Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Corpse of Peace

I’m not sure today’s post is coherent. Mind you, I’m not sure any of the posts that have come before it have been coherent, either, but today’s is more of an introduction to posts that will come later.

During my university days, I took part in a K-State project that put young, fresh minds, and me, into small Kansas towns during the summer to assist with community development. We spent spring semester researching our town and interviewing locals and determining what the local needs were. We then stayed with locals for eight weeks while we worked on the projects we’d developed. In exchange, we got a monthly stipend, so it counted as a summer job which meant it balanced out the selfish and service sides of the equation.

Someone told me it was basically a Kansas version of the Peace Corps.

Therefore, after getting my Master’s degree, because I was sick of being at school and was in the mood to travel and because I felt like I owed the country something for leaving AFROTC (the USAF is much better off because of it, I assure you), I decided to join the U.S. Peace Corps. Before I joined, I asked a couple former volunteers, a husband and wife, for advice. They both said the same thing: bring money, you’re going to want money. Carry as much money as you can. I said “Well, doesn’t the Peace Corps take care of you?” They’re probably still laughing.

So am I, actually.

To understand what the Peace Corps is like you have to start with what Peace Corp Volunteers have in common with Special Forces Soldiers: part of their job is to educate the local population. Now remove the rigorous SF selection process. Then remove the rigorous SF language and survival skills training. Then remove any in-theater support. Then remove the ability to shoot your way out of trouble. Keep the paperwork. Then parachute that person, now a Peace Corps Volunteer, into a town with orders to “make ’em democratic.”

Unlike Special Forces soldiers, though, Peace Corps Volunteers do have some choice about where they are assigned (and can leave when they want). In my case, I chose Albania because I thought it was attached to Europe–it turned out it wasn’t, but that’s another post.

In Albania, my group, or, as the couple that told me to bring money called it, my “batch” were the first Peace Corps volunteers in Albania. We were designated Peace Corps Albania 001 and, because Albania had requested it, we were assigned as Teaching English as a Foreign Language instructors.

Because we were 001, and because TEFL was relatively new for the Peace Corps, we were basically guinea pigs. The staff would give us a green pill and say “how do you feel now?” If we said we were okay they’d go “Huh?” and have a hushed meeting in another room and come back with two green pills and a red pill. They’d keep increasing the doses until we had a reaction that left us unable to respond.

Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but we did seem to get a lot of “vaccinations”, one of which (Gamma Globulin? Meningococcal Meningitis?) actually made us kind of high which made for a good party afterwards.

It also seemed at times as if the Peace Corps staff and Albania were making things up as they went along. Normally the Peace Corps pays it’s monthly living stipend (part of which is given to the host family or used for rent) via local banks. In Albania, the local banks didn’t work. To get our stipend everyone had to travel to the capital, Tirana, where we would often end up having to travel back and forth many times between the Peace Corps office and the one bank that would handle our money because the bank had declared it didn’t have local currency. If it turned out the bank was serious and not just messing with the Peace Corps, they would advance us some of our stipend.

Once we got paid, since everyone was in town at the same time, we had pretty decent parties and we were actually closer to being a “group” than a “batch” which made life easier. For reasons I still don’t understand, perhaps because we were in Albania as language teachers and not the traditional “let’s dig a well and plant mango trees while holding hands and singing ‘Imagine'” volunteers (yes, they do exist), our group turned out to be well mixed politically and ideologically, which made it a lot more fun, too.

The best part is that “volunteer” had a much different meaning in Albania than in the USA. A great many of the Albanians we met seemed to assume we had done something wrong in the USA and that’s why we were “volunteered” to work in Albania. None of them could believe we actually came there by choice. As you might imagine, “You are being punished” is NOT the first impression you want your hosts to have.

We therefore spent a lot of time explaining the purpose of the Corpse of Peace, as the Albanian’s pronounced it, and trying to convince them that we not there as an alternative to jail.

We had actually done it to ourselves.



Air Force Adventures or I Would Prefer Not To

About a hundred years ago I was on my way to being in the US Air Force. I still don’t really understand why but I’m kind of glad I almost did.

A friend and fraternity brother of mine, Greg, was in Air Force ROTC and he persuaded me it would be a good idea to join. There was the guaranteed job (more or less) when you graduated and, once you got the job, you wouldn’t have to worry about what to wear for eight years. I pretty much told him to take a look at me: I already don’t worry about what I wear.

