Near Yellow Mountain

Sunday, September 11, 2016


September 10, 2016

I seldom write in my personal blog these days; however, on the eve of the 15th anniversary of 9/11 memories are abundant – both for September 11th and, in recent years, September 10th. This year is also a little different - I recently attended the funeral of a friend that died too soon and have been reflecting on, as Seneca would say, the “brevity of life”. Perhaps a blog post about three disparate events is too much but that is where I am.

A Day I Won't Forget
My family was living in Japan on September 11, 2001. I returned home shortly before 10PM Japan time – 9AM in the New York after having dinner with my boss who had just arrived from the US. I recall, as if it were yesterday, walking into our living room and saying to my wife that I wanted to “watch something interesting on TV” before going to bed. I was about to discover that thousands of miles away, events that would change the world were just beginning to play out.

At that time, our English language options on TV were limited so I turned on CNN first and saw a distant shot of the World Trade Center.  I turned up the volume and heard an announcer say it appeared that a small, private plane had crashed into one of the towers. It was a clear day and immediately something seemed amiss. It did not compute that even the worst pilot on the planet would hit the World Trade Center on a cloudless, September morning. A few minutes later, more cameras were on the scene from close range and soon a second plane appeared.

It was many hours before I believed that the first plane was in reality an airliner and that a second plane with the same mission arrived 17 minutes later and ultimately rendered the Twin Towers a pile of rubble. My wife stayed up all night transfixed in front of our TV. I went to bed firm in my belief that one of the many gifted teenage computer geeks in Japan had created a simulation and hacked into CNN Japan’s feed. Google was not a verb at that time and smart phones didn’t exist. I could have called my US office and asked about it but I was tired and resolute in my disbelief.

I woke up early the next morning and as I was getting ready to take the train to Osaka to meet my boss, my wife gave me the bad news. We hadn’t watched the work of a hacker on our TV screen but the efforts of a band of committed terrorists. We woke up our young daughters and tried to explain that the two big buildings we had seen in NY during a visit a few weeks earlier were no longer part of the Manhattan skyline. Had the events of the previous night been proposed as a movie script a week earlier it would have been rejected because it was totally implausible.

September 11th is one of those dates that everyone who lived through it remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. For my parents December 7th 1941 was such a day. The only other comparable date for my generation is November 22, 1963. I was in first grade but remember the day JFK was assassinated in great detail. Days that change the world.

I was six when this happened but I remember it like yesterday

Each year September 11th brings back a flood of memories of the reaction in Japan. The normally restrained Japanese saw my gaijin face on the train and in the street and reached out to say “sorry” in halting English. My cell phone rang all day with condolences and expressions of disbelief that “America had been attacked”. I mentioned to my closer friends that called that I found it ironic that Japanese in particular did not remember another attack on America. More ironic, each person seemed to respond the same way to my soft reply that: “someone also attacked us in 1941”. “But Lowry san Hawaii was not a state at that time”. It was a uniquely Japanese perspective. Rather than anger me the party line that Hawaii was not a state in 1941 was the kind of comic relief I welcomed on that sad day.

My boss wanted to return home immediately but each day US bound international flights were canceled as America was uncertain about the risks involved with reopening airports. On the fourth day I told him we would get him on a non-stop to Toronto and he could drive to North Carolina from there. Gradually things calmed down.  Aside from the deep shock of America’s true vulnerability and the chaos at airports that I endured as a frequent flyer over the next couple of years - particularly when I flew to the US, there was no long term day to day impact on my life. That cannot be said for people who lost loved ones on or later as a result of that day. The second and third order impacts continue given 9/11 resulted in the “war on terror” and the rise of global terrorism.

For most people September 10th is an unremarkable day unless it is their birthday or anniversary of a significant life event. For me, that date is now deeply etched in my memory – at least after 4PM. Four years ago today I was RIFed in a late afternoon meeting. You know,  “downsized” or as I like to say “fired”. I really prefer the Japanese term best. I was “kubied” which literally means my “neck was cut”.

