16 Nov 2012
The only time I don’t feel alone and somewhat suspicious in a crowd is when I’m singing along with them.
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The only time I don’t feel alone and somewhat suspicious in a crowd is when I’m singing along with them.
Maybe it’s my post-Korea much-improved diet, or my school’s new water filter cutting down on my lead intake, or just Spring, but for whatever reason almost everything I read, see, or think lately hits with revelatory force, but two hours later I can barely recall what it was, and have no idea why I thought it was important. I’m in a continuing state of pointless wonder, a Phish poster away from “Have you ever, like, just looked at your hand man?”
I’m not really sure what to do with this. Other than eat a bunch of cabbage with a glass of water and watch Dark Side of the Rainbow, that is.
One year ago today, I was in my school gymnasium in my best suit and white tie. Graduation was almost over: the students had walked across stage to get their diplomas, speeches had been made, and about half of the people in the gym were teary-eyed. All that was left was the graduates’ song, and the whole school’s song, and the exit. The graduates had just taken their places on the risers at the foot of the stage, and the first- and second-year students and we teachers were standing in front of our chairs. To my left, the pianist’s hands poised over the keyboard. I felt a little wobbly. Another little earthquake like we had earlier this week, I thought, or am I just dizzy from standing too long and trying not to cry?
If you’ve never lived in an earthquake-prone area that question may sound strange to you. Earthquakes here happen a lot–my earthquake-warning app lists four in Japan today–and most of them are so small you don’t feel them at all. Even the slightly larger ones you can feel so slightly you might be imagining it, or it might be a truck going by, You look at things hanging from the ceiling, if you’re indoors, to check, or at liquids to look for the Jurassic Park T-rex ripple. The stage curtains in the gym have tassels on the bottom. They were shaking.
“Ah, an earthquake,” I thought.
I want you to understand that it was a casual thought. After the first one I felt, the first in Japan and in my life, earthquakes did not frighten me. They were a little exciting, a change in routine, a reminder of bigger things than whatever was occupying my attention before the quake started. Even the one earlier that week, one I would have called big before March 11, which sent the students under their desks behind me while I was writing on the board and trying to decide if I was lightheaded, didn’t scare me.
I must have been one of the first to notice, because it wasn’t until my eyes moved from the curtain tassels to the basketball backboard winched up above the graduates, just starting to sway, that I felt the stir of people around me. The students were probably the last to notice—already crying (or working very very hard at not crying), preparing to sing—it wasn’t until the audience started to gasp that I saw their eyes start to widen and dart around. The science teacher beside me, a little wild-eyed, quickly backed up against the wall behind us, nearly tripping over his chair on the way. The backboard was really swinging back and forth. I was standing under one too—more firmly attached to the ceiling, not the kind you can winch up out of the way—but I moved out from under it and stuck, mind swinging between the wall I knew I should stand against and the frozen graduates.
Someone had to get them to move, I knew, out from under that backboard and on top of those flimsy risers, but could I think of how to say that in Japanese well enough anyone would understand? Why weren’t any of the other teachers doing something? I thought. Didn’t they see that backboard? All I can do is wave my hands ineffectually.
Finally the students moved—on their own when they saw everyone ducking down with their hands on their heads, maybe, or in response to gestures more effective than mine. As they were coming down to huddle against the walls, a window at the back of the gym broke, and someone’s mother screamed. I walked over to the wall—walking was hard, like on a boat in a rough sea—and sat down when I couldn’t stand anymore.
Everything kept shaking. At some point the power went out, I think. It was out later.
The science teacher had his phone out. “Miyagi,” he said, and maybe some other words, but I heard “Miyagi” and thought how far away that was to still feel strong here. And everything kept shaking. For three or four minutes. For hours. Everything was shaking, and we were against the wall, and I was smiling, or trying to, to reassure the students crouched next to me, and some part of my mind was thinking, well, this is a graduation no one will ever forget, and everything kept shaking.
