Wednesday, October 15, 1997

Flying Dutch Persons

I took Taku to the opera to see The Flying Dutchman. “I don’t like Wagner,” he says. “You don’t know Wagner,” I says, “Keep an open mind.” By which I meant, of course, you’ve got to know them very well to love them, so let’s get started.

You don’t have to work all that hard to get Taku into the Opera House. He loves gold leaf and plush seats and the very thought of theatre. And he has sung along with Maria Callas since he was barely out of his teens. Besides, I bought us season tickets.

So we went to The Flying Dutchman. Both of us had run through the opera in preparation. I had bought the libretto as well as the CDs and spent an evening alone being carried away by this glorious sound. I was primed and ready. Taku was hesitant, but willing.

We sat side by side and saw the stage from Row A of the balcony. A nice clean view of the entire stage. But it became clear as we walked down the stairs after the two and a half hours without intermission, that we had had two distinctly different experiences. To wit,

Version 1 (Alan’s partial recall)

What minimalist staging. Glad I was warned. A recounting of a legend. Yes. That opening sailor music - yo ho heave ho. That’s how the English hear it, those people who brought you cock-a-doodle-do. Ei ukh nem, go the Russians, juchhe, the Germans. Why does it all sound so hokey? Obviously somebody’s notion of what a romantic sailor in a nice clean sailor suit ought to be singing. Oh happy happy sailor life. Not.

I digress. Let’s review the plot here. One of those deals with the devil. Like Faust and Mephistopheles, only this time the Devil didn’t play fair. There’s this Dutch seaman who once made the mistake of shouting to the Heavens, “I’m going to get this fucking ship around this goddam Cape of Good Hope if I have to sell my soul to the Devil.” Now we aren’t surprised, because we know our legends and the workings of old Beelzebub, that The Devil immediately accepted the offer. So now Dutch rides around at sea for seven years at a time, through the centuries, and there is no rest. A cruel and unusual punishment for a careless moment of passion.

Now either Old Lucifer is fair after all, or he’s a fallen god who likes to play with his victims –you’ll take the latter view if you are grounded in Western Civilization, of course, but he leaves this poor Hollander a way out of his dilemma. Once every seven years, he (the Devil) will let him (the Dutchman) land and look for a woman who will be “true to him till Death.” If he can find him a sacrificial virgin in one of his seven-year rest stops, he’s free. (This is Norway, not Chichen Itza, so women have to want to throw themselves into volcanos; otherwise the principle’s the same.)

Well guess what. It’s that time. And here he is in Sarvik - how’s that for a piece of trivia, the name of the fjord where the action in Dutchman begins. We don’t see the ships, but the entire stage becomes red and we’re to understand (because we’ve done our homework) that means the Dutchman’s ship with the red sails has just pulled in. Come to think of it, I also happen to know that the masts were black. I understand the red sails, it symbolizes blood and that scares the bejeezuz out of everybody he encounters, but why the black masts? Been reading Stendahl, have you Richy? Glides in so silently during the night up next to Daland’s boat that the Steuermann (who appears to be in castrato training, his voice is so high) on watch doesn’t hear a thing.

Now, as luck would have it, Daland has a daughter who dotes on him. This comes as no surprise, because otherwise we wouldn’t have a story.

OK, enough digressions. Let me cut to the chase. Dutchman offers pearls and stuff for a good night’s sleep and a woman to wed; Daland offers daughter Senta, this pisses off Erik, Senta’s boyfriend, hunter and plot-advancer extraordinaire; Senta likes the idea of saving somebody from death (she knows the truth about Dutch, turns out); Dutch overhears Erik ask Senta “What about those sweet nothings you once whispered into my ear?” misinterprets this as betrayal, and takes off. Senta flings herself into the ocean and saves Dutchman, end of opera. All so very epic like. A kind of Germanic Ben Hur. Lovely rich silly stuff. Absolutely lovely performance. Bravo. Bravo. Bravo all around to everybody.

Version 2 (Taku’s partial recall)

This Bear of a fellow, quite nice looking, actually, shows up and offers this guy some money for his daughter. Actually says, “I want a woman. Do you have one?” Can you imagine? And the father actually says yes!!! Two heroes of the patriarchy who talk about this woman as if she were property! Then in the next scene there are all these women spinning. As if women couldn’t do anything else. And this idiot, Senta, is going on about this man who has been condemned and she actually wants to save him! Get a life, Senta. Shows how the patriarchy has inculcated its values in the women, who have lives no better than slaves.

And then there’s all this talk about love and duty and honor and all this shit. Give me a break. Where’s the honor when this Dutchman is only thinking of himself?! He knows this is going to be a life of misery for Senta, but does he tell her? Absolutely not. He’s a user if there ever was one. We won’t even talk about Daland. He actually boasts of his daughter’s absolute devotion. Obviously this is a society where money is the only real value.

True till death? Are you crazy? This means Senta has to give up her sex life and become erotophobic while he’s out at sea? What manipulation. You don’t hear the Dutchman promising Senta he won’t masturbate. Like to see that happen.

Who’s this Erik character? Why is marrying a smelly animal-killer the only alternative? What a sick society. And she doesn’t even need twenty-four hours to say yes. Slut. Deserves what she gets. She should have a mind of her own. The only way to fight the patriarchy is to accept responsibility for your own actions. Why is she so fat? She’s only 16 or something like that? She looks 40, at least. Why do they think we’re going to think she’s 16? Slut.

