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kotonoha3

Hi there. You don’t know me, and there’s really not much reason for you to take my advice about filmmaking. You make films, I just watch them. And I occasionally write about them.

But I’m writing you this letter anyway because I think your films are so, SO close to being great. You’ve been called the “new Miyazaki” (something you wisely choose to call an “overestimation”). But with just a few changes, I really think it wouldn’t be an overestimation at all.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Your visuals are stunning. Like, I could seriously just watch some of your movies frame by frame with the sound turned off and call that a great afternoon. It’s not just the grand, sweeping images that mimic crane shots, or the vivid colors in your classically pretty pictures of Japanese gardens and falling cherry blossoms. What I really love are the hundreds of tiny, intimate details. The labels on beer cans and chocolate. The vividness of raindrops in a puddle, so hyper-real that you’d swear you were looking at a live action image. The clutter of an apartment kitchen, drab grays contrasted with the bright colors of vegetables in a bowl of homemade ramen. The black-and-white shadow of a swinging door against an apartment wall.

kanojo

I also love the way you pay attention to sounds. The hollow clicking noise that the string makes when you pull on it (two or three times, not just once) to turn on the single overhead light in a Tokyo apartment. The tinny echo of an iron door shutting. Trains–the sound of the railroad crossing, the repetitive “doors are closing, be careful” announcements, the murmur of eerily silent crowds disembarking.

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Before I get to the stuff I don’t like, I should say that I’m not against sentimental stories as a rule. I adore Miyazaki, and plenty of his stuff is sentimental as anything. But there’s adding a pinch of sugar to your tea, and then there’s dumping in the whole bag. And your films frequently cross the line from pinch to bag.
So here are my suggestions. Take them or leave them.

1. Lay off the voiceovers. I’m kind of over voiceovers in general, but in your case they’re really, really unnecessary 90% of the time. Your visuals are so powerful, you don’t need a disembodied voice spelling out their meaning. Sure, a few words here and there won’t hurt, but in particular the excessive use of voiceover in “Kotonoha no niwa” just started to grate on my ears after a while. Some of the words are quite beautiful (“The sky was so much closer when I was a child”). But often that disembodied voice is just saying things that any viewer can infer. Let us infer a little.

2. Go easy on the soundtrack. Your trademark piano scores are pretty, to be sure, but I’ve got a thing about silence in film. It’s nice. So many films feel the need to always be banging us over the head with something–quick cuts, music, dialogue, explosions–that it’s nice when a movie just sits there for a bit and soaks in its own ambient noise. You do that occasionally, and it’s lovely. I’d just like to see more of it.

3. Ditch those pop songs. My God. I don’t know if you’re handcuffed to Johnnys or some other tyrannical music production company and are, like, required to use a saccharine, over-the-top pop song in the trailers and climaxes of all your films, but if you have any choice in the matter, my God, please stop. They’re horrible. They take everything from the realm of gently sentimental to treacly and tired.

4. Tell your actors to tone it down. For the most part your films are full of believable, naturalistic performances from your voice actors. But there’s inevitably some climactic moment where people start shouting or shout-crying, and then the movie just feels like a bad Japanese soap opera. I’m not saying cut out these scenes altogether–although some of them really don’t add much–just remember that less can be more.

kotonoha2

All right, that’s it. Again, your stuff is gorgeous, and it’s your stuff, so you can make whatever the hell you want, even if beyond the visuals your films aren’t quite doing it for me. But I just have this feeling that if you made a few SLIGHT changes–changes that won’t alter the core of your aesthetic or your story–you could really make something amazing. I’ll keep watching to see what you do next.

Been away from the academic conference circuit for a bit, so it was nice to go back and hear conversations that included words like “alterity” and “intersemiotic.” Did that thing where I saw some people that I knew from way back when but didn’t remember their names, so we just kind of made half-eye contact and then went about our business.

All in all, a good time–friendly people, a student-run falafel kiosk, and a really gorgeous location (International Christian University, near Musashi-Sakai in the western part of Tokyo, a campus that seriously has more stunning greenery than Shinjuku-gyoen). Some interesting points from a few panels:

Beverly Curran, ICU. “Convivial Comics! Intersemiotic Translation and Multi-Dimensional Reading”

An examination of three comics: the Japanese manga “Death Note,” Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” and Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.” Specifically, the ways in which language and translation play out in those comics. “Death Note,” for example, features a notebook dropped from the sky that’s ostensibly written in English, but even the name scrawled in English on the cover, “Death Note” is a Japanese-English word (the proper English would be “Death Notebook”). “Maus” features an older character who speaks a kind of broken English that uses strange words here and there–for the Japanese translation, they rendered his speech simply as “oyaji” (old man) Japanese. And in “Persepolis,” various countries made slightly different choices about how to handle the multiple languages featured in the comic. Ultimately, an interesting look at how the comic format deals with both the translation of words and the arrangement of images.

