Reality Intrudes

I came home the other day to a suprise package at my doorstep – a big brown box from america, emblazoned with amelie mello’s name in the upper left hand corner. Yes indeed, the international panda exchange was on.

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I love panda packages from overseas!!!

Excited, since I had had a rather rough day, I rushed inside and tore it open to find…packing peanuts. Lots and lots of packing peanuts. Being the smart panda that I am, I decided to explore at great length and eventually found an amazing discovery!

What’s amazing, you ask? It’s a “David & Goliath presents ‘Bear in Underwear’”…!!! hee hee!!! On his left arm is a tag reading “You’d make a good pet”, which is sort of slightly creepy, as I’m not sure if the glassy eyed panda picture is trying to tell me that he’d make a good pet, or that he wants me to be his pet. Brief visions of a sado-masochistic panda reign of terror flitted through my head and inadvertantly made me shudder. I should add that I hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before and thus couldn’t be counted on to think very clearly.

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Mistar underwear panda (and his small dancing panda companion)…!

I almost threw out the rest of the box after reading her lovely note, when I, on a whim, decided to root around inside the mass of packing peanuts to see if there might be anything else in there (truth be told, I was actually pretending my hand was a porpoise swimming free through an ocean of white frothy crests, as manifested by the sea of packing peanuts. I even made some Flipper like dolphine eekings (I sort of assumed porpoises and dolphins make the same sounds, though whether this is true or just another by-product of my fragmented grasp of reality remains to be seen)….) and sure enough, I found my own awesome copy of the “Garden State” sound track. I was elated, since both the movie and the soundtrack are nowhere to be found in Japan.

“Garden state”, written/directed and starring Zach Braff of Scrubs fame (which, incidentally, has to be one of the greatest shows on TV…) is a story, of (as amazon puts it) “An emotionally numb actor in L.A. [who] comes back to New Jersey after nine years away for his mother’s funeral.” Sad, funny, quirky and ultimately thought provoking, if the reviews are to be believed, it’s a movie I very much want to see, if for no other reason than I enjoy movies based around those points in life where distant, hazy dreaming sleep intersects with the jarring incongruities of reality and every day life. Other movies in this sort of genre might include Lost in Translation, Virgin Suicides, and to a lesser extent, things like Fight Club, etc. (looking over that list, I realize I don’t sound all erudite or cultured, but after a summer spent in Tokyo living with two french guys who used to get the most awful B&W angst-ridden-film-student crud ever committed to tape (as described by them) sent over to them and use it to seal the deal with whatever clueless j-girl happened to flitter by into the trap of their frenchness that night, the exoticism of “foreign indi flicks” has been supplanted by the realization that by and large, most of them are quite crap ;) )

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What to do with this mondo box of packing peanuts?

Why this fascination with transition? I’m not sure, to be honest. I remember when I was 7 years old, sitting in rapt attention in first or second grade (the memories blur with time) as my teacher stood at the front of the class, explaining to us how the intersection of “cold air” with “hot air” was what resulted in the tornado which had just torn through the area, consequently forcing the entire school into a “tornado drill”, only it wasn’t really a drill, though the difference didn’t really sink in at the time, all I remember is my haunches hurt and I banged my head into the bottom of my desk when I was trying to get up. Decades and countless classes later, the phenomenon leading up to the formation of funnel clouds and tornados certainly has become much clearer than abstract notions of “hot air” and “cold air” (represented in my mind for all eternity and rising red and sinking blue arrows meeting in spirally circle in the center), but the idea that there is something pre-eminently mysterious and powerful to be found in the junction of instability resulting from a transitory moment of inflection – whether it be a tornado, a graph of a third order quadratic, the equilibrium point in an acid titration or the incomprehensible breakdown of mathematical realtiy that comes with attempted division by zero – continues to fascinate and perplex me.

I got the news in a phone call on thursday. It was news that was not entirely unexpected, but the shifting, hazy miasma that is Japan has a way of obfuscating our concerns about the inevitable in such a subtle way that one can, quite unconciously, disconnect themselves from having to deal with things that can, for a time at least, be left comfortably somewhere in that nebulous construct known as “back home”. Left, that is, until reality comes crashingly intruding into your fuzzy little paradigm via a late night phone call.

