November 30, 2010

When I lived in Nashville, my assistant Jenny often marveled at how I could have spent the largest portion of my life until then in someplace as profoundly scary as Los Angeles. By the time I moved to Music City I had resided in Southern California for twenty-odd years, and I was fairly inured to the fires, floods, traffic, riots, landslides, and crime. I never entirely embraced the earthquakes, however. I experienced my first one in the early 1970s. It was centered in Sylmar, some sixty miles away from my Orange County home, and it still rattled windows, shook pictures and shelves loose from their moorings on the walls, and generally created havoc disproportionate to its four minutes’ duration (that number is from my memory, and from a distance well away from the epicenter).

I was at my friend Steve’s house for a party the night before, and wound up staying the night. A fair amount of alcohol happened (so I am told), and several of us decided to test the old wives tale about submerging a sleeping person’s hand (Steve’s hand, in this case) in warm water, which was said to cause a relaxing of the urinary tract in the subject, occasioning a release of whatever fluids might be contained within. Steve says to this day that this never happened, but it is my recollection (and that of other attendees/perpetrators) that it did indeed take place, and had the desired result. Steve didn’t awaken throughout all this, and the rest of us retired to various corners of the house to sleep off the overindulgences of the evening. Then at 6am, I was unceremoniously awakened by someone shaking me strongly, evilly even. I thought briefly that Steve was exacting his revenge for our mischief of the night before, but when I got my eyes fully opened, it turned out there was nobody there–just a vibrating floor and walls. There were several more good-sized shakes over the next few minutes, and you can believe I made haste first to a theoretically safe arched doorway, and then out of doors entirely until the ground stopped rolling. Apparently all the partygoers had had the same idea independently, because we were all cowering together in Steve’s back yard within moments of the first major shock. The evening news said that it registered a 6.6 on the Richter scale. Closer to the epicenter, bridges and overpasses collapsed, a hospital imploded on itself, and more than fifty people were killed.

The reason I mention this now is that I read, moments ago, that a 6.9 earthquake has just hit Japan, where I am headed two days from now. Fortunately, the epicenter of the quake was some 500 miles off Honshu, the main island. Unfortunately, even at that remove, it was quite capable of swaying skyscrapers in Tokyo. This is why I don’t live in a Tokyo skyscraper. I live on the second floor of a two-story apartment building. I don’t live on the first floor, because that is what the second floor would collapse onto in the event of a major earthquake. The second floor is ideal because you can fall ten feet without major damage, if you’re lucky. A third floor plunge would exact a much greater toll on fragile bones, and anything above that would be lunacy. Little quakes happen in Tokyo all the time, and they don’t bother me much, but 6.9 would make me sit up and take notice (and/or cover).  If that happens, I may well move to somewhere safe—like Los Angeles.

The Music of Mysteries, Part One

November 30, 2010

Over the years, one of the things I have most enjoyed about reading is exposure to some new facet of life that I might not otherwise have discovered on my own. Certainly from reading mystery novels I know exponentially more about murder and mayhem than I have ever experienced in the real world, but also lots of new stuff  about history, forensics, cars, law and order, relationships, duplicity, the lure of strange places, and (perhaps oddly) music. Several authors whose work I read regularly make a point of mentioning the tunes and artists that resonate with their protagonists, and on numerous occasions I have found myself searching the web for odds and ends first encountered on some fictional car radio or playing on the jukebox in some illusory smoky bar.

I think it was Andrew Vachss who first alerted me to this phenomenon, largely because his urban nightcrawler Burke spent an inordinate amount of road time listening to the plaintive and earthy songs of Judy Henske, so naturally I was curious as to what her music might be like. I started reading Vachss well before the advent of YouTube, perhaps before the dawn of the internet for that matter, so it involved a bit of searching to unearth a Judy Henske album (well used), and I have to say that I was a bit underwhelmed at first. Her delivery was decidedly more gruff than the folk icons (Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell) I admired back in the day. The more I listened to her, the more she grew on me, though; I would think she’d hold a good deal of appeal for fans of Eva Cassidy, Tracy Chapman, Buffy Sainte Marie, or even the Jefferson Airplane. She’s by no means easy to pigeonhole, though; her repertoire runs from folk-rock ballads to show tunes, torch songs to ragtime. Here’s a link to her take on the old standard “One of These Days”:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2oSJzO6i4E&playnext=1&list=PL3D6B6A78DBB12BB2&index=42

