A Bigger Voice

13 09 2008

Back when I was studying to be an opera singer, my vocal coaches and voice teachers used to tell me, “You have a big voice,” meaning that the quality of sound was very open and clear with natural volume and that it had the potential to fill large performance spaces without strain or “pushing”.  As a matter of fact, it was this quality that often made a challenge out of singing in choruses or small ensembles, because my voice was more inclined to stick out rather than blend in requiring a greater amount of vocal control to match the sound quality of my fellow singers.

As I’ve moved beyond my professional singing days, I find that having a big voice is not exclusive to the realm of musicians.  People with big voices naturally stick out in every aspect of their lives.  Of my fellow students at the time, there were two or three others characterized as having big voices.  They also posessed big personalities, distinctive styles of dress, and an engaging, charismatic eloquence that ensured they never blended into the background of any situation wherin they found themselves.

Big voiced people don’t cope well with being overpowered or drowned out, mainly because it rarely ever happens.  We can sing over orchestras, dammnit!  We can cut through the roar of a party crowd with a single well-placed shout.  Our voices always rise above.  That’s why I think I experience so much frustration during major political cycles.  I’m not used to not being heard, particularly when I feel I have something vital to say.

At this moment, I wish I had a bigger voice.

As human souls, as sparks of Divine energy, we find physical form on this planet of ours, and we are tested, tried, broken down and reformed.  All of our experiences here on Earth are meant to teach us something.  All of our actions and choices in our lifetimes are meant to help us learn how to be worthy to join those higher beings–call them Angels, Enlightened Ones, or what you will–who have gone before us and become a part of a greater community of spirit.  Right now, Humanity is having difficulty passing the 3rd grade.

We are still too embroiled in the challenges of the physical world–which is what three represents, by the way.  Land ownership matters, as do the physical substances that can be rendered from that land.  Material wealth is valued over the riches of mind and spirit.  We still think it far better to strike out with fist and sword and gun and bomb than with thought, word or emotion.  Love and compassion are ridiculed in the face of fear and agression.  What is best for “me and mine” is valued over what is best for everyone as a whole.  When we were children, we had these attitudes as well, but we grew past them.  Our increased interactions with other people, with new situations and different ideas lead us beyond the circle of our nuclear family to embrace the world at large.  We need to do this on a mental and spiritual level now.

What we lack, I believe, is balance.  The world is very “masculine”, very martial right now.  You can see this in our leaders, in those who strive to be leaders.  That is also a quality of three.  The triangle is a masculine shape, the circle and the square, feminine ones.  What we need is more “feminine” influence.  Some people call this Christ Consciousness, not because they are Christian or follow any organized religion, but because of the philosophy that Jesus–be he man, prophet, or Son of God–put forth:  Love, not hatred and fear.  Compassion, not hard-hearted selfishness.  Fellowship, not stubborn isolation.  Often, when people hear “feminine”, they immediately think “woman.”  That’s a very limited way of thinking, and history shows us that some of the most vocal proponents for “feminine” principle have been men.  Likewise, there are not a small number of women who embody “masculine” philosophy.

In eight weeks, American citizens will be called upon to choose someone to lead us through the next four years, to act as a role model, to be a guidepost, to set the standard.  The stakes are so high because we collectively feel that this choice can either propel us forward or hold us back.  To me, this contest isn’t about Republican or Democrat.  It isn’t about John McCain or Barak Obama.  This contest is about resisting change or embracing it.  Oh, I know both candidates say they’re working towards a change, but when you get right down to it, when you clear away the rhetoric, the TV ads, the minutiae of policy and voting records and all that, what is left is the inherent philosophy of these two men and their campaigns.  One of them represents balance and change, the other represents staying the same.

Now, lest you think I’m passing judgement, let me pause and firmly state that sometimes change is not right for everyone.  Every soul progresses at its own rate and in its own time.  Some of us are further along the road of spiritual development than others.  That doesn’t make these forerunners “better” or those behind “worse”.  This is important to realize.  It is in our nature to resist change, in spite of whatever high-vaulted words we use or our very real desire to do so.  Change cannot be forced.  It’s like children who repeat a year in school.  I never see those kids as being “slow” or “dumb” or somehow less-than.  I just think those kids need more time to adjust, to prepare for the changes that must eventually come.  And oh, when we do change! When we do resist, when we accept the hardships and the vulnerabilities that go along with that process, we realize the potential of our better selves.

It is easy to get lost in the rush of emotions that surround big choices.  It is easy to look upon others who don’t share our philosophy and think them petty or ignorant.  I know I’m as guilty of doing this as any other person, though I try hard not to.  My personal belief is that a vote for Barak Obama is a move towards balance, a step forward, a choice to embrace more of the “feminine” principles of Love, Compassion, and Fellowship.  Some people are ready to make that step forward.  Others are not.  This doesn’t give those of us who *are* the right to shake our heads sadly and bewail the supposed “stubbornness” or “foolishness” or “ignorance” or “pig-headed-ness” of those who choose differently.  It is far better to let people change at their own pace rather than drag them, kicking and screaming, into things they are not ready for.  Rather, ours should be an attitude of patience, of willingness to accept that some of our fellow human beings aren’t quite up to jumping off the high-dive into the deep end, but also of care, vigilance, and encouragement.

I hold out hope that my fellow Americans will make the same choice that I will, but if they don’t, that just means that I will have to work that much harder to encourage them, to show by example that change can be good, that the deep water is not so scary as it might seem.  But I wish I had a bigger voice.  It’s hard to be heard over the ranting, wailing and screaming of the crowd.

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What I Care About

29 08 2008

When I was a university student, I took a poetry seminar with one Tom Emery.  I *wanted* to take the fiction seminar with another professor, but…so did everyone else in the writing program that year, so I had to go with what was available.  Boy, am I ever glad fate took that turn!  The poetry seminar was good for my writing in ways that I’d never imagined poetry could be.  Tom Emery was good for my mind and my soul.  He was passionate about the environment, had been for most of his life.  In 1993, he sat in our discussion circle and told us that in ten to fifteen years, the most important issues that our generation would face would be environmental at their core.  Water, he believed, was the problem nobody had yet cared to worry about.  He also talked about the dangerous dependency we have on fossil fuels.  This was fifteen years ago, and I’m sad to say that everything that Mr. Emery predicted is true.  Back then, I never imagined that water would be an issue in Atlanta, Georgia, but in 2008, my friends and family back home are facing constant water restrictions.  In Australia, desertification has become an alarming problem.  Not only is water an issue, but the politics and economics of fossil fuels and our dependency upon them has become an integral part of ordinary peoples’ lives.