I had thought about going to visit my grandparents before I came to Japan – one more time… one last time, as the phrase resounded over and over in my head as I struggled to weigh the sense of obligation that in some archaic way be vaguely connected to the notion of filial piety with the need to save the little cash I had for the inevitable expenses associated with starting out on your own fresh out of college – in this new chosen paradigm of mine, safely across on the other side of the globe. In the end, I rationalized, choosing the latter was the wiser choice – after all, heaven only knew how difficult and expensive my endeavor would be, and people would call me, you know… before…

The call came through and while the at the moment I felt nothing but numbness, it was in the first few minutes after hanging up that the shifting of the paradigm came, the sickly vomit hued feelings of naseau that is that crash of reality into your little world. The words no one wants to hear, to know that someone you care about has “very little time left”…

And once again I was where I was a year and a half ago – weighing the balance between a perceived duty towards those who had done so much for me before and the desire to sit here safe and removed in the hazy walls of my personal refuge from reality. A profound sense of disconnection is a defining characteristic for so many foreigners who choose to try and live in Japan, and from the multitude of manifestations this entails issues forth that concept that seems to be universally perceived by all of us as a vague underlying sense of deep…. sadness. But this disconnection and sadness has its own merits, and its own unique beauty, well documented and reflected in the cultural products of the society, and in a much more practical way, as mentioned above, by allowing us to linger in the sea of our own ignorance… but the kind that is “bliss” when the troubles of life are allowed to languish safely on the other side of wherever on the globe it is we came from… birthdays, anniversaries, births… and even deaths… time has a way of proving to be an elusive and multifaceted concept to try and measure, and the defining moments of our lives filter away into the darkness of memory without ever having actually been realized and their impact absorbed into our psyche, and before you know it, when you finally startle from this waking dream and make that conscious decision to return to reality… a lot is made here of what people refer to as “inevitable reverse-culture shock” incurred when returning “home”. This shock, I think though, has less to do with the realization that you can wear your shoes inside the house or that men in your home country have been savagely oppressed into being unable to express themselves, their feelings or needs, but more to do with the fact that while you were wiling away the hours flitting from one far flung corner of this hazy cloud to another, the rest of the world – that paradigm into which you had previously understood your relationship to, has moved far far on without you, and where, exactly, do you belong now….?

Now transition comes at me from all sides and I find myself fourteen hours removed from a jet plane home, and the flux and uncertainty it will bring, the jarring intersection as I leave my dreamy haze and have to deal with certain unwavering cruelties awaiting on the other side.

When I used to work in the nursing home, I was constantly surrounded by death. This sounds like a rather melodramatic thing to say, and certainly not a way of thought they try to encourage amongst their employees/customers, but I found it to be true. People like to delude themselves into thinking that nursing homes are not, in fact, places where you stick your sickly parents to lose control of their bodily functions, to whither away wheezing, gasping, vomiting, shitting, bubbling saliva, pissing their wheelchairs, stare slack-jawed and drooling at whatever infomercial happens to be on, senile sluggish neurons struggling to fire connections in aproximations of coherent thought, thin plaque-coated synaptic gaps filled with transitory fleeting moments of lucidity during which the only thoughts repeated over and over again, hammering through from brain stem to a toothless mouth coughing stinking, moist breath that once could have formed words are dully construed desires for a release from the gut wrenching literal wasting of the body into that inevitable compassionless conclusion of death.

People used to die all the time, all around me, in the halls, in their rooms, most ignominiously of all – in the bathroom, and it seemed like people just sort of got numb to it. I once had a guy choke to death on his tongue – his fucking tongue…! – right next to me, my last vision of him still alive was three nurses tilting him back on his wheelchair cramming their hands in his mouth trying to get it unstuck, and afterwards, the only denoument available, other residents calmly eating their pureed carrots as if nothing had happened, was the reminder to “make sure you take his name card off the breakfast line for tomorrow”. The humiliation and debasement that awaits us all at the end of our lives seemingly hung in the air with a thick, soupy moisture and it was all I could do to make it through work everyday without running, screaming, hiding from this torturous place of horror where hundreds of people were collected, trapped and imprisoned to await death. “Nursing homes,” a co-worker once said, “are places where people go to wait to die.” Thinking of old age as an engame with death as this sickly, visceral force stalking us through our decay into vegetation sounds so wrong but… people who work in nursing homes are supposed to say how much they like it – how much they love it, or how “rewarding” or “fulfilling” it is (two words that always seem to make it into the job description). But no matter how hard I tried, I never could really see it that way… and now…

But now… now that it’s personal… someone I know, someone I care about… my reality, my flesh and blood and my paradigm, he who I know, who exists as more than a lunch line name card or a name written on a CNA rotation chart in black magic marker, he who in a direct way influenced the very fabric of my nature even if I was too young to know it then, a person who comprises part of that critical fabric of “memory” and “lineage”… now those memories are welling up like bile in my throat and I feel so… ill and filled with dread at the thought of this final visit to see him.

