A Dog and His Man
My last night in Tokyo was spent with an old friend, Kenji Shibata whom I am about to exact revenge on.
I'd gotten to know Kenji in '88 at C&F Communications, a house full of translators where I stayed in the low key Suginamiku section of Tokyo. Over the phone he told me to take a taxi from the station to his condo and, being rather exhausted from the night before, I opted out of the chance for an evening walk and did so. He was out in the parking lot waiting and ran up to pay the driver over my objections.
"You must be tired. Let me carry your pack," he offered.
"Thank, but I can handle it," I said.
"That's all you're traveling with?".
"There's another bag waiting at the airport."
"Ah, you know our ways."
"I have studied your people well," I said deadpan. Then he gave me a hug, common only among the gaijin-infected, and I told him, "And you've learned our ways well."
"You've lost weight," he said surveying me. "You used to look like you were very pregnant."
"I liked it better when people said I looked like a sumo wrestler. But that would occasionally get me into trouble." And then while we stood in the parking lot I told him how a drunk guy with some friends had accosted me at the entry to a rest stop restaurant on a highway back when I lived in Japan. "Ahhh, sumotori!" the stranger had barked at me defiantly before giving me a shove, showing off to his friends that he could take on this bulky gaijin. I walked up to him slowly looking him in the eye and then, after a tense pause, gave him back - a big hug and kiss right on the lips. He was speechless. Then he smiled and he and his party went off laughing.
Kenji threw back his head and laughed as well.
"I remember you now," I said. "It's easy to make you laugh. "Japanese always…"I added, seeing if he'd pick up the cue. He did.
"Every time I'm with Americans…" he countered.
And we laughed. It was something we used to do. We were always cutting up. We had this routine we'd do where I'd go, "You know, the thing that bothers me about Japanese is that they're always…" or something like that, and he'd cut in on me and say something like, "Yeah, but every time Americans …" and we'd go on thus walking down the street making the introductory phrases for generalizations and then being cut in on by the other who was starting another generalization that would in turn be cut off. And if one of us actually made a generalization about the other's country or even about our own, the other might get into the routine and we'd temporarily ridicule ourselves in this way out of that hard to break habit. As we got better at it we sometimes practiced the routine so that others could hear us. We'd do it with rising voices feigning hostility - just to freak his controversiaphobic fellow countryfolk out. Oops - there's another generalization.
We sat on a bench and, at the chilly end of day, watched the sun go down over a field. Tokyo is so spread out - it's weird - lots of it seems like a small town or on the edge of countryside. Lots of it doesn't too. It’s sort of endless. True to the formality I'd been through with all my friends, we whipped by the names of everyone we knew in common that we could think of. Kenji knew all the Japanese Bohemians I knew, but he never came across as one himself. He's not conservative looking though, more casual. He's funny, kind, a little bit nervous, a little bit sad, and curious, and smart.
We talked lastly about Red Wood, a mutual friend from the states, a character, an entrepreneur. Red had given himself that name, at least half of it. He may have been Red Smith or Frank Wood before, but for a long time he's had that noble tree name. Kenji said Red didn't have his flotation tanks any more. I had tried it out in his studio a couple of times. It was a little freaky at first, lying in buoyant salty water in the soundless dark with a padded ceiling a few inches above my nose. But the claustrophobia would give way to fascination at listening to the sounds of my body running, heart beat slowing down, blood flowing and all. It's a high. Elin had an out of body experience when she did it back then.
Red was most generous with his tanks and time. I'd met him when I first went to Tokyo. He was a friend of Shin's and Shibata's at C&F. Red had a lot of irons in the fire. He had a few Deloreans that he was selling. One of them he loaned to Shin who enjoyed driving it around Tokyo for a year or so. He looked so cool opening the door up above to get out.
"So, let's give him a call," I said.
"Ah, not so easy. Red is now living in Nepal where he started an elementary school. He's got all these kids to take care of now. But he's got some mail order business going, selling Nepalese artifacts to fund it. He's such a hustler that the kids will probably all be millionaires by the time he's finished with them. Business and charity. Good combination."
