industrious ants

All about a life in motion.

Seasons of Rain

Rainy season is supposedly upon us, but it’s been gorgeous as of late. I’m not complaining one bit. We had a few hard downpours this past week, and I was sure that we were officially in the thick of rapid bathroom mold growth and never drying laundry season. But after one day of biking home with puddles in my shoes, shoes which now smell permanently of trench foot, it’s been rather pleasant. Still, I know too well how deceiving the weather can be here in Kyushu, and my full body rain suit and dehumidifier stand ready. Some days the air is muggy and heavy with water that hasn’t decided yet if it should become a cloud or just hang there a little longer. Inevitably the indecision will break, and we’ll all be wet again until the end of June. Predictably, I will lose another umbrella. I’m sure of it. Sigh. All this is coming from a person considering a move to the west coast of Canada, where it doesn’t just rain for a month, but for an entire annual season. I’m going to have to check my sanity meter sometime soon.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine called me up and asked if I wanted to pay a visit to a Japanese missionary and her American husband one evening. I’d met the wife a year ago when she was here on her last Japanese tour, so I thought it would be nice to see her again. It was an interesting evening to say the least. I found myself in a stranger’s living room sitting around a low table and chatting with various other Japanese people I didn’t know. The evening progressed from chit-chat and snack eating into a sort of a mini church service. We sang a couple Japanese worship songs, thankfully ones I was familiar with, and then the floor was opened up for people to share anything that was on their heart or mind to share. It was quite amazing to sit there and listen to people talk very openly about the challenges they were facing and trying to overcome. One woman was in conflict with her siblings and they hadn’t talked to her for a very long time. Another woman shared about her daughter’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, causing her to overly worry about cleanliness and hygiene to the point that she washed and showered multiple times a day. The evening ended with me talking in depth with the American husband about his life growing up with an alcoholic father and then about his son who also had drug and alcohol dependency issues.

It was an amazing night of candid and open-hearted conversation, something that all too often feels missing here in Japan. Maybe spilling our guts comes more naturally to us North Americans. ‘The more information the better’ seems to be our modus operandi. It’s easy to be personally oblivious to this until you’ve spent a bit of time in a place like Japan, surrounded by a culture of few words, words that are spoken softly, not to mention delicately chosen. I find myself tuning out of fast paced fluent conversations when I’m with large groups of English speaking friends, as if my mind can’t connect with the quickly changing subject matter or absence of pauses for reflection.

The Japanese, so far as I can tell, are very private people. I learned quickly to keep my questions and conversations neutral lest I wander into a who-can-win-this-blank-stare-and-uncomfortable-silence competition the quickest. Matters of love and politics are best avoided. Food, however, seems to always be a safe topic in the office, and it’s usually what I hear people speaking the most passionately about. Sadly, I tend to find out personal details about people by accident through other colleagues (read: office gossip). And often, because I’m the foreigner, I’m the last to know about pretty much everything.

My work mates seldom bring up loved ones in conversation. There is of course nothing wrong with keeping your work and home life separate, but I can’t tell you the number of times I have discovered that a teacher was married after a few years of knowing them, or that they have kids. Again, it could be the language barrier that is keeping me from hearing the tell tale “My girlfriend thinks that…” or “This weekend I took the kids to….”, lines that I was so used to in other jobs. Silent hints are also few, like family photos or cute kid drawings on their desks. Instead, you find pictures of their homeroom students, or screensavers with shots of their dog. Personal photos tend to be kept on cell phones where full control of who sees them can be exercised. As an aside, I usually discount the times that male coworkers have drunkenly referred to their wives as ‘the devil’ as actually talking about family.

Thinking back, I remember very specifically during my first year at our school an announcement was made at one of the morning meetings. Two teachers had just gotten married. One had married an office worker from our school and another a teacher in another school. No one really had much idea that these individuals were in dating relationships up until that point. In another case, a colleague whom I’d known for all of my stay in Japan was transferred. It was well known that she was married, her husband a teacher in a school across town. After she transferred we learned that she had in fact been divorced for a number of years. Even her closest friends at work had been oblivious.

Outside the workplace this same personal code of conduct exists as well. Just last week I went to my favorite salon in town. The owner of the shop is headstrong, honest and always gives me a great cut for a great price. I find myself in her establishment at least 3 or 4 times a year. This time I spent 5 hours there because I wanted to try out the infamous Japanese straight perm that so many of the women here subscribe to. I spoke on and off with the owner of the shop throughout the process. She told me she’d recently gone to Hawaii. I asked her if she went alone or with a friend. She said, with a friend. We covered all the bases and talked about the people, the beach, the shopping, the hotel and particularly about the low quality of the food. A couple days later I was out to lunch with the Japanese friend who had actually recommended the salon to me in the first place and who has known the owner for a long time. Our conversation led to the owner’s trip to Hawaii, and I was a little surprised (and also a little not surprised) to find out that she’d recently been married. The trip to Hawaii had been her honeymoon. It was the only detail she’d left out from our conversation that day.

I think this whole phenomena of privacy creates an illusion to some foreigners here that Japan is a sort of utopian society, where there is no violence, no conflict, no personal problems suffered by at least the people that we encounter in our own daily lives. It’s easy to think that way at first. Sales people are always happy and never seem to be having a bad day, colleagues never seem tired, neighbors are always smiling and giving you mystery fruits and vegetables from their gardens that you have no idea how to prepare or eat. It all seems so perfect. But the longer you stay, the more Japanese you pick up and the more time you spend with local friends, you realize that it’s all a sort of a kabuki performance, or a dance that is played out without missing a beat. It’s so real, so lifelike, but at the end of the day you know that all the characters are just actors and their lines have been memorized. The sales people are high school drop-outs, your overworked colleague is recovering from a mental breakdown and your neighbor drinks too much. Here in lies the truth about the Japanese, that they are a beautiful, stoic and proud people, but they are just like the rest of us.

