Saturday, November 13, 1999

We Don't Care About The Berlin Wall Very Much

Less than a year after the Berlin Wall went down and shortly after the two Germanys were reunited in October of 1990, my eye caught a news item about two border guards at the Berlin Wall now on trial for murder. “Finally,” I thought. Finally these bastards are getting what's coming to them.

But the more I thought of the trials, the more I wanted to retract my first impulse. “Kids,” I thought. “They're just kids. Dumb ass kids from the country.” Somebody stuck them in a uniform and told them they were keeping their country strong, made them think in a world of low lifes and greed they were doing their families and friends a noble service by shooting at any fool attempting to vault over the wall into West Berlin. What did they know, these Rudis and Horsts and Jürgens and Michaels whose mothers loved them and were proud of what they were doing.

The political events these boys were caught up in suddenly faded into the background, and I began focusing on the fact they were the same age as the students I faced in the classroom every day, the same age I was when I wore a uniform in Berlin, many years ago. “My kids,” I call my students, when they're out of hearing. Boys and girls just out of high school, still looking simultaneously for approval and for ways to get away with murder. Still trying their best to get laid and to learn the ways of the world without looking like they don't already know.

I try to relate to these kids, but it's hard. They make me feel old most of the time, and largely irrelevant. I find them listening to me occasionally, and when they do, I wonder what it is I've said that has piqued their interest. Once in a great while one of them will let me know I've changed their thinking. I love it when that happens, but I know my impact on them is limited, and most of them are simply putting up with me. It's an open secret they are in my class because it's a required course. Any illusions to the contrary disappear at the end of each class as they dash down the stairs to lunch.

I can't imagine them carrying a gun, much less shooting at anybody. We are on the other side of the world from Berlin, and people in Japan don't get rewarded for shooting other people in the name of national security.

It was time for a change. We had just finished one project and the next one I had set up to go suddenly struck me as trivial, so I brought up the issue of the border guards' trial because it was on my mind. “Have you guys been listening to the news lately?” I asked. “Do you know they've just arrested two border guards in Berlin and are trying them for murder?” I had their attention. “One day they are rewarded as national heroes,” I said. “And only a couple weeks later, they're on trial for murder. How does a person handle the sudden and drastic shift in the definition of their identity,” I wondered aloud.

That worked. Personal identity was one of their big issues. Right up there with cars and fashion and surfing and sex. “The government changed under them. One day they were defending the DDR, the East German so-called Democratic Republic under orders from Egon Krenz himself, and Honecker before him, to shoot to kill traitors trying to flee the republic. Then suddenly they were citizens of one of the new states in the formerly West German Bundesrepublik, and people were expecting them to pay for murder. They had shot and killed innocent people exercising their right to choose where they would live.

I didn't know what my kids would have to say. I assumed they'd approach the topic timidly, say they didn't know much about it, and declare it a “difficult” problem. The stock answer to most dilemmas. “Difficult.” Meaning “I don't know how you want me to respond, so I'll find a neutral place.” But I called it wrong this time.

The soldiers were definitely not guilty, they said. One by one, they found the words: Yes, people should be free to leave their country; no, we shouldn't make laws abridging this freedom and the soldiers should not have killed people trying to escape. But they should not be punished for obeying the law, either.

“A law higher than the law of the land?” they asked, looking like even the question was absurd. “What would that be? We are Japanese, so we don't believe in God, so we don't believe in anything bigger than human beings. All laws are made by people. 'The land' is the people. How can you make a distinction? There is nothing higher than the law of the land.”

Thirty years of teaching university kids, thirteen in Japan, and I'm still surprised sometimes at the naïveté of their responses. I finally had the rarest of treasures, I thought, a clear stance from which to begin a debate, a logical explanation, of sorts, but this time I wished they had gone into their customary neutral. No equivocating over stances this time. No recognition that sometimes governments are formed by self-serving minorities. Authority was authority. Disobedience to laws of the state could only spell anarchy, confusion, disorder. And soldiers, especially, had their orders to follow.

I flashed to the anti-Vietnam War protests. San Francisco in the late 60s. The years when the world seemed to be shaking apart. When I shouted at a soldier in the street in San Francisco, “Paid killer!” and a woman standing next to me went into a rage. “My son was killed in that war! And he was no paid killer! He died for his country, you scum!”

I went on to other things. But the story of the Berlin Wall border guards didn't go away. A few days later, the topic appeared in their journals:

I thought about the German soldiers issue. Before I put them either guilty or not, I need to think about the organization. Organization in its original meaning--a group of people. People gather together to do more things, to have more benefits, since there is little we can do as individuals. But once the organization is set, all the people who take part in it have to work for the total benefit of it. Each individual often, more or less, has to put his will aside to pursue its benefit, (even though) sometimes it brings even unhappiness to those concerned.
The organization (in this case) is the army. In the army, the most important thing is to strictly cooperate to accomplish the mission. What each individual thinks is out of the question here, what is needed is humans as machines who completely obey the order. Disobedience is the worst felony.

Killing is a bad thing of course, but if you're a soldier, will you disobey the order and be punished?

I put the journal down and took a break. I was angry, even disgusted. And fascinated. What have I got here, I wondered. Whose voice is this? I thought I knew all the stock responses by now, but I wasn't ready for this one, if that's what it was. After the surprising unanimity in the classroom discussion I wondered how much this guy was speaking for his generation. Or was I just hearing the voice of the well-protected middle class student body at my university? I realized I didn't know them that well. There was such a wall between us and our experiences.

My students would engage in a battle of wits and convictions, but never over anything political. Some would argue over censorship on the Internet, others over whether Nomo would be a baseball hero if he hadn't started playing for Los Angeles, but let it be known that you want to question whether the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds, and most will reach for their headphones. Tune this guy out. He's from Elsewhere.

As I read through the journals, one after the other, I sensed my plot to make the 60s ride again wasn't going to work this time either. In the 60s we had at least two certainties, that the world was badly fucked up and that we could change it. But these kids live in another time. The final journal said it all. “We don't know about the war,” I read. “We don't care about the Berlin Wall very much because it is not part of our lives.”

* * * * *

I first went to Berlin in 1960 with my uncle Willi from Hamburg. I didn't like him. I was only twenty, the same age as the kids whose journals I was now reading, and I kept imagining he was going to appear suddenly in his Nazi uniform. He made it easy for me to dislike him. He had won the Olympics in Helsinki for Germany in dressage and had melted down his silver trophies from years of riding contests into a coffee table top. How tacky, I thought. What a jerk.

I never saw him except for that one time. I have no idea whether he's still alive or whether I'd still think he's a jerk. He came into my life overnight, a distant uncle by blood, a brother my mother had never met, the son of her father and his second wife, not my grandmother, and he disappeared just as quickly after I got out of his car on the Autobahn outside Hannover. I think of him now as a kind of tarnished angel, sent by the fates to provide me with my first meeting with Berlin, where he had grown up, a city I had no idea then would become so much a part of my life.

I went back to Berlin a few years later with the U.S. Army. I had enlisted in the Army Security Agency to avoid being drafted, and they had trained me in Russian and sent me to be one among 40,000 people in Berlin who made a living at snooping.

My maternal grandfather's name was all over the place, on one of the leading beers, and somehow it helped me feel like I had a stake in the place. This time I didn't have the entree I had had with my uncle, who had arranged for us to stay at the house of Germany's right-leaning newspaper king, but I had other relatives: another uncle, Otto Schmidt and his friend of many years, Frieda Müller. John Smith and Mary Jones, I called them, taken with the plainness of their names. Onkel Otto had a “Berliner Schnauze,” a way with the Berlin Cockney that made it sparkle and crack like metal on a flintstone. I tried to imitate it, but I couldn't generate the twinkle in my eye I seemed to see whenever Berlinisch was spoken. Unlike my first uncle, whose connections had enabled him to marry somebody with a “von” in front of her name, these were common folk. My love for Berlin really started with Onkel Otto and Tante Frieda.

She loved having somebody around to call them aunt and uncle. “Null Null,” she started calling Otto. The two Os in Onkel Otto she turned into Zero Zero, which was also the universal symbol indicating a public toilet. He enjoyed her teasing and I loved the banter between them. I had other great uncles, and had met them all, but it wasn't until I met this one and the woman with whom he had an “Onkelehe” since both their spouses had died in the war that I felt myself becoming rooted in Germany. Otto died before I got to know him well, but my relationship with Tante Frieda went on for more than twenty years after that. She lived to 94, way past all her friends and family, and died alone. I had been torn repeatedly by the desire to go back and live in Berlin, if for no other reason, so that she would have somebody to spend time with. But I had others in my life by this time in San Francisco and a job in Tokyo, and Berlin was slipping away. I couldn't spread myself any thinner.

Tante Frieda had remained in Berlin all through the war. She had lost her hearing in a bombing raid, and was crippled with arthritis, but she gave the impression of bouncing when she talked. “Give me a minute to get my fingers working, comb the two remaining hairs on my head and turn on the hearing aid, and we'll have a cup of coffee,” she'd say. Just being in her presence made me feel cheerful. Her enthusiasm for everything from fresh apples to my latest news from home made me seek her out whenever I had the chance. Eventually, I was bringing friends around as well, and over time she came to have a number of other Americans who called her Tante Frieda. She loved a good conversation, and jumped at the invitation to tell one of her stories of Berlin in the twenties.

One thing I could not get her to do, however, was talk of the war. Until one day when we stopped for coffee at the top of the KaDeWe, the department store with the in-your-face Cold War name, Kaufhaus des Westens (Department Store of the West), just off the Kurfürstendamm. The Bundestag had decided to push the confrontation with the Russians by holding a session in Berlin and in retaliation the Russians were buzzing the city. At one point, a fighter plane flew directly past the window and we could see the pilot. The noise was deafening. I was sure all the windows were going to shatter, but nobody would leave. There were a lot of old folk in the coffee shop, people you could be sure remembered the airlift a decade earlier. Without a word about what was going on, and as if by prior agreement, people continued their conversations about their lives, their children, shopping bargains, aches and pains, and frustrations at work. I'm not making up the topics. With the need to shout over the din, everybody could listen in on everybody else's conversation. But they sat there, in steely-eyed determination. Let the damn Russians buzz the place. We're not leaving.

