Obon, “Coco” and Why Remembering the Past Matters

I’m at my desk at the elementary school I work at in central Japan and the normally bustling teacher’s room is almost unsettling in its empty silence.

Where is everybody, you ask?

Most are taking a few days off because the dates around August 15th are the traditional Japanese holiday of Obon, a time to honor and remember one’s deceased ancestors.

In that spirit,  today I’m going to consider what purpose memory can serve in our life.

In general, I’m a person who prefers to ponder what the future might bring rather than what the past has taught us. However, for a variety of reasons, my 19-day trip to the US this summer was one of remembering both the good and bad times I’ve had.

When you live abroad, each visit home is a reminder of things you’ve forgotten as well as of how things change. You see this reflected in the physical appearance of family and friends, in new buildings in one’s neighborhood as well as places that have gone by the wayside or have been torn down.

New Curtis JHS

One of the things that has changed in my hometown is the junior high school building and campus I attended was torn down and replaced by this building.

And then there are the little things that people do in everyday life that remind you that either things are changing or perhaps you are. In either case, sometimes relying on one’s memories of how things used to be or work isn’t always helpful.

For example, one of the biggest frustrations I have when visiting the U.S. is how to pay for things. In Japan, a transaction is almost always very fast, with little conversation and most people pay with cash.

However, in the US, a transaction is filled with pitfalls and delays. For one, the cashier quite often asks you questions unrelated to the transaction yourself: What’s your phone number? Your zip code? How about your astrological sign? Your favorite color? Oh, and are you a Ford or a Chevy guy (neither, I could care less!)?

Yes, I am exaggerating but seriously, why does a business need those things to sell me something?

They don’t. However, from all the phone calls my parents get from telemarketers, it seems that one’s personal information is then used to try to get you buy more stuff. There were at least four or five such calls every day yet in Japan we get maybe one or two unsolicited sales calls per week.

Second, there is the issue of actually paying for things. While I often used cash, sometimes I went the American route and used my bank’s debit card. When I lived in the States (until 2004), you slid your card in a slot on the right side of a machine, entered your pin number, answered if you wanted cash back and then confirmed the total.

But nowadays the cards have a chip on them and it took me four tries until I was able to use this system without help from a cashier or a customer in line. Not only did I have to remember which way the card went in, but at what angle to put it in.

Um, can I just pay with cash after all?

But such things are mere annoyances and only serve to remind that time marches on.

No, what really impacted me on the trip was how often I’d be somewhere and a memory of that place would come flooding back. This was especially true in my childhood house.

A few blog posts back , I wrote about how my parents are going to sell their house next year so this would be my last time in the house I grew up in.

As a result, I spent a lot of time in various rooms and locations around the house reminiscing.

On my third day back I was in a room where I’ve spent a lot of time in and I found myself so lost in thinking about the past that I realized our memories can hold us back from being present and from moving forward.

Family Room #2

Time in this “family room” rekindled a lot of memories.

Until that experience, I’d sometimes pondered what it’d be like to move back to the house if my parents decided to leave it, and in those musings it always seemed very comforting.

However, as I thought about a future me, perhaps nearing retirement age, living in the house he grew up in, I began to feel sad, as though such a life would be limiting and as though I’d have played it too safe and not gone out into the world as I was supposed to.

In that moment, it seemed as though our memories can be like chains holding us to the ground, never allowing us to evolve into the fullness of who we are meant to become.

That said, there is, of course, some value in memory. Memories ground us, do they not? They remind us of who we are, what we came from and how far we’ve come.

I tend to be something of an explorer, a person who likes going to strange places, meeting interesting characters and even experiencing things that many would find uncomfortable.

But if we explore too much we can get lost, right? If we are so focused on peering at what’s around the corner, we can forget where we’ve come from and possibly forget who we are.

In some ways, maybe I do this as a way of running from who I am, of not being satisfied with my background. A part of me has sometimes felt like my life before I went off to college in California was boring; just a typical suburban white kid with nice parents who lived in the same house his whole life.

It probably sounds weird to those who didn’t have such things, to those who were children of divorce or who moved around a lot, but there’s often been this strange part of me who envied such people, for they were truly living a life that could provide a lot of insight into the varieties of the human experience. As a writer, I have heard it said “write what you know” but that has sometimes scared me because my experiences seemed rather dull.

I probably sound like an unappreciative asshole for thinking like that. And as I really think of my memories of life before going to college, I realize that there is plenty of material to draw from. Such as the time my brother chased my mom around the house with a hammer.

Crap, now you are expecting a tale filled with sordid details about just what led to such an experience.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember those details and I’m not about to make some up just for the sake of satisfying you. Sorry!

Lance with a hammer

Actual picture of my brother with a hammer.

All I can say is as a teen, my older brother, Lance, was not always the easiest person to get along with and he sometimes threatened my mom, which really upset me. I’m sure if a hypnotist put me on a couch or if I was to have some psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy where I probed my memories, I may be able to conjure up this incident.

But all I can say is, it was a big argument and I can remember my brother having the hammer is in hand and my mom running away. So no, our life was not always idyllic.

And seriously, Lance, a fucking hammer?

In a past blog post, I wrote about my fascination with the MBTI personality system. In it, I mentioned no matter how many MBTI tests I take, I’ve always tested as an ENFP. Regardless of how much validity one puts into MBTI, I think I can look at the descriptions of this type and learn about myself.

According to what I’ve learned about the ENFP, my personality type is not very strong at recalling past events or details and we can actually shy away from doing such exercises because we are more interested in exploring new options and theories than in looking back.

Perhaps that experience I had in the family room where it felt like my memories could be a chain holding me back from developing who I really am is related to this.

All that said, I can also see that becoming so future-focused and too past-resistant can lead to issues where I may be slow to learn from my experiences or where others feel like I’ve not paid enough attention to the traditions and the standards of the culture we live in.

Furthermore, perhaps it can be harmful to others if we too easily forget or don’t pay enough attention to the past.

Have you seen the 2017 animated movie from Pixar Studios, “Coco”?

Not to worry I won’t spoil it, but it ponders the idea that if we forget about the deceased members of our family, they will die a “second death” in the After Life.

Coco

It’s a beautiful but sad concept and I can say that watching it on an airplane is a bit of a challenge if you don’t want to be seen crying in public! Several times I had to pause it as tears welled up in my eyes.

Anyway, the story takes place in Mexico and revolves around the Mexican holiday, Dia de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, which calls for families and friends to gather to remember friends and family who have died.

Interestingly, such an idea is also traditionally celebrated in European cultures in the Allhallowtide holidays (which include Halloween) and, as I mentioned at the start of this post, here in Japan this week for the Obon holidays.

Apparently, Obon, which has been celebrated for at least 500 years, originated with the story of a disciple of Buddha who was able to see that his deceased mother was suffering in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and so asked the Buddha how he could help her.

Now, some educated, modern folks will scoff at such a tale, perhaps because they think being educated means to take everything literally and not recognize the power of metaphor in storytelling. But I digress.

I doubt many Japanese people know this tale but that doesn’t mean they are unable to appreciate and benefit from taking seriously the idea of honoring and remembering one’s deceased ancestors.

In our ever-quickening modern world which sometimes seems to be building toward a future where humanity may not even be necessary, it seems to me that we could all benefit from slowing down and spending at least some of our time remembering, not only our lives but the lives of those who have come before us.

Is it any wonder that it often feels like we are becoming stupider and repeating the same mistakes over and over if we don’t take this idea of memory seriously?

Many are looking at current events and suggesting that we are repeating the pattern that humanity experienced in the early 20th century, leading to the horrors of World War II.

true-detective-rust-cohle

Sorry Rust, time ain’t no flat circle, it’s an echo chamber.

I tend to think history doesn’t repeat so much as it echoes and that time is not a flat circle as Rust Cohle said in season one of HBO’s True Detective, but is rather a spiral moving upwards. As we spiral around and upward, we experience a similar situation to what we went through on the part of the spiral that is below us.

I’m getting rather esoteric here, but I do think this idea is worth considering or we are, as philosopher George Santayana said, condemned to repeat our mistakes.

So as you go forward in your life, as you face the many challenges of the present, perhaps the lesson of these holidays is to slow down, spend some time remembering your past and those who came before us and learn from that process. As always, thanks for reading!

Shameless Self Promotion Time: If you enjoy my writing, please check out my novel, “The Teacher and the Tree Man.” The full 80-chapter story can be purchased as an e-book or as a paperback from Amazon or as an e-book at Smashwords. You can also purchase the book in each of the 20-chapter “books” (there are 4, for a total of 80) at Amazon as well (book 1, book 2, book 3 and book 4). If you are a member of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited like I am, you can read the individual books for free. If you like reading and discovering independent authors like me, I highly recommend joining Kindle Unlimited!

Here is a bit from the synopsis:  “The Teacher and the Tree Man” is a modern American epic fable about a Teacher in love with Nature who discovers a human head, a Tree Man, living in a tree in a forest near his house. The novel is about our need to unplug from our culture and re-discover ourselves in Nature. It is a fun-yet-deep look at: the media, our education system, drugs in our culture and our inability to listen to each other in the political arena. 

 

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Facing Homophobic Bullshit at a Phish Show

“Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.”

Easier said than done, right? Besides immersing ourselves in a work of fiction, how can we really take that walk and be that other person?

In most cases, we can’t. Sure, we can imagine what it’s like to be another person, we can listen to them with an open heart and mind and then do our best to understand what life must be like for them.

But if you don’t experience their life first hand, how deep is your understanding of what they go through? Can you really feel it?

Until a few weeks ago, I probably would have argued that you could. However, a recent experience in America where I was mistaken for a gay man has changed my perspective.

I learned, at least for a short time, how unsettling and scary life can be for gay men.

And all I can say is: Man, I’m really, really sorry. I had no idea.

My experience resulted from a choice I made at a Costco near my house in Japan.

I was looking to buy a new backpack and had three choices: a very nice but rather boring bag for about $55 and two bags with almost identical pockets. One was a conservative navy blue with a giant Under Armor logo and went for about $45 and the other was a bright, sky blue with a smaller High Sierra logo for about $18.

“It’s a little bit girly,” I said to myself when looking at the High Sierra backpack. “But I love blue and the price is great, so let’s go with it.”

When I made this choice, I was seeing the backpacks not with the eyes of an American man, but with the eyes of a man who has lived for 14 years in Japan, a culture that, in terms of clothes and accessories, seems more androgynous than America.

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In your opinion, what kind of person uses this backpack? Is it appropriate for a middle-aged, straight male?

Looking back, I might not make the same choice yet I’m glad I made it.

My last official blog post was about going to see my favorite band, Phish, at the awe-inspiring Gorge Amphitheatre in central Washington and in it, I wrote about how I felt some social anxiety the day before leaving for the show.

At that time, I couldn’t really pin down why I felt anxious. However, with the clarity of hindsight, I think I understand now: I was worried life in Japan had turned me into an uncool geek who wouldn’t fit in at a Phish concert.

It’s weird for me to admit that for I’ve never been a person who really cares about fitting in. However, in my first four days back in the US before going to the concert I felt like a fish out of water, slow to recognize the cultural cues and behaviors of Americans. This didn’t bother me because I am a confident individual whose personal identity is not really tied into being a part of American culture.

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The campground at a Phish show is an ever-evolving, unique sub-culture of America.

But I do care about being a part of the Phish community, a community that has its grounding in the hippie ethos of the 1960s but also has its own social codes and values. It’d been seven years since I had gone to a Phish show and a lot has changed in the world in those seven years, so would that also be true at Phish shows?

As a social chameleon who gets along with just about anybody I rarely have social anxiety so the fact I felt this before the shows was unusual and hard to understand.

But then again, perhaps I’m not being totally honest about my anxiety. Perhaps it wasn’t so much about being a part of the Phish community but being cool enough to hang with Dan.

Again, in hindsight, this fear also seems stupid. After all, Dan and I are tight and have been for almost 20 years.

Dan has always been like a hip older brother to me and that has made me want to impress him or at least not be a square in his eyes.

2000 Trip - Me And Dan at Grateful Dead House

Dan and I have traveled all over the country to take in its natural wonders by day and get down at concerts at night. Here, we are on the iconic steps of the ‘Grateful Dead’ house in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

The last shows we attended together were the Phish concerts at the Gorge in 2011 and Dan, who has had long hippie locks for as long as I’ve known him, joked that my haircut was “high and tight.” I defended it by telling him how hot summer was in Japan.

Still, he had a point so this time I got a haircut in mid-May and let my hair grow out and after shaving before my flight I didn’t shave for the next five days so I had a good bit of facial hair when we met that Friday. I’ve also kept myself in pretty good shape over the years, though I have added a middle-aged man’s gut.

In short, I wasn’t worried about my physical appearance. No, it was more my clothes that concerned me. I have a solid collection of t-shirts that are appropriate for a Phish show, but beyond that I was lacking.

So the day before meeting up with Dan, I bought a few things to wear and in the end, there was nothing wrong with my clothes.

No, in the end, it was that girly backpack that didn’t pass the test.

We are in Dan’s van preparing to go to the first show of three when Dan looks at my backpack and says, “You know, that’s a little fruity.”

Crap, I think.

Still at past shows at the Gorge I’ve become very cold after sundown so I decide to bring the backpack in so I can carry a long-sleeved shirt.

Considering what happened I could say this was a mistake, but I rather think it was a blessing in disguise and one of those meant-to-be things.

Not only was the backpack not necessary as it never got cold enough to need the long-sleeved shirt, it also hindered my fun on the dance floor. When I had it on my back, several times I accidentally ran into other phans and when I put it on the ground near my feet, I couldn’t dance as freely as I wanted.

