Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Thoughts from my Brain about the Train

Last week, I rode on the Expo line, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit system's (Metro) newest line, running from the 7th Street station in downtown L.A., to Santa Monica's 3rd Street Promenade.  
I am not what you would call a regular user of public transportation.  I don't use it to get to work.  I live in Pasadena and work in Woodland Hills, in the San Fernando Valley.  When I first started driving to Woodland Hills I checked to see what it would take to get to work via public transit.  The train lines weren’t running yet, and it would have taken about four hours and a dizzying number of transfers to get from where I live to the office.  
Metro is better today.  The same trip today is about two hours.  The simplest route would be to take the 501, or “NoHo Express Bus” from Del Mar station to North Hollywood station, and the 901, or “Orange Express,” from there to DeSoto station, the closest stop to where I work.  The time includes about a twenty minute walk from DeSoto station to the office, but I walk fast enough that I think I can cut that down to fifteen minutes. Still not convenient enough for me to want to do it regularly.  
I do ride Metro a good deal though.  On weekends, holidays and vacation days.  I used to make a monthly "Urban Exploration Excursion," where I would take the train to some station I hadn't been, find out what was around there and go and take a look.  
I found out that a restaurant I discovered in Japan, a curry house called CoCo Ichibanya, has a store a two block walk from the Wilshire/Normandie station on the Purple line.  I walked the five minutes from my apartment to the DelMar station on the Gold Line, got on the Purple Line at Union Station and headed there for dinner a couple of weeks ago.  It tasted exactly as it did in Japan, just as good.  This is a route that I'll remember and use now and then to head to that restaurant.  
In the media coverage of the Expo line opening, there was a constant theme about this being a new era of transit in Los Angeles.  Politicians and others being interviewed referred to it as a “game changer.”  Several people mentioned that it was the first time in sixty years that downtown and the beach were connected by rail, recalling the Pacific Electric “Red Cars” that ran during the twenties to the early sixties.  
I never even knew the Red Cars existed until I saw the movie, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”  I recall Bob Hoskins’s character wondering why anyone would buy a car when, “You can get just about anywhere you want on the Red Car for a nickel.”  Los Angeles used to have the most extensive public transit line in the world at the time.  It wasn’t an exaggeration.
I think claims of the Expo Line being a game-changing event are overblown, though.  I do want the line to succeed, and I do want to see Metro expand and extend into other regions in and around Los Angeles.  I think a healthy, well-run public transit system is part of a healthy, integrated city.  It feels more like the benefits of city life are around you. 
I can’t help but compare L.A.’s Metro with the transit system they have in Japan, which is the most impressive I’ve used in my travels.  Whether traveling across the country or across Tokyo, it always seemed that wherever I wanted to go I was only a few stops away.  And on more than one occasion, the place I wanted to visit would be staring me in the face when I exited the station closest to it.  Below is the entrance to the Fushimi Inari Shrine from the steps of the train station.

The one similarity I noticed taking the Expo line to my experiences in Japan was the diversity of the ridership.  How many people were like me, taking it for the first time experience, I’m not sure.  But the number of people, with the cars filled to capacity, and their diversity did match what I was used to seeing on the trains in Japan.  If the Expo line extension encourages this broadening of the train’s appeal, then it is definitely a good thing.  
But a “game changer”?  I’m not so sure.  I enjoyed my trip.  I walked around the 3rd Street Promenade, a fun a vibrant urban area.  I bought a hot chocolate at a Starbucks.  I spent some time writing my previous blog entry.  Then, around eleven, I decided to head back home.  The ride to Union Station was about fifty minutes.  The last train leaves from there to Pasadena about two in the morning.  I didn’t want to push it.  
Good thing I did.  Right after we left Pico Station, the last stop before 7th Street Station, where I needed to transfer to the Red or Purple Lines heading to Union Station, the train stopped.  It would crawl forward, sometimes only a few feet, before stopping and waiting again. 
"Sorry for the delay," the conductor, or driver, don't know what the official term is for Metro.  "There's a train ahead of us stuck at the platform.  We're waiting for them to get it going again."  
And wait we did.  For what seemed forever.  The conductor (or driver) kept coming on to apologize for the delay.  To explain that we were waiting for them to get the train ahead of us unstuck.  He must have seen something on his screens, because after a few messages of apology he started to add, "Please DON'T try to open the doors or leave the train before we reach the platform!  We'll get you there as soon as we can."  
