I had planned to write this a long time ago. Alas, the shorter days of December have done nothing to alleviate my agenda. So now, with the salty taste of tears on my lips, I am finally getting to something I should have never delayed.
Today, the world grew a little darker when an exceptionally brilliant light was extinguished. For nearly a century the light of my Grandmother’s love filled the world around her. It came to life before females could legally vote, and continued to blaze through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, the dawn of the internet, selfies, and the first black president.
It’s truly amazing what her little light has shone through. It has flickered through some of the best and worst times in history. Yet through it all, her light remained too bright for just one candle. She kindled the flame of a beautiful family. The home she kept and her three amazing children are a testament to the power and influence of my grandmother’s love. Though they may be drastically different people–whether it is the free-spirited passion of my aunt, the loyalty and fortitude of my uncle, or the mindful caring of my mother–Bertha Storey’s love shines through each of her children. It lives on in them, and continues to kindle the flames of an ever growing family. Grandma’s light, radiant and warm, nurtured her three wonderful children, who in turn have spread their light on, to the next generation.
This thought makes me realize that the light of Bertha Storey has not left this world. In the last several weeks, it consistently pained me to say, “Goodbye,” to end each conversation with her on the phone. Alas, the pitfalls of language hindered me from expressing my true feelings of thanks, and my understanding that our conversation will never end; I can see and hear my grandma in the idiosyncrasies of my mother every day; I can talk to her whenever I need to.
Bertha Storey’s candle has lit those of countless others, while never diminishing in brightness. She was like a buddha, in her understanding that, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” Until the very end, with each life she touched, she gave the full force of her love and compassion, and her light spread. Now, the source of her love may have gone, but her flame still burns strong in the collective lives of the ones she left behind.
Today the world grew a little darker than it was yesterday, but it is still infinitely brighter than before my grandmother’s flame first came to life nearly a century ago. And thanks to her, the world will continue to grow brighter as her flame spreads from her children, to her grandchildren, and beyond. I will nurture her tender flame in the hopes that it will guide me in times of darkness and that I will be able to leave the world a little brighter—as she did.
I will not say, “goodbye,” because she is still burning in each of us lucky enough to have known her. It is comforting to know, all we need to do is look inside to find my Grandma’s warm smile, hearty laugh, and sharp wit. She is not gone, so I will not say, “farewell.” Today I will only say, “Thank you,Grandma, for the gift of your undying love.”
It’s gonna be depressing to watch America’s sigh of relief and misguided sense of accomplishment if Hillary defeats Trump. It’s an important fact that we (unfortunately) chose—from an entire nation of potential—these two candidates to champion our causes and guide America’s future. And this is what many people are forgetting: That our candidates are elected representatives of the popular opinion for their entire party (roughly half of the country). Read more
Having tattoos in Japan can be difficult at times. I’ve had the embarrassment of being refused service at restaurants. I’ve been kicked out of bathhouses due to complaints from other patrons (despite having told the staff that I have tattoos). I’ve even been asked to put a shirt back on at the beach. It can be trying.
Usually, I brush these situations off. It was my choice to put ink into my skin and I should be willing to accept that not everyone is ok with that life choice. And for the most part, I can accept it fairly easily. What really gets me is the unilateral connection that Japanese society makes with tattoos (irezumi specifically) and yakuza.
I sincerely understand that the content of certain tattoos can be offensive and explicitely linked to unwanted cultures, but not all tattoos scream yakuza. Tattoo culture is a diverse artform with a long and rich history. It has cropped up since ancient times in cultures across the globe. Everyone can easily picture “tribal” tattoos from pacific island cultures. It goes without saying that tattoos can (and are) an important part of historical tradition and culture in many places.
Although most pople would deny it, this is even true in Japan. Since ancient times, tattoos have been used in Japan, having nothing to do with the yakuza. With new research and efforts like this, I hope that Japan can start to change it’s anachronistic and conservative views of tattoo culture and embrace the native beauty it once did.
The Jomon Tribe project delves into Japan’s prehistoric mystery with a stunning new photographic exhibition. Tokyo’s TAV Gallery is currently playing host to a stunning photo exhibition called “Jomon Tribe,” which melds some of Japan’s most prehistoric markings with 21st century tattoo designs. The collaborative art project between underground culture photographer Ryoichi “Keroppy” Maeda and tattoo artist Taku…
While it may not be The Fourth for several more hours back home, it’s already a hot and humid fourth in Japan. Today I am very conflicted by a plethora of emotions. Of course, it is easy (when thinking about the US) to fall into a pit of despair and focus solely on the maladies which beset our nation: gun violence, hate speech, terrorism, the resurgence of Cold War-esque fear mongering politics, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Kanye West… to name a few. The common jokes about moving to Canada (or never moving home for some of us) have a painful sting as the truth behind them comes closer to a reality. The world is watching in anticipation as our Great Experiment is tested, yet again. It is almost a daily occurrence that I am asked questions about Trump or violence, and to be honest, I’m rather tired of defending my country’s recent folly.
