I came home tonight from my final dinner in Japan this trip with the Morita family that can only be described as exquisite, with flavors and textures arranged not only within each course, but helped one course flow into the next. I will write more about it later, but let me tell you about the first song that happened to play on my laptop when I turned it back on. It was Otis Redding's classic Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay. It's a loner's song, standing in stark contrast to the raucous sake-fueled conversation from dinner, but it's also over-produced. Go find a live version, and compare it to studio edition. One's got Redding's plaintive, intense voice, punctuated and encouraged onward by the cheers of the audience, while the other has the same but dulled by the pristine recordings of seagulls and waves. I may be in the minority, but I find it disconcerting and distracting from a song otherwise brutally honest in its complexity. It's not a song for a single adjective. Thanksgiving emoting makes me feel the same way. I'm a long-time believer that people, like dogs, can tell when you're full of shit. I'd rather hear something honest, or funny, and blessedly brief, than somebody rambling ad nauseum about their thankfulness for Ma, Apple Pie, and the Academy. Tell us what you care about, why you care about it, how it made your life better in the past year. Tell us what you miss. Or don't say any of it, and just tell us how you're most thankful for Jon Stewart for bequeathing Stephen Colbert to the world. Whatever works, be it true or funny, just spare us the platitudes. So, since I'm away from family this holiday, I will with no fibbin' share a brief list of what I'm thankful for: I'm immensely grateful for my parents. Sometimes I still wonder that we're related, the way I used to when I was a teenager, and then I spend five minutes with either of you and it's so fucking obvious that I could be no one's son but yours. (Mental note: Woody Allen's movies are an Entertainment, not a Template. Easily confused, but please don't.) I am, probably much to their chagrin, thankful for my siblings. "Aimless and clueless" though we may have been, I am as proud of your successes as I feel inadequate about mine. We will do even more in the next year, and we will do it better. I am thankful for all my friends, who have seen me through darkness and light and appear to enjoy laughing at me almost as much as I do. Life is better with you motley intercontinental lot, especially those who let me stay in far-away cities with them and those who traveled long distances to stay with me. I am immensely thankful for the people who have allowed me to learn from them. You know who you are, it's unlikely I gave you much choice in the matter, and I am a better person for it. It is currently half-past one in the morning. I have delusions of packing now and getting up in four hours for a visit to Tokyo's fish market for killer sushi and some tuna-auction viewing. More likely that I will pack now and skip Tsukiji, but I'll leave the curtains open just in case the daylight inspires me. Now how the heck am I going to fit all this omiyage into my suitcases?
[caption id="attachment_707" align="alignnone" width="222" caption="Looking in at the Yonamine dojo, Okinawa City, Okinawa"][/caption] Most sane people who write about martial arts understand the inherent problems in talking about fighting systems. The most obvious challenge comes from attempting to translate the purely physical into words, but the more difficult one is based on describing the mindset. And don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with much on either of those. However, I would like to point out that when traveling to Okinawa for a heavily karate-based vacation, you create in your head certain expectations. There are characters from fiction that populate our stereotypes, such as The Karate Kid's Mr. Miyagi, or Kill Bill's derivative Hattori Hanzo, and these stereotypes apply to the dojo we will be visiting, too. Most of the schools we've attended classes in have had formalized looks. Wood paneling, a shrine up front, weapons of limb destruction placed politely out of the way. A low-ceilinged shack up a hill is far from the reality of most Okinawan dojo, and yet we found ourselves Thursday night peering past the harsh yellow of the outdoor light into a room that was probably more suited to housing chickens than anything else. We were ecstatic. Homemade tools designed to improve muscle toughness hung neatly on the walls next to Okinawan farm tools turned by time into self-defense weapons. Machine parts and other found objects for building strength while doing forms shared equal space on the rack of implements as the more commonplace makiwara punching block sat idly nearby. The florescent lights cast a disconcertingly clinical glow on what was otherwise an organic approach. You came here not to study, but to grow. The most important tool we would encounter that night were the legs of the dojo owner, Mr. Yonamine, and his student Masako. In our system, we use a pattern of precisely-placed kicks and punches to condition muscles. Yonamine and Masako made sure that, whatever else our experiences with the other implements of his school were, we'd remember those leg-strength checking kicks that rattled our spinal columns long past when we returned home.
