Archive for July 2008

Earthquake! A story I rarely tell…

July 30, 2008

Yesterday, the LA area was hit by an earthquake. I haven’t experienced one in a long time, and the 5.4 magnitude would seem to be strong enough to scare many, but it wouldn’t cause much damage except to old structures and outdated infrastructure. Indeed, except for the items falling off store shelves, the damage I saw on TV was mostly limited to old unreinforced brick walls and the water lines in older areas in town, like City Terrace. I’m not trying to make light of the situation. I’m just glad that nothing catastrophic happened.

Born and raised in California, I have had my share of earth moving experiences. The first big one I felt was the Sylmar earthquake of 1971, which was a 6.6 magnitude jolt. It woke me from bed and many things from my shelf fell to the floor. We called school and good ol’ Loyola High School said there would be classes as scheduled, but when I got there I was told to go home as they found cracks all over the old main building and city engineers needed to inspect the building before they’d allow anyone in it. Finally, our tax dollars at work, my dad had said.

SF quake opposite side

I also lived through the big one in San Fransisco. Actually, the epicenter was closer to Santa Cruz and is known as the Loma Prieta Quake. This is closer to where I was at Stanford, and it was humungous. My then-wife had gone the pick up our daughter from daycare when the 7.1 quake struck and she told me that cars parked on the street literally rose and fell in waves. My sister lived in the Divisadero section of San Fransisco, a landfill area created for the 1915 World’s Fair. As you probably know, landfill reacts like quicksand in a major earthquake and many of the homes in the area were utterly destroyed. I went to pick up my sister and it looked like a war zone. I remember going with her to an evacuation center at a local elementary school to find out the status of her flat. We walked over the sidewalk that had buckled everywhere, and walked by classrooms in which the elderly apparently in shock were lying in army cots or sitting, eating bologna sandwiches distributed by the Red Cross. My sister received a yellow card, meaning that the status of her building had yet to be determined–this was three days after the quake. Fortunately, her apartment was deemed safe, but it took three weeks until she was finally able to move back in, and even then she had no water and electricity.

As for me? Well, you sports fans will remember that it was the opening day of the World Series and I was getting ready to watch the first pitch. I had the beer chilled, and got the chips out. And not wanting to have to run to the bathroom between innings, I decided to take a dump right before the game. So there I was, sitting on the can on the second floor of our student housing residence–it was like a mini-faux-townhouse–and the place jumped up and down with a jolt, then started rocking left and right. Not to get detailed, but I was only halfway finished and I didn’t know what the fuck to do. I heard books falling and dishes crashing to the floor–Shit! Was that the Doritos?!?. I opened the door to the bathroom and from the throne, I could see the ceiling lamp that hung above the staircase landing swinging like a pendulum in a 90 degree arc. I was in panic mode, trying to think of a course of action–What should I do!–but all I could do was think, Fuck. Is this how I’m gonna die? Taking a shit? They’re gonna dig through the rubble and find my body with my pants bunched around my ankles?!? Fuck, what a way to die!

Then it stopped. The walls did not come tumbling down. The floor did not collapse. And I survived with my dignity intact: Ass wiped, pants pulled up. Whew!

FYI: I often embellish my personal stories for “dramatic” (read: humorous) effect but this story is pretty much exactly as I remember it.

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Earthquake! A story I rarely tell…

July 30, 2008

Yesterday, the LA area was hit by an earthquake. I haven’t experienced one in a long time, and the 5.4 magnitude would seem to be strong enough to scare many, but it wouldn’t cause much damage except to old structures and outdated infrastructure. Indeed, except for the items falling off store shelves, the damage I saw on TV was mostly limited to old unreinforced brick walls and the water lines in older areas in town, like City Terrace. I’m not trying to make light of the situation. I’m just glad that nothing catastrophic happened.

Born and raised in California, I have had my share of earth moving experiences. The first big one I felt was the Sylmar earthquake of 1971, which was a 6.6 magnitude jolt. It woke me from bed and many things from my shelf fell to the floor. We called school and good ol’ Loyola High School said there would be classes as scheduled, but when I got there I was told to go home as they found cracks all over the old main building and city engineers needed to inspect the building before they’d allow anyone in it. Finally, our tax dollars at work, my dad had said.