That turned out to be around half past midnight.  Freed from the train, I ran to the Purple/Red Line platforms toward Union station.  The Gold Line train eventually got me back to Pasadena.  It was sometime between one and two in the morning before I got home. 
Yeah...  We've got a wait before we have a game-changing transit system in L.A..  I'm willing to get out and push, if it helps it get here faster.  

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Growing Hope, Like Berries

Last week, I wrote about optimism.  As usual, my timing sucked.  
Without going into too many details, this last week has been the worst since I've returned from Japan.  Each week since returning from vacation has been increasingly difficult to get through.  I've had employees up and quit.  I've had piles of work to do.  I have equipment that is ceasing to function.  And, I've ruined a phone by dropping it into the toilet and having it, almost literally, turn into a piece of crap.  
I think my blog post last week was an effort on my part to keep a stiff upper lip.  A "fake it till you make it" sort of posting.  An exercise in optimism in and of itself.  
Maybe I should be glade I went through the exercise.  If I hadn't, I might have followed my phone down the drain.  
But I am going to continue to look on the brighter side of things, discounting the bad news, looking forward.  
I'm going to take after the eldest of my two little sisters in this regard.  And something she did when I was trying to give her some advice.  
My sister Virginia is going through her third round of therapy for cancer that was discovered almost four years ago now.  It took them a while to figure out what she had because apparently its a type of cancer normally found in another part of the body which developed in her lungs.  The cancer hospital where she's been getting treatment told her that there has only been one other case like hers in the last sixty years.  
They tried removing half of one of her lungs to stop it.  Then they gave her radiation, a particularly strong and focused form of this therapy.  When it came back again, they gave her intravenous chemo, a variety also known for its strength.  When it came back yet again, and spread to other parts of her body, they started her on a form of oral chemo therapy.  One that originally came with a $3,000 a month co-pay.  
Fortunately, the hospital was able to get the manufacturer to cut a deal and send her the medication directly for only $25 a month.  
Throughout all of this my sister has been pretty straightforward and upbeat.  Talking to her you wouldn't know that she's been sick.  She's very matter of fact about it all.  It's something she has to deal with, a part of her life.  
When I visited her back in March, she told me that the chemo medication she's taking has taken away most of her sense of taste.  She can feel the texture of the food she's eating, but most of it has no taste to it.  
This struck me as a ghastly side effect, one about which I had never heard anything before.  When I asked her what she did about it, she told me that when she eats something she used to like she remembers what it is supposed to taste like and enjoys it that way.  
But the most profound thing she's done in all this came in response to some advice I was trying to give her.  
As the weeks and months have gone by, I've become better able to talk to her about her cancer and what she's going through.  I've tried to give her encouragement and advice.  Ask the doctor about this.  Stay in shape.  Stay strong.  Keep up your health.  During one phone conversations, I told her about how I eat a pint of blueberries a week, a practice I started after hearing someone on the radio talk about how blueberries were shown to give the body resistance to several forms of cancer.  
"Yeah...  The doctor, or scientist, I forget...  He said that the entire digestive track, from mouth to colon, is protected against cancer from the substance that makes blueberries blue."  I remembered at this point that her tumors were in her chest and hip and lymph nodes.  "But, uh...  I'm sure that they probably provide benefits to other parts of the body, too."  
"Huh.  I didn't know that.  I'll have to try eating some."  
"A pint a week.  That's what he said.  It's what I do."  
"I'll have to get some and give it a try."  
I hung up the phone, feeling good that something I had offered her might help her in some way.  
But she didn't go to the store and buy a pint of blueberries like I expected.  Instead, she bought this...

It's a blueberry bush.  She posted the photo on Facebook after she bought it.  She is going tend the bush, raising it up so it can grow blueberries for her to eat.  
At first, I was speechless.  Then, I was humbled.  I had tried to give her some advice, to help her get better.  To give her some hope.  To provide a small ally in her fight against the thing inside her.  Instead, she gave me an example of what it means to look forward.  What it means to be hopeful in a very special way.  
I'm going to do what I can to remain optimistic about the small, petty little problems in my life.  I hope its something that runs in my family.  

