Thursday, April 19, 2018


There’s no burger like a nothing burger, and Prime Minister Abe came very close to going home from his latest Mar-a-Lago pilgrimmage empty-handed, but his political pal Donald Trump saved the day with a bit of bro-bonding and fast-food diplomacy.

Japan was very much on the margins at Mar-a-Lago give US media obsession with the sordid Beltway drama of a presidency on the rocks, a war in Syria that no one understands and the unexpected elevation of North Korea’s Kim, the “Rocketman,” to a star despot that everyone (except Abe) wants to meet.  

Mar-A-Lago is arguably the crown jewel of Trump’s far-flung real estate empire. He clutched onto it through two divorces, and even as president, he has not found it beneath his pride nor a conflict of interest to tout it and other real estate holdings. Indeed, the White House video prepared for the US-Japan summit was a promotional tour, showing to good effect the entrance gate, patio, ballroom and tower, and even a gaudy chandelier. As such, it was almost indistinguishable from Mar-a-Lago commercial materials which bill the property as “The Legendary Pinnacle of Palm Beach.”

The White House, sometimes known as the “people’s house” clearly cramps the style of a man accustomed to keeping a distance from the people, rhetoric aside. His gilded lifestyle finds him flitting back and forth between Trump family-owned golf courses in Florida, Virginia and New Jersey, surely a headache for an already overtaxed secret service retinue. Trump has spent 108 days of his presidency visiting golf courses, mostly his own, the latest being a session with fellow duffer Shinzo Abe this past Wednesday at his West Palm Beach course.

Mar-A-Lago may feel like home to the restless president, but it lacks the infrastructure, discipline, trained staff and bureaucratic aplomb that make summitry at the White House an exercise in scripted perfection. Indeed, while no one is saying Mar-A-Lago is haunted, it is a weird place where weird things happen.

Abe Shinzo’s first visit to Mar-A-Lago in February 2017 was marred by breaking news of NK missile launch which had security advisors on bended knee scrambling to update the president while the leaders dined on the outdoor patio within earshot of Mar-A-Lago club members lacking security clearance. One guest even snapped a photo of himself with the soldier carrying the “nuclear football” a secretive device kept in proximity of the president in case of nuclear attack.

Then last April, Trump hosted Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, looking to shore up US-China relations with a bit of real estate pomp and food and beverage swagger, something the Chinese communists do as well as anyone, and the magical evening was going well until Trump had to break it to his guest that he had chosen that very night to bombard Syria in a very non-essential show of force.

Undoubtedly the missile strike against Syria, announced between dinner and dessert, was gauche, if not a garish piece of entertainment, which perhaps explains why Trump preferred to recall the evening in foodie terms, waxing effusively about how the Chinese president was served “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you have ever seen.”

Call it the Mar-a-Lago jinx, but Abe’s second visit, meant to shore up the “Donald-Shinzo” buddy-buddy relationship almost ended before it started. First there was another one of those divisive and strategically pointless one-off missile barrages of Syria just days before, and then, the discomfiting news that the US was currently engaged with Abe Shinzo’s arch-foe North Korea at an “extremely high level” as Trump took pains to explain. It soon transpired that the US had sent CIA chief Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang over Easter weekend, a closely guarded secret until the eve of Abe’s America visit. The reason why Trump made a point of saying that the US and North Korea were communicating at an “extremely high” level was because the president was talking about himself, revealing a previously undisclosed phone call with North Korea’s controversial Kim Jong-Un.

Abe and Trump both put on a good show, bending to pretend that everything was honky-dory between them, despite tariff tiffs, appallingly low poll numbers, and the shift in the US position on North Korea. Photos released by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows the president in black trousers, the prime minister in white, squeezing into the same golf cart and later sharing a fist bump on the green. A bromance for the ages.

Abe found flattery works with Trump and he was paid back in kind. Although Abe’s third US visit to see Trump was not entirely free of the indignity that he present himself as a subordinate and a supplicant seeking the good graces of his good friend “Donald,” the diplomatically ill-adept and tone-deaf Trump was about as kind to his Japan bro as he is wont to be with anyone, promising to be “very loyal to Japan” although it is unsure what that means as he has not budged on trade issues (red meat to his red state base) and his reversal on North Korea renders anachronistic Abe’s key foreign policy plank. He did add that he was impressed at Abe’s passion for the abductee issue, but it’s hard to see how this does anything to restore balance to Japan policy when China, South Korea, and now, the US are all actively and competitively courting the pudgy, pugilistic dictator formerly known as “Rocketman.”

