March 10, 2008.
Sitting in the kitchen and cleaning the dishes while cooking rice in a pot of boiling water I realized that tonight was a night made for writing. An appropriate time to catch everyone up on where I am and where I am going.
Sitting under my kotatsu in Gifu prefecture, Japan, the winter is finally beginning to recede. Most days it is getting up in the 40s, and after three months of snow the sky has finally remembered how to rain. It was an unexpected realization to discover how much I missed the rain. Its sound, its power, the smell it leaves behind. The feeling of calm serenity during a thunder storm. I'm really glad its raining again.
Last week snow covered the ground a couple of the mornings, but even those gentle tugs of winter seem like they will give way to spring in the next week or two. Watching the storm turn into slush is satisfying in a way it can't be unless the snow has been stalking you for the past three months.
That said, its still pretty chilly, but the tell-tale rattling of semi-frozen pipes in the morning has stopped, and I hung dry my laundry outside for the first time since December. (Since then I had been driving thirty minutes to a coin laundry.)
The senior high school students (who I don't teach) already graduated last week, and my third year junior high school students will graduate tomorrow. I'm not exactly sad about it, but they are definitely the part of my job that I enjoy the most, so I am not without some mixed feelings about them slipping out of my life forever. Four of them were speech contest contestants, and were the first four students I met after arriving in Japan, and still the four I know best. Their speeches were about their dreams, and some of the content was less mindblowing than others, but I enjoyed working with them all.
The third years graduating leaves only the first and second year students, all in all about 180 students, at school for the next week and a half until spring break begins. Then they'll disappear for two weeks, along with some of the teachers who will be transfered to other schools in the region. No one knows who will be transferred yet, but I know for certain that my supervisor in my base school is ending her career as a teacher. She is in her mid fifties and has been teaching for about twenty years. She wants to do volunteer teaching of either Japanese or English in developing nations. Even though she was the high earner in her family (her husband is a farmer) and she has a twelve year old son, she has decided to plot a new direction for herself and her life.
In the end she'll be judged as either brave or rash depending on how the finances and family aspects work out over the next few years, but regardless of outcome I wouldn't deny her my respect for what she is attempting. Few visions of mankind are more terrifying than those who are unhappy but are resolved not to change anything, and few visions are as inspiring as those who aspire upward despite the inherent dangers in flight.
I think that ties into one of the aspects of the JET Program that is most troubling: so many people recontract out of fear. This isn't the fear of their Board of Education yelling at them, nor that the world will fall apart with their absence... they simply don't know what to do, so they sign their name on the dotted line and queue up for a second or third year. Before the recontracting period ended the prefecture (and CLAIR, a national arm of the government) sent out an email discussing what are good and bad reasons to recontract. To simplify ever so slightly, it basically came down to personal growth being the best reason to stay, and uncertainty the best reason to leave.
There is an oft repeated rule of sorts that goes something like "idiocy is to do the same thing twice and expect different results." I think that applies to staying a second year on the JET Program. Some people have a pretty good first year and generally enjoy themselves, and for the most part those people are going to have a pretty good second year. On the other hand, the people who have a miserable first year are--unless something crucial has changed--going to have a miserable year the second go around as well.
Recently when the topic of recontracting comes up (which it still does pretty frequently, even though the deadline was a bit more than a month ago), the sly devil who lives across the town from me has taken to pointing out that I am probably less emotionally invested in the whole process because "weren't you deadset against recontracting before you even left the airplane?"
Admittedly, the flight to Japan isn't a particularly great one, particularly when sitting next to an obese passenger, but I can't honestly say that I had made my mind up so early. If I had to say what my initial thoughts were, it would probably be that I knew I loved programming, and was hesitant to expect that I'd love teaching English more.
Over the ensuing months not a lot happened to change that, and the only two situations that would have provoked serious thoughts of staying a second year would have been my girlfriend recontracting or losing the key to the compartment of my brain where coherent English is safely stored away until I return to America. So, no, it wasn't a hard decision to not stay a second year. There are a lot of factors to throw onto the scale: I like the town, but not so much the winter. I like the people at my job, but the job not so much. Its nice to get paid an adult wage, but fancy groceries can only triage wound up to a certain size.
Really though, it just isn't a good job for me. Its okay, and most of the things I don't like about it I could work harder at and make them better, but at some point you have to check the gauge on your watering can and decide which seeds you are going to water. JET is something of a cactus, hardy and resistant to drought, but even if you care for it daily or dress it up in brocade its still going to be an ugly goddamn cactus.
So instead I've been watering programming and writing, and watching for signs of life. Outside of a small subculture its a bit weird to spend your free time programming and writing, but at some point you just have to chase your own happiness instead of accepting what you are handed. So thats the path I am walking.
For the past several months, and each passing week blesses it with sharper clarity, I have been deciding I'll be spending the next period of my life as an independent software developer. But thats probably a bit of a tactical understatement. I want to start as a one-man programming shop, and I want to build it into a company. The past seven months have helped me hone that dream, and have given me a taste of how it feels to be unhappy with your job. And frankly, I don't want more of that. I want a lot less. As little as possible. The path I see to minimizing that is to pilot my own vessel towards a sweeter horizon. Hopefully the ship makes it, but its better to fall off the stairway to heaven than to wait for the elevator to be installed.
Anyway, this is my dream, and I'm looking to take as many people with me as possible. It'll be a good trip.