It’s Japanese for “Watch your ass”

Personal status is the essence of power within a Japanese company.

Last night the department took my wife and me to a “Welcome Party.” About thirty Japanese engineers sat with me and my wife in a private room in a noisy yakitori restaurant. After a few polite toasts with dutiful applause, the Japanese began to drink and talk freely.

One drunk middle manager sat down next to my wife and checked out her boobs. By Japanese standards, she’s stacked. “Ahmanda!” he hollered. He babbled thirty seconds of Japanese, eyeing her, and he ended with “I love Ahmanda!”

“What is your hobby?” I hollered back at him.

“Eh!” he replied.

“What is your hobby!” I hollered again.

“Oh! I like folk music. You know?” he replied.

“Yes, I know. I am from a small place called West Virginia.”

“Oh. Joon? Joon Dinva?”

“What?” I screamed.

“Joon Dinva! Almost heaben, West Vaginya!” he sang to me. “Broo Ridge Mountain!”

“Shanandoah Riber!” I screamed back at him.

“I love Ahmanda!” he replied.

Next morning. The elevator slides open on nine and we are greeted by a doll-like office lady. With immaculate politeness she bustles us into the largest office I’ve seen in seven years of doing business in Japan: marble and tile and panoramic windows overlooking this industrial neighborhood of Tokyo.

The chairman sits at the other side of the rosewood table, pulls out a pack of Kool cigarettes and lights up. I sit across from him and try not to breathe too much.

“So,” he says. “What you think about Tokyo?”

With infinite delicacy, the office lady places a cup of coffee in front of me and dematerializes. I take a sip.

He pulls a business card from a gold case and hands it to me. I admire it in the proper Japanese form. Chairman, it says.

“I like Tokyo very much,” I say.

Our meeting ends and I return to the first floor. The drunk middle manager who hit on my wife last night is sitting at a cafeteria table here, drinking water from the vending machine.

“Last night I was drink,” he says, smiling weakly.

I pull the chairman’s card from my wallet and drop it on the table in front of him. I smile broadly into his bleary eyes and walk away.

I asked the doctor to take your picture

Three immaculate office ladies — OLs for short — flex their calves in perfect unison on the projection screen in front of me. It’s standard practice in the Land of the Rising Sun, for both morning exercise shows and airline safety videos, to have three Asian chickies in a neat little row, doing whatever synchronized calisthenics are the order of the day.

Not that I’m complaining. I’ve been wine-goggling them all the way to Tokyo. So all of them leg-flexing chickies look just peachy to me.

This business trip is first to the Tokyo Game Show, and thence to the Japanese parent company of my employer. My wife will follow me here in two days, and we’ll have another short vacation. I told one of my Japanese counterparts that this was my wife’s first time in Tokyo. “I am very concerned,” he wrote in an e-mail, “about your wife. This is the first, I think? Is it OK? When you are in a meeting, do you need me to take care of her?”

Now if this guy had been French, I’d have instantly hit him up for nude pictures of his wife in response. But this is Japan, and most businessmen here would rather die than be rude. I wrote back, “Thank you very much for your kind concern, but she speaks some Japanese.”

Still, I’m gonna keep an eye on this son of a bitch.

Chiba City: smudgy and overcast. Apartment complexes, forty stories tall. Each one is heaped together from matchbox-sized apartments. On tens of thousands of tiny balconies you can just make out bedsheets and other laundry, drying very slowly in the soupy city air.

Tokyo: smudgy and overcast. Gas: 96 yen per liter. (Think four dollars per gallon.) Cockeyed radio antennas, giant electrical towers, six-foot satellite dishes, rooftop air conditioning units, kilometers of overpasses and underpasses and over-underpasses, neon backlit corporate logos.

Today’s Japlish: “I’m Star-Beach.”

I get allergic smelling hay

Fame begets fame. Times Square is a shimmering city of electricity, neon upon neon, animated corporate logos everywhere. It’s also filled, almost exclusively, with tourists. I felt a bit overdressed in my suit and tie.

We went to see Nine at the Eugene O’Neill, with Antonio Banderas in the title role. For the record, that man can act, sing and dance; he was damn good. A pleasant surprise was to see Nell Campbell playing a two-line supporting actress part. Oddly, she played a stodgy matron type. I wanted to stand up and holler, “It was great when it all begaaaan…” The book deserved more attention to detail in its construction. Arthur Kopit created less of a story and more of a situation: one man’s self-absorbed descent into debauchery and self-pity at the expense of his loving wife. Kinda like this blog, except less well-plotted. The music, by Maury Yeston, is rich and yummy.

