Tuesday, June 5, 2012

One Year Later...In The Travels of R. Taufen

More than a year has passed since my last entry. I have been speaking Japanese again -- most recently in my hometown of Radnor, PA at the end of April. Junko and Yoshiko had their 50 year reunion at my high school, and I flew back for it.


Before I could take off from LAX, we had to de-plane because of an electrical malfunction. As I stood in the departure gate gripping a fresh Starbucks and a pouch of almonds, I met a filmmaker named Denny Tedesco who told me about his film, The Wrecking Crew, a documentary about the session musicians who played on some of the biggest and most memorable albums of the 50's and 60's (his father was one of them). I told Denny about the equipment I'd be borrowing in Radnor from a fellow high school graduate, and described what it was I was aiming to shoot. He looked at me with the wise eyes of a man who had just spent the past 20 years of his life molding and shaping footage into an award-winning passion project (it was hard not to notice the full page of laurels from just about every film festival out there). Denny said: "Shoot everything, and always be shooting."


Mrs. Taylor (aka Maria) picked me up at the Philadelphia airport and we rode back to Greenville, back to the house on Walnut Ridge Road -- deep in the deciduous folds of Delaware County just across the Pennsylvania state line. It was dark when we pulled up, but Mr. Taylor (aka John) came out to greet us under the carport, wearing his robe and reading glasses, his eyes squinting into a smile at the sight of us: "G!" John said with his unmistakeable wheeze from years smoking Winstons (he's long since quit). "What the hell are you standing there for, aren't you gonna come inside?!"


We sat in their kitchen as I oohed and ahhhed over their recent remodel (which wasn't all that recent -- I just hadn't been there in a while). Limestone countertops, new cabinets, an extended breakfast room with a wine bar, leading to a slate patio where my sister Anne had her engagement party. Maria made me dinner as John poured us IPA's while the flicker of a black and white movie flashed across the flat-screen above their fireplace. Ahhh, the Taylors' kitchen. Ever since I can remember, I've gathered with my family and our mutual friends in the Taylors' kitchen. First in the house on Woodlawn Avenue in Wilmington, DE just blocks from the hospital where I was born. That kitchen contained a restaurant stove which miraculously produced homemade donuts with white powdered sugar, as well as a rotary phone with a cord that stretched for miles. And now this house, their "new" house (new as of 20 years ago, ie: I'm in my mid-30s), tucked into the woods like some forgotten Frank Lloyd Wright sketch, with windows on all sides, folk art and afghans at every turn, and kitchen stools meant for sitting -- moored under the island. Always a hunk of bread or cheese on the cutting board with endless savory delights sitting beneath saran wrap in the fridge. An array of newspapers strewn about the table and John's most recent editorial from The News Journal. Plants hanging from the ceiling, bird feeders hanging from the trees.


I lived with the Taylors the summer after my first year in college, working as a waitress at a restaurant called Buckley's Tavern on Route 52 in Centreville. It was the summer I turned 20, when the world and the possibilities that lay before me seemed endless, infinite. I had returned over holidays throughout college and my first few years in New York, but couldn't put my finger on the last time I'd walked through their front door. It was Beth's idea to stay with John and Maria, to come and go from their place. "It'll ground you," she said, San Francisco to LA, one city artist and lifelong friend to another. It was also Beth who told me that Buckley's had recently closed -- via a link she shared over Facebook. As I crawled into bed that night, in the room that used to be mine, I realized Beth was right. There's nothing like returning to a place of solace to make your feet feel planted on the ground.


The next morning (Thursday), I went for a run down Pyles Ford Road and hit the cemetary that runs parallel to Route 52. It's the kind of place that seems like a painting -- part Norman Rockwell, part Andrew Wyeth, with a succession of rolling fields that most likely belong to the Dupont family. As I passed the headstones, I played a game with myself, imagining that each word or family name was in fact a signifier about what this trip would have in store for me, an array of images flashing through my mind in time with my ipod shuffle. After a shower and coffee with Maria, we mapped out the best way for me to make a stop at my grandparents' old house on Merrybell Lane. Soon I was passing the wooden pasture fence and taking the left towards their drive, ambling up a recently re-paved black asphalt road and veering up and to the right. A flock of geese waddled about on my left as I began to recognize the row of dogwood trees that stretched towards the end of the cul-de-sac. As I neared the red brick house obscured by branches and leaves, I couldn't believe how much smaller it looked. It was overgrown, and unkept -- with a car parked in the driveway that must have been idle for months or even years. I rolled down my window just as a deer appeared at the side of the house near the rusty basketball hoop. I'm pretty sure it was a Doe, Doe a Deer, a Female deer...with big brown eyes and a startled expression on her face. It made me happy -- seeing her there, thinking about all the molecules of memories being played out somewhere, somehow...behind those walls.


And so started my pilgrimage back to Radnor, back to my hometown, to film Junko and Yoshiko. I stayed with Margaret and Ty, saw Mitty and both Brians, and even had the chance to show Junko and Yoshiko my old house on Cambria Court. It was a whirlwind visit, only 48 hours in total, as we traipsed through the streets they remembered from 1962 and that I remembered from the late 80's and early 90's. I filled four HI-8 tapes (that need converting...oh the days of video transfer at 20th Century Fox), and was cruising back to Greenville by Saturday night to return the Taylors' car. I missed the turn off Route 52 because I kept looking for the Buckley's sign -- forgetting that it was also a thing of the past. It was dark and rainy so by the time I got back to Walnut Ridge, I was craving what lay waiting -- a glass of red wine and a late dinner with John and Maria again. They bundled me up and drove me to the train station in Wilmington, where I rode all night to Boston and Mark. Then we drove to Maine for 3 days -- before coming back to LA.


Which is where I am now, dear reader, if you are out there reading. Back in Los Angeles -- the city of Angels. It's summertime again, and I've fired up the coals on the Barbie of my Blog. It wasn't that hard to stoke them, as I've spent the fall, winter and spring writing my book. That's right -- I said it -- My Book! Thanks to a dedicated reader in New York who enjoys my voice and pitches books to publishers for a living, and a coterie of close friends who have continued to read and give notes, I have versions and versions of a document on my desktop that I can now legitimately call 'my book.' It's about an exchange student in Japan who lives through the 1995 Kobe earthquake, and grows up to be a woman who goes back to Tokyo 16 years later, just in time for the next big earthquake of 2011 (unlikely, but true!). It's about the mystery of coincidence and the threads we weave that tie our past to our present. It's a work of narrative non-fiction. And it's called SEISMIC PROPORTIONS.


Since I'm no longer in Tokyo, I figure it's time my blog had a new name. Does anyone have any ideas? I was thinking about calling it THINGS THAT SLOW ME DOWN. Because in general, these days, I seem to have a running list of items that do slow me down. My bridesmaid's dress that went missing, the defrost button on the microwave at Lucile, my printer that won't scan my traffic violation ticket (that I got for driving with my headlights OFF at night and now must appear at traffic court on South Hill Street for my ARRAIGNMENT)...maybe I should just call it SOUTH HILL STREET BLUES.


Or maybe simply: The Travels of R. Taufen (if I make it, will you follow?)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Speaking Japanese in NYC

Shinji in New York
Chelsea Hotel and High Line --
Magritte on Sunday.

Yesterday after sleeping in and trying to catch up on emails I set out to meet Shinji Shishikura -- the performance artist who I had been scheduled to collaborate with in Tokyo. Shinji is being sponsored by Sony to record his performances around the world, in front of museums including the Louvre in Paris. He was in Okinawa for the earthquake, on a smaller island of the many islands that make up the prefecture. The ferries stopped running, and in order to get back to Tokyo (where his mother was potentially scheduled for an operation), he had to hide himself on a fishing boat that was checked by the sea police. He told me all of this yesterday, as we walked around Chelsea, and I spoke Japanese again. Faltering at first. Feeling shaky. But soon, we were drawing pictures to describe the things my Japanese couldn't muster, and once a wavelength was reached, my confidence returned, and then I felt there was nothing I couldn't express.

