Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Letting Go…

…is easy, but having it all yanked from under you is another story. A story that will come a bit later…

The day’s adventure began with the manager of our seedy hotel shouting something at us from outside our door. Again, we hadn’t a clue as to what it was, but he shut up and disappeared when Big Dog asked “Que hora?” It’s hard to believe I do so well with my nearly nonexistant Spanish in Mexico!

The streets of Alajuela were buzzing with activity. Shops were opening, sidewalk vendors setting up… Too many belching diesel vehicles were a blot against the “pura vida” touted by the tourism board.

We cabbed back to the rentacar office, got our ugly Toyota Yaris with manual shift, and hit the highway with only a rudimentary map of the country. But, if Big Dog is the Natural Born Driver, I am the Natural Born Navigator. I don’t need no stinking map! My built-in GPS will find our way!

Getting the car on Highway One was a feat in itself – forcing ourselves into a roundabout with no traffic signs and buzzing vehicles everywhere – but once on the road, you could, potentially, drive all the way back to California. We were not going that far north, but Guanacaste, the region we were heading, is near the Nicaraguan border, so north we went, traveling on the “spine” of Central America. It’s the continuation of the Continental Divide, nearly the narrowest point, here.

The hills of San Ramon, outside of Alajuela, were verdant with coffee plantations, banana tress, ferns, vines and lovely tropical plants. Green and shrouded in mist, it’s a coffee commercial come to life! You expect to see Juan Valdez emerging from the bushes. It was all making me salivate for a good cup of joe.

CR was just shimmying out of her rainy season, small drizzles coming down here and there. It’s cool but jungly and I am captivated by trees I have never seen the likes of. Trees with long, wavy, shiny-smooth trunks and branches that looked like Grace Jones and Naomi Campbell, dipped in silver, engaged in a slow, sensual dance.

I was surprised and a bit disappointed to see the sides of the road cluttered with billboards. It’s a very commercial country, I guess. But the houses are similar to those I’ve seen in rural Mexico: brightly painted cinderblock homes covered in corrugated sheet metal. The sheet metal moguls must be rich men in this country! Almost every roof is corrugated metal. What must it sound like during the rainy season?!

Just before noon, we pulled into a roadside restaurant for coffee and an early lunch. BD got a casado with “beefsteak” and I had an arroz con pollo. The casado was a not a casserole as we thought, but a giant plate with fried steak, fried egg, white rice, steamed squash and fried plantain. Mine was a surprisingly bland, greasy chicken fried rice with french fries and a macaroni salad.
“Mmmm. Carbo load!”
The coffee was, disappointingly, instant coffee.
“All over Central and South America, if you order coffee, you usually get instant. Probably Nescafe,” explained Big Dog. No wonder he bought stock in Nestle long ago!
“But why? When they have all this great coffee?”
“It’s all exported.”

I’m sure there are places now that serve real coffee, unlike when BD was last here (in the mid-70’s) but it wasn’t at this roadside rest stop.

As the road descended further, it got a whole lot steamier. And there were more and more billboards for condos and resorts. We’re ruining the country! I wailed. We, meaning visitors from industrialized nations. We’ve seen all too many idyllic tropical paradises destroyed by rampant, careless tourism. First, backpackers and others “discover” a place. We don’t think we’re responsible for the destruction of a beach or an island because we travel “within” the economy. We don’t need tourist class hotels or restaurants, don’t need silly tourist oriented “activities.” But I’m beginning to think we’re really to blame because we spread the word and then more and more people appear. The locals begin making money from the visitors. More and more money. More money than they could imagine. $$$ signs light up in their eyes. Peaceful relationships become strained – between the locals and visitors, and among the locals themselves because some will be better able to cash in on tourist dollars than others. Next, they start building more and more upscale accommodations, followed by “resorts.” They put in airports so people can fly directly – no more long, hairy bus rides! It really goes to hell when foreign development appears. Foreigners appear with money to buy property. Prices skyrocket and while some get very rich, others can no longer afford to live here. Resentment, bad vibes and crime usually follow.

“It was great here in 1973,” Big Dog kept saying.
I’ll bet! When anything south of Mexico was a big unknown among most North Americans. When most people couldn’t imagine going south of Acapulco. Those days are long gone. The coastal areas of this country are all overrun with gringos of all sorts – from the dreadlocked kids to the geriatrics. There are resorts for every sort of gringo and gringa.

