As I ride home on the Brown Line, my notebook clutched to my chest, if my mind's eye made it sound, it would be like a Shop-Vac.

It's a game my mother taught me. We always found creative ways to pass the time.

"Look at someone and make a story. Say what they were doing earlier in the day, or where they're going now."

But right now all I notice is that a lot of people who wear running shorts probably shouldn't, and that there are five people on a Chicago train reading the New York Times.

It's one of the hottest days of the young summer and everyone appears deflated. They've emerged from their airconditioned offices where ties and button down shirts seemed acceptable and packed onto a rumbling, un-airconditioned subway car where the sun streams through the scratched and fingerprinted windows baking us like cornish hens.

A woman tries to sleep. She's got two hours before her next job as a waitress in Rogers Park. She has three kids at home who all want Playstation 2 and she's either got to get it for them or explain that she's a failure at motherhood and send them down a road of murder and ruin. Well, that's just how she feels right now, as a bead of sweat rolls down from her neck to the small of her back.

The only possible label for the girl sitting next to me is "meek cheese eater". It sums up every part of her. She sits with her white, sharp knees pressed tightly together, wearing a pair of cut-offs that are loose and flowing enough on her tiny, bird legs to be considered culotts. In her delicate hands is a small chunk of some pale orange cheese, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. She glances about nervously, unwraps said cheese in a determined, measured and silent fashion, takes the smallest bite possible, covers her mouth while she chews it, then re-wraps the cheese and hides it in her hands. Each bite takes a minimum of three minutes, if we include the wrapping procedures. I'm not a violent person. But it is taking everything in me not to cram the whole chunk down her fragile, lengthy gullet. I decide to look away before I take definitive action.

Someone has written "Richie Daley is an asshole" on a poster, and below that is a sticker with someone's 'tag'. I try to write my old 'tag' on the cover of my notebook, but it's clear that my days of being a graffiti skate Betty are over. Good thing, since I'm turning thirty in September.

The train ratchets to a stop at my street and I notice the same schizophrenic getting off that gets off every day...pounding on the train doors before the car even stops, then pushing and shoving to be the first down the stairs. He reminds me of my mother, but not in the way you might think.

The conductor looks out the window, gives me a friendly wave and the train trundles away...leaving me in the roasting June heat.

The other night I went to a punk house and chatted up a local Rock Star. I count him among my friends, but I have always considered this a bit a of a risk with larger than life people. I trust him, but as an unpopular person dealing with a very popular person, I feel it necessary to take into account that I may constitute a smaller portion of this person's universe than they do of mine.

Insecure? You bet!

We talked about psychological things. We talked about the bible. We talked about the hideous leather jacket of mine that he accidentally destroyed. Then I noticed something odd. My friend was slumped in his chair with his eyes closed. I said it seemed like he was about done for the evening. He said no, he was fine, (his face sliding off his skull) he'd just had some morphine and some Xanax on top of the beer in his hand, he was a little high but it was okay. This must be some new definition of "fine" I wasn't previously aware of.

I wondered about it, and I asked him, I said I don't care, I just want to know, why do you do all these drugs? He said

"Drugs are an escape,"

and I've heard that before. He said something else which I don't remember vividly because I was a bit drunk by then. What I remember is that he sort of implied that it was too hard, too much work to be in his own skin sober much of the time. I might be misremembering, 'cause I was wasted, but if that's what he said I can relate to it, because lately I've had the feeling that I've swallowed the ocean. If anyone tries to disturb me or if I try to move, all this salt water and little boats and various unholy-looking crustaceans waiting on my togue will explode, rushing out of me and drown/crush/pinch everyone around me. The terrific, life-giving destructive entity that is water. I'm helpless and out of control, but I haven't done anything about it. I'd rather just sit here stagnating for a while. It's called depression. I know this.

But now I think, maybe if I had a taste for narcotics I'd have a job right now. Maybe if I could stand to be furthur out of my skull than alcohol can take me I'd be functioning on some level. The hot/cold, good/bad pendulum swing that lets you hide from how ugly everything is inside, because you're too busy keeping body and soul together. As it is though, I'm at my last $100, my parents have cut me off, I'm in a very busy small town with a non-existant job market and I don't care. Most of the time I'm not even worried about what my roommates will say when I tell them I can't afford to pay the gas bill. I mean it's terrifying at the same time. I can't stand people like me, I need a job, I'm going back to school in two months and I have to have money and the whole thing is just awful and it has me really worried. Still. I want to be very clear, because it helps me remember, that I'm doing this to myself. I hate it, I can't stop, but I'm aware of it as my own doing.

