Sunday, November 29, 2015

(You're) drinking too much!


Rowing Ruminations Part 4

(Again, inspired by but devoid of spoilers for the book Flat Water Tuesday)

One of the reasons the fours race was held as scheduled, as opposed to waiting it out until the next morning to see if conditions wouldn’t improve (they did, by the way), was because of the reception that evening. The guys wanted to drink with their fellow rowers. Badly. Drinking, especially their kind of drinking, required focus, the kind of focus that couldn’t be achieved with the knowledge that they had to pull 1000 meters the next day. 

The drinking culture in collegiate athletics in Japan was very strong, and flowed right into the drinking culture of corporate/ professional Japan. Crew and university are literally half a lifetime ago but my understanding is that the intensity of the drinking culture is still strong (but fewer people get involved in it), both in school and at work. My current workplace is an anomaly where the drinkers and non-drinkers do whatever they want without professional repercussions, but I know others are not so lucky.

My classmates and I and many of the guys in the year ahead of me were underage, but it was understood that 18 year-old college kids would drink, it was just a question of where, and none of the places out in town would ever card us. It was just the way things were back then. Even if they did, we could always buy beer from a vending machine. The drinking culture was just as strong outside of athletics. The upperclassmen would throw impromptu parties in their apartments, and call freshmen to join them at all hours. Getting these calls meant that your upperclassmen liked you, but the understanding was that if your phone rang, no was not an acceptable answer, even if you had morning practice or a first period exam the next day. I was exempt from all this because I was female and plus I lived with my parents in the age before beepers and cell phones (and they probably didn’t think of me as good drinking company anyway), but I know that the other freshmen on the squad were literally called at all hours of the night.

When an upperclassman filled your glass, you were expected to empty it. Not sip from it, empty it. When they called your name and clapped in time, you emptied it. It meant that they liked you, but it also meant that you’d get really drunk really fast.

Rowers were forbidden to smoke during racing season, and the legal age was 20 just like it was for alcohol, but the nicotine junkies didn’t let that stop them. (Coxswains were allowed to smoke both during and after racing season because it helped keep weight off. I never did because I couldn’t stand the smell.) The attitude toward smoking was much more lax back then. I was told in my first year by our coach and our captain that if I ever saw my rowers smoking, I should stop them, but seeing how they were upperclassmen and several inches taller and anywhere from 40 to 80 pounds heavier than me (except for that one year when those numbers were closer to 5 and 30, respectively), I opted for something milder like walking past them muttering something like “I saw K (our coach) heading this way.”

I never saw anything illegal for people of legal age like pot or heroin or cocaine, either in crew or in school or anywhere thereabouts, and this was before ecstacy was really big. Me being 1) female 2) a coxswain probably kept me from seeing everything, especially if it were questionable, but I’d still say it was unlikely.

As far as hazing goes, yes, it happened. Nothing fatal or causing major physical harm, of course, but yes, it happened in most of the “intense” clubs. First year students were the part of the totem pole driven firmly into the ground, so fetching and carrying and all sorts of scut work was ours by default. I got off a little more easily because of my gender, but the guys had it really hard. And when we were upperclassmen, we had the younger guys fetch and carry for us, too. That’s just the way we did things. We still do, in this country.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

I don't know that song.

Sono uta ha shiranai no desu.

Since most non-rowers (and many rowers…though I doubt any rowers are reading this) do not want to hear about rowing all of the time, I’m imposing a rule on myself that I can write about rowing in every other post. So today, I’m going to talk about music (but not the time I got asked by one of the music majors to come sing with them in the choir when she heard me coxing. That would be writing about rowing).

Sometimes, songs are popular in one country but not another. As a thirteen year old quasi-American, I loved Billy Joel. When I moved back to Japan, I tried to find like-minded people. I’d find them every so often, but they’d all say “I love ‘Honesty!’” I’d never heard of the song, and I’d say so, and they’d look at me funny. 

It’s a song in the album 52nd Street, and while acclaimed, it wasn’t phenomenally popular, and it wasn’t in the US release of the Greatest Hits album available at the time, which is why I didn’t really know about it. It was popular in 1980 or thereabouts, when I didn’t listen to very much music. Apparently it was used in a commercial or something in Japan, and it WAS in the Japan release of the Greatest Hits album.

