A JOURNEY WITH AN AUTHOR & HIS ALTER EGO
His creative drive has kept him on the edge. After brainstorming with Carlos Ghosn for half a year, an interview book that he had co-authored with Miguel Rivas-Micoud became a popular seller in Japan.
The author’s royalties kept his literary and cinematic dreams alive.
Yet, regardless of the book’s commercial success, he felt that there was something missing in his increasingly busy life.
His prolific writing career across many different genres and media included both fiction and non-fiction works.
Several of the people he had worked with were as well known as Carlos Ghosn or Nakamura Kanzaburō XVIII.
The others, like Cecil, Kirk, and Felix, were the characters living in his newly published mystery novel.
Most of his works are published under his real name, the others, under pen names. A few are ghost written and his name is missing.
Some people know him as Kermit; the others, call him Charles Borromeo. For the past several decades, I have learned to know both him, and his Alter Ego.
Some of my on/offline encounters with Kermit and his Alter Ego remained in my memory vividly real. The others became fuzzy, almost unreal. The line between reality and fiction became increasingly blurred.
It felt at times as if some of my conversations with my old friend Kermit were taking place in a frequently shifting reality. Or as he quoted in his novel, a bipolar reality:
“…When what you see shifts, departing from anyone else’s reality, it’s still reality to you.”
There were mornings when Kermit‘s Alter Ego wanted to throw his computer out of the window, pack his rucksack, and bike away from his deadlines.
At times it felt as if Kermit was daydreaming about breaking away from Japanese media giants’ well paid assignments and return to his own unfinished novel. A psychological thriller he had set up in his adopted country, Japan. The country that has become his home for several decades.
Then a series of emotional twists and turns made Kermit leave his novel-writing aside. Though the mystery novel “The Dead Enjoy Eating, Too” continued growing in his mind, he found himself hooked on another commercial assignment again.
The assignment that got him in touch with ancient spirits and demons impersonated by
Japanese men hiding behind the masks. Some days the same male actor was acting as a woman. And then a man again.
Kermit found new pleasures in helping transforming an ancient Kabuki comedy for American audience. He undertook a face-to-face six months coaching assignment of Kabuki’s legendary actor, Nakamura Kanzaburō XVIII (十八代目 中村 勘三郎).
Kermit’s growing involvement in Master Kanzaburō’s dreams of conquering American audience was as unexpected as it was emotionally challenging.
Suddenly, a colorful and rich in ancient symbols world of Kabuki clashed against Kermit’s other world. The parallel world of chance encounters with injured souls and ghosts haunting them.
Kermit’s nightly escapes to his secret urban jungle of watery holes hidden in the back streets of Tokyo and Yokohama, was his way to deal with stress and overpowering emotions.
Since divorcing his Japanese wife, the bars become the place where he could unwind with his multi-cultural network of friends. And then there was to be another sleepless night awaiting against his PC screen, and another lonely journey in an overcrowded commuting train.
Kermit’s commuting between his expat friends from Terrell’s Bar, and a slowly paced Kabuki world of Master Kanzaburō, enhanced his novelistic dreams.
Sometimes he was torn apart by the contradictory forces driving his imagination. He would switch from working on his mystery novel and focus his energy on a film production that he had set up with his expat friends.
The first feature movie he produced was greeted with mixed reviews. Kermit then made a U-turn and returned to his unfinished mystery novel.
Though I have been friends with Kermit for over three decades and collaborated on some of his projects, a scope of his cross-cultural adventures in Japan seemed far beyond imagination of a field anthropologist, as I was at that time.
His musings about his fellow expats being haunted by wandering spirits sounded too surreal to be believable at first.
And yet, when he once cautioned me over a drink in his favorite watering hole, that sometimes reality may become stranger than fiction during the annual Japanese Obon season, I began to listen more carefully to his cross-cultural exploits.
Kermit feared that ghosts of the past may conquer our minds and turn our lives upside down, like it happened to his Yokohama expat buddies; Kirk, Felix, Cecil.
When, I asked Kermit how he became acquainted with these haunted folks, he mentioned again the master of his favorite watering hole in Yokohama, Terrell’s Bar.
Fascinated by his stories about the people he had befriended at Terrell’s, I pleaded with Kermit to be introduced to the African American guy running that ghost-haunted bar at the back street of Yokohama Motomachi.
- “Terrell’s Bar doesn’t exist anymore. It was demolishedand replaced by a concrete tower,” Kermit sighed.
- “But what happened to all these haunted guys?” I wondered.
