The Messy One Makes A Resolution

The Messy One Makes A Resolution

I often think Japanese people do not make mistakes or ever have accidents. A slippery bottle of soda, a mishandled cup of coffee has never been accidentally dropped onto a subway floor. People don’t seem to lose their keys, their wallets, their phones. For the most part, people don’t bump into each other, step on an errant foot  They never forget their wallets.  Their phone screens are never broken.  At group dinners, everyone has the cash (and often exact change!) when the bill arrives. How different from NY, when there is always a flurry of credit cards, last minute ATM visits, and the casual borrowing of $20 when the check comes! Japanese people are prepared.  Small umbrellas are retrieved when unexpected rain comes.  A variety of hand-clothes and handkerchiefs are always tucked away to deal with a variety of eventualities from drying hands after a trip to the restroom to providing a clean, dry seat for an impromptu visit to the park.  Smokers walk with portable ashtrays. I have yet to witness a Japanese person asking for a light.

I, however, am not Japanese and I always make mistakes, have accidents and am supremely unprepared.  I dry my wet hands on my jeans; I stifle a sneeze in the crook of my arm. At the park, I forever need to borrow wet naps from a kind mother.  I forget to check the subway schedule, run late to a dinner and forget to go to the ATM.  When it rains, I buy an umbrella at 7/11.  When it stops raining I run into a bakery and forget my newly purchased umbrella when I exit.  I just walked into the kitchen, tried to get a plate from the dish rack and ended up breaking a ceramic bowl.

I fear I am the cause of shame for those who surround me.  A few weeks back I was up on my roof and readying the bbq to smoke a chicken.  The plumes that came from my burning newspapers caused anxiety among our neighbors.  Doorbells were rung, the fire department was called and I was embarrassed to show my face on the street for a week.  I have asked strangers for a light and the response was derision flecked with incredulity. The other night I was traveling with a large ziplock bag packed with purple cabbage coleslaw.  As I re-charged my train card, I noticed a deep crimson puddle by my feet.  To my horror, the bag had sprung a leak and I could see a trail of red liquid droplets creating a perfect path from where I had walked.  I tried to fix it, not being armed with a towel (of course) I used my scarf to mop up what I could. I adjusted my slaw into another plastic bag to stem the tide of messiness. On the train, some other mishap occurred and a long stream of pungent slaw-juice, emerged from the bag and made its way down the train.  I scampered and wiped and did what I could.  From all angles, eyes were upon me — the unprepared foreigner creating chaos and weird smells.  I tried to maintain my dignity. Kept my eyes on my phone, reading my Kindle.  You can’t really have that outrage of hypocrisy when no one else makes mistakes. You are left on your own to soak up shame and cole slaw water.

At one time in my life, this would have pissed me off.  I would have felt oppressed by other’s perfection and praised my own “individuality,” my own uniqueness, my own eccentric ability to mess up.  But this is fading.  Other than a few jerks that were kind of rude when asked for a light, Japanese people do not seem priggish in their infallibility.  There is not the sense of “Oh look at me, always doing everything right and never wrong!” Instead, there is a sense of acute mindfulness.  Japanese people are loath to impose on other people, so they make sure that they are prepared.  This is drilled into them from youth.  My kids go to school armed with hand towels that they use to dry their hands, to wipe their mouths, etc.. It will be second nature for them, unlike their father, to leave the house properly outfitted.

When I first met my wife in New York almost 20 years ago, we went on a date one night to the old Pathmark supermarket by the FDR.  I think we had gone out to eat, took a long walk and ended up there.  She did (and still does) love a grocery store and can spend a long time wandering the aisles.  When we left we pushed our shopping cart out into the parking lot.  We unloaded and she walked the long-way back to return the cart.  I remember saying, you don’t have to do that, they will come and get it.  But to her, it was total selfishness to not return the cart.  The “THEY” — whether or not “THEY” were employees — were people, and you don’t impose on people.  In a weird way, it made me want to spend my life with her.  Not that my family or my friends were ever selfish or deeply embedded with a sense of privilege; we just did not have that same intrinsic sense of mindfulness and awareness of being an intrinsic part of a larger community.  For all of Japan’s xenophobia and resistance towards immigration, the positive benefit is that Japanese people understand their interconnection with their fellow citizens.

I will probably always be messy.  I have great faith that things will slip from my hands and break into shards at least once a month until I am dead and buried.  I have no doubt that I will leave the house, only to run back in because I forgot my phone and in the process of getting my phone, will leave my wallet on the table.  But, a new era — the Reiwa Era — will soon be ushered into Japan, and along with it, I resolve to be better!  I will remember to always have cash on hand when I go to dinner; I will check the subway schedules! I will not carry a plastic bag full of purple liquid when I have a knife in the same carry-all.  I will carry hand towels!  Unless I forget them on the same table as my wallet….

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