Monday, November 29, 2010

Lessons Learned, For Good or Ill: Part the First

I'm a big picture guy. I can often forgive the “little things” that crop up in life so long as I can still get to where I'm going. In other words, so long as the little things in the way don't obscure my view of the big picture, I'm content whatever may come.
I'm also a guy who strongly believes in balance. Too much of anything is a bad thing. And for me, seeking balance is just as much about what you choose not to do as it is what you do do in lieu of something else. (Of course, if you're not careful and wind up becoming obsessive in your pursuits, as I am sometimes guilty, you might end up with doo-doo in your yoo-hoo, and I'm not talking chocolate milk!)
Seeking life's balance in Japan then, has allowed me to contrast my way of doing things with the perceived habits of the Japanese people I interact with on a daily basis. From what I can tell, an average life in northern Japan is scarcely different from anywhere else in Japan, except for variations in dialect and a more agrarian environment—in that, the hours of the day are the same, similar jobs operate on the same premise, and the culinary tastes are largely shared. In fact, it's not the differences that inform me about Japanese society quite so much as it is the shared sameness.
What does that mean?!
The Japanese way: ground yourself in a routine; predictability and functionality rule the day; civic conformity over personal expression. There are certainly qualities here to be looked up to. Routines help us to order our day, and naturally work well with the way our brains learn and retain information. We can all spare to be more functional in our lives or in the way we use and make things (here’s looking at you American car industry!). Predictability can't hurt either; knowing what you're going to do before you do it is a neat trick! And being civic-minded (i.e. valuing citizenship; remember when we used to get grades for that in primary school) is a drum I’d like to beat into classrooms all across the U.S. I can't critique any of these things without instantly making myself a hypocrite in some fashion. At the same time, I can’t help but look at this methodology and compare it to my own on a one-to-one basis.
My way: non-attachment to widespread social “norms”; well-masked but marked-level of zaniness; fearless individuality (not “in-your-face,” but fearless in the sense of being unafraid to be different, or simply be). I don’t feel irreversibly connected to people or places or work or social media. It’s not as if I don’t love and dream about the people and things that come in and out of my life; I simply understand the impermanence of such things, making me somewhat inured to change, and thus less dependent on routines. (This could be a sign that I haven’t found the perfect setting or conditions where such attachment could be fostered, or I avoid them outright?) I enjoy revealing only as much of myself to different people as I deem appropriate (hence the parenthetical question in the last sentence). Maintaining a modicum of mystery in my life is useful and even healthy, so long as I can still let loose and be spontaneous and engage those around me without letting them down. And being a poser is something I’ve never been good at; I do what I do and think what I think because I believe in it, not just because it’s been suggested to me, nor especially because it’s popular.
Both of the above are examples of how to orchestrate one’s life. Life can take many forms, but I think we’d all agree that aiming toward sanity is the very least we can do. There are some aspects of the Japanese life that are quite congruent with how I live my own, and others that very much aren’t. Learning to mix and match what I am with the world around me, constantly reevaluating and even readjusting my comfort level—at times chameleon-like in my pursuits—helps me to aim toward sanity and stay balanced on the narrow road we are all asked to tread.
“Be water, my friend,” Bruce Lee once said. “Now you put water into a cup; it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot; it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or it can crash....” I try to live life not fighting the course that it takes me, but instead allow myself to be gently shaped by the currents, still flowing at my own pace, and crashing through barriers when a new way must be made. So yes, be water, my friends!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Anders Silvermane

Behold! One of the very first D&D characters to have ever been played whilst I was behind the DM screen! Courtesy AvatarArt and the imagination of my brother, Trevor. (Click to enlarge!)

Something in his eyes says he will be the one leaving here alive!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Random Thought of the Day: Triangle Man

Why is he such a d-bag?! Beating up Mr. Particle wasn't enough for this sack?! He had to go and whoop Person Man's ass too?! *shakes head*

Does it have something to do with Triangle Man's lack of proper self-esteem? Perhaps connected to his body image? We all know a triangle has interior angles that add up to 180 total degrees. Does the number 180 have some negative astrological significance that twists Triangle Man's soul? The bastard! Could Triangle Man be a descendent or the reincarnation of Commodus, the sniveling imp of a son to Emperor Marcus Aurelius who died in the year 180 CE?! (And is it any coincidence that "CE" stands for "chaotic evil"!) I. Think. NOT!

