Categories
Art of Living Japan: Living Journal Nagano Simplicity

Friends and Community

I realize that I have been away a long time. Lately I am finding it harder to get my thoughts together and to sit at the computer, writing. I start putting a few words down and then just give up. I become restless and distracted, feeling perhaps that the time I sit at the computer is time wasted from an active engagement with the real world, and as the years go by this time in the real world has grown with poignance and significance.

At the university that I am working at I’ve made a few friends with whom I get together three times a week after work to do Crossfit workouts. Besides beginning to finally get myself back in really good shape (after 24 years I did my first 53 pull ups again the day before yesterday), the time spent with these friends has made all the difference in emotionally handling being in this place. I find myself eagerly looking forward to the workouts and even when I am not feeling too well I try to make it there just to hang around with everyone.

It is almost as if I’d forgotten just how important other people are in my life, how much they reflect who I am and help me find purpose in making it through each day. I’m finding that so much of my reasons for getting so depressed and despondent over the past two years had to do with being alone and spending too much time with my own thoughts. Now I finally have people I can laugh with and share common experiences with and both let out the pain I am feeling and to listen to theirs. I still don’t like this place and the work, but with these friends it has all become a lot easier.

So two weeks ago when Kevin from Bastish.net invited me to visit him and his wife Tomoe on their farm in Nagano, north of here, I was both nervous and fascinated about the possibilities of what a different lifestyle, one based on sharing and sticking close to one’s beliefs, might be like. For a long time I had wondered if it would be possible to find a place in Japan where people still took care of one another and lived close to traditional Japanese values, in part a place where the land still meant something deeply spiritual and sustaining to those who lived on it.

For three days Kevin and Tomoe took me into their lives and showed me just how rich such a community could be. It seemed every moment of the day had some neighbor visiting or stopping by or saying hello on the street or driving by to offer some vegetables or bread or rice cakes. The other people Kevin had invited and I joined Kevin and Tomoe for walks in the hills to gather wild edible fiddleheads, or dig out rocks in their fields, or take a stroll through the town to look at the old farm houses and temples. There was talk of the hard winters such as this last one where the snow reached three meters (in 1945 the snow reached 7 meters deep!) and everyone had to pitch in to make sure all everyone could get through the winter. The first night three friends of Kevin and Tomoe, a family that supplied the village with delicious, homemade bread leavened with apple juice, dropped by suddenly and the modest dinner immediately turned in to a feast for nine. We laughed and joked and drank champagne and beer and wine while gobbling down barbecued local produce and I have not felt so at home and peaceful and satisfied in a long, long time.

It is what I long for.

I don’t know if I can be satisfied being a farmer, or if living in a such a rural community without access to books and talk with non-Japanese can be rewarding enough for me to put down roots in such a place, but it definitely is the right direction. LIfe is still uncertain for Kevin and Tomoe, and they both struggle with how they are going to make a living once their savings run out. But perhaps that is part of what living in such places entails, that you find a way to live there and that is what makes you strong and that is why you rely on the community to make it through hard times. It feels right.

That is the direction I want to go, and though, like Kevin and Tomoe, I am uncertain about how to go about doing it, I think my life will be the richer for bringing in community as the slate of my way of life. And I think it is the future for us all.

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
Art of Living Journal Musings Self-Reflection

Skipping Stones

Cherry leaves clinging
Last year’s cherry leaves still clinging to the branches

Last year’s cherry leaves still clinging to the branches

After seven days of insomnia, the last three of which I got no more than three hours of sleep, I finally put my foot down and forced myself to reset my biological clock. Two nights ago I struggled to keep my mind from spinning out of control in the darkness, but to no avail, and so the snowshoeing day trip I had planned for myself fell through. I was just too exhausted to attempt walking in the mountains… Probably not even a good idea. So yesterday I forced myself to stay awake all day, no matter how woozy I got, so that by the evening I could be exhausted enough to make it through the night.

