Monthly Archives: January 2015

Some of the Sports None of the Hype

I used to watch Monday Night Football with an elderly lady and guy with Jeff Beck’s hair. We mostly discussed literature and movies. We also ate pizza and, on occasion, watched and discussed the game.

This is the way I liked to watch sports and it’s one of the few sports-related things I miss from the USA. Well, that and March Madness (aka: the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual men’s basketball championship tournament).

(Note: there is also a women’s basketball tournament, but no one really knows much about that.)

I also miss being able to sit down and watch a random game on television and have that game NOT be baseball. Every now and then I can watch a game at my in-laws house or via the magic powers of the internet. (Don’t ask. Don’t tell.) and that satisfies my craving for familiar sports.

I even kind of miss the Super Bowl, although, once again, I think I remember family gatherings with family friends, including a guy who made wicked Southern Fried Chicken, more than I remember the games.

What I don’t miss is the endless hype, for any and all sporting events, but especially for the Super Bowl.

The two weeks before the Super Bowl is one of the most painful times to be a sports’ fan. There are random experts breaking down who is going to win using more pseudo-science than gets dragged into the global warming discussion. At some point the game became about the commercials and the half-time show. (Unfortunately, I probably have my beloved Denver Broncos and their blowouts to blame for that.)

If you’re not interested in either of the teams playing, the two weeks becomes especially long. This year at least sports fans had deflated balls to handle, so to speak, during the two weeks of hell so I hope they enjoyed the distraction.

The best thing about the Super Bowl, though, is it means it’s time to start watching college basketball and preparing for March Madness.


Comments that Leave You Speechless

When I was still in Niigata, a teacher explained to me how another teacher had explained to her that her  husband must be disappointed in her because she has small breasts.

How we got to that part of the discussion, I still don’t fully remember. I don’t even remember why we were out together. For some reason, I was in group date or group, um, thing, that involved the male teacher who’d made guest appearance in my date one time, one of my English teaching colleagues and another teacher who may have been a Japanese teacher.

We ended up at a coffee shop where I got to enjoy my expensive shot glass full of coffee and we talked about how expensive the cat poop coffee offered by the coffee shop was and if one of us would ever try it. Actually, now that I think about it, this might be the first time I remember ever hearing about cat poop coffee. (I seem to remember, though, that the coffee shop was famous for its broad selection of random coffee.)

Then, some time during the conversation the topic turned to the teacher’s breasts. (Remember, as you read the following, that we were sober.) Apparently one of the older teachers in the school had sized her up and declared that her husband must be really disappointed because she has small breast. She explained about how surprised she’d been and I asked if she’d hit him with a stun gun or just given him a good kick in the “naught bits”.

Now, the problem I had, was how to respond to something like that. “Actually, your breasts are perfect.” or “Yes, they are, but you are beautiful” didn’t actually seem that helpful (but seemed that creepy).

Mind you, she was barely five feet tall and petite so it’s more accurate to say everything about her was small. (She barely looked older than some of our junior high school girls.)

Instead I think I mumbled something about the other guy being a jerk and if it were the USA she could sue him. It didn’t help, though, when my English speaking colleague pointed out that the teacher who’d made the breast comments had a wife who had big breasts.

Once again, I was left wondering what to say.




Slip Slidin’ My Date Away With a Big Audience Watching

Sometime during my first year in Japan, long before I’d started dating She Who Must Be Obeyed, and probably during a fit of culture shock, I got word that one of the women I worked with like me and had even chased away the guy telling me. Despite alcohol being involved, and the information being dubious, I asked her out and, to my surprise, she said yes.

The plan was to go to a nearby, reasonably civilized town and hang out. She, of course, would drive. Then, when the big day arrived, I clean shaven, ironed and armed with cash, waited to be picked up. You can imagine my surprise then, when there were two other people in the car, including another man, who was one of the pair who’d suggested I ask the woman out.

I was informed that plans had changed and, in a fit of shock, climbed into the car. My first issue was that I was apparently expected to date in front of an audience. My second issue was deciding if it was still a date.

I then lost control of the events, although the Japanese teachers involved gave me the semblance of control. Somehow, and I still don’t remember how, but a causual answer to a question along the lines of “Yeah, I like to do that” was probably involved, we ended up at a game center.

After that, we ended up at a bowling alley which isn’t that bad a place to end up, especially when they actually have bowling shoes in your size. What happened next was kind of, well, not at all good.

