This really happened. I say this remembering that walls between fiction and fact are never as clear as we'd like them to be. In fact, more than most people, Beni (who is my co-star in this book) was fictional. He had lived a life that was of his own design.
We were both were facing big decisions when we met. Mine was whether or not to stick with my fiancé. His was whether or not to stick with the life he’d built for himself in Japan. Big decisions really require you to ask fundamental questions about yourself. Decisions that will define you for years are best made after scrupulously exploring who you are.
This book contains our wide - ranging scrutiny of identities. This final tally that will hopefully reveal, who we are and what we must do.
Fiction is always breathing down your throat when you are traveling. You can tell a stranger that you are a gardener or an international gold broker. Your story is as convincing as you make it. Traveling is always as much about unchartered identity exploration as it is about unchartered terrain. Distance makes a free-zone possible, where you can try on different masks.
In reality one does have a life history. But that too is a montage. Which parts do you emphasize when introducing yourself? How deeply do you go into your secrets? Every time a traveler speaks, she or he is subtly conscious of the fact that they might not be believed.
Traveling also facilitates the most perfect honesty possible. Telling strangers of your deviancy and regrets, is often easier than telling intimates (or those who might know the intimates).
That is why I can let you read this book and trust your feedback. It would be disastrous if my fiancé found out about the contents of this paper. Drugs and worse! Similarly, Beni will only get an edited version of this book in order to not hurt his feelings. [Note to self: Erase the previous line after finishing Beni version]. We will never meet.
Both of us were painfully aware that deciding what type of life to have and person to be is fatal. Your tombstone refers to what you did do. Very often life is strikingly either/or. The path not taken isn’t.
Japan is an amazing backdrop. Being in Japan allowed me to learn about being American. It is a known irony that one can never learn of their culture from their culture. One’s ways are “what people do”. One’s understandings seem to be common sense. From the outside, however, American idiosyncrasies become stark. To be in a country so alien is to encounter parables concerning nation (and self) on nearly every block.
When people ask me where I’m from, for example, I usually avoid the word “America”. The title “America” belongs to the whole Western hemisphere. We are rude, ignorant and arrogant to usurp it. In Japan no one understands “The States.” Despite all politically correct discomfort, you quickly learn to understand here (more than when home) that you are from “America”.
Being American, furthermore, is an unavoidable and prominent aspect of your essence. Leftist geo-political hesitations about unfairly usurping names have a kind of generosity that is foreign here. The idea of cultures as equals is a given in our thought. Fairness for all people is what we assume all cultures want. The Japanese assume, rather, a racial nationalist competitiveness. American universalist notions don’t translate. They aren’t common sense.
Gems of realization are to be found where peoples separate.
Rappongi is the area in Tokyo where most of what I intend to convey happened. Rappongi is well known as the section of Tokyo where foreigners party. It means “six”, “oblong shaped objects”, “wood”. But translation cannot be done with a dictionary. Like lives, words without context have no meaning. Without understanding the culture, there is no way for me to appreciate the physical and emotional resonance to “six”, “oblong shaped objects”, “wood”.
The buildings of Rappongi sparkle and the streets are packed. It is an international bizarre. French; Nigerian: Israeli: Americans: Chinese We are all united by the fact that we are strangers in a strange land. Debauchery and sleaze are the common coin on the surface of Rappongi. Marketing and anonymity tend to exasperate the exploding demand for such things. But a need to understand each other and find community as foreigners really explains the congregation. Rappongi is very popular.
There is a lot more conversation in Rappongi than material needs would justify. Talking provides imagined connections. For the conversation to be comforting, people minimalize explorations of differences. Isolation is also reinforced by the fact that most mainly speak with people who share their heritage. Being foreign is existentially terrifying.
Beni and I felt an urgency in exploring the walls of misunderstanding and the ways in which they encircle all of us. This urgency was mostly born of our both having important decisions to make. Finding the bedrocks of our identities didn’t only have abstract relevance to our lives. We also bonded via pride in our earnestness.
I was on a long and arduous search to find a bar where I might interact with some of this international scene. I had had a lonely drink at one promising sounding bar (where I spoke with absolutely no one) and was heading to another. My “Lonely Planet” guide book said there was a bar nearby where one could meet foreigners without being overwhelmed by techno music. Having a guidebook named Lonely Planet is ingenious. It keeps people dissatisfied and searching. Anyhow, I needed the goal. Being lost, I could ask strangers if they had any idea where it was. This provided a feint hope of companionship.
