Christmas Can Wait for Karma and Attitude

Today I started to go Christmas shopping, but the the Japanese train system wouldn’t let me. Then a couple eye rolls from a teenaged girl made me reconsider Christmas all together.

I think that’s called karma.

My plan was to leave the house at 9:30 and go shopping for the bigger ticket items and then sneak them back in the house. However, our oldest was feeling under the weather (thanks to a headache) and it was decided she should stay at home to rest. (Not decided by me, I should add.) Despite this, my trip to Tokyo was cleared because although She Who Must Be Obeyed would be out in the morning, she’d be back by lunch.

I ended up leaving the house around 10 and heading to the station. As soon as I reached the station street, I knew there was a problem as lines of people were gathered in front of the station. A sign in front of the ticket gates explained there’d been an accident involving a person (suicide) and that the trains had stopped must 11 minutes before.

Having been through this before, I knew nothing would happen for at least an hour and a half. (After a suicide and/or accident, the police stop the trains until they can conclude an initial investigation and clean up some of the mess.)

I went home and thought about going out later and then decided that tomorrow would be better as everyone would be back in school and sneaking things in would be easier.

Then, during the evening, our oldest decided to have several “Teenager Moments” involving selective hearing, selective memory, stubbornness, denial attitude and eye rolls. As a result, her Christmas present may simply be the return of her Nintendo 3DS. As I like to point out to her, usually after an eye roll, if she thinks I’m annoying now, she has no concept of how annoying I can actually be when I want to. I even make sport out of it. Just ask my students.

If you’re keeping score: My leaving late caused me to delay departure which caused me to miss the last moving trains which caused me to delay the shopping trip which led eye rolls and attitude which is making me double check the naughty list and rethink the shopping trip altogether. That’s definitely karma.

Bah humbug.

Back to Back Atom to Atom

I’ve lived in Japan long enough to know that I was in trouble and about to suffer.

Although Japan has an excellent train system, when things go wrong they go wrong in a painful way. This morning, thanks to data delivered to my TV via the new terrestrial digital system, I saw that the train line I use every day was delayed but running. I was worried but hopeful because I wasn’t leaving right away.

As I approached the station, I could see the entire platform was packed with men and women in suits. If I’d been smart, I’d have called in sick right then and there, but instead I had a moment of grown up responsibility and decided it was best I go to work.

In the station, the crowd was organized into neat rows. One thing impressive about Japanese trains is when the door location is marked on the platform, you can be certain that’s where the train will stop. If the driver misses, he backs up until the train is in the right position.

Today, as the first train arrived, I could see it was already crowded but was impressed that half the people on the platform managed to fit on it. This is partly because the Japanese are so desperate to get to work that they want to get on the first train available, even if it’s already full. The second train was also crowded and the other half of the people managed to fit on it. I waited for the third train and was pleased I could see actual bare floor when the doors opened.

Unfortunately, it took 15 minutes to travel two stations (which usually takes five minutes) and when we arrived at the second station, half the population of the Earth (more or less) was waiting on the platform and most of them squeezed on my train.

If you’ve ever been in a concert crush or a football crush or gone shopping for the latest gizmo on Black Friday you can get some sense of what it was like in the train (minus asshole reporters looking for trouble). We weren’t shoulder to shoulder; were were pressed atom to atom. (Technically true so shut up Niel deGrasse Junior High.)

I ended up squeezed against several people and the entire time was happy I was tall, especially when I saw the top of the head of some poor woman caught in the middle of the crush. Eventually, I was forced onto one foot and could feel my leg and knee straining against the crush.

After 20 minutes of crush, I finally arrived at my station and then had to zig-zag and force my way through the people on the platform in order to get out.

I’ve probably caught something and I’ve clearly done something to my knee. And this wasn’t even all that bad. I’ve had worse train rides.


Rock Paper Scissors Hammer Helmet Pain

After you’ve been in Japan a while you discover, much to your surprise, that the game Rock, Paper, Scissors is a martial art and that you suck at it.

