Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Feb. 29

365 days in a year
seems like plenty,
but each passing hour out of 8,760
vanishes more quickly
than the one before.
tick; an opportunity missed
tock; a chance that has been lost
to the inexorable sprinkling
of sand from the top
to the bottom
and wholly irretrievable,
and even the best laid plans
may find themselves
crumpled in a heap,
pierced by the fangs of time.
'I mean to' and 'I want to' are invisible
to the serpent who does not
perceive good intentions
but only the heat of fresh prey
and who strikes
in the form of
(but often effectively disguising itself as
and leaving carrion
to rot until the leftovers are gone,
wrapping paper recycled,
when, as though by magic,
a spark of life returns
and the process repeats itself.

Is the cycle set in stone,
and do we travel
a closed circuit
cul de sac
in the wild woods?

To create time--physically impossible,
and yet with some
creative and
arbitrary bookkeeping,
8760 becomes 8784.
There's no magic,
no sorcerer's stone
to prevent the petals
from falling from
the wet, black bough
and yet
there's beauty
in the numbers.
An extra day
is an extra opportunity
to follow through,
to take that chance,
to let the heart speak.
Routine doesn't have to be routine,
but sameness tends to beget sameness.
Trenches are well-traveled ruts
and ruts form
from familiar paths
so beauty must lie in uniqueness.
Calendars were made by man
and an extra square
once every four years
is merely man's best effort
to keep our means of recording
time consistent with what's happening
out there,
but there's so much significance
in the extra square
that man never intended
though perhaps God did.
Improvement starts with change,
and change starts with a

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Traveling, part three

I need to get to the top of Victoria Peak.

This was the first thought on my mind as I woke up in my small hotel room on my first morning in Hong Kong. If nothing else, I needed to take in that spectacular view of the city myself. So, I set out early that day.

I was surprised to find the climate muggy and humid. I knew that Hong Kong was quite a bit further south than Tokyo, but had not expected this. I was also disappointed to see gray skies--that would make it tougher to have a good view of the city.

I poked around Kowloon for a while and took a lot of pictures before I finally boarded the ferry for the short ride across the harbor. After walking through a maze of tall buildings, I finally found myself at the base of the hill that would eventually lead to the cable car up to the peak. I reached Victoria Peak at lunch-time... just in time for the rain to start. The rain poured down in sheets and a heavy fog settled. By the time I reached the observation deck, I could not see more than 10 feet in front of me. My heart sank, and as I considered how short my stay in Hong Kong would be, I realized that I likely would not have another chance to see the view.

For lunch, I ate at a rather nice Indian restaurant that, I'm sure at any other time, would have enjoyed a panoramic view of the city. Feeling somewhat glum from the ill-timed rain-storm, I decided that I needed something spicy to brighten my day. So, I ordered the spiciest curry on the menu. The fact that this curry actually included a disclaimer advising people with various health conditions against eating the curry did not deter me one bit.

I had been walking all morning and I was hungry. I attacked my meal much too fast, and took several large spoonfuls of curry before I realized that the warning on the menu was not just decorative, the spice rating no mere boast. It felt as though a spark had ignited on the tip of my tongue and spread into a wildfire that now devoured the rest of my tongue, the roof of my mouth, my lips, my esophagus.

Hastily, I chugged my iced tea. The waiter asked if I wanted a refill and I nodded, shaking off flecks of sweat as I moved my head. I quickly finished that glass of iced tea. Then another. Then another. Then another.

I never really put out the fire, but at the very least I reduced the flames to embers. A slow burn, uncomfortable but not demanding urgent attention.

When the waiter rang me up, I was surprised to see that the meal cost the equivalent of $25 USD. After all, the curry had only been about $10. It was then that I realized the chilling truth: refills at this restaurant are not free, and I had been charged full price for every additional glass of iced tea that I had drank. So, a lesson here: If you eat at a restaurant outside of the U.S., do not automatically assume that they offer free refills. You may sound dumb, but it is better to ask than spend $15 on drinks.

The rest of the day was a blur; in part because I was tired from so much walking (and was developing some brutal blisters), but I think mostly because I was still in somewhat of a stupor from the curry. I bought an umbrella and walked back to my hotel in the driving rain. At one point, a very persistent street vendor tried to sell me a suit, and apparently did not care that I told him I neither had the money with me, nor the luggage space. Apparently most suit vendors in Hong Kong have similar approaches. I finally got rid of him by telling him I'd pick up more money and come back later. I didn't. Does that make me a bad person?

That evening, I stepped out of the hotel to find that the rain had stopped, and there were breaks in the clouds. The sun was beginning to set, so I hurried out to the dock. Already, the lights on the skyscrapers had been turned on, and I could see the buildings on the other side of the harbor standing out vividly. Maybe I'd even have a decent view from Victoria Peak, if I tried again? I took the ferry, and again hiked through the city streets to the cable car.

