Monday, July 31, 2006

The Utility of Geometry in Measuring Fields

Recently I listened to an NPR series on maximum security prisons where the commentators described the reactions of prisoners released after long stays in solitary confinement: difficulty around people, distrust of new places, inability to make eye contact... all the problems you would imagine. I would think there's probably an accompanying shrinkage in vocabulary and ability to articulate as well. Coming to Tokyo has led me to wonder if I'm not undergoing a similar social atrophying. Not that I would go so far as to equate my situation in Osaka with solitary confinement! But I do find that, on the rare occasions I meet new people, I am having quite a lot of trouble lately with simple social niceties -- carrying on a conversation and making small talk, for instance, feels totally beyond me at this point. To be fair, I've never been any sort of expert in this field. Most initial encounters have always required constant self-prodding to respond both verbally and non-verbally in the appropriate manner. Lean forward Katie, smile, nod a little, murmur something encouraging, make eye-contact, focus Katie, focus... It's not that I'm uninterested in the other person (well, usually), but more that the parallel conversation you and I are having in my head is ever so much more pleasant than anything I could hope to verbalize. Immediately after speaking I invariably want to draw back in the words and revise them for rerelease, so that the second or third edition is the only one that should count. I find the inherent imperfection of speech irritating. This is why reading and writing work so well for me as forms of communication -- pausing to reflect over a well-crafted sentence provides me with near endless spasms of pleasure. (This morning, for example, I reread Bertrand Russell's sentence "No one can doubt that this was for him a voluptuous moment, unsullied by the thought of the utility of geometry in measuring fields" at least 10 times. He was describing Hobbes being transported by Euclid's Pythagorean theorem; I thought the phrase 'voluptuous moment' was something approaching linguistic flawlessness.) Sometimes, when I'm talking to someone, I get distracted with trying to keep a particularly nice turn of phrase afloat in my mind just a little longer...

At any rate, I hadn't realized how socially rusty I'd become over the past 4 months until running headlong into a section full of friendly, considerate Tokyo JOs, all asking politely about my trip from Osaka and my first impressions of the embassy. Embassy? Impressions? I hadn't considered that I might need to prepare any sort of speech. My head was still full of 'voluptuous moment'. I grappled with what to say, trying to nod and look interested while mumbling something about the short commute. My smile and my answers felt plastic and stilted; I could tell I was making a horrible impression. What I really wanted to do was pull out my collection of Bertrand Russell essays and ask them what they thought about his descriptions of 1920s Europe. I'm not terribly good at pretending to care about something when I don't, and I can't say that I particularly care about the embassy one way or the other.

Thus, being in Tokyo has underscored the sad fact that, along with my Japanese, my already rudimentary social skills are dying a slow death. I'm not quite sure how to correct this problem. The honest truth is that I don't really talk to anyone all day long. I don't have close friends in Osaka, and (contrary to earlier hints at the beginnings of a social life) no regular social engagements whatsoever. Bertrand Russell is great, but unavailable to meet me for coffee. I only wish that someone here wanted to discuss the ancestry of fascism or the joys of useless knowledge. And I wish I didn't feel so snobby whenever I long for that. I prefer to discuss topics either utterly nonsensical or completely serious -- the point where those two things converge represents the pinnacle of conversation for me. Too bad all social interactions have to start at the level of the weather and the Cubs; my social transmission doesn't seem to have come with middle gears.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

上手、上手! ぺらぺらですねえ。

Language barriers often tend to extend a conversation in an annoying manner. Buying a ticket for the bullet train to Tokyo (an event that used to be quite special for me, but which I'm now becoming rather blase about), I was forced into the following awkward exchange:

Me -- A ticket for the next train to Tokyo, please. Non-smoking, and [here I realize I've forgotten the Japanese word for 'aisle']... I do not want a window seat.

Ticket Guy -- OK, the next train departs at 11:30, and you would like a non-smoking, window seat.

