O Christmas Half-of-a-Tree!!


“The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree:  the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.”  ~Burton Hillis

“Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall.”  ~Larry Wilde quotes

“Remember, if Christmas isn’t found in your heart, you won’t find it under the tree”  ~Charlotte Carpenter quotes

(See Christmas is…for Lovers…in Japan for even more fun Japanese Christmas music)

Everyone seems to almost instinctively know what a Christmas tree is, and that is now no different here in Okinawa than say, in Duluth, Minnesota.  Such icons universally consist of a decorated tree (usually an evergreen), real or artificial.  But how many of us really know or understand the roots (pun intended!) of The Christmas Tree?

Nothing says Christmas Tree like a Bonsai Bush!

Nothing says Christmas Tree like a Bonsai Bush!

Christmas trees have long been traditionally decorated with foods widely available, such as apples and nuts, but today can consist almost of anything with strong emotional or sentimental value, but often include garland, tinsel, and candy canes.  In the 18th century candles were often added, which then morphed to modern lighting with the wide introduction of electricity.  An angel or star often tops the tree, usually in representation of the Star of Bethlehem (from Jesus’ story).

An Origami Overture to Christmas and its Tree

An Origami Overture to Christmas and its Tree

Our current cultural and religious custom of the Christmas tree comes from 15th and 16th century devout Christians (including the reformist Martin Luther) who resided in the area of Europe now associated with modern Germany.  However, what most of us may find rather surprising is that the Christmas tree didn’t acquire popularity beyond this area until the second half of the 19th century, or well into the mid-to-late 1800s!  The Christmas tree has also been known as the “Yule-tree” (or Tree of Life), especially in discussions of its folkloristic origins.

Original Sin.  It's her fault.  Are modern ornaments still symbolic of forbidden fruit?

Original Sin. It’s her fault. Are modern ornaments still symbolic of forbidden fruit?

tumblr_mxnxjvkXQ61qdg05vo1_500While the origins of the modern Christmas tree are clear and undebated, there are a number of speculative theories of such custom and tradition prior to the 1400s.  Such icons are frequently traced to the symbolism of evergreen trees in pre-Christian winter pagan rites and rituals.  Such use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands has long been utilized to symbolize eternal life by widely diverse cultures, including ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews.  Thus, a type of “tree worship” became common in ancient times and thus was common among the pagan Europeans when Christianity started to sweep the continent.   And, luckily for us, the rite and ritual survived the pagans’ conversion to Christianity (mostly through its continued use as the “Tree of Paradise” stage prop in the popular Paradise Plays of the 11th century), and became decorations for the house and barn alike (sometimes as wintry homes for song birds at Christmastime), and were sometimes used at the New Year to scare evil.

Now that's a tree, Japan!!

Now that’s a tree, Japan!!

I hope she doesn't celebrate ANY other holiday....

I hope she doesn’t celebrate ANY other holiday….

Given this backdrop, and having no tangible ties to any particular strong religious tradition (I think of Christmas and all its trappings, including the trees, as more symbolic of a generalized spirit of love and giving), we decided to leave all our more conventional holiday decorations at home during our move to Japan.  Sure, we brought a Santa hat and our stockings (we both still have our Mother-made stockings from our childhood!), but not much else, including our tree.  We decided to let the spirit of Okinawa and our living space dictate a new holiday rite for me and Jody.

When space is an issue....

When space is an issue….

First thing we had to do was find a tree.  Not a real one – those are hard to come by in Okinawa, a relatively remote sub-tropical island in the Pacific Ocean, but an artificial one.  But, we had to contend with our relatively low condo ceilings, along with a want for space.  On top of this, we find out that the initial artificial tree shipment to the base exchanges sold out in mere days…and, of course, we missed what only could’ve been a mad rush for trees.  Lucky for us we meandered one afternoon into the base craft shop looking for extraordinary ornaments for our as of yet unsourced tree, and behold:  a room full of artificial, pre-light, small-ish Christmas trees!  Expensive ones, but we were in luck.

Whole or Half:  You Decide

Whole or Half: You Decide

11491260433_bd0d618afe_bWe actually found (and purchased) a “half-tree.”  And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like:  a half of an artificial tree, with a stand that will support its lopsidedness, but which also has an anchor point/hook high up on the trunk in case you have to deal with, say, an unruly cat who may decide to climb the tree when no one’s looking….

Charlie Brown's Tree, the Japanese interpretation

Charlie Brown’s Tree, the Japanese interpretation

11491247796_7593c905da_bThe tree works perfectly in our place!  It is maybe 6.5 feet in height, and since it’s only half a tree, we were able to push it back into a corner to conserve space while allowing us to fill in the visibly accessible part of the tree that much more.

For once all our decorations fit into ONE normally-sized box!

For once all our decorations fit into ONE normally sized box!

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11491176634_19e24c83fc_bFor decorations we went with our initial Asian, Japanese, and Okinawan-inspiration.  So, our ornaments consisted mainly of origami art (cranes, butterflies, and angels), paper crafted shapes, wooden dolls, miniature obis, and other flirtations with the Far East.  These, combined with the minimalistic white lighting of the tree, results in a quite unconventional appearance by most western standards.  We love it!

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11491244823_1861dafb41_bBut, to top off our tree, we wanted truly spectacular and of local custom and tradition.  What we found was perfect for the occasion:  a Hanagasa.  The Hanagasa is a brilliantly colored, flowered-adorned hat worn in many areas of Japan, but here the Okinawans have developed their own particular tradition regarding this type of headdress.  Worn by Okinawan women performing a dance called Yotsudake (“four bamboo,” referring to the bamboo castanets played by the dancers), the large and unique silk hat features a gold-trimmed design of a stylized lotus flower and ocean waves, set against a backdrop of blue skies.  It’s mesmerizing to watch one dancer on her own with her slow, graceful movements; it is breathtaking to see five or six woman so adorned move as one.

...Cleo waits patiently....

…Cleo waits patiently….

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11491181675_17fb20f702_bWe found a smaller version of the Hanagasa designed for display on dolls, and it worked perfectly to complete our tree.  Like the symbolism that a topping star may hold for others, our Hanagasa makes for an unforgettable sight, and its harmonious flowers seem to sway in time to the carols we often play in the background, things which should remind us all of the beauty, resilience and connectedness that we all share, with each other, and with every other living thing, during this spiritual time of love and giving.

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11615344235_28dcdd1a5c_bMerry Christmas, Season’s Greetings, and Happy Holidays.  Whatever YOU prefer to say, please don’t forget to pause your daily grind, express your thanks to those that deserve it, be giving to those that need it, and let Love and Hope win for just a few fleeting moments as you gaze upon your own tree, or other perhaps more appropriate symbolic icon of the season.

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How are you celebrating Christmas this year??

