Sunday, May 23, 2010

Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo -- Japan 2010

My daughter Amanda has been begging us to visit her in Osaka, where she lives now.   We talk to her on Skype videophone, but we haven't seen her in almost two years.  Well, here's what happened, along with a lot (probably way too much) of detail on our first experience in Japan.

The flight was more than 11 hours, and we had to manually transfer luggage in Tokyo for the plane to Osaka (some Customs rule, I guess).  But all went well.  Amanda met us at the Osaka airport.  It was REALLY GREAT to see her again :-)

We took the subway to our hotel at a stop within a few blocks of Amanda's apartment (in Osaka's Namba district).  Jane was tired and went to sleep, but Amanda and I went to a little neighborhood-pub type place (with the oddly-French name of "Le Grand Bleu") where she says she sometimes sits and reads manga (there are "One Piece" anime posters on the wall, which is why Amanda loved it from the first time she visited).

The owner/bartender kept putting free drinks in front of me (I think I was suppose to learn to appreciate the difference between Northern and Southern Japan "vodka".  They were both pretty good (it was 40-proof sake).

Osaka Castle
Jane and I did this one without a guide as Amanda had to work.  It was beautiful and we had a great time.  This picture is  the moat and one of the guardhouses.  The Castle is huge.   One thing that tickled me was that there were several groups of school kids (in uniforms with brightly-colored hats) being shepherded around the site.
Inside the Castle, one group of girls all had worksheets to fill out, so they would learn from the many exhibits.  I watched the "alpha girl" carefully filling in blanks with the inscrutable ideograms (but the world is comprehensible -- other kids were looking over her shoulder and copying the answers!)

I told Jane I thought they were fifth graders, and she thought younger... She was able to learn from one group of kids that they were in third grade (you can do that in sign language).  But then they had a question for her! She finally said her one memorized Japanese phrase: "Wakari masen  Watashi wa amerika-jin" and THAT answered their question!!!  A teacher came around and told her they'd asked where she was from.

We were definitely recognized as foreigners... Several times, a child would sing out "Hello!" -- Proud of his or her one-word fluency in English.  We saw one other couple who were not Asian -- it turned out they are from Denmark and they teach English at ECC (like Amanda).  Interestingly, neither one could speak Japanese -- it's an "immersion class."

That night, Amanda had arranged for us to dine with some of her adult English students.  We ate at a place where everything costs 300¥ ($3.50).  We chatted and laughed, and had a fun time.  Occasionally Amanda would put on her "teacher hat" and force somebody to use English "You ...uhhh... fly ... America, ...uhhh... OK?"  "Yes! *Absolutely!*  Good job!"  We had a gift exchange, where we (well, Jane) gave out some La Cresenta honey and some hand-made bookmarks.  I got a colorful handkerchief/hand towel, and the "pretty, young" gal pantomimed a demonstration of all the things I could do with it.

That was followed by a trip to a "Karaoke box" with Amanda's students.  It's not a public stage -- it's a private room.  Amanda is a very talented singer, in both English and Japanese.  I did a monotone version of "Rocky Racoon" (?) ...from the White Album (?) ...the Beatles (?) ...that group that Paul McCartney was with before Wings... (oh!)

Even the shy "pretty, young" student (who turned out to be 38) sang with gusto.  She was such a sweet lady... when I went to go to the restroom, she came out and pointed me in the right direction then she pointed emphatically at the number on the door of our karaoke room.  I realized how thoughtful that was when I was walking back -- the corridor is just room after sound-proofed room and they all look the same from the outside.

We took the train to Kyoto to see the Yasaka shrine.  This was to be our "See Japan as it really is" day.  It was a holiday at a popular holiday spot, and we saw a number of women dressed in traditional kimono, some with faces painted (I'm the one on the right, in case you are confused).  I bought an ancient Japanese coin and an old brass ink-box with a poem inscribed on the lid.  I later learned that the writing is Chinese, not Japanese (I was hoodwinked!!!!)

That night, Amanda went back to Osaka and Jane and I stayed at a "traditional Japanese" hotel:  Paper walls, a futon instead of a bed.  There are no chairs; just a low table.  A multiple-course dinner is served in your room.  The sliding door in back leads to a beautiful tea garden and there is a view of the mountains.  We each enjoyed a wonderfully relaxing hour in the onsen (public hot tub -- much more on the onsen, below).

We went to Takarazuka City to see a live performance of the musical, "Scarlet Pimpernel," performed by a world-famous troupe... with a twist.  Women play all of the roles.  The ones who play male roles have low voices and have been trained to walk and gesture like men.  These, especially, are huge celebrities in Japan.  The shows are usually (nearly always) in a Western theme (Phantom of the Opera, Gone with the Wind).

I did not understand two words in a row, but I enjoyed every minute!

The curtain call of a Takarazuka show is almost an art form in itself.

At one point, a matched set of about forty beautiful Japanese girls wearing goldilocks wigs came out doing a Busby Berkeley number.  I guess it is some sort of universal truth that if you get more than thirty beautiful women on a stage at one time, you reach critical mass and there WILL be a Rockettes-style kick line.  It was fantastic!

The curtain call goes on and on.  There are these stage-wide stairs and each set of actresses paraded down and took a bow, each to a tremendous ovation.  Then they cycled back and came down again, wearing different costumes!  Each set of girls was more outlandishly dressed than the previous.  Just when I thought they had gone perhaps one step beyond believable, the music swelled, the drums pounded, and the spotlight hit on the lead actress (a "male lead") as she slowly flowed down the steps in an incredible gigantic costume of feathers and air.  I was beyond delighted... this was physically tickling my show-biz bone!  Jane and I both applauded and laughed out loud in the pure thrill of the spectacle.  Amanda had to stiffle her own hoots and remind us:  Laughter was not appropriate!

I'm me, so I was knocked out by the kick-line.  Here are two YouTube videos I found:  Closeup look and Similar to what we saw.   This one gives a feel for the curtain call spectacle and this one.

Amanda knows just how much Jane and I both love musical theater, and she could not have made a more perfect choice of unique and interesting activity for us.  It's one of my favorite memories of the trip.

We met Amanda's host family who had made her Junior year so perfect for her.  Yasutaka ("Rocky") who is retired from Panasonic and his wife Tomiku invited us to a performance they put on at a Community Center.  It was for a Haiku Club and there was an upcoming Haiku contest.  Japanese Haiku is a true art form.  The best can be interpreted multiple contradictory ways. Amanda spoke of a student who could not even imagine that haiku could be done in English.

Rocky and Tomiku put on this show with these unusual devices made of paper and bamboo that could be fanned out and configured in many ways.  There was audience participation, and Amanda was the drummer (Taiko -- which I have always assumed was spelled "tycho" and just spent a half hour figuring out).

Other parts of the show included a magician and a comedian.  Verbal comedy is, well, difficult, when you don't understand the words (duh) but Amanda would quietly translate (between gaffaws).  The comedy bit involved this very drunken guy who goes to a noodle restaraunt and though the server tells him that it is a mediocre noodle restaurant and charges 600¥ he insists on paying 1000¥ as a matter of honor.  Then he's distracted by his own elloquence and adds so much hot pepper to the food that he could no longer find any noodles.  He eventually wants the extra 400¥ back (this got a huge laugh).  The comedian sat at a low table and pounded a sort of gavel for emphasis.  It was very funny.

Rocky took us to a Shinto shrine of his favorite god (the patron god of gamblers, among other things).  Interestingly, there was a monument to Thomas Edison there!  Edison had used some Kyoto bamboo when he invented the light bulb!  There was also a wall of sake barrels.

