Wednesday, September 7

Depression and Music

I’ve fallen into the trap once again of not sitting down and writing. Though to be honest I was never stellar at keeping up a proper regimen in anything. I can’t seem to keep up with Aikido, even though I enjoyed it. I can’t seem to keep up with writing. I can’t finish 80% of the video games I have, even though I enjoy them.

I gave up smoking recently and I’d have to say, I don’t enjoy it. I didn’t enjoy smoking either and I’m trying to convince myself of that at least. It’s been hard. Without smoking I’m quite aware of all the downtime there is in my life. My first real crisis of commitment came less than a week in. I survived it and another one that came later as well. I know I’m supposed to be happy about being freed from the terrible crutch. So far, however, it’s been pretty damn hard to separate how my life has improved in the past week.

I certainly don’t seem to be saving a significant amount of money as I’m feeling more crunched than ever right now. It’s amazing how one missing student, one loss of an expected pay out, can really fuck over my mood for the whole day. Were you to look at my upcoming social calendar you might question why I claim to be depressed at all in the slightest. Thing is, in this city it’s damn expensive to do absolutely anything at all ever. So the loss of even one lesson, when you depend on that for most of your income, hurts because of the sacrifice that will be needed.

My students don’t notice though. They don’t expect me to be depending on them. To be fair, I haven’t told them. So they cancel, go about their lives. Shift my schedule around to suit them, disappear all together. To them I’m just one hour a week, take it or leave it. To me they’re breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the day. 1/27th of the rent for the month. 1/3rd of the phone bill. 1/4th of the transportation costs. And this doesn’t factor in the price of the drink I need to buy just to be able to teach, period. Most cafe’s don’t like non-paying customers taking up seats for an hour or two. They must know I’m buying the cheapest thing on the menu and nursing it as much as I can.

But don’t get me wrong.

I like what I do. I’m short on cash because I often get to spend time with friends doing wonderful and expensive things. I live in a shit-house apartment that seems like it’s ready to collapse at every earthquake, that is if the roaches don’t bring the place down first. Still costs me a fortune but it’s better than the street. I get that. I like the schedule. I like my students.

Of course perception and attitude about life can be affected by location in enormous. I write this section two hours deep into a jam session at a nearby venue populated by friends and strangers alike. The night opened with a mix of Billy Idol and disco funk, followed up with some ol’fashioned blues and a little Jamaican rock. Then a set by someone best described as a simultaneous reincarnation of James Brown. Dressed in a three-piece suit and sunglasses. Inside. At night.

Towards the end of the night, the ability level tends to drop. Those not confident in their skill have waited patiently. They are eager and nervous, boosted by liquid courage. But that is part of the beauty of the jam. The raw, unrefined music still has a piece of soul that all artists strive for. These people, these musicians, they are not what you would call professionals in the classic sense. No albums of gold or platinum. But on a rainy Tuesday night, they create an enthusiastic noise.

Despite all my complaints, my so called troubles, my insecurities. Nights that produce experiences on this level are not something to be passed up. No matter what.

Thursday, June 9

Death of a Stranger

100% True story

I had just finished teaching rudimentary English to a set of mostly ungrateful college kids. Most were only about twenty years old. If I sat there and thought about it I might have felt bad that here were these almost adults that hadn’t even been alive in the 80s. But that wasn’t on my mind. The only thing I was thinking about was my next private lesson on the other side of town. I had about two and a half hours though, so I wasn’t in a rush. I stopped to have a cigarette because I was slow to get out of class and knew I would miss the next train. I wasn’t thinking about what how that extra time I took, there on the side street next to the tiny local station. No, what I was thinking about was how good that scent of ramen in the air smelled.

I would have plenty of time to think about that wasted moment later, time to think about it now in fact.

As I climbed the steps to the platform the train arrived. It was late. I took a few steps two at a time in a half-hearted attempt to catch it but gave up mid way through. After all, why did I need to exert myself? I had plenty of time. There’s always another train. I reached the top and walked over to the train schedule on the large plastic board to the left of the stairs. I checked to make sure there would be a train in a reasonable amount of time. I had checked my phone before but that particular application had become a touch unreliable since the massive earthquake in March. Things had returned to semi-normality by this point but there were still several train lines that had altered timetables. The board said there’d be another along in ten minutes so I walked to the other end of platform where there was a bench to sit on.