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Christmas is…for Lovers…in Japan


“Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling.”  ~Edna Ferber

“A good conscience is a continual Christmas.”  ~Benjamin Franklin

“Christmas is a time when you get homesick – even when you’re home.”  ~Carol Nelson

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Christmas is one of the holidays that has most changed in Okinawa since my first here in 1999.  Back then, while not uncommon to see some Christmas items in the major department stores in December, it was uncommon to see wide-spread Christmas decorations and certainly surprising if a western Christmas carol was heard, especially in English.  Almost 15 years ago, what actually struck us most in terms of western traditions that had been imported to Japan was how utterly westernized weddings in Japan had become!

Andy Williams - an Okinawan Fav for the Holidays

Andy Williams – an Okinawan Fav for the Holidays

However, this Christmas in 2013 has been a real shock…in a pleasant yet strange 9-volt battery-on-the-tongue kindda way.  We are astounded at just how much more of our Christian holiday that the Okinawans and Japanese have smuggled from the West.  From the standard Christmas carol cannon in English played in almost every commercial venue (Rudolph is much more enjoyable in Japanese for some reason), to the sheer amount of stores, organizations and segment of the populace choosing to actively participate in seasons greetings, one could argue that our holiday spirit thrives innocently and cheerfully  here in Okinawa, Japan.

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However, what exactly does that spirit mean??

A central theme seems to be cute Santa helpers ....

A central theme seems to be cute Santa helpers ….

Seriously, it's almost like if you merged Halloween and Christmas!

Seriously, it’s almost like if you merged Halloween and Christmas!

No, not dirty dancing; making hearts with their arms and head!!

No, not dirty dancing; making hearts with their arms and head!!

For starters, Christmas here is not religious in nature, much like their “Christian-themed” weddings, the ones complete with crosses and long-trained white flowing gowns.  In a cliché, Christmas here is…for lovers.  It is a couples’ holiday (but becoming more family oriented), much more akin to our Valentine’s Day than of any other type of spiritual ceremony or ritual.

“Single Hell, Single Hell….”  It would make a nice seasonal ring-tone.

But think about it this way; replace the notions of a Christmas turkey and caroling through illuminated neighborhoods…with buckets of “Christmas Chicken” and well-dressed lovers on a date partaking in a local holiday “illumination” and you’ve got it about right.

Taken well BEFORE Thanksgiving....

Taken well BEFORE Thanksgiving….

If it's good enough for JAL....

If it’s good enough for JAL….

You see, in the 1970s, KFC – yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken – started to aggressively market itself as the chicken of choice as the culinary Christmas craving, which has become a much more broad representation of our (western) holiday.  It worked; when we visited KFC about two months ago, there were already large in-store displays about ordering holiday meals, and the statue of Colonel Sanders out front (which all the KFCs have here) was already in a Santa costume.  It’s odd to think about the God of Chicken (the Colonel has successfully approximated deity status in Japan) as a surrogate for Santa, but in a weirdly Japanese way, that’s exactly what he is here!

That's a pretty detailed...and full chicken schedule!

That’s a pretty detailed…and full chicken schedule!

BentOn-Christmas-cake-2013Another culinary holiday tradition here centers on a “Christmas Cake,” which is generally a store-bought (see a commercialized theme going here?), white cake topped with strawberries and often other garnishes which spank of the season, resulting in the prototypical red, white and green colors which visually represent Christmas so well.  At least where it snows and there are evergreen pines, which for the geographically challenged, does NOT include Okinawa.  Here in Okinawa you will find a small, local bakery in almost every neighborhood, and these shops literally pump out these cakes during this time of year.  I’ve heard rumors that the Okinawans compare people without a love on Christmas as about as sad as a leftover, unsold Christmas Cake:  while still attractive on the outside, stale tasting on the inside!  Lovers, such revolting people….  Let them eat cake!!

So we did.  With ice cream.

So we did. With ice cream.

Creepy Christmas Character

Creepy Christmas Character

Finally, one of the biggest things to do on Okinawa during this season is to visit an “illumination,” one sure way to tell that winter is at hand on a sub-tropical Pacific island!  These events are held all over the island, from private venues, to the major resort hotels, to some of the more popular themed and touristy attractions.  Illuminations provide a true glimpse of just how the Japanese interrupt our traditional and long-standing Christmas culture, complete with accurate if not humorous portrayals of Santa, his sleigh and reindeer, along with all the other Christmas elements and characters you could ever imagine…and then a few more.

Ready for the (Illuminated) Tunnel of Love!

Ready for the (Illuminated) Tunnel of Love!

Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Winter WonderlandWe attended the Okinawa Zoo Children’s Land “Christmas Fantasy,” an annual, one-of-a-kind holiday spectacle held the week before and after Christmas.  Here the landscape, in the middle of dense urban sprawl, is truly transformed into a wintry (or at least chilled & rainy) wonderland, where snow blowers produce snowfall on the walkways, pictures can be taken with real snowmen, and the kids can even go sledding or spoil for a snowball fight.  Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Churros in Japan!!They also host a “unique” laser show which is both weirdly corny and wildly fun as only the Japanese can produce.  While it rained steadily in a blowing gale the night we visited, the park remained crowded with couples well-dressed and clearly on more formal dates; it’s amazing the places that Japanese women will and do wear heels.  Carnival and state fair-like games, food and candies were plentiful, and I was soooooo excited to have our picture taken with a true Japanese Santa…who was tucked away, hidden in a dark alcove that built our suspense…who turned out to be…white…American…and from the Lancaster Dutch Country in Pennsylvania!

Frosty's been eating a little too much sushi....

Frosty’s been eating a little too much sushi….  Look it’s even snowing (wink)!!

Not Japanese.

Not Japanese.

Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Japanese cuties pose with SantaYep, as we entered the tent for our turn, I peered with all my might to see what the Okinawans would put forth as Mr. Claus.  Would he be worthy?  How would he sound with a Japanese accent?  Could they find a guy larger than life, or at least over 6 foot and 200 pounds to properly pull off the rule?  As all these queries were racing around my head right alongside the sugarplums (and who knows what those are anyhow?), I hear, in a distinctly mid-western yet American accent, “Merry Christmas.”  What a tick!!  What the frack?  I respond, “Hey, that sounds mighty American!”  The response, which tinkered on stealing Santa away from me AGAIN, was, “Yup, straight from the Dutch Country in Lancaster County….”  What are the odds….

Our Non-Japanese Okinawan Santa

Our Non-Japanese Okinawan Santa

We had planned to attend the Itoman Wine Farm “Peace Illumination Festival” in Itoman City today, but the weather kept us away as of publishing (winter storm…less the snow and ice, oh, and loss of power and whatnot).  This annual event hosts the largest illumination at 1.3 million lights, representing the population of Okinawa, which carry the people’s collective hopes for peace to the world.  Itoman City and the entire southern part of Okinawa Island were subjected to fierce battles at the end of World War II and were the scene of horrific carnage, and the area is dotted with peace monuments such as the Himeyuri Monument and Peace Memorial Park.  Thus, this festival recognizes the awfulness of a savage past while displaying a radiant hope for the future.

A Christian Angel in Okinawa...riding a banana?  Wow!

