Sunday, November 12, 2017

To Make a Demon Weep

It was while waking back to my parents’ van after viewing my sister’s body that it welled up inside me.  
“Hey…”  I called out to everyone.  My folks, my sister’s two kids, a niece and nephew all grown up, my niece’s live-in boyfriend, who would drive us back to their house.  
“I just want to say something.  I need to say something and get it out before…  We start talking about other things and…  I don’t have the chance.”  
Everyone stopped.  They turned to look at me.  They waited while I said whatever it was I had stopped them to tell them.  
I paused.  And realized I didn’t really know what I wanted to say.  
It was better at my uncle’s memorial, which had taken place four days before in California.  I think it was because of what happened at my uncle’s “Life Memorial” that I felt the urge to speak about my sister.  
My uncle had made it clear that he didn’t want a traditional funeral service to mark his passing.  There was to be no viewing.  No church service.  He was to be cremated and his ashes were to be scattered around the trees he planted behind his wife’s business.  The family could have a “Life Memorial” if they wanted one.  Which is what they decided to do.  
A tent with tables and chairs was set up.  Caterers served rice & beans, street tacos and quesadilla with chicken, pork or beef.  Beer, wine and soft drinks sat in buckets of ice along one wall.  A podium faced the open side of the tent.  A microphone was set in a stand on top of it.  
My cousin Ace got it started.  He spoke about his Dad, why he, as well as his brother Michael and adopted brother Brian wore blue velour shirts and jeans (it was uncle Al’s favorite outfit).  He invited everyone to come up a share a memory about Al.  
People took turns doing so.  Some talked about how much they were going to miss my uncle.  Some about his generosity and willingness to help others.  Some told funny stories about time spent with him, making us laugh.  
Ace surprised me by returning to the podium and talking about Virginia.  He talked about “another loss for our family, too soon.  Our beautiful cousin.”  He invited me to step up to the podium and talk about this double loss.  
I got up and spoke about my sister for a bit.  How her death came just one week after my uncle’s.  I said that I hoped that November would get better soon.  I then talked about Al.  About how my Dad spoke about his generosity, only saying, “How much do you need?” when asked for a loan during trying times.  I talked about the summer I worked for him in his TV repair shop, working long hours, but feeling very accomplished the first time I diagnosed and repaired a customer’s TV at 13 year old.  I told the story about how he came to my apartment and banged on the door of all my neighbors looking for me when my mom thought I was missing, because she had switched two numbers when writing my new number down and got a message that my phone was disconnected.  I listed Al as my emergency contact after that.  Who wouldn’t want someone willing to bang on the doors of strangers to find out if they knew where you were as your emergency contact?

But at my sister’s viewing, I had blown it.  The situation hadn’t been right.  It was too austere.  I only had a jumble of images, feelings and recollections that wouldn’t come out in the right order.  And the next day, at the service, which my brother-in-law controlled, I probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to make up for it.  

I did not sleep well that night.  I kept imagining Virginia’s ghost coming back to haunt me for not speaking well of her.  

Virginia’s service was the next morning.  I was still feeling out of sorts.  I realized that morning that I had failed to pack my suit jacket for the trip.  It was a reminder that I was not ready for this.  We drove back to the funeral home, met up with our family, my uncle on my Dad’s side of the family and my two cousins, then took our seats down front.  

The service was like the viewing the day before.  Plain and traditional.  The preacher was from the church where Daniel and Virginia had been married, but he didn’t know either of them.  He repeated things that Daniel had told him about them.  Some of them were not accurate.  He read from the bible.  He expressed his certainty that my sister was in a better place.  

Then, about the time I thought the service was going to end, the preacher asked if anyone who knew her better wanted to stand and speak to the gathering.  I sat on my hands.  After fumbling yesterday, I didn’t want to ruin another moment.  People that knew her through Daniel’s work stood and said nice things, about how she was always positive and wanted to do for herself, even when she was in pain.  Her mother-in-law spoke as well.  

“Does anyone else have something to say about Virginia?”  A silence fell upon the gathering at the preacher’s question.  I knew that if no one stood to say more, the service would be over.  I knew that if someone stood, they would be the last person to speak.  I knew that I did not want only strangers, even if they were well meaning, to have the last word on my sister’s life.  

I raised my hand, just as the preacher was leaning toward the microphone to move the service to its conclusion.  He nodded at me.  I stood and faced everyone else.  I noted how people were sitting in groups.  My family just behind me.  Daniel’s family to my left.  A group of her friends from her work behind my family.  And her ex-husband, father to my niece and nephew, sitting with his new wife and a couple others way in the back.  I decided to tell them about her as best I could, using memories to illustrate who she was and not worry about how it came out.  
After I was done, the preacher ended the service.  They rolled out her coffin.  We filed out.  Friends and acquaintances of hers came up to me.  They expressed sorrow for my loss.  They liked what I had said about her.  My family told me I’d “done good.”  