Abe comported himself well considering the world-class distractions that marred the visit. Making much of what little he had to work with, Abe spoke proudly of the cheeseburger he was shared with Trump. Hamburger diplomacy was very much in evidence when Abe hosted Trump in Japan, so the burger was no joke, but rather a fast-food bond between two men who find it politically expedient to portray themselves as fast friends. A cheeseburger is not much to brag about, considering the cost and effort and potential political risk of crossing the Pacific at an inopportune time, but it wasn’t a nothing-burger, and Prime Minister Abe can be grateful for that.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018


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“You think you understand women, but you don’t.”
“Well, you might be right there. And, well, I guess men say stuff, too, you know stuff you wouldn’t say if a woman was right there. So, wait, so like what were they saying about me?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Do you want to tell me?”
“They laugh at you.”
“What? I never saw anyone laughing, except at my jokes, and even then, it was, you know, hand cupped over mouth, you know, as a show of respect.”
“Maybe they don’t want to bare their teeth?”
“Is that what it is?”
“They talk behind your back.”
“Like what?”
“Think about it. Why they call you that name?”
“Um, because…”
“You don’t know? Isn’t Collin your name? Isn’t ‘love’ your game?”
He knew full well what she was talking about, and while he couldn’t help but crack a knowing smile--guilty as charged—he avoided going into details. It disconcerted him to think that eager, willing recipients of the ultimate intimacy might talk about him one way to his face, and another way behind his back, especially after a bout of love-making in bed. Or on the desk. Or the closet, or the park.
Living in the moment, finding love in the moment was lovely, but it didn’t seem quite as lovely the day after, did it?

“Oh, Jian-jian.”
“So much I want to say…”
Shhh!” she chided, reminding him they were not alone. “Sometimes you talk too much!”
“How about I let my hands to the talking?” he cooed provocatively.
She opened the palm of her free hand mock smacked him in slow motion to the merriment of the monks trailing them a few steps behind.
They continue to press forward. The forest path widened as the terrain flattened out, and they could walk shoulder to shoulder now. They pattered happily along the soft leafy path under the dew dropped canopy of early morning.  

“Hey, how about we run away together?” he asked, but she didn’t pick up on the hopelessness hiding behind his jestful manner.
“Run away? Where?”
“Anywhere with you.”
“Oh, Collin. I wish so, but, but I can’t.”
"Can’t what?”
“Can’t change things…”
“What things?”
"Things. Thing are the way they are..."
“Things? Are things only the way they are? Don’t things change? What about ‘All things are subject to change?’”
“Change is not always good.”
“So what do you want?”
“I don’t know.”
“You really don’t know?”
“Oh, here we are.”
They reached a break in the trees where a narrow, paved road ran through the forest. There was a grassy area by the side of the road and a simple bus stop consisting of a bench and a sign with a printed timetable. Jianhong immediately sat down, resting her feet. Collin turned to the two monks in tow to check the time, but neither of them carried phones or timepieces, as per house rules.
“How are we supposed to know what time it is?” he cried out in frustration.
“Are we late?”
They don’t seem worried.” she said, gesturing at the chaperones.
“What do they care? They’re not taking the bus.”
Collin consulted the timetable. “Only one bus a day, and it doesn’t even come every day,” he said, registering surprise. “Seeing as how we’re in the middle of nowhere, I’m surprised there’s even one bus.”
“What times does it say?”
“Hey wait. It says 8:30 AM!”
“But didn’t abbot say ‘eight?’
“He did. He misled us, the old trickster. Rightfully so. Because if it really had really come at eight we would have missed it.”
“But we still don’t know what time it is. Wait, my phone!” Jianhong pulled a phone from her bag and powered it up. “The abbot made me turn it off. It’ll tell the time in no time.”
“You had that phone the whole time? Shoulda told me.”
“Coulda made some calls. Oh well. So what time is it?”
“It’s fifteen after eight.”

There was no traffic in either direction and nothing could be heard in the distance but the sounds of the forest. There was still a chill in the air, but the sun, when not playing cat and mouse with the fleecy clouds above, was a dependable source of warmth.

