carrbomb

Archive for the ‘Dispatches from the Wild Wild East’ Category

Happy Halloween

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on October 31, 2011 at 2:17 am

My fellow Reagan babies may remember this from elementary school:

I Gotta Fever, and the Only Prescription is More Post

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on October 24, 2011 at 2:52 am

I’ve been absent of late due to the fulmination of various forces in my life, but I gotta post. I worked for sixteen hours today, I have a meeting tomorrow, classes Tuesday, work Wednesday, and I have a problem set and midterm Thursday; so it’s not looking like this week will see my triumphant return to blogging, although I can promise that my next substantial post will be very good.

It all goes to show, I think, that blogging is a luxury for the rich. I’ve tried to blog unemployment over at LoOG, but I’ve felt wraithlike doing it, overextended, drawn out, like being pulled in all directions with no end in sight. I can’t devote the amount of time I want to to really examining phenomena like the Occupy movement, because doing so cuts way from time I could be spending working, now that after so many long months of searching, work – even work undesireable in normal circumstances – is available. So, it’s official: I’ve progressed from the ranks of the unemployed to the employed. I’ll have more details on this; but for now let’s just say that I’m too tired to feel anything about it, and I’m deathly afraid of hubris.

Things are starting to settle down and become a little more regular, but I still have reservations, and there is of course a huge lag between starting a job and feeling the comforts of regular employment (I have trust issues, which I’ll expand on in a later post.), and I’m super risk-averse now, and my experience in Japan has put a fire inside me that will drive me until my own death.

Air Travel III – Thin Atmosphere Reading

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on September 9, 2011 at 1:02 pm

People will sometimes ask me how long it takes to fly between Tokyo and New Jersey. My answer usually elicits a contorted expression and a syllable or two of pained commiseration, reactions I personally would reserve for someone in truly insufferable straits. A diehard Glee fan, for example. Or someone with a full-time job. 

I don’t know why people consider thirteen hours in the air something akin to torture. In my case at least, I’m flying because I want to, unlike the poor saps up in the front of the plane who have no choice but to fly off to another meeting somewhere. And what’s so bad about being able to sit around and watch movies while people bring you food? If you’re flying with an Asian airline there’s the added bonus of free beer and wine. Plus the flight attendants are still selected in step with the time-honored tradition of chauvinistic arousal. Are you kidding me? If demurely beautiful women in flattering silky garb are bringing me free beer I’ll fly for weeks on end.

Continental offers neither free beer nor chauvinistic arousal. They compensate, however, with an almost comical overload of movie selections and an in-flight magazine that is worth its weight in glossy paper – though probably not in a way Editor in Chief Mike Guy and his team intend. I’ve long had an unabashed affinity for in-flight magazines – the travel articles, even the boring ones, in their own way, are good fodder for future adventures; the crossword puzzles make me feel smart (unlike the sudoku); and the fiction pieces inevitably reassure me that I really can be a writer someday.

The magazine on my most recent flight, however, was an altogether new experience. There was no fiction (unless you count the open letter to Continental-United’s customers by CEO Jeff Smisel on page 11). I didn’t even get to the crossword (I was mentally trashed after the sudoku and didn’t want to risk what little self-esteem I had left). And my appetite for travel didn’t have the opportunity to be whetted what with the comical (in a sort of Michele Bachman way) distractions on almost every page.

The August 2011 issue of Continental’s Hemispheres features (i.e. displays in the biggest letters on the cover except for the word Hemispheres) an article on Stockholm. I visited Sweden once; I spent three hours in Malmo, a short ferry ride from Copenhagen. This was quite possibly the most amazing three hours of my life, for reasons I will get into momentarily. Suffice to say I was eager to dive into whatever ‘Three Perfect Days’ in the Swedish capital might hold. (This despite the letdown I experienced from a previous Three Perfect Days piece of rubbish.) But we would be somewhere over the Kamchatskiy Peninsula before I’d even get a glimpse of the bar at Matbaren.

The first three pages sent a crystal clear message: I am not the target audience for this magazine. On page two was an ad for a thousand-dollar Bang & Olufsen speaker dock thing – the Beowolf 8 or something – for an iPod, iPhone or iPad. If I gave up traveling I might be able to afford one of these doo-hickeys eventually, though I’d have to give up something else to get an iProduct to go with it and my wife insists the kids eat something every day.

Before this though was a two-page spread for Wellendorff, maker of the finest German jewelry (and the most incongruous-sounding name for a jeweler) since 1893. The ad centers around an actual letter from a woman in Latvia who describes in pristine, poetic English how she lost everything in a fire except her ring, made by the elves at Wellendorff. Somehow, according to the Fuhrer at the Dorff, this is a reminder for all of us that ‘the true value of jewelry’ is ‘to offer joy and protection.’ Joy? Perhaps. But I don’t see jewelry offering protection to anyone outside of Wonder Woman. Entschuldigen Sie bitte. No sale to the guy in 43-D.

This, by the way, is Continental’s self-proclaimed first annual food issue. Accompanying the table of headlining articles is a picture of fresh-baked kanelbullar, or cinnamon rolls, found at a restaurant at a museum inside a zoo on one of Stockholm’s fourteen islands. That they are so hard to find makes the mid-flight plastic-wrapped microwave tamale that much more disappointing. Or less, I’m not sure. Heading the second page of content listings is a photo of a covered wagon amid the great American West. I just recently drove across the country but I could never get enough of the west and had to turn immediately to page 42 – only to find a one-column overview of an upcoming PBS mini-series and a close-up of a lizard colored like an Easter egg. (Likening lizards to eggs; this food issue thing is apparently having an effect on me.)

In this month’s message, United Airlines President & CEO Jeff Smisel talks about ‘the world’s most rewarding loyalty program’. True, my wife and my four-year-old will both be flying to the States for free this month; yet my wife, loyal mother that she is, refuses to smuggle our one-year-old onto the plane in a carry-on. Instead she will hold him on her lap for the duration of the flight. For this level of loyalty Continental-United is charging us $400.

To their credit, Continental-United (C-U from now on, I’m already sick of typing it out) seems to be trying to put on a personal, approachable face. To wit: page 12 is dedicated to Customer Service Representative Mary Brown, who has been overseeing the evolution of the usability of the check-in kiosk system. Actual quote from the article: ‘I’ve learned to think like the machines,’ she says with an empathy that extends beyond customers to the kiosks themselves. Just a hunch: Mary had R2D2 bed sheets when she was a girl. Mary’s manager offers further insight: She comes in early, sometimes at 2am, to make sure the machines are working and coming on all right. Meanwhile her kids are at home, punching buttons on the mom-kiosk in the kitchen for a glass of water and a virtual hug before going back to bed.

The people article on page 14 features ‘Ten Million Mile Man’ Tom Stuker, an automotive sales consultant who has flown United close to 6,000 times, including more than 200 hundred times to Australia. Now, I’m no automotive sales consultant expert, but if this guy has to go back to Australia and repeat himself 199 times maybe it’s time for a personnel change on one end or the other. To celebrate this achievement, this mega-miler joined United employees…his immediate family, friends and United executives at a special event held at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Which was so much fun he missed his flight.

On the next page, an ad for The Ritz-Carlton Residences building offering one to three bedrooms and penthouses from $1.4 million, shows a woman with perfect hair, a smashing dark blue silk dress and diamonds on her ears, wrists and shoes – diamonds that probably don’t offer much protection from the pit bull she’s nuzzling noses with. My guess is if this woman stepped out of her $1.4 million pad dressed like that and saw a pit bull sitting in the lobby she’s not going to get cuddly, she’s going to have someone shoot it. (Note: The fine print at the bottom reveals the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company has nothing to do with this building except that someone paid them a lot of money for the use of the Ritz-Carlton name.)

Next page, an ad for Na Hoku (Hawaii’s Finest Jewellers Since 1924): ‘The Original Hawaiian Slipper Pendant with Diamonds, various sizes from $199’. Chain sold separately. Matching earrings available for those who wish to walk around looking like a shoe rack.

The short, spirited piece on page 18 covers Barack O’Bama’s recent visit to Moneygall, Ireland where his grandfather’s grandfather lived before escaping the famine in 1850. Obviously the President has his Gaelic going on: he weathers the rain, he sips Guinness, and he’s got that national bankruptcy thing down pat.