That was a relief.  And I’m glad it went well.  But it’s not done.  We still need to comply with her final wish about scattering her ashes.  Like my uncle she left word that she wanted to be cremated too.  It’s not that I’m referring to.  

Since my sister’s death I’ve felt the need or strong desire to “do something.”  Just…  Something.  Like take up a cause.  Or travel to some far place and go on a pilgrimage.  Or clean up my apartment.  There are so many candidates, that each one sounds just as important and right to do.  

I thought writing this blog might help me figure it out.  It hasn’t.  Not entirely.  

In the novel Slapstick, Kurt Vonnegut talks about his sister and her death via cancer.  Two days before her death, her husband died in a train accident.  Vonnegut talked about how his sister did not ask, “Why me?” or curse God or Fate or the Universe.  She understood, as Vonnegut related, that the universe was a “very busy place,” and that sometimes bad things happened.  

Along with my desire to “do something,” I’ve been telling myself that my world has become a very busy place, and that I just have to go forward as best I can, doing my best to live for today, and realizing that there is a contradiction in that.  To go forward means to look to the future, carrying on toward whatever goals you have in life.  To live for the day means to look no farther than what is before you at this moment and make it the best you can, like my sister tried to do.  

I came across a Japanese saying recently that I really like.  明日の事を言えば鬼が笑う。Ashita no koto wo ieba oni ga warau.  If you speak of tomorrow demons laugh.  A nod toward how we don’t know what the future might bring.  

My impulse to “do something,” I think, is a desire to find out what I can do to make those demons weep.  Just as I did at my sister’s passing.  


