Categories
Art of Living Journal Musings Self-Reflection

Unsheltered Sky

Magnolia Storm
Magnolia visible from my living room window in April, just before blooming, Tokyo, Japan 2004.

It’s been a month of losses. Losses in time, losses in money, losses in confidence, losses in trust, losses in sleep. And recently a great loss for my sense of balance within my own home: the small, deserted lot just outside my living room window, over which I would peacefully gaze every morning as part of my ritual of waking up and feeling at least a little connected to the natural world, was suddenly converted into a two-story apartment building. Within one day the only view of the sky that I have in my apartment was wiped clean of any further connection to the horizon. And a disconnection to the magnolia tree that I have been gazing at every day for the past four years.

Here is what has been taking place (along with daily pounding of hammers and screeching of saws) You can see the magnolia tree in the back, between the scaffolding:

 

 

 

New House Building

Now my home is completely surrounded by windows and walls. With the recently moved-in family on the other side of the apartment, complete with four screaming little kids (promptly waking me each morning at 5:30, effectively drowning out the birds, and continuing unabated all day until the first crickets begin to try their tentative chirps), and my wonderful college kid neighbors upstairs who love rearranging the furniture at three a.m., I feel as if the spirit of Tokyo has flooded my sanity with its hordes of restless crowds. This also being Japan, however, you are expected to grin and bear it, taking it all down to “shoganai” (It can’t be helped). But shoganai it ain’t, because my heart and soul remember much freer pastures and greener grass. Certainly I’ve never in my life felt this hemmed in before.

To make matters worse, the hotel project I was working on came to an end, finally, only to leave me with the news that I will only be getting paid about half of what was originally expected. Still not sure about the logistics behind this, but I suspect a disingenuous spirit on the part of my benefactors. It’s been, to say it mildly, a crappy sort of day. Now it looks like I have to put up my dukes and fight it out for proper compensation, though I have the sinking feeling that, as has happened five times before here in Japan, I will lose the round. If anything this experience has confirmed in me a great disillusionment with design work and any sort of foray into advertising and such. I knew it when I started this project, but like money always does, especially when you really need it, I listened to the clinking of coins.

House View Gone

I do have to say, though, that taking a run later in the evening, along the darkened proliferation of reeds and vines along the river, cleared my head quite a lot. Bats and toads and feral cats and a bellowing American bullfrog greeted me along the path, reminding me of the simple pleasure of moving and smelling the cut grass in the night air. And as I ran the knot of anxiety and feeling of being wronged evaporated. Perhaps it was a good thing that the project ended with a flop. After all, it was never what I wanted to do in the first place. So I finished the circuit around my neighborhood and slowly came to a stroll. A gibbous moon hung pregnant in the sky.

Is it just me, or does everyone feel a primordial need to live close to the seasons and to the breathing of the Earth? Does everyone else also feel an almost unutterable ache somewhere in the interior when it seems as if your life is disconnected from the very source of its heartbeats? Why can I just not feel happy with this citified world that has heaved up around me? Why do I constantly, every single blinking moment of the day, and on a deeper, soundless level at night, feel that my life is unbalanced and shallow and hungry? And yet I can sense the source of satisfaction and joy somewhere around the corner. If only I wasn’t so groggy and full of fog. If only there was just me and the open door, all the stuff released behind me.

Categories
Art & Design Graphic Design Humor Journal Musings

Daymare

The brochure design project I am working on went though a critical review session yesterday with the hotel people and, while wringing my hands under the table, culminated in the turning point of the design. With my design partner and I anxiously peering at our clients, wondering what they thought, and with me basically sitting there overwhelmed by all the arcane Japanese politesse that was flying between my partner and the reviewers, I kept repeating the litany in my mind: “I will not die if they don’t like my design. I will not die if they don’t like my design. I will not die if they don’t like my design.” I brought my hands out from under the table, picked up, for reassurance, the ball point pen I always use for sketching wherever I go, forced myself to sit up straight, and deliberately, and s-l-o-w-l-y, turned it over in my fingers, to give the impression that I was cool and nonchalant.

