I went skiing every second weekend from the end of December until the middle of March, going anywhere from two to four days each time.
This was the greatest social ticket I could possibly have written myself.
First, each trip involved at least four hours on a bus with up to 50 people desperately in search of distraction, and I always brought a deck of cards. Second, the 50 of us were trapped in the same building for up to four days, while half of each day would be spent killing time on chair lifts. And third, skiing is probably the only thing I am legitimately good at that doesn’t involve telling the world to piss off while I scribble things across a piece of paper.
My first ski trip was also my first social activity since I’d turned thirty—the first since I’d met Mr. Mechie in Pure—and that fact alone put a thermonuclear fire under my ass. Since December 1st, my motto has been “Time’s up.” I’m grabbing everything I can in freefall before I hit the pavement.
Ordinarily, I remove myself from the crowd, feeling stupid and awkward if I happen to make eye contact with someone I don’t know. So I had a moment of paralytic hesitation when I arrived at the meeting place in Shinjuku and realized that, in a sea of faces I didn’t recognize, I had tasked myself with getting to know people.
I put on the smiley mask I’d perfected in six years of ALT work and shook the first hand I could find. It seemed a little awkward, but it was okay.
Then I found a new target and did it again. Then I got on the bus and did it some more. I slowly carved out a rule: If I made eye contact with someone, I had to introduce myself. I would keep doing this until I’d met everyone. It wasn’t social. It was mathematical. And that made it easy.
By the time we collected our gear from the bus back in Tokyo, I had a small collection of phone numbers and an invitation to a New Year’s party in Roppongi Hills.
Roppongi is the gaijin part of Tokyo, where the ex-pats go out to play. It’s full of guys from the American military bases and people who want the fun of experiencing a foreign country without the inconvenience of actually having to learn anything about it. As someone who actually likes the Japanese parts of Japan, I’d never before felt a desire to go there.
Despite its unrepentant gaijin infestation, the location was fantastic—a club on the 54th floor of the Mori Tower Building with a panoramic night view of Tokyo. The girl who’d invited me had also invited a slough of her friends, one of whom I took a fancy to.
The first time we met, I snagged her number. The next time, I managed to arrange a date. And the Earth trembled.
Now, I’d never actually been on a date before. I’d always operated under the High School Rules of Conduct, which stipulate that you must spend lots of time with people, notice that one of them seems cooler than the others, then spend weeks building up the courage to do something about it. By the time you actually make a move, the outcome is predetermined because going forward is simply a matter of releasing the parking brake.
This whole concept of going out and trying to get to know one another was thoroughly outside my world. My first date with this girl felt all right, but I always got the sense that she was keeping her distance, and after a few lame attempts at arranging a second date I finally had to let it go.
I had, however, initiated a cycle that would continue all winter: I would go skiing, meet people, get numbers, and either directly or indirectly line up a date. The dates would go nowhere, and I would spend a week or two waiting anxiously to restart the cycle. I was so desperate to expand my social pool that as soon as I got within a hundred yards of a ski bus I would rabidly approach everyone in sight. And the weirdest part was that it was working.
I have never had faith in my ability to talk to people. Back in school, I was one of those kids who obsessed about role-playing games, my face crushed beneath heavy glasses that had been fixed to my nose by some sadistic optometrist who delighted in the social awkwardness of adolescents, all ensuring that I was prominently featured on the “no-invite” list for the end-of-middle-school bacchanalia. In grade 7, the cool kids specifically asked me to stand elsewhere rather than watch them play basketball. I still consider it a random act of good fortune that I wasn’t beaten up regularly.
Right now, that kid is popping up a periscope from the back of my brain and going, “Huh?”
Case in point: On my final ski rip of the season, when a friend asked how I was planning to get the numbers of two girls I’d expressed an interest in, I didn’t even understand the question. I just turned around and said, “Hey, you haven’t given me your numbers yet!” and walked away with a dozen of them. Of course, the subsequent dates went nowhere, but the initial acceptance was an entirely new experience.
Most Japanese cell phones have an infrared beam that can be used to transfer information, called seki-gai-sen (literally, “red external line”). If you know how to use it, seki-gai-sen is the easiest way to get a person’s name, phone number and e-mail address all in one shot without the drudgery of typing it in manually. But older phones don’t have it, and not everyone knows how to use it, so as a matter of course I started asking people, “Do you have seki-gai-sen?”
I had never thought of this as a technique, but one day it dawned on me that nobody had ever refused me after answering this simple question. No awkwardness, just a simple matter of technical specifications. What could be more natural? And when she replied, whether positive or negative, the fact that we were about to exchange numbers had been firmly established.
My sad-and-alone-and-there-are-wolves awakening in November was also accompanied by a change of wardrobe. Sick of never quite feeling comfortable in my own skin, I stopped shopping middle-of-the-road and implemented a policy of “if it looks good, wear it.”
