The day after my birthday I joined the iPhone generation. People inevitably asked if this was a birthday gift to myself, but it was actually something I’d been putting off. I knew the initial transition would be a hassle and a half.
For months, my cell phone company, AU, had been calling me at awkward moments in an ongoing campaign to get me to upgrade my phone. I’d had the same model for at least 5 years, which in this country meant that its transmitter technology was so archaic that it was going to be shut down within a year. I’d made various promises to upgrade in the near future, but never quite got around to it.
My delaying tactic paid unexpected dividends: In October, AU got the iPhone 4S. iPhone had been the exclusive domain of Softbank, the top cell phone provider in Japan, so this was a minor coup. I am a big fan of technological consolidation—there’s no reason to have half a dozen different devices for micro-tasks—but I had hitherto resisted the iPhone largely because Softbank has the worst reception this side of a pair of tin cans connected with limp twine, and the other smartphones didn’t grab my attention.
The clerk at the AU shop near my place in Saitama was total pro: she went down the list of notifications with a highlighter, checking off everything as she went at rapid speed. A friend once defined Japanese bureaucracy as efficient redundancy: you have to do the same thing a dozen times, but those dozen times are as quick as they can possibly be. I was quite impressed by the training AU must do with their people; she even printed out my last three months’ phone bills when advising me which kind of plan I should sign up for (I learned that I’m not as sparing a talker as I’d thought!).
Then when she got to the actual phone, the clerk had no idea what she was doing. When I had to fill in iPhone’s silly 8-characters-including-a-capital-and-a-number-and-a-member-of-the-1972-Green-Bay-Packers-offensive-line password, I was the one who had to figure out where the caps lock key was (It’s an arrow! How novel!). The registration process took about an hour and a half. Then I had to go home and figure out how to use the thing. For the first three days, my fingers felt so fat it was like trying to do brain surgery with oven mitts.
I couldn’t have picked a better time to upgrade, though—as soon as I pulled the thing out at A Kabuki Christmas Carol, every member of the cast had suggestions for apps and “secret” techniques they’d figured out, so I was set up like a pro within thirty minutes.
So now I have an iPhone. With reception. I have put a crick in my neck playing Infinity Blade II, yet still fumble like my mom trying to work a VCR when I have to make an actual phone call.
Yesterday we completed our run of A Kabuki Christmas Carol—five sold-out shows from Thursday to Sunday. At the director’s talk between the two Saturday shows, several members of the audience suggested either doing the show again next year, taking it on tour, or getting funding from the Japan Foundation.
Starting Saturday, the audiences began to get into the their role in kabuki—engaging in kakegoe, or calling out the names of actors as they enjoy moments of their performances. One of our musicians was a renowned 10th-generation koto player (or something like that) as well as a fully-versed kakegoe artist, and from Saturday on she sat in the balcony and called out the name of every single actor as key moments came up, showing the audience how it was done. A proper kakegoe sounds almost like belch infused with the punctuation you’d put behind a karate chop—not the kind of sound you’d expect to hear from a small 70-year-old woman. When our Sunday matinee audience was subdued during the first act, our brilliant front-of-house head Aja Niedorf came out and reminded them that it was perfectly acceptable to yell out during the show, producing a second half that was much more fun for all of us.
Front of house was a battlefield. With every show sold out—and often oversold—Aja and Lou McLeod had to turn very unhappy people away at every performance. If you hadn’t shown up to claim your ticket by ten minutes before curtain, your ticket was gone. By Sunday, we had 45 people on the waiting list—more people than we’d had in attendance at the first performance of Metamorphosis.
After the last show, Meta director Davina McFadyen and I shared a few grumbles about that disparity, but such is life. A Christmas Carol has been a crowd-pleaser for more than a century, and families showed up with piles of kids. Metamorphosis requires you to be ready to be disturbed if you want to enjoy it.
Brian Berdanier and Wendell Harrison were brilliant as Sukejiro (Scrooge) and the Ghosts, respectively. Wendell consistently drew kakegoe just for appearing as a female Ghost of New Year’s Present, clad in a long black wig and a beautiful red wedding kimono provided by Ghiselle Camacho, my onstage wife in this play and silent love interest from Once Upon A Mattress.
Brian’s rendition of Sukejiro’s final enlightenment was gripping, and it was difficult to come out happy and content as Kurachi (Cratchit) for the final scene. And yet, as soon as he opened the door with a big, creepy smile on his face, the audience would go mad, and the closing scene would run brilliantly as we fed off the energy. In rehearsals, the scene had always felt a little dead—it was just the natural conclusion of a story that we’d all seen on TV a hundred times since we were kids. But the reaction of the audience filled us all with an incredible energy that we poured into those final minutes. Our most consistently appreciated mie (kabuki-style snapshot pose) was nothing more than the reveal of a giant fish delivered to my family by a creepy-happy Sukejiro. I even got kakegoe for standing stock-still in shock for three minutes, during which it was hard not to laugh as Ghiselle flitted about catering too my weirdly generous boss.
The first act ended in Sukejiro’s past, with Gemma Nokes (Suzanne from Picasso at the Lapin Agile) and Ann Jenkins closing the curtain with an old-school Japanese party dance as Mrs. and Mr. Furuya, respectively. We decided early on that, if kabuki traditionally had men playing women, we should have a woman playing a man. In her top-knot wig and broad-shouldered vest (made by the ever-brilliant Suzy Walker), Ann looked almost like Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Today was the opening night of A Kabuki Christmas Carol, and also my birthday. I celebrated in the morning by shaving my eyebrows. Then my chest. Today I saw bits of me that I have not seen since I was fourteen.
Why did I do these things, you may ask? In kabuki, actors often have their eyebrows drawn in on a higher level than their natural brows. To achieve this effect, their own eyebrows have to be obscured. This is done by melting the end of a block of wax and pressing it firmly into the eyebrows, then painting them over with liquid makeup. Kabuki makeup, however, has never had to contend with shaggy gaijin eyebrows, and mine are particularly shaggy and gaijinny. The one time the lovely makeup people from Yamano College of Aesthetics were actually able to cover my eyebrows, as soon as I made any facial expression, they cracked open and revealed the dark colour underneath. I just looked like I had four eyebrows.
A Kabuki Christmas Carol will have its premier on December 1st—just three weeks away! Rehearsals are going well, and Brian Berdanier and Wendell Harrison just keep getting better and better as Sukejiro (Scrooge) and the ghosts.
We've got most of the week off to gather strength before the big push in the last few weeks. Now we just need to figure out whether or not we can really build a hanamichi in Echo Theater...
I've taken a ream of photos from rehearsals, which can be seen here on on my Flickr stream. Rika looks gorgeous with her umbrella!
Flowers for Algernon is a horrifying book to read when you are worrying about losing your ability to see. I’ve added it to Battle Royale and Vanilla Sky in my list of fundamentally moving stories that I could never bear to experience again.
The psychological exploration was intriguing, but more than anything I find myself concerned with one of the book’s central hypotheses: With a mental disability, the “natural” Charlie Gordon easily earns affection and friends. He is sympathetic, genuine, concerned both about others and about whether he is perceived as a good person. The hyper-intelligent Charlie Gordon earns only disdain. He has no close relationships, neither sympathizes nor garners sympathy, and has no concern for how he is perceived or how his actions affect others.
Is the author, Daniel Keyes, suggesting that human bonding is a result of our individual weaknesses? Do we look to relate to others, to please them and make them like us, only when we recognize that we need them to complement our own lives? We see the holes in our own systems, and seek to fill them with the vibrancy of others. Yet when we are self-sufficient, when there is no hole to be plugged and nothing that any person can offer us, we cannot bond.
Is bonding a primitive instinct that can be outgrown through intellect? Could it be possible that intellect and human bonding are antithetical to one another?
I find myself identifying with both Charlies. Am I a genius with an IQ of 180 who speaks a dozen languages? No, of course not. But have I been a child who sometimes watches what I do now with a sense of perplexity, wonder and condemnation? Yes, absolutely.
I have a lot of trouble bonding. I don’t go out of my way to be arrogant as Charlie the genius does (or at least, I like to think not), but I still find it difficult to connect. Throw me into a social situation and I look for a topic of mutual interest. If I can’t find one, I’m out to sea; and even if I should latch onto something, if you don’t engage me with a level of detail and interest matching my own, the conversation is stillborn. Very often I hold back because I know I’m too intensely involved in the subjects I care most about. Even if I find someone with the same intensity, it’s often limited to the one subject. Shift a step to the side and the bond falls apart. It’s only intellectual, not emotional.
