All this happened, more or less...

My name is G and these are the true stories of my adventures.

Friday, June 29, 2007

I Do Mountains


There's just no keeping me at home anymore. As soon as I have any money or leisure, I take off somewhere, which is just as irresponsible as it sounds. I spent this past week in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.

Maybe it's my roots in the tragically flat Midwest, maybe something deeper, but I've always been drawn to mountains. They're intoxicating for me -- wild, exotic, overwhelmingly beautiful.

indian lake

After a week of residency, I now consider myself an Adirondack expert. Here are some useful things to do if you're headed this way:

1) Go to Lake Placid. For starters, Lake Placid is one of very few cities in the world that have hosted the Olympic Games more than once -- 1932 and 1980. The 1932 games were only the third time the modern games had been held and the first time they were held in the US. The 1980 games were, of course, the site of that famously "miraculous" hockey game.

Just outside of Lake Placid lies Whiteface Mountain, the fifth highest peak in the Adirondacks and the highest that is accessible by car. Go. It's fantastic. And don't take the elevator to the top, you pansy. climb. My mom did it; you can do it too.


2) Go white-water rafting down the Hudson. Be extremely careful if you're going in the early spring -- they open the river the first of April -- because the standing waves can be up to twenty-five feet high. For you metric system readers, that's, um... well, it's really high.

Our go wasn't quite that intense, but it was pretty fun. We had one especially exciting moment when we nearly capsized going over a rapid -- my aunt went overboard and we had to haul her back in by her life jacket. At another point, the boat behind us got hung up on a boulder. Our guide ordered us over to the bank so we could wait and make sure they got free. When we got to the edge of the river, he yelled that one of us had to hop out and hang on to keep us from rushing further downstream. When it became apparent that the three grown men on board had checked their balls at the front desk with their car keys, I jumped out, crawled up on a rock, and held the raft. Once the other raft was on their way, I lept, with the dexterity of a gazelle, back into my place and we were off again. Quite an thrill, I must say.

One note of caution: If you do go, bring your balls with you so that the little girl behind you doesn't write sh*t about you and publish it on the internet.

3) See a moose. I haven't managed this, even though I researched the best times & places to see them and how to make moose calls (which I'm getting pretty good at). Try coming in the fall. That's what I'll do next time.


If this sign were being honest, it would say "No moose for the next three months."


Thursday, June 28, 2007

Keeping the Adventure Alive

When I was preparing for my blind leap into the Land of the Rising Sun, my mother had two reservations:

1) She was a little bit nervous about her innocent baby flying to the other side of the globe, into a foreign culture, with no knowledge of the language or customs, to a town she'd never heard of, with a somewhat sketchy job, all alone, for an indefinite amount of time.

2) She'd never gotten the chance to do something cool like that.

silhouette of the artist

Before I moved overseas, I had always been a bit shy, a bit on the fringe of things. Some of my friends would strongly disagree with this, but they are only my most intimate of friends. The average classmate or coworker of mine knew little to nothing about me and had probably never had a conversation with me.

Then I moved to Japan.

Part of my motivation for going overseas was the need to stretch my wings. You know the feeling you get in your legs if you sit in a cramped back seat of a car for too long? That feeling that makes you want to do jumping jacks and run around in circles? It was like that, only it wasn't in my legs; it was in my whole life.

So I stretched.

I don't think I really noticed the change 'til one day i was at Starbucks with Don (our usual pre-work ritual) and he asked me a funny question: "So what's it like to be the only girl in the office?"

"I'm not the only girl in the office."

"Yeah, you are."

"No... there's Erica, and both our bosses, and the Japanese staff... There are lots of girls in the office."

"All right... What's it like to be the only hot girl in the office?"

"What?! Just drink your coffee."

This very brief conversation led to deeper contemplation on my part and, eventually, to a total paradigm shift. It was true -- looks aside -- I was the only girl in the office who ever did anything. because I wasn't particularly attached to my roommates, I was out with guys from the office every night -- 80s night once a month at The Metro; fish & chips at the pub; Bruce Lee movie nights; nabe parties; discovering new hole-in-the-wall bars in Shi-jo; karaoke marathons 'til 4 a.m.; Christmas caroling (my god, whose idea was that?!); a thousand beers in dimly lit izakaya; loitering around San-jo bridge when we couldn't afford anything else; and train beers every single night after work. Inintentionally and for the first time in my life, I was right in the hub of the social scene.

For the most part, this was due to the perfect balance of yin and yang that was my friendship with Don. No one alive is more unlike me than Don. We were therefore an inseparable and flawless team. He hatched a scheme, I hopped on board, and in three seconds flat, the shenanigans were in full swing and anybody who was anybody was with us -- the idea man and his hot sidekick makin' the magic happen.

hi, dom.
Don is going to hell for being irreverent at the Kobe earthquake memorials... and several similar offenses. I'm going to hell for laughing.

You can imagine my dismay when I got home and had no Don and therefore nothing to do. Nothing to do. I now have to create all the trouble I get into on my own, which is an awful lot of work.