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Where Stories Were Told

One of the coolest job’s i’ve ever had was ushering and bar tending at the majestic and beautiful Massey Hall concert venue in Toronto. I sort of chuckle now and wonder how good I really could have been at my job, because I really didn’t drink much back then. I hated making martinis, because no matter which way I made them, dirty, dry, they always tasted horrible to me, so I had no idea if I was doing it right or not. Thankfully it was usually not that sophisticated a crowd that rushed our bar during intermission, and the only thing I had to do well was pour a bottle of beer, and fast. It’s funny to think that I learned how to pour two at once before actually ever drinking those same beers myself.

The hours at Massey weren’t exactly what one would call consistent. We only worked if and when there was a show, and sometimes we’d go weeks without a shift. In any case, most of the staff held other jobs. I was working as a barista at a coffee shop (which is also ironic, cause I didn’t really drink much coffee back then either). Massey was something you did, not for the money, but for the fun of it. How could you not be having an amazing time when you were getting paid to watch Sting, or Cindy Lauper, or Sigur Ros or Beck or The Flaming Lips or better yet, work their after party. I think I reached the pinnacle of my bar tending career when I was asked to stock Alice Cooper’s dressing room with drinks. His drink of choice, Starbucks Frappacinos. I became an instant fan right then and there.

What really made the job special though was the people I worked with. Our bosses and managers were always professional but cool, and my fellow coworkers were one big happy mess of interesting people. One guy was a lawyer, another girl a professional clown. There was a standup comedian, a cartoonist, a guy in real estate, a sports journalist, boys in bands (some semi famous, others very unknown), people who owned their own businesses and others who surfed friend’s couches not sure of their life’s direction just yet. Wether you were working the bar, tearing tickets at the door, or showing people to their seats, there was almost always someone else by your side helping you out. Conversation, story telling and swapping secrets were inevitably going to happen.

I love stories. Especially the ones that are told by people about themselves, the true ones that you never could have guessed, ever, even if you tried, but once you sat there and heard the whole thing through, everything about that person made so much more sense, and in fact life seemed to make more sense too. You know…the stories that people tell you that you don’t forget. The ones you can’t forget.

One just like that was dropped at my feet by a debonaire friend and usher on a quiet and boring night down in the bar as I waited for the show to end and the after party to begin. It started with me brewing coffee and pouring us both a cup and then somehow through random chit chat the tale made its way out of his mouth, into my ears and burned itself on my mind forever. It was about how years ago while traveling through Thailand he found himself accepting a too good to be true offer to smuggle drugs onto a flight into Taiwan. And of course, being too good to be true, he was caught at the airport and sentenced to 12 years in a Taiwanese prison. His family could do nothing, except send him books and crossword puzzles, so aside from eating a lot of rice, he read quite a bit and learned how to speak Mandarin. Prisoners weren’t allowed out very often and it was hard to tell how much time was passing. He said he always knew a month had gone by when all the inmates had their heads shaved. Head lice was apparently a big problem. 4 years into his sentence, unannounced, he was released and deported back to Canada.

That’s the story. Through his retelling there were moments when he smiled, or chuckled a little bit over these memories. That was the intriguing thing about it. He could think about his experience, tell me everything, and even speak fondly about some things. It was as if there was something he found there within himself that he was happy to have stumbled upon. It was quite amazing. I have no recollection of anything he told me after that. I don’t know how long it was between his arrival home and that night that he leaned against the bar, sipping the horrible house coffee and sharing 4 years of his life with me in one conversation. I haven’t seen him or even heard his name spoken out loud in so much time, but I guess because this is my fourth and final year in Japan my mind has pulled his story up from its database trying to compare and draw a relationship between the two of us. In the end there isn’t much there in common. Except maybe the part about the rice.

If I saw him again, the first thing I would want to ask him is “Would you take it back?” And I think this is the question that all of us might ask ourselves when we end up trapped in the circumstances of our lives or actions. Would we take it back? Of course, who in their right mind would say “I really want to spend the best years of my young life sitting in an Asian jail with hijackers and gang members!” But if you did happen to end up in such a dark place, and lived through it, and came out the other side into freedom, would you want to change the person you’d become? Undoubtedly, it all depends on the person you were going in and who you chose to be coming out.

In Life And Death

In our four years here in Japan we’ve seen some friends and acquaintances pass away; a student’s father, an old high school classmate, our elderly neighbour. When someone close to you dies, it’s always shocking, wether you expect it or not. But likewise, I find the death of acquaintances or friends of friends to be unsettling, because it manifests so much pain in the people you know and love. You want their suffering to subside, so you suffer a little with them. Everyone involved is so helpless to do anything and for some it can make being around the surviving family uncomfortable. You don’t know what to say and you don’t know what to do for them. It’s amazing that something as normal as dying feels so unnatural.

That said, the older I get, the more accustomed I seem to be getting with the concept of dying. I am happy for that, because obviously it is going to happen to each and every one of us. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that right now, but maybe when the day comes where I lose own parents or friends, it will be  harder to deal with. For the time being though I feel like I can mentally cope with this process, at least when it happens to others. I am grateful to my mom and dad for never trying to protect me from the concept of mourning or trying to sterilize death. I remember being shown pictures of my grandfather’s funeral in India when I was about 14 or 15 years old. The pictures were of my uncles, literally holding their dead father’s body. Some were posed pictures with my grandfather positioned on someones lap. Others were shots of them carrying the body in their arms from one location to another. The funeral viewing was held in someones home and friends and family dug the grave themselves.

