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THE THOUGHT ORPHANAGE!
- an elan gale nightmare - a blog - a disease - a problem - a dog without a home

Tetris

Tetris is a psychotic game.

Let me explain how it works:

Begin.

Enter you, just a person trying to have a good time in the world and the world says “Here are some weirdly shaped blocks,” and you think “this is going to be fun.”

It’s like childhood. There’s things to do but there’s no accountability. It’s all a bunch of juice and sandboxes and crying and leaving sweatshirts places and having someone else retrieve them for you.

Yeah, four lines at a time in that sweet spot where you get the long Tetris stick of divinity and you’re just thinking, oh man, there’s never going to be anything on the bottom of this screen. No baggage, no accumulation of junk. Just a pristine surface I can ice skate along, frictionless, until the sun sets over the west and the clouds carry me to bed.

Level Up.

Quickly you adjust to being a teenager. Things go a little faster and feel a little more uncomfortable. Everything is changing. You’re growing hair in certain places and things aren’t always sounding right as they come out of your mouth when you’re near that really popular girl and no matter how sure you are that you can rotate that oblong piece enough times all of a sudden it’s upside down and you have this weird empty space underneath some accumulated detritus and this is your first taste of consequence as Jennifer walks away and you realize that not even the long Tetris stick of divinity can go back in time and change what you’ve mucked up.

Level Up.

There’s a couple layers of sediment at the bottom of your life now but you just think of it as a new starting point. “Everything above this certain line is the past and it’s really everything I do from now one that matters” you tell yourself. Sure, your baseline is much closer to total destruction than ever before, but that’s okay, because now you’re in control. Now. Finally. After all this time you’ve finally figured it out.

Level Up.

Time compresses and you think you might be having fun and as a result, it flies by. Suddenly, all this flying compressed time seems to be a bit overwhelming. Your fingers aren’t what they used to be, your eyes are a little weary, your patience is failing and your confidence that you know what you’re doing is starting to actually set you back.You start to realize your mortality. You have moments of overwhelming joy when you properly use your long Tetris stick of divinity, but let me tell ya, it ain’t what it used to be and your wife will even tell you that if you ask her. You realize that you’re now applauding yourself wildly for things you used to do in your sleep. Back when thing were simple. Keep trudging along, though.

Level Up.

It’s really only a matter of time now and you know it. You’ve seen others before you just give up and let it all come crashing down but you’re different. You can’t make any more mistakes. You’ve made them all so far, all by yourself. Now you’re right up against that top wall and those baselines you used to call your past, those things that you said you’d learn from, they’re all basically just sitting there, unevenly distributed blocks just staring at you and smiling and nipping at your heels like ravenous wolves. The ghosts you used to thank for providing you with knowledge are now immovable skeletons that have piled up so quickly in your closet that the only thing you can see anymore is the dangling chain from the ceiling lamp.

Level Up.

You take one final stab at life and the flickering beam from a flashlight with a dying battery is taunting you with false promises of hope. You exert all your energy, your hands and eyes and mind are acting on their own as the minutes and hours and days blend together so smoothly that you no longer even see a sunrise or a sunset, but instead just varying shades of quickly moving gray through your decaying receptors.

And then you die. And everything you’ve built is gone. Not even a monument to your failure remains. It’s just nothing forever.

Want to play again?

Can I Come Over?

If you invite me over, I can assure you I will not feel bad if I ruin your event.

I will pop the bouncy castle. I will French kiss the appetizers and I will swim in the chocolate fountain.

I will go through your medicine cabinet and not only will I report the contents back to the other partygoers, but I will replace all your pills with tropical Tic-Tacs and put all your antidepressants in your precious fondue pot.

I will ram my car into your mailbox and I will fill out a change of address form on your behalf. I will cut down your neighbor’s favorite lemon tree and I will steal your boots and leave muddy tracks from his house to yours.

I will object at your wedding. I will object at your funeral.

I will fill your backyard with manic roosters and I will bury hundreds of alarm clocks in your garden. I will ask your stepfather about “that thing.”

I will independently hire two over zealous cake designers to make the same cake and arrive at the same moment and I will laugh as I watch them fight to the death in your driveway as frosting and fondant cover everything you’ve ever worked for.

I will bring you White Zinfandel.

I will let your cat out. I will let your dog in. I will let your rats do terrible things on your couch. Oh, you don’t have rats? Now you do. I brought them with me.

I will make a fort out of all of your furniture. I will do this in your pool.

I will draw mustaches on all your pictures and on all your friends.

I will hire a sad clown. I will hire a happy mime. I will hire a policeman stripped and then I will call the police.

I will not put down the seat when I am done.

I am very much looking forward to your baby shower. Congratulations again!

Brunch

Discussing cliches is a great way to waste time.

You really can’t do anything more than once without it being commentary upon itself.

