Sunday, December 31, 2006

明けましてお目出とうございます


It's forty-five minutes past midnight, and the temple bells have yet to finish their ringing. 108 rings, carefully spaced, one for every passion that leads to human suffering. One for every troublesome desire.

Bells in japanese Buddhism have secret power. They clear the air of evil spirits; they drive away bad omens. You see bells on almost every pendant and charm associated with religion in Japan, hanging from bags and cell phones, or dangling in the windows of cars to protect their drivers. During WWII, a bastardized, militarized version of Shinto was made the official state religion, and the government here tried to break the back of Buddhism by regulating it and restricting its reach. When metal for the war effort ran low, the government demanded the temples donate their bells. I imagine the machines made from those bells. Did they ward off evil? Were their operators kept from harm? I imagine canons ringing out munitions, carefully spaced, one for every worldly desire.

Bells on New Year's are a somber siren's call. The deep pitch runs through you like a metallic shiver, seductive, till it seems the most natural thing in the world to take up your coat, put on your scarf, and softly step outside to follow the pied piper sound. At the temple you can get in line to ring the bell yourself, kneeling beside the monks rubbing their rosaries and intoning sutras, and rearing back the long wooden clapper to strike the side of the thick bronze form. Pause to let the reverberations die, then let fly the clapper again to resurrect the note. The first ring is for sins of the past year, and the second is for those of the new one. Funny how you can know ahead of time. When you leave the bell tower, your hands smell like incense. There's amazake being ladled out into little paper cups; it's warm and sweet. Sugar used to be precious, only for holidays.

I don't believe in Buddhism. But hearing the sad, knowing tenor of the bells is like hearing your own conscience. The bell tower becomes a confessional, the amazake the Eucharist. The parishioners silently burn old ofuda in the temple courtyard, and watching the papers catch and curl I start to cry. Last New Year's I was in a bar in Court House, noisy, hopeful, upbeat... This year still upbeat, but different. Realistic. Older. Wiser? It's been a trying year. I've made a lot of mistakes. I've made a lot of mistakes. But you learn with each one. And the bells are cleansing.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

With All Due Respect to David Foster Wallace

There are certain places misanthropes have no business being. A peace rally is one. A blood donor clinic is another. I think cruise ships could also be safely added to the list. I'm not a full blown misanthrope, but I'd never been tempted to go anywhere near a cruise ship until Dad decided to buy the family a boat trip around the Hawaiian Islands for Christmas.



"So," I queried my father, "what's our objective here?" We were standing in the ship's Aloha Nu'i buffet hall, where he was loading his plate with bok choy. "The basic point of a cruise," he explained patiently, adding marinated mushrooms from the salad bar, "is this: to eat till you're sleepy, then sleep till you're hungry." Dad made this sound very sage. Looking around, I could see that our fellow passengers had accepted this premise as if it were prophecy, eating from one plate of food while standing in line to eagerly receive another. The waitstaff in their shorts and hawaiian shirts had formed a human food brigade from the kitchen to the buffet in order to provide the constant caloric supply demanded by the guests; at one point I watched them contain a near riot when rumor spread at breakfast that the oatmeal appeared to be running 'low'. Little known fact: cruise ships are actually powered by mastication. As the cruise progressed, I realized that the low-level buzz I was hearing was not the engines, but rather the constant drone of termite-like chewing undergirding the higher-pitched sounds of lounge acts and shuffle board.


At our first port of call, my brother-in-law and I escaped the confines of the ship to undertake an ill-conceived ride around beautiful outer Hilo on rented granny bikes. Twenty-five sunscreen-less miles later, I had acquired a sunburn which left me physically and emotionally unable to do much besides cough pathetically and dial for room service. Josh was, of course, for the most part unscathed. I'm not sure what northern european swamp my pallid gollum-esque ancestors crawled out of, but let's hope for the sake of any future nieces and nephews that his genetic make-up is strong enough to triumph over that of my family's. Meanwhile, the only white flakes we'll be seeing this Christmas will be the ones peeling off of my swollen purple flesh. My hands have been replaced with two squat eggplants.

I did manage to pull myself from my sick bed long enough to go whale-watching off the coast of Maui. Having left Mom and Dad back on the ship, we thought we'd be supercool and play cards on the deck of the catamaran as it sped out into the harbor. Ten minutes later, my sister Ellen and I thought we'd be supercool by merely not throwing up over the boat's railing. This necessitated putting away the cards. Which was fine, as by that point various pods of whales had begun to appear around us. Employing techniques our father had taught us on long family car trips ("Shhh! Be really quiet these next few miles, and maybe we'll see a deer!"), we managed to coax one whale calf up to the side of the boat:*


It's difficult to be sarcastic and jaded when looking at a giant sea creature lolling about in the ocean not fifteen feet from you, so I didn't try. My MTV generation world-weary indifference was so suppressed at that moment, I could have listened to the Lion King soundtrack with contentment and pleasure.

While the whales were, in every sense of the word, enchanting, I'd have to say that the nicest part of the cruise was spending time with my family; I'd have to say that, because many of them read my blog. We chose to celebrate our rare moment of togetherness by playing a lot of Mexican Train Dominoes, an activity that inevitably leads to profound discussion. I think our most heated over-dominoes conversation revolved around the question, "If you could replace your hands with any two other objects, what would they be?" My answer (two stars) was deemed 'silly'. I didn't bother pointing out that most of my extremities now appeared to be members of the produce section anyway, nor that Karyn's choice (a small monkey to do her bidding, and a Bible) was not especially practical either. By this time, my world-weary indifference had returned to the point that when the cruise director came over the intercom to announce they'd spotted an unidentified object traveling at sleigh-speed toward the ship, I was able to say with confidence that it was most likely a north korean missile.

By the way, in case you're wondering, Santa enters the US on an H2B visa.


*My sister Ellen filmed this video, so it's mostly her you're hearing. But if you listen, you can make out me saying helpful things like, "Look at him! Look at him!"

Friday, December 15, 2006

Let's Christmas

Despite my warm and fuzzy Thanksgiving feelings, I find Christmas to be rather less appealing. I would not go so far as to say that I dislike Christmas -- certainly I support all the core concepts of the holiday (caring for your fellow man; spending time with people you love; celebrating the birth of a religious leader who encouraged cheerful giving and grace-based relationships; eating a lot of baked goods...). But Christmas, through no real fault of its own, tends to break under the weight of all that possibility and promise. Much like the new Star Wars movies, the hype ends up being a whole lot more fun than the actual event. We want Christmas to be about the nobility of the human spirit, when what it's really about is standing in your kitchen at 2 in the morning, contemplating whether or not it would be sanitary to spoon up the egg -- your last egg -- now lying in a viscous puddle on the floor, because it is the crucial final ingredient in the mashed potato casserole you absolutely must have made for tomorrow's consulate-wide Christmas party.*

In that respect, I find Christmas in Japan rather refreshing. Unhampered by any sort of judeo-christian background, the Japanese have distilled Christmas down to its most basic commercial elements and embraced it with gusto. This is, afterall, a country with a profound understanding of the two most crucial aspects of the mercantile side of Christmas: easily marketable 'tradition', and cutesy kitsch. The kitsch is visible in every shop window and department store ad; you wouldn't believe the lengths vendors go to in a country full of non-practicing Shintoists to associate their products with Santa and european Christmas markets. Understanding of the roots or reasons for these things is not required, only an appreciation for the novel and 'refined'. Christmas trees are fun and pretty... why make it any deeper than that? (Indeed, my first Christmas in Japan I once encountered a group of Japanese singing english language gospel hymns in the town's shopping arcade in order to promote a Christmas sale -- as they implored Jesus to come and walk with them, presumably through the department store aisles, I tried to imagine myself chanting sutras outside of Dillard's for their big 'Buddha's Birthday Event'...)

Despite the sales hype, however, there is no Christmas gift exchange in Japan (with one crucial exception -- see below). Yet, being stubbornly American, I made cookies and cakes to give out at the office. This was fine as long as it only involved members of my own section, but I found it caused some consternation if proffered to people outside of NIV. When I handed a bag of homemade orange-cranberry biscotti to the CG's secretary, she held it out at arms length by the tips of her fingers and asked me dubiously, "Why?" "Uh, for Christmas..?" did not seem to be a fully satisfactory reply. Probably now she thinks she owes me something. Which I suppose could only work in my favor...

At any rate, here are some basic 'traditions' you are obliged to undertake in order to consider your japanese Christmas a success:

1. If you are single, you must have a date for Christmas Eve. This date must be able to provide two things:
a. The 'Christmas Kiss', much like our New Year's kiss.
b. The 'Christmas Gift' -- similar to american Valentine's Day, receiving a gift from your sweetheart on Christmas is an act laden with all sorts of deep, anxiety-ridden meaning in Japan.

