In Transit: Excerpts from a Daybook (2003)
Kansai Airport: Blind, free-floating within the warm gel of some exotic amnion, a sudden, gritty reflux obstructs a breath and I surface, choking. I claw the bedside table for an open bottle of mineral water. My lungs rasp as I try to suck in air.
I sit up on the edge of the bed and get my bearings by looking out through a sealed, double-glazed window. I never draw the curtains in hotel rooms; the view outside is often the only clue I have of where I am and, more and more these days, I wake in panic, not knowing. It is still well before dawn but darkness has given way to a grey luminescence that distorts the mile-long island of orange lights that is Kansai International Airport. Renzo Piano’s angular steel and glass terminal resembles a huge alien shipwreck in the middle of the bay. Small trains shuttle to and from it like parasitic robots, and the surrounding water is black and unnaturally still, as if quelled by an oily spillage.
I arrived last night on a Northwest flight from Detroit, too late to catch the last train to Shin-Osaka and the bullet-train connection to Hiroshima. I tell myself I am on a business trip to give it a bit more specificity of purpose, but really it has more to do with compulsive nomadism than with commerce. I wrangle data, distilling from it information to barter with major corporations. What I do has no real job description, no locus, no regular hours and, I have to admit, no discernible outcomes other than it pays well. I could do it from anywhere.
The girl beside me doesn’t stir. Naked, lying on her stomach on top of the covers, her arms by her sides and her legs straight, her round face obscured by a tangle of long black hair, she could be a corpse awaiting autopsy. Her pale skin is as cool and smooth as antique jade. The slight epicanthic folds of her eyelids twitch but the eyes remain closed.
She is 23 years old, less than half my age, and in between flights we live together in hotel rooms and serviced apartments and the first-class lounges of major airports. Sometimes she returns to visit her mother and sister in the small house they share in Asakusa, in Tokyo, but maybe because she is so young, or she is sick of the lack of space or the burden of obligations at home, she prefers the fugitive life with me. She acts as my translator, not just of the language but of the oblique protocols that are intrinsic to every interaction with the Japanese. There is so much that I miss, or just don’t get. And not just in Japan.
* * *
There is a slight surge in the pale blue-grey glow of my laptop’s screen as the open mail program downloads a dozen new messages. I check the list of senders. Only one of them is personal and it’s from a half-forgotten girlfriend, a film director from New Zealand: “There is something about you that has always intrigued me and also made me wary,” she writes. “I always wondered why someone who is so intelligent and sensitive to things could equally be so ruthless and without compassion. It was always a mystery to me and didn’t make sense, then I suddenly understood that you didn’t have the whole gamut of human emotion that one is usually endowed with, that you are cauterised in certain ways, that your chemistry means you bond differently.”
I decide to read the rest later. I use the hotel’s over-priced broadband to check my next flight, three days away, from Hiroshima to Tokyo, and reconfirm a flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles that will, in turn, connect with a flight to Dallas. My son’s 10th birthday is a week away and I have promised to be there to celebrate it with him, although I know already it will be another promise that I cannot keep. I sometimes have to remind myself that I have a family and that this hyper-mediated existence, in which my life is like flotsam drifting on the surface currents of interconnecting networks – multi-band cell phones, the internet, ATMs, credit cards, mail drops, courier pick-ups and deliveries, teleconferences, airport lounges and airline hubs, client LANs and extranets, regional offices, rent-a-car pick-ups, hotel chains, cable TV and pay-per-view movies that hardly change from country to country – is supposed to be a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
It is probably brought on by jet lag, but the cold tentacles of depression are constricting my brain, making it wearisome to process any thought more complex than getting out of bed. I keep telling myself that whatever it is I’m feeling is temporary, not to be trusted, just part of the rapid-cycling of the particular type of bipolar disorder I suffer. Within days, sometime hours, the fluctuating sine-wave of my labile mood will incline upwards again; right now, it is low enough to encourage me to be contemplative and not yet oppressive enough to cause me to be confused and withdrawn. I take 25 milligrams of a drug called Lamictil to counter it, on top of 2500mg of Epilim and a milligram of clonazepam a day. I feel like the medications coagulate as a sludgy residue in my system, decelerating my thinking but leaving me unassailed by the aggressive sieges or leaden shutdowns of unmanaged madness.
Even when my moods are stable, a part of my psyche still misfires with odd fixations or phobias or undefined irritations. But now I’m aware of them, I exert some control. I can act “normally” rather than surrender to impulse. It’s as if connectors in my brain have found clean contact points and the jagged, itchy fuzziness of my thought processes have cleared.
The drugs have sharpened my perception of reality. But there’s a down side. Over the past weeks, I’ve begun to recognise that some of what I used to recall very clearly as personal experience is illusory, that my psyche has concocted delusional memories from random input, manic reconstructions of ideations and dreams (including other people’s) and roles I acted or compelled others to act out for me.