When I recently went to Indonesia for work stuff, people would ask me where I was from (after they figured out I wasn’t an ethnic Chinese Indonesian), and I would say Japan, and then they would say, “I know a Japanese song! ‘Kokoro no Tomo!’” and they’d break into song.

I would have to smile uncomfortably because I’d never heard the song before in my entire life. I have now heard it three times, all in Indonesia. At first, I thought it was because my knowledge of Japanese popular culture older than 1986 was nonexistent, but I grilled my co-workers and found that they’d never heard of it either. Mayumi Itsuwa is very well-known, but for other songs.

So if you know of any songs that are popular one country but not another, please share, and we can trade “being annoyed because people thought we were strange, when it was a case of unbalanced popularity” stories.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

(We) want to hurry up and finish!

Hayaku owari ni shitai!

Rowing Ruminations, Part 3

(Again, triggered by the book Flat Water Tuesday, but no spoilers.)

The team had high hopes for that year’s varsity knuckle boat, and even a clueless novice like me felt that vibe. They were all tall and well built for Japanese guys in our major. But I didn’t really figure out I was on a winning boat until our first race of the year, the “Three School Race.” The three schools from our league in our area that had rowing clubs (and when I say area, I mean within a three-hour drive) would gather at the host school (we were the hosts that year) and race each other. No one brought boats, just oars and toolboxes, and we raced on boats that were in the hosting school’s boathouse (competitors drew lots for boat and lane assignments). It wasn’t so much a race as it was a chance to get together with rowers from different schools. I’d read somewhere about betting shirts, so I wore a tank top under my regatta tee, just in case. We won by a fairly safe margin, I don’t remember by exactly how much, but I do remember being quite comfortably ahead. I found out that day we never bet shirts anyway. We traded them like soccer players after the final league race. Or rather, the guys did. No one ever asked me for mine during my rowing career.

Everything was set up nicely for us to do well in that year’s Three School Race. It was held on the lake where we always practiced. The weather was perfect. The water was mirror still. My first race screw up was my first away race. The first sign that things were not going to go as planned was when I discovered that there were no women in the league squad, and there was no women’s locker room. I locked myself in the toilet and started changing from my street clothes into my regatta tee and running shorts. I was kind of concerned about the security of the lock, and sure enough, the door opened because nature had called one of the rowers from that school. He slammed the door shut and hollered “she was in there with nothing but her underwear on!” I put on my regatta tee and tried to explain that he hadn’t seen anything that he wouldn’t have seen when we were racing (I’d already put on my running shorts and the tank top I always wore under my regatta tee), but this fell to deaf ears. It made for a funnier story that way, I guess, especially since I was not a crewcest liability. I gave up trying.

I was not off to a good start. It was my first time on an unfamiliar course. It was my first time working with a current. To make matters worse, it was during the rainy season when the river swelled and the current was fast and irregular. There were high, choppy waves that hit the oar blades and also hid the course buoys (and there weren’t that many of them to begin with). The conditions were so bad that the single scull competition was cancelled. I saw the gray water swirl past the dock and felt the wind blow my hair into my face (partly because I’d been too busy to get my hair cut before the race) and hoped they’d cancel the fours race, too. But no such luck.

Even lining up on the starting line was a major effort, because the moment I got lined up with the other boat, the current would push one of us away. When we finally started, I tried to steer straight but the current and waves didn’t cooperate, and when I got caught up in steering to compensate for this, I clammed up (when I was supposed to be yelling stuff about stroke rate and how far ahead/ behind the other boat was and how to avoid wakes and waves), and got yelled at for that. I deserved it, but that didn’t make it effective. I’m sure I made them row no less than 1100 meters. Neither boat could dock fast enough, the conditions were so crappy.

Its usual state

Honrai no sugata

I have to write something that's not rowing because this is not a rowing blog.

A while back, I went to Indonesia for work stuff. Both the temperatures and the food were hot. I love the interesting combinations of flavors and scents in Indonesian food. Lots of stir-fried vegetables (love!) and fried meat and fish (love!) with interesting sauces (love!). One of the more interesting (but less delicious) things I tried was this:

(TMI alert) It's beef lung. The lung didn't taste like much of anything, but I could taste the cooked blood that was in the lung. I dipped it in one of the sauces and it didn't bother me as much, but once was enough.

