Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Friday, March 27, 2015

While We Wait for Spring

This is from James and I am posting it here for those of us who are living in northern climes where spring is just the barest promise.

Below is The Floating Flower Garden - an interactive space you can visit in Tokyo with "2,300 Suspended Flowers by Japanese Art Collective teamLab" (video and description by Johnny Strategy up on Colossal).

Virtual, but mighty pretty, too.

Before viewing perhaps this excerpt from M. J. Lermontov's poem Demon will put you in that sultry, spring-like state of mind until the much-awaited season's kaleidoscope of colors finally bursts forth in your corner of the world:

"With richest colours, like a carpet, shot,
Of earth the choicest, fairest, happiest spot.
Enchanted castles, crystal streams, that strayed
Mid jewelled pebbles and sweet music made;
Bowers of roses, where the nightingale
Sings to his mate unheeding of love's tale,
The sycamores with ivy crowned, the glade
Where timid hinds at noontide seek the shade.
The rustling leaves, the breath of myriad flowers.
Murmurous with bees, the glow of sultry hours."

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Three Cities, Three Memories

Seattle, USA - sometime in the 1980s

Disco had died and grunge was just getting started.  The socially inept, and those of us pretending to be serious students, could still play speed chess at coffee shops like The Last Exit on Brooklyn.  We sipped our coffee while skipping classes because we had far more important things to do like prove our intellectual prowess in endless polemical debates, and throw about whatever names we had picked up in the few classes we actually showed up for.  If we could score at the same time, all the better.  More than one scruffy long-haired gentleman or Birkenstock shod damsel did very well with the opposite (or same) sex on the basis of the ability to spin a good argument and reference the approved literature - mostly dead French philosophers.  

People in Seattle were very serious about not taking things seriously.  Tucked up in that little northwest corner of the United States, it was far enough from Washington and the Wicked East so that everyone felt pretty safe sticking their finger in the eye of authority and having some fun doing it.   The real enemy was California and all those awful immigrants fleeing Lotus Land and driving housing prices through the roof.  A columnist in the local newspaper led a campaign to convince them to stay home where they belonged;  but his ire had a tongue-in-cheek tone to it and we all had a good laugh while we sold our houses to them for wildly inflated prices.

I worked at being a sexy Seattle student:  I haunted the bookstores, smoked my clove cigarettes, and shopped at Goodwill (or Nordstrom) like every young female in my age cohort; but that didn't mean I was above resorting to animal-tested chemical products.  When my Nordic genes lost the battle and my hair went from blond to dirty dishwasher brown, I started dyeing it.  Following the code of not-so-serious delicious difference, I didn't just color it (so middle-class) I had to have a short flaming auburn do, a tail of many colors, and a white streak flowing along my bangs from the part to my ear highlighting the three fake gold stud earrings on each side.

The man who made this possible, who made me, in fact, look far better than I deserved, was my hairdresser at Chris' hair salon on Capitol Hill.  The prices were good but the company was even better.  Like the coffee shops, it was a place where the chatter never stopped and the clients and the stylists happily interrupted each other's conversations to make a point or a throw out a witty riposte.  What the client walked out with was the result of a collaboration between the client and the stylist.  I told Roger what I had in mind and then he gave me his opinion and we went back and forth until we were mutually satisfied.

"Relax.  It's hair.  It grows out."  Such reassuring words for an insecure young woman with an intellectual superiority complex - one who wanted so desperately to be different like everybody else, but who also wanted someone to hold her hand while she was plumbing the depths of la Diff√©rence.

Suresnes, France-  sometime in the first decade of the 21st century

Suresnes, a city of 45,000 people on the outskirts of Paris:  a banlieue that was both too close and too far from the big city.  Too close to afford a house and a garden;  too far to be able to see a movie, go to a museum or have a coffee on a nice tree-lined boulevard.

Some of the architecture was interesting, most of it resembled upscale versions of the HLMs (low-income housing) in the poorer suburbs.  The denizens all dressed alike.  For work the men wore dark suits, and the women wore short black skirts and white blouses with blazers - the chador would have been a fashion revolution, and would have at least added an element of interest to this bleak and boring style parade.

It was a middle-class city which meant the worst of all worlds.  A little more money would have bought luxury, a little less might have meant some fun.  The middle gets neither of these things - just inconvenience, avarice and insecurity.

It was a place with a lot of  implicit rules enforced mostly with sharp glares and sniffs.  When that didn't suffice, the indirect agressive approach was used - the appeal to authority.  Put the bike or the laundry out on the balcony and one could expect a visit forthwith from the gardien.  Not his idea, but always the result of a complaint from someone in the building who wasn't brave enough to knock on someone's door and talk to them directly.  