Shinji had been scheduled to arrive in New York with his troupe of performers -- but because of the earthquake everything was thrown for a loop and he barely managed to get out himself, finding a last minute accommodation over the net. The weather was cold yesterday, but bright and sunny. We talked about a candy that comes from Brighton, England -- where Queen the rock band got their start and where Grahm Greene wrote some of his novels. The candy is called "Brighton Rock," and is like a peppermint stick with a picture etched in the center. No matter where you break the stick of sweetness, the image stays intact, like the rings of tree. I had my storyboard notebook which I had purchased for our collaboration, and had even written on the first page, in Katakana: "Shinji to Regina." He drew two pictures in the two storyboards...starting with a sketch of BRIGHTON ROCK on the top right frame. Then, in the top left frame, he drew the same rod sketch, this time with a face etched in the top. This, he said, was "Kitaro." He also wrote the kanji for it beneath the letters. Apparently, KITARO is a candy just like BRIGHTON ROCK, in Japan. It goes back at least 100 years, and is known especially by the older population. Looking at the two images side by side, and picturing a map of the world in my mind, I told him: "naru hodo." "I get it." A specifically sweet coincidence of candy cane proportions.

Shinji is staying on 28th Street, off the 2/3 -- so I thought the high line was a good place to start. I pointed out one of my favorite sights in NYC -- the wooden water towers that sit atop countless buildings. They are quintessential Manhattan to me -- and always pull my eyes upward. I told him I wasn't sure where else these vats made from wood existed -- and didn't they seem like they belonged on a farm? We made our way south, turning west on 23rd street. The Chelsea Hotel loomed at our left, and as we approached I remembered going there once with Cynthia Karalla, to a party in one of the apartments one winter when I lived in New York. Thinking back to that night, the images were mixed in my mind with the film CAPOTE; still not sure why. Maybe I had seen CAPOTE right around that time. Or maybe the interior of the apartment was so very similar to the party scene from the movie. Grand piano. Velveteen couch with significant wear. Low lighting and old lamps. Hardwood floors and built in cabinetry. Guests who each seemed to step off the pages of a Salinger novel -- everywhere I turned people seemed fabulous in their vintage frocks and black framed glasses. Sipping wine while a plate of cheese, crackers and grapes made its rounds. Listening to Cynthia introduce me as "Regina the actress," who "is just simply fabulous as Agnes in Agnes of God."

We snapped some photos in the lobby. I noticed the old telephone booths to the left of front desk, and told Shinji that those kind of full standing 'boxes' were a thing of the past -- so hard to find a Superman telephone booth these days! We made our way west, but the entrance to the High Line at 23rd was closed for construction so we walked along The West Side Highway, stopping at what looked like a stage. In fact, it was a building that seemed in transition -- with a wall that had been spray painted in black and white, and off the side (aka stage right) -- an old black and white photo of a man leaning down in front of a brownstone had been plastered to the wall. We stood on the 'stage," marveling at the space with the cars flying by where an audience would be -- and the Chelsea Piers buttressing what might have been the back of the house.

Walked by the new IAC building, which was featured in the opening credits of the most recent version of Wall Street. A Frank Gehry work, it is a glacial white, shaped less like a building and more like a complex carbohydrate under high magnification. The building itself is owned by media magnate Barry Diller, and is in fact like a complex carb, home to many media companies within -- including Notional, the TV company that hired me to do the gameshow with Chris Wylde in February at TV Asahi -- in Tokyo. It's also where Potocki worked last spring and summer, on the pilot "Tonight's Funniest," for Comedy Central -- and where Mom and Dad came to stare at the Hudson from high above with a view of the Statue of Liberty. I have a picture of my Mom, her back to the camera as she looked out towards the revitalized piers, remembering bidding farewell to the steamships that carried her Aunts and Uncles on vacations when she was a little girl.

Up on the High Line, we marveled at the architecture. I explained that it was once the elevated train line that ran down the west side. And that Barry Diller himself (owner of the white glacier building), and his wife Diane Von Furstenberg (the fashion icon), were huge supporters and donors for the construction of this much loved social space. I was turning out to be quite the tour guide -- in Japanese, no less.

As we walked past the closed Chelsea Market, I urged Shinji to return on his own (it being so close to his place). The conversation turned again to the earthquake, but this time about my leaving Tokyo. I felt I needed to explain, and started to describe what had happened to me 16 years ago in the Kobe quake, and how (having just recently returned to Kamakura) I had come to realize the severity of my staff infection (which engulfed my right leg). No sooner had I mentioned it, that Shinji stopped me -- pointing to a solitary black boot that lay on the sidewalk next to a fire hydrant in front of us -- seemingly abandoned. We stopped and stared at it. It was a combat boot for the right foot, and next to it was a plastic bag filled with some mystery contents. On the fire hydrant, spray painted in yellow, was a singular question mark. "Anata no hanashi to kore o mittara -- Magritte mittai, ne?" Shinji asked me, smiling. "It's like a Magritte -- your story about your leg and this, here now." We marveled at the surrealism. I pictured Dali's melting clock and for the first time understood the intersection of our imaginations -- and reality.

As we approached 28th Street it was getting towards 6pm. I talked again of this week. Was there some way we could collaborate? Shinji thought about it and said that we had met in Tokyo, and were collaborating now -- by walking and talking. That like a good wine, what we can create will be even more delicious if we give it time to age. Perhaps we should shoot something in front of the Louvre -- where his work is currently on exhibit. Or maybe in LA. What was better, he wanted to know -- shooting in LA or New York? I hemmed and hawed, explaining that New York has an energy and a history that LA cannot touch. Thinking of Woody Allen's movies and the way the shadows cast on old brick. But -- that LA has Venice, and the canals. And that the history I had discovered there most recently (of Abbott Kinney and his Coney Island of the West with roller coasters and piers) -- could also make for a beautiful setting. We decided to leave it undecided. But certainly in process.

Where else did he want to see? The Dakota. Central Park. Dumbo. So that is now on tap. I'm excited to be a tour guide for Shinji -- but also for myself. He will come to dinner here with Chris, Bentley and I tomorrow night. The south street seaport, where we are now, is a treasure trove of history. Cobblestone streets and the Brooklyn Bridge. Oh, the Brooklyn Bridge. Nothing quite like its cathedral-like arches in pigeon gray.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Get Back to Where You Once Belonged...

I have been having writer's block. Or blogger's block. I like 'blogger's block' better. Alliteration has a way of winning.

When I lived in Japan at 18, I kept a copious written diary. I filled eight journals with minutiae, including the songs that used to play on my mix tapes to and from school, back in the days of walkmans and mix tapes. If I missed a day, I fretted until the moment my pen would touch the page again. At which point I'd make sure to list what had happened. Who I met, what I thought, what I ate, epiphanies and heartaches. That's how we learn to do it. "Dear Diary..." Who, What, Why, Where and When. Not unlike the questions an actor must ask herself. Who are you? Where are you? What do you want? What's in your way? Who are you talking to? It's how we tell a story -- to ourselves or to others if we are making believe. When you keep a diary, you record what happened with the strange built in audience of your imagined future self, someday picking it up and reading it. Because the future is unknown, everything is significant.

When I got to Kobe last week, I spent all day Wednesday writing, wanting to make sure the images of my journey weren't lost to new agendas and realities. I left off on Monday 3/14, like a page folded in a book that I meant to come right back to. The rest of the week I was in a 'liminal' state (thank you Victor Turner and George Mentore). Not on the inside, and not quite on the outside. Out of Tokyo, but not yet back home. But the beauty was -- I knew the town. Kobe was where I first learned to speak Japanese. The marune color of the Hankyu train cars -- which I once rode to school dressed in uniform -- were the same. Each station with its town written in both English and Hiragana, cream lettering on navy blue. Once upon a time I stared out those same train windows, a sea of clay tile roofs stretching towards mountains in the distance, listening as the conductor announced the next stop. I'd study the foreign script, the curvaceousness of Hiragana (once used only by women) testing myself on the characters. Slowly, slowly learning how the sounds got mushed together. Then I would try it out for myself. "Toyonaka." "To.Yo.Na.Ka."

