Saturday, June 05, 2010

It will take time to restore chaos.

Yesterday evening, we were in a Denver steakhouse, and I and Mas Kondo and Nathan were discussing American politics.
Mas referred to the immortal George Bush blunder of saying "You know, it will take time to restore chaos", referring to the situation in Iraq.

Watch George say it.

Mas, being a liberal man, threw it at us as a demonstration of good old George's low intelligence. Another liberal that is I, while enjoying Mas's jokes, went into a pensive mode from which it took a few minutes to come back.

Needless to say, what Mr. Bush really meant to say was that "it will take time to restore order". But Freudian slips (if that was indeed a Freudian slip) reveal some truths in human psyche.

Maybe it will indeed take time to restore chaos. And that could be very important in life.

When we were born, everything was in chaos. You see, babies even don't know the boundaries of their body. Then, order comes to gradually, and you lose your rather precious chaos. As you grow older, things start to appear quite orderly, and you start to assume many things.

Those become your own prejudice, and restrain the freedom of your actions.

Being creative often means and requires restoring some chaos in your life. Breaking the status quo requires a fresh start. Chaos brings about the much needed unbounded air in which we can freely breathe at last.

I am not claiming that when Mr. Bush said "it will take time to restore chaos", he was dropping a word of wisdom. What the heck. Sometimes we can learn things from those people who might not have the slightest idea what the deep significances might be. That's the beauty of (mis)communication.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Obama is YOUR president as well.

All day, I was moving around South Dakota and Wyoming. Peter and Tony was with me, among other people.

As we were driving the country road surrounded by green hills and small rivers, Peter and Tony started to talk about American politics. It was interesting to listen to their conversation.

Tony served in the Marines, and has been stationed in Okinawa and Iraq.

Peter is a paleontologist, and is an expert on dinosaurs.

Tony said that he did not want to call Mr. Obama "President of the United States". "For me, Obama is just Obama", Tony said.
Peter said, "you're wrong! Obama is our president. You may not like his policy, but the majority of American people chose Obama as our president. So Obama is YOUR president as well. I did not like George Bush, but since he was democratically elected by the majority of American people, Bush was my President, too"

Tony was not convinced. "It is not that I don't like Obama as a person, I just don't buy his policies. I signed up for the Marines at the age of 17. At that time, I did not go well with my mother. The country that I bowed to serve at that time, however, is not here any more. America has changed. It has changed for the worse. There is too much government intervention and red tapes. Obama is making America more bureaucratic."

"Well," Peter said, "I do think that there are cases where you do need government regulations. Look at the BP oil spill. That is a worst consequence of deregulation."

The conversation went on. It was fascinating to see how two people of polar political allegiances exchanged views in a frank and direct way. Both Peter and Tony did not back up. There was "collision" in that sense. The view of a person is formed over many years, and does not get changed overnight. It was like two massive mountains pushing each other. However, they were friendly all the same, "agreeing to disagree" .

Oh, my, that was a beautiful scene. I was moved, almost to tears.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Pouring red wine into the emptied white wine glass.

Every nation has its good and bad points, and most often they co-exist.

Whenever I come to the United States, I am always impressed by the beauty of their casual culture. I mean, they don't care whatever you do, as long as you keep a certain degree of decency.

The initiation into the American culture on this trip started on the Delta Airlines fight from Narita. The flight attendant was a very nice lady, with a wide smile and a big heart.

At the meal time I was drinking white wine. As the meat was going to arrive, I asked her for a glass of red wine. Sure, she said, smiling like a sunshine. A moment later, she came back with a bottle of red wine in her hand. She then poured the red wine into the glass. That was fine. The "slight" problem was that the glass she poured the red wine into was the glass I was using for the white wine. And of course she herself poured that white wine into that glass, just a few minutes ago.

Now I started thinking. Gee. Surely, when I am drinking wine at home, or at a private party, I don't care if I use the same glass for the white wine and the red wine. Theoretically, the remnant white might mix with the red and affect the taste, but that would be quite negligible. But never, in my life, had I observed a flight attendant pour red wine into the emptied white wine glass. That kind of action would be inconceivable in the meticulously careful cabin of ANA (All Nippon Airways) or JAL (Japan Airlines). A veteran flight attendant of JAL might swoon and faint at the very idea!

Having said that, I rather liked the casual manner in which the emptied white wine glass was used for the red wine as well. Maybe it is good for the earth. Maybe we are making too much of a fuss about glasses and vintages and all that. Maybe we should forget about it all and just take it easy.

What I wanted to say, really, is that there might be a link between my flight attendant on the Delta flight and the American spirit of venture, as observed in Apple and Google, for example. By being casual one could presumably concentrate on new things, bring about changes, and move forward.


What I have just said is just a thought, probably never to be proved theoretically or in practice, but this morning, after spending a night in the world's prime nation of casual manners, I rather like being released from the pressures of observing one's etiquettes.

Lining up at the Immigration in Minneapolis St. Paul airport, I was impressed by the sheer variety of people.

I arrived in the United States.

