27 December 2005

What I eat

Many of you know I have been on a personal journey to get healthy since about September of last year. I've been working out like 4 times a week and was really proud of myself, but a little frustrated that I wasn't really getting anywhere with my stomach. It looks basically the same as before. Honestly, I thought, how many crunches does a guy gotta do before things get moving?

Well, the answer is: it doesn't matter if you don't change your diet — that stomach ain't going nowhere until you get eating less. No problem, I thought. Let's get going.

So God bless Calorie-count.com for giving me a hand. Calorie-count says, "You should consume about 1899 calories a day to reach your target weight of 175 lbs. This is at a reasonable weight loss average of 0.94 lbs per week, which would take about 21 weeks to reach."

No problem, I thought. How hard can that be? So today, I ate nothing I wanted and suffered greatly. Surely, I thought, I came in well under the mark. Here's what I ate:

Bread (2 slices) 134 kCal
Jam (1 tbs) 78
Sushi (7 pieces) 400
Cappuccino (3 cups) 210
Japanese Mikan* (4) 260
Nuts (small portion) 100
Nikuman** (3) 600
Mentos (2) 30
Tea (2 cups) 4
Sugar (in Cappacino) 23


* Small Japanese Orange
** Chinese bread and meat roll

You gotta be kidding: 1827 kCal? I thought, But I didn't eat anything, basically. I spent the whole day hungry. I complained to Neal for like an hour. And I was only 60 kCals under? I don't think I can do this.

Neal and I also worked out and I am going to stop lifting to get big and start lifting to get slim. We'll see what happens. Only 146 days to go.

Christmas was nice because I didn't get any of my gifts on time and ended up thinking a lot about this part of Isaiah that I had to read for church on Saturday. It occurred to me that Christmas is the holiday of hope and I couldn't be filled with more hope these days. Come Easter, the holiday of faith, I'll be a little less excited, I imagine, but for now, let's all think about hope.

My gifts finally came today and I got a crap load of Johnny Cash. Surely, I thought, I will get tired of this much Cash. That was silly because you can never have enough Johnny Cash and each of these records is rich in it's own way.

21 December 2005

Really? I'm Japanese!

My desire to get out of bed in the morning has been seriously hampered by the weather and how the weather is making its way into my apartment. Certainly, temperatures in the mid-thirties are nothing to complain about except that it's not only that temperature outside, but in your house. And when the wind blows and your windows are closed, and your curtains are still swaying a little bit.

I thought I had solved the problem by finding the timer function on my fucking kerosene stove, but it's so loud when it turns on that I wake up and can't enjoy those last twenty minutes.

This was all weighing heavily on me as I drove to work this morning. Then a text message from the lady as I crossed the Agano River and a note on my desk at work from a kid I gave some CDs to that said, I'll love you forever, and a tape deck from one of the teachers at Meikun for free. It was enough to lift my spirits. Now, if only this tape deck works in my car.

Things got much better when I was being told about my schedule for the next year and one of the teachers said, It looks you will not have to come to school in March. That's right. No March classes for the dude. This means a month in Europe, I think. You know, dicking around and seeing how the Europeans do things.

On Sunday, the pastor's wife asked me to do a reading at the candlelight Christmas Eve service. I responded by almost shouting, Really? I'm Japanese! Yoko, did you hear that? I'm Japanese now! The older women in the church seemed confused.

Saw the President babbling about his spying program. The defense, as best I can tell, 1) We're at war! 2) the terrorists are bad and quick like rabbits, 3) it's only being used on overseas calls unless it is needed domestically then it will be used domestically, 4) over three thousand people lost their lives on Sept. 11th, 5) everyone yearns for freedom in their soul, and 6) the President cares about *those people* (black people) and is hurt that they don't understand this.

My favorite part is that, basically, the court order is ridiculously easy to get and can even be granted retroactively (as the terrorists are so quick and fast) and is basically never denied. But the Presidente is still like, Aw, fuck it. It's wartime.

But at least his philosophy is clear: we need a democracy in the Middle East. If we have a democracy in the Middle East, things will be better for everyone. Now, to convince all Muslims that self-government is where it's at and doesn't conflict with their belief in complete submission to Muslim authority. Also, we need to get the Sunnis and the Shi'ites to think that killing each other is wrong.

I also sent the following letter to an English teacher discussion group:

Hey everyone:

Saturday night found me attending a Bonenkai with one of my adult classes. It was my first time out socially with this particular group of students who are all over the age of 35 and have only a marginal interest in learning English. They're a great group of people, just not particularly motivated.

We were well into the party when one of the students, an older retired man who had been drinking for several hours, sat down next to my girlfriend and began to complain in Japanese about my teaching style. Though not fluent by any means, I was able to understand everything that he was saying, namely that I was too driven as a teacher and didn't have enough fun. He asked my girlfriend to relay all of this to me later, but of course, the message had already been sent.

His indirect complaining soured me for the rest of the evening (though I guess I shouldn't be surprised by the indirectness) and after getting some sleep, I was able to put the criticism into perspective — yes, I probably was expecting too much from this class and yes, this man's opinion was probably not completely genuine as he was having trouble not falling out of his chair.

As I've been thinking more about the situation, it occurs to me, as I teach mostly private classes, I don't really receive a lot of criticism about my teaching, constructive or otherwise. How do you find ways to get constructive criticism? It also frustrated me that I approached the next class with the mindset that I needed to please this particular student because I saw him as a customer rather than a learner. So now I'm wondering, should we see our students as students that need to be taught or as customers that need to be kept happy? How do you find a healthy balance?

Thanks for listening. I hope you all stay warm during the holiday season.

Niigata City

Certainly, troubling times. I will enjoy my tea and honey, regardless.

17 December 2005

I prefer fiction

Should I be working on the disaster that is becoming my first attempt at genre analysis for the allegedly cake-walk MA that I am allegedly getting? Yes. But here's the problem, I can't stay focused. With all the, you know, excitement and everything.

That Iron & Wine song, "The Trapeze Swinger" that Berto turned me on to yesterday is just about enough. It's more than enough. Here's a tip for you songwriters out there from Sam Beam: Write like you're making a movie. And be delicate about everything. Then you too might be able to pull off a line about graffiti on pearly gates. And make me cry in the gym.

Fiction or fact? Excerpt follows:

"If fiction then turn to
this story of lovers running
through surf foam or falling onto
each other.
I prefer fact: You came down
stairs, drone beetle in hand, saying,
What I wrote about."

16 December 2005

Hard gay

Some of you got this from me via the e-mail, but I wanted to share on a larger scale. Thanks to the main man Smart Bad for the link:

With some new readers of the blog, I guess I should reiterate that I live in Japan. This might be obvious in Asian-looking folks in my pictures, but whatever. Also, I know many of you are interested in Japanese culture and what makes this little island tick so I give you the newest craze to hit Japan: Hard Gay (please pronounce: HAA-DO-GEI)!! That's right, it appears that Hado Gei thinks that Yahoo! Japan (pronounced in Japanese YA-FOO) has stolen his catch phrase: FOO! and so busts in on a Yafoo meeting to try and get them to use him as celebrity spokesperson and auction his signature Hado Gei hat on the website. Hilarity ensues.

I'd also like to go on the record saying that I have never been humped by Hado Gei.

13 December 2005

Love and shoe-gazing

Let's try love.

I'm kicking myself for posting the pictures of me and Yoko on Sunday because I realized how unfair they are to the actual relationship and how pictures like this tend to gloss over everything that is real about making couplehood work. Because her smell or a kiss stolen in a church sanctuary or the moment of understanding on the Agano River are not daily things. They fall in between the everything else of going to work and being tired from studying and not really feeling it some of the time. Maybe these moments of simple and perfect expressed love are important because they drive things or maybe they are poison because they make us believe that love is possible. Let's try in between: that same sky that is a petal pressed in the book of memory that Rich Mullins sung about in a song I remember.

I have been thinking about this: "Love is patient, love is kind." That whole chapter of I Corinthians, though probably having lost some of i's power in being recited carelessly in wedding chapels, is really right now. "Love is patient" or "Love keeps no record of wrong" is a lie in a wedding, dressed up in front of all your friends. They are just niceties to make everyone cry and think happy thoughts. They only mean something when you are clinging to them in anger and fighting the everything about you that is bad and evil and raging against patience.

So yes, love is kisses in karaoke booths and sitting hip-to-hip on piano benches, but it is also, necessarily, long car rides in silence and the terror that comes up when you encounter something you don't know if you will be able to cope with. It is barely holding hands, standing in the space of another person and then it is still, intense anger and self-control.

How trite is all of that that.

Today I was in the locker room at the gym and sort of made eye contact with this Japanese guy, but didn't think much about it until he tried to sit down on the bench where I had all my stuff sprawled out. He said, Excuse me, in English, which isn't that rare as Japanese men in gyms sometimes like to throw out a "Sank yuuu" or "Ha-low" to show that the six years of mandatory English education have not been wasted on them. I responded in Japanese, and he said, in Japanese, You speak Japanese? then in unaccented English, I'm an American.