Me -- No, I do not want a window seat; I want the opposite of a window seat.

Him -- You would not like a window seat?

Me -- That's right.

Him -- You're saying you want a [garbledy garbledy] seat?

Me -- [slight pause as I consider how best to respond; for all I know, he's just asked if I'd like to sit on the tracks] If it is not a window seat, then that is what I want.

I pushed my credit card at him in a (successful) bid at finality.

I don't get the sense that my Japanese is in any way improving [see above], but clearly lately something is different. Whereas before my attempts at communication where met with the (polite) insult 'Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne...' ['Isn't your Japanese good! Would the nice foreigner like a cookie?', usually said in a slow, painfully over-enunciated staccato], recently the insult has changed to 'Nihongo wa pera pera desu ne...' ['Isn't your Japanese fluent! Did you get all the way here without your dictionary?']. People who actually speak fluent Japanese don't receive these responses -- they're solely reserved for people making attempts at the language whom the Japanese feel need cheering on. One's reply should always be, 'Iie, ton demo nai desu...' ['Oh no, my pathetic butchering of your beautiful language renders me lower than nail fungus. Shall I commit ceremonial disembowelment here, or would that only sully your floor with my vile dog's blood?'] Naturally, however, all sarcasm should be kept on the level of internal monologue; purportedly, the Japanese do not intend these comments to be insulting, though having received them following some particularly horrible language mangling on my part, I occasionally doubt the veracity of that claim.

Just prior to reserving a bullet train ticket, I made a stop at the vaunted electronics mega-store 'Yodobashi Camera' to buy a digital camera (much like buying a seat on the bullet train, I'm becoming alarmingly blase about dropping hundreds of dollars on what could only be considered luxury items: 3 purchases over $500 in the past 6 months...). At the time of purchase, the sales lady threw in a camera stand that fits over the lid of a plastic bottle, thus creating an instant 'tripod' out of any coke or tea bottle -- quite possibly the most ingenious thing I've ever seen. Deeply impressed, I started prattling on about how 'kakikoii' Japanese people are, a word which (in a similar show of ingenuity) I'd apparently created on the spot by combining kakkoii ['stylish/"cool"'] with kashikoi ['clever']. As there are fewer than 200 sounds in the Japanese language (versus just under 2000 in English*), Japanese people have trouble intuiting your meaning even when you're just one syllable off. There's no way she had any idea what I was trying to convey. Wrapping up my camera, she handed me the receipt and cordially told me, "Nihongo wa pera pera desu ne..." Yes, apparently so pera pera that I'm forced to make up new words to increase my vocabulary.

The word for 'aisle', by the way, is tsuuro. Don't worry; I looked it up to make sure.

*I read this in a newspaper... No, I can't really back it up. Sorry.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Bigger Piece of the Pie

On the train ride home the other day, I found myself wondering why I feel I have so little time. I decided to list how many hours a day I was doing what activity. It got sort of complicated; so I made a pie chart:

This was a bit disheartening. But I thought maybe Friday would be better, as we don't adjudicate visas on Fridays. Yet, to my surprise:

No difference. Work seems to be like a goldfish; it grows to fit whatever size bowl you put it in.

I told my colleague Heather about adding up my time and realizing that I only had a maximum of 3 1/2 hours of free time a day. "I made a pie chart," I explained, pulling out my notes. Heather looked at me in disbelief. "You made a pie chart?" Then she shook her head. "What am I saying. Of course you made a pie chart."

Some people just don't appreciate the joys of time management.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

スタミナたっぷり! うなぎ

As part of my tribute to Little Known Japanese Holidays, I'd like to introduce you to one of my very favorites: Eel Eating Day -- in Japanese, 土用丑の日 doyou ushi no hi*, this year held on 23 July. (Another favorite is Dog Day, which takes place on November 1st. You don't do anything special on Dog Day, except mention it to others and see if they figure out that '11/1' said in Japan-ified English sounds like the Japanese onomatopeia for a dog barking -- 'wan wan wan'. Ah, the joy of language exchange...)

