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Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

The Last Taboo

In General Principles on April 30, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I’ve come across the topic of vulgarity vis-a-vis HBO’s new fantasy series, Game of Thrones, twice now.  The first time was in a thread at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen: I compared Game of Thrones to Deadwood:

I watched Game of Thrones a bit, and I was actually surprised you didn’t mention the foul language in Deadwood for comparison purposes. Both shows try so hard to beat the viewer over the head with the fact that they are for adults for adults for adults that even a small amount of reflection fosters the realization that they are quite obviously for men between 20 and 35. As a man between 20 and 35, I’d feel uncomfortable watching either show with someone not of that demographic.

The second was from this Daily Beast article, on the plethora of dick-shots in today’s Hollywood films:    

No aspect of the minotaur’s penis was left to chance in the recently released Your Highness,

The fearsome appendage, which is revealed at a key moment in April’s medieval stoner comedy, came courtesy of extensive internal debates within and outside the film’s distributor Universal Pictures. How to light the half-man/half-bull’s prosthetic member? How big the balls? The penis’ startling physical dimensions, the state of its, ahem, romantic rectitude—all were subject to boardroom discussions between filmmakers, concept artists and studio executives, resulting in a breakthrough for the R-rated action farce.

“When we filmed it, the creature’s manhood is swinging back and forth between his legs,” said Your Highness director David Gordon Green. “It was actually the head of the studio who had the idea to give him a boner.

The article describes male nudity as “the Last Taboo”, and male nudity may very well be the last taboo for mainstream film (I think Tony Comstock might disagree).  But the idea – popular in social conservative circles – that our society has no taboos remaining would be misguided were we to extrapolate from popular entertainment to the entirety of popular culture: just as taboos against violence, nudity, and language in entertainment have receded as we’ve gradually begun to feel more comfortable with representations of those things, new taboos have risen up to take their places.  A collective exercise may shed light on the puzzle of what those taboos are.

As was pointed out in the League of Ordinary Gentlemen Deadwood thread mentioned above, modern audiences would not be able to understand the foul language of the 1800s; this is why the writers of that show decided to anachronistically use the f-word instead of the bizarre curse words of the real wild wild west.  The intended effect is to shock the viewer; but to me – since I know it’s anachronistic – it feels forced and self-conscious (I prefer the way the Rome producers combine the two aesthetic approaches to foul language in such delicious phrases as “By Vulcan’s cock!” Here, both shock and exoticism are retained.)

As was also pointed out in that thread, today’s bad language is often scatological; a hundred years ago, it was religious.  Since religious faith is largely dead in mainstream culture (making many social conservatives half-right), according the special power of taboo to religious curse language wouldn’t make much sense nowadays.  I can freely exclaim “God damn you!” and “Jesus Christ!” without feeling like I’ve done a grave injustice or invited harm unto my person (unless of course I’m in the company of strong believers who reject mainstream popular culture).  

In its Modernist period, Western culture gradually discovered the importance of hygiene, and curse words became associated with the spread of disease.  Considering this, I would offer a radical hypothesis: perhaps in the great progress that modern medicine has made in eradicating even advanced stages of infectious disease, our cultural taboos have moved elsewhere: inequality comes to mind as one hypothetical.  This could explain why racial slurs cause even the most detached sociologist to cringe but as far as we are aware racial slurs did not bother many of our ancestors.  I’d argue strongly that one taboo on the rise for entertainment is a cultural injunction against representations of racism and other forms of inequality: could anyone imagine a truly racist or sexist film (that wasn’t meant to reinforce the taboo) making it to theaters and being received with anything other than total disgust?

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Modern Visionaries Part I – Daniel Quinn

In Empires of the Mind on April 29, 2011 at 12:00 pm

But such simple answers aren’t enough to reassure the people of your culture nowadays. Everyone is looking down, and it is obvious that the ground is rushing up towards, you-and rushing up faster every year. – Daniel QuinnIn a world where a pedigree in academia has been the de facto standard of acceptance for information provided to the world, a few remarkable un-credentialed people have come to the forefront of our social collective to provide earthshaking philosophical, technological, sociological, and just plain humanistic revelations that could very well have a major impact on the future of mankind.  

These people often come from backgrounds that have nothing to do with the insights and predictions for which they are well-known.  These people have been incredibly accurate in their predictions and in the application of many of their theories. They have been disregarded by their academic counterparts and brushed off as fantastical by much of academia.

One of these people is Daniel Quinn.  For this post, I would like to investigate the question: Is Daniel Quinn a sociologist?

Sociology is defined as:

the science of society, social institutions, and social relationships; specifically: the systematic study of the development, structure, interaction, and collective behavior of organized groups of human beings.

A person who is in the academic discipline of sociology is referred to as a sociologist or often a “social scientist”. Princeton’s online definition search provides this description for a social scientist:

someone who is an expert in the study of human society and its personal relationships.  

Concerning the non-academic Daniel Quinn, digging deeper into what really defines a sociologist becomes a little more complex than a simple yes or no answer.

Quinn was born in 1935 and grew up in Omaha, Nebraska.  He graduated from Creighton Prep in 1953. He also studied at St. Louis University, the University of Vienna, and Loyola University of Chicago, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English, cum laude, in 1957.  Quinn continued on into a 20 year career in educational and consumer publishing in Chicago; he served as Biography and Fine Arts Editor at the American Peoples Encyclopedia, Managing Editor of the Greater Cleveland Mathematics Program (Science Research Associates), head of the mathematics department at Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corporation, Executive Editor of Fuller & Dees Publishing (a division of the Times Mirror Corporation) and Editorial Director of the Society for Visual Education (a division of the Singer Corporation).

An HR manager looking at the above on a resume wouldn’t exactly start thinking of social and anthropological culture and the current state of humanity.  And yet many see Quinn as an enlightened genius seeing both the wrongs and rights of human action in the historical past and present.  For many people, Daniel Quinn provides a rational framework to turn around the ecological disaster the human race has created for itself.  Those of us who have read Quinn’s work Ishmael know that Quinn as an author dives into both sociological and anthropological issues and packs his prose full of observations both insightful and believable.  Ishmael is Quinn’s most recognized work and, undoubtedly, his legacy.

I’m telling you this because the people of your culture are in much of the same situation, like the people of Nazi Germany, they are the captives of a story.

Sociologists are natural social critics, and Daniel Quinn’s criticism of our society is that the cultural solution of the “Takers” in Ishmael will result in destruction.  Quinn’s main message and observation in Ishmael is that humans are actively and continually destroying the natural world because we are captives of a cultural system that leads us to do so.  This sounds like the language and ideas of an educated sociologist.  While this piece is not a book review of Quinn’s most famous work, Ishmael, it is important to realize that that particular work is the foundation of Quinn’s insights and theories regarding our world and society.