But I will never stop defending it. I have been and always will be proud to be an American. I am deeply aware how lucky I was to be born in the USA and that I have benefitted from being a citizen my entire life. ‘The land of opportunity’ is still alive and well, and I could never turn my back on her. The multitude of problems in our nation make it easy to forget just how amazing that same country can be. Japanese people love to say that America is dangerous because everyone owns guns. I can’t argue that guns aren’t a problem, but this generalization of an entire country based on highly publicized yet localized events is a problem that I think the entire world needs to take into consideration (particularly thinking about the dangers of Islam and refugees). Of course there is danger in America; there is danger throughout the world (yes, even in Japan). But it is insane to think that that danger makes up a majority (or even a significant minority) of the experiences to be had.
My country is not a bigoted, hate-strewn, gun-filled hell of mass shootings and racism. It is a one floor house surrounded by a sea of green and the smell of fresh cut grass on a humid Michigan afternoon. It’s a bonfire in the backyard with my friends and family as my father stands in the distance, smoking a cigar, and launching fireworks into the night sky. It’s a cup of coffee at my favorite run down café where they serve free snacks to the homeless. It’s a lecture hall in which a professor has the freedom to question our political and social institutions without fear of overt censorship or imprisonment. It’s that same lecture hall where any and every student (regardless of gender, race, age, ideology, etc…) has a right to be educated. Sure, bad things happen, and we don’t always live up to the ideals set before us as a nation, but through and through we keep fighting for what we believe is right and the “American Way”.
My nation is all of this; the good and the bad. It is a splendidly imperfect amalgamation of people and ideas that has given the world some of its greatest and worst memories. My nation is my home, and I love my home with a passion. I implore you to take some time today and think about what makes America home for you; and once you’ve found that thing, hold on to it and fight for it! I hope that everyone has some delicious barbecue, watches beautiful fireworks, and drinks some good beer. But most of all, have a good Fourth of July.
The bright white light of Life can be too much too look upon with the naked eye. It can blind us, and often does. It relentlessly showers us with harmful UV rays of obligations, hardships, and challenge. So much so that even if we are wearing protective lenses and SPF 1000, we may still get burned. Yet, day by day we must venture out into the world and fend off Life’s piercing beams. Read more
My “day” began with me dressed in a Santa suit and playing guitar for preschoolers in rural Japan, and ended blackout drunk in Detroit. I say, “day,” because it was actually closer to 60 hours with two nap breaks totaling no more than 5 hours. I would say it was the craziest 60 hours of my life, but I’m not confident that statement holds true. It was unquestionably the most ridiculous, though. Little did I know, but I was in for an all-nighter in Tokyo, a 12 hour flight, a bloody nose, a bachelor party, a reunion, a bar fight, and (needless to say) copious amounts of alcohol.
As I said, it began at work (as most Friday mornings do). If you’re wondering what kind of job involves dressing like Santa and playing guitar for preschoolers, you’ve clearly never been an ALT in December. I should clarify that I wasn’t technically Santa Claus. I was “Santa’s American friend,” because obviously Santa was too busy to leave the North Pole with Christmas being a week away. After entertaining the kids with a stirring rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (サンタが街にやってくる), handing out presents, and thoroughly embarrassing myself while dancing, I was free to nothing for about five hours until I was allowed to leave work.
Arriving at my apartment, I had just enough time to get in a quick workout before catching my train to Maibara Station, where I would board the shinkansen headed for Shinagawa, just outside of Tokyo. I kept the lifting short so that I would have time to run to the conbini and buy alcohol for the train (because their ain’t no train like a beer-train). Thankfully, they had some Ao-oni 青鬼 7.5% IPAs left, so I grabbed three and ran to the station.
I have never had a problem with free-seating on the shinkansen; usually there’s plenty of space. So of course the one time I board with a backpack, full-size suitcase, and overhead carry-on (looking like I was moving back home rather than just visiting) is the time that the cars are completely full. All of the overhead space was taken so I had to sit with my suitcase on the ground (eliminating my leg space), my carry-on on my lap (cutting off my circulation), and my backpack on top of everything (which would have been a rather convenient pillow… had I made the smart decision to sleep). I would’ve been livid about the whole thing if it weren’t for the three beers I was about to down.
