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Wednesday, Oct. 6, 1999

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The years of our lives spent in meetings


It's true that things have changed. In America, for example, we used to say any child could one day grow up to be president. Yet, Bill Clinton has now proved growing up isn't really necessary.

There! I have cracked a joke about America! Now I feel free to wing one at Japan.

What is it that Japanese love more than meetings?

(Drum roll) Why, more meetings, of course!

I have lived in this nation for 20 years, almost half my life. And half of those 20 years, it seems, I have spent locked up -- be it at a school, a company, a church or wherever -- in some sort of meeting. Because of this, I sometimes feel I have suffered permanent nerve damage to both ends of my body.

To be fair, I must admit that many of these meetings did deliver significant decisions. I especially recall one crackling debate that expanded anew the farthest envelope of higher education.

The hot topic?

On which sides of our shirts should we faculty wear our nametags. In the end (as it usually does with educators) the left side won.

Then there was the nasty struggle over what to do with the school doormat when it rained. Forty-five minutes of my limited time on this earth went into the following creative conclusion: "Let's pull it inside."

If 45 minutes was my longest indulgence of the Japanese passion for meetings, I would be a happier man. While I have no written records, my personal mark for endurance might involve a disciplinary case in which three high school teachers caught a female student downtown alone at night -- and (gasp!) out of uniform.

Furthermore, upon searching the girl (Uh . . . No mention of human rights at the meeting), they found she had just purchased a tube of lipstick. She was not wearing this lipstick, mind you, but merely carrying it in a sack. Regardless, she had broken school rules.

The faculty at this conservative institution was torn between two bitter factions, one of which wanted to kick the girl out of school forever and the other of which wanted to stone her. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed over both options, but it took them umpteen hours to do so.

Through the years I have found the best way to survive a Japanese meeting is to do what prudent Japanese do: Pretend you are someplace else. In my experience, the place most participants pretend to be is in their bed, snoozing. As for me, I like to imagine I am downtown, merrily searching pretty girls for lipstick.

Whatever, I now know the true title for the guy in charge of such gatherings should be as follows: Chairman of the Bored.

Yet, in this group society, meeting with your peers and reaching that elusive consensus remains almost an addiction, an itch that everyone has to scratch.

Thus you can imagine the effect a schoolteacher had on my Japanese wife when he made the following bold suggestion: "Why don't you hold family meetings?"

Now, the fact that this man looked like he arranged his hair with a vacuum cleaner, and that his eyes were crossed, made no difference. My wife was mesmerized.

"M. . . m. . . meetings. . ." she said, licking her lips.

Yes, meetings! The best way to put your family in synch. Once a week sit down and talk out your lives. Your hopes! Your dreams! What you are thankful for! You'll be surprised, he went on, what it will do for you.

What it did for us was to further develop what we had already groomed in abundance: family sarcasm. My wife, the chair, would begin by asking each member to announce what they were thankful for. . .

Me: I'm thankful I don't have to sit through this for another week.

First Son: I'm thankful I'm not my brother.

Second Son: . . .

Our second son proved difficult. He was at that adorable age when he would chatter like a chimp all day long, but clam up tight whenever asked a direct question, an age he sometimes seems stuck in. At the time he would just sit there and shyly bob his head while the clock ticked. Finally my wife would shift to dreams.

"OK, what are your dreams!"

Me: My dream is that this will end soon.

First Son: My dream is that my brother gets abducted by aliens.

Second Son: . . .

My wife coaxed him. "C'mon, now. What's your dream?"

At last he bashfully raised his head.

"Yes!" My wife said. "Yes!"

"Um . . . I wanna go to the toilet."

Now that was a dream I could respect. But my wife was distraught.

"We have failed as parents! We can't even run a simple meeting!"

I tried to console her by looking at the bright side. So far neither of our boys had been picked up downtown with lipstick. But she did not think that was funny.

So for harmony (another Japanese addiction) we struggled on with our meetings. We haggled over allowances, outings and chores, with most sessions ending with me snapping apart and yelling at the kids to go clean their rooms.

Yet, my wife was appeased. Until her mother moved in with us and the meetings abruptly ceased.

Grandma wasn't about to surrender Sunday night TV time, especially when "Sazae-san" was on. What was fair for one, my first son raised in plenary session, should be fair for all.

So, yes, things have changed. We no longer conduct family meetings.

Only the sarcasm remains.



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