Letter from South America

Dear Bob,
 
My brother and his family were visiting Greece these past days. They went to Athens, and then from there they sailed to the islands of Santorini and Mykonos. What a wonderful trip! My 12 year-old niece loves mythology and knows a little bit about philosophers so they really enjoyed seeing all the classical sites and museums (besides enjoying wonderful wine, food and views of course). The first picture my brother sent was the front view of the Parthenon. He pointed out that the one sculpture remaining in the pendant of the actual building is that of Dionysius. As my mother loves wine he joked: “after 2500 years, Dionysius is the only survivor!” However, the Dionysius they found in a museum had only half face, no neck, torso, neither arms nor legs, and only one hand holding a glass. Here he said: “ Well, here only the glass survived!”  (Perhaps he drank in excess – haha).  But not everything was about humor, pictures, restaurants, museums, or being a tourist. He told us that being there gives you a natural motivation to think about thinking… nice. Traveling and thinking about thinking sounds like a good life; feeling that you are really alive. I don’t have the money to travel to Greece but it is my consolation to think that going back to the Greeks and thinking about what they said is as good as travelling there (this is half joke, half serious).
 
Today is Sunday and on Sundays I rest as most. On Sundays I have time to do laundry, to plan my week, to go for a long bike ride, to think. I sit down or lay down here on the sofa sometimes, staring at the window, the blue sky and the cloud formation, listening to the birds and feeling the breeze. I need to use this time I have to think, to learn something, to make my mind a better mind, to clear it so I have some insight about something. But how do I do that. I read good stuff, I download some podcast and then I think about it, I think about what bothers me, my never ending ruminating, my feelings. However, sometimes I think I don’t make any progress and my mind is still not very clear, not very clever. The Greeks said that before trying to learn something new we need to know ourselves: ‘Know Thyself’. Know my self sounds wise, but if the self is just an artifice, an illusion, what exactly am I to get to know?  If I analyze my thoughts or my actions, then I interpret them, I go on and on with analysis: labeling something good or bad, convenient, undesirable, mistaken, well done, etc. But I do not think the Greeks meant such a methodology could lead to self-knowledge. All right, let me go back: If we accept that self is not an entity to be known, we surely can accept that mind is, just because mind simply exists. OK, I need to understand mind. That requires knowledge in philosophy, psychology, neurology, and more. Wow, that is a lot of studying! But surely the Greek saying was meant for everyone as a practical motto relating to living a good life, not an academic endeavor, so not only experts could achieve the goal. It has to be hard but not so hard; one hopes!
 
Know thyself: knowledge of my own self, an exploration of my own self to find something true about its nature, its workings.  My mind is something amazing. My work is done thanks to my mind’s prodigious processing capacity. Has it happened to you that sometimes your brain corrects some mistake it has made WAY AFTER the fact and when not even thinking about the fact (which is what I find amazing)?
I remember when I was working for a telecommunications shop in Canada; I was always very worried about doing things correctly.  My job was repairing radio equipment for loggers. When a radio fails and you are in the middle of the forest, it can be trouble, so I was very keen on doing a good job. One afternoon I had repaired a radio and the client had picked it up and left satisfied. That night I woke up at midnight with the thought that I hadn’t installed a small protection component. Next day I called the client who came back to have his equipment re-checked. I had not, in fact, installed that component. My brain told me in my dream what I had forgotten while doing the job. Fantastic! But my brain is also very annoying! The ever present chatting, rumination, story making and the feelings all those thoughts give me drive me crazy. I have explored meditation in order to be more focused and to stop the chatting, and although I have not had success in adopting the practice, I think it definitely works. I am wondering now how meditation could relate to knowing myself. Here, then, is something to explore. I have to try to retake the practice first.  Despite my not understanding how to go about knowing myself, I surely believe it is fundamental.
 
Well, it is 6 pm, no more time for thinking. It is time for drinking. No more Socrates but Dionysus! Until next time.
 
Laura.

 

SS: Letter from Japan #4

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Dear Bob,

I really love my small town. Paul expressed beautifully what I can’t quite yet; maybe never will here. I just like living in the atmosphere where it’s possible. My small-town love is really about the potential for interconnectedness and the vested interest the people have in getting along (since we’re all we’ve got). Feels like we’re on the same team. Against what? Meaninglessness, I suppose. I’m sure there are miserable, dysfunctional small towns just as there are people, but this pocket of Sasayama feels so cozy and safe to me. Don’t talk to me about dark underbellies right now.

As a teacher I’m evolving. My standards are higher. Which means it’s harder work than I initially thought. The sheer variety of classes and the sole responsibility. The not really knowing if I’m doing well, so I just keep trying and erring.  At least I have control. There’s just one class I have completely lost control over though – my littlest kids. That I know is a certain hell because I stop breathing and float above my body for the duration. They’re so far gone. But at least they’re contained. And at least they serve the purpose of keeping me from getting too comfortable. Ah, I long for the day when I am both comfortable and not a shit teacher. And don’t have to control. Possible?

