No title could be more ironic on the day of U.S. mid-term elections of 2022, but it’s true. There are no sides. Americans have been duped into hating each other to a degree not seen since the Civil War in the 1860’s. This observation was by far the most jarring facet of culture shock I experienced upon returning to America in 2020 after a decade in Japan. A lot happened in America during those ten years, but as horrible as some of those things seemed to be for both of the supposed sides, they weren’t so bad when viewing the situation from afar.
“But you just don’t get it! Have you seen what the other side has done?!” It’s weird how people who identify with one side or another are as taken aback by a non-sider like me as they are by the other side they presume to exist. Sometimes they assume I am the other side, because not being on a side is too hard to comprehend. A few things about me might help to explain how such an audacious worldview came to be:
I do not belong to a political tribe.
I lived outside of America for a very long time.
I do not use social media of any sort (since 2007).
I have worked in Tech for thirty years.
I have a natural tendency toward balance over conflict.
I love individuals of all sorts, but hate groups.
I am highly critical and skeptical of everything.
I enjoy reading political science from one extreme to the other.
I have a degree in political science (1993).
Item 1 came from item 2. It just didn’t make sense to belong to an American political tribe when seeing the whole dynamic from outside the fishbowl for so long. It wasn’t so much the geographic separation that allowed this perspective, but rather a separation from the daily brain droppings that people receive without thinking much about it, little thoughts here and there that form into opinions held by a particular “side”.
I can’t overstate how awesome it was to have a conversation about politics in Japan with American and British ex-pats from all walks of life, because none of them were afflicted by this mental virus. There was always a broader understanding, tolerance, and acceptance that doesn’t seem to happen anymore at “home”.
America has always been a Coke or Pepsi nation. In the mid-20th century, our commercialism took binary thinking and cranked it up a notch. “What beverage do you prefer?” The only possible answers are “Coke” or “Pepsi”. You can’t say that you don’t like cola at all, or you mix the two together, or you drink one on Saturday’s and the other on Monday’s. It’s either Coke, Pepsi, or fuck you. That’s how we roll. More to the point, it’s how we sell ideas.
There are color-coded signals to help us define where we stand. As much as this might seem like kindergarten, it’s true. There has never been much room for nuance in this country, only red and blue. Coke is red. Pepsi is blue. CNN and Fox, one red, one blue. Republicans and Democrats: red and blue. America has an infinite number of breakfast cereals from which to choose, as George Carlin once pointed out, but when it comes to the most important things the choice is always binary, this or that, red or blue. This is by design. It’s the most efficient way to get people to buy things, whether it’s a carbonated beverage or political ideas.
Then social media happened. Giving America social media in the early 21st century was like giving cocaine to someone already struggling with mental health. Social media is Coke versus Pepsi on speed, with its thumbs-up / thumbs-down, binary take on the world. It started with the goofy sales pitch of “bring people together,” but it achieved the exact opposite. As a set of technologies, it became the biggest and most sophisticated advertising (mind control) machine the world had ever seen.
Social media thrives on division, because that’s where the money is. There is no Dr. Pepper in this equation. Only this or that.
This artificially-induced mass-neuroticism seeped out into the greater culture, to those who didn’t use social media at all. Mainstream media bowed down to their new social media masters, and became Downstream Media instead. Real investigative journalism disappeared. There once was one truth, but now there were two: either red or blue. Pre-existing tribalism deepened, and social media companies doubled down. They engineered their technologies for more divisiveness, more outrage, deepening the tribalism even more. As a result, these companies became some of the richest and most powerful organizations on earth.
The U.S. president elected in 2020 was a product of this insanity, not the cause (though he would succeed in making the divisions much worse).
To complicate matters further, there are foreign powers who aggressively seek to undermine America at every turn, and they know how to use our technologies to social-engineer us on a mass scale.
America is still portrayed as being red versus blue. There are the traditional conservatives who are typically religious. I am not a religious conservative, but I support their freedom of religion 100% (as long as they’re not telling me what to do).
Then there are the Obama Democrats, who believe America can be united, that as a country we share a common dream. For the most part I put myself in the latter camp, but I tend to take it issue by issue, like the ancient Romans did, back when there were no sides.
There emerged two new camps in the ten years I was gone: MAGA and Woke, though I view them both as part of the same phenomenon. The MAGA / Woke dragon is forever chasing its tail. This horrific monster was summoned from a wicked brew, the final ingredient of which was Social Media. For now I’ll describe the dragon and its tail as if they’re separate because that’s how they’re known. It’s the best I can do in a two-truth world.
MAGA types have pledged allegiance to an obnoxious, would-be dictator who rejects the legitimacy of the current presidential administration (not to mention the legitimacy of the government itself). They don’t seem too fond of Democracy, though in my opinion the labels of “fascism” and “racism” are used too loosely to describe them. They seem to think anyone who opposes them are baby-eaters and pedophiles. (I still don’t know if this is a real belief shared by MAGA types, or some kind of joke.) They ended a 246-year tradition of peaceful transference of power in America. Whatever “making America great again” might mean, this is not it. They believe America is under threat by its own tail. Whether or not this perception is accurate or not does not matter. It’s how they see things, and I empathize with some of their concerns.
Then there is the new left, generally known as Woke. They don’t want to make America great again. They want to make America great for the first time. This camp sees America through the lens of oppressor versus oppressed, where those with the most grievances are most revered.
(Hey, wait a minute, this sounds suspiciously like the Marxist hierarchy of oppression described by to me by a self-proclaimed communist professor I had in my political science studies of the early 90’s, but I’m sure this is just coincidence.)
These days, Woke culture dominates American entertainment, media outlets, and the corporate world. It is divisive because it seems tailor-made to infuriate the people it ostensibly wants to convert and protect.
Woke reminds me of the religious conservatives I grew up with in Texas, the finger-wagging, Bible-banging Southern Baptists who just might let a Catholic boy into heaven (if I’m lucky). Woke is just another religion to me, except without the spirituality. If I virtue-signal enough in front of Wokesters (many of whom are rich white people) then this male of European descent just might make it into Woke Heaven (if I’m lucky). I don’t know what Woke Heaven looks like, but I’m sure it’s equally as horrible as spending eternity in a Southern Baptist church.
From a practical point of view, Woke is a catastrophe for Liberalism and for the Democrats’ efforts to win. It is impossible to convince those who would bring you to power by insulting them and calling them idiots for not understanding your ideas.
In order for Liberalism to work it must be tolerant, patient and wise, in the tradition of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King. It must rise above everything and call for unity, as Obama did. If it included EVERYONE in the working class then the Democrats would never lose again. The left must never cancel people who express different ideas. This kind of anti-liberal approach is the biggest irony ever, as it leaves conservatives as the only defenders of traditional liberal ideals.
It’s possible I’m not seeing any of this clearly. I’m back in the fishbowl now, so it’s hard to tell. How many Woke / MAGA are out there? I’ve seen numbers that vary widely, depending on what source you check. Some numbers I’ve seen cannot be true. Whatever the case, the perception that there are inconsolable sides is the mainstream view. At the end of the day reality is based on perception, even if the perception is delusional and artificially formed.
I wish this worldview could be understood by all Americans, because it would instantly put everyone at ease. But it’s the kind of thing that must be experienced, not taught. For now all I can do is hope for the best, and treat all people with respect. The issues that supposedly divide America aren’t any more severe than in times when Red and Blue got along, and in many ways things are just plain better today.
I spent my time off working on personal projects, or, to use the pejorative phrase, exploring hobbies, pursuing endeavors of the creative sort.
Vacations with the family were good, too, but if I never travelled anywhere again then I’d be fine with that.
A few weeks ago it was brought to my attention that I had some time off that had to be burned by year-end, so I scheduled five-day weekends for the last few weeks of the year.
My family and I decorated the house for the holidays, and for a few weeks we enjoyed more than the usual number of family nights, ate good food, and generally had good times.
My first week of free time coincided with the last week of school before Christmas break, so for a few sweet days I was at home alone during school hours without the wife and kids, basking in beautiful silence, free to engage in whatever work I wanted to do.
I loved spending time with the family, but for me, alone time was a mandatory mental health requirement that almost always went unfulfilled.
What did I do on my holiday break?
As noted in a previous post, I reset and refreshed my PC. I also modified some code I had written to help back up and organize our data.
Outside, I shoveled thousands of pounds of snow, and in the process created a sledding hill for the boys. It snowed over a foot one night in early December, and the snow continued throughout the month.
Most days were sunny and bright, in typical Utah fashion.
Despite the snow I took the usual walks in the foothills, and around parks.
One day, I drove up the canyon and skied alone. There were a few moments of awe in nature, among frosty mountaintop pines.
I reorganized the garage and cleared the work bench.
I bought an axe, chopped wood, lit camp fires in the back yard fireplace. This brought deep comfort on a level I couldn’t quite explain.
I began teaching myself the art of pyrography, burning engravings into wood (see featured image, my new year totem for 2022).
I prepared several masterful breakfasts for the family. The kids were fond of pancakes, but I prefered omlettes and such.
I wrote, which still felt like an activity someone else used to do.
Bottom line: in these precious moments alone the true “me” emerged, and I was drawn toward creative work. In the future, there would be no lazy retirement for me. I didn’t need anyone to keep me busy. I was naturally motivated to get stuff done.
