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The Hammering Heart

Still beating.

Month

April 2010

Top 25 Games

Oh yeah, and for people that care about games, I’m starting a top 25 list on my games blog, which by the way I also have. The list will be in chronological order, not ordered by “goodness”. The reason is that the list is supposed to help explain the development of my interest in the medium and also maybe serve as something vaguely autobiographical. I guess you could say it’s only partly about games. Anyway, here’s the first entry.

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On Walking and Stalking

HERE’s a riddle to end all riddles!

So there I am, at the supermarket, going up the escalator toward the exit. Gotta get home and COOK this business! Who should be standing in front of me but a young woman. Me, and then a few steps ahead of me, the young woman. She exits the building. I exit, still a few steps behind. She turns right. MY destination is to the right. We walk along in a straight line for awhile. She starts to get suspicious. “Why is this foreign man with stubble following me? It’s night. That’s soooo sketchy.” Aware of this train of thought, I start to FEEL sketchy. “Why am I following this woman who’s going in the same direction as my apartment? Why aren’t I taking a detour to put her mind at ease, waiting until she’s out of my field of vision, and then returning to my original course?”

She glances behind herself, at me. I look down. Nothing sketchier than a guy looking at you. Deliberately, she turns right, down a dark alley. She’s not HEADING to the right. She’s taking a detour.

But what if my destination happened to be to the right? Then what? The obvious choice would be to just speed up and walk past her. I’ve got gangly spider legs. But then you’ve got that extra-awkward moment where you’re RIGHT BEHIND HER, plus you’ll be breathing heavy from the sudden acceleration, not to mention drooling because you’re hungry to eat that dinner you just bought, and then plus you may not have your fly up, depending on the whimsy of the powers that be. So what do you do?

What do you do?

Luckily, my destination was not to the right. She took one more glance my way as she curved into the darkness, just to confirm that I wasn’t raping her. I looked her square in the eye. “I’m the nicest goddamned guy you’ve ever walked in front of,” I said. She turned away and kept walking. But I like to think that for just a moment, she was ashamed.

Top Ten Ways a Cherry Blossom Tree is Better than Life in Prison

Nothing like a little dramatic contrast to add some spice to your Tuesday.

10. Cherry blossoms are beautiful, while prisons are generally squalid and built with little concern for aesthetics.

9. Cherry trees provide a week or two of joy, while life in prison provides a life of imprisonment.

8. The blossoming cherry tree is celebrated with picnics. Life in prison is not celebrated by the party concerned.

7. Cherry blossoms embody the spirit of “wabisabi” and are an invaluable cultural treasure. In prison, men rape each other.

6. The pure, snowy pink splendor of the cherry blossoms in bloom seems to illuminate otherwise mundane scenery. In prison, we’re having pubic hairs for supper.

5. Cherry trees provide the perfect place for a picnic with your loved ones. In prison, your chances of touching feces directly with your fingers rise by seven thousand percent.

4. The blooming period of cherry blossoms ends with a glorious rain of flower petals, covering everything in sight with pink flakes of wonder. The life sentence in prison ends with the involuntary evacuation of your bowels as you gurgle your last gurgle.

3. Cherry trees in bloom provide much needed shade from the sweltering, oppressive April sun. Prison provides unwanted shade from everything you’ve ever known or loved.

2. Cherry trees are fun for climbing! There’s nothing fun about forced sodomy.

1. Carving the initials of both you and a loved one into the trunk of a cherry tree is totally fun and meaningful. In prison, you will have initials carved into your body. They will be the initials of someone unloved.

Places That Rock or Don’t: The New Gusto

Gusto is a so-called “family restaurant”–the type I attempted to define in this post, and perhaps my favorite of all the family restaurants, including the infamous Cockboy of Nagano Prefecture.

A Gusto once existed at a location exactly close enough to my apartment for me to still reluctantly consider going there if I was hungry while still being inconveniently far. By and by, it was demolished and replaced by a much nicer, udon shop which, even with the distance, elicited little debate; it’s worth the trip.

