4. There is a hell of a lot to the New York Times
I have spent hours, days, just poring over one edition of The New York Times ( I have a small pile of them next to my bed) when I have been in the enviable, or unenviable – depending on your perspective – position of having ‘nothing to do’.
See me sigh and stretch ‘dolefully’, yawn contentedly, lazily, then reach out for whatever day of newspaper happens to be lying around; open it up to whatever page it opens to, and peruse the articles at my slow, unrushed leisure.
Too ‘liberal’ and left wing for many people, and probably not left wing enough for a great many of my friends, I personally find The New York Times to be ideal. Idealistic up to a point, but founded on reality. Humanistic, empathic, even very poetic, but its eyes impassioned and clear.
In Japan, the international edition of the NYT is delivered together, as a unified package, to people’s houses with the equally longstanding and ‘respected’ English national newspaper The Japan Times, though the quality of writing is actually incomparable. While interesting from some angles to get the Japanese, – and also the expatriate – perspective, much of the newspaper in truth comes across as parochial and amateurish, and it is packed with unintentionally comic misusages of words and/or peculiar, unnatural expressions that can be quite hilarious on a late Saturday morning together at home in Kamakura when we mockingly read out to each other the highlights : a long deceased author planning, apparently, a ‘comeback’, a commuter is ‘surprised’ to find a rotting dead grandmother packed into a suitcase in a train station coin locker, you can almost feel the writers thinking in Japanese and then writing in English, with an overpreponderance of certain expressions that invariably get on my wick.
The writers and editors try really hard to be colloquial in their headlines : “Japan, Aussies eye nuke deal” and such like, but for me the overfamilarity comes over as idiotic. “Ladies are able to enjoy a special, cherry-blossom themed lunch set just for women’ will be written in the what to do section, as though it were still 1896, so quaint and old fashioned ( and they still use the expression ” members of the opposite sex” which I personally think has no place in writing anywhere at all any more, but maybe that’s just me). It is so ‘off’ the majority of the time, but that’s also why I enjoy sometimes dipping into it.
I do have many criticisms about The Japan Times, yes, but then again I am intolerably pedantic when it comes to such things ( I am, after all, an English teacher even though I sometimes forget that reality ( especially now !). Simultaneously, though, as I said, I do still retain some affection, in a way, for its crappy little weirdly Nipponesque quirks.
I have no such quibbles with The New York Times of course. Surrounded by rubbish, inaccurate English all day long ( Japan’s English education system is a tragedy of incompetence and misguided strategy, but that’s a whole other story and I’ll come to it another time), this deservedly venerable publication and beauteous, relentless bleeding thorn in the side of the current ‘president’, is a fount of contemporary English that keeps my lexiconic bloodstream fresh and zinging.
While initially, many years ago, we only started having the NYT delivered because the newspaper guy who came knocking on the door one day on his motorbike was so cute, it was also the only newspaper available for regular delivery in Japan ( it might seem strange to some people reading this that an Englishman is so devoted to an American paper, but when returning back home and reading the approximate British equivalents – The Guardian or The Independent – on a train journey somewhere across the countryside, I am, as I alternate between trying to get through an article and daydreaming out the window at the beautiful green landscape, bored stiff. There is quite often a moroseness, there, a rainy British miserabilism that underlies the ethos and temperament of these publications: almost a fatalistic inevitability; and stone-set uniformity of opinion that to me, quite often, is quite honestly stultifying.
In this hospital I have not watched the news at all. Sometimes on the way to the physio room at 1pm I have caught glimpses of firemen climbing ladders, : smoke coming out of some building or other: talking heads mouthing about Trump or Kim Jong Un, but by that point I am already there disembarking from my wheelchair onto the exercise mat and am never able catch any of the unfolding, ‘horrifying’ details.
