When you live on the fifth floor of a building without an elevator, you spend a lot of time considering the relative merits of going anywhere, even if anywhere is just across the street. There’s a mental calculus that your reptilian brain begins performing, almost without you realizing it, that underlies a complex cost-benefit analysis.

Like every equation, this one has several quantities that factor in without variation. In my case, these are three: 1) Five floors down means five floors up. 2) You’ll have to put on your boots and lace them up when you get to the bottom, then take them off again when you come back inside. 3) You don’t have a car. These elements, unfortunately, are not variable. They are mathematical constants.

On the other side of the equation are the variable quantities. It’s snowing out there right now. This changes the math. The supermarket’s eight blocks away. Another factor to weigh. You have to eat.

Often, this process happens in the background without me being fully aware if it, and I later find myself second-guessing my reptile brain’s math skills – while on a bicycle in white-out conditions, for example, with a six-pack of beer under my arm. As a result, I tend to consciously err on the side of caution.

Lately, trash has been piling up in my kitchen up here on floor number five. Correction: I should say the recycling has been piling up. Technically, there’s no such thing as trash in Japan, just as there’s really no such thing as trash cans. Anywhere. Certainly not in public places. They don’t even use the word trash. It’s all recycling, you see. Remember the kanji-covered logarithmic table at my other apartment I posted in the kitchen to help me remember what kind of recycling went in which kind of bags and on what days of the month they had to be taken to the pickup site? Everybody here deals with that. Plastic, aluminum, metals other than aluminum, glass, plastic bottles, inflammables, incombustibles (different from inflammables, apparently), cardboard cartons, plastic bags … all of it goes into different disposable packaging. And all of it hits the street on different days.

“Days,” again, is probably the wrong term. “Mornings” is more accurate. You’re not allowed to put this stuff out the night before, oh no. You’ve got to slog it out there at the crack of dawn before pickup, which usually happens no later than 7:30 am. If, hypothetically speaking, you’re not the type who rises before 7:30 am except in the event of natural disasters and house fires, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise in Japan.

The recycling has been piling up in my kitchen for this very reason. Not only am I rarely up at such an hour, I also don’t have a logarithmic recycling table for my block of Fukui, so I have no idea what crap needs to go out in what bags on what days. By default, it’s all been stuffed into white plastic supermarket bags – though this is frowned on by neighbors if they catch you doing it; I even had recycling returned to my previous house by “helpful” neighbors because I’d set it out in the wrong bags. What this means is that at present I’ve got approximately 15 grocery bags taking up most of my kitchen, each one stuffed full of cans or bottles or milk jugs or cardboard cartons or incombustibles, whatever those are (I sure hope it includes dead batteries and dirty cooking oil).

For reasons inexplicable to me, I was awake this morning at 7:15 am. I decided to go with it, maybe get some work done. I scratched, got dressed, and put on a pot of coffee. Then, on the way to the bathroom, I happened to glance out the window along the street between my building and the castle ruins a block away, and what I saw set my reptile brain scrambling for the abacus. There on the street below, fully three-quarters of a block away at the recycling pickup spot, was a sizable pile of bags of … something. Obviously it was pickup day. And here it was, now 7:25 in the morning. What was in those bags? From that distance, they were only fat white shapes in a pile. I squinted, but I couldn’t make out any detail. Was it glass? Non-aluminum metals? Cardboard? The mysterious incombustibles? Impossible to tell.

I was faced with a difficult decision. Either I could race down five flights of stairs, coffeeless – there was no time – put on my shoes, brave the traffic by jaywalking (another big no-no in Japan) against the interminable pedestrian crossing light, get a gander of what was in those bags, then race back to the building, remove my shoes, climb five flights of stairs, grab as many bags as I could of whatever I’d seen in the bags on the street … and then repeat the whole process again at a sprint, but this time carrying two handfuls of stinky, leaky supermarket bags.

Or I could say fuck it.

I don’t need to tell you which of these two alternatives my reptile brain was leaning toward. The math brooked no argument.

Suddenly, I was struck by inspiration. Ever since I bought my new camera three weeks ago, I’ve been liking it more and more. I can fiddle with the aperture settings, change the shutter speed and get creative with the white balance. But by far my favorite of this camera’s features is the 12X optical zoom. Within seconds I had it powered up and aimed at the pile a block away. I throttled the zoom, and together we raced through my window, down five floors and across the street, to the very limits of its range. The auto focus trembled and wavered, then found its footing. Aluminum cans! And cardboard! So close I could almost touch them! Jackpot!

I kissed my camera and set it gently on my futon, then grabbed three bags of aluminum cans in each hand (not all mine, thank you – my Canadian friend Joel goes through watery Japanese beers like there’s no tomorrow), tucked a stack of cardboard under one arm and dashed for the stairs.

I’ve decided to start waking up early regularly now. If I can harness this kind of creativity every morning, a book manuscript is well within sight. I also expect to have a lot more standing space in my kitchen area shortly. With the help of my handy zoom lens and a calendar, I should soon have a complete recycling pickup schedule, one I can write down in plain English. My only worry: will I recognize incombustibles when I see them?

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