MIRRORS, CON ARTISTS, AND TORPEDOES
(Sent to Friends Sat, 21 Sep 1997)
So far, the theme of this trip is how things might have been had I lived in America. Job strife, needless confrontation, and a high-fat diet. I haven't gotten into that last topic yet (since I didn't realize what I was doing to myself until much later into my trip, when my belt slipped two notches), but you betcha I will. Anyway, on to more weighty matters--a journey in which I learned about myself not from a cultural aspect, but from a genetic one.
MEETING JOHN, MY FATHER, AFTER 25 YEARS APART
We all hear stories, through the Reader's Digest circuit of homilies and home truths, about the roots of personality and predisposition. Nature vs Nurture, are you what you are because you were born that way, or because you were raised that way? Bleeding-hearts talk about a criminal's broken background and consequent reprieves from the gas chamber, while Hawks pooh-pooh away about The Nature of Evil, The Bad Seed, and the need to extinguish those beyond redemption. When I was young and my portfolio of experiences thin, I checked into the former camp, believing that, say, an alcoholic becomes one because he watched his parents souse themselves, etc. Nice safe liberal viewpoint that needed little defense, challenged few people to scream "overgeneralization", won friends and all that.
Then one of those friends countered with those classic cases of "twins separated from birth". That is to say, some twins were adopted by different families and brought up under disparate lifestyles, with no contact or even knowledge of each other's existence. But when reunited, they still showed startling similarities. Both tended to wear the same clothes, eat the same food, listen to the same kinds of music. Even their taste in spouses overlapped--same height, type of hair color, name, what have you. My friend's point was that many personality types and preferences are in fact determined from birth. Alcoholics become them because they, like Native Americans, Eskimos, and the Irish, have inherited weaknesses towards alcohol. With twins, you can narrow the variable to genetics and eliminate all the environmental factors that allow "nuture" counterarguments.
Shocked at his temerity, I told my friend back then that he was full of it. But the question nagged, and years later I found a prime opportunity to see for myself if it were true--by meeting John, my father, after over a quarter-century apart.
IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY?
John and I were separated when I was around age four, and we had absolutely no contact (no letters, no phone calls, no legal ties--even my last name was changed when my mother remarried and I was adopted into the Aldwinckle family). I had no memory of him. The only link was through my Georgia grandmother, who believed that ties should be maintained regardless of relationship as long as kin were involved. So it was through her that I reestablished contact with John some years ago, and asked him to meet me in Portland this summer.
My motivation? Can't say it was love or something soppy like that. I could maintain that it was scientific curiosity; I was raised by a Cornell scientist in a scientific community, and this would be a chance for some good science. But no, that wasn't it.
It was the need to understand myself. As with anyone who grows up, my personality solidified and polarized as that experience portfolio expanded. Fact was whenever I'd run a self-diagnostic, I'd find bugs in my program--many parts of my temperament defied explanation that was Nurture in nature. My quick temper, my single-mindedness when working on a project, my need to tell the world what I think, and my irrepressible urge to stand out in a crowd even if it meant making an ass of myself. Urges like these my adoptive father, a more reserved Brit, or my mother, a moody Chicago Pole, never empathized with or thought worth doing.
And to blame it on an "American" programming--that was iffy indeed. Damned if I could remember any influential friends at school who carried on like I would (one of them still criticizes my ability to comment on the US at all, as I am hardly representative; in his words, I'm "two or three standard deviations from the norm"). Even most Japanese familiar with America see me as atypical. Anyway, coming here to Japan as a passel of personality quirks, later exacerbated by an awful Japanese workplace (which threatened any differences and deviations from their ideals with job dismissal), I would find myself suffused with spurts of rage and suddenly ripping bathtowels in half. That simply would not do, I decided.
A treatment for this? Go figure.
Really. One of the best ways to deal with any quirk of nature, culture, situation or personality is to develop an appreciation of it. Figure out roots and causes, and then via that understanding find ways to limit damage. So for my own sake and the sake of those I love, I decided to meet John and see how much of him was in me, see what it had done to him, and use that knowledge as a solution or a deterrent. As Japan does, I would study other modern societies' mistakes before they happen here.
