Year two

I’m about three weeks late on a “back to school” post, which is in fact a consequence of actually being back at school and busy again. But, solidly into my second year here in Japan, the calendar has begun to repeat itself.

The elementary school students have been in a frenzy of preparation since returning from summer vacation, getting ready for their sports day. In terms of preparation and exposure, sports days (undokai) are perhaps the most important of the year for elementary schools. The entire community, from parents and siblings to alumni and neighborhood swells, turn out for the festivities. Although nominally a “sports” day, the agenda calls for songs and dances in addition to displays of athleticism. The entire affair is elaborately choreographed and planned out to the minute.

Tomorrow is the big day, but since my camera is still on the PUP list, I can’t promise any photos. If you missed my post last year, there are some pictures here.

While the calendar is doubling back, I’m understandably in a different place to experience these events than I was the first time around. One of the reasons I came to Japan was to have new experiences, and in that respect, my first year here certainly delivered. Now, gearing up for take two, these experiences don’t seem totally new, but neither are they old hat. I’ve traded a measure of uncertainty and excitement for a little familiarity, and so far, it’s a trade I’m glad to have made.

In that vein, the school year is off to a smooth smart, especially relative to a year ago, when I was still trying to figure out what the expectations were. Like any job, there are occasional frustrations and disappointments, but I feel much better equipped to deal with them now because they are no longer a surprise. My Japanese has also gotten better, and though the improvements are mostly social rather than occupational in nature, every little bit makes life easier.

One big difference is how much busier I am now than I was this time last year. In addition to school, I’m now involved with extracurricular English classes two nights a week. I’m in the midst of applying to graduate schools. And, because I’ve gotten to know some people over the last year, my social calendar has gotten more crowded as well. By and large, these are all welcome additions to my schedule, but they have left less time for things like blogging.

Of course, at this time last year, I was also training for a marathon, which took up quite a considerable amount of time. Finally, after a two-week layoff that turned into ten months, I can say that I am back to running regularly. My injured knee, which sent me to four different doctors and a physical therapist over the last year, seems to be almost totally recovered. That’s not definitive yet–since I started training again three weeks ago, my mileage has been extremely modest, and I’m still experiencing occasional tightness–but the problem swelling is all but gone, and the sharp pains have disappeared completely.

I’m moving forward gingerly, but so far, I’ve got reason to be cautiously optimistic. My conservative goal is to be able to run the Unzen-Obama Half-Marathon in January, a race I registered for last year but was unable to compete in do to injury. If that goes well, I’m hoping to take another shot at 26.2 when I get back to the U.S. But, for now, baby steps.

Now, as I close in on 10 months left in Japan, I’m faced with a new challenge: trying to plan my schedule in such a way that I get to see and do as much as I can before I leave. I was in the neighboring prefecture of Kumamoto last weekend, where I finally got to see Kumamoto-jo, the huge castle that ranks among the most famous in Japan. You’ll recall I tried to go to Kumamoto-jo last year before New Year’s, but was rebuffed. This time, I got in without having to scale the walls, which would be pretty difficult, since they were built at an angle to repel ninja attacks.

It’s likely that more weekend trips like that will be in the offing this year. Partly, this is because I’ve now seen most of what there is to see on the Shimabara Hanto, but mostly, it’s because my Japanese has improved to the point that traveling no longer feels ripe with anxiety. (Though it’s not completely without its travails. We were unable to take the ferry back to Shimabara as planned because a typhoon grounded all ships. I was just fortunate to be with a friend who not only possesses a Japanese driver’s license but also the skills to negotiate a car rental.)

So, while such trips will hopefully make for quality blog material, they’ll further cut into my writing time. I’m not saying the weekly-ish posts you’ve come to know and love are going extinct, but that there may be stretches where I am delinquent. Please hold it against me, and feel free to let me know about it, since animosity is a powerful motivator.

Lastly, I’d like to add that for those who offered condolences in the wake of my last post, fear not. At 4:55pm on Thursday, the Chuck Town Deuce was recovered by chance, having been considerately abandoned at a bike rack near the bus station.

It’s clear to me now, after having two “stolen” bikes subsequently discarded at said bike rack, that the thefts in question are mostly of a joy-riding nature, which is strange, since both of my bikes are uncomfortable and hardly a joy to ride. Anyway, while a culture of liberal bike “borrowing” is preferable to one of out-and-out thievery, I will still be locking the Chucks up from now on. Reunited, and it feels so good.

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Clinton is dead, long live Clinton

A new man, but still Slick.

While it was a bit of a letdown to be overseas during the Olympics, I have to admit that being in Japan for election season is something of a perk. I still get to vote–and I fully intend to do so, even though Nate Silver at The NY Times says Obama already has a 100% chance of victory in New York State–but I’m not subjected to political ads, inane human interest stories, and the endless onslaught of media coverage that you all are.

Now, I’m not as informed as I otherwise might be, and I probably get too much of my information from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. And, admittedly, I’ve spent more time this month listening to President Jed Barlet than I have to President Barack Obama. But this feels like a small price to pay in exchange for the respite I get from the unavoidable rancor and bitterness that permeates so much of the U.S. every four years. The reflected dose I get roaming around the internet is more than enough as it is.

I don’t generally blog politics here unless they find their way into my life as a teacher in Japan, which as you can imagine rarely happens. I’m going to make an exception this time, but not to talk policy or polls. What I’m interested in is discussing perception.

Like pretty much every blue-stater, I watched Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last week. The speech drew universal praise from liberals, and from what I saw, even conservative media outlets grudgingly granted that it stood out from the boilerplate rhetoric that defined many of the convention speeches.

