Catalysts

In college we had a rule: once Hitler and/or Nazi’s are mentioned, a debate is officially ended.

In Europe, Nazis and Hitler are simply not be discussed openly in mixed company.  Jokes about concentration camps or any such light treatment of the holocaust is met with shock and disgust.  Nonetheless, even among my well-educated American friends, ironic references to both were frequently bandied about just like on the television sitcoms we were raised on.

Americans have the luxury of being jaded.  To be cynical.  To criticize their own government is a fair and easy substitute for understanding other places of the world.  We outsource that search for meaning to charitable organizations with clear goals published in glossy pamphlets.

Catalysts

In seventh grade, we learned about catalysts – molecules that facilitate chemical reactions without being consumed by them.  Enzymes are the organic catalysts that make human beings walk and talk and live.  Actually, catalysts, organic or otherwise, don’t strictly make anything happen.  They have no purpose per se.  They just are – they exist – and in so doing, help human beings do the same.

Wax is not a catalyst.  I suspected that it might be, as objects coated with wax, such as candle wicks, burn so much more readily than naked lengths of string.  Furthermore, combustion of candle wicks (and human beings for that matter) is a chemical reaction.  It made sense to me, but my science teacher told me that wax is not a catalyst for anything.  Its apparent helpfulness in the realm of incineration is nothing more than a physical and chemical coincidence, and is not worthy of the moniker “catalyst.”  This answer was enough for me, and I took it to be the truth at the time.

I only think about the catalysts that wax is not just now because I am writing you now by the light of two Japanese tea candles in my three-room Japanese apartment where I live with my two Lithuanian roommates.  I am not allowed to live here; the apartment is rented as a double.  Whenever the doorbell rings and I am home, I have to jump into the closet and slide the door shut behind me in case it’s the landlord checking in.  My name is not on the lease because if someone is going to get kicked out of the house, it should be me.  Like it or not, the situation is such that I have more economic flexibility at the moment than do my friends.

The small inequalities

We have all just finished a six-month contract at the world Exposition in Aichi, Japan, where people could come to see all that the world has to offer.  And what the world has to offer, it seems, is a good deal of inequality, at levels that I had never before imagined.

It is not necessarily the huge injustices that are the most striking.  It is the small ones that make it difficult for me to sleep.  And the small ones are everywhere.  What is even harder for me to accept is how easily those small problems are ignored by anyone unless you actively try to find them or have them clearly and unambiguously pointed out to you.

The small injustices are not the ones that appear in UNICEF brochures, not discussed at international summits, these are micro problems that reflect the mindset that creates these iniquities.  I don’t know the causality, I can’t say which is a catalyst for the other, but I do know that for no reason except for accident of birthplace, some people will walk away from things like World Expos with a hell of a lot more money than they deserve, and that some walk away with a whole lot less.

See, while all of us were paid well by the standards of our home countries, but whereas per diem allowances were a nice bonus for the staff of some pavilions, it made up the majority of the compensation for the staff of others.  For example, the monthly salary for some pavilions was roughly equivalent to three days of per diem.

Nonetheless, we decided to chance it and to live out the remaining two and a half months of our still-unexpired Japanese work visas in Tokyo.  Why not Nagoya, or Kobe, one of the smaller, cheaper Japanese cities?  I think my roommate put it best when she said “if we are going to live in Japan, risking everything we have and more, I think we deserve to risk it all in Tokyo.”

The Tokyo refugee dating scene

We call ourselves “the refugees.”  And like many refugees, their college education, natural charm, and fluency in Lithuanian, Russian, English, and Japanese, make them far more qualified for employment than most American and European expats wandering aimlessly around Tokyo.  It’s not that their gamble isn’t paying off; one has an offer to work at the Lithuanian embassy and her schedule as an English teacher is filling up rapidly.  She has even found a few Japanese students who want to learn Lithuanian.  The other has found work as a server at a high-end restaurant off Aoyama-Dori, the “Champs Elysees” of Tokyo, and just tonight returned from her first (of many, I hope) gig as a runway model.

But there is a darker side to the experience as well.  In skimming the classified ads, both are aware of the opportunities presented by the pervasive and less-than-thinly veiled Japanese fetishism and obsession with the Westerner – want ads for Western hostesses to entertain Japanese men non-sexually in posh-looking nightclubs.

The myth of course, being that most Japanese men feel powerless to attract the attentions of a Western woman without paying for the service.  But a myth propagated by both sides for so long has a way of becoming the truth.

My roommates tell me that many Japanese men still become so dumbstruck by the sight of a Western woman that they will stop on the street and stare, or peep furtively over newspapers on the train.  I’ve seen it too: Western women reducing perfectly intelligent and articulate, grown, Japanese men reduced to gawking speechlessness and the charm of a fourteen-year-old boy.  It’s no wonder that many Western women leave the country with the impression of Japanese men are sex-blinded little boys.

That said, my experience with the Japanese women my age in the dating pool has not been great either, and I see the behavior that contributes to so many Western men’s perception of the average Japanese woman as a silly, giggly, little girl ready to leap into bed at the first racy compliments tripping off of a Western tongue.

I asked my Japanese women friends if and why they really do prefer Western men.  Evidently, Western men are much kinder, will open a door for you, or will say that you look beautiful – things that Japanese men evidently never do.