Lining up at the Immigration in Minneapolis St. Paul airport, I was impressed by the sheer variety of people waiting to be greeted by the immigration officer. People of African origin, Asians, Europeans, children, old people, young couples, fat people, slender people, bald people, people with hair, smiling people, people with sober faces, people with Amazon kindle (that's me!), people spending a precious few minutes of their lives lining up for immigration.

As the global village throbs, our life goes on and evolves. It is rewarding to see in physical reality the spectrum of people on earth today, well represented at the point of entry into the United States.

As I write this in the Wolfgang Puck restaurant sipping coffee, a wish swells in my bosom like a tidal wave in a great ocean. The wish to get connected to people. People from as different backgrounds as possible. To see a manifestation of the connections, and get immersed in it, both physically and metaphorically. To live a life of an earthling, in the true sense of the word.

That would be my wish.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

My mother and the Buddhist family altar.

Translated from the original Japanese essay in Ken Mogi, "Ikite Shinu Watashi" ("I live, I die") published from Tokuma Shoten, Tokyo, 1998. Translation by the author.

One day, when I was a University student, I was doing small talks over supper with my father and mother. Intricate lines of talks led us to the topic of visiting the family tomb. I declared, when and if I die, there was no need to put my remains in the tomb. When we die, we become nothing, so there was no sense in putting one's remains in the tomb. Japan is a small country, and we are rather scarce on land. To designate a certain amount of land for the purpose of providing tomb spaces, and exclude other more useful purposes, was a nonsensical idea, I said. Just think of it, I went on. If all the dead Japanese people in history were to be buried in tombs, the nation would be overflowed with tomb spaces. Just as it was a nonsense to use a vast extension of land for golfing (which is my own prejudice), it was a nonsense to build and maintain tomb spaces, I said.

All of sudden, my mother started to cry. She cried like I have never seen her crying. She lay beside the hori-kotatsu (covered heater table), and cried without any regard to the onlookers. My father tried to console her, but she would not simply listen. It was as if the nerve for crying was set on fire and nothing could stop it, as is sometimes the case with babies.

My mother then said to me, sobbing.

"You are not going to put my remains in the tomb. You will not pay respect to my tomb, after I die."

The manner in which my mother cried was something quite out of the ordinary. There was no hesitation or restraint. I was deeply disturbed. The fact that my words made mother cry gave me a profound shock. I did not mean to make her cry. I did not expect her to react in such an exaggerated manner. That was my mistake.

I spent the few days after the incident in a very strange and tranquil mood. Ill at ease, and yet somewhat warm. It was as if I uncovered a picture of my mother before she got married. I felt as if I have confirmed that my mother was a human being, in a strange mixture of dissonance and comfort. Needless to say, I have never physically struck my mother. And yet, a regret of having inflicted a "verbal violence" persisted in me. I never expected my words to have such a power to make my mother cry so hard.

Even today, I still think, in my own conventional wisdom, that after death I am reduced to nothing. In the passage of time, when it is for me to die, all the materialistic foundations that sustained me would be lost, and that would be the end of it. I don't believe in the existence of an afterlife. Needless to say, the world views of us humans are always open for revisions. It is quite possible that our understanding of the passage of time, in which the dramas of life and death are played out, would be deepened in the future. It is conceivable that our understanding of life as is expanded in time, in which there is birth, development, and then death, might turn out to be quite shallow, to be superseded by a new world view which is beyond the imagination of the human race today, and it may be one which incorporates the concept of after life.

However, unless a radical rewriting of the human perception of time, life and death takes place, "afterlife" would be conceived as the result of a wishful product of human imagination. I believe the truth of life and death to be more harsh than conventional religions tell us. More harsh, and yet, if you try to understand it, ultimately more rewarding both intellectually and emotionally. Only by coming to terms with such a harsh reality, would we be able to come to full terms with our own mortality. In this respect, how people would treat my remains in the event of my death might concern those who are left behind, but not a business of mine, who wouldn't be there to care about these things anyway. Had I explained these lines of thoughts to my mother, at length and with passion, she might have understood me. She might have taken my opinion at its face value, and might have come to terms with the idea that putting one's remains in a tomb is ultimately meaningless, however alien such a philosophy might be for her.

At any rate, such a reasoning had no significance under the situation in which my mother was crying bitterly in front of me. I did not know what to do, and just stared, unable to find a way to comfort her.

After that emotional breakdown, whenever I visited my parents' house, I made a point of giving senko stick incense to the Buddhist family altar. Since both my parents are still alive today, these ceremonial actions were meant for my deceased grandparents.

I don't know exactly why I am doing this. I do not have a solid religious belief of any kind. Part of me is enjoying the protocol, without any corresponding belief systems. What is certain is that I am doing it not only for commemorating my grandfather and grandmother, but also in consideration of the possibility that my mother and father might appreciate my action, especially my mother. In my heart, I still carry the burden of having made my mother cry bitterly on that evening. The image of my mother bending her body like a red boiled shrimp is still alive. I dedicate my senko stick incense to that image.