I lined up my first shot, used my typically four step approach planted my left foot, did a two step “ice step” as if I’d just stepped on to a sheet of black ice and ended up flat on my butt on the foul line. This would keep happening. I told everyone that the approach was too heavily waxed/oiled and my shoes were too new. They, however, looked at me with a sad “poor child” look as they weren’t having any trouble. I tried scuffing my shoes, but it didn’t work.

For the record, it’s very hard to impress someone when you’re flopping around on wood boards and swearing. (But maybe that’s must me.)

In the end I just stood at the line and rolled the ball without any approach to give me momentum and my score improved.

After that, we went to lunch somewhere and then home. We never went out again, either the woman I’d originally asked or the other teachers.

Memories of Hospitals Past

I’ve caught a cold (at least that’s all I hope it is) and that’s got me thinking about how odd it is that two of my oldest memories involve hospitals.

I don’t remember the order they happened though. I also don’t remember exactly where they happened but I’ll try to tell them backwards.

I remember one time being in the hospital when I was around six or seven. I only remember this because I remember the TV show Toma coming on which usually happened around my bedtime. I remember calling the nurses’ station to ask the time because there either wasn’t a clock in the room or I had the worst powers of observation ever. (I’m leaning toward the latter.) When she told me it was nine, I shut off the TV and went to bed.

I don’t remember why I was in the hospital, but I remember having an IV and I vaguely remember seeing it in my arm after it was inserted. I also remember that the IV needle was held in place by a board, half of a medicine cup and most of the medical tape available in the USA at the time. It was, basically, the school age kid equivalent of a “cone of shame” for dogs.

I also remember learning the lesson about pulling the tape off quickly not slowly. I learned that the hard and painful way when the “arm cone of shame” was taken off.

Before that, when I was five or so, I had my tonsils removed. All I remember about that day was the surgery itself. I still remember the lights above the bed and the mask being put on my face and the ether being pumped through. (It might have been Halothane, but ether is cooler in a “Yeah, I’ve totally been doing ether since I was five” kind of way so I claim it was ether.) I remember it feeling, or perhaps smelling, like perfume and it definitely tasted like perfume. I count this as the only thing I ever remember smelling, but it may have just been the taste and the vapors in my nose tricking me into thinking I could smell.

I remember holding my breath and then finally giving in to the doctor’s instructions to take deep breaths and then count backward from 100. I think I got to 95, but I don’t remember.

The other thing I remember is gross. I remember waking up in the recovery room and that mom was there. I then remember throwing up blood.

(For the record, it’s the throwing up blood that was gross, not the fact mom was there. Also, it should not be inferred that mom’s presence caused me to throw up.)



Shop Shopper Shoppest Doubt Doubter Doubtest

I’m about to enter a camera hunting cycle. This isn’t necessarily good news. It also isn’t necessarily going to end in me buying a new camera.

Part of the reason that I hang on to stuff well past the replace-by date is that I don’t particularly like shopping. Specifically, I don’t like the way that a big a purchase tends to lead me into a temporary all-consuming obsession.

One of the things I’m good at as a shopper is not looking back. By that I mean that I’ve accepted that, when it comes to electronics, whatever I buy will be a lot cheaper in the future. I tell myself it’s cheaper than it was (more on that later), make the purchase and then never look back to see what the price became.

However, in the initial stages of a big purchase, I make a list of basic requirements and then go research crazy. I check specs and reviews and compare prices. One time a review of a camera I wanted was so negative I actually researched the comment and the commenter and found out the problem being described was caused by people accidentally activating the point and shoot camera in their bags and breaking the lens extender mechanism when it couldn’t open fully. The commenter had commented on several different sites using roughly the same language.

During the process, I change my mind several times, have doubts on the specs I require, make a solid decision and start price hunting, change my mind again, have doubts about whether or not I should just keep what I have, and then after running that cycle a few times, make a decision. However, I have learned to impose a one or two month wait before making a large purchase which leads to more soul searching. It also, on occasion, has led to an item no longer being available which resets the process back to the start.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always stop me from making questionable choices, but for the most part I’ve had good luck. My biggest mistake is, oddly, not going big. Because I’m going to keep the item for a long time, I should get the best I can get for the money I want to spend, but that one month wait usually causes me to scale back.  I also tend not to be a first adopter. I wait until whatever tech I want is a few months old and has dropped in price.

The other thing I’m good at is not being brand loyal. I tend to use HP/Compaq laptops because they have a button that lets me turn off the touch pad when I’m typing. If another brand has that feature, I’ll give it a look. I’ve generally stuck with Canon cameras, but that’s probably going to change.

