Commute

I’m on a train back to Fukui, barely a month after I left, finally finding myself with time to edit my life. I thought a life in Tokyo would mean constant trains, and yet, most of the time I’m walking places. This post is actually one I started months ago when I was still fantasizing about my life in the city. I’ve got a backlog of posts similar I have to go through and reorganize, but plan to push out here soon. I guess this is a start.

When I lived in New York I read so many books. The first two months on the subway I went through two books of Game of Thrones just riding on those metal carriages. Back then there wasn’t WiFi to be found. An hour completely underground can pass by unnoticed while flipping the final pages of a 400 page novel.

Coming to Japan my reading has been staggered. I started the book list with the goal of finishing in two years. That put me at roughly one book every two weeks — a type of math I didn’t bother figuring out. As my astute comrade in Spanish poetry and renowned literature Nico Sanhueza pointed out: reading merely 20 pages a day from Infinite Jest (the last book on my list) would take me almost two months. I tried and succeeded in the very beginning. After travelling, and having over a month to get settled to my new small life in Japan, I found the amazing Tokyo-based English bookstore Infinity Books to spend enough of my new salary. Without a car and the onset of winter, I burrowed in my one room apartment (not studio, mind you, this was much smaller than a studio) and flew through the first couple books without a problem. Then I met Virginia Wolf with some of the best and most dense story telling I’ve ever encountered (there are two short stories weaved into the otherwise tough novel To the Lighthouse which is among the best writing fathomable). I actually skipped over her for a while, and then spring came, and I was outside, and lazy, and enjoying nothing. After struggling with the enormous paragraphs of Michael Chabon soon after,  I decided to quit literature all together.  After all, the original goal was to finish the list before I left Japan. At the time I thought that’d only be two years, but… things change.

After a year in Japan I started to notice a few slips in my vocabulary. You see, at a junior high school level of teaching English, the scope of your corrections are pretty redundant. Things are very interesting. Students try hard. Tokyo Disneyland is a great place. Because its fun. Surrounded by a bunch of other expats who are involved in the same thing, your language starts to clip the longer words. The grammar also evolves, to match those non-native speaking minions you interact with everyday. The result is a strange abandon of usual language, for something more direct and less verbose.

Learning another language, also, doesn’t support the retention of the former.

Moments (which are now too familiar) started happening in the middle of conversation. I’d be telling a memory, or a story, or just asking for a favor.

“Did you stay at a capsule hotel in Osaka?” “Oh, I wanted to, but there we no… open beds? Free spaces?”   “You mean, vacancies?”

“The new bakery sells huge cinnamon rolls, but they’re not very… great? enjoyable? delectable? … Satisfying!”

“In Minnesota you always hear about accidents with drunk people driving on… winter… jet… skis, but you know, like jet skis for the snow.” (I actually can’t remember what they’re called right now, and have too much pride to Google: winter jet skis.)

It happens at least once a week. I can see the word flash in the front of my mind whenever I think about it. A shining, well outlined … piece? shape? … thing that disappears as soon as I think of it. “Come back!” I cry, as its rolls off the tip of my tongue cackling into oblivion. Instead I’m left defenseless, degrading my language to amend the situation, pondering what could have been.

I looked at the stack of books holding shape against my wall. Each a sword against this latency in language. There are the ones I definitely can’t handle right now: Catch-22One Hundred Years of SolitudeThe Dharma Bums. Then there are the slimmer volumes, the ones written for the common people, sometimes inventive (Slaughterhouse Five) but more often objective (Casino Royale). Even a poignant story like Fahrenheit 541 has a chase scene in it. Those were my jam, those I can do. Even the unwinding accents in As I Lay Dying are comprehensible through the short three page chapters. They become manageable escapes from mundane lifestyle.

The problem with reading, though, is the actual process. I recently wondered what I was like without a cellphone, or even without a smart phone. Many times I recall keeping my Gameboy stuffed in my pocket, but equally as often I would carry a book with me, a finger poised between two pages ready to continue the story at any moment. So smartphones are the culprit right, or internet at large, offering more distractions than necessary. Consuming our time with nonsense.

This can’t only be the case, for even on weekends when the news is on a break, the apartment is clean, the outside is raining, I can’t be helped to pick up a book. It’s the sense of time prioritization. When I was a kid and didn’t have to worry about what would happen to me, I had the time to bury my nose into a story. As an adult I’m constantly thinking of what to cook, what to clean, what to buy. My value of books is suppressed by the sense that my time would be better spent somewhere else. Not to mention the rate that I read a single page is snailish.  I try to absorb every detail, and in such focus often have to reread from missing the bigger picture.

In Fukui, I drove to work every day, forty minutes there and forty minutes home. The onset of winter dragged that even longer: one hour, one and a half. Someone would say I should invest in things like Audible (I do keep waiting for a sale), but there’s something to miss in listening versus reading. Sure, I swear by the Jim Dale versions of Harry Potter over any printed form, but not every author has the time, dedication, or voice as great as local author Ben Percy. I’ve found quality narration reserved for just the bestsellers of the latest season, and my list knows no bounds.

Instead I turned to Podcasts. I’ve been listening to them for almost three years now. I first got into Serial right before I came to Japan, and broaden my spectrum since my former neighbor and professional backpacker, Mac, introduced me to Stuff You Should Know. It still strikes me that their popularity hasn’t truly reached the mainstream. I consume them while doing everything else in my life. They probably run at least four hours of my speakers everyday. Even today I’ve already listened to NPR’s Up First, APM’s In the Dark case about Jacob Wetterling, Vox’s The Weeds, and Dan Pashman’s The Sporkful interview with Michael Pollan. I guess it’s a result of not having internet access. I just download podcasts all at once somewhere and run them through the day or week. Still, it’s not enough. Unlike a book, if I miss something in a podcast, I just let it run until the story catches my attention again.

Originally, when I first thought about this post, here is where I’d talk about my solution to start reading again. How living in Tokyo would mean that I’d once again be stuck in a train without WiFi and all the opportunities granted by faded paper. It’s almost still something I long for. Except in Tokyo, the commutes are cramped and drudging. Where in New York I could buy a monthly unlimited pass for around $120, in Tokyo each time you ride a subway costs at least $1.50. I decided this was not the way I wanted to start my mornings and waste my evenings. I actively sought out places within walking, or biking distances from my work. I exceeded my original expectations with where I live now, but there is a part of me that thinks about the books.

Overall, I’m more than relieved to cut the two hours of sedentary transit from my daily life. I was hoping to have one final hurrah with my car, but that’s a subject for another post. I still ride a train every week to get to my Japanese lessons, and occasionally on weekends if I need to go out across the city — or on my way to Fukui. Recently I’ve downloaded the Kindle app to my phone and found digital books can be read just as effectively for some genre. Except in those cases, stopped on the train, there always seems to be so much more worth planning. Multiple trips to be sorted. Photoshoots to arrange. Then of course, keeping in touch with you in the simplest way possible. After all, why read when you can write?

January

I would be fine never seeing snow again.

Ideally, this will be the last snowy winter I experience until I’m at grad school in Norway or Madison. If I have my way I’ll be hopping from a couple cities in the southern hemisphere before I make it back home. Unfortunately, I was born a Minnesotan — winter is in my blood. There’s a sort of nostalgia I get every time I see snow. Growing up October became a reminder to enjoy the small things. Red and yellow leaves would be examined with wonder. November was truly the time to be thankful for the summer that came before. From December you endure. There is no sun, no protection. You feel the chill throughout your body at all times. It reminds you that at anytime you can be broken. It reminds you to hold out hope.

January has always been a terrible month for me. I think I used to enjoy the snow. Used to put on boots and sled. Used to ski with a fervor like a puffin taking off. My sophomore year of high school my two best friends started dating each other. I of course had the regrettable feeling loving them both, but being in love with one of them. Then in January one of them moved away. All the way to St. Louis. Looking at it now it’s a ridiculous distance, the same as Fukui to Tokyo. But back then, at sixteen, it was impassible.

In college, my friend knew January as my dark days. There were points I’d stop running, paint my nails black, hole up in an art room and listen to System of a Down. One winter I started back on World of Warcraft. Another I spent baking chocolate chip cookies. My junior year I decided to face the cold. I’d go for 90 minute runs at a time. I got injured and wound up even worse than before.

I absolutely hate the winter.

This past January felt particularly long. Soon I’ll be moving to Tokyo. I feel like until then I’ve just been living in limbo. I’ve been denied apartments for no reason (discrimination), I got a norovirus from raw oysters I didn’t want to eat, and my car was rear-ended to the extent that it’s essentially scrap. I try to listen to Gloria Gaynor to cheer me up, but it doesn’t seem to work.  I hope you’re not taking this too seriously. Everyone keeps telling me it’ll be OK. I always know that. Even if I had to, I don’t think I’d know how to worry about myself. My problems are not the hardest to deal with, and I’m lucky enough that these are the extent of tough things I have to deal with.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge that winter is the worst. That I’m a fool for staying anywhere that gets below 10°C (50°F) on a good day in January. That snow is never quite as beautiful after the first night, when you’re living alone and have to drive an hour to work everyday.