“I'm sorry,” said Tante Frieda suddenly, “but I can't stay here any longer.” “What's this?” I thought. Just when I'd pegged her for a trooper! When we got home, she started talking. She'd been a chemist, had been directed to join the Nazi party and had refused and had been forced to work all day and stand watch all night for her stubbornness. After the bomb shelter she was in collapsed around her, she crawled through the dust in the dark, looking for a way into the bomb shelter in the next building when she fell, hurting her spine. Her hearing went soon after. She tried to maintain the view that politics was for other people, that she wanted only to live her own life with her few friends and be left alone. “But sometimes what's going on in the headlines comes and gets you,” she said, “and you find yourself caught up in events you can't control.” When the war ended she had tried again to leave politics to others. But the planes were back and the noise was deafening and the memories wouldn't stay contained. I listened and soaked up the stories, weaving in my heroes Lotte Lenya and Marlene Dietrich, images from Heinrich Zille cartoons and the Threepenny Opera, without regard for historical accuracy.

I couldn't tell my aunt I was having the time of my life. The reality of the army was killing me, but the sense of being surrounded by the communist world just a few feet away was exhilarating, at least at first. Somehow I got hold of a report which suggested that in the event of a Russian attack on Berlin the Americans would write off the units they had there as indefensible. Instead of being frightened, I felt a rush of excitement. It never occurred to me I might be killed. I had no fear of war and the confrontation with the commies made things come alive. It was the best game I'd ever gotten to play in.

For a while. The excitement wore off. I borrowed a friend's car one day to go to dinner and couldn't find my way back to the former SS barracks where I now ate and slept and served my country. For some reason, every street I took ended up running into the wall, and with each wrong turn, I felt smaller and less powerful, in a big city and still caged in. Around that time, I was out for a walk one day near the wall and heard shots from the other side. The wall was crude, makeshift, and served no practical purpose in the downtown city streets. Outside, where I was walking, it was even more obviously hateful, snaking through the middle of nowhere. If I could have seen through the wall, I would have seen that somebody – I think his name was Peter – was bleeding to death, only a few feet away from me. He had made a futile dash for the wall. He never had a chance, and they let him bleed.

I couldn't get the incident out of my mind. Somebody my age had bled to death while I had gotten bored and gone for coffee. He had been killed legally, and was declared guilty, in a later hearing, of the crime of “flight from the Republic.” The guards would be rewarded for doing their job.

I became obsessed with the thought of people running from everything they knew. I had almost done it once, had sat up all night in the main railroad terminal in Rome, trying to decide whether to drop out of school and go to Israel. Friends had done it, and I didn't want to finish out my year at the university in Munich and return to America on schedule. I wanted more. But in the morning, tired and dirty, I realized I didn't have what it takes to embrace the adventure. I would pull up stakes several times later in my life, but I never burned bridges, and I never left a place with people shooting at me. And here was this guy who had thrown it all away. What gave rise to such desperation, I wanted to understand.

My grandfather had told stories about coming back from the war in Russia and finding his family starving, of picking up what they could carry and traveling steerage to the United States in the 1920s to start over as indentured servants to a distant relative. It was in my genes, I thought, to move on, if the going got rough. But this was not the steely determination of economic immigrants. This was a man desperate to get out. I wanted to understand his desperation, wanted to go back and tear the wall down with my bare hands and bring him back to life and make him tell me.

In addition to my aunt and uncle, I had made a good friend in Berlin named Achim. I had met Achim at a meeting of Das Tor (the [Brandenburg] Gate), a German-American friendship organization. Achim and his wife, Margit, had invited my friend Merrill to an American Thanksgiving dinner, and in time, I began tagging along whenever Merrill went to see them.

Achim seemed to have no end of energy, and much of it went into politics. In later years, he became Berlin's representative for the United Nations and listed Dag Hammersjold among his acquaintances. At a New Year's Eve party at Achim's house I found myself having coffee with the British Commandant for Berlin and I got him talking about Albert Speer, the lone prisoner in Spandau Prison, whom he used to go play chess with. Another holdover from the War. How absurd it all was. It was clear by then the Allies, my country in particular, had let a bunch of Nazis go, and had put others to work for them. Others were running modern Germany and, in this case, they were maintaining an entire prison to contain one old enemy they could play chess with. Also absurd was the realization I had afterwards that I was demonstrating there might be something to the theory that no human being is more than five personal links from any other human being. Anybody who knew me was now number five in a straight line to Adolf Hitler. I was number four.

I spent hours at a stretch with Achim, listening to what otherwise would be boring details of German politics, but Achim saw everything in the context of the struggle of Berlin for survival. Our discussions almost always centered around the reality of the divided Germany.

There was a moment once when I thought our friendship might not survive. President Reagan had paid a visit to the Bitburg cemetery where a number of members of the SS were buried. I hated Reagan on principle, and I thought this was a bad mistake and I said so. I was adamant that there should be no suggestion of honoring the members of the SS. Achim and Margit, who were active in maintaining the graves of the war dead, didn't want the ordinary soldiers buried there to be forgotten and they took a philosophical view of the issue. It was a painful moment, one of many which illustrated that I was commonly perceived as a German when talking to Americans, and an American when talking to Germans.

To this perversity of double identities I have added one more after thirteen years in Japan, but I trace the origin of my understanding that double identities are no barrier to friendship to that time in my twenties when I had a friend who had spent his twenties in Hitler's navy.

Years after the army experience, before West Berliners could travel to East Berlin, it was open to me because of my American passport. In 1960, before the Wall went up, I had simply walked through the Brandenburg Gate, used my West German money to go on a shopping spree, and come back with my arms full of Czech records and the complete works of Schiller. This time, there was a sense of the forbidden. The hostility had grown and with it the fascination for “da drüben” (over there).

Achim pumped me for details. “What did it look like? How did they talk to you? What were your impressions?” Later, as things eased up, and Achim could go over too, he took me to East Berlin once to see a boyhood friend and old navy buddy, one of the engineers who had worked on the Aswan Dam. Obviously a man with some standing in the East – he even drove a West German car – he nonetheless lived in a shabby house on an ill-lighted street and worried with his wife about the fact their daughter had a Russian boyfriend. “What will we do if she marries him,” they asked, all the perks of the system suddenly losing their luster as they shared their secret fears with these well-fed border jumpers from their version of “da drüben.” “We are not free to travel, and if she moves away, we'll never see her again.”

Achim and I talked about theater a lot. Theater was politics. My idea of a good time was to watch the attack on Pius XII in Rolf Hochhut's The Deputy, for his complicity with the Nazi regime, and when Achim came up with tickets to Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, in the East, I was very excited. But it was Chekhov, where nothing happens, and I felt cheated. Achim tried to convince me I had to think more subtly, but I couldn't accept that. I had spent more time studying the audience than the stage anyway, and Achim's suggestion that maybe the fact that nothing was happening was the point passed me by. I later read somewhere that Vanya was a criticism of the destruction of the environment, but at the time, I couldn't get into it. I was also concerned at the time over whether we were doing the right thing in turning over what amounted to bribes to the East German border police just so we could get in and go to the theater. People were dying to leave this place, and we were paying for a visa to come in to see Germans do Russian theater.

I was having trouble separating the culture and the politics. How was it Achim could maintain his upbeat enthusiasm for these things, I wanted to know. How come he hadn't been driven mad with all the contradictions, all the absurdities? He had fought for Nazi Germany, watched a navy sink around him, waited helplessly while the Russians shelled his house, and in the end had developed, like my aunt Frieda, a remarkably cheery disposition. Achim and Tante Frieda represented much more than friendship to me; they were sources of information on how to survive. I felt cynical in their presence, wondered how they could go through life and miss the point that it was all meaningless. But their joy in life was too well grounded in experience, and in the end, it was my cynicism which gave way.

They didn't know what they meant to me in those early years, because I couldn't tell them. I was in the Army Security Agency, in a military unit trained to listen to Russian broadcasts and East German phone calls and pass the word on. Children of the Cold War, we were, slapped into uniforms and given dagger insignias to wear. People are being shot in this cold war, we sneered, and we get a bureaucracy so dense it gives us symbolic daggers to wear. It never occurred to us somebody was having a joke at the expense of the U.S. Army. We assumed stupidity without clear evidence to the contrary, and waited for the announcement that from now on we were to wear cloaks to official functions.

It didn't feel like spying. It was uninteresting routine work in an environment which shifted back and forth between deadly dull and cruelly hostile. There was no psychological preparation in the high schools of the 50s for what I was doing. I would have to get up in the dark, ride in a Mercedes bus through the Grunewald before first light, up the Teufelsberg, the mountain that was made out of the rubble of the city, and hide away in a windowless room until dark, trapped under earphones, and listen to Russians counting to ten and back down to one, eight or ten hours at a stretch, without a break. They were keeping the lines open in case of an American invasion, and were instructed to say nothing and just count. It was a kind of Chinese water torture. On top of it all, hanging over us, always, was this thing we called the RF, the “random fuck.” Punishment out of nowhere, usually for no reason that made sense to us.

In the end, I quit, was taken to Frankfurt for a psychological examination, where the shrink with a top secret crypto clearance asked me how old I was when I first masturbated, whether I had ever had or wanted to have sex with my sister, my mother and my father, found me sane and put me back to work spying on the Germans instead.

I had had a friend in the unit who tossed a piece of paper into the trash one day. “I hope that was unclassified trash, soldier,” this voice said behind us. It wasn't. We were doodling as Ivan counted. “…7,8,9,10,10,9,8…” My friend was the only guy in the unit doing as directed and “keeping an exact record of everything said.” He had pages and pages of numbers from one to ten and back. Identical to all the others, the paper he had tossed into the trash was covered with numbers. He missed “classified” and the paper fell into “unclassified,” and my friend was led away. I never saw him again. He was court-martialed, I heard later, and released. Lucky guy, everybody said. He got out in one piece. I might have continued to shrug it off if I hadn't been assigned to a burn detail a couple weeks later. I had sealed up all the trash, watching carefully to be sure the bags were labeled “classified” and “unclassified,” as appropriate, and had wheeled the bags out to the high temperature incinerator, which burned all the trash, leaving no residue. Outside in the incinerating room was one of my barracksmates who was throwing the bags into the fire, one at a time, closing the door a minute after each one to give it time to burn.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “What the hell are you doing? All the bags are going into the same fire!”