Larissa Hjorth, RMIT University. “Co-Present and Ambient Play: A Case Study of Mobile Gaming”

While this wasn’t the primary focus of the talk, what really fascinated me was the way in which mobile phones have essentially become an extension of human bodies, particularly for young people. And the ways in which the constant recording and “capturing” of images and video is an attempt to turn the temporary into something permanent, or to “own” and control other people (particularly when it comes to social media, where a lot of young people place so much value on the number of “likes” an image or video receives). And the fact that, of course, people are recording HUGE amounts of random stuff that HARDLY ANYONE is looking at.

Fascinating fact: in South Korea, when two young people form a couple, it’s apparently common for the girl to commandeer the guy’s phone and cover it in little stickers and reminders of her. Hjorth met one young woman who’d taken a close-up photo of her own eye and saved it as her boyfriend’s phone screensaver. Just so he knew that SHE WAS ALWAYS WATCHING HIM.

Tomoko Tamari, Goldsmiths, University of London. “After Fukushima: The Question of Co-Existence in Contemporary Architectural Tendencies in Japan”

A really interesting look at the history of Metabolism, the architectural movement that saw cities as organic entities and envisioned a world of “cities in buildings,” and how catastrophes like the Greater East Japan Earthquake have changed the way people think about living spaces. With the exception of the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Shimbashi, few Metabolist visions were realized (it’s always been more of a philosophy than a practical architectural style),but the images of their utopian visions for cities are pretty incredible.

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Nakagin Capsule Tower, interior

 

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Nakagin Capsule Tower, exterior

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Helix City

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City in the Air

For a full list of presenters and events, visit the Cultural Typhoon 2014 home page.

Book Tribes

Wandering through the English language section of a Japanese bookstore a few years ago, I came across an English category marker labeled “chick lit.” I think it included half a dozen or so books, most of them with pictures of a high heel or a large pair of lips on the cover.

Long before that, I was in a bar with a guy and told him that I loved science fiction. He laughed and rolled his eyes. “Chicks don’t read real science fiction,” he said. I asked what the hell he meant. “You know, hard sci-fi,” he said. “The real stuff. With computers and robots.”

In a lot of Japanese bookstores, there’s still a section for “joryu sakka”–literature written by women. Said literature doesn’t necessarily stick to a particular theme or style, it just happens to be written by women, and therefor seems to deserves its own category.

On the subject of covers, NPR’s wonderful Pop Culture Happy Hour recently devoted a segment to the coded language of book covers, a language that’s kind of dying out in the age of e-readers. Author Maureen Johnson,  frustrated with the way that labels like “fluffy” or “insubstantial” are much more often assigned to books written by women, recently asked Twitter to do a gender-swap of famous book covers, and the results were illuminating.

I was thinking about all this–the strange way books and genres are categorised, the way that we categorize ourselves and other people based on what we read–in the wake of Ruth Graham’s article in Slate about how adults who read YA literature should be “ashamed of themselves.” I’m not going to pick that article apart–it was clearly meant to provoke (the author even tweeted that she was “working on something that will make a lot of people mad” right before it was published). Plenty of other people have come to the defense of YA literature and the people who read it, and the defense of everyone to read whatever the fuck they want and not feel ashamed.

What struck me about the article, though, was the way that we’re quick to label ourselves and others based on both what and why we read. YA, sci-fi, fantasy, romance–genres all seem to have their own tribes.

I seem to remember a time when “young adult” was not a cut-and-dried category. There were books with youthful protagonists and a lack of extreme sex or violence that nonetheless were not marketed as “YA,” even though they might have been popular selections in elementary and junior high school classrooms. I recall one of my favourite Maurice Sendak quotes, when Stephen Colbert asked him why he wrote for children: “I don’t write for children. I write…and people say ‘That’s for children.’” Jim Henson was similarly reluctant to label himself and his Muppets as children’s entertainment–he argued that good work can appeal to people of all ages. Personally, I tend to enjoy a lot of animation, film, and literature that might be designated “for children” simply because it’s beautifully designed and full of a sense of wonder.

