Friday, June 27, 2008

Creepy Things My Students Do and Say

Short post today, I just want to throw this out there for your contemplation.

So I'm teaching one of the three first-year classes at Mori JHS and I see one of the girls turned around doing something to her friend/classmate's arm with a mechanical pencil. What it turned out she was doing was extending the graphite of her pencil, locating a vein on her friend's arm and demonstrating, with textbook precision how, to inject a hypodermic needle in the arm.

"Wow, you're very good at that", I say.

"I practice a lot", she says.

"I hate injections. Do you really like them or something?", I say.

"Yeah, I love them. I get them whenever I can. When I go to the doctors I ask the nurses for more injections."

"You are a twisted little psychopath and I fear for your future boyfriend/girlfriend/partner and any pets you may have", I think, but don't say.

Kids these days...they're freaky deaky for sure.


Map four finished! So that makes (in order) Parkside/Outer Sunset, Inner Sunset @Irving and 9th, Cole Valley and Inner Richmond. I was at the Daiso 100-yen store on Wednesday in Oita and bought two more canvases, one about 50% larger than the previous ones and the other larger and triangular. I spent about two hours between and after classes today measuring and laying out the Castro and Duboce Triangle neighborhoods with ruler and pencil and hoo boy! This one's going to take a very long time to finish--probably as long as two or three of the previous in work hours. It's a labor of love though, and the kids love it!


Friday, June 20, 2008

If Ever I Needed A Crooked Mexican Doctor... would be now, when I'm having elementary school after elementary school shoved into my already full schedule and I need a prescription for, I don't know, some uppers that are illegal in 48 states and Puerto Rico.

"Uppers"...geez, do they even say that anymore? Oh those kooky kids and their newfangled words. Can't we just name drugs after, I don't know, dead European royalty? Like, I can go down to my neighborhood dealer and slyly ask him for an ounce of "Ferdinand" or some "Igor" or some crap like that.

Where was I? Right, little embryonic kids and their energy-sucking powers. So Japan passed some educational legislation recently extending the English curriculum to include 5th and 6th grade elementary students, but without sufficient resources to cover more teachers, or exactly what the parameters of the new lessons will be, or where the new classes will fit in the daily schedules. So here and, from what I hear, in Hita it's pretty much up to the ALTs to do the government's job and develop the program. I don't feel I'm developing much of anything though. For one thing, of the four schools I'm doing more and more frequent classes at each has a different demand for what I teach. They vary between conducting proper classes with handouts and stuff to just playing games with kids for an hour or two. Secondly and most of all...I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO TRAINING OR KNOWLEDGE IN HOW TO DEVELOP A CURRICULUM!

So I'm going out of my brain stressing over whether or not I'm going to teach the right things each outing and the kids view me as a big, moving playtoy to climb on or chase or take things from. Playing tag and all is fun, sure, but I'm so exhausted doing JHS classes in the morning and playing at elementary schools in the afternoons.

Funny thing happened on Thursday though after I conducted a couple of classes at Ota Elementary. Many neighborhoods have PA systems to alert of local accidents or disasters and whatnot, and the keepers of the speaker controls rests with the nearby community hall, fire department and school. So while driving away from school the vice principal comes on the speaker and from all directions for kilometers around I hear "Matt-sensei is leaving the our school. Let's all thank Matt-sensei for his hard work." It's gratifying to know that I rank up there in importance with earthquakes and house fires to warrant use of the neighborhood speaker system.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Belated Kagoshima Wrap-Up

The conclusion to my Kagoshima rant was neatly swept under the rug after that second post. One of the reasons for that is that I've become more active in various after school activities at Kusu and Mori JHSs. Yes, Matt is playing scrimmage goaltender for the soccer club, tossing outfield drives back to the pitchers for the softball club and painting maps with the art club. Truth be told, there's not a terrible amount more to say anyways so here goes.

The air had completely cleared on Sakurajima when I woke at 7AM on Friday so I dashed out the door as quick as possible to take advantage of the deserted morning roads and pent of energy that 12-hours of sleep will do to me. I took the slightly longer northern route around the island to get back to Tarumizu and my car, making sure to stop off at the landmark torii (shrine gate) submerged under a pyroclastic flow in 1958. The east side of the island where it's located at is a particularly chilling little hellscape as it's where the lion's share of the ash and whatnot fall or flow to, and yet it's been rebuilt over and over for no other reason than the volcanic soils make for smashing radish harvests. Less than 50 meters from the gate, in fact, you'll find a junior high. Wonder who the JET there is.

