27 December 2006

Now, more relaxed

America is so much more relaxing for me, a native American English speaker, than that other place that I've been living. With no job worries, not having to pay for anything, and Christmas done right. You can't compete with any of that. It's been relaxing. Not real, but relaxing. My future, though looking incredibly cold and dark in Japan (which is incredibly cold and dark these days), might still have a chance of turning around.

Gift of the year was "The Crane Wife", which speaks to you and me in different ways, I'm sure.

Now, to buy some luggage.

22 December 2006

Goes home

Well, I'm on my way out now for the late, great USA. I'm not looking forward to the bus, train, train, plane 4 punch knockout, but once home, I'm expecting some of the stress to melt off. See you there?

20 December 2006


Okay, I had heard that Chinese was a difficult language. Compared to Japanese, this ain't nothing. Observe:

我是斯蒂芬 (I am Stephen in Mandarin, and I cheated finding the characters for my name using BabelFish.)

我 is "I" (used for "I" sometimes, but mostly for "we" in Japanese) 是 is "be" 斯蒂芬 is presumably a phonetic spelling of my name. You'll notice the subject-verb-complement construction. Also, no article markers. Also, no verb conjugation. Literally "I be Stephen." Granted, you have to nail the tones (one of four, or neutral), but compare to the same sentence in Japanese:


This took three different kinds of writing to accomplish. I had to use a subject marker は and the sentence is literally "I (marked) Stephen is." Your subject-compliment-verb construction. And you may be saying, "Yeah, but how hard is that, really. You just gotta swap." Believe me, it's a whole new kind of thinking. So although I should be packing, instead I'm learning how to say "This is a pen" in Chinese.

Another week of "it"

Today wasn't so great. I had to give up the dream and resign myself to another year of doing what I'm doing now. That's really vague, but you know, that's how it is.

I subscribed to a couple of new podcasts to get a little basic understanding of Mandarin and Korean. I already got a basic understanding of how they work, but I would like to be a little bit more educated. Once you put in the work to learn how to read Chinese characters, you have access to a lot of Asian languages that Chinese has its fingers in. I'd like to be able to shop and greet when I go to China one of these days.

This isn't the reason I teach, but it felt good. One of my students got into college. That was nice.

19 December 2006


I ordered all the books for the fifth and sixth modules of my MA. Believe it or not, I am rounding the corner.

17 December 2006

Nepal and India

I hate translation. Everything about it. Trying to make dumb Japanese phrases fit into this fine English language of ours. Trying to make that word fit, somewhere: anywhere. This so far:
In addition, even if students had been able to use English for 45 minutes, it was impossible for English settle in the students minds as there are only several English classes in a year. Moreover, although students practiced words like "zebra", zebras are not animals that the students encountered every day. Students did not have a chance to use English and it did not become a tool for communication.
But hey, I might be going to Nepal and India in the Spring to hang out with a Japanese doctor doing aid work with some Tibetian refuges. If Yoko isn't about to burst, it should be a lot of fun. We'll see though.

Lastly, my family said goodbye to the family dog, Moriah, this weekend. We had him for 10 years (or 11), so you can imagine that he was quite a part of the family. He and I had a strange relationship. I will miss him.

16 December 2006

I love translation

I love it. It's so challenging. It gets me thinking. So much to juggle. So much to think about. If I could get paid well to do this, well, I would do this, and this only. All day. Every day.

Starting to prepare for the Japanese Proficiency Exam Level I. It's going well so far. Learning the Chinese characters. Today is this one: 妥協 that would be compromise. Compromise. I like it.

I heard that a couple of kids got kicked out of school for drinking. How were they found out? I asked. Well, the teacher told me, a couple of students saw them. Right, I said, but how did you know the other kids weren't lying? Oh, they admitted to it, said the teacher. Plus, they have blogs. So, word to the wise. Don't blog about it. Keep it to yourself.

Yoko took 10,000 yen from me, but she's cute and she's carrying around that baby so I can't really say anything. Plus, I'm having a good day.

I made a mistake earlier by talking about my "emotional quotient". That was just a wrong way of describing it. I'll try to think of something better in the future.

Home in 6 days.

14 December 2006

A break, please?

These week's chart of emotions was like this a little bit.