Now I don’t know if that’s true, as I have neither courted nor been courted by any man, Japanese or Western, but I can say that I have observed ungentlemanly behavior on both sides.

I will simply mention my own pet theory that the majority of Western men in Japan know that this preconception exists, and do their best to fulfill it to their benefit.

The plight of the half-breed

I may be wrong; I may be too cynical.  At any rate, I don’t seem to fully benefit from this preconception of Western men because of my impure racial status.  As half Japanese, I am not quite western enough to be exotic, nor am I quite Japanese enough to be fully accepted as one.  I do, however, seem to appear Japanese enough for white women to assume that upon meeting them for the first time, I will stop and drool over their Western-ness, a fact which became very clear to me while working in the international environment of Expo 2005.

In fact, most Japanese see me as fully white, whereas in North America and Europe, most white people consider me (even after being corrected) to be Chinese, which is evidently ‘close enough’ for them.  To complete the triangle of racial confusion, I recently discovered that in China, or at least a Republic of China, most people assume that I am Japanese.

The politics of travel for the modern circus acrobat

Last week, I returned from an eight-day contract in Taiwan.  What exactly I was expected to do there is still not clear to me, though what I did do there is now done — I worked with the Taiwanese National Junior College of Performing Arts and the Taiwan Arts International Association as an instructor, collaborative creator, and performer.  What I will remember of the experience is so much more complicated than that.

I am a circus performer.  I would like to believe that there is more to what I am, or rather, I wish that being a circus performer was something that I could believe to be important.  Something that I would not have to justify and qualify to myself with additional clauses like: “but I am really a writer,” or “with college degrees in completely unrelated fields,” or “but I hope to study political science next.”

One of the unique aspects of the classical circus tradition that carried through from medieval times is that a travelling performer is seen as a true “other.”  We are definitely no native to the towns and cities where we play, but we are not seen as simply tourists, either because we spend more time in the various locations and interact more directly with the locals.  It is my goal to be able to fit into the local environment completely – to pick up on enough of the local language, history, customs, and politics – to really feel at home no matter where I am in the world.

So far, it has taken me from the internationally isolated expanses of the United States to schizophrenic and judgmental, if equally uniformed, Canada, to the injured multiculturalism and thumping nightclubs of Holland, to the seedy side of the Ramblas in Barcelona and its denizens as contrasted with the pace of life in the smaller coastal towns of Catalunya.  The marble-paved central square of Torino resonating with the droning and birdcalls of a misplaced digeridoo, the lakeshore, affluent college town of Zurich, the provincial countryside in France as contrasted with the very different remoteness of an tiny town clinging to an impossibly steep mountainside high in the French alps.  Munich, Nyon, Tokyo, Nagoya, New Zealand, and now, most recently, Taipei, Taiwan, ROC.

Everybody has an enemy.  Everybody has his own prejudices.  Everyone finds a way to love himself, even if they hate doing it.

I am on the bus, riding in leather-upholstered comfort from the airport to downtown Taipei.  This is the first time since leaving the United States four years ago that I have not been capable in the native language of a country that I am working in.  For me, capable means being able to get a hotel room, order dinner and a drink, meet a new person, and make a woman laugh without ever having to speak a word of English.

I hate to do it, but it is inevitable.  In a new country, I can not help but make comparisons to other places.  It helps me keep everything in order in my mind.  I worry that by drawing comparisons to places I know will keep me from seeing the new place as distinct and unique, but in fact, I think it has the opposite effect.  By comparing one city to another, I bring into focus all of the things which make them different, like overlaying two photos that differ only in the smallest details and holding them up to the light.

Forgive my romanticism, but there is a soul to a city.  It is in its smell, perhaps – no city smells like any other.  I have to be careful always to separate the feel of the wind in a city, Boston, for example, from the memories that I might associate with that city.  The 11pm sunset and 4am dawn of summer in Holland is not the feeling of a woman’s hair gliding through my fingers and a light kiss on her cheek to the wafting perfume of blue roses, though the two are forever intertwined.  One is for everybody, the other is for me.  And her, I hope, always for her.

I used a new trick in Taiwan.  A city fits a person like a new outfit; well, or poorly.  Standing on a corner next to a vacant lot under a highway overpass with the buzz of Vespa-like scooters Dopplering around me as the lights in a distant apartment complex blinked out one at a time, I imagined myself to be in Minneapolis.  Or Boston.  Or Tokyo.  All cities that surely became my home in one of the alternate realities of my life, and one that actually became my home in the current alternate reality – at least for another month.  Separate from the memories that I associate with each city, I was surprised to find that Taipei could feel like home as easily as any other city I could think of.  And so I decided that I would explore it as though I lived there.  Meeting people, making friends, wasting time.

There is a state of openness that I find I can only achieve when I travel.  It makes me handsomer and more interesting, I think.  It makes me risk more.  My best friend tells me cynically that “people always love you when you are leaving.”  I guess it is only fair, because I always love them when I get there.

I found that all of the people I met in Taiwan were amazingly open compared to what I had come to know in Japan.  The political complications and views were just below the surface, and could be exposed with the slightest provocation, expressed with an onslaught of passion that in addition to being a little unnerving, was fully refreshing.

