Teaching In Socks


Devil Birds and Dark Magic
May 26, 2009, 5:09 pm
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Last week left me feeling pretty intelligent. While it’s been years since I was on an academic calender, I’m convinced my brain still follows the school year routine; In which case last week was finals week.

My two exams this year: birds, and a crazy lady.

First, the birds. The lovely spring weather has inspired a pair of starlings to nest on top of a utility box, three feet from my door. This arrangement quickly transformed the normal enjoyable act of returning home after a days work, to intense Hitchcokian detente.  I feared an impulse defensive dive-bomb and the birds nervously (I think) feared whatever birds fear.

I’m generally pro-nature, so I did my best to cope with the situation for a few days.  However, I have guest coming soon, and I reasoned that the longer the birds stayed there, or the more offspring they had in that nest, the more unpredictably defensive they would become. I needed the birds to leave.

Once again, the magical entity that is the 100 yen shop came to my rescue. In America, we really don”t treasure or utilize the dollar store to it’s full potential.

Last Wednesday, on my way to work and while the birds were away, I used a mirror  to check the nest for eggs. The nest was empty and I was beginning to feel like McGuiver.

With the nest empty, I had he moral clearance to proceed with my plan. During my lunch break I headed down to the 100 yen shop. The amount of things that have–all which can be procured for 100 yen is astounding (thanks China!). Amongst the cornucopia of cleaning supplies, sundries and toys, I found a large and intimidating rubber snake. I picked the fiercest looking of the bunch, dumped the tags in the store and hastily headed home.

I again was fortunate as the cost was clear. I quickly placed the snake on top of a portion of the nest. Since then, the nest has been bird free. It’s almost sad how proud I was of myself for outsmarting a few birds. Still it’s nice to yell “scoreboard” at nature every once in a while.

Later this week  I was approached by the crazy lady voodoo chiropractor who hangs out at the shopping center after hours. She again, wanted to practice dark magic on me under the auspice of relieveing tension in my back.

Now, I enjoy a good eccentric personality–and within reason I try to keep a genial rapport with everyone I meet, crazy or otherwise; however this time the doctor of dark arts approached me while I was in the middle of eating an ice cream cone. I don”t care you who you are, unless it’s a life or death emergency you time is not more valuable to me than my time enjoying an ice cream cone.

Thus, as much fun as I had last time, I elected that this was an experiment that had gone too far. Ice cream melts, and time was of the essence:

(Amateur Translation)

Crazy Lady: Hello

Me: Hello.

CL: That ice cream cone looks delicious.

Me: It is delicious. Ice cream is my favorite.

CL: Hey, by the way do you ever have shoulder pain?

Me: Nope, they’re pretty good, I got a massage.

CL: Oh nice! What about your back? Any back pain?

Me: (Flexing) Nope, all good.

CL: No back pain?

Me: I do Yoga (I don’t do yoga)

Cl: ohhh, that’s great.

pause

CL: How about you legs? any pain in your knees? Do your legs feel tired?

Me: No, they are fine. I jog every day.

CL: Wow….hmm, that’s great. Although, I really wanted to practice my (flexes her forearms, pumping her hands into a fist on each hand.) devil magic. I am sad that we can’t share this awkward experience again. I’m trying to study it.

Me: Sorry, this ice cream cone is delicious.

I dare say, it was Ghandiesque, except for that I was eating ice cream and being curt Ghandi usually exhibited overwhleming kindness and protested by not eating anything (although, when he wasn’t eating I am sure he had surly moments). Still a stoic sacchrine affair. All the money I have spent on Japanese lessons has been worthwhile just to tlak myself out of that moment.

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Pig Flu and Masked Men
May 18, 2009, 5:22 pm
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On Friday, the H1N1 virus hit Kobe. A high school student, who had not traveled out of the country was diagnosed with the virus, as were a number of students from other school that he came in contact with at a volleyball tournament.

I would say the Japanese response has been calm and measured, but that would be blatantly incorrect. Instead moderate to laughable panic ensues: locals schools have been given the week off (so that all the students can assemble in the mall), the news palpitates reports of a new confirmed cases, and drug stores in the area are selling out of medical masks.

I don’t want to dwell on the merits of school cancellations, or on the dangers of how mainstream news media reports/fear mongers an outbreak. I think other people have and can do that better than I can. I also will concede some of the measures taken by the Government have been responsible and logical. Also, some of the paranoia is understandable when you consider that I trapped on a densely populate island (it’s not likely divine wind would save Japan in this instance).  What I do want to talk about is the masks.