However, one thing I did decide was that I needed to share the new, adventurous me with my mom, who doesn't think she is adventurous at all. Today, my mom and I went white-water rafting for seventeen miles down the Hudson river. Seventeen miles. Go, mom!


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

First Impressions

Last week I got a call from my college roommate Liz. She was always very close to her family, her mom especially, so after we graduated, she moved back to Minnesota where she's been (un)happily teaching elementary school. She called me to tell me that she had done something very scary: she had made a major life decision without her mom's approval, without her mom's input even. She decided to quit her job and move down south with her boyfriend. Dad was supportive, but Mom was (naturally) upset and hurt. Liz was determined to follow through on her plan... and also terrified. Everything was so overwhelming, the packing and planning, the whole idea of being in a new place, having a new life.

So I told her the story of my first night in Japan...

My arrival in Japan went fairly smoothly at first. I was met at Kansai International Airport by a collared and neck-tied NOVA company man who took me and a few other greenhorns to Umeda Station in Osaka. There we were split up and put on different trains headed toward our respective destinations. I was aimed in the direction of Kyoto, along with another American. We were told to stay on the train until it arrived in Omihachiman. There, another company rep would meet us on the platform and take us to our new apartments. I was relieved to have a travel buddy, and we eagerly took note of every station name along the way, checking and double-checking our map to make sure we didn't miss our stop. (Once you get used to trains, missing a stop is nothing more than a slight inconvenience, easily rectified, but on that first trip, the stop after Omihachiman might just as well have been the edge of the world, a great black hole, eternal oblivion.)

Finally the train puffed into our station. We were standing at the door, backpacks over our shoulders, long before it came to a jerky halt. The door swished open and we hopped out, craning our necks up and down the platform to find our next guide.

There was no one on the platform. After some waiting and debating, we decided to go up into the station. It took several minutes to decide which staircase to take. (When we finally chose, we quickly discovered they led to different ends of the exact same, very small room. Japan: 1; Us: 0)

Still no one.

After quite a bit of nervous pacing and discussing our very limited options of action, we spotted a NOVA sign just across the street -- one little spark of familiarity. We jumped at it and started heading that way. As we were crossing the walkway over the busy traffic, we were met halfway by a young, smartly dressed Japanese woman. She asked if we were the new teachers. Ah, yes! We were! She led us through the labyrinth of a shopping mall to a tiny company office tucked in a corner and explained that our guide was running late and would arrive shortly. Until then, we could wait in the teachers' break room. We sat in the cramped room (more a hallway with a coffee pot than a staff lounge) and waited anxiously, reading every scrap of paper pinned to the wall. Finally our guide, a red-headed Kiwi with a brisk, down-to-business attitude, came bustling in and whisked us on our way.

This is where it got good.

He whipped out a little hand-drawn map and decided that the other girl's apartment was closer. We headed east on the main road. After a few minutes, we got out of the business district and wound our way through some quieter, residential streets. We were enraptured by the rows of beautiful Japanese homes with weathered wooden walls and tiled roofs, persimmon trees loaded with fruit and peeping over garden gates, hibiscus and a thousand other flowers with names we didn't know but that must have been glorious and exotic.


After about twenty minutes of walking, we arrived at the apartment. Her roommates -- two Canadians -- weren't at home, but they'd left her a welcome note. We stayed only a minute to settle her in before Kiwi was off again in the direction of my new apartment.

First, we back-tracked the twenty minutes we had just come, back down the main road, back past the office and train station, and continuing west. And continuing west. And continuing west. Shops gave way to houses, which grew sparser and sparser, charmingly interspersed with small rice fields and winding streams. About thirty minutes after we'd passed the office, Kiwi consulted his map. He was certain we were on the right road, but we hadn't come far enough yet -- we still had to cross a river and a set of train tracks. He muttered something about the map perhaps not being to scale... Are you sure, Kiwi?? We continued walking. He was a bit embarrassed and tried to make light of the situation. He pointed ahead. "See that white building there?"

"Yes..." I replied with a glimmer of hope.

"Well, that's not it either."

Very funny, Kiwi.

Finally, we crossed the river, then the train tracks. A few minutes later, we found it. This put me at over a forty-five minute walk from the train station and the city center.

Kiwi stayed just long enough to toss me the key, chide me for forgetting to take off my shoes, and turn the water heater on. Then I was alone.

Unlike the other new recruit, I had no roommates. (The girl who was supposed to be my roommate ended up not coming to Japan at all, which is another long story.) The grocery store was right next to the train station, a forty-five minute hike away. Even if I'd had food, I wouldn't have been able to eat it -- my stomach was turned completely up-side-down by the fourteen hour time change and I hadn't been able to keep anything down since the airline food. My luggage, which the company had shipped separately, was not scheduled to arrive until the next afternoon (and though I didn't know it at the time, would actually arrive a day later). This meant I couldn't take a shower at the end of my day of hiking -- I had no towels or clean clothes. Obviously, since the place had been vacant, there was no phone or internet hook-up, so though I had an international calling card, I couldn't use it. The soonest I'd be able to acquire a cell phone would be at our training session, two days later. The only pay phone I knew of was in the train station.

