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    Red wine and whiskey / All the ti-i-i-i-ime

    Posted by Sean at 23:20, September 5th, 2005

    Bill Whittle has his latest essay up. It’s finely written, and I don’t mean to take anything away from it when I say that it’s a shame everything he says in it isn’t so obvious as not to be worth mention. I grew up in a working-class family. Of my parents’ closest dozen or so friends, someone was always laid off, or needed an expensive hospital stay, or had his car break down on him. People helped each other out, and everyone got turns at both giving and receiving generosity.

    You took assistance with gratitude when you needed it, but it was shameful to be a permanent charity case, and there was no sense of entitlement to other people’s largess. One of the (many) times my father was laid off by Bethlehem Steel, he took three part-time jobs–including one at the 7-Eleven–to keep us afloat. As soon as we returned to relative solvency, my parents were back in the group that was inviting people from church over for dinner when they were in straitened circumstances. That’s what you did.

    I know that losing your Rust Belt job is not the same as going through a hurricane. I’m less trying to compare the situations than making a point about the mindset. I’ve spent my entire adult life bitching about the entitlement mentality in America, but this past week has made my jaw drop, as person after person interviewed on the news said, essentially, “Where’s the government with our Carr’s Water Biscuits and Evian?” Some of these people had their children standing right by them. Great lesson from Mom and Dad imparted there, huh? There’s nothing embarrassing about not providing for your own kids as long as you’re EXTRA CRABBY to show you mean business when you try to get the government to do it.

    And, yes, I know: some of the complaints were from people who had been told to wait in location X for a bus that didn’t arrive, and some people had newborns in maternity wards that they couldn’t bring themselves to be separated from until the last minute, and yet other people had bedridden elders to take into account. Obviously, I’m not criticizing people who were making a good-faith effort to fulfill their responsibilities. They can be forgiven for happening to be caught by CNN in an unguarded moment as they were forced to make wrenching choices on the fly. I also know that I’m asking for trouble as a childless bourgeois gay guy passing judgment on how some parents run their households.

    All I can say is, I grew up around humble people who were constantly on the lookout for un-self-aggrandizing ways to serve others and who did everything in their power to provide for themselves before expecting handouts. I know those attitudes when I see them. They’ve certainly been in evidence this past week, but much less than one might have expected. It’s sad.

    I am the law

    Posted by Sean at 21:47, September 5th, 2005

    There’s an old student of mine in law school at Tulane; I just heard back from him that he got out before the hurricane and that BU will take him until the end of the year if necessary. I think he left for Boston this weekend. Very cheering news. I know a lot of people have had more disrupted than their coursework, but every person from the Gulf Coast who finds a workable contingency plan is one fewer to worry about.


    Posted by Sean at 21:23, September 5th, 2005

    Wind isn’t the only thing going in circles around here. The DPRK has announced that it wants to return to 6-party talks on 13 September.

    Can’t get there from here

    Posted by Sean at 21:15, September 5th, 2005

    The Toyoko Line is not running–how not good is that? I hope it wasn’t a suicide. Everyone in Tokyo knows you’re supposed to throw yourself in front of a train on the Chuo Line. Maybe this guy‘s wise to avoid the train system altogether, though I can’t say I’m fond of the incoming traffic in the morning, either. Luckily, I can go casual to the office if I’m not meeting with clients, and it only takes 40 minutes to walk from home.

    I’m also lucky that the weather here is just kind of grey and drizzly. Kyushu has received its visit from Typhoon 14; Atsushi’s city was already being deluged and wind-whipped when we talked last night. Evacuation orders are already in effect for 21500 people, mostly in Kagoshima but also in other prefectures. The amount of rainfall in Kyushu since two days ago has ranged between 500 and 800 millimeters depending on the place.