Once I told my friend that when they bury people in lead coffins they have to have this valve on the coffin, in case they don't seal it right. Ideally a lead coffin prevents decay altogether, I said, but if they do it wrong, the body they've put in there starts to decompose in this air-tight environment. The problem there is that the corpse produces all these poisonous gasses as a result of the process of decay. If the pressure isn't released, then the coffin can explode, sending shreds of lead and putrified human remains everywhere. So there's this valve, and they open the valve periodically and put a lighter or a blowtorch to it to relieve the pressure and burn the poisonous gas. I said that's how it is sometimes, that some people have all this existential rage with them where ever they go and what ever they do and some of their lives will always be busy burning that shit off. That's what I'm doing in my tiny room having this very stagnant depressing time, is burning shit off. I have to do that, and it's just going to get in the way.

That's how it needs to be. I've chosen to pay attention to the pain I'm experiencing now, I don't know why it's happening now but I can listen and I will. There's self destruction and self destruction. Is paying attention to my emotions as they come up better or worse than being almost completely immobilized by narcotics? Is financial ruin better or worse than massive liver damage? I won't make that judgement call. Honestly, I can't get into the skin of a rock star, the only person's choices I can evaluate are my own. Some people would say my friend is being stupid, but plenty of others would say that I'm being morbid and self-absorbed. Everyone can be right if they want to, I don't care, but I have to ask myself these questions because of all this attention I'm paying to everything.

I've always felt that drugs are pretty much benign, that it's people who use drugs who fuck it up. There are things like heroin and crack that sketch me out a lot and make me want to slap the people who mess with them. For the most part though, with everything else it seems to me if someone ruins their life on them it's only indicative of the fact that they can't take a lot of drugs. Tough but fair.

I say this because I have had extensive conversations with people who've told me what wonders drugs, both legal and illegal, have done for them. I am skeptical, but I have decided because of all the different stories I have been told that the only thing I can be sure of is that drugs aren't for me. And at that point, how confusing to be confronted with a model in which they would help me, by preventing me from experiencing all this saved-up pain I'm burning away and thus enabling me to get a friggin' job and do all the normal things and not feel like a bum noding all day in a cafe where I can drink free coke.

When I'm in a situation where all of my assumptions about "X" are challenged or completely over thrown, I absolutely relish it, because I can feel myself and my perceptions and my understanding of other people growing and stretching like muscle tissue. On the other hand, it also makes my metaphorical ass metaphorically pretty sore.

It was another oppressively hot day in the city. I stood on the corner of LaSalle and Washington, clutching a newly bought Specials CD in my hand, giddily anticipating when I could go home and start blowing shit up.

Suddenly, wafting from behind me, I began to hear the music.

And you can tell everybody, this is your song

I turned around. A boy and a girl, both in their early twenties, with acoustic guitars, serenading each other. The girl was gorgeous. Not gorgeous in that fake buxom blonde sort of way, but in that brown-haired girl that lives next door and you want to love forever sort of way.

It may be quite simple but now that it's done

Between them was a guitar case. Inside the case, among lots of change and some random bills, was a sign saying “HELP US WITH OUR WEDDING.” Next to the sign was a black and white picture of them holding each other.

I hope you don't mind, I hope you don't mind

They stood there on the hot street corner, in the middle of downtown Chicago, singing their love songs to each other. Her voice was clear and wonderful, a perfect companion to his. They would throw smiles at passers-by, give out a “thank you” to anyone who gave them some change. Sometimes they would even turn and start singing directly to the small crowd that had gathered there while waiting to cross the street.

That I put down in words

For all of the noise there, the belching city buses, ambulances screaming by, a police whistle trying to keep the traffic in check, they never lost a note. Always staying in step. And you could tell, no matter who they were facing, that there was only one person that each of them was really singing that love song to.

How wonderful life is while you're in the world

I had a $100 bill that I won in Las Vegas last week sitting in my wallet.

ephealy departs

I have read of Evan Healy's passing, commemorated in a few words on his home node. I was not aware of his illness, but in retrospect I see it gives some context to what I knew of him here.

His energy as a noder made a great impression on me, as did the frank humility with which he accepted corrections. I see now that he must have been trying to get a lot done in a stretch of time that he knew would be limited but of unknown length. Most of us have more time to work with than he did, but we don't feel the pressure as keenly and consequently get far less done. Perhaps it is possible to learn from him even so, even now.