A Christian Angel in Okinawa…riding a banana? Wow!

Person-to-whom-Ochugen-and-Oseibo-are-sentWhile gifts are not exchanged per se on Christmas or in relation to our own gift-giving tradition as a spiritual birthday celebration, the Japanese do have an end-of-year gift giving tradition called oseibo.  But don’t confuse this with the mid-summer gift-giving custom called ochugen!  In Japan, it’s custom to give gifts – or have major department stores or the Post Office deliver them – in December (usually by the 20th) to co-workers, bosses, relatives, teachers, and close friends.  Generally, these gifts consist of traditional hams, fancy cooking oils, gift certificates, higher-end beer, gourmet coffee, Asian seasonings, Okinawan seaweed, and perhaps even seafood and unique fruit arrangements.  It seems everyone has their version of fruitcake!

Really, Beer??

Really, Beer??

The presents generally cost anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 yen (roughly $30-$100).  An interesting note about oseibo is that the most expensive gifts are usually reserved for bosses!  Talk about awkward by American standards:  “I’m sorry Naomi, your end-of-year gift wasn’t up to my standards, we we’re going to have to let you go….”  On each oseibo gift is placed a thin paper called noshi on which the word “Oseibo” is written.  The Japanese are, if anything, elegant and graceful in most ritualistic traditions they exercise.

Ritualistic grace & beauty

Ritualistic grace & beauty

Christmas Even in American Village, Mihama

Christmas Even in American Village, Mihama

Although we are indeed “home” now here in Okinawa, well rooted and seeking our own niche, I can’t help but also feel homesick this time of year.  Although our Far-Eastern inspired Christmas “half-tree,” the subject of an upcoming blog of its own, was certainly wonderful to plan, shop for, and decorate with Jody, it was not shared with very many.  We did start a new traditional Christmas Even dinner by eating Sushi at Mihama’s American Village with a few close friends, something akin to the Parker family going out for Chinese Duck visa vie A Christmas Story…less the tragedy involving the dogs eating our non-existent turkey.  And while we do have Christmas lights up on our 5th story balcony, and as entertaining and wonderful the Okinawan illuminations are, I still find myself drawn to “home” and the culturally, spiritually rooted traditions that have become so ingrained over almost five decades.  Jody and I will always find ways to celebrate on our own as Lovers so often do.  Just know that our friends and family are sorely missed this time of year, a time when friends and families should strive to be together.  If not in body, certainly in mind and spirit.

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So, in the spirit of the season wherever you happen to be, ring up some coworkers, cohort with your cronies, share an intimate moment with a loved-one, or just cuddle with a favorite furry friend.  Whatever you do, just do all you can to make sure you never become one of those dreaded leftover, unsold stale Christmas cakes!!

Single and 27 = Stale Leftover Cake....

Single and 27 = Stale Leftover Cake…from the Lucky Star 11 Anime Series.  Seriously.

A Kite Breeding a Hawk (鳶が鷹を産む)


“A kite breeding a hawk (鳶が鷹を産む),” meaning a splendid child born from common parents.  Of course no parent thinks of their children as common, but you get the point (hopefully).

My son, his wife (the Kites), and Baby Z, the Hawk

My son, his wife (the Uncommon Kites), and Baby Z, the Hawk

“God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.” ~Voltaire

“It takes a long time to become young.” ~Pablo Picasso

“Let them eat cake.” ~Marie Antoinette

Marie knew that cake held great value...for toddlers.

Marie knew that cake held great value…for toddlers.

I am a Grandfather.  Yes, I must put that in writing and mumble it to even myself.  It helps convince me that I am already that old!  My Granddaughter Elizabeth (“Baby Z” or “Eli”) just had her first birthday late last month, and after seeing the pictures of that mixed-cultural by still very American birthday celebration, I got to thinking about how the Japanese mark the occasion and recognize the milestone.

Me and my Granddaughter

Me and my Granddaughter

And, of course, like most other major life events, the Japanese have more formal and more rooted traditions and celebrations.

Thank you card for our gifts

A less formal thank you card

Totoro is my Granddaughter's fav!

Totoro is my Granddaughter’s fav!

In Okinawa, the first birthday of a child is marked by a celebration called tanka-yu-eh, meaning, loosely, “1 year old celebration.”  On this day the child’s family prepares a festive meal to share between relatives who have usually come from all around the island in order to celebrate together.  And, of course like most other aspects of cultural celebrations in Japan, this particular celebration becomes a much more regal and grand celebration when a couple’s first child is male.

erabitori

One of the central elements of the wider celebration is long-practiced ritual called tanka-uranai – the one year fortune-telling, designed to foretell generalized aspects of the child’s future.  This can also be referred to as erabitori (選び取り), or loosely “pick & keep an item”).  Certain items are placed on a tatami mat in front of the son-to-be toddler:  a Japanese abacus, festive red rice, a book, ink and ink stone, money, and in case of a girl a pair of scissors is added.  The baby is turned loose to make his or her way to the item of their choice; all the while, the eager and anxious family members hold their breath in attempts to contain their desire to influence the fortune!

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Money. Smart kid. But will he keep it??

totoro_birthday_card_design_by_mikkimoo27-d5vck0zSo, the first item the child reaches for and touches – NOT the one he or she ends up with – prophesies potential for the youngster.  If the abacus (generally a calculator in more modern times), the youth will become a fellow mathlete (I have been accused of being worse!), which presages a strong business sense.  Red rice (or chop sticks) forecasts plentiful food throughout a long life or culinary skill, while a book or dictionary portends a studious nature leading to a solid education for the child.  Money or a wallet, perhaps the most obvious elements, predicts a life of riches, while the ink and ink stone divines a livelihood in writing.  Some families have also recently started adding a musical instrument as a way to forecast for talent (music, signing, acting), a ruler to predict successful homeownership, and a game ball or sports shoes to prefigure an athletic career.

More Fortune Telling

DSC_4701-1-550x365Finally, for girls turning one, scissors are meant to imply a future as a good housewife and mother, or, what I like to refer to as a “Domestic Engineer.”  Funny thing about sexism in Japan:  the kanji (姦) for kashimashii (noisy/boisterous) is made up of the symbol for “woman,” but not just one woman.  Not two women. No.  There are three women (three “woman” symbols).  What happens when you have three women together?  Of course, they get really noisy.  C’mon ladies; everyone knows that to be an absolute truth (wink)!

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Happy Birthday in Japanese!

Happy Birthday in Japanese!

In wider Japan outside of Okinawa, there is also another tradition that is only once in a lifetime on hatsu tanjo (初誕生), or “first birthday.”  Although many if not most of our western birthday customs have been thoroughly adopted here in Japan, most Japanese parents continue to celebrate this special day with one or a pair of red-white birthday rice cakes, tanjo mochi (誕生餅).  Here in the Kyushu province of Japan, this particular cake is known as mochi fumi (餅踏み, mochi stepping), and the custom entails the birthday child stepping on the mochi wearing baby-sized waraji (草鞋, straw sandals).

