Friday, August 31, 2007


When I was growing up, my small town had a friendly rivalry with a neighboring small town, particularly when it came to competitions between local sports teams. This was at its peak when I was in elementary school and we called the people from the other elementary school "Rimers-burgers" in a juvenile attempt to make the denizens of Rimersburg seem stupid. Of course, we were the ones who were being stupid but such is the behavior of the under 12 set when they are trying their best to undermine their rivals.

By the time we all hit 7th grade though, we had to abandon this rivalry and our identity with our small town (Sligo) since we were all integrated into the same combined junior and senior high school. We outgrew our small town rivalry and grew into a rivalry which was based largely on the football teams our school's team played against. By the time most people started dating though, even this sense of strong identification with our home towns and schools dissipated as one discovered there were attractive and kind people everywhere who one would like to associate with.

The funny thing about a lot of people in America though is they don't tend to outgrow this need for identification with places, things, and people that don't matter at all. This was brought home to me on more than one occasion when a casual disparaging comment about something or other elicited a hostile defensive response from a party who felt emotionally connected to the object of my low opinion. In one instance, I used Barry Manilow as an example of a type of music to which I was not attracted, not knowing that the party I was speaking to was a particular fan of the man. Her reaction was highly defensive and she reacted as if I'd insulted her personally by my rejection of Mr. Manilow's music. She then proceeded to personally insult me as an act of retaliation.

As I believe I've mentioned in other posts, this sort of casual identification with content and items we consume is rampant in the U.S. from colas (the Pepsi vs. Coke crowd) to music (Goths, gangstas, metalheads, and beyond) to sports teams. People appear to ally themselves rather intensely and often. It's something I don't actually encounter as much in Japan from the Japanese. I'm not sure if they simply do not make the same emotional connection or if they don't react when you disparage the items they love. Mind you, I'm not saying they don't love items but that love seems tied more to status than to emotional integration.

Since no one has gotten mad at me for disagreeing with what they have staked their identity on for quite some time, the curious intensity of the angry response you can get when someone feels their beloved is attacked hadn't been on my mind until today. I received an extremely foul-mouthed and hostile response from a Mac user who clearly doesn't read my blog on a regular basis but came across my "Apple Frustration" post and decided he was going to call me a 4-letter-word starting with "c" and try to bully me off the Internet. (I'm staying.)

The interesting thing is that a lot of people who have such responses will profess views of tolerance, enlightenment and open-mindedness when it comes to things like culture, religion, or politics yet they will have disproportionately aggressive reactions to trivial matters such as someone finding fault in the computer platform they choose. They may deride others as close-minded or bigoted but then have responses which show that, when someone finds that one thing they've staked their identity on, they can be just as irrationally hostile and defensive as a religious zealot or political extremist.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Things in T.V. and Movies That I Could Do Without

There are many times when I'm watching something and the thought occurs to me that I've just seen or heard something that I'd really rather not encounter again. I don't know what is wrong with the people who make entertainment but it seems as though they lack imagination and feel we do as well.

Indications of this to me are as follows:
  1. In the past, when someone tossed their cookies, we heard a coughing sound and the person dived down out of camera range to spare us the ugly spewing process. Now, we need to see the liquid pouring from people's mouths. This isn't just in movies but in prime time television shows. I think we all know what it looks like to barf and don't need a vivid reminder. I shudder to think what sort of normally-hidden-bathroom-behavior we're going to have to watch next.
  2. "If he dies, you die." If there is a doctor and a person with a gun, it's irresistible for writers not to use that line. The idea is that the gunman is always irrational and feels it necessary to state this despite the fact that anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows a doctor who is trying to save any sort of adversary or enemy in such a situation will do his or her best. Besides the fact that this line is greatly over-used, the person who fails to save the friend doesn't die when the patient dies so it's all rather pointless.
  3. I don't know if these sorts of commercials air in the United States but some time back advertisers in Japan decided that any drink commercial has to show someone downing the showcased beverage accompanied by a disgusting, loud, overly-exaggerated gulping noise. I neither associate this horrible sound effect with enjoyment nor require an audio sample of what it sounds like to swallow amplified by the equivalent of a digital blowhorn.
  4. Breasts and beverages. Breasts and cars. Breasts and tools. Breasts and whatever item are being marketed at males. In this day and age, how many pathetic loser men believe that buying the socket wrenches will also bring delivery of the babe standing next to them? Are men really that easily manipulated and gullible or do advertisers just like to continue to think they are rather than design imaginative ad campaigns?
  5. The fantasy doctor who spends extra time with his or her patients doing the jobs that only nurses do in real life like blotting their feverish brows. Isn't it fantasy enough that doctors in entertainment series (with the exception of House) care about their patients and actually talk to them about their lives and show interest in them as people? I've rarely met a doctor in real life who has regarded me as anything more than a piece of meat in need of curing.
  6. Children who undergo accelerated growth. Back when I was in university, I spent some of my summer doing what a lot of people my age did during the afternoon. I watched soap operas. One thing you learned quickly is that kids grew up fast on soap operas. A pregnancy may gestate for over a year as the storyline around it unfolded at a leisurely pace but a kid generally grew to pre-teen in about 3 years and fully-grown early adulthood in no more than 6 years. Their parents, of course, aged normally. This little hack-writing chestnut lives today in science fiction as a way of getting around the nuisance of having to write about people who have kids in any credible way. This also allows them to trot out some oedipal weirdnesses in the storylines. The rather bad and short-lived "V" T.V. series played both these cards when they had the star-child off-spring of a reptilian visitor and a human hibernate in a cocoon and come out all pretty and grown up. She then competed with her mommy for the affection of the shows young beef-cake character (young accelerated growth child is always attractive and always gets the love interest). I saw a repeat of this situation in "Angel" when his infant son was kidnapped and spirited away to another dimension where time passed more quickly. He came back a whiny 17-year-old who banged his father's love interest and impregnated her with his demon love baby. Said baby also skipped the growth process by springing from the womb a full-grown woman. Most recently, I've seen this sort of rapid growth occur with baby Isabel (I'm a few seasons behind, folks) on "The 4400". During the entire time I was watching the second season, I was saying to myself, 'please don't succumb to the accelerated growth storyline,' but the writers couldn't resist. Pregnancy apparently makes for a great story but kids are just a pain to deal with once they're out of the womb. They either magically fade into background accessories (like on "Friends" and "Murphy Brown") or they grow up freakishly fast. I wish writers would simply not have people get pregnant if they can't credibly write storylines once the babies are born.
  7. Computer nerds who dress in a stylishly dorky way and wear variations on horn-rim glasses and/or hot, slightly wacky-looking geek girls with mad skills at the computer. Real dorks and dorkettes don't look like this and even when they do, they don't transform into very attractive people once the glasses come off and the hairstyle and clothing style change. It's almost like they doubt our intelligence as viewers sufficiently that they have to push these stereotypes in front of us as a way of flashing a "geek character" sign in front of us. I do, however, have to give credit to "24" which avoided this stereotype and showed the computer literate types as normal people.
  8. Pocahontas syndrome. I name this syndrome not for the real situation with Pocahontas but the one white people like to imagine. In what I'm sure is a historically inaccurate situation, Pocahontas is young, beautiful, desirable and speaks English perfectly and wants nothing more than to show all the palefaces safe passage through Indian territories. In television and movies, every time the hero finds himself in a strange culture where he can't speak the language, an attractive woman steps out and announces she can speak his language and serves as his guide. In many cases, the woman ends up the love interest. I think any writer who falls back on this hackneyed means of getting a character through an alien place should be dropped into the middle of rural China and see how many beautiful, helpful, perfect-English speaking women step up to make his life easy.
  9. People who pine for each other but avoid hooking up for artificially constructed reasons. I'd blame the X-Files for this but they were hardly the first to indulge in this sort of long-term tease. It gets old very fast, particularly when the reason is unbelievable or absurd.
I'm sure there are a good many of these sorts of things I'm leaving out but these are the ones that have been bugging me as of late. If I compile another list, you can look forward to part 2. ;-)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

100 Yen a Bag

This evening one of my students told me about some policies in the handling of trash in her neighborhood which do not bode well for the future of trash collection if such notions infect other local cities. My student lives in a seaside area a little less than two hours by train from central Tokyo and she said her area was having issues with inappropriate trash disposal such as people putting out too many shopping-bag-size bags which take too long to collect and possibly issues with illegal dumping though she wasn't clear on this point.

