JOK Notebook

Kanji Warriors

My language partner Kensuke recently taught me this phrase:

見通しが立つ (みとおしがたつ: to gain perspective)

I thought it would literally translate as "to stand up (立つ) to see an unobstructed view (見通し)."

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

My dog Kanji, mesmerized by a seafood restaurant last month in La Jolla, California.

However, that's not right. This 立つ is more like “to be made.” So 見通しが立つ means “to gain perspective" (the implication being that one didn’t have perspective before). If one already has perspective, that’s 見通しが立った or 見通しが立っている. And if one lacks perspective, 見通しが立たない applies.

For me, the past two weeks have had a lot to do with perspective. They've also had everything to do with my dog Kanji.

Sudden Onset

Two-and-a-half weeks ago, he began having worrisome bowel symptoms and went out to the garden over and over during the night. I finally took him to the vet on Friday, May 9, and when they realized that he had eaten some raisins I had dropped, they became quite concerned. I never would have guessed it, but raisins are incredibly toxic for dogs. Fortunately, he tested negative for kidney failure (which raisin toxicity can cause), and they sent him home with antibiotics. We felt lucky that he didn't need dialysis and hospitalization

Over that weekend he became lethargic, walking very slowly, and on Tuesday, May 13, I took him back to the vet. As I waited for three hours, they performed tests. With each worrisome finding, they drilled down further and further into his blood chemistry, finding nothing but problems. "This is bad," one doctor said, and she hospitalized him immediately.

I am rarely without him, and the separation was wrenching, but if it meant that he would get better... Only, it wasn't clear that he would. They diagnosed Kanji with immune-mediated thrombocytopenia (ITP), which meant that his immune system had turned on him, attacking and destroying his red blood cells. As I learned, it can be quite hard for dogs to overcome ITP, and some never enter remission. Others do but go right back into a crisis mode once they're weaned off their medications. The vets and I had intense discussions about platelets, proteins, coagulation, and the pressure the blood creates in the veins. I asked many questions and took diligent notes, but I doubt I truly understood much at all.

Kanji received his first transfusion and perked right up, acting just like the dog we had always known. After a few days of barely eating, he suddenly found smoked turkey appealing, and he begged for it with pleading eyes that no one could refuse. We wanted to take him home (he had already stayed at the hospital two nights), but they discouraged us, saying that he could start bleeding at any time, and what would we do? Good point. By the next day, his red blood cell count had plummeted. On Friday, May 16, we transferred him to a hospital 25 minutes away, across San Francisco Bay in San Rafael, because they had internal medicine specialists, whereas our local facility didn't.

At the intake interview, I learned that he could spontaneously start bleeding into his lungs, brain, or spine and that if this happened, there would be no way to save him, even if he were hospitalized. This scenario was unlikely, they said, but that hardly mattered to me.

He received a second transfusion over the weekend, and again our hopes soared with the new red blood cell count. And then the number sank once more, along with my spirits.

The doctors' discouragement came through clearly. "He has zero platelets," one said flatly. (He had been down to 1,000 a few days before. Dogs need more like 100,000.) They said we could keep trying transfusions and that one might eventually "stick."

"But," said one vet, "how long do you want to keep doing this?"

By Sunday he began hemorrhaging from his GI tract. He wasn't eating, and even if he tried, he couldn't keep anything inside him. (Neither could I.) I believed that we were nearly out of options and that I had to steel myself to face life without him. I had trouble standing up or staying out of bed.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

This picture, like all the others below, is from the same April vacation.

Soothing Words

I couldn't stop thinking about how we had just lost Ria, our other dog, in October. At that time, my proofreader Ryo wrote me an incredibly kind email: "Almost all Japanese believe that souls are immortal," he said at the beginning. "The souls of the deceased live in eternity and reinhabit our bodies. I think it is called reincarnation." He provided this word:

輪廻転生 (りんねてんせい)

Breen gives a different first yomi and a different definition:

輪廻転生 (りんねてんしょう or りんねてんせい: all things being in flux through the endless circle of birth, death, and rebirth; the circle of transmigration)

It turns out (according to another proofreader) that Breen’s definition is more about 輪廻, whereas Ryo's is more about 転生. So 輪廻転生 has to do with reincarnating as part of the circle of transmigration.

