Sunday, July 29, 2007

Helium


After a brief e-mail exchange with newly-minted professional Internet author Sean P. Aune, I've decided to give writing for Helium a try. There are three main differences between writing for Helium and Blogcritics. The first one is that Helium seems to be less of a hotbed for political, social and cultural commentary. The second is that I'm pretty sure that Helium has a smaller readership than the mighty Blogcritics. Third is the fact that Helium is supposed to pay you a share of advertising profits.

While I'm not expecting to get rich any time soon (or necessarily make a few bucks, honestly), I figured that I'd give writing for Helium a try. At first, I'm probably going to be revamping content which I've posted about on this blog such that it suits a self-contained article format. I'll still write for Blogcritics on occasion but I'll be splitting content according to what seems most appropriate for a particular outlet.

My first article is an expansion and rounding out of a story I told here before awhile back. If you're interested, you can find it here.

Weekend Posting

If you have a blog which receives comments regularly and post fairly often, you soon notice that comments drop off greatly on the weekends. For those out there who bother to track the number of hits they get (I don't), I'm sure that there are actual numbers to back up the fact that fewer people spend their time on the Internet on weekends and blogs get fewer visits.

That's not to say that weekend posts don't get read because I'm sure that Monday morning procrastination at work allows for ample opportunity to catch up but it does make me feel less compelled to put something up on weekends unless I'm chomping at the bit to do so. It's not that I don't have something to say because I almost always have something to say. It's more a matter of weekends tend to be busier than weekdays (except Wednesday which seems to be a smoking hot day for private lessons) and it's easy to just not put out the extra energy on the weekend.

For me, posting generally isn't some quick dash and send though I'll admit it is on occasion. It's usually a long slow walk around the topic and an attempt to view it from different angles in the hopes of offering a balanced view. This is followed by a spell-check and at least one proofread most of the time and sometimes a re-write. You can see why spending energy on posting on the busiest work days of the week would be a little hard under those circumstances.

Saturday and Sunday are also the only working days that my husband and I have any time to speak of together so the time is more precious. At present, my husband works from 11:00 am to 10:00 pm on Wednesday and Thursday and 1:00 to 10:00 pm on Friday. Since he gets up early enough for a swim before work, our evening schedule on those three days is usually spent cramming down dinner shortly after he walks in the door at 10:40, washing up, and getting ready for bed by midnight. That's a scant 90 minutes of time each night on those days. I should note that he chooses to work those 11 hour days so that he can make a bit more money for us while I "convalesce" and work only about 1/4 of a normal work week from home. This isn't one of those cases where a Japanese company is slave-driving him without extra pay.

On Saturday and Sunday, his schedule is 10:00 am - 6:20 pm so it feels like a real evening where we can actually interact meaningfully and enjoy each other's company after three days of "deprivation". Of course, we do have a "real weekend" on Monday and Tuesday where he has the whole day off but that time just seems to fly, especially with real world business day obligations like banking, bill paying, and appeasing the bureaucratic beast with offerings of properly filled out forms horning in on that time.

In my previous post, I talking about breaking out of habits and I'm thinking of simply not posting at all on Saturday and Sunday because I might be better off spending that time doing other things. Also, since I know other people are likely out there living their lives rather than vegetating in front of their machines (and good for them, I say), posting on the weekend is a bit like showing a movie that only a few people are watching.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Habits

As anyone who has read my blog for any length of time knows, I'm a strong advocate of de-cluttering but I realized something today which showed that I'm far from perfect at it. My husband and I have had two pair of tweezers for years. One has a tip which is bent or corroded in such a way that they are ineffective. The other works okay so we only use them.

For well over a decade now, my husband and I have been searching the tin box we store the tweezers in, picking up one and putting it back into the tin if it's the "bad" one. This pointless behavior is something we do out of habit. The logical thing to do is to throw away the pair that doesn't work and I finally did that today. But habit is a persuasive mistress that kept us making a pointless little choice for years.

While vacuuming today, I started to think about how much of our lives are conducted on auto-pilot because we act out of habit. Sometimes such habits are unintentionally destructive. If you turn on the T.V. or radio and leave them running in the background while you do something else out of habit rather than because you are sincerely interested in the programming, you waste energy and you divide your attention and risk prematurely exhausting your attention span from over-stimulation.

With television in particular, we grow so used to it droning on in the background that we forget how to stare off into space and daydream or think of nothing and get a mental cleansing. If reading books has any great advantage over television, it's that you have to actively want to read and attend to the process whereas T.V. is so effortlessly entertaining that we leave it on out of habit.

What is perhaps worse about habits though is that they end up robbing you of the pleasures of certain experiences. If you drink coffee everyday out of habit, you stop really enjoying the experience of the smell and the taste of it and just mindlessly drink it down. The same goes for other sorts of eating habits. In fact, overeating is likely contributed to in part by the habit of eating without paying attention to the experience of tasting the food or your body's cues that you are getting full. The first bite of anything is always the best and by the third, you are seeing diminishing returns on the pleasure of any gustatory experience but we mindlessly consume certain portions out of habit.

Habits are comforting though and they provide structure to our lives. There are good habits as well as bad ones but even the good ones can benefit from a regular analysis and alteration, particularly if you find yourself becoming a slave to your dutiful attention to such habits such that they either cause you stress or become destructive. You'd be surprised how often people complain about having to do something at a certain time of day or day of the week which they could just as easily choose not to do or to perform at a different less troubling time.

Our thinking can become so rigid at times that we forget that we have a choice about the patterns we fit our lives into. For instance, one of my students was complaining to me that she was beginning to get stressed because of too frequent e-mail exchanges with an English-speaking friend of hers. He would send her a message and she's respond immediately then he'd zip back a reply right away. It reached the point where she was getting 5 messages a day which took her a long time to compose replies to because of her limited English skills. Since she always responds immediately to e-mail, it never even occurred to her to change her habit and reply the next day to slow down the pace of the correspondence.

As for me, I'd been doing my student data and lesson content entry on my PC for the past two years. However, I started using the Macintosh full-time for nearly everything over the past several months and reserved the PC for game-playing only. Consolidating the majority of my work on one machine cut down on the keyboard and monitor swapping. The exception to doing all my "work" on the Mac was my student record keeping which I continued to do on the PC. As I pointlessly swapped to the PC today, I realized that this was a mindless habit. I can do e-mail and Excel work equally well from the Mac so I finally copied over the necessary files and made the switch.

If you're more interested in pragmatism rather than mental breaks, you can also look at your habits to see where your choices in spending could be altered to save you money and add variety to your life. For instance, I drink Diet Coke with lunch and dinner everyday but the truth is that I like iced tea quite a lot. The tea costs about 1/5 what the Coke is costing but it never even occurred to me to make it because I was following my routine. The same may go for how you travel to work, particularly if you drive a car and could take a bike ride. You also may find that services you pay for regularly like cable television or newspaper subscriptions are well past the point of diminishing returns and could be canceled with little loss to you.

Perhaps one of the worst habits we all have in this day and age is getting up and sitting in front of our computers. The first thing we do is read web pages or check e-mail. I'm guessing that checking or pecking at ones cell phone is another of these sorts of habits (but I don't have one so that isn't an issue for me). There are certain experiences we rob ourselves of by allowing ourselves to be drawn to our devices everyday out of habit. You could be having breakfast at a table with someone you love making eye contact and having a real conversation. You could be in the kitchen making the kind of breakfast that takes more than 5 minutes to slap together. You could stare out the window as you drink your coffee and think about something creative or personal rather than being spoon fed the thoughts or ideas put forth by others on their web pages.

