Monday, May 11, 2009
Unfortunately, I'm at work while my close friend The Trout is still in Japan. He timed his vacation to overlap the string of holidays last week which I then extended by taking Thursday and Friday off, but that was the last of my annual leave so I had no choice but to report for work this morning. Thankfully, I went to the tiny mountain school today so it was a very low-impact day of teaching. No shouting, no frantic gestures, just me and a couple of kids in a classroom. Good news for me, because I am experiencing what can only be described as a Golden Week Hangover.
No, I'm not tipsy nor do I have a headache, but I spend the better part of last week (and the last three nights in a row) out with my buddy on the town and I imbibed a fair amount of alcohol, so I haven't gotten a good night's sleep in a while now. Earlier in the week I had nothing but free time but when we started going out every night, I just couldn't cut it. I started going home earlier and earlier each night in an attempt to get some sleep and keep myself for overindulging. But by the end of the week, we reached a balance of quiet time and drinking time which worked out quite well.
Life has a funny way of making things turn out completely different than you expect. I thought this week would be one of constant exploration and introducing my friend to Japan through a mix of sightseeing, a wild variety of cuisine and the occasional all-nighter. What happened was more of a week-long hangout session that just happened to be in Japan. No, we didn't spend all our time in bars or playing video games in my apartment, but we never really went out and saw the country like I thought we would.
This is not to say the vacation was a disappointment; far from it! While I cannot speak for my friend I can say that once we overcame the initial awkwardness where my imagined vacation failed to take shape, we ended up having a terrific time as we always have in the past. While we didn't necessarily see that many new places (we only spent one afternoon in Kyoto and Kobe respectively, and never made it to Nara or Himeji) I was able to show him around and let him explore Osaka in his own way. Likewise, we never managed to eat all of the food I thought we could/should, but I'm happy to say that everything I recommended, cuisine-wise, was warmly received. We even managed to make a few new discoveries along the way, as we sat down in a few restaurants I never tried myself. Alex recommended an all-you-can-eat & drink Brazilian barbecue spot which offered great food as well as a magnificent view of Kobe.
So what did I learn from this experience? I think first and foremost is that I need to remind myself that when I play host to visitors from home, I am not really "on vacation." This is where I live now. The guests must ultimately take the lead on choosing what to see or eat or do while they are here, because this is THEIR TRIP. However, this does not mean that I am a tour guide or a hanger-on. I thought I had to keep pace with the Trout earlier in the week and drink when he drank, eat when he ate, et cetera. My role is more that of a facilitator. I can recommend stuff that I know is cool and I can do my best to keep my guests from getting lost or into trouble, but I don't have to sit next to them and hold their hand 24 hours a day. When I figured that out, that's when the fun really began for me last week. Once that happened, the last three days flew by in an instant for I truly was having fun...incredibly so, if I may be honest about it.
What does this mean for the future? On the immediate horizon, I hope it makes me a better "facilitator" for the guests I am expecting later this month and perhaps later this summer. In the long term, I'd like to think that I was able to show my friend how fun Japan can be and possibly plant a seed that convinces him to come back again for another try.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, April 27, 2009
Depending on your location in the world and your fondness for viral videos, both stories may be unfamiliar to you. The biggest news story of the week in Japan has been the arrest of Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, a member of the phenomenally popular pop group (redundant!) SMAP. Tsuyoshi and his cohorts are fixtures on television with each member of the group appearing on several different regular programs, including the weekly SMAP x SMAP variety show which features them all. I cannot stress how famous this man is in Japan and how often I see his face in any given day, which makes his arrest this week such a big deal.
It seems Tsuyoshi was out late drinking and ended up in a public park shouting loudly and being completely naked. The police were called because of the noise and when they tried to settle him down (and get him dressed) he quipped "What's wrong with being naked?" (in Japanese: 裸になって何が悪い?). They promptly arrested him and now he is locked into an endless stream of apologies and is facing a long period of shunning from the entertainment business. While a stunt like this would only enhance an American celebrities' reputation, here in Japan anything remotely illegal or scandalous results in a sudden disappearance from the public spotlight for a while. I'm sure he'll be back, but it's bizarre how quickly sponsors and TV executives feel the need to purge a "disgraced" celebrity from the airwaves. Whether he appears or not, I'm guessing tonight's episode of SMAP x SMAP does phenomenal ratings.
The other story I learned about through Digg and it is not nearly as amusing to me. A man got naked at a concert and the police came to get him dressed again. An amateur video shows the confrontation start out kind of silly (the cops toss the guy clothes and he tosses them away) to harsh (the cops forcibly put him on the ground) to downright brutal (they eventually break out the goddamn TASER). I don't know what even happened to the guy as far as charges, but I know what I saw sickened me.
Here's the problem, as I see it. Yes, both men were in clear violation of the law, more so Tsuyoshi who was "drunk and disorderly" and might have been arrested even if he wasn't nude. But both cases ultimately boiled down to two men not wearing clothing outside. I'm as shy about my flabby ass as the next out-of-shape American, but why is this illegal exactly? Why did the police officers feel it was so imperative to get some underwear on that naked guy that they essentially tortured him? And why did the Tsuyoshi case focus on his bareness rather than his behavior?
I happen to believe that making nudity forbidden is the biggest reason that sexuality and pornography are so twisted in this world. If women were topless as often as men, the notion that bare breasts should not be seen in public would eventually disappear. Wouldn't the same thing extend to full nudity? Aside from some key public health situations (food service, public transportation), I just cannot see the harm in seeing some guy's penis. If you watch the video of the man at the concert, there is nothing sexual about him at all. It ceases being comical pretty quickly as well. He's just a guy, and that was the extent of his crime.