[caption id="attachment_698" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="The final round of the Okikukai 2011 Kumite championship."][/caption] You can't go home again. Home again, home again, jiggity-jig. There's no place like home. Home sweet home. Home is where the heart is. Strangely, unexpectedly, and arranged only seconds before the last minute, I find myself in Japan yet again. It's not home, right? I lived here for a shade under three years, occupying four residences, three bicycles (at least, three that I owned,) and carving out my own little niche on the Web. Definitely not transience, perhaps something more like an extended stay, I can't imagine what my life would be like if I hadn't moved to Japan. And now for three weeks, I'm back. As some of you know, I've been studying an Okinawan style of karate called Uechi-ryu since my freshman year of college, and about 30 of us from around the world have come here to participate in a tournament, in a black belt test, and to participate in the 30th anniversary celebration of one school. After my friends leave, I'm heading up to the Japanese mainland for some relaxation that doesn't involve violence and funny pajamas. This is my first trip to Okinawa, and if it weren't for the karate I'd probably never come here. I'm not much of a fan of humidity or beaches, and would rather be surrounded by snow and howling winds and enjoying a fireplace if given the choice. Okinawa, of course, doesn't give a damn what you think. The people are friendly and far more gregarious than most Tokyoites I knew, with an unhurried pace to life that's appropriate for the soup-like climate. It appears that there are generally two kinds of foreigners on Okinawa. The first comes courtesy the United States military, providing a titanium backbone to Okinawa's economy but bringing with him a history that could hardly be described as smooth. Local land use debates about the military bases on the Ryukyu Islands, the occasional case of sexual violence and rape, and World War II are not exactly the best prescriptions for international bonhomie. A quick trip to Google indicates that around 70 percent of Japan's miniscule alien resident population resides in Okinawa. So I find myself in a place I've never visited, helping my karate friends get around with my obscenely mediocre Japanese speaking ability. The Okinawans are invariably kind about my inability to communicate in any kind of rational way. I suspect that, and rightfully so, they humor my wild gesticulations and verbal flailings as they do a poorly scripted but earnest variety show. In a Frankensteinian pairing of deja vu and jamais vu, I find myself doing things that I know I've done before, seeing sights I know I've seen before, but of course these are completely new to me. Like an aggressive vine, the creep of nostalgia for a place that I'm very close to seeps through the cracks in my memory. Of course I've never eaten at that ramen shop, but it smells so much like this other I used to go to all the time. Rinse, lather, and repeat with conbinis, the lights crowd on the streets of Naha, rainstorms, and taxi cabs. The taxi cab drivers here are hilarious, and possibly worth a full post just about them. A group of us were taking a cab to a dojo the other night, and one of my friends says he'll buy my first beer of the evening if I ask the cab driver if he's a karate master. So, I politely ask the driver if he's ever done karate: Yes. We study Uechi-ryu, I tell him. Has he heard of it? Oh yes, he says. Not only has he heard of it - and let's face it, Uechi-ryu is a fairly obscure form of karate - the cab driver is a fifth-degree black belt who studied Goju-ryu, a sister style to Uechi. Another cab driver has studied with our Takamiyagi-sensei. The stereotype might be that everybody in Japan knows karate, but I'm beginning to wonder if, at least in Okinawa, it's based on a kernel of truth. Taking care of business: As you may have noticed, I've posted this to the blog that I originally created for traveling the world. I plan on merging my old Japan blog with this one, to create a single unified place to talk about my travels. Also, if you'd like to subscribe (or unsubscribe) to my e-mail list, that's available in the upper right corner of the blog. I also notify Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus about updates.
On a Sunday morning stroll to procure dim sum, beer, and books by Messrs. Sturgeon, Ellison, and Bradbury, the FMA and I encountered this elderly Chinese accordion player faithfully belting out "Silent Night, Holy Night" and "Oh, Susanna!" while sitting in front of the Moscow and Tbilisi Bakery Store on Geary Boulevard. Considering that yesterday was also Pi Day (3.14 for you mathematically disinclined) and the x birthday of Albert Einstein, I felt that we successfully charted at least one star from the major pop-culture constellations in one swell foop. Bless his cotton socks, the accordionist spoke little English and enthusiastically encouraged us to sing along. Instead, we tipped him a buck or two and headed on towards Clement Street and Fine Literature. P.S. My e-mail list was broken yesterday, so you might've missed this update: "Why Children Turn to Alcohol".
