Tuesday, August 28, 2012

60 Years Ago. 3 - Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa, CA, is where Hitchcock’s suspense movie, Shadow of a Doubt, 1947, is set. I arrived in Santa Rosa, after dark, on 28 August, and spent the night at the house of the Napiers, my sponsoring family.  I was given a room of my own, entirely my own, something I did not have at home in the Japanese way of family living.  

The next morning I was immediately put to work. I was shown how to clean the kitchen stove and mop the floor with a mop, and I learned to use the vacuum cleaner.  These were all new, and the novelty of the task cancelled the hardship of the labor -- for a while.  Then, for two days, I joined the family on their camping trip to Clear Lake, some 30 miles north, which I found more a chore than a vacation.  Back home, I was taught how to start a mower and mow the lawn, how to clean the windows, and there were days of painting the walls inside and out as though the house waited years for my arrival.  Everything was new.  On 3 September, I washed a car for the first time in my life.  I was braced for challenges.

The next two months were heavily eventful; my diary had long entries -- so much that I had forgotten.  On 6 September, I received the very first letter from Mother, and reading it I broke down in tears; for the first time since leaving home I felt desolately alone.  There was no respite, however; two days later school started.  The work in and around the house continued regardless.  The schoolwork was easy; a few weeks into Spanish 1 I was elected president of the Spanish Club. 

Being fluent enough in English should have made adjusting to the new physical and social environment relatively easy, certainly easier than if I had been less prepared linguistically.  Yet, much was new in sight and sound and social intercourse -- the semiotic world; subtle and hard to pinpoint, it nonetheless demanded from me more effort than I had imagined.

Louis Napier was very kind; he had a shortwave radio in the garage and he set up an antenna so that I can catch some broadcasting from Japan even though the reception was not quite satisfactory.  One day he brought down from the attic an old zither (though I don’t remember what it looked like and the diary does not describe it) which produced sounds a little bit like ; and I was able to play Japanese melodies on it for my amusement. One evening he came to my room to chat and said that he descends, according to the genealogy he had checked, from the Scottish mathematician, John Napier, known for inventing the logarithm.  He had two daughters; the older of the two was already married off and lived elsewhere in the town.  The younger daughter, Renée in high school was cheerful and friendly.  But Mrs. Napier -- Rae -- was cold.  She avoided looking at me and rarely talked to me except when instructing me in the tasks she assigned.  I commented in my diary that I should be lenient because it may be simply that she is shy. The work duties, however, kept mounting; the whole house to keep cleaning, leaves to rake every day, basement windows to wash, endless painting jobs.  I convinced myself that I am fortunate to have made it to America and was given a roof over the head and food to eat; no doubt I was. 

On 28 September, I overheard Rae complaining to her husband in my earshot that I neglected washing the kitchen floor, that I left dirty patches on the wall, that I didn’t clean the bathroom for a whole week, that I use too much hot water when washing the dishes, and that the vegetable peeler is missing.  I advised myself to be patient but also wrote that I should perhaps look for another place to live after one year.  But before the middle of October, Rae’s volatility reached the peak.  On 16 October she got into a violent argument with Louis and I heard her speaking of me as a lazy useless sitting servant who should be dismissed. The following day, she even shouted at me that she had no use for me and that I could go.  Louis was in a difficult situation since he signed the affidavit of sponsorship; he was defensive but protective of me.  He explained to me that Rae is difficult and even admitted that she is rather unstable and alienated the relatives on his side.  On 19 October I fell sick from overwork. I finally mustered up a courage to seek help from the College.  I went to talk with the Dean of Women, Mrs. Margaret Trussell; she listened to my story sympathetically and arranged for me a small supplement to the scholarship and a dormitory room of my own in exchange for the bathroom chore.  In the meantime, Louis found me a part-time job at the printer shop of his relative, where I would be paid for cleaning the place everyday -- the mess in the shop and the latrine.  It felt good to be paid for my labor.  The dormitory room in one of the Quonset huts left from the war years was filthy and smelled awful; but I moved in immediately and the sense of relief outweighed the discomfort of the room. Louis brought me some kitchen utensils and groceries.  The crisis was over.