As I turned right up to go up a hill, I had the marvelous fortune to encounter my future friend Beni. Beni said he had no idea where “Bar, Isn’t it?” was, but wanted to know what I wanted there. What was to be discovered. The description appealed to him. He could go for a place where one could hear themselves think. And he was gratified to find one of his age out and about in the fun district. Most travelers tend to be younger.
Beni is half a foot taller than I and looks like a school-marm. Thin as a rail, his round wire rim spectacles made his shaven face look intelligent and upper crust. He would not be out of place on a yacht. My years wear more obviously on me. Usually adorned with a goatee, my bulk is Russian peasant with early teen years spent working out. He where’s Waldo. I am Victor Mature.
How oddly our descriptions clashed with our characters. At least in my mind. He looks suave and refined and I look like a football player. Yet, despite his image, Beni prefers sex to books. Someday I will get the, “academic most likely to be confused with a truck driver” award.
Even our knowledge bases are backwards. I’ve spent years in academia, love the study of language and yet am nearly monolingual. Beni is fluent in five languages! He has the background to have all kinds of academic examples for insights even though he’s never sought them.
Originally I suspected that Beni was gay. This suspicion came partly from his tall thin frame, polo shirt and glasses. The confirmation came from his mannerisms. He had a comfort in his own skin that was very feminine. I realize now that I was falling into the trap of confusing the femininity / masculinity scale with the gay / straight scale. But as far as first impressions go, his body type, cleanliness and high-pitched raspy voice, seemed convincing.
It didn’t take ten minutes to know that he would be an interesting person to spend time with. He had been in Japan for seven years and was rather excited. He had just landed two really good gigs. Tomorrow he was to sign a contract to work in a University. That job would get him maximum pay for minimum hours.
That he had gotten this gig and that he valued it for the freedom it would provide both impressed me.
And he shined as he told me that he was also about going to go from being hourly to salaried for his weekend work of performing wedding ceremonies. A priest! My gay suspicion grew.
“The ceremonies are only twenty minutes, and then I can go. I do this about eight times a weekend and get paid a tremendous amount. Its too easy.”
“Are you ordained?” I asked, suspecting that he was.
“Oh no! I found a website that said that anybody should be able to be ordained. I just printed a certificate from them and no one has ever questioned the legitimacy of my credential! It’s amazing. But I really put a lot of love and good intention into every ceremony. I don’t take it lightly.”
“Are you supposed to stay afterwards though?”
“It sounds like in India where, if you go there you’ll see groups of wandering transvestites. They survive by attending weddings. Its just considered good luck to have a transvestite at your wedding.” I wondered if my India reference would impress him.
“Exactly. Its just considered up scale to have a white guy take part in the ceremony. I just say some memorized words in Japanese. After that I’m not expected to hang out at all.” His not even mentioning having been to India as being special was impressive.
“Wow! That is great. I used to live with a gay priest. He did gay wedding ceremonies. And since not a lot of people do those, he got a lot of business.” This statement served the double purpose of conveying that I had worthwhile conversation to share and implying that I was gay. If erroneously flirting was what it took to get a friend, I wasn’t entirely above the concept.
But when he asked what I was doing in Asia, I had to burst the bubble. I was visiting my fiancé in Korea.
He, like everybody else, was amazed that I could have a relationship at such a distance. And his voice conveyed no hint of diminished enthusiasm for talking now that my sexual orientation was apparent.
“I just got married!” He volunteered.
“Well it was just for visa purposes. I was going to have to leave the country and a girl friend of mine helped me out. Now I can stay regardless of whether we continue to live together or not. And in four years I’ll have permanent status. I’ll be able to do everything but vote and never have to worry about my visa again.”
“Wow. That is great. You’ll be like a citizen.”
“I’m not Japanese though.”
“But legally, for all practical purposes…”
“In terms of legal working and paperwork status. Yeah.”
“Its great and its scary. This gig is too perfect. Citizenship and easy money. It feels like it may trap me. It may have already trapped me. I don’t know if this is where I want to end up or investing more years.”