At the time I was a bit taken aback by those shots. It wasn’t so much the sight of the body, but of the act of people touching and holding it. I’d been to a couple funerals in Canada, but holding the body was completely out of the question. In fact at my Grandma Lieberman’s funeral (not a real grandmother, just a very close friend of the family) we were specifically directed not to touch the body, because it had gone through Jewish rites of purification. It was interesting to see my Indian family members pass around the pictures of Papa, because they didn’t seem to be perturbed at all. Instead they made comments about the flowers, about how good he looked in his suit, about the friends in the background who had been able to attend the ceremony. They brought up funny memories, they reminisced. There was no discomfort in the experience.

Recently, a close Japanese friend of mine lost a very dear family member to sudden and tragic circumstances. It was hard on their family and by the time I was made aware of the situation some time had passed. We spoke at length about what happened, how the funeral arrangements had unfolded, how the family was holding up. I felt blessed that my friend would share such intimate details with me. I learned that in Japan it is custom for a family to tend to the body themselves in preparation for the funeral. Washing it, applying makeup, doing their hair and dressing them in a favourite outfit. These are all things that the family is welcome to do themselves. My friend spoke tenderly about touching the face and body of her loved one. The family does not leave the body alone and stays with it to the very end. They sleep beside it at the funeral home, laying out futons on the floor next to the coffin. They stand by it when friends and family arrive to pay their condolences. When the body is finally cremated, they pick through the ashes with chopsticks and pass the bones to each other, placing them carefully in an urn to later place in a grave. For a culture that in life seems to emphasize personal space and privacy, departing takes on a stark contrasting level of intimacy.

I thought that it was a beautiful thing for my friend to have the chance to be so close to her loved one in the final days before the cremation. Maybe not everyone would agree though. Some might find the whole thing a little morbid. It’s the Christian thing to say “It’s just a body, it’s empty, nothing is there anymore”, as if that line of thinking is supposed to somehow soften the blow of all the memories and sadness we feel when we see the dead face of our friend or relative. As many times as I have uttered those same words myself, more recently I feel a change of heart. I can liken my sentiments to the feelings I have about a house. This year, Matt’s parents will be selling their North Dakota house to the city so that a levy can be built on their land. Flood waters reek havoc on their town every year, and finally a buyout was arranged to try and remedy the situation. His family has lived in that house for 35 years. All four brothers were raised there. It’s the place where Christmas presents were unwrapped, grandchildren learned to walk and where we were married in the backyard. The house will likely be destroyed, the pool filled in, the old oak tree in the back cut down. Sure, it’s just a house, but it conjures up deep feelings to know that it will be torn down after it is vacated. So then it wasn’t really just a house. It was also a home and it’s sad to think that no more memories will ever be made there again.

And of course, we can all say that it’s just a body, but it could also be a sister or a friend or a colleague. It’s hard to separate the relationship between the structure and core so suddenly because over time they become one in the same. The body and the house are the tangible symbols of the intangible life and spirit within that meant so much to us. Saying goodbye to just a spirit might make us feel empty. We can’t really put a face on it so to speak. So can it really be so wrong to mourn the passing of both?

I think having a child has made me understand the long healing process after such a profound experience a little bit better. When it comes to birth, it  takes a long time to shape that new little person inside of you. It is beautiful and uncomfortable and physically altering. It’s a special 9 months. After that life comes into the world our bodies are shocked by their absence and repair themselves slowly. Honestly speaking though, they are never quite the same again. If any mother out their says otherwise, they’re lying. 2 years after Noah’s birth I am finally able to fit into my old jeans, but under them hidden stretch marks remain, amongst other physical changes. Still, I can live with this because it is a small cost to pay for bringing Noah into the world. Should I not expect the same from death? Our relationships with people are beautiful and messy and soul altering. They are special. When our loved ones leave us we are changed  by the impact they had on our lives and their sudden absence from it . The pain softens bit by bit, and slowly we get back into our daily routines, but we can never be the same. They are gone, in body and in spirit, and when they left a little piece of us went with them. Is this too costly a price to pay for what we got in return? And further still, was there more that we could have given them before they left? I guess we all have to answer those questions for ourselves.

Fear And Loathing

I’m not going to apologize. No, I will absolutely not apologize for life getting in the way of updating my blog. What I should apologize for is getting so down on myself and on life that I felt like I couldn’t share my feelings anymore with whatever crazy people actually read this blog. The last few months of typing silence has given me a chance to realize how dark and lost I’ve felt, but also how it’s up to me to pull myself up and choose a more well lit path. Still, life can certainly get depressing, especially if you get stuck returning to cnn.com every 5 minutes to see if there are any new developments on the latest American carnage. It doesn’t matter which one at this point. The blood from one flows into the other. Sometimes my little Japanese town’s newspaper headlines are much preferred. This is a place where they still report the winners of the local high school speech competition, and where baseball scores trump criminal activity.

I was having coffee the other day and the friend sitting across from me said, “You really need to start your blog up again. You know I live vicariously through the lives of others.” I thought it was funny at the time, and filed away a note in my mind that said “Do not start blog again, just because.” It’s so much easier to give up on things than to keep trying. And if I kept trying, I would have to keep wondering, what am I trying for? Well, that note kept turning up around my brain and bothering me. It bothered me because I like to write, and I like to share my thoughts, and I like to connect with people, so why give up doing what I love? So, I’m back. But i’m not sorry for leaving. No apologies, remember.

So, hey man, what’s the scutterbug? (Totally ripped this line off of urbandictionary.com). Well, we’re leaving Japan. It’s official. We are leaving in t-minus 3 months and counting, and it hardly seems like enough time to do all the little things that I managed to ignore doing over the last 4 years. All of a sudden I feel like I have to get as much as I can out of the culture, language and people as humanly possible, all at the same time as doing my normal 9-5, changing diapers and figuring out what to make for dinner. I realize I can only do so much, so I’ve resolved to just enjoy every day as much as I possibly can and to accept every experience wholeheartedly. Yes, it’s a somewhat vague resolution, but it seems to be working so far.

