Something Here and Something Gone
But there have been other signs, clearer and more terrifying: The new, towering shelf that appeared in my grocery store a few weeks back, stocked full of medications. The timely commercials on TV offering false promises of hope. And then, the masks. Everywhere I turn--inside buildings and on the streets--I see faceless people, their noses and mouths hidden by surgical masks. Do you remember the street scenes that appeared on TV during the SARS outbreak? It kind of looks like that in Tokyo every Spring, but with a lot less tension. What's going on? Hay fever.
Every year, a growing number of people (right now, it's one in five) in Japan suffer, unable to breathe, sleep, or function properly, for three to four months--MONTHS!--because of the pollen blowing into towns from the millions of cedar trees planted around the country. You'd think that with such a long-occurring and ever-worsening reaction they'd stop planting that particular species of tree. Nope. They just keep on planting 'em. Oh, wait, I believe 200 non-pollen-producing saplings were grown this year--yay, I'll be able to enjoy the fruits of that little experiment by the time I'm 270, give or take a few decades.
Whoa, do I sound bitter. Well, people, I am. Sure, it sucks that I'd never been allergic to anything for 24 years until I breathed one fine Spring day in Japan. Yeah, its worrisome to be popping enough pills that it would probably take weeks to get all these chemicals out of my system. Of course it's annoying on those days when my nose just won't stop running and I have to cram a big roll of toilet paper in my bag when I go out (and let's not dismiss the sheer embarrassment of having to blow one's nose in public when doing so produces a noise startlingly similar to some of the dinosaur screeches in Jurassic Park, with Dolby Surround). But what really tops the sundae, what really bothers me is that it's hard right now to enjoy food.
Of course, there is the physical discomfort. When you can't breathe through your nose, you walk around gaping like a goldfish, and you're pretty much forced to stop breathing each time you sip, chew, or swallow. There are days, eating leaves me gasping for air.
But worse than this is the loss of sensory pleasure. It's an interesting experience: to yearn for a cup of tea at the very moment that you're sipping it. To push away a piece of chocolate cake because it may as well be a dish sponge.
I also miss those olfactory moments right before I taste something. When I wrap my hands around a cup of tea, lean my face into the fragrant steam, and inhale deeply as I take that first sip. Or, when I'm peeling an orange, and each time I dig my nail into a strip of skin, there is that little burst of citrus mist, and I feel my mouth watering in anticipation of the bright, sharp flavor.
It's not like everything I put in my mouth tastes like sawdust; its more like everything I taste is coated in sawdust. The flavors are muffled. An orange will taste mildly sweet, but nothing beyond that and the texture help me distinguish it from any other juicy, mildly sweet food. I've taken to drinking hot water in the morning, since anything else would be a waste of money.
Thank goodness not every day is equally bad. And supposedly, I should have my nose back in working order by the end of May. Also, I try to shame myself into not fussing by recalling a former colleague who, one day, after 30 years of enjoying chocolate, cake, and ice cream, suddenly became allergic to sugar. How sad is that? And not even a scapegoat in the form of the Japanese government upon which she could unleash her anger--actually, she seemed to handle it pretty well, although I think she was just trying to put up a brave front while the rest of us were stuffing our faces with the requisite Blackout Cake that accompanied anyone's birthday at the office (O, those were the days). I always ate an extra piece for her.