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While it gets hot in the day at the Gorge, it can get pretty cold at night, especially if the wind wips up off the Columbia River.

This experience reinforced one of the lessons I kept learning on my trip: travel light. Reduce the amount of stuff you have and carry around and you’ll feel freer and happier.

So no, I didn’t need the backpack and had decided within the first 10 minutes of the concert not to bring it in the next day.

Still, it wasn’t until setbreak that the backpack would teach me its most valuable lesson.

I’m sure you are likely aware that Washington is one of the growing number of states in the U.S. where marijuana is legal for recreational use.

Before moving to Japan, I was a regular user of this plant, which I consider to be something of a miracle plant in how it enhances my sense of well-being and health.

However, these days I live without it because the laws against it in Japan are so ridiculously draconian (ironically, those laws were imposed on Japan by the US after WW2). So when I return to Washington where it is legal, I allow myself to indulge. As a result, I went into that first concert pleasantly stoned on some edibles so my senses were slightly distorted and my memory of the night has a certain, shall we say, haze to it.

IMG_5279

Did the potent legal pot cause me to imagine this whole thing?

And right before setbreak a kind fan passed me a joint of quality reefer and then at the start of setbreak Dan and I smoked a little bit of the weed we had so I was most definitely high as we climbed to the top of the amphitheater to find a bathroom.

I was standing on top of the hill, looking out at the crowd when I began to hear the comments: “Another fag;” “Look at gay boy over there!”; “Hey, fucking queer!”

Fag? Gay boy? Queer? Who were they talking about? Are they talking about me?

I’d never really heard these sorts of comments before, but once I heard the first few, I started to hear more. I am still not sure if they were all directed at me, or even if I may have been hearing some of them due to my intoxication.

As I looked around the crowd, though, I realized there were some people that I’d never seen at a Phish show, people who looked like and carried themselves like Nazi redneck skinheads. And it seemed most of the homophobic comments I heard, some of which suggested they wanted to physically harm me, were coming from them.

Do gay people have to put up with this kind of shit every day? I wondered.

Of course, I know that there is homophobia in US culture. But at a Phish show?

Then, it got worse.

As I was waiting just outside the bathroom for Dan a dude who looked like he could have been a model for the Phish Hippie fashion magazine came out and gave me the most condescending, disapproving smile. He did not look like the kind of person who I’d expect that kind of behavior from.

Still, maybe I was imaging things. Maybe I had become super paranoid because of the comments on top of the hill and because of the cannabis I’d consumed. Maybe I misread his smile.

But I don’t think so. I think what I was realizing was that more people than I would have thought treat gay people like shit, even if it is only with a disapproving look.

What stood out to me about the experience was that once I heard the first few comments, it became almost impossible to relax the rest of the night, as I was often wondering if people around me were looking down on me, wished me harm or actually were going to hurt me. I even had one paranoid moment, when, after taking a hit off a joint from a guy with a buzzcut I wondered if he may have put something in it to harm me. Much as I knew this was irrational because he was also hitting it, when we have an emotionally heavy experience, our rationality is sometimes not enough to defeat such thoughts.

I have a gay cousin who told me, “I’m sorry that you had to experience this and yet I am glad you did—it validates what we as a community go through every day. We learn to cope and learn ways to shield ourselves.”

He added: “What you experienced was tame compared to what some of us have experienced. We have a friend who is somewhat unsteady on his feet … and we came to find out a few years back in Montana a group of guys jumped him as he came out of a bar and beat him senseless because he was gay. He spent four months in a coma and has permanent nerve damage. Nobody deserves this.”

No, they certainly don’t. And as a result of what I went through, I promise to be more outspoken and strong in support of oppressed groups.

All that said, a part of me had to laugh about my experience. It just felt so silly to me that because I had a backpack that looked “fruity” all of the sudden I became gay in the eyes of others. (I should add that I had a pair of new shows that are the same color as the bacpack so maybe that contributed to my appearing gay. I just don’t know.)

As my cousin wrote, “What’s Gay dress? We each have our own style—who’s to say what that style is? Fuck them! Lol.”

Right on!

I have a feeling if I brought the same backpack to a festival in Japan no one would give a shit. That’s not to say there is no homophobia in Japan. But because this is a country that is not founded on Judeo-Christian traditions and bigotry, men are allowed to be a bit more girly than in the US.

Besides, one of the things I like about myself is that I am in touch with both my masculine and my feminine side. I also think that, rather than making me weaker as some macho dudes think, this makes me stronger.

Anyway, fuck dudes like that. Fuck people who think it’s OK to harass, threaten or make fun of gay people or any opressed minority. They are ignorant fools.

Still, since when did such people start attending Phish shows? Had they always been there?

As I wrote in my previous post, “(Phish) phans feel like ‘at a show, treat everyone like a friend.’” That had been my experience at the previous 18 shows I’ve attended since 1996. I’d never felt threatened at a show, nor like there were even people there who wanted to threaten others.

But as I began to observe the crowd more, I realized that there were some people who were there to not only get fucked up (on booze or whatever), but to fuck up other people.

Sadly, this was all confirmed for me the Monday after the shows when I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and I saw a story about a middle-aged man and father of four who flew to Washington from Michigan to see his favorite band, only to be struck in the back of a head with a rock during the second set of Saturday night’s show, seriously injuring him (he is still in a rehab center near the Gorge  and you can help with his hospital bills by going here). And it appears there were at least two other incidents like this and witnesses said the attackers had Nazi tattoos.

Phish fan recovering in hospital after attack at Gorge

Joe Allen Jr.’s life was altered for the worse by his encounter with violent, hateful fans at the Phish concert in central Washington on July 21, 2018.

What the fuck?!?

I’m standing in a long line for the toilet, a series of “Honey Buckets” lined up in a dark hollow so that when you get to the front of the line you still can’t see if someone has exited from one of the Honey Buckets in the back.

Most people are following a protocol of just walking slowly through until a door opens. However, there are a number of jerks who not only walk past the line, but as they do, they are making comments like “Look at all these weak people, walk right past them!” “Fucking pussies, get out of the way!”

Again, I’d never heard this sort of shit at a Phish show before. Sure, I’ve seen selfish behavior, but previously such behavior was done silently, as though the people doing it knew not to be proud of it.

But in America 2018? I guess now it’s not only socially acceptable to be an asshole, but to be so proud of it that you boast to those you are being an asshole to.

Now, it would be very easy to blame all of this on the Orange Jerkwad in the Oval Office. And I will definitely say he and his boorish behavior deserve some of the blame.

My parents told me they’ve definitely noticed more selfish behavior since the election in 2016, such as in traffic. And my cousin told me that bigots have been emboldened as a backlash against the common rights that gays have gained over the past several years.

While I think ths is true, I also think what is happening goes deeper. I believe that, on the collective level, humanity is facing a Dark Night of the Soul where the unconscious is becoming conscious and this means that some of those until-now hidden, sometimes-ugly behaviors are becoming public.

In some way, it is as though hidden aspects of each of us is being revealed.

SPLC_NeoNazi_02

The rise of Nazi racists in the U.S. reveals an ugliness in the culture that must be addressed.

And on that Friday night, I became aware that some of those hidden aspects are just downright ugly. And all it took for me to see this was to bring in a “fruity” bag. I can only imagine what more flamboyant gay people put up with, not to mention what people of color deal with.

Like I said, it really sucks.

All this said, I don’t want to leave this post in such a dark place. We have to be honest about the shadow side of humanity. However, it is just one side of us. And over the next two nights, I saw that there is also a bright light that is being revealed as well, that humanity is still, at its heart, a mixed bag of crapiness and awesomeness.

In an upcoming post, I’ll explore that light and leave you feeling better about the world. Until then, thanks for reading!!

Shameless Self Promotion Time: If you enjoy my writing, please check out my novel, “The Teacher and the Tree Man.” The full 80-chapter story can be purchased as an e-book or as a paperback from Amazon or as an e-book at Smashwords. You can also purchase the book in each of the 20-chapter “books” (there are 4, for a total of 80) at Amazon as well (book 1, book 2, book 3 and book 4). If you are a member of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited like I am, you can read the individual books for free. If you like reading and discovering independent authors like me, I highly recommend joining Kindle Unlimited!

Here is a bit from the synopsis:  “The Teacher and the Tree Man” is a modern American epic fable about a Teacher in love with Nature who discovers a human head, a Tree Man, living in a tree in a forest near his house. The novel is about our need to unplug from our culture and re-discover ourselves in Nature. It is a fun-yet-deep look at: the media, our education system, drugs in our culture and our inability to listen to each other in the political arena.

 

 

Blog Postponed (Last Time!)

Hey all,

Once again, this is NOT an official post for 2018 so doesn’t count toward the once a week for the year.

We just returned safe and sound to Japan from a wonderful, rejuvenating trip to the US so today (Sunday, August 5 in Japan) is a day to unpack, organize and prep for the rest of the month.

I’ve got MANY great blog ideas inspired by the trip so don’t take this second straight week of postponements as a sign that the blog is going anywhere.

Rather, it’s a sign that I want to take some time to write blog posts that are actually worth reading.

Anyway, my tentative plan is to have a post ready for this Friday, August 10th at 7 p.m. but if not, I’ll just get one out next Sunday and then you can expect two mid-week posts sometime in August to make up for the two I missed.

Until then!

-Bryan

Summer Blog Schedule Change

Hi folks.

This is not a regular blog post. It doesn’t count toward the once a week for all of 2018.

The blog, however, is taking at least a one-or-two-week hiatus due to my overseas trip. I’ve got some things I could throw on here as a substitute to keep the weekly streak going.

However, the spirit of this project is to get me to write so rather than writing a poem or posting some notes from my trip, or even sharpening up an old short story, just to fulfill the secondary goal of keeping the streak of posting weekly alive, I’d rather instead write the two missing posts (July 29 and August 5) during the weeks of August 12-August 31, so you get five posts during that period. And spend some time on them, develop them, make them worth reading.

Because it’s not like I haven’t been bursting with ideas during my stay in the U.S. The problem is I don’t have time to write them out and develop them. But when I return to Japan, I have four weeks left of summer break without teaching classes, so it’s always a time of year when I can write.

Anyway, until then mid-August, enjoy your summer!!

 

Gone Phishin’

I’m chillin’ on a thankfully air-conditioned bus to Narita Airport outside of Tokyo, watching the passing green rice paddies and vine-covered riversides of central Japan and my soundtrack is Phish’s 2009 shows at The Gorge Amphitheatre in Central Washington.

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The green rice fields and hot, muggy air of Japan are much different than the Gorge.

Hard to believe that in five days I’ll be there, taking in my first Phish shows since August 2011 at the same stunning venue.

I’m goin’ Phishin’.

So, yeah, I am a Phish phan.

I know it’s silly.

But any band that would fly across an arena in a giant hot dog to celebrate an early-career New Year’s gig or play epic solos on a vacuum cleaner obviously isn’t afraid to be silly. And when you think about it, being in a rock band, being a fan of that band, the whole thing is kind of silly, isn’t it?

And that’s one of the many appeals of Phish; they are a rock band that knows its silly to be a rock a band, but still loves being a rock band.

As rock critic Steven Hyden wrote in his excellent 2018 book Twilight of the Gods, “(Phish) turned their geekiness into a positive by acknowledging their distance from the classic-rock gods, reimaging rock history as a fun house for a special breed of rock nerd who is simultaneously reverent and irreverent toward the genre’s conventions. In the process, Phish pushed classic-rock mythology into a postmodern realm.”

And out of that alchemy, Phish is able to pull off barbershop quarter versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Space Oddity.”

Phish in 2016

The boys, er, men of Phish.

Or maybe you just think it’s silly that Phish phans follow Phish of all bands because as Hyden wrote,  “The one thing most people know about Phish is that they hate Phish.”

He goes on, “When you love Phish, you are instantly alienated from the vast majority of the population.”

And while many non-Phish fans may know very little about Phish and have some strange ideas about them as a result, they aren’t totally wrong to say that Phish fans can be really annoying.

Because we can be. Such is the nature of fans. We love something so much we want to, no, we have to, share about it with others and that can make us annoying.

So here’s my hope; I hope I can write about Phish in a way that is not annoying to a non-fan. Do you trust me to do that?

Going to a show can be like a pilgrimage, at least in the sense that Phish is the sort of band you can get really into from a number of angles, so much so that they become a central part of your life. But no matter which aspect of the band and the community draws you in, going to shows is the central part of being a “phan.”

So when I moved to Japan in the summer of 2004, I knew I was sacrificing the number of chances I’d have to attend a Phish show. Yet at that time, it seemed like they were going to break up, maybe for good, and my focus was elsewhere.

Of course, they did break up that summer, but five years later returned and, well, it felt sort of bittersweet to me. Yes, I was happy they were back and would be making new live music (and new tunes) but I probably wouldn’t get to see them much.

But then I remember…

July 13, 2003, the second night of two Phish shows at the Gorge. They’d played the day earlier but I wasn’t there because my girlfriend was in town from Japan.

That Sunday morning, she left for Japan and I jaunted over to the Gorge to catch the final show.

And yet there I am, standing Page side about halfway back on the floor level, watching one of my favorite live acts but my mind is going over Japanese vocabulary. It hits me: This era of my life is coming to an end.

Page McConell

Keyboardist Page McConnell: Ragin’ Page Side!

For four years, I’ve lived for live music, especially when I could combine it with travel. I’d been as far away as Indiana for three nights of Phish at Deer Creek in 2000, and New York and Massachusetts for a New Year’s run in 2000-1 with the Disco Biscuits.

