Yu. Yuuu!

Sanmachi Suji District

We are in Takayama; it’s evening. We are at a bar called Torio’s, enjoying air conditioning and cold beers after a day of walking around in the intense heat. Elevator versions of popular oldies, as are now disconcertingly labeled songs I grew up with, are quietly emanating from a portal somewhere. The bar is half full of paunchy Japanese men, whose tone suggests that they are telling dirty stories and jokes. They smoke a lot and sip on mixed drinks. The room is otherwise quiet, spread out, mute, antiseptic, in the way a restaurant at a Holiday Inn might be. The combination screams late 1980s Bar Mitzvah rather than a pub you would find in a Japanese mountain town. Instead of sipping a 600 Yen beer, I feel as though I should be working up the nerve to ask Wendy Abrahms to dance and trying to sneak a screwdriver from my friend’s geri-rebellious grandfather.

It’s been a great day. Though it’s only a few streets, you can lose yourself in Takayama’s Sanmachi Suji District for a good hour or two amongst its sake breweries, restaurants, and shops. Takayama was largely isolated up here in the mountains, so a great deal of it does resemble turn of 20th century Japan. We did a tour of a museum with a wonderful guide who spoke like Mr. Bean, and we hiked up to Takayama Castle, which is now just a stone base up in the woods.

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The Good Guys vs the Bad Guys

I grew up with a very clear picture of what a Nazi was. They were bad guys with German accents who wore small hats and army uniforms and were often being punched in the face by Indiana Jones. They were scary and aggressive but got repaid for their Nazism by getting killed by and sucked into the Ark of the Covenant. When Nazis did make the mistake of being on American soil, they were being run off a bridge by Elwood and Jake Blues. I knew just who they were and one thing was absolutely clear: they were the bad guys, and we were the good guys.

What happened in Charlottesville was a horrible situation rife with eerie aspects. To see Nazism this open in the U.S. is disgusting. To see an open white supremacist praise Donald Trump was right up there in its current day dystopian aspect as well. To watch someone drive a car into people was indescribably horrifying. Then, the president, the guy who is supposed to be our leader and the guy who can’t seem to stop himself from calling out actors, musicians, reality TV stars, and models, to see him actively not call out Nazis and then literally run away from questions on the events of the day, was like a scene in a Philip K. Dick book.

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Summer with the Borgias

You are Assimilated

The following is a recreation of a conversation between my aunt and an employee at the local supermarket moments after an unfortunate accident took out our chicken. It is important to note that since my aunt is on the phone, all I can do is make educated guesses as to the chicken guy’s responses. Plus, I was pretty well lit.

Aunt: Do you have whole cooked chickens?

Chicken Guy: Yes we do, ma’am.

Aunt: Oh, great. They’re cooked?

Chicken Guy: Uh….yes ma’am.

Aunt: Do we need to reserve one?

Chicken Guy: You want to…reserve a chicken?

Aunt: Yes. This is an emergency. (She says in a serious tone of voice, which conveys that she is not joking and that my family does not fuck around when it claims to be undergoing a gastronomical emergency).

At this point my other aunt and I, who are also in the kitchen, emit a series of otter-sounding guffaws. We laugh so hard that we had to stop what we were doing, which was deciding who to blame for the chicken emergency (it’s the aunt on the phone, by the way, and then by proxy, her son).

Though this might sound like a scene out of the Borgias do Christmas, I have been back visiting my family for two weeks, thus I have had time to reacclimate and then reassimilate to the craziness.

In the first week of being home, some things were hard to get back into. There’s the morning argument between my sister, mother, and I for the “squatty potty” the footrest which assists in the ease of bowel movements. I’m not used to sharing my jerryrigged one, as my cat hasn’t figured out how to use it yet. Additionally, the fact that my sister and mother have gotten married to each other took a little getting used to. They work together to raise my sister’s wonderful little rugrats, and as a result have fallen into a domestic partnership. They speak like a couple, argue like a couple, negotiate and compromise like a couple. In a week I expect to be giving them couple’s therapy (now, Mom, what I hear Amanda saying is that while she appreciates you, maybe some space is needed before requesting the squatty potty…)

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What the…?

Who the hell are you calling drunk!?

The ATM emits a warm harp welcome as I enter my card. Not for the first time (by a long shot) since I have arrived in Japan, I say: “what the…?” I don’t have time to dawdle, there is a task afoot, and the ATM’s music lets me know that. It plays during the entire process, so that each button I hit is met with a song that makes me feel like a sword-wielding character named Zelda on an adventure.

After the harp welcome, I am awarded little tunes at each touch of a button (English – wawawaaaaa, withdrawal – wooowhoowhoooo, 40,000 Yen – habadabadabaaaaa, checking – frimfrimfreeeeeeeee). And then the gravity conveyed by string chords in D as ATM deliberates over whether I am worthy of cash. I wait with baited breath, as does the woman waiting behind me, who has unwittingly become invested in my monetary adventure. When the happy, excited tune of success plays (bleebleebleeeebleeeeeee) I release my breath and wipe my brow of sweat. The woman resists the urge to hug me. I take my cash and walk away, emotionally spent. Later, when I realize that I abandoned the woman on her financial trek, I feel genuinely bad.

