Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Semper Gumby

A friend of mine, a Navy wife stationed in Japan where my family lived for the past five years, described the last month as a roller coaster ride. This seems like an accurate analogy except most people have never been on one that doesn't provide a restraint system.

This is the United States military. You jump on and after 20 years of flying upside-down through dark caves, feet dangling in space…you are allowed to get off, i.e. retire. Most military folk and their families love the thrill of adventure and quickly become accustomed to the sharp drops and stomach lurches that accompany a deployment or stressful move across oceans.

When the ride gets scary, though, we Navy people tend to follow the Marine Corp's motto. No, not Semper Fidelis, or Always Faithful. Rather, Semper Gumby. Always Flexible. I met a couple in Japan who told me their story of moving from California to North Carolina. While stopped at a hotel in Mississippi overnight, they received a call that, oops, they were needed in Japan instead. Operation Semper Gumby thus commenced.

Flexibility is crucial for surviving military life. This trait has recently been heavily called upon to get people through the trio of disasters that have literally rocked Japan to its core. Military personnel stationed there have been very lucky. The earthquake only rattled nerves and broke a few dishes. Although heart-broken for the Japanese people, our family was overjoyed to hear that our close circle of Japanese and American friends remained safe.

Then, the ride took a turn into a completely different, not-so-amusing park. Concern started to mount about the extremely likely possibility of a nuclear melt-down. Although roughly 200 miles south of the Daichi reactors, the base could still be affected if the wind shifted. In less than a day, the schools shut down and Navy families were instructed to pack their lives into one bag each, leave all their household items and wait to be transported out of the country. With the active duty member deployed in the relief effort or just remaining behind to do work, this meant that most evacuees would be traveling alone with their children, unsure of where exactly they were going or when they would see their spouse again.

Rumors spread like wildfire, practically a fourth disaster. The base might close forever. People’s households, left behind, might get contaminated. Would they ever see their things again? Would they ever be able to return to Japan? Trying to get their affairs in order in under 24 hours, most people wept at the thought of having to leave without saying goodbye…to their friends, to the country they had come to love, to the life they had built. For many of their children, Japan was the only home they had ever known or remembered.

In the end, the evacuation was voluntary. Most families with children decided to return to family in the states until the nuclear risk had abated. Although military families always enjoy a trip back in the summer to see friends and family (and more importantly, to shop at Target and eat at Chik-Fil-A) this time the mood had changed. Life took on a quasi “refugee” status. Neither here nor there and hauling bags from relative to relative, many lived the vagabond life--with no knowledge of when they would be able to return to Japan, to normalcy.

As I write this at the end of April, the government has allowed family members to travel back to Japan. Many are jubilant. Some are confused. Without any substantive knowledge about how long their exile would last, many parents enrolled their kids in school in the states. Now they face the decision about whether to twist the children’s lives in a knot…again. At this point, no matter what happens, everyone just wants to get off this insane ride.

For those who have returned in the last few days, they have celebrated the best part of military life: the reunion. They are “home”, not just with their spouses but within a country unlike any other. Many Americans prefer to stay in Japan because their Japanese neighbors have been so kind to them. Random Japanese citizens have helped jumpstart our car at IKEA in Tokyo after valiantly searching for jumper cables for thirty minutes. As we have stood bewildered in a station, they have stopped to ask us if we needed help. They oftentimes discontinued their own travels to direct us to the correct train. In broken English, they have complimented my husband on his “nice women” while waiting patiently to take pictures with our girls.

These experiences are almost universal for those military personnel willing to venture beyond the base gates. We have been warmly welcomed into Japanese homes and fed deliciously bizarre foods. (Pickled octopus, anyone?) One friend of mine even gave my husband and me a two-day private tour of Kyoto. She wouldn’t allow us to help pay for the rental car or meals because she was “returning the favor” of Americans having been so kind to her family when her family had lived in the United States many years ago. Twenty years later, that kindness circumnavigated the world and manifested as one of the best weekends of my life. Americans are good folk, too.

In the end, it didn’t surprise me that our Japanese friends politely rejected our invitation to come visit us during this turbulent time. Predictably, they are managing just fine. Due to gas shortages, they don’t mind walking because it’s “healthier”. Lacking their beloved rice, they are “enjoying” pasta and potatoes. Even as their country endures a prolonged mourning, they write to tell me about how they are enjoying the cherry blossoms. In the end, each one thanked our family warmly for our offer but explained that they are content to follow their government and their “destiny”…and that is to make do with what they have, where they are, at this moment.

