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Architecture Art & Design Journal People

Somewhere Underground

Malcolm Wells
Malcolm Wells

There have been only a handful of people in my life whose words and examples made such an impression that my inner and outer life changed course in a way I could not have seen, let alone understood, until I was already well along the path in the new direction. I was, perhaps, very lucky to have been blessed with parents who were aware, different, and courageous enough to step out of the boundaries of their communities and go see the world, and so, ever since I can recall, new ideas, new people, a cavalcade of cultures, religions, senses of humor, languages, art, literature, even food, all swept through my life like a river, inviting me to take a breath and dive in. People with ideas flowered around me like a garden and learning was fun and sustaining. I was ripe for mentors.[1. Photo by Jay_Elliott]

This my parents prepared me for, enthusiastically, almost pushing me along. And certain people, people I read or met or heard from others speaking about, caught on like burrs and wouldn’t let go. People like Miss Patricia Burke, my high school English teacher, who nurtured a love of writing when my painfully shy personality held me back from releasing anything I wrote into public. Or Professor Don Taylor of the University of Oregon’s Creative Writing Program, who took me under his wing and encouraged me with my stories in spite of my lack of confidence. Or Professor Ken O’Connell of the U of O Art Department, who listened to my pleading with him to let me into his animation program and let me become his apprentice for the next two years. Or writers like Barry Lopez and Gretel Ehrlich and Edward Abbey whose books radically changed the way I saw the potential of weaving the exciting amalgamation of nature and science into a new kind of spiritual dialogue with the Earth, one both practical and meaningful. Or poet Mary Oliver who was the voice of nature itself, describing in spare, unpretentious vocabulary what we all feel and long for as living things. Or Tove Jansson, the author of the Moomintroll series of children’s books, whose magic continues to enthrall me 39 years later, something that few other writers have done.

And then there was Malcolm Wells, the “Father of Underground Architecture”. During my architectural studies I discovered his work while browsing, in the University of Oregon Architecture Department’s library, a copy of the magazine Progressive Architecture. A photograph of a building barely visible under a carpet of grasses and wildflowers caught my eye. His buildings lived underground, in the soil, like moles and Hobbits. After the inundation of all the sterile modern designs, the overly heavy and narcissistic classic 19th century fare that people traveled thousands of miles to see, and the complete shunning of Asian architectural design, with this new form of architecture, which attempted to erase its presence and bow to the exuberance of living things, I felt I had finally found my niche in architecture and could sally forth with a renewed sense of the appropriateness of this profession which, until then, seemed to me to do so much to scar the very world I revered so much.

I read everything I could find on Wells, searching the archives for articles on his designs, seeking anything he had written and said. I discovered an outspoken, but gentle-hearted man, whose love for the natural world outweighed his love for architecture and who spent his life trying to convince the world that the way we were going about building our homes and towns and cities was both destructive and deeply disrespectful of the planet we were sharing with other living things, if not downright stupid. His writing reminded me in a way of a good-natured nay-sayer who didn’t mind brushing the fur the wrong way at a dinner party, proposing preposterous ideas that most at the party would roll their eyes at, without properly stopping to consider just how wise and effectual the ideas were. Wells seemed to me an Edward Abbey of the architecture world, and when I first saw his photo I realized I wasn’t far wrong; he even looked like Abbey.

Out of my hundreds of books one of my greatest treasures is Wells’, “Gentle Architecture”, a book I have read dozens of times and still garner wisdom from. Not only does it propose new ways of building and inhabiting cities,… that thirty years later would probably still seem radical to most people today… it suggests a completely different way of looking at nature and what our buildings are supposed to mean to us and the land. He offers a way for us to regain our spirituality in the very act of building our settlements and dwellings, one that reveres all life and the very reason for our births into the world. Here is the list of goals he proposed should be the building blocks for creating places to live:

Malcom Wells Office
Malcolm Wells office

[2. Photo courtesy of MalcolmWells.com]

1) Creates pure air.
2) Creatures pure water.
3) Stores rainwater.
4) Produces its own food.
5) Creates rich soil.
6) Uses solar energy.
7) Stores solar energy.
8) Creates silence.
9) Consumes its own waste.
10) Maintains itself.
11) Matches nature’s pace.
12) Provides wildlife habitat.
13) Provides human habitat.
14) Moderates climate and weather.
15) …and is beautiful.[3. Quoted from “Gentle Architecture”, by Malcolm Wells, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1982, ISBN 0-07-069344-0]

When I moved to Boston to try to work as an architect I contacted him to talk about his design theories and ask if he might know of any leads. We corresponded, talking a few times on the phone and more often through handwritten letters. He apologized to me for not being able to hire me, but expressed a wish to follow my career. He encouraged me to get my architectural license, in spite of the objectionable methodology and philosophy it represented, telling me, “If you want to be taken seriously and make a difference it is important to go through the hurdles that the profession requires.” He asked me not to give up in spite of the obstacles. “It is worth it if you love the Earth,” he said.

That was 19 years ago. My life took a long curve out of the way. I initially returned to Japan to find work as a green architect, but with Japan’s bubble bursting just as I arrived, no firms were hiring non-Japanese architects. Needing to survive I eventually gave up and took work as an English teacher. With almost no exposure to the kind of architecture my heart was in my passion waned. I lost touch with Wells and with what was happening in the architectural world. But I never forgot his words and his warm encouragement.