We were invited to dine at Rocky's house and Tomiku prepared a marvelous dinner.  This was another high-point of the trip, to see inside a "real" Japanese residence.  Rocky and Tomiku were so gracious and friendly!  They showed us photo albums of the kids they had hosted over the years and a video of an annual party where they use a giant mallet to pound rice (for some inscrutable reason :-)  I showed them pictures of the Great Fire of Ought Nine.  Afterwards, we watched a baseball game between the Tokyo Giants the Osaka Tigers.  This is a huge rivalry, and it was very cool that we all shared this same love of the game.  It was one of the few times during the entire trip that I knew exactly what was going on...

We visited Arima.  There is a cable car ("ropeway") to Mt. Rokko (Rokko-san)  From the top, there is a wonderful view of the Kobe seaport -- every square inch covered with buildings.

Onsen there -- the "silver springs" (I have a towel) that proudly touts that its water has the healing power of radium.   In for a penny, in for a pound.  When in Rome... Marie Curie, save me a spot in heaven...

Slightly funny scene.... I got out of the onsen a few minutes before Jane and Amanda.  So I decided to go outside for a smoke.  But my shoes were in a locker (we had put all three pairs in the same locker and Jane had the key).  I stood at the door, thinking I probably ought not to go outside in my socks... but... ah, what the heck... As the door slid open an old lady sitting by the door said "No! No!" and pointed at my feet in clear distress.  I pointed to the locked locker... She made a gesture, like turning a key...

I said I don't have the key, and shrugged.  There was nothing else to do, so I started to open the door again...  "No!  No!"  She stopped me again.  This time she pointed to one of two pairs of slippers that were near the door.  Ah... Hah!  These were slippers for people who needed to step outside.  It would be unthinkable to do that in your socks!

We took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Tokyo.

We met an English-speaking volunteer guide named Hiroko.  Jane had found out about this free service and had been emailing with Hiroko for weeks.  Hiroko lead us from place to place, and got us through the maze at Tokyo station (including parking our overnight bagggage at the coin locker, and against all odds, finding the same locker later on).

We went downtown to the Gardens of the Imperial Palace.  This was one of the "Golden Week" holidays -- traditionally called "Boy's Day" (aka, "Children's Day.") 5th day of the 5th month; Hiroko said it's traditionally about "purification rituals" but the carp banners and the sweet treat called kashiwa-mochi is what it's all about now.

We visited Shinjuku -- government office building -- it's great view of central Tokyo from high up.

Walking around downtown, we noticed a commotion -- a crown of onlookers watching as a very large man, dressed in drag, was preparing to get into a really tiny car.   There were lights and a filming crew capturing the sequence.   Hiroko said that it was a famous comedian.

We also rode the monorail and stopped at the "Toyota Mega Web" center.  There was an open-air show in a quad there, featuring Hawaiian hula dancers.  We looked around inside (interestingly there are several models of Toyota sold in Japan that are not seen here in the U.S.; that, and the steering wheel is on the wrong side...)  When we came back outside, they had a line of twenty or so little girl hula dancers in leis and grass skirts up front and a bunch of volunteer hula students on stage.  It was cute and charming.

Amanda's brilliant planning included a dinner at a theme restaraunt in Tokyo.  She promised it would be "campy" and it certainly was... in the most entertaining possible way!  You enter a dark room and confirm your reservations, then... suddenly a black-cloaked and masked figure jumps onto the floor ("Haiii Ya!") from a hidden trap door and leads your "Ninja training."  You are taken through winding dark corridors and see a chest of gold (touches sword menicingly... "You keep Ninja secret!") over a hidden drawbridge through some more dark halls and finally into a semi-private booth of the dining area.  The place looks cold and dark, and damp, but it just looks that way.  We sat right below where Stephen Spielberg had signed the rock wall.

The menu is a scroll which the Ninja server opens with a startling zzzzzzzip!!  We chose a preset combination, and I carefully ordered heated sake (it is usually served at room temperature).  The meal consisted of course after course of Ninja-themed fine dining.  One item was a half grapefruit pierced by a short sword.  Our Nija server had Amanda hold the fruit while she slowly pulled out the sword and... mist came boiling and swirling out of the holes ("Don't look below... Ninja magic!").  It was a visual treat.

Our meal included plates of sashimi, which I donated to Jane and Amanda.  I quipped that this would be really good if it were deep fried.  The Ninja server said something in Japanese, and Amanda translated ... "but, but,... then it would not be sashimi!"

Jane's dessert was in the likeness of a perfect tiny bonsai tree, growing from a hill of some kind of sherbet.

All through the meal, Amanda and I would wisecrack in hushed tones...

    He he he..., I'll distract you with magic tricks... so I can SLICE YOU TO PIECES!

    Here's your delicious dessert... and your INSTANT DEATH!

My main course was steak ("Kobe-niku"), and I don't believe I have ever eaten anything better.  It was so tender it just melted in my mouth.

While we were eating, a Ninja came to the table and performed magic tricks.  I love up-close magic!  (Jane and I have been to the Magic Castle in Hollywood several times).   This guy was very good!  What I really liked was that he was visibly enjoying himself.  He'd laugh at his own jokes, and even laugh before the trick (secretly knowing what was about to happen).

Our Ninja magician did several card tricks.  In one, he had us pick a card which he shuffled into the deck, then he placed the entire deck into Jane's palm-down hand.   With a few flourishes he then pulled the deck out of a vest pocket and looked confused -- looking at the deck and back at Janes hand (where it's supposed to be)... Then (laughing) he flips Janes hand over to reveal that there is only a block of clear plastic there...

A few tricks later, he does the finale... He showed us the ace of spades, shuffled it into the deck and then tapped his vest as it rose out of a concealed pocket.  He kept tapping, saying "watch... watch... watch..."  and the empty card packet also came out...  now he's seriously guffawing as he keeps saying "watch... watch... watch..." and shakes the box until... Jane's wristwatch comes tumbling out!

We were amused and delighted.  Bowled over, in fact.  It was a perfect night.

This part of our itinerary was to see Mt. Fuji and tour a famous mecca for western royalty, the Fujiya Hotel.  We took the bullet train from Tokyo and transferred to a local to get to Hakone.  This was a "switchback train" -- that is, it stopped and changed direction three times as it went up the hill.  Each time it stopped, the conductor walked to the other end of the train and changed places with the rear brakeman.

The hotel has been there since 1878.  It is marvelous.  There are black-and-white photos from pre-war era (this Duke or that Princess had stayed at this world-famous hotel) -- but Amanda said the photos creeped her out -- it reminded her of "The Shining"  So I did my talking finger bit, "REDRUM... REDRUM..."  A stand-out memory is that we did not need to take off our shoes as we entered the guestroom.  After nearly a week in Japan, that seemed strange.

We enjoyed the onsen and Amanda and I went to a jazz bar where we got basically a private show -- it was off-season I guess (room prices were on a half-price special "for our overseas guests").

In the morning, Amanda and I took the trail up the hill to catch a view of Fuji-san.  It was a strenuous hike -- steep at times -- through a thick green canopy.  It felt subconsciously odd in that so much of the vegitation was differnet from what I normally see on a hike.  I kept expecting wood elfs to pop out from behind moss-covered trees.  Amanda spotted a lizard, but very unlike the Horned Lizard one might find on a trail above La Crescenta, this was smooth and slick like salamander.

We finally got to the wind-blown viewpoint and took pictures of Mt. Fuji.  There was (unaccountably) some litter scattered around the site.  Before starting back down we picked it all up (Amanda "risked her life" for one piece of cellophane).  A few minutes down the trail, we met a small group of Japanese women and children on their way up.  We smiled and said -- "You're almost there!" (which is the best news for a hiker :-) I smiled inside -- these hikers would not have their bliss interrupted by the sight of trash on the trail.

Back in Osaka, Amanda took us to a Shabu Shabu restaurant.  A hot pot -- boiling soup -- is brought to your table and you use chopsticks to cook thin strips of beef or pork in the broth.

