Flying, Flattering Furniture

Be excessively nice to each other.

Stephen Fry

 

Which is a stronger motivating tactic, fear or love?

I can recall several teachers, mostly in middle school, who were excellent purveyors of fear-fed encouragement. One was prone to throwing desks in her terrifying fits of frustration. Another teacher – a math genius who apparently couldn’t fathom why a student lacked the gift of telling when one train travelling 295 mph would pass the other if the other train was actually a hyena who had just received an accidental pap smear and was late for a meeting in Chicago – would employ the brilliant tactic of asking why said student couldn’t understand math.

One train is heading east at 295 mph, the other at 200 mph, the one from Chicago, the other from New York, the former trav--DERRRRRP

One train is heading east at 295 mph, the other at 200 mph, the one from Chicago, the other from New York, the former trav–DERRRRRP

For me, teachers are either remembered for being inspirational or terrifying, and the latter type has been pretty successful at convincing me to forgo Zelda and trudge through the painful slop that is Shakespearean literature.

Shakespeare English

That being said and as much as I have admired such wrath-incurring, desk-propelling tyrants, I find that the positive always outvalues the negative.

I find it’s the same in fueling a run with anger and fear versus one with positive thoughts and happiness.

An oldie, but a goodie, from my earlier blog

An oldie, but a goodie, from my earlier blog

As an English teacher, I strive to put my students at ease, elicit any efforts no matter if the answers are wrong or right, and genuinely praise them when those answers happen to be right. With some, I’m simply happy that they’ve chosen to speak. After all, I do work for an English conversation school.

On the other hand, as a person in general, I’m not exactly bursting with sweetness. Coworkers, friends, roommates – forgive me.

In the classroom, though, I’m a confetti-filled, carousing (and another hyphened, three-word c word my British coworker often enjoys saying) crowd pleaser, albeit no sycophant. While I admittedly enjoy taking my teaching tactics from Quite Interesting (bless you, Mr. Fry), I’ve often tried to style my teaching after a few of my more positive former teachers both in high school and at university.

Madame H., as I’ll call her, was my first true language teacher. Nearly every week of my freshman year of high school, the tiny French classroom of six students (the remaining entire grade having enrolled in Spanish) smelled of crêpes, cheeses, and whatever French treat Madame had us prepare that day.

french farts

Friday classes smelled of elderberries

While I was happy my best friend also decided to take the class, Madame was the main reason I chose to continue learning the language; she made every class fun and interactive, yet she expected much from our studies and therefore commanded our respect.

I had similar teachers in other subjects before and after Madame. Despite my poor math skills, I surprised myself after doing quite decently in AP Physics, thanks to an enthusiastic and persistent instructor. My poor piano teacher, probably the most persistent and patient of them all, was a constant purveyor of encouragement, even when she knew I hadn’t practiced much since our last lesson.

There are many studies on the effects of positive and negative, stick or carrot, methods of teaching, but, as those studies and my own experiences have attested, the carrot seems to be the healthier choice. Though, as an easily flattered egoist, I’d prefer the crêpe.

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May Backpost: Lowered Ears

“No one likes it, apart from blind people, and I’m sure even they can sense it’s profound ugliness as it passes by.”
― Richard Curtis, on bad haircuts

This week, I had my haircut. Hardly exciting, I realize, but not only is it refreshing to have huge clumps of dry hair hacked away and no longer be confused for Phil Spector, but it’s also a fun way to explore the town and test my Japanese skills. By fun, of course, I mean the kind of “fun” you have when you fall off a cliff in New Jersey and have to gimp walk the four-hour trail back to Manhattan. Even so, today, I wasn’t followed through the woods at dusk by four smiling men in hoods.

Wait. Except that one. He’s okay.

Wait. Except that one. He’s okay.

The traffic along the main streets made the air thick and nauseating in the heat, but I figured my best bet for a decent salon or barber’s – maybe even with staff that spoke some blessed English – wouldn’t be in the backstreets far from the city center. After nearly an hour of aimless walking, I considered pulling out a map, hoping some locals might help a stupid tourist find the station and, subsequently, a decent, cheap, English-friendly place for a haircut nearby.

Also, could you tell me where the nearest 7-11 is? Oh, we’re standing in one? Thanks so much.

Also, could you tell me where the nearest 7-11 is? Oh, we’re standing in one? Thanks so much.

I’m both miserly and careless with money, depending on the day or how much coffee or vodka I’ve had at the moment. When it comes to haircuts, though, I don’t feel it necessary to spend upwards of $30 or $40 on a haircut, particularly when I’ve not much hair to cut in the first place, I’m generally not fussed when it comes to a particular desired hairstyle, and I could save that money towards gifts to be sent home to friends and family*.

*I project this will happen sometime in November. Good feelings about November.

Passing blue-white-red pole after pole with “menus” of fixed prices – the cheapest one of which advertised a trim for $35 – I happened upon a blue-and-green pole in front of a slender building. I immediately and boldly went inside after deliberating for 20 minutes around the corner. Two women in their 40s stopped mid-chat to appraise me, the one taking me in as one would a dim puppy, while the other, the barber, eyed my wild, wind-blown hair dubiously.

