Noilly Prattle: August 2012

Friday, August 31, 2012

Thoughts on Summer in America 2012

Rockport, MA
Referring to my recent 3-week visit to the States in a recent email, a friend of mine asked: “Now that you’ve had time to reflect, what are your impressions after being away for so long?” I chuckled a bit at the “away for so long”. It sounded like a had slept away the last 30 years whereas, in fact, I had visited the States just last summer.

But it is a legitimate question, one that I have been turning over in my own mind and one that I have been hesitant to write about. My overall impression is one of--it is difficult to choose the appropriate words--unease, uncertainty, anxiety, a certain weariness and loss of optimism, some sadness, yet, openhearted hospitality, friendliness--and even lack of same, openness, people doing the best they can in trying socioeconomic and personal circumstances.

My friend's email included an anecdote that seems to corroborate media discussions and statistics on the economic scene, the loss of good paying jobs, high unemployment, the relative decline in the value of higher education:

“For some of us nothing much has changed. For many others, life is much different. I’m on a search committee at work for a simple clerk position for our office….231 applicants passed the Human Resources Dept screening for us to review and most of them have BA’s and even advanced graduate degrees. Also, too many have been out of work for 1-2 yrs. Yet, w/advances in automation I just don’t see many past jobs coming back. I fear we’ll have decades of stagflation just as I understand Japan has been having. How have people there adjusted?”

How are the Americans adjusting? That appears to be the implied question. There is is an uneasy feeling that America is going to repeat the Japanese experience of the last two plus decades. It is already five years since the first rumblings of the current global economic downturn. For me it was somewhat like remembering where you were when you first heard of the JFK assassination. In the case of the bursting of the credit bubble I was in a coffee shop in Vienna and happened to pick up an English language newspaper after my usual vacation moratorium on “news”. After five years, despite the self-serving federal government hoopla about how we are making progress but still have a long way to go, I would put more emphasis on the “long way to go”.

early morning shoppers at Walmart
I was taking an early morning walk and having a cup of coffee and muffin at a Walmart near my brother's home and got into a conversation with one of the workers there. She asked me if I was from "around here" and I responded that no, I was just visiting for a couple weeks. I told her that I was from "here" but now lived in Japan. She thought that I was "lucky" to be able to travel and I asked her about her job and she told me that it was "alright" but that she hoped to get training for a better paying job in another industry. That seemed to be a pretty common refrain--looking for better paying jobs that are harder and harder to find. 

flag in front of home
a fairly common sight
In terms of the current presidential election I'm picking up a lot of wishful thinking and nostalgia from white America suggesting that things were better when “minorities” were safely “in their place” and not an issue in elections. I see a lot of American flags flying on Main Street in higher income, mostly white, towns and in the yards of many people's homes. I had an interesting discussion about how “this country in going to hell” in the backyard patio/pool of one of these be-flagged homes. They acknowledged that “we've got our nose in everybody's business”, i.e., the energy wars in the Middle East and the 800+ military bases the US maintains around the world. Yet, they couldn't see the correlation between “going to hell” and “our nose in everybody's business.” It was hot and not very windy and the flag was rather flaccid that day.

Little League baseball
Little League baseball has an unpleasant go-for-the-throat edge to it. It is highly organized and well coached, but, among the “soccer moms” (baseball moms?) it is a deadly serious business. When I was a kid, back in the antediluvian, we used to pick up sandlot games to while away a summer afternoon and have some fun. This modern Little League baseball seems to be a rehearsal for the major leagues and baseball-star-level incomes. One “baseball mom” stands out vividly in my memory. Her son was pitching (the star pitcher it seemed) and she was standing just behind me issuing instructions on how to breath and how to pitch in a very loud voice (and in my ear) to her hapless son trying his best to pitch a decent game. I doubt this lady realized it, but she she was probably embarrassing her son more than encouraging him.

my compact rental car
Ultimately, you can't really nail down the American experience anymore than you can say such and such and so and so about any place on the planet. If anything characterizes America, though, it is its total reliance on the automobile. The price of gasoline is an emotional issue there. Shortly before I arrived in my hometown in a rental car the price of a gallon of regular unleaded was (I was told) around $3.39. When I returned the car three weeks later it was up to $3.65. That's a significant increase when you're filling a 15-gallon or more tank. Here in Japan, the price of gasoline is much higher (the equivalent of $5.60 per gallon), but we don't rely entirely on cars since the public transportation system is excellent and, besides, we have smaller more fuel efficient cars.