From the photo on page 19, it seems the ostentatious beachfront Grand Solmar Spa and Resort in Cabo San Lucas does not actually offer guests a way to get down to the beach – not that they’d want to go much past the pool area anyway.

Another short article features an interview with Perry Farrell, founder of the genre-mixing music festival known as Lollapalooza. (Coincidentally the interview takes place in Perry’s suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago. No indication if this is a real Ritz-Carlton or another name-renting gimmick.) This year the 20th Annual L’pooza will include a ‘Kidzapalooza tent’ where ‘seven-year-old kids with sprayed Mohawks,’ as Farrell describes them, can get temporary tattoos before going to see Eminem. (Suddenly I think that maybe there actually is some use in this world for Justin Bieber.)

After a useless bit about four good hotels for star-gazing (one features a photo of the windowless hotel bar) there’s a full-page ad for the ‘China Cultural Tour 2011’ which consists of an image of a Chinese opera actress superimposed over mist-shrouded bits of the Great Wall – and nothing else, save for the China National Tourist Office website. I’d say the Party hasn’t gotten their dictatorial heads around the whole marketing thing. Back in Tiananmen Square they throw up a few posters like this and the hoi polloi are scrambling for tickets for fear of their children going missing or their homes being ransacked if they don’t attend. The rest of us are going to need a little more than a woman in a gaudy kimono and a hat that Princess Beatrice herself would refuse to wear.

On a related note, the Party recently advertised their new high-speed trains as ‘not from Japan.’ This is evidently enough, in their minds, to convince their subjects to keep buying tickets for a train system whose performance truly makes it non-Japanese.

On to Cotswolds, England and ‘Russell’s, a restaurant with rooms.’ If that isn’t enough to make you run for the British Airways counter consider that this restaurant, already so forward-thinking it actually includes rooms for people to eat in, is housed in the former workshop of a furniture designer named (quite coincidentally) Russell who ‘drew his aesthetic inspiration in part from his experiences on the front lines during World War I.’ Table in a trench for two please. One dish on the menu at Russell’s consists of roast Cornish pollock with clams and something called ‘samphire emulsion’ – which I can only imagine is the saucy precursor to the delicacy known as Rocky Mountain Oysters.

Which leads me to an ad for Tempur-pedic, a mattress company whose slogan is, simply, ‘Ask me.’ Half the page is taken up by a group of smiling people with words floating in the air over their heads. The plain-looking brown-haired woman on the left is inviting you to ask her how fast she falls asleep. The guy on the right says ‘ask me about staying asleep.’ The sixty-ish couple in the back suggests you ask them about the twenty-year warranty (after which they’ll have to settle for whatever the old folks’ home offers). The attractive blond, front and center with a devilish grin on her face, has no words above her head, her apparent mattress-related invitation being ‘Just…ask me!’

Page 35 presents a picture of what appears to be a suspension bridge missing half the suspension – which seems not to deter any of the hundred-odd people driving across the bridge. This is San Francisco’s new Bay Bridge, $5.5 (check that – $7) billion worth of erector set parts ‘nearing completion’. Yes, those people are indeed driving over an unfinished bridge. The article is comprised of three main points, none of which lend any added comfort: (1) So emergency vehicles can use the bridge in case of a big earthquake, engineers ‘designed non-essential parts of the bridge to fail.’ Wait a minute, what parts of a bridge, exactly, are non-essential? (2) Rebuilding the Bay Bridge required a construction schedule that would have a minimum effect on the flow of daily traffic – some 280,000 vehicles a day. The only factory that could conform production to this extremely tight schedule was in Shanghai. I think it’s safe to say China built a factory specifically to win this contract so (a) they would own the bridge once it is done, and (b) they would have something to take people’s minds off the non-Japanese trains that keep derailing. (3) The humble Bay Area lawmakers demanded the bridge have something called ‘icon status’ – so the engineers added these tall poles to (I guess) provide aesthetic balance in place of the bridge’s half-missing suspension. These fifty-foot steel rods, sticking up like those traffic light things at the drag races, must be the ‘non-essential’ parts of the bridge designed to fall off in a big quake. They are very logically placed between the east- and westbound sides of the bridge, so no matter which way they fall they will crush whoever is driving across the bridge at the time.

Fairmont Heritage Place in something called Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco calls itself a Private Residence Club. No kidding. In the fine print at the bottom of this ad for luxurious fractional home ownership, offering an extensive ownership world-class benefits program, it reads: This is neither an offer to sell nor a solicitation to buy to residents in jurisdictions in which registration requirements have not been fulfilled, and your eligibility and the resorts available for purchase will depend upon the state, province or country of residency of the purchaser. In other words, if we don’t like your zip code stay away or we will sic our pit bulls on you. My advice: go with those Ritz-Carlton posers in Chicago, their $1.4 million apartments are easily available via the Equal Opportunity Housing laws.

The W.M. Keck Foundation has donated $150 million to the USC Medical Center, adding to a previous gift of $110 million. This is fantastically generous when you consider just how many medically-uninsured illegal immigrants this will support.

Advertisement for Tito’s Handmade Vodka. Um…no. Tito’s Handmade Vodka is gluten-free. Um…still no.

This brings me to the meat of the magazine – no pun intended. For the first feature, a guy was paid (I assume) to travel to northeastern India, hang out, take a bite out of a bhut jolokia, the world’s hottest pepper, hang out a little more and go home to New York. I think I could do that. For the second article a different guy got to go to Singapore and eat for five days and then write about it. Excuse me, what exactly is the application procedure for this type of work? This piece starts out by illustrating just how goofy and crazy Singaporeans are: one guy, an aspiring chef, decided one day to put cheese on his braised pork belly dish, and so he did it, and…well…that’s it. His restaurant is very popular. It’s called Wild Rocket, named, apparently, in honor of the guy’s favorite salad. ‘Some people will think of the salad, some people will think of the spaceship,’ he says of his restaurant’s zany, no-holds-barred moniker. The writer eating his way across Singapore then tells us that this idea of mingling of food and spacecraft is a perfect metaphor for Singapore, a nation-state bent on cleanliness and efficiency while maintaining a love for food. Sorry buddy, I don’t get the connection. I want the next eat-across-a-country gig. Not surprisingly, the article is cut off, continued on page 128. Here the overload of dish names and their ingredients makes me feel like I’m reading the Cliff Notes version of The Joy of Cooking. The guy does point out two interesting things – neither of which bolster my admiration for Singaporeans. First, they love to eat yet they thumb their noses at anyone so low as to work in the culinary trade. And second, for all their economic and social achievements, Singaporeans are bent on eating mounds of durian, a fruit so stinky it is banned in all hotels and on all public transit. Give anyone caught chewing gum a good caning, but encourage the masses to walk around smelling like…well, stinky fruit. Brilliant culture.

Ah, finally, here we are in Stockholm. I might have skipped right to page 78 here, but I stuck with the preceding pageant of ill-literacy thinking the experience would make this trip to Scandinavia an even fresher breath of fresh air indeed. The two-page introductory spread shows a detail of wooden boats floating on blue waters and the back of a guy, presumably a castle guard, with a silver helmet so shiny it manages to momentarily disguise its overwhelming silliness. As I mentioned before, I once spent three hours in Malmo, Sweden. In these three hours I (1) saw the most incredible, most beautiful tall blond woman my twenty-three-year-old eyes had ever seen; (2) I put a few crowns on double zero at the roulette wheel in the lobby of some hotel and hit; and (3) saw that woman again. I read this Three Perfect Days in Stockholm piece thoroughly, but the guy makes absolutely zero mention of blonds or roulette, going on and on about cafes and museums and charm and Stieg Larsson. He does get points for renting a bicycle for a half hour, but loses them and more for staying in plush hotels instead of making friends and crashing on their couches – or ending up with a tall blond woman. Everyone has his own idea of perfect I guess.

My reading adventure is winding toward the entertainment listings at the back of the magazine, but Mike Guy and his staff manage a few more stupid human tricks. The head of the Obesity Treatment Centers of New Jersey has a noticeable double chin. When in Denver, try indoor skydiving. For easier, more confident traveling, here is a diagram of Guam International Airport’s one terminal, which consists of a single straight hallway. The Brown hand Center considers four locations in Texas and one each in Phoenix and Vegas ‘nationwide’.

