Monthly Archives: April 2011

Cute, it’s the new… everything

What I believed simply to be yet another cultural difference between Japan and the West may be far more interesting. I have commented in the past on the ‘kawaii culture’ which dominates the public eye as THE concept of aesthetics to strive for. Endless pastel pinks, mini bow ties and glitter adorn an unimaginable variety of products, and command – I am certain – an enormous market share.
Being a woman in Japan your life will start out with all admirers calling you ‘kawaii’ as a newborn, and this will set the tone, on average, for the next 86 years of your life when finally, quite dead, you cease to be kawaii. Even then I am not certain your headstone will not be pink, adorned with Hello Kitty stickers, and coated in glitter. “Her grave is SO cute, neh!” your friends will say, as not even the finality of death can deprive the single greatest marketing theme since shoes and handbags (which are, of course, also very kawaii).
Being kawaii then must be the daily goal of roughly 64 million Japanese women, and some of its none-too-studly men as well. This is easier still than getting wet by jumping off a ship in the middle of the Ocean and swimming home. Indeed it seems impossible for a woman to purchase things marketed to them which are definitively NOT kawaii. Good news there then. But what then, with every woman being kawaii, does it mean? We – and I am talking now about you and I as Westerners – dress according to many different aesthetic ideals and social expectations. When we go to work we dress the part, just as when we go out, to the beach, or to a wedding or a funeral. I will admit there comes a time in most Western girls’ lives when they too may have the mood strike them just so, and dress ‘cute’ – our closest approximation of kawaii. In the lives of Western women – in stark contrast to all available evidence regarding their counterparts in Japan – this ‘cuteness’ is a phase usually thoroughly dead by the time her many creams can no longer hide the fact that she has the slightest hint of a wrinkle. Not so in Japan. Then again women here seem to have little choice, and here we come to the crux of it: when truly everyone expects you to be kawaii, it is very unwise to want to be something else. Where I had believed there to be no approximate term for ‘sexy’ in Japan (to my great dismay!) I have now come to realize the truth of it: Kawaii is the code for many styles – sexy among them. Let me explain:
The Japanese – women especially – are by Western standards prohibitively shy. Do not be troubled; this behavior is encouraged, presumably because it would be awkward for the equally shy men to be more shy then the women they are with. This shyness leads to a lot of averted gazes in public, a chronic inability to speak, and a fascinating façade to blend in nicely with expectation. It also means women cannot openly admit that today they did not feel like being ‘kawaii’ and instead busted out the 6-inch stilettos and mini skirt of matching length because they wanted to be – shockingly – sexy. Admitting such a desire openly would be tantamount to blasphemy in the church of kawaii and devil-worship of sinful western influence. Thus, Japanese society has come up with a wonderful compromise, elegant in its simplicity: a woman can dress like a slut or a slob, a professional or a princess, but all talk of how she looks is limited to ‘kawaii.’ In other words the Japanese have, rather than acknowledging a problem, paved over it with a blatant and enthusiastically embraced lie. So it is that Japanese fashion can be so very strange and still – if asked – all talk of even the strangest of outfits may be categorized as kawaii without the slightest hint of irony.

Advertisements

Education – Part One

The education of our children rightly continues to be an issue of grave concern and heated debate. What we choose to teach and, crucially, not teach the next generation plays a role in how that generation will compare to the ones which have gone before – including our own.
It is therefore logical to want to improve the educational system. Whether this be done by learning from past mistakes, our own experiences as a student, or by accounting for advances in our understanding of the world we live in, it must be done. It must be done because if it is not one generation will follow the other, physically perpetuating the existence of man even while our cummulative knowledge base stagnates.
I see it even now, as my generation transitions from young to old, and our progress is measured with the garish light of retrospect, we have added very little of substance.
My theory is this: there are simply too many people. There are too many vices and too many voices who speak them. Even the brightest minds are hampered, already at a young age, by the lowest common denominator dynamic of our educational policies. So woried are we a child may fail that the margin for error is extended to such breadth that success loses its former significance just so all may pass. So fearful are we of upsetting the parents of the least gifted of children that we scuttle the status quo to inexcusable depths at the detriment of all the others. This does us, as a people, a tremendous disservice. It weakens us and slows our progress. It symbolizes our ironic inability to learn from the most common and time-honored mistake: pandering to the loudest voices as opposed to the more rarely heard wisest voices.

