Friday, June 24, 2011

To Everything There is a Season

I’ve always known I’d be well suited for a rainy season. Fresh water pinballing down spring leaves, cupped by bright yellow tulips, slithering down retaining walls flecked with the sparkle of exposed, water-veneered stones. Evenings collecting cool rushes of air through open windows, sitting in the dulled glow of a sky so evenly flushed with light that every hour from morning to night could be confused for another.

What is the rainy season beyond this same world, muted and more musical? A protracted form of rainy days weathered with television and video games, tomato soup and grilled cheese (at least according to childhood memories)? It’s weather-sanctioned lethargy!

But as real rainy seasons go, this is my first. And the reality is that the above romanticism is not accurate.

We’ve relapsed into the season of sweat. Draped in the dark green of a rain jacket composed of some anti-cling, silky plastic-feeling alien-made material, I am an egg under a fluorescent light. Baking, my insides expand as a challenge to my skin to retain it all. My middle finger swells to engulf the ring around it, the seams on my shoes hold their breath. My skin is mantled with a dampness that doesn’t sweat but oozes and spreads like lava. The kanji for ‘rainy season’ in Japanese is ‘plum’ and ‘rain.’ I envision myself as a prune, insides edging on rotten, surface coated in a sweet and sticky slime. Prunes never seem to stop sweating; anything a prune has touched, you’ll know. Its gloss never fades. And I’m willing to bet that the only thing rivaling this perennial glow is my face. The TV, too. But I’ll get to that later.

The time I’ve allowed to pass between updates makes itself rather apparent in this graduation from snow to rain, freeze to sweat. And although it isn’t necessarily necessary that I draw attention to the one-month holdup, given the lineup of things to come, I’d like to relieve myself of any existing audience- (all two of you!) and self-inflicted disappointment by assuring that my unintentional respite was after all felicitous (though not much of a respite after all). See below:

Now: June.

+2 mos.: August (last month in Iiyama)

+2 mos.: October (two months into Tokyo residency)

+2 mos.: December ((potentially) last month in Japan)

So, you see, this scheme aligns perfectly with conclusions and prime update intervals. Bless this kismet!

And I really have been so very busy.

So now it is June. It is unfathomably close to leaving time. Though I don't intend to sound cold or thankless, I am thus far pleased that any feelings of penitence or fear vis-à-vis my decision to sail have yet to be observed. Predominant sensations include: moxie, great relief, pep takeover of the marrow. The idea of physically moving, on the other hand, with all of its wearying entanglements—packing, cleaning, closing accounts, saying goodbye (in writing, in speech, in hugs)—is inordinately unthinkable.

Completing these tasks in any passable way, whilst carrying on with the number of other tasks I’ve devised for myself, may propel me into despair: a different breed of despair from that which so stubbornly flaunts itself now. Maybe it won’t be so bad. My whole life, I’ve managed despite my uneconomical nature. I only hope that surrounding people have the nerve to throw me a good bash when I need one (and I mean that in both the punch and party sense).

So how did I live out the last months of hibernation? Since last I wrote, there has been work (school), of course. Then, the magazine (Axiom). Also, art (album art for a friend, my own). Still, translation (Abe and Ikezawa). Last, TV (escape).

In addition to these undertakings, there have been other obligations. These I will address in somewhat of a chronological order to give some shape to the last three months.

On March 30th, I received word that Papa’s Sister’s Husband, Mr. Nobutatsu Sekiguchi, passed away. After spending a number of months in a Red Cross hospital, providing for his family in ways of strength and hope as he lived on day after day, it was a determined breed of cancer. Japanese custom prescribes that in such circumstances, individual members of the family’s sub-families be represented at funeral proceedings; as I was the sole member of the Tsuneo Akaha family in Japan at the time, I found myself standing in for Dad at the wake, the cremation, and the funeral. Quite the cultural education.

When I arrived at the Sekiguchi house in Southern Nagano that Wednesday afternoon, the deceased Sekiguchi lay cocooned in floral blankets in a wooden box at the foot of one room, behind a cushion-decked altar, opposite a long table settled by strangers. My aunt chauffer between Nagano and Chino, Hiroko, led me through the entrance of the room and extended an arm toward the altar, suggesting I pay my respects.

My uncle Akio demonstrated how it was done: he kneels feet before the altar and scoots forward on his knees; takes a long pause to survey the face, three fingertips skating over the rounded brow, curving into the apples of his cheeks, circling the mouth; he pads at the flesh around his jowls, admiring the tranquility of that face, all creases and furrows eased, the bones cloaked under skin that seemed to gain youth from quietus; never removing his eyes, he reaches for a finger-length cotton swab which he dabs in water; torso hovering over the frame, he glosses the sealed lips and wipes away the excess pearls that collect in the seam where the lips fasten shut; returning the swab, he then positions himself on the glittering gold cushion, knees pointed at the base of the altar, bows his head; from a vase he pinches two sticks of incense and drives them into a candle flame, waving them free of fire afterwards; these stand side by side in a dish of dark grey ash; he then grips a solid metal baton, color of lead, size of a permanent marker, and strikes a shallow bowl of the same material two times; a deep ringing reels around the eardrum like a persistent q-tip; the palms of his hands press together in the rigid shape of the Washington Monument, head hung low, hardly breathing; hands separate, fingers are used to press against the ground and scoot away, imitating a duck gliding across water; he sits at the table of strangers; silence. About an hour later, he does this again, and another hour after that, too. It becomes natural.

My widowed aunt Sachiko and her children (both over thirty I can hardly call them children—my cousins), Yoshiko and Yasuyuki, have been here since this morning; Dad’s sister Aunt Chio and her daughter Akimi, too; Uncle Toshio has come in from Yokohama. More start to arrive in the late afternoon, spouses and children of children, when the skylight starts to dim. Cushions appear from everywhere and are arranged in rows on the tatami where the table previously stood. Everyone in the house, having changed into formal black attire, crowds into the room; the people at the brim are pressed up one leg or back and feet against the wall, and still there is no room inside for Aunt Chio, Akimi and Toshio who sit in the hallway with a view of a wall. Due to my being entirely useless and therefore unoccupied, I made it into the main room—an undeserved privilege I had no choice but to awkwardly accept. So went the rest of the weekend.

It is time for the wake to begin. A black-robed, contemporary looking man shuffles into the room through a door toward the front. He performs the solo altar ritual we’ve all done a few times today, then directs his attention at his audience and begins to sermonize. He has the low hanging cheeks of a basset hound that both muffle and prolong his words, delivered in a style characteristic of the Alice in Wonderland caterpillar. Trails of smoke carry his namu amida butsu chant across the room. I notice he has a red streak in his hair, like a hawk’s tail. Like he’s just morphed from his hawk form. He’s a religious man in an exotic country; he could be a hawk.

The priest talks for a long while. Despite his voice’s natural purr, his speech perks up every so often in an educating tone: this is what we will do; this is how; this is why. People don't know anymore. He reminds me of Clint Eastwood in these moments—stern and sure. Wears his hips like a holster, hand on the gun. Blinks quickly to keep the dust out of his eyes.