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Mochi Fumi and baby-sized Waraji for “Cake Stepping”

Unhappy Mochi Carrier

Unhappy Mochi Carrier

However, in the rest of Japan, this mochi is commonly known as shoi or seoi or issho mochi (一升餅).  In most areas of Japan, the children carry the mochi on their back or shoulder, either in a bag or bundled up with a furoshiki (風呂敷, wrapping cloth).  Issho is a unit of old Japanese liquid measurement equivalent to ~1800cc, so the mochi are crafted to weigh around 1.8kg (almost 4 pounds exactly), a pretty heavy load for a baby!  And, in a strange twist, some parents attempt to deliberately interfere or prevent their child from walking or crawling smoothly with light pushes, an early attempt at educating children about the bumpy ride of life, full of its ups and downs.  While this may seem an odd way to “happily” celebrate a first birthday, by carrying out this ritual, good-natured parents can extend their wishes that their child be blessed, throughout their life, with enman (円満), an affirmative word representing perfection, harmony, peace, smoothness, completeness, satisfaction and integrity.

The plastic bag is a...nice touch.

The plastic bag is a…nice touch.

For my Granddaughter, I too wish her to be blessed with plentiful and long-lasting enman.  But, I can’t help but wonder what she would have “picked and kept” if the tanka-uranai items were placed in front of her.  What would YOU want your precious one-year-old to choose??

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Anything but scissors, right?!

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Happy First Birthday, Baby-now-Toddler Z!!

What are The Odds (The Right Way)


“Success is simple.  Do what’s right, the right way, at the right time.” ~Arnold H. Glasow

“If the odds are a million to one against something occurring, chances are 50-50 it will” ~Unknown

“I’ll enter the same calculations using what we like to call ‘The Right Way’.” ~Fred Randall, Rocketman

What-Are-The-OddsSo the day finally arrives and our household goods are actually on-island and scheduled for delivery.  The movers are due over sometime in the morning, and since our front door is usually ajar for Cleo’s sake (our cat; it’s hard to open doors without a thumb), I hear the moving trucks arrive and it’s only 7:45!  This is going to be a GOOD, early start to the day.

I am called down to inspect the customs seals that are placed on the wooded crates which are they themselves sealed with nails and metal banding.  As I approach the trucks, the first thing I do is count the crates:  we should have six remaining (one, and only one was delivered on-time back in October).

There were eight on the truck.

Well,” I think to myself, “they must have another delivery this afternoon.  No worries!”  After all, the name scribbled on the crates was “KING.”

The movers are all busy undoing the crates; hammering nails out here, cutting metal bands there, prying and splintering wood wherever wood happens to be, and staging moving equipment in order to get the 6,000+ pounds we have been expecting for oh so long up safely and securely to our 5th floor condo.  I am handed the move paperwork government forms in all their finest regalia (as you might imagine), and the customs seal stickers and numbers on those forms are pointed out for me to verify.  I like these guys; they strictly follow standard operating procedures.  Except…

Houston, we have a problem.

They seem to be missing some "stuff," too....

They seem to be missing some “stuff,” too….

None of the seals on the paperwork match any of the seals physically on the crates.  Not even close.  I call the head-mover-guy over and tell him, with a nervous smile, “No matches….”

He is very confused.

He takes the paper work, and looks back and forth between the numerous shifted sheets and the crates a number of frantic times.  He points out the name on the wooded sides of the crates written sloppily in fat permanent black marker, almost like really bad, conservative graffiti.  “Yes, that’s my name….”  There was even a leading initial “J,” for Jody we all assumed, since the move is in her name and under her social security number (I was simply an authorized agent).  He goes back to his paperwork, while I at the same instant spy in the upper corners of the crates a letter-sized piece of paper…too far away to read, but most certainly containing…the small print.

We really shouldn't assume as much as we do....

We really shouldn’t assume as much as we do….

The devil is always in the details.

Turns out, on closer and more careful inspection, this particular shipment was for a “Joshua King, E7, Kadena Air Force Base.”

I was dumbfounded.  What Are the Odds – WATO???  I had an old Skipper from my flying days in the Navy who used the phrase to great effect all the time.  Meaning, no matter how remote the odds may be, if you play with chance enough, your number comes up.  For instance, we used to “cloud-chase,” where we would weave around and through the puffy clouds which are always around the aircraft carrier, relying on the “big-sky, little-airplane” theory of airspace deconfliction.  “WATO?” our skipper would ask, rhetorically of course, but the point was firm.

This is especially true when attempting to navigate an asteroid field....

This is especially true when attempting to navigate an asteroid field….  Or get your HHG to Japan.

chances-of-dyingBut seriously!  There was another inbound shipment to Okinawa (our little corner of the world which we currently occupy), which arrived at the same time, on the same ship, for someone in the military with the same name, and even same first initial.  It seemed rather unbelievable, and certainly incredible enough actually to make me rather incredulous!

Trying to contain my growing frustration and anger, I don’t even take my eyes off the paper-plasted crates when I call out rather loudly (and probably rudely I imagine), “This isn’t my stuff.”

More confusion abounds.  It’s bad enough already that there is a really arduous language barrier between us.  Think about it; throughout Europe and South America, you can pretty easily get by without knowing the language.  The written characters of the language are easily readable and perhaps even wholly recognizable, and there’s a basic, generalized understanding of pronunciation.  Worst case, you can simply match up words and phrases.  Besides, many people in these regions speak English rather well.

Okinawa 2013, Kwuirky Home, dryer control translationAlmost none of this holds true in Okinawa, and the same can be said for many if not most places in Asia, at least those outside of the urbanized areas, particularly where westerners travel, visit, or do business.  Some of the language’s characters here are so complex that it takes a great deal of study to match; you should’ve seen me try to switch on the heat here using our air conditioner remote controls – all in Japanese; hypothermia was setting in by the time I could claim victory!  I explain to the moving crew that my wife’s first name is “Jody,” not “Joshua,” and the realization of the mistake slowly – and finally sets in.

I made Jody call me "Boris" for a day after supplying her heat.

I made Jody call me “Boris” for a day after supplying her heat.

The head-cheese-mover-guy is immediately on the phone with higher headquarters.  I interrupt:  “YOU DO HAVE MY STUFF, RIGHT?”  I’ll tell you this; it was much more of a demand at that point than a question.  “Hai!” came the polite response…with a smile…that just didn’t seem quite right.

It may be a good course, but not a good course of action.

It may be a good course, but not a good course of action.

How much faith do you put in a simple, single word response after going through all of this!?!  Not much.  In the military doing the things that I did, part of becoming quite deft at tactical and strategic planning and execution is that “hope” is not a good course of action, and “faith” is not proactive approach to any situation.

Sometimes faithlessness is punishable.

Sometimes faithlessness is disturbingly punishable.