Or maybe not. I may just stick with the gear I have. That’s part of the process, too.

Faster and Faster Makes Life Calmer

Today a strange man was in my house playing with my stuff. Before he left, he gave me a bill.

After a slow descent into, well, slowness, I’ve finally upgraded my internet to a fiber-optic connection. In order to do this, an NTT technician had to visit the house and start tinkering with stuff to get the high speed goodness going.

Oddly, despite Japan’s blistering speeds, I may be the last fiber-optic holdout in my school. There are a lot of reasons for this. When broadband first became available it turned out our apartment was too far away from an NTT station and was, therefore, in some sort of ADSL dead zone. We stuck with dial-up.

Also, because of expensive landline phone prices (at the time) most Japanese learned to surf the internet through their phones which means they took to smartphones quickly. It also means that Japan has some of the fastest internet speeds in the world but has few people interested in it.

Finally, a version of ADSL became available for our apartment but there was still a huge drop off. Our 50 mbps broadband was only 8 mbps by the time it reached our building. (At the time, that was still faster than the USA.)

This was such a huge improvement that for several years I couldn’t think of a good reason to upgrade even though I knew it would be a good idea. This is also a symptom of my “use it till it’s embarrassingly old” attitude toward stuff.

Then, on Christmas 2013, things began to crumble. The internet shut off for a while and then was spotty for a week. I emailed and complained and called and complained and suddenly everything was working fine.

Last October, though, everything crumbled. The connection became spotty and when it recovered it was deathly slow. One test registered a .79 mbps down and .39 mbps up. (And that was average.) My provider sent a new modem that helped mostly by curing the spottiness but not improving the speed.

It was frustrating and even our oldest was complaining about how slow things were. (I responded to this by unplugging the wi-fi hub, thus curing her problem. Sort of.)

Finally, She Who Must Be Obeyed complained and I contacted my provider who told me to contact NTT and then to contact them again once things were set up. I called NTT and asked the guy who answered to speak slowly so I could understand him. He did, at first, but the basic technique of Japanese sales reps is to bury you in words said as fast as humanly possible and then get softer and softer as they list all the possible options. It’s almost as if they’re reading the fine print on a drug commercial:

ifyouarestillabletouseyourfingersdonottauntXYZandrefrainfromusingbadlanguageinitspresence.) Sign here. Send money there.

By the time he got up to speed, I could barely hear and understand him. I told the man to call back when She Who Must Be Obeyed was available. She spoke but I could hear that hearing a Japanese voice made the guy talk faster.

All I managed to glean was that I couldn’t get the 1 gigabit per second connection I wanted and would have to settle for a paltry 100 mbps connection. Sigh.

Then today’s bit of nervousness was the fear that we’d still have the big drop off. We have some, we’re getting about 79 or 80 mbps, or about 100 times more speed than we had last week.

Now I have to think of some interesting ways to use all that speed.





Proposals Both Bizarre and Surreal

Although I’ve been accidentally and unknowingly engaged, I’ve also had two proposals that were so bizarre I still can’t believe they happened and often wonder what exactly did happen.

Of course, they all happened in Albania.

The bizarre proposal happened during my second year of service. Because I and a few other Peace Corps volunteers hung out at the US Embassy (even though we weren’t supposed to) we made friends/acquaintances with members of the embassy staff and with the military advisers assigned to work with the Albanian military. As such, we were were invited to a party at the military advisers’ residence which was a large tacky mansion in a gated area that had been reserved for the senior communist party members as a symbol of the fact that under communism “everyone was equal” and “there were no privileged classes”.

That was surreal enough.

However, during the party one of the Peace Corps staff, lets call her Margita, said she wanted to talk to me and pulled me away from the party to a quiet place. (So far, so good.) She then said “I love you” and pretty much offered to marry me. (So far, so HUH? Could you say that again?)

Mind you, Margita was cute enough that my brain was actually tripping over ways to exploit the situation. Instead my mouth pointed out that at no point during my time in Albania had she ever shown anything even resembling affection or interest. She then made the real proposal (in so many words) two years of paradise and then that would be enough of that “if I wanted”. (Wink wink. Nudge nudge.)

Because I’d already been suspicious of one relationship with someone I actually did care about, I ran through a litany of excuses. “I need some time.” “It’s not you, it’s me.” “I love you but not in that way.” “Can we actually be friends first?” Whatever I said worked and that’s the last I ever heard about that. (Although I did get dirty looks from her friends on the Peace Corps staff for a long time, making me wish I’d said “Prove you love me” or something equally tawdry.)