And, at the bottom of the last page, this modest pronouncement: We are proud to recycle aluminum cans, newspapers and plastic bottles on eligible flights. On all other flights, CEO Smisel will explain in his next letter, loyal frequent flyers will not be charged $400 if they take their recyclables home with them. Women with babies on their laps will automatically pay as C-U has recently set a new policy in place that deems carrying babies and recyclables simultaneously unsafe and is therefore not allowed.

I bet Mr. Smisel has a $1.4 million pad. Perfect, I have a pit bull, let’s have some fun, shall we?

Air Travel II – (sk)In-Flight

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on September 7, 2011 at 1:01 pm

I step through the door and come face to face with a half-naked middle-aged man. Well not face to face; he’s turned toward the wall so all I see is his pasty, mealy back. On the shelf in front of him is his open carry-on. He’s got one arm raised high as he slathers on his deodorant. I feel like I’m at the YMCA.

The door to my stall bangs shut as I step around the corner – to see another shirtless man pushing fifty bent over one of the row of sinks. His gut rests on the countertop as he washes his face. This guy didn’t make it very far in the Gladiator audition process either. I take one of the sinks on the opposite wall…and there’s the guy, his back and his front, reflected infinitely in our opposing mirrored walls.

This is nothing compared to a Japanese onsen in terms of proximity to naked strangers and their degree of nakedness. Still, I can’t wait to get on my flight to Tokyo.

Along the otherwise drab walls of Newark Airport’s Terminal C, large back-lit advertisements pine for attention. I’ve got plenty of time before my flight’s final boarding call so I stop to read each one. Brief and bold and paper-thin, they seem aimed at the time-pressed and travel-weary. I am neither. 

A duck with a jovial look on his beak is standing on the middle of a row of three seats, doing that mating call thing with his wings. He’s ostensibly on an airplane, although those three seats are surrounded by a white empty void. (All that legroom and who do they give it to? A duck.) The ad is for an insurance company. ‘Nobody flies stand-by with our coverage,’ the sign states in bold blue letters. Someone just off a twelve-hour flight might nod at the duck in agreement and file the thought safely away in a rolling drawer of gray matter labeled ‘True – Don’t Know Why’. But really, can’t this be taken two ways? Inviting as he appears, I don’t think that duck is giving up his seat.

Beyond an ad for a cancer clinic (as if the time-pressed and travel-weary need that to think about) comes a promotion for 4-H. I’ve never belonged to 4-H, but I’m pretty sure this is an organization dedicated to the empowerment and advancement of society’s youth. They even seem to be specializing now – this particular ad is sponsored by 4-H’s Science, Engineering & Technology faction. Imposed on another empty white void a young girl in a white lab coat is holding a test tube of soylent green. Next to her reads a supposedly uplifting pronouncement: ‘One million new scientists, one million new ideas.’ That averages out to one idea per scientist. I’d say 4-H needs to raise the bar a little.

Newark’s Terminal C, by the way, is dedicated to Continental Airlines, as Newark International is one of their hubs. This would, on the surface, account for the inordinate number of ads for Continental. But really, pretty much everyone in the terminal is already a Continental customer. Shouldn’t they be hanging these ads over in Terminal A?

One of them is for Continental’s Mileage Club Credit Card. In the sky over a white-sand beach that rolls lazily toward a calm blue-green surf it reads: No one ever says ‘I take too many vacations’. This is a lie. I myself have said just that, more than once. I was just kidding, of course. My wife, on the other hand, wasn’t. Either way, I don’t think Continental wants one of their cards in my hands.

Another ad states that this mileage club card is ‘The official card of the Continental loyalist.’ Maybe I watch too many movies, but aren’t the loyalists always the ones who end up dying for the king?

As I stated in my last post, Continental is merging with United. In the gate area (and not out at the check-in counter, where it would help people understand why Continental’s check-in people are politely cramming United Airlines policies down customers’ throats) there are signs everywhere announcing the developing collusion. ‘You’re going to like where we land,’ claims one. Oh yeah? Tell you what, your Highness, enough surprises, I’d appreciate it if you just land where my ticket says you are going to land.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s get through take-off, shall we?

It’s interesting how virtually everyone flying economy will casually rush to line up at the gate at the first mention of a boarding call – which of course gives priority to First Class, Business Class, Business First Class, Business Elite, Premier Club Members, Premier Club Gold Members, Advanced Club Members, Advanced Club Gold Members, Advanced Club Silver Members, Silver Select, Silver Elite, Express Pass Members and any poor souls flying economy with children. If I’m with my family you can bet I’m right up there taking advantage of the chance to board ahead of the rest of the back of the plane. It does make settling in easier, but more than that I’ll take anything I can from an airline that says my little kids qualify for the same fuel surcharge as the fat cats up front who are being served free beer and wine while most of economy is still standing on line at the gate.

Last week I flew alone, and since I am not a member of any pay-to-feel-special clubs I had to wait to get on with the rest of economy. So there I am in the lounge, sitting tight through each general boarding call, wondering as I always do why everyone is so eager to get on line only to have to stand there for ten minutes with their carry-ons and laptops. But I guess if everyone stayed on their butts like me waiting for everyone else to board no one would go anywhere.

I’d like to see it just once though. It would be magnificently surreal.

Besides being able to relax in the waiting area those extra minutes before settling into a seat on a plane for twelve hours, boarding last brings another, more sinister pleasure. By the time the other remaining stragglers and I are coming down the aisle, anyone sitting next to an empty seat begins harboring fantasies of having that extra space to themselves for the entire flight. Some of them even start spreading out their stuff, overcome with hopeful anticipation. Others keep one sideways eye on us last few passengers, pretending to ignore us while simultaneously trying to will us away. I know, because I’ve done the same thing. In either case, it’s funny to see the disappointment suddenly appear on someone’s face when I show up in the aisle, apologizing for having to make them move all their crap.

I’m nice about it though; we’re going to be sharing an armrest for the next twelve hours after all.

My flight last week took off at 11:05. I’m still making my way toward my seat near the rear bathrooms, and people are already fluffing and propping their pillows behind their heads. Some have those horseshoe cushion things around their necks. A few of them were already wearing them before they even got on the plane. The flight, by the way, is at 11:05 am. What was there, a narcolepsy conference in Newark this weekend? These people are going to miss first beverage service.

Amazingly, they all seemed to make the flight – no empty seats anywhere.

So I’m settling nicely into my aisle seat. 43-D. My shoes are off and stuffed under the seat in front of me where they will stay until we reach the gate at Narita. (I’ll have plenty of time to put them on while everyone else is standing in the aisle, waiting for First Class, Business Class, Business First etc. etc. to clear out so they can rush off the plane and go stand on line at customs and then again at the baggage carousel.)

I’m flipping through the in-flight magazine, Hemispheres, checking to see if the previous passenger screwed up the sudoku, when the woman next to me leans over and puts her ear over my nose. She’s talking (in Korean, I think) with the woman over in seat C. Meanwhile the girl behind me, perusing the channels and games on the TV on the back side of my headrest, seems to think ‘touch screen’ means ‘jab at screen hard as you can’. My head is literally bouncing off the headrest; my nose bumps up against my neighbor’s eardrum. Fortunately this woman and the person across the aisle I figured was her mother suddenly agree on something and they both begin waving at someone a few rows up on the other side of the plane. Then they sit back, both of them eyeing me.

A tap on my shoulder. A girl appears in the aisle next to me. She smiles and leans over. She’s not unattractive. In broken English she asks if I wouldn’t mind switching seats, adding with a few hand gestures she’d like to sit with her mother and grandmother. She tells me she’s in 40-K, a middle seat. ‘Sorry,’ I tell her. ‘But you can switch middle seats with your mom if you like.’

It’s likely a good thing I don’t speak Korean.

Meanwhile the girl behind me is frantically scrolling through the children’s movie selections. I get up and turn to her for a no-nonsense round of show and tell. After that she either understands what touch means or she decides she’s better off just not watching anything for the entire flight.

A flight attendant emerges from the service area at the rear of the plane and comes walking up the aisle. ‘Newspaper? Newspaper?’ Yes I say, putting up a finger as she passes but she’s looking over at Grandma. She keeps walking. ‘Newspaper? Newspaper?’ Yes I say again, but she’s occupied with the sensory-overloading task of handing someone else a newspaper. ‘Newspaper? Newspaper?’ She two rows up now. YES! She turns around and stares at me like I just stuck my nose in her ear. She slaps a USA Today in my hand and continues up the aisle.

