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?”

Journal Music Musings

Slow Songs

Long antenna moth
Unidentified species of moth with long wispy antennae that sweep back as the creature slowly flies about the chest high riverside grasses near my home.

Lately I’ve been listening to Jack Johnson’s new album In Between Dreams and finding the simplicity of the instrumentation and focus on lyrics bringing back my old love for singing along with the music that I love. The album reminds me of a statement made to travel writer Brian Schwartz in his book World of Villages by an Efe friend (incorrectly known as a Pygmy) who asked why Schwartz didn’t know how to play an instrument and, after Schwartz replied that back home he had professional musicians who did the playing for him, stared at him in surprise. “Where’s the fun in that?” the Efe asked. “Music ought to be sung and played and danced to by everyone involved.”

I used to spend hours every day strumming my guitar and singing and writing songs. It came naturally to me, especially the lyrics; somehow the melodies bloomed in my head and the words, unlike with poetry, popped out seemingly as if by the touch of God. I could lose myself in the creation of the songs and emerge at the end of the day, surprised that darkness had fallen and that I had forgotten to eat. Sometimes some of my college friends and I would sit on the roof of my apartment in Eugene, Oregon. U.S.A., improvising as we laid down chords and combinations, playing and laughing, and making up words till well into the evenings. I even played in an Irish pub here in Tokyo for a while, crooning about life and the laughter and joy I saw around me.

The music has died since then, in great part because so much of life in Japan revolves around ready-made packages, including music. No one my age plays their instruments any more. When I even suggest to those who admit to still fiddling with their guitars and pianos that we try playing a gig on a street corner somewhere they look at me in horror. “What if the police come?” they ask. That, of course, kills the joy in singing for the love of singing. And that is what Japan is like, the regulation like some metallic killjoy terrified of spontaneity and unbridled elation.

Jack Johnson even dresses the way I do, the way I love most: t-shirt, shorts, sandals, hair buzz cut. Sitting with friends in the backyard enjoying one anothers’ company, the words in the songs about living simply and focusing on the little things in life and appreciating them. When a friend handed me the album to borrow and I popped it into my computer at home, it was like rediscovering my old Oregon friends. I especially like his song “Breakdown” about wishing the train he was on would break down so he could take the time to look around him. So poignant the truth of slowing down, at times painfully reminding me of how far I’ve ventured from my own determination to live without rushing.

One song caught me by surprise, “Good People”. I had just returned from a particularly rough passage on the evening train, packed to the gills with late night commuters. Perhaps it was the electricity in the air from the storm outside, but a nasty mood seemed to infiltrate the crowd. I had been standing near the door. At my station I was about to step out of the train when behind me some sweating businessman who couldn’t wait for those ahead of him to negotiate the human bodies attempted to muscle me out of the way. When I resisted he placed his hand on my face and shoved me to the side, making me trip and fall onto the platform. I was so incensed that I raised my fist to punch him, but caught myself just in time. Fuming I shuffled home, mumbling obscenities about Japanese men (who have an obnoxious tendency to flaunt bravado and what they call male “puraido”… “pride”) and feeling my emotions suffocate me. I clicked the “play” button in iTunes on my Mac and let Jack Johnson’s music wipe the slate clean.

When “Good People” came on, I got to wondering. Just why is it that so much of the popular culture around the world seems to focus on being “bad” and sullen and miserly and fast and rebellious, with brows beetled and shouting and bad-mouthing everything and everyone? You watch television, as Jack Johnson alludes to, and there is nothing nice there. So much of it is selfish and hysterical and indifferent. This week there was “Ally McBeal”, “Outer Limits”, “Angel”, “Andromeda”, “The Simpsons”, CNN News, and even an Animal Planet documentary in which the announcer described a male lion as “sexist” and a cow elephant as “the fairer sex”, and, though I like some of the shows, all of them full of facetious and self-absorbed people whom I would never want to get to know in real life. The only recent program I’ve seen lately that I enjoy has been “Oz”, with its honest language and willingness to look at uncomfortable and unconventional views of men.

