Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Where Did All the Muscles Go?

Behold the ravages of age. When I set forth on my North American adventure at the tender age of seventeen, I was wiry and fit. Ten years later, I returned to Japan pasty white and soft (this seems to be what happens to a lot of people when they move from Japan to North America). I reached a peak level of personal mass at 72-3kg. Even my platoon commanders’ course in the army reserves couldn’t reverse this trend. Then I returned to Japan. One year later, just a week after getting married, I was officially weighed in at 66.4kg. Then a long period of over nourishment began as my wife introduced me to a brave new world of three square meals a day. They were healthy meals but they were big, and there were three of them each time the sun rose.

For a while, I kept the consequences at bay by riding my bicycle to Oma every morning. Then it got cold and dark in the mornings, and we began staying in bed an extra hour and a half, waiting for the sun to rise.

My Brother-In-Law’s Wife Explains the Finer Points of the Irresistible Osechi Her Parents Make Every New Year

Then New Years came and I was caught up in a brutal, endless cycle of feasting. I was right back to 72-3kg. Spring is coming, and something has to be done about this. If Gaijin for Life is to be fit to carry out Bear Watch operations this season, he must be fit. He needs his muscles back!

Monday, March 27, 2006

Marooner’s Rock

Sometimes I am at a loss to discover the purposes and meanings of things around me in this little Japanese village of Kazamaura, and then it is that I must set myself to the backbreaking work of research. What possible use could a stake driven into a rock that is completely submerged at high tide be put to?

In this case I discovered the answers I sought in the pages of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Although I drive past it every time I make my way out of Kazamaura towards the big city of Mutsu, I have never yet seen it being put to its presumed use. Perhaps it was decommissioned around the same time that the Ministry of Education propagated its policy against corporal punishment in public schools.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Change of Command: Farewell to Thumper

Jamie Patterson of Accepts His Thumper Commission
Thumper served me well over the past year and a half. However, that is not enough in this day and age for a car to secure its relationship with its master. My wife has a newer, cuter car, with better gas mileage and Thumper has been displaced. When car tax time came the Elliots plotted to pay a car dealer to take him off their hands . . . Thumper, a JET-mobile of many generations, who carried long forgotten Aomori JETs to their destinations in days no longer remembered even by our fourth year PA (prefectural advisor). Nobody knows when Thumper passed from Japanese hands into the JET hand-me-down market, but he was built in 1993 when I was still a high school student at Faith Academy in the Philippines. Fortunately for Thumper, his gaijin master’s design to have him terminated was foiled by Operation Bear Watch arch-rival Jamie Patterson of The bottom line is, giving the car to Jamie was cheaper than having him junked. When Thumper’s shaken runs out in August and Jamie goes back to real life in Toronto, will he be able to find another JET to pay Thumper’s shaken and breathe new life into Thumper’s legacy in Aomori JET history? How about it, newbies?

The Official Moment of the Transfer of Ownership: Jamie-sensei Accepts Thumper’s Documents
There are a few things about Thumper that I forgot to tell Jamie. The first is that Thumper still has his winter snow wipers on, and that the one on the driver’s side is broken. It doesn’t wipe away the rain; it just smudges it around a bit. The summer wipers are in the trunk, Jamie. Oh, yeah, that’s where the summer tires are, too. Also, there was a spare key when I first got Thumper, but it proved to be weak and got twisted one time when I opened the trunk. Then, one morning in January, I locked the master key in the car near Moya Hills. Attempts to jimmy the lock proved futile, and the JAF man came to save the day. That night I went snowboarding in Ajigasawa with my cousin. The keys and a fair bit of spare change found there way out of my pockets and into the snow—an unfortunate fact that I didn’t become aware of until it was time to go home. In the end, my aunt drove out from Itayanagi to pick us up and the next day I went back to Ajigasawa with my aunt and uncle’s mechanic. We removed the lock from Thumper’s trunk, drove all the way back to Itayanagi where a locksmith fashioned a new key, drove all the way back to Ajigasawa with the new key, drove all the way back to Itayanagi with Thumper, and reinstalled the lock of the trunk. My aunt and uncle do a lot of business with their mechanic, so this one was on the house. All he charged me was the three thousand yen he had to pay the locksmith. The next day I went snowboarding with my cousins at Hakkoda and I tried to get the keys duplicated so as to avoid similar disasters in the future. Unfortunately, although I went to several key stores none of them were willing to make copies (they said they didn’t carry the right kind of blank key). The good news about my rocky record with Thumper is that I got my money’s worth from JAF (Japanese Automobile Federation). I had two flat tires covered by JAF, one of the two times I locked my keys in the car JAF sent a man to pick the lock for me, and when I ran off the road on the way home from the airport two winters ago JAF came to tow me out of the snow bank (although they didn’t cover the 70,000 yen in repairs I had to pay after crashing Thumper into a curb later that same night). When all’s said and done, Thumper is a car with a history, and I hope for Jamie’s sake that his share in Thumper’s history doesn’t cost him as much as my share did.