Like many of you, I have found that every trip to a foreign land has its “What the…?” moments. What the…? Is the most genuine query of confusion. There is no humor, no wit, there is only confusion at seeing or dealing with something completely baffling.  I said it when I got caught up in a surprise lamb stampede in Petra, and being offered the head of goat to prove the freshness of lunch in Ethiopia.

Japan, I say with confidence, is a What the…? country. There are toilets with so many buttons that it’s like pooping in a mercury capsule. These buttons cause water to be sprayed at your butt, music to cover up the sounds, and heat to toast your buns. The bathrooms may be chock full of “what the…?” things, but they are ingenious. The sink on the back of the toilet serves the dual purpose of cleaning your hands and filling the tank at once.

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Golden Gais (gais is pronounced guys, not gays. I think)

Do you see Godzilla? (photo by Mark Kaufman)

Shinjuku is intensely Japanese. sounds like an idiotic statement from an idiotic idiot, but I had trouble coming up with a comprehensive adjective list. At night it’s not only a brightly lit neon assault on the senses, but it further overwhelms with sound. Loud music plays from seemingly nowhere, ditties come from open shop doors, and buskers play outside pedestrian tunnels as thousands of people storm past. The soon-to-be-deaf sit idly in arcades that blare an impossible cacophony of electric rings.

Godzilla peeks over a building at us from above a movie poster advertising a Michael Bay film. His film posters translate perfectly into Japanese, just a glimpse tells me it’s going to be a stupid vapid piece of shit. Michael Bay sucks in every language, perhaps he should put that on his resume.

In the midst of the intensity, I look at Mark and he nods; we both understand. One of the best aspects of traveling with Mark, is that he and I are very similar travelers. We like to walk as much as possible, both finding it the best means by which to see and digest a city or a place. We are early risers and low maintenance in terms of time needed in the morning. We know when it’s time to take a break, and if you have ever been on a trip with one person who wanted to go go go and another who wanted to chill chill chill, then you fully understand the importance of this mutual understanding. We are at the same level of adventurous and know when to give the other space. Byproducts of this travel connection meant that by day two of our trip we were reading each other’s minds, when it was time to go, leave a museum, tell a salesperson “no,” and, in this case, time to get the fuck to a quieter place and have a drink.

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Scaramucci’s Forgotten Additions to Classic Presidential Speeches

Abe, just before the Gettysburg F****ng Address

Abraham Lincoln

The Gettysburg Address

“Fourscore and seven f****ng years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But some men are a little more equal than others, if you know what I mean (holds out hands as though measuring a sea bass). Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can last with all this f****ng b***shit backstabbing and leaking. Cause we can’t do nothing if this c**ks**ker Lee keeps f****ng with us! We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. But I ain’t holding my f****ng breath, you know?

 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

First Inaugural Address

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The First Adventures of Don Quijote

Local Pub near Daitabashi Station

After 25 hours of travelling, Mark and I hurtled via metro into the increasingly and disconcertingly darkening Tokyo suburbs until a fellow passenger informed us in Englapanese that this train was the express and had skipped Daitabashi Station, which is where our flat was. He yogaed his hand free from the nine people pressed to him to point out the stop we should go back to in order to backtrack.

When the train finally stopped (nothing moves more endlessly than a train going away from your destination) we tried out our Japanese, saying “arigato” (thank you) and bowed. He bowed back. We bowed again. Arigato. As did he. Had the train doors not closed, we could still be bowing now.

We backtracked. Thirty minutes later we stood on a street five minutes from Daitabashi Station comparing a set of photographs to local landmarks like walls, bushes, drainage pipes, and signs. The pictures had accompanied our packet of walking directions and were supposed to help us get from the station to our flat. Instead, a number of linguistic and pictorial miscues made it seem more like a game involving a character named Carmen Sandiego. After we broke the riddles and matched the photos, we gingerly entered a code into a lock box to find a key. This brought us to our beds, toilets, strange teddy bears, and, most importantly, air conditioning.

We dropped our bags on our futons and ran out the door to our pre-established local pub, which we had passed four times on our quest from the station. The pub greatly modeled the compact, efficient layouts we would see in the major Japanese cities we visited, making use of every inch of the place in a city with limited space. We were starving and thirsty, and the owner pointed us to two seats at the bar. We ordered ramen with pork and were told that this was the lunch menu, but then the owner’s cultural instinct not to offend us clearly took over and he instantly revised his answer that he (and his ancestry) would be only too glad to make our ramen, five hours after its menu was no longer pertinent. We, too hungry and linguistically intimidated to disagree, both thanked him and bowed in profuseness. “Arigato.” Bow. “Arigato.” Bow.

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Gaijin

Gaijin in Foreign Habitat

A visitor in Japan is a foreigner: Gaijin. I have been called a foreigner before. In Mexico I was a gringo, in Ethiopia a faranji, in the Middle East a ferenji. Even at home in Prague I am a cizinec, forever a stranger in a strange land.