SF quake opposite side

I also lived through the big one in San Fransisco. Actually, the epicenter was closer to Santa Cruz and is known as the Loma Prieta Quake. This is closer to where I was at Stanford, and it was humungous. My then-wife had gone the pick up our daughter from daycare when the 7.1 quake struck and she told me that cars parked on the street literally rose and fell in waves. My sister lived in the Divisadero section of San Fransisco, a landfill area created for the 1915 World’s Fair. As you probably know, landfill reacts like quicksand in a major earthquake and many of the homes in the area were utterly destroyed. I went to pick up my sister and it looked like a war zone. I remember going with her to an evacuation center at a local elementary school to find out the status of her flat. We walked over the sidewalk that had buckled everywhere, and walked by classrooms in which the elderly apparently in shock were lying in army cots or sitting, eating bologna sandwiches distributed by the Red Cross. My sister received a yellow card, meaning that the status of her building had yet to be determined–this was three days after the quake. Fortunately, her apartment was deemed safe, but it took three weeks until she was finally able to move back in, and even then she had no water and electricity.

As for me? Well, you sports fans will remember that it was the opening day of the World Series and I was getting ready to watch the first pitch. I had the beer chilled, and got the chips out. And not wanting to have to run to the bathroom between innings, I decided to take a dump right before the game. So there I was, sitting on the can on the second floor of our student housing residence–it was like a mini-faux-townhouse–and the place jumped up and down with a jolt, then started rocking left and right. Not to get detailed, but I was only halfway finished and I didn’t know what the fuck to do. I heard books falling and dishes crashing to the floor–Shit! Was that the Doritos?!?. I opened the door to the bathroom and from the throne, I could see the ceiling lamp that hung above the staircase landing swinging like a pendulum in a 90 degree arc. I was in panic mode, trying to think of a course of action–What should I do!–but all I could do was think, Fuck. Is this how I’m gonna die? Taking a shit? They’re gonna dig through the rubble and find my body with my pants bunched around my ankles?!? Fuck, what a way to die!

Then it stopped. The walls did not come tumbling down. The floor did not collapse. And I survived with my dignity intact: Ass wiped, pants pulled up. Whew!

FYI: I often embellish my personal stories for “dramatic” (read: humorous) effect but this story is pretty much exactly as I remember it.

Woo hoo!! Sales Tax Holiday

July 30, 2008

Just a reminder to those who live near me: This weekend is Virginia’s Back to School Sales Tax Holiday. It is three days designated for residences–and visitors, I would presume–to purchase Back to School necessities tax free.

The Commonwealth of Virginia enacted in 2007 a Sales Tax Holiday to help residents–like me–who need certain items for specific contingencies–like me–but need a little financial break–LIKE ME. There are three holidays: in May for Emergency Preparedness specifically targeted at hurricane preparedness, August for School Supplies, and October for Energy Conservation.

The holiday for this weekend targets all things related to school including paper, pens and other school necessities, and clothing. Everything is not tax exemption. It is limited to those items that are commonly considered necessities, so school supplies are limited to certain products that are less than $30. No, you cannot buy a computer or printer sales tax free. In fact, most items computer-related are not exempt, even paper and toner. Grrr…. Time to write to our delegate.

Better, however, is the clothes tax exemption. Clothes are also limited: Items must cost less than $100 and does not include helmets, cleats, and other non-academic related clothing like prom dresses. But everything else is okay. Last year, I bought Sketcher athletic shoes, shirts, and jeans. In fact, I finished virtually all my Christmas shopping that weekend.

Virginia’s non-food sales tax is 5%, so after buying hundreds of dollars Christmas presents I saves a few pennies, which M an I promptly spent on beer after a hard day of shopping. It was our way of contributing to the economy. Money has to circulate for the economy to be effective for everyone.

Anyway, this Saturday I’m off to the Outlet at Leesburg. I have my credit card in the freezer right now. Last years, it got swiped so much that it actually got hot… and thinner by about 0.7 microns.

