Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Nebraska: The Good Life

Nebraska has welcomed me back with its loving arms.

A week ago today I stepped off the plane to greet girlfriend and family in the Omaha airport. It felt like home right away. The city, the streets, the food, the relationships. I was sleepy on the drive back to Lincoln, but my sweet girlfriend bore with me as I conversed through the fatigue, and the next day woke up in a town where everything was very much the same and familiar as when I'd left two and a half months earlier.

But even though it feels familiar, it doesn't feel the same because I don't feel the same. In fact, I feel profoundly different.

My first two days back I woke up at 6:40 am and 7:50 am. I remarked to friends how much I loved jet lag because I was getting up and being so productive. Two solid cups of coffee. A few chapters in a book. A little bit of writing. Cleaning the house. Unpacking. I've been nesting.

I've hardly touched my Playstation since I got home. I haven't been interested in video games or Netflix, formerly a daily pursuit of mine. I went on the library website and reserved a book instead.

My interactions with people have been different.. completely. In fact, I feel like I don't even recognize myself before.

I don't know what this all means, yet, but I think when you have an experience of rapid growth where you're challenged anew every day, looking back on your prior persona makes you feel foreign.

Not only was this an opportunity for me to travel and experience the world, but it was doubly meaningful to reconnect with my family. I've found resonances with Paul, Nancy, and Naomi that I didn't know existed, and these resonances have given me a greater sense of identity.

And they have changed me.

I hope you as my friends will bear with me to see what I'm about now. You might have a better insight than me into how I'm different. If there is one thing I did miss in Japan, it's you. Nebraska truly is the good life.

I've got some new irons in my fire. I'm excited, enthusiastic, and thankful.

To all those of you who came around me in Japan, I thank you. To those of you who received me back home, I thank you. I hope that it is as deep a pleasure for you to know me as it is for me to know you.

I have two homes now.

Michael out.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Departures & The Impermanence of Things

The night before a departure is always a time of tension for me.

I often find myself anxious and under-prepared. So many tasks, so many people to say goodbye to.. So little time.

Tomorrow is the day I return.

I will be getting up soon, but it's important to me to type my thoughts in the moment of tension. Writing warrants a fresh 'word' from my feelings in the present, in the thick of things.

Sames and Differents
After everything is said and done, I am only curious. All this time I have felt like a foreigner in a foreign land. Now, will I feel like a foreigner in my own land?

I can't remember all that is different in the Midwest, but here is a short list.

Here is a list of things I know (I think).
1  I can't wait to see my friends and loved ones at home
2  I will miss my new friends in my Tokyo home
3  I will miss Paul, Nancy, and Naomi
4  I will miss Japanese food; ramen, sushi, yaki soba, udon, etc....
5  I will enjoy understanding what people are talking about and what signs say
6  I will miss public transportation
7  I will enjoy having my car
8  I will hate how far away everything is by car
9  I will miss my girl bike
10  I will miss having my own apartment 
11  I will enjoy sleeping in a real bed (if I have a bed when I get back...)

Time Travel
More than a week ago I knew my attitude was changing. I knew it was time to switch into leaving mode. And I wanted to leave well.

One of the problems I often run into is not wanting my experience to be over, procrastinating my departure procedures, and ending up incredibly stressed out on the last night. I needed to find a way of dealing with "letting go" in a healthy way.

The mentality I settled on was a dichotomy. On one hand, I would live in the present--not worrying about all the things I have to do when I get back, but simply enjoying the relationships and environment I have established in the last two months. On the other hand, I remembered that once I blinked my eyes, I would be on the plane. Time would move mercilessly, sneaking through the night and ransacking by day. Suddenly, uneventfully, my time would be over. Would I be ready?

That brings me to today. I feel like I am actually ready.

One of the values of Japanese culture is that true beauty lies in the "impermanence of things."

