Monthly Archives: April 2014

What You Think You Know is Not Enough

I usually get a couple of questions when people find out I’ve been studying karate for a long time.

1) Have you registered  with the government as a deadly weapon yet?
Answer: No. I haven’t and I won’t. That was a temporary thing the occupying forces did after WWII.

2) Does that shit really work?
Answer: Yes; unfortunately, so does a lot of other shit.

3) You study sword defenses? Where the hell are you ever going to need to defend yourself against a sword?
Answer: Scotland.

The longer I’ve studied karate the more I’ve realized it’s best I stay out of fights. It is a sport/art for the small and fast. I’m neither. I’m pretty sure I could hold my own long enough to make an exit (which, by the way, is pretty much required by Japanese law: when you can get away, you are obligated to get away) but I also think it’s best I never try to prove that.

Part of this is the way my style–and I’m sure many others–teach the various techniques. For example, one of the first things we learned was a defense against a knife attack. As the attacker slashes down at you, you stab both arms up and catch his arm between your crossed fists (right on top). Then, with your arms still extended, grab his arm with your right hand, and twist down as your left hand pushes on his shoulder and you drop to a low stance. At this point he should be bent over facing the dirt with his arm across your knee. Finish with an elbow blow that dislocates his shoulder.

Now, this all well and good and it’s awesome the first few times you do it. You start thinking, who do I know back home that lives in a bad neighborhood? What’s the worst neighborhood I don’t have to travel too far to get to?

Then, at the peak of your power and knowledge, as your aura glows blinding white with flashes of purple spirituality, they teach you the shockingly simple counter technique. You stab up with your fists to block the knife, but as you connect, the attacker jerks the knife hand back whilst simultaneously pushing your arms down with this free hand. He puts the knife to your throat and says “So you studied a little karate, eh?”

Every technique we do has a counter technique and we are authorized to do them at any time if the other guy is screwing up. We are also told to resist any techniques to force the other person to do them correctly. When we’re doing techniques against multiple attackers, the attackers are authorized to grab us from behind. They’re also authorized to go ahead and hit us with the knife or sword if we really screw up (been there, done that).

It helps you focus on the techniques. It also makes you think there’s no shame in running away. Or in using a can of pepper spray.


Booze Boxes and Backing Up Badly

I got my first summer job thanks to the 80’s hair band Ratt. This is amazing because I was not a fan of Ratt and not a fan of summer work. My musical tastes are absurdly eclectic (translation: moody) but I never got around to enjoying “Round and Round”. As for work, I was too much of a fan of loafing, in the Larry Darrell sense, to seek out summer work.

Instead, for reasons I don’t remember, I volunteered to help out my mother’s sorority who, I think as part of a fundraiser, were managing a concession stand at the Bicentennial Center during the concert. I apparently managed to impress one of the men working there because I was offered a job at a local liquor wholesaler.

Although delivering booze to liquor stores seemed, at least at the time, a noble cause, and did earn me some initial brownie points in my fraternity, there were a couple issues.

1) I would be driving.
2) I would be driving a van.
3) Driving a van would often involve backing into small spaces.

I am, at best, on a good day, an average driver. I never took to cars the way many of my friends did. Cars were merely transportation from point A to point B and a way to spend money on something other than myself. Driving in reverse in what, at the time, seemed like a giant vehicle was intimidating.

Once I got past that, I had a good time in the job. I became a slightly better driver and learned how to pack 150 boxes into a van with enough space to hold 120. I also got to know the locations of all the liquor stores in Salina, a couple in Abilene and one in Concordia. I learned which store owners deserved business; which were assholes who didn’t deserve business; and which needed business enough to sell to someone underage. (For the record, when I started working at the wholesaler, I was old enough to drink watered down beer. By the end of the summer, thanks to Kansas’ goofy drinking laws, I was no longer old enough to drink. Legally, that is.)

I didn’t go back to that job, not that they would have had me–hey, I only tried to knock out a roof support once whilst backing up the van–and eventually ended up working for a Peace Corps-esque project that sent young K-Staters to small towns to do development work and, for a while, a place where I built and smoked toxic disposable buildings.

I also ended up making pizza and tacos. That’s another post though. Time to loaf.



