Monday, March 31, 2014

pieces of work

The summer after I graduated from college I worked as a rental agent at a brokerage that catered to the mostly young, mostly motivated subsection of the populace that wanted to live in Beacon Hill, generally due to its proximity to downtown.  I typically woke up five or ten minutes before my first appointment, threw on some clothes, tucked in my shirt, and sprinted down the street to my office, in order to earn enough money to pay my rent, pay back a loan from my dad, and pay for my plane ticket to Japan.  It was the second best summer of my adult life, which meant it was ranked two out of four.  (I didn't know it then, but after college, summer basically stops mattering.  It follows then that that particular summer is still probably the second best summer of my life.  The first, incidentally, was also spent as a rental agent, a vocation which was also abandoned, along with summers, once I graduated.)

I spent most of my free time that summer hanging out with my best friend from college, who was recently my roommate, and my girlfriend, who was recent in general.  As a rental agent, I could make my own hours, and I soon fell prey to that common affliction, dawdling, which every independent contractor knows all too well.  I forsook my work in favor of late night crosswords in the girlfriend's air-conditioned pad, canoe trips, all-expense paid trips to the Virgin Islands courtesy of my girlfriend's rich parents, and a 4th of July Party with my roommate on the rooftop of our (non air-conditioned) Comm Ave apartment.  As a result, by the end of the summer I had only saved about 40% of the funds recommended by my Japanese language school for starting out in Japan.  This paltry amount, approximately $800, was supposed to last me the six weeks before my first paycheck from my full time job arrived in my UFJ bank account.

The bitter pill that every long-term expat has to swallow sooner than later is the realization that life abroad, when you are fresh-faced and few in fine threads, is lived much more frugally than the study-abroad in college which most likely was your first medium-term stay in another country.  For someone who began his expat adventure with such a shortage of funds, this realization kicks in rather quickly, especially when living in the city ranked "2nd Most Expensive in the World" at that time. After a few days of modest indulgences - ordering the extra egg in my ramen, buying iced coffee from the vending machine, etc. - I stared at the six or seven remaining 10,000 yen bills (about $100 each) like a gambler with too much in the pot contemplating a questionable hand.  As they say in Japanese, my situation was "dame".  In other words, it was a bad scene.

When my dad called in the debt payment I had failed to make over the summer, I became aware that the situation was more like "arubaito ga nai to hontou ni dame" (If I didn't pick up a part time job, it was a seriously bad scene).  Fortunately, one of two things happened: either the universe sensed what I needed and provided, or I picked myself up by my laceless Japanese boot straps and provided for myself.  (Feel free to choose whichever version suits your political worldview. I'm ambivalent... and a Green either way).

Considering the circumstances of how I found my first part time job in Japan, I'm of the opinion that it was a combination of universe and hard work.  A few days after I decided to look for additional work, while waiting in line to order a 100-yen teriyaki burger at McDonalds (a strategy I had learned from my frugal days in Boston, sans teriyaki) I happened to meet a woman with an elementary school aged daughter in need of an English teacher.  That part could only have been the universe in action.  On the other hand, agreeing to commute thirty minutes each way to her home every Tuesday night for a one-hour lesson that paid 2,800 yen (about $30) was most certainly propelled by my bootstraps.

With extra money coming in, I was free to engage in that most established, customary, practically sanctified tradition among English teachers living in Japan: going on dates disguised as language exchange sessions.  For me, these sessions consisted largely of sputtering over two or three Japanese words with a very patient woman who inevitably spoke nearly fluent English, before switching back to my native language so I could try to seduce her with more than the Japanese names for the three food items she had just taught me (and that I likely had already forgotten).

Let's not go into the outcome of those dates.  Let's just say that fortunately for the appetite that I was succesful in sating, the menu had pictures.  More fortunately, I knew a hip spot near the Dotonbori river in the center of town where every item was 280 yen, inclusive of tax and tip, which meant I could pay for exactly ten items with my Tuesday night earnings.  If the "language exchange session" was going well, the majority of those items would hopefully be beer, the Japanese word for which I knew very well.

When I got a call from my mom letting me know the credit card bill was coming in, I took on a second student, and then a third.  My first student, the single-mom entrepreneur I had met at McDonalds, kept me on for about three months.  Eventually I think that her drive, from the train station to an unfinished apartment in a nice part of town she maintained for her daughter's school district eligibility and apparently also for english lessons, was probably too much for her.  The second, a die-hard Elvis fan who showed up to every lesson with cowboy boots, a plad shirt and his hair slicked back like the king, stuck around for about a month before telling me he needed a teacher with Saturday off, which was a luxury a first-year teacher at my school could only dream of.

