Tuesday, April 30, 2002

BIG AS THE SKY

As a lover of good information and manifest intelligence I abhor Japanese television, which perhaps like most television around the world is a chronically retarded mind polluter and serial mass murderer of time. In Japan (and perhaps everywhere), its deep lack of creativity and of what the ancients knew as "inspiration" is the sad reflection of a yawning lack of intelligent demand amid the vast boredom of civilized life.

As a tool, television offers great potential, viz. the internet, and info dissemination. Sadly, however, 99% of it here (and perhaps everywhere) is not watchable by anyone in quest of intelligence. To watch something worthwhile I generally just turn it off altogether. And the other media aren't any better.

The cover of a recent issue of Time magazine was "Japan's Blues." The feature story dealt with Japan as though it were alone on a bleak other planet somewhere, and as though all Japan and the Japanese have done that was worth doing is now at an end, and there is nothing ahead for them. All written by someone from a neoculture with a history of barely 200 years, regarding a culture of millennia.

I would say right off that Japan as a culture is much more in touch with spirit and place, and knows far more about time, deep time, than anyone in America, let alone some New York journalist who's been posted here pro tem on his way to somewhere else. Of course there are unhappy teenagers here. There have always been unhappy teenagers everywhere, though the condition was worsened immeasurably by mandatory educational confinement.

Back in the fifties, when I was an unhappy American teenager, I had no future to speak of. One makes one's own future, as those who are actually alive have always done regardless of their situation, choosing from among the paths that have always been. The fast lane has always taken a toll on perception, and the price will have to be paid. By EVERYONE IN THE WORLD. Simple as that. But Japan even at its lowest ebb will never be as gratuitously violent as everyday America.

The Time article shows an image of some Japanese people presumably on a train platform (one older woman in a kimono!) above a caption including the words "the grim commute to work is getting lonelier"; none of this is new or different, except that older women in kimono do not commute. Commuting, I should add, being the completely unnatural daily severance from home and family to non-home and non-family, has always been grim and lonely in whatever country in which the barbaric ritual is practiced, as in the march of Eliot's hollow men. This is not unique to Japan.

Japan thus apparently remains inscrutable to the western journalist, who lives in a hotel in Roppongi for a few months after maybe a year in the Middle East, and comments in English or French or whatever on the strange local customs here, eats at the press club, hangs out at embassy events and talks to the people he's assigned to, then writes an in-depth novel about the "real" Japan before being posted to Petrovsk.

That's typical of the news we get from the media: a third-hand subjective slant on an interpretation of a glimpse of a surface flash as seen by a career persona. But journalists have to say something, or they're out of a job, just as in Thoreau's day. Still, what Time says is happening is not at all what's happening; what's happening in Japan in one second would fill all the magazines that could ever be written, with infinity left over. News is nowhere near the truth. The grim and filthy morphine shooting galleries in New York City of a century ago, though very true, were never much in the news. One of the big drawbacks of "the news" as she is writ is that people think that's what's happening, when it's only one pixel out of a picture big as the sky.

Monday, April 29, 2002


WATCHING IT GET DARK


And Sunday night, sitting in a little chair on the big beach at the very tip of Matsunoura while Keech fished his way up and down the coastline, I did nothing but watch it get dark.

No having a beer, no talking with a friend, no swimming, no barbecueing or eating or fishing, no nothing, just sitting there watching it get dark, watching the sky and the water meet and join in one color, the nightly union that begets each tomorrow and it was splendid, being alone and un-aimed in that vast unpeopled space, not a trace of self-consciousness in sitting there, boots in the water not even fishing and who cares, one needn't do something to do nothing, and as the night came, a big cloudy hand caressed the mountains and wrapped me in the chill of fogged-over stars and rumors of a half moon like a lovely woman peeking through a doorway, and I sank into a dream of the dream of the fish and the worms as I rose into the rain and whirled through forever on a speck of dust worth all the weight of gold with eyes wide open, staring far, far into the dark.

What need of spiritual guidance, when there is the night?

Sunday, April 28, 2002

VISIT TO ENRYAKU-JI

Moving through the ancientness of the trees in the mist up on Hiei-zan (Mt. Hiei) to stand before the Shaka-do (simply, Buddha-Place), I looked up at the time-worn beauty of its orange walls and yellow-tipped eaves rising in the rain, and in the silvered light I realized that this was the way to see these things, that they are best seen in a dim light like history itself, with the rainglow of now about and beneath the eaves, the movement of the rain past the stillness imparting to the Shaka-do an aura of motive holiness that religious abstractions can only hint at.

In front there was a politely phrased sign saying that 400 years ago warlord Oda Nobunaga had burned the mountain (i.e. he was a lowlife scumbag), and this building had been transported here from Sakamoto by Hideyoshi (apparently some form of recompense). The implicit scumbag tone of the language regarding Nobunaga reminded me of all the signs I used to see in Korea at the famous places, saying that the Japanese had destroyed this, ravaged here, pillaged that etc., the Koreans in this day and age having in Japan a whole nation to malign (as do China and most of Asia); Japan has nothing to malign but its own history.

