Monthly Archives: February 2015

Making Silly Newsletters and Not Working

There’s a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words. –Dorothy Parker

One of the oddest things about my writing history is that it’s full of silly newsletters. One of my strange skills as a writer is taking work events and turning them into occasionally witty silliness. I’ve done this at least three times, four if you count this blog. Well, maybe five.

The first newsletter I remember working on was during the summer I spent working in the Chelsea District of Kansas City, Kansas as part of a Kansas State University development project. I was part of team that consisted of five brilliant women and me (technically the mascot). Oddly, we all got along well, worked together well, and, well, didn’t like our boss. (Long story.)

Unfortunately, although we were often busy, occasionally we weren’t. During those times, I took it upon myself to “report back to headquarters”, which we were encouraged to do, via a strange newsletter I think I called the Gremlin. Its catchphrase was “Because We Know You’ll Pay”. In it I reported the odd news events involving us. Usually I reported our successes, but I also remember reporting on the issues two of our number had with cockroaches. It was silly, but well received, but full of the kinds of stuff you “had to be there” to find funny. (For example, the story of the girl, the cockroach and the towel that had been used for days.)

The next summer, I did the same thing when I was assigned to work in Jetmore. I don’t remember the name of the newsletter or its catchphrase, although I do remember reusing “Because We Know You’ll Pay” and then changing it.

My next newsletter appeared when I was in Albania. This one I also called the Gremlin and it also had a catchy catchphrase that has slipped my mind. The Peace Corps Gremlin was more angry than the others and was written and printed during my frequent trips to the Peace Corps office. (I may still have a copy one of these tucked away somewhere but the odds are slim.)

The next newsletter came about as my friends were leaving the JET Programme. As I’ve mentioned before, I kept friends up to date on sumo news and Japanese pop culture news. I dubbed it the “Crazy Japan Times” after the slightly more prestigious Japan Times newspaper.

When I put it online, my only real gimmick was a series of ever-changing “Pithy Epigraphs” under the masthead of the page. They were random, often famous, often insane and, to my mind were  often funnier than the newsletter:

Jolly Obfuscatory
A Tale Told By An Idiot
Prohibited Where Voided By Law
Crusty But Benign
Life With the Boring Parts
The Only Sane Man In The Room
Never Better Late
Eas In Crucem  (Note: To hell with You.)
Bobby Thumbed a Diesel Down Just to Watch Him Die

These newsletters have been a lot of fun, but they are ultimately empty and, if I were to go back an look at them, dated. (In my defense, in the last news letter I wrote back in 2006, Shinzo Abe was Prime Minister so maybe it’s not THAT dated.) They also didn’t have any momentum.

As for this blog, well, it’s my latest newsletter.




Putting Off Until This Year What Should Have Been Done

About thirteen years ago I started a website. Several years ago I pretty much abandoned it. Last year I almost lost it. Something about it, though, haunts me. Today, though it’s a good chance to talk about procrastination.

The website I started was called the Crazy Japan Times. It grew out of a series of newsletters I wrote to former JET Programme members and friends. The newsletters were based around Sumo tournaments, which happen every two months, and I started adding in quirky bits of pop culture and Japanese news along with the tournament updates. Eventually, someone suggested I actually start posting it online.

That part was pretty easy. However, because I only wrote a newletter every couple of months, the site never built a regular audience and I didn’t try to monetize it. I added a section on moving to Japan and getting an apartment that’s been reasonably popular, but once it was done, there wasn’t a lot much more to do with that.

Then, around 2006 or so, I got tired of doing the newsletters and then posting them, old school style (more on that later), on the site. Even though they only came out every couple of months, the newsletters were a lot of work. I’ve added a few book reviews and a couple videos about Japanese knife laws since I stopped the newsletters, but for the most part, the site’s remained untouched. The handful of “posts” I’ve done–Sochi Olympics news and a recent Super Bowl report–have all been done on Facebook.

Last year, I accidentally almost let the name lapse, but managed to get it back. That was more habit and hope than plan, though.

The problem is, the site needs a major overhaul and update. It’s so old-school it won’t show up on mobile devices. It’s also a pain to update without doing a lot of old school html coding (yes, it’s that old and yes I still code by hand. Sort of). Because of this, I’ve been putting off the update for almost two years. (You think you can procrastinate? You are an amateur. I’ll prove that to you later.)

This is mostly because there will be a lot of work in a short amount of time with a lot that can go wrong. (This leads to swearing, some stress, and a lot more swearing.) It’s also because I’m going to have to jettison the old design and start over, which feels kind of strange.