From Shinagawa, I changed to the regular JR lines to get to Shibuya. There I was to meet a friend of mine for a night of drinking in Tokyo. Getting around the shinkansen with my baggage was difficult enough, but Shibuya station was chaos. We searched high and low for a locker to put my luggage in, but could only find one big enough for my suitcase with my backpack stuffed on top. So I was forced to pull around my carry-on for the rest of the night.
I made the mistake of telling my friend that my flight wasn’t until 6 the next day—which he took to mean, “We should stay out drinking until first train tonight.” Having no idea that was his plan, I foolishly followed him like a capuchin monkey into our first izakaya of the night. There we were greeted by a table of his friends. The group was easy to spot, as they were the loudest in the restaurant (which is saying something). Within a second of sitting down, I had a suspicion that I was the odd man out.
The suspicion was furthered with some of the guys at the table whispering about my looks until finally my friend stated, “He’s not gay!” Everyone laughed and congratulated me on being the only straight guy in the group of nine. It looked like I was in for an interesting night.
With the effect of the train beers rapidly withering, I graciously accepted an empty glass from the waiter. This wasn’t my first rodeo with a self-serve 飲み放題 (all you can drink), so I immediately got up and topped off.
We were at the first bar for a couple drinks before the group had the idea to go clubbing. I’m not big into the clubbing scene (in fact, I actively avoid it on most nights), but I was a guest and they seemed heart-set on showing me around. My mistake was to not realize that they were going to show me their idea of a Friday night all-nighter. And by that I mean we were headed to an area of Shinjuku that’s well known for its gay bars.
It wasn’t my first time going to a gay bar with this particular friend, but it was my first time hopping from overly crowded club to club. I was a good sport about it, but after a couple hours I had had enough (I’m not going to say that I understand the plight of women dealing with predatory men on a daily basis, but I think I got a glimpse). At around 4am I had to get out of there.
We went to get ramen which—as any experienced all-nighter in Japan knows—was essential for the last hour rally. It’s probably the beer talking, but that ramen was damn good! We devoured that shit and, feeling recharged, grabbed some more beer from the conbini. We could’ve walked to his apartment from where we were, but I had left my bags in Shibuya—A snafu I had warned him could happen when I asked to leave my bags at his place, but he said it was a waste of time…
So we had to wait until first train to grab my luggage and go back to his apartment. There, I thought we would sleep for a bit, but he had other plans. Instead, we went to a bathhouse down the street. Normally, I absolutely love onsen; nothing beats a good soak after climbing or snowboarding. But having already been awake for nearly 24 hours, all I wanted was sleep, and a bath didn’t sound too appealing.
Boy was I wrong. I thought that I had the perfect all nighter routine, but I was forced to reevaluate my life while soaking in those mineral-filled waters. It was better than sleep. The outdoor bath was the perfect temperature, and the cool winter air on my face was a welcome massage.
Eventually we got to his house. The sun was well above the horizon by that time, but not yet above the sea of skyscrapers that make up Tokyo. The rays of sunlight streaking across the back alleys of Shinjuku gave the city a soft golden touch that carried the feelings of nostalgia. I was lulled to sleep on our walk home, and welcomed the idea of a bed to sleep in.
Unfortunately, “a bed” was not what was in store for me. When he went to the closet—to grab a futon, I expected—he pulled out a fucking bean-bag chair. To be fair, it was a large bean-bag chair, but still. It wasn’t a big deal as I was too exhausted to give a shit. I curled up like a dog and was falling fast asleep when I received a text from another friend living in Tokyo.
“Hey, just woke up. We still on for 11 at Shibuya?” Fuck.
I had completely forgotten about the plans I made with her. Had it been anyone else, I would’ve bailed harder than when I learned how to drop into a halfpipe. But she was a friend from high school that I had been playing location tag all over Japan for more than a year; every time I went to Kanto she was in Kansai, and when she came to Kansai I was somewhere climbing mountains.
I looked at the clock: just before 8am. “For sure.” I replied, and passed the fuck out for a much needed two hours of sleep.
I woke with a terrible pain emanating down my spine from the base of my neck. It seems I am unfit for the lifestyle of a dog. I gathered my things as quickly as I could, and dashed out of the apartment after a hasty “see ya!”. The station wasn’t too far away, but with all of my luggage it was a journey. On top of that, I was going to have to find a locker at Shibuya again—and this time on a Saturday afternoon… impossible.
We met up at the statue of Hachiko next to the “World’s Busiest Intersection,” and began the unfruitful search for a locker. After about ten minutes, we collectively said “fuck it” and shared the load (she took my carry-on).
