Saturday, August 12, 2023

In All Fairness, Revisited

 So, you finish school–whether that journey ends in high school, college, or graduate studies–and time does its relentless march.

In 2009, I moved to Japan, where my job at an international school required me to fly back to Tokyo before the fair for staff meetings each year.

My 20s came and went, as did most of my 30s.

Somewhere during that time, I got married and had two children.

Then, in 2022, my family moved from Tokyo to the U.S., settling down the road from where I had grown up.

Our visit to the fair–the first time ever for my wife and children–was my first in 14 years.

We visited again today in 2023, nearly 16 years since I wrote my original “In All Fairness” essay back in 2007 (feel free to read if you have about 15 minutes to spare, and please bear in mind that I was 21 when I wrote it), and I feel like I have enough to go off of now to write an addition.

Fair Enough: The Actual Adult Years

For a few years, I attended the fair vicariously through the pictures and updates that my mom, my sister, or my friends would send me. 

2011–the summer my sister left for college–turned out to be my parents’ last time to bring horses to the NWW fair, bringing a 20-year tradition to a close.

So, my return to the fair was as a visitor, and not a worker. As an adult in his late 30s, I couldn’t help but see the fair through the eyes of my young children. Things that had become so much part of the background noise during all of those years that I spent my week at the fair suddenly became new and interesting again:

I never realized how cool all of the tractors on display were! I also never realized how expensive a new tractor could be.

I am also partial to the dairy barn, as well as the goats, ducks, and chickens.

Like my kids, I marveled at the glitzy carnival rides, food vendors, and stands full of random knick-knacks. Unlike my kids, I noticed the price-tags and implemented a “just browsing policy”, except for a giant pink owl balloon for my daughter which cost about a third of my childrens’ monthly health insurance premium. 

This year, my mom treated the kids (and my reluctant dad and myself) to the Ferris Wheel, which hits differently when you’re a bit more aware of your own mortality. But the kids had fun, so some of that childlike wonder wore off on me.

The food vendors also hit differently when you’ve developed lactose intolerance, lost the quick metabolism you had in high school, and need to keep your cholesterol in the back of your mind. I did manage to enjoy a cheeseburger and curly fries from the Lynden Christian food booth, though. 

If going to the fair as a teenager is a place of “hellos”, catching up with friends before school starts to compare class schedules and share summer stories, and going to the fair as a college student is a place of “goodbyes” before you scatter to the winds, going to the fair as a 30-something is a place of “do I know that person?s”, seeing faces that look familiar, but it’s been 20 years, so you’re just not sure.  

That applies to more than the people–it’s like walking down a funhouse mirror hall of memories, where the familiar and the unfamiliar collide. New buildings and displays have gone up since 2008, and some have come down. The old dairy barn is now the site of a brilliant antique car display. The stalls from our family’s Haflinger Horse display–originally built by my Grandpa, then remodeled by a family friend, both now passed on–features a local farmer’s mules. Change upon change…

Going to the fair as a 30-something means the experience is invariably tempered by the kinds of community-wide worries that seldom cross the mind of a child: noticing that the Saturday crowds are smaller than they used to be; noticing that the display of sewed goods is confined to a small corner, and there are fewer quilts on display from only a handful of quilters; noticing that even the carnival section has downsized to the extent that there is no longer even a traditional carousel. You find yourself wondering about the viability and future of the fair as an institution, whether this is just part of the slow process of rebuilding post-pandemic, or part of a trend of decline. Will my children be able to experience the fair like I did?

The new Farming for Life exhibit is an encouraging sign of life and hope: I spent several hours browsing it last year, and decided to bring my 9th graders on a field trip for Geography class later on in the Spring. What I love about the exhibit is that it situates the fair-goer into a context much bigger than themselves: whether you are a Whatcom County resident, or a visitor, there’s a decent chance that you’ve enjoyed dairy or produce from Whatcom County, and a 100% chance that you’ve benefited from the love and labor of a farm somewhere in the world. The exhibit emphasizes the relationship between the land and its agriculture in Whatcom County in particular, delving into the history of farming in the county, educating on current commodities and local farms, and gently encouraging visitors to look to the future. One display features a wheel-of-fortune listing different careers connected to agriculture, a reminder that agriculture is not only a matter of working directly with livestock or the land, but is multifaceted, branching out into nearly every field of work, from science to engineering to technology to education and more. 

Will my children be able to experience the fair like I did?

Perhaps not exactly, but there’s hope, and I want my children to see themselves in this story as they grow up. 

