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: axiommagazine.jp, 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.