So there I was on the wrong side of the world, hungry, tired, sweaty, and completely alone. That's how my experience in Japan began.

(If your first night in Georgia sucks that much, I told Liz, you can call me in tears and I'll understand.)

I survived though, and things got better. Much better. Especially after I started work about a week later and met crazy Aussies at my office and a kaleidoscope of other characters.

That's how it always is when you start over new. I'm very proud of Liz. She'll be scared, but she'll be happy too.

san-jo bridge

San-jo Bridge... filled with so many memories

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Clinger Jr.

I thought that one of the big advantages of my new job would be the consistency. I would know which students I was going to be dealing with at any given time on any given day. Better yet, there would be no clingers. Even the most obnoxious of adolescents would only be in my room for fifty-five minutes a day.


You should really never make sweeping generalizations about teenagers.

I had a problem child in my sixth hour. To sum up, he watched too much South Park and thought that it was so funny, he should model his own behavior after it. This essentially meant that he spouted obnoxious, and generally racist, remarks almost constantly. Throw in a dash of potty humor and a "your mom" quip here and there, and you'll have a pretty complete picture of him.

Just as Japanese Mr. T's rambling tales of erectile dysfunction made his classmates squirm and look at him sideways, this student's crass remarks made his classmates squirm. The building tension finally came to a head one day when he turned to a girl in the back row and, for all the class to hear, referred to her Pakistani boyfriend as a (and remember, these are his words, not mine) "sand n*gger." I was completely dumb-founded. She was in the social worker's office in tears. Parents were on the phone in a rage. All signs pointed to Little Mr. T on the fast-track toward expulsion.

What happened next is a bit hard to explain. After a few days of exchanging emails with the social worker and speaking to both sets of moms and dads (which, in Little T's case is actually dad and truly Disney-style evil stepmom), I pulled him out of class. I asked him if he wanted to be expelled. He insisted fervently that he did not. Then, I explained, the only person who could save him was that little girl in the back row, so he had better fall down at her feet and beg for mercy.

This he did, though I don't know exactly how he managed it. What I do know is that it involved apologizing to both her and her boyfriend and that when he was done, she dropped all the charges against him and after that they got on like a house on fire. What's more, all my problems with his outrageously inappropriate sense of humor vanished into oblivion like a politically incorrect ninja.

Truly miraculous.


So all was well, you assume? O no. Never make assumptions about teenagers.

Very shortly after the dust settled on this one, Little T started developing another peculiar quirk. He started coming to my room on his lunch hour when I was teaching another class. He insisted that this would keep him out of trouble, as lunch hour is normally fraught with mischief-making and shenanigans of all shapes and sizes. We struck a deal -- as long as he behaved in sixth hour, he could stow away in my room during lunch hour.

The arrangement worked well for a while... 'til he came in my room one day during fourth hour. When I inquired as to where he was supposed to be, he explained that his math teacher told him to get out and never come back. Ever. She didn't account for the fact that there are no refugee camps for geometry exiles, so the child had nowhere to go. "You can send me to the principal's office," he suggested, "but I won't go -- I'll just go out to the parking lot and smoke pot with *insert names of two other miscreants here* 'cuz she threw them out too and I know that's where they are."

*sigh* So I told him to sit down and be quieter than a deaf, blind, and mute mouse. In fact, quieter than a mouse that was actually dead.

By the end of the year, Little T was attending my class for three and a half hours a day. Three and a half hours! He was a Miss G junkie! He truly must have been Mr. T's much younger and much whiter twin. The other option is that some time before Mr. T's current erectile problems, he fathered a son...



Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Clinger

Scheduling English lessons at a Japanese chain school is basically like scheduling a dentist appointment. You call. You tell the Japanese staff what day you want a lesson; she'll tell you what times are available. If you're picky about which hentai no gaijin you have for a teacher, you express your druthers, and she'll try to make you happy.

From the teaching perspective, this has up-sides and down-sides. On the one hand, it provides a lot more variety than, say, teaching mandolin lessons, which traditionally meet at the same time with the same students every week. Variety is cool. You work with a much wider range of students, and you get that little element of suspense as you stumble into the office and scan through the schedule to see what the day holds. On the other hand, you work with a much wider range of students, and you get that little element of suspense as you stumble into the office and scan through the schedule to see what the day holds.


No, not a typo. The up-side and the down-side are the same side. Have you ever seen that stupid party trick where someone takes a strip of paper, twists it, and tapes it into a loop so that it only has "one" side? It's like that. (If you haven't seen the one-sided paper, let me know. I can provide some diagrams. Also -- by "stupid party trick" I don't want you to think I'm being critical. After three or four beers, this trick will blow the mind of anyone at your party. Try it. Impress them. Be adored. You deserve it.)