There is some whispering in the front of the room that continues after he calls for a moment of silence. We all bow our heads; in polar-motion, Yasuyuki’s three-foot-something daughter stands and beelines through the sliding doors. The creak of her opening a door interrupts the hush. The click of it closing. The switch of a lock. Pee. When she’s done, I see she’s timed it so our mourning silence framed it perfectly.

The ceremony is brought to an end as we all light the incense, ring the bell on our way out. The long table plus one has found itself back into the room, and is quickly obscured with trays, trenchers of food. Sushi, salad, tempura, fried meats. Bottles and bottles of beer. The priest sits at the end of the table and gets drunk. I feel dizzy but albeit intentionally sober.

When I arrive again at Sachiko’s house the next day, the room is set up as I first saw it. Nobutatsu blanketed and boxed at the foot of the room. His altar is adorned with apples. I light the incense, ring the bell, and then wait. The cremation is today, and a bus is going to come deliver us all to the crematorium. Like a field trip.

The crematorium is pristine. It’s what I would expect of a palace in an arctic seashore kingdom: sparkling bowhead-colored marble, fresh as if waxed in the deep sea like a pearl in an oyster’s bed, sturdy box-shaped rooms fit for a mammoth king. Doors built to accommodate an ocean bore. Upon entrance, we are met by the cremation director, an effeminate man with a heart-shaped face and butler raiment. White white darted gloves. They draw a line from where we stand to a wooden box on a lifted platform, positioned longwise behind the director to form a cross with his body. The box has been given a cover, a thin plank of the same light wood with a square window opening positioned over Nobutatsu’s face. The gloves slice through the air and halt before a set of automatic sliding doors, metal, and lure us into the next room of like stateliness.

The priest is inside. His usual black garments swathe his narrow frame. The guests all stand against one wall, with Nobutatsu in the middle of the room, and clasp their hands together. The priest’s namu abida butsu sinks into the marble floor. We pass around an enamel ornamented box filled with what looks like potpourri, but has no smell. The half ground material is to be pinched and sprinkled over a burning incense cone, then passed on. We continue to chant, and as we draw out the final –tsuuuu, many of the guests are crying.

In rows, we approach the box with flowers and say goodbye. The last to part are Sachiko, Yoshiko and Yasuyuki—Nobutatsu’s wife and children. They make their final offerings—crayon pictures the grandchildren drew, a flower each. With the last flower lain, the head in the coffin appears to be floating on a bed of blossoms, flourishing with pinks yellows and creams. Our dignified director secures his gloved hands on the top edge of the box and, marching, leads it toward another pair of metal doors. Yoshiko has her fingers pressed against the corners of her eyes, forming a salty bourn down her hand; in her other hand she grips her daughter Yuzu who stands backed up against her, totally still. Yasuyuki holds his daughter You in one arm and tells her to wave goodbye. Sachiko stands at the foot of the coffin, her view of it exiting into the next room obscured by the well of water in her eyes that won’t transcend her bottom lid.

The neighboring room’s automatic doors open to reveal a large metal table and metal surrounds. The wheeled apparatus holding the box is tilted, and Nobutatsu’s coffin slides onto the table. The doors slide closed behind it.

The priest says it’s hard to watch a loved one go, but lunch is waiting in another room.

At lunch, I sit next to a curious couple, fifties or sixties, relation to the deceased unknown. They mostly keep to themselves, the man drinking a beer and delivering quips at his wife from the side of his mouth. She laughs in a sort of secretive way, as if she doesn’t want anyone to know he said something funny. He flicks his hair back with his pinky and laughs back; champagne bubbles escape from his small open mouth. They hardly eat, mostly just focus their eyes on a common point on the table about halfway between them, going back and forth in this hushed jest-titter. The man sports large square glasses; the wife’s eyes are much stronger, unobstructed deep black obsidian pupils that have the feeling of sucking all the light out of the room. Her hair, in orderly layers, is streaked with colors that can only be described as salt-and-peppered. She wears a mole on her upper lip the size and color of a currant. I call them John and Yoko.

Lunch ends and we return to the room of our separation from Nobutatsu. As before, he and the gloved director are there, waiting for us. But the box is gone. Burned. His youthful skin. The bed of flowers. Crayon drawings. In the center of the room is a table, clinically metallic and angled on one end to form a sort of shallow gutter. Arranged on the table is what looks like a bunch of driftwood scraps just brought in from decades on the hot sand to lie here in clusters. At the end of the table is a tall ceramic jar with flowers painted on it. I’m not sure what kind they are. About a dozen sets of chopsticks, cumbersome in length, lie around the rim of the table.

It’s game time. We are to make pairs, explains the director. With your partner, approach the table and take a pair of chopsticks in one hand. Together, choose a piece, the larger the better (except that big piece up there, or the smaller ones lined up under it—those are off limits), and without crushing it with your strength or dropping it with your clumsiness, you must deliver it into this ceramic jar. Thus completes a turn. When your turn is over, hand your chopsticks off to the next team. We will continue in this fashion until everyone has had a turn. Thereafter, we will commence the solo round, in which individuals choose a piece of their liking and deliver it by chopstick to the ceramic jar. After everyone has a turn and/or feels satisfied with the turns s/he has taken—whichever comes first—the game is over.

There is one final component of this game I did not explain, as it seemed to have slipped the director’s mind in his initial explanation: When the situation becomes that the ceramic jar is full and cannot accept any more pieces, the director will call time-out. In this time-out period, a sincere apology will be uttered, after which the contents of the jar will succumb to the power of chopsticks, pressed and gripped firmly together to form a wider surface area for crushing. The sound that accompanies this action is of medium-pitch, similar to that which flares up between mortar and pestle; it is unsettling to most hearers, as it has the effect of chilling the innermost fluid of the ear into icy thorns that can loose themselves into the spine. Your best defense is to block it out, or if such behavior strikes you as inconsiderate, to cringe.

Though I’ve participated in every other formality, this game makes me uncomfortable, so I watch from the wall.

Halfway through the solo round comes the first maceration. The director bows with a pair of long chopsticks aligned in his right hand. He lifts his arm and the tips of both sticks make contact with the rounded bone resting on top, depressing it like a knife against the supple skin at the base of a jaw. An apology is uttered and the chopsticks lunge. They split the slab in half and clink against the base of the jar, again and again, the clinking growing softer as the mound of ashes builds to cushion the square heads. Mrs. Sekiguchi looks on with a bent hand over her mouth she repeatedly tenses and relaxes as the crushing finds more fodder for its sickening music; her shoulders heave and form two jagged points from which her blouse hangs and sways like an empty sack with nothing to give it shape or hold it in place. She’s all bones.

The director withdraws his chopsticks and uses an open hand to brush the dusty remnants into the jar. Guests resume the game until, finding us lined up against a wall, the director asks if we feel ready to move on and none of us step forward. From here on, we are spectators.