“We only have one incinerator,” he said.

The next day I took my earphones off and stopped working. I had lost three friends to suicide, had seen another buddy taken out and beaten, had watched a sergeant remove the headphones from another and turn off his radio, against all regulations, and then turn the guy in for turning off the radio himself. But this was too much. I could handle the abuse, it seems, but the absurdity was making me question my sanity.

All this I was dying to share with someone, but the two people outside my army life I might have talked to were Germans, and as much as I hated the American military, I was still living by the rules.

After coming back from Frankfurt and being transferred to the German political section, I got to listen to actual conversations. Ironically, although the army had trained us as “linguists,” as the military referred to anybody who spoke a language other than English, me in Russian, my new friends and colleagues in German, they were having trouble with the Saxon and other East German speech patterns. I could at least fake it, and ended up in charge of the section, solving the army's dilemma over whether to throw another one of us into jail. I ended up taking my job very seriously.

One day, six or eight months into the new regime, I picked up a call between two people I had come to know well. “Come on, Gertraud,” the voice said. “You're not old enough to have a grandchild!” I listened with great intensity. I, too, thought Gertraud couldn't be more than forty, at the very outside. I was only twenty-three, and forty, I thought, was about as old as anybody in this business ever got.

“I'm seventy-two!” she said.

“What?!” I shouted out to my friends to come have a listen. “Do you know how old Gertraud is?! She's seventy-two!” Everybody gathered around. The civilians in charge joined them. “Amazing!” “Unbelievable!” “There goes the love of your life, Alan,” my civilian boss joked. It was no joke. I was devastated. I had fallen in love with this voice. And so, it appeared, had a great many people in the section.

The excitement didn't last. The next day I was called in. The military didn't think it was much of a joke, either, but for different reasons. I had been reported. “I think you need to be careful,” the captain said to me. “You're getting a little too close to the people you are listening to.” I was thunderstruck. I had no idea they were watching me. And no idea what I could have done wrong.

In the end, the more I thought about what had happened, the more I realized the captain had a point. I had come to look forward to going to work. All around me was the military. There was also a profound learning taking place about what it meant to be American, but I wasn't aware of it. All my senses were trained on lying low, not sticking out, not giving the military a chance to have at me. In basic training, I had been put in charge of a platoon of Puerto Rican street fighters, giving them a sense of purpose. They were so astonished at my innocence they rallied round the walking disaster area who needed protection. Now, I was being hounded by black officers trying to get me to reenlist, talking to me about economic opportunity. And all around were the sergeants—we called them grunts, or orangutans—who had a mission to pass on to us their knowledge of how to kill clean when necessary, but needed to leave us alone to do our snooping. The need to bring us down a peg would get the best of them, however, and they would haul us off to clean toilets and some took delight in the power to punish us for any infraction, real or perceived. There were weeks on end with no sunshine. Barracks mates who would cry in their sleep or come back late at night bloody from fights and reeking of booze.

All around me was a world I wanted to run from. When I put the earphones on, the voices talked about parties and family and children and hopes and dreams. They told jokes, wished each other happy birthday, exchanged recipes and in the end mixed work and pleasure in ways I could only dream of. The captain was right. I was in danger of being disaffected. I knew now why there were people who went “the other way” across the wall. Like that night in Rome, I spent a lot of time fighting off the urge to flee. I was young and very unhappy, and I did give some thought, however fleeting, to escaping to where the voices were warm and earnest.

There was a lot riding on my friends. The illusion of American moral superiority was gone. I walked around in a uniform which I would later throw off a troop ship into the Atlantic, a different piece each day, on the voyage back to New York, when I got out of the army. There was a terrible struggle going on inside me, a disillusionment which seemed to overwhelm me at times. The church, the patriotism, the sense of certainty I had grown up with were gone and all I had left was the loyalty to my friends in the army, the other Cold War fighters equally adrift. We were a generation too cynical for Doris Day and Rock Hudson; we didn't find pillow talk sexy or driving Chevys into swimming pools funny, and we were too burned out to be swept up in the Age of Aquarius just beginning. My adult world had reduced itself to these two Berliners, Achim and my Tante Frieda. Except for them, I bought in almost totally to the view we should never trust anyone over 30.

When Tante Frieda died, my last family connection with Germany was severed, and with it, my last emotional attachment to the city of Berlin. I didn't realize what I'd lost, however, until Achim, too, died a few years later, and my intellectual attachment went as well. I mourned their deaths and soon realized part of what I was mourning was my loss of Berlin. I had first gone there at the age of twenty, before the wall was built, had watched it become a universal symbol for shame and injustice. And I watched, transfixed, as my corner of history came to an end in November of 1989 and the images came in live to my living room of the revelers with the champagne bottles and sledge hammers smashing into the wall and going wild. They were having a party without me. I couldn't get there. I wanted to go dance in the streets too, and pour champagne all over myself, and cry in public. But I was on the other side of the world and I had to cry alone.

I did cry. Got sloshed alone at home and invited the tears to flow. I cried because my Tante Frieda didn't live to see it, because Achim didn't live to see it, and I cried because it was happening. I also cried a little, without tears, because the joy was not what I always thought it would be. I didn't have the engagement I once had with the divided city. My Japanese colleagues who knew nothing of my history and saw me only as an American, suggested, over beer and in rare candor, that the world was maybe better off with a divided Germany, and there was no fight in me. It was now as good a beerhall topic as any other. The idea was about that maybe the wall served the interest of the West as much as of the East, and that too, I thought, was an idea worth discussing. All the passions of my twenties, all the conviction that the Wall was evil and that the young bodies that bled at the wall were symbols of a sick perverted regime were now reduced to impotent topics for discussion in the raucous beer hall or the sterile classroom.

When I was five years old, my German grandmother came in to the room where I was playing and grabbed my arm. “Come on,” she said. “We've got to go get your father.” They were pouring out of the factory where he worked when we got there, into the streets to celebrate VE Day. She had been a stewardess on the Hamburg-Amerika Line, had jumped ship in New York and never returned. In 1941 she was discovered, an illegal German alien in wartime, and was tried as a spy. The hysteria passed; they realized they had everybody’s idea of a grandmother, and let her go. But the experience made her more German somehow than she might have been, and she never let me forget that I belonged to the folk who had generated Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. But I was born in America and I has a waspish name and my early years would be spent with kids playing games like Bombs Over Berlin and wondering why my mother didn't want to speak German anymore. Later, I would join my grandmother's church in Torrington, Connecticut, the one which had had its stained glass windows shattered because it was a German church.

I had sought out and gotten to know a number of concentration camp survivors when I was a student in Munich, had listened to them talk about how they had survived by becoming sun worshipers, and envied them their magnificent obsession to tell their stories or chase down the Mengeles and the Eichmanns still at large, all in a struggle to figure out what it meant to be half German. It was in Berlin where I finally put the identity struggle to rest, where I came terms with Germany, discovered love and sex and built a lifelong family which “emigrated” with me to San Francisco – twenty-five of the seventy-two men in my unit in Berlin ended up in San Francisco for some reason. It was in Berlin where I lost my schoolboy belief that Americans were always the good guys, and had replaced it with a faith I could belong to a larger world. And now Berlin had receded in my memory and was gone.

I keep going back. The last time I walked through Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point that once looked like an entrance to the underworld, I stopped for a cappuccino and tried in vain to reconstruct the site as I knew it as a soldier. Potsdamer Platz, the place that Tante Frieda and my grandmother talked about as if it were Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, and that I knew only as a great wasteland where Hitler's bunker used to be, is covered with cranes. Berlin is building again.

But except for an occasional visit to see Achim's family, I have no place in Berlin to go anymore, except as a tourist. I climb the steps of the Reichstag, buy insignias from Russian military uniforms and rocks officially certified as pieces of the wall. The sense of loss floods over me at times, and I ache for a time gone by.

* * * * *

“We don't know about the war. We don't care about the Berlin Wall very much because it is not part of our lives.” The war. The wall. All thrown in together. The war to which they refer ended in 1945, when I was five; the wall went up in 1961 soon after my 21st birthday. All those years in between, I was growing up. Years that are now being collapsed in my kids' view of history. All “before our time.”

“Which war were you in,” one of my students asked me recently, “Vietnam or Korea?”

Misinterpreting my hesitation, as I was trying to figure out whether to laugh or cry at the thought of having fought in Korea, he added, trying to cover his tracks,

“It wasn't the Second World War, was it?”

November 13, 1999

Thursday, November 11, 1999

Letter to Dennis Shepard

Mr. Dennis Shepard
c/o Prosecuting Attorney Rerucha
Albany County Courthouse
Laramie, WY, USA
November 11, 1999

Dear Mr. Shepard:

I have just had the pleasure of reading your statement to the court a week ago today, on November 4, following the trial of the murderers of your son, Matthew. I am grateful to you for making this available for the world to read.

I did not follow the trial and I am now reflecting on my responses to the event, which captured so much attention. I knew only that a gay man had been murdered for being gay, that it happened in Wyoming, and that the trial was going on. In a world full of sad news, this was only one more depressing event, one more news story to avoid. Your statement, now circulating on the internet, gave me a reason to stop and pay attention. Your son deserves that, and you have done him great service.

You also do Wyoming proud, by revealing to those too quick to associate it with the likes of the savage killers of your son that it is also home to loving people who appreciate its charms and are perhaps even to be envied for their good life.

Your story of the growth of a loving family who came to embrace not a gay son, but a lovable son who happened to be gay, is a good story. I hope it will reach folk who still have trouble understanding that a notion of human sexuality based on fear of difference can do great harm to loving people. And help them understand that gay men and women can grow up healthy, and live in, love and be loved by good families, if only their families are wise enough to see that they are still fully human, despite their non-standard sexual natures.

I still mourn the loss of a close friend to homophobia, and like most gay men and women who grew up in America, I know that American homophobia exists in a particularly virulent form. I know, too, that much of the pain and suffering comes not only from those with black hearts, but from well-intentioned folk working in the mistaken belief they are doing God’s work, as well. The best possible response to that sad fact is your response.