This sign in front of a Buddhist monument indicates that such animosity is at one remove actually directed toward humanity at its most depraved, more than at nationalities. For it goes without saying that such things went on long before there were "cultures." And of course the monks up here back then had their own armies and their own agenda, and were extremely militant and aggressive, which is why Nobunaga reduced it all to ashes, but nothing is mentioned of the monks, or of what the monk armies did to Kyoto in the name of enlightenment.

Later at the big hall with its blue-tipped eaves, and bamboo growing in stone boxes atop the moss, the deep understanding of things of the soul is spelled in the dance-gesture curves of the thickly cedar-shingled roof and the worn red polish of the lintels, the mist-muffled long velvety bellsound and the generous ancient doorways, the centuries of satori glowing in the grain of the lantern-darkened wood, spirit-echo shimmering in the sheen the feet have worn on the way to all they've prayed for.



Saturday, April 27, 2002

BEING LISTENED

Last Sunday at late dusk, returning from exploring up along the stream through the woods to the southeast, as I was passing through a clearing now covered with stumps of cherry oak cedar beech, in the silver-amber of the last light through the trees I heard an owl call, a large one from the sound of it, call out solitarily from the forest on the other side of the ravine, and a hundred thousand years ago I stood there, listening for that call again to the ancient in me somewhere, so far away it seems until such moments, when it leaps to the leading edge of my senses and hovers focusing there with all the power of eternity, standing me stock still, listening me...



Friday, April 26, 2002

SLICE OF LIFE

Yes, my son, seeing you stand so long in front of the bathroom mirror devoting your entire life to your hair recalls to me when I too was fifteen years of age with an entire life to give to my hair, hair a lot darker and more crowded than it is now, and stood in front of the mirror every ten minutes or so to check my DA, greased beyond the physically possible with that scented pomade whose name I've long forgotten that meant life itself to me, as did the back-pocket rat-tail comb, haven't seen one of those in decades, my then-unjaded eyes staring deeply into what I hoped was the future, trying to get a glimpse, trying to become... to become what, I'm not sure, even forty years later, but whatever it was I don't think I became it, at least I hope not, but back then I wanted to become I guess anything other than what I was, what I had; I wanted different hair, different face, different body, different personality, different life, different city, just everything different, if possible (and forty years later it's all come true, though not in one instance the way I wanted at the time), which natural adolescent hormonally molten want was only just then beginning to be exacerbated exponentially by the media explosion, and suddenly there were so many ideals to emulate, and all in commercial perfection, making it harder than ever to be a teenager because to begin with when you're a teenager you have nothing and are no one yet, you haven't really arrived, you're still forming but right at the stage when you need some kind of ideal that you used to be able to find in your family, or in your village, but suddenly how could fathers or mothers or neighbors compete with two-dimensional James Deans and Elvis Presleys all over the place? Which made for practically insurmountable self-contrast, but then you grew up and noted some years later that the guy who used to have the perfect hair was now stone bald and a lot shorter than you recall, and having trouble with his joints, and you realized that what you had was not so bad after all, and that anyway what a very, very thin slice of life is there in the mirror, especially on top. Always remember that, son.

Thursday, April 25, 2002

NOT SOUR GRAPES

Planting grapes at last, only two vines but what the hell. Book says "Prepare your grapevine bed a year in advance." Why the hell didn't it say that last year? And then the soil pH was a point too high, grapes being like blueberries in that regard, liking it oh, say 5 to 6, somewhere in there, and the actual soil was 6.9, so I do what little I can to try and fix that, coax the grapes into settling for less but things don't come that easy, grapes are not good listeners, they have their own way of doing things and I suppose that's best all around, besides it's getting dark and starting to rain, still I can't turn back now, then in the dimness I recall the book says cut the vine down to the first two viable buds. I look at the vine, what the hell does a viable bud look like at dusk, none of these look like anything but a little patch of tired brown velvet, about like I feel right now, so I just plant the vines, will cut later, when bud viability is evident at some warm spring dawn down the road. But of course that is NOT the way it is done. Cut BEFORE you plant, says the book. Five minutes' experience in growing grapes would be worth all the books on grapes in the world. But as always, five minutes' experience at grape-growing is never there when you need it. The way it's done best is to be born the sixteenth generation of a grape-growing family, and even then nothing is guaranteed. And this is not sour grapes.

Wednesday, April 24, 2002


IMMORTALITY AS A WAY OF LIFE


With all the tremendous scientific advances that have been raining down on us lately it won't be long before the men in the white coats come to ring my doorbell and offer me immortality in exchange for 50% of my lifetime earnings, which is more economical than my current health plan, but what shall I tell them, shall I say yes or no or that I need some time to think about it, time is what it's all about, they'll say.

I'll have a few questions, what about the end of the world for example, does this cover that, will I have to stay 57 forever and does this include dental work, but perhaps even more importantly, is immortality retroactive? If so, and if I choose to be, say, immortally 25, that wouldn't be much different from the immortality I recall feeling when I actually was 25, so not much gain there; on the other hand, my earnings would be much less at that age, ergo so would my immortality payments, would that be OK?