The word for 'eel' in Japanese is unagi, which conveniently begins with the hiraganga sound u, spelled う. This is convenient because う is readily made to look like an eel, thus giving the holiday added cuteness potential. This is very important for marketing. Few products survive in Japan without some element of cuteness to lend them gravitas. The fact that the Japanese advertisers can take an animal which looks like this:

And reinterpret it to look like this:

Shows you just what experts they are.

The idea behind the holiday is fairly straight-forward: here we are, in the height of summer, barely able to lift ourselves up off the tatami and stumble out into the near solid wall of heat and humidity. We are suffering from natsubate -- summer lethargy. Clearly what we need is a little stamina. As it so happens, unagi is a food chock-full of stamina guaranteeing properties (calcium, salt, protein, various vitamins... oh, and it's shaped like a phallus). So eat unagi, and bear up!

In Japan, people will tell you that eel is prepared on the grill, having been brushed with a mildly sweet sauce which caramelizes slightly as it cooks. This is true. What they do not tell you is that moments prior to the grilling, the eel is delivered to the chef quite alive, usually thrashing about with several of its friends and loved ones in a bucket. I still remember watching my Japanese father prepare eel for my very first Eel Eating Day in Japan: plunging his hand into a blue plastic kitchen bucket, he pulled out a wriggling eel, slapped it onto a wooden board in front of him held up with a couple of hobby horses, and used a hammer to drive a nail clean through the still-living eel's head into the board. He then quickly laid down the hammer and picked up a knife, slitting the eel down the belly from proverbial stem to stern. A quick whack to the eel's neck to sever head from body, a couple of deft thrusts with some metal skewers, and that baby was ready for the barbecue. For those more graphically inclined, you can see a picture of this process here.

Naturally, you don't need to wait for doyou ushi no hi to enjoy a meal of unagi. In fact, I would say this is the one Japanese food which boasts the unusual quality of being appropriate in any season. In Japan, just look for a variation of the following sign:

See how the う is drawn like an eel? This will let you know you've discovered an unagi restaurant. I plan to go out later with another FS colleague and see if we can't rustle up some unagi ourselves.

*This doesn't actually mention anything about eels, but rather indicates the 18th day prior to the change from summer to autumn as expressed in the chinese lunar calendar. There is a doyou prior to every change of season, but so far as I know only doyou ushi no hi has a specific food associated with it.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Nor Any Drop to Drink

Far from letting up, the rainy season appears to have rolled up its sleeves and begun its work in earnest. It has been raining without end for the past two days now, and Friday boasts a similar forecast; in fact, according to, storms are predicted for Osaka all the way through the 29th and beyond. The water falls steadily, solemn as a coffin. In its effect, it's as good as any set of prison bars.

This circumstance has added a new challenge to my morning commute. Skirts are a must, as pants quickly succumb to the creeping moisture of puddles. I only have one working pair of dress shoes even remotely able to cope with the deluge, though I wonder if patent leather will last another 10 days of this... The most trying aspect of the weather, however, is simply working up the will to actually go forth into it. Establishing a brisk pace upon venturing out seems to help. I generally set some appropriately timed song to endlessly repeat on my ipod, and use that to keep up a steady gait: this morning 'Blue Orchid' by The White Stripes carried me safely through; tomorrow, I'm thinking 'Rebellion' by Arcade Fire might be a good choice.

Yet despite my best efforts, I find I arrive at work damp from roughly the elbow down and the shoulder blade up. My hair is to thank for the second condition. It falls just a couple of inches above my elbow, and acts as a wick, drawing the rain up my back to the nape of my neck. The constant slight physical discomfort has the weird side effect of heightening my corporeal sense of self. I feel awake all over. Or maybe that's just The White Stripes talking... Either way, it's a strange contrast to the monotony of unfaltering thunderless rainfall. The days blur into each other, like passing train cars.

