Monday, February 24, 2014

'Ghostbuster' writer, actor Harold Ramis dies at 69

'Ghostbuster' writer, actor Harold Ramis dies at 69

Harold Ramis had a huge and profound impact on people my age who are into comedy.  Or just people who like to laugh.  He co-wrote National Lampoon's Animal House, Meatballs and Stripes, and both co-wrote and directed Caddyshack, and directed National Lampoon's Vacation.  A few obituaries I've read list Groundhog Day, which he also co-wrote as well as directed, as his best film, but as fun as that one is, I'll stick with CaddyshackMultiplicity is overdue for a critical re-appraisal, by the way.

Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack and Stripes (and Vacation to a lesser extent) shaped not just my own comedic sensibilities, but those of my friends.  We didn't just watch them.  We lived them whenever possible.  I also adored SCTV.  The funny thing is, while back in those days I idolized and desperately wanted to be John Belushi or Bill Murray, or one of Ramis' more chameleonic castmates on SCTV, over the past few years I've come to align more with Ramis.  Even in the comedic misadventures of our real life, I was going to be more of the sidekick, doing my best work not in front of people, but just out of view.

If I had pursued a career in comedy-- and at one point, that was a definite possibility (until I realized I lack talent)-- I think following Ramis' career path would have been the most comfortable.  He had a way of filling in the sides, of adding a calm presence, an intelligence and a slyness while letting the leads do their front-man thing, but then you realize how much his behind-the-camera work and way with a script made all of it possible in the first place. 

He made the worlds those guys inhabited.  How could anyone do it better?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Japanese bread thoughts: Kind-hearted Yamazaki deliverymen hand out truckload of bread to snow-stranded motorists

Here's a sweet story:  Kind-hearted Yamazaki deliverymen hand out truckload of bread to snow-stranded motorists.  Winter weather has hit the places I love pretty hard this year.  I'm talking about my home state and my current country of residence.  Tokyo certainly looked beautiful in photographs over the weekend, but if you were one of the unlucky motorists stuck in the snow, I'm sure you would have preferred sunshine and dry roads.  At least these Yamazaki delivery people came through for some of the stranded.

Which makes me think about bread.  For a country that prides itself on down-home rice-based eating, Japan sure has a lot of delicious bread.  The most common kind is called "shoku-pan," which means "eating bread."  Shoku-pan is familiar to people in the United States as white bread.  Sandwich staple.  Basis for various kinds of toast.  You can buy white bread in every convenience store and supermarket in 5, 6 or 8 slice loaves.  The 5-slice ones are thickest.  They work quite well for French toast.

If you teach English here, you're bound to have a conversation about rice versus bread.  "I prefer rice to bread" or some variation on that theme.  But you'll also ask students what they had for breakfast and receive, "Bread" as a reply, more than likely meaning some kind of toast.  But possibly also meaning cinnamon rolls or sweet rolls or practically any kind of sweet bun you can imagine.  When you talk about dinner, the answer will probably involve some variation of curry and rice.  Curry and rice.  Curry and rice.  Curry and rice.  If you can't think of anything else to fix for yourself or your family, you go with curry and rice.

People here tell me Americans eat bread with dinner.  I tell them my family eats rice and bread both with our dinner.  A few people are mildly interested in this answer, because it violates not only a dearly held stereotype, but also what I believe is a rule about starch in your diet.  That's why I usually keep it a secret we also frequently add baked potatoes to our daily fare.  But most people couldn't care less.  Neither could I, for that matter.  It's a boring conversation to have in any language.

Still, I am crazy about bread.  Our favorite shoku-pan comes in a red package.  I can't tell you the name.  I've never learned it.  I just look for the red package and then the expiration date.  Usually I buy the wrong bread.  Then my wife comes home with the kind we both like and everything is put right again.  Another bread we like is raisin bread.  Raisin bread can be found at 7-11 convenience stores and some supermarkets but you need to get there before we do.  We'll buy all of it ahead of you if you don't.  I've only found raisin bread in four-slice loaves, though.  Finally, I eat a lot of whole-wheat bread.  The brown breads.  I have an older brother who wouldn't eat whole-wheat bread unless you knocked him out and fed it into his body intravenously.  I prefer it to white bread.  While we can sometimes find Roman Meal bread here, it's only infrequently.

Therefore, I eat a lot of shoku-pan. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

I've been to four of the twenty castles on this list...

