The Slow Train to Anywhere

Twice in my life I’ve ridden Amtrak. It’s an experience I hope to never repeat now that I’ve actually repeated it.

The first train I rode was the train they call the City of New Orleans on a trip to New Orleans. New Orleans was great and very much worth the trip. The train they call the City of New Orleans was not. It was slow and at some point stopped completely after it hit a truck or a truck hit it or the driver went on strike or something. The only good thing was that I was traveling with my then girlfriend (a relationship that would not end so well) and I got to read a lot.

I tried to enjoy the scenery at times, but since the train moved slowly before it stopped, I got tired of staring at the same tree.

The next time I rode Amtrak I got suckered by low prices. I decided to go visit some Peace Corps friends of mine in Vermont and New York City. After careful research, I discovered that, because of a price special, a train ticket to New York was cheaper than a plane ticket to New York.

Forgetting my past experience, I bought the ticket and hopped the train to Chicago, at 2 a.m. or something like that, from an ill-kempt station in Memphis that reminded me of my one train trip in Albania. Several hours after I started I finally arrived in Chicago. Along the way I made friends/temporary travel companions with a Swedish lass (Svensk tjej?) named Marie who remained a long time pen pal, even after I moved to Japan.

I then took the next leg from Chicago to New York which involved a brief stay in either Purgatory or Buffalo, I’m still not sure which. At some point I arrived in New York, saw my friend there and then took a bus to Vermont to see my other friend. Eventually I ended up back on the train and ended up back in Memphis.

It’s no exaggeration to say I could have got to Tokyo and back in the time it took me to get to New York and back on the train. And I’d at least have been able to watch a movie.

The lesson learned from all this was that when the song says “I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done” it actually means “I’ll have abandoned the 19th century toy and hopped on an airplane”.

Enjoy the ride.

Me One Me Happy One Me Seventh Wheel

I had the unusual experience of being a lowly fifth level black belt in a group of experts today.

In addition to my sensei (an 8th dan) and the assistant teacher (a 6th dan) we were joined by an extra 8th dan and three extra sixth dans. They were all visiting our dojo/gym to practice for tournament that’s taking place in two weeks. Since it’s for sixth dans and higher I’m not invited which means I was at practice today to, well, pretty much take up space.

I mostly practiced basic moves and katas and then played practice dummy for one of the sixth dans. Basically I got to hold a sword vertically in front of him as if I were a killer taking time to explain that my victim should be honored to be split in two with an original Hattori Hanzo sword that is so sharp God will be cut. While I’m talking the defender does a couple simple moves with his arms that block me from cutting him. He pushes me back and then pretty much avoids my next three swings with different techniques. The entire sequence ends with me at his mercy.

I got to try the sequence a few times and did okay, although was making some small mistakes. The temptation is to push with your arms but the trick is to push from your stomach and legs. We are instructed to make life as difficult as possible for the defender. When he forgot to use his right hand to control my arms, I stepped left and showed him I could elbow his face and then remove his head or a good portion of his internal organs. When I tried using my arms to push, he stood fast and didn’t go anywhere.

Later, I got to watch the high level experts practice. They were doing one defender versus two swordsmen routines. The only rules are you have to do at least five moves and can’t repeat a defensive technique; you have to be aware of both attackers at the same time because they can slash you if they have a chance; and the attackers can’t help you by pretending you pulled them down. If one of the sensei’s thinks you’re just faking, they will replace you and see if the defender can still do the techniques.

it was interesting to watch. The problem is they make it look easy.

 

The Escalation of Pointy Stabby Things

Today I managed to sell more knives than I bought, even though I was very close to buying a couple.

Today was the Japan Knife Guild annual show. As has become tradition/habit/syndrome, I met my Canadian friend and we spent time roaming around the show. It was one of the best shows we’ve attended and we guess that 85% of the tables had something that made us pause and think rather seriously about finances and financing.

Before we started roaming around, though, I sold him four knives I no longer wanted. I’ve sold him other knives, too, which kind of makes me his dealer. (More on that later.)

One of the things about collecting knives (well, anything actually) is the way your interests change and escalate. You start off with a couple cheap knives and mock anyone who spends more than $50 on a knife. You tell yourself the $10 knife you have does everything you need and it couldn’t do more if it cost more.

Then you see a $60 knife you like and buy it. You tell yourself the knife has everything you need and the money you spent is worth it. And, hey, the better steel actually holds an edge longer than your $10 knife. The crazy people are those who spend more than $100 dollars on a knife.

However, every time you break a $50 dollar mark, it resets you to the next highest $50 mark. This means that, all of a sudden, $100 doesn’t seem that unreasonable because it lets you try better steels and handle materials. This continues to escalate until you’re looking at $1,200 custom flippers made from Damascus steel, Zirconium and Timascus and thinking “Well, it’s only $100  more than the last one I bought so that’s not too bad.”

