Café Meguri 5: Food Culture

(2010) While living in Japan, I have often been asked about Canadian food and I never quite know what to say. I typically answer that since, in the big cities like my hometown, Toronto, we have people from all over the world, we eat food from all over the world—Greek, Italian, Thai, Indian, Chinese, whatever—and thus, there is no specifically Canadian food (outside of maple syrup, tortière and poutine—all basically French-Canadian in origin). Japanese people, I think, find this vaguely puzzling. Food is such a huge part of Japanese culture and every corner of Japan has its own specialty (samples of which you are obliged to carry back to coworkers and friends whenever you travel) that it is difficult for them to imagine a country without its own distinct food culture.

I genuinely love most Japanese food; there are only a few things I have tried that I really don’t want to eat again – raw cow’s tongue (and not for reasons of flavour) and turban shell (sazae in Japanese), a green corkscrew-shaped shellfish that is quite bitter, not to mention extraordinarily ugly. I even appreciate natto – sticky and stinky fermented soy beans, the closest thing to cheese in the traditionally dairy-free Japanese diet. (It also comes in a somewhat less noxious black bean variety, which I prefer.) The version of Japanese cuisine available in a million cheap restaurants back home, limited to a kind of faux-sushi, oily tempura, edamame (soy beans in the pod) and some varieties of noodles, really is a mockery of the incredible variety of Japanese food. But what I will miss most here is the ready availability of simple everyday foods, things like fresh soba noodles (trendy now in health food restaurants back home, but they come at quite a premium there), sekihan (glutinous rice with sweet red beans and black sesame) and onigiri (rice balls, or rather triangles, filled with fish, vegetables, or – my favourite – seaweed).

All of that said, however, there are a good number of foods I try not to eat, not because they aren’t delicious, but either because I am not sure how safe it is to consume them, or I don’t think they are particularly sustainable. Sushi falls into both categories. Although I do love good sushi, I seldom seek it out. I don’t mean I am afraid of food-poisoning (except when it’s sushi packed in boxed lunches – obento – that sit out unrefrigerated all day and go bad often enough for it to be a common trope in Japanese movies), but the oceans are so polluted now (tuna contains dangerously high levels of mercury; at least four countries have issued warnings not to eat hijiki – a popular seaweed consumed frequently in Japan – because it contains high levels of inorganic arsenic) and farmed fish is even worse (salmon being particularly toxic because of the recycled feed they receive and because it is a carnivorous fish sitting near the top of the food chain, where toxins accumulate). Japanese food prices and food miles are already among the highest in the world. I don’t know what the Japanese will do when it becomes impossible to continue eating this diet, as is sure to happen sooner or later, but they would be well advised to start thinking about it now. In the past, the largely Buddhist country was also largely vegetarian, and may have to become so again.

The Hypochondriac's Dilemma

As you may have gathered, I am rather… concerned about my health when it comes to food. Some might say downright paranoid! On Christmas day in my second year here, after eating one of my favourite Japanese sweets – daifuku (a soft ball of pounded glutinous rice filled with sweetened red bean paste) – and taking a nap, I woke up with my heart racing in a way I had never experienced before and went to the hospital, fearing I was having a heart attack (a fear heightened by strange chest pains and numbness in my left arm that had started a few days prior). So I began to make changes to my diet here, which set me on a kind of collision course with Japanese etiquette, since there is no surer way to offend someone than to turn your nose up at their food.

  Dear to my heart, and probably not dangerous to it -- despite a panicky episode -- Japanese daifuku.

Dear to my heart, and probably not dangerous to it -- despite a panicky episode -- Japanese daifuku.

To make matters worse, one of the ways I have been surviving in Japan in my second and third years is by listening to a lot of Internet radio, much of it alarming. I had no Internet-capable computer for most of my first year, which – in retrospect – was a blessing of sorts, since the Internet can both threaten and help to protect one’s mental health, depending on how one uses it. Access to all manner of health information of questionable veracity via the Net no doubt contributed to my panicky heart episode and its aftermath.

Anyway, lately I’ve been hearing a lot about and from Michael Pollan, the U.S. food writer and author of ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ and ‘Food Rules’. I like a lot of what he has to say and the way he cuts through misleading diet and nutrition advice, yet I find his prescriptions rather too vague to guide us clearly in our food choices. The take-home point seems to be to avoid processed foods and to gravitate toward more whole, traditional foods, preferably prepared from scratch. One of his food rules is: “Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Greeks.” Aside from the fact that you’d have to know quite a bit about each of these food cultures to follow this rule in any meaningful way, it’s not clear what exactly he wants us to emulate. In most cases, I think it is a traditional version of Japanese or French or Greek diet (not necessarily the way they eat today). But many, even most traditional foods in Japan are now prepared and processed in the same mass industrial way that the rest of our food is. That said, Japan’s cosy economic links with the U.S. don’t necessarily mean they end up consuming as much American junk as one might think. More than 90% of the soy beans (and their products) that we are eating in Japan are (North) American imports, but as in India and Europe, there is resistance to genetically modified food. It remains an open question whether tofu and soy milk should be embraced as part of a healthy, traditional Japanese diet, or rejected as over-processed and adulterated. In such cases, Pollan’s food rules seem mutually contradictory and impossible to follow.

The traditional Japanese diet is delicious, beautiful and generally healthful. Japanese eat a much wider variety of foods than we do in the contemporary West, they use a lot less refined sugar in their cooking, they eat more fish than meat (and not an excessive amount of either; sushi is a treat, not a daily staple), they tend to eat smaller portions of everything than we do, and they eat seasonally. Seasonal food, Pollan tells us, is not only more sustainable but offers such great marketing possibilities – ‘Limited time only! Get them while supplies last!’ – that it is surprising food companies don’t jump on the bandwagon of returning to seasonal production instead of making everything available all of the time, at tremendous environmental cost. That said, the Japanese diet has changed considerably in the past century. They eat all the same fast foods we do, including hamburgers, French fries, pizza and all manner of junky snacks and sodas; donuts could scarcely be more popular, and don’t carry the stigma of being low-class food. They are positively gourmet here and can be taken without embarrassment to any get-together!

Among foreign cultures and cuisines, there is a deep affection for all things French, and imitation French bakeries are ubiquitous. (Some influential Meiji-era admirers of the French were so extreme as to suggest abandoning the Japanese language entirely in favour of the world’s most beautiful language.”) Indeed, pan’ (a Portuguese loanword for bread, but closer in many of its applications here to ‘pastry’) seems to have replaced traditional Japanese breakfast foods (rice, miso soup, grilled fish, natto) for a large swath of the population, particularly young people. Of course, these ‘French’ pastries are more than likely made with low-quality industrial ingredients, like high-fructose corn syrup (the industrial production process for which was perfected in Japan) and hydrogenated vegetable oil, making them a significant step backwards in terms of nutrition and public health. (High-fructose corn syrup represents 50% of all sweeteners consumed in the U.S., and about 25% in Japan, compared to only 1.6% in Europe.)

  Food for the brave: turban shell (sazae) and kara-age (deep fried chicken) - click for a  kara-age cooking tutorial , if you dare! 

Food for the brave: turban shell (sazae) and kara-age (deep fried chicken) - click for a kara-age cooking tutorial, if you dare! 

They also have apparently homegrown disaster foods, like kara-age (basically deep-fried chicken of a particularly chewy sort, suggestive of a lengthy frying process and a high proportion of skin and cartilage relative to actual meat). I tend to steer away from ramen (Chinese-style noodles widely consumed in Japan), in both its fresh and instant varieties. It is delicious and worrisome for the same reason: the noodles are positively swimming in pork fat and salty broth. That Japanese eat our disastrous foods in greater moderation and smaller portions than we do may be saving them for now, that and the fact that Japanese are much more physically active than their North American counterparts. But many believe the country is poised for an obesity epidemic and the government is already taking fairly draconian steps to crack down on ‘metabolic syndrome among workers. Japanese also eat one of the saltiest diets in the world, which contributes to their high rates of stomach cancer.

So the fact is, if “eating more like the Japanese” means eating something like a traditional Japanese diet of fish, rice, vegetables, soy and sea products, most Japanese no longer eat this diet. What they are eating today has been crossbred with Western food cultures and is, at best, a simulation of the traditional Japanese diet.

Omiyage

Let’s look at this problem through the lens of one particular food tradition in Japan, that of omiyage – local speciality foods, packaged for easy transport and distribution to coworkers and friends upon returning from a trip. It has its origins in a time when Japan was bifurcated into numerous small fiefdoms and the people were for the most part tied to the land, unable to travel freely. Thus, when someone did travel, they were obligated to bring back samples of special foods from wherever they had been. Even today, Japanese spend an average of $700 a year on omiyage. At first, it seems – to many foreigners living here – a bothersome obligation. But like so many other Japanese customs, the purpose and the effect is to show that while you were out having fun, you were thinking about people who are obligated to continue working hard in your absence. It gets a great response, precisely because foreigners often neglect to observe such customs. And you are likely to be inundated with gifts far exceeding the value of anything you have given out.

However, as you can readily imagine, omiyage is a prime site for the transformation of the food culture. Mass production, lack of refrigeration and the need for ease of transport means that omiyage, like much of the rest of what is eaten here, is full of preservatives, chemicals, questionable non-traditional ingredients (like the aforementioned hydrogenated vegetable oil) and artificial sugars. It’s also an environmental disaster in so far as each portion (each cookie, each rice cracker) is individually wrapped, usually in plastic. One is constantly receiving these little snacks and of course it would be very rude to refuse them. Pollan says to eat “special occasion” foods with moderation, not like daily staples. But while these little packages of omiyage are small, they are so numerous that if you want to avoid eating their questionable ingredients, you have to find some discreet way of disposing of all this treasure. (Re-gifting it to people in other social circles works well!)

Aside from the fact that much of what Japanese people eat is highly processed, the fish they consume is now coming in from halfway around the world and everything is packaged in plastic—even bananas and other fresh fruit. The extreme demands of Japanese work life, long hours and long commutes by train, mean there is a tremendous need for convenient food, with all the predictable deleterious effects on quality and health. At convenience stores everywhere there are ‘fresh’ meals available, much more substantial (and probably healthful) than anything available in similar stores in the West, yet 9 times out of 10 they reheat them in a microwave while still inside their plastic wrappers and Styrofoam containers! I cringe every time I see this happening. I was warned by a co-worker years ago not to reheat food in plastic. (Ideally, none of our food should be stored in plastic either, since it is full of endocrine disrupters and other toxins which slowly leech into our food.) But here there seems to be amazingly little scepticism about the safety of chemicals and plastic, or the corporations producing them

Michael Pollan also says we should cook for ourselves as much as possible, rather than eating in restaurants, because restaurants – like industrial food companies – tend to use cheap ingredients, to cook badly, and to disguise both by using more salt, sugar and fat than we would at home. That threatens to take a heck of a lot of the fun out of café-meguri, so I have to set a certain amount of my scepticism about food quality aside when I go on these little day trips.