It worked, sort of. It was a fitful slumber: I kept waking to the pellmell rotating of my miind as it slid over various sticking points like the tines of a mucis box. During the week before my mind was an amorphous mass, all the anxieties and self-doubts bristing with urgency, so that none of it made any sense, but sifted through with a kind of red alert alarm: “I have to get all this stuff done now! I have to make the big changes *now*! It can’t wait till morning. I’ve put things off for far too long!”

Of course, by morning the troubles had accumulated to the point of mild insanity. My heart and head throbbed and just trying to accomplish daily responsibilities served to nudge me into irate outbursts. I couldn’t think straight.

Waking last night, though, I waded into the pools of anxiety and just stood there, taking deep breaths. Calming the wild-eyed horse inside me. Whispering to myself as if I were a skittish wild animal. Being gentle to myself and telling myself that everything was okay. That the morning would come and I could take a first step. The poinding heartbeats slowed, the fingers of cold air that seemed to have slipped under my quilt drew back, and the odd shadows around the room relaxed into familiar forms… a jacket, a bed post, a slipper, a book…

It reminded me of what one of my oldest friends, my first girlfriend, A., from Germany, a treasured friend since I was fourteen, said to me when I last saw her just after my wedding: “I think you don’t feel safe in the world and that is why you can’t sleep at night.”

How right she was. I rarely have trouble taking naps during the day. Perhaps it is the free rein of my imagination that partners with the darkness and the wind outside the bedroom window.

And then there is the silent presence of my wife beside me in the bed, to whom I cannot turn for reassurance or conversation. Too often the solution is to roll out of bed and tiptoe into the living room where I turn on the light so as to banish the wraiths floating about. Or occasionally to huddle in the darkness there, while my pet turtle eyes me from his rock, whispering to myself all the mistakes I have made, or all the wrongs I have commited, or confirming my cowardice over taking a stance and changing my life. Sometimes I switch on the late night TV and begin weeping with the sentimental movies. A stupid, weak, inadequate, pupper of a man for not holding up to the expectations and wishes of the women in my life. Or so I sometimes keep telling myself. What is it they want? Why do I have to continually fight to remain myself around them? Why is it that my sense of identity and joy has come to revolving around some other person’s whims? What happened to that adventurous and world-delighted boy who always knew what he wanted and the way he wanted to live?

Perhaps, and more likely, it is the sheer grip I have on my own expectations of myself and no one else can live up to those standards. Not even myself. I look over my shoulder and recall all the times my wife, my family, and my friends have told me that I am a difficult man, someone whom it is hard to like. An accusation that feels like arrows every time.

But I never willed myself to be this way. I never set out to cause others to find me difficult. It is like sitting in a tree and watching my shell perform some other person’s play. From up here all I can confirm is that I feel as vulnerable as anyone, as human as all of you out there. It doesn’t matter that I am a man. Or that some of you are women. Or that the way I perceive the world or act within it is any less strange or difficult or incomprehensible than that of anyone else.

I feel sad all the time these days, 24 hours a day. Even when I am laughing with my students or with my wife it is surrounded by sadness. I just cannot shake it. I read other people’s blogs, record the onward flow of their lives, listen to the range of activities and relationships and interests, and I get more and more down. I am jealous. I feel that I am trapped and haven’t a clue how to get out. I try to think my way out of it, but the logical arguments cancel one another out. I try to adopt a “positive” attitude as so many people (who always seem to be in an upward swing of their life at the time) keep harping for me to do, forcing myself to joke around and laugh, being silly when I don’t feel silly, or switching to intellectual argument mode, so as to keep from feeling anything. From people who don’t know me, haven’t taken the time or had the inclination to know and spend time with me over the years and see the whole, instead focusing on one little incident or stray comment that sums up, to them, who I am and what I am like.

And it seems it has been this way a long time now. Few people have watched me struggle with these past few years, at least not intimately. Almost no one has spent physical time with me, sat with me, shared times of quiet or laughter or eating together or just walking together. Not even my wife. And so I’ve been breaking down, slowly but surely. Loneliness and silence can softly rip you apart.

