Practicing By Myself is Futile Resistance

I haven’t done a sports related post in a while as I had a month long hiatus from karate whilst I babysat a teenage daughter who has few skills other than eye-rolling, tweeting and thinking she’s being sneaky and getting away with something when she’s not.

I’ve been back in the groove for two weeks and things are ugly. Although I try to practice on my own, I’ve found cases where I practiced a kata for two weeks then had to relearn it when I found out I was doing something wrong. The katas are especially nasty during belt test time because I typically have to do five of them. This involves a lot of low stance that starts to make your thighs beg for mercy after the second kata. (Hold a half squat for two minutes. Keep your back straight; don’t bend over. Rest 15 seconds. Then hold it for two more minutes. Rest one minute. Hold it for three minutes. Every now and then punch and kick.) What makes it hurt is that the different moves are slow. It’s like doing 10 slow pushups with the down move and the push up each taking 30 seconds to perform.

After I get the katas down–or sensei just gives up on me for the day–we switch to the fighting routines which start out one on one but eventually evolve three to five attackers. What makes these hard is situational awareness (the people behind you are authorized to grab you and/or slash you a good one with a wooden sword) and that several of the moves have to be done with technique only and no strength. This is especially hard to do when you’re trying stay ahead of three to five attackers. Also, you’re not supposed to repeat a technique which means you eventually have to do something you suck at.

I’ve also found it difficult to practice the fighting routines by myself. It’s one thing to image train and pantomime a move, it’s another to actually grab the dogi of a person who’s resisting and pull him down without clinching his lapel in your fist. Instead, we’re supposed to use slow moves and leverage so that even a 70 year old woman could defend herself with the moves against a strong attacker. Great theory; hard to accomplish when adrenaline is flowing.

Luckily, I wasn’t the only one stinking things up tonight. All three students stunk the place up at least once.

Dealing With Lots of Rules and Naughty Neighbors

Although Japan is, for the most part, full of polite people who obey rules, both written and unwritten, there are a few exceptions. Most of them seem to live in my neighborhood.

I’ve written before about the train types, but there’s one type, the squatter, that’s a result of Japanese driving and property laws.

First, in order to get a license and registration for your car, you have to prove that you have a legal parking place for it. This involves literally drawing maps of the parking area and a “zoom” map of the parking place onto an application. However, getting a legal parking place isn’t always that easy.

Because Japanese property is expensive, most condos and apartments don’t come with free parking places. We, for example, have pay $60 a month on top of our rent to park our car.  Some condo owners in Tokyo pay hundreds of dollars a month for parking. That fee, though, gives some privileges. The space is ours and no one else can use it. If they do, it counts as a form of theft and we can get the police involved.

However, not everyone who lives in our complex wants to pay the fee. One person has created a space by moving some planters and leaving her car there. This is illegal, but this is where Japanese politeness comes into play. No one seems to want to confront the person and no one seems to want to report it to management. If they have, management doesn’t seem to have time to deal with.

I personally would immediately hand the squatter a flier that says the place is now a rental space and, because it’ s a premium location, it costs $300 a month. If you park your care there, you agree to pay the fee. If you don’t pay it, your car will be taken away. (I know who the squatter is and I know I can kick her ass; however, I don’t know how big her boyfriend is so I should probably do a little research first.)

The other rule breaker is the Foreign Asshole. (Oddly, in this case, not me.Sort of.) The FA breaks rules in two ways: inadvertently (usually accompanied with the phrase “are you joking? There’s a rule for that? Really?) and deliberately (because they think the rule they broke inadvertently is stupid).

One example of a rules is that junior high and high school kids aren’t supposed to be in certain shopping areas after 5:30 p.m. or so. It’s not actually a legal curfew, but parents are encouraged/expected to watch out for other people’s kids and encourage them to go home. Because of this, She Who Must Be Obeyed told a girl from our complex that she needed to get home. Also, because they were traveling the same direction, she also ended up following her home (along with our girls).

This set off the girl’s mother, who hails from Some Other Country in Asia (not it’s real name). She confronted SWMBO in a very rare English shouting match. After a few minutes I stood on our balcony to watch the events and keep them, well, calm. However, after several minutes, even I had to point out that the woman needed to pay more attention to where she was living. This caused her to shout at me and for me to go to 8 on the mega voice power scale (I can out shout a room full of junior high kids, a woman from Some Other Country in Asia is no match). I assured her we would never again make an effort to make sure her daughter was safe. We’d just leave her to her fate. She tried shouting and I went to 9–for the record, this voice goes to 11, and, yes, I am a Foreign Asshole.