These rules, never openly outlined for a newcomer, had to be learned though torturous negative feedback.  I removed all but one of the stud earrings. I bought black skirts, white blouses and heels in order to blend better.  I learned to walk at a fast clip down the street, looking straight ahead and never smiling or starting a conversation with anyone.  And when I was about to lose my mind in that intellectual desert, I went into Paris and walked the streets dreaming of coffee-houses and chess players.

One cultural academy where this young migrant picked up some of those unwritten laws was the hair salon.  This is where I learned that the customer is an idiot.  Here is the expert coiffeur standing behind the client who knows nothing and can be counted on only to make very bad choices and must be educated.  "I'd like it short, please," says the timid young American woman with roots that must be covered before the job interview.  "No, Madame! You'll look like a boy." cries the coiffeuse.  "But I like it short, " says the American woman who has the mistaken impression that what she wants matters here.  (She was also thinking that if having short hair meant she looked like a boy then the men she has met so far in France are gay.)   "I won't cut it that way," snorts the hair stylist, and that was the end of that.

Yesterday in Osaka, Japan 

Osaka is a big city in the Kansai region of Japan.  Looking at it from above, it's a concrete jungle - grey and Stalinesque.  Go down to street-level, however, and it's filled with shops and bustling, busy streets.  Since it's flat walking is easy but watch out for the bicycles.  These people are demon drivers and when one hears the "dring" of a bell behind, it behooves the poor pedestrian to move quickly to the left.

I've only been here two months which is far too short a time to say much more.  But yesterday a haircut and color was necessary.  My natural color of muddy-brown hair is only a distant memory now, and what remains when I dare to look closely is salt and pepper.

I made the appointment in the morning and arrived at 3:30 sharp in the afternoon.  The receptionist whisked away my purse and coat and I was ushered immediately  to a chair where I met the stylist, a very competent English speaker.  And there I refound my whimsy and desire do things a little differently.  "Red," I said.  "And short, please."  To my delight he agreed and then he deftly steered me to a color he thought was right for me.

Appeased, I stopped thinking and started enjoying the experience.  It was beautifully coordinated with one person adroitly picking up where the other left off.   At every step in the process I was asked if I was comfortable and was there anything I needed.  I was a bit startled by this and couldn't think of anything.  Sometimes just having someone listen is everything.

So now I'm a redhead with boyish short hair.  It's not the same cut as I had in Seattle, but then I'm not in Seattle and I am not 20 years old.  I'm here, loving where I'm from and trying to bloom yet again where I've been planted.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Magnificent Minoo Park

Monday, I was a woman with a mission.  Wearing my brand new Asics Fieldwalkers, a friend and I hopped a train out of Umeda station to our target destination:  Minoo-shi, a small city north of Osaka, population 129,000.

We weren't there to see the city, we went to hike the Minoo Park Trail.  The Internet sites I consulted said it was an easy one and they were right - about 3 kilometers over easy terrain.  There were a few steps and some steep inclines, but overall it was pretty smooth.  There were grandmas on the trail with us who were doing just fine (and, sad to say, some of them walked faster, too).

None of the sites I consulted, however, conveyed just how glorious the park was.  Even in early early spring before the trees begin to bloom, it was beautiful and filled with things to stop and admire.

If you want to see the park in its glory (spring, summer, and early fall), there are many pictures posted on the Internet for your viewing pleasure.  But if you want to see what it looks like now, take a glance at a few of the many photos I took as we ambled along.  Even in the off-season, Minoo Park was magnificent.

To my surprise (and after I had taken that picture of the "say no evil" monkey) I started seeing live ones everywhere grooming themselves on the rooftops and sitting in the trees next to the waterfall staring down at us with a kind of evil intelligence in their eyes.

The next day when I was getting my nails done (and if you have never had a manicure done in Japan, put that at the top of your list of Things to Do because nobody does it better), I told the lovely young woman that I had been to Minoo Park.  She grimaced and spat out, "Monkeys!"  From that I gather that I am not the only one to find them a bit off-putting.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

FATCA: Silence, Supplicants, and Scaffolds

The American Diaspora Tax War continues.  Nearly five years after President Obama signed the HIRE Act and the now infamous Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) into law, Americans abroad still struggle to be heard in the homeland and still suffer the negative unintended consequences of this nasty little piece of extra-territorial legislation.  The most serious repercussion is discrimination on the basis of national origin.  Banks outside the US are denying basic banking services to individuals for no other reason than their US nationality or some connection to the United States .