(For the record: this may be the first time ever that my mouth actually got me OUT of trouble.)

The surreal proposal happened on the trip to Elbasan where I was supposed to proctor an entrance exam. On the way to the vineyard where I’d drink a lot of raki, Abdul,my host, told the van driver to stop and pick up a heavy middle aged woman who was apparently hitchhiking our direction.

As we drove to the vineyard, Abdul kept making lewd remarks about what he’d like to do to the woman. I didn’t find her at all attractive, especially as she had a faint mustache and seemed badly assembled, but I was glad she impressed Abdul. I just found myself wishing he’d left me out of his interest.

Then after 10 glasses of raki (for me), we said goodbye to the vineyard staff and returned to the hotel. I was surprised the woman came along with us as she’d appeared to be heading in a different direction when we found her.

At the hotel, Abdul pulled me aside and explained that the woman would go with me to my room and let me “know her” in a Biblical sense. (So far, so HUH? Could you say that again?) Abdul said “I want you to have this experience”. And I was like 1) “Why?” and 2) “If you’re so gung ho about this do you mind if I choose? I mean, there’s a university full of women near here or, if you insist on staying creepy and surreal, there’s an all-girls high school just down the street and I have 10 glasses of raki in me so that actually seems like the moral alternative right now.” (Something like that.)

The woman went with me to my room as I tried to figure out ways to get out of it without insulting her or Abdul who seemed to be in a fugue state that was making him act out of character.

When I got to my room it was already occupied. The maid was still cleaning and the maintenance man was fixing the room light that hadn’t worked the night before (and which I’d called to complain about). The woman panicked and went away and I never saw her again. I was never so happy to see hotel staff in my life, even when they gave me knowing “you old dog, you” winks and looks.

Abdul explained that she’d got scared and he apologized that nothing had happened.

I told him to give her my best and my apologies. Sadly, I don’t remember her name. In fact, I don’t remember if anyone actually told me her name. That made it even more surreal.



A Culture Day With Lots of Spice

My first November in Nou-machi, I was drafted into cooking gumbo for an entire town.

This happened because every Thursday night I taught a community class made up of adults from various walks of life. I told them that I liked to cook and, at times, was pretty good at it. I’d even worked in a pizza restaurant for a while.

Because of this I was recruited into showing them how to make a version of Paul Prudhomme’s Gumbo Hazel. I do not remember why I chose gumbo, but I think it’s because Nou-machi is part fishing village and has excellent seafood which I thought would make excellent gumbo. Also gumbo is close enough to curry I thought they’d understand it and like it.

This led to shopping and evening cooking and everyone in the adult English class speaking Japanese instead of English. I somehow managed to pull it off, and the class was impressed enough by the gumbo that it got around to some people in the city office and I was invited to cook for the annual culture festival in early November.

That was more nerve wracking as I had to translate the recipe into Japanese and into larger portions so I could prepare the food. Once again it was a hit and I ran out of gumbo and gave away all copies of the recipe. Even old ladies were giving me a thumb’s up over the gumbo.

My only complaint was that I didn’t get a chance to try any of the other food being offered at the festival because I was too busy serving.

Over the course of the next few years I taught the adult class to make a better spaghetti sauce, peach cobbler, chili, pizza and chocolate chip cookies. Not all of the meals went perfectly, but they were all reasonably tasty. Most of the time it was fun, although I was annoyed that my adult English class always spoke Japanese and not English during the cooking lessons, even after She Who Would Eventually Be Obeyed joined the class.

During my time in Nou-machi, and for a couple years after, I heard from people that they were still making gumbo. If I leave no other mark on Japan, I taught them that much.

Now I need to teach them how to make Andouille sausage. (Once I learn how.)

Waiting For Goodness Knows What

I’ve mentioned before that although I dabble in fiction, plays are the only things I can sit still for when they’re done live. However, I’ve rarely been blown away by a play to the point I was left speechless. That happened, oddly, in Albania.

First some background. During my undergraduate and Master’s Degree days I was smitten by the works of Samuel Beckett. He’s an Irishman who wrote in French, translated his work back into English (changing it along the way) and apparently used to drive Andre the Giant to school. His works are generally very bleak and darkly comic and feature old men who talk a lot (i.e. me) and are slowly running out of things to say (again, me).