My inentions are good, but I never mention the leaks in the hull. I haven’t opened up about my breakdown on this blog so as to protect others and keep them from worrying. I kept repeating over and over that keeping quiet was a good thing, a strong and mature thing. That there was nothing to be done about it any way.

But I am not doing well. Talking about my anxiety over the demise of the natural world, while just as true, is partly a cover up. The truth is that I have tramped into the age of 44 and I look around and find myself almost completely alone. I am not happy with the work I do for a livelihood. My marriage has stalled and I can’t even find professional help, here in Japan, to see how to save something of it. I spend most days speaking not a word to anyone, until I head off to teach English to students and colleagues who see me as no more than a resource, something so ironic that I have to laugh. Those people who I know are my close friends and with whom these years apart have no effect on the bond of our friendship, seem shores away, almost like dreams from another time.

So the forced resetting of my biological clock was a necessary first step. Taking first things first. It is time to stop feeling sorry for myself and concentrate on those things that I *can* affect. Like caring for my diabetes. Like paring away all those cobwebs of ambitions and distilling a few skills and potentials that would culminate in work that I would find fulfilling. Like thinking about my own needs for now and getting them right. Like being honest and forthwith about what is really important and discarding anything that wastes time or feels unworthy. Like slowly rekindling the old friendships, looking for those whom I have lost, and finding new ones. Like stopping just talking and actually doing. Like starting life again at 40.

I’m not sure why I needed to write this post at this particular moment. Just needed to get the load off my chest, I guess. For anyone reading it, please take the self-recrimination with a grain of salt. It is a casting of one stone to skip across the lake’s surface. I have many more to follow, some of which might skip a little better, others worse. But just wanted to let you know that upon writing it I feel a lot better. The steam is letting off the coffee and I can heave a big sigh. And the sun outside already looks just a tad bit brighter. this dark cloud will also pass.

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
Blogging Journal Musings People

Hot Water and Doorways

 

dry_leaf_hazelnuts
Sycamore leaf suspended amidst filbert stems, Eugene, Oregon, U.S.A., 1980

 

The window has been beckoning more persistently these last few weeks. I pull the curtain open and find myself confronted by the sky, by unfettered clouds journeying past my eyes towards the back of my mind, by birds momentarily netted in the up reaching fingers of the magnolia (its huge buds close on to bursting into Spring), by clouds of gnats dancing in invisible columns of warm air, and by ideas of light creeping across the ground or walls of the surrounding houses, like fish at the bottom of a fickle pool of photographic film. I always start toward these fancies, feeling the thrumming of open time infusing my lungs, drawing near the window pane till my breath fogs up the glass, but something always interrupts… the hum of the computer, the phone ringing, that shaking in my finger or foot, telling me to make the moment real, take responsibility for it, hurry up and bite in.

And so I turn away and settle back in the chair, forcing my mind into concrete abstractions. Projects must get done. Money must be squabbled up. Joy must be set aside in favor of goods passing through the door, to laden the table. Come evening, when the dealing ought to balance into an agreement with rest, the tasks ahead demand preparation. And so the mind folds in upon itself, fatigue lapping up old heat, boring into past promises, and trembling even in sleep.

In the middle of the night I sometimes sit gazing at my hands and feet, or pass my fingers over my eyes, trying to remember what they are for, or how they came to be.

And when the nights are cold, like tonight, I sip mugs of steaming tea, coaxing my muscles to recall the heat of days spent walking. I murmur the names of trees or mountains, attempting to fix the water within the memory of things far older and stiller than I am. They exist outside the doorway. And they will never come inside, even when invited, much preferring the cold to boxes.

Funny how those without arms or legs or eyes know better than to limit their movement.

So I wait for morning, hoping that with the first light I will drag myself out of bed, no matter how frigid the air, and step outside, for a walk. For a spell away from captivity. Out among the fancies, where my hair is as wild as the wind.