Go to brunch? That’s cool. Take a picture of brunch? Now we’re heading into cliche territory. Take a picture of breakfast? Brunch commentary. Take another picture of brunch and call it brunch commentary? Life commentary. Call it life commentary over brunch? Cliche. Notice someone else doing the same thing? Cliche. Do it again knowing others are noticing your patterns? Brunch commentary. Post modernism.

Call it post modernism? Cliche. Call it po-mo with a smile? Commentary on post modernism as a cliche in a cliche way? Suddenly things are becoming fun again.

Write a blog post about this? Already been done. Recognize that in your blog post? Astute observation. Call yourself astute in a blog post? Gettin’ kinda po-mo. Are you smiling? Okay, you can get away with that cliche.

Still hungry? Did you even have brunch? You didn’t eat. You were taking pictures or not taking pictures and congratulating yourself for not taking pictures or patting yourself on the back for not having your phone on the table or for having it face down, or being okay with having it out because it would be cliche to not have it out because you’d be conforming to cliche “not having phone out” trends.

Super cliche, yo. Super clich. Supe Cleesh.

There’s no way to do anything without it being anything so do everything.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ll still make fun of you. But, whatever.

PS. Having a blog is cliche. So is reading one. Sucker.

Miracles Behind Glass

One of the things I like to pay attention to while traveling is how protected things are.

When you step into a palace or into some ruins or onto an old suspension bridge or up the stair of a fortress, how many ropes are there? How many barricades? How many bright red hands that let you know that you have reached the depth of your intimacy with the location?

In the past 24 hours I’ve seen a bronze sculpture that has been in a heavily trafficked area since the early 8th century and a set of miniature porcelain dogs that someone gave to his mother to comfort her on rainy days.

The bronze sculpture was within arm’s reach and could be touched, smelled, interacted with. The miniature dogs were behind double-walled glass and photographs were strictly prohibited.

In Belize I danced on ancient ruins but in London I had to basically lie on the floor and stick my head under a velvet rope to get a look at a couple of nicely upholstered chairs.

Setting aside the differences from place to place, the question is one that seems universal:

Who are we saving this for?

The easy answer is our kids. But we are someone else’s “our kids” and eventually those kids will have kids and in some places they’ll still be standing behind yellow caution tape until one day there are many places left and no one left to stand behind the stantion.

Why are we saving this?

That’s a harder question. I don’t know the right answer but my gut instinct is to think about wedding cakes. Hey, check it out. That’s amazing. Look at all those layers and that rich ganache and can you believe they make edible pearls? Okay, now everyone stand back and no one eat it ever and we’re going to stick it on the other side of the room. Please, no pictures. In thirty years when your kids get married they can come here and look at it and after dinner when they are craving something sweet they can take a butter knife and jam it into a supermarket cupcake because there is no way in hell that their mouths will ever penetrate the perfect facade of this celebration of your partnership.

Why aren’t we trusted?

Well, because we’re not. And to be quite frank it’s one of those sad states where some of us deserve trust but enough of us don’t that as a whole, we just don’t. It’s the same reason there’s security at airports and not just a sign asking you nicely not to blow up a plane. It’s not for you, but it’s for us.

When I look at a miracle, whether it be a mountain, or a temple, or a piece of art, I often find myself wondering:

Should the next 100 generations enjoy this at 50% or should the next 10 enjoy it at 100%? Should my great-great-great-great-great grandkids wink at the statues or should my children make love to them and take in all that they possess?

And how long are we really going to be here anyway?

I don’t know what we should do about any of this. I’m not an expert, but I’m the kind of person who wants to walk right up to the mouth of the leopard and risk getting my neck bit. The danger is not that I will die, but that the leopard will lose it’s taste for man and never get involved with our kind again, self-exiled again to the trees high above us, again out of reach for future generations.

These things won’t change anytime soon and I’m not ever sure they should, but I’m sure of this:

When I stand ten feet back from the thing I most desire I close my eyes and imagine what life would be like if we could all just have what we wanted and drift away into the arms of the Buddha or the mouth of the volcano or dive from the bridge and skim the water like a pelican and live a thousand lives and die a thousand deaths. And then I open my eyes and things are back to normal and I’m just a guy standing behind a rope.

And I can’t wait to have kids and bring them back here and hope I’ve done a good enough job at being a father that they know what I’m talking about when I say that the thing behind the glass they are looking at is a miracle.

Fire!

It’s remarkably hard to light things on fire. Not that I’m trying. But I’m just saying that it’s a remarkably hard thing to do.

I used to smoke cigarettes and I have a candle or two at home and those things were easy to light on fire but weirdly, there are a lot of things that are difficult to light on fire.

Yesterday I had the sinking feeling that eternity could be a pretty long time if you don’t plan well for it and if you don’t bring the right clothes and music and when I took a step back and tried to light this feeling on fire, I was totally incapable. I just sat there in the middle of the intersection with a book of matches, trying to exhale deeply, blowing the feeling out in front of me and lighting it, but time and time again the match just went out because apparently the feelings that people have are more powerful than fire!