Author John Sandford, who writes the series featuring Minnesota cop Lucas Davenport (Rules of Prey, Winter Prey, et al), carries the theme a bit further, offering on his website Lucas Davenport’s “Best Songs of the Rock Era” list. Davenport leans toward growling, hard-driving road tunes, a good fit for a cop who eschews the police-issue Ford Crown Victoria in favor of his personal Porsche when duty calls from afar. A partial list of Davenport’s eclectic IPod selections: Sharp Dressed Man (Z.Z. Top); Mustang Sally (Wilson Pickett); Rock On (David Essex); House of the Rising Sun (The Animals); Thunder Road (Bruce Springsteen); Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan); Radar Love (Golden Earring); Lola (The Kinks); Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana); Runaway (Del Shannon); I Wanna Be Sedated (The Ramones); Devil With a Blue Dress (Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels); Heart of Saturday Night (Tom Waits). For a complete list, check out Sandford’s website:


So, groovy guys and groovy gals, don’t touch that dial! Tune in right here this time next week for episode two of The Music of Mysteries…

Nomadics 101

November 29, 2010

It is said that the journey is half the fun, but the older I get, the more I seem to prefer getting there, wherever “there” may be. I’ve never really been a big fan of air travel, as regular Mysterious Orientations readers well know. This is especially so when the flight in question is my semiannual hemispherical marathon of some twenty-two hours counting layover time, a case of deep vein thrombosis just waiting to happen only three short days from now.

The preamble to the flight is more oppressive still (albeit with less chance of DVT), with an endlessly-inflatable to-do list, every item of which must be duly checked off prior to departure: stack the newly-arrived firewood; wax the car and remove the battery before covering it up for the winter; put a bit of money into the Canadian bank account to deal with unplanned exigencies while I am gone; clean out the fridge and drop off all perishables to one of my few adventurous PEI friends who might be coerced into trying keema curry, Israeli couscous, or prefab Pad Thai; endlessly pack and repack the suitcase, taking care each time to relocate the passport, traveler’s checks, and Ibuprofen, all of which would be problematical to replace in Japan; turn off the phone and utilities for the duration; drop the keys off to the woman who takes care of my house while I am away; call the plumber to have the pipes drained just before I leave, hopefully timed such that I can take one final shower shortly before departure, so as not to offend my seatmate on the imminent flight. And so on, ad nauseum.

Meanwhile, at the other end, Saki is meeting with the gas man, the water man, and the electric and cable guys, basically doing the reverse of what I am doing, getting the Tokyo apartment ready for habitation once again. We allow a couple of weeks for this as a rule, and for the most part that seems sufficient time to get things dealt with smoothly at both ends.

One thing that makes the departure process a bit easier in one way, and a bit harder in another, is the series of invitations for “one last get-together” at the houses of various friends and relatives as they realize that my departure date is closing in. I take in good stride the usual amount of ribbing about being a wuss when it comes to cold weather, a charge I don’t even bother to try to refute any more, as it is patently true. And then I go home after supper, bloated and lethargic from food and libations (not to mention good conversation and laughter), and somehow try to drum up the courage to attack another item or two on the to-do list before bedtime. I am not whining about this, please understand; I quite like the seasonal aspect of my life. But if I ever win the hillion-jillion dollar Lotto, a) I’m gonna find me a factotum to handle the house opening and closing details, and b) I’m gonna do the trip the civilized way, on luxury trains and cruise ships, as the Good Lord intended.

Mike Andrews Makes Me Laugh!