After—after the vice principal said something about this gym being an earthquake evacuation area anyway, and that no one here was hurt and we’d let them know about the rest of graduation some other time, and please be careful going home—things were normal. Oh, not normal normal. We had no power and so no heat, and later that day the water shut off, and the store shelves were empty of food and then the stores were closed. But only one building in the whole town fell down, and no one was killed, and if there were any injuries they weren’t bad enough to be reported. Life in my town was a little annoying for a while.
But less than a hundred miles away—two hours drive, once the roads were rebuilt–towns were gone, everything lower 40 meters (130 feet) above sea level gone. I went a couple times to Iwate and Miyagi to help clean up. I saw the cars thrown on roofs, boats speared into the second stories of buildings blocks away from the sea. I picked up photos and keepsakes from the flattened remains of houses, shoveled the seabottom muck the tsunami brought miles inland. One couple, who drove volunteers around and gave us a place to wash and eat, was living on a hill about twenty meters above the tsunami line. They’d had another house down below it. They’d had to rebuild it once before because of an earthquake. Now they had a flat plot of mud and rubble. They weren’t going to rebuild it this time. I met a lot of people, people from all over Japan who came to help, and the people they were helping. I talked to the helpers a lot—they were fascinated that foreigners were there—but not to the area residents. I didn’t try to, maybe tried not to. There were 19,000 people dead or missing (and everyone knew missing mostly meant dead), and I think didn’t want to talk too much to anyone who’d known them in case it made that too real for me to handle.
That was cowardly, probably, and weak, but even a year later I can’t quite do this. This is hard to write. I’m pausing and blinking a lot, getting up and walking for a bit, trying to get enough distance to get it down. I don’t think I’ll be able to get far enough away to edit it even though it’s getting long.
I realize now I’ve been separating my minor earthquake experience huddled together with my friends from the big Earthquake that happened nearby. That way, the big one isn’t really real, isn’t connected to my experience. That way, I don’t need to feel guilty that I was worried about whether my phone battery would hold out long enough to watch the news while people huddled in shelters worried about whether their parents and children were still alive. I’d been to some of those towns before. I’d probably seen some of those 19,000 people, talked to them briefly, bought something from them. More important people cleared the bodies out of the area before we were allowed in to help. When I was picking up photos and things (an old toy, most of a bead necklace, a gold bar) in the cleanup areas, I told myself how it would make their owners feel better to have at least that much back. I didn’t tell myself that maybe some of those owners would never feel anything again.
There are two things I remember most vividly. One is how long it went on, how long I sat there and waited for the basketball backboard to fall, because that length of time is the only way I can even begin to feel how big this thing was.
When I saw the students ducking under the desks a few days before, I walked over to stand in the doorway, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, but I didn’t hurry, Because, look, these things—the earth, the ocean—these things are too large and powerful to be threatening, because we are so small beside them their true nature is incomprehensible. They’re so many orders of magnitude larger than you and almost everything you think about that they seem almost irrelevant to your existence. Irrelevant until the unexpected moment their incomprehensible size and power becomes the most relevant thing ever, until they start to behave unexpectedly. Then, it feels as though someone has rewritten the laws of the universe while you weren’t looking, so that you wouldn’t be much more surprised, really, if the trees nearby uprooted themselves and started walking around.
Maybe less; trees are small enough to understand, but the earth? Sure, the earth wiggles sometimes. But an actual earthquake? Where everything shakes so hard and fast the ground—asphalt–turns to liquid and you can see, after, cars that sank into it before it resolidified? A tsunami large enough to throw fishing ships up over a 30-foot wall and strand them halfway up a hill on the other side, to drag whole buildings out into the sea? An earthquake large enough to make a half million people homeless, kill 19,000? To move an island the size of California eight feet across the earth’s crust? That doesn’t happen. That can’t happen.
But it did happen. I was there, worrying a basketball backboard would crush my students. I was there, trying to make the candles last without knowing when power would be back and waiting in lines for water and to buy food. I was there, walking on the layer of ocean bottom the tsunami left behind in the prefecture next door, helping pick up the rubble that was all that was left in parts of Miyako and Kesenuma. I was there, but I still can’t really believe it, just like some part of me refuses, probably always will refuse, to believe my father is dead even after having scattered his ashes.