Sunday, November 05, 2017

Chasing a Squirrel as a Pathway to Grieving

Friday evening, while watching a video purporting to show clips of UFO aliens caught on tape in my darkened apartment, someone knocked on my door.  
“Can you help me?”  It was a neighbor of mine.  A short Asian woman with long blonde hair that had moved in a couple months ago.  “There’s a creature in my apartment.”  
“Creature?”  I could hear the video still playing.  The narrator describing a creepy security camera video that someone claimed showing a strange “creature” with a bulbous head and large black eyes peeking into their backyard in some unpopulated rural setting.  “What sort of ‘creature’?”  
“I don’t know.  I came home.  The water was running in my faucet.  I can hear it moving around.  Can you help me?”  The last was said with a plaintive whine.  She bounced up and down on the balls of her feet.  
“Hold on…”  I went to turn off the video.  It kept using the term, “creature” in its narration and it wasn’t helping me focus.  My mood was jangled to begin with.  It had become that way when I received a call from my parents telling me the eldest of my two younger sisters, Virginia, had died after a five year fight with cancer.  I had left work early, bought a bottle of wine, which I had consumed with my lunch, and lay on the couch feeling numb until I dozed off.  I had woken up just a few moments ago, thinking I should post something about my sister and ended up surfing my way to videos showing gray aliens sneaking around backyards or being interrogated by one government agency or another.  
“You said you didn’t see it, this ‘creature’?”  I knew the apartment she lived in was a studio.  One main room, with a small kitchen and bathroom.  Whatever it was would have to be on the small size to be there and go unseen.  
“I think I heard it.  But…  Can you help me?”  
“Sure.  Let me get on my shoes.”  
A few moments later, tennis shoes on, I was standing inside the threshold of her apartment.  She had walked further inside, toward the kitchen, explaining again how she came home to find the water running, when the comforter thrown across the bed started to move.  
“Oh my God!  There it is!  There it is!”  
A second later, a squirrel poked its furry head from under the blanket.  I had figured it that this is what it had to be.  The building I live in have vents to the roof, and if the screens covering their openings get loose, squirrels can crawl down into your apartment looking for whatever they come looking for.  It had happened to me once, which had created a very interesting afternoon for me and my cat, Tybalt.  
Before I could explain any of this, the squirrel darted across the bed and toward the kitchen.  This was in my neighbor’s direction as well, which started her screaming and jumping up and down.  
“Yeeeahh!  Yeeeahh!  Ohmygod!  Ohmygod!”  
She ran past me out the door.  The squirrel ran past her into the kitchen.  
“It’s Ok, it’s Ok…”  She was already out the door.  “I’ll see what I can do.  Just…  Stand there…  Hold the screen door open.  I’ll try to chase it out.”  
“Oh-kay…”  Something in her voice made it sound like she thought this was a dubious plan, but she complied. 
“Ok, Rocky…”  I called out to the squirrel as I headed into the kitchen.  “Let’s get you back in your tree.”  
The squirrel was up on the counter.  He was looking at me.  He didn’t look too afraid.  The squirrel in my apartment had rushed around hysterically, climbing up shelves, jumping from the couch, while my cat made confused and excited calls.  Maybe it was the lack of a cat, or that he’d lived in the area for a while and was used to humans being around, but he just looked at me at first, shifting back and forth on his paws.  
“This way…”  I grabbed a cutting board from off the counter.  “Back outside…”  
He didn’t listen.  He darted one way, then another, then jumped behind the stove in the corner.  
Great.  I pulled the stove out and could his tail sticking out from underneath it.  I pulled it out some more, to have him look up at me with a, “Hey, I was hiding there,” sort of look.  
I poked my head at my neighbor.  “Excuse me, uh…  What was your name?”
“Ani.”  
“Ani, do you have a broom or mop or something?”  I wanted something long to reach down and flush the squirrel from under the stove.  
“I’ve got a vacuum cleaner!”  
Before I could explain why I wanted the broom, Ani grabbed something out of her closet.  It was an industrial looking hand-held vacuum, with a clear catch tray.  Battery operated.  It had a long tube connected to it, making it look like it had a long snout, though it wasn’t long enough to reach down to the squirrel.  
But it did make a noise, as I found out when I pulled the trigger.  I adapted my plan and went back into the kitchen.  
It was about this time that I guess you could say I started waking up.  This was, while odd, somewhat fun.  And it was real.  A strange but real problem to have.  A squirrel stuck in an apartment.  Something that could be solved.  Fixed.  
When my Mom had called me earlier that day, saying, “Virginia died this morning,” my first thought was, “Who is that?”  Not my sister.  Someone else.  A family friend or acquaintance with the same name.  As my mother when through the details she had, I only slowly made the connection to my sister.  The person she had gone to North Carolina, along with my Dad, to be with and comfort as she entered her sixth, last-ditch, round of chemotherapy.  It wasn’t until I told someone at work that my sister had died, and I suddenly started crying, that a modicum of reality, the sense that it really had happened, hit me.  
It was like watching those alien videos, the feeling I’d been soaking in.  You saw it.  You heard what people said.  But, did you believe it?  I think that’s why I kept watching them after I got off the couch in my stupor.  They fit my frame of mind perfectly.  
Back in the kitchen, I looked behind the stove and spotted little Rocky.  I reached down with the handheld vacuum and pulled the trigger.  Rocky scurried under the stove.  I reached down further, though not too far.  The image of little Rocky getting sucked into the vacuum held me back.  I wanted him out, not harmed.  I pulled the trigger to make the vacuum growl again.  
Rocky ran out.  I stepped back, but too fast.  I blocked his way to the kitchen door.  He darted behind a standing set of shelves on wheels.  I reached back with vacuum.  It was probably like some big growling dog to his ears.  He knocked over a can of non-stick cooking spray.  He push out a box of breakfast cereal.  
Finally, he jumped out.  He got on his hind legs, front paws spread wide, and jumped up and down at me.  Was he threatening me?  Was he going to jump up my pants leg and climb up to my face to get me? 
In the end, I think it was his way of saying, “I surrender, I give up!”  I stopped pulling the vacuum’s trigger.  He stopped jumping up and down, turned and ran into the studio’s main room. 
“Yeeeahh!  Yeeeahh!  Ohmygod!  Ohmygod!”
“Just let him go!”  I envisioned her closing the screen to keep Rocky away from her, and thereby keeping him in and making me start all over again.  But she didn’t.  I entered the room in time to see Rocky running past her and the open screen door and down the upper floor walkway.  
“Thank you, thank you so much!”  
I told Ani it was no problem.  I handed her vacuum back to her.  I pushed her stove back into place.  I picked up the items Rocky had knocked off her shelf.  I suggested she call the landlord and ask them to check the screen on the vent’s opening on the roof.  I kept saying, “No problem” and “You’re welcome” to her continuing “Thank you’s.”  I headed back to my apartment.  
Before I went back inside, I noticed that I had fun doing that.  I also noticed my funk was gone.  The numbness had dissipated.  That I was thinking clearly.  
And I knew, with certainty, that my sister was gone.  And I became very sad.  Really sad.  But it was an honest sadness.  A tangible grief.  A feeling I could go through completely.  One I could deal with.

I went back into my apartment then.  To call my family.  Tell them I loved them.  Talk about my sister, and find out what we would be doing to remember her and celebrate her life.    

