JOK Notebook


After many months in which I've had nothing to say whenever I saw friends (because it's hard to chat about kanji, which is pretty much all I think about), things have shifted. Everything happens at once. Stasis tilts into periods of high energy and change. All is aswirl.

Photo Credit: Ryoichi Chida

Speaking of swirls, I just acquired this wonderful picture of an ammonite fossil. I thought an ammonite was a stone (it sounds that way, doesn't it?!), but it's an extinct animal that lived in a coiled, chambered shell. This picture is from Mikasa City (三笠市) in Hokkaido.

I'm not sure why but I'm suddenly having incredible conversations and feeling deeply connected to more people. I enjoyed reuniting with high school friends last weekend, seeing one for the first time in 27 years. After a great Indian dinner, we all suffered through a confusing and pretentious play that's quite famous, much-lauded, and therefore very expensive to see.

On the flip side, I've long enjoyed my isolation in a barely occupied office building that will soon be fully rented out, mainly to therapists. It will most likely become a somber place, hushed except for the sounds of crying. For years my dogs have had the run of the place, sunning themselves in any sunny room and roasting in front of the wonderful hallway heater on cool days, but they are now to be severely restricted. No more roasting.

A beloved yoga class has come to an end because the teacher wanted a more viable schedule for herself. That's a big loss. But it means that I can go running in the woods an extra day each week. That's quite appealing now that the days are so long.

We refinanced our house this week, using thumbprints to sign the official records. Nothing makes me feel quite as medieval as signing with a thumbprint. (My husband explained that a potato is the best way to remove ink from one's skin. This is a well-known trick in Pakistan, where he's from, and it's quite relevant during elections. Because so many people can't read or write, they use thumbprints to vote. After wiping their thumbs clean on potatoes, they vote again and again. Therefore, polling stations forbid the use of potatoes in the vicinity, and officials will hassle potato vendors outside the voting area!)

Anyway, the refinancing was great. Not so great: my dog had such a bad health crisis last week that I needed to carry all 50 pounds of her up and down stairs. But after her acupuncturist and chiropractor paid her visits three days apart, she is the spryest 11-year-old dog you could hope to meet, her energy somewhere between that of a whirling dervish and a hurricane.

I've had a health crisis, as well, and that took a turn for the better yesterday. More on that in a moment.

Amid all this tumult, I can't help but have swirling storms of feelings, making it entirely appropriate that today's essay is on 嵐:

For instance, I've been feeling railroaded by a certain situation. When I tried to tell my Japanese-language partner about this, we struggled to figure out the appropriate term in Japanese. Using the database I've been building for years, I pulled up this one:

レールを敷く (レールをしく: to have a very limited choice about the future that’s like no choice at all)

It's not relevant to what I was trying to say, as it's more about families and cultures in which children are told what colleges they will attend and what their occupations will be. Nevertheless, it prompted an interesting discussion about rails. The initial レール in this expression comes from “rail,” as in "railroad." The phrase translates literally as "to lay a railroad track."

When it came to translating "railroaded," Kensuke-san suggested this word:

追い詰める (おいつめる: to corner; drive to the wall; run down; track down; chase after)    
     to pursue + to cram

Yes, perfect! And I see the word "track" again, but it's a different kind!

I'm all over the place today, aren't I? I'm guilty of this:

脱線する (だっせんする: to derail; digress, deviate)     to come off + track

My conversational train has derailed! It's off the rails. Here's another way of putting it:

ポイントを外す (ポイントをはずす: to get off track, forget the point one was making)

And this, which is synonymous:

ポイントを逃す (ポイントをのがす: to get off track, forget the point one was making)

Hey, look at that 逃. I keep seeing that shape, or the heart of it, which is 兆. For instance, it appears in two sentences from the new essay on 嵐 (あらし: storm):

There is a threat of a storm.

兆し (きざし: signs, symptoms)

Thunder indicates that a storm is near.

雷 (かみなり: thunder); 近づく (ちかづく: to approach);
兆候 (ちょうこう: sign)

In the first case, we see the kun-yomi of 兆 (きざ•し), and then we switch to the on-yomi チョウ.

I spotted the same shape today inside this great term, where it has a "hand" radical, 扌, attached:

戦 (ちょうせん: challenge, defiance)     challenge + battle

The first kanji can mean "challenge," but according to Denshi Jisho, it's "to make love to," as well! (My proofreader comments that making love must certainly be a challenging task.)

