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August 9th has been something special to me for quite a long time. When I was 24, August 9th was the day I arrived in Japan to start my adventure teaching English in a Japanese high school. I spent my first day participating in the nationwide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.

I was a long way from home, and I spoke to my grandfather that night to try to calm my nerves. He had always been reticent to talk about his experiences in World War 2, but that night, separated by thousands of miles, he talked about his own time in Japan. He arrived there in early September 1945, with orders to help rebuild Yokohama, which like much of Tokyo had been destroyed by US bombing raids. (We think of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as extraordinarily destructive, but the firebombing of Tokyo destroyed half the city and killed 100,000 people. The firebombing of Yokohama killed 35,000 and left every major building in the city destroyed or damaged.)

Until the war, my grandfather had been a farmer, and for much of the war, he was a radio repairman for Navajo codetalkers in the Pacific Theater. Following Japan’s surrender, he was repurposed again as an engineer and construction supervisor. While I was in Japan, I went to Yokohama, where I was able to visit a grade school and a hospital that dated to 1946, and almost certainly would have been reconstruction projects that he oversaw. Sadly I wasn’t able to meet one of the Japanese people he worked closely with, as he had passed away a few years before.

In Japan, I taught at Nagaoka High School, which was the alma mater of Admiral Yamamoto. While I wasn’t teaching, I wandered the countryside and wrote. I wrote so many things, including first drafts of two different novels. Japan is the place where I swore that if it was possible to write books, sell them, and get paid for the work, I would do whatever I could to get there.

It doesn’t hurt that when you’re snowed in somewhere between the Japan Sea and the Honshu mountain range with only 3 television channels, you have plenty of time for writing. The first winter I was in Niigata Prefecture, it snowed over 40 feet. No, that’s not a typo. Snow fall was really in excess of 480″. It snowed every day for four months, anywhere from a couple inches to dozens of inches.

When I learned that All the Ugly and Wonderful Things would be released on August 9, 2016, I was happy, even though it was too late to share that joy with my grandfather, who was the most bookish adult in my life as a child. That day will always carry the ghosts of those who died in Nagasaki, but it also holds a lot of powerful memories for me, including the bond with my grandfather, and now the day my publishing career was well and truly launched.

On this day I often think of the resiliency of humans, and our capacity to rise above obstacles and limitations. I think of my grandfather, far from his wife and newborn son, charged with a task that he was wholly untrained for. Handed a set of blue prints and assigned a Japanese translator and a crew of men, he helped build schools and hospitals. I think of those men, too, and their families, living in the aftermath of a devastating war. My grandfather was part of an occupying army, and yet those men treated him with respect and invited him into their homes, where he shared the modest wealth of his rations and their hope for a better future.

So many things in life are not easy. There is pain, suffering, disappointment, but there is also joy, success, and the bond we share with other people. I hope we can all remember that today.

Bryn and 3 students standing under a cherry tree

Celebrating the end of winter

(If you’re curious a what good old fashioned Nagaoka snow storm looks like, here‘s some footage from 1963 that’s even worse than what I experienced.)

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As elsewhere, here in Kansas we’re locked in debate over how to fuel our decadent* energy-consuming lifestyle. We’ve recently had to step beyond debate into action, though. In October, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment refused to grant a permit for the construction of two new coal-fired power plants. The agency cited environmental and health concerns. Huh, figure that. What a thing for them to be concerned about. The two plants would have provided power to Kansas and Eastern Colorado, and produced more than ten tons of carbon dioxide annually.

It’s an exciting time to be a Kansan. Sometimes I daydream about us starting an energry revolution as big as our push for freedom that started the Civil War. Hopefully not as bloody, but as stunning in the change it proposes: real efforts to use sustainable, alternative fuels. Governor Sebelius’s State of the State Address this year contained this observation: “The question of where we get our energy is . . . no longer just an economic issue, nor solely an issue of national security. Quite simply, we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of this state.”

In a state where we have incredible wind resources and considerable solar exposure, there’s no reason to sink millions of dollars into power plants that are going to perpetuate our dependence on non-renewable resources that pollute the environment. Where from here, though? We have the wind and the sun, but no infrastructure to take advantage of it. We’ve got biomass, for sure, just drive out by Dodge City and breathe in the “biomass” fumes.

Of course, in addition to wind and solar power, there are people pushing for more nuclear power. Clean, safe, dependable, all that. It gives me the willies, as childish as that sounds. The coal-fired plants the KDHE rejected would have been located near their current coal plant, in Holcomb, Kansas. I grew up not two hours from Holcomb, and if I still lived there, I wouldn’t want more coal-fired plants near me. Sure, nobody wants it in their backyard, and that ought to be a hint that it’s a bad idea. The same is true with nuclear power. I wouldn’t mind a wind farm or a solar array in my backyard, but I don’t want a nuclear plant in my neighborhood, again.

Funny story about nuclear power: I used to live in Japan, in Niigata-ken, which is in the north, sandwiched between the Japan Sea and the Honshu mountain range, home of the most expensive high-speed rail line in the world. My little apartment was in a small suburb near a large temple complex and public park. I lived right over a small convenience store, and out my back windows was an incredible stretch of rice paddies–truly I lived in “inaka.” I also lived less than 30 km from the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactor. About three months after I moved into that apartment, my doorbell rang, and I opened the door to an older man in a suit. He presented me with a formal envelope of very expensive paper. Bowing down, he rattled off what I think was an elaborately scripted apology, and then he departed. Inside the envelope was a letter and a check, made payable to me, in the amount of about $150 in yen.

My Japanese wasn’t very good, so I took the letter over to my boss’ house. He read it, nodded, and said, “Oh, yes, it’s your reactor money.” It turns out that everyone who lives within 50 km of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, and perhaps every nuclear reactor in Japan, receives a check to compensate them for the “inherent danger” of living so close to a nuclear reactor. If Kashiwazaki-Kariwa went Chernobyl in the middle of the night, I was as good as dead. My boss intimated that most people used the money to purchase additional life and property insurance. I, uh, bought a stereo and a really gorgeous meal at the only Indian restaurant in Niigata-ken. Live for today.

Since then, there has been a minor incident at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. An earthquake caused a minuscule amount of radioactive material to be flushed into the Japan Sea. Turns out Kashiwazaki isn’t Japanese for “Chernobyl.” All the same, I think I’ll pass.

The photo is of a mural in the church in Pripyat, Ukraine, within the “kill zone” of the Chernobyl reactor disaster. Formerly a town of 45,000 people, Pripyat is completely abandoned now. A few years back, some intrepid photographer ventured in through the security gates to photograph the truly frightening life-interrupted of a city that is uninhabitable, and will be for hundreds of years to come. The people who evacuated from Pripyat weren’t allowed to take any of their belongings with them, because everything in the city has been rendered lethally radioactive by the fallout from Chernobyl. No baby photos, no wedding china, no heirloom quilts. Nothing. They’re all memento mori now. Just like Jesus, smiling benevolently down from that dome, all the beauty of a silent Armageddon spread out in the streets around him.

More than seven million people are eligible to receive assistance as “Chernobyl victims.” Seven million people who have been victimized on a cellular level, people whose very DNA has been poisoned.

I think I’ll keep walking, turning off the lights, writing to my elected representatives to demand safe alternative fuel sources, and setting my thermostat at 85 in the summer and 65 in the winter. It’s not perfectly comfortable, but at least it’s not leaking roentgens into my body.

*My modest Methodist grandmother would turn over in her grave to hear her habit of leaving every light in the house on described as “decadent.”

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