Thank you for bringing your story to light. It is very much worth the telling.

In sympathy, and appreciation,

Yours truly,

Alan J. McCornick

Tuesday, September 7, 1999

Letter to Elder Callister

Elder Douglas L. Callister
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
Defence of Marriage Committee
P.O. Box 10637
Glendale, CA 91209-3637
September 7, 1999

Dear Elder Callister:

I have just read with interest your letter to the Stake Presidents in California urging them to support passage of your Traditional Marriage Initiative on the March, 2000 California ballot. It is a troubling image of a church at work, and an argument, if ever there was one, for moving forcefully against organized religion.

“Experience shows that it is generally more successful to begin with the more affluent members,” you write. To care for the sick? House the homeless? Foster world peace? No, you want them to join you in keeping families from forming that do not meet your criteria of what a family should look like. Your admonishment to exert “no undue pressure of any type,” and to avoid raising money on church property shows that you are conscious of the tradition of separation of church and state. But then, in stunning inconsistency, you tell the presidents that “an education process will be required so that those approached will understand this is a moral issue, rather than political (one).”

This may be a moral issue to you, but since the whole purpose of your efforts is to influence an election, it is every bit a civil issue as well. Is it that you don’t know that? Or that you know that and don’t care?

I trust the irony is not lost on you that you are a Mormon urging something you call a “Traditional Marriage” initiative on a ballot. What a short time ago it was when your folk were hounded from one place to another for their views on what constitutes a family! But here you are, only a few generations after the great Mormon quest for a space to be different and you are ready to bring your boot down on somebody else’s neck. You are, it turns out, no different from anybody else who suffers injustice and learns nothing from the experience except that it is better to bully than to be bullied.

I don’t approve of you and your church. In fact, I think your church is a thoroughly loathsome institution. But you do not have to worry that I will do you harm, because I value the social contract we have that makes it possible to live with our diversity and the conviction that my rights end where yours begin and vice versa.

But where is your sense of history, Elder Callister? Your understanding that we are a people striving toward, but never quite living up to, our ideals. We once took what wanted from the native inhabitants of this continent, withheld the right to vote from women, worked children to death, and treated Africans like cattle. And Mormons like pariahs.

The world movement by gay men and women toward recognition of their relationships is larger than the American quest for civil liberties, and it will not be stopped for long, if at all, by your lack of charity any more than it was by other campaigns based in fear and ignorance. In only one generation Americans have come to see the harm they have done to gay people and have moved toward granting them rights previously withheld. The right to family security will come despite the anti-family moves of the Mormon Church.

How hollow are your claims to support the family! A few years ago people like you said gay people were incapable of lasting relationships. Now, when their desire for recognition of their families has shown you how badly you misrepresented them, you still lack the courage to turn from your prejudices. You say first that the teapot you returned is not broken, then that it was broken when you borrowed it.

You once thought it was good for one man to have several wives. Now you say that conviction was wrong while your current views on the family are right. You once thought people of color could not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Now you say they can. I don't fault you for inconsistency; I appreciate your ability to learn from experience.

Please turn away from this wrong-headed initiative. Use your power of moral suasion to build families, not tear them down. Extend beyond your church to foster civil rights, not take them away. Stop tormenting those whose sexuality you cannot understand, simply because it does not match your own.

It is too late for countless tormented gay Mormons who took their lives because they couldn’t reconcile their sexuality with their desire to live within the Mormon Church, but it would at least demonstrate that their faith in you was not misplaced.

In this initiative you are gathering money to prevent all gay citizens of California, non-Mormons as well as Mormons, from having their families recognized, to inherit property built over a lifetime together, to sit by a bedside of a dying partner, to share in the way members of a family share.

It is likely, I suppose, that this incursion into the civil arena will do more harm in the long run to the Mormon Church than to gays and lesbians. But I am concerned with the immediate grief you can cause others.

You have no right to determine for me how my family should look, Elder Callister. I ask you to remember you are an American and that the rights you prevent me from exercising could one day be taken from you, also.

Yours sincerely,

Alan J. McCornick

Cc: Elder Merrill Higham
Elder Floyd Packard

Thursday, July 15, 1999

How Japan Was Born

This is the story of how Japan was born. A long long time ago, it all began with the goddess Izanami and her brother Izanagi, who descended from heaven across the Celestial Bridge, the Milky Way, stirred the watery chaos, and, once it settled down and solidified, came to earth. The first thing that happened was that Izanami spoke first, praising her husband. As a result, their first child was born without arms or legs. This angered Izanagi, so he arranged to redo the whole event, and this time he spoke first.

The god brother and sister team did the naughty and produced a number of offspring. These included the sea, other islands, rivers, mountains, vegetation, and many other gods. First born of the gods was Amaterasu, who was born from a tear of the left eye of Izanagi. Amaterasu taught people to plant rice and to weave cloth.

Izanami continued to give birth to other deities. After birthing the sea, the mountains, and the eight islands of Japan, she gave birth, finally, to the god of fire. His birth burned her lower body so badly that she fell desperately ill and died. But before she did, other gods rose from her vomit, urine, and excrement.

Izanagi, enraged, seized his sword and cut off the head of his son, the fire-god, and from the blood, other spirits were born.

When Izanami had finished giving birth to all the gods, she retired to the underworld to build herself a castle. This distressed Izanagi, who missed her companionship, so he went into the underworld to find her and bring her back. Izanami refused to return, saying she needed time to be alone, and shut herself up in a room in her castle. Impatient, Izanagi followed her there, only to discover she had reverted to a more primitive form. The look of her frightened him, as did the Shikomes, eight thunder demons who surrounded her, and he fled, to be pursued by the Shikomes as well as 1500 assistant devils and Izanami herself. When they reached the Even Pass, the place between the Upper World and the Underworld, they stopped to talk things over, after which Izanagi went on to the upperworld, and Izanami returned to her castle in the Underworld.

Now Amaterasu (her full name is Amaterasu Omikama – “heaven-shining great goddess”), born from a tear (as opposed to a twinkle) in her father’s eye, had a brother. His name was Susano, and he was the Storm God. One day, Susano sought his father, Izanagi’s permission to go visit his sister. The story is recorded in the Kojiki, the “record of ancient matters,” the earliest text of Japanese writing. Susano’s visit, so the story goes, so frightened Amaterasu, that she hid in a cave, taking with her the light of the world.

There was good reason for her to hide. Susano had long been a trouble maker. He had broken down the divisions Amaterasu had placed to separate one rice field from another, had filled in the irrigation ditches, and had fouled her home. At first, Amaterasu had forgiven him, attributing such behavior to drunkenness, which we all know, is forgivable in Japan. But one day, while she was weaving, Susano came in and threw a horse over his head, killing one of her maids.

So here she is, Ms. Omikami, in the cave, and try as they may, the eight million spirits of the Plan of Heaven tried everything cannot entice her back out again. They assemble trees in front of the cave, cover them with jewels, light bonfires, and laugh and shout, apparently so she will think she’s missing a really fun party and want to join in. They set nocturnal birds near the entrance to the cave and make them sing. In unison, they recite liturgical orations. Finally, when nothing else works, so they decide to call on a female spirit called Uzume to perform an obscene dance. Uzume stomps the ground, bares her breasts and drops her skirt in a lascivious and provocative dance that causes the gods to burst out laughing. Now to modern thinkers, this suggests either that Amaterasu Omikami kept some of her horses in the Lesbian stables, or maybe, since the guys were laughing so much, that lascivious doesn’t mean today what it did then, but in any case, it seems to have worked. Curious at the commotion, Amaterasu peeked out. The assembled gods held out a mirror before her. She had never seen a mirror before, and came out for a closer look, thus bringing light back to the world. The gods tied a rope across the entrance of the cave to prevent her from reentering, and since that time the sun has dazzled the earth each day.

Susano fled to earth to live in exile, and to this day Amaterasu is worshiped at the great shrine in Ise, the center of all Shinto worship. She is known by other names, including Ohirume, Shimmei, and Tenshoko Daijin.

Now you folks who think this is all a bit off color, I ask you to consider how rebuilding the world with only one male and one female of each animal species after Noah’s flood, covering Job with boils to win a poker game with the devil, limiting folks’ language acquisition skills just because they want to build a building so tall they can see you better, and slaying you dead just because you spit your seed into the sand sounds to the Japanese.

But why go there? There’s so much more to the Amaterasu story. Check out Mythical Genitals, for example…

July 15 , 1999

Sunday, July 11, 1999

Letter to Shuji

Every once in a while a student lets you know that he or she doesn’t like what is going on in the classroom. Those are important moments because they force you to reflect on what you are doing and question your methods. If your methods actually reflect a considered educational philosophy, explaining yourself comes easily. If they do not, and you’re called on the discrepancy, it’s an opportunity for a course correction. Nobody likes criticism, but without it even the best of teachers can wander pretty far from the best of intentions.

The following is an articulation of an educational philosophy prompted by a note from a student complaining that I was not doing my job because I was expecting students to do too much work in designing their own course of study. My job, in his view, was to give exercises, correct mistakes, and give grades on the number of mistakes. He was at the extreme end of an approach to education which we describe as a radical Confucist “filling the lamps” in contrast to a Deweyan “lighting the lamps” approach to teaching and learning, a conception of teaching as the transmission of knowledge from teacher to learner, as opposed to a negotiation of knowledge between learners, even if one may have more to give than the other.

I wrote this letter to him to make sure he understood I could not live up to his expectations as a teacher – and why. He was a near-native speaker of English, but he never, in our one-to-one sessions raised a word of criticism. Instead, he took notes, inevitably thanked me for my instruction, and went home to write me his complaints. He had worked out in his own mind that he might disagree with a teacher, but only in writing. I benefitted from this apparent paradox, and I think he did, too. Because we were more equal in writing, and because he have little or no feedback in teacher/student conferences orally, I gave him a longer response all at once than I normally would.

The response to one of those complaints was meant to provide him with a rash of ideas about teaching and learning which he could ponder at his leisure. It would obviously not work with many students, possibly not even with the average student. It worked with him, and opened up a series of discussions on education and cultural attitudes to learning.