The sports section has Thursday’s box scores. The back page gives Friday’s weather forecast. Today is Sunday.

Apparently the royalty at Continental-United are really banking on that loyalist campaign.

The sudokus are clean in my Hemispheres. By the time the crew begins beverage service I’ve already given up on the one labeled ‘hard’ and moved on to one of the mediums. When they come back to collect our plastic cups I’ve already decided to see if the other medium is any easier. Along with the crushed cups and overturned juice boxes there are a few empty beer cans on the cart. The woman next to me is struggling to doze off under her blanket. It’s 12:30pm.

Time to check the movies on offer.

On my previous flight I watched The Last King of Scotland, the story of a young Scottish doctor who goes on a medical mission to a small Ugandan village and ends up one of dictator Idi Amin’s inner circle – until the heavy-handed new leader finds out what this young doctor has been doing with his favorite wife. The movie is listed under comedy. There was absolutely nothing funny about Idi Amin.

Another comedy selection is titled If You Are the One, Part II. I think we can assume how Part I went.

I decide to watch The Reader, which opens with Ralph Fiennes in a lush Berlin apartment in 1995. It is morning. A naked woman walks into the room. I too was in Berlin in 1995, and I can tell you that it was nothing like this. But I manage to suspend my disbelief and keep watching.

The rest of the movie features a different woman, who keeps showing up naked, most often right along with her young boyfriend. And though it is quite well done it dawns on me this might not be something those around me want to see or should be seeing.

I glance around. Virtually everyone is sleeping.

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon.

After a long moment leaning against the emergency exit door, staring through the window out over the Hudson Bay, I sit back down and start perusing the pages of my Hemispheres. This proves an experience deserving of its own post, which I intended the previous post to cover but air travel simply offers too much fodder for satire, so this particuar post will likely have to wait a few more days.

First I’m going to relax by taking a bath with a few Japanese men.

Air Travel I – Wonder & Woe

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on September 5, 2011 at 2:22 am

Three weeks ago I flew from Newark, New Jersey to Tokyo’s Narita Airport. (If this were a facebook status update I’d simply say ‘EWR-NRT’, assuming such snark has not yet become passé.) It had been a while since I’d flown –six weeks almost – so it took no time for the incongruous wonders of air travel, like the burn of a jalapeno, to rip into my senses once again.

Of course, the physics alone are mind-boggling. I’m sure Orville and Wilbur never imagined an eight-million-pound plane, loaded with another eight million pounds of people, luggage and processed dinner omelets, could make it over a sand dune let alone the Pacific Ocean. Legalized extortion (commonly known as the fuel surcharge) notwithstanding, that we can in twenty-four hours get from any semi-major city in the world to any other semi-major city not currently steeped in rioting and/or armed conflict is nothing less than an everyday miracle (until we figure out those wormhole things). Yet people will still complain about the dinner omelets.

However many times I’ve flown, the experience still makes me giddy. Feeling the lunge and thrust of a plane leaving the ground; looking down on land and water lying six miles beneath my squished nose; being able to doze off while hurtling through the atmosphere in a metal tube held together with bolts no thicker than my thumb; human accomplishments in aviation are indeed a wonder to behold.

Which makes the prevailing thought processes driving the whole air travel culture that much more incongruous.

‘This is a bicycle,’ I said as I laid my tandem, disassembled and all bungeed up tight in a bicycle bag, on the conveyor belt/ scale thing at the check-in counter. (I have no idea how those two can be combined.) ‘It’s kind of fragile,’ I told the woman. 

‘Do you want me to put a fragile sticker on it?’ she asked, oblivious or maybe just used to the fact that her red neck scarf had a ridiculously huge bow in it.

‘Yes, please do.’ It had made the trip to Thailand fine, wrapped in foam inside a heavy cardboard box. But that box and all the foam were now in a dumpster in Chanthaburi somewhere, and I was a bit apprehensive about the protective qualities of my thin nylon sack. ‘Yes, a fragile sticker thing would be great.’ 

‘Okay, please sign this for me.’ The woman slid a small rectangular form across the counter at me.

‘What’s this?’

‘It means we are not responsible if we break your bicycle. Please sign at the bottom.’

Whoa. ‘Wait a minute, why wouldn’t you be responsible?’

‘Because you are saying it is fragile.’

I’m no psychology major…wait, yes I am. And I’m sure we covered logic in there somewhere.

‘Well yes, of course. I am telling you it’s fragile so you don’t break it.’

‘You are saying it is fragile because it is not packed properly. So if it breaks you can not hold the airline responsible. That is why we need you to sign that.’

So I tell them it’s fragile so they don’t break it, and my reward is signing a little form that says it is okay if they break it. These airlines must have lawyers working for them or something.

‘What if I don’t sign this?’

‘Then I take that fragile sticker off,’ said the woman, disregarding the red pterodactyl attacking her throat.

‘So then if my bicycle is damaged I can hold you responsible?’ (I made it a point to say you.)

‘No, the airline (she made it a point to say airline) would not be responsible.’

‘Why not? If you break my bicycle…’

‘Because without a sticker we don’t know that it is fragile.’

I ended up signing the form.

On the up side, since I was flying an Asian airline, the beer was free. And since this was not a Chinese airline my bicycle made it through okay. Not perfect, but okay. (Note to anyone traveling by bicycle in Thailand: there’s a big cardboard box and lots of foam in a dumpster behind the restaurant by the side of the road where the bus from the airport drops off people going to Chanthaburi, please help yourself.)

On the other hand, the following conversation took place at the check-in counter of one of the American airlines, all of which have the audacity to charge for beer. This was last Fall while checking my family in for our flight from Tokyo to L.A.

‘Excuse me,’ I said, showing my flight info sheet to the check-in woman, a large blue tuna fish can pinned to her hair, noticeably off-center. ‘There’s no meal for the baby.’ I meant it as a subtle, helpful hint.

‘That’s correct,’ she replied. ‘There’s no baby meal.’

It’s obvious when someone is ending a conversation, even in Japanese.

‘Okay, well, we’d like to request a meal for the baby.’ Two meals, really, though I figured I didn’t need to point that out.

‘No, I’m sorry. We don’t offer baby meals.’

‘…He gets a regular meal?’ I knew this couldn’t be the case but neither could the alternative. So I thought.

‘No, there is no baby meal on this flight.’

‘On this flight?’

The woman stared, cock-eyed like a confused puppy so that her tuna can was now sitting on the highest point on her head.

I tried again, without the sarcasm (which was already becoming increasingly difficult). ‘You mean, you have nothing for the baby?’

‘Yes.’ (Which, translated into English, means no.)

‘No food for the entire eleven-hour flight?’

‘Correct.’

‘You’re kidding me, eleven hours and the kid gets no food.’

‘There is no baby meal.’

‘No crackers.’

‘Yes.’

‘Not even a piece of bread?’

‘You can give him some of yours.’ (They probably don’t mean to, but Japanese people can come across as terribly magnanimous at the worst times.)

‘But he gets nothing,’ I said.

‘That is correct.’

(At this point I had to switch to English.) ‘Are you flipping serious?’

No answer.

‘Infants get nothing?’

‘Meals are reserved for people in seats.’

‘…You mean he’s not a person if he isn’t in a seat?’

‘I did not say that.’

‘What do you think he is, a carry-on?’

Silence. Sarcasm is clearly non-existent in Japan.

‘For eleven hours…more than eleven hours, he gets nothing to eat.’

‘Yes, I’m sorry.’

‘You’re sorry? Don’t be sorry, just do something. He’s a real live person. He needs to eat.’

‘There’s nothing I can do.’

‘You can give me back the four hundred dollar fuel surcharge I had to pay for him.’

‘The fuel surcharge applies to all passengers.’

‘And all carry-ons with hair?’

If I ever teach in Japan again I am teaching sarcasm and only sarcasm.

‘Great, so he’s a human being – a full-sized human being – when it means four hundred dollars for you, but when it comes to meals he’s a piece of luggage.’

Blank face. I had to try in Japanese. She still didn’t understand me.

I pointed to my older son. ‘You gave him meals when he was a baby.’

‘United has never given baby meals.’

‘United? What do you mean United? This is Continental!’