"Yeah, he was good to me," I said. "When Kelly - you remember Kelly? He's my oldest son. He was fourteen when he and I got back from Thailand. We spent the night at C&F and saw you and Red that night." He nodded. "Well, we were almost totally out of money. I mean, we had a budget in Thailand that gave us so much each day and every morning I'd recalculate how much we had and divide it by the number of days left with a little left over for when we got back to Japan and just about every day we'd go over budget so that the next day's adjusted budget would be a little less so that by the end we were down to only enough money to eat out of stands on the street. So you and Red and Kelly watched as I counted the money and figured out a budget for the next day. Breakfast was leftovers in the C&F kitchen and then we walked to the station and took the train to Ueno station where he got the train to Narita. There wasn't enough for me to go with him to the airport. It was a little sad. You guys had tried to give me the money to do that but I refused and it would take so long to go with him and come back anyway that I wouldn't have had time to start the job that Red had waiting for me.
"Oh, you did some work he got you? I forget. Teaching English?"
"Nope. Sheet rocking. Kelly and I said goodbye and I took another train to the station with that dog statue - the famous one the movie was made about. The dog had followed his owner there every day for years and then his owner died at work and the dog kept coming there every morning and evening till it died and then people collected money and made the statue for him."
"Oh yes, oh yes. Hachiko - at Shibuya Station. And there was the same story in England too. There was a movie on that too."
"Oh really? So we met there by the Hachiko statue. I had about a hundred yen left and he made me spend it on a can of coffee so that I'd be completely broke in Tokyo. It was just too cool not to do. And then he took me to this woman's home and this small building he'd made that attached to the house. It was for her daughter. There was no husband. It took me a few days. And I mudded and painted it. Hmmm - the sheet rocking was mostly done. I just had to finish it. The lady was so nice. She was always bringing me tea and goodies. And her daughter was awful. She'd come home from school and yell and scream at her mother who would cry and submit. It was like one of those things you read about in the paper here. I don't know about now but back then I knew a therapist in Tokyo who specialized in helping battered parents and he said it was a major problem. Anyway, Red paid me for doing that. He was doing her a favor and me a favor. Quite a guy."
"Yes, he's always helping people."
I reminded Kenji about how when we'd first met I was reading Bud Hopkin's Intruders about alien abduction and how I'd told Red about it because I was really amazed at what I was reading. I said I didn't know if it was true or what, but it was fascinating. He said he'd never heard of that but he'd seen a flying saucer once. He was in a cabin near Lake Tahoe in California and he heard on the radio that a flying saucer had been seen in his area so he went outside and he said he found himself standing looking at a flying saucer that had landed, just sitting there in a clearing not far away. And then it took off. I asked him what he did then and he said he went back inside. Then I asked him if he noticed the time when he went back in, and he said excitedly, "How did you know? Several hours had passed!" I said that Hopkins had also written another book on alien abduction called Missing Time and that one thing that people had in common who claimed to have had these experiences was that they hadn't remembered them at first but had noticed periods of missing time and then had had recovered memories of the details spontaneously or through hypnosis. Of course the whole thing was widely debunked but I liked the stories. The next day he was really mad at me for telling some people at C&F about what he'd said. I told him that he'd openly talked about writing a book that had been dictated to him in dreams by a rabbit and so I hadn't thought that he would mind. He did. And he didn't want to talk about it anymore. I told him that that was another thing that people with these memories had in common. They get accused of telling these stories to get publicity when they're just seeking help and it's painful for them to talk about. Also, I said, they tended to move to large cities and surround themselves with people and they had personality profiles of trauma victims, of Hiroshima survivors.
Kenji said that he wouldn't tell Red that I'd reminded him of this.