This prompted her to threaten to sue me and come after me with her lawyer. I started laughing and double dog dared her to sue me. I told her “Oh, bring it on.  I’m from the USA. We’re practically born with lawyers on retainer.”

I haven’t spoken to her since and told SWMBO to stop speaking to her in English which made it more difficult for the woman to communicate and to argue.

I don’t know if she still lives in the complex. Don’t really care.

Falling Love Twice for the First Time

Mothers seem to have an instant connection with their children that fathers, in my experience, don’t have. For the mother birth is physical and painful and personal. For the father it’s pretty much wine, flowers and a certain amount of patience followed by a couple hours of pacing and saying “breathe breath” whilst being cursed. (Well, in at least one case.) The children are part of the mother. They are not part of the father.

(Although it should be mentioned that when they were in their misshapen, badly formed lizard looking newborn phase was when my girls most looked like me. Which says a lot about how I look.)

As such, I think fathers eventually have a moment where they fall in love with their kids. A moment when protecting them, killing for them and living for them becomes part of you and not just part of a legally mandated series of responsibilities.

In my case, I fell for my oldest when she was two or so. We’d enrolled her to receive a series of videos and books featuring Shimajiro, a little boy tiger (this makes sense when you realize Hello Kitty is a girl not a cat) who learns a lot of lessons in preschool about manners and study skills, usually accompanied by music. (It is not as annoying as Barney.) The package contains a Shimajiro puppet that remains a must have toy for preschoolers.

When the kit arrived our oldest was excited to the point of hopping up and down. She immediately went for the Shimajiro doll and started playing with it. She started going around and having Shimajiro say hello to all of us. When her friend came over she said an adorable (in Japanese) “Shimajiro came to our house!” It was annoyingly cute and I was smitten, and still am, even though all our internet capable electronics now have to have passwords on them to keep her off the internet.

With our youngest, there was a bit of set up. Our oldest had, over time, acquired change from various places (grandparents) and that meant she had to have a coin purse. Following the code of “Monkey see. Monkey wants her own.” This meant our youngest had to have a coin purse of her own, even though hers only contained slips of paper we called “her money” because we didn’t want her choking on coins (she was still under two). During a trip to a 100 yen shop our oldest bought some sort of trinket from a capsule toy machine and then went to find something else.

I watched our youngest study the machine and then squat down in front of it. She got a serious look on her face as she took out one of the slips of “her money” and tried to put it in the machine. I was smitten. I ended up buying her one of the “less likely to choke on it” toys. I’m still smitten, even though she’s developed an impressive back-talking skill for a nine year old.



Early Finish Often Means Well Done

One of the things I like about Japanese TV is very similar to what I like about British TV: The seasons are short, only really popular shows come back and the come back seasons are short.

A Japanese drama typically runs for 12 episodes shown in 12 straight weeks (which is much better than US broadcast television’s two episodes now and three months later we’ll give you three new episodes in a row before a one month hiatus).

Also, because each series is short it doesn’t run the risk of getting stale and being forced to have every living human on the show and one or two robots have relationships with every other living human on the show and one or two robots. The truth is that, even in “gun free” Chicago, someone at County General would have gone into jealous rage and killed at least three people in the e.r. whilst trying to remember who they were in a relationship with.

I find the notion that any woman on E.R. actually spoke to any other woman on E.R. to be absurd. (Even I can’t suspend disbelief about that and I’m looking forward to the chance to see a movie with a talking tree and a talking raccoon when it arrives in Japan in a couple days.)

The other good thing about a Japanese drama is even if it’s not popular you always get a resolution to the story.

The most popular shows, however, will eventually be brought back. Since I’ve been here that’s happened to only a handful of shows. Shomuni, about a group of, well, super office ladies came back for two more series and a couple movies. The most popular, though, was Hero, starring the ubiquitous Takuya Kimura of the (still) ubiquitous SMAP. The show was a huge hit in 2001–and people still quote the bartender’s one line–but the full sequel didn’t get released until this year. Instead there was a special in 2006 and a movie in 2007.

The result is that good shows never get a chance to go stale and actors get a chance to play different types of roles. Takuya Kimura has played a quirky crime solving scientist in Mr. Brain and a kind of terminator in the surprisingly clever sci fi drama (with the terrible title) Ando Lloyd – A.I. Knows Love?   You don’t have to worry about Kate getting shot or Ziva leaving or the Doctor regenerating into a right wanker.  You also don’t have to worry about the writers making up crap as they go along and then stumbling into absurd/bullshit endings. (Lost, Battlestar Galactica, etc.)