Some people say that deeds must be matched with thinking. If you don't believe in a particular system or religious belief, then it is not a good idea to perform the ceremonials, they claim. On the other hand, dedicating senko stick incense and visiting the Buddhist cemetery might be considered as something that belong to social customs, and can be performed within the secular context, with admittedly a certain level of religious connotations. The religious sayings of a Buddhist priest might be treated as a music to the ears, functioning quite respectively without its religious content or intent. Conceding to my mother this way can be regarded as a betrayal of my own world view, or as just following a convention which one can pursue with a clear conscience.

How to mourn for the deceased is both a matter of convention as well as a system of actions tightly coupled with the philosophy of life and death. In recent years, new ways of "disposing" of one's remains have emerged. For example, one may wish to have one's ashes taken into the space, propelled by a rocket. In co-existence with such trends of the new era, traditions continue to take strong holds, reflecting the momentum of history.

It is not just my mother. There are people who become quite serious concerning their own tombs. Things related to one's own death seem to occupy a special place in life. Human beings take special interests in one's way to look at life and death. I myself am naturally concerned with my own life and death. The thing is that it does not show as a concern about how I am to be buried.

We are all mortal. When faced with death, we all weep with the body bent like a red boiled shrimp, cry aloud, or get captured in a rage which one cannot really control.

The time may come when I weep without regard to the onlookers concerning my own death. On that poignant evening many years ago, such a moment visited my mother. My time might come any moment. We all die. Nobody is indifferent to the questions of life and death.

The cover of "Ikite Shinu Watashi"

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Telling the coins just by listening.

I had an very interesting chat session with people working as volunteers in Dialogue In the Dark Tokyo for a book project. These are visually challenged people. "Taicho" ("The Boss"), "Mikitty", and "Hiyamacchi" ("The mountain guy") were there.

When the chat was close to the end, I accidentally dropped a coin on the Chinese restaurant floor in which we were meeting. "100 yen!" exclaimed The Boss, without moving a muscle of his characteristically cool face.

"Correct!" I cried. "Do you mean you can tell the coins just by listening?"

"Yes, naturally." Mikitty said in her warm voice. The Mountain Man chuckled, nodding.

Getting very interested, I said "let's try", and they said "why not?"

I dropped the 1 yen, 5 yen, 10 yen, 50 yen, 100 yen, and 500 yen coins. Each time, they could tell which very accurately. I was impressed.

"The 50 yen and 100 yen coins are a bit tricky to tell apart", The Boss explained. "The 1 yen and 10 yen are the easiest."

What was impressive was the immediacy with which the replies came. Evidently they have been practicing and exercising the coin telling game all the time, all along. The rest of us, on the other hand, have been relying on the visual information to tell the coins we dropped, so that the particular neural function to decipher the sound of collision never developed to any substantial degree.

For me, it was yet another testimony of the richness of the diversity of ways that brains can develop, given various constraints and encouragements.

With that marvelous finishing fanfare of coins hitting the floor, we parted. I shook hands with The Mountain Man, Mikitty, and finally The Boss, and said good byes.

The Boss, who is a musician, had a really tight grip. The firmness and warmth was the coda of the evening music.

Monday, May 31, 2010

I cannot live without rice, I can live without rice.

I really stick to the rice. When I stay at a hotel, and have a choice between Japanese and Western breakfast, I always choose the Japanese one. My morning simply cannot start without a bowl of rice and preferably a cup of miso soup. If there were some pickles, that would be divine.

Having said that, my preference does seem to be context dependent.

When I am on the road, for example in Europe or in the United States, I simply discard my usual preferences. When I walk into the restaurant, I am quite forgetful of the fact that in the world there are such things as rice and miso soup. I am quite happy with bread, bacon, cereals, orange juice, and the usual suspects.

When I reflect on this very convenient change in my taste, I realize how flexible one's custom is. It is important to know your customs, and yet it is also important to know how flexible you can be.

I cannot live without rice, I can live without rice. These double aspects of my existence is an interesting problem poser for me.

You could build a whole system of philosophy from here.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Being out of your depth is one of the most marvelous experiences that life can bestow on us.

It may sound paradoxical or even outright absurd, but being out of your depth is one of the most marvelous experiences that life can bestow on us.

When you have a really moving experience, you feel that you're out of your depth to grasp it. Something is definitely there, but you cannot know or describe that something as a collection of explicit expressions. The experience flows and then disappears like tears in the rain, and you're left with a bittersweet aftertaste which you cling to like the last lifeline. If you let the small trace go, then the giant apparition that crossed your mind for a brief period would also disappear into the great void embracing all existence.

When in a social situation, like giving a lecture, or discussing things, or arguing that they should employ you, being out of your depth, or, even worse, letting people know that you are out of your depth is a nightmare. You feel so ashamed at the unintended display of your own incompetence. You feel you would like to hide in a hole. You wish you would disappear into the air. You wish you had never been born.

In audience with a great work of art, on the other hand, you can enjoy the state of being out of your depth alone. You need not let anyone else know your state of blissful misery. You can pant, roll, sigh, cry, regret and aspire in solitude. When the tears dry, you can start building your life all over again, as a changed person who sees the world in a slightly different manner.

It is good to be out of your depth from time to time. Especially when you do it alone.