Wake me when it’s over. I like Italian opera. This is shit. Is it because it’s German? Are Germans really like that? No romance. Just cold fat people. Honor and duty and no sensuality at ALL!

At this challenge to his cultural roots, Alan waxes didactic:

Alan M: Remember when Herder talked about nation-building? Wagner, like Herder, thought you did that by creating a cultural nation, by sniffing out German uniqueness in the heroic versions of folk tales uniquely Germanic. He was into myth, not reality!

Another Perspective: But why did he have to ruin opera to do it?

AM: Mozart is also German, remember. His themes were contemporary and silly because society was silly. Wagner was interested in the power of nation and the heroic story, Mozart in the music and in entertainment.

AP: Mozart wrote in Italian. Sounds like he didn’t want to be German.

AM: Mozart wrote Magic Flute in German! -- at the insistence of the anti-Italian forces in the Viennese court.

AP: I think he really wanted to be Italian. In any case, I don’t like these German stories. The Italians make better opera. They understand sensuality better. When are we going to Italy? I don’t have to see any more German operas, do I?

AM: Well, I think you’d like Rosenkavalier.

AP: That’s the opera which begins with an FTM (female to male transvestite) fucking her girlfriend and the overture ends in the orgasm?

AM: Yes.

AP: OK. I’ll go see that one.


October 15, 1997

Monday, October 13, 1997

Home Again: The P.S.

October 13, 1997--One day after Indigenous Peoples Day, what they still call Columbus Day in retrograde parts of the country

Dear Folks:

I last wrote you when
a. my culture shock was in full bloom;
b. my toaster and rice cooker were in the mail; and
c. I was apparently turning the corner on disillusionment with America by getting health coverage.

Right. So on October 1, the day my Kaiser health coverage went into effect, I walked into the corner of a table and tore the toenail off my left big toe. No problem, I thought, and pulled out my Kaiser card and called emergency. Twenty minutes later, I was still waiting for the “advice nurse.”

Who told me
a. not to pour alcohol on the toe, as I was thinking I ought to do;
b. to get myself to the minor injuries clinic at the emergency room; and
c. to get there in the next twenty minutes, because emergency was closing.

So I wrapped the abused member of my digital community (I've been in America a long time now; I know we call everything a community) in a paper towel and took it to EMERGENCY.

“Can I park here?” [hobble hobble]

“I don't know.”

Oh. Sorry. I didn't realize you were with that woman they're wheeling in. (giggle giggle) - Paramedics giggle. I guess the woman isn't hurt too bad.

I find my way to registration and pay my $15.00.

“Your Kaiser card please!” Thank you. You are a real person, so we can take care of you.

Triage wants to know why I didn't bring the nail. I get up to go back and get it. This suggests I'm in shock. I follow the yellow brick line past the woman (she's broken her hip, it appears) into the back room where a nurse in a clown suit bathes my toe in water and I fly through the ceiling. Doctor Ishihara (no clown suit) then comes and sticks three needles in my toe (I hit the outer stratosphere) so I won't feel anything when he vaselines gauze on the wound and kisses it and makes it better.

It's two weeks tomorrow since that happened. The toe is no longer sensitive. My back, which I threw out hobbling because of a gigantic surgical shoe, is now no longer bothering me and I can go to the opera wearing shoes again. I may even have a new nail in only six to nine months.

All is well. Except that somebody got murdered outside my house last Sunday night. Two people. An old man out taking a walk and his caretaker. 10:30 at night. David and Slamet were just leaving and we heard a loud report. I used to call those things gunshots, but after the meeting with the police last night where I was filmed and my friends are calling to tell me they saw me on television, I learned you call them loud reports because sometimes it's not somebody shooting your neighbors. It's only a kid hitting a stop sign with a baseball bat.

David and Slamet came for dinner. A lovely dinner. Less lovely for David and Slamet, because on the way here they were hounded by some guy in a pickup who followed them around the block shouting something behind the window they couldn't hear. They had failed to start fast enough when the light turned, or something like that, and he decided he had to punish them. So he followed them for blocks. They got away from him only when he got out of his car at a light and came up, rage still written across his face, to their window. They rolled down the window and sprayed him with pepper shot, and then reported him to the police and came to dinner.

Between the threat of attack and the murder outside my house, they fixed my e-mail handler so I can now read and send attachments. I'm really coming into the cybernetic age.

I've been in California almost three months now. No more culture shock. I'm thoroughly at home. I think of Japan a lot, and I think I'll be ready to go back when the time comes. It will still annoy me that they don't have grass and trees like we do here. And that they talk all the time of violence in America. I wish they wouldn't do that.

I got my toaster back. They didn't send the refund for postage, like they promised. But the toaster toasts my toast and that makes breakfast easier because I haven't smoked up the kitchen by putting toast in the oven and forgetting it since my toaster came back. And my rice cooker's back. It didn't work at all, remember. Now it works, but it burns the rice, so we don't use it anymore.

Well, I guess that's all for now. Three months down on the sabbatical. Five more to go.

Thursday, September 25, 1997

Home Again

I'm home again. I have waited eight years for this chance to come back to the States
and live in my house. If somebody told me now the sabbatical was off and I had to return to work in Tokyo, I'd ride into the sunset and never be heard from again. I've anticipated this period of uninterrupted time to read and write so long, it's as if I've done it two or three times already.