If we take the time to break our most mentally-consuming habits, we can find that even daily experiences feel more "alive". I'm not trying to speak poorly of watching T.V. or using the computer but I do feel it's good to do these things because you really want the content rather than because it's there and you're consuming it almost thoughtlessly out of habit. My husband has actually been building on this sort of idea for a few years now. When he finds himself sitting in front of his laptop reading it without real interest or finding no true pleasure in it, he puts it down and reads a book or sits back and meditates. I can't say I've become as good at it as he but I do believe it's worth continuing to try and follow his example.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

"Nice, Clean Girls"

My life at my former company began as a temporary worker who picked up the slack during the annual busy season between November and March. There were 4 full-timers and 5 of us temps. The full-time workers were John, Jolene, Doug, and my former boss Darryl. Doug and Jolene were both married but John was single. I sat in a cubicle next to John so I got to know him first and best.

Even though I'd been in Japan for two years at that point, I had limited experience with the types of gaijin Lotharios who treat the local women as potential harem girls for their sexual entertainment. To those who don't know, there is an unflattering but sometimes accurate image of some western men who come to Japan for the potential to score and are able to romance women largely based on the fact that they are foreign. These are typically the kind of men who couldn't get women back home for one reason or another and who like to carry on about how western women are inferior girlfriends/wives compared to Asian women. I guess it's easier to say you don't want something because there's something wrong with it than to say you can't have it because there's something wrong with you.

Before all the nice and well-adjusted men who have Japanese girlfriends/wives initiate their hackle-raising maneuvers, I'm not talking about you. Note the use of the word "some (western men)", not "all". Well, maybe I am talking about you if your dander is fluffing at the mention of this topic. If the very notion that there are some predatory foreign men out there who are losers who can attract Japanese women because the culture and communication gaps mask their more repugnant character attributes then you may be one of them. Otherwise, why would you get all worked up about it? If it doesn't bother you then you likely aren't one of them and are confident in your appeal to the opposite sex in any culture.

Anyway, John was my first experience face-to-face with one of these types of foreign men. Previously, I'd associated with men who were pretty decent (mainly married to Japanese or foreign women already, gay, or plain decent fellows who were open to women they encounter but not hunting them down as sexual trophies). He would come in some days looking like he'd slept in the clothes he wore the day before because he actually had done so. He slept with any girl he could and, since he looked like a pint-sized Bruce Willis, he didn't seem to have too many problems locating some accepting women who didn't mind a guy on the short side. He didn't respect Japanese women at all and in fact sometimes called them "honey" when he was teaching them on the phone as a sort of snide joke. His attitude toward them was as something he could use for sexual pleasure.

At some point, John, Doug, and I were having a conversation about John's dating habits and, of course, he wasn't shy about talking about how many girls he'd slept with in Japan. I can't recall the precise number but it was not some ridiculously small or large one. The topic of birth control came up and John said that he never wore a condom. When Doug and I expressed that we strongly felt this was very dangerous, particularly from a disease point of view, John said, "I only sleep with nice, clean girls."

Doug and I tried to convince him that STDs don't distinguish "clean" from "dirty" but he had no plans to start wearing his raincoat when he went splashing in the rain with his "clean" playmates because he was certain they wouldn't splatter any mud on him. Unfortunately, his attitude is not uncommon among either Japanese or foreign people who feel that Japanese people, and the women in particular, are too "clean" to carry or transmit STDs. This was a fact that I was reminded of when I read an unhappy story on Stippy related to this topic (which I recommend others read as well).

The irony is that many foreigners are aware that Japanese businessmen frequent the sex trade in Thailand and other Asian countries they pass through. While I'm sure most of them wear condoms, some of them do not and they are still at risk of contracting STDs from visiting prostitutes. If the knowing gaijin puts two and two together, he'll realize that it's only a matter of time before such men return and infect unsuspecting women and diseases will start making the rounds.

The fact of the matter is that HIV and AIDS are viewed as "foreign diseases" and doctors will lie to patients about their diagnoses if they feel the truth is going to be too hard on the patient. The shame associated with dying of AIDS as a cause of death may result in the cause of death being listed as the disease that the person succumbed to as a result of his suppressed immune system rather than as a death because of AIDS. This misleads people about infection rates and the possible risks that come from having unprotected sex and continues to contribute to the myth that Japanese people are, by and large, too "clean" to spread (potentially fatal) STDs.

Update: There's a thoughtful article on AIDS on Stippy which analyzes statistics in Japan which everyone should read as well.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Making a Wall Decoration

Back when I was taking high school art classes, we were required to experiment with a number of techniques for various projects. One of those projects was constructing a layered "3D poster" by building up elements using thick poster board. This required you to sub-divide your art into portions that were "flat" on the lowest level (the main "canvas") and elements which were to be cut out of a separate sheet of board and pasted on top of the first sheet.

Image pinched from Wikipedia's page on Rock and Roll Over because I'm too lazy to scan in my CD cover.

For my project, I chose to reproduce KISS's "Rock and Roll Over" cover art (pictured above). If you look at it, you can see there is a lot of intricate work around the top of the hair and I happened to choose the black portion of the inner area as my second layer. That meant I had to trace it onto poster board and cut it out with an Xacto-knife. My high school art teacher was convinced that I would not be able to successfully carve out the intricate edges around the tops of the heads and tried to dissuade me from this undertaking. Rabid KISS fan that I was, however, I would not be dissuaded and I did just fine. The end result was quite nice. Unfortunately, this bit of artwork is long gone now.

This sort of art is appealing for a large-scale decoration because it has texture and depth. While posters and pictures are quite flat, this sort of thing feels more "alive". One thing I had decided in redoing the living room is that I wanted to add more texture in general to the decor (hence the Indian woven fabric on my T.V. stand with nubby thread running through it as a design).

The model art created in Adobe Illustrator.

With the memory of this in mind and the gaping black space above my T.V. tasking me, I decided to give this sort of project a less ambitious (but hopefully more stylishly-themed) go. As I mentioned in a previous post, I decided to go with something chess themed. The first stage was designing the basic elements in Adobe Illustrator (as I mentioned and showed in my original post). Though drawing the pieces, particularly the knights, was somewhat tricky, this was actually the easy part of the project since making perfect lines and boxes is simple on the computer.

The next stage was to take a piece of corrugated plastic that was about 5 feet x 4 feet in size and cut out a 600 mm x 600 mm square. Since the sheet was so huge and unwieldy and I had no place to keep it, It was a serious struggle cutting it down to size. The bottom edge isn't perfect by a long shot but it's otherwise pretty decently done.


The next step was to measure and draw on the chess board grid with a pencil. I had hoped to avoid painting the white portion by erasing the lines when I was finished. Since I didn't have a 60 mm straight edge, I had to do this with a metallic self-rewinding tape measure and it was no picnic.

Next, I cut out 32 60 mm x 60 mm squares to use as raised tiles for half the board. This was actually much harder to do straight than one might expect because the blade kept slipping into the hollow part of the corrugated plastic and shearing. The final squares are barely adequate but I had little choice short of finding a new material to work with. Since I didn't want to work with cardboard or paper (because I'm afraid it'll develop problems in the super humid summer followed by the super dry winter), I decided to just accept the imperfection.


The picture above shows the squares and a sample sheet for the pieces graphic. I painted one square yellow and one blue to color test them against the black pieces. My husband wasn't too keen on the yellow so I thought I'd give blue a shot. Unfortunately, the blue was too dark so I went with the yellow.


Painting 34 (two spare) squares of plastic yellow is pretty messy and I ended up with yellow fingers from trying to hold them while painting them edge to edge. They ended up needing two coats of paint because of streaks.

You can see the ragged bottom edge pretty well here but it won't be as visible when it's completed.