(Maybe I’ll write another update to this essay in 20 or 30 years and make it a lifelong project :)

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Breath of the Wild's Soundtrack is a Masterpiece

First off, you read the title correctly--this is not a Tears of the Kingdom review; I'm not very far into the game and it will be quite some time before I am in a position to even attempt to review it. Instead, I am sharing a piece that I wrote nearly two years ago for my AP English students, as a sample to help them practice breaking down an argument, identifying qualifiers, evidence, key assumptions, etc. I stumbled upon this document while going over my documents in preparation for my classes for next year, and decided to share--Breath of the Wild may not be the newest Zelda game any longer, but its soundtrack still deserves acclaim:

When I plugged in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the first time in 2020--three years after the game was released--I had high expectations. And Breath of the Wild met those expectations head-on: I had an ear-to-ear grin on my face for the first three hours that I played, so much so that my cheeks and jaw ached for days afterwards.

For this sample argument, there were so many different directions I could have gone: I could have discussed the game’s breathtaking open-world experience; I could have raved about the addictive cooking mechanic, or the fact that there are multiple ways to solve every puzzle. However, I have chosen to discuss what was one of the most divisive aspects of the game when it was released in 2017: its soundtrack.  It’s fair to say that Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack is unusual compared to every other Zelda title--VGMO, an online publication dedicated to reviewing video game soundtracks, stated that while the soundtrack was critically acclaimed, the fanbase was polarized, with some praising composer Manaka Kataoka’s innovations and others criticizing it as “directionless ambience” or “just random notes on a piano.”

I’m in full agreement with the first group of fans.  I’m not going to argue that it’s the best video game soundtrack ever; such matters are far too subjective.  I will say, however, that Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack is a masterpiece because it perfectly fits--and enhances--the gameplay and setting.

Some quick context for those who are unfamiliar with the Zelda series: Legend of Zelda games are known for their big and bombastic soundtracks. YouTuber Pixeltea, in his analysis of the Breath of the Wild soundtrack, states that previous Zelda soundtracks all share one quality: they are all adventurous. There are so many classic tracks that seem to beckon the player into a grand adventure: the overworld theme from the original Legend of Zelda and Link to the Past; the Hyrule Field themes from Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess; the Gerudo Valley theme from Ocarina of Time.  Each of these pieces is BIG, written to give the feeling of a full orchestra playing away.  In fact, by the time Skyward Sword was released in 2011, the game’s soundtrack actually was fully orchestrated.

Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack is not big, at least not in the conventional way.  Indeed, one of the first things that might strike a new player when they actually start exploring the Great Plateau at the start of the game for the first time is the lack of music.  There are ambient noises: birds chirping; the breeze rustling through the leaves; the babbling of a far-off brook.  But it takes nearly a minute before the first soft chord progression plays--a lone piano--subtle and unobtrusive.  It’s so subtle that you might not even immediately notice it.  The overworld theme in Breath of the Wild is as understated as the overworld theme from the original Legend of Zelda is bombastic, punctuated with long silences--impressionistic and tentative (Pixeltea).  

But it works.  It works because Breath of the Wild is set in a post-apocalyptic Hyrule (the kingdom in which most Zelda games take place).  In this game, the main villain--a demonic force known as Calamity Ganon--destroyed the world a hundred years before the events of the game began, wiping out entire cities and much of the population of Hyrule.  This is the biggest that Hyrule has ever been: the world-map spans an area roughly the size of the island of Manhattan, ranging from snow-covered peaks, to desert, to marshland, to rolling foothills, to a towering volcano, to rocky shores, and sandy beaches.  However, while the population of Manhattan is nearly two million, the population of Hyrule in Breath of the Wild is just over two hundred, and most of those citizens live in the seven towns scattered across the land.  The player spends most of the game exploring the vast wilderness, far from any other people.  The overworld music captures that sense of solitude, and the feeling of a world one hundred years out from cataclysmic destruction, just as nature is starting to heal, overtaking the ruins of abandoned cities and ancient battlefields. The YouTube channel 8-bit Music Theory suggests that the cumulative effect of these musical choices, in partnership with the game’s visuals, gameplay, and overall setting is that Breath of the Wild feels like “the real story”, while the other Zelda games were “just legends you’d hear in Breath of the Wild’s world.”

The solitude of the overworld’s soundtrack stands out in contrast to the musical theme of each town--each town’s theme is melodic, homey, and welcoming, without the silence that punctuates the overworld theme, conveying the comfort of finally finding friendly faces.  Beach town Lurelin Village has a tropical-sounding steel-drum theme; Kakariko Village in the foothills has a Japanese folk-inspired koto ensemble; Gerudo Town has an upbeat sitar riff.  Each town feels like an oasis of community and home in the gameplay, each with its own distinctive culture, and the soundtrack reinforces that feeling. A particularly memorable sidequest involves building a new town in the middle of the wilderness with recruits from each of the main races in Hyrule.  As more citizens move into town, the musical theme expands to include motifs from each city, a glimmer of hope and unity in the midst of fragmentation.

