June 11, 2011
Three Months Later
Starving cows in Fukushima Prefecture
I suppose some would say that I owe Matt Drudge an apology. Careful readers
of this site, if any, will recall all the effort I expended back in March
trying to come up with a sufficiently degrading and dangerous sex act for
Drudge to perform as atonement for his gratuitously incendiary headline writing re the disasters
in northeastern Japan.
But it turns out that three of the reactors at the nuclear plant in Fukushima
probably did suffer total meltdowns right from the get-go and that, by some measurements at least, the whole
ugly cock-up did merit comparisons to Chernobyl—just like Drudge said.
A pettier man than I would argue that, even so, Drudge was still guilty of gross exaggerations, of implying that the entire Japanese archipelago had gone terminally radioactive, and of spreading the ludicrous fear that our injured facilities were spewing out enormous and deadly radiation clouds one after another, sausage-like, and that these weirdly intact and sentient plumes of Invisible Death were barreling across the Pacific straight for Sausalito. But on a few scores, at least, Drudge’s supposed hysteria was in fact right on the money. So I’m here, fedora in hand, to say:
As the drama in Fukushima unfolded, I famously predicted (well, famously in my own mind at least) from my safe haven far to the west that Nothing will ever be the same again. So how is that holding up as we hit the three-month mark this weekend?
I stepped off the bullet-train that brought me back east to Yokohama on
March 27 with a very palpable sense that I was stepping onto sensitive,
tender tissue that lay at the outer perimeter of a giant, suppurating wound.
The interior of the station was dark: lighting was cut to a minimum to
conserve power with the reactor down. This was true of all the other stations
I used on my way home and of all the stores I visited over the next several
days. In most establishments, escalators were deactivated as well.
Once I arrived home, I, too, turned on only those lights that I needed, and was likewise careful to turn off the TV as soon as it failed to hold my attention. I forewent heat. At some level, I sincerely believed that I could singlehandedly trigger a ward-wide blackout by microwaving a mackerel.
I was equally economical with my physical movements. At times I recalled
my old college buddy Arnie, who used to justify spending his weekdays in
bed by claiming (with remarkable prescience, this being 1973) that extraneous
human motion was heating up the atmosphere and melting the ice caps, and
that he, for one, would not be a party to our global annihilation. Via
a similar (albeit less self-serving) line of reasoning, I clung to some
sense that if I just tiptoed everywhere I went, I could forestall the next
big aftershock. And there were many of us in the Tokyo-Yokohama area behaving
this way at the time, and I suppose I could say that we were all walking
on eggshells, but if I’m going to resort to a cliché I’d prefer to use
“walking on tits” a favorite of my college roommate Nielsen, who often
used it to describe his more robust hangovers.
Walking on tits, yes, that’s exactly what it felt like in those days. There is something horrifying in the notion of a floor composed of disembodied boobs, even more so than a floor composed of, say, disembodied toes or pancreases. Horrifying and wobbly. It carries the sense that the ground might start jiggling underfoot at any moment. Nothing sexy about that.
We all got over these hypercautious attitudes with time. The disasters
“up north” had ripple effects that mucked up all our lives in niggling,
petty ways that we could never have anticipated, and which kept us perpetually
off-balance. I’ll tell you my story, but not before setting myself a cap
of 200 words, which I think is the limit that any human being can be asked
to read about a stranger’s workplace irritants.
At my university, I’m in charge of a staff of ten non-Japanese part-time teachers of English, most of whom handle elective courses. The new academic year was rapidly approaching on April 1 when I returned to Yokohama. Fearing a blackout in the midst of online registration, the university had opted to take its computers off line and revert to old-school paper registration forms. A side effect of this decision was the loss of the automated mechanism for cutting off registration when a class reached its quota of students and became full.
Predictably, the students threw themselves in human-wave assaults onto
a single elective offered by the easiest grader in our group, giving that
teacher four times the enrollment that he would normally have to handle.
(125 words right there…) It fell on me to (1) forcibly divide the students
into three groups, (2) teach one of the new sections myself for a month,
and (3) hire and train a replacement for myself; all of which added a dozen
hours of work per week to my schedule for the first half of the semester.
Only recently do we see a winding down of the effects of that “catastrophe.”
(Though we may have become numbed by our Nuclear Spring in many ways, the
one persistent effect of these events is an inability to bandy about words
like “disaster” and “catastrophe” as brazenly as we once were wont to.)
(And, not counting these parenthetical asides, I clocked in at 197 words.)
I tell this story not in any attempt to shine a spotlight on my own trifling problems. Well, okay, partly for that reason—after all, it’s still my blog. But the larger point is this:
Everyone I know has had to deal with some similarly inane dustup at work
that traces its origins back to the earthquake/tsunami/meltdowns. And the
truly odd thing is: We’re grateful for these problems. Grateful, because
every minute we spend, say, scheduling interviews with job applicants is
a minute that we’re not contemplating the Fukushima cattle that are slowly wasting away in their barns because their ranchers are only occasionally allowed reentry into the
“zone”; and while we’re composing reassuring emails to subordinates, our
thoughts are turned away from those poor, damned technicians slaving away at the power plant.
Way down south here in Yokohama, stores no longer dim their lights to any noticeable extent. Supermarket shelves are well stocked; the only staple that I still can’t obtain is dark beer—hardly a deprivation. We’ve been blessed with a remarkably mild spring and early summer, such that, until the last few days, there hasn’t been any temptation to resort to air conditioning. Tokyo Power warns us that excessive cooling will lead to a resumption of blackouts—but we’re all on the honor system, and the memory grows short when the classroom heats up and the students start to wilt.
Memories do indeed grow short. Drudge has moved on to the Negro Menace, and the rest of the world has lost interest in us, too. Civil wars in
Libya and Syria and Yemen and pretty much any country with a Y in its name.
Osama bin Laden dead, dumped, and all porned up. Donald Trump brays like a castrated mule for six weeks and then announces he’s not running for President. Newt Gingrich flips the script by announcing he’s running first, then braying like a castrated mule. And so it goes.
I suppose that when the dark beer finally returns, I’ll all too quickly
forget the dark stations and shops that greeted me on my return. It’s so
very easy to forget when one wants to. I fear the day is not far off when
some risibly minor shock will again rattle my little bailiwick at the university,
and I will unthinkingly throw up my hands and declaim, “Oh, God, what a