Tuesday, November 28, 2006

When I wrote the story below, the one with the taxi driver, I based his looks on this man. Does anyone know who he is? A delicious chocolate treat if anyone knows. I hope he doesn't mind... I've seen him in person on a few occasions, and his features always stunned me. (BTW, the story is fiction. Some of you were concerned in my last story that I had burnt my house down. Nope. All of this is fiction unless otherwise stated.)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

I've added another story below. For the few people who are reading these every month, you may notice some repetition coming up (in images, use of words, theme...) I am restructuring some of my writing for the course I'm taking. Blogger is my guinea pig site; a place where I can test-run some of my story ideas. This one takes an idea I had awhile ago and changes it into the third person. Comments, constructive criticism, your thoughts... anything would be welcome as I am submitting these for my course. Have a read and let me know what you think. Thanks to all who keep peeking in. xox :)

Scratching the Surface
- i -
It crossed Sophie’s mind for a moment that she might not make her flight. She sat in the back seat of the taxi on the way to Toronto International Airport doubled over and nauseous. She fumbled through the bulky knapsack at her feet, searching in vain for a hairclip, an elastic band, anything so she could pull her hair back into a ponytail. She was certain she was going to be sick, and she didn't want any of it flying into her hair. Hopefully, she would soon be on a fifteen-hour flight bound for Japan. As bad as she was feeling, Sophie had enough forethought to know that any lingering smell brought about by her present nausea would cling to her for the rest of the day and night. Digging deeper, she felt the fuzzy material of her headband at the bottom of the sack and pulled it out. She caught most of her matted hair in one hand and pulled it into a quick bun on top of her head with the other. A few whisps of blonde clung to the dampness on her face. She wasn't sure if she was sweating from the humidity or from the hangover that had completely taken over her body. The car lurched, and came to a sudden stop. Sophie's head butted into the headrest of the seat in front of her.

She let out a grunt and her backpack shifted enough so that much of the contents were now splayed on the floor beside her feet. She didn't think the driver had noticed, but he turned around sideways, looking apologetic.

"Sorry Miss. Heavy, heavy traffic. Maybe stuck ten, fifteen minutes." He turned to face the road again. Through the windows on both sides, Sophie could see the cars were lined up on the highway, not moving, practically touching bumpers. She checked her watch. She had planned for small time traps such as this. Panic wasn’t setting in yet. She tried to focus on things other than time and the sorry state of her stomach.

She looked at the back of the driver's head. A few strands of dark hair peeked out from under his tightly wound turban. The fingers of both his hands were wrapped firmly around the steering wheel as he looked left, then right, hoping to find a space in one of the packed lanes beside them. No luck. Sophie was pleased he was at least trying. Another wave of nausea swept over her, and she had to forget about the taxi driver while she leaned over to put her head between her legs. She tried not to make a noise, but something between a cough and a gag came out of her throat, and she jerked forward even more.

"You alright Miss?" The driver turned halfway in his seat to check her state in the back. She could sense his concern, but Sophie wasn't certain if it was for her well-being, or for the possibility that his maroon vinyl seats might soon be covered with the contents of her stomach.

"You want water?" Before she could answer, the driver was rifling around in a large plastic bag on the passenger seat next to him. Traffic was still not moving, and it was getting even more humid in the small space. He pulled a large plastic bottle out of the bag, unscrewed the cap, and swiveled around to pass it to Sophie.

"Don't worry. Brand new. Take it." He leaned over the seat and set it down beside her.

When she brought the bottle to her mouth she realized just how thirsty she actually was. In just a few noisy gulps, nearly half the bottle was empty. She looked up to see the driver staring intently at her, and for the first time she saw his face full on. He was beautiful. There was no other word to describe his features. Mocha skin, high-cut cheek bones, long, slender nose. There were feminine undertones delicately etched on his face giving him a certain softness. The fact that his hair was pulled back under a turban brought even more attention to his bone structure. But what struck Sophie most were his eyes. They were a deep ocean blue so unexpected that she sucked in a mouthful of air and bottled water at the same time. She began sputtering and coughing, trying to get the misdirected water out of her lungs.

"Miss, Miss? You want air?" The driver had turned around and was fumbling with the switches on the door beside him. Both front windows were already wide open, but since they weren't driving, absolutely no air was circulating in the car. Both back windows began to glide open smoothly with a mechanical sigh. Sophie immediately leaned over and hung her head out the side. The air wasn't really that much different outside, but having the option of getting sick out the window rather than on the seat brought her an immediate sense of relief. She coughed and sputtered a few more times, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and then brought her head back into the car. She leaned heavily back into the seat.

"Miss? So sorry. No air conditioning. Broken. You okay now?"

He had once again turned completely around to face her. He was looking closely at her. Sophie was struck silent by the incredible blue eyes staring back at her. She felt guilty. She didn't deserve his concern. She had brought this on herself. Bits and pieces of the previous evening started to come back to her.

- ii -
Last night had been her going away party. A handpainted sign hung on the front door of her apartment when she got home from the Japanese Consulate downtown. "Good Luck Sophie!" was printed in red and black block letters. Someone had taken the time to print the words in stylized Asian script, each letter ending with a calligraphy flourish. The last of her bags had been packed and her teacher's visa from the Consulate was firmly pasted in her passport. It was time to say good-bye to her friends. She had invited them over to her now empty apartment. There were about fifteen people sitting on leftover packing boxes and suitcases. All kinds of drinks, potato chips and pizza slices were spread out on the floor in front of them. Sophie was going to Japan for a year, and the reality of her decision to work overseas began to sink in after beer number five.

Beer melencholy took over and the sadness of the impending good-byes was welling up insider her. She looked around at the roomful of her friends. She took another swig of her beer, saying out loud what she had been thinking; "I'm going to miss you guys..." She swayed a bit as she spoke and then took a seat on an overturned empty milk crate.

Derek, her co-worker from Tower CDs was beside her in a flash, kneeling and putting his arm around her shoulders. “Ah Sophie, you’ll be fine. You’ll make friends. You’ll see. Trust me, change is good.”

Of all her friends, Derek probably knew best what she was going through. He was what was known as an “army brat.” His dad’s position in the Canadian army had Derek moving around from country to country, army base to army base from the time he was born. The past four years in university were the longest he had stayed put anywhere. He was still reassuring her when their other co-worker Elise made her way over. Judging by her lack of balance, she had probably surpassed Sophie’s five-beer mark quite awhile ago. She was carrying two beers, one in each hand, and passed one to Sophie.

“Cheers to you, Sophie.” Elise reached out to touch bottles for a toast, but misjudged the distance and instead swung her arm past Sophie’s bottle and was toasting air. Derek smiled and gave a bit of an eye-roll for Sophie’s benefit. Elise wasn’t paying attention. She pulled a crate over and sat down, putting her arm around Sophie’s right shoulder. Sophie was now sandwiched between her two friends.

Elise could still string a few sentences together. She swayed on her seat as she spoke; “Hey, you’ll be flying around on rickshaws and eating Peking duck by this time tomorrow.” Her arm was completely wrapped around Sophie now. Derek looked amused and stayed put, kneeling on the floor beside them. Elise gave Sophie’s shoulder an extra squeeze and leaned in closer. Sopie tried to stand up, but the weight of Elise’s arm and her own unsteadiness fed by the five beers forced her to stay put on the crate.

They may have all been drunk, but Sophie couldn’t let Elise’s comment slip by. Why was her friend talking about China?

“I’m going to Japan, Elise. Japan…” At least that’s what she tried to say. The beers had turned her tongue into a slab of numb rubber.

“You know, Japanese, not Chinese…” Was anybody listening? Both her friends were smiling. Elise put down her beer, stood up and did a little click of her heels before she started to sing a rhyme Sophie hadn’t heard since grade school.

“Chinese, Japanese
Dirty knees, Look at these!”

While singing, Elise pulled the corners of her eyes first up, then down, touched her knees, and in her final flourish, she pulled her blouse up and over her breasts. All eyes in the room were soon focused on her. Well, one part of the rhyme had certainly changed since grade school. Sophie remembered the eye gestures, but she certainly never got a peek of a lacy 36-D pink push-up bra. Elise soon had a crowd around her asking her to sing the rhyme again. Sophie pushed herself up and off her red milk crate with substantial effort, and made her way towards the empty kitchen.

The walls had clean square outlines where her Miro and Picasso prints had hung over the kitchen table. They had held the place of honour on the centre wall for the four years Sophie had lived here. They had seen her through from day one of of her freshman year right through to her graduation two weeks ago. Those prints, along with her books and freshly printed university degree were now nestled safely in boxes labelled “Sophie’s Stuff” in her parent’s suburban basement. She leaned against the kitchen counter, trying to absorb the mixture of emotions washing over her. Being drunk didn’t help matters much.

Derek walked in and put his empty beer bottle on the counter. He smiled at Sophie. “Ah. Just the person I was looking for.”

He walked over to her and took one of her hands in his. He looked her straight in the eye.

“I know you’re disappointed in Elise, in the group out there…” He gestured to the living room with his free hand.

She didn’t know what to say. She was indeed aware of how quickly political correctness went out the window when there were plenty of beers and no visible minorities around. But, was it affecting her so strongly only because she was going to Asia? She felt like a fraud and a hypocrite.

“Soph, you’re going to have to get a thicker skin. Soon, you’re going to be the one on the other side. Soon, nobody will know or probably even care if you’re American, Australian or Austrian. Won’t matter. You’ll be a foreigner and that’s that.”

She could always count on Derek for his honesty, and now was no exception. Two words stuck out for Sophie in what Derek had just said; thick skin. Along with Japanese verb forms and pronoun usage, it was now on her list of things to perfect.

The last of the well-wishers piled out at 3:00 a.m., taking empty pizza boxes and bags of cans and bottles with them. Elise had three different admirers vying for the coveted position of escort home. The only part of her little rhyme that anyone remembered was the last line; “Look at these!” Evidently people liked what they saw.