In Minnesota Winter can last until May. January went on for forever, but already it’s the fifth of February. In Tokyo I don’t think it can last so long. Soon I’ll be running in shorts, I’ll be in the ocean, I’ll hike the Nippon Alps with my good friend Mac.

Until then I’ll endure. I’m a long distance runner after all. I’ll clean the rest of my empty apartment. I’ll say goodbye to anyone around. I’ll keep working out, and studying, and writing, like I said I would. If you happen to live in a terribly winter place like me, then you know what I mean. And if you’re in a particularly sunny place like California, then stay there. Stay there and never go anywhere else.

I do miss the little things, though.

Tribulations

I’ve always been overly ambitious with my goals. In high school my cross country coach would always make us fill out these forms before our races. We would have to write down the day of our meet, our previous best time, and our goal time for the upcoming race. Under this main information we were forced, almost always in jotted down bullets, to write out exactly how we would achieve that goal. I hardly ever took them seriously — or maybe I never took myself seriously. While I was young I’d scribble thirty seconds off of whatever time I’d recently passed. As I got older those drops in time were still written down, but the reality was hardly differing.

When I was in tenth grade I made the first change in my life that was actually sustainable. On the waning hours of New Years Eve, December 31st, 2007, while shopping for snacks in the local Byerlys with friends, I happened to look down at a four bottle pack of Jones Root Beer soda (or pop to Minnesotans) and decided quite decidedly that I had no need for cola in my life. Maybe I had recently heard about the uses of Coca-Cola as a toilet drain cleaner, or at least used it to justify the decision afterward. I bought that four pack of the most delicious flavored pop I’ve sipped, and as the clock neared midnight, cracked open what would be my last pop of my life, donating the other three to the fridge. I’m not quite sure what majestic spark of foresight came over me at that night, but it really was a power that possessed me. It lasted well into the next day, as I was able to rally a number of too faithful friends to start what would become the most important tradition in my life: New Year’s Day Movie Hopping. This year will mark the 11th consecutive trip to the movie theater on New Years, and I don’t even know how I’ve made it so long. (The first time I went alone in 2013, hungover like a newborn baby, I cried gallons unrelenting with empathy through back to back tragedies in Life of Pi and Les Miserables. Now, I find going alone is like a day long meditation run, fleeing my own body for the tribulations of others.)

The soda pact lasted about two years. I still drink it less times in a year than fingers on my hands, but it’s especially hard to cut out once you get to college and have to hide your alcohol with something. The bigger impact was my first conscious step to acknowledging my own health. It led to me being vegetarian for five years — a lifestyle I still try to muster, at least in my own cooking. I’ve never been one to follow through with resolutions, and yet looking back I’ve had success with simple but major choices in my life before.

Almost two years ago (two years, what the hell) I reprimanded any known attempts to make resolutions because of course, yes, they usually end in failure. I added that there was no sense in trying to drastically change an already content life. Two years is a long time in your twenties. I hadn’t even been in Japan for six months when I was thinking that. I was certainly content, but also becoming complacent. I wasn’t thinking about the future, I wasn’t planning for the things I would want to be doing. My current life was just starting, so I couldn’t even imagine how it would wind up. In that respect, I’ve had to revise my way of thinking. I’m again at a point in my life where major changes have been happening: I’ve got a new job, I’ve fallen in love, I’m still planning to move out of the countryside as soon as possible. I’ve always thought it was silly to start something just because it was a New Year, but I’m starting to realize the benefit in that. Just like quitting soda, or starting a new tradition, the new year is so easily quantifiable.

Last year, I went for a run with the indomitable Stefan Lemke. It was icy, and a Minnesota coldness I hadn’t experienced in twenty months. “I have a plan,” he started, with that terrifyingly gleeful look he gets whenever he’s been brewing on an impossible scheme, “Let’s run every day next year. Come one, we could do it, every day, no rest.” I instantly denied it. I had literally run every day of the previous October and knew it would be absurd to attempt it 12 times over. This year, however, I’m thinking again.

I think the reasons I thought resolutions as folly were always internal. Like my goal times in high school I was overestimating. I didn’t have a serious dream for myself, but only a joke. There’s the failure. I am not always going to be determined for the things that I want to do. I can make goals, but then I can decided when to give up. I especially don’t have to follow through when I don’t tell anyone about those goals.

(As an additional, I once watched a TED Talk about how you shouldn’t tell anyone about the goals you’re setting out to achieve. The idea was, that once you tell people you’re starting this goal, that mere act of sharing already feels like a reward of following through. Paradoxically you feel good in thinking, I’ve told people I’m going to do this, so I don’t actually have to do it. This is not my case.)

Instead of that, I’m going to share these ambitiously unachievable goals here where they can be as permanent and viewable as the internet allows. I’m going to find partners as willing as I am to set out for these plans, so we can hold each other accountable. And I’m definitely not going to make a notice about it whenever I fail (in my words, it’ll simply be a decision to devote time to other things).

So, here are not the resolutions, but my overestimated non-serious, but god-help me if I don’t try my best to do these everyday goals:

  • Run every day (with Stefan)
  • Write every day (@katie_barnes3 , if you’re down I’m down)
  • Study language every day (I’ve got someone to bother about this, too)

and in the long term:

  • read a good portion of The Book List  (at least some of the thinner volumes)
  • get out of credit card debt (so I can start focusing on student loans)
  • finish an art project (vague, I know, but there’s actually a plan)

of course, there are a few less stringent personal successes I have in mind, but those are better off kept to myself.

As for any of the above, feel free to bother me about them at any time. After the past months of changing jobs, travelling, and doing so much new in my life, I realized I need a little bit more consistency in my everyday. To that end, New Years is a no more important day than any other to start.

But it’s a hell of a lot easier to quantify.

 

PS // I wrote this next part in the middle of the blog, but it didn’t quite fit. I thought it was nice enough not to delete, though, so I’ll just put it here:

Last year, as the ball dropped, I was back in Minnesota. In the morning I woke up and had breakfast with my mom, I bought what is still my nicest dress shirt with my dad at Mall of America, I changed at my grandparents and went to a wedding with the people that could easily be considered as my second family, before the night was over I was able to stop by party of all my college friends, another family long lost, and then even flew into Tokyo for a few days before making the ride back home — the home of my present. I didn’t plan to have a resolution, but somehow it became one. Keep going but don’t forget where I am, because I’ll always have family. There’s a line from the Minneapolis rapper Slug that I hold in my core: “Roam if you must, but come home when you’ve seen enough.” Last year I was convinced to think about staying in Japan until the Olympics. This year I’m convinced that you never know where you’ll go.

Run

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. In fact the first 700 words are from a draft I started back in October. Those of you reading from the beginning will remember the time I drove eight hours just to see my track team run 12 miles in December. I thought about trying to tackle the subject then. That was an inspirational peak to the dedication I put towards the often least fun and uninteresting (especially in this country) hobby I have: running.

From the spring of 2015 I really got back in the mood for running. Post graduation had left me confused, and I really only used running while living in New York to keep a routine in my otherwise work filled life. As usually is the case, come winter I was back to a sporadic schedule of fitting in the time to run. I had to figure out how to get to where I was going — because after work was always dark it was only safe to run inside — or force myself to wake up and shiver my bones as I paced a slow jog through the neighborhood. When the snow finally melted and I was surrounded by my former college teammates starting their track season, I knew I had to get back into the condition I once had. My closest friends from college had decided to meet up from across the country and run a race in the beginning of April, and I certainly wasn’t ready to be shown up by them.

From there I only improved, even beating the times I’d barely been motivated to reach previously. There are plenty of things I loved about my college town, but the thing that comes to mind most when talking about running are the endless dirt roads. You could run undeterred; you would seldom worry about impact; you had no need for direction because counting miles was as easy as counting cornfields. Of course, there was the occasional rabid dog, but everyone needs a little pick up now and then. I was in a great environment. Only one day during April, in a foolish attempt to drop time off my steeplechase, my foot caught while jumping the barrier, and I staggered, and twisted, and tumbled. I hopped right back up at the same pace, but there was an immediate difference. I made it a fifty meters before I decided it wasn’t my vision, but indeed my body which wobbled unnaturally.

I’d always been cynically unfair about running injuries until then. Actually, to a point I still am. I totally blame my mental lack of focus for slipping up on that barrier. I definitely think I could have prevented it with a smarter race strategy. Regardless of the preparation, though, the outcome was the same. I rested, iced, stretched, and didn’t do what I wanted for two weeks before I slowly got back on my feet. Of course, I had a race to run. My mom had already signed me up for the TC One-Mile on a corporate team with her work, and heck, why not, it was just one mile, I’d been jogging pretty well until that point. The race was set in drizzling race down Hennepin Ave. I got out well, in the at the front of my heat, and pushed my way through the finish line to second (something like 17th overall). The race was a relief. I sprang where I needed to, burned through what hurt. It was when I finished that I started limping again.

