December 24, 2004

The anagram lover’s Tokyo

Filed under: Travels — tomemos @ 2:01 am

I could have written this last night, but I couldn’t figure out the international keyboard well enough. I had this problem during my junior year abroad, too–just when I had the (comparatively easy) British keyboard figured, I had to go to the continent and learn a whole ‘nother system. This is worse yet because if I press the wrong key I go into Japanese character mode. I still am kind of behind the learning curve, and I may not have time to correct my mistakes, so if you see any colons where an apostrophe should go you’ll know why.

So. After a wonderful and flamboyant end to our time in Tokyo (we got a Karaoke room and two pitchers of beer; I did “Tiny Dancer,” “Ticket to Ride,” “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” [with Zoe], “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Sixteen Tons,” and “Let’s Stay Together” [which I dedicated to Julie, so it’s too bad I sang it so very badly]), we took the Shinkansen to Kyoto. Kyoto doesn’t have Tokyo’s razzle-dazzle; the commercial areas are mostly unremarkable. But we’re not staying in the commercial areas–we’re staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) right smack-dab in the Temple District. We’re across trhe street from a big Buddhist temple (which we oddly haven’t gone to yet) and a short walk from a shrine, a big famous temple on stilts, some less famous but still cool temples, and the Philosopher’s Walk, a stroll along the canal connecting two–you got it–temples. My irreverence belies how great this has all been; when I was a kid I fell in love with Japan, home of both Karate and Nintendo, and for some reason Kyoto was the focal point of that. Of course the reason is that Kyoto, not having been firebombed in the war, is the repository of beautiful Japanese architecture. It’s the Florence of Japan, but with even more of a sense that these temples and shrines are still in constant use–almost everyone still makes offerings, lights incense, and rings the bells when they visit these places. It’s been pretty remarkable.

And the ryokan is a trip. Our floor is a straw mat, our beds are futons, our bath is a four-foot wooden cube. Our window overlooks a pagoda from a nearby temple. The walls are thin and there’s not much privacy–I’m kind of looking forward to strolling about my apartment talking as loud as I please–but when you’re sitting in a robe after a bath, playing rummy with your sisters, the quaintness really hits the spot.

I’m looking forward to Christmas, o’course. My parents are keeping up the Big Lie–that they’re not getting us anything, nor each other–but this is simply a formality. I’m sure the haul will be relatively slight–you may remember, I’m writing this from JAPAN–and anyway I don’t want much; I just enjoy watching the pretense. (Every year, even when we don’t go abroad, my parents swear to each other that they won’t buy each other anything expensive. My sister and I were wondering today what would happen if one of them kept their word on that one.)

And so the trip comes to a close–I leave on Boxing Day. I’ve had a great time, and I’ve reached that all-important stage of looking forward to being sedentary at home. I’m sure I’ll go back and mention more great stuff I saw once I again have access to free internet. Suffice it to say right now that this was great, that I couldn’t have planned it better, and that I’m looking forward to subjecting all my friends, particularly Julie, to hours and hours of stories and photos about it all.


December 19, 2004

Shibuya Roll Call

Filed under: Travels — tomemos @ 1:41 am

Here we are in Tokyo. Tensions have slowly been rising on this trip, which is inevitable since all of us kids, now out of the house, have started to resent commands and instructions from our parents who, nevertheless, are footing the bill for all this. The particular form this has taken is a running argument about Japanese etiquette; Tokyo is a major city and is on the cutting edge of just about everything, but you’d think it was Iran for all that our parents are chiding us about our manners. I recognize that there are certain rules that are just different, and very important to follow–you’re apparently supposed to sniffle here instead of blowing your nose, and I’ll go along with that–and at 6’2″ I don’t want to be more noticeable than I already am. But when my parents question whether I should be pointing at a building I find interesting, I suspect that they’re making too much of this etiquette thing.

Not that we’re fighting all the time. In general we’ve gotten along real well, and we’ve kept a sense of humor about this etiquette thing–we have a running joke that certain essential activities (using a rolling suitcase, e.g.) are breaches of Japanese etiquette. This will culminate, on Christmas, in a stocking-stuffer my sisters and I bought our parents at Condomania: “Etiquette” brand condoms. (Try not to be too weirded out. It was just too good a joke to pass up.)

I’m writing this from my hotel room, a single overlooking Tokyo tower. I like it here an awful lot. It’s the most like New York of any city I’ve been to (except New York, I suppose)–very metropolitan, sometimes dizzyingly busy, not usually hard to navigate but composed of people who have better things to worry about than getting you back to your hotel. Of course, there are lots and lots of important differences.

