Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Extra Day

At first, it looks like a present, an almost unexpected gift, a 29th day in a month that normally only has 28 (and wtf with that? Why do some of them have 31 and this one gets stuck with 28?)... when actually, it's like that gift of an extra hour, given right in the middle of the night on some weekend in the autumn (which only you lucky folk who live in countries that do daylight savings time actually have). But both of these are paid for in advance, or later on... the 29th is a day cobbled together from all the moments left over, that didn't fit into the calendar for the last four (or next four?) years. We get to use the time, today, but it was scraped off the edges of the last four years of your life.

So it makes me think, about the last four years. Starting with, where were you, and what were you doing four years ago? In February of 2008, I was a senior in college. I think I was getting my first rejection from JET (yeah I said rejection! ..that was at the end of January, '08) even though I knew then (as I still know) that I would be perfect for that job... I think I was cooking up plans for a future so blank and frighteningly empty..I'd never had such an empty calendar before, because one thing had always led to another. School led to school, led to college, and there I was, at the edge of that being over, and not having the GRE taken, not having applications filled out.

It was JET, or Kansas, then,
It was Kansas.

I looked forward to the summer, from February, as I do now. I made plans for spring break, I had a thesis to write. I had graduating to do.

But today isn't gleaned from last February, it's from all the months in between here and there. Everything that followed, year upon year. From all that time spent in all those places, from Nashville to Valdosta to Kansas and then to Japan, and Japan, and Japan. Working, waiting, and worrying, changing, learning, and living it up.

Ow! Jeez. What was that for?
It doesn't matter; it's in the past!
Yeah, but it still hurts.
Oh yes, the past can hurt.

And I'm okay with today. Kinda misty out again (not as misty as it was up on that mountain the other day...), no classes, but we'll have the graduation slide show for the 3rd years in a few minutes, and I'll get kerosene and groceries, and make a last attempt at writing some more in the month of February before giving in to the temptation to read Scott Pilgrim or The Name of the Rose instead.

As for the writing, at this moment, the February effort is at 38,574 words, which means I'm going to fall short of the 50,000 goal. But, if you add to that the 15,310 written previously to February (which is totally cheating, and I totally don't care), the grand total comes out at 53,884, which is a respectable enough number. February might not have produced 50,000 words, or anything close to a completed novel (it's going to take a lot more words), but it did at least get me writing, under the spirit of the idea that the only way to start writing a book is to start writing a book. This time, I get an extra day to do it (although if it were November, again, I'd have 30, not 28 or even 29).

Which also kind of proves that writing 50,000 in one month is pretty hard (especially if you have a job, and even if it's a light month for that job), and those who were able to do it whenever they did, hats off to y'all.

Otherwise, the view from here is in some ways similar to the view from 2008. I have ideas, I have designs, I look forward to June, I am going to move, a chapter is ending this summer just as graduation closed the chapter before, but if the last four years, with their ups and downs and figuring of things out is any indication of the scattering of moments to come, I think, whatever that blank space holds, it's probably pretty okay, and I'm gonna do what I can with it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Emily, it’s been so long since you updated! What have you been doing that is so absorbing?

A whole lot of not much to write home about.

Well. Let me tell you what. At work, as things continue apace, rocketing toward graduation, I finally took all my marbles in hand and chucked them in the river (so you can’t call them ‘lost,’ exactly..). Idecided it was high time I tried the old ‘cooking class’ with middle schoolers. I also decided that, instead of some kind of culminating lesson with the younger elementary students, we’re just going to do a ‘cultural’ lesson for the end of the year instead (see: play foursquare and HORSE in the gym). This is essentially my way of giving up on teaching 4th graders anything but the alphabet, God love ‘em.

As for the cooking, I have chosen my favorite recipe perhaps of all time, the delicious cookies I have been making since perhaps I myself was in middle school, recipe received from childhood friend Cindy. I thought of them because once, in high school, a few friends and I made a huge mess of them (like the way you might make a ‘mess of biscuits’ with Pappy O’Daniel flour) in lieu of other Valentine’s Day activity, then went about the school dispensing them in decorative baggies to our favorite people.