In total, I put in more than 7 hours of walking on that day, all on concrete. However, it was worth it when I reached the observation deck for the second time that day.

This is the photo I took, and the photo doesn't even begin to do justice to the view, to the atmosphere:

Finally, years after seeing that picture in TIME, I could say just what it was like to stand and look out over Hong Kong, what it was like to walk those streets again and again. I'd done what I thought I'd never have an opportunity to do, gone where I thought I'd never had an opportunity to go. The feeling of peace, contentment and gratitude to God was almost overpowering as I stood as looked out over that vast city and I said a short silent prayer of thanksgiving.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Winter Break

So, I'm afraid I'm in something of a dry spell with my writing at the moment. I am not entirely sure why this is the case, but I find the more I obsess about "why", the more frustrated I get. So, I'll just try to accept that this is a lull in my writing and move from there.

Tonight is the last evening of Winter Break, our four-day weekend. The vacation was 100% needed, and came at precisely the right time. Though it went by quickly, the rest was what I feel I'll need to make it to the end of March, when I'll fly to Thailand with the Seniors for a week, followed by a week off for Spring Break. I'm expecting a busy month.

Yesterday, I set aside my entire afternoon for a bike ride on my own. It was a sunny, if slightly cool day and perfect for aimless biking. My intent had been to get lost in the side streets of Tokyo and then have to work really hard to find my way back to Higashi Kurume. Unfortunately, I discovered that it is much more difficult to get totally lost than I had previously thought. I tried to stay mostly on side streets to avoid the railroad tracks, signs and other clues as to my whereabouts. Of course, this meant taking dozens of odd turns and curves, so I soon lost track of which way I was biking (which I thought was working toward my goal). After maybe half an hour of biking, I crossed a river and biked up a steep hill, only to find myself on Suido-Doro, a main road in Niiza (a city located the exact opposite of the direction I had started biking in). So, I biked aimlessly (I thought) around Niiza, only to find myself in Kiyose. At that point, I reconciled myself to just biking down new roads in those cities, and if I happened to get lost then it would be an unexpected bonus.

All in all, it was an enjoyable afternoon and a far cry from the first time I ever biked alone in Japan (that time, I took a wrong turn in the first 5 minutes and was lost for an hour--I considered it a minor miracle that I ever made it to school that day).

Also, this evening I went to sushi with a few friends. It had been months since we last went out to sushi as a group; months since we'd really done anything as a group. Having other young teachers around--a peer group--was one of the highlights of my life during the last school-year: going out to sushi, udon, yaki niku, Reno's, getting together for karaoke nights... these activities were simply part of the fabric of life last year, and I loved it.

Something changed this year, and we simply haven't been getting together as a group that much. Several of my friends are leaving after this school-year. "The group", at least as it was last year, has all but dissolved.

I've been through so many changes of scenery since I first came to Japan that this doesn't surprise me much, but it still sucks to go through, especially after feeling so content last year, feeling for the first time since high school that I had a good group of friends. What's the expression? 'Easy come, easy go'... but it's not easy; will never be easy.

I crave relationship, and I don't mean relationship like "in a relationship". I mean, I crave having friends around me; people I can trust and invest in and who will trust me and invest in me. I cannot help but wonder if I can achieve that in a setting that sometimes feels like it has a revolving door. I'm thankful for the CAJ long-timers--the mentors, those older than me who encourage and invest in me, and I am looking forward to one day doing the same for others... but man, I need a group of friends my age.

I'm surrounded by people day in, day out, so why do I feel lonely so much of the time?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Tuesdays are fast shaping up to be the busiest day in my week. The most obvious change from last semester is that we're now in AP season--the AP language and composition test is in May and I am determined to prepare my 17 AP students so well that they can write a timed essay in their sleep.

Of course, to reach this point will require a lot of practice and a lot of time. Since there is no official AP English class, the AP students from both Humanities and 6th period English have agreed to meet during lunch on Tuesdays. This is great and I really do feel like I can set expectations of my AP students that I couldn't set in an average class setting (and really, this has more to do with the fact that the AP students are there of their own volition than it does intellect or capability). Still, it does make for a busier Tuesday schedule:

My first period prep time (which I used to spend sitting leisurely outside on the picnic benches during warmer days) inevitably goes toward prepping for the day's AP session, which means that I need to make copies/finish prep for my other classes before school. Let's say my Tuesday starts at 8:00. I teach 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th, run my AP session during lunch (meaning I forego lunch myself), teach 6th and then 7th... well, it depends on the week. Last week, I had a meeting during 7th.

What this boils down to is that between 8:00 am and 2:38 pm on Tuesdays (and maybe even as late as 3:30), I have somewhere I need to be and something that I need to do. My first year of teaching felt busy, but I had 3 fairly quiet periods a day in the LRC. I guess this is evidence of how we grow: days like today would have crushed me two years ago. As it is, I'm tired and I don't feel capable of prep this evening, but I survived.