It was this first work regarding the state of nature, man today, and what may be in store for the human race in the not so distant future (as well as two other similar works that followed) that cemented Daniel Quinn’s fame and even garnered him a fair amount of respect from some academics.  Quinn is brilliant in how he is able to get us to think about the way we live our lives and how our society functions.  His observations concerning the Aborigines, American Indians, and Inuit are compelling, as is his argument that the ecological disaster that is today’s Earth is humankind’s fault.

Quinn’s espoused ideas provide us with a step-by-step path through the fundamental mythology of our culture to explain how problematic things have gotten on Earth and how they could be better; more succinctly, Quinn writes about the preservation of our planet and what this means for the human race. This entails a re-analysis of the Genesis stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel (cultural religion). Quinn’s analyses are right on the money and often frighteningly logical and accurate within the framework of the sociological/anthropological concepts put forth in Ishmael and the works that follow, The Story of B and My Ishmael.  This makes it hard to deny him some sociological authority, despite his lack of credentials.

Quinn is an advocate of a concept called “new tribalism”.  From Webster’s Online Dictionary:

In the past 50 years, anthropologists have greatly revised our understanding of the tribe. Franz Boas removed the idea of unilineal cultural evolution from the realm of serious anthropological research as too simplistic, allowing tribes to be studied in their own right, rather than stepping stones to civilization or “living fossils.” Anthropologists such as Richard Borshay Lee and Marshall Sahlins began publishing studies that showed tribal life as an easy, safe life, the opposite of the traditional theoretical supposition. In the title to his book, Sahlins referred to these tribal cultures as “the Original Affluent Society,” not for their material wealth, but for their combination of leisure and lack of want.

Ultimately Daniel Quinn is an observer of the failure of modern civilization and an advocate of a return to tribal values like egalitarianism and cooperation.  Not only is he a sociologist by description, but a credible philosopher, anthropologist, and futurist as well.  While Daniel Quinn may not be referred to as a sociologist because he lacks an academic pedigree, due to his accuracy and knowledge when it comes to societal culture, Quinn comfortably assumes the roll of sociologist.

Books, The Last Book

In Empires of the Mind on April 28, 2011 at 10:12 pm

The Braintree, Massachusetts Borders is having an everything-must-go-going-out-of-business sale: everything is 40% to 70% off.  I’m a bit disappointed because Borders is a better book store than Barnes & Noble, but after visting several times, I have put together a huge backlog of reading material, so the loss of one Borders is not going to significantly impact my life.

Plus, I can speculate on what book will be the last sold: will it be Arthur Agatston’s The South Beach Diet?  Sarah Palin’s masterpiece, America by Heart?  Could it be one of the many books remaining in the holocaust section?  Or Bill O’Reilly’s porno novel?  And what does the last book say about human nature?  What does it say about Massachusetts?

Anyways, in the few weeks I’ve been home, I’ve managed to get my hands on several books that I’ve wanted to read for quite some time, and I’m making reading them a priority for this spring and summer.  Here they are in the order in which I intend to read them.  (Reviews should appear spread throughout the next several months.)

1.  The Pale KingDavid Foster Wallace – I don’t really have high expectations for this one, since Wallace was a perfectionist and this book was just pieced together from some papers he left on his desk.  That’s a dick move if you ask me.  (Of course, I still have to read it.)    

2.  The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008edited by Jerome Groopman – The Best American series is excellent.  This will be the first time I read the science and nature anthology, and I’m looking forward to it.  In general, science writing in America is poor, but there are some gems out there.  Those gems are likely to be displayed in the Best American series.

3.  The Structural Transformation of the Public SphereJurgen Habermas – I started reading this classic work several months ago, and it’s fairly short, so I should finish it quickly.  Describing Habermas’s work is really beyond my abilities, but so far I would recommend it highly.  I think.    

4.  ZeitounDave Eggers – The McSweeney’s founder ties together the two great failures of the Bush Administration – Hurricane Katrina and the War on Terror – in this nonfiction offering.

5.  Our Man in HavanaGraham Greene – the 1959 thriller/satire provides a light break among some relatively heavy tomes.  (Good band name!)

6.  The Song of Rolandtranslated from the Old French by Glyn Burgess – Long before the French demigods Joan of Arc, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Gerard Depardieu, there was the French demigod, Roland.  I’m excited to read this extraordinarily violent primary account of the medieval battle in which the eponymous one perished.

7.  The Best American Travel Writing 2010edited by Bill Buford – I read 2007, 2008, and 2009 when I was hellbent on becoming a travel writer (I still am).  Travel writing continues to be grossly underread and far from the mainstream – definitely compared to science writing, which is qualitatively poorer.

8.  A Passage to IndiaE.M. Forster – Forster has long been one of my favorite novelists.  I’ve never read a Passage to India, but if it’s half as good as Howard’s End, it’s a masterpiece.

9.  The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical TalesOliver Sacks – I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything by Dr. Sacks, but his reputation certainly precedes him.  Sacks has introduced the world to Temple Grandin and many other incredible people.  In addition to being a top writer, he’s a top neurologist. 

10.  The Social Transformation of American MedicinePaul Starr – This 500-page-massive scholarly work won the 1983 C. Wright Mills Award in sociology, the 1984 Bancroft Prize in American history, and the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction.  It’s required reading for anyone interested in medicine or public health.

11.  The Authenticity HoaxAndrew Potter – I’ve long been a reader of Potter’s blog of the same name, so I’m sure this book will leave me even more amazed/depressed/nihilistic than I am now.  So why would I read it?  When I was little, I was always the kid who picked up the snakes and spiders he found in his backyard; so even though I know I will probably come out of this book even more bitter than I will be going in, I’m going to read it anyways, but I’ll make it last so I can enjoy the summer. 

If anyone else wants to read these books as well and have an online book club of sorts, let’s do it.  I’ll be discussing the themes of the texts above all summer long, so it might help to share a common background with the Inductive readership.

Kamikaze of the Sea: Otsushima Kaiten Memorial Museum

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on April 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm

<Alexis Bonari is currently a resident blogger at College Scholarships, where recently she’s been researching both the Ford scholarship as well as football scholarships of all kinds. Whenever she gets some free time, she enjoys watching a funny movie or curling up with a good book.>

The first time anyone in the United States asked me where I was originally from, I was buying a pair of socks in rural North Carolina and surrounded by at least three other customers.  When I responded, “Hiroshima,” everyone grew hushed, and the inquirer preferred the awkward silence to following through the conversation.

