Monthly Archives: February 2014

Raise Up A Child In The Way

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a great place to raise a child is a crappy place to be a teenager.

This gets worse and worse the smaller the town is and the longer you’ve lived there. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. Everyone has strong opinions about everyone else’s business. Everyone is easily dragged into everyone else’s business. If you are a geek, that fact is pretty much well known and that makes it hard to do the most basic step involved in dating (lie and/or make a good first impression). Everyone knows who you are and there’s not much you can do to break out of that.

In fact, it’s fair to say that living in a small town is only one step removed from being part of a crazy dysfunctional family not able to leave their own yard.

Even here in Japan, I’ve encountered such things. When I was teaching on the Sea of Japan coast, one of my schools served a small town that was almost literally squeezed between the beach and the highway. All students seemed to share one of a few family names and all of them also seemed to share years and years of bad blood.

One week, even though it was technically illegal for me to conduct a class by myself, I suddenly found myself solo-teaching while Mr. Oguma, my Japanese English teacher, was off doing something he hadn’t bothered to tell me about. The students pretty much considered it to be free time and I found myself getting slowly frustrated and then completely frustrated.

After a couple bad classes, I finally confronted Mr. Oguma about it and he very apologetically explained that he was having trouble organizing the girls in his homeroom into rooms for the class trip. It seemed that their families had hated each other since the girls were in kindergarten and that hatred had followed the girls into junior high school. Family A refused to let their daughter room with girls from families B and C while Family D didn’t want their daughter associating with Families A, B or C. Family E was right out. Mr. Oguma was in the middle of a tense negotiation to try to find an acceptable formula.

What still strikes me about this is Mr. Oguma is a former punk rock musician who is almost as tall as I am and has an intimidating physical presence. He actually aspires to work in troubled schools, including one where a student was killed during a bullying incident, and I’m sure if we dropped him in any troubled school in the USA, he’d thrive. He remains one of the best teachers I’ve worked with. Suddenly he was negotiating with teenage girls to get them to leave school for a few days and he was having a hard time.

He assured me he was making quicker progress than their 1st grade homeroom teacher had. It had taken him three weeks of negotiating to get the girls to room together for one night on a ski trip. When I asked why he didn’t just say “You have 10 minutes to get your name on this room list or you’re not going” he assured me it was impossible as the trip was part of the girl’s education and they had to go.

A year later, during the sports day events, one of the mothers involved would directly confront one of the girls involved and call her names in front of pretty much everyone. That girl stopped attending class, even though she still went to school. She simply studied in a room by herself.

The sad part is, having grown up in a small town, I kind of understand all this.

Fingernail Flesh So Juicy Sweet

Today’s an odd one and, perhaps, a gross one, so let me apologize in advance.

Anyone who’s ever roomed with me or shared a train compartment with me or sat next to me when we were watching television knows that I’m not only a hard-core nail chewer, I’m a particularly noisy one as well and have a repertoire of slurps, smacks and squeaks that, oddly, do more to annoy than to entertain. One friend reportedly kept telling herself “He doesn’t know he’s doing it. He doesn’t know he’s doing it. He doesn’t know he’s doing it.” during a long train ride to keep from, well, she never actually said what she’d have done if I’d known I was doing it. (Which is not a very comforting thought now that I think about it.)

At least I was that way until December 3rd of last year.

Along with establishing what I hope is a good habit–posting here every day–I’ve also been working on getting rid of a couple bad habits (partly to give myself something to write about). Inspired by the stories of a couple students of Leo Babauta of the often useful and interesting, occasionally annoying and pompous website ZenHabits, I decided to focus on curing one of my longest running bad habits, gnawing my fingernails bloody.

This was not my first attempt. I’d tried everything from slapping my fingers when I caught myself chewing, to slathering bitter chemicals all over them to slowly poison myself and stop once and for all forever. Nothing worked–especially, thank goodness, the slow poisoning.

