Journal Musings People

Book By Its Cover

Just finished watching the first three episodes of the American television program Black. White.. It is very likely the most difficult television program I have ever watched. Five minutes didn’t go by in which I wasn’t clenched up and tight-jawed, and so wound up that I kept fidgeting in my chair and getting up to visit the kitchen or the bathroom or just to look out of the window.

The program is about two families, one black, one white, who, through make up and coaching, switch places as blacks and whites and experience what it is like to live life in the opposite shoe. Watching the different family members go through their individual awakenings and gradual comprehension of what it is like to be black or white really has you sitting at the edge of your seat, especially because some of the transformations get quite intensely emotional. I found myself agreeing with and cursing at both sides, coming as I do from a family of both blacks and whites and Asians, and having experienced all sides of what these people are going through.

More than that, though, the program had me looking intently at myself and my own daily experiences and prejudices that I carry around. The other day one of my readers wrote that they didn’t see any difference between the experience of whites and non-whites, that much of the hostility that goes on is just in people’s heads. I did not want to reply because it is such a common belief among whites that trying to argue about it usually results in denials and resentment, even heated fights. But if you happen to be non-white, the way that other people, even other non-whites, see you and react to you comes out in a million nuances that will just not appear when you are white. There are big differences in how whites and non-whites experience these little and big things in every day life. As the members of the white family in the TV program soon realize, when you live in the white world in general you don’t have to be on guard; you can blithely speak your mind or interact with people around you without worrying that others will not accept you on looks alone. Things like where you walk on the sidewalk or which words you use or how you might inadvertently touch a stranger can make or break your chances to get into restaurants or be served at a store.

But what I really admired about the people in the program and the program itself is how they try to be honest about how blacks themselves hold preconceptions about whites and how those preconceptions can affect everything about how they understand whites. There is one scene where the white woman, Colleen, visits a black neighborhood as a white with her husband dressed up as a black and the hostility that they encounter and the realization that the simple fact of her skin color being different totally closes their world to her and conjures up hatred among those blacks with stronger feelings and closed minds. It is quite sobering to watch her struggle with the anguish of dawning comprehension as her face literally alters from one of someone simply having fun to one of grave recognition of reality. Her husband Bruno refuses to budge, still clinging to his safe, unchallenged, middle class white views of a world existing in relative utopia. Their 17 year old daughter, however, embraces the chances she has and makes courageous efforts to both immerse herself in black culture and be completely honest with them. Of all the people, she seems the most able to gain something from the change. In some ways the white family resembles my mother’s German side of the family, but Germans tend to carry a quieter, more self-effacing outlook on life than the almost oblivious, unassailable self-assurance that the white American family seemed to take for granted, so there were differences.

At the same time you watch the black family and I guess whether you are white or black or something else you will run through a gamut of agreements and objections to their observations and experiences. They resemble my father’s side of the family (Filipino/ South Carolina blacks who have lived mostly in New York’s Brooklyn, the Bronx, and across the river in New Jersey), with the same openly expressed strong opinions and colorful language and awareness of less privileges in life. I found myself almost ready to shout at the the members of the family when they walked into a white place and without anything happening immediately raising their hackles. You could almost feel them fishing for hostility. Since the show has only just begun there hasn’t been much development in how the black family learns to see the white world, but it would be very interesting to see whether they can learn to appreciate the reality of being white. Things are not always what they seem.

Probably the most powerful message I might get out of watching the show is in changing the way I angle my view of situations. So much of politically correct conversation these days acts upon established stereotypes of what entails such no-no’s as racism and sexism. If you go to a movie or watch a television show or read a popular book, you can almost predict to a letter what the women and men and blacks and whites are going to do or say before anything happens. Whites always “don’t get it” and always subject blacks to indignities and losses of chances. Men always miss what women are asking for and trample women’s “empowerment”. The women in the movies have to be strong and morally incorruptible. The blacks in the movies always have to be indignant and full of rage against injustice. There is rarely room for real human beings who make mistakes, learn, hurt others, fail, or question their own identification with their predetermined roles.