I learned a new word in NYC. In San Francisco, some actors flash the words “New York” gratuitously and grotesquely, like a five-dollar bill stapled to their acting resumes. If you meet an actress who’s worked in New York she’s sure to tell you about it inside of your first five minutes talking to her. In her mind, the city’s name invokes money and power and talent and connections.

However, in New York itself, the actors are a bit more modest and direct: they’ve all got a big Broadway audition coming up, but currently they’re rehearsing for a nation-wide touring gig, please come if we get to San Francisco, won’t you?

Since it’s redundant for any actor at a New York party to claim he works in New York, the phrase of power among actors in New York is “bicoastal.” If you claim to be a bicoastal actor, you imply, without actually obligating yourself to the disclosure of messy business details, that you do stage and television work some days in New York, and you jet off to LA periodically to do TV and film work. If you are a bicoastal actor, you are in demand, you’re at the top of your acting game, and your teeth are very well aligned. Bicoastal actors typically will discuss the most recent TV show or film projects they’ve worked on in generic, round cadences, e.g. “I just finished up CSI for CBS,” beaming serenely, all the while maintaining an exceedingly low fat-to-body-mass ratio.

Yesterday, my friends Ben and Ari were married at the Brooklyn Lyceum, a converted bathhouse dating to the beginning of the twentieth century. The wedding was a sprawling, happy, improvised affair, with some inspired oompah dance tunes and artsy-fartsy New-Age toasts to the bride and groom. By design or not, it was a cross-section snapshot of the current New York scene of geniuses and hacks. And it was damned entertaining.

Fuck, I’m getting old. When did I turn into a social person?

These vagabond shoes are longing to stray

The eye of Tropical Storm Isabel hit the Appalachians two nights ago. Her eye collapsed in upon itself, and she turned into Badass Rainstorm Isabel. She shouted about seven inches of rain upon the mountains around us before proceeding to New York. The local streams promptly overswelled their banks, and the Deer Run creek, usually not deep enough to sustain trout, became five feet of rambling whitewater. The sussurant sound of rain on the gabled roof was the only noise we heard until 4:00 a.m. exactly, when a wailing klaxon jolted us awake. The local volunteer fire department was being paged. To us bewildered white folk, it sounded like the end of the world.

The rain reluctantly died off after lunch yesterday, so we ventured out to the Treasure Mountain Festival. In California, the summer parade of Art and Wine festivals are all basically the same: you can buy the same silver-plated heart pendant jewelry, or dry-ice cherry sodas, or maintenance-free downspouts. Not so, the Treasure Mountain Festival. Our eyes fell on a small stand labelled APPLE BUTTER. Apple butter is a brown gooey concoction, best spread on toast or eaten in spoonfuls direct from the refrigerator door. Apple butter is boiled in a large black kettle (in this case, over an open outdoors fire) and then decanted into Ball jars with rusty metal tops. Contents of apple butter, according to the whitebeard that sold it to us, include apples, cinnamon, and “other.” We were sad to buy only two jars. I’m certain ten jars wouldn’t survive the upcoming trip to Tokyo. I also bought ten CDs of local bluegrass music, lovingly burned onto CD-Rs, with Scotch-taped labels from a color inkjet printer.

Bye bye, West Virginia. A teeny commuter plane is winging us from Washington, DC to JFK International. Only a day after the death of Isabel it’s a beautiful blue flight to New York City.

Listen to yourself churn, world serves its own needs

Yesterday we visited the family homestead, an acre of land off Deer Run Road in Franklin. The sheep across the way greeted us with an air of skepticism. Someday the barn across the street will completely collapse, and when it does I will be a bit sadder. My digital videos merely suggest the sunny, verdant splendor of the place.

The news reports became constant on the radio shortly after we shot our beautiful videos: Hurricane Isabel is coming, get what you need, prepare for the coming storm. We bought boxes of pasta and protein bars at the Valu Rite and headed back to the Candlelight Inn.

I called my mother. She said, “I received a call from your brother earlier today. He’s a bit scared about driving his motorcycle in the rain, so I think he’s decided not to come to Franklin this year.”

I said, “What about my cousins?”

She said, “Well, Amtrak has cancelled its trains due to the storm, so they won’t be able to join you this year either.”

I called my father. He said, “The television is showing pictures of people and cars getting washed away in North Carolina. I think we’ll have to skip the family reunion this year.”

