Monday, 28 January 2019

Feeling Blue: The Cave

In the week following New Years I found I'd gotten myself into a bit of a pickle. Sat, cocooned in blankets, with the same pajamas I'd been wearing for who knows how long, smelling like I hadn't showered in days.. because I hadn't showered in days. Every item of clothing I owned was out of the cupboards, strewn about on the floor, and dirty. It had been at least 48 hours since I'd seen or spoken to a flesh and blood real life person. The only food left, a jar of peanut-butter. My transformation complete, I was finally ready to live out the rest of the winter as a hibernating bear.

Except niggling at the back of my mind was the thorny knowledge that I wasn't happy, and everything was not okay. The month before Christmas my long-term girlfriend broke up with me - thankfully before I'd bought a present, but unfortunately after we booked flights to see my family over the holidays*.

From the beginning, this relationship had been a bit of an outlier for me. My usual pattern is to fall deeply in lust with someone, so much so that I unconsciously change who I am to fit what I think they'd like, then put them up on a pedestal, ignoring their faults and painting them perfection itself. The one.

At some point, sometimes a mere week or two later, the shine wears off and I remember who I am, and see who they are... and my over-puritanical mind goes, - "Are you really gonna marry her though?"

The answer has almost always been no, and I kinda just ghost out of there with as little mess as possible.

In this case, things were different. It was the first time I said I love you, and she said it back, and I thought it was true for both of us. It was my first time getting jealous, needy, emotionally vulnerable, all that couple-y stuff. It was the first time I started planning a two person future instead of looking for a route out when things got serious. So of course, it is fitting that it ended up being my first time being broken up with.

To double down on self loathing, I'd let myself believe things were going well. I was fully intending on finding work in Japan next year and making things work here. A plan. A plan for the future. Almost as rare for me as having a long-term girlfriend. Losing both at the same time.. well it's safe to say I was not dealing with it well. I fell into the black hole.

I have said to a lot of people over the years, "Sorry, I fell into the black hole." It sometimes happens that for all intensive purposes, I disappear from  the face of the earth for a few days. Usually this means defaulting on plans, not answering their messages, then appearing 3 days later with a guilty grin on my face. But "black hole" isn't quite right. A black hole is a big, powerful, cosmic, ripping force. Where I actually go, there's no movement, no action. It's life on mute.

Maybe a more accurate metaphor then, is that I tuck my knees up and crawl into the cave. For those of you with healthy coping mechanisms, let me explain.

The Cave

It goes like this.
You see a problem in the distance. It would usually be nothing, but every once in a while the brain goes all Alice-in-wonderland syndrome-y about your problems. They stretch and grow to monstrous sizes, you getting smaller and smaller in comparison, until you can't imagine where to make the first cut. There it stands, a humongous thing in the distance, inevitable yet impassable. Well, it's sometimes one humongous problem. Other times, it's a million little ones stacked up on top of each other in an enormous trench-coat.

No one believes they can climb a mountain when they see it from far away. So you crawl into the cave. Bury your head. Sit and wait with your eyes closed, hoping it will pass you on by.

Occasionally, you peek round the mouth of the cave, just a sliver to check, but all you catch is a glimpse of shadows, big things in the distance. More shadows. Each time more numerous and even more impossibly large, so you close your eyes, and find anything to avoid thinking. Thinking about the shadows. Thinking about the big things in the distance, immovable and cold.

To the point where you've got no food left. Well no food that doesn't need cooking. Cooking takes pre-planning and organisation and action. It requires you to get up from where you're sat, eyes closed, waiting for it all to pass. So you rummage through the kitchen for anything remotely edible and end up eating spaghetti with ketchup on top. Peanut-butter with a spoon. A whole pack of omiyage you were fully intending on bringing to school and giving to your teachers.**

Reminders from the outside world keep poking their head through the window, carried on the wings of Hermes.*** On your phone is 10 unread messages.  You can't open then, because then you'd have to act, open your eyes and get up. You'd have to answer, because that's what people expect. More shadows, bigger and bigger. So you keep on distracting yourself with familiar things. Nothing new, nothing moving forwards.

The game you've played for years.
The music you've heard a million times.