That is when the director tends to the off-limits pieces at the far end of the table. He takes one in both hands and raises it up, closer to the light, and asks us all to look. This is the katakoukotsu. He lifts his shoulder up once and drops it. Yasuyuki’s daughter gives her father’s shirt a tug and he leans over and grips her shoulder, massaging the triangular bone that juts out the back. Katakoukotsu. The director lays the piece in the jar. He takes a long, flat piece in both hands and says kyoukotsu. Yasuyuki thumps his chest twice, which makes a deep, hollow sound. The director places this piece on top of the shoulder blade. Next, he picks up a smaller piece in his thumb and pointer finger. Sekitsui. Yasuyuki prods his daughter’s spine with his knuckle. Nodobouke. This knob I have in my throat that you don’t. Hookotsu. Thumb presses against the round, flushed swell under the corner of her eye. Toukotsu. Takes her head in both hands. More toukotsu. He rubs her head in circles. She fusses to keep her hair straight.

The skull is laid like a crown atop the pile of bones. Its rounded top exceeds the top rim of the jar just slightly, but the lid is tall enough to provide it breathing room after it’s placed on. An assistant comes to join the director in loading the jar into a wooden box and then in wrapping it in a white fabric topped off with two long-tailed knots to look like an undone lily. This he presents to the oldest male heir, Yasuyuki, who holds it in both arms, against his chest.

Thus concludes the cremation.

I feel I have let this soushiki narrative go on a bit too long, so for the actual funeral, which occurred the next day:

We arrive all in black to the second story of a broad building. The priest wears opalescent white. The red streak in his hair is strikingly distinct today. The family members sit in rows of simple wood folding chairs facing the priest’s podium at the front of the room, four rows of Sekiguchis on one side, four rows of Akahas on the other. Coworkers, friends and John and Yoko sit in the general audience section facing the altar, where Nobutatsu’s ashes and picture are displayed. We read from a book with calligraphic scrawl in a chant that lasts five minutes. By the end, I am winded. The family members take turns bowing and lighting incense before the crowd. Yoshiko’s son gives a speech in which he lists a number of endearing titles he could give his grandfather—mountain-loving grandfather, always-smiling grandfather, advice-lending grandfather—which makes everyone cry. A few more speeches follow, and to close, with all the breath that remains in the room, the last namu amida butsus resound in a core-ringing hum.

Following the ceremony is a Japanese feast in a low open room downstairs. We sit in rows with the priest at a table by the wall, a pillow placed across from him so he may entertain individual visitors and accept beer offerings—no matter how he drinks, the cup must remain full. Two men take turns taking up the priest’s time. I collected a business card on the way out.

Sorede, owarimasu.

I drove back up to my Iiyama home that night, although more exhausted and dizzy than my new usual, ignoring invitations from my aunt and uncle in Nagano to stay over. I needed my bed, and I needed English. However, I didn’t want people, so I watched TV. And then, it was a weekend, so still exhausted, I watched more TV. Thus began the television-medicated malaise. But more on that later.

The following Tuesday marked the first day of the new school year. We gained a group of super-genki English-savvy adorable first graders who still have yet to let me down. It was clear they were well prepared English-wise before I could even get my hands on them, and something in their attitude (self- or Crystal/Kim-induced, no one can know) allows them to absorb and experiment with more English than most students I’ve gotten to know. It’s a sad thought, though, that the hazukashii barrier on those children was the lowest it’ll ever be, that day they first arrived here, and will only escalate with time.

Other news on the school front: (skipping forward some weeks) At the end of April, star Japanese English teacher announced, albeit privately, her pregnancy. Though elated, I was also disheartened as I watched her voice fade in classes, her shoulders sag, her spiritedness dim; pregnancy took the strength from her gut. In May, she declared she would retire—permanently or not, I’m not sure, though she’d made it known to me previously that she did not love the teaching gig—and so, we have been one strong man down. The seat next to me once so full of advice and fun and English is now vacant. Since her departure, my island of teachers has felt much more like an office and less like a room of people joined together by their mutual love of children. Making good news of this, though, it will make leaving easier.

More good news: As time runs out (a month and a half, exactly), I have finally figured out a work ethic, habits and attitude that fit the role. One might think it sad that I’ll just be leaving as I’ve gotten into the groove, but contrarily, I think the groove found its place as a result of having so little time left. A friend to whom I often carp about my burdens managed to say something that stuck with me, something that is oft repeated in the back of my mind when I’m gripping things too tightly. It was something along the lines of: go out big; or, you’ve so little time left, so make a monkey of yourself; or, be loud, be proud, be gone. It had never occurred to me that I might be wrong in taking myself so seriously, banding together only the most appropriate qualities to construct an English teacher who could be just-another-office-worker. But, how silly! I’m not here to be an office worker; I’m here to be a foreigner. That’s pretty much the only job I have—why did I fight it so doggedly? Of course, it doesn’t mean I should be rude—even though that’s likely how my friend meant it to be taken—but I shouldn’t think so much about where to hoist the fences in my personality and behavior just to fit in.

I suppose in a way it is sad that I’ve only just come to realize I’ve been doing it all wrong, but again, the circumstances—that I’m leaving soon—have allowed the new byline to make sense. If I were to use this as an opportunity to analyze myself, I might realize that this is what always happens—paring myself down to a few trademarks others might find pleasant (because as a whole I am overly self-conscious, eager to please, willing to bridle myself, convinced of my own incapacity) until an imminent change in environment inspires me to expose myself, it being my last chance—but this is hardly the place for that. My plane ride home is ten hours; I’ll think then.

In conclusion, I hope to have a fun last month and a half of school.

A quick synopsis of events I skipped over: one Saturday in April, I sat in a park in southern Nagano under burgeoning cherry blossoms to find I am not overwhelmed by their ephemeral beauty but am still very much in love with pizza. The following weekend, I exercised my social skills on a group of high schoolers in a mountain hotel where we created a puppet show and speed-drank mugi-cha through straws, despite my stalagmite and overgrown moss-coated cave throat and accompanying overhead oven. The next day, I hid Easter eggs wearing an around-the-ear mask for the first time. That night, I flipped the switch of my kotatsu on and off while I cried, thinking I would die sick and alone. The next morning, I felt better and blamed the breakdown on my 102 degree fever, rather than a fear I may or may not have of being unthought of in this wide world.

That Friday, a national holiday celebrating the birth of the Showa emperor Hirohito, I took the bus to Tokyo to retrieve my dear boy from Narita airport. Despite how much I promised myself to never meet him with marrow-jerking nervousness again, I did. Luckily the half an hour of waiting time against the wall outside of immigration allowed me to attain almost normal breaths. I don’t have the best recollection of our schedule the ten days he was here, as my usual method of date information (making kids tell me at the start of each class) was unavailable, but I can certainly summarize. A summary in a synopsis:

The Tokyo highlight reel: (pre-Iiyama) snazzy hotel Metropolitan; night out with Nakano Patrick and Tokyo Mika in Shibuya; noodles for breakfast; a third amigo, Kelly from San Francisco; burrito from a Chipotle-imitation restaurant in Azabu Juban; Shibuya all night party with male and female Japanese trend divas, friends from all over (previously mentioned plus SF-Yokohama Virginia, Kentucky-Tokyo Andrew and Tokyo Riho), and lots of noise; (post-Iiyama) discovery of foreign English village, Akasaka-Mitsuke, where we stayed; Mexican feast in Hiro-o with Kelly and Virginia; night out in Shibuya; monorail to overseas Odaiba with its Las Vegas shopping mall/vintage car showroom and robot walker museum; Thai food date night; the slow train back to Narita.