How do I feel about our departure? Honestly, I feel like I’m on death row. I am not even figuratively speaking. It’s hard to explain this to friends and family back home that have never spent extended time here in Japan. The word ‘safe’ takes on a whole new meaning in this country and the longer you stick around, the longer the list of American Things To Be Afraid Of gets. Guns, bombs, thieves, muslims, homeless people, black people, anybody not Japanese and not in the JET program. Yeah, it’s pretty bad. But this is the sort of strange mind altering occurrence that happens when you spend 4 years in a place where you pretty much have to beg someone to steal your stuff. I have seen a gun maybe once my whole time here. It was in a parade, and it looked about 50 years old. When I see a police car, it’s a big event to me. If I see a police car twice in one day, it’s almost positively the same one I saw earlier. The most violent public act i’ve seen here was… actually, i’ve never  seen one. And, I can run at night through my town and feel far safer than running through a Canadian park during the day. So basically speaking, the moment I step off the plane in Toronto, I fully expect to either be shot or raped, or both. I know. I know! It’s nuts right. But all bets down, I’m sure I am not the only foreign expat living here that thinks this way. You simply can’t avoid it. Your brain slowly but surely takes on the Japanese mindset that Japan is safe, and America is definitely not. Coming home is going to take some real adjusting to.

*Addendum: For any expats out there that want to preserve their on-edge, on-guard feelings whilst living in ‘safe’ Japan, might I suggest reading the Crime section of Japan Today. There are enough stories on there about random stabbings, people living with dead bodies, and yakuza/gang activity to make you feel a little more at home. But truthfully, ignorance is bliss.

Hobby Land

Get your fill of walls and waves.

 

While Japan may epitomize what it means to be a workaholic, it also has some very good national holidays. I think Canada would be a kinder and healthier nation if we adopted such occasions as Respect For the Aged Day, Greenery Day, Health and Sports Day and the little known but much loved Marine Day. Interestingly, in Japan it can be hard to tell that you are in the midst of a holiday, mostly because everything stays open. Banks and schools are closed, but anything that has to do with food or shopping is open for business. You’d be crazy not to keep your boutique or bakery open on the one day where people have the time to get out and spend their money. And spend their money they do. On holidays in our town there is even a line-up outside the hole-in-the-wall greasy-chopstick restaurant near our house.

Last week was what is known in Japan as Golden week. It’s almost an entire week of national holidays strung together. If you play your cards right and take a little time off, then you are looking at a nice 9-day long holiday. Matt and I spent a few of these days in our hometown, but we finally did what everyone else was doing and took to the road. Some friends had chosen to take off to Korea for the week, another journeyed to Saitama to run a marathon. We packed up the car with our little 2-man tent, surfboards, and baby paraphernalia and headed south to the beach town of Aoshima to see what kind of waves there were to be had.

On our drive south, we noticed the various unfamiliar license plates. Lots of people from everywhere were traveling down our packed, 1-lane poor excuse for a highway. A lot of them were surfers with boards strapped to the roof of their cars. Surfers also can’t seem to resist a good board-shop bumper sticker or rearview window decal, so they were easy to spot. Along the way we stopped at one of Matt’s usual surf spots. The lot was packed full of vehicles from every corner of southern Japan and they didn’t look like they were going anywhere fast.

A parking lot full of squatting surfers is an interesting site to see. Some set up huge tents, equipped with cots and folding tables and chairs, others live out of their station wagons or mini vans. People bring their scraggly longhaired kids, who when they aren’t surfing too, are weaving through the parked cars on their skateboards. They assemble their camp stoves and they create spaces to hang their drying wet suits. They play with their dogs and their leashed up cats, wax their boards, fearlessly show off their tattoos and walk barefoot on the pavement. If they aren’t surfing, they’re sleeping, eating, or smoking.

This location was not an anomaly. The entire length of the coast was packed with every kind of wave rider; long boarders, boogie boarders, wind surfers, short boarders. You name it and they were out there. We discovered upon our arrival in the south that there was a surf competition being held in Aoshima, and it was even more of a zoo there than up in our neck of the woods. It seemed insane that so many people with the same hobby would all be out doing the same thing at the same time. I wondered if any surfers had decided to do something different that week, like go to the movies or stay home and
organize their record collection, or take a trip into the mountains. By the looks of it, it didn’t seem likely.

This assembly of like minded-hobbyists seemed to go beyond ocean enthusiasts. Out on the open road there were packs of bikers straddling their shiny Harley’s in seemingly brand new leather chaps. There were roadsters too, looking slick in restored vintage convertibles, sporting bizarre haircuts and sleeve length tattoos. We found families forever posing in front or random monuments and scenic backdrops, taking photographic evidence that they were in fact where they stood at that moment on their holiday.

We spent two days down south enjoying the sun, watching Matt catch his waves, introducing Noah to the concept of a tent and driving right to southern tip of Kyushu to see the wild horses of Cape Toi. After a couple nights in a tent too small for a family of three, we trucked it back home for a night of proper rest. With one day left in our precious Golden Week, we decided to take up an invitation to go rock climbing with a student of Matt’s. The rock faces were about an hour north of us, so again we were in the car, this time speeding through the valleys and mountain tunnels of Oita. It was some of the prettiest scenery I’d seen in a long time and I was secretly pleased to know it was just beyond our backyard.

Upon arriving at the rock faces, of which there were a good variety, I was surprised to see the number of climbers scurrying up the dangerous cliffs and facades. I was under the impression that this place was known only to the locals, but Matt’s student told us this area was pretty popular with climbers and that most of the people there that day were likely from out of town. So, again, the Golden Week hobbyist parade continued.