I sometimes talk over people’s heads. I used to think it was always my fault, and that I was just bad at explaining things, or too long-winded. Sometimes I am. But sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I feel like both the man with the disability and the genius who can’t connect.
I live intellectually. I don’t rely on anyone else, nor do I anticipate much from others. When I meet people who truly engage me, we connect only intellectually. I fall in love with people based on their intellect, then I run into the same problem that others have with me: I have nothing to offer that they need. All I have to offer is intellectual stimulation. If they don’t value it, I am useless.
Keyes ultimately puts more stock in the human relationships that natural Charlie achieved than in everything genius Charlie produced with all his endowments. It’s reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange (a natural horrible human is preferable to a clockwork orange) or Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov (life cannot be lived as a theory), with hints of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the chaos of life is preferable to controlled numbness of the mind). Charlie the genius was self-contained, as was his benefit to humanity—a dead end, a product that served only itself. With all his intellect, Charlie proved only that the process that had created him was untenable. He lived only to definitively prove that he could not live. Yet the real, limited Charlie had people who loved and hated him, people who brought him joy and to whom he brought joy in return, and his imperfect memory shut out all traces of hatred or envy. With the fruit of knowledge, he lost his paradise—yet Paradise Lost is the one book he remembers when he loses his intellect again.
I’m not as sanguine about the “ignorance is bliss” concept, and it is only one of many woven through the story. I look more to the thesis that intelligence alone is meaningless if it is not applied humanely—“man cannot live on bread alone”. Pure intellect is asocial, and whatever its benefits, be they in a bakery or in the field of neuroscience, it will be feared and rejected by humanity, precisely because intellect alone lacks humanity.
In the end, Keyes places greatest value in the honest desire to push one’s own limits for the purpose of pleasing others—in the desire itself, rather than in any actual achievement as a result of that desire. In fact, achievement of what we desire can be the greatest detriment to our humanity. Perhaps self-acknowledged imperfection is the secret to a good heart, and to a meaningful life blessed by the companionship of others.
I’ve finally stopped taping patches to my eyes at night and wearing soldering glasses during the day. People now do a double-take when they look at me closely and say, “Geez, what happened to your eyes?”, but this is a big improvement from the “Dear God, get away from me!” that I would have anticipated in the first week. If I keep this up, I may have festive optics for Christmas: red and green!
Now that the relief over not being completely blind has passed, I am beginning to develop standards. With smudged goggles and sunglasses no longer strapped to my face, I have finally begun to test the limits of my acuity.
My right eye is stronger than my left. This is a bit of a pain, as I’d been having the same trouble with my contacts, and had hoped that Lasik could resolve the issue. The doctor told me to wait a few weeks: “You’ll get used to it.”
My vision is still settling down. Dandelion-sized halos still prevail around nocturnal light sources. My left eye also seems to be a little fuzzy from any mid-ranged distance, a problem that is most pronounced around tight text. My right used to be laser-perfect, but since Sunday morning it’s been a bit fuzzy as well. I suspect it may have something to do with the eye makeup I put on as Jack Sparrow for Halloween. Trust me to be paranoid just long enough, then screw it all up with a useless risk. I was officially clear for eye makeup after just a week, but I should have known better.
I am now at the “maybe it will all sort itself out” phase. I have another eye check on the 12th of November, and more every few months. They charge me for the checks, as well as for any eye drops they give me. It’s only 1200 yen for the checks, which, after taking more than 400,000 yen from me, makes me wonder why they even bother. Why not roll it into the initial cost? It feels cheap and petty.
In all honesty, the whole experience has been quite stressful. There’s something a little bit wrong with my eyes at all times. It’s like I’m wearing old contacts on a permanent basis, and I can’t wait to get them out. The computer screen is actually the easiest distance.
The buildings of Hamamatsucho wink at me with a single shared eye, the sun reflecting off every window as I pass on the Haneda Monorail. It’s 6:45 in the morning. It must be fall, winter or spring. Tokyo’s summer haze makes the sun bleary-eyed; it could never pierce the sky with such blinding precision.
It’s one of those mornings. I say that with a sense of familiarity, but it’s been years since I’ve had one of those mornings.
My difficulty thinking of the word ‘familiarity’ will tell you how long I’ve been in Japan. Nareta. ‘Nihon, mou naremashita ka?’ ‘Hai. Nareta.’
Yes. I’m used to Japan.
Compliment me on my chopstick use and you’ll open up a Fuji-sized can of worms. Do you use two fingers or three? Three? Really? I use two. It’s more efficient, don’t you think? Have you ever tried it? Ah, well how do you hold a pencil? Well, that’s why.
Newbies cringe at the mention of their chopstick habits. I used to cringe. Now I dive joyously into finer points of technique.
Don’t talk to me about travel. I’ve been to every obscure point between Kobe and Sapporo, and as editor-in-chief of a national travel magazine, those few point I haven’t visited, I’ve edited, cross-checked and cropped the photos. I’m still a little weak in western Japan. It’s far. I’ve spent all my time based in Kanto and Chubu. Flying is a pain.
At the airport now. Another day, another flight. It’s been years. But it’s just another flight. 36 hours in Fukuoka, then back to Saitama.
‘Mou naremashita ka?’
Yes. I’m used to it.
It’s been a while, and I have to do a full Metamorphosis report. But first, we must discuss the fact that I had Lasik yesterday.
I went to a place called Minami-Aoyama Eye Clinic, which is, naturally, in Kita-Aoyama (minami = south, kita = north). I’d been looking online, and these were the only guys who:
(1) Had a homepage entirely in English.
(2) Didn’t nickel-and-dime your eyeballs.
Two weeks back, the testing procedure took about two hours, during which they rotated me from machine to machine so quickly that I seriously thought they needed to install one of those kaiten-zushi conveyor belts, while I stared at more multicoloured balloons than I cared to count. My favourite device was a psychedelic red circle that they had to readjust to avoid whacking into my Massive Gaijin Nose.
“Um… no. Should they have?”
“Oh. I guess they don’t want to overburden you with information.”
“So… what’s the blackout?”
Apparently, your eyes go dark for a few seconds during the procedure. I wasn’t so worried, but it had significantly unnerved Rachel.
They took my bag at the front counter; it seemed that I wasn’t allowed to take it with me. Then they led me to a sliding glass door at the back of the hall that I had never noticed before. They took my shoes and gave me slippers. Beyond the door was an antiseptic hallway in which the temperature dropped about five degrees. They sat me down on a sofa beside a silent woman in a plastic bonnet, then they took my glasses and walked away.
It felt like I was being prepared for a ritual sacrifice, as one by one all the things I would not be needing in the next world were taken away.
They put a sticker on my shirt that said “Kanert. Both eyes.” I guess they don’t want people trading shirts in the waiting room. Then they put a bunch of stinging drops in my eyes, slid a plastic bonnet over my head, and left me to listen to Mozart in the hall. Someone with a sick sense of humour had kindly embedded a TV screen in the opposite wall.
When I entered the operating room about twenty minutes later, I couldn’t help but laugh: It was the classic Human Experimentation scene in a sci-fi movie. There were five doctors in masks and lab coats hurrying around a pair of massive machines that filled the entirety of a blindingly white room, leering ominously over an all-too spindly man-shaped slab.
“Lie down here.”
The only fun bit from here on was the point at which they had to keep repositioning my head to get around my Massive Gaijin Nose. It’s a wonder people don’t trip on that thing as I walk down the street.
I had always wondered why people would randomly exclaim how happy they were with their Lasik months after the procedure. I now believe it’s because, given the choice between Lasik and waterboarding, for the first three months you wonder if you shouldn’t have picked the waterboarding. My god. I have never experienced anything so horrifying.
Two years ago, I had several uncomfortable rounds of dental surgery, which involved being conscious while a dentist hacked away bits of my gums and sewed them onto other areas of my mouth. I’d freaked out for a moment when they first covered my face and leaned me back in the chair, but by the second time, all I wanted to know was if it was okay if I listened to music.
Now, you can dissociate yourself from your mouth. But as soon as they start going at your eyes, you realize that there is nowhere to run from your eyeballs. They are the most immediate expression of yourself—so much so that they really just feel like “you”.