Flu season, allergy season, cold season, train rides, airplanes, nature hikes and now pandemic outbreaks: these are the places I see Japanese people wearing masks. They are ubiquitous and disconcerting at times–certain train rides trigger "Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder" flashbacks.

The SARS outbreak gave me a nice sampler of this imagery, but I thought it was purely a crisis-mode phenomenon. What perplexes me the most about the mask is the amount of faith that many Japanese put in them. I understand why Surgeons wear them during an operation (to hide their identity in case something goes wrong and there is a malpractice suit), but they way Japan turns to them almost instantly and indiscriminately you imagine they’d wear them to a gunfight.

They believe it keeps a variety of germs out. They believe is keeps pollen out and prevents hay fever. They believe if you have a sore throat it keeps your throat humid and hastens recovery. They believe it prevents sore throats from dry seasons and long airplane flights.

I, however see their paper panacea as the Great Wall: it looks impressive, and probably servers some purpose, but eventually the Mongol horde, Manchu invaders or the seasonal flu virus is going to past it. The mask may have some fancy efficiency statistics but it’s a placebo with elastic bands. I’m too lazy to research the effectiveness of these masks, but I recall during flu season, a student came to class wearing a mask. He sat down right next to me and proceeded to tell me about how he had the flu yesterday, which is why he was wearing the mask.  As I listened to his muffled explanation, I could see his breath, permeating through a gap in top of the mask, fogging up his glasses giving me his germs.

I’m not sure why this is something Japan has adopted, but the west primarily has not. In some ways, I see how the mask represents a lot of characteristics of Japan. Japan is obsessed with science and medicine  (as well pseudo science) and their application to increase general health and longevity.

It’s honorable and desirable to live a long life in Japan. They also don’t as willingly accept taking a day off work or school because they are sick. In America and Europe I think we accept this as part of the cycle–and perhaps a necessary respite or therapeutic break. I don’t mean to imply the West relishes being sick, but I think we like being reminded by our body that we aren’t robots: we are people,who get sick, have some basic limitations and on occasion, must watch the Price is Right and drink sprite even if Drew Carey is untenable at times and sprite can taste like urinal cakes (I imagine, of course). I think Japan, doesn’t see it this way. Sickness is an avoidable obstacle–a distraction that is important to avoid.

I’m sure this all goes back to to the fact that Japan is about small people living in densely populated cities and depending perhaps the most labor-intensive staple crop; rice. Rice requires you to work hard, and if you get sick, everyone gets sick, rice doesn’t grow and suddenly the entire town is in trouble. In this scenario, I’d probably wear a s mask as well.

Meanwhile, America, both Corn and Wheat called, and they said you could sleep in today if you want and watch Regis and Kelly.



Island Hopping: part 2
May 12, 2009, 5:17 pm
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Shisar by the seashore

Shisar by the seashore

Ishigaki:

After brushes with fear and mortality in Iriomote, we headed to Ishigaki Island. We were only there a day, and it was day less about adventure and more about actually relaxing. I spent the day by the pool reading and drinking beer.

For dinner we went to the Hotel’s Yakiniku restaurant. For those unfamiliar, Yakiniku is Korean BBQ. Essentially, you sit at a table with a small, hot and very dangerous barbecue pit taking all of your table space. You then order plates of raw meat and the waiter bring you the various parts of dead animals you requested and some vegetables.

As the meal progresses beverages are consumed, your time management skills deteriorate and you begin to dangerously under cook or incinerate perfectly good food; it’s both delicious and terrifying endeavor. I find that it is central to success to not ask which part of the animals you are eating.

Perhaps the highlight of this meal was that prior to eating, I weighed myself on the hotel bathroom scale. After eating, I did the same and had gained two kilograms in the meantime. I’m not sure about the unit conversions (a kilogram is eight Kelvin, right? and a Kelvin is 2.54 inches, minus absolute zero?) but I am pretty sure I gained some serious weight.

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Naha:

From Ishigaki, we took a plane back to main island, Honto, and Naha city. On this island, there is an American military base, so on city street I ceased to be the great white exotic spectacle that I am accustomed to being.

Other than seeing Shuri castle– which is really a replica of a castle, filled with other replicas of castle relics (thanks WWII), Naha wasn’t entirely interesting. The heavy American influence on the city did pay dividends though. I got to eat tacos for the first time in months. Root Beer, a rarity on the mainland, was readily available. Despite my enthusiasm for the beverage my girlfriend was not as delighted as I was, remarking, “it taste like medicine. I attribute most of my taste preferences to my childhood experience with Flintstone’s Vitamins, so this sounded about right.