Did you know that? I did not.

So, a few minutes later, even though I was tied up and brought in for questioning, I just kept thinking about how these people that were detaining me were missing the point. I explained and explained that I’ve seen on the television and also a couple of times growing up how a fire can destroy a huge swath of land, regardless of how long it has been there or how many rings the trees have.

They said that I was confused, but I disagree.

Here I am in possession, as we all often are, of two disparate items.

1. Transitory thoughts which could just as easily be disregarded as acknowledged. Invisible clouds of reconstituted ideas.
2. Fire. Powerful, powerful, fire.

Call me crazy, but if I can’t burn down my thoughts, then they must be built on a foundation more resilient than my home, than a forest, than a million years of fertile soil.

Well, eventually they took the leather strap off my jaw. I thanked them, but they didn’t realize that they had made a huge mistake.

In that moment I was able to unleash upon them a flurry of thoughts and not a match, not a lighter, not a flamethrower could extinguish what I had done.

Long story short, does anybody have any bail money?

Wedding Proposal First Draft

Darling.

Love of my life.

From the moment I met you, I knew.

I knew that I could probably spend extensive periods of time with you without getting overly annoyed. I knew that we could talk and talk and you would tolerate me and that when you were saying things I didn’t agree with I could just tune you out and listen to songs I liked in my head.

I knew we could sit across the table from each other as we enjoyed our meals and neither of us would storm out and hail a cab or jump in front of a train or dive down an open manhole. I knew.

You are beautiful and intelligent and perfect.

Look, let’s be honest, you’re probably going to live longer than me, but I have a doctor in my family, so I think that makes us even as far as chances of surviving a terrible disease goes.

I guess what I’m saying is, at some point both of us are going to need a lot of help surviving, and you seem reasonably patient and quite frankly, so am I.

I love you.

Eventually, one of us is going to get some kind of horrible illness and need someone to take care of them and I figure that our odds of this are about the same, so if we decide to spend our lives together, we have pretty much fifty fifty odds of being the one carrying the terrible burden of the other one. I think that seems fair.

You’re all I ever wanted.

Looking deep into your eyes I know that we would probably create decent offspring, and there is a relatively good chance that neither of us would ruin them completely. You seem nice and not abundantly crazy. I’m a little bit crazy but not the kind that should totally affect things.

At the end of the day, I believe with all my heart that you and me, baby, would create a baby or two that would probably do well enough in the world to put us in a home where we wouldn’t be totally neglected and then eventually put decent flowers on our plots twice a year out of guilt.

Anyway, if you’re interested, I think you’d be the perfect person to slowly await the cold grip of death with.

Will you marry me?

Acupuncture

John had no way of knowing that an acupuncture session would be the end of him. He thought that maybe he needed to be re-centered, re-balanced, re-calibrated.

He had no allergies that he knew of and no pre-existing medical conditions.

But as soon as that first needle went in and his entire body exploded, he knew that something was wrong.

Firstly, the acupuncturist screamed and then fainted. That is almost never a good sign. Another face came running through the door and dragged the acupuncturist away. John was splattered all over the room, nothing left of him but little strips of skin in every corner.

The door remained closed for a very long time before John saw his mother and father walk in. They looked at each other knowingly.

“I knew we should have told him,” said Mom.

“There was never really a good time,” said Dad. “Who knew he would go and do something like this?”

“Mom, Dad?” John’s flattened lips managed to eek out, hanging on the coat rack. “What happened?”

“Well, son,” Dad said. “There’s something you should probably know.”

“I’m so sorry, Johnny,” his Mom wailed. “We should have—”

“—Stop it, Linda.” Dad took a breath and continued. “See, you’re adopted.”

“I’m adopted?” John’s lips managed to whisper.

Mom continued to weep as Dad took a knee and placed his hand on some skin on the floor that looked a lot like it might have probably been John’s hand at some point.

“Yes. See? Your parents couldn’t take care of you.”

“Why not?” asked John, a tear forming next to his flattened eye under a decorative orchid on the countertop.

“Because your parents were balloons, John.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, John.”

John quietly conceded this point.

A nurse came into the room with a broom and a dustpan and started to clean up John.

John’s parents slowly backed out of the room, feeling pretty bad about what happened, but kind of okay about the fact that they didn’t have some weird balloon child to deal with anymore.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is overrated.

Closure is overrated.

I’m not saying they’re not important. I’m jus saying they’re not all they’re cracked up to be.

Here’s why:

Forgiveness and closure are the end of conflict, the end of progress.

Some things will end but good things last forever.

Even things that are over will continue to influence and compel you for life.

That’s how you know they were good.

Never get over anything.

Just envelope all the joy and all the pain and then yourself into a vessel containing more life than you did before.

Do that.

Vulnerability and The Edo Period in Japan

One of the worst things you can do in life is forget to learn. To feel so comfortable in your current state that you imagine that everything you do not know if simply a mild variation of something you do know.