For lunch we went to a mall near the station, and found a good restaurant that advertised craft beer. Coming from Shiga, where there is basically one decent brew, I was excited, but upon sitting down I realized that a beer was the opposite of what I needed. Instead, I had about ten glasses of coffee and a pitcher of water.
We talked about our lives since high school, our mutual friends, and our love/hate relationship with the U.S. (as I’m sure most will understand). Without going into specifics, she had found a job as the personal English instructor to a major Japanese actress. With every thing she told me about the gig, my envy grew. I told her, “If the husband is ever looking to learn some English, I’d be down to hang around.” She laughed light-heartedly—failing to realize how serious I was.
After a couple hours, it was time to start the final part of my journey to the States. I had to take the train (with several connections) to Narita Airport. Fatigue was a major factor here. I had to be cognizant of time tables, train lines, my luggage, tickets, etc… There was no time for a fuck-up that would cause me to miss my flight.
Thankfully no such mistake was made, but the journey was littered with little errors: a missed train here, a lost ticket there. Arriving at the airport, I was a shit show of exhaustion induced nerves. And yet, as I sat in the terminal waiting to board, I was reinvigorated and energy came back to me. We’ll call that my third wind.
Boarding the plane was another problem. The jumbo jet had two aisles and three columns of seats—something I was unaware of. Walking on the plane like I owned the place, I ignored the stewardess’ offer to look at my ticket, and turned right down the first aisle only to discover my seat was on the other side of the plane. Instead of letting me cross through a row of seats, another stewardess made me stand in the back until every damned passenger had found their seat. I never realized how ridiculously inept humanity is until I watched several hundred people trying to cram their shit into overhead compartments and move in and out of seats.
Finally, I was allowed to go to my seat. But when I arrived, my place had been taken by some little punk. I had to wake him and ask what his seat was. “17A,” he replied—which was bullshit, because that’s what I was. As much as I love having a window seat, I wasn’t especially mad at him. Fair enough, I thought, and took his seat, sitting bitch.
This was just one time of many in my life in which the “fair enough” mentality was a blessing, because the kid turned out to be quite interesting. We had been chatting for a little bit when he told me that he was from Saipan. I was dumbstruck. The dude talked and acted as if he was born and raised in the LA ‘burbs. He was throwin’ “hella” and “fuck” into the conversation like a true American—It was only well after that conversation that I remember Saipan is part of the fucking United States (dumb-ass!)
My original plan for the flight was to sleep through the first half and wake up around 10am EST. That way, I would minimize jet-lag and be ready for the bachelor party when I arrived in Detroit—At least that was the plan. All of that went out the window when the stewardess reminded me that wine was free. Instead of sleeping, I got drunk on red wine and reread the first novel in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I blame Delta airlines for this decision. The timing of the meal and drink service was impeccable. As soon as I had finished my plastic cup (which was almost two full wine glasses), there was another service coming by. From an alcoholics point-of-view, it was wonderful. I have to comment on the amount of food as well. It was insane. Or maybe the amount wasn’t insane, but the stewardess’ insistence that you take and eat everything made me feel like I was a toddler at the dinner table again. We were those force-fed chickens that the people behind “Food, Inc.” made so much money off of by exposing.
Eventually, I passed out mid-sentence (right around the time Frodo and company arrived in Rivendell). Needless to say, the sleep was much needed, but it was cut short less than an hour later when Saipan-man got a bloody nose. The lady in the aisle seat and I quickly got our shit and got out of his way. Had I been in my window seat, this wouldn’t have been a problem—JUST SAYIN’.
I went back to the stewardess and asked for napkins and water. I felt bad for the kid. Apparently it was his first time flying alone. After the whole ordeal, I was too awake to fall back asleep. I decided to watch the new Mad Max instead. The stewardess, bless her heart, gave me another healthy pour of red wine as a way of thanks for helping the kid. After the movie I was able to sleep for another hour or so before landing.
I had been dreading U.S. customs, but the new electronic system made the process (nearly) painless. What got me was being stopped by three police officers in a row. I think my problem was making eye contact. It’s much easier for them to get my attention and call me over if I’m already looking at them. After having three identical conversations with the needlessly hostile officers, I was on my way.
Earlier that morning, my sister had left her car in the parking structure with the keys inside. Both the bachelorette and bachelor parties were already underway by the time I landed, so no one in my family could pick me up. Following her instructions, I found the car without a problem, punched in the security code, put my luggage in, ate a bread roll from the airplane’s “breakfast” service, chugged some water, put the car in gear, and headed to Detroit. Thank god for the parking structure, because I started out driving on the wrong side of the street.