Tsuyoshi never got an answer to his question. What IS wrong with being naked? I'd really like to hear an explanation that doesn't involve circular reasoning.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Friday, April 10, 2009
Before I did that though, I went outside to just take a walk around. Hana Town is a very quiet place and this school is one of the more removed ones from anything resembling urban or even suburban life. The school sits on top of a hill surrounded by farms and fields. I walked to the end of the playground and went down a stairway I never descended before. I knew it was there, because I've seen a number of children head towards the corner of the yard and disappear after school, but in all these months I never actually saw it for myself.
The stairs are stone and uneven and they offer yet another view of the farmland that dominates Hana Town. I spent a good ten minutes on that stairway, not climbing or descending but just standing there and looking out at the countryside. I saw a tractor and I could hear the occasional car in the distance, but I couldn't see any other people or machines. Mostly what I saw and heard was pure nature - birds and bugs with the wind rustling the bamboo.
Staring out at the peaceful side of Japan, I was suddenly nostalgic for my own childhood. No, I didn't grow up around farms or forests, but in suburban Westchester there is plenty of nature for children to enjoy. We had a yard with trees on our property. I could walk from my home to two different parks, one with a playground and the other with a river. More than anything, it was quiet throughout the day and night. Our street was not a busy one. The biggest vehicles that came by were the school bus twice a day and the garbage truck twice a week.
I know I tell people "I'm from New York City" and I mean it, but it's somewhat of an exaggeration. I was merely born there and I grew up loving it from afar, living in its humongous shadow in my small village. I know I enjoy city life and I feel like where I live now isn't urban enough to satisfy me, but standing on those stone steps and just being outside in the quiet outdoors, it felt great. It felt really great.
So do I really want what I say I want? Would I be happier living in a house in Osaka or Kobe? Or would I prefer to live in this rural area where my family would have more space to ourselves? Either way I would be choosing to distance myself from one type of environment by selecting to live in the other. What's better to be close to: people or trees? Stores or farms? Trains or tractors?
Ultimately I would have to consider Mako's feelings, as this is not the kind of decision I can make by myself anymore. Mako grew up in a much more urban setting. Her childhood home is just a few hundred feet from a major rail line that has frequent express trains rocketing past every few minutes. I remember I could hear them over our Internet chats quite clearly. Where we live now, we're close to a train but it's not a major artery. The bells of the automatic crossing gate are louder than the trains themselves.
But really, more than actually making a decision here, I'm suddenly caught up with trying to understand my own though process. I know I enjoy myself more - MUCH more - when I spent time in an urban center. Yeah, I hate dealing with crowds and Japanese cities are even noisier than American ones because of everything and everyone here seems to have a loudspeaker or a megaphone to get your attention. This doesn't change the fact that my entire mindset and feeling of self-worth increases when I'm navigating subways and walking down dim alleyways. Put simply, I feel more alive when I'm in a busy city with tall buildings and underground passageways.
Yet there is a significant part of me that just wants to run away from all that. I want to have a house where the neighbors can be seen through the window but not heard through the walls. I want to wake up in the morning to birds rather than clanging bells. I want to fall asleep to the sounds of insects rather than motorcycles. Growing up, I had all that but I kept dreaming of living in New York. Even having spent about ten months staying with my father in Manhattan during my college years, I still can't say with any certainty that it was better than the lifestyle I knew as a child.
With a son on the way I'm forced to ask myself the same questions my parents must have asked themselves in 1976. They both grew up in New York City but they chose to leave. Was it for my sake, because they wanted me to play outside rather than be holed up in an apartment? Or did they simply dream of a suburban life that they themselves never knew but always wanted? It certainly wasn't for convenience's sake, as my father would spend the next twenty years commuting into the city for his career. Is my lifelong desire to live in a city an ironic reversal of their intentions?
Taking it one step further, which country do I really want to raise my son in? Japan offers me more opportunities for steady work and a decent wage, but I fear the cramped living conditions and the "memorization over problem solving" system of education. America would mean more familiar (read: comfortable) surroundings and less cultural ostracization for me, but then Mako would have big hurdles to overcome and I have no idea what kind of job either one of us could find in the United States right now.
Whichever environment we choose for our family, be it Apartment vs House, City vs Suburbs, or even Japan vs US, I suspect we'll always wonder what things could have been like had we chosen differently. If I can keep that in mind, I might have less trouble making the "right" choice and just choose what feels best.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Thursday, April 09, 2009
Tuesday night I went out to meet with Alex. He wanted to share some of his (substantial) Xbox collection with me and I graciously accepted his offer. I now have absolutely, positively no reason to buy any Xbox games for months considering the amount of material he has loaned me and the lengths to which these games can last. Fallout 3 alone could easily occupy me for the rest of the year. Of course, we all know I want what I want when I want it, so it's entirely possible I'll end up shopping before I realistically should be. But at least my wallet is safe for the short term.
I wanted to return the favor to Alex by loaning him games, but the fact is I don't have much that he doesn't. He already owns most of my PlayStation games on Xbox and I've shared all of my downloaded PSN games with him. So I lent him Resistance 2 since I recently finished the story mode and grabbed all the trophies I'm probably going to get. If he likes it enough to buy it, I hope we can play the co-op mode together because that was my favorite part of the game anyway. I suppose Alex is thinking the same thing about loaning me notoriously engrossing multiplayer games like Gears of War (both of them) and Left4Dead.
After our game trading and some light drinking was complete (it was a weeknight after all) I said goodbye and then met Greg and Robin for one last time. We had said goodbye on Sunday but when Alex and I agreed to met on Tuesday I contacted them and arranged for one last meal. It was, fittingly enough, sushi. I successfully led them to a nice kaiten restaurant in Namba (one that Scott first took me to) and we had a quick but satisfying dinner. It was actually the first sushi meal I've eaten all year, save for the odd piece or two that turns up in bento boxes at school staff lunches. It was long overdue, I say.
