Monthly Archives: August 2008

Tokyo Thoughts

Tokyo Thoughts


Kenneth Burchfiel

[Written on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Having spent the first year of my life in Japan and the next sixteen in the United States, it’s hard for me to tell whether I am now the furthest from or the closest I have ever been to home.]

It would be presumptuous of me to think that, after four days in Tokyo, I could write accurately about the nature of the city. It simply doesn’t work for one to fly 7,000 miles, take a few walks around the place and think himself an expert. Yet this metropolis is one that inspires people to tell about it, even if they’ve lived through too few earthquakes and squeezed into too few subway cars to really get a sense of it. Consider the following not as a comprehensive analysis, but as the hurried thoughts of a wide-eyed foreigner.

Tokyo makes an effective argument against the myth that this world is “small”—both in the geographic and cultural sense. There is nothing petit about Tokyo. New York has taller skyscrapers, perhaps, but Tokyo has 400 square miles—by my estimate—of hard-packed urban development. Shinjuku station, the most crowded subway hub in the world, has over 50 exits. There is a pedestrian crossing here so large that a nearby building has a television on its façade, broadcasting the foot traffic. The fish market alone is larger than the “downtown” areas of many cities.

But Tokyo also denounces the small world myth in the sense that the city may as well be on another planet. This is a city where even the cashiers bow at you; where policemen and custom officials wear cartoon mascots on their sleeves; where “Love 3” is a hot-selling video game; where men can be seen wearing schoolgirl uniforms; where fancy restaurants serve dinner live and twitching; where run-of-the-mill toilets spray your bottom and where fancy ones flush; where 6 million vending machines (an actual figure) will deposit anything from coffee to iPod accessories. There are those cities where you can look around you, smile and proclaim: “You know, these people might not speak our languages, but they really are just like us.” That’s certainly not the case with Tokyo, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And it is the people, not the skyscrapers, not the technology, not the food, that make Tokyo a place worth seeing. It took some time for me to realize this; at first, my neck was craned looking for monuments, museums and other tourist attractions. The real attraction was all around me.

Imagine all of the citizens of Canada packed into the corner of an island, and you’ve got a sense of the population of Tokyo. It does not do justice to the city merely to say, “this place is crowded.” Tokyo is not just crowded. Tokyo is squeezed to the point where that prodigal can of sardines would seem roomy in comparison. The subway lines hire “pushers” to help the rush hour crowd get through the doors and onto the train. Come rush hour, the sidewalks turn into a bobbing array of black heads and white shirts. Denver and Chicago have room to expand, but Tokyo, with the bay on one side and farmers with protected land on the other, can only grow inward. The city has its cases of sprawl, but the houses are packed neatly together without a hint of wasted space.

These tens of millions of people have a funny way of keeping in touch. Tokyo is a city connected, from the rat’s nests of wires linking house to house to the subway lines sewn through downtown; from the futuristic cell phones pressed against every other ear to the traditions of family support that keep even the busiest households together. It must be hard to find any quiet time alone, though I’m sure the Japanese try.

Not that the capital of Japan has forgotten its roots as the feudal hub of Japan. The imperial Palace is the city’s centerpiece, with cool parks and a swan-inhabited moat. In paying homage to their ancestors in urban shrines, the Japanese pay homage to the days when their ancestors walked the streets as feudal heads and spiritual authorities, not just businesspeople and construction workers. One would imagine that Tokyo embodies a conflict between the traditional and the modern, between the palace grounds and the skyscrapers that neighbor it. Instead, I saw both halves of the city reflected in one another. Office workers and schoolchildren visit the shrines and cross the Imperial moat. Likewise, there is a trace of national pride and ambition in the political centers of old that match the modern atmosphere of the city. Tokyo’s success, I feel, resides in its ability to adapt to—no, invent the new while retaining its heritage and traditions. All while featuring cute, friendly cartoons on store windows and advertisements.

The future may not be as kind to the city. With the economy slumping worldwide and Japan’s birthrate expected to plummet, Tokyo may find its status slipping as economic centers in China, India and Singapore forge ahead. For now, at least, the city is enjoying life at the top of the population and economic charts. Better yet, it seems to be enjoying life in general—cramped and hurried though that life may be.


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“Phrazzeled”: A game idea


Kenneth Burchfiel

The wonderful thing about the English language is that just about any phrase or expression can have multiple meanings behind it. Some definitions for a phrase might be obvious; others could take a little thinking to arrive at. “Phrazzeled” invites players to try their hand at matching given definitions with a hard-to-guess phrase.


The game’s idea is simple enough. Participants are each given two or more definitions for a certain phrase. Their job is to think hard about each one and try to come up with that phrase first, resulting in a point or more for them. The tougher the definitions are, the more points they receive.

For the game to work best, it is suggested that the players take turns reading out the definitions to the other contestants and listening for the correct answer.