"I could understand that" as opposed to "I want to."

Sometimes in my life, I am guilty of this, and my recent travels and some time spent alone have been great reminders that no matter what you do or how long try, you will never run out of things you don’t know.

On a long ride from Tokyo to Hakone, our guide, a lovely women in her early 40’s named Masako, told me a very simplified version of a very complicated story:

From the early 1600’s until the mid 1800’s, Japan lived in a state of seclusion. There was a tremendous fear of outside influence as well as the fear of invasions. Borders were closed. Trade with other countries all but ceased entirely.

It was a remarkably peaceful three hundred years. People got to live lives that weren’t simply an elaborate preparation for war.

And then one day, an American ship appeared in Edo Bay, asking for permission to present an arguement to open trade and begin a partenship with Japan.

The thing that stood out most about this ship, under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry, was it’s sheer size, and the size of its cannons.

Edo leadership realized that while they had been safe for hundreds of years, they had also missed out on many years of outside technological development. They had missed out on exchanging information with the outside world. They had missed out on growing, and now, they were unprepared for the bad guys that would inevitably knock on their doors.

Soon later, a peace treaty was signed and Japan again became an international port of trade and world power.

I guess what I learned from this is that you can close yourself off as a person and be totally fine. You can be happy and you can feel good about yourself, but that may not necessarily be a good thing for very long.

Maybe you have to open yourself up to danger in order to grow and to improve and to become prepared for the next hurdle that throws itself in front of you.

Only when you face the cannons that may kill you can you realize exactly what it is you’re up against.

And only then will you be able to rise up to the occasion.

And if you don’t, you can try again and again until you do.

Or you can crawl back into your shell and let the world grow around you, until one day you are too afraid to ever come out.

Holding Hands

It’s easy to forget how important affection is.

A hug, a kiss, a long and meaningful handshake.

Here in Tokyo, you don’t see a lot of it. Save for the occasional schoolchildren, skipping down the sidewalk together, or the tipsy businessman who wants his friends to know how much fun he is having by slapping them on the back, you just keep a distance with people that feels remarkably foreign.

I remember when I was in elementary school, we had a walk-a-thon every three months. It didn’t make much sense looking back, but basically we would get our parents and their friends to donate a few cents for every lap we walked around the school playground. At the end, we’d write down how many laps we did and then we would collect the money and bring it in to help support the PTA.

This was a pretty special time, actually, because it was the one time that we could really spend time with our friends without any sense of competition and without the hustle and bustle that recess usually came with. No handball or four-square, or tag. There were no winners or losers. We would just get together with a friend or two and walk and talk. I can’t remember what we talked about, but I’m sure we thought it was super important.

When I was lucky and I got to walk with my best friend, Gianluca, we would often hold hands. It was something I had grown accustomed to. My parents, older sisters, and basically anyone else would hold my hand, probably to make sure that I didn’t run into the street or get lost in a crowd. Whatever the reason, it was really comfortable.

I don’t remember exactly when or how it happened, but one day, some other kid saw us doing this and he called us “gay.”

We didn’t know what that meant, and we wouldn’t for a really long time, but we knew that we were being made fun of and we didn’t know why. This perfectly normal thing, this sign of affection and comfort, this totally acceptable action was now being called out just because some little jerk whose parents taught him how to be a judmental prick early on in life said we were “something bad.”

It never happened again and the walk-a-thons became lonelier versions of themselves. Sure, we still spent time together, but it was never the same again. We could no longer just “be.” We had to think about it. We had to think about how the things we wanted to do would be judged by an outsider.

Being called “gay,” though we had no idea what it meant, was made to feel bad. And even though we didn’t know it at the time, it was the end of a certain part of childhood that I think is actually quite special. We stopped being ourselves and started becoming ideas of what people “should be.”

I’ll never forgive that kid. And I’ll never forgive his parents.

Walking down the street tonight I recounted this story to my friend. He didn’t know me at the time but he knew exactly what I was talking about, because this kind of thing happens to everyone, and suppresses us and makes us less.

We both shook our heads, realizing that we had fallen prey to judgment.

And so we just took each other’s hands and silently walked a few blocks, like friends should do. It was just a little sign of affection.

We held hands and walked and believe it or not, nothing bad happened.

Teeth

When you walk through the streets of Tokyo, you don’t see anybody’s teeth.

The taxi drivers in Japan have beautiful cars. They are clean and large and roomy and the seats and headrests are covered with white lace. They always wear white gloves. The passenger side door, which is the left side, by the way, opens by itself and closes by itself.

They rarely speak any English but if you show them an address or point to a map they will get you there quickly. Kind, courteous, and safe.

Which made it all the more alarming today when I watched one of them crash directly into a guy on a motorcycle.

Walking down Roppongi-Dori, a pretty major thoroughfare, passing Western dining establishments, all night noodle shops, and endless small convenience stores, I was actively looking for teeth. I was staring at people.