JOHN, ANOTHER PASSEL
Smell the similarities. John, now 57, met my mother in high school, travelled across the country to be with her, and married young (as I did my wife). Earning a PhD in Physics but unable to see a future in it (as I did my MBA), he worked as an avant-garde filmmaker during the Sixties and became a hippie in Berkeley (no concurrency here, but that may explain my love for movies). He eventually ended up an academic (hmm...) teaching film in Chicago. After the divorce, John remarried twice, the second time to one of his students, Beth, only a little older than I. After Beth finished school, John grew disgusted with both the quality of students and the faculty, and retired from teaching to devote his energies to Beth's new career, a Chinese linguist in the Air Force. Although John lives the life of a married hermit--with few friends, no television, and a begrudging link to phones and computers--the bottom line is that he is still with her and still happy, and all's well and that's that.
Okay, so what's the issue here? He marries blondes and likes Uma Thurman and I don't, so BFD on bloodlines, right? Actually, similarities really do crop up geno- and phenotypically. First, there's the face. John, in a word, looks "grim". He has a knitted-brow pouty puss that always looks grumpy about the world's lack of appreciation of art and the Classics--which "must be studied to perpetuate Western Civilization!" (see Max Von Sidow's character in Woody Allen's HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, and you'll get an image). I don't go that far, but whenever I get miffed about the way Japanese society wastes its women or treats non-Japanese, Aya derides me for getting the "John look". Second, there are our bodies: same height, big hands and feet, potbelly, windblown brown hair (thankfully not thinning), same preference of cheap, loose-fitting clothes as raiment.
Then there are the predilections. He picks up rocks when we hike (and I've filled my garden with magma bits), gets ferocious migraines that blind him before they fell him (exactly ditto), likes half-hour kisses with his wife (no comment), and has quite a libido, even at this age (ulp!). He likes to natter on and on in deep lecture mode about things and not give a shit if the other person is listening (kind of like me in this particular Americatrek). He believes in filling people with what he perceives as truth and beauty and damn the torpedoes. To him, people exist as vessels for good education and classical music, not TV and MTV trivia (he hates Disney and The Simpsons and knows nothing about Star Trek; thankfully we diverge here). And it goes on.
Said he, after a few movies and a really greasy pizza dinner: "Dave, I'm your father and I love you. That is an existential fact. I only want what's best for you. I wasn't there for you then, but I want to make up for it now by being a good guide to what's in store for you in future." He then told me about his colon and flatulence problems (um...), and how he takes care of them with his space-age high fiber diets. When he started on how he gives himself an enema I had to slam on the brakes. "Sorry, John, that's enough for now."
So he shifted gears. "Now, why your mother and I got a divorce. I'm sure you're dying to hear about that." And off he went into gory allegories of hippie free love, drugs, how I was an accident but a good one, how he wanted to give me LSD when I was a toddler ("for the mind-broadening experience", like The Who's Acid Queen), and things that kids should probably not know about how human their parents are. I somehow remembered an old Dragnet episode, where Jack Webb walks into a Hippie hovel, finding everyone strung out while their kids sat alone at the dinner table, eating cold baked beans out of a can they managed to open. I'm sure that I was never in that situation, but in the end both John's and Jack's stories resonated as an indictment of the Sixties, laying bare the self-absorptions and irresponsibilities of the "try-it-you'll-like-it" Me-Generation.
"Sorry, John, that's enough again."
Indefatiguable John then regeared. "Okay, son, I'm at your disposal. Put me to work. I need a project. Anything I can do for your exports?"
As a matter of fact, there was.
TRAVELLING FORCE MAJEURE PART TWO
I had met John on Saturday morning, August 9. Precisely because I didn't want to futz with purchases with John around, I had spent the previous week clearing the decks, buying with Joseph well in advance. Just about half my deliveries (JC Penney, Home Depot, Montgomery Ward) were due in to my freight forwarder on Monday morning, August 11.
Guess what happened on 12:01 am on that Monday morning?
THE UPS STRIKE
JC Penney called up to give me the bad news. "Sorry, sir, all your orders are tied up in Reno, our distribution center. Shall we cancel them?"
"You mean there's no chance of the strike lifting before my shipping deadline of Wednesday?" I said dumbly.
"Sir, I don't know if you've been following the news, but UPS hasn't been on strike for about three decades. There's a lot of pent-up frustration, and the drivers are sick of being hired as part-timers. I really think they aren't going to budge until their demands get met. Everybody says a month's delay at least."
"Can we get somebody else to deliver?"
"I don't think so. UPS accounts for about 80 percent of all parcel traffic in the US, and 100 percent of JC Penney home deliveries. The other couriers are already working 24 hours at full capacity. Unless some new trucks magically appear, or the UPS management does the driving themselves, it's not going to happen. Unless..."
I wasn't about to have all my hard-selected orders torpedoed like this. "Unless what?"