in Lenox, MA for Shakespeare's
The Tempest and King Lear
Still, I am quite “American” in that I enjoy driving when in the States. I dislike the Interstate highways because they are boring, sleep inducing and dangerous, constantly battling high speed semis on their interstate commerce business. But I love driving on the smaller back roads through rural towns, smaller cities and the countryside. That is most relaxing, unless you get a bout of diarrhea, and start squirming looking for a restaurant to stop at and use the rest room before it's too late....

jazz quintet in Rockport, MA
home away from home -
note the dog
An old college friend and I got together for a jazz concert in Rockport and Shakespeare in Lenox--both in Massachusetts, and both requiring long distance driving. My friend rented a small cabin in a campground where I stayed after the jazz concert. “Camping” isn't exactly the right word. The campground was nice enough but most of the “campers” had, snail-like, brought their homes with them in the shape of recreational vehicles that could be extended on the sides and looked just like homes in a woodsy trailer park. I can only imagine the cost of the gasoline required to maintain this life style. Anyway, we saw some cute chipmunks around the picnic table that took a liking to pretzels.

"short tail" the chipmunk
My three weeks came to its inevitable end. I had an early flight scheduled out of Logan Airport so I drove to Boston, returned the rental car and stayed in a hotel the night before my departure. My return flight to Japan turned out to be one of those that you hope won't happen, but did. I blogged about it in an earlier post.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Are We Communicating yet?

Teaching is a theatrical art. It mesmerizes, controls and manipulates the audience. Teaching is an authoritarian dictatorship. It issues commands and expects to be obeyed. Teaching is clinical psychology. It listens to the feedback and reads between the lines.

my beautiful 96-yr-old Mom
Soon after I returned from a summer trip to visit family and friends back in the USA, I was scheduled to teach some 4-hour summer classes at the language school I began working part time for after I retired last March. I had been working three evenings a week for two hours and found that to be comfortable. The director of the school asked me if I would teach a week of summer school classes after my return from the States. Without thinking too much about it, I agreed. But, as the time drew nearer I started having second thoughts about doing such long hours for five consecutive days in the full heat and humidity of the Japanese summer. So, I was delighted when I got a telephone call (while I was soaking in the bath) from the director informing me that I would only be needed for two days.

brownie batter and mugs to pour it in
Where my classes are concerned I'm something of a control freak. I like to be fully prepared for any eventuality. Unfortunately, the summer school planning and schedule was outside of my control and I hadn't the slightest idea of what I was expected to do—a situation which, for me, is unendurable. I did, finally, get a sketchy idea of what the day consisted of and prepared as best I could with a few tried and tested techniques in my shoulder bag to supplement the material that was to be used for the theme of my first day—Ecology and Rainforests. That seemed a rather broad topic to me and included making brownies (cacao grows in tropical climes) in a microwave oven. You only need to imagine 10 kids involved in the process of mixing batter, putting it into mugs and inserting one at a time for 1 1/2  minutes—time consuming, milling around with a range of impatience waiting to microwave the brownies. Finally decided to speed things up a bit with two mugs for 2 minutes at a go. Eventually all the brownies got “baked” and eaten with spoons. Amen!

young artist in the raw
After lunch I decided to have the kids draw a “rainforest” animal in keeping with the ecology theme. This is a technique I developed as an Art teacher during my previous employment. Many kids often complain “but I can't draw” in elementary school Art classes. Consequently, I developed a technique to teach simple structural drawing using basic lines and shapes. It proved to be quite popular with the kids and got some good results and boosted confidence. In this technique I draw on the whiteboard while issuing drawing instructions and the kids draw on drawing paper. For this class, I chose to draw a monkey swinging on a vine with the summer school kids.

The next day's theme was Communication and introduced the concept of secret codes. This sounded like a workable topic that kids would like. The class was smaller this time, only five kids, all of whom I had had the previous day. But, all three of the boys were ones I had been warned about as being behavior problems, one of whom, the youngest, I already knew since he is in one of my regular evening classes. The previous day, after four grueling hours with his limited self control, he had pretty much lost it and erupted in a prolonged crying jag. He seemed in better control this morning. The two older boys had caused no disruptions the previous day, although I had never had them in my classes.

after we "communicated"
The second day, however, they decided to “test” the new teacher and started right in pretending not to understand and making intentionally wrong responses—all pretty obvious techniques designed to get the teacher's goat. I obliged with one of my best acts—controlled fury. Works like a charm, catches them totally off guard. I banged the table melodramatically, ordered them with scowling looks and loud voice to stand up and get out and wait for me outside the classroom. Amid looks of shock and dismay and “what-did-I-do?” they marched outside. I let them stew for a few minutes, then walked out, slammed the door, and, aiming my remarks directly at the boys, gave them an ultimatum: cut the crap or go to the office and explain why I threw you out—and no nonsense for the rest of the day. Decide, now! Best disciplinary technique I know—do the unexpected—works like a charm.

