Sunday, October 9, 2011

The After Shock

On March 11, Japan's coast moved 8 feet, shifting the earth's axis. NASA claimed the 9 magnitude quake shortened the day by 1.8 microseconds. I don't have scientific research to back my claim, but from March 12, the days felt 1.8 hours longer. Exhilarated to be alive and grateful to count my blessings, adrenaline was running on over-drive. I rose long before the Rising Sun. Next, my daughter woke. We all made contact: Bob was okay, and would probably make it home somehow (despite grounded train lines) within 24 hours. At least our axis, that family side in the big picture of our own little earth, felt centered. I set myself in motion, all sights set on shifting the axis back to its conventional setting, launching into a normal "day in the weekend life" of mother and child.

Normalcy would be a long time coming.

We had plans to go on a day ski trip up north with another family from kindergarten. Nobody on the east side of the country was going through with plans they made for March 12, although I'm sure everybody had some form of to-do pencilled in that square of the no frills wall calendar. Transportation heading north was crippled, ski lifts toppled, and it turned out the site, along with a list of hundreds of other entertainment venues, never reopened that season. For the day, I wasn't glued to disaster footage on TV, nor focused on the unfolding nuclear crisis. Unintentionally, I isolated myself in our suddenly choked off environment, and attempted to create make-shift fun for a 6-year old who had a full of frills countdown Hello Kitty calendar to her first ski lesson. The quake knocked that calendar from the fridge magnet, shuffling it around the floor by then, so she wasn't concentrating on it anymore either, yet that didn't quench my strong desire to fix something on that chilly Saturday.

We made breakfast, loaded the car, and headed out. Destination: movie theater? I'm almost embarrassed typing that now. I am aware of how absurd and frivolous the notion is, but everything from seismic plates to mindsets was shaken up. We were out of place in our own lives. Aftershocks kept coming, from quick jolts to long trembles, though we were shaky anyway. We felt like we'd just gotten off a long, choppy boat ride, so it was easy to lose track of which were real tremors, and which were what became dubbed as "地震酔い, earthquake sickness."March 11, before 2:46pm at any rate, marked the opening weekend of the latest Disney movie, Tangled. Shobu and Hanyu are the two theaters in our area, centered in sprawling city in itself style shopping malls. As we approached the Shobu parking lot, we greeted the first eerie reality of the day after. Empty. In Japan, it's typically a one car in, one car out of the parking lot policy. It was deserted, the entire shopping mecca closed. The flashy, bustling, crowd-pleasing mall with more than 300 shops, restaurants and arcades vacated. I flashed back to a scene in National Lampoon's Vacation. But this was no comedy. It was the innocent attempt of trying to bring my child to a kids' movie, that suddenly turned into feeling like we were starring in a suspense thriller. We drove on to Hanyu, the next mall, only to discover the same "horror" scene replayed.

By now, though still only mid-morning, we've driven enough distance looking for "escape" entertainment that we need to fill up on gas. The roads were abandoned, and it felt as strange as it did comforting that the one pump stop we stumbled on was attended. Little did I realize that would be my last gas-up opportunity for nearly a month.

We stopped at a 7-11 to pick up some snacks to head to a park. The lights were dim, the shelves bare, and the concrete reality -- unlike the road side concrete damage lining the sidewalks -- was piecing together. Arriving at that park we found comfort near another mom standing on the sidelines trying to give her kids the same "run around break" I was. I wasn't completely conscience of it yet, but that hallow, jet-lagged sense began overtaking my bones. It didn't matter, and it couldn't be a priority for months. Hana latched on to the 2 little girls as they dove into a game of tag -- up and down a hill, rolling from the top to the bottom, making up new rules along the way. I joined in once in awhile, just to fake "losing" long enough to keep their play fresh. I chatted with the other mom. We talked about the moment, its impact, and questioned what was to come. I mentioned the picked over convenience store, asking her if she found the same. She concurred: It was ominous, noting that locals must be stocking up for the big one with our area as the epicenter. Preparing for the big one? That wasn't the big one? Damage, lack of transport, electricity being down were contributing forces (I hesitate to use the axis of evil metaphor here), generating a demand in daily goods, and preventing any re-stocking on shelves. Yet I hadn't stopped to register her big-one reasoning until she candidly articulated it. With that, the innocent kids' game of freeze tag brought me to a stand still.

