Bay-su-Bo-ru, Japan and America

October 31, 2010

When I attended my first baseball (or bay-su-bo-ru, as it is pronounced in Japan) game in Tokyo, to watch the league-leading Seibu Lions in their home stadium, nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of their fan base. The bleachers were a sea of blue and white: Lions caps, Lions jackets, Lions blankets, clappers, and ice chests; Lions pennants, signs and pompoms. I felt seriously underdressed; the only blue I was wearing was a pair of Levis. I had wanted a Japanese baseball cap, though, so, mildly chastened, I dutifully made my way down to the concession stand and spent a small fortune for a Lions cap. Back in the stands, even my seatmates (these were not friends, mind you, just folks I met upon taking my assigned seat) clearly thought I was underdressed, and they dug deep into their cache of Lions ephemera to outfit me in a manner that they felt appropriate to the occasion. I returned the favor by buying a round of beers from the wandering concessionairette, but it was a case of bringing coals to Newcastle, as my new best buddies had a couple of twelvers of Asahi in their blue-and-white Lions cooler.

The Lions would likely be little more than a blip on the radar for most Americans, but for their fortuitous sale of ace pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka to the Boston Red Sox, for a reported six billion Japanese yen (around $50 million!). And every time Dice-K plays, the game is televised in every bar from Hokkaido to Kyushu, never mind the time difference, almost as if the broadcast were some sort of legal requirement. Attendees cheer as if they were in the stands, and the beers flow freely every time an opposing batter goes down for the count.

I never see this level of excitement about baseball in the US anymore, except once a year when the American League and the National League gear up for their annual showdown. I will be leaving soon to go to my friend’s house, where we can watch Game Four on a big screen. I won’t be wearing a Rangers or a Giants cap (although I must confess a small leaning toward the San Francisco team), there’ll be no blanket, no pompoms. I suspect the beer will be flowing, however. Traditions die hard.


Air Travel 101

October 31, 2010

I log a fairly impressive number of air miles each year, even if I only do the one return flight from Tokyo to Prince Edward Island. As much as humanly possible, I try to avoid paying for air travel, and I have been remarkably successful to date. The downsides of using frequent flyer miles, though, are that there are blackout dates, the route may be a bit convoluted (like Canada to Japan via Kurdistan, for example), and it is a fair bet that no flights operate between wherever you are and wherever you’re going (so a flight ostensibly from PEI to Tokyo might actually translate to one from Boston to Seoul, with you left holding the carry-on bag for the connecting hops at the extremities), and it is a given that even if such a flight is available in principle, it won’t be on the day(s) you want to go. So this year I bit the bullet and actually purchased a ticket, one that allows me to depart right from Charlottetown and fly more or less directly (via  Toronto) to Tokyo, and then back once again, without side trips to Boston, Halifax or Kurdistan. This is not entirely without its downsides, however: the initial flight leaves at 6am, a time with which I have some familiarity at the end of a late night, but rarely as the beginning of the day (plus of course I have to get up much earlier, as I live an hour from the airport, and I need sufficient time to clear security). The arrival time is thankfully much more civilized, 330pm, which means I should get back to my apartment in time for supper.

I’ll be flying with Canada’s national carrier, in my opinion a step up from the US carrier I typically use, about whom it is said that if you die and fly with them to Heaven, you will still have to change planes in Atlanta. Neither offers the sybaritic experience of flying with, say, the flag carriers of Singapore or Hong Kong, but those two sadly do not include Charlottetown in their itineraries, at least not yet. That said, the airline I am itching to try is Kulula Air, whose lime-green Boeings offer travelers a budget choice when flying in South Africa and the neighboring countries of Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mauritius. They have a great sense of humor, evident in their ads and perks (their frequent flyer miles are called “Kulula Moolah”) and their in-flight announcements are infused with levity:

“People, we’re not picking furniture here; find a seat and get in it!”

“We’ve reached cruising altitude and we will be dimming the cabin lights. This is for your comfort and to enhance the appearance of your flight attendants.”

“There may be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there are only four ways out of this airplane.”

Or this gem, after a rough landing: “Please take care when opening the overhead bins, because after a landing like that, sure as hell everything has shifted.”