Why Did the Monkey Cross the Road?

To ponder that question would be an absolute waste of our time. It is sufficient to know that there were about twenty monkeys total, that two baby monkeys ran across the street before I was able to point my camera in their direction (thus robbing me of a more interesting photograph to post on my blog), and that if any of the monkeys had been run over, it would have been up to my colleagues in the board of education to come and give them a proper burial, because that’s what the board of education does when "natural treasures" are run over.

Sometimes I take pictures of monkeys in order to be practiced up in the event that I am finally successful in my Find a Bear Campaign. Yesterday’s results troubled me because if this photo is the best I could do having gotten within twenty feet of the stupid monkey, then how am I ever going to get a decent photo of a bear, considering the far greater degree of artistic pressure I should expect to be under in such a situation. On another note, as you can see, the monkeys blend into the hillsides quite nicely even without any cover from trees or bushes, and it is not unusual for people to drive by twenty or so monkeys on the side of the road without ever noticing them. For those of you who feel that this blog has become boring over the course of the winter, I promise to give further coverage on the Monkey Wars in Wakinosawa as soon as the weather warms.

For those who can No Longer Gross People Out with Ordinary Natto . . .

. . . there is black natto, made from black beans instead of the traditional soybeans. Actually, I have no idea which would be grosser to those who are altogether strangers to natto . . . black or brown? I was going to give a history of natto here but fortunately checked Wikipedia before doing so. There’s no point in me writing about natto if people are just going to go look it up on Wikipedia anyway. So here, let me help you out. You don’t even need to go to Wikipedia and type in “natto.” You can just click here and save some time.

Sewing with Sarah

As my parents were away for a week at a seminar down in Chiba-ken, Sister #4 came up to visit us in Kazamaura. Sadly, this will be Sarah Anne’s last visit for a long while since she is leaving Japan in April and will be going to university in Manitoba. Nobody in our family has ever gone to university in Manitoba. My parents went to Saskatchewan. I went to upstate New York, Philadelphia and Toronto. Sister #1 went to France and Tokyo. Sister #2 went to New Brunswick. Sister #3 went to Hakodate (Hokkaido, Japan) and Vladivostok (the Russian Far East). But none of us has ever gone to Manitoba for university before. What can she possibly be up to? I mean, has she ever seen Manitoba? I have . . . (shivers). Anyway, it was decided that this visit would be a sewing week and that Sister #4 would teach Yuko how to sew.


Now, when Yuko and I have visitors, the whole village knows it. At least, the curious portions of the village do. Interestingly, I was asked numerous times throughout the week if my wife's sister was visiting. I honestly didn't think that Yuko and Sarah Anne looked that much alike. On the other hand, many people commented on Sarah's excellent Japanese and her marvellous command and control over chopsticks, even though nobody ever thinks to comment on my wife Yuko’s accomplishments in those two areas. Odd, because Yuko has actually spent about three times as many years in North America as Sarah Anne has. Sarah Anne was born in Ajigasawa. She has never lived in North America before . . . just visited. So perhaps when I run into Nisei people back in Toronto I should complement them on their English vocabularies and on their extraordinary competence in the use of silverware . . . provided, of course, that they really have mastered such difficult aspects of North American culture. (Just kidding, David Namisato).

Putting the Finishing Touches on Yuko’s Christmas Table Cloth

Sarah H. also visited us for the first part of the week, having joined us in Misawa where I won the Peeps. Having a background in fashion and design, Sarah H. played a large role in Yuko’s sewing lessons. Unfortunately, the only pictures I have of Sarah H’s visit are of her brushing her teeth. Sorry, Sarah.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

He~y, Peeps! Misawa and the Hospitality House

I was awarded these Peeps for being on the winning side in a parlour game at Hospitality House in Misawa . . . and nobody else on my team wanted to share the prize. My wife Yuko was on the other team, so the Peeps were ours either way. They were our destiny. We had never heard of Peeps before so when we got back to Kazamaura Sister #4 looked them up on the internet. Apparently Peeps were born into this world the same year that my father was, and in the same year that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne. If you want to become an official Peep fan you can “show your Peep pride” by signing up here. I didn’t.

