Monday, September 29, 2008

My name's Brandon, and I would like to share.

An old Art Director from my previous life as an Ad Exec. stole my heart. That’s how the dream went anyway. I lay on my back atop a conference room table, my chest opened and the skin pulled back like a dissected frog’s, while he stood over me explaining that a person’s heart can be removed from the body for a brief period of time with no harm done. “You can actually hold your own heart in your hands and watch it beat,” he said. “The heart’s pretty neat like that.” He reached into my chest cavity and rummaged around, disconnecting my heart from it’s many important wires, and pulled it out and showed it to me as if I had just given birth to the thing. “See?” Sure enough, it was still beating, and I was still very much alive. “Bad ass,” I must’ve said or something to that effect as I watched my glistening heart contract in the palm of his hand, like a dry-heaving newborn pig. He began playing with my heart – pulling and pushing, stretching and twisting – to test the durability of my heart tissue. At one point he clamped his thumb and forefinger around it and squeezed the way you might squeeze a deflated balloon, making one end translucent and bulbous with excess air. He grinned and nodded maniacally at me. “Ain’t this just the coolest?” “Ok, Kyle,” I said. “Let’s go ahead and put my heart back.” He never did specify how long one could function without one’s heart, and I was beginning to feel lightheaded. “Right, right,” he said and focused his mania on my empty chest cavity. He placed my heart in, took a step back and eyed it perplexedly, then rotated it 90 degrees clockwise before nodding, pleased. I felt a strange tingling sensation in my lips. He fumbled with my inner circuitry, reattaching my heart to its various input and output connections as if connecting his DSL modem for the first time. “Please hurry, Kyle,” I said calmly, euphoria setting in. He mumbled to himself and traced the path of each important artery. “This one goes here, that one there, this one…” he trails off and does some counting on his fingers. “Hurry up, Kyle.” I can’t remember if he connected me in time.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Finish your blood.

Sra sau is a surprisingly smooth and refreshing Cambodian concoction. It’s a homemade rice wine, tastes much like Japanese sake, and is easy and dirt cheap to produce, thereby making it a favorite among the Cambodian working class looking to get tipsy. I, myself, have a zest for all things fermented, and only minutes ago, a messy-haired and strikingly pretty small Cambodian girl shuffled across the flimsy bamboo slats of this rural restaurant clutching my first glass of sra sau in both hands. It was full almost to the brim and swirled with her every step.

“Awkun,” I said in thanks then quickly emptied the glass. I needed to calm my nerves. I needed courage.

I’m now sitting Indian style on a straw mat, elevated 20 feet above a Cambodian swamp and gazing out at expansive rice fields and crystal blue skies when I finish my first glass and my second is delivered to me. It’s in a water bottle this time and is accompanied by a small convoy of four shoeless children and a shirtless Cambodian man in pleated slacks who is carrying a meat cleaver, a chopping block and a bulking and writhing plastic bag.

 Rewind to three days ago.

Sherry and I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia and were ushered off the plane and into a taxi driven by a young, shaggy-haired and slouching man. “Where you from?” He asked in a gentle voice. “Ireland,” I said sticking to Sherry’s and mine agreed upon alibi without making even the slightest attempt at an accent. “What about your lady? She look Asian, yeah?” “Khmer, actually,” I said, delighted at my interracial marriage, and suddenly he too was delighted to have a fellow countryman in the backseat. “Bong aiyn Khmer?” he looked at her in the rearview mirror. “Cha. Yom Khmer.” Then Sherry slipped into a surprisingly fluent exchange with our driver, whose name was Bun, and watching the two chatter back and forth in unknown vowels and syllables and somehow understand and deliver the appropriate responses to one another, I fell in love with her all over again. My introduction to Sherry’s life killed her bilingual skills – or so I thought, and apparently so did she, because I could see the surprise in her eyes at how quickly her mother language was coming back.

“Ask him about cobra blood.” I murmured quietly from the corner of my mouth, because Bun also spoke English, and I was too shy to ask. Sherry shot me a reproachful look, as she's terrified, absolutely terrified of snakes, but did ask him a few minutes later. He did know of a place where I could consume a cobra’s life force – where they would kill a cobra in front of me, drain the blood from the body and serve it to me in a glass - and suddenly my spirits were lifted with the realization that this trip to a third world country wouldn’t merely be a trek through the predictable paved streets of South East Asian tourism.

Rewind to several years ago.

I suppose my obsession with drinking cobra blood began when I saw Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach. At the beginning of the movie, he narrates a montage and condemns travelers for visiting far off lands to simply do what they could do at home. Watch movies. Eat hamburgers. Speak English. Sleep in beds. Then cut to Leo in a dimly lit backroom somewhere in the bowels of Thailand, surrounded by several menacing Thais, one of which has an eye-patch, if memory serves. Leo boldly and unflinchingly slams back a shot of freshly drained cobra blood, bangs his hands on the table and makes a hasty exit.

“You have to do that,” said the goblin living inside me as I watched the scene. “No dude, that’s sick,” I said. “You have to do that,” he told me again with a gleam in his eye. “Why?” “Because everyone else is too chicken shit to.” “No, dude.” “Yes, man.” And the goblin was right. I did have to do that. And at some point over the years, drinking cobra blood was officially placed at the top of my unofficial things to do before I die list (along with getting a tebori back piece and getting shot three times by a Mexican gang). It became that mountain peak that was too tall and treacherous to climb. It became the line that separated the sensible person and what they are resigned to experience in a lifetime from the extraordinary person and what they are willing to subject themselves to in the spirit of being alive. It became the gauge that I compared what I was to what I wanted to be.

Fast forward to 45 minutes ago.