This attitude gives me hope for them, as their broken country heals…but also for the many American service people who continue to veer haphazardly through space and time, oftentimes with only thin strands of flexibility and commitment holding them fast to their seats. All in all, both situations remind me of a Japanese saying:

“Fall down seven times, rise up eight.”

Semper Gumby, indeed.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Throwing Out the Baby

Once upon a time, a baby was born. He was a typical baby, adorable in every way. His parents were a bit disappointed in him, though. He possessed many endearing qualities but they couldn't keep him from pooping, peeing and puking. So, they washed him in a little tub every so often. Dismayed that the water was always filthy after his soak, they decided the baby was the main problem. He would have to be pitched with the dirty water. But first, they scolded him heavily for having a far too liberal agenda. The end.

Once upon a time, a baby was born. He was a typical baby, adorable in every way. His parents were a bit disappointed in him, though. He possessed many endearing qualities but they couldn’t keep him from pooping, peeing and puking. So, they washed him in a little tub every so often. Dismayed that the water was always filthy after his soak, they decided that the water was the main problem. They cursed the water supplied by rich conservatives and the baby grew up thinking that he could not possibly be responsible for the dirty water he was sitting in. The end.

Once upon a time, a baby was born. He was a typical baby, adorable in every way. Although he was a handful, his parents loved him. He possessed many endearing qualities but he would not stop pooping, peeing and puking. They realized, of course, that shit happens. So they bucked up, washed him in a little tub every so often, disposed of the dirty water, dressed him in clean clothes every night and cheerfully started over the next day. They didn’t blame the rich people in the mega mansion on the other side of town who complained about supplying the water nor did they demonize the poor family one block over who griped about only getting a trickle, mostly because they didn’t know either family very well. Plus, they were moderates and therefore sane. The end.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Little Deaths

For some reason, I haven’t written in my blog for several months. I have written several essays about Japan’s recent suffering and how its essential nature will allow it to eventually triumph. I submitted them to the Denver Post. Much to my delight, I received a phone call on a Thursday asking me to send in my photo because one of the columns would probably run in the Sunday paper, if the editor could “find the space”. She sounded very hopeful.

So was I, of course, because that’s what you are when a dream is about to come true, right? On Sunday morning, I sprinted in my bare feet across the frigid driveway to grab the paper. I spread it out on the kitchen table and looked through the op-ed section. Nothing. How about the regional section? The Arts? The Sports, for crying out loud?

You know the answer. Although the scenario is slightly akin to scurrying downstairs on Christmas morning to find an empty stocking and no presents under the tree, feeling sorry for myself doesn’t seem to matter much. After all, there are people on the other side of the world whose loved ones are still missing beneath a torrent of mud. So, my dream got a little dusty. Big deal.

Here’s the crux of the matter, though: Rejection really sucks. Like, literally. Even life’s little sorrows steal the breath right out of you sometimes. You know that the odds are against you and that failure looms large on the horizon. Somehow, magical thinking overtakes this logic and convinces you that the impossible is quite possible. You take the plunge with nary a thought to the psychic consequences.

It might be a comedy act floundering in front of a tough crowd or a boy getting turned down by his crush or an apology rebuffed…the fact remains that when you put your heart out there, the inevitable squashing of it smarts like hell. Your mind, of course, warned you. Justified, it immediately starts up that old 45 with the skip in it, the one that invariably gets stuck on the annoying refrain: “I Told You So, You Stupid Idiot”.

Poor heart. It dies a little for being so wrong. No one likes death, not even a miniscule amount of one. Deaths, including the petite variety, are scary because our logical brains inform us that the darkness is unknowable and permanent. Faced with this fact, the heart retrenches. It makes perfect sense for the mind to protect its dominion, especially the vulnerable bits.

Apparently, it also makes absolute sense to add more grease to an already raging fire of self-doubt, since I was thinking about this “fact” the other day while running. (“Running” is a loose term for what I do. Realistically, I jog phlegmatically.) I’ve been training for a 10K for the last three months. At this point, I’m running three 17 minute cycles with a minute rest in between which is the longest I’ve ever gone.