The spare, solitary piano riffs of the overworld theme are also disrupted when danger strikes, whether it’s the rhythmic drumbeat and urgent horns that play while fighting Bokoblins or Moblins (weaker enemies), the frantic and pounding piano that plays while fighting Lynel or Yiga assassins, or the creepy, crescendoing discordance of a Guardian attack (all stronger enemies).  This music intensifies or fades depending on how close the player is to the attacking enemies.

In short, the soundtrack is living, breathing, and dynamic, seamlessly woven into the gameplay. This is an opinion shared by many video game critics.  Thomas Whitehead of Nintendo Life called the sound design “impressive… designed to blend with your actions and the world rather than define them”, while Jose Otero of IGN described how the “subtle musical queues matched the tempo of my adventure.”  Matt Peckham of TIME called the “restrained, often poignant musical passages” a “tour-de-force of complementary minimalism.”  Breath of the Wild is a vast game, but its vastness is largely unpopulated, full of mysteries to solve and ruins to explore.  Given this, less truly is more where the music is concerned. 

Of course, my argument rests upon the assumption that the quality of a soundtrack stems chiefly from how well it fits and enhances the setting and gameplay.  It is worth remembering that a soundtrack--unlike other categories of music--is specifically created in partnership with a story, with a setting, with a particular visual aesthetic, and exclusively to video games, with a particular type of gameplay design.  Soundtracks are not created primarily to be listened to on their own--though they certainly can be!--; they are created primarily to help tell a story, and create or enhance a setting.  While all of this may sound subjective--and perhaps it is, to some extent--I ask the reader to imagine Super Mario Bros, but with John Williams’ Imperial March from Star Wars theme playing in the background.  Or an epic role-playing game such as Undertale, Final Fantasy or Skyrim with the Among Us theme playing in the background.  My point is that no matter how technically perfect, no matter how impeccably composed a soundtrack may be–and for the record, I’m definitely not arguing that the Among Us theme is technically perfect–if it does not fit the game’s setting or gameplay, it will feel out of place, and both the game and the soundtrack will be the lesser for it.  

While bombast made sense for older Zelda titles, what if Breath of the Wild had tried to use a big, bombastic overworld theme?  Doing so would undoubtedly have undercut the feeling of solitude while exploring the wilderness, and however good the overworld theme might have been as an individual track, it would almost certainly become repetitive and stale, given the sheer size of the world map and the number of times that single track would play over and over again while traveling and exploring.  By contrast, unobtrusive and simple piano chords do not draw as much attention to themselves, do not get stuck in the player’s head in the way that catchy melodies do, and do not wear out their welcome, while the more melodic village themes are so refreshing and so briefly visited in the scheme of the whole game that they do not easily wear on the ears, either. 

Upset fans have complained that the soundtrack just doesn’t sound like Zelda music.  While it’s undeniably different from the musical style of previous Zelda games, the same could be said for any number of other stylistic choices in Breath of the Wild.  This is only the second game in the entire series (and the first 3D Zelda title) in which Link (the main character) can jump at will.  This is the first game in which shields, swords, and bows break after a certain amount of usage.  This is only the second game since the original to feature a fully open world.  This is one of the few titles in which Link does not have a magic meter.  Do any of these departures make Breath of the Wild any less a Zelda game?  If your answer is ‘yes’ to one but not the others, why the inconsistency?

Upset fans have also claimed that the soundtrack is not memorable; that fans cannot hum along to it.  I would contend that these are two different things, for starters, and that memorability does not equal “hum-ability”.  While players would be hard pressed to hum the overworld piano theme, those chords--or at the very least, the feelings they evoke--are memorable.  And some of the tracks are indeed hum-able: the village and stable themes are catchy, and in fact, if you are paying close attention, you can even find a few classic Zelda tracks snuck into the game as easter eggs!  Kyle Hanson, a critic for Attack of the Fanboy, said that “Breath of the Wild’s music isn’t as ‘in your face’ as other games in the series, which means that you likely won’t catch yourself humming its tunes years down the road, but you will appreciate the music for what it does, which is set the mood perfectly.”

And there it is--this strange, minimalist, impressionist, beautiful soundtrack does what a soundtrack ought to do: it sets the mood and helps to make the game all the more immersive.  Perfection is a lofty claim, but in this case, it is merited.  Because of its role in setting the mood, and enhancing the gameplay and setting, the Breath of the Wild soundtrack is, indeed, a masterpiece.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

The Muppet Christmas Carol at 30 Years Old: A 90s Christmas Classic

 1992 must have been the year in which I developed an awareness of popular culture on some level, because The Muppet Christmas Carol--which came out in December of that year--was the first movie I remember seeing a trailer for (likely in the previews on one of our Disney Home Videos; maybe Beauty and the Beast?), and looking forward to.  

I was six years old at the time, and I couldn't have told you that it was a future classic.  All I knew is that it featured the Muppets, and that Gonzo and Rizzo seemed pretty funny.  

I couldn't help but recall this as I watched the movie this week--30 years later--with my own kids.  Today, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a bona fide classic, and arguably the best adaptation of A Christmas Carol on film.  

