Monthly Archives: January 2015

Editorials and Litigious Leisure

I was once almost sued because of something I wrote. The crappy part is I didn’t learn about it until the case was dropped which means I can’t claim I was a persecuted writer.

Several hundred years ago when I was at Kansas State, for reasons I don’t remember (money) I applied to be a columnist for the Kansas State Collegian and, surprisingly, was accepted.

By luck I landed the prime spot on Monday. This allowed me to pay attention to events during the week and then write about it on Friday for publication on Monday.

Being a columnist was kind of odd. We were simultaneously part of and outside the news staff. We were more like specialists who dragged ourselves in once a week to write on whatever topic struck our fancy and then fled before the police could arrive. (Something like that.)

Being a columnist also had two odd effects on my life. First, people I didn’t know would say “Hey, Dwayne” and start talking to me as if they knew me (as my mental Rolodex flipped cards and tried to match a name to the face). People also felt it was okay to casually snipe at one of my columns if they didn’t like the cut of my political jib.

The other odd effect was the lawsuit. Sort of. Every now and then I couldn’t come up with a single coherent topic and I would instead resort to random aphorisms, observations and questions. For example, I’d write something like “Do athletes actually graduate from the University of Oklahoma or are they just transferred to maximum security?” and then move on to a new topic.

In once such column I went after an easy target, the Department of Leisure Studies. I wrote something like “What is Leisure Studies? What do Leisure Studies’ majors study? Do they get more credit for going to class or for staying home?” It was an obvious joke and I probably could have thought of something better, but I wrote it and forgot about it.

A few months later I was in the newsroom writing a column when all of a sudden the editor casually said something along the lines of  “I forgot to tell you Leisure Studies was going to sue you.” I paused for a minute and then I and the devils over my shoulders all went “WHAT?” at the same time. She explained that someone in the department had felt I’d defamed the program and they were going to sue me for slander, libel or being a jerk.

She also said the newspaper legal people explained how the lawsuit was a bad idea and Leisure Studies dropped it.

I was young enough that I thought a law suit would have given me a certain amount of credibility. Almost getting sued wasn’t as impressive, especially as I didn’t know it until it was too late to be impressed.

I had the last laugh though. Leisure Studies would eventually change its name to the Department of Kinesiology, which is much more intimidating. I’ve always taken credit for forcing that change.

This is What We Was When We Was Them

Around the start of my second year in Albania I got see what I was like when I was still new. It wasn’t pretty.

For reasons I don’t remember, my friend Eddie and I were walking from the bus station past the Hotel Arberia, which was the hotel we stayed at upon our arrival in Tirana and which frequently served as our home-away-from hour Albanian homes. As we walked past, we stumbled across the fresh-faced and still foolishly hopeful faces of the members of Albania 002 unloading their stuff from vans and moving into their rooms. (They’d eventually be assigned host families, but for at least one night, they belonged to the Arberia.)

We immediately introduced ourselves and got a surprising amount of dirty looks. This was probably because 1) we were haggard old vets full of venom and cynicism; 2) they were in denial about what they were about experience; 3) being new, they already knew it all; 4) they were business advising volunteers meaning they really did think they knew it all and Albania was finally getting real help and 5) at least one of us old vets tended to be an asshole (hint, not Eddie).

Our main job that day was to tell them they’d just missed afternoon water and wouldn’t have running water again until around 2-3 a.m.

Later, as Albania 002 settled in, the best of them were a lot of fun to be around, but the worst were always convinced they were the real volunteers and we were just riff-raff that blew in from Italy. My favorite moment involved having drinks with a couple members of 002. One of them was pontificating about how some business volunteer in Russia had complained that although he was an experienced businessman, the Russians had him making copies.

My friend Robert said something to the effect of “What’s wrong with that? Why shouldn’t he make copies? He’s there to do what the Russians want him to do.” I thought the guy from 002 was going to burst into flames.

In the mean time I was also thinking “They have access to a copier? Cool.”