They threw big plastic donuts into my eye sockets and leveled a thing over my eyeball that looked like an inverted Dalek coated in mirrors, accentuated with blinding white balls of light. My eyes tanked up with drops, dazzling white on white was the last thing I wanted to stare at. Then they told me to keep looking as the machine mashed down onto my eyeball.
The blackout was the best part. I was waiting for it. As they did my right eye, I tried picturing the park I’d visited two days ago on my “farewell to eyeballs” tour, just in case this all went badly. I was able to dissociate a bit. Then they got to my left, dominant eye, and there was nowhere to run. You can block out your weaker eye. Your dominant eye gives you no such luxury. Picture Frodo in front of a flaming white Eye of Sauron, and you’ve basically got the idea of what the next few minutes were like.
“I see you…”
It’s impossible to envision a peaceful green park when you’ve got a white light burning a hole directly into your psyche. I tried iaido mediation instead, and I was able to keep looking, but my ankles hooked under the bed and I wrapped the blanket they’d given me into a little ball. My chest rose about a metre as they advised me to just relax. I began to wish I’d taken the tranquilizer they’d offered me. “My god,” I thought, “I’m paying to have this done to me.”
Rachel told me that, in the Jewish tradition, childbirth is one of the two times you’re given carte blanche to take the name of the Lord in vain. As far as flesh memory goes, she said Lasik isn’t that far off.
Then it was over. My body relaxed, and my back found the bed again.
“Okay. Now we can get started.”
The next bit wasn’t so bad, actually. They applied cream and plastic sheets to my face, stuck clamps around my eyes, then swung me under the other machine, where I just had to stare at a hazy laser while they counted down. They were even kind enough to say “Good, good” as I stared, which was important, because I really couldn’t be sure if I was looking in the right direction any more. I started singing American Pie in my head because I knew that, no matter what, the song would last longer than the procedure.
“And now the customization countdown…”
“Oh god. I paid more to make this last longer…”
By the time they took makeup brushes to my eyeballs, I think I had actually managed to dissociate my consciousness from my eyes. It just felt like they were squeeging the windshield of a car I happened to be riding in, and I was somewhere safe inside.
I’d hoped to be the model of calm, an ideal patient. I managed to keep my head still, but otherwise, I squirmed like a worm on a hook.
They had me sit on a chair with a timer for ten minutes, then ushered me out. At the counter, they showed me the drops I was supposed to put into my eyes five times daily for the next week.
“Are they colour-coded?”
“Then we might have a chance.”
They tried to show me the itty-bitty instruction sheet. I told them they must be joking.
Then I went for lunch with Rachel. She expected me to be a nervous wreck, but while I’d felt a little emotionally fragile for the first ten minutes, after that I just enjoyed talking through the experience. I guess it’s my way of dealing with stress.
I was actually quite pleased; I’d been expecting much worse in terms of the final result. Walking out of the clinic, it was indeed like I was looking at the world through a foggy glass, but the vision going through that glass was 20-20. It was, in fact, better overall than my natural vision. My eyes did hurt a bit, though, and it was easier to keep them half-shut, plus there was sometimes a sensation that something in there was floating around. I went home and had a nap, as had been advised by my doctor, from which I was awakened by the doctor calling to see how my eyes were doing.
“No idea. My room is dark and I’m wearing the plastic plates you gave me over my eyes.”
“Um, okay. See you tomorrow, then.”
Then I looked at my eyeballs and realized that my whites were filled with pools of blood.
I’m supposed to wear clear glasses outside for the next week. I think I’ll wear my Oakleys just to save people the terror of my eyeballs. I took a few photos for posterity, but I don’t think I’ll share them here.
My eyes have settled down a bit now. At night, there were massive balls of fuzz around all the street lights, but I’m told those will pass (They call these “halos”—they’re not. They’re massive balls of fuzz the size of dandelion seeds). I have a post-op checkup today, and another next week, to be followed by more over the next few months and years. I can’t see perfectly, but the foggy glass has gone away. Now I’ve just got roving focus.
It’s not bad. Eventually I'll discover the novelty of not having to put on glasses or contacts for the first time since I was ten. And sometime three months from now, I’ll randomly exclaim how pleased I am with the whole experience.
Yesterday I had my first ever modeling job. I was part of a line-up in a ski ad gearing up for the winter season. On the way back I smelled like the inside of a gym bag—it’s still 32 degrees! The temperature wasn't helped by the fact that I was dangling from one arm on an inclined plane in ski boots while two poor staffers held the other end of my ski pole as we tried to simulate some extreme angles.
There were a dozen people out there just for me. They were handing me water, turning fans in my direction, zipping and unzipping my ski jacket between shots, all the rest. I finally understood why “talents” tend to feel privileged. The pay was nothing to write home about, but getting to finally meet people in the industry was fascinating. I ended up talking a lot to the stylist, and likely convinced her to come watch Metamorphosis. One sale at a time!
Last night I ended up chatting with my Metam director a bit too long and missed my last train home for the first time. I ended up in Akabane, the northernmost outpost of Tokyo before it transforms into Saitama, where I learned a few things about what I had always thought to be just a sleepy transit station on my way to Shinjuku:
Living. Just spent Monday-Saturday in Narita. There’s nothing like handing in the staff room key to the desk staff at 3:00 in the morning only to pick it up again from the same guy four hours later. It was that kind of week.
After Monday, didn’t have time for lunch until today. Got three editing jobs from AAR on Tuesday and didn’t have time to check e-mail after that—just told them I’d have to get back to them over the weekend. Also had questions about the set for Metamorph that I haven’t had time to answer, and that’s just on my phone. Dreading checking e-mail tonight.
This morning I had a “belief in a higher power” moment. Woke up thinking, “Wow, I feel rested and my alarm hasn’t even gone off yet.” Then I realized that there was only one way such a thing was possible—I’d overslept by an hour and a half.
Fortunately, I always got up two and a half hours before our sessions started, so I was able to leap up, pack, check out, and still arrive in the staff room before anyone else. Had to check my room clock three times before I believed that I hadn’t slept past the start of the training session. My mind went white as I accepted the brilliance of the Angel of Timeliness that must be watching over me. I was the emcee. We’d been giving people a very hard time for being late, and I would have been crucified. Missed a few spots dry-shaving, though.
After things finished up and all the packing was completed this afternoon, I took a dip in the hotel onsen. I gave the hotel staff a scrutinizing look until they gave me a discount coupon, though I was still convinced they should have given it to me for free (we'd booked 60 people into their hotel for 5 days, and entrance was free to guests). Taking a look at the scales, I noted that I was checking in at 67 kg. I normally range around 69-70. It was that kind of week. By Friday, I was dishing out orders to staff without hesitation or remorse because I had simply run out of hands with which to do things. Never done that before. Remarkable to see people listen.
Ended up playing cards with our hotel liaison at 3:00. Probably the first non-bussiness-related thing I’d done since Monday. Hadn’t even taken my personal laptop out of its bag all week. Probably stupid of me to start the week off by discovering Game of Thrones on Sunday…
Have a metamorph rehearsal sometime tomorrow. Not even sure when any more. Also might have had a workshop for Kabuki Christmas Carol today. Haven't had time to check.
This evening a trainee taught me how to play Korean jacks. Then she gave me a set. That was rather cool.
On Sunday I went to Sunday Lab, a seminar group in Sendagaya that’s been meeting regularly since 1999. The Very Cool Girl I met in Ishinomaki was giving a presentation on her volunteer experiences to kick off a session discussing how people in Tokyo could help in Tohoku.
The most interesting piece of information was that volunteers to the north have not deteriorated as much as I had thought—according to data from JEN, aside from a massive boom during Golden Week in May, numbers have remained relatively constant, with consistent spikes on weekends. However, opinions around the room seemed to vary as to what this meant on the ground, as some locations seem to have seen a sharp drop since the early days. It may be that the overall numbers are constant, but the distribution is tightening to a few key locations.
The second speaker was Akira Nakajima, who had volunteered after the Kobe quake in 1995, and set up charity events for both the 2004 Niigata quake and the 2010 quake in Haiti. He had a rather innovative, if unusually disconnected, idea: he created a group called Hope 100, which runs 90-minute seminars and lessons at a flat participation fee of ¥2,000, with the objective of donating 100% of fees to charity. Venues are secured for free, the presenters donate their time pro bono, and publicity is largely word-of-mouth, with anywhere from 10 to 80 people attending each event.