I know that might sound odd, but it’s the little things that make this land feel so foreign at times. People are not smiling as they walk, they are not talking as they walk, and if they are, they are doing it very quietly. Sometimes I laugh to myself as I walk and I am subjecting everyone to my teeth.

That woman isn’t smiling. Those two guys talking are barely opening their mouths. That kid on the bike isn’t smiling. Is he even breathing? Am I crazy? have I been doing this wrong my whole life? Am I walking around like some kind of total neanderthal, swinging my arms like an ape and exposing my teeth like a rabid dog? Am I the least evolved thing in this town?

It actually starts to get to you because you feel wrong about the things you want to do. You don’t want to offend anybody and you don’t want to be insensitive but sometimes when I’m walking down the sidewalk I want to sing. I want to say hello to a stranger and I want to make phone calls and I want to smile at pretty girls and terrify them.

You don’t hear a lot of startling noises either. Not really much yelling or honking or hooting and hollering, so when a taxi smashes into a motorcycle two feet from your head, you take notice.

These moments are always full of panic. What did I just see? Is this scarring? Can I help? Should I help? Should I pretend to help for some reason even though I’m not a doctor and there is literally nothing I can do?

Hell, I can barely walk. I’ve been walking around like a stupid gibbon my whole life, how am I supposed to help anyone?

When the taxi rear-ended the motorcycle, the bike immediately turned sideways and the rider, wearing a helmet and blue full body suit rolled up the hood, up onto the top of the windshield and then rolled back down and landed on the cement between the taxi and the motorcycle.

Quickly, the taxi driver got out, white gloves and all and went to the man’s aid. The motorcyclist, thankfully, didn’t appear to be seriously injured, as he was trying to get up. He shook his legs and moved his arms, in a gesture I’m guessing was to make sure he could move. The cyclist rolled over onto his stomach and then rose up to his knees. The taxi driver’s white gloves made their way onto the motorcyclists back and began rubbing him gently.

It was the first real sign of affection I’d seen in a few days and it struck me as odd that it took one man nearly killing another to get them to hug.

Slowly, the rider got up to his feet, clearly in pain, but clearly going to be alright. Everyone around let out a collective sigh of relief.

The taxi driver knelt and began to help upright the man’s motorcycle. Another man helped him and soon the bike was ready to ride again.

At this moment, the motorcyclist finally took off his helmet and I saw his face. He was grimacing and right then I saw something I hadn’t seen in a really long time: some teeth.

I smiled at him, glad he was okay, and let him see my teeth too. Then, like the staggering chimpanzee I am, I made my way home.

Dinner with the Doctor

I am a gaijin.

That’s the Japanese term for “foreigner, outsider, alien.”

I am those things.

Sure, I can speak a word or two, I can say ‘arigato goizamasu’ and I know when to bow and I know to keep eye contact with the floor while bowing, but I also know that I really know nothing.

Dr. Hirade, a good friend of my father, agreed to meet me for dinner tonight. He is seventy years old but doesn’t look a day over fifty. He says that his wife limits him to one can of beer a night, and that is how he remains young.

I first met him when I was eight months old, in a zoo in Beijing. I was a blond speck of a human being, resembling more a sausage than a person then.

Walking into his hotel, I barely recognized him, obviously, yet his grace and charm made him fee like an old friend immediately.

"Do you like Yakitori?" he asked.

I told him that I would go wherever he liked and we got in a taxi and headed to Hachi-Bei Roppongi, an offshoot of the original restaurant in Fukuoka.

Meat, vegetables, and other items on skewers, placed by an old man, and fanned and monitored by a young apprentice: a very traditional Japanese meal.

He told me about what I was like as a young man. He told me about coming to America many years ago and being startled by how casual we were in meeting each other. Not just me, obviously. Everyone.

The doctor has been married for 45 years. I asked him to tell me the secret of the successful marriage and he laughed heartily before answering:

"I don’t know."

We began the meal immediately with a bowl of edamame and another bowl of cabbage dressed in vinegar. Simple, clean, and without pretense, a combination of words I would use to describe his marriage.

The first course arrived and it was something very foriegn to me. Raw horse meat. These horses had been massaged and fed wheat beer for most of their lives. I asked the doctor if the horses ever fell down, but he did not quite understand the meaning of my question. Sure, I understand that most people would find eating horses objectionable, but I am not one to question an elder, particularly in a foreign country.

I am a gaijin.

An outsider.

The skewers arrived, one after another. Wagyu beef, chicken hearts, chicken livers, chicken skin. I took it all in as I took in his stories, one after another.

He explained the changes in culture he has seen in the last 30 years. Young people don’t have to get married anymore. When he was a young man, trying to become a doctor, a wife was crucial, because there as no other way to get through the day to day.

I asked him a thousand questions and he responded, time and time again, and I thanked him: “Arigato Goizamasu.” And every time he gave me a gentle head nod.