Greg and Robin have since left the country to head back to America, almost as the same time as a good friend of mine left America to head for a new life in Kuala Lumpur. I've extolled Mike's musical talents before but when his longtime girlfriend (at what point does that word become childish?) got a job in the Malaysian capitial, he decided to follow her to Asia and leave New York behind. This is very exciting news for a number of reasons, the least of which being that Kuala Lumpur is a hell of a lot closer to Japan than Brooklyn is. I hope to have more online contact with him as a result and maybe visit him before the year is out. I've never been to the city (save for stopping in their airport en route to Singapore) so the trip will double as an exploration of new things as well as catching up with an old friend. Mike's birthday is also just days away, so I'm going to say Happy Birthday now and wish him the best.
Along with all this human traffic, yesterday was the day for entrance ceremonies for the elementary schools in Hana Town. I attended one last year but I neglected to write about it, so I feel I should explain a bit about what goes on. It's a lighter version of the graduation ceremony I saw in March only it celebrates the arrival of brand-new first graders. It was obviously less emotional because introductions are a lot easier than farewells, but the tone was pretty much the same. Lots of stiff walking, endless empty "congratulations" from an array of guests who barely have any connection to the school (let alone the new students) and a couple of songs from the assembled student body. I felt really bad for the new students who had to sit in their chairs in front of the audience and just wait for over an hour.
While I came to appreciate the formality and somberness of the graduation ceremony because it reminded me that I was losing something important in saying goodbye to my sixth grade students, I found the entrance ceremony completely unrewarding. I can only assume it is designed more with the parents in mind, although I saw considerably fewer family members for this ceremony than the graduation a few weeks earlier. Mind you, these events were at two different schools but I suspect that graduation just means more to everyone and therefore warrants more attention. Only three fathers showed up, so clearly the other dads had better places to be.
As far as I'm concerned, this is simultaneously the best and worst time to be working in Japan. The end of the bitter winters, the start of spring and the beautiful cherry blossoms have made this week a delight. I can't tell you how nice it was to go into the city on Tuesday night without wearing a coat. However, I have had all I can take of the endless ceremonies, introductions and farewells that plague this time of year. I just fail to see the point of all this chatter.
Consider this: before yesterday's entrance ceremony began, the regular students and all of the staff gathered in the gym to commemorate the start of the school year in a separate, slightly-less formal assembly. The principal actually introduced every single school employee to the students. Not just the three new faces, but everyone. The guy who answers the phone in the office, the ladies who make the school lunches, even the "security guard" who dutifully protects the kids by sleeping in his booth all day; all of these people were introduced, one by one. I got my turn after all of the other teaching and administrative staff had been called, but I did rank ahead of the lunch ladies, the old woman who serves tea and the guard. In your face, gramps.
With all that having gone down, guess what happened today? We had two ceremonies to say goodbye to the teachers who left this school to work somewhere else. I've mentioned before that Japanese schools shuffle around the teachers every Spring in a confusing fashion that (in my opinion) destroys any real, cohesive atmosphere of teamwork in these schools. Obviously the Japanese don't feel this way, but I just can't see why these folks were clearly struggling to hold back tears when some of them had only been working here for one or two years. I guess there's no minimum time for creating an emotional attachment to a job or coworkers but one year seems awfully brief to me, especially considering two of the departed are now working at the elementary school that is literally up the street from this one. These kids all own bikes - they can say hi whenever they feel like it.
So yeah, I saw a lot of new faces and bid goodbye to some familiar ones - all while a close friend embarks on a crazy adventure that bring him a little closer to my own ongoing foreign experience. Funny how that transition, which I had no way of seeing or participating in, means a lot more to me than any of the ceremonies I sat through this week.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Friday, March 13, 2009
Graduation is only a few days away, so preparations are in full effect. This morning I watched the children practice everything they needed to do for the ceremony on Wednesday. Yes, much like cleaning the floors and passing out lunch, the students play an integral role in the graduation ceremony. They are singing a number of songs, playing one with their instruments (in addition to the standard "pomp and circumstance"), and they have a long, coordinated script where they take turns shouting words of gratitude and encouragement to the departing students.
In a lot of ways I respect what these schools do for the kids. Because they have so much responsibility as compared to American elementary school students, I feel like they are getting a leg up on life by learning to work together. I'm also impressed by the fact that even the first graders seem capable of handling two or three musical instruments. I never had any music lessons in my school days aside from singing. What might have been different if I had learned the recorder, or the piano?
On the other hand, the constant drilling around here does grate on me after a while. In between practicing their lines and their music, the children also spent time standing up together, sitting down together, applauding for the graduates together, even opening the door to let the sixth graders leave the gymnasium! As I write this, second period is almost over and they are still in there, practicing something else - or possibly just the same things again. How many hours of rehearsal are necessary for this?
It's not just the one annual ceremony, either. Japanese kids are constantly practicing stuff like this all year round. There are so many events that seem to take a higher priority than education it's a wonder these children learn anything at all.
Take math, for example. I remember learning the multiplication tables as a kid. It was important for basic math and while I can't say I can recall 12 x 9 off the top of my head, for the most part the training has stuck with me. Here in Japan, the children learn their multiplication tables in speech form. They only do 1-9, but the entire list is laid out and re-written (Japanese has a complex method of reading numbers) so that each child can practice reading the entire thing. They then spend time going around the school and "perform" in front of other adults, asking them to listen and make sure they don't make any mistakes. While I have never seen it, I suspect there is some kind of in-class event where they must do the whole thing in front of their classmates.
I'm forced to ask: what's the point? Maybe all that practice aids in memorization, but why add the presentation aspect? How does that help the children retain 5 x 9? I just don't see what purpose all this walking around and chanting serves. Mnemonic devices are great learning aids, but pointless performances are not. And this is only the tip of the iceberg I'm sure. I don't spend much time observing their regular classes, but from what I've heard most subjects include some kind of "memorize this by reading it aloud over and over again" practice.
