Monday, December 6, 2010

The Bat and The Bear: The Bear

Yes, the Bear hibernates. You saw that coming from across the Pacific.  All I’m doing in this post is defining “hibernation.” My version makes me friendless and fat.

This was a month ago, when the cold was just playing
When it is so cold within my home that I can see my own breath, I have the option of turning on the heating unit and paying about 100 dollars to warm a one-room apartment. Though this method may feel worthwhile at the time when I’m all the way over in my kitchen, cleaning, it rarely feels very efficient to hand over such a huge chunk of my change to the electric company every month. The sun seems to be in hibernation mode as well, given that it is in hiding by 5 p.m.  Not only does this mean a colder life for us in the Northern Hemisphere, it makes me feel like I shouldn’t be awake. I start yawning at 3:45, looking forward to the time when I can go home and settle in a cave of blankets.
Even an hour-long bus ride was okay if the sun was shining.
Naturally the solution to both the heating bill and the long night is to sleep. It’s the only time when I can’t feel the cold. During my first Japanese winter I was sleeping on a futon on the freezing floor. I had set the kotatsu (the heated coffee table) over it, placed an extra comforter at the foot to trap the heat, another to pull over my head, and had an electric foot-warmer tucked in the bottom. The rest of my apartment was usually unbearably cold. My routine became the following: (1) Come home from work. (2) Shed materials and clothes. (3) Pull on sweat pants if not already wearing knit tights. (4) Wriggle backwards under the kotatsu and pull computer within reach. (5) Stay there until I had to a) leave for an evening class or b) I fell asleep. On my free evenings, Tuesdays and Fridays, I usually could be found asleep by 8 or 9 p.m. The only things that changed the 2nd winter were that I had a bed (on which I’d placed the foot-warmer, comforters and an electric blanket) and my rabbit had chewed up the kotatsu cord. I slept a lot.
See how relaxed, happy, and double-chinned I am? Bear: Early stages.

Given that my bed was the always the warmest place in the house, I’d usually eat my meals there. Cooking involved being the farthest distance from the heat, shivering and chapping my hands with frequent washing. It was far easier to buy frozen foods or things that come in convenient portion-sized packages, like cookies. Then I could eat while lying down and freeze my fingers only during that short trip from a blanket-covered snack food bag to my mouth.
That day when I took the wrong bus and alit in Lordy Knows Where
If I wasn’t eating at home then I could be found ordering the most calorie-packed items on the menus of various restaurants. Katsudon—a breaded pork cutlet on a bowl of rice topped with egg, onions, and a special sauce—has just as many calories per serving as the worst foods I consumed in the states. It’s my winter standby here. The warmth of the food and fullness in my belly made my bones feel a little less frozen and comforted me on the walk home.

It rained on me a little, and my extremities were freezing.
I think we all have a little bit of the winter Bear in us. We use the cold weather and holidays as an excuse to eat hot, filling foods, then we go to sleep and don't exercise. Unlike the bear, we don’t fill our bellies and then go to sleep for a few months. There’s no time to let our bodies use all those calories (not advocating binge-eating and anorexia, by the way). No, we repeat this eat-sleep cycle every day, packing on more and more fat cells because some basic instinct tells us that we’re going to need it when the sun has set. Wonder why we never seem to keep New Year’s resolutions about losing weight? I blame the winter.

It was a beautiful walk nonetheless. And then I remembered the real bears.
The Bear is not skilled at multitasking. The Bear lives for immediate priorities and comforts, but with the vague, uneasy sense that there are other things to be done. I’ve been studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). That period consisted of six or seven-hour sessions at the local Mr. Donut because it’s the only place to study and drink coffee that’s open after 7. On weekends I could be found at a Starbucks in Kyoto, usually spending between seven and ten hours eating carbohydrate-laden foods and drinking fattening drinks. I kept forgetting to ask for soy; sue me.
These leaves are mostly gone now. 
If not holed up at a coffee shop with an equally disgruntled study buddy, I was cocooned in my blankets at home. If I had prepare for scheel then I would slide from my bed to the heated pad on my floor, shove all of my body under the kotatsu that would fit without lying down, and wrap my upper body in blankets. My immediate priorities were staying warm, passing the JLPT, getting the ALT Team Teaching Seminar over and done with and not sucking at my job. I won’t find out if I succeeded at my second goal until March, but the others were taken care of. The downside was that everything else that is important, like staying in touch with friends and family, got shoved to the back burner. I apologize, friends and family to whom I never responded. I got your emails and letters, and I read them and felt good, but I was deep in Bear mode.
My favorite part: SNEAK

Just click on it.

Bears may not be completely solitary, but they nevertheless regard social obligations as irritating and exhausting. A Bear will complain about the best friend’s birthday party he “has to” attend. He will tell you later that he had a splendid time, but thinks energy he expended on getting out of bed and being congenial merits him at least four subsequent days of not talking to anyone. A Bear will stop attending an activity that she usually loves during winter. If asked why, an honest Bear will tell you she’s just too cold to leave the house, and that interacting with people is just too draining. All that smiling she has to do, you know.

The combination of ignoring anything but face-to-face contact and shirking of social events makes Bears unpopular. We appear self-absorbed and uncaring; the blunt reality is that we can’t think anywhere past what is happening now or what we can’t avoid. I’m writing this on an empty stomach, because even though I was awake early enough to Skype with my sister and eat breakfast, and didn’t think far enough ahead to remember that I’d need to bring my own lunch today. I can barely concentrate on finishing this post before catching the 3:11 bus home (the earliest one I could take) because my brain is occupied with planning what to shove in my maw once I get home. That, and wondering how early I can get to sleep tonight without waking up at five o’clock tomorrow morning.
A rare moment of fun: watching my friend Tamon's taiko group.
Speaking of bears, there had been some real bears venturing out of the mountains all over Japan. Most elementary students walk to school—some have up to a 30-minute trek—so they’re all wearing school-issued jingle bells on their backpacks. There’s nothing more off-putting to a bear than an adorable child in a yellow hat with a matching backpack that sounds like a Christmas song.


  1. It sounds suspiciously like you think you're the only Bear on the planet.

  2. I don't think any such thing, as evidenced by my use of the third person singular and the first person plural within the body of this post. Schooled.