The first time anyone outside of family asked me what kind of novel I was writing (or trying to), I was at a friend’s dinner party.  When I replied, “About World War II kamikaze pilots,” everyone fell so quiet that I heard someone’s belly complaining over the shrimp appetizers.

Admittedly, both topics can make some Americans a little uncomfortable.  They might have made me feel uncomfortable, too, at least until halfway through my college career when my father—an American former Marine working in Japan—offered to introduce me to one of his friends, a former kamikaze pilot.  The latter had survived his mission because he’d been dismissed from it after the first atomic bomb had destroyed his hometown and his entire family.  He returned to the city a failure, jobless, and an orphan.

Today, M-san is a philanthropist who’s built schools for disadvantaged children in the Philippines, Bangladesh, and South Korea, where he is an honorary citizen.  When I returned to Japan to meet M-san, one of the first places he and fellow war vet O-san recommended I visit was Otsushima Island.

The Price of the Kaiten

Otsushima sits in Tokuyama Bay in Yamaguchi Prefecture, not far from Hiroshima and a 45-minute ferry ride from Tokuyama Station.  It was O-san’s base from which he would have sortied had the war not ended before his due date. 

Unlike the stories many Americans hear of kamikaze suicide squadrons, neither M-san nor O-san—nor any of the scores of veterans I have spoken with since—wanted to die.  One simply did not refuse to serve the Emperor.  To do so meant being sent on a deadly mission to the southern islands. Even more, M-san’s family would have been castigated and shunned, cut off from the vital community.  Although most men in wartime Japan wanted glory in the skies or the seas, few wanted to die in them so young.

The kaiten were kamikaze of the seas, pilots of manned torpedoes.  The Japanese Navy’s first kaiten attack on the U.S. was on November 20, 1944, and these persisted for the duration of the war.  In total, 106 kaiten pilots’s suicides resulted in the deaths of 162 Americans.  Hardly worth the price.

Ghosts of the Kaiten

Upon arriving in Otsushima, I made my way to the museum.  It was founded in 1968 by Katsuro Mohri, who worked on Otsushima during the 1937 launch of the Type 93 torpedo.  After war’s end, he had buried all the historical materials from the island that he could manage, for fear of them being damaged (or himself being punished) by the invading American forces.  Thereafter, Mohri visited families who had lost sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands to the kaiten operation, collecting historical items along the way.  These are now on display at the museum.  While staring at the sepia faces of the dead on the wall I noticed that most of them looked about sixteen, the age M-san became an orphan.

It was not the museum that O-san had gravely recommended to me, however; it was a tunnel on the other side of the island.  The tunnel goes through one of the island’s many mountains; it is what remains of the concrete building where kaiten pilots launched for training.  The kaiten submarines were transported by rail through the tunnel.  Today, haunting black and white images of workers and pilots line the walls, eerie reminders of men who never returned, the empire that wasted them, and the victors who demonized them.


A Raga for April 26th

In General Principles on April 26, 2011 at 12:00 pm

raga of spring – Vasant Ragini, Ragamala, Rajput, Kota, Rajasthan. 1770.Krishna dances with maidens1.  As someone who aspires to rationality, I find the irrationality of ritual endlessly fascinating (whether this irrationality is of the exotic, hardcore, or wimpy varieties).  While specific rituals are always irrational to the outsider, count on ritual as ostensibly purposeless fixed-action pattern to slither its way into even the most consciously rational of life-models.  

2.  The familiar algorithms of ritual provide soothing punctuation to the unmanageable run-on sentences of modern life.  Like a defrag program, their regular employment serves as an anchor to help everything else run smoothly.

3.  The role of strictly observed ritual in my life in Fukushima was to allow me to wake up everyday and play with my children until the early afternoon, ride my bike to work while listening to science lectures, teach classes until evening, ride my bike home, and write for three or four hours everyday.

4.  Through this deliberate existence, I managed to fit full-time employment, active parenting, an hour and a half of moderate exercise, an hour and a half of study, and an article into each day.  This was only possible by making small yet compounding improvements in ritual efficiency over the course of almost two years of the complete systemic control provided by strict observance.

5.  Since coming to America exactly a month ago, I’ve had no sustainable ritual presence in my life.  Without ritual and its anchored associative permutations, time disappears into the void.

North – tohoku earthquake part six

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on April 26, 2011 at 4:00 am

I recognized the woman at the door immediately, despite the mask that covered her nose and mouth. I knew her daughter too, as one of my son’s many pre-school friends. ‘Konnichi-wa,’ I said, trying in vain to recall either of their names. The woman offered a slight bow, awkward enough with her daughter on her hip, forget about the underlying circumstances. ‘Kevin-san, domo.’ She handed me a small, heavy plastic bag.

My wife had said she’d be dropping by, with milk formula for our little boy. In the intervening moments I’d forgotten her name, but I remembered very clearly one thing my wife said: she was going to be driving to Sendai.

‘I’m leaving tomorrow,’ she said in response to my casual query. I glanced over at her boxy car, already half-stuffed with blankets and bags. ‘Are there any buses running out of Sendai, do you know?’ I asked. She shook her head. ‘Maybe, but I don’t know.’ With this we both understood: I was looking for a way out of town, and while she really would like to help…

Even if we got to Sendai where would we stay?

I paid her for the milk, thanked her for her exceptional kindness – by now the common sentiment was that no one wanted to be outside any longer than necessary – and we wished each other luck.

My wife was holding our little boy at the top of the stairs. ‘What should we do?’ No gas in the car, no gas at the gas stations, no buses or trains and reports of rain clouds blowing in from the southeast. Damned if I knew what we were going to do – an answer that, for the first time in my life, wasn’t going to cut it. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have the option of passing for now, didn’t have the luxury of choosing my way, or saying screw it and choosing no way at all. Staying put, I’d be placing my family at risk – of something I didn’t even understand. I had to find an answer. I had to find a way where there was none. And it occurred to me that all my life I had been avoiding having to do exactly that. This time, for the first time, I couldn’t say screw it.

I called two friends; one had gas in his car but wasn’t going anywhere, the other would take off if he could. I wondered aloud if there might be any gas in my wife’s father’s truck, and if we maybe couldn’t siphon some out. Or maybe we could convince one of the neighbors to sell us the gas in their tank. Or do you think our car would run on kerosene? Do you want to try hitchhiking?