We ask: How do you eat the egg?  The waitress showed how to crack it in a bowl then scramble it with chopsticks.  Then I adroitly grabbed it and dumped it right in the soup.  What a gaffe! You are supposed to dip your cooked meat into raw egg (yech).  I decided that I did not have to follow the rules and I cracked another egg directly into the boiling soup.  I fished it out with the chopsticks, dabbed it in soy sauce and ate it in two gulps -- it was delicious.

One thing... It seems that "All you can eat" in Japanese really means "All you can eat unless one more dessert will bankrupt the corporation."  Oh, well.  Live and learn.

We were supposed to go to Nara -- a place where there are tame deer that walk right up to people.  But Jane was coming down with a cold or bronchitis, so we stayed in the hotel in Osaka.  She soaked in the onsen and felt much better the next day.

But I wanted to do some shopping (get a T-shirt with Kanji writing on it) so I went out in the rain and walked around the enormous shopping district in Namba -- miles of narrow streets filled with shops, colorful lights, and lots of activity even though raining (many of the streets are covered and for pedestrians only).

Take one left turn, then take a right... next thing you know, you are completely lost.  I kept wandering for hours... Then, way in the distance, I spied a recognizable building (it's triangular with a gigantic doughnut hole in it), and was able to make my way to find the angle from which I'd seen it before, and from there,  I could see a different landmark (the 00101 Cinema) and went toward it, and eventually got back to the hotel.

That night Amanda and I went to the movies to see Alice in Wonderland in 3D.  We're both huge fans of Johnny Depp AND he recited Jabberwocky (more or less). The 3D-glasses were more like goggles.  You can buy beer at the concessions stand.  Nobody laughs at the funny parts.

Tsuutenkaku tower in Osaka.  At the top there is a wooden idol of a god named Billiken wearing a "What? Me worry?" grin... you're supposed to rub his feet and you get your wish.  But I just love his caption:

    The God of Things As They Ought To Be

Amanda wanted to go there partly because the area is famous for its Kushikatsu bars -- where you buy breaded and deep-fried meat on a stick.  Yummy!  You can dip the skewers into some community-shared sauce and Amanda said that the signs warn in no uncertain terms that you must NOT double-dip!

We said our goodbyes and went to the airport.  There was a several hour layover in Tokyo.

My brush with greatness..
While waiting in the Tokyo Narita airport, a bunch of photographers swarmed around the boarding gate (paparazzi)... soon somebody wearing low-riding Levis and a loose hoody (his face mostly covered) walked by with a small entourage... and the cameras all started flashing.  The group went down the hall where they could wait privately, then when the Priority line was empty, the group returned (more flashing and frantic movement by the paparazzi) and he boarded.  There were two American ladies in front of us in the Economy waiting line and one went over and asked one of the photographers who it was.

Jin Akanishi

Amanda says he is a huge celebrity in Japan.  Girls swoon, etc.  Anyway, as we walked down the aisle in the plane, we walked directly past him, and that same American lady (who had never before heard the name) spoke directly to him -- "We're your LA fans!" and he showed us a nice smile.

But wait! There's more! After the 11+ hours of flight, I was outside the LAX terminal having a smoke, when Jin and and his crew came out and stood right next to me and lit up.  I was thrilled speechless! (or more specifically, I didn't say anything, lol)

After flying for hours and hours, we got home earlier in the morning of the day we left.

Random thoughts
The language problem -- not so much:
Amanda had given us a Japanese lesson via Skype.  The big two are "kon'nichiwa" (hello) and "arigato" (thank you).  Jane learned to say  "I don't understand you.  I am an American."

During our stay, out of necessity, I asked Amanda to teach me the Japanese equivallent of:
I don't speak Japanese and have no clue about anything whatsoever; I can't even buy a clue (in case you are offering one for sale) I am rather dim-witted, sufferring from the unfortunate disability of being from America.  I apologize with all of my heart that I have stepped on your toe with my absurdly gigantic foot as I moved about erratically and irresponsibly in this subway car.
She said: That's easy...
goh - men
Jane and I carried a piece of paper with the English and Kanji of the names, address, and phone number of each of our hotels.  So, worst case scenario, we could pull out the paper and point to where we were staying.  It also had Amanda's cell phone number.

Almost always, Amanda was right beside us to order meals and what not.  So language really didn't turn out to be a problem, even when confronted with something like this subway-ticket vending machine.

However, there was one point where I really felt like an alien.  Climbing stairs out of the subway, there was an old lady clearly struggling with her luggage.  I stopped and instinctively wanted to help, but I realized that without language, I could not offer to take her bag.  I hesitated, then walked on, but I felt sad about it.

The unexpected thing is that there is plenty of recognizable English text, all over the place.  For instance, the local convenience store is named "FamilyMart" and there was one every couple of blocks.  On the trains and subways, the announcements are always repeated in English.  If you get lost, just find anybody in uniform and they will understand enough spoken English to set you right.  Many restaurants provide English language menus as soon as they see that you are confused.

Aside:  A lot of young people wear T-shirts and when there is writing on the shirt, it is always in English (I saw not even one exception).  You can buy T-shirts with Kanji writing, but only at tourist shops.  If you were to wear one with Kanji characters, you'd be ridiculed by your peers.

So English text has a peculiar place in Japanese society.  You learn to read and write English in Middle School (Rocky said that soon, it will be mandatory in 5th or 6th grade).  But only a small minority can speak English -- though many adults want to learn (thus, Amanda's employment).

While waiting for a train, Amanda grilled me on pronunciation of the "Romaji" text (that uses a recognizable alphabet).  It's very easy because each vowel always has a single sound (I now understand that this is just a phonetic spelling of the existing spoken language, so the consistent vowel usage makes perfect sense).

For instance, if you see "e" it is always spoken as "ay" (like in play).  So sake is "sock ay" (unlike in English where "e" might be "ee" or "eh" or it might be entirely silent, etc.  My name is pronounced as "dawn role ins-u" (there is no "a" as in after),  there's the peculiarity of the R/L thing, and for some reason they expect a semi-silent vowel sound at the end).  The Kanji writing looks entirely like random scribbles to me.  Though I could recognize the Kanji digits (一,二,三,四,五,...九) after Amanda gave me a lesson (amounts and other numbers are usually shown in Roman digits, anyway).

Things cost a lot there.  Hotel rooms in Tokyo can cost over $500 per night (Amanda set us up with some relative bargains).  You can get a snack for $1, but expect to pay over $15 for a decent fast-food meal (noodles with ham).  And one night we paid about $500 to feed the three of us (but we knew the cost going in, and it turned out to be money well spent).  It seemed to me that we also fed a lot of money into subway ticket vending machines.  We bought a Japan Rail pass, but that's only good for city-to-city trains.

I left a pair of 2x reading glasses at a hotel and then broke the earpiece of my backup pair.  Unlike Mr. Monk, I don't carry a backup backup... Anyway, I tried a dozen "drugstore-looking" places and could find no such thing as reading glasses.  You can buy them for as little as $3 at home, but I ended up paying 30,000¥ at an optometrist shop.  The conversation was classic, though... (Amanda interpreting) "Wow, that's a lot... Do you have anything less expensive?"  (answer, apologetically) "Alas, I am sorry beyond what mere words could express, but if you want something for less, you will have to go to a different store."

Credit cards are rarely used... everything is cash.  And everything seems to cost a multiple of 100 or 1000 yen.  You carry 1,000¥, 5,000¥ and 10,000¥ bills ($10, $50, and $100) in your wallet along with a pocketful of 100¥ and 500¥ coins.  It's easy to do the mental conversion of 100¥ = $1, but you need to be careful to count the zeros!