Sophie said her last good-byes, closed the door and looked at her empty space. Derek had pre-ordered a taxi for 8:30 am the next day. Everything was set. Sophie unrolled her sleeping bag, crawled in and stared at the ceiling. That’s when the nausea set in. It was a mixture of booze, fear and greasy pizza, and it looked like it was going to stay. She closed her eyes and tried to think of nothing.

It was the persistent buzz of the intercom that woke her to the stark brightness of the living room that morning. She lifted her head slowly from the floor and looked around her. No curtains, no furniture, just some empty crates, glaring sunshine and the promise of humidity in the air. She untangled herself from the sleeping bag and stumbled to the intercom.

“Hi, Hello?” She pressed her lips close to the mouthpiece on the wall.

“Yes, It’s taxi. It’s 8:30. I will wait.”

“SHIT!” She didn’t say that part into the intercom. She pressed the ‘speak’ button and spoke into the wall again.

“Give me 5 minutes. I’ll be right there!” She pressed ‘listen’ one more time.

“Alright. But airport traffic will be very busy.”

No shower, no trip to the coffee shop next door, not even a splash of water on her parched tongue. Sophie rolled up her sleeping bag, strapped her backpack to her shoulders and picked up her suitcases. She threw a last glance at her apartment, pausing when her eyes got to the white squares that used to house her favourite artists. She took her key off its “S” shaped keychain and dropped it in the mailbox of her landlady. The clank that sounded when it hit the bottom of the box signaled the end of an era. When she stepped into the taxi, she knew it was the beginning of a new one.

- iii-
“Miss? You okay now?”

Sophie snapped out of her reverie. The taxi driver was still turned around in his seat looking at her.

“I’m better. Thanks for opening the windows. It’s helping.”

He turned to face the road again and let out a little laugh. “Look ahead, Miss. Traffic is moving! We will go soon.”

Sophie began to collect the bits and pieces from her backpack that had fallen onto the floor of the taxi. Lipstick, tissues and a pocket dictionary of Japanese phrases were scattered at her feet. She put the tissues and lipstick back in the bag, but paused to look at the dictionary. She decided there was no better time than the present, and cracked it open to the first page. She started scanning “Greetings” when the car jerked forward. The traffic jam appeared to have come to an end, and they were beginning to pick up speed. The taxi driver took a look to his left, then right, then into the rearview mirror. Sophie caught site of those eyes again, and they still had the same effect. They took her breath away.

The driver took his cue from a gap in trafffic, and made his way over to the faster lane. The blare of the horn behind them was deafening. Sophie jerked around to see where it came from, and her driver quickly brought the taxi back into its original lane. In just seconds, a blue convertible, top down, pulled up to their left keeping the same speed as the taxi. The driver of the sports car appeared to be in his fifties. His salt and pepper hair and v-neck cardigan gave him the look of a tv sit-com Dad. The two cars were close enough for Sophie to see the crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes. They were not happy eyes. He was glaring at her taxi driver. There was no doubt about it. He was furious.

The man was wagging his index finger at the taxi, and his face was contorted with anger as he looked quickly straight ahead at the road in front of him and then to the taxi driver on his right. He kept looking back and forth, road to taxi driver, five or six times before his fury burst out of his mouth. The taxi’s windows were still wide open. There was no way to mistake what he was yelling.

“Fucking Paki! Don’t they have cars where you come from? Paki go home!”

His finger wagging turned into a middle finger salute, held high above his head and waving in the air as he sped ahead.

Sophie looked to the rearview mirror to catch sight of her driver’s eyes. She couldn’t see them. He was looking intently straight ahead. The back of his neck was scarlet.

“Miss?” He was now looking in the mirror, and Sophie looked up to catch his gaze.

“Are you okay Miss? I am so sorry for the shock.” He looked back to the road again.

Sophie wanted to say something, anything. She could think of nothing. She felt ashamed. She stared out the window in silence, watching the scenery race by and the airport come into view. The queaziness was still there, and she took another gulp of water. She realized then what it was that she wanted to say, but knew she wouldn’t. He wouldn’t have accepted it. She wanted to say “I’m sorry.”

As Toronto International Airport came into view, Sophie tried to collect her thoughts. She wouldn’t see this place for a whole year. Would she miss it? She knew she would, and she also knew she would be homesick for things she had not even thought of yet. She opened the door to her taxi. The driver had already placed her luggage on the sidewalk in front of her. As she struggled to get her backpack on, he came around behind her.

“Miss, let me help you.” He pulled the strap over her left shoulder and shifted the weight so that it was hanging evenly from her back.

“You have a safe journey, Miss.” He smiled, his eyes looking straight at hers. Sophie wanted to say something. She wanted to somehow acknowledge his kindness .

“You’ve been very helpful. Please, how do you say “Thank you” in Pakistani?”

He looked at her with a bit of a quizzical look on his face, his head tilting slightly to the side. And then he smiled.

“Miss, I don’t know about Pakistani. But in the part of India where I come from we say “Dev boren koru.”

It was Sophie’s turn to become red. She finally said what she had wanted to in the taxi. “I’m sorry.”

“Miss. You don’t worry. You will go on a plane. You will see. Everything will be good.”

He gave her a little pat on her shoulder, smiled, and turned to get into his cab. Sophie picked up her suitcases and walked towards the terminal and the plane waiting to take her to Japan. She stuffed the dictionary in her pocket. She knew it wouldn’t teach her everything, but it would be a start.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Reading In the Woods

The Writer's Group got together for a reading the day before Halloween. I decided I had better dress up for the occasion. It really was a perfect spot not far from Higashiyama Koen, but well hidden from the masses. My Halloween story is below, under the picture of my favourite Buddha. (PS; If anyone knows how to make italics or bold in the text here, please teach me! I need it quite a bit in the story below, especially for the foreign words. Any input would be appreciated.

Bargaining With Buddha

One of the things that sticks out in my memory the night the infestation took place was the weather. It was oppressively humid and sticky, one of those summer evenings in Japan that feels like someone took a sopping wet wool blanket too soon out of a hot dryer and spread it out evenly over the city. It's itchy, it's sticky, and the weight of the dampness is almost unbearable. Those kinds of conditions have a habit of bringing out the worst in people.

Wait, did I say worst? That sounds a bit like a judgment call, and since I'm talking about myself here I feel I had better be a little less harsh. To not give my own behaviour the benefit of the doubt would be unfair…wouldn't it?

So, perhaps what may be more appropriate would be to say is that it’s those kinds of weather conditions bring out the primitive in people. Gut reactions based on instinct, not experience. Spontaneous responses that hearken back to a time and place when such mechanisms were necessary. We've grown soft and complacent in our cushy computer worlds, never having to depend on the direction of the wind, or on the scent that it carries, to guide our actions. We need never worry about what may be lurking in wait just around the next boulder, or burrowed deep in heavy, dark earth, just itching to lunge on the next unsuspecting passerby.

So, I guess my reactions were primitive, primordial, impulsive. Did I deserve what I got? Maybe I did have it coming. Perhaps I did deserve it. But, did the punishment really fit the crime? I just don't know. What I do know, what I’m almost certain of, is that the incident came about because I had made a deal with Buddha. I'll never know if Buddha would have kept his end of the bargain because I reneged on our deal almost immediately.

I remember clearly the day I had walked the four hundred meters to my neighbourhood Temple. I was on a mission. I needed to talk to Buddha. Talking to my own God had yielded no results in a predicament that was slowly driving me mad. My life was being ruled by another force so invasive and persistent that I had been reduced to a twitchy, nervous wreck, jumping at the slightest movement caught from the corner of my eye. A shoelace, untied and dangling loosely from an unworn boot in a closet would send my heart racing and break beads of sweat on my upper lip. A harmless twig, stuck to the leg of my pants would be brushed away madly and frantically as others watched in curious amusement. My nerves were shot, and I knew my sanity was not far behind. At this point, you may well be wondering exactly what it was that was causing my irrational, knee jerk responses to benign objects. Allow me to help you see it in your mind’s eye.

To give you as clear an image as possible, you will need to hold up your two index fingers in front of you. Now, pull those two fingers apart in opposite directions, putting a distance of ten to twelve centimeters between them. There. You have the length. Now, imagine the thickness of one of those cheap plastic Bic pens, ballpoint. Can you see the roundness of it? That’s the width. The color? A deep, earthy brown, threatening to become black, with a hint of intense maroon thrown in for flash. Texture? To look at it, you would be certain, judging by the shimmer and shine, that to the touch it would moist, soft, sticky. You would be wrong. To touch it would yield a rubbery, scaled surface. The final addition? Onto the full length, add anywhere from one hundred to one thousand legs, each as fine as a strand of baby hair. There you have it. The bane of my existence; the Japanese centipede. The mukade.

Ah, mukade. When I moved into my home, I hadn’t realized, until comfortably settled in, that I was trespassing on centipede territory. In those innocent days, I didn’t even know that the Japanese word for centipede was mukade. The sound of the word, moo ka day, gave it a certain aura, like it came from one of those black and white Japanese monster films with characters named Mothra and Godzilla. The mukade had decided I was their nemesis, and, as in those old movies, there would have to be a Monster vs. Adversary situation. In the end though, who filled which role?

The mukade made me aware of their existence in a multitude of creative twists and turns. Brushing my teeth, about to spit frothy mint into the sink, I encountered the first one, coming up the drain to welcome me. I saw first its pincers feeling hesitantly at the circular, silver rim of the drain. As I watched in silence, I realized there was something alive in my once innocuous sink. I froze, mid-spit, not able to fathom what could possibly be attached to those two waving prongs peering out of the black hole below. The pincers felt around enough to realize there was no present danger, and its full body slithered into view. I couldn’t move. I could only stare in disbelief as its full form, ten centimeters, two pincers, and a thousand legs, glided smoothly from the drain hole and up onto the edge of the sink. The silence had to be broken. I screamed, not bothering to rid my mouth of Colgate foam, and ran out of the bathroom. Round 1 – Mukade.