That said, my goal is to start that site again, maybe with some guest contributors, as the daily posts here come to an end or change in 12 days. (My year of posts ends February 19th.)

Tomorrow, when it comes, I’ll start the prelims of updating the CJT. If it goes well, I’ll be really happy this time tomorrow. If it doesn’t, well, at least I’ll have something to write about for post 354.

Fear and Loathing in Prague

I mentioned before how I traveled with a pair of beautiful women and then got driven insane by show tunes. I also learned, on that trip, why you should never travel with friends.

Our Prague trip started out well. We ran into a guy in the train station who rented us an apartment one block from Wenceslas Square, which is the heart of pretty much anything anyone would want to do in Prague. The apartment was nice, we could come and go as we pleased, we could cook for ourselves and it was a reasonable price.

Everything went downhill after that. Although there was a Mozart Festival going on, we’d apparently landed during a short hiatus. This meant there was nothing to see except a puppet version of Don Giovanni which is not something that interested us as 1) it’s a dark, depressing opera; and 2) puppets. (To see what we missed, see here.)

Instead, we ended up roaming around Prague, which is not a bad place to end up roaming. It’s almost annoyingly beautiful and well preserved. I managed to check out a couple exhibits about Franz Kafka and visit the castle that inspired his novel.

The problem was, we were three, which meant we didn’t always want to do things that interested all of we (something like that). Tension began building, especially as we had no real distractions other than each other, and we ended up going to a cinema to watch Schindler’s List (because that’s totally not more dark and depressing than an opera about sin and punishment).

After we watched Schindler’s List, we decided to go party. Yes, to understand how messed up we were at that point, and remember, alcohol was not yet involved, we watched a movie about the holocaust and then went out to find a disco.

Something punished us for that choice, though, because we saw a disco on top of a tall building and decided to go there. When we got there, we paid a hefty cover charge and then bought an expensive drink each. The club was well decorated and modern and mostly empty. It was playing some of the worst music ever. It was like someone was playing the music backward. Even if I’d wanted to dance, the music was impossible to dance to. (To this day I’m shocked such music exists.)

We left and found another club which turned out to be a lot of fun. It was full of locals and was great for people watching. (Unfortunately, I was still in my “stand off to the side and watch people” phase which, I’m assured, is normal and which, I’m also assured, I’ll move past some day.)

That one ended badly as well. One of my travel companions had decided she’d had enough, got the coat check ticket from me, and retreived her coat. Unfortunately, she neglected to all the coats. I then spent the next 20 minutes arguing with the coat check guy and describing everything in my coat and my other travel companion’s coat.

Eventually, all coats were retrieved. It’s the friendship that never quite got retrieved.

I should have gone to see the puppet show.

The Last Temptation of Campus

Back when I was in graduate school, I decided to see how many Christians I could possibly anger at once.

In my defense, I wasn’t the only one who thought this would be a good idea.

For reasons I don’t remember, I was part of a group called Kaleidoscope Films. Kaleidoscope operated out of the Student Union and specialized in bringing “little” and/or “artsy-fartsy” films (a technical term) to the union. Each member was assigned to recommend a film and then the group discussed and voted on them.

Once a film was chosen, a couple members were assigned to handle publicity.  This meant we had to make a large poster to put outside the Union Forum Hall and a smaller poster that fit on an A-Frame somewhere else on campus. This was all pretty painless and involved projectors and minimal art skills and couple hours every couple of weeks.

At least that’s what it involved before we decided to bring Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ to campus. We did this even though it had never been shown in Manhattan, Ks during its original release and even though we knew some people would have “issues” with it.

Like all things involving blasphemy and religion and evil, several meetings with “important authority figures” (IAF; another technical term) ensued. We were basically told to justify bringing such a controversial movie to campus and were are also assured, in so many words, that “free speech” was not an acceptable reason. So there.

In one meeting, I think with the man in charge of the Student Union, a group of us fielded several questions about our choice. The meeting was tense and we were all intimidated by the IAF and were stumbling around trying to avoid using the phrase “free speech.” At some point, the man asked why the movie was even worth seeing since someone in our group had just admitted it wasn’t textually accurate.

For some reason, although I knew better, the devils over my shoulders took over and I started talking.

Keep in mind, as you read what comes next, I don’t think I’d actually seen the movie or read the book at that point.

Also keep in mind that if you’re relying on ME to say the right thing, you are in desperate, desperate trouble.