The idea surfaced in my head and I knew it wasn’t going away: I was failing my family.

‘Akita,’ my wife said, and I immediately felt something in me lift. I knew exactly what she was thinking.

Our neighbor, from downstairs and over one, was from Akita prefecture, a fair distance to the northwest. We only knew where he was from because of the license plate on his full-size Volvo wagon. We’d been neighbors for almost a year now, and while it was nothing out of the ordinary for Japan, I found it decidedly regrettable, on more than one level, that I still didn’t know his name.

I ran to the window and looked out at the parking lot. His car wasn’t there. I bounded down the stairs and threw open the door, expecting nothing but a deserted street.

There was his car, in front of his place. No one was inside, but the motor was running. Same with another car, waiting along the opposite curb. With my sneakers barely on my feet I jumped down the front steps. This, I knew, was the answer my family needed. The answer I needed. I eased over toward my neighbor’s open door. He plays soccer for Fukushima United, I reminded myself. He wears number six. Out of all the things to notice about a person I notice his laundry, hung to dry now and then out on his balcony.

‘Hey,’ I say as he appears from his darkened front hallway. He smiles. He always smiled when I said hey, as if inviting me over to trade a few words while wondering whether we’d have anything to say to each other. ‘Hey,’ he says back, and I hate that I don’t know his name.

He was on his way to Morioka, he told me, to visit his brother before continuing on to Akita and his home. His girlfriend wasn’t going with him; she’d be staying with her family, right there in town. The look in his eyes as he said this told me he didn’t think she was making the right decision but who was he to tell her to leave her family behind. This, I didn’t mention, was exactly what my wife had already decided to do.

In the next few seconds a silence hung between us. There was no room for small talk here, no time to get to know each other first before stumbling into the conversation we both knew was coming. And as helpful and generous as Japanese people are inclined or bred to be, I sensed a reluctance on my neighbor’s part – a guy I knew not by name but by a number – to let us into his car and his plans and his immediate future as our best friend and savior. And just for a moment, I hesitated.

To hell with pride, dignity and social graces. This was my chance to get my family out of town.

‘I can only take you to Morioka,’ he said. That was fine. It was fantastic. ‘And I’m not sure where you can stay. The hotels might be full.’ He probably knew as well as I did the situation – in other words, he didn’t have any idea either. ‘We’ll figure it out once we get there…if you can get us there…’

In every other situation, in every other moment of my life, I would have felt like I was imposing and ended up offering the guy an out. If you’re too busy… If there’s not enough room… We can probably get a ride from someone else… But not today. Not now.

‘Can you wait ten minutes?’

For the next twenty-five minutes our new friend waited – ‘I’m Jun,’ he said with a smile – while my wife and I stuffed into two big bags everything we thought we might need for a few days or weeks or maybe a month or two. ‘Put a few books and some cars or trains in your backpack,’ I told my son. ‘Okay,’ he sang, grabbing his Thomas the Tank Engine book bag and picking out what he wanted to bring as if we were going to Grandma’s for the night. We packed a few plastic bags with what food we could eat straight out of the box or bag or can; my wife took care of the baby’s stuff while I took four of everything from my older son’s dresser and stuck it all in with mine. My wife grabbed our passports and her cameras (leaving the battery chargers behind). I slipped a notebook into my backpack, leaving laptop, flash drives and ten years worth of photographs for another day.

‘Switch your main breaker off,’ Jun said as I packed our bags into his car, on and among his own stuff. ‘And bring some blankets if you can.’ Blankets? ‘Yes, it is still very cold in Morioka and my brother doesn’t have many extra blankets.’ This sentence, simple and bloated with meaning, told me that I’d heard what I thought I heard Jun say into his phone as I was dragging our bags down the steps to our front door. Number Six was doing what I had seen so many people do in the past few days, and what so many people I would read about later would do. Jun was reaching out, helping where help was needed. My neighbor, whose name I’d never bothered to learn, was being, simply, Japanese.

I was tearing up and down the stairs, going back for odds and ends as I thought of them. ‘Sorry, I’m really sorry,’ I said, finding side pockets and empty spaces to cram things into. ‘No problem,’ J
un said as if we were not yet late for a picnic. His girlfriend too waited patiently, texting someone as she stood in Jun’s doorway. At long last we locked our front door, too much in a rush at this point to pause and wonder when we might be back. ‘Maybe you should put your masks on,’ Jun said easily as we drove off, raindrops dotting the windshield.

On the news I’d seen one structure in town – an old three-story school building – that had partially collapsed. Other than that I’d only seen toppled three-foot cinder block walls, old wooden fences leaning over into the weeds and a few new bumps and divots in the sidewalks. On the way to Jun’s girlfriend’s house it was a different if not entirely catastrophic picture. A lot of the homes in that neighborhood were of a more traditional type, with rooftops made of clay tiles. Here and there they sat broken now, in piles under the eaves and scattered in gardens, the holes in the places where they’d fallen from now covered with swaths of blue tarp.

I expected Route 4 to be snarled with traffic, half the city headed south toward Tokyo, half crawling toward Sendai and parts further north. But there were only a handful of us waiting at any given red light. Cars were scarce; commercial trucks were all but non-existent. As we passed through Kunimi and Koori and headed for the countryside the road population thinned to almost nothing.

The world itself looked no different. The road was the road, lined with buildings and stretches of forest and field. Cars were cars, and while there were fewer of them than usual this could be explained away if need be. No one was speeding or driving recklessly; abandoned storefronts – the only visible clues to the altered state of existence – were left undisturbed and alone. No sirens, not even a patrol car. Then we came upon a small one-story cement garage crumbling in on itself, waiting, it seemed, for the next big aftershock, or gravity or a piece of heavy machinery to put it out of its misery. Soon we were crossing into Miyagi; signs for Sendai began appearing. I felt like we were delving into the mouth of some kind of invisible beast.

Conversation came in gentle spurts. I learned that Jun had recently traded in his number six for a coach’s jersey. He was from Ohdate, where my wife and I had actually gone a handful of years ago, to see a huge fireworks display. He liked Fukushima. He knew he and his friends could be a bit boisterous at night sometimes and apologized for the noise. He asked where we were from, and asked if we were planning on ever moving to the States. ‘It might be a good idea to leave Japan for a while,’ he said, that smile still hanging around. I told him if we did he was absolutely welcome to come visit us someday, and stay with us for a while, wherever we might be living. Jun said that sounded great. And while we were both being sincere, it felt like a conversation you have with people you don’t think you’ll ever see again.