Ordering pizza one late night, I waited in my bedroom on the second floor, reading Philip Roth’s latest. It was a dark little number called Patrimony, and it was setting the tone for a somber evening. I was laying stretched out on my bed, so fully engrossed in the sad and morbid tale unfolding in the pages in front of me that I hardly noticed the ring of the doorbell. When I finally clued in, the ringing had become impatient; short, sharp jabs on the doorbell by the Domino’s Pizza delivery boy waiting below. I grabbed the cash, and ran down the stairs.

On the second-to-last step, I stopped dead. There it was; bathroom mukade’s bigger, more menacing brother, laying in wait on the landing. As I stood in lurid limbo on the steps, Pizza boy was getting angrier and more insistent on doorbell duty. The short, sharp jabs became one long, steady buzz.

Just to the right of the landing was my boyfriend’s size 12 hiking boot. It was almost within my reach. I eyed the slinking mukade who seemed oblivious to its surroundings, and I took my chance. I leapt over the step, grabbed the boot, and opened the door, practically in one fluid action. The delivery boy did not fit the mold of my previous pizza pie couriers.

If you have ordered pizza in Japan, you may already be aware of a phenomenon that afflicts young delivery boys who find themselves on the other side of a foreigner’s door. When the door is opened to retrieve the goods and pay the price, the sight of a gaijin face sets off a series of predictable reactions. First, there is the startled gasp; that intake of air that indicates the boy was unprepared for such an unfamiliar sight. Then there is the slight back-step, a minute but discernable distancing from the unknown. This is followed by a few moments of silence as thoughts are collected, and the situation is analyzed. Usually, the voice is then found, offering both an “Excuse me” and an “I’m sorry” in quick succession… “Sumimasen, Gomen na sai”. And then more silence as the bill is paid, and the pizza passed over the threshold into the unknown land of foreigner.

On this particular night, the impatient delivery boy was most certainly not silent and did not follow the traditional pizza delivery pattern when the door was finally opened. The sight of a white girl with a size 12 boot waving in her right hand was too much for him. He yelped, dropped the pizza, and stumbled backwards at least three feet. I took that opportunity to turn around to face the centipede dancing on the first step and slammed the boot full force onto its squirming, rubbery form. I had to take a peek. I lifted the toe of the boot and looked underneath. It was still moving, trying to get away even though half its body had become one with the stair. Unbelievable. I slammed the boot down again, pizza boy witnessing the massacre in relative safety outside the front door. When I lifted my weapon this time, the splay of guts was a good indication the mukade was no more. I tried to ignore the fact that the bottom part of his body, now dismembered from its head, was still trying to get away.

I turned to face pizza boy. He was shaking, mouth open, pizza box still on the ground in front of him.

“Ikura desu-ka?” I said, asking him the price in my best Japanese. I straightened my shirt, patted down my hair and smiled in as friendly and non-threatening a way as possible, trying to regain his trust. He wasn’t having any of it. He kept the gulf of space between us, and didn’t take his eyes off of me as he reached down to pick up the dropped pizza box. After paying for the pie and closing the door behind the psychologically scarred Domino’s boy, I turned to inspect the remains of the mukade. Even though his lower half was still squirming and its multitude of legs were doing a final death dance waving madly in the air, I felt it wouldn’t be too premature to declare; Round 2 – me.

Although I had won the last round, the whole affair was getting to me. I said a nightly prayer, asking only that the centipedes not enter my space. My prayers went unanswered. I had daily encounters, finding centipedes of various lengths and widths, scattered throughout the house. No place was off limits; closets, drawers, and, the favourite meeting spot, the bathtub. I was losing the energy necessary to keep up with my unrelenting adversary. I started to contemplate moving to one of those small, cramped apartments, typical of large cities in Japan. True, apartments like that have no character or space, but, most important to me was that they also have no mukade. I started perusing the realty ads daily.

And then I realized something. I was praying to my God for a solution when I was dealing with Japanese centipedes. Rather than God, perhaps Buddha would have more of an understanding of my predicament. And, as luck would have it, Buddha lived right next door.

I made my way to the Temple, following the scent of incense up the gravel path to the gates. I washed my hands in the stone vessel, purifying myself before I made my request. I walked up the steps to the grated donation box and threw in my lucky gold five-yen coin. I clapped my hands, and faced the golden idol just beyond the doorway of the Temple itself. And then I made a bargain with Buddha. I looked up to the imposing gold figure in front of me.

“Buddha, if you keep the centipedes outside, I will leave them be.”

Short and sweet. I thought Buddha, in his Zen simplicity, would prefer that to a flowery, wordy request. I bowed deeply, turned, and followed the path back the few minutes to my house.

It worked. It really did. I didn’t see a centipede for ten days. Ten days of bliss. No waving pincers in the cereal box. No 100-legged dances across my kitchen floor. I could take a shower without first flushing a slithery invertebrate down the drain. I could go to bed without brushing down the sheets for unwelcome, multi-legged guests. It was heavenly.

But I ruined it. Day eleven, in the garden. I was pruning and clipping, pulling up weeds, preparing the wildly overgrown backyard for a barbecue. The humidity had made me cranky, and I was taking out my frustration on a particularly resilient weed. I stopped pulling on its leafy roots and started to dig into the damp earth around it with my fingers. The sting I felt was excruciating. I pulled my hand to my mouth, my instinct to suck on the wound. I looked closely at the tip of my finger. I was faced with two distinct holes, blood beginning to bubble up and spill over. I looked down at the weed I had been uprooting. The mukade was still there. It was the biggest yet, and, I am certain it was taunting me. Half its body was undulating, weaving in the air, reaching still for that finger it had just poisoned.

The rusted garden trowel I had been digging with was sitting on the ground just to my left. Gut instinct. Primitive fury. Primordial impulse. In a flash, the trowel was in my hand. It came down hard on the mukade, dissecting its body into two even pieces. The pincer portion of the body attempted flight, and started burrowing into the earth. My foot came down squarely on its head. I ground it into the earth with all my force. It didn’t stand a chance.

I stood up, throwing the trowel to the ground, and started tending to the throbbing wound at the end of finger. As I watched the tip change in colour from pink to red to a deep purple bulge, what I had done started to sink in. I had broken my deal with Buddha. I hadn’t kept my end of the bargain. I massacred that centipede on its own territory. What had I done?

I lay in bed that night, reading Nick Hornby. I needed something lighthearted to focus on as I tried in vain not to go over the details of the death in the garden. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I began to wonder if I should have had some ceremony for the centipede. Perhaps a cremation in the barbecue with a few prayers asking for forgiveness thrown in? I was contemplating firing up the backyard barbecue when the first one arrived. It announced its presence by slithering across the page of the book I was reading. I screamed and leapt out of bed, knocking the centipede off the book and into the sheets.

My barefeet hit the floor and felt immediately the rubbery, resilient body of another mukade. This one didn’t have a chance to bite. I didn’t pause to think or make a plan; I just ran. I was out of the bedroom and hit the stairs blindly, not watching where my feet were going. They knew the route and I merely followed. The bottom step was once again occupied. However, this time it was not by one but at least ten of them, sliding and crawling over one another in their attempt to get to the second step.

I had no time to think. I jumped over the slithering mass, and knew where I had to go. I grabbed a box of wooden matches off the kitchen table, and ran to the back doors to the yard. When I got to the doorway of the living room, I had to stop. The floor, made of traditional Japanese woven-straw tatami, was strewn completely with waving, sinewy mukade. Of all shapes, sizes and lengths, they tangled together in a jumbled, seething mass in front of the glass doors to the backyard. I had to shut down my senses and go on sheer instinct. I ran to the front door and grabbed those size 12 boots. They had served me well once before and I was relying on them to help me again. I put the huge boots on my feet, and made my way once again to the back door. I did my best to ignore the rolling, rubbery sensation under the thick soles as I trod over dozens of squirming mukade.

Finally outside, I went straight for the aluminum barbecue. I lifted the grates and struck the matches wildly, trying to light the bits of sticks and twisted paper still remaining from the last party. A small flame took, and I blew lightly on it, hoping it would be strong enough to catch. As the feeble flame grew stronger, I lit another match and used it as a guide to find the remains of my earlier kill. Five matches later, and I found both parts of its mangled body, half buried in the moist earth. I carried the head and the remaining part of the carcass carefully over to the barbecue, and, asking Buddha’s forgiveness, I threw the lot into the flames.

I watched as the body parts curled and crackled in the fire. As the smoke and flame licked higher and higher, I was soon overcome by a horrible stench that sat heavily in the humid air. I had never smelled anything like it, but could only imagine that the closest thing to compare it to would be burning flesh. I covered my nose and mouth with the sleeve of my pajama top, bitter tears welling in my eyes. I had to get out of there. As I tried to get around the barbecue, the lace of my oversized boot caught in the metal stand that held the flaming mess of paper, sticks and centipede. As I stumbled away, the whole thing tipped over completely, still hooked to my boot.

As the barbecue came crashing to the ground, glowing embers were flying everywhere; onto me, onto the grass, and onto the laundry hanging from the nylon line just by the back door. As the hanging underwear and socks started to catch with small sparks, I still felt I had a chance. I started pulling the smoldering laundry off the line, stamping on it, spewing so many bits and pieces of orange and yellow sparks all over the yard like a firecracker. And then I saw it. The kerosene can. What remained of last winter’s fuel stock was in a large, metal canister under the overhead laundry canopy. I also saw a sizable burning ember drop from a flaming sock right onto it. Whatever oil had splashed onto the can and ground around it, was now cloaked in a pale blue veil of flame.

Gut instinct. Primitive fury. Primordial impulse. I ran. I left the boots behind and bolted over the backyard fence and onto the street. It only took moments. The house was traditional, and it was old. That meant it was made of one thing only; wood. Flames took over the first floor, the smell of burning tatami and balsam filling the small street in a matter of minutes. Neighbours came to watch in awe, their faces glowing not only from the light of the fire but from the humidity that clung to their skin like adhesive.