First, I tore a Peep asunder while the other terrified Peeps looked on, hoping to uncover the secrets of the Peeps’ physical characteristics. My first conclusion was that Peeps are weak. My second and third conclusions were that they are white and sticky.

I then put a second Peep to the edge of the sword and discovered that in substance Peeps are homogenous and infinitely malleable, like the T-1000 in Terminator 2 only less intimidating.

One trial remained to draw out the secrets of the Peeps: trial by fire. This trial quite destroyed the third Peep, but it reminded me that the full name of the Peeps is Marshmallow Peeps. No doubt a proper application of fire would open the way to the successful smorification of Peeps.

This new knowledge awakened in me the memory of a fourth trial: trial by hot chocolate.

We’re down four Peeps but I think the other six are safe in their pink sugar cocoons (well, except the one that Sister #4 got her hands on). I’m sick of them already.

Hospitality House is a Christian mission/club for servicemen in the U.S. military. Prior to this past weekend, the last time I visited the Misawa Hospitality House was when I was about ten and my father had been invited as a guest speaker. At the time, I had only tasted root beer once in my life, but I had craved it ever since. Like stick deodorant, root beer is unobtainable through ordinary Japanese retail outlets. So when “Mr. T” at the Hospitality House told me that there was root beer in the fridge and to “help myself,” I was deeply hopeful. Unfortunately, I was unfamiliar with the term “help yourself.” It sounded like another meaningless cultural phrase like “what’s up.” I waited and waited, but no one offered me any root beer. The younger kids were watching Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure so I joined them for a while . . . to my long term psychological detriment. Some of those little turkeys had cans of root beer and other drinks but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how they got their hands on them. (I should mention here that, in theory, the fridge was off limits to minors in my family and, while I was quite comfortable transgressing against that taboo in my own home, I would never have thought of doing so at someone else’s.) So I finally asked my dad about it as we were driving back to Ajigasawa and I have to admit that when I realized that I could have just walked up to the fridge and taken root beer at will I spent most of the four hour trip crying.

I hope to spend the rest of my life in Japan where there are no Peeps, where nobody knows who Pee-Wee Herman is, and where people don't say “help yourself.” And when I do go to North America, it will mostly be for the deodorant.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

I Am not an Artist ~ Just a Big Brute that Causes Little Girls to Cry

My paint-roller painting started out as a sunny landscape of hazy mountains. Then it was a mountain range at sunset. Then it became the land of Mordor.

The good news is, nobody cried during my English lesson this time. At Shimofuro Elementary School, I have to spend an entire day with one single class. Last time I was with this class there were three little girls and I taught them how to play rock paper scissors in English. The girl who lost three times in a row cried for the next two periods. Since then, one new girl moved to Shimofuro and two girls moved away, leaving a total of two. This time I just had them play with alphabet cards in such a way that, technically, nobody could lose. Obviously these kids aren’t conditioned to winning and losing the way Hebiura kids are.

In other news, Mr. Muraguchi couldn’t wait until Grace’s first birthday to buy her a cake, so he brought back an “It’s a Girl!” cake from his trip to Aomori City.

The chocolate plaque says: “Emma-chan,” Emma, of course, being Grace’s Japanese name. I promise that Gaijin for Life is not going to become a baby blog.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Trevor Greene

Note: I should have mentioned from the beginning that Trevor Greene lived and worked in Japan for seven years right after he graduated from university and that during that time he wrote a book about homeless people in Japan called Bridge of Tears. This book was short listed for an award in Japan.