One family we met, with a very calm and polite 10 year-old son, said they’d come all the way from Fukuoka. I asked them how often they climb, in which they said just about every week at an indoor climbing gym. The boy professed that his main hobby of choice was climbing, even though he also liked baseball. The mother (or the aunt, not quite sure about who was who) had arms like a python. Here we were sitting in front of a 20 meter rock face, one that scared the crap out of me just by looking at it, and she goes on to tell us that she’s climbed cliffs some 300 meters high. Is that even possible? Indeed, all the other climbers also seemed of a very high caliber, climbing impressive walls with deep overhangs and challenging holds.

All of this definitely gave me the impression that Golden Week in Japan is everyone’s golden opportunity to do what they love to do most, and maybe what they wish they could be doing every other day of the year. I also get the feeling that these hobbies are something people take very seriously. They aren’t just casual pastimes that they tend to every month or so. They are concentrated efforts that people work at diligently. A Japanese hobbyist is an impressive specimen to behold and the whole weeklong experience had a contagious air to it all. Indeed, by the end of it I found myself secretly wanting to be a part of a surfing clique or a climbing posse. With a surf-addicted husband and little boy who is already climbing the walls of our apartment, I suppose it’s inevitable, right?

Lost and Found

Sending you our love, debris and cesium-137.

 

The North American media has been doing an interesting job of reporting the first few significant Tsunami debris items to arrive on the shores of the Pacific Coast. Eventually, I am sure they will cease to care about each and every plank of wood or bottle that washes up. For now though, people seem genuinely concerned about returning more significant items to their rightful owners. I find this touching considering that there is a good chance the owner might have lost most, if not all, of their worldly possessions, and that’s if they are still alive.

The first large item to surface was a badly battered fishing boat spotted off the coast of Alaska. The owner was contacted and stated that he did not want it back, so after some failed efforts were made to get close to the vessel, the US Coast Guard opened fire and sank the boat. They speculate that it was unsafe to board and could pose a danger to other vessels. That’s fair to say, but to sink a boat, possibly with a tank full of diesel doesn’t seem all that responsible to me either. I guess coast guard target practice takes precedence over environmental preservation out there in Alaska. I wish they had managed to bring it to shore, but I suppose there is plenty more where that came from on its way. Better luck next time.

Next was the soccer and volleyballs found by an Alaskan man who enjoys beach combing. In an interesting twist of fate, the wife of the man happens to be Japanese, so she could read the inscriptions written all over the student memento’s. They were successfully able to track the owners down in Japan and plan on returning them shortly.

Finally, there is the most recent case of the cube truck container that washed ashore on one of the small islands of Haida Gwai. A man exploring a remote beach on his four-wheeler found it and opened it up. He discovered a few golf clubs, some random camping equipment, and a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle. The bike was encrusted in salt and a bit battered, but in fair condition. A determined soul went out there, put the bike on the back of a truck, and carted it back to the main land. The Japanese owner was located and the bike will be shipped back to him care of Harley-Davidson. They have also promised to restore the bike if it is feasible.

The current estimate is that there is about 1.5 million tones of Japanese Tsunami debris still floating in the Pacific Ocean. It is thought that another 3.5 million tons actually sank just off the coast of Japan. The truth is, it’s actually not possible to tell what sank and what’s still floating. It’s probably safest to just say ‘a lot sank and some of it is coming your way.’ Hopefully people will continue to treat found objects with some care and respect and do what they can to return the items to their original owners. I know the Japanese would do exactly that if our current roles were somehow reversed.

Update: Here is a recent CBC article about the amount of debris that is starting to wash ashore, and the concerns that the community has with how to dispose of it.

Spring Recap


April was an epic-fail for writing. I must have sat down a half a dozen times and tried to squeeze something meaningful out of my brain, but I never got very far. Not to make excuses, but the last month and a half has been excessively busy and it’s been hard to concentrate on any one thought for too long. It seems like only lately I’ve been able to get some sort of mental bearing back, so here’s a recap on what I should have been writing about, but couldn’t get out the door.

March was a month of births and deaths. Right about the time that my new nephew was born, an old high school friend finally succumbed to her long-fought cancer and passed away. It was not as hard as it should have been to say goodbye, maybe because the physical distance between us softened the blow. I hadn’t seen her in many years. It was her illness that actually brought us back in contact. I’m grateful for the year that I was able to share correspondence with her before she went, but wish I’d been better at staying in touch before that. I hate to be that guy who only turns up for funerals. I’d rather be the one that’s at all the birthdays and weddings. So far my track record is pretty mediocre.

March 11th marked the one-year anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. Even though we weren’t affected where we live, I still get an eerie feeling when I jog through town. The streets and buildings are all so similar to those in the hundreds of images and videos floating around the web. I can’t help but feel like the only difference between them and us was coastal location. There is a major fault line just off our shores as well, so the potential for something similar is not unthinkable. Now I look at our levees and know how useless they are.

One notable change over the last year is that all the schools have posted tsunami signs on their front gates that list their distance from the coast as well as their elevation. Most are within 5km from shore and are usually less than 10 meters above sea level, which would put them all underwater within 20 minutes of a big earthquake. It’s no wonder that I still find myself looking for emergency escape routes and wondering about the architectural soundness of local structures. Perhaps it’s a similar feeling to the 9/11-claustrophobia I get when standing between tall skyscrapers. Other than that, it’s hard to tell what has changed for the people of Miyazaki. I don’t even check our local radiation levels anymore.

I finished my 10km race. I didn’t break any records or even come close to being in the top 15 runners, but I finished, and I was proud of myself for sticking to my training and finishing in good form. As I was running, two thoughts kept going through head. The first was “This sure feels longer than 10km.” The second was “Half marathon? Hell no!” But after I crossed the finish line a feeling of euphoria quickly washed over me and in that moment I convinced myself that a half-marathon is the obvious next step. It’s a bit of a ways off, but I’m aiming for a December race, which gives me lots of time to eat ice cream over the summer before I start seriously training in the fall.