In barefeet, I turned away from the scene, and walked up the street the short distance to the Temple. I needed to talk with Buddha. The sound of sirens filled the air as I made my way up the steps, tiptoeing delicately over the jagged gravel and over to the basin holding the purification water. I paused to wash my hands, taking a moment to splash some of the cool water on my face, washing away the slick sweat and gritty soot that had been clinging to me fiercely. I didn’t have a donation this time. The only thing I could offer was a deep bow of apology and regret. I looked into Buddha’s lair, but could see nothing. Was he there? Was he watching? I thought again of the importance of simplicity, and kept it at that.

“I’m sorry. Sumimasen. Gomen na sai.”

I turned and walked slowly back to what remained of my house. Firefighters filled the street, clomping up and down the road in their bright yellow gum boots, dragging water-logged hoses back to their engines. The rotating red lights on the top of each truck shone in wide arcs over the remaining stragglers, my neighbours. If they had been worried about me, I couldn’t tell. As I walked towards them, their faces betrayed no emotion. They only stared and took small, hesitant steps backwards as I walked past them, barefoot and silent.

Water was beginning to roll down the small road in my direction, criss-crossing in ever-widening rivulets. The cold water touched my feet and the coolness brought with it a certain sense of relief. I breathed in deeply. The stench was gone, replaced by the more comforting smell of burning leaves and a hint of incense. As I looked at the skeletal remains of my house, I had to smile. What else could I do? The mukade were gone.
The insurance people contacted me last week. They wanted me to go through what remained of my house. I knew there wasn’t much to see. I told them it wouldn’t be necessary, that there was nothing left to salvage. They said they had pulled a couple of items from the ruins and asked if they could send them on to my new address.

When I opened the box this morning, I could catch a whiff of woody smoke as I cut through the thick rubber tape on the cardboard box. Lifting the flaps up and open, I peered inside to find two small reminders of a bargain I had made not so long ago. A pair of size 12 boots with the laces slightly singed and tied in two neat bows were lined up symmetrically, nestled in the packing foam at the bottom of the box. Digging deeper into the Styrofoam bits, I could feel something hard, covered carefully in bubble wrap. Before I had completely unwrapped it, I knew what it was by the shape and the feel. The garden trowel.

My hands are gritty with soil as I write this. My new garden is smaller than my last, a little less wild, and a little more in keeping with its environment. I even have a mini carp pool and a bonsai tree in the corner that offer that little bit of Zen I used to try and absorb at my former neigbouring Temple. The place of honour, though, is in the centre on a small, cement slab. A Buddha figurine watches serenely over two large boots and a rusty garden trowel. His gaze is calm, wise, all-knowing. I look around at my new house, my new garden, and the battle-weary size 12 boots, and my instinct tells me only one thing. I am home.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A night out in Nagoya at a great izakaya called "Shin" in Sakae. Brian drank beer, I stuck to wine. The food was great, especially the sesame/salt cucumbers and the garlic butter potatoes. We'll be going back. We were there as a pre-sayonara party for Tanya who will be going back to Oz on the 30th. One of the more difficult aspects of being Western Woman is the inevitable saying good-bye to the other great Western Women you meet here.

I first met Tanya in 1996... Can it really be that long ago? It's because of these inevitable good-byes that sometimes I hesitate to forge new friendships when new people arrive. But then I realize that even though these friendships often have an expiry date on them as far as location is concerned, it would be a great loss to have not taken the chance to get to know the great people whose paths I have crossed. If I had said; "Oh, she's going to be gone soon, why bother becoming friends...?" there would be so many unmade memories... that would be even more sad than the actual saying good-bye. So, newcomers to Japan, I look forward to meeting you someday. To old friends who have come and gone, I miss you and think of you often.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A day with Brian in Wicklow, very close to his Dad's house. Thank you Brian for showing me beautiful Ireland, and of course for getting me over to Drumshambo (trains, buses, cars, and, the power of a hitchhiking thumb). A beautiful summer...

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Fairy Tale of Drumshambo

There's a song my boyfriend sings to me in Gaelic. It's about a little boy who needs shoes. His family is too poor for all the kids to have a pair, so the youngest has to wait until he'’s old enough for such a grown-up luxury. I hear this song, and I think of my father.

My father was born in 1933 in Drumshambo, County Leitrum, Ireland. Drumshambo. What a mouthful for a little girl. As I was growing up, my father would tell my sister and me bits and pieces of his life in Drumshambo. When I was about six or seven, my older sister took me aside and whispered in my ear; "There's no such place as Drumshambo. It’s just an Irish fairy tale." And so it was. For me, Drumshambo, County Leitrum, was a mystical, magical place, suspended in a mist in my father's own imagination.

Stories and rhymes...
It was that imagination and ability to tell a story that helped me go to sleep many nights as a child. If my father came into my room at bedtime, and he had a comb in his hand, I knew I was in for a great story. He would sit on the bed and tell me about Gulliver and his travels. Oh the places Gulliver went, but my favourite was Lilliput. My father told me how the people of Lilliput captured the giant Gulliver. Putting the comb against my leg, he showed me how the Lilliputians had to climb, and climb, and climb to get onto giant Gulliver. Closing my eyes, I was the size of Gulliver and could imagine the little people of Lilliput scrambling to capture me. When the story finished, out would come a piece of tissue paper which my father placed over the comb, and he would show me how a piece of black plastic with pointy little teeth could make music. And then, goodnight and lights out. But how could I sleep with the music of the comb still playing in my head and dozens of Lilliputians dancing on my bed? I would wonder if Lilliput was like Drumshambo.

Libidigister, Mr. McGibb, Bad P, Runaway & Standstill. All characters in a little story my dad would tell while driving the car. I can't remember the story, but the names of those characters still fly easily off my tongue and produce a smile as I remember him telling me about them. Were they friends of my dad's? Did they come from Ireland? Asking these questions would get me a wink and a laugh as he drove our monster-sized Delta 88, but never a concrete answer. Or, maybe he would just go onto another story or rhyme;

"I went to the chapel tomorrow,
I took a front seat in the back,
I fell from the floor to the ceiling,
And broke a front bone in my back"

I don’t know how many times I asked my dad to repeat this, trying to make order out of the linguistic mess he’d just offered. I’d go over it again and again, but to no avail. He knew something I didn’t and I felt it must be a grown-up thing; something I would understand when I got older.

Homemade Bubbles...
It wasn’t often that my father’s humour upset me, but there is one day that stands out in my memory where the twinkle in his eye did not win me over. It had to do with bubbles. We were in the supermarket, and I was firmly planted in front of the section with comic books and small toys. A bright pink bottle with a picture of a girl blowing bubbles caught my eye. I had to have that bottle and the bubbles that must be hiding inside. I grabbed it, and ran down the aisles looking for my dad. When I found him rummaging in the bread section, I showed him what he needed to buy for me. “I want bubbles!” I told him as I put the bottle in the cart. He smiled, removed it, and said it was a waste of money. “We can make our own bubbles. You’ll see.” He gave it back to me and told me to return it to the shelf. He continued to look for a loaf of bread from the counter in front of him. I stood firmly and mustered up as much conviction as my six years would allow. I put the bubbles back in the cart. “I want these bubbles.” He removed them again. “We’ll make our own. Put these back.”

The floodgates broke and the tears were streaming down my face. To no avail, I might add. He continued searching for the perfect loaf. His ignoring me made the tears come harder. And then I got the hiccoughs. I was a hyperventilating, hiccoughing, snotty mess. I wanted to scream. But, instead of a noise emanating from my mouth, a huge bubble of mucous came out my nose and just hung there on my face. My dad looked at me trying to suppress a smile. But he couldn’t do it; he started to laugh. And what did he say? “See? Didn’t I tell you could make your own bubbles?” Needless to say, my six-year old self didn’t see the humour in the situation.

After a stony-silent car ride home, I went to my bedroom and slammed the door. I was never going to leave. But soon, my dad was calling me. He was on the back balcony. My curiosity got the best of me, and I went out. Our balcony was on the second floor and looked out over a small backyard. When I got outside, I saw on the picnic table below a bowl of water, a bottle of dish soap, and a coat hanger. “Come on. I’ll show you something,” he said as he took my hand and brought me downstairs.

He showed me how to unhook the clothes hanger and make a wand with a circular end. He mixed up the soap and water and poured it onto a flat plate. He dipped the wand into the water, blew on the transparent rainbow in the circle and voila! A perfect bubble popped out and floated across the backyard. I was in awe. For me, it was as if magic had been performed. I spent the rest of the afternoon creating the perfect bubble, knowing they were so much better than the pansy sissy bubbles still trapped in that pink bottle at the supermarket.

You lead, I go first…
My father taught me yet another linguistic turn-of-phrase as he helped me onto my first bike ever. It was navy blue, had a banana seat and that cool looking loop of metal that acted as a back support behind the seat. From the end of each handlebar hung multicoloured tassels that would flap in the wind. Well, I could only imagine them flapping in the wind, really. I couldn’t ride my bike. I just couldn’t get the hang of it. I had absolutely no balance and would topple over the moment I sat on that cushy banana seat. So, my dad would stand behind the bike, hold onto the metal loop, and off we would go. I would pedal, he would run, saying all the time; “See, you’ve got it! You’re riding the bike. I’m going to let go now.” And I would holler back; “Don’t let go!”

And there we were, flying around the block for the 10th time, my dad panting and me ecstatic as the tassels flapped around at the end of the handles.

Of course, the inevitable happened. I looked behind me. Sure enough, my dad was there, running and panting as I pedaled, but he wasn’t holding the bar. I immediately lost my balance and fell off the bike. I demanded to know why he hadn’t been holding on. “Well, you did fine on your own the first 9 times around, I saw no reason to start now.” The wink, the smile, the laugh. I couldn’t believe it. I had been riding on my own? There’s no way. It was that Drumshambo magic appearing yet again.