And you're fooling youself a little because 100¥ is really about $1.15 or so.  A 20,000¥ shirt looks like $20, but it's really $23.  I carry a coin purse, and I would fold a few 1,000¥-notes into it (Amanda thought that was peculiar, and indeed most of the notes I saw or handled had never been folded).

No tipping!  And that's just not an excuse to stiff the waitress -- it is culturally unacceptable to offer a tip.  Don't prove yourself to be an ignorant American by offering.  I wonder why it's that way... perhaps there is a loss-of-face issue.

I blew it with the money only once.  At a convenience store, I started counting out thousand-yen notes to pay for an 800-yen purchase -- I got a particularly funny (and embarrased) look from the cashier as she shoved most of the pile back to me.  Imagine watching some idiot putting down several $20 bills to pay for a pack of gum and a soda...

Walking around
There are bicycles everywhere and you almost never see them locked when parked.  Sidewalks have bike lanes, and the centerline has raised ridges to make it easy for the blind to navigate (there are raised "dots" at corners, etc).   You should tend to the left (not the right) when facing oncoming pedestrians or cyclists.  Everybody waits patiently when the light is red, even if there is no traffic to be seen.

Jane's a New York-raised pedestrian... She gets up a head of steam and keeps moving.  I had to work hard to keep the traditional two steps ahead of her...

Some take-away oddnesses...
(culture shock items)


  • Toilets!  Either "traditional" ground level (squat and balance)  or "modern" electrically warmed seat with remote control warm-water bidet -- very surpising the first time you try it.  It has a "massage" setting and even a blow dryer.
  • There are no paper towels in the restrooms.  When there is no blow-dryer, you either wipe your hand on your shirt or carry a handkerchief (like the one I got in a gift exchange).
  • Groups of young girls yelling in unison.  This is an "audio memory."  The high-pitched high-volume sound is very penetrating, especially when you can't associate meaning with the words.  In one case, outside of a train station, two groups of girls were competing (I think one groups was trying to get people to come into a particular shop and another wanted donations for some girl-scout type organization).
  • Onsen -- public baths.  Very different from the Jacuzzi at the gym.  Quite hot (ahhhhh) at 42°C (about 108°F) and no bubble-jets (sometimes a few bubbles coming up from the center, to give it a "hot springs" effect).  Amanda had described the ettiquite to Jane and I in detail.

    The whole experience is sort of ritualistic.  Wear the hotel-provided pajamas when you leave your room.  Undress and put your clothes in a basket in the outer room.  You must be naked (no swim suit).  Bypass the first room (that's for drying off afterwards).  In the hot tub room, you use a "cleansing station" -- a sort of three-sided cubicle with a small stool that has a hand-held shower -- and you lather yourself up well and rinse off before going in the water.  Don't dunk your head; don't even let your hair hit the water in the pool (I put mine up in a Samurai-style topknot).

    After one go-round in the cleansing station, I felt nice and clean and ready to soak, but I noticed that some guys that had already been cleaning when I came in were still working the soap.  So I lathered up and shampooed again and rinsed off again (I didn't want to appear hasty).... But they were *still* cleaning.   So I realized I'd need to be in for the long haul.   I dug in and spent real time on my feet and legs, used a wet handtowel to scrub my back, even "worshed behind the ears"... It's quite different from the daily shower where you just get in and out as quickly as possible.  Eventually, I eased into the hot pool and just enjoyed the water.  At one hotel, the onsen also had a cold pool, so after about 15 minutes in the heat, you can cool off before a second pass.  Heavenly.

    Incidentally, the hotel was proud to announce that the onsen was now available for use by women -- on certain limited hours Friday thru Sunday.  The culture shock:  That means that up until (apparently) recently, women were not allowed access at any time (major gender bias, IMHO).  It is a "business hotel" rather than a tourist hotel, and this might just reflect the fact that women are only recently entering the workforce.

    Also:  At the onsen in Arima, there was a person who did cleanup -- tidied up the cleansing stations, refilled the soap and so forth.  The culture shock?  It was a woman!  She walked around in a room full of naked men and nobody thought anything about it.
  • The "pink car" on the subway.  Women Only.  Apparently the problem of being groped or otherwise violated is a problem.   Amanda says that Japanese women are too embarrased and ashamed to report when it happens.  There are instruction (in only Japanese) about what to do when you experience or see that happening.

    I think that the cultural status of women must be in transition in Japan.  In a decade, Japanese women will not only report such vile molestation, but will learn to adroitly kick yarbles.  Then the "pink car" will be an ugly old memory.  But in the interim, the government has provided this necessary protection.  Strange, don't you think?
  • "Private Karaoke"  Not up on stage in the public -- instead an enjoyable session in your own room with a small group of friends.  Food and drinks are served.
  • The groups of uniformed students, especially the kids with brightly-colored caps.  In Japanese public schools, you wear a uniform through *high school!*  But that does not mean that everyone is a clone.  I saw a group of three high-school age girls in pleated plaid skirts with "Sailor-Moon" blouses.  Two of them had the skirt down to the knees, but the third had a modified version that easily qualified as a miniskirt.  She had legs to proudly show off, bless her heart.   Hurrah for originality!
  • Another Audio memory:  Third-grader's "Hello!"  -- in an utterly cute, almost sing-song voice (along with visual memory of the beaming proud smile I got when I answered "Hello!" back :-)
  • Shoes off! (note to self -- wear loafers, not hiking boots, next time)  And.. There's a pair of slippers on the floor in the toilet room.  I guess it would feel *wrong* to take even one step onto the tile barefoot...
  • Zillions of pretty girls, everywhere you look!  Especially at public place like Osaka Castle and the shrine in Kyoto or shopping at Namba Parks.  They were often in groups of three or more, walking and giggling with each other.

    The fashions are different enough to leave an impression.  You almost never see a plunging neckline, but you will see legs, and a common variant is short pants, often also layered with a short lacey skirt, and usually a pair of black tights.

    Perhaps I just noticed the girls a lot since, well, I'm not dead.  Amanda said she thought I was exaggerating.  But I was able to point out several times we saw groups of 20 or 30 young women standing together -- with no guys nearby.  I'm chronicling my memories here, and that's one of my impressions: There are more pretty young, single women in Japan than you can shake a stick at.
  • Vending machines!  There are banks of these everywhere you go; for instance, three different sets in the alley behind Amanda's apartment.  Mostly beverages, including hot (well, quite warm) cans of coffee or delicious milk tea.  And at some restaurants, you make your order (and pay) at a machine that vends tickets, which you then present to your server.  This is very efficient (but not so great if you can't read the scribbles -- you might get octopus-gizzard soup or something).
  • Teeny, tiny apartments.  There's an entry way to leave your shoes, then hot-plate/kitchen, shower, separate (tiny) toilet room... which becomes the main area just wide enough for a twin-sized mattress on one side, a narrow couch on the other, and a two-foot area between them, which leads to a small balcony.  Very efficient.  Very small.
  • Litter -- hardly any on the streets.  But oddly, it's often hard to find a trash receptacle... I had to put gum wrappers and such into my pocket and carry empty paper cups around for the longest time.
  • Beer in vending machines... EVERYWHERE!  In train stations, at the theater, on the sidewalk... it's just another beverage.  Also, for the first time since the 70's I saw cigarette vending machines.  Smokes are cheaper there.  Vending-machine beer costs $4 or $6 depending on size and stoutness.
  • Surgical facemasks:  This is one of those things that strikes you as bizzare at first:  Every so often, you see somebody, usually an older person, walking in public wearing a facemask.  You'll also see a group of three or four teenage guys, and only one of them is wearing a mask.  Reading up on this: They are generally worn to protect yourself (typically from swine flu or pollen), but quite often, it is worn as a show of social responsibility and consideration for others when you have a cold.