For instance: today Zoe and I went to Shibuya, a trendy, youthful district. Which is like saying that the Castro has a certain gay presence, because Shibuya has gone into trendy and come out the other side. The area is packed with young people who have dressed to be seen. Sometimes this just means extra-nice clothes, sometimes it means ratty ones, and sometimes it means dressing for a particular subculture, like punks or goths (I had never seen Japanese goths). And then there are the Fruits: people dressed in amazingly elaborate clothes, costumes really, sometimes coordinated with friends. (I don’t know where the name comes from.) I saw a woman in a black lacy wedding dress, decorated with roses; two women wearing identical, cartoonishly colorful schoolgirl-like outfits; a woman with torn fabric covering her face. (I didn’t see any male Fruits, now that I think of it, though I did see a Japanese guy with a guitar and an afro.) There was a group of them standing together and talking, and I really wanted to take their picture, but I didn’t have the guts. This might have been stupid on my part, since they were clearly dressing to be looked at, but I wasn’t comfortable taking the picture; they dressed to be a spectacle, but not my spectacle.

I’ve been keeping my eye out for wacky Japanese stuff, but haven’t seen much of it. Aside from the vending machines selling cans of hot coffee, which Julie had already told me about, most of the strangeness has been in the bathroom. Some of the toilets double as bidets–even in a museum–and the hand dryers blow with astounding force. Other than that…I did see a commercial that bears talking about. It was a Mediterranean street scene that looked like it was directed by Truffaut, with solemn music playing; a street urchin walks through the dust and comes upon a long unbroken row of Cup Noodles. Catching a significant glance from an old man, he bends down and takes one. “Cup Noodle: Without Borders,” the text says, as he and the old man eat Cup Noodle, together.

I take the bullet train to Kyoto on Tuesday; we’re celebrating Christmas in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Then, a week from today, I come home and see Julie, which is one of the few things worth leaving Japan for.

December 15, 2004

Very large, China

Filed under: Travels — tomemos @ 10:26 pm

Every city in the world, especially those not in Europe or North America, has been described as “a city of contradictions.” But whatever, Hong Kong is a city of contradictions and I’m not going to apologize for saying so. Yesterday we got on a bus in Hong Kong’s financial district, amidst gargantuan skyscrapers with claws protruding upwards, and in twenty minutes we were on a winding mountain road overlooking the South China Sea. Some of the buildings on that end were neo-colonial villas, others were gargantuan hotels and apartment buildings (one such building had a giant square hole in it, for better feng shui). Ultra-Western stores–HMV, Lacoste–rub elbows with tightly-packed Chinese markets; it’s like if you were in Times Square and then went a block and found yourself in Little Italy. It’s exhilarating and disorienting. If everything wasn’t in English as well as Cantonese I’d be overmatched.

We have a great hotel room in Kowloon that faces across the harbor to Hong Kong island. The skyline is gorgeous, it’s colorful enough without the laser light shows the buildings display every night. A number of the skyscrapers show animated Santa Claus displays, because Christmas (often rendered “X’Mas”) is huge here. Carols play everywhere, store clerks wear Santa hats. You’d think that going to a Communist country would be a good way of escaping this kind of thing.

My time isn’t free so I can’t give the full story, but I’m having a really good time. Hong Kong is a really exciting city, and it’s not at all difficult to communicate or get around. It’s great being with my family, and it’s great just being on vacation. We leave for Tokyo on Saturday, which I’m thrilled about; I’ll try to blog again from there. In the meantime, I’ve got to get on a ferry.

December 10, 2004

If your work isn’t what you love

Filed under: Literati and Cognoscenti — tomemos @ 11:07 am

I finished my only paper for this quarter. I pulled an all-nighter to do so, my first. Oh, I’ve greeted the dawn with a paper many times before, but I always grabbed some sleep–even if it was from 7-9:30 a.m.–while writing. This time I just kept on trucking, and I feel fine. (Though it’s true that when I left the house I had to go back inside to get my sunglasses; my eyes just couldn’t take it.)

I still have a lot to do before my flight Sunday…grade, pack, clean the room so it’s presentable when Julie gets here. That last one is especially problematic now; some people get a lot of cleaning done when they have work to do, but not me, brother. Papers fall from my desk like leaves and they stay fallen; dishes reproduce. “Looks like a term paper came through here” is a coherent way to talk about how messy my room is.