A story on Rocketnews 24 gives a rundown of TripAdvisor's "20 Best Castles" in Japan, and I'm surprised to find I've visited even as many as four of them.  While four isn't an impressive number at all, it's the inclusion of Kakegawa Castle in the number 20 spot that makes it possible.  I went to Kakegawa Castle on a date years and years ago.  At that point, the only castles I'd visited were Hamamatsu Castle, Nijo-jo and Nagoya Castle.  For a castle in a smaller town, Kakegawa Castle impressed me a lot more than Hamamatsu-jo.  I'm struggling to remember the specifics, but I believe I liked the gardens and the general layout more than the one in Hamamatsu. 

Also, I enjoyed the way the girl I was with strode up to the main gate-- which was closed-- pounded on it and shouted, "Konbanwa!" as if we were expected guests.

I've since been to Edo Castle twice, and I'm very interested in visiting Inuyama Castle now.  It's not far and it's an original rather than a concrete and steel replica.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Man arrested over death of 10-year-old boy in tub of boiling water

Man arrested over death of 10-year-old boy in tub of boiling water

This is a sad story that begs for further explanation.  90 degrees Celsius is about 194 degrees Fahrenheit.  We usually leave our gas register in the bath set to about 39 degrees Celsius, or 102 degrees Fahrenheit.  In winter, that's enough.  Why go any higher?  I'm not even sure ours will go much higher.  So how did the man get his bathtub water so close to the boiling point in the first place?  Why were they playing around near a tub full of hot water?  I can imagine sequences of events requiring everyone to go to the bathtub and get close enough to it as a group for someone to fall in and I'd like to know which foolish scenario was in play.

I don't suppose we'll ever get a full accounting of how this accident occurred.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

We finally saw Slapshot...

You know Slapshot, right?  The 1977 Paul Newman hockey film with the glasses-wearing Hanson Brothers and Michael Ontkean winning the league championship by doing a striptease?  Practically my entire life people have been telling me I needed to see this movie.  And I meant to.  I just never quite got around to it until yesterday.  It came on Star Channel, one of three movie channels we get with our cable package.  Star Channel does theme weeks and lately they've been on a Paul Newman kick.  The result is Slapshot airing on a Sunday afternoon in Japan.  My wife and I had nothing better to do, and while we missed the first ten minutes or so, we decided to settle in on the sofa and watch the rest.

I enjoyed it, but the funny thing is, my wife got a lot more out of it than I did.  She usually hates violence in films when it involves guns, but when there are wooden sticks and louts in padded jerseys, she's all for it.  Lots of laughter on her part this time around, and it was fun to hear.  She's lived in Canada and picked up something of a Canadian's love for hockey.  She knows a lot more about the game than I do, too.  My excuse is I'm from a place where skating means wearing wheeled boots on your feet.  There's rarely snow there and only occasionally do lakes freeze, and never deeply enough for ice skating.  We don't even have an indoor rink.  Hockey is as alien to me as mountain climbing is to a fish.  I am, however, a fan of underdog sports films, especially if they're raunchy and vigorous.

Both of which describe Slapshot.  We like it.  It's nice to find another movie my wife and I can agree about and enjoy together.

Pollen season expected to peak in late February

Pollen season expected to peak in late February

Well, fart.  We planned to get a jump on hay fever season early this year, and it's decided to one-up us in turn.  Seasonal allergies are no joke here in Japan.  While they can be pretty severe just about anywhere, apparently a cedar-planting program following WWII has turned spring into an annual misery for people living here.  My first few years here were relatively allergy-free, but exposure over time has caused me to become just as susceptible to hay fever as anyone.  My wife is fortunately allergy-free, but last year I experienced the full force of pollen-induced sneezing, runny nose, clogged sinuses and many, many sleepless nights.  It wasn't like having a mild cold for over a month.  It was like having a severe one.

There are masks and nasal sprays, antihistamine pills and even salves you dab in your nostrils or clear plugs to shove in there, but these only turn down the pain a notch, from a Spinal Tap-like 11 to a Who-ish 10.  Last year's allergies were an Isle of Wight experience, the nasal equivalent of being stuck inside Pete Townshend's amp.  For three weeks.  One of my friends rarely sets foot outside his house during the season's peak.  I have no choice.  I have to walk to work and we rarely close the windows at our school.  You know what this means.

I'm going to make an appointment with an allergy specialist as soon as possible and see if I can't take action before things get out of hand this year.