Unfortunately, like most people, the kind of work I was drawn to do happened to not pay well, and I had a family to support for the next decade and a half. So I stuck with the day job that left little time, energy, or mental space to do what I was intended to do with my one shot at life. And as a result, my muse burned with fury, every moment of my life.
A few months ago I wrote something cheesy about the magic of writing, about how everything I wrote – everything that became the object of my focus – eventually came to pass.
What would be my focus for the next year? What would I write? How could I frame my perspective in a way that would result in a better quality of life for my family?
At times it was impossible to see beyond this all-encompassing employment thing I was obligated to continue. The final week of 2021 would be the 1,391st consecutive workweek I had punched the clock and collected a paycheck. It had all started in June of 1995, over a quarter century ago. People in my life have suggested this was a positive thing, something from which pride must emerge. Was it? Still, after twenty-five years, no clue.
At times I was too deep in the well of total work to shake the money slave impression of my existence, but these little holiday breaks of freedom helped. I remembered who I was, and I had the mental space to imagine who I might become.
Life was more than a series of workweeks ending in death. Or was it? Going forward, I’d need a set of goals to advance me through the next year, to remind me there was more to my existence than the obligatory routine. But what were these goals? How did I fit into the world, aside from money slave? What would I write?
The plane lifted off the runway at Narita with me onboard. There was no going back. I was soaring against a strong emotional headwind: ten years of memories, dozens of tearful good-byes. My wife and kids would stay in Kamakura for a couple more months to conclude the school year, liquidate our household belongings, and move out of the house. On the other side of the Pacific I would start a new job, get settled, and prepare a suitable stage for the next act of our lives.
The plane banked east and leveled off, giving me a clear view of a crimson full moon over Mount Fuji on Halloween night. I had arrived in Japan just before a mega disaster (the great quake of 2011 with the tsunami that killed twenty thousand and the panic over the nuclear plant), and I was leaving during a disaster (the 2020 worldwide pandemic). In between those two disasters had been the best years of my life. So now it felt like I was leaving home and not going toward it.
I had imagined having some emotional reaction to leaving Japan, but instead I was numb. There was just too much to process, a lot of doubt and uncertainty, and too many various emotions weighing me down. For sure there would be many months of hardship ahead. But that was later. For now, I stared out the window at Mount Fuji until dark clouds obscured the view.
NOTE: ten months passed before I could bring myself to write anything about the transition. Part of the delay was due to being busy. (Imagine juggling chainsaws while getting sprayed by a fire hose on a relentless roller coaster ride that lasted for months.) But the bigger reason was that I lacked the emotional energy to re-live the experience in writing. The transition had taken everything out of me. There would be no definite “end” to the effort; but after ten months in America most of the various stressors had tapered off and my creative side began to reemerge. As part of my creative reemergence I wondered how I could get back on track with beneficial tech. What had I overcome? What had I learned? Where would I go from here?
Saturday, August 22, 2021
On paper the goal was straightforward enough: repatriate to the United States after ten years away, and settle my foreign-born family in a home where they could be happy and thrive.
In reality, it wasn’t so simple.
The only way out is through, or at least that was how I saw it. This would be my personal mantra for the better part of a year as I persevered through the most prolonged and intense gauntlet of challenges I had ever endured.
I had already conquered one great challenge, overcoming incredible odds by scoring a job that would allow me to work remotely and leap from working on legacy systems right to the bleeding edge of computing technology, and I had done this from the other side of the world, during a global pandemic. This had required hundreds of hours of research, interviews, and paperwork. Now the next set of challenges would begin.
In my first few days in America I experienced an unexpected euphoria, something similar to vacation, mixed with an unsettling undercurrent of doubt and sorrow.
I stayed with my brother and his family, in the foothills of the majestic Wasatch Mountains of Utah, of all places. I took lots of hikes and explored the mountain trails.
My brother and his wife helped me find a suitable rental house down the street, and I snatched it up, not wanting to spend any more time looking for a place to live.
I started my new job on the second week, working remotely. The first couple of days I was sitting on the floor hunched over my work-issued laptop in an otherwise empty house.
There were the initial trips to big box stores, Costco and what-not, where I bought all the millions of things we’d need to supply a household. We were shipping only clothing and personal items from Japan, but there would be another shipment of furniture coming from Colorado, along with all my other stuff that had been gathering kitty litter dust in my mom’s basement for ten years.
By the second week there was a realization of the tsunami of tasks that would crash down on me in the next few months, and the details were starting to become clear.
Our seemingly straightforward goal had its obvious, ordinary challenges: the coordination of hundreds of details involved in moving from the other side of the world, furnishing a household, unpacking a garage full of boxes, assembling twenty-three pieces of furniture (I kept track), physically squaring things away, and solving all the residual problems that appeared.
The tsunami of ordinary tasks would have been manageable enough by itself, but there were other factors at play.
For most of America the biggest stressors during this time were the COVID-19 pandemic and the social unrest surrounding the U.S. presidential election. I didn’t care much about politics, and a double dose of COVID seemed downright delightful compared to the pack of extraordinary demons on my back.
At first, the worst of these demons was reverse culture shock. It was so severe that I read a book about it, just to understand what was going on. The shock of returning home after a long stay overseas was always more severe than going away in the first place. How could this be?
Homesickness was something else that came along with reverse culture shock, because after ten years overseas the place from which I was returning felt much more like home.
Separation anxiety was another source of stress, especially in the first couple of months when I was away from my wife and kids. As a family unit we had never been apart.
But they weren’t the only ones I missed. In 2010 there had been a single tearful farewell when I left the U.S. for Japan (my mom). In the month before I returned to the U.S. there were dozens of emotional goodbyes, from our large circle of close friends (maybe a sixty people total, including kids), and from many others who I had come to know over the years.
This “farewell month” reminded me that we had been part of something essential to human life, something I had never experienced before living in Japan: a supportive community of associates, family, and friends. Now, in America, where everyone lived in their own isolated enclave, I wondered if I’d ever experience anything like this again.
Financial shock was another persistent demon gnawing at me from week to week. The actual moving costs weren’t too bad, but we spent the equivalent of the U.S. median household income on setting up a home for a family of four.
For many months it seemed the red tape would never end. I paid over US$25K in back taxes due to leaving Japan too early (twenty days before I would have satisfied the physical presence requirement for foreign-earned tax exclusion), and I made the mistake of hiring a bumbling tax account who cost us thousands more than we should have paid.
We were lucky to have the resources to pay all this out-of-pocket, but it still hurt. To mitigate the financial stress I came to think of the transition as the single biggest investment of my life, but what would it yield?
Two of the other demons following me around every day were professional burnout and so-called midlife malaise. On the one hand, it was a miracle I had been able to score a job that allowed me to work remotely, keep my tenure (most notably that sweet time off), and also revive my career. But on the other hand, the past decade of working directly with forward-deployed military overseas had worn me out. In my current frame of mind I did not want a job. Really, nobody did, ever.
Earlier in life I was driven to establish a career, but for the past decade or so it had felt like I was being pushed too much by outside forces, obliged to burn my precious time on this earth fulfilling the requirements and needs of everyone (society, employer, family, whoever) suppressing indefinitely the more creative and optionally less lucrative person I was meant to be. This notion became most intense at midlife. The clock was ticking. There was only so much time left.
On good days “malaise” was an accurate description of my attitude toward what I was required to do for income; but on bad days it was more like existential agony, the stresses of the day narrowing my vision into an endless series of workweeks and meetings that stretched into the horizon to my grave.
The muse defined the person I was meant to be. I was never sure what pronoun to use for my muse, but perhaps feminine was most accurate. The muse should have been an angel, but in a world dominated by time thieves and total work she was just another demon: an annoying, nagging bitch.
To appease her, I continued to write. I had written over a million words in the past decade, a small fraction of which had made it into published works. Throughout the transition I wrote almost daily, filling up a small stack of yellow legal pads with journal self-talk. Now, attempting to write something that other people might actually read was like waking up from a coma and trying to walk.
On top of everything else there was the actual stress of starting a new job, at a time in my life when I least wanted one. This was the hell where all my demons came to play, but somehow it was still preferable to the stress I’d receive over not having a job.
Furthermore this was no ordinary job change. It required major adjustment on multiple levels:
From having worked with legacy technology, to working with the bleeding edge of technology (requiring intense learning and retooling of skills).
From having worked a decade as a defense contractor with forward-deployed military overseas, to working in a soft, OSHA-protected corporate culture.
From having worked at a soul-sucking, windowless data center on a Navy base to working remotely. (The move would have been impossible without this perk.)
From not having worked not too much to working a lot (for much less pay).
Along with the professional transition came imposter syndrome. All my skills were outdated. It took a half a year or more to prove to myself I was worthy of the job.
Social anxiety was another demon. My natural inclination was to be quiet, imagine and observe. I loved spending time with my family, but didn’t need much more social interaction beyond that. The physical environment of the old job may have been horrible, but its demands on my social musculature had been minimal, allowing me to languish in my comfort zone for years. By contrast my new job required me to speak and present on a weekly basis. It was a major struggle every week.