“I can totally relate to the question of whether or not I should continue to be wed to this cush job. I teach history, psychology and philosophy in a high school in L.A. It is a great job, but I’m in my 7th year and I think that life should repeat as little as possible.”
“Teaching high school is a great job?”
“Totally. Our kids are great. We’re the 5th best high school in L.A. That’s why it is so hard to leave. I don’t know that I’ll ever find another school this good that lets me teach what I want.”
Beni agreed to search for “Bar, Isn’t it?” with me. If it wasn’t loud he would come in and have a drink with me.
When Beni described himself as being American, he didn’t mention the fact that he hadn’t been there since he was seventeen. At first, using your early memories and location to describe oneself, when one is older and hasn’t been home in so long seems illogical. But travelers know the depth to which their country defines them. Reiterating our earliest times makes us an known commodity (to ourselves as well as others). At any rate, it was too early for Beni to delve into his convoluted history with me. I still got the standard “American” answer.
When I am asked where I am from, in detail, I must say “Los Angeles.” This never seems to sit well with me. Am I really of that city I left for so long again? Perhaps, being back in my original city my family is in gives me the mental luxury of being able to question my loyalty. Beni seemed to remember his American affiliation without question. There is a certain intimacy with which memories that are never to be refreshed are held.
While we talked we walked and asked for directions. In Rappongi direction giving, is backed by the fact that behind every certainty is a hunch backed by some vague beer drowned memory. Fantastically, random people with their more right than wrong guesses about where they think your destination is can eventually get you there.
“Bar, Isn’t it?” was perfectly to our liking. No one was there. At first we thought a comedy show was about to start. But it turned out that it had just finished. The only entertainment left were two guys getting their publicity stills taken on stage.
“That,” Beni informed me, “is a common comedy formula here in Japan. There is one straight guy and one slap sticker.” (All being metaphor, I’m not sure which I am in this tale : ).
Beni’s thought made me feel like I had just received a gift. Though not very important, that was the kind of insight that you can only get from a person who is a local. Learning the nuances of cultures and mindscapes is the delicacy that I travel for. It is why I cross oceans.
Speaking of straight and comedic men. When we got drinks Beni wanted water and I had a beer. They were 500 yen each. Japan is expensive. A four dollar water. Beni paid for both of ours without comment. I said I’d get the next round. I will never be even with him.
Without my asking he reassured me that though he didn’t drink he didn’t mind at all if I did. He was in Alcoholics Anonymous. But just for alcohol and smoking. He still smoked pot occasionally.
Beni was living the life of a nomad. That resonates with me. There is a romantic nomad tradition shared by Californians in my generation. We were raised in the post-sixties dream of endless choices. We anticipated the post-modern in that there were no limits of class or culture or obligation that applied. It is made extra romantic by the fact that one so free is excruciatingly alone in that they forsake the affirming, comfortable identities that society approves. It was enlightenment in that it had unlimited possibilities. This California lifestyle and dreamin’ brings adventure.
Yet, utopia also literally means “no place”. Not having a commitment or tie to something larger than one’s day to day existence leaves one with no accumulation. Cultivation of structures (be they religion, culture, country, history or relationships) pays dividends. Cultivation of such soil is a necessary precondition of our “freedoms”. Jack Kerouac found jobs and cars waiting wherever he went. You don’t reap what you sow, but what you sow and tend. That given, Sartre’s idea that making your story part of another story is living in bad faith, haunts me. He who would give up his liberty for security is lost. Golden cages are still cages. Californians dream of endless varieties of freedoms never lost.
I have known many people who live a faith based life. They care not for tomorrow and have many great todays. They are comforted by Jesus’ saying that the lord will take care of us. Less theocratically, they believe that the “universe will provide” for them. And, as often as not, greater things happen in their life than they could have consciously planned. For example, fate (accepting such a concept for now) led me to Beni.
You yourself Tomerella are a great example of this. You probably don’t have two cents to rub together. But you are living your dreams. You’re really brave. My monk friend Friar Moose would be another example. By the way, he taught me the difference between a friar and a monk. Friars are homeless. Monks take shelter in monestaries (like a pope cowering in the “Pope – mobile”). California dreams are born of a deeper spiritual faith.
