Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Memorial Day Editorial

Sifting through advice columns and dabbling in the American media on the World Wide Web, I decided to put up a link to this particular editorial entitled, "I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose. We Were Both Doing Our Duty." For someone grieving a loss, he spoke very eloquently on the subject. I thought it would be appropriate for Memorial Day.

I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose. We Were Both Doing Our Duty.

Monday, May 28, 2007

New Links to Check Out: Serious & Not So Serious

Here's some cool websites I found/decided to inform you about.

Whatsonwhen.com is perhaps the coolest way to find events/festivals/parades and activities in your area. You go to Whatsonwhen.com, enter specific criteria into their search engine, and it lists everything happening that could possibly be of interest in your area. For example, I will be returning to the USA between July 24th and August 14th, so I simply enter the following:

Date: 7-24-07 to 8-13-07 Country: USA
Location: Denver, CO Event Type: Dorky/Nerdy

And look! There's a Renaissance Festival, 2 Star Trek conventions, a coin collector's auction, and a lederhosen swap meet! (Actually, they only listed the Renaissance Festival, but you get the idea.) They list concerts, film festivals, parades, rodeos, marathons, dramatic productions, fireworks, tourist attractions, and heaps of other offbeat stuff that wouldn't otherwise occur to normal people like yourselves. I'm kind of ticked though, they didn't have the annual Sukagawa Fire Festival listed. Time for angry letters to the webmaster!

Looking for a roomate? Wanna sell/buy a gigantic hot dog truck? Craigslist.org has been around for quite awhile. Basically, its your newspaper's classified section, only 100,000,000,000,000,000 times bigger and faster. Did I mention the global scale? Holy Cow! There isn't any kind of listing you couldn't find here!

The website working to end the occupation of Iraq, Moveon.org supports progressive causes. I don't agree with every cause they support, but I'm OK with enough of them to give the green light.

Onevoice.org is an organization of moderate Israelis and Palestinians working to build a grass roots consensus for peace and justice among their respective communities in Palestine and Israel. Refreshing and inspiring.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

News from Karen & Jodie in Australia

Just got word from Karen & Jodie Bradbury! YMCA Camp Marston folks know them as fantastic camp counselors. Coming from Newcastle in Australia, I had the pleasure of meeting them in the Summer of 2002 at (where else?) YMCA Camp Marston in Julian, California.

They were both traveling together, doing a working holiday in England, and doing the summer camp counselor thing in the USA. Karen and Jodie are generous, kind, hilarious, loud, fun, laugh-a-minute and all around very cool people. They're both great with kids. Karen especially has a keen understanding of young children, and Jodie will make an excellent pediatric nurse.

When they finished their jobs as camp counselors, they used the savings to buy a custom van with an all Budweiser interior for an epic road trip around the USA and Canada! The van was absolutely classic, and when they came through Flagstaff, I wished I could have bought the thing. In the end, they crashed on my dorm room floor, and I showed them around Flagstaff and Northern Arizona.

I took them down to a Forest Service campground off of Lake Mary Road to cook Peach Cobbler and have a campfire. Perhaps you know the place near Lower Lake Mary with the trail going into Walnut Canyon and The Pit? Anyways, when the campground leech/fee collector came, they put on this "We're charmingly naive tourists from Australia and didn't know we had to pay for this site, can you give us a break?" routine. Jodie, Karen, and Jen all shamelessly utilized vast interpersonal skills, exaggerated Australian accents, and Australian stereotypes to browbeat the fee chargers into a freebie. The fee collector apparently handn't met any Australians, because he bought it! I kept my mouth shut. Then my friend Paul Brodar showed up, along with some other counselors, and we all started singing songs! He came back and told us the sheriff was on his way! The nerve! Getting kicked out of Coconino National Forest!

Later on, they were kind enough to let me crash at their house in Newcastle for awhile. They also drove me around and gave me the grand tour of Newcastle. I left Newcastle being very impressed with their little city. They even bought me Tim Tams!