This is one for the nervous flyer: “In the event of a sudden loss in cabin pressure, masks will drop from the ceiling. Stop screaming, grab the mask and pull it over your face. If you are traveling with a small child, secure your mask before assisting with theirs. If you are traveling with more than one child, pick your favorite.”

But perhaps a picture of a Kulula 737 in its latest livery says it best:

PS, a heartfelt thanks to Tony Pennock, who sent me the email that spurred this post!


Body Work, Sara Paretsky

October 29, 2010

There are all sorts of reasons why a particular book might not make it into “Whodunit?”, my regular BookPage print column on mystery and suspense novels: first off, only four make the cut each month, so even really good books can get passed over; other times, I might skip a book if I have reviewed another book by the same author in the past year or so; or, as was the case last month, the books reviewed all featured an international theme, so Sara Paretsky’s latest V.I. Warshawski novel, Body Work, set in Chicago, wasn’t the best fit.

That said, Paretsky is a long-time favorite of mine, so Body Work found a place well toward the top of my bedside table reading stack, a pile of books to be attacked systematically once my required reading has been done and the column put to bed.

Regular Paretsky readers will be familiar with Warshawski’s young cousin Petra, the irrepressibly lovable thorn in V.I.’s side, back for an encore appearance, this time as a server in an avant-garde performance art club. The performance art in question is offered up by The Body Artist, a beautiful young woman who appears onstage fully nude and allows her body to serve as a canvas for audience members who would like to try their painting skills. Needless to say, this attracts a diverse group of patrons, from serious scholars to whooping frat boys, and, as has been known to happen in V.I. Warshawski novels, things take a turn for the violent. Two audience members, seemingly unconnected to one another, react with uncommon yet disparate intensity to The Body Artist: Nadia Guaman obsessively paints the same picture night after night upon the performer’s torso; Chad Vishneski, a tormented Iraq War vet, watches from the audience, seething, until he can bear it no longer, and then he snaps—big time. Minutes later, Nadia Guaman lies dead in the alley, and Chad is arrested for her murder.  

Warshawski is hired by Chad’s father, who doesn’t believe his son capable of taking a life. The seasoned PI has her work cut out for her, however, as her investigation into the life and times of Nadia Guaman runs into a brick wall–a wall fortified by a defense contractor with deep pockets and notably few scruples, and by the Guaman family, who prove remarkably resistant to Warshawski’s sensitive but persistent probing. Add in cameos from a brassy club owner, a Ukrainian mob boss who brings new depth to the word “ruthless”, and the usual cast of Chi-town lowlifes, and Body Work takes on a life of its own: a nuanced and layered novel of greed, lust, love, and anger (which are, of course, the four cornerstones on which murders and murder mysteries are built).


Grave Line Tours

October 28, 2010

Years ago, my ex-wife Cyndi got me a birthday present I will remember fondly until the end of my days, a 2 ½ hour tour of Hollywood and its environs in a late-60s Cadillac, a very special Cadillac indeed, a silver hearse (my first trip in that sort of vehicle, likely not my last). The tour company was called Grave Line Tours, and they operated an excursion through the dark side of Tinseltown, to the sites of infamous killings and gruesome carnage, to the very places where stars of the silver screen twinkled their last twink. Is this in exceptionally poor taste? Without a doubt…and deliciously so. But for someone obsessed with foul play and the high price of fame and fortune (like most avid mystery readers), the tour was a gourmet delight.

We got aboard (a-slab?) just behind Mann’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, the movie palace where previous owner Sid Grauman immortalized stars’ footprints in concrete in the front courtyard. The Cadillac was as subdued as one might expect of such a, um, deadicated vehicle. The only noises, in fact, apart from the gentle whoosh of the tires, were the alternating narratives, half on tape (with appropriate sound effects), the other half live.

We visited the Cielo Drive scene of the Sharon Tate murder by the infamous Manson Family; the Brentwood ranch home where Marilyn Monroe allegedly committed suicide (I wonder if the truth of that tale will come out in my lifetime); the Chateau Marmont, where John Belushi ingested a deadly cocktail of heroin and cocaine; and to the visible-from-space Hollywood sign, where English starlet Peg Entwistle climbed fifty feet to the top of the letter “H”, and leapt to her death in 1932, surprisingly the only person to date to have committed suicide by jumping from the sign (and if you can’t be first, why bother?).