Mind you, there aren’t that many good shows and there are far too many RomComs. Also, there are exceptions to the 12 episode rule, but those are for another post.

One Twice Three Times a Driver

I’ve written before about how I am, at best, on a good day, an average driver. This is probably why, to get my first license, I had to take my driver’s test three times. Well, that and the family car.

We had, at the time, what I think was a 1979 Ford Ltd. that even people who work on the USS Nimitz thought was excessively big. The math, therefore, wasn’t in my favor: giant car plus big city (well, when you’ve just moved from a town of 1,200, Salina, Kansas looks like a city) plus tendency to panic and overthink equals bad result.

My first test started with me acing the written test and then filling out a lot of paperwork. After that, I got a chance to do the driving test which starts with testing officer explaining “If you break one law, you fail. If I die, you fail and go to jail. (Something like that.) My test had some issues: I drove way too far to the right; I didn’t maintain the speed limit; my “emergency breaking” involved an impressive skid mark (on the road and I’m not sure about the testing officer because I can’t smell); and driving up on the sidewalk during parallel parking. Basically, I failed on points and the testing officer said it would take too long to list everything I did wrong so she only told me what I did correctly: I set the mirrors and put on the seat belt.

I seem to remember having to wait a few weeks or months before I could test again. That time I was still slow to change lanes after turning onto a cross street but I even impressed myself with my parallel parking and no testing officers were nearly jettisoned through the front window during  the “emergency breaking” procedure. However, during the test, I fell for a trap. I was directed to a stop sign at an intersection that offered no view to the left. I slowly rolled up until I could get a look and then drove on. At the end of the test, when I was feeling pretty good about things, I was told I failed because my “rolling California stop” counted as running a stop sign.

I argued that the California stop is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics and that categorical imperative is holding that ontologically it exists only in the imagination. (Yes, that’s right, I stole from Monty Python) The testing officer, lacking a sense of vision and philosophy just repeated “You ran a stop sign. You fail.”

A few/weeks months later I went back, passed the test and finally got my license.

I’ve hated California ever since.

In With The Bad Out Comes The Good

A short one today in honor of bad students. This is the first full week of class after summer vacation and that means that we are now reintroducing ourselves to our students and reminding them why they are supposed to fear us and/or why they think we are jerks.

Today for example, one of my worst students spent the first few moments after the bell rang zipping and unzipping his trousers in front of his friend’s face. I told him “I you need to do that, get out and do it some place else.” He stopped zipping his pants (with the zipper up, luckily) and sat down in a huff and added, in English “I don’t understand English”. My inner snark monster, encouraged by the devils over my shoulders said “I know. Maybe if you sat down and listened you might learn something.”

I then gave out the assignment, which involved telling a summer vacation story by captioning a series of cartoon images. The students were encouraged to use their imaginations and dictionaries and I wouldn’t give any hints except to remind them it had to be one story. (I also don’t help them unless they ask for help.) The bad student didn’t understand and panicked quite spectacularly. Even lashing out at foreign teachers for not having Japanese instructions on their worksheets. I told him, in English, as the inner snark monster reached 50% capacity, that a lot of Japanese blamed their teachers for their bad English not their own unwillingness to study. “Your bad English is not my fault.”

Finally, someone explained the lesson to him (probably in Japanese). He started writing and after a he had a few sentences I peeked at his paper and he was actually doing the assignment. This surprised me because I assigned a punishment letter to a student with similar behavioral issues and, although he appeared to working, he turned in an expletive laden screed full of death threats to me and the principal and wishes that we both would die. In his defense, it was the most English he’d ever written.

Eventually, zipper boy finished the assignment. Oddly, this was the quietest he’d ever been in class and he earned a very rare full class marks.  I may have to give him more caption assignments.

Next class, though, the students have to present their stories as a speech. They get bonus points if they can do it without using the paper.

The inner snark monster never got past 50% today. it is still mad at me. However, history has shown that at least five students will forget their papers next class, including zipper boy.

The inner snark monster will then go full snark and say “Lucky you! Now you get bonus points!”

Overnight Instant Sensations

With Kei Nishikori about to compete for Japan’s first grand slam (more on that comment in a minute) I suddenly find myself thinking about other Japanese who’ve won things and those who haven’t.

As a rule, the Japanese focus primarily on baseball with priority given to the local major leagues. When a Japanese player goes to the US majors, he’s given what can only be described as a base level of popularity. The news will always report what he’s doing, especially if he’s doing well. If he’s a star, Matsuzaka, Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, he’ll get a shocking amount of media coverage. If he’s playing, NHK (Japan’s BBC) will cover the game, until the moment he’s pulled and then they switch to regular programming and viewers never learn what happened. (No joke, I’ve seen this happen twice.)