Yesterday afternoon I was perusing the most recent posts on F---ed Gaijin as I sometimes do when I came across the name of an old army colleague, Trevor Greene. I had been unaware that he had had his head split open with an axe in Afghanistan on Saturday, and it came as a bit of a shock. He was a fascinating character, as his online bio shows—an author, journalist and adventurer who, before going on a tour of duty in Afghanistan, was living on a boat in a harbour in Vancouver. Following is a brief exert from the Toronto Star article about Saturday’s happening in Afghanistan:

A Canadian civil affairs officer came in peace yesterday to a destitute Afghan village, removing his helmet and laying his weapon on the ground. He sat cross-legged with tribal elders and produced a notepad, into which he began to faithfully record the people's needs.
From behind, a young man stepped forward suddenly from among the crowd of villagers and raised an axe above his head. With a single cry of "Allahu Akbar," he swung the blade into the top of the Canadian officer's head.

Apparently he’s being assessed for brain damage at a military hospital in Germany right now. I don’t remember all the guys who were on my platoon commanders’ course at Gagetown, New Brunswick during the summer of 2002, but Trevor Greene was a hard guy to forget. First of all, he was huge. I remember one time I was waiting patiently in line with him and another young officer named Lo to get into Sweet Waters or Upper Deck or one of those bars in Fredericton. We were, um . . . pleasantly buzzed and in a placid frame of mind. . . when we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a whirlwind of bouncers and super drunk big fat dudes battling in the entry way. Good old Greene stepped in front of Lo and me (presumably because he was twice as big as us and felt responsible in a big brotherly sort of way) and spread his arms with the expression of someone trying very hard to concentrate on an important task, allowing Lo and me to carry on in our carefree “zone” without fear of becoming collateral damage. Also, Greene and I were the only two guys on our course who had lived in Japan and spoke Japanese. Sometimes we would call out drill and cadence in Japanese just for a change and to show those Francos that you don’t need to speak French to be bilingual (or, in Greene’s case, trilingual). Because of his gigantic personality and sincere sense of humour, Greene was by far the most popular course candidate with the staff. So we were all astonished at the end of the summer when he was failed twice for his command roles in defensive withdrawals. Then, for his third and last chance on the very last night of our two month platoon commanders’ course, the staff went out of their way to ensure that his mission disintegrated into a full scale route and unmitigated disaster. Greene swore and cussed the whole way to the rendezvous point, sure that he had failed the course. Then it turned out that the staff had just been playing a joke on him and he was passed with flying colours.

It’s a real sick "joke" that’s been played on him this time, in Afghanistan. He had a fine head on his shoulders, and I pray that it will be restored to him in full. To Trevor Greene!

Elliot (me) and Lo, the Two Little Guys that Greene Shielded in the Sweet Waters Entryway

Monday, March 06, 2006

It’s a Girl! Welcome to Earth, Emma Grace Elliot a.k.a. エリオット 恵真

I still maintain that our unborn baby looks like an American space alien, but Yuko says she looks like me. “I think 恵真ちゃん (Emma-chan) looks like you . . . I think she has your facial structure,” she says.

Let the readers decide. For myself, I pity the girl who looks like me.

Now that the femininity of our offspring is determined, it is important to address a few points on nomenclature. Let the reader know, and let the hearer understand: if thou addresseth our daughter in the English tongue, thou shalt call her name Grace or, if thou be not her intimate, thou shalt approach her even as Miss Elliot. But if thou speakest Japanese, and converse with her in the language of her mother thou shalt call her 恵真. To put it less ostentatiously, Grace is her English name and Emma is her Japanese name. Her Canadian passport will carry both names, but her Japanese passport will only carry the latter, and in kanji characters. This christening brings to a close an era in which she was simply referred to as “The Kid” or, during prayer time, as “The Child Within.”

Some people have asked me what fruit stage Grace is at. That is because during our first few visits to the maternity clinic we received postcards with life-size illustrations showing us what size she was relative to a soy bean and, later, a strawberry. However, we are now receiving postcards with life-size representations of her hand.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Birthday Secrets of the Far East

This image gives the impression of a typical happy birthday for a healthy one-year-old man child. Little did my nephew know . . .

. . . what these two cakes of pounded rice were for:

the (more or less) ancient Japanese ritual of the “mochi burden”.

Suddenly, the man child senses danger! “Unhand me!” he cries . . .

. . . but tradition bows to the whining of no baby, and the man child is pacified with strawberries from his mother’s hand. If he staggers one step and then falls under the one shou (1.8 litres) of rice cake, he will grow to be a sturdy youth.

Now that the rite is over, he is free to indulge in his presents . . .

. . . until Uncle Luke interferes.

The nephew has the last laugh, though, as he delves deep into his human nature and unleashes the destructive forces found therein.