"Emotional Quotient" is probably the wrong term, but fixing the graph would be too much work. Looking at these data points, I think we can see just how ups and downs have been taking on a toll on Stephen. Although I wish those increases/ decreases were a little bit steeper. Now, it seems I have to make a couple of decisions, roll the dice? Play it safe?

Only in Japan does this fly: "Okay, everyone, a government report came out today and since the government says the economy is still soft, we all gotta take a 5% cut in pay next year." Like seriously. And the workers all go, "Hey that sounds right. I mean, I don't like it, but the GOVERNMENT said so and the Board of Trustees thinks its the wisest thing. I guess I'll just work harder so that maybe, just maybe, I can have the same thankless job until I turn 60 and can retire. Unless the government thinks I should retire at 65."

But hey, I still have my elephant puppet.

Caring is creepy

13 December 2006

Religious Dialogue

Another attempt at an honest religious dialogue. I have tried to make it the least argumentative and cheeky, but I think it just came out boring. I apologize. Go eat a plum.

Okay, Karmic energy. I was listening to the podcast again, and Dr. Martin Verhoeven was talking about Karmic energy, basically the thought that good deeds have good results, and bad deeds have bad results: cause and effect. According to the argument, these causes and effects are sometimes observable. Sometimes they are not: a good deed or bad deed may be repaid in a later life. This is very soft argument because, of course, bad things happen to good people and vise versa. The Buddhist only needs to say, well, you look back far enough or into the future, and you'll see it all worked out. No one can look forward or back, but in theory… It's not provable or disprovable.

The argument also went that good deeds yield a proportional amount of good karma. That is to say, if you do something small, you yield a small amount of good karma. If you do something really bad, you yield a lot of bad karma. What you do and what you get is related.

In Christianity, this isn't true at all. Every the smallest sin in the purest life yields eternal death. On the other side, you can cause a great deal of pain to a lot of people all your life, but believe in Jesus at some point, and you get eternal life (admittedly, people argue about this). You can live a great life, believe and also yield eternal life. The point is, if God is perfect, any imperfection yields death. But, because Christ is perfect, any bit of good (in belief) can yield life.

Buddhism says that you get what you pay for. Christianity says you get what you inherit or you get what Christ paid for. This got me thinking about propitiation (which is a big word for  God being appeased). The Israelites were all about this: sacrifice a pure sheep for your sins. And this became, for Christians, a symbol of Christ being punished for the sins of peoplekind. As long as something sinless is punished, the sin is negated.

If one sins, one has committed a wrong. If someone innocent is punished, this is wrong. But if you put those two together, you get forgiveness. Why? I mean, other than that God is perfect. Or is that all there is? Is there another scenario where this works? Did I already ask all these questions?

12 December 2006

Hey, so

I decided to take down all the bad language from my site for the first two pages and from here on out. I'm starting to begin my push to be hired by a university in 2008. My options for 2007, though for a time seemingly feasible, fell through, but that's okay. I noticed that three hits on this site were found by searching "Stephen Pihlaja" and although those people are probably not committee members or somebody from the journal I submitted to, they could have been, so from here on out this blog is probably going to be my public face when people are eager to learn more about me. I'd rather not come off a chummy, ignorant fool. Maybe this is the end of an era.

11 December 2006


I just submitted my first article ever to an academic journal. This should be followed promptly by receiving my first ever rejection from an academic journal, but for tonight, I'm a little bit proud of myself. The article wasn't especially intelligent and it didn't really say anything new. But still.

I love Japanese television. First, they're having this World Cup club championship series. Tonight, we had a game between a central American club and a Korean club. It was a wicked dirty match. Gotta love the clash of cultures and all that. Second, there is this show that has a segment where celebrities play tag with famous athletes. The celebrities aren't very good, but there are like 20 of them, and the athlete has to tag everyone in a set time. This week none other than Carl Lewis was playing. Yoko kept asking me, "Do you know Karlis?" No, I don't know Karlis, who's that? "You don't know?" she said, "The world-famous track and field guy? He's a American? Karlis?" Ah, Carl Lewis. Yes, I know him.

He won, by the way.

09 December 2006


This took forever. You all might be saying, “Yeah, but Stephen, your wife is Japanese. She probably basically did it all for you anyway.” Well, you’d be wrong. She did proofread it, but still. I feel like I accomplished something today.

