Amy Winehouse Media Coverage

I have admired the writings of Ann Powers, a music critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR, for some time.  In addition to having impeccable taste in music, her writing is about much more than the words and notes a band or musician plays.  It is about how those words and notes can transcend into something much deeper.  Always thought-provoking, her writing is about music, but it also touches on politics, feminism and other important social issues.

So I am not surprised that Powers has written one of the more intriguing pieces I have read about Amy Winehouse, the British pop singer who passed away suddenly this weekend at the age of 27.  In a piece for NPR, Powers writes about an early encounter with Winehouse in 2007, back when the singer seemed healthy and ready to embark on a long music career.

Winehouse spoke passionately about what soul music meant to her.  I found this quote particularly striking: “So much pop these days is like, ‘What can you do for me? I don’t need you. You don’t know me.’ Back in the ’60s it really was like, ‘I don’t care if you love me, I’m gonna lay down and die for you, because I’m in love with you.’ “

Although I don’t necessarily have the same outlook on life and relationships as Winehouse, I find the conviction about love she expressed in these words very admirable.   I am 27 now and remember listening to Back to Black with great joy, surprised that someone my age could be so soulful.  She seemed to me like a retro Courtney Love, a bit troubled, but unafraid to be frank, dark and funny at the same time.

My sister and sister-in-law were also fans, and we had planned to see Winehouse perform in Chicago sometime in 2007. The show was canceled after Winehouse over-dosed.  After that, I found Winehouse’s boozy demeanor a bit obnoxious and didn’t pay much attention to her since then, but after thinking once again about Back to Black, I hope that Winehouse is remembered for the beauty and boldness of the album, and not the addiction that claimed her life way too young.

As Powers notes, “we can also revel in what was most entrancing about her music: its brashness and utterly engaging power, the upfront expression of a woman who was loud without apology. Her big notes still live.”

Read Powers’ NPR piece here, and watch Winehouse perform “Back to Black,” my favorite song of hers, in the video below.

Teaching Tips for New JETs

Student entrance of my junior high school

Exactly one year ago, I arrived in Japan to begin my tenure with the JET Programme as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) in Namerikawa, Japan.

My plan was to stay a year, save some money, see another side of the world and then come back to start my life in Chicago.  Things moved so fast, and I decided in February to stay one more year.  I am happy that I made that decision.  I feel much more confident in my role as an ALT and look forward to promoting internationalization and the English language.  My students are much more comfortable speaking to me, and I hope to get to know many more of them better this year.

I am helping with Toyama orientation this year and will be presenting with another ALT about lesson-planning strategies.  For our presentation, I created a brief handout with lesson planning tips, which I copied below.  Good luck to all the new JETs arriving in their towns this week!

  • Prepare.  During your down time in August, become familiar with New Horizon books 1-3 (Junior High School) and Eigo Noto (Elementary School).  Try to think of fun games and worksheets beforehand.  It will save you a lot of time during the year if you at least have a general knowledge of what specific words/grammar you will be teaching.
  • Always be ready. Think of a good “ice-breaker” game to always use as a fallback. The game can be as simple as playing music and passing around a ball.  When the music stops, ask the student holding the ball a question. Thanks to Jenson for this idea.
  • Introduce yourself x 1,000,000.  Get your self-introduction materials (pictures, video, posters) ready in August.  If you teach at multiple elementary schools, always have your self-introduction materials ready throughout the year.  You will be using them very often.
  • Talk to other JETs.  Other JETs often have great ideas for lessons, and because your textbook will most likely be the same, you can use their same idea or something similar.  Also, be sure to read the Toyama Team Teaching handbook, which is written by ALTs.
  • Scour the Internet.  Check online for great ESL games and free teaching materials.  Some good sites are:




  • Multimedia planning.  If you want to use PowerPoint or any other type of multimedia, which we highly encourage, plan ahead and make sure it works beforehand. This will save you from wasting time in class in case of a technology malfunction.  Your school’s computer coordinator should be helpful when it comes to testing things out.
  • Learn from your students.  Observe and talk to your students.  What are they into? What are their hobbies?  What games do they like?  Try to incorporate these interests into lesson plans.  Even the most boring grammar lesson can be fun if it is followed by a fun game that includes pop culture references.
  • Revise, revise, revise.  Learn to change lesson plans immediately if you find out something doesn’t work out as planned. Don’t get discouraged.  This happens to everyone.  The more you teach, the more you will be able to think ahead about what works and what doesn’t.

Learning How to Remember

The news is a very fickle thing.  As an old journalism adage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

I understand this.  The news is constantly changing.  Journalists are attempting to accurately record history as it unravels.  It simply isn’t possible to cover every story out there.

What bothers me, however, is that once a certain time elapses, a story can seemingly disappear, even if people are still in need of help.