I love getting up in the morning and grabbing a book, or sitting down at the computer knowing I don't have to look at a clock. Or starting the day with a walk. Or sleeping in. It's exhilarating, this freedom. It's working, in other words, if you think a sabbatical is supposed to be a time for refreshing the lagging spirits and opening the possibilities for creative work. Just as I planned. Just as I hoped.

But something's not right.

Of course. It's just too good. Too much freedom. Where am I going to get my creative juices? For years now, I've enjoyed the time to read and write because it comes with a sense of guilt. I'm stealing the time from something else, something I should be doing instead, something I'm going to have to pay for later. I need something to fight against. I can't handle the gift of a luxury like this; I have to wrench it out of somebody's hands, pull it out by the roots and make it feel like victory.

I know there are people who get a sabbatical and go straight to work, write the novel, plan the lecture series, polish the argument, revise the draft, catch up on the reading. People who know what to do with the gift of time without distractions. I can't. Never could. I require justification when the muses fail. How can I work? All these people bugging me. How can I get my reading done? I'm exhausted from the commute. So I've begun my six-month sabbatical with a quest for distractions.

The house. Now that should be like shooting fish in a barrel. The clogged drains, the need to put in a doorbell, change a shower head, remove the jungle of weeds from the garden, that sort of thing. Where do I buy a good carving knife? What do I do about window coverings? Is it time to tune the piano again? The dishwasher hose is blocked, the refrigerator has a bad rattle. You get the idea.

Somehow, though, at the end of the day, these questions find their answers. A distraction worth its name has to say “dwell on me; fixate, stew, grow anxious.” The house concerns require time and effort, but the answers come. Write a check for $300 and the plumbing gets fixed. Momentary alarm, but no lasting anxiety. The concerns, actually, even come to represent the fact that I have a house to call my own after all these years. No. I need a distraction that makes no sense. One that will drive me up a tree and give me a sense that life has meaning. Bona fide kvetch material.

I've got it. I'll go into culture shock. I've spent many years counseling others in dealing with culture shock. It's time the guru freshened up his skills by getting down and dirty. First hand experience to keep me in tune. Front line knowledge. “Why don't they..., how can they..., how do you explain this absurdity?

God Bless You, America. America the Beautiful. Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. America, you are in serious disrepair. (I think I've got it.)

America's home appliances, for example. (Yes, I sense I'm on the right track.) When I bought the house nearly two years ago now, the former owner performed a wonderful act of generosity and bought me a bunch of housewarming gifts. Among these were a microwave, a rice cooker, and a toaster. They were all bought at once at the same place. And they were all state-of-the-art stuff. Names like Cuisinart and Black & Decker, good stuff with lots of bells and whistles.

The toaster, for example. You push a button and it expands and contracts to toast bagels or tiny slivers of French bread. It has a motor that raises and lowers the bread slowly – no rude pop-up, this – and holds it snug until it reaches the right degree of toastiness.

The first time I plugged in the rice cooker, smoke curled out of the front of it and there was a distinct odor of an electrical burn. I tried it again. More smoke. More stink. I put it away, too busy raiding the video and book stores for my next three or four month stint in Tokyo. A year later I tried again. More smoke, more stink and the heat turns off in less than a minute, before the water is even warm.

Two dramatic changes here since I left eight years ago are the proliferation of 800 numbers – I reveal my Japanese roots by calling them “free dial numbers,” – and the now apparently nationwide acceptance of the California belief that people have only one name.

Rochelle answers the phone. I tell Rochelle my rice cooker smokes. “It's supposed to smoke, sir. That's how it cooks the rice.” Now there's an amusing conceit. I am tempted suddenly to transform myself into Rita Moreno. “Listen, ass kholl. It's steam what make dee rice kook, not smok. Dees pietz of chit what you sell me dommake no rice.” I maintain a dull businesslike persona and get the point across in a more ordinary fashion. This enables Rochelle to come up with a wonderful little plan. Why don't I wrap up the rice cooker in its original box and mail it back to San Diego where they will try to repair the damage I did to it. Oh yes. I need to send them a sixteen dollar check for their trouble. I start to lose it again over the sixteen dollars, but catch myself, save my energy for the hour long wait I know is coming at the post office.

The post office! The thought makes my heart sink. I've got to take this clunker to the U.S. Post Office! I've just come from the post office. I wanted to send postcards to Japan and went to the post office for stamps.

“How much to send a postcard to Japan?”

“You'll have to stand in line, sir.”

“But I just want some stamps. I'll buy them in the machine.”

“You'll have to stand in line, sir.”

I stand in line for twenty minutes. Not before looking all over the place in vain for a list of postage rates around the world. “They used to have one here somewhere, but I guess they took it down,” one of my neighbors-in-line offers. I do manage to find a machine that will weigh your letters, but it only works for domestic postage. A machine which cost the U.S. taxpayer maybe a thousand bucks, and all it can tell you is you need to slap on thirty-two, fifty-five, or seventy-eight cents worth of stamps for this first class piece of mail you are now weighing.

“Fifty cents,” the clerk tells me, looking it up.

“Give me ten fifty cent stamps.”

“We don't have fifty cent stamps. Try the machine over there.”

The machine doesn't sell fifty-cent stamps. Only thirty-two cent stamps.

A week later I notice my toaster isn't working. I jiggle the cord and it burns the toast on the edges, jiggle it again and it burns it in the center. My friend Bill is visiting and he mutters something I don't want to hear about fire insurance. I begin looking nervously out of the corner of my eye to see what the microwave is up to. I can see the dialogue about to ensue.

Et tu microwave?”