The problem is, at that point, knives cease to be tools and become jewelry. Are you going to cut apart a cardboard box with your $1,200 handmade knife or your $50 mass-produced one? Are you really going to take a $1,200 knife camping or hunting even if it’s called the XYZ Hunter Flipper? I admire you if you do, but I doubt you will.

In my case, my purchases didn’t escalate that far, although they did escalate. As I’ve said before, as a form of tithing, I decided to buy knives from small makers, some of them just starting out in the business. This drove up the price substantially. I also, however, acquired some used from small makers I admire.

My most expensive knife, for the record, also included a stake in the company. (Disclosure: I don’t get dividends from all sales, only from sales of limited edition knives I choose not to buy. I also have the option to sell the stake, which is represented by the first limited edition knife.)

As for my friend, he also ended up not buying anything, although he plans to order one for his father. The only thing he bought was my four unwanted knives.

This purchase surprised me, though, because after buying a good quality fixed blade knife a couple shows ago, he swore off cheap knives, or as he calls them “crap knives” and has decided to focus on high quality makers.

Luckily for him, I also happen to have a couple of those around.

Don’t Report the Crime if You Don’t Have the Time

When I was in Albania I got to take part in the investigation of my own mugging.

All I really wanted was my money reimbursed.

Some time during my second year in Albania I got offered a free ride to Skopje, the capital city of the (Former Yugoslav) Republic of Macedonia. I’ve probably written in down somewhere, but I can’t remember the names of the people I traveled with. He was somehow involved in the development community and she was his translator or employee (to this day I still don’t understand the relationship). They gave me a tour of some interesting sites and then told me how to get a bus back to Albania.

The bus arrived in Tirana after dark and I proceeded to the Hotel Arberia, which was my home away from home. About half way between the bus and the hotel, a man I’d seen lurking near the bus approached me from the front, at the same time his accomplice tried to grab my bags.  I was carrying a book bag and a small carpetbag. I locked my arms together and held on to both bags whilst having my arms and shoulders kicked. Since they’d seen me get off an international bus, they knew I had a US passport and were hoping for a quick store (which is why no knives were involved.) Luckily, it was winter and I was wearing a heavy coat that absorbed most of the kicks.

In the end all they got was my decoy fanny pack–which I carried for moments like this–and some cash that I’d lazily stuck in the decoy.

To get the cash reimbursed from the Peace Corps I had to fill out an official police report. Unfortunately, the person I was supposed to meet was on either a vacation or a honeymoon and I got the wrong person.

Important tip: when dealing with a bureaucracy, never get the wrong person.

This complicated things. The other complicating factor was one of the policeman who’d interviewed me had seen one of the muggers on the street before he mugged me. I was then invited to a late night investigation/man hunt which involved walking with the police and saying “not him” “not him” “not him” and going into bars to check out the patrons.

I kept mumbling that I didn’t want justice; I just wanted my cash back.

In the end, I had to go back to the police station where I eventually found the right person and I got my money reimbursed. The police never found the perpetrator and I never saw him again.

The only catch was, a month later I got a note from the police saying I had to be present at a hearing and if I wasn’t present I could go to jail. The hearing had taken place three days before I received the note. A few phone calls later and everything was cleared up.

Or there’s still warrant for my arrest in Albania.

History in Bytes of Bites

I think, when the issue is carefully considered, that selfies and lunch portraits make more sense than paper diaries.

A picture of the squid you ate for lunch with the caption “GIANT SQUID!” doesn’t seem all that different to me than recording what you ate in a diary. “Ate squid for lunch. Delicious. Texture of slimy leather.”  The main difference is time. Tweeting a picture of your drink next to your face is much faster than writing “I had a Pina Colada at Trader Vics. My hair was perfect.” (The photo is also less cliche and easier to understand than my handwriting.)

Similarly, a picture of your bloated, red-eyed, tear stained face with the phrase “Life after bitch” is much more effective than endless whinging about your break up and about how she didn’t appreciate you and “What does she see in that p&#@k anyway! I mean, besides a good job and lots of money and perfect hair and great fashion sense and his own private jet what’s he got that I haven’t got? I mean, like what’s a private apartment in Paris when you’ve got my wit and, well, my wit?” (Oh, like you’ve never been dumped for someone like that before.)

Granted, part of the problem with electronic files and storage is that the formats are always changing. I’ve spent many hours moving files from one format to another and making and storing various back ups. (I also now have no way to read old floppy discs.) If we can’t find a way to extract the old data, we lose large pieces of history, but I’m sure some enterprising soul is already working on that problem.

