Japan

A tea gathering cannot be repeated, and the host and guests feel that this is an encounter that can only occur once in a lifetime.
glossary, Japanese Tea Culture: The Omotesenke Tradition

The room isn’t right: too bright, too perfect,
despite its location in the most venerable
Zen temple in all Kyoto.
The one white lily is a cliché.
And the participants are far too numerous:
15 more than the optimal five.
Examining the implements cannot fail
to become a perfunctory exercise.
The wealthy ladies of the tea ceremony club
from Sakai—hometown of Sen no Rikyū—
sigh for the lack of wabi & sabi.
But then their special guest, a tall,
funny-looking foreigner, enters the room
& hits his head against a ceiling beam
with a satisfying thump.
He grins foolishly & everyone laughs.

How like Daruma now the kettle appears,
round & stolid! And the bamboo whisk
marooned in the dark bowl—how at home!
The foreigner settles into place
& the circle tightens a little
as everyone strains to hear his murmured Japanese,
so beautifully flawed.

New Sun Rising coverSpeaking of boxes, I have a brief essay about bento boxes in the new anthology New Sun Rising: Stories for Japan, available in paperback (Amazon.com link, Amazon UK link) and for the Kindle. That’s not the main reason to get it, though. Think of it instead as a donation to the Japanese Red Cross to support survivors of the 2011 tsunami, for which you get a book as a reward. None of the editors, authors, or illustrators make a penny for this, and neither does the Aussie publisher. It’s a beautiful book with a great diversity of contributions — a feel-good gift for all the readers on your Christmas list.

(There’s a bit more on my personal website. Also, I have a new recipe up there: Mugwort Spicebush Stout. If you’re looking for a gruit ale to brew for the holidays, that’s one to consider.)

local ecologist: Festival of the Trees #58
Georgia Silvera Seamans’ third stint hosting the monthly blog carnival for all things arboreal, showing just how dedicated some tree bloggers can be! One highlight of this edition is a collection of ten links related to the blossoming season in Japan.

Parmanu: > Language > Place – Edition #5
Each link in this blog carnival gets its own page — or exhibit, to be accurate, since Parmanu terms it a Museum of Language and Place. I’ve looked at hundreds if not thousands of blog carnival editions over the years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one this lovingly done, not even at I and the Bird, which is legendary for the creativity of its editions.

Marcia Bonta: “Early Spring”
Mom reports on new projections about what global climate change will likely mean for our particular corner of the planet in terms of species loss and ecosystem shift, and describes the changes we’ve already documented in 40 years of residence in Central Pennsylvania.

Japan Focus: “The Plan to Rebuild Japan: When You Can’t Go Back, You Move Forward. Outline of an Environmental Sound Energy Policy”
Japan Focus is an essential source both for analysis pieces like this, and for up-to-date news on the after-effects of the earthquake, tsunami and meltdown.

Speigel Online: “The New Green Mainstream: A Seismic Shift in Germany’s Political Landscape”

Some might argue that the Green Party’s success in Sunday state elections was the direct result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But it’s not. Germany’s political landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. And the Greens have been the primary beneficiary.

What a contrast to the U.S.!

ProPublica: “Pennsylvania Limits Authority of Oil and Gas Inspectors”
This was the biggest news in Pennsylvania this past week as we march bravely into the 19th Century.

P22 Music Text Composition Generator (A free online music utility)
Convert any text to music using the system where each letter of the alphabet is assigned a note.

PhysOrg.com: “Dark matter could provide heat for starless planets”
The imagination reels. Looking for a NaPoWriMo writing prompt? Look no further.

Poetry Daily: “Engagement,” by Adam Sol
I admire how the title and the last line take this political poem to a higher plane.

The explosion will exceed the necessity of the occasion.
The exchange of fire will be unbalanced.
The response will be disproportionate.
The reporter is factually incorrect, theoretically misinformed, morally reprehensible.

LancasterOnline.com: “Where have all the bats gone?”
An update on white-nose syndrome in Pennsylvania (and throughout the east). It seems that while colony-living bats in North America are all going to become endangered if not extinct, the more solitary bats will probably be fine.

The Christian Science Monitor: “Reports: Lax oversight, ‘greed’ preceded Japan nuclear crisis”
No real surprise here, but sad nonetheless.