The drive to downtown was a nice reentry to America—and by “nice,” I’m talking about potholes as far as the eye can see, anti-abortion billboards, and a general sense of decay. I had forgotten how big American SUVs are. Even in my sister’s Ford Escape, a “mid-sized” car, I felt like I was swimming.
I left the car in the MGM parking structure, where I had a nice reunion with my dad. He and my future in-law dropped me off at the hotel to get my room key (which was essential) and change clothes. Within ten minutes, we were on our way to Detroit Brew to start the night.
The Best-Man had done his job well. The Brewery was excellent, and they let us have catered Slow’s BBQ. Less than two hours after arriving in the States, I was halfway through a tall glass of fine craft beer, eating an amazing pulled pork sandwich with mac-and-cheese, and watching football. Through all of its flaws, I fucking missed America.
We stayed at the brewery for several rounds before heading out to the next bar. The father of the groom was sober, and took half the group in his car. I elected to walk—totally forgetting how frigid Michigan is compared to Kansai. Thankfully, he had plenty of time to drop off the first group and circle back to pick us up mid-way. I jumped in the trunk with joy.
At the second establishment, we were bombarded by an armada of Santas. It was the night of the Detroit Santa Bar-Crawl. Hundreds of jolly red and white drunks descended upon the place with a thirst for hard liquor and loud camaraderie. After two shots with some of the boys in the bachelor party, I sat back and watched the spectacle. The rest of our party went out to smoke cigars—willingly standing out in the cold to smoke is something I’ll never understand.
This was the last stop for the fathers of the bride and groom. We said goodbye to them, and got an Uber to central Detroit, near Campus Martius. There we decided to class it up and go to a whiskey bar. I decided to class it down and got shots of straight Jack for my future brother and I. He was getting belligerent—exactly as planned. We were all given sweatbands at the beginning of the night (an inside joke in the group, as the groom tends to sweat more than most people), and he was already putting it to good use.
I almost lost the group while having a passionate debate about something that I can’t even remember. If it weren’t for the Best-Man having the good sense to do a final sweep of the bar, I would’ve been left behind—which might have been a good thing seeing as I was probably still sober and functioning enough to get home.
At the next locale, the night to a sour turn. Up to this point, I was functioning at a high level—given that I had come from across the Pacific Ocean, slept less than five hours in two days, and had maintained at least a buzz for nearly 14 hours. I was aware of where we were, and what we were doing. I have chosen not to write the names of all the bars we visit, but I could recall them on demand if need be. But here, all of that changed.
I walked into the club in the middle of a conversation, and missed the name. The only interruption was when I accidentally gave the bouncer my Japanese ID. It was your typical hip-hop club with ample room on the dance floor and haphazardly stationed tables filled with finished and half-finished drinks (If one were so inclined, they could easily go from sober to black-out drunk in a quick game of ‘Fallen Soldiers’). Luckily, the bachelor party was filled with obnoxiously tall dudes, and we were able to commandeer a table to ourselves.
Everything around me was a daze. While most the guys went to try their luck on the dance floor, I remained at the table, absent-mindedly surveying the room. Nearly every time one of the boys came back to grab a drink, they would take one look at me and jokingly ask, “You alright?” If they were genuinely concerned, they didn’t show it.
I was in danger of passing out from exhaustion where I stood, when a sobering surprise walked through the door. Apparently, the Best-Man and Maid-of-Honor had been in cahoots the whole night to meet up so that the bride (my sister) could see her brother (me) for the first time in almost two years. If you ever need to sober-up, I highly suggest a swift surprise visit from a loved one.
As soon as I saw her, I let out a loud yell. And with that, I had my fifth wind (I’ve lost track of the winds at this point). We had a number of shots, and shenanigans that only siblings can have. While it was great to see her again, a loud-as-fuck club isn’t exactly the best place for a reunion.
She went off to dance as those shots began to get the best of me. At some point, the bachelorette party departed, some of the guys went to a strip club, and the others just left (I assume). In sum, I was the only person from our original group left in the club. I guess, I was posted up by the bar for so long that everyone assumed I had already made my way back to the hotel. I had other plans (apparently).
How I got kicked out of the club is extremely hazy. From what I remember, I was just having a conversation with one of the bartenders, and the next thing I knew I was being pushed out the door by a grossly overweight bouncer (picture a black sumo wrestler). For the life of me I couldn’t understand why they were kicking me out, and my meager protest was enough to enrage Mr. Bouncer-senpai.
In retrospect, I realize I was in the wrong. Perhaps the first thing that should have tipped me off was that I was talking to the bartender from behind the bar. I guess I had moseyed around the end without really thinking about it. In my defense, it was hard to hear what the bar tender was saying from all the way across the oak tabletop. All in all, it was just a sad misunderstanding.