Selfies and photos of your lunch and photos of the jerk on the train and of the great sunset, when taken together, are a terrific record of a life. Even better, they’ve got color and expression.

Now if I just had a better filing system for it all.

 

Rites of Passage at a Self Service Station

A few years ago, I watched She Who Must Be Obeyed and father in-law pump gas for the first time in their lives.

It was fascinating, and vaguely familiar, to watch as they figured out how to choose the flavor of gas they wanted and pre-pay and then get stuck on what to do next.

Eventually I had to get out and help them.

Until recently, all Japanese gas stations have been full service in a 1950s sense. As you pulled into the station, an attendant would direct you to an open pump and then an entire team of attendants would descend on your car. They would wash the windows, check the air in the tires and, give you a towel so you could wipe the inside of the windows. If you didn’t smoke, they would give you air freshener beads to put in your ash tray. When they were finished and you’d paid, one of the attendants would block traffic so you could get going again.

However, a number of oil shocks eventually caused some gas stations to experiment with self-service so they could eliminate overhead. This was such a big deal it made national news. Now that people have figured out how easy it is to pump your own gas, the call of the lower prices has slowly driven out the full-service stations. There are still a few, but they have a lot of competition.

By contrast, when I was in the USA, I only went to a full-service pump once, and I only did that because I was in a hurry and it was the only pump open. I was met by an attendant who was one part bored and one part shocked that anyone had actually come to use the pump. He washed my windows and he may have checked the oil but that was pretty much it.

Lately, Japan has also discovered self-checkout lanes at large grocery stores, although it’s still at the phase where a nearby attendant is needed to deal with any issues.

So Cute You Want to Slap It

No one does cute as well as the Japanese.

This is mainly because no one else thinks the idea of “cuteness” is as important as the Japanese do. European clothing comes in two basic colors “dark” and “not as dark” as Europeans try to appear sophisticated and/or imagine they are invisible in dark alleys. In the USA we’re running through our collections of university sweatshirts and beer brand t-shirts because we got suckered into going to college for degrees in Antarctic Poetry and Elvis Studies. (Oh, like you didn’t consider those.)

In Japan, though, cuteness is a martial art. Only Japan could make a perfect family movie like Totoro, which has a cute monster and no villain and yet still manages to have tension. Even the dust balls are cute in Totoro.

Also, only someone from Japan would have this conversation:
A-san: I’m sick of all the doom and gloom in heavy metal.
B-san: Me too. It makes me so depressed I got another skull tattoo. But what should we do?
A-san: Let’s take a heavy metal band and front it with cute teenaged Gothic lolitas
B-san: What would they sing about?
A-san: Chocolate.

The result is the annoyingly cute Babymetal. (And they actually do have a song about chocolate.)

What strikes me about Babymetal is that it’s a concept that couldn’t work if the girls were from the West. We would be more prone to turn them into Cherie Currie or dress them in European black to show how they are serious musicians. They’d only dress like Gothic lolitas to be ironic.

Even when the Japanese try to dress gothic and dark, they’re still pretty cute:

She will eat heart, adorably.

She will eat your heart, adorably. Then she’ll go to math class.

This propensity for cuteness for cuteness’ sake effects even the all-boys school where I work. Last year one of my biggest troublemakers went for the shirt untucked, loose tie, loose trousers look. He even attempted a greaser pompadour. The effect, though, was ruined (from a Western perspective) by the chain full of cute stuffed animals he carried around with him.

I’ve seen another boy with a similar look but with Dragon Ball hair. He had a Hello Kitty doll hanging off his belt.

 

 

 

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here But Be Ready For Work

Today’s post is brought to you by the letters T and D and by the number 19.

T is for Typhoon:
If you’re keeping score, this is the second typhoon in a week and the 19th of the season and, just for fun, it’s more powerful than last week’s typhoon. Also, for the record, Number 19 sounds scarier than the official name: “Vongfong“. (It’s the difference between a ski run called “Death’s Door” and one called Number 2. Think about it.)

The frequency and lethality of the storms has prompted the Japanese press to dub them “Suzumebachi Typhoons” or “Japanese Giant Hornet Typhoons.” The Japanese Giant Hornet is a particularly nasty beast that seems to be an unholy hybrid of hornet, bird, and demon that feeds on human corpses. (Something like that.) They also tend to attack in swarms.

D is for Dilemma:
It currently appears as if the worst part of Typhoon 19 will pass North of us, but we’ll get a lot of wind and rain. This brings about a dilemma.

One of the problems with mandatory schooling is that the people who force others to be there don’t go there; the people forced to be there don’t want to be there; and the people paid to be there like neither the people forced to be there nor the people forcing them to be there and want to somehow to get paid for not being there. Anyone paid to be there who actually wants to be there when they don’t have to be there is either weird or an a$$hole.