In the interim, three days in Iiyama: Golden week: Constitution Day, Greenery Day, Children’s Day; Nanohana festival bursting with yellow, selling flower-flavored treats; homemade piña coladas and (failed, I admit it) okara tofu burgers; karaoke in Nagano for Patrick’s birthday; spacey bus ride back to Tokyo.

The TV has been on a lot more since he left. I mean to be productive, I do, but things in my head seem to be misfiring. The last month and a half has been about my daily struggle to manage the self-constructed load since the infiltration of this entirely unnecessary component.

Some other stuff that’s been going on: May 14th: an encore of Alaina’s tea party; attire: pink and/or purple dress, heart- and/or checker-patterned; menu: cupcakes, cake, cookies, attendees: Iiyama foreign women + our ex-Lolita girl supervisor. Two weekends later (passed watching TV, no doubt), the 28th-29th, I visited my family in Suwa whom I hadn’t seen since the funeral activity almost two months before; there, I met my father, and together we visited Nobutatsu’s grave and ate delicious meals in Chio and Akiko’s home, including a dinner of ohagi (pounded rice caked with chestnut paste, edamame paste) which I had never had but was designed to love. May 30th-June 1st: Tony visits Iiyama; together we drink beer, watch Community, dine in Iiyama’s most scrumptious eateries, and watch the school’s two-hour long ekiden relay race; here, he is the target of many screams of kakkoiiiiiii and a girl even cries as she passes by; as I feared, he is assumed to be my boyfriend, and I am harassed by students’ slanderous declarations to which I respond by crossing my arms in front of me in an X-shape to show their postulations are batsu, or false; still, many weeks later, children ask after my tall, bearded, large-footed boyfriend; I tell them to focus their attention on the textbook. That Friday, June 3rd, I skip work for a “Leaver’s Conference” in Nagano City where the least (leavers) and most (block leaders) dedicated convene to discuss how one may best go about tying up loose ends. That night, there is a party in a bar called Mist that we have rented and been allowed to draw all over in window marker. At night, I go home and enjoy a long weekend of drawing and television.

Though little time has passed, on Wednesday the 8th of June, I board a bullet train for Tokyo to meet my dad for dinner in Shin-Okubo; joining us is the illustrious Alfred Birnbaum, translator of Japanese fictions, (former) teacher of creative writing, and (apparently) speaker of Thai, which he proves by ordering all of our food in Thai at the Thai restaurant. The next day, I dress nicer than I usually do to attend an award ceremony in Father’s honor (seems the right people took a liking to his book), and present are a number of other distinguished individuals—government officials, journalists, educators, sumo wrestlers, people with money, etc. That night, Dad and I dine with Uncle Toshio at the usual spot, an izakaya-style kushi bar in Ikebukuro owned by a college-era friend, a heavy, serious man who puts a plastic cap on his cigarettes and smokes a quarter of it before lighting the next one; his demeanor this time around, however, seems much changed, and his eyes emit a radiant altruism; he has vowed to donate 100 thousand yen on the seventh of every month for the next seven years to earthquake relief; the usual suspects, other college-era friends, are there, too. The next morning, Dad, Toshio and I travel an hour to visit Dad’s cousin whose mom has passed recently; the family we meet there are warm and generous, and we chat while sipping tea and snacking on sushi and sweet beans. We return to Tokyo in time to make it to dinner with an ex-parliament member, a well-informed gentleman with an incredibly amiable smile; the sweet wife is so sweet she forgives my (accidentally) asking her age (when I meant to ask for her hometown).

With that, we are nearly up to date. The following weekend, being last weekend, was a girls’ onsen getaway. A fifty-minute drive south of Iiyama is a town known as Shibu Onsen, where public baths line the street, and visitors drift about at all hours in robes with wooden clip-clop percussion instruments sandaled to their feet. Our onsen, Kanaguya, was built out of a dream of Escher, Dali and Norman Rockwell—tilted wooden interior with inconsistent ceiling heights, ligneous cranks, rings, planks fixed in the floor and walls, and retro fixtures, polished, smooth-corded candlestick and rotary telephones, black leather sofas. From the outside, each level was traditionally-tiered, and at night, the building was lit from beneath, fooling the midnight passersby into thinking it was floating on fire. It struck a perfect balance between tradition and character so those accustomed to contemporary conveniences could watch tv whilst feeling spirited away. Two days relaxing in hot eggy water under the protection of murky skylights and rock walls with my naked lady comrades—we bonded, yes, we bonded. All that bathing, and feasting (fifteen-plus dishes of cousin-or-more-closely related tofu and mushroom species, the whole family reunited in my belly) made me loopy, and Crystal loopy, and everyone else at least happy enough to tolerate it.

And now it is the 23rd, a Tuesday. It’s taken me a week to finish writing this. I’ve been busier at work than usual, in fitting with the improved work-situation so close to leaving time. Today’s duties included: a “find someone who” game in which students inquire as to other students’ preferences and request signatures for positive matches; a question and answer card game exercising the past participle forms of twenty English verbs, the playing style derived from the tried-and-true American “fin for everyone!” pastime Go Fish; translating a ‘Certificate of Authenticity’ awarded by NASA for our procurement of a space-traveling pumpkin seed; compulsory bi-hourly checks of leg-to-chair adhesion and linking viscosity.

The children don’t know about my departure, but the co-workers have been notified. Many of them ask why and I have no good, clear answer except, “I wonder if it just doesn’t fit…” But in writing my predecessor this morning, I said, and I think it summed up my feelings pretty well: So, why am I leaving? I found that, after all, I'm much better working alone. Now, a lot of teaching can be done solo, so technically it's not a huge issue, but as for integrating myself into the group, feeling like a member of a larger thing - my solo-work ethic plus the language barrier plus my very-much "assistant" assistant position, it just didn't feel right. I started bringing in a lot of my own projects and would do those when I wasn’t working on things for class and I guess I just felt a little guilty, like their money would be better spent on someone a little more dedicated.

I hope: the ‘someone a little more dedicated’ is her; future employers asking after my ‘teamworkability’ don’t see this.

Which I think might also account for why I’ve been overdoing the television recently. I spend seven hours sitting at a heavy, metal, sticky-plastic covered desk in a deep room of foreign bodies mostly quiet but inclined to sporadic eruptions of voice, going on about school-related crises no one needs my help with or even necessarily wants me to know about; meanwhile, I keep myself active from the waist down by fidgeting and twirling in my 30 degree under-desk space, and from the waist up by typing things to people on other computers, writing things on paper, and delivering the coffee mug up and down up and down from the desk to my mouth. It’s a lot of coffee to consume for so little activity. Then I’ve got these gigs every other hour or so, performing for children—who didn’t pay for tickets, weren’t given tickets, and mostly don’t want tickets—and the longer I occupy their view, it seems, the easier it is for them to make me into a piece of the scenery. I spend most of this tedium reciting promises to myself, to use my time productively as soon as I’m released at 4:15, because even on busy days, teaching isn’t the sort of job to immediately grant rewards or have some manifestation of your accomplishments presented forthwith. And I need rewards. Tangible rewards, proof, validation. Who made me this way—I don’t know. But it makes me feel a little guilty.