Bun pulled his silver Celica to a hut at the side of the road, rolled down his window and hollered (later translated for me by my darling, bilingual wife). “Hey! You got any snake!” The proprietors of the hut made a quick phone call – to the keeper of the snake, I assume – and there was one cobra restlessly waiting to be bled and devoured, anxious to merge his spirit with mine. So, we got out of the car as a lady ran at the same time from the restaurant and whizzed away on a moped to fetch the snake, and we made our way across the flimsy bamboo flooring of the restaurant and settled on a straw mat in a far corner. Four children stared at us from a distance, from behind a sofa. I asked Bun if I could have a glass of rice wine. I needed to calm my nerves. I needed courage.

Fast forward 25 minutes, to now.

Hanging awkwardly at the side of the shirtless Cambodian man in pleated slacks, the bulging plastic bag rotates just slightly with the restrained movements of its contents. It wriggles and writhes in a seemingly endless twisting of scales and sinew. In one brief twist of the bag I see the cobra’s hood flare, the telltale sign that it’s feeling threatened – rightfully so – and is ready to fight for its life. The man sets both the chopping block and meat cleaver on the bamboo floor and pulls a small aluminum wire from his pocket. He studies the cobra inside the bag and then with a sudden snake-like strike of his own, seizes the cobra’s head and pinches its mouth shut. He fits the aluminum wire around the snake’s neck, just behind its eyes, and briskly twists the loose ends together as if he’s sealing a bag of bread. Then the plastic bag is opened, the tail end removed and a female member of the family, who is to serve as the primary operator from this point forward, lifts the tail and stretches the snake horizontally. The shirtless man in pleated trousers still clutches the head within the bag. The snake is about four feet long and a glistening midnight black. The woman grabs the snake from the top and with a small cloth thoroughly swabs the oils off the length of its body. She then crouches down with the tail in her hands, lays it straight across the chopping block, picks up the meat cleaver and begins sawing.

A rooster crows incessantly. A baby cries in the distance.

Once it’s determined that the life vein has been adequately severed, the snake is held vertically over the water bottle of sra sau. The body contracts and relaxes. Twists and straightens, and losing its gracefulness, it cricks and jars like the links of a rusty chain. Our driver, Bun, steps in and together he and the woman squeeze the snake’s body between their fists, milking the blood into the water bottle, which is now a deep ruby red. When they finish about five minutes later, the empty shell of the snake is taken away, and the bloody bamboo flooring is doused with a bucket of water. Bun stands, swirls the bottle of blood and inspects it against the light like a seasoned winemaker.

It’s a lot of blood.

“I would like to share,” I say to Bun and make a nervous whirling motion with my arms, gesturing to everyone in sight. Bun looks confused. “I’d like to share.” I say again. It’s too much blood. “Chite, chite khneah.” Sherry says to clarify. “Chite khneah.” Bun smiles and examines the bottle again. “It’s good for two people,” he assures me and sits beside me on the straw mat.

Two glasses are brought out on a silver platter. One is a manly tumbler, which Bun pours the blood into first. The other, my glass, is a dainty snifter of sorts. “Any last words?” Sherry asks after Bun fills my glass and I study my drink. I do have last words. I have several.

What I want to do is release a throaty and cracking high-pitched mating call across the rice fields and into the jungles of Cambodia and deliver a diatribe on what it is to truly live and pound my chest and aggressively claim that King Kong ain’t got shit on me and go on and on about how I will wake up tomorrow a different man than I did today, better, faster, stronger, and then raise my glass and toast to truth, your truth and my truth, our personal truths, and finding these truths and following them to the end of the world if goddamned need be!

But instead I shrug and look to Sherry and the video camera she’s holding to document this experience, and I say, “There are no words.” I turn to Bun, who has his glass raised slightly and continues swirling the blood around and inspecting its density, flecks of the snake’s blood still splattered across his forearm. I raise my glass and nod. He does the same. We clink our glasses, toast in Sherry’s direction as well. And drink.

Much to my surprise, it actually tastes like my first glass of sra sau, but I shudder slightly still with the knowledge of what I just drank. I look at Bun as I finish mine and he takes the last swallow of his. Blood pools in the corners of his mouth. I wipe my mouth, smack my lips, and then I taste the blood. The unquestionable, undeniable metallic taste of blood lingers in my mouth, sticks to my cheeks and teeth, as if I just bit my tongue. I've been sucking on pennies.

Bun has disappeared. Sherry’s still shooting the video, narrating and asking me several questions, none of which I answer interestingly, eloquently or wittily. That’s what journals, memoirs and blogs are for. Before long Bun reappears with a small organ between his fingers, the snake’s gall bladder. He holds it over the water bottle and picks at the elastic skin of the organ as he explains how the bile inside will enrich the taste of the blood. He says something to Sherry in Cambodian, and she responds, “Bitter.” “Yes, yes. Bitter. It’s more bitter.” he says and breaks the skin of the gall bladder with his fingernails. The bile oozes out, glow-in-the-dark green like engine coolant, and dribbles into the bottle. We have a few more drinks, and it is in fact a bit more bitter, then Bun sets the bottle of blood on top of a karaoke machine in the corner and says, “We’ll leave the rest for later.”

As we emerge from the restaurant and into the sunlight, headed now to the floating village of Chong khneas, I bow emphatically to the family responsible for making me one with the cobra. “Awkun chranh, awkun chranh,” I say repeatedly. We walk toward the car, and Bun takes notice of the goofy white boy grin on my face. “You drunk?” he accuses and teases. Bun’s English is very good, but I’m not sure how to explain how monumental and important this afternoon has been for my personal evolution. “No, Bun,” I say. “Not drunk. Just happy. Very very happy.”

Fast forward to two hours from now.

While we’re away touring the floating village of Chong khneas, the family will cook the cobra and upon our return will present us with a cobra feast; stir fried cobra and cobra soup, from which I will pull sections of the body, peel away the rubbery earlobe-textured skin and devour the meat like catfish and then marvel at the engineering of the vertebrae. It’s like a child’s toy, I’ll giggle and wiggle it at Sherry, expecting confirmation, but she will just return a disparaging look and quietly scold me for playing with my food. Together, Bun and I will share several more shots of cobra blood laced with sra sau, each shot warmer and thicker and harder to take than the previous. With one drink left in the bottom of the bottle, Bun will instruct me in a fatherly tone, “Finish your blood,” and though the floating bits will make it damn near impossible to swallow, I will do as I’m told, with tears in my eyes.