So I was out for most of the summer. I had my first MRI to show that all I needed was some more rest, and as I prepared to head to Japan it really was better for me to focus some of that time elsewhere. I ran in San Francisco, Fargo, Seattle, working my way up from a couple minutes to half an hour. Of course, then I landed in Japan. A humid and rambling Tokyo. I had no time, let alone energy to run. It wasn’t until the lull that I actually made it out early on a grey and foggy morning  for an ethereal run along the river. I was back. I was fine: free of injury and ready to become the fastest man in Japan.

Of course, that was before I met Carmelo and was convinced to join him at beach for a foam party in Kanazawa. The next morning of seven stitches on the bottom of my foot put me out for another two weeks, just in time to start the school year with a new job and no clue what I was doing.

I joined up with the junior high’s track team in October, as soon as the speech contest ended. It felt great running with a team again, even if they were teenagers running kilos a minute slower than my normal pace. I truly admire the person who can run on their own at will with complete determination. Most times I’m with them. I love the feeling of fatique, the aching highs, and  glorious views from the middle of nowhere. They can easily get me out of the door on spring days. It’s the summer mornings, the winter winds, the storms in fall that need motivation. Seeing these kids (although compulsory) get out and run everyday including weekends was more than enough proof that I could do it too.

So, I ran in the warm winter which left Christmas Day with a high of 50°, and then the school’s season slowed down, and the snow came in. No one believes me when I say I put on weight. They always think it’s a good thing. It’s never a good thing. For me at least, the only reason I know I’m putting on weight is because I can see I’m putting on weight. My legs start to even out, my stomach loses definition. My butt certainly looks better, but sacrifices must be made to stay fit. One of the biggest things I’m afraid of is getting old. It’s not quite a fear of death, but it’s the fear of not being able to do what I want to do (and partial vanity). Sure, there’ll be a point where I won’t be able to break records while running, where I won’t have the energy to travel to new countries, and one night at an izakaya will put me out for a week, but that time is not yet. It’s bad enough my hair is falling out, but I can’t do anything about that. My strength, my fitness, and health, however, I can maintain. It’s a necessity for me now. I would be uncomfortable otherwise.

Last year, in a post I never got around to publishing, Ole track star and former teammate Joe Coffey came and visited me before gallivanting off to China. We went for an hour long run in the middle of July noon, and I was pretty happy I could keep up with his jet-lagged pace. It’s hard to think that I’ve maintained any bit of fitness, but coming off a National Championship team my senior year of high school probably helps. Running is as much about the spirit as the actual training. It’s never about how far or long you run, but the quality of those miles and minutes. Even between long hiatuses there’s no laziness to getting back into it. Even when I run alone, I’m always running for the team. That was early July, and it refreshed my running routine.

By the end of the month I ran my first race since my failed steeplechase a year before. It was a 10k, my first, in the early morning of a sunny day. Carmelo and I had stayed the night before at the house of one of his student’s. They’d fed us plenty of food, but I think we were prepared enough for the task. However, it would be my first time running over 5k since the end of my cross country season back in 2014 (which now seems scarily too far away). Due to last minute bathroom breaks and a false crowd at the starting line (there was literally a queued line for the next race one hundred meters back from the actual start line) we were running to the race before the gun went off. I made it to the front and took the lead by 2k clipping along at a 3:15 pace. After all, this type of running isn’t really a sport in Japan (I thought) so winning it shouldn’t be too far out. The actual winner to the lead by the third kilometer, and I dropped to fourth right after the halfway turnaround. Fourth wasn’t too bad for beginning the season, at least until the last kilometer when I got passed again to take fifth. I still got a medal and nice certificate proclaiming my place. I took it as many lessons learned, determined to improve.

The next month I went to Tsuruga, a beach town an hour south. This time I had no expectations, and no one knew I was there, so I decided to just run how I wanted. Not many people consider a 10k race as a leisure activity. Maybe I should’ve taken it a bit more seriously. From the gun it took twelve seconds for me to even cross the line, and after that getting into any position to move took plenty of dodging between older raisins chucking along in tube socks and nylon jerseys. By the end of 2k I was running alone with just a few others stretched out in front and back of me. I tortured myself through the seventh kilometer, just waiting for the point when we’d start to circle back towards the finish line. It wasn’t until another three minutes that I found the next gear on a narrow path under the shade of trees. I wound up 11th, which isn’t too bad considering I ran it alone and had no one to impress. (A side note, after the race I ran into another ALT who’d just arrived from England and wound up eating lunch at the beach. It was pretty cool not to rely on the regular events or social media and meet someone the old fashion way. As a foreigner, I think it’s hit or miss in this area to strike up a random conversation with someone friendly. Usually they only think I’m asking for directions.)

After that race in September I had my final 10k of the season in late October. The weather here is much nicer that what I was used to in final season championships back in Minnesota, so it wasn’t too bad. The race was sandwiched perfectly between two bouts of rain. I wound up second to the guy who beat me in the first race. Could that all really have happened over eight months ago?

I lost my fitness again, a bit, over the winter. From the beginning of the year I signed up for four races all within five weeks to keep me motivated. As far as I know races in Japan don’t let you sign up the day of, and the deadline for even local races can be months before the actual event. I came in prepared and spent over $100 on entrance fees by the end of February. The snow this winter was pretty mild, too, so it didn’t inhibit my will to run. I made a task out of running everyday by April. Thanks to tests at school, club practices were cancelled, so I had to run at my own pace with no excuse to slow down.

The first race was local, just in the neighboring city. I got there by train in the early morning, and after wondering around to check in and find a place to put my stuff I ran into another English teacher.

“Hey are you running! I hurt my leg, but a couple other ALTs are here doing it to. Do you want me to watch your stuff?”

It’s always better to have someone at a race. Even if the chills and anxiety are fleeting, a familiar face does a lot to cheer up an over serious mood. Plus, I didn’t have to worry about where I’d put my stuff. (Being this is a small town in Japan, I wouldn’t worry anyway, but just saying.)

The race was quite like jumping into a pool for the first time in the summer. While you’ve leapt into the air you get the sudden sense that you’re body isn’t quite ready for this because although it’s hot out, that water is freezing cold. Then the plunge excited you and sure your body reacts badly, but once you stretch out and bob you realize the feeling is kind of nice. I started in the middle of the pack again behind guys twice my age. This was like waiting in line for the diving board. The start was actually on half a track so I wove between the legs, as the real leaders took off. I had a pace in mind and came through the first kilo in 3:30. Was this too fast or too slow? I tried to do the math. Ten kilometers, 3:30 a clip, would put me at 33 minutes, right? That’s not too bad. I ran through the second k thinking this way. Wait, that’s wrong, though, that’s not how minutes work. I readjusted and figured I was going ten seconds too slow in the start which would put me right on time for this split. I think.

Running is a sport to focus on the ahead. It’s a sport to ignore all thoughts in your brain. It is not a sport to be thinking about math outside of a base ten system.

By the halfway point I thought I was right on time, and I’d been holding back to make sure I had enough energy for the finish. I picked up the pace, taking a couple of guys drafting with me. By the time we were less than a mile I was running alone with death sucking the air from my lungs. I couldn’t pull out any more energy like that, but managed to stave off any chasers. I wound up third. Alright, but admittedly unprepared.

I rented a car for the next race. It was in Ono, a mountainous town over an hour away. I was in much better shape two weeks after the first race, and even came with energy gels for before the race and muffins for after. I wrote the pace on my arm this time: 3:18, 6:36, 9:54… I’m genuinely surprised at how many people come out for these events. They fill all kinds of races from family 2ks to high school 5s. The biggest contrast being, I never see a lot of people running around. Like, does anyone practice to race, or do they just live healthy enough lifestyles to wing it. In the US I think it’s the opposite. Everyone is keen on getting out and showing off their bodies by the lake or bike path, but when it comes to actually competing the races are left to more serious runners. I guess there are pluses and minuses to each.

ono marathon field of participations

I tried to restrain myself from the start as the leaders didn’t go out too far ahead of me, but still seemed a bit over my pace. I didn’t want to run alone, but we also caught up to the previous half marathon that went off five minutes before, so it wasn’t like I didn’t get a gust of enthusiasm every time I passed someone. There was a point during the third kilo when we finally broke into flat land, surrounded by green rice fields and the encircling mountains. It was about that time my brain was complaining to my body for working too hard. I took the moment to look around and soak in everything. It was beautiful, the best sort of distraction, and refreshed every part of the race. I was behind my pace, and behind the leaders, but I had the mindset to keep driving.

