Friday, July 14, 2017

Ron and Betsy Work It Out

A lot of people have been claiming that the meeting Donald Trump Jr. had with a Russian lawyer who was offering damaging information on Hillary Clinton provided by the Russian government is a “nothing-burger” because Junior didn’t actually get any such information. He just wanted to get it, and the fact that it didn’t work out, they would say, excuses him of any possible wrongdoing.

And this is so true. One way to look at it is to imagine an everyday family situation that we can all relate to. 

Just picture a comfortable, suburban living room where...

Ron, a 40-something man, is on the sofa watching TV, when his wife Betsy walks in, holding a piece of paper. She has a concerned look on her face. 

“Ron,” she says. “I found this e-mail on your computer. Would you care to explain this?” 

Ron looks surprised. “E-mail? What e-mail?” 

“From someone named Tiffany. She’s talking about meeting you for dinner.” 

Ron looks relieved. “Oh that. That was just someone that a buddy from work told me about. Said she was, well, you know, easy.” 


“Yeah, you know, kind of loose. I thought she might be good for a fling. Maybe a one-night stand.” 

“And you had dinner with this, this Tiffany?” 

“Sure. She sounded great, so I had to check it out. Anyone would have done the same.” 

Ron notices the shocked look on Betsy’s face, mutes the sound on the TV. “But, honey, trust me, nothing happened.” 

Betsy looks at him doubtfully. Ron stands up, takes her hand, gives her a sympathetic look. 

“Sweetheart, she just wasn’t as hot as my friend said. She would have been a lousy lay. Lousy. Yuck. So, I cut the dinner short. Told her ‘No thanks’.” 

Betsy smiles, her eyes misting a little. 

“She wasn’t hot enough for you?” 

“No. And it’s too bad. Trust me, I was really looking forward to it.” He squeezes Betsy’s hand, watches her face. “So, we’re all good? 

Betsy hesitates. Ron continues, "I could have cheated on you, but I didn’t. She just wasn’t hot enough.” 

There’s a twinkle in Betsy’s eye. She leans up and gives Ron a kiss on the cheek. 

“I couldn’t ask for a better husband. I’d better go finish the dishes.” 

As she scurries away, Ron picks up the remote, gazes at the TV with a satisfied smile on his face.

So children, as any good wife like Betsy will tell you, “intention” to cheat doesn’t matter. It's just a nothing-burger. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Japanese Characters

Something that greatly surprised me on our trip to Japan was how little knowledge of English there is the country. Now, I realize that makes me sound like the archetypal American lout expecting to be addressed in my native language wherever I go in the world. It’s easy enough to fall into that trap.

However, I did think that in Japan, which is maybe the most Western of any Asian country – they play baseball there, for goodness' sake! – English would be quite common.

Wrong. In Naha City, the capital of Okinawa, we struggled to find a restaurant with street-side menus in English. At our hotel in Tokyo, we struggled when asking the polite, but bewildered, clerk if there would be coffee available in the lobby when we left at 6:00 the next morning. He looked sympathetic, wanting so much to understand us, but remained clueless. (Okay, to be fair, we were staying at cheap hotels, maybe not often used by Western tourists, so the standards are no doubt different.)

In any case, it began to feel that the Sofia Coppola film “Lost in Translation” rings completely true.

Of course, Japan presents special challenges for English speakers. If you travel in countries that use an alphabet based on the Latin of ancient Rome (which, by my count, is about 80% of all countries) you can squint your eyes and almost make out how a word reads, no matter how foreign it may be. Or at least find it in a phrase book. Or make a comical attempt at pronouncing it to a hotel clerk.

Places like Japan are much different. Without knowledge of the language, it’s impossible to make out anything of signs, maps, menus, practically anything written in Japanese.

The only Japanese characters I had any clue about previously were 入口. I partially remember this from our trip to China some years ago, where I eventually grasped from signs in the Beijing metro that 入口 means “entrance”. Teasing out this bit of understanding was no great lift, however, since the Chinese word was accompanied with its English counterpart.

That was also the case in the Tokyo metro. Chinese characters are employed in the Japanese kanji writing system, and the word for “entrance” is written identically in both languages. It helps that these two characters are quite simple, made up of only a few lines, unlike many Japanese characters that are much more baroque. For example, the kanji for “bear” is , which, if you think of the little lines at the bottom as legs, you could almost imagine as a bear. Or maybe not.

Naturally, if you know the meaning of the two characters in 入口, it all makes sense. means “entering”, and  signifies “gate” or “mouth”, which is especially easy to visualize. Likewise, the word for “exit” 出口, is made up of (“out”) (“gate”).