It is hard to find a sane person who doesn't mark the progress of time through either nostalgia or birthdays. Nostalgia, of course, is the wistful longing for some long-since-mutated characteristic of the past. Birthdays, plural only, refers to somebody besides yourself getting older. Not just a not-you aging, though, but a person to whom you're surprised is suddenly 30 and not, say, 15. This special "birthday human" is different for everybody, and can be more than one person. Generally, though, people who have spawned tend to confer the birthday clock onto their children: "I can't believe how old you are," "Just look at you," "You've gotten so big," and other insights designed to induce alcoholism and other suicidal tendencies in their targets. Which is a shame, because there's nothing sadder than a 7-year-old desirous of a drink, but hardly even knowing what tequila is. Anyway, I've been fortunate enough to have lived far, far, far, far, away from my family for most of my twenties. No doubt, they felt the same way. Perhaps more so. So although this distance in time and space has forced me to concentrate to remember that my Parental Units have, in fact, gotten older since I left for college, their personalities have changed only incrementally. Which makes me nostalgic for that well-worn Simpsons episode where everybody's favorite yellow-skinned, four-fingered family uses electroshock therapy to give each other what they deserve. The point being is that I've found myself surprised that my siblings are no longer the ages that they were when I left San Francisco a few days before my 18th birthday. In some part of my brain, there's always a slight recalculation to remember that my sister is no longer 12. And when my the opportunity arose to visit my brother as he turned 30 last weekend, my initial reaction was, "Who's turning 30?" Of course he's 30. I'm 32 - and a half, if we're being picky - and so therefore basic mathematics dictate that he should be 30. But in my head? There was that initial reaction brain-scratching moment where I assumed he couldn't be 30, because he's not even 16 yet. When we take our leave of certain friends and close relations, any repeat encounters seem to mentally reference our last engagement until we see them regularly enough to forget about that "last" encounter. At least personally, I've seen it occur with close friends, too. One friend whose wife is due with their first child next month will always be hunched over his computer in my head, coding or Warcrafting as a rum-and-Coke sweats a small puddle next to the keyboard. Or another friend, who had a significant other who was particularly memorable, will always be dating that person for just a moment more before I remember that their relationship has long since run its course. The specifics aren't important, just the vague, burning memories of ghosts long past. Even ghosts of the living. So it goes. So we use the birthdays of others close to us to remember times past. Some involve these nostalgic instigators, and some don't. With my brother on the Vermont-New Hampshire border, it's imperative that I visit my Boston friends. Almost to a person, I find my martial arts buddies stronger and tougher, my non-fighting friends wiser and even better looking than before, and a tsunami of memories crushing me in the best way possible at every corner. Here's where I used to see Bela Fleck and the Flecktones: now my employer has an office there. Harvard Square is where I used to carouse for books: now I avoid it like I used to avoid the fancier parts of Newbury St. Here's where I used to stumble, bleary eyed and on too little sleep, for Saturday morning beatings: well, that hasn't changed, at least. And Redbones is still around, and a dear friend who had a spate of horribly short rentals has been in the same place for years now. Everything changes, and nothing is truly lost.
[caption id="attachment_671" align="alignnone" width="450" caption="Director Arthur Seidelman speaks at the Jim Jarrett Studio, San Francisco. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2010."][/caption] Arthur Seidelman has been directed more films, plays, and TV shows than you realize. He was also the first person to direct Arnold Schwarzenegger, although he swears he didn't have a hand in casting him. I got to listen to him speak to a small group at the Jim Jarrett studio in San Francisco over the weekend, and he re-iterated that most important of lessons: follow your dream, and work hard at it. Actors need to hear that lesson repeatedly, apparently, given the business-oriented nature of their Mecca, but it's not a bad lesson to keep at the front of your brain, no matter what you feel your calling is. It's even harder to remember during this Great Recession, when food and health become acutely more pressing than art, but perhaps that makes it even more important. However, I'd be remiss in my duties if I didn't recount that I asked Mr. Seidelman about Arnold. It was apparently Seidelman's film directorial debut, as well. He said, in a far funnier manner, that the Governator was a charming man. He also reminded us that it was he who was quoted in Newsweek on the Governator's political triumph as having said that Ahnuld was as suited to being governor as Gray Davis was suited to being an action star, but that he and Arnold had remained friendly. It's so good to know that the Governator has friends. And now, back to the dream.
For 21 years, a small group of San Franciscans have gathered on Ocean Beach to symbolically expurgate the previous year's woe by collecting discarded Christmas trees from around the city and setting them on fire. As rituals go, the Post-Yule Pyre isn't too far from various pagan ceremonies. People of all ages gather for the event, which is brief by necessity and by science. Christmas trees are dried husks, and they burn fast. Also: throw several dozen dead trees in a pile and ignite them, and good luck not attracting the police - even if you are at the southwestern corner of town, on a dark beach. There were young children that parents kept a respectful distance from the flames, and there were heads of gray hair a good deal closer. I didn't know anybody there, but when we met up at the Java Beach Cafe - the latest resting place of the last of the Doggie Diner heads - it became apparent that this would have more than a couple dozen folks. As a group, we dragged the gathered trees to the beach, and invited the curious onlookers to leave their living rooms and join us. The waning moon had not yet risen, and the tide was on its way in, so we were bereft of both light and the heady smell of outgoing salt water. This wouldn't last long. The trees were piled up and people fell into a circle around them, and the light waft of pine needles was soon replaced with smoke and the roar of the flames. We could see the steam evaporating from the wet sand beneath the pyre, adding a slightly ethereal quality to the event. I didn't notice the police presence until they gruffly asked us all to leave, but apparently they'd been watching us for some time. This blog post summarizes the event nicely, and why it's a carbon-neutral event. As quickly as we had gathered the trees and built the pyre, we dispersed. Some went for drinks at the Riptide, and the majority of us went home. My 2009 wasn't the horrible-no-good year that others have had, but it wasn't great. Maybe a little ritualistic fire is all the spark that 2010 needs to get going. Oh, and for what it's worth, the second photo above was picked as SFist's Photo du Jour, and featured by Laughing Squid, too.