Family was both the source of great joy and great stress. Kids didn’t stop being kids just because we were in challenging times. There was the continuation of thousands of days and nights of chaos, attending to everyone’s endless needs, and never quite fixing all the stuff they broke. Somehow the kids always reached peak insanity right before bed in the moments when I most needed peace, silence, and rest.
In the first few months, I shouldered all the family organization and errand-running, all while struggling to start a new job and build up a household from scratch. It was months before my wife got a license to drive.
During the first part of the year it also became apparent that my parents (who had been divorced and living in separate states since the 80’s) were probably in their last decade, and this created its own kind of stress. My dad was incontinent, half blind and mentally fuzzy. My mom had a seizure during this time related to a brain tumor that had been removed five years prior. Neither of them needed care-giving help yet, but it wasn’t looking good.
No surprise, I struggled with physical exhaustion. My knuckles required frequent cracking from the moment I had received the job offer in October. This oddity was accompanied by a mild case of arthritis in my arms and wrists and a bad case of tendonitis in my right elbow (after lugging hundreds of heavy objects around in the move, falling down the stairs and smacking my arm on the banister twice).
I hadn’t slept well since the 90’s, which by coincidence coincided with the start of my corporate career. During the transition my insomnia had become extreme, at times medically untenable.
Oh, and then there was the unexpected return of a condition I hadn’t experienced in a decade: mini-blackouts, sudden heart palpitations and loss of breath.
So, to recap, there was the maelstrom of ordinary details involved in moving a family across the Pacific to a land where they had never lived; plus, for me, separation anxiety, homesickness, reverse culture shock, financial shock, midlife malaise, a nagging muse, family issues, the background noise of American politics, a global pandemic, professional burnout, a difficult job transition, imposter syndrome, social anxiety, physical exhaustion, and, finally, what appeared to be panic attacks.
The blackouts and heart palpitations were an obvious sign that something was wrong. I sought help from a speech therapist, as these attacks always seemed to happen while I was speaking to groups of people in conference calls on the new job. The speech therapist recognized a few of my coping mechanisms and suggested I see another specialist. I took some behavioral tests, sat through a couple of interviews with a doctor, and received a medical diagnosis of “high-functioning” autistic.
This label seemed overly optimistic, as I didn’t feel very high-functioning at all, but it did make sense. I had always been overly sensitive to sensory input, obsessed with symmetry, freaking out when the tiniest detail was out of whack.
Now, in this transition, EVERYTHING was out of whack, and there were just too many concurrent challenges, changes, tasks, problems, people, opinions, anxieties, emotions, obligations, details, details, and more details, requiring me to operate far outside my mental capabilities for far too long.
According to the doctor I was experiencing something called autistic burnout (or relapse), that occasionally put me in a very low-functioning state.
The diagnosis created the meta-dilemma of awareness versus the danger of playing the victim card. On the one hand, there was this peculiar assumption that all of us believed to some extent, that any adult should be able to handle anything that came along, and if you didn’t handle it then shame on you. My default stance was to make goals and tackle challenges head on, but it was now clear I was taking on too much.
What I needed was an extended break, similar to what James Bond received in the film Casino Royale (in which he spends months rehabilitating in a lakeside chateau in the Swiss Alps after getting his balls pounded in a gruesome torture scene).
But there would be no luxurious break for me.
The only way out was through.
This paraphrase was taken from the Robert Frost poem, A Servant to Servants. The actual phrase is “the best way out is always through,” and this was still pretty good advice most of the time. I had overcome many challenges, but what had I learned? How did I know when I was “through”?
It was more of a feeling than a definite milestone. For many months I was fighting to get through each day with no clear idea of where I was headed or why. It was like punching a brick wall every day and having no effect. Then one day the wall cracked. Encouraged, I kept punching, until weeks later the wall crumbled to the ground.
No joke, meditation (and the failure to do so) helped. There was no such thing as “enlightenment,” but meditation was a constant reminder that all experience was transitory. It was always possible to begin again.
Daily physical exercise was another key component of getting through. I hiked the local mountain trails and parks in every kind of weather, from blizzard to scorching heat, never missing a single day. One month I walked over one-hundred-fifty miles, much it in inclement weather, on challenging terrains.
Nature was a huge factor to my normalization. Spending time in nature allowed me to reset and temporarily shed those demons off my back. As a family we skied in the winter and hiked in the warmer months. We camped in southern Utah, and for five days in Wyoming, at Grand Teton National Park.
Family support was another a key component to getting through. At the nine month mark we had conquered most of the projects and major tasks on our list. We were starting to meet new friends. The balance of good times with family greatly outweighed any challenges we had.
Most of all, though, it was perspective. Conquering any challenge required knowing why the struggle was necessary in the first place. In my case, I returned to my journal entries of two years past, to the part where my wife and I met for a date night at a beer garden in the bowels of Yokohama Station to discuss our future plans. There in a journal entry dated August of 2019 were the reasons we were enduring this transition in the first place: the dreams we had for our kids’ futures, and the employment situation I was trying to escape.
Japan would always have a special place in my heart. I loved Kamakura and the Shonan Coast. We could have stayed there forever, but my soul would have continued dying a slow death at the place I was required to exist in exchange for money.
My journal contained the breadcrumbs that were key to my eventual survival, all thanks to the muse. She was no nagging demon, but an angel after all.
Last Thursday I woke around five in the morning with chest pain. Eventually I’d attribute it to a combination of:
having slept weirdly on my side (pulling a muscle),
“air conditioner disease” (fungus and cold dry air from the A/C above the bed),
and possibly a seasonal allergen;
…but I had never experienced this peculiar brand of discomfort. It gave me real concern.
Another overarching cause of my condition was very likely mental and spiritual,
4. “Monday through Friday Forever” disease, a result of having burned ten hours per week for the past ten years in the effort to transport my body to and from the place where I was required to exist in exchange for money. On a deep level this was my body, brain, and soul telling me I needed a break.
To get this peculiar brand of discomfort checked out, I rode the bike a mile in the heat of the summer afternoon to the doctor near Hase station, on the Daibutzu (Big Buddha) street. Riding a bike two miles round-trip with chest pain may not have been the wisest move, but the warm, humid air soothed my lungs, even if my chest and left shoulder were still sore. This told me it was at least partially a musculature issue, and I felt a little better by the time I reached the doctor’s office.
Inside I wore a mask, of course, but curiously the doctor did not. I liked this doctor. He was a Star Wars fan. There was a big Yoda in the examination room. The doctor wore Michael Jackson parachute pants. I explained to him that for several weeks I had been struggling with a dry cough and gunk in my throat – not like flu phlegm, but really sticky stuff that had me clearing my throat all the time. It persisted the week after we had had the air conditioners cleaned. For the past month I had also felt fatigued, burned-out, and run down, again, the “Monday Through Friday Forever” disease.
The doctor concluded that I had an infection in my lungs, but it wasn’t influenza. He gave me a prescription for what would turn out to be an ineffective pain killer, and directions to get COVID testing later that night. The doctor wanted to rule out COVID before prescribing anything else.
I didn’t think I had COVID. My “fever” was one degree above normal, and this was likely due to my bike ride exertion in the saucy afternoon heat. I didn’t have any of the usual symptoms. Still, I was curious about the COVID testing procedure and agreed to check it out.
My appointment for COVID testing was at 20:30, at Kamakura City Hall. I was given detailed instructions on how to prepare and what to expect. The payment (26,280 yen) needed to be paid in exact change, cash and coins, sealed in a Ziploc bag. I was to look for someone with a flashlight in the parking lot, bringing payment and the paperwork from the Star Wars doctor, keeping a distance of twelve feet.
For whatever reason the whole process was shrouded in secrecy. The Kamakura municipal government was taking measures to make the testing as discreet as possible. So as to not alarm the locals? I wasn’t sure.
At around 20:20 I rode the bike down to City Hall, which is on the wooded grounds formerly occupied by the Emperor’s summer estate. It was adjacent to Onari Shogakko (Onari elementary school), my older son’s favorite place. The night air was humid and smelled of old vegetation. I stopped before entering the parking lot and put on a mask.
Sure enough there was someone to meet me in front of City Hall, a woman with an orange flashlight wand, like something used by air traffic controllers. She called out my name when I approached, “Waito-san?” and pointed to where I could park the bike.
Further away there was another light-wand individual beckoning me forth, and then another after him. Keeping their distance, they herded me through the darkness, down a long ramp leading to the back side of City Hall. Here there was a small parking area, brightly illuminated by flood lamps, with a stool placed out in the open. The whole area was enclosed by concrete walls six meters high with vines hanging down. An older guy approached out of the bright light. He was dressed as a physician, with white lab coat, face mask, goggles, visor, and gloves. Were all Japanese doctors gray-haired men? He asked me to sit on the stool, so that’s what I did. The whole scene looked like a place where someone might get interrogated, tortured, or killed by cold, sadistic scientists; but I was amused by the whole thing and feeling healthy after having taken a long nap.
There was a small table about five meters from where I sat on the stool, and a small Japanese-sized van another five meters beyond that. The engine was running. There were some professional-looking people sitting at tables on the other side of the van, but I couldn’t see what they were doing. The old physician yelled over and asked that I place my sealed Ziploc bag with payment and paperwork in the tray on the little table, so I got up and put the stuff where he asked. He waited until I was safely back at the stool before approaching the table. He sprayed down the Ziploc bag with something, and then carried it away, handling it like it was the most toxic thing in the world. A few minutes later a small older woman came within shouting distance and asked me to go to the back side of the little van, where there was another stool.
