At age twelve I had the extraordinary privilege of going to Japan with my parents. In Tokyo, wall-to-wall bodies filled the city. Huge billboards and traffic abounded. It felt familiar somehow, a combination of battling the crowds to get a view of the FAO Schwarz Xmas windows and surviving the pack in Times Square at New Years with one important difference. This huge sea of faces was all Asian.
The trip had vivid moments that have stayed with me to this day. Walking the street surrounded by asphalt and people, I entered a tiny crowded store, walked out its back door to discover an exquisite garden. Gold and orange flickered beneath the water in a Koi pond inches from my feet while well manicured trees trembled in the breeze. Everywhere the efficient use of space created incredible beauty and escape from this congested urban environment.
There was comedy, of course. A stop at a country Inn where we slept on traditional Tatami mats, surprisingly comfy. For some reason, I can’t recall why, my mother called down to the front desk to ask for assistance. Perhaps some question about the bath or a need for an extra blanket. During the protracted discussion the front desk seemed to misunderstand her words.
“Yes, I would like a man to come to my room,” my mother finally said with emphasis. Meanwhile the hotel manager explained they did not provide that kind of service to the customers. Mom goes to Japan gets accused of trolling for male prostitutes, film at eleven. Good times.
During the trip, we also discovered the Japanese businessmen found my parents custom of taking me out to dinner with them very peculiar. On several occasions in fact, when we were with my father’s colleagues, I was encouraged to try the meal first, just for the novelty of gauging my innocent reaction. The Japanese equivalent of “Give it to Mikey, he’ll eat anything,” I suppose. Expecting me to keep my game face on for these forays into new cuisine met with mixed results. Perhaps what saved us from offending our hosts, is that several times people asked my parents if I was part Japanese. Apparently my almond-shaped eyes made them wonder. I’m not, by the way. Or Egyptian, although a cab drive once asked. Nor Italian, when that other cab driver asked. Nor Israeli, when that shoe repair guy wondered, or black Irish, when those ladies on my vacation inquired. Whatever combo plate of Eastern Bloc genetics I possess, apparently it shows up in the search engines of several cultures.
One event however, stands out amongst the lovely shinto shrines and buddhist temples. Leaving Tokyo we arrived in Kyoto, a place filled with art, stunning landmarks, and delicious food. Our first night there we dined at a local restaurant recommended by my father’s colleague. We’d only been in Japan for a few days and I had yet to get the hang of chopsticks. As the patrons voices buzzed around us, I cast a longing gaze at a large cast iron pot in the center of our table. Curls of steam moistened my cheek. My mouth watered while savory bits bubbled in a teriyaki based stew. As the hunger pangs intensified I attempted repeatedly to retrieve a tasty morsel from the pot, without utensils. Although Jewish, and therefore occasionally exposed to the Chinese-food-on-Xmas ritual, I had never really gotten the hang of chopsticks. Besides, using a wooden stick to scrape some rice into my mouth bore no comparison to seafood stew extraction.
In desperation I placed one stick in my left hand and one in my right, attempting to mash delicate pieces of flaky fish between the two. Across the dimly lit room an older Japanese gentleman gazed at me. Perhaps his curiosity about my ethnicity caused him to take an interest in this twelve-year-old “gringo”. Or maybe the look of consternation on my brow elicited his sympathy. Whatever the reason, he suddenly smiled and laughed. I shrugged my shoulders at him, the international suburban gesture for “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” To my amazement he held up his hand, slowly placing the first chopstick in proper position, followed by the second. He continued to patiently teach me from across the room until it seemed I had a basic understanding of how they worked. I nodded my thanks and appreciation.
I will never forget this moment in my young life, truly. A room filled with foreign words bandied about in a staccato rhythm, a man many years my senior with whom I could not communicate, a table filled with mysterious edibles; yet the human connection transcended everything about my unfamiliar surroundings.
A few months ago I joined twitter and the world of social media. My entrance was not without its bumps and bruises. The idea of chatting with Ashton Kutcher (which was all I knew of twitter at the time) elicited a good deal of cynicism. But then something began to change. A day during which I had spoken to people from Canada, the UK, California, Oklahoma, Utah, Louisiana, Georgia, Massachusetts, and New York, got me to thinking. When in my entire lifetime had I ever had the opportunity to connect with so many different voices from so many places? Writers in particular are a group that spends huge amounts of time alone. It’s wonderful to build worlds in one’s head, but isolating as well. And there in that stream of conversations is an entire community of people who are funny, well read, articulate and share my passion for words. It is a wealth of riches that begins with hashtags like #writechat, #litchat, and #askagent, to name a few. Conversations with people like me struggling to make this their career.
I’ll be honest with you, while I can be gregarious when I wish, I’m not particularly fond of small talk, and I grow shy rather easily. So the idea of having more than ten “followers” while exciting, is a bit scary. Frankly, if I were in a room with two hundred people I’d be the one most likely to walk over to my host’s bookshelves to see what they are reading. So the constant stream of discussion on twitter can get overwhelming. And I’m not likely to chat about the grilled cheese sandwich I’m eating, unless of course David Beckham is letting me lick it off his abs, in which case they’ll be multiple diary entries and photos. But for all under the impression that twitter is just a bunch of nincompoops with a severe case of Bieber fever, I beg to differ. As a writer I have access to agents, editors, publishers, professional and aspiring authors, resources I could never dream of having anywhere else. Is it strange to try to formulate ideas, questions, and answers within 140 characters? Sure. But I’m learning. I might even argue the enforced editing improves my tendency to (ahem) be long-winded.
When you step beyond the perception that Twitter is just a bunch of silly noise and look under the surface there is so much more. Like the writer stymied in the midst of an edit, an author making the difficult decision to fire her agent, the aspiring author who just got a request for his manuscript. Mothers facing the challenges of careers and child rearing. Small business owners grappling with everything from financial downfalls to sexual harassment. Bright students on the verge of graduating, praying they get that job. All these different people reaching out for contact with like-minded individuals. From animal lovers to artists, and everything in between, each group has its own microcosm of humor, pathos and support.
Twitter is more than the sum of its parts. The best example I can offer is my new writer friend Peter from West Yorkshire. The view through his window is Wuthering Heights, minus Heathcliff and Catherine. I’m not being dramatic here, his home is actually in the village where the Bronte sisters lived and wrote some of their most famous works. Can you imagine how different this must be from my urban stranger-than-fiction life in New York city? But in these brief exchanges with Peter I get to experience a completely different perspective through his eyes. Multiply that times hundreds of other people I have yet to meet, and the potential to expand my world is exhilarating.
Now, is every connection that lofty? No, of course not. And yes, sometimes, I’m just joking around with folks. But there’s merit to laughing together as well. If you listen to the news today the world is a train wreck jammed inside an Armageddon sandwich, it’s easy to grow despondent. A kind word or clever turn of phrase does more to influence one’s mindset and our society then we realize. Instead of getting sucked into the black hole of bad news, some days small joyous moments provide a bit of welcome mental scaffolding. So I will continue to stand over here on the side checking out the books on my hosts shelves, talking more and more as each day passes.
Most people don’t get to have the incredible experience I had in Kyoto, where for just a moment I saw that silver thread of connection. Twitter reminds us we’re part of a larger global continuum whose members, while different, are also the same. And if that isn’t a peace on earth good will towards men kind of Xmas fable, I don’t know what is.
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