After mulling over various methods of attaching the squares, I settled on using double-sided tape because it is instant, clean, and easy to pull off if I make a mistake. Using a straight edge, I taped them down with extra-thin tape from the 100 yen store.


After the yellow squares were attached, I painted the rest of it white because the pencil lines would not erase clean. I used a cut up postcard to protect the edges of the yellow squares from the white in between but it still smudged over on occasion. You can clearly see the corrugation of the plastic even through 3 layers of white paint. This is actually fine with me as it adds more texture to the piece.

The board was the hardest part. I knew that if anything was going to go wrong, it would be with its construction. While it's not as perfect as I'd like, it's certainly fine enough. The next point I had to consider was how to attach the chess pieces. I originally wanted them to be a third layer on the same corrugated plastic but it was far too hard to work with for anything requiring even a modest level of detail. I printed the art on label paper and put it on a pizza box which was made of relatively thin cardboard but this didn't work very well either and was going to also put paper into the equation.


In the end, I decided to settle for printing the pieces on photo paper, cutting each piece out with an Xacto-knife and laminating them. I figure the lamination will keep the paper from being affected by the humidity and make them shiny so they will fit the shiny painted look of the board. Laminating also tends to make the pictures look sharper and crisper. The main drawback is that the pieces are nearly flat and I had hoped for a third raised layer.

Cutting out and laminating all the pieces was time-consuming and, again, my results were far from perfect though only close scrutiny is likely to reveal the imperfections. I noted with irony that the pawns, which were easiest to draw in Illustrator, were the hardest to cut out and attach to the board because of their narrow, curvy shape and there were more of them than any other piece. I had to cut down the double-sided tape several times to get it to fit on the pawns but finally got all the pieces attached.


In order to make the edge look more finished, I trimmed it with heavy foil tape. I'm not sure what the original purpose of this type of tape is supposed to be but it is literally very stiff foil which is sticky on one side. It was very hard to work with and didn't go on nearly as well as I'd hoped (there are crinkles in it as one would expect in foil). If I could do it over again, I'd use some other type of silver tape which wasn't as prone to wrinkling but I can't rip this stuff off and do it again because I'm sure it'll tear off the paint in strips. Nonetheless, I think it looks better with the tape than it would without it and looks quite nice up on the wall next to the Monty Python poster.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Food Snobbery

Recently I've been following a web site for "foodies" called Chow. This is the sort of site which is heavy on recipes that include balsamic vinegar, edamame, pine nuts and goat cheese. If you read the boards, you will easily come away thinking that this is a site frequented by people who turn up their noses at "pedestrian" fare. I've read threads where they've taken the time to express their impressions of the latest set meal at KFC (hint: they're not fans) and spoken disdainfully of places like Applebee's (one wag said he wouldn't inflict it on Saddam Hussein).

This same group of people rub their hands together with glee because a Japanese department store is now offering green tea "soft cream" (that's soft serve ice cream) in their area (in a U.S. city) with optional azuki bean topping. This is the crap that you can buy in convenience stores all over Japan. The people who sell it take bags of pre-made (likely powdered) mix, pour it into a machine, add water and pump a little air into it then squeeze it out through a tube for you. It's essentially the same gloop you get at Dairy Queen in the U.S. but instead of it being topped off with canned crushed pineapple that has been boiled with sugar it's topped with canned soy beans that have been boiled with sugar.

I don't have a problem with people who like exotic or gourmet food and dislike food prepared with cheap, low quality, or commonly-used ingredients. I do have a problem with the hypocrisy of people who praise the pedestrian fare of one culture while putting their noses in the upright position for similar pedestrian fare from another culture (usually American). Soft serve ice cream from the U.S. is swill. The same thing from Japan in a different flavor is a culinary treat.

I've witnessed this sort of hypocrisy mainly in regards to Japanese food because I know it so well from having lived here. I know when cheap Japanese food is being lovingly embraced as if it were haute cuisine because I know what is commonly available. However, I've also seen glimpses of it on (sometimes chef, author, and full-time T.V. personality) Anthony Bourdain's food and travel programs for the Discovery channel. On the whole, I enjoy his shows but he really has a thing for taking every opportunity to speak derisively of America's popular food culture. He went out of his way to chase down the origin of nachos in Mexico not to teach us how this monstrously popular snack was created but how it was originally served to American wives of dignitaries when there was nothing better around to serve them. The ladies had the low taste to enjoy this off the cuff concoction and it somehow (supposedly) spread to the U.S. from this one experience. The notion that this one instance where a Mexican served stale chips with cheese and peppers set off a trend is pretty absurd. At the same time, I've seen Bourdain praise relatively mundane fare in Europe. The most memorable one was a crepe spread with Nutella (a mass-produced chocolate hazelnut spread full of fat and sugar which you can buy in a jar at most markets which is also extremely yummy) and a few bananas. Qualitatively speaking, this is little better cuisine than a peanut butter and banana sandwich.

The problem with food snobs isn't that they have a taste for food which is unique in flavor and texture. The problem is that they dislike food simply because it is popular with a lot of people or available to the masses. These are the sorts of people who would view meatloaf dismissively but get excited about an order of tsukune when they're both little more than ground meat and regionally-determined seasonings mixed up, pressed together and cooked.

Sometimes I wonder what it is about human nature that compels people to deride what others embrace while talking about what they love. Is it really so hard to simply love what you love and let others enjoy what they like without subjecting them to your disdain? I guess it is if your ego is structured such that you can only elevate yourself by putting down something.

Monday, July 23, 2007

"Oil Taking Paper"


When you buy bottles of Coke or Pepsi in Japan, it's not uncommon to find plastic packets attached to the top with little bits of various types of junk in them. Often these items are trinkets to dangle off your cell phone or "collectible" items following a certain theme such as small plastic figures of Snoopy or the characters from the animated series Lupin III. Quite some time ago, I was even compelled to collect a series of small (very cute) Christmas ornaments of the Coca-Cola polar bears (I still have them in the closet in a Christmas tin). Most of these items are decorative and completely impractical though you'll occasionally get something of extremely limited use such as a magnet or a clip.

Since Coke Zero was only introduced to Japan relatively recently, 1.5 liter bottles of that beverage sometimes have these little bar magnets hung around their necks. If you click and look at a bigger version, you can see the left end of the magnet is a little Coke bottle shaped "window" to the back of the bar.

Today, I bought a 1.5 liter bottle of Diet Pepsi with a Bugs Bunny packet attached to the top. I didn't pay much attention to what it was since I was mainly picking it up because it was cheap. From the appearance, I thought it might be a little calendar or stickers. When I opened it up, I saw it was full of little papers. Before reading the Japanese, I thought they might be for cleaning your eyeglasses though that did seem like a rather peculiar thing to attach to a bottle of soda.

When I looked more closely, the package said "aburatorigami" on it. The rough translation of this is "oil taking paper". I remembered then that I'd seen these types of papers before in the hands of the office ladies at my former job. They rubbed them on their faces on occasion to remove oil from their skin. Supposedly, these are effective in removing sebum in such a way that make-up applied after a mop up with these papers is less likely to crack or deteriorate throughout the day. However, since I often saw women using them in midday, they may be commonly used for all-purpose oil removal.

Given that this is an item used to conduct what could be considered personal hygiene maintenance, it seemed an even stranger thing to be attaching to the neck of soda bottle than eyeglass cleaning papers. While doing a little research on this type of item, I did discover that they are distributed with company messages, logos, or advertising much like matchbooks in the U.S. or pocket tissue packets on the streets of Tokyo. There's a web site which seems to specialize in producing these papers for companies to give away to prospective customers. It seems that they are appropriate for all types of businesses from dentists to lacquerware makers to beauty salons.