By making every subject about repetition and memorization, I believe it has a detrimental effect on the children's learning habits. When we do presentations in English class (which we do too often if you ask me), most students struggle to follow along unless they write all of their material out in phonetic Japanese (which makes everything sound off). Even for simple stuff like "My name is," an expression we use constantly in class, few can recite it without notes. It's as if they cannot perform without weeks of practice and written instructions.
Call me cynical, but if these kids spent less time preparing themselves for speeches, essay contests, and memorization drills, maybe they could spend more time learning? Maybe then fewer children would feel obligated to go to after-school cram sessions to make up for the basic education they're not getting in school? And if I may be so bold, what if one tenth of this puppetry was replaced with a valuable subject like, I don't know, ENGLISH? Some elementary schools are better than others, but few pay English any serious mind. The average student gets 10 lessons per year. Not semester - per YEAR. They spend more class hours than that jumping rope.
I can't say I remember everything I went through in elementary school, but the things I can remember are integral in who I am today. The books I read, the songs I sang, and especially the limited acting experiences I had - this is the stuff that has stuck with me over two decades and practically defines me as a person. I'm not saying Japan has it all wrong, but I worry that the balance between education and empty ceremonies is way off. Is this the right learning environment for my son?
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Thursday, March 12, 2009
I was riding the train this morning and taking in the human scenery around me when I made this observation via Twitter:
sitting on a train across from a man (NOT a teen) reading a pro wrestling magazine. Even when I was a fan I knew those mags were crap.In hindsight this sounds harsh but it wasn't meant as a strict judgment of the man, just his choice of reading material. And yet it took less than a second for his magazine of choice to color my whole opinion of him. I started looking at his hair and decided it was weird. I thought the way he ate his breakfast was comically ape-like. My entire opinion of a stranger was dependent on his method of passing time during his morning commute. All this from a man who used to be one of those people who not only watched pro wrestling every week on television but actually spent a good deal of money on attending live events.
After looking across the aisle for a while, I glanced at the man next to me. He was wearing a suit and coat with a briefcase on his lap, and he was reading a Golgo 13 manga. This made more sense to me because Golgo 13 is awesome, but why? Just because I preferred one hobby over the other, I found one guy normal while the other was some kind of primate? That didn't sit right with me.
I know we all have our inner passions, many of which are far from mainstream. Earlier this same morning, I read the following message from Robert Ashley on Twitter:
"... is overrated" is one of the emptiest phrases in the English language. People love everything too much. That's fandom.As much as I agree with his first point (the Internet is awash with cynical morons who declare "[popular thing] is overrated" ad nauseum) his second point is what echoed inside my head on the train. Falling in love with something means getting excited about it beyond the "appropriate" attention level as decided by the masses. Even those niche hobbies that are considered mainstream, like baseball, have their own subculture of intense statistical analysts and historical archivists whose enthusiasm would not have much in common with the casual fan.
Looking back on my own life, I've had my share of (unhealthy?) hobbies and interests over the years. Overlooking my fondness for certain toy lines as a boy, when I was a teenager I spent my free time playing a lot of video games and watching a lot of Star Trek. While I always had at least one friend who shared my enthusiasm at the time, I always had at least two friends who weren't interested at all. There were video game friends and Star Trek friends, but not both. I would bounce between hobbies and fluctuate my passion depending on the company I kept.
Last night I was watching the latest episode of House which featured an unusual "patient of the week" who had lost all impulse control and said whatever came to his mind. This led to a lot of awkward conversations where he insulted his clients, pointed out the doctors' physical attributes (good and bad), and clashed with his wife about her charity work. But hidden amongst the sitcom-level gimmickry was one interesting idea: what is this man's real personality? If this is what he thinks about all day but he chose not to say it before, does that mean he's always been a raging asshole? Or is the way he decided to behave his actual self?
We all have our own little quirks and habits, and we all shift our behavior depending on who we spend time with. Your average man is not going to comment aloud on a new attractive coworker in the office, no matter how striking she may be, but he will certainly bring it up around his friends afterwards. I know my wife talks a certain way around me, a different way around her parents, and yet another way when she talks to her friends. Which one is the "real" Mako? Likewise, I behave in a certain fashion while at home and in a very different fashion when I attend the Tokyo Game Show. Was her panic concerning my gaming around New Year's really a frightened reaction to seeing too much of my geekiness?
I can't help but wonder if the world would be a better place if we had fewer social pressures to keep our interests bottled up. "Honesty is the best policy" isn't always necessarily true, as evidenced by the guy on House, but isn't more honesty better than less? What if Trekkies could wear Starfleet uniforms in public as casually as sports fans wear team jerseys? What if Danny Choo was just one of a million Star Wars fans who dressed up in stormtrooper armor on the weekends?
I honestly believe that half of the people going to conventions are just looking to be "themselves" for a few hours around people who won't judge them so harshly. I've been to more than one Star Trek convention in my life and I assure you, there's not much to do there. Maybe you get to hear one of the actors speak, maybe you even get an autograph, but the reason I kept going back was the opportunity it presented to just immerse myself in all things nerdy. The exact same thing is true now with my love of Den Den Town. I almost never buy anything but I love being surrounded by old games and marveling at the passion surrounding that old technology.
So go ahead - take this chance to leave a confession in the comments section. What hobbies or interests do you feel uncomfortable sharing with everyone? It's the Internet, let yourself go!
PS: What was I doing on the train this morning? Listening to my iPod, specifically a playlist made up entirely of Neo Geo music. Hell yeah.
PPS: Tried writing this without Write or Die. Managed 988 words in 35 minutes. Not too shabby but I'm not ready to move on yet.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Alright, this is not nearly as spooky as it sounds. I was listening to the latest This American Life podcast this morning when I learned about the rubber room. It is the nickname for several "reassignment centers" used by the New York City Board of Education. Teachers who are facing disciplinary action are "reassigned" to these waiting rooms where they...wait. The kicker is that there's no way to know when the waiting ends, and some people don't even know why they were sent to the rubber room in the first place.