I joined The We Campaign because I have long believed that the only thing stopping America from making the natural and logical transition to sustainable energy production is greed on the part of a small collection of individuals and special interest groups.  That has to change.





On Becoming A Hermit

1 05 2008

Two years and eight months ago, I’d had enough.  Physically, mentally, and spiritually I felt trapped, drained, disconnected, devoid of those energies needed to live the kind of balanced, joyous life I desired.  I needed to get out, get away, go somewhere else, to a place where the alphabet was different, where thinking was different, where the craziness of post-election misery, insane school bureaucracy, and the American “culture of fear” couldn’t reach me.  The Universe answered my plea in the form of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme.  Quite literally a year and a day from the moment my need first manifested, I stepped off of a plane in Narita International Airport in Tokyo on my way to begin a tenure as an Assistant Language Teacher in the remote city of Miyakonojo on Kyushu island to the south.

For years I had taught students, both in public school and at Ravenwood, about the Heroic Journey–that archetype of storytelling that pervades all cultures and resounds within humanity’s collective soul.  I was well aware, from the very beginning, that I was about to take my own Journey beyond the boundaries of home, family, friends and all that was familiar towards a great Unknown that was equal parts scary and exciting.  In fact, the Statement of Purpose that I wrote for my preliminary application opened with a quote from Joseph Cambell on the nature of journeys.  During the interview process, one of the gentlemen on the panel commented that the quote had caught his eye, making him more interested both in me and in my reasons for applying to the Programme.

Throughout my first year and a half in this quiet corner of Japan, I had many quirky adventures, trials and tests.  I learned more about myself and my place in the world in six months than I had in the past six years.  And yet, I could not help but notice that my journey was not quite heroic in the classical sense.  Something else was going on–something wonderful and soul-affirming, to be sure–that I could not quite identify.  For a start, I was drawing inward, little by little, needing less of the constant contact from friends, both English-speaking and Japanese.  This coincided with a blossoming of creative expression in the form of a novel idea that took root in my heart and mind and began to grow and thrive.  As the subject matter was based in mythology and metaphysics, I went off in search of reading material.  I inundated myself in principles of theoretical physics, the writings of Israel Regardie and other scholars of the Order of the Golden Dawn, the thoughts of those who believed in the paranormal and those who demanded scientific proof.  My characters became my companions, and my need to get their story down on paper superseded most everything else besides work and basic necessities.

Of course, Japan–specifically, my little town–made this easy.  While I have been steadily learning the language and aquiring reading and comprehension skills, I am still, technically, illiterate.  Thus, my need for things like television, radio, and newspapers decreased dramatically.  When I came to Japan, I’d made a decision to limit my contact with news and media from back home–mainly because it had been a deep connection with those things that had driven me to distraction, anxiety and panic.  I had a few TV shows that I enjoyed and managed to keep track of via the wonders of internet technology, and what news reached me came through the filter of family and friends who saw less need to sensationalize an event and eviscerate it completely before moving on to the next big thing.

Moreover, as a foreigner in Japan–and a foreign woman to boot–one is isolated in a way that most people in the West cannot easily conceptualize.  The Japanese value the group over the individual.  From an early age, children identify themselves as part of one group or other, and Japanese people, in general, see themselves as a racial unit, separate and apart from any other on Earth.  The bonds of friendship are made early and last lifetimes.  Men and women don’t often make new friends in their 20s and 30s.  They make aquaintances,  casual connections, because their true friends are those other girls and boys they knew and went to school with back when they were junior-high and high-school students.  Thus, while it is possible to form friendly relationships with Japanese people, a foreigner doesn’t get the same sort of reward or intimacy from them that they would give to an old friend or even another Japanese person they might meet for the first time.

Furthermore, gender separation (and inequality) is the reality of this culture.  Men associate with men.  Women associate with women.  The concept that two people of opposite genders can have friendship without romantic or sexual involvement is completely foreign to these people, and much of my first few months at school was spent explaining to students and co-workers alike that, no, none of the young men in my photographs from home was my boyfriend, nor had any of them ever been my boyfriend or had designs upon being my boyfriend in the forseeable future.  I withheld the information that one or more of them were or had been each others’ boyfriends at some point or other out of fear that their heads would explode!  Homosexuality is not unknown here, but acceptance is limited to the big cities.  Being openly gay is still very much taboo in this conservative, rural community.  With the doors to the inner circles of my female friends firmly closed to me and with the threat of being labeled a woman of loose character if I tried to form friendships with men, there wasn’t much room for a social life.  Also, the bar scene here is firmly geared towards men and caters to them and their needs.  You rarely see women out in bars unless they are accompanied by male co-workers, relatives, or boyfriends/husbands/lovers.  Did I mention that people here cheat on their spouses at an alarming rate?  I had no desire to go to a bar and get chatted up by some married guy looking for a bit of adventure with an “exotic”, foreign girl.

Removed as I was from the obligation to worry, to be socially engaged, to be culturally current and savvy, I devoted my time to storytelling, reading, and thinking.  I’m not sure when I started to refer to my apartment as, “my little cave”, but I know it was an expression that I began to use on a daily basis–particularly throughout the summer months when all anyone wants to do here is escape out of the steamy, broiling sun into a cool, dark, air-conditioned room.  I started to notice that when I ran into people I knew on the street, or in the grocery store, they commented on how long it had been since last they’d seen me.  The first moment of clear realization didn’t occur until May of last year when the Universe gave a strong tug on my strand of the web and revealed to me a fundamental truth about my role as a teacher–not just in a professional sense, but in a deeper spiritual sense.  It is one thing to think of oneself as a teacher by profession.  It is quite another to realize that one’s very mind, spirit and soul exist for the purpose of teaching others, no matter how insignificant one feels, no matter how trivial the lessons might seem.  Truth laid bare like that is often frightening, and it took an entire summer and fall for me to meditate upon it and grapple with all of the implications.  Then, in January of this year I began to research the Fools Journey within the Tarot as a possible underlying guide for my novel’s protagonist. At the same time, I was experimenting with new blog layouts.  I decided that I liked the imagery of The Hermit–the solitary figure in the dark who is the bearer of light–because that was how I was coming to see myself.  If Fools go on journeys to become Heroes, then what becomes of  Fools who are teachers? They become Hermits.  The Hermit, after all, is a teacher.  He helps the Fool answer the pervading question, Why?, but in order to do so, he must remove himself from the world of men and live alone in meditation and contemplation.  Obviously I wasn’t going to that extreme, but I could see how my situation was similar.