In my opinion, this is what is slowly happening to the coverage of what is now referred to as the Great East Japan Earthquake that struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, as well as other natural disasters that devastated New Zealand, Haiti, China, India and many other countries.  I even forgot about the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, which killed 70,000, until a friend reminded me of it recently.

In the weeks following the disasters in Tōhoku, I could barely open my computer without rushing to read the latest coverage.  The BBC was my news outlet of choice, mainly because I found it the least sensational among the other big networks.  Some images I saw on the news still upset me to this day, but I couldn’t look away.

Almost five months later, I still read a lot of the news coverage coming from Tōhoku, especially about radiation concerns, but articles are becoming few and far between.  A recent 7.0 aftershock in Fukushima barely made the news. 

It has been, after all, a busy few months for those in the news industry, with Osama bin Laden’s death and political uprisings in the Middle East.  But in Japan and elsewhere around the world, people are still in the recovery process, even if it has been months or years since tragedy struck.

Although still deeply saddened by the triple disasters that hit Japan, I am very removed from any chaos – my town was not affected by the tragedies and is more than 200 miles from the Fukushima nuclear situation.  Yet I still can’t wrap my brain around what happened to our neighbors in the northeast.  Every time I run by the sea, I think of its beauty but also of its sheer force that could wipe out a town in an instant.

As a way to remember, I would like to highlight three projects that have moved me.  I continue to hope for the best for people around the world who have been affected by natural disasters.

1. “Life in  Tōhoku” by Will Shep Moore.  Moore, a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) in Nanto City, is a colleague and friend.  He spent his spring vacation volunteering in the Tōhoku region and wrote about it for the Toyama for Charity blog.

2. “Arcade Fire in Haiti” by Régine Chassagne, a singer with the indie-rock group the Arcade Fire.  In this article for The Guardian, Chassagne reflects on playing in her birth country, which is still recovering from last year’s 7.0 earthquake that killed more than 300,000.  In my favorite part of the story, Chassagne writes about hope very tenderly: “Outside the gates of Cange, there is a newly built road that now leads all the way from Port-au-Prince. Thousands are walking to their mountain dwellings in peaceful silence and the only sound I hear is a lonely nocturnal rooster. A distant echo. In the rural mountains the moonlight seems thinner than usual, but Haitians have long mastered the art of finding their way in the dark.”

3.  A Beacon of Rebirth Poster Project.  These posters, created by an advertising professional from Morioka in Iwate prefecture and a Tokyo-based photographer, are scattered throughout Japan, including on windows and doors in my tiny Japanese town.  Each time I see the images, I am reminded of how many lives were lost in an instant, but also of the strength of human nature.  With no picture, one poster says, “Our wish soars the skies far beyond the waves.”  Another, with three men standing between piles of rubble as high as buildings, says, “We are staying here and now.”

I hope that is something we never forget to write about.

Congratulations, Japan

The Japanese women soccer team defeated the U.S. this morning 2-2 (3-1 in penalties), becoming the first Asian nation to win the Women’s World Cup.  Broadcast live around 3 a.m. in Japan, I wasn’t awake to watch the game, but I checked the Internet for the score when I awoke.  My tiny town hasn’t done anything special to celebrate the victory yet, but those in Tokyo have been moved.  Almost five months after the Great East Japan Earthquake, this victory means very much to the country.

From a Washington Post article:

TOKYO — For Japan, this was a break from its own victimhood. Because of its women’s soccer team, thousands packed bars here during vampire hours. They chanted their country’s name. They chewed on towels and covered their eyes. Finally, they went wild with joy.

Watch clips from the game below, and once again, congratulations Japan!

Train Stories #2: The Man Without a Violin

                                                                  (Namerikawa train station)

My initial train story was about a Japanese man from Chiba visiting Toyama just after the earthquake and tsunami in March.

On Monday, I had another interesting train encounter, though this time with an American man in Toyama for the summer.

It is not often you see a foreigner in Toyama who is not an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) or Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) with the JET Programme.  There are a few other English teachers who work for various companies, and other exchange students studying at Toyama University, but foreigners are still few and far between.

So when I saw a tall white American man in sleek biking clothes standing at the platform in Namerikawa, I was quite surprised.

I spotted him first on the Namerikawa train platform while waiting for a train to go to Uozu, a city about eight minutes away by train.  He was carrying a disassembled bicycle, had short brown hair and looked to be in his early 30s.  I was prepping for my Japanese class, so I did not have time to chat and we entered different cars of the train when it came.  I went to my Japanese lesson and forgot about my spotting.

I took the train back to Namerikawa and listened to my iPod.  Just as I stepped off the platform, however, I noticed him getting off the train from a different car.

“That is a little odd,” I thought.  “We were on the same train coming back, too.”

