Turn. Again.

IMG_4458Pictured here to the left is the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet (of the Pacific Ocean.) It was so-named because on his last journey, Captain Cook tried to navigate it in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, but was confounded by the tides and shallow depth. Which caused his explorers to turn, and turn, and turn yet again before finally realizing they probably weren’t getting to the Atlantic that way anytime soon. Hence the name. Turnagain.

I’ve hiked some portion of the mountains on the north side of the arm (the photo is taken looking west.) And at one point, I stopped and stood in the sunshine, three thousand feet above the arm, and imagined an 18th century mariner’s disappointment at what he saw before making one last accursed turn. It’s a useful metaphor for optimism (imagine what we’ll find!), pessimism (why bother?), or pragmatism (might as well try and see what happens), depending on your bent. I’m in the latter camp, if you wondered.

Somewhere way to the right of my photo, far beyond the frame, is Japan. And to be honest, I’m not sure what awaits. I have an idea of the stories that I’ll write as a result of the trip. But it’s a struggle for me to quantify why, exactly, it’s important enough for me to leave my family, my job, and a lot of unfinished everythings to go write about a disaster that occurred seven years ago. But I suppose the best answer I can come up with is this:

I had to.

The stories I’m going to write have burned a hole in me for months, and in one case, years. Look, I get a lot of ideas about things I think I want to write about. Thankfully, I can most of them because they’re crappy ideas. But others stick around until it feels like I might actually go to pieces if I don’t get them down on paper. Sure, I’m deeply connected to the tsunami. And while I respect that personal experience of a thing is more than enough to justify artistic engagement with it, this time I need to do something besides rely on my own memories, read books, and research online. I need to see, to touch, and most of all, to feel the effects of the tsunami in order to feel like I’m doing what happened in 2011 any justice.

And so, I will turn from what it’s in front of me to that which is behind, around, and within; I’ll turn. Again. And I’m going to look as hard as I can for answers I maybe didn’t even know existed. We’ll see what happens.

Return to the Tsunami

Passport: check. Clip-on lenses for iPhone: check. Voice recorder: check. Weather forecast: checked. Hotel and rental car reservations: kinda check. Notebook, ready pen, and open eyes/ears: yep.

If you know me at all, then you know that in 2011, the tsunami in Japan killed my Japanese grandmother, and that I subsequently deployed in support of Operation Tomodachi (friend), the U.S. military relief effort. Since then, I’ve told a highly-condensed version of my tsunami story for Anchorage’s Arctic Entries public storytelling event. I also wrote a short piece about watching Des Linden’s remarkable 2011 Boston Marathon from my hotel room in Japan.

But whether or not you know me a little or a lot, you probably don’t know that in the intervening years, the tsunami has loomed large in my imagination. That every time I run along Anchorage’s Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, I find myself wondering what it would be like to watch the Cook Inlet of the Pacific Ocean rear, then swell with pitiless energy. That when a recent midnight tsunami warning sat me up in bed, despite what I knew about the elevation of my home and the slim likelihood of a tsunami ever affecting Anchorage, I was seconds from bundling my family into the car in order to drive to high ground. That I set “Japan Tsunami” as a Google Alert and every morning wonder if my email will notify me that another tsunami has struck Japan.

But it’s not just about me. In the intervening years, I have discovered remarkable stories of the 2011 tsunami that deserve telling. Of survival and sadness. Of resilience and memory. About a year ago, I decided it was time to tell them. I started the process of researching, then pitching story ideas to editors at a variety of outlets. And after I landed the pitches, I applied for a Pulitzer Center grant to help defray what I knew would be a costly trip, and to my surprise, I was approved.

So. Here I go. I’ll be blogging the experience during my trip, so I hope you’ll consider following along here. If you want condensed versions, you can check out my Twitter and Instagram profiles.

Last thing before I go: a recent Google Alert made me aware of something called an edge wave. An edge wave has to do with the way that waves refract and bounce along shorelines. In the case of a tsunami, depending on how a coastal shelf looks, edge waves can extend the period of time a tsunami can effect a coastline. It seems a fitting metaphor. Eight years after 11 March 2011, I’m still speeding to and from the northeast coast of Japan in my mind, riding the tsunami’s edge waves like a piece of flotsam. But now it’s time to not just imagine it, but do it for real.

SAMSUNG

Sendai Airport, March 2011. Taken from an Air Force Pave Hawk helicopter about to drop me off for what was supposed to be an hour, but turned into two days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Essay up at Tracksmith: Some Thoughts

sakura2

“Sakura”: Lydia Komatsu, 2017

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I love to bemoan the state of running-related writing. Ever since the demise of Running Times, anyone who enjoys good writing about our sport must necessarily put up with pages of puffery from the usual rags. 100 words on the season’s best jock straps. 1000 words on how to train for a marathon on less than 5 miles a week. 200 words on yet another stretching article. Sometimes I wonder if whether writers like Alan Sillitoe (“The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner“) or George Sheehan would have much luck trying to place a piece in today’s general fitness mags.

I’ve written previously about my admiration for Tracksmith’s Meter magazine, which considers itself a literary review for runners. And I’ve been lucky enough to place two pieces there (one online, one in print) in the past couple of years, and now a third. Sure, Tracksmith is an apparel company. But they appear to be a company interested not only in profiting from the sport, but also in furthering the art of running, in all its forms.

“Sakura/Boston 2011” is partly a reflection on what it was like to watch Desiree Linden (then Davila) nearly win the 2011 Boston Marathon from my room on Yokota Air Base, Japan; I was deployed there for the tsunami relief after losing my Japanese grandmother. But for the longest time, I wondered about what it was like for Linden that day, on the other side of the globe.  And this year, over the course of a few interviews with the two-time Olympian herself, I was able to piece it together.

It was a challenging piece to write because of how I chose to build a braided narrative: mine and Linden’s. I didn’t feel like I could write a straight-ahead piece of reportage – my connection to the experience, what it was like, was a driving factor to write the piece in the first place. Early drafts were rough: there’s simply nothing quite so narcissistic as memoirist appropriating someone else’s experience. There was a significant risk of the piece turning into a “here’s how experience X made me feel Y,” which wasn’t my goal. So I did my best to use my experience as more of a lens to view what it was like for Linden during her electrifying performance.

But don’t take my word for it: check out “Sakura/Boston 2011” for yourself. I’ll let you be the judge of whether I was successful if not. The good news is that even if you hate what I wrote, you can enjoy more of my sister’s incredible artwork, which she created specifically for the piece itself.