Thursday, October 19, 2017

Tokyo Rain

When I was a teenager and trying to learn about Japan, other cultures, and different ways of thinking, I read a Zen parable referred to as "The monk and the strawberry".

In this parable, a monk is out walking when he encounters a hungry tiger. As he backs away from the tiger, he finds he is now on a cliff outcropping with nowhere to go. As the tiger approaches, he stumbles over the edge, grabbing a vine. Hanging from the vine, he notices two mice, one black and one white, nibbling at the vine. Contemplating his fate -- tiger or vine -- he sees a single strawberry growing nearby. The monk plucks the strawberry. The story concludes "how sweet it tasted!"

At the time, I thought it was absurdist.

Today it is raining in Tokyo.

Most people will tell you this is a story about "enjoying the moment", or how one can find beauty even in the most dire circumstances. 20 years ago, I would have said "yes, clearly, that is what the story is about."

I spent the day in meetings, with colleagues old and new, catching up, working on plans, celebrating, griping. The things one does in business meetings.

Interspersed were visits to a conference room reserved as a workspace for my group. But I was the only one there, and in the hot, electrical office air, I gazed at the plastic chairs, cables, whiteboards and marveled in a jet-lag trance at the blankness and emptiness of it all, as my fingers clicked away on my laptop.

Last night, returning to the hotel after a delicious ramen dinner, our female cabdriver concluded transit by handing each of us a small berry-shaped candy as she thanked us for riding with her. A perfectly kawaii detail.

As I pocketed the candy and entered the hotel, I thought of the parable again.

A wise Zen writer argues the parable is about the opposite of what you think. It is, rather than being a celebration of "pleasure in the moment", a cautionary tale. "The moment's pleasure certainly dooms the monk through distraction. What an idiot [the monk is]." Life is danger and suffering, and forgetting that for a few moments of bliss is not a good or enlightened thing to do.

I think of the news. Whether at the public or personal scales, tragedy abounds. The world burns, and the air is choked with its ashes. And if it is not our homes burning, the smoke from others' gives us migraines. Death takes shots at the people we know. It misses some, grazes others, and takes the rest down.

I consider the conversation I had with a colleague over lunch, about how their attitudes about what "success" at their job meant had been changing. I indicated that mine had, too. As we talked, I wondered if I was just getting very good at justifying my own actions, or if I was actually learning something.

The rain pours down in Shinagawa. I step carefully across the wet gray stones of the plaza, trying not to slip.

Perhaps great ambition is a luxury afforded to those without fear, or those without knowledge of what they have to lose. Or those who think their actions will matter, in the grand scheme of things. Because they haven't yet met the tiger, or aren't yet hanging from the vine.

The fortune pinned to my board at work reads "Just to be alive is a grand thing."

I rub the sore spot on my face. Probably just a stone in my salivary gland. Getting older, I see the value of the things I have and the things I have lost. Everything about our lives is so fragile, so temporary. So imperfect. So perfect.

Tokyo is beautiful in the rain, and unseasonably cold.

In my jacket pocket, the berry candy rolls around in its plastic wrapper, uneaten.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Los Angeles, Like You

You remember this place. Los Angeles. You wonder if it remembers you. Cities should be able to do that, right? Seems fair. After all, you lived here for a lifetime. Paid taxes. Loved its streets and skies and parking spaces. Ate in its restaurants. Cried in its parks. Studied its outlines in the Thomas Brothers guide. Even played a few shows in its clubs.

Most of those clubs are gone now, and the rest practically museums. Your car drives you past the bleached bones of what was once the Coconut Teaszer [sic], en route to a meeting with a media-related agency doing business in the echoing carcass of the Directors Guild of America building. "Drive West on Sunset...". You think of Walter Becker's recent passing.

You look around. You've been up and down this part of town many times. It's hard to recognize now, with new construction, new facades, new tenants. Strangers replacing the buildings and businesses you knew, and the ghosts of their memories vanishing in the perfect fall gloom.

Your hotel didn't even exist 3 months ago, let alone 20 years ago. It's down the street from an old, storied Hollywood building. You used to go to that building for singing lessons, where David Gabriel gave you a voice and confidence. Long ago, too late. But you've still got that. You wonder where he is these days. You'd like to thank him.

The windows are dark. Maybe it's being redeveloped or re-sold. So many other places are. The Opium Den? Gone. You walk by its now-anonymous door, thinking of how many times you've found great parking here, waited in line, seen bands and met friends and went home buzzed and reeking of cigarette smoke. There was a time people could smoke in bars, until suddenly, overnight, that stopped.

Nearby Sunset still has some of the old landmarks, even if they've been rebranded for ridiculous dot-coms, news networks, or some kind of modern coffee/yogurt/spin class/boutique you can't quite figure out. A far cry from the all-but-endless strip malls. Everything used to look like an off-brand 7-11, and now it all looks like a cross between Virgin America and Starbucks, tasteful purple lighting and wood.

You wonder why coming back here makes you feel so melancholy, as you glance north towards the Hollywood Hills and Beachwood Canyon. You had some good times here, when the weather was just like this, the nights perfect for walking, laughing, getting one more drink, driving across town to see your friends play somewhere. Maybe it's just a reminder of how much older you are, and reinforces how fragile life is. You think of Tom Petty, gone too soon.

"Oh baby, don't it feel like heaven right now?
Don't it feel like something from a dream?
Yeah, I've never known nothing quite like this
Don't it feel like tonight might never be again?
We know better than to try and pretend..."

You sing to yourself.

It's funny. It's barely 10:30 pm. You notice as you're walking through the upgraded and renovated streets that most of the hip-looking bars, restaurants, and clubs are all but empty and/or closing. They all look nice -- much more expensive and richer than when you lived here, and yet, they're all turning in, closing for the night. Like you.

Is it that they have given up on the possibilities of the evening? Or that they just know better, because it's Wednesday night and everyone's got work in the morning and the weekend seems far away? Or is that just how they roll now, all early to bed and responsible and iron discipline and safety? Like you?

Hollywood Boulevard is still sketchy, between its higher-dollar outposts. You keep an eye out as you stroll on, stumbling over the cracks in the Walk of Fame. Your phone plays one of the last songs you wrote here. You think "this sounds better than I remember".

After dinner you found the CEO and told him that even though you hadn't worked closely together, you appreciated his efforts and thanked him. Surprisingly, he stood up, looked right into your eyes, and gave you a real, non-show-biz hug. Looking back at him, you had a brief flash that he, too, was evaluating his life here in L.A. as he considered his second act.

You pass the banks and the bars and closed clothing shops and loop around. Not really looking for anything, just enjoying being here for the moment. It's quiet and as beautiful as Sunset and Hollywood get between the day's heat and the relentless pummeling of the night's music. There were reasons you stayed here for as long as you did. And reasons you left.

No regrets. If anything, the opposite. But still.

You stand amidst the tangled, looping paths that make up the city's grid and consider how they took you where you wanted to go if you could figure them out, or got you lost, or left you fuming in traffic. Or brought you home. All those streets and vectors don't just outline the city, you think. Those roads, those choices, those outcomes, they are the city.

Thank you, Los Angeles, and good night.