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This Time Machine Serves Coffee

The book I was reading over Christmas was a bit of a departure for me, an impulse buy on a bargain table at the local Barnes & Noble – Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. It’s a relatively short book, a collection of four related short stories. Hey, it was on sale, takes place in a coffee shop and had a bonus cat on the cover, so what’s not to like?

With a name like Kawaguchi, it probably should have occurred to me that it was a Japanese book, translated into English. But in fact it didn’t until I was several pages in, not that it mattered. It came out in Japan in 2015 and was released in the English version in 2020. In between those years it was made into a Japanese film, Cafe Funiculi Funicula, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it adapted into an American flick before long as well. It certainly had a sort of theatrical feel to the story and prose.

One thing I found interesting was the very style of that prose. It was clearly different than what we North Americans have gotten accustomed to reading. A little denser, perhaps, a little more poetic for sure. Even though set in the modern day, there is a distinctly “old”,literary feel to it. Kawaguchi goes to great lengths to describe the characters, and the setting, sparse as most of it is. “He was wearing a navy polo shirt and beige knee-length shorts. It was what he often wore on his days off. It must have been hot outside, as he was fanning himself with his black zippered portfolio…” One imagines most American writers would have described him, if at all like “he was dressed casually and fanning himself.” The effect is both charmingly poetic and yet a bit of a detour to quick consumption of the novel. As are the moderately-long list of characters, with names foreign and often similar-sounding to our ears – Hirai, Kazu, Kohtake, Kei… one can imagine how a Japanese reader reacts to a Western story full of Jordans and Josh’s and Jacksons.

All that noted, the story is still the thing in it, and it is quite a compelling one at that. Without too many spoilers, the setting is a mystical Japanese cafe, a small underground club, run by a small family and close friends. Limited seating, limited menu but a big reputation. It is rumored to be a place where if you ask, you can go back in time! Oh and it has a resident ghost too.

However, it’s not that simple for would-be time-travelers. There are any number of restrictions on their voyages. They can only sit at one seat…which is usually occupied. They only have a short time to spend in the past when they do go…until their coffee gets cold, in fact. And most importantly, whatever they do back in the past, it’s not going to change the present day…which sort of defeats the purpose for most. So, going back three weeks to place a bet on last week’s bowl game won’t add a dollar to your bank account when you return; asking out that girl who might have had a crush on you two years ago brings you back to your same single existence now, should that be the case.

Yet four different travelers, all cafe regulars, choose to do so …and find that even if the here and now looks the same, a different decision in the past can bring them to a better mindset now. Or change the way they will make decisions from today onwards.

As the Christian Science Monitor note, the prose is “uneven and tends to meander” however, it has an “unerring ability to find lasting emotional resonance”.

All in all, it seemed like an enjoyable enough little visit to a foreign city and perhaps, to the Twilight Zone. It also left me pondering if I’d bother trying to revisit the past, if the restrictions placed on it were as set out there? Couldn’t wander around, so there’d be no going to Dallas in November ’63 to try and stop Oswald…or see who really pulled the trigger even. No going to a club in L.A. In 1982 to meet a then-single and unknown Susanna Hoffs before her Bangles became a million-selling band. And even if it seemed like maybe a friend you had a coffee with five years ago had a great idea for a business that you both should have followed up on, going back to the conversation would leave that business unbuilt and you in the job you have today. Is it worth it?

Perhaps. Maybe there’d be time for one more phone call to that parent a few days before they passed away, say the things that were left unsaid. Maybe the guy playing the guitar on stage no one noticed ten years ago is now the next Bob Dylan. Going back there wouldn’t make you his manager or part of his jet-setting entourage now, but might give you a second chance to really pay attention, so today you could say “I remember seeing him when…”.

Then again, maybe just thinking such things can leave us more aware of making better choices today. If a 240 page book can accomplish that, it’s a worthy read in my estimation.

Let’s Do The Right Thing People

First off, a Happy New Year to all my readers! I hope 2023 finds you optimistic about the dozen  months ahead, as well as in good shape. Which will lead us to this column’s topic.

Recently my friend Keith at Nostalgic Italian was good enough to put up a nice review of a book I wrote a few years ago called Thank Goodness : 101 Things To Be Grateful For. It got me thinking about the world right now…and I’ve got a bit of extra time since currently I’m quarantining for Covid. Let me say, thankfully I’m not feeling very sick and seem to be on the mend…and for that I’m grateful.

