JOK Notebook

Feeding the Fox

Just this week, three Facebook friends posted pictures of run-ins with wild creatures: a black bear in New Hampshire, a venomous cottonmouth snake in Alabama, and a possible coyote in California. In each situation, I'm sure I would have been much too scared to take a photo!

Photo Credit: James Ryder

A coyote, I think!

Wild animals (and even domesticated ones) pose a risk to us because we're so bad at understanding what they're thinking. Plus, we're not nearly as well equipped in the claws and fangs department.

One Japanese saying about risky behavior involves an animal:

狐に小豆飯 (きつねにあずきめし: risky thing to do (like feeding a fox))
     fox + azuki beans (middle 2 kanji) + rice

As I explain in essay 1640 on 豆 (bean), the Japanese believe that foxes love azuki rice and that if you set this dish down in front of a fox, he'll jump at it immediately, putting you in harm's way—hence the idea of a risk.

Photo Credit: Lucy Jane Bledsoe

A fox! Does he spot azuki rice?!

Having heard about all these unexpected animal encounters lately, I can't help thinking about the risks we take.  

I realize that I know several people who are starting or maintaining small businesses despite all the poor economic indicators. From fine artists, dyers (in the Japanese tradition), and yoga teachers to animal acupuncturists and book publishers, we're all out there, putting every last ounce of energy into making our dreams come true.

It's now been six months since Joy o' Kanji launched. For six months, I've been thinking about little besides the cycle of deadlines and the constant race against time. I try to squeeze every moment out of a day, and it's dawning on me that because this is a lifelong project, I will never again have a free Sunday afternoon, as long as there's the possibility of doing more work (which there always is).

Starting a small business is one of the riskiest things you can do. There's the initial financial investment that makes it seem as if the venture is inhaling all your money. (I'm not sure when that stops.) There's the chronic acidic feeling in one's stomach. There are the customers who show up in a mysterious group or not at all, leaving you to study the "tea leaves" (which now take the form of clicks, impressions, "likes," and registrations) as you try to interpret the past and predict the future.

I'm glad that the small business owners I know aren't letting the country's economic woes restrict their freedom. There's no point in dilly-dallying while our dreams burn inside us, unfulfilled. 

Photo Credit: Susan Stevens

There's also the matter of reality, which comes neatly packaged in this term:

左前になって (ひだりまえになって: to fall flat on one’s face)     left + front

When someone dies in Japan, the custom is to fold the front of that person's kimono left over right, rather than the other way around. Using 左前 (literally, "left in front") is a way of joking that one's business is dying.

Business owners can rarely be certain of how things will go. Anxiety seeps into every pore, saying, "Work harder, work later, work earlier, work smarter. Whatever you do, make this work." As a motivator, anxiety has its upside!

Photo Credit: ArtMechanic

Maybe fear goes hand in hand with dreams. I began to consider this idea a few days ago when a Facebook friend posted the following quotation: "If your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough."

On reading that, I actually didn't have an "aha!" moment. Not at all. I think that's because I don't associate dreams with fear. On the contrary, I associate them with a dreamy state that knows nothing of fear because it's not grounded enough to realize any risks!

The grounded mind notices that one is hemorrhaging money and that this is less than ideal! The grounded mind conjures up every negative anecdote that anyone has ever uttered about the death of a small business venture and the impossibility of making it work.

Thinking this way is so "grounded" that one might as well be six feet underground!

So what about the transcendent mind? It thinks of all the visionaries who blew through people's narrow conceptions of what's possible. The transcendent mind looks to the long term, knowing that today's and tomorrow's vacillations won't eventually count for much. The transcendent mind keeps that beautiful dream whole in the imagination, building a strong barrier around it so as to ward off unnecessary criticism.

Photo Credit: Lucy Jane Bledsoe


I notice that I have both strains in me. Mainly, I try to focus on what's true. 

For instance, I recently realized this: every single thing that I love about my life came as a result of taking a risk.

That's a huge thing to say. Without risks, I would have nothing that I value.

There was no guarantee when I chose my husband, our two rescue dogs, our house, my occupation, my niche, my office, my friends, or the city I've lived in for half my life. No one told me it would work beautifully when I made these decisions. On the contrary, I heard all kinds of doom-and-gloom predictions about several of these issues!

I think about all the paths I didn't take. What a great relief not to have given in to various pressures and settled for a life I didn't want.

I look at the emails in my inbox, and I see that in an average week, 9 out of 10 come from Japan or from a Japanese person. I have met almost none of these people. We have never spoken. I would not have received these emails if I had never approached total strangers, often in their language. On the whole, doing so has worked out amazingly well.

And sometimes it hasn't, and I've survived that, too!

Photo Credit: Heidi Hill

Just in the last month, all of the following things have happened for JOK because I took risks:

• I sent a stranger an inquiry about the kanji T-shirts he makes, and he wrote back. One email led to another, and suddenly we're partnering in quite a few ways. He has just started featuring my JOK Notebook posts on his site.

• I received an email from a Japanese man who sought a link exchange, and because his English was so good, I asked if he wanted to be a JOK proofreader. He said yes, and he has turned out to be a great addition. I'm golng to meet him and my other proofreaders in Japan next week! In fact, I'll also meet three other proofreaders, one volunteer, and my primary web developer—all strangers on whom I took a chance. I found one proofreader when I received an email that wasn't intended for me (and read it, of course!), noticing how beautifully he wrote in English and how thoroughly he reasoned through things. 

• I asked one of my kanji heroes to have dinner with me when I'm in Tokyo, and he said yes! It felt preposterous to ask him this, but I did anyway, and what a wonderful response I received. (Earlier, I also asked him to advertise on JOK and to provide a testimonial, and he said yes to those things, too, improbably enough.)

JOK is going well because of about a thousand risks!  

Because I take so many risks, even my close friends think that risk taking doesn't scare me. That couldn't be further from the truth! I'm constantly on edge. Out of anxiety, I clench my jaw, my fists, my feet. I noticed today that I couldn't even order lunch at a deli without feeling nervous. It's frightening, even now, to speak loudly enough that strangers will hear me and to ask for what I want.

I remember being four and feeling traumatized every day because, in order to reach my classroom, I had to pass the kindergarteners' room. They were older than I was. How terrifying a five-year-old seemed! What if they looked at me?

I'm not sure that that fear has ever fully dissolved!

Should I have admitted all of this to you? I fear that this word describes me all too well:

馬鹿正直 (ばかしょうじき: honest to a fault; foolishly honest; naively honest)     
     foolish (1st 2 kanji) + honesty (last 2 kanji)

Yes, I do fear that you'll think this, but I took the risk anyway.

Aha, I'm suddenly clearer about the quotation I mentioned earlier. Dreams aren't inherently scary. If dreams were visible, they would take the form of puffy clouds and rainbows.

By contrast, risk and fear go together. Risk takes the form of animal fangs and rattlesnake noises. Risk is a fox who looks ready to pounce. And if your dream is big enough, you feed him anyway, no matter what.

By the way, that last Japanese term came from essay 2025 on 鹿 (deer), which I posted today. Here's a preview:

I hope you have a wonderful weekend, full of risks and rewards! Beware of all the wild animals trying to break into Facebook!


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