I told the IAF that the movie allowed the director to focus on one element of the Christ story: his part human side. By trimming down the actual text, the director could explore that issue more than had been in other movies about Christ. It explored what was good about being human and what Christ was giving up to be the messiah. (I actually said more than that, but that was the gist of it.)

Whatever I said, it worked and we were allowed the show the movie. I don’t take credit for it, because a lot of people worked hard, but our chairwoman told me my answer was perfect. We did have to host a discussion about the movie, which is a policy exception we didn’t have to make for other movies. (If you search “The Last Temptation” in this link you can read Kansas State Collegian articles about the controversy.)

Although it did have some great moments, I was underwhelmed by the movie. The ending was kind of predictable.

Going Back Home to Not There

My only explanation for how I ended up at Ole Miss after the Peace Corps is one I stole from a movie: At the time, it seemed like a good idea.

Dating a poet, though, was not a good idea.

I’ve mentioned before that my plan was to get a “regular” Ph.D. in literature at a school with a strong creative writing program. This is because my Master’s degree had a creative final thesis and I thought it wouldn’t hurt to have a more rigorous thesis for my Ph.D.

After I got there, everything started out reasonably well when I managed to land half a teaching position–which was all that was still available at the time. I found myself once again teaching non-native speakers of English and once again in the familiar territory of school.

Unfortunately, the culture shock that hit was brutal. After two years in Albania, I suddenly found myself surrounded by people aspiring to be Marxists rather than those attempting to recover from the mess left by Marxists. (I won’t get into this, but suffice it to say that all university Marxists hear when you talk about the perils of Marxism and communism is “blah blah blah free stuff blah blah blah free stuff blah blah blah for me”.)

But even that wasn’t as bad as my sudden lack of interest in studying literature. I still liked reading it, I just didn’t enjoy the “oh so serious” discussions of it and the “oh so serious” and “freaking long” papers we were supposed to produce. The comfortable lifestyle was no longer comfortable. It also wasn’t interesting.

In the midst of this culture shock I started dating a poet. Let’s call her Abbey. Now this relationship broke a couple of my hard learned rules

1) never date someone in the same department;
2) never date a woman who has “it” when exposure to “it” makes you stupid and incoherent;
3) never date someone when you’re in culture shock and, thus, stupid and incoherent;
4) never date a recovering alcoholic;
5) if you do date a recovering alcoholic, don’t date her in her first year of sobriety;
6) Don’t start a magazine with someone you’re dating.

The relationship was intense and passionate right up until the day it ended. Unfortunately, at that point rule six had been violated and we had to work together for a few more months until the magazine’s first issue was published. We were both happy to see it finished and both happy to be finished with each other once and for all.

I spent most of my second year at Ole MIss applying to get out. My plan was to go to Japan for a couple years, do the reading for my comprehensive exams and then go back and finish.

I did all the reading, I just decided not to go back.



Demons Out Good Luck In Beans On Floor

Today my wife and children tried to run me out of my house by throwing packets of beans at me. First, though, we tried to drive our youngest out of the house.

While the USA is waking up hibernating rodents–and hoping New York Democrats don’t kill another one–all in the name of shortening Winter, Japanese people are throwing beans at demons to celebrate the end of winter and the lunar new year. (And they’re eating sushi. More on that later.)

Today is Setsubun, which in the traditional Japanese calendar is supposed to be the last day of Winter. Because it also serves as a kind of new year, it’s traditional to take the opportunity to drive out the evil spirits of last year and make room for good luck in the new year.

A lot of people do this at temples where they try to catch bags of peanuts thrown by celebrities.

This involves a couple steps. First, everyone eats an uncut sushi roll. To do this, a compass used to figure the exact direction to face (West-Southwest this year) and then everyone must eat their entire sushi roll without talking. In many ways this tradition is absurd and may be the result of clever marketing by fishmongers, but it guarantees five to ten minutes of glorious, relaxing silence at supper. Once that’s finished, everyone can talk again and finish the rest of the sushi (which can be cut and enjoyed in small bites).

After that, one family member puts on a demon/ogre mask and then gets beans thrown at her as the other family members say “Demon out. Good luck in.” The mask is then passed to another family member who goes to a different room and suffers the bean barrage. this continues until each room has suffered a barrage.

Today, though, our oldest “had a headache” (i.e. was too cool for such stupid crap) and She Who Must Be Obeyed used her make up and not wanting to ring the mask as an excuse (i.e. was too cool for such stupid crap). This left our youngest and me to take most of the abuse.

Well, actually me.

