The Normal Files

a caveat:

everything that follows is a work of fiction.

even that which has actually happened.

reality is what you can get away with

and i don’t think i could possibly get away

with you believing any of this.

if you did, you would only believe it subjectively anyway

A Wolf in the Presence of Men part 1: Self Sufficiency

A wolf stands in a cafe and orders a coffee. He is disappointed it has come to this, he prefers self-sufficiency.

He watches in silence as the barista fills his cup with hot water and a tea bag. she smiles as she snaps the plastic lid onto the paper cup. The wolf stares at her with blank contempt. She smiles again, obviously looking to the wolf to do the same. The expression on the wolf's face is unchanged.

She sets the cup on the counter. She slides it across the counter towards the wolf. She almost has time to say 'have a nice day', but the wolf is quicker and hungry. His teeth flash like the blade of a butterfly knife. In a single motion he tears through the soft, lazy flesh of her throat.

A few moments later the wolf leaves the cafe, coffee in hand. His preference for self-sufficiency reaffirmed.


The night was late and the drinkers in the bar were drunk. Some more so than others. The four of us sat at a table crowded with beer and opinions. We argued and speculated over the scene that was happening in the bathroom.
The scene became a commotion and it was clear that if one had to pee they must do it else where. Elsewhere was far across a park under scattered showers. As we drained beers we tried to hold on, to hold it, in hopes that the commotion would end and free the toilet. Soon uncomfortable, our speculations as to what was happening in there grew grisly.
"Blood, teeth, and hair all over the tile floor" one said.
"I say they are just fucking" said another.
"Nah, just passed out" said a third.
"Fuck this. I got to pee. I am going in there" said the fourth.
The look on the bartender's face as he insisted not to go in gave the impression that at least one of our speculations was right.
One took a trip through the rain and the park. Then another. Then a third. Then a fourth.
They all returned dampened and the night went on. More beers were ordered. Conversation resumed its natural rhythm, but due to their uncomfortably damp clothing everything said came out sharper than they intended.
"You don't hate Eric Clapton, I mean you can't Hate him" one said.
"I really fucking hate him. That's what I am saying, I fucking Hate Eric Clapton." said another.
"Well you got to admit he's got talent." said a third.
"He won't, he really does Hate Eric Clapton." said the fourth.
The conversation moved on, the beer was drank and the urge to pee returned.
"How long have they been in there?" one said.
"Fucking too fucking long." said another.
"Who ever is in there is probably passed out cold." said a third.
"They have been in there long enough to wake up sober. Fuck this I am going in" said the fourth.
With this he stood and made for the bathroom. Again the bartender tried to insist not to go in, but the fourth said something to him and the bartender turned to follow him into the bathroom.
We three sat sipping the last of our beers and crossing our legs.
"You think they are taking pictures in there?" one said.
"What do you think he said to get in there?" said another.
"He probably just guessed the password" said a third.
The fourth walked backward out of the bathroom burdened by something heavy, the body of a very drunk person. A man who was not the bartender carried the drunkards feet. They moved through the doorway, down the stairs and out of the bar.
"Well I guess its open now" one said.
"Go find out" said another.
"My pleasure" said a third.
As she moved towards the bathroom the bartender popped his head out of the door. The expression on his face was pleading, both uncomfortable and begging forgiveness.
"Its not open." She said returning to the table.
"Bullshit!" said one.
"Bullshit!" said another.
They finished their beers. The bartender came out of the bathroom and bought us a round of beers.
"The bathroom is available" he said apologetically.
We three began to wonder where the fourth had gone. Then he entered the bar. He sat down grinning and signaled to the bartender for a beer. The three of us waited for an explanation or a story but all the fourth said was, "I should do that more often."
The bartender brought his beer, patted him on the shoulder smiling and said, "Gentle liar." and walked away chuckling.
"Was he talking about you?" one said.
"What did that mean?" said another.
"How did you get in there?" said a third.
"Let me just say that sometimes the only way to get back stage is to say you are a doctor." the fourth said.

Ordered a time lapse remote for my camera and bought myself a tripod.
More to come.

sound a sleep: louder in the dark

A few months ago while at the park with Tofu and Hisako we ventured into a little building that was home to many kinds of local insects. A kind old man monitored the space and gave tours to the people who stopped in. He gave us one such tour at the end of which he showed us something really cool. 
They are the larva of kabutomushi, or Japanese Rhinoceros Beetles. The kind old man asked us if we wanted one. Tofu quickly said he did and I in a moment of insecurity said I wouldn't know what to do with one. So the man found a styrofoam cup and filled it with dirt and a larva then went back to showing us around the place. 
As he showed us other critters and crawlers I found that I was no longer listening. I had gone to a place in my head where regret is all that is audible and I listened to my future self pine over not having said yes. The truth was I really did want a pet beetle, even if it was also true that I would have no idea what to do with it. So I pulled Hisako aside and told her how I felt. She just smiled at me and politely asked the man if it was too late for me to also have one. It was no problem, the guy had found a few dozen larva that morning in the woods. He found another cup and filled it for me with dirt and a larva. 

We left the park and headed to the pet store. Next to the rabbit supplies we found the beetle supplies and bought a big bag of dirt and some bins to keep our larvae in. 

The man told us they would have to sit in the dirt until June (this being back in February or March). That in may the larva would build a cocoon and in early June the beetle would emerge. He said to try no to disturb the beetle and things would work out fine. 
Over the past few weeks I would ask Tofu if he had been checking in on his larva. Other the naming it Nobunaga (a famous samurai of local lore) he had all of the patience and good sense to leave it well enough alone. 
I on the other hand, nearly twenty years his elder, couldn't help but pick up my box ever day or so and see the different places the larva had burrowed to. I often wondered if I shouldn't be moving it around so much but, like scratching a mosquito bite, I couldn't resist. 
A few more weeks past and the time when I would move to Nagoya was fast approaching. I was worried about my little larva for two reasons. The first was that on several occasions I could hear it rap-tap-taping its many legs against the bottom of the plastic container. I was afraid it had run out of clean dirt and was surely going to suffocate in its own poop. It would remain a larva forever and I would never get to see in its glorious beetle state. The second reason was that once it became a cocoon it really was not supposed to be moved. These little bugs, as larva, as cocoon, and even as beetle, are highly susceptible to dying of shock. I was worried the trip from Gifu to Nagoya would surely be its end. 
I moved it anyway and for the last month and a half it has been sitting in my closet in the dark. It hasn't made a sound, and it hasn't moved. It has done nothing and now we are in the later part of June. I am trying to get some sleep and my beetle pet was never my beetle pet. I am resigned to the fate of my beetle and try to resign also to my own. It is later than it should be and I am not as tired as I should be.  
The night does strange things to perception. The most interesting of stories can lull us to sleep. Garrison Keillor's voice, the BBC, the films of Fritz Lang all fascinating to me, and yet they are a sure step in the direction of snoozeville. It is almost a pavlovian reaction, as if I have been trained to fall asleep to these sweet soothing sounds. Sounds that are not so soothing have the same effect; rain beating on a tin rooftop, the incessant trains that rattle ten stories below my window.

