Sunday, September 25, 2005

the first day of fall

There are days when the accumulated weight of magic soaked into the world almost drowns you. Days when God seems like the director of some movie with you in the starring role, Gabriel doing the cinematography. Every action is careful and gorgeous, your heart flutters for hours. Just as cherry blossoms and spring are closely associated with the opening and fleetingness of life and love the end of summer has become synonymous with lost love. How many times have a heard a melody where the singer sits at the end of summer remember their first love that ended with the season. It’s a hokey thought, but it’s one that always seems to pierce me, and I’ve never even had a June to August fling.

My first few breaths this morning had the dry taste of autumn. The sweet summer stick was gone from the air and my dreams suddenly focused in the crisped air. I woke twitching to strains of folk guitar, the last images of the dream curling away like smoke. Michael has been dead these eight years, drowned in a Vermont river, but he played for me last night. I wondered what part of me had brought him into my dreams, his glossy gray eyes and the brown hair brushing his shoulders.

It was a Sunday morning and I had a list of errands, but once I started down these town lanes my bike refused to stop, racing minivanned families down tree lined streets, squeezing and cheating between traffic and through red lights, slapped the political banners fluttered along the way.

A typhoon swept into Asia and just missed Japan this morning and the far sprinkling reaches of it sparkled the Japanese sky with a strange patchwork of clouds. Noon dusted us with the ashen gray light of dusk. The sky was riddled in a weird checkerboard of black squares rimmed in sunlight. The wind scurried about like a hyperred puppy chasing his own tail, sometimes almost toppling me with his enthusiasm. He brought me strange little presents of smells and sounds, quickly pattering off to find something new, packages of chicken roasted on skewers and the shrieks of motorcycles on the highway. As I crossed the river the wind dropped a smattering of long farty bass tones at my ankles, soon disappearing among the bored purrs of car engines. Looking around I found a small figure perched in a field of weeds, blowing on a wooden horn the size of a small tree. I veered off the bridge and he waved to me from the field. “Hando-meido!” he yelled against the wind. “It’s hand made!” “Yatte mitai? Yatte mitai desu ka?” How could I say no?

I waded into the waist high grasses to take up his offer. The field was churning with mud, the tires of my bicycle sinking into this earth suddenly gone soft and dizzying as making love. The man cradled the long wooden horn in his hands, holding out the mouthpiece to me. “It’s alright if I try then?” “Please, give it a try.” I pursed my lips and blew it like a trumpet, air columning down the shaft and exploding out the opposite end in a long blarp of rippling air. The digital display on the chromatic tuner perched below the mouthpiece said I had belted out a solid C sharp. I twisted my face and coaxed out an A sharp and a G sharp as well. I shook hands with the maker and we traded our names. Mine is Jamie. His is Kawamura. He made it by hand, from Nagano timber. He comes down to the river to practice in a spot where no one can hear him. My coming had exhilarated him but shattered his solitude: was he bothering people in the immediate area? Why no, I said, I had just barely caught the sounds of his practicing. The storms to the south had pulled me down there to hear him. But I didn’t tell him that.

The horizon was scarred with slashes of slate gray and faded orange as I waved goodbye. By the time I’d ridden back into town it was covered in black, the bobbing lamps of bicycles floating in the darkness like firefly swarms. As I sat in my bathroom the light from the outside hall clicked and flicked in patterns that matched this September’s checkered skies. Oh... my heart felt miles wide today. The country is plunging whole into the churning waters of winter, and today my insides were swirled up like a dash of cold cream into coffee, and my heart ached for someone. Oh oh how it ached for the bundled mystery of a human being to twitter my eyes and shake my limbs. Oh today I wanted someone. Oh. Oh.

Friday, September 09, 2005


Our team may have had the home advantage, but the Ham Fighters had apparently been employing an amateur psychologist with vocal training to motivate their batters, placing him inconspicuously in section 10, row K. “Give us a hit Shinjo! Let’s see something here! Doesn’t even have to hit the stands, I’ll shut up if you knock us a nice line drive!”