While those were fun experiences, my favorite trips were ones where I stayed out West, enjoying the Outdoors in the day and concerts at night. I was able to explore famous parks like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, and camp on isolated beaches on the California coast where the scary snorting of wild, tiny pigs chased my friend and I into a pre-mature sleep in our tent or where I spent over an hour on a morning swim/shower in the Pacific near San Diego.

And then at night, go see my favorite bands, meet new people, have a great time, come back to camp and do it all over again!

Man, those were some great times…

But somewhere along the way, I started to realize that you could grow tired of this lifestyle, that you couldn’t do it every day. My longest tour was in fall 2000 where I flew into Vegas for two days of Phish, then followed Phish to Arizona and back, hitting the Grand Canyon on the way, to California for two more shows … before hooking up with the Disco Biscuits in Las Vegas for two and following them for nine shows up the West Coast and back home to the Seattle area.

We called this the Phishco Biscuit Tour and I think the following photo collage shows it was a BLAST!

But toward the tail end of that run, I was running on fumes and one day I woke up and, emerging from that morning fog that can sometimes blind you from remembering what you are doing that day, I remembered, “I’m going to a Disco Biscuits concert tonight” and there was no joy or excitement; in fact, it felt almost felt like I had to do it.

Too much of a good thing…

And then in January 2002, I met my future wife and just 18 months later I find myself reviewing Japanese words in the middle of a show.

Yup, it was a good run, but all good things come to an end, right?

Or … do they?

Because here I am, about 15 years since that vocab-reviewing show and I’m headed back, flying to Washington for my first summer visit to the U.S. since 2014 and for Phish’s first three-night get-down at the Gorge. They’ve been playing two night runs there since 1997, but they are taking it to the next level this year.

 

“Light” from that 2009 show is galloping through my head, Page scatting on the organ as Mike and Fish bounce through a salty rhythm and Trey melodically pokes the stars above.

Trey Searching For the Jam

Trey Anastasio loves finding new musical ideas to express.

And it makes me wonder: Has Phish ever played a bad show at the Gorge?

There have been bad song choices (an issue of possible endless debate), flubbed moments of songs—Hell, I started listening to this 2009 Gorge show with “Stash” and Trey was struggling to play the notes in the composed section but once the jam got going, all was well. (And later in the set after a hot “Sneakin’ Sally” they fell into a jam so good LivePhish gave it its own track listing, “Gorge Jam.”)

Point is, it’s a rare show where nothing good happens. I’ve been to 18 shows over the years, a pretty modest number for someone who saw them over 20 years ago, and I’ve yet to have a bad show.

And of the five times I’ve seen Phish at the Gorge (twice in September 1999, the aforementioned July 2003 show and the two in 2011) only the 2003 show didn’t feel like a very good show (I recall an especially abrupt “Trey ripcord” at the end of “Harry Hood”), but I was obviously not all there that day (and I still recall a beautiful, haunting “Seven Below” jam which made me a lifelong fan of that song).

I have to imagine the epic grandeur of the Gorge brings out the best in most bands that play there. Less famous than Colorado’s Red Rocks, it still has to be one of the most amazing and jaw-dropping natural outdoor concert venues in the US, if not the world.

Gorge Great View Day

Just look at that view!

You sit on that hillside and see the wide, mighty Columbia River sparkling like a silver ribbon far below the stage and as the first set progresses, the fireball sun, which in the afternoon can heat the high desert air up to a very dry 100, begins to paint the sky a kaleidoscopic montage and soon enough, he is gone, swallowed by the cliffs on the other side of the river.

It’s so gorgeous that bands like Phish are notorious for stopping to comment on the mind-blowing scene and often they’ll perform songs with a special gusto as the sun sets, such as in 2011 when they played an incredible ambient jam in the middle of “Roggae” with the sun dropping. Check that one out, if you haven’t already!

Yes, going to a show at the Gorge is also about the venue, not just the band. So that also has me excited.

It’s the night before leaving for the Gorge and I’m mostly packed and ready to go and if I am totally honest, I also feel social anxiety. In fact, I’ve felt it since coming back to the US four days ago.

Its kind of hard to function in my own country any more. I feel like an alien here; how do I use this debit card machine?; where the Hell do you park your bike, on that statue of a bike over there?; you said to drive on the right side of the road? Okay, I didn’t drive on the left side of the road (this trip!) but yeah, I still get disoriented by the way you use the right side of the road to drive.

I know the girl outside the supermarket in the car next to mine was cracking up when I couldn’t figure out how to open my car door with my key. Hey lady, I usually ride a bicycle! Ha ha.

I have a feeling I’ve given some other people some laughs this week. Fair enough; I’m willing to be the butt of a few jokes if it makes some people laugh.

Just keep the numbers limited, OK?

Point is, I feel somewhat unsure in my own skin when I make my rare trips back to the U.S. And going to a Phish concert with camping is like going further back into a world that sometimes seems like it only exists in my dreams.

Mostly, I worry very little about such things. I go to events, I see people, I chat with people.

Wait a minute, it’s not anxiety about meeting people, meeting people and having fun with them at Phish shows is easy.

jon-fishman-dress

Am I really worried I’m not gonna have fun with Phish drummer Jon Fishman?

 

No, it’s anticipation as well as nervousness for this one reason: when you do something you love only once every several years, you want it to be a great time.

The script goes like this: “This is going to be fun. I hope this is going to be fun. This is going to be fun, right? Is this really going to be fun? Is this what fun even looks like?”

What a series of stupid questions. Of course, it will be fun, you just spelled it wrong, man! It’ll be phun!

The reasons for this are myriad but one of them has to be the community that forms around a band like Phish. Many people have shared many special life memories with friends at shows, so seeing those old friends rekindles those memories. And you feel really grateful you get the chance to make some new ones with them.

The community is more than just one’s friends, however. I have this feeling that phans feel like ‘at a show, treat everyone like a friend.’ By doing this, many new friends are made, even short-term ones.

In fact, one of my favorite things about the community is that you can have really brief, fun and sometimes meaningful exchanges with a person and never see them again. Bit that doesn’t change the coolness of the encounter. In some ways, it adds to it.

There is just a lot more interaction that seems to matter at a Phish show than in everyday life.

I just realized, I haven’ t really set the scene. The thing is, this is not just three concerts we are going to, three concerts means about three days of camping at the Gorge campground, which is basically just a big grassy field.

My friend, Dan, has a van and we’ve got a tent and whatever other gear one needs to camp in a grassy field for three days. There’s a lot of time for just hanging out, but we also like to walk around, interacting with others.

That’s some of the most fun, really because you got people from all over the country, walking around, finding old friends, chasing dogs, playing Frisbee, meeting new friends, jamming, and on and on.

Camping at Phish shows invariably brings out the witty rascal in me. I love sharing silly banter with phans and just being silly and laughing with people.

One such instance was back at a festival in summer 2000 at Horning’s Hideout. It was a really hot final day of a three-day festival, I’d been up all night and was in quite the state, so friends and I went to sit under some trees by this lakeside path to keep cool and pass the time.

We ended up near a water fountain that had a sign, ‘Potable Water.’

PotableWater

Are sure it’s safe to drink this water?

Many people stopped to drink this water, or wash in it and many had to suffer my idea of a silly joke.

As they approached the drink, I’d say, “You do know that water is potable, don’t you?”

This always stopped them. Even if they knew what the word meant. Because I’d say it in such a confident way that it would cause them to respond to my tone rather than what I said.

Some would figure out it pretty quick, laugh and say, “Good one” and then have their drink, proving they knew that potable meant ‘safe to drink’.

Others, though, would have a short conversation with me. I’d always keep it light-hearted and funny and my friends would be cracking up. Because it was so hot, though, I didn’t hold out on them too long, eventually I told them potable meant it was drinking water.

One of my strategies to cause conversation is wearing interesting t-shirts. For this weekend, I’ve got the crazy Simpsons t-shirt in the photo, among others.

img_5370

Bought this bad boy in Japan!

There are other, more sincere interactions that also seem to occur more often than in everyday life. People just seem kinder at the campground and shows.

It’s nice.

That’s not to say all Phish phans are the same.

Phish phans come in all shapes and sizes and come at the band from many different perspectives.

My chosen “geek routes” to Phish are probably focused on these three things:

1) the musicology/history of Phish (learning about great shows, great versions of songs, jams, having discussions about various eras and other Phish geekery);  2) feeling the groove (Phish is a band that can play all sorts of genres, but their phans, by and large, like to move at shows, and they have a great rhythm section so, yes, one of the things I most enjoy is getting down at Phish shows!) and 3) the mythology and storytelling of Phish (I love hearing tales of how songs were made, how the songs tie together to their lives, and other songs; and how the community responds and sometimes shapes the way those songs become formed).

Mike G in action

Bassist Mike Gordon will definitely keep me grooving this weekend.

I know there are more—taper geeks, setlist-transcriber geeks, Phish-as-social-theory geeks, Phish-as-cultural-food-critics geeks—okay, I made that last one up and the one before it I am just guessing exists. But you get the point. They are a band with lots of ways to enjoy them.

And of course, many do. A band that doesn’t sell tickets doesn’t get booked for three nights at the Gorge nor for 13 nights at a “residency” at Madison Square Garden in New York City like they did last summer as part of their “Baker’s Dozen” run.

Boy, I could go on and on and on and on and …

I’ve lost you?

What, oh no, when did I lose you? Oh, I should have warned you that I could get carried away. Are you saying you don’t care about Phish? What have I done? Do you hate me now? Do you hate Phish now?

Okay, come back, please! Let me explain the method to my madness:

HEY GEEKS! Love your interests and allow them to charge your life with Your Passions. But Don’t Be That Annoying Geek. The One Who Chatters On Soooooo Looooong About His Interest That He Bores Everyone Around Him. And Even Turns Some of them Against the Interest He Has.

Why do I hate “Star Trek”? Blame annoying geeks. Geeks that loved the show so much that once you got them talking about it, they sometimes didn’t pay attention to the social cues of those listening to realize others had heard enough.

Listen, folks, I am not the pot calling the kettle black. I’m saying I’ve done this; I know I can rattle on too long … about lots of things … but especially my geek interests. And I probably just did that here (and I didn’t even tell you why Phish should not play “Character Zero” this weekend!). So if you’ve read this far and you are not a Phish fan, wow, you are a real trooper! If you’ve read this far and are a Phish fan, maybe I’ll see you at a show. Who knows? Maybe I’ll meet you at the Gorge. For now, as always, thanks for reading!

Shameless Self Promotion Time: If you enjoy my writing, please check out my novel, “The Teacher and the Tree Man.” The full 80-chapter story can be purchased as an e-book or as a paperback from Amazon or as an e-book at Smashwords. You can also purchase the book in each of the 20-chapter “books” (there are 4, for a total of 80) at Amazon as well (book 1, book 2, book 3 and book 4). If you are a member of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited like I am, you can read the individual books for free. If you like reading and discovering independent authors like me, I highly recommend joining Kindle Unlimited!

Here is a bit from the synopsis:  “The Teacher and the Tree Man” is a modern American epic fable about a Teacher in love with Nature who discovers a human head, a Tree Man, living in a tree in a forest near his house. The novel is about our need to unplug from our culture and re-discover ourselves in Nature. It is a fun-yet-deep look at: the media, our education system, drugs in our culture and our inability to listen to each other in the political arena.

 

 

Remembering My House

Tomorrow, I’m returning home for the last time.

I know there is a difference between the words “home” and “house,” but, for me, when I think of “home” I think of the house I grew up in.

It’s a modest, one-story house in a peaceful suburban neighborhood in Western Washington, USA. Two tall evergreen trees stand to the right of the garage and a plum tree sits on the left side of the drive way, turning a beautiful pink every spring and a regal red throughout the summer. The house sits off the street but still invites you in, suggesting both safety from the world but open-ness to it, qualities I also think my parents reflect.

The House From the Front #2

The house I grew up in will always hold a special place in my heart.

I lived there for 18 years, went off to college in Southern California thousands of miles away, and, after having some trouble there, returned to live there from age 25 until 31 when I moved to Japan and have been for the last 14 years, now with a house and a family of my own.

But always, no matter where I’ve been, the house has been there, ready to welcome me home whenever I needed it.

So it came as somewhat of a shock earlier this year when my parents told me they were going to sell the house sometime next year after they move to a retirement community this winter.

On my last trip home during the winter of 2016-17, they had told me they were planning to sell the house sometime in the next five to ten years. So it wasn’t like the news this year came totally out of nowhere.

It just came faster than I expected and as a result hit me kind of hard.

Now don’t get me wrong; I know the house has a special place in my heart because I have great parents and I had a nice childhood there. My parents are the main reason the house is such a comfort to me.

Still, the places we share memories with loved ones in become loved ones in their own sense, don’t they? Especially when those places also provide us with shelter, both physically and psychologically.

But lest I become too detached in my reminiscences, I hope you’ll indulge me this week. I’d like to take some time to reflect upon my house, guiding you through the locations where I made the most memories. Are you ready? A wave of my magic wand and we are off!

My Bedroom

Ah, the bedroom, the room located in the back corner of the house with a window out onto a large backyard. A room with a thousand memories. Which one shall we start with? Here’s one:

Rainwater is gurgling through the gutters outside my window, a common background noise in rainy Western Washington, but I don’t notice because I’m pounding away on the bongos and belting out the classic “Invasion of the Teddy Bears,” always a real crowd-pleaser from the festival headliners Furter and the Garbage Cans.

A row of concertgoers, aka my very large stuffed animal collection, which include ET, a couple of Curious George monkeys, a goofy dude in a football helmet, a monkey in a track suit and a USA medal around his neck and a bear with a silly heart on his chest, watches.