Now, of course, I understand how lucky we were to have been part of Albania 001. Even though we were the experiment, we got to be the experts without anyone else around to burst our inflated delusionary bubbles. If we’d been Albania 002, we’d have probably been jerks too. Or at least I would have.

Baby Sitting Boys and Pretending

One of the quirks of the school where I work is that I have to teach students who are about to graduate. If they don’t come to class, though, it doesn’t matter.

At the school all third year high school classes are electives. This is fun for most of the students and almost all of the teachers. The only thing that’s not fun is when students are forced to take classes in subjects where they need to boost their GPA’s.

For example, if students want an automatic recommendation to the affiliated university (without having to take an entrance exam) they have to have a 51% or higher average in all their English classes. If they achieve that in two years (high school is 10th, 11th and 12th grades) they don’t have to take English their final year unless they want to. If they don’t achieve that, they have to take enough English classes to get their scores up.

As a result of this, they tend to gravitate toward easier English classes. As a result of THAT, I usually name my class “Super Mega Hard Impossible English” or “Abandon Hope All Ye Who English Here” (something like that).

Whatever the reason for taking English, by the end of December, they know if they are going to pass are not and teachers who are not passing them are sometimes “encouraged” to offer “second chances”. However, for reasons I still don’t understand, students still have to attend class at least one time in January. The classes have no marks and students are free to skip them, especially if they are taking an exam to enter a different university.

In the past I’ve shown movies but that was always frowned on. This time I gave a “Write a letter to your future self and remind him what your goals are now” writing assignment. Two guys did it. Two others talked most of the time and then wrote a few sentences. One guy didn’t show up until the second hour and wrote very little. Two students never showed up at all.

There’s nothing I can do though, so I just let the students who came to class play. What bothers me the most is why they’re actually coming to school when they don’t have to. That’s either dedication or madness.


Beautiful Plus Musical Equals Madness and Insanity

It started out like a forum post from a men’s magazine; it ended with musicals.

During my second year in Albania I had a chance to attend a Peace Corps conference in Slovakia. This involved pretty much the entirety of Peace Corps Albania 001 and 002 flying to Budapest and then scattering to the winds for a few days and eventually assembling at a ski resort somewhere in Slovakia.

I ended up traveling with two friends, let’s call them the Beautiful Miss A and the Beautiful Miss B (although their names are similar they were not related). From Budapest we caught a train to Prague. This involved all of us sharing a berth that consisted of two benches and just the three of us.

My brain started processing impure thoughts and possibilities and ways to get past all the baggage involved in order to act on the impure thoughts and possibilities. (I’m a Peace Corps volunteer currently serving in a developing country. I never thought these stories were real until one developed in a foreign country. Etcetera.) Unfortunately, there was way too much baggage involved: One of them was the right woman; the other was the wrong woman. Instead, we processed through the usual small talk and periodic fits of silence.

Somehow musicals got brought up. This triggered an impromptu karaoke session involving the Beautiful Miss A and the Beautiful Miss B who have apparently memorized the lyrics of every musical ever made and they proved it by singing most of them.

I was entertained at first because both of them were good singers, but eventually the male brain rejects musicals, even when sung by beautiful women. Somewhere during the second act of A Chorus Line I huffed/sighed and earned a “Well, why don’t you sing something you like?” To which I responded “Because I’d rather slit my own throat.” (something like that. Remind me again: why don’t I get invited to parties?). Eventually they ran out of songs and we all got a few hours sleep before our short yet complicated adventures in Prague. (Which are another post.)

Eventually we also made it to the ski resort in Slovakia and the conference.

I don’t remember the purpose of the conference and I don’t remember attending a single seminar. All I remember is cross country skiing with a different friend and almost the entire soundtrack to A Chorus Line.

Steak Glorious Steak and the Glories of Steak

I’m from Kansas and grew up in Colorado. This means, by default, and perhaps by genetics, my favorite food is dead animal flesh.

My favorite form of dead animal flesh is beef, in all its various forms, from a freshly wounded steer. Cooking is barely required. In fact, when asked how I want my steak cooked I usually say something like “just stab it and bring it to me”. Quite frankly, if a good veterinarian can’t save the animal’s life, my steak is overcooked.

