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Good News, Bad News, No News

September 29th, 2012 No comments

Since the first time I lived abroad, I’d have a recurring dream in which I’d be back home in America and suddenly realize I wasn’t supposed to be there. I’d be struck with anxiety thinking, “This isn’t right—I should be in Germany [or Japan]. What am I doing here? I’ve got to get back.” That dream came true this year, and recently I’ve been having the inverse of that dream, in which I’m back in Japan and suddenly realize I can’t remember the return journey. I either realize it’s a dream or decide not to question it and just go with it. When I woke up from the former dreams I’d experience relief. With the latter, huge disappointment. I’ve been suffering from some kind of reverse-homesickness, and it seems to be getting worse all the time.

The thing is, nobody seems to get it. Why would I want to be back in Japan so badly? Do I have a girlfriend there? No? So what’s the big deal? You can eat sushi here too.

I tell them I have friends over there and a nice place of my own, but when I try to explain that it’s my job I miss most of all, they really don’t get it. To almost everyone I talk to here, a job is just a job, a way to earn money, a means to an end but by no means and end in itself. I can’t adequately explain the difference between coming home from a shift at Domino’s pizza and only feeling good because you’re finally out of there, and coming home from a day at school and feeling good because the day was actually worthwhile. With a few exceptions, these days are utterly devoid of any quality that makes life actually worth living, and I’ve slipped straight back into the depression I used to feel when I lived here and had nothing to live for in the past.

One of those exceptions was last Sunday. I had the day off (the first after 11 straight days of working) and went hiking in a nearby state park with my mom and dad, stopping at a brew-pub on the way back for some beer and nachos before returning home to watch the football game on TV. The weather was perfect and it was a fine day overall, but those days are few and far between.

Any “friends” I used to have in high school have long since moved away, as have most of the people I hung out with in college. Mike in Brooklyn is the only one left that I have any desire to see, but it takes an hour to drive to Long Island and an hour from there to get through the traffic to his neighborhood and find a place to park. The earliest I can ever get off work is about 7:30, which means it would be 9:30 by the time I got there. That’s not too bad, but when I planned to do that Thursday night, orders kept coming in and I didn’t get out until 9:30, making the trip out to Brooklyn decidedly not worth it. I’ve got this Sunday off too though, so I’ll at least get to have another fun day out there tomorrow.

I previously wrote that this is no longer a vacation but a life, but that’s not really accurate. This is barely any kind of life at all.

With regards to my actual life—the one I don’t currently have access to—this week can be characterized by good news followed by bad news followed by no news. The first good news came on Monday. Interac informed me that they received the completed documents from immigration and expected final Certificate of Eligibility approval the following day, Tuesday, at which point they would update me again. That was great to hear, as it meant the CoE would be on its way and set to arrive the following week, and after the 4-day visa processing I’d be set to fly back the week after. I decided to make Friday the 5th of October my last day, and use the rest of the 3-day weekend to pay some final visits to family members with my parents, including Sue and Lance on Long Island, my grandparents up in Red Hook, and maybe even Billy at college in Delaware.

There was nothing from Interac the next morning, but another bit of good news came my way quite unexpectedly from Heath, the ALT who’s been replacing me at my school but who made it clear in so few words that he has no interest in keeping in touch with me. Before deciding to leave him alone and just accept my disconnectedness from the school, I’d made it a point to at least let him know my feelings about missing the Speech Contest, to tell him what happened with M- last year and to impress upon him how much I was determined to help her win this time and how bad I felt that I couldn’t. I’d hoped to at least let her know through him how sorry I was, and to hopefully motivate him to coach her as best he could.

His message was, “Just wanted to let you know your girlfriend M- got 4th place this year so no tears this time!”

The news itself was indeed fantastic, although the delivery felt like a bit of a stupid juvenile jab. My “girlfriend”? What are we, five-years-old? “Ha ha, you care about a girl’s feelings! You loooooooooooove her!” Yeah? I suppose I have cooties too.

But regardless of that, I can now rest easy knowing that M- achieved her goal which she so richly deserved. She worked so hard last year and came away with nothing. Over the rest of the year she focused hard on her speaking and pronunciation abilities and came back the following year to deliver a speech that landed her an actual prize. I wish I could have been there to share the moment with her, but I couldn’t be happier that she got it.

