The rain sounds different when it hits the tops of houses in Kyoto. I woke up and listened to it for an hour today, then went downstairs and watched the turtles in the inner garden pond. Animals here are not afraid of people. They don’t run and hide the way animals who have learned the hard way what humans are all about do. Even the little birds don’t mind. The only ones who run from people, my house mate told me, are the cats. Given the obsession with cats here, this strikes me as wise behvior.
I arrived in Kyoto today around 7pm. I should have gotten here earlier but I went the wrong way in the Osaka Loop train, which didn’t really matter, I just had to wait for the longer side of the loop. When I finally got to Osaka Station, I switched to the Kyoto line, tossed my bag on the subway rack and just zoned out into my headphones.
A nice thing about Japan is that people don’t steal things from other people here, at least overtly and rampantly like they do elsewhere. I learned from my friend who’s an English teacher in Osaka that kids get moral training in elementary school, where they are given different scenarios and have to pick the more ethical choice. It permeates the culture.
When I was in Thailand, I studied Buddhist meditation in the jungle with a runaway princess. There are many stories to be told about what happened there, but today is mother’s day so I will tell you just this one.
In the US and other Western cultures, we sometimes say “you can’t pick your parents.” It comes up in times of familial strife, when things aren’t all Hallmark ad-like and you wish you had a different life with different people in it. It’s to remind us that, nope, we can’t. Our lives come pre-fabbed with certain people in certain roles, and nothing can ever change it. You have to deal.
The following text was originally published on Facebook. I am reposting it here at the request of a friend who wanted to send this to John Oliver.
I’ve recently been informed that I owe a couple Gs to the IRS from when I was working at Wired full-time. I was the youngest editor on the masthead, running not one but three online verticals of Wired.com, sometimes not leaving the office until midnight and commuting an hour to get home alone through the subways of NYC at night. I was being forced to spend my time dealing with eye-gougingly incompetent adsales people from corporations who were making probably 4x as much as me but couldn’t think of a new idea to save their lives.
Meanwhile Wired was using its own editorial employees to pressure me and other editors to be more lenient in allowing them to insert advertiser messaging into content so as to not disrupt these big ticket ad sales that would let our thick-necked jock of a VP win his internal betting ring against GQ and other Conde Nast publications. I thought I was working for a technology magazine, not a sportsball team–I turned in my cheerleading uniform years ago. But when I protested my editor yelled at me, the only time he ever has, and told me to just “keep my head down.” So I did what he said.
This morning I woke up in my friend’s apartment in Osaka, happy to be here. I made some coffee and decided to write by hand in my journal, to add to the 3,000 or so pages I’ve filled with fodder for future stories in recent years. Pen selection of every entry is a delicate process, subject to several variables. The thickness of the ink is dependent on my environment—am I on a bumpy train and require greater precision? Am I writing while leaning on one arm on a bed and need something with low resistance so my hand won’t get tired? Or is there a desk so I can use a thicker, felt-tip pen with a feather-light touch?
I picked one from the arsenal and decided yes, it would be the one for today: a Pilot P-700 Fine with a marbled pattern on the pen casing.
When I was in elementary school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the school would host seasonal sales. Cookies, wrapping paper, and other various items from catalogs, the school would give to the children to peddle to our families, neighbors, and whoever else we could convince to buy, in exchange for points that could be redeemed for prizes. An ideal American business transaction: convince child laborers to flip stuff that had no value to them to adults, in order to receive things kids would actually want that were of exceedingly less monetary value. But I was never allowed to participate. These sales were, my mother explained, a scam, exploitative, demeaning, or some other reason (she never really explained her decisions for such things in a way I could understand as a kid), and she wouldn’t have me involved in that racket.
Every year I would watch with jealousy as the prizes came back to reward the burgeoning entrepreneurs of the class. I wanted some fucking prizes too. By fourth grade, I decided to take things into my own hands. I can’t remember what I sold or to whom, but somehow I snuck that catalog behind my mom’s back and sold enough goods to amass approximately 500 points by the end of the allotted time period. I turned my order forms in to my teacher after scouring the rewards sheet for the thing of most point value to my 9-year-old self.
When the day came for the prizes to be delivered, I waited patiently while the big ticket prizes were delivered to the kids with hyper-competitive parents who probably dumped hundreds into the catalog just so their kid could be the class winner. When the small package was placed on my desk, it was a triumphant moment. I unwrapped it and my little hands, for the first time gripped that which, 20 years later, would help to draft the culmination of my life’s work: a Pilot P-700 Fine pen with a marbled pattern on the pen casing.
That pen, nobody could borrow. I had my decoy pens for that, and still do. No, the Pilot was my professional tool. It signified sophistication and professionalism. I remember the feeling when it ran out of ink after pouring its contents on the pages of my notebooks: the slow death of an old friend. I kept that empty pen in my desk for years even though it was useless; it became its own memorial. Whenever I use the new version, I remember what it meant to me back then: defiance, self-sufficiency, creative endeavor against all obstacles.
You may classify my association with this pen, something many would easily discard, as overly sentimental. But if the objects in our lives are symbols, what better reason to posses them than the direct memory link to the moments in which they were acquired?