I do not deny the issue of education is complex nor that mending its many problems is extremely challenging. I am merely suggesting that perhaps we would be better able to solve them if we’d catered to the bright students with a higher standard of education thus paving the way for them to raise the bar, improving on the status quo, rather than simply perpetuating it.

The endless debate in politics regarding education is moot so long as we put more emphasis on defeating our opponents than teaching our children.


Knowing

I’m the guy who believes things few others do. I have been called crazy, but I don’t think I am. Were we to pass eachother on the street, you would not think me different from any other stranger. All of us have a silent voice that narrates our lives – an echo that resounds only in our minds as we live our lives. I am just like you, but perhaps our muted voices are not. We might never have known however had it not been for my apathy for social grace – arbitrary lines of conduct and appropriate conversation which I eagerly bound past on a daily basis. These boundries of shame over the humanity we deny exists in us all are utterly uninteresting. Far more interesting are the truths we conceal – the people we want to be, and truly are, held at bay by the written and unwritten laws of man.

Not here, not today, not if I can help it.

I once wrote extensively on life, as I saw it, through the eyes of a precocious adolescent. I wrote about its many difficulties, its tremendous joys, and everything from the mundane to the extraordinary. I was, and continue to be, fascinated by genuine thought. I relish opinions, even those radically different from my own, provided they stem from original thought. For years I could define nor place this desire, this need. Now that I have it dominates my life, the question ‘why?’ ever at the forefront of my mind. I would ask this deceptively simple question of everyone, and everything, unburdened by judgement or propriety. I would ask it because there are so many people on this earth. Too many by far to know them all. Too many to know in the country you were born, the city you live in, and even the place you work. We barely know each other, going through life guided by the commonly accepted parameters of tolerance and coexistence – the bare minimum of insincere interaction to fascilitate our own ends in life, as sincerity and truth pass us by anonymously.

I live in one of the biggest cities in the world, forever surrounded by million hordes going about their lives entirely outside the scope of my knowledge. All these lives are lived by individuals who, for better or for worse, have a silent voice of their own, a muted passenger in the form if a conscience, a narrator, and at times a friend. A guide that echoes our thoughts, offers advice, and rehearses what we make audible for others to hear. Yet I know so few if them. I know, so it feels, none of them. We share nothing but the city we live in and the scientific name we share: “homo sapien” – thinking man, as we all are, but know little about.

Without asking a question no answer can be given. Ergo, curiocity compells us to ask, to listen, and to learn. We are a vocal creature, a social creature, craving both knowledge and company, and never really knowing why.

I struggle as a human being. I find the anonymity of proximity and abundance to be disconcerting. I feel alone in a city of tens of millions. I am alone, quiet even now, as my mind races and my lips stay sealed. I do not know the people around me, nor do they know me, yet we coexist peacefully. We do not know each other’s opinions, beliefs or passions. We are safely alone in a world we share. We are at peace in our ignorance of our fellow man yet we are surprised by anything out of the ordinary – events which upset the comfortable familiarity of the status quo. It is a dychotemy: our selective curiocity tempered by the smallness of our mortal existence.

I do not prepose that knowing every person on earth should be a goal or a necessity for a fulfilling life, I merely wish to convey the strangeness of man. I’m not crazy; we are all crazy. We have to be crazy. We cannot afford to be who we might want to be. There are too many of us. Too many silent voices, with different opinions, different beliefs and passions, and different priorities. Our mutual apathy is good, it is safe, it is expected. Purposely breaking this boundary then can be disconcerting, uncomfortable, even offensive. It is not meant to be. One might event realize, should you stop to think, that it is quite the opposite; a compliment inherent in one person asking another to lift the veil of anonymity and giving them a chance to be who they truly are, far away from the judgements and labels of our common world. Show me… teach me… who you are when you think no one is looking, and no one can hear – who you would be if you could. Tell me… who are you really? What sets you apart from everyone else? By what right do you exist if you are just another person? We all have something, if not many idiosyncracies that make us who we are and not someone else. I am interested in those things because the rest pales in comparison – trivialized by its insignificance.