Then we will drink several cans of Angkor beer, lie in hammocks and enjoy the breeze whizzing off the rice fields. Sherry will ask Bun about Cambodian weddings, and Bun will ask me about Obama, and I will ask Bun about Cambodia’s recent election. None of us will really pay too much attention to each other’s explanations. We’re all too full with the satisfaction that tomorrow we will wake up different people than we did today.

Links to a few of the videos, should you be so inclined:

Monday, July 21, 2008

For the Record

I love Japan. And I love living in Japan, despite what my previous grumblings about old people in sun hats and censorship on pubic hair might have misled. (Really, I was only pissed that the dry cleaner was closed when I went to pick up my suit.) But even given my affinity for this country, teaching is an entirely different matter, and a career change that I anticipated would be immensely rewarding has been largely discouraging. Imagine, if you will, trying to explain to a confused and increasingly frightened Japanese child the verb ‘do’, one of the most fundamental words in the English language, without just flailing your goddamn arms about. So, ‘What did you do on Saturday?’ becomes, 'What (questioning shrug) did you (point point point) do (goddamn flailing) on Saturday (point to calendar)? Clearly, teaching is meant for someone with much more patience, tenderness and better control of their profanity, and it came to me one recent morning as I sat Indian style with a duck puppet on my left hand, calmly watching my student lick the bottom of his own foot: I don’t want to do this anymore. Around about the same time Sherry and I received matching folded letters in matching green envelopes from the corporate office. Mine was addressed to Brandon Sensei, Sherry’s to Sherry Sensei, and they were offers to renew our contracts for another year. Sherry and I conferred in a smoke-filled restaurant over a dinner of crab pizza and pork kimchee. I took a sip of my whiskey and she says ‘I want to quit’, and I say ‘I need to go to the bathroom but I don’t know where my shoes are’, and with that it was settled. The Jansas are coming home. We will return after the first of the year, which means I have approximately 5 months to master the art of ninja, embark on a mystical journey through the Shinto spirit realm and get a yakuza style back tattoo (Mt. Fuji set against the Cadillac insignia. Or vice versa). I will miss Japan tremendously, and reminiscences of our year here will remain a constant source of comfort throughout my life. But Sherry and I are ready for the next adventure. We miss family. We miss friends. And we have a small, white, mohawked pup at home whose absence has left a smoldering spot in our hearts, and who I'm anxious as all hell to get back to so I can have him plated with gold, chained, and hung around my neck in permanent adornment as if I were some bejeweled rapper from my iTunes playlist. Plus, I have a writing career to begin.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Uninspired. Haven’t felt much like writing. Discouraged. Two students told me the other day that I smelled. Then they said I was fat. Irritable. It’s rainy season and hot. Children are sticky and smell like pineapple. They form their fingers into guns and poke me in the anus. I don’t really care if they learn English anymore. I suppose this disheartened state I’ve found myself in is called homesickness. We’ve now been in Japan for five months, after all, and indeed there comes a time in all torrid romances when the kisses become routine, when the late night cuddling becomes cumbersome, the matching haircuts a bit misguided. Love loses its luster. Take big ears, for instance. Once so adorable on that girl you’ve been dating, holding her hair back so prominently, they were exactly what attracted you in the first place. So elfin and squishy between your fingers. But suddenly, while eating an IHOP breakfast, you notice that those ears look less elfin and more troll-like. It’s not that you love her any less, it’s just now you think she looks like a troll. So it is with my love affair with Japan. Love loses its luster. Dogs in peoples’ clothing. Old people in sun hats. The hours of the day being shown in military time. Censorship on pubic hair. These things have lost their charm as the months have gone by. And not a single person has mistaken me for Seth Green. Sigh. And yet, I keep reminding myself that these are the things I will miss when the time comes for me to leave this zany country. It’s like I tell Sherry when she complains of me overheating the taco shells or scratching my rear end for minutes on end. “One day I’ll be dead.” I say to her. “And these will be the very things you will miss most.” So it goes.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Brandon, you're shameful

It was the end of a long and tiresome day of PowerPoint presentations, team building exercises and whatnot when we all gathered for a happy hour of sorts in a bare banquet hall under fluorescent lighting. We milled about and greedily clutched dark beer bottles in our mits. Everyone unbuttoned their top button and loosened their necktie, took big satisfying gulps of beer and released long hissing exhalations between exhausted headshakes and bobbing, deflated shoulders. A communal sense of being human once again began creeping over our group, and we slowly began to recapture our individual identity by sharing college stories and quoting Office Space and high-fiving when the occasion called for it. With more full gulps of beer, the enthusiastic clicking of toasted beer bottles and an increased joviality, I decided to take my pants off, because I simply couldn’t be bothered with them any longer. Minutes later the doors swung open and in strutted – poised and dutiful – the former and current President Bush, flanked by the former and current First Lady and a stoic team of trained killers and bodyguards eyeing us each distrustfully. The mood quickly shifted, and we all began buttoning our top buttons and tightening our neckties and beaming toothy grins. I looked around frantically for my pants, which were nowhere to be found, and a line formed and we all made our way single file, as if through a receiving line, to introduce ourselves to our startling guests. Pantsless, I tried to blend in. I first introduced myself to the former President and apologized for not having my pants on. I didn’t know you were coming, I explained. It’s ok, he said, and on down the line I was shuffled, not being permitted to say hello to the First Ladies. I then introduced myself to the current President. We shook hands, and he repeated my name back to me, mispronouncing it. I respectfully corrected him, but he seemed unconcerned and unapologetic. I was, after all, not wearing any pants. I remembered this dream this morning while reading Jack Kerouac on a heated toilet seat and had to write it down at once.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