To digress further, I told another fellow around C&F of what I was reading and he borrowed the book and was livid the next day about how it explained what he had thought were dreams. He said he'd had these totally real memories that he thought must be dreams of being in a shining room with little weird humanoids all around him and him on a table naked with a monstrous and throbbing and painful hard-on and how some almost human female with large breasts would come in and sit on his erect member and how he'd ejaculate vulcaniously into her. Wow. Amazing what a little book can do. I got weird dreams from reading it but I forgot it. Japan was so engrossing and I got into the people and culture and language so heavily that I forgot all this.
Kenji stood up saying, "Let's go inside." And then as we approached the condominiums he asked me, "Are you afraid of dogs?"
"That's a strange question," I said, puzzled. "Why do you ask that?"
"Red is afraid of dogs."
"What do you mean, Red is afraid of dogs?"
"What makes you think so. That sounds not quite right."
"I've got a dog and Red is afraid of it."
"Well he's probably got a reason. I mean, I doubt if he has a phobia about all dogs. I'll bet he's just afraid of your dog."
"No, I don't think so. My dog's old and sweet. There's nothing to be afraid of. But Red was afraid of him."
"Huh," I sort of grunted. "Hmm." I hmmed thoughtfully.
"Are most Americans afraid of dogs?" he said half-joking, evoking memories of our repartee.
"No no, not at all. I mean, some are - especially new-comers that aren't used to a culture where dogs that are trained right are so common. Americans in general love dogs. I have a wonderful boxer named Lola."
"Boxers are fine dogs."
"I walk her all over the town where I live, well, where I used to live, and so many people would say hi to her. People would stop their cars and come over to say hi to her. Women especially loved her."
"Ah, did you pick up women with your dog?"
"Noooo," I said with a scolding tone. And then, "Ummm, welllll. Maybe once. I mean I guess I wanted it to work out that way more than it did. But people were really just interested in her, not me. I used to say she was the most popular person in Sebastopol."
"Come on up, I'll introduce you to Sachi."
"OK. Anyway, no I'm not afraid of dogs.
And we walked into the lobby of his attractive building. It had a good, solid feel to it and wasn't the sort of ugly box-like architecture I see so often in Japan. In Japan and the rest of Asia. I guess it's everywhere. We went up the stairs a flight and into his condo. He showed me the guest room. It had been their daughter's room. She was grown up now. It was small and neat and the bed looked great - really fluffy and full of pillows and stuffed animals. I followed him back out to the hall. He opened the door to the living room. I knew it was the living room because the door was a full length thick pane of beveled glass framed with polished wood. To the left was a small kitchen. Japanese are totally into food and spend a lot of time in the kitchen - the women more but the men too - however the kitchens tend to be small and they usually don't have big ovens and usually not big fridges. Do they know how to make food though - lots of different types of food in those small kitchens. I looked around thinking things like this while Kenji went over to the kotatsu, a large square low table with a generous quilt over it and heater underneath that I imagined we would soon sit under and pass the evening reminiscing and philosophizing and making each other laugh. The room was fairly cool so the kotatsu would be the spot.
Kenji had pulled the quilt up and was looking under it. "Wake up Sachi," he called in a sweet soft voice. Oh yes, the dog. It would be nice to relate to a dog. I miss Lola, I thought and pictured her loving, slurping face. "Come out Sachi," he said while fishing his hand around under the cover. Then he stood back and a dog came out slowly, sleepily, groggy, a mottled black and white and gray - umm, mutt, maybe an Australian Shepherd or part Australian Shepherd. He did look old. Old and harmless. Sachi turned his head up at Kenji.
"What a nice little dog," I said.
The dog turned to look toward where the voice came from, toward me. He was still waking up. Then I saw in his widening eyes the sign of recognition that there was someone else in the house, a stranger in the house. Suddenly he came to life, his eyes were honing in on me.
"Hi there," I said in a sweet high voice. Dogs like, maybe animals like, sweet high voices which convey love and friendship and no harm.
Sachi didn't seem to be moved by my sincerity though. He was looking at me as if I were a threat, something foreign and evil. Immediately he charged barking.