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Anyway, I got my first earned break since I arrived, which I made an excellent time of just driving around with a vague sense of direction (the edges), sleeping in my car and following the attraction signs (which were all in English!). Basically how I live my life. No plan = no expectation = surprise!

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Surprise! I rode a camel?!

 

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Surprise!  I got locked in a weird amusement park because no staff would talk to me to tell me they were closing?!

 

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Surprise! To the old man whose house I thought was a coffeeshop. He still made me coffee (spy it)

 

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SURPRISE!

I seriously love Japan. I made careful not to say it until I was sure, but I felt it from the start and it has only been confirmed. It’s surprising how normal everything feels even though each day brings some new sight or situation that is so absurd if I think of it from Canada. It makes me reconsider what normal even is. That which doesn’t provoke a big reaction from the surroundings? So then my presence here is normal. It does indeed seem that way. Besides the amusement park diffusion of responsibility, people don’t avoid engaging with me if they can’t speak English (which is funny), nor do they come up to me to practice (like in Korea…which was funny too).  It’s nice! Until I remember the Japanese tendency to hide their true feelings for the other person’s sake. Well, that’s nice too I guess. For now.

Language learning is slow but sure. It’s interesting to discover two distinct concepts in English that are the same in Japanese. Like “clean” and “beautiful” (kirei) and “early” and “fast” (haiai), “good night” and “break” (oyasumi). And common words that mean opposite things depending on the context.  Like chotto, one of the first ones you pick up on from hearing it all the time and learning chotto matte (“wait a moment”). In most contexts it means “a little” or “a bit” or “slightly”, but in others it means the exact opposite; “fairly” or “very”. It also can mean “indeed” or “inconvenient”. Also very common is betsu ni. The word itself means “in particular”, but it’s used to mean the exact opposite. “Nothing in particular” or “nothing special”, or just “nothing”  The whole reason it’s negative is because it’s abbreviated from betsu ni nani mo – “nani mo” being part that actually means “nothing”. Augh. And there’s yabei which is an exclamation to mean “Super cool” or “crazy/insane”, but in one case my student said it to me while saying an emotional goodbye on her last class, and when I asked why she just said “big feeling”

But it’s it interesting that once you learn the contexts, you get it. Like, I get kirei; something that can be classified as both clean and pretty. Never thought of it before. Never had to! These are not new concepts a foreigner can’t possibly grasp. It’s not that they don’t exist without the language, either. We just don’t think of it. The potential is there and we could understand it if we were shown how.  It’s so interesting! I want to learn faster/earlier!

By the way, the word for “foreigner” was originally gaijin, which means “outside person” but Japanese thought it sounded rude so they changed it to gaikokojin, meaning “outside country person”.  That’s nice!

I’m still working on being alone. Without intimacy, I mean. It’s not that it’s lonely, it’s just kind of neutral. Actual joy is only ever experienced when other people are closely involved (so too along the other end of the continuum – that’s the deal). I often feel like the kid from Into the Wild, except not so stubborn that I have to be dying to come to the conclusion that happiness is only real when shared.

When I left Canada, it was in the midst of some of the best relationships I have ever had. I made sure they connected before I left, and so it was just becoming a network. I was so happy. But here I am so happy in a different way that I’m not sure I can get back there. Best of both worlds, kudesai!

Letter from Japan #2

Dear Bob,

Geez, it’s been a month already? I thought time would be going by a bit slower. That was part of the point!

This letter will probably be disappointing on the cultural-exposition front. The special circumstances I mentioned in the last have really cushioned the culture shock. But I haven’t really done much outside of home or work yet either, mostly due in part to my desire to be cozy. It’s FREEZING over here. This is the coldest and snowiest winter the locals have ever seen in something like 30 years.

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It’s never too cool for school. Now where do I park?

Enter, the kotatsu. One of the many brilliant innovations to keep your body, not the room, warm. From the outside it’s just a low table with a blanket in between two slabs. But under that blanket is a tropical paradise. It is very difficult to part with in a world where I can see my own breath indoors.

Here’s my haiku on the matter:

 “Winter’s Journey”

electric Blanket

cold cold cold cold cold cold cold

heated toilet seat

Here are a few more of my favourite things so far, before I move onto the neurotic portion of this letter.