How 'bout you?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cruisin' to Kuroishi

There are so many hidden treasures nestled away in the quieter, less traveled places of Aomori that I imagine you could live here your entire life and just so happen to miss one of those places en route to someplace else. I can't speak for all those places we past in-between, but Kuroishi is no longer one of those places for me. I joined my junior high school Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) and a gaggle of students' parents on a field trip there to make hashi today. Here's a look at the day's travelogue.

Sukayu Onsen nestled away in the hills of Mt. Hakkoda. We made a brief stopover here for a bathroom break and to consider buying sugared treats in the shape of a penis. I'm not kidding. I didn't buy it. (Actually, the place did sell a lot of snacks and other healthy treats, but I had to mention this one. I mean, really?!)
"Japanese woodcarver dude" (we found working at the Kuroishi visitor's center). That pretty much says it.
Let's eat! I snapped this shot as we all sat down to eat on the ground's banquet hall.
A kindly old couple whom I met while enjoying the natural hot spring heated foot bath. Yokatta!
After the foot bath, I saw a horse drawn carriage and went to greet the pony pulling it. Sutekina boushi ne! The pony's name was Miu.
Here the whole gang (minus Tanosaki-sensei, who took the picture) gets ready to load up for the ride home.
Towering over the plain, Aomori's own "Tsugaru Fuji" lingers in the distance, touching the clouds—a fitting end to a heavenly day!
Thanks to everyone (especially Tanosaki-sensei) who made this day special for me! :)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Halloween in Hirosaki

I wasn't on my A-game when it came to snapping pictures this Halloween. (I was more interested in participating and enjoying everything that went on!) Still, my friends and I combined to form team Pac-Man and Company (pure awesome, Sam, great idea!), and here are a few pictures from the JET-hosted party that ensued on October 30th.

Sam (a friend, fellow ALT, and designer of the shirts we wore) and I see Pac-Man in the distance! That or our food had finally arrived. (Same difference.) Here we went out to an izakaya beforehand as a pre-party warmup.
Momoko (a mutual friend and office worker) goes after Pac-Man (aka, Adam, another friend and ALT) after we've ordered. It's quite clear what was on the menu for Momoko!
Red Ghost goes in for the kill!
But nope! Pac-Man's got his power-pill poppin' mojo goin' now! You can even see the three motes of light between them, remnants of the power-pill Pac-Man is devouring! (All of our shirts had the same motif, and at several points during the night we paraded about the dance floor chasing Adam, only to turn around and flee from him in perfect arcade fashion. Great fun!)
Here's part of the prize we each won for having been selected best group costume! It's a tiny "jewel-studded" scabbard complete with a drawable kukri knife inside (straight from Nepal; the evening's proceeds went to support a JET-sponsored charity that works out of that country)! Kakko ii ne!
Here's an all-too-dark picture of me and Claire, a fellow ALT who lives in Hirosaki (the city across the ken where the party was held). She had on a killer chinese dress and headdress—certainly should have won the prize for most tasteful costume of the evening!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Functions of Ritual

Another essay from Anth 116; it's broader than before, but dovetails nicely with the established line of thinking.

Rituals, the world over, form a model from which social norms are delineated. By this I mean that rituals create a "one-way mold" (where those who participate travel), such that by entering, a person becomes changed from passing through the ritual process. Rituals are one-way vehicles, in a sense, because upon coming out of the mold the result is that a certain set of normative qualities will have been etched upon the passenger(s), the intention being that the passenger/participant has been made ready for whatever is to come. These qualities (whether good or bad) are made permanent by the fact that one cannot do the reverse process and rid themselves of the ritual's resultant outcome.

From this, we know that rituals are mainly laid down in order to institute a systematic means for societies, both large and small, to shape and hone their members by taking individual identity and merging it with group identity (thereby creating the "model citizen"). This implies that there is forethought given to how a society should be run. Often, this forethought extends from adherence to myths and sacred allegories exhibiting origin or creation motifs important to the society in question, which can also be models used to define the processes, thoughts, and actions involved with ritualistic behavior. Invariably, rituals are supposed to exert a certain "positive pressure" (from the standpoint of the group) on those who participate. Whether the ritual is enjoyable, obligatory, or purely ceremonial, those going through the ritual should feel they are doing the thing that is most right for them and that they should continue.