Television is perhaps, foremost, a diversion. But if you look at the impact it’s had on my life in the last couple of months, it suggests to me that it is a bit more than that. The relief I feel in my acquiescence to the king’s chair, reclining to 180 degrees; allowing myself to sit and do nothing but stare; the elation that is triggered as the first sounds of music and voices start to come through; the ravenousness with which I watch and continue to watch; the longing for characters off-screen and half-expectation to encounter them on the street. I haven’t had a dream in months, and I wonder if it’s because I don’t need them anymore, with TV.

My behavior is nothing new, really; I’ve always followed compulsions. Compulsion + exhaustion has been my way of doing for as long as I remember. I’ve always attributed it to a poor memory (which may or may not be accurate) that I’m able to get so caught up in a project that I forget there is anything else—like there’s some sort of gulf between my emotional and physical memory that the second I’m not doing something I suddenly don’t like it anymore. What I do know is that I’ve once spent three hours watching the same infomercial play over and over again, and that’s something worth chewing over.

For a better understanding, let’s examine me in a state of rest. At rest, the tape recorder goes on, playing the list of tasks I must complete. These days, it’s gotta finish that book, gotta start that picture, gotta finish that Photoshop thing, gotta write that goodbye letter, gotta clean, got write that e-mail, and so on. Perhaps eventually, I knock myself out of this hypnosis and settle on one task. Then what happens?

I go into most projects with a sense of dread. When I’m not writing I assume it’s because I don’t like it. When I don’t draw, I don’t like drawing. I loved coaching gymnastics in high school, but somehow every time I went home after work I was a kvetch about it, never wanted to go back. (Does this happen to everyone?) But if you look at me, what I’ve done, where I’ve led myself, you’ll know I have a lot of cherished hobbies. Let’s take drawing and writing. It’s likely I mentioned these things to you before, and if we’ve talked directly about it, it’s likely, too, that I’ve expressed to you my ambitions regarding these hobbies. Truth, though, is that a lot of what I might’ve said to you about my feelings regarding drawing and writing is lies; specifically, what I’ve said about it not being worth doing unless it’s perfect, or at least better than other peoples’, is lies. That I’m able to say that in the mindset I’m currently in—not drawing (for instance)—surprises me, as at this very moment, I don’t want to draw unless I can be assured, somehow, that whatever I draw will be awesome. (Those of you who’ve known me well enough to draw your own conclusions know that I’m pessimistic and self-defeatist, and so might see the flaw in this method of motivation, but.)

Once the miracle occurs and I get started, there’s no stopping me. I work in bursts, moored in one project until it’s done, or I’m done. Little can distract me, and even the most urgent matters are put on hold for the sake of finishing the project. I could probably attribute a couple of urinary tract infections to spurts of ambition when I refused the call of my bladder for hours or more. Not only do I forget to eat, but my stomach forgets that that’s what it’s for. Calls of people in the other room go unheard. Parties go unattended. And so on. I love it I love it I love it. My mom says I have a one-track mind. It’s clear that’s applicable in some cases, but if you gave me a piece of wood and said whittle, for example, I’d get distracted. Er, actually, I might enjoy that. If you gave me a bag of coins and said sort—if you gave me a truckload of corn and said shuck. Mm. These are all poor examples. Rather, it seems that anything with a goal, a terminal point, a tangible result, is worth tending to compulsively. But I might be able to entertain some conversation while counting coins or shucking corn, as opposed to the former core-interests—writing, drawing—that occupy the whole track.

More on the compulsion bit. Let’s say I have just returned home from work. I have yanked my shoes off, discarded my luggage where there’s space. I sit down. Nature prescribes that what I do, if there is an end point, I will continue to do. So, sitting alone won’t be enough, because I could sit forever, without having anything to show for it. But I am tired, you see, from the heat, from the Japanese, from the inspiring children all day, so I have to sit a little bit. But I must do something, right, I can’t just sit with nothing to show for it. I could draw while I sit, or write while I sit, but there are problems with this, you see: A. My eyes are just coming off of hours of computer time, as the last half of the day is spent hands to keys, at least usually; B. As I admitted previously, I only like drawing once I’ve started, and writing is the same; and, C. I anticipate distraction, because I have to eat dinner sometime soon, so I can’t start on too ambitious a project—and unless I’d started on something previously that’s shaping into something with a foreseeable conclusion, everything is too ambitious. This narrows my options to something: not too computer-intimate, easy to ease into, and quickly surmountable. I lean back. I press start. I am engrossed for twenty minute (in the case of Modern Family) or forty-five minute (Gossip Girl, True Blood, Castle, Ugly Betty) intervals. Easy peasy.

But the thing with TV is that these shows come with these stories, these grandiose plots built to be at once episode-long, but also season-long, and seasons-long. So you see, there is possibility for both one-episode and multi-episode fulfillment. Such great potential for development and denouement in television. So I got into it for that, it seems. The convenience is unmatchable. I could fulfill my hunger for action without having to risk anything. It tended to some other paucities, too, like not having many people available to develop stories with. (There’s a bit of loneliness-therapy involved here, sure.) Things on television culminate into such beautiful ends; the ends have lasting effects. All in forty-five minutes or less!

I’m not condoning my attitude, but the truth being what it is, that I’m result-oriented, it’s no wonder why I find such clear-cut actions and consequences so satisfying. Take a look at my life (in chart form).

Act: I spend a year on a short story.

Result: I win an award and get 500 dollars.

Money spent, name forgotten.

TV: Scenes of Dan Humphrey at a typewriter interwoven with him mentoring his father, chasing around (and winning, sometimes) pretty rich girl Serena. He has a poem and short story published in The New Yorker, with a book on the verge of being picked up.

Act: I read three books a month and write about it.

Result: The reviews appear online and in print for Axiom Magazine.

One review garners one comment, from my father.

TV: Scenes of Betty Suarez at her laptop spliced with her wearing silly outfits, getting made fun of, mentoring Daniel. She is recruited by a new magazine, “the younger person’s version of The New Yorker,” in London.

Act: I am dizzy and so go see a neurologist.

Result: He gives me a personal call and harasses me when I don’t want personal.

I check my caller ID more closely, and look over my shoulder sometimes.

TV: Rick Castle follows Beckett around as his muse and writes a book about her, which inspires a murderer to instigate a triple (or was it quadruple?) murder in her honor, and to set off a bomb in her house. Castle comes to the rescue, running through the smoke, to retrieve her from the bathtub she has leapt into for safety, out of true love.

Act: I go jogging.

Result: I am the victim of many bites.

I itch.

TV: Bill Compton bites Jessica. She is now immortal and has very sharp teeth.

This has gone on long enough. Dinner draws me away. Long story short, life is hard, establishing yourself is hard, getting stuff done is hard. But somehow I just wrote 13 pages.