Music seems to be much the same. If you switch on MTV so much there is of young men and women emulating the wealthy lifestyle, with little deeper thought on anything. Some of it is pure fun, of course, but the focus is still on going it fast and often advocating anger as the solution to injustice and pain. A lot of this grows naturally out of the rebellion of the 60’s, but surely there ought to be a counterbalance with going slow and taking the road of quiet, reflection, and placation?

I love the quiet and gentle view of songs such as Jack Johnson’s. With such a view each day can roll on in and the peculiarities and hold ups absorbed in stride. I just like nice, laughing people. I like a merry soul and people who are generous with their time and belongings. I like singing for singing’s sake. Songs that celebrate the value of moments.

Pardon me now as I tune out, close my eyes, bob my head, and sing along to “Never Know”…

Journal Living Things Nature



Koi in Nogawa River
Carp in the Nogawa River, Tokyo, in March Carp in the Noh River, March 2004


The magnolia outside my window is bursting forth with clouds of white blossums. This is the fourth time to witness the joy of its vitality, though, in typical Japanese gardening mentality, the gardeners have chopped it down to but a fraction of its former glory. It is a pruning philosophy that I can’t understand; most of the time trees in Japanese gardens are so manicured of their natural form and grace that half the year the trees stand around like dejected sticks. A huge zelkova along the way to work, last year towering 30 meters over the corner, with a massive umbrella of swaying leaves, was lopped of all its branches a few days ago, so that now it looks like a naked pair of legs sticking out of the sidewalk. This kind of chopping up occurs all over Japan, and while I appreciate a well done traditional Japanese garden, I also think there is a time and place for the gardening practices to be employed. When you randomly reduce an entire neighborhood to matchsticks, not only do you get a pretty stark looking place, but you rob people and the soil of shade. Tokyo, without all the trees it once had, must surely have heated up quite a bit since neighborhoods went concrete. And besides, I just love the sound of wind in the leaves.

For all that, nature is popping up everywhere. The barrel cactus on my window sill started flowering for the first time since I got it 8 years ago. Twenty buds a’ringing the crown of the bulb. The flower is supposed to turn bright magenta, but perhaps the cactus is testing my ability to appreciate things that cook slowly.

On the trains passengers sit with tears in their eyes and white cotton face masks while suffering under the pall of Japanese cedar and cypress pollen. It sounds like a chorus as one person lets go a volley of sneezes, and is promptly backed up by another person across the car, and repeated further down the train in rapid succession.

Yearly the hay fever epidemic grows worse, all due the thoughtless plans of the government right after the war, when they decided, in an effort to reestablish the country’s lumber sources, to plant the entire country’s denuded hills and mountains with one vast crop of cedar and cypress. No thought was given to the effects this would have on the future, in terms of allergies; loss of topsoil (cedar and cypress, while able to cling to the steep, rocky slopes of Japan, put down shallow roots and fail to hold the soil down), with the resulting landslides, mudslides, and silting up of the rivers; and devastation to the endemic animals and plants. Now, forty years later, the trees have matured, and while most of Japan’s wood is raped from other countries, the cedars and cypress have started to reproduce in one giant, pollen exchanging orgy. When I lived in Shizuoka Prefecture umber clouds of pollen would writhe through the air like swarms of locusts, all being blown, gathering in size as the swarms from other prefectures accumulated, toward the catchall basin of the Kanto Plain, which Tokyo has basically overrun.

My hay fever isn’t so bad, but I know many who hate Spring because of it. What a strange world when all the life around us is hopping for joy at the coming of warm weather and rebirth, while so many of us cover ourselves up in misery.

But I intend to enjoy this Spring. My body agrees. I feel like dancing! Like dashing along the river. Like climbing a tree, or singing at the top of my lungs!

In fact, I think that’s what I’ll go do right now. I’ll leave it to your imagination which one I decide to do!