- “Cecil, a college teacher, married a Chinese student girl Mei-Ling. She was half his age and worked as a part-time waitress at Terrell’s’. As she chose “The Great Gatsby” novel for her graduation thesis, she needed an American mentor. Cecil volunteered, and they fell for each other.”
- “And Cecil’s other drinking buddy?” I asked.
- “Oh, Kirk. A business report writer. He got entangled in a romantic triangle.
After Kirk’s Japanese girlfriend Naomi died in a freak accident, he hooked up with a fellow expat and a internationally savvy marketer, Nancy. Then when Nancy got pregnant, Naomi, his former girlfriend returned to Kirk’s life and refused to leave him alone,” Kermit silenced his buzzing mobile phone. “Another triangle and…”
- “What do you mean, a triangle? You just said, Naomi had died in an accident.”
- “But her spirit kept returning every Obon season and repossessing Kirk’s mind during the summer nights. There were nights when Kirk was calling Naomi’s name while making love to Nancy. And Nancy just couldn’t stand it anymore. She didn’t want to share her life with another woman and was ready to leave Kirk when something unbelievable happened,” Kermit paused. “Felix…”
- “Felix, who?”
- “A bilingual translator from a broken Japanese-American family. Felix was a tortured soul. He fled his abusive American military father for Japan hoping to escape memories of his childhood. Though he earned good money freelancing in his mother’s home country, he felt trapped.”
- “Yup. His American Christian School upbringing and Japanese Obon-like-beliefs frequently clashed in his mind. Felix began to terrorize Yokohama bar masters and their patrons with his twisted love for Jesus and peculiar taste for drinks.
- “Felix preferred red wine over Sapporo beer because he claimed it reminded him of the blood of Jesus. But there were also evenings when baby-Jesus living in his tortured mind would order him to switch from a red to a white wine.”
- “Sounds strange,” I said.
- “It wasn’t strange at all for Felix. He used to be a Catholic altar boy in his childhood. White wine was drunk as an offering for Jesus by a priest during the Catholic Mass. The worshipers were asking Jesus for forgiveness of sins and resurrection of their souls. Then one summer day, Felix’s mind overloaded with memories, just short-circuited.”
- “You mean, your friend Felix suffered a mental breakdown?”
- “Some folks of Terrell’s bar called it a cultural clash rather than a mental breakdown… In poor Felix’s mind Easter and resurrected Jesus were mingling with Japanese souls returning to life during Obon celebrations.”
- “Well, Easter and Obon,” I ventured an anthropological explanation, “are rooted in a similar belief system. The ancient belief that souls after leaving our bodies migrate and it’s called…”
- “Whatever one may call it, an increasingly ostracized Felix began to change bars in hope of finding more sympathetic listeners to his bizarre stories about colors of wine and our sinful world…”
“…Then one day in the middle of Obon, Felix’s Christian-schooled mind was possessed by the demons from his sexually abusive childhood. He could see an evil of a pedofile American priest transforming into a snake and hiding inside his Japanese TV-set… Could you imagine?”
- “Imagine what?”
- “A desperate man standing high up at a wide open window with a portable TV-set in his shaking hands and looking down at the crowded Yokohama street ready to…”
- “Did Felix throw his TV-set down or jumped himself?” I wondered aloud.
Instead of replying, Kermit took off his dark glasses and searched for a napkin. Then he methodically cleaned his lenses.
When I asked Kermit if he is still in touch with some of the folks from the Terrell’s, he smiled sadly.
- “Yes, I am. With all of them.”
- “But you said some of them are dead.”
- “Yes, some of them travelled to the other side of life earlier than the others, but there are times, like Obon, when they return.” Kermit took another sip of beer. “And we all get together at Terrell’s again.”
- “Wasn’t Terrell’s Bar destroyed ages ago?”
- “No! Terrell’s magically reopens in the time of Obon and we all get together to share a drink or two… either with Terrell’s grilled octopus, or some other snacks that I had mentioned in my novel...”
- “What, I said,” he smiled. “That’s why ‘The Dead Enjoy Eating, Too’ has become a title of my newly published novel. Cheers.”
I already lifted my beer glass to toast to Kermit’s three lead characters, Kirk Thompson, Felix Gunther, Cecil Pickwick, when Kermit interrupted me.
- “And for Mei-Ling!” Kermit suddenly switches on his mobile phone and activates one of his four online vimeos.
“It’s Mei-Ling, a cheerful part-time waitress from Terrell’s and Cecil’s life-long-love. Cheers!”
When Kermit’s 60 second short audio recording was over, we toasted again to Kirk, Felix, and Cecil.Then Kermit replaced his sunglasses with the reading glasses, and read me a quote to his novel:
“When you are mad, mad like this, you don’t know it. Reality is what you see. When what you see shifts, departing from anyone else’s reality, it’s still reality to you.”