I am immediately on the phone with the moving company.  I am placed on-hold; no doubt they are probably calling the head-cheese-mover-guy standing right in front of me on his phone to the same place…and both are most likely getting a busy signal!  The very nice and polite English-speaking Okinawan woman at the mover’s office comes back on the line and says, with some measure of relief, “We have your things here; the movers will be back in one hour!”

Now that is hard to believe; remember the thoughts about hope and faith above….  An hour to drive back to the warehouse, unload the trucks (there were two of them), find the right crates, load the right crates back on the trucks, and then drive back to my condo?  Seemed unlikely to me.  I was in no mood to be patronized.

We experienced drama that can only be properly captured in a pop #1 hit.  Sung by a boy-band....

We experienced drama that can only be properly captured in a pop #1 hit. Sung by a boy-band….

Not trusting the system any longer (it is a government-procured and controlled process after all), I asked her rather flatly:  “How many crates do you have.”  “Six,” came the replay.  Good, that was the right – and correct answer.  “What is the first name on the paperwork?”  “Jody-san.”  Right again.  “Okay, one hour; really?”  “Hai!  One hour!!”  I wouldn’t bet on it.

Okinawa Dec 2013, Qwuirky Home, living area

Our Qwuirky Home, with our Goofy Goods

Our Qwuirky Home, with our Goofy Goods

And I would’ve lost.  In the end, the movers did return within an hour, and, perhaps, more incredibly, they returned with the right stuff (the efficiency and responsiveness of the Japanese service industry is the subject of a blog of its own).  The crates were unloaded, our things are here (that quality of the move will be discussed later), and the movers were still gone by about 1 pm, ultimately righting a major wrong in our world…

Okinawa Dec 2013, Qwuirky Home, dining area and computer workstation

…against it seemed, all odds.

What moving horror story do YOU have to share?

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Opportunity Knocks


They missed multiple opportunities for a haircut.

They missed multiple opportunities for a haircut.

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” ~Henry Ford

“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.” ~Mark Twain

During our first week or two after arrival on Okinawa, Jody and I did a lot of rounding on the shops and concessions available to us on both Kadena Air Force Base and Marine Corps base Camp Foster, the two American-based shopping meccas.  Both locations offered a more normalized “BX” (Base Exchange) experience than any commercial area out on the economy, but also included a wide variety of Asian-based concessioners, both locally based and from throughout the region.  If one is alert and persistent enough, unquestionable treasures can be found and gotten in some of these shops.

During one of these shopping forays we happened onto an Asian furniture concession on Camp Foster.  The couple that was fronting the store were, I believe, from Korea.  The woman spoke passable English; her partner, an older gentleman, did not.  But his English was still much better than my Korean!  Their store was full of Asian-inspired furniture from China, Tibet and Korea, including some very unique and inspiring pieces.  As we were perusing through the shop, literally bloated wall-to-wall and eight feet high with fittings and fixtures of all types, shapes, and sizes, we spied something which immediately caught our collective and collectors’ eye.

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A genuinely exclusive piece.  At once quite old.  And easily assumed that it might just be quite rare.  It drew us in, and stole our imagination with its provocatively emotional keep-sake calls of matrimony past wanting to nurture present love.

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We were told it was a Korean wedding box, about 150-200 years old.  Not a box really, but a collection of nesting boxes all held secure in a wood and iron frame to make a portable yet efficient chest.  When placed together as intended, the trunk is carried by a large square wooden pole that would be placed through the trunk’s handle, and then placed on the shoulders of two or more bearers (depending on weight  I would assume).  The item is also painted with various colored shapes and symbols, and that is covered by a thick layer of lacquer.  Unfortunately, most of the painting’s more colorful elements have been lost to time and the elements, and as a result, the painted illustrations have darkened mostly beyond recognition.  And, in many places, the lacquer coating has cracked extensively and literally chipped off, taking the underlying paint with it in most areas where this has occurred.  The means and methods of construction utilized are really breath-taking: hand-worked iron plating and nail fasteners alongside carved lattice-work in the wooden handle and base.  Bracing the entire set are more forged iron pieces on the sides.  When taken in totality, the crate cries not just “ART,” but emotes a history that you can literally feel, and I insist you can almost hear the stories that are safely sealed in its very inanimate essence.

I was taken aback, stunned at the find, and almost sold on the spot.  But now the hard part:  how do you put a price on such an intimate historical keepsake, and how much would that price be?

opportunity-knocks-quotes

The original price was something like $5,500.  That had been marked down on the tag to I believe something on the order of $2,500.  There is little doubt that our Korean capitalists could tell we wanted this piece.  So, negotiations were in order, and I initiated by low-balling a price of $1,500.  They balked, as expected.

You see, we were still in our temporary lodging, and had no place to keep this chest.  It’s not that large, but we had no room.  We still did not know where we were going to live, and whether this element would “fit” in that place, both in style and in placement.  We were hemorrhaging cash at the time, having had to buy two cars and purchase insurance and titles (~$9,000), and knew we were going to have to put out at least $4,000 in initial housing costs (security & agency fees).  Plus, we just bought our own way out to Okinawa and had yet to even apply for reimbursement (~$2,500).  So, financially, and hell, even pragmatically, it didn’t make any sense to purchase this treasure.

But it was a piece of treasure.

We should have seized the opportunity.

We should have seized the opportunity.

Jody left the decision to me after talking through all of the pros and cons of purchasing.  I decided, silently and internally, that if the sales people would drop to my initial almost silly price of $1,500, we would walk away with this coffer and figure out all the rest latter.  How often would this type of opportunity present itself?  As the saying goes, opportunity only knocks once.  Answer the door.

In the end, they would “only” come down to $1,700, and even then only hesitantly after explaining at length that they couldn’t possibly drop the price anymore due to the nature of this gem:  handmade, one-of-a-kind, an antique, complete with what must surely be an emotionally vivid history – all things true, and which could not be adequately argued against.

So, we walked away, not really knowing if the piece was actually worth that kind of cost anyway…plus all the other reasons not to buy.  BUT, at dinner that evening, we began researching this idea online.  After Jody’s attempts failed to turn up anything significant, I took a stab.  I search for “wedding box pole handle asia antique,” and BINGO, there it was (see below):

yhst-40539389554149_2260_284464092Antique Chinese Wedding Dowry Carrier

This from the SilkRoadCollection.com website:

Item # RB1023X, Price:  $3,000.00

Approximate Age:  circa 1800, Origin:  Shanxi Province, China

Material:  Mixed Woods with Iron

Dimensions:  Width: 32.5″ (82.5cm), Depth:  20.5″ (52cm), Height: 40.5″ (103cm)

Antique Chinese Wedding Dowry Carrier:  A museum quality antique, with its original iron work and much of its original lacquer.  This Chinese antique wedding carrying box would have traditionally been used to carry a bridge’s dowry when moving to her new husband’s family home and/or to carry food to a wedding or other special event.  The square hole in the center of the handle is where the carrying pole would have been inserted.  The handle has pierced lattice-work carvings at each end.  The remaining rugged patina reveals red and black layers of lacquer.  Of special interest are the iron metal work, handles, flat work and bars used throughout the box and the brass nail heads.  Even the base is adhered to the box with metal rods and fasteners.  The four compartment areas of the box open at each end by shifting the compartment above in a different direction. The upper compartment has a lid. The lips of each compartment interlock by nesting into the bottom of the upper cabinet, securing the compartments in place. Today, this carrying box can be used as a side table by placing a glass top over the upper compartment’s lid; as well as for storage.