The coincidence is apparently leveling off at two out of three. So I call the Cuisanart people in Arizona. I'm an old hand now at calling appliance manufacturers, I think, and am ready for the worst. But it turns out Cuisanart, compared to Aroma, is a class act. Or maybe it's that they do things a whole lot better in Glendale, AZ than they do in San Diego, CA. And, best of all, they actually say, “Oh, dear!” when I tell them my story.

I am taken aback by this. I am about to gush at them for caring. I'm to wrap up the toaster (no need for the original box this time) and include not a check but the receipt for the postage in a separate letter so they can reimburse me. The toaster will be fixed for no charge. They are so nice about it that I begin to wonder if they will fly in and do the stint at the post office, but evidently I'm at the limits of good service here.

Meanwhile, while I'm struggling with appliances, my housemate Taku, who arrived a week after me from Japan (and is also carrying the burden of Japanese expectations) is out getting himself a checking account. A “very nice lady” methodically copies his name (he always comments on kindness) from his passport and promises him his checks and his ATM card will reach him within ten working days. The ATM card comes first. Misspelled.

“How could this happen?” he wonders. “She seemed like such a nice lady!” He calls the bank and is told to come in with the ATM card. I think he should simply cut it in half, but they insist since it's a new account he needs to bring it in before they will issue another one. A few days later when the checks arrive, he calls to tell them they too are misspelled. “You'll have to bring them in.” No please. No sorry. No sign of distress at all. How could this be?

We could mail the checks, actually, but last year I waited seven days for an important piece of mail to travel from San Francisco 94103 to 94104, so we decide the walk to the bank will do us good. They repeat the same procedure and promise him new checks within ten working days. Again, no apology. No thanks for coming in. Just a weak smile and a helpful assurance that he will not have to pay the fees for the second set of new checks.

I can't recall whether this was the point where Taku's culture shock kicked in or whether it was the trip to the grocery store for ginger. “We're out.”

“When will you have ginger?”

“No idea.”

All that afternoon he mumbled to himself, “How does a produce market run out of ginger? And why are they so rude?”

Rudeness, I know, is very relative. They don't think they're being rude. They're Americans doing their job. They don't like their jobs much, apparently, and they don't hesitate to show you how they feel. I used to notice that when you tried to get a cashier at Macy's to wait on you, she or he was usually fighting with another cashier over whose turn it was to take a break. Now that pattern seems to have extended to the banks and grocery stores. Relative, I say, because there is a reason to think of store and bank clerks as relatively gracious people. The reason is called public transit in the Bay Area.

A friend in Palo Alto sold me his old Toyota Camry, so I went to Palo Alto to pick it up. I took BART to Fremont, where I asked a driver (there were no signs posted) where I might find the bus that crossed the Dumbarton Bridge to Palo Alto. Turns out the information I got from one of the BART employees in Berkeley was wrong and the bus, in fact, went from Union City and I would have to get back on BART and go back a stop. I arrived back at Union City at 1:00 to learn the next bus would be at 1:45. Forty-five minutes! How often do they run? “About every two hours or so.” I'm actually lucky to hit it so close.

My grumbling starts the man next to me grumbling. “I've been here since 11,” he tells me. “ I missed the bus at 11:15 because I was trying to help a woman in a wheelchair down the stairs. The elevator here isn't working.”

On the bus was a blind man looking for the bus to the Veteran's Hospital. Does this bus go there?

“No.”

“Where do I transfer?”

“I don't know,” was the answer. “Ask at the Palo Alto Caltrans Station,” says the bus driver.

“But I'd have to get off the bus to do that!”

“Right.”

At least BART got me there. Now it's on strike. The union workers are the highest paid in the country, but they're on strike for more. This in a system that regularly runs late, sometimes runs not at all, and has been known to change destinations on you. They tell you when they do this, of course, but on loudspeakers that don't work. The most frustrating aspect of Bay Area Rapid Transit is that while the trains are rapid, absolutely nothing else about the system is. Long waits. Frequent transfers. Frequent breakdowns. Lack of coordination with other transportation systems.

These features of the system, arguably, all have good explanations. But not everything can be explained away. If you're going somewhere in San Francisco where you have to transfer to a bus, for example, you need one dollar to buy a transfer ticket, available only at your transfer point. The machine takes only quarters. You wait in line while each person unfamiliar with the system fumbles for four quarters and drops them in the slot one at a time. The machine takes no other change and it doesn't take dollar bills.

To compensate, they provide you with a dollar changer, which wraps up the madness of public transit in the San Francisco Bay Area in one easy illustration: You put in one crisp new dollar bill (it, too, rejects most dollar bills), and it gives you three quarters, two dimes, and a nickel.

At the moment, there is a strike on, and you can't take BART at all. So you take AC transit to get to San Francisco. From my house, that means a short walk over to Shattuck Avenue to catch the bus which takes you across the Bay Bridge. Typical for American city bus systems, there is no apparent schedule. Certainly none posted. They run when they run, something on the order of every half hour. But they only stop if they have seats available. The other day it took Taku three hours to get to San Francisco State. After that, I started driving him. It takes me twenty minutes by car. At dinner the other night, as people exchanged horror stories about getting into San Francisco, somebody suggested maybe a sign with the words, “I'm small. I promise I won't take up much room. I've been waiting here for an hour. Please let me board.”