The Japanese even give it a name: Janken (pronounce like John Ken) which ranks it up there with Karate and Judo. In the West we merely describe the basic parts. If we did the same with Karate and Judo in the West, Karate would be “punch kick throw” and Judo would be “try to grab uniform, try to grab uniform, grab uniform, throw, argue with referee”. (Something like that.)

The basics are the same: rock beats scissors beats paper beats rock in that endless Mobius strip of winning and losing. The players start with a similar gesture, but whereas in the West we say something like “Rock, Paper, Scissors 1-2-3″ the Japanese have a chant that translates to “First we are stones.” Then they say “JohnKen pone” and throw rock, paper or scissors. Draws get another chant which translates to roughly “Looks like a tie!” with the new throw happening on “tie”.

At this point, however, once the basics are mastered, the martial art moves to the black belt level. On a one on one level, the Japanese add another move. The winner points at the loser and says “Look this way”. On “way”, the loser turns her head as the winner points left, right, up or down. If the loser looks the same way the winner points, it’s another loss.

From this point, the martial art moves on to the multiple black belt level with group “Janken”. The most I’ve ever seen play at once is 10 people. They form a circle and start playing and they are so good at they can figure out in moments who has lost. I tried it once, got yelled at for slowing down the process and just gave up. I was like “To hell with this. I don’t want the last cookie anyway.”

Finally, the Japanese add a bit of the old ultra-violence to the martial art (which is what makes it martial). In the most famous version, the winner tries to pick up a plastic hammer or paper tube and hit the loser whilst the loser attempts to pick up a helmet or bucket and cover his head. It looks something like this: (I suspect this was happening in either math or English class.)

I’ve learned a few tricks in my years in Japan and can hold my own, especially if I’m playing best three out of five, but I still avoid making any big decisions this way.


The Awful Very Bad No Good Crappy Day

No matter how you look at it, today was a crappy day. The best thing I can say about it is it could have been worse (in a loss of limb, loss of life sort of way).

Whatever happened, my crankiness level still would have been at 11.

The crappy day actually started last week at karate. I was hoping to move practice to Saturday (yesterday) so that I could attend the girls piano recital today. Instead, before I even got to ask the question, my sensei announced that Saturday would be a special practice for the higher level student (who is also taking a test) and that I wasn’t invited. To make matters worse, Sunday practice would have to be early because the athletics center was shutting down at 8:00.

This meant I couldn’t attend the piano performance and then rush to the station at the last minute as I’d planned to do. I either had to cancel the practice or skip the performance. With my test next week, I couldn’t skip the practice.

I told She Who Must Be Obeyed about this and she was not pleased as it meant she would be in charge of the cameras. The last time this happened, she failed (after a comedy of errors involving an unattended child and a dropped program) to get a video of our youngest’s rhythmic gymnastics performance. She was relying on me to run the video this time. I told her I couldn’t go and she went “Hmmm” which is Japanese for “this is going to end badly” and “I must break you”.

Then, soon after I woke up today, I got my migraine spot. I popped a couple aspirin, drank some extra coffee and waited for the pain. I wouldn’t be able to practice as much as I wanted.

She Who Must Be Obeyed tried several increasingly angry approaches to convince me to change my mind, even suggesting I could see part of the performance and use a taxi to get to the station. Unfortunately for her (and for me) the migraine had already made me sociopathic and cranky. I said, once again, that I couldn’t go, and suddenly became He Who Disobeyed She Who Must Be Obeyed. (aka MUD)

My morning was spent listening to She Who Must Be Obeyed trying to get a teenager and a nine year old ready to go somewhere. (Not a good thing when you have a migraine.)

I practiced karate some and then took a much needed nap after the girls left. Unfortunately, when I got to practice, I pointed out there was an entire section of my test that I’d never actually practiced. The result was two hours suffering through a migraine and an hour of being shouted at for being incompetent.

My crankiness took over right at the end of practice and I’m surprised I didn’t get the punch I probably deserved. Luckily my “I stopped giving a shit 10 minutes ago” quote was in English. (All they heard was “I stop blah blah shit 10 blah blah blah.”)

Tomorrow the migraine will be gone and I’ll feel human again. Until then I can only hope She Who Must Be Obeyed managed to get some video or my name will be a lot worse than MUD.