The key issue of course, was that of Taiwan’s independence from mainland China.  Among the people I spoke to about the issue, there was no identifiable consensus, nor was I able to find a clear demographic divide in their views.  No one seemed to subscribe to a majority “party line,” though everyone could list off a buffet of party lines that they were not willing to subscribe to.  According to them, such simplifications do not adequately address the complexities.  This was unlike what I was used to in Canada, for example, where the consensus among my artist peers was that the United States is bad, though people rarely researched any deeper than that.  In the United States, I find that there are those who accept the party lines, and those who calmly step outside of the arena entirely.

For example, there are the American travelers whom I encounter who respond to any criticism of their homeland simply by saying that they “didn’t vote for George Bush,” as if that absolves them from responsibility.  Or even worse, those Americans who sew Canadian flags on their backpacks to hide from scrutiny instead of informing themselves enough to engage with criticism of American foreign policy and intelligently discuss current politics of the foreign country than the average local.

In preparing to visit Taiwan, I read as much as I could about the history and current politics of the island.  I felt like I had a pretty good overview of the issue, but after only eight days there, I understood how each person’s unique family history and world view will forge, over lifetimes and generations, a spectrum of possible opinions on the matter.  The articles and books I read could not do justice to the intricacies of any single individual’s story.  Even the people who didn’t give a shit had detailed, well thought-out arguments to support that viewpoint!

The Taiwanese certainly seemed unified by their disagreements.

Teaching new circus in Taiwan

I was in Taiwan to teach Western-style physical theater and modern clown to the state-supported National Chinese Opera and National Circus Troupe as well as performers from an established Chinese Opera company.  I was also supposed to help create and perform in a “modernized” acrobatic/circus/clown show.  I wouldn’t have felt qualified to volunteered for such a job, even before discovering that it was infinitely more difficult than I first supposed.

In Taiwan, budgets are rarely high enough to invite a Cirque du Soleil-style show and this is the company that defines modern circus for most of the world.  Very few western dance companies, theater companies, and musicians, let alone large circuses, regularly make Taiwan a must-visit top on tours, even tours that take them through Asia.  Those artists that do perform in Taiwan rarely stay to participate in any sort of exchange with local artists.

For arts in general, but particularly for the specialized fields of clowning and physical acting, this means that a Taiwanese artist in Taiwan interested in an area of art that develops off-island, they have little choice but to research on the internet.

I met a Taiwanese Flamenco dancer at a dinner party who explained that five years before, it was impossible to learn Flamenco in Taiwan.  Only five years ago some foreign Flamenco teachers first came to visit, and had been received with much enthusiasm.  As a result, their students voraciously consumed what the teachers had to offer, but at the same time, as the Taiwanese were unhindered by the years of history and tradition that the instructors were, some interesting and novel hybridization took place.

Modern dance has a longer and more home-grown history in Taiwan.  Some internationally known dance companies developed, but as the time came to replace founding members with new local talent, it was evident that the pool of trained dancers was not as deep as in North America or Europe.  Taiwan lacks a long tradition of Western classical dance, and therefore, fewer young dancers.  What Taiwan does have, however, is a long tradition of the traditional Chinese Opera, with its athletic blend of martial arts, acrobatics, and object manipulation.  New dancers were often recruited from those Chinese Opera, performers who, for one reason or another, had retired from the Opera, which brought a vocabulary to the Taiwanese modern dance repertoire that is not seen anywhere else in the world.

But without real person-to-person exchange, research alone cannot put flesh on the skeleton of pure research.  It is even worse when you consider that the internet is more a reflection of popular opinion than actual fact.  For proof, simply enter “clowns” into a google search to see what my Taiwanese students were expecting me to teach them.

This is a valid style of clowning with a long history in the United States.  But such clowning is far from the European tradition and the experience of traditional audiences in Asia or anywhere else in the world.  But without a pre-existing circus clown tradition in Taiwan, there was little resistance to the importation this out-of-context image of a “Western clown.”  But it is superficial importation taken out of context has resulted in a funny sort of game of cultural “telephone.”

So my lesson plan that focused largely on using honesty and vulnerability to express your true self on stage with subtle simplicity and to fight impulses to “perform” was pretty alien to my Taiwanese students’ preconception of clowning.  My first clue should have been when I was given as possible themes of my workshops “the facial expressions of clowns,” and “acrobatic falls of clowns.”  Their notion of clowning has been formed from an outside-in perspective and follows the wushu, Chinese Opera, and circus training pedagogy of repetition and imitation.  Chinese opera roles are learned by physical rote repetition, and circus numbers are taken move-for-move from numbers that were performed 10, 20, or even hundreds of years ago.

But in some ways, these artists, my students, were also fed up with aspects of this tradition.  They saw that what is happening in international modern circus is lacking in what they practice in Taiwan, but they couldn’t identify just exactly what it was.  But one thing seemed to click.  They were obsessed with one principle I mentioned in the first class: “feeling.”  I talked about only doing what we really feel on stage, not doing anything artificially, and this seemed to be a novel idea that resonated with them.  They asked me countless questions about feeling: What do I feel when I am doing my circus number?  How can performers learn how to feel more when they’re on stage?  When I am onstage, are my feelings my feelings or are they acted feelings, etc.?  Unfortunately, these are the same questions that I ask myself, and therefore I had no clear answers for them.