I am: A Twitter Poem by Pär Thörn
Not a set text, but a constantly updating scroll of new Twitter posts beginning with the words “I am” — rather mesmerizing to watch. Here’s a sample I just collected before it disappeared back into the ether:

i am truly blessed
I am nothing to be played with
I am excited to start.
I am so glad he will get voted
i am on i post something den dipset
I am crazy.

NewScientist: “Biology’s ‘dark matter’ hints at fourth domain of life”

The facts are that there is lots of genetic diversity, and unquestionably most of it is unknown to us. It’s legitimate to consider that there’s genuinely new stuff out there.

The Australian: “Japan syndrome shows why we need WikiLeaks”

Unfortunately, all this information, including the original cables, was released only this week, through The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian newspapers in Britain. If publicised earlier it might have increased public pressure on the Japanese government to do more to ensure the safety of reactors.

But without WikiLeaks most of it probably never would have seen the light of day. One of the justifications governments use for not releasing information is to avoid “unnecessary” fears.

Allen B. Downey: “The Tyranny of the Extroverts”
An old essay that an Identi.ca contact just linked to on his status.net microblog. (Side note for all you Twitter fanboys and girls: This is what you can do on a federated microblogging system, subscribe to someone on one service while using another service. Pretty nifty, eh?) It links to another, similar piece from the Atlantic, but this one’s more quotable, e.g.:

If “interpersonal skills” really means skills, then I can’t object, but I’m afraid that in the wrong hands it means something more like “interpersonal style”, and in particular it means the style of extroverts. I have the same concern about “communication skills.” People have different styles; if my style isn’t the same as yours, does that mean I lack skills?

As for teamwork, well, I’m sure there are some problems that are best solved with collaborative, active learning, but I am equally sure that there are problems you can’t solve with your mouth open.

America.gov: “Japan Proves Truly ‘A Friend Indeed’ After Hurricane Katrina
Now it’s our turn.

Poetry Daily: Two Poems by Elaine Equi
There is a right way to write didactic poems, and Equi shows how.

Work to abolish
the most abject poverty of all—

that of knowing
only one world.

With a fellow student at Kansai Gaidai, 1985Perhaps you’ve read about how foreigners (gaijin) get treated in Japan: with a mix of deference, admiration, condescension, and occasional outright hostility, depending on the circumstance. During the year I lived there, I experienced all four, and I must admit that at times my drunken, loutish behavior warranted far more hostility than I actually encountered. I sometimes resented the stereotyping of gaijin in general and Americans in particular, but I also liked the way it let me coast on my imperfect language skills, since everybody tended to ask the same questions and make the same observations at first meeting, and it didn’t take long to figure out what kinds of responses would satisfy them. And such was my desire to be liked, it never once occurred to me to try to rock the boat a little by taking exception to some of the standard, polite generalizations about our two countries. (“Yes, America might look more spacious [hiroi] than Japan, but are spaciousness and narrowness [semai] really a function of physical geography alone, do you think?”)

Only country people and children ever broke the mold much, and I didn’t have too much interaction with either. One exception: a week-long stint as language tutor and counselor at a summer-camp type thing for primary school students in the Japan Alps. Until then, my main experience with that age group had been the endless hellos shouted at me across the street by exuberant kids on outings with their teachers. That always made me feel like the most popular beast at the zoo: thanks for the attention, but please go away.

When I met the summer-camp kids and their teachers at the bullet train platform, they were initially more respectful, no doubt having been told in advance to behave. But after about five minutes, their high spirits prevailed and they began horsing around and jumping all over me, boys and girls alike. The beast was out of its cage, and it wasn’t too scary! This was going to be O.K., I thought. I can play fun-loving American for a week. I remember teaching them how to make a piercing whistle with a blade of grass and how to make music by turning one’s mouth and cheeks into drums. We sang songs, told stories, rode ski lifts — the usual summer camp stuff.

One thing that’s kind of hard to express is how odd it did feel to see other foreigners in Japan. After a while I kind of understood the strong reactions to gaijin, I thought, because I began to feel them myself. When a Western face appeared suddenly in a Japanese crowd, after hours or days of seeing nothing but Japanese, it could be shocking, even a little embarrassing — not because of the obvious physical differences, but because of their unguardedness, the naked emotions stamped on their features as plain as day. And the primary thing I saw on Western faces — you’d see it in any face so unguarded, I suppose — was self-absorption.

As I said, I wanted to be liked. It wasn’t a fully conscious thing, but I must’ve worked hard to develop the kind of face that wouldn’t produce an auto-xenophobic reaction when I looked in the mirror. At the very end of my stay, when I met my parents at the Osaka airport for a brief joint vacation, my mother walked right by me twice without recognizing me. I finally mustered the courage to say hello.