April marked the start of the Japanese fiscal year, and therefore promised lots of mandatory and optional work parties. This did very little for my paycheck, and also didn’t help my blood pressure levels every time I had to try and find a last minute babysitter. I finally got fed up and didn’t attend a big welcome party, (party #4 of about 6 or 7). Unfortunately I had already paid for it, but I really didn’t care at that point. Every responsible friend I know had already babysat for me over that two-week period, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone to do it twice. I also don’t want to get in the habit of putting my job before my child. There has to be a limit to how many drinking parties are reasonable to attend when it cuts into the already limited working-mom time I have with my son. I’ll never get over this part of Japanese work culture. I consider it a huge waste of money and time. I wonder if anyone else thinks so, but so far no locals have ever confessed such scandalous thoughts to me.

So that’s the past month or so in a large nutshell. Now that I have all these things off my brain, maybe I can focus better on what is happening in the present instead of always trying to evaluate the past. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.

Run For Your Life

Run the Good Race

 

Next week I’m running in a 10km race. It’s a race that I anticipate I will not win, nor come anywhere close to winning. Coming in last is actually a very real possibility. Lucky for me I never signed up with the intention of placing in the top ranks. The only thing I want out of it is the personal satisfaction of saying to myself “I did it, so there. Suck eggs, Self!”

I guess you could say that my desire to shape up is how this all started, but not how its ending.
I’ve run before, but never this far. I haven’t consistently applied myself to an athletic challenge like this since back in high school when I was on the basketball team. Even then, I remember very clearly that I was the slowest runner on the team. So slow in fact, that when our team ran suicide drills, it was often me that didn’t cross the end-line in time and the entire group would have to repeat the brutal drill again. Sometimes twice. Yes, now I remember. I really hated running back then. And while I can’t say that I love running now, I think I have moved away from abhorring it and have grown to appreciate it.

After my son was born, I was so disappointed with my body. Every part of me seemed out of wack. My boobs were huge, my hips had widened, my gut was soft and squishy and shapeless, and to make me feel even less attractive, my hair was falling out. (Why does no one ever tell you about the hair loss thing until you are actually pregnant?) In short, I felt pretty low. Then a few months ago I found a local race brochure in our mailbox, and on a whim I decided to join.

During my 3 months of training, I have learned that my biggest running-nemesis is not actually my body, but my mind. Every day that I set out to run, without fail, I dilly dally for a good 20 minutes before being able to get out the door, sometimes even longer. I pre-occupy myself with choosing music on my iPod, taking a last chance pee, feeding the baby, perfectly tying my hair or lacing up my shoes to just the right tightness. Yup. You guessed it. I’m stalling. And all through my little pre-jog stall-ritual my mind says to me “You don’t really want to do this. It’s going to hurt. You’re going to be out of breath. You might not make it to the end without walking. It’s raining and you don’t want to get wet. Did I mention that it’s going to hurt?” My inner-monologue does a great job of slowing me down and making me reluctant to take the most important step, being the first one. Even when I finally start pounding the asphalt, it jabbers on and on about not being able to make the next kilometer, or being thirsty, or about a stitch in my side. I am truly my own worst, and most relentless enemy.

This is the amazing thing. By the end of every single one of my runs, my mind, proven wrong and defeated by the fact that I did indeed finish what I set out to do, has nothing left to say me. Complete and utter silence. I love that. It’s a wonderful feeling to succeed at something that someone said you couldn’t do, particularly when that someone is your own self. Tasting that sort of accomplishment is indescribable. It leaves you believing you could do even more! You wake up realizing that you’ve come further than you ever imagined you could. What then was really holding you back? Often times, just a bunch of unfounded voices in your head.

Sometimes the voices are real though. Recently, someone said to me “You know, I’m sure if you really wanted to you could go out today and run 10km. And, why bother even training for a race you know you aren’t going to win?” They had a point. If I wanted to run 10K, why not just go out and do it? I could do it right now and get it over with if I really wanted to. Of course, without training the chances of injury would definitely be higher, and without any preparation I would miss out on all the little challenges and victories that come with a good regimen. All the changes in my body, the increase in my energy levels, improved eating habits and the decrease in the guilt that sometimes comes with loving food too much, they wouldn’t exist. All the people who greet me as I run through town, the buildings I notice, the satisfaction of going a little bit farther than last time, of finding myself on a road I’ve never been before, none of it would happen otherwise.

Aside from that, I wonder if I did spontaneously step outside and run 10km, would I even think of running a full marathon the next day? Probably not. Sure, I could joylessly struggle through a shorter race with little or no training, but I wouldn’t stand a chance if I did the same thing with a more serious distance, let alone even have a desire to take a go at it. I likely wouldn’t finish, and if by some miracle I did, I’d keel over at the end of it, just like the original marathon hero Pheidippides. So in the end it’s not really about winning the race, but rather about finishing it well and wanting to run even farther beyond the finish line.

All that said and done, if you aren’t doing anything this upcoming Sunday why not come down to Hyuga and watch the race. The 10K runners start at 9am, rain or shine. You can cheer us on, maybe catch a little bit of the running fever yourself and watch me happily win as I lose the race.

Obsessed Much – January 2011

So it looks like I am turning into a once-a-month sort of blogger. It’s not exactly conducive to keeping any sort of audience these days, but I’m happy as long as I don’t abandon ship completely and can still manage to eek out something remotely interesting every few weeks. While I’ve been ignoring my posting duties, pretty much every blogger I know has put out some sort of Top Ten of 2011 or New Years Resolutions for 2012 list. Obviously I’m a bit behind schedule, but it wouldn’t matter anyhow because my pockets are empty on both counts. I’m not exactly heartbroken over this. I was pretty content to see 2011 over and done with and making a Top 10 Meltdowns of 2011 didn’t seem like the most positive way to kick start my new year. I’d like to make it clear that 2011 was not utterly miserable. I gave birth to my beautiful son, had a chance to visit with family on two separate occasions and had a great teaching year. Still, the year also had many challenges, and personally I feel like I am happy to be done with it.