Recently, Chris Clark of Creek Running North, wrote a piece about feminism. He ran through a list of reasons why a man cannot count himself a member of the coalition for women’s issues, simply because he is a man. I unreservedly agree with Chris’ assertion that men simply cannot know the details of living as a woman, in the same way that a non-white cannot possibly know what it is to live as a non-white. However, what rankled me about the post, and the consequent comments, was not its defence of women and the need to work to improve women’s situations in the world, but with its assumption that all men are somehow innately misogynistic and that women are somehow morally and socially superior to men, basically lumping all men together in the same way that men are accused of having done to women. That kind of thinking has become almost universal in the States now, so much so that it is extremely difficult for any man to publicly voice his opinion without automatically being voted down as ignorant and opportunistic. In the comments, as in so many such posts on feminism, no one dared contradict Chris, especially not men. The present climate in these debates is that rape and mistreatment of women is a trait all men carry and that men should take it on faith that whatever comes out of their mouths has no worth in the conversation. Either the men acquiesce to the pronouncements made by women, or they should shut up. Forget the fact that there are plenty of men like me, and for that matter, Chris Clark, who have always respected women, often the “nice” men whom many of the women ridiculed in high school and at social gatherings, for not being “cool” or “sexy” or “bad” or “confident” enough. Chris’ post stereotypes all men as the macho jocks that I so hated in high school. Indeed, much of the whole debate takes on the high school flavour of cliques and hierarchies. There doesn’t seem to be any room for diversity among men as there is always assumed among women.

One thing that I find so important about the “Black. White.” show is its attempt to get blacks and whites to experience what it means to live in another’s shoes and then to get the participants to talk about it and to not set the individuals into molds as to how they should react as things unfold. This, more than anything, I think is the crucial point to learning how to live with and deal with social issues such as racism and sexism; all the people involved need to somehow get a view of what it means to live as the other does before they open their mouths and paint imagined pictures of the truth of others. You cannot solve such problems by sitting with your own kind and beating the bush; eventually you have to come out and face those things which you fear to face, namely your own ignorance and unwillingness to give another the benefit of the doubt.

My one question though, in terms of authenticity… how exactly do the participants get genuine reactions with the camera crew hanging around in the background all the time? How much of what is going on is pure entertainment, and how much unadulterated truth?

Diabetes Health Journal

Time to Get A Move On It?

I’ve been trying to deny it, but I’ve been feeling exceptionally cruddy these last few days. My boss informed me that one day of my classes will most likely be shut down, and that more days might follow, eventually maybe even this entire branch of the school itself. After eight years of very dedicated work here it feels like quite a letdown, especially because the boss has been getting on all the teacher’s cases about “doing their best” for the school and the students. That’s exactly what I did… but when push came to shove, I’m given one week’s notice.

I simply can’t make ends meet like this. With all the other worries I have I also can’t afford yet more sticks piled onto the camel’s back. I’m feeling shaky enough as it is.

Big intake of breath, big, big exhale. Everything’s going to be all right. Everything’s going to be all right.

Yeah, that’s what I said when I found out I had diabetes. I’ve since learned that everything is not always going to be all right.

And maybe that’s part of the crux of the problem. I’ve lost the innocence and confidence in my own ability to keep myself safe in the world. When my heart skips a beat at night I wake up terrified that my body has abandoned me. When there’s an earthquake now I shake in my bones, fearful that this is the one. The thunder storms I used to love so much when I was younger now flash moments of terror in the back of my watching mind. At times, when my blood sugar is high, I start up some train station steps only to feel my mind loosened and reeling, and I wonder if I will be able to make it up the stairs. And whenever I sit waiting in the hospital lounge in my monthly visits to the diabetes center and watch one of the blind or amputees or patients headed for the dialysis machine my eyes are wide with sympathy and horror; that could very well be me there.

When did my faith in my own existence erode so badly? And how does one gain back the confidence and surety of waking up in the morning? I pick up a book on diabetes and the statistics unnerve me:

1) People with diabetes are 2 times more likely to suffer heart attack than those without.
2) People with diabetes are 2 times more likely to suffer a stroke as those without.
3) People with diabetes are 20 times more likely to go blind than those without.
4) People with diabetes are 40 times more likely to suffer kidney failure than those without.”
5) People with diabetes are highly likely to suffer debilitating nerve damage, that can cause all of the problems above.

*Quoted from “The Mind-Body Diabetes Revolution” by Richard S. Surwit

Fun reading! It’s like a benign old librarian smiling and quoting simple figures for your trivia enjoyment… all the while a monster standing in disguise beneath her petticoats.

There’s nothing really special about this news; after all we are all scheduled for time in the Cold Room, but there is such a difference in knowing that the cogs and pipes and governors have loosened and jumped track, right here in your own backyard.

When I first saw the movie “Philadelphia” when it first came out over ten years ago, before diabetes sought me out, it moved me and stuck with me, but last night when I again watched Tom Hanks emerge from Denzel Washington’s office after being rejected and the look on Hanks’ face of knowing that his body had given him a legacy of hopelessness, I knew to my bones what he was feeling.