The next day gas stations had mile long lines ebbing the road. Eggs, milk, bread, toilet paper, bottled water, batteries, instant noodles, candles -- those overlooked items you take for granted -- were a part of our re-written recent history. Soon after, SOLD OUT signs replaced gas price lists at stations, and hand written apologies from store managers replaced goods on emptied grocery shelves. A few more days pass, and those hand scrawled signs were replaced with typed notices, indicating this was not a temporary situation. Paralyzed transportation shut down the in-roads, and the dire need in the hardest hit areas further north got any priority of remaining goods and services anywhere in the country. My exhaustion wasn't jet-lag, and it wasn't just a lack of sleep from the aftermath of events. We were in the midst of adjusting to living with a condition. Despite the relief of the 3 of us reuniting, semi-grounded and in good health, there was no returning to normal. We were breaking ground, learning along the way, how to pave a new normal.

The international media was adjusting its zoom lens on a potential "action" shot, an inevitable lava pool set to erupt in our path. Other networks were one step ahead, putting the final touches on a still life canvas of Japan. Over the next few days, the battle cry of foreign embassies rang out in procession. Non essential nationals should evacuate the Tohoku/Kanto regionn. The crisis surrounding the disabled Fukushima nuclear power plant was more than a mushroom cloud of unknown. France, Germany, and Ireland followed suit, with Canada and the US finally waving the red flag at the end of the pack. The image of the Tepco jumpsuit took center stage, with round-the-clock press conference updates from the sacrificial workers at the Dai Ichi plant, and representatives from the Tokyo Electric Power Company.

Lunch time, March 17. The phone rings. One of my closest friends, a "non essential" Irish expat, but essential to me, is on the other end of the line calling from her Tokyo home. I think we've spoken on March 17 for at least the past 15 years we've been connected in Japan. 2011 marked the first in our history that it wasn't a "Happy St. Patrick's Day" social call. Conflicted, she was in the midst of scrambling to get to Ireland that night. She'd cart two young boys across Tokyo to get to the airport with extremely limited, over-crowded transportation options. Her boys' schools, including the school where she worked, were all closing doors due to the triple crisis anyway, so she was going to shift her summer travel plans to March, yet this time without the usual vacation spirit. "Triple crisis" was one of the many merging catch-phrases, which in happier times was describing another patty on the burger. Language was changing as fast as life.

We, too, were at a crossroads (a sticky place to be when you're getting low on gas). We weren't exactly in Japan on short term contracts from the States, or even on the business trip formula that had a start, an end, complete with a one-way return ticket. We established careers at Japanese universities, and we have a daughter in the local school system. In spite of our blue passports, we are long-term, tax-paying, established-residents of a red passport nation. Our lives here would go on. But for now, the country was in mourning. Ceremonies were cancelled. There would be no traditional March graduations. Pomp and circumstance were inappropriate. Money for the banquets and flowers that go hand in hand with the celebrations were transferred into Red Cross donation accounts. And in place of graduation caps flying up in the air, flags would lower to half mast. Even cherry blossom season - the thousand-plus years old custom of festivals and parties, down to the ubiquitous portable karaoke machines and mobile Asahi beer kegs at all the parks and riverbanks in bloom, would be off for 2011. The display of cheer surrounding the sakura, (cherry blossoms) was replaced by chrysanthemum bouquets as grieving symbols at shrines. In the same way my fellow expat friends dropped the idea of annual green beer gatherings and leprechaun parades in Harajuku (Tokyo), nobody in Japan was focused on pink blossoms, celebrations or tradition.