That's what last week was like. I kept stepping back in time -- remembering all the pieces that led up to the earthquake in '95 -- and all the pieces that followed. Okuno San took me to Minoh Kooen -- Minoh Park. We walked the paths that stretch up the mountain towards the waterfall. It's where I got attacked by three monkeys whose claws broke my skin -- the scars of which I still have on my right forearm. My battle scars. My monkey scars. The weather was cool and Minoh was green, lush, reminding me of Big Sur and Idyllwild all at once. We kept looking for the monkeys but they were no where in sight. It was too cold for them to be out yet. When I used to run there, it was Spring and the Cherry Blossoms were in full bloom. The pinkest pink you've ever seen.

The day before I left, Yoshii San drove me to the top of Rokko mountain and we looked down at Kobe Harbor. She pointed out the name of a small mountain in the foreground and I felt myself topographically, staring southward towards the tip of Honshu, the Pacific ocean to my left and beyond that, California. Just the night before I had been singing Joni Mitchell with Yukiko, Okuno San's granddaughter, who is 2 years younger than I and who I had been friends with so long ago. We called ourselves "Reiko and Peach."

Oh it gets so lonely
When you're walking
and the streets are full of strangers
all the news of home you read
more about the war
and the bloody changes...
oh -- will you take me as I am?
Will you take me as I am?
Will you -- will you take me as I am?

Yoshii took me to Arima -- one of the oldest onsen in Japan where soldiers went after World War II to heal their wounds. We took off our clothes and sat side by side in small 'booths,' washing each other's backs before stepping out to the hot springs. The first was rich in iron deposits and the water left a brown tinge on the pink sandstone wall. The second was a milky white, highly ionized (or so the English description explained) with the power to cast off negative ions from a bather's body. A glass wall separated us from a grove of bamboo giving the impression that you were in fact outside. Yoshii told me of her swim lessons as a little girl, on the shores of Kobe harbor. Her instructor would toss a red rock out into the waves, and each student had to dive and swim while holding their breath until they surfaced, rock in hand. Cocking her right arm, she demonstrated the toss as water droplets hit the milky water, forming cocentric circles, spreading outward. They became the circles of long ago, as I imagined Yoshii's nine year old body swimming toward the point of entry, beneath the waves, lungs filled with determination, eyes wide and fixed on the prize.

It was getting too hot, and we had to be at Konan for a meeting with Mrs. Nagao. Yoshii San left and I decided to try one more steaming pool, but as I stepped in an older woman and perhaps her granddaughter stood up suddenly to leave. The woman my age smiled and said they were already leaving, and I smiled back, waiting for them to step out. When they were gone I stared out towards the mountains, my face newly hot with a mixture of pride and shame and anger. I stood naked and thought of Jim Crow laws and water fountains. Reasoned that maybe they really were already getting out. But let it go, knowing full well I'd never know -- and that it was time for me to go anyway.

True to form, there was Yoshii, waiting for me. She pointed towards the standing shower with a glass wall that faced the carp pond. "To cool off," she told me. I stepped in and pushed the big silver dial on the wall, a spray of frigid water stealing the steam from my skin and taking my breath away. I thought of Sendai and World War II and began to cry. My whole body felt like one big tear. Cold, so cold. My skin rippled with goosebumps.

At the end of the day we visited Konan's Women's College and took a tour of their priceless collection of books in a locked room above the stacks of the library. Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Hardy, Goethe, and more. All first editions. Archives of letters written on stationary from The Dorchester in London, where I once stayed. As we left I couldn't help but stop and stare at the statue of "The Thinker," with Kobe beginning to twinkle in the blue hue of twilight below. A flock of crows overhead. It was strange, everyone said, for them to be cawing so loudly. I thought of my plane flight the next day. The full moon on Saturday 3/19, leaving on a jet plane. Don't know when I'll be back again.

The next morning I furiously typed into my i-touch as I rode the bus with Mr. Yoshii to the airport. All the images. Desperate to record them. Lest I forget them. Afraid of the silence that did come over this past week. Of plane rides and sleepness nights and waking in hotel rooms, sure that I was just in another room of Yoshii's house that I had not yet seen. Or even in a hotel in Tokyo. Slowly coming to the realization that I was home. Back to where I once belonged. To Seattle and to the faces of my family, airports and a train ride to Penn Station where I found Chris, on his birthday, waiting for me. And Bentley beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

Too many moments and images to properly do justice. But I will continue to try. Or, as Yoda once said: "there is no try, only do." So I sit here now, in New York, listening to the sound of the MTA bus sail by outside...a whale beside the yellow fish taxis. All swimming upstream on the island that never sleeps, powered by the almighty hum of oil, the resource we all now hate to need -- so desperately.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Out of the Earthquake and Into the Past -- Part 2

On Monday, after Tadahiko picks me up at Shin Osaka, we make our way to his and Junko`s apartment, stopping at a small restaurant close by for lunch. I hear a sound from my phone -- I have an email. Tad orders and I see it`s from Wakako. The subject reads: "Read your letter," and the email: "What about your students?" I type back to her, frustrated by the phone`s keyboard interface and my inability to type fast: "I`ll tell you. When can I call?" She responds almost immediately: "Anytime." Tea arrives but I excuse myself to call her and step outside, sitting on the stoop of the hairdresser next door.

The conversation is emotional and I am angry, guilty, scared, defiant and sorry. She is hurt. Why didn`t I come to them for help?! They would have helped me, she says. They were so worried about me. What I did was dangerous. They all came into the office, bewildered that I left without notifying them. She says that everyone is simply stunned with what I have done. Tad comes out at one point to check on me and I signal to him that I will be in soon. From the pauses in our conversation, I can tell Wakako is translating everything I am saying. I ask if our boss is on the call. She says "no," but that Koda San is there, and that she is translating for him. I think of them, my co-workers, my friends, there in the office, and I feel sick. But I defend myself. I tell her I didn`t feel safe, even though everyone was telling me I was safe! I try to explain that I didn`t have any time to involve them. I know she understands a bit more, and seems less accusatory and more exasperated. She tells me she is worried about her own family. And that even though she has medicine to try and sleep, she hasn`t slept. I tell her I`m sorry for adding more stress to everyone. She explains that she is in a hard position and cannot be my friend on this phone call -- it has to be about work first. I tell her I understand and I`m willing to face whatever must come for breaking my contract. And that I will wait to hear from them.

Back inside, our ham sandwiches have arrived, but Tad hasn`t touched them. He is waiting for me and smiles when I sit. Tadahiko is a kind man, open, funny and quick. He is the Japanese version of Steve Buscemi with the warmth of Greg Kinnear. He tells me to eat and drink my tea. Junko Yoshii, Tad`s wife, was the second exchange student to Radnor High School in 1963. When I did my exchange she introduced herself as "Yoshii San," and became my mentore, along with her best friend Yoshiko Okuno, known to me as, "Okuno San."

Yoshiko was the first exchange student ever to attend Radnor High School in 1962. She was one of the brightest at Konan and applied for a scholarship to study in the United States through a Quaker program that operated like a rotary (against her Mother`s wishes). When Okuno San came back to Kobe in the spring of `63, after a year living with her host family on Windsor Avenue in Wayne (Maggie`s Street) she told her best friend Junko, who was a year younger, that she HAD to go, too. Junko followed Yoshiko`s advice, and in the fall of 1963, took a three week journey by boat, plane and train, eventually landing at her host family`s house on Midland Avenue. 25 years later, as a chubby 11 year old middle school student, I walked the 1.1 miles to school most days, and a good part of my path was along Midland. Midland Avenue, with its wide sidewalks and turn of the century Victorian houses, 100 year old oak trees rising high above, the thick green canopies of Spring and Summer, the fiery reds, yellows of Fall....and John Cooper...my one time crush the summer I came back from Japan -- who made me mix tapes and once took me for a ride on his motorcyle through the farmlands of Westchester.