Back in the car and on the road I just wanted a nice bath so I returned to the michi no eki and hopped in, this time sans Yakuza. After that was a long and boring trip around Kinko Bay to central Kagoshima where I stumbled upon...GASP! parking behind the main library. The park next door would also do well as a camp for that night, so I unloaded the bike and headed out. First stop, as if you have to guess, was coffee at the sprawling central train station. Feeling a little bit remorseful about not paying for parking (OK, that's a baldfaced lie...suckers!) I just had to try Kagoshima's amazing network of paid bike parking. Though Japan is extremely safe for bikes regularly I welcomed the enhanced feeling of security knowing that I could lock up my baby for only 100 J-bucks a day. These barns are located all over the city, allow scooters and motorcycles too and are multi-storied (you navigate the floors by conveyor belt ramps if you have a motorcycle). After the coffee I started my never ending rambling journey in and out of every street and alley in downtown Kagoshima.

I walked for about six hours straight amongst the downtown grid taking in the city's ambiance through my pores in both a metaphorical and real sense--it was damn humid after all. It's not just that Kagoshima has more shops than Oita, the aesthetic there is way more, I don't know, liberated. Especially in the area set aside for the hip and/or sophisticated local designers I really felt like I could be walking somewhere in SF, maybe the Haight (minus the drugs) or down Valencia (minus the drugs and Mexican food). There's even a fixed-gear cycle scene in Kagoshima and a shop that services the community! As much as I loathe the damn things there's something comforting about knowing there are hipsters in Kagoshima.

Actually, the hipster shopkeeper that I started chatting up about his bike started a theme for the day: talk to absolutely fucking everybody and see what happens! The result of this experiment was the discovery that Kagoshimites (?) are incredibly chatty. My two favorite chats of the day were with Hip Hop Clothing Guy, owner of a hip hip clothing store, who was absolutely floored by the fact that my hometown is within spitting distance of Oakland, CA. To him I was a hard-as-nails bullet-dodging gangsta with a Glock under the belt of my hanging Ben Davis jeans. I would really have liked to buy at least a shirt from him if they weren't all locally designed and priced from about 5000 J-bucks up. My next favorite conversation partner was Eri, the hard-smoking, foul-mouthed catty bitch manager of a Korean food stall in the Tenmonkan entertainment district. I ended up having my longest ever convo with a Japanese person with her--about two hours straight ! And not once did I have to check my dictionary! My Japanese is really coming along, if I do say so myself. Her resume is diverse, ranging from food stall manager to kindergarten teacher to hostess club manager to factory worker and more. She knows everything about everything in Kagoshima and we kept pouring each other enough drinks to keep the gossip going and coming for a good while. Good fun I won't soon forget.

I took a short break from Eri's wackiness to try out a beer bar around the corner and was pleasantly surprised to find it properly stocked and then some. Heck, it even had a local microbrew satsumaimo (Kagoshima sweet potato) beer that I partook of in all its purple glory. I went back to Eri's Korean stall and met a jolly local restaurateur who promptly began chatting and pouring me Japanese liquor. After a spell he invited me to his restaurant, an upscale sushi joint. Really upscale. I thought that perhaps he had liquored me up before to get me to spend bank at his restaurant later, but after the umpteenth plate of fine sashimi and listening to him and his staff's corny jokes he gave me his business card and covered the bill. Are the people of Kagoshima great or what?

By this time I was pretty well three sheets to the wind so I hunkered down at a filthy yakitori stall, ordered some meat on skewers and another beer and started making drunk emails to friends. I somehow found my way back to the car after that and collapsed in the back seat and fell into a fitful sleep.

Sleeping in cars is the suck.

I woke up with such indescribable shoulder and neck pains...ugh. Without much further ado or bone cracking I just aimed at the road home and started my five-hour journey up the island via public roads. Some relatively nice and charming seaside towns along the way, a nuclear power plant, Minamata again, etc., etc.