In all reality, however, rituals do not always produce the desired results. Participants who are not physically, mentally, or emotionally "prepared" for a ritual can display resistance or even outright opposition to the ritual or its participants. This problem tends to be handled most easily by holding such rituals only during specific times, during specific practices, or in specific places so that those participating may be better able to handle it.

Rituals that have their procedures changed for whatever reason will lead to problems of incongruity or lack of conformity which can create obvious conflicts considering how inured the participants become toward ritual specifics. A major historical example of this culminated during The Reformation, before such time the Roman Catholic Church had engaged in breaking from traditional practices with the institution of indulgences and other forms of elitism, resulting in the loss of numerous lives and the split of the Christian church. The multitude of branches within Christianity that developed afterward is also evidence of how important the specifics can be, considering that this is all that separates some church denominations.

More commonly, though, participants who have grown disaffected toward or become “jaded” by rituals in their society are perhaps a more telling case of how the individual interacts with the group through ritual practice. Jaded individuals can occur when one is over- or under-saturated with the precepts of a ritual, or a particular set. This generally happens as a result of unbalanced conditioning prior to the ritual in question. Take the following for example. A young boy or girl is raised in a Christian home, is publicly schooled, and spends time with friends who are mainly non-Christian. Now, if this child is harshly drilled upon on how to live life as a Christian by his or her parents, what with conflicting examples everywhere else, the child will grow up to be over-saturated with Christian precepts and buck the rituals set forth by those precepts, seeing them as restraints more than guides. Then again, if the child is given little or no attention by the parents at all in this regard, he or she will be under-saturated and look down on other ritual practitioners (as opposed to the ritual itself) as bigoted or woefully biased. Keeping in mind the ritual-as-mold idea from before, one can see how certain participants of ritual can come out “oddly shaped” or even marred by these extenuating circumstances. Ultimately, rituals can have the opposite effect on those participating in them if the proper qualifications are not met or the proper measures not taken.

Rituals need not act differently only in negative ways, however. In going through the process of ritual, an individual might be placed among a select group of people within his or her society. Rituals can serve as an initiation in this way, transforming a person’s "persona" from what it was into something new. A prime example of this would be military basic training. For another example, consider someone who is clearly not a "morning person." If that person was then required to go to work every day at an early hour, they would gradually get used to the morning ritual of, let's say, shower, coffee, and a newspaper. Suddenly they're a morning person (even if they don't care to admit it)! In comparing this identity-solidifying aspect of ritual with how ritual causes us to conform to groups, it's interesting to note how some will seek anonymity within the confines of the ritual, deriving a measure of peace from the sameness, while others seek a unique take, setting themselves apart within the whole in their selectivity (e.g. types of: shower gels/scents or hair products used; rare coffee brand or tea used instead; magazine or online periodical used).

The identity-based purpose of ritual can have a very staying effect on the participant. This permanence will often remain until the participant engages in a similar ritual that has uniquely different identification values placed upon it. If the morning person mentioned above became friends with a regular coffee house goer and racquetball player, the morning person may feel compelled to forego much of their morning ritual in lieu of creating a new ritual of afterwork meetings with the friend (i.e. taking coffee and discussing the day's issues in the coffee house, then showering upon returning home from racquetball). In essence, partaking of two separate rituals, wherein one supplants the other, is akin to changing one’s name, and is truly one of the few ways rituals can be "undone."

Without a doubt, ritual and its function in group ownership and formation carries a deep meaning when looked at through the glass of history. Moreover, I think ritual bears even more significance when put in the context of the individual. Certainly, rituals are remembered (from the past) as belonging to group activity, but it is experienced (in the present) through the individual, and it is because of this that we can discern its meaning. Ritual means to reaffirm; as is evidenced by how a ritual can become so only through repeated instances. Ritual means to communicate; passing down what was learned (often times from the “beginning”) to the present. And in summation, ritual means to take shape (or grow); traveling through a mold to leave what was, and become what is to be. Foremost, though, we must not forget that each element of ritual and its many functions described above are exercises of the self, or rather, the individual. No two people are the same, and thus no two people who experience ritual can do so in the same way. In the midst of ritual, it is all about the one doing it; afterward, it is all about those who have done it.

[This one required quite a bit of editing and rewriting, mainly to better direct the essay from point to point. After a first reading, I was baffled. I must have had a lot of disparate thoughts running through my head when I put this down, because it only just barely held together. Hopefully now it reads like it should. Or not...?]