But it was still March 17. It wasn't just post-disaster, mid-crisis, St. Patrick's day, or even just another Thursday. It was my husband's birthday. Traditionally, the non-surprise (he came to expect the doorbell to ring the dinner hour since his late 20s) was pizza, his favorite, the American classic. Japanese pizza, however, is the cultural opposite of his strict Pepperoni and "no funny business" (his words) pie order. To paint a deep-dish picture, octopus, mayonnaise, and broccoli, to name a few are hot selling toppings here. Therefore, his rigid pepperoni and cheese standard is a special order, and not special just because it would call for birthday candles for his "party." Instead, the take-out menu features a set list of pizza orders, complete with fancy titles and cutsie graphics. The only choices that come with the ordering experience are size (S, M, L) and crust (crispy vs. regular). Prices vary from roughly $20 (S) to $40 (L), and titles are equally as fancy as the photo and price would indicate: Teriyaki Chicken Deluxe, Pizza Purukogi, Tuna Mayo, Bomber Quarter, and Busters Quarter.

Although Japanese customer service is second to none, the drawback is that its consistency is so stringent that it causes a kind of a chaos that shakes the Richter scale to off the line-by-line manual they are trained to follow. Special orders are a foreign language. Thus, after years of dress rehearsals, we have adjusted to playing out their script, their way:

Pizza-La, may I take your order? (It's not a hint toward pseudo American style in the store name - that's pronounced LA, like singing La la la, not L.A. as in Southern California.)
I'd like a large, "Busters Quarter," regular crust, hold the potato, shoulder bacon, corn, sliced tomato, mayonnaise, teriyaki chicken, shrimp, squid, onion, and black pepper.

(That's the Japanese way of following the how-to menu, and leaving off everything to come down to ordering a plain-ol' pepperoni & cheese, thick crust.)

I see, that's, a large, "Busters Quarter," regular crust, with no potato, no shoulder bacon, no corn, no sliced tomato, no mayonnaise, no teriyaki chicken, no shrimp, no squid, no onion, and no black pepper.
Is that correct?
Yes, that's correct.
That will be $37.90 (After all we are paying for the whole Busters Quarter), and we'll have it to you within 30 minutes.

The usual script ends there.
Except under the circumstances, there is an add-on:

Very sorry. We have no mozzarella cheese. Or pepperoni-salami. Or crust.
What do you have?
We have some sliced cheddar. Mini wiener hot dogs. And I have a tortilla.
Okay. Turn that into a pizza, we'll take it.
That will be $37.90 (after all, we did order the Busters Quarter), and we'll have it to you within 30 minutes.

Add on number 2:

Very Sorry. There's a gas shortage, so the mopeds are grounded, and our deliverers are on pedal bikes. Please understand we can't guarantee delivery time.

The unusual script ends there.

We weren't leaving the country, but while we were waiting for our mini-hot dog-flat-burrito birthday pizza, we'd come to the decision that we'd at least escape the stress of the Kanto region for a few days, and instinctively made a call to a Japanese family we've been in contact with even before moving to Japan. The Hayashis were the host family to a college buddy of mine when she was an exchange student in a Japanese high school as a teen. We met the family at her Chicago wedding years later, and they have since become the closest comfort zone and "home-away-from-home-and-away-from-disaster-zone in our lives. It felt like the best "running to Mama away from Mommy" we could do to nurture our family spirit.

They live in the Kansai region, a little over 300 miles from our home, in the opposite direction of the epicenter and eventual nuclear meltdown site (the buzz word quickly moved from crisis to meltdown). We arranged to leave the next day, and with some evacuation plan laid, we had the rest of that evening to pack our essentials and embrace the small joy of someone turning a healthy 42 years-old. The most reckless party-behavior we engaged in over the next two hours was lighting a candle to compliment our "Happy Birthday" song. Not only were candles were a "hot" commodity, but they also served a greater emergency kit and blackout source dual purpose now. We gave it one choppy verse, and we sang fast.

Tickets in hand, we boarded an overbooked bullet train fist thing in the morning. The journey under normal conditions should be roughly 4 hours door-to-door. Yet with damaged infrastructure, a dwindling electrical supply, mass crowds and mass confusion, we clocked more than double that. We embraced the Hayashis upon arriving almost 9 hours later, as if it hadn't been over 7 years since we'd last visited, although nobody could pretend that the circumstances were the same as the previous trip. It was a few refreshing days of being away from the immediate zone, but certainly not a sejour from a problem that would be resolved in our absence. Rather, after an extended weekend of spending time with "family," breaking from mass media frenzy, and from the stress of the unknowns and un-understoods, we would return to the Kanto region to a new round of what ifs and what nexts.