2. If you have a family, you must purchase:
a. a bucket of fried chicken from KFC (it's a long story)
b. a 'Christmas Cake', decorated with whipped cream and strawberries

3. If you are a member of an office staff, you must throw a raucous party with drinking and subsequent drunken carousing. This is not substantially different from any other office party, except that you have propped a Christmas tree up in the corner, and the most inebriated of you -- inevitably that mousy secretary you never would have suspected -- is wearing a Santa hat.


For its part, the NIV section in the consulate is replete with wreaths and bells and those little Christmas tree shaped gel things you stick on windows. These are mainly being propagated by the one FSN who also keeps stuffed animals on her desk, and minces around the office in an affected cutesy shuffle. I have not asked, but somehow I don't think her commitment to the holiday goes much beyond its 「かわいい~!」パチパチパチパチ factor. Perhaps at one point she aspired to a deeper, 'peace on earth and goodwill to all' celebration of Christmas, but was likely visited by the Ghost of Strictly Secular Christmas-san who promptly threw out her Salvation Army kettle and replaced it with an antler wearing Snoopy doll.

I'm sure when I arrive in America this weekend, I'll be able to watch some glossy, over-marketed Christmas TV special which will cure me of this jaded outlook...


*Naturally this is a purely hypothetical situation. I would NEVER do such a thing. Even if it were the middle of the night. And it were raining. And the nearest open store were blocks away.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

やっぱり、多発性硬化症

'An oversize problem is an expanding bubble. As it grows, it presses everything else out. At it fills you, it leaves you empty.'

No, that's not right.

'An oversize problem clings to you like a wet sheet. Like a spiderweb. You brush at it and pluck at it, and it just tangles itself around you all the more.'

No. No no no.

An oversize problem starts at the tips of your little fingers, and spreads up your arms. It runs up your chest and neck, burning the side of your face. It travels down your thighs, lingers around your calves, and numbs your toes. It drops your chopsticks. It shakes like St. Vitus in the heat. It casually eats up money and time and thought.

In the end, an oversize problem is not that big. An oversize problem is just you.

"See this black hole, with the white edge? That stands out. It's older. We'll call that the first incident." Change films. "Now these smudges here and here, on your spine... those you know. They're what's causing your current numbness. So now we have two events, separated in time. This brings us back to my original diagnosis. Coupled with the bloodwork, I'm willing to go ahead and lay my cards on the table and say you have MS. Most likely primary or secondary progressive MS."

"When can we know for sure?" 'You know what your problem is, Katie? You have a low tolerance for ambiguity.' 'Why Jerome, what precisely do you mean by that?'

"There's no exact moment. Everyone's MS is different. Originally we had this other diagnosis of ADEM, and it responded well to the IV steroids. But after 2 months of continual symptoms, breaking through the oral steroids... Do we wait 6 months before we say MS and start your treatment? Have we already done you harm by not putting you on medication from the beginning? It's hard to know."

"What should I expect? With the way my face is going, am I going to have Bell's Palsy? Am I going to go blind? How quickly will this advance?" 'Katie, you ask too many questions. It ruins things. I actually really liked you. You overanalyzed it; you killed it.' 'I know. I'm sorry.'

"Again, it's hard to say. Everyone's MS progresses differently. But the medication will help."

"And if I decide not to take the medication... what will happen?" 'Sara, I really don't want to go through all that again.' 'Katie, you know, right -- you know that's stupid?' 'Yes, but still...'

"Can I point to someone, their body devastated by MS, and say 'Look, that's you in forty years if you don't take this treatment'? No. But can I say, 'It's a possibility, and because I care about you, we should try to do everything we can to prevent that possibility'? Yes. This will be easier once you admit to yourself that you have a condition."

"Right. Right. Let me think about it." 'You know, it could always be worse.' 'Yeah, the trees could come alive and start eating us.' 'Sorry?' 'Oh, just something my sister always says.'

Thursday, December 07, 2006

That Old Familiar Feeling

When the doctor phones and says he needs you to call him back, generally speaking it's not a good thing. So I was a little (only a little) alarmed to get a message from the neurologist saying precisely that. Apparently, some of the bloodwork from October finally came back, and was not particularly promising.

Over the phone, the doctor asked me about lingering symptoms; I detailed some of what I'd been experiencing after ending the oral steroids. His response: "Really? That's weird." "Doctor, that's not exactly the reaction I was hoping for," I teased. He laughed, "Hey, I'm only human -- I don't have all the answers." Apparently, I've been assigned the world's only modest medical specialist.

It's funny -- I run my hand over the back of my neck, and it doesn't seem any different. There's no redness or mark of any kind. But something in there is playing havoc with my nerves. Numb hands, numb arms, numb back, numb neck, numb tongue, numb face, numb legs... An attempt at running over the weekend proved disastrous. "Doctor, I really don't want the IV steroids again." "I know," he said gently, "I know." He's scheduled two new MRIs for Friday, to follow up on things. Another trip to Tokyo. Maybe another hospital stay. I want to refuse.

That evening, after everyone else had gone home, I dropped the coffee mug I keep for use at work. It shattered, spraying shards of Korean-printed ceramic all over the bathroom tile. I don't know why I dropped it: was it my hands? I held my breath, waiting to see what my reaction would be. Nothing. A total emotional blank. I gathered up the pieces as best I could, and left the remainder for the cleaning crew.

Everything seems so far removed from me. Someone else's cup, someone else's hands. Someone else's mess.

The worst part is knowing what a boring conversationalist I've become. My urge is to give a running commentary: "Today, my left ear is numb, but not the right. It actually feels warm, like I smeared it with IcyHot. Is my ear red? It feels like it would be red. My forearms are numb today, too. But not as bad as yesterday. Yesterday I was numb up to here. Am I walking funny? Because I think my feet might be getting numb. Hard to say since it's so cold out." and so forth. People's well of compassion and patience runs dry pretty quickly. Which is only natural -- if the laws of nature were strictly applied, I'd be left out on an ice floe somewhere. I'd be trying to sell gum to tourists at a kitschy streetside beer garden like the woman we saw in Hanoi. She was shaking so badly, 'Madam please' her whole body a twitchy tremor intent on her begging. What do you do with people like that? You ignore them. "What do you think was wrong with her?" I asked the group later. A shrug, "Probably MS." Oh? Is that all?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Desire for Burning

It's winter here -- and by 'here' I mean here inside my apartment. Outside, the weather could still be reasonably termed autumnal, but for some reason within my living room I'm on the verge of being able to see my breath. Getting out of the shower is like being flash frozen; standing in the kitchen making tea, I briefly contemplate putting my cold-stiffened hands to the burner. Every little muscle in my skin is pulled so tight, my arm hair is in constant fuzzy halo formation. People ask me all the time what it is I miss the most from America, and today I realized the answer: fireplaces. They do not have fireplaces in Japan, and I would like one. I want an open hearth with a roaring flame and all the treasures of Hestia contained therein. I want a mantle with stockings and a wreath, and a chimney, and a grate, and one of those giant metal hooks to poke the logs with so I can watch the sparks race up the flue under the pretense of tending the flame. And while I'm wishing, I'd also like two chairs (preferably with a classic design and nice lumbar support) positioned in front of the fireplace, facing each other, so that when I'm reading by the fire and start to feel too warm, I can simply move into the opposite seat and let the other side soak up the heat.

It's my dream. My longed for dream.

Realizing that one should never give up on a dream, I thought I might approach the GSO about it. I mean, rumor has it that he's installing a petdoor for someone; surely a fireplace wouldn't be so different. I caught him as we were walking to the shuttle. Turns out that the petdoor is an impossibility (our doors are made of metal), more so a fireplace. Okay, well, to be fair, I already sort of knew that. But it never hurts to ask. Thus my warm, shimmering dream died an ignominious death there on the steps of the compound.

In some sort of warped consolation, at work the building design has turned the 2nd floor into a dry sauna. The minute I walk in to sit at my desk, my eyes shrivel up like two umeboshi, and that particular brand of thickly viscous 'not-actually-exercising-just-sitting-here' sweat starts up beneath the layers of clothing I'd put on to survive the conditions in my apartment. If that weren't bad enough, the heaters (which we can't turn off) are emitting a smell not unlike a silent bout of flatulence in a small room full of close friends. Today, they kicked on while I was at the window interviewing two brazilian applicants. As the offensive odor wafted through the little tray beneath the glass, I could see their nostrils begin to twitch. They glanced at each other, shot me a knowing look, and moved ever so slightly back from the window. "No, no; it's the heater..." I started, but as they didn't speak English or Japanese, and as I don't know the Portuguese for "He who smelt it dealt it," I'm afraid they may have formed the impression that Americans eat a lot of cabbage. Luckily, just at that moment, an applicant two windows down reacted to her rejection by going into full 叩頭 [koutou] mode: kneeling on the floor, pressing her forehead to the ground, and crying out over and over "Please, I beg you!"* Her awkward moment having effectively eclipsed my own, I quickly issued the couple in front of me while the guards came and dragged the unfortunate woman away. My hope is the Brazilians left talking about that and not about the smell.

I think next week I'll bring in some candles. That's sort of like a fireplace. And maybe they'd help burn up the awful stench.