At the Liberia turnoff, we found a shopping center with banks and stores and a Jumbo Supermercado. It was busy, packed with cars getting in and out. We slid into a slot nearly vacated and wandered into the supermarket. For the number of cars in the parking lot, there were few shoppers in the supermarket. Odd.

Loaded with staples and goodies for our six week stay, we came out to a giant downpour. It was raining so hard you could hardly see. People were jammed underneath the awnings and there was confusion everywhere. We quickly threw in the groceries onto the back seat and continued toward the coast. Now, there was even more new construction. New buildings, lots of real estate offices, billboards advertising so much more to come – all signs of a tourist induced land boom.

As you get closer to the coast, the road narrows and gets kinkier. Little shacks and shops pop up. It looked like rural Philippines.

You can tell the locals are trying to cash out on the land boom. People with large lots have already sold out to developers, but now, even the local schmo with a tin roof shack is selling his tiny plot because none of them can believe these tourists are crazy enough to spend that kind of money, but, hey, while the insanity continues…let’s get our hands on some of that crazy money!

“Juan! Dump those pigs! We can sell that pig sty to those loco tourists!”

We didn’t realize we passed our condo until we spot a sign further up for Phase 2 of the development. It’s a strange little complex with a strange ghost town feel. Strange, because it’s not the ghost of days gone by, but the ghost of what’s yet to come. A handful of workers are working on a building next door and the hills are littered with construction projects.

Are we hanging out here for a month and a half? I’m not feeling very confident. Six 2-story buildings, each with 4 units, corral around a pool like a circle of covered wagons. There was no one in the pool and aside from a couple of security guards, the complex looked deserted.

Inside the unit, it’s not bad. Modern kitchen, all new furniture…not at all the funkiness we were used to. The whole complex felt very sterile, except for strange insect casings on the floor. We wondered why our friend bought this place.

We hauled in our groceries, first. While I got those in the fridge, Big Dog went out for the luggage in the trunk of the car. He was already on the way back, empty handed, when I went out to help.

“Did you already bring in our stuff?” he looked at me quizically.
I didn’t understand why he’s asking. “No… I just brought in the groceries…” Like, duh?! Like, you think I can haul up the other stuff in one go?
He opened the trunk for me. It was clean and…absolutely empty. Say what?! That’s impossible!
“Gone,” he said.
“Everything? Even the spare tire?”
“No, the spare tire and jack are still there.”
How could it be? The car was always completely locked or within our sight! In fact, even as we took in our groceries, after pondering for a brief second, I locked the doors. But, there it was. The trunk, as empty as when we inspected it this morning.

So now, EVERYTHING. And I mean EVERYTHING…except for the clothes and shoes we were wearing, Big D’s wallet (in his pocket) and my little purse (slung across me) was gone. G-O-N-E. Gone.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Getting Out (of LA)

There’s a light drizzle as we touch down in San Jose, Costa Rica, after two long but uneventful flights. Since we waited til the last minute to book these flights there were no more aisle seats and Big Dog’s been fidgety even before we board.

We’d been able to pack our supplies and clothes for our six-week stay into our respective backpacks and computer bags. They were stuffed and heavy with books and clothes and graphic supplies and my little traveling kitchen (never leave home without those long cooking chopsticks!) and my “studio-in-a-box” – a tackle case with recorder, digital converter, cables, professional mic and great headphones. No, we weren’t traveling light, at least not for us, but we packed well. So, instead of a shuttle or a cab, we were able to take the city bus from our condo to the LAX transit station, then a short shuttle to the airport.

The immigration process in Costa Rica is simple but long. There are planeloads of tourists, after all. I am a bit taken aback by 1) Russian Blondie who tries to cut in front of us – I have to belt her back, and 2) all the posters telling tourists that “It’s illegal to have sex with people under 18.” What kind of country is this? I never knew it was a magnet for pedophiles!

Once outside, there is a bit of Manila. Lots of people hustling. Hotel? Taxi? Hotel? Taxi? And as many stinky diesel vehicles as 20th century Bangkok.