By the way that Barrow Boy song by the Decemberists makes me want to cry.

Oh man!

I teach Oxford EFL textbooks almost exclusively when I teach English privately. They are the best I have seen, and the new third editions of "New Communicator" and "Let's Go!" are incredible. I love them. The new "Let's Go!" (which is the kids text) comes with a CD-Rom that is just fabulous. It has games for the kids to practice vocabulary and grammar points. Little M put it into his dad's laptop this morning and it was like magic. It talks to them. Four games for each lesson. I nearly wet myself, I was so happy. If I could take a laptop and that CD to every class, I would be set.

07 December 2006

Writing letters, again

from S. Pihlaja mysonabsalom@gmail.com
details 8:35 pm (0 minutes ago)
to *******@drba.org
date Dec 7, 2006 8:35 PM
subject Buddhism and your podcast
Dear Rev. Heng Sure,

Recently, I have been listening to the Berkley Buddhist Monastery Podcast while I run on the treadmill at the gym. I initially got interested in the podcast just because I was interested in learning a little something about Buddhism, but I found the podcasts comforting in an odd way. As you have said, like I heard it before. I realized why I felt this way, not that I had heard it before, but because you sound a lot like Garrison Keillor, the great Minnesotan storyteller. The messages are always thought-provoking and interesting. I have really appreciated them. I find the Chinese engaging, especially as a Japanese student. As I copy Chinese characters onto flashcards, I get more curious. I am also reading your three steps one bow e-book. I told a friend that it felt like I was reading about a religion, while my church in Chicago was simply making a club or a television show.

I grew up an Evangelical Christian. My family was (and is) pretty committed. My father has always been an elder at the churches we have been members of. I grew up memorizing scripture, was baptized when I was 11, was a student leader in the youth group, and in college too. I was incredibly confident in the whole thing.

But an odd thing happened when I graduated from college: I moved to Japan as a short-term missionary, teaching English at a small church in Fukuoka City with a friend of mine from high school. My experiences in Japan and with mission work really did a number on me. I decided to leave mission work, but stay in Japan and have been slowly fading towards agnosticism since then. This isn't for lack of effort—I would very much like to regain my Fundamentalist fervor and get back to where I was, but it seems that whatever I had, I lost, and it isn't coming back.

This all leads me to my questions for you, about religion and Buddhism. If you have any time to spare to respond to me, I would be incredibly grateful. If not, I completely understand and will keep listening to the podcast.

My first question for you is about meditation and bowing. I find the three steps one bow story to be incredibly interesting, but I wonder about the hypotonic effect of these kinds of practices. That is to say, if you do any repetitive action, focusing on a text (be it religious or otherwise), it seems to me that the text is likely to take over one's minds and become more compelling, applicable and true. Prayer and Christian worship music or scripture memorization seem to have the same effect. If you say it over and over again, it becomes true. Can you explain the difference between hypotonic disengagement and meditation or bowing? I haven't done either so I guess maybe this puts me at a disadvantage to understanding them.

Thanks again for your time and the podcast.
Stephen Pihlaja
Niigata City, Japan

Now, with time to think

Not having to "go to work" "everyday", I find myself with time to read and write and think a lot. I am still reading the Heng Sure book and working on my report. And finding out today if my future is closer than I thought (more on that later). Until then, I think I might actually post a non-sarcastic collection of thoughts about religion. So, take it while you can.

Your main Western religions (that'd be Chrisitanity, Islam, Judiasm, and Baseball) are all built on creeds. You say something with intent, and you become a member of that religion. Lots of rules and what have you come with it, but at the crux is a confession of faith. This doesn't seem to be true of my new friend, Buddhism. You want to become a buddhist? Well, the answer is most-likely, you already are a Buddhist. You should be practicing the Dharma, but when you become a Buddhist, what you believe doesn't really have that much to do with anything. You don't accept the Buddha into your heart. You don't profess that their is no self. You don't try to attain enlightenment. Those are all things people from the West say as they try to understand Buddhism through their Christianity-coloured glasses. It seems to be less about what you believe (or say you believe), but what you do.

I don't really have a conclusion about that.