The problem with them is they require special ingredients not found in Japan, specifically instant pudding mix and chocolate chips. And I know certain Japan-familiar friends are going to give me shit about chocolate chips, because you can get them at Jusco, so let me qualify that by saying I went to Jusco and the chocolate chips there are MINI chips and they come in MINI bags, and are not appropriate for this LARGER THAN LIFE recipe of deliciousness.

So I sent away for some chips from Foreign Buyer’s Club (along with some oatmeal, taco mix, and other wonderful things, although I yesterday rediscovered a box of Reese’s cereal in my pantry I had forgotten I hid there.. basically I mean to say, I’m hitting the food jackpot)and found myself wondering why I haven’t ordered anything from them ever before, or in fact why I go to the grocery store at all, excepting the fact that I don’t think it’s a good idea to ship eggs to me, and also that bread comes in packs of about 3 slices, so you run out of that pretty fast (which is actually a good thing, because it goes bad just as fast), when ordering stuff online is so very easy.

Because, why leave your house at all? Well, actually I’ve not spent as much time there as I had expected to. I’ve been writing, actually. That novel I keep going on about (do I?), I’ve actually started working on it again and have completed a lot more words. But before you say “send me the first bit,” halt, you who are ignorant in the ways of “NaNoWriMo” and other such ‘just-write-that-shit’ techniques, because the first bit is total tripe right now, because I’m just trying to push through to get any possible amount of the plot barfed through the keyboard into word documents, so it calls for massive revision, especially because on some days, I didn’t feel like writing ‘description’ of any kind, and those happened to be the days that certain scenes were set specifically so that I could describe the setting of the fantasy world as seen through the eyes of a visitor. So that section goes kind of like “There was a parade. It was colorful.” The end.

I got the best comment EVER from a first grader yesterday at go-home-kai. I’ve been swimming a few times a week, just to stay moving, and especially on the Thursdays where I have to skip kempo for evening English class (I just bring a bag and my car and spend the entire day up near work because the pool is right next to work, actually). So it was Thursday, and the week before, I’d been at the pool, so this little first grader said “You’ll be at the pool today, won’t you.” And I said, noooo, actually today I have shorinji kempo instead.

And that cute little kid’s eyes bugged out of his head and he cried out "Suge~ onna!" And I laughed right out loud, because “sugoi” is a word that means .. “awesome” or “incredible, terrific, impressive.” But sugei is the Kansai version, and truncating it is a way of intensifying the word to sort of import shock into that impression. Onna means woman, but is not the politest thing to say.. normally you say onna no hito, meaning female person, for woman. So overall it was pretty much an intense, very Kansai, rather rude, very flattering interpretation of me. The kid then went on to tell the kid next to him that I was scary and one should not mess with me. 

It was pretty much the highlight of the month.

Otherwise, things just keep on keeping on. Lots of changes on that horizon, lots to come. Keep feeling like the end is nigh (and it is, with graduation upon us as of the 9th), the end is nigh, but there's a lot to go between here and there. And beyond!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Officially Any Good

Well, it’s officially official. I turned in my paper yesterday.

It’s kind of silly how, when a decision is actually uncertain, I will submit the paperwork as soon as I know. And yet when I know ahead of time, dither to and fro, take out the form, look at it, put it away again, unwilling to submit to the inevitable, pushing back til the last minute the official sealing of my own fate. It is my way to go dragging my heels (not kicking and screaming, that is far too dramatic and noisy) through a change of any appreciable size, and this upcoming repatriation is appreciable.

When I finally did turn in the form at the last possible moment, nothing changed, no new sense either of despair nor relief washed over me. This is the next step in the way of things, it does not push its weight upon you, because its weight was meant to settle gradually, day by day, and you’ve already begun to feel it some time ago, and it will get more and more obvious, in some ways more and more strenuous, as the days go on.

But you’re doing it right, taking it slow, even being willing to enjoy, to some extent, the way that it hurts to leave. Let yourself wax poetic as you watch the snow falling between you and the dark of the evergreens.

Yesterday was a day that could have been any day. After school, I walked up the hill to Sponic, had a swim, showered, came back to school where some of the girls on their way home stopped to talk to me, then rode with the music teacher back to town. It was the first round of test for third years to get into high school, and there was a dinner party that night. We talked and ate, and I forgot, and the food was so good, and the guests between heartbreaking and a little annoying once the beer wore off in the karaoke box and the principal wouldn’t stop shaking my hand, asking if I thought he was cool.