Well, this is the longest blog entry I've ever posted and it took me several days to write.   I wanted to record my impressions, and feelings, and I just couldn't let go of even the little stuff.

Amanda and Jane (especially Amanda) did a superlative job of setting everything up.  Nothing went wrong.  We had interesting fun everywhere we went and in everything we did.

It was fantastic to get reacquainted with Amanda (and to meet her kitty, "Kukki-do" (Cookie Dough), and to have a better understanding of what her life is like now.    She really loves it there!  That's wonderful, but also sad -- in that it means we might be apart for more years.
Hand-fitted rock walls/  Miles and miles of them (and Amanda)
Tea garden outside of our hotel room.

This is in Tokyo (look for the Starbucks Coffee Shop sign)

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Great Fire of Ought Nine

Monday, August 29, 2009

The mountain is on fire.  All of the mountains are on fire. I took this photo from my own backyard!

The past few days have been some the wildest -- and, at times, the most exhilarating -- of my life.

An enormous fire swept across the mountains facing the San Gabriel Valley and across 120,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest. These fires do happen, but they usually happen miles away from my house. And they are usually small, and get put out or a least contained within a day or two.

Sure, we are on the wilderness interface; it's that place where civilization -- well-lit streets, rows of houses with pools, telephone lines, HBO, broadband Internet -- meets the untamed chaparral.  We are at a location where nobody can ever build a house above us -- less than 1/4 mile from the National Forest.  Deers walk into our backyard, skunks sneak into the kitchen through the cat door, the occasional rattlesnake finds shade in our garage... And we like it that way. I grew up surrounded by mountains and I've only felt comfortable when near them. I can never find my orientation when I'm in the flatland.

Even here, in one of the largest metropolitan areas on earth, we have a feeling of being in the country. I can hike directly from my back yard, up past a circa-1900 stone-and-mortar cistern, past the treehouse I built for the kids 17 years ago, into Dukmejain Wilderness park, across a gurgling brook and even all the way up to Mt. Lukens. When the kids were little, we'd pack a lunch and go on "The Frog Hike" or "The Muck Hike" or "The Hole Hike" or to the "Kid-Sized Waterfall."

Just 200 yards above my house, we had places named "Camp Bob" and "Camp Amanda" where we could easily do an overnight trip, boiling water for cup-a-noodle soup and roasting hotdogs and marshmallows.  Camp Amanda is below "Toe" among the trees we'd named "Tic, Tac, Toe, and Toto, too!" It looks out over an ocean of city lights. Camp Bob faces the other direction -- looking north, you would never know there was a city anywhere nearby.

I love the mountain behind our house. Curious about that stone structure a few years back, I cleared away some brush and found pipes and a large rusty valve assembly on the east end of it. You can barely make out "Pat. July 23, 1901" in the cast-iron housing. That makes it contemporary with the "historic stone barn" in Deukmejian Wilderness Park. When the kids were small, I built a very cool tree house in the California Live Oak near it. I've always been particularly proud of the "ell" joint I created to make it a split-level structure...

Well. the treehouse is no more.  And the entire mountain looks a lot different now... but I love it all the same. Well, that's the background. I might as well get into the story of The Great Fire of '09.

27th Wedding Anniversary
Yep, Jane and I were married 27 years ago, last Friday, and we planned a trip to a bed-and-breakfast in Summerland, just outside of Santa Barbara. We woke up that day to the sound of helicopters -- BIG helicopters -- going directly over the house. We'd seen a large yellow tank -- the size of a semi-truck trailer -- placed in the Dunsmore Debris Basin and now it was in continuous use. Copters would fly in, hover above it to fill up with water then fly away to the area above La Canada where a fire was now burning.

We gave it a lot of thought, but we decided to go ahead with the trip.  After all, the fire was miles away -- that general area had burned before and never gotten at all close to our house.  Just in case, Jane gathered photo albums and genealogical documents and hauled them down to Nan and Evelyn's house which is well below Foothill Blvd.  We drove to the B-and-B via Ojai, and had a great time (wink wink) Friday night.  Saturday... we visited Lotusland, Madam Walksk's incredible botanical garden in Santa Barbara.

But about 6 PM, we (ah, hmmm...{blush}...) turned the cell phones back on, and immediately got a call from Robert to say that the area above Markridge had been evacuated.  He'd filled the car with computers and skedaddled down the hill to a friend's house.  Nothing for it but to pack up and cut short our romantic holiday.  On the way home, we listened to news radio and knew that this was real -- not just another distant 'threat.'  We started smelling smoke in Fillmore (over fifty miles from the fires).  When we got home, we found that police had a barricade across every street going uphill.  Robert and I drove up to the house to see if we could make another pass at saving stuff.  The policeman had to see a driver's license, but let us through.   Interestingly, many of the neighbors had not left.  Again, the fire was still miles away, though it was now approaching from two directions.   Neighbors were standing around in the street as night fell -- the fire easily visible to the east and a smoky glow from the west.

The Red Cross Shelter at CVHS
The official Evacuation Center was at Crescenta Valley High School -- in the cafeteria.  They had cots laid out, and plenty of food and drinks.   There were maybe 40- 50 evacuees, including none of our neighbors -- they all went elsewhere, I guess.  We ended up spending parts of three days here.  Our street -- the area above Markridge -- was the very last to be re-populated and the evacuation center actually closed up before the mandatory evacuation order was lifted.

We have a new kitten living with us -- named Camoflage (Cammy) -- because her coloring matches the carpet -- and we had put her in a pet carrier in the car. The Red Cross told us what to do -- take her to a designated animal shelter for the duration of the evacuation.  She did not like being penned up like that, but there was really nothing else we could do.  We'd not see her again until Wednesday.

Oddly, the area between Lowell and Pennsylvania was evacuated, as was the area to the east of Ramsdel, but there was a large "gap" where fire was easily visible but residents had not been evacuated.  Later, I heard that our street had been designated as a pre-determined hazard area in the standing evacuation plans -- possibly because the hill had not burned in nearly forty years so the fuel level was exceptionally high. 

For whatever reason, officials lowered the status to "Voluntary Evacuation" in our area so Robert and I went back home and stayed the night (Jane preferred to stay at the high school).  We were watching the TV coverage, occasionally switching from the Dodger game to read the text screen alert messages displayed on channel 6...  (Note: we had no computers to access the Internet!)  At about midnight, a new alert came up: The level was to go back to "Mandatory" starting Sunday morning.  

"Reverse 911" System
About one minute after the text notice changed on the TV, we got a phone call and an automated voice indicating mandatory evacuation starting at 8AM.   We learned later that there was a flurry of activity at the Evacuation Center:  Apparently, the call had accidentally gone out to a large section of La Crescenta rather than the much narrower area intended.  Lots of people packed up and went down to the high school only to find out that they should go back home.

"Controlled burn" Planned
Anyway, a policeman knocked on the door at 6 AM, and said that we'd need to be out soon.  There was going to be a "tactical burn" in the area of Deukmejian Wilderness Park  -- which is adjacent to our street. 

In the morning, the air was unbelievably thick with smoke.  The thermal inversion layer traps it all low against the mountains.  It was as thick as a dense fog, making it hard to breath and stinging the eyes.  We went back down to the air-conditioned shelter where the Red Cross volunteers had put out boxes of MacDonald's "Big Breakfasts" -- pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage.  The tables were also groaning with piles of donuts, bagels, cookies -- some homemade by local folks, most donated by local businesses -- Yummy!  Comfort Food!

Nothing to do, but sit around.  I did get some sleep, but they did not start the tactical burn all that day.  We read books, worked some sudoku puzzles, and talked to news reporters, but nothing else happened in our area on Sunday.

