Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Spiritual Camaraderie

While I was in Bangalore India I met one of the most selfless persons walking the earth. Sharath is young lawyer and family man and a devout Hindu. He stopped eating meat because of his convictions that all life is sacred and God is One. He reads from the Bhagavadgita and offers puja everyday. He speaks Truth and lives upright.

On the sixth day of our stay, Sharath drove Calum and I, along with his friend Sathiya and Uncle Prakesh to Mysore, the cultural and spiritual capital of southern India. During the one hour plus (a very big plus) trip the five of us talked about a little of everything, from the goldmine that is Indian real estate to American politics, all heavily seasoned with uncle Prakesh's blatantly off colored jokes about goats hearders, sex workers, and Panjabis.

I forget most of the jokes and I'm not extremely interested in Indian real estate, but what I won't forget is the camaraderie that developed between Sharath and I as we talked theologically about India's rich spiritual landscape. He told me of the
gods' outrageous misadventures with adultery, child delivery, and warfare, not to mention incest, elephant heads, and universal goof ups. I've never met a person who knew so much about Hinduism and could communicate that knowledge so well.

As we visited various Hindu temples, Sharath would use the carvings to reveal his faith to me. When we visited an exiled Tibetan community and toured their temple I was able to share my knowledge of Buddhism with Sharath in return. We became spiritual brothers, though I'm certain I learned more from him than he learned from me.

I left India wanting to be a better person, not because of some moral code or fear of damnation; no. I wanted to be a person and improve my spiritual health because of Sharath's selfless example, which in a land obsessed with monetary profit and technological progress, soothes like fresh coconut juice.

Monday, June 23, 2008

New Directions in Portraiture

This past Friday I got to see my good friend Calum's (Safely Framed) amazing painting titled "Inside Outsider."(click link for large veiw) Though I'm not exactly sure how he created the base sketch I know he used a picture he had taken one day in Harajuku's Yoyogi Park, see "Spring Day Boots." The final result is fresh and spirited, just the way art should be.

I had the privilege to see the piece take shape, from Mamiya photograph, to sketch, to paint, and finally to completion, as Calum took pictures of his progress after each of his work sessions. Watching a piece of art develop was a new experience for me as I'm used to only seeing finished pieces. It's a long process from conception to completion, gruelling at times. The piece is shaped by the artist and, simultaneously, shapes the artist in return. I've seen the piece shape Calum over the past month, making him a more self confident and inspired person.

Calum has rounded a corner with this piece. There is an energy to it and an immediacy that hooks the viewer. What is most appealing about the piece, I believe, is that it is both modern and classic at the same time: concrete abstract, the kind that doesn't let the subject get lost in the expression. In fact, as I had the insider privilege of being outside at the park that day, I can honestly say that the piece captures the lighthearted optimistic mood we all shared that early Spring day.

To check out more of Calum's (Safely Framed) work be sure visit his Flickr page. Excellent work C. -The piece hasn't helped your dart game any.

I'm a Pepper

The Japanese do things differently than Americans; they use chopsticks, go shoeless inside the house, and eat properly. They also package nectar of the gods, aka Dr. Pepper, differently; really differently. Check out the vixen to the left of the Dr. Pepper logo. You're looking at the wrapper from a 500 ml (16 oz.) bottle of Japanese DP. That tatooed tart ain't too bad looking, and what a way to be served a soda!

Dr. Pepper isn't very popular in Japan. I can count on one hand the number of places where I can get a DP, which stands in sharp contrast to my home state of Texas, perhaps the only state in the union where Dr. Pepper is more popular than Coke. I don't like Coke.

This wrapper really blows me away. There a ton of differences like this all over Japan. It's really cool to see the products I love from back home re-packaged to suit the Japanese market. Hell, I wish the DP bottles back home were this cool looking, hell, Dr. Pepper needs mascot instead of those damn maroon shirts. Let Coke have the endangered CGI polar bear family, I'll take a big bosomed sexy blonde haired minx in pink stockings and little else any day!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Oh Where Have You Been?

Bob Dylan's "It's a hard rain's a gonna fall" has me wrapped up. The more I tune into it's rolling strums and ruminate on its lines the more Truth I find. A spring of Truth and power, inspiration and warning, the words just play again and again and sway inside my soul. Every time I hear the song I come away with something new, something I'm glad to be leaving with, something that makes me a better person. And always, and thankfully, I'm drawn to my father and the questions I hope he will ask me someday.
Oh where have you been, my blue eyed son?

