Sunday, December 31, 2006


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


'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?