I try very diligently to render myself tired. I drink a beer, I read, I watch part of a bad Ben Stiller movie that had successfully put most of America to sleep upon its release. I find myself bored, but not tired, so I turn on the latest episode of A Prairie Home Companion and crack my sliding door to let in the sounds of the trains. The bell rings, I spill a bit of drool and before I know it, I am wonderfully asleep. 
Two hours later I was met with consciousness and confusion.  As the loud and captivating had put me to sleep, the minute and annoying had brought me out of it. As if somewhere on the other side of my brain there is another pavlovian trigger that is flipped in reaction to a world both microscopic and deafening. The buzzing of a mosquito in my ear, the shuffling of a mouse in a trash can, and the tiny ping of cockroach legs against a drain stopper. Sounds I would never notice in my waking state wake me like waves of cold water.
Something was disturbing my blissful state. It sounded like a watch alarm going off several doors down. A high pitched, unstopping and inaccessible beep beep beep. A sound so small and yet so grating, like hearing someone trim their fingernails in public.  I however remained determined to sleep out the few hours I had left before a similarly aggravating sound would come from my alarm clock. I rolled over, I pressed my head against my pillow to muffle at least half the sound. Nothing doing. 
It was as if the sounds of things small had decided if anybody was to remain awake tonight it was me. The beeping stopped and was quickly replaced by the faint but growing sound of a mosquito. The sound grew until I was sure it was in my ear. I slapped it hard and it stopped. No more buzzing. Now just the faint ring of an ear that has been slapped with a cupped palm. I rolled over again and again. Still nothing doing. 
Then came the sound that would win the fight. A pinging sound so small and yet all together too loud for whatever was producing it. It was a small sound, but to be so audible the small creature making it had to have been very strong. A quiet yet forceful and all together disconcerting sound. The unmistakable sound of beetle feet. 
Where I lived in Albuquerque cockroaches were, to me, not so much pests as they were an interior design motif. They were not the target of scorn, but rather amazement. Amazing just how many there could be in a single sink, and oh look at how many colors there are. Now that I live in Japan my opinion of cockroaches has changed rather dramatically, and this surprises me. It surprises me because I have only seen one or two in the five months I have been here.
However the few I have seen have made quite an impact on me due to the force of impact I would have to inflict to squish one. They look like thick shiny black thumbs. They are unpleasant creatures that beg to be crushed. Yet I never crush them because as unpleasant as they are crawling across your floor, the thought of what they would look like smeared like spilled paint is far less pleasant. (Have you cleaned out an old fashioned mousetrap, or stepped on a frog?) Oh and did I mention that in Japan cockroaches can fly like birds?
So the sound of beetle feet somewhere in my room, the room where my bed is a short mattress on the floor, finally got me to stop trying to sleep. I sat up disgusted and discouraged and thats when I saw it. 
In the pitch dark that was my room there was something that was even darker. A gleaming black speck that was more of a spot than a speck and really more of a stain than anything. It looked to be about the size of a D battery and it was slowly making its way across the head of my bed to my pillow. Sitting upright I went through the same possible actions as I always do. First, smash it and feel no remorse. Second just let it go on its way, we are all creatures of the earth after all. I didn't like either option so I thought maybe I would just flick it really hard. It would surely fly a few meters from my bed, and with any luck it would hit the wall and die from some sort of internal injury. This would be the best option, no bug and no messy clean up, so I pressed my thumb to the nail of my middle finger and made for the approach. 
Within flicking distance I had the impulse to stop. Even in the dark something seemed particularly safe and sanitary about this cockroach. As if perhaps it wasn't a cockroach at all, but rather some strange and wonderful creature who's presence I had been anticipating for months. Still under the spell of a sleepy mind I couldn't really understand my own thoughts so instead I went with my gut. I didn't flick it. Instead I turned on a light and found my glasses. 
Though still rather shaken up and in a state of alarm what I found myself looking at filled me with joy. It was not the sewer dwelling, sky soaring, uncrushable monster I thought it would be. It was my new pet. 

He hadn't died at all. In fact he had escaped and had been wondering around my apartment for who knows how long. Excited I grabbed a plastic bin and began cutting air-holes in the lid. I wasn't sure if the guy would be hungry, but just in case I put a small drop of jelly in the corner of the bin. When I came back into the room he was right where I had left him. I anxiously approached him and tried to coax him into the bin. At first I tried sliding a piece of paper under his legs but his grip was to firm. I couldn't get between him and my bed sheet. So I decided I would use my fingers. Little kids all over Japan have these as pets so I wasn't worried about getting hut, but I was a little nervous all the same. I didn't know how strong it was, or how fast, or how fragile. I just tried to be care. I placed my thumb and index finger around its back and before I knew it it was scurrying up my naked arm. 
I got him in the plastic bin and after my heart stopped racing I fell back asleep to the unpleasant sound of a large beetle held in captivity in a plastic bin. Scurry, scurry, flick flick. When I awoke he had settled down and I ran to the convenience store to buy a banana. If he really had just come out of the cocoon he must be hungry and I wanted to give him a proper welcome to the world. On my way to the store I saw that someone had thrown out a couple of plastic dresser drawers. I saw that they might make an excellent terrarium so I snatched them up. I cut up the banana, ripped up some paper for temporary flooring and placed my new friend in his new home. 
He has been in there all day and he has not touched the banana, or he has and is taking tiny little bites. He also has not moved expect for when I have attempted to touch him and inspect him. From what I can tell he is a healthy male kabutomushi with six legs and two eyes. His nose/horn is a little crooked however and so I have decided to name him Gonzo. 