Quick summing up: two months left before I touch down in California after a year. On my table: house chores and various other departure-related preparations. August and September Axiom book reviews. Proofreading. Drawing. Completion of album cover art for Go West Young Man. Job searching. Goodbyes and gift-giving entanglements. The season four premier of True Blood. The rest of Modern Family. TV weaning. Lots of showers. Maybe a tan. Yeah, a tan.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Spins

On very little sleep I pound my fingers. Words come out, accompanied by very little thought. As promised, here we have an update in the month following the last by two. I had expected, and anticipated with some excitement, a thorough discussion with you on my life’s progress—recent accomplishments, projects I have undertaken, finalization of decisions (and if you are interested, I’ve included an overview of these advancements toward the end for the purposes of, a. obviously, informing my public, b. establishing a sense of continuation from the last post, and c. post-referencing my responsibilities when I forget)—but it suddenly feels as if the work I’ve been doing to fortify my future is, in the broad scope of things, futile, and ultimately selfish. This viewpoint is bound to change, tone will resume normalcy, assuming things blow over, and not in a westerly direction.

I am certain that everyone reading has by now been able to guess what prompted this shift in perspective. It is possible, though, that you are something like me, in which case you still don’t fathom the effects of recent events enough to know to attribute uncharacteristic behavior to them. For you calloused few, let me break it down for you.

Friday, March 11th. Sometime around 3pm in Iiyama, Nagano. Me, alone, in the teacher’s room. Prone to dizzy spells, I caught my head in my hands at the feeling of my brain, shrunken, floating to the top of my skull. My widened eyes sought to swallow the earthy green of my desk. This usual procedure failing me, I looked up to everything buzzing. As miserable a feeling as these spells can be, this prolonged instance had a far more disorienting sway.

Expecting it to pass, I waited, watching the spiraled power cords flex and wave from the ceiling as easily as dandelions in the wind. The shake continued long enough for me to tire of the cords, which is when I thought it might be best to take cover. The old drop-cover-n’-hold on.

Still on the high speed productivity train at that point, I worried what would become of my computer if something fell on it, so I slowly disconnected its cords, shut the body, and led it to a safe place, under my desk. Almost immediately, I felt the nothing-is-ever-dire sensibility nagging at me to get back up, so I did, and looking to see if anyone had seen me cower (no one), computer gently cradled under my arm, I walked to the doorway of the teacher’s room.

Beyond stood two teachers who continued to wonder, “nagaaaaai. yureeeee. nagaaaaai.” While comforted by their acknowledgement of the loooong shaaaake, I still couldn’t help but be alarmed by their composure. It’s not in my nature to take anything too seriously, and I build upon this sangfroid by impressing it upon my paranoid neighbors. With no external anxiety to quell, I found it welling up in me with nowhere to go.

After what felt, realistically, like three minutes, the earth finally stopped moving. I returned to my desk and a teacher, following behind, turned on the television. A newsman clarified what had just taken hold of our school as a magnitude 8.7 earthquake off the northeastern coast of Japan, with anticipation of a tsunami to follow.

With graduation around the bend, the teachers returned to work. Still dizzy, I sat dazedly with my hands clasped around my coffee mug, absorbing its warmth. Slowly, the teachers who had been scattered around the school started finding their ways to their desks. The English teachers who sit behind me separately tapped my shoulders and asked if I was okay, because earthquakes are scary things. Yes, I said, I’m fine, we have earthquakes in California, too.

Equilibrium regained, I sipped at my coffee, which was now cold. I looked toward the water boilers on the snack table and halfway there stopped at the TV. The camera was focused on a group of thirty some people standing on the roof of what looked like a parking structure, broad, flat, and sunken in on top to accommodate gatherings such as this. Its color was an unattractive beige, and the people in the frame weren’t doing much besides milling about. An odd image for a live broadcast.

The next shot was of a village town. The camera was hovering somewhere high above some large, square green and brown patches. Fields. Pan left, and from the top left corner of the screen, some darkness started to show, and the camera followed it coming down like a curtain at the end of a show. One smooth, impressive drop. It never slowed to pull the buildings down; it was as if everything standing before that wave was a bunch of hands yanking it closed, fighting a rusty hook on the rod, and rather than slow down it seemed to continue picking up speed.

Cut to a parking lot, a dam, a river. Another wave, this one clean of field debris—fresh, perhaps—enters from the left and nudges the cars parked perpendicularly. Sugoooi, says the teacher from the hallway, now blocking a corner of the television. Another teacher who took me aside one morning to explain, and draw (quite well), an inoshishi on the back of an envelope to impart the news: ‘wild boars have come,’ in like fashion pointed to the screen and said to me, “Ootsunami.” Soon thereafter, the big tsunami ably lifted those parked cars, carried them over the wall of the dam, and tossed them into the river, where they bobbed alongside boats and roofs of houses. At this point the familiar image of a Japanese man, cigarette in mouth, texting on his cell phone in the driver’s seat of his parked car crossed my mind, and I hoped that no one had chosen to engage in that peculiar hobby just then.

The next comment I heard came from a history teacher who struck me with, This one’s stronger than the Edo. In so much Japanese literature I have read, in classes and on my own, I have read about that quake. Namely, I have read about how the near one hundred thousand deaths, countless destroyed homes, temples, roads, and gloomy years following were brought on by a sort of God-wrought apocalypse. The sorts of gods differed between writers who never discounted the likelihood of karmic retribution being at play, but the popular opinion was to blame Namazu, the catfish in the glass tank under Japan. This stuff of folk fancy, Amaterasu era who-let-the-cat-out? Nothing so supernaturally fatal could besiege us now, in our modern godless world – is what I thought.

To an extent, I was right. Thanks to the people who lived above those fishes that knocked into the glass on which our fair Japan stood, the people who decided to build our houses out of some amalgam of rubber and paper, many structures that would have, in the 1880s, burned, crumbled, crumpled to the ground, still stand. What god is thrusting water at these structures and successfully wiping them down, though, no one knows enough to prevent against. And that’s scarier than any angry god I have heard of.

In every shot, water continued to rise, thick with earth, buildings, metal scraps. Amidst it all, I never met the image of a person who seemed in trouble, and in my mind, the worst off might be left without homes, without their cars, but how lucky to not have been swept away! And all of us here, in the teacher’s room, seemed to be thinking the same thing, many back to work, making plans for the long-awaited graduation day. I split my time between the TV and narrating what I saw on television with some nocturnal friends in California who, like me, weren’t sure what to make of it all.

By now the students were all gathered in the gymnasium. A few teachers were monitoring them, calming them down, explaining the situation—or something; I can’t say what they were doing, as I hadn’t gone to see—and some had been called to duty personally seeing students to their homes. All without special tasks were in the teacher’s room, fastened to their seats. I watched the television.

The Sendai Airport, oddly absent of cars, planes, and of people, was difficult to recognize for what it was; the runways were black and stripped of their stripes and not a light could be seen. A few kilometers over, on the coast, the camera followed a wave that couldn’t be entirely captured by any angle. As it continued toward the shore, a frothy white strip formed in the center, seemingly rabid. How far would this one reach, we all wondered. Luckily, it seemed to halt itself as it hit land, mingling with the foam settled there then quietly receding.

Return to shots of bobbing cars, somewhere in Miyagi. Convinced from the backpedaling wave that nothing worse was to come, I turned to the teacher next to me, who was peculiarly engrossed in her cell phone. Thinking to make light of this event, I gave her a stern look and said “yo no owari da,” then mechanically pivoted my head back toward the television. I heard other teachers exclaim things like, “eiga mitai naa,” which it did, especially like that terrible moving picture commentary on global warming, The Day After Tomorrow, but no one had made such an absurd comment as the world is ending. Only I would do that.