Then I asked him to explain to me what people in his country thought of me on first sight. He was honest and said “People will see you and they will fear you. You look homeless and hungry. People will think you will take from them. They will think you want money. They will not understand. If you spoke Japanese, you could explain, but you do not.”

So I asked him about my limited Japanese, the Hais and the Arigatos and the Desu Kas and that was when I learned the greatest lesson of all.

"Be who you are."

No one cares if you know a few Japanese words. You’re either Japanese here or you’re not. Don’t try to fit in. Don’t say Arigato. Say Thank You.

"That’s who you are and people will be polite and respectful of your ignorance. They will be thankful of your ignorance. You are gaijin."

Dr. Hirade is a brilliant man. We spoke of Fukushima and of Chernobyl and of radiation and of cultural divides, but the thing I learned the most from is the simplest lesson of all.

You are an outsider. We accept that. You should do the same.

I spent my first days here trying in earnest to fit in, but that’s never going to happen.

Be a gaijin. Be an outsider.

It’s so odd, because in my day to day life, back in America, I take great pride in my “otherness,” but here I feared it and I tried to blend in as best I could.

I was fooling no one.

Be yourself.

Be a gaijin.

And it doesn’t matter if you’re a white man in Japan, a high school student in Georgia, or a black man in Utah. Be who you are.

Be a gaijin.

Hello. My name is Elan, and I am a gaijin.

Come be a gaijin with me.

Koji Helped Me Find Ramen

There is great freedom in standing in one place, randomly picking a direction, and commiting to it.

Isn’t that how all of life is, really? There are a million options and you decide to choose one and then you try to make it the correct one. No choice is ever correct until after you make it.

I am staying on a street without a sign in a residential area of Minami Ayoama. This is home for a while but I don’t even understand how the light switches work. The toilets do whatever they want and seem to even be communicating with each other while I sleep in a secret water language.

Before I left America I got a list of places to go and things to see. I did not write any of them down because there were simply too many and I didn’t want to just have an overwhelming list of impossible to complete activities. My memory, I think, has retained the ones it finds most valuable, starting with what seemed like the perfect place to have breakfast: Ramen Street.

Tokyo Station is 100 years old, but has been newly renovated. It’s basically a giant marble labyrinth the size of most small American cities. There is a dessert store in it the size of Fresno.

"Just go downstairs to Ramen Street. You can’t miss it."

Oh, really? Well, I found Kitchen Street. I found a place where 450 Japanese women in matching cardigans stand in concentric circles. I found a store that sells miniature plastic versions of ramen.

And then a miracle happened. His name was Koji. He was wearing prestine blue overalls, a yellow helmet, and sparkly white gloves.

"Ramen Street?" I mumbled for the hundredth time as businessmen looked anywhere but at me.

Koji was the first person I heard laugh loudly in public. “I take you,” he said. So I began to follow him. He was pushing a cart with several empty green plastic boxes. He asked me where I was from and took off one of his gloves to shake my hand.

I complimented him on his English and he complimented me on my ability to grow hair out of the bottom of my face. Koji is now my best friend in Japan.

15 minutes later he pointed me down a side alley (I use this term loosely because the “alley” is just another marble avenue that is kept cleaner than anything I’ve ever seen) and said “Ramen.” And with that, he was gone. I had lost my only friend.

It was 10:40am and the shops don’t open until 11:00. There is a small line outside every door and inside you can see the staff meetings taking place, everyone preparing for another day.

One shop, Rokurinsha, is different. The staff is lined up and someone is giving very loud instructions. It looks as if they’re preparing to go to war. And they are.

I turn around and I see the enemy combatants. 50 men in black suits are waiting in a line that snakes around to the entrance. This place must be good.

I walk to the back of the line and step behind the last man. A quick tug on my sleeve lets me know that something is wrong. A small woman points and directs my eyes towards a staircase across the way. That is where the rest of the line is. Another 30 men in suits are waiting there. There are maybe 20 seats in this place. I ascend the staircase, nearly a flight and a half, and stand behind the last man. No women. Not one. 80 men, black suits, newspapers, flip phones, and me, scraggly, hungry, wearing a torn deep cut V-neck, looking like a mad muppet in a disitinctly human world.

At 11:00 precisely the line begins to move. No one talks to each other. I’m glad to see that they’re not only not talking to me. They’re talking to no one. It’s the most accepted I’ve felt all day.

40 minutes later I get through the front door and am directed to a machine on the wall. There are four pictures of food. They are four varieties of Tsukemen ramen (the kind where the noodles come separately and you dip them in the broth yourself). I can’t figure out what is what so I just push a button and scan my subway card, which is the only way to pay, against the pad. I have now paid and am ushered to a seat between serious looking men.

I am given a plasticized paper bib and tie it around my neck. Ten seconds later, my food arrives and I get the sensation that I have exactly 2 minutes to eat this gigantic pile of food before I’ll be violently thrown out. So I do. I slurp and slurp and try to outdo my neighbors.