An opinion is a personal thing. It is like a resolution based on experience, thought, and feeling. As such – it being your own – an opinion cannot be wrong. Why then do you fear to speak them out loud? Why do we keep secret the very thoughts, feelings and experiences that make us who we are? When is a lie ever better than the truth even when we loathe to utter the words that amputate our individuality?

Be brave, be strong, be different and, most importantly, be who you truly are. Surely being who you are is easier than upholding the pretence of who you are not. Discard the illusion and show yourself; I can’t wait to meet you. I can’t wait to fall in love with who you really are and have been all along. I can’t wait… to find out who you truly are.



Yesterdays

Times have changed. In the past, one man had worth. Two men put together conquered the heavens as they sought to fly. 300 men could inspire courage from the afterlife and know victory where others saw only defeat. What now can men claim? We kill our brother man. We have become more adept at cheating him than we are at helping him. How now do we go forth? Are we yet capable of extruding the Olympic message from the 24-hour propaganda reel broadcast live into our retinas? Do we see the bigger picture behind the invasion of Georgia? Are we still capable of construing our own opinion or are we lost without the ‘guidance’ of CNN?

I fear for all of us, and thus all of you. Wherever you are, and whatever you do – keep a weary on on the horizon of humanity and question what is generally accepted as the status quo. Do not just shrug your shoulders and accept what others have decided is best for you. Make your own decisions… please.


A Good Bluff

The whimsical ‘life is just a game’ analogy is not unfamiliar to most of us. Apt at defining a broad, albeit entirely useless, sense of things, there is some truth to the fact that our little stint with a mortal life has a distinct element of luck to it. It is also true that some of us are playing with more of a full deck than others, and yet others insist on, with varying degrees of success, stacking the deck in their favor. We would all be wise to recall that the world in which we live is governed as much by appearances as realities,
necessitating a good bluff as much as a good hand. Winning after all, is relative to what each man has to decide for himself constitutes victory. Genghis Khan for instance is reported to have said something to the effect of: “it is not enough for me to win – everyone else must lose.” It goes without saying that if such is your idea of victory, one would need not only a great bluff, but a fantastic hand as well. So how did people like Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, or even the Norse vikings of old play this game called life? Was it their bluff, an invention older than the game of poker, that was so convincing, all the other players tossed their cards in desperation? Was the possibility, the very notion of defeat, so inconceivable to them (and their enemies as well) that no challenges were even ushered, and not a moment of doubt shown?
At the end of the proverbial day, there’s 52 cards in the deck, and you can’t fold forever. Maybe they realized that early and set about making damn sure all the other players realized it all too late.


Dillusion

We live in a day and age where “googling” something is an accepted verb and past-time. Surprising then that so many people know so little, when it is all readily available for the curious and discerning among us. For example, whenever I try to watch the news (any news station – take your pick) it doesn’t take me long to become ‘inspired’ to google somethings. The American electoral process (to clarify: it’s that day-time soap being broadcast 24-hours a day like it’s all news), is a good motivator to go google something. Like “dictionary.” Then you can look up fun words like “dillusion”