At last, the food...

So how does the food at these cafés stack up? Well, it’s hit and miss, of course. In truth, little of it is particularly impressive. You are paying for atmosphere, more so than food. Though some places pride themselves on macrobiotic and organic fare, or on particularly authentic renderings of Italian or French cooking, in general the food is merely competent, which is perhaps to be expected, since it is mostly simulated Western fare. (Japanese visitors to Canada might feel similarly underwhelmed by our sub-standard Japanese restaurants.)

At the ones that are cafés—rather than true restaurants—but that nonetheless offer full meals, there is a danger that you are getting easy, maybe even instant foods, disguised to appear freshly prepared. There is a problem of space (no proper kitchen) and time (1 or 2 young people attempting to serve a café of 20 or more seats, though I’ve seldom found them full). At one café I was alarmed to repeatedly hear what sounded like the chime of a microwave. I hope and pray it was a toaster oven! In any case, not a reassuring sign. At another I just heard what sounded like the distinctive tinny thunk and clank of a microwave oven door opening and closing, without the chime. Curry, I fear, is the worst culprit, since you can buy it in foil pouches everywhere, ready to be reheated and served. I have since sworn it off on my café-meguri journeys. I have yet to embarrass myself by asking the staff if they cook using a microwave oven, but I am sorely tempted sometimes.

The slowly growing organic and macrobiotic movement in Japan is of course very welcome, but it is still quite below the radar for most Japanese people. These place attract people who ask even more questions about the food than I have the nerve to do, which is a relief (I’m not the only oddball), but it can make for a tense atmosphere.

  If your cafe   has a strong steel door, what better name than タフドア   ('Tough Door')?

If your cafe has a strong steel door, what better name than タフドア ('Tough Door')?

Japanese are rightly proud of the energy they put into doing things well. Everything here—save much of the built environment, where a bland utilitarianism prevails—is beautifully done. Everything and everyone is held to a very high standard; even Western food is more beautifully prepared and presented in Japan than it is in the West. So when you walk into one of these cafés as a visible Western foreigner, you are presenting them with an opportunity to show their stuff and to gauge, by your reaction, the skill with which they have simulated a Western café atmosphere and menu.

So, naturally, at the best places, the food is very good and they want you to know how much trouble they’ve gone to in making it so. This can lead to comical situations for a foreigner struggling behind a significant language barrier. They may ostentatiously tell you that your complimentary water is lemon water, instead of letting you discover this for yourself. Or they’ll bombard you with information about what fine quality ingredients they use and how carefully and authentically the meal is prepared, either before or after it arrives at the table, all in highly politeand therefore nearly incomprehensibleJapanese.

Just as we didn’t always have kiwi fruit, sundried tomatoes or soy milk in North America (all introduced in the last 25 years or so), so too Japanese have not always had scones, muffins or quiche – all relatively recent introductions here and popular fare at cafés. Indeed, I returned to one city three times in the hopes of trying one particularly tasty looking set of scones pictured in the guidebook (whoever produces these guides obviously knows what they are doing). Fortunately, it’s one of the bigger cities (Utsunomiya) in that part of the hinterland, so there were five other cafés to visit on my multiple trips there, all of them well worth the effort. And when I did finally get to タフドア (‘Tafu Doa’, literally, ‘Tough Door’), on a snowy day in February, the scones were piping hot, the jam not too sweet and the atmosphere just right. It’s these tiny little pleasures that make hustling across the hinterland in the dead of winter worthwhile.

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(NOTE to the reader: As this piece was written in 2010, while I was living in Japan, some aspects of its observations about Japanese food culturesuch as the availability and popularity of organic food, for examplemay have changed, just as it has changed in North America during the same period.) 

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Up Next: Café Meguri 6 - Customer Service & Being the only foreigner in the room... (Coming Soon!)

Read the earlier episodes in this series: What is Café Meguri?Café Meguri 2 & 3, and Café Meguri 4.

Michael Pollan's excellent documentary series 'Cooked' is streaming now on NETFLIX.

The Book Dump: novel excerpt

This scene from the novel 'Twilight of the Adults' is not included in the novella 'Adultescence', though it follows the same main character, Nathe Baruwal, as he accompanies his friend Lief Gabrels on an urban reconnaissance mission... Enjoy!

Epigraph

“At least once in his career, every fireman gets an itch. What do the books say, he wonders. Oh, to scratch that itch, eh? Well, Montag, take my word for it, I’ve had to read a few in my time, to know what I was about, and the books say nothing! Nothing you can teach or believe. They’re about non-existent people, figments of imagination, if they’re fiction. And if they’re nonfiction, it’s worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another’s gullet. All of them running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun. You come away lost.”

Ray Bradbury, 'Fahrenheit 451'

______________

Chapter 19

“What’s in the box?” Lief asked, stepping out of the borrowed co-op car onto the gravel lot. He inhaled a not unpleasant mixture of vital, leafy organic matter and exhaust.

Nathe hoisted the carton up onto the roof. “Just some of my mom’s old junk.”

Leftovers of her abortive renovation project, videos of family gatherings Nathe would have her forget, and Bible-thick stacks of irrelevant documents from a college diploma she’d taken in interior design. It would give him great pleasure to pitch it all—without, of course, consulting her. A box-load of spite.

“You sure it’s junk to her?”

“D’you imagine I care?” he asked, swinging the passenger side door shut and taking his box. “You’re the one who invited me. I came with stuff to chuck out, as instructed.”

All right, all right. Lief pressed his palms together in gratitude.

“So where do we take it?”

“Over here, I’m guessing.”

They had arrived at the small transfer station for recyclables and other non-toxic solids at the foot of the tree-lined Gem Valley Road. It was the only active industrial site that remained in the once ruined watershed, sitting on a kidney-shaped chunk of land that jutted out into the river. The valley had undergone an extensive clean-up, part of the wave of green activism that brought in recycling and banned aerosol cfcs in the late ’80s. At the time, the city was already moving away from a manufacturing base to the abstract heights of finance capital, so there wasn’t much to be lost and everything to be gained when local politicians embraced the idea of phasing out the factories and turning the valley into a long, narrow city park. It was hoped that people would come to cycle and picnic and even be able to fish again in the Gem River within ten or fifteen years. The bicycles and picnickers came. The fish were still undecided.

Near the mouth of the river sat the former solid-waste processing plant, now a whistle-clean jewel in the crown of the city’s recycling program. Not much to it, just a high fence and a ramshackle two-storey gatehouse of corrugated-steel next to a weigh scale for vehicles, which could back up and dump their loads directly into an area known as ‘The Pit’. Aside from a few larger and smaller sheds, it was a neatly groomed moonscape with conical piles of ‘clean’ trash emitting no more offensive odour than the mustiness of damp cardboard and the sweet exhalations of unwashed pop cans.

They found the main office, a cramped booth enclosed in yellowing Plexiglas, radiating an ill, greenish fluorescent light. It was unoccupied.    

“Weird,” Nathe observed, double-checking the posted hours.

“Must be something going on upstairs,” Lief guessed. A din of male voices could be heard emanating from above.

Lief rang a small buzzer. The loud and grating electric rattle soon produced a portly, red-faced man, whose nametag identified him as ‘Earl’, from the adjoining room.

“You got something to drop off?” came the voice from beneath a tobacco yellow broom-head of a moustache.

“Just some paint cans, videotapes and fine paper,” Nathe said.

“Can’t take your paint cans,” Earl said without looking up, as he scrabbled through various papers on his desk in search of a lighter. “We don’t handle toxics here. You’ll have to take them to the central transfer station off J—— Street.”

“Okay, what about the rest?” Nathe asked.

Earl let out a long sigh. He looked not unlike a hippopotamus in a cramped, dilapidated zoo, slated for demolition.

“Pit’s not open today. You’ll have to take the stuff over to the pens yourself.” Concrete enclosures for objects drained of their usefulness.

“Can we go over there ourselves?” Lief asked. The same cherubic innocence that always got such a good response from his teachers.

“No, I gotta take you over, seeing as there’s no one on duty here…” Thrashing about in his pen, Earl managed to overturn a paper coffee cup. “Shit.”

The two young men exchanged bemused glances.

He sopped up the coffee with scrap paper. Budget cuts had left him without adequate supplies of paper towels. He soon gave up in frustration and liberated himself from his cubicle. “You boys picked a hell of a day to come down here.”

“Sorry to be a nuisance,” Lief apologized.

“It’s okay. I been dying to get away for a cigarette,” he said with a pinched smile. “Damn regulations. Can’t smoke inside because of health, or human rights, or some nonsense. Can’t smoke outside because of all this damn paper!”

He led them outside and promptly lit up. Their destination was fifty yards off and around a bend.

“It’s pretty dead here today,” Lief observed.

“All my guys are up in the clubhouse”—Earl gestured with his cigarette at the dingy meeting room perched on cast-iron stilts next to the pit—“in a meeting with the city.”

“What’s on the agenda?” Nathe asked.

“What are you, a reporter or something?”

Chuckling at this absurdity: “Me? I write computer code”—sometimes screenplays—“not news reports.”

“Yeah, and what about this one?” Earl asked, staring down the white friend.

“Just private citizens,” Lief insisted. “Come on, Nathe, stop asking nosy questions.”

He took his cue and focused on not dropping the awkward box he was dandling like a heavy, squirming child.

“Actually, t’tell you the truth, kid, everyone’s a bit on edge right now. Future of the plant’s being decided today.”

“Really? Why?” Nathe asked.

Not a fan of walking any distance, Earl stopped and flashed him an incredulous smile. “You don’t read the papers, do you? They been trying to move us for 15 years, ever since the tree-huggers at City Hall decided this valley’s a ‘conservation area’ in need of special protection…”

Lief was delighted. ‘Keep talking,’ he thought. He could listen to them go on like this all day.

“…That would have given the guys running the slaughterhouses and smelters down here sixty years ago a good laugh,” Earl snickered.