On the other hand, every now and then a perfect storm (sigh, yes, I know, but you’ll see) of factors combine to show the people paid to be there that it might be better if they actually go there.

In my case, last week I assigned a big project to my high school third years and they are supposed to present it tomorrow. If they don’t, it messes up the final project in a term in which they’ve already got few classes and I’ve had to cut some of my regular material. It’s actually in the best interest of my sanity that I actually go to work tomorrow. (Weird or A$$hole? You be the judge.)

Also, if school is cancelled, the terms of my contract require me to produce some kind of “material” or “evidence of work” or I lose a day of paid holiday. This is easier than actually going to work but it also means that our oldest and our youngest will also be home which means sister fights and oldest vs She Who Must Be Obeyed But Teenage Daughters Think They Are Exempted fights.

That said, I’m always happy to work from home. I just hope everyone stays safe.

Idle Hands Are the Devil’s Remote Control

Back when I was single, in the middle of winter, I used to watch crap television simply because it was in English.

Not only would I watch the crap television but with a little help from Japanese TV scheduling, I invented binge watching.

First you have to understand the pull English language television has, especially if you’ve just come from Albania where all TV shows were in either Albanian or Italian and included such gems as Disco Club Albania, where every week couples danced to “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” as part of a contest that never seemed to be resolved, and Detective Extralarge, which is, well, a show with Philip Michael Thomas  that exists that was made. (And you have to keep reminding yourself, as you watch it, that you are awake and not in a nightmare.)

The effect of this is so powerful that on a trip to London after several months in Albania, my friend and I almost missed new years because were mesmerized by CNN news and the pilot of Melrose Place, which remains one of the worst hours of television I’ve ever survived.

But it was in English.

Then, when I got to Japan, in the middle of winter I found myself bored and one of the devils over my shoulders made me reach for the remote. I stumbled across a Beverly Hills 90210 marathon on one of the cable channels. I watched it pretty much straight through, with a couple hours sleep mixed in. This is when I invented binge watching. I would continue that tradition through pretty much the bulk of the series. It was a terrible train wreck of a show, but not quite the point where it was classic and campy.

But it was in English.

Since then I’ve gone through fits of binge watching. I tried watching The Walking Dead (summary: boring, soap opera, boring personal issues, boring, HOLY CRAP ZOMBIES. Insides are now outsides. SHE”S EATING HIS STOMACH! Boring, soap opera. Repeat.) I gave up on that.

Recently, I watched all the episodes of Inspector Morse (which inspired me to my latest big writing project) and most of the episodes of Waking the Dead, a British CSI that had a few great episodes but was generally loud and annoying and I ended up skipping to the end after a while.

But it was in English.

A World of Choices With Five Bubbles

When I was in Albania I decided I wasn’t in enough debt so I decided to study for a Ph.D. when I finished my Peace Corps service.

To do this I had the interesting joy of applying to graduate school from a developing country with a dodgy mail system. My mad plan, and some day I’ll go into full detail about how mad it was, involved getting a “regular” Ph.D. in a school with a strong creative writing program.

Somehow I managed to acquire applications and the money to pay for applying (see first paragraph about debt) and ended up applying to the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) which had a good creative writing program that included the late, great Barry Hannah, a connection to William Faulkner and John Grisham’s plantation. To do this, though, I had to take both the ordinary GRE and the subject specific Literature in English GRE.

Luckily, one of the books I received from Norton Publishing was a college algebra book. I was therefore able to what I’d been unable to do at university: learn math above the basic level. This helped me do well on the ordinary GRE.

The Literature in English test was more difficult because it tested both breadth and depth of knowledge. Also, incorrect answers actually counted against my correct answers. At times it was better to not answer a question than to risk getting it wrong. It also tested both breadth and depth of knowledge. Luckily, I had an entire library from Norton to help me review.

Unfortunately, because I was in Albania, I had to take both tests on the same day. Since, at the time, both tests were about three hours long, I spent a long time in a chair filling in bubbles.

I ended up doing surprisingly well on the GRE, even in the math section, and did pretty well on the Literature in English. Luckily, I happened to be familiar with a couple of the works in the analysis section. I did worse in the part that had poetry conventions. “Is the following an example of iambic pentameter, sprung rhythm or boogie woogie do wop?” (Something like that. My choice, for the record, was F for “Who f@#king cares?” which means I didn’t answer it.)

At the end of the day, the entire world had five bubbles next to it and I found it difficult to answer a question without being tempted to choose D All of the Above or E None of the Above.

In the end I managed to pass both tests and was accepted to Ole Miss which was an interesting time of the kind you curse your enemies with.