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Going Inswine

Making the approach down the brick path from the parking lot, the new configuration was barely discernible.

Positioned as it was to the left, just inside the glassed doors, the table might have been visible, but for someone who had been away for ten days, its nature and meaning were difficult to decipher.

And even as I reached to pull the handle on the door that would provide entry into my office building, the bottle positioned dead center atop the formica seemed an alien object: a sphere for speculation, a privileged marker, an icon of mystical knowledge.

An outsider, a newcomer -- hey, even an absent insider like me -- might have legitimately wondered: "what is this noise?"

Once inside, I veered a bit to the left toward the makeshift altar, to better apprehend just what was at hand. Just what precisely was this relic?

If it wasn't clear enough from the container of rubbing alcohol, or the greasy spots dappling the glossy table surface that it sat on, the crisply worded message just beneath the spigot drove the purpose and point home:

My bosses telling their employees: let's help eradicate the spread of Influenza. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated.

Of course, for me – just off the plane at Narita – and even to you – who have followed the international news – such reactions shouldn’t come as any major surprise. The Japanese response to H1N1 influenza – more commonly known as “swine flu” – has been off the charts. Not only rubbing alcohol receptacles in the alcoves at work, but masked medical technicians at ports of entry, boarding arriving airplanes from Canada, the United States and, of course, Mexico. Two women and one man buried in blue smocks hugging clip boards to their chests, surveying every seated passenger prior to deplaning. Searching for any random indicator of cough, runny nose, or feverish face. And, if so, straight into quarantine with you.

According to latest statistics, Japan has had 399 cases of H1N1. Not quite an epidemic, but nothing -- ahem -- to sneeze at. And therefore the on-going precautions. After the plane check, there is a battalion of intake officials, also masked, seated behind glass enclosures with perfunctory questions about symptoms and ready with hand-outs describing what to do in case signs of infection crop up.

And back at home, which is to say at my place of work, there has certainly been no laxity. Just to travel to the U.S. I had to secure special authorization bordering on a gyrating succession of genuflecting "pretty please, with sugar on top"s. Justificatory appeal to my bosses that my absence overseas would be a great detriment to someone (beyond myself), followed by an exacting case review. And, once approval was secured, and the trip completed, it would be necessary to assent to self-imposed house arrest. Thus, for ten days after return would I have to monitor my temperature -- thrice daily – and tick off a list of symptoms yeah or nay: scratchy throat, sniffles, cough, headache, fever, sore joints. Unfortunately, boredom was not a part of that required litany.

But, unfortunately, a promise not to venture into public unnecessarily was also a part of the deal. Just precautionary, I understand, but beyond a personal irritant and minor hardship, imagine such strictures being multiplied across the society of business travelers: a rather big crimp in productivity, sociality, and commerce that the country is forcing itself to absorb.

No one can really be faulted, I suppose. Blocking reception of a virus that might lead to death of a valued employee (which one hopes lies behind the counter-measures), or else obstructing transmission of said virus to weaker others, who might possibly be harmed, are certainly laudable objectives. Especially since this particular employee works at a university and a large proportion of that population is comprised of those who just happen to fall into the age range most susceptible to the contagion. So, no real complaints here.

Still, it is hard for the social analyst to ignore the bureaucratically-imposed paranoia that has swelled with the public appearance of the disease; the fevered obsession with impending viral doom conjured by the ubiquitous masked health officials boarding our planes at Narita, and the masked intake officers at immigration control, and the emailed Excel files mandating that we chart our temperature for ten days, and the alcohol spritzes in the lobby at work -- all these very public attempts to demonstrate the country's commitment to stop the spread of H1N1, confronting us at every turn.

What with all that, who could blame me for hearing strains of that old Steely Dan tune? You know the one? Where Donald Fagin pronounces:

Yes, I`m going inswine

And I`m laughing through the frozen wine

And I`m so alone

Honey, when can I escape my home?

Oh, well, maybe that isn't quite right. Maybe Fagen's words were slightly, somehow, pitched just a little different . . .

But still, that about sums up my last few days back in Japan: me, after all, having been banished to my home: confined in my perfect, hermetic, isolation. Stewing in my own germs (and no one else's). Hearing voices that only belong to me . . .

Slowly, inexorably, for a few days more . . . going inswine.

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