The city government decided that they would try to deal with the problems they've been having by requiring two things and encouraging a third. The first thing is that people will have to buy a sticker for 100 yen to put on each and every bag of trash they put out for collection. The second is that they will have to put their trash in individual spots rather than in a centralized location so that each person's responsibility for their trash is clearer. In her case, she has to leave her trash in her parking space to make it clear that it is hers.

If you think these moves have anything to do with global warming and decreasing the amount of waste so that less trash is incinerated, think again. The reason for these changes in policy are completely financial. The local government is too poor to continue trash collection service so they want to lower the volume they have to handle and increase their revenue. To this end, they are encouraging people in the city to buy personal incinerators and to burn the trash themselves. My student told me the devices they are recommending cost 50,000 yen ($435) each and are about the size of a washing machine.

Given the small size of Japanese homes (both apartments and houses), you might guess that people are not keen on this option. My student said that she is also worried about any burning trash odor that the device may emit within her apartment and I'm sure this is a concern others have as well. The solution that she and her neighbors are considering is a truly scary one. One of her neighbors works in construction and they routinely burn trash on the work site in a big metal drum. He's volunteered to transport the drum to the neighborhood every Sunday to allow everyone to burn their trash in it so they don't have to buy incinerators and so they don't have to pay as much for bags of garbage to be removed.

This solution may save the residents money but it's bad in several ways. First of all, the risk of a fire from burning trash is not a small one when you get a bunch of regular folks tossing crap into a big drum, particularly one that is smoking and stinking for a long period of time which no one is going to want to stand around and watch. The other problem is that the fumes coming from such a thing are likely to be somewhat toxic and will definitely be worse than controlled emissions from a government-ran incinerator which is obliged to adhere to guidelines to which residents will not be subject. Finally, given the very high cost of tossing out each bag of trash, people will be inclined to burn anything and everything possible and may be attempting to burn things which really ought not be burned because of their toxicity.

This sort of situation is so incredibly Japanese in the way it has unfolded. It's the sort of thing I was exposed to time and again at my former job. Short-sighted decisions are made for very small, concrete benefits and likely but hypothetical long-term problems are dismissed, left un-discussed, or ignored. The general way of handling any problem is to propose a solution to the immediate problem and then to cross the other bridges when they collapse under the ill-advised weight of the short-term solution. It's a classic result of holding meetings in which dissent is discouraged and consensus is valued over the broadest possible long-term solution to the problem.

There have been many times when I have been the happy beneficiary of the way in which Japanese people think about the harmony of the group and times when I think it's the ultimate exercise in consideration and sublimating one's wishes and opinions in order to accommodate what is best for everyone but this sort of situation which solves one problem and very likely will create many more (potentially worse ones) is the negative flip-side of that sort of thinking.

Silly English/Japanese

If you spend a brief amount of time in Japan, you see people walking around in shirts with funny English on them. If you spend a brief amount of time looking at blogs written by people living in Japan, you see pictures of these sorts of shirts.

Foreign people aren't sure who thinks up the English for these shirts. Sometimes, they are random words and some seem to be long strings of ideas which don't quite come together. One thing is for sure, the Japanese don't care about what these things say in English. They know it's wrong but the lettering itself just looks cool to them.

One of my students wore such a shirt to a lesson last week which made me think that not all the designs are blithely tossed out there or random. Her shirt is not pictured because it would have been rather inappropriate (and rude) for me to ask her to let me snap a picture of her torso for my blog. The shirt she was wearing had the word "sagacious" written down along it in black dots about 8 times with the letters "TNFLTP" written in red about 6 times in front of the repeated"sagacious". If I had seen this as a random shirt on the street, I would have wondered what on earth it was on about and then forgotten it but the student asked me what it meant. I knew "sagacious" meant "shrewd" or "intelligent" but had no idea about TNFLTP.

I looked it up using Google and discovered these letters are part of a genetic sequence. Since I'm not an expert in genetics, I don't know if these letters were coincidentally part of a genetic sequence or if the entire shirt was a sly "in joke" about "intelligent" (sagacious) genes. Following my research a bit further, the sequence seemed to have been related to the DNA of Japanese rice but I'm afraid I was well in over my head at that stage in terms of understanding things. It did make me wonder though if there is hidden meaning or humor in a lot of the funny English shirts we see.

When my student and I discussed this issue, she mentioned that the Japanese don't think clothing with Japanese words is "cool" and they find it pretty unappealing by and large. She said that she noticed when she was in Hawaii that there were people with Japanese/Chinese characters as tattoos as well as on their clothes and that they were often as funny to her as English on shirts is to us.

She said that one of the funniest she saw was a man with a tattoo on his back of a character which meant "sheep". She found it particularly amusing because this was a pretty well-built, masculine fellow walking around with this absurd tattoo, possibly thinking it was really cool.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Impolite Pressure

About a month ago, the referral agency I use for getting private students called and asked me to accept a new student at 9:30 am on Saturday morning. The schedule I provided them with back when I initially signed on with them states that I don't accept lessons before 10:00 am on the weekend so they already knew this was too early before making the request.

The woman who spoke with me pleaded with me to accept this particular student for just two lessons either in August or September. At the time of this initial call, she said the student had contracted to do only 4 lessons and needed to finish off the last two of them. I told her that I would do it if it were only 2 lessons though I'd prefer it was in September because the two dates she gave me were August 18 and 25 and the latter is my birthday. With audible relief, she told me she'd contact the student about the dates and get back to me. Of course, the student wanted to come in August despite September being offered as an option to me.

After the first lesson, I realized that part of the reason she may only be taking a handful of lessons was that she required relatively specialized lesson planning and was dissatisfied with the type of generic lesson she'd received before. The teacher with whom she'd taken a lesson (or two) before was an older man who had her doing relatively low-level grammatical pattern practice from an antique book (which she purchased but then didn't want to use). She found this sort of lesson not only boring but rather tedious and pointless. She's 55 years old and interested in serious topics like feminism. She doesn't want to spend her time speaking like a child. It was her desire to express her opinions and ideas on topics she was interested in. She just had a lot of trouble doing so.

While it may not be what she technically needs, I concluded that she could have what she wanted if she was willing to put the work into it and if her future teacher was willing to be patient. As a courtesy to the referral agency, I wrote them a letter recommending that any future teacher find articles on issues related to the student's interests (particularly women's issues) and have the student read it and think it over before each lesson. The student would be able to consider the topic and vocabulary well beforehand and then they could discuss it with the teacher working on her grammar issues as part of the discussion.