At work, we have been leaving CNN on, so as to follow the growing disaster in Lebanon. Standing by my desk, attempting to dry myself sufficiently with the rotating fan so as to be able to sit in my chair without drenching it, I find the TV filled with images I can not begin to connect to reality. There has been enough said on the subject of disporportionality that I do not feel the need to add to the discussion; I would like to think that I could never comprehend the level of hatred and desperation that haunts the players involved. But I know, too, that the fighting in the Middle East is a concious choice of both sides, and not some inherent, unappeasable force of nature as the longevitiy of the conflict would lull one into believing. It can be stopped. I still remember my father waking me up in the middle of the night when Yitzhak Rabin was shot, how worried he looked in the digital glow of the television set, and how I struggled to understand the depth of what was vexing him. I was 16 then. The import of that moment is revealed to me more and more everyday. Reading Rabin's eulogies now, I fervently wish that he had lived. I hope that Israel finds another pillar of fire to lead them out of this current desert. And I'm praying for Lebanon.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Wish You Were Here

Transferring old photos to my new computer, I came across this one of me and my dad from when I was living in Hawaii:

It made me realize just how much I miss my family. And a lot of other people, too.

I'm seeing Dad this weekend in Tokyo. I'm looking forward to being able to commune with someone, even for just a short time; it's what I miss the most here.

Friday, July 07, 2006

All My Worldly Possessions

My HHE finally came today, and I spent most of the morning listening to music and dancing wildly around my apartment, rearranging what few things I already had in preparation for its arrival. I often wonder when I will become too old to go into full-on gyrations whenever a favorite song comes up on shuffle in my playlist; I suspect soon. There’s nothing sadder than being the old person in the club, even if that club happens to be one’s living room. All the more reason to indulge now, I suppose!

As I was doing the dishes, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone’ by the Temptations came on. This is a song my father used to sing to me when I was little, and apparently I got into some trouble for singing it at my (Baptist) kindergarten in Guam. Luckily they didn’t overhear me singing the other song Dad had taught me: ‘Black Dog’ by Led Zepplin. I vaguely recall being 4 years old and solemnly chanting Say hey mama that the way you move… Ah, the innocence of youth. If I ever have children, I hope to teach them some similarly socially deviant music. I don’t know, but I’ve been told, a big-legged woman ain’t got no soul.

When the movers came, they seemed tense. [In Japanese] “We have brought your things.” My reply [also in Japanese] “Great, I think there’s enough space for the boxes over here.” Immediately the tension broke. “Oh good, you speak Japanese.” And for some reason, today I did. I marked off the numbers on the boxes as they carried them in, deftly slipping their shoes on and off without pause as they exited and entered. They teased me about my hand weights (the most thoughtful thing a boyfriend’s ever given me, actually) and expressed their approval of my two giant framed train station posters (acquired during my first time in Japan, and framed myself the following year back in Florida). “Sakura,” said the head mover, pointing to the scene of cherry blossoms. “Jahponees furahwa. Berry berry good-oh.” I liked him immensely.

After insisting over their protests that I could unpack my things myself, I politely pushed them out the door and turned to. The cardboard boxes made the whole place smell like a freshly opened jigsaw puzzle; pulling out one Japanese knick-knack after another, I began to wonder why I had even bothered to come back to Japan – I could have just walked into my closet in Hawaii and effectively been there already. Unpacking took an inordinately long time, mostly because I kept stopping every half hour or so to wallow about on my mattress, letting it know in a walrus-like fashion just how much I’d missed it. The old bed that post provided is slouching rather ungracefully against the wall of my living room, and probably will be for the better part of a month, if not the remainder of my time here. I told them I was bringing my own bed, they said I could bring my own bed, and now, of course, they declare the storage unit to be much too full, and wouldn’t I rather just throw a sheet over it and turn it into some sort of feature..? (And you know, I might, except that it’s right where I want to hang the ‘Jahponees furahwa’ pictures.)