Every session is headed by a different volunteer instructor, with content varying from tips on business manners to learning how to dance the Soran-bushi. Starting within weeks of the quake, they’d had 42 seminars as of Sunday, with the goal of doing at least 100 in total before they call it a wrap.
After Mr. Nakajima, the next presenter was a pediatrician specializing in HIV who is now a disaster- and war-zone photojournalist. She came equipped with an assistant who took photos of her as she gave a brief speech, which was followed by a lovely video of images from Tohoku interposed with a variety of inspirational and thought-provoking messages. When I asked her if she had the video online, however, she said no—which surprised me given that it seemed to present an inspiring message that should be shared rather than hidden. Then again, I suspected that if the video were online, she would not be able to make money going around showing it at seminars and getting her own photo taken. I strategically decided not to rock the boat by inquiring about my theory.
The third presenter had set up something called HopeStay (English this time!), a homestay system for people in the Tohoku region who want to get out of the area for a while. Through an increasingly elaborate communication and coordination system, he has placed about 20 families to date, and also arranges buses once a week between the disaster zone and Tokyo.
He noted that the rules varied distinctly from one town to another: In one town, he could get bus schedule announcements on the municipal loudspeaker daily; in the next town over, they would do nothing at all.
One of the other seminar attendees was surprised by his success in placing families, noting that she had offered space in her nursing facility, and nobody at all had accepted. It seems that it really depends on when, how, and to whom you offer help, and how persistent you are about it.
The last speaker at the event described a monthly bus he had been running up to Sendai for one-day volunteering. The idea was to make the whole experience feel like fun rather than a chore: They drink, get on the bus, do volunteer work, get back on the bus, and drink on the way back.
It was a wake-up call for me to see that there are a variety of reasons for people to get involved in volunteering. I tend to forget that not everyone shares my grim-faced sense of determination. It was also good to establish right away that that bus would not be my cup of tea, though I certainly appreciate every pair of hands that goes up to help.
On Saturday I took my bike out for a spin. I decided to head a little past the end of my usual path, and had not gone a kilometer before three cows appeared on the side of the path. They were just standing there, noses attached by cords to the ground, on the side of a steep little hill leading down to a golf course. Mountain Cows. I hadn’t gotten over my surprise when I spotted twenty more of them hunkered down on the other side, as if they were prepared to storm a hilltop bunker.
I keep forgetting to bring my camera when I cycle. Last time I spotted a grouse under a bridge. The time before that I found a full-on motocross course. Most of the path is lined with golf courses, baseball diamonds, soccer fields and driving schools, and I regularly spot people flying kites, electronic planes and helicopters. But on Saturday, it hit a whole new level: I was passing by a corn field when a low-flying prop plane buzzed by me. Then another came. I followed the path until I found an light-aircraft airfield surrounded by giant hay rolls. Things you do not expect to find in your back yard. On the way back, a full-sized helicopter was turning circles on the horizon.
After two and a half hours on the road, I got home to discover that I’d neglected to put sunscreen on my arms. Ow.
The last week was a bit mad. I finally had a day off today, and it feels nothing like one.
Last Thursday I started going back to work. I’m trying to cram 30 hours into 3 days and give myself a four-day weekend so I can actually keep up with all my other work, so I’ve been starting around 7:00 in the morning so I can theoretically head home around 6:00 p.m., though it often ends up being later. It’s been a little stressful, and I haven’t found the balance yet.
I’m trying to be 100% corporate on my “on” days and 100% private when I’m off. I’ve figured out that I essentially have four jobs—AAR, Metamorphosis, FGL, and my actual paying job, between all of which I’m trying to wedge in work on Fragile Order and keeping my website alive. So you could potentially put the total as high as six.
Why am I back at work? Partly because nothing else really seemed to be materializing in my month off—though I’ll admit I hadn’t really started to look, either—and partly because I felt badly watching people struggle on my account. I’d discovered that total freedom meant that I was as likely to waste a day as use it productively, and I was hoping that having proper work three days a week would encourage me to use the remaining time more wisely. I was also (pleasantly) forced to extend my “tied to Japan” timeline by two months when I was offered the part of Bob Cratchit in TIP’s December production of A Kabuki Christmas Carol, which meant I had to think about long-term cash levels a little more seriously.
Many of the issues that led to my departure have not really changed, and while the initial round of euphoria at seeing old friends was pleasant, we’ve quickly sunk back into business as usual. I'm also dealing with some of the consequences of slinking off without telling most of my coworkers I was leaving (oops). There is a prospect for change, however.
Phew. It's been an oddly involved week. I meant to post this Wedensday, and just got it done today.
Last Saturday I joined in boxing practice at a university boxing club. Now, this isn’t quite as random as it sounds—two years ago I did a month of boxing at a boxing gym, though I never got past the point of jumping rope and throwing limp-wristed hooks at the bag.
After exhausting myself shadow-boxing and using the bag on Saturday, I was invited up to try sparring. We had padded boxing helmets, which actually do a remarkable job of reducing impact—though your nose is exposed, the surrounding pads prevent a glove from coming in all the way and smashing it into your eye sockets. We also took it easy on one another, with each hit aiming to be a tap rather than a powerful blow. Of course, given that you need to put in some speed to actually clip someone in the head, most punches registered around the level of a schoolyard “ow”.
I'd always watched boxers on TV and wondered why they looked so tired after only three minutes. Then I tried it myself and discovered that after two minutes I couldn't lift my shoulders to fend off my opponent’s gloves any more, and there was still a minute left to go. I only knew three punches and one way of starting a combo, so it was pretty obvious where I was coming from most of the time, though I did land the occasional hit. Over three rounds with three different partners, I took no less than fifteen punches in the head and face, with most being delivered by the least experienced boxer in the room, since he actually had to work to get around my pathetic defence, while the others took it easy on me.
I had taken only three punches to the face in my lifetime up to Saturday. This experience increased my tally sixfold.
My one redeeming attribute was my insistence on immediately jumping back in front of my opponent after taking a hit. It felt like an academic test—I’d learned this stuff, and I’d clearly messed up, so it was time for another shot. I’d take a hook to the ear and think, “Damn, how do I block a hook? Okay, try again.” Pow. “Nope, not like that. Okay, I hope he’ll just stop, because I have no idea.”
When I released the pressure from the boxing helmet after my last round I noticed that I had a bit of a headache. My nose tingled for the rest of the day, and I felt a bit of a twinge when moving my right cheek. My head cleared up about two days later, but it wasn’t until Wednesday that I was able to cough or laugh without feeling like someone was rapping a hammer against the inside of my chest.
Boxing uses all the muscles surrounding your upper torso, so for three days, everything from my chest to my shoulders to my back felt like it had been fused together into a slab of iron.
The aspect of the Vancouver riots that most struck me was the bystanders. I had always considered that a lack of direct involvement exculpated one from guilt, but looking at the footage of the riots, and particularly some of the raw footage, what I found more disgusting than the riots themselves was how crowds outnumbering the actual rioters many times over simply stood back and watched.
If one man jumps on a car and begins to kick in its windshield on an ordinary street, someone will stop him, yell at him, or call for help. Those who fear for their safety will simply leave the area. That is an ordinary crime. But when one man jumps on a car and one hundred people cheer, other men think it is a good idea to jump on the car and join in. When one man jumps on a car and one hundred people say nothing, they are offering that person silent consent.
You can express disapproval simply by leaving. But the presence of a bystander who does not condemn, does not intervene, and does not call for help is the presence of a silent abettor. There is no escaping culpability. Had all the bystanders simply gone home and left the “few bad apples” to do as they pleased, how long would it have taken for the police to bring an end to the riot? One hundred peaceful people between police and rioters is not an unrelated assembly—it is a barrier preventing the police from bringing the situation under control.
A sea of bystanders around a group of rioters is no different from an environmental activist chained to a tree—except in this case, the thing being protected is a group of people breaking the law. Then these same bystanders complain when the police have difficulty distinguishing between people actively doing wrong and people silently giving their consent. If you truly do not condone the actions being undertaken in your presence, you will stop them, or you will leave. I didn't see anyone preventing people in Vancouver from leaving.
Would you watch a rape? Would you watch a murder? Just because one hundred other people could stop the situation and choose not to, does it excuse you from not doing so?