Monday, September 04, 2017

What to Do in an Urban Moment

Something happened to me the other day while walking the streets of Pasadena, California, my hometown, the other day.  When I tweeted about how it began, one of my friends asked me a very similar question to what I asked myself at the time it was happening.
“What did you do?”  
“Nothing,” I replied.  Which was the truth.  I choose to not get involved in the situation.  At the time, though, I was wondering if I needed to get involved.  In order to be the type of citizen I think I should be, that we all should be.  To prevent some greater wrong being done by letting someone get away.  
But I held back.  And, having thought about it…
Here, in lieu of a police report, let me tell you what I saw happen, and what I surmised to have happened, and you tell me if I did the right thing or not.  If you think I blew it, then by all means, let me know.  
It started, like so many urban moments we face and witness in whatever medium to large city we might live in, with a car horn.
“Blare-Blare-Blare!”  
It wasn’t a quick, “Watch your lane,” little “Toot.”  It was a “What the EHF are you DOING, Mother-Ehfer?!” lean on the stearing wheel blast.  
Followed by, “Thunk.”  
I was about a block away.  It was a night.  Pools of streetlamp light marked my path toward the drug store where I was strolling, like spaces in some board game.   
Looking ahead I could see where the moment was taking place.  Past the last space I needed to cross to leave the current block I could see a huge white SUV sitting at the end of the side street I would need to cross.  Its left turn signal was blinking, “yellow-yellow-yellow.  But there was no traffic.  And it wasn’t moving.  
At first I thought that someone had bumped into the side of someone else.  Like what happens in a parking lot some times.  Someone else is backing out of a space, and they don’t see you sitting there waiting to pull into a space a few to the left of the guy backing out.  But the guy backing out doesn’t see you and you realize he’s going to hit you if you can’t get him to stop NOW…
“Blare-Blare-Blare!”
“Thunk.”  
I thought I’d see some people get out of their cares to exchange insurance info, complain about how stupid they are, and ask why they couldn’t look where they were going.  
I didn’t see people.  But I didn’t see them coming out of the SUV or any other car.  They were directly underneath one of the street lamps casting the pool of light spaces I was walking through.  Two silhouettes standing together.  Almost like they were dancing.  In a violent, fighting sort of way.  
I slowed down at first.  I looked to the other side of the street, wondering if would be safer to cross and continue toward the drug store over there.  I could hear the sounds of people yelling and screaming at each other.  No.  The two people I could make out where not suddenly doing the tango.  
I decided to go forward.  I figured I should at least see what was going on.  See, and then decide what I should do.  If I was going to do anything.  I wondered if I was ready and willing to break up a fight.  I didn’t answer myself at first. 
And before I got the chance to, one of the silhouettes put the other on the ground.  Not, “knocked to them to the ground.”  Nor did the second silhouette trip and fall.  The first, and bigger silhouette bent over.  When it straightened up, the second one suddenly vanished in a pool of shadow.
The cries and shouts got louder.  
I decided to pick up my pace.  
It was maybe a dozen seconds later that the first silhouette, which was moving toward me, resolved itself into the shape of a person.  
A tall, muscular man.  The type of musculature that requires spending a fair amount of one’s free time at the gym building and maintaining while drinking protein shakes.  As we were approaching each other, he decided to take off his tee-shirt, pulling it up over his head.  
Just as he became bare chested, I heard someone call out from some distance away, “Stop him!  Don’t let him get away!”  
I pulled to a halt.  Where they talking to me?  Were they expecting me to make this guy stop? 
If so, how did they expect me to do it?  Maybe I was a silhouette to them, the way this guy was before to me.  About half my age, twice as big, in all the ways that mattered when it came to one person making another stop.  
And, why did I need to stop him?  Looking at the guy, I couldn’t see anything that gave me a reason to stop him, except the insistence of a disembodied voice.  He was strolling along.  Not running away.  Not even walking fast, like he’s trying to get away as if nothing happened.  Walking.  He had on a game face, not showing any specific emotion.  And except for being bare chested, which I don’t think violates any civic ordinances, there was nothing odd about him.  
If he had been running toward me, with a lady’s purse in his hand, would I have tried to stop him?  Maybe so.  
If he had been running toward me, with a blood machete in his hand, ripping off his blood soaked tee-shirt, would I have tried to stop him?  Maybe not.  But I might have taken his picture to help ID him to the authorities later.  