Shuji today, is a teacher. You will understand the pride I feel in knowing he calls himself a follower of John Dewey

June 22, 1999

Dear Shuji:

I read your journal on the bus on the way home tonight. Thank you for all the information you put into it. These are great moments for me as a teacher, when I get to read something students say from the heart. I decided I wanted to respond to you right away, to show my appreciation for your sincerity.

You bring up several different issues: the issue of cultural inferiority complexes, the story of the scholar and his spokesman and its relevance to your group work in class, the issue of a Japanese search for meaning, and your evaluation of the last two semesters.

Let me start by telling you some things about how I prepared for this class with you, and what thought went into the planning. It may help to explain why I gave you the particular assignments I did, and why I proceeded in this fashion, and not some other. In the end, if it speaks to your questions, I will be happy. If you still feel the points you criticized about the course are valid, I will take that into consideration when I make future plans for classes. I can never see things totally from students’ perspectives, no matter how hard I try, and I am dependent on students to tell me what they are. Please believe me when I tell you I appreciate your comments. I only wish I got more feedback like this.

Teaching at SFC is challenging, partly because the expectations are higher than at most universities. I like that about SFC. There is also a diversity of approaches and a freedom for teachers to design their own courses. I like that very much also. In recent years, I have worked almost exclusively with high level (by Japanese standards) English speakers. That means I have been free to spend less time than many teachers do on linguistic form, and more time on other educational issues besides language. I have been teaching things in English, in other words, instead of teaching English.

What I have tried to teach are what is known as critical thinking skills. In the thirty years since I first started teaching in Japan, I have found that the style of teaching and learning in Japan, while it leads to well-disciplined learning, and the absorption of a great deal of information, does not do much to train people to think for themselves, or to find the flaws in received ideas. Also, it focuses almost exclusively on the reception of information from outside, and very little (in some cases, not at all) on the expression and defence of one’s own ideas.

Critical thinking and self-expression are skills. They cannot be learned by reading about them or by listening to somebody talk about them. They can only be learned by actually practicing them. And since we don’t have years to develop a smooth and carefully programmed method of picking up these skills (the way a child learns to write in small pieces of skill-making behaviors), but only a semester or two, there is no shortcut but to throw you into the water and hope you figure out quickly how to swim.

You may remember our discussion at the end of the semester last semester when I told you I found Japanese to be very poor at making an argument. I think that comes from the strong emphasis that is placed on avoiding conflict in Japan. Others (not just Westerners, but Koreans and Chinese, Africans, and others, too) have less difficulty in picking up the idea of engaging with someone over a dispute, and working together to find a way to solve it. In my experience, Japanese often prefer to leave touchy issues alone, and hope they will go away, and celebrate the victory of harmony over conflict.

I think this tendency (it is only a tendency; obviously it does not apply evenly across the culture – some Japanese are quite good at engaging in disputes) runs through the culture. It is a cultural trait. And that means it goes so deep that you often are not even aware of it. To be asked to engage in a debate, then, is to be asked to do something that your instinct tells you it is better to avoid. To spend a great length of time on such activity is like swimming upstream; it is very tiring, even exhausting.

But since I think there are things that Japanese have to contribute to the world, especially to people who don’t understand them very well, I think it should be part of Japanese education to learn to see and to make an argument, defend it and to go on defending it until all sides have had a full hearing. Some issues, if avoided, will go away by themselves. Avoiding trouble and seeking harmony in these cases makes sense. But other issues don’t go away. And when you have found one of these dilemmas, to give up before you start may lead to the illusion of harmony; but sooner or later the issue comes back and must be dealt with. Learning to tell the difference is one of the arts of life. And once you have found the issue that must be faced, learning to take a position and defend it is essential to its resolution.

What we have been doing (or trying to do) in this class, is to locate complex issues and learn ways to engage with them. Last semester I allowed you to choose the issue yourself with which to engage, and in most people’s cases, the semester was productive. You may remember how hard some people struggled just to find a topic to engage on. Once you get used to argument and debate, you see issues which have two or more sides right away. But if you are not used to argument, you only see trouble and possible paths of avoidance. Much of the semester last semester I spent talking with students about how a problem could be set up, and how many different ways there might be to think and argue about it. Once that was done, I then asked you to imagine you were on the two sides yourself, first on one, then on the other, and to dig down as deep as you could to find reasons for defending your position. Some did this well; others not so well.

In the evaluation at the end of last semester, the strongest and clearest criticism I heard expressed was that we spent so much time on writing (the term paper) that there was no time left over for developing your skill at speaking. So this semester, I decided to keep up the work on how to seek out, set up, carry out and defend an argument, but to do it in an oral (debate) format instead of a written (term paper) one.

Many people expressed dissatisfaction that we spent the whole semester on a single issue, an issue that most people knew little about to begin with, were not all that interested in, and had so much complexity that finding the key to understanding the complexities felt sometimes like looking for a needle in a haystack. Most debate classes start with rather simple issues, and people learn some basic rules, follow them, reach a simple conclusion, and then move on to the next issue, satisfied that they have engaged in a debate and learned something. But in my experience, students learn very little from such experiences because they tend to be superficial.

One of the awful things that go on in language classes is that students play at communicating. They role-play, they practice, they perform. What they do with language, in other words, is not what real people do with language in real life. To learn a language is to learn to engage with people. If you are only pretending to communicate with people, it’s not real. It’s like a child who flaps his wings and pretends he’s flying. When people stand up in front of a group in presentation classes, what is wrong (terribly wrong, in my estimation) is that they are play-acting. The focus is on the question, “Look at me, how am I doing?” and not where it should be, which is “Am I having an effect on you?”

As I explained to you, debates have a real and important purpose in life. They are a formal exercise (like a ballet or a play or a concert) in which the audience knows what form is coming next, but not what content. That is up to the participants actually engaged. There are issues which are so troublesome that people think they had better avoid them, because if they don’t, it will lead to a fight. That’s what the rules are for, to make sure people don’t fight, but instead, through disciplined behavior, bring out every possible point that can be made on all sides of the issue. In a fight, a verbal argument, it is the person who shouts loudest who wins.

In a disciplined debate, it is the person who makes the most thorough case and who at the same time points out the limitations in the argument being made by the other side. It is a time, in other words, when both sides get to say everything they have to say, and the other side agrees to listen to every point they make carefully. Because they know they are being judged on how well they address their opponents’ points, they are forced to listen. And that’s one of the great hidden values of a debate. While the other side may be building a powerful case against you, they are at least listening to what you have to say, and in the long run, if what you say is significant, it will sink in, and perhaps change their thinking. If not today, maybe tomorrow.

A real debate cannot be thrown together in a couple days. You have to dig deep for information; you have to really know your subject. So well, in fact, that you already know what your opponent is going to say. This is a second benefit of debating: it makes experts out of the participants.

The reason I asked you to spend so much time in building a debate is that I wanted you to understand what is involved. You cannot debate something trivial. People know it is trivial, that there is nothing to be gained from the exercise. English language classes that debate whether the food in the cafeteria should be changed (of course it should – where’s the debate?) or that the bus should come up to Honkan mae all day and not just in the morning, or that life is better in the city than in the country or that children should have more time to play, or any of a hundred other topics I have heard debated in English language classes ultimately, I believe, work counterproductively. They teach people that we are just playing at life, and not taking it seriously.

The best way to learn to debate, in my experience, is to find something you really care about, prepare to debate it, do the very best job you can, and lose! It comes as a slap in the face to lose, and suddenly you become aware of how important it is to know what you are doing. Most people who go through this experience learn from it, and the second time around are far less likely to make the same mistakes. Debating several issues that don’t require you to put your heart and soul into the task never brings you to the point of knowing what a real debate feels and sounds like.

Real debates are not about trivial topics; they are about topics on which there is genuine disagreement. And that means nobody has the answer! All your training, if you think back on it, has been in schools where the teacher was in complete charge, designed the task for you to do, told you what to do and how to do it, and told you once you had finished whether you did it right or not. But the real debates in life don’t have somebody doing this for you. You have to do it all, from finding the issue that matters, to finding people who are working to prevent you from doing what you want to do about it, to engaging them in debate and learning who they are and how they think and developing strategies for how to defeat them. That is not the only thing we do with language, but it is a major thing which you now have sufficient English to learn how to do. And is worth doing.

Students this morning were furious with me. Did you notice? When the UN group and the Japan group were done with their debates, it was obvious that the issue they were debating was not at all clear. They were furious with me because I had told them to go ahead with the topic. They had left it up to me to decide whether what they were doing was worth while. And today I turned on them and joined the members of the audience who complained that the topic was not sufficiently developed. They thought I was a traitor.

But what I was doing, although some people will say it’s a terrible thing for a teacher to do, was demonstrating that they couldn’t rely on their teacher to make the final decisions. Instead, they had to know what they were doing and take responsibility for it.

I am not happy that they are angry at me, but something quite positive came out of that. Both teams, pro and con, learned a whole lot more about the issue they were debating, learned how complex it was, and learned what the real debatable issue was and what was not debatable, in a way they never would have learned if I had controlled their procedure. There is no way to learn responsibility except to assume responsibility. As long as somebody else is assuming it for you, you are dependent, you do not think things out, and you do not understand the significance of what you’ve done.

You assume I am an expert on the Kosovo issue. You are mistaken. I am learning just like the rest of you. I still to this day have not decided whether I support NATO’s efforts in Yugoslavia. I am genuinely interested in the debates and actually hoping you will help me finally come down on one side or the other. I picked this issue so that I could not possibly take charge. If I had found an issue I had strong convictions on, I’m afraid I would convey too much judgment and push you into reading my mind for the “right answers.” I am used to students doing that, and I worked hard to find an issue in which they couldn’t. You are all on your own in this series of debates. I have none of your answers.

Now let me address the question of how much work you have done in your group and how little credit you seem to be getting for it. Here, too, I would suggest to you that you are too dependent on your teacher, this time for approval. In the end, the Japanese school system has been successful. It has turned you into a disciplined and obedient person, one whom the bosses of society can count on to do as he is told. You expect those in charge over you to tell you what to do, and how to do it. And when you’ve done it, you want to have their recognition and approval. You want credit from them.