The strike is major news. Everybody turns on the local channels now morning and night to find out how to get to work. The ferries are running again from Oakland, but there you can stand in line a half hour to get on, and wait in the bay another half hour to dock. Apparently the ferry companies put on extra crews to handle the overflow crowds, but it turns out San Francisco has only two docks, so you have people lined up on the shore for hours, crews waiting on empty ferry boats with nothing to do, and more people than ever vowing never to leave their cars again for public transportation.

For all the talk about public transit, about finding ways to save the environment, one overriding rule still governs the lives of people with cars (i.e. all but the very poor and the residents of Manhattan.) If it's too far to walk and too close to fly to, take your car. The rule is as American as apple pie, true today as it was when General Motors savaged the trains and John Middle America first lost the ability to distinguish between his car and his genitals.

The post office. The public transportation systems. The clerks in stores. What's with this place! Is it just the Japanese lenses I'm wearing over my eyes? Is it that I'm now over 55 and officially an old fogy whose DNA tells him things aren't as good as they used to be? I read somewhere that only one Americans in ten is satisfied with his or her job, only three in ten feel any loyalty to their company. After a month back in the USA, that strikes me as the high end of the guess.

But wait. You ain't seen nothing yet. Kvetch material? I'll give you kvetch material. I've always known America was an easier place to live for most whites than for most people of color. But that's because the struggle to rid the culture of racism has yet to reach cruising speed. That it was a better place for the rich than for the poor. But then most places are. That is was a better place for the thin than for the fat, the swift than for the sluggish, the crafty than for the dull. But that doesn't seem to be a fault of the United States so much as a flaw in human nature. Recently, however, I've discovered how much better America is for the healthy than for those in need of a doctor. And that is not because of human nature, but because America has fallen down badly as a democratic society.

The story of this discovery on a personal level begins with the belated recognition on my part of what most of my compatriots have known for a long time. That those boys regularly on trial for ethical breaches, the ones called to represent the people in gummint (as Molly Ivins calls them), have determined in their Republican greed and their Democratic cowardice that they should leave the health of the nation in the hands of private industry, gummint being so bad at everything they do. Now private industry means the insurance industry in this case, and let me illustrate what this can mean if you are a fifty-seven year old remarkably healthy man who happens to have a cluster of cholesterol polyps in his gall bladder.

It means no insurance. No insurance means if you get hit by a car and break your leg you pay whatever the market decides it can get from you. It means if you have a heart attack and end up in a hospital charging two thousand dollars a day just for the bed, you pay. It means if you need to see a doctor, you pay $85 out of your own pocket. That's what it means not to be covered. You pay or they take your house.

Because of the horrendous costs of medical care in the United States (and why did my fingers decide just now to reverse the i and the t in “united”) I have always taken out Japanese traveler's insurance when I come here for a short stay. This time, though, since I plan to stay here for eight months, I decided I ought to get on an American health plan. I turned first to Kaiser Permanente, the originator of the healthcare management idea and a biggie in the Bay Area. They are everywhere and they are reasonable – about what I pay in Japan.

Well Kaiser said no. No insurance for you, my man. You have cholesterol in your gall bladder. Now how do they know this? Because I told them. A fact which still has several of my friends doubled over in laughter. Never seen a man my age so na├»ve. But I believed the fine print when they said, “Any information you fail to report on this form which suggests a pre-existing condition could cause us to revoke coverage, and you would be responsible for all payments ever made to you for medical services from Kaiser.”

“Screw you.”

I hate rejection.

“Thank you for your interest in Kaiser.”

My ass.

“I'll shop elsewhere,” I think. I know how capitalism works. It's a shopper's paradise, right? And I start the long long search for the health care provider who will provide. In fact, I list them, line them all up, and then set aside a day, pencils sharpened and coffee maker fired up, and prepare to be put on hold for hours at a time as I run down all the 800 numbers.

I start with Blue Cross. They will send materials. Pacific Plan. I join the Writer's Union. Mars and Venus Hospital Systems. Pizza 4 U and Comedy 2 Health Promotion, Inc. I do them all. Get on the mailing list for San Francisco State and Stanford alumni organizations. I'm going to find the best deal. American Association of Retired Persons. I'm going to do my homework here. This is too important to do casually. “No Body too Decrepit of Omaha.” Got to do this just right.

I wait for the forms to come in. It doesn't take long. These guys are hustlers. They want them premiums. I fill out the applications and send off my checks. And the answers come back no. Why no? “Because you have been turned down by another health care provider.” No. No health insurance for you. No again. No from us, too. No. Nope. Sorry. No can do.

How the hell do they know I've been turned down? I've obviously got to stop telling these used car types the truth. Well, turns out it's “in the computer,” filed under my social security number. This stinks to heaven, has got to be illegal, but that's little consolation. I'm in the computer under my social security number as a person with cholesterol polyps. No health coverage. The great collusion of providers - you will not be surprised to hear that “provider” is a word which is beginning to rub now like an extremely bad case of crotch itch – this great collusion means there is indeed organization in health care. Organization for the stockholders, not organization of any use to anybody who needs a doctor.

Second round. I have some choices. (You always have choices in capitalism, remember.) I can get a provider to write a policy which will exclude my alleged gall bladder condition, but there is a chance they will run it at a higher rate, I'm told. I can pay $500 a month to some shark who will gamble on my condition. I can take my chances, tack my plane ticket to Tokyo on the front door and keep the car pointed toward the airport and the engine running in case the ticker should fail. I can get a friend to hire me, pay me for a month, put me on his group plan. Then I can quit, pay the money back, pay taxes on the money, lose my income tax exclusion as a resident of Japan, etc., etc. Or, I can contest the rejection.