However, on December 3rd, for reasons I still can’t fully explain, I managed to make the new habit stick. I started practicing deliberate breaths whenever I caught myself engaging in autocannibalism. I’d inhale for five seconds, hold the breath for five, exhale all the air in five seconds (or so) and hold for five seconds; and then do that two more times.

Somehow it worked. It also let me be more aware of when I got that urge to gnaw, so to speak. (Not surprisingly, the internet, boredom and time-wasting were usually involved as much as stress.) I’ve slipped a couple times but not more than that. As near as I can tell, the deliberate breaths act as a kind of pause. Once I’ve got my own attention, so to speak, I can get back to work, or get back to being lazy without snacking on my eponychium. (Yeah, I looked it up. So what?)

I’m now approaching three months and want to move on to attempting to cure other bad habits. Next is, well, I’ll put that off for now and tell you about it another time, if I ever get around to it.



So Smart So Unsmart

One of the guilty pleasures of having kids is that on occasion you get to mock them. This is especially true when you have a teenager in the house as teens are so thoroughly convinced of their own brilliance that it’s kind of fun to see them stumble a bit. (This also applies to adults who act like teens.)

Last week, while She Who Must Be Obeyed was out, my oldest, Sara, was assigned to cook ramen noodles for supper. She chopped the cabbage and ham and washed the bean sprouts and managed to fry it all up without burning down the house. She then set about to boil the noodles, which according to the instructions required four minutes of boiling time. Being better at math than her father (which, for the record, is true), she quickly deduced that three packages of noodles required 12 minutes of boiling time.

Being the dutiful father that I am, I ate all of what seemed like several pounds of mushy yet tasty noodles and encouraged her to be more careful in the future. I then went to my desk and started giggling a bit.

That said, I’m hardly in a position to judge.

When I was 15 or so, the most grown up thing I could legally do was ride my bike from our house in the Golden Meadows subdivision to a grocery store I vaguely remember being called the Hayden Mercantile.

I remember one occasion where mom told me she wanted me to go the store. I grabbed my bike and started racing down the hill, wind in my badly styled, bowl-cut looking hair. Right near the elementary school, mom’s car suddenly swept in front of me and halted my progress in a move straight out of a police drama.

She pointed out two fatal flaws in my plan. One: I didn’t actually have any money to buy the things she wanted me to buy. Two: I didn’t actually know what she wanted me to buy.

If I remember correctly, I received money and instructions and bought all the required goods and delivered them as instructed. It wasn’t as much fun as it should have been, though, as mom had also pointed out something along the lines of the entire point of sending me was that she wouldn’t have to drive, which my haste had kind of required.

Even my teenage brain could understand that. But then again, as a teen, I already knew everything.

(Luckily for this blog, I’m sure I have a few more moments of brilliance like that hiding somewhere in the back of my head.)


Appy-Panic-Polly Logicals

An incident at work today has me thinking about apologies.

Today was the year end exam for one of our high school grades. As the technical staff played the CD for the listening portion of the test, it was obvious that there was something horribly wrong with the CD. Words disappeared, portions suddenly lost volume, and questions started in the middle. After the first minute, test proctors were sending reports to the office that there were problems and other people were on the phone with the main office explaining the situation. Because I was responsible for writing the test, editing the listening and burning the CDs, everyone was looking at me. I apparently had an impressive look of panic and guilt and now have passed at least three birthdays and am officially 50. (That said, my heart is apparently a lot stronger than I thought it was as no heart-attack ensued.)

I had checked the CD at home and found no problems but no one else had checked it before I turned it in, which made me even more guilty. In the end, we went to each testing room and reread the questionable portions and I said lots of apologies to every test proctor. I also tried to remember if I had a clean suit as I would need it for the lengthy apologies I would eventually have to do.

We sent someone to fetch the extra copy and, mysteriously, he never returned. It turned out that a couple late students were using the extra CD to take the test. When they finished, they said there were no problems. I then struggled to remember if I’d actually checked the copy and had accidentally marked the one I’d checked as the copy.

