Archive for April, 2011

Japan: Running It Off

April 26, 2011

In the hotel gym is a treadmill whose screen counts off the calories in terms of food items – takes a while to run off a beer, but a tuna sushi is burned in no time.  A little disheartening that after more than half an hour’s run, I seem barely to have accounted for last night’s meal.

Everyday there is a bit of aftershock – today right at the end of class – always completely unannounced and unexpected, but always mild and almost pleasant in an odd way.  I don’t know how I would feel if a big one comes, but these little ones just seem like the earth giggling.

Gradually you get used to these things.  I felt confined when I first arrived, especially when it was raining, as rain brings down the radiation, but with sunshine and a fresh south wind, walking abroad is irresistible.  Tokyo, like New York or London, is endlessly variable and interesting.

A few cherry blossoms were hanging on, waiting for me as it were, but yesterday’s wind has swirled them into beguiling piles of petals on the sidewalks.  Still, at night the city seems gloomier without the lights, the red winking bulbs on the tallest building are like warnings, or blinking Buddha eyes.

Daichi is still a long-term disaster (for the entire world, not just Japan), and here the fishing industry may have taken a terminal blow, and industry is in for a rough ride for sure.  The hotel, in other years bustling with every nationality, is nearly deserted. The Japanese are resilient, efficient, and community-minded, but we see the long weave of their post-war economy fraying and coming unraveled.  None of the rest of us are far behind.


11/18 – III: The Glass Flowers

April 22, 2011

Across the Charles to Cambridge, I meet my friend Martin at the door to the Natural History Museum.  Martin’s brother Lucky, a composer and conductor, had an untimely death, and the Harvard Music Library is archiving his manuscripts and recordings, so Martin is completing a geosh (a wonderful Gaelic word for a family burden handed down that no one but you can resolve) by trucking the boxes of his brother’s work from Boulder to Boston.  He is waiting for his bold-as-brass daughter to come down from my class, where she is working handily through the process of becoming one of our graduates.

Always priestly, always real, and always keenly observant, Martin is a pleasure to be with, and I am sorry that I have only a short hour before I must drive north again.  We go upstairs to see the famous glass flowers, of course – Martin is a master gardener.  These glass flowers are amazingly real – no Chihuly undersea fantasy forms here, but flowers, leaves, stamens and seeds so accurately rendered a century ago by a couple of Russian craftsmen using simple tools on a bench.  So real that they become totally prosaic in minutes – yes, they’re glass, but they have the dusty museum look of just-gathered real plants, no artifice involved and therefore no artistic ‘lift’ either, beyond the ‘how did they achieve that?’  And anyway Martin and I are chattering away to each other sixteen to the dozen, catching up and singing our spirits to each other, close friends that we have been these twenty years.

Inside this building I suddenly remember my other visit there: As a freshman, and with all the innocence a plebe possesses, I had requested, and been granted, an interview with Ernst Mayr, the eminent evolutionist of the time.  I brought along my reel-to-reel recorder – this was 1967 or early ’68 – which the old gray man with a large chest and head looked at askance, but said nothing.  With a distance of more than forty years, I cringe at my ignorance of evolution.  My questions would be better today, but still not up to Ernst Mayr’s standard.  As it was, he must have wondered how he got stuck into this, a meandering and inept interview from an undergraduate with no point beyond a freshman anthropology paper.  When I brought up something about eugenics, the old German bristled and I was soon sent packing, but with enough for my paper for sure.

I am surprised to see that he lived until 2005 ( – he seemed quite old then.  He got to comment on Dawkins and all the modern neo’s.  May I also live to pass one-hundred.  Martin too.  Misty too.  You too.

Today is – would have been – Teddy’s 95th birthday.  She was forgetting things and people.  Always a sharp observer, timekeeper, and a rememberer of facts, she hated her diminished capacities, and checked out fairly quickly after they started to fail.  My father checked out quickly after he was forced to leave his beloved home of many years for the retirement apartment.  Obviously, Mayr kept his grip.  What will make me lose my grasp on this life that I love so much?  When will my words fail me, and my ability to understand the developments in my own field? What cleavage from my sense of purpose will send me tumbling toward my death?

Solstice 2010

April 22, 2011

It’s the astrological event of the year: the solstice coming with a full moon and a total lunar eclipse.  I set my alarm and turned to at 3am this morning, but I only got as far as the bathroom skylight, confirming a totally overcast sky – nothing to be seen.  When I came to in early dawn, the world was dusted with snow.