Grandparents are the first step towards our eventual disconnection from the paradigm of “lineage” which is the only tangible manifestation of our “history”. They know that which came before us, and before our parents, and while we know only the stories we hear, they are the story tellers, and more importantly, they are the living proof we have that such things actually existed as they have experienced them. We lose our connections to the past, and the stories are no more “real” or “personal” than those we read in a textbook, or history book, or even novel, for that matter, or even less so, as with their passing, we lose that tangibility and there is an imperceptible shifting and then all we have now are not memories backed by reality, but rather just stories vulnerable to the omnipresent fading instigated by the shifting of time and the feebleness of memory. It is a simple next step down that slippery slope to see that your parents are next, and with the passing of each member, we lose one more piece of our concrete reality, until all we have are just floating, half-recollected words to pass on to our children before we, too, are caught up in the tail end of that ever cycling chain of time.

Mortality weighs heavily on me.

Mortality is cruel as well, and gutteral and visceral and now that reality has come crashing in on me, I find myself filled with dread and almost ill, in some sense, because now I realize that I have to go in person to watch the process of passing. And all these memories of the two years I spent in the nursing home are coming back to me, the smell and the bodily fluids and the gut wrenching sense of revulsion and at time despair, and I don’t care what anyone else says, being around people at the end of their lives is not “rewarding” and it is not “fulfilling”, it is horrid and naseauting and eviscerating, the feelings of hopelessness and the shock of seeing the wasting of the physical container and the breakdown, the echoing wheezing gasping, and the saliva bubbles and glazed cataracted eyes and the thoughts of this happening to someone I know fills me with such feelings that I cannot describe, but I am sick and I am ill and I am sad and above all I don’t want to see it, I don’t want to be there, I don’t want to sit there powerless to watch this decay. There is nothing beautiful about it, seeing your past, someone you care about, entering that final phase and what can you say? what can you do? you want to say something profound but you are brushing up against inexorable forces in the universe and it is too big and you are just so small and there are not enough words in the world to express what you are trying to wrap into the useless vessel of lexicon.

So I find myself holding a ticket for a departure tomorrow in one hand, and over in my gut again and again I feel nothing but sick naseau and I want to rip it up, to tear it up and burn the pieces and turn my back and just stay here, stay in my nice, safe, warm hazy dream, on my little island and let the rest of the world fade so comfortably into that seductive obfuscation of darkness. I don’t know what to say… I don’t even know what to write here. I wish I could encapsulate all the feelings I have for him into words and sentences and beautiful prose and somehow venerate and elevate, honor him – I don’t even know the words I’m trying to come up with – but I can’t and no matter what I do I could never write an entry that would do him justice and even if I could, what justice could words on a stupid blog ever do? How far have we as a people fallen that one could ever consider a few fucking paragraphs sandwiched between tales of filling out IRS forms and god only knows what a potential epitaph to mark such an occasion? So I just dumbly pound out meaningless jumbles of words on the keyboard, senseless fingers striking cadences on well worn keys while my brain races at a million miles per hour, yet makes no sense.

I am going to go do what I have to do and deal with what I must, and do the best I can. And when I return, I hope that the sleepy bliss of my refuge can swallow me back into this dream I have been living and all which I leave behind on the other side of the world will fade into that blackness.

I know why foreigners in Japan always struggle to decide whether to meet the eyes of other foreigners we might randomly encounter on the streets. We can’t stand the thought of someone else from “reality” intruding on this intensely personal and private sanctuary we have burrowed into to hide from the cruelties of whatever it is chose to leave behind. Too close, and a mere whisper from them might shatter this frail illusion which we use as a drug to deludedly stumbled our way haphazardly through life.

But for now, it seems, reality awaits.

Now listening to: Shins – “Caring is Creepy” (Off the Garden State soundtrack)

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