Old shows, where you know how it starts and how it ends. As each joke is set up, you laugh, reassured because you've heard the punchline before. Its static. It can't surprise you. No new shadows. No new calls to action. It's three in the morning. Looks like you've ruined tomorrow too. Good. There's no way you can do anything tomorrow, with so little sleep. You'll have to stay in the cave, hidden away. It may sound like a sad place to be, but its not. Sadness is just another one of those things casting shadows in the distance. See, you crawled into the cave to avoid feeling. To escape it. The calm from the storm outside.

Wrapped in Cotton

For a lot of people this wouldn't work. I don't know whether it's duty, or strength on their part, but the outside world calls to them too strongly. They cannot keep their head buried for long, it only reminds them of what has to be done, like covering a burning coal with a cotton scarf. For me though it is perfect. I have some issues with attention anyway, so at times like these I just put something flashy on a screen in front of me... and I'm away. Youtube, to reddit, to game, to video, to movie, and back again. With that much variety, there's no time to be thinking, much less feel.

And then it just stretches on and on until... Its all boring. I binge until I'm sick of it. Until my revulsion with watching one more mindless one hour youtube compilation video outweighs how afraid I am of the humongous thing on the horizon.

Things have to change. No one can remain in the cave forever. The mountains come ever closer, as sure as night follows day. Even we, with our head firmly thrust in the earth can feel it. You cannot stand still. Time pushes you forward, into the mountains, onto the climb. And if your legs falter, and you trip, it passes you by. It has places to be, regardless of whether you are ready for the ascent.

I open eyes and look to the mountains. I am absolutely exhausted from doing absolutely nothing.

Its been so long since I wrote last, and I'm afraid I've forgotten how to be funny, so sorry if missed some jokes this time.

This post doesn't have a witty roundness to it, because I don't know how it finishes yet. Hopefully I'll add a part II in the coming months, but I'll make no promises as I'm known to break them when it comes to writing. Rest assured though, that I'm feeling much better.

* Thankfully she didn't come out to Malaysia, but I was in a terrible mood the whole time, and got in a fight with my Mum cause I was pushing everyone away, and ended up crying a bunch. Sorry for almost ruining Christmas. I love you guys.

** In Japan, it is traditional to bring a small, individually wrapped cake or snack called omiyage to school after you take paid leave. It's a nice gesture to the people who have covered for you and picked up your slack while you've been gone. They do take it too far though. A co-worker missed some work to go to their father's funeral, and brought in strawberry tarts to apologise.

*** Even though the messages go unread for days at a time, I am eternally grateful to the people who reach out to me when I disappear. To the angels of mine who go out of their way to include me, no matter how unresponsive and unreachable I may seem - thank you for being brilliant people.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Japanese School Lunch

For school lunches in the UK, I remember there being a cafeteria where you could pick your own meals. So much freedom, but at what cost? Most kids don't have the kind of restraint necessary to go for healthy over delicious. Of course there was salad, but what 15 year old CHOOSES salad? I'm pretty sure my friends and I had pasta, cheese, and beans every day for two years straight. Bliss.*

While the same cannot be said about English education, the Japanese take kyuushoku (school lunch) very seriously.There is one set meal a day, and everyone (barring allergies) has to eat it. Each middle school has a Jamie-Oliver-esque employee, whose only job it seems is to make the menu for the month and collect the lunch money.

My fellow ALTs and I have a passionate love-hate relationship with kyuushoku. When it's bad, its almost inedible. A good 70% of the time there's questionable fish, natto is pretty regular, and oh my god, the salads. Seaweed, Cabbage, mandarin orange slices, and miniature dried fish is not a salad. It's torture.

When it's good though, it's the best. I could be having the shittest week imaginable, but when I turn the corner towards the lunch room and can smell curry, everything turns to sunshine. Curry day is best day. Fact.

How to Not Lose Weight in Japan

Before I came to Japan, everyone was always telling me that Japanese food is super healthy. And in the beginning it seemed to be that way. So much so that I was in danger of losing weight. Or even worse, becoming slim and attractive. The horror.

Now if you find yourself in this predicament, never fear. I have spent the last 3 years researching in secret. Let Licha-do sensei tell you one weird trick to keep your arms flabby and muffin tops protruding.

Rice. White rice. Every day. Loads of it.

It started off innocent enough. 'Mottainai' is the Japanese cultural tradition of "waste not, want not". It comes from the Shinto belief that even the smallest objects have souls. Every grain of rice, every sesame seed, every weird little dried fish thing in my salad. As a result, kids are generally forced to eat all of their school lunch, especially in Elementary school (Even if they are absolutely stuffed, or don't like the food).