    The elements

    Posted by Sean at 04:37, September 5th, 2005

    Atsushi flew back to Kyushu yesterday before any flights were canceled. That’s a good thing because he was back to go to work today. It’s a bad thing because the latest VERY LARGE typhoon is now preparing to engulf the island. They’re already giving people shelter warnings in Kagoshima Prefecture (toward the south). The typhoon is expected to pass northeast-ish over Kyushu, then over the Sea of Japan, then over Hokkaido. Japan’s compact boomerang shape makes it great for rail lines, but it also means that a single huge storm can drench almost half the country. Wind speeds near the center of Typhoon 14 are around 100 mph. NHK was showing the usual footage of palm trees bent almost 90 degrees (I sometimes think they’re just recycling a single videotaped sequence from 10 years ago.) If anyone’s reading from down that way, stay safe and dry.

    Fables of the reconstruction (of the fables)

    Posted by Sean at 01:38, September 5th, 2005

    A few days ago, Dean’s World contributor Mary Madigan posted a short entry tentatively comparing the reconstruction of New Orleans to that of Kobe after the Great Hanshin Earthquake ten years ago. She cited the Kobe municipal government’s shiny, happy version of the Kobe rebuilding. A commenter piped up with the observation that Japan is a law-abiding, conformist society, the implication being that we can expect things to proceed more efficiently in Japan than in the US, with its competing needs and preferences.

    I don’t think there’s any problem with placing the emphasis on Kobe’s recovery. Human beings live on hope, after all, and the reconstruction of the city really does demonstrate many of the upsides of social and economic liberalization. Given what New Orleans looks like now, it’s a significant comfort to have a real-life example of another first world city that was wrecked and rebuilt in recent memory. Let’s not get too high on those shrine-incense fumes, though, and forget that government screw-ups regarding the Kobe earthquake didn’t stop with inadequate building and land reclamation codes. Reason has what, in my experience, is the best summary of the multitude of little problems that helped delay recovery in Kobe:

    A post-quake report issued by the Kobe YMCA is filled with anecdotes such as this one: Three days after the quake, two women from Kobe Citizens Central Hospital appeared at city hall asking for 10 volunteers to help carry water at the hospital, located about a mile away. Water duty, they explained to city workers, pulled too many skilled nurses from more-urgent medical tasks. Officials on the first floor of city hall turned the women away. Yet on the eighth floor of the same building was a list of 5,000 registered volunteers willing to help any way they could. When the women came back for more help, officials told them to return later with a written request.

    Similar bureaucratic procedures beset rescue and recovery efforts at the national level as well. Officials turned away doctors from the United States because they were not certified to practice medicine in Japan. They quarantined European search dogs while Kobe residents picked through the rubble by hand. Even offers of help from within Japan were refused: Although a disabled phone system presented a critical problem to search-and-rescue efforts, officials refused to distribute cellular phones donated by Nippon Motorola because they didn’t want to issue the required telephone identification numbers. Officials initially rejected an early offer of medical help from the Japanese Association of Acute Medicine because they were unfamiliar with that organization; they changed their minds a week later as a flu virus raged through evacuation shelters.

    Such responses were in marked contrast to succor offered from less-official sectors of Japanese society: Immediately after the earthquake, the Kobe YMCA was swamped with volunteers, many of whom had been turned away by city hall. YMCA managers quickly established an emergency headquarters and organized the volunteers into teams that canvassed damaged neighborhoods and reported back on what victims needed most. By bicycle and on foot–and wearing identifying numbers normally used for YMCA sporting events–volunteers delivered food, water, clothes, and blankets. Even members of the yakuza–Japan’s organized crime gangs–used their networks to bring food, water, and other supplies into the area. Right-wing political groups, whose loudspeaker trucks regularly roam city streets calling for the restoration of the emperor, dropped their act and used their trucks to deliver hot tea to stricken neighborhoods. This all happened as boxes of instant noodles donated by local merchants sat outside city hall in the rain, untouched and undistributed.