We did not correspond so very much, but enough that I will miss him and feel sobered by his death. Feeling sobered means that I see the things recently on my mind to have been less important than they have seemed at the time. My mind has been on trivialities of daily life as I guide two young relatives around the city on their first visit away from their parents. It has also been a little on the dangers, imagined or real, of the U.S. holiday that is upon us. Well, if the New York subway is gassed or the San Andreas Fault is mined with explosives, what would be the real result for me and the people I love? It is easy enough to take sides in a struggle between embezzling capitalism and inhumane Islamist fundamentalism or to worry about the Decline of the West. But these are big abstractions - another kind of triviality not much different from showing the kids around town. The real questions are how I live and what I leave behind when I die. In those things, what difference is there between dying of gas on the subway and dying of the failure of a weak heart?

With ephealy on my mind, I have to admit the main issue is in what I do with my days and hours right now. It's not easy to remember in all the bustle of events that I, too, will die before too very long.

last day-log entry: May 8, 2002 | next: July 6, 2002

The temperature was 70 degrees again this morning. It was 88 degrees by mid-afternoon with a heat index of 91 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat index is like the anti-windchill. I'm adjusting to the clutch in my dad's 1997 Chevy S-10 pick-up truck. The bed is full of tools and pipes and half empty paint cans. It's a slo-mo-fo compared to my Ford Escort. I'm driving his truck because he's layed up for a couple of three weeks and isn't allowed to drive. "And it needs to be driven," he says. I stopped for a copy of USA Today since I'm a news junkie and to fill the gas tank up. The fuel gauge has always been on full. He told me this after I thought this baby was getting terrific mileage. I was instructed to reset the trip odometer after filling the tank and it should be good for about 225 miles.

A UPS truck came flying up behind me and was right on the rear bumper for a couple miles until I turned off for gas. I figured he must either be a gung-ho new guy (what a find) or a seasoned vet out to beat the heat. I took the high road to work even though its an extra three miles because I'm a radio nut, too. Amateur radio, scanners, CB, AM talk radio and so on. Before I get to work the road drops into a deep valley along the Allegheny River in W. PA. I noticed all kinds of cars and flashing lights along the side of the road. There was the bright glow of magenta flares in the light fog that was beginning to lift. There were five brown UPS trucks lined up with the other vehicles and as I passed by I noticed that another one had flipped over the guard rail. The other drivers were there to retrieve the packages I bet. Hope they didn't forget the driver.

The traffic got heavier as I came into Franklin, PA and soon I was part of a long line. I've got to start hauling my ass out of bed a little earlier so I can avoid this crap but I've been surfing my new favorite web site E2. I swung by the YMCA to check out any of the nice looking young moms that might be out taking their little ones to day-care. I lost my regular parking spot and almost hit that guy. I yelled out the window, "Almost got you." He faked a polite laugh. He moved pretty quick for an old guy. I hoped like hell the first pot of coffee wasn't spent once I got inside.

Another boring physics lecture made tolerable - if not exciting - by her. I'm fairly confident she doesn't read e2, so I'll be elaborating more as things come along.

Quiz today. TA had our old quiz and homework stacked in a pile in the front. She got my papers for me - and I didn't ask! She is kind!

Thank God for small favors.

She even says "gesundheit" instead of the traditional "(God) Bless You." It is very refreshing to experience variation.

this is for real

weill in japan: day 01

Here we go.

I write this from the desk of my room in Tokyo. My host family has graciously let me stay for an extra night before my study abroad program officially begins on July 4. This is my first time ever in Japan, and also the first time that I have done a homestay for anywhere near this long (45 days).

For me, day 1 started on Tuesday, July 2, at 6:03 AM Eastern Daylight Time, and will end sometime around 11:00 PM Japan Standard Time on Wednesday, July 3. My flight today was easily the longest that I've ever taken, but I survived. Now the real challenges begin.

em japonês

My flight on Tuesday morning was actually the continuation of a flight from São Paolo, Brazil. This meant that our 747-400 would be packed with passengers, even though the terminal at JFK International Airport in New York was nearly empty. After I got on board the plane, I noticed that someone was sitting in my designated seat. Seeing the opportunity to apply my years of Japanese study, I started "Sumimasen...," or "Sorry..." I got back a reply that I believe was mostly Portuguese, conveying the fact that this passenger had switched seats with me. She guided me to my seat, and I humbly sat down. There's no sense in having an argument in many languages at once.