Reaching the halfway point, I started to panic. Picking up the pace wasn’t pulling me any closer to the leading two runners, and as much as running is physical it’s also mental. I knew I had to act. I had to get at least right behind them before we turned around. If they saw how far behind I was they’d only get a boost to keep it that way. I myself would also suffer a perspective of futility. I pushed toward them, glancing at my watch, calculating the possibility of making it. And then they reached the cone, and turned around, and still fifteen meters behind in a crowd of upbeat half-marathoners, I turned around after them. And then I did something stupid. I surged.

It was a ridiculous and bold move that I’ve certainly never tried before. It wasn’t a surge, but a full on sprint, like watching the final kick of a two mile, but just halfway through the race. I didn’t actually mean to go so fast. I whipped past the guy in second already dropping behind, and then met the guy in first and kept going. With a couple of strides more I thought I was done for. The pace was unsustainable and I just waited for the moment that my legs stopped moving. I did slow down, but my watch was not far off from the pace I wanted. More importantly, I’m pretty sure I passed that crushing mentality I was trying to avoid onto the runner I’d passed. With no one ahead of me this time, I had nothing but the bike ahead of me to try and catch up to. It was a fun notion, like track dogs chasing a rabbit, an irrational motivation that I somehow believed was attainable. If only I could get closer to him, and draft away from this horrible wind, for just a little while.

ono meisui marathon award ceremony

I ended up winning that race. The first win for me in Japan, actually. It felt good, and when I crossed the finish line I became revitalized. Out of all the races I’ve done, this certainly was the one to win, too. When we lined up for the award ceremony I bowed and received my certificate. Then I got an even bigger certificate, and a trophy. They put a medal around my neck and handed me a keychain. To top it all off, my full hands were given a final paper bag with a container of locally made miso.

The next week I traveled south, to go to a race that some of my former students were participating it. They’re a few that went to this high school specifically for running, so I was excited to see if they improved. The course was entirely on a highway, without so much of the good views as the previous. I knew before I ran I had to be careful because there was a long straightaway and the wind was absolutely brutal. My first kilometer was 3:05 versus my last which was about 3:33. I got a bit swept into excitement at having some people there who’d be watching my race, but I also paid attention to something I hadn’t before: the record. Now that I’d won a race it wouldn’t be much of a goal to just keep winning. I needed to go for the next step: be the most winningest of them all. Some of these race records have held up over decades, so they wouldn’t fall easily. But they also weren’t to far off my current time, or my best. Unfortunately, without preparation and the right mindset, I fell short of getting this one by half a minute. The wind on the final stretch slaughtered any hopes. Even if I thought to push forward a bit, it walloped me back tenfold. I still won, with minutes between me and second place, and got a few rewards for the effort (although, they were pickled vegetables which I don’t quite have a taste for). I stuck around to enjoy the weather and talk to my students, two who’d just started school in April and one who’d graduated last year, and was very thankful they’re English hasn’t degenerated to just “I have a pen” quite yet.

dillon with mikata high school runners and awards

The last of my races until end of July was on June 11. It was at the Dinosaur Museum in Katsuyama. I drove up with my neighbor, Yukie, because she’s from the nearby area. We met her family, an aunt who’s 87, and went to the race a bit early. I’d just come off of a rotten week where I had full on flu and even took a sick day for the first time in my life. Put that together with a runner from out of state who held the current 10k record from the previous year’s race and I was maybe doomed from the start. On my warm up I ran into the guy who’d gotten third place from the race I ran in Ono. I suppose I’m easy to recognize, but I noticed him because his hair is relatively curly and  height above average for Japan.  He told me he was also a teacher in the nearby area, where he grew up, and mostly he ran races to stay fit for skiing in the winter.

“Do you know cross country skiing?” He asked in Japanese.

“You can do that here?!”

For all my time in Japan — especially living near a nationally renowned ski resort — I’ve had to explain to people that I in fact do ski, but it’s not the downhill kind, and thus the kind that they maybe even didn’t know existed. He told me about the areas that were OK for nordic skiing, and that his older brother was a world competitor on the Japan team. Being that I’ve never gone downhill skiing here, I doubt I’ll ever have the means to go cross country, but since he’s almost the same size as me, it’s nice to know there’s an option.

From the beginning I took the race a bit fast in the lead. Most of the first half was entirely downhill, though, so with my long legs I tried to use that as an advantage. Almost immediately I could feel the effects of the flu dragging on my muscles. The entire thing was a drag, and I when we finally left the wooded area in the sun, I was passed. It wasn’t until halfway that I found the spirit to actually try and catch up. For a while I was, too, but the leader also had the energy to split the distance between us. The final 2k seemed an impossibly long distance to cover in seven minutes, and it actually took me a bit longer. I had no clue who was behind me, but when I crossed the finish line it wasn’t too long before my warm-up partner finished in third. Well, I guess I get to focus on winning again.

dillon in front of dinosaur head at katsuyama marathon katsuyama marathon 10k winners

Five weeks of four races isn’t really the smartest thing to do, but with the heat of the summer rolling in, I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunities. I’m taking a week off (with plans to go to Tokyo), and then will have another month until my next race. That one is local so I’ll have to try even harder to guarantee I win.

 

 

Update

It’s easier to say six months ago than half a year.

Half a year seems too far away. Half a year ago I had so much time, so many plans, so many choices yet to make. Six months ago was a bit more organized. I had the small goals to reach, the decisions to focus on one by one. For example, in January I had to decide whether I’d continue my contract for another year. I didn’t. In February I would visit Hokkaido for the winter festival. I planned for that, but not for an unexpected visitor to extend that into a week long vacation. By March, I would pay off my first student loan and use my tax return to pay off half of another. I succeeded in the first act, but turns out not paying federal taxes because I live in Japan means I don’t have enough taxes to warrant a return. The spring break was followed by a doubly unexpected visit and vacation plans that actually put me further away from my goals. I’ve gone to two job fairs, slowly polished my LinkedIn account, and have every job finding app alerting me every minute on my iPhone to some new opportunity perfect for my field. I’ve purged my closets and drawers of random socks or flyers to make a more minimalist living. I’ve looked at maps of where to go, and where I’ve been, and where opportunities might lurk waiting to be hunted down.

And I have two months. In reality it’s less than two months. If I pretend it’s two months than it will look organized. Those small goals will be met right on the deadline, but the overarching picture will be lost. If I wait until the end of July to understand what I’m going to do next I’m doomed. Instead I’ve been looking at it in paychecks. After all, those are what actually determine my safety. After the next seventy days will I have enough money to stay in Japan, continue to pay my student loans, have a place to live?

All of this I say lightheartedly, unable to muster the stubborn pessimism of my parents, falling in line more with their siblings. I’m not worried. Even now as I apply to jobs I’m finding things that I would love to do, and maybe more surprisingly that I’m qualified to do. I’m still studying Japanese, among other things, even though I can’t speak worth the time I’ve been here. My apartment is clean, and certainly warmer as the spring rolls in. I’m running more now that the weather agrees with my hobbies, and at least in the vaguest of senses back to making art. I’m not reading or writing nearly as much as I should or want to, my hair is slowly falling out, and I’m in more credit card debt than this time last year, but the wise philosopher Vonnegut once said, “so it goes.”

I think worst of all, I’m having a lot of fun. Over the past six months, half a year, several paychecks, credit card bills, burned CDs, photo uploads, anime seasons, onsen visits, and bullet trains I’ve twisted through every option of my future and where exactly I want to end up. I simultaneously don’t want this lifestyle to end, while fully supporting the drive to move on to something new.

I’m not calling this a revival, but this post isn’t very long, so if you’re still reading this don’t give up hope that I’ll write a couple more before long. After such a hiatus I’ve actually found a number of drafts more than half-way done that I never got around to publishing. Like all things in life, there’s never enough time, but in looking towards the future I think it will be good to catch up on the past. Only time, or seventy days in this case, will tell.

Pokémon

When the game first came out I heard about it from Carmelo. He pulled it up on his phone, and I watched baffled how such a thing could exist. I downloaded it, and learning it wasn’t released in Japan, set it aside for later use. When it did get released, I was still using a disintegrating iPhone 5C wihtout a working clock or GPS. On one hand all my lucky eggs and incense were infinite (a bug now solve, by the way), on the other I could hardly catch any Pokémon because I was stuck in one spot. Once I finally got a new phone in the mail, I logged on and twirled around the screen, hopping at any moment a Pokémon would pop up. I was a bit disappointed. The gameplay for Pokémon Go still has a lot to make up for, and without the surge of popularity I probably would’ve deleted the app and just bought a DS and Japanese copy of Black or White secondhand.

Then midway through August I was strung out on my cash. My unexpected vacation to the Narita airport set me back almost $300. The lack of school activity also made my weekdays a bit more translucent. At night I my typical bedtime was moving further and further back. With a bit more time on my hands, and not too many free things to do (in the countryside) I found any excuse to be distracted. It came on a Sunday morning. I woke up earlier than usual for the weekend, feeling refreshed, and instantly did my laundry. By 10 o’clock, I had a vacuumed apartment and a bright and sunny day ahead of me. So thinking I’d go downtown to run some errands, I hopped on my bike and (because I’m a dangerous fool with ignorance to caution) pulled up the Pokémon Go game.