Teaching the class in a country and to students with vastly different performing arts traditions opened my eyes.  Exercises that I considered my “throw away” exercises, ones that are done to death in every acting class I had ever taken or taught, suddenly took on entirely different meaning.  Old explanations of certain exercises were no longer adequate, and I saw students discovering whole new truths and applications that I had never even considered before.

The culmination of the whole experience was an on-stage appearance with four other Western clowns and half of my students in a performance that showed just a little bit of what can come of young artists searching for new meaning in a country’s traditional arts.

By the way, it turns out that what is actually burning in a candle is the wax itself, and that the wick acts more like a catalyst than the rest of the candle.  The way the wick is manufactured and woven influences many aspects of a candle’s performance such as longevity and amount of smoke produced.  All this and much more information for people who care about such things can be found on the internet here.

I pray that we are all people who care about such things.

Why Bulgaria?!

For the last few months I have been working on getting funding for a project based on Bulgarian author Aleko Konstantinov the author of To Chicago and Back which is a travelogue based on his 1893 trip to the Chicago World’s fair.  He was assassinated by a pistol shot to the heart years later in 1897 and his pierced heart is exhibited today in his house in Svishtov.  

it really is fucking strange.  you ask me “Why Bulgaria?”  and all I can do talk half-stupidly about “signs.”  Just a feeling stemming from lots of little moments and coincidences that lead me to believe that I am somehow working on the right project at the right time of my life.   

For example, I need help from a woman who received this same travel grant to Bulgaria that I am applying for.  What did she research with her grant?  the life and work of Mikhail Bulgakov, author of “The Master and Margarita” which is a book recently given to me by my good friend The Political Scientist. 

In researching theaters in Bulgaria, I come across a site created by a fellow playwright, a Bulgarian playwright, and in reading his first play I find a reference to the role of performers in society and as a social lubricant, laxative, and anesthetic spoken by a young Harry Houdini who quotes a passage concerning the circus from the book “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” also given to me by my same dear friend, The Political Scientist! 

So, there is no rationalism in this.  It is not Bulgaria itself so much as a sticky little mess of a life that sits like a clump of damp lint with little charges of energy zipping around inside of it, bouncing off the static charges caused by its own internal frictions. 

There is no Bulgaria, nor is there any choice.

Acrobat entering from the ceiling of the Toyota Pavilion at the Aichi Expo in 2005

Hello From The Toyota Pavilion

Since starting this contract, things have been very stressful and very busy.  Two fellow artists (of an original 5!) were fired the day before the premiere, and a technician who we suspected of sabotaging the other artists’ reputations was supposed to come on as a substitute.  However, at the last minute she did not take the job leaving us to cover the show load at three, which nearly killed us. We’re trying to get the other two artists rehired, though one of them might not be available any longer. 

The show itself is very fun, however, and being back in japan is something I have been dreaming of for the last 12 years!  I feel very much at home here, and very peaceful.  As if I am in my own skin.  I still do miss the more European style of life that I have grown accustomed to over the last four years, but the staff is European, so when i need a good fix of coffee, crepes, or a night of chatting about life, I can always find a way. 

It is weird, having lived in the US, European, and Japanese lifestyles so long, I really feel like I am missing something no matter which I am living in currently.  The positive side is that I feel at home with people from all over the world and that I almost always have something in common with anyone I meet, and in this business, you meet a lot of people.  In this project alone, I think I have met 50 people over the last months. 

One of the best things I have been able to do in Japan has been to meet up with the Senseis, family friends from my childhood.  They showed The Contortionist and myself around Tokyo over the course of a week, and reminded me of how wonderful they were to me and my family as a child.  I hope to make it back up to Tokyo to see them again, and also to invite them to Nagoya to enjoy the Expo.

Making Things Complicated

The sleeping bag is damp.

I have been lying on it non-stop for three hours, and didn’t even notice it until now, shifting positions.

It is in one of these rare moments when the wind dies down and the surf drops to absolute silence… the gulls all around stop screeching as if collectively looking over their shoulders at the ocean, as I have.

Behind us, I hear our kite drop to the ground.

And the whole scene comes back to life again, birds, waves, and wind.

We have downed two bottles of wine, grilled eel, and a block of parmesan cheese.

This is the way I like to travel, with no itinerary, but rather a guiding desire – today’s is to see the sand dunes south of Hamamatsu.

And see them we have, for hours now.  It is a strand of beach, whipped up into hills of sand by the incessant action of the wind, one kilometer deep by 8 kilometers long.

The sun is sinking in the west, and I am cradling this adorable woman’s head to my chest, and she coos to me slightly drunkenly in her ever so slight accent:

“Let’s go back to the hotel room and fuck like crazy.”

It is good to be in love, it is good to have a girlfriend.  It is good to have a person who challenges you and who adores you, and who you challenge and adore right back.  It is good to be in synch with someone, psychologically, intellectually, sexually.

But these needs never seem to be met by one person, and this woman is not my girlfriend.

“I can’t do that,” I reply.  “you know that.”

“Then let’s go to an izakaya and drink some more and then go back to the hotel room and fuck like crazy.”

I am being good, and I laugh off her advances.

She has known from day one, well two, that I have a girlfriend, and that I am not interested in another.