The difference is that if I keep my mouth closed on a Czech tram, nobody really knows if I’m a foreigner. In Japan, it is far more obvious.

Mark and I don’t know what to expect. In my mind, which seems to combine the little I know of Japanese culture with anime, Shogun, and Lost in Translation, I am either going to be decapitated, regarded as an exotic white love muffin, or a hailed as a national hero.

In two days it becomes clear that nothing bad is going to happen. The Japanese are some of the more pleasant people I have ever had the privilege of meeting in their homeland. They treat us like kings, but that is because we are visitors and customers, not because we are exotic. They are polite, respectful, and extraordinarily helpful and generous.

Neither are we regarded as exotic man muffins. Women don’t seem to be attracted to us as novel as much as we are either kind of ignored or quickly registered as overheated, sweaty, human salt licks with curly hair. Additionally, we are awkward, extremely linguistically limited, and can’t properly work bathrooms, doors, metro tickets, and utensils. We are essentially cavemen.

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Things to do During a Conference Talk when you Wish you were Dead

Code of the Conference (plus pushups)

If you are going into academia, just get used to the idea that at some point you are going to be in a conference talk that is so dull and outside of your interest zone that you would prefer to be watching your parents give a detailed sex education class together. Now, breathe.

As has been my purgatory a few times. The topics were dull to me, but that means they were simply outside of my geek zone. They were definitely in other people’s geek zones, which grants me perspective with a horrified lining.

A few weeks ago, I sat in the fourth row, a good respectable distance from the presenters. From there, I could engage in the sorts of behavior that I flay my students for while I nodded my head and squinted thoughtfully. I was in a row with one former student who sat two seats away, so my tablet scrolling would remain clandestine. But at the last minute one of my four bosses sat right next to me, thus forcing me into a lockdown mode.

First out of the gate, I turned off the volume. Anyone who has sneakily checked out a device in a class, meeting, or conference knows the embarrassment of emitting a loud beep from their genitals. And what with whatsapp video messages this can be a real nightmare. When the volume was down, I instantly went to Tinder. Why? Because it’s a conference, which means out of town people. Secondly, there was no way on earth that everyone in that room was riveted to the man in the front, and I took a gamble that a few of them had the same idea as me and that a few of those would have two X chromosomes.

No such luck. I looked around the room and recognized nobody from the app’s pictures. Additionally, I finally understood the draw of Grindr, a site for gay men to locate nearby sexy time partners. Then I made a few notes to possibly develop a heterosexual counterpart. Though I eventually decided that we straight people are way too uptight for something like this, I did make some good notes. See, I’m getting stuff done.

After I put Tinder away I decide to focus (really really focus) on what the academics are saying. After 19 seconds I instead decide to pay attention to their language, as that’s sort of my area. I count how many words the academics can fit into one sentence (309), I then count how many references to their work an academic can fit into his response to a question he wasn’t asked (14), then I count the number of sentences an academic can fit into a question that ends up not being a question (19). I look around and wonder who’s really getting the information; if it’s anyone I know, I instantly scratch them off my pretend dinner party list.

Finally, I decide to write up my workout for the following day. It’s not only productive, but it’s also confounding to my boss, who looked at its coded series of numbers and letters with great interest.

30pu    25bp    25lr      15kr     20-1l    15T-pu

25bp    20s/s    25hl     30pn    30uc    60ln

He gazes at it and I do not tell him that it’s code for 30 pushups, 25 burpees, 25 leg raises, etc. I let the mystery lure him in, plus it’s not bad to let him think I know what the hell is going on. Which I don’t.

The last thing I did was laugh at inappropriate times. Well, not inappropriate, but not funny. So when the featured academic said something dry and stiff, I let out a few sharp laughs and knocked my hand on the desk. This gave people pause as they weren’t sure what they’d missed. I did it with the absolute confidence of the clueless (see: the current American President) So a few of the audience members laughed as well. I even got the academic to laugh once, too. I lightened the mood at a conference, so, you know, mission accomplished.

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Spidey Sense

The following is an excerpt from the Wikipedia page devoted to “Spiderman’s Powers and Equipment, specifically focusing on his “spidey sense.”

“Spider-Man’s “spider-sense” manifests in a tingling feeling at the base of his skull, alerting him to personal danger in proportion to the severity of that danger. For instance, a little tingling such as a happenstance passing by of an enemy would prompt Peter to be alert, while a strong tingling, sometimes to the point of being painful, is interpreted as a need to take immediate evasive action on a deadly threat. It appears to be a simultaneous response to a wide variety of phenomena”

It’s now, as I sit at my desk two days before I embark for Japan that I develop similar symptoms and premonitions of danger and doom. The tingle, strong today, spasms in my neck, the “phenomenon” eliciting the “spidey sence” was this sentence, seen on another website:

“Until quite recently Japan had no spider species that could be deadly to humans. That changed around 1995, when the first redback spiders were found in Osaka.”

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