I was messing around on my phone, taking a rest on said bench, when I noticed the first cop come up the stairs. He was followed in short order by two more police officers and a handful of station staff wearing reflective emergency vests. The same kind that construction workers where when they’re busy tearing up the street outside of my home at night. At the time, that didn’t click but just now as I’m hitting these keys it comes to me that those vests are far from standard issue for station staff.

When I first saw the cops my first thought was a joking “I hope they’re not looking for me!” Kind of stupid I know but living here as a foreigner, someone who stands out every second of a normal day, these ideas come up. The officials were gathering at the far end of the platform, opposite of me. More police and train staff were coming up the stairs. I could tell this wasn’t normal. I’ve heard people describe it as a “sinking” or “creeping” feeling. It wasn’t like that for me. No, once there had been lazy thoughts about what to do for lunch or how I was going to entertain my sweet yet ditzy student that believes in the healing power of Hawaiian volcanoes for an hour…those were gone now. All that remained was trying to piece together what was so intrinsically wrong with this hot afternoon on a train platform.

Then I saw the shoes.

They lay there, on the tracks, one hung upside down slightly on the left-hand rail the other, face up somewhere close to the middle. Even from a distance I could tell they were scuffed and dirty. My feet moved of their own accord, drawing me further down the platform. I stopped for a moment near the steps and listened to one of the police talking to one of the station staff. I couldn’t catch much of the conversation but it didn’t sound panicked. It sounded routine. So I drifted closer to the growing knot of people in serious uniforms. They were standing around something bulky wrapped in a blue tarp. I’d seen that kind of tarp plenty of times before. Homeless people with space to not be bothered in use it to make semi-permanent homes. It’s also the same kind of tarp that I see at every crime scene shown on the news. Blocking the view of the cameras. But there were no cameras here. And I came to realize that there never would be. Because this was something that happened everyday.

Someone had died here, on this platform that brought me to and from a piece of the ragged tapestry that makes up my living wage.

The shoes looked like they fit a typical male style so I’ll refer to this person as “he” from now on, though I admit I didn’t get close enough to see anything definitive. But I was certain someone was dead. There was no other option given the situation.

I’ve seen a dead body before. At a funeral. But that is a ritual. You’re given time to come to grips with the death. To recognize it and prepare for it. To speak to people young and old about it. To, at some level at least, understand it.

This was an ambush.

I admit that when trains stop seemingly at random, I’ve made jokes about “jumpers” and have gotten frustrated at the delay foisted upon my life in that moment. This time, however, made it very real. Human mortality thrust right in my face.

How can I describe what that feels like? “Empty” is the only word that comes to mind right now. I tried to put something about it on facebook. I tried to talk about it to my ditzy student. Neither were helpful.

It could have been an accident, for sure, but statistics will suggest something different. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in Japan. That just makes it harder to understand. Suicide is an inherently selfish act. I can’t believe that this person had absolutely no one in his life that will be sad at his passing. There was a typical salary man style work bag left behind on the platform. So, even if he was fired today, broke, without friends or family, there must have been a boss that will likely feel awful for downsizing a guy that took his own life. Will that man ever be able to shake the thought that he caused this death?

I don’t know. All I saw was a blue tarp and a pair of lonely shoes on a train track.

The next train arrived on time. Ten minutes and a lifetime after I checked the schedule. It left two minutes late because an elderly woman in the car nearest the crowd of police and station attendants had to be helped off. She had fainted at whatever she saw there. I walked closer in the train than I had dared on the platform. But I couldn’t bring myself to get near enough to make one hundred percent certain. To see that bit of gruesome gore that we see everyday on TV and in movies. To make it more real.

I didn’t have to though. It was as real to me then as anything ever has been or ever will be.

Sunday, May 29

An Unexpected Guest

This is a Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge. Who is he? Apparently a half to full drunken pen monkey that knows what it's like to drown in an ocean of bees. And that puts him pretty high in my book for what little it's worth. Linkback FTW

I was making dinner. The same thing I made every night I could be bothered or sober enough to cook. A cheap packet of pork thrown into a skillet at high heat. Burned too long to remove the fear of bacteria, afterwards doused in soy sauce. Maybe a few frozen green beans when they were around and only if I had a desire to be healthy. A cup of wine within easy reach is standard.