Americans in the homeland argue that Americans abroad ought to be paying taxes to the land of the free because we are said to be under the protection of the mighty United States in our host countries.   We are still waiting to see what that "protection" consists of.  When banks can post notes on the Internet that say "We do not offer our services to US citizens"  and the US government does not respond, how are we to interpret the silence?  Without descending into utter paranoia, one conclusion is that we are citizens not worth defending.  This conjecture does not inspire us to that unflinching loyalty we are expected to demonstrate in our words and by our conduct living abroad.

But conjecture is all we have.  We read tea-leaves and consult oracles. If this goes on much longer we'll be sacrificing small animals and making predictions from the entrails.

A few weeks ago yet another group of supplicants went forth and walked the halls of Washington.  This annual pilgrimage by Americans abroad organizations is called Overseas Americans Week - a Je vous ai compris affair where the politicians make polite noises and get to feel all international meeting people who live (imagine that!) outside the United States.  What do we get out of it? More cryptic messages from the heart of the beast,  Something about how they can't do anything until they have more information?  How interesting.  That's what they said last year.

At least Senator Elizabeth Warren was more forthcoming in her reply to Donna Lane Nelson.  She gets points for honesty.  Yes, the letter says, it is a pity that FATCA is causing problems for US Persons, but it's worth it.  For her a potential 100 billion in tax revenue trumps 7 million Americans abroad hands down.  And that should be all any American abroad who votes in her state needs to know.

And if that elusive 100 billion in lost tax revenue turns out to be a chimera?  A wild ass guess thrown out in a meeting in Washington, D.C. years ago that has been repeated so many times it has become gospel truth?   We must admit that it makes for a fabulous sound bite, but where are the studies that prove that this number is true?  Where is the hard data that makes this number credible?  And yet Warren takes them at their word (Treasury says so, so it must be true) and pronounces FATCA a necessary tool in the fight against overseas tax evasion.

But Warren won't take the word of her constituents abroad in this matter and the US government wants Americans abroad to get cracking and prove they are being discriminated against with hard data:  something that it absolves itself from providing to citizens.   Frankly all anyone needs to do to find "No US citizens need apply" banks around the world is Google.  

What happens next if the coffers are still empty and all the US government has managed to do with their revolutionary system of information exchange is to alienate millions of American citizens around the world and lose many of them to other countries?    That is just as likely a scenario as the one that giddily promises homeland Americans that America's fiscal future and way of life will be saved if some unknown unquantifiable population out there in the world gets frisked by foreign financial institutions.

Or, put more eloquently by Edgar Quinet:  "How long will you go repeating this strange nonsense that all the scaffolds were necessary to save the Revolution, which was not saved?"

And here is Mark Twain over at the Isaac Brock Society with a link that traces the provenance of that 70/100/150 billion figure that everyone's throwing around:  The Source of the Standard Offshore Lie.  A must read.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Weekend in Kyoto

"Kyoto was planned on a grid pattern with wide avenues crossing each others at right angles.  Between those avenues, and parallel with them, ran narrower lanes.  Wooded hills enclose the city to the east, north and west;  and it originally lay between the Kamo and Katsura rivers.  Kyoto, too, has had changes of fortune during its twelve centuries of existence, but it has never been merely a large town.  With its distinctive charm, large population, and general busyness it has remained one of the world's perennial cities."

A History of Japan:  Revised Edition
R.H.P. Mason & J.G. Caiger

Kyoto is the city where you go to see your fantasies of Japan come to life.  Small streets and stately shrines, young women in brightly colored kimonos and  older women in somber but elegant ones, are but a few of the visual delights the city has to offer.

There is surely more to the city than just living anachronisms and yet the temptation to pretend that time has stopped here is not easily resisted.  Perhaps the casual visitor is better off not trying. Fantasy, after all, is not a thought crime;  pleasure is not a modern mortal sin.

We belong to a France/Japan friendship society and last weekend the organizers invited us to spend a day in this city which is a mere 30 minutes by fast train from its sister metropolis Osaka.

The day began at a very reasonable morning hour at the main gate of the Kennin-ji temple.  About twenty Japanese, one French and one American shivered in the cold air and huddled under umbrellas to escape the chill rain before our guide arrived to lead us to one of the sub-temples.  Shoeless but not coat less, we were left to admire the garden while the organizers went to inform the temple clergy that we had arrived.

Once we had filled our senses (and taken many pictures) we were gently encouraged to enter a large room filled with cushions overlooking the garden.  Instructions were provided beforehand (in French) and a good thing, too;  only one person in the group had any experience at all in Buddhist temples and knew the rituals and customs.