Ryo continued in this way:

Believe it or not, there are some people who can see things ordinary people cannot see. My father happens to be one who can. I once asked him how he could know about incidents occurring far away and what would happen to people in the future. He said there is a mediator who handles communication between him and the firmament. The mediator only ever says "good" or "no good" or speaks in very short sentences. It's up to people like my father to interpret those messages.

I remember my father once said that my wife's father was taking care of flowers in the garden in heaven. According to him, taking care of flowers is a kind of job taken by someone who has accumulated virtues in this world.

What I want to say is that death is not the end of everything. Souls might remain and be reincarnated. I hope this Oriental way of thinking about death will be of some consolation to you and ease your mind even a little bit.

Again according to my father, souls that still need more training return to this world as reincarnated beings. This world we are living in is designated as the place for training souls. So it is natural that we have hardships and trials in the course of living. Whether we like it or not, we always have to face them. We should therefore welcome those challenges with open arms and smiles.

A person seems to have his or her fate in this world. But my father said, “Fate can be changed with effort. That is said to be 徳を積む (とくをつむ: accumulating virtues).”

I asked him, "What does that mean concretely?”

He then said, “Do what you have to do now to the best of your ability. That’s what it means.”

In other words, if you keep doing good things and enlarging your virtues, you can keep becoming better than you were the day before (and can experience a better reincarnation in the Buddhist realm).

Ryo concluded this way: "Like my father, I do not believe in any particular religion. But having observed certain incidents, I came to believe in gods." He wrote this out in Japanese for me:

I came to believe in the entity that is beyond human knowledge.

私 (わたし: I); 人知 (じんち: human knowledge); 超越 (ちょうえつ: transcendence); 存在 (そんざい: existence); 信じる (しんじる: to believe)

He mentioned that some of the incidents he has observed might seem far-fetched, and he told me three ways of saying "far-fetched incidents" in Japanese:


現実離れ (げんじつばなれ: far from reality); 出来事* (できごと: incidents)


信じ難い (しんじがたい: unbelievable)


世にも (よにも: unparalleled in the world); 不思議 (ふしぎ: mysterious)

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

At a Toyota repair shop, having fun after
our car was sideswiped.

Talking to the Animals

I was deeply moved. At the same time, his way of thinking didn't quite mesh with my usual outlook on life. By nature, I'm a grounded person from a rather starchy East Coast background. In that culture, there was no talk of communicating with the dead or any of the Eastern medicines that both Kanji and I rely on at various times. I'm from a medical family, and dinnertime talk was about CAT scans and craniotomies. There was nothing remotely New Age about that life. But I've lived in the San Francisco area for 23 years, where the culture largely involves openness to possibilities. Over the last 13 years, I've tried all sorts of alternative medicines and approaches, doing things that my childhood self could never have imagined. People change and change. I have left a lot of my original self behind.

And so it was that I consulted an animal communicator last December, not for the first time. It had been two months since Ria died, and we adopted another dog, naming her Indigo. After one day of bliss, we immediately found ourselves with a grave problem. She was out of control and strong, and then it got worse. She bit Kanji on the back and kept lunging at him for days after that. Our high-spirited boy withdrew into himself until he became unrecognizable in his gait, his expression, and his energy level. He avoided her at all costs. We couldn't go on that way, but how can you reject a rescue dog? That's the opposite of what you seek to do when you adopt them. You give them a "forever" home where they know they'll always be safe, no matter how badly they behave. Still, how could we subject Kanji to any abuse?

I contacted three trainers and an animal communicator, Jean. And through her I had a long talk with both Kanji and Indigo, as well as Ria on a whim. "Oh, yeah. Dead or alive—it makes no difference," said Jean. "I can contact them either way." In those 90 minutes I learned crucial things about each dog. Indigo knew it wasn't working out and wouldn't mind returning to the shelter at all. Ria said she was ready to stop living. And Kanji revealed that he had never felt comfortable around the all-controlling Ria. Everything I had thought was wrong. And from all that Ria said, I knew it had to be she who was speaking. So Ryo was right. She still existed after death. This East Coaster made a very big shift in thinking after that powerful conversation.

