Near Yellow Mountain

Monday, September 29, 2014

Age Old Questions

I am starting this blog post on day 10 of a 12 day Round the World trip. I just boarded the Shinkansen in Tokyo. In a little over 2.5 hours I will be in Osaka. Hopefully in less than an hour I will see Fuji san (aka Mt Fuji). It is always hard to predict from the weather in Tokyo whether Fuji san will be hiding in the clouds or reveal herself.

Unfortunately Fuji san was hiding this time so I can only show an old picture

Watching the Japanese “urban countryside” rush by usually puts me in a reflective mood and today is no different.

I was a relatively young man when I started traveling the world but as the years pass I find myself on the upper end of the age spectrum in meetings. During my first trips to Japan, I often was 20 years younger than the people I was meeting or negotiating with. The logical part of my brain and the mirror tell me I am getting older but I keep waiting to “feel” it with the exception of a gimpy right knee worn down by decades of morning runs.

For some reason in the past several days I have been asked my age in four countries. Being asked your age in Asia is more common than in the US. In Japan age is more closely linked to rank in a company than it is in the US. In general, older people are treated with more respect in Confucian societies than in America so the age thing isn’t all bad.

The first time I was asked about my age in the recent past didn’t bother me because it was on my home golf course in North Carolina and a Japanese playing companion who is bigger and stronger than I am noted that my drives were 10 to 15 yards past his on almost every hole. Finally on the back nine, he said “Joe-san, may I ask your age?” “Showa san-ju-ni nen”  I responded stating the year of my birth in terms of the reign of the emperor at that time. He did the five second calculation and said “wow!! ”. “Yes, I am that old” I said but had the last laugh on the scorecard.

Looking back, my biggest age crisis came when I turned 19. My life seemed to have rushed by and I viewed the onset of “20” with trepidation. Age 30 was noted but since my 10K times were still dropping, it didn’t bother me. I didn’t even take note of 40 and 50 didn’t seem like a big deal until many of my younger peers told me it was hard for them to accept that I could be 50. “You will get your turn soon enough" was all I  could say.

The year I turned 50 we went on a family holiday to Viet Nam. On New Year’s eve my wife entered me in a kayak race which turned out to be several. That is, since I won my first heat, I moved on to the next the round and the next. I wound up in the finals with a 25 year old and was a length ahead half way through the race only to be nudged out at the finish line. A few hours later I was reading a book by the pool when I suddenly felt four shadows looming over me. A delegation of young hotel workers had come to congratulate me on my kayak exploits in the nearby river. Their English was ok but they struggled to find the right words to explain my failure at the finish line. “We were really impressed, you know you if, if, if you …..” I said: “don’t worry I understand - if I wasn’t so damm old I would not have lost at the end”. Well since I had brought it up they confirmed – “yes, that is right for somebody your age, you were impressive”. I stood up, smiled and said “thanks – I think”.

Last weekend, I met someone I knew ten years ago when I lived in Japan. We shared a meal and caught up on our lives. As we were saying goodbye, he said “how old are you now?" I was caught a little off-guard, stated my age and then wondered to myself why he asked.

The final blow in the recent round of age questions came early this week. I was at a Starbucks with some people I used to work with.  I mentioned meeting one of the senior executives in their company a few days earlier in Shanghai. They wondered aloud how much longer he would be in his current position and his chances of getting to the very top of company management. They mentioned his age and then, for some reason,  wanted to confirm mine. I was not sure how my age fit into their calculation of another person’s upward mobility  but clearly I was somehow a barometer of “senior status”.

Having a senior moment on a golf course near Tokyo
Tomorrow will be my last full day in Japan on this trip. Fortunately I am playing golf with three friends that are 3, 6 and 22 years older than I am respectively. They know how old I am and are unlikely to make age a topic of conversation.  For a few hours,  I will be the young man in the group again.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

September 11

In the years since 9/11/2001, I have flown many times on the anniversary of that sad day. This morning I am sitting in the lounge at Denver Airport waiting to fly home. I am looking at my boarding pass that says September 11, 2014. It is hard to see that date on a boarding pass without thinking back to the day that when the Twin towers fell and the world changed.

I was living in Japan on September 11, 2001. I had just returned home from a dinner with my visiting boss. As I walked into the living room of our apartment, I remember saying I was tired and hoped there was “something interesting on TV”. We didn’t watch much TV when we lived in Japan. In 2001, our international options were limited to CNN, BBC and maybe a cartoon network. I flipped on CNN and saw a distant shot of the Twin Towers and a commentator saying it appeared that a small plane such as a Cessna had crashed into the one of the Towers. It was a beautiful morning in NYC so it was hard to image how a small plane would be in that airspace and crash into the WTC. I began to read a book but was interested in finding what in fact had hit the World Trade Center so I continued to listen to CNN in the background.

It is hard to image now but when the second plane hit the WTC, I literally did not believe it. I said to my wife that it was probably the work of some precocious computer geek that hacked into CNN’s feed. I could see my wife did not share my theory. Rather than continue to watch, I told my wife I had to get up early and went to bed believing all was well in NYC. The idea that terrorists could attack NYC and Washington with commercial aircraft was unimaginable.

As I slumbered my wife remained vigilant in front of the TV. I woke up in the middle of the night, the TV in the bedroom still on. My wife was visibly shaken. She confirmed that the US had indeed been attacked and my "hacker theory" was sadly incorrect. I switched channels and the coverage by then was universal.

The following day was a blur. We woke our daughters up and explained the big buildings we had taken them to see just a few weeks earlier on a visit home were now piles of smoldering rubble. Like their parents it was almost impossible for our daughters to grasp the idea of the US being attacked.

I headed into Osaka on a busy commuter train to meet my boss and start the day. Lost in thought I felt a hand on my shoulder. The normally reserved Japanese commuters also seemed stunned and many of them took leave of their standard behavior and made physical contact with me.  Many said in halting English or Japanese that they were “sorry”.  In the more than 2,000 days I have spent in Japan over the years that 21 minute train ride probably had more of an impact on me than any other experience I had overseas.

I spent the next few days trying to get my boss on a plane back to the US. Flights to the US were suspended that day, the next day and the one after that. Finally I suggested he take Air Canada to Toronto and drive to North Carolina.

I foolishly thought the storm would pass and everything would be back to normal within a month.

Thirteen years later as I sit in an airport lounge – the talk on the news is about both the anniversary of the attacks 13 years ago and the ongoing threats we still live with.