In middle school, Lief had been part of group of students who got to make a presentation in the City Council chamber—Meredith was exceedingly proud—in support of the proposed new recycling program. He met the Mayor, got a handshake, a certificate of participation, and a gentle pat on the bum on his way out the door. Lief remembered watching as the Mayor disappeared back into the enveloping flock of corporate courtiers that crowd around such figures like so many seagulls at a… well, at a dump. Looking back, it was his first taste of the daily victories of pr over something like reality.

“Anyway, union leadership’s a little friendlier these days and the city needs land for some project up top of the hill.”

“What’s up there?” Nathe tried to think. “You mean Garrett Park? The projects?”

“Somebody took geography.”

“Pretty sad area,” Lief said. “Wouldn’t be surprised if the city demolished the whole thing and started over.”

“Exactly.”

“What’s the connection with the plant, though?” Nathe asked.

“No idea,” Earl said. “But they want us out. So, if we can keep the same crew and seniority structure, the union’s not going to put up a fight.” Earl had the disease of all solitaries—when given the chance, he couldn’t stop talking. “Most of us live in the ’burbs now anyway, which is likely where they’ll put us.”

They rounded the corner to the large sorting area with disowned tvs, obsolete computing equipment and other electronic garbage piled into heavyweight cartons on wooden pallets. All manner of plastics, wood, cardboard, and paper were slouching in great piles in their cinderblock pens.

“Here we are,” he said, wisps of smoke leaking from his nostrils.

Lief cringed as Earl flicked his cigarette butt out toward a mound of what he was disinclined to believe were books. He set down his own box of refuse and strode over to confirm it.

“The funny thing is,” Earl said, “here on the river we can transport by barge—very cheap, and very clean. If they move the plant to the ’burbs somewhere, it’ll all have to go by truck. Not so cheap, not so clean.”

“Jesus, look at this,” Lief couldn’t help exclaiming at the literary abscess.

“What, the books?” Earl asked, midway through lighting another cigarette. “Ha! Surprised me too when I started here. Half of my do-it-yourself manuals come out of that pile.”

A crackle of static over his walkie-talkie.

“Earl, you copy? Report to clubhouse, asap. Earl, report to clubhouse, over.”

“Shit,” he said, stubbing out a ninety-percent wasted cigarette. “Roger that. Be there in five, over.”

“Mind if we stay and take a look at these?” Lief asked. “I might like to take some home.”

“All right, but only because I like you two,” he winked. “Just keep your heads down. I could get in trouble for leaving you out here alone.” Earl struck a note of foster-parental affection.

A shade too trusting, perhaps, he was nonetheless not an idiot. The sorting area was partly obscured by the bend in the terrain and faced the main building’s only blank wall. So long as they didn’t wander off, there were no windows out of which a casual glance would alert anyone to their presence.

“If I’m not back in ten minutes, make your way to the gate and leave quietly, okay?”

“Roger. We’ll be out of here in five,” Lief assured him. “Thanks for your help.”

Earl waved them a friendly farewell as he tried to jog but could only waddle back to his post.

“Is this sad or what?” Lief asked, addressing the pantheon of discarded literary gods as much as Nathe. Earl’s cigarette had landed just in front of a pen fifteen feet wide and piled five feet high with discarded books. The adjacent enclosures included uncollectible vinyl records, countless vhs tapes, and other obsolete recyclables.

“People used to be horrified at the burning of books,” Lief mused, freedom- and word-loving people mourning the insane intellectual self-annihilation of a once-great culture. “Now, they’re so cheap and numerous they’re just another form of garbage”—awaiting some other, quieter immolation. Death by overpopulation, or death by neglect? Either way, it was terribly sad.

“Aww, don’t get all misty,” Nathe chided. “Technology and culture are just moving on. Nothing new about that.”

“How depressing. Look at this,” Lief muttered. He brandished a beat-up paperback, clinging to its life by dint of thirty-year-old strips of scotch tape. It had an infernal red and yellow cover embossed with the glistening beetle-like black helmet of a firefighter.

Nathe snickered. “Our way of disposing of them is much more environmentally friendly, don’t you think?” Unlike bulldozing or mulching them—“Burning them would just put a lot of extra co2 up into the atmosphere. We’re much more enlightened!”

“Maybe scarier than a future without books,” Lief said, “is a future in which no one cares that there are no books.”

Nathe shrugged. “Let the historians sort it out. There’s no turning back this tide of waste paper. But new generations will read off computers and the march of words will continue.”

To a gravesite like this, Lief couldn’t help thinking.

“You may be right, Nathe. But why read when you can play immersive, ultra-realistic video games? No, the future is going to be utterly trivial. You can bet money on it.”

“Well, barring disaster, we’ll both live long enough to find out, so I’ll take that bet.”

Lief tossed Bradbury back onto the pile, where he mingled with Jacqueline Suzann and a mental health recovery expert, like partygoers confused as to how they’d been invited to the same abysmal bash. Setting his fretful premonitions about the future aside, however, Lief was in a great mood.

  

Back at the gate, they ran into Earl. He looked relieved to see them again without any intervening mishaps.

“Meeting’s about to let out. You boys should go.”

“Thanks for your help. Everyone feeling good?” Lief asked in a vaguely entitled tone that grated. Nathe couldn’t help thinking Earl was being taken advantage of.

“Well, I just cast my vote. Do I look like I’m in a good mood?” He reached for another cigarette, and then stifled himself, like an intransigent uncle who’d been bullied into submission by a nagging combine of children and wife.

“I’ll take that as a ‘Yes’,” Lief said, thanking him again with a wave.

 

In the car, winding their way up and out of the valley, Nathe lit into him: “So, you gonna tell me what we were really doing there?”

“What do you mean?”

“Lief, c’mon. Don’t insult me. The way you played that donut-eater. You were snooping around for work, weren’t you?”

Embarrassed, his silence confessed for him.

“Shit, Lief. Couldn’t you have told me?”

“I shouldn’t have brought you at all, actually. But it’s interesting, they’re obviously not on high alert.”

“Why would they be?”

“Because like he said, the city’s made moves to redevelop the site before, and it’s been opposed by the workers and green activists. If they’re getting ready to try again, and they’re strong-arming the union, it could blow up in the City’s face, and anyone who’s working with them.”

Nathe got it. “Your firm’s working on something for this site?”

“Not yet. I’m just afraid…” Lief paused, unsure if he should say anything. “Don’t repeat this to anyone, of course…”

“No, no,” he reassured him.

“I’m just afraid the Mayor might try to attach this site to the Garrett Park project.”

The plant may have been a near-sacred symbol of the city’s commitment to maximum solid waste diversion, but it also sat on one of the few former brown sites that was relatively clean—according to the city’s last environmental assessment, anyway. Ripe for redevelopment.

“Can they do that?” Nathe asked. “After going through public consultations last year and signing off with the community?” 

“The Mayor can do whatever he thinks he can get away with politically.”

“But that’ll piss off a lot of people, won’t it?”

“Yes, it will.” A fire-breathing dragon named Clarke came immediately to mind. “It’ll open a huge can of worms, especially if the site itself is not as pristine as they say it is.”

His unwitting accomplice finally understood why he’d been invited.

“You know, if this was a reconnaissance mission,” Nathe said, “you should have told me.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. But you played your part beautifully. People just can’t help opening up to you. Must be those disarming brown eyes. I think Earl liked you.”

“Fuck off.”

They drove in silence for a moment or two.

“You know, as a rate-paying citizen,” Nathe milked the ownership of his mother’s house for all the murky moral high ground it was worth, “it doesn’t give me much confidence that a planning firm like—what is it?—RG&…?”

“RR&G. Raithe, Ramirez and—”

“Whatever—That it feels the need to spy on the city.”

“We’re just covering all the bases, making sure we have an honest partner. It would be irresponsible for us not to.”

“I feel so used,” Nathe said.

“Hey, you got something out of it. You got to dump that old stuff of your mother’s and I did all the driving.”

“All right, don’t insult me.” A non-driver, Nathe resented the idea that he needed a chauffeur.

“Would you feel any less dirty if I paid you? You know, as a consultant?”

“I don’t want your hush money.”

“Is that a definite ‘No’?”

“It’s a pissed-off ‘maybe’.” He was thinking about those rates he had to pay.

“Come on, I’ll take you out for lunch.”

“Great,” he muttered, feeling not unlike a prostitute. “Thanks, sugar daddy.”

___________

For more info on the novel 'Twilight of the Adults' click here, or 'Adultescence' click here. To read more excerpts with Nathe and Lief, visit the 'Adultescence' page here. (Or on the navigation bar above.)

Café Meguri 4: Planning the Ideal Café Meguri Day

My apologies for the long delay if you have been following these posts. Been busy getting my novella 'Adultescence' ready for release. Will try to get the next few cafe posts up soon! Thanks for your patience.

Shimotsuke 4.jpg

So the winter vacation rolled around and having made a few tentative café-meguri trips to those cafés nearest my home, I was ready to embark on ones that would take me farther afield. Japan has a wonderfully cheap and convenient pass called the Seishun Juu-hachi Kippu (‘Youth 18 Ticket’) that, despite the name, is available to anyone at any time of life and allows you unlimited travel on local Japan Railways (JR) trains on five consecutive or non-consecutive days. It costs about $100, so as long as your return trip would regularly cost you in excess of $20, it is a good value. (For comparison, a roundtrip to Tokyo from where I live, a 45-minute journey each way, costs me about $14). It is available only during the spring, summer and winter holidays, to coincide with the periods when university students are off school and to encourage them to travel the country, as many of them do. It’s not fast, but it’s a great way to see the country and with my café-meguri book in hand, that is what I set out to do – at least, my little corner of it.

To plan a one-day café-meguri, then, I initially set out several criteria. Firstly, the regular return fare had to exceed $20, to make it worth using the Seishun Juu-hachi Kippu (of course, during the non-holiday periods I regularly make café-meguri trips to destinations under $20 roundtrip). Secondly, by definition, the cafés had to be accessible by JR lines (as there are several other competing private lines) and not more than a 30-minute walk from the nearest station. Thirdly, there had to be at least two cafés in one town, or in nearly adjacent towns along the same train line; better if there were three (the maximum I have managed to visit in one day) or even four (I made the attempt, but failed!). If there is a nice public bath and/or art museum in the same town, all the better.