After testing both CDs, it turned out that there was nothing wrong with either. Instead, there was something wrong with the CD player that had been used.  (The school I work at is about to move into a new building, and rather than a spiffy sound system, they’ve been using CD players for high school listening tests.)

Now in the West, the matter would pretty much be done and we’d probably get sloppy drunk and have a sledgehammer party where we destroyed the old CD player. (And that’s just during school hours.) However, this is Japan, and I kept apologizing, as did teachers who had nothing to do with making the CD.

In my case, even though I wasn’t at fault, and hadn’t even chosen that CD player, I was responsible because it was my CD and I’m in charge of that grade and all their tests this year.

Understand, though, I wasn’t apologizing for causing the problem, I was apologizing for the trouble. The difference is subtle, but important.

Half of the problems some foreign teachers encounter in Japan can be solved with an apology. The most popular are “apologizing for the trouble” and “apologizing for the misunderstanding”. (For politicians it’s “apologizing for the misunderstanding” or “I’m sorry that you misunderstood”.)

However, being from the West, where we have a strong sense of personal justice and where our words can be held against us in a court of law, apologizing for something we didn’t do is difficult. In Japan, though, it’s often necessary.

Many years ago, the submarine the USS Greenville was joyriding for a bunch of civilians and sank the Ehime Maru, a high school fishing trainer from Japan. Nine people, including four high school students were killed. Japan freaked out, especially as no one could understand why the submarine’s CO, Commander Scott Waddle, didn’t immediately take responsibility and apologize. The apologies from President Bush and Ambassador Foley weren’t enough.

Finally, a high ranking Admiral came to Japan and apologized directly to the families and the situation calmed down, at least in Japan. Eventually Commander Waddle came to Japan and apologized.

I’ve heard of many, much smaller incidents, especially those caused by miscommunication being resolved by apologies. It’s almost a way of saying “I appreciate that this is a stressful time and I’m sorry I played a part in making it that way.” I’ve also seen people lose their jobs because they refused to apologize, even for the trouble. They would go on and on about how right the were and how wrong they weren’t, but it didn’t help. (Hell, I’ve been that person, albeit in another country.) However, when in Japan, if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, apologize, just in case, even if you know you’re not wrong.

As for me, I need to think of some suitable sweets to take to the office tomorrow as one last apology. (I also need to start marking those tests I got today…)

One Decent Moment in Athletics

Although in the past few years I’ve managed to achieve some exceedingly minor success in one sport, my athletic career and athletic abilities have always been very dodgy. This is the progeny of a lethal combination of tall, skinny, slight swayback, lack of patience and disproportionately large feet.

Oh, and there’s that lack of natural talent thing.

As a result of all that, I was not only the last person picked for any team, but there was usually some serious wheeling and dealing about who had to take me. “You take Spaceman.””No, you take him.” “Okay, we’ll take Spaceman but you have to take all our girls and give us Matt.” “You can have Danny or Wayne, but we’re keeping Matt.” Etcetera.

(NB: I went through a number of nicknames while I was growing up: Spaceman, because I like science fiction; Livery, because some semi-literate moron misread my name over the intercom when I won a free book from the library; and Deadly, because my name is Lively. Only in a small town could that latter name be an insult and a sign of weakness.)

On one occasion we were playing “Some Form of Football” (not its real name). Because there was a lack of violence and fear involved, it must have been during physical education class. As a rule, I was usually in the part of the field where little action was taking place or, more specifically, the action usually avoided my part of the field.

However, on that day, the play swung toward me. A pass was thrown and either the intended receiver or the defender tipped it but couldn’t control it and it deflected toward me. I stepped forward, caught the ball a couple feet off the ground and ran into the end zone.

I was really happy in my moment of triumph and success but I was the only one celebrating. My exhortations that “I scored. I scored.” were met by puzzled looks as everyone tried to remember whose team I was on.

I finally convinced Joel Williams, my team’s captain, that I was on his team and suitable congratulations and praise were delivered. I didn’t score again, probably ever, but knowing me I talked about that score for a quite a while.