However, everyone loves a winner, especially Japan which suffers from a very strange lack of confidence you wouldn’t expect from the third largest economy in the world (for now). The Japanese press is always looking for “Local kid makes Japan look awesome” stories and is always interested in what foreigners have to say about Japan, so long as what the foreigners have to say is positive. If it’s negative, there’s lots of excuse making and accusations that Japan is being picked on even though it’s the only country to have been attacked with atomic bombs. (Yes, they really do go there sometimes, especially on panel shows.)

Before 2011, barely anyone in Japan could name more than a couple players on the Japanese women’s soccer/kick ball team. Everyone knew their nickname “Nadeshiko Japan” but knew little else about them. Nadeshiko, by the way, is a surprisingly sexist thing to be called. It’s roughly the equivalent of calling them “They don’t make women like that anymore Japan” or “Good girls Japan”. However, after they won the world cup, they were suddenly popular. Attendance at women’s soccer started breaking records (at least for the team with the most “Good girls”) and some of them started appearing on TV a lot.

The same happened with a group of women wrestlers who brought home Olympic medals, and even a group of women archers and a some badminton players. They didn’t even have to be cute, just successful, although if they wanted to make real money from their 15 minutes, they had to be cute.

That said, no one is as brutal toward their athletes as the Japanese. If someone loses, a reporter will ask “what happened” in a very strict tone. The athletes have their own cliches “Well, I got a bad start and I wasn’t able to swim my race, I had to swim their race” or “I wasn’t able to play my badminton and couldn’t make the shuttlecock work for me”. At that point, it’s common for the reporters to say something like “well, I hope you’ve learned from this and will do better next time.” (I would love to hear the expletives some US athletes would unleash on a reporter who said that.)

This brings us back to Kei Nishikori. If he doesn’t win, he’ll get some praise for going where no one has gone before but we’ll see at least two weeks of detailed analysis about why he sucked. If he wins, we’ll hear about it for at least month and it will be considered a victory for Japan. (Even though he spent most of his career at IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy and is currently coached by American Michael Chang.)

I hope he does well, but part of me kind of hopes he doesn’t, because the press coverage will stop sooner.


The Perils of Public Transportation Busses

When I was in Albania I rode the train exactly once. It took nearly two hours to cover the 38 kilometers (23.6 miles) from Tirana to Durres. Basically, it moved slowly and stopped frequently.

As result, if you wanted to go somewhere in Albania you either splurged for a taxi (which would deliver you to another town for the right price) or you took a bus. Taking a bus was fraught with its own perils.

First, the buses assembled in fields and it took a while to figure out which bus was going where and which was leaving first. After figuring out which bus was leaving next in your direction. You acquired a seat and waited. The bus would only leave when the bus was full, and by “full” I mean every seat had to have a butt in it as did every “jump” seat between the regular seats. If even one “jump” seat was empty, the bus would wait. This filling process could take a few minutes or it could take over an hour.

I remember one bus taking so long that I and another passenger started a revolt. We said we’d go to the next bus and I would pay double my fare. A bunch of passengers started agreeing with us and the next bus driver climbed on and started counting passengers with one of the largest grins I’ve ever seen on a bus driver. Finally, our bus driver huffed and got going and did exactly what we all new he would do: he stopped to pick people up on the side of the road. One person was carrying a goat. (Don’t know if the goat had to pay full fare.)

On another bus ride, from Tirana to Shkoder I nearly had a fight with the ticket taker. Usually, I tryied to sit at the back of the bus but every now and then one of the staff offered me the “honor” seat up behind the driver. This would have been fine, especially as it had more legroom, but every now and then someone wanted to talk when I wanted to read. On this day, the ticket taker wanted to talk in a bad way. Even though I said I had work to do and actively started ignoring him by reading, he kept tapping my leg. After one tap too many I grabbed his hand and twisted it around and we about came to blows. Finally a cop intervened and I got a different seat and learned several new colorful Albanian phrases for describing unreasonable people.

On another trip from Berat back to Tirana, our bus suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere and we were apparently supposed to change busses but nobody seemed to be moving. I walked up and went into “don’t understand if it’s not convenient mode” and pretended I couldn’t speak much Albanian to find out if the bus was going to Tirana (yes) and get my way onto the bus. Of course, I got the “honor” seat, but since I’d established I couldn’t speak much Albanian I didn’t have to talk.