In essence, then, the ideal café-meguri involves hitting a café-restaurant for lunch, then visiting an onsen and/or art museum, hitting another café for a late afternoon drink and dessert/snack and then heading home around 6:00. I realized, after a few harried attempts that a good deal of time could be saved by arriving in town early and going to the onsen first, preferably by about 10:00 or 10:30. This gets the bath out of the way and you arrive at the first café just in time for lunch. This itinerary has the advantage that public baths are busiest at night, not in the morning, and it is also the safest way to go, since taking a hot bath after ingesting a calorie-rich meal is not advised. It also frees more of your afternoon for multiple café stops, museums, parks, or whatever else the town you are visiting may have to offer.

But there is usually a not insignificant time constraint, since most cafés in the hinterland close between 5:00 and 6:00, and few open before 11:30. Furthermore, even if they are open into the evening, following maps in unfamiliar places and in a foreign language is challenging enough by daylight; it becomes nearly impossible once the sun goes down. On one occasion, only the kindness of a convenience store customer, who had done an exchange in England, saved me. She overheard me asking the staff for directions in broken Japanese and the staff rather ineffectively giving me instructions (neither of them actually seemed to know where the place was). This kind woman in perhaps her early 30s took pity on me, driving me to one of the most difficult-to-find rural café-restaurants in the book. It was without a doubt one of the nicest evenings of café-meguri I have experienced, in part because I actually slowed down long enough to enjoy it.

So getting lost is one frustration, but the complementary pleasure is when the desired café suddenly appears, just around a corner and in the most unlikely place, as it usually does. You know you are in the right area, but until that moment you see nothing – among the auto-body shops and warehouses, or the alternately neat rows of new houses and some of their tumbledown weed-choked predecessors – that looks like it could possibly prove to be a café. More than once I have gone an hour or more into the hinterland by train and walked half an hour to a café, only to find it inexplicably closed. Other times I have misread the guidebook or the map and arrive 5, 10, 15 minutes after the final café on that day’s itinerary closes, sometimes necessitating multiple trips to the same town, at some expense.

11:30 to 5:00 or 6:00 may sound like a lot of time, but it isn’t. It can be a real hustle, thus leading to the paradox that while the whole point of café-meguri is to have a taste of the slow life on weekends and days off, it is often more like a series of short pauses in relaxing environments punctuated by a mad rush to the next one and back to the train (since the temptation is always to make some plan with a friend that requires you to be back in the Tokyo area by evening, to get the most value out of your unlimited one-day travel ticket).

This being the case, I find, café-meguri is best done alone. For some inexplicable reason, other people don’t much like scarfing down cheesecake and lattes in a hurry and then jogging 20 minutes along country roads and small highways to the next oasis! It’s also rather unfair to the staff, many of whom I suspect have chosen to open cafés in the hinterland precisely to get away from city people who expect gourmet quality food served at McDonald’s-like speed. This has gotten me into trouble a few times and I realize I am violating the whole spirit of café-meguri by making it into a relay race to see how many cafés I can hit in one afternoon, especially since there are only so many desserts you can safely consume at short intervals. For better or worse, however, that’s how I define maximum value.

Which brings me to another irony of café-meguri: I took it up largely as an alternative to going to Tokyo on weekends, which was tiring and expensive. But the alternative is, in the end, equally if not more expensive (the average café-meguri day trip costs somewhere between $40 and $60). While it can be tiring with all that jogging between cafés, however, it produces a different sort of exhaustion than a trip to Tokyo. Whereas I usually return from Tokyo both physically and mentally worn out, when I return home after a day of café-meguri, I am physically tired, but mentally quite refreshed and pleased with my accomplishment. I’ve survived another adventure on unfamiliar trains to unfamiliar towns in a foreign country I am still struggling to understand and, like notches on one’s belt, I can tick off another two or three cafés in my guidebook. It’s a small pleasure, but small pleasures among the bigger and smaller frustrations are what make living in a foreign country worthwhile much of the time.

Up next: Café Meguri 5: Food Culture, Then & Now…

Other Café Meguri posts: What is Café Meguri?Café Meguri 2 & 3, and Café Meguri 5.

Hartshorn

“Do you do refunds?” the young woman asked, more anxious than rude. “If I have to bring this back, are you going to refund my money?”

The middle-aged clerk’s flawless façade of niceness concealed deep wells of annoyance.

“Not on sale items,” she said. “Store credit only.”

Kate’s stomach tightened before she could commit to handing over her credit card. The improbably large book – An Illustrated Dictionary of Organic Chemistry, with a ‘Special Supplement on Arcane Substances’ – was a post-Christmas steal at $48.99, half off its recommended retail price. But she didn’t have fifty dollars to spend on a book. Is this too grandiose a gesture? she wondered. Maybe he already has it. The purchase was a kind of wager, a charge against handsome anticipated earnings of a non-monetary variety.

More out of boredom than genuine curiosity the clerk asked, “You studying medicine or something?”

Kate, distracted by buyer’s guilt, took a moment to refocus.

“What? Oh, no. It’s not for me. It’s a birthday present for my… friend, my boy-…, my boyfriend.”

Kate was the sort of strictly honest person who felt like she was lying any time there was no objective authority to prove she wasn’t. Nonetheless, her irresistible will to honesty was competing with new pressures, and she had muddled her response beyond all hope of sorting out truth and falsehood.

Her boyfriend, Chad, was not a med student, nor did he have a January birthday. He was a junior accountant at a stagnant mid-sized firm in the city. They had been together for six years, and the relationship was – like a pair of jeans three seasons removed – comfortable but unmistakably showing signs of wear and age. In any case, the book was not for Chad.

The clerk placed the item in a gleefully branded heavyweight plastic bag, and insisted disingenuously that Kate ‘have a nice day.’ Kate thanked her and lugged the seven-pound book out of the store, into the mirror-tiled mall, and off to a bench where she could sit and giftwrap it.

______

Six weeks earlier, Kate had been at her friend Calie’s housewarming party, where she fell into an unusually interesting conversation with a chemistry PhD named Marco. He was 30, a dark-haired mix of the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia, with a big affectionate smile, a solid, lean frame, and fetchingly fitted out in grey and black natural fibres. Kate was not an unattractive specimen herself. At almost 26 she had barely added a pound since she was 17. Still slim and stylish, however, she had nonetheless begun to take on the look of the permanently hitched. She wore little makeup or jewellery, kept her hair longish and neatly swept away from her face, and carried herself with an air of general satisfaction tinged by creeping boredom. She had been looking forward to an evening without Chad in tow.

Marco was there as the guest of one of their host’s closest guy friends, Nick. After the usual introductions and small talk about jobs, she and Marco fell comfortably into a pair of overstuffed leather chairs and a conversation that touched lightly on books, politics, celebrities, and recent films, before they stumbled onto a topic of particularly keen mutual interest: etymology.

“You know what expression I love?” Marco offered, “ ‘One fell swoop.’ People use it all the time. But what does fell mean? Nobody knows.”

Kate tried to recall the one undergraduate course she’d take in Elizabethan drama. “Doesn’t fell mean… fierce?”

“Right,” Marco was impressed, “but nobody who uses that expression knows that. Some words are so familiar we don’t even think about what they mean.”

“Totally. Like, I remember my dad being in hospital – he’s diabetic – back when I was taking first-year Latin. My whole life I’d been hearing the term ‘hypodermic needle’, and all of a sudden it occurred to me: hypodermic just means ‘under the skin’.” 

“Or, like, euthanasia,” Marco suggested.

“Yeah,” Kate took him up; “It sounds so exotic and mysterious, but it’s actually very literal. Its roots literally mean—”

“—A good death,” they said simultaneously, and laughed.

“Hartshorn’s another one I like,” Marco said. It was unfamiliar to Kate; she wrinkled her face up playfully, like a child eating an unusual food. “It would make sense to pronounce it hart’s horn – which is what it comes from – but instead you say it hartshorn, like someone’s shaving the poor animal – a denuded deer!”

Kate giggled. “I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t know what hartshorn is.”

There was no need to be embarrassed, Marco assured her. “Probably no one else here does either. It’s what they used to get ammonia from, the horns of male deer.”

“You learned this studying chemistry?”

“No, from writers like Shakespeare and Melville. Literature is full of references to these arcane substances: wormwood, ambergris, hartshorn.”

Wormwood: a plant extract from members of the genus Artemisia; used in the preparation of absinthe and other intoxicants.

Ambergris: French for ‘grey amber’; a fragrant, biliary concretion that forms in the intestines of sperm whales; used in the making of perfume.

Kate couldn’t remember the last time Chad had read a serious book for pleasure. His favourite recreations consisted of watching television and surfing the Net for bargains on Star Trek memorabilia. (To Chad: “I mean, how many replica phasers and tricorders does one household really need?”) When he didn’t have to work, going to the bank and buying groceries in the same day were major exertions, which put him in no very amiable mood.

And yet here was a guy who was doing post-doctoral work in chemistry, and still had enough brainpower left over not only to read the great books but to remember the most obscure details of their diction, and could affably converse for hours on this and a range of other topics. She was more than a little charmed, and they spent most of the rest of the evening together before he and Nick departed around midnight.

After the party, Nick teased his friend about why he hadn’t asked for Kate’s number. Marco thought it would have been a bit presumptuous, but he admitted he was interested in seeing her again. This began a relay of information from Nick to Calie and from Calie back to Marco through Nick, which is how Marco became aware of the Chad contingency.

But as it happened, Kate was also interested in reconnecting.

Thus, when a few days had passed and Kate asked Calie if she thought it would be “weird” to get in touch with him, Calie said, without a moment’s hesitation: “Yes. It’s only going to lead to a situation.”

The comment suggested such a sweeping policy of disengagement that, weeks later, it still made Kate laugh when she thought about its myriad potential applications:

You are faced with a new job offer:

“Don’t take that job. It’s only going to lead to a situation.”

You discover a lump in your breast:

“Don’t go to the doctor. It’s only going to lead to a situation.”

You meet a guy at a party who’s funnier and smarter, more literate and more alive than the guy you’ve been with for half a dozen years, and you want to start hanging out with this paragon as a ‘friend’:

“Don’t get friendly with that guy. It’s only going to lead to a situation.” 

“…Especially since he’s expressed interest in you,” Calie had added.