I was happy enough with this change. The udon shop is cheaper, tastier, and has friendlier staff and customers. Not to mention you get your food immediately. You can hardly complain. But at the same time, the vanishing of Gusto had left a hole in my heart somewhere between the ones left by Peggy Lee and the untimely canceling of “Gargoyles” in the ’90s. You could spend your entire lunch break listing Gusto’s faults, but there’s no denying that Marukame Udon, while ultimately superior, abandoned some of Gusto’s finer selling points. The udon shop may be commended for its singularity of purpose. “We sell udon here,” they proclaim with every grain of their being. The menu has about six things, all of them one form of udon or another. The “kitchen” is an assembly line of noodlework with no fewer than five people at all times, hard at work forging flour and water into people’s awesome dinner. Or lunch. This assembly line, it is the centerpiece of the entire restaurant. No matter where you sit, it will strike your field of vision so that there may be no mistaking–this is where they make udon. Verily, Marukame Udon is the only place that needs to make udon in the entire town. My old manager at Quizno’s assured me one cynical afternoon that this was the correct way to make a restaurant, and that Quizno’s with its five thousand varieties of sandwich, many of them defined by their sauce alone, was running itself into the ground.

“Take Five Guys,” he would say. “All they got on the menu is burger, cheeseburger, bacon burger, bacon cheeseburger. It’s brilliant.”

The menu at Gusto–any Gusto–is enormous in three dimensions. Remember those Waldo books from our childhood, the kind that you could use as a lunch tray when the time came? Well, Gusto’s menu is bigger than that, and features page after page of glamourous, glossy photos of each food item available. There’s a little of everything. Hamburger? Got it. Cheeseburger? Got it. Salad? Got it. Korean bibimbap? They’ve got that too. You can order pizza, minestrone soup, squid tentacles, sushi, and french fries in the same damn meal. The dessert menu is ridiculously extensive, and varies significantly on a seasonal basis. If Marukame is great for its singularity of purpose, then Gusto is great in its own exclusive way for offering colorful pandemonium. It doesn’t know what the hell restaurant it is, so it just offers everything it can think of to avoid being embarrassed.

Laugh if you will, but sometimes I daresay that’s just what people want–a little bit of everything. Sometimes you don’t know what you want, you just know you don’t want to cook. These are the times when we can’t commit. “What if I get to the udon only shop and realize I’m not in the mood for udon?” you say. “Then I’d be fucked.” This is Gusto’s time to shine. Don’t decide anything. Just show up. There are pictures to do the deciding for you. What’s more is that they’re open until two in the morning, in case you wasted the evening trying to figure out what you wanted to eat.

“It’s okay,” Gusto says. “You’re only human.”

Really, that should be their slogan.

The important thing is that the good things about Gusto have not been incorporated into the udon shop’s business model. This has been lamentable in its own right. Until recently, that is! Gusto is back and more convenient than ever, having taken over the nearby Bamiyan, which, owned by the same company as Gusto, is merely the “Chinese” take on the “family” “restaurant” (it’s hard to use any one of those words without at least wincing).

Bamiyan is nine parts identical to Gusto, but there’s something about it that just doesn’t work. Whatever magic dust it is they’re sprinkling in the air at Gusto, it’s been replaced with the ashes of death in Bamiyan’s case. I believe it’s a combination of poorer interior design and anti-Chinese racism, which is shockingly rampant. Sweet, middle-aged women, young men, and children alike make constant jabs at the Chinese. I once told my assistant at work a story in which someone had cut in line.

“Oh, like a Chinese,” was her reply. “Sorry, that’s racist. But they cut in line all the time.” Isn’t it funny when people apologize for something and then do that thing again immediately?

But okay, I’ll reel this slugger back in. There’s something about Bamiyan, specifically the Bamiyan that was near my place, that made it fail where a Gusto would succeed. In my most desperate times, I would go there for dinner. The place echoed with the moans of specters. One time I even saw a tumbleweed. The waitress was the surliest, most unwomanly waitress I’d ever seen in Japan, to the point that I questioned her nationality (if this hadn’t been Japan where the boys are just as pretty as the girls, I might’ve questioned her gender instead). Perhaps Japanese part-time job seekers saw themselves as above the likes of Bamiyan and its borderline tolerance of Chinese things (though I suspect the very existence of Bamiyan has been intended as a subtle jab at the Chinese–“Look how terrible Chinese food is.”

So yesterday (as of today), I went to this newly bloomed Gusto to survey how things might have changed. Also I was too lazy to cook or go anywhere that wasn’t on the way home. I noted, however, that if it had still been a Bamiyan, I would have just gone home and had some cereal. I hope that doesn’t make me racist.