A Short Assessment of The Horror Which Awaits Probably

It’s late; I’m tired; and work has infected my brain.

Today was the end of our first full week of “teaching” at the school. Teaching is in quotation marks because the only information that was imparted was names, class rules and a couple impromptu demonstrations of how the students won’t like me when I get angry.

(For the record, I don’t turn green, I get red and loud.)

I usually like to assign some kind of short conversation; the students introduce their partners or, in one case, they lie about their partners and then the partners set the record straight. This lets me know who is willing to do work, who plays well with others, and who already has a decent level of English.

Everybody is carefully studying everyone else and students are trying to figure out what they can get away with. Most students usually don’t push things too far in the first week. They’ll make a little noise, but usually the first week is the only time that every student actually does a project.

Then I’ve got the kids who just put their heads down and go to sleep. I usually invite them to leave and hilarity ensues.

That happened twice today. One kid was clearly surprised by my reaction–he strikes me as the kind of kid other teachers are happy to see fall asleep. Another kid tried to drop attitude, partly because he clearly thinks his English is already good enough. The first kid will be annoying, but I suspect he’ll eventually do something. The second kid will discover I don’t mind spending a long time after school watching him do work. The latest I’ve stayed is until 7:00 o’clock waiting for a student to finish a speech.I’ve been known to make deals: sleep now, and we’ll study later. The school’s pretty good about helping us enforce detention. He’ll also discover that his partners don’t like losing points whilst he’s sleeping. Finally, he’ll discover I can teach just as well from next to his desk as I can from the front of the room. I’m a lot louder there, too. He’ll also get called on a lot.

In the end, he’ll do his work because he wants a good mark and the kid who’s been watching carefully will become the worst student.


Night Flight on Friday Nights

Throughout my life, I’ve been plagued by persistent memories of surreal snippets of film and TV–a door breathing at the top of a flight of stairs; a bouncing red ball George C. Scott can’t get rid of; a man with a glass hand who discovers he must spend a thousand years alone. They are sort of the visual equivalent of an earworm. For some of the snippets I could remember the source; for others I couldn’t.

All of them can most likely be attributed to my habit of staying up too late.

I’ve heard that it’s normal for teenagers to suffer from “Lost Boys” syndrome: up all night, sleep all day, and it’s true my oldest has begun to develop that quirk, but I’ve retained that well into my late 40’s. During long vacations, I slowly invert my sense of time and find myself staying up later and later.

When I did that as a teenager, not long after we got cable, I discovered a USA Network program called Night Flight that came on long after my mother had gone to bed. Night Flight specialized in showing odd things that no other program would show. Being a good Christian lad and member of the First Baptist Church in Hayden, Colorado, I wasn’t supposed to watch MTV–because it showed such degenerate, racy fare as The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”. Bow Wow Wow’s version of “I Want Candy” and Tony Basil’s “Mickey.” Night Flight, though, was running the uncensored version of Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” and running special features on videos too racy for MTV.

(Note: NO, I wasn’t, technically, supposed to watch Night Flight either, and NO, I didn’t have any discipline when no one of authority was around.)

(Note to Young People Under a Certain Age: MTV used to actually play music.)

I remember Peter Ivers spouting crap at the beginning of “New Wave Theater” and interviews with punk bands and young comedians. It also showed cartoons, Japanese action shows, short films and cult movies. For many years I remembered snippets of a cartoon where giants kept small humans as pets. Thanks to the internet, a couple years ago I searched around and figured out I must have seen Fantastic Planet one night. I also remember seeing Kentucky Fried Movie there and something that I think was The Clash’s Rude Boy.

Night Flight wasn’t watched, so much as experienced. Add in a half-asleep teenager with a brain of questionable status, and you get something epic.

Oddly, I didn’t watch it much after we left Colorado. I don’t know if that was for the best or not.

The Only Thing Constant is Changing Tastes

I just finished two fingers of the first bourbon I ever drank: Jim Beam. I remember drinking it for the first time when I was 10 or so. I didn’t drink very much and I didn’t drink it on purpose. I grabbed the wrong glass and thought it was iced tea. Luckily, there wasn’t much left in the glass which meant my entire head didn’t burst into flames, only my throat.