There is a twist, good for those sitting around all day and bad for everyone else: teachers in the rubber room continue to earn their full salary. Obviously the press reports have latched onto this story as another example of government waste, while those in the rubber room spin it as bureaucratic nonsense. They know they're getting paid to do nothing and they just want to go back to their schools - any school, frankly, since there have been people who have sat in the rubber room for years. Even those who abandon their positions and find work elsewhere are sore about it, because they felt they had no choice but to give up.
This initially sounds like a great deal for those being reassigned. Who wouldn't want a paycheck just for playing cards or sleeping in an office, devoid of actual responsibility? But consider this: with a finite number of rooms and a rapidly increasing number of reassignees, these rooms are quite crowded. Seats and tables are hard to come by, and the radio show featured stories of fights breaking out. They compared it to prison life in that grown adults were being "confined" and had nothing else to do but to viciously defend what little power they had left. When all you have is your territory, that can mean fighting over who gets to sit by the window.
Of course, for me the rubber room story was completely unshocking as I am familiar with the mindset behind it. During my time as a postal worker, there were a number of occasions where I was required to come to work and wait for mail to arrive or wait after my shift was over for the carriers to return so I could lock the door. It didn't matter if it was after 6 or on a Sunday, I simply had to wait and collect the overtime. This bored me to no end but I learned to deal with it. At least there was no one watching me. I could listen to whatever music I wanted or even take a nap.
It wasn't the waiting for mail that bothered me as much as waiting for other employees, because there were certain people who deliberately took their time in the interest of earning more money. Just like New York City teachers, there are strict union rules about removing a postal employee from their position. No matter how slowly you do your job, they can't fault you for it. In fact, no matter how poorly you did your job (i.e. coming to work drunk), they can't complain so long as you actually deliver the mail. In the case of the Board of Ed., I'm sure someone realizes that children cannot be so cavalierly exposed to gross incompetence, so they decide to simply relocate the people they want to fire. The principle in both organizations is the same: we can't fire this guy, so let's do the next best thing. The Post Office doesn't have a rubber room so they just look the other way.
Alas, my rubber room experience is hardly a distant memory. In my current position I rotate between five different elementary schools. My schedule is pretty much set, so if there are no classes for me to teach, I am still expected to come to work and sit in the office. That includes breaks between semesters where no one has classes which seems to confuse everyone involved. When I walk into a school in mid-August, someone invariably asks "What are you doing here?" and all I can say is "It's Tuesday. I come on Tuesdays."
So I have some sympathy for the rubber room people, but not much. The system is obviously broken, yes. I know how dull it can be to have a job with no responsibilities other than "come to the office." But I'm not duking it out with strangers over desk space, and more often than not I am one of the few people in the office. Hell, I've even managed to work in some gaming during particularly quiet times when I had a room to myself and my laptop on hand.
Ultimately, I say embrace any job that offers you a salary without demanding much, at least in the short term. With so many people in jobs they hate that pay very little or those struggling to find such a job just to make ends meet, it's pretty petty to sit there and complain about being bored at work. Just count your blessings and enjoy the free money. If you really can't stand it, work on your resume and leave. Pursue your dream job; that's what I did. I left my comfortable, money-for-nothing job and moved to Japan...where I found myself in a new money-for-nothing job. At least now I get weekends off.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, March 09, 2009
In other words, I was trying to beat Street Fighter IV.
The real predicament had nothing to do with a lab or or an opponent or fighting at all, of course. Everything that took place was between me and my PlayStation 3. But when playing a game like SFIV, I get very...what's the word...agitated. Excited, yes, but agitated. When things go right, there's a moment of pleasure, a feeling of a job well done. But when things go wrong and my opponent wins (be it human or computer controlled), there is the painful sting of failure. Worse, it hurts because I feel frustrated. I don't understand why I didn't win. Soon, I perceive victory as an impossibility. I couldn't have won because he/she/it was being unfair - "cheap" is the term used in fighting games all too liberally when we see tactics that we do not approve of. What's "cheap" can vary player to player and game to game, but rarely does it actually apply to cheaters. No, "cheap" simply labels a strategy or style of play as something that is inappropriate in the eyes of the defeated. In SFIV, this usually involves throwing.
Fighting games have long featured throwing as a close-combat tactic and it has always garnered the most anger from players, even though we couldn't play the game without it. Since fighting games require blocking to protect combatants from attacks, players could theoretically do nothing but defend and hold off an opponent forever (such a strategy is known as "turtling"). By using throws, which cannot be blocked, it forces players to keep moving and be alert. However, the ideal time to execute a throw is ambiguous, as there are many (including myself) who feel downright insulted or cheated when an opponent is aggressive with throws. There's no particular word to describe this strategy of attack, but players who throw a lot are often accused of being "cheap." As someone who is quick to throw that word out there, I honestly can't justify my angry use of it.
Yet I digress. The actual methods of playing Street Fighter IV are of little importance today. What I need to ask myself, and all of you out there reading this, is why do I play this game if it gets me so riled up? Why did I invest over a hundred dollars (if you include the joystick) in bringing this game into my home if turning it on takes me to such an ugly place?
Not all games do this to me, of course. This weekend, the critically-acclaimed World of Goo was offered on Steam for the insane price of five dollars. As Noby Noby Boy can attest to, I will play just about anything for five dollars, especially when it has such a glowing reputation. I put in about thirty minutes with this puzzle physics game that involves building rudimentary structures out of "goo." It's much more adorable and enjoyable than it sounds and I was quite taken in by the whole experience and look forward to playing it again. However, it paled in comparison to the feeling I got playing SFIV later that same night when I finally managed to smackdown that silver jerkoff Seth and beat the game, unlocking a new character in the process.