For almost a year now I’ve been lurking within the frame of this computer screen scratching words across the light, but only distantly associated with others who have come by this site to read or converse. On Wednesday, however, Steve, of OnMyMind, and I had a chance to meet in Omote Sando (the chic neighborhood of Tokyo where all the coffee shops and people dressed in the latest fashions come together) and have coffee. I was running late from a hectic preparation for a big graphic design project I am working on, and then further delayed because of a huge fist fight between two young men on the Inokashira line, both of them bloodying each other’s faces and screaming with such vehemence that the train conductor refused to open the train door until some security guards could be found.

So I arrived about 15 minutes late, hoping that Steve wouldn’t be too put off by his first impression of me. But he was downright easygoing, with a warm smile and a backpack full of newly purchased English books, which he had bought that morning while wandering through bookstores downtown (Steve lives in the boonies of Shimane Prefecture, where English books are as rare as Spoonbill Cranes). I was still pretty stressed out because of the work and so it took a bit of wandering the sidewalks, searching for (and getting lost) a certain Italian coffee shop that I had been to a number of times about five years before, before I could settle down enough to relax into conversation with Steve. Not finding the coffee shop we decided on Starbucks, mainly because, as Steve hinted, it offered a large coffee (and for me, the attraction of a smoke free place to sit… Japanese restaurants and coffee shops could probably serve well as mosquito eradication testing chambers or mountain whiteout conditions simulation rooms).

The delightful thing about talking to Steve was the sheer variety of subjects we touched on. If I had any worries that we would focus only on blogging, the liquid shifting from blogging to teaching to books to computers (especially, oh joy! Macs!) to American and Japanese politics to white water rafting and backpacking to marriage, children, and living out in the country as opposed to living in the city, quickly dispelled them. Steve, with his connection to country living, far from the excitement of the big city, talked of coming back to live in Tokyo, while I, with my yearning for mountains and walks free from crowds, talked of moving back to the country. Somehow I think we understood a sort of compromise. Both lifestyles have their attractions.

All in all it was an engaging first meeting, and my first through this blog. So I guess real things do come out of blogs, not just talk. And all of you out there are really real, not just some pigment of my fantasies.

Thanks, Steve! Looking forward to seeing you again.

Good night to all those tapping keys.

Categories
Japan: Living Journal Life In Tokyo

Old Friends

Fish Monger Kichijoji
Fish monger preparing to bag a sale in the Kichijoji covered market.

Yesterday, for the first time in oh such a long time, I got together with some close friends whom I hadn’t seen in more than a year, to just spend the day talking and strolling. It was a molasses kind of day, waking up late, taking time to putter to the station, milling about while waiting for my friends at the meeting spot, and then just taking the rest of the day to put one foot in front of the other as we wandered around Kichijoji, an area in the western part, sort of outskirts, of Tokyo, where a distinct atmosphere of cosmopolitan creativity and traditional street markets mix in a quiet and stimulating labyrinth of tiny alleyways and stalls.

What was so surprising for me was how much I enjoyed just dilly-dallying around, shifting weight from one storefront to the next, mainly goggling at the mouthwatering food in each window or basket. Usually I get antsy when I have to stand in one place shopping for more than ten minutes, but it was delightful to be regaling each other with completely silly jokes, laughing till our eyes ran with tears, and not taking anything seriously.

Main Arcade Kichijoji Covered Market
The main market arcade through the center of Kichijoji

For lunch we ate a traditional Japanese meal of broiled mackerel and saury, boiled bamboo and radish, pickled vegetables, and brown rice. From there, at various stalls, we sampled fried pot stickers, Ghiradelli chocolate, dried Okinawan plums, and gazed at stall after stall of food that left us dizzy with all their aromas, fragrances, and odors. It was food, food, food, like happy dogs. We joked that if we were to eat at MacDonald’s there would have to be a temple or church built next door just to confess the feelings of guilt that eating anything other than food good for the body induces.

Feeling a little sluggish from the hours of walking, we decided to take in a movie, the totally forgettable “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”. It was so bad that afterwards we spent probably less than ten minutes discussing it. Instead we headed for an Italian restaurant, where we sat for another three hours laughing and talking over cream minestrone soup, crab sauce fettucine, garlic and tomato spaghetti, garden vegetable salad, wine, and beer. As a diabetic I very rarely indulge in this kind of feasting, but by god does it do wonders for the soul when I let up the iron fist of abstinence!