Indonesia is predominantly Sunni Muslim, so we encountered very little alcohol while we were there, which was just fine with me. Flavored shaved ices with fruit seemed to be a big thing, and I ate a lot of those. They were great.

Girls doing the peacock dance. They were so beautiful!

I was gifted with a batik tunic, and when I wore it…hotel staff spoke to me in English. I wore my Uniqlo ankle-length (it's probably mid-calf length on most people) dress, and hotel staff spoke to me in Indonesian, so I got the chance to say "Saya tiduk bisa bicara Bahasa Indonesia!" (I can't speak Indonesian!) This is different from when I was in Vietnam and I wore an ao dai. 

The Indonesian language seems to use a pitch accent, and the vowels and consonants aren't very difficult. It's probably a lot easier to learn than Mandarin Chinese or Vietnamese.

Jakarta doesn't look very different from Tokyo, especially at night…they could probably use a good subway system, though.

And when I got back, the book I'd ordered from Amazon had arrived, and I read it, and I started thinking about that time when rowing was important to me. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I used to row.

Mukashi booto wo koide imashita. 

Rowing Ruminations, Part 2

(Again, inspired by the book "Flat Water Tuesday" but no spoilers. And I'm turning into a rowing blog…)

People who’ve never rowed might think that rowing is arms and upper body strength, but it’s the leg muscles that do the bulk of the work. (I think more people understand this now than they did when I rowed because rowing ergs have become so popular.) It makes sense when you think about it. In most people, the thigh muscles are the strongest muscles in the body. (One exception would be my current girl crush.) It makes sense to get those muscles involved in the rowing stroke. This is done by putting the rowing seat on wheels, and putting rails under those wheels. (An upperclassman on my squad once told me that before seat rails, rowers would make moving back and forth easier by greasing their bottoms. I do not know how to verify this, and I have not read this anywhere so far.)

(ETA: I found a passage about greased rear ends in the book "The Shell Game" by Stephen Kiesling. In 1870, Yale rowers greased their rowing trousers. They also used oatmeal mush.)

Of course, the arms and upper body do their share of work as well. The swing of the upper body and the pull of the arms must be in perfect synchronization with the legs to maximize the force sent to the water. And the hands. Oh, the hands. The friction between the oar handles and the hands will tear them apart. Those callouses are like merit badges, and rowers are proud of them.

All the oars held by all the rowers should go into the water (the “catch”) at the same time, and be pulled out of the water (the “finish”) at the same time. The forward slide of the seat must also begin and end at the same time. The knees extend at the same time, the bodies swing at the same time, the arms flex at the same time. Synchronicity keeps the energy sent by the bodies to the water from going to waste.

The stronger the rowing strokes are, the faster the boat will go. The better the rowers match their movements, the faster the boat will go. The better the boat is balanced, the faster the boat will go. So the running, the weight training, the circuit training, the erging in front of the mirrors (with or without the short girl yelling at you), everything is about going faster.

Which brings us to yours truly, the coxswain. The coxswain steers the boat, and gives instructions about how hard and how fast to row, and also gives the rowers information about how well (or badly) they are rowing, and how far behind (or ahead) they are of other boats. The cox is responsible for keeping the whole boat safe. It’s the ultimate multi-tasking fantasy or nightmare, depending on how you look at it. The other day, one of the youngsters at work asked me what sports I did when I was a student. I replied that I was in crew and that I coxed, and explained what coxing was. He said, “oh, so you did nothing.” I carried on a mental debate with myself the rest of the day if that could be considered grounds for writing him a bad evaluation.

Steering is done with a rudder. In most racing boats, the rudder is about the size of a credit card. Since a coxed four is about 12 meters long, it isn’t exactly going to turn on a dime.

When I coxed, I had a stroke rate meter in my right hand (with the neck cord wrapped securely around my wrist), a stopwatch in my left hand, and the toggles of the rudder cables hooked between my fourth and fifth fingers. My hands were (are) tiny even by Japanese standards, and operating all this stuff was really hard on my hands, not to mention my brain. I made a lot of other mistakes too, which meant I got yelled at a lot, which I didn’t like very much, which meant I made even more mistakes, which meant more yelling. The rowers wouldn’t yell at me when the coach was around, but when he wasn’t around, like during exam time, they’d let their emotions run free. Reminding people of their position on the totem pole was standard procedure in our major, in our industry, and in athletics in Japan. A part of me is glad for that time because I got an understanding of the status quo in our society (not just in rowing, not just in athletics, but society as a whole).

