What is alchemy in Japanese?

I walked into work yesterday 10 minutes late, but 20 minutes earlier than I’d expected to. The  western God of churches and cathedrals and father of a blond hair blue-eyed Middle Eastern son that has followed me from the States to Japan must have conspired with the countless kami of shrines and giant buddhas of temples to make everything go perfectly between home and work. One of those days that songwriters write sappy, catchy tunes like, ‘Beautiful Sunday’ about. In fact, I’d been whistling that tune for the past two days.

I barely stepped in the door of my job when dare-dare sensei runs up to me excitedly and yells: My god, man! What happened?”

I stopped whistling.


“Well…” I said, and realized I wasn’t prepared to explain why I was late. “Sorry I’m late. I was…I mean, the train was…”

“I don’t care about that,” he snapped. “I mean your hand!”

I looked down at it like it was someone else’s hand that had been bandaged tight enough to obstruct circulation and immobilize it. How I managed to ignore the throbbing ache is a mystery.

“This?” I held it up.

“Yes, of course!”

日曜日にバスケットボールをしている間小指を折りました。I broke my pinkie playing basketball on Sunday.”

“Really? That’s terrible. Are you okay?”

“It still hurts…”

What I didn’t say was that on Sunday, after having watched Kobe open up a keg of whupass on the Orlando Magic the previous day, I was feeling particularly genki and tried to represent not only all the playgrounds in Brooklyn but in the entire friggin’ USA. And I was puttin’ in work until the above happened, when rapidly ascending Pinkie met rapidly descending ball on a rebound attempt. Of all the dumb-ass shit to get injured on, a friggin’ rebound.

Absurdly,  I’d thought I was invincible…I’d never broken anything…most of my friends have been on crutches or had cast arms and various other injuries. One of my friends even had to shit in a bag attached to his waist for weeks after being stabbed in the guts. But, me…nothing. I had started to believe that I was invincible, that only tiny accidents could befall me.

Well, so much for that fantasy.

I’d gone to a hospital on Monday in the evening and told them I needed to see a doctor, showing them the finger my fellow weekend warriors had put in a makeshift splint. I’d told the staff: 突き指かな I think it’s jammed.

“I see…well…we don’t handle these kinds of cases here.”

“You don’t?” I asked, puzzled. This was a medical hospital, specializing in sports injuries. They even had an emergency room…So I added: “I think it may be broken.” Just to add a little drama to it.

“Ah, so sorry.”

I recognized the expression on her face. Yep, no doubt about it:  it was the Great Wall of Japan. I’d met this wall before…it’s tall and solid and ancient and apologetic and polite as all get out. I could stand there beating my head up against it in a foreign language I haven’t mastered for an eternity or I could keep it moving. After all, Japanese hospitals have been known to turn away people in much worse conditions than mine. The only reason I like the hospitals is because most of them accept credit cards and my insurance requires payment up front and I don’t walk around with loads of cash (one of NY habits I’ve yet to break.)

“Well, where shall I go?” I asked, capitulating before the wall’s awesomeness.

They directed me to a clinic not far away.

The clinic accepted me and after filling out a single form I was hustled before an English speaking doctor. Lucky me.

“How can I help you?” he asked with all the confidence and self-assurance of the competent. I immediately felt at ease in his care. Stark contrast to the way I felt after he removed my busted splint and took a glance at my pinkie.

“Hmmm…” he said in what has to be the international language of doctors. He looked like he wanted to test it by manipulation and I withdrew. He smiled at me and said, “let’s do some x-rays, ne.”

They shot my finger from different angles and then told me to wait a few minutes. It  felt like an eternity. I just knew it wasn’t a sprain. All day I had been feeling my bone shifting beneath my skin. I still feel it now even as I’m typing with my eight remaining free digits.

“Loco-san,” the nurse called out.

What’s the verdict? Is my summer fucked?

I walked back into the doctor’s office. My x-rays were displayed, and there it was in black and white, indisputable evidence of my vulnerability: between the joint and knuckle, a crack.

Upon seeing the fragility of my mortality I felt a little freaked out. (I know, it’s dramatic but I swear I was in shock) I hid it, though, which is very unlike me.

I thought about the previous day, when I had left the gym with my finger splinted and aching, walking to the coffee shop to meet my private student. I had decided that I would not panic. I would just finish out the day. I had had three private students scheduled and I wasn’t about to cancel any of them. I needed the money, if for nothing else, to pay for the doctor’s visit I’d decided to make the following day.

I had about an hour to kill so along the way, I stopped at a bookstore.

英語の本がありますか?”Do you have any English books?”

“Not really…just a few…upstairs.”