Which confronts me with the concept that I am not what I think I am: what I have and haven’t done, when, with whom, and where, all have to be re-examined in forensic detail to determine the true narrative.
Which is to say, reality is alien to me. Accommodating it is like trying to adapt to the atmosphere of a different planet. Part of the reason I started a diary was to have a daily record, some way of keeping track.
* * *
Shin-Osaka: The 23-year-old perches barefoot on the edge of the “green car” seat on the Hiroshima-bound Shinkanzen, her toes curling like tiny, well-manicured, pink talons on the front of the seat cushion. She is gnawing at a rice ball.
All Japanese girls perch. Like fine-boned birds, they squat and balance on their toes while they smoke, drink takeaway coffee or suck up bowls of udon, or chat with their girlfriends who are perched alongside them like sparrows on a telephone wire. Some, alone, stare Zen-like into space or peer for hours at the small screens of their mobile phones, distractedly thumbing the keyboards. With the precise ease of professional acrobats, they teeter on the edge of street kerbs, steps, even metal railings.
There is a persistent frisson of tension between the 23-year-old and me, a cultural and generational dissonance that erupts occasionally in impatient, resentful spats that are only quelled by my silence. It doesn’t help that it’s hot, humid and it hasn’t stopped raining for days.
Japanese women are intricately neurotic, with all kinds of unpredictable fixations and prejudices sieved through the weird subordinate personas they adopt – innocent schoolgirl, servile drone, chirruping hostess, white-pantied sex fantasy – to relate with most men. I keep asking myself what I’m looking for in this young girl. Maybe it’s a form of emotional vampirism, needing young flesh and a relatively unjaded and pliable mind to stay my own self-negation.
* * *
Hiroshima: A typhoon is out in the Pacific, several hundred kilometres south of here. Ponderous, gunmetal grey clouds have piled against the steep mountains inland and the air is so dank it is hard to breathe. Cargo ships are sheltering in the lee of steep islands that litter the inland channels of the Seto Inland Sea, and oystermen are securing the timber rafts on which they farm before boarding their boats and navigating the maze of narrow passages back to the relative safety of small mainland harbours. There are still cranes pecking in the shallows of the muddy delta that intersects the city.
It’s so dark that it’s hard to imagine it is just after sunrise. We’re sitting by a window on the sixth floor of an automotive manufacturer’s headquarters, staring out across the rusted rooftops of the engine plant towards a dense cluster of suburban housing clinging to the side of a nearby hillside like a fetid blight. Below me, an empty parking lot, slick black and partly flooded, will begin filling with company cars during the next hour and then the whole building will stutter into a droning half-life of pointless busyness. We’re waiting for a herd of senior managers to turn up for a teleconference with their opposite numbers in the company’s United States subsidiary: a large monitor displays a fuzzy, out-of-focus image of the clock on the wall above our heads.
The earth tremor hits before they arrive. It is no more than 3.0 on the Richter scale, the television news reports later. Weak but prolonged, it begins as a low, resonating rumble and, within seconds, there is a curious, rubbery flexibility to the walls and floor. Then the furniture becomes animated. I wait for it to intensify but it gradually subsides and solidity is regained. I am a little disappointed that it wasn’t stronger.
* * *
Tokyo: The thing that surprises me most about Tokyo is the water. It’s everywhere. You come upon it in unexpected places: on freeways, where the high supporting pylons are driven into black canals that flow between the shadows of high office towers, or at the edges of new suburbs of glass and steel that float like refugees on low, flat rafts of reclaimed land. There are inexplicable, bracken inlets and backwaters enclosed by concrete dykes. And then, in the distance, there is the occasional glint of sunlight that, beneath the umber smog, reveals the infinite horizon of the sea.
The wet season has begun early, although it feels colder and less humid than a year ago. From my hotel window, the city is a ghostly silhouette beneath a pall of monsoonal rain, the grey clouds so low, they’re like shabby awnings strung between the rooftops of the nearby high-rise apartments. Everything is monochromatic, flat, except for the bobbing flow of umbrellas along the sidewalk. The city’s incessant throb is muted.
When I arrived last night, the upper floors of most of the buildings were just an eerie glow within ragged scarves of low grey cloud. The city felt like a futuristic battlefield imagined by sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison and rendered by an otaku game engineer. The 23-year-old and I checked into a suite at The Westin in Ebisu, a longed-for-relief from the shoebox dimensions of Hiroshima’s “business hotels” and closet-sized bathrooms cobbled together with plastic laminate and injection mouldings.