Ah, I hear the on-yomi of チョウ as it echoes through 兆 and 挑, thanks to the repeating 兆 shape:

兆 (チョウ, きざ•し: omen, sign, indication, symptom)
挑 (チョウ, いど•む: to provoke, arouse, stir up, challenge)

This on-echo series also includes the following kanji:

跳 (チョウ, は•ねる, と•ぶ: to jump)

But the pattern doesn't include the first look-alike we encountered in ポイントを逃す:

逃 (トウ, に•げる, のが•す: to escape)

By the way, I haven't listed every kun-yomi for these kanji; that's partly because the last character has four Joyo kun-yomi!

In addition to the チョウ thread, I see an entirely different kind of streak that connects all four. It pertains only to me and my health crisis, and it won't help your Japanese (except maybe for one term at the end). Nevertheless, I feel the need to tell you.

At the same time, I want to be discreet, both because I need to keep dealing with some of the health professionals in the story and because talking about my body in great gory detail seems like TMI. I'll therefore speak in metaphorical terms, as if my chronic problem with inflammation (which isn't in any way life-threatening or even that uncomfortable) were akin to the Whac-A-Mole arcade game (a term that is surprisingly short of a K).

A health professional recently became concerned that the inflammation had increased and that we should no longer just monitor it but should spring into action. He referred me to a specialist.

The specialist acted as if my problem were even worse than the generalist had indicated. He said I would need specialized help for the rest of my life. I would also need to "hammer down" the "moles" in one concerted effort for $8000 (barely covered by insurance), followed by smaller "poundings" over a lifetime as the moles kept popping up, which they undoubtedly would. He laid out the grimmest of futures. (The only bright spot was that his assistant was Japanese, and we spoke about her name kanji a bit!)

It turns out that whacking a mole over the head damages more than just the mole, so he said I might then need to spend more money and time repairing damage to the surrounding areas. Oh, and I wouldn't be able to use that part of my body much for three weeks after the initial treatment.

He also said that, for the next year, I should stop seeing the generalist who referred me. After that, I should see each one 50 percent of the time.

The generalist didn't like any of this one bit (probably the last part least of all). He urged me to see a second specialist. I demurred. He persisted and contacted the second specialist, who shocked me by having his assistant call me to schedule an appointment. Specialist number 2 is an hour away from me, so I would need two extra hours of driving just to be poked and prodded in an area that's inflamed. Under pressure, I made an appointment, and a few weeks later I canceled it. What a relief to take back control. 

The generalist wasn't happy at all. He said he could do a lesser form of the pounding himself. In fact, this could happen as often as every three months. Also, there's the equivalent of pouring poison down the hole to kill the animals.

No. No. No.

I wanted to get to the root of the matter. Why are there so many moles? What do they want? Where did they come from? Is there any alternative to pounding them? Can I dissuade them from living in my body?

I consulted a naturopath, who took a long-range view of the matter—of all matters affecting my body. We spoke for an hour about my ongoing struggles with inflammation, rashes, itching, persistent coughs, and more. She immediately suspected that I had a genetic mutation that made me prone to inflammation.

A simple blood test proved her right. She has a pill that she now wants me to take for the rest of my life. Fine by me. That pill is much easier to swallow than the grim future that someone tried to lay out for me. After I submit to a small bit of the generalist's "pounding," I should be back to normal, thanks to this pill, and the problem should go away entirely. So should all the rashes and everything else that has plagued me for years.

I learned from her that 20 to 40 percent of Caucasians have the same genetic mutation (which makes "mutation" seem like much too strong a word). If you're struggling with an inflammation that no one can explain or treat in a less-than-brutal manner, I'm more than happy to tell you what my naturopath discovered.

I may be fooling myself by hoping that one pill can solve all that ails me. That is, this cool word could be relevant to my situation:

妄想 (もうそう: delusion)     nonsense + to think, imagine

I realize that I could well find myself back in some specialist's office in the future.

But for the moment I feel nothing short of triumphant. I stood up to the authorities, and even though we Californians tend to flatten hierarchies, there's still a very clear sense in medical contexts about who is in charge and who is supposed to shut up and submit to whatever is recommended.

I can't do that. And I'm certainly glad I didn't. For the rest of my life I'll draw strength from this experience. Of course, when it comes to kanji matters, I found out long ago that it pays to do things a bit differently from what the authorities prescribe. If it weren't for that, I'd still be drawing characters over and over, hoping to absorb them through the brute force of rote learning. I much prefer to let joy, curiosity, and an in-depth understanding lead the way.


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