I went upstairs and, yep, she was right. There was one tiny rotary of English books, which was one tiny rotary more than I had expected to find at this tiny book store. They had a bunch of classics, all the Harry Potter books, and the two Obama books. I’d read their whole selection already, but I needed something to distract me. I gave the rotary one more twirl and a book practically jumped off the shelf at me, literally. Somehow my twirl had dislodged it. I instinctively reached to catch it with my bad hand and my three free fingers caught it.

The name of the book was The Alchemist.TheAlchemist

What can I tell you? I really hate books like this! I don’t know if any of you have read it but I’m sure many of you have. It’s one of those international bestsellers that people read and then recommend to any and everyone they know.  One of those allegorical, philosophical, spiritual, mind numbing, oversimplified if only the guy who writes fortune cookies would write a book type books.

I don’t know what made me buy it. I read the back cover. Hoopla, hoopla, hoopla. What did you expect? But, I needed something to distract me from my pending mortality (if that bone rattling under my skin I was trying not to think about was any indication of the verdict I would face tomorrow) so I bought it, went to the cafe where I was to meet my student, ordered some coffee,  lit up a Black & Mild, and started reading it.

You know what? Let me go back a little further…

When I was back in NY, working as a salesman at a respectable company making (after bonuses) respectable donuts, I dreamed of being a writer. And at that time a friend of mine lent me a book called, The Fountainhead . Yes, yes, yes, Ayn Rand and her endless rambling and sermonizing about the nobility of man’s individual creativity and the scourge of the parasitic second-handers running the world…into the ground. Yep, she rocked my boat! I wrote my book, quit that job that paid well but ultimately was taking me nowhere at hyper speed (and with Howard Roark as a role model, wasn’t nobody going to pimp Loco anymore), and with that I had reclaimed my life.

Yes, with a bit of  “beginner’s luck” the creative forces of the universe had conspired to put me on the path to achieving my dreams…

Who knew that path would lead me to Japan, to a clinic in Yokohama where a doctor hovers over film of my fractured pinkie,  with a verdict that would change my life on the tip of his tongue, while a paperback copy of  The Alchemist burns a whole in my backpocket…

…to be continued


8 Responses to “What is alchemy in Japanese?”

  1. June 18, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Love it. This is a brilliant piece of writing, which totally reaffirms the state of the Japanese medical system. I just hope that you’re not in too much pain whilst writing..

  2. 2 ItAintEazy
    June 19, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    The Fountainhead? You can’t pay me to read that shit.

    • June 20, 2009 at 12:30 am

      Yo! Easy EZ, cut Ayn some slack…she had some pretty progressive ideas for her time. I happen to owe her a debt of gratitude because when I first read Fountainhead it changed me and I believe for the better (-:

  3. 4 Aka Gaijin
    June 21, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    What is it with Ayn Rand? I’ve seen three kinds of reactions in my life… some people love her ideas, some cherry-pick ideas, and some wish she were alive so they could punch her. I’m one of the cherry-pickers. I see some useful concepts, and some idealistic thinking that just isn’t realistic.

    My friends in the states tho, they couldn’t express what they hated about her books, but boy were they pissed. Sometimes I’d just say her name and they’d spend 5 or 10 minutes telling me that her books sucked without ever saying why.

    Anywho, sorry to hear about your newly acquired mortality.

    • June 21, 2009 at 11:16 pm

      Thanks for the shout Aka-san
      Yeah, mortality sucks.
      Rand…well, even I took issue with some her conservativeness. But, I was raised in a liberal environment so that was all I had known. Then I read Fountainhead, and she presented the best argument for conservatism I had ever heard to date. But, like yourself, I cherry pick Rand and her theory of Objectivism is what really impressed me. I loved the idea of Roark and Toohey and my favorite Gail Wynand. Peter Keating was the only character I knew before reading it (though she helped me understand him better) But each time I return to the book I like Toohey more and more… get pissed at Gail Wynand more and more and idolize Roark less and less. (-;

  4. 6 X_LostXcausE_X
    June 22, 2009 at 11:29 am

    The alchemist…..gah..the book is in my room somewhere…I had to read it for my freshman year. I’m gonna be a junior now though. Anyway, good luck on recovery..

  5. 7 Aka Gaijin
    June 22, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    I can’t get behind Toohey completely. His interest in helping everybody is good, but wanting to sacrifice the capable and strong for the lowest common denominator of society is a little counterproductive. But letting the strong rape and pillage the weak in society without limit is the other potential of a guy like Roark. Not every idealist is looking to make altruistic advances.

    …hmm, maybe I should get around to reading Atlas Shrugged. You got the itch going again. GREAT!

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