Maybe it was the delicate, beautiful, and short-lived cherry blossoms that helped the Japanese discover this mantra..  maybe it was the Tale of Genji (see earlier Shimonoseki post), or maybe it was ancient Buddhism. Either way, some of the highest art in ancient Japanese tradition has valued this recognition of the fleeting nature of beauty.

That's one of the reasons this trip has been beautiful. It is a glorious fleeting moment in my life. The magic of this first encounter of Asia, my long-lost family, and the things I've learned will be hard to top.

Like I said, I can't wait to be back, but I'm sad to be going. Friendships quickly made are not as easily dismissed. Goodbyes are difficult and best kept short.

But it is late, and sleep is also impermanent, and short. Tomorrow brings a new day. There is still more thinking and writing to be done in the future.

This is only the beginning.

Michael out.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Great Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami

I find it hard to write about what I've witnessed.

Iwaki is located south of Fukushima on the eastern coast of Japan. A great wave, hundreds of miles long, hit the coast a little over a month ago. Thousands died. Thousands are still missing.

Several of us went northward to visit the province last Saturday. Buried in the rubble were homes, possessions, and families.

It is the worst thing I've ever seen.

The Wave
After the earthquake, the ocean itself receded hundreds of meters. This process, known as "withdrawal," is deceptive and often prompts people to pick up beached fish and shells. A few who have experienced this sort of thing before or have heard stories from their grandparents know that this is a classic sign of tsunami. In other words, "RUN." 

Ocean, seawall, piano keys
A tsunami itself is not a wave, but a flood. It is a wall of dense water that is stacked from the back, and hits with the momentum of an army of freight trains. Tsunami travel at more than 500 mph across the ocean without losing much momentum. The deadly Sumatran tsunami in 2004 originated more than 3000 miles away from its areas of impact. As a tsunami nears land, the water slows and stacks up on itself. The more narrow the obstacles in the chute, the higher the water rises, pushed from behind.

It was 2:46 pm on a Friday. Children were at school, parents were at work. Families were separated.

The tsunami measured up to 37 meters tall. Who could stand a chance?

Gazing at the wreckage, it was as if a monster had reached out of the deep and engulfed the city with its massive arms, and then, like a child with a sand castle, steamrolled it, back and forth until nothing made sense and everything was chaos. The reason? Cold, capricious fun, or maybe boredom.

In the Nebraska, we fear tornadoes. These devastating twisters wreak havoc on rural communities, and have even destroyed entire towns. But that doesn't compare to 13,000 dead and 14,000 missing. That doesn't compare to 160,000 living in shelters. That doesn't compare to thousands of homes and families destroyed. That doesn't compare to nearly 100 children now confirmed as orphans. That doesn't compare. That doesn't compare...

Throughout this process, I am amazed at the resilience of the Japanese. We visited a nearby relief shelter, stationed in a school gymnasium. The mood was almost festive. Thanks to some missionaries from the local church who showed up to do music and give back rubs, many people were smiling amid the devastating situation. 

The shelter was clean and organized. Incredibly so. Newspapers lined the floor and hundreds of people slept on mats with makeshift cardboard walls for 'houses'. Privacy was impossible, but at least they had each other.

Cherry "tree" and space heater, Iwaki shelter
The Japanese response in some ways puts hurricane Katrina to shame. Despite having little fuel, clean water, food, medicine, and shelter, the Japanese faithfully take care of themselves. There has been little looting, and even the homeless have been allowing refugees to take shelter with them beneath tarps.

But I do not write to indict the American mentality, nor to praise the Japanese response--only to paint a picture. People are trying to stay hopeful. The shelter we visited even has its own indoor cherry "tree."

I didn't feel right taking pictures of people--my own admission of weakness as an amateur journalist. I wasn't gawking, but I didn't want to look like I was, either. Though, many people came up to our photographer and wanted their pictures taken. They seemed eager for us to hear their stories.

Their survivor stories are their new realities.