    Surveying the post-quake landscape in April 1995, the then-editor of Tokyo Business Today, Hiroshi Fukunga [sic–I assume the name is Fukunaga and this is a typo.–SRK], summarized a disturbing but inescapable lesson from the Kobe experience. “It now seems clear that even in a national emergency the nation’s pen-pushers will not swerve a millimeter from official procedures, even if fellow citizens’ lives are at risk,” wrote Fukunga. “While the hours slopped by and thousands lost their lives in the fiery ruins left by the Kobe disaster, Japanese officials’ top priorities were observing protocol and following precedent.”

    The above is only a tiny fraction of the piece, which follows the reconstruction through 2000 or so.

    In Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, immediate relief is still the highest priority; but as recovery in structural terms begins in earnest, it’s a good idea to bear in mind that the Gulf States could be in for some of the same problems as Kobe was. America doesn’t have Japan’s idiosyncratic property laws or collectivist society, no; but red tape is red tape in any culture. (Remember Hurricane Andrew?) There is plenty of time for more recriminations to be hurled back and forth…with the attendant guilt-fueled increases in funding for programs that have proved useless this time around, creation of redundant new agencies of dubitable use, and adventures in showy micromanagement designed to reassure everyone that the government is “doing something.”


    Posted by Sean at 08:53, September 4th, 2005

    Years ago, a friend of mine announced that there was an International Conspiracy of Raisins. I loathe raisins as much as she does, so I knew what she was talking about immediately. None of our other friends had a clue, so in between guffaws we had to explain. See, you’ll be at a diner or somewhere, and you’ll order the apple pie. What will come to your table will be a slice of pie in which there are raisins all among the apples, and when you say, “Oh, if I’d known there were raisins in it, I would have gone for the coconut custard,” the waitress will start noticeably and say, “Oh, yeah, there are raisins in the apple pie. Never noticed before.” The raisins have clearly found a way to hide in plain sight from people. With such advanced capabilities, they’ll take over the world within our lifetimes.

    The reason I mention this is that I just realized for the first time that every gay man in Tokyo has a goatee. I mean, everyone. People have been commenting on my beard–no one’s ever seen me anything but cleanshaven or just slightly scruffy–and I keep starting to say, “Well, you know, I actually don’t like goatees much at all…” then looking up into a drily expectant face and having to keep going with “on myself, I mean–but just because I can’t carry one off as well as you do, big guy!” This is seriously weird. If you’d asked me before this week, I would have told you that a good 80% of my acquaintances were cleanshaven. I don’t think I’m all that unobservant, but I really didn’t notice how many guys with little beards there were around me before. Now I’m wondering what else I’ve never noticed.


    Posted by Sean at 06:10, September 4th, 2005

    I feel much better after my weekend with Atsushi. I always do, of course, but it was especially good to have him here while watching, say, Céline Dion melt down on Larry King over how New Orleans rescue efforts are going and scold people for getting cross at looters.

    I tell you, I already felt pretty prepared for the next disaster that could hit Tokyo, but after watching this week’s events, I decided the Atsushi-Sean household needed reinforcements in a major way. That now-infamous woman who showed up at the Superdome with a Diet Coke and outstretched hand was…wow. And you don’t even have to bank on people’s being complacent–despite the newness of our building, it’s not inconceivable that part of it could fail and take out a neighbor’s stash of earthquake stuff. I doubt the weird foreigner in Apt. 3## would be the first place people would go for help, but there’s no reason not to overdo the readiness bit.

    So I bought a sterilizing jug that holds 4-ish gallons of in addition to the several bottles of Suntory Natural mineral water I’d been keeping. My old radio had more or less conked out, so I picked up a crank-chargeable one that can also be used to charge a cell phone. I’d never bothered stabilizing the freestanding cabinet in the kitchen; I got a brace for it. An extra candle-in-a-can and an all-in-one kit for Atsushi to take back to Ultima Thule with him, and we were good to go.