That’s about the extent of my Japanese reading comprehension. I have no clue how “entrance” and “exit” would be pronounced in Japanese, or Chinese for that matter. Nothing to brag about really.

I did learn one additional word on this trip. We spent part of one day in the town to Takayama, which means “tall mountain”, and is written as 高山. I like the simplicity and obviousness of 山, the character for yama ("mountain"). If I ever got tattooed with a Japanese inscription, it would probably include .

Maybe something like 高熊山 ("tall bear mountain"?). It might be garbled Japanese in reality, but it does look impressive, doesn’t it? 

A sign in Takayama warning about bears, featuring three of the six kanji 
characters I can recognize. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Falling Drops Earth Moves

I recently made a trip to Japan with my wife and grown kids, the first time we have been on holiday together since a trip to Paris in 2010. The “kids”, after all, are all in their twenties, and prone to go off on their own unencumbered by their parents. Traveling as a fully family affair doesn’t often happen anymore.

We were, in fact, visiting one of my sons, who is spending a year in Japan studying folk music. Needless to say, we had an amazing ten days there. We experienced many of those things you would expect to experience in Japan. But not all of them. One experience I was especially hoping for, there on the Pacific Ring of Fire, was a small earthquake. Just a small one, mind you. Just strong enough to know the weird sensation of the ground, solid earth, suddenly moving under my feet without warning. That didn’t happen. Not as I imagined, anyway.

About half through our time in Japan we left the urban whirlwind of Tokyo to see some of the countryside. We departed by bus one night at 11 o’clock to travel overnight through the rainy Japanese Alps. It was a grueling ride, the bus’s seats far too cramped to allow any real sleep. Bleary-eyed and stiff, we were finally deposited at 4:40 A.M. at our destination, the misty town of Takayama.

Temple in Takayama.

We immediately set out in the breaking daylight to explore the town, its streets wet from the overnight rain and deserted at that hour. After a couple of hours strolling through the town, passing a Buddhist temple or two along the way, we found ourselves approaching Shiroyama, a nearly 700-meter-high hill and the site of a heavily forested park surrounding the ruins of a 16th-century castle.

At the base of Shiroyama, we paused as we crossed a stone bridge over a small pond that led to a Shinto shrine. Some of us were watching the fat carp lazily swimming under the bridge. I was checking out one of the blooming Japanese dogwood trees lining the pond. An old woman across the street was doing traditional Japanese exercises in front of her house.

Suddenly, we heard a disembodied voice. At first, I thought it emanated from a loudspeaker at the shrine, making some kind of announcement in Japanese. We quickly realized, however, that the unexpected sound came instead from my son’s and daughter's phones. My son understands Japanese well enough to explain we had just received an earthquake alert. More precisely, a warning that a quake had just occurred somewhere relatively nearby and that aftershocks could be expected.

(A side note: the alarm came automatically only to the iPhones in the family. Not to my blighted Windows phone.)

One of the paths on Shiroyama.

As it turns out, this high-tech warning was not the only indication that a quake had occurred, at least for family members observant enough to notice. As we excitedly discussed the warning, some of us remembered that just moments, literally moments, before the warning was broadcast something else occurred.

The nearby trees had all suddenly shed the rainwater hanging on their leaves. All at once. Instantly. For no apparent reason. There was no wind. The air was dead still. The water just dropped. 

Several of us had noticed the water dropping off the trees so abruptly, but hadn’t thought anything about it. I hadn’t noticed it at all. Clearly, the ground beneath our feet had moved imperceptively, enough to shake water off trees, but not enough for any of us to feel it ourselves. Rainwater dropping from dogwoods from an earthquake seems almost, well, Zen, to me.

Graveyard at the foot of Shiroyama. 
(Photo: Helena Korpelainen)
Watching TV later that evening we saw reports of damage from the quake. Broken roof tiles on a street in the town nearest the epicenter. An elderly woman showing an ornamental clock knocked off her wall. No one seriously hurt. Obviously, not a big quake. 

Googling the quake after returning to Helsinki, I learned that it was measured as a 5.2-magnitude quake according to the US Geological Survey, 5.6 according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. The epicenter was located only about 50 kilometers away from us, as a Japanese crane flies, just on the other side of Mount Ontake, the second highest volcano in Japan and the source of a deadly eruption as recently as 2014.

Of course, we didn’t know any of this as we stood in front of the Hidagokoku Shrine in Takayama and wondered at the marvel of a tectonic event that was revealed only through water falling off trees. 

A marvel that I, for one, missed completely. Maybe, that’s also Zen-like.