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I’ve been thinking about my trip to Japan back in 2009, and I thought I’d post up an old email I sent out about Tsujiki (pronounced Ski-jee) Fish Market. Pictures are over at Bryan’s blog–check it out! (The title of this post is from an email my friend Annie sent me–I think it sums up the trip pretty well!)

I look like I've been photoshopped in. But I swear I'm really at Sushi Dai!

What can I say about a store called Gas? One that appears to be a very
stylish clothing store in the shopping mecca of Shibuya/Harajuku? Well, I can’t say much because I was snorting and laughing too hard. Japan is an editorial heaven and hell when it comes to crazy English statements. It provides me with endless pleasure and amusement. Do they do it on purpose? Is there a secret English statement factory, where Americans, Brits, and Australians sit around writing crazier and crazier sentences to sell to unsuspecting retailers?

For instance, the wonderfully named Bagel & Bagel, which I feel compelled to remark upon every time Bryan and I pass it: “I hear that’s a good law firm.” But we haven’t tried it yet. You’re better to eat the weird Japanese things rather than the American-type things, which don’t taste as good.

In fact, my advice to all of you, don’t order anything that you think will taste like home. Like beef. I plan to have a gristle-free trip from now on, thanks.

We had an amazing meal at the big fish market (thanks for the suggestion, Suzanne!) on Thursday. Tsujiki (pronounced Ski-jee) Fish Market is crazy. We arrived at 8 am, after the auctions, when all the vendors are selling the fish they have bought. It’s completely insane.

As Bryan pointed out, they would never open it to the public at home. Too many chances to sue! It’s an enormous working fish market, with men zipping around on mini-flatbed trucks, which they drive standing up. The huge steering wheels seem to be attached to huge metal wine barrels. There are also men pulling wooden carts, men driving scooters, men riding bikes, men sawing huge frozen tuna in half with a jig saw, men slinging buckets of eels, men wearing wellies….and a few women tucked in the back of the stalls, doing book-keeping.

It’s wet and busy and crazy, and there was no time to linger to take pictures. We scuttled through, gawking and dodging puddles, and emerged gasping with exhaustion on the other side, happy that we were not crushed, cut, or run over.

It was 9.30 am. Time for sushi. There are teeny bars (that seat 15 people) in front of the market. We picked the one that had a line. I wandered off to buy an omelet kabob thingy, and when I came back, Bryan had made friends with Nakagawa-san, a retired Tokyo businessman who spoke excellent English.

He and his wife were back in town for a few days. When I asked him if he was here on business, he laughed, pointed at the restaurant and said “sushi business!” We had chosen his favorite sushi restaurant of many years, Sushi Dae, which means Big Sushi.

We then had the awkward gift experience. After standing in line for about 30 minutes and talking, we gave Nakagawa-san and his wife an omigaye, a little gift. I picked up some mints in tins decorated with Obama from work, so we had been giving people “Obama candy” as omigaye. We gave them each one, and then poor Mrs. Nakagawa had to dig around frantically in her backpack to give us something back: a satsuma, a cream pastry, a sewing kit (!), so that things would be even.

We finally all squeezed into the bar. Literally squeezed. Our bags went up on a rack, and I barely fit into the stool. It’s a good thing the woman who served us tea was tiny and could squeeze by us and the wall.

Nakagawa-san and Bryan sat next to each other and talked baseball, earning them a dirty look from one of the three sushi chefs behind the counter, who apparently was a fan of Matsui, a Japanese guy who plays for the Yankees.

And the sushi madness began.

I can’t even remember how many times the guys reached over the counter
and put a piece of sushi in front of us. I was trying not to shame myself with the chopsticks, as well as not put the chopsticks on the upper shelf (got a very gentle reproof on that). And once there was a piece of fish with some kind of gristle issue but since the Japanese don’t use napkins, I had to try to subtly spit it out and wrap it in the paper wrapper the chopsticks came in (and then hide that in my pocket!).

Apart from the gristle moment, everything else was buttery smooth and
awesome and fresh and delicious. Well, I asked for no “tako” and there
were no tentacles, but we did have live sliced clam. Slightly….chewy and reluctant to go down.