The bottom line for a company that chooses to distribute these papers does not appear to be how appropriate they seem to be with the type of product they're given away with (like soda pop) but appears to be their desirability and usefulness to nearly anyone who gets them. Much like pocket tissue packets, they seem to be the sort of thing most people wouldn't mind having handy. Well, everyone except me. Mine are headed for the trash bin.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Inner-Directed and Outer-Directed Pain

It could be my imagination and statistics may not back me up but there seem to be more suicides in Japan recently. Some of the suicides have been gruesome and particularly sad. In today's news, there was a story about a man who likely murdered his pregnant wife and children then killed himself. The motive in this case was very likely despair over his debt. Another man decapitated himself by tying one end of a rope around his neck and the other around a tree then driving off at high speed.

As most people know, Japan is well-known for having a high suicide rate among developed countries. This is generally believed to be the result of a lack of mental health services to help people deal with their problems in conjunction with a shame-based culture that views "falling on one's sword" as an "honorable" means of escaping one's problems. While I don't disagree with these explanations, I think it goes further than that.

One screamingly obvious thing you notice as a major difference between Japan and the U.S. is that there are far more murders in the States and more suicides in Japan. You also can't help but notice that many Americans have no shame when it comes to airing their dirty laundry. People make a living out of T.V. shows that show people modeling the ugliest aspects of human nature. It's one thing to succumb to your weaknesses but quite another to display the consequences of having done so for all to see. What is worse are the people who entertain themselves by watching the base behavior of others.

In the U.S., you see that people direct their anger and pain externally. If life lets you down in America, you blame others and curse the unfairness of existence. If you don't get what you believe you deserve, you go and take it from someone else. If you hurt, you hurt someone else to counterbalance your pain. American culture sees loud and incessant catharsis as an indication of mental toughness. It also glorifies vengeance in the popular media and sees revenge as a form of justice.

In Japan, the culture values controlling one's feelings and sees the inability to control your emotions as immature. While Americans view speaking your mind as an indication of confidence and indifference to the opposing opinions of others (which shows how intact one's ego is), Japanese sees this as showing the same level of emotional control as a child and being insensitive to the feelings of those around you. You also don't see reality shows in Japan where real people parade their shameful behavior.

The Japanese are particularly more likely to decide to end it all over money problems since they take debt far more seriously than Americans do. While people in the U.S. weigh the effects of declaring bankruptcy on their credit rating and future borrowing and spending patterns, few of them seem to think too long or hard about the fact that they have failed at being fiscally responsible and are cheating their creditors out of money they owe them.

The Japanese culture deals with problems in an inner-directed fashion. It's no surprise that, while an American in great debt who just lost his job will go off and shoot his coworkers, a Japanese person will kill himself. Since the roots of this inner-directness appear to be deeply-embedded in the core values of Japanese culture, I'm not sure how effective counseling would be, particularly conventional talk therapy. I'm equally sure that the Japanese would not quickly embrace pharmacological therapeutic methods as they are much more hesitant to take strong medications or new drugs than those in western cultures.

If counseling is to be an answer in Japan, it will need to be coupled with real answers to problems. I doubt that allowing people to talk about their problems and attempting to guide them away from killing themselves when they are in a situation which seems to have no solution will provide much of a deterrent and would be more likely to result in a delay. The entire culture has been encouraging them all their lives to be responsible and stoic. Effective counseling will need to go hand in hand with social programs that allow people to dig themselves out of the hole they see themselves in and come out of the situation with their self-respect intact.

Note: I see the U.S. as one extreme and Japan as the other but don't believe either is "better" than the other. I think there's a happy medium somewhere between the two.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Not Before 8:01 am


At around 4:15 pm this afternoon, the delivery folks arrived with the new Harry Potter novel from Amazon Japan. Since we live in the future, we get a head start on the U.S. It's legal for us to have them now.


If you look closely at the sticker on the box, it says that the box cannot be delivered before 8:01 am on July 21. I imagine that means these parcels were idling somewhere waiting for the magical day (no pun intended, trust me) to arrive.

All of this concern over something as trivial as a novel about a boy wizard getting out a little early strikes me as beyond absurd. It strikes me as doubly so when I listen to the book's author bellyaching about how true fans who really, really love the Potterverse will show their faith and wait like good little girls and boys for the officially-sanctioned delivery date before peaking inside the covers. The sense of self-importance behind any author who attaches so much meaning to her work that she gets worked up about it getting out a few days early boggles the mind, particularly when that author isn't the bee's knee's of great authors.

All of this hoopla will be a curious memory after today. Personally, my desire to actually read the book has been considerably dampened by the presence of that ridiculous sticker on the box treating the package as it it were precious and important enough not to be let out too soon. I'm going to read it but not for awhile yet. I think when something which is merely a distraction from life takes on such importance, it's time to re-evaluate priorities.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Gurnard

When you're a language teacher, you spend a lot of your time introducing new words to your students. On rare occasions, you find that your students will introduce new words to you. I'm not talking about learning Japanese words but about English words that I've never heard of before.

One of the reasons you tend to hear "new" English words is that most students are working out of dictionaries that haven't been updated since the turn of the previous century. They poke at their electronic dictionaries to find the English for a Japanese word they can't express (or refuse to express) in simple English and out pops some antiquated or obscure word that even your Grandpa wouldn't use.

Another reason is that the dictionaries give awkward translations in lieu of multi-word accurate translations. Most bi-lingual dictionaries seem to have been written by the same type of people who teach high school English in Japan. That is, the type who aren't actually fluent in the language that is their livelihood and never double-check their understanding but mainly draw their information from research sources who had little better knowledge of the language than they do. A good example of this is that the Japanese word "tokucho" is sometimes found to mean "characteristic" in dictionaries but a better translation would be "distinguishing feature". You find that students often mis-use "characteristic" because they are substituting it for situations where they'd use tokucho.

One of the obscure English words that I learned early on was "antifebrile". I also learned it's brother, "antipyretic". Unless you're a doctor or involved in medicine in some fashion, these aren't the sorts of words one tends to encounter. However, the Japanese seems absolutely obsessed with taking their temperatures and the doctors equally obsessed with doling out medication for even a hint of fever so it's not uncommon for a student who has made his or her semi-weekly trip to the doctor in a panic over a "fever" to mention that he or she was given antifebrile medication. (Yes, I exaggerate, but just a little. ;-) )

This evening, I learned another new English word from one of my students, gurnard. My student was telling me about her weekend activities and how they were affected by the typhoon. On Saturday, a barbecue had been planned by one of her friends. He was going to grill steaks, shrimp, and various tubers on a grill set up by the sea or a river but the rain put the kibosh on his plans for a scenic locale. The barbecue, which was also a 32nd birthday party for one of the attendees, was held despite the heavy rain. Everyone crowded under the cover of his car's parking space and spent 10 hours eating, talking, and, mostly, drinking. I guess that standing in a parking space for the better part of the day is bound to inspire copious amounts of imbibing.

While my student's Saturday was plagued by the typhoon, her Sunday was enhanced by it. One of her friends works at an expensive hotel in Yokohama and the hotel had planned a weekend of festivities for its guests including fireworks. The expectation was that a large number of guests would appear there and patronize the restaurants because the fireworks could be seen very clearly from this particular hotel. The typhoon caused the fireworks to be canceled and a high turnout at its restaurants was looking rather unlikely.

With a ton of expensive food, particularly fresh seafood, ready to rot in the pantry, the hotel employees were encouraged to call friends and family to come in and chow down for a 50% discount. My student enjoyed a multi-course meal at an Italian restaurant which included gurnard and so I learned another new English word from a student.