In fact, when I was 25 I was bumming around earning zilch, as we used to say, enjoying life as only the immortally hardwired ignorance of that transient age allows, but do I want to be there, innocent, footloose and penniless forever, I'd sure as hell rather not get back into that tangle with Virginia and her sister again, and all so angst-ridden-- I've mellowed quite a bit over subsequent decades, I must say-- survival and subsequence are quite nice, actually, so---no, definitely not 25.

But can I get quality subsequence out of being 57 for a thousand years, let alone forever? And what about my pension? Imagine the bill for reading glasses! Will I have this twinge forever that I get in cold weather? And what about cold weather, will there forever be cold weather? Even minimal utilities would add up to quite a sum over just the first millennium, and no doubt I'd have to keep this job, and commute forever, to pay for the kids' eternity in college...

On second thought, I think I'll just go to heaven.

Tuesday, April 23, 2002


METAPHOR


This morning while gazing at the Lake in that wondrous and silent glaze that spring dawns afford, my eyes followed a pair of ducks that flew together in a wing-to-wing dance just skimming the water surface all across the long horizon, out of the dark through the borderless blues and reds and violets and golds that were slowly braiding the rainbow of morning from the rising sun out across the dancing water, until the pair became one with the blinding light... I have never beheld a more beautiful metaphor for love.

Sunday, April 21, 2002


SWALLOWS


Every Spring, with no deeds or Japanese bureaucratic permits at all, the swallows build their nests above the doorways of houses and shops in the village, and homeowners and shopkeepers in a very pleasant spirit of community tenderness create ingeniously ad hoc structures of newspapers and magazines and plastic bags and bits of wood and cardboard and string and tape to catch the droppings, keep their doorsteps and wares clean, and soon the nests, just above head level, are home to eggs, and not long after come the tiny cheeps from bright yellow bigmouth beaks poking over the nest sides, and people-neighbors gather beneath for oohs and ahhs that lead to chats about the goings on in their own nests; and the adult swallows, of evenings after whirling the curlicues of their airy calligraphy of catching insects to feed the swelling brood, and soon having been put out of tiny house and home by the size of the kids, sit near their nests on a convenient awning rod or a telephone wire, soft little featherbundles calm even though within easy reach of shoppers and homeowners passing by beneath, and severely tempting kids to grab for them but the kids always find the wherewithal within themselves not to, for the tiny birds mean so much more where they are, sitting up there so proudly in their fine white ties and tails, about them a confidence and majesty that simply cannot be treated lightly, they are grace in every aspect; and even male teenagers, who in the itchy clutch of hormonal chaos are tempted to scare the tiny creatures very satisfyingly into flight, nevertheless never do, the swallows in return for such restraint giving the teenagers the priceless life lesson that grace, not size, is what really matters, and so the neighborhood kids are educated by the swallows in essential regards, and then one morning the adult birds take their own gawky teenagers to a nearby overhead wire, where the grownups sit like the people-parents in the park, taking what ease they can at last while cheerily prompting the kids to fidget and whir, whiffle their wings, learn to leap and flap and dive and climb and back and again and again, swooping over and over like people-kids on swings and sliding boards all day, until finally one evening the fledglings are soaring too through the summer sunsets, feeding themselves for autumn, and so the flocks both bird and folk are winged from day to day and year to year, and every village neighborhood is lifted to heights that once known are not forgotten, even in the swallow-empty airs of winter.

Friday, April 19, 2002

TOILET WARS

Building a new house can get one into strange places here in Japan, where not long ago I went to the toilet store. Having spent my formative years in America I had come to believe, in the general American way, that a toilet is, well, pretty much what a toilet always has been: a white thing with whirly water, or maybe sometimes lately it's pink or green or another color; but at bottom, it's just a toilet. Judging from what I saw at the Kyoto toilet store though, Japan does not share this view; in fact, the birthplace of karaoke appears poised to lead the world in toiletry as well. The salesman started off by showing us all the traditional toilets, but I could tell his heart wasn't really in those conventionally shaped sewage swallowers, that he had some big climactic surprise in store for us as he slowly worked us through the store, drawing us inevitably toward a prominently curtained booth in the back, the kind of curtain the new model Cadillac used to drive out of every year at the auto show, and when we were at just the right distance the curtains parted, colored lights went on and music made for Moses came out of the ceiling and up from the floor. There was some kind of object in the booth; some kind of high-tech object, reminded me of the alien hiding on the dashboard of that spaceship Sigourney thought she was all alone and safe at last in. The salesman pulled something out of his pocket and pressed it; there was a rising movement in the booth: it was the entry hatch to the Toiletship Enterprise. Beam me up, Scotty. "And if you're male..." the salesman said, and pushed again, and the lower lid of the Enterprise rose slowly and majestically into the bathroom atmosphere in readiness for Captain Kirk's call of nature; there was also a wall unit with a lot of buttons on it to run the Enterprise from, when you've just gotta boldly go where no man has gone before, and for programming the toilet action or firing on the enemy or putting up a force field while you're at it, there were buttons for so many things, and a little panel that flipped out from the side that you could program in mid-battle, and a jet spray, and drier and heater and various other anti-Klingon functions, so I asked the salesman would it get me and my crew safely back to the home planet. He was not amused. His look implied: do you want to spring for a true battle station, or get captured by the first pirate toilet that comes your way? No warp speed for us, though; all we really need is a hole in the ground. They'll never find us there.

