries? There are no supermarket squares on a Monopoly Board, where do the employees of all those little green and red hotels eat?

I always thought casinos were sparks of hubris, palaces spun from hot air and violence, exploding like Nero's Rome or abandoned monuments like the pyramids. But the ruins of Atlantic City soldier on, warded by middle managers and unions of immigrant blackjack dealers. As long as the buses of guardedly hopeful run into the city, these monsters will go about the daily business of polishing the burning vices of youth to the lukewarm pleasures of the blue and aged.

brotherly love: philly

A Philly cop's bad directions landed me on a trolly car to north-west Philly. I got off a mile or so north of where I was supposed to meet my college roommate. There are no neighborhoods like this in Japan.

It is an oft repeated truism that 9/11 was the first foreign attack on US soil since the war of 1812, and that the US hasn't known a domestic war since 1865, but I don't know how anyone who lives in an American city can say that.

Any rational human facing this landscape of wire and rubble, of people looking even more empty and shattered than the buildings around them... any rational human being would grab the first passerby and scream "What happened here? What's going on?!" But there is no urgency in this destruction, no breaking news. It is the story of America's last century, the slow decay of the forgotten, the urban poor.

I walked south to meet up with my friend. Stickers screaming faith and redemption were stuck proudly on screen doors. There were gaps between houses, piles of rubble, ignored. I saw a teddy bear and a bouquet of dead flowers tethered to a telephone pole. A cadre of thick necked men spread new black pavement, hot and steaming.

The rest of my time in Philadelphia was spent with old friends. We wandered graveyards, talked Philly history, smoked dope and listened to music, wandered comics shops and talked science fiction in public parks. While all my impulses screamed to relate every doorknob and midnight joke to my life in Japan, I swallowed them and tried to listen as much as I spoke.

Just two long afternoons in Philly, really. I caught an early evening Chinatown bus to New York, leaving Philly as I found it, wondering if we'll ever see an end to all of this... misery.

mud season: vermont

We arrived on the first day of mud season.

April is holiday season for Vermont locals, the short month between winter ski season and spring when the melting snow looks to flee to the sea any way it can, rushing into brooks, streams and rivers. Our first day there the state was wrapped in a thick fog, which gave way to a freezing April rain. The earth had softened to warm pudding in gravel lots, farmers’ fields, dirt driveways, and the front yards of folks who didn’t notice what a nice low curve it had when they bought the place.

I spent a few days with my family up there at my late great-aunt’s cottage. It’s been on the market since last spring, but we’ve yet to find a buyer, and so it sits there, half empty, her stuff scattered among my uncles, aunts, and cousins. As it rained we spent the day inside, eating cheese sandwiches, doing the New York Times crossword and reading by the fireplace.
It was the first day all four of us had spent together in several years.


I left New York yesterday shivering out the last gasps of winter and came to a Japan thoroughly soaked in spring. I had a long, sleepless flight, spent restlessly switching among the half dozen bits of Hollywood tripe played on repeat, a two hour coach bus ride from the airport, a few stops on the train, and a few minutes lugging my bags through the city and up several flights of stairs before I finally had the key in the lock, my luggage on the floor and was in the shower. It was a breezy spring evening, the sun had just set and sky was the color of a blue M&M. I went for a walk in fresh jeans, a long sleeve t-shirt and a pair of dollar sandals, bought a beer at the corner store and grabbed in a bench in a neighborhood park to watch the cherry trees heavy with thick pink blossoms.

I deliberately sat with my back to the high school couple on another bench, talking and necking in equal measure, only to see another couple across the way who had had the same idea. I made a great show of keeping my eyes on the cherry blossoms, feeling the beer steep into this confused and jet lagged body. Tried to orient myself, find the part of me that speaks Japanese, the part of me tucked away before I boarded the plane for the states. My insides were groping blindly, grasping for night and day, for up and down. I suppose my mind was doing that too, trying to piece together those ten American days with these Japanese years, and just how they all puzzle together.