‘Sir, I’m sorry, we don’t offer baby meals.’

To be honest, I had plenty of food in my backpack for the kid. My wife always packs enough sandwiches and rice balls and crackers for the five-hour bus ride to Tokyo, the three hours until we are in the air, the entire pan-Pacific flight and lunch the next day in New Jersey. But my wife’s overzealousness provides an airline with neither reason nor excuse not to offer something in exchange for their four hundred dollar shakedown on my sixteen-pound kid.

‘Let me guess, you don’t offer diapers anymore either, do you?’

‘United stopped offering diapers several years ago.’

‘Why do you keep talking about United? United is United, this is Continental!’

‘We follow United’s policy for infants.’

It was my turn to stare cock-eyed. I wanted to ask her if she could make my kid a tuna sandwich.

‘So this is what you are telling me…’ I motioned to the guy at the next check-in window, two hundred fifty pounds easy even without the Louis Vuitton carry-on. ‘My baby pays the same fuel charge as him?’

She glanced over. ‘Yes.’ Then she thought for a moment and turned back to me. ‘But that man doesn’t get diapers either.’

Okay I made that last part up. But the point remains. For all the advancements in air travel technology – self-check-in, a hundred movies on-demand, special plastic bags for liquids to keep any would-be terrorists from making a bomb – there remains a noticeable void of human intelligence here. 

Or maybe the airlines and their lawyers really are smart enough to know just how much they can get away with because we are never going to stop flying.

Until we figure out that wormhole thing.

By the way, Continental and United Airlines are merging, in case you hadn’t heard – or been personally introduced to the circus in progress. This would account for the odd logic the woman with the tuna can was tossing me – though I wish she’d explained why my kid was now legally both a human being and a piece of luggage.

I swore after this encounter with United-Continental’s cherry-picking, profit-driven policy decisions I’d never fly either airline again. Of course I said the same thing about all Chinese airlines not too long ago, for their baggage-handling non-policies. But the reality is that my air travel decisions are savings-driven. Until the day I can afford to fly business class on whatever airline tickles my fancy I’ll have to live with the prevailing air travel culture while I continue staring out the window, marveling at how fast we are going, how beautiful the world looks from six miles up, and how many movies I have at my fingertips.

And hey, the coffee’s free.

 

Note to the alert reader: Yes I know that while I mentioned at the beginning of this post that three weeks ago my senses were reintroduced to the capsicum-like effects of air travel, neither of the above instances occurred three weeks ago. This is because I have to go feed and change my carry-on and thus have no time to delve into my latest air travel adventure, involving both the bold statements slathered across the pages of my recent in-flight magazine and the finer print lurking below. This will be covered in an upcoming post – probably the next one as I am not planning to fly for another two weeks, almost.

Come on Irene

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on August 30, 2011 at 3:48 am

Sunday’s hurricane proved to be rather uneventful around these parts. After watching news reports recommending people don’t go outside, complete with reporters on location somewhere desperately experiencing sound problems while trying to prevent their loosely-fitted hats from being blown away, the power suddenly shut off all over town. We were bored, so I grabbed two of my children and decided to do the unthinkable and… go outside.

We found what could be described at its most extreme as a blustery day as featured in the classic Winnie the Pooh tale; this in contrast to what the Daily Beast proclaimed “Hurricane Fury”. I headed down to the beach with my children to witness the power of nature and thereby cultivate a healthy, antitranscendentalist respect, newscasters be damned. 

Instead, we discovered a plethora of natives frolicking among medium-sized surf. Children darted in and out of rocks while dogs played fetch with the hands that feed them. Surfers graciously rode the whitecaps. After walking the beach for a while, we decided to head home. On the way, we ran into our next-door neighbors, who were coming from a “packed bar” down the street and a little tipsy. This reminded me that I could drink some wine if I wanted to, which I did. After that, I made Buffalo wings with my wife on our gas stove which we lit with a match. Then, we ate it by candlelight. The power came back on just in time to prevent our dairy products from spoiling and for me to catch the latest episode of Breaking Bad. 

Go Find Your Own Top Ten

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on August 6, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Every time I turn to my twitter feed there’s somebody, or several somebodies, or one hyperactive somebody, tweeting relentlessly trying to outdo all the other somebodies, linking to an article or a blog post centered around a numbered list: Top Ten Mistakes New Tweeters Make. Seven Kinds of Shoes You Should Never Wear to a Job Interview. Thirteen (13? Really?) Words You Need Right Now To Get You More Traffic!

I hate these lists, partly because I read them knowing full well they are written because research shows most people gravitate toward numbered lists when they want information, advice or more traffic. And I hate being most people. Sounds snobbish I know, but Yogi Berra wasn’t like most people and look, people still remember and repeat his advice. I doubt anyone is going to remember WebBizMan for all those great numbered lists he tweeted to his 152,804 followers (149,934 of whom he himself follows, very closely no doubt). Given the choice, I’d much rather be Yogi Berra than WebBizMan.

Despite my curmudgeonly wishes, these Nine/Top/Best/Most Dangerous/Sexiest Whatevers to Get You That Job/More Hits/Fired lists seem indeed to draw the attention of the masses. (Christ, even pieces about lists have lists.) And it isn’t just your blogosphere pseudo-savants. Time magazine flushed their dignity down the drain about five years ago, putting out a piece of rubbish – thrown together I’m willing to bet by someone’s idiot nephew who should never have been offered an internship in the first place let alone been handed a pen – on the 100 All-Time Albums (their apparent disclaimer to intellectual liability or possession being they didn’t include an adjective). The trolling hoi polloi were in an uproar. ‘Backstreet Boys? Are you kidding me?’ ‘Where the @#%& is Janis Joplin?’ ‘Burn in hell, Kansas haters!’

A much more appropriate response might have been something like ‘100 All-Time Most Moronic Time Articles: #1 – 100 All-Time Albums’. Or, alternatively, ‘You forgot Levelling the Land by the Levellers.’

The catalyst for this, my latest in a long and distinguished (and un-numbered) list of diatribes, was, as you might imagine, a top ten list. I found it thanks to the folks at Yahoo, who are above writing articles of lists but are fine with linking to them ad nauseum. The article, found here, gives a run-down of the (ostensibly) ten best restaurants to watch a sunset – according to someone who, it can be reasonably assumed by the photo credits (Xoopla, Flicker, TripAdvisor) and the descriptions that scream Lonely Planet, has never been to any of them.

To be fair the article starts with a rather promising entry: The Oasis restaurant in Austin, Texas, an apparently semi-swanky joint that sits above a 450-foot cliff overlooking Lake Travis (yeah that sounds like Texas all right). Personally I didn’t think there was anything that high in Texas since Yao Ming left town (unless you count Ron Washington but that was only temporary). Sadly, perhaps predictably, the list swiftly turns antiseptic. San Fran, Maui, San Diego? Seriously, you could find a McDonald’s in these places with fantastic sunset views.

I refuse to be fed such uninspired drivel spewed out by self-appraised champions of the best anything whose experience begins and ends with search engines. And I know you feel the same way. That is why I’ve decided to offer my own lineup of superlative somethings – compiled from actual experience, in the order they pop into my head, limited not to a number but to my bedtime, and unfettered by whether you agree with my reasoning, because I don’t much care.

The Best Places I’ve Ever Sat and Watched the Sun Set.

–  Sakurajima, Oga Peninsula, Akita, Japan –

Despite the typically unattractive parking lot, this gem along the East Sea on a hook of land crossing the 40th Parallel is one of my favorite spots in all of Japan. There are no amenities outside of the decidedly pungent public bathrooms and the trash can that needs to be emptied, but once out of nare-shot the place is paradise. Pine trees dominate the (unbelievably) free campground that overlooks the water splashing lazily against the rocks below. Pick a spot, set up your tent, settle down (carefully) on your cushion of pine needles or, if you prefer, one of the few park benches, and take in the cool, quiet evening. I’ve been to Sakurajima twice, and both times the sunset has been spectacular, with no loud obnoxious and/or drunk foreigners to ruin the atmosphere since Sakurajima is not listed in the Lonely Planet – or wasn’t at the time. If you have the chance, walk down to the rocks. Just don’t go barefoot, those suckers can be sharp. In August the water is impeccable for swimming. March is a different story.