Unexpected encounters II

July 27, 2008

Back in 1972, my grandparents informed my mother that they were willing to have me come to Japan for the first time in an attempt to nurture a relationship that was on again, off again, due to the physical distance between us. Back in the 1970s, going to and from Japan was not an inexpensive journey, and my siblings and I rarely saw our grandparents. In fact, the first and only time I had seen them until I became an adult was in the summer of 1968, when I was 12 years old, in Zurich, of all places. But in the summer of 1972, I had already been working at a Japanese confectionary in J-Town for about two months, and I enjoyed it so much that I didn’t want to quit. I convinced my mother that my sister should go in my stead and that, in fact, she was the better candidate to “meet the grandparents” as she was much more studious and therefore more highly valued as a grandchild in the eyes of the grandparents. My mother bought into it, and I was free to continue my adventure in J-Town enveloped in an excitingly new environment at a Japanese confectionary shop, the place where I first started to break out of my Good Lil’ Oriental Boy shell and learned that I didn’t have to live up to the expectations of my parents and my JA school/church circles, a process that I detail in a rather long yet still incomplete autobiography-post. One person I got to know at the sweet shop was SJK, a guy who didn’t even work there.

I used to work six days a week after school, 5 PM to 9 PM, 10 PM on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and SJK used to drop by the store almost everyday after his work at some government job. He usually arrived having already had a drink or two at a bar near his office, then moseying on down to J-Town around 6-ish after the day crew had gone home. The first few times I saw him, I couldn’t figure out who he was. He’d just walk in and say “Hi,” sit at the soda counter with his half-lit cigar and start reading the newspaper or commence small talk with the owner, Mrs. H, or my work colleague, Billy. Nobody bothered to introduce me to him; he just seemed to be an evening fixture–the counter glass gets wiped down, the store front lights get turned on, and SJK walks in to visit. As the new guy on the job, it wasn’t my place to inquire in depth or detail, but after a whle SJK revealed enough of himself for me to piece together who he was.

SJK was a nisei who spoke Japanese relatively fluently–bera bera as he would say–and served in the 442 during World War II. He was a medic and used to tell me how he hated it, because he always felt like the red cross on his helmet was a bull’s eye. He enjoyed drinking in the neighborhood which he did virtually every weekday night before he came to the store and after he left around 7 PM. He was very familiar with Mrs. H, her daughter, KZ (the legal owner), and nephew, Mikey. He was very familiar with Mrs. H and her daughter, KZ, and nephew, Mikey, but I am to this day uncertain of how his relationship with the sweet shop started.

Over the years, I got to know him fairly well. Indeed, he was one of my more corrupting influences–mind you, I mean that in the most affectionate of terms. He would occasionally take me to his favorite watering hole, the bar at Horikawa Restaurant. Over Jack Daniels on the rocks with a glass of water, he would talk about girls, his work sometimes, then more about girls and finally about girls. He loved women but was not married and proud of it. He told me once that he’d never get married because, as he put it, “That’d be stupid.” He had his friends and his bourbon and he needed little else. He would often bitch about how the bar girls at Eigiku or Kawafuku would get too cozy in and attempt to sweet talk him into leaving large tips, but if you saw him at the bars, you’d never kow that he had any complaints. He’d be talking with them, laughing and giggling until 9 PM, when poof he’d vanish. He had work early the next morning and would always leave promptly, although it took me a while to get used to his disappearing act. Unless you were a faithful drinking buddy of his–which we became after a few years–he would never tell you he was leaving. One minute he’d be there, the next he’d be gone.

But in the summer of 1972, I had not yet gotten to know him that well. All I knew was that he visited almost every evening to say “hi” before he went drinking around J-Town. Much to my chagrin, Billy decided to quit early in the summer–I had developed quite a crush on her and had been following her around the store like a puppy dog wagging its tail. But more seriously, summer was a busy stretch for the store–in J-Town, tourist season–so without my senpai (elder, more experienced work/classmate), I had to focus on learning my duties which involved, among other things, serving customers, stocking trays of rice cakes, mopping the floor and closing shop. It was not particularly hard work, and it did give me the glorious opportunity to learn Japanese. But it kept my attention from the more extraneous happenings around me. By August, I had learned the ropes fairly well, and was able to take care of business without supervision. I had become familiar with my fellow workers and the regular customers, and was able to tell the difference between them and the frequent visitors who just dropped by to chat. During this time, SJK’s visits increasingly became infrequent. He told me that the tourist were hogging up all the prime bars stools–SJK rarely sat at a booth or table… come to think of it, neither do I. So he went drinking elsewhere with his buddies. By the time Nisei Week arrived in August, he had stopped coming completely.