Our daily newspaper now features a map of the Kanto region highlighting the daily cesium amount in the air, and how many microseverts per minute are being released in our area. Confusion over the new nuclear related vocabulary continued to mount, a lesson in words I never dreamed would enter my bilingual world. Knowing how to calculate the surface deposits of cecium in kiloecquerels per square meter in more than one language was never on my lofty list of goals, let alone a desirable boon as a resume-builder. Outdoors, expressways closed and were blocked with crime scene tape and manned by uniformed guards. The sound of low flying choppers overhead hummed through the neighborhood, making home feel like war zone. Dumping sites for debris, divided like paper and plastic on a recycled disposal day--into a pile for concrete blocks from roads and side walks, and another for neighborhood home roof tiles, popped up where cars formally parked. Even the subtle scenes of kids playing outside and futons airing out on balconies, continued to disappear.

A great deal of mis-information was oozing from the rumor mills surrounding the Fukushima plant. But the fact remained, the nuclear power plant was disabled, and scheduled rolling blackouts were kicking in. Tepco jumpsuits took over the familiar TV news anchors' crisp suited look, as they set the scene to warm us up to chilling announcement of cutting off our heat and shutting down the lights. We were glued to the TV to get the flash on the neighborhood assignments, streaming in writing across the bottom of the screen. Which train lines were running as well as their respective time tables were reduced and changed daily. The world-record-on-time Japanese transportation network they pride themselves on here was upstaged by a wait-and-see non precise process. However, pride was being redefined, and contributing to relief efforts was now the sole source of pride for the nation in desperate need.

Every neighborhood across the Kanto plain was divided into any number from 1 to 6 zones, and the time frame that you were to lose power changed daily. The blocks were 2 hours at a time, 2 times a day. Without complaint, people disconnected from their social networks, cable networks, heating, lighting and refrigeration, and re-connected with their neighbors. Community bonds firmed, and everyone worked in tandem: passing frozen goods across the zone boarders, dividing coveted goods such as batteries or lighters, and even hot baths. Splitting my time between the office and home due to different "zones" became one working strategy. I was following the flow of electricity while racing the clock between zone 2 and 4, while traffic lights were shutting down in my near gas-less wake. I daydreamed I was the star of the next Mission Impossible action thriller. Fortunately, hope and the nation's unity were powerful enough forces that the Mission would be Possible.

Without electricity or dependable transportation, many schools were either called off, running on limited hours around the blackout schedule, or with a come at your own risk (and dress warmly) clause. Hana continued to attend kindergarten during the hours it was up and running, if for no other reason to have some form of play, albeit restrained. Newsletters came home: "kids were under stress, uncharacteristic crying as well as "wetting" accidents were on the rise." The scheduled school day, however, meant eliminating the schedule. Planned field trips, end of school year parties, even the daily bus service was off. There was no gas supply, and festivities for a country in mourning could wait. Yet teaching the 5 to 7 year old crowd they "could wait" for their agenda was a hard-fast crash course that their Disney Princess and Toy Story kickers took in stride. Fortunately, I was still riding on that lucky juice of a half tank of gas from the day after the quake, so I loaded a cooler of juice boxes and took up driving some of the neighborhoods kids back and forth. As they road in an oddly hushed state, I was convinced the giggling was much more animated on their regular bus route, when days were "regular." Though the region called for a larger dose of patchwork to repair the quake damage, my imported care package stash of gooey Easter candy could provide some after-school boosts to keep them glued into some form of kid-like fun.

Back home, with 2 unfamiliar knocks on the door, the lady next door entered the entrance way, quickly kicking off her outdoor slippers and announcing herself. She cares for an aging husband full-time, and I rarely see her in the comings and goings of day to day life. Yet, day to day life was over on March 10, and though she barged in like the "busy body" neighborhood lady is portrayed in fiction, I was happy to see her welcomed her warmly. She received a shipment of a 4-pack of quail eggs from a relative on the west side of the country, and was eager to share. She reached out with one thumbed-sized egg with delicate handling, as if it was a fresh catch from the nest, ready to hatch. She popped out as quickly as she "broke" in, barely accepting the bow of a thank you. I looked down at the bite sized spotted gem for an extended half minute before I moved on. I held back for a minute from my usual sarcastic mindset surrounding food delicacies in Japan, which would have been immediately wondering how with this, with a cup of only available powered milk, well, what a sorry pancake I could make. Instead, I was transfixed in bigger meaning behind the catch of that single egg: at how, with that hand-off, she was reaching out with much more than a silly little quail offspring.