From dictionary.com:

gur·nard:

any marine fish of the family Triglidae, having an armored, spiny head and the front part of the pectoral fins modified for crawling on the sea bottom.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

So, It's Out


There are rumors, inevitably, that the 7th (and possibly final) Harry Potter novel has leaked and is available via a torrent file. Some people are saying the files are an elaborate hoax and others are saying it's the real deal.

Well, folks, I can tell you that it is the real deal or the most amazingly convincing hoax ever (and I'm convinced of the former). While I'm sure that the book's publisher may be wringing its hands and fretting over this, it's really not worth worrying about. The files are a collection of jpegs of the pages of the book taken with a digital camera as the book lies open on a table and someone turns the pages. The pages can't even be read without zooming in massively and are illegible near the spine of the book. No one is going to "read" the book in this fashion and fail to purchase a real book.

The main purpose of this leak isn't to allow people to not buy the book (after all, we're all going to buy it...my husband and I have our pre-order in place already). The point of this is to provide spoilers several days before the official release date. So, this means that spoilers are out there 3 days earlier than they normally would but otherwise means little else. Some people appear to have gone through the painstaking process of attempting to read these eye-straining pictures and plucked out all the most important details (like who dies) and posted them.

If you really care about not being spoiled, you may want to turn your computer off now and don't turn it back on until your pre-ordered copy shows up and you've spent all night reading it. For those of us (raises hand) who think that J.K. Rowling's "hints" lend an extreme irritation factor to reading the books because they make the reader think mainly about who is going to kick it, the spoilers are actually welcome since we can find out who buys the farm and just pay attention to the damn story this time around.

20th Anniversary

Several months, I posted that my husband and I celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary this year. The truth is that we didn't actually want to get married on the date we chose. July 18th was the date we wanted to get married on.

I'm not sure about most people and how they reach the point where they put themselves out there and admit their feelings for one another. If I believe what I read and see in popular media, relationships often start with a date and build in intensity until one party or another declares he or she loves the other. The other party either happily reciprocates or disappointingly says something to let the moment pass with the least embarrassment possible.

I imagine that it's hard for anyone in a relationship to be the first person to say "I love you" because it is an incredible emotional risk, or at least it is if you really mean it, and aren't one of those people who utter it meaninglessly and with ease. In my husband's and my case, the situation was complicated by the fact that we hadn't met face to face and were pen pals so there was a certain weirdness factor. No one believes you can fall in love without having seen each other yet but we did. And everyone feels that even if the two of you believe it, it's not "real" and you're fooling yourselves.

Even though my husband had been receiving all the signals in the world from me that I was pretty enamored of him, it still wasn't easy for him to be the first one to admit he'd fallen in love with me but he did 20 years ago today. I never would have been the first one to say it as my weak self-esteem would never have allowed me to put myself out there with the possibility of rejection but I had been in love with him for months at that point.

So, this is the day we wanted to marry because it carries more emotional significance and marked the moment when our relationship changed from friendship to serious relationship.

Blog Cannibalism

There are more than 20 blogs in my bookmarks list. I open them in tabs and either read or at least scan each of them every day. While a fair number of them are about Japan, some of them are also about technology or news. By far, the ones I enjoy most tend to be those where people talk about their lives in an interesting fashion but I also like to see what's new (even if I'm very unlikely to purchase anything).

One thing I have noticed from reading so many blogs is that there appears to be a fair amount of cannibalism going on. That is, I see a lot of people posting exactly what other people have posted about already. This is particularly pervasive when it comes to posts about items or certain news bits which tend to appear on the big technological announcement sites like Engadget or from major item-oriented sites like TokyoMango. In many cases, the same graphics are pinched and used in the copycat posting.

While I like it when people say things like, "I read about this on (site name) and I think this/want this/think it sucks/love this because...", I don't like what boils down to outright content theft. The reason I don't like the repetition of announcements isn't that I'm annoyed that I'm not being served new content. It's mainly because it makes me think some people have blogs but really don't have enough to say so they go around stealing someone else's work. It also makes me feel like people who work harder to get content are being ripped off.

Obviously, there are situations which occur where everyone tends to ride the same bit of news at the same time, particularly when that news is a major release from a big company like Apple. I'm not talking about those situations. I'm talking about when someone will post a picture and talk about something relatively esoteric then the exact same picture and essentially parallel content are posted on another blog shortly thereafter. I've seen this happen with Roy's Q-taro blog on occasion because he tends to come across more quirky and unique items than most people.

I guess this sort of copying is the result of the profitability of some web sites but also from the pressure people feel to steadily feed their audiences with "new" content each and every day. I sometimes wonder why people care so much about posting every day if there's nothing to say. After all, if you have to pinch content to fill the space on a particular day, then you didn't really post everyday and saying you posted for x number of days straight has no meaning.

To be honest, early on in my blogging, I intentionally skipped days so I wouldn't fall into the trap of thinking 'I've posted every day since I started'. It prevented me from falling into the ego-gratifying but ultimately empty trap of feeling posting everyday was a necessity since I "failed" at posting once a day without fail very early on.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Lifehacker and Lifehack

There are a great many blogs and sites that I follow which provide advice for improving your quality of life in one way or another. I really should add a section for links to such sites but I wanted to take a moment to recommend a couple which I've found particularly interesting and enjoyable.

Lifehacker provides tips and links to sites with tips about many aspects of life including using your computer, changing your living space so it is more attractive and efficient, making your own versions of things more cheaply, saving money and time and reducing consumption. I don't find every tip useful and tend to skim the headers for each one and generally find one of use or interest several times a week. The comments on Lifehacker often add even more to the tips and provide a lot of information as well.

The nice thing is that the tips are useful to those of us living in Japan for the most part and not specifically geared toward people in any particular life situation. I strongly recommend bookmarking it and giving it a glance on a daily basis.

While Lifehacker is mainly concerned with improving your external life, Lifehack is concerned with both improving your outer and inner life (but not in a spiritually-oriented way so please don't think it's a religious site). There is an absolutely excellent post there on "10 virtually instant ways to improve your life" which every person ought to be forced to read again and again until they act in accord with those ideas and teach them to their children, friends, coworkers, and pets. Honestly, the world would be a happier place if everyone followed those steps (or at least tried to do so).

As with Lifehacker, I don't find everything useful but I give the headings a read everyday and find several really good items a week. The links to tips for using vinegar are particularly interesting this week.

Russian Roulette

The earthquake yesterday in Northwestern Japan, which has so far resulted in 9 known deaths (possibly more to come), fills me with the feeling that I'm playing Russian roulette by continuing to remain in Tokyo. Everyone talks about how Tokyo is "overdue" for a "big one" and I always believe that's a bit of nonsense since mother nature doesn't work on a schedule.

When it comes to nature (or even life in general), anything can happen any time but nothing "has to" happen at any particular time. I think that the sort of people who enjoy talking about how Tokyo is overdue for a devastating quake are the sort that smile just a little and experience a thrill when they hear there's been a bad car accident nearby. Some people really just love the excitement that comes along with unusual and unusually bad news which isn't going to affect them.

However, it is a fact that anyone living in the "Ring of Fire" is gambling that a truly horrible earthquake isn't going to come her way. That doesn't mean I'm going to run off and escape "the big one" because the truth is that a natural disaster can hit anyone anywhere anytime and what will be will be. When I lived in Pennsylvania, there were floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. In fact, I saw a real twister in the distance when I was a child. It didn't come too near our house but tornadoes are very unpredictable and can move erratically and demolish one house while leaving neighboring houses standing. You don't know where one will touch down and for one to be close enough for you to see it is a pretty intimidating experience.