I don’t remember what I wrote home but certainly not the whole truth; I knew that if I did I would be told to pack up and come home, and that was the last thing I wanted.  The rest of the year in Santa Rosa was happy enough.  The teachers loved me, and I made friends, and I did well in classes, except the American History for which I had no preparation as did Americans from their grade school years.  Two professors stand out in my memory: Prof. Frank Schneider, originally from Czechoslovakia, who taught Algebra,, and Prof. Florence Rhodehamel, who taught philosophy and initiated me into the world of Plato and Aristotle and the Pre-Socratics and led me to read medieval philosophers -- Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas.  I kept correspondence with them long after leaving Santa Rosa. In December I started writing to architectural schools for scholarship opportunities with discouraging replies.  But the College increased my scholarship to $500.  In the Spring, I took up Piano and joined the percussion section in the orchestra and also the marching band. Life was good. 

With the end of the Spring semester, 1953, I worried how to survive the summer months. The family aided me with a $100 remittance which they somehow managed.  Bob Mauser, a fellow student on a GI Bill, and his wife Flo found a house to rent and asked me if I am willing to join them with a room-and-board for $40 a months and some chores, which would help them defray their $70 rent, and I accepted.  It was a luxury after a year of dormitory life.  In June, Florence Rhodehamel, who knew my plight, offered me a job of working on her garden; she also agreed to be my legal sponsor as Louis Napier’s affidavit was for one year and will run out at the end of the summer.  In August I sent out letters of to a dozen school of architecture about scholarships and admission requirements. Though my finances were tight, I was able to accompany a dear friend, Sidney Honigman, in his Volkswagen to San Francisco for a day trip in order to look at architecture and to attend the New York City Ballet which was performing at the War Memorial; this was 14 August, the same day I left Japan a year earlier.  The ballet was a bliss; Tanaquil LeClercq and Maria Tall chief danced , Nora Kaye in was so memorable as was .  I came home in total euphoria.

Something spectacular happened in the middle of the third semester at Santa Rosa.  On 7 October, Edward Kent, the Dean of Men, called me to his office and told me that he had talked with the Dean of the Architecture School of the University of California, Berkeley, and was able to get a pledge for a scholarship of $375 and a possibility of a room-and-board with a professor.  A month later, 17 November, Mr. Kent personally drove me to Berkeley and spent a day meeting the Dean of Architecture and firming up on my admission.  The road to my education in architecture was now paved. On 2 January 1954, I was invited to stay at the home of Mrs. Trussell until my departure for Berkeley.  My diary ended on the last day in Santa Rosa. The life thereafter, for all the hardships that had to be dealt with, was all contentment.  My American dream was set in motion.  I had it made. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

60 Years Ago, 2 - The Diary

One day a couple of months ago, on 19 June to be exact, I climbed up on a stool to reach the top shelf of a bookcase in the bedroom in search of a book I thought was there.  I didn’t find the book I was looking for; but I noticed a bundle of notebooks tied with a string.  I had no idea what they were except that they might be my early schoolwork. I was curious and brought the bundle down, dusted it, and untied it, and to my great astonishment, it was a set of diaries in five volumes, all in Japanese, the first of which started on 5 August 1951 with the last one ending with the entry for 10 January 1954. I had totally forgotten about them; they covered the years preceding my departure from Japan and the subsequent year and a half spent at Santa Rosa Junior College. I was between 18 and 21 in those years; I sat with them and immediately spent a couple of hours reading the months preceding the propitious date of my voyage to America.

This was totally fortuitous. Not long before this encounter with the past, I realized that, come August, I would have lived in America exactly sixty years, 60 out of 80 years of my life -- nearly 80 or 80 as of next January, 30 January to be exact.  The thought itself was staggering; reading what I wrote in my youth sixty years ago was truly awesome. 