Solstice is my New Year; the Nativity, however hopeful, and the vagaries of the Gregorian calendar do not hold a candle to the power of these long nights and short days, and this one where the sun stands still and begins its six-month ascent. (Though the Bucky Fuller voice inside me reminds you that it’s the 23 degree cant of the Earth that is responsible; the sun is only apparently moving.)

The winter, of course, has just begun – as the days get longer, the cold gets stronger – but the promise of new light is enough to get us through this time when even the spinach in the greenhouse has faded to black.

I am reminded of another lunar eclipse, more than 15 years ago, when I took my new lover Quan down to Cape Elizabeth, and we peered out across the sea to the blood-red moon, and in a sudden urge and a strength of voice I did not recognize, I prayed aloud to Artemis to release her handmaiden so that she could become a mother, a Hera.  It was a worthy gesture, from heart and gut, but it was a prayer not answered: Quan and I never had any children, and she is still the amazonian warrior I continue to love so deeply.

Japan 2: Confined to Quarters

April 22, 2011

At the end of my second day of seminars in Japan, I must say that the appreciation of people for my coming is genuine – not just the organizers, but the students.  Japan has always had earthquakes and tsunamis – they accept it as the price of living on this island nation on a patchwork of tectonic plates.  We are all helping in whatever way we can: one fellow just came back from giving bodywork to the municipal workers up north, another Alexander Teacher is wondering how to help with traumatized survivors, a third is selling T-shirts to aid the north.

In the Japan Times, an English-language newspaper stuck in my door slot each morning, I read an independent reading of the air radiation levels around Tokyo (very low), and the shocking way the nuclear plant workers are being treated – overworked, underfed.  The embattled Japanese Prime Minister went north himself yesterday and got a very uncharacteristic earful from the refugees up there, still sleeping in shelters with not much being done.  It must be a nightmare for the people trying to administer the recovery.

Toyotas have started rolling off the line, as the early reports have the Japanese economy grinding to a halt.  The ability to keep going, even this little set of seminars, is truly gratefully received.

Ironically and irrationally, I don’t feel like walking around much in the open air to see the last of the cherry blossoms hanging on.  I don’t trust governments or corporate spokesmen any farther than I can throw them, but I truly believe that if radiation levels here were bad, someone independent would have detected it.   But especially when it is raining, I stay confined to quarters, catching up on emails and using the hotel gym rather than run-walking the streets, which is what I did in earlier visits.

There is still some aftershocks, and a major one rumbled the hotel room for about 45 seconds last night.  It felt like a gentle bed massage, but weird when I realized what it was.  I’m on the 35th floor, so it’s a long way down, but these buildings are way, way over-engineered by law.

I keep taking all my nostrums to ward off evil spirits, but all is well so far.

Japan: Landing at Narita

April 20, 2011

I have been called a ‘hero’ for coming to Japan at this time, one month after the tsunami and with the Daiichi nuclear plant still out of control, by the people who have a financial interest in my coming.  I was called a ‘coward’ by the same people when I was contemplating not coming.  My wife and several others would have reversed the epithets, calling me a hero if I had stuck to my guns and stayed home, and a coward for blindly keeping my commitment when the situation had so clearly changed in a way that might damage my health, and thus my deeper commitments to them and the future.

Never has one of my gigs so divided my household or myself.  My promise to myself has been to keep my professional commitments, and last spring’s declining of a lecture in St Petersburg (because of the volcanic ash that was grounding planes all over Europe – good thing too, I would have missed my daughter’s graduation) was a rara avis indeed.

But I chose to come this time, in spite of the possibility of earthquake and irradiated air.  I pray that I may be of some help, and that this choice will be validated.  The clouds coming into Narita looks ominous, with the sun shining through them like the rays of radiation, but my brain is working overtime.

The ominous feeling continues through my sunset ride to the hotel – how much am I adding with my Edgar Allen Poe imagination?  Red sky at night is supposed to be sailor’s delight, but now it looks nacreous with glowering clouds.

My room is on the 35th floor – a long way down if the building goes – which gives me a great view of a subdued Tokyo, but this is more than my overheated perception.  Tokyo, like Paris, is a city of light, but in order to save on electricity, they have ordered extra lights and escalators turned off, so the somber nature of the crisis is reflected in the dimming of neon and company signs, so the predominant night view are the red eyes warning the planes at the tops of the higher buildings.

So it looks like a Dantean circle of hell, but it feels all normal at the hotel and on the streets – I even have seen some late-blooming cherry blossoms, but I am uninclined to eat them.