© 2013 John Penny. All rights reserved. © 2011 John Penny

How Near, How Far

It’s been over a year and a half since I last updated this blog. In that time I’ve visited 18 countries and 13 states; read 19,911 pages in 55 books; and watched hundreds of movies and TV shows (mostly on Netflix), including full runs of The West Wing and—embarrassingly—How I Met Your Mother. I saw concerts by the reunited Refused, At the Drive-In, and Jeff Mangum (if any dude’s reemergence can be considered a reunion, it’s Mangum). I witnessed the only sports team I’ve ever given a shit about hoist the best trophy in the world over their heads after a long and trying season. I ate epic meals at Atera, Beast, Momofuku Ko, craftsteak, my amazing local sushi spot, Ohshima, and my old favorite, wd~50, among many other outstanding restaurants, stalls, carts, and trucks. I even fulfilled every bachelor’s dream and bought part of a bar. (Yes, I know that it’s a restaurant and bar, but that’s beside the point).

While those experiences were unforgettable, I’ve managed to fritter away all the time in between. I’ve had an equal number of exhilarating and wasted days. I’ve amassed as many stories as I’ve read or watched. I’ve found myself on the cusp of understanding what I’m supposed to be doing with the rest of my life and also on the brink of completely giving up, bound by elasticity to a nebulous middle point: limbo. My mother’s health is in limbo, my business is in limbo, my future plans are in limbo. That’s just the stuff I can wrap my head around. I’m being held hostage by reality. By responsibility, duty, and obligation. By honor and virtue of promises made. This is not a complaint. This is a state of being. This is also as much detail as I’m going to share on that for now, because it’s complicated, multi-faceted, and still too personal. In a year and a half, I’ve managed to keep two Tumblr blogs up-to-date, but I couldn’t be bothered to write anything on this site? It’s not because of laziness, which is always a given in my life and never a real excuse. It’s because my mind has been out to sea; no matter how many islands I’ve passed along the way, at any given moment I only see blue. And now I think I’ve spotted land on the horizon.

What does that mean for this blog? I have no idea.

Cracked Compass

For the last few years I’ve worked (barely) in vain toward launching a few separate websites. The frequency in which I update this blog should paint a clear enough picture of why none of those sites have ever materialized. The site I was (am) most eager to maintain is called Cracked Compass. My intentions were to use it as a compendium of my travelogues, experiences from the road, and tips I learned along the way. The bulk of the site would be a creative effort: stories I’ve written from and about my travels.

I mention this now because the next section is lifted straight from my travel journals. Sometimes I make brief notes—unintelligible scribbles, if I’ve been drinking—while sometimes I write more fully realized passages. In this case, I was nursing a bottle of wine in a hotel room and recounting what happened to me on the first day of my trip to Europe. These are just fragments as I wrote them then—I never went back through and worked on any of my notes or entires. My work ethic is a bit of a problem.

Anyhow, I’m sharing this first little blurb now in the hopes that it’ll motivate me to finally get to work on Cracked Compass.

Low Lane

Pieces of porcelain were everywhere. I’d tripped and sent a saucer soaring across the length of the tearoom, over the heads of a few nonplussed tourists, and directly toward the kind woman who, moments earlier, had kept a sweet smile on her face as my trembling hands shook free a few pence to pay for the cup of creamed tea now hovering in the middle distance just outside of my grasp. Miraculously, the teacup landed upright; the saucer shattered against the sales counter, every head turned away, and the room fell silent. I slipped a twenty pound note under the cup like a diner tip—the queen smiling at me inscrutably while I fled the room.

It took me a moment to place myself; my mind was fogged by anxiety and my limbs were on auto-pilot, propelling me down a long hallway with garish pink walls adorned with ridiculous chinoiseries. Just as I barreled into a gift shop, it came to me: I’m in the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England, and I have no idea what I’m doing here.

I did know, of course. It was the first day of a hundred away from home—an expansive European adventure. I had the morning and most of the afternoon to kill in Brighton before taking the train to London and flying off the next day to “the Continent.” That much I knew.

I travel a lot and I fall a lot, neither of which has ever caused me much consternation. I usually don’t break anything other than my ankles and I don’t embarrass easily. Yet, I was running from the Pavilion faster than King George IV’s cousin-wife, with only one thought on my mind. What am I doing here?