The disadvantage of dentist scheduling is that you never know what you're in for. At least with mandolin scheduling, you know which days are going to be hellish and which days you will probably survive. At the chain school, you're blind-sided. (Unless you've done something to piss off the Japanese staff, in which case you can pretty much count on a hellish schedule, but that's a special exception.)

The major difference between scheduling at a dentist's office and scheduling at a chain school is that at the dentist's office, patients only come twice a year. At the chain school, they come as often as they want. They also stay as long as they want.

Now you ask, "But what sort of person would want to hang out at an English school all day long? Don't they have anything else to do with their time?"

What an excellent question, O Perceptive Reader!

The sort of person who would hang out at an English school all day long is the sort of person who has nothing else to do with his time. He has nothing else to do with his time because a) he has no job (typically because he is emotionally or mentally unable to keep one); b) he has no family (or they have long since abandoned him); c) he has no friends (see previous brackets); and d) at least at the English school, people will talk to him, even if it's because they're being paid to.

I'm serious; if I was trying to be funny, it would be cruel. This is all very true. It's also very sad. A simple truth in Japan -- if you are a misfit, there is absolutely nowhere for you to even pretend that you fit. You might as well hang out with those freak foreigners.

And so they do.

I call them "clingers," though they have a variety of more colorful labels as well. Every branch of every chain school has at least one -- because I was in a mid-sized branch in a mid-sized city, we had a handful of them. We also, just because we were lucky, had their king.

This is not bragging -- I worked for an incredibly large chain school and this man, T-san, (or "Mr T" as we call him) has the longest running student career on the books. He started when the chain school opened its first branch twenty years ago. TWENTY YEARS AGO. And for twenty years, every Sunday, he's scheduled as many lessons as he could manage and stayed all day long. He can do this because somebody had the clever idea to put in an English conversation room where students can just hang out when they don't have an official lesson and speak English at each other under the casual supervision of an instructor. It's important to note that by "all day" I don't mean 9 to 5. I mean 10 in the morning until 9 at night. The man is a chain school junkie.

Try teaching an English lesson to a chain school junkie. For starters, even though he's been coming for twenty years, his English is still absolute crap. His ability level has "plateaued," to put it politely. That being said, he still knows the lessons in the book better than you -- but he knows them by rote, not because he understands them.

He's also thoroughly awkward. You suspect that the reason he doesn't have a job has nothing to do with his skillz and everything to do with how uncomfortable he makes people around him. Especially other Japanese people. He defies the very definition of "Japanese." If you have him in a lesson with other students, he will make them wiggle and squirm and peer at him sideways for the entire forty minutes by doing the following things: 1) He will answer the question "How are you?" truthfully in 500 words or more. 2) He will mention some incredibly intimate and un-Japanesey detail of his personal life, including any recent diagnoses from new doctors or how well his antidepressants are or aren't working. 3) He will ask intimate and un-Japanesey questions about your personal life or those of the other students, with a special emphasis on your health, your sex life, and anything else that makes you unhappy. 4) Once he has quieted down for a bit and you have finally gotten some momentum going in the actual lesson, he will interrupt, completely out of left field, to bring the conversation back around to something, well... un-Japanese.

After he's taken all the official lessons he can afford for the day, he'll hole up in the conversation room and repeat the same antics in there for hours on end.

And the worst part is, of course, you never know which Sundays you can tease your co-worker for getting stuck with him and which Sundays he's going to be ruining your lessons and contributing to the early demise of your liver.


Our office looks more than a little bit like an asylum.
Coincidence? I think not.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Note of Discouragement

I just received this email from one of my students here... one of my honors students here:

Ms G -

wahd up doe, a man, whatz crackin' lackin' but fo reel doe how u been? r u enjoyin' yo summer vacation? most of my friends r leavin' over the summer. We might move to Georgia.

- E

*sigh* An English teacher's work is never done.

Spheres of Influence

Before you become a teacher, you're always hearing about what an incredible influence they have over students. People tell you "O! You're going to be such a role model! Students will hang on your every word" etc. They tell you that, but you don't believe it.

Then you have students.

When I was teaching in Japan, I was fortunate to be in a position where I had a very wide variety of students, in terms of both age and skill. I taught group children's classes with kids as young as three and adults, in groups and one-on-one, of all ages. One of my favorites was a woman named Nobuko. She was an older lady with three grown children of her own -- a son and two daughters, all older than me. Like many retired Japanese people, she took English lessons as a hobby, but unlike most of them, she was very, very good. Her son was also a student at our office, and her superior skill in English was a constant source of irritation for him.

Because she was so fluent in English, we very rarely used official lessons from the book; we just chatted about anything we could think of -- her life, my life, men (in general and in specific), current events, and especially Japanese and American cultures. One morning, we got to talking about kimono. She was trying to sell her house and move to a smaller one, and in order to do that, wanted to unload about fifty kimono, most of them antiques. She said she wanted to give one to me. After the three customary exchanges of refusal and insistence, I caved.