Anywhere you live, you're gambling that the natural events which are capable of occurring in that area will not happen to smite you. Even before we lived in dwellings that were big enough and heavy enough to fall and kill us, our ancestors were dying from various natural disasters. Archaeologists speculate that the Olmec civilization was ultimately consumed in a flood. Pompeii was famously destroyed by a volcano which had been dormant for so long that the people who lived near it didn't even suspect it was going to erupt despite there being early signs that it may happen.

The thing about gambling is that it's always more likely that your prediction will not happen than it will. Would you bet your life savings on the possibility that a certain number between 1 and 7,300 would come up on a wheel during a given spin? Twenty years in Japan is 7,300 days and you're betting your life that a huge earthquake that could kill you isn't going to occur. That's a pretty safe bet and odds are that the chances of a hugely devastating quake are far lower than 1 in 7300.

Note: To those who have kindly inquired about our well-being after the quake, we were too far away to be seriously affected though the quake did result in some spooky long-lasting swaying. Thanks for your concern and thoughts. It's very appreciated.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Chess


When my husband was quite a bit younger, he competed in chess tournaments and was quite a good player. To this day, when he sees someone playing chess in a movie or T.V. program, he will scrutinize what is happening carefully and pronounce whether or not the moves are realistic. He also has nothing for disdain for the way in which "checkmate" is proclaimed in a completely dubious fashion in so many shows. At those times, he reminds me of my father, who can identify older cars' makes and years with a glance, and who similarly scoffed at various things related to cars in T.V. shows.

At some point in his teen years, my husband lost interest in taking part in tournaments but he's still a very good player. On occasion, he plays against a fairly good program on his computer. He even has a kid who is a student at his school who he played chess with in lessons a few times. Part of the problem for him in terms of finding partners is that few casual players are as good as he is. In fact, I can play chess in that I know how the game is played but it's just too much concentration for me to think as many moves ahead as a really good player is required to do. My husband, on the other hand, is excellent at thinking things through thoroughly and he possesses the sort of memory that helps him remember moves.

A very long time ago, when my husband and I were still buying each other Christmas gifts, I bought him a small marble chess set at Tokyu Hands. I bought the small one because of our limited space but he would have preferred a really good large one with heavy, tactilely-satisfying pieces. One of these days, we'll live some place where we can just set up a nice little table somewhere and he can leave a beautiful chess set all the time.

The set pictured above has been in the closet for quite some time but I decided I'd take it out and use it decoratively in the bookcase. I made the picture near it with a collection of stock photos, Photoshop, and my new printer. It's actually served as an inspiration for an art project that I hope to create and hang in the living room some time in the next few weeks in the big glaring empty space above the T.V.


I'm hoping to construct a layered bit of artwork from a huge piece of corrugated plastic we have, vector art, and a lot of careful measuring and painting. Yesterday, I drew the basic chess pieces based on my husband's favorite bitmapped representations from his chess-playing days. If all goes well, the big version will greatly resemble the picture above.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Big Swap - Part 3

I decided not to sit on my re-vamped living room until it reached a state of "perfection" because it'll be awhile given my high standards and limited free time. So, here is the result of all my cleaning and hard work. Click on any picture to see a bigger version which has easier to see details.


The corner of the room which I revealed as a filthy mess with dust climbing up the walls in a previous post is now my desk area. The walls really do look fairly clean now though there are still "smog patterns" near the top which wouldn't come clean. I only lost the desktop real estate on the right which the PC now occupies. Two DVD burners and a video capture box are stacked on it. The black one is a new dual layer burner my husband brought back from the U.S. in May. The other is my old one which now mainly functions as a reader for the PC which has always had a wonky drive. My former desk set-up is pictured here.

The main change I had to make was the arms from my chair had to be removed so it could be pushed completely under the desk during my lessons. While the room has more space now than before (and feels bigger), the clear floor space doesn't work so well with two huge chairs and a table. Frankly, I don't miss the arms much except for when I pull the chair in and out. The back has never worked properly (the back always reclines and won't stick in place) so I tended to yank the chair around by the handles. Now, pulling it out by it's flexible back rest is more troublesome.

I plan on painting the framework my stuff is stacked on as soon as the humidity drops and I have the time. I figure I'll paint it ivory so it'll be lighter but not shockingly bright.


My favorite part of the change to my area is how the top looks with the Buddha and tea candle holders as well as a special spot for my Skull plushie. The Buddha is from the gardening section at the 100 yen shop and the candle holders from the "interior" section of the same shop. One thing I've realized is that you get better decorative objects from the gardening section in cheap shops than in the "interior" sections which seem to have a lot of cheesy-looking, hyper-colorful crap.

The orange speakers, incidentally, are a leftover from my tangerine iMac days. They now serve my Mini (which has horrible internal speakers). The nicer-looking but just as cheap black speakers are for the PC.


One casualty of the move was poor old Sammy the Hammy's ear. I knocked him over so many times while setting things up that I chipped his ear. I gave him his own iMac to make up for it and he seems just as happy as ever.


My attempts to control cord spaghetti were pretty unsuccessful as you can see. The yellow pillow is my foot rest. The orange iBook is for use in lessons so I don't have to print two copies of lessons and the black box has my digital camera and cables. The teal basket has printer paper.


While the set-up with two desks next to each other is the same as it was before, the main difference is my husband actually uses the desk now. That's his notebook PC on it in this picture though he often takes it to work with him. Since his desk is smaller than mine and I've taken all the shelves for my own purposes, I mounted a small rack that you can hang little baskets off of for him to put his things in at the end of the day. The set-up for this desk previously is shown here.

When we're both home and using our computers, his chair is right next to mine. We're somewhat close together, especially when he reclines, but we're both much happier being next to each other in this way and he's better off at a desk than lying on the bed all the time.


My new printer (with the already lauded front-loading cassette) and scanner take up the lower shelves. The scanner is quite old and I'm figuring it's the next piece of computer equipment that is going to croak on me (that or my aging PC).


The wall space above the T.V. is still tasking me. I have a plan to put something decorative there but it's going to take awhile to make. I also want to paint the stand the T.V. is on but I know that's going to take a long time to get to (if ever) so I covered it with woven fabric from India to add in some color and undermine the feeling of the right side of the room being a dark pit. The old T.V. set-up is pictured here. On the bottom shelf, I also put some gold tea candle holders I've had for almost two years but never found a good place to put them. They were part of a huge pack of wonderful-smelling Christmas candles my husband bought. They're the only thing I have left from it and add some nice sparkle to the lower shelf.

The clay figure on top of the DVD shelf, which sort of reminds me of something from South America, is another garden section find from the 100 yen shop.


I ditched the dark sofa cover and pink pillowcases and decided to change to a color scheme with light blue and gold because of the darker carpeting. Click here to see the old look of the sofa and carpet. I also swapped my kitty tile clock for the blue Apple one to add in more blue and a bigger decorative element. I went with blue and gold because they're the main colors in the Month Python and the Holy Grail poster above my husband's desk and it's the biggest decorative element in the room.


This bookshelf was transplanted from another corner of the room and I cleared out some of the shelves and re-arranged them. The old shelf set-up is pictured here. The Easter Island type figure on the top is yet another garden object. You can't see it but the trash can is a planting pot. I wanted a clay one and a bigger one but couldn't find one on the cheap.

When I see the pictures of the room, I think it actually looks better in person than the shots indicate. Part of the reason for this is that I can't get just any camera angle I'd like because of the size of the apartment and the difficulty of shooting back as far as necessary to get a good angle.