– Some Old Dock in Nice, France –

How quaintly touristic you say? I would agree with you if you were correct, which you are not. Much of the Riviera might be reserved for the wealthy and unimaginative, this I will grant. But commandeering your own rickety dock as the sun hits the hills to the west, letting your feet dangle over the water, rabble-rousing and passing around the bottle of Southern Comfort you and your comrades spent an hour searching for and thirty-five dollars acquiring is the very definition of la belle vie. Until a certain age I suppose.

– Essaouira, Morocco –

The walls of the Medina loom high above the rocky coast in this important and increasingly artsy-fartsy fishing town, located about seventy-five miles north of the hoity-toity beach resorts of Agadir. The stone promontory is still decorated with cannons resting on their wooden bases; the walls are plenty wide and therefore safe to stand on even in the strong evening gales that will blow your one-year-old clear over into the Sahara if you don’t hold onto him. A big plus here up on the parapet is the girl with the straw basket of homemade cookies. For about a dollar, slightly more if you haven’t already indulged in a grilled cow’s brain sandwich, you can fill your belly while watching the waves crash on the rocks as the gulls fight over the leftover fish down at the port. If you have a cheap camera it’s easy to get great silhouette shots of you and your traveling companions posing on the wall in front of the setting sun.

– South Rim, Grand Canyon –

Are you kidding me? If God is anywhere, He’s here at sunset. (Tip: Push anyone who can’t keep their mouth shut for it over the edge.)

–  Arctic Circle, From 35,000 Feet –

Totally mind-bending experience to witness the sun’s light reaching over the top of the Earth. Trust me. Pop Quiz: It is Summer. You are flying high over Anchorage, Alaska, heading due east. The sun is low in front of the plane, at about eleven o’clock. The sun, therefore, is directly over…?

–  Atacama Desert, Chile –

Okay, we didn’t witness the actual setting of the sun because if we’d waited until dark to try to find our way back we wouldn’t have. Nearby Valle de la Luna is a spectacular alternative – and you can’t get lost for all the tourists with their flashlights heading back to the bus. Of course the downside here is having to share the sunset with a scattering of yappy tourists and it is difficult to push someone off a sand dune.

–  Ban Lai, Koh Chang, Thailand –

The main road on this soon-to-be-detroyed-by-developers island off the coast of Trat in the northeast part of the Gulf of Thailand takes you up over a steep pass and down into the glazed resort area around Million Dollar Beach or some such name reeking of dignity and historical distinction. Keep pedaling and you start hitting, after more hills, villages that are striking in that they don’t look like Club Med. Ban Lai, close to the southern end of the island, offers cheap bungalows connected by dirt and sand footpaths and natural-smelling outhouses that sit defiantly devoid of toilet paper. But the real draw is the fantastic bamboo and grass deck that reaches out over the water. There are no chairs, only low tables and triangular pillows to avail yourself of as you sip your colored coconut drink and watch the sun tumble over India and the Bay of Bengal beyond – while perhaps wondering how long they’ll let you hang out before you have to go back to your bungalow next to the outhouse.

– The Sundowner, St. Croix –
This place is right in line with the greatest establishments in the world; it consists of a wooden shack at the edge of the sand on the west coast of this, one of the three US Virgin Islands. Drive north (I think) out of Frederiksted, park along the lightly-traveled road, amble up to the shack, grab a drink from the guy and settle down in a plastic chair or right there on the sand. La belle vie indeed.

I think that’s eight. But it doesn’t matter.

For some of these, it was the circumstances surrounding the sunset as much as it was the sunset itself that made it memorable. None of them included a tablecloth. All of them were outside. (Likewise, the glass-encased corporate box at the stadium was cool, but I had a much better time out in the bleachers.)  But if fancy hotels and fine dining and postcard views from a window are your thing, great, go for it. Just don’t let anyone tell you what the best place for anything is – particularly if they’ve never even been there themselves for criminy’s sake. Hit the road and go put together your own list. Then let us know what you found.

Stint at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on July 5, 2011 at 5:32 am

I have a rather bizarre series of creative non-fiction which will be going up in installments at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.  This will serve as one of two bookends to my adventure in Japan, forever closing this chapter of my life and ushering in a new one.  Check it out at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen or below the fold:

Greetings, fellow ordinaries.  Many of you know me as a frequent guest poster and relatively neutral member of the commentariat.  Here is my back story: I was born in 1984, grew up outside Boston, attended Boston College High School, then Duke University, where I studied economics and English and obtained a certificate in film/video/digital studies.  Sometime during my senior year I decided I wanted to be an academic economist, so I applied for a Fulbright fellowship (and nothing else): in my junior year I had completed a long paper on space tourism which had been well received, and I wanted to extend and expand my methodology and analysis from this paper to the similar market of East African adventure tourism.  When I was rejected, I took some time to reconsider what I wanted to do.  Looking (back) at the social froth of college, I decided I should spend some time alone: skiing, mountain climbing, reading, writing, and drinking large quantities of decent coffee in cafes where my language was not spoken.  I was still interested in adventure tourism, so I adventured and toured, eventually winding up as an English teacher in Japan in October 20061.

I had intended to stay in Japan briefly before continuing on to the wild wild east of greater China and the Central Asian steppes, the temples of Angkor and Indonesia, the jungles of New Guinea and Kakadu, the Australian Outback and the islands of Micronesia; but three years later I found myself in the Japanese countryside at the base of a smoking volcano with a charming wife, two well-behaved kids, and a moderately successful proprietorship teaching, translating, and writing.  On good days I could call this business a “highly specialized vehicle for information design”.  On bad days it was more like pernicious clownery – or if kids were involved, glorified babysitting2.  This business gradually evolved into an entity for servicing a wide range of Japanese professionals or institutions who wanted something presented in English, and it turned out to be an excellent way to gain experience in a wide variety of industries, discover my own limitations, and develop broad sets of skills and a deep knowledge base.

On a typical day, I’d wake up around eight or nine, play with my kids at the house or go somewhere with my family, ride my bicycle into the city after lunch, engage with a variety of professionals and institutions on a wide range of projects, patronize shops trafficking in delicious local produce, go home and eat dinner and maybe watch a movie with my wife, work on my computer at night until one or two (often punctuating periods of intense productivity with participation in League threads).  I’d hike or ski or visit notable cultural or historical sites on a rare day off or particularly free morning.  (Throughout my travels, I cataloged a vast library of digital photographs which I’m planning on publishing someday.)  While this lifestyle was both comfortable and interesting, there was little of what could be called “challenge” or “advancement” 3.  Occasional thoughts of me doing the same thing at age sixty struck a chord of primal dread and had me searching frantically for an exit strategy.

One day I had an epiphany: I would return to the United States, where I would complete a postbac premed course, attend medical school, become a neurologist, and study the brain as a complex puzzle to forever consume my professional energies.  My wife supported this impulsive decision, and I found everyone else around me inexplicably did too: immediate family members, friends, relatives, students, and clients – everyone seemed to think it was a super idea that I suddenly give up on my success in Japan to invest ten years and massive amounts of money I didn’t have in something which I am still completely unqualified to do and therefore cannot know whether or not I will find satisfaction doing it4.  We decided to give ourselves a year to reconsider before making plans to come to the United States.

The paperwork required was overwhelming, itself a complex and life-consuming puzzle: after a year and a half consulting various attorneys, fighting our way through the gauntlets of third-party extortion and fraud that necessarily accompany any overly-complicated and drawn-out legal process, and dropping metaphorical bread crumbs through the Teutoburg Forest of real post 9-11 immigration law (during which year and a half we actually had another child, further complicating our legal situation and effectively resetting the whole process), a funny thing happened5: the local nuclear power plant exploded and began emitting radioactive particles in all directions (which emission continues to this day).  We were ordered by the U.S. State Department to evacuate6, and my wife and stepson were granted special refugee status in the United States7.  More pressing is that getting out of Japan on such short notice, forfeiting income due (and future income obviously) plus a massive tax rebate due in March, paying various legal fees, and supporting my wife and three children since March eleventh8 has finally emptied my bank account9.  Luckily, my parents have been financially supporting my family of five for the past few months while I10 continue to lurch about chest deep in the stagnant quagmires of the American job market.  This (i.e. the stagnant quagmires of the American job market) is what I plan on writing about in this space in the weeks ahead.