Journal Musings

North Window

Ice Pickets
Ice formations along the banks of the Charles River, Boston, U.S.A., 1988


For the past three days, just as Beth expressed in her New Year’s Day post, I have been filled with a mingled deep calm and radiating joy that seemed to flow in when I opened the living room window on the morning of the 1st. A shock of cold air greeted my nose, but there was also a dalliance of sunlight that glinted off everything, but most especially from the branches of the magnolia tree where lately the white-eyes gather in their frenetic rest stops. I stepped out into the garden, with its dried leaves and clenched soil, and just stood there breathing deeply for about five minutes. Then I stepped back inside and swept about the apartment, throwing open all the windows, letting the morning breeze in, with its bite, and busying myself with dusting the corners. When all was done I settled by the north window in my bedroom and sat still.

It was something new, because just days before, after creating three days of window rattling racket, the neighbor right outside had demolished his work shed and moved out of the house. For the first time in three years the north was quiet, without a soul moving in the small garden that never received full sunlight. I read a bit of Thich Nhat Hahn’s book, “Anger”, which makes you stop often to ponder and to let things sink in. A jungle crow barked from a distant rooftop, its voice echoing through the morning. I took to peering at everything there, in the runners of the window sill, in the crannies of the lattice panel I had put over the window to block some of the sudden openness to prying eyes, in the sky, and just in my room. The sky was filled with hazy cumulonimbus clouds without definite form, glowing pink from the warming sun. Dozens of star-shaped spider webs dotted the lattice panel, hiding the eggcases beneath. A sweet- bitter smell of decaying leaves wafted in through from the living room, stirring up pangs of hunger. My breath dispelled before my face in shreds of white tissue, disappearing into thin air. Dew clung to the window pane like a silver constellation in reverse, the slate in white instead of black. A male gnat, with feathered antennae, crouched in the nook of the lattice wood, pinched close to the corner, hiding, waiting for the hand of winter to pass. And my tea and buttered toast smoked with warmth, fingering the moment as I sipped and chewed, simple sustenance. I closed my eyes for a moment and just let the stillness wash through, feeling the cleanliness of a hungry stomach and a mind cleared of noise. Here I am, I thought. Here I am.

This slow burning away of anticipation and anxiety, of just smiling without rancor or expectation, is exactly how I wanted this new year to begin. And how this greeting of myself, as the mirror swivels, would allow me to nod and remember what last year wrought from my heart. It is not anger or fists that I want or even need. It is this calm acceptance. Somewhere in the great mechanism a gear has shifted. And I would walk from such a dawn into the open, to find a tree somewhere and sit, waiting. To not disturb the surface with a flurry of excuses, no hand-tossed crumbs of complaint or outrage. Sit still, waiting. And let the trees teach me a thing or two about peace.

Japan: Living Journal Tokyo

When Teaching is a Joy

In addition to my daytime work as a writer and illustrator, and recently, CG artist, I teach English in the evening for my bread and butter. The school I work at is small and close-knit and the students come for serious study as they try to up their TOEIC scores. This makes for inspiring classes, often carrying an atmosphere of challenge and exciting conversations.

Today in particular, I had a class of students still struggling with the basics of the language, but they dropped the usual Japanese penchant for shyness and opened up with a quick succession of interesting questions. We had fun. So often I hear teachers lament the ineffectiveness of teaching Japanese people, but I think it has more to do with lack of cultural sensitivity on the teachers’ parts than on the students’ inability to learn. Japanese are a very curious people. Give them food for thought and they will come out. Get them to laugh and the reservation melts away. We laughed a lot today, making light of language mistakes and not taking the process too seriously. When a class engages both the students and the teacher this way, when there is a real human dialogue and all barriers are momentarily forgotten, the joy and satisfaction of teaching and learning shine through. It’s what makes me love teaching.

Such a day brings me a sigh of contentment. It’s great when you can feel as if what you do has some value somewhere, even if only a tiny shard.