I signed up for the courses, got fitted for a uniform and spent the better part of a year studying the history of the Air Force, learning to march and giving orders to others while marching. I had a Pilot’s slot, which meant that when and if I graduated, I would have a good chance at studying to be a pilot. Please note it was “good chance” not “guaranteed chance”. At one point, during the official physical, I was told to sit in a chair and then measured to see if I would fit inside a fighter cockpit with a helmet on. I passed, but with little room to spare.

The only thing that could qualify as a funny moment is when I took the Air Force Officer’s Qualifying Test. I seem to remember that the rules were such that if I did badly, I couldn’t take it again for a while. As soon as I arrived at the test site, however, I got my migraine aura, which is a bright spot that looks a lot like the coiled filament in an incandescent light bulb. The presence of the aura meant I had about 45 minutes before a migraine set in.

The test begins with the test proctor, a senior officer in the local program, reading a blurb about how if we felt sick and thus felt we were physically unable to take the test we could opt out “without prejudice” and take the test again at the soonest possible date. My hand shot up and there was an awkward exchange as I explained I was about to be sick. The officer found the blurb he was supposed to read and I left to find a dark, cool place to suffer.

The officer later told me that was the first time he’d seen anyone ask to leave. I took the test later and did surprisingly well.

I then went to a six-week Officer Training School where I got sick with something strange and ended up hospitalized with a tube in a place most men would be very surprised to discover a tube would fit and very few would want a tube fitted. After 10 days, I was out-processed and given a “medical discharge without prejudice” which mean I could come back the following year for a four-week OTS.

Fortunately for the Air Force, a lot happened that next year.

First, I was inducted into Arnold Air Society which is an honorary organization that, at least until I got there, was for elite cadets. That took me to a conference in Boston where much of the time was spent debating where the next conference would be. It all proceeded with a shallowness that was surprisingly annoying and that was the first time I realized: I’m going to have to work with these folks for eight years. I still believe if I hadn’t gone to Boston, I’d have overlooked almost everything that came next.

The next thing that happened was an officer change that put in place an officer I didn’t like. That was the first time I realized that I couldn’t respect the rank if I didn’t respect the person wearing it. I couldn’t just say “I prefer not to because you’re an arrogant ass” or “You’re not the king of Dwayne”; I had to say “Yes, sir. and then do what I was told.” That made me seriously reconsider that guaranteed job.

Finally, there was national politics which, for a while, made it appear as if K-State’s program was doomed and we’d have to travel to KU to continue with ROTC. That ended up not happening, but my entire year, except I think one person, said “see ya” and left the program. At least one of my younger fraternity brothers stayed in and got F-16s.

However, despite all that, the final truth is I was never fully committed to joining the Air Force in the first place. It was just something to do that, at the time, seemed like a good idea. I learned a lot, and still believe everyone should do a stint of national service, which is why I later joined the Peace Corps (another long series of posts that).

That said, if you’re considering military service, “it’s a job when you graduate” is not a good reason to join. If you can take it or leave it; leave.

The Glorious Scribbly Scrawls of Madness

I spent part of the day transcribing novel number two into a computer.

Because I am a lunatic, and an old-fashioned one at that, I tend to write the first drafts of books by hand. This is actually quite convenient as I find it easier to break out a notepad and write on it, even whilst riding on a train, than to drag out a laptop computer and try to position it correctly on my lap. Also, notepads don’t have pre-installed games.

The disadvantage is I also have to have a fairly accurate “book bible” that keeps track of all my settings and my characters and their backgrounds. If I don’t, I end up wasting a lot of time, ink and paper. This happened on book two when I realized I’d spent thousands of words writing about a character’s family and getting his background wrong.

After I declare the manuscript finished, I hide it away for a couple months and then attack it with fresh eyes. I cross things out; cut things out; and tape and glue things in a different order. I call this the “assembled draft”. I then attempt to enter it all in computer, usually making even more changes as I go.

This step, however, is hindered by my handwriting. At a slow speed, my handwriting’s sloppy but legible. Then I begin to speed up. As the ideas and words begin to flow my handwriting becomes semi-legible scrawl bordering on sheer madness. Even I can’t read it and have showed it to other people for their opinion on what word they thought a particular scribble might be. They often scream at this point and flee whilst crossing themselves and saying Sancta Maria mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae but that may be for other reasons than my handwriting.