However, about half way back to Tirana, the bus stopped again, this time for lunch. The bus driver bought me lunch and beer and suddenly I could remember a few phrases in Albanian and hold a decent conversation.



Beer Pizza Sports and Instruments

Today’s is random memories and I’m not even sure how many of them are accurate, but one of the best things about growing up in the ’70s was political correctness and “if you do this you will end up deadness” and the precautionary principle hadn’t yet ruined discourse and the ability to have fun. The worst thing that could happen to you was putting an eye out someday. We brought knives to school to show off and playing shooting games didn’t yet result in therapy and lock downs. You could even bring BB guns on school grounds in the summer without involving SWAT teams and suspension.

The other thing you could do was take overnight school trips and, while you were on the trip you could visit breweries. I do not remember why we went there, and I don’t remember what grade we were, but I remember visiting the Coors Brewery in Golden, Colorado on one school trip. The thing that stands out the most was hearing that the hops room (or the grain room) was kept at a high temperature and 100% humidity. I remember my friend Shawn and I pondering what that meant. Was the room full of liquid? (Now that I live in a humid region I can tell you that the room was #@%&ing nasty inside, that’s what it was.)

I also seem to remember that the teachers were able to sample some of the, um, local produce, although they did it whilst we students were on the tour. None of them, to my knowledge, were ever fired, although I may have just revealed a major secret.

The other trips I remember were some sort of band trip that involved eating apple crepes somewhere downtown, sleeping during a classical music performance and a trip to Celebrity Sports Center, which seemed like one of the largest places in the world at the time. I bowled a little and played some games. I wasn’t good at any of it but I had fun. (This was before the days when everybody had to be good at something or you weren’t allowed to do it.)

I also remember eating at the Organ Grinder pizza parlor which featured a two story pipe organ and a couple professional pipe organists (if that’s an actual phrase). I don’t remember the food at all, but I remember the show. I also remember the performers hitting a mechanical monkey every now and then when it wouldn’t stop playing the cymbals.

Either that, or I had sampled some of the local produce without realizing it.

Reckless Self Behavior Destruction Vices

When I was in Albania, one of the things I noticed was a propensity for volunteers, myself included, to suddenly engage in self-destructive behavior of one sort or another. Some of them involved basic vices while some of them involved automobiles.

Partly as a result of culture shock, and partly as a form of self-defense, volunteers who’d never smoked before they came to Albania suddenly became smokers. Volunteers who had smoked before they came to Albania became chain smokers. Granted, when you’re surround by groups of locals chain smoking, and science says secondhand smoke is more dangerous than smoking, it is actually safer for you to start smoking cigarettes. (Something like that.)

Alcohol consumption sky-rocketed (one of my favorite vices at first) especially because the prices were relatively low. Skenderbeg Cognac was especially popular, but I tended to stick to beer, raki and cheap vodka (I think it was 15 cents a bottle but it might have been cheaper).

My other vices were
1) Chasing the wrong woman and ignoring the right one (a novel would be required to explain more) which is something I was prone to do before (another novel) and it got worse in Albania.
2) Being cheap. The latter involved always managing to let other people pay for things and never volunteering to pay for the group when a bunch of us met for coffee (total cost for everyone, 50 cents to 1 dollar). As you might imagine, that didn’t win me many friends, especially among the Albanians with us.
3) Blather and Gossip. Not only can I talk a lot without seeming to breathe, but for a brief time I was the guy you told things to when you wanted everyone to know (but God help you if you told me and you didn’t want people to know).

The other thing that happened, especially in our second year was we started to get reckless. Albanian traffic was a remarkable thing as it was made up of people who’d just earned their licenses and were finally able to acquire cars. This made them a group of teenagers who believed the rules, in so far as they understand them, were mere suggestions. Despite this, it was normal for groups of us to suddenly cross the street without looking, often to the horror of newcomers who’d made the mistake of trying to follow us. (It was their own fault for not looking.)

We used to talk about why, and I’m not sure we reached any conclusions. I always joked (constantly that I did it because if they killed me I’d go to a better place (most likely although this blog may be held against me) and if they didn’t I’d still get to go to  a better place when I was airlifted to Germany.

I think, though, it was an odd symptom of culture shock. Albania was an exhausting and frustrating place to work and overtime that frustration built to a low level anger and everything around us. I suspect we were playing chicken with the country. Daring it to try to knock us out if it could. We wanted to go home but we didn’t want to quit.

Eventually it would knock me out temporarily, but I did get to go to a better place for three weeks.