Socializing with students is officially forbidden in our company. "Socializing" includes not only going out to a club with them or taking them home to bed, but any contact outside of a lesson. I believe "the giving or receiving of gifts" is stated verbatim in our contract as a forbidden form of socializing. Nobuko took this incredibly seriously and actually slipped me a note in the middle of a lesson telling me when and where to meet her. When I arrived at the appointed place and time, she was standing with a bundle in her hand. A quick exchange of bows and arigatos and, just like a real ninja, she vanished into the crowd.

The kimono, shown here, was not a simple cotton yukata like I'd expected. I got the full story the next time I saw her. It went something like this:


"This kimono was my mother's. I'm sorry it is not long. When I was married, she re-made it for me, half, so I could wear it over my wedding kimono. Also, when she did this she put a new lining in. I'm very sorry this lining is only cotton, not silk."

I insisted that it was gorgeous and perfect and flawless and absolutely amazing, as it truly was. The fact that it was lined at all made it approximately 385% more awesome than the other two kimono i owned (one blue silk that I'd bought at a temple market, the other a yukata from another Japanese friend). And the personal history of it -- unbelievable! I wonder if her son knows she gave it to me. I wonder if he's pissed.

Of course, we had to repeat another ninja ritual gift exchange when I thanked her.

But making such an impact on your students is not always a good thing. My high school students, for example, actually do hang on every word out of my mouth. They think they're really hip and independent, so they will deny this 'til hell freezes over, but it's true.

Here's how I know:

To kill a little extra time one day, I started showing a couple of my juniors how to write their names in katakana. This is a neat trick because it looks really difficult but is actually quite simple to learn.

One of the kids was getting pretty excited about it. He sleeps a lot in class, doesn't do any homework, and is generally drifting through life waiting for a lightning bolt, so seeing him get fired up about something was, I thought, pretty cool.

No, not cool.

A few days later he came to class with my sketchy little katakana version of his name tattooed on his arm. TATTOOED. FOREVER. FOR E VER!

Seriously, what are these kids thinking?

Carving a Niche

Apartment living here, there, and everywhere

My friend Josh (or "Tasmanian Josh" as I usually call him when telling stories about him) just moved from his little apartment in Shiga to a littler one in Osaka. This is the first time he's been living on his own -- no family, no roomies, no nobody. The place was completely empty, so he had to go out and do a little shopping. For the first time in his life, he now owns an ironing board.

They grow up so fast, don't they?

My first apartment in Japan was sublet by my company, way out in the middle of nowhere. I was a forty-five minute walk from the train station, grocery store, pay phone, etc. and the rent was outrageous. But on the plus side, I had sliding glass doors that led to my tatami-floored bedroom where I slept on a futon on the floor. It was all very Japanesey. (See below, left.) After a brief spell there, I couldn't handle the commute or the rent anymore, so I moved into Yamashina, a suburb of Kyoto, and lived in a much older, much more genuinely Japanese home (below, right).

simple lifemy house

If there's any doubt in your heart as to which place was more traditionally Japanese, take a quick gander at the toilets and you'll figure it out...


In both these places, I had roommates. In the apartment, she was a very cranky Aussie -- actually the only cranky Aussie I know; most of them are absolute stars -- and I was glad to get away from her when I moved. The girls in the other house were more laid back, but we didn't ever become very close as I spent most of my free time with people from my office. These roommates also worked in Kyoto, whereas my friends and I worked in the more rural Shiga, so our social circles were a little different. Still, we co-existed peacefully enough and it was with great sadness that I left our little tile-roofed, tatami-floored domicile.

Once I had secured a job here at home, I needed to get out of my parents' house. I love my parents very deeply, but living seven thousand miles away from them and then moving back in was absolutely un-rock. I started apartment-hunting via the internets (mostly the big one). I'd been sitting in one coffee shop all summer filling out job applications and it actually made me sick to my stomach to go in there, so I changed locales to a little bookstore downtown. My friend Sisi, who is the most organized and systematic person I have ever known, came with me and made pro/con lists and did math involving rent rates, utilities, and other facets of my financial life.

Sisi was extremely helpful and after exploring several different options, we found a great little place. Highlights: it's well within my price range; as long as he behaves, I can keep my cat, Benedick, here; I'm allowed to paint the walls; and none of the neighbors seem to be crack addicts, or at least, they're very quiet crack addicts.

Ben chillaxin' in our new pad

I didn't go out and buy an ironing board (I stole an old one of my brother's instead -- he has a wife now; he doesn't iron), but nothing makes you feel all grown up quite as much as living alone.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Waxing Nostalgic

Looking through some old photos and waxing nostalgic about Hikone castle, one of my favorite spots in Japan.

Here's a little taste of a place I miss a great deal...

The Turning of the Tide

So let's get back to the real focus of this blog -- my return from japan and the subsequent adventures and misadventures.