It is only in the wake of this earthquake that I grasp the signficance of my shared history with Yoshiko and Junko. During my exchange as a teenager, they were the sweet women who took me to dinners, Noh plays, pottery classes, and made sure I was learning Japanese. Dressed me in several kimonos one Sunday as we drank tea and ate senbe in Okuno San`s tatami room. When the earthquake hit, along with Nagao Sensei (then the exchange advisor) they helped to arrange everything so I could get out of Kobe and get north, to Tokyo. Now, once again in their care, they seem like family. Otherworldly family.

We finish lunch and head to Junko and Tad`s apartment where I put my bags down. Nagao Sensei calls on Tad's phone. Mrs. Nagao was my exchange advisor and had me for New Year's, just weeks before the Kobe earthquake. During that overnight, we had a small earthquake, and she assured me that big earthquakes happen in Tokyo, not Kobe. 15 days later the Daishinsai pummeled Kobe and killed over 6000 people. Tad hands me the phone and she asks if I will come to Konan. We make a plan and Tad and I head out, taking the Hankyu line to Okamoto station. He puts me in a cab and tells the driver to take me to the top of the hill, to Konan Joshi Kooko -- Konan Girls` School. I look out the window as we climb up, the port of Kobe below, the familiar houses and turns in the road. We are there in no time and I get out and take a breath. Stare at the school`s sign -- recongnizing the kanji for `woman` -- `onna` or `joshi` that is part of the school`s name. I take out my camera and notice two young women, in plain clothes, standing nearby. I overhear them daring each other to talk to me in English. I ask them in Japanese: "do you go to Konan?" They are surprised I speak and tell me with wide eyes that they graduated last spring, and are just visiting. I congratulate them and ask them and we all introduce ourselves. "Mariko" and "Marino." They are clearly best friends. Like Junko and Yoshiko. I tell them I was a student at Konan 16 years ago -- and they laugh and say they were 3 years old. I must seem like an older woman to them. And in fact, I am.

I ask them what they are doing now. Mariko, who wears glasses, tells me she is about to move to Los Angeles, and will attend a small college for dance. I tell her I live in Los Angeles, and give her my business card. "If you need anything, you can let me know. You`re a student of Konan -- so anything you need, I`m happy to help." The girls are shocked. They cannot believe the coincidence and tell me as much. One girl in 800 is going to LA - and we happen to meet. I nod, and agree -- isn`t it amazing? But something bigger is happening, for me to have been on that platform this morning, and now, just hours later, standing on the top of Rokko mountain at my old school. I think back to my relaxation exercise with my students just the day before. Washing ashore, walking through a forest at night and then coming to the top of a mountain. We take pictures together. I tell Mariko I will wait for her email.

As I make my way past the guard and up the stone stairs, the slope of the path feels like and old friend. The bonsai, perched at the top, and the hint of the carp pond beyond. Nagao Sensei appears, hurrying towards me, waving. "Regina!" I run up to meet her and see her face. She hasn`t changed -- except that now she is the Vice President of all of Konan. Next to her, I can hardly belive it -- is Nakata Sensei, my Japanese tutor. She wears a wool tweed suit, and her hair is longer. I hug both of them. Nakata Sensei looks me up and down and says: "you`ve lost weight, right?" I laugh out loud. When I lived in Japan I gained 20 pounds thanks to culture shock and love of food. I was sensitive about it, but clearly remember Nakata Sensei asking me if I liked vegetables one day out of nowhere during a Japanese lesson. She goes on about the kind of words and expressions I liked best. The subtle ones, like the expression for the sleeves of two people`s kimonos touching. I don`t remember this, but I am smiling and staring at her freckles, wanting to hug her again. To make sure she is real. A young Konan student runs by, excited and shy. I snap a picture of her, giggling in the same uniform I once wore -- which hasn`t changed in 90 years. I show it to Nagao Sensei and Nakata Sensei. It`s a beautiful shot -- her in motion, pony tail and laughing face, running down the steps.

We start to catch up when Bamba Sensei appears. Bamba Sensei, Setsuko, my last host mother, who I have written about and pondered over for years. Nagao Sensei calls her over. We hug and she is as thin as I remember. She looks me up and down. Comments on the change of my shape. I nod and say it`s true, that it`s different. She stays on this point. How round my face used to be until I started to go running at Minoh Kooen, the park where I got attacked by the monkeys. I show them my scar. I still have it. Mrs. Nagao tells me that she spoke with Okuno San who will take to Minoh tomorrow, if I am ok with that. Setsuko says she wants to be in touch and I give her my card, one with the Hankoo - the marble stamp that has my name in Katakana and Kanji. I pull it out of my purse. It was made by my calligraphy teacher`s father as a gift, and as Mrs. Nagao says the teacher`s name, I hear a crow being to caw. I look up on top of the auditorium, thinking of Cathy. I snap a photo, and then another of the grecian statue of a woman in front of the doors. Then a few more of the carp pond. It`s getting towards dusk, and the stone lantern has a warm glow to it.

"Shall we go inside Regina?" Mrs. Nagao asks. I say goodbye to Setsuko and Nakata Sensei and follow Kinuyo inside. We stop at the foot of the stairs to admire a painting done by the students -- a rabbit made up of kanji -- in bright colors. A pointillism of words, or symbols for words, in the form of a rabbit. "It`s the year of the rabbit," Kinuyo tells me, and I nod, snapping a picture of it. "Will you stand in front of it?" I ask. She does, and I must fiddle with the settings having moved inside. I get it and show her. We make our way upstairs to the teacher`s lounge -- the place I`ve never been. She pours me some green tea and tells me she still remembers my writing. That after the earthquake I wrote an essay for the school on my experience (which I had forgotten about). "It was so visual," she tells me. Like you were talking in pictures." I thank her and tell her I`ve been thinking about a movie. That perhaps I could shoot some of it here, at school. She smiles. Asks me what it`s about. I start to tell her when my phone rings. It`s Yoshii San, parked at the gate, which is now locked. We finish our tea and head down. Now dark with the light from the streetlamps, Junko and Kinuyo greet each other, bowing and laughing - it has been a while. They are lovely -- in my mind the perfect combination of Japanese grace and politeness but also extremely worldly and smart.

We make a plan for dinner. I jump into Yoshii San`s car, as we head down the mountain on the left side of the road. "Would you like to meet my Sister in law and her dog, Ichi?" Yoshii San asks me. I smile. "Wherever you take me is where I`d like to go," I tell her. She squeezes my knee and smiles, laughing. "Sore de, ikimashoo!" Well then, let`s go!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tokyo to Kobe -- Out of the Earthquake and into the past -- Part 1

I am in Kobe. Where I did my exchange -- 16 years ago. The past 72 hours have been a blur. Not sure where to begin, but to begin...

After writing my last post on Saturday, I head to class. Talk to my students about trying to avoid too much news, that the images will cause stress and that they should try to separate themselves and meditate. I also start talking about the upcoming power outages. How they could plan to have something else to do. Like reading a book, or making something with their hands, or painting. I encourage them to plan ahead, so that when the electricity is gone, they won't continously reach for a lightswitch or the computer or their phone charger -- and feel the stress of rememembering, again -- that it isn't available.

Sunday is full -- I teach three classes in a row and try to do more of the same: talk to my students about their own experiences, lead them in a relaxation exercise that includes lying on the floor in dead man`s pose, eyes closed, while "Just Like Rain" from `Monsoon Wedding` plays from my computer. I walk them through a series of images:  washing ashore, walking through a forest at night, standing on the top of a mountain with the wind so strong it almost lifts you up, and sitting in a cave, watching the flames of a fire. We do more improvs, scriptwork and some monologue work.