The second relay began, and the notion that the mutual interest between Marco and Kate could “only lead to a situation” made its way back to Nick via Calie, and to Marco via Nick. The guys agreed that this was patronizing. Marco and Kate were adults. They could decide what sort of relationship was possible without condescending admonitions or outside interference. He decided to bypass her friends and track her down directly, finding her work e-mail address in about 0.0013842 seconds on Google. Marco was not out to break up her relationship with Chad, but if that was what would ultimately transpire, he wouldn’t accept any blame either. He took a ‘philosophical’ approach: if a woman is tempted and acts on that temptation, it’s her responsibility. It says as much about the weakness of the relationship she’s in as it does about the strength of that new temptation. Chad was not even a consideration.

Quite independently, Kate had also decided to ignore Calie’s warning. So when it arrived she responded immediately and enthusiastically to Marco’s e-mail, which led to a series of coffee ‘dates’ over the next month and a half.

So when Marco said, vaguely, that he needed to talk to her about something, and could she meet him at the Java Stop inside Booknells – a day before his early January birthday, no less – she had allowed herself to ratchet up by an optimistic quantum or two her reserve supplies of hope. She sat feebly wrapping the hardback tome in tissue paper, which kept tearing on the book’s reinforced corners. As the paper shredded in her hands, she began to panic. No amount of tape – and she had an ample supply on hand; she was nothing if not prepared – could rescue the presentation now. She briefly contemplated running to the drugstore downstairs to buy proper wrapping paper, but Marco would be arriving any second now, and the last thing she wanted was to appear sweaty and flustered. She tore off the pathetic scraps of coloured tissue and discarded them, putting the book back in its industrial-strength bag. In a brief access of self-confidence she rationalized: ‘If he really cares about me, it won’t matter whether it’s wrapped or not.’ All the same, she made sure she had the receipt safely stowed in her purse.

So, back into the store and over to the coffee bar. She got herself a latté and secured the most private table she could find along a wall decorated with improbably cheerful pictures of exotic, underpaid but colourfully dressed coffee growers. This would still put them nearly elbow-to-elbow with half a dozen other café denizens: sluggish shoppers perusing magazines and the international newspapers in the after-Christmas and post-New Year slump of under-consumption.

Marco arrived a few minutes later, his dark skin pinked by the cold. They exchanged greetings visually, and as he approached her little table she wasn’t sure whether to stand for a hug or to stay seated. She had only got up about halfway before he took his seat. She sat back down.

“Aren’t you having anything?” Kate asked, bemused.

“Uh…” Marco wasn’t sure, looking up with squinting eyes at the quaint chalkboard menu. “Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve had a ton of coffee over the holidays. Maybe I’ll get a juice.”

He stood up and went over to the bar. Kate shuffled her coat and bag about a little, tucking the book out of Marco’s view.

The safety seal on his juice popped behind her as he opened it, mid-stride, and sat back down. He drank nearly half the bottle in one slug.

“So how was your Christmas?” he asked her. “Did you get any good loot?”

“Yeah, I got some nice books from my mom and my sister,” she said with genuine warmth; “Chad bought me slippers and some movie passes,” she said with obvious displeasure. “What about you?”

Marco reported briefly on his holiday haul, which was always generous, but never quite added up to what one might receive if one’s birthday and Christmas didn’t fall within two weeks of each other.

“So, what’s on your mind?” Kate asked. “You said you had something you wanted to talk to me about.”

“Yeah…”

Kate would never have been the one to initiate an affair. But she’d been in deep negotiations with herself for the last several weeks, and she had arrived at what she felt was a morally acceptable compromise: Chad wasn’t giving her what she needed, so if Marco made his interest clear, she wouldn’t rebuff it. But she had started to fear he was too passive, that even if he wanted to he wouldn’t take the lead. She took his sudden request to meet again for coffee as a sign that he might, finally, be ready to take this step, and she was not above helping nudge him in the right direction. That a wide-open café set within a heavily frequented bookstore was hardly an ideal location for such an illicit transaction hadn’t even crossed her mind.

“I guess…” Marco said, “I guess I just wanted to say that I don’t feel like I can continue seeing you… like this.”

“You mean…?” – still working its way through several filters in her brain – “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“I just mean… it’s too intense, hanging out one-on-one. Don’t get me wrong, I like you. I enjoy your company. But I find I’m a lot more comfortable these days socializing in small groups. Hanging out one-on-one all the time is just too much like dating.” 

“So you’d like to keep seeing me, but with other people, or…?”

“Well, yeah, sure… but…”

“But you’d prefer…?”

“I’d prefer…” (He’d prefer not to have to do this.)

Marco had decided on the second of their pseudo-dates that he wasn’t interested in her romantically. The laws of attraction are mechanical, immutable, and he just wasn’t feeling it. As a chemist, he knew that certain elements could not be combined, or – if forced – would only form the most unstable of compounds. As far as Marco was concerned, the ‘situation’ that her friends had been so concerned would develop was neutered from the start. But he enjoyed her company, found her articulate and amusing, and with little female companionship to fill up his free time, he had continued to see her.

And soon enough, the telltale signs of a passive slide toward infidelity had begun to appear: the standard lament about Chad’s lack of ambition, the sheer amount of time they spent talking about the dissatisfactions of her relationship, and the invitation all of this implied. Not that Marco failed to read these signs or totally refused the invitation. They had made a policy of only meeting in public, which they thought would help to ‘lead them not into temptation’ and to stave off the starting of any rumours.

But at the end of their last coffee date, just before Christmas, Marco had proposed they go back to his place, and Kate accepted. They made some idle and unusually stilted chit-chat, and then settled on watching a dvd from Marco’s small but carefully selected cache. At the end of the evening, the gaps in the conversation got longer, the direction less clear, and Marco finally suggested that they should probably call it a night. She interpreted this as gentlemanly honour, rather than disinterest, and remained undaunted in her ultimate aspirations. As Kate was getting her coat on and Marco was waiting politely in the halogen-lit hall of his small condo, she decided to take the uncustomarily bold step of giving him a kiss – on the lips. Marco flinched backward a little as she came toward him, and then submitted, returning the kiss with just enough kindly affection to keep the signals hopelessly mixed. 

In his perennial naïveté, the latitude with which two people can interpret the same innocuous gestures had once again caught him by warrantless surprise. A pattern had formed in his life, a pattern of broken friendships with women, the inevitable result of asymmetrical emotional investments, and with that kiss he realized the pattern was asserting itself – again. Kate was too obviously looking for an escape route from her relationship, the past-due date on which had obviously elapsed. The friendship, it was now clear to Marco, had to be terminated with all due haste, while he could still hope to contain, or dodge, the emotional shrapnel.

In short, it had become ‘a situation.’

“I’d prefer…” he said again, not at all sure he could actually say what he would prefer.

“You’d prefer,” she said in a whisper, her leg pressing his birthday book to the wall, “that we could actually date? Is that what you’re saying?”

Marco sat helplessly.

“No… I mean…”

He could have ended it with an e-mail, but he was just paranoid enough to think it was safer to do it face-to-face and leave no damning data trail. Now he was thinking of bailing, or bluffing his way through, and sending an e-mail anyway. He tried to avoid her searching look, the awkwardness of feeling that the wash of blue behind her corneas was still coloured as much by cheerful anticipation as by despairing confusion. His only hope was to redirect the conversation with a gentle jolt.

“Have you noticed how much time we spend talking about Chad?”

“Well, sure, a fair bit, I guess. You think it’s too much?”

“Well, yeah… it makes me a little uncomfortable that we spend half the time we’re together talking about how unhappy you are with your partner. When we first met we talked about all sorts of things. Now everything seems to be filtered through your resentment of Chad.”

Kate was flummoxed.

“I don’t know what to say. Chad’s a big part of my life, and not a very supportive part of my life at the moment. You and I are friends. Aren’t those the sorts of things friends talk about?”

“Sure. But it puts me in a difficult position. And it sets me to wondering what sort of things you say about me when I’m not around. Who does Chad think I am?”

Marco actually cared very little. What was said about him behind his back, or what Chad thought of him, were matters of indifference. With minimal self-awareness, he thought, you can pretty much guess what things people say about you – what they admire, what they disparage – and it is pure vanity to be shocked when you find out what is actually said. He was merely stalling for time.

There was a little script in Marco’s head that went as follows: The perverse obligation of an asymmetrical friendship is that the less emotionally invested person has to end it for the other person’s sake. God forbid that friend experiences some sort of crisis and turns to you for the most intimate kind of help, thinking mistakenly that you are a closer friend than you really are. The consequences – for them – could be devastating. Which is why you have to end it before such a situation can arise – briskly, bluntly, since the more you talk about it, the more this suggests a deeper investment on your part than actually exists. The problem, of course, is that the more heavily invested friend doesn’t want to end it; they want to extend it and deepen it indefinitely.

Kate was following an entirely other, more optimistic script. Her face softened with apparent understanding.

“Oh, Marco, I’m sorry. I get it. God, I get it, finally – though I’m a little hurt that you don’t trust me more than that by now.” She was still speaking in hushed tones. “But, you know, there’s a simple way you can stop hearing about him.” She moved her hand across the table and placed it on his.

Marco retracted his hand sharply, and said in a curt whisper – one uncharacteristically fell verbal swoop –,

“No, you’re not getting it. I don’t want to turn this friendship into something else. I’m trying to end it.”

He looked around quickly to see if this had elicited any reaction from those around them. There were a few lazy glances in their direction. He told her that he was sorry and that he was going to leave now, getting up as inconspicuously as he could manage, and leaving his half-bottle of juice standing on the table.

Surrounded by books and by strangers, her dignity required that she experience this rejection at a distance, as if from behind a wall of specialized language – at least until she could get somewhere quiet and minimally private to properly fall apart. Unlike the names of arcane substances, there weren’t quite so many exotic words from a remote and romantic past to describe how Kate felt at that moment. ‘Crestfallen’ was perhaps the most poetic, an evocative and appealingly literal word – if only she could make herself invisible behind her drooping crest. But that didn’t quite capture it.

She felt as if she had bundled all of her hope and vulnerability up in a little package and mounted it delicately on her chest – a second heart – for the right man, a hero of affection, to take it up, place it in safekeeping within his own breast, and make her his own. She had thought Marco might prove to be that man. But instead he had, like a callous barber, chopped it off and let it cascade to the floor.

That, she thought, is how I feel:

Heart-shorn.

This act of naming abstracted the hurt just long enough for her to make her escape. She stood up with as much composure as she could manage and returned to the cashier’s station.

“I’d like to return this,” she said, thumping the book onto the counter, and got the receipt out of her purse.