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/delusional

good times. For some people having their feelings explained helps get to the root of the problem. Also, for some people, having the proper word matched to their ignorance helps put a face to the hysteria. Now in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter in the slightest who my American friends choose to vote for, as they are an unusually intelligent lot in stark contrast to many of their countrymen and so their votes won’t accurately reflect the national sentiment. It also won’t matter as the office of the Presidency is not quite as omnipotent as we are all led to believe. Again, he is the face of the country (regrettably at times – anyone remember Bush?), but in a republic (yes you are a republic) the senate wields considerable power, and as in all modern western democracies you can’t really change the big problems because we can’t collectively admit to them as such. Not to mention that whether McCain or Obama wins, in 4 short years it might be another guy, and even in the unlikely event either of them will be an excellent president, he’ll still only get a max of 8. We might not like to admit this as it is highly damaging to what we consider right, but a good old fashioned Roman emperor would have solved things like national education, and retarded religious cults raping 12-year-olds in the name of some divine purpose a long time ago. We don’t, and through all the red tape can no longer allow our leaders to be truly strong. To stray from the expected path and really instill change. Change frightens us, even if it is for the better, and frankly we have enough on our minds. What we really want, but can’t admit, is a guy who will get on stage and say: “I am willing to take responsibility for when our democratic process fails you personally, and I am definitely going to soak up the spotlight when we score successes.”

Again google Webster’s big ol’ dictionary of the English language and type in: ‘dillusion’ then ask yourself – am I still thinking, or is that troublesome task being done for me? Oh and kids – if it takes another recount to confirm only 51% of the country is going to come out remotely satisfied… don’t come crying to me when comedy central can’t get enough air time to cover it all

I’m not going to rant or anything. To avoid doing that however, this is where I stop writing.


Modern Times

Hello again my oh-so-far-away friends!

Surely some of you have noticed things have been suspiciously quiet from my end of late. No cynical rantings about the lack of candidates for the US elections, no inflammatory monologues on the global recession – not even a bitter note containing pertinent information for all to know. Well the wait is over, I return(!) and I come bearing the gift of prose.

Recently it was brought to my attention that one of my friends, who shall not here be named, had the misfortune of attending America’s worst school district. Consequently, he could not tell me where Oslo was, what the capital of Australia is, or even how many countries comprise the African continent. “Why do those things matter?” he asked innocently, and the flood gates sprung open.

Being a US citizen means that at age 18 you get to help elect the man (and hopefully one day a woman) who will wave the scepter over the most powerful, influential, and vocal nation in the world. That person is expected to deal with all manner of serious matters ranging from the economy (oops!) to global politics, and at times, where to send the Marines. It may then be nice, I argued to my wayward friend, to know something about some of the more pressing matters that face your country and by extension its leaders and ultimately yourself.
World geography, as was our topic, is no trivial matter. Directly after the terrorist attacks on the 11th of September, 2001 a survey was put into the field asking Americans to point to, on a blank map of our world, where President Bush should send the considerable might of the US armed forces. The places some of those fingers ended up are painful indicators as to the lack of worldly knowledge some people possess. Equally interesting is the fact that an overwhelming majority of those polled believed Iraq, and the lackeys of former dictator Saddam Hussein, to be responsible for the attacks.

Why is this important? In a democratic republic such as the united states, the people elect their most capable peers to serve in their government. At least, that is what is supposed to happen. Sadly, thanks to rules and regulations governing this very process, the candidates with the most money usually end up in office, having essentially defeated the notion of democracy. The knowledge they bring with them to this office is traditionally their great strength. We, the people, do not have to know what countries signed the NATO treaty so long as our leaders do, right? Well no, but it would be nice if everyone knew anyway. If however your congressman got elected, as so many of them do, by running the broadest campaign, saying the things most of us wanted to hear, and doing all the right things in front of the CNN cameras, it is entirely likely that he or she is better at running for office than he or she is at governing (for which you need knowledge, not electoral savvy)

In the end, the congressman in our example goes on to be a senator, a Governor, and the next president of the United States. He is an election winning machine, a true American, with all the right values, and the champion of our issues. Not so I say. He is, a professional election winner. He won the election to be congressman, he won the election to be Governor, and he has finally climbed his very own political Mt.Everest: he is now President. What has he gained in the mean time I wonder? Surely some knowledge of the issues at hand in recent years. Perhaps even information gathered by such illustrious groups as the CIA, NSA, and more recently the Department of Homeland Security, which is not available to you and I. Presumably, this information has prepared our intrepid politician for the task he now faces as President. Not so I say. The world has become such a complicated, high-pace, chaos that to understand it all is no longer possible. To that end, the President collects a vast horde of advisers, knowledgeable in a plethora of matters he himself is simply not, and cannot be. After all, there are only so many hours in a day, and he spent most of his being an election winner, not a Nobel laureate, a scholar, or a student of our world. These advisers do what their titles implies, but at the end of the day, when the order is given in the situation room to invade a 3rd-world country to “liberate” its people from the oppressive clutches of its religiously zealous militant regime in which their sons serve, the President is the one giving the order.