*note to applicants: this has never worked. Never. Not once.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Setting for Twelve

The best part of holidays is what they do to time: make it fold and collapse like an oriental fan. The past and future are brought closer to the present. One Christmas becomes every Christmas; this year's Thanksgiving touches on every other Thanksgiving... Dressing the turkey, setting the table, I'm conscious not only of how it raises memories from previous years, but also of how this day will resurface next year and the year after that. Feeling the continuous strand connecting that time, this time, and the next run through your hands is both soothing and sobering. It makes me quiet. In the kitchen, I linger too long over things that should be done quickly; I'm with other people, other times...

Two -- no, three years ago I was in Britain for Thanksgiving. There's a campaign in London to civilize the masses by displaying poetry in the Underground. Riding the Tube back from SOAS to make it home in time to start the turkey cooking in our tiny East End flat, I sat across from the following poem by W.S. Merwin:
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

I don't think I'd ever read anything so beautiful or so true to the moment; the dim lighting reflected in the windows and the slightly melancholic swaying of the passengers, just out of sync with the subway car, underscored the sentiment. Suddenly, that day became Thanksgiving for me. Maybe holidays wouldn't be as meaningful without absence.

This year, I volunteered almost on a whim to cook a full turkey dinner for my NIV unit. Over a month ago, before I went to the hospital, some of the FSNs and I had been talking about where to find Halloween pumpkins, and I mentioned that I'd once used jack-o-lantern pumpkins to make pumpkin pie from scratch -- for Thanksgiving in London. Oh? they turned to me with eager faces. The next question seemed to follow logically: Would you all like to join me for Thanksgiving this year? Why, yes they would. Sara and Heather acted as hostesses while I hung back in the kitchen fussing over mashed potatoes and stuffing. So many people all at once makes me shy, though I was glad that everyone had come. Sara seemed surprised that I'd rather stay and work in the kitchen than come out and interact with the guests; she doesn't understand that its hard for me to deal with the memories and the people all at once. Peering through the glass front of the oven while stirring greenbeans on the stove, the empty kitchen felt as crowded as the London subway car -- my sister and brother-in-law, my friend from A-100, my flatmates in Britain, my neighbors in Hawaii and all the other people I'd shared this event with in the past were there, too. The turkey took longer than it was supposed to, as usual, so I was able to hide in their company for an extra half an hour.

Rather than say a prayer before eating, I asked the guests to go around the table and tell what they were thankful for. Health and family figured prominently. I told them how grateful I was to be able to share this time with my colleagues (and it's true), but was thinking also of the memories still standing in the kitchen. Over dinner, one of the senior FSNs told me that in her 25 years at the consulate, no one had ever cooked a Thanksgiving meal for them. I'm glad I could rectify the situation. The food turned out wonderfully, better than I could have hoped for; some of them were trying turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing, cranberries all for the first time. It's a high bar for next year. It's a good memory for next year.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

WrestleMania

Following JPAC, the President is scheduled to have a luncheon at the hotel with newly-elected Prime Minister Abe, then a tri-lateral meeting with PM Abe and President Roh; my job here is supposed to be watching the japanese press, who must be kept isolated in a 'holding room' (i.e., hotel back office) so as not to risk contaminating the security screening they and their equipment have gone through. I had volunteered for this, despite the inconvenience of having to run there directly from the JPAC site. I'm hoping to see PM Abe (maybe after President Bush's wink, I can get Abe to blow me a kiss..?), and practice my Japanese with the reporters. However, there's a greater need to have someone assist with the korean press, so after about 10 minutes with the Japanese I'm pulled upstairs to the South Koreans' holding room instead.

Much like JPAC, this, too, quickly turns into crowd control, complicated by the fact that the Koreans are either unable or unwilling (I suspect the latter) to speak English. I use my few korean words -- 'now', 'here', 'NO' -- to varying effect. The word I really need is 'wait', but I can't for the life of me remember it. Leading them down to where the trilateral has just concluded, it's a veritable soccer stadium stampede. First we're told only still photographers, so they surge forward away from the angry cursing of the cameramen while I and the other TDYers throw out our arms and raise our voices in a vain attempt to stem the tide 'Not yet not yet not yet!'. Then the word comes that tv cameras are allowed afterall, cueing the return of the still-angry cameramen, and a whole new wave of bodies is added to the lot. The lead for the White House advance team gets the good idea of forming a sort of human funnel with the staffers, so that the press is channeled rather than led into the room with the three heads of state. "Gentle, gentle!" he's chiding, and I'm sure the press corps is heeding his advice and throwing their elbows and swinging their cameras at each other as gently as possible. Whose idea it was to put grouchy Japanese and Koreans holding heavy objects in the same room, I'm not sure... WWWF, take note. I can see one of the TDYers from Beijing, who's been swept into the room by the forward motion of the press. He's grinning in amused disbelief.



Back in the filing center for the overnight shift, I'm told that the JPAC clips are playing very well. I hope that the operations going on there get some attention back home. That would make it all worthwhile.

Xavier Roberts, Eat Your Heart Out

The President's arrival time for my event is 10:15am; I'm there at 8am. The military folks are fun to talk with, especially the forensic anthropologist. He's been all over the world recovering remains, even North Korea. I wish I had more time to chat, but I need to walk through the advance team's prearranged press plan: up the stairs, down through the back, stand on point A on the step, move to point B where I'll hold a stantion to show the tv crews their boundary, then back to point A for an orderly exit out the side. Lighting is arranged along these lines. I've made signs and arrows, just in case we need to provide more direction. Security has cordoned off the premises, even to the point of having an attack dog on hand. Down the street, the North Korean embassy has put a dead pigeon out on the sidewalk.

The White House advance team arrives; the plan's been changed so that the writers will be joining the cameras. I'm not sure how they're going to all fit on the tiny step, but we'll manage. Also, no need to go up and down the stairs -- everyone can come in through the front. Fewer moving parts is good; signs won't be necessary. The President will enter first, then the press. All I need to do is hold open the stantion and direct people to the step.

The time comes, and I'm ready, standing with rope in hand. The President enters. President Bush strolls rather than walks, slightly swinging his arms in a comfortable, confident way. Catching my eye, he winks. I smile back. It was actually quite nice -- at that moment, it didn't matter that our politics rarely align, or that I was supposed to be in awe of him. I certainly didn't feel in awe of him. He didn't have that sort of aura; he was just a guy. Condoleezza Rice walked in behind him, seeming hesitant. She had an almost girlish affect, though somewhat withdrawn. They were just people. I'm not sure why I was expecting otherwise; perhaps it shows what a great job PD does, making them look bigger than life on camera. I spend a few indulgent moments reflecting on the way television has changed politics...

Then the press comes in.

Right, forget points A, B, and every other step inbetween. It's an absolute rush to get up to the President, and I find myself actually pushing people back as they try to squeeze past me. The stantion is stretched taut, so that I'm having to work to hold it. If only it were a little longer, I could be using the tail end as a whip. This is far beyond herding cats -- it's like December 24th, 1983 and President Bush is the last Cabbage Patch doll left on the shelf. It occurs to me that there's a reason reporters are referred to as 'The Press'; it also occurs to me that I've been flown 2000 miles to be (un)glorified crowd control. Just doing my part for America... Glancing back, I see that the anthropologist is finishing up his part of the presentation. "Mr. President, do you have any questions?" "No, not really." I hope that the JPAC team feels their two months of preparation was well spent. A signal from the advance team, and we rush the press out so the President can take official photos with the Detachment members. No time for goodbyes.

Riding in the motorcade back to the hotel is interesting. I listen to the press dissect the event. Outside, the streets are nearly empty. No one is waving.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Wet Hair Okay

A frantic phone call pulls me out of my 8am shower -- I'd been at the filing center till 2am working out the kinks in the master schedule, and so had gotten a late start. No introductions, only "Katie, can you be out front in 15 minutes?" Uh, sure... I try to collect myself and not sound dripping wet and half asleep. "Jeans or suit?" I ask. "Suit." "Wet hair okay?" "That should be fine." I throw on one of Sara's suits* and rush out front.

It turns out they need me to ride to the airport with some of the White House press pool; Air Force One is landing soon, and they want to film the President's arrival. My own role in this is unclear to me. Precisely who these people are is unclear to me. I've been given a phone number I'm supposed to call about 10 minutes before we reach the airport. I do so. No one answers.

At the airport, everything is a fight. Having finally located the press entrance to the tarmac, the vietnamese security guard there says that the two press pool members aren't on his list. This is an open press event (i.e., any press member can attend without invitation or reservation), and these people have press credentials. He tells me they should have registered with security a day in advance, and he is absolutely unbending. One of the press pool starts chain smoking while I begin chain phone calling, first the number from before (still no answer), and then every other person I can possibly think of from the State side of things. My cell phone battery is starting to die, and I'm fairly certain the press guy is working on the beginnings of a malignant tumor. I'd like to do something malignant to the security guard (steroids, steroids...).