Stocking up on fresh perishables had been a non-option during those early weeks, yet I had a relationship as a regular at a Ma and Pa fresh produce shop in the city. Not expecting to load up on goods, I stopped in on a social call. They were grounded, although their store shelves toppled in disarray. The Ma had been waiting for me, and disappeared at first glance, re-emerging with a stash containing a quart of milk, a block of tofu and 10-pack of eggs. Attached was a post-it note with キャサリン (Kathryn) displayed in bold and beautiful Japanese lettering. When supplies were dwindling and among their damage they couldn't remain open for business, she put some staples to the side with me in mind, and calligraphy brush in hand.

During the ride home from that interaction, I could tune out the low flying choppers of the Self Defense Force. I didn't wonder what their mission was that day - whether or not they were transporting delegates to survey the damage, or transport medicine to the victims. For just 3 miles, I let the joy and the gift of the moment sink in. I loaded a CD in the stereo, opting not of the American Armed Forces radio network 24/7 up-to-date disaster information. I road in calm, without monitoring how much gas I had left, I just let go. I pulled in the car port, and greeted neighbors that were outside talking, exchanging water they were putting aside for the scheduled blackout 2 hours later. I approached as Santa with the big red sack. They accepted my offer without hesitation, ducking into their homes and back with containers. We were pouring milk into thermoses, dividing eggs, and scooping bite-sized chunks of tofu into mini tupperware, right in the middle of the street. Maybe we were more like kids on Beggar's Night, trading and exchanging our Halloween loot. I lost the memory of how I prepared that first round of fresh dairy post-quake, but the post it note is a keep sake representing a memory that will stay with me forever.

We were able to feed our bellies, next was trying to feed the tank. One Mobil gas station in the neighboring town started to open for limited hours, 12-2pm or until supplies ran out, limiting each customer to a flat $20 cash in advance rate. I joined the line, which turned out to be 90 minutes of inching up one at a time. (Others behind me didn't make it in the lot that day, they'd line up the next day.) Cars filed toward the entrance in neutral, savoring the limited supplies they had, while volunteers pushed as we slowly inched up closer to the pump. The receipt was pre-printed, with an eloquently worded tag line apologizing for not offering usual services such as windshield cleaning, checking oil, or cleaning out ash trays. The attendants appeared as drained as the pumps, handing the "note" to the customer, saving themselves from further depleting their "only human" energy levels with explanations.

A cold week later, kerosene was rationed back, and I returned to that trusty Mobil station with our orange tanks in the trunk.

During the cold months, kerosene carrying trucks circle the neighborhoods on a regular rotation (Thursdays and Sundays for us), blaring a peppy tune like a mid-summer ice cream truck. The pep was out of step as much as the trucks were out of gas. News of the few stations that acquired enough supplies to sell to non commercial customers on a bring-your-own-tank basis rippled fast. Again, it was a bumper to bumper approaching the station. The difference this time was cars collecting kerosene were unable to enter the lot. They still had 2 hour lines to get in for a tank of gas, so if you were there to get kerosene, Mobil arranged a deal with the 7-11 across the street to use their parking lot. 7-11 had been lonely since they sold out of staples 10 days prior, so they must have welcomed the action. They welcomed it like turkey on Thanksgiving, really. They were handing out bowls of oden, which is a hodge podge kind of soup, a dish popular in winter, while you were waiting for your turn to cross the street to get your tanks filled. When my bowl was empty and my "number was up," 2 men followed me across the street and carried my load after I filled up as far as the traffic light. When the light turned green, they passed my tanks along the human conveyer belt of heavy lifting hands to volley it back to my mini Honda in the 7-11 lot. It was a Norman Rockwell type beauty, like the Boy Scout walking the "little old lady" across the street. When the light turned red, the volunteer transporters retreated in quick step to the closest side of the road and stood at attention until the next green light.