This guy is like 62 — totally built — from Los Angeles and has lived there for 32 years, but is back in Niigata taking care of his mother, blah, blah. I thought it was weird to meet a Japanese-American in Japan, and I gave him my card and said we should drink sometime and he said that would be great.

I did my cardio-workout and was getting ready to flail around on the weight machines when he appeared again and told me that he was a personal trainer and proceeded to squeeze me on my hips and say, "Yes, you have typical American fat. If you don't keep working out, you're just going to balloon out." Oh, I said, well, you should see my father. "Here," he said lifting up his arm, "Touch that. See? Hard, right?" Yes, I said, with my hand on his ribs, very good. "You gotta work out everyday for that. I'm 62, do I look 62?" No, I said, you certainly don't. "Are you Jewish?" he asked, still touching me. Uh, no, no, I said, No, I'm not. "It's just that Jewish people have this problem a lot" (poking my back) "They carry a lot of weight here."

This led to him taking me on a tour of the machines that I needed to use to lose my Jewish-American fat. He also said, "You know you walk all hunched over. Like this:" and then showed me how I walked. Yes, I said, I've been told that before. "Did you have an injury in high school?" No, I said, I just sort of walk that way. "Very bad," he said, "You gotta fix that. You gotta walk like someone is pulling your hair from the top. "

He had me doing all these American fat losing exercises with barbells and a lot of "See, you feel that? Right there?" while poking my stomach and love handles. Honestly, I didn't really feel it until he poked me, but was polite and kept saying, Oh certainly, yes, very good. He told me, "I usually do this for Hollywood types" and I wondered if it was different trying to get rid of my American fat than the fat of the Hollywood types.

He disappeared after a time, and I went home, slightly sore. For what it's worth, I've been taking workout advice from everyone and their mother recently. Why not from Freddy? "Yeah, that's right," he said, "Everyone just calls me Freddy."

Advent. Maybe I understood advent better as a kid. It was that calendar that my Grandma sent every year, with the little windows that you would open on December mornings. It was all about waiting and waiting and really understanding expectation. Now? I don't wait for anything. I just do what I want when I want, and if anything, I want time to slow, for tomorrow to not come, for Christmas to stay in the future because it means I have to take some action and I hate taking action these days.
Lastly, I discovered an even worse place than your living room to spill kerosene. That's right, on your groceries in your car. Washing kerosene off of orange juice cartons can only be described with this very useful Japanese phrase 気持ち悪い (ki-mo-chi-wa-ru-i, or as the kids say ki-mo-i). This phrase is one half "feeling" or "emotion" and one half "bad" (in the evil sense, not so much the "snow is bad" sense). I should hire someone to take care of all my kerosene needs in the future.

11 December 2005


It's been a week of coming and going. Hard at work coming to grips with myself in all sorts of ways, I've decided it would probably be best to give up my dream of becoming a bullfighter.

When I was seven or eight and I was upset about something and sitting out on the front porch of the Sleck house and Mrs. Sleck told me that I was insecure. I haven't quite gotten over that yet. This insecurity — which is oddly enough 不安-fu-an- in Japanese, the same feeling I claimed to be suffering from last month — has come up in many ways in the last week. I've decided that I don't want to be an asshole anymore which, unfortunately, means chucking a couple of things, the first being writing letters to Evangelical Christian musicians and calling them shams. No more of that; it's just not good for anyone.

I'm sure other things will follow.

This may mean I will write things that are largely uninteresting and full of shoe-gazing. Please, stop reading now.

Oh wait. Wait, wait. This is a lot of fun here. Me and Neal helped Jim put on a Thanksgiving feast this weekend and it all turned out really great. I took some pictures and in a spirit of sharing and thanks that we often associate with this holiday, I share them with you.

If that wasn't enough, Neal finally got me these pictures from September. As Pynchon wrote: "Fuck the war, we're in love."

06 December 2005

A long week

I spent most of this year preparing for the Japanese Proficiency Test Level II. After twelve months of back-breaking labor, I am finally finished. My trip to Sendai to take the test was a kind of bus-riding epic as the projected four hour ride stretched into eight hours due to a shit oad of snow and some confusing route choices by the driver. I missed my dinner with the friends I was staying with and instead ate a bagged piece of bread that claimed to have "the flavor of cheese." I wasn't consequently in the right test-taking mood, but if I'm anything, I'm resilient.

Being certain for the last month that I was going to fail, I didn't have a whole lot to live up to and although I probably did fail, I did better than I thought I would. I tried hard and I'm beginning to think that's worth a lot more than I have given it credit in the past. As they collected the last answer sheets, I felt a light inside of me that I have missed for a while. I walked outside and we got on the bus and for the next two hours, I felt incredibly content. More than I have in a long, long time.

I wanted to write that out out. I want to remember that moment for at least the rest of the week.

I've also been working out — I gained 5 kg since September and am starting to look pretty hard in areas that I used to be soft. Working out is less about getting sexy although it's certainly about that, and more about getting some control of my body. Also, with winter here, I need something to help me keep my will to live as I wade through a foot of slush to and from my car. My will to live increases to almost 90% after twenty minutes on the treadmill.

Hanging around the men's locker room, I've had an epiphany. The man's body is a beautiful thing, for the most part. It's strong and broad and symmetrical. Broad shoulders are sexy, sure, I think I can understand that. Men's bodies are beautiful until we take our trunks off. And then it's like, everything goes wrong. There is nothing attractive about the penis. The perfect caption for a picture of a penis is: "'Huh?" It's just ugly as sin. So men, let's stay beautiful and keep our trunks on.

Unfortunately, I think I'm going to have to punt on my MA paper about Kanye West. I was trying to put a square peg into a circular hole. West presented too many silly problems, the kind of problems that I didn't really want to talk about like how you explain to a Japanese dude why it's okay for Kanye West to use the n-word in a non-pejorative sense. I don't want to have to explain proper uses of the word "fuck." Instead, I'm going to write about a much more upstanding woman and a much more upstanding song: Madonna's "Hung Up." Certainly, there are many of interesting things to be said.

I've been knocking Christian song lyrics lately, but I remembered one that I really liked and thought I'd share. Rich Mullins who, despite writing his share of dumb shit, managed in a couple of places to nail it. I remembered this song today, "Jacob and Two Women" and the lines: "And her sky is just a petal pressed in a book of a memory/ Of the time he thought he loved her and they kissed."

He manages to really pull something off with this petal. The sky, I could take or leave, but this petal — this kiss kept and held in the memory. A kiss as a petal in book. A kiss that is not a certain love. Sky compressed to a moment or kiss or flower petal.

30 November 2005

Changing the bedding

I made the decision to finally wash my bedding after a year and half of restful bliss. I know what you're saying: "Come on. Another three months wouldn't have hurt," and you're probably right, but I've been noticing that when I get into bed at night, my nose stuffs up immediately. Coincidence? I think not.

Cleaning them was a pain in the ass, but as I pulled them off my bed in the daylight, it became pretty clear that something needed to be done. This is one reason a wife or some sort of live-in consultant might really do me some good. Someone to say, "The substances that involuntarily come out of you on a given good night's sleep are only natural, but you need to imagine your blanket soaking them up day in and day out for a year and half. You do the math, dumb ass."

One good thing about living in Japan as a large Caucasian man is the ability to pull the "I don't speak your language" card when someone comes to my door. This has been coming in handy when someone comes to collect a tax or bill or sell some product like say futons or god. The Jehovah's Witnesses sell god here too. I suppose the word "sell" is strong. It's more like a god give away and all you have to do is commit to some meetings and not doing some things that you might normally do like, say, celebrate Easter. The last time they came I just looked very confused and said in my best broken Japanese, "I don't understand your culture or your language." They bowed and apologized and left me alone, and I thought, Well, there we are.

Turns out the Niigata JWs have an English-speaking pinch hitter that they can send in at times like this. He's a very nervous man, but sincere, I'll give him that. He gave me his card and a magazine with a picture of a Hispanic, a black woman, and an Asian — the white people were noticeably absent. I told him I didn't have time to chat which was a lie because all I have is time. He left and I went back to dicking around.

I have of course wondered "What does God require of Us?" and this magazine appears to be wondering the same thing as this is the question printed across the front of it. Turns out that God hates my fat ass, but I'm sort of like, that's a no-brainer. What's not to hate. You might not be surprised to hear that God hates smoking as that's understandable, but apparently God also hates blood transfusions. That's right: "Remember. Jehovah requires that we abstain from blood." God also hates the Trinity and apparently style because all these people in the magazine look like they were dressed sometime in 1995.

I've thrown the magazine away and recommitted to not answering the door.