The Glorious Blue Flame of the Good Stuff

One time, when I was in Albania, I set my fingers on fire to test my beverage.

I’ve mentioned before that when I was in the Peace Corps, raki was one of my favorite drinks. It’s basically a form of Ouzo, with a faint anise/licorice flavor, but with a lot more punch. It tastes good both at room temperature and chilled, and, for reasons we never understood, didn’t deliver a powerful hangover. Instead, you spent the day after stuck in slow motion.

The traditional way to test the quality of raki was to dip your fingers in it and light your fingers on fire. The bluer the flame, the better the raki. I did that once–but more on that later.

My best Raki experience involved a weekend that, in the short run, would cause me a lot of problems. However, at the time, I had a lot of fun.

I went to Elbasan to proctor an entrance exam for a local university. I was supposed to stay at a local hotel managed by the gregarious and funny Abdul (not his real name). However, as soon as I arrived in Elbasan, Abdul informed me the entrance exam had been cancelled but that I was welcome to stay at the hotel a couple nights.

The next morning, Abdul took me a to a local vineyard to see how Raki was made.

In a nutshell, grapes are crushed in a concrete vat and left to rot. At some point, and this is a key step, the rotting mess attracts flies. Eventually, though, even the flies are disgusted by the rotting mess as it swells up out of the vat and move on to a fresher rotting mess. Finally, the rotting mess deflates back into the vat and it’s time to distil it.

Because I was apparently the first American to ever visit the vineyard, I was given the honor of the “first drink” from the still. It was still a bit warm and was awesome. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, because I was the first American to visit, every Albanian who worked there or who was visiting (all 9 or 10 of them) wanted to toast with me.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, there were only two glasses. I got one and everyone else shared one and took turns toasting with me. My glass was refilled for each toast. This meant that by 10:00 a.m. I’d had 10 or so glasses of raki and had developed the power to fly and shoot laser beams from my eyes. (More or less.)

This remains one of the best experiences I had in two years in Albania. I didn’t test the raki by lighting my fingers on fire. I’d do that later and discover I was drinking high quality raki.

It wasn’t as good as that trip to vineyard though. That was real quality.

Move Here Go There Drink This Do You I Do

Back when I was in Albania I was invited to a Catholic wedding in Northern Albania. The wedding took two days and involved lots of alcohol.

Because I had visited my friend Eddie at least once and had met his host family, I was invited to his host sister’s wedding. This started on Saturday afternoon with her getting dolled up and then sitting in a room that had also been dolled up and stocked with sweets and booze. Guests would then arrive and pay their respects and eat some sweets and drink some booze.

The tradition is that the bride should never be left alone which meant each visitor would stay until the next visitor arrived. Eventually the groom arrived and escorted the bride to the “Bride’s Family’s Party.” This party took place in the courtyard of a relative’s house, featured a band, lots of jokes, and lots of food and alcohol. The alcohol was served in courses with Raki being first. That was followed by wine, more Raki and, finally, beer. At some point everyone was expected to guzzle a glass of Raki. Or two. Or three. (Luckily, I guzzled one less than some of the others and managed to guide us all back to Eddie’s.)

The next day we weren’t hungover so much as trapped in perpetual slow motion. (More on Raki and its effects in another post.) We then took part in the procession of cars to the restored Shkoder Cathedral¬† where the bride and groom joined an assembly line of several other brides and grooms for a ceremony that involved the priest walking down the line and going “Do you? Do You? You’re married.” to all the couples.

After that was more driving around and honking of car horns followed by lunch. Sunday night was the Groom’s Family’s Party, which was a smaller, more exclusive event I wasn’t invited to. I stayed at Eddie’s place and relaxed.

Fat Men In Diapers Slapping Each Other

Soon after I got to Japan, my favorite sport to watch involved mostly naked men trying to push each other out of a dirt ring. This is a normal thing for most non-Japanese after they arrive in Japan.

Although almost no one watches it anymore, Sumo is still considered Japan’s national sport. I remember seeing it once on Wide World of Sports way back in the 70’s and maybe once on ESPN back when it was desperate to show any sport it could find. However, I never understood it and only had vague memories of it.

