Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Dispatch From Japan

It’s a lovely Saturday afternoon in Fujisawa, Japan, southwest of Tokyo. My son Cal and his fiancé Chika are off at work. Andrea and I had a quiet morning – breakfast at a coffee shop by the train station and then exploring this neighborhood called Shonandai. I’m finishing Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, and Andrea’s reading The Haunting Of Hill House. The windows are open to a breeze that’s drying the laundry just outside, the sun is shining, Neil Young is singing One Of These Days from my cell phone. I toast a parmesan roll picked up at a Scandanavian bakery this morning and sip a gin and tonic while I alternate between my computer and Harper Lee.

Tomorrow Cal and Chika will get married. It’s been a lovely trip and time to be alive with people I love.
Mt. Fugi, viewed from our hike near Kanagawa.

Japan is a bit jarring compared to the life we live in Indiana, and that’s not criticism of Japan. At home our lives are car-centered. As good as the Japanese are at making them, cars are a nuisance here. Cal and Chika move about on their feet, on bicycles, and on mass transit. They’re better for it. At home, where the restaurants are constantly learning new ways to temp my weaknesses for butter, cheese, and salt, the restaurants here serve up sushi rolls, nigiri, yakitori (grilled meat and veggies), and ramen in miso or chili broth. Yes, we’ve hovered over plates of mushroom and vegetable tempura, but on the train home last night I saw the glimmer of a Kentucky Fried Chicken sign as we rocketed through Yokohama with the realization that the Japanese will live longer eating their fried food than we’ll live eating ours.

In fact it was three days before we saw our first obese person, and that man turned out to be Anglo.

I thought about crime and gun control as we moved about the Shibuya crossing, a Time Square-like business district in Tokyo crammed with people, international name brand shopping, nightclubs, video billboards and neon. The traffic lights turn red in all directions at once, unleashing rights-of-way to a staggering surge of pedestrians moving like a massive pot of boiling peas, churning and spilling in all directions.
The famous Shibuya intersection in Tokyo.

With the merciless crush of people here there should be some serious crime (imagine well more than a 3rd of the U.S. population crammed into just California), but it doesn’t.

This densely populated nation has strict gun control. If I’m to listen to fellow Hoosiers back home with the gun fetish, Japan should be overrun with criminals and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should be poised to enslave the masses. But no. Instead it’s a terribly safe place where crime is a rarity and gun deaths are a freakish rarity. I did some quick research and found that even once you adjust for population, America’s gun death rate is 175 times that of Japan’s. They do not make up for lack of guns with knifings or stranglings.

Japan also has full-blown socialized government health care, not a lite, market-based system like Obamacare. They live longer and have a lower infant mortality rate than America.

There are interesting contradictions in this culture. The dominate architecture is a little drab but at the same time each and every manhole cover is cast with intricate floral patterns, some colorful, looking like a giant’s cloisonné broach laid upon the asphalt. Those I’ve met who teach Japanese children say typical parents here spoil their kids, but they’re also free-range parents – we see 6-year-olds alone on the train platform headed home from school and neighborhood parks are filled with kids from the age of perhaps 6 to 18 and not one single parent in sight as kids come and go – 8-year-olds boys with soccer balls under an arm or 12 year old girls on bicycles peddling about.

They’re fussy about some things and simply let other shit go.

Far more people smoke here than in the U.S., but there aren’t a lot of cigarette butts on the ground. Every open plot of ground seems to be  planted with some vegetable or another and walking about this urban environment I find persimmons and citrus ripening in yards at every turn. A bell chime calls out from neighborhood sound systems late afternoon, meant to remind children to go home for dinner. Whether they actual go or not, I cannot say. Cal is put off when the sound system reads out public service info. The loud speaker voices remind one of war films and air raid warnings, though today it’s just letting you know a street is being closed for paving.

The giant copper Buddha at Kamakura. The area is dotted
with Buddhist shrines, some at least 1,500 years old.
Homes don’t have tank water heaters as we do, instead you press a button on the wall to activate the point-of-use water heater and it immediately heats water as you use it and stops heating it when the faucet is turned off. Theirs work so well, it makes me wonder why Americans waste so much energy and money with tank water heaters.  And though it’s a thoroughly modern nation, the retail economy is primarily cash-based and don’t be surprised to head into a public bathroom and find the toilet is a hole in the floor. Andrea approached me from a train station bathroom exit with a look of having seen a ghost, but instead she had simply had her first encounter with that hole in the floor.

And oddly, it’s completely normal to socialize with a group of friends and you and only you are wearing a surgical mask. 