Dear Readers

Dear Readers,

The past few weeks (or has it been months?) I have been increasingly aware of how quickly time slips through fingers. That due to an absence of presence friends easily lose contact with one another. Specifically me with you. The simple joys of shooting the shit with a person you feel comfortable with can be easily forgotten and yet not forgotten. These joys are not present in my everyday life, but thoughts of all of my dear friends stateside and around the world most certainly are.
When I first arrived in Japan I found it somewhat easy to maintain this blog as a line of communication with those far away. I had an excessive amount of free time and was in a state of perpetual awe that seemed desperate to be shared. As the weeks became months it seems my free time has diminished, my state of awe took on the grayish hues of everyday living. However this is not exactly the truth.
I have become busy, and I have gotten accustomed to many things. Yet I still find many hours everyday that are exclusively mine and I still stumble on a dozen mind-blowing and noteworthy things here in Japan. I have just become lazy, and often preoccupied with inward concern. I have spent more time than I would like to admit watching MASH and telling myself that the place I live seems normal to me. Really though this is a coping mechanism. It is a means to convince myself that, somehow someday, I might really be able to fit in here. AS if to see this place as normal will allow me to be seen in the same way and somehow this will make life more comfortable. As if comfort was something that came from conformity.
I am pretty sure that it is not, and if it is, well fuck that.
I guess what I am trying to say is that when you are a million miles from the people you love, the people that appreciate your undeniable self, it is easy to forget that you are that person, that undeniable self, as a result of choice. One big choice made up of a million little choices and not one of them, at least the good choices, had anything to do with fitting in or pleasing people. Excuse the schmaltz, but they had to do with being myself. But who would I be with out all of you? I hope both enough and not enough.
Apparently it is easy to lose my sense of self in this ocean of odd and often disapproving looks. As this is the case, and this simple blog has been one way that I can pretend I am just sitting at a bar back home telling these stories to anyone of you, I owe it to all of us to maintain it.
So I solemnly promise you, my friends, my family, my readers, my self, to get up off of my ass and report back. I have dozens of stories to tell you. So many that they may lose the usual chronology and polish that I have previously strived for, but well fuck that.
Anyway I hope that this wandering and cathartic post will bring me to your minds. You are always on mine, honest.
Ja mata ne.
Barton Normal.

PS. I realize I almost posted this with out including a single detail about any of my experiences outside of watching MASH (which despite its hilarity and poignant views on the insanity of war is as much a non experience as all television). So before I go I would like to share a quick story about how strange Japanese culture can be.
It was last Friday and I was trying to get to the post office to pick up a letter that had failed to be delivered to my apartment. The letter, I had assumed, was concerning my enrollment in the Japanese healthcare system. A letter that I needed to turn in to my local ward office.
As I mentioned it was Friday.  It was around three in the afternoon and the ward office closed at five fifteen. They were closed on weekends and Monday was my first day of work. A day that marked the beginning of a new schedule for me, an unrelenting and unchanging nine to five kind of schedule. A schedule that would make it impossible for me to ever again get to the ward office. So I had to go, and the dire necessity of getting to the office was stressing me out, apparently impairing my judgement and map reading skills.
My apartment is about a block from what I thought was the main post office. It seemed close enough that I could dawdle a bit, and so I did. Though only a five minute walk I did not arrive at the post office until three thirty. At the post office I was informed that my letter was waiting for me at a different post office, one that was maybe forty minutes away by foot. The post man gave me a map and I rushed home to get my bicycle, my anxiety growing.
At home I figured it would be best to check out a map online and confirm that I knew where I was going. I couldn't afford to get lost; I didn't have time. After a difficult search (apparently the main post office in the third largest city in Japan is not very well documented), I found a building on the map that looked like a central post office, and to my good fortune I had ridden by it just the day before. I knew exactly how to get there. So I hopped on my back and made haste.
I arrived at the exact site I had seen on the map around four fifteen, but it wasn't a post office. It was a city run sports center, municipal buildings all look alike I guess. I consulted the map given to me by the post man, but couldn't find anything useful written on it. It may have told me exactly what I needed to know if I could read kanji, however I don't.
I peddled around a bit until I got the nerve to show the map to an old guy sitting on his bike smoking a very thin cigarette. I showed him the map, pointed to my desired destination and asked him 'Kore wa doko desu ka?'. He studied the map, looked at me and gave me a nod. Something about the way I looked at him must have said I don't speak Japanese can you just point me in the right direction because he didn't say anything. He just looked up and down the street and back at the map. He gave me a look that said pointing won't help, and it would be impolite to just leave you here. So, instead, exhibiting supreme Japanese etiquette, he offered to lead me there. We got on our bikes, I said a few 'arigatos, and sumimasens' and we rode off.
We hadn't gone far when I started to get a bad feeling. The direction we were heading in was back the way I had came, towards my apartment and the wrong post office. I tried to shake the feeling and concentrated my thoughts on the small spider crawling across the bright white nylon vest the man was wearing. It was a warm brown color and seemed to absorb sunlight. We continued in the direction of my apartment and the spider crawled to the inside of the vest and I was left to wonder if I was somehow responsible for the bite he was sure to be scratching later that evening. I mean I could have said something even if he wouldn't have understood, but I didn't.
This feeling swelled inside of me as we wound through all too familiar streets. It got to the point where I had to say something, if not about the spider than at least the way in which I was wasting this man's time. I called out to him and we paused at a red light. I pointed at the map again and told him that I needed one post office and not the other. He nodded and looked at me as if to say I know, I know, I know better.
We finally got to the street my apartment was on and I was certain we were heading back to the first post office. As I was about to show him the map again he made an unexpected turn and began heading beyond my apartment. I started to feel better. I began to think that maybe he really did know better.  After a few more blocks he made a few turns that seemed all to cyclical and we were soon passing the front of my apartment building, headed directly for the post office I had already visited.
At this point however it was too late to tell him anything, he had made up his mind that this was where I needed to be. So I followed him hoping that we wouldn't have to talk to the guy who had only twenty minutes before directed me away from this, the wrong, post office.
Thankfully we got two different post men and they explained to the man, with my help, that the I did indeed need the other post office. The post office I had tried so hard to point at on the map. The man said he understood, we thanked the postmen and left. We got on our bikes and again I followed him, this time a little more sure we were going to the right place.
The correct post office turned out to be in a perfectly straight line from my apartment. It was about a ten minute bike ride, but there were no turns, no detours, nothing that would have confused me had I simply trusted the map I was given, not the one I had sought out online, and not asked for directions. We arrived at the post office at four fifty. Time was running short if I hoped to make the ward office.
At the post office the man, who seemed to have lost his patience, helped me acquire my letter. I thanked him a dozen times, bowed and tried to look pitiful, as I think may be the polite custom. Outside I tried to make a gesture of friendship and in my best Japanese asked his name. He told me not to worry about it. I asked him for his name again, this time in English, and with a considerable chip on his shoulder he told me. He then got on his bike and rode away. As I watched him leaving I wondered if my Japanese was incorrect and he didn't understand when I asked his name the first time, or if he just didn't want to tell me. As if knowing his name would further bond us and he wanted nothing of the sort to happen. I still don't know.
It was already five and I had only a few minute to make it to the ward office with my letter. I hopped on my bike and let my intuition guide me. I knew I was short on time and I didn't know exactly where I was going, but I figured aimless wandering would be quicker than asking directions. To my surprise I stumbled on to the ward office in a matter of minutes. It just goes to show I guess.
At the ward office I hurried inside and pulled my unopened, and unexamined letter from my backpack. It was from my bank and had nothing what so ever to do with health insurance.