We had befriended a fresh-faced young lady from Nebraska on the last flight – a film major grad, no less – and offered her a ride to her hotel in Alauela.

“My parents made me book a hotel since the plane was arriving late.”
Smart parents.
“I found this really nice place. I’ll bet they still have room there, too, if you want to try it,” she added.

We shuttled to the rentacar office, in a gated, security-manned complex shared by Denny’s and the Hampton Inn. I was surprised to see the thickness of American influence here – from the planes filled with Americans, to the chain hotels, fast food franchises… Quite a change from Mexico, where you’d expect to see more, not less, because of geographic proximity. I guess geographic does not equal cultural, social or political. Just look at how different the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans are from each other!

As I suspected (and told Miss Nebraska – “we have a rentacar booked, but we’ll see if we actually get it…”) Big D got angry at having to pay “mandatory” insurance on top of the daily rate and when he found out it included TODAY (already close to midnight) he told them we’ll be back in the morning – maybe – and we piled into a cab.

“Too bad it’s after dark and you can’t see anything,” Miss Nebraska commented, as the taxi wound through tiny streets, rollercoastering up and down some hills.

When we finally got to the hotel, Miss Nebraska’s friend and the hotel staff herded her in, eying us suspiciously. There were apparently no more vacant rooms here and when Big Dog asked where there might be another hotel, the staff just waved to his right. Crap. We quickly waved goodbye to Miss Nebraska and pack muled down the dark and deserted streets of Alajuela.

This was not Asia. There were no lit up signs anywhere.

“Aren’t you glad we opted for backpacks?” I asked Big D as I jumped off another steep curb, making sure I missed the deep puddles next to it.

He’s carrying the same green backpack that’s traveled the world since the late 70’s. Mine is the one he bought for his pre-teen daughter around the same time.

After several blocks, we stopped.
“We can’t just wander around aimlessly like this! We could be walking forever!” huffed Big D.
“Look! There’s someone!” I pointed to an old man, coming down the empty street.
“Donde esta un hotel?” we asked. Big D had to repeat it a few times.
“Hotel!” He finally got it and began rattling off in soft, slurry Spanish that was impossible for me to understand. I am used to the Spanish that people in the state of Jalisco, Mexico speak. It’s a crisper, better-enunciated Spanish. This Costa Rican slush was difficult for Big D as well, and he actually SPEAKS it. So, after asking Old Man several times, he only had a vague clue as to what the guy was saying, but we followed that clue into the darkness.

“Are you sure he said ‘this way’?”
“I could hardly understand what he was saying!”

Several blocks later, we found a slightly younger man, but by the time we realized what state he was in, it was too late. He’s as drunk as a skunk, making no sense (in any language, I’m sure) and now has enlisted another drunk buddy to help us by following us and shouting incomprehensibly.

Sheesh. Wandering around cluelessly in a strange town, stalked by drunks. Great.

After a while, we were at a park (good sign! Lots of things are around parks!) and even better, there was a small police station at one end.

They point us in another direction, but this time, several blocks later, voila. A “hotel” sign.

The door led to steep slippery steps that took you up to a grated window. Only when we got there did we realize what kind of hotel it was. Ladies of a certain profession were in varying stages of intimacy with their respective “friends” in the lobby. THAT kind of hotel. But did we care? Not at midnight in Alajuela, that’s for sure. The price was right, the room way in the back that the toothy manager showed us looked bug-free enough and it was quiet. No blaring mariachi music here! No roosters or televisions either. So, we plopped down our bags, went to the lobby to buy a couple of beers (ladies and their friends were all gone by then.) We were tired but it looked like the beginning of a fine adventure. I was happy to be in a new place.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Yesterday was the quintessential Saturday in El-Lay Day for me.

10am. We're at the Santa Monica Recycle Center with our recycling. Our condo doesn't separate garbage, so when we're here, we have to take our recycling to the Center. Which happens to be right behind West LA's Cheapest Place For Gas.
"$3.09!" I shout to Big Dog.
"Ha HA!"
"Glad we filled up at Victory (Victory Blvd exit off the 405 has another Cheap Place For Gas.)"
"Yeah, how much was it there? $2.99?"
We get thrills from saving a few cents. In this case, it was 10 cents to the gallon, so we might have made a whopping $1.50 or so.