Yes, there may have been Woodstock back in the day and these days you have Bonnaroo and Coachella, but back in the 1980s, I had my own music festivals, with all of my stuffed animals having bands (ET’s was absolutely awful!), sometimes performed with friends like my pals Jason or John or my brother, Lance, but more often than not, it’s just me, making a racket, not knowing how lucky I am to have patient parents who don’t mind a noisy kid in his bedroom.

The best of those bands was Furter and the Garbage Cans, led by the hard-partying monkey Frank E. Furter (the E, we later discovered stood for Elmer, and to this day, he reminds us “don’t forget the E!”). Anyway, Furter was so popular with my friends that I brought him to show-and-tell in fourth grade and then he performed a small concert on the jungle gym, singing many of his hits, including “Spazzmania” and, of course, “Invasion of the Teddy Bears,” which was the theme song to a Star Wars-esque space opera I wrote in fourth grade.

Writing was another thing I often did in that bedroom, from school essays and reports to short stories and even a short novel that was basically an Indiana Jones rip-off for the 6th Grade Young Author’s conference. Recently, I found some of these old tales and man, I was definitely a crazy kid with a wacky imagination and a fascination with creative deaths!

Anyway, when I tired of creating fictional worlds to explore and characters to meet, I’d pick up a book, often something that could scare me to death, such as the latest Stephen King or Clive Barker novel.

Clive Barker Weaveworld CORRECT

One of many books I read in my room.

Sometimes I’d listen to music when I read, following the advice of Seattle-area native Jimi Hendrix to “lay back and groove on a rainy day,” and I still associate listening to albums like “The Unforgettable Fire” by U2 with those lazy, rainy days of reading in my bedroom.

In my college years, I took up the guitar, so when I moved back home, I guess I sort of re-enacted those childhood bedroom concerts. I never did progress much past the point of being a bedroom (and occasional campfire) guitar player, mostly enjoying strumming chords to popular songs and then making up my own lyrics. When I was 28, my brother gave me a keyboard for my birthday so I added that to the guitar (I also had a cheap electric guitar) and on many of those rainy days, I’d plug away at those instruments, losing myself in the wonderful world of music creation.

Much as I enjoy those sorts of relaxing pastimes, I also enjoy physical activity and one of the craziest activities of my childhood was my bedroom NERF basketball league. I created many sports leagues as a kid, but the NERF basketball league was probably my most creative.

By the way, do you know what a NERF basketball is? It’s basically a foam ball, about the size of a softball. Usually you could buy one with a hoop, which was this metal contraption that fit over a closet door with a plastic rim and net.

Classic NERF hoop

The classic NERF hoop and net: Put that metal piece over a door, close the door and you’re ready to play!

Anyway, I created this league with like 16 teams, some of which I can still name: The Los Angeles Sharks, the Miami Heat (yes, I actually named my team before the NBA team came around—I should get some money, yes? Though I changed them to the Miami Vice when that show became a big hit) and, my favorite, the Boston Massacre. Isn’t that a bad-ass name for a sports team from Boston? Not only do you have the historical tie-in, but it sounds like they mean business!

I had player names and everything and kept stats in a notebook. The way I played was I had four timed quarters and I’d take a 3-point shot from far away in the room and if I missed that, I’d take a closer range shot. The shots I took all depended on the players, so teams with a “dominant big man” as Bill Walton would say would often crash the boards and put down powerful slam dunks.

Classic NERF ball

And the classic NERF ball!

And when shots were made or dunks were slammed I’d do this annoying sound of the crowd cheering, which my parents could hear from out in the living room where they’d be watching TV or reading. Bad enough they had to put up with bongo-driven stuffed animal concerts, now this! Like I said, I’m lucky my parents were patient with me or that crowd noise, not to mention the sound of the house shaking as I ran around or jumped to get rebounds, would have been enough to cause a quick end to that league.

Anyway, that bedroom was a great place for me to discover and enjoy many of the hobbies I still enjoy today, from reading to music to making up sports leagues.

Nowadays, the room looks a lot different than when I was a kid, but I still sleep there on my trips back, and the memories are often rekindled.

The Family Room

Now, let’s go down the hall, past the other two bedrooms and the bathroom, turn right into the foyer and then take a quick left and you’ll get to the room I used almost as much as my bedroom: the family room.

It’s a very cozy room, the only room in the house with wooden floors and was the room we put our first PC, an Apple II-Plus, probably in 1981 or so. It also had the secondary TV and a bookshelf my dad made that had an awesome collection of atlas’ I’d often look at, thus fueling my interest in the world and lifelong love of maps.

Apple_II_Plus

The Apple II-plus in our family room created many fond memories.

As teenagers, my brother and I looked at the titles of the many books on the shelf and made up a silly ditty. I can’t remember it all but I know it ended, “Feelings/How to be a People Helper/The Challenge of Marriage.” I wonder if those books are still kicking around!

So yeah, when I think of this room I often think of my older brother, Lance. We spent a lot of time hanging out together in that room while my parents would be in the living room, which we’ll get to later.

Once we had that computer, Lance and I played all sorts of goofy 1980s games on it, from action-based games like the Pac-man rip-off Taxman to “graphics adventure” games like Time Zone. 

A very funny aside about that game, Time Zone. That game was a big deal: It’s price of $99 ($251 today) made it one of the more expensive computer games ever and when it came out, it was really huge, taking up six double-sided floppy discs when most games came on just one side of one disc, making it, as Wikipedia says, “one of the very first games of this magnitude ever released for home computer systems.”

My brother and I loved previous games made by Time Zone’s creators, Ken and Roberta Williams, so we really wanted this game. And that’s what made what happened so hard.

Time_Zone_Cover

When Lance found this box in my dad’s closet 20-odd days before Christmas, the waiting was, indeed, the hardest part!

One evening in early December, my parents were out somewhere and Lance, who was probably 11 or 12, decided to look through our dad’s closet and suddenly he comes running out to the family room, “Bryan, you gotta come look!”

So of course I do and what do I find: Time Zone, the cover for the box is in the picture to the left, waiting for us.

Unfortunately, it was like 20 days to Christmas and those were the longest, slowest 20 days EVER! I never wanted to have a present spoiled like that afterward.

My parents always allowed us to open one present on the 23rd, but Lance being a bit wiser (and more patient) than me, said we had to wait until the 24th to open Time Zone, otherwise our parents might figure out that we were sneaking around dad’s closet (in years to come, we’d find other, well, tantalizing items in dad’s closet, but I’ll leave exactly what to your imagination).

Anyway, games like Time Machine convinced us we should try to make our own text-and-graphics adventure game. Lance was (and is) very sharp and was really good at computer code, so he would write the code and I’d be the main force behind coming up with the story. I don’t recall how far we got, but I remember that being a pretty involved, fun project.

My imagination was broadened by such activities. Oh, and just as I had sports leagues in my room, we had a league on a game with the oh-so-creative title of “Computer Baseball.” It came with all sorts of classic teams and I can still tell you that in 1927, New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig batted .373 with 47 home runs as a result of playing that game way too much.

computer baseball pc game 1981

The graphics weren’t exciting, but the gameplay was realistic and made for baseball nerds like our family.

One of the best things about that game, though, was, unlike most baseball games for computers then, you could input your own teams so one summer my brother and I used this massive baseball almanac that we bought at the recently opened Costco to create All-Time All-Star teams for each of the major league teams and then we had a crazy league. Needless to say, our Seattle Mariners who were then only about 10 years old and never any good, were no match for historic teams like the Yankees or Dodgers.

Going back even further, I remember in the late 1970s/early 1980s taking advantage of the wooden floors of the family room, especially when we had babysitters over to our house, by taking our shoes off, putting some disco music on the stereo and “roller skating” on the wood floors in our socks. Good times!

The Kitchen

Continuing through the house we reach the kitchen. I’ve never been much of a foodie so the first memory that just came to me is when I was like 10 or something, my mom had all these various cacti on the windowsill behind the kitchen table. Unfortunately, I sat closest to the window and one morning before school, I yawned and accidentally stretched my hand into one of the poisonous cacti and caused my finger to swell up.

And on the wall, my mom hung an A-Z quilt that she’d stitched where A is for Apple with a picture of an apple, et cetera. The funny thing that stands out in my memory is the letter V was for “vichyssoise,” a word I’ve never seen anywhere else except for that quilt, but one which I looked at many times over the years. As kids, my brother and I used to make these plastic plates and those hung all over the wall, too. Most of mine, if memory serves were baseball-related, but all of them were colorful and made the room homey.

V is for Vichyssoise

Vichyssoise.

Of course, there are actual food memories, too. Like as a teenager when my mom would bring home a pizza and I’d feel like I was in a race with my brother and dad to get my fill of my favorite food. Speaking of those two, also as a teen, my brother took up German and they’d chat in German at the dinner table, which is probably why I still find that language annoying (though I do love hearing Germans speak English and how they turn “W” sounds into “V’s”).

A much later memory comes from my first trip back home as a father. We had a little get-together and I was in the kitchen with John, my former boss at King’s Books, as my baby son, Oliver, was doing baby things on the floor and John suddenly stopped himself in the middle of a sentence about something else and said, “That’s a really cute baby.”

Yes, the kitchen was definitely a good place to make memories…

The Backyard

I’d stop in the living room on the way outside, but I’m feeling the need for some fresh air so why don’t we go to still one of my favorite features of the house, the backyard?

It’s a beautiful backyard, rather large with a lawn full of lush green grass (and some moss that I liked to pick out by hand as a stress-reliever as an adult), a patio made up of many pebbles sort of glued together that was always brutal on barefeet and some really beautiful trees lining the back of the yard. Of course, those trees meant lots of leaf raking in the fall, but like my parents, I’ve always enjoyed yardwork so I never minded. I wonder if they’ll miss working in their yard?

Backyard View

That big green lawn hosted some epic Whiffle Ball games over the years.

On warm summer days, I’d lay in the hammock on the patio, listening to our wind chimes as I read my favorite book. But probably my favorite memory of that backyard growing up was playing Whiffle Ball.

What is a Whiffle Ball, you ask? Well, it’s a plastic baseball with some very peculiar holes that make it very easy to throw all sorts of crazy pitches that curve inside and out, drop from the sky, rise from the ground or all of the above. We played it constantly, especially in summer (and of course, I had some leagues I made up around the game).

Whiffle Ball and Bat

Can a 45-year-old dude still make a run at a Whiffle Ball pro career?

I sometimes think if there’d been a pro Whiffle Ball league I could have made it. I was a great batter and pitcher. I’m convinced all that Whiffle Ball was why I was very adept at hitting breaking balls in real baseball all the way through high school.

At the plate in our backyard, I did have an advantage over the right handed hitters, though. For the righties, they had to deal with the aforementioned trees which basically were in left and left-center field so many of their power blasts got knocked down by the trees. That meant we had to come up with decisions about what kind of hit the ball was and that, of course, led to some great arguments. Oh, and if you caught the ball coming out of the trees, which was not an easy thing to do, it was an out!

For me, though, I had an open shot to right and right-center and I always loved cranking one deep to right because it often meant landing on our neighbor’s roof or, better yet, on top of their greenhouse, which made a very nice sound.

Fortunately, that neighbor was very friendly and allowed us to get our balls (she is actually the aunt of my wife, the woman who matched us, so plays into my life story even more than just being a good neighbor). In addition, they had this dog named Lady who looked like a bear and was a bit slow mentally, but was always willing to grab the balls in her mouth, come to the fence and put the ball down so we could reach under it to get them.

My dad actually took our old swing set and turned it into a backstop so that many of our foul balls wouldn’t go into the other neighbor’s yard, a neighbor who was not so friendly. We’d still sometimes have to climb over his fence to get our balls, but it always felt like we were risking life and limb to do so.

Anyway, Whiffle Ball was the best. We played all through my teenage years and sometimes my friends from the real baseball team would come over and be surprised by how fast I could throw those balls, considering my “fastball” with a regular baseball was more like a change-up. I sometimes wonder if, because I played Whiffle Ball so much, my muscles developed to throw Whiffle Balls and thus weren’t so strong at throwing real balls. Like I said, I coulda gone pro, man!

The Living Room

We’d play for hours, but when we tired out, we’d go inside and this was when we’d usually retire to the living room. In the summers of my latter teen years, one of our favorite things to do was take a break so we could watch our favorite painter, Bob Ross, on the living room TV.

In my adult years, I’d often rent DVDs and watch them in the living room with my parents and one funny memory is we were watching the movie “Wag the Dog” and very shortly into it, I started to remember that we’d all watched it together a few years before, but when I brought this up, my dad was convinced he’d never seen it. Yet I could remember the parts where my mom would cackle and my dad would chuckle and sure enough, they’d cackle and chuckle in exactly the same part. Even so, my dad still did not believe he’d seen it!

Wag the Dog

No matter what my dad says, we definitely saw that movie before.

Perhaps that’s because he’d done what he and I often did when sitting in front of the TV in the living room, and that’s reclined on the chair and fallen asleep. Going back to the family room for a moment, my mom used to poke fun of me and my dad when, after dinner in spring and summer, we’d retire to drink coffee and watch the Mariners game but usually within 30 minutes both of us were dozing in a baseball-induced nap.

Oh, the memories go on and on … such as all of the Christmases we spent opening presents in the living room. I always did like how our family did that: we’d each take turns, trying to guess what was in the box as everyone watched that person. It took longer than just ripping open all the presents at once, but it made the occasion more of a family one and besides, who wants to speed through Christmas?