These days there are still plenty of child-friendly entertainments that adults can thoroughly enjoy, though the description “fun for the whole family” still makes me cringe, conjuring as it does images of bland, saccharine, Disney channel fare–TV shows and films that kids watch because there’s nothing better on and that adults eye-rollingly tolerate. YA, however, is a publishing juggernaut that adheres to fairly strict standards of style, characterization, and plot. As Graham’s article indicates, plenty of adults read it, but it’s designed specifically with teens and pre-teens in mind. Where it seems easy to defend a love of creations like the Muppets and Fantasia, being an adult fan of YA fiction is a little different.

I’ve come into frequent contact with YA fiction for a lot of reasons. One, anything that gets young people reading gets me excited, even if it’s a book I really don’t care for (Twilight). Two, I’ve been a teacher of one kind or another for fifteen years, so I’m always looking for things to recommend to new readers, or things that I can use in my own classroom. Three, some YA books are just…books, and fairly good ones. Books that don’t immediately make me imagine a teen or pre-teen reader.

That said, I’ve found the bulk of the YA fiction recommended to me by friends and enthusiastic bloggers to be, well, boring. (I have a similar reaction to most romance novels–they’re not as hilariously bad as a lot of the jacket descriptions would have you believe, they just tend to put me to sleep.) With YA fiction, I struggle to stay engaged with a book when a) the writing style is overly simplistic, b) the world-building is thin, c) the characters don’t feel three-dimensional,  and d) the narrative flows along and eventually ends just a little too predictably and neatly.

This is not, though, to say that YA literature is BAD. It’s just written with a different audience in mind, one that generally comes to the page with a different set of expectations and experiences. And though they’re often dismissed as such, teen and pre-teen readers aren’t “dumb” or naive. They’re just young, and they read with young perspectives, and YA novels are written with that in mind.

There are, though, YA novels that cross over. I found Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books to be entertaining reads in their own right–a little simplistic, sure, but with rich world-building, complicated characters, and not-always-predictable plot twists. Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina was, at its heart, a painful story of a teenage girl’s struggle to live in a world that wanted her dead. It might have appealed to younger readers, but it had plenty of appeal for me as well. And then there’s Lois Lowry’s Giver trilogy, sort of the grandmother of YA dystopian fiction, with its sparse prose and refreshingly unsentimental plot lines. Re-reading those books recently, I realized another reason why some adults embrace YA fiction–to remember that wide-eyed sense of wonder that your teenage self had the first time you were genuinely moved or agitated by a book.

The question of what we read–non-fiction, genre fiction, fantasy, pulp, literature, YA, sci-fi–is of course linked to the question of WHY we read. Adults who read YA fiction tend to get lumped into the “reading for escape / nostalgia” tribe, definitely a notch below the “reading for intellectual enrichment” tribe. There’s also the “fiction is frivolous” tribe (people who read non-fiction almost exclusively). There’s the “fangirl / fanboy” tribe, people who read certain series and fixate on certain characters obsessively, which frequently overlaps with the “sci-fi” tribe, quick to distinguish itself from the “fantasy” tribe (boys read sci-fi, girls read fantasy, according to some boys who still believe in cooties).

A lot of this conversation also centers around authenticity–who’s reading “real” stuff and who’s just being a poser or a wannabe. “Soft” sci-fi (sci-fi sans robots / computers) often gets derided as watered-down when compared to “hard” sci-fi, which focuses more on the “science” aspect of science-fiction (yet again, the fake stuff is supposedly read by women and the “real” stuff by men). Readers of high literature may look down their nose at “genre fiction,” and any “literature” that makes it onto a bestseller list is immediately suspect.

Of course none of this matters to the voracious readers of YA, romance novels, sci-fi, fantasy, or any other genres that routinely get labeled as frivolous or shallow. With the popularity of e-readers, which have effectively made book covers (and the stigma that’s often attached to more “female” covers) obsolete, no one even has to feel self-conscious about reading Twilight or The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable Girl.

There is, of course, a smug satisfaction that comes in being part of a certain, exclusive tribe, even (or especially) a maligned one. It’s one of the factors that drives huge attendance at events like Comic-Con and Anime Expo. But does the tribe-forming have to come at the expense of sneering at the outsiders? Can we still maintain the joy and integrity of our own little I-love-this-thing-and-you-love-this-thing groups without denigrating members of other groups?