I hardly noticed, the store was so busy.

Nisei Week was a large celebration for the Japanese American community that actually lasted two weeks. There were exhibitions and parties, as well as a Miss Nisei Week Pageant. The finale was a weekend carnival and on on the climactic Sunday, a parade featuring Obon dancing, JA pioneers, local politicians and of course Miss Nisei Week and her court. Parade day was so crowded, that you couldn’t walk a straight line anywhere in town, and during the parade, the crowd on the sidewalk was so thick you could barely walk through–which actually gave us a break from making non-stop sno-cones. It was a pretty big deal for the community and the tourists flocked to J-Town, a few short blocks from downtown and the civic center. It was definitley good for for Japanese American pride and a sense of community, and it was certainly good for business in J-Town. But not for guys like SJK. It wasn’t surprising I had not seen him at all during Nisei Week.

When things wound down a few days after the parade, my sister returned from Japan. I learned that I had made the right choice to stay in LA. Grandma is nice, but perhaps too unfamiliar with American kids. She was very controlling and demanding, and my sister rebelled in Japan. My mother was rather upset at the whole ordeal–which I hardly noticed since I was too involved in my first part time job–and my sister ended up spending quite a bit of her time with our aunt in Hiroshima rather than with grandma in Tokyo. Sis discussed in detail the horrific standards and demands placed on her and I felt like I had dodged a bullet–I was a young seventeen and rarin’ to learn to be my own person, away from the demands of my own parents and the enormous expectations on a good little Japanese American boy. I certainly didn’t need to be with Grandma. But after Sis gave me the lowdown, she changed the topic and told me of someone she met on the plane who knew me.

“Me? You met someone who knows me?!?”

“Yeah, a Japanese guy was sitting next to me. He started drinking and was talking to me, asking me questions about what I do and where I live. He asked me if I go to J-town, and I said ‘no’ of course, but I said you worked there. He asked where, and I said at the sweet shop, and he said he went there all the time, and that he knew you. It was kind of creepy, like he was trying to pick me up.”

I thought about my friends who might have gone to Japan but couldn’t think of anyone, let alone someone old enough to drink. “I don’t know anyone who went to Japan.”

“He said he knows you really well.”

“By name?”

“Yeah.”

I swore I didn’t know who she was talking about. I kept thinking that it was some random dude, maybe? A customer, maybe? I had no idea, but my sister was not attacked and she did not seem particualrly traumatized by the encoutner so I left it at that. The next day I went to work and around 6 PM, SJK walks in for the first time in a long time, sits at the soda fountain counter and points his cigar at me.

“Hey, Ray, your sister’s pretty good looking. What happened to you?”

I learned that SJK went to Japan annually to see his relatives in Hiroshima. According to Mrs. H, he went every August for a couple of weeks, right during Nisei Week. Did someone not think to tell me this? Not that it would have done any good. I mean, what was I supposed to do? Tell my sister to avoid being assigned a seat next to someone who drinks Jack Daniels on her flight back from Japan? Seriously, what were the odds of that happening?

Unexpected encounters

July 25, 2008

Have you ever encountered someone you haven’t seen in a while at the most unexpected place? When M came home from Japan last month, she ran into the grandmother of one of students/clients at Narita airport. Actually, she didn’t really run into her. M had forgotten to fill out some kind of form for the ANA and they had been paging her throughout the airport. Apparently the grandmother heard the name and deduced that they were going to be on the same plane home. Can you imagine M’s surprise when the grandmother came up to her in flight? Hi. Long time no see. I’m the kind who would have freaked out.