This is a pretty non-religious country, but the nearby ancient Buddhist temples echo a culture of industriousness, peace, and live-and-let-live. Still there’s a dark side to Japan's hyper competitive and pressure-filled high schools and work places and a social structure that prizes conformity: their suicide rate is frightening. While in Tokyo the other night, a rail line was delayed because some hopeless soul had thrown themselves in front of a train. I'm told this is common.

I will admit that Japan was never on my world travel bucket list. I came only because my son is here. But having come, I’m so glad I did. It’s a lovely country.

Tomorrow we will wake from our last night on “futon” sleeping pads laid upon grass mattes on the floor, our heads resting on bean bag pillows (a surprisingly comfortable arrangement) and begin the 17-18 hours of travel between the Shonandai subway station and Indianapolis Airport. Already looking forward to my next visit.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Middle Sons & Moving On

Jack arrived home to drop his suitcase and sleep in a room I’d freshly repainted in new colors, chosen by his soon-to-be stepbrother. The posters he hung in high school and college were all pulled from the walls and stored under the bed. I sensed unease. He was in his childhood home, but his bedroom wasn’t the same. I was remaking it.

Each time Jack has come home since graduating college and moving to Denver 2 years ago, the house is a little different than it was before. The kids notice, but what am I supposed to do, keep it a museum to their formative years? So I’ve made changes slowly, pacing myself and giving them time to absorb it. Still, for him, coming home to Cherry Street is a reminder of how things once were, of a life we all once lived together. And with my remarriage the changes will accelerate. How could it be any other way?

Soon the house filled with my oldest, Cal and his Japanese fiancé, Chika, Sean and his wife Courtney, and Jack’s girlfriend Michelle. Sally is already here, home from college for the summer. A low-key, double bachelor party ended with a patio bonfire and late night beers. There was a dinner party and wedding ceremony for Cal and Chika around the pool at the kids’ mother’s house on Friday night, my wedding Saturday afternoon, and a shared reception for all later that evening.  

Jack and I said goodbye at the Asian Grill on Monday. I needed to get back to work and he was going to spend the day with his mom before heading to the airport. But when I stopped at the house mid-afternoon I found him in his room, filling boxes spread out on his bed, cleaning out a cabinet and dresser as I’d asked him to do on the ride home from the airport 3 days ago.

A beer case box was being filled with the Curious George doll he snuggled as a toddler, antique bottles that once lined a shelf – Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, and one that sat on a windowsill at his grandparent’s lake cottage in Michigan from a soda pop company in Battle Creek. I leaned against the open doorway and we talked as he emptied a bulletin board of photos of high school and college friends and faded newspaper clippings from when he lobbied the city for a skate park, and it got built, and a newspaper column I wrote about it. I promised to mail some of it to him and store the rest.

As I was coming down the stairs moments later, Jack had just said goodbye to Cal in the den and was headed toward the front door. He turned to me with tears welled up in his eyes. “You okay?” I asked. He was at the rim of the spillway into a good man-cry, that effervescent sting in the sinuses and clenching of throat muscles, trying to hold back the emotional rush. “I just miss you guys!” he said.  With that, he hugged me and disappeared out the door to his mother’s house and a ride to the airport.

Just a few weeks later I’m in a borrowed truck with my new 15-year-old stepson Caleb. Like my middle biological son, Jack, Caleb’s the middle kid, a hard worker, sensitive to the needs of others, tenderhearted and determined, just like Jack. I put the radio to modern country before he got in, knowing that’s what he likes.

Caleb’s wearing cowboy boots, a camo cap with a big fishhook in the bill and Wrangler jeans. He’s quieter than normal today and has been anytime we’re moving things from the house on River Road. If he could choose, he wouldn’t be moving. I don’t think it’s me he objects to, it’s leaving the acreage, the 30’ x 60’ pole barn and the line of ancient trees that fill the ridge running down to the stream. Everything we haul to storage, each thing we move to my garage on Cherry Street is a reminder that he’s losing his geographical piece of identity – the land, the barn, the trees. He’s only lived there 2 years, but it's what he wanted, what he grew into at just the right time.

He was just going about his own business while his mother and I were falling in love, and was doing what the world expects of a 15 year old when we decided to sell their River Road house and move to my house on Cherry Street. He had no say in it. I don’t know how to fix that or make amends for it. I’m watchful at his brooding silences and fret when I miss one of his football games for a book talk or appointments with real estate clients.

Those boxes of things Jack packed: three weeks later I found myself touching all of it myself, Curious George, the bottles and skate stuff, a letter of encouragement I wrote him when he was 12 and had struggled and failed at something, his high school and college diplomas. I wrapped the bottles in bubble wrap and packed them up to be shipped to Denver.

My 20 year old, Sally looked into the near empty room and gasped, “The Echo! Why does it echo so much?” Every word, ever step seemed to rattle down a hollow metal tube.