But the important things are not what is going on between us, it is the feel of the wind on my feet and the smell of the sand.

I remove my arm from under her head, lolling it to one side as I rise and walk to our kite and coax it back up to the sky while she sits up behind me and lights a cigarette.

It is not quite dark enough to be called dark, but the wind has changed directions and flavors.

Can this be considered cheating in mind?

To have someone with whom I can speak in all the ways that I wish I could speak to my girlfriend, to do all those kooky things that she would never even consider trying, laughing off as immature or self-indulgent on my part?

Like staring at a hermit crab that we have just fished out of the harbor for half an hour to see how long it will take him to get up the courage to peek out of his shell at us.

Rescuing a long dead sea cucumber from a rocky grave.

Talking with a restaurant owner about his pet rabbits, long deceased, but whose amazing feats, like navigating flights of stairs in order to defecate into a little box, are forever memorialized in his memory.

“There are people for whom the details are important, and people for whom the big things are important,” I say.

“I am a details person,” she says, without hesitation.

“How so?”

Now, she hesitates, a little – “Well, what did you mean by what you said?”

“I don’t know, really.  But you seem to.”

We are silent for a while.  Pigeons are wrestling each other with their beaks.  I wonder what they are doing.

“They are kissing,” she says, and takes their picture.  Then she takes a picture of a landmark hotel.  Behind her, one of the pigeons is squashing the other under his feet.  talons, even.  She is oblivious, and by the time she turns around, they are circling around each other, disheveled.

The night before, we had been lying on the beach.  Today, we are returning back to our respective homes, where we will sleep and prepare for another day of work at the expo.

After saying goodbye, I search for a local-looking restaurant to get dinner.  I enter, and can immediately tell that as a foreigner and non-local, I am not very welcome.

“We only have curry left,” says the owner.  He is drunk and lisping, and the locals he is drinking with are eyeing me suspiciously.

“Curry will be fine,” I reply, and sit down at a corner table away from the unruly gang to watch the baseball on TV.

The curry is served up without fanfare, and I thank the owner.

As I am just about finished, his wife, the chef, emerges from the kitchen with a green chili on a small plate with a dollop of miso sauce on the side.

“Can you eat this?” she asks me.

“Of course.”

“It is spicy.”

“I know.”

I dip it in the sauce and eat it while she watches me suspiciously.

“Do you need water?”

“No, it was delicious.”

She shrugs and disappears to the other side of the room.  I hear her telling the rough-looking gang of regulars that I had eaten it.  She come back with a plate full, and drops it next to me.

“Go ahead.”

“Thanks,” I reply, and keep on eating the chilis.  One of the regulars sidles up to me and delivers the regular speech.”

“Where ya from ya look a little Asian I can tell by the nose you don’t look Japanese you could eat those things, thought maybe you were Indonesian could tell by the nose people with a triangle nose they can eat spicy food, me also, I’m not all Japanese 800 years ago my family came from Mongolia, but here in Japan I need to keep that a secret.”

I nod and smile in all the right places.  He is drunk.  The woman appears to have lost interest, and after telling me that chilis are too spicy for her, she retreats to the kitchen.

“What are you wearing under your pants?” he asks me.

“Underwear.  Shorts.”

He looks around furtively.  “You know Japanese underwear?”

“No,” I say.

“Well, there are no women around, so…”

He undoes his belt and drops his pants enough to show me the rag-style underwear that many older people in Japan still wear.  Younger too, for all I know.  Then he does his pants up again.

I swallow my bite of curry rice.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“Of course not,” I reply.  It was interesting to see.

The cook comes out again, and joins us.”

“I showed him my underwear,” said the local.

“Bullshit,” she replies.

“Yes, I did.  didn’t I?”

This is getting weird, but I respond, “Yes, he did.  It was interesting.”

“I’m worried he thinks I am some sort of pervert,” says the man.

“Not at all,” I say, and am thankful when the conversation turns to another topic, what I am doing in Japan.

“Show us,” the cook demands, when she learns that i am an acrobat.  I can tell she doesn’t believe me.  She is trying to get a rise out of me, but I don’t know why.  I stand up and get ready to to a backflip as she calls out to the whole restaurant that I am supposed to be some kind of acrobat, and now I’m going to prove it.

I do a backflip, like a trained monkey, bow low, and retreat to my corner booth to finish the last bites of my meal.  I gather my belongings, and graciously accept the presents that the customers of the bar offer me for providing a little entertainment tonight.

Before I go to the register to pay, as i am putting on my jacket, the old woman implores me to stay in japan.

“Please stay and live here,” she says.

“Of course,” I reply.

“Of course.”

And it is time for me to go home, now.

The night before, we went to an izakaya.  Three or so, to be specific, and ate and drank until we could eat and drink no more.

I love that she can speak Japanese better than I can, but that when it comes to the street, I still have an advantage.

We are mistaken for every dark nationality under the sun, except for Black and Asian.  Indian, Spanish, Mexican…

An odd pair.

We fill up on food long before we feel the effects of the alcohol, so we head back to the hotel, picking up some strong Japanese fruit liquor along the way.

We turn on NHK, the Japanese public television station, which is showing the X-Games.  stunt BMX.

“Did you ever do that?” she asks me.

“God no.  It’s crazy.”

“You have done a lot of crazy things,” she says.