We may have caught a brief moment of sunshine during our visit, but it is difficult for me to believe that it is like that all the time. The physical destruction is a calamity in itself--measuring 25 trillion yen ($300 billion), but how do you count human suffering?

The cost cannot be measured.

What is the actual cost of a 200-year-old family business that was destroyed? A child orphaned? An entire city demolished? History erased? What is the current exchange rate in dollars to tears?

It is imperative in times like these that those who reflect on the tragedy don't stop short of meaning. We shouldn't artificially construct tacky, pre-fabricated explanations, but we must also distill what few drops of meaning we can from this broken barrel. We are called to point the way. Even if it is inadequate, we owe it to ourselves and our God to try.

Unfortunately, I feel like I'm at the end of a Coen brothers movie, having watched something horrible, and asking myself "What was the point of that!? What did we learn from all this!?"

The simple, existential answer is, "nothing."

On the other side of the coin is the Christian storybook, saying "God has a reason, He will bring good out of this."

I find both of these instinctive explanations tempting, but foolish. They are both too trite and simplistic. It seems to me a vile sin to offer a trite answer to explain great human suffering.

I have wrestled with this ever since the disaster originally happened more than a month ago. It has only pained me more to see the site of the tsunami for myself, but I am glad I did. On one hand, I feel that the more pain you experience as you grow older, the more pain you take on, and the harder faith becomes. On the other hand, I hope that this loss of innocence will result in clearer vision, despite the burden.

In my mind, this calamity grieves God greatly. This is not "an opportunity." This is not a "tool." This is not "God's punishment." This is not "OH, well, gosh, if they only had Jesus they'd be filled with hope and joy! YA-HOO!" Let us not forget that whole families were buried by water beneath their own homes just a month ago.

On the other hand, God is not distant from this situation. God allowed this to happen. The love of Christ still pervades. We must wrestle with that by faith. We may never know why. But we must know our place when disaster is permitted to strike.

The Bear
While in Iwaki I saw several different "Pooh Bears" that stood out from the wreckage, and, whether in ironic memorial or in a desperate attempt at hope, someone had stood one up along the side of the road. As cars passed by, they could see this happy, loving bear smiling at them from atop the rubble.

He was no doubt the lost toy of some child. His smile was not mocking, but kind. And, most importantly, he was standing in the front lines with the best of them, amidst the chaos, as if to say "I see your pain, and I love you. I'm still here with you."

This picture to me symbolizes the admission of sadness and loss, and despite, hope.

Is that not our place in this time? To stand together with this deep loss, to step along side the Japanese and help carry the burden? To be a friend, and reach out to offer hope and a future?

Instead of seeing this as an "opportunity" to preach Christianity, can we instead show love, and make others ask, "why so much, why me?"

If no one is asking, then something is wrong.

The church we visited in Iwaki is a wonderful example of this. They have worked for the good of their community, and because of that they have earned an excellent rapport. They are allowed into the relief shelters, where they give foot & back rubs and perform live music. It seems to me that there is no difference between ministering to someone's physical needs, and ministering to their spirit. How simple is this? In fact, the latter demands the former.

Our place is with those who suffer. The tsunami reminded us that we are small, and our lives are short. I never thought I would be within range of a nuclear meltdown, but here I am. If it is all we can do, then can we be salt and light? Can we be a pleasing fragrance in the middle of this abyss?

Let us not pretend that we know why God allowed this destruction. Let us not pretend we have an easy solution. Let us mourn with those who mourn. Let us pour out our spirits to help others in their time of need. Let us pray for their safety, prosperity, and hope.

Let us help the victims to face a better tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Sakura Bloom, Fortnight Nigh

The cherry blossoms (sakura) are finally blooming, Spring (Haru) is here, everything is coming to life.

I have two weeks left today; one week to take pictures of flowers, and one week to say goodbye to this beautiful land of Nippon.