An hour later some contact at the vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is alerted to our plight, and it's ironed out -- just in time for the landing. Two minutes worth of footage was the end result of all the trouble and negotiation. A seven second clip of Bush waving from the jetway has taken up a good four hours of my morning. On the return drive to the hotel, all I can think about is coffee. Vietnamese coffee is lovely, but I'd have settled for some instant Nescafe out of a boot. I haven't eaten or had my pills; my hands are shaking, and I can't feel my upper back. The press pool tries to get me to tell him the President's schedule. This is where it pays to be an incurable mumbler. I say something unintelligible, then point out a man carrying a whole herd of swine tied (one presumes hog-tied?) to his motorbike. The pigs look to be very relaxed. And also very delicious.

The lull inbetween the return to the hotel and my filing center duties proves to be the most peaceful time I've yet had since APEC started. Everyone's inside or at the airport, rushing about; I sit out by the lake bordering the hotel, reading a book a friend sent me. The Hanoi cityscape across the way is visible through the slight pollution haze. It compliments the coffee well.




*Sara has, in fact, provided my entire wardrobe for this trip. Despite the steroid bloat, my own suits still make me look just a bit too much like David Byrne circa 1984's "Stop Making Sense" to be appropriate for such a high level event. I had planned to take care of this... eventually. Hopefully 'sartorial inadequacy' is not a checkbox on one's EER. We won't even talk about my shoes.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Making Repatriation Ready for Its Close-up

My new site assignment actually seems much more suited to me than USTR – I’m to be the site officer for the President and SecState’s visit to the JPAC Detachment here in Hanoi. 'JPAC' stands for 'Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command'. They're in charge of collecting and repatriating the remains of american soldiers lost during wartime, a rather large undertaking here in Vietnam. Anthropology and military: right up my alley. JPAC has been asked to make a presentation of its operations to the President and Secretary of State. The people stationed there tell me they've been planning and preparing for over two months.


My actual role is rather minimal -- the real people in charge are the White House advance team, a troupe of mainly volunteers who devote their time to making the paths straight for the President prior to his visits. They all seem very competent, despite being on the whole very young. At an introductory party the day of my arrival, I watched one of them wash down diet pills with a glass of red wine. Others of them are on caffeine pills. I'm not sure why they've chosen to volunteer for such a stressful job, but can only assume its because they are ‘true believers’. Topics of conversation to be avoided: mid-term elections, Nancy Pelosi, the Iraq war... pretty much everything, really. It's fairly obvious at the site visit that one in particular would rather I wasn't there. I'm lucky that my main contact in the team is friendly and good-natured -- and as I said, very experienced.

The advance team's main concern is how the President will look on camera; everything else is incidental. Lighting, etc. has to be arranged to the President's best advantage. Camera angles must be considered. A skull is removed from the forensic anthropology portion of the presentation for fear the President might pick it up, and the resulting photo be taken out of context. The military folks seem perplexed when the White House team insists on bringing out some artifacts and reclaimed guns from a back room to put in the presentation, positioned strategically for the cameras. For the soldiers, the end goal of their work is the repatriation -- identifying the remains, and bringing back the bodies. To them, old helmets and guns are unimportant. Not to mention the fact that they're being asked to change a presentation they've been working on for so long mere days before the event. The advance team is adamant, however. There's a lot of discussion about where the guns should go, how they can make them more obvious...

In a way, I'm perplexed as well. I want to tell them that I think the guns are a horrible idea. Why associate the visit with the weapons that put these people in the ground? Why make it about death, when it ought to be about hope? I would have brought out the recovered dog tags: symbols of identity. But I guess they wouldn't have shown up as well on camera. And anyways, it's not my job to advise them. Not unless they ask.

My job is to herd the press and keep them in place as best as possible. And yes, that's the extent of it. Like I said, I'm just support for the White House team, and this is what they would like me to do. Fair enough. Someone has to do it.

When I get back to the hotel, I call the filing center. They tell me they don't need any assistance. I wander out to find lunch: a bowl of bun cha on the economy.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Best Laid Plans...

Watching the planning for APEC unfold has laid to waste any faith I ever had in government conspiracy theories. It's just not possible -- the level of organization such a thing would require is simply too high. Not that people here aren't organized and working hard, but there are so many moving parts. Hanoi's traffic patterns show less complexity.


The countdown meetings alone require gargantuan effort. When one takes into account the entire POTUS, FLOTUS, and SecState* crews, each of which include embassy, State, and White House teams, there are easily a thousand people involved in preparing for just under two days worth of events. More if you include the Secret Service, the Press, and the people who actually make a living working at the sites. Then there’s coordination with the other visiting governments and all of their entourage to take into account... it’s barely controlled chaos. And true to chaos theory, one small change or hitch in one event ripples out to effect every other aspect of the undertaking.


My own role has changed multiple times since my arrival. Originally I was assigned USTR and site back-up – or in other words, to be the coordinator for any press events US Trade Representative Amb. Susan Schwab might desire, and to act as the sort of backup press coordinator at two of the sites the President will visit. Seeing as my first reaction to this assignment was, “Uh, what’s USTR stand for?” it’s probably for the best that a foul-up at some level resulted in about 1/8 of the delegation’s accreditation applications being lost, mine included. No accreditation means no credentials, and no credentials means no security clearance. I couldn't even get into the hotel housing the control room phones and computer banks, much less get on sites the President plans to visit. I pointed out the problem and asked if perhaps someone else ought to take over my duties. They gave USTR to an officer from New Delhi who's extremely capable and proactive, and more experienced in PD work than I am. I'm sure he'll do a better, more thorough job than I would have. It’s more important that the work be done well than that I be the one to do it. Right? Right.


So since site work is out of the question, I was reassigned to keeping the master PD duty schedule updated and to helping organize the section of the filing center dedicated solely to the press traveling with the Secretary of State. This involves writing captions for pictures to go on the State website, making sure there are enough computer stations for the SecState’s press pool, organizing press clips… Could be interesting. But of course, less than half a day into these duties, my credentials came through. So as of now I’m re-reassigned to be site officer for one of the smaller venues the President and SecState plan to visit. I’ll continue to maintain the master schedule, but have to drop any pretense of being seriously involved in the SecState filing center. I’ll still be taking shifts there; it just has to be worked around my site officer schedule. Not that I can give a good account of what that schedule might be just yet. I suspect the nice woman charged with organizing the filing center as a whole is not very pleased that things keep changing, but – again! - the work is handed to a PD officer (this one from Rangoon) with more experience than me. Which can only be a good thing. Right? Right.

What a mess.


Meanwhile, my hands are shaky and weak. Shopping for omiyage inbetween the two meetings, I can't feel the texture of the silk fabrics everyone else is exclaiming over. There's no strength in my grip, and I'm afraid of dropping my coffee at lunch. I wish I didn't have to worry about this just now.


*'President of the United States', 'First Lady of the United States', and 'Secretary of State'. The shorthand 'POTUS' was first developed for telegraph operators in 1879. Fun facts to know and tell.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

First Impressions (sans Robin Williams references)

Vietnam is layered -- in some ways contradictory. The motion on the surface is constant, unceasing... but orderly. There seems to be a stronger core underneath, supporting things. The traffic in particular you notice right away, streaming steadily in and out of side streets, countless motorbikes and buses crossing paths with cars and pedestrians in inexplicably fluid, easy interchange. It shouldn't work, but it does. A self-regulating system. After some careful observation, I push off from the curb and the movement folds seamlessly around me.

The people here are beautiful, especially the older ones. You can see in their faces they have stories, that they're not afraid of work. I get the feeling that they don't forget things -- but maybe I've read one too many Graham Greene novels. I'm itching to take their pictures; however, the power imbalance inherent in the act makes it overly intrusive, almost colonial. I settle instead on photographing the buildings, which are strangely quiet; all the life here is outdoors, on the street. Parents hold their children over the curb to urinate in the gutter; families lounge on their front steps, cooking dinner on the sidewalk; haircuts and earcleanings take place wherever there's a tree on which to nail a mirror... Private acts are made matter-of-factly public. There's a certain truth to it that I can appreciate.

The colors, the lighting are different than in Japan -- the place has almost an island feel to it. They keep birds in wooden cages above their doorways; where I eat lunch, I'm joined by two kittens, who sit in the plastic chairs across from me, peeking over the tabletop. I watch a line of ants move across the peeling yellow plaster of the wall, skirting the Coca-Cola poster of the happy vietnamese family pouring each other soda. It's hardly distinguishable from the communist propaganda posters. Everyone else in the open air cafe is watching me.

Lunch costs 12,000 dong. This seems to be the going rate for any service offered a foreigner, and I'm sure I'm being overcharged. It's 16,000 dong to the dollar -- what moral right do I have to complain?

In the park, a young police officer keeps coming round to talk to me. Eventually he asks if I want to go to dinner. I wonder what his government would think of that? Two Americans were convicted here this morning of 'terrorism': broadcasting anti-communist rhetoric. The talk in the western press is how this will effect Vietnam's chance at a trade deal with the US. I question our priorities sometimes. Leaving the park, an older policeman trails me for a few blocks. I pause so that he has to walk ahead of me, then turn to look him full in the face when I catch back up. There are signs everywhere welcoming APEC delegates to Vietnam.