The opening line takes me to the back porch where Dad and I rock back and forth in wooden rocking chairs on a warm Texas evening. The June-bugs are crawling and contented smiles light our faces, contended because we're together, contended because we've got a cold Coors in one hand and a hot Marlboro in the other. We rock in front of a glowing Mexican chimenea. He rolls his head slowly along the headrest and looks at me with soft fire lit eyes and asks...

Oh where have you been, my darling young one?

I'm not so young anymore, what with all my experiences living by myself in Japan for two years. Experiences he will never understand, experiences concepts cannot absorb and anecdotes can't communicate. My time without him. A time with myself in another world. As stories of enlightenment and pain muddle the simple truth, I take refuge in metaphor, in symbolism; the beer makes this move acceptable, even noble.

And thus I speak my visions & disappointments & heartbreaks & triumphs & elations & frustrations & longings and, to some extent, my regrets. All these I give to him in words the heart understands, or at least feels.

Silver bullet cans litter the ground around the rockers, the chimenea holds a pack worth of charred butts, the moon has finished its arc and sun's cool coming paints the sky a rich purple. My dad turns to me once more and asks the question I know he's been wanting to ask me since high school...

And what'll you do now, my blue eyed son?

I don't know what to tell him. I don't know what to answer myself.

And what'll you do now, my darling young one?

I'm a goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a fallin'.

I'll keep moving forward with my life, finding what makes me happy, just like you do. I think that's what you do anyway; you sure look happy. You sure look happy to me.

I'm learning my song dad, I'm writing my lyrics, I'm learning about myself and drawing closer to that which draws near me. I'm learning my song, a song I'll know well before I start singing...

Happy Father's Day

click for complete lyrics to 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall'

Saturday, June 7, 2008

First Clipping!

I have a clipping! I'm trying to get into the freelance game but still have little idea about how to get started. I figured a good first step is to get my work in print "close to home," which in my situation means the Saitama JET Quarterly Newsletter. This newsletter is distributed by the Saitama Prefectural International Division and is sent to every board of education employing JET participants in Saitama (state). It's a good start!

I'm told the key to getting published is to show editors your "clippings," or previously published work. Herein lies the difficulty for me as a brand new writer. It's a classic catch-22, no clips no pubs; no pubs no clips. Yikes! But now I've got a clipping to show them.

The article I wrote is about the valuable points I took away from the 2008 Conference for Returning JETs. The conference served as a great "professionalism 101" seminar. I'm very glad I attended the event and was happy to write the article for the newsletter. I hope all can benefit from reading it. Here it is in its entirety. Please enjoy.
Future Skills JETs Already Have
Insights from the Yokohama Conference for Returning JETs
Justin Burrus, Washimiya BOE

‘Future’ was the buzzword at the 2008 Conference for Returning JETs. The conference, held March 3rd-5th at Minato Mirai, Yokohama, brought the future into clear view, reminding everyone that in four months we’ll be job hunting from the comfort of our parents’ homes. The future is a terrifying subject for JETs because many of us feel we lack the skills and experience it takes to get a real job. Fortunately, after three days of lectures, workshops, and panels, the future looks promising. The good news is that professional skills come in different flavors and experience is loosely defined.

Every job demands two types of skills: hard and soft. Hard skills are the technical skills needed to do a specific job. They take time, money, and effort to get, but reward certificates, diplomas, and licenses—things employers want to see. In the past hard skills ruled the day, that’s why most of our parents have one skill and one career—it’s all they ever needed. My father is a perfect example, he graduated with a degree in accounting thirty years ago and has been counting other people’s money ever since. Though hard skills are important they’re not the only game in town. Now more than ever the job market requires more than qualifications, it demands personality.

“Soft skills” is business lingo for personality, and though these skills don’t come with a certificate they are hard to get. Anyone can learn how to drive a truck or do taxes, but where do you learn “thinking outside the box,” or “team playing?” No matter what job you’re applying for these are the skills bosses want to see; that’s the best thing about soft skills, they’re valued everywhere.

In his keynote address “Future Mind,” Ian De Stains talked about the new skills needed to succeed in the rapidly changing job market. Creativity topped the list, followed closely by global vision and communication skills. It sounds odd calling creativity a skill but it’s the hottest soft skill of all. Stains mentioned a job at Disney where people sit in a room and think up the weirdest ideas they can. Though that job is goofy, all employers want people who think creatively, solve problems, and innovate.