Following kerosene, other necessities slowly re-emerged, and grocery stores introduce new policies. A bell would ring at 10am and 4pm. Customers lined up for a 1 per family per day supply of eggs, fermented beans, or a quart of milk. Store lighting was dim or off, refrigerator and freezer sections were rationed for energy. Background music, such "frivolous luxuries," shut off. There was little we could do to help the affected areas with their survival, but pinching where we could, and reaching out to each other to share what we had, became a pro-active recovery tactic. Escalators and elevators remain off, but train stations re-opened with limited service. Productivity in the workforce, consumerism, all of the key factors that make advanced nations tick remained off-kilter, but despite the lights going dim and the peppy music going silent, people seemed to welcome the idea of heading off to work, of getting involved in volunteer disaster relief efforts, of doing anything that contributes to rebuilding a country that a few weeks prior may have even been considered an over-developed nation.

Seasons changed the annual tropical rain front set in and lifted, as we braced for the oppressive heat. Summers in Japan see (and feel) many days over 100 degrees, with humidity factors as relentless as the still on-going aftershocks. The threat of more rolling blackouts was in the thick, wet air. The jumpsuits reappeared as the government regulated power use for companies, public facilities and schools, requiring cut backs of 15-25% power usage. The daily weather report initiated a "peak power use" forecast for the following day, based on the prediction of when A/C use would be in highest demand. Households were gently warned to refrain from any "extras" during that time: using the microwave, vacuum, washing machine, or iron -- any of that domestic glamour that could wait.

Air conditioning thermostats were regulated to 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), which is not an ideal cool setting. Hand fans returned in style, and retailers scrambled to create new clothing lines, professional sweat-free, breathable looks. New tricks and trinkets came on the market, and any item that stimulated the economy while cooling down the body was a justified purchase.

The Cool Biz campaign started years ago, when the Kyoto Protocol kick-jumped companies into saving energy in order to reduce the impact of global warming. The unwritten suit and tie dress code during the warm months at work places eased. The image of then Prime Minister Koizumi modeling a Hawaiian shirt at a press conference is still strong. Yet, summer 2011 brought the birth of Super Cool Biz, which really sounds like the Prime Minister (already a position change once since 3/11 from this writing) should don a cape. Honestly, we need to embrace the fantasy of a superhero sweeping the country from disaster and rubble.

The movie theater would re-open with limited (day of only) scheduling, fewer screens available, in order to save power and to maintain safety checks. There were no guarantees that they could even maintain the "day of" listings, since a strong aftershock would shut down the system, offering no refunds. I did get to take my daughter to see Disney's Tangled, a month before Tokyo Disneyland recovered enough to open the entire park. On film, Rapunzel was saved. I couldn't help but look at the heroine's tower, less as a dungeon-like trap, but more as a protective fortress from a tidal wave. Either way, it was a happy ending, and a great flash of hope in our day too.

In the peak of the August heat, we did make a brief trip back to Ohio. For the three of us, it was the summer recess period from school and teaching, and we would temporarily leave a country that had no "recess" from rebuilding. We would take a break to visit our State-side families, while surviving families were still living in non air-conditioned evacuation centers: former high schools and public gymnasium floors. However, boarding a plane didn't dismiss us from our experience. We flew through a brief electrical storm, and turbulence kicked in, shaking the cabin somewhat, rattling the bottles from the attendants' carts slightly. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I was half conscience of it, but it was that lingering "earthquake sickness."

Seven months have passed since the day, and I will be carrying the memory of March 11 for a lifetime. I am not a hoarder, but I saved the キャサリン (Kathryn) post-it note, the receipts from the Mobil gas station, and now the Tangled movie ticket stubs. The keepsakes feel like the inspirational notes, or simple reminders that people leave around for themselves when they need a pep talk. A quail egg here, a quart of milk there, a tank of kerosene here, and a cinema memory there, to me all added up to a personalized four leaf clover. I'm happy to drop the memory of the moment of 2:46pm, 3/11/2011, but I welcome the idea of hoarding the lessons learned and experiences lived in the aftermath since that instant, to follow me for life.