How is it even possible to be a hermit in the 21st century?  I’m certainly not alone atop a hill somewhere sleeping on straw and eating bugs!  No, I still listen to music, catch up with my favorite shows, update my blog, and converse with my friends and family via email and instant messaging.  However, I choose to limit my interaction with the world at large and restrict the number of connections I keep.  So, I’m walking a balance beam of company and solitude.  As society changes, so does the concept of hermiticism.  Throughout human history, there have always been those individuals who hear a distant call, lay down their work and walk out into the far-off places where people seldom go.  These days the wilderness is less of a physical place and more of a mental and spiritual one.  It’s also much more dificult to achieve.  Now, more than ever, there are so many ways to be in contact with our fellow human beings. There’s also more “chatter” in our lives, not only from the usual suspects–TV, newspapers and radio–but also from bilboards, stores, the packaging on the things we buy.  Even formerly “sacred” places–churches, shrines, national parks, nature preserves–have gotten cluttered with signage, little messages, multi-media.  True quiet is a difficult thing to find and maintain.

Coming to Japan certainly helped my transition from clutter to serenity, but really I have to give the credit to the language barrier more than anything else.  To be honest, Japan is even “chattier” than America.  Media is on a contstant frenetic sugar buzz.  Everything, even the news, is full of brightly colored graphics, subtitles, cartoon characters, or flashing bursts of onomotopoea.  The hosts of the seemingly endless string of TV variety shows sound like the cast of Sesame Street on methamphetamines.  This is the land of the sound-bite, the cute jingle, and the signature character.  Hearts and happy animated critters even adorn such staid and somber institutions as police stations, insurance companies, and banks.  You can’t enter a major store without being assaulted by some insidious “ear-worm” of a song chirped out by a hyper-cheery, high-pitched female voice at top volume and top speed.  Sometimes, in the case of supermarkets, the music varies, depending on what department you’re in.  One of my local shops even has a “fish” song.  I’m not kidding.  It goes:  “Fish, fish, fish!  Oh, delicious fish!  Fish, fish, fish!  Everyone loves fish!”  It would even be cute if it didn’t play over and over and over and over….

Work is a team sport in Japan.  Teachers in the States enjoy the luxury of a classroom to themselves and a door they can close–even if it’s only for two or three minutes in the middle of the day.  Not so, here.  Teachers sit in huge staff-rooms surrounded by everyone else’s stuff, their chatter, their gosip, their student conferences, their energy….  Everyone is always reading over your shoulder, listening in, watching.  You’re not even safe at home.  On any given morning, one might be awakened by the sound of a cannon going off–announcing the commencement of some event or other, chimes from the local city office, the local high-school baseball team chanting out their warmup exercises, or eager politicians driving about in their cars squawking out campaign slogans at top volume by way of a PA system.  Seriously, if there was ever a way to get me NOT to vote for someone, that would be it!  Still, in spite of all this, I have managed to carve out a somewhat hermit-like existence–at least one that allows me to do what hermits have been doing since time began.

The first, best thing any modern hermit can do is invest in a couple of good pairs of high-quality noise-stopping earplugs.  I have a set I use at home and another set that I keep tucked in my wallet.  These things are a marvel!  Contrary to what you might think, I don’t wear them to bed.  Freed from the absurdity that is Daylight Savings Time, I wake naturally with the light–or usually fifteen to twenty minutes before dawn.  It’s only after I wake that the earplugs go in, and thus my morning ritual of reading over a pot of tea goes uninterrupted by cannons, chimes, baseball teams, screechy politicians, and the occasional Jehovah’s Witness or NHK salesman. They also help with other “noise” from neighbors’ washing machines, cars, and squealing children.  I’ve stopped patronizing most of the supermarkets that insist on blaring out crazy jingles in favor of small fruit and veggie stands run by local farmers, however, sometimes the big “supers” can’t be avoided.  Ear plugs to the rescue!  I put them in, grab what I need, and take one out when I get to the register (in case the cashier has to ask me a question).  Noise-blocking is also effective at work.  I can’t change my seating arrangement and the inherent distractions therein, but I can block out most of the chatter.  My ability to focus improves exponentially on the days I’m forced to sit at my desk all day.  Sometimes, I substitute my iPod for complete quiet, but more often than not, I like to go “soundless”.

Something else I have in Miyazaki that I didn’t have in Atlanta is a close proximity to truly remote places.  I live in a city–okay, an ambitious town–but if I drive fifteen minutes in any direction, I’m in the middle of rice fields and mountains.  One of my favorite things to do is to get in my car, hit one of the major roads out of town, drive about 20 minutes, and then turn off onto a side road and see where it goes.  Because it is highly illegal to drive and talk on your cellphone at the same time, Japanese roads feature an abundant number of small off-the-shoulder parking spots where one can pause and make or answer a phone call.  I turn my phone off when I’m driving, but I still make use of the parking spots.  Sometimes there are little sidewalks or walking paths just off from them, and I can stop, get out, and walk around admiring mountain views, fields of vegetables, or sleepy mountain towns.  It’s especially nice when I stumble upon a small shrine or temple, because those places tend to have spots where a person can sit a while and rest or reflect.  Then there are the parks and the beaches.  The trick is going when others aren’t.  Thankfully, my aversion to heat and humidity allows me to avoid the late-Spring and Summer crowds that appear at my favorite places in May through September.  That’s when I retreat to the air-conditioned bliss of my apartment.  Fall and early-Spring, however, are prime times to get out and enjoy a bit of Emmersonian immersion in Nature.

What does all this isolation get me?  Well, the richest reward is the stillness, which allows me to think, un-distracted and un-influenced by the world outside.  When you detatch yourself from your home, friends and family, there is a certain level of perspective gained, even at the base level.  However, when you pull even further away, that perspective deepens, and you begin to see patterns and connections that are only present from a distance.  You also start to understand that modern human beings waste so much energy and time on useless endeavors and meaningless distractions.  Even worse, you realize how much the average person is manipulated by market manufactured minutiae.  You think, “Wow!  If only people could just cut through the clutter and the chatter, turn off the sound, shut off the blinking lights and just breathe for a few moments, imagine how much better off we’d all be.”  If only that energy wasted on worry could be re-directed towards positive thoughts and endeavors!  But then again, not everyone is cut out for this level of inversion and introspection, not everyone is “guided by voices” to deliberately cut themselves off and go on walkabout.  In point of fact, the world often heaps derision and disapproval upon those who do.