There is much envy directed at the perpetual traveler. I get messages from people all the time wishing they could live like me, moving “freely” across the globe. But sometimes, the highlight of your day is finding a roll of toilet paper where the perforation on the two plies line up exactly, instead of being offset so when you try to tear it with one hand while you hold the strings of your temple pants in the other so they don’t drag along the dirt floor of the hole in the ground you are pissing into, it rips vertically in thin strands like a cheap packing tape you pick at for ages just to find the proper edge again.
Everyone who travels wants something, even if that wanting is to give. I do it for that, but also because I want, I need, to understand what places are like. It isn’t a vacation. Places aren’t always good, and some places are rarely comfortable. They just are. I will feel what I’m inclined to feel about them from moment to moment, given the world from which I came and the body I inhabit, how my body is different from the bodies around me and how that shapes the perception of the me and the them. But my feelings won’t change the place around me. It’s neutral. It just is. People adapt to any place over time. That’s how we made it this far.
You might look at the pretty pictures from around the world and think you want to go there, to consume the vision with your own senses. Maybe you should. But maybe you also shouldn’t. Just remember: often times, that picture is the crown jewel of a laborious experience. Unless you’re willing to sit in the dirt and eat bugs with people, if that’s what they do, to understand why the thing in the picture means anything to anyone, why not just look at the picture and appreciate it for its aesthetic value? Appreciate your own life and all the comfort you have in its stability as well. So many people would kill for that in this world, and they do. If you would trade it in pursuit of all the unanswered questions in the world, even if it means being attacked by a swarm of dragonflies on a 105 degree train while fluorescent lights beam down at you at midnight, maybe it is time for a change. Nothing ever changes unless the cost of maintaining the status quo outweighs the benefits. But do the potential benefits of the lifestyle you fantasize about outweigh the potential costs?
For me, they did and do. Even as I lie happily in a room the size of a coffin typing this blog post on my phone in hopes the internet will transmit it where it needs to go, I’m content with this wild life I’ve chosen. You don’t have to decide right now what you want to do. In fact, you don’t have to worry at all. Just be. If you do one thing a day to move your life along in a positive direction, that is enough.
While I’m out here though, eating bugs and eliminating 10 liters of water a day through my skin, and finding paradise and writing a novel sometimes in between, I hope you’ll think about how to really support the people in pursuit of the unanswered questions in the world, so they can share with you what they know. I’ve had a lot of support along my journeys, and I’ve got a lot of stories to tell as a result. So, ya know, show your favorite castaway you care or something from time to time, virtually or even by paying them a visit.
This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader.
Last night I was writing on my laptop, sitting cross legged on the floor of one of the wooden bungalows atop top of a cliff on an island somewhere in Thailand. I’ve been writing a novel and was deep in thought, when all of a sudden a little boy walked over and set a plate of squid on my table. I tried to tell him I didn’t order it, but he just smiled and ran away.
I looked around, confused. To my right I saw a table of heads looking at me from a across the deck. A shadowy hand waved. Then a woman got up and came over to me, I assumed to reclaim her misappropriated order, but then she explained it was for me.
“He want to give to you,” she happily articulated with carefully calculated English.
“He ask his mother: ‘why she so quiet?’ And his mother say: ‘because she working.’ And he said ‘ohh.’”
She made a forlorn face to signal the little boy’s contemplation about the matter.
“Then he say: ‘Can I take squid for her?’ and his mother said ‘yeaaaas, go.’ So he came to give squid to you.”
My jaded little heart just about exploded. I laughed and awww’d and thanked her. She motioned to the boy to come back over, and he came shyly with his father who said something to him in Thai. The little boy stuck out his right hand and looked at me, hopefully. I shook it heartily and said “kap kom khap,” thanking him in my best attempt at Thai.
He looked elated and bowed deeply, thanking me (for accepting the squid?) with his hands pressed together. He turned to run away again, overwhelmed, but his father spun him back around and readied his tablet cam. I posed for the picture, draping one arm around the little boy’s shoulders and making a peace sign with my other hand. (In Asia, there is no shame associated with the peace sign, unlike in US where it has become a sort of pasé hippies-only gesture.)
The three thanked me and went back to their sunset dinner, leaving me to my work.
I’ve never even really liked squid, but I ate that whole damn plate, except for the heads, which I discretely gave to the resident kitten who has taken a ferocious liking to me as well.
When I was done writing for the night, I went over to the family dinner table where the owner of this glorious place was also seated, and they all beamed at me. I thanked them again and asked the women to translate for the little boy that he made my happy night working even more happy. He smiled and hid in his father’s sleeve. I bowed to the table with my hands pressed together and told them all goodnight.
What a perfect gesture of childlike innocence and compassion, to attempt to improve my, what to him must appear to be a very odd and solitary way of life, with the gift of squid.
Of course I am quite happy here in my literary paradise, where I can explore nature and focus on my art undisturbed, and at the same time remain connected to the ones I love around the world via a pretty solid internet connection. How heartbreakingly funny that being quiet and working, the very things I have traveled so far to do, seem like the pits to a 10-year-old Thai boy used to seeing tourists in a temporary state of elation and excitement-seeking.
I considered that he may have had a point. I was already wearing my little black dress, so I put my computer away and walked down the hill with my Thai bartender friend to the beach bar where a band that covers Bob Marley and various other songs with beachy vibes plays every weekend, and watched the crazy French tourists dance until they were covered in sweat and falling over. It was arguably a better use of a Saturday night in paradise than sitting by myself and writing. Maybe if it weren’t for that plate of squid, I would have just gone to bed.
Thank you, little boy. I will never forget you.