Again, after having worked for six years, doing nine months a year of full-time teaching, I am in a pivotal moment. At 39, youthful dreams of cutting loose call me. They opine one last time or never again. I tremble at the destruction of the rocks that may greet me there. The sirens of country, history, culture and community also call me. Yet keeping the course year after year is like having a book with just one repeating chapter. Working a repetitive job is the ultimate existential death for Californians of my bent. Old habits die hard.
Was Beni to be an inspiration to destruction? Perhaps he would scare me back into the cage. At any rate, the musings of one who has unequivocally chosen freedom are always more interesting than one who accepted (not chosen) the straight and narrow.
Capsule Two: Worlds
We pulled up at one of the many empty bar stools surrounding small tables that sat separated (in order to make as many islands as possible) in the middle of the vast wood floor. We did what most men who don’t know each other do. We spoke of our work. In courtship one first talks of one’s glories, not one’s issues. In our cases, we both had extracurricular creative projects to disclose. I think we impressed each other. I know we enjoyed talking with each other.
Beni was working on something I was not to appreciate the genius of until I actually heard it. That was probably because he discussed it in terms of business and not in terms of art.
“I have a fully produced book and CD that kids can learn English with.” He said with an intense squinting that made him look slightly unstable. “It has songs and dialogues and I’m working on the work book. It alternates. First a song then a dialogue then a song…Each dialogue, song combination covers particular areas of language.
The theory is that singing is speaking. It’s all making sound. The Japanese really have trouble with this. They learn the words and grammar and then don’t take that final step and speak.”
“It’s the same in Korea.” I added. “I taught there for 9 months.”
“Really? Neat. When?”
“Seven years ago. And I remember how hard it was to get them to speak. Because of constant testing, for them, it was either wrong or right. And they were afraid to make mistakes.”
“Exactly the same thing happens here. With my songs they will hopefully enjoy the singing and characters and will disassociate the whole thing with school work. All the characters are part of the lives of kids going to a high school.
Textbooks have that school feeling to them. Plus they are never looked at once they are finished. This CD is something they will use it at home long after I’m gone. It is something that can get the Japanese to speak.
Actually the entire thing should teach itself without me. That’s the goal.”
“Wouldn’t it not needing a human kind of put you out of business?”
“Well that hasn’t happened yet. In the past I’ve played the songs and worked hard for them. But, this year at the university, I’m going to make the students almost exclusively use my CD and book. I want to make them independent of me. If I’m really strict about their following it, I’m sure they’ll be able to learn an amazing amount and develop that sense of independence that’ll allow them to use it without me.”
I’ve been told I can be really lazy with the kids, but I’m going to be really strict. These tapes aren’t just for fun. They will have to work the system. There will be practice sheets and they will have had to have memorized passages for each class.”
“So is this totally made?”
“Its recorded and packaged. But I’m still working on the workbook. That is what I have to do as we’re working through it this semester.”
“Is it just you on guitar?” Why do I have the sadistic tendency to destroy and belittle other’s accomplishments? I hope he didn’t pick up on it.
“No. I have a whole band. There is a female vocalist, a bassist a chellist and a drummer. I hired them and rented the studio time and made this product. I’m really proud of it.”
“Wow. What a lot of effort. I’d love to hear it.” I said somewhat relieved that spiteful condescension hadn’t sabotaged our new born friendship.
“Yep! Except the workbook, the product is done. It’s in several book stores, but it isn’t selling. Not yet. The stores aren’t pushing it. I’m sure it would do better if they only would market it for me. I went to one store and it was on the bottom shelf and almost hidden.
But if I can get it selling, it could be really popular. Because you don’t need to be enrolled in a school or arrange for a teacher to use it.”
“It’s the old catch-22, that it has to be popular to sell a lot, but you have to sell a lot before it’ll be popular. It sounds like if you don’t need to be in an institution to use it, a lot of people could potentially buy it. And if it worked it could spread by word of mouth.”
“That’s the idea. I’ve put the product out there. And the Japanese need it. They are a rich country and study a lot., but they cannot speak English.” Beni added punch to the last three words. “Unless they find a different way then what they’ve been doing, they’ll never learn English as a country.”