The problem I’ve had when I travel is that very few countries know how to cook steak. The Albanians didn’t; the English just boiled the flavor out of it and put it on sandwiches; the French drowned it in cream sauce; and the Germans, well, I don’t know, I slept through Germany.

The only people who do steak well, oddly, is the Japanese. I’ve even seen a woman from Western Kansas try Japanese beef and then struggle to try to figure out how to tell her father, a cattle rancher, that he’s no longer the best at his job.

The problem with Japan, though, is that for reasons too complicated to go into–short version: an absurd number of steps between rancher and consumer–domestic Japanese beef is more expensive than imported beef. Japan tries to defend its beef by periodically banning US beef and setting odd rules–for example, T-bone steaks are illegal because of fears of BSE. All those bans do, though, is open up the market for Australian beef.

(Note to Aussies: you’re beef is good but since I haven’t tried it in your country, it doesn’t count.  Officially, therefore, Australian steak sucks.)

This means that it’s very rare to find Japanese beef in a restaurant or in the grocery store for less than the price of a new car (more or less). Every now and then local stores run a special and it’s possible to acquire the lower end versions of high end beef at a cheaper prices. I once had Matsusaka Beef steak for only eight dollars or so. (It’s usually 100 dollars a pound.)

Even with a too good to be true price, it was still one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten.

Tonight we took our oldest to Steak Gusto which, for a family-style chain restaurant has good steak (as long as you don’t go to the one closest to our house) and a very rare all-you-can-eat salad bar that, lately, has been a not-much-for-you-to-eat salad bar.

I cheated a bit, and got a hamburger steak topped with foie gras. (Note: a place like this serving foie gras is a bit like Taco Bell serving Cristal with a Locos Taco and you are allowed to question its authenticity. Faux Gras?) The reason it was cheating is I knew I’d eventually get samples from the steaks ordered by She Who Must Be Obeyed and the girls.

Sure enough, although the girls did an excellent job without much help from me, the steak I didn’t order arrived on my plate. It was all good.


Not As Complicated Baby

Since yesterday I talked about the arrival of our oldest, it’s only fair I talk about the arrival of our youngest.

When our youngest was born there were fewer complications and a lot less snow. This is partly because she had the good foresight to be born in the summer which made it easier for me but brought a few other problems.

First, I was working until the middle of the month which meant while She Who Must Be Obeyed was hoping it would be over soon, I was hoping she’d put it off until after exams, pass-backs and final marks. I was, of course, hoping for a healthy and happy child and that She Who Must Be Obeyed would have an easy delivery. However, I didn’t want the paperwork and endless series of phone calls and attempts at Dad-Shaming leaving work before the end of term would have triggered.

Luckily, our youngest was late. (She’s a girl, remember.)

(Before people start throwing things I feel it only fair to point out our oldest arrived on the exact day the doctor predicted which means she’s been on time once in her life.)

I was able to stay at our in-laws until the serious contractions started but this meant a late night drive to the hospital on a road with a reputation for having a lot of accidents. The highlights of the trip, Mother of She Who Must Be Obeyed reaching around Father of She Who Must Be Obeyed and shoving hard candy in his mouth scaring the crap out of both him and me. The logic of this act involved the fact that if he’s choking he’s not falling asleep at the wheel (or something like that). The other highlight involved tollbooth attendant carefully quizzing Father of She Who Must Be Obeyed to see if he was fit to drive.

The hospital was the same as where our oldest was born which meant I could stay with She Who Must Be Obeyed for most of the night–the preliminaries lasted seven hours or so–but could not go in the delivery room. (One of this hospital’s rules.) I waited outside the delivery room, though, and was able to rush in once our youngest was born.

The final complication involved the hospital’s refusal to turn on the air conditioning at any time during our stay. It’s not an exaggeration to say our youngest was born in a sauna.

Our youngest screaming "turn on the damned air conditioning!"

At 25 minutes old our youngest screams “turn on the damned air conditioning!”