Meanwhile, Donald Rumsfeld, everyone's favorite lovable sadistic ass, is at it again. Keeping up with what's hot and what's not, our Secretary of Defense decided that the word "insurgent" is out of style because it sounds sort of like we're talking about fighters that have a legitimate cause. No, "insurgents" will not do — from now on we can use "Enemies of the legitimate Iraqi government." That's nice, but it's kinda cumbersome. Maybe we could think of something a little simpler. You know, like the same idea but in one word. Oh wait, we DO have a word that means exactly that. It's "insurgent." Look it up — that's what it means.

Another letter? That's right, this one to Mr. Scott Hodge of www.scotthodge.org:

Alright, Mr. Hodge, I will take this on. Briefly, about me: My name is Stephen. I live in Niigata City in Niigata Prefecture in Japan. I teach English at a private high school. I have lived in Japan for just over two years, originally coming as a kind of English teaching missionary with the Evangelical Free Church. After deciding that there were big problems with not only the idea of missions, but also my faith, I decided to become a teacher. I am also a graduate student in an open distance program through the University of Birmingham (UK) and am studying Applied Linguistics. I would like to continue life in Asia teaching, writing, and loving my lady who I hope will be, in the not too distance future, also my wife.

I am a Christian (as I told a Jehovah's Witness that came to my door today), but I also have rather serious problems with the idea of Christianity and would say that being a Christian (for what I can see right now) means believing everything Jesus said about himself was true and hoping in resurrection. In the meantime, I think helping the poor and the loving others is pretty damn important, more so than signing a belief statement.

I also am prone to use vulgar words and if this offends you, let me know and I'll stop. I just think "pretty damn important" sounds so much better than "pretty important" or "pretty freaking important" or any other way you might say it.

How did I find your site? It was all a part of my David Crowder obsession that lasted most of last week and seems to be carrying on into this week as well. You must have come up in a search or something. Or maybe I came across your podcast first upon searching about Christianity. Anyway, it doesn't matter:

Okay, so I have questions for you Mr. Hodge about Starbucks and consumerism and the church and evangelicalism and America. But I will limit my question this week to Mr. Crowder (as, like I said, I'm sort of obsessed). You seem to be a fan of his and I'm curious, why do you like his music? I don't remember what exactly you said on your podcast, but something to the extent of the CD being great or powerful or something like that.

I'll attach my letter to Mr. Crowder to the bottom in case you haven't read it. I won't mince words: I think Mr. Crowder's music is pap at best and very dangerous at worst. Why? Because it teaches us to shut off our minds, I think, and feel something (something?). Granted, I'm all about feeling, I love to feel. And I think the greatest art gets you to feel. But feeling in great art is always backed up by substance. You read a line of Faulkner and are amazed at his command of language and image, but you dig a little bit and you find even more. And more and more. It unfolds in front of you. I have trouble thinking that about a song like "You are holy, you are God, I worship you." There is nothing being said (I don't think).

Forget what I think though, what do you think?

This may seem kind of combative and if it is, really I'm very sorry. You certainly don't have to respond. But I am really, honestly looking for someone to explain this to me.

Also, I'll probably post some if not all of this letter on my site, but if that weirds you out, I can not do that too.

Mr. Hodge, you seem like a good man and I am eager to hear what you have to say.


Finally, as an afterthought: I think in a contest between Hussein and Rumsfeld, Hussein would easily win as the world's most lovable sadistic ass. Why? Because he's wacky. And he has a beard. That's what these sadistic guys need to understand. You can get away with anything if you're wacky enough.

28 November 2005


to me

thanks very much for your email. i share your thoughts. i regret that you are not more familiar with our greater body of work. indeed the argument of kingdom as empty imagery is a valided in reproach. i am very much aware of the difficulty and appreciate your insights and encouragement. since you are less aware of our platform and agenda i've included a small portion of a "press release" that i wrote regarding our latest recording.

The making of a collision or (3 + 4 = 7)
By David Crowder
It all started with a book from the early 60s acquired by my wife from an antique shop in downtown Chicago. That, and a conversation with a very intelligent acquaintance of mine who is currently finishing his PhD work in super string theory, and who happened to mention in very whimsical tone one sunny Texas afternoon that we were, and I quote, "?walking around in the sky?" He said this while pointing to nothing in particular, "?you see, there is ground and there is sky and we are somewhere in between. We're walking around in it. Our feet are on the ground but. . ." Wait. I'm getting ahead of myself.

Like I said, it started with a book: "The Story of Atomic Energy" by Laura Fermi (decd. 1977) who was peace activist and wife of famed physicist Enrico Fermi (decd. 1954), with whom the atomic age arrived. The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which is home to the most powerful atom collider in the world, is located just outside of Chicago. I found it fascinating that my wife would procure this particular book from a shop in this particular city. The book's cover is pale green, definitive 60s green if you ask me, with what one would assume to be the representation of an atom in a complimentary 60s pale yellow set against it. It is the familiar depiction of a nucleus and some number of electrons swirling about. I was immediately enthused by this icon as I have an affinity toward semiotics and symbols and iconography and drew satisfaction that a book about energy had a representation symbolizing energy on its cover. No words, just pale yellow on pale green and through symbol I understood that energy was inside.

And here is why this simple thing would inspire a collection of songs: this model is improper in its depiction of particle matter. We know in fact that electrons do not circle in elliptical paths around a nucleus. And this is the difficulty with symbols. They are never quite proper. They are always a bit broken. And as I held this book in my hands, frozen in the middle of an intersection in downtown Chicago, while this inadequate drawing roused simultaneously both hope of discovery and reminiscence of destruction in my chest I thought, "This is the essence of art. We are creating broken containers."

Well, yes, I suppose so. But that wasn't really my point. Regardless, I'm tired of being an asshole:

Thanks for responding to my e-mail. I agree very much with the idea that artists are essentially trying to say what cannot be said and will always be limited to symbols that are inadequate or broken. I admire your attempt to keep creating art even while understanding its limitations. I suspect that the drive in artists to create art is insatiable even if it is futile... I hope that art is not futile, that it can still change hearts and minds. I suspect that it can. I admire your decision to publically expose your art and take the risks that doing so entails.

Thanks, and again, best of luck in your endeavors,

23 November 2005


I took another practice test for the Japanese Proficiency Exam and gave up halfway through the reading section. It isn't going to happen because I just don't have the vocabulary to do it. Giving up causes a couple of problems, mainly that I feel like I wasted a year getting ready for the damn test and will have not a whole lot to show for it.

I spilled about 500 ml of kerosene of my tatami. Kerosene is awful enough and it gives me a headache just in the heater, but now spilled in the tatami, I'm completely fucked. I spent the whole day airing out my apartment which would have been fine if it it wasn't fifty-five degrees outside and raining.

Today, during a leadership meeting for a Bible study group that I am allegedly helping to lead — although my agnostic tendencies aren't helping anything — I was whining about my Japanese ability and Emiko said that she thought it was getting better. Sure, I said, when I'm telling you what happened in my day. That's easy. But when I have to start talking about my feelings? Forget about it. She was confused, Feelings? Why do you have to-? and then she stopped and said, Oh, right, right.

The right, right, refers to Yoko and it's hard to talk about all the inner-workings and bullshit that goes on in my head during a day in English — but in Japanese? It's a fucking mess. I was trying to tell Yoko that I had given up on trying to pass the test because I realized that I just didn't have the vocabulary. She tried to encourage me to study more and assured me that I would be okay. And I said, again, that I wouldn't be okay and it had nothing to do with studying more or less, that it had to do with being able to retain enough vocabulary which has nothing to do with studying. But that didn't seem to make clear what I wanted and she just kept encouraging me to try harder.

We hung out with one of her friends from Tokyo and I was like telling all these dumb stories that, when I thought about them in retrospect made no sense in English and probably made less sense in Japanese. For example: "When I live in Fukuo- when I was lived in Fukuoka, I was-I had a woman, I mean, there was a woman that was my mother. My Japanese mother. And she was good English. So she, we talk in English. So we went to Sumo, right? And we are at Sumo and she say, she says to me: There is a--no, sorry, I say to her, I say, That man is bald. I mean, that wrestler, that Sumo wrestler is bald. And she say, That rude." Pause, no reaction. "She said, That's rude. The thing that I said. It was rude." Still no reaction.

I promised myself, it will get better as I get better at the language.

The following is a letter I wrote to David Crowder:

Mr. Crowder:

I stumbled across your blog this last week and have been trying to get a couple of questions answered by someone from the CCM community so I thought I would take a swing at writing you. To be honest, I don't really know that much about your music and saw you for the first time on a DVD at a church service in Korea. I guess that makes me a poor judge of your music, but since my question is more about words and artistic integrity, maybe my slim knowledge will suffice.

I also had heard about the accident that happened with your pastor and wanted to express my sympathy. I was reading comments on your blog and thought it might be frustrating to have people say things like, "Life is hard, but God is good" in times like these. I've always found those kind of statements to be trite and unhelpful. I pray that there are enough people around you willing to sit and say nothing.

I suppose what follows is significantly less important.

I'm interested in words as I suppose you, as an artist, are as well. I am particularly interested in how we can use words without meaning to illicit response that is divorced from an intellectual connection to or understanding of the word uttered. That is to say, we use symbols that, upon investigation, are empty.