Thursday, April 18, 2002


A SOUSA MARCH OF NATURE

This morning about 5:30 the rain came crashing down naturally hard like it does in the mountains where its among friends and so doesn't hold back like it does in the cities where it's surprised to run into buildings and is pretty much not wanted, at least in quantities that exceed the capacity of the sewer system, and so it fell without reserve into the hug of the mountain and the arms of trees and the embrace of streams and the thirsty forest earth like they hadn't seen each other for a long long while and onto our roof that just happened to be in the middle of all this vibrant camaraderie, like stepping out of a subway into a parade, and what a lift to have such a sousa march of nature on the roof in the dawn fresh from the silence of dreams...


Wednesday, April 17, 2002


BEYOND DESPISING NIXON


No doubt there are countless other forms of fun to be had at every bank in the world, because let's face it, what are banks for, if not for good times? My own bank entertainment, though, is necessarily confined to Japan, since that's where I live, so you folks in other countries, you just write your own good-time banking stories, OK?

Anyway, after receiving my annual telephone-book size package of tax forms from the internationally beloved IRS, and having to wait my turn for my accountant's services since he was busy avoiding his own US taxes, I was anticipating a lot of fun at the bank in Osaka where I had to go to get a cashier's check in US dollars as a sort of deposit in good faith on my US taxes, which ever since the despised Nixon are required even of expatriates earning no income in the US, which amounts to dual taxation on one income, and made typical sense to Nixon.

So I go to the bank in Osaka where I have an account and go downstairs to the foreign currency section and take a number, and after waiting the appropriate amount of time in that old spirit of banking joie de vivre, I finally get to a window where I ask for a cashier's check for 500 US dollars, down there in the foreign currency section of the biggest bank in Japan in a city with maybe 2% of the global GNP in the second richest country in the world and the teller says I'm sorry but WE DON'T ISSUE CHECKS IN FOREIGN CURRENCIES HERE!

I say, heel of hand pounding side of head, Excuse me, have I lost my ability to read English, doesn't that sign up there say "FOREIGN CURRENCY"? I thought so. But maybe I didn't hear you right, did you say you "DON'T ISSUE CHECKS IN FOREIGN CURRENCIES HERE," IN THE FOREIGN CURRENCY SECTION OF THE BIGGEST BANK IN JAPAN IN A CITY WITH MAYBE 2% OF THE GLOBAL GNP IN THE SECOND RICHEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD AND A DOLLAR TRADE IMBALANCE THAT HAS BEEN A SCANDAL FOR DECADES???????

She says Yes that's right. I say Well that makes a lot of sense, where's the closest place I can get a check in US dollars, Micronesia? She says Why no, you don't have to go that far, you can just go a couple of streets over, to our competitor; they issue such checks. I say, my head looking left and right over and over again to make sure I'm in the same place I was a second ago and this isn't some kind of LSD flashback, Did I hear you right are you advising me to GO TO YOUR COMPETITOR TO GET MY CHECK IN DOLLARS ?????? She says Yes, so I did, and what can I say, it was just more banking fun!

At the competitor's I take another number, it's so much fun sitting in a bank waiting, then when at last my number is up and I finally get to a window I spend about a half an hour filling out every form on the counter, fun in triplicate, then pay through the nose to get the check, which I then send to the henchmen of the thankfully late Nixon. And then as it turns out I don't have to pay any US taxes, thanks to the Nixonic maneuverings of my accountant (for a very hefty fee); this has all been just for fun; so not long after, a check for 500 dollars comes back to me from the richest country in the world, and the check is greenback green and has the Statue of Liberty on it and enough fancy lettering and engraving and things to make it the very Abraham Lincoln of cash, not to mention that it's a check from THE TREASURY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, which it says right on the top, and is endorsed by THE SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

So one day when I'm in the neighborhood of the competing bank where I'd been sent to get the original dollar check, I figure I'll have some more banking fun and cash this one so I go down there to that foreign currency section in the basement and after taking a number and going through all the usual immobility I finally get to go to a window, where say I'd like to cash this dollar check from THE TREASURY OF THE UNITED STATES into yen and the woman there, where as I say I'd gotten the original check from yen into dollars, and paid big yen for the privilege, the woman there says WE DONT CASH CHECKS IN FOREIGN CURRENCIES HERE!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I say, same heel of hand pounding same side of head, Excuse me, have I lost my ability to read English, doesn't that sign up there say "FOREIGN CURRENCY"? I thought so. But maybe I didn't hear you right, did you who gave me the original check in US dollars just say you DONT CASH CHECKS IN FOREIGN CURRENCIES HERE??????? Pushing away my eyeballs, she says That's right (like it's the most natural and obvious thing in the world, like if you owned a bank like this wouldn't you do the same thing well yes I guess so, I mean where else could we have so much fun playing lords and peasants??).