Friday, November 10, 2006

ベトナムへ行こう!

A TDY to Vietnam. This is totally awesome. This is what you imagine when you join the FS -- travel to new and exotic places, the opportunity to assist with something bigger than yourself... I'm absolutely thrilled. I'm going to Hanoi via Hong Kong. Hong Kong! How cool is that... Two communist countries in one go. Awesome awesome awesome.

The purpose of the TDY is to help provide press support during APEC. Due to the presence of a high level visitor (I can't tell you his name, but his initials are 'President Bush'*), I'm not permitted to know anything more specific than that before my arrival. Schedules in particular are apparently kept in strict security. They haven't told me what my duties will be; I imagine whatever the PD equivalent of carrying bags is. That's fine -- I'm more than happy to be the go-for... My real interest is in getting a sense of how everything works.

(In the Hong Kong airport, I ran into someone from the 127th, the A-100 class we sponsored. He's stationed with friends of mine in Moscow, but on his way to Vietnam for vacation. We recognized each other while waiting for the flight to Hanoi. Such odds...)

*Before I'm accused of leaking security secrets, let me point out that this is, in fact, open source...

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Careful with that Axe, Eugene

In preparation for her annual TexMex Margarita Party, I've been helping Sara here and there with CostCo trips and setup and the like. Yesterday, the day of the party, she asked if I'd mind chopping vegetables for the tacos. No problem.

I lined up the head of lettuce on the cutting board and picked up the knife with care. Shredding lettuce requires multiple thin cuts transversed by a few thicker ones. It's a fairly straight-forward procedure, and I turned to, moving very slowly and deliberately. After about 10 minutes, Sara commented, "That's the most artistic lettuce cutting I've ever seen."

"Ah," I didn't take my eyes off what I was doing. One head of lettuce down; one more to go. "Well..." (slice the head in half; remove the core...) "This is actually only the second time I've used a knife since my hands went numb." I paused and glanced up at her. "The first was this morning. I cut up an asian pear."

I could tell from the immediate look of reserved alarm on her face that she had not considered the implications of giving me a knife. A knife which I couldn't really feel. For some reason, yesterday was an especially bad one, and the insensate area of my hands had gained in ground and intensity. I'd been judging the appropriate cutting pressure to apply purely by sight; the hand holding the lettuce was doing its best to control things on its end, for the most part successfully. Some lettuce had slipped out of my hand off the cutting board, but nothing had fallen in the floor. Nothing on the floor, and no blood: these were the goals.

Sara turned back to the enchiladas. "Did you want to do something else?" she asked carefully. "I could do that."

"Oh, no..." I moved on to the limes. Trickier, as she needed them cut into eighths, requiring holding a slippery object on point. "Unless you mind me moving so slowly, I need the practice." The knife skidded down the side of the peel and cut into my thumb nail. I started over, with the same result. Got it on the third try.

"You okay there, Kate?"

"Yup." I miscalculated the amount of pressure needed, and a lime wedge slid across the cutting board; the knife twisted, smacking into my hand with a fleshy thump.

"Katie?" Her voice was different than before. I looked at her quzzically, concerned. She held my gaze, appearing slightly fearful. "You know I faint at the sight of blood." This is actually true; she's passed out more than a half a dozen times in her life. I had forgotten.

The cutting board was covered in juice. I was going so slowly, it bordered on the ridiculous; Sara had completed three separate tasks from start to finish in the time it was taking me to cut a single bag of limes into eighths. But I wanted so badly to finish cutting the limes into wedges. And there was just one left.

"I promise," I told her in the most assuring tone I could muster, "that I want to see my own blood even less than you do. I'll wash off the board so I'll have more traction. I'm almost finished; I can do this." I don't know why it mattered -- it was just a lime. But it did. It was imperative that I finish what I'd started.

After the party, a few of us sat around playing cards until 1am. And the only person wearing a bandaid was Sara -- a preemptive measure, in case her hangnail started to bleed.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Back to Work or Ah, Steroids...

Back at work today for the first time in over a week. I hadn't really made a clear plan of how to explain to people what had happened. I had made blueberry-banana bread, thinking that would somehow be explanation enough; but I overmixed it, so it didn't taste like I thought it should. I decided not to bring it. In the end I just told various versions of "I was in the hospital. Very sorry for the trouble. It's not MS." 'Not MS' is about the clearest explanation of ADEM I think people have the patience for. Though of course, as they didn't know that I was even diagnosed with MS to begin with, I doubt it has much meaning for them either way.

I'm sure at some point I'm going to react to a small annoyance with a steroid-induced rage, causing me to 'Hulk out' on everyone. Faced with today's first bad rejection, I had expected to push my bloodied and bruised inner elbows against the visa window and scream, "I DON'T WANT TO HEAR IT! YOU CAN DAMN WELL TRANSIT THROUGH EUROPE!" In this scenario, I also had one of those mad, cave-dwelling hermit beards, which would become flecked with frothy spittle as I was yelling and gesticulating wildly. Ah, steroids... Instead, my rejection speech rolled out flawlessly. Good to know that particular cognitive path was uneffected. Though I might try and add some frothy spittle in the future, just for fun.

I only broke down once, and that was trying to explain to the FSNs what had happened. I know that they were worried, and likely curious, and I wanted to reassure them (but also warn them about fun steroid side-effects like possible seizures and the afore-mentioned irritability). I never even cried about things in front of my parents, but for some reason attempting an explanation for the japanese staff made me weep. Go figure. It sort of undermined the 'I'm fine, no need to worry, I can carry on with work just like before' message I was hoping to send. Maybe I can chalk that outburst up to steroids, too.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Home Again and Comfortably Numb

Mom and Dad come down with me to Kansai, which was pleasant. I'd been wanting them to see my apartment, to get a sense of where I'm living... though perhaps hadn't intended it to be under these circumstances. Their visit happened to coincide with the compound's trick-or-treating night, which was actually a lot of fun. We decorated some, handed out candy, I made cupcakes:

It felt normal.



I can't figure out if I'm supposed to feel normal. Everything seems so anticlimactic -- I'm sort of embarrassed to talk about it*. Not because of the drama, but because of the real lack of it. This thing happened, it was treated, and now I'm back. In some way I feel like a fraud. It's not a big deal, but it's not NOT a big deal, and so I don't know how to think about it. What's inbetween those two things? Just life, I guess.

My hands are still numb, and a bit out of my control. I have little tremors, and occasional shooting pains, hopefully the nerve fibers coming back to life. I find I'm spilling things, making little messes. At night, my body feels so strange and otherworldly -- I picture my limbs beneath the covers, huge and porous like giant Cheetos with live wires running through them. Roger Waters would be proud: my hands feel just like two balloons.

I put Mom and Dad on the bus for the airport this morning. This is the first time I've gotten to be really alone with everything. I can already tell that I'm going to want to be alone with everything for a long time.

*Uh, though apparently not here in this public forum.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Cancer for the Cure

The difference between the first and last series of MRIs is rather dramatic: whereas before my brain looked like a snowglobe, now there are no white spots to be seen. So ADEM it is. Not MS. This could never happen to me again. I should be obscenely happy.

I don't know why I'm not obscenely happy.

There are still two lesions on my spinal cord, albeit reduced dramatically in size. I'll be on oral steroids for the next 5 weeks in the hope that they'll go away completely. An MRI six months from now in April should give the final say on things, though my parents are already blithely emailing everyone to let them know that now I'm fine. I think the neurologist comprehends my sense of unease at the nebulous nature of everything, however. With ADEM, about 30% of the cases go on to become MS; this usually happens in a 4 to 8 year window after the first attack. With relapsing-remitting MS (what I was originally diagnosed with), the second attack usually occurs in a 1 to 3 year window... Psychologically, I don't feel one is all that far removed from the other. But at least med won't be able to hold a firm MS diagnosis over my head. And other than this round of oral steroids, I shouldn't have to take any MS meds, which can apparently be quite horrible.

So, hopefully a clear MRI in April, and no relapses during the steroid treatment. And no MS. Just normal me again. Probably.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Hygiene and 100 Yen Coins

Moving on to an indelicate topic, I have to say that personal hygiene issues are the absolute worst part of numb hands. I can't tell if anything is clean, no matter how long I spend washing my hair and face, or trying to work the little bar of hospital soap into my underarms (which are also numb). Something called Uhthoff's Syndrome means that heat heightens the MS symptoms, so the hot water of the shower -- clearly a rather necessary component of attempts at cleanliness -- only exacerbates the problem. I try to move very deliberately and carefully, covering all the proper body vectors, even though I can only feel them in the most remote, cottony way. It takes so long. I'm going to have to get up at least half an hour earlier than I used to do to make it to the train on time for work.