Hmm. Maybe we should make sure we got the day right too. It’s like Thursday, or Friday, right? If it’s Thursday, there’s no bus.”
“It’s Friday, don’t you know what day it is?”
“It’s easy to lose track of time at the temple.”
“Well, worked three days this week, and arrived here on Thursday, so I know.”
“I’m glad of it. Every day counts.”
The two monks hovered nearby, but no longer seemed interested in monitoring the conversation of their charges.
“If they’re talking, we can talk real talk,” he said.
“We are talking.”
“You know what I mean.”
 “So, you don’t miss it?” she asked, slyly rising to the challenge of real talk.
“It? What’s it? Miss what?”
“You know…it starts with T.”
“Close, but not quite.”
“Tea? As in tea caddies?”
“Close, but not right.”
“I give up.”
Trum? Tram?” he put his tongue to his teeth, testing each word, out loud, trying to unlock her meaning. “Oh. Ah, I get it.  Are you trying to say...trim?
“It’s your word, not mine.”
Trim ci-ty, To-kee-yoo,” he intoned, as if summoning the lyric of a song. Trim City indeed. Suddenly he was no longer in the forlorn hills of the forgotten countryside but had somehow been transported to Tokyo, dropped on a busy street in front of a busy station in the middle of the world's busiest city. He could practically hear the roar of trains the hum of the crowd, the pull of unseen panties.

“Trim, yeah, trim, triminy, trim-trim,” he said in a playful undertone.
“So dishonest!”
“Why don’t you just say what you mean?”
“What do I mean?”
“You mean female organ, am I right?”
“You mean pussy?”
“Whatever you call it.”
“No. It’s not the same, I mean, not exactly. It’s something, it’s more like, I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Something like yin-yang, the ineffable reciprocal essence of things.”
“What bullshit!”
“No, really.”
“You know what I mean and I know what you mean. You miss it, admit it!”
“Yeah, okay, I admit it. It’s a sensual city.”
"Especially for dog."
“Dog? No. Dogs can dog-paddle. I was drowning in it, it’s sea of temptation. I mean, it was everywhere. There was so much you could ride it like riding a train.”
“You like trains…”
"Yeah, I like being on the move. The more I reflect on it, it was the chase, not the trim. The chase was key to the charm." 
"That's all?" Her eyebrows elevate in disbelief.
"Anyway, I haven’t been getting any, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“You got too much, isn’t that enough?”
"Enough is never enough…"
"See? You haven't changed!"
"No, really. It was all fine and good, you know, after you got what you wanted, after you went the distance, after you got there and got what you thought you wanted, but somehow, well, there's a kind of emptiness in it. Not so much a letdown--it was uplifting while it lasted, diverting and amusing and fun--but after all is done, and was done, it was, it was just a hedge, a hedge against, I don’t know, loneliness? 
“Wow. What a playboy-man!”
“Yeah.” He laughed. “Notice I'm talking in the past tense?"
"You are?"
“I was.”
They both laugh.
“Being here in the hills,” he continued abstractedly, evading eye contact but fully aware of her wide-eyed gaze. “Well, it's not easy. But I guess it’s good for airing, for shaking off the city dust, guarding against desire.”
 “Like last night?”
“Last night? No. That was ah, a special case…because of you. You are a special someone.”
“Are you sure?”

