JOK Notebook

Grist for the Mill

This week I wrote essay 2055 on 踪 (traces, footprints; whereabouts), an essay that's largely about disappearances, thanks to this keyword and its spinoffs:

失踪 (しっそう: absconding; disappearance)     to lose + traces

It took me three days to complete the draft, which is bizarre, given that dictionaries such as Denshi Jisho associate this kanji with only two keywords (though I introduced several others). I think it took me so long because during those three days, quite a few things happened in both my kanji life and my personal life, all related to the theme of disappearances. 

1. Grist for the Mill

Let's start with the kanji aspects. As I researched 踪, I learned about a book that sounds fascinating:

Well-known manga artist Hideo Azuma (吾妻ひでお) published this manga, which has the following title:

Disappearance Diary

(にっき: diary)

The work shows how, at the height of his success in 1989, deadline pressures led to drinking binges and caused Azuma to "disappear" for a year. Abandoning his job and wife, he lived as a homeless person, sleeping in the mountains, searching for discarded alcohol, eating from garbage cans, and even stealing food from another homeless guy. The police, working from a missing person's report, eventually caught Azuma and returned him to his wife. 

He resumed drawing manga but then disappeared again in 1992, that time working as a gas pipe fitter and sharing an apartment with other day laborers. Again he was caught a year later (for having stolen a bicycle) and was sent home to his wife.

By 1998 his alcoholism had progressed to the point where he was hallucinating, and his wife forced him into rehab. 

Azuma chronicled all these experiences in the book featured above. (Note that I have cobbled together this information from several sources that treat the text as if it were entirely true, but Wikipedia calls it somewhat fictionalized.)

I found out about this award-winning work from my proofreader, who said it reminded him of the following phrase:

Everything is grist for the mill.

転ぶ (ころぶ: to fall down); ただ (just); 起きる (おきる: not to get up)

This sounds like another saying that nonnative speakers love to quote as a bit of inspirational thinking:

七転び八起き (ななころびやおき: fall down seven times, get up eight times)

The latter one has to do with persistence and with overcoming failure. The "grist for the mill" phrase is the opposite, though. It's more about milking a failure! The idea is that even if (でも) you fall down (転), you could make the choice not to get up (起きない), and from that degraded position, you could earn or learn something from the experience. That is, you could turn your traumas into best-sellers! 

Oh, if only that were true for me! I've noticed so many times that illness and grief have filled other writers with astounding insight and fantastically broad perspectives on life, inspiring wonderful works. I know it sounds awful, but on reading such pieces I've almost hoped for a comparable experience so that I could write with new wisdom. But whenever I'm sick or grieving, the same dull thoughts just go round and round in my head, and I usually can't see very far past myself. 

2. New Ways of Disappearing

As I wrote the 踪 essay, I investigated several books with that kanji in their titles, and I examined the book descriptions on Amazon Japan. I came across these terms, all of which intrigued me:

姿を消す (すがたをけす: to disappear)
手がかり (てがかり: clue; key; trail; scent; track; contact)
逃亡 (とうぼう: escape; flight; running away; elopement; fleeing)
蒸発 (じょうはつ: evaporation; disappearance (of people intentionally concealing their whereabouts); unexplained disappearance)

The first one, 姿を消す, literally means "to erase the figure," which is how it looks as a person walks away, the shape becoming harder and harder to see.

In the second term, 手がかり can be rendered as 手掛かり (hand + hanging). If something is hanging from the hand (or held in the hand, which is what this term originally meant), it's a big clue to a crime—as is true of blood when someone has been caught red-handed!

With 逃亡, we have to escape + to be gone, which evolved to mean just "escape."

And 蒸発, which people use for adults who have gone missing, literally means "evaporation" but figuratively means "disappearance"! 

3. Life Imitates Art

As I was writing about disappearances, my new dog tried out a few vanishing acts of her own. On Sunday my husband and I welcomed these chihuahua mixes into our home, naming them Chai and Masala:

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

With a whole bed to stretch out in, this is how they prefer to sleep.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Spread-eagle at my office.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

I was puzzled to see just one dog on the couch, then found Masala under the pillow. I adjusted it so that she could breathe, but she soon "fixed" that and vanished again.