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Calculating the Vector of Optimism on Life's Trajectory

When I was a little kid, I used to watch the show Bewitched.  This was a favorite with my family.  There was one episode where, due to yet another mishap with a spell cast by a member of Samantha's family, Benjamin Franklin was brought forward to the future.  
Near the end of episode, as they were struggling to right this magical wrong while at the same time save yet another of Darren's accounts, Franklin expressed an opinion that the options before them all seemed to lead to disaster.  
Samantha replied that, for someone as accomplished as he was, that seemed to be a very pessimistic point of view.  Franklin replied that he preferred an attitude of pessimism over optimism because, "as an optimist I would find myself continually disappointed, while as a pessimist I'm prepared for the worst and, on occasion, find myself pleasantly surprised."  
That scene stuck in young mind and as I grew up became the basis for my attitude on how I faced life.  It was especially brought to home after my near-disastrous road trip after graduation that I've written about in this blog.  Things WILL go wrong.  Blind optimism is no substitute for planning and preparation.  Never under estimate the degree to which situations or people can disappoint you.  
I have stood proudly on this, the bedrock of my beliefs, and proceeded forward as forthrightly as I could.  I even added my own quotable line about how we should regard our existence.  
The universe is like a mafia hit-man.  It IS out to get you, but hey...  It's nothing personal.  
With this blog entry, however, I am reconsidering this position, and I'm wondering, to myself but openly in this forum, if I should try to find a way to be more optimistic.  
I sigh and shake my head.  Maybe I've been listening to too many of Bernie Sander's campaign speeches this last year.  
My reasons for this reconsideration are two-fold.  The first has to do with something I heard on the TED Radio Hour last week.  
I like the TED Radio Hour.  I've quoted things I've heard on it a number of times.  Having it play on the radio as I drive home is like having a stimulating conversation with a few very intelligent friends about things that interest me.  
The May 6th episode was, "The Case for Optimism."  I flinched a bit when I heard that.  It was like having a fellow baseball fan open a conversation about the state of the game with, "You know, there are good reasons for the designated hitter..."  
"No," I wanted to reply.  "Not you, too...!"  
But I listened and, as usual, was fascinated by the presentation, from presenters as diverse as former Vice President Al Gore, a neuroscientist that has isolated where optimism resides in the brain and how it allows us to take chances and makes us happier, and a woman talking about her life going from homeless immigrant to a successful business owner with a family, that includes a husband who was also homeless as a child, and a dog that was rescued from people that used it to prep other dogs for fights by allowing them to attack her.  
The thing that I got out of this presentation of TED Talks was that optimistic people are happier and that they tend to be more successful.  That our brains drive us to optimism, by making us forget the mistakes and negative results of the past so we can try again to do the things we want to do.  And that being optimistic allows us to view our current situation in a way that we are better able to see opportunities for happiness and success.  
I have a number of "touchy-feelie" friends who might read this and send me a message that could be boiled down to, "Duh!  What took you so long."  My reply would be that if you had presented your case as cogently as this presentation had, I might have given your position greater consideration, and that everyone evolves at their own pace, with a person's development measured not by time but growth.  
I'd also add that this is just a consideration of a change.  Something I've always been open to if doing so leads to positive results.  
The second basis for making a change in my attitude in life in this regard is that things have been changing in my life, in very dramatic ways, in recent weeks.  
I made reference to this in an earlier post in regards to my recent trip to Japan.  How I came to realize that I needed to take more direct action to have what I wanted to happen in life take place instead of waiting for things to just happen.  
In a way, something that is occurring to me right now, this might be considered an example of pessimism winning out over optimism.  I waited for something good to "just happen," and when it didn't, my pessimism finally convinced me that it wouldn't unless I did it myself.  Hmm?  
But my life is rife with change.  And I have been worrying as a result.  Worrying because I see all the ways things can go wrong.  Such as...
At work, there has been a change of administration.  As a result, things are being done more fairly, with a greater emphasis on people who are doing good work being recognized, acknowledged and rewarded.  The difference has been startling.  But with this, there is greater accountability, stricter standards, and I am feeling pressure, from within mostly, to do more than what I was doing before.  At times I've wondered when I'll stumble and fall just as things are going the way I've hoped they would.  
If I could be more optimistic, I could set my own standards for my performance, which have been higher than those set for me by others in the past.  I would take the opportunities presented, and do more to advance the cause of my company, my employees and myself.  