This led to a new $300 overcoat, mocked by the guys at work and universally approved by the girls. I dropped $500 on suit because it looked perfect on me, spent $130 on shirts, blew as much on cufflinks and a tie clip, and spent $100 for a ring I wasn’t completely satisfied with only to buy a better one for $20 two weeks later. Having never spent more than $100 on a watch, I grabbed a new one for three times as much, then put down $100 for leather wristbands to balance out the other arm. I spent over $100 for a necklace of all things, then snatched up a $20 pair of faux-leather shoes because they looked like Batmobiles with laces. I later met a girl on one of the ski trips who’d gone through the exact same process.
At one point, I got tickets to the musical “Wicked” just so I could be that guy in the office who walks around going, “Hey, I’ve got tickets to _________. Wanna come?”
Then I came to Canada for ten days, leaving all but a few of these trappings behind, wearing hiking boots and bulky clothes to a place where nobody knew how radically things had shifted in the last few months. Heck, nobody even knew to ask about B.
Who's B.? All in good time.
I just spent ten days in Toronto, and got back just in time to avoid being quarantined for swine flu.
Traversing the city was a constant exercise in uncertainty. In Japan, you can plug your nearest station, destination, and time of arrival into your cell phone, and it will give you four down-to-the-minute options, even telling you which car you should get on to make the most convenient transfer. With no idea how long anything would take on Toronto’s subway system, I kept arriving 30 minutes early and pacing in circles.
Highlights included my cousin’s husband and his perennially excellent improv show; trampolining, Easter dinner and bubble tea with my adopted Big Sis; and an old friend’s fantastic house with his even more fantastic 3-week-old son.
I also went to Waterloo to visit my sister, who now owns a townhouse complete with a cat, a dog, a spare bedroom, a flatscreen TV, a PS3 and a fiancée. I still rent a solitary one-room apartment with a PS2 and a CRT. I’m feeling very behind the times.
Before the trip, I'll admit that I was nonplussed by people in the office wishing me a pleasant vacation. Ten days in Toronto isn’t really a vacation: It’s 240 hours of scrambling from point to point, diligently putting in biennial face time so my friends don’t forget that I’m alive. Of course I enjoy our time together, but the entire procedure feels a lot like a checklist. And this time, half of my checklist was in Winnipeg.
Aside from my parents, sister and cousin, all of my relations live in Winnipeg. My 93-year-old grandmother recently fell and broke her hip, and I didn’t want to show up in the summer to find out I’d dawdled too long.
I had walked onto the plane in Japan with a metal watch, two metal buckles on my wrists, metal rings on my hand, a dozen metal stubs on my boots, and a metal buckle on my belt. Not a blip. When I left to go to Winnipeg, the metal detector and subsequent full-body-sniff were ping-fests. Boots off, arms and legs spread-eagled and belt undone, I looked like a narcoleptic child molester who’d just found Jesus.
Thankfully, when I arrived my grandmother was actually doing rather well. She’d just been moved to a better hospital and seemed full of energy, though her Alzheimer’s kept her asking whose room she was in and why she couldn’t come home with us. On a positive note, it also kept her from realizing just how long it would be before I could see her again.
On the day I arrived, we also learned that my uncle had gone into cardiac arrest. Much like my grandmother, I found him confined to a hospital bed, unsure of where he was and why he couldn’t go home, quite irked to be reminded daily that no, he could not get a whiskey, a coke, some chocolate, or a beer. Fortunately, the NHL playoffs had just started, so at least he had plenty to watch on TV. The bad news was that he seemed to think he was supposed to be in the game.
While it took seven (7, sept, sieben, shichi, rhino-stunning quantities of) zaps with the defibrillator to bring my uncle back, a week later it took four people to hold him down when he decided he was ready to check out, tubes be damned. They tell me he’s doing better now.
Getting on the bus for my very first ski trip in December, I intentionally moved away from one of my luck-of-the-draw roomies to see whom else I could meet, strategically positioning myself in front of a cute girl. Three Norwegians promptly showed up and, to give them space, the cute girl got up to sit beside my roomie on the other side of the bus.
Despite this setback, the Norsemen turned out to be the best ski/snowboard partners I’ve ever had, and they even appreciated my paean to all things Norwegian, “Every Viking’s Sacred,” set to the tune of Monty Python’s “Every Sperm is Sacred”:
“E—v'ry Vi-king’s sa—cred
E—v'ry sa-vage great
When a Swe—dish town is pil-laged
We all ce-le-brate!”
And against all odds, I still somehow got together with the cute bus girl ten days before my trip to Canada. Her name is B. and she speaks the hip Osaka version of Japanese, which I’m now trying to learn, opening myself to her regular derision.
And if anybody wants to check out the other things I’m writing, ghost-writing and editing, I highly advise you to go to www.interacnetwork.com. Click on Japan Perspectives in the centre of the blue bar at the top and you’ll be taken to a splash page with a new menu bar at the top. These are all articles for my company’s online magazine, of which I am now both editor and layout guy. Some I wrote myself, and about 95% are my layouts.
Um… Let me know if the site’s as super-slow overseas as I fear it is.