When I pitched this series to (League of Ordinary Gentlemen Editor-in-Chief) Erik, I wrote, “(It) would not concern my personal journey so much (although that would be the main narrative superstructure) as it would concern the general shape of the labor market … (As a work of creative non-fiction, this series) would run more like a Dickens serial than any typical political blog.”  To this I would add that ensuing columns will run like Dickens serials minus the melodrama plus no small degree of sexed-up dullness11.  It is my aim to show that we are at the event horizon of a paradigm shift in how the American labor market fundamentally operates.  Given conflicting trends in how jobs, jobbers, and jobbees12 coordinate, what emerges from that frenetic black hole13 could take any of several forms and carry with it the very fate of our anointed nation and even the League itself.

 

***

 

This meta-narrative is of course assembled from later reflection and oversimplified as all overarching narratives are.

It’s really hard to explain what I actually did in Japan to people who haven’t also done it. (There were a handful of us in my city, including Kevin Kato, contributor at the online magazine I edit and talented novelist and translator.)  When I started working in Japan, it was with an “English teacher farm” notorious for high levels of both employee turnover and general misconduct.  Before my one-year contract was even up, this company went bankrupt in spectacularly scandalous fashion (i.e.: the CEO had a sex dungeon hidden in the walls on the top floor of a Tokyo skyscraper where he would abuse underage girls of Southeast Asian and Filipino descent; the CFO escaped to Vanuatu and was found six months later living off coconuts and spider crabs; the COO had himself cloned and tried to force his clone to stand trial in his place but of course this doppelganger thought he himself was actually the COO and turned the original party over to the police in a singularity of irony which created all sorts of interesting philosophical, ethical, and legal Gordian Knots that persist in affecting the hearts and minds of both professional and amateur members of the human race from all walks of life to this day; etc.).  After this first company collapsed I hated my boss at another company for a year and a half (which itself is a ridiculously long and complex story) before deciding to just take on contracts as a freelancer for any and all comers: to say no to no one and to do my best at whatever task came my way and to see what emerged.

3 This isn’t actually true.  The market for services in English is booming in Japan, but I had reached a point where in order to make more money I would have to advertise beyond word of mouth and compete with friends and acquaintances in cutthroat fashion, backstabbing some of the people who’d helped me find clients in the first place and more or less “selling out” in the sense of being forced to cultivate an image that can best be described as the white foreigner in Japan’s equivalent of an “Uncle Tom”: this would mean expending vast amounts of energy pretending to be stupid and non-threatening, and I was unwilling to do this (part of the reason my boss at job #2 hated me).

I’ve examined this epiphany many times after the fact and continue to fail to understand it logically.  I’m looking forward to the medical school interview where I cannot rationally explain the root cause of my very presence there.

not actually funny.

An evacuation wasn’t actually ordered, technically; but it was “strongly suggested” for non-Japanese citizens on a country by country basis (the French panicked; Americans sent their own spies in to make an independent assessment and then panicked; the British waited until the last possible moment to calmly panic; etc.), plus our group of eight was already outside of the city at the time the evacuation was announced and couldn’t get back in even if we had wanted to because of closed roads and limited gas supplies.  A friend of mine (also an American citizen) asked a State Department representative over the phone what we were supposed to do once we were outside the city since there like wasn’t any transportation and stuff to which the State Department representative basically replied “figure it out yourself, but don’t go back in for any reason at all”.

What happened to us appears to verify what I might describe as a uniquely American motif if only because I don’t know any better, which is that in Ordinary Time, accomplishing even the simplest of legal tasks faces a shitstorm of opposition, red tape, and bureaucratic impasse; but when things get truly out of control, rule of law defers to sensible compassion: only after the relevant parties are safe are convoluted legal justifications attempted.  I might someday get down to the business of fleshing out a causal chain stretching all the way from this aforementioned idea to the perpetual “crisis mode” that America seems to be in.  As I’ve mentioned (perhaps cryptically) in threads before, there is lots to be said about this whole process that is of widespread civic importance; but the information I must sort through and systematize ranges from hirsute to bum fluff.  Therefore, how to effectively normalize and present my satori is a project I’m still working on: expect a 500-page, uninteresting tome written for an audience of six people sometime in the near or far distant future.

i.e. the day of the big earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown (which nuclear meltdown is still deeply mysterious due to a fugue of obfuscation and avoided responsibility).  Like “September eleventh” in the United States, “March eleventh” in Japan has come to denote not only the eleventh day of the third month in a given calendar year but also the terrible events which occurred on that particular eleventh day of the third month in the year 2011.

Most of the people I know are alive even if they lost their homes, but there are a lot of people I cannot get in touch with.  Most of the disappearance of my source of income can be traced to the fact that no one professional or institution cares about presenting materials in English right now, and, if they did, I’d be compelled to service them pro bono, since I got out and they didn’t, and no one has any money in Fukushima City, and all sorts of crazy or not so crazy rumors that the whole city may be evacuated fly about, so people are more concerned with that right now than having some J-pop song translated into English or promoting tourism to English-speaking travelers or making sure foreigners know the proper procedure for procuring an alien registration card at the City Hall.

10 a twenty-seven year old with no experience working in the U.S who is unable to describe basically what he did for the last five years to anyone who does not already know.

11 This footnote is subdivided: (a) The series will also be minus the character Fagin depending on how far out there we’re willing to project symbolism; (b) “sexed-up dullness” may be an appropriate model to present my information on what happened in Fukushima; (c) here the fastidious reader may object that “melodrama” and “sexed-up dullness” are the same thing.  This is not so.

12 Apparently this word is British English for “turd”.

13 Pun intended (see note 12); although it’s difficult to pick up with so much metaphor floating around.

Leaving Fukushima

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on June 27, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Kevin has written a lot about how his family got out of Fukushima, Japan following the Daiichi meltdown.  Parts I through VIII can be found on this site plus Kevin’s own travel blog: Travel. Write. Drink Plenty of Fluids.  As some readers know, I’ve been working on a book about the whole event to be loosely framed as a creative narrative but altogether more a work of science journalism.  My plan calls for a long and ambitious schedule and party explains why I haven’t been writing many articles here recently.  (There are a few other reasons as well, but hopefully I can get some more time for articles soon.)  Anyways, my first thoughts on the disaster have appeared as a functional article on the website Expat Arrivals titled In the Case of Emergency: What’s an Expat to Do?  Here is an excerpt: 

In the case of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, the Japanese government was hopelessly inept at pressuring the plant operator to disclose necessary information. When numbers finally came out, they were conspicuously low, and then they got conspicuously slightly less low, and now they’re conspicuously slightly less low than that.

Crowdsourcing and social media surfing is a much better way to stay informed. Basically, we had a dude in Canada who had nothing better to do, so he assembled information from people on the ground and posted it all on his Facebook page. By checking his Facebook page with our Smartphones, we knew which roads were closed, where quarantine lines were, which cities had gas and other supplies and which cities didn’t, the best routes to escape, which way radioactivity was blowing, and what the levels were. We and others challenged the assembled information by commenting and demanding links to credible sources.

The next steps in our constantly evolving plan were decided by piecing together such credible press releases, crowd sources, and scientific articles to get a clear picture of exactly what was happening. The mainstream media was useless for getting accurate information: typically a major news outlet would report what we already knew and had acted on two or three days later, usually riddled with inaccuracies and the trappings of news theatre.

The article is of fairly moderate length (just over 1000 words) and not always relevant to the purposes of the Inductive, but it provides a good glimpse into what it was like getting my family out of Japan for anyone who is interested.  

Goodbye, For Now – tohoku earthquake part eight

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on June 12, 2011 at 1:14 am

On Tuesday morning all I cared about was getting my family out of Fukushima, far away from the radioactive mess that was percolating down along the coast. We didn’t know where we might end up when we jumped into Jun’s car. Maybe we’d go to Akita, I thought, or Yamagata – put some more miles and mountains between us and the reactors. If we really thought it necessary we could probably get to Osaka, or even Kyushu, where people had gas in their cars and the supermarket shelves were stocked and kids could play in the park without their parents worrying about what might be falling out of the sky. No place could be too far, really. We just needed to find a corner of Japan, a place we could go to be safe, where we could breathe the air and let our kids run around outside, and wait until things settled down. Then we could return home and get on with living our lives.