At some point during dinner, the judo coach was talking about his time in America, mishaps and fast food restaurants, and I saw reflections of my home in his words. Then he talked about the kyoudai, the students I refer to as twins even though I am fully aware that one is older, who may work their way (is this small town gullibility?) to the Olympics in judo in a couple years. I wondered, will I hear about it? Will I see them on TV, grappling with French kids, and remember how they were when I called on them in class?

I have a connection to this place, and while it will thin and grow taut, I like to think it will not break entirely. I don’t skim easily over change because I sink into things, or they sink into me. I burrow, I feed my need to explore, to find out shit. Some of it also comes by accident.

The band teacher said something in the car on the way back to town, about how good the school has been this year, all three classes stacking up well. Last year the third years weren’t very responsible, they were full of troublemakers, but this year, there’s a harmony in place that is rare in middle schools. She called it a “miracle” and I agreed, because middle school is a tough crowd, a tough age to be, and somehow this student body makes it looks easy. I sighed to myself. All that will change in a month, as graduation hits us and a new school year begins, so it’s not that I’m losing that. It’s just that I’m glad I got to be part of the miracle year, I guess, to watch them grow and become.

One thing I remember from my kepmo homework that sticks out still is something about how, not only is it important to believe in your ability to change yourself, but it is impossible to remain the same. I’ve had a tendency all my short life long to try to keep everything, to hold on to things, even when I knew I knew better. There are pieces of that I’ve been seeing recently in my iTunes, of all places.. I don’t use iTunes, or didn’t, but have been more lately, and a lot of the music I have isn’t stuff I sought out on my own. I’m not very good or motivated at chasing down music I like. I much prefer asking for my friends’ music and then letting it sink into my consciousness by just having it in the car until I get tired of it. There aren’t a lot of people in the world I have actively cut out of my life.. I can think of two, actually. And I still have the music they gave me.

Why? Ah, why not? Because it was theirs? It’s not theirs anymore. Because it reminds me of them? So it does. Is it so bad to be reminded? That’s not what I cut out; I didn’t want to deal with them anymore. Is keeping the stuff they gave me dealing with them? Remembering them is bittersweet, and I kind of like that.

So anyway, it’s impossible to remain the same. Like, even if you stay in the same place and do the same thing and get the same result, even if you never move forward, you still can’t stay the same. If you never take a step, or a leap, if you never try, you still won’t be the same old thing (theoretically, good thing, since you wanted to avoid that change, right?) you wanted to stay being.

It echoes into the contractual paperwork. It is impossible to stay in your apartment and job forever, even if you wanted to, which you must admit (while there are some thing of which you may never grow tired), you don’t even want to.

But if it’s impossible to remain the same, then why not try to become better? In whatever way. Stronger. Happier. Better at math. More patient. More kanji in your head. Whatever. My JET life is in its final one-sixth, but my ties to Japan could just be beginning. They will be different, in six months, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be any good.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

a month and four days in

Well, now it's February. I've already written about 2011, the Year That Never Was, or the Year that I Forget.. but I just read over a few other blogs and their retro/pro-spectives and I am reminded again.

The other day, I began sorting the papers, the junk I've been saving. I decided if something was from 2010 or 2009, I should throw it away. So I happily progressed through all the bills I had stashed in a desk drawer since I arrived, saving only the 'new' ones, or the papers from startup I might need at shutdown.

Re-appointment papers appeared on my desk one day while I was in class. In that class, we did a comparative/superlative multiple-choice group quiz (think of it like pub quiz night... these kids had little chance of actually knowing the answers to the questions I concocted) in which, while reading out the extra info about the Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world), I said it was opened in January 2010, so that's just one year ago!

Um, what? So not only is it confirmed I cannot count, it's also apparent that I do in practice forget 2011, sometimes. Or, I feel like it must still be 2011, because already I feel like I've got more documentable "accomplisments" under my belt (as of NOW, February 4th!) than I did in all of 2011.