I start the process of contesting the rejection. I pay a doctor $85 to give me a phone number of a hospital where they will do an ultrascan of my gut to see just how bad these polyps are. Now my private doctor in Japan has told me that this “condition” is not a condition; it is something to watch and would become dangerous only if the polyps became cancerous, and this kind of polyps normally does not. Keio Hospital, where my routine health exam is done, has been absolutely uncooperative in the past, but who knows, maybe things have changed, I dream, as this state of affairs invades my sleep. Maybe if I ask real nice and tell them this is an emergency, they will let me borrow the pictures. I know their view is the pictures belong to them because they own the equipment that took them, but I'll wash my hands before and after.

The doctor gives me the phone number, and I pay him $85. I call the hospital and wait two weeks for an appointment. How much will this all cost? “Probably around $300, says the young doctor.” That plus another $85 visit to read the echograms once he gets them in his hands.

I know the routine. No solids. No liquids. No nothing after midnight. Up in the rush hour freeway traffic to the hospital at the crack of dawn, where I sit and wait for an hour, despite the fact I have an appointment. The problem? I don't have health insurance and the person who knows the actual fees isn't in until ten. I wait.

They take me in a little office, ask me how I intend to pay. I pull out my check book. They say, “That will be $577.00 please.”

“In your left ear,” I say, and walk out. But I have second thoughts, walk back in and ask them why it costs so much.

“Those are our rates.”

“Where do you suppose my doctor got the figure of $300?”

They seem to understand what I'm up against, so I wait while they call him to ask. He's waterskiing, so they can only guess. “Must be he's thinking of some other hospital. Try @#)$%. Or Mount $#(&*. Or maybe Saint &*(*#&$'s. They (the low rent hospitals in “that” part of town) might be able to help you.

So I go home and phone first @#)$%. Then Mount $#(&*, then Saint &*(*#&$'s, all actually closer to home than Wechargemore Medical Center in Richmond. Problem is they don't have people to talk to, only answering machines. I leave messages; they don't call back. I call again; they don't call back. I start leaving stronger messages, then more mournful messages; they don't call back. They never, not one goddam one of them, call me back.

I've had days now to reflect on what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to pay more than $700 to get somebody to smear some baby oil on my gut and run a little cord with what looks like a doll house vacuum cleaner around for about three to five minutes, to get an echogram of a cluster of cholesterol polyps in my gall bladder, which I can then compare with the echograms of same taken two years ago, which are currently in the hands of a hospital which up till now has steadfastly refused to turn them over to me because they own them and I don't. Now if I leap each of these hurdles without falling off my horse, and, if there has been no change in my sub-belly, I can ask my doctor to put a gold star on my medical history, certifying that I am indeed not a risk to an insurance company. If he will do that, I have half a chance of talking an insurance company into accepting a monthly check which will allow me to sleep peacefully again.

I can begin the surgical procedure of separating the Siamese twins of illness and poverty. I will have met the prime requirement for health care in America: clear indication that I will not need medical attention.

A well-meaning friend points out to me, midway through what is beginning to look like a charge at windmills, that I have overlooked another option. I can go back to Japan and live. Stay there till I'm 65 and hope Medicare will not have been eaten alive by the Gingriches who ate Christmas and the likes of Jesse Helms, who only today said yes to tobacco companies, no to emergency aid to children not covered by any health and welfare programs. I am overdoing it, perhaps, with the poverty bit. I am not an American without resources. I have a good job. I have medical coverage, in fact. Just not in my homeland.

I'm not sitting entirely still while I wait. I also decide at some point to write a letter to Kaiser telling them what shits I think they are for doing this to me. I decide to start first with a letter of explanation and keep the invective in my back pocket for the eventuality of a protracted battle. I tell them how much I love Kaiser, how many people I know who have put their lives in Kaiser's doctors' care, how many hands of loved ones I've held in their tastefully decorated waiting rooms.

A week passes and there is a letter in the mail from Kaiser. No word about the rejection. No word about my letter. Their letter says - I intend to have it framed – “Please present this form to our medical staff when you visit our Kaiser Permanente facility.” After that is so much stuff about blood pressure and things too naughty to mention, and the very welcome words, “There will be no charge for these services.” I am in my car within three minutes of the time I open the letter. Pedal to the metal, ten bucks worth of rubber on the road. If I drive fast enough, I can get to Macarthur and Broadway and up to the 11th floor before they change their mind. Blood pressure 123 over 69. Praise. Praise. Such good health for an old man.

Another week passes and another letter from Kaiser appears in the mailbox.

“Welcome to Kaiser Permanente! (sic on the !)” I am now a member in good standing, 'twould appear, of the Kaiser Permanente family. “You now have a full health care team on your side with complete services to get the care you need when you need it.” What, do they actually think I need more selling?

Kaiser, I understand, is in shaky financial condition. Rumors abound they could fold anytime. But that's another tale for another day. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” my father used to love to quote. Don't let another day's misery affect this day's joys. This day I am marking on my calendar. This day I am loved by a provider. I am in my provider's care. I belong. I am an American with rights. I am back in America once again. I live in an American home, drive my car on American streets, gaze from my window at American sunsets. An American chez soi. Nothing can happen to me now.