I say well if I can't cash here this check the dollars for which I originally got here, where's the nearest place I can cash it, Tierra Del Fuego?????? She says oh, no, you don't have to go that far! (They're so polite, these Japanese bank people, and no sense of irony, an essential quality in the banking business.) She says You have to GO TO OUR COMPETITORS TO CASH YOUR DOLLAR CHECK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I say Did I hear you right, are you advising me to GO TO YOUR COMPETITORS TO CASH A DOLLAR-DENOMINATED CHECK INTO YEN THAT YOU ORIGINALLY GAVE ME THE DOLLAR CHECK FOR AFTER YOUR COMPETITORS SENT ME TO YOU BECAUSE THEY COULDN'T GIVE ME A DOLLAR CHECK???????????? She says yes, so I do, I like to have as much fun as the next guy, I walk over to my bank, the one I went to way back in the first first first place, go downstairs into the foreign currency section and take a number.

When at last my number is called, I rise and shuffle up to the window, where I say I'd like to cash this dollar check from THE TREASURY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, ENDORSED BY THE SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, into yen. She says Sure. I say Did you say Sure? She says Yes, but please pay me a large amount of money first. Banking fun is expensive, I sit there thinking. She says In cash. I say Aren't you just going to take it out of the check? She laughs that kind of laugh that dukes used to laugh when emaciated serfs fell dead on their doorstep, and says no, you have to pay cash, so I pay her, and then jump feet first, you know that ecstatic banking feeling, into the fun of filling out a barrelful of the same kind of forms, only the reverse this time of all the ones I'd filled out along the way here, and when it's all done I hold out my hand for the cash from the check and she says The money will be deposited in your account in approximately one month, and I say WOW!!!!! THAT'S PRETTY FAST AFTER PAYING A LARGE AMOUNT IN CASH IN THE FOREIGN CURRENCY SECTION OF THE BIGGEST BANK IN JAPAN IN A CITY WITH MAYBE 2% OF THE GLOBAL GNP IN THE SECOND RICHEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD AND THE BIGGEST DOLLAR TRADE IMBALANCE IN HISTORY FOR A CHECK FROM THE TREASURY OF THE RICHEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD!!!!!!!!!!!!! And I haven't had that much banking fun since, though that annual ten-pound Nixon tax form should be arriving any day now.

Tuesday, April 16, 2002


THE CARP THAT LOOKED LIKE CHE GUEVARA


At least that's what my wife Echo thought, but let me backtrack a bit.

A couple of hours before we actually met the carp face to face, at first I'd thought Echo had said something in Japanese about a 'fish-faced person' and was talking about our former landlord, but when she corrected my misunderstanding, saying that she was talking about something she was reading from the local paper, and said it was a 'person-faced fish,' I got lost, visualizationally speaking. Turns out there is a famous carp in our neighborhood, at the big shrine on the road that runs along the lake, that has the big torii out in the water where the sunrise comes through into the shrine precincts in a genuinely mystical way, and when we went there to the shrine pond to meet the carp, my wife said the carp looked to her like a cross between Che Guevara and Bob Dylan, which I also found very difficult to visualize, though generally I can visualize fairly difficult things without too much trouble; in this instance I think I might have been having difficulty because a fish was involved, and I'm not used to seeking human lineaments in a fish face. Or even to think of a fish as having a face, which seems to be a commonplace concept here in Japan, where there was a carp in the news not long ago that looked like...was it George Bush? My fishface memory is not what it used to be. This makes it hard to picture a carp that looks much like anyone I know, particularly an icon. There's just some ancient brain/fish barrier that interferes. So as all the typical man-on-the-street-faced carp stared at us from the temple pond, waiting for the fish pellets they expect from the fish-feeding faces that all human visitors to this shrine have, I said to my wife are you sure you mean Che Guevara/Bob Dylan? Maybe you're thinking of Frank Zappa/Mick Jagger. Zappa as a carp is much more reasonable, even apt, given Frank's penchant for weirdness, not to mention his recent reincarnation who knows where and why not here. Hey, Frank. And as for Mick Jagger, need I say anything more. Of course Che might also fit, at least on the basis of having departed the big pond, though I doubt he would choose an utterly non-Marxist, even religious, carp to come back as, particularly in a little pond; let alone way over here in strictly unrevolutionary Japan. Though the absolute change of scene would perhaps be welcome after a life of revolution, plus there's the undeniable appeal of an extended break from Fidel. Dylan, however, is still alive, which argues against the reincarnation aspect if indeed the carp resembled Dylan at all, which I frankly could not see. Staring down into the pond, at first into the shifty eyes of another carp that I thought looked remarkably like Richard Nixon that immediately and furtively darted off into the shadows, I spotted the renowned carp lurking there in the background, understandably shy with all the paparazzi, but I didn't think it looked like Che at all, or even Dylan or Zappa; no way, because it was a dead ringer for Pete Townsend of the Who, who is still alive, which pretty much shoots down the reincarnation theory. Still, there's something mystical and even ironically religious in seeing the composer of Tommy gliding back and forth in a Shinto pond waiting for pellets from people faces. We went and bought some pellets and I fed Pete all he wanted. He deserved it, the bad press he's been having lately.

