Sunday, March 27, 2011

Homo Fukushimaensis

You can compartmentalize former lives successfully, balance them down into cool dormancies but the problem is you can't predict why or when they'll heat up which ones or what parts. You only know that they come back in waves and packets of eternal radiation rolling real and ghostly in your wakefulness and dreams.

Japan comes back with clarity. In my first airy hours there, I landed at Haneda, or Wing-Field, and was met by a young guide whose only mission was to get me to headquarters. It was o-hanami, when cherries pop out undeniably into pink blossoms, the Yeats in your heart burgeons on through your blood and only a pagan festival will do. Dawn was breaking too and the Tokyo-bound train passed through a steady succession of coastal rice paddies and hamlets. In its originating night, fog had settled down into a latticed matrix like lozenges of gallium arsenide between over-sized transistors, into flooded rice fields below dikes arraying off into hazy whites. My guide, who had probably woken up at 3 or 4AM local time to come retrieve her cargo, sat in silence, certainly, and what might possibly be described as aggrieved judgement. It was hard to tell. Everything was hard to tell. The Disorient Express.

Travel and you'll see how hemispheres and continents have their own ideas of trees. Even the grasses are different. The rocks, the weeds, the doorknobs. New sceneries, so plush, so manufactured, so old ran along my moistened window north and to my right. An acutely angled sun sidled up behind to jostle the sheltering fog, poking it first then stirring it up sprightly out of beds like pillows being fluffed and shifted one last time over sleepy heads. With my sleeve, I rubbed the grease patches my nose had left off the glass and asked the guide, "How do you say the word for the rice? What's in there? In Japanese?"

To insist on learning something in her language at that ungodly hour was typically inconsiderate. So gaijin, so outside-person. But there's no help for that. Some years later Kyoko would accuse, "you Americans, you always have to ask why." A half-minute later my companion said, "Ko-may. Go-han." By which she meant, "Rice...Food." Those little clicks and exhalations are loaded with a cultural power their translations can't approach. In that land they approximate a term more like "Staff of Life," but even that falls short. I spoke my first words in the language of the rising sun with the rehearsal of intended memory.

As a child, rice had been fair forced into my mouth from Rice-a-Roni boxes, and came with Chinese restaurant food for free. The Japanese, however, have a dissenting proverb: to grow one grain of it, a grandmother had to bend over in a shit-field for an hour. Live there, and you learn the monsoons come every June and reverse the weather's prevailing direction from easterly winds to west. The west wind's are insistent, and they carry, well, one hesitates to say rain. It's an airborne flood robust enough to drench every inch of you if you walk or ride a bike or motorcycle, warm water driven sideways up underneath your mackinaw, to run all icky down or up your neck and back, up your shins and into your ass crack, into your sneakers, your boots or spongy shoes. Most of these will mold up spectacularly, hairier with green than a neglected loaf of Wonder Bread if not well-rubbed with oil or soap on that evening.

The neon lights of Ginza would come sooner, and they made Manhattan's Times Square look antiquated and dirty, dingy and half-hearted. Ginza was 20 years more clever, clean and unyellowed, and its videotronic interweavings had cogently combined to form the world's biggest, most colorful bug zapper. It bathed me in hellacious beauty, stunned my eyes with variegations of ostentatious wealth and styles my pupils' backsides had never yet reflected, much less dwelt upon. Here was a city and a country cavorting in abnegations of a prior and now completely invisible defeat, working to overcome the insecurities of a small but proud island nation with no natural resources, dancing the steps to be richer than the West. Nuclear power made it possible.

There was someone named Karen on the long flight over. Despite being already engaged to a nice Mormon girl, I agreed to meet her under the Ginza clock tower, and did so in what had immediately become a whole different world. Walking hip to hip with someone whose job was simply to be herself, slower than normal while the throttle of one of the world's rarest and most unmuffled cars was blipped, I realized we were keeping pace with two teenage boys in a 1966 Iso Rivolta. Both were driving, after a fashion. 5, 10, 20 blips and they'd jerk forward 20 or 30 feet then come tautly to a halt. There were many others doing versions of likewise.

In a tortured, halting procession down the well-lit strip there came a brand-new chaffeured Rolls Royce, its tuxedoed passengers drinking from champagne glasses, there was a prim and pretty girl on display behind the wheel of a white Jaguar XK 12o wearing a matching angora sweater, there was a plethora of garden-variety Ferraris, Porsches all with their windows open in a circus of consumption with everything but jugglers on horses. There might've been horses there but we didn't notice. There was a lot going on, and but for the closeness of humanity it would've been cold out. It didn't seem cold. We were all of us floating on the deliciously flying fuck of it, blessed and knowing it, unleashed and transmogrified. I feel as privileged as those kids trying to cruise in the Rivolta. More privileged. We were energized, and some white horses would've been perfect.


Vincent said...

Wow. Is this a chapter from the Confessions (as previously discussed, a couple of years ago)? I admire the style. Might one call it Wolfish? It’s a long time since I read any Tom Wolfe, it might be a misaimed simile.

It all worked pretty well, I must say. Except that I am still working out how someone’s backside could reflect variegations of ostentatious wealth and styles. If you shined it enough, it could reflect anything, that’s as far as I can take it.

MarcLord said...

Yes, Vincent, it's part of that, and thank you, for the praise but also for the confidence-keeping. Don't know if it'll ever be finished, don't know if it needs to be, and doing any justice with words is the usual challenge. For example ham-fistedly describing how the backsides of my pupils struggled to keep up with what hit them. I knew the construction was awkward, will alter to make it less so. The lights were like that, though. Regular old wolfishness is the subtext.

Phil said...

Enjoyable read!