Two months ago my aunt died from diabetes complications. I wasn’t able to get time off to make it to the States to hold her hand before she died and give her whatever courage one diabetic could give to another. Afterwards an ocean of confusion overtook me, partly laden with waves of sorrow at the death of someone I loved dearly, partly awash with immense paranoia that I, too, wasn’t going to make it for much longer. The following week, when my doctor, who has an infuriating habit of talking on her cell phone during our consultations, again answered some call, I blew up and accused her of being unprofessional and not knowing what she was doing and of letting me slowly drift out to sea. Seven years of silence erupted. I am so scared and feel so helpless. And yet I can’t talk about it with anyone I know; the burden would be incomprehensible to them. Too often they brush off the mutters of low-blood sugar fears and days of bad coordination due to neuropathy or the unprovoked, high-blood sugar episodes when even the way a slip of paper might oscillate in a breeze sets me off ranting and shouting for no apparent reason. My father took me to task for “the chip on my shoulder”.

But they’re not to blame. They just don’t know. They don’t have this awful face staring at them day in and day out. Diabetes seems so benign and innocent… after all most diabetics are walking around as if nothing is wrong. They look fine and seem to do just about the same things as anyone else. It is just not apparent that the vision is blurred or that the ringing is constant and loud in the ear or that the feet hurt badly or a morning cramp so clenched the calf muscle that walking is difficult or that the drowsiness just won’t go away, no matter how much coffee you drink or exercise you do. It is silent, like a scalpel.

But my words are defeatist. It’s no joke that everyone is going to die. We all carry that. So I guess the only thing for it is to make best use of what I have and try to live as best I can.

Maybe losing the job is a good thing. After all I’ve long been talking about my need to make a big change in my life. I’ve always believed that you don’t get what you want out of life, but you always do get what you need. In the end what is really important is with just how much grace you can fit inside this tumbling world and how much meaning you can stoke out of the embers into the flickering flame of your life.

Hiking Japan: Living Japan: Photos Journal Shizuoka Walking

Wild Walking in a Wild, Wild Wind

The wind is blowing again today and I suspect that the mountain I meandered over last weekend is sitting hunkered down again, its back braced against the fury of Mt. Fuji looming just a hop over to the west. Mount Mikuni, more of an undulating hump than a real crag, sits right on the eastern knee of Japan’s most massive mountain. Some time ago in the mists of prehistory Mt. Fuji had one of her 150 year tantrums and vomited a slurry of volcanic ash and tuff, creating a huge black and crimson skirt in which she sat primly guarding the rising of the sun. Mt. Mikuni was created out of her agitation and fidgeting, part of a series of wrinkles in the drape of her skirts. When you walk Mikuni it is like crunching through burnt granola, the soles of your shoes grinding the granules as if waiting to be scooped up with a spoon. And when I walked last weekend the leeward sides of hummocks and trees clung to the remaining snow drifts that churned underfoot like cold milk. All the while the crew cut beech and myrtle forest bowed under the onslaught of a wind that roared and shuddered overhead, at times booming so loud I couldn’t hear my voice as I shouted cautions to my partner. It was a frigid wind, hurling straight from the ivory lips of Fuji, indifferent to the tiny lives moving among the rocks.

And a moving, almost achingly beautiful, in a grey sort of way, encounter with a lone forest. I loved how small and insignificant I felt. At the end of the day it was as if my soul had been swept clean.

Kagosaka Cemetery
Somewhat ominous cemetery at the start of the trail…
Kagosaka Cemetery detail
… but with a tender bent.
Sika deer antler base
Base of a Sika deer’s antler.
Mikuni beech trail
Halfway along the trail.
Upturned beech
Upturned beech. The layer of soil is so thin that tree roots barely find purchase.

Upturned beech roots detail

Mikuni ice debris 1

Mikuni ice debris 2

Forest debris
Not sure what this seed pod is. Anyone know? Everything in the area was covered in moss.
Log fungus
Fungus on a log.
Myoin peak 1
The forest opened up to this vista. The last part of the walk wandered down a vast grassy slope looking upon Mt. Fuji and a wind-harried, slate-colored Yamanaka Lake.

Myoin peak 2

Mt. Fuji and Yamanaka-ko
View of Mt. Fuji and Yamanaka Lake.

Mt. Fuji and Yamanaka-ko from road

Mt. Fuji under the weather
Mt. Fuji Under the Weather
Japan: Living Journal Life In

Food for Diagnosis

It’s been a strange day today.