I finally got a job, but it was not the job I wanted. I spent approximately two weeks figuring out the curriculum for the alternative school math program, which is done entirely via computer as all the kids are at slightly varying levels of ability and giving a damn.

The day before the commencement of the school year -- mere hours before I'm supposed to show up and start working -- I bump into the district superintendent. He has news.

"Miss G" he says "has anybody in my office called you?"

"No. Called me about what, sir?"

"Well, we've got an opening in the English department at the high school and we want you in it."

"O, really, sir? I thought the high school didn't need any more English teachers..."

"We didn't, but now we do. What do you say?"

"Um, sure, of course, sir. That would be fantastic. Thank you."

And that was how quickly the tide turned. When I showed up early the next morning at the high school, they had a schedule all set for me -- a combination of honors level sophomores and fair-to-middling juniors. Of course, it meant that the past two weeks I'd spent preparing to teach math were now in vain and, as far as lesson planning goes, I'd spend the rest of the semester about half a step in front of the kids. A small price to pay indeed.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Anti-Climax

Just a quick note on the rest of the weekend, and a Chicago story I can't resist telling you...


We spent most of the day Saturday on the phone trying to convince people they wanted to go out Saturday night, all to no avail. An epidemic of lameness was sweeping across the entire city.

Just when all hope seemed lost, we got one taker and went out to meet him. Now, I give him major props for coming out at all, but unfortunately, he showed up in a baggy t-shirt, long shorts, and gym shoes. I would never judge a man by his fashion sense, but evidently every bouncer in Chicago would. Even with two hot chickies like us in tow, he couldn't get in anywhere. We walked for ages 'til finally one semi-polite bouncer at "Shenanigans" (which I'm told is a great place) sent us around the corner to somewhere with "a more... relaxed dress code." Thank you, bouncer. Thank you for nothing.

The place he referred us to was McFadden's, a pseudo-Irish pub. I once went to O'Hagans Irish pub (corner of Clark and Roscoe) and rather enjoyed the fact that 1) the barman was actually Irish, 2) it was full of actual Irish guys with names like "Patty" and "Colm", and 3) they were watching rugby on the tele. McFadden's was the polar opposite in an incredibly disappointing way. I could go on for hours, but I'll spare you. To sum up: it was full of douchebags. Definition of douchebag: those guys who are not attractive or interesting in any way but were "cool" in high school and haven't grown out of it. The bottom line: you should never go into a bar where they play "Livin' on a Prayer," but you should especially never go into a bar where they play "Livin' on a Prayer" and, in a terrifying karaoke-from-hell-esque scenario, eighty-seven douchebags burst into song. We were compelled to escape and ran (literally) out the door and down the street laughing.

Because we are awesome and were equipped with witty intellects and comfortable shoes, we still had a good time, but it was nowhere near the caliber of Friday night. Moral of the story: it really is who you know.

I was supposed to stay in Chicago another night, but things were so dead, I actually came home early. This shall go down in history as the least climactic weekend of my young adult life.


* * * *

Before I sign off, I've got to share a little tidbit with you about the last time I ventured over to Chicago...

Whoever Said "Getting There is Half the Fun" Never Rode Amtrak

When I lived in Omihachiman, Japan, I rode my bike fifteen minutes to the train station every morning, hopped on the Biwako 9:16, got off twenty minutes later in Kusatsu, and walked five minutes to my office. After I moved to Yamashina, I had to walk out the door at 8:50, catch the 8:53 subway from Ono, change at Yamashina Eki for the 9:05, arrive in Kusatsu fourteen minutes later, and walk five minutes to the office. Five days a week -- about $100 per month. And you could set your watch by the trains.

Imagine my dismay, then, when I rode the Amtrak this weekend. Of course, the Amtrak is a long-distance passenger train, not a commuter train, and the weather was poor, and there were other complications, and excuses, excuses. But honestly, folks, this was over the top.

I'd been told that the trains often run late (typically an hour or so by the time they've gone from Detroit to Chicago on this particular line), so when we departed thirty-five minutes behind schedule, I wasn't too fussed. I settled in next to a U of M student on his way home from Ann Arbor for the weekend, and we both listened happily to our iPods 'til he hopped off (an hour behind schedule) in Kalamazoo. A student from Western got on there and took his seat next to me -- headed home to Chicago to take his girlfriend out for a late Valentine's.

Here comes the good part. We stopped in Niles, Michigan, to let out, what? One passenger? After we'd been sitting there several minutes, the conductor announced that we'd be sitting a few minutes more. A freight train had, for some undisclosed reason, been unable to complete its trip to Chicago that night, and we were going to take some cars containing certain important "equipment" from that train and haul them the rest of the way. This little switcheroo would take approximately thirty minutes "if everything goes as planned." Ah, the great, all-powerful "IF." So hundreds of passengers (ie, people/customers/etc) sat and twiddled their thumbs so that some mysterious stuff (that is, not people/customers/etc) could get to Chicago.