The result of my voluntary good deed was that I got a phone call from the agency thanking me for the letter but also attempting to pressure me into teaching her in the future. I should mention that I not only made it clear during the initial phone exchange that I could not teacher her regularly at this time but I also mentioned it in the letter about her lesson planning. When I said that I could teach her if she could come later in the afternoon, the response was, "oh, you don't want to get up early." This struck me as incredibly rude and presumptuous. It was all I could do not to be angry on the phone but I explained that it had nothing to do with when I got up as I'm usually up early every morning but it's related to when my husband leaves for work.

The truth is that it's very inconvenient for me to have students arrive right on the heels of my husband's departure for work. We sit in the room in which I conduct the lessons and the folding table I use in the lesson can't be set up in it when we are both in it so I have to rush and set it up after he goes or leave it crammed into the space available such that he can't get in and out of the room easily because of the way it blocks the exit to the kitchen. I also have to rush and get any breakfast dishes done while he's still here and try to tidy up for the student. Additionally, it's not uncommon for my husband to start 20-40 minutes later than his usual schedule because of a late cancellation. In such cases, my husband has to hide out in the bedroom while I conduct a lesson and he waits to leave.

There's also a serious possibility that a student who is supposed to start at 9:30 am on Saturday will show up early enough that my husband will still be in the process of gathering his things and preparing to leave. In fact, the first week this 9:30 student showed up within two minutes of my husband's departure because she was 6 minutes early. Scheduling a student in the way they want would require my husband to regularly leave early to ensure there was no conflict in this regard and one more student is simply not worth rushing around, putting my husband out, and being stressed every week.

At any rate, I didn't go into this level of explanation with the agency, I simply said that my starting and finishing times were linked to my husband's work schedule and I couldn't accept students who wanted to start before he left or after he came home. One thing I can say for sure though is that this is the last time I'll consent to do them a favor which conflicts with my scheduling wishes. I don't need people foisting their conclusions about my lifestyle on me in order to pressure me into doing what they want me to do.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


A fan one of my students dressed up as a birthday card for me. :-)

There's an episode of "Roseanne" in which her mother is celebrating her 62nd birthday and Roseanne asks her mother how old she feels. Her mother replies, "sixty-two, I'm sixty-two years old." Roseanne responds by asking her how she feels inside and her mother repeats her previous response. With a clear amount of exasperation, Roseanne tries to get her mother to admit that she must feel younger than her chronological age inside and later says that she (Roseanne) feels like she's 'stuck' at 16.

Birthday cards from my family.

Recently, I also read a blog post by one of my favorite web cartoonists (Paul Southworth at Ugly Hill) and he expressed a similar sentiment on his 27th birthday. I often feel that my husband retains the ability to see things in the best light and has the unconditional love of an innocent child while still being as responsible in every way that matters for a man of his age. I sometimes think my husband is stuck at 12 in the most positive ways and in none of the negative ways.

Today is my 43rd birthday and I feel every year of it and more. This is actually the way I have felt since I was 17 years old. In fact, the awesome weight of my responsibilities since that time have always left me feeling about 72. Fortunately, associating with my young-at-heart-in-all-the-very-best-ways husband and having someone who has helped lift some of the weight of life from me has brought that number down to about 65. I'm pretty sure I felt older at 17 than I do now at 43. I figure that, one of these days, I'm going to celebrate a birthday and actually feel the same on the outside as I do on the inside. If I had to guess right now, I'm betting that will happen around 55 or so unless life gets a lot harder between now and then. I do wish, rather wistfully, that I would have had the chance to feel like an 18-year-old for awhile and I rather envy those who feel stuck in their teens. Their hearts must be freer than mine and their minds considerably lighter.

In something which may appear coincidental but is not, this blog is two days shy of its first birthday. The reason is that I waited to start it until after I had a digital camera and I got it last year as a birthday gift (originally planned as a gift to myself but my generous in-laws paid for it for me). I'm not really counting the time under my belt and I'm certainly not tracking the number of posts I do but it's rather hard not to remember its anniversaries when they come so close on the heels of the anniversary of my unceremonious entrance into this reality.

Friday, August 24, 2007


You meet a wide variety of people as you journey through life. Some of them are pretty self-aware and genuine. Some of them are self-centered and myopic. Some are neurotic and constantly worry about what others think or are always trying to please those around them. Others are angry, sarcastic and lashing out in any way they can find. There are very few people who are psychologically perfect and even those who appear pretty well-balanced initially may eventually show cracks as time goes by and you get to know them better.

Since none of us are perfect, I don't really expect the people I encounter to fail to get on my nerves (nor do I expect that I won't eventually get on theirs). Among the flawed people I meet, I think the ones who frustrate me the most though are the ones I have christened "Popeyes". These are the people who are fully aware of how their particular issues cause stress and difficulty to others but their response is "I yam what I yam".

These aren't people who have tried to curb their more inappropriate responses or habits but people who feel no need to try. They may be aggressive, hostile, impatient, childish, or rude but they excuse themselves by simply saying that it's just the way they are. They feel that the people around them should accommodate their personality problems rather than attempt to modify their behavior such that it manifests itself less destructively. These people either believe they were born a certain way and have no power to change or are so narcissistic that they believe the whole world should shape itself to their personalities.

A good example of this sort of behavior is the boss who snarls at his subordinates over little "mistakes" (which may actually be a failure to adhere to idiosyncratic wishes on the part of the boss) because he had a fight with his wife before work and is irritable. He won't try to cut back on lashing out at others but simply conclude he was born temperamental and will always be this way so the people around him should get used to it. Most people like this not only won't try to change but they also won't apologize. The best they will offer is to say, "this is the way I am, don't take it personally."

Men are far more likely to be Popeyes than women. That is not to say that women can't be this way but women are conditioned socially in every culture to be aware of the feelings of others and to attempt to make them comfortable. Men also view any sort of personality change in order to accommodate the feelings of others, even significant others like their wives, as a challenge to their power in the relationship. For some people, the minute the topic of filing off the personality's rough edges comes up, they go into defensive mode and gear up to hold their ground in the emotional tug of war they anticipate will follow. These are typically, but certainly not always by a long shot, the kind of men who delight in calling a man who alters his behavior to accommodate his wife "whipped".

Some "Popeyes" would say that anyone who worries about the way their behavior affects others is neurotically obsessed with trying to please others and lacking in confidence but that's just a way of placating the voice inside them that knows they're unable to face their flaws in a meaningful way. Such people often seem to feel that admitting a personality flaw gives them a free pass to exercise it at will. It's a little like telling people you'll be setting off a stink bomb at their desk on random occasions but you've warned them so they should attempt to be sanguine about it when it occurs.

I often wonder if such people have tried to improve and failed and that failure was sufficiently discouraging that they talked themselves into a frame of mind which says it's okay not to try to be a better person or if they're so selfish and self-centered that it never even would occur to them to try.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ikebukuro - Part 2

Note: this is a continuation of a post I started here.

Another thing I associate rather strongly with Ikebukuro which is by no means unique to it is long rows of vending machines. There are places in Shinjuku with similarly impressive strings of these eyesores but I think it's burned into my memory as a part of Ikebukuro because this is where I first saw them and I saw them so often. Such copious amounts of these over-lit refrigerators don't tend to appear in the more residential areas (such as the place in which we live) as the foot traffic isn't heavy enough to justify so many in one place. I do wonder how much energy could be saved if the number of these things was forcibly cut in half all over Japan.

I haven't actually been to Ikebukuro for a very long time but my husband recently went there to see a movie with his brother (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) at a movie theater which specialized in both bowling and movies (two great tastes that don't necessarily go great together). His ticket, which I'm too lazy to scan in and is too crumpled to take a digital photo of, shows a drawing of an old-fashion movie projector next to a bowling ball hitting pins. Classy!