Recently, one balmy Sunday afternoon, Sherry and I lay in bed delighting lazily in each other’s company and discussing any number of the infinite topics a drowsy couple in love might discuss on such an afternoon. The sunlight fanning in through the curtained windows. The air conditioner hissing indifferently. Sherry on her back, and I on my side facing away, she reaches over and touches my bare shoulders then creeps her hand around and begins rubbing my chest. I suddenly sit up with a jerk. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I demand. “What?” “You were fondling me like I have tits!” “What? No I wasn’t. I was caressing you.” I narrow my eyes at her, guarded and accusing. “No, you were groping me the way I grope you. Pervert.” There’s a brief staring contest. The corners of Sherry’s mouth pull up in an ever so subtle smirk, almost unnoticeably, and I eye her with distrust before lying down and rolling back over. “My body is chiseled and taut. I’m a man of wax.” I grumble. “I don’t have man tits. I don’t have mits.” “I know, love." She says. "I know.”

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


A Japanese girl in a bunny suit corrected my English this evening. In one of the Universe’s neat moments of serendipity, we found ourselves walking side by side and exiting the train station together. She looked at me, and I looked back at her. In addition to wearing a bunny suit, she was missing her eyebrows. “Hi.” She said. “Hello.” “Nice to meet you.” She said. “Nice to meet you.” Pause. “Too.” She added, helping me along with my response. Right. I thought for a moment about explaining to her that the weighty intonation I put on you at the end of my response was enough to imply too or also or as well, whichever your preference may be. I also briefly thought about explaining to her that we hadn’t actually met yet, seeing as though no formal introduction or exchange of personal information had taken place. We had simply said hello to each other. Therefore her “nice to meet you” was premature and jumping a few steps ahead of the natural conversational flow. But this tedious explanation would fall on deaf ears, I supposed, not to mention make me a real dick. And it was nice to meet her. So I simply flashed my winning American smile and strolled off into the night, repeating to myself over and over so I wouldn’t forget the line in my head. A Japanese girl in a bunny suit corrected my English this evening. A Japanese girl in a bunny suit…