These noodles are perfect, by the way. Somewhere right between what we consider “normal” ramen noodles and udon noodles, they are perfectly firm and chewy and dipped in pork broth, they just enter your stomach and dance and around and make you cry happy salty tears.

I spend the next 13 hours wandering around Tokyo. Imperial Palace. The bar at the Palace hotel where martini olives are skewered with solid gold toothpicks. Omotesando Koffee, where a single barista makes one drink at a time out of the basement of his home. Tokyo Tower, a horrible tourist trap out of TomorrowLand. Roppongi Hills, home of McDonald’s, Forever 21 and Zara.

After 13 hours, I have finally worked off the ramen and find myself pretty lost. I see a street that looks particularly inviting and I walk down it.

And then I begin to laugh because I realize that I have accidentally walked home.

I had picked a direction in the morning and committed to it and something brought me right back to where I started.

I guess what I realized today is that “home” is a relative term. I may feel displaced and almost like an invader here, but this is my home, at least for now. And there is great pleasure in feeling like you belong somewhere, even if you don’t.

The Widow and the Widower

The first thing I noticed when I walked into Zojoji Temple in Minato was a sign that requested “no photography.”

Right away I knew that this moment, unlike many others, was going to live solely in my brain and die with me when I die. The impermanence of memories like this actually help turn them into living, breathing, ever-changing entities, and when I am old I will look to my left on my porch and tell someone I love this story, and it will likely have changed dramatically by then. But nonetheless, I will take her by the hand and I will tell her about the memorial service at Zojoji..

Chanting is immediately hypnotic to me. Gold Buddhas, prestine wooden floors, and the smell of incense. I drop a few hundred yen into a box and an elderly woman smiles at me, some of the first moments of warmth I’ve felt in this very private country. She walks over, sensing my disorientation and grabs my wrist, lowering my hand into a bowl of wood chips. I grab some and, with her help, drop them into a glowing red bowl of stones. Smoke comes up immediately and she waves her hands to move the smoke to my body. Cleansed and purified, I am now welcome. She bows and walks away.

I follow the sound of chanting and see a monk, facing the wall behind him. Draped in blue, he bangs a drum repeatedly, and perfectly on time. He chants along. Hmm. Drum. Hmm. Drum. An endless circular stream of liquid noise washing over the room, pummeling me into submission, stripping me of any thoughts. These chants enter your head and take over. That’s the point, I guess.

Behind the monk there are two other people. An elderly man and an elderly woman. They sit near each other, but clearly are not related. Each of them have a small stick with a rounded end and a drum on the ground in front of them. They too are hitting their drums, trying their best to keep in time with the perfect, practiced monk.

I do not know these people but I feel very strongly about them.

They are each there to pay tribute to their fallen spouses. The widow and the widower, side by side, each alone, but together in their solemnity and in their desire to communicate. The widower finds his pacing and falls into time with the the monk. I close my eyes.

The widower met his wife in a neighborhood bar when he invited her to join him for a game of billiards over an old, worn table. She insisted that she could not play and instead just laughed. Not one to take no for an answer, he kept at it until she agreed to try. When she finally got up to the table he carefully stood beside her and placed his left hand on hers and guided her to make her first shot. She missed terribly, but it didn’t matter, and from that moment on, when the widower and his wife did anything together, the success of the action was irrelevant to them both. They just did things. They just did.

Until one day, they didn’t. And now the widower beats his drum and thinks about her. The chants don’t push the thoughts out of his head as they do mine. The chants enter his mind and seal the exits, forever keeping her inside.

The widower looks to his left and sees the widow’s eyelids. He watches the subtle moments as her eyes move ever so slightly behind them, retracing visions of the past, searching the deepest corners of her memory, replaying, replaying, replaying, replaying. Banging the drum, slightly off beat.

The widower then does something unexpected. He takes his left hand and places it on hers. She does not open her eyes. With his left hand on her right, he begins to help her find the beat. And now they’re almost in perfect sync with the monk that is leading them. The smallest smile comes over her face, but she never opens her eyes. The widower smiles as well, watching her eyelids, the memories behind them darting ever more wildly, alive again.

And soon he releases her hand and she loses the beat again, but it doesn’t matter to either of them. He thinks of the girl in the bar and placing his hand on hers and how it didn’t matter if she missed the shot or not and through the waves of endless chanting, he emits a tiny laugh.

I step outside to catch my breath and sit on the stairs leading up to the temple. Not long after, the chanting stops and the widow and the widower walk out, together, awkwardly smiling. I watch them for a long time as they walk, now remembering themselves through each other. They walk through the temple gate and walk and walk until they are completely out of my sight. But always together. In my heart, I know that they do not know where they are going.

When I am old, I will place my hand on hers and I will tell her this story. It will change a lot, I’m sure, but it won’t matter to her. She’ll be glad I tried, even if I miss slightly.

Minami Aoyama - The Beginning

It is 84 degrees currently. I’m sitting in a room with an oscillating floor fan.