Monday, April 15, 2002

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

SEEDS

All these years of living in Japan haven't changed me in such core attributes as my mother tongue and my taste in tomatoes. Yes, it's true; mock if you will, but despite my broad-spectrum appreciation for Japanese cuisine, I have never taken to the Japanese tomato. There are certain things in life that define one, after all; if one goes wishy-washy on those just to be accommodating, then what good is allegiance? What good is history?

Anyway where was I. Oh yeah, tomatoes. Well, seeds, actually. Back when I was gardening in the USA, I could go to the seed store or look at the seed catalog and choose from half-a-dozen or more colloquially named (Latin name too) varieties of tomato, cucumber, squash, pumpkin etc.; the general American perspective to gardening, as to dining, being deep, rather than broad (wild vegetables, for example, commonly eaten in Japan, were rarely on the menu, except in maybe houses where immigrant grandparents lived; you'd see the grandparents out on public lawns and vacant lots gathering dandelion greens and mushrooms (agaricus campestris)); the Japanese perspective, in contrast, tends to be broad rather than deep: only one kind of everything, but lots and lots of everything.

To augment your wide range of wild vegetables, go into a seed store here and you see one kind of cucumber, one kind of tomato, one kind of pumpkin, with no scientific names to tell you exactly what they are since there's only one choice, and anyway everyone knows exactly what they are, except me. One thing I do know though is that the Japanese tomato is not what I think of as a 'tomato,' Americans such as my otherwise increasingly former self preferring their tomatoes large and soft and juicy and flavorful, as reflected in such grandiose US tomato variety monikers as BEEFSTEAK, BIG BOY, ULTRA GIRL, MORTGAGE LIFTER etc.

The Japanese, being on the opposite side of the world, count on their fingers starting with the pinky, make their zeros starting at the bottom, call their tomato 'tomahto' and prefer it uniformly sized, hard, rather dry, still a little green so it's crunchy, and always eat it raw. I don't think they have this variety in the US, though they do have genetically engineered tomatoes there that may one day take over the planet, and some time ago a conventionally engineered square tomato was hybrided that wouldn't roll back down the agrobusiness monstroharvester conveyor belt, and that had the taste and texture of an agrobusiness monstroharvester conveyor belt. These tomatoes were not a hit with the American public, and the widely unheralded Tomato Rebellion is now underway.

Such a thing would never happen in Japan, where there is only one tomato; rebel against that and you've got no tomato. If while visiting Japan you don't feel like eating the Japanese tomato you can play tennis with it, though there's a little point on the bottom that makes it kind of erratic on clay. If the tomato is left around too long, though, it gets so red and soft and juicy that no one wants to eat it, and then it's useless for tennis, so it's sold at incredibly cheap prices in the markets, where nobody buys it except me.

Who is that foreigner going to throw the rotten tomato at, I can feel native shoppers thinking. It seems like what this rambling journal entry is getting to be about though isn't really tomatoes, per se, or even seeds, but about what food industry people call 'mouth feel,' which is very big in Japanese dining, the other aspects of Japanese cuisination being cherry-blossom subtle, in contrast to America's Fourth of July over Grand Canyon approach (the Quarter-pounder, the Jumbo shake, the Bucket of Coke could never have been conceived in Japan), which I experience anew every time I return to the US and go to a restaurant and a meal comes that would feed my family, including in-laws.

But to get back on tangent here, another vegetable, the boomerang-shaped Japanese cucumber, though useless for sports (it can be thrown a considerable distance, but will not return), wins hands down over the standard US cucumber in terms of mouth-feel, the Japanese variety being long and thin and mythically crisp, with intangible seeds unless you let it stay on the vine too long, when it begins to resemble a small version of the standard US gargantua cuke and is considered inedible because crunch is no longer the word and the seeds can be felt in the mouth, and even I won't buy it.

But having been here for some years now, I guess it was in an expatriately atavistic mouth-feel nostalgia that I went to the seed store looking for seeds of 'real' tomatoes, in some sort of remnant American optimism believing that they might be there; I wanted Fourth of July fireworks over maybe Niagara Falls, tomato-wise; BEEFSTEAK tomatoes would be good, but of course there weren't any, there were only seeds for the tennis tomato. So I turned from thence and went to where all the good vegetable seeds can be found nowadays, wherever in the world you are: on the Net.

Found a place and ordered among other things, BEEFSTEAK tomato seeds, and when they came, planted them in flats, and soon they were 8 inches high, wondering where in the world they were; I planted as many as I could use plus a few more, and by midsummer I was BEEFSTEAKing my way to satori on what the monkeys left me. I gave the rest of the seedlings to Japanese neighbors and friends so they could learn what a real American tomato tastes like, and they said they were pretty good while still a little green, but they got soft and watery too fast.

I keep forgetting I'm on the other side of the world.