So…  I did nothing.  I continued working forward.  I looked at his face as he walked back.  He didn’t look back.  He just kept walking.  
“Hey!  Hey!”  
This is when the second character of the urban moment appeared.  
Short and skinny Asian woman.  Blue short-shorts and a tee-shirt looking blouse.  Cool clothing for a hot night.  He had a cell phone in her left hand which was glued to her hear.  
“Hey!”  She came right up to me.  “Call the police!” 
“Eh?”  This ended up being my only dialogue in this entire encounter.  
“Call the police!  He assaulted my sister.”  
“I was just defending myself!”  
That was Muscular Guy.  He’d turned around to respond to Cell Phone Lady’s assertion.  
“You assaulted her!”  Her free hand shot forward. She was pointing at Muscular Guy with all the accusation she could muster.  “You threw her to the ground!”  
Muscular Guy gave Cell Phone Lady a dismissive wave of his disrobed shirt.  He turned around and continued walking.  
“Call the police!”  Cell Phone Lady looked back at me, then left the pool of light space we’d been standing in.  “Hey!  Stop him!  Call the police!  He assaulted my sister!”  
With this new information, I decided that I needed to do…  Nothing.  Yet.
My first thought as Cell Phone Lady was exhorting me to call the police was, “Uh…  That thing against your ear is a phone, right?  Why aren’t you calling the police?”  One of two things were going on with that phone.  Either, A) she was already calling the police and wanted everyone she found on the street to call as well, in order to get as many patrol cars as possible to arrive and take down this Sister Assaulter, or B) She was continuing a phone call with a friend and had been narrating the urban moment to her and was continuing to do so even as she chased Muscular Guy down the street, in which case, if the situation wasn’t important enough for her to stop the call and contact the police herself, then it was possible that things were not so dire that the police needed calling at all.  
Also, I had seen the two the two silhouettes in action.  And the first one, Muscular Guy I’m assuming, hand not THROWN the second one, the sister in question, to the ground.  It had been BEND, PLACE, then STRAIGHTEN.  PLACE might not have been gentle, but it had been PLACE not THROWN.
So…  I turned toward the drug store again, and kept walking.  
Within two light pool spaces, I came across two more individuals, one of whom was a key player to the drama that was happening around me.
Big, round guy with a shaved head, holding a cell phone to his RIGHT ear.  
I don’t know if this guy was involved or not.  He was about my height, but weighed about half again as much as I did.  The street light shimmered off of his shaved head.  His thin mustache was straightened out on his face in a snickering smile.  
My thought at the time was that he was with Cell Phone Lady and he was doing the police-calling.  Looking back, I think I was wrong.  He was probably some other pedestrian on the street, calling some friend to tell him what he was seeing.  “Dude, this is so jacked up.  You won’t believe it!  They be screamin’ and yellin’…”  
This guy wasn’t doing nothing, like me.  He was Audience Guy.  He was following and watching and conveying it to his public.  
“น้องสาว”
I looked forward to see the last of the main characters make her appearance.  
“น้องสาว...  Leave him alone.  Came back.  He’s crazy!”  
Oh…  I had heard a foreign sounding word, but couldn’t recognize it.  What I was seeing was another Asian woman.  This one tall.  Long blonde hair.  Dressed in what I would call a swishy, black dress that ran to her ankle.  A summery thing to wear at an upscale barbecue.
“Come on back.  He’s insane.  A crazy ass.  Come on!”  
This must be Sister.  The one Cell Phone Lady said had been assaulted.  An attractive woman, for sure.  Stylish.  And…  Not very mussed up, I noticed.  And her attitude was not what I’d expect from someone who’d just been assaulted.  Her voice was strong.  She sounded used to getting her way.  She was giving orders.  She was done with this.  It was time to move on.  
She walked past me after her sister, Cell Phone Lady, continuing to call her back.  “น้องสาว...  Come on!”  
I’m thinking “น้องสาว” was Cell Phone Lady’s name.  
Since Sister looked fine, and I didn’t Muscular Guy was going stop to go another round with Sister, I turned back toward the drug store, and kept walking.  
There was on other thing that I think tied everything together.  
SUV.  Big.  REALLY BIG.  “I DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING’ Big.  It was still sitting there at the end of the street.  It’s left turn signal was still going.  It wasn’t going anywhere.  
I walked around behind the SUV to cross the street, bearing left to get even with the curb.  I stepped up and took a couple of steps…
When I stopped.  Turned around.  And looked at where the SUV was parked.  