I hoped he wasn’t a creepy stalker.  Nonetheless, he looked friendly enough, so I took off my headphones and decided to say hello.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.

He smiled.  “Of course. Where are you from?”

“America, the Chicago area.  I teach English here.  What brings you to Namerikawa?”

“My wife is from Takaoka [a city about 40 minutes by train from Namerikawa].  We live in America but come back to Japan for about a month every summer.”

He told me he has family in the Chicago area and that he likes to check out certain bookstores in this area of Japan.  He just came back from visiting Kurobe, a city about 13 minutes by train from Namerikawa.

“My wife and I are both violinists.  We live in Dallas now,” he explained.

He was about to see his wife perform at a local concert in Namerikawa.  “I have kind of given up on performing, but my wife plays professionally with orchestras.”

By this time, we had walked to the parking lot for bikes.

I said goodbye and took out my key to unlock my bike.

He smiled and walked toward the concert hall.  “Maybe see you around.”

It’s mushiatsui!

In March, I wrote about my interest in certain Japanese phrases that seem to describe a moment perfectly. Back then, on a snowy morning, my co-worker taught me the phrase nagori yuki, which roughly means “last snow” or “spring snow,” though its kanji breakdown is far more poetic

A few weeks ago, the same co-worker taught me another Japanese phrase that I have since become fond of. After biking to work on a very warm and sticky morning in the rainy season, I plopped down my large black work bag next to my desk and took off my red St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap. My face was most likely the same bright shade of red. “Oh, Sheila-san, good morning,” Teresaki-sensei, a Japanese teacher, said. “Today is very mushiatsui (むしあつい).”

I knew atsui meant hot, but I had not heard of mushiatsui. “It means humid. It is very wet and humid,” he told me. Intrigued by how the phrase rolls off the tongue, I looked up the kanji. It is comprised of the kanji 蒸 , which means steam, and 暑, which means hot or summer heat.

So next time you see a Japanese person and want to practice your Japanese, you can say “mushi atsui desu ne?” (It’s very humid, isn’t it?). With sweat rolling down my neck every day, there is no doubt it’s very mushiatsui.

The Ballad of Michael McDermott

Photo of Michael McDermott at the Metro by Niva Bringas.

One of the most challenging things about being a journalist is the fact that, oftentimes, the story never ends.  You have to be constantly digging – interviewing more people, combing through more documents and following-up with your sources.

Rest doesn’t always come easy.

But through it all, we are rewarded with meeting and conversing with people who have the potential to impact our opinions on life even through only a one-hour interview.

I often think about those in the past I have interviewed – from a boy with cancer to a mother trying to get her life on track after suffering from drug addiction.

Although we have only met on a handful of occasions, Michael McDermott is one of those interviewees who impacted my life.

I first met McDermott, a singer-songwriter, in a Chicago graveyard six years ago.  For a college magazine writing class, I wanted to profile two musicians and/or bands – one more established but still trying to “make it” and the other just beginning.  I hoped to compare and contrast their experiences.

After a few weeks of searching, I found my subjects in McDermott, who was often hailed by critics as the “next big thing” in the early 1990s, and the Mannequin Men, a Chicago punk band I had interviewed for an article in The Daily Northwestern.

Both McDermott and the members of the Mannequin Men were talkative and outgoing, but I was struck most by McDermott’s willingness to be a friend to anyone.  I spent time with him in bars, backstage and in his car as he drove me and my friend Tom around Chicago.  In that time, he was constantly surrounded by people who cared about him and he for them.  He told me that he often struggled with the darker side of life – including drug addiction in the past – but his friends always made him want to become a stronger person.

After writing my story, I decided to separate McDermott’s story from the Mannequin Men’s at the suggestion of an editor.  I waited and waited for the right moment to pitch it to a publication, but it never felt complete.

Writing backstage at a Michael McDermott concert (Photo by Thomas Lee)

When I was ready to give up on journalism completely, I unexpectedly ran into McDermott at Uncommon Ground, a small venue and restaurant in Wrigleyville.  We chatted a bit and I talked to him about some of my frustrations. “Sheila, I’d hate to see you give up on your dream because of a temporary situation,” he said.

Those words stuck with me, and although I am no longer a full-time journalist, I know I will always continue to write in some capacity.

I am happy to say that since our last encounter, McDermott seems to be doing well.  He is now married to Heather Horton, also a musician, and they have a beautiful daughter Rain (named after one of McDermott’s songs).

McDermott recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of his first album 620 W. Surf, which brought him some fame and mainstream media attention.  He performed the album and its follow-up, Gethsemane, in their entirety recently at Lincoln Hall.  He also performs on July 10th at Uncommon Ground to celebrate the venue’s 20th anniversary.

His story seems to have come full circle, so I finally decided to share my original McDermott article.  It is this week’s feature story at Gapers Block.  Read it here if you like.