Example phrases and definitions:

Definition 1: A steeple top in Alabama

Definition 2: What Australian astronomers see

Phrase: Southern Cross

D1: Used to make a “Bingo”

D2: Shirts, shorts and such

P: Textiles (Text Tiles for D1)

D1: Comes before touchdown

D2: A pyrotechnic touching down

P: Landing Flare

D1: Starts with a bang; ends with the tape

D2: When two rails merge

P: Track meet

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Why Christianity isn’t Conformity

Why Christianity isn’t Conformity


I do not trust in my own righteousness; only that God is righteous, and I hope to conform to His will—not that of the world.

Ever since the beginning of the modern age, Christianity and nonconformity have been seen as polar opposites—schools of thought that are about as compatible as oil and water. We grow up with that image of the authoritarian, submission-minded church and the scattered rebels attempting to defy it. I’ve always found it a little funny. For me, to be a Christian is to be a nonconformist in every sense of the word.

What does it mean to conform, first? Instead of consulting my nonexistent copy of Webster’s dictionary, I’ll offer a definition of my own. To be a conformist is to model one’s own desires, opinions and interests after those of the society around oneself. Such a person sees this world and decides that his or her neighbors are the ones to follow, regardless of the size of the neighborhood. If wealth is valued, they pursue money; if sex and drugs are held in high esteem, they’ll go racing after them. The rudder of personal preference is lifted, allowing one to float along the current of the mainstream.

At a shallow glance, one might mistake the Christian tradition as being conformist. Don’t followers of Jesus adhere to some sort of creed or dogma that prevents personal choice and standardizes believers? The key word in my above definition is “society.” In a technical sense, conformity is also a part of the Christian tradition; its followers are expected to put God’s will over their own. The irony is that such “conformism” actually makes Christians rebels in the context of everyday life. Allow me to explain.

I live in a world that teaches me to love money. The school I learn at, the commercials I watch, the people I listen to teach me that wealth is something to revere and seek. And yet, God tells me something drastically different. When the “rich man” in the Bible asks Jesus what he needs to do to earn eternal life, he receives a response so fearsome that he runs away: “Give up everything you have and follow me.” The Son of God goes on to send shivers through Jerusalem by expressing that a camel will have an easier time getting through a needle than a wealthy person will getting into the kingdom of Heaven. This is a religion that teaches against the desperate search for money; a way of living that frowns upon the lavish and the shallow.

Those same schools and commercials I mentioned earlier teach one more important message: You should do whatever it takes to get ahead of the pack. Don’t worry about the homeless man on the curb or those strange children in the Red Cross pamphlets. This is your life; live it for yourself. And yet, what does Jesus say when asked what the most important commands are? Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. The words sound sweet and docile until one contrasts them to the conformist’s favorite saying: love yourself. Love yourself. Love yourself. Being a true rebel has nothing to do with skateboarding in the mall or buying drugs across the border. It’s simply about putting God and others before oneself, an action that cuts across the grain of society like nothing else.

I could talk at length about Christian nonconformists: the martyrs of old, fed to lions because they wouldn’t worship the Roman emperor; or  the Weisserose, an anti-Nazi group whose members were punished—beheaded, even—for putting Christ above Hitler. There is no limit to stories, either in the past or the present, of people whose obedience to God makes them rebels to the world at large. Such tales continue to be written today.

There will always be that group of people that perceives church bells as instruments of authority and restriction. The best I can do is live my life in a manner so different from society’s expectations that such people will ask where I get my nonconformist streak from.

My answer may surprise them.

Kenneth Burchfiel

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Reflections in the Ice

Reflections in the Ice


Kenneth Burchfiel

It was the Arctic Ocean’s off season, but she still put on a memorable show.

The clouds lifted just as our plane began to scrape the northern edge of Alaska. I saw the barren grey of the tundra, the pale blue of the Arctic; and then, in a hue so white that it could not be mistaken for anything else, the polar ice. Together, the three encompassed a memorable portrait of the North, this realm of past pioneers and present long-haul flights. (It almost seems unfair to watch this from seat 39J, warm, well-fed and free from polar bears. What would Roald Amundsen have thought?)

But it was not the latitude that made the biggest impression on me. It was the ice, bobbing 30,000 feet below like chunks of Styrofoam. In the wake of global warming reports and foreboding satellite photography, I felt a great deal of sympathy for the endangered spread of white below. This, in essence, is our Earth’s freezer: the one thing keeping the Northern Hemisphere’s temperature in check. Alas, the icebox had begun to show a little wear. I expected a vast, frozen plateau off the northern coast of Alaska; instead, what I got were disembodied chunks that floated unaware of one another. One had to look towards the horizon to see the real ice pack.

The plane shot fearlessly across the Bering strait. Historian say that man (and woman) arrived in North America by means of a giant ice bridge. Theory disproven: there is no ice under me.