So, we the people have collectively chosen the person who will in the end receive all the blame. We never quite understood the magnitude of our decision as we do not understand the magnitude of the world we live in. We do not know there are more African nations than there are states in the United States. We do not know that since the invasion of Afghanistan the world’s production of heroin has doubled, and we certainly do not know it is the Afghan farmers, liberated from the oppressive clutches of the Taliban, are the ones producing the balance of that crop. Nor do we know, or care apparently, that American teens are the ones shooting up Afghan heroin, ODing, and dying, along with their peers in other “civilized” nations.

How could you be expected to know all this? After all, in school you were very busy covering things such as math, US history, science, and English (a language of which I can assure you, most of the registered voters have little more than a passing understanding) – we never covered world geography, sociopolitical impact of our decisions upon the global stage, or analytical thinking. Those things were deemed non-essential. Better you learn to recite the pledge of allegiance (paying special attention to the “one nation under God” line added in later) without stuttering than learning why it is your country is so wildly unpopular and what you can do about it. Going back to the conversation I was having with my good friend, he offered that he could have studied some of these things outside of school and simply did not. I stepped in then, telling him he should not have had to. Instead of covering US history, his school should have covered world history (increasing the length of time covered from 300 years to about 10,000) Instead of teaching him the name of every capitol, mountain range, and river in the US at a snail’s pace, they should have done that for every continent at 7 times the pace.

In the back of my mind I hear another friend of mine complaining even as I write this. “But the slower children would never be able to take it all in, grades would drop and the parents would be unhappy!” She is a teacher, and a damn good one, but she misses the bigger picture sometimes as she has been utterly consumed by the system.

If I were to teach world geography to a group of 6th graders in the US, and unlike their peers I would include such crazy places as Europe, Africa, and Asia in my curriculum, I would have to shorten the time spent on each continent. By extension, the kids would have less time to learn where all the capitols, rivers, and mountain ranges were. Thus, they would get lower grades and some might even fail. F+ for trying. The parents would indeed call the school and say things like: “My son/daughter is a very special child and I feel it cannot be their fault they failed this horrible teacher’s stupid world geography class! Who needs that stuff anyway? I didn’t when I went to school and I turned out fine!”
Well ma’am, yes and no. You turned out fine when compared to the expectations set out for you and your ilk. We have simply raised the bar so that your children will know more than you, and hopefully, in time, their children will know more than they did. This is what we like to call evolution of the mind. (OH NOES! I used the ‘E’-word!)
Put it another way, I feel too little was expected of you ma’am. I think it looks good if all your students get ‘A’s and no one fails. I think we are a self-congratulatory bunch more concerned with appearances than substance. Yes, your son/daughter failed my class, but many others did not. I even have one bright young girl in my class who got an ‘A’ despite the increased work load and decreased time spent on each individual subject. It is my sincere hope that she grows up to be the next President of these United States and brings her knowledge to bare on the apathetic, ignorant, and uneducated lot she will meet there.

Still not convinced? I borrow now from H.Jackson Brown Jr. – an American writer famous for such books as “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” and “Live and Learn and Pass it on” He wrote:

“Never say there isn’t enough time. Your days contain exactly the same number of hours as those of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”

Surely if they could do it, some of our children might as well. I fear these elections are a moot point for me. Though I am personally rooting for senator Obama for fear of the consequences of Mc.Cain winning, that is hardly the right motive for wanting a candidate to win. It is my sincere hope that a day will come when a young man or woman stands up and is recognized for their knowledge of this world, their ability to think rationally and analytically, and to come up with the solutions we so desperately need. When that person starts to run, I will get genuinely excited. Until then my friends, I hope all of you will come to expect more, not less, of all the people that matter in your lives.