Writing this paper, something occurred to me that somehow hadn’t while I was writing one of the (25? 30? Something like that, Oxford added a lot) other papers that have kept me up all night: I always write papers with the same sequence of breaks, distractions, etc. The time I spend not writing follows a series as reliable as ritual that I’ve followed for just about every long paper I’ve written since the beginning of college.

Of course, there have been a few changes. I no longer do jumping jacks to keep myself awake, finding coffee to be easier on the joints and the dignity. I don’t listen to music while I write anymore, where it used to be constant rotation of The Smiths, Nick Drake, and Joy Division. And my eating has improved marginally: no more handfuls of M&Ms, though frozen veggie corndogs are not necessarily a great leap forward. But mostly it’s the same, running something like this:

–The Great Delay. Shameless procrastination: stupid online videogames, flipping through books I’ve already read (not pertaining to the topic, of course), instant messaging. Oh, and blogging, of course. Depending on how enthusiastic I am about the paper this can go until the early evening or it can go until 10 pm or so.

–A trip to go get something to eat or drink. At SLC this was usually onion rings from the Pub. In England it was chips with beans and cheese from Hassan’s Kebab van. Here it’s In-N-Out, pearl tea, or coffee.

–Probably some more procrastination thrown in.

–A regularly-occurring sign that it’s getting really late. In Oxford this was the departure of the kebab van; now, it’s the arrival of MSNBC news in my inbox.

–A second trip out just to walk around and clear my head.

–Panic, followed by resignation, at hearing the birds sing outside my window and seeing the sky get lighter.

–Nearly finishing, then deciding to grab a couple hours of sleep before actually closing it out.

Thinking about this sequence, I realize: I write papers badly. I procrastinate like crazy, I’m inefficient, I do a number on myself through sleep dep and junk food and caffeine. But I’ve made peace with myself about it, as I now find the routine relaxing in an odd way. When I made the second trip out, to walk around for no good reason, it was just about dawn and the sun was starting to rise above the mountains behind me. And I thought, “Why don’t I do this more often?”

Okay, well, the paper is printing. I’m going to go turn it in, then I’m going to get some sleep and begin getting ready for my departure Sunday. That’s one good aspect of this all-nighter thing–I haven’t done the math, but I think I’m already on Hong Kong time.

December 6, 2004

And the echo answered fraud

Filed under: Game of Base — tomemos @ 6:07 pm

I know not many of you go for the baseball stuff, but the Barry Bonds story is weighing heavily on my mind, and I have to get it out…

Babe Ruth was caught using a trick bat in 1923, after which the American League outlawed that practice. Sixty years later, some of the Seattle Mariners were looking at one of his bats that was part of a travelling display, when one of them noticed that it was corked–that is, it was hollowed out, filled with cork, and plugged up with wood, in order to make it easier to swing without losing power. So the first great home-run hitter benefitted, more than once, from cheating. “Nothing could be more typical of Ruth,” wrote Bill James in his Historical Baseball Abstract, “than to use a corked bat if he could get by with it. Ruth tested the limits of the rules constantly; this was what made him who he was. He refused to be ordinary; he refused to accept that the rules applied to him, until it was clear that they did. Constantly testing the limits of the rules, as I see him, was Babe Ruth’s defining characteristic.”

The pitcher Gaylord Perry, more recently, founded a career on the spitball, both by throwing it and by making people believe he was throwing it. He was never caught defacing a ball in a game, but it was common knowledge that he did it–he even wrote a book after he retired, Me and the Spitter. He’s in the Hall of Fame, and part of his high reputation, it seems to me, is based on the public’s admiration for a man who could cheat so brazenly and cleverly (he would glue sandpaper to his finger to scuff up the ball, e.g.) and get away with it.

Go down the list of the great players and you’ll find plenty who bent or broke the rules to give themselves an advantage. The most dramatic baseball game ever, the playoff for the 1951 National League pennant between the Giants and the Dodgers, was won by stealing signs. The great athletes, like Ruth, are defined by wanting to be better than everyone else, and they took this advantage however they could.

Now, it is finally clear that Barry Bonds did indeed use steroids over the last few years, years in which he established himself as one of the very best players in baseball history. Why is this worse than what Ruth did with his bat, or Perry with the ball?