I actually haven’t watched the news, now, for about twenty odd years or so, in truth, for the quite simple reason that I don’t really consider it ‘news’. What it is, really, is quite cunningly selected sensationalism doled out by inhuman, wide-eyed presenters with phony compassion and horrendous makeup. People that are paid to pretend to CARE. I realized this most completely when in a hotel, last year, with the D, I think, in Hanoi, watching the ‘news hour’ on CNN, and the coiffed, gesticulating and maybellined anchors were in the middle of delivering and dramatizing up as much as they could, the main news story of that evening – an explosion at a chemical unit in a port city in southern China, and were assuring us that they would ‘keepus up to date’ the second they got more information ( i.e. the numbers of bodies, the billions of dollars damage, and on the spot ‘interviews’ with singed and shell shocked bystanders) and I remember thinking to myself, I’m sorry, but although i don’t wish death and destruction upon anybody, and in an abstract way, as a fellow human being who basically just wants us all to be able to live our lives happily and in peace, of course on one level I feel sorry for the injured or the bereaved, but let’s be completely honest here , I don’t know any of these people and don’t, actually, in truth, really even care and neither do you : at ALL. By tomorrow there will be another story, and the Chinese explosion victims will just be swept under the carpet and none of us will ever think about any of them ever again so just stop the fucking hypocritical claptrap.
I don’t need that kind of ‘news’: a pile up on a highway in central Japan; a car explosion in Baghdad, a shooting in America; what good does it do to know about these daily tragedies, when what we really should be worried about is the polar ice caps melting, or the gradual taking over the world by evil, and ruthlessly voracious, tycoons
No. I don’t need for my day to be sullied by this transparently alarmist insincerity. The same deaths on loop, the exclamation pointed, intentional terror – to keep us anxious and rueing the terrible world that we live in – negativity. The blabbering bullshit, the exasperating,serenity-polluting background noise. I remember one summer’s day at my parent’s house, and the TV was on in the background, and there was a story on the local news that I must have seen and heard three or four times during the course of one day concerning a light Cesna plane that had crashed in a field near a farm ( but nobody had been hurt, the pilot getting away fortunately with nothing more serious than a broken leg).
And I imagine that I was thinking ‘good for him’, or something along those lines, but by the final recitation, the fourth or fifth time, that same evening, of this pleasant, but not exactly mind-riveting turn of events, I was thinking for fuck’s sake, I can’t hear about that bloody plane anymore, turn that stupid thing OFF: it’s just drivel that bangs away incessantly in the background and occludes thoughts.
No. With my New York Times in hand I can avoid all this. I can turn the pages slowly and read the articles that I like, pieces not just about the latest outrages, but lengthy, brilliantly written pieces about all aspects of world culture; idiosyncratic – I really appreciate that they include so many different viewpoints, not just one filter bubble of fixed political preference-intelligent, and most of all, humorous. Some of the writers in this newspaper can be scathingly, hilariously funny and reading it through on a daily basis at home anyway, but REALLY reading it here with all this time on my hands, I can truly say that it is one of my biggest, most informative, and aesthetically pleasures of my life.
I can’t really think of a more mood-lifting perfume than Guerlain’s Terracotta parfum
When I first came here, after the double surgery, it was all about orange blossom and neroli : just happiness and positivity in a bottle, simplicity, because I felt so internally traumatized that I just wanted scents of easy sunshine yellow. For a few weeks, intermittently ( because I was constantly being reprimanded by the nurses about smell), that was all I was using.
With a hospital gift I then segued, for two or three weeks perhaps ( time has honestly become almost immeasurable), into the peculiarly-not-quite-right but still strangely enjoyable ( and good for compounding and consolidating memories of certain places, experiences and people): the chemicalized, laboratory-white-coat- smelling Kenzo Amour Eau Florale, that I quite enjoyed as a ‘made for hospital’ olfactory experience.
In the last few days, though, even if not quite right for a hospital ( none of it has been to be honest, but I don’t like the smell of the pyjamas that we have changed daily, which are obviously, for the benefit of the sick, not washed with any kind of scented washing powder or fabric conditioner that might make them feel uncomfortable or queasy) – or else allergic.
Instead, they smell of human – that tender, natural, musky family smell of another person’s skin and hair and bones that hasn’t quite come out in the wash. Natural, inevitable : but I don’t like it.