I wonder how in the hell they recruit the beer girls for Japanese baseball games. They must be making more than the average shit part time job, because these girls work, each of them lugging a full keg of beer on their backs, backpacked in a heavy plastic case emblazoned with brand colors. No single brewery had a monopoly on the stadium, three of the big four beer makers hawking at least two versions of their top beers. (Sapporo must be spending all their publicity money on those ridiculous televised adverts that blast out every three minutes on Tokyo’s jam packed Yamanote trains: squeeling girls and handpuppets, animated dogs that teach English phrases and hawk beer synthesized from pea proteins). I have never felt so desperate to tip anyone in my life as these poor young ladies, burned red and sweaty in the direct sun, lilting voices hoarse from hawking beer, some of them with beef jerky packets draped across their chests like long Vietnam-era GI bullet loops. There were more of them than I could count, the avian strangeness of the bills neatly folded in their left hand and customer calls occasionally drew my eyes from the game, even the minor dramas of business overwhelming the spectacle of organized sport.

Koike-san had stumbled onto four tickets to yesterday’s early season match between Hokkaido's Nippon Ham Fighters and the Chiba Marines. Best seating I’d ever had at a sports event, about ten rows behind the visiting team’s dugout, with a clear wide view of home plate and those poor girls breaking their backs and pouring beer. Koike is a fan of Baseball, spends his Saturdays as the third baseman for a local amateur league, will watch whatever game is on the tube, gets out to the ballpark two or three times a year driven more by circumstance than loyalty than any particular set of uniforms. Yamamoto and Sayo and I knew better: baseball is about winning. None of us had any personal or regional ties to Chiba, Hokkaido, Marines, Fighters or Ham, so our cheering was spurred by other loyalties: Sayo has a massive crush on the Ham Fighters Center Fielder, Yamamoto has a massive crush on Sayo and I wouldn’t be caught dead rooting for a team called the Ham Fighters.

Besides, it was a home game for the Marines, and the fans were as primed and practiced for the new season as the boys on the field. They sat directly across from us, just behind right field, a pixilated field of identical white and black Marines jerseys that was less like a tipsy baseball crowd than a massive transistor radio, the volunteer brass band cueing up one of the dozen or so fight songs and chants that made up the Marines songbook. Seemed almost every player had his own melody, from the Fukura batting cleanup to Bennie, the American shortstop. There was nothing simple or oom-pa, oom-pa about these either, it took me about seven innings of constant repetition just to figure how to clap along. The supporters box was like a tenth player, occasionally starting a low rising “aaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh...” at the opposing pitcher during his windup, several hundred fans all focused on the single task of doubling his heart-rate.

Let’s have one, come on! Morimoto! Mo-ri-mo-to! I know what you’re feeling! I just finished my summer vacation too, but it’s time for both of us to get back to work!

The game lolled along, a solid line drive from the Marines' Fukura prompted a sprint towards home base from the guy on second, but the ball got there with time to spare, which would push it up to three outs. I was just lamenting the loss of another inning when the ref called him safe, and the game stopped to give the catcher and the Ham Fighters coach a few minutes to scream at him for being such a blind fucking asshole. The grumblings about a payoff continued into the next inning when he called an outside ball a strike, knocking it up to three outs. Even the Marine’s cheering section seemed a bit subdued by the string of shady calls.

Each seat had a little “No Smoking” sticker printed on its back, so Sayo had to head back inside to breath one of her light menthols. Yamamoto-san went where she went, Koike-san wanted some foi od from inside, and the game wasn’t interesting enough to watch by my lonesome, so all four of us headed inside. Just as Sayo had lit one of her absurdly long Kool’s we all turned around to the indoor TV screen to watch a replay of the two run homer that some Ham Fighter had plunked out. By the time we’d resumed our seats the best inning of the game had ended, the Ham Fighters (Ham Fighters!?!) now with four runs against the phantom one run of the Marines. The game loped along for a few more innings, with the Ham Fighters (a pro-league team called the Ham-Fucking-Fighters!) knocking around the Chiba team on both sides of the field, racking up two more runs without much thought. The Marines got a second wind with a replacement pitcher and a surprise one-run homer from my new man, Fukura, and by the bottom of the ninth they were down by four but had a solid momentum going. One ball arced towards right field, and arrow straight to the heart of the monster of the supporter’s section, but it dropped just short of the stands, straight into a Ham Fighter’s waiting glove (how in the hell do you fight ham?).