When I get back to the office, it is just around 7pm and one of my co-workers brings out a cake -- in celebration of the 1 year anniversary of the school. We all sit down to eat, marveling at how delicious Japanese cake is in comparison to the cake in the US -- which tends to be too sweet. There is a pause in the conversation and then the subject switches -- to sushi. I say that the best place for sushi in LA is KATSU YA, and we agree that in general it`s hard to find good miso soup outside of Japan. My two male coworkers give each lady white chocolate truffles for "White Day," the `non-Valentine`s Day` exactly one month after Valentine`s Day on March 14th. No discussion of the upcoming outages, except for the fact that they will start on Monday (tomorrow) around 5PM. This is part of the work ethic. Keep going. Be positive. Don`t dwell on what cannot be helped. I look at the clock which reads 7:30pm and remind my co-worker Wakako that we should probably head out to buy a flashlight and maybe a big round candle.

I say goodbye to everyone and wish them a restful weekend before proceeding to walk through Shinjuku. The night is warmer than any nights have been, and my first thought upon stepping outside into the almost humid air is: "I wonder if the heat is from one of the nuclear reactors." I realize this is a strange thought to be having. The natural thought would be: "Spring is here." I think back to the footage from Daiichi Fukushima, the reactor `blowing its top` on Saturday, yesterday、90 miles from here, but Wakako is talking to me about something funny that happened during one of the improvs, and we both laugh about it. As we leave the stretch of corporate skyskrapers and round the corner towards the shopping district, it is all together different. The streets are almost empty. Usually, at this time of night on a Sunday, the same neighborhood is packed. There are people walking around -- but not many at all. This is the first time I`ve been past the neighborhood of work and my apartment building (which are 5 minutes apart) since the earthquake. There is a different energy in the air. It is eery.

We arrive at Bic Camera, kind of like Best Buy or The Wiz. The rows of flatscreen tv`s and countless displays on the walls, usually flickering baseball games, commercials and sexy dramas -- are all turned off. We ask a sales associate which floor for lighting components, and upon hearing #6 -- opt for the escalators over the elevators. It will take longer, we both agree, but neither one of us really want to get inside an elevator -- especially after the improv from today when two crazy characters were stuck in an elevator -- during an earthquake.

Once we get to the section of the 6th floor where flashlights are sold, it becomes clear that they are gone. As in -- completely cleared off the shelf. Bic Camera was our best bet for bulk, but we press on. MUJI, a chain that has everything from envelopes to khakis, will most likely have flashlights, but the metal facade of LUMINE, a department store usually bustling, is pulled shut, all the lights off. MUJI -- and all the stores within -- closed early, it seems. Wakako tells me she`ll bring me some small candles, and I thank her. Then I say: "what about the 100 yen shop?" Her eyes light up...they just might have it!

We head there and I feel excited. It`s open and the shelves look full. But once inside, all we find are rainbow stick plastic lights for key chains -- and multi-colored tea lights. Disappointed, I buy the tea lights and feel desperate approaching the register. Was there anything else I should buy, while I was here, while there was electricity? I scan the rows of plastic chachkies and Hello Kitty accessories, opting for two of the keychain lights, and a Snickers bar (Snickers has protein and really satisfies). I also need tampons, so we decide to head to a drugstore as a last stop before home.

By the time we get home, it`s almost 10PM. Wakako comes into my apartment and tries to turn the NHK channel to an English setting, but no luck. She looks exhausted and the feeling is mutual. I assure her that since I'm not used to watching any of the channels in English, I won`t be missing anything. We say goodnight, and I crack a beer and fire up my computer. New email from Mom. The subject, all in lower case, says simply: "leave."

I open it, heart pounding. "news here says the plant is in meltdown stage...using seawater is a last resort...if the power outages start what will be running the trains...get to Kobe." I call my parents over skype. My parents` voices. My parents` voices. Measured. Speaking slowly. Loving me. If the power grid shuts down, it will be harder and harder to get out, my father reasons. If more people are trying to get out when resources are limited you may face very different conditions that will leave you without any options...

My mind is racing. It`s 11pm. Just leave? I could try to leave now -- but I am exhausted. Should I tell Wakako? She is just upstairs -- but if I tell her she will have to include our boss -- that`s part of her job, to convey any information from me -- to everyone else. It will become a discussion. One which I have become familiar with: "Tokyo is safe. Tokyo is fine." "You are safe here." I don`t have time to be reasoned with. I have to pack -- but what should I pack? I came with two suitcases and have received gifts and bought clothes for the cold weather. I think again of what to take.

I skype with Chris. "Sentimental value comes first," he says. "All can be replaced. You cannot be. You can do it." Chris stays on with me while I pack. Talks to me about everything and nothing. Bentley`s adventures with Asher, the dog walker, and his work week. Tells me I look pretty. It`s time for him to take the dog out. I tell him I`ll write in the morning. We tell each other we love each other.

I look at the clock; it`s 1:00AM. Piles are in order but I still haven`t packed. My skype phone rings. It`s JJ, sitting at home on her couch in Santa Monica, her drapes the same fabric as our couch in the office, in Venice. Daytime there. I tell her I`m packing, leaving, fleeing. We laugh about my agony over leaving so much behind, my pack-rat nature...how I always seem to find more and more STUFF. I hear myself ask her how SHE is (all this time we`ve been talking about ME!) but as soon as I do, the record skips -- this is not that kind of conversation. She is keeping things real to keep me calm. Not to catch up. JJ senses as much. "I`ll let you go," she says. "Good luck. We are all thinking about you."

I double check the location of the Shinkansen over Google. Marounochi line to Tokyo station for the Shinkansen to Kobe. I know how to get to the Marounochi line from my apartment. If I can get to Tokyo station first thing in the morning, my chances of getting on a train are good. 16 years ago, I took the same train out of the massive Kobe earthquake to Tokyo. Now -- I am fleeing the Tokyo earthquake and its aftermath, heading to Kobe. South to North. North to South. I am in the same situation, again. But this time I am a big girl. If I can just get to the train. If I can just get to the train.

I put my packing in high gear. Eat a banana. Drink some water. Shovel some spoonfuls of yogurt in my mouth for protein. Pull the green suitcase out of the closet and put the chosen pieces in, filling bags with everything I can not fit and stack them in my closet. Empty my drawers. Choose necessary toiletries. I look down at my favorite draw string pajama pants that were a gift from Shawn and Serena at Christmas years ago. Covered in blood. Shit! I love these pants. I fill the sink with water and the Japanese version of woolite to soak them and remember to empty the trash bins. That will be the last thing I`ll do before leaving: take the trash to the basement, bring my luggage to the hall, lock the door, drop key and note to Wakako, head out. Head out.

By the time I have it all packed...canvas bag with granddad`s memoirs and my green journal from Heather, my computer plus cords and chargers, suitcase with clothes, shoes, jackets, Night 2 backpack with toiletries, sneakers (they won`t fit in my suitcase and I have to take the brown leather boots I found with my cousin Mollie at a thrift store on 2nd avenue and 7th) -- I realize I should take a bath. I don`t know what the next day will bring, or how long it will be until I shower again -- so I fill the tub and begin thinking about my notes to everyone at work. What will I write them on? I remember the images of people I printed for class on computer paper -- photos taken by Diane Arbus and Vivian Maier -- and grab the stack of black and white pages, turning them over to use as stationary. I will write them first thing in the morning, I tell myself, as the electronic female Japanese voice of my OFURO sounds: "O Furo ga hairimasu!" "It`s time for your bath!" This is followed by a ring tone length version version of "It`s a small world after all."