"You take the bottles to The Man while I deal with the rest," Big Dog tells me. I hate being TOLD what to do.
"I'm always taking the bottles. Why don't YOU do it sometimes?"
It's really not a big deal at all, but I hate waiting and on Saturdays, the Recycle Center is buzzing with the Shopping Cart Crowd. There's a long line waiting at the Weigh Station and I only have 24 bottles. I want to give them to one of the Shopping Cart Guys.

"There's a humongous line!" I shout to Big Dog who's flinging magazines into the Recycle Paper Dumpsters. "You still want to get money for these things?"
Are you kidding? Of course he does.

After the long wait at the Weight Station, there's another long wait at the Reimbursement Stand. The scruffy plastic palm trees on either side give it a beach shack ambiance.

"Hey, how do you say that thing on your shirt?" asks one of the Regulars. He's talking to a guy in a Pattaya, Thailand T-shirt.
"What thing?"
"That name that starts with a P."
"Dunno," he shrugs and walks away, cash in hand.
"It's PA-ta-ya," I say.
The Regular looks at me and says, "Oh, yeah. Shoulda asked you. You ever been there?"
"Yeah, years ago."
He eyeballs me some more. "You Thailanese?"
"No," I smile. "I was just visiting."

More Regulars show up and they all get into a lively discussion about how they get stopped by the police, how the carts attract attention but is the only way to haul huge loads, how one guy got cited for picking out ONE can out of a trash can… (read another related story here .)

It's finally my turn and I get my $1.31. It makes Big Dog happy.

10:45am and we're shopping for a few groceries at Trader Joe's. It's been a while since I had their Two Buck Chuck, so I get a bottle of $1.99 shiraz. The problem with Charles Shaw wines (and nobody calls them by that name -- they are 2-buck Chucks forever more) is that they are okay the first time around and some people may even go "Hey! Not bad for $2!" but every subsequent bottle tastes worse and worse. Then again, it's only $1.99, and it's been a while...

11:45am. Big Dog and I are sharing a giant Machaca Burrito from Benito's, our favorite taco stand. We are not burrito people, preferring tacos and taquitos, but their breakfast burritos are quite good…and cheap. Which makes it the perfect choice for us in this town that no longer has $1.99 breakfast specials. And neither Big Dog nor I think it's at all bizarre that we are perusing real estate magazines with multi-million dollar homes while we share a 3 dollar burrito.

12:30pm. It's busy at the library, too! Big Dog wanted to get some info on Costa Rica and the library is only a few blocks from Benito's. Someone's hogging the men's room so Big Dog has to use the Ladies' after I come out. Maybe it's some guy like our friend, C., in Lancaster who has no functioning plumbing in his house. C. goes to the nearby donut shop in the mornings for coffee, donuts and a dump. I often wonder how he showers. Or IF he does. We know he pees in his backyard. His whole neighborhood is going to hell, but he's right there in the conductor's seat with the rest of them!

7:30pm. Big Dog is driving around and around the La Brea Park apartment complex. It's a maze of townhouses and towers. There is no parking anywhere. After our third go-around, we spot a space and pull in. It's behind Tower 33. Dreamy Jeanie, our friend, lives in Tower 40. Will we ever find our truck again?

8:30pm. We are wandering through the exhibits at the Ace Gallery in mid-Wilshire. Dreamy Jeanie's niece works there and tonight is opening night for Lauren Bon's "Bees and Meat." There are installations of hundreds of honey jars stacked on giant shelves; honey pots hanging from the ceiling with lightbulbs, some of them filled with honey; a mountain of irrigation hose flowing down from the corner of a room; a dead animal covered in wax and honey dripping from a perpetual waterfall (honeyfall?); plexiglass cases of bees busily making their honey combs; a room with hive-like haystacks; another room filled with corn; a couple of bronze boxes; a tv monitor displaying a very grainy and badly shot video of a tractor going through a field…

Big Dog doesn't much like contemporary art so he's snickering throughout, but I think the video pisses him off. Dreamy Jeanie keeps saying, "Am I missing something here?" She doesn't like the dead animals. Her Pro Tennis Player friend doesn't say much.