I also remember my parents giving us very watered down white wine for Christmas or Thanksgiving. The amount was barely enough to make the bottom of the glass wet.

All this has me thinking about one of the quirks of life that amazes me to this day: the way our tastes change over time.

As I became a teenager, I would try an alcoholic beverage that was called “beer”, more specifically Coors Light, and that pretty much meant that I wouldn’t be a huge fan of beer until a trip to England when I was at university. Mind you, I would drink beer, but it was mostly an alcohol delivery system, not something to be savored.

Dark beer eventually gave way to screwdrivers (orange juice and vodka) which gave way to Bloody Mary’s which, for reasons I still don’t understand, gave way to straight vodka, scotch and bourbon. (I’m guessing lack of money was involved and remembering that Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar liked straight vodka because it didn’t taste like anything which probably got me to try it.) I’m still not a fan of mixed drinks, especially sweet ones. I’ve slowly developed a taste for wine, despite unfortunate adventures with kosher wine and things called Mad Dog and Night Train.

Now, here in Japan, I’ve rediscovered beer and become an amateur sake snob.

I had a similar journey with tea. When I was a kid I remember putting enough sugar in a glass of iced tea to have a centimeter of undissolved sugar at the bottom of the glass. I remember gagging the few times I drank unsugared tea (that’s “unsweet tea” to those of you from the US South). Now, though, and I don’t know why, tea is the only thing I can’t drink sweet. When I was in Albania I used to horrify the Albanians, for many reasons actually, but especially for drinking hot tea without sugar.

Finally, there’s coffee–blood of life. The first coffee I ever tasted was a gruesome concoction of non-dairy creamer and artificial sugar. When I started drinking it at university, I ordered elaborate coffee drinks such as the double espresso, double double chocolate, double mint-mocha at the Espresso Royale which were basically desserts served with the coffee inside to save on cup cleaning costs. A lack of money got me back into tea and got me to try something they called “Americano” which the coffee shop claimed was a regular cup of Joe. Then I saw them make it and realized it was just a shot of espresso diluted with hot water. After that I put aside that “Tea, Earl Gray, Hot” bullshit and all that water ruined nonsense and started drinking “pure” coffee.

As for Jim Beam, it’s smoother and sweeter than I remember. Of course, I haven’t had any since I was 10.

Every Now and Then Something Sinks In

Despite my best efforts, every now and then something my teachers taught actually sank in. Not always for the better, mind you, but a few things sank in.

I remember one teacher claiming the moon landing was faked, although with that particular teacher it was hard to know how serious to take such proclamations. I also remember the same teacher saying that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes should sit for pictures and the “nobodies” should get to the other side. (I was Christian but not an athlete and not particularly keen on fellowship so I guess I counted as a nothing.)

Another teacher declared a girl in my class as “Most Likely to Become a Battered Wife” and would occasionally bring it up over the course of the year. I remember him talking about how females had a higher body fat levels than men and he said that he hoped the girl had the extra fat in her head because she’d need it to absorb the blows.

I also remember a teacher dealing with my hyperness and incessant yet random foot tapping by saying that if I didn’t stop it, she’d kiss me on the cheek in front of the class to embarrass me. It worked, although I was pretty good at embarrassing myself on my own. (Now days, of course, I’d be forced on to drugs if I tapped my feet too much.)

There were a lot of good things that stuck with me, too. I’ve already mentioned my issues with “wh-” words and how even Japan can’t break that. The teacher who threatened kiss me (Mrs. Gray?) was also a great English teacher. I also remember Mrs. Rickman, who invented the Vulcan death grip, and gave a great lesson on how a sheet of paper could go quietly into a trash bin without first being noisily crushed between teenaged hands. She’s also the first teacher I’ve ever seen attempt to bribe a student into not saying “ain’t” by putting 10 dimes in an envelope and taking one out every time he said “ain’t.” Any money left at the end of the week he got to keep.

I remember Mr. Fowler using a game to demonstrate how easy lending led to a farm collapse and depression in the late 1800’s. I still remember how silent those who’d been the richest got when they saw the year’s farm reports and realized they were busted flat.