The other memory that sticks out to tell you about is buying instant ramen and energy bars from a man sitting in the doorway of a darkened store with a pocket calculator and a cash tray.
In any country other than Japan, it would have been more than 19,000 people. The building codes here are some of the strictest in the world as far as earthquakes go. And the mountainous nature of the land means that far more was above the level of tsunami damage than would be true in many places. And in areas where the stores were still standing, retail employees went to work the next day, even the same day, because they knew people needed them. I didn’t say thank you enough. Stores with no power had an employee out front with a list of stock, and another employee inside with a flashlight to get what the customer asked for. They did not charge anything beyond regular prices. In most other countries, too—certainly in the U.S.—people would have been stockpiling every food item they could find. Here, people took the amount of food they needed and left the rest for others. There was no looting. The organized crime groups drove trucks of relief supplies to damaged areas and dropped them off. The government was a paternalistic, meddling problem-causer, but the government is not the people. Almost everything about the way the Japanese people dealt with the immediate aftermath of the earthquake was a model of how dealing with adversity can elevate humanity.
Maybe this is the only way we can answer the immensity of an earthquake: my students, gathering around the kids who were most afraid, pushing down their own fear to comfort their classmates, spontaneous charity collections, food and blanket drives at hip-hop clubs, people from across the country riding through the night on buses to help clean up, doctors and emergency workers from across the world on planes within hours, old men with wheelbarrows carrying drinking water to those who can’t make it across town in the snow, people ignoring their troubles and fears to help how they can. I don’t know if it’s an answer, but it’s something.
He was tall, and strong, and he could do anything. I keep thinking those words, over and over again. He was smart, he could make anything. That was what my daddy was, to me, when I was younger. And if it turned out later that he wasn’t tall, god was he strong.
He was depressed. Very depressed. He worked for years and years at a job he didn’t like, a job I think he hated (he never said). He did it, though. He didn’t even graduate from high school, but he worked hard and kept working to give his family a very comfortable life, moving up and up, to jobs he liked less that paid better. Even when I moved to Japan, my parents loaned me money to get set up here–loaned me money when I was 30, for god’s sake.
And all that while, all that work, all that effort, quietly depressed. Not until my sister and I were out of the house, at college, did he stop. When he couldn’t get out of bed anymore. That’s the first I knew of it. He did get better when he left that job. His company managed to screw him out of the bulk of his pension and he still had to work. He still seemed happier than before. I hope he was happy. He deserved it.
I’ve had shitty jobs, and I’ve dreaded getting out of bed to go to them, and I’ve been depressed. I’ve never felt as bad as he must have, though, and I could never have managed to keep going as long as he did. He was strong.
He only just finally retired a few months ago. He wasn’t old yet. He were supposed to have more time. He was finally supposed to get to enjoy life without having to take care of everything. More time. I keep thinking those words, too. More time. Time for me to grow up more, to be better at telling people that I care, be better at being human. Time for me to tell him how much I appreciated everything he did for us. How much I knew it must have took from him. How much I loved him.
It was a heart attack. They say it was instantaneous, that he didn’t feel anything. I was asleep when my mom called. It was early here. It was yesterday there. That’s what the world clock on my phone said when I looked, later, before calling again. San Antonio: 10:00 Yesterday. And if only I could call yesterday, I could have told him. I always meant to call, to email. I was too tired, or busy, or just lazy. Even when I called and we talked, I don’t think I ever told him how much I appreciated him. I hope he knew, but I don’t know how he would have. I don’t think I ever told him. I always meant to do it tomorrow. Now my dad is dead and there will never be a tomorrow with him in it. Just yesterday, and you can’t call yesterday.
It would be wonderful to be religious right now, to have something to tell myself other than: He was tall, and strong, and he could do anything. I love you, Dad. Thank you, Dad.
Because it’s no good, telling myself that. It’s no good writing it here. I should have told him, and now I never can. That word, that awful word, underneath all the others, stopping me mid-sentence, making my head ache, knocking me down in the hallway. When will I talk to him again? When will he make another pumpkin pie? When will I hug him? When can he relax and be happy? When can I tell him those things I should have? Never. Never, never, never, never.