But, as I watched him speak, I thought to myself, “Who is this guy?”

In 1991, my preschool class held a mock election to coincide with the Presidential campaigns. Because I lived in New York State, Clinton won the toddler vote handily, evidence of the heritable quality of political affiliation. I was one of three or four who went in favor of George H.W. Bush, for no reason other than that my parents supported Clinton.

In spite of my contrarian leanings, Clinton won the election that counted, as well as the one after that, so I grew up under a Slick Willy administration. But by the time I was old enough to follow politics for myself, Clinton was out, and George W. Bush was in.

As a result, I remembered Clinton less as a President or politician and more as a walking punchline. My associations with Clinton are all culled from the pages of Mad Magazine or cribbed from old Saturday Night Live sketches: Clinton, the philanderer; Clinton, the horndog; Clinton, tenor saxophonist; Clinton, the hamburglar; Clinton, the meekly penitent, brow-beaten husband; Clinton, who did not have sex with that woman; Clinton, who didn’t know the meaning of the word “is”; Clinton, who felt my pain.

At the time of his Presidency, this was about all I knew of Bill Clinton, and all I cared to know. When W. Bush was elected President, I remember my parents warning me, “You don’t know how good you had it with Clinton.” Which, of course, was true. I had no idea how good or bad I had it with Clinton because I didn’t know anything about him, except that he liked to put cigars where they didn’t belong.

Especially during the early years of the Bush administration, I cultivated a sort of false nostalgia for the Clinton days. In the way of teenagers discovering politics and activism for the first time, I had many ill-conceived discussions about the myriad failings of President Bush, and about how he paled in comparison with his predecessor.

I certainly believed this at the time, and maybe it was even true, but I had very little basis for making this claim given that, if pressed, I could only say of Clinton’s accomplishments that he “grew the economy,” something I had heard or read elsewhere and simply assumed to be the case. Mostly though, he was just cooler, and Bush was obviously a moron, so Clinton must have been smarter, too. My dislike of Bush manifested itself as misplaced and misunderstood admiration for Clinton, which although in error was probably natural, given that he was at the time my only basis for comparison.

I learned a little more about Clinton’s background as I got older, about his years at Georgetown, Oxford and Yale. (It is amusing but sadly true that college students tend to ascribe more meaning to where a person went to school than anything else about him.) I found out that he had been a Rhodes Scholar and was sufficiently impressed.

Even so, though, it was hard to think of him without picturing a chubby kid who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Like most liberals, I never actively held his personal indiscretions against him, always claiming that they had no impact on his ability to govern without pausing to consider the truth of this statement. In retrospect, creating a media circus, tarnishing the integrity of his office, and allowing his appetites to go unchecked are very real shortcomings for a man of his standing, one who ought to hold himself to a higher standard.

But, while I actively defended his horn-doggery as a “non-issue,” I also let it become his legacy to me. When Hillary Clinton ran for the Senate seat in my home state, I joked about how Bill would amuse himself while she was at work and he had the run of the house. When Clinton teamed up with H.W. Bush on philanthropic missions around the world, I wasn’t reminded of his actions as President, but of how much cooler than he was than Bush. That guy doesn’t know how to party like the Big Dog.

Between his autobiography, his philanthropy, and his wife’s political career, Bill Clinton hasn’t exactly been in hiding for the last decade. But even as he continued to be a national presence, my reaction to him was always, “Old Uncle Bill, boy, I sure miss that sonuvabitch. Remember all those antics he used to get up to in the White House? Those were the good old days.” He was just a smart, goofy, horny dude who somehow ran the country for awhile and seemed like he had a good time while he was doing it. Nothing he said or did ever compelled me to rethink that narrative.

For me, and perhaps other members of my generation, Bill Clinton was a caricature of a President. During his administration, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to see anything more than a cartoon version of the President, and to his credit, Bill played that part damn well. Often, in the years after he left office, I would hear political commentators talk about him in reverential tones, and I sort of accepted this at face value because, like, who wouldn’t look smart next to President Bush, right? But I didn’t really see what the fuss was about.

When Obama ran for President, though, it sort of cut Clinton down to size for me. Now, here was a President–smart, cool, well-spoken, and possessed of more self-control than a dog with an itchy taint. Finally, here was someone worthy of the post, and just in time for my first Presidential election as a voter. Clinton was the past–Obama was the future. Obama was my President.

Over the last four years, my view of President Obama has been tried and tempered. He is, of course, still my President, but I have come to realize that my expectations for Obama were perhaps caricatural in their own way. Still, his very presence seemed to diminish Clinton’s in my mind, and even as Obama’s flaws as President were revealed, they seemed to demonstrate his existence as a flesh-and-blood man and not the cartoon superhero we emblazoned across our t-shirts. The idea of Clinton-as-lovable-scamp grew increasingly threadbare by comparison.

In 49 minutes, President Clinton put that narrative to bed last week. As if for the first time, I saw the Clinton I had only heard about. Judging by the reception of his speech, I am not alone in this feeling. For my generation, recognizing Clinton’s power and magnetism was not just a matter of growing up, but of putting distance between the man and his transgressions. While his misdeeds should not be trivialized, neither should they be his defining legacy, as they were for me all these years. Though of a different nature than those of Obama or Bush, Clinton’s mistakes should likewise be seen as humanizing the office of the President, and it is our great privilege to reminded at times like these who Bill Clinton really is.

Today, two decades after I vote against him in red crayon, I can finally say: I very much see what the fuss is about.