It was in the crosswalk.  It filled the crosswalk.  The reason I went behind it was due to the fact that going in front of it would have forced me to curve my path into the street.  I had done this numerous times in Pasadena…
When the way some driver had approached the intersection had forced me to do so.  
I channeled my inner Sherlock Holmes with this last piece of evidence.  Just like in the movies when you see the detective looking at a piece of broken glass, remembered what one suspect had said at a perfect moment, eyes flickering back and forth in his sockets as he strolls through his Palace of Imagination. 
As I was doing this, Sister returned to the SUV.  She got into the driver’s seat.  Started it up.  Then pulled into the street to whip around in a u-turn and back down the street she had been coming from.  
Driving HER SUV.  
I turned around and continued walking away.  This is what I saw in my Palace of Imagination: 
Sister and Cell Phone Lady are in her SUV, going off somewhere to do something.  Cell Phone Lady is talking with whomever they’re going to visit.  Something like that.  
Muscular Guy is walking home.  He’s thinking he might have time to change and take a quick 5K run before bedtime.  
Sister is talking to น้องสาว about what they’re going to do.  She’s not paying much attention to how she’s driving.  They need to turn left at the end of the street, Cell Phone Lady tells her.  To get to the freeway.  It’s the fastest way to where they’re going.  
Sister cuts across the pedestrian crosswalk.  Muscular Guy has to jump back to avoid being hit.  
Muscular Guy is pissed.  He has the right of way.  She could have hit him if he hadn’t been so agile (and muscular).  This happens WAY TOO OFTEN in Pasadena (which it does).  He decides to make a point.  
Sister is about to make her left hand turn, when she realizes just before putting on the accelerator that someone is in front of her car!  She hits the brakes to keep the SUV from going forward.  Asshole!  She uses her horn to get him to move.
“Blare-Blare-Blare!”  
“Are you kidding me?”  No embarrassed smile?  No apology wave?  Who does this… Bitch! thing she is?  He decides to show her who HE IS and what his time in the gym has bought him.  
“Thunk.”   
“What the—-?”  Sister and Cell Phone Lady say it simultaneously, eyes wide in disbelief as the guy in front of Sister’s beautiful SUV brings his two fists down to smash the hood of its trunk.  AND THEN…  He walks away like nothing happened!
Sister decides he’s not going to let him get away with it.  Shuts off the SUV.  Stomps on the break.  Leaps out of the vehicle.  She races after Muscular Guy as fast as she can on three inch hills.  
“Hey!”  She tries to grab his shoulder.  He shrugs her off.  Cell Phone Lady follows behind her, telling her friend what’s going on.  
“You won’t believe it!  This…  Asshole just SLAMMED his hands on my Sister’s hood.  Jumped outa NOWHERE!  Does that for no good reason!”  
“Hey!”  Sister is not used to being ignored.  She grabs his shoulder again.  This time, when he tries to shrug her off, she grabs the hem of his sleeve.  
“Rip!” 
“Damn it!”  Muscular Guy looks at the torn shirt.  Looks at the bitch that tore it.  He raises his hands…  But no.  He’s not one to hit a woman.  Not even when they deserve it.  
“What do you think you were doing?”  She uses both hands to shove him in the chest.  He barely rocks back on his heels.  “Huh?  If there’s a dent, you’re gonna pay…”  She shoves him again.  
Muscular Guy grabs her by the shoulders.  No…  He doesn’t hit women.  But, he’s not about to let them hit him.  Holding on tightly, he bends forward, pushing her off balance.  
“Hey!   What the…?”  
And places her on the ground.  Before she can get to her feet, he walks away.  He feels the torn sleeve flapping on his arm.  He doesn’t wear torn clothing.  Ever.  It’s a rule.  His favorite tee-shirt.  Now it’s garbage.  He takes it off as he hears the screeching of the other bitch from the car behind him.  He’ll throw the tee-shirt in the trash as soon as he gets home.  
And this is where I came on the scene.  
I’m not sure this is the way it happened.  Not at all.  But I wasn’t sure that I needed to stop Muscular Guy just because Cell Phone Lady called out to me to do so.  
Maybe I’m picking a scenario that exonerates me.  Entirely possible.  Not purposefully.  But possible.  What I think it shows is that, coming on urban moment, it’s important to not get dragged into the emotion and hysterics and screaming and yelling, UNLESS you see something that CLEARLY needs attention.  Like a child ABOUT to get abused, or someone ABOUT to step in front of a car without looking.  
I did nothing.  And, I think I can be pretty confidant that doing nothing was the right thing to do in that situation.  
Writer’s Note: In case you’re wondering, น้องสาว, is what I get when I put the Japanese word for “little sister,” 妹 - いもうと, into Google Translate and ask for a Thai translation.  I don’t know if the sisters in this urban moment were Thai or not, I just wanted to convey that I heard something I just didn’t understand.  