Once we were seated, the vice-abbot Toryo Ito arrived to lead us in a hour of guided zazen meditation.

It all began with a very low bow to the sensei.  He completed our initial instructions with his own How It Works:  the bell, the incense, the posture(s) and the stick.  The stick?  

Oh yes.  If we found ourselves unable to just be - to stop our minds and seek that still place - we could signal the master and he would come over and give us a couple of sharp raps on the shoulders.

Some were brave enough to be struck.  Most of us just tried to sit as still as possible, and clear our minds. (Keeping them clear was surprisingly difficult.)  When we heard the bell ring, we were done.

Then it was out the temple and down the street for lunch at Tsu Da Ro:  an Edo period tea house that now serves as a restaurant. We were enjoying each other's company so much that we continued down the road after lunch to a coffee shop where we caught a glimpse of a Shinto wedding party.  The young woman we saw climbing the stairs to the second floor wore white and looked like this:

Photo from

After we reluctantly broke up the party in the late afternoon, my spouse and I walked along the river for a time, and then took a taxi to our hotel Nenrinbo, a Japanese-style hotel nestled in the foothills of the mountains that surround the city.  It was the off-season so I had the onsen, the communal bath, all to myself.

We slept on futons and came down to breakfast the next morning in our slippers and yukatas.  It was a copious, delicious meal but it lacked one item that we Franco-Americans found we couldn't do without:  coffee.

So we checked out and had the taxi driver drop us off at a coffee shop near our train station in the center of town.

Fortified by our caffeine shot, we got on the train and headed home.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Love, Bloom, Be and Belong

If there had been a test for Personality Type Most Likely to Succeed Abroad, I would have flunked it. Prone to depression with a strong tendency to self-flagellate, this subject has low tolerance for uncertainty and a high need for approval from external sources.  Yes, professor, that sounds about right.

This was the baggage of the mind that I brought to my new life in my new country. And these were the things that kept me awake asking existential questions at 3 o'clock in the morning.

But chances are that everything you or I have ever felt, every situation we have ever encountered living abroad, has been experienced by at least one of the 232 million other migrants/expatriates in the world today.

That number says that we are not alone or unique. Every one of those 232 million people went abroad and had to find ways to survive long enough to thrive.  Transplants, every one.  Just like you and me.

Here is what I would say if I could go back in time and talk to the 24-year-old woman from Seattle that I was.  Three things.  The first is about my relationship to where I came from;  the second is about coping in a new country; and the third is something positive I can do to affirm my identity when I feel lost and isolated.

Love Where You Are From:  Every place has its merits and demerits, but where you came from has a huge place in your heart.  Maybe that country has terrible politics,  limited economic opportunity and is guilty of a million awful "isms" - it is still where you came from, where life began for you.

You will never be able to shake all the original soil off your roots and you will do yourself enormous psychological damage if you try.

(And never let anyone tell you that you can't love it because you left it.)

Bloom Where You Are Planted:  How does a weak and fragile human transplant become a sturdy shrub?  By recognizing that it can't grow in the dark.  That sooner or later it has to put down roots.

We need other people the way plants need sun.   Assume goodwill and connect, connect, connect in any way you can.,  Consider the people you meet in the new country as shy snakes - they are probably just as uncertain of you as you are of them.  Always say "yes" when people reach out to you. Train yourself to not worry too much about what other people are thinking; it's not really your business, nor is it all that important.

There is an ecosystem out there.  Join it.

Do a Daily Identity Exam: This  idea comes from Amin Maalouf and it's the perfect exercise for countering that loss of identity and sense of isolation.
"I search my memory to flush out the maximum number of elements of my identity, I put them together, I align them, and I deny none of them. Each one of my adherences connects me to a large number of people; however, the more groups I belong to, the more my identity proves to be specific. 
Thanks to all my adherences, taken separately, I have a certain relationship with a large number of people like me; thanks to the same elements, taken all together, I have my own identity, which can never be confused with any other."
Yes, you will always be your very own unique tree which will never prevent you from being part of many forests.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Invention of Tradition

A curious title of a book I picked up a few days ago.  It caught my eye as I was trolling for my next read in the usual places.  When I saw that it was edited by Eric Hobsbawm, I bit the hook.

How can a tradition be invented?  The word implies continuity - something we do today that has its roots in the past.  It's supposed to be an unbroken chain from our ancestors to us and our job is simply to cherish it and pass it along to the next generation.

Saying that a tradition is invented is to call into question its authenticity.  It's no longer something we receive as a gift from our forefathers, but an artificial construct shaped and sold to us gullible moderns in order to further a social or political agenda.