The next day I got a message from Kim, my neighbor, who’d also been at the Speech Contest. She told me about M- winning and congratulated me, though I told her I couldn’t accept her congratulations because I hadn’t been there and she’d done it all on her own. But she also told me she met Heath and talked to him, and this is where the bad news comes in. She said he’s a really up-beat guy, he’s been living and teaching in Japan for 17 years, he’s a champion sumo wrestler, and he’s well known by the JTEs in our area. She wrote “your kids are in good hands.”

That was the worst possible thing she could have said to me. I don’t want my kids to be in good hands. Capable hands, sure, but not expert 17-years-experience hot-shot celebrity ALT sumo-wrestler hands. For whatever reason he seems to have nothing but disdain for me, but I imagine the kids must love him and the JTEs must be quite impressed by him. When I go back, I’ll no longer seem like as good of a teacher to any of them. A significant portion of the students will no doubt prefer him to me and be disappointed when I return, and the teachers will have to readjust to working with an inexperienced, non-Japanese speaking teaching partner. For all I know, after seeing him do his expert lessons they’ll realize just how amateurish mine were and stop letting me have so much control over the planning.

I hope I’m just being needlessly paranoid, but when the only thing I’ve got going for me in my life is my job, it’s hard not to constantly worry about all the ways in which that might end up spoiled by this situation. It took me 27 years to find myself in a life situation in which I could truly call myself happy, and wouldn’t it be just so poetically appropriate if the thing that provided that happiness gets tainted and torn to shreds after just one extremely brief lightning-fast year?

And it’s all because of paperwork! Forms and stamps and files that nobody ever checks. Because I didn’t get a fucking stamp I was supposed to get before going on vacation, I’m forced to exchange a month and a half or more of a life worth living with this empty bullshit existence, and return to a fundamentally altered situation. The more I actually think about the underlying reality of the situation—that everything would be perfectly fine if not for the paperwork procedures of people with absolutely no connection to my life whatsoever—the more absurd it seems.

The worst part is, there’s still no end in sight. At the beginning of the week it looked like next Friday was the light at the end of the tunnel, but I heard nothing from Interac the whole rest of the week. I just sat tight until Thursday which they said is the day I’d usually hear from them, but got no update then either. I would have sent an e-mail asking what the deal is, but I did that last Thursday when I also got no update and it make no difference. They’re going to update me whenever they damn well please and all I can do is wait and grind my teeth.

And that bit of no news is how the week ended and where things stand right now. For all I know, I will get the Certificate of Eligibility in the mail this week as planned and be ready to fly back the week after. Or there might have been some kind of problem and they had to start the whole process over from the beginning in which case I’ll be stuck here until December. Maybe Heath and my school have decided they’re happy together and want to make his teaching there a permanent arrangement, so Interac no longer has need of me and are just figuring out how to release me from my contract. WHO KNOWS???

In any case, I took back my two weeks’ notice from Domino’s and told them to just keep scheduling me until further notice, so there will be no visits to family members next weekend. I’m still going to try and do that before I leave though, because if there’s one thing my mind couldn’t possibly be more made up about it’s that I’m not coming back to America again next year. I need to stay in Japan, pay off all the debt I still have from this year’s travelling expenses and when I can finally afford to travel again, actually see more of Japan.

There will come a day when I find myself back in this situation, stuck in America where I don’t belong and desperate to get back to my actual life. But then I’m going to wake up, I’m going to be in Japan, and I’m going to breathe and enormous sigh of relief that this time it was just one of those dreams.

Extended Sentence

September 15th, 2012 No comments

On Thursday I got the latest update from Interac, telling me they’ve got to fill out one more form and send it back to Immigration, then wait for Immigration to send back the Certificate of Eligibility before they can send it to me, and the whole process should take about three weeks. By their estimation, they should have me back at my school by October 15th.

I’d been thinking more along the lines of the week after next, but this is a whole extra month. Needless to say I’m not happy about it, but at this point I’m pretty much just resigned to accept my fate. Now there’s no doubt that I’ll miss the Speech Sontest, and the students will have had other ALTs for an entire month and a half before I get back, so there’s absolutely no telling how I’ll be greeted upon my return. At least I will return…just not for another month.