- “Sounds like Marya Hornbacher,” I said.
- “Yes, it’s from her ‘Madness: A Bipolar Life’. She is good, isn’t she?”
- “Guess, Felix might have enjoyed having a drink or two with Marya. Wouldn’t you say?”
Ignoring my questions,, Kermit activates his mobile phone again. Sipping our drinks, we followed Felix on another of Kermit’s 60 second Vimeos:
Kermit didn’t care too much that the people inhabiting his novel and the real folks kept mingling in his mind. His lancet-sharp mind seems to posses an odd ability to operate at several distant worlds at the same time and fuse them creatively together.
(*END OF PART ONE)
How does one enter a creative mind of a driven man whose path had crossed with the most unbelievable range of people?
From Japan-based foreign industrial tycoon-turned-fugitive, bipolar think-tank executives, globally successful Japanese entertainers, and mentally disturbed TV-personalities… to penniless Shonan free-campers, Asian guest students moonlighting in Yokohama as night hostesses, African American visa-overstayers escaping Tokyo police, sexual predators disguised as Christian missionaries or native speakers, and dozens of other real-life-characters that have crossed Kermit’s path.
Kermit’s own cross-cultural roots, fluency in Japanese and British-American parentage made him feeling at home among all sorts of folks passing through his life.
While his Japan-born daughters Kim and Michele got married overseas and blessed Kermit with five grandchildren, the continuing pandemic kept him stranded in his little writing studio in Yokohama.
Though Kermit has already reached his retirement age, his mind remained as sharp as ever. He continued switching between his online commercial assignments and plotting another chapter of his novel.
Last week between biking with Kermit around my Shonan neighborhood and visiting our seaside “Chianti” restaurant and “Hemingway” bar frequented by out of town surfers and local English teachers, I asked Kermit, if there are still any limits to his imagination left.
- “Have you ever imagined that your highly regarded Carlos Ghosn, would turn from a once globally admired Chairman of Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi Alliance to a fugitive from a Japanese criminal case? Or even perform a spectacular escape from his Tokyo house-arrest to Lebanon by hiding in a cargo box housing musical equipment?”
- “Well, our life is made of unimaginable twists and upside-downs ” Kermit took another sip of Sapporo beer. “Have you imagined a Japanese kabuki actor dreaming about performing an archaic comedy for an American audience?”
- “No!” I said.
- “Why not?”
- “Because, I went to Tokyo’s Kabuki Za theatre with several of my Japanese friends and not a single one of them, had understood anything. If a native speaker doesn’t fully understand archaic Japanese, how could an American audience get it?” I doubted.
- “That’s why Master Kanzaburō and I spent almost half a year transforming an ancient Japanese comedy plot to a modern American social context. The audience loved Kanzaburo’s edgy performance!”
- “Yes! He had to balance on the edge of two worlds and keep American audience curious enough to…”
- “But did they really follow the plot?”
- “Certainly! By fusing Japanese with English and skillfully using his body language, Master Kanzaburo succeeded incommunicating against the odds. And navigating through cultural boundaries by making foreigners enjoy his comedic performance was like balancing on a tight rope stretched between two poles… Isn’t it strange?”
- “Strange, what?”
- “That some strangers with less language fluency could at times more easily bypass cultural and social boundaries than the native speakers. That’s what made Kanzaburo into such a great communicator. His silent language…”
- “He spoke with his body!”
- “Are you kidding?” I ordered another round of beers.
- “Nothing to be kidding about,” Kermit searched through his mobile phone’s photo archives. “Huge crowds and an unexpected critical success. Far surpassing Kanzaburo’s wildest dreams. Watching live his opening performance at New York’s Lincoln Center, I guess he was high on adrenaline and…”
- “Did you also follow Master Kanzaburo to Boston and Washington?”
- “No, after his American Premier in Lincoln Center, I returned to my daughter Michele’s New Jersey home to celebrated Master Kanzaburo success with a family dinner”.
I tried to turn Kermit’s mind away from Kabuki overseas success to a Nissan worldwide scandal.
- “Do you think Carlos Ghosn was like Kanzaburo high on adrenaline while preparing to cross the Japanese boarder hidden inside a box?”
Kermit closed his eyes. It seemed his thoughts wandered somewhere else.
I made another attempt to hook Kermit on comparing both men that he had learned to know closer than most of foreign journalists and worldwide TV-viewers. “Was Ghosn an easily agitated man in a closer contact?”
- “I don’t know. In contrast to Master Kanzaburo with whom I have almost always interacted face-to-face, my co-author Miguel and I had never been left alone with Mr. Ghosn.”