Call your dad, OK?
So you walk home between the rice fields, and the moon isn’t out, but all your other old friends are: Orion for the first time this year, and the little bear and great, and even elusive Draco, all spread out across the enormous night above you. And the occasional headlights from behind make every step your shadow takes a jig, and the occasional headlights from ahead just make you look up to the sky again and there! yes, it’s your first shooting star. And the weather is perfect for walking, the coolness promised by that hottest summer, the autumn’s grace, another old friend you’d almost forgotten these past few months, and, yes, there’s that slight reminder of the pig farm to the north, but–such stars in such a great sky, such a joyful life, such happiness that all those other joyless years are just there to fill in the background now, just color and depth for the stars to twinkle in front of. And you are here on this cool night with these ancient stars, twinkling, and tomorrow you get to go to work on Saturday and watch your extraordinary kids sing, and dance, and laugh, and grow up a bit more, and right now there are the stars and the rice fields and the cool air. And tomorrow, too. And tomorrow.
Let’s talk a bit about the grammar of the self, shall we?
As a(n assistant) language teacher, you spend a lot more time thinking about grammar than most people. Clauses and tenses are less automatic.
I realized just now that, barring narrative or a lower-level English student, there is only one tense that is really appropriate for talking about oneself: the present continuous. There is only one voice: active. There is only one mood: indicative.
To speak of a time other than the present, even in the first person, is to speak of someone else. The self, the self now (or now, or now, or now…) is only in the present. The past is who you were (or, more likely, who you want to have been). The future is who you might be. They are different people. Every moment you are destroyed and recreated (it’s not impossible to step into the same river twice because the river is different; it’s impossible because you are different). The past is another country, and another person lives(/d) there. (Really, really, even if the rest of this doesn’t make sense to you, or you disregard it: think of a foolish thing you’ve done out of ignorance. Would you do it again? The same person would, but you are a different person, who learned from that experience, and you know better.) Now, now is when are doing the thing that makes you you. Now is when you are choosing.
And only the continuous will do. You don’t live. Either you are living, or you are not living. I don’t write (really, I don’t), but I am writing. I am studying Japanese. I am learning to teach English. I am scratching my head. Either it’s happening now, or it’s not happening. Now matters. Now always matters. Now is when it is all happening.
Or, rather, now is when I am happening. I imagine Nietzsche as a grammarian would have been very against the passive voice, and Sartre too. The passive voice lets in words like someone, puts objects in the place of people, pretends there are actions without actors. To say “something is happening to me” is to deny (for a sentence, for a moment, now) your culpability for what you are doing, to retreat from the responsibility that is choosing, is doing, is being.
And that responsibility means there can be no question, no what-if, no I’d-rather. There can be no command (at, least, no command can be accepted; and how could you command when you couldn’t obey?).
To say “I am this thing” or “I am this adjective”, “I do this thing” is to lie, to tell a story about a permanent self that does not exist, a self of attributes, of habits, of definitions. But the only real self is the self now, the self who is reading, who is breathing, who is … what?
The self is doing, or the self will not do.
New ALTs (Assistant Language Teacher; me) are coming. If this were only a canyon instead of a basin, I’d have a great Mamas & Papas quote for a title (they are all young girls). This meant my (self-imposed) duty was to e-mail and brief them on the area. It was a bit of a challenge for me. As most of you know, I’m kind of a negative son of a bitch, and I worked hard to curb my negativity to give an honest and balanced view of the area (I’m still working hard on this all the time, actually). To convey how little the bad things really matter to me (bad things are inherently more interesting than good, and are usually weighted accordingly in description and conversation).
There’s a lot of things that are less than ideal about the place (which, I increasingly realize, makes it like the rest of life). It’s important to acquaint new people with these things in time, though, to give them the chance to back out, since some really can’t take it here, and the sooner everyone knows that, the better. The negatives came pretty easy to me, but putting them in context, giving equally proportionate time to the positives, didn’t.