Since employers are looking for soft skills show them on your resume. In his excellent workshop, resume coach Vince Ricci told everyone to start listing interests. Your interests show off your soft skills making you unique. Especially good interests include: travel, sports, and artistic things like photography and writing--these tell the boss you are open minded, a team player, and creative. Listing “Microsoft Office” wastes resume real estate because everyone can use it. Instead of listing a boring old hard skill include a fresh exciting interest, because the question facing today’s job-seeker is not “can you use Word,” it’s “what can you create?”

Companies want people with soft skills. Prior experience and training always helps, but no one wants to hire a highly-trained moron. If you have the soft skills the company will train you in the hard skills. This is great news for us JETs who have minimal hard skills but have loads of soft skills and experiences to weave into our resumes:

JETs can:
§ Adapt to new environments
§ Appreciate different worldviews
§ Create interesting lesson plans
§ Act as cultural liaisons
§ Relocate without fear
JETs have:
§ International work experience
§ Cross-cultural communication skills
§ Team-teaching expertise
§ Global interests
§ Experience living in a foreign culture

Put all these skills in your resume and be ready to talk about them in the interview. These are not superfluous tidbits; they are skills and experiences that set you apart. Who would you rather hire as an employer: a qualified candidate, or a qualified candidate with international work experience? The latter wins hands down!

Over the three day conference we heard a lot of inspirational success stories that opened new possibilities. Oddly enough, most of the stories started like this, “I have no formal training in my field…” or “I kind of slid into this job,” so that by the third workshop I started wondering if anyone was actually qualified to give me advice. Of course they were--most of them at least--because they all had good jobs that I would love doing. Of course their biggest piece of advice was “sell the skills JET gives you.” And that’s exactly how they “slid” into cool jobs.

By far the most important thing learned at the conference was to try for some jobs you’re not necessarily qualified for. Focusing too much on past experience and training drastically limits career possibilities. JETs aren’t typecast as teachers. Of the 24 career workshops offered only 3 dealt with teaching. That’s because in the end, JET isn’t about English, or even teaching for that matter, it’s about innovative people impacting the world. We are destined for greatness!

Handouts and presentations of last year’s conference are available at:

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Whoopin' Stick 田中先生の竹刀...怖いだ

In my May 19th post "Return to the Ring," I qouted this line from Pie Mei in Kill Bill 2, "You are here to learn the mysteries of Kung Fu, not linguistics. If you can't understand me, I will communicate with you like I would a dog. When I yell, when I point, when I beat you with my stick!" In that post I wrote that Tanaka Sensei, my Karate teacher, only corrects me with his hands & feet. Well, things have changed; he got a stick; a real nasty one too.

This past Tuesday at practice I noticed something very menacing in his once empty hand, hell, how could I not?: it was a shinai 竹刀, a bamboo sword used in Kendo 剣道, the Japanese martial art of sword fighting. As if he wasn't scary enough, now he's armed and more dangerous.

Tanaka Sensei used the shinai like a decorative cane as he walked in between us, pounding it on the floor as he shouted out commands. It was like he had his finger on the trigger. We all put 110% into our kicks and punches because if we slacked off: if our fists were loose, if our stances sagged, our if our damn toes weren't pulled back: SMACK!! A pop to the back of the knee, "Lock it," the stick commands. A wrap on the knuckles, "Tighter!" Too bad after the smack our legs hurt too much to straighten and our knuckles were too numb to tighten. Forget Catholic Sisters with rulers; try a Karate Master with goddamn wooden sword. Holy Shit man!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Finger in the Moon

A little over 2 months ago I submitted the following piece for the JET Essay Contest. I worked very hard writing this piece and even though it was not selected, it was this essay that lit a fire under me and got me started writing. I hope you all enjoy it more than the critcs did. I've retrofitted with links for your pleasure.
Ever thought you knew everything about something only to discover that what you knew wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t completely right? Like knowing about something but not recognizing it right in front of your face. As if everything you learned was just theory? I know this feeling because I operate out of it daily on the JET Program. Everyday the reality of living and working in a Japanese community erodes my tidy preconceived notions of “Japan,” and, some days, obliterates them like a sledgehammer smashing a watermelon. Reality is messy. Here’s a messy JET Program story involving one of my students, a Buddhist priest, and a squirmy poodle. It was one of the most unusual days of my life, and like most unusual days, it started out usual enough…

Saturday means lunch at Nonkiya, the best family run noodle shop in Washimiya. I always order the same thing, so when the shopkeep asks for my order I just smile and nod. Well it was a day like that, one of those “everydays” that start happening when you get used to a place and a place gets used to you. A day set on auto-pilot where everything glides on the rails of routine. Even the shy whispering of my name by a junior high girl seemed natural enough.