Anyway, it was incredible. Fish! Omelet! Green tea! Miso soup! The dishes kept coming, and it got hotter in the space and the sushi chefs and Bryan and Nakagawa-san were joking and laughing and I started to worry I couldn’t fit one more piece down my throat and then it was over and we were saying good-bye, and it was the best sushi ever.

Nothing gives Bryan the shudders like the shark book.

It’s not that he fears sharks. It’s that he fears seeing me reading this book for possibly the 100th time.

I suppose it’s a form of book OCD. I’ll read a book–and then I will read it again and again. And again. And again. And again. From the middle, towards the end, it doesn’t matter. I’ll just pick it and read it for a while.

I think it might have been originally triggered by the fact that I read insanely fast. You’re just on the fourth paragraph–I’ve finished the blog post. So in school, I got in the habit of rereading a book when I finished it.

Now, however, it’s a specifically nighttime phenomenon. At about 10.30 pm, I am in bed, and I am reading the same book I’ve read every night for the last 6 weeks.

Now, I like to have something fresh for my daily commute or for trips or just lying around on the couch. But as someone who loves to read but struggles with insomnia, it’s important that I don’t read anything too crazy before I turn off the light. I find reading helps settle my thoughts and soothes my brain. It’s practically impossible to go to sleep without reading something.

Specifically, without reading the same thing multiple times.

Why would it be soothing, you ask, to read a book about sharks (The Devil’s Teeth) or zombies (World War Z)? Well, these are clearly things that will never happen. I will never go anemone diving in shark-infested waters. I am not going whack off the head of a zombie. Total fantasy. Books like The Hours–with suicide, divorce, love, depression–would keep me awake all night. Better to go with the sharks.

It’s not a new phenomenon. After September 11, the only book I read for months before falling asleep was The Wind in the Willows.

Alas, most of my choices for self-soothing are not classy. For after hours of reading about St. Jerome and 14th-century art for my Master’s degree, the only book I could bear to read before falling asleep was Dark Mirror, a Star Trek novel. When I was going through a rough patch when I lived in Boston, I spent many, many evenings with the Children of the Jedi. I also reread Knife of Dreams more times than its author deserved (part of a huge, bloated fantasy saga–the author died 3 books out from the finish! The lesson? Stick to trilogies.).

There’s something about already knowing a books, its twists and turns, its characters and plot, that make a more restful experience. I’m not driven to finish the book, or start at the beginning. I suppose I am freed from the linear hold that have books have on us–freed to sink into whatever world will open the door to sleep.

Sometimes I do not finish books.

Now, I tend to tear into books like a starving bear. And once I start, I like to chomp. I am not a slow food reader. I do not sit and savor. I am shoving words in my head like I’d shovel hot fries in my mouth on the way home from the drive-through. I like a fat book and a long plane ride, no interruptions, just one long textual binge.

The best bus rides from NY to DC featured the excellent non-fiction The Devil’s Teeth and the amazing Ursula Le Guin novel Voices. Four hours never felt so short.

I flew back from St. Croix barely speaking to my boyfriend because The Thirteenth Tale was so utterly gripping. It’s fortunate I saved it for the ride home—if I had started it earlier, I would have ignored the scenery and sat on the beach reading.

I like to start and not stop. I once burst into tears when Bryan picked me up at work because the new book I had taken to work for that morning’s commute was sitting on my desk in the office and I didn’t have the key and it was the Friday of a long weekend.

So not finishing a book seems a little weird. And yet, I don’t feel badly about it.

But recent conversations with a friend who feels compelled to finish books, even if she finds them dull, have made me wonder—should I be feeling guilty about tossing aside a book without a second thought? Is it morally wrong to give up on a book once you have begun?

For a long time, The Whistling Woman was stashed next to my bedside lamp. I would pick it up and read a few pages, then set it down and forget about it. When I moved, I put it in the donation bag. Unfinished.

Sorry, A. S. Byatt. I loved Possession, but I just didn’t care about any of your witty academics or their wacky friends.

I’ve also abandoned Crime and Punishment with only 50 pages left before I went to Russia; The Mill on the Floss after 10 pages in; Dark Star by Paul Theroux when I couldn’t bear his writing voice; A View of One’s Own even though it was given to me by a friend whose taste is impeccable; and The Corrections, when I realized I could not be in the company of the writer or his creations for another second.