For an example I offer the following for your consideration. It shows the various steps my handwriting goes through:

Gaze upon the madness.

Gaze upon this at your own risk. (And this is only average madness.)

Gaze upon this at your own risk. (And this is only average madness.)

For the record, the Madness was not an exaggeration. I just quickly wrote the first thing that popped into my head. (And, no, I didn’t think of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” until just now.)

Now imagine trying to work your way through 600 pages of such Madness.

I’ve tried slowing down, but can’t seem to manage it. I’ve also been, on occasion, doing some handwriting improvement exercises, but again, I have to be going slowly for that to work. Also, the last few months, I’ve been doing my best to work on computers but that requires fully charged batteries and no internet connection of any kind. These daily postings are also supposed to help me develop the habit of thinking on the keyboard (something you’ll notice I haven’t managed to do yet in these postings).

I’m not a luddite. I love having a computer for editing and research, for photography and for just good old fashioned time wasting. Still, there’s nothing like that scratching of fountain pen on paper. (Yes, pen snobs, that means I need a smoother nib or better paper. I know.) And seeing the word count on the screen isn’t as satisfying as seeing a stack of paper grow larger as you work.

You actually feel as if you’ve accomplished something. Even if you can’t read it.

When the Stars Make You Drool Like a Drunk Pizza Fool

Because yesterday (well, this morning actually) I talked about drinking too much, this evening I should talk about one of the immediate consequences of drinking too much: eating pizza.

Once, a couple hundred years ago, after I started at K-State, I tried eating Swannie’s donuts after drinking. I never made that mistake again. Sweet and beer go together like raisins and grated carrots. Since then I’ve been a pizza man.

Now, there are countries where people get drunk and eat bowls of ramen or other types of noodle soup or go out for a curry. But those places, and the people in them, are evil and have no souls.

For me, the place to go after bars closed was Falsetto’s pizza in Aggieville. The pizza was greasy and the people in line of questionable character (i.e. my fraternity brothers) and no one ate there when they were sober. In fact, I’m the only person I know who ate there while sober and there are still people who don’t believe me. As for the pizza, let’s just say it lost something in sobriety.

The snobbish and soulless opted for Pyramid pizza, which was mostly famous for it’s thick crust and side order of honey. (See previous comment about “sweet and beer”.) Pyramid was sober pizza. It was not acceptable to eat it at closing time. If your only option was Pyramid, you should opt for a Red Barron pizza toasted at home or Frito Pie from 7-11.

That said, I’ve eaten pizza in several countries on three continents in two hemispheres and I’ve been shocked by the endless abominations offered as “pizza” by otherwise civilized countries. Italy was decent but never order “pepperoni” as you get “peperoni” and lots of peppers, not salami. I still pine for a slice of veggie pizza at the Shawarma Orient in London but, at the time, all they had was veggie pizza (more on that later). Albania and Greece had truly gruesome concoctions involving single, whole eggs cracked in random locations on the pizza.

Japan, however, excels at ruining pizza. Flaked tuna and mayonnaise are popular toppings and corn is a must have. Tonight, to celebrate my last day of classes (it’s all preparation now) we ordered pizza from a nearby Pizza Hut. We opted NOT to eat Teriyaki Chicken, or Seafood Mix or Potato Gratin and instead chose the only appropriate toppings for pizza: tomato sauce, cheese and dead animal flesh in the form of sausage, hamburger or bacon.

This wouldn’t bother me so much except I worked at The Scheme in Salina for one summer before heading off to Japan. I therefore consider myself a professional pizza chef. (I do and I was paid to do it so shut up.) Here in Japan, I tried to teach my adult students in Nou-Machi to make pizza properly, but realized I’d failed when some admitted to slipping squid or octopus on a pie when they were cooking at home.

Finally, I’ve tried to teach my girls the importance of saving energy by eating leftover pizza cold. Oddly, this has met resistance. In fact, many Japanese tell me how gross the idea of eating cold pizza is, right before they eat rotting beans on rice.

Clearly, I still have a lot of work to do.





Cheap Food and Barley Pop and Quitting Time

I remember a mass of things, but nothing distinctly. A quarrel, but nothing wherefore. Oh, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! That we should, with joy, pleasance revel and applause, transform ourselves into beasts! —Othello Act 2, Scene 3.

Well, I’ve missed a day already (it’s 12:09 a.m. on the 18th here in Japan.) In my defense, I decided to wait until I was drunk.

