Friday, December 31, 2010

Burning Bright

The Year of the Tiger is just about gone. I count it as the year when I entered middle age, not exactly a welcome thing but one that was inevitable. It has been a fairly good year, all things considered, with roughly as many ups as downs; I've always known that you need valleys to be able properly to appreciate mountains, so I can't really complain.

I have reestablished contact after a very long time with at least one highly valued old friend this year, and that makes up for a lot of the less happy surprises I encountered.

Blake's The Tiger is from his Songs of Experience while The Lamb is from Songs of Innocence. Most of my innocence is far behind me, but I'm looking forward to lots more experience in the year to come, and--with any luck--many years ahead. I've pretty much always valued experience over innocence, anyway.

I hope the past year has been good for you.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Saved from the Flames

Stories in the news about house fires are depressingly frequent in Japan, and it seems as if they usually involve deaths. I don't think that this is due to less reporting of fires that don't result in death or injury; there are plenty of reports of fires that only do property damage, but I get the impression that a disproportionate number of fires are deadly. Since many of the victims are children, it was particularly gratifying to hear about a fire in which all four children survived.

Personally, I think that it was extremely irresponsible of the parents to go out leaving such young children unattended, and that they are very, very fortunate even though they have probably lost most or all of their possessions. I can certainly understand the desire of a couple in their mid-20s to go out together once in a while without the kids. There aren't a lot of places where a young couple can bring along kids aged 2, 3, 5, and 6 and enjoy themselves more than the kids do, even if you ignore the near-certainty that caring for the kids is going to make the outing more of a chore than a joy.

Since this couple went out at 10 in the evening and hadn't returned by midnight when the fire broke out, I think it's likely that they went our for a drink (it seems too late for pachinko, another common reason for leaving children unattended). I don't know anyone in drinking establishments, whether staff or patrons, who can honestly say they like having little kids around. Some people make polite noises and perhaps comment on the kids' cuteness, but I believe that nobody in a bar thinks kids really belong there, and it's absolutely certain that noone thinks the kids are as cute as their parents do...particularly when the kids get bored or tired and start whining, crying, and running around. Only the most oblivious of parents can fail to notice that, really putting a damper on their social life.

In Japan, at least in big cities, getting a baby-sitter isn't generally a viable option for parents who don't have relatives living nearby, either, particularly late into the evening. Adult neighbors typically want neither the responsibility nor the aggravation, and teenagers don't generally have that much free time. There are cultural/social issues with paying non-professionals for such services, too, and with their accepting pay. And obligations incurred must be repaid, one way or another. There's also a certain amount of social stigma attached to leaving one's children with "a stranger"--even a neighbor or friend--even assuming one could find a willing one and wasn't worried about repaying the favor.

So I can understand, but not condone, the desire of the young parents to go out leaving their kids alone but apparently asleep, thinking that they'd be safe by themselves for a few hours.

Unfortunately, Japanese homes aren't that safe, particularly from fire.  There are numerous reasons for this. Small, often cluttered homes that are either built of or filled with flammable material are the rule rather than the exception. Many homes--although well-stocked with electronic gear and appliances--have inadequate power supplies and insufficient or inconveniently placed wall outlets; this leads to lots of extension cords and multiple-plug taps, often stuffed behind or under furniture, and even if there's no short circuit from damaged wires, the heat buildup can cause fires. Particularly in winter, when the humidity in much of Japan is very low, fires tend to start easily and spread quickly. Ventilation tends not to be very good, heaters--especially older ones--are often not particularly safe, and escape routes are rarely wide or unobstructed even if smoke inhalation hasn't already removed escape as an option.

A building fire alarm, and presumably a (still relatively unusual in private homes) smoke detector that triggered it, combined with a neighbor both awake and alert, managed to avert a much greater catastrophe than this fire could have become. The kids were saved from the flames, and I'm very happy to see it. I hope that the news
will motivate at least a few parents to reconsider when they think about leaving their kids alone in the house, even for a short while.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Up in Smoke

For the first time in quite a long time--like several years--I attended a meeting of the Tokyo PC Users Group, a group in which I used to be quite active. I've been the president of the group, and the VP, and I was the editor of the newsletter for seven years, too. Back in the old days, I had a lot of fun and learned a lot as a member of the group, and it was pleasant to show up again at their meeting held in the basement hall of of the Tokyo Union Church and speak with some of the old friends with whom I've not had much chance to interact for quite a long time.

The inducement to attend was a presentation by Hugh Ashton on independent publishing. It was a very informative and potentially useful presentation, especially interesting because I've read both of his books that he used as examples: Beneath Gray Skies and At the Sharpe End.

It's a long-standing post-meeting tradition to walk down Omotesando  to Shakey's Pizza and continue conversations begun at the meeting over pizzas and pitchers of beer, and in the old days the more valiant--or foolhardy--would, after being ejected from Shakey's at closing time, walk back behind the building to a complex of bar/restaurants that included a branch of the Tex-Max Zest chain where one could investigate a variety of tequilas or just eat nachos and guzzle margaritas.  Once upon a time, we'd go to to an old favorite of mine in the complex, Zenon, where they kept a half dozen bottles of Freixenet Cordon Negro just for me, with which to chase the Myers's rum they also kept on hand for me and my friends. Zenon vanished with the bubble, pretty much, but Zest lasted a long while, as did Oh, God!, an odd little billiards bar that showed movies every night, and a so-so Cajun restaurant/bar upstairs called--unaccountably--La Haina. It wasn't uncommon for the hardiest of the crew to drink and talk until it got light outside...and since the TPC meetings are usually on the first Thursday of the month, that meant an interesting Friday work day.  But we were all somewhat younger then.

I arrived in Omotesando much too early for the meeting, and was dismayed to find that Zest--and indeed the entire restaurant complex--had disappeared and been replaced by an amazingly ugly glass and steel building housing, as nearly as I can tell, a place selling something called "Gorilla Perfume".

Even Ozymandias's legs had been done away with; no trace of the former character-soaked building remained. I had really been looking forward to a tequila or two, while trying to recover from my first actual viewing of the absolutely execrable "Omotesando Hills"...they replaced historic, interesting old apartments with a huge complex of shops which look from the outside like the world's largest construction site prefab workers' quarters. At night, lit up, they go from terminally bland to remorselessly garish, and I sincerely hope that they--and the architect who inflicted them on Tokyo--are relentlessly haunted by baleful, unforgiving ghosts forever moaning and mourning for the days when some vestiges of good taste still remained in the area.

After the meeting, I was looking forward to at least the hour or two of beer, pizza, and conversation, just like old times...until I found that Shakey's has, for the month of December, and for the sake of those customers who enter the place to gaze at the illuminated ginkgo trees lining the street outside, made the entire restaurant into a no-smoking zone. This means, to me, that they don't want my patronage, so I declined to enter. I won't be going back when they change their policy back, either. In fact, since I don't care for the attitude behind the policy, you won't find me in a Shakey's anywhere, ever again.

The remainder of the evening was salvaged (somewhat) by Michael Wright, who suggested we hike a bit further and visit a local branch of a taproom selling craft beers. The place started in Numazu, and I'd heard of their branch in Naka-Meguro. I confess that their excellent ales seduced me to stay for more than one even though they, too, turned out to have a no smoking policy. They at least have an ashtray outside the door...if not for that, I wouldn't even have mentioned the place (nor stayed for more than one beer, maybe not even one). I see no need to provide a link for them if they won't provide a smoking space for me, though, other than outside in the rain, so if you're interested, you can search for them yourself.

It seems that Omotesando has been added to my list of places to which I can never return, because they have become something too different from what I remember.