Adventures in Baby Waiting

Just over 14 years ago our oldest arrived and, like all things involving me, there were a few complications.

(Note: Officially our oldest has been told we found her on her grandmother’s doorstep in Nou-Machi. Our youngest has been told she was found under a bridge. Please maintain this official story despite any contradictory information provided in this post.)

The first complication involved She Who Must Be Obeyed moving back to her parent’s house until the delivery. This gave her experienced and competent people nearby but put me on the other side of Japan. My job was basically to keep doing my job and be ready to travel at a moment’s notice. Sort of.

The second complication involved language. When I finally got the call that things were happening, the call was kind of vague. I was told, by She Who Must Be Obeyed, that she  was going to the hospital but that there was no hurry because the contractions were several days apart (or something like that) and I should just wait. Unfortunately, I’d been in Japan long enough to question what I was being told and spent a good part of the next couple hours checking various Japanese/English dictionaries and an NSA code book to see if I’d missed something in the message.

When I finally got the call to move, I encountered the third complication: a crap load of snow (that’s a technical term) that slowed down the train. Somehow I finally arrived at the hospital, although it involved moving through a maze of snow piles.

Once in the hospital, I got to see She Who Must Be Obeyed a few moments and enjoy her loving “damn you for doing this to me” looks and then took up my position in the waiting room outside to get properly nervous. (Long story about why I wasn’t in the delivery room.) Less than an hour later, as I was selecting a proper location to begin pacing, I was informed our oldest had arrived.

I rushed in for the first pictures and was shocked to see that, at her most slimy, deformed and “uncooked”, she actually looked like me. (Fortunately she ended up looking more like She Who Must Be Obeyed.)

Now not only do I have a teenaged daughter, but at age 14, she’s already had a year of practice. She’s taller than She Who Must Be Obeyed and better at math than I was. (I’m better at taking stuff and hiding than she is, though, especially when it’s her stuff and I’ve told her to turn it off and study.)

She’s perfected the eye roll and I challenge anyone with a teenage daughter to an eye-roll contest. (Email pictures of your teen daughter giving her best eye-roll and we’ll see who’s best.)

Despite this we decided to have another one; but that’s another story.

When she was at her most incomplete, she actually kind of looked like me.

Only 20 minutes old and already practicing her skeptical look.

Ring in the New Forget You Forgot the Old

Oddly, after a season that includes the Forget Year Party and special food and lots of drinking, the Japanese ring in the new year with a fairly boring party. Alcohol is involved, of course.

Sometime after the new year, a lot of Japanese companies hold the Shinnenkai or New Year Party. This is a much quieter affair that is supposed to celebrate friendship and team and teamwork. Like all Japanese parties, it is timed to the minute and the theme is “I love you guys. Let’s have a great and productive new year and let’s never forget to forget what happened at the Forget Year Party and never talk about it again. Cheers.” (Something like that.)

In my experience, the Shinnenkai is the only time I’ve seen a break from traditional party food like sashimi, cooked fish, and some kind of meat (a technical term) but even those had issues.

At one party we had Chinese food, including shark fin soup (which is way overrated for the price and the amount of cruelty involved; give me fresh tuna and dolphin any day).

At my favorite party, thoguh, we went to an Italian restaurant in Nou-machi that is one of the best restaurants in Japan especially if you’re there during crab season. Our menu included different kinds of pasta, including the restaurant’s specialty of crab sauce pasta, and lobster thermidor. We also had wine instead of beer, although some beer was served and I kept having to explain that I’d much rather have the Samuel Adams and not the Budweiser because Bud isn’t worth six dollars a bottle. Actually, very few beers are worth that much.

My principal wasn’t a big fan of the food as he enjoyed the traditional Japanese party dishes. He also, somehow, managed to track down a bottle of sake, which I shared as well.

There were no silly games and no men dressed as ballerinas, just a couple extra speeches.

Actually, I think the men dressed as ballerinas would have been more interesting.

Today You Are an Adult So Sit Down, Shut up and Listen

One of the things that the Japanese almost have right is the idea of celebrating adulthood. Unfortunately, the way they do it is often the wrong idea.