On the 2nd of February, I took my 1-kyu test for Shorinji Kempo, which is the highest rank I've ever been in any martial art. I'm not particularly coordinated, and and actually not very 'good' at martial arts. I do kind of like them, and I don't mind the repetitive practice. I lack technical skill, especially in a heated or otherwise important moment (so like, tests, tournaments, etc.) and end up more often flailing around performing something that would, let's face it, on the street probably work out okay in defending me, but under the watchful gaze of judges just looks like a baby deer kicking with sharp hooves. In some ways it makes me feel like I prefer the Yoshikai style of all-day testing. Where all you really have to do is outlast the day to show what you're made of, and that your technical skill has already been observed in repeated practice.

Still and all, it's something to be a first-kyu. That's right below black belt. We're still hoping to get me a black belt before I leave here this summer.

As mentioned, I also got my TEFL certification, which may not be small beans in the future. Right now it seems to make little difference in the fact that I have a job, or what I'm asked to do.. but it has changed a bit how I go about planning lessons or what I think should be happening.

But both the TEFL thing and the 1st kyu aren't just results of 2012, they're fruits grown in 2011 that happen to have just been harvested here in 2012. Comparably, I've started giving the push-and-go treatment I'm calling "FebNoWriMo" (because the weather in November and the schedule then are just not conducive to novel writing, here, and February is actually the shittiest month, weather-wise). I am also writing an unrelated 750 words a day to "clear out my mental junk" (at, if you are interested). Even the novel I'm trying to write is not a spontaneous generation, fully formed, from this head-of-Zeus, it's a set of ideas that's been on slow cook and the backburner for years and years.

Also, in 2012, I went on a date. And this isn't like big news, and I don't see this thing 'going anywhere,' but it's kind of nice that a guy had the stones to declare his interest and invite me out to dinner and a movie. I don't really have "love and relationships" goals for 2012 (well, except for one secret one), but I think maybe I should, and if I did, maybe having a date would fall under the heading of "progress." (See: 2011 - A Year Without Climax) But even this has roots in 2011.. I wasn't ASKED on this date in 2012, I went on it then. I was asked before the winter trips.

Neighbor and fellow ALT encourages my dating life. But I wonder if her heart is really in it...
I also got wireless (which I might sell just as quickly to my neighbor) in the apartment, bought a mini-PC, had Kameron configure it, and then got it on the school network with the help of Mikan-sensei. I've been introduced to a couple places in town I had never known existed, one of which has the cutest coffee-shop atmosphere I've seen yet.

Sam is good at finding places. Remind me to take you here when you visit!
I've also been reading at a rapid rate. It began with my two winter-trip six-hour plane rides (for which I failed to pack or book video entertainment and therefore plowed through novels instead), and carried through to now. The winter cold helps. All I want to do is read books. On kindle, on kindle-fire, in paperback off the inherited shelf...

Anyway, it's about time for me to do important things like eat, do laundry, and possibly attempt to tidy up that other room. Oh and the writing, 1750 words at least.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

New Year's and The Next Beginning

In case you aren’t aware, New Year’s is one of the biggest letdown holidays there is. It’s always bigger, shinier, and more awesome in your mind than it ends up being in real life. Even “I spent New Year’s in such-and-such place!” is often cooler in stating than in actual experience. For example, I’ve had New Year’s in Tokyo, and in Las Vegas. In Tokyo, we stood shivering in the grounds of a temple, waiting to hear the bell toll, while TV-host type people went on as if they were a variety show (but that whole thing was, I think, a cultural experience). In Vegas, we went out into the street for the countdown to midnight, or as far into the street as we could get with the way the crowd was pushing us back; couldn’t really see the sky for fireworks, then immediately went back inside to continue gambling (I’m not saying this wasn’t a fun trip, I’m just saying gambling is something you can do in Vegas anytime). At least in my case, the images of me partying into trancelike states that the phrases “New Year’s in [insert big city here]” conjures are mostly on the false.