Sunday, April 14, 2002

FIRST FROG

Heard first frog on Saturday night, singing from the paddy; what a welcome sound, after so long of only the silence of snow and the whispers and howls of air being spun into wind, with sometimes the silence nailed to a tree by the screech of a crow; out of the mud, out of the darkness, how that single tiny resurrected life gave life to the night, that slow and simple and rhythmic song evoking in me a strong echo of the feeling my long-ago forebears must have felt when at least once more the god of winter had released the sun, granting one more summer to the land. How in our true and forgotten souls we long for the full depths of that ancient, natural gratitude! Not to what we think we know, or to what we've been taught to believe, but to what we are!

Saturday, April 13, 2002


WHERE THE INTREPID HERO LIVES


Up at dawn this morning, leaning over the loft railing in zombie mode as I gazed out the high upper windows at the just-rising sun piercing the dark lake with eye-watering shafts of light and silhouetting the islands that lay strewn like dark gems across the gray silk surface calm as only the dawn can be calm, the mountainside and opalescent jade mosaic of recently planted rice paddies terracing up the slope, each terrace a polished green facet of the greater light, I was suddenly foreign to this place, an old feeling, but an aspect of myself I'd thought no longer pertained; still, there it was, probably residue from the American dream I had last night; and I saw that actually this was one of those exotic places they use in magazine travel ads in the Occident, with the body of water and terracing rice paddies, or in the classic movies that take place in the far east, or in novels where the intrepid hero lives in an inscrutable culture in a house with high ceilings and ceiling fan and loft on a mountainside above a major body of water with islands on it and emerald terraced fields all around, and it is his island of tranquility, it is where he comes to unwind and plan his next operation that will save the world, it is where the exotic travel ads say (at maybe just about the level of my knees as I stood there) "Come taste the good life," and then fresh from the trip, back in the city they tell their friends in the crowded restaurant what a fantastic exotic unforgettable trip it was, beauty you wouldn't believe, and the culture, and I live here, and went downstairs to shave.

Friday, April 12, 2002


THE RATTY SNEAKERS OF HAPPINESS


Even out in countryside Japan there comes a pre-summer time in a boy's father's life that the boy's mother knows little of, when said father looks at his prepubescent son's awesomely ratty sneakers and with a tear in his eye remembers the equivalently ratty sneakers of his own boyhood when, as summer approached, a sacred desire filled the boy that filled those sneakers, for a new and racy pair thereof in which to run faster and jump farther than ever before toward the summer and the life that loomed, and so it is that the father takes his son into the big city to buy a summer-new pair of really good sneakers, maybe some white high-top Converse All Stars, like the father himself used to wear, that got so authentically dirty real quick, as he recalls, or maybe a pair of Jack whatsisnames, it was a long time ago runs through his mind as he enters the airplane-hangar-like supersneaker store and his son beelines toward the aerospacefully bioengineered ergonomico-scientific footwear touted by an eight-foot-tall black man whose cutout stands in the corner pointing at the footwear with big looklike dollar signs in his eyes and the son says this is what I want, and the father checks the price and cancels that dream of restoring a '55 Corvette; after all, the kid wants shoes endorsed by a guy who zips a knobbly rubber ball through a hoop 15-20 times on a few good nights a year and for that makes more money in a single season than the father will in his entire life, so why not give the guy the father's salary? At least maybe the son will drool with gratitude, and gratitude drool is worth its weight in gold to the suddenly unmonied father of any gimme-gimme teenager, so the father springs for it, and the son walks out of the store wearing the monetary equivalent of four top-of-the-line snow tires on each foot, and the basketball player can take an extra bimbo out for burritos down in Cancun, and the boy's mother gets to say YOU PAID HOW MUCH FOR A PAIR OF WHAT and within a month or so its ratty sneakers all over again and the father can't help but think how wonderful it is that life relentlessly supplies us with ways to make so many people happy, over and over again like this.

Thursday, April 11, 2002


MONKEYS AND ONIONS

No, that's not a recipe. Yet.

It sounds increasingly mouthwatering to me, though, compared to the way I felt in my previous ignorance, when I thought monkeys were cute.

Monkeys were those dear little furry red-faced almost human things in the photos of the snowy Japanese hotsprings in some distant wilderness somewhere, usually with a big-eyed baby monkey clinging endearingly to its mother's fur. And back then of course, distorting the whole reality picture in a major way was the fact that I wasn't growing onions.

Growing onions can do that to your monkey attitude. Because first of all it's no picnic to grow onions on what until recently was pretty much mountainside, where onions have never grown before. Second, it takes a longish time for onions to reach maturity, a time measured in almost hourly fatherly glances at the current status of the preciously swelling globes with their practically individual names as the months crawl along in onion time, making the onions themselves all the more like diamonds one has fashioned by hand.

Moreover, as is not commonly known among incipient onion growers, whose legions I joined a few years ago in grade-A ignorance, monkeys love onions. They love onions, in fact, almost as much as I've come to despise monkeys.

It was a day like any other, except the onions were slightly bigger than they'd been the day before, though they weren't yet big enough to harvest. I went off into the sunny morning to work in the city, as humans do. The monkeys yawned and looked at their watches. The leader checked his calendar, said: Zero hour. He's gone to work. The sun is shining, and there's no one home. Let's go get our onions. It's party time.