I turned to the table on my right finding a happy, well kept family hunched over their noodles, whispering to each other as they peaked at me. Behind my “konnichiwa” I frantically flipped through my mental filing cabinet searching desperately for the girl’s name, grade level, even her school’s name, anything. I’ve never not known so many people before. Teaching every student age fifteen and under in town has that effect. Just wing it…again.

We chatted across the tatami isle throughout lunch and the father, a large beast of a man, picked up my tab as we left. Once outside he began showing off his brand spanking new lightning silver Mercedes Benz. The family invited me home with them and soon I was cruising shotgun through the eastside of town, which, in my town, is the nice side. Curious, I asked the father what he did for a living; I expected the usual Tokyo salary-man scenario, home for the weekend making up for lost time with the family. However, his occupation surprised me; turns out he’s a Buddhist priest. I didn’t know Buddhist priests made that kind of money, but one squeeze of the plush leather seat assured me that Buddha meant business, and business was good.

I couldn’t believe it, I was rollin’ in a Benz with a Buddhist priest; I’d never met one of those before, and it might have been my first time in a Mercedes too. I had a lot of questions for him. He probably wasn’t expecting to bring home a guy interested in Buddhism, much less one packed full of theories and ideas about his job and religion. One of my reasons for coming to Japan was the chance to study and practice Buddhism with a real Japanese master, just like the ones I read about in school.

My curiosity about Buddhism and Japan began during graduate school and I can’t say which interested me first. It was a package deal. At that time I was just beginning my obsession with all things Japanese. I must’ve watched Lost in Translation a hundred times and Kill Bill vol. 1 a thousand times, especially the part set in Hatori Hanzo’s sushi bar. I started reading Japanese philosophy in English translation. In no time I was talking Zen and filling my conversations with cool sounding Japanese words. I offered an “eastern” perspective on the topics under discussion; pretty sketchy considering the closest I had been to Japan at that point was Las Vegas, Nevada.

I learned about the JET Program shortly after my Japan kick began. As usual, I was sitting on the porch of my graduate school apartment, losing a game of chess and pontificating on matters of theology and geometry with my friends. However, this day was different because a new classmate named Nezha told me about the JET Program after hearing me throw a Zen twist into the discussion. Nezha will always be a special person to me and to Japan. She came to Japan as a member of the founding class of ALTs, the Class of ’87. She was a team teaching trailblazer, helping Japanese students learn English while I was still struggling with compound words like, well, “trailblazer.” I’ll always be grateful to Nezha because without her I wouldn’t be pulling into the Priest’s driveway as a member of the JET Class of ‘06.

I hadn’t even taken my shoes off when I met Cha-in, the family’s hyperkinetic poodle. What a mess. Like a gnarly gray and white ball of yarn with a mouth. It would be thirty minutes before the little thing quit yapping, though it never did stop fidgeting. Like most little dogs it perpetually quivered.

“What a nice house,” I said, and it was a nice house. It was new and surprisingly spacious, the antithesis of most Japanese homes which feel more like paper mazes with furniture. The house felt American with its painted walls and open living room complete with sofa and love seat. When I told the family the place felt American they were thrilled. The whole family loves America and American things, but most especially they love Americans. They showed me the slide show from their family vacation to Los Angeles and were shocked to learn I had never set foot outside LAX Airport; as if every sane American dreams of being from or moving to L.A. Their pictures were interesting not because of their quality but because of their diverse contents: rental cars, fast food dinners, and hotel rooms. I’ve never taken pictures of any of those things, at least not while in America. During this time I started to piece together the girl’s identity; her name was Yuna.

After the slide show concluded and the family dispersed, I asked the Priest some questions about Buddhism and his job. When I asked about the Japanese philosophers I read in school silence ensued:

-Do you know Hakuin Ekaku? …No huh? ...
-Ekaku Hakuin then?

I thought I’d try changing the names around, that always works with Ken Watanabe’s.
-Still no? …got it…

It didn’t help at all.
-Maybe someone more recent, how about Nishitani Keiji? …Nothing… I see…

Sitting at 0 and 2 I brought out my heavy hitter,
-Ok, Ok, Nishida Kitaro, I know you’ve heard of him. He’s got a walk named after him in Kyoto and that’s important right?

The Priest paused, nodded, and curtly replied:
-I know him… He’s tough…um.

And that’s it. That’s all he said. All my studies in Japanese Buddhist philosophy boiled down to “he’s tough.” I already knew that. What had I been reading?