First, in the midst of reading what for me as a diabetic is an important book (important because so few books that I’ve read on diabetes have spoken soberly and without the sickening “Oh, poor widdle babykins, let Daddy kiss the booboo and make it all bedder” attitude that I can’t stand, and actually goes into depth about the origins and workings of diabetes, with examples and explanations that closely follow my own experience with the disease), “The Mind-Body Diabetes Revolution“, by Richard S. Surwit, and taking the clinical tests within to determine my levels of risk in stress, depression, and hostility, I discovered that in both stress and depression I carry the highest possible risk factors (what a relief to know that hostility-wise I am a lamb!), and that technically I have severe clinical depression, and need professional help.

I guess I’ve more or less known this all along, but it seems so artificial. It’s hard to describe. I grew up and live in a culture, Japan’s, where I don’t know a single person who goes to any type of therapy (as opposed to America and Europe where it seems half my friends see a shrink), and have very rarely met anyone who even remotely seems to need it. Yes, I meet people who are down occasionally and who have anger issues and such, but it never seems to get that much in the way of their lives. In the 14 years that I’ve been teaching English I’ve asked countless students about their memories and experiences of high school, if they harbored any resentment or exceptionally bad memories. Almost without exception each student, men and women, have told me they enjoyed high school and would be very happy to do it all again. Only about three or four admitted to any kind of bullying. When I ask these students about their present lives, a few will tell me of dissatisfaction, or disappointment, but in general, very few people tell me out and out that they are really unhappy. You walk the streets and, compared to what I have seen in the States and Europe, only rarely do you come across individuals who seem out of whack with reality and their surroundings.

Now I know that some of this comes as a result of the Japanese tendency to keep embarrassing family secrets out of the public eye, but it is more than that, too. There is a whole alternative expectation out of life here that, I think, puts less pressure on individuals and in many, many ways is much more realistic about life. There is none of the tunnel-vision of organized religion pervading the society in any way (and Westerners who come here seeking such a social construct often tend to give more weight to such things as the Buddhist temples and the shrines than actually exists… Japanese are simply not a religious people, though they do carry their own form of spirituality). Marriage is often seen much more as a pact between two people for raising a family, than as a field for solely nurturing the couple’s romantic feelings (though that is a big benefit when it happens). I have talked to many married people, men and women, equally, who, without the slightest sense of guilt or moral wrongdoing (though not all, course), feel that there is nothing wrong with their spouses having extra-marital affairs, as long as they don’t find out about it (in their transliterated words: “As long as the affair doesn’t intrude in the family circle”). People here expect life to be hard and full of sadness. The whole concept of “mono-no-aware”, a perception of pathos, in which the whole world is seen through the glass of impermanence and passing, and everything is filled with the sadness and beauty of things that only last a moment, is something that every Japanese intuitively understands. Say the words “moon”, “rain”, “frog”, “blossom”, “pebble”… and each one will conjure up a flurry of colors, movement, sounds, and feeling that pertains to things not lasting. People see themselves and their possessions as just as fleeting… one reason why so few artifacts from the past, especially buildings, remain.

I could go on, but the point is that I’m not sure how to interpret the criteria that the diabetes books lays out for determining the ill health of my mind and spirit. I grew up non-Japanese and spent a little less than half my life in the States, so there is the influence of western culturedrawing me one way, but there is also this Japanese sense of how things are and should be. I don’t see my state-of-mind as being all that unusual or off-kilter. The questions in the book felt so American, in that they assume a MacDonald’s smile for a state-of-mind that they consider healthy:

1. Do you feel sad most of the time?
2. Do you often feel as if there’s little to look forward to?
3. Do you see your life as being one failure after another?
4. Do you feel as if you no longer enjoy any activities these days?…

to name just a few.

Part of me nods in sage understanding, knowing that it must be necessary to keep up that sense of glittering cheerfulness that pervades American culture, where if you aren’t smiling something must be seriously wrong with you. Smile at the camera!

But the other part of me sees no reason to smile at the camera when I just don’t feel the least bit perky. It doesn’t mean I am not full of mirth or quiet contentment; it just means that the camera is no reason to put on a show.

Why weren’t the questions framed thus:

1. Do you love what is around you and grieve the letting go?
2. Do you often feel a responsibility toward people around you and just don’t have the time or means to do what you would really like?
3. Do you see your life as being a learning experience and that there are bound to be more failures than successes?
4. Do you feel that you are changing as you get older and your tastes have moved on?

So now I must determine my state of affairs and go either East or West. Decide to prance about or skulk in the corner… Take your pick.