With Kanji in an acute health crisis, I leaped at the chance to talk to him through Jean again. Once more it affected me deeply. Among other things, he said he intended to live a long time and that he thoroughly enjoyed his life with us. He was looking forward to coming home.

He also said that his mother had had the same disease and had not lived long at all. (Drawing on this, I told a vet that Kanji's mother had had the same disease, and the doctor took this information quite seriously. I did not reveal my source.)

Kanji also said he liked it when I played Arcade Fire and Broken Bells for us on my iPhone during visits. He equated the music with energy flow, which he said he needed. And he could tell that the music lifted me up.

A few days later, someone else had a communicator reach out to Kanji on my behalf. From this I heard that Kanji had been a warrior in a past life and had bled to death. He said he couldn't stop bleeding now until he dealt with the shame of having failed as a warrior. The communicator reassured him that this is what warriors do. They die for their countries. They die with honor. He had no reason to feel ashamed.

Kanji has always loved Japanese people. Was he perhaps a Japanese warrior?!

He told the second communicator to look inside a file cabinet and to locate a file marked urgent. There would be a bright red light and a green light. It was her job to turn down the redness. She did as instructed.

He told us to expect a positive change in the next two to four hours. None happened. Could I trust the rest of what he supposedly said?

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

At lunch at a place called Roppongi in La Jolla.

Be Positive

For me, time stopped during his illness. Up till then, I lived in an extremely rigid way, using every available moment for Joy o' Kanji. That was what I had to do. I felt that there was no choice.

Now there was no choice but to put everything aside and tend to Kanji. An enormous part of me was lying in a sunless cage across the bay, his eyes vacant, his lively face drained of expression. I visited twice daily, and as the days wore on, he began reacting to my husband and me as if we were just means to an end. We were people to take him outside to "perform," people to bring him burgers (instead of the baby food that the hospital staff kept trying to foist on him), and people to help him sleep.

I lay for hours next to my shuddering dog, breathing deeply so that he would calm down and breathe deeply, too. I massaged the fear out of his hindquarters, trying to transmit positive images because Jean explained that dogs are telepathic. She also said that he had one request of me—namely, to boost his spirits during visits. He said that when I was depressed, it depressed him, too. Jean said to tell him jokes. I don't know any jokes offhand, and even if I did, I wasn't sure he would get the punchlines. I therefore told him again and again about all the best memories I had from our April trip to San Diego, even though (1) he probably remembers it just as well as I do, (2) he was usually asleep, and (3) thinking about San Diego made me kind of sad. How can we be carefree one moment, feeling that life is perfect, and then have it shift upside down in a second? How are we to bear such a thing? We can't, but that's apparently the task that life sets out for us.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Things Change

On Wednesday, May 21, during his fourth transfusion, the vet said she thought he could go home the next day. After all, he could bleed at home as well as at the hospital. I've heard more encouraging words. As happy as I was to end our nine-day separation, I became a nervous wreck. What would I do if he hemorrhaged all over the house?

At the time of his discharge, they said he would need to come back the next day for a blood check, as well as once more this weekend. He might face more transfusions and hospitalizations.

And then, less than 24 hours after coming home, he stopped bleeding! We could tell immediately because he no longer produced heaps of tar-black slurry (digested blood) when he defecated. (Sorry if that's TMI!) And when we went back for the first blood check, we received confirmation that he had stopped bleeding internally. He now has more more red blood cells in him than when his fourth transfusion stopped! His protein levels are rising! His platelet levels are still quite problematic, but I know we can solve that. We did so with Chinese herbs in his early years with us (when we perceived it only as a platelet deficiency, not as ITP).

They said he looked so great that he didn't even need to return over the weekend—not till Wednesday or Thursday. He does look great. He's painfully thin, but the gleam is back in his eye, and we once caught him standing on his hind legs, trying to figure out how to steal chicken off the counter. He eats voraciously. Every time he looks at me, he seems to be saying, "Burger! Burger! Burger!"