The commentary, both live and taped, was hilarious in a morbid sort of way. About George Reeves, the original TV Superman, who died of a gunshot wound, the narrator pointed out thoughtfully that “he was indeed not faster than a speeding bullet.” Or about Jack Haley, the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz: “You know that heart he got? You’re about to see where it stopped beating…”

One of the recurring themes was about how many of the stars died penniless, after a lifetime of excess (and excess in the heady early days of Hollywood very likely trumped any excess before or since): Judy Garland, Bela Lugosi, Sammy Davis, Jr., the list goes on and on. Our tour guide mentioned several times just what a sobering thing it was.

At a bathroom/coffee/cigarette break mid-tour, I cornered him and offered a slightly different perspective: “You know, in my estimation, dying penniless isn’t something to be avoided, but rather something to aspire to! Basically, I want to spend everything I’ve made before I go, if at all possible, and to leave an insurance policy for my heirs to say thanks for putting up with me all these years. If I were to work my whole life only to leave a multimillion dollar estate behind, I would be truly annoyed. To be sure, in my dotage I don’t want to be eating saltines and cat food in an unheated garret in some industrial backwater, but all in all, better then than now.”

He drew in a deep drag on his cigarette, and allowed as to how he had never thought about it that way. For my part, I made my way back to the hearse, and settled in for part two of the tour, during which editorials about the sadness of a pauper’s death were conspicuously absent.

The tour closed with owner Greg Smith’s wry observation: “Certainly it’s the only time you’re going to remember riding in a hearse…”


Can We Own Canadians, or Should We Just Smite Them?

October 28, 2010

I received the following in an email yesterday from my friend John Macdonald, who in turn received it from his friend Marilyn, and I pass it along in its entirety, unedited in any way; incidentally, Dr. James M. Kauffman, if there truly is such a person, is my new hero:

You’ve probably seen this but it is too clever not to pass it on:

In her radio show, Dr. Laura Schlesinger said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned under any circumstance.  The following response is an open letter to Dr. Laura, written by a US man, and  posted on the Internet. It’s funny, as well as informative:

Dear Dr. Laura:
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination …End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.
1.  Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
2.  I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
3.  I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev. 15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
4.  When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev. 1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
5.  I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
6.  A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination, Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?
7.  Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?
8.  Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?
9.  I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
10.  My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them?  Lev. 24:10-16.  Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14) 

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I’m confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Your adoring fan.

James M. Kauffman, Ed.D. Professor Emeritus,
Dept. Of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education
University of Virginia

P.S. It would be a damn shame if we couldn’t own a Canadian.

A brief addendum: a quick look at www.snopes.com turned up a reference to a markedly similar missive as early as May 2000, shortly after the state of Vermont approved “civil unions” for homosexual couples, proving once again that in the world of cyberspace, nothing is really new. Apparently James Kauffman’s signature was appended to the “open letter” without his knowledge or approval, occasioning a spate of emails and phone calls pertaining to his alleged authorship. It seems that the writer in question may be one “J. Kent Ashcraft”, but the truth of the matter is shrouded in the mists of time, forever enmeshed in the sticky strands of the worldwide web. One thing is for sure, however: the letter will be trotted out and emailed with alacrity every time the issue of gay marriage hits the ballots, and obedient servants like yours truly will go forth to nations near and far to spread the word. Amen.


Daylight Savings Time (or as we say in Japan, Yikes-u!)

October 27, 2010

Conveniently, for me at least, my two most common journey end points, Japan and Prince Edward Island, are exactly twelve hours (or if you prefer, twelve time zones) apart. This is really useful to me, as I don’t have to set my computer clock and watch every time I make the trip. Sure, when I am in PEI, my computer clock says “am” when it should be “pm”, and vice versa, but that is no major problem. My watch is a simple traditional model, with hands, so it is even less of an issue. For some reason, however, the watch is exceedingly difficult to set, not utilizing the simple rotating knob of many analog models; it requires an advanced degree in physics, as well as a thorough knowledge of kanji (for reading the directions which are rendered entirely in Japanese), to make the obstinate hands move to a new location. But, as I say, thanks to the juxtaposition of Japan and PEI on the globe, no worries. Normally. But this year, I stayed in Canada a bit longer, and I will be here past daylight savings change, at which time we will be thirteen hours out from Japan, or eleven, I can never keep that straight.