The game ended there, the four of us moving between the giant geometric hotels and convention centers that lay between the stadium and the train station like the tombs of future kings, none of them more than ten years old. There must have been thousands of other baseball fans and weekend shoppers there, but it still felt quiet and empty, the wet Chiba plain stretching out in all directions, the sky the color of a damp pair of jeans, these alien gray structures risen out of the soft earth, and resting on this sharply gridded concrete crust. My friends began to twitter at the sight of the Chiba outlet mall placed innocently next to the station, and just as I felt myself being pulled along with them I found my excuse in a young woman doing tricks with a trained monkey just outside the entrance.

Charlie was a Macaque Fuscata, the breed of monkeys native to the forests and mountains of the Japanese islands, bane of rural farmers and frequent trespassers in secluded hot springs. But his trainer had saved him from a life of delinquency and had been put to the honorable trade of amusing Sunday shoppers for pocket change. Pays better than typing all day with dreams of Shakespeare, and with more immediate gratification. Besides, he had a comic's timing and was as nimble as a... monkey, hand-springs and vaults, leaping around on stilts, clearing a small arsenal of hurdles, hoops and bars. All done with a Buster Keaton deadpan that didn’t waver through all the hugs, high-fives and whispers with his trainer, who seemed to do most of the talking anyway. By the time the hat came around I emptied out what coins I had into it, to the tune of just about three hundred yen, less than half of what I’d paid for a beer.

By then my three friends had emerged from the outlet mall satiated, Yamamoto and Sayo with brand name bags in their arms, Koike always just content to watch and smile. The monkey act started again, pulling in two or three dozen returning baseball fans and Sunday shoppers to make a small stadium of their own, all eyes tuned to the flick of his tail and the arc of his jump, all eyes turned away from the great catacombs of money and power.

Friday, September 02, 2005

fourteen seconds

Like most news, it came filtering through friends and acquaintances, Japanese families where dinner is chewed to the rhythms of the NHK anchorman’s voice. It was dropped by people I’d just met, hearing I hailed from America. “How is your family taking the hurricane?” They ask me for information, and I don’t even own a television. I smiled and brushed away their concerns. Japanese news loves a natural disaster, the drama of a windbreakered reporter struggling to maintain his clean diction and formal verbs while being slapped by the drippy fingers of a typhoon. A few houses are flooded in Florida, the Japanese nation will be chewing their rice to UP interviews with the survivors, and I hear about it the next day. I remember my basement flooding when I was twelve, swimming down there among the furniture, the August we lost power for three days, the TV muffled and mute, the family living by candlelight after dark, reading and playing checkers before bedtime.

It was when a friend who just moved to New Orleans last week emailed me about the people trapped in the city looting supermarkets for food and profit, about the unclaimed bodies floating in the streets, the bulk of her possessions abandoned, that steely cold horror sunk itself six inches into my belly. From there it was two clicks to the New York Times online and their artfully framed and lighted photos of people (black) trapped on the upper levels of apartment blocks, couples (black) huddling in the Superdome among a few thousand others, of a thick armed volunteer (white) with a thoroughly American face helping to carry a refugee girl (black) to... somewhere. And I started to get a little bit fucking angry at the New York Times and the whole goddamned international community of photo-journalists, squeezing out the horror in their scramble for the dramatically lit angle, the exquisitely framed instant of Suffering and not just the suffering of New Orleans. The article talks of thousands pressed into the stadium, sore, sweaty and dehydrated, and you see the silhouettes of a man and woman against the exquisite pillars of sunlight shooting through the damaged roof. I read of the uncountable number of bodies floating in the streets, too numerous for the rescue workers to bother with, and see a picture of a lone man in a boat, drifting exquisitely amid roofs and telephone poles.