As for this year, I figured since we’d got up at 4 (again), we weren’t likely to last long into the night, and maybe we could see the first sunrise or something from either some other hill of Angkor’s area, or even from the roof of our building. Yut said that pub street would be full of people, but I pictured a seething mass of American/Australian/European holidaymakers getting wasted and screaming in my ear and I figured it was safe not to expect a big/fun night out for us in Siem Reap. We got Mexican food for dinner, then moseyed over to take a look.
This captures the general feeling well! With Nohea and Brian.
And Yut and Simon
And, happily, as often happens, having low expectations turned out to be a blessing. There was dancing in the streets. Foreigners, yes, but Khmai too, and none so drunk as to be obnoxious, and minus all that horrific toxicity of smoke that fills the air in dance clubs, but music fit for dancing. Yut stayed with us, and some of his friends coalesced out of the crowd and we all danced together behind the speakers until almost 12, when we went in front of the speakers. Shortly after midnight, we progressed in sleepy stumble back to the hotel. A few of our group went on their own sojourns, but of course I like to sleep, so I turned in pretty much immediately.

And then, it was 2012.The next morning, we had hotel breakfast, and rolled out a bit later than usual to travel to Kbal Spien, which is home to the “Valley of a Thousand Lingas.” A linga is a pillar (or phallic symbol) associated with the Hindu god Shiva. “But wait,” I hear, “I thought all this temple stuff was Buddhist, not Hindu!” Good catch, dear reader, and you are correct! But a lot of Cambodian stories and imagery tend to combine Hindu and Buddhist ideas and images together. A good example is that Buddha-protected-by-Naga thing we saw a lot (lot) of. Naga is not a Buddhist image, originally, but was adapted so that one tradition blended with and served the other.

Anyway, Kbal Spien is one of the oldest sites in the area, and the carvings show Vishnu and other Hindu imagery all over the place. There is also a medium-small sized waterfall… bigger, we were told, in the rainy season (of course).

People were playing in it when we arrived, and Yut asked if any of us wanted to go in. I was hot and sticky from the day’s walk, but wasn’t sure how it would be possible to go in, what with my clothes, my shoes, my camera. Still, if I was going to be damp, it might as well be from the river rather than from sweat. Nohea said he wanted to go in, but not alone, so I handed all my stuff to the others, took off my shoes and overshirt, and walked right in. The rocks under the fall were slippery-smooth and made for good water sliding. The fall itself was chill and refreshing. Of course I loved the idea of getting water poured over me in a river sacred since ancient times. This was another of my little magic moments, playing in the waterfall like a new year’s cleansing.

Waterfall as seen from above
I have an image in my mind of standing under a waterfall in Southeast Asia and seeing your path laid out before you, knowing what you want to do or become. This image is borrowed from someone else’s story, who years ago stood under a waterfall in Thailand and knew what he wanted to do with his life. But I saw nothing, knew nothing new, just that I will continue to pursue adventure and learning, and that I will never stay long in something I do not love, and I was very happy with that; it was enough. It also seemed a little related to a September dip in the crystal greenwaters in the Musasabi Canyon in Shikoku once before.

After this, we walked back down the path, stopping at a little sitting area for our Way of the Day with Yut. He told us about Right Livelihood and Right Effort while Nohea and I dripped on the wooden boards; some Korean ladies gave us candies. We trooped back to the van for lunch, where I drank yet more coconut goodness, and we shared yet another round of amazing and delicious food (you might think this would get old, but it never did) in an airy restaurant.

display pieces
Next up was the Landmine Museum, where we learned about the efforts of Aki Ra to find, uncover, and defuse mines, and also the home for injured children adjacent to the museum that he started up. As with a lot of what I saw in Cambodia, it was shocking and intense, but also.. not just a party of pity and blame. I was interested in his unorthodox way of dealing with mines (he preferred to use just a stick and his hands to find and take apart the dangerous items)… methods that got other people killed. Aki Ra (not his original name) was a child soldier years ago, and grew up using weapons, even setting mines. Now he continues to search for and clean up such things. We didn’t meet any of the kids who live at the museum, which is good, because they don’t need to be gawked at like display pieces.

The waiting area for you to wait on the slowest party member.. whosoever that may be.
We went back to Siem Reap, hit the bookstore, and hung out until dinner at our clubhouse, where Yut talked with us some more about the more recent history of Cambodia. Brian re-joined us for a post-dinner drink somewhere on pub street with thumping music next door (I had yet another coconut drink.. yesss) before we retired to bed.