However, it’s very common for newcomers to Japan to suddenly stumble across a tournament¬† (called a basho) on TV soon after they arrive–Basho are held every two months in the odd-numbered months–and to become fans.

At first you’re kind of amused and watch Sumo with the same glee you watch the aftermath of a train wreck. (Oh, like you don’t.) After a while, you begin to understand the rhythm’s of the sport, despite it being formal to a fault. It’s no joke that the preliminaries to a bout–which involve clapping, salt throwing and spitting–typically take longer than the bout. That said, I’ve seen more experienced wrestlers (called Rikishi) psyche out their younger opponents during the preliminaries and either put them off their game or trick them into mistakes.

I mostly got interested because when I first got to Japan, there were a few US-born rikishi in the higher ranks and it was easy to find the matches with English commentators who helped explain the sport. It was also fun to watch the tinier rikishi throw around the giant rikishi. I still remember 633 pound (287 kilogram) Konishiki getting slung around by the much smaller Mayanoumi.

Eventually I became a sumo snob and could arm-chair quarterback (so to speak) a match with the best of them. “The Yokozuna Grand Champion shouldn’t win with those tricky spin moves at the edge. He should be winning going forward.” (For the record, that is actually true. The Powers What Are in Sumo look at quality of wins and not just number of wins, although the latter should always be high.)

Then one day I just stopped watching it.

For a lot of reasons my interest in sumo went the way of some of my past collections. The formality and unwillingness to change had made it boring. Also, I was working a lot and the evening match summaries had been moved to late night/early morning. As a result, I lost interest in the sport and to this day don’t follow it, except to see who the latest foreign-born Grand Champions are.

Oh, and to see what the latest scandal is.



Sticky Floors for Algernon

It’s been said that a bad dress rehearsal leads to a good opening night. Whoever said that never had to deal with a sticky floor on opening night.

A couple hundred years ago when I was still in graduate school, I took part in the play Flowers for Algernon (based on Daniel Keyes’ Novel.) I portrayed one of the doctors (although I don’t remember if I was Dr. Nemur or Dr. Strauss. I think I was Strauss.)

The production was directed by a fellow graduate student who was submitting it as part of his Master’s degree requirements. However, he had a couple handicaps. First, there were other major productions going on meaning the acting pool at Kansas State U had been spread thin and 2) he wasn’t particularly well liked in the department which thinned down the acting pool even more. (That’s how I was able to get a substantial part.)

As a result, he had lots of first time actors, including the lead actors, and a cast that was much bigger than it needed to be. This meant he had to spend a lot of time doing “trust” activities and exercises that got us working together as a team whilst simultaneously trying to teach the bulk of the cast how to act.

A few never quite got it down. One woman had one line “I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes” but could never get the inflection down. It always came out as “I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my OWN eyes.” (As opposed to someone else’s?)

A lot of stage acting is based on listening and being in the moment. Although you practice lines and blocking, the way a person delivers a line can change the entire scene. If you’re expected to have an angry reaction to an angry line, but the other person says their line calmly, you have to react the scene you’re in, not the scene you practiced. If you don’t, it looks weird to the audience. You have to simultaneously know what you’re supposed to do but can’t anticipate what you’re going to do. When it works, it’s brilliant and you see why people like acting.

However, as a group we didn’t work together very well and things didn’t look good. I didn’t even tell my family about the play because I expected a disaster.

Then, oddly, the disaster came, but it actually kind of worked out.

On opening night, as we prepared to go on, we were informed that the stage manager had made a huge mistake. He’d used glossy black paint to prepare the stage instead of matte black paint. This made the stage sticky. As we walked we made ripping-Velcro noises and if we stood in place our shoes stuck to the stage making quick exits difficult. However, in the spirit of “the show must go on” we were told to make the best of it.

The results were great. We started cutting out our blocking which mean we had to listen and observe and basically be in the moment. I remember one scene where I was supposed to turn away from a character then turn back and deliver a line. Instead, since my shoes were stuck to the floor, I stayed facing her and changed the way I spoke instead.