There are exceptions. In college, I tossed Pride and Prejudice after the first chapter, only to finally read it when I was sick and stuck at home about 6 years later. Now it is battered and beloved. And the truly irritating first 75 pages of The Other Wind gave way to an enjoyable, though slightly ridiculous novel when I picked it up again out of desperation. And jumped ahead a chapter or two.

It seems people assume they don’t like to read based on school experiences, which is too bad. I know I don’t like Henry James, because I’ve read five of them. And hated every one. But that’s ok.
I’m under no obligation ever again to read one. And most books aren’t written by, or in the style of, Henry James.

So don’t feel like you can’t try something else if you don’t a genre or an author.

There are so many books. And I want to enjoy their company. I don’t want to pretend to take a call on my cell phone or recognize someone across the room to get away—I don’t even need to say, it’s not you, it’s me. I can just close the book.

And then tear into another one.

Dear Councilmember

The woman that cleans my office. The cooks where I buy lunch. The young people hurrying around Dupont Circle. The nanny who works for my friend.

After teaching 6 classes at Language ETC, everyone looks different to me. Any of them could be one of my students. Someday, they might be sitting in my class. They might be people who work all day, and then go to class for two hours in the evening, four nights a week. They might be people I will get to know and care about.

I love DC, with its monuments and cherry blossoms, but Language ETC is my favorite place in the District. In the teacher’s lounge, no one is bragging about their jobs or salaries. Volunteers are coming up with games, plotting lesson plans, or conferring about a student. Every class has two teachers who teach together, and these teachers communicate with 3 other sets of teachers. It’s a group effort.

In a city that can be obsessed with power, Language ETC is about giving power away.

What kind of power?

The power to communicate with your child’s nursery school teacher. The power to take a written test and join the Army to start a career as a mechanic. The power to talk with your coworkers, so the chef who only speaks English will tell you how much you’ve improved.

This kind of power is empowerment. It improves the lives of people who need help, and it improves the lives of those who give help. Getting to know other people in a personal way across social and economic lines is a rare thing in DC: Language ETC is a special place.

This past Tuesday, as my teacher and I put our classroom binder back, we were excited about our lesson. We could see improvements already, just three weeks in. Students stood up confidently to participate in a spelling bee. They asked us questions in English. They asked each other questions in English. They had fun.

Please do not cut the funding to this program. It does so much on a shoestring budget, but half of a shoestring can’t hold a program together.

I invite you to join my class to participate in the Language ETC experience. Stephanie  and I teach Basic A on Tuesdays from 7 p.m.-9 p.m.

I know you’ve had a long and busy day. But so have all our students.

Sincerely,

Hilary

“Al was one of the kindest men I ever have met,” said my mother over the phone on Sunday night.

When I was born, my parents lived on a two-house street in Worcester. Their only neighbors were Algot and Lilgren, a couple in their sixties, both of them the children of Swedish immigrents. (Worcester has the highest population of Swedish-Americans outside the Midwest.) In their little house the walls were decorated with tinted photographs of blond children, blue dala horses, and lots of history books. Christmas time brought out the straw horses, red-hatted tumtes, and pepparkakor cookies. There was a birdfeeder attached to the livingroom window next to the big chair where Al used to sit. My brother and I enjoyed playing with the stackable leather ottaman cushions which made good lilypads for leaping. I think the house looked the same in 1976 as it did when I was college in 1996. 

I don’t know if Al and Lil’s marriage looked the same in 1996 as it did when they were married (I think in the late 1930s), but I imagine the heart of it did. They enjoyed each other immensely, even when Lil took away Al’s air rifle a few year ago. More or less housebound, he’d been keeping the birdfeeder clear for the birds by shooting at squirrels out the window.

This  Christmas, I went to see Al and Lil. They had been living apart for the last two years, with Lil in assisted living and Al in a nursing home just up the street. This didn’t really keep them apart. They talked on the phone every day the way that I remember talking to my high school boyfriend – talking for hours and still having something to say. We picked Lil up and went to the nursing home (she gamely transferred herself from wheelchair to front seat of the car, and was amused to discover she had been sitting on her cordless phone), and then we rolled them down the hall and sat around and chatted. Al is a longtime baseball fan so he and BVG discussed the Red Sox, and Al joked around with me about the experience of going West and confirmed to BVG that he had indeed been to California. Of course, that was during the Depression and he had driven out there with some friends–in a model-A Ford.