So there I was: deathly exhausted, drunk, and alone in Detroit. No matter, I had my trusty cell phone to guide me home! Only, I forgot that iPhones are even whinier bastards about the cold than I am. When I pulled out my phone to look up the hotel name (which I had failed to commit to memory) and address through Facebook, I found that it had shut-off and refused to turn back on. The “charge battery” screen was flashing. So now I was deathly exhausted, drunk, alone, and lost in Detroit.
It is essential to remember that I had picked up my hotel room key before the bachelor party began. As with most room keys, this one had the name of the hotel on it. So all I had to do was ask the bouncer to call a cab, tell the driver the hotel name, and enjoy my warm car ride to a bed and safety. Sounds easy, eh? Of course, that plan required me to remember that I had the god-damn key in my wallet. Unfortunately, being the genius that I am, the thought never crossed my mind. Instead, drunk-me decided to go for a stroll and look for a place to charge my phone—I was content to ignore the fact that I didn’t have a charger on me.
My search was almost fortuitous when I ran into a couple of the bachelor party members outside of a burger joint. I thought I was saved. I stood in line with them while they got burgers (I was too drunk to think about food). They grabbed their food. We walked outside. They hailed a cab. They got in. We said, “goodnight.” I watched them drive away.
Wait. What the fuck? That’s right, booze-brain over here never thought to mention how lost he was, or that he had no phone, or that he didn’t know the name of the hotel. No, I just provided them with some company while they got their shit together and headed home.
So my search continued. I stumbled down the road for a couple blocks (in “The D”) before deciding to try my luck at a bar. Handing my (American) ID to the bouncer, he said something like, “late night tonight, eh?” To which I replied, “You have no idea.”
With his consent, I walked into the establishment—at least, I tried to walk into the establishment. The moment I began to pull on the doors, they flung open with gusto. For a brief moment I thought my weight-lifting had finally paid off. Yet for some reason I was being thrown violently backward, amidst a mob of loud voices.
Gathering my senses as best I could, I realized I had walked directly into a bar fight. Five large men had come bursting through the door. Four of them were quite obviously on one side, and one poor fellow was on the other side—and that side was the pavement. Within seconds, he was lying in the middle of the street near an intersection with Michigan Avenue. He seemed to be unconscious, but one of the assailants continued to relentlessly pummel him with the sides of his fist, like an ape beating a drum. You could see blood flying from the poor man’s face with each strike. The other attackers realized that the fight was long over, but on and on the last ape went.
I’m sorry to say that I did nothing to end the madness. I stood on the corner in disbelief and spectated. After a few more seconds, his friends pulled the attacker away. The cops were undoubtedly coming, and the attackers were keen to be far away from the scene by the time the police arrived. One of the men walked near me, and I told him, “You should probably get out of here.” He just nodded in agreement and stumbled back to his buddies as they walked away together.
I too wished to walk away at that point, but I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the bouncer. “Help me get this guy off the street.”
Still speechless—and thus unable to protest—I walked out with the bouncer and picked up the nearly unconscious man. We set him on the curb and I turned to leave when I was stopped again by his hand on my shoulder. “You’re gonna have to talk to that officer over there,” he said, pointing at the cop getting out of a squad car. Jesus Christ I’m just trying to charge my phone, I thought.
The officer was friendly (which was a nice change). He asked me about the fight, and I told him that I honestly hadn’t committed anything to memory. He asked for my ID and I reluctantly handed it over.
“You from Novi then?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I stupidly responded. He became skeptical at this point, “What do you mean, ‘I guess’?” Which was really needless. Did he think I was an illegal alien or some kind of terribly moronic identity thief? Was he really about to interrogate me and bring down the greatest bust of his career at God-knows-what-time in the morning outside of random bar?
He demanded that I tell him my whole story, but from the first sentence—“Well, I live in Japan now”—he stopped me.
“Japan? Wow, what’s that like?” His voice had totally changed, and his eyes got big with wonder. “How’s life in Toe-key-oh? You know that movie, Memoirs of a Geisha? Crazy.”
I wasn’t irritated or anything. I answered his ridiculous questions about Japan. But I was biting my tongue the entire time. I mean, there was an unconscious bloodied man laying on the curb less than five feet away! I get that it may be a cool thing to meet someone who lives in another country, but you’ve got a job to do Mr. Officer.
He finally let me go as the ambulance was arriving. And here was yet another failure of my drunk mind. At any point in our budding friendship I could’ve explained my current situation. It would’ve been as easy as blurting out, “I’M LOST!”. But no. He said I could be on my way, and on my way I went. To greater adventure in the Motor City.