A thoroughly satisfying and soul-sating day. Friendship fills the gaps that nothing else can, and even makes food taste better.

Alleyway Kichijoji
One the many winding alley ways through the marketcovered market at Kichijoji

Categories
Japan: Living Journal Life In Tokyo

Fading

˚urobe Haimatsu
Creeping Pine skeletons in the mountains around Kurobegoro (with Sofu Peak in the background), the North Alps, Japan, 2001

The days are noticeably growing cooler. The songs of the crickets have lowered into a sluggish pitch as the musicians struggle against the temperature. For some reason the non-native Rose-Ringed Parakeets (Psittacula krameri), with their lime green, winged javelin-like bodies, have been congregating around the telephone wires and tall Zelkova trees around my neighborhood, and the mornings and evenings have been punctuated by their piercing shrieks. Parrots and parakeets most definitely belong to the area above the forest canopy… when you see their darting, vigorous flight it is hard to imagine them pent up in a cage ever again.

The light recedes earlier now, too, and children in the neighborhood scatter back into their homes earlier. It is a pity, because it seems as if the children had only just begun to grow dark and their limbs to grow firmer with their days outside during their short summer vacations. It had taken most of the summer for them to venture into the neighborhood and play with the other kids. Now the TV’s and video games have recaptured their victims and the slow degeneration of the children’s summer bred muscles will begin anew. When the tide of darkness neeps high enough and the cold keeps people locked up indoors, all the afternoon shouting and laughing in the neighborhood will die away to concrete silence. Perhaps the children in this neighborhood bump around a little too much for me during the days when I’m trying to work here at the computer, but at least they reminded me of things being alive.

My late night returns home from my night work will soon again have me arriving on my street, standing outside my apartment building under the sulfur light of the street light, listening. Listening for others and hearing only the wind or the distant, passing thump-thump of the commuter train. The lights will be on in the surrounding house windows, but no silhouettes in them. It is often hard to believe that this is one of the most crowded cities in the world; so often the streets resemble the watchful facelessness of a mausoleum. Perhaps I feel this because I seek the ghost of humanity in the streets. And perhaps I seek this humanity because the same streets of my children told more stories. People were out in the streets more and more drama occurred as a result. Somehow the lure of modern conveniences in the home has separated people from one another.

A friend of mine recently responded, when I asked her if interacting with her neighbors was important for her: “The people around me are strangers. I have no interest in their lives and want them to show no interest in mine. What goes on with the person next door is of no concern to me. I would rather that we pass each other by without even looking at one another. The place I live is just that: a place to live. My friends are elsewhere and my activities take place either in the privacy of my home or where my friends and colleagues are. The area where I live is only for convenience.”

These words sent a shiver up my spine and left me feeling disoriented, though I’m not exactly sure why. Her words make sense on a certain level and even carry a measure of precaution necessary for living in such a big city, especially for a woman living alone. But I can’t help but wonder over what is missing in the words. It is as if the very place we live in, that we inhabit, has become nothing but an abstraction. Our connection to what sustains us, the giving of the Earth to our survival, seems not to figure in the evaluation. Surely if we are to survive the oncoming hardships of a deteriorating habitat we must learn both to identify with the places we dwell in and to learn to share our lives and needs with our neighbors, both human and non. Such essential basics as food, air, water, shelter, and health all require our cooperation and a deeper level of concern and affiliation with our surroundings than we have now.

This has been one of my deepest, most consuming concerns over the years and one that seems disproportionately difficult to discuss with others, especially neighbors. Another friend asked me recently why I feel such a disillusionment with my sense of self-identity. Perhaps the roots lie in this question of abstract versus concrete identification with the place we live in. If you can’t name every tree or tell the yearly patterns of wind blowing or know where the best water is in your valley, doesn’t that mean that you don’t know where you are?