Teaching gets busier with every passing year, but a teacher's tolerance for busy-ness also grows. Thank God that this is the case! And, hopefully there's a cap on how busy it gets!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Silence and music

I must lead with an apology (both to my readers and to myself) because this marks the longest that I have gone without writing in... well, months, really.

I'm busy, but I don't think I can objectively claim that I am busier now than I was this past fall. I wish I could articulate what I've been thinking and feeling, but honestly I am not even sure I know.

------------2 hours later---------------

As the line directly above suggests, I'm writing this paragraph several hours after starting this post. Sitting down to write, and then being faced with my failure to keep up with a routine that I love was terribly frustrating. The more I tried to write about what I was feeling, the more upset I became. Eventually, I put my computer down, grabbed my jacket and went outside. I didn't know where I was going, I just knew I needed to get out. In this case, "getting out" brought me to school (no, the irony was not lost on me, and yes, my roommate did laugh when he heard that I went to school). I didn't want to work, though---couldn't even begin to think about work. Instead, I sat down at the piano in my classroom and played for an hour.

I took piano lessons for most of my elementary and middle school years; I wasn't stellar; my practice habits were abysmal. Since I quit in 7th grade, most of my interactions with the piano were spent playing by ear, plucking out tunes that I knew.

Tonight, for maybe the second time since I gave up lessons, I sat down and sight-read a song, and then practiced that song. Granted, it was a simple song ("Gift of Finest Wheat") from a hymn-book that I had handy , and I only taught myself the right-hand part, but it was the most focused practice that I'd put in on the piano in nearly 13 years.

I played the part over and over again until I was playing with about 90% accuracy at tempo, and could sing along as I played. It took a while to get to that point. I made a lot of dumb mistakes. My hands often felt uncoordinated and clumsy on the keys, especially early on. However, it wasn't frustrating at all. Maybe I'd already hit my limits for frustration this evening. Instead, I found myself unwinding and calming down as I played, practiced, learned. The final time through, I made 2 or 3 mistakes, but kept singing and playing without stopping and I felt a very real sense of peace surround me.

I'm no closer to understanding why I am not allowing myself more time to write, but I have discovered that a) my recent failure to write really bothers me and b) even with my limited abilities as a musician, I am still able to pour my stress and frustration out onto the keyboard (even if it might not happen to be a computer keyboard in the form of an essay but the piano keyboard in the form of a song).

I feel like I've said this a lot in my recent posts, but I need to take care of myself. I repeat it because I don't feel like I've followed through all that well, or really taken my own advice. I'm working myself too hard and not nurturing any part of who I am but the side of me that works. I need to seek out what it looks like to do my job faithfully and to be a teacher at all times without actually physically burying myself in my work (which I feel like I am starting to do). God, give me strength and wisdom.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Found in Translation

Sometimes, I forget that I'm living in a country that is foreign to me.

For my friends and family living in the U.S., this might be surprising information... surely Japan's differences must be striking, difficult to ignore!

Well, yes... they are, but the circles I spend most of my time in make it very easy to take these differences in stride. It's not as though I'm living immersed in Japanese language and culture: though CAJ students increasingly default to Japanese in conversations with each other, classes are run in English and the expectation for the classroom is that both teachers and students alike speak only in English. The culture is unique--not American, but not Japanese either; a combination of influences and dynamics that can only be found at a Christian international school.

The fact is, most of my life is spent at school or doing tasks related to school. I rarely practice Japanese... I rarely have occasion. So, this makes this past Saturday evening all the more interesting:

First, some background. Just a two-minute walk from the school, right next to the Higashi Kurume station, is an American restaurant called "Reno's Bistro". I'm a Reno's regular--Kevin, the owner/chef, and his wife Megumi are among the several sets of surrogate parents I have in this community who look out for me, and I appreciate them tremendously. The food is excellent, too, which doesn't hurt (and frankly, the fact that it's American food has little to do with my appreciation for the Bistro; they could make and serve any kind of food and I'd still be a regular customer).

Anyway, Saturday evening... my roommate Gabe (director of CAJ's Jazz Band) was playing a few sets at Reno's on clarinet and sax, so I went, watched, and enjoyed a quiet meal. Just as I was standing to leave, a girl sitting at the bar recognized me and got my attention.

"Nate, right?"

I recognized her--we'd met a few weeks earlier, also at Reno's. Unfortunately, with my brain more or less at capacity for remembering names, my memory tends to be atrocious when I meet new people. She must have noticed me straining to think because she quickly gave me an excuse.

"It's okay, you were really tired when we met, so if you don't--"

"Ayaho!" My memory kicked in and saved the day in the nick of time.