Well, folks, I could keep this up all day long but I think that’s more than enough reminiscing for now. It was a lot of fun to re-visit these memories and it also helped me realize something: even though the house will be gone, it’ll always have a place inside of me, a place I can re-visit to re-kindle some of the many good feelings I had growing up in it. Thanks for reading!

Shameless Self Promotion Time: If you enjoy my writing, please check out my novel, “The Teacher and the Tree Man.” The full 80-chapter story can be purchased as an e-book or as a paperback from Amazon or as an e-book at Smashwords. You can also purchase the book in each of the 20-chapter “books” (there are 4, for a total of 80) at Amazon as well (book 1, book 2, book 3 and book 4). If you are a member of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited like I am, you can read the individual books for free. If you like reading and discovering independent authors like me, I highly recommend joining Kindle Unlimited!

Here is a bit from the synopsis:  “The Teacher and the Tree Man” is a modern American epic fable about a Teacher in love with Nature who discovers a human head, a Tree Man, living in a tree in a forest near his house. The novel is about our need to unplug from our culture and re-discover ourselves in Nature. It is a fun-yet-deep look at: the media, our education system, drugs in our culture and our inability to listen to each other in the political arena. 

Empathizing with The Other (Stories About Immigration)

January 2005

A cold winter night in central Japan and I’m walking down a street with three American friends, the volume of our conversation elevated by the alcohol we’ve consumed.

Two elderly Japanese women walk by and give us a disapproving glare.

Are we too loud? Probably.

Or is it that we are too loud in a foreign tongue? Maybe.

Could they be thinking, “Speak the language or go home!”? Probably not.

And then I see myself through their eyes: a tall, blonde gaikokijin babbling gibberish. Gaikokijin is the Japanese word for foreigner and translates literally into “outside country person.” An immigrant: I have to remember that’s how Japanese strangers perceive me.

Yet if glares from old women are the worst of my immigrant experience, I have it very easy. The news from America proves how much worse it could be. Headlines like “‘Dad, I’m Never Going to See You Again’—Two Brazilian Boys Describe Living Through Family Separation” and “‘No One Will Believe Baboon Complaints’—Racist Abuse in Immigration Detention on the Rise in Trump Era, Report Says” describe a bad situation getting worse for many immigrant families coming to the United States from Mexico.  

KIDS Against ICE

Being an immigrant in the US in 2018 is not easy.

I wonder: Down the road, could things change where suddenly the Japanese public turn against non-Japanese, maybe even creating government policies to make my life here miserable or even intolerable? Right now, it seems very unlikely.

But even if that never happens, how I’m treated as an immigrant from America living in Japan doesn’t really change what motivates me to care about the immigrants going to America. It doesn’t matter because it’s not self-interest that motivates my feelings on this issue. It’s compassion and empathy.

September 2001

“Why do you care? Why do you care?” my boss asks me, almost pleading.

It’s just days after 9/11 and I’ve been called into his office for distributing an essay I wrote about the dangers of Us vs. Them thinking. I wrote how, when we Americans consider our response to 9/11 and what we want our government to do, we should remember that the vast majority of people in the Muslim world which President Bush is threatening with military force are peace-loving folks who just want to live their lives, no different than most Americans. I’d resorted to writing the essay because that same boss, the owner of the company, told me I was no longer allowed to discuss politics in the office. He didn’t give this restriction to the employees he agreed with politically, however. Angered, b this I went home, wrote the essay, put copies of it on my desk and told my co-workers if they wanted my perspective, they could take a copy. 

This really ticked off him off so there I stood in his office, appealing to his heart about the poverty of the Muslim world, about the pain that everyday people there would experience if the US lashed out with its military as a response to 9/11, but he keeps on asking me that question: “Why do you care? Why do you care?”

Just before the second airplane crashes to the World Trade Center, New York, 11 Sept 2001 2

Like most Americans, the 9-11 attacks shook me up and caused me to ask a lot of deep questions about the world and our role in it.

That question still gets to me, because I always want to flip it and ask, “Why don’t you care?” I think one of the answers is because he was a man motivated mostly by self-interest so why should he care about someone halfway around the world who he’ll never meet?

At the time, I was too emotional and thought he was being intentionally obtuse, but now I think he was being earnest, that he really wanted to understand why, or better yet how, I cared, maybe because a part of him wanted to care, too. (There’s much more to this story and it can be found here!).

I wonder if I met him today if he’d have the same question for me and the millions of others who have been outraged by the stories of the US government forcibly separating immigrant children from their parents in the Trump Administration’s  “zero tolerance” efforts to tackle the “crisis” of illegal immigration.

Perhaps he’d ask, “Bryan, that’s not going to happen to you, so why do you care?”

To which I’d answer, I care because people are suffering and they are suffering because my government is being unnecessarily cruel. And when you feel compassion and empathy for someone, on some level, you tap into their suffering and feel at least a little of it as if it were you were own.

Fall 1991

I’m a college freshman at a university in downtown Los Angeles who has lived his whole life in a mostly white suburb of far-from-the-Mexican-border Tacoma, Washington so I hadn’t given immigration policy much thought.

As I walk down my dorm room halls and explore the campus, I notice that most of the staff that does the cleaning, the cooking and the maintenance are Latino and when I pass them and try to greet them cheerfully, most avoid eye contact and say only a quiet “Hello” if they say anything at all.

I have no idea what their legal status is nor do I think it matters. All I know is they work hard and eventually I am able to exchange greetings and eye contact with a few I see regularly. Yet I also hear some of the bigoted comments fellow students say about them and this causes growth in my awareness of the racism the Latino community in Southern California faces.

Fall 1994

Some of this racism is reflected in California politics, such as in the ballot initiative Proposition 187, which seeks to establish a state-run citizenship screening service and prohibit illegal immigrants from using non-emergency health care, public education and other services. It’s got full backing from Republican Governor Pete Wilson.

Prop 187 Reflections

Like now, the 1990s in California had a lot of conflict over the issue of immigration.

I already know Wilson’s a jerk before I move to California. Someone I know told me how she ran into the “extremely arrogant” Wilson and he tried to pull rank on her as he demanded some classified information that she couldn’t give him. He didn’t do anything in office that made me change that impression so I laugh and applaud when during the heat of that 1994 campaign I see the Red Hot Chili Peppers in concert and bassist Flea, long a hero of mine, gives a funny but heartfelt speech where he says, “Pete Wilson hates Latinos. I love Latinos. So fuck Pete Wilson!”

A few years later, I have two connected experiences that solidify my appreciation for Latinos and distaste for arrogant rich people. I have no money and my car is constantly breaking down. One day, it breaks down on the very busy on-ramp from Wilshire Blvd. to the 405 freeway in upper-class West Los Angeles. Even though I am able to get my car out of the road in just a few minutes, several folks in very nice cars take the time to roll down their windows and curse me for backing up traffic (as though I wanted to!).

A month or so later my car breaks down in the middle of Sunset Boulevard in working-class, mostly Latino Echo Park and before I even start pushing my car, four Latino men—some who had been driving by—run to help me push it to the side of the road.

Needless to say, like Flea, I like Latinos, too.

June 2018

The stories are piling up: the Trump Administration has instituted a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal immigrants and part of that policy means separating children from their families and holding them in custody, often in separate facilities. Some of the kids are refused physical contact with adults. Most are traumatized. Brain scientists say that this trauma can affect them for the rest of their life, stunting brain growth and leading to drug problems, mental illness and learning disabilities.

Some kids are falling through the cracks so even now, at the start of July after Trump has signed an order to stop separating kids from families, there are stories that some parents have already been sent back to countries in Latin America but their kids remain in US custody.

An audio tape of a six-year-old crying in extreme anguish over being separated from her mother, all alone in a foreign land, captivates and angers millions. How can the US government be doing this?

Reports of sexual abuse in the immigration centers, with half of the abusers working for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency), also come out.

Do you really need to have positive personal experiences with Latinos or their culture like I did to feel the pain these people are feeling? We’ve all been kids and many of us are parents. How would we feel in such a situation?

December 2010

On a visit home to Washington state, I’m on a post-Christmas shopping trip to the superstore Fred Meyer and I can’t find my Japanese wife or my five-year-old son. Where, where, WHERE ARE THEY? I can’t even call them for I don’t have my cell phone. I’m panicking—imaging this shady character I saw in the parking lot, perhaps grabbing them and tying them up in the back of a windowless, white van and driving them far away, never to be seen again…

After 10 anxiety-inducing minutes,I find them outside, the crowds had been overwhelming to them. I feel great relief. That was only 10 minutes. Imagine how how I’d feel if my kid was taken from me by government agents who acted as though they had no heart, not knowing the language, not knowing how long they’d be away. Would I ever see them again? The worry would be overwhelming.

Buena Ventura Martin-Godinez,Janne

This Mexican woman was reunited with her seven-year-old daughter after being apart for two months. Her advice to immigrants: “Find another country…(In the US), people don’t have a heart.”

Those poor people. And again, I think: this doesn’t have to be happening. It’s a choice that our government is making. And a choice that many of our citizens support and supported when they voted for Donald “Build the Wall!” Trump.

Even if we do support the policy, it’s only a really heartless person who doesn’t care about children. So a reporter a few weeks ago tries to appeal to this side of Trump Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, asking her “Come on, Sarah, you’re a parent. Don’t you have any empathy for what these people are going through?” After condenscendly telling him to “settle down” she suggests he is just seeking screen time (again, with the idea that a person can only be motivated by self-interest).

Her answer doesn’t satisfy us. We still want to know: Why are they doing this?

Leave the kids out of it! That’s the deal!” the lieutenant in the Mexican drug cartel screams into the phone on the Netflix drama “El Chapo.” 

The other side has violated this strict code, tossing his two kids off a bridge to their death in retaliation for something he did. The rules are clear: do whatever you want to the other guy. But leave the kids out of it because it’s understood that kids are innocent of the sins of their fathers. And that some punishment is simply too harsh.

So under Donald Trump, the US government has been violating a code that even drug cartels know not to cross. They are justifying it in all sorts of ways—Trump claims ”it’s the law” but blames Democrats for it, even though it’s not, while  Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Sanders suggest the Bible commands us to follow the law (thus ignoring the First Amendment and the Separation Clause), and when the idea was floated in the spring of 2017, the reason they are going to separate kids from their parents is, I kid you not, to protect the kids from exploitation.

Jeff Sessions Border

Attorney General Jeff Sessions must have been sleeping through the class on the First Amendment.

Meanwhile, the kids are being caged (“essentially summer camps” as one conservative commentator said), drugged and babies are having to defend themselves in court (I heard that one on a podcast, but it appears it was just satire. What a sad state of affairs where we ponder that something so absurd might possibly be true!)

Ultimately, the answer to “why is this happening?” is because there are some people who have decided that scapegoating a whole class and culture of people is good politics. It’s racism and bigotry, pure and simple.

And many Americans feel that it’s okay because they don’t see “these people” as human. They are the Other. And we humans have a long history of doing outrageous shit to the Other.

And now, a look behind the curtain.

I wrote and re-wrote this blog post several times. And still am not sure how well it came out. At first, it was a more typical 3rd-person current events-type post with a dig into history to put things in context and with lots of links, like this one from April on the Russia hysteria.

Yet as I looked at it, it felt like the post was lacking heart. Like I was trying to push away the way I felt about things because those are not comfortable feelings.

So I decided to contemplate some of my personal experiences relating to immigration, which are not all that many. And as I did so, the pattern became clear: that it was an expanding worldview and a larger sense of empathy that made me care about this topic.

I also realized that telling stories, for me at least, brings these topics more to life, makes them have more impact. The stories we tell ourselves are extremely important, they shape our perception of things and help us make sense of the world.

I’m not sure if the final product is something that helps you make any more sense of the issue. I do feel pretty confident that my attempt to write it with a more detached “objective journalist” voice was only making me more confused.

In the end, it’s a very confusing and difficult topic, as are many topics relating to current events these days. In times of change and confusion like these, the stories we tell and how we tell them become even more important.

From a Big Picture perspective, in both an unfortunate and very exciting way, our culture is between Big Stories. The Stories of Growth-Based Capitalism and Nation-States are no longer serving us, are literally contributing to a mass extinction event and could possibly lead to our extinction (or a big step backwards) if we keep telling ourselves they are the Only True Stories.

As mythologist Joseph Campbell often said, we need a new Story. Unfortunately, those of us on the Left have yet to develop an appealing, positive, powerful Story. As a result, leaders with an authoritarian bent like Donald Trump, a charismatic, confidence man who believes his own story so much that he is able to convince others to believe it, too, can come along and become president. And then shape our Collective Story in ways that we would have found incomprehensible just a few years ago.

In my opinion, the fact that he buys his own BS so well and is thus able to sell it to the masses makes it very likely he’ll be re-elected in 2020 (though many events can change that, of course). I know how hard that is to hear for most of you. I don’t like the idea, either. So how can we avoid it?

I’d like to explore that question in future posts. There are probably many answers to it. But I think the big answer relates to the Big Project for our age and that is crafting a New Story, a Story that can offer hope, appeal broadly and can break down many of the divisions between us.

It won’t be easy to craft such a story but fortunately many smart, compassionate, wise people have been working on it for a while now. I’d like to introduce you to some of those people and share some of their ideas in future posts. A warning, though, some of these posts may cover some difficult terrain where I ask some uncomfortable questions. As always, though, I will do it with the best of intentions! Okay, folks, it’s been fun and, as always, thanks for reading!