September 25, 1997

Friday, April 25, 1997

Ikki

I've just returned from my annual duty as freshman advisor, a duty designed in hell, right up there with root canals, kidney transplants, and shovelling shit at a pig farm as a fun thing to do. An overnight at a resort with twenty eighteen year olds, an exercise in obligatory merriment which requires the men to get drunk, roar and puke all night, and the women to fill the spectrum between admiration and indulgence. Maybe even join in, if you want to look really modern. Not a good time to be a bathroom sink, or a hallway floor, or an available lap.

The formula for this madness goes like this. Take a basically nice kid, teach him the importance of being one of the gang, put him in a group he will call his peers, add alcohol, and see what happens. Twenty individual human beings, all of whom would no doubt give up their seat to a stranger, help an old geezer across the street, or sing a crying baby to sleep on instinct, transform themselves on cue (it's eight o'clock; time to start the drinking party) into a single mighty drinking machine that is part bent elbows, part slobbering lips and all macho asshole.

Do something about it? Might as well ask a lemming to see a shrink about his self image. It's not that people aren't trying. Every year at this time there are public notices urging the young not to engage in this "ikki" practice -- "eek-kee-eek-kee" is the encouragement the group shouts in rhythm to help you get your beer down as fast as your gullet will move it along. The speed is the thing.

Even though this time-honored tradition leads to a number of deaths every year, the practice has the weight of tradition. Heavy drinking, along with smoking, is a handy symbol, for those who need it, that one has arrived in the adult world, and the university culture seems to have incorporated the symbol with a vengeance, adding local particulars such as the shouting out of university mottoes and in-group words like the ritual shouting at kabuki or a bullfight.

There have been worse ways to mark the acquisition of the status of student, Germany's duelling scars being maybe the most ferocious example, and it seems rather silly to worry about the occasional hangover and the after all pretty low statistical figure of drinking deaths. What I'm dealing with is an attempt to figure out why I am so put off by these rituals.

Don't tell me it's because I'm a boring old fart who is jealous of the ability of the young to do such damage to themselves and get up and walk away. That may be part of the reason. I'd be in a hospital if I tried to do to my body what these kids have just done to theirs. But if that were all there was too it, I wouldn't be taking note of secret glances and picking up the pieces from time to time for the outliers in the group whose agony has no place to go, no refuge like my willingness to wear my old geezer identity.

I've been watching this process since I first came to Japan years ago, watching it up close every year at Freshman Camp and talking with students about it. You'd think by now I would have stopped being such a dishrag and spoken my piece at such gatherings. Instead, I've taken the coward's path, have learned to beg out of student dinners, which end up as "nomikai" (drinking parties), and avoided wherever possible getting into a situation where I come out looking like a boring old man with no sense of humor, and with no memory of the kind of energy that has to be expressed in crazy ways. I would beg out of Freshman Camp, too, if I thought I could get away with it. But the ongoing popularity among university administrators of these Freshman Camps, either as a way to save their young charges from the Japanese Hell that is social isolation or as a way to make sure the faculty earns their money, gives me serious pause. I can skip an occasional faculty meeting and fail to read one memo after another about deadlines, but I know where the real lines of duty are drawn.

There is the positive side, not unlike the argument that smoking forces you to stop working so hard and take a break. Being a freshman without friends is lonely indeed, and many kids have no idea how to break the ice. They've never had the responsibility, after all, since all their lives have been regimented. Watch the kids gather at a station and wonder for up to an hour how to proceed, and you will see how people can be programmed to be followers. How else but through yet another organized activity can you bring them out of social isolation?

Freshman Camp works until the club activities and the junior and senior seminars take over the function. Heaven forbid they should have to wait that long to belong! But there's a logical flaw in that argument. It isn't that long before the clubs get started, and by the time Freshman Camp is set for the third week of class, many students have already decided where they are going to find their social life. The real reason seems to be automatic behavior on the part of administrators. Organize the kids; they can't run their own lives yet, and many would fall through the cracks if left to their own initiative.

So every year, I meet with up to twenty-five reluctant students who carry the curious label, "McCornick no ado group member" or "McCornick's Advisees." This is my eighth freshman camp. After the first three years, I put my foot down, said no to overnights and organized an afternoon hike and a barbecue. It worked, because the students could be intimidated into saving money a tad more easily than they could be intimidated into plunking down over a hundred dollars for this overnight. But this year the sophomore contingent outfoxed me. Convinced I'm not doing my full duty, they took the situation out of my hands and had the whole overnight organized before the scheduled first meeting with my advisees, guessing correctly that I wouldn't veto the idea. As a result, I had seven sophomores come along this year. I've never gotten more than two or three doing it the second time around for just a barbecue.

Obviously there is something in the overnight that smacks of fun and adventure. I wish I could say it was the freedom to get away, to sit in a hot spring resort, to sleep in a room with your buddies, or only a room away (and this year, not even that in one case) from some hot stuff members of the opposite sex, that was drawing them. But I suspect it's also the chance to get drunk and puke all over God's earth and sky.

The art of life, I've come to believe, is in knowing which battles to fight. Protesting against this drinking practice seems like a battle too costly to engage in, so I surrender. But surrender costs, too, and there is my dilemma. Why, I wonder, as I look at myself in the mirror, don't I speak out where it counts and call these nomikai a lousy self-destructive practice. I've become pretty obnoxious about berating some poor restaurant owner trying to make a living for not providing a smoke-free environment for me when I want to eat. I can make lives miserable without even trying, with my desire to smell the food I'm eating. Why not get up on the horse over the nomikai?