I had tossed in tonight’s package when my phone buzzed in my pocket. I expected another spam from one of the sex mailing lists I’d managed to get on to somehow. I slipped the red brick I called my cell out with the left hand while stirring the night’s dinner with the right. My fingers were halfway through the deletion routine before I realized the name belonged to someone I’d actually met before.

“Can I come over?” she said.

Fuck. “Now’s not a good time. Cooking dinner.” I typed. Flip the pork, done on one side.

Another buzz. “I got off the train a second ago. I’ll be there in a few minutes. I want to talk to you.”

Shit on a stick. I couldn’t do much except stand around, cooking, and wait for the conversation I really didn’t want to have to show up at my door. I had just thrown on the soy sauce when she did.

She forgot to knock. I’m not sure where she got the idea this was appropriate but I let her assumption slide. Though the fact I’d unlocked the door after her last message had nothing to do with my slight sense of indignation. She started to take off her shoes.

“Do you mind if I finish making dinner?” I said, “You caught me by surprise here.”

She stared at me, pausing for a moment before giving a hurried nod. I can only admit it now, but this was a bit of a cruel move on my part. To act as if I had inconvenienced her even though she’d showed up at my door mostly unannounced. Yeah, I chose to be a dick. I’d made plans to do little more than eat and fuck around on the internet. Now I must put up with this.

I didn’t invite her in. So she stood in the doorway. I focused my attention to the pan of food. Silence stretched between us while my meal burned.

“I came to talk” she said.

“Oh yeah? About what?” A terrible thing to say but I’d already had my mind set. This needed to end fast, I was hungry. She crossed her arms and looked around, grasping for something in the small hallway which housed my sink and hot plate to focus her attention on besides me. The only other options were the washing machine and the door to the bathroom so she had few choices left to her. I switched off the heat.

“I just,” she stopped. “I just thought I should come here to discuss us.”

“And what about us? As far as you seemed concerned there is no us,” I said. I turned on the hot water and began to wash my rice bowl. Anything to do to keep from having to acknowledge our shared pain.

“That’s not what I wanted,” she said. “Not exactly.”

“Well you could have fooled me,” I said. I splashed some water around the sink in a dramatic manner.

“I just don’t know what I want right now.”

“What is this? Some sort of half-baked TV drama from back home?” I said, the volume of my voice rising a bit more than I intended. I turned off the water to keep it from going to waste.

This was about the time she started to cry.

“Stop,” I said, “Please…”

“I don’t know what I’m feeling right now,” she said. Yeah, that was the last thing I needed to hear.

“You don’t know how you feel?” I said, “I told you exactly what the deal was the time you spent the night! If you wanted to do this you had the chance right then and there.”

I rattled some of the dirty dishes in the sink because I had no better way to express my frustration at the moment.

“I’m sorry… You just do something to me that I can’t understand.” Her tears came a little stronger now but she did an admirable job of putting up with my bullshit.

“Well what the fuck does that mean?” I said “If you haven’t noticed by now I’m not someone who’s big on uncertainties.”

“You told me you were in love with someone else.”

That was true. At least the part about how I had mentioned those words to her as we lay together in the night. Did I believe it at the time? I wasn’t sure. The other girl in question had a disturbing habit of not replying to my emails for months at a time.

“I said if you wanted to be together I would embrace the idea. But if you didn’t, I’d rather you back off me because I don’t like or need a halfway pseudo-relationship.” I gripped the frying pan handle and gave it a few shakes to keep the sauce from congealing.

“So,” I said without looking up, “Are you done? Because I still need to eat dinner here.”

She shook her head as if waking from a disappointing dream.

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Can you still make your last train?” She glanced at her wristwatch. She gave a stiff nod and muttered something that sounded affirmative.

“Good,” I said, “See you around then.” I grabbed my bowl before finally walking into the other room where the rice cooker sat patiently, waiting for me to collect its bounty. I listened to the sounds of her putting on her shoes, the heavy click of the door as it swung shut.

So we’d cleared everything up. Which was good, because I had food to eat.