After everyone receives their nutritionally allotted amount, there is always left over soup, salad, and rice. It is the responsibility of the class to eat these too. Teachers wander around, cajoling the kids to take just a little bit more, desperate to get rid of that ethical weight hanging round everyone's neck.

One day I was feeling a little hungry, so I took some extra rice to help out. Suddenly I have a reputation for being a big rice-eater. I'm getting seconds every day, and there's no stopping it. More rice at the end? Why not give Ri-Chan thirds? He loves rice. Can't get enough. Thank you so much Richa-do.

Now it feels rude to say no. They are so happy to be rid of it that I just let it happen. What started as a carefully balanced meal has become a daily, non-stop, empty-carb, endurance challenge. The worst part is, I've gotten used to it. If I haven't eaten two or three bowls of rice in a day, my stomach starts grumbling.

2nd Dessert

Last week I hit the Jackpot. Its lunch time, and everything is fantastic. The salad looks edible, gyoza instead of fish, and for a special treat, strawberry tart.

One kid is out ill, so their meal is to be divvied up amongst the other students. I am inevitably given double rice. Dessert though is different. Its a highly prized commodity. Like Jackals circling for the kill, almost every boy (and myself) get up to Janken for 2nd dessert.**

15 becomes 10, then 5, then 1.
Ive done it.

After almost 3 years of losing every lunchtime, I finally win. With glee I clutch my prize to my chest. A small part of me feels guilty for stealing dessert from my own students mouths. A much larger part thinks that after all the mushy potatoes and bony fish Ive put up with, Ive earned this.

I sit back down with the kids. Everyone is clearly envious, which makes it all the better. After tackling my mountain of fluffy whites, Its time to savor my victory. As the awe-filled children look on in disbelief, I slowly unwrap my second strawberry tart, and jam the whole thing into my mouth all in one go.

Victory is sweet. So sweet in fact that Ive basically written the last 800 words purely so I could brag about it.

*If you swap out pasta and beans for rice and beer, you've basically described my current diet outside of school. Not much changes. Old dogs, new tricks, all that jazz.

**Janken is the most ancient Japanese art of conflict resolution. Whenever anything in Japan must be decided fairly, opponents are pitted in the ultimate game of wits. Whether its choosing teams, deciding who goes first, or who gets the extra milk, Janken is the all-powerful arbiter. In the west it is more commonly know by another name: "Rock-Paper-Scissors."

Friday, 10 March 2017

Beards and Back-country Snowboarding.

Around Christmas, I realised that I had not just forgotten to shave for a few week. Stubble had evolved to something much more exciting. It was becoming beard-like. More beard-like than it had ever been before. A blanket for my face.

At this pivotal moment, I had a choice. On one side stood professional respect, approachablity, and sexual appeal. When I'm clean shaven, I look less homeless and more like I have my shit together. My students don't shrink back in horror and fear as I walk in a room.  People tell me how young I still am. The school nutritionist asks me whether I enjoyed lunch, and giggles when I reply with "Er.. yea... oishii.. thanks." Shaven is clearly the "right" choice. The choice a sensible person would make.*

On the other side of this monumental crossroads loomed a great big bushy beard that would keep my face warm while freezing to death huddled on ski lifts.

"To shave or not to shave" is just one iteration of the hundred-odd choices we make daily, each spanning the same spectrum. Do I go for a run or play video games? Try to eat healthy or succumb to beer and Mac-Donald's? Act or leave things be. The eternal choice between what we should do and laziness.

Sometimes its just far too difficult. In my typical procrastinatory fashion, I put off choosing. Except "putting off choosing" is often a choice in itself. This is definitely true in regards to growing beards.

Cowboy-Kun and the Gnar-Gnar Pow-Pow

After another month of putting off, I had started to look like a bird was building a nest on my face. However it was mid-way through snowboard season, and the extra layer of insulation came in useful the day when I got lost on the slopes.

It was a Saturday. The night before it had been chucking it down with snow. By morning, the sun had started to peer around the mountain tops at the fresh blanket sprinkled over the rice fields. Beautiful powder and clear skies. A bluebird day. Every snowboarder's dream.