Parks and Preservation

Typically parks are simple places designed for the enjoyment of simple pleasures. They offer no more than a place to play and relax, and in doing so they are very generous. Other parks, such as amusement and water parks, try to offer more than simple pleasures. They claim to provide visitors with thrills and adventure. Though these are bold claims they are not completely unbelievable. Not nearly so unbelievable as the assertions made by a park I visited a few weeks ago.
It was an unbelievable park built upon a far fetched theory, claiming to be able to do something wholly improbable. The park is called The Site of Reversible Destiny. From above it looks like this: 
Closer up it looks like this:

It is a park, a piece of art and an architectural experiment based on the concept of reversing destiny. The concept of reversing destiny can be somewhat difficult to explain and even to harder to grasp, so instead of explaining it straight out I will explain how it unfolded to me.
I first heard of this place from Maggie who told me only the name and showed me a few photos. Both of us were very excited about the look of the place and the possibility that it would be conceptual art very much in line with our own thinking. Before going we spent some time discussing what Reversible Destiny might mean. 
We began our discussion with the idea of destiny. Was destiny something that lay at the end of a predetermined path, or was it points along said path? Was it both? What do people mean when they say things like: it was my destiny to come to such and such a place? Does achieving one's destiny in this way mean that everything that comes afterwards is not destined? Are destiny and freewill mutually exclusive ideas? And if they are, how can one have the power, the freewill, to choose their destiny, let alone reverse it?
Considering the contradictory ideas presented I came to the conclusion that in this case destiny must be the decisions a person makes in life that leads them along a path to points that they have, for better or worse, expected to arrive at. The Site of Reversible Destiny must then be a place where one is given the opportunity to go back and change these decisions. It must be a place that exists in a metaphysical space outside of time and space. Or the site is arranged in such a way that visitors are transported to such a metaphysical state where the past, or their perception of the past, can be altered, thus reversing their destiny. It seemed like a pretty big claim for a park to make, and it made me want to go all the more.
Upon arriving at the park we paid our entrance fee, a nominal seven dollars. Then I saw this sign, and I began to doubt the rather bold claim I had made on the park's behalf.
I began thinking the site might be geared to broader ideas of destiny rather than those more personal. That instead of allowing each visitor to reverse their own personal destiny it was speaking to a destiny all humans share. Given the phrase at the center of the poster I assumed the destiny the park sought to reverse was the inevitable conforming to societal norms that people face as they get older. Simply the Site of Reversible Destiny was a place where adults were encouraged, and allowed, to return to a childlike state of mind. That this place was designed in such a way that it did not cater to expectation and as a result visitors would be forced to interact with the environment with a sense of newness and awe. An outlook found most prominently in the minds of children. This idea spoke to me, it agreed with my own philosophical views and having no other information to dismantel this idea I explored the park with this in mind. It was incredibly fun.
The park is very suitable for this kind of thinking. It is a huge, adult sized playground. The complex contains several buildings with floor plans designed like mazes. The interiors were painted with over a dozen colors with no semblance of order or purpose. Each building had several entrances and exits, which visitors are encouraged to use all of. Not one building had a level floor which gave me the sense that I was in a circus fun house or having a psychedelic experience. Adding to this feeling are the ceilings, which are not an exact mirror of the floor, but are designed in exactly the same, disorienting maze-like way. 
The exterior portions of the park were much the same; no level surfaces, brightly and chaotically colored, with no sense of order to be found anywhere. Playing on this idea of disorder was a huge map painted over much of the park. This map was unlike most maps in that it was designed to disorientate. It was a map of several places; New York City, Berlin, Tokyo, Kuala Lampur, and each, I am pretty sure, less than accurate. 
The outer rim of the park was large, narrow, ascending path that led to a dead end. The path was so narrow that when we encountered visitors headed the opposite direction, we had to cram our bodies up against the wall to let them pass. Physical contact was inevitable. It was also hilarious because people, and Japanese people in particular, have a tendency to let that sort of thing become very embarrassing. 
The dead end was a crow's nest that overlooked the park, but was surrounded by such high walls that one could only struggle for the view provided. It seemed as if everything was designed as some kind of practical joke. As I was still in the mindset that the park was designed to make its visitors act like children, I thought this to be very clever. 
The center of the park was a valley surrounded by this high cliff like rim and the aforementioned map. It was mostly grassy, but also had sections that were paved, and others that were covered in a rubber mesh mat that I have encountered beneath sinks in restaurant kitchens. These mats were clearly there to provide traction for the visitors, and were the only safety precaution evident in the entire park. The park as a whole was a struggling podiatrist's wet dream, or a frail ankled individual's nightmare. 
As we explored the inner area of the park we came across a door way leading into the side of the surrounding hill. 
No light shone from inside and I was immediately curious. We entered the door and, using the light from the outside world, were led down a corridor. The corridor extended far beyond the reach of natural light and we soon found ourselves immersed in total darkness. It was creepy, but we knew we were in a park so we assumed it was safe. The corridor got progressively narrower as we continued. Having no light to guide us, we used the walls. When the corridor came to an end we felt around the walls. We found that there was a very tight space that led further into the space. So we squeezed through it and found ourselves in yet another very dark and narrow corridor. We continued following these paths and turns until we ended up in a small room. It was a dead end. We stood in this space and let the details of our situation set in. 
It was dark, we were underground, alone, and potentially very lost. Despite these details neither Maggie or myself felt very afraid. We were creeped out and possibly a little anxious, but it was more like climbing to the apex of a roller coaster than having fallen down a well. It was the kind of fear that instils laughter rather than panic, so we laughed until it seemed the excitement had passed. Then we easily found our way back to the out of doors. Once again in sunlight we explored the remainder of the park. We were satisfied, the cold was setting in, and the valley was growing darker. We decided it was time to go. 
In the following days Maggie started doing more research into the park's history and creators. She had much to report, namely that my idea of what the park was all about was way off. I was right that the idea of destiny they were thinking about was a broadly applicable destiny. I was wrong, however, to think that this destiny was conforming to the norms of society.
The creators had no intention of creating a space where grown ups could regain some of their childhood spirit, nor should children maintain it. (At site of theirs in East Hampton children are prohibited and adults must sign a waiver.) The destiny they had in mind was death. What they had intended was to create a space that would literally keep people from dying, physically dying. I was more than baffled by this discovery. I was disheartened, and a little insulted at the audacity of such a claim. 
The people behind The Site of Reversible Destiny are an artist couple who go by the names Arakawa and Gins. They have designed homes and parks around the world with the idea that specific architectural design, specifically non-functional design, can prevent death. Their idea is that by creating spaces that 'cradle tentativeness' they can fend of mortality. The point of 'cradling tentativeness' is so that the occupant will never be able to settle or get comfortable, ideas this couple associates with aging and dying. 
Though the Site of Reversible Destiny was wholly enjoyable the idea that death can, and should, be prevented is totally absurd and disparagingly arrogant.  
Little to my surprise it was not just this couple's ideas that were steeped in arrogance, but also what they had to say for, and about, themselves. Here are a few quotes from an article in the New York Times that illustrate their baffling sense of self-importance.
The interior of a house designed by Arakawa and Gins.