Maybe not. Groups thrive on distinction, defined as much by what they’re NOT–what they’re cooler than, better than–as by what they are. At the very least, though, we can get to know the other groups before we write them off, actually READ a decent amount of manga / romance / YA before we decide that those particular genres aren’t our cup of tea. And thanks to e-readers and those lovely little paper covers that they give you in Japanese bookstores, we can all go on secretly  or publicly reading whatever the hell we want to read, whyever we want to read it, without feeling ashamed.

I remember my first day and evening as an English conversation (eikaiwa) teacher at AEON, way back in the summer of 2000. There was a welcome party for me (and a farewell party for the departing teacher) at the school. People drank a lot, I tried to remember everyone’s names, and I was excited to begin my first post-college, grown-up job.

Toward the end of the evening, a particularly drunk student started announcing that he was going to drive me back to my hotel. I just smiled at him, not wanting to be rude–the main thing I remembered about my crash course in Japanese etiquette was not to be too direct with people. As the party wound down he began repeatedly grabbing my shoulder and telling me we needed to leave. I gently shook him off every time. Finally, he grabbed my suitcase and beckoned me toward the elevator. Thankfully, the other teachers and managers had my back–they not-so-ceremoniously took my suitcase back from him, shoved him into the elevator alone, and shut the door.

That incident came rushing back to me as I read this lengthy piece in the Japan Times on sexual harassment of teachers by students at Gaba, one of Japan’s large, national English conversation chains. When I think about sexual harassment in Japan (or anywhere, really), I tend to imagine superiors harassing inferiors, or equals harassing equals. I don’t really think about clients harassing service providers–if a client’s being especially difficult, just don’t do business with them, right?

Of course it’s not that simple–small businesses often can’t afford to say no to a client, even a revolting one. I’ve had more than a few private language students that I didn’t care for, but I needed the cash, so as long as their behavior wasn’t utterly heinous I usually kept teaching them. And in the English conversation industry, young, inexperienced teachers are often forced to continue teaching students who have harassed them because a) students equal money, and the schools don’t want to lose a single one, b) Japanese corporate culture, despite advances and changes in laws, still has an “oh, he’s just being friendly” attitude toward sexual harassment, and c) a lot of schools see their teachers as disposable and don’t care much about their safety or comfort.

The examples from the article are disgusting. One teacher had a student masturbate during their one-on-one lesson, and management got angry when she complained. Another teacher was told that she was just “being too nice to the clients.” Other teachers complained of students who used any excuse to initiate physical contact. One male student told a female teacher, “I want to drink your breast milk.” Again and again, when teachers complained to their management the staff were either indifferent or hostile, and the teachers were often made to continue teaching the offending students.

Thankfully, my three years at AEON were nothing like this, mostly because I was blessed with very supportive management. With AEON, as with many conversation schools, teachers live and die by their management. Good managers mean a good working environment, and bad or even mediocre ones can turn the workplace into a nightmare. AEON also tends to shuffle its managers and assistant managers frequently, meaning that if you’re at a school for more than a year you’re likely to get a bad egg at some point.

Three out of my four AEON managers were great, and one was mediocre, though thankfully not bad enough to do any real damage. Amazingly, they took complaints about creepy students seriously. One incident involved a man who was harassing a Japanese teacher AND other students in a weekly class–management not-so-delicately told him that he’d need to transfer to another school and he eventually left (this was probably because the students also complained, not just the teacher). As much as possible, offending students were assigned to classes taught by male teachers (this option often isn’t available when there are few or no male teachers in a school). When one of my co-workers was repeatedly harassed (not by students, just by men on the street) while walking home from work, management moved quickly to find her a new apartment in a different neighborhood, put her up in a hotel until the move was finalized, and gave her taxi vouchers so that she wouldn’t have to walk alone (she later found out that they’d paid for the taxi vouchers out of their own pockets).

Even at my school, though, management was reluctant to confront problematic students directly. More than a few made comments about my appearance, asked me out for drinks, or repeatedly asked if I had a boyfriend. Thankfully they seemed to get the hint when I gave curt replies and changed the subject. One gave me an expensive fur bag out of the blue–not what I would call harassment, but it felt weird. (I was luckier than a female student at a neighboring school, who was given a gift by a student at a party and opened it [in front of the students and staff] to find a pair of sexy underwear.)