I have to concede I've been bad about keeping in touch since then. So from now on, I'm resolving to keep in touch from time to time. Karen runs a preschool in Newcastle (and I suspect is very good at her job). Jodie was finishing up nursing studies when I saw her last and is now nursing. She had planned on working in Sydney and possibly the US. With our nursing shortage in the States, she could probably make a mint.

Monday, May 21, 2007

When You Lose a Chair...

I started cleaning the other day and preparing to go home. I wanted to take some pictures off my wall, and so I went to retrieve the chair from my kitchen/dining room. It was then that I realized that I only had one chair. Now I was certain when I moved into this apartment, that there were two chairs that came as part of a kitchen table set. I looked around my messy apartment for the chair, and found that it was nowhere! Now I began to question whether there were two chairs or not.

I contacted my neighbor Dan and asked him if his apartment also came with two chairs. Indeed all of our apartments were furnished with 2 chairs and a kitchen table. Where on earth could my chair have gone? I mean, chairs have legs but they don't just pick up and walk out the door if they're unhappy. Generally they stay put, right? I mean, you lose your keys, your cell phone, pocket change, or your sunglasses, but nobody misplaces a chair! Who would steal a chair anyways? Despite Japan's ridiculously low crime rate, burglaries do happen. But who ever heard of a chair being stolen.? Cash, jewelry, cameras, computers, & consumer electronics attract thieves, not bland furniture picked out by middle aged bureaucrats.

Regardless of all these mental ruminations, I didn't have a clue where my chair was. I resolved to clean my house and deal with it later. Half an hour into my cleaning, I found my chair, buried under a pile of stuff that included my ski gear, a tarp, dirty laundry, old junk mail, and a heap of other stuff that belonged in the garbage.

I guess it was time for me to clean house!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Rainy Season Blues

The annual rainy season has got me down. In Japan, June typically brings unrelenting rain, humidity, and moisture as atmospheric pressure systems from the South come to dominate the Japanese archipelago for the summer months. Unfortunately, the ensuing battle rains on our parade for most of the month. Climate change appears to have brought rainy season a little early.

So, I'm trying to spend extra time at the gym, see friends, blog, and generally keep myself distracted to avoid going bananas. I'm (gasp!) cleaning my house today.

Universal American School, Kuwait, August

Here Ye! Here Ye!

Some of you may or may not know that I made my decision regarding the job opportunity in Kuwait. I am in fact going to take the position and go teach Social Studies in Kuwait!! After agonizing for a bit while I decided, I'm finally thrilled and excited at the prospect of being in a new place and teaching a completely different subject to a completely different group of children.

Universal American School, found in a suburb of Kuwait City, serves students from all over the world. The facility is fabulously well equipped by any standard, and would make any principal absolutely green with envy! I'm also very grateful to the school for giving me what I think will be an exciting and exhilarating opportunity. I'm committed to doing my absolute best to create an effective learning environment in their Middle School social studies classrooms.

Universal American School's website can be found here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Loreena McKennitt is Back

She's working again? WHAT?? When did this happen? November 2006 apparently. My all time favorite folk singer emerges from retirement with a new album and I'm in Japan tolerating the latest compost heap from Ayumi Hamasaki or Koda Kumi. No one bothers to inform me Loreena McKennitt is recording and touring until Craig Hanson brags about seeing her live in Phoenix. My own fault I suppose, having given up hope she would ever emerge from retirement.

During high school, she was my all time favorite Celtic folk singer. She's famous as a Canadian harpist and Celtic Folk singer. Adept at the harp, piano, and accordion, she blends Celtic, Moroccan, Turkish, Spanish, and numerous other styles inspired by her endless travels.

About 10 years ago, after releasing her absolute best album, "The Book of Secrets," she abruptly announced her retirement. She left the music scene after ostensibly being stricken with grief when her fiance died in a boating accident. She established a fund to promote boating safety and went back to her very private life. I gave up hearing more from her a long time ago.

But she's apparently back, and I can't find any of her CDs in Japan. 10 years is a long time to wait, so I suppose another couple months won't hurt. She has a website promoting her music and her record label Quinlan Road here.