When I reflected on my last days in Japan, I recalled the letters I wrote home every week, often more than once a week, mostly to my mother, in the first few years in America; I didn’t make copies of the letters I wrote but I wanted to read the replies I received; these I had carefully kept with me, the numerous letters from my mother as well as those from my father although they were fewer, but I couldn’t fine them anywhere.  I searched all over the apartment, not once but several times, to no avail. They may well have been lost in the move to New York from the house in Swarthmore. Then, I found the diaries.  I then realized, too, that the diaries were better account of the events of those days, more complete and more thorough.  The entry on the trans-Pacific journey was cursory; but it was enough to reformulate it as the Blog essay, 60 Years Ago - The Voyage

In the following weeks over the summer, I perused the diaries off and on.  The time-warp experience was nostalgic but also revelatory, and very strange as well.  The entries were thorough and meticulous; there were no missing dates so far as I could detect.  Time and again I was surprised to read about my thoughts and activities I had totally forgotten and yet on reading I have been discovering that with all the changes that happened to my life over these 60 years, I have not changed very much as a person -- to my delighted dismay.

I have been writing diaries on line since 1989 in English, somewhat sporadically that year, starting on 1 April, and then more consistently from 1990 but selectively recording the events and activities each day as a third-person account.  Previous to that, starting on 27 May 1978, I wrote a family weekly in typescript.  Starting in July 1995, from the time of the death of my love, Tokiko, my diary entries, addressing her, became more thorough first-person accounts, and I continue persistently to this day.  These are very detailed, covering routine activities as well as special events, and in this respect they are, without my realizing, exactly like my first diaries. 

In the years 1951-52, my senior year in high school, I was busy investigating a way to go abroad to study.  I had to do this entirely on my own since my parents did not know English and I did.  I had my plan set for America, though I could have gone to Paris, as my Francophile sister, seven years my elder, had secretly hoped I would, since I learned French before English (thanks to my sister’s instigation during the war).  Opportunities to go to America, even as a student, was still severely restricted, and I was quite pessimistic.  But by the spring of 1952 possibilities started to open up, and I was busy writing to colleges and universities and exploring the sponsorship by an American citizen as required of exchange students.  I had much errands to do, for myself as well as for the family, and I was constantly on a train between my family home in Ofuna and Yokohama, where my school was, and Tokyo.  I was an eager Catholic, doing volunteer work at school and church, and I had a chicken coop with a half dozen hens to get eggs for the table (as it was still a time of food shortage), and I raised chicks, too.  In spite of the busy schedule, to my great surprise, I was continuing practicing Japanese music -- naga-uta on the traditional instrument samisen, that I was initiated into by my mother a few years earlier (at my insistence, as I remember).  I also continued commuting to Kamakura for my lessons in Chanoyu (Tea Ceremony).  I often complained in the diaries how boring classes at school were.  Still, I had schoolwork full time, and it was not unusual that I stayed up well past midnight till 1:00 and sometime 2:00, like my daily schedule today. 

But more surprising, and even endearing, is my theater and concert hopping, just as in my current retirement years since 2001, even from spring to summer in 1952, when I was running all over the place to obtain documents and permits for traveling abroad, which was materializing by then.  It was predominantly the Kabuki that I attended, sometimes day and night, leaving the theater on occasion to pick up a paper, and returning to see the rest of the day’s performance.  Little wonder that I know the Kabuki repertory so well; I know quite intimately more than a half of the plays in the 11-volume Compete Works of Kabuki.  Moreover, I wrote down the titles and cast and a thumbnail critique of each performance I had seen, more thoroughly than I now do. 

I found one fascinating entry, dated 11 August, only three days before departure. I went to Tokyo and did a round of errands from the shipping company to a bank, and then to the Consulate, and a lunch with a family friend, and between these I stopped at a theater to see some Kabuki plays, and then in the evening, I stayed in another theater with my mother, and returned home at 11:00, where I found my father in fuming rage, shouting at me. He didn’t mind my interest in theater but I should know the limit or else I will end up a pauper.  Then, I added a comment; He was fuming not because of my theater-going but because he had to wait an hour and a half at the Consulate where he went in my place to pick up the visa, so I should remain cool and not get upset.  I realize now that with only three days left to go aboard, I was perhaps overdoing.