“All the blankets, mattress, clothes, posters, knickknacks and soft surfaces are gone,” I said, “it’s all hard surfaces at the moment.”

But within days Caleb was helping move furniture and his brothers’ things into those rooms, filling them again with the soft surfaces of real human life. The rooms I renovated 20 years ago for my own kids have once again been remade for my step kids. We hung a deer head in Caleb’s room and bought him camo sheets. I understand full well it’s meager compensation for what we’re taking from him.

I’m normally a duck-your-head-to-the-wind and take-care-of-business kind of person, but from time to time the chosen burden of being a parent, and not just the fear of doing it wrong but the recognition of how your choices affect your children . . . well, it forces big wallops of tears to well up in my eyes from the shear weight of it all. And so I find myself at a stoplight wiping tears from my cheeks with the palms of my hands on the way to the post office with a box in the passenger seat, Curious George inside, addressed to a house in Denver.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Drop Zone

*One morning last week I dropped my step-sons Caleb at the High School, then Nolan at Our Lady of Grace. It's been 5 or 6 years since I was dropping kids off at school in the morning. Doing so once again reminded me of my first go-round of parenting when that thankless job was part of my regular routine. He's a blog post from those years:

“Command central; do you copy? I am now entering the drop zone.  If I’m not back in an hour, send in a chopper to air-lift me out.”

Now I’ve never actually said that. Don’t even have a 2-way radio in the car. But when I enter the drop zones at the Intermediate or High School with my kids in the morning, I wish I had commando back-up.

I don’t do it everyday, mind you. You’d have to be certifiable loony to do it five days a week. But each Friday I take my kids out for breakfast. Afterwards, Sally is dropped at the Intermediate School and Cal and Jack at the High School. So, I've driven more missions than I can count.

As we approach Field Drive from 10th Street an unbroken gauntlet of SUVs lurch over the bridge and through the intersection from the west. My light turns green, but before I touch the accelerator the sorry bastard behind me is honking. Probably some drop-zone-weary veteran who has to navigate the hellish commute to Indy if he survives the drop zone. Just the thought of it has his adrenaline gushing and his fingers itching on the horn.

After the turn I’ve got a quarter mile to collect my thoughts before entering the drop zone. I switch the radio to a bass-thumping rock anthem to get myself psyched-up. Sally’s already leaning forward in her seat gripping the shoulder straps of her pack. My hands are sweating on the steering wheel.

Suddenly an incoming mini-van darts into my path from 16th Street. I pound the breaks just as the menacing outline of the Intermediate School emerges from the darkness like an awaiting tomb.

Moments later we enter the serpentine trail of tears that makes up the first drop zone. Like a long line of push-pull toys, we accelerate/brake, accelerate/brake past taunting enemy propaganda signs that read, “Proceed slowly to the drop zone,” and, “Thank you for your patience.” 

Yeah, whatever.

As we approach her drop, Sally’s praying to herself, “Dear God, please make Dad turn off that dorky music before he opens the door. I don’t want my comrades to hear.”

Family-generals stop one at a time at the ramp to launch their charges. Just when you think you’ll move forward, the most recent drop, a kid with a trombone case runs back to kiss his mommy goodbye.

Finally Sally’s turn comes. The door opens and the wind furiously whips the hair back off her forehead. She leaps out and disappears into the yawning darkness of the Intermediate School.        

One drop down. One to go.

The right turn out is pure torture. An unbroken line of urban assault vehicles block our way. Desperate Joes force a westbound back up in their hopeless attempts to turn left into the drop zone. Fear and rage grow on their faces. It was here last year I saw one T-boned in a fool-hearty attempt to enter out of turn. The memory puts a knot in my stomach.

“God-speed left-turners. God-speed.”

Back again on Field Drive, that solemn ribbon of asphalt bordering the battlefield, some greenhorn in a Jeep up ahead lets a troop transport . . . I mean a school bus, in.

“Buddy, what are ya thinkin’? I yell, hammering the steering wheel with my palm. “Busses are like barbed lumps of cholesterol in the veins of this God forsaken mission!”

The lumbering giant groans into line, waiting with the rest of us through the mind-crushing boredom of the Field/Cumberland 4-way stop.

Finally it comes into view, the High School’s “Horseshoe from hell,” I whisper under my breath. I’m a team player and wait in line. Impatient drivers with a death wish dart ahead, creating a 2nd lane on the left only to let their darlings out in the truly life-threatening jumble of anxious cars at the ramp. Not me. I won’t temp fate.

Cal and Jack are seasoned veterans. They watch the battlefield ahead, ice water in her veins, emotionless as little white iPhone earbuds chirp in their ears.

Suddenly both boys make this old soldier proud. They launch a preemptive drop well before the ramp, then walk coolly toward the entrance, having freed me for escape. "No guts, no glory!" And these boys have guts!