The one that’s probably influenced me most as a teacher though, was Mr. Wagner’s “Who are you? and Why are you here?” introduction to American Literature when I was a junior. He basically told us that if we didn’t want to be in the class we were free to leave. In fact, we could drop out of school completely if we wanted. Our parents might go mental but they couldn’t stop us. The lesson was that if we were in class we were there because we chose to be there and, by choosing to be in class, we also chose to follow certain rules. I think I only saw him lose control of the class twice and there was the one time that everyone in my class cheated off one student when we were assigned to write about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance“. This was also his chance to give a concrete example of irony.

(For the record, I did not cheat. Rather, I failed to do the assignment at all.)

I use a variation of this talk here in Japan, especially when teaching high school first graders (10th grade). Many students who came through the system at the the school where I work got used to being able to get away with not studying and being difficult in class. The Japanese system requires that they attend and that the school take them. At age 15, after completing 9th grade, they can drop out. The bad habits they developed in junior high can persist, though, and even today a few of them were starting to revert to their old ways.

I wrote on the board:
You don’t have to be here.
If you don’t want to be here, you may leave.
If you choose to be in this class, you must work.

I said if they needed to sleep, they were welcome to go somewhere and sleep. If they wanted to talk to their friend, they and there friend were welcome to go some place and talk. I also reminded them that I could send them out if I needed to.

A few of them quieted down, at least for now. I have a former to teacher to thank for that.

Pleasing Your Elders With a Broken Finger and Some Alcohol

Lots of distractions this evening so I’m falling back on an “I got nothing topic” and also falling back on sports.

Not long after we earned our black belts, my friend Charles and I were invited to a special lesson for all the higher level black belts in the region as Kawamoto sensei, the founder of the style, was still in the area and he kind of seemed to like us. At these events, Kawamoto typically introduces the newest techniques and the changes to the old ones. (Once every year, the 8th dans and above get together to review all the techniques and show how A, B or C don’t actually work unless you do D, E and F. Those, by the way, are not the actual names of the techniques.)


The training took place in a community gym out in the middle of nowhere and there was a surprising amount of tension among all the trainees, especially the second highest ranked member in the room. Charles and I noticed this tension but didn’t feel it as we were 1) fascinated by what was going on and 2) oblivious.

This was also the first time I remember seeing the techniques done at speed. During one of the moves, a wispy middle-aged guy from another dojo jammed his finger or got it tangled up in a dogi. Either way, his ring finger was apparently dislocated as it was sticking up at a 45 degree angle from his knuckle. He looked at it funny, everyone asked if he was okay and he said yes and continued with the lesson. I vowed at that point to never, ever, try to take him in a fight.

This was confirmed later when he joined us for drinks, with his finger still at an odd angle. The tension was high as Kawamoto sensei held court and drank straight shochu, which was rare as most Japanese drown such things in water and fruit juice. Everyone listened very carefully as explained he’d been studying kendo and was impressed by the sport’s footwork and grip techniques (all of which, by the way, were eventually incorporated into our style).

Eventually, Kawamoto sensei left to catch the train back to Tokyo and as soon as he was gone, everyone relaxed and started having fun. The man with the injured finger finally admitted it hurt and everyone started joking and drinking too much. The closest I’ve ever seen to this in the USA is what happens when high ranking military officers are present in a room and what happens after they leave.

The funny part is, I don’t even remember what techniques we studied, but I remember having a great time.



Fear, Less Fear, Success, Running, Decent and A No Show

It’s karate day, and that means it’s time for a sports story.

Every odd numbered year my karate style hosts an international tournament of most of the dojos in the style, including one from Israel.

As part of the tournament, without any input from me, I am always scheduled for the kumite or fighting competition. This is something that not every dojo does. My dojo in Niigata was interested in breaking boards/hands but not in the sparring, whereas my current sensei regularly places in the annual 8th dan competition, and was champion once.

My first fight, when I was a second dan, was laughably bad as I was plagued with a lack inexperience and a deep sense of being scared shitless, this despite the heavy, kendo style helmets, body armor and gloves we wore. Each bout is two minutes long and is full contact above the belt. The first competitor to score two points using proper karate techniques wins–simply boxing won’t get you points, although knocking your opponent out will get you the victory. You can also use throws that while they don’t score make you look awesome which helps you win in the event of a draw.