The Japanese I poo-pooed so gracefully came out something like this:

“Yes. Cut. Man. Hair. Good. Good? That’s fine. Yes?”

In all honesty, I might’ve told the women I was going to cut them, but after saying “yes” a few more times, I was shown to a chair.

One thing remains true about getting my haircut, no matter the country, and that’s the unwillingness of the hairdresser to leave the bloody length as is in the front. On one occasion in the States, a hair cutter (I refuse to call her a stylist of any sort) insisted she cut some of the length in the front; I held out, and when she had finished, she stood back and said with obvious revelation, “Wow, that actually looks really good!”

Maybe a little particular about my hair.

Maybe a little particular about my hair.

Unfortunately this time, not much conversation was had, but I watched my butcher hack cautiously, as she paused every few minutes, furrowing her brow when she observed the unbridled gaijin tufts winging out over my gaijin ears.

“Lots of,” I imitated Sloth from The Goonies. “Cut. Lots.” In time, the poor woman made a few minute snips in the back to signal the end of the haircut and commenced a tossle-and-brush-down procedure that felt a little more punishing than necessary.

After I had received my change, the woman pointed at the paper yen and then my pocket. I panicked, thinking I was supposed to tip, and was put off guard even more when she asked if I had my mother’s or father’s hair. My escape was a mad blur of more monosyllabic beginner’s Japanese.

“Yes. That’s fine. Yes. Thanks.”

foreign language

I went to the park for a bit of reading and for locals to gape at me as they passed – my favorite pasttime – and started to wonder when I stopped trying. No longer studying Japanese, nor doing much in the way of botany and plant physiology – simply stagnating and waiting to scramble at the last minute when it comes time for my next move.

My mother will begin her new job this summer, a change she seems quite excited about (including the financial aspect, heyo!), and I’m immensely proud of her. Of course, when I say “proud”, I do mean that but also jealous. Some may say this is a startling mindset for a son to be jealous of his parent, but what I would give to have her drive, and who are you to say so?

You think you know.

You think you know.

I make no resolutions here, nor do I generally make resolutions ever; it sets the bar far too high. So far, I’ve ran a marathon, met a few decent folks, and managed to use the word “poo-pooed” in a blog post. Aside from that, I’ve a long way to go if I want 2014 to be the banner year I imagined it would be.

Monstrous Botanical Beauties of Fiction

“and I really got hot when I saw Janette Scott fight a triffid that spits poison and kills.”

Science Fiction, Double Feature – The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Kudzu is beautiful. It spreads out for acres and spills over trees like waterfalls of green. Along the Tohoku Expressway from Koriyama to Tokyo, it blankets vast areas and isolated copses, giving the lower-lying areas on either side of the road the appearance of an incredible undulating green sea and the occasional monster of a large tree rising from its swells.

Kudzu

Yet, like many plants in Fukushima prefecture, it is beautiful but deadly. Whereas the Lily of the Valleys that grace every Spring garden in and around Koriyama are poisonous from their roots to their deceivingly adorable bell flowers, the kudzu sends its roots down deep, sometimes to a depth of 12 feet; once established, it climbs, spreads, and smothers everything around it.

In July this year, the journal New Phytologist published The myriad surprises of unwanted guests: invasive plants and dynamic soil carbon pools, a study which reported that kudzu also detrimentally releases sequestered carbon from the soil.

IMG_1564

Sinister as such plants are in the real world, some movies and literary works brilliantly amplify plants’ more inimical attributes. For instance, although they had no intention other than to root and grow at an extraordinary pace, the bean stalk vines in the 2013 film Jack the Giant Slayer wreaked havoc as they twisted and then twined upward to giant territory. Whereas kudzu chokes out competitors by blocking sunlight, wisteria similarly wraps its woody vines around and strangles the life out of anything it attaches to. As gorgeous as its pendulous racemes are, it’s damaged a number of sidewalks and fences throughout Koriyama.

Bees swarm under a pergola laden with recently bloomed Wisteria in Ose Park

Bees swarm under a pergola laden with recently bloomed Wisteria in Ose Park

Fans of the more aggressive, hands/leaves-on flora would enjoy the 1962 film The Day of the Triffids (much like older zombie films, people can’t seem to react fast enough when there’s a Triffid a football field away moving at the breakneck speed of 4 mph) and its impressive 2009 BBC series remake, starring comedian Eddie Izzard as the swaggering, opportunistic villain. Most might draw similarities between the films’ killer carnivorous plants and the much less-threatening and -mobile pitcher plants.

A pitcher plant at the Shinjuku Botanical Garden

A pitcher plant at the Shinjuku Botanical Garden

However, the Triffids might have more in common with such plants as the nasty Manchineel and the Giant Hogweed, the latter capable of causing permanent scars and blindness upon contact.