    Oh, except that what John’s been saying about carrying around a space blanket and purification tablets piqued me, so I snagged those, too. Actually getting into the sleeping bag would make me feel as if I were dressing as Madge’s Sex book for a costume party, but better to look silly than to be hypothermic.

    Campaigning continues

    Posted by Sean at 00:26, September 3rd, 2005

    Leaders of the major parties showed up on NHK this morning to discuss their platforms for the election on 11 September. Koizumi appeared alone for the LDP, still doing the cool-biz thing. He spoke with conviction as he always does, but I’m not sure that if I didn’t already agree with most of his policies he would have convinced me (not that it matters much, since I’m not a Japanese citizen).

    The two women who appeared to speak for the Social Democratic Party were clearly aiming for the housewife/working woman vote. They played up the number of people with at-will contract and part-time jobs instead of full-time regular positions. (One of their proposals is legislation to guarantee that part-time workers are compensated exactly the same as “comparable” company workers.) They talked about the SDF’s non-combat involvement in Iraq as a dangerous blow to Japan’s vow of non-aggression in the constitution. Their conversation was clearly rehearsed, but sounding artificial is not the sin in Japan it is in America.

    The DPJ was next. Man, has Katsuya Okada slept at all this year? He looked green. He was sunken-cheeked and hollow-eyed. He was accompanied by Ho Ren, who was well-spoken but has a smile that the television camera made look like Mother Bates’s grinning skull at the end of Psycho. From the looks of things, they were representing the Cadaver Party. Even so, it must be admitted that Okada presented the DPJ’s opposition to Japan Post privatization in a way that was pointed and internally coherent. What needs to be done to stop the wasteful use of so much capital that goes through Japan Post is to (1) change the way money is allocated in the government and (2) shrink the amount of household wealth citizens can pour into postal savings accounts and insurance policies. He succeeded in presenting it in a way that made Koizumi sound as if he were obsessed with proving a political point rather than interested in fixing the government. Very shrewd. Too bad he looked as if he’d had to be exhumed for the occasion. The next week will be interesting.

    FWIW, the Nikkei‘s latest web-based poll indicates that 54% of decided voters who responded plan to vote for LDP candidates for single seats. Of course, only 55% of respondents were decided, so WIW may not be much.

    Calming influence

    Posted by Sean at 13:38, September 2nd, 2005

    Atsushi is coming tomorrow–first time in a month, and not a moment too soon. I spent the night of 9/11 quivering with anger and staring at the television while he came in from time to time to make me more tea and sit with me for a bit; he had to get up at 6:30, but I don’t think I was alone for longer than 45 minutes the whole night.

    The hurricane coverage isn’t the same, because it didn’t involve an initial jolt followed by days of looking for answers. If there’s one thing you get used to from living in Japan, it’s seeing the initial reports of minimal damage after an earthquake or typhoon give way to far grimmer discoveries in succeeding days–but of course Japan hasn’t had anything near the broad and deep destruction that was just worked on the Gulf Coast. Poor Atsushi has spent the last few weeks working overtime every business day and going into the office on Saturday and Sunday. I’m going to do my best to provide the two-day respite he deserves, but I’m afraid he’s going to come home tomorrow to a boyfriend who can’t stop bellowing at CNN but can’t stop watching it either.

    I’m also scruffier than usual: my dermatologist told me to grow a beard. Well, she didn’t put it that way, but she told me that some of the treatments I’ve gotten lately would heal better without having a razor dragged over the affected area. I grew out the whole thing for a week. Last night, I was told approvingly by friends that I looked “very hard-gay.” There was unseemly speculation over what color leather goods would best complete the look. But by today I was ready to claw all the skin off my jawline. I’m not fond of goatees, but I have one now as a compromise; it’s my chin I’m not supposed to be abrading, so at least I was able to clean up my itching cheeks. My poor Atsushi may look kind of scuffed up by the time he goes back to Kyushu, though.