Traffic turned heavy as we neared the heart of Sendai. Still, aside from the occasional ramen shop or convenience store with all-but-empty shelves, doors remained locked, windows remained dark, parking lots sat empty. At a roadside gas station light fixtures hung low, metal framing bent like a witch’s accusing fingers over the pumps. In a gravel lot rows of tour buses sat in noticeable disarray; three of them had rolled off into the surrounding drainage ditch. A cement factory silo, twenty meters tall, leaned like the Tower of Pisa. The road cleared again as we left Sendai behind, heading back out into a landscape of trees and rice fields and rivers where the only signs of the quake came in the form of uneven joints in the road where earth and bridge surfaces used to meet with barely a wrinkle. We had to slow down a little more at each successive bridge as we made our way into Iwate.

Jun took his mask off. I’d stripped mine off long ago. I offered to drive if he needed a break. He smiled and said he was fine. We talked about stopping for a bite to eat, but we just kept on moving north. I dug out my cell phone and answered messages, one by one, left by friends who had taken off and friends who, for one reason or another, were staying behind, at least for the time being. The words we all used differed but the basic message was the same: Take good care, stay safe, and I’ll see you again when it’s over.

In the back seat my older son looked at picture books and fiddled with his toy cars. I wondered what he might say to his pre-school friends, if he only knew.

Things, We Didn’t Know – tohoku earthquake part five

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on April 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm
The subject of the text message was simple: ‘Run!’

With this one word all the thoughts I’d fallen asleep to came crashing back into my head. My friend had spent the night thirty miles up the road in Yonezawa. ‘We’ll go further today, if we can,’ he said.

If we can?…

In my head it sounded right out of a movie, too dramatic to be real. And he wasn’t the only person I knew who was already heading west, away from the nuclear reactors leaking God-knows-what-if-anything into the air. A co-worker of mine, one of the sharpest and most level-headed guys I’ve ever met, had also hit the road. He too was with his family, making his way toward the Sea of Japan, unsure of their destination, living out of their car. ‘Just to be on the safe side,’ he said.

This made everything seem both more sane and more weird.

An explosion at a nuclear reactor is not welcome news, particularly when it comes from your own backyard. Holy shit I heard myself say as I stared at my computer screen, head blank except for those two words and a full-color apocalyptic image. But nothing else I had found made mention of anything like casualties, evacuation orders or even a general warning beyond a glib ‘stay inside’. That a nuclear reactor could explode without frying the surrounding area let alone the entire hemisphere was news to me, and the thought crept into my head that either no one knows for sure what the hell is going on or else they’re just not telling us.

‘Those cars were there at six o’clock this morning,’ my wife said as we congregated for breakfast. She pointed out the window and past the veranda at three cars parked along the stretch of visible curb. ‘What do you think?’

‘I want pancakes,’ my son said, stepping carefully (more or less) past the dishes and glasses and appliances crowding the kitchen floor.

It was a little before nine. On a normal day the stores would still be closed; for the past two days nothing had been open. ‘Waiting for something,’ I said, not sure what they might be waiting for until finally it hit me: ‘Gas.’

The closest station was easily three hundred meters away. I knew we didn’t have much in our tank; we would have driven out to my wife’s parents’ place otherwise. Better fill up as soon as we can, I thought. Just to be on the safe side.

Three hours later I was out at the curb listening to a woman tell me she’d been waiting in line since eight.

After breakfast, with my wife watching the news and my boys playing with trains and cars and noisy things made in China, I’d gotten back to googling for anything I could find. Reports about the reactor situation hadn’t changed, but there was now a designated area within a certain radius of the Daiichi complex where people were being told to stay indoors. ‘A precautionary measure,’ or so went the story.

That vague fear – the fear of not knowing, first felt on Friday night – returned.

I did some research on the reactors – their construction, their innards and their age. I found out that the reported explosion had likely occurred in and only impacted the upper chamber of the reactor; good news in that the main compartment remained intact, bad news in that this upper area was where spent fuel rods were being stored. Radioactive material was now leaking into the air. It might have been a disaster in the making. It might have been nothing, at least to us, fifty miles and one mountain range away. Maybe this will happen, maybe that won’t. Stay inside and keep your windows closed within twenty kilometers.

Outside I saw two people, my neighbor from across the street and a girl riding her bicycle. They both wore white masks over their nose and mouth. I spoke with a friend on the phone: ‘The wind will blow in from the ocean,’ he explained in precise English. ‘We will have acid rain tonight.’ The television told us the same, in between reports of a rising death toll and clips of Yukio Edano, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, saddled with the unenviable job of telling the nation and the world just what was going on and what they were going to do about it. I scoured the Net for information on the buses and trains running out of Fukushima; most pages had no updated schedules posted, a couple indicated all service had stopped. Nowhere could I find what I wanted to hear.

My inbox overflowed with day-old messages of joy and relief that we were okay.

A friend of my wife’s stopped by with a can of baby formula she’d just picked up for us. She had a mask on, as did her three-year-old daughter. She’d be leaving for Sendai the next day, to be with her family. ‘Are you staying here?’ she asked.

The line of cars outside our balcony wasn’t moving. I couldn’t remember if the ones there now were the same ones I’d seen at breakfast. ‘I’ll be right back,’ I told my wife and ran out the door.

Four hours the woman had been waiting. She looked equal parts calm and worried and resigned. Behind her the line of cars stretched out of sight; beyond the traffic light up ahead they disappeared around a corner. I started jogging, then running, cutting through the parking lot of the electronics store to the side street that ran past the back entrance to the gas station. The line of cars stood like a disrupted funeral procession; a quarter mile down, past the park with the sandbox my son loved to go to, the row of cars bent left, then left again to run back up the main road and into the gas station’s front entrance. A mile of waiting cars, easily. Plus a crowd of people at the kerosene pumps. Men wearing the gas station’s logo on their backs worked frantically. Two of them started scribbling on large pieces of cardboard.

申し訳ありませんが、ガス売り切り。We are sorry, no more gas.

Life had become a movie. The movie had turned into real life. The world I knew had ceased to exist, replaced with something that I did not feel a part of, even as I began wondering how the hell I was going to escape. I ran back down the road, across the empty parking lot. One of the lucky ones sped through the dead traffic light at the corner. My neighbor had gone inside. From the couch my wife looked up at me. ‘What did you find out?’

I looked at her. I looked at my boys. I looked at Yukio Edano.

Home, Neighbors, Cake & What’s Coming – tohoku earthquake part four

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on April 10, 2011 at 5:17 pm
After faking his own death Huckleberry Finn hides in a tree outside a church window, looking in on all the townfolk crying at his funeral. ‘I never had any idea so many people cared about old Huck Finn,’ he says as the tears well in his own eyes.