First, let’s be clear: it is worse. I’m not some wounded Giants fan defending Bonds by saying, “Well, everyone’s a cheater.” There is a difference between what Perry did and what Bonds (and, it must be said, a probably startling percentage of current major-leaguers; but then, none of them is in the top 10 of all-time players, where Bonds is) did, and to my mind it comes down to this: Perry messed with the equipment, Bonds messed with his body.

The rules about the equipment are arbitrary; they’re limits in place to maintain the balance between offense and defense and to make today’s records coherent next to yesterday’s. It’s not like we’re using the best equipment for the job; if baseball suddenly switched to aluminum bats, you would probably see a player hit ninety or a hundred home runs in a year. We’re not using aluminum because we’ve decided we don’t want to see that. A player who messes with the equipment is giving himself an unfair edge, but he’s doing it by tinkering with an arbitrary rule.

But tinkering with your body is different. The foundation for sports is physical ability. That’s the primary reason–for some, the entire reason–to be interested in the enterprise: watching people who have developed their bodies and skills so far that they are better than almost anyone in the world. The worship of an athlete and the worship of, say, Bruce Lee comes from the same place: the audience’s amazement that a fellow human being can naturally become so physically perfect. As an athlete, you’re supposed to make yourself into the best player you can–but the whole reason it’s exciting is that you’ve gotten there through single-minded dedication, through understanding your body and the game you play. If those of you who’ve watched a game with me wondered where that far-off look came from when Barry Bonds was at bat, now you know.

Steroids puts paid to all that. If you use steroids, you’re letting science, some chemist, do the work for you. You’re getting somewhere you don’t deserve to be. I’m not saying that steroids can turn a nobody into a great athlete; by that logic, I could take steroids and hit .260 in the majors. But who knows where the line is? Have steroids given Bonds an extra 10 home runs? 20? Have they increased his batting average by 20, 30, 50 points? Have they lengthened his career? Would he be challenging Hank Aaron without them? We don’t know. The product is of uncertain value.

I still believe Barry Bonds is a great player; his years before he doped make that clear, and as I said steroids can’t do everything for you. (Jason Giambi took what Bonds took–he hit well for two years, then suffered a bunch of steroid-related injuries [tendonitis, a tumor in his pituitary gland] and his career is pretty much over.) And I still believe that Bonds should and will go to the Hall of Fame. What Bonds did is better than what Pete Rose did–betting on baseball, that is–because Bonds was trying to be a great player and help his team win; Rose is not in because he made us worry that he was trying the opposite.

But the more I think about this, the more disappointed I am. Barry had my respect and admiration sewn up in 1997; I never revered any athlete before him. I wish he hadn’t cheapened himself with drugs he didn’t need. I wish he could have taken a few less home runs, a few less years, in order to stay what he already was: one of the very best. I wish he could have just remained, as he was for me, a hero.

December 2, 2004

I’m so bored with the U.S.A.

Filed under: Travels — tomemos @ 12:30 am

No one ever asks about your vacation plans unless they want to tell you how cool their vacation is going to be. This is the situation I’ve found myself in, as someone with an impending vacation I’m dying to tell everyone about. I even asked my class what their holiday plans were, as what I realized later was a hollow pretense for telling them about mine. So rather than post a blog entry asking, “So…what’s everyone doing for Christmas?” I guess I’ll come direct and say: in lieu of presents, a tree, ho ho ho la di da, my family and I are going to Hong Kong and Japan for a couple weeks.

The deal is, my stepmom has a conference in Hong Kong in early December, and due to all the jet-setting that she’s had to do with her job (a short list: DC, Irvine, London, Hong Kong once before, Australia) she’s lousy with frequent flier miles. We’re using these, combined with the gift money, to get us all out there and back again.

We’re in Hong Kong for five days, then Tokyo and Kyoto for a week and a half. I’m pretty totally excited about it. I don’t exactly know what to expect; it’s my first time in Asia, and all I have to go on are friends’ impressions and cultural sources (Tokyo: Lost in Translation, Kyoto: Usagi Yojimbo, Hong Kong: Rumble in the Bronx). But we spent Thanksgiving break poring over guidebooks, and Julie made me a mini-guidebook, and I’m slowly building up an idea of what I’m in for before I get there and am totally blown away.

Anyway, I can always use more reconnaissance. Does anyone who’s been to any of these cities, or who knows someone who has, have any suggestions on what I should see, do, eat, or buy? Hey, I’ll welcome requests for souvenirs, too, though on a student budget I don’t know if I can afford more than a doodad (or perhaps a gewgaw if I find the right deal).

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