He took the pictures in this post during his visit there and I recognized some of the shops and areas (such as the venerable Jean's Mate shop pictured above) but other places were built since I was last there. Like all of Tokyo, Ikebukuro is in a constant state of being torn down and being built back up again. Many of the places my husband took pictures of are the type with "funny English" on them so I'm pretty sure I'd remember them if they had been there before. Of course, it's also possible that they simply weren't places I came across in my then daily explorations.

The English school above is either ran by a fellow named "Sirius" or is named with a misspelled name. I'd bet on the latter. It sort of takes the wind out of the sails that this is a "serious" place to study if that is the case. The faded sign (under the "GA") of the letters "A", "B", and "C" with an apple, ball and a car don't do much to enhance the reputation of the school. It looks rather sad, slapped together and run-down, but these types of little schools can be better places for foreigners to work because they don't carry the corporate mentality of the large chain schools. Of course, they can also be worse because they are often strapped for cash and having difficulty competing and are therefore understaffed and overwork their teachers.

While a "chat club" carries overtones of a place where people get together and, well, chat, the sign below this says this is a karaoke pub. Why waste time actually talking with your friends when you can get up and sing some cheesy songs? The blue part of the sign says "all time" which I'm guessing means that the price for drunkenly crooning out a tune doesn't change during peak hours. The price is 2000 yen ($17.50) for a half hour or a bargain 3800 yen ($33) for an hour.

My husband got a big kick out of this custom sports clothing business's slogan. The slogan is supposed to indicate originality but manages to convey the notion that everyone gets the same one. Personally, I like the "sweat wear" option and the odd use of "etc." at the end. Even though the logo seems to say "1/80", the business is actually called "Eighties" and was named for the year of its creation rather than a way that represents the contents of its business.

This is a picture of the shop itself where you can order as few as 5 custom-designed bits of sports apparel for your team or gaggle of school girls. It's individualized conformity. You can look like everyone else in your group but not like anyone in any other group.

Outside the shop, there is a bin of Disney T-shirts complete with a hand-drawn Mickey Mouse on the sign. I wouldn't be surprised if the shirts were illegal knock-offs. Perhaps these school girls are shopping for matching "sweat wear" or possibly even those slouchy socks that were all the rage among the uniformed set some time ago.

Some shops are unforgettable even if they don't have funny names or slogans. There's something about a black and lime-green undies shop that you don't forget. Shops with names like this sound incredibly narcissistic but the truth is that such shops are really all about what men want rather than about what the women who shop in them desire deep down. Underwear is, after all, under your clothing, and the only one who sees it are those who are intimate with you (and yourself when you do laundry and spend all of a minute getting dressed). Why would anyone pay more for itchy, tacky undergarments just for themselves? And if you don't think what you see in the window qualifies as "tacky", check out the web site. A lot of it is porn star fantasy crap. I guess men have to have something interesting to steal off of clothes lines and stash under their pillows at night or to sell to those "used underwear" shops in Japan.

If you click and look at the larger picture, you'll see the sign says "Cool! Bowling and, many amusements are here" in addition to "Exitment (sic) batting". There's also "infomation" under the "Cool" sign. It's a veritable cornucopia of misspelling but the Japanese don't care. They just think English on signs looks cooler than Japanese.

Looking over the pictures my husband took and thinking back on my time working in Ikebukuro, I found myself wondering why I never go there anymore. It clearly has everything you could want in terms of shops, restaurants, and entertainment but it's not the sort of place people tend to go unless it's where they work, live, or have to go for some reason or another. For instance, I've never heard a student say they're headed for Ikebukuro this weekend. They always go to Shinjuku, Roppongi, Ginza or one of the other big name shopping and entertainment districts.

I guess part of the reason I don't go there is that one doesn't need to go to Ikebukuro if one lives closer to one of the other areas because there's little there which you can't get elsewhere. While it is a one-stop for nearly anything you might desire, it's not what my husband would call a "happening place." It's a nice place to live (or work) but you wouldn't want to visit there.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Ikebukuro - Part 1

A segment of Ikebukuro station can be seen in the distance at the end of the street. As always, bigger versions of these pictures can be seen by clicking on them.

The first time I came to Japan was in 1988 for a one-month vacation. I met my husband for the first time at Narita airport and then spent 4 glorious weeks living with him in his small apartment in Kita-senju (Adachi-ku). At that time, I had him as a guide to help me find my way around the train stations as well as to navigate the streets and shops. He'd been in Japan for about 9 months at around that time so he knew the ropes relatively well.

Ikebukuro was my first Tokyo "stomping grounds" where I had to explore and cope without the aid of my husband as that was where my first job (with Nova) was located. Kita-senju was pretty small potatoes compared to Ikebukuro and my initial week or so was very intimidating, particularly in regards to dealing with the station which is vast, huge, and had very little English on the signs at that time.

Initially, the station was a very overwhelming and incomprehensible place to be and I remember getting frantic at least once because I thought I was hopelessly lost. If you've never been in one of these town-size stations, you can't know the fear you feel when you are new to Japan and go out the wrong exit and find yourself some place you've never seen before. I believe the time this happened to me, I walked around the entire station in a sweaty panic.

The present location of the Nova Ikebukuro branch (just in front of the station).

Back when I worked there, the Nova Ikebukuro branch was quite a bit further from the station than it is now. It's been located relatively near one of the exits for quite some time but I used to have to take a 6-8 minute walk to reach the former location. During my first year in Japan (and in Ikebukuro where I worked for around a year and a third), it was a pretty interesting place to explore during lunch hours because there were so many places to shop and some decent restaurants. However, I took baby steps at first for fear of finding myself wandering around and unable to return to the school in time for my next lesson.

There are certain things about Ikebukuro which I remember well because they stand out as part of the character of the area. One was the great volume of "love hotels" (pay by the hour places for trysts). Ikebukuro always felt more "industrial" to me than places like Shibuya and Shinjuku. I think part of the reason for that was most of the buildings were big face-less boxes. It's not that there aren't a lot of these types of buildings in the more "glamorous" parts of Tokyo but rather that those areas tend to punctuate the landscape more frequently or vibrantly with buildings with more stunning architecture or features comparatively-speaking.

Another thing I recall very well was the somewhat grubby look of many of the back streets around the areas my coworkers and I frequented relative to some other districts in Tokyo. Again, a lot of parts of Tokyo look rather dirty and run-down but the side-streets of Ikebukuro seemed to have more of it, particularly the little off-shoots of the area around Sunshine City and the heavily-trafficked shopping street leading up to it. I'm guessing part of the reason it looked a bit nasty at times was that there were so many people around and the foot traffic wore down improvements and people left trash around because there are no garbage cans on Tokyo streets.

One thing I do recall favorably is that, unlike Shibuya, the crosswalks and streets were wider or at least felt it because they weren't usually chock-a-block with people. For some reason, I also vividly recall crosswalks under raised highways like the one pictured above. I guess part of the reason must be I used to walk under one all the time when I worked in Ikebukuro and the other part would be a memory of how relatively long the hike across the street was relative to similar crossings in other parts of Tokyo.

To be continued in Part 2...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

In My Shoes

As I've mentioned before, one of my students is attending a U.S. college on a military base. In one of her recent lessons with me, she told me that she feels very isolated from others now despite the fact that she is encountering more new people than ever before. It's not that people aren't friendly with her on the base per se but rather that she finds herself in circumstances she wouldn't have anticipated.