The two monks idle over, bringing their romantic banter to an abrupt halt.  They explain that the bus is almost here.
“How do they know? By osmosis?” But no sooner did he speak than he too could detect the sound of a motor in the distance.
 “Ah. What a cloud-studded sky!” he said, changing the topic. “A sign of good things to come."
"You!” Jianhong snapped. “Always dreaming."
"But we can learn from the elements. I like to think of myself as a, a kind of, what should I call it, a sky farmer.”
“That’s so lazy!” she exclaimed. “Always in a cloud! Look at the ground, and put your feet upon it; that should be your action plan.”
“Sometimes action achieves less than inaction. Do you think spinning around and around on your daily commute, spinning the revolving door of work really gets you closer to where you want go?”
"So, what do you want me do?" she asked as he sat next to her on the bench. “I need a job.”
“I do, too.”
“You don’t like being a monk in the temple?”
“Well, it’s a path, not a profession. A way-station on the way to the new, improved me. If you reduce the noise and clutter of the material world, you can take better notice of the rise and fall of all things.”
“What things?”
“You know, sounds, cycles, big and small. It goes all the way from the first single living, breathing oxygen-inhaling creature with a mind of its own all the way to, the ah, the cosmic echoes of the Big Bang. The chirping of birds and buzzing of bees and the silences in between are, like, central to unlocking the secrets of the universe.”  
“Wow!” she smiled.
“But sometimes I get distracted by things…” he said, provocatively shifting his gaze to her nose to her neckline.
 “You are fake monk,” she cornered him. “Why your eyes light on fire when you look at my body?”
“Yep. Spontaneous combustion, I guess.”
“But how can you empty your mind of desirables? Do you repeat that mantra when you meditate?”
“Sometimes. But I secretly find myself thinking of you.”
“Oh,” she moaned quietly. “I don’t know. I don't know if I will be able to see you again.” A bittersweet smile crossed her lips. Her voice was hesitant and tender but there was an air of finality to her whispers.
"It's only for a year."
"A year is forever."
“I wish I was getting on that bus with you.”
“No can do."
“I know, I know.” He sighed, trying to keep the rising frustration from showing in his voice. “But like, what do you mean, about not seeing me again?” he asked. Try as he might, he couldn't mask the plaintive vulnerability in his voice.
“Oh, please. Don’t make it hard for me.”
“But I don’t understand…”
“Oh. Did I tell you? I’m going back to China."
"You are?"
"Only for a week. Can you believe it? I hope my parents recognize me. They think I’m Japanese now…”
“You know, sometimes I think of going back to my country, too.”
“You do? I always wondered about that.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t miss it before, but I miss it now.”
“I thought you liked Japan.”
“I do, I really do. What I don’t like is being in limbo, neither here nor there.”
“But that's what you are--a gaijin.”
“Illegal alien is more like it.  No papers, in trouble with the law. It's a double whammy, and I have no choice but to sit it out until the statute expires.”
“You are still under the Statue of Liber-tation?
“The what? Oh, yeah, yeah. Yes. The statute of li-mi-ta-tions,” he gently corrected. “And according to that, I still have to wait a year, and then, if I’m lucky, with a little help from Kamiuma, and ah, Miki’s legal staff, I’ll be able to get papers and be legal, and at liberty again.”
“If you weren’t a funga-tive, what would you do now?
“If I wasn’t a what?”
“The one who runs away…”
“I’m not running, I’m sitting on a rock. And I'm just lost between the cracks, not a criminal. Hey, Jian-jian, your English is slipping.”
“It is?”
“I guess your new boyfriend is not a native speaker like me.”
“Who said I had a new boyfriend?” Her response is quick and sharp, a little too quick and sharp.
“Do you?”
“Do you think I do?”
“I’m not sure what to think.”
“Then don’t think about it.”
“Okay, okay. I get it, I mean, I think I do." He sighed, then looked up at the unsettled sky. The sun was hiding behind the clouds again. "Life’s a lark, isn’t it?”
“What is your meaning?”
“Well. Let's just let it be.”
“Let what be?”
“Let it be, be the way it should be,” he said, quietly, valiantly trying to piece together his shattered pride.
“One year, it's a long time to be in a temple.”
“Only ten more months.”
“When you come back to Tokyo, we can meet.”
“Meet? Great.”
“I can take you out for dinner,”
“In Ginza.”
“Sounds good.”
“A nice fancy French place.”
“Well, merci beaucoup, in advance.”
“And we won’t just look at the menu, complain that it’s overpriced and leave, like you did to me on our first date. This time we will go in and really eat.”
“Okay, and I’ll try not to complain about the rip-off prices.”
“Okay, and I’ll make sure they have real milk for your coffee.”

The sound of an automotive engine groaning up an incline broke the bucolic calm. At last the bus that plied the hills rounded the bend and showed itself, slowing to a crawl as it drew up to the bus stop, gears grinding to a halt when it was apparent there were people waiting. The door of the old, beat-up bus popped open like a jack-in-the-box. The gruff but amiable driver asked if it was just the two of them, holding two fingers in the air.
“Just one,” Jianhong answered in English before correcting herself. “Hitori.
“Bye-bye big boy,” she said, glancing back at Collin.
“Bye-bye happiness,” he answered, forcing a smile. He handed her her bag.
She boarded the empty bus, paid her fare and took a seat in the back. The bus driver consulted his wristwatch before putting the vehicle in gear. Waving at Collin, Jianhong struggled to pry open the sliding window as the bus jerked forward.
“Con-ling?” she called out through the crack.
“Oh, nothing.”
The bus jerked forward again, gaining momentum.
“Con-ling?” She called sweetly, her eyes pleading for an understanding that was more implicit and tender than she had words for.
“You’re okay for a man.”
Vrooommm!  The bus roared off before he had a chance to think of a response, let alone thank her for the compliment of a lifetime.