Horror erupted in me as this grizzly old canine came snarling right up to my shins. There he stood and bared his teeth in a most convincing and viscous demonstration of beastly animosity. "Nice doggy," I said weakly.
"This is Sachi," Kenji said while I tried not to radiate fear. But this dog did not adjust to me. He continued to bark loudly and snarl and, again, to bare his teeth. He was right on me. I was still as a statue and tried to breathe slowly and remain calm. That wasn't easy because this dog meant business and he seemed to definitely be on the verge of taking a dedicated bite out of me.
I've been around dogs a lot of my life, nothing unusual, and I've had my share of threatening canine experiences, but few like this. Bali - that was the worst. I would get surrounded by packs of barking dogs there. I remember the Lonely Planet guide to Bali called one village the miserable mangy howling dog capitol of Bali. Once I had to call out for help (which I knew how to do in Indonesian, though I suppose the tone of voice is universal and any word would have done - I guess I could have called "Radiator! Radiator!") and a man came out of a house and led me to safety. "But," as I told my Balinese friends, "they don't bite." "Oh yes they can," I'd be told every time. They told me to squat down and be still when that happens. I thought of squatting down with Sachi and vetoed that right away - better to leave the legs as the only target. He looks like he'd bite my face off.
"You're not afraid of him are you?" Kenji asked calmly.
"Good lord, Kenji," I said with a deeply troubled and incredulously questioning inflection in my voice. "Please get your dog off me."
"He's alright. Don't worry about him," he said as if there was nothing unusual happening. Sachi hadn't paused from his incessant and determined snarling, full throated barking, and convincing saliva dripping tooth show.
"No he's not alright. He's being highly hostile."
"He just needs to get used to you."
"Oh I hope he does that real quick."
"It will just take about fifteen minutes."
"Fifteen minute?!" I exclaimed without moving or making too loud my voice as Sachi continued, unabated, to vent at my feet. I couldn't take it anymore. "Kenji, get this dog away from me right now!"
"He's okay. Don’t' worry. It just takes a little time."
"No! Now! Now! Get him away now!" I continued to insist in the most adamant terms that he get his dog away from me but Kenji was not being obedient. He just continued to smile and said not to worry - just wait. We were in two separate universes. Mine was one of fear of imminent attack and his was one of no problem. I felt like Jeffrey Dahmer was upon me with dinnerware and his mother was telling me what a good boy he is.
"I thought you said you weren't afraid of dogs," he said.
"I'm not afraid of dogs that aren't trying to attack me," I said, under attack. "But I don't want to keep talking about this. You can't subject me to this. It's wrong, man. Come here and take him away now! Now!" Really, it just went on and on like this. Not a bad dream - a bad wake.
He repeated that I just had to wait fifteen minutes. I got more insistent. I used the most commanding and serious voice I could muster with him to get him to do something. He just stood there smiling. We were not communicating. The dog was getting only more snarly and barking only louder. Finally I got through to him by insisting as strongly as I could to take his attack dog in hand and get him away from me right "now!" I know it sounds like I'm repeating myself unnecessarily, but really, it went on like this. Finally he did it. Ah my god he was holding him. Jesus, thank you. Buddha thank you.
"Okay, I'm going to leave the room now and you hold your dog."
He tried to say something about it not being necessary, that I could stay there with him and he said it with the same smiling no-problem face that he had maintained all along. I backed up slowly to the door. He continued to protest. I was more adamant than I am even saying and he was even more clueless than I can express. I opened the door and his dog pulled loose from his grasp. Quickly I slipped into the hall and slammed the door as the dedicated beast leaped into the air snarling at full blast and smashed against the glass at about genital height. Memories of Cujo danced in my head and I indeed was relieved to be on the other side. Cujo, I mean Sachi, continued to smash into the glass in a frenzy trying to get at me. I was engulfed in waves of diminishing fear and increasing relief and held the knob till I was sure he couldn't get through. Kenji just looked puzzled, like he didn't perceive what was happening at all, like he was experiencing a completely other scenario, like his dog was trying to lick me and was looking at me with big doey eyes. But what I continued to see was a crazed monster bent on destroying the being before it. And that being was me.