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

It's all a matter of perspective.

Perspective Gained?

I started by saying that I had gained perspective from this ordeal. That may be an overstatement, but I will say that I gained clarity about what is important to me—and who is important. I often go around with a barrier that walls me off from others. That disintegrated in an instant, and I soaked in every bit of kindness that people offered. My Facebook friends were incredible beyond belief, bolstering me, sending Kanji love, and telling me to be positive. My officemate snail-mailed Kanji a get-well-soon card. Two people said they would send him reiki. My yoga teacher dedicated Tuesday's class to him and had us all do animal poses on his behalf. One wise cousin said that doctors aren't great in the hope department and that I should seek the input of more positive people. That helped a lot. I consulted an animal expert who came with me to the hospital and showed me how to administer various healing modalities, ranging from bodywork to special salts that heal tissue. For the first time in a long time, I felt hopeful.

Somehow, four older women knew just what to say, each in her own way. Jean told me, "Whenever you're hooked into the past or the future, you're not effective. You can only be powerful in the present. That's the only place you can make a difference."

They all said I needed to live in the now. Kanji is alive NOW. Just be in that moment with him. It may end, but you have him now. My aunt has a dog with a similar condition and said that she has lived for eight years thinking, "If it's best for him to live, he will live. If it's best for him to die, he will die." I tried to draw on her serenity.

The animal expert told me, "You're a writer, so you need to have a narrative for everything." She didn't think that was helping me in this case. She was right on both accounts. I realized that I can't tolerate being in limbo.

I was amazed at how quickly and thoroughly my obsessions shifted. For four months I've thought about nothing but my upcoming trip to Japan. Suddenly, every time I tried to sleep and every time I woke up, my mind raced with agonizing thoughts about Kanji.

I can be quite robotic, but this crisis connected me to an unrelenting tide of human suffering, much of which came through the emergency hospitals in which I waited for hours. I saw three people overcome by the news that their dogs hadn't made it. Tapping into my vulnerable side, I think I became a better person over the last few weeks. This will fade. There's no doubt about it. I will scab over again. But as long as I fixated on a life-or-death outcome, my usual small-minded responses to things seemed pointless.

I tried hard to look at the situation from all perspectives. Dogs don't live long, even under the best of circumstances. We poured every ounce of energy and a small fortune into saving Kanji. He is already nine. What if he dies next month or next year? Was this wise?

What about those who can't afford to pay outrageously high vet bills? How can people endure the double tragedy of having to put down a pet because of a lack of resources?

And what about the cow who died so that I could feed Kanji burgers that would heal him? Didn't the cow deserve as much of a life as Kanji?

I suppose we just follow our hearts and feel called on take care of those we love. There is no question about it. We just answer the call.

It's clearer to me than ever that my love for a 23-pound beagle mix controls so much of how I feel that I was practically useless without him. Only now do I feel whole again. 

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

And What of JOK?

And what does all this mean for Joy o' Kanji? In the short term it means that I fell behind with essays. I had already planned to skip one week because my graphic designer Tiara got married (congratulations, Tiara!!!), so she needed a week off from work. I ended up missing one essay marathon after that. However, the break from essay writing gave me a chance to focus on JOKIA photo albums, which consist of small, manageable chunks of text.

I've had little time to write, but now I have nothing but time. I can't leave Kanji alone for a minute while he convalesces, so I need to clear my schedule entirely. With this new gift of time, I'll get back on track with essays. I'll also keep going with JOKIA, which I've overhauled and am about to reintroduce.

When I could squeeze in work over the past two weeks, and when I could concentrate, the distraction felt like a blessing. I've always enjoyed the sense that, with all my kanji writing, I'm lending order to chaos. And if there was ever a time when I needed to lend order to mental chaos, it was during Kanji's hospitalization. 

As for the long term, I need to believe that I'll stay healthy and that over the next forty years or so, I'll never encounter a conflict that will interfere with this massive project. I also see more clearly than ever how things can change in a second.

As Ryo's father said, I just need to do my best. I need to be a warrior of kanji, fighting on—but not bleeding if I can help it! 


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