November 28, 2010

My friend Mike Andrews, who lives in the south of England when he is not gallivanting around the world, can always be counted on for funny stuff in his emails. I met him in Olympos, Turkey a half-dozen years ago, where we had joined a gathering of eclipse aficionados to view what will likely be the definitive dousing of the sun in our lifetimes. We hit is off instantly and hung out together for a week or more until our paths diverged; we drank, laughed, and experienced a horrific motorcycle accident together (well, he experienced the accident, which I saw only in the rear view mirror of my bike, immediately after which I made a dicey U-turn and went back to render what assistance I could). Fortunately he walked away from the encounter, somewhat abraded and contused, but remarkably intact when you consider that he was hit by a large SUV and dragged several car lengths down the street before the driver could bring the vehicle to a stop. Nowadays we correspond fairly regularly via email, in which he often includes snippets of humor gathered from all around the internet. Mike must have a symbiotic relationship with the worldwide web, as he turns new stuff up with great regularity. To the best of my recollection, he has never sent anything that I had seen beforehand. So, with any luck, perhaps some of these will be new to you as well: 


Beskrivelse: cid:X.MA1.1284586664@aol.com 

Bob, a handsome dude,

walked into a sports bar around 9:58 pm.

He sat down next to a blonde at the bar

and stared up at the TV. 

The 10 pm news was coming on.

The news crew was covering the story

of a man on the ledge of a large building

preparing to jump..

Beskrivelse: cid:X.MA2.1284586664@aol.com

 The blonde looked at Bob  and said,

“Do you think he’ll jump?”

 Bob said,

“You know, I bet he’ll jump.” 

The blonde replied,

“Well, I bet he won’t.” 

Bob placed a $20 bill on the bar and said,

“You’re on!”

Beskrivelse: cid:X.MA3.1284586664@aol.com

 Just as the blonde placed her money on the bar,

the guy on the ledge

did a swan dive off the building,

falling to his death. 

The blonde was very upset,

but willingly handed her $20 to Bob. 

“Fair’s fair. Here’s your money.”

Beskrivelse: cid:X.MA4.1284586664@aol.com

 Bob replied,

“I can’t take your money.

I saw this earlier on the 5 pm news,

and so I knew he would jump.” 

The blonde replied,

“I did too,

but didn’t think he’d do it again.” 

Bob took the money…

Or how about this gem:

Research confirms that drinking gives you the same benefits yoga does !!! 

Position of total relaxation.    


Position that brings the sensation of peace and calm.  


Setu Bandha Sarvangasana 
This position 
calms the brain and heals tired legs. 

Position stimulates the midriff area and the spinal column.   
Excellent for back pain and insomnia.   
Excellent for the shoulder area, thorax, legs, and arms.   
Great exercise to stimulate the lumbar area, legs, and arms. 
Ananda Balasana 
This position is great for massaging the hip area. 
This position, for ankles and back muscles.  

Or how about this brief look at the merits of dogs versus children: 


Life really boils down 
to 2 questions…

1. Should I get a dog…..?






2. Should I have children?



This next was of course photoshopped; but I thought it was hilarious nonetheless:
  Just to let you know 
I’m thinking of you today. 
No  matter what situations life throws at  you…. 
No  matter how long and treacherous your journey may seem.. 
Remember  there is a light at the end of the tunnel. 



Miracle on 34th Street, Japan Edition

November 28, 2010

As we come up on the holiday season once again (as evidenced by the kilogram of retail store flyers that arrived in my mailbox yesterday), I feel oddly compelled to take a short look at the state of the holidays, here and abroad. Two or three years ago, at about this time, I was wandering around in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district, admiring the magnificently decorated store windows, all brimming with Yuletide paraphernalia (and, of course, oodles of spendy merchandise). One window in particular caught my eye, a brightly illuminated nativity scene peopled with the usual manger crowd (Joseph, Mary, a haloed Jesus, Balthazar, Melchior, Kaspar, and an assortment of farm animals). In addition, there were a couple of surprise guests in attendance: a ruddy-cheeked Santa Claus, heavily laden with a sack of gaily beribboned gifts; and, on a raised ledge off to one side, smiling down beatifically upon the scene, a crimson Satan, his pointy tail draped artfully down the wall. My initial reaction, which I suspect would be akin to that of most Westerners, was “Oh dear, these folks have a skewed view of the meaning of Christmas.” The more I ruminated on it, however, the more I began to think “Maybe not; maybe they get it better than we do.” Here’s why: Christmas is simply a merchandising opportunity in Japan, one that is not imbued with any particular meaning or tradition. The overwhelming majority of Japanese are non-Christian, and would be hard pressed to explain the significance of the manger scene. In fact, Christmas is not even a holiday there; most folks work all day December 25th (although it must be said that many are recovering from Christmas Eve overindulgence of one sort or another). As an institution, Christmas is about on a par with Valentine’s Day, bringing joy far and wide—into the hearts of retailers. An overall mood of benevolence and goodwill? Not so much. Kinda like here in the West, only without the self-delusion.