If there is anything remotely resembling a resolution swimming around in my head, it is “to be true to myself”. If I reflect on the past year, it seems like this basic concept was painfully lacking in my life. I was so wound up about things that were completely out of my control and spent way too much energy trying to make other people happy, convincing myself that if they weren’t content, then I couldn’t be either. This newfound perspective doesn’t mean I’m suddenly going to become a huge selfish asshole and just do everything for my own benefit. However, it does mean that I’m not willing to ignore my own potential anymore. I really want to try to work on and challenge myself over the next 12 months and hopefully I will look back and see a difference.

So, I don’t have a Top Ten for you, or a list of resolutions. What I do have is a number of recent obsessions that might tickle your fancy. I often get caught up in random things that become my main point of focus for days, weeks or sometimes years. My mind is huge jumble of these items, all vying for space and priority, all wanting to be realized in some way or form. I thought I would try and keep track of them here on a month to month basis. It will give me something to pen out when I’ve run out of nifty anecdotes about life in Japan. The year is still fairly fresh and already I have a number of new compulsive fascinations to share with you. So without much fuss about it, here they are.

North Korea
Don’t ask me how, and don’t ask me why, but ever since Kim Jong Il died last December I have not been able to shake thinking about, reading and watching everything I can on the current state of the country. It started off with a random travel documentary by Vice Magazine and snowballed into a full-on obsession about the place. When I say obsession, I mean it. I think I have watched every last relevant YouTube video about the place, and names like Euna Lee and Laura Ling feel almost familiar to me. All of my friends are planning fun spring vacations to Thailand or Australia, and here I am wondering how I can go about getting a visa to visit Pyongyang to see the Arirang games, or even worse, if there are any teaching positions available there.

My husband thinks I’ve gone off the deep-end. This is impressive coming from a man who can listen to the same live version of a Grateful Dead song 50 times over and repeatedly checks multiple online-surf reports while simultaneously spaming his own Facebook page with Anarchy support links. All said and told there is something about the country and the plight of the people that has me truly fascinated.

Iqaluit
Speaking of utterly inhospitable places to live, my other recent destination of choice has been the remote and very cold northern city of Iqaluit. Unless you are Canadian, you probably have never heard of the place, and truth be told, most Canadians will never visit Iqaluit, probably because most Canadians don’t want to visit Iqaluit. Not only is it far and very expensive to get to, did I mention that it was really, really cold? You’re talking about a place that only closes schools when winter temperatures hit around -45 degrees Celsius and where the bay is frozen for all but 3 months out of the year. Again, I’m not entirely clear about why I’ve suddenly become so enthralled with Iqaluit. It might have something to do with all the jobs that are available up there at the moment, which seems to be seriously lacking everywhere south of the 49th parallel (or so I’ve been told). The lifestyle and community are intriguing as well. The idea of living in a place where the sun never sets (or alternatively, barely rises) and where the night sky puts on a show of Northern Lights for whoever is around to watch (mostly polar bears) sounds strangely romantic.

Dan Rezler
This is actually just an extension of my North Korea obsession. Dan Rezler is an 18 year-old kid from somewhere in America who has an amusing vlog about all sorts of teenage randomness. Except, he just might be a genius, so it sort of sets him apart from a lot of other just-out-of-high-school-kids-with-too-much-time-on-their-hands types. It was his video on the History of North Korea that brought me to his site, but it is his professional video presentation (at least most of the time), clean editing and witty/quirky sense of humor that keeps me going back. If I was 17, this is the guy I would want to go to prom with, or at the very least be in his ad-hoc camera crew.

Wordless Picture Books
I was desperate to find an amazing and creative 3rd term project for my students this year, and at just the right time my sister sent me a list of about 50 wordless children’s books. The idea behind a picture book without any text is that kids can stretch their imaginations to no end when recounting the story, and so can adults for that matter. I started by ordering a few books off Amazon for school, and before I knew it I was making a Wishlist of all the ones I wanted for myself.

Pureed Food (and Feeding it to Babies)
The awesome thing about feeding a baby his first food is that it is the closest experience you’ll ever get to introducing an alien to life on earth. Actually, that’s pretty much childrearing in a nutshell. It is priceless to watch him discover anything for the first time, but food in particular is really fun. He opens his mouth, he tastes the food, he scrunches up his face unsure if he is disgusted or pleased, and then he makes a decision to try it again before he makes up his mind. And when he loves something, there is no stopping him. Apple Sauce to Noah is like M&M’s to ET. Sometimes eating can get boring when you feel like you’ve had it all. Living vicariously through your own personal baby-alien makes food exciting again☺

Bone Marrow
This past year saw at least 3 family friends pass away from cancer, and 1 who is still currently fighting a vicious battle with AML, a very aggressive form of Leukemia. It sucks to say this, but I had lost touch with my old high school friend and only reconnected with her after finding out she was very sick. It’s sort of lame, and I feel guilty for letting our relationship slip. I find myself thinking about her a lot these days. She is too weak to write emails at the moment, because she is recovering from her most recent chemo treatment. The silence can feel very heavy. Her boyfriend does a great job of updating us on the situation, even though I know it must be heartbreaking for him to post such personal feelings on his public blog.

It was through the blog that I discovered that her brother ended up being a match for her bone marrow transplant, which I think is actually quite rare. Just because you are in the same family or blood type, it doesn’t mean that you will be a match. Then I started wondering about the procedure of it all. I remember when I used to give blood back in Canada the nurses would ask if I wanted to go on the bone marrow registry as a donor, and I was always a little reluctant because I heard it was time consuming and quite painful. Well, thanks to YouTube, I know a lot better now. And even if it was all those things, now I find it such a cop-out reason to not become a donor. It’s not like people don’t have babies because it takes nine months and there is the potential of excruciating pain at the end of it. We understand the effort is worth the outcome, and from what I can tell from my basic research is that being a donor is far, far, FAR less an effort than deciding to have a baby, and can save a persons life.