Another reason is that, unlike all the glamor shots of homes you see in magazines, I don't remove all the everyday stuff from the shots to make them look nicer or shoot in such a way that only select areas show. It's amazing how every time you see a picture in some magazine of someone's gorgeous home that these people never have things like trash cans, phones, televisions, or any sort of wiring. Apparently, all their gorgeous lamps are wired directly through holes in the floor or end tables they sit on. On rare occasions, you'll see some impeccable home that hides the T.V. behind a screen or concealing cabinet but, for the most part, they seem to lack a lot of the types of things we can't avoid (like cables from a PC to a monitor or a power supply cable).

When I finish up the bedroom, I'll post a tour of it.

Anyway, I'm pretty happy with how things turned out except for the things I've mentioned. :-)

Getting a Japanese Credit Card


The doorbell rang today (Sunday) and a postman was standing in his rain suit with a registered letter. The last time I got a registered letter in Japan, it was from the local ward office demanding I cough up my delinquent health insurance payment or they'd go to my company and tell on me. This wasn't much of a threat because I'd quit my job about a year ago at that time but I paid anyway and now they love me again.

I wasn't exactly pleased to see another registered letter and wondered who was going to threaten to run off and tell my mommy on me this time, especially since I'm not behind in any payments now. Fortunately, it was just the bank sending me a new credit card to replace the one which is at this very moment approaching complete obsolescence. I believe this is my third renewal since getting a Japanese card and all I remember is that the first one was really nice-looking with a grey and black representation of Botticelli's Birth of Venus on it. The re-issued one looked pretty much like the one above, blue and boring.

If you read forums or blogs, you find a lot of hostility when it comes to foreigners (not) getting cards issued by Japanese banks. A lot of this is justified because it is difficult to get a card if you're not Japanese. The banks are afraid you'll spend to your maximum credit limit and blow the country so they don't want to issue cards to people who have been here a short time or haven't shown job stability. In my case, I was able to get a card after working at my company for about 5 years. My company asked me if I wanted a card (I didn't request one) and did all the paperwork for me. It surprised me that it was so simple given all I'd heard.

If you read forums frequented by foreigners, you get a lot of misinformation about what you have to do to qualify for a card. I've heard people say you have to be able to read the fine print, which is written in Japanese, and therefore you can only get a card if you are fluent. This is simply not true. I never read the agreement nor even had it translated for me by someone else. It's also sometimes said that you must have an official hanko (personal ink stamp seal) to get one and this is also not true.

These days, it's probably easier to use a shop which really wants to issue cards to help you get a card. Costco in Japan, for example, is more than happy to sign you up and they're very gaijin-friendly. It's also easier to get the sort of cards that charge an annual fee (like Master Card) than the free ones. The truth is that Japanese financial institutions aren't stuffing credit cards into people's hands like candy into a child's Halloween bag like they are in the U.S. They're a bit more wary, particularly with people who are potentially a bad risk because they have no incentive to be responsible for their debts, and frankly, a lot of short-term visitors lack such an incentive. It's not too much to ask that people show some sort of commitment to their life here (staying more than a year) and the ability to pay off their debts (by having a steady job) before handing them a card.

If you really want a card, I suggest having your visa sponsor apply on your behalf just after they renew your second contract. Most accountants in companies are willing to lend a hand though you may be out of luck if you work for a monolithic fast food school that doesn't offer any sort of support to its employees (such as Nova).

Some people might wonder why someone who resides in Japan must have a Japanese card when a card from any country is just as usable at shops or for on-line purchases. The main reason they're good to have is that it saves you charges for (two) currency exchanges. If my husband and I use our U.S. card, we have to transfer yen to dollars to put money in our U.S. bank account to cover the charge. This is a time-consuming and expensive process which we prefer to do with great infrequency. Additionally, we lose money on the exchange since the true rate is not charged when doing a currency exchange (if it's ¥123 to the dollar, we'll probably pay ¥125 to the dollar). If the purchases are made in Japan, the disadvantageous exchange rate is applied twice. Essentially, we buy in yen, it's converted to U.S. dollars when charged to a U.S. card and it's paid in dollars which were converted from yen. In the long run, having a Japanese card can save you a tidy bit of change.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Typhoon-wear


A typhoon has bled over into Tokyo bringing cooler air and constant rain. It's not a really bad typhoon, mind you. The worst one I've ever experienced was the sort that inverted umbrellas and dangerously blows around signs. This is far from one of those.

When I worked in Nishi-Shinjuku, I worked near some of the more well-known skyscrapers including the Nomura Building and it was there that witnessed one of the scariest typhoon-related things I ever saw. The Nomura Building has a metal sculpture near it which is hard to explain the appearance of and impossible to find a picture of on-line (and I don't happen to have one of my own). The best I can say is that it is a couple of huge, thick metal bars (about 2 stories high) which are joined together at one point and rotate when the wind blows.

Under normal circumstances, they may gently roll around. When there's a big typhoon, the bars whip around with sufficient speed and force to make you think there's a serious danger of one twisting off and crushing cars, people, and structures. It's like an ill-placed, artistically-designed windmill. We walked past it to take a co-worker to a restaurant on her last day of work which happened to be a day with a strong typhoon and I was very nervous being anywhere in the vicinity of that thing.

Early on in my employment, I used to ride a bike to work most days. This was before Nishi-Shinjuku Marunouchi line station was built and I was having severe back problems such that I couldn't make the walk from Shinjuku station to my office (about 15 minutes). Riding a bicycle took between 30-40 minutes (one way) which was only slightly longer than taking the train. This offered me both the benefit of sparing my back and of allowing me to keep my monthly train allowance in my pocket rather than spending it on a train pass. For those who don't know, almost all Japanese employers reimburse their employees for public transportation costs to and from their offices. This was also an efficient way of getting some exercise everyday since it used time normally spent standing on the train to good advantage.

There were, of course, disadvantages. For one, there is an absolutely epic pair of hills culminating in a deep valley just before entering Nishi-Shinjuku so you get to go up one coming and going. If you want to bike up it, you have to have extremely strong muscles (and knees) or you have to work up a head of steam coming down the first one to give you momentum to get up the other. This being Tokyo, that is not something one can do safely or well. The sidewalks are crammed with people who will do anything to avoid walking in a straight line or look where they are going. It is essential if one is a pedestrian in Tokyo that one take all necessary precautions to avoid awareness of one's surroundings at all times.

Given the sidewalk conditions, you can't really go barreling down one huge hill to get momentum to go up the next unless you don't mind crippling or maiming meandering pedestrians along the way. Also, ultimately, if you get up a good head of steam and are making great progress up the hill, someone will dreamily zig-zag in front of you forcing you to stop dead so there's no point in even getting your hopes up. Usually, I'd pedal 1/3-2/3 of the way up and walk the bike the rest of the way.

Beyond the shooting gallery experience of biking to work, the main downfall was the weather. During my first summer of riding in, the summer was excessively long and brutally hot with temperatures reading 100 degrees or more. Inevitably, there were also rainy days and typhoons. To cope with this, I shopped around for rain gear. Most Japanese people wear a suit with pants and a jacket. In fact, my company had such a suit which the office girls donned to ride the company bicycle to the post office on rainy days. It was a hideous thing that they all hated because it was ancient, over-sized (it was clearly designed for men) and dirty yellow.

My boss used to ride a scooter to work on Saturdays back then and he also wore one of these. He told me that such suits were hot and time-consuming to put on so I didn't want to go that route. I found the Moschino rain poncho pictured above at Odakyu department store many years ago. It served me very well because it is long enough to cover my legs but the fact that it's open at the bottom means you don't get really hot in it. One can also put it on very quickly. The only problem is that it has an inane smiley face on the back. I guess that it might send the message that it may be raining but I can still smile.