The coxswain doesn’t actually contribute to the power of the boat, so it’s better if they’re small. But cutting too much weight is, of course, dangerous, so most leagues have a minimum weight for coxswains. Coxswains weigh in before races. Unlike boxing or wrestling, the point is to be at or above minimum weight. If you’re lighter than that weight, the race officials will give you weight plates or sandbags to carry on the boat when you race, so there’s no strategic advantage to being below minimum weight. When I coxed, in the early to mid 90s, minimum weight for Olympic coxswains was 50 kg for men and 45 kg for women, and most Japanese leagues, including ours, went by those numbers.

It’s common for coxswains to cut weight. It was then, and it probably is now. Every racing season, I watched my upperclassmen (and later younger) coxswains go for weeks with only the tiniest morsels of food, my heart full of dread that they’d develop eating disorders, because I have a pathological terror of them. I guess guys are just lower risk for that shit. (Doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, just that it happens less frequently. Much less.) I was also afraid that they’d keel over from hypoglycemia, but none of them did that either. I’m still kind of amazed that they didn’t. 

I met my mom’s friend Y once in Toda (more about Toda another day), and one of the first things she said to me was “aren’t you kind of heavy for a coxswain?” I quickly replied that I coxed men and I was underweight for that, and she nodded in understanding. She was an elite level women's coach, so she was right in her world saying that about me; I was a college kid insecure about my looks, so I was right in my world feeling uncomfortable about it. Sometime after I left rowing, the minimums were revamped to a more inclusive 55 kg for men and 50 kg for women.

(Yes, there's more to say. I'm scaring myself.)

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Can't tell the difference between r's and l's

Aaru to eru no chigai ga wakaranai

(This post is triggered by but does not contain spoilers for the book Flat Water Tuesday.)

I was really surprised that Annie Cat did not know I’d rowed until she read my previous post, but I guess that’s what I get for shutting down my brain the way I have.

So, here goes.

Rowing Ruminations Part 1, by Pumpkinmommy

I was in crew when I was in university. I mostly coxed (steered) men’s fours (four male rowers each using a single oar, and one coxswain to steer and give instructions), but one season I rowed in a women’s four. I was unusual among my squadmates that I knew what rowing and coxing were long before I circled it on the activities questionnaire form on registration day. My mom worked for a big insurance company in Tokyo before she married my dad, and one of her friends there coxed for the company-sponsored rowing club. My mom said that her friend Y was small, loud and smart. I thought I too was all of the above, and fantasized about this sport that was (in my mind) perfect for me. I’d never been very athletic. I had the slowest time on the 50 m dash in my class in high school, and I could not play ball sports if someone were holding my firstborn hostage. Rowing, this wonderful sport, would give me a chance to excel in sports. I yearned for the opportunity.

Fast forward to university. I told the crew captain that I wanted to cox. He looked at me funny. They must have held a meeting to discuss whether they should let me join them or to gently nudge me to do something else like swim or play badminton. There was only one other girl on the squad who was a few years ahead of me and ended up not competing that year. There had been another, but she had committed crewcest with one of the rowers and left the squad as a couple. A quick visual assessment would easily clarify I was not a crewcest liability. I was short and dumpy and plain and had coke bottle glasses and short hair cut in a cereal bowl (seriously, 18 year-old Ayako, what were you thinking?). I don’t know if my looks (or rather, lack thereof) were the reason, but they let me join. There were five other freshmen who joined crew that year, all guys. Four of them were put in a novice boat with a second year guy as the coxswain, and the fifth freshman was assigned to row a single scull.

My seat (position on a boat) was coxswain of what they called the “varsity knuckle.” A “knuckle” is probably unique to the Japanese rowing community. It looked like a long fishing boat, but was fitted with sliding seats and riggers like a racing boat, which meant you could row it using the same technique, but it was much more stable and wouldn’t flip over, making it easier to row for beginners. You usually graduated from a knuckle to a standard racing boat in about a year or so, but our league had a “varsity knuckle” category. (There was also a novice knuckle category, and my classmates were in that.) It made of wood and was really really heavy.