Time ticked by. The fellow next to me produced three packs of Pez candy from some pocket and began pondering aloud how long one could survive on nothing but three packs of Pez candy. (On a side note, he ate them straight out of the wrapper, which I think is the first time I've seen someone eat Pez without an official Pez dispenser. I found it strangely barbaric.) Two college students behind me carried on an intense and endless discussion of their favorite films and television shows -- the longest amount of time I've heard two people talk without mentioning a single real life occurrence. They literally must have dropped two hundred names without once mentioning a person they actually know. Amazing. I was beginning to think they were from some alternate dimension in which unreality is the only reality...

Two hours after we arrived in Niles, the conductor informed us that there was a slight delay. (In case, perhaps, there was someone deaf, blind, and dead on the train who hadn't yet noticed.) The transfer of the freight cars had gone smoothly enough, but they were now experiencing some difficulty with the air compressor that controlled that rather crucial locomotive element -- the brakes. Brilliant. If we didn't get moving "shortly" (however long "shortly" might be), he assured us there were buses on the way to pick us up and take us the rest of the way to Chicago. This announcement was met with a groan from the whole assembly -- obviously, if we wanted to ride on a bus we'd have saved ourselves the money and done that in the first place.

An hour after that, there were still no buses, there was nothing to eat or drink that didn't cost you an organ, everybody who wasn't asleep was bored senseless, and worse yet, everybody's iPod batteries were in the red. Things were getting desperate. Pez boy was out of sugar, and even Siskel and Ebert behind us were groping tragically for something to talk about. Just when all hope seemed lost, the train lurched forward -- now a mere four and a half hours behind schedule, in case you weren't doing the math.

I slept fitfully the rest of the way to Chicago, but all that added weight must have slowed us down. We arrived in Chicago at 3:30 am, Central Time -- five and a half hours late. Union Station was deserted -- no commuter trains, no buses, no taxis. Those unlucky enough to not have a car waiting for them or a taxi company number in their cell phone were, as the French say, "s.o.l." and spent the remainder of the night sleeping in the station.

All told, my four-hour train ride lasted NINE HOURS and was definitely not half the fun of my weekend in Chicago. It wasn't even one one-thousandth of the fun. In fact, you could safely say it was no frickin' fun at all.

Truly, the beauty of capitalism is that a company can't do this to its customers in a civilized society. They'd be exposing their jugular directly to their competition's blade. But somehow in America, capitalism has failed in the locomotive business on a massive scale. Amtrak has no competition, and so, no blade to fear, no consequences for stopping whatever train wherever for however long for whatever reason and making no apologies about it. Welcome to Amtrack -- We do whatever we feel like 'cuz there's no other train for you to ride. Well, Amtrak, I don't care how expensive parking is -- next time, I'm just going to bloody drive.

train pulling off at a shiga station

Saturday, June 16, 2007

We Interrupt This Blog...

to bring you my very first...

Good Food & Good Times Alert!!


If you have a mouth, chances are that you like good food. That's why I've decided to interrupt my regular programming for the day to bring you a special good food alert. If you don't have a mouth, don't worry; we'll be back to the regular hoo-ha in a day or two.

I'm currently writing from the beautiful city of Chicago, Illinois (that's "ill a noy") where I'm visiting my old college roommate. More on her and the city in general later, but right now it's time for a review of the restaurant and the club where we went last night.

Alhambra -- 1240 W Randolph

Last night we dined at Alhambra, a middle-eastern restaurant on the north side of Chicago. And what a night it was!

For starters, the ambiance of the place is to die for. It's nothing like the real Middle East -- no wmd's in sight -- but it was just like a Vegas version of the Middle East. If you've never smoked hookah while watching a neon-lit belly dancer, now's your chance.

The food was just as impressive. The girl next to me ordered lamb. When it arrived, she took a bite and said, “Hey! I ordered lamb and this is chicken!” Take a quick peak at her plate (below) and you’ll see there are only two options:
1) she’s right and they slaughtered some kind of massive, mutant, chicken monster with inch-thick bones, or
2) this is the mildest and most tender lamb you will ever eat.


I ordered the lobster. Jealous? It was excellent and even came garnished with a little lobsterito. I felt a bit guilty that his young life was snuffed out just so he could sit atop my ravioli; I also hoped the big lobster filling said ravioli wasn’t a close friend or relative. Incidentally, after we finished our meal and were all out on the dance floor gettin’ arab wid it, the waiter cleared our places. For some reason, he left my plate. This meant that my little boiled friend had to sit there for the rest of the evening and watch all the festivities. Here’s a somewhat morbid picture to illustrate:


All in all, we had a fantastic time, so if you want the humas without the Hamas, head on down to Alhambra for a hookah of a good time.


The Underground

This is the hottest club in the city, or so we were assured several times on the way to The Underground. I’ve been to a few good clubs but I’m certainly no connoisseur, so I asked a cute Italian guy with us to explain exactly how The Underground got that title.

Basically, it comes down to two things.