I’ve never been to New Orleans, but it always seemed to me like one of the few American cities worth visiting even if you didn’t know anyone there. You heard the stories about Mardi Gras, and that didn’t sound like any America I was familiar with. It wasn’t a city where the tourism bureau and middle class descendants of the original settlers desperately cling to old immigrant traditions, which eventually come out glossy twenty-first century versions of their original selves. It seemed to be a genuine black sheep in the family of American cities, the odd Creole aunt that slightly unnerved stuff shirt New York, schizo entrepreneur LA and manic depressive Seattle. There was one excellent piece in yesterday’s NY Times penned by a guy involved in architectural preservation projects in New Orleans, lamenting not just the extensive damage to many of the cities beautiful old neighborhoods, but the unknown damage to the cultural fabric of its communities. According to the article the city has one of the highest rates of folks staying put of any American metropolis, folks staying in the neighborhood they grew up in, an old world node in the transient American landscape.

The images and stories coming out of the South the past few days have stirred up some more local fears as well. For years the ash faced men in white lab coats have been terrifying the greater Tokyo area with their warnings of the big one. The Kanto Daijishin is expected sometime within the next fifteen years or so, and this is the sucker that is going to level Tokyo, churning this warren of steel and concrete into the Pacific Ocean. I sometimes wake up, wondering if the room is shaking or if it’s just my heart throwing the blood around my body.

This year there’s been a string of major quakes along the main island, the earth snake cracking his ancient spine. A few weeks ago I was holed up in a fifth floor internet café when the air began to groan and the whole building started whipping back and forth, heads twirling and twittering, partitions snapping against one another. I clutched my bag and tried to remember what in the hell you were supposed to do when that happens. I stood in a tensed crouch, ready to sprint in five directions at once for about a minute or so, the whole world shaking around me. Of course it just slowed down and stopped, but of the few dozen earthquakes I’ve felt in my years here it was the most aggressive, the most vindictive quake I’d felt. I checked out with about half of the café and wandered back to my house, the streets level as always, people shaking off the tremors in their legs and heading back to their business. False alarm folks. No one died except for a few abandoned houses which made the news. The nation resumed it’s scurrying.

Japan lives with images of disaster, this shiny new world still seems so fragile, so unreal. They say Godzilla was about the atom bomb, so why did everyone love him so much? Every nation clings to its innocence, its memories of suffering with a black pride. We remember the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, and the black day in September which really did change everything. Japan can remember Tokyo crumbling twice in the past eighty years, grandparents tremble at thoughts of the war years, living on millet and wild grasses, every major city burned black. Japan quietly gave more to this year’s tsunami relief than any other nation, the bulk of it from individual donations. It seems like only last month that nightly news was commanded by stories of Niigata families driven to school gymnasiums by last October's earthquake were moving into pre-fabricated housing units.

We do what we can. Houses are stocked with water and canned goods, a friend of a friend has been perfecting a pulley device so he can rappel off his balcony. Japan’s bestseller list has recently been topped by a new up-to-date guide with maps of the danger levels of different Tokyo neighborhoods, and the best routes to designated emergency shelters. Many of the city’s major centers lie on the ghosts of rivers and valleys that were loosely packed with earth early in the last century, the water characters in their names their only claim to the past. They’ll be jiggling like long strips of molded jello when d-day hits. Scientists have perfected detection equipment to sense earthquakes a good fourteen seconds in advance. I talk with friends and the conversation ends with shaken heads and shrugs. I type this and I look out my fourth floor window at the children walking from school, the mothers with bicycle baskets loaded with groceries, the groups of men laughing over Friday afternoon beers. These millions of us skittering on this treacherous earth like drops of water on an iron skillet, praying for the strength of the levy’s and our chances for deliverance, televisions flickering with the images of our nightmares.