The back window of the van had two circles cut out of the glass. A pair of long rubber gloves protruded from the circles, sealed to protect the inside of the van. Inside, a young woman sat at the back window with her hands in the gloves, a testing swab pinched between two rubber fingers. She motioned for me to sit on the stool with the other rubber glove. She wore a mask and visor in addition to being inside a sealed little van, but despite her face coverings I could tell by the look in her eyes that she was amused, too. I tilted my head back and she inserted the swab. It went deep. I swore she touched brain. Afterwards I was asked to return to the first stool. A minute later the old physician came back and said I could go. I asked when I’d get the results, and he said the next morning. Good enough.
The next day I was feeling well-rested and somewhat back to normal, aside from the mild irritation of occasionally clearing the gunk out of my throat. There was no way I was going to “work” with a COVID test pending, so I let my management know what was going on. I certainly was in no hurry to get back there. A good portion of my general fatigue was related to the ridiculous and unnecessary physical presence requirement of my job. It had been a long six months of working in a COVID hot spot, for no reason at all. I needed a break from that place, and wished the COVID results would take weeks. Instead they took hours. The result was negative, of course.
Still, I wanted to get my chest double-checked, in the unlikely event that there was some serious problem lurking in my heart or lungs. I rode the bike back to the Star Wars Doctor’s office for a “letter of introduction,” which I would use to enter a local hospital and get checked out. The letter had all my medical information and the COVID test results.
Our neighborhood was rich, so our neighborhood hospital was rich, too. The hospital was new, and the reception area looked like the lobby of a tropical resort. I was the only patient there. Hell, the place was so quiet it felt like I was the only patient in the whole hospital. Apparently that big wave of COVID just hadn’t hit. I handed over my packet of information and sat down to fill out the usual annoying forms (even though I had just given them a letter that contained all of the information I would be required to fill out).
A lady approached and asked if I was covered by Japanese state insurance. No, I was not. I had Cigna corporate-subsidized health insurance for ex-patriots, allowing me to go to any hospital in the world. She sucked air over teeth when I explained this, but there was no outright denial of my admittance, so I continued filling out the forms.
Another receptionist walked over to explain something, which sounded a lot like they couldn’t admit me because I had just been tested (negative) for COVID. This made no sense, so I called my wife and asked her to translate. Sure enough, it made no sense. They wouldn’t let me see a doctor because I had just been tested for COVID, even though the results were negative. Was there any situation in which COVID test results were re-examined and reversed? I didn’t think so. Anyone on the street could have the virus and not know it. I had none of the symptoms in addition to having documented proof that I didn’t have the virus, but for this hospital, incredibly, that was too much risk.
The next day I went to pick up a packet of medicine from the pharmacist that had been called in by the Star Wars doctor. It included nasal spray, pills, and Chinese medicine, a magical powder that tasted like thousand-year-old Tang. Within a couple of days the infection in my lungs would be under control. But what about “Monday through Friday Forever” disease?
Later that day I logged into work email to let MGMT know I was taking Monday off, too, knowing one day wouldn’t be enough. To my surprise there was an email from MGMT, urging me to work from home the next week. Like the hospital, it seemed they were a little freaked out that I had gotten COVID-tested, despite the result. Again it made no sense, but for me this was ideal. It would be the most restful yet productive week of the decade. “Monday through Friday” didn’t seem so bad without the enormous waste of time and energy involved in the commute. Thank you, dear COVID. Working remotely, I regained physical and mental health.
At the end of May I took a much-needed break from virus-related psychological stressors at work and spent the week with my family, hiking the wooded hills surrounding our neighborhood and planting some fruits and vegetables at a community garden down the street. On my first Monday back at “work” (the physical set of coordinates where I was required to exist in exchange for a paycheck) I got some tragic news: one of my closest friends had died over the weekend at his home in Dallas, Texas; a victim of depression, alcoholism, and isolation, having been furloughed from his job and locked down for many weeks. The news hit me extremely hard.
In the following weeks I thought a lot about the state of things in America, again comparing the way the virus had been handled in Japan to the way it continued to be handled so miserably in the States. How had wearing masks become a civil liberties issue? This was where the battle lines had been drawn in America’s Coke versus Pepsi existence, and one side got to have their “I told you so” moment. But how did “masks versus no masks” become an issue in the first place? In Japan, masks were not a civil liberties issue because there was no law requiring people to wear masks. There was no law locking people down. Nobody was forced to do anything. For the most part Japanese people wore masks out of respect for other people, not because they were afraid of getting the virus themselves. Even now, in mid-July, everyone in Japan wore a mask. Even if it was acknowledged as merely symbolic support, for the health of the nation as a whole, everyone wore a mask. The Japanese government was equally as incompetent as the American government. But in Japan, the Japanese people stepped up and saved the day.
This kind of civic responsibility was totally absent in America, where it seemed everyone only saw one of two sides, and in this case one side happened to dislike masks. (It seemed that all Americans only saw one of two sides because that was how the media portrayed it, but there were a lot of folks who understood the insanity of framing issues into two distinct choices, when neither choice made sense.)
In America there was no such thing as taking a rational and nuanced approach to anything, which was too bad, because every problem in the world required a rational and nuanced solution. Instead, the American approach was emotional and dogmatic, either this or that, thumbs up or thumbs down, my team or yours. And the kicker? Neither choice was ever totally correct.
For example, on immigration: “Should we build a giant wall separating US and Mexico, OR should we let everyone across the border?” Answer: Neither. None of the above.
Police brutality: “Should we pretend there’s no problem, OR eliminate the police?” None of the above.
Pandemic: “Should we lock everything down OR open everything up?” None of the above.
Every problem always required a “this AND that” solution. Nothing was ever “this OR that,” but that was how advertising worked best. (Thanks, Facebook, for the thumbs up / thumbs down turd you dropped on an already divided Western world.)
This Coke-OR-Pepsi worldview was killing America’s ability to function as a nation, but it was easy to see why the powers that be (and the powers that wanted to be) were intentionally divisive. This was the best way to control people, to get them on one of two clearly defined sides. The power-grabbing was more vicious than ever; in America there were trillions of dollars at stake. This problem did not start with the current American president; he was a symptom of a bigger problem, not the cause.
If American discourse continued to be filtered through this intentionally divisive paradigm then we were in for a very rough ride. The answer, of course, was to reject the divisiveness, and to be critical of how important issues were framed. There wasn’t much difference between Coke and Pepsi anyway. One was slightly sweeter. It just depended on one’s personal taste.
In confronting the virus, Japan didn’t ponder “mask OR no mask,” “lock everything down OR open everything up,” because only a mentally ill person (or nation) would frame the problem in those terms. The problem required a nuanced approach. If America’s answer had been “none of the above,” (for example, “wear masks AND open some businesses”), then my friend might still be alive.
July 18, 2020
Welcome to Japan’s monsoon season. We’ve had six weeks of more or less continuous rain, and I’m beginning to wonder whether the tomatoes I planted back in May are ever going to ripen. We’ll see.
In the past few weeks Japanese news outlets are reporting an increase in virus cases. As noted in Sickness Begins in the Mind, I’m surprised that so many people seem to take a daily tally of “number of cases” at face value, without really examining what’s behind the numbers, because by itself “number of cases” is a useless number, other than to keep people in line. I suppose if anything “number of cases” serves to encourage people to keep their guard up, reminding them that this thing isn’t over yet, and that’s probably for the best.
Still, “number of cases” annoys me a bit because there’s never any indication of what the number means, other than the obvious, that someone tested positive for the virus. But so what? The meaning of “number of cases” depends entirely on context, right? Were all of these cases people who sought medical attention? What percentage of these cases were hospitalizations? If all of the cases were hospitalized, then that would mean many more unreported cases out there. But what else was new? A couple months ago there was a news story about Japan conducting a nationwide effort to test large numbers of healthy people, for the purpose of detecting antibodies, people who had already contracted the virus, and (I think) asymptomatic cases. I’m not sure what happened to this study, but I’m curious. I’ll try to find out.
Still, there are rumors of another ROCK-DOWN in Tokyo, though I think this rumor may have been started by people who take “number of cases” more seriously than they should. (I love the way Japanese pronounce rock-down, and the way they pretend like emulating America is the thing to do.) There never was an official lock-down in Japan, only advisories, and a docile “state of emergency”.
What the Japanese news outlets never seem to report is number of deaths, because that number might convince people that the virus is nothing to worry about. The number of deaths is effectively zero per day in Tokyo, in a metro area of thirty million, and has reached a grand total of just under one thousand deaths for the entire country since January, a number that is much lower than the death rate of the seasonal flu of any given year.
Well, that was a full month, wasn’t it? April 2020 was a bitch.
My experience with the virus was a mental marathon that I would never forget. To my knowledge I never contracted the virus, but I experienced it twice, in a way, as I lived simultaneously in two very different worlds.
It was no easy trick to maintain mental health during a global pandemic, especially considering our warped means of acquiring truth.
I was never too concerned with getting the virus myself. I may have been high risk to get it, but throughout most of this thing I maintained the audacity to believe I was low risk to die from it. “But what if?” the world whispered a million times from January until now. And therein lay the basis of the great mental challenge everyone faced.