On the one hand, she has Japanese friends who she feels she has less and less in common with. When they communicate with her (usually via e-mail), she doesn't have much to share with them because her experiences as a 44-year-old college student at a U.S. school are so different from theirs as Japanese housewives and mothers. When they invite her to go do things with her, she feels torn between wanting to do things with them and feeling that the fatigue and possible awkwardness in communication now that they've grown apart will not be worth whatever pleasure she gets from the experience.

Her family is also no comfort because her husband constantly criticizes her for failing to live up to his expectations of a Japanese wife. He tells her that she can't do anything right and they frequently quarrel. To me, this is ironic because she has taken 3 classes so far and gotten an "A" in each of them. Her husband once had me correct his English for an abstract for a medical paper he'd written and I daresay he could not cope nearly as well as her with the all-English instruction, essay-writing, and environment. All of this makes her feel as if she's drifting away from the other Japanese people in her life and can no longer relate to them as their values are increasingly different from hers. Unfortunately, she completely embraces her husband's assessment of her and gets depressed and feels like a failure.

When she's on the military base, she feels like a visitor in a foreign land which operates very differently from her expectations. She often complains to me about how the teachers don't answer her question in a timely fashion or how they fail to assist her when she needs help. Her expectation is that the teachers will behave like Japanese teachers, who are often expected to ensure their students pass and to spend their free time dealing with student problems. She also feels a lot of stress because she can't understand the way in which many of the military personnel she takes classes with speak because many of them are from the south and/or African American and she finds their cadences and accents difficult to follow since most of her exposure to English is to slower-speaking teachers (myself included) and those with measured voices that contain little accent on T.V. and in instructional materials.

My student is in a situation which is oddly similar to mine. She has a lot of her social activity centered in a "foreign land" and she feels disconnected from people in her own culture. For me, this is rather expected because I am far from my home but, for her, it's a bit of a hard experience to understand because she still lives in her home country. In fact, in many ways, she is worse off than I despite having the "support" of her family literally at her back-door (her parents live in the other half of a divided house with she and her husband) and her long-time friends a phone call away. Not only do I have an incredibly supportive husband where hers is always tearing her down but I expect my difficulties and actively work to understand and address them because I know they're a part of being in a foreign country.

I've tried to comfort her and boost her confidence but I don't think she understands where I'm coming from when I tell her things like she doesn't have to live according to her husband's expectations and that a lot of people discover their lifestyles and their friends' lifestyles are diverging as time goes by. In the end, I don't think she can break free from thinking that conformity to the expectations of those around her is more important than an objective analysis of her accomplishments (which would be a very positive one) or finding her self-worth within herself alone.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Recurring Dreams

During most of my adult life, I have had recurring dreams. I'm not talking about having a dream a few times but about the same dream occurring for a decade or more. Many people don't remember their dreams but I often do. I've also been capable of lucid dreaming in the past and often used to wake myself from nightmares by realizing that I was in a dream and the terrible things I experienced couldn't happen in real life so I must be dreaming. I don't have many actual nightmares anymore and my ability to lucid dream may be related to that or it could simply be that fear is a very different animal when you're older than when you're younger and doesn't tend to manifest itself so obviously or elaborately as you mature.

In the past decade, two recurring dreams have stood out. In the first one, I'm looking for a best friend from high school. Often, I have his phone number and I fail repeatedly in my attempts to dial the phone to contact him. It's as if I lack the dexterity to dial the number properly and therefore constantly push the buttons in the incorrect order repeatedly. This experience in the dream is immensely frustrating. Sometimes, I can't find the number at all. On occasion, I find him and he is cold and indifferent to me or too busy to talk to me. The other dream is one in which my husband has done something which makes me so furious that I am apoplectic with frustration at his response. In this dream, he is either utterly indifferent to my reaction or cold and cruel.

Lately, I've been having a third recurring dream in which I either plan or want to go back to my former company. Sometimes they ignore me and sometimes they make it clear that they don't need me or require my services. This topic is at the forefront of my mind because I had this particular dream last night.

All of these dreams have a few things in common and that's that I'm either out and out rejected or seen as unimportant, or that I can't get what I want or need. Depending on how you view dreams and if you embrace the notion of dream interpretation, this is either very significant or utterly useless information. However, given where I live and some of my life experiences, the notion that I'd feel deep down that I was being constantly rejected or useless isn't such a stretch. After all, I will never fit in in Japan and am reminded of that on a daily basis.

Depending on who you speak with, dreams serve different purposes. Psychologists usually tie them to suppressed feelings or issues. Sleep researchers tie them to a need to have the brain in a certain type of sleep in order to maintain health and mental stability. Some people feel dreams are messages from other selves, realities or entities. The truth is that no one really knows why we dream. Oh, researchers can tell you what happens if we don't dream and psychologists can theorize a relationship between the conscious and "unconscious" mind as a rationale but no one really knows what compels us to dream or what they mean.

When I was studying psychology in university, I wrote a paper on dream interpretation which gave an overview of the various theories and methods for analyzing them but the bottom line is that dreams are such a personalized experience that the only one who can really interpret them is the person who is having them. Personally, I think that not all dreams serve the same purpose. Some of them are psychological messages from your inner self to your outer self. Some of them are messages. For me, some of them have also been moments of absolutely mundane precognition of little experiences or events.

For awhile, I took the time to write down my dreams but I found that it took too long to do so. My little dream notebook would contain dreams with a level of detail requiring 6-8 pages of writing. I simply remember them too well and feel it's pointless to write out brief summaries when I can remember them anyway. However, I do feel that writing them down can be very useful, particularly if you have troubling dreams or quickly forget your dreams. They have the potential to tell you at least as much about yourself as your waking thought processes do.

As a final note, I'll also mention that I have had recurring dreams where I smoke and I love it. The sensation of smoking and the pleasure I derive from it is extremely real in the dream. It's not some abstract experience where I stand aside and witness myself smoking and think I'm having fun. I am in a body putting the cigarette in my mouth, inhaling and exhaling smoke and holding the cigarette in my hand and my nervous system and mental needs are very satisfied. When I have this dream, I find it the most natural experience in the world and do not feel any sort of guilt or need to censor the pleasure I receive from smoking. In real life, I hate smoking and haven't smoked since one clandestine cigarette offered to me by my cousins at the age of 10 which sent me into a painful coughing fit. I thoroughly detested that experience and hate second-hand smoke. Of all the recurring dreams I have, this one puzzles me the most. Though I'm sure there are wags out there who will attach something Freudian to the dream, I'm just as sure sex has nothing to do with it.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

How My Unconditional Love for the Macintosh Died

You often hear that couples fall out of love not over one big thing but over a collection of little things that add up to disillusionment and disappointment. My unconditional love for all things Apple and the Mac died in such a fashion. I still like Macs but I no longer have blind faith or unwavering loyalty. They became something I used rather than something I enjoyed due to a series of disappointments.

1. Around the time of the Performa series (which ended in 1997), Apple stopped using cheaper lower-quality components in an attempt to better compete price-wise with PCs. Unfortunately, these components suffered more premature deaths. The series of Macs I purchased after my LC III began to suffer from regular hard disk and CD ROM drive failures. In fact, every desktop Mac I've bought since my LC III has had its hard disk and CD ROM drive replaced except the Mini (which has only had its hard disk fail after 2 years). This killed the illusion that Macs were superior in terms of their hardware or the idea that the higher price tag on them was justified.

A screenshot of a kernel panic identical to the ones I had in my early Mac OS X usage (lifted from Apple's page on kernel panics).