Malcolm Wells Home
Malcolm Wells Home

Three days ago I learned that Wells had died last November, a day after my 49th birthday. The world seemed to drop away as I read the words, as if a huge chunk of my own history had suddenly sunken into the waves. It was one of those track switching moments in your life when everything seems to shunt forward and what you had attempted to hide away in the closets comes tumbling out, stark and naked. I fell back in my chair and wept, for the passing of a man who possessed one of those bright souls that had seen the wonder of the world, loved it with all his heart, and wanted nothing but to protect it, and for myself, for having let him down and for my own lack of courage. I realized how much he had meant to me and what a big influence he had had on my life and soul.[4. Photo courtesy of MalcolmWells.com]

But Wells was not a morbid man (his self-written obituary) and such moping would surely not have gone over well with him. Even though his ideas never caught on, he never gave up, perhaps because of his faith in the slow process of nature itself. If nothing else, he changed at least one person in the world. Think how difficult that is to do.

Please read more about him HERE.


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Journal People

Hot Bath

She glances down at the edge of the lake and laughs.

“Look, there’s ice along the shore! Wonder what it would feel like to dive right in?”

“It’s early April, E., the water must be freezing!” I reply.

E. looks over her shoulder and winks at me.

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid to get in?” she asks.

“Afraid? No. Just that water that cold is dangerous.”

She crosses her arms in front of her and lifts her sweater over her head. Then she unbuckles her belt and slips her jeans down.

“What are you doing?” I ask, incredulous.

“Do you need to ask?” she says.

She continues removing her clothing until she is standing stark naked beside the car, her clothes tossed into the front seat. Her white skin shines in the overcast light, her breasts large and heavy, her skin tight with goose bumps. I stare at the scut of her dark pubic hair.

She laughs, then turns and jogs down the path to the edge of the lake. I stand there like a little boy, feeling silly.

“Come on!” she shouts. “What are you waiting for?”

I think she is nuts. I know she is nuts, because no one in their right mind would take off their clothes in this weather, and even more nuts for considering going for a swim in ice water. And yet, watching her, waving her arm from beside that grey, wild looking lake, she is the most beautiful woman in the world.

She stops waving and turns toward the lake. Naked and pale, I shiver just imaging how cold the water must look to her. Then she steps forward and dives in.

The ice is paper thin and shatters with the impact of her body slipping through. I see her buttocks angle toward the sky like the back of a dolphin and then disappear in the metal grey waves. For a moment the surface of the water closes over her and a stunned silence follows, then, a few meters further out, her head breaches and she is shouting, screaming for joy, waving her arms wildly. She arches back and dives in again, a pale seal playing in the water.

I stand there hesitant, knowing a thing or two about hypothermia and just how dangerous these water are. I’m not just being cowardly. But one of the things about E., why I love her and feel such great joy with her, is that she know a thing or two about being alive. I have never met anyone who takes her daily experience with life so firmly by the horns.

“Hey! You going to let a GIRL outdo you? Water too cold for you?”

Okay, that does it! I throw off my clothes and, tiptoeing over the sharp rocks and feeling the cold wind slap my skin, dance down to the edge of the lake. A stray wave laps over my bare foot and sends me leaping back. Damn cold! E. is waving from the water, but looking decidedly less glowing.

“Hurry up! I can’t stay in here much longer!” she shouts.

Taking a deep breath and jump forward and sink up to my thighs in the freezing waves. The water is so cold it takes my breath away. I stand for a few seconds, breathing hard.

“Nice view!” E. shouts.

“Give me a sec,” I shout back.

Taking another deep breath I wade further out letting the water engulf me up to my chest. The cold hurts, like an angry hornet, gripping my naked body in an iron vise. Nothing to do but to go for it. I close my eyes and leap.

The world crashes about my ears, crushing icy fingers gripping my temples and scalp, bubbles frothing like soda, my limbs dashing through it like knives, and all the while, behind it all, I can hear the thumping of my heart. A hot drum working in the gelid darkness. Somewhere I rise and break free, gasping for air, and a wild, uncontrollable glee bursting from my lungs.

E.’s fingers and arms, then the rounded warmth of her torso and legs, find me and cling to me. Our bodies entwine, seeking communion in a cold indifference. Our lips press together, hungry, laughing, our teeth bumping, our tongues pressing together.

I can’t stop shouting, and treading the water together, we revel in the splashing and bobbing of the waves. We spy another couple strolling by and pausing for a moment to stare at us before hurrying on. We whoop with laughter after they are gone.

“I’m really getting cold, M,” says E. “Let’s get back to the car.”

We dog paddle back to shore and holding hands rush back to the car. The air feels almost warm after the lake. E.’s lips have turned blue and she is shivering. I retrieve a big towel from the trunk of the car and vigorously rub E. down. We get in the car and turn on the heater, splaying our hands in front of the vent to feel our blood tingle back to life.

“Phew!” mumbles E. “That was really crazy!”

It takes a long while for the warmth to course back into our veins, but we are feeling drugged with warmth by the time our car pulls into her apartment driveway.

“I could really use a hot shower,” I say.

E. leans over and kisses me, hard. “How about a nice, long hot bath together?”

Categories
America: Society Journal People

Holiday Wishes

Like Hiro from “Heroes” I closed my eyes and the next thing I knew I was standing downtown in Manhattan, the yellow cabs bustling past and all the noise and hubub of New York all around me. I was back in America! It’s been a long way since all the craziness of the tragedy and my refusal to have anything to do with this country. But family is family and you can’t be angry forever. It was time to return and take stock. So here I am at my mother’s apartment in uptown Manhattan, trying to get over jetlag, but joyous at the empinada I ate yesterday evening and the friendliness of all the people on the streets, but most of all to see my mother again. Living across the ocean from her really makes distances hard. And such a relief to open the door and see her standing there.