When I was a kid, I owned the Milton-Bradley game of LIFE.  What a piece of work that was!  Hidden within an innocuous children’s toy was a powerful agent of social conditioning that encouraged young people to believe that an Ivy League college diploma and a high-powered business job was better than an ordinary college diploma and a teaching position–never mind a high-school diploma!  It taught that getting married, buying a house and having loads of kids equals cash from the government but staying single and childless means more taxes (which is, unfortunately, true), and that a mansion and a wealthy retirement at the end of the road was the only way to “win”.  But what about those of us who thought that being teachers, remaining childless and retiring to that humble philosopher’s cottage sounded like a pretty sweet deal and much more of a winning combination?  It still sounds beautiful to me.  Why should life be all about “getting and spending, late and soon?” Why should success, happiness, and achievement be based upon the car one drives, the house one lives in, or the amount of high-priced and ultimately useless stuff one is able to buy?

These questions don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the mountain of thoughts that tumble around in my brain now that I’ve gotten far enough away from the noise and the din of society.  Mainly, I’ve contemplated the idea of learning–how it’s done, its stages and applications, the role of teachers and schools, education as preparation for a life of work versus education as a gateway to the greater knowlege of the world and the universe.  I see that educational theory moves in cycles like everything else in nature.  My “new” thoughts are “old” thoughts shared by many famous teachers, philosophers and educators in bygone eras.  I also see where our current educational practices are leading us, and sadly it’s not towards a place of wisdom and fulfilment.  I think about ways we could change things for the better.  I think about the years of social structuring and manipulation that make implementing these changes a Herculean task.  I think about why people in charge of our childrens’ educational wellbeing might want to deliberately sabotage or cripple their ability to think, question and reason.  I consider the larger societal implications of a dumbed-down populace lulled by infotainment and so-called reality TV.

Not all my thoughts are so dire.  I spend a great deal of time thinking about simple beauty, the inherent goodness of people, the importance of family–both born and chosen, and, of course, writing.  The hallmark of a good book is a cast of characters who “live” on the page.  Those characters should drive the action, wherever it may lead.  In the end, an author is really nothing more than a glorified scribe, taking dictation from their brain-children!  I have several notebooks in key places where I can jot down ideas, revelations, past histories–all sorts of things that make my characters people.  Kanji study provides a fascinating look into the Asian psyche and helps me understand why Western logic doesn’t always work here.  In my rambling travels, I observe people, their quirks and customs, and I am aware that people are fundamentally the same everywhere you go.  I ask a lot of “why” questions, particularly when confronted with things I find amusing, or interesting, or strange or unsettling.  I strike out onto paths less traveled, pause to stare off into space and contemplate, and I am neither lonely nor bored nor anything other than blissful and content.

In matters of Spirit, I find that my solitude in Miyazaki brings me to a special place of understanding.  Shintoism involves the belief that the gods share the earth with humanity–they actually live upon it and within it–and that each group has a responsibility to live in harmony, one with the other.  Shrines exist to honor the spirits of mountains and rivers as well as men and women.  All are welcome to pray there for good fortune, good health, success at work or in school, luck in love, in marriage, in having children.  Yearly festivals here commemorate mythological events, honor ancient princes and princesses, keep old stories alive.  Obviously these rituals aren’t as meaningful to me as they are to my Japanese neighbors, but what is meaningful is the similarity, the connection to the rituals I attend and perform at Ravenwood, half the world away.  The spring festivals are full of flowers and celebrate the re-awakening of the earth.  Summer festivals are joyous, happy affairs and they always feature fireworks, colorful sunbursts even in the night sky.  Fall festivals celebrate the harvest and reaping the bounty of the myriad crops grown here.  Even the New Year celebration in January is akin to Yule–a gathering of friends and family in the midst of winter to celebrate the closing of one door and the opening of another, the promise of renewal and a fresh start.  Our Elders tell us often, “All stories are One, and Love is the Law.”  They speak the truth, and Truth speaks through them.

Like Henry David Thoreau before me, I realize that eventually I will have to go back, to embrace the world again.  While there are benefits to temporary detachment, prolonged isolation is frought with pitfalls and dangers.  Stay too long out of the world, and you lose touch with it, lose your ability to feel its pulse, to be a part of it with all its faults.  Besides, what good is wandering off to contemplate and consider if one isn’t willing to return home and share the insights gained and lessons learned? Isn’t that the point?  My contract with the JET Programme ends in July of 2009.  That leaves me a little over a year to enjoy the Hermit’s life, to think, process and then write it all down.  When I return, I will face new challenges that will shape and change me just as much as the ones here have.  Then again, what is life but a singular journey made up of many smaller trips and travels?  It’s never about the destination.  It’s the stuff in between that matters most.





Education’s Glorious Revolution

12 04 2008

The world has made dramatic changes in the thirty-plus years I’ve been alive. There are countries on the map today that weren’t there when I was born and others that have ceased to exist. News is different. Music–thank the heavens–is different. New discoveries in science and technology have transformed the way we live our lives and care for our bodies. Even our language is different, influenced by the myriad metamorphoses of fashion, culture, and art. Children today have grown up with personal computers, cellphones, portable game systems and music players, DVD videos, and the internet, which makes them very different from the children that we were back in the early 1970s. They’ve changed, so why haven’t their schools?

If you look at the delivery model for education today and the delivery model for education 50 years ago, you’ll see that they’re essentially the same. One teacher manages a classroom of 30 to 40 students who are guided through a textbook selected by the county school-board and who take written, often standardized tests at regular intervals to assess their learning and progress. There’s more group-work now, and in some schools, technology is employed in the classroom, but that doesn’t change the fact that the basic structure is the same one we’ve been using since the start of free public education in America. Teachers are the keepers of knowledge and students are expected to absorb the specific knowledge that their teachers (and school boards) see fit to deliver unto them. The trouble is that this model is equivalent to the buggy-whip; it’s still has an inherent value, but it has become obsolete.