The third was a delightful woman who attended a Shakespeare course at Oxford every summer and who was perfectly satisfied to talk about Hamlet for an hour every week (Romeo and Juliet and Othello, the other Shakespeare plays with which I was familiar enough to discuss, were of no interest to her).  We would sit in a coffee shop, sipping slowly at small, rapidly-cooling cups of coffee, while I would bullshit about "the play" in the way only English majors can, and she would listen with absolute delight, nodding eagerly and occasionally offering her insights.  She engaged me as a tutor through the winter and into the spring, until the day that I cancelled our lesson due to my hangover.  The next week, after we had compared notes on the young prince for the umpteenth time, she handed me an envelope containing a two week bonus, and politely informed me that our lessons were over.  Being the 23-year-old idiot that I was, it didn't even occur to me that my poor excuse for missing our lesson the week before was the cause.  Being Japanese, she never would have mentioned it.

It's possible that this last envelope was once again the universe stepping in, or perhaps stepping back, since it brought me to exactly to my savings goal. You see, for several months, I had been stuffing a sock drawer with bills (the good kind) earned from my part time jobs, including a stint as a cram-school instructor I had taken up to fill my Tuesday night vacancy.  After being fired by my third student, I had just about $500 in said sock drawer, which I estimated was enough to buy a second-hand motor scooter.  It was, and this (more or less) was the scooter:


While I had loved a vehicle before I bought my scooter, and have loved vehicles since, none of them come within a thousand miles of matching the love I felt for my "baiku", especially when measured by unit of love per CC .  In this case, it was 50 CC's of pure, heart stopping adoration. 

I zipped (apologies in advance for using such a twee word, but as anyone who has never driven anything over 50 CC's surely knows, "zip" is the only word appropriate for riding a scooter) all around the sprawling megalopolis of Osaka town on my "baiku".  I zipped to the station when I was running late in the morning and wanted to avoid the fine of a half-day wages for missing even a minute of my first lesson.  I zipped to my weekly Japanese lessons, passing the zoo and the busy intersection near Tennoji station before spending an hour and a half with a patient and well-spoken woman who taught me Japanese.  I zipped once or twice to said cram-school job, but stopped after being caught in a downpour on the way home.  And every time I zipped anywhere, it was all the sweeter that I had paid for my vehicle myself.

After a year of teaching, my salary went up by about a hundred dollars a month, which was about the same as doing an extra English lesson per week.  I had paid off the loan from my father and put a dent my stateside credit card .  I had even begun working on my student loans (after about six months of postponing them via a very creative solution involving a Japanese school and my teacher's willingness to bend the rules on the forbearance application.  Beating the man is a universal proclivity, it would seem).  My spending had stabilized - I now added my own egg to my ramen - and I had mastered the art of finding overtime at work.  All this combined meant it wasn't quite so important to maintain part time jobs.

In fact, if I had stayed in Japan longer than a year and a half, I would have been quite comfortable, at least until my company imploded about a year later.  (If I had still been in Asia when that happened, I might have been one of those out-of-work teachers that took the free one-way ticket from Japan to China to teach there).

But after a year and a half I had left the country, and after a couple of months traveling the world I arrived back in the United States, planning to go to graduate school, and taking on part time jobs yet again.  Over the course of the year that followed, I was an English tutor, an assistant to a UPS driver, an employee in a payroll department, a teaching assistant and a Princeton Review teacher.  I got around in a white Toyota Camry that was probably older than my Japanese motorbike, and at the end of the year, rather than a trip around the world, I took a trip to the New York City borough of Brooklyn to begin law school.

And now we've reached the point where - if I squint - the past begins to intrude into the present, and when I think about how I made my way in the world during that time it's different than when I cast my mind toward the past like a fishing net and see what comes back.  Well, I guess I just admitted it.  I'm reflecting on my past jobs like an old fogey talks about his time working in the candy store (you know who you are).  So let's stop while the stopping is good, while the sharp smell of exhaust from the Honda bike with the white seat is still lingering in the air, while I could still bullshit about Hamlet if I wanted to, and where there's always a chance that the universe will decide to throw you a bone while you're waiting in line at a McDonalds.  "Natsukashi, na" (those were the days).

Saturday, March 15, 2014

the real world

Last Monday I got off one stop earlier on the subway and looked up at my new office building.  It's brown, which can go either way, but in this case the right way.  It was probably built in the 80's.

My former co-worker made a joke implying that I would need help navigating the "real world".  In my former job, which apparently was not the real world, I was a consultant who spent much of his time looking out the window of his office building at the other office buildings, wishing he was in one of them.  I'm glad that's not the real world.