“It could foster international understanding. If it is self-teaching, it could be a real Rosetta stone.” His face seemed to indicate that he knew about the translating stone that gave us the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian. “The world is supposedly moving towards English. And to the extent that people want to be linked, your CD could make it so that we could all understand each other. Who knows, it could be helpful with international understanding and stuff. It could help stop them from bombing us again!”
“Well, that’s a little lofty. Anyhow, their culture is their culture and talking at each other wouldn’t stop them from attacking us. That’s my thought.”
“Yeah, when I taught in Korea, I always felt like I was aiding the enemy.” Eesh. I hoped I hadn’t just degraded his profession. Beni looked down reflectively for a moment, heightening my anxiety.
Dejectedly, Beni mumbled. “I’ve never thought of that, thanks for being honest about how you see it.”
“I try to push things into the lofty geo-political categories.” I said defensively. “That’s just my tendency.” Without that its just another language tape. Why bother? I completed the thought internally.
“But, either way, it’s impressive.” I continued the thread aloud. “It’s conceptual. I like it.”
“My real goal,” Beni continued unabated. “is just to get my product out there and then be able to live off of it. If people were teaching themselves and these things were selling themselves I could be free and independent financially.”
“Right now it’s not selling at all?” My motives for asking this were tawdry.
“It’s selling okay in a couple of cities. Best in Nagasaki and Kobe.”
“Nagasaki. That’s shows cosmic significance. More than others, they know the value of discussion or negotiations or mutual understanding. You know what I mean.” Then I swooped back down from my perch. “How many do you sell a year there?”
“Only about twenty a year. I need to sell about 2000 a year to be self – sufficient. That would get me about $20,000 a year. At retail I can make about ten dollars a sale.”
“Two thousand is nothing when you think of the millions of school kids in this country. You’d just need to get about…. 30 schools a year to adopt it at one hundred per school. Traveling could be a part of your work as you sell them in different cities. Then you could fly as you re-did them for other countries and languages.”
“And translate the workbook.” He added to remind me of the workload. “And rerecord songs to address the particular needs of the different countries’ problems.
If it took off I would consider doing that. Now I’m just trying to get it bought here. I’ve thought about it though. I purposely made the vocal tracks different from the other tracks for that reason.”
“An idea without marketing is like a tree in the woods. It barely exists. I guess that’s how ideas are like people. Marketing, marketing, marketing.”
“You’re totally right about marketing products anyhow!” Beni’s puzzlement showed he didn’t fully get my sense of humor yet. “This product is self-teaching and needed. But I don’t know anything about marketing. That is the thing stopping my sales and your world wide revolution of understanding.”
I’ve written a book too.” I slyly mentioned quickly enough for the statement to be ignored. “But you’re right. The marketing and publishing thing is really hard.”
“So you’ve written on too, eh? What’s it about? Your book.”
“I kind of hesitate to say. My book is really controversial.” I really want to alienate my new friend by getting into this topic. But it was too late now. The cat was out of the bag. I was going for broke.
“It’s an environmental manifesto. But you really need a lot of background before you jump to conclusions about the conclusion though.”
“Oh I won’t. I almost promise. Tell me what it’s about.”
“Well I start it, in the preface by saying it is like an inoculation against the ideas presented. It is a poor argument for an evil idea. That way when someone who is eloquent comes along with the same evil idea, they’ll be prepared to fight against their argument.”
Nervousness always made me extend the telling about the preliminary parts of my book before I couldn’t stall any more and had to announce what the end was about.
“A disclaimer is always important before you make an argument.” Beni remarked, revealing some droll humor skills.
“Yeah. Thanks.” My flat reply acknowledged his humor. We were building some rapport. It felt good.
“The book then goes on to talk about the origin of consciousness. Ooohh. Heady topic!. It traces the long tortuous process of how our modern mind came about. Most folks don’t know that our way of thinking is earned and cultivated, not automatic.”
“Most people haven’t spent years in other countries. It’s beyond a gap in thinking. At some point, it’s a gap in feeling, seeing, in…everything. I cannot, no foreigner can, be friends with the Japanese. All my friends are ganji’s.”
“People from another land. After being told you’re not part of them many times, you realize that your community must come from outsiders.”
