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.