Certainly I wouldn’t be the first person to complain that Christmas Spirit is on the endangered species list nowadays. Retailers, pundits, and government spokesmen form an uneasy alliance around this time of year, urging us to spend, spend, spend—it’s the patriotic thing to do. It’s the season for us to finally catch up with the Joneses, and for the Joneses to take yet another quantum leap ahead of us. The post office generates untold revenues from kids’ importunate letters to the North Pole, all of which are stamped, and none of which will require delivery. That’s probably just as well, I guess. To the best of my memory, none of my requests to Santa Claus were for world peace or gifts for underprivileged kids, but rather about stuff for me, me, me. And me.

As I am usually in Japan during the holiday season nowadays, I have begun to take a kind of a low-key approach to Christmas celebration. There are always wonderful illumination festivals in the parks and arcades, light shows that make a Times Square New Year’s Eve look positively sedate by comparison; I will visit as many of these as I can squeeze in between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. With my friends I will sit glued in front of the flat screen, watching Japanese-subtitled versions of silver screen holiday classics: Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas. Sometimes someone asks me if that was what Christmas was like when I was a kid, (never mind that all of those movies predate my time on this planet by a fair bit). “Maybe,” I reply, but I am not entirely convinced, for cynicism, once it takes up occupancy in one’s heart, is a difficult lodger to evict. Still, this year I am going to try. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The Nevil Shute Memorial Library, Part Two

November 27, 2010

As I mentioned in my opening post about Nevil Shute (see Mysterious Orientations, November 3, 2010), I was inexorably dragged to the author, perhaps not exactly kicking and screaming, but largely because I had read everything else in the house that promised to be even remotely interesting. I started my Shute-fest with the paperbacks, as those at least had a bit of plot summary on the back covers; the hardbacks had long since shed their dust jackets, and there was just no telling what sort of unendurable ennui might be hiding between the covers. My first choice was, coincidentally, the first choice of most other Shute readers, On the Beach.

Published in 1957, rather late in Shute’s literary career, the book was a bestseller right out of the gate. A scant two years later it was made into a film featuring Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire and Ava Gardner. The story was set in the near future, a post-apocalyptic tale of the aftermath of nuclear war in the northern hemisphere (naturally, this was a highly resonant topic in the late fifties, at the height of the Cold War era). The bombs, and the radiation that followed, took the lives of pretty much everyone above the equator; those south of the planet’s waistline were living on borrowed time, waiting for the prevailing winds to blow the radioactive fallout southward. In Australia, Dwight Towers, the captain of a US submarine based in the South Pacific, is apprised of some hopeful intelligence: it seems a static-laden and borderline-unintelligible Morse code signal is being received regularly from the United States, and Towers is enjoined by the Australian government to proceed northward to see who is doing the transmitting. It will not come to a good end, albeit in a much different way than the submarine crew could possibly have imagined.

By comparison to the denizens of modern-day novels, the characters seem remarkably un-self-indulgent, nice folks resigned to their fates with the stiff-upper-lip good cheer that characterized a wartime generation of Brits and British-influenced colonials. The Australian government has issued suicide kits, so that families can opt out of the debilitating radiation sickness to come. And for the most part, folks approach the end of their lives with equanimity, choosing to end their time in their own homes, in the company of close friends and family, rather than scrambling ever southward in hopes of gaining a few extra days.

As is often the case with popular novels, there is a love story winding its tendrils around the page edges; in fact, there are at least a couple of love stories to be found, each heartbreaking in its own way, and virtually guaranteed to elicit a tear or a catch in the throat as the reader susses out what is about to transpire.