Sunday, April 10

After the quake

The big earthquake hit off the coast of Sendai a month ago yesterday. The resulting tsunami killed thousands and destroyed the lives of countless others. I was home in Tokyo when the world began to shake. I can't begin to imagine how to express the experience in words.

The quake started slowly. Not something talked about much. I had time to think to grab my wallet. The official duration was around four minutes but looking back it seemed much shorter. Around the time it became hard to stand a switch clicked in my head. My only thought was to escape. The neighbors reached that point at the same moment. We left our apartments simultaneously, spared a brief glance at each other which spoke volumes about the situation, and sprinted for the stairwell.

Have you ever heard the sound a building makes when every single piece is being shaken violently? It surrounds you. When I burst out on to the street there was a new noise. One I'd never experienced before, an earthquake siren. It was a slow, repeating drone. A sound that carried an unmistakable tone of danger. Soon it was joined by a steady music of every type emergency vehicle available.

We were lucky. The most damage I could see were some broken wine bottles in the supermarket on the first floor. People went back to their daily tasks as though nothing had happened. After I gathered the courage to go inside once more and turn on the TV I knew that something had happened. Buildings were on fire. Then came the aftershocks. I lost count as to how many times I went outside because of the shaking. There was a hysterical search for my passport as well. That night aftershocks came every few minutes and one could imagine they would never end.

Have you ever gone to the beach? Spent a day swimming in the ocean? You know that feeling afterward, when you go to bed and you can still feel the tide pushing and pulling you? I used to revel in that as a child. Now, however, I can't tell if there is a small earthquake, a large truck passing by, or if it is my own body playing tricks on me. But the true earthquakes are easy to know. My body can't make the overhead lamp sway. Or lift my apartment building an inch off the ground and drop it back with little care.

Every time this happens my pulse rate jumps and my breath quickens. I am scared. Even though I know that scientifically the chance of another big one is low my body remembers. The fight or flight response is getting me ready to run if needed. Many people who were able left the city, sometimes for good sometimes for only a short time. I have not.

Why? A difficult question. Perhaps it is because most of my life is entangled within this city and it would feel like I was abandoning a part of me if I were to leave. I said some hurtful things to a friend who decided to leave for a few days for reasons I can't explain. Except perhaps because I thought he was leaving me. But I can't blame him, I know all too well how stressful it's been here.

But that's all it is. Stress. I am not worried about the radiation. Poison floating through the air can be avoided if given enough time to prepare. I still carry my iodine pills with me. I worry the next quake will bring to us here in Tokyo the same devastation visited upon the poor souls in the north. They had almost no time to prepare. No way of knowing just how terrible the destruction would be. But I can not, will not let fear dominate my actions. Will not let it change my life.

I must carry on if I am to possess a normal life. That is all I can do. There are two parties to go to tomorrow and I'm looking forward to it. It's all I can do.

Monday, June 22

I live in a city

I live in a city of twelve million. Yet of that number how many do I know, a hundred at best. The trains link the town through arteries of steel and plastic but do we feel any more connected? Where can we find the place to belong? Events swirl around the concrete jungle and become a moment of connection, yet can such a time extend for long enough to provide security in this vortex of insanity? Night descends and lights emerge, a combination of simple elements join together to reduce limitations, yet does the memory imprint with a lasting effect? Can what we experience on this substance carry on to the next day? The next week? What do we do when our feelings atrophy and die as the lubricant leaves our system? Each hour of consumption further fuels the meaningless lies we tell adding weight to the troubles we carry. Some of us are far more able to shoulder the burden but many of us collapse under the strain of simply trying to maintain the status quo. Why do we continue with endeavors that we know to be fruitless yet we desire to pursue because it feeds us that breath of life we call possibility?

We grab for the brass ring because we dream of that moment when we can grasp it and all the pain and sadness can melt away into another vessel. Those that have reached that ultimate height of being can relish an infinite happiness, yet such individuals can be counted on half a hand.

I hope like most sentient beings to reach such a point in my life yet the details of managing such an endeavor are lost to the fog of normal consciousness. How can one separate the regular needs of an individual in order to mesh with another? The general belief can be seen as this is impossible, yet data gathered in a closed setting would seem to indicate that this is untrue.