I don’t know who in each group does most of the work. Very seldom do all the group members work equally hard. But those who do learn something from it do so on their own initiative, and those who don’t at least learn that when nothing is ventured nothing is gained. And ultimately, it is you who decides the value of your education, and not me.

I believe you when you say you worked harder than other members of your group. I sympathize with you when you complain that that work is not recognized. We all like recognition, and we even need it sometimes to keep going. But ultimately, although I know it would hurt if I misevaluated you so badly that I gave you a B while I gave an A to somebody who did less work, your dependency on me and other teachers is something I hope you learn sooner, rather than later, to break.

If you value my opinions, and want to know what they are, I will always be happy to share them with you. If you want honest criticism, I will be happy to give you that, too. I try to be useful as much as I can, but in a class of thirty, I miss a lot. I realize that. It used to bother me a lot, but in recent years, I’ve stopped worrying about it and try, instead, not to get in people’s way when I see they are learning something. I will give an A to people I think worked much harder than average, a B to the average good student, a C to those who did the minimum. And I will look at everything they did, not at one single thing. And I will try hard to get it right. But I will fail. I will misjudge people at times, no matter how hard I try not to. And that’s because I can’t for the life of me ever be completely sure when you’re learning and when you’re not!

You see, if I gave you a nice clear task the grading would be easy and fair. Let me give you an example. Suppose I assigned the class 500 crossword puzzles to do, and I sat everybody in a room alone so they couldn’t get answers from their friends, and when everybody was done, I found that 10% did at least 480 puzzles, 30% did between 420 and 479, 30% between 360 and 419, and the rest did only 359 or less. I could then give an A, a B, a C, and a D to each of those groups respectively. And I could argue that I was fair and just. A lot of classes have activities not much different from that and methods of evaluation like the one I described. But what is the learning that took place!? Precious little, I think. In an environment where everybody is learning at a different pace, and where some people work little and learn a lot, others work a lot and learn little, still others learn but don’t show it, others appear to be learning, but will later turn out to have misunderstood something, an evaluation of the learners really doesn’t make a lot of sense.

And that’s why I don’t worry a whole lot about whether I get it 100% right. I keep my eyes open. I read everything you write and I remember who does what, but in the end, I can only discuss with you what your ideas are, I cannot tell you whether you did something good or not. In most cases, neither will you. At least not for a while. In time, when you look back on what you did, then you will know whether it was worth while. When students evaluate my work, what matters to me is how much time has passed. It’s always nice to hear nice words (and I thank you for yours), but they will mean a lot more to me if you come back and say them to me again in ten years.

I find your class terribly frustrating. Sometimes you act as a group like spoiled kids. Individually, you are great. But as a group, you’re kids. You are not responsible about getting to class on time, don’t ever start on time, don’t listen when others are talking, don’t work all that hard unless you have a test or a deadline to meet. It’s sometimes painful to think that your parents are spending so much money and that this is supposed to be a university where you are moving into the adult world.

And yet, just when I sometimes feel like giving up on you, marvelous things can happen. Great moments, when I see the lights go on in your heads, when you tell me (usually in your journals) that something has made you think, that you have worked out solutions to problems, that you understand a complex issue a little better, that you have found some direction, or that you have begun to see something a little more clearly, that I learn once again that learning never takes place smoothly. It always comes at unexpected moments. It starts and stops unexpectedly. And what works for one doesn’t work for another.

To work in education is to work in chaos. To work with freshmen and sophomores is to work at the point where people begin to take responsibility for their own education, and that means they finally understand how irregular and chaotic their learning has always been and will always be. You have pointed out some of the confusion and discord that you have seen the last two semesters. I hope I have pointed out that an awful lot of learning has taken place, nonetheless, in, with, under, and around that confusion.

Thanks again for writing your thoughts on the class. And don’t take these seven pages of comments as the answer to what you have said. Only as ideas written in response. The invitation is open for you to repeat what you’ve said, or to say more, if you like. Anytime. Even after the semester is over.


Alan McCornick

July 11, 1999

Monday, June 28, 1999

Mythical Genitals (A Review)

Women figure large in Japanese mythology. Unlike the Middle Eastern creation myth, in which God starts with man and derives woman from one of his ribs, the Japanese creation story starts with a goddess, Amaterasu. Actually, Amaterasu had parents, of sorts, the primeval creator gods Izanagi and Izanami, but she was born, so the story goes, from a tear in her father's eye.

Amaterasu had a brother, Susanowo, the storm god, and Susanowo seems to have been a real pain in the ass. Amaterasu had a job, you see, teaching people to plant rice and weave cloth. But Susanowo used to make life hell by pulling out the dividers between the rice fields, filling up the irrigation ditches, and wreaking havoc with her house.

One day he went too far, throwing a horse over his head into the room where she was weaving and killing one of her maids. In a tiff, Amaterasu retired to a cave and wouldn't come out. Being the sun goddess, this left the world in darkness, causing tremendous concern.

They try everything, from songbirds to jewels to fancy cloth. Nothing works, until they finally they go and get another goddess, Ame no Uzume, to perform a "lascivious and provocative" dance, in which she shows her breasts, and drops her skirt. This causes people to laugh, for some reason, but it works. Amaterasu comes out and light returns to alternate with night once more.

There's much more to the story, but this is enough to set the stage for a discussion of female genitalia, the theme of a presentation by doctoral candidate Hiromi Yamagata.

Yamagata starts with the observation that words for female genitalia have become taboo in modern times, and that in fact, the only words readily available are either medical terms, childish euphemisms, a couple insulting expressions, and words imported from English.

Earliest known words to refer to genitals are ootonoji ("big gate" man) for the male organ and ootonobe ("big gate" woman) for the female. No apparent difference is noted between the two in terms of class or worth, and neither is shown to dominate. Izanami and Izanagi (the creator gods, remember), although capable of giving birth to Amaterasu from a tear (i.e., without apparent sexual union) clearly did engage in sex, and reference is made to mito no maguwai, the putting together of two "mito," or male and female genitals. Izanami and Izanagi, by the way, are not only progenitors of the universe, but brother and sister, as well (although what this means is not known, since they, being the start of it all, have no parents). In any case, "First Mother" Izanami eventually gave birth to most of the deities and the islands of Japan, as well, this time by more traditional means; her godly children and her island children were born from her womb.

This was not a good idea. Last out was the fire god, and his birth burned her so badly in the genitals that she died from the experience. The motif of injury to the genitals continues in Shinto mythology, as a means of explaining the loss of fertility and the chaos that results.

Izanami was buried in a tomb which is said to exist today in Kumano City, in Wakayama Prefecture. The particular location, Hana no Iwaya, is a sacred place to this day, a rock tomb in the shape of female genitals.

Another story involving genitals is that of Omo no Nusi and Seya Datara Hime. Omo no Nusi, taken with Seya Datara Hime's beauty, turns himself into an arrow and shoots himself into her genitals. This surprises her, so she takes the arrow back to her bedroom, where it turns into the young male god once again and the two marry and have a child. For some reason, they decide to name this child Hoto (female genitals). Hoto (full name Hoto Tatara Isusuki Hime) grows up, not surprisingly to modern folk, hating her name, and decides to change it. This is the first apparent indication in (Japanese) history that there is something wrong with female genitals.

But there's more to the story. Omo no Nusi, it turns out, only shows up at night, so Seya is never able to see him clearly. She finds this frustrating and asks him if he won't please reveal himself to her. He agrees, and tells her to look in her comb box the next morning, and not to be surprised by what she finds. When she opens the box, however, the surprise is too much for her. All she sees is a little snake, and for some reason this causes her to stab herself in the genitals accidentally, and die.

The motif of stabbing yourself in the genitals goes on. Repeatedly, in Japanese mythology, there is reference to the injury of female genitals in marriage, and out of this injury comes a new generation of gods. You remember the maid weaving in Amaterasu's room, killed when Susanowo threw the horse at her? You guessed it. Stabbed herself in the genitals and died. Not with a chopstick, this time, but with a "sticky weaving tool."

Now what about this "lascivious breast-baring, skirt-dropping" dance performed by Ame no Uzume. Why did it make people laugh? And how did it work to tease Amaterasu out of the cave? Yamagata proposes that what Ame no Uzume was actually doing was imitating the birth ritual and the word "laugh" (warau) has been misinterpreted as laugh in the modern sense. What it actually referred to was the "bringing out of the voices of the deities." Yamagata, unfortunately, gives no justification for that claim other than to say "laugh" had a magical meaning in ancient times.

Yamagata's relating of the "facts" of Shinto mythological events suggests a wealth of information that might lead to an understanding of the connection between the (real or mythological) sex organ of women, and destruction and renewal in nature, but she leaves these speculations aside to make a pitch for the rejection of the modern interpretation of genitalia as something shameful or dirty. The notion that menstruation, giving birth, and the genitals themselves are dirty, Yamagata claims, entered the Japanese culture with Buddhism. Impurity, as a concept, was lacking in traditional Shinto.

Unfortunately, Yamagata appears to contradict herself with the example of Ame no Iwaya, "confined" during pregnancy. Confinement, she says, had the purpose of keeping women "pure and clean like [a] goddess or a maiden [at a] shrine." Or does she? Is it possible that purity and the power of women increase in the case of pregnancy and menstruation? And that to enhance this power, it is best to keep it safe and secure in a separate place?

Other examples are given to make the case that the genitals, pregnancy and menstruation were not always associated with impurity. In one instance, for example, an older sister and guardian dyes an obi in her menstrual blood and gives it as a gift to her brother. The notion of impurity, Yamagata suggests, may have come from male assumptions. In the past, most scholars have been male, and their interpretations (from the shabbiness of the confinement hut, or ubuya, for example) of impurity may have been assumed, in turn, by later scholars, both male and female. This speculation, unfortunately, also remains ungrounded.

Mythology provides bizarre events to modern sensibilities, but a wealth of material for speculation into earlier notions of our origins. Yamagata's study focusing on female genitalia remains highly speculative. Difficult though it may be to ground interpretations of pre-literate history, she leaves us to wonder whether what she has to say may not reflect more about our thinking in modern times than the thinking of an earlier age. Yet, at the same time, they are a step toward the taking back of women's history by women. It suggests that there is a lot left to do.

