Sunday, October 07, 2007

Nine Years

On October 7, 1998 at 1:04pm in the town of Brockport, county of Monroe, State of New York, my father dropped dead.

Nine years have passed. The details above are not etched in my brain, quite the opposite. I have a hard time remembering the date, let alone the time. To write this, I must refer to information printed on an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper. This paper, is sitting unfolded, three crease marks across its face, on my desk. The notary's seal is visible embossed into the fibers of the top third of the document. My desk, in my house, in the city of Misawa, prefecture of Aomori, the country of Japan. How far away I am from that day, from that world, even.

Not long after my father's death, as part of an art class, I did a project in the spirit of Joseph Cornell, consisting of Plexiglas boxes full of found and manipulated objects, literally trying to piece together an understanding of my father's death. I rummaged through the junk that accrues in the odd little drawers in one's house, went to flea markets, raided a then-boyfriends' (expensive) supplies for tying salmon and trout flies, scavenged wherever and whatever. I wasn't sure what I wanted to put in the boxes, but I knew what would go in when I saw it. But one thing I knew for certain, from the outset, was that most of all, I wanted to put copies (or pieces) of copies of my father's death certificate into these boxes.

So, breathless and heart-hammering, I called my mother on the phone, explained as much as I could and asked her to send me a copy of the official certificate. Imagine my surprise when the envelope from Florida arrived in the mail, containing not multiple xeroxed copies, but the original document, complete with notary seal. I had to sit down. My hands were shaking. It had all, suddenly become very real.

"Proof" was not only not what I expected, it was much less so. The paper hadn't the gravitas of my birth certificate. It lacked the heavy manila, ornate Gothic typeface and gold seal of my college diploma. It hardly even looked official, it was dumpy. Instead, the death certificate was bleary black ink on thin white office copy paper, the copy made slightly out of alignment, so that the edges weren't quite plumb. The form had been completed in a mixture of my brother's all-caps hand-printing and the straggly courier typeface of a government-office typewriter that had probably been in use since the Eisenhower administration. It was printed on the front only, 33 boxes to neatly categorize a messy, hard, funny, confused, under appreciated, drunken, stoned, angry, loving all-too-human life that had spanned 60 years.

It made me irate, all that flat black and white. It made me irate, those 33 little boxes that said everything about my father's death and nothing about his life. It made me irate to frightened and dismayed by a piece of paper.

My memory boxes were fairly large and deep, made of Plexiglas because it was cheaper and safer than glass. I filled my father's memory boxes with color: turquoise, crimson, ochre, silver, vermilion, saffron. I filled them with glass beads, river pebbles, little-girl glitter and puffy craft paint. I filled them with nuts, bolts, bits of fabric and duct-tape. A beer cap. Tobacco. I used fine silk thread, gossamer like spider webs and pieces of burlap and twine, shiny sheet metal, old skeleton keys and chicken bones. I used a copy of an article from my home-town paper, an article that made the front page--my father, lying unconscious next to a downed 1953 Harley Davidson--a wreck that almost killed him--almost made me never be.

I drank most of a very expensive bottle of whiskey while doing up the memory boxes (recalling my dad always drank cheap rotgut) and for the most part, I didn't even taste it. I got stoned off the epoxy used to fuse the edges of the Plexiglas into boxes. I glued my fingers together, got glue in my hair, I wrecked my favorite pair of jeans. In frustration, I smashed a box that wasn't working out the way I wanted to. I cut my hand doing so and I put the bloodied shards of Plexiglas back into another box. I took the finish off the varnished kitchen table, burnt a hole in the carpet. I fought with my boyfriend-at-the-time, who wouldn't, couldn't see the point of 120-pound watercolor paper smeared with glue, glitter, tears. I pulled twigs off of trees, I snipped off a chunk of my hair ( took three years to grow back in) and used that, too.

And I used copy after copy of the death certificate, enlarge, reduced, in its entirety, in torn and burnt bits and pieces. Hundred of copies of the certificate. I made a box, then another, then another. I wrapped each of the 12 boxes with black pieces of cloth, put them in an old chest and took them to my art class. I had my classmates pull the wrapped boxes out and reveal them. As they did, I so talked about the boxes, the keys, the bones, the glitter, the death certificate, and my father.

I left those boxes at the house when I left that particular boyfriend. I do not miss the boyfriend, I do not miss the boxes. Sometimes I miss my father. Not so much after nine years, but this is the way of things.

Monday, October 01, 2007


As I have mentioned before in my blog, the Japanese are very proud of their four seasons and have elevated the appreciation of seasonal changes to an art form. There's seasonal food, drink, activities, clothing, holidays. I've come to love the way the culture appreciates nature's cycles, even if it means I can't always get a favorite food all year round.

If you can't see my Kanji characters, you may need to make adjustments to your browser's encoding.

By far the loveliest and longest season in Misawa. Among other things, Autumn brings typhoons, dragonflies, the rice harvest, oodles of chrysanthemums, and of course, brilliant fall foliage. Viewing leaves is almost as popular as Cherry Blossom viewing, but not quite. Kirin Breweries also releases a special fall lager that I adore, but I'm writing about Fall, not beer.

While I, as an American, tend to think of Autumn as one long continious season, I recently learned that traditionally, the Japanse break Autumn down into sub-seasons:

Establishment of Autumn
Happens around August 7 or 8th. In true deranged Japanese fashion, these dates are often the hottest of the year, particularly in Misawa. I hate this time of year. It's hot and humid and gross. I have yet to cultivate a love for this season.

The limit of heat

About August 23 or 24. It gets really rainy/typhoony around this time. It's still kinda hot and humid. Bonus! There's suddenly shitloads of bugs, too.Thank God for Aki Beer, which starts showing up on the suupa shelves.

White Dew

I've never seen any dew on September 8 or 9 when this occurs. Maybe because I'm not in the Kanto Plains? It's still pretty warm out.


Autumnal Equinox

Also celebrated as a national holiday. The Japanese have at least two national holidays a month, don't be fooled by reports of sarimen working themselves to death, they're all at the mall on holidays. I think this day also falls in the middle of a Buddhist observation for the dead.

Heavy Dew

October 8 or 9. This is what we are heading into right now, at Misawa. Haven't seen any cold dew, but we had a few chilly nights. The weather right now is amazing, the days are mild and the air is clear. They're harvesting rice now, too.


First Frost

In the Kanto region , the first frost does arrive on October 23 or 24. Surprisingly, even though Misawa is about 8 hours north of Kanto, we don't get a frost until November. Around this time, the distant mountains, observable from my house and work, get snow on their tops. All the skiers/boarders get all excited.