It was a bit strange for me to recognize that a film made within my lifetime, and in fact, within my active memory, could have become a Christmas classic, a designation which usually brings to mind George Bailey running down the snowy streets of Bedford Falls, a claymation Rudolph, a slinking, scheming animated Grinch, or Linus telling his friends about the true meaning of Christmas.

So why has The Muppet Christmas Carol stood the test of time, and joined the likes of these much older Christmas films?  Or perhaps asked another way, what sets the Muppets' telling of this story apart from the dozens of others?

I believe the movie's enduring appeal has to do with the music, the acting, and the Muppets themselves, and what they do with Dickens' timeless tale. 

It wouldn't be the Muppets if it weren't a musical--particularly at that time in the Muppets' history--and so it is unsurprising that the Muppet take on A Christmas Carol would be filled with memorable songs.  Paul Williams--who wrote the songs in The Muppet Movie, most notably "The Rainbow Connection"--returned to pen the lyrics, and delivers some of his finest work.  Fans of "The Rainbow Connection", and in my opinion, to a greater extent, Gonzo's "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday" from The Muppet Movie know that Williams can be every bit as plaintive and poignant as he can be catchy and irreverent.  

"Scrooge" ("There goes Mr. Humbug!") and "Marley and Marley" are jaunty ear-worms, but one would be remiss to overlook the wistful "One More Sleep Till Christmas", which Kermit's Bob Cratchit sings as he closes up the office for the holiday, or the heartwarming "Bless Us All", which Robin's Tiny Tim and the rest of the Cratchits sing as a prayer before they eat their Christmas dinner.  William's greatest work, tragically, has been cut from most rereleases of the film.  "When Love is Gone", sung by Belle to a young Scrooge as she calls off their engagement, was cut from the theatrical release (as well as the AppleTV and Disney+ releases), as Disney executives at the time felt that it was too slow-paced and sad for children to sit through.  It did, however, make its way onto the VHS release, and that is what I grew up watching each year, so as far as I am concerned, cutting the song from the film was an unequivocal mistake.  Not only is it possible for young children to sit through this song, as my children demonstrated when I paused the movie and pulled up the song on YouTube, the song itself is beautiful, albeit gutting, as Belle outlines how Scrooge and she have grown apart from one another.  Particularly heart-breaking is the moment when the older Scrooge stands next to Belle on the footbridge and tearfully sings the final lines of the song along with her.  This suggests that Scrooge could remember, word-for-word, how Belle had broken up with him even decades later, and provides depth to his character not present in the rereleases that simply cut the song.  Of course, this is to say nothing of the fact that the final song of the film is a reprise of this song, "When Love is Found", the beautiful symmetry of which is lost with "When Love is Gone" absent.  

I mentioned how Scrooge sings the final lines of the break-up song while holding back sobs.  Michael Caine absolutely sells this moment.  His performance in the role of Scrooge gives the film a gravitas that might seem unexpected in a movie for children.  For those in my generation, Michael Caine is likely most familiar for his supporting roles in a wide variety of blockbuster movies, maybe most memorably as Alfred the butler in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.  Here, Caine takes on the lead, and demonstrates a remarkable range.  Evidently, Caine only took the role on the condition that he could "play it like bloody Shakespeare" and that seriousness comes through from start to finish. 

But this is a Muppet movie, after all, and seriousness is not ultimately what defines the movie.  The juxtaposition of Michael Caine dramatically yelling at Kermit and a bunch of talking rats balances the gravity with levity.  In fact, the whole notion that Kermit and co. are acting their hearts out in the roles of these Dickens characters opposite Michael Caine is an entirely charming and amusing thought.  The opening number properly introduces Ebenezer Scrooge as a character while at the same time allowing room for singing vegetables and the rhyme "no cheeses for us meeces".  Gonzo's role as Charles Dickens opens up some clever meta-humor and in-jokes that cut the tension in what could otherwise be intense or scary moments for young children.  And true to form, the Muppets infuse the film with a sense of joy.  This was the first Muppet film produced after Jim Henson's death, and it proved that his legacy and vision for the Muppets would outlive him.  

That it remains a classic, and a must-watch-yearly holiday film is perhaps the greatest tribute possible.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Gibson Family Update

The month of June remains a blur in my mind. It started with me delivering the commencement address for the Class of 2022 at the Christian Academy in Japan, where I had worked since 2009, and ended with my family vacating our apartment next-door to the school in preparation to move to the US a few days later. Between those bookends, I taught my last classes at CAJ and said goodbye to students, colleagues, and friends, Tomomi received her VISA after a nearly-two year process, and we sorted through our earthly possessions, shipping some in boxes, packing more into eleven suitcases, and throwing away far more than we wanted to. After clearing out of our apartment, we spent just over a week at our friends the Howards’ house while they were out of the country as we went through one final round of sorting/packing/tossing. This happened to coincide with an historic heat-wave in Japan, which saw the high temperature hit above 90˚F for ten days in a row (with several days above 100˚F), and which never saw the low temperature drop below 80˚F. As luck would have it, our children came down with colds only days before our flight out. Sadly, this meant that our daughter missed her final day of preschool, as we holed up and awaited her negative PCR results. The flight to Seattle was as long and miserable as you’d expect with a sick 5-year old and a sick 2-year old who was flying for the very first time, but fortunately we were on the flight with an old friend from church, who helped us push our three full luggage carts to immigration once we arrived at SeaTac!