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Black bird

It’s been 89 days since my last haircut. I know because I distinctly remember my last one, two days before we left for Japan. It was supposed to be three days before, but my particular lady wasn’t working 90 days ago. She was working 89 days ago, so that’s when I got my haircut last. For someone whose hair can’t be trusted to behave past a certain length (it gets all eccentric and listens to Thelonious Monk) 89 days is an unforgiving amount of time. My cherry locks are now in tendrils around my ears and winding down the nape of my neck like that of a careless boy’s on summer vacation. It’s time. Papa needs a new do. Though I’ve put off cutting my hair for some time, I’ve actually been thinking about it for several weeks and mulling over just how to go about doing it. Not the actual style, but the experience. I’ve been planning the experience. Allow me to explain something about myself. In the depths of my body, among the guts and black stuff, lives this curious little goblin that enjoys placing me in unfamiliar and sometimes bazaar circumstances where I'm made to perform various rights of passage. Because, He tells me when I ask why I do the things I do. Because you’ve survived a ten day fast. Because you’ve eaten raw horse meat. Because you’ve been zipped up in a suitcase. He continues with increased enthusiasm. These ‘becauses’ are proof that you’re alive. Proof that you’re doing things other people are too chicken shit to do. Nobody can take these small triumphs from you, He says excitedly. Not me, not anybody. Not ever. Fair enough, I say, but couldn’t drinking cobra blood in Cambodia kill me? I nod toward a webpage I have pulled up and am researching for a planned trip to Southeast Asia. Maybe, the goblin says. And then we share an awkward silence. So anyway, the goblin tells me that my first haircut in Japan is an opportunity to add yet another notch on my belt of interesting experiences, so for several weeks I have been scouring Numazu city for the perfect place. While busy streets are peppered with several high-end salons, the labyrinthine side streets of Japan are home to many tiny, much more intimate barbershops. This has been ground zero of my search, and the other day I cruised past a small shop that looked particularly intriguing. At the base of a crumbling two-story building, rooms for rent on the second floor, in what looks like a modified one-car garage, sits a small barbershop. It’s distinguishable only by the rotating candy striped windmill hanging from the awning. Bloody perfect. So, this afternoon upon finally pulling myself from a deathlike ten-hour beer, tequila and wine-induced slumber, I head out for my long overdue trimming. After parking my yellow bicycle alongside a drainage area, I open the door to the shop and duck in to find only one chair with a teenage boy seated in it and an old man in a surgical mask standing over him administering a shaving. “Konnichiwa,” I say, and the old man responds with a slight bow. The boy keeps his eyes shut. “Uh, haircut?” I ask removing my hat and making scissor motions through my Ronald McDonald tresses. “Sumimasen,” the old man says and makes an X with his forearms, Japanese body language for no. “Gomenasai, gomenasai, sumimasen, gomenasai.” I interpret all this to mean that he’s closing soon and not taking any more customers, so I thank him and leave, despondent but understanding. Well shit, I think once outside. I cannot, simply cannot, go another week without a haircut. It’s out of the question. My students aren’t looking me in the eye anymore when I speak to them. Instead, they’re focusing their attention on my disorderly curls as if inspecting my aura, and it’s making me uncomfortable. With a stiff resolve, I climb back on my bike and pledge to duck into the first dingy, cramped barber shop I happen across. Meandering through the side streets, it doesn’t take long, and a matter of minutes later I’m leaning my bike against the side of someone’s home and entering a building with rotating candy stripes trumpeting skyward like a unicorn’s horn. The shop is wedged between two houses and is larger than the previous, having several chairs all wrapped in vintage red leather. There are no customers, two men are apparently on duty, though. The first is an elderly gentleman with wilting eyelids like two collapsed tents. He doesn’t seem to notice as I enter. “Irashaimase,” says the second man, younger than the first, quite possibly his son. “Konnichiwa.” I remove my cap again and jab my scissored fingers into my curls. “Haircut?” “Hai, dozo.” He motions toward one of the chairs. I do as instructed and sit down, then produce a picture from my bag – one of my sister and I at my brother-in-law’s birthday dinner – that I feel I look particularly dashing in and point. “Like this. Same.” “Same,” he repeats and nods, fingering the curls at the nape of my neck and making a sour face. “Shorter.” “Hai, shorter.” “Hai.” And with that he begins misting my hair with a pleasant, albeit grandfatherly smelling tonic from a contraption attached to a hose. Then he goes to work. From the reflection in the mirror I see a small collection of Mickey memorabilia and a Furby doll. A soccer game is playing on TV. Some manner of black bird is caged and clucking by the door. The old man seems to be asleep. The cut goes off without incident. The barber is quite meticulous, I must say. With an impressive attention to detail, he spends much of his time on my hairline, around my ears and neck, where attention is needed most. He is a gardener with a talent for edging, and I am the proud owner of a neatly manicured lawn. “Just cut?” He brushes my forehead and neck with a duster when finished. “Shave?” I rub my cheeks and raise my eyebrows inquiringly. “Hai.” Suddenly the elderly gent appears at my side and sweeps my smock away and replaces it with a red and white-checkered bib. I am swiftly tilted back, and the younger man massages my face with several coatings of various ointments, preparing my hair follicles and making them plump and ripe for shaving. Then comes the lather, then the blade. His strokes are short and precise. Economical and calculated – quite unlike the careless sweeping slashes I make while shaving in the shower. I have always wanted a professional shave, and am thrilled to be on my back staring up at this barber’s water stained ceiling. I’m suddenly struck, however – the barber’s blade against my throat – remembering a short story I read in Junior High. Can’t remember the title nor the author, but it was about a simple wartime barber who is put into an extraordinary position when the General of an occupying army stops in for a shave. The story is the barber’s internal deliberation of whether or not to take the General’s life. I can’t remember how it ended. The trust I’m giving this barber, though, is quite profound when you think about it, and how do I know he’s not deliberating just as the barber in the story was? Maybe he views English teachers as an occupying force, Generals of a colloquial army. Maybe killing me could be his contribution to his country – a spontaneous and misguided attempt to regain Japanese sovereignty, we all have our part to do, right, it’s like recycling or voting. Maybe he doesn’t care for Americans or white people in general. Maybe he’s just always been curious about murder and lacks momentary self-control. What’s to stop him from slicing my throat and letting me bleed out, wriggling in a puddle of my own chocolaty, syrupy blood, beneath his small collection of Mickey memorabilia? Just go to sleep, go to sleep forever, he’ll whisper in my ear, and I’ll close my eyes and do as I’m told. My imagination is reeling at the possibilities. I’ve always had a slight preoccupation with how I will die. My death needn’t be valiant nor noble, just something interesting and climactic. I’m afraid that I’ll go in a stupid way, you know, like choking on pancakes or something. How shitty would that be? What’s the point in living if it doesn’t conclude with a bang and a pow and make other deaths jealous and say holy shit, did you just see that? But on reflection, I reckon falling to the blade of a racist Japanese barber would suit me just fine, so I say a quick prayer of repentance for the unspeakable things I’ve done and resign myself to my fate. In the end, the barber doesn’t murder me. And he actually gives a pretty nice cut and shave. I give him 3,000 yen for services rendered – an acceptable price to pay for living another day – deliver a slight bow and say, “Arigato gozaimashita,” before turning to leave. On my way out, I look down at the black bird, who is eyeing me and clinging to the bars of his cage with his talons. His tongue bobs inside his beak like a polished black pearl. He clucks once and then says to me in the clearest of voices, “Arigato gozaimashita.” Grin. Talking birds. Now that’s how you conclude a haircut. And a blog entry.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Crow Street

“Japan has a big problem with crows,” explains my student, Sonoko. She is eleven years old with intimidating intelligence. She has soft, wide features and a toothy grin. Her hair is simple and unassuming – not too long, not too short, with bangs brushing her eyebrows. She’s wearing a simple navy cardigan with some form of emblem on it and a white ruffled blouse. She watches television only during lunch and studies the rest of the day. Her father designs submarines or something. “Crows?” I ask. “Mmm, yes.” She confirms with a nod. “Mm, I think that they are a big problem in Japan.” Japanese crows are menacing. They’re the size of small dogs, have beaks like pruning sheers and are absolutely everywhere. In fact, my wife seems to have recently developed an unhealthy, paralyzing phobia of crows – and most birds, come to think of it - solely due to the wicked stare and constant looming of the Japanese crows. She's frequently scurrying through the streets like a frightened field mouse and darting from one covered awning to another, eyes focused on the heavens and ears open to the foreboding caw caws from above. Shameful. Sonoko continues. “The crows attack people. You must really be careful of the crows.” “Attack people?” “Yes. Mmm, they kill people. Their beaks stab you here,” she taps the base of her skull. “ Or here,” with her forefinger she makes a hollow thud against her sternum. “Japanese crows murder people?!” I ask. “Mmm.” “How often?” Sonoko ponders. “Fairly often, I think. I think that you should be careful of the crows. I think that they will kill you.” “Kill me!?” “Mmm. And you should be careful at night walking down dark narrow streets.” Dark narrow streets! What is this little girl talking about? Japan is two-thirds dark narrow streets! “Dark narrow streets?!” I demand. At this point, my contribution to this conversation is little beyond simply repeating Sonoko’s words back to her incredulously. “Yes. The crows sleep in dark narrow streets, and if you wake them, they may be frightened.” She makes a sudden swirling motion with her arms, and I flinch instinctively. “I think that they will fly around and that they will kill you.” “What?!” “Yes. It is a crow street.” Further reading. The below article was released in the New York Times today. Forget the melting ice caps and Chinese gyoza. Japanese crows will surely usher in the final chapters of the human race. Repent, repent, people, before it's too late.