I never needed my dad to run behind after that. From then on, he would be on his own snappy ten-speed, a bike he had put together himself with various parts. We’d go on journeys up and down the streets of our neighbourhood, sometimes even venturing over into the next neighbourhood where my Grandparents and Uncle Mike lived. At the beginning of each bike ride, as we saddled up for the journey, he would turn to me and say; “You lead, I go first.” And off we would go.

Tummy in, chest out...
The first day of school. Playing trumpet in a music recital. Going up to bat in a softball game. My first job. Going away to university. Moving to Japan. These are all milestones in my life, and the first step of each of these challenges began with the phrase; “Tummy in, chest out.” This advice from my dad has been my mantra from as far back as I can remember. When you pull your tummy in, when you push your chest out, the surge of confidence is tangible. This four word imperative has seen me through some of the most challenging experiences of my life.

My dad showed me a photo last Christmas. It was a grainy black and white, circa 1939. He had brought it back from his trip to Ireland, and it was the first photo I had ever seen of Drumshambo. In it were children ranging in age from about five to fifteen. He pointed at the building behind the kids. “This was in front of my school. All the kids studied together.” They were all lined up, little ones in front, bigger kids in back, looking very intent and serious, hands at their sides, standing soldier-straight. Not a sloucher in the bunch. “Tummy in, chest out.” It looked like that must have been their mantra, too.

I looked more closely at the picture. The kids in the front had no shoes. “Where are their shoes?” I asked my father. He laughed and answered, “If you were hungry, what would be more important – food or shoes?” And it became clear to me that Drumshambo was not a fairy tale. It was real, and achingly so. The poverty, the hard work, the need to find a better life were all staring back at me from that photo. My dad could have told the hard tale of his youth to my sister and me. He could have talked about being hungry and walking to school in bare feet. Rather, he let Drumshambo create its own magic by not filling us in on all the details of its harsh reality. And for that, I am grateful.

Any regrets...
When my father moved to Canada in his twenties he probably didn’t realize he wouldn’t return to Ireland until four decades later. He never visited Ireland when I was growing up. Maybe that was another reason it didn’t seem real to me. Sure, there was some Irish paraphernalia here and there in the house. A shillelagh hanging on the wall, a bottle of holy water from Knock Shrine, an Irish record or two tucked away; but that was all. Living in Japan, I’m surrounded by foreigners, myself included, who regularly wax nostalgic for their country, their hometown, their culture. I often hear comparisons made between Japan and the various homelands, with the country of birth usually being touted as the more superior. My father never did that. He came to Canada, and that was that.

He went back to Ireland a few years ago, and was shocked at the wealth and success of the people now living there. Those same people he had walked barefoot to school with now owned million dollar homes and holidayed in places like Mojorca and Ibiza. Did my father wonder if he should have stayed? I haven’t asked. I suppose I’m afraid he’ll say yes, that leaving one difficult life and stepping into another reality that was just as harsh, if not sometimes worse, was a mistake. When he arrived in Canada, he had joined the army and was promptly sent as far north as possible. While he patrolled the Distant Early Warning lines in -40 degree temperatures, did he imagine Drumshambo as a fairy tale as well?

For most, trekking off to a foreign land to forge a new life is taking the road less traveled. Not so for an Irishman of my dad’s generation. He chose the road out of Ireland that was well worn-in by thousands of emigres before him. It was those who stayed behind that were taking a bigger gamble, and, by all appearances, they hit the jackpot. Does my father ever wonder; “What if I had stayed?”


I went to Ireland last month. I had a lump in my throat as I made my way into the town of my father’s childhood. I drove out into the countryside to look at the mines where my father had worked. They’re closed down now, but still carry out tours that are advertised with the line; “Discover for yourself the fascinating and exciting life of the miners!” I can imagine my father laughing at such on odd take on his former employment. I went to the opening of the shaft that years before brought the miners down into the depths of the earth to dig for coal. As the elevator made its way down, did my father tell himself; “Tummy in, chest out!” as he prepared for the hard work ahead of him? Was it the fairy tale of a land called Canada that kept him going?

As my flight leaves Ireland, I look out the window at the vast, green expanse below and, even though I saw it with my own eyes, I still question if that place was really there…

There is a land, far, far away. It is a land where people have strange names and talk in riddle form. They tell stories and blow perfect bubbles while riding on little, blue bicycles. Their music flows out of the teeth of combs. On shoeless feet they stand tall and proud while the twinkle in their eyes tells a story of a lifetime. The name of this land is Drumshambo.

The end

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Back to Vancouver
Reverse Culture Shock, Squeegee Kids and Me

Squeegee Kids. This was a new term for me when I returned to Vancouver. Five years in Japan had left gaping holes in my pop culture lexicon. Over the course of those five years, the landscape and feel-good atmosphere of the city had also changed. It was like Vancouver had been a child when I had left, and when I returned, that child was entering that unknown and often cruel territory called adolescence. Vancouver was growing up fast, and with its growth came a loss of innocence. With the decadence of Asian investors and dot.com gen-XY money, came the fallout of the have-nots. The have-nots followed the scent of money and home-grown top-grade weed, certain that Vancouver was Eden by the Sea; a Mecca for those who liked a temperate climate and guaranteed jobs. The promise of cool breezes, sleeping on the beach, and selling home-made jewellery to smiling tourists brought the have-nots in droves seeking the easy life. Why stay in the east and work in a cubicle when paradise was only a one-way economy flight away? Oh, and did I mention the weed?

To the youth who lived east of the Rockies, Vancouver was a beacon, sending out feel-good, nurturing vibes. It was Canada's equivalent of late-sixties, early-seventies San Francisco and 1980’s Amsterdam combined. Turn on! Tune in! Drop out!Vancouver had its very own Timothy Leary in the form of Marc Emery, marijuana advocate par excellence. An already somewhat pot-friendly City Council was being pressured by Marc and his pals at High Times magazine to make the stuff one hundred percent legal. When I returned in 2001, that dream was almost a reality. Pot really seemed to be illegal in name only.

People smoked freely on the streets, in bars, and in the cafes on Hastings Street. Not the really bad part of Hastings. No, the still trendy area, where dreadlocked boys and patchoulli girls hung out in droves. When they weren'’t smoking pot in the cafes, they were hanging out on the sidewalk playing hakisak and talking the deep sort of philosophy that only stoned twenty-five year olds know how to spout. Ask anyone of those nouveau hippies where they were from, and you would get a geographical mosaic of Ontario small towns as your answer; Windsor, New Liskerd, Sudbury, Mississauga, Cobalt, North Bay. Marc Emery was an Ontario boy himself, (London, to be exact) before heeding the call west. I wonder if he fancies himself a latter-day Moses leading the Exodus to the promised land?

While the smoke of this THC fuelled peacenik phenomenon was wafting over the beaches in Kitsalano, drifting into the used clothes shops on Broadway and forming fluffy clouds over the front lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery, a much harsher, meanly aggressive chemical was marching up Granville Street and camping out close to Davie. If THC is another way to spell peace and understanding, crystal meth was its polar opposite, its chemical components comprised a whole alphabet soup of corrosive additives. Its users came from even further east than the pot kids, and they were generally five to ten years younger. Their childhoods were spent in towns named Val d'or, Lac St. Jean, Laval, Lachine, and St. Jerome. The Quebecois.

These were the Squeegee Kids, and they scared the hell out of me.

The squeegee kids are so-called because that is how they make the money to buy the crystal; they carry a bucket of soapy water and a squeegee, waiting at red lights to wash down the windows of stopped cars. They have a punk rock sensibility about them that can be seen not only in the Doc Marten lace-ups and the soaped-up spiked green hair. It's also apparent in the confidence of their swagger. Sid and Nancy moves, right down to the fuck-you sneer are all there as they approach a car to be washed.

Watching the daily pantomime on the corner of Granville and Davie is almost laughable in its predictability. Squeegee in hand, Sid Viscious approaches a Volkswagen hatchback, suburban mom at the helm. She first reacts with a shake of the head and looks straight ahead as her hands grip the steering wheel. This tactic doesn’t work. The squeegee kid dips his tool of the trade in his bucket of water. The driver will then raise her hand, index finger out, gesturing no with a back and forth wag. Sid keeps coming.

And, there it is. The sudden look of horror on the driver's face when she realizes this guy is going to wash her window whether she likes it or not. Then there's the frantic search for the door-lock button and the window-up switch. A trapped animal waiting for the light to change, she looks straight ahead, trying not to aknowledge the sludgy water being splashed on and wiped off her windshield. The light changes, and for the first time ever, the suburban housewife's Volkswagen's tires squeal as she bolts out of the intersection. The reaction from the squeegee kid? Not much of one, except for the occasional "Chalis! Tabernac!" shouted to no one in particular. These aren't really bad words either, when you think about it. Church words, holy words. Uttered on a street corner at a missed chance for a quarter and a snort.

Where were these guys before I left for Japan? I can watch them from my 2nd floor window, as I sit at my kitchen table in my Davie Street apartment. I watch, transfixed, as they twist and jerk down the street, unable to escape the St. Vitus Dance phenomenon particular to speed junkies jonesing for a fix. I watch from my window as they transform from urban punk chic when they first arrive, to scab-covered, homeless addicts, sometimes down on their hands and knees picking at chewing gum and bits of garbage on the street, thinking, in their drug destroyed brains, that those little pieces of crap might be crystal.

I watch, from my 2nd storey window, when they absolutely can'’t score the five bucks necessary for an all-day high and they resort to mixing rubbing alcohol and water into bottles and slugging it back. Average age? Late teens, early twenties. What happened to Mecca and all the opportunities west of the Rockies? Am I just more sensitive because I have returned from "safety country"” Japan? I need to find out. I need to talk to an actual person rather than make assumptions from my cushy 2nd storey vantage point. I pull on my coat, get my notepad and pencil, and go down the flight of stairs to the grittiness of a world I do not know or recognize anymore.