The lights are off now, and the alcohol has worn off.  the television channel is changing as I drift between sleep and consciousness.  It settles on a Japanese show in which a nerdy looking scientist recites facts about the surface of various objects in the solar system before naming them and showing satellite images of them.  The antagonists of this science program are two women who squeal orgasmicly at the information.

Surface temperature of 270 degrees Celcius…90 times the atmospheric pressure of Earth… atmosphere made up principally of carbon dioxide…

“Venus,” I mutter. “Gold planet,” I repeat, in Japanese, eyes closed.  The bed feels nice.

“Gold planet” confirms the scientist.

Squeal!

Brightest object in the blah blah blah tidal forces of blah blah no cratering blah blah

“Europa, moon of Jupiter.” the pillow is soft.

“Europa”

Squeal!

“How do you know all this?” she asks.

“Used to be my job.  I was a…” fuck it.

“A what?”

“let’s go to bed.”

She knows that I am not just an acrobat, but she can only suspect.  I don’t talk like how she imagines an acrobat would talk.  I don’t ask acrobat questions.

She comes to bed.  It is not the first time that we have fallen asleep next to each other, but it is the first time that she is breathing this way.

“I have the power, actually,” she says, “I can kiss you, but you can not kiss me.”

I don’t answer, but she moves close to me.  She can tell that I find her attractive.

The next thing I know, I am no longer being good.  There is kissing, and the breathing intensifies and I am flooded with images of my girlfriend.

She undoes her kimono.

I feel her hand on me.  I can feel where this is going.  Warm.  A summer night.

“No,” I say.

She doesn’t stop.

“No,” I repeat, more firmly.  “We need to stop.”

And she listens.  Falling to the side of me.  Breathing changing again.

Like a hubcap coming off a moving car.

“What are you thinking about?” she asks.

“If we do this, it can never be undone.”

And then she is on top of me again.  I want to resist, but that enveloping pressure so familiar and yet as unique as a fingerprint, lulls my protests.

And it is over.

“How do you feel?” she asks?

“Very guilty.”

“Nothing good at all?” she says, after a pause.

I say nothing.

“I raped you,” she says, “and now you hate me.”

I don’t hate her, and I tell her that.  I don’t even know if I was raped.

I never said yes, but I didn’t fight back, and when I let myself go, I enjoyed it, but immediately after, all the reality came flooding back, and I was back there again.

A dog.

I still love my girlfriend, and this woman knows that.

I can not sleep with this woman again, and she knows that too.

Though there are times when I am filled with a type of affection for her that I wish that I could feel for my girlfriend, I do not think that this woman could ever be my girlfriend.

And I will lie to my girlfriend about her.

And I continue to descend ever deeper into a complexity that I could have never imagined before I left the “right life” to find something else.

I feel so much more, for myself, and for others, than I ever did before.

And I am so much worse, and yet so much better that I ever was before.

In the morning, she asks me again how I am.

I smile at her, and say “you know.”  And then pull her to me.  When she can’t see me anymore, I stop smiling.  My hand is on her thigh, and I embrace her from behind.

She is beautiful, even with my eyes closed, but she is not my girlfriend, and never will be.

“You make things too complicated for yourself,” she says.

And suddenly,

Without a doubt,

I know that she is right.

 

Free Woman

I don’t know why writing always has this feel for me.  Like I am chasing after a huge mass rolling downhill, faster and faster.  In a way it is exciting; trying to catch these words and ideas before they escape me.  I look at the errors i make in my writing, and they often give me clues as to the way I think.  Lots of replacements of homonyms – I am thinking more in sounds than in concepts when it comes to formulating an idea.  But it is at the same time a little intimidating, I often find myself not wanting to sit down and write simply because I am made uneasy by this feeling of losing ideas that would otherwise slip into the passe all by themselves.

I feel like I am chasing these things away rather than letting them diffuse away at their own rate.  The smaller, less important images first, and the larger, headier, more involved notions later by a standard principle of a random walk.

Like perfume in a crowded room.

She looks up at the concrete over our heads and sighs.  she tells me that she is a free woman now, that it is over.  On her birthday, she adds.

“Was he nice about it?” I ask.  “Did he aim for your birthday?”

“I just feel bad because I should have done it earlier.  He was expecting.”

She looks so good tonight in her solemnly festive black dress that spills so nicely over her classy fishnet stockings bound by the straps of her delicate but just-a-little-threatening high heeled-dancing shoes.

Later in the night, after everyone has left, we will remain there, dancing in her room as the sun comes up, cheek to cheek.  Her, free, and me, not, but at the moment there is only this dance.  I can smell her.

She tells me she is drunk… I can feel the heat of the party still radiating off of her body, and I believe her.  “One more song,” she says, for the fifth time maybe, and I am glad she is insisting, or I would have already gone to bed and missed these moments.

And it all comes down to these moments, doesn’t it?

At the risk of feeling like a spectator at the aquarium that is my life, I feel this odd distance that allows me to see the larger patterns at work here.

The rocking back and forth of a van full of Lithuanians chanting a national hymn called “3 million,” and understanding the emotion in the words enough to claim to be fluent in this language.

They are my friends in a way that I can not often be with native English speakers.  We hide behind the language, the cleverness therein, and forget that what it can be about is this.