The next seven hours was filled with me riding around in the sun, waiting for my phone to vibrate, hatching several eggs, and searching out whatever Pokéstops I could find. By the end of the day I’d leveled up, attained a couple medals and increased my Pokédex. I felt pretty accomplished, but not only for my status in the game. Following the tiny map on my phone, I’d discovered parts of the city I hadn’t bothered exploring before. Perhaps one of the biggest visitor’s spots we have, Murasaki Shikibu Park, which was always just a block away from my apartment, is something I never stepped into before. I took a tiled pathway from there and found the back roads past the community pool to the post office. I discovered the town has way more shrines and temples than I ever imagined. There are plenty of remnants from decades ago, too, where the city was bigger and full life. That was during a baby boom before the population decline fell into crisis mode.

Playing the game made me realize more about the community I’m placed in, what has been thriving, just how many other people play Pokémon Go. There are plenty of restaurants that look delicious and even side streets that at night turn into a time machine for the past. So often as I make my way home, I’ll get distracted by a rare Pokémon that will divert me to a difference way.

Often this happens when I’m running. Granted, it’s not the best thing to play as a runner (you tend to stop and reorient yourself a lot), but it’s also one of the main supporters in getting me out the door. I’ve been running everyday for over a month now — something I could hardly do in college. It also keeps me out longer, going just a bit further, to see what’s around the corner, or to hatch that second 5k egg.

On trips it can be especially fun. When I went to Tokyo last month, I kept getting a buzz from my phone, looking at the map to catch some Pokémon, and then noticing a bunch of Pokéstops in a nearby place. Especially in bigger cities, if you follow the trail it usually leads you to some sort of tourist attraction or sightseeing place, or even just something locally worth knowing about.

242

I write this because when you ask me what I’ve been up to the past 2 months I would definitely be lying if I didn’t mention Pokémon Go. In light of the election which I’ve been following off NPR podcasts and radio fervently, it’s nice to have a lighter distraction. It’s a mind-and-time sucking game with significant amounts of room for improvement. But it’s also kept me active, choosing to go outside on a better (or even typhoon) weather day than stay in and watch movies. I suspect the fads and interest in parts of America are dwindling as they are in Japan. Whenever I do go out to hunt down a silhouette on my Pokétracker, though, I still see the devoted fans, walking by with cell phones raised, or standing still and flicking their screen, and at least for now I’ll join them.

Overtime

If you’ve questioned my existence in the past couple of months, don’t worry, I’m right there with you. Truth is I’ve got a backlog of drafts to posts because I have been doing a decent amount of adventuring. On top of that, however, I’ve also been working. Really, at this point it’s hardly working and more like living. And although for the longest while it was mostly like riding a storm, I think there’s finally a rainbow in the sky.

For the past 19 days I’ve gone into work. It started on June 6, a Monday, but an unusual Monday because I actually technically had the day off. The previous Friday all the students had gone either Kyoto, Tokyo, or a campground for school trips (while me, my co-American, the secretary, and vice principal were stuck all day in the school’s teacher’s office), and since the trip would overlap into Saturday, we got the consecutive school day off. I thought I’d go in to work on the blank bulletin board outside our language room. I did actually pump out a couple of posters (grammar mistakes aside), but I also signed on for a much bigger project.

As part of my job requirement, during the summer I’m put into two English day camps. Last summer my experience with these were mixed, by the end of the day I was comfortably enjoying my time, but completely exhausted and not at all thrilled at spending half the day sweating in a humid gym full of teenagers. Turns out this summer there was even more to dislike. One of the English teachers at my school had been designated as director of this year’s camp, which handles the duty of going organizing materials and meetings. I suspect this is usually an easy process of distributing the materials from last year, tweaking the cover page, and the endless supply of typos. In fact, going over a binder that was passed down to me from the lead ALT from last year I found out that in the past 7 years nothing has changed. From the crappy WordArt text to the even worse and borderline racist/sexist clipart, it seems the only thing that had been shuffled around were some of the games for one of the workshop. So really, the collective of schools coming to this meeting each just had to approve this ancient text of DIY 90s design and be on our merry way.

However, there’s a flaw in this design because although the Japanese teachers a liable for the camp, they rely almost solely on the dozen or so ALTs to take charge of the groups, motivate the activities, and make the day a success. The fact that we ALTs are almost entirely not of Japanese culture and thus don’t accord to Japanese bureaucracy also means we don’t sit idly. As an American I tend to question everything, and as a person I’m typically the worst when it comes to agreeing with anything neutral. So, hardly flipping through the poorly contrasted pages of this mono-colored document I knew this year would be different. Even outside of the fact that I’m a control freak who doesn’t work well with others, this f-ing camp hasn’t been changed in SEVEN years! On top of that, each year there are pages of feedback precisely listed out for each moment of the camp. It’s like they looked at it, nodded a bit, and said whelp we’ve already got the material so no need to change it.

Now, I’ll take a breath and admit to being a bit crass. These camps are always extra work for teachers who are already working enough, and I can see the full reason why they would just want to get it over with. Especially since ALTs are typically not expected to do any work with the planning of the camp. But really to think that over the past decade no one has been capable to come up with some improvements or just try something new seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to step in. Here’s where I’m also really glad that I’m so chill with my English teachers. They don’t have a problem asking for my assistance or advice, or the way I want to be involved with the school just like every other teacher. So on that Monday afternoon when I was at school even though I didn’t need to be (with practically half the other teachers) and I turned to my neighboring English teacher poured over papers on his desk like he was filing taxes to ask “What’re you working on?” his short reply of “Oh, just the summer seminar.” got me wrapped up in this biz that I’ve only temporarily levied.

Usually I make it to at 7:15, not the first person but usually in the first crowd. I need this time to unwind. At the start of spring I actually was the first person to arrive, overestimating my biking time, and just hung out on the grounds watching the sunrise until someone else arrived and unlocked the doors. This behavior wasn’t planned entirely. I’d just slowly gotten in the habit at going to bed at 9 o’clock, and as a result left me waking up at 5 the next morning. Eventually I started naturally moving the time even earlier, and instead of being cooped in a small apartment decided I needed to just start the day. For a while I was running, until one time I went a mile into a run and got soaked in the heaviest torrent of biting rain I’d least expected. When I made it home three miles later I found my kitchen turned into a pool and my mattress was a sponge. I rushed to shut the windows and whipped out my space heater and recently acquired fan while draping bed-sheets and towels across desktops and counter-space.

I’d finally nailed the average of waking up, making scrambled eggs while listening to MPR/All Things Considered, showering and shaving, making a PBJ sandwich, dressing, and eating said sandwich, heading out the door, and arriving to school at just the right time. From there I’ll pull up three tabs on my computer: WaniKani for quick studying, Lifehacker for general well-being, and Bloomberg currency rates to see just exactly how much (until recently) I’ll suffer when I send money home. Then we have a morning chat for about twenty minutes.Each morning one class gets split into ten groups of three students to talk with me or my co-ALT. Usually it’s great, but it’s quite monotonous and if I’m unlucky the three minutes we talk will be a grueling roll of fishing for answers. Hopefully when the first bell rings, I’m not going to class, and if I am I only pray I don’t have class back to back. Any planned class activities or even periods are regularly changed which leaves me with a heap of last moment adjustments and worksheet creations. If my version of Microsoft Office wasn’t entirely in Japanese, I would be a pro by now.

At 3:30 there’s a bit of respite: fifteen minutes for mokudou, a traditional style of of the regular “cleaning time” ripped from zen monasteries where the students wipe down the floors and walls of school silently. It’s a brief relief since after that and a sort of cool down meeting they all zip off to their club activities and I gather with the track team outside the school. That practice usually lasts over two hours, yet we still only manage to run between 5 to 7 miles every day. I forgot how easy I used to have it with running. Our fastest guy can run a 4:30 1500m but most of them are struggling to break 5.

At least when it wasn’t June, now would be the time I go home. Actually, I’d rally a bit of studying in, mope around on Flipboard to figure out what global events I’ve missed out on, stop by the grocery store and then make it home around 7. Lately I’d gotten into watching Japanese anime (as “listening practice” for my upcoming test) while waiting for the next season of Mr. Robot to come out, but I’d also been trying to sit down and make sure I write for at least an hour each day. Well, that was before I signed on for this summer camp.