Of course the thought has crossed my mind plenty of times that maybe I should take advantage of the extra time at home and try to visit more people or revisit some family I’ve already visited once, but for the sake of my finances I really just need to keep working at Domino’s full-time, which means six days a week and always in the evening, leaving me with very little time and almost no mental energy for more visits. At this point all I want to do is just ride this out and get back to Japan as soon as possible.

At least it’ll be a much more interesting life experience when I do go back. Last year it was a long and gradual transition between one life and the other. Finishing work at Planeo at the end of June, living my two final weeks in Germany before flying home in mid-July, one month in America visiting just about everyone, a week of orientation in Japan before moving to Togane, and a week of adjustment time in Togane before starting teaching. This year, it’s just going to go directly from my old living-with-parents-and-delivering-pizza life directly to the living-in-Japan-and-teaching-schoolchildren life within the span of about a week. I could conceivably be delivering pizza in New Jersey on Friday and teaching English in Japan on Monday. It can’t get much weirder than that.

Categories: Personal Tags:

PAC of Wolves

September 9th, 2012 No comments

I left Mike’s apartment at about 6:30 last evening, Mike himself having gone down to Atlantic City to meet a bunch of friends of his a few hours earlier. But he was kind enough to give me a set of keys and let me use the place as a base for the night, which saved me the hassle of driving in and out of Manhattan (in exchange for the hassle of driving in and out of Brooklyn, which is probably not that much easier.)

But his place is conveniently located just a few blocks away from Atlantic Avenue station, one of the main public transportation hubs of Brooklyn. To get to Columbia University where the Wolf-PAC meeting was being held, I just had to hop on the B train and ride it straight to 116th street. I hadn’t realized Columbia was located in Harlem, but that’s where I found myself.

That was an interesting enough place for me to be. I was along Frederick Douglas Blvd, a busy enough street with a ton going on. I never got the feeling I was walking through anyone’s “territory” where I had no business being. I stopped at a food vendor to get myself a slice of pizza for dinner, then walked through Morningside Park to the university.

I found the Faculty House where the meeting was being held and got inside at about quarter to eight, over an hour before it was scheduled to begin. I was about the fifth person to arrive when I walked in, and I said hello to the guy organizing the event and made my donation before taking a seat in the front row.

I introduced myself to the other guys there and immediately started chatting about politics, about TYT, and about Wolf-PAC. I knew going in that this would be the largest concentration of Young Turks fans I’d ever see in one place, the previous number being just two—me and Krissi. They may have the largest online news show in the world and get 1 million views a day on YouTube, but fans are still few and far between, and especially since I live overseas I never encounter any. It was nice to actually be able to talk about the show with other random people were actually as familiar with it as I am.

A black guy who works for an IT company took a seat next to me and started talking to the woman behind me about the convention speeches. She thought Obama’s speech was great but he said it did nothing for him. When he told her he wasn’t going to vote for Obama but for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, she was taken aback and they launched into the standard throwing-your-vote-away vs. voting-your-conscience argument. He told us that his girlfriend cried when he told her he wasn’t voting for Obama, which I thought was sad and funny.

People were slowly but surely filing in, and at about 8:30 someone made a comment and we noticed that Cenk Uygur had arrived. It was a very surreal moment to see him in person for the first time. He’s been a face on my computer screen nearly every day for the past two and a half years, so seeing him in the flesh was a pretty crazy sensation. I’ve had celebrity encounters before, and while Cenk is probably the least-known celebrity I’ve seen in person, he’s the most familiar to me personally.

He walked up to the podium and shook a few hands along the way, mine being the last. I just shook the hand of someone who’s shaken hands with all kinds of famous journalists and politicians from Wolf Blitzer to Al Gore.

He and his helpers got the power-point slideshow set up for his presentation and then he went to chat with some people in the back as more and more filed in. There were 200 seats altogether and by the time the presentation started at least three quarters were full.

The presentation.The presentation itself was also surreal to watch. It was all about the influence of corporate money in politics and the strategy Wolf-PAC is taking to fight it, things he talks about on The Young Turks all the time. Since I watch the show every day I was already familiar with everything he was saying, from the examples of how corporate lobbyists make millions buying politicians and screwing over the American people (see Billy Tauzin) and how Barack Obama isn’t doing anything to work against it (see Billy Tauzin). He was just talking off the cuff with prompting from the power-point slides, using the same tone and expressions he uses on the show all the time. It was like watching the first hour of TYT live.