In answering my own question, I suspect the reason I keep coming back to games like SFIV over much more relaxing fare like World of Goo, PixelJunk Eden or any number of free web games over at Kongregate is that the peaks are very high, even when the gameplay takes me through some particularly low places. I get downright wicked when I play SFIV. I smack my hands onto things in anger, I raise my voice even though no one is listening, and I declare that the pile driver that just floored my on-screen avatar was "cheap." Who am I yelling at? Who cares about my complaints? No one; I just get so emotionally involved that I must let out the twisted, gnawing feelings inside me by any and all means available. If I lived alone in the woods I'm sure firing a weapon into the air would suffice.
So what is it about games like this that appeal to me? Is the brief, warm embrace of success worth all the aching failure that precedes it? I spent at least two hours playing SFIV on Friday night before I went to bed, facing a variety of opponents online and off, and I'm sure that I was in a foul mood for no less than three hours as a result: about 1:45 of the time I played the game and at least another hour after I quit in frustration. But those isolated moments when I pulled off that tricky combination of moves or beat some guy on the Internet in a close contest? Those were fifteen sensational minutes.
This may strike some of you as completely insane. Maybe you're starting to side with Mako in her quest to keep the Xbox out of our apartment and sell the PS3 while we're at it. I don't blame you for not understanding. But let me ask you this: don't we all have things that frustrate us again and again until we get it right? Isn't most of life about pursing X despite the problems that pursuit may bring? Aren't all successes, no matter how trivial, weighed against the struggles that were overcome en route?
Consider this radically different example: I know when I look back at my dating experiences of 2005, I remember an entire summer of being rejected and rejected and rejected again. Trying to meet someone on Craigslist is like a failure marathon. You have no choice but to repeatedly offer yourself to anonymous strangers in the hopes that they might write you back, and in the tantalizingly rare cases where they DO respond, there are a surprising number of people who will abruptly decline to reply to your follow-up email. Was it something you said? Was it the picture you submitted? You never know and it kills you inside trying to figure it all out. But I couldn't just stop and play "World of Goo" all summer instead, if you catch my meaning.
Because when it works...when you encounter someone who does think you're funny and clever...when you agree to meet in the real world and there's a silent acknowledgment that you like each other...when you first kiss each other in Hankyu Umeda station after watching a terrible movie but it didn't matter because the two of you were busy connecting on an emotional level...well, I need only to think about the brewing baby boy inside my wife's uterus to think about how great it was that I risked rejection and responded to her online personal ad in August of 2005. That was a "game" that I definitely beat, and the best part is there's no end in sight.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Saturday, March 07, 2009
I'm kidding! Three includes the tiny baby gestating inside Mako's womb. As of yesterday's doctor visit I can finally declare...it's (going to be) a boy! I know, huge surprise right? I mean it was either a boy or a girl - there were no real third options. Anyway, I'm thrilled to finally have a proper pronoun to use for the baby instead of "it." You just can't fall in love with an "it." There's an affection gap that saying "he" or "she" erases.
I was surprised at how much time I spent on Skype this afternoon. First The Trout called and we spoke about, um, everything for a good two hours. Then Chad called while we were watching the World Baseball Classic (Japan beat Korea in a rout). And just as we were preparing for bath and bed, my mother called! It's great to catch up with so many people but after a few hours my headphones really pinch my ears.
There was one outrageous thing on TV today that I can't just let go. I expressed my anger via Twitter but that's just not enough. We were watching a special about the new Yatterman film which is based on a old Japanese cartoon. One of the film's stars flew to New York for a screening and also did a bit of asking around about the popularity of anime/manga in the United States. Now while Yatterman is no household name in America, there are certainly a few Japanese titles that are getting quite big. Hell, that awful-looking Dragonball movie is only a week or so away. It's actually opening in Japan ahead of the US, a fact that actually drives me nuts when you consider how many movies sit in limbo while I wait for them to open on these shores.
OK, I'm digressing. No more anger about movie release dates. Today I was angry about a quasi-interview with some guy concerning the rapid growth of Japanese comics and animation in America. This stuffed suit actually had the temerity to claim that the rise in interest had something to do with the September 11th attacks. If I had been drinking a beverage I would have spit it out in total disbelief. I know "9/11 changed everything" but are you fucking crazy? Comic books? No, no, no.
It's pretty simple: Japanese stuff has been slowly building an audience in the US over the past twenty years. When my friends and I were buying poorly-dubbed VHS tapes of Fist of the North Star and Golgo 13, we were simply ahead of the curve. By the time I was in college there was a full-fledged anime club. And before the millennium there were already regular TV airings of Dragonball Z and Pokemon all over American television. You don't need to be a media expert or a marketing genius to figure out what happens next: popular imported entertainment breeds more importing. But you do need to be a total asshole to imply that the long-term entertainment needs of children were somehow influenced by the murder of 3000 people in a national tragedy.
Yes, I know this guy was only doing his job as a shill in trying to over-hype the importance of manga in the US and this clueless schmuck has the same bad habits we all do in trying to attribute greater meaning to unexplainable phenomena. You won the lottery? It wasn't chance, it was a MIRACLE, I know...but my rage is pretty straightforward. Linking massive destruction and an upswing of interest in Naruto is beyond irresponsible. It's tasteless and downright rude. Obviously the Japanese broadcasters didn't bat an eye because 9/11 just isn't thought of in the same way around here. They don't even mention it on the "history timelines" I see in elementary schools, despite prominent inclusion of the atomic bomb droppings and the...2002 World Cup coming to Asia?!?
Dammit Japan, can't you take anything seriously?