“After this, Gehry, Rem Koolhaas — boring,” Ms. Gins said.
“We should win a Nobel Prize for this,” Arakawa said. Asked if her husband was serious, Ms. Gins replied, “Of course he is.”
“It’s immoral that people have to die,” Ms. Gins explained.
“They ought to build hospitals like this,” she said.
“If Neil Armstrong were here, he would say, ‘This is even better!’ ”

Furthering the absurdity of their claim is the fact that Arakawa died in 2010, he was 73. Gins refused to tell the press the cause of Arakawa's death. Her only comment was, 'this mortality thing is bad news'. 
Death, in my opinion, is like rain. It makes our mood somber, it keeps us from playing outside, and it makes us want to sleep the day through. It is a natural process that often gets in the way of what we might otherwise have planned, but it also allows for growth, cleansing, and renewed outlook. It is not something that can be planned for nor can it be avoided. I think it is said best in the Hagakure, 'There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. By doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to all.'

Parks and Education

Despite reputation, a park can be the site of both recreation and education. Last weekend Maggie and I attended a small festival in honor of the blossoming of the plum trees. Japan is perhaps best known for its cherry blossoms, but lets be realistic, it is home to many kinds of fruit trees all of which bloom at some time or another. However, in the case of the plum trees that time did not correspond with the scheduled date of the plum blossom festival. This was merely a detail and everybody did their best to overlook it and have a good time anyway. 
The festivities included  some great people watching, entertainment and food. The highlights of the people watching was a child crying and walking blindly head first into a slide, a stroller filled with cats and dogs, and parade of guys playing flutes with baskets on their heads. One of these guys approached us and tried to put his basket on Maggie's head. 

The entertainment was provided by an elderly gentleman who seemed to be something like a very traditional Japanese clown. I say clown, but only for lack of a better word. The man was catering his show to children, but he had no make up, nor the silly demeanor of a clown. However his act did involve spinning tops, dancing monkeys and some kind of magic, or trickery, which I am still not so sure. 
The food was sold from tents that lined the pathways leading into the park. They sold a small variety of goods; fried octopus, fish shaped donuts, ramen, and rice crispy squares. The fried octopus looked strange as ever, the fish shaped donuts, fortunately, did not taste like fish, and the ramen looked like it would give a person with even the strongest bowels a quick and relentless case of diarrhea so we stayed away from it. 
The best looking snack at the festival was also the most exciting, mystifying and educational. Now I realize that there is nothing particularly mystifying about rice crispy squares, but when they are sold next to a large canon looking machine that explodes every twenty minutes they can be. We were attracted to the stand when we first heard a loud exploding noise and saw a cloud of smoke rise in the distance. We approached the scene quickly to investigate. What we found were three people working very nonchalantly behind a typical fare style tent. In front of the tent was a large griddle and various stacks of puffed rice snacks. To the right of the tent was the canon like machine. The eldest worker, and clearly the boss stood behind the canon drinking sake and smoking cigarettes. He wore a white glove on his left hand and I noticed that the pinky of his glove stuck up in such a way that suggested the glove was empty there. With the amount of sake he was drinking I thought he had lost the pink to the canon machine, but thinking   about it later the guy was probably Yakuza, or dishonored Yakuza as loss of a pinky finger is a sign of having dishonored the Yakuza. 
Becoming more interested in what he was doing than his pinky finger I started to pay attention to his actions. I wanted to know what the canon was for, and, as I was sure it would be awesome, I started shooting some video. It took about twenty minutes of standing around shooting video to finally figure what exactly was going on, for the sake of convenience I have edited it down to about three.