I just got home because today was the farewell party for a good friend and colleague who’s not only proposed to his longtime girlfriend but is moving on to a job with more work and less pay but more stability. Now, given that background, I could use this post to talk about friendship, marriage or ambition; I also could have written this before I went out, but since I thought I’d be home earlier–until we went to a place that had good food and cheap beer–and since I’m less than sober, let’s talk about drinking too much.

Many years ago I dated a recovering alcoholic. On occasion, we would go to places where I would drink wine or beer. She was impressed that I could stop after only a couple drinks.

I told her that I learned to do that the hard way. Back in my fraternity days I discovered the temporary joys involved in drinking a lot and immediately rushed out to drink a lot. I could usually control it but that was mostly a matter of not having much money. One year, for reasons that border on laughable, I was appointed Chaplain of my fraternity. This is one of the easiest jobs in the house because you’re only responsible for organizing ceremonies, which don’t happen very often. Instead, I instituted a regime of Spiritual Demerits for those house members who didn’t live up to whatever ideals I decided were necessary at the time.

One Thursday, as was our tradition, we had an L.A. Law party, which amounted to buying a six-pack of Corona Beer and drinking while the tv show was on because that seemed a very yuppie thing to do and we really didn’t need much of  pretense to start drinking. (Okay, I drank Corona. So what?) After that, we decided to go drinking and, for various reason, I didn’t have to buy any. I then met my friend Steve who guided me to a new bar where I consumed more free beer and something called a Kamikaze, which is a shot consisting of tequila, triple sec and lime juice.

To make a long story short, there was some evacuation of stomach contents involved at the bar and, on the way home, a toilet break in a clump of trees that somehow involved me falling over and smacking my head on a rock. I managed to get home, beat on the door rather than trying the combination lock and shocked my fraternity “pseudo little brother” (long story) by having blood all over my face. When he asked what had happened I explained “The rock flew up and behold the rock was hard” which actually made a kind of profound sense at the time.

What happened next is fuzzy. I remember sitting down to evacuate other parts of my body. I remember laying down on the floor in the stall. I remember getting up and going to bed. I didn’t realize that over two hours had passed between the time I sat down and the time I got up and that there’d been a discussion about taking me to the hospital or not.

I missed school the next day and was sick for three days. None of it was very pleasant, but I learned how to turn off the drinking once I got started. I learned at which point I should switch to water. I also learned to eat more to help slow down my drinking. I no longer felt the need to match people drink for drink. As a result, I’ve not been sick from drinking since then and have managed to remember everything I did, for better and for worse. Unfortunately, I even remember that time after I first came to Japan when I sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” with my boss at a karaoke bar. But that’s fodder for another post.)

You think you can out drink me? Really? Really? You’re right. You win. Drink up.

Broadly Publicly Speaking

Today I watched a group of Japanese high school students give speeches in English.

This is especially impressive because, according to an oft cited, and in some cases replicated survey in the 1977 edition of the Book of Lists, the number one fear people have is speaking before a group. This fear beats out insects, sickness and death. Jerry Seinfeld said “This means, for the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

Oddly, I’ve never had this fear. I’ve been nervous before a speech, but I’ve never been afraid of speaking before a group. (Speaking to people one on one, though, is closer to number one for me and fodder for another post.)

I vaguely remember acting as narrator for a Christmas production in early elementary school and doing various reading bits in church. I’ve given speeches before businessmen and Air Force personnel and even dabbled in acting. I’m pretty good at extemporaneous speaking and can, on occasion, make funny jokes. I don’t remember ever being afraid.

That said, I do understand the fear. I’ve become nervous during speeches when a joke failed or I wasn’t getting any response. In such cases I lose my rhythm and intonation and become more reliant on notes than I should be.

I gave one such speech last December to a group of junior high students who’d just finished watching the school’s annual English speech contest. It was an off-the-cuff speech so I started with a joke that I’d used on other occasions about knowing how much they love giving speeches. This time, though, the line got zero reaction. Then rather than just saying “Good job everybody. See you next year.” and running for cover, I made the terrible mistake of trying to save the speech, forgetting that 97% of the audience couldn’t understand a word I was saying and the other 3% couldn’t have cared less that I was saying anything. That just made matters worse. Eventually I was dragged away by a team of men armed with chains and a large hook.

There was no use defending the speech and since then I’ve happily participated in the joke about how bad it was, while secretly hoping it means I never have to give another speech like that again. (Hey, I said I was good at it; I didn’t say I liked doing it.)