Before I set off to teach English as a foreign language in Japan, I was an English Literature teacher in a U.S. high-school. Every year for four years, I watched students shuffle through their classes in a grey haze. You could see it in their eyes. They would rather be anywhere else, and they were only willing to do just enough to get by, get their credit and get out. In my first couple years of teaching, I got offended by the students who quite vocally expressed their dissatisfaction and frustration with school in general and my class in particular. “This is stupid!” some said. “This is boring!” quoth others. “Why do I have to learn this stuff? I don’t care about this!” Such statements used to make my blood boil! After all, I spent hours upon hours trying to design my lessons in such a way as to engage students, help them develop if not a love for literature, then at least an appreciation for it. For these kids to say that my class was stupid or boring was the same as saying that I was stupid and boring. And then, somewhere at the beginning of my third year, I began to think that maybe these kids were right and maybe I should listen to what they were really saying.

In the high-school where I taught, nearly 40% of all first-time 9th graders failed 9th Grade Literature. Of that 40%, over half failed 9th Lit a second and a third time.  As a result, our English department couldn’t offer elective courses. The failure rate and the school-board policy which allowed these students to re-take the course up to 4 times in-school (as opposed to in a tuition-based summer school program) demanded that our department schedule as many 9th Lit classes as were needed to ensure that all students had ample opportunity to pass. The high failure rate was a weight on the minds of all my colleagues in the department. We couldn’t figure out why so many students couldn’t grasp the basic skills they needed to pass the End of Course Test. We couldn’t understand why seemingly smart and capable young people couldn’t manage to read the works assigned, write a decent paragraph or paper, turn in their homework and projects, or study for their tests.

Right around this time, I started reading some of Howard Gardner’s research on Multiple Intelligences. In a nutshell, Gardner theorized that students acquire and process knowledge in eight different ways, therefore he felt teachers should design lessons that appeal to this variety of learning styles. Instructors had to shift their perspective and ask not, “IS this student smart?” but “HOW is this student smart?” The old lecture-and-take-notes, read-and-answer-questions model needed to be modified and expanded to account for visual-spatial learners, students who were bodily kinesthetic and needed to physically manipulate their data, students who responded more to music. I began giving a survey to my students on the first day of class to determine what kinds of learners I had, so as to design lessons that would deliver the required skill sets in a way they would understand. What I discovered surprised me.

I am mainly what Gardner calls a Verbal-Linguistic learner. This means that I have facility with words and language. This also means that I learn best by reading, listening to lectures and taking notes. The great majority of my colleagues in the English Department were also Verbal-Linguistic learners. My students, on the other hand, were not. Out of a class of 40 ninth-graders in the fall of 2005, four were Verbal-Linguistic learners. The rest were a combination of Visual-Spatial, Bodily Kinesthetic, Musical and Interpersonal learners. What this meant was that the majority of my literature students were never going to be successful if I used the standard read-and-ask-questions model. But…wait. How do you teach literature if your students either can’t or don’t read? In a word? Video.

Oh yes, I see you there, cringing. What? Show them movies? Everyone knows that movies are never as good as the books they were based upon. However, I was faced with a serious dilemma. I had to teach The Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet to students who hated to read, had no interest in ancient Greece or Greek myth, couldn’t care less about William Shakespeare and his contribution to English culture and literature, and who just wanted to do their time in their required course, get their “C” and leave. So I made a hard choice. I decided to toss the textbook, for a start. We used it as a reference, but otherwise, we didn’t touch it. I also took the time to determine what skills and concepts my students needed to learn and how I might design lessons to teach those things using methods my students would find appealing. I also came to a realization about the students themselves.

Growing up, books were my companions. My parents saw to it that this was so. Then again, there wasn’t much in the way of kids’ programming on TV, the Internet didn’t exist, the IBM PC in our house was there for my father’s work purposes and required a knowledge of BASIC or COBOL to operate, you could only play Pac Man, Frogger, and Pitfall on your Atari 2600 for so long, and we didn’t own a VCR–or a BetaMax for that matter. The only way to escape into fantasy was to create it outside with your friends, or engage it through words on a page. I had to rely on my own imagination to create the pictures in my head–the “movie in my mind”, to quote Miss Saigon.

My students, however, had grown up with imagination pre-packaged for them. They didn’t have to create pictures from words–the pictures were given to them. Every single child in my class had grown up in a household with unlimited TV time, children’s programming on DVD and VHS, access to computers and audio-visually rich video games. If they played outside, they played sports–not Batman and Robin–and more than likely, their playtime was neatly structured and scheduled by their parents. Very few had parents who cultivated in them a love of reading and the written word. They couldn’t remember a thing about the short-story we read in class two days prior, but they could quote, word for word and line for line, the 5-year-old rap song by their favorite artist and remembered minute details from their favorite movie that came out three years before. It was this last little quirk that settled it for me. I decided that I was going to teach writing and language skills, poetry and meter, plot structure and analysis, the Heroic Journey, and everything else the State of Georgia insisted that 9th Graders learn, and I was going to do it using film, music, and current cultural events. The result was nothing short of miraculous.

Prior to this change, I struggled with classroom management. I struggled to get students to turn in their assignments. I struggled with grammar worksheets and vocabulary lists and reading quizzes and revision after revision after revision of horribly written essays. I worked harder than my students and still, at the end of the semester, I had anywhere from 10 to 15 of them fail the course in spite of my best efforts. After the change, I noticed something amazing. I wasn’t hearing the chorus of “This is stupid! Why are we doing this? This is boring!” Instead, I had kids running up to me in the hallways asking if we were going to keep watching Helen of Troy, because they just had to know how it ended. I had kids so engaged in the process of the Hero Journey that they had no trouble at all writing a four or five paragraph essay comparing Odysseus with Neo from The Matrix. I had kids fascinated with the idea that William of Stratford might not be the author of the works attributed to Shakespeare. I had kids examining the lyrics of their favorite rappers and asking me to take a look at lyrics they’d written themselves. And I went from having nearly half of my students failing at the end of a semester to only three or four. Moreover, when I spoke to members of that “experimental class” the following year, many admitted that they looked at movies and TV shows differently now that they understood the structure of stories and concepts like dramatic irony. They had gone beyond basic comprehension and entered the realm of true knowledge and application.