Parks and Determination

There is a river that runs through Gifu, along the side of this river runs a track where people, well, run. Along the eastern edge of this track is a smaller track where people rollerblade, play tennis and skateboard. It is a very scenic area of the track as the opposite shore butts up against a small lush mountain that is topped with a castle. As I was skating there one afternoon a Japanese man carrying stilts approached me. The stilts were not the kind a person would wear to tower over a crowd, at most they elevated their user a foot in the air. Like those pictured here, but of a more modern design.
The man asked if I could take a picture of him standing on the stilts with the castle in the background. He tells me that he wants to put the picture on facebook. He hands me his Iphone to take the picture and I see he has it set to his facebook page. I tell him that I don't think I can take the picture straight from facebook. That we will have to use the camera on the phone and he can upload it later. He seems a little confused by this so I show him the camera application on the phone. He nods happily and then tells me that we will have to take the picture quickly because he is not very good on the stilts yet. I tell him its no problem, take my position and frame up the shot.
He counts down to three, hops up onto the stilts and I hit the shutter. It doesn't work.
The delay on the Iphone camera is just a little longer than he can stay on the stilts. I tell him to try again and this time I hit the shutter just before he gets on the stilts. By the count of three he is on the stilts and the camera is in action. We get the shot, and in the timeless space of a photograph he is quite the stilt walker.  I show him the photo for his approval. He thanks me and wanders off. I get back to skateboarding.
About fifteen minutes later he returns and strikes up a conversation. He asks the usual questions; what am I doing in Japan, how long have I been here, why did I come. I chat with him happily. After a few more questions he tells me that he wants to travel to America in May or June. He wants to go to LA and from LA he wants to walk, on stilts, to Las Vegas. From LA to Las Vegas is three hundred miles. I tell him that I am quite impressed with his ambitions. He tells me he plans to practice the stilts everyday until the trip. I tell him he will have to. I then ask what kind of a record he will make of the journey. I tell him it seems like good fodder for a documentary or photo series. He tells me that he will document it all on facebook; using his Iphone on the trip he will post moments of the trip as they occur. I tell him I think this is a brilliant idea and that given the right networking he could become an international celebrity. He asks if I would be his friend on facebook and, in eager anticipation of his journey, I told him I would. He logged onto facebook, through his Iphone, and sent me a friend request.
After this he went back to wondering around and I went back to skateboarding, all the while I thought about his plan. In between tricks I would look at him in the distance, and not once did I see him practicing his stilt walking. When I got home I got on facebook and accepted his friend request. I was curious about the guy so I went to his page and started snooping. I learned that he was as new to facebook as he was to stilt walking. He had joined the network a little more than a month ago and I was his eleventh friend. I laughed at the gall of this guy. His dream was dependent on learning two things that he had only just begin to use. Yet despite everything he had going against his success I had confidence in him. He might not have been much of a stilt walker, or a very savvy social networker, but damn if he wasn't determined. 

Parks and Exhibition

In my mind the best public facility is a clean, free and accessible bathroom. Second to a clean bathroom I really appreciate a good city park. Living in Japan is then an exceptionally fortunate situation as public parks are abound and each is equipped with public toilets. The toilets are invariably clean as they are of the Japanese variety, which means they are basically holes in the ground. A hole in the ground, to a westerner, may not seem like the ideal place to poop, but because no physical contact is made with the toilet, they are far more sanitary than the western chair style toilet. My appreciation for a clean bathroom is one based in necessity, not frequent use. My appreciation for parks is the opposite a result of frequent use rather than necessity. Much of my life, I am lucky to say, has been spent in parks.
The majority of time I have spent in parks has been to skateboard, at skateparks. I also love a good swing set, jungle gym and any slide that seems particularly dangerous. Though parks that contain these kinds of things are typically catering to young children this has never stopped me from enjoying their facilities. Then there are parks, or aspects of parks, that cater to the general population, young and old. These parks contain basketball courts, fitness stations, and in Germany, ping pong tables. There are bio-parks for nature enthusiasts, zoo-parks for captivity enthusiasts, and, in Albuquerque, bum parks for drinking/sleeping enthusiasts. In Japan every park, despite its intended purpose or design, is a place people go to exhibit their enthusiasm for what ever it is they are enthused about.
To make a very broad generality, the Japanese are an incredibly focused people. In America we are proud of choice and this may lead us to be easily distracted. But, to quote on oft worshiped king, we want, no feel we deserve, to 'have it our way' regardless of the effects this has on our attention spans and decision making skills. We like to think of ourselves as renaissance people able to take on a handful of hobbies and express ourselves accurately with each. However in my own experience I have noticed that when presented with so many options I get lost. I become adrift in an ocean of possibilities and rather than pursuing my various interests I spend an obscene amount of time deliberating over which interest to pursue.
In Japan it seems that everybody has one hobby and they give into it completely. They spend every moment of free time, which in such a work-centric society is never much, pursuing this one specific interest. It may have something to do with their samurai ancestors. It is written in the Hagakure, a famous samurai manual of sorts, 'It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the way of the samurai. It is the same for anything else that is called a way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all ways and be more in accord with his own'. Of course it may also have nothing whatsoever to do with this, or it may be a result of the subconscious resonance of such thinking. I can't really say with any certainty. Whatever the reason is, the result is that most are incredibly good at what they do. Whether  or not it is necessary, whatever it is they do, they do it in public parks.
As a skateboarder I cannot skate in the privacy of my own home, I must go out in public, a park or otherwise, to find space enough skate. The same is also true for runners, jugglers, bikers, etc; many of which I have seen practiced in parks in Japan. It is not however the case for all hobbies, for example hip-hop dancing and fashion modeling. Yet the hobby I have seen both in public parks.
Hip-hop, or B-Boy dancing, is definitely the more popular of the two. It is also  one of the goofiest and most endearing things I have ever witnessed. A single teenager, or maybe a group of two or three, each wearing headphones. With no regard for the world around them, they get down. As a cultural reference I offer the scene in Napoleon Dynamite, wherein Napoleon is dancing in front of the mirror in his bedroom. Now imagine that Napoleon is a Japanese b-boy and his bedroom is a city park. If this reference doesn't help, watch this video of some kids I saw getting down in Nagoya.