Audience members from the department told us we were the most focused cast they’d ever seen. It felt great on stage, too.

Unfortunately, the next night the stage was back to normal and we went back to being ordinary.



There are Usually No Stupid Questions

Every now and then, during exams, students ask questions that are so stupid it’s all I can do to keep from laughing in their faces. I have, however, on occasion, openly expressed my disgust and contempt.

What usually happens during exams is the first 10 minutes or so of the 50 minute period are taken up by the listening portion. Lately this has me worried as a result of an incident that wasn’t even my fault. (Today, to make matters worse, the sound technician kept playing with buttons as if there was something wrong with the CD, and that had me stressing out.)

After the listening, those of us teaching that grade assemble in the teachers’ room to await questions and as a rapid reactionary force if an actual mistake is discovered.(Which happens every now and then.)

Usually the junior high first years (7th graders) have the most questions: do we have to print or should we use cursive?; can we use numbers or do we have to spell them? These are understandable as, for most of them, this may be their first exam in English.

However, my favorite questions have all come from high school students. Two happened today. First, my student wanted me to spell a word for him. I told him I could neither confirm nor deny the spelling. He went huh? Later, in the same class, a student asked a question that amounted to “Is it necessary for me to follow the instructions on the long writing?” I said “of course.”

At that moment, my student took a second shot at getting me to spell a word. I just smiled and left.

Last year a student pointed to an entire section of the exam and said “I don’t understand.” My reaction was “That is why you fail.

The best, though, was a high school second year student (11th grade). That term was speech contest term which meant every 11th grader had written and memorized a speech appealing to some authority figure to change something in the school or in the world. Because that took up a large portion of the term there wasn’t a lot of material for the exam. The long writing, therefore, involved person A appealing to person B to change something. (I don’t remember if it was a dialogue or an essay.)

Thirty minutes into the exam time I was called upstairs to answer a question. One of my worst students pointed to the long writing and said “What is ‘appeal’?”

Given how I felt, my look must have been something between “Is this a joke?” and “You are a moron”. I told him I couldn’t tell him but told him it was just like his speech contest speech and left him to his own devices.

He ended up not writing very much. (Which actually makes my life a bit easier.)

The Collecting and the Dumping

If history is any indication of the future, anything I’m currently collecting is ultimately doomed.

In my life I’ve collected model cars, Star Wars stuff (a technical term), stamps, vintage paper back books, and a few rare books. Now I have a small collection of knives and pens.

I typically start a collection with righteous fervor and very little discretion. The goal is to collect shiny pretty things. Actually, that should be the plan because well made shiny pretty things may actually hold their value, but what ends up happening is I buy what can get my hands on without any consideration toward future value except in the form of “yeah, I’ll totally sell this for a profit some day” without actually knowing what’s worth collecting.

I ended up with milk crates full of plastic wrapped paperback books with cool covers, lots of interesting stamps, lots of plastic model cars and lots of dolls, er, action figures and action figure sets. Now, I have several pens and two small dry boxes full of various knives.

Eventually I reach a saturation point where I just stop caring. It’s as if I move them from point A to point B one time to many and get sick of it all and decide to dump them. This overrides the sentimental value and the sunk cost fallacy, or the hope of making money on the transaction. In the case of model cars, I’d stopped building them and just dumped them to someone I knew would be interested in them. The paperbacks I dumped just to be rid of them.

Occasionally, the energy involved in selling things causes me to keep things I’m no longer interested in. For example, I still have a bunch of stamps partly because I have no clue how to sell them and no interest in wasting any more time on them. (Of course, I haven’t decided to throw them out or give them away yet.)

The only thing I actually didn’t dump was the Star Wars stuff, which I sold at what it was worth to other doll, er, Star Wars stuff collectors at the time rather than at fire-sale prices.

The knives I’ve sold have made their money back partly because a big chunk were acquired at a great price from another collector dumping part of his collection. Now that I know what I like, the things I don’t are on their way out which, for me, is a huge improvement. I’m also looking to sell most of my old pens to keep the collection from growing beyond a handful of pens I can use on a regular rotation.

In the back of my head, though, I’m wondering what my next collection will be.