The last day we went shopping at the Duty Free Mall, which like all Duty-Free Malls everywhere in the world is not the bargain or tax-free, free-market wonderland they would have you believe it is. When the city monorail very conveniently drops you off outside a “Duty-Free” Mall, you know someone the city office is getting a cut of all that “duty free” commerce.

I’ll end, as all good trips do, on a small tangent: so, there was a monorail, but it did not have an Epcot center; since I was five, I was sure this was a international/galatic requirement for all monorails, anywhere. Someday they’ll change that law.



Island Hopping
May 5, 2009, 3:56 pm
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not Bob Dylan

not Bob Dylan

This week, technically, last Wednesday to this Wednesday, is Golden Week; a series of national holidays falling in close proximity of each other. Essentially, the entire country is on spring break, but it’s called Golden Week Japan loves making things "Golden" more than Cortez loves….gold.  For instance the television idiom for the premier viewing hours we refer to as "prime time" are referred to as "Golden Hour" even though it is several hours long.

For Golden week this year, my girlfriend and I headed down to Okinawa for six days. Honestly, I compiled a novella of stuff to write about, but it doesn’t really translate well into blog for. Actually this is just an excuse because I’m still exhausted from the trip and don’t want to write it all down at once.  Thus I’ll break it into sections, and perhaps a small series of blogs (or not).

Iriomote:

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We started in, Iriomote, the second most southern island in the chain. I didn’t find out until just now but it used to be uninhabited because of malaria, but that was eliminated after the war, (allegedly). The voyage involved a flight from Kobe to Naha, the capital of Okinawa, then another plane to Ishigaki Island. Then we boarded a ferry for a thirty-minute boat ride to Iriomote.

Iriomote is only 300 square kilometers, but one of the larger islands in the area.  90% of the island is covered by Tropical jungles, and only around 2,000 people live there. I did not see a McDonalds or a Starbucks.

malaria free. hope you like pig flu, developed world

malaria free. hope you like pig flu, developed world

We were stayed at an Eco-resort, which  sounds scary, but it was quite nice–perhaps the best accommodations on the island. Despite my stereotypes, I didn’t have to avoid a snake pit on the way to an outhouse–there was indoor plumbing, and even free wifi and continental breakfast (although the provenance of the scrambled eggs is still questionable). Dinner was edible, but I did eat somethings I won’t try again– things that you could play the game "alien or human/ surf or turf" with and not arrive at a definitive answer.

No cable so we had to go outside for fun. I drove a car on the left side of the road (legally) for the first time. It only messed with my head once.

We also took a water buffalo cart across a sandbar to another island–Yabu Island.  It’s was a short 15 minute ride, although it was made longer when the driver  broke out his Sanshin (a small string instrument) to regale us with a folk song. I think the design of the instrument is cool, but it’s not my kind of twang.

We took a canoe trip through the Mangrove to a waterfall. This was mostly cool because the trees were very old and had strange, above-ground and wall-like, protruding roots.

Roots

Roots

We also went caving in the Jungle. I had been caving before, and while these caves were smaller, it was more terrifying. For some reason, being attacked by Forest creatures is less daunting for me than a jungle ambush. Being the tall white guy perhaps also made me feel like the primary target for any predator. What further complicated matters was that following stereotypical suit, Japanese caves are a lot shorter than American caves. I spent a lot of time banging my helmet against the ceiling of the cave which surely must have sounded like a dinner call to hungry jungle creatures. Somehow I made it out alive.

While, I’m not a water person, I got caught up in the adventurous spirit of trip and went snorkeling the next day. After a few dives and picnic lunch on a remote island we made or final swim amongst a vast and sublime section of reef.  At times it rested 30- 50 feet below you as you floated above, while other times I skirted by with the reef just inches below me.

While I saw several  Jacques Cousteau film’s worth of  fascinating species of fish fish, and while I’ll spare you a Planet Earth essay, I must mention at one point I looked ahead and caught sight of a thin, striped swiftly moving creature. It was about 20 feet away and  hit the surface briefly the dove down and nestled into a cranny of the coral. I later confirmed what at the moment, I tired to ignore; it had been a sea snake– you know the one you see on animal planet’s most deadliest creatures and then the narrator yells about how it had five times the venom of a cobra.

In retrospect, it was  very cool to see. I don’t think I have ever seen, in the wild, a creature that could kill me so easily (aside from an angry Elk), however, it made the next twenty minutes of snorkeling slightly less enjoyable.

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