When I wake up the next morning, it dawns on me that letting the speed freak and his German Shepherd spend the night might not have been one of my smarter moves. He's still there, the speed freak, laying splayed on the sofa, one leg stetched ridgedly straight out from his torso, the other bent at an awkward angle, dangling off the couch. The sole of his dirty bare foot is buried into my cream shag carpet. I know I'll need some heavy-duty cleanser to get the heel print grime out, but that isn'’t really the pressing issue at the moment. The speed freak’s German Shepherd is standing guard beside the head of his sleeping owner. He is resting on his haunches with a sentinel’s steadfastness. He is panting practically in time with his owner's quick and shallow breaths.

That's what is grabbing my attention now. That big dog is staring at me, not menacingly, but with very intelligent, all-knowing eyes. What those eyes tell me is to stay the hell away from his Master, and all will be fine. So, I do. I back up, turn around, and return to my bedroom to contemplate my next move. I am beginning to sympathize with that suburban wife in her Volkswagon.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The First Trip Home


Christmas decorations and muzak versions of White Christmas arrive full force in Japan on December 1st. It looks and feels as if anything remotely related to Christmas, save for Baby Jesus and all that holy stuff, has exploded all over Nagoya. The streetlights, bus stops, storefronts, and even mini-bonsai trees are festooned with silver tinsel, blinking twinkle lights, and waving Santas. I half expect to see little elves with toy-making tools running about, preparing for the big day. It’s the North Pole, minus the snow.

This is my first Christmas season in Japan, and it is surreal. I really don’t know what I expected at this time of year, but if I’d had any notions about the season, they certainly had nothing to do with the consumer craziness that was taking hold of the city. Japan at Christmas is a retailers dream come true.

I have seen this insanity back home, of course. But it strangely seems to justify itself in that there is a small rememberance, tucked way in the recesses of our collective North American consciousness, that there really is a deeper meaning and reason for the season. A slight nod to the birthday boy might be given in the form of a visit to Midnight Mass, or maybe a little prayer at Christmas dinner, or perhaps a gift given to the needy in the form of canned food. Something. Anything. The sentiment of the season still does exist even though it has to be dug out from under a ton of gift-wrap and overindulgence.

I cast my cynical eye over the Christmas craziness in Nagoya, and start counting the days to my Christmas homecoming with a vengeance. The final straw comes three days before my departure home. I am sitting at my own little desk, which is one among an island of eight foreign staff at the publishing company where I work. It is a very typical office, by Japanese standards, in that privacy is not a priority in its layout. Our eight desks are lined up in two rows of four. I am facing my co-worker, and he is facing me. At the head of our eight desks is our group leader. He has the honour of not only having a view of all eight of us, he is also the holder of the phone. If any of us receives or needs to make a phone call, we have to use the leader’s phone.

There are seven more islands, eight desks and one leader each, spread out over the whole of the office space, with nary a wall or partition between us. This was group work, and I was a part of it. Kind of. I guess our island of eight plus leader felt a little out of place as we were all foreign. We called our little office oasis “GI”, short for “Gaijin Island”, but that was our little secret. We had freely referred to ourselves as Gaijin in the past, but at some point we must have ruffled some feathers. The Bucho told the Kacho, the Kacho told our leader, and our leader told us to stop using the word Gaijin in the office. So we did. Now we were codeword “G”, and, during the day, we lived on “GI” from 9:00 to 5:30. We certainly could be childish when we wanted to be.

Anyway, it’s three days before Christmas holiday departure, and Michiko, a co-worker from a neighbouring island comes over for one thing or another. As I rifle through my papers looking for what she needs, she points at some of the cards and pictures decorating my work space. “Is that your mother?” she asks, pointing at a photo of my mom at Christmas. I answer yes. “Oh, she is very beautiful!” I smile, and hand her the form she was looking for. She points at the next picture on my desk, a Christmas card from an Aunt. “Is that a cousin?” She asks, pointing at Baby Jesus in a manger scene. I don’t know what to say. I check to see if she is laughing, if she is pulling my leg. Her sincere gaze leads me to believe that she truly thinks that this is a relation of mine. I tell her who the baby is and she gives many nods of earnest understanding as I give the history of Christmas in a 40 second soundbite. I explain that that’s why I’ll be away for a couple of weeks; I’ll be celebrating the season with my family. She nods some more, and then gets a mischeivous look in her eye. Gaijin Island is almost empty, most of my co-workers having gone to get some lunch. She looks left and right and then comes closer to me. She speaks in a low voice, very breathy, very excited.

“I’ll celebrate Christmas, too!” She looks over her shoulder. It’s all clear. She begins again. “My boyfriend made a special reservation at Hotel Christmas in Gifu! They only take a reservation at Christmas and he got it! He got the Christmas special with Mr. and Mrs. Santa Sauna room!” Michiko is blushing deeply at this point, but there is a real look of joy on her face. I tell her that’s great, and to enjoy the 25th. She practically skips back to her island.

I pin the Christmas card back in its place. Baby Jesus is looking serene under the watchful gaze of Mary. I wonder if Michiko thought that Mary was my aunt and Joseph my uncle? Who knows. What I did know is that had they been able to make reservations at love hotels way back at Christmas number one, I guess we would have missed out on the whole Nativity scene. Joseph could have simply called ahead to the Inn, Jesus would have been born in comfort, and the whole family could have relaxed in a soothing sauna. Dark cynicism is taking root in my guts as I sit by myself at my desk. Cynicism, I am realizing, is one of the side effects of disbelief. I can either fight it, let it simmer inside, or flee. Danger! Danger! I wanted to get home, to reality, away from the surreal Nagoya surroundings, and off of Gaijin Island.


The view of Toronto Pearson International airport is obscured on the other side of my little JAL economy class window by ice. And sleet. And snow. And hail. I don’t want to leave my seat. The sound of the ice storm battering the little window to my left is a little off-putting. But, my friends, whom I haven’t seen in close to a year, are waiting inside the terminal for me.

After getting my gift-laden bags from the luggage carrousel, and pushing through the swinging doors into the terminal, I soon find myself the centre of attention. My friends have swarmed me, full of excitement and questions.

“You're skin and bones. Don’t they feed you over there?” is one of the first enquiries I field. Before I can fully explain that my diet is actually better than it ever has been, someone has already jumped in.

“What do you expect? She’s probably living on rice.”

I let that slide. I’m too tired to go into my daily food intake. On Gaijin Island, we eat from the office cafeteria, where french fries, coca cola and hot dogs are unheard of. Miso soup, salads, pickles, rice and cutlets are the daily fare. We’re a fit lot on our little Island, although we have been known to go on the occasional cookie run to the Lawson’s Convenience Store down the street.

We make our way out to the waiting gargantuan SUV in the parking lot. We throw my bags in the back, and then comes the next comment.

“Bet you’re glad to be in something with 4-wheels and an engine rather than the rickshaws they’ve got over there!”

What? I’m trying to conjure up an image of what an actual rickshaw is in my jet-lagged addled head. It takes awhile, but I finally clue in to what he’s referring to. I look at him to see if he’s having me on. I don’t think he is.

I get settled into the backseat, and we all hunker down for the two-hour ride ahead of us. The windshield wipers are going full speed, but they simply can’t keep up with the rate of the snowfall. Kind of like me not being able to keep up with the comments and questions flying my way.

“What’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten?” That one comes to me from the front seat. I think for a moment, and come up with mayonnaise, corn and octopus on pizza. There’s a long silence. And then:

“You mean…they’ve got pizza over there?”

I’m about to tell him it’s delivered by rickshaw when I think better of it. The whole scenario is getting a little surreal; the weather, the questions, the comments being thrown around without any thought. Where was I and who were these people?

My vacation continues in much the same vein. Comments about the Japanese being wonderful craftsmen. The Great Wall is testament to their handiwork, isn’t it? Had I had a chance to visit it? It’s one of the Seven Wonders, you know...

It went on and on, no matter where I went. Once people realized I was visiting from Japan, the talk went on to pandas and concubines, spicy pickles and Tai Chi. The mishmash of Asian influences that encapsulates most people’s vision of Japan amazes me. And it has me wondering if only a short time ago I too had such a jumbled view of where I now lived? Was it possible? Thoughts of Gaijin Island are swirling in my head. Maybe it is an oasis. I do know that I am looking forward to landing on it, and having a chat with its inhabitants. Had they too experienced this strangeness with the natives of their previous homes?


I’m in the duty free shop in Vancouver on my stop-over back to Nagoya. I stop to look at the different knick-knacks they have on display. Christmas items are now marked down 50 to 75 percent. There’s a little wooden Nativity scene, complete with Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men. I pick it up and walk over to the checkout. There’s a bowl full of plastic Santa figurines, only a dollar a piece. I pick one out, and have the purchases put in a bag.

When I return to Gaijin Island on January 4th, I look over at Michiko’s desk. Her group has already gone for lunch. I pull the Nativity out of my bag. Santa Claus is now firmly a part of the scene having been set in place earlier with some sticky glue. I have a little card with a maple leaf on it, and I place it beside Michiko’s computer terminal. On the front of the card, I have pasted a picture of my family. We’re a pretty happy lot. On the bottom is a small note:

Christmas is what you make it. You made mine a happy and thoughtful one. Thank you Michiko.
From your Friend on a Neighbouring Island

I walk back to my desk, my own little piece of Gaijin Island, and set out my miso soup, pickles and rice. I don’t think lunch has ever tasted so good.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

A photo of Westernwoman with the Storyteller

Ah, here comes summer. My experience with summer last year was, to the say the very least, horrendous. Everyone felt my wrath. (Apologies...) I sat down to write a bit about the whole debacle that was summer sometime in Sepember last year when I had found a bit of vacation time tucked away and jumped aboard a flight to Vancouver. When I returned to Nagoya, Autumn was in the air, and I got that little bit of perspective that was so desperately lacking while I was going through those scorching, pavement melting days last August. So, I've dusted off that entry, hoping that it will allow some sobering perspective to land on my shoulders DURING those hot, hot days that are just around the corner. As always, I'm seeking that elusive perspective while in the moment, rather than in retrospect. Here's hoping it will work. And, if I do start to complain about the heat in August... kick me!