I took the few steps needed to go into the guest bedroom and closed the door and stood by it breathing heavily. I was safe. For now. In a moment it started to open. I pushed it shut and held it firmly. Kenji asked if he could come in. I asked if his dog was in the living room. He said yes. I asked if the door to the hall was firmly shut. He said yes. I considered the variance in our perception of reality and considered asking more questions. In the background I could hear high-pitched frenetic barking. It did sound like it was on the other side of the closed glass door. I thought of The Silence of the Lambs and wondered if I had stumbled on a truly unwanted situation where I was to be bound and tossed into a pit so that his dog could tear away at me in a feeding frenzy. No. Probably not. I mean, I thought, I've learned something new about Kenji but he's probably not a psycho killer. Slowly I opened the door, peering out to make sure the door to the living room was shut. It was. Sachi saw my head and revved up the intensity of his barking and smashing at the glass door. I let Kenji in and closed the door and sat on the bed.
"I thought you weren't afraid of dogs," he said. Again.
"Please don't say that again. Listen," I said firmly, "That dog is a menace. He's not properly socialized to be with people. To not be afraid of that dog would be unnatural. It would be crazy."
He kept saying that it would only take fifteen minutes for him to get used to me. I said that that might be true but I wasn't going to find out, that I wasn't going to spend another second in a room with him. I said that I had some experience with training dogs, reading about them, hearing about them on the radio, I'd even taken Clay to a booksigning by a dog expert. He said that one instance of a dog snarling at a person was unacceptable, that a dog can't be with people or other dogs unless it absolutely doesn't show signs of hostility and that Kenji's dog obviously looked quite ready to do more than show signs. I said he should read about socializing dogs - there's lots on the Internet or in books. "Any book on dogs will tell you that this isn't acceptable." I said he had the worst case of dog owner's denial I'd ever seen and I even told him that Sachi should be put to sleep. Nothing fazed Kenji.
"Okay," I said. "Let's look at it this way. It's my fault - not yours or Sachi's. My fault. I'm sorry. I apologize. Please forgive me. If I was better with dogs, if I was willing to put up with that for fifteen minutes, I imagine you're right that she'd get used to me and I wouldn't get attacked. But unless I was making money off it, say on Reality TV or Jackass, I wouldn't do it. You've found my limit, my weakness, my failing with man's best friend."
Kenji went back out and I lay down. In a moment he came back in and said that he'd tied Sachi up and begged me to come in and said for the umpteenth time that the dog would get used to me after a while. Finally, I agreed. We went back into the room and there was my stalker tied to a rope which was tied to a table leg. As soon as I got into the middle of the room he lunged at me. The rope caught him in mid air and he snapped back. He wasn't deterred. He kept leaping at me, a leap every few seconds. I backed out of the room again saying that I was afraid that he'd break the rope. Finally Kenji came into my room and said that he'd put Sachi in his bedroom. We went into the living room. We sat down. He started up some more conversation and eventually I had calmed down enough to hear what he was saying and be able to answer in a normal, relaxed way.
His wife came home. I'd met her once before but we had both forgotten. Kenji mentioned to her that the dog was in the bedroom because I was afraid of him and his wife asked me sweetly, "Oh, did he bite you?"
Did he bite me? She said that as if it were a normal occurrence like she'd said, oh did he bite someone again? It really had that feeling. No, I told her, I hadn't been bitten, but I did not want to be in the same room with that dog again. She laughed. It sounded like an old story. I wondered how on earth they could have had this dog so long and still have no sense of it not being a good idea to have it there with guests. Then I remembered that most Japanese don't entertain at home much at all. They do that in restaurants and coffee shops. The Shibatas might just have had an occasional Westerner in their condo. Maybe only Red and me.