I for one, am glad to see that she's back recording music.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Another Poll

The last poll I did turned out to be quite successful and very popular. I got much more reader participation than I did with the caption contest. So I'm doing another one and letting everyone guess what I'm going to do with my future. So readers, how well do you know me? Let me know what you all think and don't hold back!

What will Mr. Tyler do next?

Go back to the USA and figure out my future

Go to Kuwait and teach Social Studies

Stay in Japan and teach English in another position

Move to Florida, Become staff writer at MAD Magazine

Oh yeah, here's the link to the poll results page.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Driving Lessons in the Country

Leaving Japan in July, I have to sell my car and think I've found a potential buyer. The problem: She learned to drive 8 years ago on a closed course and hasn't touched a steering wheel since. She also can't drive clutch. The Solution: Driving lessons in the middle of nowhere!

Yes, my friend Jake's girlfriend, Junko is seriously interested in buying my car. But being the paper driver that she is, she needs some help learning to drive a clutch and some practice before actually taking to the road. So Jake and I took her to the rice field infested countryside where we taught her to drive around in farmland along Lake Inawashiro. While this is definitely an unusual thing for a used car salesman to do, I actually thought it would be kind of fun.

For somebody who has only driven about 10 hours on a closed course 8 years ago, she did remarkably well. She only stalled the car about 5 times. By the end of the day, she had most of the basics down as far as working a clutch. I had taken her to the closest spot I knew that I thought would lack any traffic. The scenic village of Konan along the shores of Lake Inawashiro fit the bill. But I think Junko is probably ready to graduate to closer areas with a little more traffic. She should be ready by July.

Only Junko took the day seriously. Jake and I goofed around the whole time. I pulled out an old trick from my dad. Do any of you know the one where you pretend the steering wheel doesn't work and start screaming while driving down the road? It's still funny in Japan.

Picture Disclaimer: The careful reader and observer will notice long rice in the picture. I took these pictures three years ago in the same area where I acted as driving tutor. Junko took the third picture with her cell phone. As you can plainly see, the area is quite pretty.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Growing Rice with Sanpei Sensei

Tyler: Wow! The dolphins are really loud today!

Sanpei Sensei: Those are frogs! Not dolphins!

Tyler: Oh Really? My Japanese is really getting bad since I quit studying!

Sanpei Sensei: (muffled laughter)

Yes folks, while I've stopped studying Japanese, I'm still learning a lot about Japanese rice farming and rural lifestyle from my PE teaching co-worker & comrade-in-fermented barley juice, Sanpei Sensei. Frogs love the irrigated rice fields that grow thick with heavy stalks of Japan's staple food. In the countryside, they can be heard all hours of the day, and get especially loud at night.

I went over to Sanpei's house in the morning to help him with the task of planting. I had imagined a laborious process lasting all day. We'd slog through the muddy field and manually position each and every tiny plant. I would develop a horrible hunched back like the scary little old ladys I see all around. My clothes would be ruined in the finely tilled soil. It would be a refreshing day of hard manual labor in the brutal sun!

It turns out the brutal sun was the only miserable part of the day, because Mr. Sanpei had a ride-on farm implement that automatically planted 6 rows of rice at a time. He just had to drive the machine through the mud while it planted. All I had to do was help with small pallets of baby rice we had to load onto the machine. Loading rice pallets onto the machine is simple work, like loading a magazine in a gun or changing batteries. Then I stood around and watched as Mr. Sanpei did all the work.

While Mr. Sanpei's machine did the work, I chatted with his son, who works at the Tower Records in Koriyama. It turns out we share mutual friends (I tried to get a date with his supervisor once). Halfway finished, something clogged a cantilever truss/ lever/mechanical doohickey on the farm implement and they both spent 30 minutes fixing it. The machine made very disturbing noises. I stood around contemplating the innards of the machine with brainless self importance.

Then they fed me lunch. Japanese country cooking includes rice, miso soup, bamboo, and a host of really green vegetables I only ever seem to find at Sanpei Sensei's house. I have a feeling it was all uber healthy. I recall reading some statistic that Japanese women in rural areas have the longest life expectancy. If they eat like this, its easy to see why.