The real world, my world now, is a polished brown stone office building, an isosceles triangle capped by a semicircle, resembling an ice cream cone with one miserly scoop.  There is a conference room at the vertex of every floor affording a panoramic view of perhaps 300 degrees.  I sit right where the cone meets the ice cream, in a small but adequate office.  There is a large window behind me that looks out at the street and several other buildings.  The office sits just off a wide hallway with four chairs arranged in a square, and while the office wall is glass, I keep the door open anyway.  When people arrive in the morning, everyone who works in the cone and people in the northern part of the scoop enter through the doors across from my office.  I do a lot of waving.

In the real world, people say good morning to each other.  At my last job, saying good morning to someone was the exception rather than the rule.  I'm the kind of person who prefers to say good morning, which reinforces the fact that I probably belong in the real world.

At my old job, I arrived anytime I liked on most days (although I usually arrived early).  Similarly, when things were slow <insert coughing fit with many of the coughs sounding suspiciously like I'm saying the word "always">, I was free to leave anytime that I liked.  (It would have been frowned upon if someone higher up noticed I was often gone at 5:45, but most of the time no one checked).

After arriving anytime I liked, I could do pretty much anything I wanted for most of the day.  At the same time, I was under immense pressure to record on my timesheet that at least six hours of the day were being spent doing things in furtherance of something which our clients had engaged us to do.  Although no-one really checked that I was doing the things I put on my timesheet, I had to at least consider the unlikely possibility that a client (or a manager) would spend more than two seconds looking at the bill and consider whether the activity for which I had billed two hours was in fact worthy of those two hours.  I also had to consider the even more remote possibility that the client would add up all the hours I was spending on a particular activity over the course of weeks, or even months, and wonder the same thing, so I had to be very careful with what I recorded.

Admittedly, this could be read as an admission, which would reflect poorly.  I would prefer it if you read this as a narrative of how a person spends their time when they are not living in the real world.  Also, you will note that I have been very careful - almost as careful as I was with my time sheets - not to actually admit to anything, only tell you about what I had to consider and be worried about on a day to day basis.  Due to my overly cautious nature, I may admit a thing or two eventually, but not now.

I am a bit nervous about the real world.  In my prior job, personal relationships were far less important than the work itself on a day to day basis.  Everything I have read about the real world implies that here, personal relationships are of equal or greater importance.  I hope that my time as a consultant, which translates to someone who spends their whole day alone in their room doing homework, hasn't exacerbated my Aspergers to the point where I am going to have difficulty maintaining human relationships.  I think I'll probably be fine.

I just added the word "probably".  Thank goodness I can deal with those awkward stops and starts in this posting, and hopefully avoid being equally awkward in real life.  I just added the word "hopefully".  (Kidding).

There are several things that those living in the real world have to worry about that those living outside the real world do not.  (Lawyers, you may want to consider these things).   This includes one's health, a social life, the daily commute, the timing of one's poop breaks, and the inability to take a meandering walk for two hours in the afternoon as long as you bring your cell phone.  As a consultant, most of these things, such as your commute, and poop breaks, are done randomly, at odd hours.  Not so for the real world.  A social life is now something to cultivate, rather than something synonymous with "go to the bar".  Health, that thing that non-real-world dwellers are aware of but don't give much thought to, is suddenly on your list as "something to maintain".   The list could go on.

The thing which I most appreciate, even after just a week, is that I am no longer doing work that is essentially homework.  There will be some of that, but there will also be group work, which means human interaction, and the chance to delegate a task to someone else :)  (as well as all those good things that come with human interaction, like sanity).

I'm glad I've moved to the real world.  I have no regrets.  I know there will be new types of stresses I had previously not been aware of, but I will manage it.  I will not miss time sheets.  And most importantly, at the end of the day, I will not miss boredom.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

rush hour crush

On my ride home today a girl standing against the wall caught my eye through the crush of rush hour bodies.  She was wearing a shiny burgundy jacket, and boots of a slightly darker color but similar sheen over dark translucent tights.  She was wearing earphones, and looked incredibly sad.  I would say with near absolute certainty that she lived alone.

I'm not sure why I was so sure about this last fact, but it stayed with me as the train zoomed under the Transbay Tube and then pulled itself up onto the tresses over West Oakland.  The thought filled me with a sad but sweet melancholy which was likely amplified by the fact it was January, just after dusk, and on a Monday to boot.

For a moment I looked around the train car, and wondered who else may have been going home by themselves (assuming I was right about this particular woman at all).  I pictured practically everyone else on our car going home to boyfriends and girlfriends, to husbands and wives and children, even to fathers and mothers (this is the Bay Area after all; it's not cheap).  She seemed not to fit, in a world by herself (along with her headphones and those shiny boots and jacket).