Shameless Self Promotion Time: If you enjoy my writing, please check out my novel, “The Teacher and the Tree Man.” The full 80-chapter story can be purchased as an e-book or as a paperback from Amazon or as an e-book at Smashwords. You can also purchase the book in each of the 20-chapter “books” (there are 4, for a total of 80) at Amazon as well (book 1, book 2, book 3 and book 4). If you are a member of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited like I am, you can read the individual books for free. If you like reading and discovering independent authors like me, I highly recommend joining Kindle Unlimited!

Here is a bit from the synopsis:  “The Teacher and the Tree Man” is a modern American epic fable about a Teacher in love with Nature who discovers a human head, a Tree Man, living in a tree in a forest near his house. The novel is about our need to unplug from our culture and re-discover ourselves in Nature. It is a fun-yet-deep look at: the media, our education system, drugs in our culture and our inability to listen to each other in the political arena.

Let Down by “Westworld” (and a Blogging Milestone)

Before I get into the meat of this post about “Westworld,” I want to pat myself on the back: At the start of this year, I wrote about my intention of writing one blog post every week until 2018 was over. And with this post, I am halfway there, with 26 of 52 posts written!

I’ve been in generally very good spirits this year and I have to think writing this blog is a big reason for that. Over the past few years I’ve had periods where I went into a depression for a few weeks or months. This year, I had a few low points, but they were not long lasting.

The first was in January and was, I believe, just related to the post-winter-holiday blues of getting back into the work schedule. The habit of writing this blog every week hadn’t set in yet, so not only did I feel the winter blues, I felt bleak at the idea of not being able to stick to my commitment only two weeks into it! But then I decided—why not just write about those feelings? And doing that was a great way to move through them. Thus, it became immediately clear to me that sticking to the weekly commitment to writing this blog could have very real, immediate psychological benefits.

The second depression was during spring vacation. I am an English teacher here in Japan and for the past six years I’ve been at the same elementary school (one or two days a week) and the same junior high school (three or four days a week). I really enjoyed both schools, and was surprised when I was told I’d be transferring to a new elementary school for two days a week. Meanwhile, two of the English teachers I really enjoyed working with at the junior high were being transferred. So there was a lot of change and uncertainty in those few weeks and that was not easy; yet again, I managed to keep the weekly blog posts going and it helped.

In recent months, I’ve been making a rough schedule for the next month or so of posts and finding it easier to come up with topics and easier to actually write the posts, which is also contributing to my state of well-being.

And best of all, one of the main reasons I started this was to kickstart my creative writing and hopefully get back to a novel-possibly-trilogy that’s been on the shelf for a few years. Well, guess what? Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing just that! Not only have I been making some changes to the novel, developing some new ideas and writing a few scenes, I’ve also been working on some new short stories. 

Another intention of writing this weekly blog was to help me discover what I like to write about and focus my writing going forward. I’m still in the process of figuring that out, but it’s certainly been interesting to see what I’ve come up with for the first 26 weeks! Ultimately, I do enjoy these rather long-form posts (2,000-3,000 words) that relate to my life and interests and while I’m not sure I can focus it more than that yet, I’m very pleased with the results. Anyway, if you’ve been with me for the ride, or even some of it, as always, thanks for reading!

Here we are, halfway into 2018, and no TV show has captured me the way shows like “The Leftovers,” “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Game of Thrones” have in the past few years. Yet heading into the season two finale of “Westworld,” I thought it had a chance. It’s a show that has always done just enough to keep me watching, but has never completely lured me in.

Over the last two episodes, which centered on the Native American-inspired Ghost Nation member Akecheta, played brilliantly by Zahn McClarnon, and the other which fleshed out the backstory of William/The Man in Black (Jimmie Simpson/Ed Harris), the show was finally narrowing its focus onto just a few characters rather than the byzantine plot machinations that had been its trademark. This development, along with the plot of Maeve seeking to reunite with her daughter, finally made me feel like I had reason to care about some of these characters.

Akecheta in Kiksuya S2E8

The Akecheta-centric episode 8 of season 2 of “Westworld” was one of the show’s most emotional and satisfactory episodes.

Alas, it was only about 10 minutes into the lengthy 90-minute finale that I realized the show was up to its old tricks and well, this old dog was enjoying the new tricks the show had been teaching him! 

All this is to say that perhaps this show just isn’t for me . That said, judging from the reaction I’ve read in some articles and heard in a few podcasts,  I know I’m not alone in not feeling frustrated by this finale. 

Again, I’m coming at this show not as someone who has really dug into it (I’ve only watched each episode once). Perhaps to really get the most out of it, you need to watch each episode more than once and spend time on-line interacting with others who have done the same. However, with so much media to choose from, the last thing I want to do is re-watch a show that I found somewhat tedious the first time around.

There are several reasons “Westworld” has felt this way to me, but the main is that I’ve just never really felt a connection to these characters, never felt the show gave me enough reason to care about their situations. Just when I begin to like or understand a character, it seems like their motivations are changed or they are killed … and then they come back. Or a combination of all of those things.

Dolores S2E10

Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) has long been hard to figure out.

A character like Dolores in season one, who we were obviously meant to empathize with even if she was a robot, suddenly turns into season two’s villian. Or is she? Now, I don’t mind a show that plays with these tropes, that causes us to wonder about the shades of grey within each of us. In fact, I like that (it’s one of the reasons I love “Game of Thrones.”). However, I still want to have a sense of who the characters are and why they are doing what they are doing.

Furthermore, and even deeper, I think one of my issues is I am not sure I like what the showrunners are suggesting about humanity. It seems very few of the humans on “Westworld” behave well and many act like psychopaths. Are the creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy speaking only about the behavior of the ultra-rich, since it is only those characters who can afford to go to “Westworld”? Or the ruthlessness of a corporate culture that would create a “park” like Westworld?

Then again, the employees of Delos Corporation who work for the park are supposedly regular people and they’ve been far from saints, with some being as despicable as the tech in the finale who pushed Maeve’s pain level to maximum for no discernable reason. Was that just so that when Maeve made the hosts turn on him we, the viewer, could enjoy the way the hosts took him out? If so, such writing leaves me feeling very cold.

More than that, Ford, who seems like the most compassionate human toward the robots, constantly tells Bernard that he simply can’t trust humans and it seems like his motivation for helping the robots is because he wants to improve upon and maybe even replace humanity.

Don’t get me wrong; over the years, I’ve had my struggles with humanity where I wondered if perhaps the planet would be better off without us. I’ve mostly been considering what our behavior has done/is doing to the biosphere when I’ve felt this and I think many of us have, at times, pondered such dark thoughts. So I have no issue with cultural stories exploring these issues and think it’s a worthwhile conversation.  The last thing I want to do is ignore that a dark side exists in all of us, myself included. However, it seems like we our movies and TV shows are bombarding us with stories that highlight the darkside of human nature, so is this really anything groundbreaking? 

We all know there is also a light side to humanity and exemplary behavior that can’t be ignored, either. I was listening to a podcast yesterday where they were talking about the selflessness of adopting and raising a child. Such things happen daily, yet that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be applauded. Perhaps I’m just watching the wrong shows! (If you know of an uplifting show about the human spirit I should tune into, post it in the comments, if you would!).

One of the reasons I’ve been a “Game of Thrones” fan is because that, in spite of the darkness of that world and in spite of some of the awful things that have happened to them personally, there are characters like Arya Stark or Tyrion Lannister who have shown wonderful, honorable qualities (not to say that either of them haven’t had their moments of darkness!). In short, “Westworld” just seems to have a very dark view of human nature and, as a result, there are not many humans on the show to cheer for. But wait, there are … or were. Notably, there was Lee Sizemore and Elsie Hughes.

Lee Sizemore Went Out Like a Hero S2E10

Lee became a human with a heart, someone to cheer for, so it appears he’s been killed.

In season one (and in parts of season two), Lee was a cowardly, self-serving person but, due to his adventures with Maeve this season, he began to find his empathy for the robots, so of course he had to die. Now, I rather enjoyed his final scene due to his speech, though I am not convinced he had to do that (more on that in a bit). Meanwhile, Elsie also was serving as a human who seemed motivated by positive qualities until she was killed abruptly by the Dolores-hiding-inside-Charlotte robot.

And that leads to the next issue I have with the show:  I have very little grasp on the rules of the world. It’s said that if you create a story in a fantasy or science fiction world, you need to create clear guidelines on how things work. It’s perfectly acceptable to have magic or futuristic technology, but the audience needs to understand its capabilities and limitations, otherwise the writer can repeatedly use deus ex machina techniques, allowing the magic/technology to bail them out of plot corners.

On “Westworld,” this means characters never seem really dead. I mean, we may know they are dead physically (like with old man Delos) but they can still exist in these elaborate virtual worlds. So seeing a character like Teddy die lacks the same emotional punch it would have if we knew that was the last we’d see of him.

Teddy in Paradise S2E10

At least Teddy got to go to a beautiful place, though it is sad that Dolores is not there with him.

With this finale, “Westworld” presented a number of  inconsistent scenes that made me question how the world works: Why is it that Dolores can take numerous shots to her body but Maeve can’t? Why doesn’t Maeve use her powers to stop Clementine immediately? How is it that the Man in Black and Dolores can so easily ride in on horses as open targets and use their regular guns to take out concealed guys with automatic weapons? One of my go-to TV podcasting networks has long been the guys at Bald Move and on their “Watching Westworld” podcast, they have repeatedly griped about how the action scenes on the show are not well-staged or just not very well-thought out. I’m not really an action-scene person, but in listening to them I realized that I really do appreciate a well-constructed action scene that feels real (think the zombie battle of “Hardhome” in season five of “Game of Thrones”). What I don’t like are over-the-top scenes that try to manufacture emotion from actions that don’t add up and that try to overwhelm me with drama for the sake of drama. Overall, I felt like the final scene at the Valley Beyond clicked most of those unfortunate categories so it just sort of fell flat for me.

And since on “Westworld” we are never really sure if the death of a character means they are gone for good, the battle scenes lose any sense of stakes. Of course, with the robots, we can understand this. But in season two, with the re-emergence of Ford (even if he is in only a simulation, or only in Bernard’s mind), the way Delos (and now William/MIB) was preserved and, worst of all, the way we’ve no idea if the characters are robots or humans (i.e. Stubbs and Charlotte), we are left wondering jus what any of it means. Why cry over the loss of a character if there is the chance they will be back?

This doesn’t even have to be the physical loss of a character. Consider Teddy, the host who was just too nice to serve Dolores’ plan so she had him re-programmed. While this was hard because Teddy was one of the few compassionate characters, it also meant that he could be re-programmed back, which I figured she very well might do. So there was never a sense that Teddy was gone for good.

I suppose with the robots, that’s going to be an issue but again, since the show has been playing with the idea that the people we think are human are actually hosts, it means we can’t even trust that we ever know or understand these supposedly human characters, either.

The last thing I want to cover is my frustration with the non-linear narrative of the show. I have to wonder: considering how complex the ideas are in this show and how big the world and cast is, would “Westworld” have been a better show if the narrative was just told straight up? I mean, have the reveals, such as season one’s William and the Man in Black are the same person, really made all the confusion worth it? I’m not sure the answer to that. My favorite episode of the show, by far, was the Akecheta one and that story was told in a reasonably straightforward fashion. Yes, it utilized flashbacks, but it was done from a clear perspective of a character telling his backstory to another character. There wasn’t one minute where I felt confused.

Akecheta and Maeves Daughter S2E8

Episode 8 was very touching, partly because it was tightly focused on one character but also because it was not told in such a confusing fashion.

In addition, because I felt grounded in the storytelling, I was able to connect with the characters and feel their emotions. When Akecheta was taken away from his love by Delos, I felt for the guy and then, just as he was about to show her the door to the new world and he returns to find her gone, it felt even worse. Last, the scene of him finding her inside Delos with the haunting version of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” playing was extremely moving (even if it had to rely on the very strange fact that inside Delos it seems there is almost no security to stop hosts like Akecheta from just walking around anywhere).

And then the penultimate episode, which told the back story of the Man in Black actually made me, for the first time this season, feel for the guy and sort of understand his angst and where he was coming from. Thus, the way the season ultimately ended, beyond the credits (if you didn’t know), with William in the same Hell as his father-in-law was, really felt shitty to me. Was it supposed to? Am I supposed to despise this man so much that I want him to suffer?

MIB William S2E10

Frddy Krueger, er, the Man in Black/William: How am I supposed to feel about him?

I’ll be honest, though, folks, part of the problem I have with a lot of modern TV shows is sometimes they can feel way too harsh in their punishment of bad characters. I am thinking of the final episode of season four of “Black Mirror,” titled “Black Museum.” (SPOILERS coming!) The owner of that museum was a despicable man. Yet the way the episode ended, with him in a permanent state of physical torture and his captor, the protagonist of the episode who sought revenge against him because he’d basically done the same thing to her dad, driving off feeling good about herself … well, it made me feel sick. I think I tend to project myself into the situations characters are in and so, if someone is being hurt, no matter whether they “deserve” it or not, I sort of feel it.

I also have issues with vengeance in general. It seems our culture loves these tales, but I wonder: if a character is permanently holding their abuser in a state of pain, isn’t that character still stuck in that relationship, as well? Have they grown and moved on? I’m getting far afield here, but I’m bringing up these questions because I feel like so many of the popular fictions of our day struggle in dealing with the issue of how to handle bad actors in our world and usually they resort to our desire to seek to hurt those who hurt us.

I could write more, but I think this one has gone on long enough. I didn’t even get into Bernard and the confusion of his storyline. I can understand that the show wanted us to feel as confused and disoriented as he was. Still, a bit much on the confusion! Anyway, let’s wrap this up. Perhaps I’ll look into this topic of revenge in fiction more in a future post. For now, thanks for reading!