The steam of alcohol on your breath and a crooked smile that accompanies a situation that would never come to pass in more lucid times.

But i can look around the room that is before me, seeing the image that unfolds, and understand that this is one of the moments that truly belongs in my life.  there is a blanket of sadness, a fleeting quality.

We know that we are living in a paradise and that it will end so quickly.

This is my seventh paradise, maybe, and I am worried that I will soon run out.

Japanese laisser-faire to middle school rebel to high school dropout to MIT kung-fu Obi-Wan to circus school debasement and squalor to the high-stakes gambling and image pawning of show-production to this odd mix of international politics and romance… wabisabi.

The further I go through my life the more willing I am to stare at nothing and see something.  I don’t know if I am deceiving myself, or if I am more in tune to the subtleties in shading of a white wall.

A wall of cricket-chirps and frog-cricking in a rice paddy.

A fucking rice paddy.

To be in Japan, again, finally, even, and in the end, it seems like another step, nothing mystical at all, but rather an inevitability.  One drunken step after another, one friend met and departed.

I love these people, the ones dancing in front of me.

She will accuse me later of having given in to my supposedly long-abandoned habit of showing off.

“I like to live my everyday life so that a person watching me will not know that i am an acrobat,” I said, proudly.  like I this makes me a fucking prince.

But these women are showing off too, and I would be callous not to appreciate it in good fun.  I am jealous of the way that they can move, and the way that they are hanging from the rafters in the ceiling.  There are moments of real poetry in what they are doing.  A duet of sexy pole dancing that has an added element of something lost.

The stage is perhaps wasted on performers.  I would so much rather paint these spaces with the people that I really love.  Like the people that I am at this party with.

The Japanese boyfriend feels a little out of place, but he is here all the same, and talking, too, god bless him.

The little dramas and the comedies that are intertwining and playing out on this wine-spattered tapestry.

We are representing a whole country here.

I know every word that is passing from one mouth into the ears of the other.  they are singing about me, but I do not know the specifics.

I understood a lot, here, with these people who have not forgotten how to live, as I had.

I remembered a good part of it, and I discovered things that I had never known.

I learned how to dance for myself, and how to dance for an audience.  I learned how to dance with a partner.

I learned how to hold a woman closely, to press her close to me and breathe the same air as her; to strip everything away from the experience except for our emotions.

Before I would have fucked it up with a stupid comment, or tried to rationalize it away for myself, and in doing so, lost out on the deluge of colors that I am only now starting to appreciate as another side of life.

It is like seeing an abstract painting after a lifetime of hating this pretentious shit, and all of a sudden, having it come together and touch me in a way that is so real and incommunicable.

Perhaps I was hooked on my own insistance that that which is not communicable is not real, and therefore indescribable emotions are a reflection of a weakness in the communicator rather than another class of life experiences altogether.  One that you need to plunge into completely in order to fully experience.  No tethers, no ties, no safety lines.

The only one you are cheating is yourself, here.  And you will know if you are cheating.  and if you are trying to hide the fact that you are cheating from yourself.  And if you are trying to hide the fact that you’re hiding the fact that you are cheating from yourself…

When you really go skinny dipping for real, without trying to hide anything, that is when you are skinny dipping.  Not when you are telling yourself “it is OK, I am with friends,” or “at least this is a quiet part of the lake” or “in my g-string is basically naked.”  when you are just naked and wet and don’t give a fuck, that is when you are maybe about to understand some modern art.  or a haiku.  or fucking Chopin, for Christ’s sake!

I am getting a private chair-dance from four beautiful Lithuanian women at once, and not thinking about anything other than how beautiful they are.

Later on, sure, I am examining the fuck out of the situation, but at the time, I was able to just be there, like eyes stuck in a brain.

Her fishnet stockings are torn.

The shoes are untied now, and thrown up against the door.  Eviscerated.

Hair salon style mussed and the dress is crumpled in a corner somewhere.

The sun spills over the mountains onto the balcony where a smoldering cigar teeters on the edge of a tin ashtray.

Mist churns, rolling off the treetops into the valleys.  it is just starting to boil away in the pale blue of the Japanese morning.

This is a horizontal light.

 

 

 

 

http://www.getty.edu/museum/media/images/web/enlarge/00799501.jpg

Muse

Mutherfucker time to plug in to the old flow.  get those juices flowin’ and don’t stop till I find myself crammed up against the side of a bent up rusty drainpipe somewhere south of the Louisiana turnpike.

Maybe in the end we don’t ever travel so far as we feel.

Fingers stroking lightly over the keys, the questions living under my eyelids, unable to see anything except  for the words that are not even on the paper yet.  Nonexistant.  presoit.

He tells me it is a pleasure, and honor.  we talk briefly about the Bulgarian writer and what he says:

A man is most himself when he travels.  A liar is a even more of a liar when he travels, but a good man is always good.  “My English is not so good,” he tells me.

I tell him that I understood perfectly.  I understood before he even opened his mouth, but I did not have the luxury of knowing that someone else said these things in this way earlier.  Now I can rest in it like a little idea bed, a conceptual cupola.

I see it as a naked Tinkerbell dancing in a dewy ivy leaf, flirting with the camera lens like a faerie fucking Marilyn Monroe.

We head to the Red Cross pavilion.  “It is hard to see,” he agrees, “but people need to think of such things.”