Of all the scenes of all the movies, all the passages in all the books I’ve ever read, this was the one that came to mind as I stared at the screen of my laptop soon after returning home on Sunday.

The population of the shelter was about half what it had been the first night. In the morning air I felt a mix of restlessness and lethargy; the aftershocks had all but ceased, and though they’d probably keep the gym open for anyone wanting to stay, I knew it was time for us to go home – utilities or no.

First, however, we’d accept three rations of breakfast bread plus a sponge roll cake from the men in the windbreakers still working on all our behalf.

We weren’t going to be able to fit all our futons and blankets and kids into the car at once without raising a few Child Welfare & Social Service eyebrows; I’d have to make two trips. The futons, much more relaxed and manageable than my sugared up son, would go first.

At home I found the electricity had come back. Five minutes later, with the old Model T laptop warmed up and my inbox overflowing with the thoughts and prayers and hopes and pleas of countless good people, I turned into Huck Finn in a tree.

————–

My older son got right back to playing with his cars and trains; he didn’t seem to even notice that half the apartment was now scattered all over the floor. Our younger boy, who just a few days ago had taken his first real steps, clung to his mommy as if he knew something bad had happened and might again at any time. My wife flipped the TV on, watching the images of devastation we now knew all too well while listening to vague reports of problems at the nuclear power plants fifty miles to the southeast. I set about putting our apartment and our life (so it felt) back in order. ‘Maybe we should leave the dishes and the rice cooker on the floor for now,’ my wife said. ‘The microwave the TV and the hot water maker too.’ Grudgingly, I had to agree it felt safer that way.

Across the street Mrs. Shishido tidied up her yard, picking twigs off the grass and sweeping leaves from the front walk into the gutter. She wore a white mask over her nose and mouth, common in Japan to fend off the germs and allergens of the season. ‘Konnichi-wa!’ she said, turning from her chores as I walked over. She was never short of words, and I hoped today would be no exception.

‘Everything all right?’ I asked. ‘Yes, we’re okay, how is your family?’ And for the next ten minutes I stuttered through a conversation like none I’d ever had, in any language.

Mrs. Shishido was surprised the power had already come back on (I’d had no idea what to expect). She also said the water would be back on by Friday, maybe Thursday, and oh by the way we can expect a huge aftershock sometime in the next three days. ‘Really?’ I said, hoping she was just screwing with me. ‘Oh yes,’ she answered, a look in her eyes that I would soon be familiar with though I would struggle to understand. In her eyes was a look of resignation, of acceptance of something bad we can not control or predict and so we might as well just get on with the business of daily existence.

As she told me about a place I could get water – someone with a well was allowing people to come fill up their jugs at their outdoor tap – stout and hearty Ms. Ito came shuffling over from next door. ‘Strongest earthquake I’ve ever felt,’ she said. ‘Strongest by far.’ Ms. Ito was eighty-something, and smiled like she had faced the worst the world could give her and had come out on top. With neighbors like this, being home was a tremendously comforting feeling.

‘Kevin-san,’ Mrs. Shishido said, pointing at my face and then hers. ‘You should wear a mask. Protect yourself from the radiation.’

———–

It was long past dark when I headed out on my bicycle, eight or so plastic bottles of all sizes in my backpack. The people had put a sign at the edge of their driveway: 水. As I filled up two young men got out of their car and walked over, each with a large white bucket. Behind them came an older man carrying nothing. I asked him if he lived there; he didn’t, then told us how there was a long line for water at a house fifty meters up the road. There were others too, he explained, offering their well water to anyone who needed it.

With neighbors like this…

On the way home I rode by the supermarket, normally open until 11pm. The hand-written sign on the door said they were selling bottled drinks and certain daily necessities and nothing else, and would be closing early every night for the forseeable future. All up and down the street, the restaurants and convenience stores and shoe and eyeglass and book shops were dark as vacant warehouses. The entrance to the gas station was roped off but there were no signs indicating a fuel shortage.

————

‘Happy Birthday!’ My older son beamed as if he’d remembered it himself. My wife gave him a long, tight squeeze. (‘Let go!’ he squealed, squirming.)

‘Sorry, I didn’t get you a present,’ I said as I dug out the pancake mix. (I want to help!’ my son barked.) ‘Oh it’s no problem.’ Which of course was true. Her smile told me, if I didn’t already know, that she had everything she wanted right there among the dishes and appliances and face-down-on-the-floor picture frames.

Her 40th birthday would be memorable at the very least.

She’d spend the day playing with our boys and keeping an eye on the news, by now almost entirely devoted to the growing concern about the situation down along the southern Fukushima shore. I sorted our clothes, putting away anything that could pass for clean – then emptied two large plastic drawers of my clothes onto the floor and went out to fetch more substantial stores of water. I began the wonderful, consuming task of responding to the literally hundreds of messages and facebook posts from both before and after I was able to say ‘Hi we’re okay.’ I stared at all the tea cups and glasses and semi-fancy souvenirs arranged safely on the throw rug underneath the kitchen table and decided – without knowing quite why – to pack everything away in boxes, as if we were about to move out.

We celebrated with home-made pizza that night (okay frozen pizza crusts from the supermarket topped with chopped vegetables and tuna from a can, baked in the microwave), and afterward sang Happy Birthday around a sponge roll cake decorated with leftover cookies and slices of a single kiwi fruit. This indeed is the stuff of memories.

Like a kids’ movie miracle the water came back on, making the those two big drawers of water in the bathroom seem not so much a waste as a luxury. Still, I’d dump it into the washing machine rather than down the drain. Meanwhile my wife, showered and sporting fresh pajamas for the first time in days, thought her birthday just couldn’t get any better.

She’d fall asleep right along with the boys, back home on our own tatami floor and loving it. I, on the other hand, would be up until the wee hours trying to make sense of the stream of conflicting reports on the seriousness of the nuclear reactor situation while texting back and forth with a couple of friends who had already packed their families and some clothes in their cars and begun heading west.

The Morning After – tohoku earthquake part three

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on April 7, 2011 at 3:20 am

Morning arrived in the form of the generator’s low hum; a murmur of voices; the footsteps, discernible somehow, of people at task. I crawled out of my futon (everyone I’d offered it to – elderly women, infant-coddling mothers, even the girl who literally fell asleep on her knees on the bare hardwood – had declined in favor of their own measly blankets) and looked around at a gymnasium filled with sunlight. People were up and about, moving not so much with purpose as with a desire for purpose. A few still reclined where they had slept, or not slept. Many stood in a line that stretched halfway around the room and ran right past the edges of my comforter. In shorts and a t-shirt I folded everything into a less obtrusive pile. The people at whose feet I’d just been sleeping pretended not to notice or care.