This past Monday was Coming of Age Day, a national holiday where all the people who turned 20 the year before get to officially celebrate their coming of age. For those who may not know, age 20 is the age where “everything” is legal. Specifically this means 20 year olds can legally drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. (They’ve been of legal age to star in porn movies, though, since age 18. Go figure.)

Traditionally, on Coming of Age day, women dress up in expensive kimono and get their hair done whilst the men get a choice of suits or male kimono. They then go to shrines for various ceremonies and, if they are lucky, they escape and go drinking as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, it’s also a tradition that towns hold their own coming of age ceremonies which usually involve dozens of drunk men and women in kimono assembling in a bland auditorium to listen to speeches about the responsibilities of adulthood.

This is where I think the Japanese go wrong. Although I like the idea of a day that celebrates you officially being an adult (perhaps without frisking) I don’t like the idea of the newly minted adults being lectured to like children about being an adult. Having gotten in trouble during a long speech when I was sober, I shudder to think what I would have done if I was drunk.

Actually, it would probably look like an incident several years ago, when several men rebelled by making lots of noise, running up to the podium to take proto-selfies (which used to be called “photographs”) with the mayor and, in one case, fire poppers full of confetti at him. Several of the men were then introduced to concepts like “arrest” and “jail time”. (Yeah, technically that’s more my speed I’m afraid.)

The funny part of all this is, I hated being age 20. I still can’t get my head around the idea of celebrating it.


Raise Up a Child and Then Film Them Going

One of the odd things that happens in Japanese television that couldn’t happen in the same way in American television is the way they mess with kids.

Right after I got to Japan, I saw a documentary about the musical Annie that showed the borderline abuse that the girls were put through, especially if they messed up the complicated hand gestures in once particular song. The director would sit back and basically call the girl making the mistakes a moron until she started crying and then he’d mock her. I saw this repeated a couple more times when the cast changed.

About the same time there were shows that were more violent versions of the games that used to be seen (and for all I know may still be seen) on Nickelodeon. My favorite involved a sending a pair of kids into a zombie themed haunted house (that was based on some video game that had just been released) and scaring the crap out of them whilst they solved puzzles or did dangerous stuff.

At one point they even had to eat things they didn’t like. The funniest boys changed plates sending their zombie guide into an angry tizzy that involved grunting and pointing (which is pretty much how I communicate now). At the end of the haunted house, they had one minute or 45 seconds to grab treasure out of a room that included games, computer games, toys, clothes and bundles of cash. Without any help from their parents they grabbed mostly toys.

Lately the trend has been more gentle but still interesting as Japanese TV steals from Lenore Skenazy  who became the worst mom in the world (at the time) for letting her nine year old son ride the New York subway home by himself. (I recommend tracking down her presentations about this on YouTube as well as her website.)

What happens in one show, called Hajimete no Otsukai (First Errand), kids as young as two years old are given an errand by their mothers. “Go to the store, buy X, Y and Z, take the Z to your grandmother and pick up W, bring W, X and Y back home by supper time or I’ll beat you. You hear me? I’ll beat you.” Well, that last part is a bit of an exaggeration but the kids are given the assignment and some money and sent out. (This video has some English captions to give you a taste of what the show is like.)

Sometimes the trips are just around a couple corners or to the other end of town; sometimes they have to take a bus and figure out where to stop and how to get back. Dozens of disguised camera people follow them around but, as far as the kids are concerned, they are on their own. In one of my favorite moments a girl had to deliver her dad’s lunch to a local museum. Unfortunately for her (and for hungry Dad) the museum had a stuffed festival devil by the door and it took her a while to get the courage to go in.

It’s interesting to see the kids do things I had to do to save my parents the trip (and I’m always aware of the level of reality in “reality” television). It still works, though, especially for our youngest as this is her favorite show.

The kids often forget things or get sidetracked by ice cream and sweets or one kid dragged the bag and ruined some of the contents when the bag broke. There are lots of tears but also the obvious sense of accomplishment when the kids get back.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to send our youngest shopping.