I sit down on the stool in front of the mirror and wash my hair, telling myself to breathe. The water looks perfect and I grab the white round of soap from Maggie`s hotel (it smells like Baby Kate) and lather up, excited for the relaxing soak. I get in the warm water and start to sink down -- but the ground is moving. I stop, eyes wide. Another earthquake? An aftershock? The water sloshes around me. I can`t tell. Was this just my body in water, a new buoyancy and therefore playing tricks on my mind? The room seems to shift again. I can`t tell if I am tired or if the plates are shifting far beneath. I looked at the buttons on the wall, the one for heat a fire signal in red. Think of the gas line breaking, like in Kobe when so many Mothers who rose early to make lunches for their families died in front of gas stoves. I am in a tub of water and the heat is electric...I get out. Towel off. Legs throbbing. Run a comb through my hair. Throw my towels in the washer. Stare at my bed and the envelopes, all addressed. Write them now while you have been thinking about it. You will be too tired in 3 hours. Write them now, I tell myself.

I sit down, opting for the black uniball elite, Shawn`s favorite pen. I used to order them by the box load -- making sure they were always in his car, in his bags, on his desk. No doubt about it; it`s the perfect balance of ink and tip precision. Write each letter out. Apologizing. Explaining. Trying to speak from my heart. A new email from my Aunt Cathy. "I am here if you want to talk." I write her back. "I should go to bed -- am trying to leave early." A quick reply: "Went to noon mass and said a special prayer for your safe travel. Sending you angels for your journey." I crawl into bed. Almost 5AM. Alarm set for 8:00.

I wake up disoriented and sweaty. My room looks bare. What am I doing? The sun is shining outside. It`s my day off. But I have to leave. I need to leave. I check my email and see the one from Alicia Brady who has fled a part of Tokyo for Ichikawa Chiba, where her husband`s mother lives. She tells me that I should get out if I can. That the army is passing out food and water in her part of Tokyo, and that it looks like a war zone.

I remember the email to let everyone know I`m leaving and began to type furiously. Am about to hit send when Chris calls on Skype. "You`ve got your traveling pants on, I see!" I look at my reflection in the lower left corner, the top of my brown cordoroy jumper showing and my black wool turtleneck sweater. "Yes I do," I say with stage bravado, thumbs tucked beneath like a chorus member from Rogers and Hammerstein`s OKLAHOMA! "Don`t forget to put your Japanese cell # in that email," Chris says. I`m wanting to send it already, wanting to shut down, wanting to pack up, wanting to go. But I go back into another email. Copy the number I don't yet know by heart and paste it into my gmail draft. Hit send.  Chris says "don`t forget to wear your glasses."

I sign off from Skype. Opt for `Shut down` on my MAC. Unplug ethernet and leave the yellow cord, my umbilical cord to the news and to home and to the world, on the floor below. I wrap Anne`s prayer shawl around my neck and take a look at my apartment, grabbing the trash, and begin to head down to the basement but turn around, ALMOST forgetting the key. I cut to that scenario. Me, locked in the trash room with all my luggage packed in my apartment and missing the train. A near miss. A near miss.

I walk out into my hallway and the light is bright in my face. There is a crunching sound and I look down; the floor is covered with moving paper that stretches to the elevators and starts from the apartment next to mind. I clock the men in uniform, stacking the worldly possessions of my mystery neighbor on a dolly. I`m not the only one leaving. I think of "Empire of the Sun," but a different version. This version.

Back upstairs I pull everything into the hallway, take one last look, lock the door. Leave my bags out of the way of the movers and and head upstairs to Wakako`s, bringing my note, the key to my apartment, and the jar of marmalade from the Suzuki`s -- still unopened but now with a sticky note: "Marmalade from the Suzukis" and a heart. In one of the most amazing coincidences, Wakako my coworker had gone to school with Kenichiro, the Suzuki's son. We had more than marveled over the small world of it at my welcome dinner - it was a kind of destiny that we meet. Give the marmalade to Wakako. From the Suzukis.

I come back down. Grab all. Head down in the elevator. Pass the grandfather clock in the lobby that had stopped with the earthquake -- but is now working again. Step outside, pulling my suitcase behind me. I look towards my way to work, my usual way to work, but instead cross the street and head down, down into the subway. The sound of my suitcase on its wheels, rolling along carpeted halls of this pseudo department store that stretches out from the subway line with tourist type stopping points. Japanese sweets, women`s clothing, a shoe shiner, coffee. I follow the sign for the subway and the Marounochi line. Down another set of escalators. I pull out my subway pass and see the track number for Tokyo. Down one more set of escalators. I`m on the platform. I did it. I`m here. I look around, relieved. Relieved. And then. And then.

The ground is shaking. It sounds like a train is coming -- but it`s an earthquake. An unmistakeable, ground shaking, earthquake -- and it feels substantial. All of us on the platform stand frozen, bracing ourselves, looking at each other, wondering what is going to happen next. I stare at the escalator, thinking about how many levels I`ve just come down. My bags are lethal to me now.  A Japanese man comes over the loudspeaker, sounding nervous: "We are experiencing an earthquake. This is an earthquake. Stay calm. Stay calm." I feel the tears coming. This is it. I shouldn`t have left. I am going to die down here. Oh my God, please help me. Please help me. I make eye contact with a man who looks like Ben Kingsley with a dash of Peter Falk. He is holding a newspaper and wears a hat. He smiles at me. We both consider the escalator and move towards it, but then, the earthquake stops. We go back to the platform. I look at the subway station clock: it`s 10AM. I imagine the news flash: Earthquake rattles Tokyo at 10AM. "Did you feel that?" the man asks, a twinkle in his eye. I nod. "I did. I did." The announcer comes back. Annonuces that the train is approaching.

The train arrives and it is packed. As in: sardine style, no room for me plus my backpack plus my suitcase and purse slung across my body. This man helps me push my way on. We are slammed against each other. I tell him the last time I was on a train this crowded, I was groped by a pervert while wearing a school uniform. He laughs. I feel literary. Powerful. I see the veins in my hands as I grip the bar above. He asks me where I am from. "Originally," I say, proud of this, "Wilmington, Delaware." Over the past 10 years...New York and Los Angeles. You?" He turns his head but cannot fully face me. I see his profile. "I`m from Montreal," he says, and I recognize the `n` in `Montreal` is like Shawn`s. "Montreal!" I say. "I used to work for a man from Montreal. I hear it`s a great town. I lived in Vancouver for four months," I tell him, feeling worldly. He chuckles. "You`re telling me you`ve been to Vancouver but you`ve never been to Montreal? You are missing the whole point."

We come to a stop. People get off and begin pushing past me. I start to lose my balance, unable to stay put next to my suitcase with the weight of so many moving, anxious bodies. The man holds my suitcase while I gain footing and find a pocket. I ease back to him. The car is crowded again and I can feel the sweat covering my upper lip. All of a sudden I feel panicked. Am I going the right direction to Tokyo? The man pulls out his map and we confirm that I have it right. He says he is getting off at the station just before. Then he says that he was in the corporate world for more than 30 years and now teaches Japanese people how to study for their MBA. This is his 29th trip to Japan. I tell him I teach acting. He smiles and says: "I`ve been acting all my life! All the world`s the stage..." I pick up where he left off: "and all the men and women merely players."

He exits. Wishing me luck. My stop is next. It comes. I get off and push upstairs asking a Subway Official which way to the Shinkansen. He points me to the left and I go through a series of turn styles, watching what looks like a CNN crew interview a foreigner. I see the ticket booth for the Shinkansen, and there are at least 100 people in line, in front of me. The guy just in front of me turns around, taking in my suitcase, my sweaty lip, out of breath. "Wow, you really packed everything, huh?" He is perhaps my age or perhaps 10 years older. I cannot tell. In good shape, with a pressed oxford tucked into wool pants and a kind smile. He explains that he is line to buy a ticket for his wife, who wants to go to Hiroshima. "And you?" I ask. "Don`t you want to get out?" He smiles and starts showing me photos of mountain peaks on his i-phone. "Me? I`m a climber. I like high stakes situations. Places like Kili? Mount Ev? That`s my speed." I laugh. "So Kili is Mt. Kilimanjaro, right?" He shows me a pic of it. Then of one with him on it.