As for the Wolf-PAC strategy, he laid it out as clearly as I’ve ever heard him make it. One of his most important statistics was that 86% of the American people think the politicians are bought and the system is corrupted by corporate and special interest money. That’s clearly an overwhelming majority, encompassing not just liberals but conservatives, libertarians, and just about everyone across the entire political spectrum, but the media never talks about it because they’re the ones cashing in on all that money spent on campaign ads. But if we start making progress on this issue and gain more attention, we’ll have the American people on our side as long as we remain focused on this one thing and don’t get side-tracked with a bunch of other liberal causes that a majority of Americans wouldn’t get behind.

But all it will really take is a number of dedicated people to bring pressure to local politicians. The idea is to fight fire with fire, corporate Super-PAC money vs. grassroots Wolf-PAC money, but not on a national level. Everyone understands that even if you manage to get someone truly dedicated to campaign finance reform into national office, they’ll just be attacked relentlessly with corporate cash in the next election and booted out. It has to be done at the local level.

The central idea is to call for an amendment to the constitution banning corporate money in politics. Something that bypasses Supreme Court decisions saying corporations are people and therefore have a 1st Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections, and that all elections must be publicly financed. It’s important to note that we’re only trying to eliminate corporate money. David Koch, George Soros, Sheldon Adelson etc. will still be able to spend as much money on independent issue ads as they want. It’s just that corporations won’t be able to reach into their bottomless coffers to infuse money directly into the election of our politicians. A constitutional amendment sounds radical, but it’s actually a pretty modest step.

And the way you get to a constitutional amendment without going through Congress where such a thing would be hopeless is to do it on a state level. If 34 state legislatures vote to call for a constitutional convention, all state legislatures would have to convene and vote on the proposed amendment. Getting there will be a long hard struggle but once you get your first few victories, the ball should start to roll pretty quickly. If Rhode Island votes to call a convention, Connecticut will be more likely to do the same. Get a third state on board and suddenly you’ve got a real movement going. And if you manage to get a red state to go along, everyone will start paying attention.

Just as the special interests threaten politicians who vote against them, Wolf-PAC can threaten politicians who vote against it. The average state legislature election only costs about $40,000, so it’s not completely out of reach. Politicians will think “I can either vote for campaign finance reform and get $40,000 or vote against it and have $40,000 spent on defeating me, so…hey it turns out I’m a fierce advocate for campaign finance reform and always have been!”

It sounds like a pipe-dream and Cenk admitted as much, but he used his own personal story to make it more hopeful. When he and his friends started The Young Turks in his living room ten years ago, everyone told him it would fail. Nobody was going to want to get their news from no-name unheard of people. Eight years later he had the largest online news show in the world, and now a show on television on Current TV. He said the hardest thing about competing online is getting to 3 million YouTube views. Several hours of YouTube content are posted every second, so you’re not just competing with a few dozen or hundred other TV networks, but against millions and millions of other things out there. But he said that once you hit that magic number of 3 million views, the next thing you know you’re at 6 million, then 10 million, then 20 million, and so on. Everything starts out small with just a small group of dedicated people, but if you remain dedicated and keep persisting, you can succeed.

After the speech he took a few questions, in which he addressed much of the skepticism about the idea including the fact that if this movement ever actually gains traction, what’s to stop the corporations from using their money to crush it like they crushed ACORN. Cenk pointed out that ACORN was vulnerable because they relied on government funding, something Wolf-PAC doesn’t need to worry about. Congress can’t vote to defund it. And while the mainstream media is certain to talk about it derogatively as they stand a lot to lose a lot of money if the movement succeeds, the best thing that could happen to the movement is more publicity. He welcomed Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly to blast and deride the movement as much as they want—it’ll just get more people to pay attention and with 86% of Americans already agreeing with our core conviction, the harder they fight us the stronger we’re likely to get.

When the speech was over he wasted no time in putting us to action, breaking us into groups based on our home state for us to meet each other and get coordinated. The New York group outnumbered the rest of us by about 5 to 1, so they remained in the main area while New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania stood in groups off to the side. As his home state is New Jersey, he came to our group first.