2. The earliest incarnation of OS X ran horribly on the Mac I was using at the time, a G3 DT/266, despite the fact that I had copious amounts of RAM and was told that it was a compatible machine. It not only had frequent kernel panics which subjected me to the Mac equivalent of a BSOD (Blue Screen of Death on PCs) for the first time but also had an awkward forced multiple user installation set-up which went a long way toward confusing people who wanted the same type of single user situation as they had under OS 9. When this early version of OS X crashed and burned, the screen turned white and cryptic geek-speak fed across the screen. It was clear Apple lied or mislead users about which machines could run OS X in order to increase early adoption rates. Web forums were flooded at the time with complaints by users who had purchased computers with "OS X-ready" stickers on them shortly before OS X was released only to find the OS ran like an lady with a walker who frequently fell down when they upgraded from OS 9 to X (an upgrade they paid for, no less). It was clear early versions of OS X were more of a beta that you had the pleasure of forking over $120 for rather than the advertised fully-fledged "rock solid UNIX-based OS".

3. Apple told all of its users that it would offer a "free forever" e-mail hosting service with a 'prestigious' Apple-based e-mail address ( which they then swapped over to a subscription-based service which one had to pay $100 a year for. At the time of this little bit of bait and switch, you only got the e-mail service and a modicum of storage space which you could use to automatically back up your hard drive onto Apple's servers via OS X. It was not only not worth it from a money for value point of view but it made it clear that Apple would say whatever it took to lure people in then change the conditions of the arrangement. It didn't help that the Mac devotees worked overtime to justify the way in which this was done.

On the left, pure evil (the command prompt). On the right (Mac OS X Terminal), wondrous heaven. It might be a black/white thing but they're both loathsome ways of entering arcane commands in my opinion.

4. The Mac user community changed its tune about what made an operating system great. In an indication of how baldly hypocritical Mac users can be if it suits their need to tout the advantages of the Mac at any cost, they started expressing their unending admiration for the use of the terminal function when mending Mac OS X's shortcomings and bugs while they had spent nearly two decades before derisively regarding the use of the command prompt in Windows. Pre-OS X, all users could talk about was how easy Macs were to maintain and how we didn't have to remember a bunch of arcane DOS commands to control the deeper functionality of our computers. Post-OS X, all users could talk about was how much power and control you had by using arcane UNIX commands in the Terminal application.

Additionally, users became hostile toward anyone who wasn't happy with the way they had to type in commands in terminal in order to convince OS X's permissions to let them empty their trash. Early on, it seemed that many of us somehow didn't qualify by default to perform such an earth-shaking OS-altering function as emptying the trash in OS X. Before OS X, people were helpful because they were a part of the happiest computer user community on earth and they wanted us all to be one happy family. When some of those family members were disgruntled at the turn of events, things got ugly. The blind faithful were like overprotective parents who told you how stupid and incompetent you were any time you criticized Mac OS X's early teething cries.

The division between the faithful and the confused early users of OS X was probably one of the biggest factors in allowing the scales to fall from my eyes. I wondered if I was that blind and hostile any time someone attacked my "baby". This was a turning point for my attitude and my Mac changed from something I identified with as a user and became just a machine I used like my oven or television.

Place item in trash. Basket is full. Empty trash. Basket is still full. Repair permissions. Empty trash. Basket remains full. Run MacJanitor. Empty trash. Basket is still full. This happened today, folks, not early on in Mac OS X's evolution.

By the way, I still can't empty my trash on occasion. In fact, two problems gave me the incentive to write this post and that was one of them.

5. Every incarnation of OS X was idiosyncratically altered to fit Windows user conventions. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with the way the Mac worked in certain ways but rather that Apple was more interested in making switchers (from PCs to Macs) more comfortable than sticking with a way of doing things that the faithful were accustomed to. Here are a few cases in point:
  • Shift-clicking used to allow for both contiguous and non-contiguous selection of files. This made it possible for one method to be used for selecting multiple files in either situation. In OS X, this was changed so that non-contiguous selection now required a Command-click. Why was this introduced? It's because this is the way file selection works in Windows.
  • In previous versions of the Mac OS, the OS would not attempt to force you to structure your file system in any particular fashion. Applications didn't have to be kept in an "Applications" folder and the OS didn't become confused or issue warnings if you didn't put them there. With OS X, a Windows-style organization system was incorporated which strongly encouraged users to keep applications in the applications folder just as Windows keeps "Programs" in the "Programs" folder.
There are a myriad of other rip-offs and knock-offs that are clearly there to emulate a good feature of Windows (the Dock copying the task bar, for instance) or simply a feature to which people are indifferent (the web-style "back" and "forward" buttons on windows) . The bottom line is that the difference between using Windows and using Mac OS X is getting smaller and smaller. It's harder to tout how uniquely superior the Mac is when it's so similar. I guess since Steve Jobs was in love with his IBM ThinkPad before he returned to Apple, he wanted to Mac to work the way he was used to rather than the way we were used to.

6. Some things don't work as they should and some things should work but don't.

See that key combination on the right (in the picture above)? There's a key on my keyboard which says "delete" and has that little drawing with an "X" on it. If I press "Command+delete" and use that key, the file does not move into the trash. It will work if I use "Command + delete" and use the delete key which is next to the "=/+" key but not with the one under the "help" key. I'm using an Apple keyboard and the logical thing is to use the key which looks like the one in the menu but it doesn't work.

If you drag the cursor from the right in (along the lines of the red box in the picture), you cannot select the files in list view.

One thing that should work but doesn't (and used to work in Mac OS 9 and works in Windows XP) is selecting a list of files by dragging the mouse from bottom of a list in a window while you're in list view. It works in other views but not in list. Why? I guess it's just an oversight but it is rather annoying to have to change views or drag the cursor up to the top of the window. It also means pixel hunting if you don't want to select just the top file and drag it down.

7. DRM and spyware. With Windows, the spyware is pretty well-known and you can find ways to track it down and zap it. With the Mac, it's more insidious and less-publicized so you've got to be more in the know to find it and get around it. If you use Mac the Ripper to rip DVDs, a hidden file is left keeping a record of every DVD you've ripped. You have to know this is happening and know enough to download another application to put the kibosh on this invisible spying. My guess is this is part of a deal to allow Mac the Ripper's distribution while still fitting in with Apple's brown-nosing to DRM advocates in order to advance iTunes sales and selection. Additionally, the latest version of iTunes eliminated the ability to make MP3 files. This was presumably to placate the RIAA in some fashion but iTunes without MP3 conversion is ridiculous. These things in no way make the user's life easier and the former situation with Mac the Ripper (an application I don't use, as it is inferior to the Windows application "DVD Shrink", but was warned about by my former boss) seems mainly geared toward gathering data for copyright infringement prosecution.

Before the Mac zealots start arguing that none of this makes Windows better than a Mac, I'll clarify that that is not what I'm talking about in this post (read the "title" for a reminder of what this is about). I don't believe Windows is better than the Mac. What I'm saying is that these are the factors which contributed to my coming to taking Macs and Apple off a pedestal and seeing them for what they are, tools and a business, instead of being a Mac zealot. The Mac still has the edge on OS usability, better design, and an overall better feel than a PC but it's no longer something I can advocate people use without reservation or with enthusiasm. I can't say that Windows or Microsoft have let me down because my expectations have always been incredibly low due to the common (mis)perceptions about using Windows that are prevalent among Mac users.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

An Equation

This morning, I decided I'd better go out and pump up my low tires before heading off to the market. The front tire seemed okay after about 25 pumps but the back tire refused to stay up even about 50 sweaty pushes in the blazing sun. It was clear that the tire needed repair rather than air. The first part of the equation at hand today is: a flat tire.