My good experience at an eikaiwa school seems to be in the minority, though. The English conversation industry has a shady reputation in Japan, to the point that when people complain about any aspect of the working conditions, the response is usually, “You knew what you were getting into, don’t whine” (I saw more than a few comments like this at the end of the Japan Times article). Eikaiwa is seen as something that young, fresh-out-of-university newbies do for a year or two before moving on, and if the working conditions suck, at least they’re temporary. This also works in the company’s favor when it comes to handling sexual harassment issues–they know that their employee pool is transient, so they’re not too concerned about collective resistance or protest.

There’s another, even creepier factor at play here. Plenty of English conversation schools exploit the idea of the one-on-one lesson and the exotic foreigner, essentially selling the idea that you can pay a few thousand yen for an hour of an attractive person’s company. Gaba, the company profiled in the Japan Times article, famously ran a series of print ads in the early 2000s featuring Japanese women and white male teachers with tag lines like “Since it’s just the two of you, you’ll do a lot of talking.” More than a few sexual predators seem to have learned that English conversation schools are great places to harass women with impunity.

It’s a well-known fact that plenty of English conversation students have no interest in actually learning English–they’re lonely and they’re paying for company. Some are also looking to meet potential partners in class. Some women are looking to spend time with foreign men (my school’s teaching staff was heavily female, and when potential female students found out there were no male teachers available, they sometimes abruptly lost interest in signing up for classes). Some men are looking to spend time with foreign women (without harassing them). And some serial predators are clearly taking advantage of schools’ reluctance to turn anyone away and are seeking out teachers to harass.

(I should add here that, while the majority of what I myself have witnessed and the stories that I’ve heard from friends involved male students harassing female teachers, the reverse also happens. I had one male co-worker at AEON who asked to no longer teach an older female student because she had repeatedly asked him to become her “kept man.” I heard another story of a female student who wanted to set up a marriage of convenience with a gay male teacher because her parents were pressuring her to marry, and she grew hostile when he wasn’t receptive to the idea.)

There’s a perfect storm at play here. English conversation teachers are often young, inexperienced, short on cash, and reluctant to make waves in an unfamiliar culture and working environment. When you’re new to Japan, it’s often hard to distinguish between cultural differences and flat-out bad behavior. (When the drunk guy kept pawing me at that party I was 23 and very polite. Now I’m 37 and I would tell him to back the fuck off–though as the JT article indicates, even firm rebukes don’t always make a difference.) Additionally, Japanese corporate culture does not take sexual harassment seriously and places a very high burden of proof on the teacher. At places like Gaba, student evaluations are also a huge factor in teacher salary and contract renewal–a teacher interviewed for the Japan Times piece said that out of thousands of lessons, her only two negative evaluations came from students that she had refused to go on a date with. Enough negative evals and you can lose your job or take a pay cut. Finally, the predators in question are often smooth, experienced operators who will move from school to school and teacher to teacher, sometimes using the “Oh, you must have misunderstood me, my English isn’t so good” excuse when a teacher complains. (Fuck this. They know exactly what they’re saying.)

So what’s to be done? I think the Japan Times piece and others like it are a great start, because this sort of harassment thrives on silence. Several commenters pointed out that schools like Gaba that offer one-on-one lessons should record all lessons on video. Schools obviously need to devote a lot more time and energy to actually developing clear, concrete policies on how to deal with predatory students. Most importantly, though, I’d say that young people coming to Japan for the first time and starting a job at an eikaiwa school need to be as informed as possible about the working conditions–in particular, what they might just have to tolerate (low pay, long hours) and what they should never put up with (verbal and physical harassment by students or co-workers). The eikaiwa industry probably won’t be an oasis of great working conditions and egalitarian values any time soon, but it shouldn’t be so difficult to make the workplace safe for teachers.

Back in February, I got sick.

Not horribly, deathly ill. Not even so sick that I had to miss work (though there were a few days that I wanted to.) Without going into too much detail, I can say that it was a bit like a mild case of food poisoning, or at least a mild case of “whatever I ate yesterday did not agree with me.” I winced a bit and thought it would be over in a day or two. But a day became three, then five, then a week. After two solid weeks of essentially everything I ate turning to knives in my stomach, I decided to go to a doctor.