Snow Fairies in August

Summertime in Nagoya was HELL. The combination of heat, pollution and humidity created a sweltering stew of anger, bitterness and frustration that boiled within me daily. I was horrible to be with and even worse to look at. My hair was plastered to my forehead with sweat, my back bent, carrying the weight of August's cruelty squarely on my shoulders. If I managed to look up, everyone was met by the surly scowl firmly set on my face; I was a mess. The day my boyfriend left for his four weeks of holidays to much cooler climes was my meltdown day. Who was I going to complain to now? Who would console me as I berated the Nagoya heat, waxing nostalgic for Canada's majestic snowcapped Rockies and cobalt-blue waters? He didn't need to know that three-quarters of my life had been spent in the oppressive thirty degree Celsius heat and humidity that constitute a typical Toronto summer.

People who have never lived in Canada have a vision of snowshoes, maple syrup, and Bonhomme the snowman dancing gaily at La Carnivale du Quebec. I wasn't about to burst anyone's romantic notions of that cool, pristine beauty that makes up their year-round vision of Canada. Hell, there are Americans living mere miles from the Canadian border who arrive mid-July, skis firmly strapped to the roof of the mini-van. I am not going to be the one to put an end to the myth. It's far too much fun to laugh and point at mini-vans with US plates sporting skis in July. Besides, admitting that perhaps I had endured a sticky summertime or two in my past would have taken away from the steam of my present temper tantrum. My delicate Canadian sensitivity to the cruel Japanese heat was my armor for the war of guilt I was about to wage against my poor, unsuspecting boyfriend.

"How can you leave me now? I'm dying!"

These were the first words from me to him on the morning of his departure. I was lying stretched out across the bed, one arm draped dramatically over my eyes, the other hanging limply over the side of the bed. I took a peek at him from under my arm. He was still packing.

"God you're lucky... The temperature is supposed to go to 57 Celsius today. It'll be nice up on that plane, drinking beer in the air-conditioning, watching movies..."

I was still watching him closely under the cover of my arm as he walked from the closet to the luggage and back again, tossing various bits and pieces in. He spoke as he threw a pair of socks in the general direction of the bag.

"Hmm... 57 degrees sounds a bit on the hot side, doesn't it?" He had a hint of a smile on his face. "Why don't we check the internet and get the weather report?"

I wanted to scream. Why was he being so practical in my time of need? Stronger, more mature methods were needed.

"This isn't fair!"

I flung the words across the room as I sat up on the bed. I crossed my arms in a huff across my chest. I scowled. Menacingly.

That got him. He stopped packing and sat down beside me, putting his arm around my shoulders. He poured me a glass of water from the decanter beside the bed, and had me lay down. And then he told me a story. In it were snow fairies and princes and mermaids and fire-breathing dragons on a trek through icy glaciers. His tale unfolded and I closed my eyes and saw the world that his words were painting for me. The images were so clear and vivid and detailed that I felt I too had joined the fairies on that magical glacier, floating out to sea in a time long past. Gone were the heat, the humidity, and the childish urge to induce guilt. My eyes remained closed as the words washed over me, cool, crystal clear and calming.

As the fairies and dragons walked hand-in-hand through the swirling white snow of my boyfriend's tale, the realization of what I had been doing to myself became abundantly clear. Nagoya summer was hell because I had made it that way. I was so caught up in how I was being affected by the sun's rays I neglected to notice that there were a few other people living and working in the city as well. I'm sure many of them were not as lucky as me to have a personal storyteller to take the temperature down a notch or two.

When the story wrapped up, the fairies and dragons having successfully overcome numerous hardships and obstacles along their way to the conclusion, I opened my eyes. My boyfriend smiled and stood up to continue his packing. I got up too, and helped put the last of the clothes into the bag before squeezing it shut and setting it beside the door. I felt sheepish and more than a little silly for my pettiness. He seemed to have forgotten my earlier childish behaviour, and we ate a nice breakfast together before he headed off on his vacation.

These days, autumn has been making quite a show. The crisp mornings, blue-skied afternoons, and crescent moon nights all add up to paradise for me. Fall has pulled out her red carpet, and I'm traipsing down it with my head held high and a smile on my face. I know that at the end of Autumn's cameo appearance, there lay months of frosty nights and shivering mornings with the air so cool I'll be able to see my own breath as I step out of the shower. It's at these times, when I am on the verge of berating the poor insulation and inferior heating systems in Japan, that I hope my storyteller will once again step in to set me straight. I have a feeling that he has a few more tales up his sleeve; stories of tropical green forests and sun maidens dancing under golden skies. It will be these words that carry me, unscathed and frostbite free, through the cold Nagoya winter that awaits us all. Bring it on; I am ready.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Windows On Japan
A Memory in Four Parts

Part I – In the Air

September, 1995. Air Canada flight 26, Vancouver to Nagoya. I’m sitting in economy, crammed bent-kneed into my too-small seat, when I get my first real taste of Japan, both literally and figuratively. This is a few years before Asian edibles, particularly the Japanese variety, have become commonplace in Canada’s west coast. I’m staring out the little window to my left, my own rectangular slice of the world spread out in front of me in fluffy whites and streamlined blues. This is my adventure and it has just begun. When offered the choice of lasagna or Japanese noodles, I jump on the noodle option immediately. I want my culinary experimentations to begin right now. The flight attendant, wearing a uniform the same colour as the slick blue sky outside my window, passes me my tray. On it is a neatly arranged assortment, including soba noodles, a perfect cube of white tofu, and steamed sticky rice. The soya sauce is packaged in miniature plastic fish-shaped bottles. I rip my chopsticks apart quickly in anticipation. They break unevenly in two. The wood is jagged and splintered, one stick much thicker than the other. I quickly attempt to cover my faux pas, hoping my Japanese seatmate won’t notice how awkward I am with my woody eating utensils.

But, he notices. He makes an enthusiastic eating gesture, smiling, and says to me; “You use chopsticks very well!” His grin is contagious.

I beam.

Part II - Landing – Nagoya Airport

When the plane lands, I follow the crowd of people in front of me. They seem to know where they’re going. I look at the signs directing weary travellers to their proper waiting stations. My queue is labelled quite clearly. In bold red lettering, it reads “Aliens”. I take my place in this line, passport gripped tightly in my free hand, while the other hand attempts to adjust the straps of the 30-kilo backpack weighing me down. Jet lag is making its presence known through a persistent buzz deep in my middle ear. The fluorescent lights lined up symmetrically above my head add to the din with their own frantic rhythm; Bizz! pause. Bizz! pause. Bizz! The lights flicker in time with the persistent drone. I dig into my pockets, hoping to find a Tylenol among the lint, coins and candy wrappers. No such luck. My boarding pass stub is there though, its edges already curled and frayed. Seat 42A, Window. I put it back in my pocket. I’ll keep this as a souvenir; maybe paste it in a photo album later. The buzz in my head continues.

After a not-too-long wait, I find myself first in the queue, being summoned forward to the large, windowed Immigration cubicle. Stony faced, middle-aged Immigration Man, official officer’s hat firmly planted on the top of his head, has his hand outstretched before him. I decide he is definitely a no-nonsense type. I lay my passport in the opening below the glass. His hand glides under and grabs it in one swift motion.

An image suddenly comes to mind. My going-away party. Two nights ago. Bags packed, I had put my important going-to-Japan documents, including this sacred passport, on the glass-topped coffee table. One of my friends, a west coast boy through and through, is smoking a joint. His baggie of stuff is spilling out onto the tabletop, mixing with beer drippings and nacho chip crumbs. What if that granola-stompin’, tree-huggin’, hippie wannabe dropped some his weed into my passport?

The bizz-buzz cacophony gets louder, my legs wobble, and the window separating me from my future reflects a blurry image of myself, hair askew, eyes dark with semi-circles, droopy and in need of sleep staring back at me. To Immigration Man in front of me, I am certain my face reflects that of a hard-core heroin junkie, desperate for a fix. I’m screwed.

He glances at the computer. He glances at me. He glances at the computer again. And then he speaks;

“English Teacher?”

I nod. I let out a bit of an affirmative “uh huh” and bob my head up and down. Perky, I should look perky. I could be teaching this man’s child. I attempt to curl the corners of my mouth up, but not too much. These Immigration guys can detect insincerity a mile away. They can also sniff the scent of one lone pot seed buried deep at the bottom of an overstuffed backpack. Or, stuck in the creases of a brand new passport for that matter. He’s looking right at me. Did his nose just twitch?

I’m screwed.

He rifles through the empty pages of my passport one more time. He grabs the rubber stamp in his right hand, and down it comes on page two. Bam! He slides it underneath the glass towards me. I grab it and attempt my first Japanese word with a real live Japanese person;


I’m not certain, but I think I see Immigration Man’s stern fa├žade crack slightly from behind his glassed-in enclosure. I detect the beginnings of an almost smile itching to get out. I think it’s his eyes that give him away. There is a glimmer, perhaps even a twinkle, buried in there somewhere. I hike my backpack over my shoulder and make my way to the luggage carrousel. I no longer feel fatigued or worn out. I practically bounce over to the circular conveyer belt, scanning for my belongings as it spits out bag after bag. I can’t help it. I give myself a little pinch.

I am in Japan. I am, officially, an Alien. I have the stamp to prove it.

I beam.