My husband usually deals with taking the bikes to the local repair fellow when there's a problem but he has more than enough on his plate on the weekends and far too much on the days when he's working with his 48 hour work week. I decided I'd just bite the bullet and walk the bike to the shop myself because I wanted to spare my husband the time and effort on his day off, particularly since he's already going to have to deal with some dai gomi (large trash) scheduling and sticker purchasing to get rid of our old oven and a huge shelf we're abandoning after 18 years of use.

When I set off on my little walk to the shop, I noticed that some other places along Ome Kaido had their metal shutters down and were closed. I considered for a moment that Thursday might be the day the shop just happened to be closed but thought that was unlikely as Wednesday and Monday are the big weekdays for places to close up. It didn't occur to me that this week is the first week of the O-bon summer holiday season in Japan and that the shop may be closed for that reason. In fact, the bike shop was closed as were a great many other shops on the local shopping streets. Part two of the equation was: the summer holiday season.

The problem at this point was that I've got a bike with a flat tire and a desperate need to get some shopping for food done. I also need to pay some bills that are due today or risk having my gas, electric, and water access cut-off. While it's unlikely they'd shut me down for being a little late (today is the actual due date), one doesn't want to take chances when people are dropping dead or being hospitalized all over Japan as the temperatures hover near or over 100 degrees.

Since I was somewhat closer to a few of the places I needed to shop at than I'd be if I just went back home, I decided to just push the dead bike along and walk to the shops. I knew that it'd take some time (in the end, from pumping the tires in the sun to getting home, it took about an hour and a half) but the bike isn't going to get fixed any time soon so I felt it was better to do it while I was already close than to walk home and think about how to deal with things later.

The local carpet and draperies shop.

As I was walking to the first market, I passed by the local carpet and draperies place where we bought our new living room carpet. I need a carpet square to put under a metal shelf I plan to move into the kitchen so that it's spiky supports don't tunnel through the newish kitchen flooring and (eventually) through the floorboards. The finished carpet bits (which I guess are throw rugs) are in the picture above just behind the hanging "500 yen" sign. As I was pawing through them and checking out their sizes (my shelf is 40 cm x 60 cm and I wanted one that wasn't too big or small), the fellow who works there and delivered our carpet popped out and started helpfully educating me about the sizes of the bits I was looking at by saying things like, "that one is long." In the end, I found an acceptable one which was 45 cm x 65 cm (which he helpfully told me was "smaller" than the "long" one) and purchased it.

The man who works in the shop is really quite nice and well-meaning. I really don't know how he stays in business though since I rarely see anyone buying things there when I pass by (and I go by two or three times a week) and we shop there only once every 8 years or so. These shops that mysteriously linger on despite seeming to sell nearly nothing are all over Tokyo. Roy at Q-taro once made a post about such a place and I speculated that they're intentional failures as tax dodges for high value property but I really don't know how they manage.

As I was walking from the carpet shop to the market, my back started to bother me a bit so I took advantage of the useless bike I was pushing around and leaned a bit on it. By the time I got home, this "leaning" and the friction it caused on my thumb and palm actually resulted in a sizable blister. I didn't even notice what was going on until I scraped something against my thumb while putting away groceries and ripped off the thin skin cover the blister to expose the raw skin underneath. I can't tell you how much fun this was to clean off with rubbing alcohol but lets just say it was a new adventure in pain.

The cheapest local market, Utakaraya, with its fine selection of what I'm sure are semi-aged vegetables out in front.

Getting back to my little journey though... By the time I reached the market, the heat was starting to really bother me. I'm the type of person who has never known a suntan because I'm so fair-skinned that I make the journey from ghostly white to freckle to lobster in a very short time. There is no pit stop at "tan" between. I'm also exceptionally sensitive to heat and I don't mean that I'm one of those whiny people who says I can't tolerate heat because I get sweaty and uncomfortable. I mean that I get faint, nauseous, and feel like I'm going to pass out when I'm in the sun and heat for too long.

I was thinking at about this time that it'd be a good idea to get the shopping done and try to get home as quickly as possible but I'm hindered by old women who linger in front of the piles of carrots poking at and inspecting every package to make sure they get the very one which is absolutely the best for their 100 yen. I get tired of this and snatch my carrots from around the old bat who seems to be the official carrot inspector (I'm surprised she didn't whip out a magnifying glass and inspect them for blemishes) and make my way inside the store, grab a few avocados and the greenest bananas on the top of the pile (this time reaching around a middle-aged woman who needed to lift every single one of the bunches on top to see if any "better" ones were lurking underneath). I glanced at the wilted lettuce and moved on to the meat section. Six diet Cokes and a 4-pack of cream cheese and ham "panini" later, I'm fighting through check-out where a mother bemuses herself by allowing her 2 sons to each hold onto multi-packs of tiny blueberry yogurt containers separately so the check-out woman can't finish the job of ringing up the woman's purchase and so I can't get out of there.

It wasn't that getting out of there was such a great deal. At least Utakaraya is air conditioned to around 80 degrees whereas it's closing in on 100 outside. All I've got to look forward to is a walk in the heat while pushing my bike with the flat tire and now also carrying a heavy back-pack. The cheap housewife bikes most of us use for dealing with daily running around aren't all that heavy when you have inertia and you're riding them but they can be a chore to push around for a long time, especially when it's sweltering and when you have to push them up hills.

I decided to take the back way home because it's shorter but I overlooked the fact that it also has no shade. Ome Kaido has trees all over it but the back street is almost all cement walls and pavement being cooked in the sun. The sun is beating down on me and I literally feel like I'm stewing like a sausage in its skin. The third part of the equation is: 97 degree-heat and no shade.

By the time I was approaching home, my heart was really pounding even though I was not greatly exerting myself. I figured it'd be prudent to walk home slowly given how badly I'm reacting to the baking I'm taking but this just leaves me out in these horrible conditions longer. I'm starting to fear that the sum of the equation is going to me lying on the road suffering from heat stroke but I talked myself down from such notions and made my way back.

In the end, I was okay after a bit of a woozy spell while I slowly sipped water and let the air conditioner do its thing. The valuable lesson I've taken from this is that I need to live with my limits rather than try and tough it out, and that I should only shop after dark and allow my husband to fix the bike from now on.

Flat Tire + holiday season + baking heat with no shade = stay at home!

They Scream for Ice Cream

It's been in the mid to high 90's for the past week or so in Tokyo. I guess this is par for the course in August but it never ceases to be an uncomfortable and frustrating experience, particularly when it never cools down at night but remains hot around the clock. This is the sort of weather which causes problems the likes of which I never experienced back home in the summer because things worked differently.

For one thing, water comes out of the tap warm. In fact, it is so warm that washing lettuce in it for salad produces a warm, limp salad unless you toss the leaves back into the fridge to get them cold again. It also causes showers to be almost unbearably hot at the lowest heat setting because the water is entering the heating unit at a warm temperature. Unfortunately, the water isn't quite warm enough to comfortably shower without heating so your options are a painfully cold or a painfully hot shower. Usually I need to sit under the air conditioner at the lowest setting for about 20 minutes to cool down when I take the time to wash my hair as that much exposure to such hot water warms me so much.

This is the sort of weather in which people flock to ice cream shops. In our area, there's only one, Baskin Robbins (known in Japan as "31"). My husband and I go there about once a month in the summer and once every several months during other seasons. The ice cream is very good compared to other offerings in Japan but quite pricey. Most Japanese ice cream tends to be "ice milk" and made with relatively cheap ingredients. Some of it can be pretty good (Morinaga makes a mean vanilla ice cream sandwich but it's hard to find) but, in general, it's rather disappointing though I can't honestly claim to be a Japanese ice cream connoisseur.