Anyway, on a phone call the other evening, Saki, who is already back in Tokyo, asked me when the time change took place. As usual, I had no idea, so I had a quick look on the internet, checking out a website called www.timeanddate.com. There I learned that the switchover date was October 28th at midnight, at which time clocks should be set back to 11pm on the 27th. Somehow, that didn’t sound right to me, so I investigated a bit further. Sure enough, under the “countries affected” heading, I found that this date applies only to Syria. Interestingly, Syria’s next door neighbor, Jordan, makes the change an hour later, switching their clocks from 1am back to midnight.

So, as I don’t live in Damascus, I thought I would scroll down the list and see when Canada is due to make the switch. Along the way, I made some unusual observations. First off, while we are setting our clocks back an hour (“spring forward, fall back”), most of the countries located below the equator are setting theirs forward. That makes sense, of course, as it is just now coming into their summer. What made somewhat less sense is that they are also setting the clock forward in Egypt, which is situated distinctly north of the equator; thus, the desert country has seasons aligned with ours (Egypt occupies roughly the same latitudinal area as Florida). Go figure. Other countries jump in whenever it suits them, starting with August 7th, for Morocco, and finishing with the US and Canada on November 7th. Our neighbor to the south, Mexico, has already been enjoying the benefits of daylight savings time for a week by then, having made the change in the wee morning hours of October 31st.

For my part, I am just leaving my computer set to Japan time, which, like fellow holdouts Guatemala, Hong Kong, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kuwait, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe (to name but a few; for a complete list, check www.timeanddate.com/time/dst2010.html ), chooses not to observe daylight savings.


Escape Artist, Part Two

October 26, 2010

Last time out, I had intended to write a few kind words about one of my favorite websites, www.escapeartist.com, but I got sidetracked with the tale of a fellow escape artist soon to be en route to Mexico; unless I wind up enmeshed in some other digression (always a possibility), I plan to redress this directly.

It has to have been half a dozen years since I first happened upon the escapeartist website. I was trolling for information on teaching English as a second language in Japan, and the site featured an interesting article about the ins and outs of employment, accommodation, transportation and so forth. In his article “Buying Property in the Philippines and Japan”, author Ahmad Tijani walked me through the maze of visa requirements, housing options, and (as one might expect from the article’s title) home ownership in the Land of the Rising Yen.

Home ownership in Japan is very unlike its counterpart stateside. First off, a simple 1200-square-foot house in suburban Tokyo, on a postage stamp lot, will run from $400,000 US on up. On the other hand, mortgages are offered at incredibly low rates compared to the States, so it is quite possible to secure financing at 1% or less, which means that the monthly payment on the “starter castle” might be as little as $1500, not that much more than I am paying for rent on a place half the size. Confusing the issue further is the fact that Japanese homes routinely depreciate over time, as the Japanese prefer new houses; by contrast however, the land appreciates, so it is not at all uncommon to see a fairly okay looking house torn down and replaced by a more contemporary one, seemingly overnight. See, I told you there would be a good chance that I would digress…

So, back to escapeartist.com: their home page pretty much says it all…hell, their URL pretty much says it all. If you want to get some idea what it might be like to live in, say, Malta, chances are good that you will find an article penned by someone who has taken the plunge. (Malta actually sounds pretty good—the natives speak English, seaside apartments are available in the neighborhood of $75,000, dinner with wine can be had for less than $8, and the income tax is a flat 15%!) There are pages on overseas business opportunities, health concerns, employment, and scads of real estate listings. Take care when approaching the real estate section, however; you can spend literally hours perusing far-flung housing choices. How about a hilltop villa overlooking Cebu City in the Phillipines? It even has its own bridge! $200,000-odd, in case you’re interested, and you can check it out in all its glory at http://cebudreamhome.wordpress.com/. Or perhaps a large and very pink stucco home in Ecuador, complete with mountain view, which you can try out for just $600 a month, and if you like it, you can have it for a mere $115,000.

Basically, you can start your search with Anguilla, and keep on going until you hit Zambia several hours later. (There are actually sections starting with Afghanistan and continuing until Zimbabwe, but neither of those countries have any real estate on offer at the moment; I wonder why?)

Suffice it to say that if you have even an ounce of wanderlust, it will grow to several pounds’ worth by the time you have spent an evening glued to escapeartist.