My most widely read blog post “Moving On” tells the story ( ) so I won’t reprise those events in detail. In any case, although I couldn’t see it at the time, September 10th 2012 was the first day of the rest of my very different and much improved work life. I loved the expat life but struggled to conform to “PC corporate drone life” in the US. Getting fired enabled me to return to doing business overseas and to calling my own shots.

I didn't feel "lucky" at the time

To be clear, I am in no way comparing my small “bump in the road” of 9/10/12 to what happened on 9/11; both dates are significant to me but linked only by proximity on the calendar.

After 15 years I can still only see 9/11 one way – a human tragedy conceived and executed by an evil genius who now, thanks to US Navy SEALS, is no longer with us.

In the past 15 years there has only been one 11th of September where I did not spend much of the day dwelling on that day in 2001. September 11, 2012 was a little different. For the first time since I finished graduate school in 1984, I woke up without a job. I was just another (ex) long term corporate employee trying to deal with the shock and embarrassment of being fired but still needing to show up for work because I had guests in from Japan. I struggled but I walked into the office with my head held high and my heart in the pit of my stomach. Fortunately, the Japanese guests I was scheduled to meet with and take to Pinehurst to play golf were the key to my future. By the end of the week I had a commitment from the President of the Japanese company for my first consulting agreement. By December he had recommended me to another Japanese company and my small business was born. A man I often had very tough negotiations with was responsible for putting me back on my feet.

Two weeks ago I flew to Japan to attend his funeral – the first Japanese man I ever met and who was only a few years my senior passed away suddenly and too soon.

Since 2000, I have spent more time in Japan than the US. Japan will always be my second home. I am more comfortable in Tokyo or Osaka than most cities in the US. Despite abysmal language skills I learned to communicate in Japanese well enough to navigate daily life without concern.

As the only non Japanese at a funeral that can best be described by US standards as elaborate and well attended, it was hard to keep my emotions in check. I arrived early dressed in the standard dark suit, white shirt and black tie. A good friend helped me by bringing extra Buddhist prayer beads but wondered aloud if it was Ok to my Roman Catholic sensibilities to be seen with them. I replied that it was Ok because I had called the “dispensation hotline”. My “catholic” joke fell on deaf ears.

A very large picture of of my departed friend was displayed on a flat screen directly in front of my seat. It was hard for me not to smile in return to his unwavering grin from the above. There were still 20 minutes before the service was to start. I looked around the room and nodded at a few old friends and spoke in hushed tones to the two friends sitting on either side of me. There was music playing in the background. I wasn’t really hearing it until a traditional Christmas song was played. My head cocked and I looked at the smiling image on the screen before me. I wondered to myself if he was playing a joke on me from the “other side”. I was certain no one else in the room knew that song.

In Japan they say you are born Shinto and die Buddhist but I was hearing one of my favorite Christmas songs in a Buddhist temple close to where I had lived in Kobe and watched the events on 9/11. The temple was close to the golf course where I had my only “hole in one”. I felt completely at home in a foreign world. My friend had always been the consummate host so perhaps he pre-arranged a Christian song to make me feel comfortable.

The service began.  The various speakers spoke slowly, so I understood almost everything.  As the service closed I got in line to pay my final respects by putting incense in the censer on the altar and offering a prayer. That completed all that was left to do was to bow deeply to my friend’s family before leaving the temple. I was surprised when my friend’s wife stepped forward and shook hands with me. I guess protocol exceptions are made when gaijin attend services. I am still learning.

Suddenly I was outside. I spoke with a few more people that I had not seen in a long time and took a bus to the train station.

I spent the afternoon thinking about how just a few months earlier I was golfing with my friend and how he had helped me have the confidence to build a successful business.

Bottom line – life is short and fragile. Be grateful, take calculated risks and realize how lucky you are.