Two doctors and a little over three months later, the diagnosis is still inconclusive. One doc said I likely had IBS, which may have just been another way of saying “nothing bad came back in your tests, so given your family history, we’re going with that.” Another doc said he thought I’d contracted something that wouldn’t necessarily show up in tests, and that it might be gone in a month, or three, or six.

In the meantime, I was suddenly faced with two very sudden realities: 1) there was a long list of foods I could no longer eat, and 2) I had lost a lot of weight.

Number one actually hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be. It’s not an exact science, but so far it seems that beef, pork, lamb, dairy, and anything fried or super fatty / oily are the foods that set me off the most. When I found out what I wasn’t supposed to eat, I imagined myself crying over pictures of pizza and enchiladas, but the truth is I haven’t actually craved the forbidden foods that much, maybe because I now associate them with being sick. Sure, sometimes I get a craving for a burger or some ice cream or a big plate of mac ’n cheese or Porto’s potato balls (sob), but it really doesn’t last.

Being thinner, though, was weird. Mostly because people kept saying, “You look great! Have you lost weight?”

I should be clear here–I am NOT criticizing anyone who said that. It’s not as if I looked ill. But looking in the mirror was odd. My face was thinner. My neck looked longer. My trousers quite literally slipped off my hips. (On a recent trip home I bought more clothes than I’ve ever bought during a single shopping trip, because I just needed stuff that fit. And hey, it was an excuse to go shopping.) When I passed my reflection in buildings walking to the station I did a double-take.

When people said “You look great! Have you lost weight?” I really had no idea how to respond. Because of course I hadn’t been trying to lose weight, but it was a safe assumption that I had, because every woman everywhere is supposed to be on a diet, and everybody wants to be thinner, no matter how thin they already are, and when someone gets thinner it’s a cause for celebration, provided they don’t look really sick. To the people I knew well, I was honest–I said I’d been sick and I was getting better, that I hadn’t been actively trying to lose weight. Given the deafening roar of the diet industry, I kind of felt compelled to say something that let people know that a) I was perfectly fine with my body just the way it was before I got sick, and b) I wasn’t “dieting,” I just suddenly couldn’t eat a ton of stuff that happened to be very fatty.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like my slightly thinner self, though. It was fun to wear skin-tight jeans and like the way I looked in them. It was nice to smile at myself in a dressing room mirror where before I might have judged and nitpicked the slightly pillowy thighs and not-exactly-washboard stomach.

I’ve written about this before–it’s scary that the cult of thin still has so much power over me. I don’t like that I like myself in this slightly thinner body, but I can’t help it–thousands upon thousands of pictures and moving images have been telling me practically since I was born that this is what I’m supposed to look like, and that my previous self was just a stepping stone to thin-me. I look in the mirror, smile, and then feel bad for smiling. People tell me I look good, I feel flattered, and then I simultaneously want to shout “It’s because I’m SICK! That’s what it took to get here, to get to this place that everyone says I’m supposed to get to, and that’s not cool!”

It’s all a little confusing.

If there’s a silver lining to all of it, it’s that a lot of the foods I can’t eat were really bad for me. And I’d been wanting to cut back on them, but I just didn’t have the willpower. When it comes to moderation, apparently nothing works better than the threat of severe physical discomfort.

And the good news is that I feel fine 90% of the time. Socially it’s a bit awkward, because occasionally I end up at a dinner party at a shabu-shabu or tonkatsu restaurant and I have to just pick at my food or say that I already ate, or try to explain to people what I can’t eat and watch them look somewhat confused and concerned. (It’s confusing for me, too, and what sets me off seems to change from week to week. And I realize it’s way tougher to be vegan–at least I can still eat chicken and fish.) I’m also not supposed to drink alcohol, though I’ve found that I can have one drink if I fill up my stomach with food first. That one’s particularly tricky in Japan, where so many social and work events center around drinking.

Mostly, though, my temperamental stomach and newly restrictive diet have been a non-event. And maybe someday I’ll be able to have a burger again. Which could mean that I’ll eat a lot of burgers and pizza and mac and cheese and this thinner self will be history.

Which, come to think of it, I can totally live with. Especially if it means Porto’s potato balls are on the menu again.

One of the things I like about my current job is the variety of things I do in any given week. On Tuesday I might be painting a solar system model, on Wednesday I might be teaching, on Thursday I might be writing a script. On a pretty regular basis, though, I have to do some “people managing.”