Out shopping with my parents yesterday, money exchange was also hampered. I can't feel things in my bag, or fish for change in my wallet -- all the coins have to be dumped out on my palm and inspected before I can be certain what I'm handing over. Plus, having no sure sense of how much pressure I'm applying with my grip, I've lost all confidence in my ability to hold things. Just buying a cup of coffee last night, trying to carry it back to the table... I could sense the staff watching me, concerned. 'This isn't me!' I wanted to tell them. 'This is just some freak thing.' I'm not sure what I'll do if it doesn't go away (a possibility no matter which diagnosis the neurologist settles on). Learn to cope, I guess. I can tell I'm going to want a lot of time alone with the idea, to deal with it -- I suppose to internalize it to some extent. Right now, I just don't feel whole.

But at any rate... three more fancy MRIs, one more IV, my final eye exam, and then maybe I can finally go home. Though first, a shower! I'll just take my time.

And maybe by this afternoon, my diagnosis won't even be MS.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Lack of Enthusiasm for a Possible Happy Turn of Events

As predicted, the steroids are making me very restless. My mind won't settle for any long amount of time on a single topic, but flits about from one thing to another with a disconcerting detached-from-reality speed. Apparently it's Tuesday. I couldn't tell you where Monday went. I vaguely recall making the trip into Tokyo to pick up my backpack from Catherine at the embassy, Mom and Dad in tow. Catherine's been wonderful, and I hope she forgives this daze I'm in. I'm so tired, and I can't focus. I really want to focus.

Today: eye tests, more MRIs, more IVs. The IV restart takes 5 sticks, and burns so badly afterwards that I ask for it to be removed rather than leaving it in till tomorrow. My arms look as if they've been attacked by rabid bees. Just one more steroid dose, and then they can recover. I dread the last IV. I think the vein expert does, too; he's nervously talking about trying something with lidocaine, maybe adjusting the timing... Quite honestly, if he suggested cutting off my arm with a grapefruit spoon so he could take the limb into the better lighting of his office, I think I'd agree. I would do anything for this man, I feel so indebted to him. If anyone else even points a needle at me, I start to quake in fear.

The new MRIs take place at a hospital here in Yokosuka, though off-base. I have to go out there after the eye exam, necessitating the wearing of flimsy wrap-around plastic sunglasses to protect my dilated pupils. The first thing you give up when you're ill is any sense of dignity; trundling about the waiting room in dark glasses and a hospital dressing gown, I look like some sort of bed-ridden albino yakuza moll. Luckily, I'm able to find this amusing rather than embarrassing or insulting. Dad says the glasses make me look like Badtz-Maru.

The new MRI is enhanced by some sort of inert metal they injected so as to give a clearer image; the lesions should 'glow'. Instead, it reveals all the lesions to have lessened, perhaps even to have gone away entirely. The neurologist is now hopeful that this is not MS, but something called ADEM ('Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis' or 'Acute Demyelinating Encephalomyelitis', your pick). This condition resembles MS in all ways except:

1. It is monophasic (i.e., does not represent a continuum of flare-ups);
2. The lesions don't hang around to form scars.

Or in other words, ADEM is a one-off event, probably a reaction to a virus (I can recall having somewhat of a cold a few weeks ago), and might never happen to me again. Obviously a much better diagnosis than MS.

Dad seems ready to call it faith healing; I'm more reserved. There's one more series of MRIs to go tomorrow. I'll wait for that to give us a better idea of things. My body feels so tired, so violated by random physical affronts. I just want to be home in my own bed. I just want to sleep.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Flush and Puffy

I woke up this morning and couldn't remember why I was in the hospital. It came back to me gradually. Everything is very surreal.

Both my parents are here now, but thus far we've avoided the mushy emotional stuff I've been dreading. Mom'll go back to Osaka with me after my hospital stay; Dad happens to have meetings in Tokyo on the 30th, so we'll work out tomorrow whether or not he wants to make the four hour trip down and back just to stay for part of the weekend.

The reflexes in my legs seem to have returned, and though my hands and torso are still sort of numb, the strength of the numbness has definitely abated. The steroids are making me warm, and I've a constant red blush across my nose and cheeks. I'm told to also expect some puffiness*. As long as I can still fit in my jeans, this should be okay; otherwise, I'll be wearing my newly purchased pink plaid pajama bottoms on the train back to Kansai. But at least I won't be gracelessly staggering about, clutching at the metro walls and railings the way I initially was when trying to get to the MRIs and base. Another weird gaijin creeping through the public transport system... I'm sure the Japanese just take it in stride now.

At Dad's suggestion, I've emailed my union rep at AFSA to get a sense of my rights. With the time change, I don't expect to hear back for about a day and a half or so. The Physicians Assistant at the embassy health unit called to tell me he's sending a cable to med in DC to alert them to my new medical status. I don't like this. I don't trust med. I told the PA that I was hoping to go to Africa or the Middle East after Japan... He said Africa would be no problem, but made no comment on the Middle East. I didn't press him -- it's not like this is his fault. I just hope I don't have to spend the rest of my career in DC and Europe. I don't want to be restricted. If I go blind in Iceland rather than Iraq, does it really make a difference? It's not like there's a cure. Just meds forever and steroids during a flare-up. Steroids are pretty much everywhere. I could take them orally. Or give myself shots. Or maybe even rig up a transfusion with a coconut, a rubber hose, and a bike needle like Jackie Chan in 'Who Am I?'.

Speaking of which, they've just told me that they'll have to change the IV tomorrow. I hope I handle it better. I hope my parents aren't around to watch.

I spoke to my youngest sister on the phone. "Katie, are you going to be in a wheelchair?" "No girly -- don't pay any attention to what you read online." I hear myself reiterating for her what the neurologist told me. I know she's worried and I don't want her to be.

*Wow, they weren't kidding! Where's my waist? I could have sworn I left it right here... To shamelessly quote Lewis Black, I've taken on the appearance of "a dumptruck in heat."

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Small, Deep, and 'Rolly'


I never thought of myself as being a bad patient -- actually, never thought of myself as being a 'patient' -- but yesterday when they were trying to draw blood I writhed and kicked and howled in ferocious animal pain. Something about the stress of the recent diagnosis, coupled with very small, deep, uncooperative veins, and a freezing cold hospital room... it was a rather embarrassing display on my part, and doesn't bode well for the future. They had to call in the the hospital vein expert. He is good at 'sticking' -- I was able to keep my response down to stifled moans while he prodded and jabbed the inside of my elbow and forearm. They made over 10 punctures to get a single phial of blood; I think they need 8 total. At the current rate, only 70 more jabs to go.

At least the IV is finally in (though it's going to take me some time before I hear the letters 'IV' and don't automatically respond "No, you can't have a B2 visa."). It'll stay in for the entire week, and they'll be using it to give me steroids to combat the lesion. I've been making myself look at where it enters my arm, to inure myself to things. This will be a constantly recurring part of my life now, right?


It's 7am... I wonder if they have a coffee IV...





I think what disturbs me most is not the abrupt nature of this, but rather the sense of it being sort of matter-of-course. Where's my melodramatic Lifetime Feature Presentation soundtrack? The closeup as I am informed of my life-altering new fate? The cut to commercial while I try to shampoo my hair, one unbendable IV-laden arm stiff at my side, and the other half numb, struggling to feel my scalp...

I'm concerned about work. Never in my wildest imaginings would I have predicted craving a return to the visa window. I didn't bring anything to study. I'd really like to be reading about E and L visa regulations instead of wasting my time staring at the hawks circling outside my 5th floor hospital room window. A trip in November was supposed to set me up with the ability to assist with TDYs in hardship posts, something I've been really wanting to do. I doubt they'll let me make that trip now. I doubt they'll ever let me go to a hardship post. I'm afraid they'll yank my medical clearance. I'm afraid I'll lose my job. What will I do? You can't make picture frames if you can't feel your hands.

I am thankful, though, that this is just a spinal lesion, just a matter of motor-control -- at least, so far. It's one thing to be numbly stumbling about like a drunken mummy, but a frontal lobe lesion would effect cognitive function. This alarms me greatly; how would I recognize that MS was the source? Now, whenever I can't remember a kanji or can't work out the spelling of an English word, some part of me will wonder... But maybe I'm just being paranoid. I need to do more research before I let myself worry.

My friend Sharon called from Hawaii, and managed to set just the right tone. She half-jokingly suggested taking advantage of my time on base to find a Navy guy... and actually, having some sort of partner now seems more immediately important than before. I've even thought of a great pick-up line: 'Hey sailor, I may not be able to feel my body, but maybe YOU can.' Heh heh. Surely someone out there has a stumbling fetish...

Sigh. I need my ipod charger.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Power Out

So. Okay. Well, the diagnosis is MS. 'Multiple sclerosis'. I have 'multiple sclerosis'. I can't even tell if I'm spelling it right. Guess I'd better learn. Fuck. fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.

Cosmically speaking, perhaps I ought to be flattered. Uniqueness confirmed. Really, I'm not one for this sort of drama. At worst, I'd thought maybe it would be a benign tumor. That would be the afterschool TV special. MS? That's like something you'd see on Lifetime. This just isn't the sort of of adventure I'd ever anticipated. Let's get back in the car and sing 'Africa'.