"Unless you have all the goods delivered to the JC Penney store in Portland, as opposed to your freight forwarder directly. Then we can use JC Penney trucks themselves. You'll just have to come to the store and pick up the stuff yourself. Should be there by Wednesday."
"But I've got three mattresses, a curio, and other bulky and breakable things that I would rather a professional move. I mean, I bought everything last Thursday. Surely you could have gotten the stuff there earlier if you knew the strike was coming. And the cost of my renting a truck is on me--a cost I was trying to avoid after careful planning. C'mon, please, give me a break. Is that really the best you can do?"
"That is really the best we can do, sorry. It's a bureaucratic thing. I don't make the rules. No hard feelings, okay?"
Back to John. "Oho! Sounds like a great project, Dave. I brought a whole bunch of nylon rope, and I'm a professional packer. Did I tell you that? (Yes, a couple of times.) I mean it. I've been paid for my packing and cataloging skills. Tips: Never use twine because it breaks. Nylon stretches but I've never had it break. So we can pick everything up and tie it to the top of my car and--"
"Come again, John? Did you just say 'tie it to the top of my car'?" It was a beat-up '73 Cutlass Supreme that had never been waxed, and so had rust on the hood from the parched and cracked paint. Hardly the knight in shining armor I was anticipating.
"I did. Put everything we can in the back seat, and put the heavy items on the roof. It's what--about ten freeway miles from the store to the freight forwarders? It'll be a cinch."
"It'll be a pinch, I think. But I would really appreciate your help. I'm really sorry about this. I was hoping to get out of Portland and see Crater Lake--"
"And I was hoping to take you down to the southern Oregon seashore. Beth really loved it there. I'm going to take her again when she gets back from her tour of duty in Korea. Anyway, it doesn't matter. You've got to get this job done, and I'm here to help. Let's do it. And you can now buy whatever else you see on the way, too. This may be a blessing in disguise."
"Thanks, John," was all I could say. And we, unable to go anywhere outside of Portland, resumed our daily regimen of seeing two movies a day.
"WERE WE CONNED, JOHN?"
I kept muttering this during Peter Greenaway's gorgeous new movie THE PILLOW BOOK.
John: "You're chewing this over in the back of your mind, aren't you. On one track. You should be enjoying all the frank nudity and sex that Greenaway specializes in, but you've got a burning question that you can't let rest--"
"But I mean it! Were we conned, John?"
Let me flashback to the scene I was talking about. Before the movie, we were walking from the picturesque Portland train station through the old storage areas that make up Chinatown. It was still light outside, warm and gorgeous thanks to El Nino, and this guy came up to us asking for directions: "Hey mister, excuse me. Excuse me, hey, can you tell me how to find 1212 Chestnut Street?"
We were likely to be late for our movie, so John kept walking, but I answered back, "Sorry, we're new in town too." Then we got stopped by a red light at an intersection, and the guy came up. He was a black man, in his forties, thin, clean-shaven and very freckled, dressed in tan slacks and a loose-fitting white unpatterned shirt. He said to me:
"Thank you son. Nice to see not everybody ignores black people. These days, everybody sees a black and thinks he's a panhandler." He turned towards John. "Some people are so cynical that they just keep on walking instead of helping their fellow man. No sense of kindness or mercy."
John: "It was nothing to do with you being black. We were in a hurry, and--"
The Man: "Okay, but that's the problem with the world these days, isn't it? Everybody in a hurry, nobody wants to help. At least you," he turned to me, "would give me the time of day. I mean, if more people read The Bible and had faith in Jesus Christ our Lord, like my dear mother always says, the world wouldn't be in the mess it's in. Now am I right about this, or what?"
John, who in the past decade or so has had a rekindling of faith, lit upon one magic word--Bible--and started speaking as he usually does, at length and damn the torpedoes: "No, I agree. Faith is a powerful thing, and yes, Bible teachings are..." blahblahblah. I ducked out of this conversation. Whenever John launches into his capsule summaries of ideologues, such as William Burroughs, Jesus, or Jung, I tune out or interrupt. I was interested to see if another person would react the same way.
He did. The Man turned back towards me in mid-drone and said, "Hey, son, I'm pleased to meet a young person like you, without prejudice. Gives me confidence for the future." He shook my hand. It was warm and comforting. "Not at all," I replied. " I'm sensitive to issues like these, given where I come from."