Or, you could listen to this ignorant fellow.

06 December 2006

All this work, no work

So this week I don't have a lot of work to do at school, but I'm still busy working knuckles raw trying to get a couple or three papers ready to be sent out to journals. I don't think I'm actually going to get anything in, but we can't succeed unless we fail, 'eh Ronaldo?

I had a very Buddhist moment today on the bridge, running. When I left the house, I was very cold and I thought, These gloves are not nearly warm enough. They are too thin. So I ran for about twenty minutes and before I knew it I was thinking, Man, these gloves are hot. I really ought to take them off. The gloves had not changed, but how Stephe-O perceived them had.

05 December 2006


This is the haiku that appears in the photo and haiku calender at the culture center I teach at. I translate it:
The first snow and
another person
Or, as the calender translated it:
first snow--
wink at me
Today, during my lesson, I presented examples in five languages I have some (albeit meager) knowledge of. This felt good. Damn good.

Seriously, check out the Heng Sure book. Seriously.

The trip to Tokyo

was good, and mostly not because I made good on my threats towards Japanese Proficiency Exam Level II. No, more than that, I was able to see some friends, connect again with the city that has my number, I'm beginning to think, and realize that I have made some progress as a Japanese student and maybe even as a human, since coming to Japan. I spent the night with J and V, as J has recently returned to Japan to teach English again with the Lutheran church. V is from up around here and the three of us had a really fabulous time. Also saw Heather too briefly, but it was a fine 45 minutes none-the-less. Ran into M, another friend of my hero and mentor, Mr. Neal, and he regaled me and V with a story of smoking weed while driving and being blown by a Chinese woman. "That's something," I said to V, "I don't think I will ever experience."

Now, instead of resting like I should, I have begun to prepare for Japanese Proficiency Level I, although I doubt I will be able to pass that test in 2007. I think I'd like to try though. 10 Chinese characters a day. In the end, I will have to know 10,000 words and 2,000 Chinese characters to pass the test. I noticed while taking the test this year that a majority of the test takers are from China. It occurs to me that they have an incredible advantage in learning Japanese as they already know all the Chinese. I gotta get into a romantic language next.

When I run, I listen to the Berkeley Buddhist podcast and encourage you to read this interview or, better, this e-book. Fascinating.

01 December 2006

Goes to Tokyo now

I am going to Tokyo now to have my way with Japanese Proficiency Exam Level II. If I could say one thing to Japanese Proficiency Exam Level II it would be, "Listen Japanese Proficiency Exam Level II. I got your number."

More on Monday.

Post Burying

I made this for our reception in the States. I don't think it's finished, but...


So my brother and I were having a conversation about this blog and it's form and I wanted to bring it up here as well. We were talking about how my presentation of things on this blog is mostly just "Cynical video clip, cynical commentary" and how this doesn't move dialog forward. For example, I said the other day after that "The Devil is a Liar" clip, "Does the idea of Satan have anyone else scratching their head and going, come again?" This was originally the begining of a new paragraph about my thoughts on the devil but I cut it because it was boring and I didn't think I had anything worthwhile to say. I just watched the clip and wondered why some people believe there is an all-evil force out there trying to get them to do bad things. It seemed odd to me. But I don't really care about presenting my opinion.

I guess the question is, Is that okay? Should I present my opinions in non-caustic ways? Should I present Mormon opinions without caustic commentary? Should I stop being caustic because it drags the conversation through the mud?

Obiviously, I think that I don't. I'll say it again, You want real discussion, real debate, real thinking read Sullivan. I'm not interested in keeping up a blog like that. I like showing you what I think is funny, interesting, or pressing in my life on a given day. I am a liberal, bitter ex-Evangelical, father-to-be, Japanese learner, English teacher, liguistics student, and writer. So most of what I find interesting is related to that. I don't want to post a video of Bush saying something I find ridiculous and giving you a fact by fact explanation of why I think that. I don't have the time. I laughed, maybe you will laugh too. If you think it's unfair, comment on the post and say so. I started this wordpress blog with the goal of having 300 regular readers. That's the goal of this blog. Anything that is said about religion or politics might or might not reflect what I 100% believe. Being clear or level-headed or fair is not my intention (although I might try to do so from time to time). My goal is to entertain.