My sports career didn’t improve much after that. I ran track in junior high school. At one point I was almost an average miler. I also played basketball in junior high school and for a year in high school. I never mastered the lay up. The more open I was, the worse it got. I eventually gave up being a player to become the junior varsity manager.

That I have a letterman’s jacket with a letter is one of the greatest jokes I’ve ever been able to pull off.


The Position of My Incompetence

Because it’s a lot of fun to live the cliche, I’ve been studying karate since my first year in Japan.

I study a style called Authentic Worker’s Karate (正伝勤労者空手道) which, if you know your karate styles, is an off-shoot of shotokan with a lot stolen from Okinawan karate. It’s called worker’s karate, if I understand it, because it was originally only taught to adults. Although it’s now taught to children, only children go through the rainbow of belts. Adults go from white, to brown, to black, to black with white stripe at 4th and black with red stripe from 6th dan and on. At 4th dan adults also get to wear spiffy black uniforms.

Unfortunately no one bothered telling me that at first.

I started studying with my friend Charles. I’m 6’2″ and he’s about 6’4″. We therefore made quite the spectacle when surround by tiny Japanese youth. We also were pretty much left training with each other. After 18 months we found ourselves still with white belts while youngsters who’d started after us had blue and green belts. (In their defense, they most likely could have kicked our butts with little trouble.) When we finally got the nerve to complain, our sensei explained about the belts and added “oh, and your brown belt test is next week.” It seems that adults are tested all the time but belt tests are special.

A similar thing happened before we earned our black belts.

Eventually, Charles returned to Canada and got “real” jobs in government while I plugged away as a teacher in Japan. I moved to Tokyo and got a new sensei. Since then I’ve earned my 5th level black belt and am, on paper anyway, a 6th dan, although I haven’t earned my teaching level which means I still have a black belt with white stripe. Along the way I’ve managed, on one occasion, to finish third in both kata and fighting at the style’s semi-annual international tournament.

Part of the difficulty is that once you achieve a key level in this style, for example black belt, they pretty much tell you to forget everything you’ve learned and you start learning what Charles and I used to call “The Black Belt S#@t”. Punches start going to the face and if you fail to block them, well, an important lesson has just been learned.

The same thing happens at 4th dan when they start teaching you to do the moves with technique and not strength. They also start teaching you to defend against four people or more. Also, on occasion, after the annual gathering of high level senseis, they modify the techniques and throw out stuff they’ve decided doesn’t work. You are expected to pick up the new techniques quickly and forget everything you’ve been studying for years.

Unfortunately, I seem to have finally reached the position of my incompetence and I’ve been a paper 6th dan for over a year. (Little mistakes have big consequences.) I also sprained a knee skiing many years ago and messed it up again doing karate. This left me with a limp and makes the basic karate stance painful to do. I also almost had my lower left leg broken by a former student who didn’t understand the difference between “leg sweep” and “Hulk SMASH!” To make matters worse, I’m now the second highest student in my dojo, which means I’m the designated punching bag when sensei needs to demonstrate a technique. (Remember, I do this for my HEALTH.)

That said, I have another test coming up in May. My goal is to be able to buy the black belt with red strip and a new black uniform–we wear the old ones until we reach a new level–soon after that. Until then, I hope the highest level student keeps having to work, leaving me the highest level student in the room.

Pointy Stabby Things

I spent the day surrounded by Japanese men and women wielding pointy stabby things. Interestingly, they actually trusted ME with the pointy stabby things.

About a hundred years ago when I was in graduate school, I developed an interest in cooking, which, for a while, was code for “mess making in kitchen” and “no, officer, despite appearances, that smoke does not require that many fire trucks”. Eventually, as I am wont to do, I became as interested in the tools and extras associated with cooking as I was in the actual cooking. This meant I spent a lot of time studying and acquiring different types of kitchen gadgets and cooking knives. That interest faded away along with a hefty chunk of my income.