After putting aside the book I met a blogging friend, whom I hadn’t seen in over six months, for lunch. He brought his young son along this time and we three men sat in Starbucks, basically being ordered around by my friend’s son, he telling us to help him complete his sketchbook doodles. The boy was a great little kid, full of fresh vivacity and laughter, and I found myself, as I watched him, suddenly filled with a great sadness that most likely my wife and I will never have a child together. I have no idea where this suddenly came from. Children are not something I have much thought about or strongly desired, and yet there I was, jealous of my friend and wondering how I could have missed something so fundamental. When the two of them said good-bye, I headed toward my evening job with a kind of slack-jawed surprise. Me, a father?!? I promptly dashed off a message on my cell phone to my wife: “I really miss you today.”

And finally, on my way home, I decided to take the extra long walk from one station before my own, a quiet saunter through an upper-income neighborhood where quite a few gardens and trees reminded me that soil still existed in this world. I love going home this way and have taken to doing it almost every evening these days, as part of my steps toward changing my life toward those things that mean most to me. As I descended a particularly charming set of steep stairs lined with zelkova trees and ivy-covered walls, I spied a break between some of the houses and saw straight into someone’s bedroom, where the lights were full glare. Staring right back at me from the wall of the bedroom was a huge Nazi flag, the red and black blazoned in the darkness. “Damn!”, I thought. “What’s that person up to?” What exactly did they like about that flag? But this was Japan, of course, and, like almost everything, it was mostly likely something just for aesthetic affectation. But you never know. There be blond, Aryan-Asian dragons even here.

Blogging Journal

The Human Experience

It’s only been about four months since I discovered it, but Waiter Rant has got to have some of the best writing on the internet. He must be doing something right, because he gets on average about 100 comments a post! Some truly moving work.

Art of Living Journal Musings Nature


I just finished reading Barry Lopez’s “Resistence”. After I read it I lay in bed as the sun arced past the window, weeping for a long time and yet feeling fierce, too. The questions the book asks threatened to split the fragile veneer of calm that I’ve fitted myself into over the last few years so as to survive this spell in Tokyo without going mad. And it is a form of madness, isn’t it, to hate the place you live, to sit days on end behind the window without ever talking to a friend, or to have lost the joy that once filled me every day in making food or singing songs? I want so desperately to step out of this costume I’ve fitted myself into and not be afraid to run naked and free. I’ve never done well with walls around me and yet, in spite of the turmoil inside, here I am.

Lopez’s collection of short fictional stories highlights defining moments in the separate lives of a group of people who are bound by a need to define their worlds in new ways. In many respects it is Lopez’s battle cry against the shape that society and our behavior towards the natural world has been taking. His lessons are quiet and inward, a plea that we begin to explore our inner landscape and seek value in our participation in the world. His premise, based on Navajo spirituality, that before everything the world is beautiful and we should be learning to fit ourselves into what already exists rather than throw ourselves at redemption, runs through all the stories. Lopez manages to put a face on the ambiguous yearning of those who try to define the value of nature and beauty, amorphous ideals so disparaged by those in love with civilization’s progress.

I’ve been reading a lot of books and websites about seeking an alternative way of living to what the whole world seems to bent on following (“Radical Simplicity” by Dan Price, “The Seventh Cross” by Anna Seghers, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond, to name a few…). I guess all my life something beyond the fray has been calling me and that is one reason why I have never been able to quite fit in anywhere, among any group of people. Recently, though, say in the last five years, the sense of, as Lopez describes in his book, “the premonition of disaster” has grown disproportionate to my own need for belonging, and I feel myself on the verge of making a drastic, and most-likely very unconventional change. I need to act before what is swelling inside me turns violent in some form or other.

Recently Andy of Older and Growing and I have been discussing what it means to live an authentic life and how one might go about achieving it. Both of us harbor an almost desperate compunction to reconcile our biological existence with the physical world around us and a mythical comprehension of what it means to be alive. We sense the possibility of such a way of life, but cannot see it around us, except in our jaunts to the mountains.

It just cannot be that the complexity and depth of our minds and hearts stop at the producing and acquiring of possessions. If I recall all the most lasting and joyful moments in my life they almost never involve things at the center of those moments. Even in work and health frugality has nearly always helped to keep things running smoothly. And mentally, freedom from the tyranny of possession has always allowed my mind less pull in too many directions.

At the end of the book, the character Eric Rutterman declares, “It is good to be fully alive.” I certainly don’t feel this at the moment. But it’s where I’ve been struggling to head toward. I hope the steps I am taking this year will help get me there. One part, I hope, will be in the new focus on the redesigned blog, soon to be up.