Possibly the most well-known meat-digester is the voracious Manhattanite Aubrey II, the killer plant from outerspace in the 1986 musical Little Shop of Horrors. As inspiration for the film, Earth’s Venus Fly Trap’s mechanisms and evolution are not unimpressive (for example, two hairs must be triggered in order for the trap to close, as to avoid false alarms and thus wasting precious energy), but it will be a while until they begin singing let alone achieving world domination.

Lovely, deadly Lily of the Valley in Ose Park, Koriyama

Lovely, deadly Lily of the Valley in Ose Park, Koriyama

Minus the singing, spider plants in Hothouse, a sci-fi novel by Brian Aldiss, have taken advantage of the author’s unimaginable plot in which the Earth has stopped rotating. Other notable monster botanicals include the fixations of Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter series (wisteria-like devil’s snare, Whomping Willow, puffapod, Mimbulus mimbletonia, and folklore-inspired mandrakes). J.K. Rowling’s honking daffodils even have a striking similarity to the overlarge, sneezing flowers in the 1991 film Hook, starring the late Robin Williams (recently Hulu’s top film of the week).

A lovely kudzu flower along the Abukuma River in Koriyama

A lovely kudzu flower along the Abukuma River in Koriyama

Finally, in a fantastic article published in Garden Design, Anna Laurent shed light on the subtle (and not-so-subtle) botanical references in Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games series. Not just sci-fi and plant lovers but anyone can enjoy these fictional works and gain more of an appreciation for the phylum beneath our feet. And while Rocky Horror Picture Show features no such monstrous botanicals beauties, it’s a crime not to watch it nonetheless.

Summer Slump

The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been put before it.

Sir Conan Doyle submitted these words to The Strand over 90 years ago, a famous and well-respected author going nuts over some photographs that might’ve otherwise been immediately dismissed by even the slightest of skeptics in his time.

A year before her death, even Frances Griffiths – who as a child staged clever photographs of winged gnomes and fairies with her sister – said she couldn’t understand “why [brilliant men like Conan Doyle] were taken in – they wanted to be taken in.”

During a more innocent time in my life, I too was taken in, not by fairies but by stories of Santa, Easter Bunny, God, Satan, the Boogie Man, and Cher. I trusted adults when they told me that the clashes of thunder could either be the angels bowling or an all-out war between Heaven and Hell. I always prayed to God to have his bowling leagues scheduled on the same day as my baseball games.

Around that time in my childhood, I did a good deal of exploring the woods behind my house and looking for forest imps and holes leading to a parallel universe or otherwise imagining that the puddles in my driveway led to some kind of shadow world and that crossing through a cornfield would enable me to time travel.

I didn't "technically" have a lot of girlfriends back then. Or, technically, friends.

I didn’t “technically” have a lot of girlfriends back then. Or, technically, friends.

As they have for me, these sort of fancies have served many needs throughout human history: religious – Eve hid her illegitimates from God so he hid them from her, thus creating the hidden people; cultural –those same creatures came back to rectify a city ban against dancing; political – to save elven habitats, Finnish citizens stalled or called into question road development and building construction; epidemic – bewildered and scared, Western Europeans dug up and stabbed or burned their recently departed as to halt vampiric attacks; geographical – rock formations and avalanches in Norway, some which took out churches, were attributed to dim-witted, Christian-hating mountain trolls.

But childhood is over, science is unmasking all the mystery, and whatever beauty is left is being overtaken by an ever-expanding gray sheet of concrete. Four lots in my neighborhood—each with its own small biome of yomogi, Robert Geranium (aka Stinky Bob), tiger lilies, mint, and purpletop vervain—have recently been paved over, two for parking spillover and the others for two new apartment buildings.

Here's an unimpressive picture to prove my dull point.

Here’s an unimpressive picture to prove my dull point.

So where does one who subsisted on the fruits of imagination find inspiration and relief?

crack

No, no. Movies. While Marvel and DC Comics have crapped out some particularly heinous loads like Spider Man and Watchmen, mysterious superheroes and villains with newfound powers and a sense of purpose never seem to fail to attract quite a crowd along with the box office millions. Then there are Miyazaki’s animated films, which highlight nature’s fragile beauty and its mysteriousness as well as its power; the latter quality of nature is especially exploited in two favorite reads of mine, Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse and John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids.

Travelling has also not been altogether disappointing, although one tends not to experience any real trolls in the mountains of Norway, angry dead sailor ghosts in Japan, ravenous child-munching old women in Hungary, or secret sub-pyramid catacombs in Egypt.

Miyazaki Quote

Even then, I’m glad I was taken in from an early age. The wonderment may have faded a bit, and not every venture seems as promising and bright as the aforementioned tales of dork-walks-into-woods-pretends-he’s-in-Lord-of-the-Rings, but every once in a while, there’s a little bit of spark to be found in music, an adventure gone wrong to be told as a humorous story later, and a really beautiful shared moment impossible to be captured by an iPhone.

But I really do wish we had just one dragon.

Looking out over Fukushima city from Mt. Shinobu. Ruined a few minutes after by my R2D2 scream.

Looking out over Fukushima city from Mt. Shinobu. Ruined a few minutes after by my R2D2 scream.