While she was not exceptionally attractive (it was not exactly that kind of temporary infatuation, I don't think) something told me that if she were out and about, with friends, perhaps with a lover or a partner or a date, she would appear transformed.  I could imagine her radiant.  Does sadness cast a veil that covers us, or does joy create a light that makes us beautiful?

Of course, there's a very good chance that I was just attracted to this sad girl, and was rationalizing it in a quasi-academic, romantic (19th century, not the 21st) way that helps me to think about women.  I wondered, in a half-crazy sort of way, whether I would have found it within me to make a move, if I were returning home alone myself.

Thinking about this woman, with her shiny burgundy jacket and downcast eyes, I remembered various women I have known who lived alone (even my wife, when we first met).  For a moment, I felt something that was suspiciously like empathy.  I do not know where such a feeling could have come from, because I myself have never lived alone.  Still, as the train sped back underground and the dark lavender-tinged sky receded up and away, I could imagine what it would be like to return to an empty apartment, especially on a unseasonably warm January night, such as this one, just after dusk, and on a Monday to boot.  Pop in a movie, bundle up against the dampness, perhaps pour a glass of wine... it wouldn't be so bad really.  Then again, the whole idea is probably much more romantic in the imagination of an emotionally sensitive guy, one who would surely swoop in and offer her company, thus removing the veil or kindling the light, whichever of the two ended up being the case.

Friday, January 24, 2014

a puppy? oof...

I am sitting on the mauve sofa in our living room, whispering "shhh" like it's going to make my dog stop barking.  Yes, I have a mauve sofa.  And I also have a dog.  I'm not sure which of these is more surprising (to you, or to me?), but the mauve sofa seems to be much lower maintenance.

The dog's name is Marcelino.  He is an eight week old Portuguese Water Dog, Poodle mix.  For short, we are calling him Marce.  No, there is no acute accent over the "e".  That would might be a cute nickname, but naming him after the Portuguese word for water is already pretentious enough.  (Apologies for the bad joke... I blame the barking).

Now he is next to me on the couch, trying to get comfortable.  Why?  Because I let him out of his "area" so he would quit yapping.  Praise all that is holy, for the barking has stopped.  He makes a small "oof" noise as he plops against my leg, as if all that racket tired him out, and now he can finally relax.  I can empathize with this feeling.

For the last four days, I have been working from home to take care of him.  I think he has a mild case of separation anxiety (thus, the barking), and I'm worried if we leave him by himself for more than two hours he is going to go apeshit crazy (which I understand is quite a bit crazier that the less pronounced "batshit crazy").  I don't want our dog to go apeshit crazy, especially not before he is house-broken.

Despite the plethora of poo that ends up on our floor about as often as it ends up outside (not to mention an excess of that other excretion), I have been having an absolute blast.  In fact, it's a sort of joy.  It's not unabashed, gleeful, child-running-through-field-of-daisies joy, maybe because there is so much floor mopping, but it's a joy that cuts through the cynicism that pervades the life of a 30-something who manically believes he knows everything yet is aware he actually knows nothing at all (on a daily basis).

Whether Marce jumps too high and falls flat, whines because he doesn't realize he can walk around the chair between me and him, or gives a small "oof" as he collapses at my feet, the smile that he brings is earnest.  Despite the desire for food and company, he has no ulterior motives.

Unfortunately, he hasn't taken to my wife 100% yet.  His behavior, which ranges from mellow to playfully aggressive during the day, switches to full-on demonic when she comes home from work.  Suddenly, it's as if he needs to re-establish the pecking order.  I suspect he realizes that I, as her husband, am ultimately going to defer to her.  Thus, if he can be the boss of her, he gets me as the booby prize.  Despite our daytime truce, where he doesn't bite or go too crazy, and I don't have to scold him for it, when she comes home, all bets are off.  Over the last few days, I think I've heard her say "ow!" more often than over the course of our marriage.  (Does this mean we need to spice things up?)

What it has come down to is this: So much of my attention is turned over to him, that when I close my eyes I see a puppy doing the billion things that puppies do, whether infuriating, cute beyond measure, endearing, annoying or heart-warming.  In my experience, when I muffle a sense (by closing my eyes, or not listening to my surroundings, or ignoring the various textures that press against my skin) the thing that I imagine seeing, hearing, tasting, etc, is the most meaningful thing that sense has been experiencing lately, or at least the thing that is most on my mind.  In this case, the association is obvious.  Regardless of whether it's the feel of puppy fur, the sight of him at my feet, or even the sound of his barking, I have no doubt that these things will come to dominate my mind for some time to come.

(As for my nose, I might need to accelerate the house-breaking, since unconsciously conjuring the smell of puppy-poo is not exactly a bouquet of roses).