So, not only was the set genuine (although it was Chinese vice Korean), it also appear to be a *steal* at the price I negotiated!!  We were somewhat shocked:  there is nothing more expensive than a missed opportunity!  So, we elected to go back and purchase the chest right after dinner, suspecting that the vendor would already be closed for the evening.

Alas, they were closed.  But worse, the piece was completely wrapped in plastic.  Was it sold???  Could it have sold in just a matter of a couple of hours??  No problem; we’ll go back the next day and see, and snatch it up if it wasn’t.

We did go back.  Sometime just after noon the next day (Saturday).  And…

…and the store was EMPTY.

So too was waiting....

So too was waiting….

Seems there are a certain number of vendors that make the military rounds from base to base throughout Asia, and stay at each for only a couple of months.  That morning, they had literally loaded up their freight containers for shipping up to somewhere in Honshu.  We pleaded to get the trunk; there was simply no way to get it back out of the shipping container….  So, we left our brand new Japanese cell phone numbers with the owners, who thought they might be back in late October or sometime in November (it was late August at the time).  This did not make me feel better; the odds of that chest not selling at the asking price were slim over time, especially for someone else who did their proper online research and knew what they were looking at.  All it would take is a sentimental sap like me or Jody properly armed with some knowledge and a healthy checkbook or line of credit.  And, even if the chest made it back to Okinawa (say 20%), the odds of that woman hanging onto our number to phone in a sale were even more remote (say 5%).  Taken together (and for you mathletes, to get the total odds, those two individual probabilities must be multiplied together, making the product much smaller), the odds were excessively low.  Something akin to 1%.

Statistics can be tricky, even for a mathlete.

Statistics can be tricky, even for a mathlete.

A missed opportunity.  And then regret sets in….  We pledged that we would not let it slip away again.

Ron Burgundy and I agree on a lot of things....

Ron Burgundy and I agree on a LOT of things….

Fast forward to mid-November.  I had, starting in late October, kept a keen eye out for this particular vendor’s return.  They never did take up residence, and when November was well underway, I thought, in the classic vernacular of Naval Aviation, “NO CHANCE PADDLES.”  On one excursion over to Camp Foster, I saw across the street from the Exchange complex a rather large furniture tent sale set up in a parking lot.  I didn’t bother going over since these types of parking-lot tent sales we had visited up until that point were all, well, rather pointless.  Jody even happened to mention the tent sale a couple of days later after her independent shopping journey; we were eagerly in the market for some bar-height furniture for our balconies (which we had found earlier in the year, but wanted too long in an eerie replay of this story…without a – spoiler alert – happy ending).

Quotation-Francisca-Olivia-chance-opportunity-life-rest-regrets-Meetville-Quotes-19619

So the following week or so, we decided to stop by the tent sale since we happen to be on Foster doing some shopping.  What could it hurt?  It seems there is always something that we need here in Okinawa.  I was expecting and prepared to be let letdown, but it became apparent that this was no Exchange furniture bizarre; rather, it was an Asian furniture vendor, and it appeared to have a lot of items similar to our coveted and missing vendor of earlier in the fall.  I found the man working the area, and he was not one of the sales people we had encountered previously.  I inquired about the couple we had spoken to, and to avoid his clearly broken English, he gave us the international symbol for “I dunno:”  the shoulder shrug….

We continued to walk through the maze of Asian delights, and around a far corner I froze:  could it be???  “Jody, come here!” I exclaimed!

She came up to me and stopped, both of us about 10 feet from the chest we could spy.  I could hear the circuitry firing in her head in time with my own:  could this be our chest?

Our Chest!

Our Chest!

We examined the container.  While we couldn’t exactly recall some of the details of our earlier encounter, there quickly became little doubt that this indeed was the trunk we had coveted…and lost.  And we both agreed, months prior, that IF the chest wound up back on-island, we would not miss the opportunity a second time.  I mimed for the salesman to come over….

Carved wood lattice work.

Carved wood lattice work.

“How much is this piece?” I inquired without even looking closely at it.  “That is $1,500,” he more than casually and quickly replied.

Hand-formed iron nails and plating.

Hand-formed iron nails and plating.

“Are you kidding me,” I thought!  Not only did we “find” the chest again, it was being offered at the low-ball price that I initially used to start negotiations!  I looked at Jody in disbelief; she returned the expression.

Original painting and lacquer finish.

Original painting and lacquer finish.

So, after some closer inspection to make sure that the parts were there and that there was no undue damage other than 200 years of physical wear, emotional tear and numerous international travels, we told him, in no uncertain terms, “SOLD.”

Nesting boxes with lid.

Nesting boxes with lid.

Ironically, when we went to pay and he actually examined closer the pricing of the chest, he realized his mistake with a smile, and said simply something to the effect that we got a very good deal on this particular transaction.

Even Cleo our cat can sense its importance.  Or she just likes to photo-bomb....

Even Cleo our cat can sense its importance. Or she just likes to photo-bomb….

Yes, we did.  But better yet, our regrets from a missed opportunity were all but erased, exchanged for the priceless joy of having a genuinely unique and evocative yet eloquent place to store all our wedding mementos.  The odds of opportunity knocking twice in this fashion are low (probably not astronomically, but close), but the connections here are unlikely and are reminiscent of an early blog where I covered equally unlikely associations (see Long Odds and Unlikely Connections).  The universe sometimes – maybe the majority of the time – generally unfolds pretty much how it should.

regret-chances-we-didnt-take

I have said, for years, that one of the very worst things in life is a missed opportunity.  And because of it, this darker facet of our shared human condition, we all suffer from some level of regret.  Oh, those people who claim “no regrets!” are exactly the type of people who say that to themselves to make themselves feel better about all the miss opportunities in their own lives….  In this particular case, we were lucky; opportunity came knocking twice after we failed to answer the door at the first calling, and regrets were not avoided but subverted.

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This story could have very well had an ending full of lament and regret.  And although we can all strive to limit such unfortunate occurrences in our lives, we all live, to some degree or another, with missed opportunities and the regrets which result.  What story do you have about a missed opportunity, or better yet, when has opportunity give you a second chance?

regret

And more importantly…ANSWER THE DOOR!

Quotation-Charles-Dickens-opportunity-regret-space-Meetville-Quotes-93636

Tattoo You? Absolutely.