When we left, Al was looking forward to his 98th birthday on Friday. He saw us to the elevator, and he waved cheerfully at us as the elevator doors slid shut. He passed away this weekend.

The nursing home had an outdoor balcony where Al liked to sit outside in good weather and monitor the progress and flight pattern of a hawk. I was home for the long weekend last October and we went to visit. When I walked out onto the deck and called out his name, his whole face lit up. It was a kind of shock when that happened, to see the sheer pleasure of seeing me so openly present on his face. We sat and talked, and we watched the hawk soar lazily up, and then watched the slow contrails of a plane drag across the sky.

“I guess I won’t ever go in a plane again,” Al remarked. It was a sad comment in a sad tone, out of place for him. It is a hard thing to be in a nursing home — perhaps even more when your mind is sharp and engaged. 

“When was the first time you went in a plane?” I asked, and as always, Al had a good story about growing up in Worcester. When he was a teenager, he’d come across a man with a biplane selling rides for a quarter, and taken him up on the offer (no going home to ask his parents for permission!), and they had flown up over the long narrow length of Lake Quinsigamond and across Worcester, the city where Al lived his whole life.

When you rang the doorbell at Bjorkland Ave, Al would come to the door and bearhug you up off your feet. My dad is not a large person, more given to puns than piggybacks, so this swing up while being simultaneously squeezed was always great fun for me. As I got taller and Al got older, my feet stayed closer and closer to the ground. But even when I eventually had to reach down to him in the wheelchair, the hugs were as strong and kind and open-hearted as I’d imagine they’d been for nearly a hundred years.

Pompeii

I was a kid who liked mummies, Roman myths, and a book my father had about bog bodies. I was–and still am–fascinated by the plaster death casts of Pompeii. By some miracle, I did not become an archaeologist or a goth. 

I went to Pompeii in 2002, after September 11, when the airfares were low. My friend Jennie and I had gone to graduate school together, and we decided to meet up for a week in Rome, with some side trips to Florence and of course Pompeii. We went to the catacombs, saw a chapel decorated with bones, and now we were off to a city whose residents met a horrible, sudden end. We weren’t goths, but medievalists. Close enough, really.

Despite an early arrival at the Termini Stazione, we didn’t get to Naples until after lunch–due to my poor Italian at the ticket window–and I was practically shoving Jennie along in my fear that the city would shut early on some official whim. But we had plenty of time. The weather was good, the traffic of Naples terrifying, and the city of Pompeii seemed strangely present.

I’ve seen lots of ruins: deserted medieval villages, castles by lochs, deserted mills, and abandoned farms. I’m always happy to wander through the remaining walls and foundations, thinking about the former mysterious residents. But as Jennie and I passed into the town, peering pass locked gates into houses and squinting at the shaded frescoes, there was a unsettling feeling to Pompeii. 

It felt like somewhere I might live. 

Now, it’s fun to imagine you are a monk in a Florentine cell, or a princess in Urquhart Castle, but you know perfectly well that you are not, and that in a former life, you most likely weren’t. But as I strolled on the raised sidewalk–hopping across the series of fat stones that let the Pompeians cross to the other side with unsullied sandals–we walked by bakeries, restaurants, shops, and little houses, all tightly packed together. They only needed a roof to be as they were. It felt like Davis Sq, where I lived. And I could imagine myself here in Pompeii, in the bright sun, walking with my friend, shopping and talking, getting a snack, maybe going down to the harbor to see the ships, all under the purple shadow of Vesuvius.

Pompeii is in DC at the moment at the National Gallery. It’s a beautiful exhibit with all of the artifacts that we didn’t see in our short trip to Naples, with frescoes and statues and jewelry. And I enjoyed it, wandering from piece to piece, looking into the sad enamel eyes of busts or the wicked smile of Silenos riding a fat wineskin fountain. But while beautiful, I wasn’t really moved by them.

When I think of Pompeii, with its sunny streets, it’s really the feeling of familiar that I remember. The sense we could be living in a good place, but be moments from disaster.

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