The fan has 4 distinct settings: 1, 2, 4, and 6.

All of the settings are the same and the thing I am most acutely aware of is that this fan and I don’t understand each other. It is going to do what it wants to do and no amount of charm, tact, or cleverness is going to get it to act otherwise.

This fan is a perfect representation of my first day here in suburban Tokyo.

The day began with an 11 hour plane ride followed by an 8 hour ride in an elevator at Shibuya Terminal. We simply couldn’t find the ground floor. It wasn’t 1. It wasn’t B1. It wasn’t F or F1 or G2. Eventually, a nice woman asked us if we wanted to take a bus and she guided us like blind dogs to the ground floor and deposited our corpses with a policeman who pointed us towards a taxi stand with a friendly smile. Poor you, he thought. You look terrible.

Our apartment here is very nice. We have beds and floors and tables and it’s more than we could ever need. Famished, we started walking down our unnamed street (the streets here have no signs) until we came upon what looked like a quaint little restaurant. We walked in and were immediately seated, as we were the only patrons. Eight seats around a charcoal grill and that was pretty much it.

No one there spoke any English. Not a word. Even sign language failed, but eventually the woman behind the bar just pointed at something on the menu and we just nodded, feeling pretty confident that anything here would be good. It was an all eel restaurant. All eel, all the time. You can have grilled eel or you can have your eel grilled. How would you like your eel? Grilled? Great. You’re in the right place. Welcome to the Minato Unagiya.

Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck are playing loudly in the background and everything feels like a Woody Allen movie. A 16 year old boy comes and sits right next to us. He order a cup of tea and rests his head in his hands as if he has just shamed his family. He makes no eye contact with anyone.

Freshwater eel (Unagi), lightly dipped in a homemade sweet soy sauce and dusted with sansho, prickly ash pepper, is cooked slowly over a charcoal grill and fanned by a small boy wearing a grey onesie. This is plopped on top of a pile of rice, fresh seaweed, and accompanied by wasabi, pickled scallions, and a soup made of toasted tea leaves and chicken broth, and finished with a boiled eel liver.

We ask if the tea is made with the stems of the green tea leaf which we believe it is and we try to explain the meaning of the word ‘stem’ by using a toothpick. At this point she laughs because she thinks that we think that the tea is made of toothpicks. She explains how to properly use a toothpick.

We feel satisfied and endlessly stupid as we make our way to a nearby market to get some supplies for the apartment. We get all the essentials: loquats, marinated octopus in a bag, green beans, and a bottle of whiskey.

We haven’t slept in a really long time but we wander a few blocks for a nightcap and end up at the aptly named Drunkard’s. It’s an open air bar with a Hawaiian and Cuban combo as their theme. The bartender immediately suggests a mojito. There is no way in frosty hell that we are having a mojito so we inspect the bar behind him and discover a new gem: the 3 of Hearts. It’s a 120 proof single malt out of Midorigaoka. Things will soon either get better or decline immediately.

The place is decorated with a pineapple lamp, an entire smoked pork leg on the counter, and a portrait of what I’m assuming is the deceased father of the current owner.

Next to us is a thin guy who looks like the Japanese lovechild of Tom Petty and John Lennon, complete with little round spectacles. He chainsmokes Marlboro Menthols but when he isn’t smoking he puts a medical mask over his mouth. You know? To protect from germs.

Side note: When you are surrounded by people wearing medical masks you begin to feel like you are the enemy because you are not wearing one. You are the carrier. If it wasn’t for you, they could breathe normally. It’s a very humbling feeling.

A very strange techno version of “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons is playing on the radio as I take my first sip of this fiery deathsauce. I saw them exactly one week ago in Los Angeles and the idea that this song has also crossed the Pacific with me, but now is almost unrecognizable makes me feel even more disconnected from the culture in which I can communicate and make a difference.

Karin, a Kyoto resident who lived in San Francisco for eight years, has a very strange English accent, kind of going back and forth between Nicole Kidman and Sporty Spice. Her language and understanding though, are flawless. How well we can communicate with her only amplifies our inability to make headway here.

Maki, a 50 something year old manager at a frozen fish company tries to make small talk but is mostly focused on scrolling through his Facebook feed while smoking Kools and playing along to the music with a homemade maraca made of an empty pomade canister and uncooked rice.

The bartenders take great care with each drink, using a baseball sized ice cube to cool down each side of the glass before dropping in our second tasting, the 12 year Yamazaki, a cooler, calmer and more familiar flavor. No one has ever taken this much care with anything. They give a shit. That’s cool.

But when we try to explain how much we appreciate it, it is to no avail.

Again, here I am in a room with a floor fan with settings I do not understand.

But now, the room is considerably cooler. The fan is doing it’s job. The fan is correct, even though I do not understand it, and here I am, still confused.

That’s what Japan will be like for a while. A well oiled and perfect machine that I simply do not understand, but I will just trust that those blades will spin and I will reap the rewards, as stupid and helpless as I am.