This happens all around me, I am realizing. As an example, I mention a band like Slipknot saying something (as they do on one of their records) pointless and empty like "I want to slit your throat and fuck the wound," when in fact they have no intention of doing either of those things. They are, in fact, only saying it because the words illicit a reaction: a negative one among parents and a positive, aggressive one from youth. The result is more records sold without any information transmitted and no real artistic expression.

I am beginning to wonder whether or not Christian songleaders and Christian artists are doing the same thing with different words and for different purposes. Christian artists repeat phrases like, "There is no one like you" or "You are God" or "You are Holy," that don't convey real information so much emotionally groom listeners. This, of course, is common in any kind of music--the Beatles repeating "All you need is love" and so forth.

The problem comes when we start to think about the words that we use. I'll use your song about Jesus coming as a King. You sing, "Here is our God, Here is King," but I'm not sure that anyone who sings with you about the joy of a King coming has any understanding of what it means to live in an absolute monarchy where the coming of the King meant something. For the people of Israel, this meant any number of incredibly important things. But I am not an Israelite and I'm beginning to wonder why we have to cling to what is essentially a dead symbol to talk about God. The symbol works not because we understand it, but because we have been taught to think that it is a majestic thing, not because we know it from experience.

This disconnect can all be circumvented if we aren't asked to think about what it means for a King to come and I think that's the problem. We aren't being asked to think about what we're saying. We're being asked to feel, and words are just catalysts to feelings. Maybe we could argue that we need to recapture the world of the text, but that seems to imply that the world of the text was in some way better than the world we have now. It seems to me that the text only uses these symbols because they worked in the time they were written. If the text was written at a different time, I doubt we'd be talking about Jesus as King or throne rooms or servants. Those seem to be symbols that help people at the given time understand God better.

And that's fine, I think. As long as we don't think we have to in some way become 1st Century Jews to understand God. If that's true, then we have a big problem.

I guess I'm wondering if we can't do better, if we can't help create a discourse in our music for the gospel, for God, that fits into a 21st century words, images and symbols. That we can do for the gospel what Paul did for the Romans: made is accessible by using words that, when thought about, only grow deeper because we can understand them both intellectually and experientially. I think starting with the words of our music might be a good start. When we start to leave dead symbols and move towards a gospel that converses with the world as it is, I think we will start to move forward artistically and intellectually.

So, yeah, that's what I wanted to say. What do you think?

Thanks for your time. I wish you the best with your music and art.

Stephen Pihlaja
Niigata City, Japan

19 November 2005

Bowling alley sign

Today on the treadmill, I ran 5 km in 30 minutes and 17 seconds. For those of you not familiar with the metric system or how fat my ass is, it's quite an accomplishment.

What happens to us has so much power over how we act in the future and what we become. For starters: I've been thinking about how I learned about sex through pornography and how that might be linked to whatever I think about sex now. The point is, We may be through with the past, but the past isn't through with us.

We Christians don't have sex. Every man I know "struggles" — and now I strike that word from my vocabulary — with masturbation, but Christian unmarried couples double over in guilt from a hand on a breast. One is worse than the other, don't lie yourself. We are hypocrites, all of us. We think that the consequences are greater for having sex than living in pornographic fantasyland. So one gets a hand on the shoulder and a, "Well, I'll be praying for you about that one" and the other gets you thrown into hell. Get married early, hold it until the wedding night, and find out that your years of individual sexual deviancy have fucked you over. I'm not impressed.

We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us: I was studying today in an all-night diner and had this sudden overwhelming sense that Yoko was going to come with another man, that she was cheating on me. I watched the door all night long. No reason to feel this way at all, except that the last woman left me for another man. I used to do the same thing for my last two years in the states: every time I was in Chicago — watch doors, feel unstable in public places. Apples and oranges — two worlds apart, two entirely different people, two entirely different times of life, but the same feeling. The past isn't through with us.

Laugh at this if you want, I don't care: Conor Oberst has sung, "How grateful I was then to be part of the mystery, to love and be loved. Let's just hope that is enough." And I think that might really be the point of all this — to love and to be loved. I'm trying to decide if there needs to be God for that to make sense. I don't know, really. I'd like to think so, but the agonistic me has other plans. We'll see who wins.

Things from around

I, for one, love all the odd opportunities for voyeurism that blogs provide. My current favorite is the blog of JapaJim, a guy I met a while ago and whose blogs provide the most entertainment for your dollar, I think. He doesn't write often, but I would recommend his latest under the 2005 heading. I was also reading a couple of blogs a while ago by two people whose marriage was dissolving. It was incredible to read and try to see what was really happening past the blogged attempts to make everything sound okay. Anyway, they seemed to have worked things out resulting in less interesting reading. Don't get me wrong, certainly, I'm happy for them personally, but, you know, I miss the drama.

Blogs are great because they consistently prove that perception of events varies greatly depending on who is telling a story. If you can read two people writing about the same event in the case of a couple, it doesn't get any better than that.

Donnie Darko is giving me considerable trouble as I try to go to sleep at night and the wind and the rain are giving me considerable trouble in wanting to continue living.

I've been teaching a class of older folks that I refer to as my *take-a-break-from-your-spouse* class. I was really frustrated initially, but after I lowered the bar significantly and stopped trying to teach anything, it's gotten a hell of a lot better. We had a really, really good time last night. Almost too much fun.

But now? Now, I need to lay my soul on the altar of Japanese Proficiency Test Level II.

14 November 2005

Pulp fictions

 JULES You ain't gonna do a goddamn thing,
 now hang back and shut the fuck up.
 Besides, I ain't givin' it to him.
 I'm buyin' somethin' for my money.
 Wanna know what I'm buyin' Ringo?


 JULES Your life. I'm givin' you that money
 so I don't hafta kill your ass. You
 read the Bible?

 PUMPKIN Not regularly.

 JULES There's a passage I got memorized.
 Ezekiel 25:17. "The path of the
 righteous man is beset on all sides
 by the inequities of the selfish and
 the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is
 he who, in the name of charity and
 good will, shepherds the weak through
 the valley of the darkness. For he
 is truly his brother's keeper and
 the finder of lost children. And I
 will strike down upon thee with great
 vengeance and furious anger those
 who attempt to poison and destroy my
 brothers. And you will know I am the
 Lord when I lay my vengeance upon
 you." I been sayin' that shit for
 years. And if you ever heard it, it
 meant your ass. I never really
 questioned what it meant. I thought
 it was just a coldblooded thing to
 say to a motherfucker 'fore you popped
 a cap in his ass. But I saw some
 shit this mornin' made me think twice.
 Now I'm thinkin', it could mean you're
 the evil man. And I'm the righteous
 man. And Mr. .45 here, he's the
 shepherd protecting my righteous ass
 in the valley of darkness. Or it
 could be you're the righteous man
 and I'm the shepherd and it's the
 world that's evil and selfish. I'd
 like that. But that shit ain't the
 truth. The truth is you're the weak.
 And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But
 I'm tryin'. I'm tryin' real hard to
 be a shepherd.

13 November 2005

"I want a divorce."

Consider this:

Man to his wife, "I will not cheat on you this week."
Wife to man, "I want a divorce."

Now, why? The man is pledging his fidelity. Why does his wife want to divorce him?

Because when she hears, "I will not cheat on you this week," she unconsciously adds, "But next week I may very well cheat on you." The man's statement (or should we say, the words of his statement) are really an honorable, loyal thing to say. But somehow, for any native speaker of our fine language, we consider it a dishonorable thing to say. Isn't that incredible?

Or this-A priest says to a man and a woman (or a man and a man, if you're in Vermont), "I now PRONOUNCE you man and wife (or man and man, or wife and wife)." What is it about the pronouncement of the priest that is able to create a union? Or are the words pointlessly ceremonial and something else is creating the union? Can a union be created without words? How about the naming of a child?

I read (by mistake) the most fabulous treatment of Iago's use of questioning in "Othello."  Malcolm Coulthard, the author of the text "An Introduction to Discourse Analysis" from which the essay came and a member of the faculty at my university, ends the essay and the book with these words: "As you close this book you might like to speculate on the function of full stops. Are they perhaps interaction points, places where the writer thinks the reader needs to stop and ask questions about the previous sentence, questions whose range I initially restrict by the structuring of my argument and which I subsequently answer in the next or later sentences?
But now, for me,
the rest is silence."

As I suspected, linguistics has so much to say to the arts, for the novelist and the poet.

Yoko and I celebrated first "official" two months together eating Thai food at the top of the second tallest building in Niigata then slow dancing under a street light on the bank of the Shinano River, me singing  "Something" while she held so tightly to my sweater and laughed into my neck. We have the most quirky energy, a kind of electric, sexual humor.

We were in the bookstore and she was looking for a new schedule book so I wandered to the children's rack to look through the book "オッパイの秘密” or "The Secret of the Breast." The secret of the breast is that it creates milk.