Saturday, June 19, 1999

Life in the Hood

Since I moved here to Oiso, I have been conscious of how much my surroundings affect my attitude toward my choice to live as an expatriate. You know how much energy I have expended airing my frustrations with life in Japan, and how often I have sent out appeals not to take me too seriously and comments about life intended to balance the criticism. The most effective mechanism for living here or anywhere, I am convinced, is to cultivate one's appreciation of the absurd, and to learn to laugh out loud and often at the ways we come up with to ruin a perfectly good day on a perfectly good planet. I have to remind myself of this a lot, because I am cursed with a Puritan background and some terribly sentimental genes, all of which push me toward taking life seriously. Since I have made such a strong pitch for guffawing, forgive me, now, if I exercise some absurdity-balancing rights and tell you about my neighborhood, and how it is making me glad to be living in Japan.

What strikes anyone quickly about life in the Tokyo sprawl is the terrible and unrelenting lack of green relief. Nobody, it seems to me, can match the Japanese in the speed and efficiency with which they can clear a patch of trees and grass and replace it with a parking lot or another unsightly blockhouse they (absurdly) call "mansions." Top of the list of complaints from long-term foreigners is the (absurd and) ritualized proclamation that "we Japanese love nature" in a world so ready and willing to hack down a tree. The excuse is a ready one. So many people. It's literally a choice between people or trees.

I moved into Tokyo six years ago because I was bored with life in the suburbs. Bored with the plain lack of originality of a housing development built all at once, at the symmetry of the streets, and mostly bored with the life in a neighborhood built for people whose highest priority was minding their own business. In comparison to this, Tokyo became increasingly irresistible. It is ugly, but it is alive. It is rich and varied, a gourmand's banquet, a young person's playground, a consumer's paradise. So it's a little low on trees. It's unmatched for excitement. In Japan, it's everybody's idea of where it's at.

I moved into Tokyo when I was ready for bright lights, big city, and for the first year or more I loved it. It was the the right move at the right time, despite the cost, the commute of an hour and forty minutes each way to work, the noise and the pollution. But it got old fast. Five years later, I had had enough. I moved away from my apartment in Yoyogi across the street from the magazine delivery center which banged bundles into trucks all night, to Kyodo where the construction started the moment I arrived and continued on all sides of my "mansion" the entire two years, and the time came when I cried uncle and went looking for grass and trees and fresh air and quiet.

Which I found. I found a place so lovely that I am still remarking on it, a year after the move. A little town just outside the urban sprawl, a place with almost no mansions and banners telling everyone with any plans to build one that they will have a fight on their hands. It's a funky little town, little more to the outsider than a row of shops on Highway 1, not unlike a rural town in Northern California. To Japanese, the town has a rich history. It is associated with former Prime Minister Yoshida, who had his summer home here, with the orphanage set up at the Elizabeth Saunders home, which took in over 600 "throwaway" kids of mixed racial parentage during the Occupation, with resort and weekend homes for the rich of the big city, and with legends found in Kabuki drama. But to me it is a place with trees and fresh breezes from the sea, and a house with a hiking trail for a backyard barely five minutes from a train station for those times when it is necessary to join the world. A house built on the start of the hill so that the main entrance is on the third floor where the switch-back road goes by my kitchen and living-room windows and reminds me I am not living in isolation, but still very much in civilization. But it is civilization where troops of hikers, including groups of thirty or more school kids parade past on weekends, hiking to the top of Shonandaira. I refuse to pull the blinds down, so I am on display to these adventurers, and some of them actually stop dead in their tracks at the sight of a foreign man obviously at the kitchen sink, sometimes wearing an apron.

I've decided not to hide my habits, but to flaunt them. To those who stop (the kids), I smile and wave, and there is a powerful sense of satisfaction in watching the smiles creep over their faces as they realize they've been caught staring. All those years of being annoyed at their almost total lack of self-consciousness and sophistication, looks of amazement on their faces and fingers in the air pointing out that a "foreigner" is among them. Not only being there and foreign, but even doing something foreign. Maybe it's that I'm getting old, but now I no longer stiffen at being pointed out as different; instead I enjoy the child in them looking at what is nothing more than one of the many curious wonders the world has to offer them. And I observe that when couples walk by and I smile and nod, it's virtually always the woman who smiles and acknowledges my nod. The majority of the men pretend not to have seen me.

My house was built by an architect, about twenty-five years ago. From the hillside it juts straight out to a point, making a large triangle. Two rooms on the third floor, the living room and the dining room make triangles within the triangle, as do the rooms below them, the two bedrooms on the second floor. These four rooms have an entire wall of windows, and the house is a blaze of light and openness. It has done wonders for my disposition. I not only have the trees, the Japanese maples, the pear trees, and a big leafy one which nobody can name, so they call it the "mongrel" tree. And bushes of hydrangea all around. And a bamboo hedge which grows shoots sometimes at the astonishing rate of six inches a day, and which keeps me hacking away at middle class respectability every four or five days. I have the openness to the ocean to the south, and the breeze it brings.

After I moved in and dealt with the enormous task of cleaning the windows and ridding the closets of years of mould, it sank in that I would also have to deal with the garden. The previous tenant, I later learned from the neighbors, hadn't done a thing in at least two years, and it was obvious. One of my neighbors, Mrs. K., came to the door one day and asked me point blank, "Would you like to do something about your garden?" For some reason, I took the question without insult and said yes. I really did, but the thought of tracking down a gardener had been too daunting, and I was also unconvinced I could negotiate the price successfully. From Mrs. K. I learned there is an organization called the "Reason for Living" Society. A group of old men who garden, at a bargain rate, and who came in answer to a prayer. I expected some emergency weeding, maybe a little trim. But I gave the men a $500 limit and in two days they razor trimmed my entire garden, trees and all, for $400. I found their office under a bridge when I went to pay them, left them the routine gift of sweet bean pastries, and arranged to have them come by and do this job every three to six months.

The day after the trimming, I got a fax from Mrs. K. "We didn't like the previous tenant; she was odd. But we like you!" she said. I learned later that the neighbors were concerned, not merely with appearances, but with the chance of fire. There had been a lot of dead plant debris under my jungle patchwork, and I think their fears were well-founded. The whole experience brought home to me how much I had conditioned myself to living in a city apartment where I had none of these responsiblities. Because of the beauty of the location, instead of seeing these responsibilities as burdens and expenses, I began to interpret them as signs I had found what I was looking for, a place with natural beauty and things to talk about, however trivial, with neighbors. One by one they would stop to comment. I beamed at each compliment.

On the other side is Mr. I, who comes down only on weekends. He used to bring his wife, but now he comes alone. I wonder if she has died. There was a long time when he didn't come at all, but now he's coming again. We say hello and make promises to have coffee, but it hasn't happened. I think it will before long. Past Mr. I. is Mrs. S. and her family, including a boy about ten who is constantly running into Mr. I's yard to retrieve a ball. The only kid in the neighborhood. I love the quiet, but it must be hard on the boy. Up the hill is an old man who uses an umbrella as a cane, and salutes me with it as he passes. Another woman stops to admire my hedges and commend me on my ability to cut them in a straight line. Little by little I am becoming familiar with the faces of the people who live up the hill.

Some weeks ago, an event took place which seems to be bringing the neighborhood together. Just at the next zig in the zig-zag single lane road which enables about twenty households to live on the hill behind my house, somebody decided to build one more. Mrs. H., her name is—I've never seen her and neither, apparently, has anybody else. One day the silence was destroyed by the sound of tree-cutting. I didn't give it much thought, because I assumed somebody was trimming. But the sound went on for hours and a sinking feeling came over me and forced me out of the house to have a look. When I got to the top of the hill, I felt sick to my stomach. At least fifteen trees had been cut down and the hillside looked like a stripmine or a scene following a forest fire. That night, Mrs. S. was at my door, informing me that the neighborhood was gathering the following Friday for an "information session" with the builders.

The meeting took place with bureaucratic efficiency, starting on time, and accompanied with official handouts. The two "parties of the first part" -- the builders and the prefectural authorities stood on one side, and the neighborhood folk on the other. It started with the usual "history" of the situation, with an official from the construction company reading off a list of this-happened-then-this-happened events until suddenly an old man spoke out. "OK, that's enough" he said. "We didn't come here to listen to your report, we came to get some answers. What are you doing here?" "First let us finish," they said. And the reporting went on. But people started grumbling and the insistence on order and authority seemed to be backfiring. Finally they came to an end and the self-appointed spokesman for the construction group said, "Now we will take your questions. Please state them one at a time and begin by giving your name."

"Nothing doing!" said the nun. There are two Catholic nuns living at the foot of the stone staircase at the back of my house. I don't know the whole story on them, but there is a sign on the door declaring that they give lessons in flower arranging and piano, and I occasionally hear the sound of the piano when all the windows are open. "Don't you tell us what to do. There is no need for you to ask for names. We ask the questions. You answer them."

Well, blow me over, I think to myself. You tell 'em sister! And we're off and running. One by one the neighbors speak out. What are you doing tearing down all these trees? What do you mean building on a hillside this steep (42 degrees)? Who's responsible if the hillside collapses on our houses? Have you no appreciation for the fact the rainy season is about to start? The questioning goes on and gets increasingly heated. The construction company spokespeople begin to take on a wounded look. The prefectural authorities begin to take on arrogance. A full-fledged conflict has formed, here in the land of submission, of harmony, and of indirectness.

Each of the neighbors reveals a distinct personality. One is emotional and strident; another is calm and reasonable, a third asks deeply probing questions, another wonders in a barely audible voice if there is any possibility of putting the trees back. The meeting ends (the average age is over 60 and we've all been standing on a slope for an hour and a half) with an appeal for data. How great is the risk, they want to know, of building in this climate, in this earthquake-prone country, in this season, on a 40-degree incline.

The meeting makes the local papers first. Then the Mainichi Shimbun, under the headline "Voices of Anxiety from Citizens." In the picture, I'm the one who looks like a foreigner. A second meeting is called, this time for the next Friday evening, when more people can attend.