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Typhoon

Japan Alps, 1986

In the thick of it—
primary school kids on furlough
storming my back, pulling
at my arms & whirling
me around—
a pair of brown eyes in
a grave ten year-old face
makes me lose my balance,
land under a laughing pile.
Like someone bent against a gale
toppled by a sudden calm.

Her face full
of my outlandishness
finds me again every time
I catch sight of a mirror—
you know that look.
Like the glance we give
a stranger when umbrellas
come down, the rain
just past & already
a clearing wind.

From Spoil: Selected Older Poems, one of ten poems there about my time in Japan.

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This post was written for the >Language >Place blog carnival (deadline: March 20), this time at Parmanu.

NYTimes.com: “Satellite Photos of Japan, Before and After the Quake and Tsunami”
It’s hard to imagine a better way to convey the devastation and horror of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami than this interactive feature. With a sweep of the cursor, we can reenact apocalyse.

Wikipedia: Sendai
I was moved to learn that Sendai is nicknamed City of the Trees, and has a couple annual festivals that highlight its magnificent zelkova trees.

t r u t h o u t : “Assault on Collective Bargaining Illegal, Says International Labor Rights Group”
I have a theory that the Wisconsin governor is actually a stealth socialist, doing everything he can to revive the union movement in America.

Poetry Daily: Three poems by Laura Kasischke

The day
en route to darkness. The guillotine
on the way to the neck. The train
to nudity. The bus
to being alone. The main-and-mast,
and the thousand oars, the
thousand hands.

New Internationalist: “Daring to Care: Notes on the Egyptian Revolution”
By Egyptian expat poet (and Facebook friend) Yahia Lababidi.

As they recited poetry, people were admirably organized and generally festive — singing, dancing and staging improv-theatre — showing us all that a revolution could be a work of art, and a way of life, even.

The Task at Hand: “Porch Poetry”

While The Morning Porch is Dave’s, there are plenty of porches — or at least perches — in every neighborhood. With that in mind, I’m calling my little collection A View From Another Porch. While I’ll certainly be adding new posts on other subjects throughout the season of Lent, each day an additional observation will be tucked in here. After not quite a week of looking around, I’m enjoying the discipline far more than I expected to, and I’m looking forward to continuing the heart and eye-opening exercise until Easter.

Shearsman ebooks: Talking to Neruda’s Questions by M T C Cronin [PDF]
Anyone who’s read Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions should appreciate this. Cronin attempts to answer each of Neruda’s questions in the same spirit. Delightful.

Spring Beauty and the bees: Volunteer pollinator monitoring
Awesome pun, great-sounding citizen science project.

Drawing the Motmot: “Tropical Rainforest Sounds”
Some field recordings by artist-blogger Debby Kaspari. Biological diversity translates directly to sonic diversity, I imagine. Hands down the most interesting music I’ve heard all week.

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Revamping Via Negativa’s About page this week, I came up with my best thumbnail description to date: “Via Negativa is a personal web log with delusions of grandeur.” I also included a new take on my old “Words on the Street” cartoon by Siona (the blogger, not the inchworm genus). Check it out.

Tweny-five years ago I outsourced my motivation to the Japanese. I wore the Kansai humidity like a second skin and shaved my beard to get closer to the soup. I went to all kinds of extremes, even fell in love. Anything to avoid going to class.

Opening a bento was like taking the roof off a cheap apartment building, the kind where you can hear every word through the thin walls but understand nothing. I speak from experience: the woman in the next apartment had a screaming orgasm every afternoon at 3:00. My roommate took to accompanying her on the guitar.

I spent so much time in one noodle bar, an older construction worker became my official sponsor and paid for everything. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t communicate very well because we had very little to communicate other than respect on my part and kindness on his. The other people in the noodle bar schooled me in how to behave.

Their economy was booming then, and it took a lot of asking around to find where the homeless lived, over near the Osaka zoo, behind a fence: another bento box. I went there with a friend. We sat down on a bench and waited for someone to join us; it didn’t take long. He’d come down from the north 16 years before to work at the World’s Fair, he said, and never went back.

The only foreigner I met who’d completely mastered the language, modern and classical, was a drunk who went to sleep in the middle of an empty street. Flies, I heard him mutter, why do you always call on me when I’m not home?

Written for the > Language > Place blog carnival.