Struggling with proper arrangement also led me to make a hard decision: I need to divest myself of some of my books. Probably some of the more dated reference books at least I could live without. Struggling with hanging pictures led me to a second decision: I need to get married. There are just some things in life you can’t do by yourself. For instance, a spouse could have also helped on the 4th, when it took me 20 minutes to zip up my dress. So if anyone would like some used ethnographies of Southeast Native American tribes and / or a FS bride who prefers dumbbells to cocktail dresses, please get in touch. You’d just have to put up with my dancing.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

4th of July, ConGen Osaka Style

Here's a scan from the manga I was reading in the van on the way back home after the party. I think it pretty much sums up my feelings about the event.

The after party with the consulate folks was nice, though.

(And yes, that would be a magically transformed fox spirit, possessed by an evil cicada, spewing animated chestnuts on to a half-human, half-dog demon. Who says formal consulate parties aren't exciting!)

Sunday, July 02, 2006


This weekend proved an odd juxtaposition of the hyper-real and the surreal.

Saturday I went hiking northwest of Kyoto, from an area known as Takao down to the more famous Arashiyama region. The rain made everything fecund and vibrant, and very immmediate. Every color and texture we encountered seemed crisply in focus, so that our surroundings took on a super-exaggerated clarity; I found myself noticing details in a way I normally don't. Life seemed very potent, distilled down to its most basic elements. And yet it gained mystery and depth.

We came across a temple quite accidently, which is always the best way. It turned out to be home to a multitude of carved rakanzou -- statues depicting followers of Buddhism who've reached 'satori' (enlightenment). The images were donated from all over Japan, and each one was distinct. It brought to mind the gargoyles at the National Cathedral, and I was reminded of making a visit there in this same season last year. To have past and present dovetail so neatly was extremely gratifying.

I'm not normally a big fan of temples, preferring shrines. But this one was so joyous and inviting! Besides Jizou, the Bodhisattva of pilgrims and travellers (and my favorite Bodhisattva, sort of a St. Christopher equivalent), the main temple deity was Kannon, the Bodhisattva of mercy. The pamphlet the temple provided explained in English 'People pray to this Kannon by touching it with their hands.' You could see burnished spots on the idol, where hands had worn it down over time. A Japanese friend once explained a period of time defined by the game of igo in this manner: if angels took turns coming down from heaven and touching a stone -- merely touching it, not rubbing it -- the time it would take for the stone to be worn away. I wondered how many hands had touched the Kannon. I put my own hand over a burnished spot, and thought about that for a long time.

Sunday, by contrast, had all the makings of a David Lynch film. Nothing about it was strange in the extreme sense -- I merely attended a 4th of July barbecue hosted by the George Washington Society -- but celebrating Independence Day in Japan is somehow one phase shift removed from true normalcy, just warped enough to make me feel like I was viewing the proceedings through a fisheye lens. Despite expecting that at any moment I should be demanding Pabst Blue Ribbon or admitting I was having a love affair with Laura Harring, I felt singularly uninteresting. Eating my watermelon soaked in condensed milk (as I said -- one phase shift off), all I could think was how grateful I am that Gary Busey is not my father (my apologies to any of you who don't understand the David Lynch references... and also to those who do). The Japanese co-chair of the Society asked me to come back and help decorate for their Thanksgiving celebration. The mind reels. Here's hoping they'll be serving turkey sushi.

I'm anticipating similar weirdness this week at the consulate's own 4th of July party, a formal affair meant to thank all of our contacts and supporters. It's being held at Universal Studios Japan, which means Woody Woodpecker and Snoopy will be in attendance. While I tried to talk them into letting me go as one of the characters, it looks as if I'll have to be wearing heels and a dress. Frankly, the character costume would be more in keeping with my current wardrobe, not to mention my current comfort level...