The End.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Japan Report - Kabuki at the Kabukiza Theater


On Monday, April 10th, I went to the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo to see the April Performances.  Three pieces were part of the morning matinee: 
醍醐の花見 - Flower Viewing at Daigo Temple - Toyotomi Hideyoshi stages a lavish party to view the sakura, or cherry trees, blooming at Daigo Temple.  
伊勢音頭恋寝刃 - A Summer Play of Love’s Dull Blade - The effort of a loyal retainer to retrieve a cursed sword and its certificate of authenticity from the samurai that swindled it from his master.  
一谷嫩軍記 - War Chronicle of the Battle of Ichinotani Valley - Two women on opposite sides of a war go to the battle camp of the general leading one side to see if their sons survived.  
This was my first time viewing live kabuki performances or seeing an entire performance cycle.  I had learned some things about kabuki over the years, but wasn’t sure quite what to expect.  
Here’s a bit of what I found out…
First, expect to be confused.  First, it’s in foreign language.  And a version of that foreign language that is foreign to the people that speak it.  Japanese can and do rent earphones that will give them explanations of what is being said during the performance.  And foreigners can rent small screens that translate the lines of the play into English or other languages, providing you with subtitles during the performances.  

But that only helps to a certain degree.  The subtitle box you rent tells you that the subtitle it provides is based on the original text of the play, which might be different from what  actor is actually saying on stage.  There were moments when even I could tell that the line the actor was saying was different than what was on the screen.  
But the confusion doesn’t end there.  Adding to it is the fact that, from what I could tell from the performances I saw, a number of these presentations are fragments of older, longer pieces.  Of the three pieces I watched as part of the performance I attended, one was the favorite third act of a five act play and another has segments that are “not often performed” for modern audiences.  The previous parts of these longer pieces have characters and exposition that would help make it clear as to what you are watching before you if you had no familiarity with the piece.  It would be like someone from another country that never heard of Romeo & Juliet going to performance that started with the balcony scene.  
And even with the one stand alone piece in the performance, a “dance program” entitled “Flower Viewing at Daigo,” there is a historical context that a foreign viewer may lack.  This piece is based on an actual historical event when Totoyomi Hideyoshi, then overlord of Japan, staged a lavish party to view the blooming sakura, or cherry blossoms, at Daigo Temple near Osaka.  What someone not familiar with Japanese history wouldn’t know is that this flower viewing party took place only a few months before Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea ended in disaster, followed by the collapse of his power and subsequent death.  Sakura is the Japanese symbol of the ephemeral nature of life.  There is an irony to the piece, not lost on the Japanese, in Hideyoshi celebrating his power and prestige with a party that would be linked with fragility and fleeting nature of life.  
As with my example using Romeo & Juliet above, these plays are well known to the Japanese people that come watch them.  They have the same thrill of recognition as when  an English speaking audience hears Juliet asks, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”  The audience will applaud, and laugh, at this famous moments.  The performers themselves will pause and present a tableau when these scenes arrive in the performance. 
Which is another aspect of kabuki that stands out to someone steeped in western theatre arts: they are very, VERY stylized and presentational.  The artifice is part of the performance, not just the vehicle by which the performance is conveyed to the audience.  This is most clear when it comes to fight scenes.  They are not staged to look like actual combat.  They are dances of violence.  At times they can almost taken to be walk throughs by stunt people before the actual scene is staged.  A red scarf, pulled out from the neckline of an actor’s kimono is an indication that the fight has come to an end.  
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the performance.  I did.  As with any works of art carried forward from the past into the present day, there is something about them that we, or the culture that produced them, finds valuable and meaningful, which has lasted in the decades or centuries when they were first created.  
The scene I remember most clearly that conveys this comes from the third piece in the performance I attended, entitled, “War Chronicle of the Battle in Ichinotani Valley.”  A mother, wife to the general leading the forces in one side of the battle, defies orders and comes to the camp to see if her son has survived.  Her husband, angry at her disobedience, questions her about her duty as a mother and their son’s as a soldier.  
“If I told you that our son fought bravely, and died doing his duty honorably, what would you say to that?”
“Yes,” she replies, she would be happy to know that was how their son behaved at the end of his life.  But off to the side, the narrator, with musical accompaniment, recites the woman’s thoughts and feelings that she keeps inside her.  And as she speaks out loud the dutiful answers expected of her, you can hear her voice echo the timbre and trembling of the narrator, and you can feel how much she hurts over the idea of discovering her child has met his end.  
There is emotional truth in this plays.  That is why they are still performed after so many years have past.  
The experience itself was a very Japanese one, for sure.  From the entire staff spoke nothing but keigo, the most polite level of Japanese, to the bento box I bought for the lunch break, it was an experience steeped in Japanese sensibilities.  

I don’t know that I’ll become a kabuki fan.  But I do see myself going again, to see what else I might find there.  I don’t think I have to worry about kabuki going away any time soon.  


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Japan Report - Lions vs. Hawks at the Metlife (Seibu) Dome.

One of my “bucket-list” projects that brought be back to Japan was to see a professional baseball game in all the pro-level parks in both the MLB in North America and the NPB in Japan.  On Saturday, April 8th, I took a step toward completing that goal when I went to the Seibu Dome, now called the MetLife Dome, in Saitama, Japan to watch the Seibu Lions play against the SoftBank Hawks.  