We arrived in the US on July 9, and have been staying on the farm with my parents. Eventually, we will move down the road a couple minutes into the house I grew up in--my parents had rented it out since we moved in 1994. It’s a nice 5-acre property in the scenic countryside of Whatcom County, but the house is 50 years old, and in need of basic refurbishing, including replacing the siding, the windows and a number of doors in the house. Due to supply chain issues delaying the arrival of the new windows, this process will start within the next few weeks--several weeks later than we had hoped. In addition to the necessary work on the house, my dad and I have been busy clearing out blackberry brambles, brush, and dead trees from the back of the property, and shock-treating the well to clear iron bacteria out of the pipes. It has been a lot of work, but it has been gratifying to see the progress that we have made since we started a month ago.

This is the house we'll be moving into!

Clearing brush and blackberry brambles

Because of limitations in what we could ship, and because what we did ship could take a few months to arrive, we have been familiarizing ourselves with the wonderful world of Craigslist. We have already bought a nice set of Noritake dishes and bowls for only $200! When we went to pick them up near Custer, about a 25-minute drive from my parents’ place, the lady who was selling the dishes noticed my Dordt University t-shirt, and asked if I was Dan and Emily’s son. It turns out, this lady was someone I knew from church when I was a kid, and she had trained my mom’s horses back in the mid-90s--small world!

Paperwork of various stripes has been an ongoing summer project, as well: applying for social security numbers for Tomomi, and our son, applying for State health and dental insurance for ourselves and the kids, getting Tomomi’s Japanese driver’s license transferred to an international license, and then a Washington license, getting Tomomi set up with a bank account, and submitting all manner of paperwork for school, some as a new employee, and some as a parent of an incoming Kindergartner. Between filling out paperwork and pulling out blackberries, I might actually choose to pull out blackberries!

I have been heading into Bellingham Christian to work on curriculum several times a week, simply because it’s far too distracting to find traction at my parents’ place with the kids around. I will be teaching 9th grade English, Geography, and Bible to the first high school class at BCHS, and helping out more generally with curriculum and program development. I have put in nearly 50 hours of curriculum work since June, and still have much to do, but as busy as I have been, I find the process of curriculum development fun and energizing. In many ways, this is the ultimate application of my Master’s training, as it has been my first opportunity to start from scratch on curriculum development since I completed my degree. Our daughter will be starting Kindergarten at BCS in September, and Tomomi will be working part-time as an instructional assistant in one of the preschool classrooms, so three of the four of us will be spending most of our time at school this year, albeit on different campuses. Weirdly enough, there will be another mom named Tomomi with a child starting Kindergarten this year!

The kids have taken to life in the countryside well, and have enjoyed an abundance of outdoor time. It has been a bit surreal for me to watch my daughter ask--and sometimes even plead--to help my mom clean the horse stalls each morning, considering that I would go to great lengths to avoid stall duty when I was growing up. My daughter made the switch from speaking predominantly in Japanese to predominantly in English several days after we arrived. There are still grammatical issues and gaps in her vocabulary, to be sure, but getting more than a sentence in English from her in Japan was a rarity, so this has been a pleasant surprise. Of course, the challenge now will be to ensure that not only will she not lose her Japanese ability, but that she will continue to learn and grow.

Working in the garden
Dinner outdoors around the picnic table

The move has been a bigger adjustment for Tomomi, for whom this is her first time to live somewhere other than Japan, and on top of that, her first time to live in the countryside rather than the city, and on top of that, her first time to drive since she received her license in Japan for ID purposes years ago. There are layers upon layers of culture shock and change, but I have been grateful for Tomomi’s patience, creativity, and sense of humor as she takes it all in stride--she has been the one actively keeping tabs on Craigslist, which is fine by me!