Robert and I drove around looking for a vantage point -- a place where we could see our house or at least our neighborhood.  We went up the other side of the valley, and knocked on a door.  The housekeeper said "The lady, she is not home, but she lets people go back there..."  We walked to the back and what a view!

Deukmejian park was already a field of ashes -- though they had saved that enormous California Live Oak that's just above the "stone barn". 

From this vantage point, I could see that the fire was coming not just from east and west, but that the entire mountain was burning from the top down -- so fire was coming at my house from THREE DIRECTIONS.  Through the binoculars, I could see activity on our street, including one of my neighbors wandering around with his dog, talking to firemen. 

And now, the fire was only a few hundred yards from my house.  I watched as Tic,Tac,Toe burned -- "Camp Amanda" was destroyed as Toe, a large Ponderosa Pine tree, took fire in one big explosion.

I decided I just had to get closer.  Robert and I drove up and, though the policeman at the barrier hesitated, saying "You can't go above Markridge," he did let us in again.

This time, there were at least five news vans and as many firetrucks.   There were at least fifty firefighters in the immediate neighborhood  There were a dozen men behind my house alone.  

Yep, we walked right up the street, as if we owned the place.  When nobody stopped us, we went into the backyard.  The chief said "Is this your house?"  And that's all.  It turns out that there is a California law that says that a person cannot be forced to leave his home -- short of an arrest for misconduct.  So... we were going to have front-row seats.
The crews had done a lot of work in preparation for the tactical burn. They had cleared an additional 10 feet behind the fence, down to the bare earth and had been spraying down the ground and especially the large pine tree against the fence line -- and the dangerous bed of pine needles and pine cones below it.

As we had come up the hill, we had heard "pop pop pop" -- and could see that a crew was shooting flares into the brush.  The flares are unusual -- they would hit the ground then spark like fireworks and jump up and dance around.   They are very effective.  Soon there were pools of fire and the pools join into lakes, and the lakes into an ocean of fire
Next, in my own backyard, we hear some radio chatter and the crew chief yells out "Everybody get ready!  They're going to LIGHT-IT-UP!"  Then a firefighter walked along above my fence and with a small flamethrower-type device and laid down a dotted line of fire.  The slight up-hill breeze was perfect -- the line of fire grew, but for the first time, it was going away from my house.

The fire was climbing up the ridge on the west toward the treehouse, but by now the lake of fire on the east was gathering serious force.  It moved to a stand of Laurel Sumac trees -- they have leaves that are covered with an oily substance to retain moisture -- and when the air is dry and the fire is hot enough, that oil evaporates all at once.  
There is an enormous WHOOSH -- and the entire tree basically explodes.  When that happened, a wall of heat radiated in our direction.  We could really feel it.  I took my cues from the firefighters. They were NOT rushing around, looking worried.  Rather, they calmly watched the fire and checked, and re-checked their gear.  The fire was burning madly, but it was controlled.   It was supposed to be doing that!
If you look in the center of that photo, you can see the fiery demise of our wonderful treehouse.

At one point, I heard someone yell "Rock!" and saw a flash as a yellow-clad firefighter dove quickly to the side.  There was a tremendous crash, and I could see that a piece of the chain-link fence was gone. The firefighter was unharmed, but it clearly is dangerous work.

What's with the rocks? The slope is covered with rocks of all sizes -- we sometimes call this town "Rock-Crescenta" -- and when there is an earthquake, it often jars a few boulders loose. They tumble for a while and usually get stopped by a tree. There they stay for years and years. Well, guess what happens when that tree suddenly disappears.....

Although it seemed like hours, the entire slope burned in just a few minutes.  There were isolated hot spots, and the next day a crew came in to check it out and wet down some smoldering smokepots, but the controlled burn worked perfectly -- there was no fuel left to burn.  The neighborhood was now safe and the crews could move to the west and focus on the next part of the fire.  The "red line" on the map could be be changed to a "black line" indicating containment in this area.
There was still work for the firefighters.  The fire was traveling downhill in Cooks Canyon to the west.   A crew worked down the treacherous slope and up the other side, right behind the neighbor, Steve's, house, manually clearing a narrow firebreak.   This is where they would hold the line.  Helicopters came in to stop the fire on that line. 
Robert and I were watching on the first water drop, and we got caught in the very edge of it; it felt like a short burst of a heavy rain, but the water was warm.  We were standing there stupidly grinning at each other when the chief yelled "HEY!  Get the Hell OUT of THERE!  He's coming back for another pass!" 
We scampered beneath the eves and avoided a major soaking -- those things drop a LOT of water!

The hills are a moonscape of black ashes.

We can expect significant problems when the rains come.  There will be "debris flows" -- mud mixed with ashes -- and it will be a serious problem if we have an El-Nino rainy season this year.   We can certainly expect more big rocks to come tumbling down. 

It took a while to unpack the cars and get the computers set up, but things are starting to get back to normal.  There is a strong smell of ashes, and still some smoke from distant files (the "Station" Fire is still burning and has consumed great swaths of the Nation Forest where I've hiked so many times with the Sierra Club).   But the smell is less powerful now and it diminishes each day.  And there is even a major upside! -- There is basically no chance that this hill will burn again for at least 10 years.

The plant life on these mountains -- the "chaparral" -- has evolved to survive fires like this.  The mountain burns in the summer and then in the spring, ashes wash down to the valley (making it into excellent farmland, until it gets paved over), but the trees tend to be able to survive the fire and regrow from the roots.  

In the spring, the hills will be greener than ever since the grass and wildflowers won't be choked out by the brownish-green sagebrush.  But in two years, the sagebrush will be back and in three, there will be surprisingly-large trees again.   I certainly look forward to hiking up there and watching it all happen.

We did not get hurt.  Aside from the fence, we sustained no property damage.   Yes, we are lucky -- but not that we are alive... we were never in any physical danger.  The big luck was that the air was so calm.  Had there been a Santa Ana wind blowing, well... this story might be a lot different. The fire crews had plenty of time to prepare the area, and the government was able to put thousands of people and billions of dollars worth of equipment where and when it was needed.

Was it terrifying?  No (at least not to me).  

It was Nature, doing her thing -- writ large.   My experience was more like the kick of riding a roller-coaster:  Exciting, exhilarating, adrenaline-drenched.  Frightening only in the way that one lets oneself be frightened by scary movies or at the amusement park.  The thrill of being in the backyard when they got the word to "Light it up!" was one I will never forget.

I am truly saddened that firefighters died and some people were injured.  I am sorry about the loss of our treehouse and the incalculable loss of the beautiful forest land.  I empathize with people who were actually terrified by the situation -- Jane is one of them -- but I can only guess at what it must be like to feel that way.   In my fifty years, there are only a handful of things that I can point to as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  This one goes right on the the top of that list.  And I'd not trade that memory for anything.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Mangled Movie Quotes -- A quiz

The idea is to recognize the quote and recall the actual quote along with the movie title and the character and/or actor who said it. Have fun!