I accepted this challenge, seeking ways to manage the influx of panic from others around me, while grasping for ways to determine whether they or I had gone insane. Of course, thinking too much about the virus would not cause infection, but it could very well cause someone to lose their mind.
From the beginning, my goal with this thing was to apply the right amount of self-preserving negative emotion (fear, worry, anger, or whatever) to the problem at hand. In my professional life I specialized in automation and efficiency, applying the right amount of resources to get the job done. It wasn’t like I had a whole lot of energy to spare anyway, with a busy career and a hectic family life at home.
In the Buddhist tradition there was the “Hear no evil, see no evil” proverb, the gist of which was to avoid unnecessary evil thoughts. This was exactly what I strove to do. There was a fine line between taking something too seriously and not taking it seriously enough. A lack of seriousness could result in physical harm, even death, while too much seriousness could affect mental health (which could in turn have a very real effect on physical health). But what was the right amount of mental energy devoted to this virus? Nobody knew. Or rather, it was too difficult to discern, with every shred of American reality filtered through the carnival fun house of a polarized press. Depending on the source, the virus was Reality One (no big deal), or Reality Two (the end of the world). Of course, as usual, neither of these realities were all true, but what was? One thing that was certain from the beginning: there was a lot of bullshit flying around.
On any given day, most worries turned out to be pointless. There was a famous study in psychology that concluded over ninety percent of energy devoted to negative emotions was a total waste. Either the object of our worry never came to pass, or it ended up being much less harmful than we had imagined. I continually reminded myself: “don’t believe everything you think,” because the stories about myself that spun through my mind were usually false. Things were always much better than they seemed.
At first glance, the “hear no evil, see no evil” proverb may have seemed like superstitious woo, but in many ways sickness began in the mind.
What was my unique experience with the virus, and why did it matter? I saw firsthand how two very different countries handled this thing, and through this comparison some truths were revealed. The virus may have been the biggest news story of the century so far, but to me the even bigger story was what the virus exposed. From afar, America seemed fragile, fragmented, at war with itself.
Japan, for all its many faults, handled this thing pretty well. My home life was in Japan. For me this was Reality One.
Reality Two was work. I commuted every weekday to a gated American community on Tokyo Bay. It was “gated” in the sense that it was surrounded by barbed wire, concrete and guns: the former home of the Japanese Imperial Navy, now headquarters to U.S. Seventh Fleet.
In Reality One, my home life throughout this thing was better than ever. I was lucky to be married to a wonderful, good-spirited woman who maintained a positive approach to life. She ran the household, playing the role of traditional housewife of a bygone era, homeschooling our kids (in two languages, no less).
We were never “locked down” in the Chinese or Italian or American approach to dealing with this thing, nor were any other Japanese. We were part of a close-knit community of family and friends that extended out to a couple hundred people or more, very few of whom would practice any real social distancing.
Japan confirmed its first cases of the virus in early January, and for a month afterwards everyone was keeping an eye on news reports. A few people in our town got it. There was an outbreak originating at a hot yoga studio down the street (appropriately named “LAVA,” which the locals pronounced “RAVA”), an event that made regional news because it was across the street from city hall. Oh dear! RAVA was also on the same corner as the convenience store where I stopped every morning on my walk to the station, and very close to the little café our friends owned. I would continue frequenting both locations with increased vigor as the weeks rolled on, with the aim of supporting local businesses. (This would turn out to be unnecessary, as the café experienced a surge of business from take-out, and the convenience store got more business from people working from home.)
There were a couple other local cases early on, but then things died down. Everyone more or less forgot about the virus until late March, when the U.S. was in full panic mode.
My Own Sickness of the Mind
“…anything that interrupted the endless cascade of workweeks of commuting and existing in a physical space seemed like a sweet oasis, even if it meant getting sick and risking death.”
C. D. Wight
I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t so concerned with getting the virus. This was true, but not because I didn’t believe there was no risk. While America fought its bipolar insanity, I struggled with my own.
Things were good at home in Reality One. I was a hero to my family. For ten years I had worked in a foreign land to support our household in a beautiful, historic beach community, allowing my wife to meet her goal of immersing our kids in the language and culture of her country. I was home every night for dinner and spent evenings with the family. On weekends we went hiking, attended school events, or went to the beach. Not only had we prospered, but I had saved a substantial amount for retirement and had stashed away enough cash to buy a house in the States. I had published a novel, an accomplishment I’d take to the grave. Everyone in my family was healthy and strong. There was laughter around our house. Looking at things on a statistical scale, I (the high school loser) had never carried any debt, and had somehow risen to the top seven or eight percent for household net worth in America, top three percent in Japan, and top tenth of one percent in the world.
In Reality Two, my professional life, I was exhausted and bored. Despite all my amazing accomplishments, I had a cruel narrative of my own spinning through my head: the story of how I was still a slacker who had never amounted to much.
For the better part of three decades I had been working Monday through Friday, averaging fifty hours or more per week. I didn’t recall a single Sunday night in those fifteen hundred or so weeks when I had looked forward to Monday morning at work. For sure there had been days that I looked forward to waking up to work on my own creative projects. But like many people, since high school I had never possessed the wherewithal, imagination (or whatever was needed) to match my natural talents to the needs of the economic machine.
So I didn’t fear getting the virus because anything that interrupted the endless cascade of workweeks of commuting and existing in a physical space seemed like a sweet oasis, even if it meant getting sick and risking death.
This was my own sickness of the mind, and it was on me to make it better for everyone concerned. In mid-2019 I started looking for a new job, one that would take me and my foreign-born family to the States.
Reality One (Continued)
“Is this an allergic reaction to cedar pollen, or do I have five days to live?”
C. D. Wight
In the first week of February, a few thousand people aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess were quarantined at Yokohama. At work, I could see the ship with a pair of binoculars from across Tokyo Bay.
Later that week I was on a call with some people from the States (a job interview that I hoped would bring me home), at the conclusion of which they joked, “stay away from that cruise ship over there!” I had driven past the ship a couple of times, like anyone else who had crossed the Yokohama Bay Bridge. Later I made the comment to my wife: “America’s not going to handle this well.” For America, the problem was still “over there,” but for us things were already heating up.
Hokkaido was a natural place for a virus outbreak. We had been skiing there the previous year, and it had seemed that at least half the guests at the Niseko Hilton were Chinese.
A friend of ours went home to Hokkaido during this time, taking advantage of the cheap flights and the deserted ski slopes. This was in line with her character, and we thought it commendable and brave, a display of mental fortitude that would become increasingly rare.
Our family was scheduled to go on our own ski trip to central Japan with another family at around this time, but the other family cancelled on advice of the elderly grandfather enforcing Japanese group-think compliance, in accordance to global health warnings that were starting to come down. I was relieved at the cancellation, not so much because I was concerned about the virus (as stated above), but because it just felt like the right thing to do.
We had also purchased tickets to fly to Hawaii at the end of March for my wife’s much-anticipated fortieth birthday, but of course this would never come to pass.
The second week of February was always my least favorite time of the year, as that was when the seasonal allergy season began. If I was a practicing Catholic I would’ve received an exemption from Lent, because dealing with the allergy season was more than enough suffering, a slow torture that lasted months. In the year 2020 this meant that I had almost all the symptoms of the terrible virus, all the time: congestion, sneezing, scratchy throat, body chills, burning eyes, fatigue. For the first week of this nonsense I woke every morning wondering “Is this an allergic reaction to cedar pollen, or do I have five days to live?” This led to my first attempt at addressing the mental game of the virus, because one could only live in fear for so long. Meditation helped control my thoughts, or at least make me aware of them; but it was a constant effort that I never completely won.
Of course it also so happened that I had major dental surgery in this week, having a steel post drilled into my jaw for an implant later on.
In the final week of February the Japanese government closed all schools nationwide with a resounding gong. This may have been the biggest shock we experienced in Reality One. All classes and graduation ceremonies were cancelled or postponed. (The Japanese school year ended in April, so effectively the government was giving kids an extra-long spring break that would eventually extend into the summer. This turned out to be the best year ever for kids. For moms, not so much.)
Early on, and even months later, Japan’s strategy to combat the pandemic seemed to be “no tests, no cases,” like the proverbial monkey covering his eyes. Much of this was focused on trying to keep the 2020 Tokyo Olympics alive. But curiously, the Olympics seemed to be under assault from as early as January, when there were a string of news articles critical of the decision to hold the Olympics due to risk of radiation (the real risk was zero, but any mention of the word “radiation” made the perception of risk very high). There was continued pressure from one particular Japanese news source to curtail or contain Olympic events, until finally they hit pay dirt with the virus, and the rest was history. This would probably be forgotten in time, but it was weird witnessing increased criticism of the Olympics, which of course was more of an economic event than anything else. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it was noteworthy indeed.
The Japanese group-think efforts to combat the virus were at times unintentionally adorable and even downright illogical, with the end result being inexplicable success.
Japanese wore masks anyway in February due to the vicious combination of seasonal allergies and the regular flu, but it was funny to see how many only put the mask over their mouth and not their nose. Some pulled their mask down all the way to smoke! Every day, the train was filled with commuters with nervous, narrow eyes peering above tightly-fitted masks, grabbing the guardrail that scores of other people had grabbed with their bare hands. Did they not realize viruses were also spread by touch? Families walked down the street, half wearing masks, half not. Parents wore masks while their kids played without masks in the park. Didn’t they realize it was an all or nothing thing?