This city is too conducive to the manic mis-wiring of my psyche. It’s too easy to be swept up in its unrelenting momentum, the raw energy of 30 million intense, tightly wrapped souls teeming through its arteries, the hyper-electric jolt of its too bright neon and plasma, office lights always burning, the visceral rumble of its streets – deeper, louder even than New York – and the heightened sensitivity to data swarming like tsetse flies in the ether around you, stirred up by millions of tiny CDMA phones. But there are times when I’m oppressed by the stifled emotions, the compressed sense of space and the contrary social protocols that combine to amplify the ever-present neurotic jitter that infects every minute of life here.
I will never really understand the Japanese, not even with the 23-year-old’s help. They are not unlike the English in some ways: both are confined to small islands and share an insular disregard for the rest of the world that is usually interpreted as xenophobia. They cling to worn-out traditions and protocols and avoid exhibitionism, while at the same time, they forebear eccentricity. They are both suppressed, uptight peoples, undemonstrative, even cold, but with a capacity for sympathy and unselfish kindness. They both have bad teeth.
* * *
Los Angeles LAX: The sub-dermal irritation I get from Americans these days flares like an allergy every time I’m in close proximity to large numbers of them: the obese mid-Western women with their bad perms and too colourful clothes, the cookie-cutter Gen-Yers with their skater T-shirts and baggy cargo pants and their dumb faux-ebonic chatter, the too tightly wrapped mid-level business executives and sales reps in Brooks Brothers knock-offs and badly fitting shirts. Between them flow the self-righteous, insular, God-fearing, thoughtless, uninformed, media-referenced monologues that pass for conversation these days: no-one listening to the other, everyone expressing themselves (because they’ve been taught that they should, no matter how dull-witted or ill-informed they might be).
* * *
West Hollywood: I’m like a spinning top at that moment before it loses speed and balance and topples on its side. Dizziness has overwhelmed rationality. I am on the net, teleconferencing over Yahoo! Messenger with my psychiatrist, 2500 kilometres away in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When I was in Tokyo, she wrote an email that instructed me to “focus on the things you can enjoy and try to capture a sense of wonderment about this strange land where you don’t always understand the spoken word but you certainly can understand things of beauty”. Now she is telling me to increase my dosages and seek help as soon as possible in Los Angeles.
I am holed up in The Standard Hotel with the 23-year-old who, like an unruly kid, has strewn her clothes among half-spilled files, notebooks, electronic organiser, mobile-phone charger, a tangled nest of computer cables and a laptop tipped on the floor. Her underwear is drying on hangers above the terrace door. Nearly all Japanese girls suspect laundry staff of a fetishistic interest in their bras and knickers, perhaps with reason, and they insist on washing their own.
The nights are long when you don’t sleep. I have lost interest in the 23 year old’s pseudo-innocence and elastic skin. I channel-surf the TV, clicking the remote several hundred times before my attention is arrested. I develop fleeting fascinations for golf, get-rich-quick real estate schemes, Baptist sermons, rap music (especially if the video features big-assed mocha-skinned women in bikinis) and kitchen gadgets. I immerse myself in re-runs of ’60s and ’70s comedy episodes I know so well I can recite the dialogue. I watch the scrolling headlines on CNN at the top of every hour. Finally, it’s dawn and I’m released from the obligation to rest.
I wonder how long the 23-year-old will be around. Few people – and even fewer memories of them – “stick” in my life. As soon as my relationship with someone or something is over, I erase it from my mind, a kind of emotional “reset”. I’ve erased so much from my mind that I’m confounded by how often and unexpectedly I come across blank spots, like the black, felt-tipped strokes of the censor on classified documents.
I read somewhere that the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once argued that if two people dream the same dream, it isn’t a dream anymore – it signifies the existence of an alternative reality … The insane always occupy multiple realities: their internal narratives are always different to their actual or external experiences. For me, that can be complicated by the fact that, when I was unmedicated, which was for most of my 49 years, the character I adopted for one experience was very different to another that I adopted for a different experience somewhere else. The process was so compulsive that I would, for extended periods, devise a complex network of different characters and different lives in different parts of the world, with different relationships, then live intermittently in and between them, while blending them all into a fluid mutability that had the parallel narratives and multi-tiered options of a computer game. And the game engine was an invisible “real” me, solitary, sentient and more than a little crazy.
These days, medication gives me the possibility of sustained reason, of a reliable perception of the present. But the same cannot be said of what I remember, so I am disenfranchised from my past, condemned to roam in search of a future.
***C.C. O’Hanlon is what the Germans call a lebenskünstler (‘life artist’). He has also been called ‘an indisciplined polymath’ and ‘a rogue’. He refuses to be called a writer, although he has published numerous essays, short stories, and diaristic photographs. He currently lives in Berlin. Find him on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ccohanlon ***