A few days ago, two minutes into the third interval, I quickly began to lose my will. My mind, perfectly dressed for the occasion and not the least out of breath, jogged up beside me and commenced its logical tirade, in a polite whisper at first:

“Excuse me, Nancy. It is Nancy, right? Do you remember me? We haven’t talked very often since the girls were born.”

“Uh, huh”, I panted in reply, “What do you want?”

“Um, yeah, I thought I should let you know that this is painful. Why don’t you just cut it out?”

“I know. This is crazy. I’m almost there, though,” I replied, my voice wavering with exhaustion.

Like a dog sizing up a tentative mailman, Brain sensed weakness and fear. His tone got a little more snippy and insistent.

“Nancy, come on now. Really. You are not an athlete. You’re closer to a writer and look where that’s gotten you. Why don’t you just be realistic?”

“I know, right? A 10K does seem like a bit much. I’m thinking 5K is more doable. But I really want to do this.”

Brain sighed deeply. “For Pete’s sake, the old dude walking behind you in the plaid shorts and black knee socks is practically lapping you. Your pace has dropped by a full minute and a half. Just stop and get some water and rest. What are you trying to prove?”

Slowing down further, I considered the reasoning. “You have a point. What will happen on race day? I don’t think I can do this. I’m going to get halfway done and have to walk. That will be beyond embarrassing.”

“Exactly!” exclaimed my brain. “Why don’t you just stop at that water fountain up there and take a long rest?”

I veered off the track and stopped. After a quick drink, I forced myself to start jogging again. Since I was now running practically at a standstill, Brain, who had been left regarding his fingernails at the fountain, caught up and passed me. Then, the little jerk turned around and starting jogging backwards--all the while lecturing me, with his hands on his hips (and not a drop of sweat on his condescending brow).

“Seriously, you gave it your best, kid. Really. You’re barely a jogger and definitely not a runner. You can finish the last 13 minutes some other day. It’s no big deal. Just quit. No one will know, except you and me.”

Beaten down and incredibly weak, I weighed my options. Obviously, it was time for something radical. I looked past the naysayer loping ahead of me, tilted my head to the ceiling and actually…prayed. This is strange because I don’t often feel comfortable petitioning God on my own behalf. I certainly don’t do it while I’m running. But here’s what I said, pleaded even:

“Oh, God. Just let me finish. I just want to finish today. I don’t care about the 10K. I just want to finish, TODAY. Please, God. Help me suffer just 13 more minutes. It’s just 13 stinking minutes of my life. People suffer all the time, for much longer and for much more important reasons. I can slow down even more. I simply can’t quit. I really want to quit. So bad. But I’ve done all this painful work and now I just want to finish these FU#&ING 13 LOUSY MINUTES!! OKAAAY?!”

About a minute later, a lightning bolt hit me. Not a hot smiting one, which would be expected (and, let’s face it, deserved)…but a cold one. My whole body lost warmth and went tingly. I started running faster. I could breathe. My legs felt light. As my mind became quiet, I picked up my pace. By the time I passed the five minute mark, I was running, incredibly, two and a half minutes faster than before.

My heart did a brief happy dance at the finish line…something akin to Elaine’s awkward display on Seinfeld. It was definitely more exuberant than skilled.

Brain might have called this miracle a “runner’s high”. I couldn’t find him, though, to ask what he thought. I have no idea what happened to him. He just faded away. I’ve run this interval set again since then. He popped his head around the corner of the track and yelled, “Hey, you. You suck”, and then wandered off somewhere, probably to get a pina colada protein shake at the juice bar. He loves those things. My guess is, he’ll be back in force when the intervals climb to two 30 minute cycles. Until then, I’m enjoying the peace from the arrogant little bugger.

This mini victory has started me thinking that I need to approach writing like I do running. I can’t quit when that logical voice starts its fire and brimstone sermon: “Nancy, decidedly, your cup does not overfloweth. You can’t even get published in the Denver Post. Therefore, you can’t even think about writing a book. What are you going to write about? Your credentials are an abomination. You didn’t graduate from Princeton or Stanford with a writing degree. There are thousands of real writers out there who can’t get published. Get over thyself!”

Oh, Brain, why don’t you get over yourself? My heart might be a tad timid but I now understand that you can be silenced. It will just take practice…and quite possibly some irreverent prayer. Maybe I will never become a “real” writer, but on account of these seemingly insignificant sufferings, I have learned some important personal “facts”:

Entrenchment is not an option. And, out of these little deaths, I will find life. I just have to keep running towards it.