Shameless Self Promotion Time: If you enjoy my writing, please check out my novel, “The Teacher and the Tree Man.” The full 80-chapter story can be purchased as an e-book or as a paperback from Amazon or as an e-book at Smashwords. You can also purchase the book in each of the 20-chapter “books” (there are 4, for a total of 80) at Amazon as well (book 1, book 2, book 3 and book 4). If you are a member of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited like I am, you can read the individual books for free. If you like reading and discovering independent authors like me, I highly recommend joining Kindle Unlimited!

Here is a bit from the synopsis:  “The Teacher and the Tree Man” is a modern American epic fable about a Teacher in love with Nature who discovers a human head, a Tree Man, living in a tree in a forest near his house. The novel is about our need to unplug from our culture and re-discover ourselves in Nature. It is a fun-yet-deep look at: the media, our education system, drugs in our culture and our inability to listen to each other in the political arena. 

 

The Dark Soul of Soccer (Soccer Post, Part 2, the Serious Part)

Fuck you, FIFA. Just seriously, fuck you.

Normally, I wouldn’t think to start a blog post with such a vulgar attempt to grab your attention. However, after spending much of my free time this week looking into the dark side of the world of soccer and FIFA, the international organization that governs the sport , well, I think FIFA deserves that intro. And I bet after you read this article, you’ll agree.

But my ire is not simply because of all the horrible things FIFA has done in the name of promoting soccer; all of the bribery, corruption and, yes, blood on its hands. No, I am pissed at FIFA because on top of all that, they had the ire to fund an absolutely awful, completely-disconnected-from-reality movie called “United Passions” that I forced myself to sit through this week in some sort of attempt to get “their side of the story.” Consider it a hazard of the job of writing this weekly blog (is something a job if you don’t get money for it?).

And the sad thing is after suffering through this film, which documents the 100 years from the founding of FIFA to the moment when it awarded South Africa the 2010 World Cup, I’m no closer to understanding their perspective than I was before.

Wait, strike that: I think I understand their perspective. In sort of the same way I understand the perspective of Charles Manson.

Here’s what I got from the film: According to FIFA, their organization was fighting the racists, the misogynists and the Nazis, fighting the good fight in other words, occasionally accepting a few bribes and quid pro quo dealings along the way–“just business, after all!”–in order to take soccer from those utterly contemptuous, racist Brits and give it to the world.

During all that, they were had to deal with those nasty Brits, uppity Africans, an unappreciative media and overzealous human rights activists, among others, because those people just didn’t get the good that this organization was doing for the world.

In fact, according to the movie version of FIFA president Joao Havelange (played by Sam Neill), the “World Cup has done more for world peace than any UN resolution.”

United Passions Disclaimer

This caption at the start of the FIFA fluff film “United Passions” is about as dramatic as the movie ever gets.

Another of the movie’s disconnects from the reality of FIFA’s actual behavior is how it wants to promote feminism.

It does this by showing a soccer match on a playground throughout the movie where a young female goalkeeper is unable to stop a goal on a penalty kick but gets redemption at the end of the movie by making an amazing solo drive from one end of the pitch to the other, juking many male players along the way, scoring a goal and being lifted onto the shoulders of her male counterparts. Yet in 2015 when FIFA held the Women’s World Cup in Canada, it was the first World Cup to be held on Astroturf, causing a ton of outrage among the female players because of how hot it was and the damage it did to their legs. “It’s a gender equality issue,” said one US player, “No way the men would ever be forced to play on Astroturf.”

USA Women Soccer Player Legs

Does it look like FIFA really cares about women’s soccer?

Meanwhile, Sepp Blatter, the disgraced former FIFA president who is portrayed by Tim Roth in the movie as some sort of Mother Theresa who both manages to live above the rampant corruption in FIFA’s ranks but is also “very good at finding money,” once said that one way to increase viewership for women’s soccer would be to “let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts.”

Needless to say, that comment didn’t go over too well with the women who play soccer. One coach noted that they did play in tighter shorts before, but nobody watched then.

It probably doesn’t make that coach feel any better but it seems nobody watched “United Passions” and those that did, well, had nothing good to say about it. The Metacritic composite score (from 1-100) on the Internet Movie Database site gives it a 1 (though, I think they fudged the math as it should have been a 5.5, with two 20s, a 10 and six zeroes. I suppose they gave those zeroes some extra weight.). I will say that I went into it with such low expectations that I wasn’t hating it as much as I thought I would until Blatter entered the movie more than halfway into its 100-minute running time.

The movie sunk to its lowest point around the one-hour, 20-minute mark when, in 1982, Blatter is dealing with FIFA being out of money and the press calls for his head for that and other issues and yet, rather than showing us how he overcomes this, we get a montage covering the next 12 years to the tune of the Talking Heads’ worst song, “Wild, Wild Life.” The next actual scene takes place at the 1994 World Cup where it seems like, from the looks of the luxury boxes they are sitting in, FIFA is rolling in the dough. How? Don’t ask. The last thing FIFA wants us to do is ask. Just know it was for the good of the game.

Anyway, I’ve probably told you much more than you ever cared to know about this movie but if you want to know more, I would NOT recommend watching it. Instead, just read this recap of the worst movie of 2015.

Now, let’s look into some of the things FIFA has done wrong over the past few years, shall we?

Let’s start in Brazil where one of my favorite sports journalists, Dave Zirin, took his love of sports and passion for progressive politics and human rights to, in 2013, publish an excellent book called “Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy.” It documents the many ways that both FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had worked with the Brazilian government to screw over the people of Brazil, so much so that the soccer-crazy Brazilians staged massive protests throughout the country against FIFA and the Brazilian government in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup.

He writes that several thousand prisoners were used to build several of the twelve World Cup Stadiums in 2012-13, leading to worker strike’s and walkouts.

But hey, those are just prisoners and they don’t deserve our sympathy, right? Surely the Brazilian government wouldn’t treat its regular, law-abiding citizens poorly just to host the World Cup.

Think again. In order to hide the poverty of Brazil from the many rich fans who traveled from around the world to watch the World Cup, the Brazilian government put up high rises, installed high-tech security systems, paved new roads and demolished dozens of poor neighborhoods known as favelas, displacing as many as 200,000 people.

arena da amazonia

The Arena da Amazonia: A beautiful, but wasteful remnant of the 2014 Brazil World Cup, which cost the country $15 billion.

Meanwhile, some of the stadiums that were built, such as the Arena da Amazonia in the distant inland Amazon town of Manaus at the cost of approximately $270 million, were hardly used, hosting only four World Cup games and have hardly been used since.

It’s no different in Brasilia, where the second most expensive stadium ever built was used for a few World Cup matches, and now mostly hosts a fleet of buses. As John Oliver said in his second of two scathing reports on FIFA, “You have to give FIFA credit. They literally went into Brazil, paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” (If you don’t get the reference, click this!)

Even worse has been the fate of one of the most famous soccer stadiums in the world, the Maracana Stadium. An article in England’s newspaper, The Sun, in 2017 details how the pitch is bare, with some 7,000 seats having been ripped out of the stadium, and stray cats making it their home. The Sun calls it a “shambalic victim of the gross overspend and bureaucratic blame games which delivered the 2014 World Cup.” It cost about $375 million to renovate and is in such a poor state that none of Brazil’s poor teams has the money to fix it up to use it.

Maracana Pitch in Ruins

One of the most famous soccer stadiums in the world is in a state of ruin after being renovated for the World Cup in 2014.

Making matters worse, the old Maracana was renowned as a stadium that the masses could use, with an open-air cheap seating area ringing the upper part of the stadium. However, FIFA has a rule that “no international sanctioned match can take place if people are standing” and thus those seats were replaced by a ring of luxury boxes.

Zirin writes, “Brazil is now left in a situation very familiar to those of us in the United States whose cities have built mega-stadiums with public funding: the people who pay the taxes that made a new Maracana now cannot afford tickets to the Maracana.”

Meanwhile, in order to keep those same people from rising up, the Brazilian government spent over 10 times on security the amount the South Africans did for the 2010 World Cup, around $900 million dollars. They put up 1,000 security cameras in Rio alone. And in a sign that they either don’t understand on-the-nose irony or just don’t care, the name of the security company that did the work at the Maracana was, I’m not making this up, Big Brother.

Okay, so that’s Brazil, surely Russia must be better, right?

Well, how do you define better?

Just start with the price tag: a reported $11 billion for stadiums and infrastructure, much of which will serve no use once the World Cup leaves and most of which was paid for by the Russian government. That is, actually, better as Brazil ended up costing $15 billion! However, that $11 billion is not the final tally, there are more costs to come.

According to this Washington Post article, much of that money went to former cronies of Putin, such as Aras Agalarov (also a former business partner of President Trump), who built a $280 million brand new stadium that seats 35,000 in the city of Kaliningrad, whose local team usually draws about 4,000 people for its matches. Perhaps Agalarov has a fleet of buses at the ready for when the games depart in July.

And how did they build those stadiums? With poorly paid, poorly rested migrant workers, many of whom had to work in extremely cold conditions (as low as minus 25 degrees C/-13 F). Twenty-one of those workers are reported to have died as a result of such conditions. Those who protested were arrested or deported.

FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour

Putin bows to no one, except FIFA.

No friend to free speech, last year Putin outlawed public assemblies in World Cup host cities unless Russia’s Federal Security Service and Ministry of Interior approved the assemblies.

If corruption isn’t your bag, how about homophobia and racism? In a March “friendly” between France and Russia, there were monkey chants directed at French players of African descent. And last year in Sochi, the host city of the 2016 Olympics and site of some of the group stage World Cup games, a group of fans wore black face and marched, directing their bile toward the Cameroon team. And one Brazilian player named Hulk said he was racially abused by a referee in a recent match in Russia.

An organization committed to fighting inequality in soccer, FARE, released a report last month after spending months documenting instances of racism, nationalism, homophobia and sexism in Russian football. The good news is they found a notable decline in far-right banners displayed. However, they also found an increase in discriminatory chants such as monkey-themed chants, neo-Nazi songs, anti-Caucasian chants and homophobic slurs.

This follows a “gay propaganda” law in 2013 that Putin’s administration passed, which has been used to persecute LGBTQ people through its ban on “promotion of nontraditional sexual relationships.” Even though the law violates FIFA’s human rights and nondiscrimination polices, FIFA hasn’t asked Russia to change it, even though they’ve asked other countries to change their laws in the past.

That said, FIFA did fine Mexico for “homophobic chants” and condemned England for “atnti-Semitic chants.

Pussy Riot in 2014 Sochi Attacked

Feminist rock band Pussy Riot was attacked by Cossacks during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Meanwhile, in spite of being giving an eight-year ban from soccer, Blatter attended the Portugal-Morocco match and Brazil-Costa Rica match as a guest of Putin. Maybe Putin invited Blatter because so few foreign diplomats wanted to attend the games. Somehow attending the biggest soccer event in the world doesn’t violate a person’s being banned from soccer. FIFA logic, if you will.

If the human impact of the 2018 Cup isn’t enough to raise your blood pressure, how about the environmental damage it has caused? Some of the stadiums were built on ecologically sensitive areas, such as the previously mentioned Kaliningrad Stadium which was built on top of a natural wetland site on the Pregolya River, one of the few spots like it left.

And in other areas, rare trees and a riverside meadow that was home to several rare species were removed or destroyed. Speaking of animals, the Russians killed many stray dogs before the Olympics in Sochi and they are at it again, and apparently it’s quite the profitable business. One company was found to have poisoned 20 dogs and dumped their bodies in a ravine and it not only received a contract for Sochi but for the World Cup.

Why are we worrying about dogs when we should be worried about people?” the owner of the company told the Moscow Times.

That comment implies that FIFA and the companies it employs to build these stadiums and create the security conditions for the World Cup care about people, and if you’ve read this far, you already know that’s a dubious claim.

However, if you need more convincing, let’s look ahead to the 2022 Olympics being held in that soccer-power Qatar.

As soon as the site was announced in 2010, there was controversy and much criticism over the pick. Immediately, people questioned the Qatar bid committee about concerns over the country supporting terrorism, human rights abuses inside Qatar and the extreme heat the games would be played in.

Also, allegations of corruption over the bidding process, some saying Qatar had “bought” the Cup, have led to a variety of ongoing investigations into that charge and related charges by several countries. One woman who was part of the Qatar bid team, came forward as a whistleblower, saying that Qatar had paid at least three men with votes $1.5 million to vote for Qatar. She retracted the comments, but later said she was coerced into retracting them and did so because she feared for her safety and she didn’t have legal representation. All of these charges led to Sepp Blatter at last resigning as FIFA president, a move welcomed by many.

The issue over the heat was somewhat resolved when, in spring 2015, FIFA announced the event would be held over a tight 28-day schedule from November 2022-December 2022. Unfortunately, this is not without its logistical problems as that time period interferes with many regular season schedules of leagues around the world. Will players be forced by their clubs to sit out the World Cup? Some clubs claim they will ask FIFA for compensation.

Whatever the outcome, it will be interesting and it could have been avoided if they’d held the event in a more reasonable place. It’s almost as if FIFA didn’t even think about these issues when it awarded Qatar the bid.

Probably most troubling, though, has been the treatment of the foreign workers who are mostly responsible for buidling the eight stadiums Qatar will use to host the event. In June 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that over 1,200 workers had already died working on the stadiums, however, the BBC corrected the claim, stating that the number represented all worker deaths in Qatar for people from India and Nepal.

Qatar-2022-World-Cup-by-Zaha-Hadid_dezeen_ss_1

The design for this 2022 World Cup stadium in Qatar is, indeed, sleek, but at what cost?