For most Japanese the masks were a compliance thing. In group-think societies everyone did the same thing. The rare individual who assessed her personal risk to be low wore a mask anyway, as a symbol of her support. This compliance, if anything, probably saved the country’s ass. If you asked the typical Japanese why she was still wearing a mask in May she would probably be confused. “This is what we do.” The Japanese would keep wearing masks generation after generation for the next thousand years without question, until some official word came down to take them off. They’d all wear Santa Claus caps forever if that was what it took. If anyone wanted to understand Japan in five words, it was “This is what we do.”
To sum up the first half of my bipolar experience with the virus, the effect on my daily life was close to zero. There may have been some travel advisories and some restrictions on movement throughout the country (that amounted to mere suggestion), but these things went unnoticed by me, as I never went anywhere besides work and home. Despite the jolt of school closures, the cancellation of the Olympics, and the usual fierce allergy season, the mood from our corner of Japan was very good.
The setting for the other half of my experience with this virus was “work,” a building in the gated American military community on Tokyo Bay. (Although, as I noted in several other essays, I had never considered work to be a place.)
As someone who had worked effectively for ten years as part of a remote, virtual team, this was something I could never forget. In fact it made all the inefficiencies of being in an office all the more obvious, especially in a government office, where I was a private sector contractor paid to do the actual work of those who slept at their desks.
By the second week of March the U.S. seemed to finally grasp the idea that the virus was an actual thing, even though Japan had been dealing with it for six weeks. For me this was where the narrative got weird, tragic, and bizarre, because in one half of my existence, Reality One, it “felt” like the virus was done. Later stats would prove this to be true. But in America (and by extension my work life), things were just heating up. As I had predicted, it didn’t go well. America was already so polarized, stressed out, depressed and psychologically fragile that any bit of bad news was going to cause Lady Liberty to soil her shorts.
In Japan, news of the virus was reported with a barely audible exhale that Japanese do right before they’re about to say something disagreeable or unpleasant.
In extreme contrast, the news of the virus broke in America with the madness and fury of a pro wrestler, neck veins bulging, blood pressure supernaturally high, fueled by steroids and cocaine, eyes popping out, foam shooting from his mouth as the sound of a fog horn erupted from his vocal cords. It was the most hideous sight in the world, but impossible to not watch.
In the third week of March I had two promising, possibly final interviews with a couple organizations that could deliver me and my family back to the States. As if the virus hysteria wasn’t bad enough, a major earthquake struck the location of the interviewers (Salt Lake City), and both orgs put the jobs permanently on hold. Later the postings would be cancelled. It seemed I’d be stuck with my current employment situation in Japan for a while, if not for years.
Meanwhile, the virus hysteria reached alarming levels at my work location of Little America on Tokyo Bay, even though my home life remained normal as could be.
To my surprise, a follow-up appointment for my dental surgery was cancelled. What was going on? This was a U.S. panic we were experiencing, not Japanese! I came to find out that my Japanese dentist had closed on advice of the American Dental Association (ADA), as many of her customers were from the U.S. Navy base.
For a couple of weeks the hysteria on the base seemed to be purely a reaction to what was happening in the States, totally out of whack with what was actually happening in Japan. Then there came actual risk.
First there was the well-publicized virus outbreak on the USS Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier returning to Guam from Vietnam. Hundreds of sailors were infected. A commanding officer got fired. The Secretary of Navy resigned.
Then, close to home, it was announced that a sailor had returned from the U.S. to Japan on March 15th to the USS Reagan, an aircraft carrier parked a few hundred meters from where I worked. Ten days into quarantine the sailor had gotten sick, testing positive for the virus. There were over four thousand plus sailors on the Reagan, all living in packed living conditions, breathing the same air, touching the same surfaces every day. For a week or more, all of these thousands of sailors had been moving about freely on the base where I worked. By the second week of April there was a confirmed outbreak on the ship – and perhaps all over the base, in my office and everywhere else. Who knew? In typical military fashion, there was zero transparency about what was going on, or how serious the situation had become, which made the panic even worse. If the pro wrestler with the fog horn voice of doom could get any louder, it just had.
This meant extra stress at work, as we were part of the overall effort to keep these carriers operational in the Pacific. From a global political standpoint, this left East Asia unguarded in the seas, with an emboldened Chinese carrier fleet sailing unopposed between Japan and Taiwan. China was a hungry Kung Fu Panda, and Taiwan was a delicious, steamy dumpling, just out of reach. In terms of the virus, Taiwan had disbelieved the WHO’s (China’s) advice from the beginning, and, along with Singapore and a few other East Asian hot-spots, had conquered this thing early on. Part of the reason for Taiwan’s continued independence was diplomacy, but the U.S. Seventh Fleet was a powerful symbol, whose mission was to back up the talk.
With both Far East carrier fleets down due to the virus outbreak, the alert level reached a fevered pitch. Extreme lock-down measures were enforced on the base.
Combat readiness was one thing, but many of the measures made no sense. It was almost like they had to maintain a level of stress and inconvenience, for lack of anything else to do.
In the spirit of taking this thing seriously, I was asked by my employer to continue maximizing my exposure to the virus by leaving my peaceful, disease-free home each morning and returning to the place where I was required to situate my physical meat mass in exchange for money, taking trains used by thousands of people each day, commuting to a virus hot spot where everyone had an elevated sense of fear – all after having clearly demonstrated my ability to connect and fulfill my responsibilities from home. It was a classic “hurry up and wait” situation, except for me it was “shelter in place and come to work”.
It had always seemed like a huge chunk of my job was to endure massive volumes of ridiculous bullshit, but now the bullshit had reached heights I had never before seen.
At first all this was infuriating and demoralizing, but I would come to appreciate many of the end results. Crew members were confined to ships. “Non-essential” staff (redundant government bloat that comprised eighty percent of my organization) were told to stay home. With all those loud-mouthed fake job holders out of the office, I could finally get some work done.
As someone who was told to shelter in place without being given the option to do so, my last remaining challenge during this thing became maintaining my psychological well-being in the face of other people’s fear.
It sucked, but what were my options? I could quit, but then what? Join the muddled mass of forty million Americans unemployed? Living the life of a creative person was the tempting, “I’ll be there one day” daydream, like Maximus in the movie Gladiator, running his hands over fields of golden wheat on the farm he’d never see again.
No, quitting was not an option. There was no Plan B. It was time to get tough. I made a second effort to double-down on the mental game, fully accepting my fate. Going forward I had a three-prong approach to maintaining my mental health.
A) I took reasonable precautions, washing hands, wearing a mask in crowded places like the train.
B) I faced my own mortality. This sounded pretty deep, but early on I accepted that this could be how I exited the world. I got all the paperwork together, the will, passwords, access to bank accounts for my wife. I thought a lot about maintaining dignity and grace in the face of danger.
My seventy-nine year-old dad worked as a supervisor at a Veterans’ Administration (VA) hospital in the American West. If he had one talent in life it was making other people feel good about themselves. His positivity was dauntless, at times even absurd. But it served him and everyone around him well. Things got slow around the hospital where he worked when the virus peaked, as non-essential appointments had been cancelled, and they never saw the surge of patients they had expected. Even so, this was how he chose to face danger, and by extension, death.
The American Panic
c) The third prong of my strategy to maintain mental health during this thing was to encourage others at work. There were very vocal people around me whose brains were securely tethered to social media and other sources of mind poison, and their fear was spreading unchecked. It wasn’t just the virus that was contagious; thoughts were contagious, too.
Encouraging people was a delicate task. Sometimes it took the form of calling out bullshit, but nobody liked to be told their fear wasn’t justified. It was the same thing as being told you’re a coward, or insane. For much of the month of April I dealt with a bit of both. Even considering the uncertain situation around my worksite, the American approach to this thing seemed way out of whack.
Beginning in March there were constant rumblings about how bad things were getting, lots of what-if’s, and “it’s worse than you think”. People became obsessed with numbers: number of cases, number of tests, number of deaths. Early on I decided that numbers were useless when it came to assessing personal risk. Most of the numbers were inaccurate or misleading anyway. Plus, we human beings were incapable of processing even the most accurate numbers when fear and self-preservation were involved.
In mid-April someone at work told me with a shaky voice that America had half a million dead already, and there would be millions more. A quick check at a more reliable source online set this guy straight.
The crew of the USS Reagan was devastated, the ship incapacitated for months, someone else predicted.
Another office story: “all you have to do is show a mother who has lost five children. FIVE! And you know how serious this thing is!” This guy was so emotional that I wasn’t sure whether to shit my pants or burst out laughing. Afterwards I frantically searched online for this story but couldn’t find anything. I had heard the virus didn’t affect children as much, if at all. But who knew?
On another occasion I overheard someone say that Tom Hanks had tested positive for the virus. The news was delivered in a quiet, somber tone, as if Hanks had just died. I reminded this person that getting the virus did not equal automatic death, even for someone over the venerable age of sixty.
In another discussion some jackass asked how positive my attitude be when I held my dead child in my arms. This was about as worse as things got. I let it slide.