1) It’s extremely difficult to get in. The above-mentioned Italian guy had a friend -- presumably a very wealthy friend -- who had reserved a VIP table. The reservations were for 11 o’clock, but since we were shakin’ our money-makers over at Alhambra, we didn’t get there ‘til after 12:30. Italian guy was afraid that because we were so late, we might not get in. There was also some concern about whether or not I would be able to get in, as I was wearing jeans and sneakers instead of the customary booty-hugging mini-skirt and stilettos. But have no fear, dear reader – even in sneakers I am hot enough to get into the hottest club in Chicago. We walked right past a long line of discouraged and dejected plebeians in their mini-skirts and into the club. This has gone completely to my head, by the way.

2) It’s also extremely expensive. Or so I’m told. Because we were at a VIP table, all our drinks were charged to the table, and I couldn’t even tell you what the cover was – Italian guy just handed the bouncer a wad of cash and he let us all in. Thank you, Italian guy. Thank you, bouncer.

Once you get past the security and the sticker-shock, The Underground looks, sounds, and smells like most other clubs. It’s full of sweaty, slutty, beautiful people, some of them dancing to remember, some dancing to forget.

The VIP table wasn’t even a table in the strictest sense of the word. It was actually a wooden crate on the floor near one wall. It’s primary purposes were holding drinks and marking territory, both very important aspects of a night out at the club. Having a table also allows you the privilege of a little chicky who comes around and pours your drinks, which saves you the trouble of crowd-surfing up to the bar yourself.

Just like the vicious bouncers, the rest of the staff at The Underground are incredibly diligent, especially the woman who buzzes around with a broom and towel and cleans up broken glasses and split booze. This is the first time I’ve seen such a woman in a club, and her no-nonsense efficiency contributed greatly to the safer booty-shaking of all. Thank you, broom lady.

Best for last: the most unique and impressive feature of The Underground is a gigantic Lite-Brite version of a map that stretches across two walls and includes all the countries of the world, plus lines of latitude and longitude. Seriously. The compulsion to stick little colored plastic pegs in the holes will distract you for half the evening. It’s fantastic.

Party on, my friends. Party on.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Wasting Away

Many factors, both personal and professional, influenced the timing of my return to the US. It's no secret that our economy is in a bit of a shambles, and teaching jobs are hard to come by. You can get a job pretty easily if you're willing to move out into the foothills of Tennessee or to a dark alley somewhere in New York, but why risk your health when you can move abroad and get a cushy chain-school job instead?

kyoto alley

After several months in Japan, I heard a rumor that a position was opening up at my alma mater -- a bit rough around the edges at times, but a good school, close to my family and willing to pay me well. I couldn't pass up the opportunity. I had been planning a visit home anyway because one of my brothers was getting married, so I simply put in my notice at the chain-school and changed my round-trip ticket to one-way.

Well, it wasn't really that simple.

Moving anywhere, especially alone, is always a return to square one. You wipe out every aspect of your daily life and start building something new. I knew that would be the case when I moved to Japan, but I was surprised to find that startling sensation of the Blank Slate was even worse coming home, perhaps because it was unexpected.

My friends in Japan were a tight-knit group, boisterous and spontaneous and utterly free from self-consciousness and responsibility. I reluctantly left them behind and returned home to find that nearly everyone I knew had moved away or gotten married and dropped off the social radar. My parents were in town, but my brothers and sister were out carving their own niches in the world. My British boyfriend, who had originally talked about joining me in the States once he got the paperwork sorted out, ran into a million frustrations trying to get a visa. Combine that with the toll the distance took on our relationship, and we went down like a sumo wrestler made of nato and chopsticks. To top off the loneliness and listlessness I felt, the job I had come home for dissolved into legend. Perfect.

It is a well-known fact in life: if you are happy, stay where you are. Stirring things up will only leave you wishing you hadn't.


Monday, June 11, 2007

The Intro

All this happened, more or less...

I'm a teacher, sort of. Don't get me wrong -- by "sort of," I don't mean I'm that weirdo teacher you had for American history with the gigantic pink lips who pronounced Illinois "ill a noise." I'm a good teacher. And I'm frickin' hip.

I'm just not a lifer. This is one of many adventures I'm passing through.

My last adventure was to pack a bag after my college graduation and move to Japan. Lots of people from home acted like this was special, but if you do a quick blog search for something like "teaching in Japan" or "foreigner in Japan" or I''m a gaijin," you'll see that practically everybody and his red-headed cousin has lived in Japan. This is a good thing. I love Japan and I'm down with anybody who wants to live there or visit there or sit at home and have a vicarious gaijin experience through his red-headed cousin's blog.

However, what's unique about my experience is that... well, it's over. And now I'm back home trying to re-acclimate to the U.S. of A. I thought this would be a fairly quick and comfortable transition, like sliding back into bed after a shivery midnight jaunt to the toire. Turns out, it's more like crawling back into the womb. I'll let you think about that analogy for second...

The web is well supplied with blogs about living abroad. This is a blog about trying to come home.

First View
Kansai at dusk