The first notable thing about the new Gusto is that it was packed with young, hip people. Or people who believe themselves to be hip, I should say. Also, everything–all of the decor, the wallpaper, the lighting–had been made brighter. The surly Bamiyan waitress remained, but the surliness was gone. She had bounce in her step. Joining her were two young, sexy waitresses. This was progress. They were extremely professional, bowing deeply every time they came to my table or took any action. They could have been ex-maid cafe maids. The only thing that bothered me was that both sexy maids wore the same expression of fatigue throughout the evening. Stress, I thought. The place was packed with youths. But even as business dwindled down, I noted that the maids’ expressions didn’t change. Looking through the menu, I wondered if their faces might not have been reflections of stress, but shame. The words of one of my high school-aged students echoed in my head. She works at Gusto as the Gusto equivalent of a “cook”, which is more or less a glorified “reheater”.

“Working at Gusto,” she said of herself on Monday. “How embarrassing.”

Indeed, these waitresses, surrounded by their own peers, were rigid. My suspicions were confirmed when the food arrived. “Well, here’s your ‘food,'” my waitress seemed to say. “For what it’s worth, anyway.” This also explained the extra-low bowing; They were trying to incorporate apologies into their regular serving duties. The food, you see, looked nothing like the menu pictures. The servings had been magnified dramatically, the color palettes professionally doctored, and garnishes that didn’t really exist garnished profusely. Without going into too many specifics, let me just advise against ordering the “creamy pumpkin salad”. It looked good on the menu, but the reality is that somewhere out there, a little kid is missing a single ice cream scoopful of yellow Play-Doh and scratching his head about it. I was left scratching my head as well. Had the food always been this bad?

The other downfall of Gusto is that, unlike Bamiyan and Marukame Udon, it is a magnet for irritating youths. In Japan, they call such people furyôs–literally, “not goods”–or yankees. One of these is intuitive enough while the other is a bizarre bastardization of English, but welcome to Japanese. These so-called “yankees”, regardless of gender, care about little beyond their own hair, which is meticulously set and reset all throughout the day. The girls dye theirs blonde and wind it up in elaborate curls, trying their best to emulate the look of those creepy dolls with the self-closing eyelids. The boys pluck their eyebrows and grow out mullets or lesbian hair, which they spend most of the day maintaining, ogling their own image in the reflections of their PSPs. The yankees are the exact opposite of everything you’ve learned about the Japanese. If the Japanese as a people are extraordinarily reserved an aware of their surroundings, these youths are the most obnoxious, thoughtless people you will meet. Far worse than even the average obnoxious, American teenager, because in AMerica we have sort of a happy medium where everyone is kind of nice, kind of obnoxious. Hell, that should be our slogan. The rule is, you can’t have an anti without having a pro. That’s why nobody talks about guns in this country. They’ve reached the should-be obvious consensus in Japan that guns are bad. It was quickly decided upon and then never brought up again. I guess you could say that being considerate is sort of the Japanese equivalent of the right to bear arms in America. You’ve got all these people who are hardcore FOR it, so naturally there’s going to be a large, vocal opposition. It all boils down to simple science, really. For every action, there is an equal and opposite mullet punk with his slack-jawed girlfriend.

Yesterday appeared to be the “not goods” convention at Gusto, and they were present in what had to be record numbers. Their table won the Tônô regional award for Most Blonde or Lesbian Hair Amassed at One Venue. Whenever one of them said something particularly slack-jawed and devoid of substance, the other thirty of them would explode into obnoxious guffawing. “UHYAH-HYAH-HYAH-HYAH-HYAH!!!” It was drowning out the music from my sound-canceling headphones. It was drowning out the thinking in my brain. Their laughter was louder than my own consciousness. I theorized that this, too, is a calculated act performed to sock it to the conformoids of Japan. Every oversized huff of laughter is an assault on Japanese decency. “Eat this, you automatons!” they shout, and then all do exactly the same thing with rehearsed precision. Yes, we have such bullshit and such bullshitters in America, too, only there we don’t call them “not goods” or “yankees”, we call them douches.

Seeing red, I dug into my goddamn Play-Doh. “Whatever happened to Bamiyan?” I muttered.

The Ring

The attention earned just by being a foreigner was something I welcomed in my early days of living here. But a time went on I came to desire equity. Enough with the questions, enough with the staring, and for god’s sakes, enough with the patronizing. “Just think of me as a human,” I would suggest to others. “Yes, but in Japan. . .” they would start and then often say something either face-smackingly obvious or else applicable to people of all nations. “Yes, but in Japan it is impolite to be late.” I would meet others who would even go as far as to tell me what my own customs were. “I don’t really like eating big, fatty slabs of meat,” I would inform on the occasional dinner outing. “Are you really American?” they would ask, dumbfounded. “But you love hamburgers and fried food.” “I do?” “I mean Americans do.”