The big surprise was immigration at Kennedy Airport. Instead of a reenactment of the horror stories that everyone around the world is grumbling about, going through immigration and customs was actually pleasurable. The immigration officer was playing Christmas music on his iPod, with little speakers to fill his cubicle. He gave me a big smile and was a friendly as can be. He asked about Japan at this time of year and wondered if it was cold and people celebrated. Then a song came on the iPod, one by Josh Groban, and the officer lit up like a Christmas tree candle.

“Have you heard of him?” he asked. “Man, a voice like an angel! You’ve got to listen to this.” Then, in spite of all the exhausted passengers waiting on line behind us, he turned up the sound and closed his eyes as the music flooded the immigration hall. I stared at him as if I had entered Wonderland. This was the fearsome American immigration?

Within fifteen minutes we had made it out to the arrival lounge. Ten minutes later a shuttle bus driver drove up and asked us if we wanted to go to the city. Two other passengers, a Japanese woman traveling alone and a Colombian who lived in Atlantic City were huddled in the van together, heading for Port Authority in Manhattan. Bobbing to Salsa on the van CD player we all laughed and shared stories of Japan and working there. I had forgotten how easily Americans speak to each other.

With a quiet night of sleep behind me and a rather warm, sunny Christmas Eve morning to wake up to, the start has been wonderful. I guess as always it is important to just take the steps out of your door and let things come as they may. My brother arrives from Boston this evening and then we can really start laughing and enjoying each others’ company.

I wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I hope you have warm and memorable time with your own families. Deep peace and quiet hearts to everyone.

love,
Miguel

Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Nagano People Walking

Summer Walks Part 3- So September Blue

Houhou cloudwalk

View of the Shirane-Three Peaks, with Mt. Kitadake, the second highest mountain in Japan, off to the right side. Here Mt. Noutori rises above the clouds. The valleys hid in shadow below, while the world above basked in late summer sunlight.

Conversations heard along the trail.

“Where did that dog come from?”

“What dog?”

“The one standing there on the trail, looking down at us.”

“Wow. How’d he manage to get down those rock faces? We had to use chains!”

“And he’s just standing there, politely waiting for us to pass. A mountain dog with good manners!”

“Looks like he’s just out for an afternoon stroll. I wonder if he’s going or coming?”

“Coming, I guess. If you were from around here and knew this killer trail, would you be starting up right now?”

“He probably thinks we’re a little daft.”

“No doubt. Do you think that’s a smile on his face?”

“Look, I think he wants to pass now. I guess all this babbling has ruined his solitude.”

“Best let him pass then.”

“There he goes, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.”

Mt. Kannon

Looking back over the ridge toward Mt. Kannon. The whole array of peaks in the Houou Three Peaks range pay tribute to Buddhist luminaries, like the bodhisattvas Kannon and Jizo. Everywhere you walk tiny shrines and offerings to statuettes concentrate the presence of walkers’ involvement with the place. One ridge, where numerous walkers have died, shelters a group of jizo statues in memory of the walkers’ spirits. An almost eerie sense of others watching pervades the whole mountain range.

“I did not say that I didn’t want to wait for you, or that…!”

“You always have to show how tough and manly you are! Why can’t you just slow down?”

“I am slowing down. I’m trying to match your pace…”

“What, so you think I can’t climb this trail? You think I’m too weak to handle it?”

“I didn’t say that. I just don’t like falling behind and having to walk right behind some stranger in front of me.”

“Oh, so you think everyone here is too slow? FIne! I’ll just pick up my pace and make sure to be better than everyone else! See you later!”

“Hey, don’t do that. Come on. Where you going? Oh, come on. Don’t be silly…”

Houhou Fuji Man

Like a dark queen Mt. Fuji rises to the southeast. Though the deity that lives in the volcano is considered male in Japan, Mt. Fuji has always seemed like a female monarch to me. In the over thirty five years I have seen her, including five years living right at her base, where she surveyed me below in my apartment window, she has never revealed herself the same way twice. Dark and fiery red on summer days, wreathed in clouds in autumn, even gliding ghostly white on moonlit nights, she sits aloof and alone in her vast throne between the surrounding, more timid mountains.

“Are you all right?”

“I feel sick. I think I pushed myself too hard.”

“Here. Try some water. It might make you feel a little better.”

“I wasn’t trying to slow you down.”

“I know.”

“I’ve only been in the mountains once this year.”

“I know.”

“I slept badly all night.”

“I know.”

“That climb was really hard !”

“You can say that again! It was so steep and slippery I couldn’t even stand still to take a break!”

“I still haven’t forgiven you yet.”

“I know.”

Houhou Shy Fuji BW

The last peak before Houou descends into the valley. Seemingly from the top of every creeping pine, windblown larch, and outcropping, nutcrackers called and winged amidst the drifting clouds. Called “hoshi-garasu” (star crow) in Japanese, their spangled breasts flashed white as they whisked by.

“Would you like another chicken dumpling?”

“No thanks. It’s too hot to eat chicken.”

“Really? It goes well with the pork broth rice balls. Follow it with some salt-pickled celery. Nice and crunchy!”

“I don’t see how you can stuff yourself like that in this heat. You’re like a drunk salaryman.”

“Better grab some while they’re still available. This walking does wonders for the appetite. Sure you don’t want some? They’re remarkably good. I thought they were your favorite?”

“You’re unbelievable. You’ve begun savoring convenience store food. All discrimination right out the window.”

“In the mountains everything tastes good. Sure you don’t want one? Last one!”

Houhou Skycrags

Stunted yellow birch hold on tight to the rocks to survive the relentless winds. The rock garden above Kannon Peak Mountain Hut seemed like something out of a surreal painting, the colors and forms so intense and twisted.”

“The woods smell nice.”

“Balsam fir. I got some of the sap on my fingers. Here, take a whiff.”