That, though, hints at why I think people fear public speaking more than death. If you die, all your problems are finished one way or another. If you give a bad speech, you hear about it for a very long time and get to relive it a few more times.


The TV to Meet the Faces that You Meet

If last time I was communing with ghosts, today I’m channeling my inner seventh grader and longing for the glory days of Japan’s late night television.

Japanese late night broadcast television used to be a cesspool of skin, raunch and over-sexualized dramas. In other words, it was an awful lot of fun. Unfortunately, times change and Japan, under pressure to improve the image of the image it presents of women, began to clean up. Mind you, the status of women hasn’t improved–it took Japan 30 years to approve the birth control pill; but only six months to approve Viagra.–just the presentation.

Before this change, Japanese TV had such gems as Gilgamesh Night, which was hosted (hostessed?) by women porn stars. It was modeled after an ordinary talk show but featured such unique segments as “Lingerie Photo Break” which featured a scantily clad photo shoot and “Bathtub Cinema” which featured naked women in baths reviewing current movies. (Don’t look at me like that. It was more fun to watch than Rex Reed and infinitely more intelligent.)

Late night also featured Tonight2, which was a news program that followed the more prurient side of life in Tokyo. Instead of Valentine’s Day stories such as  “what kinds of chocolate are good girls getting their boys?”, it presented what the strip clubs, soap lands and hostess clubs were doing special for Valentine’s Day. It was also the only Japanese show I’ve ever seen present the dark and lonely side of the hostess and soap land life. Unfortunately, it cleaned up and started doing reports on ramen noodle shops that seemed disturbingly similar to day time television.

There was also Miniskirt Police, (link probably Not Safe for Work) which only existed to put young models in skimpy fetish outfits and put them in events that resulted in lots of up-skirt shots and revealing accidents. As twisted as it was, it was more honest about what it was doing than the Miss Teen Pageants.

The ultimate TV show, though, was Super Jockey (please pause for a moment of silent genuflection). Super Jockey was the ultimate infomercial. Young models and singers, usually women, would come on the show to advertise their latest photo book or album. In order to do so, they had to change into bathing suits quickly and then subject themselves to scalding hot water. Every second they spent in the tank earned them time to talk about what they were selling.

Allow me to offer a couple Not Safe for Work clips that feature women who went on to be quite successful  in Japan. The short clip is actress and singer Emiri Henmi. The longer clip, which shows the full process, is Yuka, who became a popular model, actress and talk show host. You don’t need to understand Japanese to understand what is going on and what’s being sold.

The best part about Super Jockey is it was on at 1:00 p.m. on Sundays.

However, for better and for worse, all this has gone away and Japan has proven that the line between “mature” and “boring” is quite thin indeed. The result is an endless supply of news programs and sports programs that all cover the same stories, and unfunny comedy shows hosted by unfunny comedians. For example, a few years ago, Sekai no Nabeatsu was the hottest comedian in Japan because when he counted he made funny sounds on numbers with three in them or that were divisible by three. (Here’s a taste, you only need to watch the first couple minutes. You don’t need to understand Japanese to see how stupid it is.) That routine earned him his own talk show. Luckily, fame in Japan for even the hottest comedians is quite fleeting.

There are a few saving graces. Japan hasn’t discovered the endless array of staged “reality” shows that infect US television. There were a couple versions of Survivor, but those went away. There’s also a comedy competition modeled after “X Factor”. A few retro-style shows are even beginning to slip back in. There’s a “let’s find the best beach resort in the world” infomercial that’s basically an excuse to show international models in bathing suits. And there’s a Friday night drama with story lines that alternate between raunchy, funny and raunchy/funny.

Although there’s hope, I’m afraid to say that Japanese television has become a nice place to raise a child. At least it appears to be one.

Images, Emotions and Ghostly Apparitions

I’m in a philosophical mood tonight–you have been warned–because I spent the afternoon communing with ghosts.

No, I’m not being followed around by Dr. Malcolm Crowe and trying to get him to realize he’s dead so he’ll leave me the hell alone. No, I’m not trying to get people to crossover into the light because our apartment building was built on their graves. No, I haven’t been watching too much American Horror Story (in fact, I barely got through season one and then they kept Dylan McDermott and got rid of Connie Britton. I mean, really?).