The cashier looked at her with mild surprise, but said nothing. She’d been watching the two of them intermittently at the café.

“No refunds, right?” Kate said with adequately subdued hostility.

“That’s right, Miss.”

She swiftly processed the transaction, handed Kate a store credit for a little more than fifty dollars, and stopped herself in the midst of telling Kate to ‘have a nice…’

Kate stepped out once again into the mirror-lined corridor, still moderately crowded with bargain hunters. She wasn’t due home for another three hours. Chad knew where she was and who she was meeting. He hadn’t even paid her the compliment of becoming jealous.

She paused, face flushed, stared down at her salt-skirted boots, and then got on the escalator heading up to the cinemas. She fished one of Chad’s movie passes out of her purse, got a ticket to the most saccharine comedy that was showing, found an isolated seat at the back of the theatre, and cried all the way through.

 

 

Copyright © P. D. Walter (2005, 2015)

Generation Chasm

Jane’s face was slick with sweat. She could not accurately account for the interval of time during which she’d been steaming asparagus and thickening gravy. The entertainment section of the newspaper lay overturned on the coffee table adjacent the dining area. She couldn’t bear to keep passing by the prominent image it bore of her son Chris, unselfconsciously showcasing several thousand dollars of orthodontia.

The previous night she and her husband Gary had been out to a rare movie, rarer still a première. They had lately simplified their diet of celluloid to documentaries and foreign films only, and they saw very few of these. Something intensely unpleasant had happened to the movie-going experience in the previous decade or more, and it wasn’t just the behaviour of the audiences, nor the deafening promos and trailers. Criticism itself had fallen apart. They’d been tricked one too many times into seeing things that, despite receiving enthusiastic notices from all the reputable critics, turned out to be quagmires of casual violence and unrelentingly cynical irony. The Chisolms high-mindedly imposed a complete boycott on Hollywood fare, majors and independents alike – it made no difference. They simply refused to acquiesce to what only a 14-year-old boy could think was ‘edgy’, ‘deep’ or ‘provocative’, and they weren’t listening to any more critics who shared the tastes of 14-year-old boys.

But on this night there was no avoiding their obligations. They stood there after the film, the still centre of a glittering crowd of industry people with their endlessly chiming cell phones, their rimless glasses hovering before their eyes, their streaks and spikes of hair, and their tans – or, in some cases, their cosmetically exaggerated pallor. A late middle-aged couple awkwardly holding flutes of champagne and saying nothing to each other or to anyone else. Dressed in dowdy, but not inelegant earth-tones: he, Gary Chisolm, an associate professor of English literature, in a corduroy suit-jacket and olive turtleneck; she, Jane Chisolm, nurse-manager of the urology ward of the local children’s hospital, in a caramel pantsuit over an ivory silk blouse. Utterly unremarkable in their middle-class normalcy, and for that reason singularly out of place.

Around them, wild ejaculations of praise were cast about, like showers of sparks.

Groundbreaking!”

Genre-bending!”

Paradigm-shattering!”

It was like having movie advertisements read aloud to you, at close range, at 150 decibels, the voices competing with eardrum-splittingly loud ambient techno music pulsing through the hall.

“What did you think of it?” he finally asked her, uncertainly sipping at his—by now—nearly flat glass of champagne.

“What did you think?” she deflected the question, unusually taciturn.

Gary tumbled it around in his brain, as if he didn’t know the answer, turning to gaze absently at the crowd.

 “Um, I don’t know. I want to hear what you thought.” He stared at Jane.

“Well, I don’t think I liked it as much as his shorter films.”

“No, no, certainly not.” (The familiar comfort of agreement.)

“But there were things I liked about it.”

“Which things?” Gary prepared himself to be astonished.

“Well…” Jane fished about. She’d already consumed all of her champagne, rendering the glass near useless as a stress-relieving prop. “I thought the lead actress had some talent.”

“Yes, some…” Gary tried to draw her out. “And…?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Gary. I think I need to see it again; it all went by too quickly. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Jane was not an imprecise or indecisive woman. Her job demanded exactitude, attention to detail, articulacy. She was no mere paper pusher. Literate, bilingual, she was a professional, someone paid to think. In short, very much Gary’s intellectual equal; that was why the marriage worked. She was withholding, and Gary knew it.

“What did you think?” she asked again.

“Awful,” he said, wondering idly if they would ever put that on the poster:  

“AWFUL!”—Gary Chisolm, director’s father

“Just awful,” Gary elaborated, staring indifferently down at his nearly full glass of champagne.

Jane met her husband’s eyes with a look of mixed affection and pain. They both half-smiled. Taking the glass from him, she said—“Yes, awful. God-awful!”—and drank his champagne in a single swallow.

On the poster:

“GOD-AWFUL!”—Jane Chisolm, director’s mother

They had been together thirty years. They had no secrets, and few disagreements. They were of one mind when it came to aesthetic matters, and they had both spent one of the most painful evenings of their lives suffering through their son Chris’s feature film debut: ‘Kill or Be Killed.’ What made it more excruciating was that the audience around them, full of Chris’s overpaid peers, mentors and heroes, was orgasmically excited by the film. They loved it, and the Chisolms could not have been more baffled.

She remained just as baffled the next day as she read the freshly penned and cliché-ridden review crowning Kill or Be Killed “a cinematic masterpiece” and putting the previous decade’s hottest directors on notice that a new talent had arrived and was taking no prisoners. She cringed every time she walked past that picture, saw herself and Gary posed next to their son, looking more like terrified woodland prey than proud, beaming parents of an ‘artistic genius.’

Something smelled wrong. Mineral deposits calcifying on the bottom of a boiled-dry pain. The asparagus was dead limp.

_______

Gary spent the day marking papers and trying not to think about what he would say when his son arrived for dinner about a film he had come, in the last twenty-four hours, to think was not just bad but was a harbinger of the death of cinema as an art form. Its treatment of space alone—incoherent to the point of vertiginous nausea—made it easily the most unpleasant experience Gary had ever had in a movie theatre. He found the prospect of having either to feign approval and bury his self-respect, or preserve it and perhaps irreparably wound his son, profoundly depressing, not least because all of it would be played out in front of his son’s new girlfriend, whoever she might be. He self-medicated as best he could with work.

At seven o’clock sharp they arrived. Gary sluggishly pulled himself up out of his leather chair, removed his glasses, dragged his palms down over his face, and slouched downstairs. Jane was coping in a precisely opposite mode. She had been a whirling dervish of activity for the past two hours. She nearly collided with Gary as they presented themselves at the door. They each embraced the other in one-armed hug of hopeless camaraderie, and took a deep breath.

They opened the door, and—

“Mom, Dad, this is Kiera,” Chris announced.

Jane’s heart just about stopped. Chris’s ‘new’ girlfriend was the lead actress from Kill or Be Killed, Kiera Stanley. She was, of course, jaw-droppingly beautiful. Both were dressed smartly in various black items: his and hers leather jackets, her knee-high boots, his silk dress shirt, her wool mini-skirt. One could scarcely imagine two more antithetical couples. If they weren’t family, they might never have found themselves in the same room together.

“Well, c’mon in, kids, come in,” Jane chirped, a touch more shrill than she’d intended.

“Let me take your coats,” Gary offered.  

“Can I get the two of you something to drink? A glass of wine?” They said they’d wait and have their drinks with dinner. “Okay, good. It’s just about ready, actually. Gary, why don’t you take the kids into the front room and have a nice chat while I finish up in the kitchen.”

“Oh, no, Jane, we’ll come and keep you company.”

“Yeah, Mom, let us help.”

“No, no, I’m just thickening the gravy. Really, it’ll be ready in no time. You two sit and have a visit with your father.” Gary and Chris gave in. Jane slipped away feeling a little guilty, but also relieved.

Coming home was always a pilgrimage of mixed nostalgia and revulsion for Chris. His parents could clean themselves up nicely for evenings on the town, but at home the Chisolms could be counted on to don the sort of appallingly ugly sweaters, sentimentally depicting wildlife, that fit like potato sacks and are worn, primarily, in honour of the mentally unstable aunts or grandmothers that had knitted them. Chris had never quite reconciled himself to how two people who held art in such high esteem could be so artless in their own lives. Their cuisine also betrayed a certain lack of aesthetic imagination. They certainly knew fine food when they sampled it, at restaurants or their friends’ houses, but they were beginning to incorporate more and more elements into their diet—mashed turnip, baby beet halves—that suggested they were eating less for flavour and enjoyment than for penitential, nutritional purposes. They were getting old, and Chris lived in a kind of perpetual horror of aging.

“Well, come and sit,” Gary invited them. “So, Kiera, where did you grow up? Are you from the Northeast, or…?”

She was unable to stifle a yawn. Chris took her hand.

“Sorry, Dad. We were both up really late last night.”

“I imagine so…” Gary had already lost his way.

“Yeah, the party the studio threw for us was incredible.”

“Oh?”

“There was this amazing DJ from Miami, a ton of food”—as Chris was speaking, Kiera touched her stomach with a wince—“and all the big industry people were there. I made some fantastic connections.” 

The subject of the premiere was clearly unavoidable. Gary tried to steer the conversation away from the white-hot centre of the film itself toward cooler, more tertiary subject matter.

“We ran into your old friend Brett McDonald last night. Did you get a chance to say hello to him?”

“No, I was really disappointed. I sent him the tickets a few weeks ago, but it was just so crazy last night.  I mean, you saw what it was like.”

“It certainly was… exciting.”

“Yeah, I think this film is really going to open doors for me.”

Kiera was getting bored watching father and son play catch-up.

“Chris’s being modest,” she interjected. “The producers of the James Bond movies were at the party last night and they told him they want Chris to direct the next film in the series. Isn’t that awesome?”

“Yes, wonderful,” Gary echoed, not sounding fully convinced.

“And I know just the actress to play the next Bond girl,” Kiera cooed at her director-boyfriend. Chris smiled absently, preoccupied with attempting to read his father’s tone.

“So you’ll be moving out to Los Angeles, I imagine?”

“Well, yeah, I pretty much have to if I’m going to take advantage of the opportunities that are coming my way. I mean, the whole industry is there, really. And Kiera’s there.” Their hands wriggled over and around one another into a tighter embrace.

“Well, it’ll be a good excuse for us to visit California.” Gary was pleased to be able to say something sincere.

“Dinner’s ready,” Jane hallooed from the kitchen.

Gary leapt up, liberated from the doomed conversation.