It's not just cowardice. At some level my conviction is real that such nonsense serves a purpose; it separates the people with character from the louts, shows the follies of youth in clear relief, without which there would be justification in claiming wisdom with age. I do wish I didn't find my hands clapping along quite so readily, and putting a little beer in the glass and demonstrating my approval by letting them "ikki" the sensei.

Knowing you don't have to bang your head against the wall to learn not to bang your head against the wall is not privileged information. Most people realize you can actually learn by watching the folly of others. Why, I ask myself, should I determine who is going to learn by making the mistakes and who will learn by watching. Yet my desire to play Cassandra sometimes gets the upper hand. And so the pendulum swings. Mind your own business, speak your piece, mind your own business, speak your piece.

All the while, I am wondering if the real issue is my outsider status, or my use of outsider status to justify lack of action. As an old man, I am an outsider to these kids and their ways. As a teacher, I am on the other side of authority. As an American, I carry the weight of reflecting a culture already known for do-goodism and snatching the moral upper ground, usually with little or no justification. But which is it, wisdom and recognition of limitations or cowardly justification?

Subdued isn't the word for the mood at breakfast. Only half of them showed up, and those that did had no more than three words apiece and misery written all over their faces. Not too many proud tales. Just the one about the guy who fell asleep in the girls' room and couldn't be moved. Or so the story goes. A great tale to tell of Freshman Camp. For him and for the other guys. Less great story material, I suspect, for the girls.

I decided at breakfast (no, I had decided the night before) to leave early. After all, I did my duty by sticking around all night. It was better than in some years. A nice hot bath in the "onsen" and a big private room not immediately adjacent to the howling and cheering. The usual breakfast in such places of cold egg and cold rice and miso and pickles and some Asian analogue to spam. Leave the spam alone and it ain't bad. One last time of standing around while the group gathers (a mere thirty-five minutes, slightly less than the average waits for such things) and a chorus of "what shall we do, where shall we go's") and it's over. They go to see the lake, hangovers visible in their subdued voices and sluggish gaits, and I wave a cheery toodle-oo and head down the mountain to the refuge of home and futon.

With one of the crew in tow. The one who came closest to being a statistic in the annual numbers of students dying from an alcohol overdose. Evidence of my guilt still showing through in the way I overrode my desire to sit separately and avoid the risk of being chucked upon as the bus zig-zagged its way down and out of the Hakone mountains.

So it's over for another year, this hellish thirty-six hour demonstration that people in developed countries risk extreme hubris by slapping the adjective "primitive" on the rituals of the folks in such places as Papua New Guinea. I'm free again to tell eighteen year olds what I think. In a classroom where, when I choose to make them do so, they have to listen to me. This was their turf (albeit university designed) and the classroom is mine, at least as far as they will let me have it.

I can go back now to talking one on one with the occasional misfit, the guy or girl who suffers from having to go along with the crowd, where I can establish a big brother little brother/ sister relationship, a buddy system for dealing with the cold cruel world without fighting windmills. I work so hard in a classroom to include everybody, to be a teacher in the democratic tradition, embrace the ethics of Paolo Freire in wanting education to be all-inclusive. I reject the advice of my colleagues who urge I join them in looking for a few select students to teach and ignore the rest. At the same time, I have a special place for the outlier. It's so much better, I tell myself, to light a candle for someone who complains of the dark than it is to scream at the world for not turning on the lights. Or is it?

ADDENDUM
(from my journal of correspondence with students, this entry of October 11, 1991.)

TT: Why do people drink so much? Ever since I was in high school my life has been hell because I can't drink. As soon as I have more than one bottle of beer I have to vomit. It's because I'm so skinny. Recently I look at myself naked in the mirror and I hate myself. I have started missing classes because of it. Every weekend we go drinking and every weekend I vomit on the way home. I hate this Japanese custom of making people drink. When we do ikki (I don't know if there is an English word for it) everybody thinks we are having a good time. I laugh with everybody else, but inside I am screaming. But if you don't do it, they say you are a girl and they laugh at you until you finally give in. Do Americans drink like that?

AM: I think this practice of forcing others to do ikki (to "chug-a-lug") is dangerous and stupid. And yes, we have it in America, too. People (especially college men) who are worried about their manly identity often get quite mean to show how manly they themselves are. It's a strange definition of manliness (manly = mean) and it can do a lot of harm. I think you ought to try to find some friends who think like you do (there are some, I'm sure!) and see if you can work out a strategy to stop it, at least, from happening to you.

I have such mixed feelings about things like that. On the one hand, I don't want to sound prudish, and say that drinking is a bad thing. And I don't want to sound boring, either, by saying that people should try for moderation. Everybody knows that.

At the same time, I think you need to learn what your own capacities are. If you never get drunk, you don't know what you're like when you get drunk. Do you get happy? Sad? Belligerent? If you get angry and mean, you know that you need to control your drinking. And you know also that there is something wrong in your life. Drinking can teach you a lot about yourself. Also, sometimes I think it's fun to get drunk with a a bunch of friends, or with another friend. It can be a way of getting to know somebody very well. Like all good things, it can be abused. Sounds like you're having a nightmare.

I think your problem isn't the drinking, though. It's the fact that you can't tell your friends about how you feel. Can you talk to any of them? Is there one who would understand how much this is hurting you and be sympathetic? If so, I think you should let your discomfort be known. And if none of these people are sympathetic, I'd start looking out for some new friends.

Write me again on this topic, if you like. I think it's an important issue.

Tokyo,
April 25, 1997