The point is, at what point are you (I) willing to settle for anything that could make you happy? Nothing is perfect in this messed up world of concrete, asphalt, plastic, and coffee. Yet if you can find something that can match at least ten desires, admitted or not, I say hang on to it with all the strength you have left.

I'm waiting for a city of twelve million.

Tuesday, April 7

The Denim Lady

There's a lady I see frequently in the town I work. Never really on the same day of the week never really at the same time of day but she's hard to forget because she always wears the exact same thing. A denim one piece dress with a thin yellow sweater tied around her neck. Thick rimmed glasses, straight black hair. I think I've seen her off and on the entire time I've been here. She's clearly mentally unbalanced. Not just the outfit, but the things she does with her hands while she mutters things only she understands. Her clothes are always clean and her appearance is neat so it's clear she's not homeless. But the oblivious way she fast walks around the neighborhood makes it clear something is off.

I used to think she lived in my area but the other night I saw her on a train bound for Shinjuku. She was already on the train when I got on and got off further down the line so I think she just likes to walk around the areas near this particular train line. Why, I can't begin to imagine but I had a chance to watch her for longer than usual. The thing I noticed was her unabashed happiness. I could be cynical and say that it takes an insane person to be happy nowadays but I can't bring myself to be that dour. No, in fact she has reached a place of happiness through simplicity. I assume she has someone to care for her as I doubt she is capable of holding down a real job and I see her at such random hours that it precludes any type of employment. All I know about her is that she really enjoys walking around the areas along the train line. Maybe she goes somewhere else everyday, leaving the choice up to her whims of the moment, maybe she visits them all in precise order back and forth and I only spot her at certain moments of her schedual. I don't know but I do know she is happy.

I used to live by the code "Be Happy, Nothing else matters". Somewhere along the line I've lost sight of that. I'm not saying we should settle if we find a little happiness but I think life is wrapped up in persuing things we think should make us happy but in reality don't. We are in more control of our conciousness than we think, if something causes pain, discard it.

Of course this is a tricky idea as most things in life are not so cut and dry. We need money to do the things that make us happy but hate our jobs. (At least, I hate mine for the most part) Human relationships are filled with ups and downs but I think it's pretty easy to seperate those people that will improve our lives from those that will only drag it down, at least in the short term. The question we should all ask is "Will I, on balance, be happier if I do this?" It sounds overly simple but is a hard question if you take a deep look and answer honestly.

The one thing The Denim Lady taught me though is it's not hard to be happy. It can be as simple as walking around some train stations.

I think I'll start jogging again now that the weather is nice.

Friday, March 13

The Homeless Writer

Several forgettable months ago I was approached by a homeless man outside of Yoyogi park. Normally I don`t stop to talk. This is a habit from back home where homelessness is rare but the few poor souls stuck on the streets are typically drug-addled and clinically insane. This is not the heartless dismissal it may seem, the city did shut down a mental hospital half a mile from my school with no real plan for the patients. A police officer responding to a disturbence call commented casually on the past proximity of two crack houses near my residence. Just across the street in fact. All of this in a city with a lower population than Shibuya on a Sunday.

But for some reason I stopped to talk with this man. Perhaps it was because he spoke excelent English and I was a little less jaded about the city in general. He turned out to be quite a character, telling me stories of his trials and tribulations. He was kicked out of a capsule hotel and accused of stealing a TV, almost arrested by the police for slashing another homeless man`s bags over a territory dispute in the rain, he was from North Korea. But most of his end of the conversation was anger directed at the Japanese people as a whole. To him, the entire island was full of spiteful snakes that smile in your face while they poison your tea. (His words, not mine)

Worst among them were the young women. I had recently broken up with a Japanese girl so I was willing to follow this thread and see where it went. It went to Crazy Town, of course. Suffice it to say, his anger seemed directed mostly at women. I did not think to ask what woman had wronged him in the past, but I assume it was a rather heavy blow.

What is the point of this? Nothing much, I bought some of his books (which I`ve yet to finish reading, wasn`t great stuff) and went on my way for him to accost another passing English speaker perhaps.

As I think back on this encounter I ask myself "where did his anger get him"? It is pretty clear that the answer is not far. I try to never get angry any more. I get frustrated constantly but almost never angry. Except for recently. This year in particular. Whatever the reason, I need to reign it in.