“I wanted to get a Red Cross watch,” I tell him.  “I’ll go with.”

So we walk to the pavilion under the same umbrella, in that uncomfortable way where you feel like the person holding the umbrella is trying to force you out from under it because of how close they are trying to walk next to you, so you walk in a zig-zag like some sort of passive-aggressive pushmepullyou until you arrive at the Red Cross pavilion where there is a 25-minute wait and you decide that after all, 25 minutes is still a pretty long period of time to buy a watch, much less save the world.

So we head back to Bulgaria to drink wine.

I want to believe that I am in Bulgaria, nestled in snugly next to the Black Sea like an arm under a pillow, smiling at the ceiling in some dream soaked in the snoring self-consciousness that is personal resentment.

I want to feel the history that is seeping through the cobblestones that the uneven cafe table that I am sitting at rocks gently back and forth to the rhythm of my involvement in my conversation.

Thunk.  Chink.  Ca-chunk.  Scrch.  Whunt.

I feel the wine on my lips and the slow path it blazes to my stomach.

I am hearing their words, “the presents are not important, what is important, what is important is the friendship.  In our lives, the most important thing is our relationships.”

They are piling wine and yogurt and cookies on me.  At first, it was “only honey and yogurt.  no wine.”  the tell me this proudly, mis-remembering that I do not drink.  It is clear that I do in short time, and they make up for there blunder of familiarity by stocking my bag to the top with cold bottles of white wine.  The condensation is already starting to soak through the bag and I hope it will get to my house without dissolving, because, god help me, it is OK wine.

“Every time I look at this pin,” Nic tells me in earnestness, “i will remember our friendship.  We are like best friends.”

There is no irony here, there is not drama, there is no jadedness.  we are indeed like best friends.

I am embarrassed by my presents.  Three metal pins in the shape of music-playing robots.

My friends have given me a traditional Bulgarian perfume container, a CD of their traditional dance show, cookies and wine and yogurt to eat, and more than I can comfortably carry to take home.

“It doesn’t play music, smell good, or taste good.”  I say.  It is a pin.

“Is it ‘pins’ or ‘pin?'” asks Bobi, through Georg.

“It is pin.” I say.  “One pin, two pins.”

“Pins,” repeats Georg.

“Pins,” repeats Bobi.

When people do not speak the same language and yet are still able to be like best friends, there is an acceptance that we are going to sound mentally retarded to each other.  The trick in these situations is to assume that the natural state of interpersonal relationships is fundamentally retarded, mentally.

Later, Georg will take the Bavarian to see the Bulgarian dance show, “too many Germans come to visit Bulgaria.”  I know that he means to say “very many,” he has made this error consistently in the two months that he and I have made semblant the state of “best friends,” but she is shocked.

Georg doesn’t like Germans?  He wishes that they would stay in Germany where they belong — those fucking fascist Nazi history-rewriting pig-dogs?

Oh, wait.

He means “very,” I say, embarrassed to correct my best friend in front of him.

His English is no better than mine in terms of how well he can express what he means.

He says “too” and means “very”.

I say “we need to figure out a way to somehow share each others interests at a level more sympathetic and commensurate with each others’ experience in that interest,” when I mean to say “I feel alone.”

I write an essay, and mean “I feel surrounded by compassionate people.”

I feel so sure that what I am about to say will flawlessly convey what I am feeling.  I trust in communication as much as the next guy, but there is a level of honesty that is abandoned the second that I stop feeling and start reacting.

The Bulgarian writer, as Georg explains to me later, was killed by the communists in a political revolution in Bulgaria in the nineteen twenties.

He had written a story about a typical Bulgarian man, one that was scathing in its apparent honesty, and was so well communicated, so transparently transferred from this artists heart to page, that the fears of the ruling class were reflected in its unpolished clarity.

The pebble, still wet,

jumps from my hand to the pond.

the stars disappear.

And another intellectual’s brains are spilled like canned beef stew exploding languidly over the starched institutional sheets of a freshly-made bed.

Life is slower in Bulgaria.

The lamb is cooked for hours outdoors over a fire.  You tap the bone on your plate, and the meat slides off.

This tasted heavenly in my mouth.

My friends, Bobi and Nic, do the second-to-last show of their time at the Expo.  It is the last time I will see them in japan and i see and feel that they are doing this show for me, and it is true, we are like best friends.

———————————

I go to the Lithuanian pavilion.  hundreds of kilometers north of Bulgaria, bordering another sea.

My friend The Political Scientist is famous there, and her Japanese puts mine to shame.

Seeing her there with her radiant smile, I realize that no one would ever know that she is shy, or afraid to dance swing just because she doesn’t know how.

They would never know that her mother is not used to her or that her father is in Austria – maybe – or that she put flowers on the grave of her grandmother’s twentieth dead chicken.

They would simply see her and say ‘what a friendly and secure woman representing her country with poise and charm.  And what a nice linen suit.”

But I know she uncovered the elusive bol weevil and braved the firestorm that is Cody.

And i am still impressed by her poise.

—————————–

I am typing vertically and furiously on a computer that doesn’t see how my questions are exactly the sorts of questions that it would dream of if a computer could dream.

“He is getting smarter,” The Political Scientist says, “every day he learns.”