Here again is the danger of silent consent—those who might otherwise intervene do not know whose side the crowd will be on. It takes a great deal of courage to be the first to stand up. You may look stupid. You may be attacked yourself. A few people in Vancouver stood up anyway.
Then a few conscientious people helped to clean up afterwards. Including Boston fans.
Then there were the cameramen—the people who justified standing back and watching because they were documenting, thus aiding in the identification of perpetrators after the fact. There are times when this is a valid action. But I cannot help but feel that some of these cameramen were simply too cowardly to get up and break something themselves, and instead enjoyed the action voyeuristically. Reading this cameraman’s response to criticism from “AirsickMoth”, I had difficulty distinguishing his own point of view from those of the people he was documenting.
Nothing flatters or justifies like a camera. Yes, cameramen were attacked. People breaking windows do not like to have their faces on the news. Yet pulling out a camera tells someone, “You are newsworthy.” It is flattery. And when you pull out a camera and film rather than raising a voice to stop what is happening when your voice or intervention could affect the situation, you are abetting the action. And yes, you may be only one voice. But you may be joined by others. You may turn the tide. You may not. But whatever the outcome, at least you did what was right.
I cannot see this as comparable to war journalism. War journalists cannot turn the tide of a battle. That is part of the deal—they are unarmed and neutral, so they are afforded protections under international law. War journalists go into areas at the threat of their lives to uncover truths and suffering that would not otherwise be seen. They expect to be in danger, and while they are afforded official protections, they cannot complain of unfairness when they are the victims of random violence—that is the expectation with which they enter the area (institutional violence is another matter). Their information can rouse public attention and bring suffering to an early end. Dahr Jamail, for example, spent months in Iraq during some of its worst periods without any official protections at all.
Taping a riot on your iPhone does not help the police resolve the situation. It helps them find people afterwards. But would it not be better to leave the area, relieve people breaking the law of your silent consent, and perhaps reduce the amount of damage that will have occurred in the first place?
Rather than documenting horrid events, would it not be better to ensure that no event occurred?
The underlying principle is akin to the controversy raised by Kevin Carter’s 1993 photo of a vulture lurking behind a starving Sudanese child. Many asked whether Carter could not have done something to help rather than merely taking a photo. And while the stark image brought attention to the plight of the Sudanese people, even here the culpability of the photographer was brought into question. Journalists do not have a universal, unquestioned right to only observe when they might intervene for the better. They are asked to use their judgement. A camera is not a carte blanche to leave your conscience at home. And today, when nearly everyone has a camera at all times, we cannot all be unrelated observers.
The girls at 37 Frames Photography have helped in Tohoku while taking some of the best photos of the area I have seen. If necessary, you can do both.
I am reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s words from his 1970 Nobel speech regarding the responsibility of art and literature:
“Who will create for mankind one system of interpretation, valid for good and evil deeds, for the unbearable and the bearable, as they are differentiated today? Who will make clear to mankind what is really heavy and intolerable and what only grazes the skin locally? Who will direct the anger to that which is most terrible and not to that which is nearer?... Propaganda, constraint, scientific proof - all are useless. But fortunately there does exist such a means in our world! That means is art. That means is literature.
“They can perform a miracle: they can overcome man's detrimental peculiarity of learning only from personal experience so that the experience of other people passes him by in vain. From man to man, as he completes his brief spell on Earth, art transfers the whole weight of an unfamiliar, lifelong experience with all its burdens, its colours, its sap of life; it recreates in the flesh an unknown experience and allows us to possess it as our own.”
Arriving in Austria at first felt no different than landing in any airport in Canada—there was a coffee shop in the terminal and even a McCafé in the middle of the arrivals lobby. The ubiquitous German didn’t faze me; it was the language my mother used on the phone while talking to my grandparents, meaning it is the language that I am most accustomed to not understanding.
The most unusual sensation when walking around Vienna was the realization that I looked like everyone else. By that I don’t mean “white people”, though there was certainly a marked lack of visible minorities—I’m fairly sure there are proportionally more visible minorities in Tokyo than there are in Austria—but rather people with a similar facial structure to my own.
People of German, Austrian and Russian heritage weren’t exactly the most welcome immigrants to North America in the early 1950s, and the handful of second-gen kids I’d encountered in Canada looked nothing like me. Vienna, however, was a whole city full of strikingly familiar-looking faces. I was even able to tell that the German soccer fans weren’t locals. (My sister, on the other hand, looked more like people in Innsbruck—though she may disagree). My only problem was that I kept refusing to act like a tourist, and instead of admitting my inability with the language, I repeatedly pulled out my five phrases of German to be greeted by responses that I couldn’t understand at all.
Contextual German was fun, though. At the train stations, I would hear a voice over the loudspeaker pleasantly announce, “Achtung, Bahnsteig vier.” Growing up with Hollywood movies, I had never heard “achtung” said calmly. More often it was followed by “Schnell! Schnell!” and a reference to something troublesome being done by a Jones.
Maybe it was the energy right before the Austria-Germany soccer match, but the city of Vienna had a great vibe to it. It was history intermingled with modernity, cathedrals on the left with gelato on the right, palaces and opera houses a few paces from stands selling pizza, kebabs and hot dogs, elaborate graffiti only a stone’s throw from centuries-old beauty. I started to wonder if it would be possible to try to live here for a few years.
When I mentioned the thought to my great aunt and uncle, they gave me a German-English dictionary and told me to get cracking.
After Salzburg it was time to swing back through Graz, spend a little more time with my great aunt and uncle, then head back to Vienna for my flight home.
My great aunt gave me a brilliant Austrian jacket. I have no idea why she had it lying around, but it even fit my freakishly long arms. It made me think I really should have bought the "waterproof and foldable" Austrian hat I'd been eyeing in the gift shop in Salzburg.
Salzburg was Mozart's birthplace and the setting of the Sound of Music, on top of which the old town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. So it has a bit of tourist value going for it. They still offer Sound of Music tours.
The trickiest thing about Innsbruck is the bikes. While bikes are given plenty of leeway all over Austria, in some parts of Innsbruck they get dedicated lanes on a secondary sidewalk between the road and the regular sidewalk. This means that you have to look both ways twice when crossing the street—once to check for cars, then again to make sure that a bike hasn't stealthed up on you while you were looking the other way. I nearly got run over by a cyclist once every few hours.
Innsbruck was stellar. We took a small prop plane into the city in the early morning, with the Alps emerging below exactly like model-train mountains, each one a different shade of vibrant green.
Travel around the city centred around Freidrich-strasse, easily identified by the Golden Roof standing at its head, which was covered in gilt copper tiles by Emperor Maximilian I in 1500.
Graz: UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, birthplace to Arnold Schwarzenegger and home to my grandfather's last surviving brother. On the way we took the train, which involved the novelty of a reserved car and the inconvenience of the very tight hallway connected to it.
Yesterday I bounded out the door like a kid on Christmas morning: It was sunny!
After 11.5 hours on a plane I am now in Vienna. The Austrian Airlines flight featured remarkably pleasant staff, typical airline food supplemented by nice rolls and Austrian wafers, and a video selection that actually, seriously, and I kid you not, included a music show hosted by David Hasselhoff. My Austrian grandfather used to urge me to get up and exercise regularly on long flights—and sure enough, after every movie there was a cute little CG fairy who showed a lazy passenger a precise sequence of exercises that could be completed in his seat. Ankle rolls, neck rolls, knee lifts…
I arrived 4:00 p.m. local time, and managed to snap 350 photos before returning to the hotel around 9:00.
I've finally finished reading the abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who spent eight years imprisoned in a forced labor camp under Stalin. I'd strongly recommend that any aspiring writer read Solzhenitsyn's nobel address, delivered in absentia in 1970. Read from Part 4 onward, where he discusses the power and responsibility of the writer.
The Gulag Archipelago is an attempt at constructing a history of forced labor camps in the Soviet Union, without any access to high-level documentation—or even access to the entirety of Solzhenitsyn's own document, as he had to separate it into several parts for fear that the whole thing might be confiscated. It is unabashedly opinionated—he refers to the men who arrested him as "bums" and has a variety of names for Stalin—but throughout the work there shines a salient philosophy.
The following was all written by 1967. Some of it knocks out the underpinning of national socialist theory. Some is remarkably pertinent today. And much of it is simply human. (Yes, there are a lot of quotes. Read only as many as might interest you.)