The long ride to Morioka – the stretches of quiet thinking time along a road through a country that seemed much more dead than alive – those four hours in Jun’s car changed all that.

Even if we went to Kyushu, far from any threat of fallout from the fallout, how long would we stay? How long could we sleep in a hotel room, living out of our bags before our kids started wigging out and the walls started closing in and the four of us finally just went crazy? When would we be comfortable returning to Fukushima, and did we want to live like runaways in the meantime, for two, maybe even three weeks? Or could it conceivably turn into months?

I didn’t consider going all the way to America when we were scrambling to stuff our lives into two duffel bags. By the time we got to Morioka we knew that was where we wanted to go. My wife, in her eminent wisdom and foresight, had brought our passports; she seemed, actually, more eager than I was to head overseas. Which made me forget what she was leaving behind, until she spoke with her mother on the phone while I played with our sons on the bed in our room at our hotel in Ohdate.

I half listened in as she asked her mom if she would consider leaving Fukushima, if only for a short while. But for her father, confined to a wheelchair since he went down with an aneurism two years ago, a trip to the bathroom was hard enough. Leaving home – a home he hadn’t been more than a few dozen miles from in God knew how long – was, in his mind, out of the question. Heck, leaving home for anything less than pure free will was unthinkable; home was home, where their whole life was…and, my wife’s mom said, where they would die.

My wife’s sister offered less compelling excuses to remain, but would remain just the same. Her son was starting high school in a couple weeks. And the government said things would be fine.

I spoke briefly with my wife about her family; I knew the answers already but I thought she might want to tell me anyway, like she needed to get her bad day at work off her chest. Thirty minutes later she was settling down with the kids and I was heading to the hotel lobby where I would spend the next hour on the Internet, reading messages of encouragement from family and friends, all praying for me and my family to make it out of Japan safe and soon.

In the morning the mission was simple: get breakfast and then get to the station in time to catch the bus to the airport. The six inches of snow that had fallen overnight was light and fluffy, the kind that feels like feathers underfoot. My son stomped along like Godzilla, kicking up white puffs and making three-year-old noises of utter destruction. I wanted to drop our bags and tackle him, play in that perfect blanket until we both collapsed from exhaustion and laughter. But this would have to wait for another day.

There were forty-two people in front of us, with more lining up behind us with each passing minute. Few had bags as big as ours; many had only a briefcase, or nothing at all. A few minutes before departure time a man in an official-looking windbreaker asked all of us going to the airport to form a new line, closer to the curb. Only about twenty of us stepped forward, which to me meant we were one step closer to home.

From a distance the airport seemed not much bigger than the house I grew up in. There was no line at the check-in counter, where a woman smiled graciously and spoke gently as she helped us through the automated check-in process. A smattering of people drifted through the main hall, gazing at travel posters and sipping coffee and seeming very much removed from the world unfolding 200 kilometers to the south.

From the plane we looked down on a snow-covered world. Mountains dominate the northern part of Japan, and from the air you see nothing but trees and valleys and water and serenity. But it was not long before we were passing over Miyagi and Fukushima. In places inland we could see towns and villages, appearing as they should from 25,000 feet. Further off was the coast, and while sun, moisture and distance conspired to hide any detail from us, we could see in that indistinct mass of brown and gray that things were as far from ‘should be’ as one could ever imagine.

I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to get on a plane and fly off overseas when hundreds of thousands of people had in a moment lost everything they’d ever known, unable now to buy even a bus ticket out of town. I wanted to kiss my family and put them on that plane and go back to Fukushima and do something, anything, I didn’t know what but I could figure it out because there were people back there who didn’t have a credit card and two bags of clothes and a family on the other side of the world to take them in and a whole army of friends standing by just in case. I wanted to get to the gate and find that someone needed a small miracle – a mother with a small child, or an elderly couple, waiting on standby because they were one seat short. My family would be fine. I wanted to be useful.

The hell I knew was down there slowly faded from view.

My wife had prepared masks for all of us, to use when we got to Haneda Airport in Tokyo. Yet inside the terminal people seemed just as calm and unmoved as they had in Ohdate-Noshiro earlier that morning. No one was wearing a protective mask. Nobody was running anywhere. It barely seemed like Tokyo let alone Tokyo just now settling after more skyscraper-shaking earthquakes the day before and a growing nuclear threat up the coast. ‘Where are you going?’ The young kid with the orange windbreaker smiled, eager to point us to the correct bus stop. He was working, probably for not a whole lot per hour. His country, at least part of it, had been ravaged and the worst seemed yet to come. And he was happy, helping get us on our way to Narita.

Our bus would be full, as my friend Vid had warned us. This leg of the journey, from Haneda across Tokyo and into Chiba prefecture to Narita Airport, had also concerned me. Standing in that hotel lobby, staring at the indecipherable directions for reserving tickets online, I envisioned masses of people fighting to get on the bus to Narita. Our flight into Tokyo could be delayed too, I thought without wanting to. And it might take forever to get our bags. And what if the buses weren’t running the normal schedule? What if there was another massive quake and everything went down? If we didn’t make our flight how long would we have to wait before three more seats opened up? Flights were all but booked solid for the next week and beyond, after all.

Sitting on our bus, my eleven-month-old making funny faces with the woman behind us, it was almost hard to imagine why I had been so worried.

At Narita the line to check in was without exaggeration two hundred yards long. I heard a dozen languages as we walked along, our older son riding on top of our luggage cart. Mothers barked at their unruly (or not so unruly) c
hildren. People in a hurry stutter-stepped before shouldering their way through any small break in the line to continue toward the security check and the gates and the relief of knowing they’ve caught their flight. Groups of uniformed policemen stood and talked and watched. Announcements drifted through the air. The huge departure screen loomed high on the wall; somewhere in there was our passage out of here.

I spent the last minutes before boarding our plane texting a few important people. I let Vid know we were on our way, and thanked him for all he had done for us. After making sure we were alive, then offering to drive up to Fukushima himself to bring us to Tokyo if that was what we needed, then keeping everyone informed of our whereabouts as we made our roundabout way, all the while making sure we were set up with hotels and flight information and everything else he could possibly think of, he would end up staying in Tokyo to volunteer at a distribution warehouse, helping to get food up to the Tohoku area, the place I had just run from. Several other friends had mailed me as well, expats who had also taken off and Japanese who were staying put. And finally, as we stood on line to board, I sent word to my mom that we really were on our way. It was only at this moment that I believed that we truly had made it, that we were leaving Japan behind, for now.

I couldn’t see Japan falling away below as our plane climbed into the sky. But I thought about my adopted home; the people I had called neighbor and friend for the past nine and a half years; the places that, though not perfect, I had grown to love, not as one loves a thing but as one loves an idea. And I knew that no matter how dear Japan was to me, however I would adore her, my home would always be America. And today, I would go home.

I looked over at my wife, cradling our little one. She liked America; liked my family. But America was not her home. And her family was among those we were leaving behind. For our sons’ sake the choice was easy: get to where it is safe, no matter how far we have to go. For me, yes I have struggled with my decision to leave when there are still so many with nothing, so many that could benefit from another set of hands moving food, or bringing water, or clearing debris, so many who, in moments of clarity amidst the chaos, would want nothing more than a friend to lean on and an arm to cry on. That my boys need me too helps to ease this guilt. But it is my wife who is leaving her life behind, at least for now. While my family waits to receive us with outstretched arms her parents are left with one less daughter. While I get to see my nieces and nephews living in a blessedly normal world my wife is left to wonder what is silently raining down on her sister’s son and daughter, who have grown so much since I first met them. And as welcome as my wife feels, as loved as she is by my family, her family and her home are now far away.

We know we will return to Fukushima, at least for a time. And perhaps we knew too back in our hotel room in Ohdate. But as I listened to my wife talk to her mother on the phone I knew what our leaving meant to her. ‘Good bye for now,’ my wife said, and gently hung up.

In our hotel room in Ohdate, it seemed like now was all we had.

And we were among the very fortunate ones.

———–

Note: This is the last of an eight-part series on my experiences during and following the March 11th earthquake. All eight parts can be found here on The Inductive as well as at http://kevinkatoendeavors.blogspot.com – where also I’ve posted a sort of epilogue piece.

The situation persists in Japan; please keep the hundreds of thousands still affected in your thoughts, as most have few options but to ride it out and pray they will one day return to a life resembling normal.