The next day had no particular plans other than to get everyone on their ways after breakfast. Yut took us to the market and we had breakfast at the crowded counters.  My and Kam’s flight to Laos was midday, and we were on the first round of people taken to the airport. We spent the morning writing in one another’s warm and fuzzy books (little notebooks given to use by PEPY at the start of the trip, in which we were to write messages to one another but not read our own til we had gone) and packing up, reminiscing and sharing stories.

And then we were at the airport! Kameron, Miriam (who wasn’t yet sure if she was flying to Laos or heading back to Japan via Korea), and I, all fairly tired, maybe feeling like we were now carrying something rather important even if we weren’t sure yet what it was, or how to share it.

In several of my postcards, I said that Cambodia is farther away than any place I have ever been, and I still think so.. at least about the countryside village; not spatially, necessarily, but in many other ways, it is a place wholly different from where I am from, and even where I live now. Japan and America have a lot in common, actually, and while the differences are important, and are part of the adventure of being here, those commonalities are also comforting.

And although I am aware that there is a great deal taken for granted, in my life, and in the spaces around me, I had never before been to a place where the electricity only runs some of the time, where there is no running water, where objects are reused and repurposed not because their owners are deep believers in the eco movement, but because those are the objects they have, and these are the ways they want or need to use them. People don’t just use things up and throw them away out in the countryside because they can’t afford to, and because a thing isn’t really used up if it can be repaired or reassigned. And that aspect of it, at least, I don’t think is a bad thing.

The downside of subsistence farming is the way that, in bad years (like this one is shaping up to be), there is not a lot of wiggle room, not a lot of margin for error. If the crops fail, by fire or flood, then you are in danger. Outside of that (very real) danger, a lot of people seemed decently happy.

And I’m not trying to say they were happier, with their simple lives (to simplify the situation) than “we” are with our flushing toilets and 24-hour electricity. Just that they weren’t significantly unhappier because of a lack of those things. Their way of life is different than the one I’m from, but it isn’t any better or any worse. Except maybe that one bad year of floods puts their survival at risk, while the pace of consumption in mine puts our entire system at later risk.

But even just personally, going to a place like Cambodia makes you see, irrevocably, how silly 99% of your stresses are, how unnecessary they are, and it does this not by judging you, or by revealing those stressor to anyone, but just by being so full of people whose hopes and whose problems are so different from yours. And not because it’s all a pity party, or because “they have real problems and you don’t” – I think that would have just depressed me.. it’s that they are working on shit.

There are much bigger fish to fry, and methods are being developed on how to catch and cook them. And whether or not you are part of that, you have to respect it. And whether or not you can do anything for them, you can do something for someone. Especially you.

Especially something like, stop tormenting yourself and chasing yourself in circles.

It wasn’t “they have real problems so I should feel sorry for them.” It was.. if they can be grateful for what they do have, then I certainly can too. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot, from all kinds of genres, and between Guns, Germs, and Steel, and The Hunger Games, and coming back from Cambodia, it occurred to me again the other day that I’ve never really been hungry.

In my world that’s something you more or less take for granted because that’s how it’s always been. But that’s not everyone’s world.

And in the same way that the shocking devastation wrought by a tsunami on hundreds of thousands of strangers moves me to silence and tears, but the violent death of one single person that I knew brings me a different kind of mourning because it’s real in a way that numbers and even TV images are not.. the fact that some people in the world are or have been really hungry is much easier for me to grasp when it’s someone I know, and especially respect. Because of war, my grandmother was hungry. Because of hunger, she never wasted food (it’s a habit we inherit). Because of poverty, people are hungry; when he was a kid, it was Yut.
And for me, who has always had enough and more than enough, for me from a culture where thin is in because we’ve outdone ourselves on ‘food production,’ and are in danger of too much intake with not enough movement, for amazingly blessed, lucky beyond all reason me, well… one can feel only gratitude, which diminishes the other stuff to nothing, just as shadows are so naturally decimated by sunlight.

It isn't something permanent. It's not like I went to Cambodia and was 'cured' of taking things for granted, being selfish, focusing too narrowly, making irrational demands on comfort... but it was a little bit of clarity that I will try to remember as I go forward.