On Friday I headed out to a #quakebook event at the Pink Cow in Shibuya. I hadn’t really checked out the roster except that I knew that Akiko Otao, the vocal director for Once Upon A Mattress, was singing, and I’d never actually heard her sing anything herself. She went up along with Ai Yamazaki, music director and conductor from the show, who played piano accompaniment as Akiko belted out some fantastic opera-meets-show-tunes, let-me-show-you-my-infinite-vocal-range material.
Bringing along half a dozen actors ensured that Akiko and Ai had the noisiest, most outspoken and most appreciative set of fans in the room. I felt a little badly for the other performers.
Thereafter, Our Man in Abiko, founder of #quakebook, gave an interview. While my friend Ed Harrison did the layout for #quakebook, and I’ve made a point of buying both his other books, I’ve held off on buying #quakebook because I don’t like reading books on my computer. Our Man announced that #quakebook will finally be available in physical form on June 14th, and exhorted everyone to order it from a physical store so that the store might order a few copies and leave the others on the shelves. I’ll have to go find an actual bookstore that stocks English books—I’ve been living off Amazon for years.
In the meantime, the digital version of #quakebook will be available for free. This decision was apparently the result of an accidental experiment: In the first two weeks after the quake, #quakebook sold about 5000 copies online. Then they sold about another 500 in the ensuing six weeks. However, when an Amazon glitch led to the book being listed for $0, they sold 3000 copies in 12 hours. So the idea now is to use the digital version to drum up physical sales, with the physical version serving as a time capsule: Our Man has been cautious not to let people update their stories so that the book will serve as a document of initial reactions at the time.
Our Man also outlined how they got in touch with some of the celebrities involved in the book—most of which involved people noticing that certain celebrities were following and reposting tweets the #quakebook Twitter feed, then approaching them with the idea of writing, with deadlines like “three hours."
My last day at work was last Friday. Ten years ago, I left for Japan on the morning of September 11, 2001—and spent a week grounded in Winnipeg when all the planes in North America were put down. Literally the moment after I notified my boss of my intention not to renew my contract, I sat down at my desk and found out that Osama bin Laden had been killed by US forces. I suppose you can call those bookends.
So far I’ve only had one day of actual unemployment. The rest of my time has been spent doing rehearsals, props and load-in for Once Upon A Mattress, as well as helping out with aspects of the Future Global Leaders program and editing a sudden spate of material from AAR JAPAN. But that single day of nothing was a little terrifying.
Today I ended up debating silly things like, “Should I volunteer, or should I spend a day cleaning my filthy apartment so I can find stuff again?”
On the one side, how can I help others if I haven’t got my own stuff in order? On the other, what does it matter if I feel a little out or order when there are people out there doing much worse? I know the proper answer is to fasten your own oxygen mask before aiding those around you, but it’s not fun to watch the kid beside you asphyxiate, even for those few seconds.
More often than not I end up trying to do both simultaneously, and both of us end up with our oxygen masks on our ears. One day I’ll learn.
In the end, I cleaned out half of my closet and prepared information on the volunteer activities of my company’s teachers for our online magazine. I guess that’s a 50-50 solution—except, of course, I’ve still got half of my closet sitting on my floor.
69％ of the houses in Minami Sanriku-cho are gone. There are still 200,000 houses in Tohoku without water. Along with members of the police, fire department and coast guard, 25,000 members of the JSDF and US military just finished a massive three-day sweep of the Sanriku Coast. Using helicopters, ships, and divers with sonar equipment, they found 77 bodies. 15,000 people are still listed as missing
The Fukushima reactor is going in circles. I think people in Tokyo have just gotten tired of being on edge, and are returning to everyday life minus a smattering of power and bottled water. I just saw a report on how women in Tokyo are buying more comfortable shoes because less escalators and elevators are working.
They’re tugging up a massive floating deck from Shimizu to store some of the radioactive water they’re pumping out of the Fukushima reactor. When I lived in Shizuoka, I used to go to the mall where that deck was docked. It’s right beside the port where the ferry came in from the Izu Peninsula.
My local Seiyu supermarket/department store is now only open until 9:00 p.m., reduced from its customary 24 hours of operation. It’s interesting to swing by and see what’s left at 8:15 in the evening.
Yogurt and water: Gone as usual.
Veggies: Depleted or plentiful depending on where they come from.
Bananas: Oddly plentiful despite coming from the Philippines.
Cookies, alcohol, sushi: All you could possibly desire.
The surprises today were bread and cartons of juice. Right after the quake, the bread tray was empty, but nobody seemed interested in juice. Tonight the juice was wiped out, but the bread was practically overflowing. It’s like they held an exchange program.
I got to Saitama Super Arena around 8:30 today, which was a great improvement on the chilly 7:00 a.m. huddle I’d enjoyed on Friday. As I rounded the volunteer center, I was pleasantly ambushed by Takumi, who rushed out to give me a high-five. Takumi was the university-aged Volunteer Army Of One from Friday. He’d told me he wouldn’t be able to come on Monday, but it seemed that he and a few of his crew were back after all, all of them sporting two extra circles on their “Volunteer” badges. I felt a little inadequate with my singular circle, but decided I’d just have to work on catching up.
Yesterday I took advantage of my first day of Work Quarantine to go volunteering. But when I took my bike to Saitama Super Arena at about 8:20 as advised, I was greeted by a guy with a sign saying they already had enough volunteers. It seems that Japanese people get going early even to help out.
Determined to do something useful somewhere, I had three other possible stops on my list, including Tokyo City Hall in Shinjuku, where I’d seen TV reports of a warehouse full of stuff getting ready to go north. But it turned out that my first stop was more than happy to take me in, and I ended up spending the day with Second Harvest in Akihabara.
From 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. we opened, searched, sorted, re-packed and loaded dozens of boxes of face masks, canned goods, adult and children’s diapers, tissues, toothpaste, towels, and the random detritus that people think to donate in a time of crisis. The key points were to keep like items together and to ensure that nothing expired before May, as some boxes may yet end up sitting in a warehouse for a while.
Yesterday I decided that, since it would take as long to get on the slow-running trains, I'd try riding my bike to work. I've never done this before, but Google Directions gave me a distance of about 21 km, which I figured I could cover in an hour and a bit.
Part of the reasoning was my plan to bring a sleeping bag and mat to the office, and there was no way I'd get these onto a crowded train. I was supposed to have a power outage from 6:20-10:00 p.m., and given that I have an electrical combination lock on my door, I was basically going to be locked out when I got home anyway.
I put my info into Google and let it plan my route, getting printouts of the overall course and a few detailed shots of areas I wasn't clear on. Then I lost the map on the way. Following the signs and a bit of intuition, I made it in an hour and a half anyway.
It was about an hour after I arrived that discovered that at the same time the Fukushima Power Plant had been a little bit more active than usual. I felt a bit silly going out to shake off my jacket and pants despite being 200 km from the shake-things-off zone, but it made me feel better.
They added a 30 km no-fly zone around the reactor. I've lost track of what happened when exactly. Things got a lot worse, then they got a little better, then there wasn't really a lot of information. Word from officials is that levels ouside of the immediate area aren't harmful to health. But the workers are now being periodically evacuated. It's up and down.
People in Tokyo seem to be dividing into two camps about this: "You'll experience the same amount of radiation on a flight home" and "I'm getting on a flight home." Some people are digging in their heels and sticking around, doomsday prophets be damned. Some are just heading further west. A Japanese friend asked, "Why are all the foreigners leaving? The Japanese people aren't leaving."
My parents called twice to urge me to come home. I wasn't worried until they called. Then I started to worry about making them worried. It took a few hours to get my head back.
In the end, the power outage never came to my area anyway.
At 3:00 in the morning I fielded a call from a Japanese guy who had information on a person with whom we hadn't been able to make contact. Made me feel like there had been a reason for me being here after all.
He also reported that in Kamaishi, Iwate, the JSDF has phones set up, but there's a 3-hour line. You get one minute for one call. If the other side doesn't pick up, get back in line. My contact speculated that people up there probably do not know about the Fukushima reactor yet.
I got about two hours' sleep last night. My plan had been to truck it out in the office again tonight, but it's 7:20, nobody's going home, and I'm ready to crash. I just asked my boss to get me a hotel.
This morning I got in the shower, shaved, and started to put together an overnight bag for work as I didn’t expect to be making it home. Then I got a mail from a nearby friend who told me that my line, the Keihin-tohoku, was only running between five stations. So I got a day off.