We chat. Turns out he was in New York during 9\11, too. Driving on the New Jersey turnpike, he looked up and saw that half the sky was black. I tell him about listening to Howard Stern on the radio in my apartment on 97th street and 3rd and how I was supposed to have jury duty, but at 9PM the night before, the bailiff called all the jury members and said the Judge was canceling the session for the next day, a Monday. It`s a familiar conversation...the `where were you, what did you think, who did you know who was there,` -- but I haven`t had it in a while. I must appear nervous because he says: "you`ll get on today. But it`s good you came when you did. See all those sheets of paper? They are changing all the schedules. It`s going to get harder and harder to get a ticket." I see he can read all the kanji easily. "How long have you been in Japan?" I ask. "I was brought here from India out of college, to work as an engineer. Then from there, New York for 15 years. That`s where I met my wife. She is the one who wanted to come back." His phone rings. "Excuse me," as he answers it. Talks to his wife in Japanese. We chat a bit more about what I am doing here and he asks for my email. "I have a friend in the film business in Tokyo who you may want to connect with. He sends me an email from his i-phone with the Kili screensaver. We`ve come to the front of the line and the train official waves me over.

I pull the ticket out of my pocket, the one Yoshii San bought and sent to me for 3/28 -- when I had planned to travel to Kobe with her granddaugther Tamami. The official lets me use it as a credit towards the whole fare, and asks which train do I want -- 11:20 or 11:30. "Ima nan ji desu ka?" I ask him. "What time is it?" 11 he tells me. I opt for 30 minutes, say goodbye to Ash, and push my way towards the upper platforms. The escalators are not working and 3 long flights of stairs separate me from my platform. A Japanese woman makes her way back down and picks up my suitcase. I thank her over and over in Japanese. She smiles, shaking her head, and tells me that we are all helping each other.

On the platform the sun is shining. I search for my car number to board and place yen in a vending machine, downing a gatorade-like drink called "pocari sweat." The Shinkansen appears, a sleek white train that looks beautiful to me. As beautiful as a new Mac Powerbook -- as chivalrous as a white stallion. I try to get on but the conductor tells me they are cleaning it first. An old Japanese woman and I stand side by side and she smiles. Tells me her child lives in Osaka and that when the earthquake hit, so many items in her apartment fell over. I tell her my story and also that I was in the Daishinsai, in Kobe. She pats my cheek and tells me, in Japanese, that I am a lucky girl. I am a lucky girl.

The doors open. I get on. Look at my ticket. Seat 3A. Window seat. I heave my suitcase above and sit down, shaking. I am on the train. I am on the train. I pull out my Japanese cell phone and write a broken email to Chris and my Mom. My Mom writes back. "When will you arrive in Kobe?" I attempt a reply on the buttons meant for writing in Japanese. "2:06." I call Tadahiko, Yoshii`s husband. He tells me to get off at Shin Osaka. Asks me what car I`m in. I think he`s asking for the train number and I am stumped. He tells me not to worry, and he`ll be there on the platform.

The train starts to move as a woman sits down next to me and her son. Someone comes around with a cart. I order a coffee. The woman passes me my coffee, and asks me where I am headed. "Shin Osaka," I tell her. So is she and her son. She is Japanese, but her English is perfect. We start to talk about the earthquake, the news. She tells me that she has been watching and reading everything. The Japanese news, CNN, BBC, Twitter feeds, and more. She is upset with how conservative and secretive the Japanese Power company and government has been about the nuclear situation. "It is such a sensitive issue for Japan, because so much of their exports depend on this nuclear power." I think back to skyping with Saemi, and us having the same conversation on Saturday night, just two nights ago.

We introduce ourselves. "I`m Naoko," she tells me, and this is my son Ken." She tells me her husband is still in Tokyo, but that he will join them on Friday. And that she, like me, decided to leave just the night before. She also says that her husband, who is American and whom she met in New York, is upset because all the other embassies (French, British, Swiss and German) have been telling their citizens in Tokyo to flee -- but that the American Embassy had not issued any warnings to citizens abroad. Further, she tells me, the members of the American Embassy had themselves already fled to Kyoto, and that soon, the Royal Family would be leaving Tokyo for Kyoto as well. I look at the window, watching the scenery fly past, and think of my empty apartment. The incense stick holder and my magnetic calendar with birthdays and appointments written in black sharpie.

We talk about New York, and how she was working in the Twin Towers when the first attack rocked the trade center in the 90`s. She tells me she and her husband lost someone in their family who worked at Canter Fitzgerald. Then she looks up at the red ticker tape of upcoming stops and, apparently, news reports. There is a special report about a new explosion at the third nuclear reactor that was under close watch. My whole body embraces the speed with which we are moving south. I continue to talk to Naoko, and soon Ken, about everything, it seems. Jazz, movies, the firing of John Galliano from Christian Dior, her work as a line producer at Mad House Picutures, my experiences working on Night at the Museum 1 and 2 -- at which point both of them get excited.

They LOVE these movies. Especially Ken. They have questions for me and I am so happy to share information. About the exteriors shot in New York and DC, the stages that were built, the story of a Museum coming to life. She tells me that when she took Ken to the Museum of Natural History, the first thing he wanted to see was the diorama of all the Railroad workers from the first movie, when Owen Wilson first appears. I tell them how the sound of the banjo in that scene was actually provided by Steve Martin -- a colleague and friend of the director -- who stopped by to offer his expert percussive pluckings on a sound stage at 20th Century Fox -- and how the voices of Shawn`s company, mine included, were the very voices that populated that Chinese/Oklahoma/Turn of the Century scene (aside from Owen Wilson`s and Ben Stiller`s, or course).

Before I know it -- we have arrived at Shin Osaka. I step off the train and see Tadahiko, waiting for me. I say goodbye to Naoko and Ken, snapping a picture with them and exchanging info.

Tadahiko leads me through the station and we take a few trains to home. Where I am now. Typing this. Needing to sleep. It is 5AM -- but I had to get it all out. What happened when we arrived at Ashiya Gawa -- including my visit to Konan (my old school) and reuniting with three of my teachers on the stone steps next to the carp pond...I must save for tomorrow. After sleep. After sleep.

Today I came to Kobe from Tokyo. I did not come by myself. There were angels all along the way. Thank you, my family and my friends, for sending them to me. Thank you for sending me your prayers and thoughts and energy. I received them in the form of people who reached out to me over and over again. I am crying with tears of joy to be here.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


The first time I became aware of the word 'nuclear' I was in 7th grade, in Mr. Hockenberry's Humanities class. I went to Radnor Middle School, and the curriculum was strong -- meaning the teachers were well paid and generally quite dedicated to providing quality education to the impressionable young minds of suburban Philadelphia adolescents. Mr. Hockenberry was a perfect example of this. He wore Hawaiian shirts to school, dark polyesther pants, and a variety of leather shoes which had once boasted the Brooks Brothers sheen but were broken in from years of travel around the world. He created the "SSS" -- the "Samurai Sanitary Service," which consisted of Seven Students who, for a month at a time, left class 10 minutes early to pick up any trash that had been discarded on the carpeted hallway floors. By the end of our 7th grade year, everyone had worn the SSS armband. I think it was Tim Rowe who pointed out that the SSS was actually a spin on Hitler's "SS," -- which gave the armbands an added quality of mystery. We were Japanese Samurai, not World War II War Criminals, and our intentions were of the purest form: to keep the hallways of Radnor Middle School free from trash.

One day, Mr. Hockenberry sent home a form for all the parents to sign. He would be showing black and white footage from the tragedies at Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- and if any parent objected to their child seeing this footage, they could of course opt out. Most everyone signed up for the in-class movie, brought to life by the film projector which hummed and flickered August 6th and 9th, 1945 -- onto the nylon screen. First, there was news reel footage of the silver air force bombers, their hatches like Pez dispensers, popping out blimp shaped bombs, which hovered for a moment before beginning their descent to detonation. Next were the shadows of human beings burned into the ground in Hiroshima, followed by skin falling from the faces of women as they cried, and the blank stares from nameless souls who were missing limbs. It was hard for me to grasp, this act of war. I understood it in the context of Pearl Harbor -- how they had attacked us first. But still -- this bomb, this 'atom' bomb -- was all together different.