hide and seek

I walked past the park by my apartment the other day and saw something that caught me dumbfounded. A child was crouching in the bushes, another behind a tree trunk, a third held himself up behind a small wooden sign. One kid leaned his face into a flagpole and covered his eyes. This scene was at first surreal and I could find no possible motives for the actions of these children. Then the boy leaning against the flagpole shouted something, uncovered his eyes and began to survey the park. It occurred to me then what I was seeing. The explanation was so simple I could have kicked myself for the previous moments of mental struggle. They were playing hide and seek. The realization came at a most appropriate time as I had just come from the shopping mall.
Unlike the what I saw in the park shopping malls do not fill me with playful wonderment. They do not make me long for the carefree days of my childhood. Rather they remind me of the few things I hate about getting older.
For the most part I do like the process of aging. I like that I have a command and familiarity of my body. I enjoy responsibility and I am glad I have experiences to draw on as I try to juggle my responsibilities. I like shaving and I like knowing more than teenagers. I don't however like the fact being an adult means I have to adhere to the idea that life is not a game. I try very hard most days to reject such thinking.
In order to do this I try to think about my daily duties in terms of games rather than chores. When I clean the kitchen I try to stack the dishes in different and progressively more precarious ways. In sweeping the floor I imagine a game of shuffleboard. Squeegeeing windows and mirrors is a game and bliss all unto itself. Shopping is like playing hide and seek with the universe. The universe hides the things that I need and I go out and try to find them.

If the game is hide and seek, then these days I am the seeker and cultural discrepancies are the hiders. Japan has proven to be a suitable arena for this game because everything is new and particularly fun, even if it is relatively easy. Just like in hide and seek, it is always more fun if that which is sought after can find a really good hiding place. It is more fun for the hider and the seeker. Shopping malls reject this way of thinking entirely.

Shopping malls are like doing a crossword puzzle with the answers printed upside down next to the puzzle. They make the game so easy that it is hardly a game at all. It is for this reason that I don't often go shopping malls.

However shopping malls do not require that you shop, so that day I had chosen the shopping mall to play cultural hide and seek. I discovered that this shopping mall was not totally unlike the upscale shopping malls in America. It was neatly laid out and labeled.

There was a food court 
and several clothing stores that I would never find myself eating or shopping in. There was an arcade and there were people shopping.
I did, however, notice a few obvious differences. The arcade for instance is not like those that struggle to survive in America. 

The arcade in this particular mall bustles and strives. It is takes up about half of a floor 
and has easily two hundred video games. It also has a bowling alley and a carousel. It has a scale model German village. The village was distinctly German not just from the architecture but from all of the shop signs and billboards. You can pay 100 yen to control one of many trains that run through and around it.
The arcade is also home to several high-tech photo booths that make me question the ideas being imparted on the Japanese youth of today.

The mall also contains a full scale grocery store. It is like any other grocery store I have been to since my arrival. It has a large produce section with even larger prices. Yes the rumors are true, cantaloupe in Japan can run upwards of fifty bucks. Next to the grocery store, but not inside of it, was another surprising addition to the shopping mall conglomeration, a liquor store. Beyond the liquor store were two things I didn't expect to see in a shopping mall, especially in close vicinity to one another; a place for mothers to nurse their babies and a smoking section.
My favorite difference is one that took me by surprise, or rather it nearly scared my bowels loose. I was walking through the mall trying to take in all of the little details and as usual was lost in thought. (This happens a lot to me, just today I was thinking so hard about my experience being panhandled by a middle aged business man that I walked into a tree branch and nearly lost an eye). I passed the edge of a department store when I almost ran into a little kid. Actually I only thought it was a little kid but when I turned back to apologize I realized it was a mannequin. It was then that I almost shat my pants. I would like to describe what I saw in words. Words, I am afraid, will fall short of the sight that lay before me, so I lay it before you.  
Ultimately the shopping mall proved a good destination for the experience I desired. However in terms of shopping, malls are like playing hide and seek in an open field. They are kids who got allowances without having to mow the yard. They are dudes that get fit at the gym then struggle to pour concrete. They are the prefabricated rips on the jeans of people who fret when they tear their pants. Shopping malls are adults worn down by daily life who prefer convenience and conformity to experience and character. They are safe, warm, well lit and, if used for their intended purpose, they are very little fun.

The Sea and the Boat

Winter is the slowest season. In attempt to conserve energy animals move slowly across frozen landscapes or huddle deep in burrows asleep and unmoving. The human animal, due to the inconsiderate nature of the modern world, is not always allowed the luxury of such a slow pace. For the human the slowness of winter comes with the passing of time. February, though the shortest of months, is also the slowest. It strikes in the middle of this grey and sluggish season. Like days pass on a ship in the middle of a cross-atlantic voyage February comes as no surprise and shows no signs of relief. What February may lack in days it makes up for in dread and stillness.
It is winter in Gifu. As a result I find that much of my time is being spent indoors. Being stuck inside in a foreign country is almost the same as being stuck inside in your hometown. It is almost the same but it is also a lot better because when the weather lets up enough to let you out the world outside is twice as exciting. Exciting because it is not the room you have come to spend all of your time in and exciting because it is not the place you have spent your life.
I have learned from my days inside that all I need to satisfy my sense of adventure is to go outside. That the only thing that separates me from a strange new world is a door. I realize that depending on your perspective this could be true for anyone in any context, however it is a feeling much more accesible in a place so obviously different and new.

I often think of the scene in Pulp Fiction when Vincent tells Jules that the difference between America and Europe are the 'little things'; that the big differences are found in subtle details. Certainly there are subtle differences between America and Japan, details that parallel the observations Vincent had. For instance in Japan they don't call it a Big Mac, they call it a Grand Canyon Burger and it comes topped with a fried egg and teriyaki sauce (later this month the release of the Las Vegas burger is scheduled).