Now I know I'm the interloper here, in some idiotically rationally humanly obsessive earth-loving sense that comes straight out of Eden, 2-for-1 with the apple core. The monkeys were here first. And I don't mind paying them their vig, maybe 10, even 20 percent if they have a case (sick kids, ailing grandma etc.). But when they come and just take 50 percent and leave a mess, and then the next day come and take another 40 percent, leaving 10 percent only because they can't find it in the further mess they've made, I say it's time for monkeys and onions.

I awoke the third morning (a new day off) to the sound of trees thrashing under monkey weight enhanced by my onions. It was the dawn of the monkeys. I peered out the window as an onion-fattened female ambled solo into my garden, heading for you know what.

I ran downstairs and out the door to the deck. She stopped in amazement: what the hell are you doing home? I figuratively swear she double-checked her watch, got out her organizer and scratched her head. She looked again to see if I was real. I really threw a real rock. She took off and joined the crew in the trees across the road.

I went to my onions and began scavenging for my 10 percent. The beasts watched from the trees in increasing distress, jumping up and down and talking to their lawyers, saying HEY!! He's pulling up OUR onions!!!! They began to eat mere leaves from the trees in frustration, as monkeys should dammit do at all times, I gritted as I salvaged what was left of my own onions.

I say the onions are mine. I bought the land, I bought the seeds, I planted and tilled, what right do the monkeys have to the fruits of my labor, other than the fact that they get it every year?

Monday, April 08, 2002

Early this morning when I awoke and sleepily threw the bedroom window curtains aside, I was astonished to see that the red cedars flocking outside in the semidarkness were in fact fashioned of a kind of opaque amber glass, lit from within by a mystical candle, this inner light variegated with a shadowy shifting over the surface...infinitely finer work than the semblances by Tiffany or Lalique. I was entranced by this realization, and stood there absent with awe until dreams had fully faded and education had climbed back to its lofty place to show me that the stained glass of the cedars was in fact the rising sun dappling the trees through their wind-dancing branches-- thus does the great mother vouchsafe to us, whenever we manage to step ourselves aside a moment by whatever means, the many secret other things that can be seen with eyes.

Sunday, April 07, 2002


SEEDS OF CHANGE


Yesterday, out in the fine gold spring day tilling and planting spinach, I kept being distracted by loud poppings here and there in the sky, thinking them perhaps to be monkeys gathering and eating seeds in the trees or something, or maybe birds, or the trees themselves stretching in the warmth of spring, or...

Here and there the popping continued, catching at my ear like a mosquito, so finally I gave up and went off toward the heart of the matter, where I stood in the road near the nearest of the places whence the popping had come like some slow-motion popcorn, and... POP! POP!! I saw no monkeys, I saw no birds, I saw-- movement only, up in the trees, it was like a big slow stretching, a sudden twitch, a rush of tangle, a thrash, a solid sprinkling--

It was the wisteria pods unleashing their seeds in the warmth of the sun, the rise of the sap and the touch of the spring winds, all come together at the right moment and WHAP!! A pod would unleash, twist like a sling and shoot off its lifebullets--

Just as I was wondering how far they could travel, WHANG! one hard brown flat seed struck the metal fence near me and came to rest by my foot. I picked it up and threw it a good deal farther on, changing the universe forever.

Saturday, April 06, 2002


MEANDERING


Coming back from the local country dentist (who is a very good dentist by the way, and cares much about his patients as individuals, unlike the high-turnover blurry dentists in the assembly line at the big clinic way up in a high building in the heart of the city), I decided not to take the main and faster highway back home, but to meander a bit in search of the kind of moments one can only come upon in mid-meander, and so took the narrow winding road along the Lake.

I would thereby also get to see the old thatched-roof cottage again, where the beauty of its aged wood and the stone path to the door were discreetly revealed by elegant bamboo fences and the gracefully sloping arms of ancient red pines, and I could feel that old spirit, one of those last embers of the old Japan, like sitting close to a fading loved one, moving closer to a dying fire.

It was a beauty of a day, more like spring than early February, the Lake on my left meandering too (large bodies of water pretty much do as they wish), along the very road, elbowing in where it could its sapphire beauty. I tended to go slowly, it's impossible to meander at high speed, and anything more than an amble is a waste of meander. So I often had to pull over to allow passage of folks bizarrely in a hurry on a slow road, likely in haste as well to get through life itself.

Then I was at the turnoff for home, and hadn't seen the old cottage, so I turned around and went back. In its discreetness, the shy place sometimes evades the seeker with the mildest distraction. I looked carefully, but still couldn't find it; then I found that where it had been was now a pile of dirt and rock and torn-up moss with a caterpillar tractor beside it, all surrounded by a temporary fence.

The centuries-old red pines were gone, the moss-bordered stone pathway was gone, the thatched roof was gone, the old house was gone. I felt my throat close up, it was very like a death I was feeling, that I would never see that old house again and wonder at its history and be inspired, or admire the beauty of its building, sense the strength of its long long time right there before me now.

Likely there would be a quick new factory-made lakeside cottage going up there soon, take a couple of weeks to build, model B perhaps, maybe model D. Thus do souls starve and die, in worlds without spirit.