I decided to make a “teaching moment” of the incident. Talked about communication and the different ways people communicate through not only words, but gesture (bang the table), facial expression (scowl), tone and stress of voice (shout). The kids, subdued, readily agreed that I had communicated my anger very effectively and were a delight for the rest of the day.

Would I do summer school again? Ask me again next year.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Career Opportunity

What's a guy to do with that dreaded bugaboo retirement? You know, you've had your nose attached firmly to the grindstone in the nine to five rat race. Up at the crack of dawn to the mellifluous tones (or more likely irritating buzz) of the alarm clock; drag your half asleep carcass out of bed and shuffle and stumble into the shower; dress and swallow a couple of cups of coffee; have some breakfast and off to the workplace to punch the clock by 8:30 or 9:00am. Then back home around 6:00pm, maybe a beer or two or a cocktail, have dinner, bath, TV and bed by 11:00pm—a routine so comfortably ingrained you can do it with your eyes closed and by rote. It's so comfortable that you might even prolong it beyond the usual retirement age. By then, the prospect of doing without that comfortable rut is scary. You ask yourself, what on earth am I going to do with all that time on my hands?

It's a question that I'd been ruminating about for a few years now. Last year, at the end of December I finally pulled the plug on the world of nine to five at about the same time I turned 70. I had worked for 19 years as an elementary school Art and English teacher in a private school. It was the longest position I ever held at one stretch and it had become a comfortable rut, but I was no longer doing anything new, just coasting and doing routine lessons and getting seriously bored. Still, the prospect of what-do-I-do-now? was daunting.

Seems to me, as I look back on the past couple of years, I set myself up in a way that I didn't have to make a conscious decision to “retire”. I wanted more free time for myself and to travel, but I didn't want to give up the security of a regular paycheck. The director of the school (who is a few years older than me) kept telling me that I could work as long as I wanted to (teaching is not physically taxing after all). I made a deal with him that I would work 2/3 of the year and take the winter term off with a salary cut that was generous enough.

That seemed to work out fine the first year and my contract was renewed for another year, but I was hearing rumors of grumbling about this deal from other teachers who apparently felt it was unfair. So, when I renewed the contract it was stipulated that it could not be renewed a third time. Thus was I faced with the dreaded full retirement. In other words, I had shot my self in the foot. I think that, unconsciously, I had set myself up to take the retirement decision out of my own hands. That way I was forced to deal with it.

Fortunately, in my checkered life and career paths, making transitions and being comfortable with the process are more or less second nature and are not unduly traumatic. So to cushion the initial phase of not having to follow the clock any longer we (road buddy and I) traveled to Prague for a winter of music and travel. I have blogged about that experience else-when on this blog. Before I left, I had also arranged to do some part time teaching at my former colleague and friend's English school for young learners upon my return from Europe in April of this year.

Now, for the first time in my life, I am free from the necessity of “making a living” and can do just about anything I want to do with my time—even waste it. But, I tend to be a frugal waste not want not type of guy—especially with time, of which I, like everyone else, am running out of. But, the thing is, as was brought to my attention recently, I could have another 10 or 20 or more years. I have a choice on how to live those years. I can either succumb to wasting away in front of the TV eating junk snacks and getting fat and infirm and increasingly unwell, or I can stay active physically and intellectually by working at it six days a week for the rest of my life—even God rested on the 7th day, after all.

This is my new career, taking care of my body and mind for the rest of my life. This means exercising: yoga, walking, weight training, swimming. It means travel, reading, a little work and writing. All in all, not a bad prescription for staying active and healthy for as long as possible. You could very well live into your 80s and even 90s. Whether you do it as an active and productive person or in a wheelchair or in a nursing home tied to one, or tied to a bed in one is a choice you can make. In other words, you can make a choice between living vigorously with an effort, or wasting away miserably by just letting yourself go.

To me, the choice is a no brainer. Just do it!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Cream of Thai Jade

Noumea, New Caledonia
While traveling in New Caledonia a couple summers (a mild 27ºC. winter there) ago we sampled a dish at a Thai restaurant in the Anse Vata section of Noumea that used an herb called Thai Basil. It was delicious. Thai Basil has a distinct but subtle hint of anise flavor. You might remember those black pungent gummy licorice sticks you used to get out of the penny candy jars in the corner Mom & Pop store back in the 1940s and 50s—if you're old enough that is. Well, licorice has roughly the same flavor as Thai Basil, but it's far from subtle. I hated licorice when I was a kid. This is by way of background to introduce you to an interesting desert we concocted recently. 