That is exactly what Hobsbawm and company are saying:  that many traditions we hold dear were deliberately created for a particular purpose.  And that purpose was not at all about honoring the past;  it was about shaping the present.

Old countries that gradually became nation-states reached back into their pasts to find rituals that could be manipulated to give an illusion of continuity.  David Cannadine's essay about the British monarchy between 1820 and 1977 shows how the coronation ceremonies of the monarchs changed over time in response to modern realities.  When the political power of the monarchy was still formidable, a coronation was a more or less private event attended by the ruling classes:  the aristocracy, the church and the royal family.  It was their tradition, not that of the common people.   At that time (with one exception under George IV) there was no interest in making this ceremony a grand public occasion.

Cannadine talks about the sheer incompetence of the clergy in the performance of  ritual and the low quality of the music.  "For the majority of the great royal pageants staged during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century oscillated between farce and fiasco."  Drunk coffin-bearers, fights, gate-crashing and general ineptness made these ceremonies something far less than solemn and dignified.  Following much self-flagellation, the consensus at the time was that the British people had no talent whatsoever for pomp.

Tell that to the millions of people who watched the glorious, glittering and flawlessly-executed wedding of Di and Charles in 1981.  Today the ceremonies around the British royal family are a kind of gold standard for public pageantry.  What happened?  Cannadine argues that as the real power of the monarchy waned, and political and social instability rose, "the deliberate ceremonial presentation of an impotent but venerated monarch as a unifying symbol of permanence and national continuity became both possible and necessary."

What we see today on television bears no resemblance to what the same ceremony would have looked liked in the early years of the nineteenth century.  And if we went farther back than that who knows what we might find?  Yes, there is continuity here in the sense that the methodology for anointing a new monarch has been around forever, but the ceremonies broadcast for the viewing pleasure of the masses are a fairly recent innovation, not a tradition.

Compare this use of tradition with that of new nation-states:  ones that are young and don't have much of a collective past to draw on or those that want to distance themselves from a past they don't like.  It's not just countries like The United States, Australia or Canada, but also France and Scotland.  Bastille Day is an invented tradition that began in 1880, almost 100 years after the actual event.  The custom of wearing the kilt (philibeg) was, according to Hugh Trevor -Roper, the invention of an Englishman in the early 18th century.

Part of making Americans (or Canadian and Italians) was coming up with unifying symbols and rituals that everyone could participate in and rally around.  They were all invented at one time or another. Think of the power of Thanksgiving in the U.S.  In 2014 46 million U.S. citizens filled the airports and the highways to go home and have a meal with their families. (Just think of the carbon footprint.)   The day did not even become a national holiday until 1941, but the tradition is taught in schools and is presented as a recreation of a seminal event that occurred in the 17th century, years before the United States came into existence as a country .  (And somehow I really doubt that the Pilgrims  made green pea and pink marshmallow salad the way my grandmother did.)

Why is cherry-picking the past so powerful?   Because whatever our claims to being modern and enlightened, we are susceptible to an emotional appeal to the past.  Conservatives, take heart!  There is still reverence for the old ways.  They are hardly alone in perceiving anachronisms as virtuous - just try taking away some of the rituals and symbols that are part of the civil religion of secular nation-states and listen to the collective howl.

Even people with very new ideas point to the past for legitimacy.  We have a tradition of  [insert idea here] in this country.  People use this argument in support of such diverse concepts as multiculturalism, religious tolerance, bi-lingualism, mono-lingualism, and secularism.  A solid strategy in support of such causes but also a dangerous one because there are simply too many unsavory ideas that others can point to and say that these too have been the custom of the country since time immemorial.

The thing that holds people together in a country is definitely not "the rational calculation of their individual members." That said, do we work with the irrational or against it?  I agree that there are "great forces in heaven and earth that man's philosophy cannot plumb or fathom."  One of those forces is that we are hardwired to want continuity to counter uncertainty.  I would go so far as to say that in so many ways we are better when we feel part of something larger than ourselves.  We need rituals, symbols, customs and traditions and when we don't have them in our lives, we make them up.  It's not a bad thing, it's a human thing.  Or so I think.

What I am more skeptical of, after finishing this fine volume of essays by nit-picking academics, are efforts to manipulate the past in order to further an agenda which may serve an interest but not necessarily a positive collective one.

So when an American politician starts using the "Founding Fathers" as an appeal for some cause that he espouses, that's a sign that we should be extra careful about what he really wants from us.  This holds true everywhere powerful symbols from the past are being evoked.  They may have a more recent pedigree than we think.   And we can perfectly well continue to genuflect in their direction while asking sharp questions of those who would use and misuse them.