Most of us have been in situations where we have to people-manage. Maybe you’re organizing a dinner party or a picnic, maybe you’re in charge of some sort of PTA thing (I’m sorry), maybe you’re a team leader of some sort in your workplace. People-managing can involve making sure a set group of people are at a set place on time, that everyone knows their responsibilities, and that the various personalities involved don’t cause the whole situation to blow up or shut down.

I’m lucky. My own people-management situations are pretty low-stress–I don’t have to manage entitled millionaires or drama queens, the events I have to plan are not a matter of life or death for anyone, and for the most part things tend to go smoothly. I sometimes say that I hate people-managing–I’ve never been very good at teamwork, prefer to work alone with the occasional bit of socializing and feedback / meetings–but really, compared to a lot of other job responsibilities I’ve had, people-managing isn’t that bad.

I also think I’m a pretty decent people-manager, especially compared to super-disorganized types who can really do serious damage in a workplace. But if you’ve ever managed or been managed (which, again, I think is true for most of us), maybe you’ll recognize some of my favorite Ways to Piss Off Your People Manager.

1. Make me email you multiple times with the same question / offer / request. Better yet, make me call you when you haven’t answered my multiple emails.  I don’t have a Smartphone, so I certainly don’t expect anyone to reply to me instantly. But after 24 hours I start to get mildly annoyed. 48 hours and I’m sending a follow-up email, and 24 hours after that I’m making a phone call that I really do NOT want to make.

I get that we all suffer from overloaded inboxes. I also get that you might be out of town, or sick, or just overwhelmed. But please, please, PLEASE. Don’t be a chronic email-ignorer. No one should have to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get in touch with you.

2. Ask to leave early. Uh, no. If the schedule says we’ll be here till 5:00, expect to be here till 5:00. “X and Y, you’ve got to stay, but I’m letting Z leave early, just because he asked me,” said no one ever.

3. Be late and be cavalier about it. Yes, we’re all late occasionally. Trains, alarm clocks, whatever. I give everyone at least one free pass. But for God’s sake, if you want to see my psycho side, be chronically late and act like it’s no big deal. It is a big deal. You’re wasting my time and everyone else’s time. Yes, it’ll happen, but at least be suitably contrite about it when it does.

4. Expect me to be superhuman. I fuck up. Sometimes I tell you the wrong place, or the wrong time, or send you the wrong link. I try SO, SO hard not to do that, to the point where I often have trouble falling asleep because I’m making a mental checklist of whether I did everything right. Forgive my minor mistakes and I will forgive yours.

5. Talk shit about other people. We all need to vent sometimes, but I really do not want to spend an afternoon listening to you talk disdainfully about a particular person who might be my friend / co-worker / onetime drinking buddy (and who might have had only nice things to say about you the week before). If you’ve got a serious issue with this person, talk to HR or confront them, but don’t pour poison in other people’s ears.

I apologize to all my past people managers for surely having done these things at least once.

(Warning: mild spoilers ahead, but nothing that would, in my opinion, lessen the enjoyment of any of the books under discussion.)

If there’s one thing we can take away from the recent IPCC reports on climate change and the various responses to them, it’s that shit just got a lot more real. Gone are the days when the debates focused on CFCs, or polar bears, or even the unfortunate inhabitants of island nations who, many of us could reassure ourselves, were very far away.

Not anymore. The crops are dying, food and water shortages are going to exacerbate global security problems, basic necessities are about to get a lot more expensive, and by some accounts it’ll only be a few decades before things start to get very, very ugly.

Given the sudden closeness of the dark future brought on by climate change, it’s not surprising that dystopian novels are starting to look a lot more familiar. I grew up on filmic and literary dystopias that seemed distant and unreal, if well-crafted and infused with real-seeming characters. The too-perfect society of The Giver, the post-apocalyptic worlds of Children of the Dust, I Feel Like the Morning Star, Mad Max, and Solarbabies, the totalitarian or soulless space-worlds of Crystal Singer and This Alien Shore. These stories took place on space stations or in underground cities, or remnants of civilization that bore little resemblance to the present-day world. These were vivid worlds with (sometimes) believable characters who acted in believable ways, but they might as well have been Narnia or Middle Earth for all that they resembled my own reality.

All that’s changing. With two of the latest versions of dystopia, Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy and Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, dystopia begins to look eerily familiar. As well it should. In 2014, we are clearer than ever about what form the near future will take and what hardships will shape our everyday lives. They no longer come in the form of spaceships with lasers or black-visored armies of machine gun-wielding soldiers. Rather, dystopia is a place where everything has been destroyed slowly, a tiny piece at a time–by apathy.

