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

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.