The streets of Brighton were sunny and warm and the air smelled of the ocean, and of oysters, specifically.

     “You alright?” she asked.
     “Yeah. I’m fine.”
     “You’re having a cuddle with Frankenstein.” She was right. I had my arms around a seven-foot-tall model of Dr. Frankenstein’s fallen angel. The monster was sturdy and supported my weight without complaint.
     “I suppose I am,” I said, after a moment. She smiled and walked away. I disentangled myself from the creature and asked myself aloud, “What am I doing here?”

The sun was still beating down on me—isn’t that why I’m here? To escape the heat?—and I looked for refuge in a part of town called The Lanes. The lanes were a series of narrow pedestrians paths that wound between buildings at random. The alleys probably held some quaint charm at one point or another, but were presently lined with salons, smoothie shops, and shiny, inauthentic Thai restaurants. I was exhausted and famished, but the familiar and alluring smell of lemongrass and fish sauce was nullified by the pasty white men waiting idly in the kitchens. I rounded a corner into a larger street and the smell of the sea hit me again. I found the first restaurant selling fresh oysters and walked in.

By the eighteenth oyster I was feeling good about life again, but remained skeptical of the ninety-nine days ahead of me. Was I to float alone from town to town, interacting only with waiters, museum docents, and train conductors? Did I set false expectations for myself? What was I doing there? I ripped off a hunk of sourdough bread and liberally applied butter.

     “You’re hungry, yeah?” I was seated on a communal bench next to an elderly couple and the woman seemed to be addressing the air in front of the table. “This is the place to come if you’re hungry.”
     “Do you like the food, then?” she asked as she turned to me.
     “Oh, you’re talking to me. I’m sorry,” I said, “yes, the food is wonderful.” She nodded and turned back to the room while her husband carried on reading his newspaper, undisturbed.
     “Any plans this weekend?” she said to the air. I could only assume she was talking to me and responded in turn, “I’m flying to Munich tomorrow for Oktoberfest.”
     “Yes, Germany. There’ll be lots of beer, I imagine.”
     “I hope so.”
     “And what airline are you flying?” she asked.
     “Easyjet. From Gatwick.”
     “Easyjet. Easyjet. George, did you hear? Easyjet!” The man stirred.
     “Yes, love, Easyjet. What of it?”
     “I will never fly Easyjet,” she said, looking at George now, “you know how they keep their costs low? They fly at much lower altitudes to save fuel. It’s just not safe!”
     George kept his head buried in the paper and replied, “They fly just as high as everyone else, dear.”

And then I remembered.

Philadelphia Freedom

Something important is going to happen over the next week while I’m on a vacation (more on the trip in a moment) that will alter the course of the rest of the year, or at least the next few months, in one way or another. My mother is going to have a CT scan that will be used in determining whether or not she can undergo the Whipple procedure to remove her pancreatic tumor. Her oncologist has all but promised her the surgery, but now the surgeon himself is wary of a major vein and will make a decision on whether to go forward with the operation or have her continue chemotherapy. I’ll either be returning home only to leave again the next day for Philadelphia or I’ll be helping my mom to not get discouraged by the familiar treatment that makes her feel like crap half the time.

When people find out my mom has cancer, the first thing they ask—before expressing any sympathy (not that I need or want it)—is, “Oh, what kind?” And when I tell them she has pancreatic cancer, their response is always the same. “Oh, fuck. I’m sorry.” And they aren’t wrong. There’s always an aunt or a cousin or someone that was diagnosed and then gone before they could reach the end of their phone call list. Then there’s Steve Jobs: “If someone that rich couldn’t make it, then… gosh.” Among a certain age range, images of Michael Landon are invoked: “Oh, he was just so handsome.” His disease too mysterious for them to properly reconcile it with his onscreen persona. Within my own peer group I hear Patrick Swayze mentioned often: “Dude was such a badass in Road House.” But they’re right—if fucking Bodhi couldn’t make it 20 months after diagnosis, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The answer to that question is the first thing you learn about cancer when helping a loved one through treatment: every single case is different. It makes logical sense, too. We’re talking about rogue cells doing whatever the hell they want and damaging genetic information at will. They’re not following a playbook. There are varying courses of action depending on what type of tissues are being attacked (breast, colon, lung, etc.), but each patient’s response can vary wildly. Pancreatic cancer is more difficult to treat because it’s hard to detect early. Symptoms don’t manifest until the tumor’s had a chance to grow and sometimes it’s just too late altogether. And sometimes you’re Supreme Court Justice Ginsberg who, after surviving colon cancer, gets regular CT scans and was able to stay ahead of the game. It’d be unreasonably paranoid for the healthy among us to go in for routine imaging.