At stores, clerks would communicate with me by talking to the Japanese person next to me. Others would immediately whip out the ninth grade English after I’d asked them something in Japanese. Others would visibly panic at the sight of me or when I happened to not catch something they said. I never had this problem with clerks in America. “I’m sorry?” I would ask and they would simply repeat themselves. In Japan I would say “I’m sorry?” and they would freeze. “Oh my go, something’s wrong. How can I make this understandable to the lumbering water buffalo before me?”

In trains, teenagers would, with dependable consistency, look at me, smirk, and then whisper to all of their nearby friends that they ought to look at me and smirk too. Old, drunk biddies and their drunk husbands would spot me in and out of bars and point and gawk. “Hey, a gaijin!” Saucy bar girls would size me up and talk about me in audible tones. “What was that guy’s name again? I don’t know, let’s call him Michael.” “Hey, you should totally say something in English, the only language he could hypothetically be capable of understanding even though he lives in Japan and lots of white people don’t speak English, not that I’m aware of that or anything else outside my tiny, tiny, depressing little tatami room of a world.”

Well, they would literally say all that, but they basically said it. After awhile, all the special attention, all the unwarranted praise, all the idiotic remarks, every glint of condescension in every eye of every encounter–they started to get old. I guess that’s when I started thinking about going home.

The other thing is that being a social outsider, or at least perceived as one, I’m a prime target for Japanese derelicts and those with no friends. Crazy people, lonely housewives, and pretty much anyone that everyone else hates will latch onto me like ticks. Last month a suicidal girl confessed her love to me, called me out to stop her from committing suicide, and then spammed my phone for the next two weeks. Immediately after, I went to Rosetta Stone, which the local Buddhist faction is currently trying to bully out of business. The man they sent to do the bullying teetered precariously over the line of arrestably belligerent, and since I was the most likely one not to realize how much of an asshole he was (I did), he pestered me for over an our, smacking me on the back, yammering in incomprehensible English, and making me touch his Kannon charm, which he claimed was centuries old but then almost forgot on his way out. Afterwards, the other Rosetta regulars and Shin collectively apologized for essentially using me as a flak jacket. “It’s fine,” I said. “Disturbingly, I’m used to this shit by now.”

Last Friday, I met what I think was a very nice lady. I stepped off the train at Mizunami Station, walked through the gate, and felt a tap on the shoulder. I pulled down my headphones and turned around to see a cheerful native woman, probably in her early 40s.

“I’m sorry, are you in a rush?”

First reaction, right off the bat–Aw great, it’s some religious nut. “Yes, I kind of am,” I said. It was true!

“Do you happen to speak both Japanese and English?” she asked, ignorin the information I had just provided.

“Why, yes I do,” I said.

She removed her wedding ring.

“Listen, lady, once I’ve already seen the ring, the jig is up,” I almost said.

She thrust the ring at me. It was engraved with English poetry. “I was wondering if you could translate this for me.”

I translated it for her. It was a lovely engraving. “It’s quite lovely,” I said, and tried to be on my way. She followed me.

“So do you live here?” she asked. Then she asked fifty other questions, many of them invasive, at least for a complete stranger. The walk was getting long. Too long for it to seem plausible that she was still heading to her own separate destination. “This is quite a walk,” she gasped, adding to my suspicions. “Is your work close to here?”

“No! Still a long ways off!” It was true! “What about you?” I asked, putting her on the spot. “Do you live around here or something?”

“Oh, yeah, actually this is where I turn, so by! Thanks for the translation!”

“You’re welcome. It’s a nice ring.”

She scurried off. Was she really heading home, or had she taken the hint? “In Japan, people often communicate nonverbally,” I’m told.

Well, needless to say, I was relieved. But with that relief came shame mixed with despair. The lady’s reward for being outgoing and friendly to me was suspicion and contempt. It never crossed my mind that I was lucky to meet a person like this. All I could think of was that she probably wanted something. If she was a religious nut, she figured a gaijin would understand, because ALL gaijins have religion. If she was lonely, I was the naive gaijin who could be seduced. It she was a psycho killer, then I was the most likely person to not tell her to fuck off. If she was selling something, well, she probably would’ve brought it up sooner. Too much living in Japan has made me bitter, and now every angel just looks like a devil in angel’s clothing, disguised as a housewife.

Then again, she might’ve been a psycho killer.

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