Part III - Welcome to Japan

My new home is, in reality, a room. It’s 6-tatami and contains a bar fridge, a portable gas burner on the bedroom floor, and a foldaway futon mat and cover. There is no chair or table. But there is a little TV. I put a patterned shawl over the unwatched television set, and place a lacquered black and red vase filled with yellow daisies on top. It’s the little touches, I know, that make a space a home. A good friend taught me that, and I never forgot those words of wisdom. They sure come in handy in this small space.

Toilet, sink and bathtub are all contained in a plastic stall very similar to the Air Canada restroom on my flight over. And, a thoughtful addition, an opaque plexiglass window on the toilet’s sliding door allows a soft glow to permeate the little cubicle space. I can read my Let’s Go Japan! by its soft light. After all, it’s in this space where I have the only seat in the house. Many trips, some to Kyoto and Fukuoka, others to Sendai or into the Gifu wilds, are planned from my throne in my multi-tasking cubicle. Do Japanese use these cubicles as a personal library and planning space as I do? My gut instinct tells me probably not, and I’m not fluent enough in the language to ask such a personal question. It will have to wait.

My neighbours have brought me a large box of tomatoes. They are gorgeous tomatoes, perfectly round and plump, each with a bright green sprout on top. I generally don’t eat tomatoes, picky eater that I am; however these particular specimens are practically begging to be devoured. I eat those tomatoes with every meal for a week. I dice them in a bowl with a dash of salt, a touch of pepper, and a drizzle of vinegar. I eat them with unevenly separated, splintered wooden chopsticks, sitting on my throne, (lid and seat down, of course), reading Soseki’s I Am a Cat.

I beam.

Part IV – Fitting In

Backpack firmly fastened to my shoulders, this book-carrying tool that is used by one and all back home, is now a symbol, in my mind anyway, that declares I really am different, an alien. I don’t fit in with the women here. One of my daily pass-the-time-on-the-train games is to count how many Japanese women I see carrying a backpack. From amongst the Prada, Chanel and Louis Vuiton totes, the highest number I ever spy is two. As it turns out, one of those two backpack toting Japanese turns out to be a Canadian.

I still remember her name, even though we only had a two-minute conversation on a train between stops. She had noticed my little maple leaf pin and came and sat beside me. She was Louise from Kapiskasing, a fresh-faced and happy JET. She had arrived a week earlier, she let me know in her breathy, early-twenties enthusiasm. We only had time to chat for two stops, and then she was gone. I watched her through the window of the train as she bounced down the stairs to the adventures she would certainly find. Her backpack announced her foreigness without hesitation or apology. Its very difference from the norm made her special, someone to whom exciting things would happen. It didn’t weigh her down. I felt like such a Japan old-timer gaijin; jaded and cynical. I had been in Nagoya for four months. I wanted to slam my backpack on the floor of the train and stomp on it.

Before the train doors close, a little girl, perhaps four years old, jumps on with her mother, narrowly missing the whoosh of the sliding doors. Mother and daughter are laughing, a little out of breath, as they search for a seat. The daughter climbs up on a vacant spot. The little girl kneels on the seat, nose pressed against the train window, as her mother carefully removes her daughter’s miniature Pokemon sneakers. She is very careful not to let the little shoes touch the seat, and she places them on the floor below. The girl is now ready for the scenes that will soon be flying by in front of her through her own personal square of window. She has the best seat in the house.

Kneeling and gazing out the window, her back is towards me, she is wearing an oversized Sailor Moon backpack. Sailor Moon is staring at me with one liquidy, twinkling exaggerated manga eye. The other eye is closed in a conspiratorial wink. Her cartoon smile, although subtle, is most certainly directed at me. Sailor Moon is communicating with me on an afternoon commuter train. I look around to see if anyone else is giving this extraordinary event any notice. Everyone is doing their own thing; reading, dozing, applying make-up. My stop is next.

I hike my backpack securely on my shoulders and watch the neon Pachinko and Karaoke signs going by outside the window in front of me. The train comes to a stop, and the doors slide open to let me out. I give a final glance over my shoulder at the little girl who now has both hands planted against the window. She’s willing the train to move again, slapping her palms on the glass and giggling. I step out of the train and onto the platform. I am now on the other side of her looking-glass world, and we stare at each other as the doors slide shut. I wave. She’s still laughing as the train begins to move. She waves back at me, and slaps the window one more time. She keeps waving as the train picks up speed. And then, she’s gone. I know she can’t hear me, but I say it anyway.


I run down the steps and into the station, my backpack bouncing against me, offering a gentle reminder of its weight. I walk into the station.

I beam.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Today Westernwoman is going to write from a man's perspective

Choices at the Crossroads

I sat alone one afternoon
A beer my only friend
The bar that day was empty
Not a soul from end to end

The mug soon offered only dregs
I gestured for one more
The barman did oblige me
A perfect pint he poured

I took a swig and licked my lips
Trying not to think too hard
About the reasons I was here
Sitting lonely at the bar

But pints have this tradition
It is worn and it is true
Beer melancholy soon creeps up
And then you’re feeling blue

The barman he has seen this sight
A million times before
He hides a yawn, wipes up a glass
And looks up to the door

It suddenly swings open
Afternoon light creeps in
In walk two gents with faded jeans
Their faces showing grins

They swagger over to the bar
One with two fingers held up high
“A pint for me and for my friend
We’re feeling mighty dry!”

Two mugs are set down on the counter
Soon filled with golden beer
One gent looks right at me and says,
“Mind if we sit here?”

One fella sits to my left
The other to my right
One slaps my back and with a wink says
“Cheers mate, we don’t bite!”

Gent to my right smiles knowingly
And makes me feel at ease
Left guy’s more aggressive
Perhaps a man who likes to tease

“Hey there my name’s Dexter,”
Says the man with the calm smile
“We’re pretty parched, our legs are sore
I think we walked eight miles.”

“Hey mate my name is Southpaw,”
Says new friend number two
He drinks his drink, slams down his glass
“I’m still thirsty, how ‘bout you?”

Barman pulls us our frosty drinks
They’re set down one, two, three
One for Dexter, One for Southpaw
And one for new friend me

“Hey fella, what’s going on?
What’s with the worried face?”
Asks Dexter sitting to my right
His demeanour full of grace

Southpaw leans in closer
His eyes come near to mine
“Come on friend and spill your guts
We’ll listen, we’ve got time.”

And so that’s how it happened
That’s how it came to pass
I started talking slowly
Staring down into my glass

“Well here’s how it goes fellas,”
I began my tale of woe
“It’s all about a decision
I made not so long ago

I was living my life from day to day
Doing ordinary things
I worked and did my fair share
On occasion I’d even sing

I had someone beside me
It wasn’t a great fit
But I had made my bed, it’s done I thought
this is where I must sit

But on my daily journey
One day I did get lost
I came upon a crossroads
Like something out of Faust

I suddenly had options
Destinations I could choose
Left or right or straight ahead
I really couldn’t lose

I took a peek behind me
At the life that I had made
The complications and the pitfalls
I had the power to make fade

I turned my head and looked up high
I was seeking some advice
I yelled “Please Lord God help me
It’s not like rolling dice…”

No voice told me what to do
So it’s gambling I did choose
The familiar road behind me
Was the path that had to lose

I stepped hesitantly forward
My feet wobbly at first
But then my gait got stronger
An amazing esteem burst

“I am me, me am I,
This is who I am!”
I shouted to the skies above
Breathing deeply as I ran

All the hurts and disappointments
Of my previous life
Were now so far behind me
That old life full of strife

The road at first was smooth as silk
It really was a dream
Each morning new adventures
Idyllic it did seem

But then one day there was a bump
The next day a few more
My new path now not so easy
My feet were getting sore

I took a glance behind me
And that’s when I did see
Remnants from my other life
Had come to follow me

The reminders from my past life
Had taken human form
With legs and feet and arms and hands
And a face that looked forlorn

“Why have you forsaken us,
your connections to your past?
This new life you have left us for
Do you think it’s going to last?”

I felt the tug of guilt’s strong chains
Pulling strongly from behind
I questioned my motives for my choice
Had I been wrong? Had I been blind?

And so I sit today alone
Seeking solace in a beer
The bumps ahead do scare me
The guilt behind I fear

I looked up then to Dexter’s face
His eyes so calm and blue
And then I looked to Southpaw
His smile wide and true

They nodded at me knowingly
They both set down their beers
“Listen friend and you’ll soon see
there is nothing you should fear.

We all come up to crossroads
Humans young and old
To make a choice is bravery
You do not sell your soul

There are so few who take the chance
To move forward, left or right
They think that standing still is easier
Than trying to take flight

How could we move forward
If by one choice we remain
In never seeking options
The road would stay the same

This is true and this is tried
however we must stress
The road that is left behind
Should not be left a mess

The road behind is property
Where others will remain
To leave unfinished business
Is considered inhumane

Those bumps you felt, that forlorn face
They haunt you for a reason
To choose a forward path is bravery
To neglect the old one treason

Slow down my friend, and breath in deep
Let out a lengthy sigh
The paths we choose aren’t easy
But they’re the right ones by and by

To second guess, to wonder if
To ponder endlessly
Wasting time on the road you chose
That’s squandered destiny

I am me, me am I,
This is who I am
Shall once again pour out your lips
Shouting loudly as you can.”

Dexter finished up his beer
And Southpaw had his fill
They pushed their seats out from the bar
Laying down money for the bill

I pushed their money at them
I couldn’t let them pay
These two new friends had helped me
They had let me have my say

I stood to say goodbye
As they walked over to the door
Southpaw’s wink and Dexter’s smile
Had touched me to my core

Those two had really helped me
They had made it very clear
Life offers endless choices
Many ignore them out of fear

I do expect more crossroads
And more choices I will make
Knowing all the better now
That the best one I will take

I know too not to leave behind
Bits and pieces of loose ends
They will be tied up very neatly
I will make proper amends

Thank you Dexter, Thank you Southpaw
You truly helped me see
Whether left or right or straight ahead
On the right road I shall be