So, this is my home for the next week or so. I don't really need to be hospitalized, but even Tokyo is kind of far to be coming every day for treatment, forget going back to Osaka. Oh, and see that white packet on the table to the right? Yeah, that's a 'lumbar puncture kit'. Big fun.

I held together pretty well while the doctor explained the MRIs, pointing out the spinal cord lesion that was the source of the numbness, and the white spots here and there on my brain that made a diagnosis of MS almost certain. Some crying. Composed myself enough to go and eat dinner on the base, and buy some pajamas and a toothbrush at the NEX. I didn't exactly come anticipating a hospital stay.

When I got back, I sat on the hospital bed and waited for things to happen. I thought about how this would effect my job. I thought about how much I hate needles. I thought about having to call the people at work and explain. I didn't want to explain.

Eventually, a nurse came in. "So," she asked, after pointing out the lights and the call button. "How long have you had MS?"

I tried to sound nonchalant. "I just found out a few hours ago."

It was shortly thereafter that I started a slow, insipid weeping.

MRI #2

I've got the second MRI scheduled in an hour, this one for my neck. I feel perhaps stupidly calm. I'm sure this is all related to too much computer use at work and home -- neither computer setup is exactly ergonomic. Any other explanation would be too akin to one of those afterschool TV specials, and I just don't see myself as unique enough to warrant something that melodramatic. An OSHA workplace safety feature, played on reel-to-reel... that seems more my speed. I wonder if they'll let me keep the MRI pictures after they're done with them? Maybe I could frame them. Proof of brain presence or somesuch. Or maybe that's gross.

It's tempting to text people from my cell phone, but what would I say? 'Hi, I'm in Tokyo for a series of MRIs, but I'm sure it's nothing. How're things with you?' Instead, I write a friend and ask about bidding results for his onward assignment. That seems more normal. And I am genuinely curious.

Going through the wickets to get on the train this morning, I noticed that in order to insert the ticket to open the gate, I curled my hand around the ticket in the way you see handicapped people do. So I'm already learning coping strategies. It's interesting.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Insurance and MRIs

The FS Benefit Plan works like this: you pay for healthcare out of pocket, then present the receipts and receive reimbursement. One small wrinkle -- you can only exchange $2000 worth of cash in a single week through the mission. I'd already written a check for $500 worth of yen on Monday to supplement what little I had left after the weekend, $300 of which immediately went to pay Sara for our trip to CostCo. $50 to a train fare card, $25 or so to an unplanned dinner, $120 to vitamin fees, leaving me with $130 worth of yen, and the ability to withdraw only $1500 worth more. Or at least leaving me with the theoretical ability to do so -- I'd left my checkbook at home, so had no access to cash whatsoever. $130 worth of yen won't even cover the one way train fare to Tokyo, much less the fees for two MRIs. I don't know what you're supposed to do if your health care bill comes to more than $2000; I'm sure there's some contingency. It's not like japanese hospitals take credit cards or foreign checks.

Sara loaned me back $100, so I could at least get to Tokyo. I called my friend Catherine, who offered me use of her spare room at the embassy compound. Catherine is one of the kindest people I know. When I arrived at 11:30 at night, I found the door unlocked and $800 worth of yen lying on the guest bed. Apparently, there was some question about the embassy's cashiering hours due to the SecState's visit, and she wanted to make sure I was covered. The best I could do to repay her in the immediate sense was to try and not wake her up while I got ready for bed.

This morning, the physicians' assistant at the health unit poked at my hands and feet with a bent paperclip. I couldn't distinguish between one prong and two at 4mm, which is not normal. But at least my back and shoulders had stopped tingling like I was about to sprout wings. Trying to fill out the forms he gave me, the pen flipped out of my hand. Chopsticks at lunch also proved a slight challenge. I couldn't tell if this was due to figurative nerves, or literal ones. Maybe a little of both.

Luckily, the cashier at the embassy was open, so I'm able to pay Catherine back in full. $1500 comes out to 178,455 yen. Is there any other country in the world where I'd feel this comfortable carrying around $1500 worth of cash? Is there any other country where I'd need to?

The MRI itself was interesting. Like being in your own personal rave, complete with bad techno music in the form of noisy beeps and strumming robot sounds. I tried to lie still, but could feel my feet twitching. The PA had said my foot reflections were 'hypersenstive'*. I'm not sure how this squares with lack of actual sensation, but I felt like a fish on a hook, my head trapped inside the MRI torpedo tube with my feet jerking and flopping about. It took 20 minutes. At Catherine's suggestion, I kept my eyes shut. I'm not claustrophobic, and have no wish to become so.

Prior to the event, I made sure to inform them that I have a tattoo; apparently, an MRI can wreak havoc on tattoo ink. Low-key panic ensued among the staff. This was ultimately resolved by having me translate a statement from Japanese to English releasing the hospital from any culpability in the event of tattoo damage, then signing this statement myself. A nurse dictated:
"If my tattoo changes shape or color, or begins to yakudo..."
"Sorry?" I stopped her. "'Yakudo'?"
"Yes, yakudo..." she searched for an explanation. "Uh, in English maybe... 'burn'."
"Burn?!" I can't tell you what sort of horrible imagery this conjured up; naturally, my tattoo would be on the one area of my body where I have full feeling.
"Do you still want to do this?" asked the nurse.
I looked up at them from the waiting room chair. No, of course I didn't want to do this. 'Shikata ga nai,' I said. 'It can't be helped.'

Tattoo pulled through fine.

*in retrospect, perhaps he said 'hyposensitive'.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Decision

After a brief discussion with the embassy health unit, the decision is made to have me come to Tokyo for tests. It's Wednesday. They want me there Thursday, 10am. Over the phone, the japanese secretary describes what will happen, and in which clinics. "How will this work with my insurance?" I ask her. Suddenly, I'm overwhelmed by stress and have to fight back tears. I can't feel my hands.

There are a lot of logistics involved, and not much time to act. My desk is piled with cases. I'm on tap to adjudicate our 100 some odd afternoon interviews. The appointment calendar needs edited due to an unexpected staffing shortage. I'm in the midst of coordinating an FSN training visit with Tokyo's consular section, and a related travel agent luncheon, both to take place next week. I'm the duty officer, and don't hand off the phone till tomorrow. I told Chris I'd carve a jack-o-lantern with his girls tonight. I'm supposed to go back to my japanese hometown this weekend. I have a Korean lesson, and a DVC with the other mission JO's who went to Seoul. We're already two people down in the section, and leaving will mean Jerome will be all on his own.

I can't feel my hands.

I decide to take an early lunch.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Pretty Pills and Near Naked Men

Last Thursday or Friday, I started to notice a sort of tingling sensation in the tips of my ring and pinky fingers; by Monday, it had spread up each arm and over my entire torso, eventually making its way up my neck to cover a portion of one ear. There's a Ray Bradbury story in which a feverish boy slowly loses control of his body to a virulent entity, starting with his right hand; I couldn't help but think of it as a novocaine-like numbness snaked over one breast and around my ribcage. When the top of each leg and part of my calves felt deadened, I thought a trip to the physician might be in order. We won't talk about how the Ray Bradbury story ends.


The first doctor I went to was a general practitioner within walking distance of the consulate. As it so happened, the ACS section was in the midst of updating its list of recommended clinics, so they were able to quickly suggest one nearby. I rushed out after work, Sara kindly accompanying me for moral and (worst case scenario) possible physical support. At this point I was bracing myself for a future of adult diapers and eating with the assistance of one of those trained service monkeys... but, you know, trying not to panic. The doctor that shuffled out into the waiting room had six teeth in his mouth, two on top and four on bottom, one for approximately every 20 years of his life. He spoke no English. After a few general questions and tapping -- literally tapping -- my chest and back with his stethoscope, he informed me in a jovial way, "I'll give you some medicine; after a week, you'll be fine." At the tiny front desk I asked the receptionist, "What kind of medicine is this, anyways?" "Vitamins," she answered, managing to sound simultaneously jaded and apologetic. "That'll be 3,362 yen." Alright-y then. I forked over the cash, and left gripping the vitamins in my insensate fingers. I don't think that clinic will be remaining on our list.

This morning the intensity of the symptoms had abated, but had far from disappeared. In fact, it seemed my middle fingers wanted in on the act as well -- it felt like a rubberband had been wrapped around each one's first joint. Mid-morning, Sara let me know she'd located a neurologist only a few train stops away, so I dropped everything and took off for this second clinic. I had rehearsed my explanation all the way there while fidgetting nervously with the magazine I was pretending to read (Yubi ya ude ya doutai ga shibireteimasu. Haisha no chuusha no eikyou to onaji kanji desu. Gen'in zenzen wakarimasen.); when it turned out the doctor had excellent English, I almost couldn't talk to him, I was so keyed up to speak Japanese. After a thorough check of all my reflexes, drawing of various fluids, discussion of any possible injuries, infections, family history and so forth, the verdict: he could find nothing neurologically wrong with me. "But," he continued, "I'm going to give you some vitamins, some B2." Ah, yes. Another 8,835 yen later, and I'm still numb -- though I've got enough little pills to open my own clinic.

