Wednesday, March 23, 2011


The New Yorker Blog

A piece I wrote on the daily struggles of my family at the temple in Fukushima appeared on the New Yorker blog. I've been trying not to hound my family, but obviously I am concerned for their well being.

You will also note in the comments that two people criticized my use of the word "biannual" and suggested I substitute this with "semi-annual," which the New Yorker did. Today I received this email from my father-in-law in Scotland.

"I checked my Chambers Dictionary, and it gives both meanings for biannual. !!!!!"

Recently the Japanese government expanded the voluntary evacuation zone due to a lack of food and supplies reaching the area around the nuclear reactor. As far as I know, my family is still staying put, as they said they would.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Talk of the Nation

After my op ed in the New York Times came out, I was asked by producers at Talk of the Nation if would participate in a call in show about the disaster in Japan. You can listen to the show here; I'm on for the last 15 minutes.

My thanks to Neal Conan and Priska Neely.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Fukushima, Japan/The New York Times Op-Ed

First, thanks to all my friends and family members who have inquired about my family in Japan. And thanks to everyone who read my piece in the New York Times. As you know, cousins from my grandfather's side of the family live in Iwaki City, which is south of Sendai, about 20 miles from the Daini Nuclear Power Plant and 27 miles from the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. While my family is alive and well at this moment, we are all obviously tremendously concerned, and have asked them to vacate the area. But as you also know, my family runs a Buddhist temple, which means they are now extremely busy comforting community members, and conducting funerals.

In the event that you are stopping by here because you want to know a little bit about my family, I've included some pictures and information. Tohoku, the region of Japan hit by the earthquake and tsunami, is a very, very dear place to me and has been since childhood. That's partly why I set my novel, Picking Bones from Ash, in the north of Japan. Lots of people focus on the glamorous south (where the geishas live); I love the wild, unpretentious and traditional north.

This is a photo showing four generations-my grandfather, who was 96 in this picture and who passed away just this January, my mother, my son Ewan, and me. This photo was taken last May. The temple belonged to my grandfather's father.

This is Sempou, my mother's cousin. I have known him since I was a small child; he was adopted into our family in his twenties to take over the temple. But later, I learned that he was actually a blood relative (complicated, Dickensian story for another day. I reference it here). Here, Ewan is five months old. I was planning on going back to the temple with Ewan this April for my grandfather and grandmother's memorial services. Obviously, I will not make it up to the temple at all this spring. It remains to be seen if I will postpone the trip altogether. All the same, Sempou was delighted to meet my son, though he refused to smile for a photo for me, as is the Japanese way for a certain generation.

A shot of Sempou putting the final touches on a funeral ceremony. The sutras for funerals are standard, but Sempou is a thoughtful man, who always looks for a way to personalize what he does; all deaths are unique.

Sempou is inside the temple, conducting "Daihanya," a yearly Buddhist ceremony that occurs in February. Sempou has a beautiful voice and a charismatic presence. Watching him, I felt incredibly proud. You can see how many people rely on him for comfort. Our temple is on the stark side. This is partly because it is in the Sotoshu sect (Zen), but also because it is old (though not old enough to be some kind of historical site!)

The two faces of Sempou's son, Maakun (as I call him). On the one hand, he's a stylish, Harajuku going fashionista, making the drive down to Tokyo for his clothes. He is also a very serious and compassionate young priest in the making. I wrote quite a lot about my cousin here.

A casual shot of my young cousin greeting a visitor. This walkway connects the temple (left) to the house (right) where everyone lives. Privacy is a little hard to come by at the temple, as visitors drop by without warning and the priests (not to mention their wives) must be ready to receive and entertain them. Of course, other people make appointments, but it's completely unsurprising when someone shows up out of the blue. Also, note the parasol. I now carry one in New York!

But don't get the idea that my cousins--Maakun and his brothers--are in any way overly serious. They are boys. Here, priest gear is mixed in with Sony Playstation gear.

I also wanted to include a shot of what the coast looks like in peaceful times. My mother and I routinely stay at Sekinoyu Spa, near Nakoso. It’s a traditional place, with a sign out front declaring that no one with a
tattoo will be allowed to bathe inside. When I arrive, it’s usually
evening and I immediately head to the baths, before retiring to the
dining hall for a bowl of raw, fresh sea urchin and rice. Then it’s
off to bed in a futon—a real futon that lies on the woven tatami floor
of my room, and not a wooden Ikea frame. Older, single men often opt
to spend the night in armchairs so as to avoid paying for a hotel
room; they rise and bathe and eat in the morning. I wake up to the
cinnamon sun warming the horizon and fishermen out to get their catch.
The waves of the North Pacific crash right outside the window, and a
seawall comprised of concrete pieces that look like oversized jacks,
combs the water.

Below, a view of the sunrise over the ocean, and the boats at sea.