More than I do now, too, I wrote haiku poems, often in a group of three or four, interspersed in the diary text.  It irks me that they are hardly puerile -- in fact, not bad at all.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

60 Years Ago. 1 - The Voyage

Last Sunday, 19 August 2012, was Tuesday sixty years ago, and I crossed the International Date Line on my virgin voyage across the Pacific Ocean.  I was on my way to America, alone, and I was 19 years old.  I stood on the bow of the deck and I was thrilled, as the ship rocked and swayed violently, with no cargo on board, and as I anticipated the great adventure ahead; and I wrote a poem on the vast emptiness of the sea and its solitude that engulfed joys and sorrows alike. 

The ship was a freighter, Kimikawa Maru, 157 meters (515 ft.) in length, 6970 tons gross, built by Kawasaki Kisen or K-Line, earlier that year, on 29 February.  It set sail from Yokohama on 14 August; as the ship, anchored away from the land, started to drift away, with my family and friends on two launches in the distance, my heart started to pound but, in my excitement, I had no tears in my eyes. The vessel sailed on the great circle, skimming the Aleutian Islands, toward Portland, OR, its destination, where, up the Columbia River, it reached in ten days and anchored in the afternoon of 24 August.

I arrived with one trunk and a suitcase, a scholarship of $350 from Santa Rosa Junior College in California, an airline ticket from Portland to San Francisco, and $30 in cash, the maximum in U.S. currency allowed at the time out of Japan.  I carried, however, an extra $100, purchased secretly for security and sewn in a waistband worn next to the skin.  In addition, I had an affidavit of support for room and board, required of an exchange student, from the family of one Louis Napier, whom I befriended when he was on furlough in my neighborhood from his duty as an electrician on the aircraft carrier USS Bonhomme Richard and with whom I subsequently corresponded regularly for an year or two. 

For several years, in lieu of the Japanese Middle and High School, I attended the St. Joseph’s College in Yokohama, an international missionary school run by Marianist brothers, where classes were taught in English, and I was graduated on 22 June.  So, I was fluent enough in English on my arrival in America.  Still, the sight of Portland was new and exotic.  I was in care of a family acquaintance for four days, mostly rainy as I remember; I was struck by numerous cars and by women’s red coats, rarely seen in Japan, and, as I wrote in the first letter to my mother, it was as though I walked into a postcard; and hearing nothing but English spoken wherever I turned was disorienting.  I was taken to the dog race one evening, a real curiosity, and the movie Robin Hood another evening (which could only be the 1938 Errol Flynn vehicle directed by Michael Curtiz, The Adventures of Robin Hood). Then, I  was sent off on the Western Airlines flight to San Francisco on 28 August, where I was met by the Napiers.  

My mother missed me tremendously at home in Ofuna, as she had already “lost” my sister, seven years older, who was living on her own in Tokyo.  But citing the Japanese proverb, “If you love your child, send him or her on a journey,” the idea of which is that a child placed alone in an unfamiliar environment away from home will learn to overcome shyness, cultivate social grace, and develop independence, she convinced herself that she can persevere my absence for an year in the hope that she will see me back home a better person, less willful and restive, more tolerant and compassionate.  The proverb is, of course, blind to the reality that a child, at whatever age, behaves at home more as a child than elsewhere in the outside world.

One year abroad away from home -- that was my plan, nominally.  I had a larger project in my mind, however.  Santa Rosa Junior College was a choice by default, not by design; it happened to be in the town where the Napiers, my sponsoring family, was residing.  I was nevertheless eager to go as the only sure way to enter the United States.  As early as September 1951, I started writing to major American universities inquiring about scholarship opportunities, and the answer invariably explained that scholarship applications will be considered only from foreign students already in the country at least one year. A year abroad was in my plan the first necessary step to a full college education.  So, the first year stretching to two was no surprise to myself, disappointing as it was to my parents.  But the two stretched to four, then to seven as I entered the graduate school, and eventually I obtained a permanent residence in the U.S., made a career as a professor, and here I am sixty years later, totally incredulous, and willful as ever.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Honesty in Politics