Still, it’s not a pleasant idea to consider that to build these stadiums used for a one-time-only event for only 28 days, people will die. In addition, Qatar has long been accused of taken away the identity papers and passports of foreign workers when they reach Qatar, thus making it impossible for them to leave the country, and an article in The Guardian claimed many workers were denied food and water and weren’t paid on time, or at all.

There may be some good news, though, in that last fall Qatar signed an agreement with the International Trade Confederation to improve the situation of the more than 2 million migrant workers in Qatar. Whether they are following this agreement is unknown, but at least it suggests the pressure against them is being noticed and hopefully that will mean better conditions for those workers.

After all, as we are enjoying the play on the pitch of these beautiful, expensive stadiums and you see all the various rich fans who have traveled from various countries around the world to attend the event, it’d be nice, if in future games, we could feel like the event didn’t result from a lot of dark, dirty, deadly decisions. With that said, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to end this one where I began:

Fuck you, FIFA. Fuck you very much.

Thanks for reading.

Shameless Self Promotion Time: If you enjoy my writing, please check out my novel, “The Teacher and the Tree Man.” The full 80-chapter story can be purchased as an e-book or as a paperback from Amazon or as an e-book at Smashwords. You can also purchase the book in each of the 20-chapter “books” (there are 4, for a total of 80) at Amazon as well (book 1, book 2, book 3 and book 4). If you are a member of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited like I am, you can read the individual books for free. If you like reading and discovering independent authors like me, I highly recommend joining Kindle Unlimited!

Here is a bit from the synopsis:  “The Teacher and the Tree Man” is a modern American epic fable about a Teacher in love with Nature who discovers a human head, a Tree Man, living in a tree in a forest near his house. The novel is about our need to unplug from our culture and re-discover ourselves in Nature. It is a fun-yet-deep look at: the media, our education system, drugs in our culture and our inability to listen to each other in the political arena. 

 

My Every-Four-Years Relationship with Football, er, Soccer (Pt 1, the Fun Part)

Every four years, I care about football. Sort of.

No, not the football Americans play, but the football that actually has players frequently using their feet to kick the ball, which Americans call soccer and which leads to confusion for me as an English teacher in Japan. The Japanese word for the sport comes from soccer (“sakkaa” サッカー), but when they talk about the US game of football, they usually call it “American football” so they are aware that “football” means for most of the world what Americans call soccer. Confused yet?

For the sake of clarity, I’m gonna stick to my American guns and refer to the sport as “soccer” throughout the rest of this article, and football will mean “American football.” That said, please understand I agree with my international friends who make fun of us Yanks for calling American football “football.”

Anyway, you may be aware that there is this giant international sporting event that started this weekend, where grown men will attempt to kick a black-and-white patterned ball past another group of grown men into a net, causing meltdowns amongst the masses depending on the result. Yes, that’s right, it’s World Cup time, and for the next month it comes to us live from Russia. (Insert Trump-Putin joke here, if you must).

putin-trump-handshake

Putin: “I have the World Cup, he has tiny fingers.”

Back in February I wrote a two-part blog post about (American) football in which the first part was about my positive experiences with the game and part two was focused on the dark side of the sport and how I will likely boycott the NFL this fall.

With the next few weeks being the only time every four years I will pay much attention to soccer, I realized that perhaps I ought to give the same sort of treatment to it: this week, I’ll talk about the things I admire about the sport and my positive experiences with it, and next week, I’ll dig into the game’s dark side and give you good reason to never watch again!

With that intention laid out, let’s get into it.

Saturday morning:
Wet grass, soggy clothes, smashed toes
Miserable kid

This lame attempt at a haiku sums up my childhood memories of playing soccer until I was about seven years old.

soccer-kid-sad-FI

I get how you feel, kid.

In spite of the fact that soccer takes a backseat to football, baseball and basketball in American sports, it is still one of the more popular youth sports. When I grew up in Washington, youth leagues were usually held in the fall and that meant it was often a rainy, wet affair.

As someone who doesn’t really like running, in one of my final practices my coach allowed me to try being keeper which I was enjoying until, during a time out, some jerk kicked a ball that hit me square between the eyes, knocking me to the ground. I’m pretty sure my short soccer career ended shortly after that.

I probably didn’t give the sport much thought for the next decade until high school when my baseball teammates and I struck up a rivalry with the guys on the soccer team. It was mostly a friendly rivalry, but it hardened my bias against the “beautiful sport,” which to me just seemed like a boring way to tire yourself out if you played it, and a boring way to put yourself to sleep if you watched it.

No, it wasn’t until I was living in Los Angeles during the 1994 World Cup that my attitude toward soccer changed.

With my car being held hostage by a nefarious, money-siphoning auto shop that summer, one day I decided to take a ride on the dreaded Los Angeles city bus and found myself in the midst of a Carnival-style party with a bunch of fans of the Brazilian soccer team.

brazil-crazy-football-fans

Brazilians are passionate folks, especially about “the beautiful game.”

Apparently, they’d been out somewhere watching their team win a World Cup game and had imbibed many adult beverages. Being a 21-year-old guy who enjoyed a good time, I instantly started chatting with these vivacious folks and, well, they told me I simply had to watch the World Cup, especially their beloved Brazilians.

I told them I didn’t like soccer and that almost ended the conversation, but they were persistent. Watch for “the passion” of the game, they insisted.

So I did. And as I watched the game and listened to the roar of the crowd and all the various chants, I began to be won over. The play on the field still seemed kind of slow to me, but I could feel the energy through my TV screen so I began to tune in to matches when I could.

The more I did, the more I began to appreciate the game itself. My rejection of the “slowness” of the game or the “lack of scoring” was, I think, mostly a typical, surface rejection made by someone who had never given the sport a chance.

After all, my favorite sport was (and still is) baseball and baseball is not exactly an action-packed display of athletic bravado. In fact, as a former pitcher, one of my favorite kinds of baseball games are pitcher’s duels, where neither team can get across a run against the brilliance of the opposing pitchers (in fact, one of my very favorite baseball games ever was the 2006 Japanese Summer High School Tournament championship game in which future New York Yankees hurler Masahiro Tanaka dueled a kid known as the Handkerchief Prince to a 1-1 deadlock over 15 innings that forced a rematch the next day).

Tanaka HS baseball

Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka bats here in one of the greatest sporting events I’ve ever seen.

I began to see that because of how few goals are scored, when a team finally breaks through for one, it is a moment of pure elation. I also started to understand the excitement of each scoring chance and the disappointment when it was turned away. Such chances can be very hard to come by, after all.

I also began to notice the intricacies of the way different teams played different styles. I can still remember there was a team from Romania in that 1994 World Cup that was famous for a counter-attack, where one very fast player, I think he may have even been a defender, would split off as his teammate intercepted the ball and then would receive a long pass that he’d run under to set up a one-on-one with the keeper.

And then there was the expert way the players handled the ball; there really was artistry to it and, as a basketball fan who appreciated expert dribblers, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to appreciate these guys who dribbled with their feet.

The point is, the more I actually took in the whole game with an open mind, the more I began to understand its appeal and enjoy myself.

Flash forward to 2002. That was the year that Japan and South Korea hosted the World Cup and that was also the first summer I knew my future wife. Because some of the games were being hosted in her country, the World Cup became a topic of conversation. Adding to my interest was the fact that the US team actually had a pretty good run that year.

usa-squad-2002-world-cup

The 2002 US soccer team had its best World Cup in the modern era.

Now, I tend to cheer against the US in international competitions because their teams are just too strong. This is especially true with the US basketball teams. I can still remember the first “Dream Team” in 1992 and how in one of the early rounds, Charles Barkley elbowed aside a much smaller player from, I believe, Angola, and it just made me feel gross to be an American. So, yeah, screw the Dream Team (and OJ’s lawyers, too).

But with the US soccer team, well, they are just one of many and are never a favorite to win the World Cup. In fact, the best the US has ever done in the tournament is third place (back in 1930) and it didn’t even make the tournament for 40 years from 1950 to 1990.

So they feel like a comfortable underdog to cheer for. When the US team actually got out of the group stage in 2002 and then faced and defeated rival Mexico, 2-0 to make the quarterfinals, well, all of the sudden I had a rooting interest in the competition.

Unfortunately, while the US has made it out of the group stage to the knockout round in two of the three World Cups since 2002, they’ve never gotten as far as they did in 2002 and this year they didn’t even make the tournament after losing to Panama. Still, cheering for the US is a nice bonus to pay attention to the World Cup, but not the main reason I enjoy it.

One of the reasons I love living in Japan is because I have friends from many countries and, well, many of them care about football. Since moving to Japan in 2004, Ive had some pretty fun nights during the World Cup with my non-American friends. The one that stands out the most was going to an English friends house and watching England win a group stage match, my friend getting drunk and then walking around the streets draped in a Union Jack flag, singing various British football songs. I’ve always been a person who can sort of siphon off the energy of my friends so I enjoy participating in things that friends really enjoy, even if it’s not my thing. For example, I went to a Rolling Stones concert with a pal who is a huge Stones fan and it was just a blast being there with him, even if I think they are an overrated band.

england-football-fans1

Hanging with crazy non-Americans who love their “footie” is one of the reasons watching the World Cup in Japan is fun.

So I’m hoping that for this World Cup I’ll be able to get out on the town or to a friend’s house for a least one game. Most of the games are on between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. here so it’d be a late night for me (in my old age, I usually go to bed at 10, 11 or 12 at the latest!).

Ultimately, there’s this idealistic part of me that wants international sporting competitions to be excuses for citizens of the world to get together and have a good time. Perhaps they’ll also be able to appreciate the diversity of their various cultures along the way and recognize that this diversity gives the human experience vitality. In times like these where it feels like the world is increasingly at odds with itself, such sentiments feel even more important to me.

Before I close, I want to briefly touch on some of the teams I’ll be rooting for in this World Cup: Uruguay, Iceland and Japan. Why?

Let’s start with Uruguay. My general rule of thumb with the World Cup is to cheer for teams from South America and Africa, figuring that the Europeans (and America) already take enough of the spoils of the world.

And in the case of Uruguay, it’s also a pretty kick-ass country, even being named country of the year in 2013 by The Economist magazine. It’s the most liberal country in South America, ranking first in Latin America in democracy, peace, e-government and low perception of corruption, and is first in South America in press freedom. It also allows abortions and same-sex marriage. Considering that the World Cup is being hosted by Russia, a country where anti-LGBTQ laws are very strong and where there are fears of violence against LGBTQ fans who attend the matches, a Uruguay win could be a nice way to rub some you know what into Russia’s bigoted face.

uruguay-legalize-marijuana-story-top

If, like me, you don’t care about the on-the-pitch reasons to cheer for a team, why not cheer for freedom-loving Uruguay?

If all that’s not enough, in 2013 Uruguay became the first country in the modern era to legalize cannabis for recreational use! So light up a fat one and cheer on the Uruguayans!

Iceland is the darling of this year’s World Cup, becoming the smallest country by population (just 348,580 people!) to ever make it into the tournament. That also makes them a real long shot, with odds of 400 to 1. But their country has invested heavily in soccer over the past decade, and now has over 600 coaches, half of which hold a B license from Europe’s governing body of soccer, UEFA, when they had zero with that license as recently as 2003. They’ve also built 150 miniature indoor pitches, most next to schools, so kids can practice easier. As a result, Iceland has the second highest rate of soccer participation in Europe and have moved up in the FIFA world rankings from around 120 in 2010 to 22nd in the most recent poll … three higher than the US. But they’ve got a very difficult group, with experienced World Cup foes in #5 Argentina, #20 Croatia and #48 Nigeria. Still, why not cheer for them? After all, they also have really cool blue jerseys!

iceland-2016-home

Iceland’s blue uniforms are pretty flashy, eh?

Last, there is Japan. Living here, I feel sort of obligated to cheer for Samurai Blue, but the team is in a transition phase and most are shocked they are even in the tournament. In most years, I tend to actually cheer against them as I think this country already has too much nationalistic pride and I’ve never liked feeling like I have to do what everybody around me is doing. But because they are so lousy this year (their odds are even worse than Iceland’s at 500 to 1), I feel like it’s probably a good look to cheer for them … and will do so until they get knocked out of the group stage as they also have a tough bracket with #8 Poland, #16 Colombia and #27 Senegal.

Okay, folks, the soccer, er football, has already started but you’ve only missed the first few days if you haven’t tuned in until now. If you’re not a fan or have negative ideas about the sport, why not try watching it with an open mind and see if, like me, you can carve out a small space for at least the World Cup to be enjoyed every four years? With that said, enjoy the soccer, go Uruguay, Iceland and Japan and thanks for reading!

Shameless Self Promotion Time: If you enjoy my writing, please check out my novel, “The Teacher and the Tree Man.” The full 80-chapter story can be purchased as an e-book or as a paperback from Amazon or as an e-book at Smashwords. You can also purchase the book in each of the 20-chapter “books” (there are 4, for a total of 80) at Amazon as well (book 1, book 2, book 3 and book 4). If you are a member of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited like I am, you can read the individual books for free. If you like reading and discovering independent authors like me, I highly recommend joining Kindle Unlimited!

Here is a bit from the synopsis:  “The Teacher and the Tree Man” is a modern American epic fable about a Teacher in love with Nature who discovers a human head, a Tree Man, living in a tree in a forest near his house. The novel is about our need to unplug from our culture and re-discover ourselves in Nature. It is a fun-yet-deep look at: the media, our education system, drugs in our culture and our inability to listen to each other in the political arena. 

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