I fought in the heavyweight division which meant most of my opponents were as tall as I. I also discovered my first opponent was a specialist who did nothing else in the tournament except fight. I got a couple kicks in and a punch but didn’t score. He eventually landed a couple punches and that was the end of the bout.

Two years later the best I can say is I wasn’t as laughable and I went the distance. I lost 1-0.

In my third tournament, I got a bye for the first round and then went up against an older man with a powerful punch that made little stars appear in my eyes the first few times he hit me but didn’t score. I eventually managed to score on a side step punch to his head and a back hand move that’s half block, half punch and looks a lot like swinging a sword over your head. In the next round I faced an opponent who liked to box but was too good to be defeated. He won with a perfect punch to my lower face mask that scrambled the world a bit, split my chin open and made me take a knee.

Important safety tip, kids: the gloves and helmets only inspire people to hit harder and a well-placed object in motion will set things in your head in motion, for a while at least. Don’t let yourself get hit.

Luckily, that was his second point and the match was over saving me the humiliation of not being able to go on. I ended up getting the third place trophy in that tournament which is, I think only the first or second trophy I’d ever actually earned in sports.

For the fourth tournament I came up against a guy who thought he was a combination of Bruce Lee and long-distance runner. He danced and ran around, trying to get in quick kicks but wouldn’t let me get near him. I suspect if I’d gone the distance in a scoreless match, I would have won simply for my attempt to do karate. Instead, he landed a couple roundhouse kicks to my hip that scored for reasons I still don’t understand. In the past, kicks below the belt didn’t score and using the same technique twice didn’t score the second time. In fact, stepping into the kick and letting it hit low was one of my standard defenses as it let me inside to deliver a punch.

For the fifth tournament, I met the eventual champion in the first round and he basically just kicked my ass. I held my own for a while and hit him and kicked him a few times but didn’t score. He hit me and scored and then read one of my techniques perfectly and put a front kick straight in my sternum.

Second safety tip, kids: don’t telegraph.

Last year I had to withdraw for medical reasons and was surprised how much I missed being in the fights as I watched them. It’s one of those things I always dread doing, but am always glad I’ve done, even when the world is a bit wobbly after I finish.

Team Teaching When Not So Much On The Team

I’m in one of THOSE moods today, which means I’m probably in a culture shock down swing.

One of the things that hurts me with both languages and sport is that I’m prone to periodic bouts of brain lock. I can practice the basic set plays in basketball and memorize subjunctives and modals and various tenses described as “perfect” but when the actual play starts, and things are moving much faster and more chaotically than in practice, my brain just sort of stops and says “Okay, so now what?” More often than not I’m left standing in one part of the court just sort of blathering to myself. (This, by colossal coincidence, is a pretty apt description of my dating techniques as well.)

It is, I suspect, a form of panic. Rather than living in the moment and reacting to what actually is going on, my brain searches out the perfect thing to do and, not finding it, just takes a little vacation, but I usually pull myself together and move on (albeit, from the far end of the bench whilst I’m holding the stats clipboard trying to keep track of shots and rebounds).

That said, there have only been a few times in my life where I felt completely helpless as a result of brain lock. In one case, it was a the result of ignoring a series of signs, and my own nature, and hoping for the best (which is also a symptom of brain lock).

Back when I was working in Nou-machi, as a rule, I tried to avoid teacher trips. They typically took place in the summer and the staff of the school bussed off to some resort town and had a drunken good time whilst the parents were, for a short time anyway, actually in charge of their children.

I was usually invited to join the trips, but the people issuing the invitations were clearly only doing so out of courtesy. There were a lot reasons for this, part of it having to do with me being a foreigner, and part of it having to do with me working for the school board and not for the school (long, long story that).

One summer, though, in a fit of brain lock, I thought “Well, why not? What’s the worst that can happen?” and said yes. The English teachers I worked with, Miss Kato and The Beautiful Miss Takahashi (not her real name–for the record, that is the phrase She Who Must Be Obeyed used to describe her) talked up the trip, which was to a famous lake and ski resort in Fukushima Prefecture. They talked about all the stuff they were planning to do.

Then, at a PTA party, or some such random drinking event, I said I was looking forward to hanging out with all the other teachers and with Miss Kato and the Beautiful Miss Takahashi. They both gave me that look (which is apparently universal to all women all over the world) and explained that “hanging out” was pretty much not going to happen as it was not an English department trip. (Cue ice cold wind sounds, shrieking and horror music theme.)