Every night for a week I stayed past 10 o’clock, and always left earlier than at least one of my co-workers. Then the following Saturday after an awesome start to the day with track practice — something I’ll write about later — I wound up staying at school until 11 o’clock. For the next week that became my new norm, but I didn’t exactly mind. I found out a lot more about some of my co-workers who’d go in and out throughout the night. A majority of nights someone brought in ice cream treats or snacks from the nearest conbini, and over such a span the workload became manageable. Except that was for me, the boy who started packing his dinners, got to exercise halfway through the day, and didn’t really have any responsibilities waiting at home. I figured I’d really be wasting my time watching TV shows anyway, so I might as well stay and be productive. Most of my co-workers, though, have lives. This is especially true of the English teacher leading the seminar (the same free spirit that took me surfing in January). He has two young boys at home and can hardly get the chance to see them before they go to bed at night any given week day. Apart from last Tuesday, the final marathon where we both were the last to leave a few minutes after midnight, I’ve never seen him leave school before me. That is the aforementioned bureaucracy I’m trying to combat. The mindset of overworking is embedded in almost all job I’ve come across in Japan, but that is especially true of Junior High School teachers. They act like surrogate parents, but to the extreme that they are more responsible for a lot of things the students do. So they stay at school and work because working from home is still a milestone many parts in Japan have yet to reach. It’s actually such a problem that the prime minister is rapidly working to change the culture. My guess is he hopes if more people can go home early then maybe more people will start having babies and solve the current population conundrum between the generations.

But, it’s really easy to fall into. Without really meaning to I just fell into the system. I’ve had Rhinna’s “Work” running through my head for the past week, and it’s sort of a sadistic meditation. I was averaging 12 hour days, seven days a week and thinking that finally I would make a permanent change.

And then we had a meeting for the summer seminar.

As I mentioned, it’s rare that ALTs have any part in the planning of the seminar and so showing up to the meeting was probably an uncomfortable surprise for the other teachers. I remember in high school and college hearing the foreign language teachers talk together in non-English while going down the halls and thinking how awesome they were. Here those instances are fewer. Of course, whenever one of the ALTs are around at my school all the teachers are well equipped to discuss in English, but I feel like the majority default to Japanese. So the meeting went, with awkward exchanges as some of the teachers tried to encourage the use of only English, and other stuck strictly to Japanese. I get how intimidating it can be to sit in a room with an official meeting of important things surrounded by your peers who can immediately judge your skill by comparing it to their own, but both me and the other ALT at my school (both far below the level of Japanese used here) were present so the lack of any effort was a bit annoying.

Even more annoying was the inevitable fact that I didn’t want to back down from any of my ideas. I was extremely dismayed and bolstered at the shudder that went through the meeting room at the mention of change. Sure, I was biased toward my ideas, but some of the members were also biased against them. The part of the camp I was most critical towards was a moment were the students “travel the globe” and learn about other cultures. On the surface it’s not the worst idea, except this year 7.5 of the eight ALTs who can help with preparation are white Americans (myself included), while the remaining Jamaican — upon finding out she’d have to talk about her country’s culture — replied, “Oh, please don’t make me do that.” So the deepest concern is accurate representation. Especially from the current climate of American cultural politics ethnic stereotypes are something to avoid at all cost. When you combine that with a group of people who freely left their country for more than a year and add in the already abstruse diversity of American culture it’s really hard to figure out where to start.

In the end, the duel was worth more than the victory. I learned a lot about forming a compromise, how I could’ve approached my ideas more effectively, and accepting that maybe my ideas weren’t all that anyway. We did end up changing all the games to well rounded activities that focus on spontaneous uses of English in a group dynamic, and gave the student more freedom in creatively forming original ideas for a skit at the end. The cultural aspect remains, but I’ve given into an over-representation of part of my heritage can still be done respectably. I still have doubts about if teenagers from a country who’s 98.5% homogenized ethnicity can really grasp the fact that I’m Irish-Swedish-African-Native-American-and-some-big-unknown, but it helps that my area has a decent minority of Brazilian and Asian immigrants and even a few random ex-pats from Her Majesty’s colonies. If I really wanted to get into I’d point out how even that raises a problem because so often assumptions are made towards any given class of students as being entirely Japanese (like, “Let’s find out about another country’s culture.”), which even further alienates the ethnically mixed Filipino and Thai students in the bunch.

That meeting was the straw. Over the next week I amended the changes being made and my co-American ALT (who’d been gone over the weekends to meet her friends visiting from America) finally snapped me back to reality with a poignant, “Go home, man.” It was a bit of fun taking on the role of a true Japanese salariman, but also deeply disturbing that a significant portion of people live that way. Sure, I don’t really have any responsibilities in my life apart from work, but I certainly have better things to do.


So, with that I’m back. At least for now. I do have a couple of posts just waiting to be updated, and in the next couple of days I’m being visited by a friend from America and taking my first vacation days in order to show him around Kyoto and Osaka. If you’ll remember I foolishly let my camera get stolen which is why lately the posts are lacking in photos, but I’ll make a point of snapping some memories from now on. You still have yet to see my new haircut. Also I moved. Come to think of it, a lot has happened before I started this working streak. Look forward to it.

Mac

www.halfwayanywhere.com

All the way back in the late fall you may remember me following a whim and taking an incredible weekend to hike and camp with a master. That was a highlight, but throughout my time here I’ve really come to count on two veterans, Mac and Carmelo, to help me pass some of the unbearable moments of living in rural Japan. Usually it was just an evening for beers and conversation, sometimes it’d include Karaoke, and even the occasional bowling-izakaya-all out party. If I needed to know something: “Do I really need to wear dress shoes to this ceremony?” “Is the bonenkai worth the price?” “How should I spend my winter vacation?” “Would a snowboard be a good investment?” Tyler was always the one with the correct answer. As I recently just messaged him about which type of camping supplies I’d need for weekend hikes in the summer, he still is a pretty good standard for advice. The only unfortunate thing is he now lives in Australia. Well, unfortunate only for me and anyone who lives within a 50 km radius of Fukui.

It seems after hiking to the top of the nearest and furthest peaks in Japan, the ultimate in between of monotonous grading and demeaning lesson planning finally became enough. Again it makes me thankful for having another ALT at my school, and  six fantastic and competent teachers to work with. Not everyone is so lucky. After venturing to Everest base camp for the second time over winter vacation Mac announced he’d be moving on to the next great thing.

Apart from a small tribute, I wanted to recognize that this is the first in presumably many departures that I’ll have to get used to. Come the end of the school year a month from now all the third years will graduate to high school, as well as the mystery of which teachers will switch schools. See around here (and I think most all of Japan) the teachers are bound to the local board of education and can be shuffled around any given year to other schools in the district often without notice. It’d be like a junior high school teacher working for an American county, but then add in all the elementary schools as well. Thankfully the likelihood that any of my teachers leave is low, but six is still a lot for this school.

From there three months will pass and then a bigger mixture of ALTs will leave. From the eleven foreigners who live by me,  at least five will move out. Honestly I haven’t thought like this since I was back in high school, paying attention to school years. Mac has started the inevitable impermanence we must face while being part of the JET program.

For me, Mac was a great rally cry to turn toward whenever the man (in this case multiple agencies) got me down. He really worked as a foundation for the community I’d developed, so it’s tough to see him leave.

I remember when I left New York one of my roommates who was a poetry professor explained it like this, “every semester you get new students, and every year you say goodbye. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, but sometimes you recognize them on the L train and they say ‘hello’ and it’s just something you get used to.”

It’s funny cuz this is a short guy with a beard and rock climbing fix, who biked across Manhattan back to Brooklyn on the hottest day of the summer to pick up an acoustic guitar, he would sing folk songs all throughout the day and discuss Cormac McCarthy at night, he was vegan by default of our other roommate, and took in the feral cat that his ex-girlfriend left with him.

For a lot of reasons Mac has the same vibe, and will be the spirit I’ll try to imbue as I continue the often mundane life I’m living. I’m already considering taking his bigger apartment in order to host people more often, and scouring the net for any references to hiking in Japan (of which Mac has already written some of the best). I’m already dreading the time that Carmelo leaves, but I’m also working to be the adventure I want to have in my life. Off of Mac’s model I’ve written out a list of things for me to accomplish in the coming seasons and years. Hoping they’ll continue to keep me from mindlessly bingeing on Netflix and Imgur, and become a little more self reliant.


If you didn’t check the link at the top here’s your second chance:  www.halfwayanywhere.com . Mac’s got a really neat website that I highly reccommend. Also if you’re planning on buying any outdoor gear he’s got plenty of deals, and if you use his links you’ll also be helping him when you check out.

Debt

Fresh off the indulgent heels of the New Year vacation, my post paycheck raid of Costco, and endeavors in Nagoya, I started to notice a big trend in the way I was spending money. Particularly the way I was spending too much of it. With a week left until paycheck all my good times had worn thin, and the budget I’d put in place was stretching beyond limits. After months of living paycheck to paycheck, I realized I finally needed to put into action some sort of plan to become financially free.