“I like just lying here under the trees. I could lie here all day.”

“Too bad we have to get back to work tomorrow.”

“My legs feel like rubber bands. Don’t think I can take another step.”

“We have some time. Let’s just close our eyes and forget about the time for a short while.”

“Shhh. Listen. The wind rustling the leaves.”

Larch woods appearing out of a lifting mist, along the steep trail out of Gozaishi Kousen.

“That sign said forty minutes till the end!”

“How many minutes has it been?”

“One hour and thirty minutes.”

“Perhaps the sign was meant for faster walkers.”

Houhou Surreal

“This ice cream really hits the spot! I think it’s the best ice cream cone I’ve ever had!”

“Do you think we have time for a hot spring bath? I could really use a bath right now.”

“The bus comes in twenty minutes. I don’t think so.”

“Hope the other bus passengers will survive my influence! I don’t have a change of clothes.”

“Well, you might knock them all unconscious, so probably you don’t have to worry about their reactions… Ow! That hurt!”

“Serves you right! Hey, can I take a bite of your ice cream? I’m already finished with mine.”

Fuji Puff

Categories
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?

Categories
Journal Musings People

White Flags

With Chris Clarke’s call for an ongoing discussion about racism in Blog Against Racism Day my ears have pricked up and heard the buzz of blogs around me again, and I made the rounds of old, familiar blogs, and in the process tripping over some new ones. There certainly has been a lot to say by lot of people. Some of it quite moving.

My first reaction, as a person of very mixed heritage, was that the idea of setting aside one day to honor sentiments against racism seemed cavalier and irresponsible. After all, how can something that follows you everywhere from the moment of your birth, poisoning so much of what you touch, excluding you from a complete and fair experience of the society that you happen to inhabit, be vilified within an afternoon’s blithe hat-tipping? It just seemed illusory. Guilt-ridden without action. Pedantic by so many who I presumed never experienced the fruits of racism.

I decided to give the topic time to ferment, while reading more entries and letting the thoughts I read mix with my own experiences and conclusions. Bigotry comes in so many forms, much of it solidified into stereotypes based purely on presumptions of one’s skin color or cultural bent or sex. “Whites are racist.” “Muslims are all devoutly religious.” “Blacks understand discrimination.” “Asians study and work hard.” “Americans are arrogant.” “Jews don’t commit genocide.” “Native Americans have done no wrong to the European settlers.” “Women respect life and would never start wars.” Everywhere you look, in everyday life, in each individual you meet, you see the kernels of disagreement, misunderstanding, dislike, and ill will. Who’s to say that racism would not grow among any group of people, given the right conditions? At what point is an individual capable of distinguishing their own righteousness from the confusion of all others’ wrongs?

In my own life, living between the self-battering anguish of my Filipino/ American Black side and the self-searching, confused outlook of my German background, all I have been certain of is that people in my family have continually surprised me. I discovered that my German grandparents risked their lives during the Second World War attempting to protect a Jewish family, all of whom were eventually captured and sent away. My paternal grandfather, a Filipino who left the close-knit community of his childhood in the Philippines, wandered halfway around the world to South Carolina, there to marry a black woman, a woman who would never be accepted back in the Philippines. Another Filipino-American side of the family vehemently supported Bush’s attack on Iraq. My Brazilian-of-Japanese-descent wife resents people assuming that she can dance. Even in myself, in spite of my pride in my tolerance of all people and cultures, recently find flares of resentment and impatience with Japanese, especially on the trains where the worst of people’s ugliness comes out while crushed up against a train door. The other night a businessman, disliking being forced to share shoulders with foreigner, shoved me away and snarled, “Fuck you!” at me in English. I stumbled out of the train at the next stop, dazed, and soon after finding myself silently cursing at all the Japanese around me for this feeling of being knocked out of kilter. I know very well that few Japanese harbor any real resentment against non-Japanese, but the feelings bubbled out of me nonetheless.

The only way I can see overcoming racism is to forget identifying with any group and consider each individual you meet on their own merits. It is the very act of setting parameters by declaring “We…(fill in a racial group, cultural group, nationality, sex…)” that creates the breeding grounds for exclusion. Those who are passionate about rending the walls often differentiate the discrimination into neat categories: racism, sexism, ageism, nationalism, fanaticism… But aren’t they all one and the same? People finding things to refuse or disrespect in others?

In the end it all comes down to me living within my own skin. I’ve lived in enough different places and cultures to realize that the tides wash both ways, that what you thought of as set in stone here, has been forgotten elsewhere. And that people will always surprise you.

When I studied at the University of Oregon I lived in an apartment a mile or so outside the campus. The apartment faced a tiny, intimate alley that didn’t admit cars and that set the houses and apartments close enough that many of the residents greeted each other on a daily basis. One day a woman moved into the empty cottage across the street from my apartment. She was stunningly beautiful, blonde, and white. From the first day she waved at me and shouted out a bright, guileless “Hello!”. I often sat out on my deck and leaned over the railing, conversing with her as she sat on her doorsteps. We learned quite a lot about one another, confessing details of our lives that normally we would not have shared outside the societies we both hailed from. I learned that she had been a model for Playboy and that her father was a millionaire. She eschewed sorority life, but spent a lot of time hanging out with men and women from the Greek world, something that I had never once been invited to, and which seemed to me a surreal form of hedonism catering almost solely to whites. She learned about my growing up in Japan and my father in the United Nations. And about my elementary school days at a school in Harlem and my activities in the Asian-American club in which members barred whites from participating in events (an attitude that eventually made me quit the club). These bits of information didn’t come between us and our friendship grew, to the point where I began to fall in love with her.