Some minutes later, I hear a shriek from my neighbor. She is waving her cell phone in the air and exclaiming, yokatta, yokatta! This is alarming, and probably significant, being that this woman is otherwise very quiet. Other teachers likewise perceived this yelp as significant and asked what was up. And this woman, to whom I had just proclaimed it was the end of the world, explained that her daughter lived in Sendai, but had, on a whim, taken a vacation to Gifu. Sasuga Mitzi, I thought. Stop your antics!

4:15, when the hands are open but a sliver on the clock, usually provides me with such relief. That’s not to say I’m always keen to end my school day as soon as I’m allowed, but the freedom to stay or go does allow me an extra breath. Today, I saw 4:15 and prayed the teachers wouldn’t mind if I stayed around longer, watched the news with company. While the images never became more settling, I felt safer watching, as if by understanding I could quiet it down. There was also some disquiet in my own world, looking out the windows to an image of snow covering the sky like vanilla frosting. I didn’t look forward to scraping the slather off of my car.

Meanwhile, some friends at home, continuing to push back their bedtimes, were contributing to an influx of check-ups and questions and updates in the form of articles and videos (as if I needed to see more), and then, of their own tsunami warnings. I thought of my brother in Hawaii who seemed at the next greatest risk, but as usual, he was way ahead of me and had already done the work of confirming his safety. People along the coast of California, namely Monterey and San Francisco, had been alerted as well, for something to arrive around 8 in the morning. With alarms now sounding in over fifty countries, all as a reaction to the same great marine power, it was difficult to clear my head of that phrase, yo no owari, because, you know. You never know.

Of course, though, I never actually thought it was the end of the world. The tsunami came in at 7 feet or so on Maui and knocked some boats around in Santa Cruz. We all felt a little silly. Following yesterday’s logic, though, and my realization that it doesn’t necessarily take a god to lift an ocean—well, we just don’t know.

Around 4am the evening/morning after the now-registered-at-8.9 that set everything off, I was jolted awake. Bed still shaking, I pulled my covers off and not knowing what to do stood myself up in the doorway between my bedroom and living room. The quaking stopped soon afterwards and I again felt silly for acting so hastily—as if we were in any real danger. I got back in bed, heart beating intensely enough it made my whole bed vibrate.

As I went to close my eyes, I received a text message from Crystal asking if I was okay. I sent back a reply saying yes, all clear, and then was called by one of my JET prefectural advisors, Erin, who was tasked with making sure everyone was okay, which I assured her I was. It seemed that Niigata prefecture to the north and my own Nagano volunteered to bear some of the pressure put upon the original line of epicenters by hosting its own 6.7 on the border between us. Before hanging up, Erin advised that I have an emergency evacuation bag prepared, which I certainly had not considered. What a ludicrous idea.

I put my head back on my pillow. I closed my eyes. I felt the earth take in a large breath of air and my sliding doors began to tremble. Expecting it to break out in another large hiccup, I threw my covers back and passed the time in the doorway. It cleared and again I felt foolish. I went back to bed. I strained the tiny useless muscles around my eyes and felt my pupils stretch. Was the pull cord wavering? My eyes must have been by now entirely black and still I could see nothing. My face was tired. I let it rest. The earthquakes were probably at their end. I was the fool for keeping myself alert for something that had itself gone to bed. I pulled my blanket over my head and formed a ball.

Under the blanket, I could keep my eyes open but have blackness as if they were closed. Or, it’s possible they were actually closed. Either way, I was awake, and when the next shake came a few minutes later, I sprang into action. These aftershocks were diminishing in strength, however, and I was now keeping myself up and scrambling out of for something that could, at the worst, cock some hanging picture frames. And then, I started to annoy myself. This inordinate fear that kept me from sleep and frustration toward the earthquakes for the inconvenient way they carried on—inconsistently constant, after dark—but knowing my head wouldn’t rest, my heart wouldn’t stop drumming, I unzipped a bag and stuffed it with sweatpants and underwear. All the while I had maintained a text message conversation with Crystal and thinking it might be easier to just hop on the computer, I situated myself at my kotatsu and turned on the television.

I was surprised to see the internet world as active as it would be on a normal afternoon. Almost all of Nagano prefecture was online and checking up on each other. I was especially happy to see my parents online and they kept me good company as I vacillated between levels of foreboding and calm and occasional shock into no-feeling as the earth pulled up more gas from the depths of itself in preparation for another rumble.

The television was on and continued to alert us of more earthquakes in Nagano. Although they were never able to predict them before they came, still, the harsh beep followed by epicenter and magnitude were nice to see. It had become difficult to distinguish earthquakes from somnolence from nerves.

My parents insisted that the most I could do was prepare myself for the worst-case scenario, which they described as possible evacuation, but most likely precautionary shutting off of gas and water by the city. Make sure you have water, they said. And at the suggestion of my dad, which I had laughed at when suggested to me earlier (sorry), I filled my bathtub with water. Pack a bag, they said. I did! I replied. They were disappointed to hear how poorly I had done with it. What will you eat? Good point, I said. I hadn’t taken it seriously. I went to the kitchen and grabbed a few Clif Bars to stave off evacuee hunger. Make sure nothing can fall on you, they said. I took a quick look around at my bare apartment and assured them that had been taken care of. Convinced I had done enough to prepare myself against these quivers–that might develop into (my) house-splitting tremors, you never know!—I shut my computer and turned the television volume down.

Around 6 am, I got back in bed. Soft swaying continued, reminiscent of the cradle-rocking of a ship, with faint beeps wafting in from the television. I slept until 9 or so the next morning and felt rested. The Iiyama girls met for udon that afternoon to relate our earthquake stories. This bled into an evening of movies and Girl Scout cookies at my house. Time passed quickly, happily, and as far as we could tell, without earthquakes. Though a sleepover had been discussed, it seemed we all felt comfortable retiring to our respective homes to get some good hard sleep.

Soon after the girls left, and I sat alone with my computer in front of me, TV on the side, my chair started to wobble. And soon after that stopped, it started again. This continued until I eventually fell asleep, and then until I woke up to find myself quailing in the doorframe and eventually slept again, and so on. The next morning, still more, and on the local news, images of Nozawa Onsen, the village up the hill, and of Sakaemura, a town fifteen kilometers north, restaurants, houses, roads town apart, railroad tracks left suspended where the earth had simply disappeared, people who had sought shelter in a number of refuges whether their emergency bags had been packed or not. I put another handful of Clif Bars in my bag.

I continued to waver between cool security and paralyzing concern for the next week. My ears had taken to ringing and I felt more often dizzy than upright. As long as I was at home, my television was on, more or less telling me how to feel. There would be blissful moments when I was among friends and engaged in some absurdly trivial activity—puzzle making, movie watching, milkshaking—when I wouldn’t notice how disjointed I felt, and I was able to live in a world where everyone was off enjoying their own lives in the same way, rather than the inverse. Then I would come home and in a silent moment suddenly feel guilty for having enjoyed myself, things being as dismal as they are for so many. But then, I would just get tired, and nothing at all would come through. My head had been carved hollow to house a dead tree, a twist of darkened branches from with nothing sprouts.