Had I not started the book well into the evening, I would have read it in one sitting. As it was, I had to endure a day of school (no part of which was as compelling by half) before I could tear home and pick up where I had left off. Of course, given the disdain I had displayed for the Shute books up until then, I could not let on to my parents that I was that deeply engrossed in On the Beach; I simply let them believe I was in my room studying. By suppertime, I had finished it.

I picked up my battle-scarred (and signed) first edition of On the Beach this past summer, and reread it after thirty-some years, and it was every bit as compelling this time around. Naturally, some of the technology is hopelessly outdated, and some of the countries at odds with one another back then are best buddies nowadays. But the spirit of the book rings very true, and the craftsmanship is rarely equalled nowadays among contemporary authors. And I would come to find out that this was not even his best book. Not by a long shot…

The Company of Females

November 25, 2010

Apparently I have been living without the regular company of females for a bit too long (it has been six weeks now, and counting). This point was driven home last night, when I invited a small group of friends over for supper, two adults and two kids, all female. The supper part of the evening was a success by all accounts. I fixed spaghetti, using my last two jars of Newman’s Own organic marinara, which I had squirreled away after a trip to the US a while back (we can’t get that fine stuff in Canada). As I always do when using even the best store-bought spaghetti sauce, I doctored it liberally with oregano, Italian sausage, parsley, garlic, tomatoes, onions, and so on, ending up with a fairly close approximation of scratch-made sauce. It garnered the expected polite oohs and aahs from the adult contingent, but the two young critics who are typically a bit on the picky side went back for second and third helpings, so apparently they were not put off in the least by my saucy short cut.

On the other hand, there were some distinct “guy touches” to the meal: napkins made from folded paper towels (not even a name brand, but the cheesy store-brand-solid-white-single-ply-99-cents-a-roll variety); a tiny bit of grated parmesan in a tiny soy sauce dish at each place setting, thanks to my having forgotten to buy any of the classic cheese when shopping for the ingredients, the sort of mistake I make at least once in each shopping experience, because I know there is no need to make a list beforehand; dessert (homemade brownies and ice cream) was served on mismatched plastic dishes and recycled Tupperware containers, as I had inadvertently run out of regular plates, a result of my having neglected to run the dishwasher before my guests arrived. And so on.

But probably the most telling “guy thing” of all was the state of the bathroom. It was (and is) pretty clean, I’d say, at least as guys’ bathrooms go, but there were a couple of glaring omissions: first off, those tiny finger towels that adorn the powder rooms of girls and women the world over were nowhere to be found. What to do when finished washing one’s hands, then? What I do, of course, is dry them unceremoniously on my bath towel, but I can totally understand why someone else might opt not to do that. In the event, I think what must have happened is that the person or persons in question simply used toilet tissue to dry their hands, as the roll that had been new earlier in the day was basically finished by the end of the evening.

Even that was not the most grievous “guy” error, however; that honor would have to go to the toilet seat itself, which has remained resolutely in the “up” position since Saki left in mid-October. I have been taken to task on this issue more than once, with little defense to offer; the only time I managed to score a point on the opposing team was when I was given the opportunity to carp at my then-girlfriend for leaving the seat of our shared car in a position much farther forward than my typical seating position, so much so that upon entry I found myself contorted into a pose usually reserved for Eastern European gymnasts, altogether unable to reach the seat lever to ameliorate the situation.

So, in a few days I will leave for Tokyo, where once again I will be in the regular company of members of the fairer sex. Virtually all of my friends in Japan are women, and I try to be on my best behavior at all times, a male goodwill ambassador from the Wicked West: no big booty jokes; no carping about their driving; no raised eyebrows about the sometimes wacky Japanese fashion sense. In contravention of Japanese custom, if there is only one available seat on the subway, I will always offer it to my female companion (unlike one guy I saw who plopped down while his pregnant wife stood!). I will be endlessly polite and complimentary. But more than anything else, the one thing I will always do, without fail, is leave the toilet seat in the down position when I am finished in the bathroom. To paraphrase Neil Armstrong: It is one small step for a man, one large leap for womankind.