A few days ago, my husband was in the mood to take a little sojourn to Baskin Robbins so we hopped on our bikes and braved the sweltering heat. The counter at Baskin Robbins had a parade of little snowmen with surfboards pasted all over it as part of a new promotion for "King plus Kids" scoops. This is a large scoop sold with a much smaller scoop on top of it. I don't believe the point of this is to gobble down copious amounts of ice cream but rather to allow one to enjoy their favorite ice cream in a large scoop size and to sample another flavor in a much smaller size.

If you look at the flavors on the brochure I've scanned in (click to see a legible large size), you can see a lot of the usual flavors from the U.S. have made the transition to Japan but there are some odd ones that you probably won't find back home like matcha (green tea), "musk melon" (cantaloupe) and dainagon azuki (chock full of sweetened red beans). I also would be surprised to find things like "31 love" (lime-colored mint ice cream with lemon marshmallows) and "sweet mariage" (sic) (Chardonnay ice cream with apricot and cherry). I also wonder if the "mango coconapple" is a temporary addition meant to pander to the current mango consumption fad making the rounds in Japan.

Anyway, we picked up a pint each of "chopped chocolate" and caramel ribbon but it was a less than pleasant experience because Baskin Robbins is a magnet for screaming children. It was sufficiently unpleasant that we preferred the 95 degree heat outside to the cool cacophony on the inside while we waited for them to prepare our pints. If you haven't been to Baskin Robbins, they laboriously pack the cartons and weigh them meticulously and that can take a bit of time. I had to wonder if the children carried on so much because of ice cream induced excitement or because high volume clamoring is associated with getting what they want from reluctant parents.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

New Oven

I recently read that the difference between people who shop so much that they end up living beyond their means or at least who shop for recreation is that they don't feel any guilt when they spend money on things. If you're the sort of person who feels guilty for spending money, you're far less likely to be a shopaholic or to spend money you don't have on meaningless crap.

I used to be guilt-free in regards to buying things then at some point that changed and now I find it hard to buy things that I arguably need without feeling guilty. I think it has something to do with not working full-time anymore though I'll admit it started at least 3 years before I quit. Perhaps it's age and the feeling that "stuff" isn't really making me happy anymore.

Anyway, I've been limping by with my old oven (which must be at least 13 years old by now) since I posted about problems with the timer knob in April. In an attempt to use it until it was truly dead, I was baking or roasting in a step by step process in order to accommodate the knob that would not set a proper time until the oven got really, really hot. The process went something like this:
  1. Painstakingly attempt to dial up one minute of time at the pre-set temperature and push the start button to initiate the pre-heat sequence.
  2. Wait 15 minutes for pre-heat sequence to complete then place food in the oven where it ran for one minute. Look at the clock to keep track of cooking time since the timer wasn't going to do the trick.
  3. Repeat step one.
  4. Repeat step one.
  5. Repeat step one.
  6. Painstakingly attempt to dial up more than one minute (4 minutes was a lucky day) to continue cooking.
  7. Repeat step 6.
  8. Depending on how hot a day it is and my luck, I may be able to finally coax the oven to run dial up the remaining cooking time (calculated by the clock on the wall, of course) or repeat step 6 again.
You can see how this might be a problem. What was worse was that the timer was even more useless when using the microwave function because the oven didn't heat up and the timer didn't get easier to set. The only way I could use it was by using the auto-cook function whereby you open the door to activate the microwave, close the door and push "start" and the microwave was supposed to auto-detect when it reached whatever random temperature it felt was correct for that food. Sometimes the food was only lukewarm. Sometimes it overcooked. When I heated water or milk in there, it more often than not boiled over if I didn't keep an eye on it.

My old oven. It worked as good as it looked.

I even soldiered on after the lower left bezel cracked and the front glass plate slipped down some. I just taped it up and kept on going. After months and months now (possibly well over a year) of fighting with it and it getting harder and harder to set the timer on even on hot days (initially, it worked pretty well in the summer but poorly in the winter), I found that I was starting to hate it so much that I didn't want to cook with it at all. When the notion to bake or roast something popped into my head, the laborious process of dealing with the oven chased it right out again. It was at this point that I decided it was time to bite the bullet and get a new oven.

The two main criteria for the new oven were a relatively modest price and that it's internal cavity be large enough to cook a whole chicken. After considerable research, I found a Mitsubishi for about ¥32,000 ($271) which accommodates two 32 cm (12.6 inch) square ceramic trays. Since my old oven uses two 32 cm square metal trays, I figured the size should be sufficient and the price well within what might be expected for such an oven. The old Toshiba we bought was ¥80,000 ($678) but part of that high price was a reflection of the fact that such ovens were not as commonly purchased in those days. Based on my pre-purchase research, I believe a comparable one today would be ¥60,000 ($508) or so.

The shiny new oven. It works better than its tacky color scheme makes it look.

The new oven is just as wide and deep as the old one but not quite as high. I'm pretty sure it can still roast a whole chicken but it may be rather close to the top of the oven. The new one is one of those fancy convection things which swirls the air around the food for even cooking. Our old oven twirled the food around on a circular plate in the center and left the air alone. I often had to turn food around at the mid-baking point because the front was hotter than the back and it wouldn't cook evenly otherwise. The new one also has more custom temperature settings including the ability to heat food to precise temperatures and it allows you to cook with steam though I'm not sure how useful that function is going to be for me. Except for the steam cooking, I'm pretty sure most of these functions are old hat for people who aren't using antiquated equipment.

I used the microwave function several times last night and this morning to re-heat food and make tea and it was a delight having knobs turn and actually set the time as I wanted. The target temperature function was also pretty nifty though I can't say I know what temperature is best for certain foods yet. I tested out the oven today by making a banana bread recipe which is tried and true. Since I know how it usually turns out, a comparison between the old and new for this particular item was easy.

Here is where I ran across the differences between a cheap and an expensive oven. For one thing, the oven can't be set at 5 degree temperature variations. It's either 170 degrees (338 degrees) or 180 degrees (356 degrees) and not 175 (which is often the preferred baking temperature as 176.6 is 350 degrees - the near universal setting for baked goods). Also, I noticed that the door has an overzealous spring on its hinge and slams shut rapidly and loudly unless you ease it up by hand.

The oven also appears to have a separate preheat cycle and a separate timed cycle but I could be misunderstanding how to use it. Today, I preheated it to 180 degrees and it beeped when it reached that temperature but I couldn't figure out how to set the timer for 45 minutes. I had to stop the oven then switch to one of the other 3 oven modes and then set the time and temperature again. One good point though is that the pre-heat time is easily 1/3 the length of time that the old oven took, possibly it's even faster than that. This is certainly saving on energy consumption.

Since I had to choose too high or too low for the temperature, I settled on too high because I was afraid too low would impede the rising of the banana bread. This made it darken very rapidly compared to baking in the old oven. I also noticed it didn't rise as much in the center but rose more evenly overall (because of the convection). About 2/3 of the way through the baking, I reduced the temperature to 170 degrees. Next time, I'll have to split the time or try the lower temperature first.

Though it is a bit darker, it turned out very well. The texture seems softer and better than ever. I'm not sure if this was a random preparation factor (though I doubt it as this is my standard no fuss banana bread recipe made largely in the food processor so there's little variation in method) or the convection oven's influence.

The irony is that last night after I received the new oven and had set it up, I started to feel guilty for not having endured dealing with the old one until it conked out for good. Somewhere along the line I went from the type of person who blithely bought a new Macintosh every year and a half to the type who feels bad about replacing a dying piece of necessary equipment. I've got to work on finding the happy medium between those two, especially since I also ordered a new toaster oven. ;-)