There, wrapped that up pretty quickly. I don't expect to be able to return to Kagoshima for a few more months, perhaps not until the end of summer, but when I do it'll be armed with a camera, some new acquaintances and a map of the city indelibly etched into my brain.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

I Have Seen the Light!

Just now I while returning from a late night sojourn to Joyfull (once again, that's really how it's spelled here) for my usual rosukatsu teishoku and drink bar I saw something shiny twinkling in the stream that runs next to my apartment. At first I thought it was a foil wrapper catching a streetlight, but then another appeared and my peripheral vision caught a bunch more in someone's potted plant garden. Fireflies! I've never seen one before and they're magnificent little things up close. Like greenish-yellow LEDs with wings. Tomorrow night I'll head out to a number of (hopefully) better viewing spots, but I'm still flabbergasted by my limited light show. You hear about them your whole life, never see them, then when they show up it's like seeing a rock star in the flesh. Very cool.

Coincidentally, just before I saw them, I was reading Richard Dawkins's Unweaving the Rainbow, which deals with finding wonder and inspiration in science. At the very least I was inspired to write this post.

As with so goddamn many things in Japan though the humble firefly is slowly slowly fading away thanks to rat bastard children and their enabling guardians that allow them to catch them in nets and bottle them in mason jars for a few hours enjoyment before death. The government's concreting and development of riversides hasn't helped either, fo sho. Yet, despite the decline, stores still stock thousands of cheap firefly-catching nets this time of year. Hey, if there's a buck to be made you just know some awful human being will be there to profit off blood.

Speaking of inspiration, a few years ago I was inspired greatly by a series of paintings from SF artist Niana Liu that were on display at The Canvas (formerly at the corner of 9th and Lincoln in the Inner Sunset). The paintings were slightly stylized reproductions of the SF MUNI system map that to this day just enchants me. I love maps--no--I have a full-blown map fetish, and to me they're all works of art. That this artist art-ified the art was, like, very fucking artful to me. I would have loved to buy one, but even their modest $100-ish price tag was out of my reach in the Student Days. But they inspired me! So, in homage to Niana's great vision (and not in plagiarism of) I have started painting my own series of SF MUNI system maps on 22X15cm canvases, but in acrylics instead of her watercolor medium, which give the lines a much more thick and textured look. I'm also going for a more direct reproduction of the map with less stylistic liberties taken--for now. So I'm matching colors as best I can and leaving the font as is, but in later versions I may jazz them up.

But that's not the entire scale of the project, oh noes. The places I selected for my first wave were my old SF neighborhood haunts of Parkside, Cole Valley, Inner Sunset (these three are finished), Inner Richmond, West Portal, SOMA centered on 5th and Bryant and Castro centered on Church and Market. The next wave will consist of places that are cool, but I didn't visit too too much and include, the Mission, Potrero Hill, the Dogpatch, Duboce Triangle and a few others I haven't decided on yet. I'm rendering all these at 400% of the official MUNI system map PDF available online and that figures out to about 3-4 sq. km in each canvas, making sure never to overlap them because...I'm making a mural. A segmented mural of SF. I have a big, bare, boring concrete wall to my left right now with jack hanging on it, and since I can't hammer nails into the concrete per my lease contract I have to use adhesive hangars that hold barely a feather's weight. These are about the only things I'll ever get to put up there so might as well turn it into a gallery as well as interesting cartographic exercise.

Pics of my first three efforts when I get a new camera, as is the case with everything else.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Grey Matter Digest: My Fleeting Thoughts

Just a few things that have been on my mind lately.

My new bike came and it's quite a step up from my previous ride. Quite. For one thing it really is lighter despite being aluminum. In fact, it's so light it's almost frightening. If my hands and arse weren't pushing down on the bars and seat, respectively, I think I'd forget it was there and imagine I'm floating down the road at, oh, 50 kph. It's strange that I've ripped down a Nevada highway at 240 kph on my motorcycle and been more or less peachy with it, but when it comes to doing 50 on a flat with this Cervelo my mind gets moving a mile a minute on the lookout for merging traffic while my sweat-drenched hands reach out through the bars, forks and wheels for any twitch or upset in the pavement. I guess this cycling thing's finally ushering in an older, wiser ratcheting down of my youthful thrill lust.'s enough for me.