But I noticed that all her boyfriends were white, well-off, and straight from the cover of GQ. My whole experience of wealthy white women, dating from my high school years in a school of amabassadors’ children, consisted of exclusions from conversations, being beaten up by older brothers outraged at my temerity at even thinking that their sisters might have an interest in me, condescension by the girls themselves in the form of coquettish dismissals, as if I couldn’t understand where my place was, “the skinny Indian”, as one French girl, the darling of the class, dubbed me during a chemistry class one afternoon. So though I fell in love with the woman across the street, I kept it to myself. My perception of her was reinforced by her never once attempting to come up to my deck and sit with me. I just assumed that she would make friendly talk with me, but always at a distance. Several times she invited me to have dinner with her in her cottage, but I always declined, citing the need to spend time at my architecture studio. When she started dating this athletic, he-has-everything man I backed into the woodwork of my apartment, leaving her to be with a man who most likely wouldn’t give me a second glance.

Then in the middle of the night my phone rang. It was the woman from across the street.

“Miguel, can you come over? Please?” Her voice was shaking.

“What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

There was a sob and then a thin wail, “Oh, please… Miguel. Please…”

“Okay, I’ll be right over.”

I threw on a jacket and ran across the alley to her door. No lights were on. I knocked. No answer. So I pushed the door open and peered inside. She was curled up in a ball on her couch, wrapped in a blanket. She lifted her head and turned to look at me. Her face was streaked with tears. There were clothes all over the floor.

I rushed to the side of the couch and kneeled beside her.

“God, are you all right?” I asked in whisper. I dared not touch her.

She broke down sobbing again and after some time I tentatively reached out a hand to touch her shoulder. I rested it there, feeling her body shudder. She cried for a long time. Then, “He… he…”

I shook my head. “It’s okay… Don’t speak. Just let it out for the moment…” She cried again for a long time. When she seemed a bit calmer, I asked, “Would you like me to call your father?” Her mother was no longer alive.

She shook her head, her eyes wide with alarm.

“Okay. Then we’ll just sit here like this for now. How about I make you some tea?”

She nodded.

“Okay.” So I got up and put some water on to boil. When the water was ready I made two cups and brought them over to my friend. I handed her cup to her, sat down beside the couch, and together we sat in the darkness, not saying a word. We sat like this until dawn, when the curtains began to glow with the first light.

And all the while my mind shifted between the strange numbness of realizing that this white woman had all along accepted me for who I was, and the odd peacefulness of being handed her vulnerability and trusted with it. I had been carrying around a racism all my own, blinding myself to the genuineness of her smile, and allowing stereotypes built up over past wrongs to shape her in my mind. I’m not sure if her acceptance of me was without exclusion, but perhaps it was the very fact that I did not live inside the sphere of her white world that she found safety with me at that moment. My visage differed from the familiar faces of the men she knew. She had trusted me enough to allow those quiet dawn hours, before the telephones rang and the officials came asking questions.

To blog against racism. Perhaps it is the very act of sitting and thinking about what you are writing and attempting to make some sense of it that points to the value of the exercise. You come away with the feeling that the mote in your eye has splintered and dispersed. Upload the act and it is like the smoke of incense at a temple: the gods will surely hear your confession.

Categories
Art of Living Blogging Journal Letter Writing Loving Musings People Writing

First Kiss

Beach pole Oregon
Weathered wooden pole in the Honeyman State Park beach in Oregon

Late afternoon sunlight casting shadows amidst the sand dunes in Oregon Dunes State Park, Oregon, U.S.A.

Just when I thought all contact with old friends had somehow died away I received a letter from my oldest and dearest friend three days ago. I hadn’t heard from her in more than a year. It was mainly my fault for having shut myself away and frozen in time with my correspondence; the person who used to write twenty-page handwritten letters had fallen into silence.

That is the strange thiing with e-mail: the range of potential people to keep in touch with has expanded dramatically, with instant contact possible, but a person only has so many hours in a day and keeping up with everyone is simply not possible. Back in the days of writing letters by hand, supplemented by the occasional long-distance phone call, the number of people to regularly write to was limited to the list of people jotted down in an address book. Writing by hand took time, and only a few people made the effort to put that time in. The circle of pen pals remained small, but dedicated and the care with which we shared our letters showed up in such things as the choice of letter paper and envelopes, in small trinkets and photos we included in the folds of the paper, like pressed dried flowers or four-leaf clovers, locks of hair from a loved one, feathers, scented glitter, or even, once, the ragged wing of a mourning cloak butterfly. Some of us put great effort into getting our handwriting just right, often using fountain pens with flared nibs so that the vertical strokes thickened and the horizontal strokes thinned. And after all this work the letters took two weeks or more to make it around the world, sometimes bearing the effects of the real world on them in the form of wrinkles and coffee stains and washed out addresses. The letters themselves sometimes bore the evidence of the sender’s state of mind, from angrily crossed out words and kiss marks to greasy finger prints and tear drops.

A.’s e-mail letter arrived just when the downturn in faith in these old friendships had reached its lowest point. Handwritten letters from friends or even family had reached an all time low… the last handwritten letter I received was last August when, after I lamented to my father about the passing of the tradition of writing letters by hand, he sent me, just across town, a letter in sympathy. I check my mailbox regularly and, sad to say, more often than not, it is empty.

I first met A. in 1974 in a summer camp along the Elbe River in northern Germany, not too far north of my birth place, Hannover. We were both 14 then. I was a gangly, shy boy with shoulder length hair, a wide-brimmed denim hat with an azure-winged magpie tail feather, and bell-bottom jeans. A. stayed in the girl’s tent next to mine and I first noticed her talkiing to the other girls out in the courtyard, her long brown hair swinging behind her as she pranced about, constantly running. She was always laughing and had the most penetrating eyes, that, to this day, still stand out as the first thing you notice about her.