Now I only have to navigate incoming teenagers whose headlights dart recklessly like tracer rounds in and out of exits. I’m temporarily shell-shocked when an IED car stereo explodes Ludacris . . . or was it Snoop Dog, just inches from my window.

I emerge onto the relative safety of Monument Street, having survived to fight another day.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Traveler From Altruria: Pope Francis In America

Pope Francis’s visit to America was a delicious moment to analyze the reflexes of Christian conservatives.

House and Senate Republicans originally sent a Congressional Address invite to the Vatican when the pope was deeply conservative, Benedict XVI. When the invitation was finally accepted the pope was named Francis and he’d recently made it easier and cheaper to get marriages annulled and proclaimed that women who’ve had abortions be forgiven and welcomed back into the church. And, oh yeah, when asked about homosexuality, Francis replied, “Who am I to judge?”

Seeing U.S. defenders of the faith squirm and protest at the worlds' premier Christian leader apply the teachings of Jesus to our modern political problems sounded familiar to me.

It was reminded of an obscure, largely forgotten novel from the early 1890s, The Traveler From Altruria. In this story by William Dean Howells, a traveler from the newly discovered, distant land of Altruria has been invited to America to learn about freedom, democracy and a Christian nation where “all men are created equal.” But the traveler discovers the myriad of ways Americans ignore those stated values. And the American hosts are appalled by the traveler’s descriptions of life in Altruria. But ironically, what they recoil from is the description of a nation where all truly are treated equal and cultural and economic life reflects New Testament teachings.

Pope Francis is a new Traveler From Altruria. He came to modern America last week – a place with a pretty high opinion of itself, proud of it’s free enterprise system, it’s religious institutions, and it’s traditions of social justice. Yet, this new Traveler rankled some feathers by preaching Christianity in stark, simple language that one couldn’t help but read as a challenge to the political beliefs of many conservative Christians.

He’s dramatically spoken out about the dangers of climate change, adding, “Creation is not a property which we can rule over at will, or even less, is the property of only a few: Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude,” Francis has also said that humanity’s abuse of the earth is sinful, “But when we exploit Creation we destroy the sign of God’s love for us . . . Here, this is sin!”

In response, conservative Christian presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush both said the Pope should leave science to the scientist. Both apparently don’t know that in the world of climate science, there’s no debate. Global warming is settled science.

They also apparently don't know the Pope has a degree in chemistry. ­

Howell’s bemused traveler from Altruria discovered the broad gap between what 1890s Americans claimed to believe and what their actions demonstrated they truly worshiped: money. And one hundred and twenty years later, the reactions Pope Francis’s humble proclamations elicit reveal that many of our most strident political Christians worship capitalism above all else.

Consider these Francis quotes: “The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything that stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule,” and, “Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “Thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

Conservative talk show host, Rush Limbaugh called this, “Pure Marxism.” The American Conservative magazine published an article titled, “Would Someone Just Shut That Pope Up?”

And there’s a bit of trying to have it both ways. Conservatives applauded just a few short years ago when an assortment of American Bishops insisted Vice President Joe Biden be denied communion for his pro-choice policy stand. Now the same crowd is wishing the Pope would stay out of politics.

But perhaps on no issue is the gap greater between conservatives and Pope Francis than that of aiding the poor. Just a taste of his pronouncements: “Among our tasks as witnesses to the love of Christ is that of giving a voice to the cry of the poor.”

But in my social media feeds and inboxes are a relentless myriad of hateful memes about the poor posted by my conservative friends, labeling them lazy, entitled, and drug abusers. When an extreme example of welfare or food stamp fraud is documented, it’s cast not as the extreme it is, but as the norm, as if all who get assistance are gaming the system while the rest of us struggle to carry their dead weight. Conservatives insist that the poor be drug tested – which clearly suggests the majority take drugs. Other memes routinely cast government aid to the poor as the one thing that’s breaks the federal budget.

These broadly exaggerated grains of truth reveal a seam of deep resentment, dislike and fear of the poor that runs through our American consciousness. Meanwhile, the Pope keeps paraphrasing Jesus: “Poverty calls us to sow hope…. Poverty is the flesh of the poor Jesus, in that child who is hungry, in the one who is sick, in those unjust social structures.”

It’s one of the great conundrums of our modern political landscape that paraphrasing the teachings of Jesus in a political setting is the quickest way to be labeled a socialist by American Christian conservatives, some of whom are probably wearing WWJD bracelets.

It is clear that this pope is not interested in the puritanical obsession with sin, condemnation and shame that marked his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI’s reign and played so well in conservative American circles. Like the Traveler From Altruria, Pope Francis comes from a different place.