The other thing about the knuckle was that there was enough space and stability for a coach or other rider to sit behind the coxswain. The varsity knuckle coach was a student in his final year of school (nobody rowed their final year of school). Because I was so, well, new, our coach would come sit behind me every practice the first month or so, even though he had a really intense course schedule. The joke (observation?) was that the varsity knuckle went faster when we had the 65+ kg of extra weight in the boat, and that we should race with him sitting behind me the way he did during practice. (“Don’t mind him, he’s dead weight!”)

The most interesting thing about a knuckle was that it was a standardized boat. All knuckles were, in theory, identical in size, shape, weight, seat size, rail length, rigger width, everything. You could go to a boathouse anywhere in Japan, and the knuckles would all be the same. Boathouses hosting regattas would have a reasonably sized fleet of knuckles, and the rowers would just show up with their oars and toolboxes, rig the knuckles to their liking (you could only change oarlock angle anyway) and be ready to race.

We didn’t have a launch (small boat that the coaches ride to watch practice, or referees ride to follow races) or a proper course with buoys. We knew that if you rowed straight from this point to this point, it would be 1000 m (the standard distance of races in our league), but we were a little fuzzy on other distances, so we mostly practiced by deciding how long we would row as opposed to how far. Our coaches were final year students, not paid coaches who were certified on knowledge about sports medicine and psychology and learning process. And, of course, it was the coxswain’s job to act as coach most of the time. (Which, of course, was not happening on my boat because I didn’t have a clue.)

Practice was on a lake (I hesitate to call it a lake in English, because it’s the size of a pond) about an hour from campus. We’d meet in the parking lot at five (that’s in the morning), and pile into each other’s cars, one car per boat, and be on the water shortly after six. The “boathouse” was nothing but a shed with a roof and three walls (the door was the fourth wall) with light fixtures and a water tap. There was no dock. We carried the boats from the boathouse to the shore of the lake, and pushed it into the water from the beach. The lake was about 1500 m at its widest point, so that was the longest we could row before we had to turn the boat around (or “spin” it) and go back in the other direction. We’d practice for a little more than an hour, then pile back in our cars and go back to campus. Some of us (like me) would actually go to class, but quite a few would cut and head to Denny’s for breakfast.

We’d meet again at around 4:30 after classes and go running and do circuit training, or sometimes we’d work on the rowing machines called ergometers. We didn’t have a special erg room. They were in a storage room we shared with the cycling club, and when we needed them, we’d carry the four ergs we had out of the storage room and line them up on the judo tatami mats, and prop a big mirror up against the wall. The other clubs thought watching us erg was funny, and that it was even funnier when a short dumpy plain first year girl was yelling at four upperclassmen much bigger than her to make a bigger racket than they already were. (“And isn’t there any way to use all that energy for something, like power the AC?”)

The first thing I had to do was to learn all of the calls. For example, if I wanted everyone to start rowing slowly and easily, I would have to say 「両舷ノーワーク用意、用意、ロー」(Ryougen no waaku youi, youi, roo All hands, ready for no work, ready, row) And if I wanted them to stop rowing, I would say 「ラストロー、イージーオール」(Rasuto roo, iijii ooru) I didn’t know if I was supposed to be saying “easy all” or “easy oar” because the Japanese language doesn’t differentiate between r’s and l’s. I went with “oar” and I don’t think anyone could tell the difference. (Apparently both are used in the UK.)

Another thing I had to do was keep time on a stopwatch and measure stroke rate (number of strokes per minute) using a stopwatch with a stroke rate function. (There was more to learn, but these were the things I had to learn first so that we could practice without our coach when he had other stuff to do. Like school.) None of us used microphones or megaphones or any type of amplifier. The one thing that I could do just as well as any the senior coxswains was project. The joke (observation?) back then was that you could hear me from the other side of the lake, almost a mile away.

The coddled kids these days have $500 contraptions called “cox boxes” that not only act as amplifiers but also measure time, stroke rate and split time (estimated time taken to row 500 meters) automatically. When I was a coxswain, we took split times on a stopwatch. And I kept deleting the times by mistake, which made the rowers super mad. And did I mention that there were no course buoys or markers so you didn't know where 500 meters was beyond "when you cross the line between that tree on this side of the lake and the inlet on the other side of the lake?" And you kids get off my lawn. Where are my reading glasses and cane?

(OK this is getting a lot longer than I expected. And I'm turning into a rowing blog, which I don't want to do. Maybe more on this some other time.)