I fell in love with her, but was much too shy to make the first move. A ten-year-old boy named Dietmar, who slept next to me in my tent, full of boundless energy and absolutely nuts about soccer, noticed the way I gazed at A. He stood in front of me one afternoon during the siesta, with his hands on his hips, frowning.

“So, when are you going to talk to her?”, he demanded.

I had been dozing so his words caught me off guard. “Huh?”

“Come on, anyone can see you’re nuts about her.” He sat down next to me. “Just go and talk to her.”

“What if she’s not interested?”

“You never know unless you try.”

I glanced over at the girl’s tent, hope making my heart beat. “Yeah, I know. But…”

Dietmar lay down on his side and looked me squarely in the eye. “Look, how about this. You write her a letter and I’ll bring it to her.”

“What? You? What do you have to do with this?”

“Nothing. Just call me your local Cupid. Besides, I’m not sleepy and want to do something. And the girls will let a ten-year-old boy into their tent.”

So I hunkered down and hashed out a short letter in (awkward) German. Dietmar peered over my shoulder and corrected the mistakes. When I was done he snatched it from my hand before I could reconsider, folded it in four, and dashed out of the tent.

Twenty minutes passed during which my heart thundered in my ears and my hands turned to ice. I began to think the whole thing was a stupid mistake when Dietmar suddenly slipped back into the tent, grinning. He held up a folded piece of paper. “She asked me to give this to you.”

I took the letter from him and opened it. I read.

What nice things to write about me. I would enjoy getting to know you. Let’s meet at dinner and talk then.

And so began my illustrious foray into the world of women.

We spent the two weeks together dancing, going for walks, holding hands while watching the evening movies, eating dinner together, learning to sail, running in the foot races, in which A. beat everyone in the camp. Our dance song was “Lady Lay” by Michel Polnareff. I discovered the wonderful scent of her, which even today lingers in my mind like a veil.

One evening we were standing beside the camp’s small lake watching the sun set over the Elbe River. For once we were alone and we held hands tightly. I don’t know exactly when the urge overcame my hesitation, but our eyes met and we both knew what we wanted next. I awkwardly groped at her elbow, to which she grabbed my hand, placed it on her waist, and whispered, “Like this!”

We kissed. I remember it as one of the softest, warmest moments in my life, with the bright glint of the sun washing between our faces and for me, the whole world suddenly consisting solely of A., her hair, her fingers, the soft give of her chest, the sweetness of her breath, her lips.

It was what I had always imagined it would be.

But we only had two weeks. The camp finally came to an end and we all had to return home, first back to Hannover on the bus, and, for me, on across the oceans back to Japan, a lifetime away. The last I saw of A. that time was as she was greeted by her mother and sister while my grandfather and grandmother greeted my brother and me. The street car pulled us apart and the pain in my heart echoes even as I write this thirty years later.

We kept in touch. We wrote letters to one another every week for the first year, and gradually settled to about once every two or three months. Since the camp we met six times, the last time with my wife, when we stayed at her apartment. We’ve shared all our stories, the loves in our lives, the losses and joys. After telling me about one awful event in her life, A. wrote a letter expressing how she treasured our friendship and was glad that it had lasted through all the changes in our lives. The last time we met we spoke about those first two weeks together and she shocked me with the news that she hadn’t liked me at first, but had gradually warmed to me through the persistence of my letters. She hugged me then and said, “But am I glad that you did persist!”

A. is married a second time now, and has a child, whom I haven’t met yet. I hope to meet her husband and son some day. I look across the oceans and can frame a life there, someone whom I’ve met only a few times in a long while, but who remains one of the dearest and most enduring of friends. It isn’t often I can say this about people whom I’ve met and befriended. A.’s friendship remains a treasure that I value above almost everything else in my life. If I were to lose it life would be a much bleaker place.

A toast and great embrace to you, A. Thank you for being there for most of my life.

Categories
Humor Journal People

Christmas Joy and the Sales Representative from Hell

Susuki sunset
A last tuft of Plume Grass encircling the late autumn sun

And there I was, like a good little elf, sitting at my great, big studio desk, humming to myself and thinking, “Okay, this year I’m going to make an effort to show people I care and let them know that things are quite as bad as they’ve been imagining, and perhaps undermining Santa’s insidious Black List of Bad Little Boys and Girls… maybe I’ll buy myself some Skype online telephony credit and give a few lonely people out there a call.” Stll humming verily, merrily to myself, I skipped on over to the Skype homepage and checked out the deals. “Sounds pretty good!” I chimed to myself (as elves are wont to do), and went ahead to the Skypeout credit purchasing page, clicked the button for $10.00, and, still humming along, coming to the “Billing and Address” page. “No problem!” I fluted (as elves are ever fond of doing), “Just fill out my personal information.” Everything went well until I had to fill out my address form. No doing. The text field only accepted a very truncated version of my rather long address (as elves like doing things the hard way), which would never do, what with the stern admonishments of the credit card company. Again and again I tried different ways of getting the address in there, but no doing.

So I clicked on the LiveSupport link and waited for the Skype representative to appear in the chat window. Here is the transaction:

Please wait for a site operator to respond. We are experiencing high volume of chats. Your wait time may be longer than anticipated

Paula: Hello, my name is ‘Paula’, how may I assist you today
butuki: Hi Paula,I am thinking of purchasing some skypeout credit, but when I try to input my Japan address in the order form, the address line does not permit long addresses.
butuki: Is there something I am doing wrong?
Paula: May I know what is the error message that you are getting?
butuki: Hmmm, there is no error message. I start writing the address and then the window just stops allowing extra letters. Everything else in the order form seems to work fine.
Paula: Please provide me with your Skype user name
butuki: butuki
Paula: Please wait one moment while I check that for you
butuki: Thanks very much

Ten minutes go by in which I resume humming to myself (as elves cannot help themselves doing) and fiddling around with my other computer, trying to get a scratchboard drawing right.