I do love it here. Yesterday I was driving on a ridiculously narrow road in a valley between two rice paddies when a pheasant ran across the road in front of me. I’ve never seen a wild pheasant before. I tapped the brakes and said to myself what has become my near-daily refrain:
I fucking love this place.
I was at a party tonight. We were standing by the river (the bathroom was full), and talking about the stars. They’re visible here. A partly-cloudy night here is like the clearest night I ever saw near a city in the US. I don’t know if it’s the mountains, or just weather patterns, or a deity I don’t believe in blessing the place, but any night you want to wander out of your apartment you can see stars, even in the glare of the streetlights.
Talking with one of the ALTs who is leaving soon, we discussed those mountains, the rice fields, the Japanese people. How shocking it will be to go back to life without them. I don’t think I can do it. The ALTs leaving has me thinking, and every day I think about it, I can’t imagine life without the mountains. The sky, somehow bigger for the boundaries they provide. The contrast of the green in the summer, the stencil of snow cover against grey skies in the winter (and the snowboarding).
The end of my email: “most days I am still thrilled and amazed that someone pays me to live here and have this much fun.” I wish you could scrape together the two grand to visit, or at least send the boy. I know you’d like it here, and I’ve got an extra futon.
It’s an ironic mode, apparently, but litotes is sometimes the best I can do: I’ve never been happier. (Someone’s making plans to stay?)
I’m happy, very happy almost all the time now, because I honestly love teaching, and I live in a gorgeous and interesting place, and materially am pretty comfortable. But even with all this happiness (most of the time I drive home from work just amazed at how great my day was, even on the relatively shitty days), I’m still feeling listless. The happier I am with what I’m doing, the worse it gets, really, because I realize that (even though I knew I wanted to teach when I was, like, eight) I am here essentially through dumb luck. I stumbled on the JET program at the right moment to apply, when I was fed up with my miserable cubicle job and had one of my infrequent bursts of directable energy. For once I didn’t hit a hard patch and dither till the deadline passed. I am unlikely to be this lucky again. And if I am finally figuring out what I like, and if the last time I tried it worked so well, if I’m going to live up to my you-do-it-to-yourself personal philosophy, I have to, I really, really have to, sit down and do some thinking. I have to get a plan. Not an inflexible, day-planner plan, but a direction, a goal. Just on the weekdays, between getting home from work and going to bed I’ve got more than seven hours a day. There has to be a way to put that time to better use than rewatching old TV or rereading old books.
The seventh season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is essentially pointless. The villain sucks, the character development is flat or too dramatically bent, and the climax is a bit anti-. (They probably should have stopped after five and done “Once More with Feeling” as a special.) Even the episode I like most is a bit annoying, because it’s about Andrew, who is more than just a bit annoying, but when you watch it at the right time, when you’ve got that listless feeling and you don’t know why, it can be a good reminder of something you keep forgetting.
You see, diary, there’s a difference between story-telling and thinking. Many times in my life, I’ve thought that I think too much and act too little. But the truth is that I think almost not at all, and what I called thinking on those occasions was not thinking, but narrating.
I used to run all these internal comparisons to Hamlet. Our family situations are a bit different, but I could really relate to his paralyzing ruminations. I thought we were both thinking too much to have time or energy to act, but the truth is that Hamlet is too busy telling himself (ghost) stories about his life to live it. This is a good way to make your life seem more sensible, if your mom is dating your uncle, or less boring, if you never actually do anything, but it’s all just storytelling. I don’t do much of that anymore (you may have noticed), but unfortunately I haven’t been doing much thinking either. The truth is, I’m a bit shallow and not all that smart. I quip pretty well and read a lot, so I often fool people (especially myself) into thinking I’m a lot brighter and deeper than I really am. I need to think more (and better). I need to get working on that self-awareness thing on a level beyond telling stories about myself to myself. I need to feel listless less and do more. I need to quit forgetting all of this all the time.
Maybe that’s why I’m putting this here, as a public reminder to myself. Maybe it’s more of the narrating I mean to be avoiding, maybe not. Maybe I just feel like it, and that’s enough reason.