The secret of my breasts? They're getting bigger and harder. Like a gorilla.

12 November 2005

Pat Robertson Condemns Local English Teacher

Pat Robertson Condemns Local English Teacher
Niigata City, Japan

Pat Robertson made a rare appearance in rural Japan this week to publically condemn local English teacher, Stephen "Steve-o" Pihlaja.
"God is tolerant and loving, but we can't keep sticking our finger in his eye forever," Robertson said. "If Stephen has future financial problems or erectial disfunction, I recommend he call on Charles Darwin. Maybe Darwin can help him."
Mr. Pihlaja was puzzled by Mr. Robertson's comments.
"-the hell? Seriously? He said that? In Matsuhama? Like over by the Save-on?" Mr. Pihlaja said during a telephone interview. "Hold on--I mean, like, what? Seriously? And people actually, you know, listen to what this guy says or whatever? Wow. I mean, I'm just like, wow.

06 November 2005

Good and pissed off

If you wanna get good and pissed off I encourage you to check out the Frontline report on the US use of torture in our "war on terror." Seriously, we're all going to hell for this, no two ways about it. It was another good reminder of why war always creates two bad guys, never anyone doing good. We are so shocked when people call us the Great Satan, but after watching some of this, you might be inclined to agree with them. So the Geneva Conventions don't apply to terrorist suspects because they are "the worst of the worst". Seriously, Donald Rumsfeld you sadistic asshole, think about that statement for a second. Why don't we kick the shit out of child molesters and rapists. Why don't we make them sit in stress positions for hours and hours on end. Why don't we break chemical lights over their bodies.

Oh, right: because child molesters don't have "actionable intelligence." But the "terrorists" (code word for "some Iraqi dude who was in the wrong place at the wrong time") chained to the ground, covered in their own shit, hovering near death from hypothermia — all this while being attacked by a muzzled dog and beaten by a bunch of redneck bastards who are full of their pent-up aggression from being in a war in the first place. They're going to be able to tell you exactly what you want.

The righteous indignation of this administration towards anyone they define as a "terrorist" is ridiculous. Since when does the behavior of others dictate my behavior.

Today, I have a genuine day of off. Bring on the Yoko and Ally McBeal, I say.

I have some thoughts about sex that I've been gathering, but they're still, you know, incubating. Something along the line of how ridiculous it is to exchange a healthy sexual relationship with another person and instead engage in all sorts of individual sexual delinquency because it's, in the Christian culture, less serious of a problem. But like I said, incubating.

Now, where is that peanut I dropped.

04 November 2005

Whenever my father goes for a walk

Today, in class, one of the kids translated a sentence as: "Whenever my father goes for a walk, he does it with the dog." I was trying best not to laugh, but I was unable to suppress it.

This after yesterday while playing tennis, Yoko says to me in English, "Do you have balls?" Yes, I said, I have balls. She thought about that for a second and then smiled and said, "Do you have extra balls?" I said, No, I don't think so.

Then while we were watching Ally McBeal and eating animal crackers, I noticed that one of the animals, the rooster, had the word "COCK" written on it. Yoko said I should call the company and explain the problem.

02 November 2005


Well, so it's another turn in the Dude's road to, you know, adulthood. That's right, I talked to a financial adviser for the first time in my life. The conversation went something like this:

Stephen: Yeah, so I was starting to think about investing because basically I like having money but not working.
Financial Advisor: What are you long term goals for your money?
Stephen: Uh, I mean, I'd like more of it, I guess. That's the point of investing, right?
Financial Advisor: How long do you plan to stay in Japan?
Stephen: Well, I mean, for at least the next three years. Pretty long term I guess.
Financial advisor: Long term? Do you want to invest long term?
Stephen: Uh, I guess so. Long term is what, like 5 years?
Financial Advisor: Usually long term means 15 to 30 years.
Stephen: Wow.
Financial Advisor: You want to retire, right?
Stephen: Retire?
Financial Advisor: Are you going to get married?
Stephen: Well, I mean, I really like this girl that I'm going out with —

And it went on like this for like 20 minutes. I guess if I make a simple monthly investment for the next 30 years, I will have a million dollars. A million dollars. Maybe I will retire. Who knows.

All this is not nearly as pressing as the fact that I fell off my Scooter yesterday on my head going about 30 km/hr. Scared the SHIT out of me. Seriously. I think I'm okay. I keep forgetting to my last name.

I'm trading watching Ally McBeal with my lady for work tonight. How shitty is that.

22 October 2005

The evolution of Christianity

This has been running around my head for a while. I'm sure other people have already realized this, but it's my first shot.

It's occurring to me that on of the most important things that ever happened in the evolution of Christianity was the letter of Romans and maybe just the strong influence of Paul, period. I've been saying to folks how odd I find it that you could ostensibly get rid of the first-hand accounts of Jesus's teaching and still have a very functional Christian religion. In fact, I doubt anything would change. This has been striking me as terribly odd especially as I read the words of Jesus which seem much more mystic than the hard line, clear theology of Paul. It seems that through this letter, Christianity was not only made accessible to Roman culture, but became marked by the same thought-processes as the Romans. Christianity became a Western religion rather than a queer off-shoot of Judaism that no one was really clear about.

This bothers me more than it probably should. I've been wondering what would have happened if the message of Jesus had moved East instead of West and what would have happened if a bulk of the Pauline writing was replaced by a similar figure from, say, a Buddhist heritage. I guess this couldn't work in that Paul's understanding of Jewish thought helped him make links between messianic writing and Jesus. Still though.

We like Paul so much because his writing is relatively clear compared to Jesus who, if you read without the aid of the back half of the New Testament, is really bizarre, unclear, and mysterious. It's so much easier to show someone the "Roman Road", the typical blueprint for "sharing" the gospel than to say, Read what Jesus says and do what he says. Because what will you get from Jesus. Love God, love others, love the poor, and follow me. We can't very well tell people to do that. What kind of faith statement does that produce anyway. I don't want to be critical of Paul just yet and am holding my tongue from saying that Romans is the worst thing that could have happened to the teaching of Jesus. But I'm beginning to get more frustrated with the hierarchy of Paul over Jesus.

Yoko and I watched "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (the old one) tonight and the shit that comes out of Wonka's mouth is just fabulous.

21 October 2005

"Insurgents" or "terrorists"

I haven't kept up my linguistics dialog as I have been too busy reading to comment on any of it. I am finishing the first part of the written discourse unit and let me tell you, it's like the sky opened up and rained Skittles or men or something. Did I ever write about dancing with some gay Filipinos to the song "It's Raining Men"? Now that was surreal.

Anyway, maybe some of you have been saying, "Sure, discourse analysis is sexy, I'll admit that. But what's the point talking about words? Seems like a big fat waste of time, if you ask me or my cousin Kip. Now, let's go have a beer." Certainly, I'd like to have a drink with your cousin, but I think you might be a little misguided about our friend. She is very helpful and useful and not just for intellectual masturbation, although I love intellectual masturbation as much as the next person. In fact, discourse analysis helps us all put our finger on that "intangible" thing that makes you think, "Now, that comment sounds terribly racist, sexist, or stupid, but I can't really tell why" or "That newspaper story seems really contrived, but I can't really tell why" or "The language of story seems really worn out. Why is that?"  Discourse analysis comes in and says, "Let's stop bullshitting and talk clause relation."

I've been reading a lot of articles in which Feminists or lit. critics take swings at their given targets by criticizing the language used instead of the idea or argument. A quick example: Are the fighters opposing the new Iraqi government "insurgents" or "terrorists"? You tell me what word you use and I'll tell you your political affiliation. Were the events of September 11th a "crime" or an act of "war"? You get people saying the right word and you can do just about anything. I like to use the word "ass" to refer to the smell of my apartment. Think about the difference between, "My apartment smells like ass" vs. "My apartment smells bad."

Maybe the example wasn't so hot. At least not as hot as dancing with gay Filipino men.

18 October 2005

Thai Enlightenment Tour, Day 3

Well, my time of enlightenment has just about come to an end. I've learned a couple of things, mostly about haggling for prices and avoiding prostitutes. I learned some things about not so legit goods as well: If the price of a legit pair of shoes is $150, you can expect to pay about one fifth of that on the "black" market. But if the price of shoes is $90, you again will expect to pay one-fifth of that price. This baffles me because both of the pairs of shoes are clearly not real so it shouldn't matter what they cost in the real world, right? Wrong, my man, wrong. This is troubling me because I could only find some knock off pumas that fit me and puma is an expensive brand I guess.

Also, I just found out there is an exit tax of $15. Bastards.

My room ended up being cheaper than planned though so that's cool. It all evens out.

The buddha here look different than the buddha in Japan. Like the buddha here has a look on his face like he knows something that you don't. I guess he sort of does, but it's kind of creeping me out. I don't want to invite that buddha into my heart.

Tomorrow, Japan will swallow me whole again and I say, go ahead, Japan. I love you too.