9:30pm. We already walked the few blocks from Dreamy Jeanie's apartment to the gallery and now we're walking to a Mexican restaurant a few blocks from the gallery. It's SO not LA, but Tennis Pro grew up on the east coast, Jeanie is from Texas/Tokyo/Munich and we just like walking. Plus, it's the weekend before Halloween and there are a few costumers out on the town.

"I didn't get it," Jeanie drawls in that lovely Texan drawl that melts men's hearts. "I guess it's from growing up where there's so much grain."
We were talking about the Corn Room. Even I found it the most "bogus" of the installations -- I mean, what skill or even imagination does it require to fill a room with corn kernels? Sure it feels good but just go to the countryside -- anyone can swim through a silo of grain.
"You should make art videos," I tell Big Dog. "We can do a collaboration. You just shoot some video and I'll do an installation with it."

10:00pm. The Mexican restaurant Jeanie takes us to is a super-hip little joint in mid-Wilshire. It's the kind of place where you would never find a Mexican laborer dining. How could he afford the 4-6 dollar tacos? And how stupid are we for eating here? We don't need to "see" or "be seen." I figure there must be a surcharge for the beautifully funky/arty ceiling fans and the hip Hispanic waiters and waitresses because these are pretty sorry little tacos. Big Dog had two shredded beef tacos and I had a mahi mahi and a shrimp taco. I think Baja Fresh (fast food chain) serves better seafood tacos and they are a fraction of the price. But you don't look as cool with your taco at Baja Fresh, either.

From one spectrum of Los Angeles to the other -- all in 12 hours! Now, that's one fine day.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Destiny Is The Unconscious Will At Work

We all get the life we really want because destiny is merely the manifestation of the subconscious will.

Ever since I can remember, I wanted a life less ordinary. My mother believes it was all those hours as a toddler with my teeny nose in a book that made me crave "make believe." For me, it wasn't "make believe, "though. It was real. Or at least it COULD be. Throughout my life, I was astonished at all the things that others could not imagine themselves doing. I could and DID imagine it all -- from the most serene to the most horrific and everything in between -- and I tried to actually do as much of it as I could.

Even today, I am torn between roaming the world with all that I own in a single backpack and living in one place long enough to establish myself there. I want nothing more than a tent, but I also want my Dream House. I can't stay still long enough to establish a new career anywhere, but I dream of doing so many things! We drive by fields of strawberries and I want to run out there and get a job picking berries with the gang of non-English speaking workers. I love my furry friends at the ranch but hate to be tied down. The LA condo could certainly use a couch -- or any sort of chair, really -- but so far, I've opted to spend my time doing something other than couch shopping and we make do with a Very Spartan Condo.

When you love having multiple lives, you have to settle for a little bit of this, a little bit of that.

Sometimes people feel that they are stuck. Or that fate has thrown them a terrible curve ball. But how you feel about any of it is your choice. Since my priority is "Life Less Ordinary" even the really bad things, if they're unexpected, are great and I tend to just go with the flow. SURPRISE is much more interesting than SUCCESS. Consequently, my life has been filled with the delightfully unexpected, gone in directions I never even imagined.

We got into LA today. The bathroom seemed mysteriously grimy and then I realized that it was soot from the Malibu Fires that got in from the opened windows.

"You left the windows open because you WANTED to clean the bathrooms," you are laughing.
"Sure. It was your unconscious at work."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Last Day?

Is this really our last day at The Ranch this year? Big Dog wants to leave tomorrow for LA via The Dogfather's. And then South of the Border by the end of the month. We'll see. But in anticipation of departure, we've been picking up irrigation hoses, putting junk away in the barn, finding warm spots for the succulents and tidying up the place.

The best apples on the ranch are still burdening two trees, the pears are big and delicious, figs are ripening… There's chutney and jams and sauces and pies and pastries to make! The vegetables are at their peak. The raisins are drying nicely in the sun and the summer's sunflowers have produced tasty seeds. ("Are you feeding these to the birds?" asked JD last night. "No! They're for us to eat!" I yowled. The birds get the remaining 5 sunflowers and they can just pick the seeds off the plants because I'm NOT cleaning and roasting their seeds!)

And I am finally putting on a bit of weight! Hurray!

So why exactly are we leaving?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A few snapshots...

