Tokyo with a Twist of Southern

December 8, 2015 8:52 am

A few years ago, I got the opportunity to make my first trip to Tokyo. The big concern that everyone seemed to have about going to Japan was in understanding the cultural differences. I studied the suggested cultural guidelines as much as I could in the short time before the trip. I even learned a few courtesy phrases in Japanese.

As always, reality negates assumptions. Once I arrived in Tokyo, I discovered the culture was very similar to Southern politeness and graciousness. Almost everyone I interacted with was courteous, framing everything they said with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Social events were centered around food, another very Southern habit.

My least concern before the trip had been eating in Japan as a vegetarian. I envisioned all the vegetable noodle dishes, stir-fries and tempura I would be savoring. I would be experiencing the real thing, not a restaurant chain’s Americanized interpretation of Japanese food.

Again, reality destroyed all assumptions. My business associates wanted to treat me to a special dinner at a select restaurant. When we arrived, I picked up the menu to study the vegetable delicacies. My hosts interrupted me.

“No, no, we will treat you to a special dinner.”

“Thank you, that would be very gracious of you. But I am a vegetarian.”

“Yes, yes, we will order the dinner.”

When the waiter arrived, he set down a huge platter of sashimi, sliced bits fresh raw fish. There were forty or fifty different kinds of fish artfully arranged in an array of reds, pinks and whites.

“Please, have some.”

Thank you so much, but I’m a vegetarian.”

“Please, have some.”

“Thank you so much, but I do not eat fish.”

That was the other thing; even when I was young and still ate meat, I could never stand the taste or smell of fish.

“Please, have some sashimi.”

There was that Southern hospitality. I had grown up with it; it was ingrained in my soul. Food was the cultural connector, the gift that was given to the guest. You did not refuse that gift when it was offered.

“Yes, thank you, I will have some.”

I picked out the palest, blandest looking pieces of fish with my chopsticks, dipped and coated them with as much wasabi as I could get them to hold and swallowed them without chewing or letting them linger in my mouth.

I complimented my hosts on the excellent taste of the fish. I thanked them for the honor of dining with them and their graciousness in ordering such a generous platter of sashimi. My aversion to fish had not changed one bit, but I did not forgo my Southern heritage and refuse their hospitality.

Bento BoxI had other occasions of dining with my Japanese associates; most of the times I was able to eat vegetarian dishes. I even ate at a Japanese Italian restaurant just because of the incongruity of it; the pizza was very good. We also had a working lunch at a large conference table, where they arranged for bento box lunches to be delivered to us all. They were large wooden lunch boxes, lacquered and nesting an assortment of smaller boxes, each holding its own food treat. There were bits of rice, pickled vegetables, fried vegetables, noodles, seaweed and, of course, fish. I kept the fish tucked in their little boxes and savored the other treats.

Throughout my visit to Tokyo, I felt right at home, for everyone, from my business associates to shopkeepers to strangers in the street, treated me with the politeness and graciousness that would make a Southerner proud.

A Burden of Grief and Regret

December 4, 2015 2:37 pm


No-one should have to bear such a burden of grief and regret. Tears came to my eyes. I struggled to breathe. I walked from room to room, but there was no relief. I stepped outside and the weight was lifted.

No, the grief was not mine. We had had a spate of family deaths, but all that had passed. It was a time of celebration for us, moving to a new house, one with all the work space and room for company that we had needed for years.

This old house had been our home for fifteen years and we had long ago outgrown it. I was back to it with my tools to do some renovations and updates so that we could put it on the market. That was where the storm of emotions had hit me. We had felt sadness from leaving this place that had been our home for so long, but it did not bring grief and regret, not like what I had just felt. What I felt was someone else’s weight of emotions.

I am an empath and a sensitive and I can sometimes feel other people’s emotions as if they are my own. The only person close to us that I could think of who would have such a turmoil of feelings at that time was our cousin, Tim, who was in the hospital with a serious case of pneumonia. The onslaught of emotions was alarming enough that I called Martha.

“Check on Tim. Something feels wrong.”

“I just did. He’s doing well and is being sent home.”

That did not bring any relief from the crushing emotions I was feeling.

The next day, I was back to work on our old house, updating woodwork and replacing flooring. Again, I was overwhelmed by grief. The only relief was to go out and stand in the front yard. The feelings dissipated every time I did that. I would work as long as I could, then step outside to regather my strength.

As I worked, I spoke to Tim, as if he were there in the room with me, wishing him peace and good health and I repeated a protection prayer for him, for us and for the house.

The next day was the same, as was the next. Then we got the news that Tim had relapsed and had been readmitted to the hospital, where he soon died. Tim was suddenly gone; his bright life had ended. He had overcome many obstacles and lived a life of goodness, when he otherwise could have lived in bitterness. His death was shocking and unexpected.