Last year I’d used a handy online service called Mint to keep track of my purchases. At the time it wasn’t really too difficult — half my paycheck went to rent while the other half went to student loans — but it was still nice to check-in and see how much negative my net worth could be on any given day. My post graduation stint in New York had stacked my credit cards to their limit which I barely managed to reign in after 0% credit card transfers and a plump tax return. When I came to Japan my credit cards (thankfully I only have two) were back to being maxed out as I had to pay for move in fees, furniture, and food, and wait it out until the first month’s paycheck. I stopped using Mint entirely because I had no idea what to budget and the yen was especially weak against the dollar. Unfortunately, Mint has yet to enable foreign currency, and since I was still paying student loans I was using both the yen and the dollar.

I got pretty good at handwriting my expenses on scraps of paper in my free time. They would include the easy essential like rent and utilities, but then the difficult questions popped up like, how much money should I send home? and, what are the chances that I go to a big city for a weekend? As one is want to do around New Years, I decided it was a good enough time to revive smart habits and keep track of my spending. In this case, I literally mean every cent I get and spend. It’s pretty easy to do because there’s also a cell phone app I can use. Before everything would plug into my debit/credit card accounts and automatically get marked in my budget. Now I have to consciously plug in each time I spend money: on food, bills, clothes, games. I use a 1:1 ratio for yen to dollars which also means that I’m technically saving money while all my trends seems more expensive, too.

february budget

By Valentine’s Day I was broke and finally coming down with the unavoidable cold that had stricken at least half my students. Stuck inside on the still cold weekends (a wet and rainy winter) straining my stock of groceries with dinners of rice and whatever canned goods I could find, I found a sort of resolute second wind to analyze my future even deeper. When it came down to figuring what I wanted to do — after having contracted for another year, meaning I’ll be in Japan until summer 2017 — the more pressing question seemed to be how I would be able to do it.

When I left St. Olaf, and before I really went, I had no clue what money has to do with anything. My family (including the many friends of my family) has always taken care of me, and there was no limit to supporting the things I wanted to do. With it was the facade that none of my eccentric interests from nordic skiing to running camps, volunteering with church, and gallivanting internationally with a youth choir  or study abroad programs came with any difficulty. Even the federal loans in my name that had been taken out for me for school went untouched all for years of school. I had no clue that when I got my first job outside of my work study that I should be saving for the future. And even when my college roommates mentioned it’d probably be a good idea, I still had no knowledge of the real price I was paying for tuition, or the fact that I could’ve started paying off my loans before I graduated. I should say that I think St. Olaf has made substantial improvements to increasing student awareness of post-grad life and employment opportunities, but for me, who was already a it stubborn and naive, it was three years too late. At the end of my senior year I had a brief session where my loan paperwork was put into a file and the dates of repayment were explained to me, but even that I couldn’t make heads or tails of. Instead, I connected my bank accounts, automated my payments (which would start six months after graduating, or January 2016), and set everything aside.

Until now, that is.

over time network

Many of my friends were lucky enough to graduate without debt, and I often become envious when talking with them. With only $40,000 in loans even I can’t fret too much, but it’s still at least $500 out of the bank each month. When calculating the interest by meeting just the minimum payments I was looking at paying $10,000 more than what I’d taken out. Even divided over a decade, a thousand dollars a year that I could instead save and put elsewhere didn’t seem nearly worth it. What about my emergency fund, inevitable housing down-payments, that thing they call a 401k?

So, the first big questions are answered: How much do I owe? How much will I pay? and when will I have to pay it?

The next questions were the real challenges: When do I want to be debt free? How much money can I afford to budget? What’s the snowball method everyone talks about?

The ideal date, of course, would be before I leave Japan. I feel there’s no use in saying as soon as possible because that has no tangential goal to it. Although, with the plan of only staying twenty four months in this country, and already being through six of them getting rid of all my debt which well over a year’s worth of salary even before taxes will probably be unlikely. So instead I’ve set an arbitrary five years as an absolute, with the formal plan being three years from now. I still want to live comfortably, but within my means. I’ve discovered that creating sound financial habits seems to be a better goal than constantly wiping away debt only to watch it grow again.

With that said, there’s the extremely meticulous task of figuring out how much money I can throw at my pile of debt an when I’ll be doing it. Since I’ve been here I’ve been focusing on getting rid of the credit card debt I racked up in the past months. It’s finally at its last couple hundred which means by next paycheck I’ll toss in the amount in my savings and unshackle that chain. Except if you remember I have two credit cards. While the one with the most expense on it is currently at 0% APR it also had double the amount of the other, remnants from New York, my junior year of college, or even the first time I’d gone to Japan. The fact is ever since I’ve had it, it’s always had a charge on it. This was definitely the mountain I’d been chipping away at.

As I mentioned before, I really had no clue what to do about money. A big reason for that is still letting my mom work as my health insurance and tax advisor, but those also come with the perks of taking care of my co-pay and getting an early tax refund. Such is the case for next month as my taxes have already been filed. There is so much that I fantasize using that money for: camping gear, a Playstation 4, even getting a car or at least upgrading my bike. However, now is the time for self control. I’ve looked at my debt as a game, and I definitely plan to win. My tax return can almost single-handedly take care of my last credit card, so it’s going towards nothing else.

Getting rid of credit card debt also means I could put the almost two hundred bucks I was spending every month, to the bigger behemoth of student loan debt. So, $200 added to the $500 seemed good enough, but there are still plenty of factors to consider. Every month of living in Japan has been a bit of a puzzle because of the exchange rate. When I first landed the yen was up to $1.22 to the dollar. That meant I lost more than a fifth of what I sent home. Thus the dilemma: should I send money home at a constant rate, or should I save over here and wait for the yen to get more even? The correct question is the latter, as the yen is finally dipping towards the $1.10 mark. But even then, can I trust my habits yet to conserve any surplus of money I’m hanging on to? At this point I’ve settled on sending the Japanese equivalent of $1000 home. It’s rough and arbitrary, and maybe once I see how all this planning unwinds I can reassess it, but for now I like the safety of knowing  I’ll have a meager cushion in my American bank account and an even point to work with over here.

monthly trend

Reaching the final stretch of financial figures — or at least my horizon line — the ultimate question was which loan to pay of first. I’ve got a private loan from St. Olaf that is the most expensive individual one (9%), a loan from Discover for when I studied in New York (8.5%), a federal loan through St. Olaf that I pay off quarterly (5%), and then an accumulation of federal loans that were distributed each semester equaling half of my total (avg. 4.4%). I’ll spoil it here and tell you that I’m paying them off in that order, but it was a decision with some thought. Economically it’s the best decision to pay off the loan with the highest interest because that results in the lowest overall interest cost. However, there was plenty of research to persuade me to take on the “snowball method” of paying off a small loan first. The idea is with the elimination of any debt no matter how small you become more motivated to stay on track. Except, in my case, I would already be clearing my credit cards which was already a sort of snowball in itself. Instead, I took the “stacking method” without the worry of self control or necessary motivation.

It certainly is slow progress, but it seems everyday I read some new article about personal finance, login to my Mint account, or draw up another budget for the next month which inspires me to continue the debt-free path. Especially as I turn toward considering what I could and want to do when I leave Japan, not having to worry about student loans keeps my options open. A scary part about living here is knowing that the salary is limited. Maybe I can be an artist in the future, but will have to take on unpaid internships, or consider myself a freelance writer without a steady income, and probably likely I’ll wind up in another city with absurd costs of living. Now I’m relatively safe (far from the reaches of Donald Trump’s presidency) and while I’m safe I might have to do the safe thing.

You hear a lot about the student debt crisis, and I definitely don’t think enough is being done through the government to regulate it. How can we expect higher education to be a necessity in entry level jobs without providing students the means to survive while having that entry level salary. I’m certainly glad and shaped by my experience at St. Olaf, but I applied to college as this issue was burgeoning across mainstream media. I guarantee my choices would’ve differed had I been smart enough to figure out the true cost of college.

Gavin asked me while we were discussing this at lunch the other day, “Wouldn’t you rather use that money to have fun now?”

Yes, of course I would, but I used to always think, what if I die tomorrow? All that saving would be for nothing. Although I still like to apply that thought to many aspects in my life (writing, travel, friendships), money is one where it can’t apply. With money I have to think, what if I don’t die tomorrow? As much as I don’t want to face the fact that I’m growing older the fact remain that I will eventually turn thirty. By then there are plenty of things I’ll want to finance, least of all being student debt.

Magic

Only a small amount of people who know me (mostly those who’ve lived with me) will know one of my nerdiest and strongest interests. Indeed even when I subtly tell people that  one of my hobbies includes Magic, they often only think of it as the Penn & Teller version that junior high school boys get into one summer and then hopefully give up in pursuit of sports or even theater. Alas, my Magic is much more functional, geeky, addicting, and always concluded with “: The Gathering.”

After an early departure from President, archaeologist, and astronaut — goals which even at the age of five I could tell were not as fun in real life as in the movies — there have only been a few futures that I’ve really ever been passionate about in my life. Sitting right between writer and artist, somewhere before lottery winner and globetrotter, comes the dream job title “Professional Card Player.” It’s not too hard to imagine where this would come from. Before I learned to count in school I was playing card games like war with my Grandma. From there it graduated to complexities like Canasta and somewhere around Junior High my Dad taught me the ins and outs of poker. After solving a Rubik’s cube while waiting between races at track meets, Kelson and I quickly went to conquering counting cards in Blackjack with eighteenth birthdays looming.