I set myself a goal of producing more in my writing, and submitting more work for consideration.  I've not only not hit the goals I set for myself, but I still feel the sting whenever I receive yet another rejection.  I've wondered to myself how much longer I can go on at such a rate.  
As an optimist, I could look at this the way I look at hitters in Major Leagues.  Each at bat is different, just as each story is different.  It's about having a quality at bat and waiting for opportunities to come.  A good hitter will fail to get a hit more than 70% of the time.  I should set my standards there and try to get as many at bats as I can.  
There is someone else in my life now.  This always brings a barrel full of concerns for me, who has not seen very much success in matters of the heart.  Just mentioning it here, in this blog, is an effort to believe that if I can "ride the rhythm," a way of saying, "go with the flow," I can live a more satisfied life.  
As you probably expect, Samantha's scheme got Benjamin Franklin back to his time, and saved the account Darren was working on by incorporating something about the famous American patriot into his presentation.  Sitcoms abound with optimistic results.  
For myself, in a world where time-traveling patriots are rare creatures that I have not encountered, I have only myself to figure out what to do next.  I can only hope for the best.  
Or perhaps, expect it.    

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Let me tell you about my Mom.

When my mom and I get into an argument, she’ll sometimes express her frustration with me by say, “You’re just like your father.”  
Now, I’ll admit that there are similarities between me and dad in our tempers and temperament, and how we handle things in general, but I honestly don’t think that I’m “just like” my father.  In fact, it would be my considered opinion that, when it comes to the softer, squishier, harder to define parts of my personality, I believe that I draw more from my mom than my dad.  
Consider these examples...
When I was a small child, in my early elementary school years, there was a hard and fast rule about my bedtime.  During school days, I was to be in bed by 9 PM.  No exceptions.  
Then came a day when, after flipping through the TV guide, I very much wanted to have an exception made.  I approached my mom about it.  
“Can I stay up tonight?”  
“Bedtime is nine.”  My mom didn’t even look at me as she sat at the kitchen table doing some sort of “mom thing.”  
I had expected that answer, but I persisted.  “Please...?”  
“What for?”  
“There’s a movie I want to watch.”
“A movie?”  She stopped what she was doing and looked at me.  “Unless it ends at 9 PM, then you’ll have to miss it.  What movie?”  
“It’s a pirate movie.  Called, ‘The Seahawk.’”  I had recently become interested in pirates and spotted the listing for the film in the guide.  
“The Seahawk?  With Errol Flynn?”  
My mom paused for a moment, then said.  “Sure.  We’ll watch it together.”  
And we did.  I thought it was pretty incredible at the time.  But we sat together on the couch and watched The Seahawk.  And I listened to mom tell me about the other movies like it that she watched in the theaters as a young girl.  Captain Blood.  Robin Hood.  The Mark of Zorro.  All of which I eventually saw myself, and most of which I own on DVD or even VHS.  
After that, the inflexible rule became in bed by 9 PM on school nights...  UNLESS there was a pirate movie.  Or a swashbuckler, really, since it covered The Three Musketeers with Gene Kelly.  The rule was modified later to something like, in bed by 9 PM on school nights, unless there is a classic swashbuckler on TV OR you’re reading a really good book and you just HAVE TO finish this part to find out what happens or there’ll be no way you’ll get to sleep.  I think I got my love of reading from my mom, cutting my fiction reading teeth on her historical romances before getting into science fiction, as well as my love for movies where men carried swords and put their lives on the line for king and country.  
Another thing I got from my mom was an appreciation of self-sufficiency.  Being able to do for yourself and take care of yourself.  My favorite example of that is one I may have told in this forum before, when my mom taught me how to cook.  And by “taught,” I mean something like kicking me into the river where I was going to either sink or swim.  
This was when I was thirteen, after my youngest sister was born.  Mom had quit working at her job as a nurse’s aid to have my sister.  It was about the time she started going back in on a part-time basis to spell other people on short notice.  
It was one such day when I was coming down the stairs to find mom grabbing her things before heading out the door.  When she spotted me, she started throwing me instructions.  
“They called me in for a half-shift.  Take care of the baby.  Make sure Philip and Virginia stay home.  I’ll be back in a few hours.”  She was pulling open the front door to step out.  
“Who’ll fix me dinner?”  