Sakura are no small wonder to behold. They're not quite in full bloom yet, but every hour of every day unwraps a little bit more timid splendor. I find myself taking pictures but opening the van door as we stop by the train tracks, like some sort of photo-sniper. The natural beauty within all this urbania is captivating. I want to steal it and take it back. I want to... but I can't. It will have to live with me here, not there.

No matter how many photos I take, I will always be limited in my ability to transmit my experience of the flower; the camera does not convey the visual awe; the smell cannot easily be captured; the unfolding of the delicate leaves day by day; the intricacy of the colors and shades of white, pink, and red; the touch of the gnarly trunks of giants, decades old; walking beneath the canopy. I am powerless to communicate the enjoyment of just one well-known Japanese experience.

I often find myself pre-processing how I will explain this journey. Sakura is only one of the concepts I will fall tragically short in my ability to truly express. How much more so will I be powerless to unwrap the rest of my box of cultural and personal experiences? What is different about Japan? Everything. Who did you meet? Literally hundreds of people. What did you learn? So much! What was your favorite part? Being there.

Don't be surprised if that is what comes out at first if you ask a blanket question.

The problem: where do I begin? Where can I?

This loss for words makes me feel powerless, and even alone--but not unhappy. I will always have these memories to treasure in my heart.

I don't know how these last two weeks will go, but I'm not going to worry. I will take life as it is given and squeeze what enjoyment and learning I can out of my time. As always, I live in the present, and I say yes to experience. That means every day is a surprise--sometimes magical, and sometimes tragic.

I have been grateful for all my friends, family, and loved ones who have cared for me with joy, concern, and interest during this whole process. I am eagerly awaiting sharing my opportunity to share with you..

The good news? I have been deeply blessed.

I hope to distance myself from the web as I become even more present where I am for the next two weeks. Your thoughts and prayers are always appreciated. I love you all so very much... Even though I am fully present here, I miss you dearly.

Michael out.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

[ haru : spring ]

A sweet wind blows as
Ducklings dive from grassy banks
Shy petals unwind

Friday, April 1, 2011

American Values

I've spent way too much of my life playing video games.

Not that there's anything wrong with video games, per se. In fact, I rather like them, or I wouldn't be having this problem.

I've probably even learned from them. After all, if I hadn't played Conquest of the New World growing up, I might not know the difference between a commonwealth and a liberated state today. If I hadn't played Civilization, only the Boss knows how little I would know about world history (I still remember ushering in the year 2000 with Civ 2 and a tiny glass of Arbor Mist.. good times). Sub Battle, Command and Conquer, and Age of Empires only built my fascination with historic figures. Frankly, I'm not sure where I'd be without video games.

Even now, Call of Duty still holds a hypnotic allure that is hard to stay away from indefinitely. Starcraft 2 is a game I intent to enjoy profusely upon my return to the states. I still intend to keep playing them, but I just think I've spent too much time on them; video games, that is.

And that is the real subject of this post: time. How do we spend our time as Americans.

I recently read an article detailing 13 characteristics that are very specifically American, and use of time was included in the list. The fact is, Americans are only pawns to those little digital dials that now line our cell phone edges... clocks. If we're not being productive, active, and progressive while that dial changes from one number to the next, we find ourselves feeling the weight of an immense amount of guilt.

It's odd, really. I do feel guilty when I'm not working toward something. Even if it's something digital, like a nice crop of corn on Harvest Moon, or that perfect college town, or an epic Angry Birds score. The very act of organizing and ordering itself gives me gratification as long as I'm working toward something that feels like a reward. Only, now, I'm starting to feel guilty, like some of my work has been all "smoke and mirrors"...

I think that's where video game makers have me figured out. They know that if every time I succeed in their game I get a reward, I'll automatically prefer that to succeeding in real life. Because in real life you don't get a reward every time you succeed. In fact, most of the time your reward is internal. Sometimes, that's just not good enough for me.