Probably the clients didn’t really care. They were all eyes for the brochure. After about five minutes of passing the mockups around, the leader nodded, looked up, and pronounced, “Ma, iijanai?”, which, translated literally means, “Well, good enough, isn’t it?”, but, which in the parlance of Japanese restraint means, “Looks great. Exactly what we were looking for.” There weren’t even any criticisms of the details. My partner turned to me and, tightlipping a restless grin, mouthed , “Fantastic.” It was like a key to a landslide. All the sleepless hours, all the grand visions of failure, all the intimidation of creeping under the shadow of the hotel skyscraper, came tumbling down and disintegrated like popping bubbles at my feet. And, much more than relief, I felt a sense of accomplishment that perhaps I haven’t felt often enough in my life. Good, honest hard work has its own rewards.

Needless-to-say, I feel pretty battered and torn. I tried to get up to go for my daily exercise, but the body had other ideas. I puttered about the apartment, dabbled in blog comments, read some more awful news. And ended up collapsing in my bed like deflated dough. And napped.

I just woke from the nap a little while ago. From a bad dream, actually. I had been dreaming about this beautiful blogger (with the familiar face of a woman I knew back in college… but it’s so unusual… I never have fantasies about blondes…) with whom I had exchanged telephone numbers for some not-too-hard-to-fathom reason. In the dream I gathered up the courage to ring her up. We talked about the topics we both enjoyed writing about, then decided to meet.

The next scene found us standing face-to-face on the street outside my apartment here in Japan, just at a you wish distance apart, mumbling to one another, but already beyond intelligible speech. This woman blogger was about to say something very profound (at least for me), when from all around us a hoard of Japanese children, mostly boys, started gathering. They didn’t speak or move their hands, just advanced toward us. My blogger diva, frightened, clung to me (can’t recall in real life a woman ever clinging to me out of fear), and I, so manly like, pushed through the crowd toward my house (yes, it was a house now). The children grew insistent, however, and a wordless moan rose up among them. The female blogger and I dashed into the house, slammed the door behind us, and threw the lock before anyone could get in.

I switched on the lights. The interior of the house boasted walls stripped down to the frames, moulting armchairs and sofas, and a chandelier that had crashed to the floor. Dust had settled over everything. We tiptoed through the rooms to my studio where my computer was located. I guess I wanted to show my blogger date my stuff. Instead we encountered the entire back wall of my room fitted with a giant 2 meter by 3 meter LCD flat panel monitor (lots of unrequited desires here, no?) on which was running a documentary, narrated by David Attenborough, about tree frog mating habits. My blogger lover and I reached out and took one another’s hands to comfort one another in the face of this monstrous horror.

I noticed that my usual computer desk was gone and that the room was occupied by three beds, and in each bed, wrapped in a bed sheet, facing the monitor, lay a different woman. Each of them sat up and I recognized them: my wife, an old friend from college, and a childhood victim of my puppy love. They said nothing, just sat there staring at me. Did I feel guilt?

The next moment my brother Teja (hi Teja!) walked in through the door, carrying a notebook PC (it wasn’t Apple, that much I am sure). He stopped, held out the PC to me and frowned. Playing on the screen was a news clip of me marching in the antiwar protests here in Tokyo last year. I held a placard with the words, “Out with Bush!” scrawled in black paint on its surface. When the clip was done, my brother lowered the PC and stood to join the women.

My blogger delight was gone. I raised a hand to make my protest when, out of nowhere, the doorbell rang. I tried to open my mouth, and the doorbell rang again…

I woke from my nap. The doorbell was ringing and I could hear the sound of the mailman’s motorcycle.