Eventually, I stumbled into a hotel lobby and begged the concierge to let me charge my phone. The whole charge took about 30 seconds. When he handed it back to me, I was expecting him to say it didn’t work; 30 seconds wasn’t long enough to charge a phone (or so I thought). The fucking thing had 56% battery life. It had just shut off from being too cold. Long story short: I blame Steve Jobs.
Luckily my hotel was less than a ten minute walk away. I found it without any problem. The concierge said something to me as I walked through the door—I can only assume it was something like, “What the fuck happened to you?” I stalked to the elevator like a zombie, shuffled in, set off the emergency alarm because I missed the fucking “door close” button, shut off the alarm, rode up to the seventh floor, shuffled out and down the hall to my room—somehow I remembered the number—and fell into a bed next to an unknown member of the bachelor party.
The next morning was a wash of trying to piece together this story. Over the next week or so, and after some deep delving, it came back to me (more or less). It is perhaps one of the most absurd stories of my adult life. From the hangover alone, I feel that most people would say, “Never again,” but I would argue (in the legendary words of Mitch Hedberg), “The first and the middle parts were amazing. I’m not gonna stop doing something cause of what happens at the end.”
I walked out of that hotel wearing the same clothes as the night before, a pair of ridiculous red sunglasses, and my (now) filthy white sweatband. My head felt like there was an axe lodged in it. My eyes burned as if I hadn’t blinked in years. My whole body felt like it was about to collapse at any moment. But damn it, my head was held high. I had made it back to the States. I was home. And what a beautiful homecoming it was.
Well I suppose the most obvious answer is that I love bananas and climbing things. Anyone that has known me for a second knows that nothing could make me happier than a bowl of fresh fruit (which seriously brings into question my decision to live in Japan: Land of Exorbitant Fruit Prices). And if you’ve ever seen me standing at the bottom of a tree, you’ve probably also seen me try to climb said tree.
But let’s be honest for a second; it took a lot more than my (semi-erotic) love of fruit and climbing to convince me to tattoo a children’s animation character onto my body. Of course, my long-lived love of Rafiki began with the original ‘Lion King’—and I feel the need to place the disclaimer that I have never seen the sequels. So my perception of Rafiki is solely based off the first movie. I suspect they went more of a childish route with him, unfortunately—but it has grown from my original impression of the baboon (I know he is technically a mandrill), and matured as I have. That being said, my love of the movie (having watched it enough times to wear out the VHS) was a major factor in the tattoo. So let’s look at his role in the movie and follow how my perception of Rafiki changed with age.
The first time he graced the silver-screen was at the climactic moment of Sir Elton John’s immortal song, ‘Circle of Life.’ The hoard of wild animals that have congregated around Pride Rock move to form an aisle for Rafiki to walk down—even bowing as he passes. He embraces Mufasa as a friend with a warm hug, blesses Simba, and has the privilege of presenting the new prince to the realm, atop Pride Rock. Even as a child, I was keen enough to understand that he was an important figure.
Yet, at this point, no lines have been spoken, and Rafiki has only been presented in a ceremonial sense. His whimsical nature has yet to be revealed. It`s not until the scene in the jungle with Rafiki’s famous chant, “Asante sana, squash banana. Wewe nugu, mimi hapana”, that we get to see the genius of Rafiki. As a child, the scene was playful and fun. I fell in love with Rafiki for the comical cadence of his speech and his erratic movements (including whacking Simba on the head). But as I grew older I began to understand the things that he said had much deeper meaning than seemingly nonsensical responses to frustrate Simba.
When Simba yells at him to, “Cut it out,” Rafiki replies, “Can’t cut it out. It’ll grow right back!” This can be seen as a playful excuse to keep singing, but it can also be read as a comment on Simba’s current turmoil. Rafiki is saying that you can’t solve a problem simply by ‘cutting it out’. Simba tried to cut his ties to Pride Rock and his responsibility as the next King by living in the jungle and refusing to return—despite Nala’s pleas. Rafiki is saying simply ignoring the dilemma (by running from Nala) won’t help anything.