All the while my generation grew up on Pokemon, with a slew of cards to collect and a somewhat functional gameplay I’d try to figure out with the other boy who lived in the apartment above me. When I finally moved in elementary school I met another neighbor who turned me to my first otaku habit: the Saturday morning cartoon show and card game imported from Japan known as Yu-Gi-Oh! Really it was more like the Pokemon for teenagers and I became engrossed. My past times included waking up early on Saturday mornings to catch the latest episodes; delving over all my cards and makings lists of decks; walking the block to my local game store to play on Friday nights (ironically next to all the MTG players); forcing Mom to get me the PS2 and Gameboy spin-offs; not to mention towards the end writing my own fan-fiction that poised me as a finalist in the Battle City Tournament. If you haven’t looked it up yet, the Japanese word otaku is almost always synonymous with obsessed, and recalling it now it’s really unbelievable how much of a passion it can still stir up in me. Ah, the good ol’ days.

Upon entering the hurricane that is High School, however, those hobbies got replaced — or oppressed — as I focused on all the new things a burgeoning hipster has to discover. Occasionally I’d sort through my Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! (and Harry Potter) cards, I’d even briefly learned the basics of Magic with Kelson (using a starter deck Dad had bought me and X back in 2000), but really my overall appetite for the game became subdued. Although I should probably mention for the last two years of high school I got decent into WoW becoming a pretty heavy player over the summers, so maybe I only replaced the physical of strategy with a virtual one.

Then college happened and my MMORPG time was limited. I met a guy we called “Lucious” who ran for Olaf who shared my enthusiasm (at the least) and basically became my instructor for the intricacies of rules and gameplay. It was a lot easier to find time to talk about the game when you’re on an hour long run. Then an app came out for the iPad which made it easy to play, as well as an increase of material on their website and Youtube channel. What originally served as a distraction from homework has turned into a way to stay connected and social after college. When I was in New York with hardly any friends not named Kath, I was able to go to an awesome game store for some FNM where they even started to recognize me by name.

It’s quite popular in Japan, but I never really sought it out because the language difference. Instead I still find it easier and more convenient to play online (I focus solely on limited formats anyway), although, that still didn’t stop me for signing up for a huge tournament for February in Nagoya way back in December. I figured it was a good way to get me (who dislikes travelling alone) to go out an travel alone. When Gavin, who himself had sought out the Fukui MTG community, brought me to a pre-release tournament with a little over a dozen people at our local shopping mall — all in Japanese — I took it as a sign I was ready for the big leagues. You see, the biggest problem would be understanding the rules. Since everything is in Japanese, and there are over 200 cards in the set, I basically had to memorize the art from each card and then remember which rules and effects applied to them. Really when you’ve played through a new set each year, it’s not hard to follow intuition, but with each set comes a new group of mechanics which can sometimes throw you off balance.

Alright, the adventure begins:

I signed up for the event in late December, even though I’d been considering it since before the fall. That gave me well over a month to make of some sort. Since in half a year I hadn’t drifted very far from Fukui, I’d never been to Nagoya let alone really knew it’s relative location. My former roommate Yasushi had always said he’d lived close to Nagoya, but I couldn’t remember, did he mean the city or the prefecture? I was a little lacking on the details, so assuredly I’d reach out to the JET community and find someone to stay with, probably someone else who’d be going to the event, too. That’s what I thought, at least, and unfortunately anyone who knows me knows that I’m a class S procrastinator. The week of the tournament approached and livin’ on a pray I just decided to wing it like most things. Remember only the weekend before I’d gone to Costco and stretched my budget a little bit more than I’d wanted. A hotel was certainly out of the question, but a capsule was something to look forward to. A lot of this trip hearkens to my experience in Tokyo last September, so I figured if I could do it there than Nagoya would be a piece of cake.

Luckily enough, about two days before the day I was planning to leave by God only knows what kind of transportation, I got a message from Gavin connecting me to one of the guys who runs most of the the local Magic events. Through my elementary Japanese and broken English we figured a way to meet and car pool with another local to Nagoya. About the same time my last minute pleas to various couch surfers were finally answered and it seemed like I had a place to stay.

The rain as we left on Friday night had been pouring for hours. It seemed like a perilous plan to make the two hour drive with limited view in a kei car, but then again our other options were naught. For an hour we drove smoothly making a merciful attempt at awkward conversation, or otherwise cruising in silence. He had switched off a playlist of what I thought was hardcore videogame music (think Castlevania), probably out of assumed embarrassment. We picked up our third companion and he drove the rest of the way. During that point I was only glad to be in the back seat, trying to ignore the speeds that he was flying at. We stopped briefly for dinner, but were still a bit lost on time. All the while I messaged my host giving him estimates that kept creeping later. When we finally made the outskirts of the city we detoured from a huge traffic jam, adding some more time.

With the map on my phone we slid down side roads, a bit turned around, until finally I decided I’d be able to find the place. They dropped me off, and I waved goodbye glancing up at the stories of apartment buildings surrounding me. As I closed in on the pin I messaged my host hoping I had the right place. Thankfully the rain had stopped in the city, so I loitered a moment at the bottom of some buildings until one of the various doors opened to a lighted hallway.

“Hey, Dillon?” a fluently English voice called out.

My eyes adjusted to see my unexpected host as we went into the elevator. I don’t think he’d mind me posting, but I’ll just say from his profile name alone I could tell two things: he was Japanese, and he wasn’t. That fact was reaffirmed as soon as we began talking. He was shorter than I expected (though, I should really just readjust my expectations in this country), with sleek black curls on his head that reminded me of my older brother. His skin is a light shade of cream like everyone else during the winter, but among his features I can see what’s characterized as Japanese and what isn’t.

“I’m sorry, am I pronouncing that right: Dil-lin? Dee-lon?”

“Don’t worry, even I get it wrong sometimes. But you’re gonna have to help me with your name.”

“Well,” he pronounced his name, “but you can just call me Vyn.”

I was happy to see his apartment wasn’t too larger than mine, just a bit more modern. If I’m living in the country and I can’t even boast about how much space I have, at least I get be proud about how freaking fortuitous my subsidized rent is, right?”

“Yeah, I pay a decent amount for this place, but I used to have a roommate who left about three months ago, and thankfully the landlord just hasn’t charged me differently.”

He opened a door that could’ve led to a closet and showed me my new room for the night.

“So now I’ve just been using it for friends and to host couch surfers. Usually I have to tell people how to use the air conditioning and lights, but I guess you already known how to do that.”

It was probably the same size as my room, with just a cheap bed, blankets and pillows.

“And the place looks a little weird right now because I’m actually moving out tomorrow, which is why you can’t stay on tomorrow night.”

Right, he’d mentioned something like that before. This last moment savior seemed more like another twist of fate to introduce me to another world’s version of myself (Gavin being the former). At first I didn’t understand what he meant by “a little weird” because it looked pretty normal to me: shelves of books, and kitchenware, and shampoo. Except I’ve moved from tiny room to tiny room more than a couple time the past years, and it dawned on me that he was seeing what tomorrow would bring: how to carry the bookshelf with the books still in it; stack the plates so the forks will fill the between; and mix the shampoo with the videogame controllers. He was super accommodating, ready to let me do my own thing and call it a night, but from what bits I’d already found out about him I had to ask, “Mind if I stay up and talk a bit?”

After confessing my commitment to Magic as the reason I’d be leaving so early in the morning, he spit out a slew of nerdom mostly in the form of videogames to even the playing field. I found out he was from the prefecture, but one side of his family had Brazilian heritage. Being that a large population of my town  consists of Brazilian immigrants, I asked how it was for him growing up as hafu looking for some insight on how my students might feel. Also a bit of a coincidence that we could compare my experience being racially diverse in American school systems. It was easy to understand how he knew bother Japanese and Portuguese languages, but the English was still a mystery.

“Well, I learned it in school.” Yeah, my purpose of being here, but also none of my students learn to speak so fluently. “And then I also watched a lot of American TV shows.” Some of which I watched, but he was way more versed in prime time television.

He’d moved to the city first to go to college in computer science (he’d graduated about the same time as I) and was moving again because of a job. In the interim he’d be going to Amsterdam, to do enjoy what Amsterdam has to offer, and was planning to leave the following Tuesday.

“Yeah, I’m not really Japanese,” he said with a laugh.

I’ve heard this from a number of Japanese people, but none with more candor. After breaching midnight, figuring the long day ahead of me, and the amount of packing he may or may not have spent all night doing, I decided to call it a night.


I really wasn’t expecting to say so much in this post but to keep things concise I think I’ll call it there. After all, most of the magic from the weekend actually happened in getting there, and the tumult that follows will probably be an equally long story.