Mom stopped and gave me a long look past the edge of the open door that told me I’d made a mistake.  Before I could back-pedal...
“Come with me.”  She waved her hand at me to follow as she headed toward the kitchen.  
“Now then,” she had her arm around my shoulders as we stood at the kitchen’s edge.  “You know how to read, right?”  
“Uh...  Yeah.” 
“And you know where I keep my cookbooks, right?”  
I looked toward the upper cabinets where they were kept.  “Yeah...”  
“And you know where we keep the food, right?  And the things like flour, salt, sugar, yes?”  
My eyes darted from the refrigerator, to the pantry, then up at her.  “Yeah.”  
“Then, you know how to cook.”  She patted me on the shoulder then turned to leave.  She stopped at the bed in the hallway and looked back, looking me in the eyes.  “And I would appreciate it, while I was out helping to earn the money that bought the meal you’ll be making, if you left some for me when I got home.”  
That was the start of my first cooking lesson.  It went pretty well.  I found out that cooking was pretty straightforward, and was actually fun.  I even got to the point of collecting my own recipes and cooking a day or two each week.  I also made the discovery that there is something pleasurable about cooking for someone you care for and having them enjoy it.  
And since I’ve mentioned my mom’s job, working as a nurse’s aid in a convalescent hospital, I think I should mention the most eye-opening thing I learned from her.  
It was during the same time period when I started cooking on my own.  My mom got called in.  For some reason, I was the only one at home and she decided to take me with her. We drove to the hospital she worked at and she lead me inside.  
It was strange to see the other nurses and nurse’s aids greet her.  Like she was a normal person, or like anyone else, not like my mom.  It was the first time I saw her with people that weren’t neighbors, or teachers or relatives.  
But the biggest surprise was when she had me follow her around on her rounds.  It started with almost the first room we went into.  
“Hello, there...!  How are we doing tonight?”  My mom greeted the elderly woman in the hospital bed with a cheery voice and a big smile.  But the moment she got close, her expression changed.  
“Oh, no...”  She pulled back the covers and then I could smell it, too.  The poor woman had soiled herself.  It looked like she’d been left like that for some time.  
My mom didn’t miss a beat though.  “Let’s get you cleaned up.”  With no indication at all that it was gross or unpleasant or that there was anything wrong with doing it, my mom cleaned the woman up, rolled her back and forth to clean the sheets, got every thing as spic-n-span as it could be.  She even combed back the woman’s hair and made sure se was tucked in for the night.  
The woman reached out and touched my mom’s wrist.  “Thank you,” she said in a craggy voice, broken with age.  She had only mewed when my mom first approached, like a stray kitten.  Now, she could speak, like a person.  
It was like that as we made the rounds.  My mom cared for these people.  Not just as in the emotional sense of feeling sympathy toward them.  She translated what she felt for them as people into genuine, concrete actions that demonstrated that feeling to them.  
And they responded.  Every single one of them that was awake when she came in the room were so very happy to see her, and expressed how glad they were it was her coming to check on them.  
Then, when my mom returned to the station that handled those rooms, there was another lesson.  It came when my mom, who wasn’t a supervisor or shift-leader or anyone with some sort of official standing, told the other aids on duty what she had found, and reminded how they needed to do more that poke their heads into the room to make sure the patients were still breathing.  
I recognized the tone of voice she used.  It was the same one she used with me and my brother and sisters when we failed to live up to our responsibilities.  Seeing her school these women made me realize that she didn’t tell me or my siblings these things because she was a mom and that’s what moms did with their kids.  She told me these things because they were right.  They were important.  They represented how people should go about their business, doing a job as if it were a signature on their life.  Treating people with respect, particularly those who were in your care.  Speaking out when something was wrong, even if it wasn’t your “place” to do so.  
I am like my dad in a lot of ways.  But, I’m like my mom in a lot of ways, too.  Or rather, when I remember the things mom taught me by example, enjoying the things that give  you pleasure, taking care of business in a way that you could be proud of, taking care of yourself and speaking your mind when you needed to, and try to live up to them in my life, that’s when I’m more like the person I would like to be.  
Finally, if my mom happens to read this, I just want to say one thing more.  
I love you, Mom.  I’m happy and proud to be your son and have been raised by you.  