The Price was WRONG
The Price was WRONG

“Outside of having kids, getting tattooed is one of the worst mistakes a person can make, yet somehow (much like having kids) millions of people do it every year.” ~Aviva Yael

“She said, ‘a tattoo is a badge of validation’.  But the truth of the matter is far more revealing.  It’s a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.”  ~Jimmy Buffett, Beach House on the Moon

Do you have a tattoo?  If so, what’s the story behind your ink?  If you don’t have a tattoo, what might you consider getting emblazoned permanently on your skin?  I think many people, even most people ask themselves such questions silently and without witness, and although tattoos are more popular than ever, how many really go to the permanent extreme?  And, perhaps more interesting, why do people reach such a dramatically inked conclusion??

I was always captivated by this tattooing scene in "The Bounty"

I was always captivated by this tattooing scene in “The Bounty”

I am inked, and it’s one of my past Far East Flings.  And while the physical tat was implanted here in Okinawa in 2005, the genesis of my body-art goes back many years.  My ink is not for daily public consumption, generally speaking.  It is positioned so that it can be covered by a collared shirt, and a short-sleeve tee only hints at its presence on my upper back.  Back in 2005 when I was still on Active Duty, the Navy’s tattoo policy was referred to as the “25 percent rule,” which stated that no more than 25 percent of any limb or part of the body that does not show while in uniform could be tattooed.  Tattoos on those portions visible were required to be no larger than an open hand for lower arms (fingers together), and no larger than a closed fist for women on their legs that would show in a uniform skirt.  The neck has always been and is still off-limits in the Navy for tattooing….  Although I’m the last to follow the rules of “The Man,” at the time I was bound.  So, initially my tattoo was small, and relatively hidden on my upper back.

Modern rules have changed the Navy's love affair with ink

Modern rules have changed the Navy’s love affair with ink

I had been contemplating a tattoo for quite some time prior to 2004-2005, but the real dilemma in a tattoo is exactly what Jimmy Buffett captured in the opening quotes:  no matter how well thought through, and how well graphically and symbolically planned, a tattoo is a permanent symbol of something that is more likely than not temporal in nature.  Sure, we all like to think that certain core elements of our internal nature don’t change or meander with the wanderings of time.  And while that may be true for the most central elements of character (once we reached something like our mid-20s), for most everything else we are continually and constantly shaped and molded by our environment’s intersection and quite possibly conflict with our inner-selves.  It can’t be helped; we, in this shared human condition, lead both evolutionary and, at times, revolutionary lifestyles that are seldom, if at all, static.  Change is really one of the only constants through time.

So, what to choose?  This is the short, simple question that kept me at bay for literally years.  But my plans and schemes were evolving.  You see, starting in the late 1990’s, I began to change my opinions and views of man, mankind, and the nature of violence, armed conflict, and the devastation and suffering they cause for mere political aims.  Up until that point, I was more than happy to be on the “tip of the spear” flying attack aircraft off of aircraft carriers as a Bombardier-Navigator in the mighty A-6E Intruder.  Carry a nuke or two?  Sure!  Toss cluster munitions on troops in the open?  NP.  Drop a string of “dumb” 2,000 pound bombs across more than 600 feet of city streets to take out one simple telecommunications building in the heart of Basra, Iraq?  Well, if you say so.  Of course there are losers and winners in war, so might as well be on the aggressive, winning side….  Or so I thought.

Me and the Mighty All-Weather Attack Bomber, the A-6E Intruder (1991)

Me and the Mighty All-Weather Attack Bomber, the A-6E Intruder (1991)

That all changed rather abruptly in 1998.  Two things struck home, in relative quick succession, coupled no doubt by a universe unfolding pretty much how it should.  While training to go over to Italy in support of the Bosnia conflicts at the time, I went to see the then new movie Saving Private Ryan on the Army Ranger base where I was stationed.  Most people seeing the flick were in uniform, and were there at that particular base training for the exactly that as was portrayed on the silver screen.  Needless to say, after the movie and upon exiting the theater, there wasn’t a word spoken.  By anyone.  The only other time I’ve ever experienced anything like this mass silent contemplation was after seeing The Passion of Christ.  That’s pretty good company I would say.  Up until that point war movies had only really touched on the nerves that Ryan was able to make sing, and certainly it should give anyone pause in considering the glory of warfare.

Savagery cleanly and clearly portrayed

Savagery cleanly and clearly portrayed

And then off to Bosnia I went where I was the NATO Training Chief at the Combined Air Operations Cell (CAOC) in Vicenza, Italy.  Now, this – being “forced” to live in Italy in a flat with a rental car and weekends off – was pretty much the best unplanned thing to happen to me in the military, besides maybe being “forced” to Okinawa the first time.  BUT, there is no free lunch; every good deal comes with a price, and no good deed goes unpunished.  And the price was seeing a truly devastated region of the world…from the ground, up close and personal…not from 20,000 feet in a relatively safe, sterile cockpit.  Sarajevo was an occupied city, and suffered a level of destruction reminiscent of the old WWII photos of any number of unnamed bombed-out German cities late in the war.  The only thing keeping the peace was literally armored personnel carriers (APCs) and combat troops stationed at every intersection.  There were no-go minefields everywhere signified with what appeared to be yellow crime-scene tape.  Most all the glass was gone – shot out and destroyed, cemeteries were vandalized and degraded, and many of the destroyed buildings were left as-is out of fear of bobby-traps inside.  The hotel were the allied forces headquarters was located was formerly a resort spa and hot springs; the massage rooms in the basement had been turned into torture chambers, and the locker rooms served as executioners’ hallows; there were bullet holes all over the walls to serve as silent witness to the brutality and genocide that had occurred there.  It was a truly shocking experience for me, something that began, finally, to open my eyes to the personal role that I was playing in the military-industrial complex that is, quite simply put, cold and numb to the human condition.

Bosnia devastation; might as well by 1944

Bosnia devastation; might as well by 1944

Then in the fall of 1999, I found myself on the ground in East Timor (Indonesia) as part of the military stabilization force sent there to stop a brutal civil war and more genocide.  Cities burned to the ground and massive amounts of people which the military refers to as “Internally Displaced Persons (IDP),” or, citizen refugees in their own country.  I was at the Dili Airfield when the first of the IDPs were returned to their home regions within East Timor.  The streams of people coming off the C-130 transport aircraft were overcome with emotion at being returned and reunited with their homeland; women would come up to me crying, hugging me, utterly and emoting what could only mean thanks, happiness, and sadness all at the same time.  Men would drop to their knees with their hands clasped in a profound combination of prayer and thanks.  And, in a scene out of any number of nameless WWII movies, I actually got to play the American GI who hands out MRE ration candies and food to all the children, who, without exception, and even though surely quite shell-shocked by the whole affair, responded as all kids do – with a great big if not shy smile!

Me in a flak vest at Dili Airport (1999)

Me in a flak vest at Dili Airport (1999)

These experiences forced me to generate a new view of the world, one where any type of violence waged en masse on a people, country or region has unimaginably horrible and long-lasting consequences.  There are always innocents who pay the price in any war.  And when the rich wage war, which they have always done and continue to do, no matter the country concerned, no matter the political party that beats the drums of war, and no matter how righteous and well-intentioned the military forces involved may be, it is always the poor that die, and everyone suffers.