The Man: "Anyway," he brought out some papers he was holding. "I've just driven up here all night bringing my mother up here. Last night we were in Eureka," he brought out a California map that had the town circled, "and we're on our way to Seattle. I just asked a cop where we could find this address," he showed us a piece of paper with a makeshift map and a street number, "and he scribbled this. Damned if I can make it out. After we get there, I've got to get some gas for the car. My mother's waiting in a van down the street. Do you know where we can find a gas station? I'm going to try to get my mother up to a relative's place in Washington."
John: "You're on a quest?" Yeah, I guess you can say that. "Okay, let me help you. I'm a person big on quests." He pulled out his wallet and said, "Here's five dollars, towards gas."
The Man: "Oh, hey, man, did I ask you for any money? No, sir, I don't want your money. C'mon, put it away."
John: "Take it. For our fellow man. It would be worth it to me" And The Man smiled, cupped John's hand in both of his in thanks, and said, "God bless you. You'll make my momma really happy."
And then I gave him five dollars of my own. Almost out of reflex. He gave me a handshake and a big smile, and left us on a huge note of thanks. We crossed the street.
But as we arrived at the art house theatre showing PILLOW BOOK, something began to itch. Says I: "What do you think that was all about?"
John: "The guy was a pro. He played the race issue well--nice to you, nasty to me, kept us talking, avoided foul or rude language. Made us feel sorry for him and angry at ourselves for past injustices. Made us feel good if we were generous in any way. What tipped me off were the maps and papers--all too ready. Felt like a presentation. We could have asked to meet his mother, if she was in fact waiting so close, but he knew we were in a hurry and probably wouldn't. I gave him five dollars for the performance. I didn't expect you to contribute too. You must have been more entranced than I after being buttered up so much."
And as the movie started, the mental replays tickled and itched and chafed. Why would a person, who was making an issue of racial discrimination, take advantage of White guilt and charity for personal gain? How could he ever expect to get the Whites he suckers to trust Blacks again if he preys on that trust? What kind of affinity did this man feel for his fellow Blacks, let alone his fellow man, if he betrays the very cause he decries?
In essence, what kind of person could disable his affinity or conscience software like that? I, for one, couldn't. Granted, not tellling the *whole* truth is something I can handle, since everyone has secrets. But Bare-Faced Lies and Fabrications? That was beyond the pale.
Probably because it was the art of the con. The Man was a "shark". As Danny Glover said in GRAND CANYON, some people are "sharks", seeing people not as people but merely as food. Sharks can see nothing beyond themselves and will even treat fellow sharks as snacks. That's a biting fact of life for some creatures out there, and I pity the prey.
Right in the middle of a heavy sex scene, I muttered, "John, the jury's in. We were conned."
John, being John, didn't tell me to shut up or belittle my thought processes. He understood exactly what was going on inside, and answered: "Dave, if he was not a con artist, we helped a fellow human being. If he was, five dollars was a pretty cheap price to pay for the learning experience. Chew on that and enjoy the sex."
I tried, but the one question that wouldn't lie down was: Was The Man a shark from birth or due to life on the streets? I hope he has a twin somewhere.
MOVING ON AGAIN
In the end, John and I, focussed on our projects instead of on each other, got along just fine. The shipments did come in, goods were bound to the roof of his car and transported, plenty of movies were seen and meaningful chats were had. Although John is an intense person, tolerable only in small doses, we fared surprisingly well. He knew well enough to lay off when I told him to. He realized that although our educations differ, the path I had chosen--the study of an Eastern society--was still worthy of respect, even if it had not included enough appreciation of the Western Classics. And I realized just how much people can have in common even if they only have blood.
John reminded me a lot of myself when I was a youth in college: combative, full of files on narrow-band subjects, not willing to suffer fools gladly, truth at all costs. My stealing away to Japan had tempered away many potential "inherited shortcomings", such as argumentation to the point of being anti-social, negativity towards the modern human condition, inability to emphasize or get along with people. I feel that if I had become an academic in America (as opposed to a businessman in Japan), I wouldn't have had that sociopathic stuffing knocked out of me enough. In that sense, Japan has served as socializing medicine for one genetic weirdo.
FORESHADOWING FOR PART FOUR
The next person I would be spending time with was my oldest friend, Doug. I have known him since I was five years old, and we grew up together in Upstate New York. If John was a friend who, due to 25 years' separation, knew me the least, Doug was the opposite extreme--he probably knew me better than even my parents. The problem was that he would remind me just how uncomfortable my past had been, and show me the most cogent reasons why I emigrated to Japan.
(Click here for Americatrek Part Four)