Of course, many of my colleagues were less than pleased with my methods. They suspected that, come the End of Course Test, all my movie-showing would come back to bite me, that my students, deprived of vocab lists and grammar drills, would be unable to perform up to standard on the State test. The numbers, however, spoke for themselves. The only students who failed the EOCT in my classes were the same students who were failing the class in general–mainly due to excessive absences or behavior issues. It was this success that got me to thinking about how much more I could change the nature of my classroom to fit the learning needs of my students. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be a visionary when you’re up to your eyeballs in beaureaucratic B.S.–otherwise known as No Child Left Behind, a program that manages, somehow, to limit the educational potential of ALL children. The red tape, the endless and meaningless testing is what drove me to make a break for it, and leave the States for a change of scenery. Now that I’ve had nearly two years away and considerable experience with the Japanese educational system, I’ve gained a clarity of vision that has helped me refine and develop my ideas about education in the modern age.

First and foremost, we must acknowledge that the old model is past its prime and should be retired gracefully. Teachers and schools no longer hold all the keys to knowledge in the world, therefore we can no longer rely on the one-point delivery model any longer. Second, we must understand that our children are different. Their brains are “wired” differently than ours were, which means that the methods of teaching that worked for us are not going to work the same for them. Furthermore, as much as it pains me to say it, we must accept that visual language has become just as important, if not moreso, than the written word. The new literature is found in original screenplays, television serials, graphic novels, and song lyrics. Yes, there is still great value and great reward in reading, and no, the novel as an art form is not dead yet. However, the reality of our changing world is that young people watch more than they read. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can get about the business of meeting our kids where they are in terms of learning.

The biggest shift that must be made is in how schools and classrooms function and serve students. I strongly feel that subject based education should be dropped in favor of a more holistic, integrated approach. For too long, students have learned important concepts in an academic vacuum, unable to make connections between literature and history, art and mathematics, drama and science.

True story: I hated Algebra in high-school and I nearly failed my 10th grade Geometry class (well, I almost got a C, which was as good as failing in my parents’ eyes). It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work or that I didn’t understand the concepts, it was that the formulae and rules seemed to exist separate and apart from any practical application that I could think of. It was only when I took Chemistry and Physics that Algebra made any kind of sense. However, Geometry was completely pointless. Add to this attitude a teacher with a droning voice and no concept of making class-time exciting and you had a recipe for disaster.

Fast forward nearly ten years later. I graduated from college, having avoided Mathematics of most shades and colors (unless you count Music Theory, which is inherently mathematical, I suppose) and picked up a love of costume history. So profound was my interest in this new area of knowledge that I was moved to learn something about pattern drafting so that I might be able to translate a Medieval or Renaissance sketch or fragment into a working piece of clothing designed to fit a contemporary body. Imagine my shock and surprise when I realized I actually needed Geometry to figure out how to measure and draw the curve of a neckline or an armscye! However, my desire to persue this body of knowledge that interested me gave me the motivation to seek out an explanation of the geometry required. I gathered the necessary information, processed it, and applied it to a real-world situation–and I have never forgotten how wonderful that felt, to learn a new concept and see it in action.  Moreover, my love of costuming lead me to learn more about history, more about social dynamics, more about music and art and writing and science.  One interest, one passion, and it opened the door to EVERY subject imaginable.

That is the spirit of learning. That is the direction in which education should move.  It really is possible to teach students every subject, skill, and concept they need to know simply by allowing them to delve into what interests them. It’s OK. They’ll still pass your standardized tests. As a matter of fact, they’ll probably score higher. Why? Because the skills and the rules and the formulae will make sense. They will be connected to something tangible and accessible, regardless of socio-economic background, regardless of ethnic heritage. If we as teachers take on the role of guides, mentors, and idea givers, suddenly it becomes possible for students to take charge of their own learning process. It is not our job to deliver knowledge to them from on high. Rather, it is our duty to inspire, to keep our students focused–or broaden their horizons, make them consider things they hadn’t thought of before.

Work with me here, because this is truly radical.  What if there were no classrooms–at least not classrooms as we know them? What if, instead, we designed schools to have varying types of work and study areas–places where students could collaborate with groups of teachers at different times throughout the day? Rather than spend first period studying a specific work of fiction in English class, for example, students would be visited by two or three teachers from different disciplines, and have an opportunity to consult and collaborate with them on aspects of a core project or interest area that relate to those teachers’ disciplines.   Thus, the student with a love of NASCAR, for example, might have a chance to chat with his English mentor about the article he’s writing about this years’ top contenders.  That same student might then speak with his Physics mentor about the mechanics and aerodynamics of race cars as opposed to ordinary passenger cars.  Then the Social-Studies mentor might have that student research the changes in the demographics of NASCAR enthusiasts over the past 10 years.  In order for this to work, schools would have to be smaller as would class sizes.  Likewise, teachers would need to reorient their lesson planning to accommodate the needs of 10 to 15 individuals rather than a whole-cloth class of 40.  Honestly, it’s no more work than what’s being done at present–it’s just a different KIND of work, and I believe it would be less stressful and more rewarding work in the long-run.  This model also opens up opportunities for more hands-on learning outside of the school campus.  Think of how much that student who loves NASCAR could learn by shadowing a pit monkey for a day during race practice?  Imagine the kinds of doors that could be opened by meeting with and talking to a racer’s manager, the person who handle’s a racer’s corporate endorsements, a professional racer him/herself!

Change is a painful, frightening thing, and change in education is particularly difficult because it all boils down to who is in control.  To truly transform the way our schools serve our children, we need to consider when it is best for teachers and administrators and parents to be in control of the structures and subjects of student learning and when it is time to back off, let go, and allow our kids some control over what they learn and the way they learn.  Independent, thinking children become responsible, innovative, and intelligent adults.  An intelligent society is a more productive and prosperous society, a society that makes better decisions, both personal and communal, and a society is destined to be more harmonious in the long run, because the children of ignorance–violence, hatred, bigotry, etc.–cannot survive in the face of people with knowlege.





Being OK With “Blue”

2 04 2008

Needs More Soul     Back in high-school and college, I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing pink.  Pink was the antithesis of everything I thought I was.  It embodied everything I thought I despised–things like Barbie and her crazy body measurements, things like fixed gender roles, and superficial expressions of love.   Years later, with a bit more experience and perspective, I began to “make peace with pink.”  I started wearing it, here and there, and I came to understand that sometimes colors are not just colors–they have their own energies, and those energies can influence your life in many ways.  Pink, I discovered, is a color of joy, of vibrance, of laughter and positive emotion.  It is a color of gentleness and subtlety–unless it’s hot pink, or “PAINK!” as my dear friends from the South might say, and then it’s a statement.  I learned to embrace and love my femininity along with my stronger aspects–my more masculine side, if you will.  Making peace with pink was an act of balance in my life, and the changes this one color has wrought have been profound indeed.