The day after that, I went back to the old house to work. The atmosphere there was completely unremarkable, no grief or regret or any other emotion, simply an empty house ready for new occupants. It was nothing like the past several days of unbearable grief.

The boundary between life and death is not as firmly defined as most people believe. I think Tim, at a higher level, had somehow known his life was close to ending. He had reached out to us, to show us the painful grief he was feeling over his life ending too soon. I hope he found some comfort in the words I spoke to him. I hope the heavy burden of grief and regret was lifted from him when he crossed over. No-one should have to bear such a burden.

Strangers on a Train, or Rather, in the Condiment Aisle

November 30, 2015 9:53 am


I was recently standing in the salsa and condiment aisle at the grocery, innocently scanning the shelves for the perfect organic mustard. A woman stepped right beside me, quietly scanning the shelf as well. After a few moments, she turned and spoke to me.

“Do you suffer from intestinal distress?”

My first thought was that was the oddest pickup line I’d ever heard. I obviously didn’t suffer from intestinal distress if I was perusing the mustards and condiments. And we weren’t standing in the over-the-counter stomach medications aisle.

I’ve always had an aura or something about me that pulls complete strangers to me to bare their innermost secrets. I’m usually a good listener, but how does someone see that by only looking at me. I don’t know what the signal is, but it has happened over and over all my life.

She continued to talk, telling me that her teenage son suffered intestinal distress, to the point of being embarrassed even going to school, for he had daily episodes of toilet emergencies. She explained how bad she felt for him and asked me, a stranger in the grocery store, for my advice on helping him.

“Does he also suffer regularly from migraines.”

“Yes, almost every day.”

I could actually help her. I knew someone who had Celiac disease, who had suffered with those exact same symptoms until they had cleaned all gluten from their diet. I explained that situation to her.

She said her family doctor had offered to test her son for gluten intolerance and she had questioned whether it was worth the expense.

“Is your son’s health and well-being and his self-respect at school worth the expense?”

“Yes, it is.”

“So there’s your answer.”

She seemed relieved after our conversation, thanking me and moving on to her actual shopping. I hope she followed through, had the test done and resolved her son’s health problems. It still amazes me to think how our paths had crossed in the condiment aisle and she had stopped and asked me the very question, strange as it was, that I could help her with.

Viva la Vida de Austin

November 20, 2015 7:50 am


We have stopped at one of our neighborhood restaurants for a late dinner and a break from the latest social media frenzy. The cheerful international chatter at the surrounding tables completely disarms the looming threat of annihilation from terrorism.

The Asian and the Indian techies at the table beside us are fervently discussing gaming, giggling at jokes only gaming nerds would understand. At another table, the beautifully dark hairdresser from Bogota is describing her Arabic grandfather and telling how she misses the mountain scenery where she grew up in Colombia.

Behind us, the middle-aged Michigan father and his African America son-in-law with a Texas twang are discussing the pros and cons of various voice over IP services with surprising excitement, while the daughter sits by with an indulgent smile on her face.

It is Austin and this is our normal. It’s technology flavored with cultural diversity and highlighted with music, art and a quirky sense of humor.

At another table, the master who once worked for Microsoft indulges his young acolytes with tales of his reign there, before he walked away as his way to challenge the system. His tablemates are from all corners of the globe. More laughter and jokes only software developers would understand.

Further over, the Hispanic family with the tired father, the exhausted mother and the beautiful brown-eyed children simply savor the joy of eating out.

Our elegantly tattooed waitress is a jewelry designer and the food runner who brings our plates has the demeanor and the jargon of a musician earning his gas money and his rent.

We see every color of the human rainbow, hear a symphony of accents, watch and listen to a pageant of culture and feel not one second of fear or intimidation. It is simply a South Austin restaurant where people gather to eat and relax and socialize with their fellow Austinites.

I celebrate the cultural diversity we have. I would feel cheated if I only saw people who looked like me, heard voices like my own, and heard them complaining about the weather, the government and any religion that didn’t match their own beliefs. Diversity is what keeps life interesting. Viva la vida de Austin.

Bringing Out the Dead, Again

November 6, 2015 5:43 pm


London is literally built upon the bones of the dead, from Roman cemeteries through century after century of plague pits. Forgotten pits continue to be discovered as new construction takes place across the city. Follow the link below to an interactive map of confirmed plague pits under London, with a bit of history about each one. For instance, how would you like to live at Gower’s Walk Pest Field, the burial site for thousands of plague victims, now occupied by warehouse apartment conversions.

The Reputed Plague Pits of London