It’s just after midnight in Franklin, West Virginia. The wind is moderate, around twenty miles per hour, but the rain is unceasing, sheets and sheets of thick walls of water slapping against the gabled roof of this place. Tropical Storm Isabel has thrown four inches of rain at our Victorian bed-and-breakfast in the past four hours, with four more inches to come before sunrise. Our 1908 house is safely ensconced on a hill, and the house’s drainage system is working correctly, but Main Street has turned into a small and fast river before us, probably impassable by anything but a 4×4 truck.

The eye of the tropical storm will pass over me within the hour. I expect there will be a quietness in the air at that time, as I become the president pro tempore and sole attendee of this year’s Byrd family reunion.

Flupp! Muddy waste pops up from the drain.

The blacktop wends in hairpins and snaky twists as we descend through the fog of the Shenandoah mountains on US-33. Through the gray haze we can make out Germany Valley, green and grand and lovely, to our left: a pattern of sunlight cuts us a generous wedge of lush mountain. As our rented Mitsubishi exits the clouds, the mountains turn to valleys filled with milk cows and five-wire sheep fences and cockeyed power poles and dilapidated, collapsing barns. The sign says, “Welcome to Franklin, W.Va.,” and they sincerely mean it.

I have blood here. Everyone in this town, me included, is descended from Ambrose Meadows. During the Civil War, Ambrose was shot by Northern troops while praying to God. His house was burned, his wife and children turned into the cold.

Not a damned thing has happened in Franklin since then. The Appalachian mountains can only be passed on single-lane highways and there are no airports within two hundred miles of this town. Generations of mayors have come and gone from Franklin over the past hundred and fifty years, each one promising to bring economic prosperity to this tiny city. Still, the all-night diners close at 8:00 p.m., and the front doors of the Victorian ladies remain unlocked.

The pamphlet, “Walking Tour of Historic Franklin, W. Va.,” has this to say about the Candlelight Inn: “Walter and Jessie O. Wilson Bowman built their Victorian house soon after their marriage in 1908, and their initials are carved into the stone foundation.” It’s three stories of China dolls and ornate carved furniture and sweet musty bedspreads, sprawling smugly on Main Street of this small town.

We checked into room 1 late last night. A blonde doll beamed down on us from a high mantel. Our host, Kim, greeted us this morning with waffles and coffee. “I’m off to pick up my grandmother at Dulles this evening, so unfortunately I won’t be around tonight,” she said. I settled in to doing some serious work on the Rocky Horror video.

After a few hours I took a break. As I flushed the toilet off room 1, it backed up. My wife found a plunger and I took a few plunges at it: no luck. We called Kim, and Kim called Ed, and Ed called Forrest; Forrest brought a pipe snake. Forrest began snaking out the ancient sewer system embedded within the stone foundation. He hit a snag, we heard a dark barnyard sound and the toilet regurgitated gallons of sewage into our room.

We picked all our stuff off the floor in one large motion and sprinted into room 3, on the second floor. Ten minutes ago, after the plumbing equivalent of a double bypass, sewage is now flowing sensibly again at the Candlelight Inn. It’s midnight at the Candlelight and, with the exception of the dried sewage on the bathroom linoleum one story beneath us, all is well.

Except for one small thing. There’s this hurricane about four hundred miles southeast of us and closing. The state of West Virginia has already declared a state of emergency and, while those gorgeous mountains will shield us from the worst of Isabel, we’ll still get several inches of rain tomorrow.

Rain backs up sewers.

No mayo for me, thanks [woof]

I put on my blue fuzzy bathrobe as the LED lights on the electric clock read 5:30 a.m. East Coast time. My body thinks it’s back in California; subtract three hours and my cerebral cortex says it’s the middle of the night. I can’t sleep.

My mother is awake, preparing for the day. I stumble into the brightly lit kitchen, blinking. The dog is here. He’s a blonde Labrador retriever named T.J. His full name is Tigger Junior, if you want to be formal about it. He’s a fat-ass dog, about twenty pounds overweight. His vast dog posterior blubbers wobbily from side to side if you gently push it with your tube-sock foot, and he will loll up at you, drooling, sainting you within his canine religion.

Mom is making four sandwiches, two cheese, two turkey. “H’maam,” I say, blinking. My head is spinning.

Mom says, “Good morning, you didn’t have to get up.”

“What are you making all those sandwiches for?”

“Well, two are for me, and two are for the dog.”

“Which two are for the dog?”

“The cheese sandwiches.”

Om mane padme om, om mane padme om. I cannot comprehend, for I am washed in waves of jet lag. A bastion has been crossed, a river divided: my mother now makes sandwiches for the dog. Shantih shantih shantih.