Recently–really only within the past two and a half weeks–I’ve been feeling a bit off my game.  I wouldn’t say I was depressed or sad or “down”, but I was certainly not myself.  I fell out of my routines.  Housework came to a grinding halt.  My eating habits took a downslide.  I couldn’t find the energy or the desire to exercise–at least not at the level I should be exercising.  Even my writing seemed flat and lifeless.  Upon reflection, I realized that this happens frequently.  It’s almost cyclical.  I have long stretches of active, positive, ordered existence, and then I have a downswing of entropy that seems almost uncontrolable.  Again, these downswings aren’t accompanied by any particular feelings of sadness or moodiness or anything else associated with clinical depression.  I just feel…off.

I’ve decided that this is what being “blue” is really about.  Sometimes it involves loneliness or fear or worry, yes.  But more often than not, it’s just the counterbalancing down-tick to those up-tick times that make life exciting and wonderful.  The key is telling yourself that it’s OK to be blue.  It’s OK to slide towards entropy occasionally, so long as you don’t fall off the see-saw alltogether.  Life is about balance, and balance involves the occasional shift that requires us to reassess and re-center so that we can continue to maintain that even keel.

Yesterday, I was blue, and I thought about how long I’d been blue.  Today, I woke up, and I felt a change in direction.  I had purpose.  The work-day flew by.  I came home and cleaned my house.  From entropy to order, from off to on.  They say that wisdom is recognizing the patterns in your life, acknowledging your mistakes and learning from them.  Just as making peace with pink has granted me wisdom, I’m hoping that learning to be OK with blue will do the same.





Soubetsukai -or- What Couldn’t Be Said Last Night

26 03 2008

If you are a teacher in America and if you so desire, you can begin and end a long and rewarding teaching career in the same school. Not so in Japan. Every year in late-March, Japanese teachers wait in nervous anticipation to see who will stay at their school for another year and who will be transferred somewhere else within their ken (which is equivalent to a state in U.S. parlance). This year, my school is losing several critical staff members, and while these moves are looked upon as something of a promotion for each individual, I can’t help but be very sad to see some of them go.

The soubetsukai is one way for us to formally say goodbye to our friends and colleagues and give them a good send-off into their new lives at other schools. There are often departmental farewell parties as well as the one for all of the staff. Last night was the English Department’s soubetsukai. We’re technically only losing one English teacher, Yama-sensei, but we celebrated for two people, because we’re also losing our vice-principal, ‘Nami-sensei.

Nami-sensei (I’ve shortened his name) was the third person from my school that I met when I arrived in Miyakonojo almost two years ago. It was hot–like Okeefenokee Swamp hot–and I was uncomfortably dressed to the nines because I’d attended an important meeting in Miyazaki City that morning. I was hungry. I still hadn’t seen my apartment, and I hadn’t quite gotten past my jet lag. I was also nervous about meeting the important people at my school for the first time. All of the new JETs had been told that the first impression is everything for the Japanese, and we should try to make the best impression possible. With nearly no Japanese language skills, I was terrified of making an ass of myself in front of these important people.

Turns out, I had nothing to worry about. Nami-sensei speaks nearly perfect English, and at that moment in time, it was exactly what I needed. He instantly put me at ease with his kind smile and his relaxed manner. In the days and weeks that followed, when most of the other people in my office–including my supervisor!–were off on summer vacation, Nami-sensei was the one who talked to me, kept me company, and took me out to lunch. He and I formed a rapport that has only been strengthened over the past year and a half.

Last night at the soubetsukai, there were so many things that I wanted to say, but when it comes to talking about things that are close to my heart, I lose all powers of speech. My throat closes up and the waterworks start going. The only comment I could make was, “Who am I going to talk to now?” What I wanted to say was so much more, and since I don’t have to speak to transform these thoughts into virtual words, I feel it best to put them here:

‘Nami-sensei,

Years from now, when I look back on my experiences in Japan, I will remember you with fondness. Your gentle manner, your smile, and your concern have meant the world to me and have made my days here brighter. From the morning greeting to the time I say farewell every work day, your presence gives me strength and reassurance. I love to see your face light up when you talk to students and other teachers. I love that you ask me all sorts of questions about English phrases and odd quirks of grammar. It makes such a difference to have an ally and a friend I can talk to in my own language.

You have helped me in so many ways, great and small. You’re the one who came to the rescue when my friend went off to Tokyo with my apartment key, leaving me locked out at 11 p.m. on a Sunday. You’re the one who comforted and counseled me on what was, perhaps, the worst day I’ve ever had at school. You’ve negotiated auto-purchases, insurance transfers, and hospital stays. You’ve given me lovely gifts, rich in Japanese culture, and you’re always leaving post-cards or brochures or flyers about famous places in Miyazaki and beyond. You’ve been like the older brother I always wanted.

Honestly, these words are such poor payment in return, but they are all I have. For your many kindnesses, I thank you. May you enjoy success in your new position, and may you continue to be such a wonderful spark of positive energy in the lives of the people you meet. You will be sorely missed.





Quest for Pizza

23 03 2008

I Hunger! In Japan, pizza can be a perilous endeavor. If you’re not careful, you could end up with a pie featuring fish-eggs, shrimp, mayonnaise, and corn.   For this reason, I don’t go in search of pizza very often.  I never really ordered it in the States because it didn’t measure up to my very exacting standards. And if American pizza can’t pass muster, then you know how well Japanese pizza is gonna fare!

This afternoon, however, I found myself with a fierce, “sell-my-own-grandmother” craving for a slice of pizza. I thought, “It’ll pass.”  Sadly, an hour later, I was even hungrier and still in desperate need of crispy, meaty, melty goodness. This was a definite problem. As if strange ingredients weren’t enough of an issue, take-out pizza in Japan is ridiculously expensive. A “medium” from our local Pizzza Hut measures 21 cm, which comes out to about 8 inches square–the size of an American “small”.   To add insult to injury, said “medium” pizza costs anywhere from 1800 to 2500 yen, and that’s just for the crispy Italian style crust and basic toppings! There are, however, a few bread shops in town that bake traditional Italian-style pizzas and sell by-the-slice for about $2.00. So I set out, in the pouring rain, for a shop one of my co-workers had recommended a while back.