To add to the mental challenge of encouraging (or confronting) others there was the never-ending “poor me” voice in my head, that sickness of my own mind, whining about the unnecessary psychological suffering I endured. Why was I there? What was the meaning of all this? At home with my family I would’ve never had to deal with this kind of bullshit. Having worked from home for a decade, it was impossible to ignore the stupidity of a physical presence requirement for my work. I had already proven my ability to fulfill all of my obligations of my current employment situation by working remotely. If the virus was an actual risk then why was I being asked to put the health of my family and community in danger, for no reason at all? Now, forced to interact with fearful people whose minds were securely tethered to the fear-mongering news outlets from the other side of the world, every week became a battle for my own sanity in which I was forced to defend my positive stance.
I had a sense that everything would be okay despite the non-stop negativity around me at work, but still it was just a sense. Could I back up my positivity with facts? Every day I walked down to the USS Reagan, looking for signs that it was getting under way. Under normal conditions I questioned the usefulness of an aircraft carrier in modern times. If things ever got really serious the ship could be taken out in one second with a single tactical nuke. The annual maintenance cost of a single carrier fleet probably could’ve paid college tuition for every American student for a year, and America had eleven fleets. On the other hand, there were thousands of people aboard the Reagan, and I wished them all the best. They had been originally scheduled to deploy at month end, but with the virus outbreak this date seemed out of reach. Still, I checked the ship every day for signs they were leaving. Their on-time departure would be a vindication of my faith.
“In an age when the sum of all human knowledge was available to everyone, it was impossible to know anything for sure.”
C. D. Wight
It was one thing to have faith, but how did I know I wasn’t a fool? There were a few news stories on virus-doubters who were now dead, Dead, DEAD, all because they had been virus heretics. They had disbelieved the dogma, and they had paid the ultimate price. The message was “this can happen to you, too, man, so watch your step!”
“Yeah, but I’m not a virus doubter, I just…”
“Shut up. You either believe in the danger or you don’t. Do you want to die? Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
This was how it went with all information about the virus. It was how it went with every issue that America processed as a country. Things were either this or they were that. There was no in between. Was it really a yes or no question? I wanted accurate information, but who could I trust?
Even the official health agencies got this thing wrong from the beginning, at first downplaying the seriousness. The CDC advised that people could avoid wearing masks. We got a good laugh out of this at work. The Japanese wore masks during this season, even in the best of times. A couple weeks later the word was: “Wear masks! Wear masks!”
In an attempt to justify my absurd optimism I turned to the most horrible institution known to humanity: American news. The quality of American news media had been spiraling into oblivion for a couple of decades, starting with cable news. It got considerably worse after 2009, when Facebook implemented the “like” button. This single seemingly innocent feature had transformed the minds of hundreds of millions of people, so that everyone now thought of everything in binary ways. The intentionally addictive nature of the platform led to Facebook dominating the way hundreds of millions of people saw the world. Every issue was either this or that, thumbs up or thumbs down.
Most of journalism had been reduced to click-bait opinion pieces. As WIRED magazine put it, all journalists were now sharecroppers on the Facebook farm. Facebook had completed the bipolar insanity begun in the previous decades. Even in the best of conditions American news was too nauseating to behold. Now, with the virus, it was off the hook.
Ideally, I liked to imagine my mind as an exclusive club into which only the purest and most vetted ideas were allowed entry, but of course this was impossible when it came to world events. It went without saying that I abstained from all forms of social media. I was more likely to drink a glass of diarrhea than use Twitter or Facebook. As for Big Media, I considered most of the major outlets to be too biased to take seriously, but I had to start somewhere.
I was very careful to keep my research well-rounded, but there were always two sides. Add a global pandemic and economic collapse to an election year, and the result was a shit storm unmatched.
Getting accurate information was like being a kid in a bitter custody battle between a schizophrenic mom and an overbearing dad. Both parents twisted the truth around, just to get you on their side.
With the exception of one journalist, Fox News was more or less a sounding board for whatever crazy / crazy-sounding thought that shot through the mind of the POTUS (to be fair, not all crazy-sounding thoughts were actually crazy), while the other side (i.e., practically every news organization that was not Fox), reacted (OUTRAGED!), fact-checked, decried.
CNN had seemed weak, biased, and unscrupulous for a couple of decades. MSNBC was the Anti-Fox, propaganda wing of the Democratic National Party, maybe even the CPC.
Twenty years prior I might have trusted the New York Times for unbiased, quality reporting. They still had talented, insightful writers, but after 2016 they had become the anti-POTUS paper, every story slanted toward dethroning the king. I didn’t blame them. The POTUS had always been the villain New Yorkers loved to hate, and in general he wasn’t easy to like. But in order to combat the POTUS, it was necessary for the Gray Lady to don a cheap spandex suit and get down and dirty with the king in a prime time wrestling spectacle from which no one walked away clean.
With the virus, the New York Times became doubly unhelpful, as they portrayed the worst possible impact, both as a way of hurting the POTUS and because they were experiencing the worst possible impact first hand. The NYT would have better served a local readership during the virus outbreak. Outside New York metro, hospitals weren’t getting pounded, morticians weren’t making rounds through neighborhoods yelling “bring out your dead”.
One of my favorite pod-casters, someone who I had held my highest respect for his objectivity and intellect over the years, declared that it was better to fear-monger the hell out of this virus for the purpose of getting the POTUS out of office, especially considering their opposing candidate was weak. I was alarmed by this declaration on a couple of levels. If this was the Left’s strategy then it seemed risky, if not downright idiotic. Would those forty million unemployed Americans blame their plight on the POTUS who was trying to “re-open” the country and put them back to work?
In addition to the political motives there was also the usual fear-mongering for the purpose of selling mouse-clicks or papers. Some were hilarious. The Sun (UK) had a graphic of the US titled “virus deaths per state,” with a label for each state on the map, so that the word “DEATH” appeared in bold caps fifty or more times, a graphic of DEATH. The only thing missing was the death metal guitar solo.
Perhaps this whole media mess was unavoidable, a tragic evolution of communication during our times. In an age when the sum of all human knowledge was available to everyone, it was impossible to know anything for sure. For someone like me who was just trying to get the straight scoop on what was happening with the virus, news wasn’t much help at all. In the end I stuck with what the CDC was saying, and seasoned my thoughts with a variety of podcasts and positive story opinion pieces to keep hope alive.
I wanted to remain positive for the purpose of keeping my mental space clean at work and I wanted all of us to get through this thing okay. So I continued encouraging others and dispelling pointless panic when it raised its stupid head.
In a bizarre twist of philosophical orientation I became the recipient of criticism from friends and family, accused of being insensitive, ignorant, naïve.
It sure didn’t help that initial advice from the POTUS had been dangerously optimistic, or that the line had been drawn between continuing to enforce a lock-down in America and opening the country back up. Now even optimism had been politicized, and I was on the “wrong side”. I had taken the same attitude with the Swine Flu back whenever that had been. I couldn’t even remember who was president at the time. Why did it matter? I didn’t have a side. I just called it like I saw it, and from my point of view things weren’t that bad.
The Japanese Copycat Panic
In the month of April it seemed like Japan began copying what America was doing, enforcing soft lock-downs (in real effect, doing nothing), with no hard evidence that things were getting worse than they were in February. Many people worked from home. As a symbolic show of support everyone wore masks.
In our city there were daily announcements from the mayor, speaking over loudspeakers mounted on telephone poles in every neighborhood. As far as I knew these public announcement systems existed in every city in Japan. The up side to them was emergency preparedness, like in the case of a tsunami or typhoon. At 5 PM every day a chime reminded children when to return home for dinner. A couple times per month the community was alerted that an old person with dementia had escaped her care-giving captors and was roaming the streets, lost. If anyone saw her, they were to call city hall. There was always a follow-up announcement to let everyone know she had been captured and returned to old folks’ jail.
Despite the occasional usefulness of the announcement system, it felt very much like Big Brother yelling into our house. In April they began announcing news and reminders about the virus, as if there was anyone who didn’t already know there was a pandemic going on out there. In our city the messages were vague, like “don’t go out unless you have to, and please take care”. This was very annoying to all the moms who had to stay home, and to the kids. One day our four-year-old asked, “When is that guy going to shut up and give us some ice cream?” It was amusing to imagine all the twelve-gauge buckshot that would be blasted into these loudspeakers if the system had been implemented in the States. This was a key difference between the U.S. and Japan.
All the small businesses in our town remained open except for Starbucks and Patagonia, who were apparently abiding by American lock-down rules. A friend of mine worked for Patagonia. My envy spiked to new heights when he said that Patagonia was paying all its employees to stay home. (The Patagonia store in our town would permanently close in May.)
The MacDonald’s and KFC near the station remained open for take-out only. Funny, the KFC Colonel Sanders sign in front of the store held a sign that pleaded its customers “Stay Home,” while inside the empty store bored employees pleaded for customers to come in and order take-out food. Every restaurant, hair salon, and pet shop stayed open. Except for Starbucks and Patagonia, no businesses closed.