We start the day riding on the official courses, but I'm with Cowboy-kun. I call him Cowboy-kun because he's from Texas, and every time we go out together he herds me along, like a runty longhorn staggering across the Rocky Mountain Front. Cowboy-kun doesn't stick to the courses. He's on a constant search for the freshest gnar-gnar pow-pow** out there. And that means going off piste.

Every run we are on the hunt for untouched snow, slipping under the "do not enter" sign to the pristine back-country in the trees. Cowboy-kun thinks we can go out just a little bit further, and sneak back on to the course further down. Snow clouds are starting to roll in, but he figures it's worth the risk.
The river

We get there and its perfect. Waves and waves of fluffy powder curve and arch around the tree trunks. Its more like surfing than snowboarding. I'm carried away, floating on top of the white cloud below me.

Suddenly I remember myself. And I remember where I am. I pull up, but Cowboy-kun is no where in sight. I've clearly missed the point where we had to turn back. To the right, a terrifyingly steep valley no one as yet has ridden on. To the left are a group of tracks, leading in the exact opposite direction of where the course is. There I am, a lost cow, all alone in the middle of nowhere. The sun goes behind the clouds. More snow starts to fall. All I can hear is the muted patter of snowfall, and my increasingly heavy breathing. I have no choice but to follow the tracks. This is gonna be quite the adventure. At least I have my beard to keep me warm.

The quest to rejoin civilization starts well, but ends with walking for more than 15 minutes in a never-ending sea of white. The top of the mountain is steep, so I can glide along comfortably, and even start to enjoy being lost. Then I hit the flat riverside between the mountains.

Do not follow this route unless you enjoy hiking
When people talk about how great back-country boarding is, the bit they never seem to mention is when you're carrying your board through thigh-deep powder. Its a sensation much like trying to drag a log through quicksand. I mean Ive never done that, but I'm certain its the same.

An hour later the sound of Japanese pop music echoes through the empty hills.*** I stumble out of the wilderness and onto a road near a ski lift. Except Ive never seen this place before. Somehow I've managed to traverse two valleys and a river, ending up in the ski resort over. Bloodied and bruised, I head to the bus stop and catch a 15 minute ride back to my car.

Shaving For Graduation

March rolls around, and my face blanket is getting out of hand. Now if I wanted to give you some fancy-smansy Hollywood ending, Id tell you I shaved because my 3rd years were graduating. Because I wanted to be at my best the final time they saw me. Because I cared so deeply about them and their future.

The truth is far more self serving. First of all, its not all its cracked up to be. Beards are itchy, sometimes you get food stuck in them, and whenever you see anyone the first thing they say is "wow, your beard's getting big." I know. I grew it myself.

I also imagined that Id look glorious and handsome, like Pirlo, or Hemingway. The problem is, my sideburns grow exponentially faster than any of the other hair on my face. This gives my beard a decidedly Amish flavour. The result was not glorious. Instead think Tom Hanks in castaway, or one of those weird dwarfs from the god-awful Hobbit movies.****

Then my kids got involved. The boys from first grade would berate me daily with:

"Big face. You hair cutto. I am sorry, hige sori."

Which is the worst japanese gag going. "hige sori" is the Japanese phrase for shaving. And it rhymes with "I'm sorry". Hilarious. Gets even better when you hear it 10 times a day.

The final straw though was a kid who got a little too into my beard. During lessons, he would try to stroke my face. Apparently I looked just like a "super cute lion with soft soft fur." Very fuwa-fuwa. Which would have been fine if he was a 5 year old from my elementary school. He wasn't. He was a 15 year old teenager soon to graduate into High School.

Safe to say it was time for it to go. I shaved my beard, and with it went my 3rd grade students. I doubt you'll ever read this, but good luck. And don't pet the teachers in high school.


*oishii (delicious) is probably the most commonly used Japanese word and as such is very important to master. Japanese people are incredible hype-men. Everything is delicious. No matter if it isn't. If there is food present, so is this word. If you wanna go a little casual you can say umai (good) instead. Here in Joetsu everyone has the awesome habit of adding baka (crazy) to everything, so those of us who are down with the kids say baka umai (crazy good). Don't use it in Tokyo though unless you want people looking at you weird.

**Australian for snow

***Japanese ski places like to blast out-of-date pop tunes at you from the chairlifts while you snowboard. Just in case you didn't have enough stimulation throwing yourself down a mountain at break neck speeds.

****Not the dwarf they made look like a small attractive human to wedge in a contrived love story. The ugly one there purely for comedic effect.