If you have been thinking about it, here are some links to help you make your decision to join the registry. I’m making it a mission to get on it, be it here in Japan or back in Canada. Help me eat my words by asking me about it in a few months time.

Promise Kept

Isn’t this a food group in Quebec?

 

I’ve been promising myself to write a new entry for months now, but I just kept putting it off. It’s easy to find other things to do when you are a full-time working mom. Every action is budgeted down to the minute. Outside of work hours there isn’t always an opportunity to get simple errands done and I’ve found myself using my lunch breaks to put gas in the car, buy formula or diapers, and catch up on my banking. I order more things online, as it’s easier to have things delivered right to my front door, and I jog in the dark these days, either early in the morning before the little master wakes, or after he is down for the night. Life is certainly moving along at a higher pace, and I often find myself wishing that humans didn’t need to do things like sleep, eat or take a piss. These seem to be the 3 things I forfeit the most frequently in my attempt to keep up with our new schedule.

The other day a miracle happened in the shape of a work party. My husband, currently a stay-at-home dad, graciously agreed to baby-sit for an evening so I could have a rare and glorious moment of adult recreation. Sitting in the restaurant, sharing drinks with colleagues, laughing, it suddenly dawned on me. I’m still alive. Yes, and not only that, I also have a bit of personality left. It’s a shocking revelation, I know, but up until that moment, I felt like nothing was more important than understanding Noah’s sleep patterns and contemplating the consistency of his bowel movements. When your entire existence has suddenly been rewired to make sure the life you created stays healthy and living, it is easy to forget that you once enjoyed reading books before bed (no, not baby books, but the other kind), or studying Japanese, or talking politics. Truly, some things pale in importance when compared with the awesome task of teaching your kid to eat bananas. Still, there are simple joys, ones that don’t involve sippy cups and mashing carrots, that shouldn’t be let go of so easily, and I don’t think I need to feel guilty for reclaiming them.

Since the last time I wrote in September, quite a bit has happened, so I might as well recap. I took a short trip home with Noah on my own. Everyone thought I was nuts to fly with a baby by myself, but traveling with children in Japan is far easier than I expected. Every airport, from the small domestic ones to the goliath Narita, had great services for families with children. In the local domestic airport, there were strollers with place for my carry-on luggage, so the only time I needed to carry Noah was from the gate to my seat, and that’s all I carried. I was met in the waiting lounge by a stewardess who escorted me right into the plane, toting my bags the whole way, and then storing them in the overhead bins for me. There were also wonderful nursing rooms everywhere we went. They are just for moms, with changing tables and hot water for formula. At Narita, the room was huge, and I had it all to myself. It gave me a chance to refresh after a day of domestic travel, brush my teeth, change the baby, and organize my bags before braving the last leg of my international journey home. All these great services may be a subliminal attempt to encourage Japanese parents that having more kids isn’t so bad an idea, especially when taking a family vacation can be done with such ease.

The reverse culture shock this time around wasn’t so bad. People didn’t seem nearly as mean or fat as they did on my previous trip home, but I think it’s because I made a point to anticipate the differences in politeness and girth. Thankfully, this time I didn’t have any culturally driven meltdowns. I remember crying over a plate of fries and gravy last year, because I didn’t understand why we were eating poutine 2 days in a row. Yes, the high caloric North American diet did a bit of mental job on me, that and the fact that 1 out of every 2 women in my parent’s rural town seemed to be grossly overweight. In Japan, I only ever saw people of that size at sumo tournaments, so I actually felt disgusted with food after a short while.

This time around I was a bit more homesick, and having gone without pickles and beetroots and Thai Food for the better part of the year (and through my entire pregnancy no less) I threw caution to the wind and highly enjoyed every edible thing I could put in my mouth. I am particularly thankful to my sister, who made a killer dish of lasagna, one that had me waking up in the middle of the night to scrape the leftovers from the pan. I should also apologize to my brother-in-law whose pizza slice I scarffed down while he was at work. I’m sorry Rob, but it was delicious.

Yes, this second visit to Canadian soil was definitely easier, but I wasn’t completely spared. What got me this time was the customer service, or should I say, the lack thereof. There were line-ups everywhere and no one seemed to know what the hell was going on. It was as if every store I walked into had just hired all new staff and everyone was doing their job training at that very instant. No one knew return policies, or where things were in the store, barcodes didn’t work and I was nearly short changed on more than one occasion. Quality customer care was simply lacking, and no one else but me seemed to notice or care. Personally, if I’m going to spend money at a business, and on top of that pay 14% Ontario sales tax, then I think I deserve professional treatment, otherwise, I might as well just stick to shopping online.

Back in Japan, I’ve started running again. There is a 10km race happening in March, and I’ve signed up for it since the only way for me to stick to any sort of running routine is to enroll myself in races that I inevitably won’t win. So far the incentive is working. I had a bit of a rough start, but yesterday I ran just over 6km for the first time in my entire life, and it felt pretty good…at least yesterday it did. Today, all my joints below my hips are angry with me. My muscles also feel bitter. I’m giving them the day off, but I’m sending them back to work on Christmas day.

Finally, I will be turning 32 tomorrow. I don’t have any real deep birthday wisdom to impart except that aging sucks. I wish when I was 20 I knew then what I know now, such as how to apply eye shadow properly (I still struggle with this, but I’m marginally better), or that a degree in Art would later qualify me to be a protester in the Occupy Wall Street movement, but that’s about all. Hindsight, right?