Happy Mother’s Day.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Calculating the Variance between Expectation & Reality regarding a Trip to Japan

For several days after returning from Japan, after getting what little sleep my jet-lag would allow me to get, I would have the same dream.  
I would be in a shoutengai.  A shopping district.  Think of a shopping mall, but one that extends for blocks and blocks in all directions, including up two or three floors and down to a lower level.  This one was like the one I encountered in Himeji, near the station there.  
I'm trying to get to the airport, but I'm lost.  Not an uncommon experience in Japan when even figure out the cardinal directions seemed beyond me at times.  I'm trying to read the signs to get my bearings but I'm having little luck.  I'm either struggling to figure out what the sign is telling me, or it's telling me something that is of no assistance to me whatsoever.  That shop is a ramen restaurant.  That izakaya has offers nomihoudai, all you can drink, after 6 PM.  I remember seeing one sign in my dream several times that said, "Yokohama."  No arrows.  No directions.  Just, "Yokohama," even though I know in that way you know in dreams I'm nowhere near Yokohama.  
Then, I would wake up.  Bleary.  Exhausted.  I would remember I'm already back at home and that I needed to go to work.  
I don't think it was just the jet-lag doing this to me, nor the cold I was suffering through that took hold the day after my return.  I was also trying to process what this recent trip meant for me.  What I "accomplished," I guess I could say.  
It had to do with me trying to process what I had set up for myself as far as expectations for what I would experience, and what the reality turned out to be.  
This may seem like I'm being overly analytical about a vacation.  I was told by someone in recent weeks that thinking is my hobby, that I like to think and as a result I sometimes do it too much.  I won't debate that assessment here, but I do know that this trip was an important one for me.  More than just a chance to get away from work and out of my normal life.  
My first trip to Japan, back in 2007, was important to me in similar ways.  It was my first trip to a "Real" foreign country (as opposing to crossing the border between Mexico and Arizona to help my aunt fill her prescriptions, for instance).  This was something I never saw myself doing when I was growing up, traveling about the world.  Now my friends describe me as "well traveled," and my landlord asked, when I advised him of my trip, "Where are you going this time?"  Going to other places is part of my make-up now.  I expect to do it and I like doing so.  
Another thing about the trip in 2007 was that I was so looking forward to it that I began to worry that I'd be disappointed.  My expectations about the experience, while vague and ill formed, were nonetheless quite high.  So high that I was certain I would return home with a sense of, "was it worth it?"  
The exact opposite happened.  I loved the experience more than even I had anticipated.  As my departure date for my return approached, I wondered if I could repeat that experience, and also thought that I might be setting myself up for a more sophomoric disappointment, thinking I knew what to expect and discovering that I had a lot to learn.  
Having spent about a week back in the States now, I think I can fill out the scorecard on this trip.  Here's how it adds up, based on area of expectation.
Expectation: That, after nine years of practice and study, my Japanese would be so good that I would be able to cruise about the country, communicating with near effortless ability with all the natives I encountered.  
Reality: I still have a lot to learn.  
In 2007, after less than a year of study, I went to Japan worried that I might not be able to speak well enough to get to see or do anything.  Instead, the little Japanese I had was good enough that I felt emboldened to head out in whatever direction I chose to see what might be there.  I got lost every time I left the hotel, but I was always able to find my way back, order in all the restaurants I went to, settle my hotel bill and find the nearest restroom when I needed to.  And see a lot of stuff that other people in my tour group didn't get to see because they wouldn't leave the hotel without our guide leading them there.  
While my Japanese has improved, I found out how far from fluent I am at the very first panel I attended at the convention I went to.  It was about translation science fiction stories written in English in Japanese.  The moderator tried to translate for me, but stopped  trying after a while, leaving me hopeless lost, with only snippets about this sentence in the story he worked on or that paragraph.  The only thing I got clearly was his explanation about Thanksgiving, which he described as, "a holiday where Americans eat special food, like turkey, drink lots of alcohol and watch football."  I wanted to raise my hand and said, "It's not just that," but didn't because I wasn't sure I could get my point across.  
There was another panel that went better, one called "Building the World," where everyone participates in the long-standing science fiction process of creating a planet where stories can take place.  I was able to hang in there and participate, but still hang to wing a lot of it.  At one point I lifted my notebook up and let it fall to the desk to get across the concept of "gravity."