Because bitching is always funnier than being grateful.

1. First day of the work week. 2. Forced from sleep by typhoon-like rain and winds. At 5 in the morning. 3. Gale force winds splintering my umbrella into pieces only a block into my mile-long commute. 4. A set of 3 year-old twins screaming bloody terror and howling “Foreigner! Foreigner! Foreigner!” throughout the entire class. 5. An irritated pimple that looks like a dog bite. 6. An audible tear down the ass crack of my custom tailored Thai slacks. 7. Not enough wine at the end of a shitty day to get both my wife and myself drunk. You know, I make a concerted effort to remain optimistic and mine for the gold in most situations. But sometimes the Universe can be a real motherfucker.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Stay golden, Ponyboy

Sometimes, if we’re so lucky, the Universe, God or both take a break from exacting wrath or facilitating evolution to send us a perfect moment for the perfect frame of mind – hoisting us from the depths of whatever muck we might be wriggling in at the moment and high into the ether to feel the soft, spidery, indiscriminating touches of the Divine’s oversexed harem. This evening, my moment came in the form of a song. I’m riding home on my yellow, lowrider-like bicycle (which, by the way, I am unofficially calling Yuka, because nearly 1 out of every 5 of my students are called by that name, or some close variation thereof, and I am inundated by these two syllables so often that I might as well dub my second love the same) and I’m listening to my iPod on shuffle and am unexpectedly and pleasantly reminded of a fact that I have for some inexcusable reason forgotten: Celly Cel is on my mother fuckin’ playlist, y’all. For those of you who don’t know Celly Cel, either download “It’s Goin’ Down” or skip this blog altogether. For those who do know Celly Cel but don’t know me, well, congratulations. You are now peering through a freshly squeegeed window into my dark ass, menacing and conflicted soul. For those of you who know us both, Celly and me, you’re probably grinning just as I am, because you recognize that the Universe has reached a fleeting equilibrium. As I pedal Yuka through the faulty streets of Japan in my worn pinstripe suit and lavender tie, my earbuds throb to the unmistakable sound of West Coast gangsta shit. The lovely spring air caresses my unshaven cheeks, broads sprung on my Shirley locks. Uunhh.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Word of the day, as eked out by my grocer

March 9, 2008: Today's word of the day was in Spanish: Amigo

Friday, March 7, 2008

Bubbles, Lord. Bubbles.

Each night, after discarding our work clothes and exhaling a deep sigh of appreciation for another completed day, Sherry and I take the time to describe to one another the highlight of our day. This shining moment can be anything as obvious and noteworthy as receiving a promotion or anything as small and seemingly insignificant as catching the early train home. This exercise serves two basic and fairly apparent functions. Firstly, it guarantees that Sherry and I consistently and actively share, listen to, and discuss the trivial details of our independent lives. After all, sharing and absorbing these fine points helps ensure we continue evolving together, as a couple, as we have for the past eleven years. Secondly, this ritual forces us to think optimistically and take note of the elevating moments in life, no matter how slight or overshadowed by the discouraging they may be at times. This practice has proven particularly important lately, as repeated behavioral issues with a few of my students have pushed me near the brink of madness. (Sensei doesn’t like to be spit on, hit with your sweaty socks or pinched on the wiener. Stop it.) While our daily exercise is customarily limited within the tight circle of our small family, today’s high point was unusually poignant for me, and I feel the urge to share not just with my wife but also with whoever should be so inclined to click on and read this long-winded blog site. During one of my few breaks today – my deeply cherished reprieves from teaching when I can plan lessons, scribble notes for possible blog entries or simply stare blankly at the wall – a chunky little boy with dirty cheeks and marshmallow hands wandered away from his mother and into my classroom. He teetered in the doorway like a sleepy bear cub, looked briefly at me, then lumbered toward the corner and began punching buttons and turning knobs on my Sanyo boom box. After watching with feigned interest for a few seconds, I stood and shuffled slipper-footed over to my prop basket where I keep a cache of assorted colorful toys to distract and lure children into behaving like model, English-speaking Japanese citizens. Many of the props rarely work, But surely, I thought, I can find something to capture this small boy’s attention before he breaks something. Grabbing a bottle of bubbles, I shuffled over to him and began mixing the little wand vigorously through the solution. At the sound of the click click clicking of my stirring, he turned. I smiled, almost maniacally, and held the circular opening to my lips and released a steady stream of breath. As anticipated, the bubbles came out the other end in a uniformed procession before chaotically disbanding across the room. Unbeknownst to me, this routine tactic I employ almost daily had never, never, ever been witnessed by this little boy. From the look on his face you would have thought the Heavens opened up and Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny descended on sea horses and began shooting gummy bears from their fingertips. I have never in my life seen such incapacitating glee from a human being. The squeal this boy released was born of all things holy, nice and sugary. As the bubbles fell and began meeting their demise, his face turned to uncertainty, and he backed away just beyond their reach. I dipped the wand once more and blew, this time spinning beneath the falling bubbles, Julie Andrews like, to assure him they wouldn’t cause harm. I blew the next batch directly above his head. Reassured now, he raised his chin upward, closed his eyes with the profound serenity of someone passing through the Pearly Gates, and let the swirling bubbles wash over him. Smile. In several weeks the sakura – or cherry blossoms – will begin blooming in southernmost Japan. From there they will make their way north like a raging forest fire. As the blossoms’ short lives come to an end after a mere two weeks on exhibition, they will fall from the trees, carry on the wind and, in a flurry, engulf elated passersby. I like to think that my first sakura experience will be comparable to this boy’s first encounter with bubbles. Even if it isn’t, that’s how I hope to remember it.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Open Letter to Foreigners