"Ayaha." Well, almost saved the day. Close enough, though, and she seemed to relax when she realized that I remembered her.

I had been tired when we'd met and had a conversation several weeks earlier--I'd spent the entire day at school grading essays, after which I'd gone straight to the Senior Talent show at school, and then for a late meal at Reno's. There were several Japanese people in the restaurant, which was typical for a Friday evening. I sat down at the bar several seats down from a young woman who looked to be about my age. Due to my low level of Japanese skills, I rarely attempt to engage Japanese people in conversation, even in a setting such as Reno's. Meg Reno, however, was quick to introduce me to the girl, who, she informed me, spoke English and appreciated any opportunity to practice.

"Ayaha. How are you?"

We exchanged pleasantries and I was surprised to learn that not only did she remember me, but she also remembered Gabe (who had also been there several weeks earlier) and a lot of what we'd talked about. Meg, putting her waitressing duties on hold to temporarily play matchmaker, or at least friend-maker, shepherded both Gabe and myself into seats next to Ayaha and another girl.

Meg announced, "These are very nice girls, same age as you. 25, 25, 25 25," she said pointing at each of us in turn.

What followed was a sometimes halting, sometimes awkward, but mostly interesting hour of conversation. Ayaha, an accountant, had gained her English skills during a one-month home-stay in Portland, Oregon during university. She occasionally asked Gabe and myself to speak more slowly, always apologetically. For the most part, however, I was impressed by her high-level of English conversation. Her friend (a clerical worker whose name I can't remember; atrocious memory of names and all) spoke no English. So, the conversation functioned in several different ways: mostly, Gabe and I would speak with Ayaha in English and she would translate for her friend, who would reply in Japanese and Ayaha would translate into English for us. Occasionally, I tried what Japanese I could remember to ask questions or attempt to clarify if there was a particular word or expression that Ayaha wasn't familiar with in English.

In this way, we discussed the differences between Japanese and English as languages, the sheer difficulties in learning each, the differences in accents and expressions between regions in both America and Japan, our experiences in school, what foods we liked, what instruments we played.

I learned that in Japanese schools, students study English for several years during middle school. The catch, however, is that studying in this case is truly limited to reading and memorization; there seems to be little (if any) focus on speaking, listening and conversation. The likely end-product is someone like Ayaha's friend, who knows what seems to her to be a disconnected list of English vocabulary and grammatical rules, and lacks any context for using those pieces in conversation resulting in absolutely no confidence. Ayaha managed to turn that book-knowledge into practical skill through immersion during her home-stay.

I learned that for Japanese people learning English (or at least for the girls that we were talking to), one of the toughest aspects is working through all of the grammatical rules (For example, "I have; she has" where the verbs are different but then "I had; she had" where the verbs are the same. An understandable difficulty, as verbs in Japanese do not change with the subject).

I learned that though the variation in Japanese accents does not seem to be as extreme as the variation in American accents, there is considerable variation in fairly basic things (even down to different ways of expressing a question depending on region).

I learned that in some Japanese schools, students are required to play the harmonium during their first year of school, and later, the recorder. Ayaha was even required to play castanets at one time.

I also learned that I know more Japanese than I ordinarily feel that I do. At several points, I rattled off grammar and vocab that I thought I had long forgotten, surprising the girls, Gabe and even myself. I guess we never really forget language--we just archive it until we really need it.

I learned a lot more than even this, and I think those young women learned a lot, too. It was a good conversation, and a valuable reminder of where I am. It's too easy for me to stick to a routine in which I only speak in English (with the occasional mechanical use of "coffee shop Japanese"), and do not interact with Japanese culture. And though these women had such drastically different experiences growing up from Gabe and myself, it was comforting to find common ground in our curiosity to learn of the others' culture while sitting around and carrying on a conversation, one way or another, as four 25-year olds.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Reasons to like today

-Getting 9+ hours of sleep the night before meant I was more rested than I had been in a long time.

-Conversations... With mentors, colleagues, students, friends.

-Responded to many good questions during the work-time in Humanities (they are researching in order to simulate the debate on whether or not to drop the atomic bomb, and today were asking fairly profound questions about ethical and political considerations).

-Delivered a short lecture in World History (which I rarely do, and only when its material I know inside and out), felt like that went well, enjoyed the discussion with the students (but that's always the case in my WH classes).

-Creatively read an excerpt from "Nature" by Ralph Waldo Emerson while scrolling through an exhaustively, painstakingly planned slideshow of over 150 slides (putting that slideshow together resulted in one of my recent late nights); felt like that, and our subsequent discussion on transcendentalist thought were solid.

-Sang "Loch Lomond" and "Let Everything That Hath Breath" with the bass section of the choir during their 7th period rehearsal. I miss being in choir.

-I'm sure there are more reasons, but I'm nodding off. Bedtime.