Fortunately, the body soap in the bathroom is quite scented, and it overpowers the latent and slightly pitiful smell of sick old man lingering still lingering in the bedwear, so that when you wheelchair yourself, clean, refreshed and vigorously showered back to your room, your skin is quite primed – pleasantly, for perfume.
The other day with the bright sun of May shining hotly in the new, blue, wind-swept sky, I could smell the sea, about half a mile away, and was suddenly desperate for that summertime, lazy beach feeling.
Fortunately I had already anticipated that I would be feeling like this and had got Duncan to bring in my wave washed, Polynesian fantasia, Eau De Tiare by Reva Tahiti which I am wearing right now – just delightful; perfect for today; gentle, like frangipani flowers just breathing in their beingness, and also from home ( where I was able to perfectly guide Duncan to where the bottles were in my messed up, haphazard collection- funny how the perfume geek just REMEMBERS, somehow): Guerlain’s two best tropical island get away reveries, Ylang Vanille from 1999, and 2014’s ravishing summer floral, Terracotta Le Parfum.
There is a lady who is dying in the room adjacent to mine. I saw her this morning- I try not to catch a glimpse, but sometimes the door is ajar and I just cannot help myself. She is clearly very near her death- in fact I have never seen someone so shockingly skeletal.
Cared for round the clock by the nurses, whose station is right next to her room, and relatives, who maintain a permanent, night and day vigil, it has been difficult to strike a balance between wanting to remain respectful, and to try not to disturb them as much as I humanly can (though I myself have quite often been disturbed by the voices that unavoidable come from there at all hours of the day and night), and just wanting to push all of it completely AWAY.
Only one wall divides us, and though we never know, any of us, when we are actually going to reach that long dreaded moment of the inevitable – for all I know, I could die before finishing this piece – seeing her, lying there just a few hours ago, face contorted back on the pillow in surrender and readiness, there is no doubt where the direct confrontation with mortality is actually occurring.
The lady’s relatives, despite the fact that we have been staying next door to one another for several weeks now, never acknowledge me. I can understand : they don’t need, in the middle of what must already be an incipient grieving process, to have to think about dealing with anyone, let alone a perfumed, weirdo foreigner, and they keep their eyes down and averted when we occasionally cross paths in the corridor. When they hear me coming out of my room, someone inside often locks the door.
I feel for them. Never have I seen a living person look so cadaver-like ( I don’t wish to see further), it cannot be easy for anyone concerned;band the situation could make me overly contemplate my own mortality, if I let it; at night, just knowing. At the same time, the lack of human greeting slightly hardens me, and I feel more justified in shutting my own door tight, and switching on the film projector that Duncan brought in for me, the lavishness of the light and the sheer indulgence of having my own cinema – a huge screen right before me on the wall that we share, as they bunker down inside with her, and the other patients, in their ward rooms, lie staring into the space around them, at their phones, or sleep openly.
It is my space. And without sinking into complete selfishness, I have to protect myself. I need scent to rise above, break through the membrane of irreality into my own reality : in my chamber. And these floral perfumes, so full of life, and light, and flowers that grow alongside hot sand, palm-fronded water, smell even more joyous and uplifting in these strained, unusual circumstances. I try not to overdo it, I don’t want to make anybody uncomfortable, but merely one spray on the right wrist of Terracotta, bursting with ylang ylang and coconut and frangipani, jasmine and orange flower and whispers of vanilla, just sometimes really isn’t enough. Perfumes like these – full of the living, solar jouissance of sensual, dynamic memory, are so hard for me – even when faced with the sad, morbid reality of a human being’s life – to resist.
6. Japanese is a beautiful language
Japanese, to me, is beautiful. A
shift between moisture and dry; between river reeds and rushes and rustling kimono and the tap a tap dry sun clack of geta on wood.
I will never master this language, because I am too lazy ( and lack the ability: I think that Japanese is a grammatical/visual/ conceptual linguistic system that some brains take much more readily to than others ), but simultaneously, it has been pleasureable being immersed in the many sounds of the language all of this time : gentle, clear: hypnotic.
When the physiotherapists are counting up to thirty or forty during the exercises, I sometimes lose myself within the numbers or the spaces in between; lulled by something ancient, tranquil, but stern; disciplined; fresh.