I started to have way too many questions....

I started to have way too many questions….

This all had a profound effect on me as a warrior.  I had no qualms about supporting Kuwait in 1990-1994, where I deployed twice via aircraft carrier under the Bush 41 and then the Clinton Administrations.  I had no issue stepping in to help stop the wanton violence and undeniable genocide and ethnic cleansing being doled out throughout the former Yugoslavia.  But when it came to the “Global War on Terror (GWOT)” and the rhetoric of the Bush 43 Administration, I had grave misgivings about our country’s goals, exit strategies, let alone the reality of what really could be accomplished with yet another imperial western power waging a modern crusade against the Middle East.

We are responsible for 18%

We are responsible for 18%

Okay, maybe the GWOT shouldn’t be quite characterized to such an extreme, but I felt we were clearly on the wrong path, and that going back into Iraq in 2003 – Iraq has never been about any “war on terror” – would be perhaps the worst mistake our country would make for the 21st Century.  We’ll see.  I was beginning to have a harder and harder time in the military, and found myself questioning authority, our country’s leadership, and my own role in the whole quagmire.

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So, in 2004 I found myself quite troubled at deploying, on no-notice, to Iraq with the 31st MEU for an 8-month cruise aboard the USS Essex in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  The only conclusion I could reach at the time was that I would do whatever it took to protect the lives of US servicemen and women; the political aims and military objectives quite honestly I could give a shit about.  The 31st MEU during that period from the fall of 2004 through the spring of 2005 lost over 50 marines (55 if memory serves me correctly), a price much too high in my mind for what was accomplished – or not – in Iraq.  In my opinion, one marine’s life wasn’t worth today’s outcomes in that part of the world.

We are all humans....

We are all humans….

This long story slowly led me to the conclusion and that we – mankind – are our own worst enemies.  It is not nature, not the environment, pollution, or global warming.  It is not about energy or other natural resources, nor about freedom or the type of government one country may have, or even about what supernatural power or being to which you may or may not pray.  It is in our very capacity to do harm, so quickly, so easily, and with so little thought about the unintended consequences and 2nd and 3rd order effects that always result in and when killing.  Individually we are all responsible for these aftereffects; however, it can verge on the obscene when a population either endorses or even encourages unbounded aggression.  This formulation and collusion of ideas, combined with my traumatic exposure to scenes of massive death and destruction in Banda Ache, Indonesia, after the tsunami of 2004 changed my very core.

Landscape of Thorns:  A timeless warning

Landscape of Thorns: A timeless warning

So, how to translate all these conflicted and dark feelings into permanent art, to be adorned on my body?  That was still difficult.  I knew the direction I wanted to take, but continued to toy graphically with how best to symbolize such feelings succinctly, yet in a way that would translate well onto my skin.  I remembered back to a Discover or National Geographic article from years prior an article that focused on a team of professionals from many varied walks of life who were given the responsibility for designing a warning “system” that would cap our proposed nuclear waste dumping sites in the mountains of the west (see an interesting blog here).  Oh, and it had to last a minimum of 10,000 years, and it could not be language-based or centric.  Think about it – that stuff stays dangerous for a mighty long time (some of it with a half-life of 220,000 years), and there’s no guarantee that language or our current notions of denoting “danger” would apply to the peoples – or even aliens – that could trespass that far into the future.  I can no longer recall the details of the article, but I remember an artist’s portrayal of a series of very long, sharp spires and blades made of the hardest metals and stone (spike fields and landscape of thorns), somewhat loosely based on the sharp points of the biohazard symbol in common use today.

spikes01

That was it!!  The biohazard symbol!  I could scale it to fit the Navy’s silly “25% rule,” and could position it so that it was high on my back, but hidden in uniform.  I could add a touch of color by shading the inside yellow, helping the bold, thick black border to standout against my skin (and through my already graying back-hair – yikes!).  So, I began toying with the graphical treatment in earnest.  BUT, still, there’s that idea of permanence on your body, and when are you “sure enough” to pull the trigger, umm, or go under the needles?

Biohazard-Symbol-Desktop-1024x576

I became sure once I discovered my wife cheating on me with Okinawa’s revolving buffet of boys, courtesy of Gate 2 street and Club Fujiyama’s (among other places).  But those details are for a different blog…which will be covered soon.  However, my ink already started to dry, philosophically speaking, as soon as I knew my marriage was liquefying down the drain.

The pain of a disintegrating 16 year marriage and 18 year relationship was almost too much for me on top of all the other emotional turmoil I was attempting to deal with at the time.  But this pain also fit perfectly into the motif of the now congealing tattoo conception swirling around in my head.  My biohazard idea of mankind being warned against itself could – and was for me – extended to include those wars, conflicts and smaller upheavals we all find almost omnipresent in our daily lives.  Like those suffering a marriage in catastrophic collapse, or perhaps for those that agonize as the product of a double-crossing, back-stabbing best friend or close coworker.  Sure, this all fits!  I become more and more sure of this direction.

But the coup de grace for me was this:  enduring the physical pain of the tattoo would be, for me, a form of corporeal catharsis, where I would forever and always associate the pain of that particular encounter with the emotional pain I was suffering at the time.  I would endure, and be better for it, by channeling much of my turmoil to be vanquished…or at least contained by this other form of suffering, a memory that is still vividly alive with me today as it was back in the fall of 2005.

More sophisticated needles were used in my case (thank goodness)

More sophisticated needles were used in my case (thank goodness)

After some finalizing of my design, and after carefully selecting a tattoo artist and shop that ended up being located almost directly across from the Camp Foster “Commissary Gate” (it is still there), and after scaling appropriately and checking placement of the stencil actually on my back, the artistic performance started.  I had my iPod, I had my earphones, and I cranked the angry white punk music I was so fond of at the time:  New Found Glory, Yellowcard, Chevelle, Disturbed, Finch, Evanescence, Hawthorne Heights, Matchbook Romance, Senses Fail and Nine Inch Nails to name but a few (Interestingly enough I still listen to angry white music, but now it’s more of the rock genre:  Metallica, Linkin Park, Korn, and The Offspring).  I recall jamming, listening to a playlist created especially for this event (how I wish I had a hardcopy to better remember it by!), and I reminisce suppressing the pain below, much as described by Chevelle’s Send the Pain Below:

But long before, having hurt,
I’d send the pain below,
I’d send the pain below.
Where I need it.
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So that is the story of my first ink, but it is not the final story.  Much like Buffet’s quote at the opening, the permanence of that ink reminder in 2005 reflected only what become a temporal phase in my life…although it took another five years for my psyche to drift far enough away from this viewpoint for me to again seek a change and new ink.  Unfortunately I do not have, handy at least, a clean and clear picture of that initial tattoo, and I don’t want to spoil an upcoming follow-blog posting about my most recent ink’d transition I undertook in 2011.

And that – and a pic (or two) of my ink, my friends, is for my next Tattoo You installment.