But we are trained to earn our rewards. From the ground up, through self-control, self-sacrifice, and having a good "work ethic," we are built to earn the rewards of our labors as individuals. And if we're not working, we're lazy. And this work ethic has enabled us to achieve some amazing things.

But some cultures value personal relationships over material rewards. In fact, many do. It's not just the reward system that has value. In the last few weeks, I've seen people work devilishly hard toward very good things, but, in the end, if you don't value people, the rewards (even self-less ones) become meaningless.

So I go back to video games--how far have these games actually advanced me in the realm of real life? How have they taught me to act in the scope of reality? How have they expanded my relationships? Have they taught me true skills that I will use in my every day? Or have they taught me that when I don't earn a play-by-play reward for every good action I take in the real world, that it's best to retreat to the digital one? When all human relationships are messy, complicated, and outside of my control, have I been running to something I can control? Consider this a coming out moment for me... not for being a nerd, but for retreating to an alternate universe.

And the worst crime of all is to retreat from loving people. Some things are harder than others.

I don't know why I chose to post this now, except that I've been thinking about my values. It's really hard to get a grip on your own culture. Sometimes it helps to get an outside opinion. That's what I've been doing. More on that to come.

Until next time...

Michael out.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


I've been really fascinated lately with culture, language, and the dynamic meaning of words.

It's a function of my situation, really; sitting in a room full of multicultural media goons and translators all day, the mind tends to focus on communication between languages. After all, I have some coworkers I can't even speak to, yet I need them to survive. I talk much less with my mouth here, and more with my hands. And I speak more slowly. I try to incorporate Japanese words and meanings as much as I can into what I say. For instance, "hai" (pronounced "hi") means "yes." No doubt when my Nebraskan friends next see me they will wonder why I'm so friendly.

I also recently stumbled across a list of words online that are notoriously difficult to translate into other languages because they express an idea, feeling, or both that no one else has quite figured out how to express. I've been writing them on the board daily to offer coworkers a bit of thought-provoking amusement to distract from their otherwise stressful lives. My favorite of these is "Tingo" – “the act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them.” (Pascuense, Easter Island)

On top of that being an awesome word, with a meaning that is SO excellent and comical, it draws a unique picture. Another one I like is "Jayus"  – “A joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh.” (Indonesian) I'm guessing this is something that many of you will use to describe me in the future.

Do you notice how many words it takes just to come up with a way to describe it comparably? It's something we rarely ponder, but English has these, too. I ran into one today when I was having an intercultural conversation and tried to say something was "cheesy."

How do you describe it? Campy? What is that? Goofy? Still confused. Sappy? Nope, not ringing a bell.

This turned in to an office discussion where we finally settled on a translatable definition of "silly, and in bad taste."

Still, what is taste, anyway? Ways of thinking about taste aren't exactly the same here. After all, different is bad, here, so you might say that if everyone likes something it would be in good taste. By that definition, in America, Justin Bieber would also be "in good taste."

In Japan, there is a truly unique feeling when the cherry blossoms bloom and plants come to life. Tokyo is transformed in a couple days into a budding, green paradise. It is a very unique and emphatic time, and there is a word in Japanese that describes "the feeling that everything is budding and spring is coming." If you want to say that in English, of course, you have to at least say "spring is in the air." I doubt there is a quick way to say this in northern Russia, the Sahara Desert, or tropical rainforest regions.

How do we describe our world? Are we limited by the 250,000 plus words in the English language? The way we frame our language must tie in with the way we express and see it... The things we value, we come up with better words to describe. The words are like our tools to construct not just our communication, but our very way of thinking.

Jayus and tingo are just two examples. We come up with better words for what we value, better ways of expressing what we need most to express. We invent better tools to build a better framework for the things we think are important. This process truly reflects our own unique experiences as people.

What are some of your words that really don't translate?

Michael out.