  1. Natto: is fermented soy beans, and simply one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. I’m lucky to say so because not only is it the healthiest and cheapest food available, even many Japanese find it gross with it’s old sock-like smell and phlegm-like consistency. I eat it over rice with the same enthusiasm as cheese on pasta.img_20170117_230542_354
  1. Engrish: In Asia, English is the preferred language of consumerism. It’s all over clothes, stationary, gift bags, product labels. It’s not supposed to be perfect, or make sense, but the haphazardness often reaches levels of absurdity you just can’t make up. And sometimes, beyond the garbled syntax, there’s hidden depth lost in translation. I cannot resist. And so collecting Engrish is one of my greatest, simplest joys in life. In Korea, too, I shipped home about 5 boxes of the stuff. It’s how my zine was born (but here, weirdly, I can’t find A5 size stationary anywhere! So, R.I.P. The Free Wheel).
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so close

  1. Private karaoke rooms: These are high quality. Even in a small town there is a surprisingly plentiful and current list of English songs. Yes, I anticipate spending a lot of time here.
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It’s like they were expecting me

So I’m still learning Japanese, but at about the same rate as my smallest kids are learning English – which is to say only when disguised as fun (or necessary). Mostly I understand what I hear most often and have bothered asking what it means, or what I use most often when I have bothered asking how I say it. For example, “hazukashi”, which is roughly to say something is embarrassing; that I’m embarrassed. Or shy, awkward, ashamed, put on the spot, uncomfortable…I’m not really sure if it’s a catch-all or if the nuance is untranslatable and it’s the common denominator of all these feelings. And this is why new-language learning is incredibly intimidating for me. I WILL use the wrong word. I WILL NOT be understood! I have to get over that. Anyway, I also try to also learn the opposites at the same time, you know, to stay positive. But I do try to intentionally memorize at least 1 word a day, and watch one YouTube lesson a day, so here’s hoping it adds up into full sentences. I’m not happy with my progress here so far.

I wonder if my teaching reflects how I learn. No one’s really dictating how I do either. It’s all up to me. It’s a lot of pressure, but I would want it no other way. But is it because I’m stubborn, or because deep down I truly know what’s best?

One thing’s for sure – I am free. Maybe the freest person I know. Outwardly, my life is simple. I have no family ties. Very little responsibility. No major psychological restrictions (that I can tell). Privilege. But with freedom comes responsibility, and I’ve always had this pervasive sense of not doing enough; like, failing to live up to my potential. I would hate for that to transfer into my ability to teach, or into my estimation of my students.

I feel like my classes are going well. But it’s hard to tell with no feedback, and I can’t rely on my students to tell me what they feel or what they want from me. For instance, I was under the impression from the last teacher that the 1:1 classes are strictly conversation, which was all well and good for my more outgoing students, but when my more introverted ones started getting more nervous and skipping class, I asked and learned that there has to be more to it than that. So there I was thinking I’m doing a good job forcing conversation out of people who are clearly uncomfortable, when I was actually completely missing the point. I felt like an idiot. So I can never really trust myself to think I’m doing well. Which sucks, but it’s probably for the best.

When I assume we’re on the same page though (and I do feel it’s safe to say in most cases), I am finding this work so satisfying. There’s such a variety of personalities, levels, demographics to teach to, from a group of babies who just need to be entertained and showered in English (my most exhausting class, but only 30 mins once a week), to a couple of self-proclaimed hikkikomoris who don’t want to be here (YET), to a fluent company man to whom I explain the nuances of English communication even I take to granted while he vents about work issues, to a philosophy class with 3 old wise ladies. Very small class sizes means I will get to know them individually. As long as I stay on my toes I can’t see myself getting bored after my typical 1 year expiry date. If I do, it probably means I failed as a teacher.

Thanks for reading! ‘Til next month. This is where I’ll be

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ATOP my electric blanket, NEXT to my heater, UNDER my kotatsu, hotpacks IN my clothes, ON my computer…

P.S. I’m back on Facebook now, back to being inundated with bad news. Wondering if it would be unethical to to ignore it. Feeling guilty for even considering it…”how dare the state of the world infringe on my own happiness?”

It does though. But maybe it should be the price I pay for being a member. I’d like some thoughts on this.

[Note: comments are welcome either here or on our Facebook page.]

A Modest Proposal

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The Gun Violence Archive was set up to keep track of the injuries and deaths caused by guns in the USA. The numbers are overwhelming. [Click on the image to go the site.]

As a columnist writes in The Washington Post, “We have the highest per capita rate of firearm-related murders of all developed countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 33,636 firearms deaths in 2013.”

US politicians seem unable to act to protect the citizenry from gun violence.

Perhaps other countries in the world are in a position to assist.

Most governments provide travel advisories to their citizens to alert them to danger spots in the world.

 

For example, travel Advisories from the Canadian Government:

The following news and advisories highlight the latest updates on threats and conditions the Government of Canada considers unsafe for Canadians around the world, including protests, natural disasters, health conditions and other hazards. More detailed information on conditions abroad, including the full list of countries and regions for which travel advisories are in effect, can be found on our Country travel advice and advisories page and a full list of travel health notices is available on our Travel health notices page.

 

Now consider these figures:

$$travel

And the modest proposal:

Given that politics in the USA is primarily driven by $$$, then

If countries will issue travel advisories warning against travel to the USA because of rampant gun violence that might get the attention of lobbyists and politicians who will not respond to loss of life but would respond to loss of $$$ from the travel industry.