Thai Basil
We (well she, mostly) have been growing various kinds of herbs including mint and Thai Basil. The mint is basically a weed and grows like one. The Thai Basil turned out to be relatively easy to grow and we ended up with quite a large crop that we wanted to do something with. We had tried a couple of mint sauce dishes but they turned out to taste like toothpaste. (No disrespect intended for that British favorite lamb and mint sauce.)

A Google search turned up some recipes for using mint and Thai Basil. One was a soup that used avocado and cucumber, heavy cream, red and green onions and chopped tomatoes and, of course, salt and pepper. We made the soup and it was quite smooth and tasty. In the middle of one of those jet lag induced white nights (just recently off the plane once again) I got the idea that if we added some sugar and used tropical fruit instead of onions and tomatoes it might make an interesting desert. It decidedly did. We're calling it "Cream of Thai Jade" for the color imparted to the cream by the avocado, cucumber and the herbs.

Ingredients: Makes 4 servings

1 ripe avocado (a little spongy to the touch but not too soft)
½ a cucumber (ours are small, similar to a medium carrot; for American cukes use a 1 to 2 inch cross section)
200 ml. of whipping cream (not sure of the ounce equivalence, sorry)
6 fresh Thai Basil leaves
6 fresh mint leaves
2 or 3 tablespoons sugar or to taste (you can also use gum syrup to taste)

1 small can of tropical fruit cocktail (without the juice or you can add a little to the blender but be careful not to make the cream watery)

How to make it:

blended ingredients and tropical fruit
Nothing could be easier. You just throw the first 6 ingredients into a blender and blend until you get a nice creamy smooth consistency. It doesn't have to peak or anything like that. It's more like a pudding. Taste as you go and add more sugar and/or more Thai Basil and mint if you like a more pungent flavor.

fruit added to cream (not yet
folded in) and fruit topping
If the tropical fruit are too chunky, dice them into 1 cm. (about ½ inch) cubes. Make two piles of whatever size you like. If you like a lot of fruit add more, if you prefer the cream use less. Fold one of the piles of fruit into the avocado colored cream, set the other pile aside for a topping when ready to serve. Cover and chill the blended cream and fruit. Chill the topping as well.

Cream of Thai Jade
We put our C of TJ into small Martini style glasses for a touch of class. Spoon on some of the chilled fruit cocktail and garnish with a Thai Basil leaf and flower, both of which are edible, and Voila! The jade green base and contrasting reds and yellows of the tropical fruit make a nice bit of eye candy to complement the unusual taste and texture of this desert. I think you will be quite pleasantly surprised to find that you can use avocado and cucumber as a desert, if you haven't already experienced using veggies as desert ingredients. Here in Japan it is common to do so.

tastes as great as it looks, trust me!

As Julia Child used to say: Bon appétit!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Return Flight from Hades

Murphy's Law says that if anything can go wrong, it will. On my recent return flights and trains from Boston to Okayama, Murphy's Law kicked in big time. Anyone who travels a lot by air will tell you that the best kind of flights are the uneventful ones. But, once in a while you hit the other kind. And, though I digress, I simply have to tell you that flying in the United States has got to be the worst place in which to do it. The system is antiquated, inefficient, labyrinthine and overcrowded. Security is ridiculously tedious, burdensome, intrusive, time consuming and probably wouldn't catch a determined “terrorist”.

Also, a word about low-cost “budget” carriers with cute sounding names like TrueBlue, Airotica (movie All that Jazz), Southbest and that one that was contemplating pay toilets and fees for mixed junk food snacks, Shitbag (credit for that one goes to Conan O'Brien), you pays your money and you takes your chances.

So, the flight from hell.

Doubletree by Hilton
Beantown by the bay
I had a flight scheduled at 11:09 from Logan to JFK. Security lines being what they are in the good ole USA I drove to Boston, dropped off the rent-a-car the day before my flight and stayed at a hotel near UMass Boston to give myself enough time to get to the airport two and half or so hours earlier than departure time the next morning. The Hilton was a typical mid-range, decent, designer colors, seen-one-you've-seen-'em all hotel. Nice thing about it was you could walk along the beach that was about half a kilometer behind the hotel, which I did after checking in in the late afternoon.

nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon
So far so good.