“Wow! That’s totally fascinating to me. I normally just talk about the distance between modern minds and ancient minds. I think, maybe I’m wrong, that that is an even way huger difference. They were totally insane, sort schizophrenic like until modern times.”
“Cool. So what is the shocker you’re so cautious about?”
“Well, once I establish intelligence as special, I show that we are not the last stop in intelligence’s development. Computers and machines are getting this special characteristic too.”
“I don’t know about that. But…? Long story short, hit me with it!”
“Hold on! We also need an ethic that will guide us as neuroscience re-engineers man and destroys his sacredness. That ethic is based on the ultimate value of intelligence, computer, human or whatever.”
“Yeah. Intelligence.” I paused as he pondered.
“Okay.” I launched as to not build more resentment through excessive intro or invite further questions. “I conclude that we need to sterilize a lot of people to allow intelligence to survive.”
As I lead up to that sentence, I nervously checked his expression for some kind of shock. But he just seemed to continue non-chalantly looking at me.
“And of course I deal with Hitler because any book like this has to. But you have to read my whole argument before you can judge it.” I added in last minute defensive haste.
“Well, I can see why people would be shocked. Genocide is wrong! Isn’t that obvious?” He said with what I imagined was a little predictable rise in ire.
“No. It’s not wrong!” He shrieked a little when upset.
“No. Of course genocide is wrong! My no was the start of saying, “No. It’s not genocide.” No one would be killed. And it isn’t genocide, cause I’d count on it not being perfectly efficient or used everywhere. Some people would continue to reproduce. No one would be killed at all. Killing is wrong. If for no other reason than it isn’t conducive to intelligence. It makes people panic.”
“Oh. Sorry I interrupted.”
“That’s okay. But statements, out of context can be radically misinterpreted. That’s why I like to tell everything about this book slowly. Genocide is not only wrong, it’s inefficient.”
“Inefficient.” He said with a big grin that acknowledged my irony and sense of humor.
“Still, I believe in mother nature and I think that eventually water and stuff will get scarce and disease and the greenhouse effect will cause the population levels drop. We should let nature take care of herself.”
“We can do it that way. But it’ll be really messy and we’ll have wars and no intelligent selection about who survives And who would survive, doctors or warriors? Do you want to live in a world where there is famine and tough guys rule? Intelligence can do better. We’re supposed to be conscious, not lemmings. Humans.”
“No. I guess it’s better that we interfere in potential disasters.”
“The only question is who to choose.” I continued, throwing hesitancy away. Feeling quite professorial and confident on my own ground I continued my rant. “It isn’t feasible to do sterilization person by person. So we can just blanket all the earth equally, be random about it or we can choose where to do it. And, as you probably figured out, I’m pro-choice.”
I paused as we both smiled concerning my twisting of the pro-choice phrase. He was getting my humor.
“The discussion should be around discussions of which cultures foster intelligence best.” I continued with a seriousness that conveyed that the joking was over. “Which preserves the best of humanity sustainably. That’s much better than just blindly overpopulating ourselves to death. It’s more dignified.”
“Who is your target audience?” Beni asked half for himself, realizing that we have a common obstacle: Marketing our ideas and making them more than just private musings, chief amongst them.
“Everyone. I’d like to make cultures at least receptive to these ideas. Maybe people will be less outraged if it happens if they’ve heard the reasons beforehand. When I discuss these ideas with folks individually they see the need and compassion involved. But I need to break through that wall of political self-censorship that creates borders around what we can think as a society.
Ultimately, like a rogue scientist or group would have to hear about these ideas and do it with out government support. But to hear about it, it must be on the list of discussed topics. If something isn’t in the public discourse it isn’t an option. It won’t be considered. If an idea is not thought about, it doesn’t exist.”
Both of our projects had a commonality in that they created absolute self-contained worlds that were potentially transformative. His work could make him self-sufficient as it teaches self-sufficiently. It creates an independent autonomous teacherless learner. It can work without help from outside of itself. Mine includes a system of morals based on putting intelligence above the all too human. From the premises you could not logically escape the conclusion. Intelligence must intelligently defend itself.
The logic was self-contained in both projects.
Meeting Beni was a really neat happenstance. People that have the ability to create thought constructs are rare. When worlds collide, new ones are formed. We could have fun and great insights exploring worldviews together.
We decided to get falafels.