Japan has an increasing number of Portuguese speakers, due to the return of emigrants who left Japan for Brazil and other points in South America. On a more practical note, this made the flight a surreal trilingual experience, as announcements were repeated in English, Japanese, and Portuguese. I've never seen anything like it.

JAL is a pretty good airline, from my extremely limited experience with them. The food isn't much to speak of, but the in-flight entertainment is incredible. Every seat has a personal video monitor in it, and even in coach there were 10 movies and several other programs being run on loops. It wasn't until about an hour into the flight when I figured out how to switch the spoken language to English, which is good because "Crossroads" doesn't get any better with Japanese dialogue. The remote doubles as a game controller, so I also passed time by playing little games like Freecell and Solitaire that were built in to the unit. In the information about this system, I read that Executive Class members can play Sega Genesis games on request. Genesis games! I wonder how much it will cost to upgrade my return flight.

For much of the flight, my favorite channel was probably the "map and trip information channel," which featured various map displays of our route and progress along with information about altitude, outside temperature, speed, and most importantly remaining time. I did watch "Ali" in pieces three separate times, and now I've seen the whole movie somehow.

Fortunately for me, most of the passengers on our flight had to go to Quarantine Control since Brazil is on the list of countries that are suspect for transmitting infectious diseases. That made passport control go very smoothly, as I correctly answered the agent's only question ("Nyuuyooku kara kita?" Did you come from New York?) with a succinct answer ("Hai." Yes.) to get me on my way. Getting baggage was no sweat, and then it was off to the next part of my first-day adventure.

Did I mention that I pretty much didn't sleep at all on the plane? First mistake.

riding the rails

Let me just say that Japan's railway system is insanely comprehensive, blanketing the entire country. The rail rules here, as evidenced by a one-lane street which was intersected by an eight-track rail crossing. More than 30 lines cover the Tokyo metropolitan area, and that's not counting the shinkansen "bullet trains" that provide connections to neighboring cities. The Narita Express goes from the airport terminal directly to the central Tokyo station in roughly an hour.

The N'EX, as the Narita Express is abbreviated, is a fantastic service, and I was very surprised at the assistance I received. After buying my ticket, I went down to the platform where a woman asked to see my ticket. She then pointed out, in English, that I was in Car 3, Row 5, Seat D, and that I should walk down the platform to the Car 3 entrance. This is pleasantly surprising because:

  1. Japanese people, particularly while on trains, have a reputation for not talking to anyone they don't already know.
  2. The train has assigned seating.
  3. The tickets are distributed across cars evenly to prevent overcrowding.

The N'EX has spaces at each end of the car for luggage, and overhead racks hold extra carry-on items. The seats are in a 2-2 configuration, with huge open spaces in the aisles and between rows of seats. I don't think first class cabins have this much room. Each seat also has a button and lever to recline, although I couldn't possibly go to sleep. The suburban cityscape, with its 7-Eleven and Sports Authority stores, slowly faded into an urban setting before we went underground. Two LED signs at the front of the car displayed weather and news headlines in Japanese and English. Another LED sign showed the train's progress. At the beginning of the ride, the announcer read off the current time, the list of stops, and the time at which we would reach every stop. The fact that they don't even consider delays gave me a lot of confidence.

The LED signs provided a nice touch, although they were not used most of the time. One time, several stations before Tokyo, the following message appeared on the top screen in all capital letters, in English:


I gathered my things expecting that the train was experiencing problems and needed to be serviced at the next station. However, the other passengers did nothing. The train stopped at Tokyo without incident. I guess that the message is meant to discourage people from staying on the trains past the end of the line.

On board, the conductor doffed his cap and bowed upon entering our car, where he proceeded to stamp passengers' tickets. A woman walked by with a beverage cart, so I bought a little bottle of water to cool myself down. Trains are air-conditioned, but most of the stations are outside in the hot and humid summer air. Then, at Tokyo, the fun began.

The Japan Railways system has a unique way of handling transfers. You hold onto your ticket and adjust your fare before exiting. Fare adjustment is done by inserting one's ticket into a vending machine and paying the amount indicated. If your fare has not been adjusted, you will not be allowed to leave your destination station. I did not know this, and so spent about ten minutes pacing the Tokyo station in search of a ticket vending machine. Eventually, I stopped at a booth marked "Tickets" where two gentlemen were sitting, and had this conversation (in Japanese).