At the long tables against the far wall men and women handed out rice balls and tea. My wife was already on line, both our boys hanging onto her. I caught her eye and she motioned for me to join her; food was being carefully rationed out and they might not have given her any extra rice for a husband she’d claim was still asleep in that oversized lump of bedding over there. Although with our own leftover rice from home, along with some crackers and bread and peanut butter and juice, we weren’t living on the edge of survival. Not yet.

Overnight the sheltered masses had sat nervously, clutching their blankets and murmuring louder with each successive aftershock. Some were like angry growls of warning; a couple lasted much too long for anyone’s liking. Many amounted to mere shivers, like the earth was shaking off its own unease. Into the wee hours I’d been up, watching with sordid amusement a scene reminiscent of a Monty Python skit: with each new rumble a half dozen bodies would spring from slumber to startled; they’d sit straight up, wide wary eyes peering into the dark corners of the room and beyond; the rumbling would stop then, and as if some kind of switch of consciousness had been turned off, they’d all collapse like rag dolls back down onto their makeshift pillows.

In the course of the evening I’d run into Lee, a British guy I knew from the Japanese class we both attended on a strictly irregular basis. He lived not a cricket batsman’s fair effort from the Shimizu learning center with his wife and her family and their unusually dense and heavy baby boy. He told me their house was fine, no apparent structural damage – ‘a real testament to the quality of Japanese construction,’ he noted – but they decided they’d rather not have to deal with the sudden lack of water and electricity. Not that things were much better there at the shelter, but having the choice was something of a luxury.

We’d heard from people who had spotty Internet access through their cell phones that the massive (as suspected) earthquake had originated off the coast of Miyagi, north of Fukushima. 8.8 they said. Or 8.9. All that meant to me and Lee was that there had to be some pretty serious damage somewhere up the road. ‘If we have to be anywhere close to that monstrous a quake,’ Lee added, ‘on solid Fukushima ground is a good place to be.’ Neither of us thought much of the vague reports we’d heard of a tsunami.

With the coming of daylight the atmosphere in the shelter changed dramatically. It was as if we could now look around and see with our own eyes that things were still as we remembered them. That despite the unsettling suspicion that we were wrong, perhaps we could go on believing that life would continue on as normal. People seemed a bit lighter on their feet; voices sounded less grave. Still, the occasional tremor reminded us – reminded me – of an earth still very much alive under our feet.

Sixteen hours had passed since I held my son, telling him everything was okay as I prayed for the world to stop, and still I hadn’t been able to contact anyone, to let them know we were fine. After hours of trying, Lee had been able to get a text message to England through his mother-in-law’s phone. She let me try, to no avail. The pay phones couldn’t handle international calls, or even calls across town at times. The men in the office-cum-crisis management center told me (without, oddly, offering to try) that I wouldn’t be able to get through using the phones there either. But no worries, I figured, assuming everyone back home knew I lived on safe, steady ground. (The absurdity of anyone back home understanding this somehow did not click with me.)

With the tremors growing fainter and less frequent, with the sun shining down on a beautiful day in Fukushima City, people slowly began packing up their blankets to go back home. Lines formed outside the building on both sides, folks toting jugs and buckets and garbage cans to fill with water from the spigots that had already come back to life if they had ever even died at all. Cars moved easily up and down the street. An old man and his granddaughter walked their dog together. I watched as my older son played on the jungle gym and the swings, along with a handful of other blessedly naive souls. I spoke with a few of the parents, but only in the context of our kids; I wasn’t sure what to say about the quake and wanted to let them bring it up if they wanted. None did.

On the playground and in the buildings and houses all around not a brick, not a tree branch looked out of place. Mount Shinobu, Fukushima City’s grand natural centerpiece, rose up into the bright blue sky as it always had, lines of her hilltop temples visible through the naked branches, radio towers standing straight and tall. Snowmelt ran down the concrete gutters. Birds chirped and flitted overhead. Down at the edge of the river my son and I flipped rocks into the water. The world indeed felt at peace. ‘See what happens when you throw a rock in?’ My son watched intently. ‘It sinks. It goes down to the bottom, right?’ He smiled and threw another of his own in and watched it disappear. ‘Now watch this,’ I said, picking up a thick, weather-beaten stick. ‘This is going to float on top.’ And I tossed it into the current.

My son and I watched silently as the stick splashed into the water, drifted along a few inches under the surface, then slowly sank into the murky depths and disappeared.

‘I guess that was a really heavy stick,’ I said to my son. Like everything else going on it didn’t mean much to him. Thank God.

A loose crowd around a large flat screen television in the front hall of the Shimizu building told me the electricity was back, at least here. Tonight, if we did stay, we wouldn’t be hanging around in shadows. We wouldn’t have to bring a flashlight to the bathroom. We could now recharge our cell phones and try once again to reach the outside world.

Staring at the images coming across the screen, reaching the outside world was suddenly a much more urgent and pressing matter and at the same time extremely trivial. Fishing villages reduced to fields of splintered wood. Cars and houses and debris packed in surreal heaps. Who knew what everyone back home was seeing? Who out there knew what the situation was where I lived? Who knew where I even was? These thoughts were washed away though; I was fine, and my family would know this soon enough. Right now, though, right up the road, were scenes so terrible, so horrific, they barely made sense even as I stood watching them, over and over. It felt like watching planes fly into buildings on TV. It hit me like having to listen to my sister tell me over the phone to come home to say my last good-byes to my father.

For the rest of that crisp, sparkling blue Saturday I kept returning, with the others, to stare at those images. I went home, to check if by chance we’d gotten electricity back – and looked around at the pictures and knick-knacks that had fallen to the floor, the bottles of cooking oil and boxes of curry mix that had been shaken right out of the cabinets, the papers and toys and crafts from pre-school, scattered all over an apartment that, despite its appearance, was safe. Still, we would sleep in a gymnasium one more night.

Slight though they were, there will still tremors out there.

Separated from our haven by thirty miles and a range of mountains, the world over there along the coast – a world we knew and had been to many times, and as recently as four days ago – had suddenly ceased to exist. That our building, that Lee’s home, that my son’s pre-school and Fukushima City were still standing was indeed a testament to the world man had built around us. But my wife and I felt better, for now, having others around us. Just in case.