At this point, the part of my brain that actually, on occasion functions, took the hint (DON’T GO! GET YOUR MONEY BACK! HELL, LET THEM KEEP THE MONEY! DON’T GO!) I also seem to remember complaining about that incident to my friend Charles who said something like “You know, whenever I start to feel like a part of the team, something always happens to remind me that I’m not.” In retrospect, this was his way of saying DON’T GO! GET YOUR MONEY BACK! HELL, LET THEM KEEP THE MONEY! DON’T GO!

I, of course, went on the trip because the large part of my brain that was locked up thought things would work out.

Long story short: things didn’t work out. We had an expensive, microscopic lunch and rain cancelled the one set of activities everyone was most looking forward to. Therefore, everyone was in a bad mood when we somehow ended up at a glass factory/museum. No one bothered to tell me how long we’d be there or that most of the teaching staff were going to a nearby bar. At that point, I was in the middle of the basketball court two movements behind in the set play, out of position and pretty much already blathering.

What I remember most about this incident was the feeling of panic and not knowing what to do. I was stuck for two days with people who clearly didn’t want me around and weren’t bothering to keep me informed. After a while I want back to the bus for a short nap. To make matters even more interesting, they’d stuck me off in a room by myself which is something that never, ever happens on a Japanese trip because the group is too important to them.

However, it did give me some time alone to recharge and settle down and get my brain working again (well, so to speak). A long soak in the hot spring bath helped a lot, too (almost as good a form of therapy as a proper haircut).

I ended up having a good time drinking with the principal and vice principal and didn’t have to pay for any of the beer, whiskey or sake.

Since then, I’ve managed to avoid school trips, although I did stumble across someone else’s once on a trip to Kyoto. (But that’s another odd story.)





More In Common Than One Would Hope

Another work related one today. I do not have a one track mind. My mind runs on TWO tracks that go in the same direction.

Just over 14 years ago my company sent me for an interview at the school I currently work at. Before I went there, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say the powers what were at the company were speaking out of the sides of their mouths in a kind of “Shpeek odlee laik zees. Ze vallss haf earss” style and told me not to discuss the opportunity with the world at large (meaning anyone else in the company).

I was told I was heading to a top tier private Anglican school and that I shouldn’t tell anyone I was going there. I’m convinced they “disappeared” the other candidate who attended the interview.

When I got to the school, I was surprised at how plain it was. It was a long, three story building with an odd maroon/brick paint job. What really shocked me was the interior: it featured a slabular concrete look with narrow, dark hallways that seemed to stretch on for quite a distance. The concrete floors were cracked. I stopped for a moment because for a moment I was back at the Faculty of Foreign Languages in Tirana, Albania. In fact, to this day I’m shocked by how close the two buildings were and how disturbingly familiar the building in Japan felt.

There were a couple fundamental differences:

In Japan the hallways were dark because the lights had been turned off to save energy. In Albania the hallways were dark because someone had smashed all the light fixtures leaving, in most cases, just a few wires and bits of twisted metal.

In Japan, the windows were cheap and thin and basically served as energy vents that let heat escape during winter and let it enter during summer where it basically mocked the pathetic swamp cooler air conditioning system. In Albania, the windows had bars but no glass because someone had smashed them all.

In Japan, the blackboards were painted metal boards that actually could be written on with chalk. In Albania, the blackboards were black squares painted on the walls. Any attempts to use local made chalk caused gouges in the walls.

In Japan students could study English for six years and still respond to “How are you?” with “How are you?” In Albania, students could go from zero English to near-fluency in just about a year.

In Japan there’s a financial incentive for learning English but no one has bothered to tell the students. In Albania, the students knew they could make more money if they learned English.

In Japan, we have lots of places to get lunch, but they pretty much always serve the same things. In Albania, my boss would take me across the street to a vendor for qofte and a couple glasses of Raki before class. Needless to say, class usually went very well after that. (Note: Please don’t tell the Albanians Raki may have Turkish origins.)

Now, though, we have a new building that is bright and shiny, but looks disturbingly like the Academy of Arts in Tirana.