After that everything went well. They weren't, thank buddha, I say after the previous days' binging, drinkers. But they had a bottle of wine. I drank more than half of it while we talked. She had none and he took little tiny sips from his and never even finished it. I envy that. She didn't speak any English and it was so great to get back into Japanese. She made a sumptuous dinner that my interior chemistry finally settled down enough to enjoy.
I gave Kenji a copy of Crooked Cucumber and another of To Shine One Corner of the World. He said that Shin had indicated that I wanted Kenji to help get them translated and published. I said I'd talked to Shin about that a few times before and I'd be happy to see that happen but that was not the reason I came to see him. And Shibata is a translator who translates from English into Japanese so there was definitely the business angle but I wouldn't hold my breath. Japanese publishers aren't real wild about books on Buddhism by Westerners and I didn't want to beat a dead horse. But someday the horse may rise.
Kenji showed me the web site of my ex-father-in-law, Rusty Schweickart, an Apollo 9 astronaut who has always been quite socially aware. I'd gotten to know him before I knew his daughter when he was head of the Energy Commission in the Jerry Brown administration in California which I also worked for for a time at a lower level. When I was with the Nuclear Freeze he was a great help. I didn't even know what he was doing now. It was terrific.
Rusty had gathered together some of the top experts in the world to discuss the subject of protecting the earth from unacceptable strikes from asteroids. Kenji showed me an article in the Scientific American that Rusty, along with two colleagues, had published on the subject - one of them writing from the International Space Station. Asteroids are one of the only things, aside from accidental nuclear war between Russia and the US, that to my mind could wipe out the human race. This project took a approach to dealing with this threat. It's called the B612 Project, named after the asteroid that the Little Prince was on. They were proposing that we scan the skies more thoroughly to detect these rare menaces so as to have enough advance warning to land unmanned spacecraft on them which, using frequent yet gentle thrusts, would steer them off course so that they don't hit us. This could be done without spending a hell of a lot of money and using existing technology. Nothing much is being done about this right now by our government or any other government, which is/are supposed to be protecting us. Typical. For more info go to http://www.b612foundation.org/ which concisely states their purpose as to "Significantly alter the orbit of an asteroid in a controlled manner by 2015" and which states in large letters, "We need to act now... and you can help."
Months later Rusty briefed his grandson, my 13 year old son Clay, about the B612 project, we read the article together and the web site, and Clay made a large four page booklet with pictures on it and gave a fifteen minute presentation to his seventh grade science class. How neat.
I told Kenji of my attempts to locate concert pianist Minoru Nojima and he got on the phone and soon I had heard a message from dialing the number of Minoru's Tokyo agency. I decided not to leave a message in return. I'd tried hard to find Minoru on this brief trip and knew I would be able to call the number and find him as easily from America as from Japan. [I'll tell more about Minoru and my efforts to find him later.]
So the evening went well and I was glad I hadn't totally blown it and started screaming at Kenji which I was on seriously the edge of doing, or running off into the night as I'd also come close to doing. No, I kept my cool, well, my relative cool. I told them that the whole thing was movie quality, reminiscent of scenes I've seen where someone goes into a home and the host saying something offhand about Poopsy being overly friendly and then the guest being charged and downed in a flash by a growling Doberman. We all chuckled about it. Then I said that I knew Kenji was going to tell people that I was afraid of dogs, probably that all Americans were afraid of dogs, and that was okay, that was his right because I said I believe in freedom of speech, but that I had some revenge of my own in mind for what they'd subjected me to and we all chuckled some more. In fact, we passed a lot of the evening laughing.
They asked what I wanted for breakfast and I said that I had an early meeting in Shinjuku and would be off at daybreak and not to bother with me anymore. I awoke at the first sign of light in the sky and went off wearing my backpack, relieved when I'd shut their front door securely behind me. I walked for a couple of hours in the semi-rural setting of this Tokyo outskirt until I found the train station and was soon off on the rails with pleasant memories of Kenji and his wife but decidedly uncharitable ones about their most beloved companion whom I was most grateful not to have gotten to know better.
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