If one can only see the differences in the subtle details I am afraid they are trying too hard.
The differences are obvious and abound. Cars drive on the opposite side of the road, everything is written in kana and kanji, nobody speaks English and everybody is Japanese. Soup is eaten with chopsticks and egg is typically served raw. There are shrines and temples around every corner and smoking is still allowed in bars and restaurants. People hold umbrellas while they ride their bikes. Beer and hot coffee in a can can be bought in vending machines on any street. There are so many differences that anytime the weather lets up enough for me to escape my tiny apartment I am overwhelmed and overjoyed. I don't even have to think about what to do, I simply start walking and before I know it I am having an experience I couldn't have planned for or dreamed of.
A few days ago I woke up to yet another dark grey sky. I spent the morning eating breakfast slowly and perusing the internet. My hips began to ache. The lack of chairs in my apartment means I spend most of my time sitting on floor. As a person accustomed to chairs this ache can quickly become pain. I stood and opened the curtains to remind myself why I was sitting on the floor reading banal facebook posts. To my surprise and relief I couldn't find any reason. The sky was clear and the sun shone proudly, proving to the wet sidewalks who was boss. 
I gave a quick thumbs up to the sun, put on my boots and hit the street.
Outside the air was cold and the wind fierce, but the sun shone and it was dry. I continued on my way. I walked aimlessly, as I do on walks like this. I walk aimlessly because I have nothing to aim at. I haven't money to go shopping, I haven't destinations I feel I must see. I came to Japan to be in Japan and experience it for what it had to offer. I find the best way to do this is to simply immerse myself in it and let it offer to me what it will.

What it had to offer that day was long, winding residential streets. I found great pleasure in looking at architecture that is uncommon to me and that was only vaguely self similar. I had the feeling that I could pass a thousand houses and find a sense of newness in each one, so I did. Details that stick out to me now; tiled exterior walls, bonsai gardens, wilted prickly pear cactus. One of my favorite sites that day was the side of two story apartment building that faced a vacant lot. The lot was obviously not always vacant as the wall was stained with the silhouette of a pitched roof and wall. I wondered how it came to be vacant. If the house that was no longer there because it had been torn down or if it had gotten restless and left for greener pastures. Snow began to fall fall through the sunny air and I continued walking, hoping to find greener pastures myself. I imagined a me shaped stain stuck to the side of such a building
The landscape of Gifu is such that where there is development it is very flat. Where the development ends there are hills and even mountains. It is not predictable as to when the development will end and the hills will begin. I turned a corner and was presented with a choice between a hill or more developed flatland. Having seen much of the developed option I decided to investigate the hill. I crossed a muddy field via its snow covered edges and found a cobbled path that led up the hill into the woods. Signs and benches indicated that I had found a public park. It was unlike the parks that I am used to in the states and I was content to muddy my boots in exploration. I followed the path about half way up the hill until I came to a lookout point. There was a small picnic shelter and an incredible view of the snow covered city. There was also an old man doing yoga on a bench. He was either oblivious to my presence or was ignoring it in hopes that I wouldn't disrupt him. Either way I felt the urge to back away slowly and quietly. I was only half way up the hill anyway and figured I would find another vista that I could enjoy without being a nuisance. I quietly backed away from the man and headed up another path.
Signs and benches indicated that I had found a public park. It was unlike the parks that I am used to in the states and I was content to muddy my boots in exploration. I followed the path about half way up the hill until I came to a lookout point. There was a small picnic shelter and an incredible view of the snow covered city. There was also an old man doing yoga on a bench. He was either oblivious to my presence or was ignoring it in hopes that I wouldn't disrupt him. Either way I felt the urge to back away slowly and quietly. I was only half way up the hill anyway and figured I would find another vista that I could enjoy without being a nuisance. I quietly backed away from the man and headed up another path.
This path led up a steeper incline into tall trees. The wet soles of my boots slipped on the wet cobble steps. I walked slowly. The trees grew thicker and my hopes of finding another place to view the city were replaced by a desire to explore the woods. I kept climbing feeling more elated with each step.
As the hill got steeper the path became a series of switchbacks. My view of what to come, appropriately, was very limited. My excitement to see what was waiting for me increased, but still my feet found little traction on the wet ground and I was forced to walk slowly. This was not to my dismay as it gave me a chance to soak in my surroundings. They were so different than where I had been only twenty minutes before. A line from a poem crept into my thoughts, 'how different from the sea is the boat'. It was such a nice turn of phrase and despite the context of the poem it seemed appropriate. I repeated it aloud, 'how different from the sea is the boat'.
I turned two more switch backs before I caught a glimpse of something through the trees. It was the pitch of a roof patched with snow. I thought maybe it was another picnic shelter like the one I had passed a little earlier so I continued in its direction. It was not a picnic shelter, but rather a small shrine, abandoned and boarded up.
I stood looking up at the shrine from the bottom of a steep staircase. I wondered how it was a shrine came to be abandoned. If it was just too inconvenient to visit regularly or if it was in honor of something that nobody believed in any longer. I imagined a future where all churches and wal-marts were boarded up because the belief in their usefulness had dissipated from society. It seemed a bright future to me despite the macabre feeling of the shrine I was looking at. From the shrine there led a path down the other side of the hill. Not being one to like backtracking I chose this as my way down. I made it only a few steps before I was forced to stop walking and simply look on in awe. Down below the path I saw a small cemetery and surrounding it were tall pine and bamboo trees. The sun broke through the canopy above and wind pushed snow down and around the tree trunks. I would say that it was beautiful, but this seems like too simple a description, so instead I suggest you just see for yourself.
I stood and watched this subtle spectacle until the cold found its way into my bones. I followed the path down and out of the woods. Back on the street I found the sun fighting a losing battle against a mean gang of clouds and the wind throwing around some pretty nasty words. It seemed that the only thing quick about winter was the speed in which it reminds us of its presence. I bought a hot can of coffee from a vending machine, and used it to warm my hands and belly as I made the walk back home.
At home I was, as always, confronted by the front door. It was the same door it always is, but I was glad to see it. My numb fingers fumbled with my keys as I unlocked and opened it. They cracked a little as I turned the handle. How different from the sea is the boat I thought as I removed my shoes and entered the apartment, and how different from the boat is the sea. Small and confining she is a sea worthy vessel. Cold and indifferent she is a vessel worthy sea.