One particular blessing that I have enjoyed since we returned has been the opportunity to attend Wiser Lake Chapel, the church where I grew up, which has been praying for me and my family as long as I had been in Japan. The church has changed quite a bit in the four years since I’d last visited, but it has been good to make new friends and reacquaint with old friends while worshiping and fellowshipping, and listening to solid Biblical teaching in person. After more than two years of mostly attending church virtually--a difficult task in a small apartment with young kids--, this has been nourishment for a hungry and thirsty soul. It has also been a joy to watch my kids learn what it means to go to church and worship, as the concept of virtual church never quite sunk in for them. My daughter has already made fast friends with a little boy her age who has told her and everyone else who will listen that he intends to marry her. Somehow I thought I would have more time before dealing with things like this…

In addition to the Chapel, we also traveled 80 minutes or so down to Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island to attend a monthly worship service in Japanese this past Sunday. Finding opportunities for Tomomi to worship and fellowship with Japanese Christians is a priority, but not necessarily easy in a place where the Japanese population tends to be small to begin with, and the number of Japanese Christians, even smaller, so it was good to attend a bilingual service, worship in English and Japanese, and enjoy conversation with new friends over homemade Japanese treats after the service.

My brother and his family visited from Denver in late July for a week, and my sister and her husband came up to visit from Port Orchard on the Kitsap Peninsula for part of that time. We had a record-breaking heat wave in Washington that week, and one which seemed to follow my brother’s family from Denver, where it promptly cooled down dramatically after they flew here, only to heat up again the day they returned (while it cooled down here, of course). In the midst of the sweating and sweltering (no A/C at my parents’ place), it was fun to watch my kids meet and play with their cousins for the first time, and enjoy meals and conversations with the whole family together outside around the picnic table. One particular highlight of that week was the opportunity to lead outdoor Sunday evening worship with my brother and sister, with my brother-in-law playing guitar. Growing up, we took singing together for granted, and having lived so far apart for so long, it was something I missed tremendously.

Leading worship with the siblings

As for me, it has been wonderful to be back here, not merely for a visit, but to settle for this chapter of life. I have loved returning to the wide open spaces and the fresh air. My allergies have eased up significantly, and I can go for days at a time without sneezing, whereas in Tokyo, it was rare for me to not have a violent sneezing fit at least once a day. Though I have been resting my leg due to a nasty scrape on my shin (inflicted, I think, while clearing blackberries), I have enjoyed running along the country roads, and am already considering how to set up a 600-meter running course on the property we will be moving to. I am relearning how to drive after five years, and working to regain confidence behind the wheel as it has been more than a decade since I drove on the freeway or in the busy streets of downtown Bellingham. My driving abilities are, in many respects, frozen in time from 2008, when I was 22 years old, right before I moved to Japan; I have some catching up to do.
Heading out in an '88 Chevy Silverado to conquer the blackberries

Loving the fresh air!

Wide open spaces...

We have deeply appreciated the prayers of our friends and family throughout the immigration process, in the hectic days and weeks leading up to our move, and in the month since we arrived in the US. We appreciate continued prayers as school/work starts in two weeks, as Tomomi learns to drive/as I regain confidence and competency behind the wheel, as we wait for the contractor to start working on our house so that we can move in, as we search for furniture and appliances, as we seek out opportunities for regular Japanese language education for our daughter, as we seek out daycare opportunities for our son, and as Tomomi continues to adjust to US culture and countryside culture. God has carried us thus far and blessed us, and we trust that He will continue to do so. For those of you on the other side of the ocean, we love and miss you. For those on this side of the ocean, we look forward to spending more time together!
In Christ,
Nate and family

Friday, June 10, 2022

A Reflection on Goodbyes

As a child, your life follows the rhythms of school--a year that runs August to June, and years that run punctuated by milestones every four years, give or take: elementary graduation, middle school graduation, high school graduation, college graduation.
If you attend a single school K-12 as I did, you grow accustomed to staying. Perhaps classmates and teachers leave along the way, and you say hard goodbyes when those occasions arise, but the knowledge that you're staying, yourself, dulls some of the impact. When HS graduation comes along, and it's finally your turn to go, you do so as a group--it's not you leaving while everyone else stays, because all of your classmates are leaving, too.

University, too--you say the goodbyes of graduation as a group, like one of those intricate word problems about the maximum number of handshakes that can be given at a party, with each graduate bidding each other graduate farewell.

Then, if you become a teacher, those familiar school rhythms extend into adulthood. Each Senior class graduates, but you stay. Each of your classes advances to the next grade, but you stay and await a new group. And perhaps more noticeably at an international school, many of your colleagues leave, but you stay. That was my experience, anyway. I went from university straight to CAJ within the span of about three weeks. And for thirteen years, I stayed as others departed, dear friends and mentors whose lives intersected with mine for a short time, some of whom I haven't met in person since.

It occurred to me today that never in my life have I been the one leaving while nearly everyone else stays. Never in my life have I been the one receiving the goodbyes. We pick up on a lot of skills as life happens to us, but this was one skill I never picked up. So today, when classroom clean-up was finished, and I stood face-to-face with a bunch of my Juniors--now officially Seniors--one last time, I had no idea what to do or say. I'd never had to do this before; I have neither script nor screenplay. It was, indeed, one of the hardest moments of my life, and I now have some inkling of what to expect after the final staff meeting finishes next week, and I exchange goodbyes with friends and colleagues who are staying.