What I didn’t know is that the Buddhist priest job is a lot less enlightening than I imagined. Instead of meditating for days on end and writing “tough” philosophical treatises, he mainly performs funerals and tends the graves near the temple. The job can get a bit depressing. For the first time I learned that in Japan, Shinto celebrates life and Buddhism honors death, that’s why shrines never have graves and temples always do. We had just started talking about and death when the little cousins arrived, stirring the pooch and our spirits.

I asked the Priest if he would show me around the small family temple adjacent to the house. Surprised and thrilled by the request he sprang up ready to go. He said it was rare to meet a person my age so interested in Buddhism, much less one from America. Before we got out the door he lit a cigarette and out we went, Priest and daughters, little cousins, dog and all.

It’s funny seeing a little poodle running around in a hundred some odd year old temple, sniffing at everything and looking up at me with those quizzical little eyes. I returned his bewildered look; I suppose we were both confused at seeing each other in this holy space.

The dad kept his smoke going the whole time he showed me around the small hall, explaining the various scrolls and statues. Forget sandal wood or jasmine incenses, he burns tobacco. When he pointed to his grandfather’s picture hanging above the family altar I couldn’t see past the long ash dangling from the end of his cigarette, like a cindered serak ready to release at any moment. Noticing my distraction the priest didn’t extinguish the smoke; no, he just flicked the ash in the altar’s incense burner and kept on smoking. Apparently smoking in the Buddha hall isn’t a bad thing; in America he’d be damned.

Now between the perplexed poodle and the cigarette puffing Priest was the four year old nephew who started waling away on the wooden fish drum like John Bonham reincarnated. The girls punctuated his pandemonium on back up percussion, pounding out long sonic peels from the sitting bell and lush round whomps from the taiko. No one chanted. No one could think. I couldn’t hear the sound of one hand clapping if I tried. I was trapped in a Buddhist tornado, caught up in a sacred swirling of the mundane. The Priest bellowed laugher and smoke from his grinning jowl, the curly headed poodle stared at me with his black marble eyes, and the drumming ticked like a primordial time piece with a bent sprocket.

Amidst the chaos I pulled a fifty yen coin from my front pocket and cast it into the worn collection box. Mind bemused, my body prayed that day. A big Domo Arigatou went out to the Buddha that afternoon for giving me the opportunity to meet this interesting family.

Back in the house, with my head still ringing from the temple, I sat into the cushy couch and hung out with Yuna. Throughout the day I pieced together her identity, learning she was a third grade student at East Junior High. We talked about teachers and I helped her a little with her English homework. That didn’t last too long though because the Priest wanted to watch some TV while the mother made dinner. We all kicked back and relaxed, the poodle jumped in my lap, and the big screen lit up. I was at a loss for a moment; I couldn’t believe whose mustache and scruffy mug I saw. It was none other than Jason Lee’s. Turns out the whole family loves ‘My Name is Earl.’ What? They really meant “all things American.” Earl represented America for them like Hatori Hanzo represented Japan for me.

Two Japanese-subtitled episodes later we moved from the sofas to the dinner table where mother had laid out a huge spread of food and drink. She called up a few friends and before long I was the center of conversation for ten. We ate, we drank, we communed. I didn’t get back home until eleven that evening; a half day after Yuna Ito and her gregarious family put an end to my usual day.

The Ito’s are a gracious, curious, and lively family to say the least. They broadened my image of Japanese people and I like to think I broadened their image of Americans. That day I didn’t meet a stoic Zen Master, I met a family with a loud poodle. Likewise, they met Justin, an American whose name isn’t Earl.

I came to Japan to meet people like the Ito’s and learn from them. And what did I learn? I learned volumes about what my textbooks never taught me or the movies ever showed me: I learned my knowledge about Japan and Buddhism belongs behind my real-life experience, not in front of it. It wasn’t until I quit asking questions based on my presumptions that I finally started learning something: Knowledge is valuable when it illuminates, not when it covers up.

There is a Zen saying to that effect that I’m starting to understand, “All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and whose gaze is fixed upon the finger will never see the beauty of the moon beyond.” The key is look past the finger, even if it’s holding a cigarette. Thank you Ito family for inviting me home and showing me a radiant piece of reality.

International exchange happens everywhere, while standing in front of a class or being sat on by a poodle, all it takes is the humility to look outside ourselves and the courage to see beyond what we think we know. For over twenty years the JET Program has smashed preconceptions and stereotypes obstructing the beauty of authentic international understanding.