Times have changed since the last ice age, as everyone from Al Gore to Michael Crichton can agree. If it weren’t for the shrinking of those two massive polar ice caps, I wouldn’t be here to write about the lack thereof. Warming periods increase the spread of arable land, open up transportation routes, improve living conditions… and yet, push the climate seesaw too far, and the other side sinks in the water. These shrinking ice reserves have contributed to floods, hurricanes and droughts alike.

One doesn’t need to watch Gore’s movie to see what happens when the North Pole heats up; they only have to visit Sudan, where drought conditions are turning farmland into desert, or Inuit communities up north whose literal foundation of their homes and villages—permafrost—has begun to melt.

I remember a day when the Earth, viewed from an aisle seat or a deck chair, appeared unchanging. Not anymore. If my children get a chance to fly from Washington to Tokyo (provided there’s enough kerosene to fill the tanks), I wonder if they’ll even see the white in between the Alaskan coastline and the sky. Granted, I managed to see ice in August, but there’s no predicting what two decades of change will bring.

From Azerbaijan to Zaire, the polar ice is a fundamental yet fragile means of balancing the climate seesaw. Ironic that this northern region, isolated from humanity save for a few villages and planes, should make such an impact on our daily weather.

I took one more look out the window as we neared Siberia. The ice had already disappeared from sight.

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Backwards Creativity

Backwards Creativity


Kenneth Burchfiel

As I walked past the chessboards at Dupont Circle in Washington, an idea came to me for a spy story opening. Two operatives in a public area would make themselves known to each other by moving the pawns, one after another, on an unoccupied board. That would be their means of verifying each other’s identity.

At the time, I found the idea pretty neat. The problem was that I had no intentions of writing a spy story. The only creative thing I worked on that afternoon was a map and directory of Noulevac.

We tend to picture creative inspiration as a two-part sequence: first, there comes the motive to create something. For example, someone may decide to write a love poem. After that comes the brainstorming process, which concludes with the actual idea. Continuing the example, one might decide to write about their lover’s “sun-radiant hair” and “eyes as soft as the moon.” (I would hope not.)

I use the chessboard anecdote, however, to exemplify how the creative process often works backwards. At the time the idea for the spy story entered my head, I had no intentions to write about espionage; the best I could do was jot down the concept in my notebook and revisit it later.

This example I give is not an isolated scenario. As my writing develops, I find more often than not that my ideas precede my motives. This very piece did not originate because I thought to myself, “It’s about time I wrote a few paragraphs on writing,” but because of a different thought: “Doesn’t the idea for something tend to come about before the motive?”

All of this is terribly annoying for artists, of course. Ideas are fickle things: they can elevate someone to brilliance if he she manages to grab onto one, but might leave that person’s neighbor in the cold. Motives, on the other hand, are as simple as finishing the sentence that begins with “I want to.” It is this tricky relationship between the impetus to write and the idea for the writing, I think, that leads to writer’s block. When someone wants to write but doesn’t know what to write, they’re simply experiencing the difficulties of making the creative process work the other way.

The question, then, is if any good can come of this. I offer no three-step process to eliminating writer’s block or pulling ideas out of the sky, but I will say this: having motives proceed, not precede ideas is a situation commonplace enough to warrant some adjustments on the artist’s part.

First, it’s essential to have a notebook. Doing without one is a little like waiting to build a reservoir until rain actually starts to fall. Ideas come with less regularity than burglars; they not only strike at night but on the bus, in the shower and in one’s dreams. Purchase a composition book (or something similar), and you’ll be surprised at how fast the pages fill with on-the-fly concepts. I’ve finished 240-page notebooks in as little as six months: not due to any perseverance on my part, but simply because I had it on hand at the right times.

Let’s say that someone has a motive to create something, but no idea. The common argument is to delay any sort of writing, painting or designing until a well-rounded concept falls into their right brain. If it only takes a few minutes of reflection to come up with something, fine; otherwise, however, writer’s block is right around the corner. My suggestion is to go ahead with the creation process, even if this means just squiggles on the page or a freewriting session. Writing, for me, has always proved more conductive to those lightning bolts of inspiration than sitting around and thinking. (This also explains part of my case against outlining; I feel that it’s better for someone to write out the first part of their concept and pick up ideas as they go than to outline the entire thing beforehand.)

Finally, it never hurts to think on the bright side. Though one might wish that all their ideas for writing came at 4:21 eastern time, there’s something to be respected in the nature of creative inspiration. For me, that unannounced jolt of midnight inspiration has always been enough to cancel out my frustration at not having anything to write about all day. Besides, the story concepts that come before a notion to write tend to be fresher, deeper and fuller than ideas hammered out during a brainstorming session.

For now, that opening for a spy story sits in the back of my head. I wish it came at a better time—when I was actually setting out to write about espionage, perhaps—but that’s something to be expected. Nobody ever said the creative process was easy to work with.

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Noulevac Directory–4E2

Two big files for one dense Canton.



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Noulevac Map–4E1

Noulevac’s long-in-the-making map weighs in at a hefty 27.5 megabytes. If your browser can handle it, click for a look at Albeit’s densest Canton.


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