To say "a piece of my heart will always remain with CAJ" may sound trite, but I now have a fuller appreciation of what, exactly, that expression means. For, to leave part of your heart behind means that your heart needs to break first. Putting down roots and forming attachments to people and places is part of what it means to be human and those bonds are not easily broken. In fact, I don't think they can be broken, at least not completely. Still, the separation hurts on a heart level. This, I think, is the reality of a life lived internationally--a life in which the sun sets on one of the places you call 'home' as it rises on another, and in which weeks of your life will be spent over the ocean between in a never-ending cycle of transit: reunions and partings.

Perhaps I should count myself lucky that I didn't discover all of this until I was 36, but I think I'm the richer for the knowing.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Commencement Address 2022

 Last week, I had the honor of delivering the commencement address at the Christian Academy in Japan, at the Class of 2022's selection. It was the fourth commencement address that I've given in my lifetime: the first was at my own high school graduation in 2004, and the rest have all been at CAJ (2012, 2016, and 2022). With my family moving to the States next month after more than 13 years in Japan, I was grateful for the opportunity to send the graduates off, but also say "farewell" to them, and to this community that has been home to me for more than a third of my life so far.

Photo Credit to Linnea McGlothlin

Here is the video of my speech (starts from 37:40), and below is the text:

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2022!

Before I launch into the heart of my speech, it occurred to me that we have some unfinished business to take care of.

You see, if you think back to last May, you were busy working on dares for your Junior Charity Event, then we had the CAJ Olympics, and then we had our final deb-scussions in Humanities, and do you know what we didn’t do in the hustle and bustle of the end of the year?  

One final SOAPStone!

So, I figure it’s only fair that we take care of that right here, right now.  Consider this your final assignment before you graduate.

It’s okay, though, I’ll help you out–you just need to follow along.

First up, we have the Speaker.

That’s me.  Pretty easy so far? 

Next, we have the Occasion.  Well, of course, the immediate occasion is CAJ graduation, but broadening it out a little bit, this is the first graduation ceremony with relatives other than parents in three years.  That’s noteworthy, I think.  And it also gets at the exigence, which is that I’m speaking to you in the context of you finishing a turbulent high school career, one in which it seems that all of history conspired to rhyme with itself, all at once.

The Audience?  That’s you guys.  The Class of 2022.  Known alias?  The Un-Shushables. Ranging alphabetically from Abe to Yamaguchi. Interesting fact: you were the very first class several of your teachers ever taught at CAJ–Ms. Johnson’s first 1st grade class, Mrs. Prevatt’s first 4th grade, and later 5th grade class, and Mrs. VanDruff’s first 6th grade class. Another fun fact–because your class had a reputation for blurting out whatever you were thinking, unfiltered, Mrs. VanDruff made you write what you were thinking in a classroom diary instead, so that you could express your ideas silently.  

Also, as a class, you volun-told Hikaru, who you chose to speak on your behalf just now, to have his head shaved as a dare last year–who can forget?  Hikaru took it all in stride, though I’m fairly certain he went through the five stages of grief in the span of about 40 seconds when he realized the rest of you weren’t kidding about the idea.  

And then I think he went through the five stages of grief again while getting his head shaved in front of everyone on the auditorium stage.  I mean, who’d have thought that a partially charged beard-trimmer wouldn’t get the job done?  Or classroom scissors, when that failed?  Who can forget the look of panic on Hikaru’s face when he realized the razor had broken?  Or the look of resignation when he thought he was going to have to finish the school day and go home with large chunks of his hair missing?  Or the look of longing as he wished that your class had just gone with “Dress-like-Kenshin day” as the dare instead?  Or the heroic image of Mr. Willson dashing into the auditorium with a proper working razor?  

I think it was Mark Twain who once said, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns a lesson he can learn in no other way.” But you live, and you learn.  And what I always loved about your class was how joyfully you lived and learned together, and how you would often look back on the living and learning you’d done, and then laugh together.  That was community.  That is redemption.

One last interesting fact, and I guess this ties back to the Speaker category, too.  We both started our time at CAJ in 2009–at least those of you who are OGs–you as Kindergarteners in August, and I as a short-term volunteer in the LRC, fresh out of college, several months earlier.  And we now end our time at CAJ together in 2022, you as you graduate, and I, as my family prepares to move to the U.S this summer to start a new chapter in our family’s story.  So, in many respects, I’ve had a full K-12 CAJ education along with the Class of ‘22.

Which leads me to my Purpose.  How can I possibly say all that needs to be said?  To give you a send-off befitting the last couple of years?  Ten years ago, I stood on this stage and challenged the class of 2012 to think about their legacy.  Six years ago, I told the class of 2016 that they were all living teacher’s drafts, constantly being revised by the Author of all things.  I still believe these were important parting words to those classes, but this afternoon, I am going to keep things far more simple and far more personal.  I’m going to remind you one final time of what I hope you took away from my Humanities class; what I hope you’ll remember not only in 60 minutes or 60 days, but in 60 years.  