After the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, I suddenly found myself assembling earthquake kits and bug out bags–yes, I can also be hired to close your barn doors after your horses escape–and this led me back to my interest in knives.

The first knives I remember owning were an Air Force Survival Knife I got from my uncle and a Boy Scout folding knife. I may still have one of those somewhere in the USA. I also still have a couple of knives I bought when I was interested in cooking and cooking tools and a Swiss Army Knife I bought right before I headed off to Albania with the US Peace Corps. Last year, as a form of tithing, I bought knives from relatively new knife makers in the USA and New Zealand. Finally, I acquired a mess of knives from a Japanese friend who was cleaning out his collection of hunting and camping knives, I now find myself in possession of way more knives than I’ll ever need or ever be able to use for barter in a serious crisis.

It was therefore only natural that I would spend the day at the Tokyo Folding Knife Show. I dragged along a Canadian friend who is one of the only other foreigners I know in Japan with an interest in knives after persuading him to buy two of the knives I’d just acquired.

We then found ourselves the only foreign men in a room of Japanese and knives. We both were impressed with the friendliness of everyone at the show, both customers and knife makers. Some practiced their English; some were very patient with our Japanese; and none had problems handing us the pointy stabby things. That included a $6,600 knife which I was happy I neither dropped nor damaged. (The Canadian, it should be noted, refused to touch it.)


Yours for only $6,600.

In the end, we each acquired a damaged factory second from a maker who, in a move that seems backwards from usual business practices, offered DISCOUNTS when he saw our interest in his knives.

We were also impressed with the fact that the show existed. Japan has strict knife laws and much of what was being sold could only be carried if we had a “legitimate reason” for carrying it. Otherwise it could only be used at home.

There’s another show at the end of March. I suspect I’ll be there as it’s nice to be around people with similar interests. If I’m not, there, look for the Canadian.


Cross Counter Cultural Costco

One of the quirks of living and working overseas is that the newness of being overseas eventually wears off. At first you’re seeking out exotic foods (whoa, they totally don’t cook their fish here; they eat their rice PLAIN; rotting beans are totally a breakfast staple) and you make “you know you’ve been in ______ to long when” lists along the lines of “you know you’ve been in Japan too long when you apologize to the ATM for having to disturb it” or “you know you’ve been in Japan too long when the thought of eating cooked fish makes you sick to your stomach”.

After a few months, that joy of the exotic wears off and you begin eating at places you wouldn’t eat back home (McDonald’s and Starbucks) and Old El Paso Taco Kits and Red Vines become as valuable as gold. I’m convinced that if Yum! Brands (it’s real name) ever opens a Taco Bell in Tokyo, there will be blood as foreigners scramble for Doritos Locos Taco Supremes and Gorditas.

After having lived in Japan way too long I find I can now spot fresh foreigners as easily as I used to spot fresh students at university. When I worked as a trainer for my company I would usually announce lunch by explaining where the different options were. I’d add that I was going to Denny’s and it was certain that any trainee that joined me had lived in Japan for at least a year.

A few years back the Lively clan headed down to Chiba to raid a Costco for cookies, cookie mix, pancake mix, flour tortillas and coffee, lots of coffee. After conspicuously consuming, we were waiting for the shuttle bus back to the station when I overheard a couple foreign men talking about working for Fluor, a management contractor my father had worked for in the 80’s.

After the usual round of “small worlds” with the appropriate nods and “yep, sure is, sure iss” the older of the gentlemen, radiating the diaphanous glow of the exotic and the new, asked me where we ate when we came down “this way”. I said that we usually ate the pizza, hot dogs and chicken wraps at Costco. He looked at me, wide-eyed and confused, as if that concept were alien to him or had never occurred to him. He muttered something about how they’d found a little noodle place and that’s where they were heading.

To be courteous, I lied and said we’d have to check it out next time we came down “this way” but his brain was clearly still trying to process and grasp the notion of eating pizza in Japan at an American big-box store. (Shopping at an American big-box store in Japan was apparently normal, though.)