My mom never asked her doctor what stage her tumor was or how long she had left or anything remotely negative or grim. She was diagnosed three years ago and I’m confident that her positive attitude has kept her as surprisingly healthy as she is today. She’s been undergoing chemotherapy for that entire time and it hasn’t always been (and still isn’t) smooth sailing for her. Side effects seem to appear at random and like the tumor itself, vary wildly from patient to patient. Hair comes and goes. She’s had to make a few visits to the ER for scares that may be minor in hindsight, but with the random onset of things like neuropathy, mouth sores, nausea, or simply dehydration, you can never be too careful.

She’s gone from weekly treatments to twice biweekly to twice a week to once every five days to once every other week, cycling between as many as five chemotherapy drugs. When settled into a biweekly rhythm, things tend to settle down. She will go in on a Monday or Tuesday and spend the rest of the week in bed. But by the first weekend, she’s usually up and about and feeling as good as can be expected for the remaining week before the next session. Eating is sometimes difficult as nausea makes thing tough and her tastes skew as randomly as a pregnant woman’s. Medical marijuana helps. Various other prescriptions help. But she never takes any pain medication and, even in the worst moments, never gets down on her situation or reaches for a white flag. I admire her endlessly for that.

Her oncologist has a high level of antisocial behavior and eccentricity that immediately identify him as a genius. The random selection of drugs and sporadic treatment schedules make him seem like a tinkerer—and he could very well be—but he’s got an individual plan for each of his patients. Over the course of three years, my mom’s tumor has shrunk significantly and is continually deemed “not active.” In other words, it’s not growing or spreading. I’ve met other patients in his office that were diagnosed eight or ten years ago. Some have had the Whipple, some have not, but all are still alive. Of course, some of his patients haven’t made it as far as my mom. Every cancer is different.

At the beginning of the year, the plan seemed to change from managing the tumor to prepping for surgery. She would continue her chemotherapy but also undergo a month’s worth of targeted radiation therapy. After which, according to the oncologist, she would have four to eight weeks off of all treatment and then go in for surgery. Things haven’t exactly played out as anticipated. She had planned to take some vacations in the downtime, but didn’t anticipate the side effects of radiation. During treatment, she felt well enough to drive herself every day. Only after treatment ceased did she start feeling the effects of inflammation. Since her guts were being targeted, various parts of her digestive system became inflamed, making it difficult to keep food down and painful when it got there. Her doctor has put her on a liquid diet along with anti-inflammatory medication and she’s toughing it out for now, with minor day-to-day improvement. No vacation, though.

Now we’re waiting on the CT scan (which she’ll take toward the end of the month), hoping the inflammation has gone down enough for a clear image and hoping the tumor is in a position relative to the vein that instills confidence in the surgeon. My mom, brother, and I are either going to Philly, with a mini-vacation to New York tacked on for good measure, or we’re headed back to familiar ground at UCLA. And if she has to go back for more chemo, then maybe we can take her on a vacation anyway. I know she’s anxious about the scan results and equally scared and eager for the surgery, but my mom does a great job of not showing fear. It’s not like we couldn’t handle it if she were more vulnerable, but I think she’s doing it for herself. Like I said before, it’s admirable and brave—if you met her, as happy and funny as ever, you wouldn’t know she was three years into pancreatic cancer treatment. Well, aside from the interesting hairdo.

I know that she’s up for whatever comes next and that makes me okay with it, too.