After I got to Albania, the work that most reminded me of Albania (after William Butler Yeats “The Second Coming“) was the play Waiting For Godot. It’s the story of two old bums who are waiting for someone named Godot. They don’t know what he’ll do when he arrives, they don’t know if they’re waiting in the right place, and they don’t even know if he’s already been there and left. All they do is wait and pass the time by talking about random things and complaining about their various physical ailments (which, by colossal coincidence, is pretty much what happens when a group of Peace Corps volunteers get together).

Albania, when I got there, was like that. Things had fallen apart. Everything was broken. Everyone was waiting for this thing called “democracy”. They weren’t sure what it was and they weren’t sure what it was going to do when it got there. They just knew they were supposed to wait for it. They’d been told it was a big deal.

Then, during my second year, a local theater put on a production of Waiting for Godot in Albanian. Because I had an odd connection to the Open Society Fund for Albania (Soros), I managed to score a ticket in the second row. I ended up sitting next to a fellow expat I didn’t get along with very well (well, he didn’t like me much anyway), but the ticket was free so I didn’t care.

Waiting for Godot has only five characters who actually appear and Godot who is only talked about. The set is usually bare except for a dying tree. The Albanian set had a tree made out of pipes and was uncomfortably bright as they never turned down the auditorium lights.

Although it was in Albanian, I knew the play well enough to follow along. At one point, the main bums Vladimir and Estragon are joined by the pompous Pozzo and his slave, victim, friend Lucky. As part of Pozzo’s attempt to impress the other two, Lucky is encouraged to “think” and gives a long monologue that is 90% gibberish (but still more interesting than most State of the Union speeches). The actor who played lucky killed it. He actually got a show stopping ovation in the middle of the play. (I think I was standing, too.)

At the end of the play, the audience couldn’t stop applauding and the guy I didn’t get along with and I were suddenly temporary pals (mostly because all we could say was “wow”). The cast just stood around simultaneously looking uncomfortable and soaking in the applause as if they didn’t know what they were supposed to do next.

I somehow managed to acquire a poster of the event which I still own. I wish someone had made a recording of it.



The Spirit of the Law is Not the Rule

All the talk of deflated balls and questionable tactics by the New England Patriots has me thinking about Japan and its attitude about rules in games and sports. Those attitudes can be very solid and yet kind of flexible.

In 1951, for example, Nobel Prize in Literature winner Yasunari Kawabata published The Master of Go which is a docu-drama about a famous match between a young Go player and a fading master. The match turns on a move that, while fully legal, is still kind of dirty.

This idea of fully legal yet kind of dirty also effects the sport of Sumo. In Sumo there’s a move called a henka. Basically what happens is at the initial charge, one of the wrestler’s jumps to the side and uses his opponent’s momentum against him. It is considered a desperation move and is very much bad form. Wrestlers are supposed to meet each other, in this case literally, head on. Wrestlers who do a henka are supposedly reprimanded and get a black mark in their permanent records. On the other hand, a win is a win and if it takes a henka to get a winning record then that’s a small black mark compared to being demoted because of a losing record.

Smaller wrestlers use the move a lot and it’s been argued that a henka only works if your opponent is charging out of control. In fact, I once saw a large sumo wrestler catch a smaller wrestler in mid-henka and slap him down with one arm. The smaller guy was notorious for doing the move which meant it had lost its element of surprise. I’ve also heard that on at least one occasion two wrestlers did a henka at the same time and end up facing each other from a different direction.

Perhaps the most notorious case of legal but kind of dirty involves Japanese baseball. In 1964 Sadaharu Oh set the Japan home run record of 55 home runs in a single season. After that, on three different occasions foreigners tied the record with enough games left to break the record. In each case they came up against teams coached by Sadaharu Oh himself and were intentionally walked from their first at bats. Randy Bass was so frustrated he started holding his bat backward. In 2001 I remember “Tuffy” Rhodes swinging at pitches a full meter outside the strike zone while the catcher grinned at it all. The next year Alex Cabrarera tied the record and although Oh claims he told his pitchers to throw strikes, not a single strike was thrown.

There was a some controversy about these but those of us who’ve been here too long knew that the record would never be broken as long as Oh was still managing. The record was finally broken in 2013, five years after Oh retired, by Curaçaon Wladimir Balentien who would end up with 60 home runs.

All this tends to sour people on sports. Like the master of Go, we are so disheartened by legal but dirty moves, it hurts our enjoyment of the game. At least if it’s our team that loses to them.