... from Humboldt.Trees! Trees! Trees!

Majestic redwoods...

Fern canyons...

Wetlands! Elk!

Driftwood on Gold Bluff Beach...

The sunset from our Arcata Victorian. It was such a bummer when our neighbors built a granny unit with a giant pitched roof...

"Mirror Car" cruising Eureka. Great way to recycle unwanted CDs!

Downtown Arcata...

It's still a Very Political Town.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Scents of A Journey

On the road again… PCH to Highway 46 to the 101 to 280 back to the 101… We left on Sunday, so there was considerable tourist traffic along the way, making Big Dog a little crazier. It wasn't until we were on 101, going through the Salinas Valley that the Natural Born Driver returned.

The Salinas Valley is Lettuce City right now. Romaine, red oak leaf, green curl, butter, iceberg…interspersed with broccoli and cauliflower. There is not much smell from lettuce, unlike the strawberries of Santa Maria that can bitch-slap you with their fragrance, but when you pass a broccoli field post-harvest. Pee eew! Rotting broccoli leaves smell just like the rotting cabbage leaves of the neighborhood farms around my house in Tokyo when I was growing up. Over the decades, all those cabbage fields have turned into housing developments and there are only a handful of them left, but boy, when I was a teenager…

Watsonville is Onionville this time of year and as you approached the area, the smell gets stronger and stronger. Gilroy is, of course, Garlic Capital of the World, but Sunday was a cool day so the garlic aroma was barely perceptible. On hot summer days, it's like driving through an Italian kitchen and during the Garlic Festival, you can get a mighty whiff even from planes flying high above.

When we're on the road, Big Dog calls out bad drivers, river, trains. I call out curiosities, animals, roadkill. We both bemoan how the Bay Area's spread, how San Jose has become LA North.

The Golden Gate Bridge is still breathtakingly beautiful, and after you slog through Marin County, you are in Wine Country. There are still grapes, unharvested, in the vineyards of Healdsberg and we see that the little winery just past our first hippie town of Hopland has changed the name of their wine from Recall Red to Disaster Relief Red.

More tie dye towns, more farmland, a few roadside attractions and we are behind the Redwood Curtain. It smells like Christmas, so you have to open your windows all the way and breathe deep. What a trip for an olfactory freak like me!

Saturday, October 13, 2007


A night in LA and then north to The Ranch for a brief layover.

It's Harvest Season at The Ranch. Our communal vegetable garden is a jungle of produce: kale, the last of the summer squash, white and purple eggplants, serano chilis, runner beans, peas, winter squash and tomatoes galore! Big fat heirlooms, teensy tiny cherry toms so sweet they could be dessert, juicy egg-shaped romas…

I love tomatoes. They are my all time favorite fruit. And vegetable. They are so sexy. I used to write erotic poems about tomatoes. (I was going to share some with you but I can't find them right now, so you'll have to wait.) And I could eat them forever. I would have been quite happy staying at the ranch, picking, eating, canning the luscious fruit, but we have to leave tomorrow for Redwood Country. I've gotten so good at letting go, never holding on -- to anything -- so saying goodbye to all these beautiful tomatoes at their peak induced only the faintest puff of a sigh.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Forward to the Past

If flying from Los Angeles to Tokyo is going back to the future, flying the opposite direction is going forward to the past.

Although it's only noon as I type this, I left Tokyo late this afternoon, wrapped in kinmokusei fragrance, feeling both light and melancholy at the same time.

My little nephew wouldn't kiss/hug me goodbye. At five, he was already too "depressed" about my leaving! He is so much like me, it's scary. Once, when the family was talking loudly about their phone ("The phone's broken!" "No it's not! It's the connection!" "But the buttons on the handset get stuck…" "It's the cable internet interfering!") he got really upset.

"Stop fighting!" he begged, wide-eyed and scared.

He's so sensitive to other people's emotions. A little argument affects him like a huge fight. Unfortunately, I'm a bit like that, too, although I try to suppress it. Big Dog gets upset quite frequently -- I don't think it's as big of a deal to him as it sounds to me, because it really sounds like he is upset in a Major Way when he rants and curses -- and each time, there's a knot in my stomach. I know it's just the way he is and wish it didn't affect me as much as it does. I was always secretly amazed and envious of staff who could go on without any of this affecting them the way it did me. "I must learn to stay calm like them," I'd think, but I never did. Each outburst still grinds down on me like walls caving in. So I understood poor Pupster's sadness and was sorry I couldn't really do anything about it except to promise him that I'd be back soon. How soon is soon enough for a five year old, though?