Filled with questions and imagery, I remember talking to my Dad about it at home in our living room. It was terrible, of course, he told me. And why the US had decided to drop the bombs on such populated cities, instead of the countryside, was always the question that troubled him. But he encouraged me to ask my grandfather, his father Harvey, about it. My grandfather Harvey Taufen knew a lot about Japan -- having traveled there extensively in the 1950's to broker deals between Hercules (a competitor of Dupont) and many chemical companies -- including Mitsui and Teijin. But it was only later that I would learn that Harvey worked on the atom bomb itself in the early 1940's as part of The Manhattan Project. He was one of the many bright, young chemists plucked from graduate programs and brought to Oak Ridge, TN with his young wife Helen, and their small child Lester. They lived in government housing built amidst a pine tree grove, and when it rained, the mud was almost knee deep. From my grandfather's memoirs I have these details, plus the strange description of the place where they separated the isotopes -- as large as a football field and so magnetic that if anyone happened to approach with something metal in hand, they were in danger of losing it.

Later -- I would travel to Japan as an 18-year old exchange student, and visit Hiroshima myself. The shadows are still there, burned into the ground -- preserved so that the world will not forget. But it is now, that I am back here, after the 9.0 earthquake that rocked Sendai on Friday -- that I am thinking of all things that fall into the category of man-made radiation. Atom bombs and nuclear plants, specifically. And of the 11 compromised nuclear power plants at present amidst a total of 52 -- within a country the size of California (Japan is about as big as California, with half the population of The United States). Hobbled after WWII, with no standing army, and dismal prospects of regaining a place in the developing world -- what was Japan left to do? I am left to ponder the decisions to build these powerhouses of isotopic energy. And the irony that their very construction was a direct result of the devastation such energy had caused.

It's a lot to process right now. This morning I felt myself getting a little panicked, even after a session of qui gong and the lighting of some incense -- I started to cry. But then I remembered what Michael, Junko and Cathy told me: stay hydrated and sing to myself. So I sang "Don't Cry for Me Argentina." Upon seeing my reflection in the mirror, singing the song from EVITA, I started to laugh.

I think Mr. Hockenberry would approve. His class wasn't all horrific images from World War II. I fondly remember staring at Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," as Mr. Hockenberry played the Broadway recording of Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George." Who was this woman, singing her red-headed lungs out in the sweetest and most articulate warble I had ever heard? That was Bernadette Peters, I learned -- punctuating each note -- in pointillistic perfection.

Upcoming Power Outages -- For all of Tokyo

Am at work...and just listened to the building announcement that tonight, between 6-7 pm, there will most likely be a blackout of power in all of Tokyo. From what I understand, the power companies are preparing for what they expect to be the failure of the nuclear reactor that is responsible for supplying Tokyo with lots of power. In anticipation of this, they will be conserving energy during this 'peak' period. Everyone is being asked to conserve energy as well.

Wow. I think I just realized I am on an Electronic Island. That might lose power. What would Kitty Landers do? Wish I had my leatherman but that got lost a long time ago just after 9/11 and I carelessly had it in my purse. It was confiscated by a smug airport security official at JFK -- and I eventually replaced it with a Swiss Army Knife -- but that is at home in Venice. I think of Bear Grylls and Les Stroud. More Les Stroud. Chris and I have watched both Man Vs. Nature shows and we agree that Les is the real McCoy. Bear Grylls tends to amp it up for the camera. Plus -- Les has the better name :) What would Les Stroud do?

Hmmm. I was telling all my acting students to avoid watching too much news, as all those images will inevitably lead to stress. But it's hard to avoid it -- especially if there are blackouts. I remember the blackout in New York a year or so AFTER 9/11. At the time, Chris and I ran to the stone garden on 51st street between 2nd and 3rd, along with some other random folks who had poured out of their office buildings. We were convinced (everyone seemed to be) that a bomb or imminent terror plot was soon to unfold -- as how else could the whole grid of New York from Albany southward have simply failed? Still don't think that chestnut was fully explained...but I remember it starting to get dark, and it being hot, and people lighting candles. Flashlights and AM radio. We listened to Art Bell (Coast to Coast) and all the conspiracy theories and talked about all the things we could do without electricity. Eventually (years later) that conversation became an idea for an eventual Kitty Landers episode...when there is a blackout and Kitty must figure out what to do...

Another announcement over the loudspeaker. I am struggling with the announcer's extremely polite forms of grammar. Getting about 70% of it. It will be followed by an English version, but we all just laughed about how poor the last English version was. Kind of like that scene in Lost in Translation when the director gives Bill Murray very specific direction about being sad and nostalgic, thinking about men in his life (like his father and grandfather) that he wants to honor and remember...and then when Bill Murray asks what the director says the translator says something like: "be louder."

Have not been to the supermarket yet, but my co-worker told me that all the prepared foods are GONE, and the only things left on the shelves are dry goods, etc. My plan is to leave tonight and hit my bulk supermarket which I discovered (or should I say Wakako told me about). There was a tremor during my second class -- both Wakako and I felt it but my students were immersed in a scene -- and did not.

The funny thing is, I have been mentally planning for this. Just the other day while walking to work, I thought: "If there was an earthquake right now, I'd want to make sure I had all my chargers. My computer charger and my phone charger and my i-touch charger and my batteries for my camera." OK -- that alone is kind of ridiculous. Can Steve Jobs please get on this already? Or did he already do that with the i-phone?

When I was a freshman at UVA, I once woke up in the middle of the night, CONVINCED there had been an earthquake the night before. This was the year after I came back from Japan, and clearly the memory was still in there, triggered by some mystery synapse during REM sleep. I jumped out of my bed in the middle of the night and screamed, shaking my roommate Becky until she woke up. "What IS it?" Becky asked. Becky was an Engineering student and wanted to be an astronaut. She studied constantly and took tests that involved the kind of physics and math problems that I was happy to escape for the likes of sonnets and essays on cultural anthropology. Becky liked her sleep. "We just had a MAJOR earthquake!" I shouted at her, pacing back and forth in our small dormitory room (Metcalf). "Oh my God, go back to sleep, you're dreaming!" she said, pulling the pillow over her head.

I did go back to sleep but I was convinced there had been an earthquake in Charlottesville, VA. The next morning I walked up to the geology lab on O-hill and asked to talk to someone in charge -- about the seismic activity of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The guy who helped me was most likely a grad student, on the shorter side, with curly hair and thick glasses. He happily pulled up a chair and tapped into whatever instruments they had in the lab -- confirming Becky's suspicion that the earthquake had in fact been a dream. I accepted this scientific data as proof, but was stumped. It had seemed SO real. I mean -- I thought my bed was shaking. I told him as much and he asked me out to dinner. I thought of that moment in Silence of the Lambs when Jodie Foster politely deflects the advances of the nerdy Moth specialist: "Ever go out for cheeseburgers and beers? Or the amusing house wine?" Jodie Foster smiles, tucking the hair behind her ear in a pseudo flirtatious reply (perfect West Virginia twang): "Are you hitting on me Doctor?"

But...I accepted his invitation as I was new to college, and nerd or not, he had a car -- and would ostensibly pay for my dinner. Which he did.

Like it or not...earthquakes seem to follow me. Or, I seem to follow them. As my Dad said today over the phone: "I told your sister that from now on the world should be on high alert every time you travel somewhere. THIS JUST IN! REGINA TAUFEN HAS BOARDED A PLANE BOUND FOR..."

And this just in...huge explosion at Fukushima Nuclear plant 2 hours ago. Um...about that boat?!