Paula: Presently we accept payments using major credit cards (Visa / Dinners / JCB/ master card ). We also accept payments using MoneyBookers.com, and are currently in the process of adding more payment options 🙂

I smile with uncontrolled glee (as elves forever find themselves doing) at the cute little smiley emoticon. Such friendly service!

butuki: ??? Er, I’m not sure why you are quoting the credit cards… I have to get through the “billing name and address” form first before I can get to the credit card form. My guess is that an extra text field line needs to be put into the order form before people with longer address can fill it out.
Paula: We have recently added a new payment method called MoneyBookers.com which is now available in your account page. You will get this option towards the end of your Credit purchase process where other credit card options are also listed. Please try using this method if your credit card purchases are not going through.
butuki: I think we are misunderstanding one another… Let’s see.. When I click the ten pound button for enteriing the credit purchase process the first page I am presented with is the address page. This is the page I cannot get through. I can’t even get to the credit card page yet.

I pause a long time, during which my elvish earnestness takes a severe beating.

Paula: May I know which country is your credit card registered in,
butuki: Japan. But, I am not referring to the credit card page right now. I’m not sure if you understand what I mean.
butuki: or maybe I’m not understanding what you mean…? (I add this hastily for courtesy’s sake. as elves are notorious for good manners)
Paula: Please try to buy with money bookers

Another very long pause on my end. (Elves don’t handle anger very well). So I decide to bow out gracefully

butuki: Okay. Do I just go straight to their home page, instead of going through the Skypeout credit purchasing process?
Paula: Please try with money bookers to buy credit
butuki: Okay, thanks. I’ll see what I can do. Thanks again. And Merry Christmas!
Paula: Thank you for using our live support chat! Should you have any questions feel free to contact us. Please do rate my support after ending this chat session. Bye!

The elf sat for a long time afterwards contemplating the definition of intelligence and communication. Luckily, to the elf’s salvation, the sky had opened with a cape of stars, sprinkled upon it like scattered gems. Time seemed to lose all meaning and the words “skype” and “sky” became one. This is the age-old secret to elvish peacefulness and cheer. Ignorance surely is bliss.

Categories
Journal Musings People

Dungeons and Dragons

Back in college at the University of Oregon I knew a barrel-chested, hamburger-scarfing, gas-guzzling, giant macho-jock of an American man named Dave. He was a member of a fraternity and every Friday night would subject the dormitory halls to his obnoxious, booming laugh and kegs of beer drinking, sex-driven, rock music-blaring, Animal House-inspired (this was the University of Oregon in 1978 after all, the year after the movie of the same name was filmed on our campus) toga-clad-and-butt-naked-mass-dashes-across-the-courtyard parties. He was an outspoken member of the Republican party and had voted for Reagan. He would throw food at the table of Birkenstock-wearing earth people I hung out with in the cafeteria (those were the days of Animal house-style food fights, which, to my Japan-filtered eyes, represented the realization of all the horrors I had fretted over before I left Japan to attend univesity… a zoo of a country), shouting with a great, Viking grin, “Hey, Granolas, why don’t you go back to California where you belong? (this was also the period when Oregonians broadcast beer commercials turning back Californians from the border).

I knew of course that I despised this asshole, everything he did and stood for.

During this time of my life I spent quite a lot of time with a new game I had become entranced with: Dungeons and Dragons. It involved sitting about with a group of friends, rolling dice, and imagining ourselves lost in a world of heros, dragons, elves, and orcs, role-playing long scenarios dreamt up by a “dungeon master”, who would run the players through a fantasy world of magic and intrigue. With my love of fantasy literature and writing I used the opportunity to write a number of book-length dungeon master games (which sadly I threw away upon graduation, losing the chance to make a lot of money!) that soon became very popular in the dormitories and later throughout the west coast universities. People came from as far away as Washington state and California to play in my games. I saw a possibility in creating more than a novel here… attempting to create a world of the imagination that could be experienced by players, replete with both traditional heroic fantasy themes and further, a concentration on real human themes like love, death, friendship, hate, deception, sex, even religion and philosophy. I was so involved with the game that I would play for three days straight sometimes, forgetting to eat and to go take bath. Some games were so emotionally involved that players would rear back in horror or jump for joy. One scene in particular, within a darkened room in which cadavers lay under a frosted glass floor, left all of us so spooked that we decided to stop the game and go to bed, our hairs still standing on end.

Dave the Bear would, of course, come barging in on these lounge room games and hassle us for our kiddie pursuits and out-of-touch-with-reality hobby. He’d sit on the arm of one of the lounge chairs and peer over our shoulders, guffawing at the crude pictures and odd-shaped dice. “What I see here,” he once jeered, “is a bunch of long-haired fags wanking out together ’cause they can’t fucking figure out the buttons of those dames out there.” (seemingly oblivious to the fact that three women were sitting right there playing the game) “Jeez, get a life!”

I couldn’t imagine someone I would less want to spend any time with.