It's also been a long time since I've seen my mother so stressed out and unhappy, but as the days went by, she looked better and better. I just hope she can maintain the equilibrium for a while. It hurts not to be able to make things better for someone you love.

She, too, put on a brave face today, but when it got near time to leave, she got a bit teary eyed and it made my eyes well up, too.

All in all, though, it was a Very Good Visit. Reunions were filled with laughter and good vibes, I had a wonderful eat-a-thon this trip, unlike my last, and, most of all, I got to spend time with my family. These are what I miss most about not being in Japan: my family, my friends and the food. Maybe those are the ONLY things I miss! (OK, the ultra high-speed internet was really, really awesome!)

Best of all was that I was able to reaffirm why I was no longer in Japan. I don't need or want the work or the recognition or any of the frills and thrills that went along with my past life. I'm happy to be far, far away from the oppressive commercialism, the density, the less-than-perfect climate. Yes, Tokyo is a vibrant, exciting city. It has it's own wonderful energy, but as I walked around the familiar streets, I saw that that energy comes from money changing hands. When you live there, you get used to the soul crushing consumerism and just accept it, but once out, you realize how terribly unhealthy it is.

So, it was The Perfect Homecoming. I could have stayed a little longer, but it's better to leave while the leaving's good. You don't want to get too full, right? Nor do you want its seductive Siren song to drag you back down.

It's warm and sunny here in Santa Monica. And my smile is as wide as the blue sky.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Wabi Sabi

Autumn pounced on us suddenly yesterday. The humidity was gone, the air was crisp and sky, a lovely blue. The change was dramatic and shocking, but oh so Japanese.

The Japanese love telling people how one of the nicest things about Japan is that "it has four distinct seasons." I used to laugh and tell them, "You're not the only one. Europe has distinct seasons. So do many parts of the American Continent…" But I'm beginning to understand what they mean.

In Coastal California, the seasons are long and fuzzy. The rainy winter season might not be rainy at all. It can feel like summer for weeks. Summers can be chilly. Or freakishly hot. Many years it is both. I was amazed at how we had irises blooming for months! I think the last one bloomed in mid- or late-summer. The hydrangeas are still rioting. Wisteria are around forever.

Not so in Japan. Cherry blossoms come in late March or early April and bloom quite suddenly. Then, a week later, they abruptly scatter, carpeting streets, parks, neighborhoods in tissue pink. Azaleas have a slightly longer season, but you won't see any in the early spring or summer. We associate hydrangeas with the rainy season. When the rain is over (abruptly, one day) the hot humid summer jumps in and any hydrangeas still around will brown and wilt in a matter of days, if not hours.

Cut in, cut out. There are no long dissolves here.

It's nurtured a certain kind of sensibility in Japanese people. We love the melancholy associated with fleeting beauty. We dislike that which tenaciously hangs on. It's the kind of sensibility that created its own form of Buddhism, Zen. And kamikaze pilots. Life is beautiful because it's so temporary, so short.

The air now is filled with the sweet smell of kinmokusei. It's like jasmine and candy and a young girl's first perfume. A little piece of heaven for the hard working masses.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Nothing like a trip back to the homeland…

…to put it all in perspective.

I took a brief time out from my gluttony to go into town to meet a few business associates for the first time in nearly a year. These are people who, for whatever reason, had regarded me highly during my last life and as I got ready, I was suddenly struck with anxiety.

What if they think I've gotten dull and boring? What if they think I've lost the "spark"? I fretted as I put on a pair of skinny purple jeans and a black T-shirt. Is this too last season for Tokyo? I never worry about such minutia outside of Japan! My mother keeps joking about how I look like a farmer's wife and Big Dog amped my pre-departure insecurity by telling me "go get your hair done before you see anyone!" so I spent the morning cutting my hair in my mother's bathroom, chopping off the long ragged ends so I could look more "presentable."