Dear other foreigners living or traveling in Japan, I can’t help but notice a saddening trend that I feel compelled to address. Why is it that when we bump into each other on the train, in the grocery store or wait idly at opposing crosswalks you visibly and uncomfortably avert your eyes and refuse to respond to my presence? Explain yourself. I suppose I kinda get it. I mean honestly, I didn’t come to Japan to make more white friends either. But c’mon. Where’s the camaraderie? Is it too much to ask that we simply make eye contact, however fleeting? Maybe we even exchange a head nod, yeah? Can’t we telepathically acknowledge each others’ existence and say, Wasn’t it hard to leave our lives behind and come to this crazy upside down land, but damnit aren’t we already better people for it? Shouldn’t we welcome the brief reprieve from living inside our heads in a congested country where we can’t verbally express ourselves, and embrace the opportunity to cling to one another and excitedly ask, “Remember Chili’s? Remember Dane Cook? Remember the Alamo?” Shit. We’re all goofy looking white people with a lost twinkle in our eye. Let’s be secret friends. Affectionately, that other white guy P.S. This letter does not apply to Morgan, the affable American who bid me good morning at Mister Donut, nor does it apply to the somewhat creepy (in a good and humorous way) Canadian fellow who initiated conversation on the train. Thank you, gents. You make me feel at home.

Word of the day, as eked out by my grocer

February 21, 2008: Salary

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Earlier than expected, I've found my place in Japanese society. I'm the creepo who opens his bag on the train and pastel fucking balloons fall out.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Three Weeks in Japan and Religion’s Already Found Me

This morning I opened my apartment door to find an elderly Japanese couple standing there. In their hands were folded sheets of paper with colorful renderings of a man and woman sitting in a pumpkin patch with beaming smiles and moose in the background. They held one out to me, and from their mouths spilled the ceaseless stream of verbiage that I have come quite accustomed to in only my short time in Japan. (The Japanese, in their perpetual politeness and unrelenting pleasantries, never stop talking.) The elderly couple at my doorstep held out their colorful folded paper, insisting I take one, and in their oral torrent and incessant bowing I discerned only two words: Jehobah’s Witteness. Even in Japan, it seems, there are religious people with pamphlets. Which isn’t too surprising, because I’ve always been that guy. The one invited by strangers to various bible study groups. The one who, as a lifeguard at the YMCA, was asked by an elderly woman doing water aerobics if he had found Jesus. The one who has been told on more than one occasion, “I’ve prayed for you.” (Thanks). So, it makes sense that religion would find me on the other side of the world. And while admittedly, I wouldn’t mind being left alone with my spirituality for a short time while in Japan, I can’t hold a grudge, because aside from being relentlessly flushed by my clumsy exchanges with the locals and the bitterly cold weather, I am immensely happy and infatuated with this country. The culture shock is a sweet vice that I find myself inhaling deeply like a dense cloud of opium as I cruise down the sidewalk on my new yellow bicycle. I am at once bewildered and unsurprised at the Japanese people. They are indifferent yet hospitable. Conventional yet rebellious. Rigid yet benevolent. I have been forced off the sidewalk when room isn’t made for me to pass while riding my bike, yet stopped and asked if I dropped 30,000 yen (the rough equivalent to $300) at a bank. I went to dinner the other night and excused myself to the restroom to wash my hands. With no hand drier and no paper towels to be found, I was prepared to dry my hands on my pants like a goddamned degenerate until I heard a gruff voice bellow from behind, “Hai dozo.” and turned to see an elderly man in a crisp suit offering his folded handkerchief to me. It was a gesture of goodwill that, while small and seemingly inconsequential, I reckon will stay with me. Others will too. Like Taka, for instance, the owner of a knife shop who asked me if I would be willing to visit him once a week so he could practice his English. I think I just might. Or the cashier at our grocery store who talks to me, spewing incomprehensible Japanese every time he rings me up, managing to eke out only one word in English. Today’s word of the day was ‘holiday’. Or the grandmother to whom I teach English, Toshiko, who named her dog Thomas Edison. And the schoolgirls. Christ, the schoolgirls. In America, the image of ripe young Japanese women in schoolgirl uniforms is by and large pornographic. In Japan, though, it’s totally legit. At all times of day, every day of the week, Japanese schoolgirls swarm the train stations like ants, with their knee-highs and skirts swishing at me in submissive conformity. It takes all my mustered strength not to run through the streets pointing at random and yelling, “You’re naughty! You’re naughty! You’re naughty!” But I don’t. Instead, I’m a soundless observer on the train, appearing to be absorbed by my book while others doze off around me, anxiously text message on their cell phones or stare blankly at their feet. My favorite moment of each day (aside from when I open the door to our apartment and see my wife’s glowing face fresh out of the shower and checking email) is my first isolated moment when I sit awaiting the 9:49 pm train from Fuji back to Numazu. The station is practically bare, save for a few people I see regularly at that particular time: The middle-aged man who sits with his legs crossed and moves only to blink. The high-school student with his unbuttoned top button and loosened tie, intently playing his Nintendo DS. The twenty-something woman who looks part vampire part prostitute, her pale bare legs showing veins in the revealed skin between her mini-skirt and stockings. They are my train comrades. I love each and every one of them deeply and reflect on these emotions as I publicly sip a tall can of beer and listen to Wu Tang on my iPod. I suppose the people of Japan are no more peculiar than those of my own country, but coupled with their amusing rituals, I can’t help but be charmed. A few mornings ago I ordered a cup of coffee to go from a place called Mister Donut. The man at the counter placed a lid on my cup of coffee, put the cup of coffee in a plastic bag, sealed it with specially branded Mister Donut tape, then placed that paper bag in a larger plastic bag and slid it across the counter before bidding me good day. I hadn’t the heart to stop him amidst this meticulous process nor did I have the heart to remove my coffee from its several layers of protection until well past the view of the shop. So, for several blocks I walked with my bag of coffee dangling at my side. Sigh. Each evening, upon completing my train commute from Fuji to Numazu, I pedal my way home and reflect not only on my day, but also on my first impressions of this country and its people. With my religious pamphlet folded neatly in the breast pocket of my pinstripe suit, I cruise down the sidewalk on my new yellow bicycle. The bitter cold whips at my cheeks, my heart beats rapidly, and my blood pumps like the surge of Japanese pouring from the mouths of passersby. I’m smitten, and I don’t care who knows it.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Another one about beer. Sorry mom.