We thought our yard was secure. After all, we've had several dogs there over 18 years, and when the border collie escaped twice by vaulting onto a low roof, we turned the place into Fort Knox. But chihuahuas are shaped like ferrets, and they can practically squeeze through mouse-sized holes. Someone told us that on Sunday, advising us to check for any tiny spaces. We found two and believed that we had blocked them sufficiently. Apparently not. 

Like Peter Rabbit, Masala slipped under the garden gate on Tuesday morning, sprinted up a steep public path to Boynton Avenue, ran the length of that, circled around to Arlington Avenue (a very busy street), and dashed down the northbound lane, dodging cars. Lots of people stopped for her, including me (because I took to my car after chasing her in my socks uphill and finding that ineffective). But after honking at her (why?) and opening my door, only to see her whiz on by to the next car, I realized that driving wasn't the answer either, and I went home to wait. 

It didn't take long before she miraculously appeared on the patio outside our french doors, but as soon as I tried to let her in, she fled. I don't know where she went next, but she may not have left the garden again. I soon found her cowering under a tree in the side yard, grateful to be caught at last. 

I blocked the space under the gate more than before and had someone come over right away to create a permanent solution with wood and screws. I was determined not to repeat the drama.

Masala and Chai slept deeply all afternoon. What a week they'd had. They had apparently been abused in their last home and had ended up in a shelter that nearly euthanized them, deeming them unadoptable because of their fearfulness. Fortunately, someone rescued them, then posted a listing that I saw on Saturday. By Sunday they were with us.

And they seemed thrilled about that, except that Masala has a strong instinct to run, an impulse that surfaced again on Tuesday evening when we took the dogs to my office as a test run for the following day. (When we have dogs in our lives, they always accompany me to my office during the week.) 

For awhile, everything went amazingly well. They weren't afraid of the car, and they were so comfortable in the office building (bounding up the stairs) that it was eerie. The office is in a flat neighborhood, and we thought it would be an ideal place for their first-ever walk with us. Indeed, that seemed to be the case. For three-quarters of the way, they proceeded without fear (unlike the day before when the trainer and I made it only from the house to the sidewalk after 20 minutes).

And then as we proceeded down Delaware Street, Masala bolted. I took off after her, though I'm really no match for a spooked chihuahua.

At first we were in a quiet residential area, and because I could see her a half block ahead me, a hot-pink leash streaming in her wake, I felt certain that the occasional driver would, too. Masala stopped twice, turned to look at me, then kept going. I called her name again and again, though it was pointless because she doesn't know it yet.

My heart sank as she headed toward University Avenue, which is pretty close to being a freeway with two fast lanes in either direction, plus turn lanes. Sure enough, she reached University and hung a right.

I was still half a block behind her and could see her on the sidewalk, booking toward the bay. But the moment she spotted a dog in her path, she veered into traffic, and I could no longer tell where she was. I heard one horn after another, so I knew she must have been dodging cars. I trusted that the drivers were trying to alert others not to hit her. I had to trust something!

Throughout our 10-block sprint, I encountered the nicest people. I was too winded to say more than "Dog???" They'd reply, "That-a-way" or "Down by the gas station," and I'd keep running. I asked a cyclist to help me, and he said, "Sure!" and then disappeared. Even the two guys smoking a joint at the bus stop were with it enough to tell me that she was at 7-11. But she wasn't.

That was at University and Sacramento Street (a terrifying intersection), and no one else around there had seen her. I was rapidly losing any sense that the situation could still turn out okay.

And then the cyclist reappeared and said she'd been found! I made it back to Berkeley Way and California Street, where two people (restaurant workers, I think) had nearly hit her and had gotten out of the car to capture her. 

She was terrified, and I carried her all the way back to my car, feeling as if I never wanted to let her go.

Since then, we've made it four more days without any more disappearing acts, though she has twice defeated the pet gate at my office (which I've just replaced with a much sturdier one). Constant vigilance is in order. It seems that I will have to obsess about more than kanji!

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Trying to jump in my lap.

Have a great weekend!


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