Q01: "Play it again, Sam"
Q02: "Frankly, sweetcakes, I don't give a rat's ass."
Q03: "Sundance, we've jumped off a cliff!"
Q04: "I fully expect to return to this location forthwith."
Q05: "If that's on the menu, I'd like some, too."
Q06: "The odor of gellified gasoline burning is refreshing."
Q07: "We just ain't understandin' one another, are we?"
Q08: "You idiots! You made the Statue of Liberty fall over!"
Q09. "I desire to be in the Midwest. I desire to be in the Midwest."
Q10: "They call me Mister Pibs."
Q11: "The protuberance leading to a flower in a plant of a prickly shrub."
Q12: "Quit bending the eating utensils... they've all gone missing."
Q13: "There are few entrepreneurial endeavors akin to theatrical production!"
Q14: "Stock. Jamie Stock."
Q15: "The enemy cannot push a button if you pin his hand it to the wall with a throwing knife!"
Q16: "Credentials? I do believe we are without credentials. Sorry."
Q17: "Lordy, Look! That black rectangle thingy is full of stairs!"
Q18: "If you stay here, you will die."
Q19: "I guess you consider fortune on your side today?"
Q20: "I am well versed in Chinese martial arts."
Q22: "Your hunt for the automatons must continue."
Q23: "Asps. No big deal. Follow me."
Q24: "Whether I am morally right or wrong, I have the firearm."
Q25: "The cardiologist has inadvertantly inserted a cooked vegetable. As a result, your life expectancy has been significantly reduced."
Q26: "Help me feel good about my actions this afternoon."
Q27: "I guess I'll just boil, then eat, my shoe."
Q28: "I figure that vessel of yours is a tad too small"
Q29: "What is your serious failure, unfeeling testicles?"
Q30: "African legumes and Tuscan wine go really well with a fresh sweetbread."
Q31: "My parental adviser reduces existence to a random selection of sweetpacket contents."
Q32: "Some people are in that TV static!"
Q33: "I intend to capture you, lovely young lady, and I'm not a big fan of canines, either."
Q34: "Hablo el xp, infant"
Q35: "I'm remarkably indifferent toward these slithering creatures sharing my flight."
Q36: "I intend to make an irresistible proposition."
Q37: "Is it me to whom you are addressing your apparently derogatory comments?"
Q38: "Dear sirs, violence is out of the question inside this aptly named establishment!"
Q39: "That is not the Thracian for which you are looking!"
Q40: "Hugh made me want to eat a buttered yam."
Q41: "La la la! I'm a welder-slash-wet-t-shirt-dancer trying out for the ballet! La la la!"
Q42: "Are you armed with a deadly weapon, or is that a general indication of fondness?"
Q43: "It seems strange to me that you should mention mortality and the 16th Amendment together."
Q44: "We have clearance, Roger." "Roger, Clarence."
Q45: "Jonny, do you like movies like Q39?"
Q46: "Their arrival is conditional on your completion of the construction."
Q47: "Go out and search for whatever criminals we usually blame."
Q48: "Andrea!"
Q49: "Estrella!"
Q50: "But it goes to 0x0b!"
Q51: "She had physical contact with my member, Steven."
Q52: "Giddiup, Yee Ha! Mister Falcone!"
Q53: "You may refer to me as Ickymeal."
Q54: "Let's go, Argentum!"
Q55: "I'll have a citrus flavoured soda. In an unhygienic tumbler..."
Q56: "There's a way to make music without using your vocal chords. Do you know the technique?"
Q57: "The organizational charter of this Bridge Club specifies that we must never talk about Bridges."
Q58: "He done gots da wrong-ass cup."
Q59: "Alien email"
Q60: "You better stay on THAT side of this crumbling stone bridge thing!"
Q61: "Lulu tends to end up with objects she desires."
Q62: "Oooh, chewing gum!"
Q64: "Look! The palm crystal indicates that you've updated your magazine subscription!"
Q65: "Wake Up!"
Q66: "Start in the center of that RIDICULOUS SPIRAL, and move forward along the oddly-colored pavement."
Q67: "It's The Really REALLY Big Guy Made Out of Spongy Candy!"
Q68: "Physician, Tired, Stupid, Shy, ... etc."
Q69: "The square root of one thousand, seven hundred and sixty four."
Q70: "Two words: Poly Urethane."
Q71: "Give me more information! Give me more information! E.g., Does the guy own an automobile?"
Q72: "Enough with the tears, Uruguay!"
Q73: "The Electricity of Jesus Forces You!"
Q74: "Hey, Cambodia!"
Q75: "I have no desire to wield my weapon, and you'd prefer to continue living."
Q76: "La, La, La! I'm a purple hippo in a tutu. La La La!"
Q77: "There is a certain level of difficulty in being ecologically correct."
Q78: "Mathew, I am your Uncle's Second Cousin, Once Removed."
Q79: "How many can I serve, Chino, and still have one small glass of tequila left for me?"
Q80: "One measuring unit of this refined beet pulp product ought to help prevent the usual gag reflex."
Q81: "Cool!" [I'll just walk on this large piano]
Q82: "Cherubim sprout strange appendages whenever you experience certain harmonic vibrations."
Q83: "One advantage of friendship is that you get to avoid apologizing."
Q84: "It's expensive, and it belongs to me."
Q85: "There's an outside chance that I might have become a top prizefighter."
Q86: "As ruler of the earth, I'm practically certain that I won't fall into the ocean!"
Q87: "It's a mine you can glue, it's a gluey mine."
Q88: "Dallas, it seems we're in a bit of a pickle."

Note: The answers to these can be found at:

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The 1st annual(?) SF/F Movie Marathon

Jane and I were at one of Tom and Marie's parties when the subject of old Science Fiction/Fantasy movies came up -- and how films like The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and The Wizard of Oz are evergreen but get so mangled by interruptions of commercial TV... the discussion triggered fond memories of a "movie marathon" event, put on by Filmex in Los Angeles about 25 years ago.

Anyway, that was the genesis of the idea:
Put on a movie marathon as a sort of all-day-and-all-night party at our house. I have always been a reader of science fiction and I've collected over 100 AVI files of rips od SF/F movies. I typically use Jane's laptop as a "video server" sending output to our Hitachi 48-inch TV, but I got the idea of using Jane's presentation projector to get an even larger picture. The result was a 127-inch diagonal-measure screen -- the size of the king-sized bedsheet we used as the screen. That's larger than any TV I've ever seen and I guess it's about as big as you can get without actually going to a theater.

After going back-and-forth with the idea, I finally sent out the invitations for a weekend-after-Thanksgiving event. This coincided nicely with the kids being home (Amanda had flown back from Wittenberg to do an interview in San Francisco, then via train and bus on to our house, and Robert came in from San Jose). The invitations suggested bringing pajamas and plan on staying up all night -- but indicated that you can come and go as you want.

I did a few test runs with the equipment, and Jane and I spent many hours rearranging furniture and shopping (for industrial quantities of popcorn, Raisonettes, RedVines, high-cafeine soda, coffee, and RedBull, etc. I even found some Hersheys chocolate that claimed it was high in anti-oxidents, which I carefully marked as "for medicinal purposes.") We bought some low-to-the-ground futons, and cushons for the "nest" in the front row. With the top of the screen at ceiling level, everybody had an unobstructed view from a comfortable seat.

One of the hardest things was narrowing down the selection of movies. 24 hours is just not all that much time! So I extended the event on both ends, with a "Friday afternoon pre-marathon Terminator Marathon," and a Saturday night Post-marathon Lord of the Rings Marathon" The latter was a bit much, but how could I omit LOTR?

Anyway, I printed up copies of the flyer, below, to describe my thinking on each of the selections.

How did it all turn out? Everybody had a good time. People struggled with keeping awake, and I'm nearly certain that everybody dozed off at one point or another. Geroge and Vanessa were there and at one point, I noticed that Vanessa was sleeping soundly with Chocolate Chip nestled comfortably on her lap! I'm pretty sure that we are all "pod people" now :-)

The Terminator (1984) also T2 & T3 al.)
T1 was on the “absolutely must have movie” list. It’s the source of pop-cultural reference such as “I’ll be back” and “The Governator” And can you say “James Cameron?” It’s virtually unique in that the sequels were separated by so much time and that they basically maintained the high quality of the original. Look for the really weird credit at the end, “Acknowledgement to the works of Harlan Ellison”I don’t know the details, but I think this relates to Ellison having (then) recently won a large settlement over some other SF story and Cameron doing some butt-covering.

This 6-hour “pre-marathon marathon” will be running Friday afternoon as guests arrive. I suspect that we’ll be mostly chatting in the next room and doing Thanksgiving-type stuff, like playing Monopoly or doing jigsaw puzzles simultaneously. We’d really like to see you “drop in like family” Friday noon-ish.

Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)
This has to be the very first Science Fiction movie ever made; it’s a silent movie, about 15 minutes long. I apologize that I could only get the version that has some guy narrating the action with a grating French accent (rather than a simple musical score), but it is what it is.
Contact (1997)
In honor of the ten-year anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death, and also an AMHM (absolutely must have movie) entry. Sagan’s book gave extra depth to the characters and the story line and the underlying examination of personal belief systems, but the movie carries the main points brilliantly.

Perhaps my favorite scene comes early when we segue from the young girl to the adult Dr, Arroway I’m gunna need a bigger antenna (brushes hair back).
And who could forget: Would you like to take a riiiiiide?

Total Recall (1990)
Hard SF - inspired by a Philip K. Dick story. I could have blown half of the time budget on PKD-based films, and Blade Runner (1982) would top most people's lists, but I settled on this because of the mutant Kuato character (that’s just too cool) and the three-for-the-price-of-two mutant in the bar scene. Also: Sharon Stone, before Basic Instinct, and of course the always-impressive Arnold.
The Matrix (1999)
Iconic. And another AMHM. A rousing adventure with an excellent Hard SF storyline. One pop-cultural meme: Neo’s hand gesture when he and Morpheus are practicing fight technique (meaning Bring it; I’m ready). Another: There is no spoon Also: In high school, Amanda scripted and performed Agent Smith’s perfect world soliloquy in her drama class. I am so proud...
Nearly everyone will agree that Matrix 2 and 3 are crap in comparison, there’s no way they could make the final cut, but even so, they are watchable.

Zardoz (1974)
This is usually not considered an all-time-great, so you may not have ever seen it. But it has some very cool SF concepts -- eugenics and utopia among them. How bored would you get if you were an immortal in a cloistered environment... forever? What sorts of complex social rules would evolve? Meme: The Plague of the Apathetics. And it does have a post-Bond Sean Connery looking awfully studdly.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
This is a true classic. In my mind and (I think) in that of many of my generation, this film has a special place. You’re at a sleepover and at midnight, the guy on TV says, It’s Friday Niiiiiiiiiight-MaaaAAAAAre Theater and you settle down to watch an old B&W Frankenstein film or perhaps I was a Teenage Werewolf. These films don’t really scare you, but they do tend to stick in your memory banks.

Bodysnatchers holds up well and IMDB gives it very high 8.0/10 User Rating. I’ve scheduled this for the wee hours since one theme is that if you fall asleep, you get pod-ified! The fact that Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Lenoard Nimoy, and Nicole Kidman would deign to participate in remakes of this classic is an indication of the quality of the story. I really wanted to also show the 1978 remake because the ending is so chilling, but the time budget ran out... for this year :-)

Starship Troopers (1997)
As a 5th grader, I looked forward to Tuesday evening, because the bookmobile parked down the block. The SF section was meager, and I had read everything in it, but occasionally, a new (to me) Robert A. Heinlein novel would appear on the shelf in the back corner. I can still feel the rush of anticipation, knowing I’d be up late reading by flashlight under the covers. Heinlein always delivers, and he holds an especially special place in my heart.

It amazes me that so few of those books have been turned into movies. Although Troopers is not an all-time great movie, it is very good and it is worthy to represent the Dean of SF. The 1940’s-propoganda feel of the film is brilliant, and there are some great characters and moments: The enemy cannot PUSH a button, if you disable his hand! and Good job Sergeant Zim / That would be ‘Private’, sir.

One reason that I scheduled this for just before daybreak is because of the wake-up-and-take-notice effect of Denise Richards :-)
City On the Edge of ForeverMy one nod to the Star Trek franchise. Probably the best ST TOS episode; selected in part because it was written by Harlan Ellison (and there is some controversy surrounding the screenplay). I saw this projected large-screen at the only Star Trek convention I ever attended, back in about 1978.
The Incredibles (2004)
One of the ideas of showing this animated feature is to re-experience that Saturday-Morning-Cartoons feeling.

This is a high-quality "cartoon" and fun to (re)watch -- a good example of quality SF comedy. I especially love when "E" (the Edith Head-style costume designer) convinces Mr. Incredible to avoid the cape.
7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)
I first saw this a few months after moving to Los Angeles when I attended my first (and only) LASFS convention. I had just finished reading A Mote in God’s Eye and I found myself sitting in front of a rather inebriated Jerry Pournelle as this 1964 film was screened -- I kept cracking up at his running commentary.

The movie is notable for several other reasons, with the incredible performance of Tony Randall and a pre-Jeanie appearance by the Dreamy Barbara Eden.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)
One of Jane’s favorites (she always drools over Pat Boone). Jules Verne was a pioneer in the SF genre, perhaps even "The Father of SF." so a movie based on one of his books must absolutely have a spot in the lineup. Following the trail of the mysterious Arne Saknussemm, adventuring deep into the bowels of the Earth, a raft-ride on an ocean therein and a magnetic whirlpool at the center... giant mushrooms, and Pat Boone. What more could one want in a movie?
Time Bandits (1981)
A sort of juvenal but perfectly watchable for all ages. There are some semi-subtle funnies here -- the bits with Michael Palin and Shelley Duvall always crack me up and I especially love how deliciously evil Evil is.
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Another mandatory requirement for this event is to show at least one example of the stop-motion special effects produced by Ray Harryhausen. Who among us was not deeply impressed by the giant bronze statue and the fighting skeletons?
Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
This was a last-minute inclusion that I can probably be convinced to swap it out. I did want to show one very recent movie, and this one is not all that bad. My family used to always watch Dark Angel together, so Jessica Alba is a family favorite. I’m a big fan of Michael Chiklis, going back to The Commish and he does get a few moments where his face is visible in this movie.
Wizard of Oz (1939)
This is the mother of all pop-culture references. When I was a kid, this movie was shown on TV every year, around Thanksgiving. Having had a B&W TV, it was many years before I knew that most of the film was in color! I have a cousin who would do the witch’s voice exactly, and she’d crack us up with and Toto, too? at odd moments.

Wizard of Oz was shown at one of the FilmEx's 24-hour marathons back when Jane and I were dating (or maybe just recently married) and that was the first time I’d seen it on a big screen. Our screen is not quite that big, but the movie is big enough on its own :-)
Lord Of the Rings 1,2,3 al.)
Tolkien’s masterpiece is rich in characters and images. This is High Fantasy at its best. Several tries were made at making a LOTR movie, but all were terrible until Peter Jackson took a run at it.

Back in the ‘70s, if you picked up a long-haired hitchhiker, his back pocket was likely-as-not to be bulging with a tattered copy of one of The Trilogy (no other qualifier necessary). It’s a shared experience in my generation, and I am ecstatic that the next generation can own it, too.

Robert and I have previously done this back-to-back-to-back 11-hour marathon, and it was great fun. I hope we have enough hard-core fans to stick around for the post-marathon marathon -- I think you’ll find it worthwhile.
(clips)I made a series of short clips to show between films by brutally slashing larger works. These include:

* The obelisk/monkey scene from 2001 A Space Odyssey (volume turned up)
* Trimmed-down TwilightZone ep It's a Good Life
* Trimmed-down OuterLimits ep Zanti Misfits
* Start/end of The Jetsons
* The "theatrical production" in Reboot ep End Prog [this is a classic]
* The "Dutch apple pie, it's terrific" scene from Starman
* The "slight glitch" from the start of Robocop
* The Farah Facett sequence from Logan's Run
* The opening credits from Barbarella (sex-kitten/political activist snicker snicker)
* Some flying saucer movie trailers from the 1950's
* "You maniacs, you blew it up" from Planet of the Apes.