17 October 2005

Thai Enlightenment Tour, Day 2

After my update last night, my Enlightenment Tour took me to the veranda of the hostel where I shot the shit with a guy from India for like an hour and got sort of drunk. I didn't intend to, really, but rum and coke is too easy to drink. The Indian asked me if I was an "expat" or a "sexpat" in this dizzying, kinetic city. I quickly answered that I wasn't interested in the sex and he said that was good. Look, but don't get involved.

I went to bed sort of worried about all of that, what with this being the sex capital of Southeast Asia or whatever. What, I thought, will become of me amid all this sin and sadness.

When I awoke, a little hungover and an hour early — it took me four hours to figure out that Bangkok is actually two hours behind Japan right now. I was in this huge weekend market, looking for the snakes, but I didn't find any snakes. Instead, there were very kind, thoroughly depressed squirrels. The market was nice, but not nearly as cheap as I thought it was going to be. I didn't buy anything except some hot, cheap green curry.

I took a nap in the park then went down to the Times Square of Bangkok sure to encounter herds of prostitutes there. Rather, I found ice cream — ice cream and one of the biggest malls I have ever been to in my whole life. I decided to see a movie too, a Thai movie keeping with the whole enlightenment theme. The movie was really good, but it got out late and I was all worried that I was going to miss the last train as I had to transfer at a place I hadn't transferred at. I got home safely and am avoiding drinking the rum and coke in favor of going to bed soon.

Globalism has had such an effect on countries like our dear Thailand. I don't think I'm ready to elaborate on this just yet, but maybe after I think it over a little more. I will say this: fat, ugly American men are free to find gorgeous, lively Thai women to hold their hands and flirt with them in public. Asshats, I say. The both of them.

No prostitution to speak of so far — only one man dressed as a woman. I guess if you aren't looking for it, you don't have to deal with it. We can all eat at Burger King and forget that there are children in slavery here.

I miss Yoko almost as much as I miss Tom.

Thai Enlightenment Tour, Late Day 2

The Buddha is everywhere in Thailand — everywhere but my heart.

I couldn't see the Grand Palace because my clothes weren't "polite" enough. Tell me, does his majesty shower in pants?

I walked and walked.

I hate haggling for shoes, but I like having shoes.

And I was wrong: I miss Tom almost as much as I miss Yoko.

16 October 2005

Thailand Elightenment Tour, Early Day 1

I am now in Bangkok, full of joy and giggles and all that. I have not as of yet a) gotten sick due to drinking the water although give me a couple of hours or b) been propositioned for sex by a gay man posing as a woman. Neither of these things are really a part of my goals for enlightenment in Bangkok, but we'll see how things progress.

The place I am staying at is pretty nice — I'm using the internet so I can't really complain. It's a little more expensive than I had hoped: $7 a night rather than $5, but this is marginal. I have my dorm room to myself more or less.

Tokyo was fabulous again. I got to Shinjuku at five yesterday morning and just sort of watched the whole city wake up from a top the McDonalds. The trains don't run that late in the city so that early in the morning, groups of people are still stumbling home and whatnot. A kind of hungover beauty.

Yoko asked me if I was looking for a wife in Thailand and I said that I wasn't. I think my international wife search committee has stopped taking applications, at least for the time being. We'll see how things pan out.

For now, there is hot sweaty Bangkok to wander about, so please, hold my seat until I get back.

13 October 2005

Deleted things

All sorts of things have happened the last couple of days, but I haven't had the heart to write about them. I'm reading about genre analysis which is interesting enough and also starting to think about my first paper for my first MA module. I think things will come together by the end of the month.

My dad's coming to Japan for the third time and bringing my bike. He will also be the first member of my family to meet Yoko, and maybe the only member to meet her before things get any more serious in all the most wicked and terrible ways.

Speaking of wicked and terrible ways, I'm going to Thailand tomorrow to see, you know, what Thai people are up to. I'm staying next to this weekend market that sells snakes and chickens. So I might buy a chicken.

Which brings me to a new hypothesis that McDonalds is screwing poor people, hardcore. Before I talk about the reasons I think this, I need to do a quick survey: did you enjoy going to McDonalds when you were an impressionable young lad or lass? Why?

(Rant about Fundamentalist Christians and evolution deleted after further thought.)

(Rant about Oprah deleted after further thought.)

Now, I'm not sure why I care so much about that.

I'm trying to decide what hill I'm willing to die on.

09 October 2005

Stephen needs an advocate

I had a hankering to make a list and Lutz came to the rescue: a list of things Stephen needs from Google:

1. Stephen needs an advocate at school to work with him on at least two occasions.
2. Stephen needs a wordprocessor.
3. Stephen needs a working plan that will be straightforward and easy to implement.
4. Stephen Needs Some Success.
5. Stephen needs to unravel the secrets and disturbances of his life.
6. Stephen needs shooting.
7. Stephen needs the assistance of a good civilian lawyer.
8. Stephen needs structure and direction.
9. Stephen needs round-the clock medical care.
10. Stephen needs constant attention and my parents always have to chase after him.
11. Stephen needs to take Warfarin every day.
12. Stephen needs all the love and support he can get.
13. Stephen needs a "street person" like Bloom the bourgeoisie, whose home is as much on the avenues and pubs of Dublin as in the house of Eccles Street.
14. Stephen needs to tell us very much here.
15. Stephen needs a bottle opener, quick!
16. Stephen needs a ride and needs a room.
17. Stephen needs to look after his skin.
18. Stephen needs Q-tips.
19. Stephen needs to think about his physical presence whilst singing so that the communication is complete.
20. Stephen needs a bit more time to prove he's as good as Ronan.
21. Stephen needs to look a little deeper than 1950's Aramaic assumptions.
22. Stephen needs help in geometry.
23. Stephen needs me here to take care of him.
24. Methinks Stephen needs to brush up on both reading and spelling.
25. Stephen needs to do it.
26. Stephen needs to be seen by a doctor for clinical depression.
27. Stephen needs help in boarding any vessel.

05 October 2005

My readings this week

My readings this week have been on cohesion in texts and how we acheive it through any number of rather complicated means that we take for granted as native speakers (most of us). You start thinking about the circus of assumptions and connections and inferences you make just by reading a simple sentence and before you know it, you're really impressed with the human race in general. Well, the parts of the humans race that have written languages. The rest of those illiterate losers can go screw themselves as far as I'm concerned.

In my classes this week, I've been really amazed at how difficult (and ambigious) pronouns are. Observe:

"I pulled out a lavender handkerchief and handed it to her. 'Did Grandma ever tell you the story behind this one?' I asked. 'It was one of her favorites.'"

We had a good discussion about the meaning of "it" in the last line. Does "it" refer to the story or the handkerchief? The Japanese teacher said "it" referred to the story. I argued that is referred to the handkerchief. But what made me think that?

I think the phrase "this one" helps us understand that the "it" is clearly referring to the handkerchief. We generally try to avoid two ambigious pronouns because of the confusion it causes. In this case, it seems to me that if "this one" referred to the hnadkerchief while "it" referred to the story, it would be a mistake on the part of the author because it is natural to assume that "it" is the handkerchief.

It's sort of like this sentence, "Bill had the ball and Jim was on the other side of the room. He threw the ball to him," where even though their is a double pronoun usage, we are able to deduce their meaning from the situation. Of course, if we said, "Bill and Jim were playing catch. He threw the ball to him" we would have all sorts of problems in figuring out what was happening.

::Stephen steps off linguistics turtle::

You know, GW had it right on with John Roberts. That dude was sexy. The sexiest Supreme Court Justice in a long time. But this new what's-her-face? Not doing it for me, George. Couldn't we just send John Roberts through the whole thing again and just give him two votes? That seems like the easiest and sexiest solution.

Also, for some reason, my ability to speak Japanese in the last three weeks has just bottomed out. I'm like an idiot all over again. It's particularly frustrating as now I have a really, really good reason to have to speak Japanese everyday (yeah, she's great, isn't she?), but for some reason I can't understand anything. Please, someone, get me a hormone shot.

03 October 2005

Letter to Derek Webb

In the midst of working on that essay for Mr. Hunt, I took Tim up on his challenge to write to this CCM artist, Derek Webb. Read the lyrics to his song here. What follows is my letter to him:

Mr. Webb:

I should say first that I have never actually listened to any of your music and I suppose that this makes me a poor critic of your work. But after a friend posted lyrics to your song “Wedding Dress” on his blog and I made a critical comment about your lyrics, he suggested I write you myself. To be frank, I would rather not write this letter, but it doesn’t make much sense to simply bad-mouth your song and not take the opportunity to hear from you as an artist. What I originally wrote on my friend's blog follows:

"I find it interesting that Christian literature and art likes to champion the idea of the 'whore' or the loose woman, as opposed to the loose man. This kind of thinly-veiled misogyny isn't helpful for our discourse at all, I don't think. It may convey an idea that we (vaguely) understand (although I haven't met a lot of prostitutes lately), but at what cost. We may glean a meaning about Christ, but at the expense of taking in a thought (conscientiously or unconscientiously) that is damaging towards our discourse about women. Please, let's not be haters.