As for a remedy, I assumed I needed sleep most. I don’t recall anything strong enough to call me out of bed in the middle of the night, nor was I kept up terribly long feeling the end was near, so it seemed the sleep I needed came. More relaxed temperament in waking hours, maybe? I had become especially astute when it came to recognizing sounds that imitated earthquake sounds—upstairs neighbors sliding doors, days’ feet of snow sliding off the roof, trucks driving by, and with every small rodent quick twist of the head in the direction of the sounds I had to remind myself all over again that, earthquake or not, I was in no real danger. In all of this, I noticed that I was, as a person, dissolving.

Of course, by now, news of the nuclear agitation had spread and caused great disturbance of the peace, some concerned to the extent of fleeing, others obdurately protesting the whole of media as nothing more than useless hyperbole. And I, wavering as it seems I do in adverse times, both followed the hype and was convinced of my security. I was being bombarded by news in English, Japanese, Japanese translated into English, blogs, Facebook Notes, news articles, YouTube videos, government press releases, something-my-dad-said, something-I-heard-somewhere; no one has time to read everything, no matter how dire a situation, and the pure mass of it all was enough to work the most apathetic person into a great frenzy. For days, strangers, friends, and even I were all taking part in this great argument over the reality of our condition, one we all knew was in vain but wished might convince us of some truth were someone else to believe this thing I heard somewhere. And with the great cost of these arguments, our wellbeing, our lives, it was impossible to rest until we had answers, and so a simple question about trains or work or milk resulted in people genuinely hurt and afraid. Me, for one. No one really knew anything, and that was the problem.

My parents, too, the concerned caretakers they are, contributed to this information inundation, and it seemed were swept away themselves. On my last day of classes—Wednesday, it was—my father said, rather abruptly, you’re coming home. Little choice, just, there is no solution but for you to come home. And the question of what to do with my things, and should we contact my aunt, and how expensive might plane tickets be— I was suddenly terrified to be where I was. In this office that might collapse at any moment, breathing air that buzzed with radiation, returning to an apartment that could that easily not be mine anymore. It may have been hunger, considering what time it was, or exhaustion, given how poorly I’d been sleeping, but my body started to tremble, my stomach heaved in and out, and I began to cry with the crass force of a child. While I didn’t care for those minutes who was there, from where I am now, I am very thankful to have passed that time totally alone. [Why I tell you now, well, I don’t know, but it feels a bit like one of those look-how-far-she’s-come! tv specials, so let’s go with that.]

After eating lunch with a group of second graders, I had greatly regained some control of my body and set about testing my father’s statements. I didn’t know the truth, sure, but what I felt I could be sure of at that point was that no one knew what the hell was going on, and I had a job here like anyone else, and were I to leave now it seemed doubtful I would make it back, and that was unacceptable. Dad calmed down. Mom consistently supported me with I love yous and miss yous and what-your-dad-saids. And once I was able to convince them to calm down, I had successfully convinced myself it was okay to do so, too.

Still underslept, and additionally tired from the hour of panic on the previous day, I went to school on Thursday in a suit to say goodbye to our graduating third graders. Many teachers were in tears and our school song was sung with exceptional emotion, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was, early on, at a funeral, and later, like I was watching everything from a really loud and far-away helicopter. Not to say I’m usually the most sentimental human being, because, clearly, I’m not, but when I am sensitive to my own detachment – it’s a new level of dazed. Friday was a work enkai with goodbye speeches for thirteen transferring teachers, too much food, and way, way too much Japanese language. Where I would generally continue to a nijikai, I said thanks but returned home instead to drink a beer and be nice to my boyfriend for the first time in a week.

Now it is Tuesday. Still, people are unsure as to what the next move is. Many foreign residents, including friends from Nagano, have returned home indefinitely, though we seem mostly undisturbed here. People have been saying with certainty that harmful radiation cannot penetrate the 50 km circle they drew around the Fukushima power plant. Given that the situation continues to change, most recent news being grey smoke escaping the No. 3 reactor, I ask how one can be so certain. Food is in question, and while many say increased levels of radiation in food will have harmful effects only after consuming entire fields of it, if I can help it, I would like to save my thyroid. Earthquakes, too, they still visit occasionally. Yesterday afternoon, as I was writing the bulk of this from a prostrate position under my kotatsu, in fact, there was a 3 in Sakaemura that I felt through my whole body.

As for my general well-being, I’ve been getting more sleep and have stepped down from my fatalistic ledge. I can’t shake this dizziness, though, which is difficult to describe, but feels a bit like my eyes are attached to cords are attached to/being tugged on by my brain, which is desiccated and further dried out with helium that streams through and thrusts it against the top of my skull. It’s been difficult to get myself focused on anything—I’ve been working on this post for a week—but luckily the next two weeks of work, being ‘spring break (for students only)’ will provide me with both mental downtime and opportunities to raise productivity, whichever it is I feel capable of on a given day.

Here, you see, it did not take long for me to revert into egocentricity. I have had so many people asking about me and concerned about Japan for the last week I had forgotten the rest of the world moved. But from where I am, in the few times I’ve thought to lift my head above the wall of my bathtub, it’s been difficult to see beyond the houses uprooted or drowned, the people who are basically confined to the grounds of a school or church with hundreds of other people, the death toll that is expected to reach 20,000, and so far, at least one of those is a JET. At least thirty people working on the power plants have been exposed to unsafe levels of radiation, twenty-five injured, two missing. At once, I feel saved, endangered, and derisory. Individually, though, each still results in some belittling of future visions. And I was on such a roll.

Tatoeba: In December, I started writing for an expat-run online and print magazine based in Nagoya, known as both Axiom and Toothpaste. Though I signed on simply as a contributor, I have since taken charge of monthly book reviews, three each month, covering Japanese books available in English (for more, see:, and do a little searching). In early February, I completed editing work for Waseda’s Asian Regional Integration Review. I also signed a piece of paper that says I will not be renewing my contract with the JET program, and will thus be free to move to Tokyo come August/September, assuming recent events won’t affect my parents’ move there. Mid-February I took up the possibly impossible task of translating, Japanese-English, starting with a twenty-page essay about snakes that Kobo Abe wrote over forty years ago; as of now, I have roughly translated three pages and have a nine page glossary of vocabulary words. If I ever ‘finish,’ I will try my hand at the short story. An album cover project I contributed the artwork for last November has just returned to me, and now I get to try working up a design. Ideally, these activities all have deadlines, so it has been keeping me focused. That is, until a week ago, and already I feel heavy at the thought of resuming everything.

As for progress on other goals: Learned how to snowboard and went most weeks of deep winter; attempted to exchange snow sports for biking for a week when the weather allowed but was set back on day two by black ice, black eye and a finger that doesn’t bend quite right; snacking controlled; money accumulating.

As for previously unconsidered things to add to my list of things to do: Collect goods for evacuees. Donate.

But for now, I’m at school. Commence day two of three weeks of desk sitting. A teacher just asked why my usual beautiful voice doesn’t sound beautiful today. Perhaps I am still dissolving.