Eventually, I had to give up riding my bike to work because my knees started to trouble me. Also, a station opened up within 4 minutes of my office after several years so I could handle the shorter walk. My old poncho still sees some use though on those rare days when there's a typhoon and I have to go out somewhere on the bike (like today). My husband even wears it on occasion when he's in a situation where struggling to ride and carry an umbrella at the same time is out of the question. Given the choice of looking goofy or staying dry, we'll both opt for being dry.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Breath

This evening I had a lesson with "little old man" (LOM) in my 4.5 tatami mat living room (incidentally, the Wikipedia link shows the exact layout of my room in its first sample diagram which shows a square). In the past, I've had lessons with the door between the bedroom and living room open because the bedroom was the only one with an air conditioner and I'd have to leave it open in the summer heat. Since the living room now has its own air conditioner, it's most efficient to close up the living room and cool only one small room.

This definitely makes for less wasteful energy consumption but it also puts me in a smallish room without much air movement because I use the A/C on a low power, "weak" mode to keep from freezing my students to death since most of them are more sensitive to cold than heat. Unfortunately, it also pens me up in a little room with all the attendant odors of the other party. Most Japanese people are pretty clean though sometimes the women go overboard on the perfume and that can be an issue. The bigger problem though, is halitosis.

Two of my students, including LOM, frequently have halitosis and even though I sit at least 4 feet away from my students when they speak, I am constantly bombarded by this unpleasant odor. This evening, after LOM left, I returned to the living room and found that the entire room now smelled of his bad breath. I had to open it up to the other rooms and crank up the air conditioner power to dissipate the smell. I guess that such a small room will really fill up with a smell when one person is doing a lot of talking.

I'm not the first person who lives in Japan who has remarked on the bad breath of Japanese people (which does appear to be a more frequent issue than it is back home). People often speculate that they aren't engaging in adequate oral hygiene but I honestly don't believe that is the case. In fact, despite the plethora of people running around with intricate metal dental work in Tokyo, I think Japanese people are pretty meticulous about brushing their teeth and many of them brush more often than Americans.

One of my dentists told me that one of the reasons Japanese people have more teeth problems which results in more fillings and bridgework is that the water isn't fluoridated nor is much of the toothpaste. Among older people, I think there may be a greater tendency toward bad teeth because dairy products weren't consumed with great regularity in the past and people didn't get enough calcium. This is the same reason you see older ladies who are bent over from osteoporosis. Incidentally, the reason you sometimes see more metal dental work in their mouths compared to westerners is related to the type of dental work national health insurance covers. I believe porcelain crowns aren't covered under the insurance plan so you don't see many transparent fillings or bridges.

So, I don't think that Japanese people aren't brushing. I can't say exactly why there are people who seem to have fowl breath in greater abundance here but it may have something to do with a diet rich in certain types of protein (fish, tofu, soy-based foods). Protein trapped on the tongue is a common cause of bad breath and toothbrushing doesn't necessarily cleanse the tongue. It could also have something to do with the types of toothpaste sold in Japan though I can't speak from personal experience since I've never used Japanese toothpaste (we always get imports). And though I'm sure this is a somewhat controversial bit of speculation from a medical viewpoint, it could be that they just eat less often and eat less food and people with empty stomachs seem more likely to have bad breath. One of my skinny (and favorite) college professors sometimes asked me if she had bad breath because she didn't eat much and knew it could be a problem.

None of this understanding really makes my life any easier though. It's still a bit of a struggle to get through an hour with someone who is exhaling foul air in my direction, even though I know he can't help it. I find myself trying to move back further and suppressing a cringe every time LOM leans forward bringing him a good foot and a half closer to me. I guess this is just one more reason to be glad when summer is over and I can open up all the rooms and windows again. It'll be "a breath of fresh air" in more ways than one.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Seam(de)stressing


As part of my continuing quest to finish redecorating the living room, I decided I had to do something about the huge black object which is my husband's office chair. It's probably the most offensive object in the room in terms of making it feel too black on one side because of the height of the back.

There's also an additional problem which my husband has had with this chair for quite awhile. The chair is made of black vinyl in a weak imitation of leather and his legs stick to the chair when he wears shorts. In order to kill two birds with one stone, I decided to try and cover it with something brighter.

In order to accomplish this, I investigated web sites about chair covers and found out all of the instructions and existing designs are for dining room chairs. None of them had anything to offer for someone trying to gussy up an office chair so I had to improvise and work out my own way.

When one combines the difficulty of winging a pattern for such a thing with my absolutely horrible sewing skills, it's a recipe for disaster so don't judge my pictures too harshly. In fact, as part of a disclaimer about my skills, I should reveal that I got a "C" in the home economics classes that required us to sew and all we had to make was a simple handbag design (an awful-looking one) and a simple skirt and I was a straight "A" student otherwise. In fact, I think the "C" was a pity grade. I can't even cut fabric straight. Everything always ends up with a ragged edge which is actually worse than most attempts to rip cloth.

I guess I was lucky that I didn't have a pattern to work with since I don't measure anything regardless. I just sort of drape fabric over things and start pinning then hack away the extra. I should also add that I don't know how to use a sewing machine which is okay because I don't own one. I have to sew everything by hand and my stitches are perfect so long as one is aiming for zig-zags and slanted lines.

The "pattern" for the back, as it were, is like a tunic or, more simply, a huge, long pillowcase with slits down the sides. I used a king-size sheet that my in-laws gave my husband when he visited in May. The sheet is one of several and is lovely but too big for our bed (the other ones are queen size) so I decided to re-purpose it. It also has the advantage of being large enough for the chair.


The bottom is a bit like an apron that lies flat on the seat and ties around the back. In fact, the hardest part was the tie because it is between 6 and 7 feet long and I had to sew all along the length of it.


I made the tie by cutting a strip off of the sheet length-wise then folding in the sides and then folding that in half. It was so long that I had to pin as I went (I don't have that many pins).

Unfortunately, I haven't figured out how to cover the arms yet. It's important that any cover I attach be removable for washing and I'm not sophisticated enough in my sewing skills to add things like zippers or buttons. I'm sure it'll also look better once I press it at the end of the process. For now, I'm just going to see how well it holds together with my husband's sitting on it. Given my poor sewing skills, I'm more than a little concerned that it'll start falling apart from normal wear and tear.

Despite all the work, dubious results and my stabbed fingers, I found the process of making this rather relaxing. Since marrying, I haven't made much with my hands and that's something I used to do a lot when I was younger. It makes me hope I can start doing some of these types of hobbies again on a regular basis as they really do help alleviate stress.

Oppression

I'm getting tired of this thing coming up looking like a near-win on a slot machine.

There's a typhoon in the air and the air is oppressively humid today. If you could see the water molecules hanging in the air, the world around you would be a nearly opaque cube and you'd be the fly stuck in the middle. When the weather is like this, it feels like the gravity has been turned up and you just don't want to move. It's depressingly gray and it causes one to have the tendency to be crabby for no explicable reason.

After days of rain predictions and holding back on washing clothes, I had to do some laundry and hang it inside today but it's not getting any drier. In fact, the carpet in the room that it's hanging in actually feels moist when I step on it. It is as if the added moisture released from the clothing has joined forces with the ambient humidity and actually caused it to finely rain on the floor. The room also has the type of smell you associate with a laundromat...as if the smell of clean but wet clothes being dried has permeated the air for so long that the scent has penetrated every wall and floor.

One of my students is off to Syria for a few weeks and he told me that he'd rather be there in dry over 100-degree heat than here in 80-degree weather because the moisture soup makes it incredibly uncomfortable here. This is a student who hates hot weather and comes to every lesson dripping with sweat. You know it's got to be bad when someone who loves the cold weather would rather be 20 degrees hotter and dry than endure this humidity.

I know they're an environmental scourge but I'm immensely grateful for air conditioning when it gets like this.