The Game
This game featured two Pacific League rivals against each other.  The Hawks are in third place in the league, two games behind first place Rakuten Eagles and half a game behind the Orix Buffaloes.  The Lions are two games behind the Hawks.  
The game itself was a pretty well played affair.  It moved at a very brisk pace, eventually ending fifteen minutes short of three hours.  
The difference in pitching was the key to this game.  The Hawks pitching constantly fell behind, with counts of 2-1 or 3-2 not uncommon.  This forced the Hawks pitchers to throw more hittable balls to keep from walking batters.  The Lions were able to catch a good number of this pitches and put them into play, getting men on base and bringing them home.  
The Lions pitching on the other hand kept the Hawks in check throughout the game.  The only run allowed was a solo homer late in the game, this when the Lions already had built a 5-0 lead.  The Lions got that run back with a homer of their own, finishing with a win at 6-1.  
The Stadium
Seibu Dome, which is now called MetLife Dome, but I can’t get “Seibu Dome” out of my head, is a quirky place.  
First off the Dome doesn’t complete enclose the stadium.  A quick check on Wikipedia verifies my suspicion, that the stadium was retrofitted with a dome after it was constructed.  The stadium was built in 1979.  The dome was added in two phases in 1997 and 1998.  The result is that while there won’t be any rain delays, natural wind flow can come through to affect balls hit into the air.  AND, according to Wikipedia, it’s also possible to hit a home run out of the park, something not doable in a most domed stadiums.  



There’s something of a minor league air to the surroundings.  Before the dome, which is easy to get to having a train station right in front of it, is a little village of vendors selling food, caps, and other paraphernalia.  You have to walk through this area, which is several avenues wide, to get to the ticket gate and entrance.  

This semi-permanent feel continues after you enter.  The food and drink vendors “inside” the stadium are in portable stands not connected to the structure.  The stadium proper is pretty much the playing field and the surrounding stands.  
And there are no stairs to get to the upper levels.  The stadium was built into a slope (artificial or man-made, I don’t know).  You walk up what amounts to a giant ramp to get to your seats.  

And beware, there is no passage or walkway (that I could find) connecting the two sides of the stadium.  If you want to go to the other side, you have to walk down to the entrance gate, get your hand stamped, then walk to the entrance gate on the other side to have someone shine a black light on it to see it before you’ll be allowed back in.  I found this out when I heard that one of my favorite Japanese restaurants, CoCo Ichiban Curry House, had a stall at the stadium.  It was on the other side, forcing me to go through this little trek.   
Another feature which harkens back to a smaller, simpler past is the bleacher section.  Part of it has no seats.  Just a broad, flat area, painted green, where people bring blankets to lay across the ground and watch.  Think of the slope behind the outfield at the park where the Little League champions series is played in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  
I like the stadium.  I would have a good time coming here to watch games as a fan.  
The Atmosphere
Baseball games in Japan are fun.  My most commonly used analogy is that they are more like American college football games, with cheerleaders, the crowd chanting and signing in unison, drums and horns playing all the time.  This game had all of that. 
Another difference between games in the U.S. and in Japan is a sense of inclusiveness.  I’ve known for about about a decade now that stadiums in Japan will designate a section of the seats for visiting fans.  In some games between teams close to each other geographically, or when one team has a huge national following, such as when the Yomiuri Giants play the DeNA Baystars in Yokohama, the visiting team’s section can as much as half the stadium.  I have tickets in the visitors section to see the Baystars play the Hiroshima Carp at Mazada Stadium in Hiroshima next week.  There are rules prohibiting the wearing of home team colors in the visitors section.  
I’ve also seen caps, jerseys and souvenirs for visiting teams regularly sold at Japanese stadiums.  I can’t imagine anyone selling a San Francisco Giants cap at the Ravine.  
The game at MetLife/Seibu Dome took this one step farther.  
The Japanese don’t have a “seventh inning stretch” as we do in North America.  But there are different traditions at different parts for the seventh inning.  
At this game, after the close of the 6th inning, the SoftBank Hawks fans starting chanting their team’s fight song.  They also blew up yellow “jet-balloon,” big sperm-shaped balloons with plastic tips where you blow them up that whistle as you release them to send them shooting into the sky. 
While they were singing, the big screen on the scoreboard flashed the SoftBank Hawks insignia and played the music for their fight song.  As they ending the song, the Hawks fans released their balloons sending them whistling through the air with a cheer.  

I was still pondering this, thinking again that you’d never see an MLB park facilitating visiting fan celebration, when the top of the 7th came around.  Now it was the Lions’ home team fans doing the same, singing their fight song, blowing up jet-balloons, this time blue, as their team’s insignia gleamed from the scoreboard and their song blared from the speakers.  On cue, they released their balloons and cheered after the song ended.



I am putting this down to a Japanese sensibility toward being kind to guests.