In response to Bruce Weinstein’s plea for honesty from politicians (New York Times, August 7, 2012), I would say that while the current presidential candidates are both less than honest in their campaign, it must be recognized that politicians always relied on rhetoric to persuade the populace and, granted that rhetoric overstates for effect and thus verges on fibbing, it is a language of marketing. In the heat of deplorable negative campaigns in this election year, candidates themselves characterize each other's rhetoric as lying, and the media shows no compunction in ignoring the distinction between them for the sake of sensationalism.  An honest advertising may not be totally truthful but it is not necessarily dishonest.  Voters should wise up to understand this. Once in the office most politicians are, if occasionally specious, more or less honest in their speech and action.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Movies - Woody, Lepage, Ai Weiwei, Fokkens

Theater is slow in August Off-Broadway, so with some evenings free, I was able to pick up a few 2012 movies. 

Last Monday, I finally caught up with Woody Allen's To Rome with Love.  My immediate reaction was “a fluff, vacuous and vapid” without the recognizable and interesting characters from the 20s that populated Midnight in Paris; still, on reflection, I give the director a credit for his masterly control editing the seemingly haphazard narrative segments to flow into a continuously entertaining entity.  Rome’s sights were washed out and lacked visual excitement unlike the Midnight’s Paris.

Susan Frömke’s Wagner's Dream is a documentary on the new production of the Ring at the Met, an extravagant venture by Robert Lepage, who got flacks from critics, a damage control and publicity relations effort to promote how the Met is adventurously and successfully keeping the Met abreast the technocratic 21st century and justifying the project as a full realization of Wagner’s dream of Gesamtkunstwerk for the Ring, the proposition that rings false if we remember his own production at Bayreuth where music reigned supreme and would not have allowed a spectacle to overrule it.  I would call the film Lepage’s Fantasy.  But a glimpse into the process of a production in the making, especially in the Met’s backstage made a good Wagnerian drama. 

Then, I saw Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a documentary on this dissident artist in China, which, if a bit fawning overall, still powerful thanks to the artist’s inimitable persona and presence; it is a familiar story but for a non-TV owner like myself it was good to see the person, his cohorts, his studios, and demonstrations, exhibitions, and interviews. 

The fourth film, a Dutch import, Meet the Fokkens, the original title of which is Ouweheuren (old whores), is another documentary on two 70-year old twin prostitutes, one retired and the other still working, in the notorious De Wallen, Amsterdam’s Red Light district. I found it charmingly uninhibited and noteworthy for the two aging women’s contagious joie-de-vivre and their dedication to each other heartwarming.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rineke Dijkstra


A sitter for a photograph performs for the camera by posturing, aware of the potential viewer of the photograph, as she or he would not for a portrait painting, as we see in Sally Mann's photograph of children (Left).  A nascent actor will spontaneously strike a pose, but even someone who is shy and feels awkward in front of a camera, self-consciously performs by concealing her or his person behind a mask. The sitter’s straight gaze enlivens the figure like an interlocutor, and even with downcast or averted eyes, the body responds to the camera with the comportment of the body, the tilt of the head, and the positioning of the legs, arms, hand and fingers. 

If the subject does not perform, the photograph is a snapshot, and she or she, caught unawares, does not even see the camera or does so too late to pose.

Rineke Dikstra’s subjects may stare at the came but often do not register their presence to the viewer (Right).  The arms dangle (or stiffen), the shoulders slump, and the body begins to sag -- just a little. They are physically present but psychologically absent.  In this absence the viewer is able to study the persona the sitter did not want to reveal when she or he was responding to the camera, who is thus “more present and unmediated in realistic detail and emotional mood,” in the words of Roberta Smith.  In Dijkstra’s own words, these photographs “showed what we don’t want to to show any more but still feel.” She is said to have explained that, using a 4 x 5 field camera, she instructs the subject to pose and then takes a long time to prepare the shot in order to wait until her/his attention begins to slacken from the boredom of waiting, and then clicks the shutter. 

I believe here lies the secret of her portrait photographs which engages us with a curiously relaxed intensity.