The Old Ball Game & A Crackerjack Textbook

Most of my well informed readers are at least vaguely aware of the Japanese love of baseball. School extra-curricular activities revolve around this sport in a Japanese High School. Sometimes it makes for interesting comparisons between cultures and fascinating exchanges about the unusual relationship between the USA and Japan. Often such conversations degenerate into ethnocentric pontifications about Ichiro, Matsui, and now Daisuke Matsuzaka (As though I don’t hear their names 3 times today already). But I’ve grown accustomed to this, and even think it’s kind of cute. What I can’t stand is when the textbook turns the subject of baseball in America into something so cheesy that I don’t even want to go near it.

The textbook is usually so lame that I can’t stand to use it, but have accepted that it is a part of the job and there is little I can do to change it. I’m usually quite eager to substitute the textbook’s materials with my own activities, which by all accounts are more fun and all around way cooler than anything excreted from the New Horizon English Course company. But sometimes I’m stuck with teachers who wouldn’t dare do anything not prescribed by the publishers, and I’m trapped being a $30,000 human tape recorder.

In class today, we went through a very corny description of an animal shelter charity that generates publicity by training dogs. The dogs retrieve home-run hits that go into the water outside San Francisco’s ballpark. Like most of the lessons in our English textbooks, it didn’t fail to give a painfully simple, awkward, and downright tacky passage to learn certain key sentences. “The ball flew into the water from the ballpark. It was a splash hit! (cue fake laughter from nowhere.)” The author goes so far as to give every contextual clue that one should laugh at his wretchedly pathetic attempt at humor. The stock characters laugh in cheesy cartoon pictures around the text. The editors put “Splash hit” among the vocabulary words, as though students should memorize such drivel. If the kids don’t understand such miserably lame humor, we’ll just have to torture them with flash cards!

I don’t want to knock this charity or their cause. But the text described this rag-tag animal rescue operation playing fetch in the water as though they were a vital force critical to the perpetuation of American Major League Baseball. Without a squad of ugly, neutered mutts in the Bay area, the whole league would simply collapse wouldn’t it?

In a side box marked “Option” (codeword for pointless), they print out all the verses to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” As often happens this teacher asked me to, “Please tell about the song! Annoyed at having been told this 5 minutes before class and being left out of the planning process entirely, I told them the following:
  • Nobody sings this anymore. They only use the melody briefly during fouls and time outs and that I didn’t even sing this song during my brief, disastrous foray into Little League.
  • The text makes a mistake because Crackerjacks is plural. It’s also kind of candy that nobody eats anymore because it’s so old.
Guess who got to lead the class in a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame?”
Positive side note: This is the last time I have to teach this lesson.

Sending Hikari to Australia

In Japan, many people like to go abroad and do a "homestay" to learn English by immersion and practice speaking English. Some readers may remember when Shima Yamamoto came to stay with my family 14 years ago.

In school, kids who are especially interested in English can compete for the chance to do this through some program called Eiken. They study really hard for standardized tests, have interviews, move up different levels, and jump through more flaming hoops for a chance to go abroad. Rinse and repeat. The kids who do Eiken must REALLY LIKE English because they put up with it.

But one of my students, Hikari, set her mind to learning English long ago, and does quite well. She reached a point in Eiken where she can record a speech and have it evaluated by people who might send her to Australia, by far the most popular location for homestays.

I had been helping her with this speech during the week, and as Thursday rolled around, the time came to record the video. But Hikari hadn't realized she was supposed to memorize the speech, intending instead to read it. So before recording it, we frantically began to help her memorize it. But there was too much speech and too little time.

Kanno Sensei, an English teacher helping record the speech, suggested we write the sentences she couldn't memorize on a large piece of paper to hold behind the camera. Yoshida Sensei quickly agreed. Hikari could read the paper and not worry about memorizing. Kanno Sensei procured large sheets of paper while I frantically wrote the speech with a squeaky magic marker. While a great idea, it quickly proved impractical, as there was far more speech than paper. So we moved to an emtpy classroom and began writing on the board. We quickly encountered the same problem.