Sherry and I discovered a bar this evening called Beer Water. Sherry will tell you that the actual name is Sakura, as in cherry blossom, but I say it’s Beer Water and think the picture below speaks for itself. In any event, their selection of beer is staggering. In one evening, I drank a Japanese beer with a pot leaf on the label (shrug), a Kenyan beer with an elephant on the label and downed an American beer bottled with a serrano pepper inside. Deelish.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


One of the first discoveries I made while in Japan is that you can buy beer out of vending machines on the street. Not only that, but you can then open the beer, put it to your supple lips and continue on your way, like, down the street! In public! With babies and old folks around! Gah! In celebration of this unprecedented freedom, I have written a song titled “Beer on the Street Song." This is that song with a photo included for low budget music video effect: Sung to the tune of “Farmer in the dell”: Beer on the street. Beer on the street. I love being in Japan and drinking beer on the street. Photobucket Simple enough, right? So, for you fans of remixes, I've written one of those too. This one is to the tune of "Hello" by Lionel Richie: Hello, is it some beer I'm looking for? I gotta say I love your price And your convenience is just right You're foamy and ice cold, and my wallet's open wide 'Cause I can drink you on the street And you do what I pay you to, so... I want to tell you so much, I love you ... Also worth noting is that urinating in public is legal. Be on the lookout for my "Peeing on the Street Song" to be released sometime before Memorial Day. Pictures will likely be included for that as well. B

Friday, January 25, 2008


Alcoholic drinks on trans-Pacific flights are free, and at the moment I’m two miniature Chardonnay bottles and one Dramamine tab goofy, while my divine young wife slumbers next to me. 
 Sherry is balled up, collapsing on herself like a dying star, her legs pulled onto the seat and tight against her chest. Her perfectly painted toes tremble in the twitching throes of REM. On the drop-down screen in front of me plays that totally lame football movie, “The Gameplan”, starring The Rock (Dwayne Johnson for those of you who knew him in high school). The movie is fucking awful. That’s the only way to put it. It’s the worst movie ever made. I hate The Rock after watching this horrendous piece of shit. I want to punch The Rock in the throat. However, United Airlines – as I’m sure you’ll find on most international flights – accommodates multiple native languages when it comes to the viewing of their movies. So, suffice it to say that in Japanese, “The Gameplan” is a tad bit charming. Shrug. But I have a problem. Against my better judgment, perhaps, I’ve downed my miniature Chardonnays rather quickly, and now I have to pee. Savagely. Brutally. Painfully. I have to pee. It's the kind of pee, I can tell, that would hit the water with the force of a fire hydrant. It's the kind of pee that would remove toilet bowl grime if aimed accurately enough. Impressive as hell, yeah? But I don't get up. Despite the tension in my lower back and the shivers in the general vicinity of my wiener, I stay seated. Instead, I write. I write, because ten hours ago I said goodbye to my family and left the only world I've known for the past 26 years, and I want to document what might possibly be going on in my mind at this moment. In six years' time, thirty-two years' time, whatever, this moment's clarity will wane and will eventually be rendered a distant memory. This moment will be no different from the feeling a particular movie, can't remember which one, might have once, maybe, given me. Who did I see it with? Was it at the theater or was it a rental? Can't remember. Emotionally, I won't be able to tell the difference between this moment and a profound dream I had in middle school. (Slightly less alarming than that dream where tarantulas rain from the trees above, but nonetheless as abstract and inaccessible.) Now, though, it's fresh. It's sticky and tangible. Sweet and juicy. This moment is a tangerine. 
 Sherry and I are on our way to Japan to spread the gospel of English to small, impressionable Japanese children. All our belongings, save for four suitcases of varying sizes filled with clothing for all seasons, are in a climate-controlled storage unit in Austin. The aimless collections of shit we've acquired and owned (or have acquired and owned us) since our lives merged several years ago sit idly in the deafening blackness of a consistently 70 degree, 7x20 space. Our brilliant red IKEA chair. Our pastel blue and green dinner plates. My 5-day ab workout video. It's all there. It all awaits us, and upon our return, I'll be on day three. This morning I said goodbye to my parents. Tearfully and with as few words as possible, I told them I loved them and would miss them achingly, would email incessantly and would call frequently using Skype and a webcam. I hugged my sister, kissed her on the cheek. I hugged my brother-in-law for the first time, he smelled very nice. Then Sherry and I made our way through security, bought a breakfast taco and marinated on our immediate futures. I'm not quite sure what emotions I expected, but it certainly wasn't this. This moment is practically an absence of emotion. Or perhaps a wealth of emotion, I can't quite tell the difference. What are we doing, whose goddamn idea was this? Is it too late to reclaim my promising career in advertising? I’m thrilled. I'm liberated. I can’t wait. How has it taken this long for us to do such a thing? Are we there yet? 
 It seems that each emotion is simultaneously amplified and nullified by another. The clearly remaining fact, though, is that this is a journey we've always wanted to take, always needed to take. And so rarely are we afforded the luxury of identifying such an extraordinarily momentous point in our lives - one that at that very instant we can recognize as a defining juncture in our personal evolution, can stand at the edge and look over at the enormity of our decision and say, "look, there's my house!" - that I feel it a disservice to the grand scheme of the Universe were I not to at least attempt to document my feelings on the matter. But alas, my emotions are basic and robotic, and laughable is my understanding of the Universe's divine plan. What words could my mortal fingers type that could possibly do this sweet, juicy, oozing moment justice? Plus, I have to pee. Savagely. Brutally. Painfully. I have to pee.