I hope to be fluent one day, by which I mean speak Japanese as well as I speak English.  IF that every happens, it'll be years from now.  
Expectation: I would meet lots of other foreigners, people that I would immediately recognize as being "not Japanese," that I would stop and chat with for however long we had together.  
Reality: I was left wondering if the world has become a colder place.  
This was another expectation that was born out of my 2007 experience.  Japan is filled Japanese.  It's the most ethnically homogenous country in the free world, with Koreans being the second largest ethnic group at something like half a percent.  Whenever I'd spot a non-Japanese person, we'd gravitate toward each other, say "Hi," ask each other where we were from and talk about what got us there.  I figured this time would be the same. 
It definitely wasn't.  In fact, it was more like what I'd expect to experience back home in the Los Angeles area, where you'd see a stranger on the street, eyes meet, you nod or grunt and then walk by.  
There were some exceptions.  At Mishima station, I ran into an Australian family in Japan for a wedding and month-long holiday.  I found out about a micro-brewery in Numazu where I was staying run by two Americans that the father really liked.  
I also ran into a San Francisco Giants fan in front of the Tokyo Dome when I went to see a game there.  He spotted me in my Dodgers gear, met my gaze and gave me a nasty glare.  Three thousand miles away and the rivalry is still strong.  
And, there was another American at the Fushimi Inari shrine.  He was coming down as I was trudging to the top.  "Just five more minutes, dude, and you're there!"  He shouted this as he scampered down the trail past me.  
But that was about it.  It felt like times had changed, but I didn't know in what way.  
Speaking of the Inari shrine...
Expectation: That I would finally reach the top of the Fushimi Inari shrine and be completely underwhelmed by the experience.  It would end up being no big deal.  
Reality: It was really cool.  I was really happy. 
In 2007, when our group went to the Inari shrine in Kyoto, I started to climb to the top of the small mountain it is built on, passing through the hundreds of tori gates built on the trails cutting back and forth across the slope.  I had to stop because the tour bus was leaving before I could make it.  I made a promise to myself as I hurried to catch my bus that I would return to Japan and finish that climb.  
I almost didn't make it.  I lost my passport before I arrived in Osaka, and spent the next two days trying to find it and make arrangements to replace it.  Just as I was turning in my paperwork at the American Embassy there, they told me they'd received a report that it had been turned in to the police in Numazu, where I'd left from.  
What followed was a "Round the World in 80 Days" sort of rush.  I rushed to the hotel, got my luggage, boarded the next train to Shin-Osaka station in time to board the shinkansen to Mishima, just in time to catch the limited express to Numazu (even though I was on the wrong platform when it was coming in) caught a taxi to get to the police headquarters before they closed, got my passport, then repeated the feat of hitting every single transfer in time to arrive at Kyoto station and get to my hotel in time to check in that night, and make my dinner appointment with my friend that lives there. 
And the next day I climbed to the top of Fushimi Inari shrine.  It was packed with students on field trip, but they quickly thinned out as I marched to the top.  I felt the same sense of otherworldly-ness as I climbed, of being someplace in a different time or dimension.  
I found out what the little temple looking buildings are by asking someone in one of the restaurants along the way.  They are "osanae," or offerings.  "Each one is a god," the man explained.  "Each one different, but the same."  Where people burnt incense or offered prayers to the god.
I also found out that they add more than a hundred tori gates every year, from two workmen that were digging holes for a new one.  
And I made it to the top.  And, I felt...  Really, really good about it.  
It wasn't a climb that started by the main gate near the train station.  It was a climb that started back in 2007, when I was retreating to the bus to join my fellow travelers.  It was a climb that started back in August of 2015, when the convention-goers in Spokane at the WorldCon that year rejected Japan's bid to host the convention in 2017, and I decided I wasn't going to wait for the "someday" for a chance to return and keep my promise to just show up, that I had to make it happen for myself.  
And I had done it.  And I was happy for having done it.  As accomplished as when I sold my first science fiction story.  That much.  
I stopped having the dream of being lost in a shoutengai this week.  Sometime around the middle of the week, when I started getting more sleep and my cold was showing signs of waning, I had another dream.  I was heading toward Haneda Airport.  To fly home.  And I had the same feeling that I'd had as I came down from the pinnacle of Fushimi Inari Shrine.
That it was time to pick something else to accomplish now.