Instead I’ve been looking over old pictures of old friends and old haunts posted on the Hayden High School group on Facebook.

This got me thinking about old friends and it occurred to me that, in many ways, friends are very much the same as ghosts. They always inhabit the same time and place. They are always linked to the same emotions. They are always the same age. They always do the same things. They always talk the same way. They always wear the same clothes.

Meeting the same people years later is not the same as meeting your old friend. They are a mere hint of what they used to be. My best friend from when I was growing up in Colorado now makes brooms for a living and speaks with an Arkansas accent. My best friend from university is  paid to watch soccer and has also become a talented artist. The kid I grew up with builds hot rods and barely had time to see me that last time I was in the USA.

They are different people and although it’s fun to reminisce, I need to get to know them again now that they are not who they were. Now that they have much more interesting stories to tell about experiences we didn’t share.

I suppose this feeling is part of the fun of aging and becoming more experienced and learning more about the world. It’s the same as going back to your kindergarten or your elementary school and realizing how small it actually was but remembering in your bones how big it felt. I had the same feeling when I managed to sneak back to Hayden High School after having been away a few years. I remember Mr. Wenzlau, who taught history and social studies, smiling at my reaction–Yes, I spoke out loud as I’ve never learned to keep my mouth shut about things like that–and telling me, in so many words, that I’d seen more of the world and wasn’t the same person. (I remember thinking “Living in Salina-f&#%ing-Kansas counts as seeing the world?”)

It’s also, I suppose, a remnant of the glorious feeling we had when we were children that everything would always be the same. Friends wouldn’t move away; friends wouldn’t die; we really would be best friends forever. And maybe we will be. Maybe we are.

We just have to convince that old ghost in our heads to leave us the hell alone so we can move on.

Moving Here and There and Back There Again

It’s funny how moving from here to there makes you see large portions of your stuff as crap.

I spent the day packing and moving crap. More specifically, I spent the day binding old crap and setting it in the hallway so that someone else can throw it away. I put crap I’ll need into boxes so that someone else can carry it to a new building. I also carried some other crap to my new desk.

I’m in the process of moving offices because, for the past year, the school I work at has been building a new building around the old one. This involved first tearing down two-thirds of the old building, often while we were in it. (The rubble decorating this site shows off some of that destruction.)

This has got me thinking about the number of times I’ve moved in my life and how my perception of my stuff changed each time. I remember living in places when I was little, but I don’t actually remember moving to them. The first move where I remember moving stuff was when we moved from Denver to Hayden, Co. That one doesn’t count, though, because we simply moved our trailer from one place to another. Serious decisions were therefore not required–at least by me.

Then we moved from our trailer to a house. What I remember most about that one is how all the stuff from the seemingly smaller trailer didn’t seem to fit in the larger house. (I suspect this is why I’m a Doctor Who fan: I lived in the TARDIS.)

We then moved from Colorado back to Kansas. I don’t remember making any serious decisions then. The moves after that were pretty basic: home to fraternity, fraternity to apartment. Everything I owned could easily fit into my car. Serious decisions were therefore not required.

The first time I had to make serious decisions was moving from the apartment to Albania. Imagine how hard it is to pack for a two week trip. Now multiply that difficulty out to two years and you’ll understand the decisions I had to make. (Spoiler: “He chose poorly.) In Albania I had to move four times (long story that will take many posts to explain) and each time began to reconsider how much crap I had. Then I left Albania and managed to shed a lot of crap, especially as a lot of my crap had worn out thanks to two years in a developing country.

I spent two years in Mississippi and had my first realization that I might actually be an adult when, for the first time ever, all the crap I owned couldn’t fit in my car.

From Mississippi I moved to Nou-Machi, Japan “for two years”. Three years later, I had my most expensive move, I moved from quaint, quiet little Nou-machi to megatropolitan Tokyo. To imagine how expensive this move was imagine driving the 21 miles from Salina, Kansas to Abilene, Kansas and then back again. Every mile, open the car window and toss out a 100 dollar bill. By the time you get back to Salina, you will have spent less than that move cost me (including moving crap and getting an apartment).

Finally, I moved my wife into the apartment, found an infant on the front step of my in-laws’ house (for the record: this is the official story we tell her; officially the second was found four years later under a bridge.) and then moved everyone to our current location just outside of Tokyo. That move involved a pretty serious purge of crap. (For the record, I kept the wife and child although I’m still not sure why they kept me. And to the person/people going “mmm hmmm” right now: Shut up.)