On a somewhat related matter, the bike couldn't have come at a better time because gas prices are shooting up here. OK, so they're shooting up all over the world, I know. What is it now in the States, $4/gallon is a deal these days? I hear Europe has $9/gallon in some places. Here in Japan it's been a real roller coaster ride these past few months. From last August when I arrived the price didn't move one way or the other by more than two or three yen, hovering at 150 for months and months. I recall telling one of my friends (Sara or Pat? I forget who it was) that while you puny Americans constantly see your gas prices rise ours stay forever constant, never adding to the anxiety of the Japanese life that leads so many down the path of train groping, piano wire mutilation and giant robot rampages.

Knock. On. Fucking. Wood. Twat.

What followed was astounding (the good variety!) followed by more astounding (the bad one!). First the legislation that backed up the Japanese equivalent of the much-hated American gas tax expired with nothing to replace it causing a 25 to 30 yen drop in gas prices. When that happened I expected the roads around here to be bedlam as people stocked up on cheap-as-sin gas and headed for weekend family trips in the country (i.e. Kusu, Kokonoe), but it didn't happen. I'm not convinced anymore that a massive drop or increase in the price of gas, maybe 50 to 60 yen, will really change the Japanese driver's habits. Perhaps that goes for all drivers, everywhere in the world. Anyways, that lasted for the better part of a month until, sometime in April I got the word that prices would be going back up the next week. Gas stations turned into scenes from the Great U.S. Gas Crunch of the '70s as people scrambled to fill little Timmy's piggy bank, the urn with grandpa's ashes, the neighbor's ficus plant pot--any available vessel--with petrol. I kinda wanted to join in, because how many times in one's life do we really get to jump on such a sensational, reactionary bandwagon? Alas, I don't drive that much anyways, what was the point.

So the prices went up again, but this time with a vengeance. Not only did the new legislation bring it back up to 150 yen, it added 10 yen to the mix! Prime Minister Fukuda caves to Japanese Big Oil and tells the populace to bend over, yee haw! What a contemptuous prick...can someone tell me how long it's been since a Japanese PM has held an approval rating over 25% for more than three months before he or his hand-picked staff of felonious, sex predator, "thoroughbred", mama's boy cronies jacked something up so bad to expose the incompetence and/or downright shadiness of the entire legislature? Check the history books (yes, I've read two books on the subject this year) and you'll see that post-WWII Japan was riding a unique wave of pacifism, loss, remorse, joy for deliverance from the horrors of war, and a lot of other emotions that most people forget about after that seventh beer, that new and beautiful forms of self-governance were in reach...right up to the point where the U.S. squashed them and decided instead to install a crony government and use the nation as a shield against communist China and Russia. America...fuck yeah!

I am so off course now.

So gas went up again last week another 10 yen to bring the grand total to 170/liter or approximately $6.80/gallon. It's a good thing my new bike came.

Last random thought, the ichinensei are saving my life. What in Jeebus's name is an ichinensei? That would be "first-year student" in English. But whatever language you speak of them in they're still saving my life.

I don't know what happened to many of my old first and second-year students during the changing of the school year this spring--massive inhalation of glue or solvents perhaps?--but when they moved up a level something magical was lost. They haven't turned on me or anything, we're all still super-chummy and all that, but they have turned off their brains and I don't know how to turn it back on. If I could spend more time with them or form an after school English club like what exists at Mori High School with my fellow ALT, Rachel here in Kusu then it's certainly a possibility. But since I'm shuffling around visiting three schools once a week and four schools once every two weeks it's impossible to do it.

But these first-year students...what a breath of fresh air! I think I made a good impression on them right off the bat and, not to get too egotistical, helped them see that yes, there is an upside of learning a foreign language when you can meet all these freaky deaky people like Matt! In fact, and this is blatantly egotistical, one of my students wrote in their application essay for home stay in America that their reason for learning more English was to speak to Matt more. Touching! That girl, Mikako, will be spending a month this summer in Auburn, CA. and I'm really happy for her. She's under strict orders to bring me back a chile verde super burrito, don't skimp on the pico de gallo.