The TV showed lines of people all the way to the gates of Shinjuku Station. Another station had lines outside and down the block.
The night before I’d spent some time scrambling to figure out my power cut schedule, but it all turned out to be for naught. Power in my area was supposed to go down at 9:20 this morning, as the local PA system reminded us ten minutes in advance. Then it never came. It seems that consumers reduced loads sufficiently that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) managed to pull enough power together without blackouts. Then they didn’t tell anyone about it.
I headed out on foot with my camera. The weather was lovely, and it was a good chance to walk some distances I’d only previously done on a bike. Traffic was at its normal level, but there was an edge in the air, like everyone was tightly controlling their desire to hurry. At the fresh produce shop across the street, there were big signs about uncertain delivery dates posted all over the half-closed shutters, and a line of people was being allowed in an hour earlier than usual. The local 7-11 was rationing bottles of liquid to one per person, and the counters were devoid of oden and nikuman machines—which I presume to be a power-saving effort.
My local train station was shuttered with a lonely sign out front. The grocery store nearby actually had a full supply of meat and reasonably stocked shelves, but the lines trailed through the entire store. I even discovered a shop that specializes in rice thanks to the appropriately moderate line out the front. But there were only one or two people in some of the smaller produce stands in tucked-away corners, and I bought apples, sweet potatoes, and oranges at three different locations without coming close to a line. Other convenience stores weren’t rationing, either.
My regular grocery store had emptier shelves than yesterday, the lines were longer, and even the sugary cereal was now gone. I think we’re seeing consumption of convenience—the cheap and well-known shops are being emptied, but the expensive and hard-to-find locales are left alone. Nobody has to really scrounge yet. Hopefully they never will.
My local gas stand was closed. They’ve spitballed that only 1 stand in 5 is open now due to a lack of supply and people stocking up. The remaining stands are rationing.
Little-Known Earthquake Tip: Better than getting under a table is hunkering down beside a sturdy object. Even after it's crushed, the object may still be able to brace up enough material to make a gap that will keep you alive.
With this in mind, last night I considered sleeping on the floor between my bed and couch. Then I considered that I might just be positioning myself to get my head crushed by my fridge and my legs shattered by my shelves, so I just hoped my headboard had enough rigidity to keep anything from flattening my head and made a parasol of my futon. I kept my phone close at hand and a coat beside me on the floor.
I woke up to an aftershock around 8:30, which could have been either out of Fukushima or Miyagi, then got a good shake out of Ibaraki's 6.4 quake around 10:30. Since then there's been nothing higher than a 4. As we approach dinner time, there have only been about a dozen aftershocks all day.
Around 11:00 a.m., radiation at Fukushima Dai-ichi was reported at 1200 uSv. It peaked at 1557.5 uSv at 1:52 p.m., then at 2:42 p.m. they reported that the number had dropped to 184.1 uSv. 1000 uSv is the acceptable annual exposure for an average human. At 5:00 p.m., it was reported that 50 of 200 people at a hospital had been identified with radiation exposure and had been decontaminated.
At 3:00 they reported that hydrogen was building up in the casing of the #3 reactor, which was what led to the vaporiation of the concrete housing around the #1 reactor yesterday. Getting this under control seems to rely on getting the water pumps working again.
The Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant in Miyagi also reported levels at 21 uSv at 1:50 p.m., which is higher than usual. I have now added the word "roshin" ("core") to my Japanese vocabulary.
With every new piece of news that comes in about the reactor, the question is, "How bad is that?" Each station has brought in a parade of experts who try to explain. Thankfully, they're looking for reasons why everything is fine, not for reasons to panic.
For a sense of perspective, the IAEA scale for nuclear disasters runs from 0-7, with Chernobyl at a 7 and Three Mile Island at 5. This morning they ranked Fukushima Dai-ichi as a 4.
For those who are interested, there's an American plant risk management engineer who's been doing some great analysis on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arclight
There is also an excellent Q&A here:
I'm home, but we'll get to that later. First news.
There are four massive, ten-story cubes at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Power Plant 240 km north of Tokyo. Each contains a nuclear reactor. At 3:36 p.m. today, one of the four reactors disappeared in a burst of vapour. At 7:12 p.m. the evacuation radius around the Fukushima Dai-ichi and Dai-ni Power Plants was increased from 10 km to 20 km (Dai-ni was reduced back to 10 km an hour or so later). Four people were injured in the event, and reported to be conscious.
After a few scary hours, we were updated at a news conference around 9:00: Each reactor is housed in a steel container which is surrounded with a cube of reinforced concrete. A sudden hydrogen-oxygen reaction generated a plume of steam that essentially blew off the concrete while leaving the steel intact (I couldn't quite catch what they were doing with the hydrogen and oxygen).
At 8:30 p.m. they started filling the container with sea water. Radiation levels were reported at 70.5 microSieverts, which is significantly lower than the 1015 that was announced earlier, and which is now said to have been an error. 1015 uSv is about what an average person will experience in a year.
They've cooled the Fukushima #1 reactor and turned it off. They say there's no danger to the public, but they're still evacuating up to 10 km away. However, they have decided not to expand the evacuation radius, which is a good sign. With all the northern reactors being shut down, they're anticipating blackouts and power shortages in Tokyo tonight.
In Iwate, there are 125 confirmed dead in the city of Ofunato, with 142 missing. The population of Ofunato is about 40,000. They don't seem to be updating the total figures very regularly based on the local figures. The number of dead is presently estimated at 1000 overall.
Rikuzen-takata was literally wiped flat by the tsunami. In an NHK reel, the water just smashed two-story buildings like they were cardboard. Wikipedia now described the city's "Politics," "Transportation," and "Destruction." Rikuzen-takata is located in the valley between Kesen-numa and Ofunato in Iwate Prefecture.
I'm told there's no water or power in Hitachi City, and all the batteries have been bought up. A friend in southern Ibaraki just got his power back after 23 hours, and spent the night listening to NHK on a battery-powered radio.
The most dramatic stories out of Tokyo involve stuff falling from shelves, being replaced, and then falling out again with the next aftershock. One friend walked home for several hours last night, then got up and went out for a hike today, the orignal plan being altered only by a two-hour delay.
On NHK, I saw an aerial image of a school with the following written in white on the grounds: "SOS. 1000 BLANKETS." There's an elementary/junior high school in Onagawa in Miyagi with: "SOS. Water disconnected." The NHK planes are buzzing back and forth.
For a while the aftershocks were exactly 30 minutes apart, but they've picked up again a bit, coming from Iwate, Fukushima/Ibaraki, and Niigata/Nagano. The news is telling people to just stay away from the coasts.
I'm going to try to make it home now. We'll see what's broken. And then we'll sleep and ignore it until tomorrow.
I'm still at work. JR (overland) trains in Tokyo started running around 7:00 this morning, but they're sketchy. Sections of the subway gradually came back online throughout the night. I don't feel like getting crammed in like a sardine with the 10 million people who commute into Tokyo every day, so I'm going to wait until the initial rush passes.
My biggest problems are traffic congestion and the possibility that I may have to buy new glassware when I get home. In other words, there is very little wrong in the Tokyo area. The worst I've seen are some very cracked pavement in Yokohama and a fire in an oil refinery in Chiba. The refinery fire looks bad, but it's isolated. Power and gas are out in some outlying areas, but not here.
As for the Fukushima reactor, there's no radiation leak as far as anyone knows. The reactor is about 200 km north of Tokyo. The generators for the backup cooling systems are down, and they've released air to relieve pressure on the system. The air may contain some radioactivity, and they've evacuated people within 10 km of the plant.
They're estimating the number of dead and missing at 1000+, but given that cell phones are barely working and nobody can report anything, I would expect that number to increase significantly. On a positive note, it looks like the fires in Kesen-numa are out:
I recently finished reading The Gambler. It was my last major Dostoevsky. I started with Crime and Punishment in university, then gradually waded through The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, Notes From Underground, The Double, Devils, The House of the Dead, and finally The Gambler. In time, I may get to Dostoevsky’s lesser works, but this is it for the foreseeable future. I have more than enough books to read.