Calm Amid Calamity – tohoku earthquake part two

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on April 1, 2011 at 2:20 pm

I walked into the dark front hall of the Shimizu Learning Center. A man in a blue windbreaker approached, moving with an efficiency that told me he was at work though in what capacity I had no idea. What was the situation here, or anywhere else? What had really happened, and what needed to be done? I hadn’t seen any damage. A distant siren bled through the hum of a single generator; outside the glass doors a circle of men dressed in shadows watched over a huge pot of water, slowly warming over a propane flame.

I suppose I expected to be received in some way, for someone in a dark blue windbreaker to ask me my name, if I was all right and did I come with any family. I waited for direction but the man kept walking, by my shoulder and out into the wind and the returning snow. More figures appeared, out of the black corridors ahead and the blustery darkness behind. A couple of them held flashlights. They traded scant words as they passed each other. No one spoke to me. No lines, no people with clipboards. Barely a sound besides that generator. The siren in the distance faded and died. Something was going on here – but what? I wondered if we had come to the wrong place.

Yet the parking lot outside was full; my wife was waiting out there with our two boys, along with enough food and blankets, we hoped, to get us through the night. There had to be others. I walked down the left corridor, drawn to a softly-illuminated doorway and a murmur of voices. At the bottom of a single step a dozen pairs of shoes lie in semi-disarray. I kicked off my battered sneakers and stepped inside.

Three hundred people I would guess, the majority of them families and elderly couples, took up most of the gymnasium floor. Most were spread out on blankets, staking their orderly claim on some space for the night. Others sat up against the walls, in chairs or on the floor, out of reach of the glare of the two sets of spotlights focused on the middle of the room. Folks walked in slow motion, toward a long table with silver urns of hot water and tea, to the side a mishmash of half-empty jars of instant coffee. Others roamed with bald aimlessness the narrow makeshift walkways, careful not to step on their new neighbors’ blankets and bags and shoes. A few just stood in place, looking out over the scene as if they had already resigned themselves to something they had yet to understand.

Squares of empty floor still remained; a family of three edged past, clutching blankets to their chests, scanning the room with tired eyes. I ran back out to the car. The snow had begun to stick to the windshield. ‘You take him,’ I said, pointing to our little one. ‘I’ll bring everything else, let’s go.’ My older son was fast asleep in his car seat. He’d be all right for the time it would take for us to spread out on our temporary hardwood home. We’d brought two heavy blankets and my wife’s futon; with a little creativity we’d be able to stave off the chill seeping in through the walls but for me, for my family, this was not good enough. I’d go home and grab what more I could. ‘I’ll be right back. Do we need anything else?’ Before my wife could answer the world started shaking again.

With the added blankets we had, for the four of us, more comfort than any other ten people in the room. And there was still my futon in the car. The amount of food we had with us was also, at least by comparison, obscene. My wife went about settling in, as much as one can settle in on a gymnasium floor among three hundred other people. I began scoping out the place, looking for someone to approach.

Among the mass of people and blankets were several small clusters of older folks, sitting in chairs, blankets over their shoulders, quiet conversation floating up from the air around them. In the shadows their faces showed nothing that could be called fear. Some spoke calmly; others listened, waiting their turn. A few smiled or nodded casually to things I couldn’t hear. Along the edge of the room too they sat, in chairs or on thin blankets. Up close I saw lines of worry in their faces, though something in there told me their worries were older than today.

Men in windbreakers, and a few women too, continued moving among the people. People who, once here, had nothing to do except wait. Wait for clean tea cups; wait for the next tremor. Wait for the light of morning. The clock high on the wall read 11:30. It felt much, much later than that.

I wiped a used mug with a damp cloth, made myself some coffee and leaned against the wall, sipping slowly as I tried to wrap my head around the day. At 2:45 I was thinking about the surprise birthday party I was planning for my wife. At 2:46 I was holding onto my son, listening to him giggle as I prayed over and over for the shaking for stop. I’d been through earthquakes but nothing like that, not even close. It wouldn’t be until the next day, with the power partially restored and the first images appearing on the news, that we would all begin to understand just what had happened.

But for the moment there was no urgency, no desperation. Save for the lack of electricity and the occasional aftershock this was just an assortment of people gathered in a gym for a night. Then a man in a dark blue jacket entered the room, speaking someone’s name. He called out three times, waiting in between, only to be answered with silence. This would occur intermittently throughout the night, bringing with it the underlying and palpable sense that somewhere things were very, very bad.

I walked among the people, eventually picking out an elderly couple sitting quietly on the floor. Their legs were crossed and wrapped in brown wool blankets. There was a hint of sleep in their eyes. ‘I have two extra futons in my car, would you like them?’ They smiled and slowly shook their heads. ‘We are fine, thank you,’ the woman said. I asked again. Again they politely, quietly declined. I nodded and bowed slightly (as I figured I should) and gently turned away, wondering what was really behind their outward desire to sit on the floor all night.

I asked several more people, old folks and older folks and couples with small children. Each of them refused, offering the same assurances that they were okay. I hauled the futons in from the car; maybe no one wanted to have me go outside and carry them in on their account. Sitting on the gymnasium floor in a pile they looked nothing less than a pot of gold in a field of rubble. Yet still I could find no takers. I spread them out, hoping to make them seem more attractive, more inviting, at least more available. But really, this just made them seem more out of place among the hundreds of people making do with the scarcest of warmth. And with each demure refusal to accept such luxury when others had so little I began to sense the collective spirit of a people facing a shared disaster.

I listened to the calm words floating in the air around me; under the quiet concern I could hear no complaining. Three hundred people, thrown together through stressful circumstances, and not once did anyone raise his voice. I glanced over the urns of tea and hot water. I stared at the spotlights taped in place on metal racks. A woman walked past carrying a tray of clean tea cups. Men in the hall dragged large plastic trash cans filled with water into the bathrooms. Outside in the elements men prepared dozens and dozens of packets of instant rice; others brought them inside in cardboard boxes, handing them out to people lining up briskly, eagerly and in perfect order. Three elderly women smiled in understanding when my little boy next to them woke up and began crying.

I would speak the next day to a woman in her eighties; she’d say she had lived through a thousand earthquakes but never anything like this, thought she knew what an aftershock was until sitting up all night, listening, witnessing the ongoing drama. And so it was for everyone else that night too, in that shelter and across town and all up and down eastern Japan. Yet at least in Fukushima, at the Shimizu Learning Center, all everyone knew was to take it in peaceful stride. To gather in a gymnasium. To rig up lights and make instant rice. To share space and trade words. To spend the night on a blanket.

And to say that they were okay.