This seems to occur frequently within the “Japan” community–and probably in other Asian communities as well? I don’t necessarily mean Japanese Americans either. I have had students–who are not necessarily of Japanese heritage–who have met classmates randomly in Roppongi or Ginza in Tokyo. I met a student of mine from UCLA at a hardware store in Tokyo once. That was really weird. I even met a former elementary school-mate and boy scout patrol member on a bus in Mitaka. It was was really random so we celebrated by doing what most people do in Japan when they meet an old buddy: Get shit faced.

I had gone to visit a girl I used to date in Mitaka–near Kichijouchi–but she wasn’t home so felt rather rather sad. As I sat in the bus to the station on my way home, some called to me in English.

“Ray? Is that you?”

“JU? Woah1 What are you doing here?”

“I’m a ryuakusei at ICU.”

“Man, I haven’t seen you since when? Boy scouts? Karate?”

“About six years, I guess, huh.”

“Man, no shit.” Kinda lonely about not being able to see an old flame, I thought it would be fun to hang with JU, who was a couple of years younger than me. He was in the same patrol–the Firebirds–in our Boy Scout troop and we also took Shotokan Karate together at our church. “So what you doing now? Got a date? Going to work?”

“No, I was just going to go to the station and do some shopping.”

“Screw that. Let’s go to Shinjuku and get a drink. My treat.”

“Yeah, alright!”

Well, we went to Shinjuku and work our way to Takadanobaba, and found a small dive outside the station. We ate lightly but imbibed rather heavily in o-sake. I think we finished more than a bottle (one bottle = 1.8 liters)… I think. I don’t really remember much after reaching the bottom of the first bottle. What I do recall is paying 18,000 yen–pretty hefty for 24 years ago–and helping my friend throw up onto the tracks from the platform of the Chuo line. I sorta recall being warned by someone to take care of him as he seemed pretty bad off. I was pretty drunk, but I guess I can “appear” more sober… Anyway, I couldn’t send him back to school in this condition, so I brought him home… much to the displeasure of my cousin. Hahaha. He was really put out. Alvin is a really square dude; naive as naive gets–even in Tokyo–and he couldn’t wait to call Australia to report to my grandparents. All i could do was put my friend in a futon and let him sleep it off. Next morning, I wake up to find my cousn gone to school. I wake up with JU and he’s still groggy as hell, but he insisted that he had to go back to school, so I went with him as far as Mitaka Station to make sure he got on the right bus.

But the funniest random meeting I know didn’t involve me. Well, at least not directly.

Cont’d next post.

Query: Have you ever encounter someone you haven’t seen in ages in the most unexpected places?

Ratatouille

July 24, 2008

ratatouille

Given the content of the previous post, I can’t figure out why I rented the DVD, Ratatouille. It’s a Pixar animation about a rat that finds his way from the countryside to the City of Lights and becomes–get this–a chef at a famous restaurant. Ugh. Rats shit where they eat, and this one is cooking in the restaurant? There are a couple of scenes when there were dozens of rats in one shot crawling through the kitchen pantry. I think M almost fainted.

What was I thinking?

They should have shown the rats shitting around the kitchen, then having the droppings get people sick. That, at the very least, would have been a public service to educate kids that rats are not cute furry little animals but disease carrying vermin.

Wildlife: Not for animal lovers

July 21, 2008

Living in Northern Virginia, in a suburb of Washington DC, has it good side and it’s bad. It is, to be a sure, beautiful country. When I first visited DC, I came on a business trip from Japan. I had imagined Virginia as a rural land of tobacco, plantations and a bunch of hayseeds. Boy, was I ever wrong. The taxi ride from Dulles International to the city revealed a country that was quite arboreal. There was no mistaking the suburban housing, the office buildings and shopping centers, but it was beautifully arranged, mixed in unobtrusively with the natural greenery of the area.

When I landed my current teaching gig in DC a few years later, I knew I wanted to live and commute from Virginia. A lot of people prefer to live in the city, but most of these people are the true hayseeds. I was born and raised in LA, lived near San Fransisco for three years, and in Tokyo off and on for about ten years. I know metropolitan when I see it, and DC is not metropolitan. It has its monuments and its government buildings, but the city is basically dead by 12 midnight. Yes, Georgetown is rockin’ ’til the wee hours, especially on the weekends, but Georgetown is to DC what Westwood is to LA, a fun dynamic college town within the city proper.