Next we learn the meaning of his chant, “Thank you very much, squash banana. You’re a baboon and I’m not!” Again, to a child, this is just nonsense (much as it seemed to Simba). But as I look back at this line, it has several underlying themes. The first would be the cultural depictions of baboons as slightly comical animals. Rafiki could be saying that Simba is acting like a fool, or a stereotypical baboon. A second reason that this isn’t such a ridiculous song for Rafiki to sing is that he isn’t actually a baboon; he’s a mandrill (a relative of baboons)—though I’m not sure if this was actually the intent of the writers. (He is also fulfilling Scar’s prophecy of being “a monkey’s uncle,” but that’s more of my own comical interpretation than anything). And last, by singing a Swahili children’s rhyme, he is evoking an ideology along the lines of “Hakuna Matata”. He is trying to convey the folly in Simba’s turmoil. The question that Simba is asking, “Who am I?” is really much more simple than the lion is willing to admit. Rafiki is suggesting that Simba is over-thinking his quagmire and that the answer will come in the simple and carefree explanation that he is the rightful heir to the throne. Simba is the only one standing in the way of that realization.
When Simba catches up to Rafiki, the mandrill is sitting in a meditative pose upon a rock. Here, he corrects Simba’s use of the past-tense by saying, “I know your father.” This is a line that I think flew over my head as a kid. All I knew was that the following chase through the jungle was entertaining to watch: Rafiki swinging from vines and Simba desperately trying to keep up. Of course, the meaning was soon revealed in when they arrive at the pond and Rafiki shows Simba how his father “lives in him.” While this is a good visualization to help Simba connect with his departed father, I think that Rafiki’s philosophy is much deeper in this moment. Rafiki is showing Simba the interdependence of all things. Rafiki is able to connect with Mufasa—someone with whom he isn’t related—because Mufasa affected his life. The monkey wouldn’t be who he is without having encountered Mufasa—in the same way that Simba is the rightful king because of his relation to his father. The sage understands that though a person’s physical presence on Earth may have ceased, their influence continues to ripple and affect the world. Nothing that the ghost of Mufasa says to his son is new to Simba. All of it is either common knowledge, or has been previously explained to Simba in the movie (i.e. the circle of life). It was the continued effect of Mufasa’s life that made Simba realize what he already knew, and this is what Rafiki meant by saying, “I know your father.”
Despite viewing all that had just happened, Rafiki chooses to make light of the situation and sums up the vision of Mufasa to nothing more than “peculiar” weather. But Simba has yet to be convinced in the right course of action, which prompts Rafiki to whack the lion on the head. As a kid this always made me laugh—so much so that I usually missed the next lines said. Rafiki very bluntly states that Simba needs to learn from the past and face the pain (a good message), but the line before that; “It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past!” is of far greater importance from a philosophical stand-point. Rafiki is touching on some deep Buddhist philosophy (even if unintentionally) by questioning the reality of the past. Despite running from it his entire life, Simba has actually been living in the past. He has defined himself by the memory of what happened to his father, so much so that he has convinced himself of its reality. Rafiki is showing the fictitious nature of past and memory. They can be powerful tools to help us learn (as Simba shows by dodging the next attack), but the past can also be a deceptive agent that falsely defines us. “Where you are,” and “what you are doing,” may be influenced by past decisions, but that does not define “you” in the present moment. Simba has fallen deeply into the quicksand of memory and fixed identity, and Rafiki is showing him the way out—laughing and howling with joy as the lion runs off.
To children, Rafiki is a loony character that troubles Simba yet teaches him many things. I know that I learned many things from the monkey as a child, but most of it was taken at face-value. I couldn’t see much deeper than the literal words and actions of the characters. It has only been with time, and my own readings in philosophy, that I have come to understand what/who Rafiki is. He is a sage that understands the charade of appearance. He knows that the depth of his knowledge and wisdom have nothing to do with his outward playfulness and frivolity. He is a buddha showing Simba the Way through “skillful means”. He knows that the lion couldn’t understand his philosophy to the extent that Rafiki does, but the monkey knew how to convey the basic ideas without Simba ever fully realizing what was happening.
Rafiki reminds us that we must never forget our inner joy and wonder. We must be willing to swing from the trees and sing silly songs, lest we become lost in the seriousness of adulthood. He tells us that we are free to act and think as we please. That no matter what our past is, there is no moment other than the present that matters. We should act in the moment. Never dwell in the past for you cannot live there.
These are the ideas that I value in life. I strive to become more knowledgeable with each passing day, yet never to forget to take life less seriously. I know that my past does not define who I am, even though I have trouble remembering it at times. Rafiki is always resting on my shoulder to remind me of these values and help to keep me grounded in what Camus would call the absurdity of life. All I can say is, “Asante sana, Rafiki. Wewe nugu mimi hapana!”
tl;dr Rafiki is a character with much greater value than a crazy guru figure; he is a reminder that the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom should not be inversely related to adolescent wonder, joy, and frivolity. He is also a deeply philosophical character with profound ideas of ‘self’ and ‘interdependence’.