If you want to read more, here are some notes and photos from Ewan's first trip to Japan last year, some photos from Maakun's wedding, notes on what happens at a funeral, and a piece I wrote titled Letter from a Japanese Crematorium.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


The Royal Ballet

I remember the first time I looked at a black and white book of two dancers named Nureyev and Fonteyn. My father had found the book in the library and recalleded seeing these two legends on television in his youth. For the next few years, I regularly checked and re-checked this and other dance books (mostly of Nureyev and Fonteyn), poring over every page. From that point, I had a dream of seeing the Royal Ballet. Actually at that point I had a fantasy of actually joining the Royal Ballet, but reality and the completely wrong body type intervened.

A few weeks ago, I finally went to see the Royal Ballet for the first time, in a production of Giselle. I'll write about the production and dancing in a moment, but first want to point out that the shop at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden sells these nice Nureyev-Fonteyn mugs. The rim is silver (which hisses in the microwave. Translate: don't microwave). There are also nice Nureyev-Fonteyn tea trays and tote bags. Tacky? The photo was taken by Frederika Davis, who is still taking pictures of the Royal Ballet, though she's in her 70s. It's a gorgeous, not-at-all tacky shot.

Why do I bring this up? Aside from the fact that of course I came home with a mug, tote bag and tea tray, I mention this because I was enormously moved to see that there would even be a market for this kind of nostalgia. It's been years since Fonteyn danced at Covent Garden, and yet I love that the Royal Ballet is paying tribute to its greatest star and to its history. Do we have anything even approximating this at home in the Met when ABT performs? I do recall once going into the Met shop and seeing a dozen or so people transfixed in front of the giant monitor, watching Baryshnikov on screen in something (Swan Lake, I think, with Makarova). But we don't seem to have the same national and cultural pride in our greatest dancers--even if those dancers were born elsewhere.

I was also struck by the fact that there are many more dance magazines--ones I've never heard of--for sale in the shop, and you can bet that I bought as many as I could and read them cover to cover before giving them to Tonya. Some of the articles even focused on Nureyev and you see that his shadow is very, very long in Europe. Of course, ballet is essentially a European creation. It is their culture, so it makes sense that it would continue to be celebrated.

But there was a great deal more to note. I saw Mara Galeazzi as Giselle, and Thiago Soares as Albrecht. I liked them both. I didn't love them, but I have been spoiled in the past few years by the Giselles (Vishneva) and Albrechts (Halberg) I have seen. I didn't believe that Galeazzi was a young village girl. I was surprised when she came off point during the "hopping" portion of her variation--and surprised that I minded. I couldn't figure out what Soares' Albrecht was doing. Was he just fooling around, which is the way some dancers portray Albercht (Nureyev was famous for this, laughing at Giselle when his fiance shows up). Or was he sincerely in love with her and embarrassed to be found out? I couldn't tell. On the other hand, there were signs early on that this was be an unusual production. Giselle's mother has an elaborate pantomime sequence, whose full translation is given inside the beautifully printed and bound program. Why the pantomime? It adds to the story, for one, and foreshadows the gestures and movements that the Wili will take. Pantomime is also a part of ballet's history.

There were other unusual sequences in the ballet. In the ABT production, Giselle dies of a broken heart. The notes in the synopsis make this clear:

The shock of learning of Albrecht's duplicity is too great for Giselle's frail constitution. Her mind becomes unhinged and she dies of a broken heart--her love unrequited.

In the somewhat more violent British version, Giselle stabs herself--she wills herself to die. I found Galeazzi's mad scene thus incredibly compelling and upsetting both.

But then we got to the second act. In the past, when I've gone to see Giselle, I have to admit I've chosen productions because there was a specific dancer I really wanted to see in the role. ABT encourages this kind of viewing with its "star" structure. As a result, the corps can be under-rehearsed and appear haphazard. Last year, for example, I was incredibly disappointed by the entrance of the corps in the Kingdom of the Shades. And yet, in the 80s, I remember being absolutely floored by the progression of young women in white.

But the Royal Ballet has a beautiful corps. And I realized just how much this can add to the story--with the young wili echoing Myrthe's gestures of: "no." It's an awesome sight to see the young girls work together and sets up a wonderful contrast to poor Giselle's efforts to maintain a connection to the land of the living one more time. And when Galeazzi sank into the floor, as if swallowed by the earth, there was not a dry eye in the room.

In other words, the production I saw had a tremendous sense of mwork and of company te, and not just bravura dancing. This was a new experience for me. I have seen Giselle so many times, I've forgotten to look for the story--and I say this as a writer who is hopelessly interested in narrative structures! It also have to commend the orchestra. After the strange, breakneck pace at which the New York City Ballet's orchestra sometimes played, I was impressed by the Royal's tremendous sensitivity and attention to its dancers.

I take away two things. One: a single visit to the Royal Ballet is insufficient. There are so many dancers to see, and I look forward to Alina Cojocaru, a Royal Ballet principal, returning to New York this summer. Two: I look forward to seeing more Giselles, to see how productions and storytelling differ. I will also be looking at the corps, and hoping for that feeling of being immersed in a dense world of ethereal, severe and talented women.

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