I boarded the hotel shuttle that left the hotel on the dot at 8 a.m. and arrived at Logan in plenty of time. I started to queue up in a long line for Jet Blue and noticed that the other people already seemed to have boarding passes and I asked someone where he got it. He informed me about the electronic check in machines. So, I went back to Square 1 and did the electronic check-in thingie where nothing is touched by human hands. The machine kindly found my reservation and spit out a paper boarding pass. I started to go back to the previous line but noticed that a sign said “baggage drop off”, so, smart boy that I am, I reasoned to myself that I had no bags to check in so I probably didn't need to waste any time in this particular line. On a hunch, I walked to another long queue (about half a kilometer long) that turned out to be the security check line—the right line for people with only carry on.

After the usual take-almost-everything-off-and-put-everything-in-the-plastic-trays, walk through the full-body scanner (hopefully in good shape for your close-up), put everything back on and/or repack, head for the departure gate, realize you forgot your crutch, go back, breathe a sigh of relief when you find it still there, pick it up and then, at last, proceed to the departure “lounge” in plenty of time for your flight.

the little airplane that couldn't
After priority boarding (remember the crutch?) and seated on the aircraft (they don't call them airplanes any more) the flight attendant casually announces that because of a “leak” we have to deplane. As I was leaving I asked, more or less mockingly, what was leaking? She shrugged and said: “I don't know.”

Return to the “lounge”, and after the usual formulaic apologies and we're-trying-to-fix-the-problem and thank-you-for-your-patience and we'll-keep-you-updated and please-don't-ask-me-any-questions-I-can't-answer and more apologies, the look and smell of anxiety escalating to panic about missed connections begins. Then the dreaded announcement: “Your attention please, ladies and gentlemen, the good news is we found the leak, the bad news is we don't have a replacement part here and will have to fly one in from New York—where they have one. We are sorry but this plane ain't gonna get off the ground. We are going to try to find another plane to replace it—but who knows. Thank you for your patience and understanding." Now in full panic mode people queue up to get evasive answers and lots of clicking of computer keys—yours truly included.

I had a 3 o'clock connecting flight from JFK to Osaka. Around noon there was an announcement that they had arranged for another flight leaving from another gate so everybody started heading for the new gate with renewed hope. Of course, once arrived at the new gate, there was still no aircraft at the end of the loading tunnel. We waited a while longer until a chirpy voice announced that your flight has landed and will soon arrive at the gate; thank you again for your patience and cooperation. We finally boarded the new aircraft and left the gate after 1 p.m. with assurances that we could get to JFK by 2 p.m. and that “it was feasible that I could make my 3 o'clock connection with the caveat that 'it's New York, you know' and if there are no hitches with Murphy's Law”. Cute!

the big airplane that could, turbulently
After landing at JFK a little after 2 o'clock I sprinted (carrying the crutch) what seemed like at least a kilometer from the Jet Blue arrival gate to the Airtrain that connects the 8 terminals at JFK. Fortunately, the train went backwards from Gate 5/6 to 4 saving me precious seconds. Got off the Airtrain, took the wrong escalator down to Arrivals, spun around and retraced my steps, took the escalator up to international Departures, asked where China Airlines check in was, raced there to the other end of the building, saw all the check in windows empty except one, went there and almost out of breath and extremely stressed explained about the mess at Logan and asked if I could still make the flight.

The staff at China Airlines were wonderful, efficient and professional. They knew about the Jet Blue screw up and quickly checked another guy and me in and escorted us through the front of the security queue and got us to the departure gate in time for boarding—which turned out to be delayed for half an hour. I kid you not.

the view from the back seat
the barely visible green line
is the flight path (great circle route)
The non-stop flight from JFK to Osaka is a very long one, some 14 hours flying over Canada, Alaska, Sakhalin approaching Japan from the northeast. On top of the long hours, movies, airline survival food and sleeping pills, this flight was unusually turbulent, the turbulence being enhanced by sitting in the first to the last row in the aircraft. But we finally landed at Osaka's Kansai International Airport around 7 p.m. when some kind of allergy kicked in where I started sneezing and my nose and eyes started leaking and no handkerchief.

The last straw of this memorable day was that the usual train from the airport to Shin-Osaka Shinkansen (bullet train) station was out of service due to heavy rain. Fortunately, a more local and time consuming train was running but required a change of trains. I finally arrived back home at 11 p.m. where road buddy was waiting to pick me up and drag home the remains. Took two Ibuprofen, a sleeping pill and an allergy pill and conked out.

Hell hath no fury like an eventful flight.