Tonight's meandering message was yet another Write or Die collaboration.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Friday, March 06, 2009
I listen to the excellent This American Life weekly podcast and every episode gives me a lot to think about. I suspect that if I was diligent, I could write an entire post each week just reflecting on what I had heard. Maybe today will be the first of many such posts.
Ah, do you see what I did there? I started making plans. A recent episode was all about "Plan B," telling stories about people who found themselves mired in their backup plan and wondering how to get back on track. The first story was the one that stuck with me the most. John Hodgman (yes, the one you've seen on "The Daily Show" and the PC vs Mac ads) told a story about Cuervo Man, a guy who made his living as a "party catalyst" hocking tequila at bars and other social events. Cuervo Man happened to be a well-educated guy who always dreamed of being an actor and a series of unlikely events landed him what seemed like a dream job - being paid to drink booze and act like an ass so that others would be inclined to drink more booze. Although the job eventually wore him down (particularly once he stopped drinking out of concern for his health and state-of-mind), he came to respect it as a part of his Plan A - being an actor. He played a role, it just wasn't one with a script or any cameras.
I thought about this a lot this week, especially after something that happened yesterday at one of my larger schools. I make it a point to be BIG in the classroom. Not just in size (that's a given - these are children after all and I live in Japan) but in presence. I move around the room as much as possible, use broad, sweeping movements to punctuate what I say and I constantly point to myself to get the student's attention. So when a little girl yesterday stood in front of the class to do her presentation, she openly channeled/mocked me by waving her arms around with each word, speaking much louder than necessary and generally acting like a crazy person. It was a huge hit with the children and I was amused at how much thought she clearly had put into her act. I was also impressed at her presentation, since few students were able to audibly address their peers in English, but that's besides the point: watching her "zing" me by reflecting my own performance back to me, it forced me to consider what it is I do for a living. Am I on Plan A right now? What is my Plan A, honestly?
I mean, I obviously spent years going back to school so that I could apply for the JET Programme and get a job in Japan as an English teacher. I'm here, mission accomplished. But now what? Even as I studied and worked towards achieving this goal, I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. It was as if my goal was just another step towards a new goal, only I couldn't decide what the new goal was. Did I want to be a translator? Was I going to live in Japan for ten, twenty, forty years? I never actually answered these questions but they kicked around inside my head throughout my senior year.
So now I'm here. I'm teaching English to children in Japan. Is this what I want? I used to consider this job my gateway to a greater and more rewarding life in Japan as some kind of translator or (dare I say it) voice actor, Now, I don't want to say "never," but my lack of progress in studying Japanese has made me realize that becoming a translator in any professional sense is probably impossible. My listening skills are terrible and even if my reading skills were to improve (and that's a big if), it seems like any job worth taking would require a nearly-instantaneous Japanese-to-English response. There would be no time for dictionaries or late nights of exploring odd vocabulary. The translating life I led at school cannot exist in the working world. No one would pay me for doing what I did.
But this is not gloom and doom time. Rather, what that girl did yesterday helped me to recognize that I am, in fact, living out a dream I've had for years. I am more or less an actor right now. Think about it. I have never received any training as a teacher. Everything I do in the classroom is following direction or improvisation. I know the goal (as the Board of Education sees it) is English education, but let's get real here. These kids get so little time with me and that time is so non-academic that this is less of a teacher's role as it is an acting performance. I could do what I do on the streets of Osaka and people would start gathering around me and taking pictures. I'm a human statue that can't sit still, a mime that never shuts up, a busker with a steady gig inside a classroom. Things can always change, but for now this is Plan A.
Once again, this post was made possible with the Write or Die web app. If I keep this up, I wonder if my fantasy of becoming a writer may become the new Plan A?
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
What makes people collect things?
I feel like I should know the answer inherently because I have, at one time or another, collected all kinds of things. There were toys at first, mostly Transformers but also G.I. Joe and the like. I didn't just play with the ones I had, I always wanted to get more. In fact, when my friends and I would play with one another, if there was a character we didn't have we would actually build a proxy version out of Construx. I can't say what motivated us to keep expanding and expanding our rosters. It's not like we could ever possibly play with all of the toys we had, but somehow more toys equaled more fun in our young minds.
It wasn't long before I moved on to video games. My parents were passively accepting of my video game habits without actually aiding me in my efforts to buy games. Aside from an initial compromise from my mother who agreed to pay for half of an NES if I achieved a certain amount in the sixth grade, I was always on my own for purchasing new software or hardware. I found it surprisingly easy to meet my goals by saving my allowance, money from my paper route or whatever other funds I happened to come across.
Once I bought a game I played it as much as I could. Even if the game wasn't good (Anticipation, anyone?), I always kept at it for a long while before moving on. When a game was "done" (a state which varied from game to game) I just put it aside and thought about what might be next. Certain games were never "done" while others were occasionally resurrected when I learned something new about them or when a friend came over and had never played it before.
It was years before I even considered selling old games to make way for new ones; eventually that became my modus operandi. I was in a near-constant state of flux, selling and buying, trading things for store credit then immediately cashing out. Since the process was never a one-for-one deal, my collecting days were over as I began playing more and more titles. As the console competition began to increase, I actually sold entire systems in order to buy new ones. Maybe it was commercial peer pressure that drove me to cannibalize my collection so that I could keep buying newer/faster/bigger games and systems, or maybe I simply realized that holding onto games I didn't play was meaningless.
Then again, perhaps I just substituted one collection for another. As my stockpile of games and paraphernalia decreased, I started spending more money on movies. At first it was VHS tapes, but I became one of the "early adopters" of the DVD format. My interest in movies was nothing new, as I had always been nuts about going out to see new films in theaters and I was the major catalyst in our family's video rental membership, but it wasn't until high school or so that I really started buying a lot of movies and keeping them in a closet. Part of it had to do with my new-found interest in foreign films and anime, few of which were even available for rent in our local store, but I owned plenty of mainstream Hollywood films as well. My collection certainly wasn't just for show - I actively watched and re-watched everything when I had time, and I took great pleasure in loaning or showing new things to my friends. At my urge's strongest point, I honestly had a "buy first" rather than "rent first" attitude. Sometimes this led to pleasant surprises (Unbreakable is still my favorite M. Night Shyamalan film) while other times it led to extreme disappointment (insert random kung-fu flick here, especially since they often cost double or triple a domestic film).