In both Atwood’s and Lee’s worlds, things aren’t horrible. They’re not even unrecognizable. In Atwood’s case, things initially seem normal, if a little drab, at least for those human beings lucky enough to be employed by a major “corp” and thus afforded luxuries like security, sanitary living conditions, enough food to eat, and a comfortable place to sleep. Gradually, though–the slow, horrifying reveal is one of Atwood’s trademarks–we come to realize just how dramatically the world has changed. Huge swaths of coastal communities are underwater, their citizens turned into refugees. There is no government to speak of, only the CorpSeCorps, a sort of military police force financed by the small number of corporations who seemingly run the world. The world is divided into the relative comfort of “corp”-sponsored life and the “pleeblands,” a wild expanse where anyone unlucky enough not to be employed by a corp ekes out a precarious existence.

Chang-Rae Lee’s world is also one ravaged by environmental devastation, with the world divided into wealthy “charter” communities who live in luxury (though their inhabitants still fall victim, at fairly early ages, to what appear to be varying forms of cancer), working-class immigrant communities who live spartan (if at least safe) existences and serve the charters, and the wild expanse of “counties,” similar to Atwood’s pleeblands, where a kind of wild west mentality prevails, without any of the romance.

In these nearer dystopias, we learn, almost everyone lives lives constantly on the verge of collapse.  In Atwood’s world, offend the wrong Corp and you could be summarily executed without a trial. Live in the pleeblands and you might be raped, sold into slavery, or murdered. In Lee’s world, even the wealthy “charters” live a precarious existence–the cost of everything is so high that even the smallest financial difficulty could see a family booted out into the wilds of the counties. For everyone, life expectancy is made even more fragile by disease, natural disasters, and for the non-charters, severely limited access to medical care.

So much of this is familiar, and that’s what makes it terrifying. Both worlds are essentially an imagining of what happens when the only infrastructure, security, and welfare are provided by and for those who can pay for them. Thus in the “counties” and the “pleeblands” there is no police force, no one to fix the potholes in the treacherous roads, no street lights, no medical facilities except for rogue doctors who take payment in flesh. Crime goes unpunished, unless punishment serves the interests of those in power: child porn and public executions are entertainment for the eternally bored and apathetic residents of Atwood’s world, while in Lee’s world the wealthy charters keep street children locked up like exotic animals in a zoo.

Atwood and Lee also understand what a world with an ever-widening income gap looks like. The charters and the “corp” residents are utterly divorced from the world that those who serve them inhabit, insulated in bubbles where they devote their time to skin rejuvenating, plastic surgery, mindless entertainments, and staving off ageing for as long as possible. In Lee’s world, there is the slimmest of chances that a commoner might score well enough on an exam to gain entry into charter life, but for the majority of the population precariousness and basic survival will be their lot.

Dystopian fiction has often focused on the moment of the apocalypse and its immediate aftermath–think of The Road or 28 Days Later (really, almost any zombie film ever made). The tension comes from the spectacle and shock of the sudden change, throwing characters who had led seemingly normal lives into a state of chaos. In Atwood and Lee’s worlds, though, the event is long past, and the characters have all–sadly, horrifyingly–adjusted to the aftermath. They live lives of quiet mediocrity, distantly aware that they are perched on a precipice but denying the precariousness of their existence right up until the moment of death.

One small detail of these worlds strikes me as especially heartbreaking: the death of art. In Atwood’s world art still exists, but artists live in rat-infested dorms while scientists and producers of high-end goods live in comfort and security. The only remaining use for creativity is in the selling of luxury items to the wealthy. Lee’s world doesn’t even bother with creativity for the sake of sales. People stopped reading ages ago, and no one seems to have the energy or the time to create or appreciate anything but mindless soap operas and sensational tabloid stories. In both worlds, cheap entertainment, porn, and public executions serve as a kind of mind-numbing drug, a way to help the precariat momentarily forget their fragile state of affairs. The creation of meaningful, purposeful art has no place in these worlds.

How appropriate, then, that it took two great fiction writers to do what years of warnings and hard data have thus far failed to do: create a sense of terrified urgency.  Atwood and Lee would probably have no place in the worlds they created–but only artists of their caliber could have envisioned them.

Thoughts on life after the PhD

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life

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