No, I’m not talking about how big John Adams’ forehead was… or should I say fivehead, am-i-right? And no, I’m not talking about the lyrics to Hamilton, or the Toulmin Model, or the checks and balances of the U.S. government, or the proper way to eat a piece of pizza, or which basketball player really was the GOAT.  

I’m talking about my mission–my deep and abiding desire for all of you as you leave this place–which I include in my syllabus and post in my classroom, and hope from the bottom of my heart: that each of you will grow to be compassionate agents of change who glorify God by discerning wisdom from foolishness, noticing the needs of others in a broken world, and then pursuing justice, both in word and deed, engaging and navigating complexities and tensions between various perspectives. 

You have lived history these past few years.  That’s not unusual.  We’re all living history, constantly.  What was unusual is that you likely had some awareness that you were living history.  You knew you were living history on a global scale as you watched the headlines unfold each day, and you may have known that you were also living history locally–the first Senior class to enjoy the new cafeteria and field, the last Senior class to graduate from CAJ with Mrs. Foxwell as Head of School.  

History is all about things staying the same until they don’t, and big changes are on the horizon for all of you, for me and my family, and for this school from which we will soon venture away.  

Change can be exciting when it’s planned, expected, and wanted, as the new field and cafeteria have been.  Perhaps that’s how you’re feeling about graduation, too.  But when it’s unexpected, unwanted, or unpredictable, change can feel about as scary as being on a ship tossing at sea, or standing outside in a typhoon.  Or, holding on for dear life as the earth shudders beneath us.

So, I ask you, as you prepare to depart this gym not as students, but as graduates: on what do you stand?  On what foundation do you feel the most sure-footed? 

The past several years have been the story of so many beloved things–things we might normally take for granted–suddenly disappearing out from under us.  As freshmen, how many of you were looking forward to getting to travel to Korea or Okinawa for FarEast? Or going to a VEX world championship in person, not online in the middle of the night?  Or regularly performing for the community in band, orchestra, or choir?  Or maybe just hanging out in the plaza with friends after school?

How did it feel when these things went away?  

These are all good things, but none of them is a load-bearing thing; none can support the sum total of our search for identity or meaning. 

Then of course, there are bigger things that vie to serve as our foundation–politics, money, fashion, fame.  And again, none of these are inherently bad, but how stable a foundation do any of these provide?

Perhaps you may not fully know on what you stand.  In his book You Are What You Love, philosopher James KA Smith writes, “you might not love what you think.”  To illustrate this possibility, he cites a film by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, The StalkerThe Stalker is the name of the film, not a description of Tarkovsky, just to clarify.  In the movie, three men are on a journey to a room, which they are told will grant their hearts’ deepest desires when they enter.  The promise of such a room spurs them on in their journey, and yet, when they arrive at the threshold to the room at long last, they hesitate.  The room, after all, will grant what their heart actually desires, not just what they think it desires.

Perhaps today, what you think you are standing on is not what you are actually standing on.  

Given this uncertainty, let me suggest to you an important truth before we depart: you are beloved. Let that be your foundation.

You are beloved by your family, your teachers, your friends, yes–but more importantly, you are beloved by the King of all creation.  

In Psalm 62, David writes, 

5 Yes, my soul, find rest in God;

    my hope comes from him.

6 Truly he is my rock and my salvation;

    he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.

7 My salvation and my honor depend on God;

    he is my mighty rock, my refuge.

And the familiar words of John 3:16 tell us something crucial about God–that He loved each and every one of us so much that He sent His son to step into our human story and die for us that we might believe in Him and live eternally. 

This love is unconditional.  It is not subject to pandemic restrictions.  It is unswayed by the chaos of current events.  It abides when we mess up.  It stands firm, steady, and secure even as the earth itself gives way beneath our feet.  

My speech is drawing to a close, and so too, is your final SOAPstone.  I’ve used anecdotes, anaphora, triads, rhetorical questions, invocation, allusions, and probably other strategies, too.  It’s okay if you didn’t notice them.  In fact, no speaker wants the seams to show so much that they call attention to themselves in the moment.  At the end of the day, those strategies are more of a “60-minute thing” anyway.  

As you prepare to leave this familiar place that has been a constant over the past few years, as change looms large, and as the vain things that compete to be your foundation show themselves to be rickety things indeed, I hope this knowledge that you are beloved by God Himself will only grow more clear with each passing day, filling you with peace and joy.  That, I hope you will hold onto for 60 years and beyond. 

As all of you–and I, too–conclude our time at CAJ and go our separate ways, I’d like to leave you with a traditional Irish blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you,

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

The rains fall soft upon your fields.

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of his hand.