And that's my story. Bottom line, don't get sick in Japan. Or if you do, just skip the doctor and go buy some Flintstone's Vitamins. If you never hear from me again, it's because I've lost all motor function, and my service monkey hasn't yet mastered typing on the keyboard.




In other news, this weekend I had the pleasure of attending the "Fighting Festival" in a small village near Himeji. Rather than just waking up numb, festival participants like to incur a similar state of being by stipping down to loincloths, forming teams to carry about heavy portable shrines, and ramming them into one another like a huge rugby skirmish. This goes on for hours. I took a video of the red team performing its rally cry, which you can see here:



Nice that I was able to go out and enjoy the Autumn weather one last time before being bedridden for life.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

An Uneventful Adventure

Over the weekend Sara and I took a short road trip from Tokyo to Osaka. I think we both expected it to be a bigger undertaking than it actually was: that we'd have some amusing mishap or grand adventure we could talk about back at work on Tuesday; a 'Mr. Toad's Wild Ride' across Honshu, as my mother put it. We'd stopped by the base first -- where I couldn't believe how in my element I felt, leading my two colleagues confidently around the commissary and exchange -- so her tiny car was packed with groceries and Halloween pumpkins. We followed the highway around Mt. Fuji and past the 'Japanese Alps', stopped at a little mountain town to eat lunch and buy omiyage for the office, sang along to an '80s mix CD... and that was all, really. 8 or so hours later, and we were home in Osaka. Very pleasant, but hardly the stuff of drama.


It surprises me how much of life is like that. You get onboard expecting a 'Fantastic Story', when all you're really getting is a bus ride. But why should trying to remember the words to Toto's "Africa" while playing with the car's navigation system be any less fantastic than a flat tire or a narrowly escaped car wreck? I'm not going for profundity here -- I was just thinking about the importance of little things. Back in the office on Tuesday, everyone wanted to know 'How was the trip?' "Good," I told them. "Nothing big happened."


And that's really alright.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Good to Know...

If your telephone bill arrives in a pretty green envelope, it's not because the phone company is trying out a new 'look' -- it's because you forgot to pay last month.

And speaking of green, wouldn't Greenpeace be excited to see my latest grocery store find:On sale for only 208 yen a can!

The side view is even better:Who knew whale meat looked so much like Alpo...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

October Rain Makes No Demands

Saturday's event was, by all accounts, a success. As it was the first thing I've organized for the consulate -- and actually more in keeping with the PD role I'll supposedly be filling later on in my career -- I'm grateful. Though perhaps more grateful to have woken up this morning, remained lazily in bed listening to the crows chattering on the roof, and thought 'I don't have a single blessed thing to do today.'*

The event was for the Japan Exchange & Teaching (JET) Program participants living in one of the prefectures covered by our consulate; JET was how I first entered Japan back in 2000, and fully half of the American officers working in the Osaka consulate are JET alumni. Given that it's such a common FS background, and given the panic I know most JETs feel toward the end of their tenure in Japan when they look around and think, 'Ack! I've got a BA in Philosophy and Anthropology! What does a person with no appreciable skills do in the real world?!'**, it only seemed right to have them over for a little pizza and soothing discussion. After the FS officers went around the room and made their AA-esque introductions ("Hi, my name is Katie, and I was a JET in Okayama-ken from 2000 to 2002."), we put in the requisite plugs for registering with the consulate, encouraging their students to study in the States, and signing up for the FS exam. But what I had really wanted to talk to them about was the importance of being grass-root diplomats in their own right. The JET program has people in it from English speaking countries all over the world, the majority of whom -- despite having no direct experience with America -- tend to dislike the United States on principle. The opportunity there to make a real difference in salvaging perceptions of the US is an amazingly rare one, and something I didn't fully appreciate myself until some time into my JET experience. I have a great story about a New Zealand friend who worked in the same town with me that highlights this: We had known each other for a while, and once I'd even taken time off of work to translate for her at the hospital when she was ill (resulting in a rather comic episode where the doctor who was palpating her stomach asked, "Does it hurt here?," and waited patiently for me to translate my friend's strangled response of "AAAAA!! OUCH OUCH OUCH!!"). But I guess the subject of nationality never really came up. When I made some comment about going back to Florida after JET, this look of pure astonishment came over her. "You," she said, "are AMERICAN?" She turned to her boyfriend, another New Zealander, who confirmed this. After a few moments of speechlessness, she explained, "But Katie, you are much too nice to be an American. I always thought you were from Canada."

So my challenge to the JETs was going to be: 'Be too nice to be an American'. That's pretty good, don't you think? Sort of memorable.

But instead, of course, I get up in front of 40, perfectly friendly, perfectly congenial people, and begin immediately to feel flush. I have no idea why this happens, but it is extremely irritating. I'm not a stupid person, I occasionally have worthwhile things to say, and I think could even be a somewhat engaging speaker if I could just get past the need to push all the words out of my mouth as quickly as humanly possible in order to speed my escape from the spotlight. Usually towards the end of moments like that, I'm not even aware of what I'm saying. This even sporadically occurs during smaller social interactions. So maybe I told the JETs my story, but I really couldn't say for sure. Most frustrating.

I could speculate as to the reasons for this quasi- social anxiety, but those sorts of musings too easily become navel gaze-y and ridiculous.

At least the Japanese talk went well. There, when I started to go all 'deer-in-the-headlights', the FSN who was with me leaped to the podium, pulled me down into a chair, explained the next powerpoint slide while I collected myself, then handed the reins back over when it was clear that I wasn't going to pass out or throw up. God bless her.

It's starting to rain now, but only on one side of the house. I can't believe it's already October.


*Not actually true. But I am a master of maintaining sanity-saving delusions, when necessary.
**Not that I speak from experience or anything.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Fiscal Management in the Work Week from Hell

Perusal of this week's page in my daily planner conjures up all the same feelings of frenetic unease and cognitive dissonance as viewing something out of a Hieronymus Bosch sketchbook. To say I've overextended myself would be somewhat of an understatement. I have some vague notion of how this came about: mostly a combination of a week and a half out of the office, a week long visit by a friend from the States, and the apparent utter inability to say 'No, actually, I can't do that for you; I'm much too busy down here in the visa section drinking mai tais and practicing my golf swing.' The fact that our number of Japanese applicants has dropped precipitously -- thereby inversely raising my refusal rate to a rather surprising 25% -- is just one more stress. (Today's favorite rejection: the Peruvian who told me his consulate kept his old passport when he sent it in to be renewed. Yeah, right. "Sir," I asked him flatly, "exactly how long were you in Japan without a visa?" After some hemming and hawing and 'oh,-I-don't-speak-Japanese-so-well'ing he finally came out with: 5 years. やっぱり。 Enjoy your transit home through Europe.)

Anyways, one of my big projects this week is organizing a representational event (ah, shades of A-100!) for the consular section. 40 people have RSVP'd, though I had asked for funding for 60 people on the off chance that EVERY invitee came. Thus, I was able to arrange for food and drink at fully $300 dollars beneath my initial projected budget. Great, right? I was pretty pleased with myself. $300 back in the consulate's pocket. Then I get this call from the management section: Have I considered ordering more pizza? they want to know. Or a few sushi platters? Perhaps buying some beer? Merlot goes well with pepperoni, didn't I agree?

I didn't quite know what to make of this at first. 17 pizzas between 40 people already seemed more than adequate, and we have enough beer and soda in the consular fridge to crush a person. But what I had forgotten was that this is the government, not some private company. That money doesn't go back into the consulate's pocket; we don't get to use it later when we need to buy a new desk or replace the carpet. Instead, it disappears into some budgetary black hole never to be seen again. And moreover, to not spend the money you request is the fiscal equivalent of crying wolf; do it too often, and when you do need to spend to the last penny, you'll suddenly find your allowance has been cut. Rather naive of me, but somehow I'd always thought the whole government spending thing was more of a joke than an actual practice... It's a weird logic, but once I got my head around it, I felt rather stupid for not having seen my mistake: Only ask for funding for 60 if you really think all 60 are going to come. Or, apparently, anticipate 40, ask for 60 just in case, then go out and buy extra beer.

So, in the spirit of protecting the future of our representational event money pot, I made a late evening trip to the local supermarket to stock up on provisions. I bought out all their diet coke, picked up one each of every type of rice cracker and potato chip, and threw in some bags of snickers and milky way bars for good measure. If it weren't for the lack of hard cider and jello shots, I could have been on my way to a sorority party. Meanwhile, management is taking the car tomorrow to buy alcohol on my behalf, so I won't have to schlep it squirrel-like to the consulate on my own.

Also tomorrow, I have to give a 30 minute presentation on student visas in Japanese. Seeing as my last speech went so well, maybe I'll be cracking open some of that alcohol a little early.

If I can just make it to Sunday...