Of course, Virginia is not very metropolitan either. But it doesn’t pretend to be. The bars close at 12 midnight, there are lots of police on the road making it a rather secure area, and young men and women I do not know will greet me with a “Good afternoon, sir” when I walk by them on local streets. Yes, Virginia is a part of the south, nice and quaint, but as I said, it doesn’t pretend to be urbane, which is all nice and comfy for M and me, with one exception.

Wildlife.

I live near the Vienna Metro station, in a community of townhouses that is next to a county park, the same park where Robert Hanssen, an FBI counterintelligence agent, made drop-offs to Russian spies. But this not the kind of wildlife that bothers me. This area is chock-full of critters, from deer and possums to cardinals and blue jays. And in general they stay on their side of the street. Except for squirrels. I have come to view them as rats with furry tails. They climb on our roof, chew on the ledges and drain pipes and even made a hole into our attic causing hundreds of dollars of damage. Grrrr…. No feeding the squirrels, please.

Field mice are also an issue. They usually stay in the field, but when they smell food–like when young people in the neighborhood have parties and don’t clean up after themselves as well as they should–they will come to investigate. And, man they know how to find a hole. I found mice droppings in our basement next to the washing machine recently. M wanted them out immediately, of course–you never know what disease rodents might harbor–but when I suggested traps, she wanted humane traps, one where we could catch the critter and release it safely back to the woods in the park. I tried to convince M that mice are smart and persistent, and that the only good mouse were dead one, but she wouldn’t hear of it. First I plugged up every hole and crack I could find inside the walls and outside. I used a thing called Great Stuff that is a foam-like compound that sprays from a can, expands and hardens to a consistency that feels like really hard styrofoam. I had hoped that the mice traveled in and out of the house and that I had sealed them out, but I still found fresh mice droppings the next day. In fact, there seemed to be more than before. Ugh! I wondered if I had trapped the mice in by sealing the holes, a thought I soon confirmed when I caught my first glimpse of a mouse scurrying away from a hole I had sealed when I turned on the basement light. It was probably trying to find the original hole. mouse trap

So we went to buy a humane trap at Home Depot that trapped mice in an enclosure from which they cannot escape. Or so the box said. I found out the next day that a little peanut butter–as the instructions explained–will quickly attract a mouse, but the trap door was another story. It was tossed to the side as if the mouse was taunting us–Hah! You think this puny door is gonna keep me in? This mouse checked in but it still checked out of this little rodent motel.

Convinced that I was right, M relented and I set up four small snap traps baited with chunky peanut butter in the basement along the walls where the mouse or mice were obviously travelling. M was lamenting a bit, but I assured her that it was either them or us. And since we pay the mortgage, it was them. The very next morning I found three very dead mice. M was having a fit, so I quickly wrapped the mice in sheets and sheets of newspaper, shoved them into a plastic bag, then into a plastic bag, and then finally into a plastic bag, which I then tossed into the garbage can. I must have washed my hands for about eight minutes. The good news is that I have not seen another set of mice droppings since–its been almost a week–so I think we are rid of our rodent problem for the time being.

Unfortunately, M is now developing a relationship with a rabbit that visits our backyard every morning and late afternoon. I don’t think its a wild hare, but rather an escaped pet, for it’s too fat to have grown in the woods. She feeds it lettuce, cabbage and the occasional carrot. Some days, she will feed it a variety spring greens, including arugula and basil. It’s no wonder that Pyonkichi–yes, M has given it a name–keeps coming back. On a hot day like today, it was stretched out like Cleopatra in our backyard, relaxing after a fine meal of greens. Pyonkichi is obviously getting very comfortable. I keep telling M to stop feeding it because it will start leaving pellets around our yard, and the vegetables she leaves out will only attract a new set of unwanted critters. She acts as though I can no longer speak Japanese.

I’m now hoping some mice will show up so she’ll realize the problems of feeding animals that don’t belong to us. Well, almost hoping…