In the end, I frantically typed the speech into a powerpoint presentation on a laptop while Kanno Sensei set up the projector. Yoshida Sensei rehearsed with Hikari. Our improvised teleprompter saved the day!

Japanese schools often do odd things that would cause Western teachers to question how "student-centered" the schools really are. But I will never question the dedication of these teachers to their students' success after all the trouble they went through. Full marks for Kanno Sensei and Yoshida Sensei!!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Great People: Kyoko Nagashima

The person I most credit for my learning the Japanese language is Kyoko Nagashima. My primary Japanese language teacher for almost 2 years, she taught me 70 percent or more of the grammar and nearly half of the vocabulary I ever learned.

Almost always patient, almost always kind, and always ready to teach, she was an inspiration to me as an English teacher, as I often copied and adapted her activities for my own classes. She also inspired me with her fluency with my own tongue, setting a very high bar for myself and the other students she taught, yet managing to treat even the worst of us with class, grace and respect I didn't always deserve.
From Japan Highlights

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

My Sister Is Incubating My Nephew!

No, this isn't my sister's beer gut! In fact she can't drink any beer at all because she's carrying my nephew! She's extremely excited about the prospect of becoming a mother, and I'm excited for her. I only wish she had named the child after me! Oh well, she may have another one that she can name Tyler the Cool Cat Holler.

Noelle and her husband Seth are living in Kentucky. Seth is in grad school and Noelle is trying to make a go as an artist. I'm not sure what Seth is doing for the summer. They're both pretty cool people and seem to be happy, healthy, and excited about starting a family.

I suppose sending me this picture is her way of telling me to try and keep in touch or something. I'm becoming less and less good at this the longer I'm away. I do promise to try and call you within a weeks time in case you are reading this Noelle! Seriously though, I do love my sister and wish her all the best.

Crazy Nut on the Phone

While Japan is one of the most conforming countries I’ve been in, there are exceptions. You run across the occasional oddball. More often than not, they brighten your day. I had just finished teaching a few classes and was returning to the teacher’s staff room for a well deserved late morning break. I poured myself a cup of tea and settled into my desk. I noticed something was very wrong.

Because I’m not good at observing details, I couldn’t place it, until everyone stopped talking. At that point I noticed the phone ringing incessantly. There are typically only 1 or 2 phones in the teacher’s staff room. The Kyoto Sensei (vice principal) or his adjacent chief/accomplice the Kyoumu Sensei typically field incoming calls. But he wasn’t answering, and I noticed everyone looking at Kyoto sensei, wondering what he was going to do.

After some incessant ringing, I went up and asked what was going on. He explained about a “weird person” calling the school with ridiculous crank calls or something to that effect, so they were waiting him out. After about 5 minutes, (as far as I can estimate) the ringing stopped. Thirty seconds later, it started again. After about a minute, one teacher suggested that I answer the phone in English, which might throw him off. Several teachers grinned, and I asked the Kyoto Sensei for permission to answer. “Go ahead.” he replied, and kind of grinned himself. Here is the conversation that followed.

Tyler Beal: Hello?

Weird Person: だれであるか? 副校長どこにある?(Huh? Who’s this? Where is the vice principal?)

Tyler Beal: Uhhh… Sorry… I don’t understand Japanese. What did you say?

Weird Person: 副校長!! 副校長はどこにある?? (The vice principal !!! Where is the vice principal?!?!?!?)

Tyler Beal: Kyeoohh-toohh? You mean the city? What about it?

Weird Person: 愚かがあることを停止しなさい! 副校長があるどこに私に言いなさい! (Stop acting stupid!! Where’s the vice principal?)

Tyler Beal: I’m really sorry, but I don’t understand what you’re saying!

At this point the weird person abruptly hangs up. As I try to explain things to everyone, the ringing starts again, so I pick up.

Tyler Beal: Hello?

Weird Person: さようなら! (Goodbye!)

This was the last we heard from the crazy person.