I slipped out of bed and trotted to the door, opened it. The mailman was dripping wet from rain. He handed me an envelope and asked me to sign it. Which I promptly did. I closed the door behind me and ripped open the envelope.

It was a new credit card from Master Card.

Categories
Art & Design Graphic Design Humor Journal Musings

Copy that?

It is 3:00 in the morning, my brain has oozed into the consistency of refried beans, and surely my eyeballs must have loosened in their sockets… Here I am attempting to write copy for the hotel’s restaurant brochure. It’s been a slog of hours now and, by Jove, the words have turned off the Muzak and taken to dancing on the table. What d’ya think, as an introduction to a major offering of victuals:

“The world reeks of flavors. All kinds. And the flavors come with food. All kinds, too. There’re hot flavors, cold flavors, Japanese flavors, French flavors, Korean flavors, and even Karaoke flavors. And they’re all good. Really good. Nothing bad. All really, really good. Cooked by good cooks who can cook good. No really, no one bad. Well, at least not where you can see them. And the seats are straight and the tables don’t wobble. No really. Sturdy as Gigantor. The restaurants are good. You can enjoy food. Come and eat.”

So what do you think? Simple, straight, to the point. Can’t be anything wrong with that! Ugh, gotta get back to the notebook…

Sleep a wink for me, ye Ramblers of the Land of Dreams…

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.

Categories
Art & Design Graphic Design Journal

Mind Wrap

 

Evening view of Mt. Fuji from Mt. Takao

Last winter view of Mt. Fuji from Mount Takao, before the spring haze sets in.

I want to apologize to everyone for not being around for such a long time. I mean to write every day, but recently I got involved with a huge project designing the international brochure for Keio Plaza Hotel. For those of you who don’t know what the Keio Plaza Hotel is, just try picturing yourself doing the brochure for the entire chain of the Ritz… and then having it be the first time to do such a big project. While it is exciting and certainly a lot of fun to be given basically free rein to come up with a completely new concept for the hotel (it’s hard imagining that I will be responsible in part for the image that the hotel projects to all international visitors who come to Tokyo and stay at the hotel!), and that I basically have a budget to make most graphic designers drool, I must say that the pressure is enough to whiten a few more areas of my goatee.

The first night after I met with the hotel public relations team and descended from the dizzying heights of the Imperial Suite (the hotel is one of the biggest and tallest buildings in Japan) down into the restaurants, passing some 1,450 rooms and 27 restaurants, my brain was so frazzled by the sheer complexity and numerousness of services and facilities that I went into a panic. I lay in bed awash with too many images and sensory overload, and with the looming tower of the hotel glaring down at me, demanding to know how I, this little blip of a graphic designer, would dare to presume to grasp the concept of such a giant entity. Somewhere around 3:00 in the morning I thought my sense of self was going to go nova, and I entertained the thought of just giving up, no matter the shame, embarrassment, and inconvenience I would cause to those I was working with.

But then it occurred to me, damn, this is just a silly little pamphlet, not the actual planning of the hotel itself! And then I thought, it is only a hotel, not some baby whose life was in my hands. Just a hotel.

And that’s when, for the first time in my life when facing what I imagined was a truly big personal crisis, I consciously seemed to wrap my mind around a concept that seemed bigger than I could grasp. I realized that that’s how ideas work and how a single mind could handle seemingly overwhelming situations if the mind itself is given enough leeway. I conjured up the image of my hand wrapping around the hotel and squeezing it down to size. And it worked! The moment the hotel became this little idea and the strength of the idea of simplicity stepped in, suddenly my whole body let go of the tension and I could feel myself breathing easier. Within ten minutes I was fast asleep, the exploratory half of my mind free to roam the cosmos of invention.

I hope I can learn a lesson from what happened and use it for how I deal with my life in general. Perhaps until now I’ve always imagined my life is being somehow much bigger than my spirit, but I wonder if what I can imagine and what my trail though the years actually is are not actually the same thing. It is certainly something to ponder.