"Hey, pretty good! You sure have improved your self-sufficiency skills!" I smile to myself, but the truth is that I didn't want to go to a salon. I've always had a problem with strangers doing stuff to my body, making it hard for me to find doctors, dentists, hairdressers. That was what I hated about doing television -- makeup artists I didn't know doing my face, my hair.

Normally, I have a pretty good self-image. I have grown to love the way I look and feel perfectly comfortable in my body, but today, I was filled with doubt. Will they think I look OLD? Japan has such a cult of youth and while I may look smashingly young in a mostly Caucasian world, I'm here in the land of eternal 20 year olds.

I used to crave assessment. I needed clients to tell me how wonderful I was, how they couldn't have done it without me. I worked like a dog (and not a bad one!) for that pat on the head. When I first left this life, that was the hardest thing for me to deal with. No matter what I did, there was no one to judge me -- good or bad. After I got used to it, though, it was so liberating.

I had kicked the habit, gone clean. But now, here was an encounter with that drug, again. Would it be the high I loved? Or would I OD? Making my way through the first train station, I look down and even my cute cheapo imitation Vans -- the ones with colorful hearts -- look incredibly tacky and…cheap. Everyone's wearing cool cowboy boots this fall. Why didn't I bring mine? What was I thinking?

Living where no one knows me or my illustrious (?) past has been liberating. I'm happy being whatever I want to be at the moment, gotten too used to people seeing me only for who I am, right here, right now. No past to have to live up to. In Tokyo, the inside of my mouth is ragged from nervous chewing.

To hide my discomfort and anxiety, I put on a more aggressive attitude. I scowl and swagger through my many train changes. I tire myself out. Thank god for the iPod! I pull out Flea (my iPod) to drown out the world but then realize that in this high tech city, my first generation iPod is an Antique! Sigh.

But soon, Ben Kweller is making me smile again and I shimmy through more transfers. No one else in this strait jacketed town is dancing solo on a subway platform but so what! Anxiety sure makes me do strange things.


My last appointment of the day was dinner with old friends from the music biz at our favorite French restaurant. Chef/owner Pierre, a long time resident of Tokyo, took one look at me and gasped, "What's wrong?! You've lost so much weight! You look like a child!" In youth obsessed Japan, however, the others didn't notice a thing.

Over dinner, we talked the usual talk. The "industry," current events, international relationships…our conversations meandered through lots of territory but it's as if I never left. No one wanted to hear about my new adventures, my new life. We talked and laughed for hours, and it's all fun and interesting, but ultimately meaningless.

As I walked alone in the dark to the nearest subway station, past the big cemetery where we used to have cherry blossom viewing parties, I realized that I no longer cared what they thought of me -- if I'd gotten soft, lost my former edge. I was no longer of any use to any of them anyway. And at that instant, I felt marvelously, deliciously free.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Gastronomic Adventures Part Two

Woke up with a migraine the likes of which I haven't had to suffer since…the last time I was in Tokyo? It's the dreary weather and my insomnia that's compounded by jet lag. It hasn't stopped drizzling since I got here and I am getting Very Tired of it.

But while I'm missing the sunshine I left behind, and though the left side of my entire body from my head down to my thigh is in pain, I continue to eat, eat, eat.

Dozens of different kinds of seafood in bite size portions, dozens of different kinds of seaweed. I think I am part sea otter.

And then, there's food from the cradle. My dear mother asks me if she can make me something and even though I know better than to make my 76 year old mom do anything, I tell her,
"How about okayu with umeboshi?"

Rice gruel. The chicken soup of Japan.

"Yuck," Big Dog would say. "It's just rice boiled in a lot of water!"
To which I would have to say, "No, it's more like what grits are to a Southerner."

Umeboshi, the pickled plum whose ancestors crawled out of a salt mine, provides the flavor. It's utterly sour and salty and perfect.

So sick or not, in pain or not, I continue to eat. And eat. And eat. AND lose weight! Japanese food is just not that fattening. Even on an American diet, even with tons of butter and cheese, I can't seem to keep my weight. It sneaks away like the boyfriend who's not really a boyfriend after you tell him you love him. I blame a shift in metabolism. But here, I've been losing about a pound a day. I figure at this rate, I'll completely disappear in about 90 days.