Great Persons: Sakuma Kyoutou Sensei

Because I’m leaving Japan soon, and I’m getting very sentimental about it, I’ve decided to do some posts about people here who mean a great deal to me. Japan doesn't show very well to regular tourists on a two week stint. The country and its cities aren’t very attractive. There is a sad lack of interesting architecture. Nature and the wilderness are often tamed by swarms of buses filled with over-dressed, retirees. It’s the people who have kept me here in Japan for such an unlikely period of time. So, I’m going to write about everyone who I count as close friends and admire as happy, generous souls. So, from time to time, in no particular order and without any well conceived criteria, I bring you: Great Persons in Japan!

To start our list, I trot out Sakuma Kyoutou Sensei. I first met Sakuma Sensei when I walked into Katahira JHS 3 years ago. Kyoutou Sensei means vice principal. Organizing stuff in my new desk, he came up and started asking all sorts of questions to me in English. Not speaking the tiniest bit of Japanese at the time, I was happy to answer his questions about America and myself. I quickly determined he wasn’t just using me to practice English.

During our time at Katahira, he taught me numerous things and we even taught English together on a few occasions. A former Japanese teacher, he was always willing and often downright excited to teach me Japanese. He was also never shy about speaking English, even when it wasn’t perfect. Later on, when I could speak more, he taught me all about Japanese mythology, history, Buddhist thought (he’s a devout Buddhist), and the Chinese zodiac.

On a couple of occasions, I joined his scout troop for their UNICEF fundraisers (Scouts in Japan are coed, but have a nearly identical symbol as the Boy Scouts of America). I watched in horror as unruly children shamelessly accosted innocent shoppers for charity donations.

Sakuma Kyoto Sensei is also known for his wonderful sense of humor. Taking pictures of the school for friends back home, he immediately posed with some calligraphy he had written, (making sure to hold it upside down). He drew hilarious cartoon caricatures of all the staff members, including myself. Alas, he was transferred to Otsuki JHS about a year ago, and I haven’t had the chance to talk with him much since.

Here's to a great guy. お世話になりました!

Sailing through Golden Week

Japan’s “Golden Week” occurs during the first week of May and is one of the few times Japanese people can take a real break from work. The problem: two of the week’s five days are work days, preventing one from taking any real time off. For example, this year, one holiday falls on Monday, with people working Tuesday & Wednesday. Thursday, Friday, and the weekend constitute the only real opportunity for extended travel & recreation. But, it beats no vacation, and nobody complains about the extra long weekend.

This year, I joined Teppei Takahashi and went camping with the Koriyama Yacht Club. As we all know, yachting is a private, rich, and exclusive sport. Japan is no different, as the Koriyama Yacht Club owns a private stretch of beach along Lake Inawashiro, from which they launch a fleet of… well, 6 foot long sailboats. They have a 25 foot vessel at a nearby marina, the Worldwind, but there wasn’t enough wind to justify taking it out. To be honest, there wasn't any wind at all! We only managed get out on the water in some canoes and paddle around in the heat.

I knew Teppei Takahashi through city hall. He’s a cool guy who’s really sporty and active. He loves hiking, sailing, camping, and drinking beer. He also loves to make fun of Chloe for being a vegetarian, something quite perplexing for Mr Takahashi. A fellow English teacher in Koriyama, and mutual friend, Chloe’s vegetarianism often confounds Japanese people, who find such a lifestyle choice difficult to comprehend.

While we didn’t do any proper sailing, I met some cool people. I met a university student studying German. I also met a former student of John Fite, another English Teacher in Koriyama. Now in her second year of High School, she fondly recounted John's use of a broom as an air guitar during the school’s daily cleaning time. Having done this myself on occasion, I can personally attest to the big laughs such shenanigans generate.

I also brought my Dutch oven along and tried to cook cornbread and peach cobbler for everyone. I burned the cornbread and screwed up the cobbler. And as I’m leaving Japan soon, I gave my dutch oven away to Teppei Takahashi and the Yacht Club. Perhaps they can make better use of it than I did.

This is Teppei in the picture. John, if you're reading this, do you recognize Maki?