Me: Hi. How do I get a ticket to Asagaya?
Agent: Do you have a ticket?
Me: No, I need a ticket.
Agent: How did you arrive at Tokyo?
Me: I took the Narita Express.
Agent: Do you have that ticket?
Me: I don't have a ticket.
Agent: Do you have one of these? (holds up a ticket which looks nothing like a Narita Express ticket)
Me: No. I need to buy one. Can I buy one from you?
At this point, the other agent at the table desides to try his luck.
Agent #2: Do you have your Narita Express ticket?
Me: Yes. (fishes it out, gives it to agent)
Agent: Okay, use this ticket.
Me: Use this ticket to go on the Chuo line?
Agent: Yes.
Me: Okay, thank you.

This is stuff that is not taught in Japanese classes, but should be. I got on the train, expecting to be thrown out by a conductor for not having a valid ticket.

My host family is closest to Asagaya station, a small station in Tokyo. To get there, I had to take the Chuo Line. Little did I realize that there are four Chuo Lines: Chuo Special Rapid, Chuo Rapid, Chuo Commuter Rapid, and Chuo/Sobu Local. I got on a Chuo Rapid car, and quickly noticed that it was skipping two out of every three stops. Fearing that little Asagaya station would also be skipped, I got out at Nakano station, two stops before the local train would hit Asagaya, in the hopes of catching a local train. On the opposite platform was a local train, but I couldn't tell where it would be going. As I stood looking at it, a passenger from the train came up to me and asked, in English, "You OK?" I asked him whether that train went to Asagaya station, and he said "No. That one did," pointing to the train we had both just left. We shared a laugh, and waited a few minutes for the next Chuo Rapid train. This was surprising because:

  1. Japanese people, particularly while on trains, have a reputation for not talking to anyone they don't already know.
  2. This person got off the train exclusively to help me.

Karma collection formula: help confused foreigners with subway lines, get karma. I had a similar experience in Paris five years ago, when an elderly French woman guided my friends and I to the right platform in broken English.

The only downside to the JR system: like many things in Tokyo, it's very expensive. My ticket from Narita to Tokyo was ¥2940 ($24.50) and the adjustment to Asagaya was another ¥340 ($2.83). That's a far cry from the $2.00 that the Pittsburgh Airport Flyer bus charges.

home life

My host mother picked me up at the station, and I loaded everything into her huge van. Not even in the U.S., home of gas-guzzling SUVs, do I often see such enormous vans. Appropriately named "ELGRAND," it held my luggage. I sat in the front left seat, which is the passenger seat in Japan. The thrill of being in the "driver's seat" and not driving wore off very quickly.

My homestay is at an unassuming house in the Suginami ward of Tokyo. I got out on the street and unpacked my luggage, then watched my host mother park this impossibly large van into an impossibly tiny garage. I should get out there and measure it: there is easily less than six inches of clearance around the van except on the right side. On the right side, there is just enough clearance for the driver to open the door and climb into the house or squeeze through the opening to exit the garage.

Like many Japanese homes, my homestay contains a mix of Japanese and Western styles. There is one large tatami room, with a floor that contains only cushions on top of straw mats, with sliding rice-paper doors. Most of the other rooms look contemporary and Western, with chairs, full-size tables and modern conveniences. Digital remote controls are everywhere, including on the air conditioner in my bedroom, the downstairs toilet, and the ofuro (Japanese bath). Frankly, I'm kind of scared to use the downstairs toilet for fear of pushing the wrong button. The toilet upstairs is also Western-style, although its only distinctive feature is a sink on top of the basin. Understanding how to use the Japanese bath will take a few days at least, but I'll get used to it. It is apparent that at least my host family's bath has been influenced by the Western showers that I know and love.

high anxiety

I didn't eat much today, although I never do when I'm flying. Once I got off the train, the only big question mark would be how I would get along with my host family. Food is my biggest worry, since I tend to be a very picky eater at home. I expect to lose about five to ten pounds during my six-week stay, but that's not a goal. That's a side effect.

I took a three-hour nap after arriving, since I was completely exhausted from lugging my suitcase from station to station. I dreamed about trains, and about connecting from one to the next to the next without missing one. It was not a good rest. Afterwards, I went downstairs to meet my host father and have some dinner. I didn't eat much, and I hope that I didn't offend my host mother in doing so.

At the pre-departure orientation on campus for study abroad students, advisor Eva Mergner warned that conditions like depression and anxiety "will be exacerbated" by the initial culture shock. Although I have not been clinically diagnosed with depression nor anxiety, I have been known to get very anxious. This, for me, is a period of high anxiety. The anxiety is not related to academics, but rather to daily life. I only hope that the shock wears off.

It's been a tough first day. Thursday, I head to ICU for registration.

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