Nippon Calling

I’ve wanted to go to Japan for as long as I can remember. My mother and father both had business ties to the country before I was born. They introduced me to the cuisine before I was two years old and by the time I entered Kindergarten, I could deftly handle chopsticks and knew my favorite pieces of nigiri by name. In grade school my dad would order raw quail eggs for my brother and me to shoot from the shell or eat with our ikura gunkan-maki. Unbeknownst to us at the time, he wasn’t eating any himself and was instead bragging to the itamae about how cool his kids were. Of course there were the video games, a little bit of anime, the stereotypical schoolgirl fetish, and all the other otaku trappings of awkward, adolescent white boys growing up in the suburbs in the early 90s. Then came the VCD movies, the experimental noise music, and the Murakami novels.

Then came the food poisoning and the four-year vegan experiment. Then came the soul-crushing career with its 16-hour work days and the long-term girlfriend with her soul-crushing girlfriend stuff. Most of that time was spent wondering when I was going to be able to sleep, what I was doing to make my girlfriend so unhappy, and whether or not the rice at Del Taco was cooked in chicken broth. Japan was the farthest thing from my mind.

Then it all fell apart. The girlfriend and I split up, I threw away my faux hot dogs and called out for sushi, and I had reached my breaking point at work. Right when I was about to quit my job, it dawned on me that I’d been accruing vacation time all those years, which the company allowed to be rolled over indefinitely. I had eight paid weeks waiting for me. Two months. A lifetime compared to the weekends wasted trying to fix a relationship beyond repair and squandered by going back into the office. It didn’t take me long to figure out where I was headed. Finally: Japan.

I stopped by Borders on my way home from work and picked up every Japan guidebook I could find and went to the local Asian market for some sashimi. I made some green tea, put on some Cornelius and spent the evening poring over maps and photographs, translated phrases and train timetables. The tea was still warm when I realized, “Oh yeah, Japan is really fucking expensive.” I discovered that I could afford two action-packed weeks in the Land of the Rising Sun or spend six leisurely weeks reaping the benefits of emergent third world economies. Before I knew it, I was living it up down old South America way. No Japan.

In the years that followed, I quit my job, got a new one, and then took forced retirement. I travelled a lot domestically and vowed to avoid having a girlfriend or a job for as long as possible. Those aren’t very difficult tenets to live by. I ate everything I saw to make up for lost time. My international travels took me to Europe for 100 days of beer, music, new people, and new experiences.

Japan was never far from my mind. Climbing a guardrail in Vienna to throw myself into the Wien River rather than have another meal of dry meat and dense bread and seeing a familiar word painted in neon in the distance: sushi. I didn’t question where the fish came from and let the pieces slide down my gullet in abundance. Talking to a Polish student about a music festival he’d attended in Italy, only to learn that we shared a mutual admiration (or, perhaps, understanding) of Merzbow. Our mutual language was noise. Calculating the distance between the movie theater and LAX while halfway through watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi. A dream deferred. My monthly business meetings. The countless Engrish subway conversations with Japanese girls. The smallest taste of yuzukoshō. The smell of sandalwood. Cherry blossoms in bloom.

Everything made me nostalgic for a place I’d never been.

Toward the end of 2012, my friend Brad invited me on a trip to Japan with him and a friend to meet up with another friend that’s living out there. I said yes without hesitation. As the first days of 2013 were getting marked off the calendar, it became clear that the timetable for my mom’s surgery was going to coincide directly with the Memorial Day travel plans. I had to hold off on buying tickets; when enough time had passed and the scheduling still wasn’t any clearer, I had to back out completely. Then with one week to go before the trip, the first details of my mom’s potential surgery were finalized. All I’d miss is a CT scan, which I wouldn’t be needed for anyway. I double- and triple-checked with my mom and proceeded to book my flight and hotel. I had some initial trepidation that I’d be messing up the plans the guys made without me, but those fears were eased after reminding myself: JAPAN. I’d have plenty to do one way or another.

In fact, there is too much to do. Going over all the tidbits of Japan travel advice and recommendations that I’ve collected through the years has left me feeling overwhelmed. I haven’t stepped foot on the plane yet and I’m already planning my next trip to Japan. This week will be a good way to inundate myself to the rhythm of the country and a couple of its cities before planning a proper trip. I like having months to explore a place so I can go at my own place, find local favorites, take the extra time to relish in every experience. I think the next trip will be a month to five weeks in Japan, a couple weeks in Korea, three weeks to a month in China, and another month in South East Asia. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Of all the places I’ve been, none have made me this eager or excited. I’m can’t believe I’m going.

Finally, Japan.

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