The necessity for him to hold these kinds of meetings became clear right away, as he asked if anyone would like to be the coordinator for New Jersey. Apparently there isn’t one yet. One of the guys there, a 46-year-old lawyer, volunteered for the job and Cenk spoke with him a bit about what that job would entail. When he was done I spoke up and said I feel bad because I live in Japan so what could I do from overseas to help out? Someone said, “You should feel bad. You know what the Japanese are doing to the whales?”

I said, “Yeah, they really shouldn’t be doing that to those whales” and Cenk laughed and said, “Yes, I agree, they really should stop doing that to the whales.” He told me he wasn’t sure what I could do but there must be plenty of things that wouldn’t require my physical presence and I could work that out with our coordinator. As he was leaving I couldn’t resist telling him, “Go easy on the herbivore men. They’re all right.” That got a laugh from some of the other people around, and he laughed too but I’m not sure he got the reference to his own segment because he said, “It’s okay, some of my best friends are vegan.”

New York delegation.He went off to talk to the Pennsylvania people, and I listened to what the New York coordinators were telling the New Yorkers about a petition they already had going, until something one of the Pennsylvanians was saying caught my ear. It was about the political spectrum and how it’s not really a straight line from right to left but more of a circle, and people will agree wholeheartedly on certain issues even if they disagree with all others. I spoke up in agreement, explaining that most of my family is conservative but we all agree that there’s too much influence of money over politics, which Cenk said was great to hear.

When Cenk left that group I talked to the guy with the “circular political spectrum” theory for awhile, then chatted with another guy there who’d overheard I lived in Japan and wanted to ask me a bit about that. After awhile he took out his camera and said he was going to try and get a picture with Cenk before he left, and I said I didn’t want to bother him for that but it certainly was tempting.

But when we saw other people already posing with Cenk we moseyed on back there and joined in. I took a few shots of Cenk with other people but just as I was about to go myself, one of his handlers came up and said they should probably get going. So I decided to forget about it, but just then a group of people asked for a group shot and everyone there was welcome to join in so I did. The guy I’d asked to take my picture with Cenk took a shot of it, but everyone was posing for the other camera. So the only picture I have with both Cenk and myself is a somewhat funny shot of him and everyone posing for a different picture.

Me and Cenk! (and other random people)

But I did get to speak to him one last time, just to tell him it was an honor to meet him, I’ve been a member for over two years, and I was supposed to be back in Japan now but there was a problem with my visa so I had the opportunity to come to this, and I hoped there was some way I could help. He was as polite and gracious as it gets, and he thanked me before heading over to talk with another group, as now all the New York people had broken from their large meeting and were gathering around for their chance to meet him. I left after exchanging some Facebook info with one of the people I met there who was interested in Japan, and I assume Cenk didn’t acutally manage to make it out of there for quite some time afterwards. He’d clearly come there to work, to seriously push the Wolf-PAC agenda forward in this region, but he understood that the people who’d come there were fans and he was the big celebrity, and he felt an obligation to meet everyone who wanted to meet him.

On my way back to Brooklyn I started getting feelings of paranoia about the kind of impression I’d made and whether I’d made a mistake by blabbing to him about my visa bullshit which he couldn’t possibly care about. It had only taken five seconds but I just couldn’t help but feel weird about it. I guess it’s natural to feel that way about celebrity encounters, wondering if beneath their gracious exterior they’re really thinking “why are you talking to me? I don’t care” but there was nothing to justify getting that impression from him. I might not have impressed him by any means, but it’s highly unlikely that he went home thinking, “Man, why did that Japan guy even show up? What a waste of space.” I’m sure he barely gave a second thought to me.

But I did manage to accomplish my goal of actually meeting him and getting to say a few words face to face, as much as I would rather have chosen more intelligent, less irrelevant words. He’s probably the number one person I’ve most wanted to meet for the last two years, and now I can finally say I have.