The meeting is like a New England town meeting, except that we are all sitting on zabuton on tatami and have left our shoes in the entry-hall. Two rows of defendents again, the front row of engineers and construction company officials, the rear row of prefectural bureaucrats. This time there is no attempt to act authoritarian and take charge. Running the meeting is a local Oiso official, a friendly boy-next-door affable-Joe type who knows the neighbors and insists that although he's sitting with the construction and prefectural authority teams, he's here to represent everybody's interests and give everybody a fair hearing. There is one woman on the panel, and she begins. "We are here to speak to your main concern," she says. "The question of safety." And she begins to outline what they know about angles and leverages and boring schedules and backup systems and support. Another voice talks about the need to cover everything with cement. A third with the plan to plant grass after it’s all done.

Once again the audience gets impatient. And this time, they’re prepared. There are xeroxed data on landslides, a report from one person on her failure to get approval two years ago for a similar construction, several pointed questions about responsibility. As the evening wears on—the meeting starts at 7 and is still going at 10—the mood of the audience gets angrier, the questions more pointed, and the sense of a community united more palatable. "Why do you persist on quoting the law to us!" shouts one woman who looks like she has never shouted anything in her life before. "Don’t you understand it’s not the law we’re concerned with, it’s safety!" As usual, the audience, made up of ordinary folk, has a couple of people who get lost in their own comments and ask questions that have been asked before. But the defence team also has its drawbacks, one official who cannot hide his disdain for the community, who looks constantly at his watch and rolls his eyes at the repetitions of questions.

In the end, the arrogance provokes the audience into broadside attacks. "You there, prefecture spokesman, do you have any knowledge at all about the technical aspects of this problem? How can you talk about approving something you don’t understand!?" "Stop telling us to keep this discussion about the safety aspects. You are tearing down a hillside in our neighborhood. Why do you assume you can do that without our approval?" Finally, one man expresses the frustrations of the crowd in one laser-beam question, "You keep insisting you are ‘within your rights.’ Does that mean you intend to ignore an entire neighborhood united against you? Do you intend to ignore everything we have to say, Mr. Prefectural Authority? Do you? If you do, tell us now. Loud and clear, so we know where we stand!"

The question brings the meeting to a halt. There is no response, but a dead silence which seems to go on forever. Finally Joe Affable shakes his head and utters the Japanese sign of defeat. "Komatta, na!" he says, switching the tone from what has been exceedingly polite formal language, to the plain form. "This is bad news, this," he says.

Poor Joe. He does recover, finally, and gets the discussion going again. But it soon stops once more when a voice shouts out, "You, Mr. Spokesman. Who put you there in the middle? Next time we insist on somebody from the authorities we approve of." It is an unfair attack on a nice guy. But it makes clear that the trust in the authorities to oversee the situation is gone, and the conflict is serious.

I have listened the entire two hours up to this point with near total fascination. I have lived in Japan a long time, have watched ordinary life up close for thirty years. I’ve never seen a group quite this articulate, quite this direct, quite this riled up. These folk are enraged, and they are all the more powerful in that they know how to contain and direct their rage. Throughout the evening I sat there feeling for the guys under fire. The engineers look like engineers. Honest folk, used to facts and figures and hard work. Not at all happy to be on the spot like this, not at all certain how to respond. The bureaucrats look like bureaucrats, too. Tobacco stained fingers, faces worn down like rocks on a sandy beach from routine, figures humbled with fatigue so total you have to study them closely to see the annoyance. Repeating endlessly that they are "within the law" and revealing by their repetition that this is the only strategy in their repertoire. They are no match for an angry group of citizens.

It’s 10:15 and I have missed my dinner. My lunch was some warmed over pasta which gave me a stomach ache, and I’m wondering whether to walk home with Mr. and Mrs. K, or to bound for the 7/11 and some factory-line sushi. I opt for the walk home with my neighbors. I want to ask some questions. "Who was that man who peppered his talk with English words?" "That’s Mrs. S’s husband," says Mrs. K. I had asked her earlier and she ran the question down the row of ladies to my right. Not one of them knew, but it turns our her husband knew. All these women share their day-to-day details, but not one of them knew this man. Guess he’s never home. I’d never seen him either, and was meeting Mr. K, too, for the first time all year. Only the old men on the hill are familiar to me. The younger ones still come home after dark. The neighborhood follows the Japanese patterns of housewives at home, men at work.

But this neighborhood has taken on some extra complexity for me and it’s the differences I see now, not the stereotypes. Nuns who tell you they’re in charge, not you. People who tell bureaucrats to go away and send in somebody who knows what he’s talking about. People who tell you you’ve torn down one too many trees, have come into a neighborhood that is valued for its beauty and have made it ugly, and for that you have made enemies. As I say goodnight to the K’s, other neighbors stream by on their way home. They all stop to say goodnight.

I have neighbors I find I'm drawn to. Neighbors who care about building and maintaining a place that is quiet and beautiful. People who love trees as much as I do. Neighbors who tell me they are glad I’ve moved in, glad I’ve joined them in this protest, glad I understand.

Don’t look now, but those roots I have yanked out every couple of years in the last decade seem to be moving downward. There is a new twist to the plan to pack up and leave with retirement only a couple years now down the road. A hint of the possibility that absurdity could give way to irony, as the key to understanding my experience in this land. Or will it be melancholy?

Oiso, June 19, 1999

Update: January 9, 2000

Six months have passed since I wrote this love letter to a neighborhood. My friend Doris moved in in July and has joined me in singing the praises of the Hood. Doris, actually, has put me to shame. She is much better than I am at getting to know people, and I now have been inside the houses of a number of neighbors, thanks to her, and know the names of almost a dozen more. I came back after the summer break to two invitations in the first week to barbecues and a list of new names to learn.

Doris likes early morning walks, and has managed to find dogs that need walking. She calls it her rent-a-dog service, and I have taken to tagging along. Amazing how people will smile at you when you’re with a dog.

For a while, it appeared we had made some gains in slowing down the construction. But despite every effort short of violent confrontation, the construction started up again and it appears the cause is lost. Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it. What the protest uncovered in their digging was plans for 150 houses to be built on the top of the hill. And we were worried about one!

No plans for changes in the infrastructure. Same narrow roads, same narrow sewer pipes, 150 new households, all of which will use the switchback road that goes past my kitchen window.

In his book, The Emptiness of Japanese Influence, Gavan McCormack, professor of Japanese History at the Australian National University, has this to say about the city of Tokyo:

Tokyo residents enjoyed (in the late 1980s) an average 2.6 square meters per head of urban park lands, compared with 30.4 meters in London, 37.4 in Bonn, 45.7 in Washington and 12.2 in Paris…. There is a further dimension, increasingly serious as development and population growth continues unabated in the Tokyo region. It is the atmospheric effect known as heat island. Because of the combined consequences of constant heat emissions from autos, air conditioners, and the like, the heat-retaining qualities of concrete, the greenhouse effect from carbon-dioxide emissions, and the diminution of vegetation, Tokyo is heating up at a rate more than ten times the world average… (NY and London: M.E. Sharpe, 1996:64)

My love for this place is unabated. Yesterday I was in Atami with three more neighbors for an afternoon at the hot springs followed by an evening of magnificent Japanese delicacies, Spanish wine, and long talks about the increasingly depressing signs that Oiso is at long last falling to the developers now about to extend the urban sprawl to fill one of the last pieces of green land between Tokyo and Odawara. I have carried around petitions, have now sat with Mr. I (his wife is very much alive), and half a dozen others to come up with approaches. I have joined protests at the town hall, have posted a “Down with the Daikanyama Apartment Construction” banner in front of my house, had it stolen, and posted another.

As an outsider, I can do only so much. I am learning the limitations of this lovely town. Ironically, some of the best fighters in this battle are people who know the value of the grass and trees they fled from Tokyo to find. Problem is, they’ve only been here twenty years and so are still considered by many to be newcomers. The old timers are arguing they should sit and listen, and not lead. The community has a long way to go to develop a united front against the developers, and in the meantime a lot of trees are going down.

Lovely town, with lovely people. If only it could stay that way.

Update: January 11, 2007

Seven years have passed since that six-month update. I lived in Oiso six more years after that, and then I left. Oiso became home, and I kept my promise to myself when I declared, “If I ever leave Oiso, it will be because I am leaving Japan.” In March of 2006 I pulled up stakes and came back to live in California, and Oiso is receding in memory.

Now when I think of Oiso, I marvel that I never tired of it. Never found any place I’ve lived that I could say that about.

It never became an absolute home. I grew very fond of my immediate neighbors, the Kandas, and had a future shock moment this week when I saw the handwriting of their ten year old on a New Year’s card. He was barely three when I first got to know him. Now he’s capable of a serious conversation, and even his younger siblings are growing and reminding me of how time changes things. I had trouble at times getting home from the station because there were so many neighbors along the road I had to stop and talk to, and for a while there, I thought Oiso was going to turn the trick and make me Japanese, and make me surrender my American home and identity.

But it didn’t quite have the draw. It came close, and if I hadn’t already come to feel connected, I would have on the day I had to turn in the keys to my house. That morning four of my neighbors showed up with aprons on and cleaning buckets in hand to clean my house from top to bottom. I had given away my household to them, among others, and they were returning the favor. I have never before known the pleasure of giving away so much without the slightest sense of loss. On the contrary, the knowledge that my household lives on in Oiso gives me no small amount of pleasure.

Oiso has lost much of the small town character that so charmed me seven years ago. In my time there, that rape of the hillside that drew me into a sense of belonging to a neighborhood was only the first. One by one I watched as bamboo groves were mowed down to create housing developments. The train station that once looked like something out of an English country calendar now sports an ugly 7/11, and the commuters pour in in the morning and out at night as they do with any other suburb. Oiso is no longer just beyond the Tokyo urban sprawl. It is now part of it, and children who grow up there will never know it as a village again.

I will never go back there to live. The time has come and gone, the house has been rented to others – even if I did have the job to pay the rent and the inclination to go back to the life I had then – and this town that I grew to call home now has to live in the past. When I think back on my homes in Japan – Minami Nagasaki, Sagami Ono, Kataseyama, Yoyogi, Kyodo and Oiso – only Oiso seems real. Maybe because I lived there longer than anywhere else. Certainly because it’s the last place I lived. But mostly because it was a town where I came to know, love and respect, and feel connected with a neighborhood in a way that, for a time at least, suggested my association with Japan could become permanent.

It didn’t. But it might have.