Talk with your doctor or pharmacist

I didn’t take the blue diamond pill. I palmed it and took it home.

Being the ever wise and analytical one, I looked it up on-line first. Side effects include headache and facial flushing. Fine, this sounds like my normal morning routine.

The Internet also suggested that you buy 100 mg doses, cut them in half, and have two 50 mg doses. Hey, I’m frugal. I got a small serrated knife out of the kitchen drawer, put the pill on a small plate, and sawed away at the pill. Now I have two pill halves and a little pill dust.

I ate one half of the pill and licked the pill dust for good measure. I then sat down quietly beside my wife on the couch.

Five minutes, fifteen minutes, thirty minutes passed. My wife asked, “Are you feeling anything?”

“My nose itches,” I said.

I got hungry, so I made a sandwich. I then ate the sandwich. I then returned to the couch, where I previously sat.

I was expecting some sort of diabolical sign, perhaps some sort of manic ringing in my liver or the sudden desperate need for orange juice or something, but as far as I could tell this wasn’t happening. We continued to watch Queer Eye For the Straight Guy peaceably.

Finally I said, “Perhaps it’s not working.”

Finally she said, “Perhaps let’s go to bed.”

And we went to bed. At this point, sex broke out.

And I have to inform you that, while it was good sex, it wasn’t particularly acrobatic or abnormal in any specific or mentionable way. “It was good sex,” my wife informed me, “but, it was not, in any way, Viagrific.”

Now, based on the type and amount of unsolicited commercial e-mail I get, I am guessing there are about four hundred million flaccid guys in the US who need to get a little blue diamond pill to straighten things out.

I am, apparently, not one of those guys.

Hell, I dunno. Perhaps I should have taken the whole blue pill.

Now the first thing you know, old Jeb’s a millionaire

Establishing shot: the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. The high-speed, glass-walled elevator rockets upward, bearing a square-jawed businessman (me) and my amiable Japanese friend and boss, Nozawa. As the elevator shoots past the sixth floor, we accelerate to thirty feet per second, to two hundred and fifty feet above the glass ceiling. Nozawa turns around, sees the world spin away from him, and utters a single syllable: “Oh–”

As we leave the elevator on the twenty-fifth floor, he confides, “Frankly talking, I don’t like height.”

In my room, with the curtains open. The LA foothills, burning red and gold on the horizon behind the skyscrapers. I imagined swimming pools and movie stars, and thought of Heather, somewhere on the skyline. I called her on the cell. She’s moving into her apartment; she recently bought four hundred dollars’ worth of groceries, only to find the gas hasn’t been turned on, so she can’t cook any food. “We’re having fish tacos,” she said. “I had kind of a breakdown from moving all my stuff, but I’m better now. Over the past hour and a half, I’ve assembled a lamp,” she said. “I’m very proud of myself.”

I had dinner with Nozawa at the steak house at the top of the Bonaventure. We talked about our families. “My father was born in 1930,” he said. “He was eleven during the World War Second.” I looked over a couple tables and saw a middle-aged academic fellow tapping on a laptop. I recognized the software he was using. He was writing a teleplay.

Nozawa and I checked out of the Bonaventure and visited several potential customers: game publishers, producers, and assorted rock stars. The LA fog burned off early in the afternoon, so I pointed at our rented Mustang and told Nozawa, “I have an idea.” I took the convertible top down and drove him down 405 to San Juan Capistrano. California put on her best urban face for us, with palm trees and golden hills and blue skies and open carpool lanes. Nozawa smiled the entire time. Toward the end of the trip, he announced happily, “I have never ridden a car like this before.”

There are some incredibly beautiful people down here. In San Francisco, video game developers are all staffed by standard-issue geeks, dressed in blue jeans and freebie pre-printed T-shirts. In Los Angeles there is a very high percentage of day-job actresses working as HR people and receptionists and the like in game development companies. The rules of Mendelian inheritance cannot permit so many blonde people to exist in such a diverse population.

Flight back, 8:00 pm tonight. The plane was nearly empty. I guess people remembered where they were two years ago before deciding not to buy tickets today.

The monkey chased the weasel

About a year ago I applied for work at Leapfrog, a maker of children’s electronic toys. I and about 400 other overqualified candidates were shoehorned into a tiny conference room for a group interview. At that time I was interviewing for a composer position, so they told me to arrange “Pop Goes the Weasel” into four voices for a general MIDI instrument. I ended up working elsewhere but I ended up writing the best arrangement you’ve ever heard of Pop Goes the Weasel. Twelve kilobytes, baby!