Having lived in Japan for just under two years, I’ve come to a few critical conclusions based on my observations of the people who live here. First of all, it doesn’t matter where you go in the world, rain makes drivers stupid. For some reason, water falling from the sky has the miraculous power to drain mental function from ordinary men and women and turn them into blithering idiots behind the wheel of a car. This is true in Atlanta, Georgia. It is true in Vienna, Austria, and it is true in Miyakonojo, Japan.

In defense of Japanese drivers, I have to say it really isn’t their fault. They can’t help it.  When young people pay their money–and at $3,000 it is a rather considerable sum–to take driving lessons, they’re not actually learning how to drive. What they’re learning is how to pass the driving test, which involves memorizing three different driving courses. Come test day, the testing officer tells them which course they’ll have to demonstrate, and they go through their paces. There are no other cars on the course at the time of the test, thus no way to practice their turns and signals and such in traffic.  Now, when you have a nation of people who learned to pass a driving test in lieu of practical driving experience, it makes for interesting hijinks on the road even on a bright, sunshiney day. When there’s weather, it gets wild and wacky!

As I made my careful way down the road towards the Chopin Pastisserie, I encountered no fewer than seven people who were suddenly gripped by an all-encompassing need to stop right then and there to avail themselves of a nearby vending machine selling coffee, tea, and/or cigarettes. Said people, with barely more than a flash of the turn signal, just pulled over to the side of the road in the middle of traffic, forcing the rest of us to a) brake like maniacs, b) go around them, and c) try to avoid any oblivious cyclists, pedestrians and/or aged grandmothers with walkers. You think I’m joking about the grandmas, but I’m convinced they get together and have conventions on how best to bring traffic to a complete standstill on various and sundry streets and highways!

Those stationary obstacles cleared, I had to be careful of drivers who had decided that rain meant they didn’t have to check for oncoming traffic before pulling out onto a busy street! Now, granted, the streets of Miyakonojo don’t exactly offer the best visibility around, but ya know…they put those directional mirrors up there for a reason! Having avoided at least three t-bone collisions, I finally turned the corner and approached the bread shop only to find the parking lot full.  Comedy ensued due to at least four cars stuck in said lot because there were two cars half-in and half out of the driveway, thus blocking traffic in both directions. Did it occur to any of these drivers to simply go around the block once, or maybe even park just a ways down the street in a vacant lot? Nope. Because the Japanese Matrix says that if you are visiting Establishment A, you MUST park in Establishment A’s parking lot. There are no other options.  Even if it seems that other options might be available, there is some deep and fundamental reason why they aren’t really viable options at all.   I am not plugged in to the Japanese Matrix. I parked in the lot down the street and walked up to the bread shop while our hapless parking-lot denizens were still trying to figure out how to get four people out and two people in.

I blame the French for the sorry state of bread in Japan. Everything is flake pastry, filled with cream, and white, white, white. If you want a rustic, whole-wheat, whole-grain bread, you’re out of luck. If you happen to request that your local bread shop make said rustic, whole-wheat, whole-grain bread, everyone there will look at you as if you’ve just announced that you plan to go running through the rice-fields naked as the day you were born singing Good Morning, Starshine! at the top of your lungs. At least this place had some variety, which is rare. Alas, they were out of pizza–and whole wheat walnut rolls.

On the way back to the car, I decided to hit up another place, Tsuki no Hone.  It used to be a full-service restaurant, but the folks here in the JO just didn’t know what to do with an authentic Italian restaurant. (What’s this saltimbocca business? Where the hell is my spaghetti with mentaiko and seaweed??) So, the proprietor, who studied culinary arts in Italy for about three years, set up a take-away service featuring three or four different hand-made pastas, a couple of meat dishes, several pizzas and some desserts. He also managed to figure out how to fold the space-time continuum, because for the life of me, I could NOT find his shop today! I drive past this thing ALL THE TIME! And every time, I think, “Oh! That’s where it is!”

This brings me to my second conclusion about Japan. Life here would be so much easier if there were street signs. Hell, even just NAMING the streets or giving them numbers would create such a glorious revolution that people would fall to their knees and weep for joy. Seriously. I went up to Fukuoka with a couple of my friends, and the whole time we were there, we could not find ONE PERSON who knew where anything was or how to get there. Our first day, we wanted to eat bagels at this famous place that ships bagel dough in from New York every morning. We had a neighborhood and a relative range of city blocks to work with, but that’s about it. After wandering for about an hour during which time we stopped and asked three or four other business owners for directions with no luck, we stumbled upon it by accident.  Turns out it was literally right around the corner from one of the shops where we’d asked for directions.  This bagel place has been in the neighborhood for well on seven years, as has this other business. Right around the corner, and the guy had NO IDEA how to get to the bagel shop. Un-believable. Even the taxi drivers are stumped as to how to get to anywhere that isn’t a mall or a train station. My school is very famous in this area of Japan. EVERYONE knows it. Likewise, just about everyone knows that our school has a Kyoshokuin Jutaku–that’s Teacher Apartments for them as don’t speak Japanese. These facts notwithstanding, I have had no less than five taxi drivers ask ME how to get back to my apartment from various places in town. Again, I say, street names. They would be SO helpful!

Stymied by the rain-triggered cloaking device surrounding the Italian restaurant, I decided to make a last-ditch effort and try the bread shop at my local supermarket.  Lo and behold–bless them!–they had the pizza I’d been searching for! Not a kernel of corn nor a hint of mayonnaise in sight, each slice was simply dressed in tomato sauce, peperoni, onions, green peppers and cheese. I grabbed two slices for the grand total of 300 yen, along with a small cup of tiramisu ice-cream for afterwards, and headed home to heat them up in my toaster oven–the pizza, not the ice cream.

This brings me to my third observation about life in Japan.  People will go out of their way to patronize a business just because everyone else is going there.  Whether the service is good or not or whether you can get what you want or not is irrelevant.  Everyone goes there, therefore everyone must go there.  However, in the end, the things you get at these popular places never seem to measure up to the things you can get from that little place five minutes’ walk down the street in your own neighborhood.

At any rate, after today’s adventure, I’ll say that food tastes better when you have to struggle for it. It wasn’t perfect pizza, but–great day in the morning!–did it ever hit the spot!