I’d found Dostoevsky’s other short work, The Double, to be a masturbatory exercise in abstract noir storytelling—one of those stories that projects such naked antipathy for its protagonist that the reader can intuit from the second page that nothing good or conclusive is going to happen. With this in mind, I hadn’t had high hopes for The Gambler. However, it turned out to be a remarkably fitting cap to the Dostoevsky experience, and purely enjoyable. It was essentially proto-Dostoevsky, written in such a hurry that it became a rollicking Dumas page-turner, living on pure plot stripped of all the introspective hours of theorizing and self-doubt. In many ways, it felt like a precursor to The Idiot: Mr. Astley’s introduction on the train was almost identical to Myshkin’s; the narrator himself was Rogozhin—rather interesting considering that this work is considered quasi-autobiographical—and the woman they both love, Polina, suffers from a less dramatic incarnation of Nastasya Filippovna’s self-destructive pride.
It was refreshing to finally get a view of the ‘abroad’ from which Dostoevsky’s characters have so often recently returned. Set in Switzerland, we see at last Russians in exile, banding together simply because they are Russians, padding their ranks with other foreigners living abroad simply because they are all foreigners.
As the story progressed, I became conscious of just how familiar this narrative felt. Though separated by one and a half centuries, modern Tokyo is exactly the same: People who share nothing except their displacement, drawn together simply because they are living in a world parallel to that of the local populace.
The genius is in the metaphor of gambling. Is living in Tokyo often not gambling? Is it not a temporary adventure, something that may pay off, or may drain us down to nothing? ‘Today I am an English teacher; but tomorrow I may be something better—I am, after all, a rare commodity.’ Relationships are the same. Why be satisfied when there may be someone better?
Here I will distinguish 'Living in Tokyo' from 'Living in the Rest of Japan.' More than anywhere in this country, Tokyo really is the fabled land of gaijin opportunity.
We roll the dice and try again year after year, secretly believing that this year will be different. In The Gambler, nothing brings this home more poignantly than when Alexey Ivanovitch strikes it rich and suddenly becomes the center of everyone's attention. This is, at its heart, the gaijin experience in Tokyo: Even without striking it rich, you are the center of attention. But in the same way, it is all so easily spent on nothing.
I finished reading feeling furious with humanity. I’m not sure whether I included myself in that group. I likely felt that, despite all evidence to the contrary, somehow I knew better. Which is exactly how The Gambler concludes: As long as there is a fool's hope, the game will never end.
Last night a homeless guy approached me in Shinjuku station. Ignoring the hundreds of Japanese people in the vicinity, he made a beeline straight for me as I came to the top of the stairs. Most Japanese homeless guys don't ask for money, so this was a little unusual.
I brushed him off with a shrug. But then I figured I had a minute anyway, so I circled around and grabbed an onigiri (rice ball) at a Newdays. As I walked back, I spotted him making another beeline for the only foreigner mounting the stairs in a pack of Japanese people. I guess he'd figured out his marks.
I approached and offered him my onigiri. He shook his head and made the Japanese 'money' symbol with his thumb and forefinger, both of which were adorned with classic three-inch nail-claws. He said he wanted money for cigarettes. I said I couldn't do that, but offered the onigiri again. He refused. I walked away.
I hadn't gotten ten paces before I started to laugh aloud at the thought that I'd just been stuffed by a homeless guy.
I still have the onigiri in my fridge.
Well, after an entirely injury-free life, I just received my first non-dental stitches.
After successfully skiing and snowboarding for twenty years with nothing more than the occasional muscle or ligament issue, I finally managed to put a gash in my right calf not on the slopes, but when walking back from the après-ski bar. Note that when you see an unusually steep three-foot snowbank spiked up between the road and the sidewalk, it is often a good idea to presume that there is a sharp metal barrier concealed therein. I missed the hop, thought ‘Ow,’ and only noticed an hour later that I was putting blood on the floor of my ryokan (Japanese inn).
I actually wasn’t planning to go to the doctor until I discovered, while replacing my blood-splotched T-shirt-and-toilet-paper tourniquet with proper gauze and disinfectant the next morning, that I could put my finger right into the pen-sized wound without any sensation of pain.
I walked 40 minutes to the nearest clinic, and then, five or six stitches later, decided to kill time by wandering around Hakuba taking photos for two hours. I regretted that when the local anesthetic wore off. Getting off the bus at rest stations on the way back to Tokyo, my right leg clenched up to the flexibility of a five-iron.
At the clinic in Hakuba, the doctor's bedside patter consisted mostly of jokes about how much money he was making off all the ski injuries that day. I talked him out of writing me a shindansho (an official—and expensive—doctor’s letter), and after stitching me up he jovially asked if I wanted any antibiotics, which sounded like a trick question.
“Um… do most people get antibiotics?” I asked.
“Well, most Westerners seem to want it.”
Since when was my medical expertise a part of the prescription process? “And what would your recommendation be...?”
“You should probably get some.”
Maybe he just wanted to justify the price tag: A whopping ¥31,100 (over $300) for ten minutes’ work and a few drugs. Even the secretary seemed a little embarrassed when she showed me the bill. She explained that prices went up on a holiday, which it happened to be.
One of the other guys in the clinic had collided with a fellow snowboarder. The edge of the snowboard had sliced open his arm before breaking it into several pieces. When he learned that his patient was on holiday from Australia, the doctor advised, “You should probably go home right now.” That was after asking him if he felt like he wanted surgery at home.
Fortunately, before my mishap I’d already enjoyed a beautiful day at Tsugaiké Kōgen and another day of incessant snowfall at Iwataké, so I didn’t mind missing out on our last day at Happo Oné. Well, not too much. I was sorely tempted to go back out while the anesthetic was still working.
I just finished watching the last 7 episodes of Lost. Yes, I know I’m 6 months late. I live in Japan; it takes a while for the DVDs to come out here.
It feels very sad to say goodbye to Jack & Co. I started renting the first season years ago, likely after the second season finished up on TV, and I've been waiting with bated breath every year for the next installment to come out. The series had its ups and downs, but that only seems appropriate, as the characters had them too.
The conclusion felt a lot like Evangelion, another series that realized, as time ran out, that all of the explanations were not going to happen, and more importantly, that they didn’t actually matter. Like Eva, Lost realized that it was not about hatches and polar bears and mysterious lights, but about character relationships. The loose ends were irrelevant. In the side-shift universe, everyone found completion not only by finding love, but by finding the experiences they had shared with one another.
The ultimate message of Lost was, “Even if we could have everything we wanted, we’d still be better off if we found each other.”
The Island was in many ways a purgatory or even a chamber of hell, a nonsensical place where the rules were fixed against you and struggle led only to frustration. But the characters developed bonds that, even though they were formed in such a place, they could not throw away, even if offered total happiness. And part of why the series worked was because the viewer felt included in that bond.
All of the characters were fundamentally flawed and, more importantly, fundamentally helpless. There were no heroes. Jack, who seemed so strong at the outset despite his self-doubt, spent the last three seasons being shaved down into someone who was truly believable and pitiable in his despondence. As a doctor, had such skill, and yet he believed he could do nothing. Even Ben, who looked like he controlled everything, was left understanding nothing for the entirety of the last season. Richard, who seemed like he knew the deepest truths, ultimately knew nothing. And when Jack and Hurley finally became Jacob, they realized that Jacob knew nothing more than any of the rest of them. Nobody had power. The one real power that was aspired to, the light, was ultimately unattainable.
At its base, Lost is a show about the human condition: We are all alone, in an unfamiliar environment, desperately grasping for power and answers we can never have—and with even the answers and sources of power constantly change. In Lost, first food was power. Then guns. Then the hatch. Then knowledge. Then the light. Some were even attained. None really mattered. All we can really be sure to take away is our relationships with one another.
The finale could have been tacked onto any show—any show could do a post-mortem retrospective of all its characters. You could do it on Full House if you wanted to. You could do it on Heroes. But for the creators to have chosen to do so with this series shows how clearly they knew what their creation was about. And that is why they knew that all the niggling little answers didn’t matter. That is why the meaning of the light in the cave is left entirely vague—in fact, you can tell the writers haven’t a clue what it is, and haven’t bothered to work it out. It just represents something the characters want. That’s all you need to know. Because this was all, ultimately, about only the characters, and nothing else. And we all got to feel included in their stories. Because who couldn’t understand and relate to the overwhelming confusion of uncertainty, and the unstoppable desire to overcome it by creating a relationship with someone else?
That’s why Lost worked. And if you know what I’m talking about and haven’t seen Neon Genesis Evangelion, go rent it right now.