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, even before I married a Japanese woman, I’d had my fill of soba, udon, somen, and ramen, cooked in ways varying from fried, to deep fried, to boiled, and had eaten more rice than I’d ever imagined I’d ever want. Sushi was basically fast food and could be had at any grocery store (including, it should be mentioned, Costco) for only a few dollars.

I eventually coaxed out that he’d been in Japan only a couple months and was going to be there for another year. I wished him the best of luck while secretly thinking “your time is coming. Your time is coming.”

I never saw him again, but I’m sure if I’d seen him a few months later he’d have been stuffing his face with pizza, hot dogs and chicken wraps while saving his Red Vines for dessert.

Here Be Dragons

Inspired by an old friend of mine–Steve Brisendine–and in desperate need of a more consistent writing habit, I’ve decided to 1) finally get a website with my name on it and 2) write something on it everyday for a year.

I’ve always been dubious of the notion of blogging as it starts with a loud and throaty “Look at me!” followed by “This is IMPORTANT STUFF and STUFF LIKE THAT!” (something like that) and that’s typically followed by “Why is no one reading me?” and hours spent studying site analytics and tinkering with SEO tricks. (A friend of mine assures me that “Britney Spears” and “thong” are useful keywords to include for SEO, although that was many years ago.)

It also assumes that I have enough to say. Unfortunately, I typically have no problems talking and talking and talking about things–and no problems swearing (you have been warned)–which has led to a number of problems I’ll probably write about some day. Writing about stuff, though, that’s different. And a bit more permanent.

What’s got my attention now are odd coincidences. A while back, a colleague of mine who is a vocal fundamentalist atheist, made a snarky comment about Mormons–I work at a company that was once owned by Japanese Mormons–and this made me think of the Mormon family that used to live across the street from me in Hayden, Colorado. That made me think of the sisters who used to live farther up the street and who used to go to church and Sunday school with me at the First Baptist Church in Hayden.

Although I had a crush on both of them at one time or another, and they had stayed at our house in Kansas for a night as they were moving across country, I couldn’t remember their names. I could only remember an incident involving a country song. The Sunday school teacher, who’s name I also don’t remember, was explaining the evils of popular music and was using, as his text, sort of, a country song about a woman getting drunk on tequila and waking up next to a man “presumably after having having slept with him” (well, duh, but he meant “slept with him” as in “knew him in a Biblical way you’re not supposed to say in church.”) although he may have actually said “after having had sex with him” with the fourth word half-whispered, half-choked on.

He couldn’t remember the name of the tequila and neither could I, a fact which, me being 16 and not fully in control of my wits–still waiting for that to happen, by the way–I announced with a repeated “Yeah, what is that?” The youngest of the two sisters looked at me and mouthed “Jose Cuervo“. I started nodding and stifling laughter and fell madly in love again, at least for a while, with her.

That scene, by the way, pretty much explains all you need to know about my religious upbringing.

Well, there was also the swing your Bible like it’s a sword until your arm gets tired so you can see how hard soldiers had to work to kill people back in the day moment, and the young man calling Vietnam veterans babies for complaining about the conflict, and the aftermath of a  scandal that pretty much drove me away from churches, but those are stories for another day.

First, there are those odd coincidences:

I kept trying to remember the sister’s names, and although I could pretty much picture them as they were, I couldn’t remember anything else about them. Then, a couple nights ago, I was chatting with my sister about an old acquaintance from Hayden who’d just died. That led to a rush of memories and she suddenly mentioned the names of those sisters and their last names and I finally could put names and faces together. (I didn’t remember there was a third sister, though, and wish to apologize to her profusely.)

That’s led to a rush of other memories and several bouts of “At the time, it seemed like a good idea” and “In God’s name and under the stars what for?” embarrassment, which in the final colossal coincidence, is basically the theme of the song being discussed in Sunday school that day.  The difference is I remember shooting out the lights and starting fights, so to speak. There were also, oddly enough, a couple kissed cowboys.