All that remained to do was get back to Brooklyn from Harlem. That turned out to be somewhat tricky, as the subway stairs I’d come out of only led down to the platform for the trains going uptown, and I walked around the entire block and couldn’t find the stairs for the opposite platform. Under normal circumstances I would just ask people for help, but I must somewhat ashamedly confess that I was a little intimidated to do that in Harlem. It’s not that I’m afraid of black people, it’s just that I have a pretty good idea what I look like to them and I’d rather not ask them to do anything for me. But when I circled back around there was a lady begging me for change, and since she wanted something from me I told her I’d gladly help her out if she could tell me how to get to the subway going downtown. She kindly pointed me to the stairs across the street which I’d stupidly not seen before, and I gave her a dollar. I hope she was able to buy some good crack with it.

I’d texted Krissi when I left Columbia because she’s the only person I know who’d give a damn that I met Cenk Uygur (the only person among the dozens I’ve recommended the show to who actually became a die-hard fan), and she texted me back saying she was just sitting at home bored so I could call her if I wanted. After the lengthy subway journey back I gave her a call and told her a bit about the event as well as my current visa-limbo situation, so while Mike’s apartment was empty I at least had some company on the phone for a couple of hours until the battery started to die. It was a nice conversation to end what had been overall a pretty damn good day.

And it was a day that would never have happened if this whole visa problem had never occurred. I would still trade the Cenk-meeting to be back in Japan, but for all I know something will come of this Wolf-PAC thing and I’ll be able to work with the NJ coordinator guy and do something to help out. And if that’s the case, and we eventually succeed and I can feel I was a part of it, I might eventually look back and be glad the whole thing happened.

Dark Clouds and Silver Linings

September 7th, 2012 No comments

The long-awaited Certificate of Eligibility still hasn’t been issued, so there’s still no definitive end in sight to my time in the states. This is no longer a vacation, but an actual life complete with a job and daily routines. I’ve been working pretty much every day, which is fine by me because in addition to helping mitigate the financial damage from not working, it keeps me occupied and my mind off all the school I’ve been missing. The first week of school has come and passed, and it bothers me every time I think about it. There are things I like about being home but I just can’t wait to get back to where I belong.

The teacher who is subbing for me, Heath, apparently has no interest in keeping in touch with me and told me that there’s another substitute he’s splitting the workload with, a woman named Hiroko who would keep in touch with me instead, but I haven’t heard from her. At this point I’m just not going to bother worrying about it. At some point I will be back at work and it’ll go however it goes. Even if the students react with disappointment, I’ll still be incredibly grateful to be back.

Working at Domino’s is the polar opposite of teaching in terms of gratification. At Domino’s I just carry out the same old procedures over and over again. At school I get to be creative and try new things with each lesson. At Domino’s I’m just another schmuck delivering your pizza. At school I’m actually well-liked and respected, actually making a difference in people’s lives. My co-workers at Domino’s don’t really care that I live in Japan and they barely ask me about it. At school I’m the only American, and my co-workers are always interested in learning more from me. When I go into Domino’s I’m greeted with barely a shrug of acknowledgment, while at school I’m greeted with enthusiastic smiles and hellos from hundreds of kids who are always happy to see me. At school I get laughs and applause on a regular basis. At Domino’s I get shitty tips on a regular basis.

The biggest difference though is that at Domino’s everyone is just there to make money, and nobody really wants to be there and they go home as soon as they can. But at school the teachers are there because they love what they do, and they stay far longer than they actually need to. Domino’s is by no means a terrible job—it’s even somewhat enjoyable at times—but it compared to teaching it sucks.

But at least there are a few silver linings to still being around. This past Sunday my parents and I went wine-tasting at a few nearby wineries in New Jersey, which is always a nice time. And my friend Mike is back in Brooklyn for at least a week so I’ll be able to hang out with him when I get a night off.

And tonight I’m spending the night at his place and taking the train into Manhattan for a meeting hosted by Cenk Uygur, host of The Young Turks, in which he’ll be talking about Wolf-PAC, the organization he started to fight for a constitutional amendment to eliminate the stranglehold of big money over politics. I’ve been a huge TYT fan for over two years now, so I’m pretty psyched about finally getting to see Cenk in person and possibly meet him face-to-face, an opportunity I wouldn’t have had if I’d gone back to Japan as scheduled. Whatever happens it should be an interesting night.

But I’d give it all up in a heartbeat to be back in Japan. I still have no idea when that’ll happen, but at least it will happen.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,