But what it reminded me was one of the things I put in the book was “Being able to do the right thing when no one’s watching.” It’s not something that always comes automatically to me, nor I suspect, most of us. I noted that it was what came to mind when someone had asked me how I defined “character.” After all, it’s easy to do the right thing when you’re being watched. Most of us do. We pick up the doggie doo when walking the pup through a park. Stop at the red lights when there’s traffic. Wash our hands when we are finished in a public washroom. But what matters is doing that when no one is around. Give back the extra $20 the cashier accidentally handed you in change. Pick up the garbage on your neighbor’s lawn, even though you didn’t throw it there. And stay home when you’re sick!

That last one is a bit more challenging to me than the others I mentioned. And, from what I see around me, it’s downright impossible it would seem for most people in this city. But it’s what we need right now.

My sweetie came down with Covid a week ago. Although at first it only manifested itself with cold-like symptoms and a little fatigue. However, by day 2, she’d developed a bad cough and got to talk to her doctor through a tele-conference. She was prescribed some meds, and by then was trying to wear a mask all the time around the house. I too, began doing that in an effort not to catch it as well. And that worked well, for a few days. At least I’m grateful (there’s that theme again) I stayed well while she was at her sickest, thus being able to go out to get her prescriptions, get our supplies, cook her some soup and all that. But by Friday night I wasn’t feeling good, and I awoke Saturday, after an entirely uncharacteristic 11 or more hours sleep, feeling feverish and having zero energy. So, I decided to try to do the right thing and take one of the home tests. The little bar just about flew off the control strip, so high was my virus concentration it would seem. So I agreed, I should do the right thing…namely quarantine, for at least the five days the CDC recommends.

This is not a lot of fun for me. Although I am a homebody, I am also used to going out pretty regularly, running errands, shopping, taking the kiddo to work…even if only to get some fresh air and out and about for an hour. Being confined to the bedroom and bathroom is not pleasing. Especially when it’s quite nice outside, and again, thankfully, by yesterday I was already starting to feel better. Not “great” nor close to “100%” but not that bad. A bit worn out and feeling like I had a cold or very bad hayfever. Today, the trend continues, I find myself a little less exhausted than yesterday and still sniffling some. And I find myself short on coffee, and almost out of deodorant (of course, right now I can barely smell anything… but other people can!) . Certainly the temptation is there to just go out, do a bit of quick shopping, get a few steps in. I’d wear a mask, because that’s one frustrating thing through all this. I am one of those rare ones who’s refused to stop wearing masks when I go to stores or other indoors people places outside the home.

Alas, some members of the extended family don’t share my enthusiasm for that, and come by when they’re sick. And judging from what I’ve seen around town, they’re in the majority. When I went to get my sweetie’s meds from the pharmacy, the usually reasonably quiet spot in our local supermarket had a lineup at least a dozen long. Many were coughing with gusto; only two besides myself bothered to don masks; no one was trying to keep a six-foot social distance between themselves and others. Perhaps understandably. The line was so impatient one thinks that if it was attempted, four more angry sick people might squeeze in front of you and dared you to say anything.  A trip around that same store that night yielded no more than two others wearing masks, but a whole infirmary’s collection of people coughing and sneezing. And almost empty over-the-counter cough and cold sections, as the photo above illustrates.

Now, I am aware a few unfortunate souls are pretty much all alone and really might have needed to go out for themselves to buy a bottle of cough syrup, a loaf of bread or pick up Paxlovid from the pharmacist despite feeling ill. My heart goes out to them.  Although it is worth noting, the store delivers. But most people have someone they could call, or yell across the hallway to that is healthy and could do it for them, or else already have well-used Door Dash and Favor delivery accounts. And as for those shopping for cosmetics or the first swimsuit of the summer while their noses run and they’re barking like an angry seal with a Covid cough…well, don’t even get me started.

Again, I say it’s not always easy to do the right thing. It would be easy for me to say both A) I don’t feel very sick right now and B) almost no one else around this area is acting responsibly and quarantining, so why should I? and go on my merry way out into the crowds. But I won’t. Because the one person I happened to sneeze on in a lineup might be the 80 year old with no immune system, or the person you didn’t know was undergoing cancer treatment and this inconvenient extra-strength “cold” might be infinitely more serious for them.

Do the right thing people. Show some character when you’re sick these days. Let’s make it a happier and healthier new year.