Now I’m moving out of the desk I’ve worked at for 14 years and after all this I’ve learned to toss out a lot crap. Not as much as I should, though. My new desk is already full of crap.

Eventually, and I know this because it always happens: I’ll need some of the crap I threw out.




A Bad Reputation and Too Many Pens

I spent part of the day at the 15th Annual World Fountain Pen Festival. Despite the temptation, I didn’t feed my addiction. I was more like an alcoholic walking around a bar picking up glasses and sniffing them.

For this addiction, I can definitely blame my father as he’s the first to slip me the drug. Someone had given him, I think as part of a set, a Cross Century fountain pen. He didn’t want it and I’d never tried a fountain pen before so I accepted it.

The first hit was free.

The first hit was free. (This is the replacement, though. It wasn’t free.)

It was love at first, er, write. (Something like that.) To use it, I was forced to do the thing that none of my teachers had been able to make me do: hold my pen correctly. I used to have a claw grip. Hold your pencil normally, then pull the tip toward  your palm and write with the pencil vertical and the tip directly under your index finger knuckle. Feel free to grip the pencil as tightly as possible. Writing that way gave me impressive calluses on my middle finger and my little finger but didn’t do much for my handwriting.

Using the Cross was more comfortable and, for a while, although it would eventually become barely legible, my handwriting improved. I kept that pen longer than any other pen I’d ever owned but eventually lost it. I quickly replaced it and still have the replacement. Then, while I was in the Peace Corps, I bought a couple cheap Chinese Hero pens, that are direct copies of the Parker 51. I wrote a lot with them, but found the nibs too thin. I still have them and they still work. (Not bad for 15 cents apiece.)

This one's been used. The one in the box has never been taken out of the plastic.

This one’s been used. There’s one in the box that has never even been taken out of the plastic.

Then, while I was at Ole Miss, I bought an early Retro 51 fountain pen (200 series?). It had a thicker barrel and a bit more weight. I used it a while–and still have it, by the way–but then a friend introduced me to fountain pen crack: the Pilot/Namiki Vanishing Point. A fountain pen that acts like a clicky ball-point pen. There’s no cap. You just click it and use it. Let me say that again: you click it like a ball-point pen, but it’s a fountain pen. Genius. I used them so much that the barrels began to break. I still have them, but don’t use them. Instead I use a more contemporary version.

An okay pen that has always felt creaky when I used it. Nice weight, though.

An okay pen that has always felt creaky when I used it. Nice weight, though.

They look like pens, but they are actually coated with a drug that makes you want more. And more.

They look like pens, but they are actually coated with a drug that makes you want more. And more. And more.

Unfortunately, about the time I got the Cross, I developed a sudden aversion to lending my pens to other people. Nothing wins friends and influences people more than having a pen in your hand and saying “No” when asked “Do you have a pen I can borrow?” The few times I did lend my fountain pens, the borrowers gripped them by the nibs and got ink all over their fingers. Oddly, they blamed this on me which neither won friends nor influenced people. (Although saying “Don’t ruin the nib you moron” might have contributed to that, too.)

I quickly learned to carry spare pens to loan to the unwashed masses lest they become inky and, well, forced to wash. This led to the spectacle of me holding a pen but saying, “just a minute, I need to find a lesser pen for you to use” (something like that) when asked “May I borrow your pen?”.

I then moved to Japan, which is the Mecca of stationery and pointy writey things. And, of course, I must try them so I can experience Japanese stationery culture, or something. This means I have roller balls and gel ink pens. Pens with glass tips. Pens with brush tips. Actual brushes, and an old brush and ink kit that looks kind of like a pipe.

Also, just about 40 years since my father gave me that first hit of Cross, I have several fountain pens, some of which actually work, with a couple more on order (damn you Kickstarter!) I also have several bottles of ink occupying space on my desk.

As for the pen show, it wasn’t as much fun as the Pointy Stabby Things show because everything was being sold by store clerks and not by the actual makers. (The one maker who was there was constantly busy and I never got a chance to talk to him.) They also didn’t seem keen on photography. Sailor Pens’ relatively famous custom ink blender was there, but there was no other ink for sale. I did get to try a bunch of pens but didn’t buy anything. I am, however, casually checking out the prices on the internet. Just for curiosity’s sake.

I can quit any time I want.


Note: Updated 8 March 2015 with pictures.