Granted, throwing food at me is probably not the best way to get me to leave the house, especially when the “beans” we use 1) are actually coated sunflower seeds, mini-almonds and mini-pumpkin seeds; 2) are still in small bags; and 3) are highly addictive.

Poor little demon. Everyone wants him gone.

Poor little demon. Everyone wants him gone. (So they should stop feeding him.)

A Super Bowl Without Chips or Salsa or Beer

Although I managed to watch the Super Bowl, I have to admit it loses something at 8:30 in the morning on a Monday.

(Note: Officially, today I worked and wrote an exam.)

Basically, I was the guy in the GoDaddy commercial who didn’t have a party because he had to work (and wants to die younger and raise a kid who sings Harry Chapin songs and stars in Nissan commercials). But unlike the guy working in the office, I had a way to stream the Super Bowl and could watch it while I worked.

Unfortunately, because the Super Bowl started at 8:30 in the morning here in Japan it was way too soon for chips and salsa and little too early for beer.

Also, getting proper chips and proper salsa here in Japan requires shady mafia connections and/or exorbitant personal loans.

Despite the dry nature of the event, eat least for me, it was fun to watch it with friends all over the world as if we were all in one room commenting on what we were seeing. Seeing their comments and inflicting my comments on them, even sight unseen (or perhaps especially sight unseen) brought back some of what makes the Super Bowl fun.

Another part of the fun for me, especially when I don’t give a crap about either team, is seeing the way the commercials change from year to year. Last year’s seemed more patriotic, but since one of this year’s teams was called the Patriots, I guess that would have been seen as press bias (and we know how worried the press are about seeming biased).

However, there has to be something between “America, F@#k Yeah!” and “Let’s all take pills together, hold hands in a circle, and die.” (Cue cowbell and “Don’t Fear the Reaper.)

I see Nationwide has defended killing a kid during the Super Bowl (so to speak) by falling back on the notion that they were just trying to start a conversation about kid safety. By the same logic, if I call a woman a “Fat Bitch” I can defend myself by saying I’m trying to start a conversation on societal weight standards and sexist language.

Next year, if I’m “writing an exam” again, I may find a way to have proper chips and salsa, or a bowl full of Chex mix nearby.

If I do, though, I’ll end up being the fat bitch.

Resistance Friends and Getting Pushed Around

It’s a sign that I attend too many knife shows that 1) the organizers are sending me invitations and 2) I’m starting to make friends with some of the knife makers.

Today, however, there was a surprising amount of pushing and shoving going on.

Today was the Ginza Blade Show, which is the first knife show of the year in the Tokyo area and, if today was any indication, is also one of the best attended. Since my short bout of flu seemed to be over (except for the feeling of weakness caused by taking medicine and then suddenly going off of it) I met up with my Canadian friend and we ventured down to Ginza.

I got there second and my Canadian friend was deep into temptation.  He kept reaching for his credit cards and then snapping his hand back to a safe location. He accused me a not warning him that it was a fixed blade show (he’s a big fan of fixed blade knives) and I said I didn’t know that because we hadn’t actually visited that one in 2014.

Being the first show of the season, and being in a small room, it was too crowded for comfort. On several occasions I was looking at at knife and then suddenly found myself being pushed out of the way or over the table. I had to try to catch myself without dropping the knife, stabbing someone, or cutting my hand on the other knives on the table.

When we weren’t being pushed around, we talked with Ihara To-un, an older knife maker who’s kind of become our friend (at least he said we were his friends, right before interrogating me about whether or not I’ve actually used the knife I bought from him–I assured him I have). My Canadian friend made an order for a knife while I reached for my credit cards and then snapped my hand back to a safe location.

We also had a nice chat with the very colorful “Hank” Ishihara, who dresses like a cowboy, usually has a fake revolver on his table and makes knives that are more art and jewelry than functional. His knives are intricately carved and often have stones set in the blade and he proves you can shine light through it. His knives are right at the edge of tacky, but are still kind of cool in an expensive “I’d rather have that double-ended liner-lock pocket knife than a MacBook Air” kind of way.

There was also a guy who made knives from materials like onyx and agate which, while beautiful, seem rather impractical. That said, he has his sales pitch down and proved they could cut. Once again, they were kind of cool, but seemed different for the sake of being different. (They also seem like something you could strap to your ankle and carry through airport security, which makes them a different kind of cool.)

In three, weeks, we head to the Tokyo Folding Knives Show, which is one of the more interesting shows. I’ll have to leave my money and credit cards with She Who Must Be Obeyed before that one.