But one evening one of the players invited him to play a game with us. Dave joined us, somewhat bashful at first, but soon getting right into the excitement once he figured out how the game was played. Within two weeks he had bought his own set of dice, had built up his own proud character, and sat with us at the cafeteria tables discussing strategy and plans for upcoming campaigns. He talked with me about the philosophy I was trying to infuse into the games, focusing less on fighting and war, and more on building up relationships between characters and people within the stories. Somehow these discussions turned from the game itself and began addressing both of points of view out in the real world. The boorish man who terrorized the dormitory halls transformed, in my mind, into this compassionate thinker who, in spite of all the noise he made, honestly cared about the people around him and even vehemently opposed the vast military spending that Reagan upheld. One evening Dave and I sat in the student center (yes, that place where the food fights took place in Animal House), doing our English literature homework together, when he sat back, rubbing his, eyes and began, out of the blue, discussing the dilemma of Macbeth. i couldn’t believe my ears. I had assumed so much, not knowing the first thing about the depths of such a man.

We became close friends. He even invited me to his home in Washington for Thanksgiving one rainy autumn day, something I was deeply thankful for, since I had no place to go home to (Japan was always too far away and expensive to get to) and would spend most Thanksgiving holidays during my college years alone in the deserted dorms, tossing playing cards at the walls. Dave grew into a caring, responsible ally to whom I could open my heart and, even though we often disagreed about politics and religion, splay my feelings about what was happening in the world. Dave helped me grow as a person and to see America from under its wings, in a way that no amount of perusing news articles abroad could ever hope to in revealing the inner workings of the country.

We lost touch with one another after we graduated and I have no idea where he is now. I often think about him and all those other people I grew to love during my college years, people who changed my life and how I see the world. Everything seems so much bigger and more complex now and rich beyond my capability to comprehend. But, within it all, the context of simple, friendly words, of gestures of understanding, and of a willingness to listen on both ends has made all the difference.

Dave, where are you? It would be a great time to have one of our talks right about now.

Categories
Home Places Japan: Living Journal Life In Musings People Tokyo

Breath of Fresh Air

 

Nogawa spring awakening
First greening of the Noh River and people appearing to sit out in the sun, Noh River, Chofu, Tokyo, Japan, 2004

Children Nogawa River
Children wandering imaginary lands, Noh River, Chofu, Tokyo, Japan, 2004

Sleeping sakura Nogawa
Sleeping under a blizzard of blossums, Noh River, Tokyo, Japan, 2004

 

 

 

After surfacing from a three day marathon designing spree with only 2 hours of sleep and three weeks of intense conceptual designing for the Keio Plaza Hotel brochure I’ve been working on, I’m just teetering on the brink of throwing in the towel. While design work is fun and stimulating, I can’t see why anyone would subject themselves to such mental and physical abuse. With an evening job teaching English, a day time job writing (after all, that’s what I’m doing all this other stuff for), and a non-negotiable regimen of exercise to stave off the horrors of diabetes (which I’ve none-the-less compromised by neglecting exercise for two weeks now because of all this work) personally I cannot handle the stress any more. I was so wound up on Sunday night, in anticipation of a big meeting yesterday, that I lay awake for three hours trying to get to sleep, but visions of brochure designs kept floating through my brain and finally I rolled out of bed to finish up some preliminary sketches.

All day yesterday it was a series of mishaps and blunders and micro-crises: I misplaced my keys before heading out for the meeting… then had a woman nearly run me over with her bicycle… then had trouble with the ticket vending machine at the station when it wouldn’t accept the large bill I had slipped into it… thereby missing the scheduled train… then took the wrong train to the wrong train exit (Shinjuku station is this huge rabbit warren that has more than a million people passing through each day) and was late for the meeting. The meeting itself went very well and everyone seemed happy with the design. That alone set my nerves at ease for the first time in days.

The cherry blossoms are erupting everywhere, like a slow motion counter strike by a peace-loving anti-terrorism contingent, tired of the inundation of terrorism news. I couldn’t let this go by of course, and so last week took two hours to try out my newly refitted folding bicycle and ride along the Noh River near my apartment.

 

Cherry Tree Tunnel
Arches of cherry tree limbs, Noh River, Chofu, Tokyo, 2004

Cherry blossom cascade
New opening cherry blossoms, Noh River, Chofu, Tokyo, 2004

 

What made my whole week, though, was a little encounter with a French woman and her son on the train home from the meeting. I first saw her pushing her baby carriage on the platform while waiting for the train. She carried an air of joy and nonchalance that resided in her eyes and smile, and in the way she coddled her son and kept kissing him. She even glanced up and smiled at me, which, if you know anything about Japan in public, is about as rare as good cheese and clean rivers.

I couldn’t take my eyes off her, so out of place this all seemed. While everyone else was sitting straight and still as boards, staring into the void, myself included, she and her Japanese son seemed to move outside of the general sphere. She brought her face close to the baby’s and they locked eyes, followed by many kisses. I kept thinking, “Wow, she’s so French!” (she was speaking to her son in French, that’s how I knew she was French) But it was more than that. I also kept thinking, this physical interaction with her child, this unabashed display of affection, this “skinship” as the Japanese call such a relationship between two people, is what lays the base for a strong confidence in oneself. This little boy knows he is loved and will most likely grow up feeling part of someone else’s intimate world.

In contrast there was a Japanese father and his son sitting just two passengers off to the side of the French woman and her baby. The father sat there dour and immovable, arms crossed, with a huge frown sagging the corners of his face, while the boy hunched and stared out the window. Whenever the boy slouched or moved to another position the father would reach out and arm him back into position, while sternly muttering, “Sit up straight. People are watching you!” My eyes traveled back and forth between these two and the French woman and baby, and exhausted as I was, I always found myself turning back to the French woman. She made me smile.

As the train ran through a gauntlet of cherry trees I closed my eyes and welcomed this delightful introduction to new life. I felt a stirring of laughter in my breast.