Things got really ugly when collecting became a means to an end. Owning more toys, games or films doesn't enhance your ability to enjoy them - it just means you have more stuff. When I discovered Magic: The Gathering, that was not the case. Buying more Magic cards gave me more options for playing the game and the constant introduction of new cards, combined with the power of rare-by-design cards, drove me to spend thousands of dollars on the game when I rarely earned more than a hundred in a week's paycheck. Once I started working at the post office and earning a real salary, I spent even more. The game was, and still is, tremendously fun. I cannot deny enjoying those late-night sessions I spent facing off against my friends using our various decks of cards. However, the collection aspect of the game demanded too much of me. Not only was I spending money on new packs of cards in the hopes of finding rare cards, I was buying individual cards to strengthen the decks I already had.
As my collection grew I needed to spend money (and goodness knows how many hours) on binders, boxes and folders just to keep all the cards in order. Then came the magazines and buying guides that both showed me what cards might be useful to me and how much my current cards were worth. I spent less time playing Magic: The Gathering and more time just Gathering my Magic. Looking back it was a kind of sexy nightmare; a gilded cage I built for myself, loving every minute of it even as I poured money out the window. When the time came to shed my massive collection, the whole thing netted me $300 - surely less than a tenth of what I had spent.
So what now? All my collections from the past have been scattered to the wind and now sit in at least three separate locations, sitting in someone's closet or basement thousands of miles away. I no longer buy any toys or movies (at least, not since dropping 9000 Yen on that Japanese copy of Grindhouse *_*) and while my video game buying habits are still strong, you could hardly describe my handful of titles a "collection." Have I gone cold turkey? Am I just one new obsession away from succumbing to the cry of the collector?
At this point I believe my collection needs are being met virtually-speaking, thanks to the PlayStation 3's trophy system. They are the perfect collectible, honestly. They have no mass and cost no money. There are no "limited editions" or artificial scarcity. I will never need to re-acquire an old trophy or replace one with a newer version. They cannot be broken or stolen. All I can do is earn them by playing video games which is a hobby I already practice. Best of all, they have no use whatsoever. I am free at last.
Today's post was inspired by the second episode of Robert Ashley's brilliant
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
I live in a world somewhat isolated from the global economic crisis and I've been here for my entire adult life. Years ago, when I realized college wasn't going to work, I earned a living through bottom-feeder part-time jobs. Operating a cash register, providing tech support over the phone, even working in the movie theater (which I loved) - all of these jobs were "secure" in that they were low paying with a high turnover rate, ensuring that nobody stuck around long enough to become an expensive liability to the company. I made friends at each of these places but nobody felt much of an impact when I left and I'm sure I was easily (and quickly) replaced at no significant loss. It's counter-intuitive, but I was so expendable that I never worried about being let go.
Then came my tenure at the post office and that's about as steady as work can get. Stamp prices may go up and volume may go down but no matter what, people are always going to need to send things through the mail and the USPS is always going to have more than enough employees to handle that mail. The job security and unchanging daily grind was so strong that each day became the same as the last. It was like that time the Enterprise got caught in that time loop and kept exploding...or Groundhog Day if you're not as geeky as I am. I still felt expendable but I knew I would never be let go because they never let anybody go, not even those who were incompetent or a danger to others. I didn't take comfort in that feeling at all; rather, I felt like I was worthless.
Now I'm living in Japan and teaching English purely because I happen to have a native grasp on the subject, which puts me in an extremely beneficial situation. There simply aren't enough people like me around to fill all the positions Japanese schools have to offer and that's precisely the reason I was "imported" in the first place. I am replacable, yes, but not in any practical way because bringing in someone new is prohibitively expensive. That level of security, coupled with the general sense of satisfaction that I "matter" because I'm a teacher, makes this job quite possibly the most rewarding one I've ever held.
Taking all of the above into account, I find it ironic that my idle thoughts often wander towards leaving this job and trying to find something that is even more rewarding. As it turns out, the notion that this job ranks so high on the "satisfying" scale when compared to my other jobs isn't enough to convince me that this is something I want to do for years to come. That's because my earlier jobs were totally crappy, frankly. To use a crude metaphor, just because Paris Hilton is more attractive than Rosie O'Donnell doesn't make her a contender for Earth's Most Beautiful Woman. She simply doesn't look like shit.
All of this came to my mind this afternoon when I read about the closure of EGM and the layoffs of most of the writers and online personalities that I came to embrace via the magazine's online portal, 1up.com. Here are a bunch of people doing something that strikes me as extremely enjoyable, even enviable, who are now out of work and looking at a very limited range of future employment options. Journalism in general and criticism (especially video game criticism) in particular is a dwindling field. Newspapers and magazines are drying up as people increasingly turn towards television and the Internet. Meanwhile, here I sit in a concrete bunker of an elementary school earning a very generous salary (paid in robust Yen no less) gaining experience in a field that will never, ever go away and dreaming about finding work as a games journalist.
Obviously, I have a lot to think about over the next few years. Teaching English isn't going anywhere but this particular job that I've got has a time limit, and with a baby on the way I've got to choose my moves very carefully to ensure little Daniel Jr. doesn't grow up lacking anything he needs. Writing in my spare time is one thing but at this stage it is damn near irresponsible to fantasize about making a living with it. However, how long can I really expect to date Paris Hilton without dreaming about...I don't know...Scarlett Johansson?
つづく...(Click here to read more)