Also, does this dude really feel this way, or is he just pulling some idea out of the box that is vaguely 'Biblical' to sell records? There's not an original thought here, best I can see. And that tells me a brother is trying to make some money by cashing in on what people think they know about the text."

In retrospect, I think I regretted saying that this song was written to sell records because I certainly have no idea why you write or don't write songs. So I apologize for that. As far as my complaint about the content of your lyrics, I suppose if I knew I was going to send this to you, I would have said it differently, but this is all a practice in owning what I say about others so I will have to let it stand.

I think I want to restate my complaint in a little bit more of an intellectual manner and hopefully, if you have the time, interest, or whatever, hear your response. I will drop my complaint about misogyny because that is a larger question I have with the text and isn't, in retrospect, the main problem I had with the song.

You may remember at the end of the 90's and the early '00's a heavy metal band from Iowa called Slipknot. Slipknot appeared right around the time when people were starting to not be afraid of Marilyn Manson anymore. Slipknot wore (and maybe still do wear) masks and were all-around a frightening group of young men. The kind of people you might avoid at the mall.

I found the lyrics to the second song off of their second album to be particularly interesting in understanding the band and the genre of music in general. In "Disasterpiece," the lead singer shouts, "I wanna slit your throat and fuck the wound." I remember being initially repulsed by this lyric and wondering how the band could get away with singing this. What had the world come to?

Of course, the members of Slipknot don't actually engage in this sort of activity (as far as I know they are only as bad as your average rock star), but Slipknot understands that by saying this sort of ridiculously violent nonsense, they are able to turn parents against their music which in turn causes teenagers to want their music even more which in turn sells records. None of the members of Slipknot, I imagine, are interested in killing anyone. They are interested in selling records and tailor their music to cause controversy not out of artistic integrity, but market savy. They are excellent marketers.

This is a really round-about way to get to what I want to talk about, but I think the point is that artistic integrity suffers when artists choose to lean on images, phrases, or thoughts that are known to cause the intended reaction as opposed to honestly trying to create art that is true to themselves or their true feelings one way or another.

This is the pervasive problem in Christian music, I think. There are plenty of songs out there, that in the end, spend most of their lyrical energy on words that are meaningless or dead in modern usage, but which appeal to a "Christian" or "Biblical" sensibility. As an example, I might mention any song referring to eagles soaring. roses being trampled, oceans roaring, or hailing a King. Certainly, all these phrases have time and place, but it seems to me that for the most part, our 21st century American culture has no interest in or understanding of these terms. It's not a bad thing—we just use different images these days to convey those thoughts.

The problem is when artists insist on pulling phrases out of the Bible boxes and stringing them together to make any sort of nonsense, that when coupled with a D-A-Bm-G-A-D progression allows singers of the songs to "experience God." Unfortunately, I'm burnt out.

This leads me to your song which, what I think I wanted to say to my friend Tim, appeals to a dead sense of purity. A white dress is a dead symbol. A repentant whore is something different in our discourse (I might point to the incredible drug film "Requiem for a Dream" here. There are many others that don't come to mind at this time). The whore of Jesus' day is something that we vaguely understand, but there has got to be a better image that our culture understands to convey this idea. We have all new signifiers and don't need to rely on what would have made sense in the 50's to make our music compelling.

An artist I respect a great deal, David Bazan from the band "Pedro the Lion," has said, "The message is degraded when it's made into slogans and low-level propaganda. They're attempting to reach a certain audience just like advertisers do -- and that, ultimately, degrades the art."

So in the end, I guess I honestly wanted to ask if you feel like a whore? And if you honestly do, how do you know what a whore feels like? I understand in all of this I could be very, very wrong and you could have written this song from the darkest place in your heart and were entirely true to yourself as an artist in writing it. Certainly, if that is true, I withdraw my complaint and apologize for being so contentious.

Thanks for taking the time to read this letter which has become far too long. I wish you the best in your art and look forward to hearing from you.

Stephen Pihlaja
Niigata City, Japan

02 October 2005

Jusco message chairs and carrots

I spent the day with a my three favorite people in Japan right now: the missionary Jim, Yoko, and Neal. Together, we make quite a set. I'm not really sure how Yoko managed to put up with four hours of me calling Neil a muthafucka, Jim twisting my nipple, and our constant complaints about Japanese culture. That said, we did get a lot of stares, Jim with his beard, Neil with his almost 2 meter frame, and me and Yoko holding hands. We were like a circus. The best part was when we all hit the massage chairs in Jusco. People actually pointed at us. Incredible. We spent part of the day at Jim's church too, playing music (sort of) and sharing our thoughts on what a "promise" was. I got a picture of Charlie Brown totally putting his heart out on the line in English and Japanese.

Let's talk clauses.

Think about these two sentences: "The jungle is very humid and hot. Plants grow easily in the jungle." Compare with: "Because the jungle is very humid and hot, plants grow easily in the jungle." Which sentence (or two sentences) would you say is (are) easier to understand? Which (one) give(s) us the most clear relation between humidity and heat in the jungle and the effect of plants growing?

I think the answer to question two is pretty clear (the one sentence with the clause-joining word "because"), but I am not so sure about the first. The reading I am doing talked about how children's books sometimes remove clause relation words in an effort to simplify the text, but the author wondered if this was indeed making the story easier to understand or just complicating things by forcing the child to deduce the relationship by themselves.

That's a good question: how do you deduce the relationship between the two sentences in the first example without the help of a clause-relating word? Do you draw on your previous knowledge of heat, humidity, and plant-growing (which you learned by growing Cannabis in the basement)? Or is there something happening in the sentence that implies a cause-effect relationship? I'll be honest, this one has me stumped. I think I am currently leaning towards thinking that we just know the relationship based on past experience, but I'm not really sure.

All this thinking makes me want to eat a carrot.

30 September 2005


I'm going to take a swing at the dictionary as Tom Bazan commented last time around to the effect of "The words have a meaning beyond their (traditional) Webster's meaning." Now, I like Tom a lot, but also because he gets me thinking. This time he got me thinking about the dictionary. I find the idea of a dictionary very interesting because the dictionary assigns meanings to words with other words. It's like a merry-go-round.
From Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers, a required text for my course: "Discourse organizing words are best presented and practised in their natural contexts. Simply looking them up in a monolingual dictionary can lead to a circularity of abstract definitions." (McCarthy 84)

McCarthy uses an example from the dictionary and I will mimic his method here. Note this (from www.dictionary.com):

prob·lem (prblm) n.

   1. A question to be considered, solved, or answered: math problems; the problem of how to arrange transportation.
   2. A situation, matter, or person that presents perplexity or difficulty: was having problems breathing; considered the main problem to be his boss. See Usage Note at dilemma.
   3. A misgiving, objection, or complaint: I have a problem with his cynicism.

If we chase down the meaning of the first open word in this definition “question,” we find:

ques·tion  (kwschn) n.

1. An expression of inquiry that invites or calls for a reply.
2. An interrogative sentence, phrase, or gesture.
3. A subject or point open to controversy; an issue.
4. A difficult matter; a problem: a question of ethics.
5. A point or subject under discussion or consideration.
6. A proposition brought up for consideration by an assembly./ The act of bringing a proposal to vote.
7. Uncertainty; doubt: There is no question about the validity of the enterprise.

Please note the definition of "problem" appeals to an understanding of "question" and the definition of "question" appeals to an understanding of "problem."  Now, you might argue that given enough words, we are able to pin down the meaning of one particular word, but if you continue to dig and chase down all these words, I suspect, in the end, they are all, in one way or another, dependent on an understanding of another related word. If you feel dizzy, you're not alone. It's called circular reasoning, and it's a problem.

Imagine for a second that you were handed a dictionary for another language and told to learn the second language. Could you do it. Of course you couldn't. Your dictionary would just point you to other words that would be defined by the same word you originally didn't understand. Believe me, it's happened as I try to use my good old Japanese dictionary for terms that don’t appear in English. All you get is Japanese examples and other Japanese words that bring you back to the same word. The "code" of language is so oddly inter/ self dependent that it makes any kind of real definition impossible. You must appeal to something outside of language if you want any real meaning to your words.

This intrigues me as an artist and a Christian because I think we gain meaning through art and imagery. For example, a new question: define love. That’s a bitch, right? Almost impossible. Think now of 1 John, a book of the Bible dedicated primarily to the idea of love. "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." (1 John 4:10) John chooses to define love not as sacrifice, he appeals to the act of God sending God's son as a sacrifice. Suddenly, the word is not a word but the concept of an action. And from the action or concept of the action we can find meaning.