They filed into the wood-panelled dining room, Gary a step ahead of the kids. Jane had already plated the food and was setting it on the glass dining table.

“Your turn,” he muttered to her under his breath.

“Come and sit, kids. You’ll both have wine, will you? Red or white?”

She took their drink orders and flitted back into the kitchen.

“Did you see the paper today?” Chris asked idly.

This was a question Jane could answer comfortably.

“Oh, God, yes. I look atrocious,” she said, hiding behind a grossly exaggerated vanity. “I can hardly stand to look at it. You look lovely, though, Chris. It would make a good advertisement for Dr. Baumgartner”—his orthodontist.

Gary chuckled nervously.

“Gary, would you serve the wine?” Jane asked, producing the two bottles.

Chris sat down just as his mother was delivering his plate. The meal consisted of marinated duck (good), steamed asparagus (edible, if overdone), and… (disaster) mashed turnips and baby beet halves. The full horror of advancing age was staring up at him off of fine bone china. He caught a glimpse of Kiera—who had the previous night dined on all the subtlest and most flavourful of Californian cuisine—mock-gagging.

“Well, isn’t this lovely,” Jane said, settling in. She noticed Kiera segregating the turnips and beats off to one side of her plate. “Is there something wrong?”

“Oh, no, it’s just…”

“Kiera’s on a carbohydrate-reduced diet,” Chris offered. “Starchy root vegetables are a no-no.”

Without missing a beat, Jane said, “Oh, really? Which one is it—Atkins? The Zone? It’s obviously working for you.” Kiera wasn’t sure whether to take this as flattery or criticism, but Jane was the very picture of politeness. “I could stand to loose a pound or ten myself.”

Kiera smiled awkwardly.

“Well, in any case,” Jane said, “there’s lots more duck and asparagus.”

“It’s all right, Mrs. Chisolm. We ate too much last night anyway. This will be fine.”

Under different circumstances Jane might have been hurt, embarrassed, red-faced. Today, however, she was just happy to have something—anything—to focus on other than her son’s movie.

“Would you like some gravy, dear?” she asked Kiera.

Gary, knowing nothing of contemporary fad diets, wondered if this wasn’t the stupidest question he’d ever heard his otherwise highly intelligent wife ask.

“Oh, sure. Bring it on,” Kiera responded.

“Really?” Gary inquired. “It’s not something you’re supposed to avoid on whatever diet you’re on?”

“Gravy? No, fat’s okay. Fat’s great. It’s carbs that are the problem. Bread, pasta—deadly. Straight to the hips. I eat fat all day long.”

Jane was pleased, and ladled two huge puddles of gravy onto the waif’s plate.

Everyone relaxed a little as they began to eat, and for a moment or two there was a lipid-induced and wine-accentuated lull. Afraid it would break at any moment, and in the wrong direction, Jane picked up the ball.

“How long have you been acting, Kiera?” she asked.

“Oh, god, I’ve been performing since the day I was born. When I was four I started singing at…” Kiera was the sort of self-absorbed young person who so loved being the centre of attention that she would without hesitation give a twenty-five-minute answer to the most limited and direct of questions. The Chisolms sat through her entire resume, from kindergarten onward, by the end of which Gary and Chris had long-since finished their first serving. Kiera had so exhausted Jane and Gary with her tedious tale of one girl’s rise to minor stardom that they let their defences slip, and Chris saw an opening he could exploit.

“So, you liked the film?” Chris asked.

Two sets of eyes turned instinctively toward each other for support, and then checked themselves, giving both the appearance of staring oddly off at nothing and no one.

“Mom?”

“It had very high production values,” Jane offered, wine and anxiety reddening her face.

“Yeah, we had a fairly substantial budget,” Chris confirmed. “But, I mean, what about the story, and the style? The way the film was made?”

“You know, Chris,” she attempted to simulate a more relaxed tone, “I think I’d probably have to see it again. It was very fast, didn’t you find, Gary?” Gary made a vague, non-directional gesture, his head and his shoulders rolling in opposite directions, the actual semantic content of which was: ‘Leave me out of this.’ “I’m not used to such fast movies,” Jane concluded.

Chris was confused. “Huh.”

“You were very good, Kiera,” Jane added.

Gary was still pondering the unconscionable implications of his wife’s statement: ‘I think I’d probably have to see it again.’

“Dad?” Chris inquired. “You’ve been rather quiet.”

“Well, I think I agree with your mother, Chris.”

“Agree with her about what?”

Could he do it? Could he lie and mouth those same terrible words of evasion: ‘I think I’d probably have to see it again’?

“I guess the problem I have is that…”—still trying to strike the right balance between diplomacy and honesty—“…I am not sure I understand the genre.”

“The genre?” Now Chris was really baffled. “What’s not to understand? It’s a variation on all the classic monster themes.”

Gary made one play for visual confirmation from his wife. To proceed or not to proceed? To be honest and break their son’s heart, or to lie, and lie, and lie, and wind up foot-thick, knee-deep, over head and ears in hypocrisy.

Much as it pained her, Jane imperceptibly nodded her assent to proceed.

“Well—and perhaps you can explain this to me, Kiera—I guess I just don’t understand what pleasure young women in particular are supposed to derive from watching these films in which girls like themselves are trapped in the lairs of serial killers, to be elaborately disembowelled by the film’s end unless they are rescued by the unlikely hero. Are young women these days so perverse as to enjoy watching representations of their own torture?”

“I enjoyed cashing the check,” Kiera responded.

Even Chris winced at this.

“Dad, I mean… for God’s sake, you’re a literary scholar. It’s one of the oldest stories in the world: the damsel in distress saved by the hero on the white horse. I mean, updated a bit, edited at high speed for today’s shorter attention spans, and set to an industrial soundtrack, sure. But it’s the same sort of story people have been telling themselves for centuries.”

“But does it have to be so relentlessly ugly and depressing?” Gary mused aloud, not expecting a digestible answer. “Shouldn’t art be in some way beautiful?”

“You don’t seem to get it, Dad,” Chris shot back. “You’re clinging to this old notion of what is ‘beautiful’. The radical thing is that ‘the beautiful’ is now recognized to include certain forms of ugliness.”

“And the tasteful now includes forms of tastelessness,” Jane quipped, quite against her better instincts.

“What are you saying?” Chris was hurt. “My film is tasteless?”

Jane did not demur as clearly as she sought to distract herself with the remnants of her third glass of wine.

“No, Chris, of course not,” Gary came to the rescue. “But I think your mother and I both feel that art should leave you feeling in some way inspired, or richer for having had the experience, rather than just morose and drained.” (He thought better of adding ‘nauseated’.)

“I don’t think the audience feels drained. I think they feel exhilarated.”

Husband and wife didn’t need to make eye contact to confirm that they disagreed with this assessment of the film’s merits.

“Don’t you remember being young? The thrill of being scared?” Chris appealed to his father’s less critical faculties.

‘Yes,’ Gary thought to himself, ‘I remember being young. Better than I understand being old.’ But he didn’t say this. Instead, he added, “I don’t remember the thrill of being assaulted by rapid-fire images of dismemberment and cannibalism.”

Chris stared at Gary in slack-jawed incomprehension. “Titus Andronicus, for God’s sake. That’s William f—ing Shakespeare.”

“But Shakespeare wrote beautifully,” Jane insisted, “even when the things he was describing were ugly.”

Gary recited: “O, thus I found her straying in the park, / Seeking to hide herself, as doth the deer / That hath received some unrecuring wound.”

“Okay, fine, fine, give me a break. Whoever said I was trying to be Shakespeare? Isn’t it enough just to be Chris Chisolm? Apparently not.”

There was silence. Jane sat gently masticating her last mouthful of duck. She’d been saving it at the side of her plate, a delicious morsel of comfort to relieve stress when the inevitable confrontation erupted.

“I guess…” Chris punctured the silence, “I guess I just find it a bit rich to hear all of this high-minded talk about ‘Art’ and ‘Beauty’ from two people wearing matching his and hers Caribou sweaters.”

Jane was a paediatric nurse; she was used to certain kinds of pressure. When parents upbraided her unfairly for some perceived inadequacy in their child’s care, Jane didn’t cry. When she had the temerity to disagree with a doctor, and the doctor—out of sheer malign will—pulled rank and put her firmly back in her place, Jane didn’t cry.  But here, at the dinner table, with her son’s girlfriend shunting half of the food off to the side of her plate, and her son—her only son—attacking her vulnerabilities, Jane’s upper lip quivered pathetically, wiggled there for a few moments like a half-dead fish, and then, before she knew it, she let that last bit of duck drop out onto her plate and was weeping insensibly.

“Oh, Christ, Chris, look what you’ve done,” Gary chided. He strode over to his wife and put his arm around her.

“Look what I’ve done?! I’ve been sitting here listening to my parents imply that I am talentless and vulgar, and calling my work tasteless, ugly, and depressing. You know what I find depressing? This house, this family, this whole f—ing scenario!”

Jane let out a brief, mucousy burst that suggested she was about to commence an even more gut-wrenchingly pathetic round of weeping. But then she gathered herself, gently released Gary from his comforting obligations, and wiped her nose with her napkin. The shame at not being able to honestly say she liked her son’s movie was passing away, shading into something else.

“Well, Chris, I’m sorry,” she began, now highly composed; “You don’t have to live here, and we do, so what you think of this house matters not at all. I won’t even comment on the sweaters except to say my mother—your dead grandmother—made these for us!” She was immediately embarrassed by the sound of her own raised voice, but at this point she felt entitled to be unseemly. Nonetheless, she collected herself again.

“Your father and I are very happy here. We don’t find it depressing. And now that you’re making big-time Hollywood money, you don’t ever have to come back and live here again, if you don’t want to.”

She got up and took her plate to the sink, scraping the chewed up, pre-digested lump of duck meat into the organic waste bin.

“Chris…” Gary began in a conciliatory tone.

“No, Dad, don’t bother. It’s okay. I get it. You two are happy and you don’t care what’s happening in my life.”

“No one said that,” Gary assured him.

The four of them sat and (in Jane’s case) stood quietly for a moment as they pondered how to proceed, how to knit the frayed edges of their dignity back into something like a pleasant evening. They failed.

“I can’t help but feeling you came here with an agenda, Chris.” Jane announced this with arms folded, her back turned to the sink. “You came to bully and intimidate us into saying we liked that disgusting movie you made. You’ve got critics and friends galore who think you’re the best thing since...”—she fetched about for a cultural reference that would be equally meaningful to all of them; she couldn’t think of one, and that was exactly the problem—“since… I don’t know what. What difference does it make what we think? Why do you need us to validate what you’re doing?”