- “Why not? Was he afraid of being cornered?”
- “No, he never gave me the impression of a man fearing any question.”
- “So why couldn’t you interact with him like you did with Master Kanzaburō… Face-to-Face?”
- “Because there were always his assistants or other corporate courtiers present during our six months long interview sessions. His French-accented English might have sounded humorous for some TV viewers, but he was always politely precise in correcting our English interview drafts, and yet…”
- “And yet I had never ever imagined him squeezing his ego into a box.”
- “… squeezing his ego into a box,” I repeated Kermit’s metaphor with amazement. “Is it therefore you had switched from non-fiction writing to publishing a novel?”
- “Yes, a novel allows me more narrative and stylistic freedom to deal with emotional secrets living in our minds. That’s why after Master Kanzaburo suddenly had left for his journey to the other side of life in 2012, and Mr. Ghosn fled away from Japan inside a musical box at the end of 2019, I spent my early retirement years writing ‘The Dead Enjoy Eating, Too’.
“The season of ghosts returning to this side of life to share a meal and couple of drinks with the three expat guys and their dear ones…” Kermit took another sip.
- “Shall we order some snack? What about raw octopus and…” I broke the silence.
While I was struggling with “Hemingway” bar’s Japanese menu, Kermit was flipping through the passages of his novel.
Our conversation kept shifting between the folks we had met in my seaside neighborhood today, and the characters living in his novel.
As much as Kermit was delighted to be introduced over a pizza to a proprietress of a local English School who had purchased his novel, he seemed confused by her comments.
- “Why does Amazon restrict your novel to readers over eighteen?”
- “Well,” Kermit looked slightly embarrassed. “There are some sexually explicit passages…”
- “I didn’t reach them yet. Do you prefer pizza or pasta?” She offered him a menu.
- “Risotto, thank you,” Kermit was quick to add “And you are my guests.”
When we insisted that it’s he who is a guest of honor, Kermit burst into laughter. “May I exchange my dubious honor for your bicycle? Would love to have a ride in your neighborhood. Is there any special spot or locals you would recommend to see?”
- “Sure. A twenty minute ride away there is a house hidden in a bamboo forest,” I joined the conversation.
“Our friend who has been living there for years is a recovering book-addict. He reads everything, he can get his hand on. Recently he told me he is back to contemporary mysteries and thrillers.
- “Wow!” Kermit switched his interest from risotto to the books and Easter eggs I had pulled out of my backpack and placed on the table.
- “ We supply him with second hand novels and some camping goods like gas bottles, batteries, occasionally some snacks like almonds, rice balls, or boiled eggs.”
- “What does your free camper friend do beside being addicted to the novels?” Kermit adjusted his camera a took few shots of the books and eggs. “May I join your biking tour, if you wouldn’t mind?”
And as always before, curiosity to meet a troubled soul hiding in a patched tent inside a bamboo forest won over his earlier planned online schedule.
Though Kermit’s online deadlines clashed again, he was ready for an offline journey.
Biking against the ocean wind didn’t discourage Kermit. His passion for learning reality of the genuine people made him to put his bike aside and cross the line separating him from a hidden world. The world of invisible people.
Though my free-camping friend had already left his patched tent for his neighborhood volunteer cleaning duties, Kermit kept patiently taking mental photos of an injured soul.
Instead of focusing on a living person, Kermit focused on the objects surrounding the life of an invisible man. The man who lived unnoticed in the edge of a deserted 2021 Olympic venue.
Waiting for my Japanese friend’s return I chatted with Kermit about other injured souls trying to survive in our hostile, mad world of the senseless wars, ethnic cleansing, and genocides.
The millions of killed souls, ruined lives, and displaced refugees searching for shelter.
While sorting out Easter supplies for our free camping Shonan friend, we talked about an ongoing war in Ukraine, a civil war in Ethiopia, and other less known armed conflicts.
Watching Kermit shooting the photos of my Japanese friend’s habitat, I recalled again the quotation from his novel:
“…Reality is what you see. When what you see shifts, departing from anyone else’s reality, it’s still reality to you.”
After leaving behind a pack of batteries, a gas bottle, some dried food, and a few other basic camping supplies, I added a couple of mystery novels. One was written by Kermit Carvell, two others by Haruki Murakami.
The sun was slowly disappearing behind the waves.
We biked back towards the same Enoshima Island that the narrator of Kermit’s novel, Charles Borromeo, had chosen for scattering his ashes into the ocean.
(*THE BLOGS ARE CHAPTERS OF MY FORTHCOMING BOOK “LIVING AMONG JAPANESE”)