Some of our Japanese neighbors enforced “shelter in place” on themselves, but it was never mandatory in our prefecture or anywhere else in the country. The so-called state of emergency was whispered in a practically inaudible voice. In theory people weren’t supposed to move about, but what were the police to do? Would they form an economic analysis on every person to determine whether their actions were essential or not? A couple moms in our group of friends chose to isolate their kids when the American panic came back around to us, but what was the point? All these kids had already been hanging out together outside of school for months. Throughout the whole thing there was not a single day that my family sheltered in place. Believe me, I envied the hell out of those who were lucky enough to stay home – not because I was afraid of the virus, necessarily, but because so much of my precious energy was wasted on the commute to work.
Japan’s Accidental Success
For sure the lock-down strategy had done a lot of good in some places like China, Western Europe, New York, and a few other big cities in the States. Japan implemented a “state of emergency,” which was effectively a word of caution. People were left to do what they wanted. Japanese typically admired places like Italy and New York for their individualism and freewheeling excitement, but it became apparent that during states of emergency the “exciting” places of the world were not the places to be.
Aside from Japan’s group-think advantage, they also had in their arsenal a set of cultural norms that kept people healthy in jam-packed conditions.
Japan valued social distancing in the best of times, and for centuries they had been a much cleaner place than the West. They bowed, and never shook hands. They didn’t kiss cheeks or hug.
I loved Italy, but it was easy to see how the virus could spread quickly through Rome. One time, on a crowded bus in near Termini Station, some young ragazzo sneezed without covering his mouth, coating my face in a fine sheen of snot. Perhaps coincidence, but by the end of the trip I was sick.
New York may have had hygiene levels similar to Rome. I was no expert on NYC, but compared to Tokyo it didn’t seem like a very hygiene-conscious place. This became apparent when news stories appeared to remind Americans of the proper way to cover their faces when sneezing, or how to wash their hands.
I had always washed my hands the proper way because it made common sense, just as it made common sense to remove my shoes when I entered a house. The Japanese had standards for cleanliness that were superior to the West centuries ago, and they were still superior now.
The Japanese had much higher life expectancy than Americans anyway, and seemed healthier overall. Generally speaking there were almost no fat people in Japan, and this may have played a part in their success.
A week ago there was another adorable news article in the Japan Times: “ICU Filling Up!” Early on in the article it was revealed that Saint Luke Hospital of Tokyo had only one bed left in its ICU, and all the others were occupied by victims of the virus. The twist to the story was that Saint Luke Hospital had only eight beds total in its ICU, laughably inadequate even in the best of times. Nearly every hospital in the U.S. and the U.K. had made emergency preparations to receive an anticipated influx of hundreds or thousands of additional patients, but not Japan.
Disease experts would continue to be baffled by Tokyo’s seemingly accidental success for many years to come. Every week since January there had been a doom-and-gloom article in the news about how Tokyo would get hit hard, but it never came to pass. Why not? Tokyo had equal if not greater population density than New York, and more smokers per capita. For sure Tokyo had more old people. Japan had the oldest population in the world. Hell, the average age of Tokyo home owners was sixty-five!
I saw some stories blaming socioeconomic differences and limited access to health care in New York. These things were surely problems, but it wasn’t like the wonderful Japanese health care system had attended to everyone’s needs to win the war against the virus. The hospitals just weren’t filling up (except for the one that only had eight ICU beds).
The Japanese government was generally inept at handling the virus. (As a symbol of their ineptitude we would finally receive our two tiny “Abe masks” from the government, weeks after the state of emergency ended.) The government got lucky with the “no tests, no cases” approach. There was no cover up, just accidental success on the part of the government. It was the Japanese people who would save the day. In the case of a state of emergency, it was a real luxury to live in a society with group-think compliance, respect for community, and cleanliness standards superior to those in the West. As of May, in Tokyo there were a few hundred deaths out of thirty million in all twenty-three wards.
Who Stayed Sane?
At work (and in America), the masses were still in full lock-down mode at the end of April, minds securely fastened to what was happening in America. After nearly four months of stress over this thing I decided to take the Japanese Golden Week off to enjoy the beautiful, uncrowded comfort of our beach side town.
There was talk of a resurgence of the virus, and a few lingering “what if’s,” but I continued to ask: what if something good happened instead?
On the Friday before my holiday I walked down the street from work to check on the USS Reagan one last time. Both sensor arrays were spinning. I jogged back to the office in high spirits. The Reagan was getting under way. (By early next week the Reagan would be doing engineering trials on the open sea, and the Roosevelt was preparing to deploy.)
Our city was a popular tourist destination for people living in Tokyo. Every year we get a couple hundred thousand extra visitors for the national holiday in the first week of May, called Golden Week. Yes, a surge of people greater than the population of the city itself all visited in one week. This was a miserable time for us locals, who found it hard to get around town due to all the visiting dopes, who I referred to as Golden Weakers. This year, however, the wonderful virus turned this mass of humanity away. There was an announcement from the Mayor on the first day of Golden Week, this time not vague at all: “If you are a tourist, go home. Do not surf. Do not go to the shrines. Please. Go home.” The wife and I had a good laugh over this. I took the week off and it was the best Golden Week ever, although I did wear a little sticker on my shirt that stated “I am not a tourist,” to ward off the evil eyes of old ladies at the supermarket.
It had been a rough spring but things were starting to look better. I got my tooth fixed, and my seasonal allergies cleared up. After the holiday I would resume the job search, to assuage my own sickness of the mind.
The Reagan getting under way was a symbolic vindication of my faith, but what were the facts? Had I been a justified optimist, or a fool?
As of May things still looked good in our city on the Shonan Coast. As mentioned, we saw some cases in January and February but it never spread and it didn’t look like it ever would. I walked by a hospital every day to and from the station, and the place still looked sleepy as could be. The lobby was usually empty. Sometimes a nurse would be sitting outside reading a book, enjoying the sunny spring day.
Closer to home, our densely-populated prefecture (Kanagawa, adjacent to Tokyo) had recorded over nine hundred cases by the end of May. Kanagawa had a population of over nine million people, so something like one out of nine thousand got sick after months of viral onslaught, or 0.01%. Of those thousand people, there were fifty-six deaths.
To put into perspective, this would be like filling three World Cup stadiums to capacity, and from those crowds, one person dying. (This would have been one out of one hundred and sixty thousand.) In some countries it was safe to assume that at least one person died on the way home from a World Cup match anyway, and this went unnoticed by the population at large.
Even closer to home, there had been a total of forty recorded cases in our city of 178,000 people, or 0.02% of the population. This was a little higher percentage than the overall prefecture, perhaps because our city hosted many visitors from out of town. There was no record of deaths (either because there were no deaths or because city hall didn’t list them), but it was presumed to be zero.
I had been in the midst of a couple large-scale global disasters, one of which killed twenty thousand people in ten minutes. (Somehow, a large number of people dying suddenly was perceived as more tragic than the same number of people dying slowly over the course of months.)
Recently I realized I had been born in the midst of a worldwide disaster. In October of 1968 the Hong Kong Flu hit America. According to the CDC it killed over one hundred thousand people. The population of the U.S. was around two hundred million at the time, so it was accurate to say the Hong Kong Flu killed more Americans per capita than the Wuhan Flu (around a quarter of a million, in proportion to today’s population). There was no “number of cases” statistic, because people had more important shit to worry about in 1968, like a pivotal presidential election, an unpopular war overseas that would kill over fifty thousand Americans, the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, widespread civil unrest, and multiple nationwide riots. (The similarities between 2020 and 1968 were fascinating, but one thing was clear: things were much, much better in the current age.) Despite killing more people per capita than the current virus, the Hong Kong Flu barely made the news. Nobody wore masks. There was no lock-down. There was no economic impact. Recently I asked my mom if she remembered a pandemic the year of my birth. Of course she didn’t. Nobody did. Lucky them.
By the end of May, the CDC would update its statistics on the current virus, showing a mortality rate for people under fifty to be less than the regular flu. Their best guess at asymptomatic rate was thirty-five percent, which brought the morality rate way down. In the rare cases where seemingly healthy people had been tested en masse (like on the USS Roosevelt), the asymptomatic rate was as high as seventy percent.
In reality, the virus of 2019 might have been the least dangerous global disaster I had ever seen, even less dangerous than so-called normal life. The self-imposed socioeconomic aftershock would be a different story, however, and I was anxious to see how the next few years would play out.
Over the course of the past four months my optimism had been smacked down with responses like “let’s see how positive you are when you get the virus”. Indeed, this was exactly the point. Eventually, every one of us would get the virus, or a virus, or something that killed us dead. Forget all the numbers floating around. For every one of us, the chance of dying was 100%. The point was how we chose to face this fact, and the virus exposed that most of us Americans did not handle it well. Informed optimism was always the best attitude in a disaster. Sickness may have begun in the mind, but so did health.
NOTE 1: Throughout this essay I’ve referred to the virus as “the virus” and “this thing” because even the name of it had become politicized, and I wanted to remain neutral. Just like the Hong Kong Flu in 1968, it seemed logical to call it the Wuhan Flu.
NOTE 2: There was something about the phrase “stay safe” that bothered me. This had become a common sign-off for many Americans during these times. Why not “stay healthy,” or “stay strong”? “Stay safe” sounded like the motto for helicopter parents, coddling the weak and afraid. The phrase had a “please take care of me,” “I’m a victim” feel to it. Oh you poor thing.
NOTE 3: I chose to write this in past tense because for me this whole thing was over by mid-March.