“You really have to ask? You’re my parents. Nothing those other people say matters if you think it’s garbage.”

“So you wanted us to lie and say we liked it?”

“No, I wanted your honest opinion.”

“Did you think your father and I were suddenly going to discover a taste for serial-killer films?” his mother asked, dumbfounded. “We may be getting older, but we haven’t been lobotomised.”

“No… I don’t know. I guess I thought I could count on you to be intelligent enough to see past the surface and admire it for its form.”

“It’s form? As best I could tell it took the form of a two-hour television commercial for artificial blood.”

“Jesus Christ, Mom. Enough already. I get it. You hated the movie. You think I’m a talentless vulgarian and you are embarrassed that I’m your son. At least now I know where we stand.”

“No one said you were talentless,” Jane insisted. “I loved some of your short films. The one about the little boy and the balloon – that was charming. What happened to that lightness, that spirit of wonder and enchantment?”

“What happened is I grew up! I’m not the one sitting here getting all weepy over a kitschy, garish Caribou sweater.”

Jane had never hit her son, but at that moment the only thing restraining her from doing so was an unacknowledged hunch, deep within, that it really was an embarrassingly awful pair of sweaters.

“You said you felt that I came here with an agenda,” Chris shifted gears. “I did come here with an agenda. I came here to tell you Kiera and I are getting married.”

(A beat.)

“Praaaaaah!” Jane shrieked with irrepressible laughter. A half-second later, she repressed it. But it was too late. It had infected Gary. The next moment he was snorting loudly, which only got Jane going again. Chris involuntarily went into spasm, and the three of them howled and howled, until Jane was sitting on the floor in tears, Gary was half-choking and dangerously red in the face, and Chris was sobbing cheerfully.

What is so Goddamn funny about us getting married?!” Kiera tried to intervene, but she was not enough of an actress to sell this tone of injured dignity, and her outburst only sent the Chisolms on their next wave of hysterical laughter.

Chris!” she shouted, striking his arm. “Chris!” But the laughter would not abate.

An hour and a half and several bowls of ice cream later, all were adequately reconciled—adequate, that is, for a family the members of which would soon be living on opposite sides of the continent. Chris and Kiera raced home in the darkness along asphalt strewn with wet leaves, and Gary and Jane settled peaceably into bed, each with a good book.

__________

Fourteen months later, Chris was spending his first Christmas with his new bride at home in Long Beach, California. Since Chris had grown up and moved away, the Chisolms had stopped making much of a fuss about Christmas. Oh, Jane still liked putting up the artificial tree, and she and Gary still bought each other a few gifts. But otherwise, Christmas was just another quiet day at home.

When, mid-afternoon, they’d finished opening their gifts to each other and were slightly toasted on rum-laced eggnog, they opened Chris’s package. Each received (1) an elegant black cashmere sweater and (2) an autographed dvd copy of Kill or Be Killed. Chris had attached a note to the dvds: “Hold onto these. One day, after I publish my autobiography, they’ll be collectors’ items.” Gary and Jane set them aside with a mild groan, and a nostalgic chuckle, having failed to closely examine the reviews, which read:

“Masterful!”— David Derringer, The Herald Tribune

“Tasteless”—Mom

“Relentlessly Ugly and Depressing”—Dad

 

 

Copyright © P. D. Walter (2005, 2015)

 

What is Café Meguri?

A note to the reader: This piece was written in 2010, when I was living in Japan, about 45 minutes outside Tokyo. After two years there, I had grown weary of going into the city on weekends and instead started taking mostly solo day-trips into the surrounding countryside. My Japanese was good enough at that point to follow an all-Japanese guidebook and navigate the smaller, local trains. And half or more of the fun, of course, was interacting with local people on these weekend jaunts. 

Because of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident of March 3, 2011, however, this piece has inevitably become a work of nostalgia, because several of the towns I visited on the east coast of Japan were affected to a greater or lesser extent by that triple disaster, which has created a large no-go zone in eastern Japan. The carefree days I spent visiting the region’s cafés can only seem like a quaint memory now, shunted aside by the far more serious and still fragile efforts to secure the safety of local residents and restore to them the peace and tranquility I once sought there.

Saitama, where I am living, is a prefecture immediately north of Tokyo and might be described as consisting largely of outer suburbs of Tokyo, with some important qualifications. Japan is an old country, so while the urban sprawl of Tokyo is unbelievably vast, there are still centers of local life to all the smaller cities and towns it has annexed. You can still live life on a very small and human scale, without a car, commuting to work by train and doing your shopping by bicycle in a way that you generally can’t in suburban North America.  

The Japanese term for the countryside is ‘inaka’ - one that, today, has the same rather negative connotation of ‘the sticks’ in our slang. But then the distinction between city and country is less clear here. The mix of residential, industrial and agricultural uses of land is much more diverse than in North America and more like that of Europe, with farmers, factories and homeowners all huddled together in quite close and peaceful proximity. 

One of the pitfalls, of course, of living in this part of eastern Japan is the temptation is to spend all your free time going into Tokyo and very little of it exploring your own area. But within a few months, I was already tiring of constant weekend excursions to the heart of the sprawling metropolis. The trains are fast and convenient, but they are not cheap, and no matter how good they are, something close to an hour on a train can be an exhausting experience. When I arrive in Tokyo, often, as soon as I get off the train, all energy just seems to drain out of me. 

So where does one go to escape? To a café, those little oases of culture and calm amidst the well-organized chaos, the unending hustle and bustle of contemporary Japanese life.

During my first winter break here, I was taken by a Japanese friend to the A to Z Café in Tokyo’s upscale Omote-Sando area. I fell in love instantly with its urban/rustic whitewashed interior and its laid-back atmosphere, like that of cafés popular among students back home. It was designed by the internationally renowned contemporary painter Nara Yoshitomo and houses many of his works, as well as a mock studio, like a small cottage, in the middle of the café. I took every friend and visitor I had over the next several months there for lunch (a steal at $10) and befriended one of the young managers, Yutaka. 

Through him, I became aware that the A to Z was part of not a chain but a group of associated restaurants and cafés under the umbrella name ‘Jellyfish’. So for a time, I took pleasure in hunting down each of the Jellyfish eateries in different areas of Tokyo and sampling their culinary offerings. Several of them had essentially the same menu, the A to Z menu, and differed only in design and atmosphere. Others were quite a bit more upscale and, while glamorous to visit on special occasions, could hardly become regular haunts. In any case, this group of restaurants and cafés renewed my patience for Tokyo and gave me reason to continue going there for another six months or so. One even opened in Omiya (La Maison de la Galette), a large city immediately west of my little bedroom town, so I went there for lunch from time to time, often having a chance to chat with Yutaka, who was posted there until it was well-established and on its way to being a success. 

But eventually I was back in the position of wondering how best to spend my free time and coming up rather empty-handed. So it wasn’t until about 18 months into my stay here, in the dead of winter, and out of sheer boredom on a Sunday afternoon, that I discovered that not 200 meters from my tiny one-room apartment there was a bakery/café built into an old Meiji-era warehouse, with stone floors and gorgeously gnarled wooden beams in the ceiling, as charming and as peaceful as you could imagine. Naturally, I became a regular, planting myself there each Sunday for a few hours to study my Japanese and lunch on their pricey but delicious organic vegetable plate and unlimited bread from their impressive French-inspired bakery. I got to know the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Shimada, was always warmly greeted by them and frequently had idle chit chat with them about the café and their family in Japanese. This one little discovery suddenly made my town seem really liveable in a way it hadn’t up to that point. Amazing what a decent café can do.

In time, however, I tired of paying $13 for a modest lunch (now, having tried lots of other cafes, I realize that was pretty good value), the charms of this establishment began to wear off and my little world started to seem oppressively small again. Thankfully, this café was featured in an attractive little guidebook, pointed out to me by the Shimadas, called ‘Kyujitsu no café-meguri’. It lists 69 other cafés in my prefecture and the surrounding three (Ibaraki, Gunma and Tochigi). Thanks to the Shimada family, a new pastime presented itself – café meguri.

An otherwise all-Japanese guidebook, ‘Kyujitsu no café meguri’ translates its own title as ‘Holiday Café’, but that hardly captures the appealing nuances of ‘meguri’. It is written with a Chinese character that is used in expressions that mean both ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘circulation’, as in ‘circulation of the blood’. But ‘pilgrimage’ has too strong a religious connotation in English. Loosely translated, the title of the book would be something like: ‘Circulating around to different cafés on your day off’. Nine words in place of four; Japanese is so wonderfully concise in contrast to English. A friend with better Japanese than I has suggested the comparably concise ‘Holiday café-hopping’, but ‘hopping’ (a somewhat violent, certainly energetic sort of verb) doesn’t capture the nuances of ‘circulation’ – of flow and of slowness, like a wandering river – that I like so much about ‘meguri’. 

So there really is no good way to translate it. Café meguri is café meguri. And it has become my new way of spending weekend afternoons, poking around in the hinterland, enjoying the challenge of navigating the trains and following an all-Japanese guidebook (which is a pleasure not to be underestimated when living in a foreign country and trying to learn the language) and sampling all manner of Japanese approximations of Western café fare. A rather self-indulgent hobby, perhaps, but the more I indulge it, the more I realize café meguri provides a window onto several significant aspects of contemporary Japan, including of course food culture, the widespread yearning for a slower way of life, and Japan’s emulation of and engagement with the West. 

To put it simply, and to state my conclusion at the outset, this type of hinterland café culture, as it has been adapted by and for Japan, is a five-fold oasis: (1) a retreat from suburban blight, the blasted post-industrial landscape of the extra-metropolitan hinterland; (2) an escape from the punishing intensity and rigidity of Japanese work life and work culture; (3) an oasis of Western-ness in a still highly mono-ethnic and monocultural nation; (4) a temporary retreat, whether rustic or derelict industrial, into a nostalgic material past; (5) and a ‘cool’ escape from the banality and sterility of everyday life (while at the same time being an escape from the austere and exclusive urban iterations of ‘cool’), unpretentious and fully compatible with the Japanese affection for all things kawaii (‘cute’).

Read more: Café Meguri 2&3: The Yearning for Slow Life, Café Meguri 4: Planning the Ideal Day