One more, again from Kanye West: what is a "gold digger"? It could be any number of things: a person who actually digs for gold, etc., etc. But West uses imagery to define the word:

"Cutie the bomb
Met her at a beauty salon
With a baby louis vuitton
Under her underarm
She said I can tell you ROC
I can tell by ya charm
Far as girls you got a flock
I can tell by ya charm and ya arm
but I'm lookin for the one
have you seen her
My psychic told me she have a ass like Serena
Trina, Jennifer Lopez, four kids
An i gotta take all they bad ass to show-biz
Ok get ya kids but then they got their friends
I Pulled up in the Benz, they all got up In
We all went to Den and then I had to pay
If you fuckin with this girl then you betta be payed
You know why
It take too much to touch her
From what I heard she got a baby by Busta
My best friend say she use to fuck wit Usher
I don't care what none of yall say I still love her."

I won't take time to talk about what West accomplishes here, except to point out that we begin to understand the term "gold digger" through descriptions of women who are "gold diggers." They seem to be women interested primarily in money and status. Suddenly, we have meaning that goes beyond words because we can conceptualise this sort of situation and recognize that the word and the image are a pair.

We've been doing this unconsciously our whole lives, being told to assign certain images to certain words, but who is controlling the stories and images we hear and see that define our words? What happens when new images and stories redefine words we have been accustomed to using in one way or another?

This is only Day Eight. More to come, I'm sure.

29 September 2005

Gold Digging

So let's consider Kanye West in relation to our little grammar question. Does the Kanye West listener suffer as a result of West's poor use of grammar?

Think about the song *Gold Digger* and this particular couplet: "I ain't saying she a gold digga/ but she ain't messin' wit no broke niggas.*

If we choose *fix* this couplet to correct the grammar and lexis to be more clear, we might say: *I am not implying that she only dates and (or) has sex with [black] men who have money and status/ but I am certainly saying that she does not date and (or) have sex with [black] men who have little or no money and status.*

West's grammatical and lexical choices are interesting (and be assured that these are choices, not an inability to speak in grammatically correct forms). Why does he choose the words that he does? This is, of course, a question of discourse--that is, West is doing his best to speak with lexis and grammatical patterns that are best understood by the listeners he either perceives or would like to attract and which he perceives to be the most clever. The question is, do his choices make his lyrics harder to understand?

Well, yes and no, depending on who you are. My father would have a very hard time understanding the first couplet, but would understand the second much more easily. Conversely, the young, black market that West is presumably targeting understands the first much more clearly because they negotiate this structure and lexis on a daily basis. I also find it interesting that this song has enjoyed a great deal of mainstream success, proving that even suburban white kids and their parents, from the looks of the Billboard charts can understand West quite clearly.

This seems to show that improper use of grammar doesn't necessarily mean a lack of understanding on the part of the listener. Moreover, it could be argued that this more vulgar or incorrect use of grammar conveys West's philosophy/ thesis much better than proper use would.

A quick question of translation: would you translate the n-word in this case to mean *men* or specifically *black men*?

28 September 2005

Words mean things

Since I've started my first class at Birmingham, I've got a lot of linguistics on my mind and would like to talk about that with you all. Aware that this subject is not all that sexy, I've decided to write this entry while wearing only my underwear. So my first class is composed of two units, one on written discourse and the other on spoken discourse. Discourse is all about trying to understand words in context: how words gather meaning based on how, where, when, etc. they are used. It's all much more complex that you might imagine at first glance and it's a wonder we can communicate at all, in my opinion.

This had me thinking about our good friend Rush Limbaugh, who I used to be a big fan of back in jr. high. Putting aside how shocking that is — and it is shocking — I remember being struck by a quote of his "Words mean things." I liked it so much that I put on an index card and pinned it up on my cork board with a bunch of other admittedly dumb quotes. Still Rush, even in saying these simple three word statement didn't realize how much he relies on your interpretation of the statement to make sense. For example, the word "things" is rather ambiguous, actually. Does he mean ideas or actual physical objects? If he means ideas, does he mean that each word has a set idea that it "means" or can that be changed? What does he mean by "means" anyway?

Let's try this, Rush: "Words, when spoken or written in a particular socio-political setting and era, represent meaning through certain signified elements understood and negotiated by both the reader and the writer/ speaker and listener."

This has so many implications spiritually, socially--in literature, translation and translation theory, ESL — your relationship with your girlfriend, parents, spouse — second language acquisition. It goes on and on.

My girlfriend, who is a graduate student in occupational therapy and is taking courses in statistics and estimation this term, has studied English in the Japanese school system for some 8 years, but had no reason to ever speak English until meeting me (I know, I know, I am a damn good reason, aren't I?). Anyway, after two months of solid Japanese only communication, she's started speaking English to me and it's incredibly interesting and cute. Note the following email she sent me: "Please tell him -thanks to you, about stephen is getting to bye bye coke-" then in Japanese "Banzai!"

This sentence made sense to me after I thought about it (I have given up coke after my friend Neal told me that it was killing me and Yoko is happy about this and wanted to thank Neal), but that meaning didn't occur to me suddenly. I had to re-read the sentence several times to make sense of it. That said, when I go back and try to correct it, I find it more difficult than I expected to explain why it doesn't work.

Most of the mistakes, in retrospect, are simply what happens when you try to speak Japanese in English or English in Japanese. Translation is more than translating words especially when you have languages that are so different.

Also, think of how often you see grammar mistakes on this site or dropped words, but still can deduce what I meant from the context? How do you do that?

Well, this is just day 5 so I'm sure they'll be a lot more on the plate in the future. But please, don't let our homely friend, applied linguistics, scare you. Under that unassuming exterior is all sorts of delight.

25 September 2005


Well Kotooshu's loss today took many of us by surprise, but not me. No, I knew it was going to happen when Tochiazuma, who is not winning any points in my book lately, basically fell on his ass and forced the match you see above. Anyway, next tournament, boys. Next tournament.

Yoko says I can be fat like Kotooshu and that would be okay. I think he has a nice ass.

24 September 2005


Would you consider it a major strike against me if I admitted I kinda like Maroon 5? I mean, would that totally make me like the biggest loser ever? I imagine for a second old friends asking me this same question, and I have to be honest that if either of them were asking me this question, the answer would be quite obvious.

You know what's interesting? The game Risk. You all remember the game Risk, right? We played the hell out of it in college: Lots of shouting at my roommate and talking advice from a wooden duck umbrella handle. These were good times: Jesus' cherry coke, Jimmy Eat World, that $25 couch, the infamous "Okay, no more gay jokes" summit...

I have played Risk twice in Japan (with other expats), and I'm always surprised about the reaction I get from Japanese when I give a brief explanation of the game. The Japanese don't play games of world-domination, you know, given the bad connotations. I wonder if there is another country where this game is popular. Anyway, playing Risk makes me feel especially American and I don't like feeling especially American. Also I get very angry when people break their agreements with me.

I'm sorry that this picture is now replacing the picture of Yoko as she has a lot more on me as far as the attraction goes. A lot more... ::sighs:: Plus, she doesn't shout at Ben (as far as I know). Oooo, he pisses me off.

You know, everybody mocked Tom Cruise when he hopped up and down on that couch, but I gotta say, I sort of feel it brother.

I started the Birmingham program on Thursday and despite having to sink another 25,000 yen on books, I'm pretty happy about my study of Written and Spoken Discourse. It looks like the shit. One of the ten options I can write on for the first unit is: "Compare and contrast the ways that clause relations are signalled in English and your students', or you own mother tongue, or another language in which you are proficient. Discuss the pedagogic or translation implications of your findings."

I'm going to play some Kanye West in class next week. Stay tuned...

19 September 2005

16 September 2005

Love is watching someone die

So I've had my share of girlish giggling about the new The Death Cab for Cutie's record, because yeah, okay, it's nice: I'm not saying it's not nice. But I can't suffer another compliment about hottie Ben Gibbard's lyrics. Come on, kids, "Love is watching someone die"? Let's think about this instead of sighing and hugging someone.

The statement "Love is watching someone die" is wrong in its current grammatical form. Plenty of folks watch folks that they don't love die. Here, I cite the great Johnny Cash who you might recall "killed a man in Reno just to watch him die." Mr. Gibbard is missing two small but important particles. Any takers? Ms. Ishida? That's right, the correct answer is: "Love is watching over someone while they die." To watch over is the image I think Mr. Gibbard is trying to get us to render up. But "Love is watching over someone while they die" is a little too long and it's probably not what Sarah said anyway. If you're interested in learning a little something about death in music not from someone in their twenties I would suggest Johnny Cash's "America IV" or Warren Zevon's "The Wind," both records that are really, actually about death. But whatever, Ben Gibbard makes the big bucks.

Oh, so I also started working out. Yeah, no shit, right? I decided it was time to no longer be fat. I am tired of it. Working out is fabulous so far. I feel great after 20 minutes on the stair machine. Plus, my ass is going to be hot. No results yet, but Neal says we need to wait three months. So I'll keep at it.

Finally, I'd like to state publicly that I like John Roberts. Anyone who is able to upset both the left and the right at the same time, while getting unanimously confirmed by the senate is my friend.