Shifting Excellence: My Personal History of Failure

Since about the middle of my elementary years up until a few years ago, I had a certain idea of what success meant. It was very clear in my book: there were two types of people. There were people who were the most successful at what they did, and there were people who weren’t. Either you were the best at what you did, or you were less than a footnote in the annals of history. Either you got your pie and and got to eat it, or you were to forget that pie even existed. I got this idea from watching Michael Jordan lead his team to victory in the ‘95-96 NBA playoffs, when it became clear to me that there became two types of basketball players: His Airness, and people who were not quite there. And somewhere inside my little nine-year-old brain I looked at the black dude on the T.V. with his tongue hanging out and said to myself, “Yeah, I can do that,”

That is why I started playing basketball.

And so began a rather dismal series of personal failures that extended well past my high school years. You see, being inspired by someone to do great things is OK. There are obviously a of of successful people in the world who have had good role models. My problem was that I tried to apply the ruler of infinite perfection to everything I did. I was either going big, or going home.

At first I found that this was pretty easy; my social circle was not that big, so all I had to do was to pick obscure interests, be the best at them, and have everyone look up to me. I went to a Japanese public elementary school at which soccer and baseball were the primary sports. Basketball was almost unheard of; more people played dodgeball than basketball. I was already in a private soccer club (because all the cool kids were making their parents shell out $80/month for soccer lessons), but all I really wanted to do was play basketball. Never mind that almost all of my time on the court was spent by myself, or that my arms were too puny to shoot a basketball without cocking the ball behind my head with both hands. Never mind that I was teaching myself basketball by copying what I saw on T.V., working on cool-looking fade-away jumpers and jump-turn-throw-it-over-the-shoulder-up-and-in layups before I could actually shoot a decent free-throw. Free throws were the most boring part of the game on T.V.!

Nonetheless, all of my practice seemingly paid off, and I was the best basketball player in my social circle by 1998. I was baking pies in my own oven.

At least I was, until I moved to America. Man, was I in for a shock. It turned out that in America, some kids had been playing basketball since the first grade. In America, kids had actually played on basketball teams before the sixth grade. In America, I was a scrawny point guard - far from my usual position of towering over my Japanese peers. At best, I was passable for a basketball player.


This revelation started a new phase in my life; a phase of no matter what I tried, I could never be the best at it. It’s like when a person who claims to be good at blackjack stumbles upon the "Ultimate Guide to Playing Blackjack" or any comprehensive guide to something, and now has two options - They can memorize all of the card combinations and their probabilities of appearing, all the possible hands, etc - in essence, the entire book - or they can give up blackjack. There is of course a third option, which is being content and still playing because you enjoy it, but instead of realizing this and looking for a new way to do things, I simply solved the problem of perpetual disappointment by shifting activities. Basketball didn’t work out like I had hoped it would, so I switched my focus to academics. I ended up having the highest grade point average in my sixth grade class. Granted, my class at the private Christian elementary school had less than thirty people in it, but that didn’t matter; I was the smartest kid I knew in my age group.

That satisfaction lasted, surprise surprise, until the next year, when I enrolled at the private Christian Academy in Japan. Apparently, at CAJ, the majority of the other white, middle class missionary kids also had parents who valued academic excellence. Now I was stuck in a school in which my peers were smarter than I was and played better basketball to boot. I had to find something new, so I found two things: computers and wrestling. Both activities were outside the mainstream at CAJ. Wrestlers, regardless of how good they performed, were seen as not-basketball players. And computers were for geeks, even in 1999. Both of these pursuits had relatively small followings, making it easy for me to rise to the top and stand out. But even then, I had to make some adjustments. My good friend Joel also liked computers a lot, but he liked Macs. My whole school was full of Macs, so I decided that I could take a shortcut to fame and become fanatical about PCs. Pretty soon, I was the best PC user my age that I knew, and all was right with the universe again.

I could fill a couple more pages with examples of how I shifted interests to something I thought in which I could excel and stand a head taller than the rest. How I moved from acting to sports to more sports to taking different academic interests. How I shaped my music habits, friendships, hobbies, and religious views, all to somehow become the Michael Jordan of that field. To avoid going home, having received no pie.

And I could chronicle the myriad moments that I met “the book”, as it were, of the interests that I pursued. I played the SNK and Street Fighter video games until I learned that I needed to count frames of animation to truly dominate at them. I collected Dreamcast games and accessories until I decided that I wasn’t going to shell out $300 for a collectible edition of a seven-year-old system. I listened to mainstream rock until I heard it on the radio. Then I listened to classic rock until I hear IT on the radio. I moved back to Apple computers once I learned that practically the whole world outside my school was using PCs. The list goes on and on. It’s hard not to look back at my life and see nothing but failure after failure. I graduated high school not really wanting to pursue college because I felt that I wasn’t really good at anything, and college seemed to be for people who were good at things.


I can look back at my developing years and find two things, two activities, in which I found solace from the rat race with which I imagined I had to keep up. These activities were things that I could do and not care about what others thought of my performance - things were I forgot, as it were, that I was supposed to be better than others. The first one was bike riding, and the second was wrestling.

I have been riding bikes my whole life. In Japan biking is an essential way to get around, and the nation probably has a higher percentage of bikes/people than any other in the world. I had four different bikes before I was eight, and was given a 26-inch mountain bike in second grade that I rode then, when I was eight or nine, to after my high school graduation. I took that bike off-roading, down-hilling, commuting, dirt-jumping, and just about anything else you can do with a bike. Riding my bike, especially in my younger years, gave me the freedom to seemingly do anything or go anywhere. It gave me a reason to be out of the house, a reason to go exploring, a reason to do dumb things that could result in bodily harm, or a reason to think I was cool. These are, for the most part, solitary activities, and I attribute my enjoyment of solitude as an adult to the fun I had being alone on my bike as a kid. My silver and purple mountain bike with the blue water bottle, eighteen speeds, and ¥11,200 price tag literally shaped who I am today.

Wrestling was the other activity that allowed me to forget about what others thought of me or where I stood in relation to others. The funny thing is that I was never even really good at wrestling. I only won three (of the eight) tournaments that I wrestled in in middle school, and only won two (one freshman year and one senior year) of the many more that I participated in in my four years on the high school varsity squad. But that amazingly didn’t matter, because I genuinely enjoyed every season that I wrestled. Despite suffering through two hour practices, constantly cutting weight, and being beaten down by more experienced wrestlers, I enjoyed the camaraderie, the feeling of being physically fit, and the satisfaction of having my hand raised at the end of a match, however often that happened. I’m pretty sure I ended my career with a losing record, and I am definitely sure that I lost the last match I ever wrestled. I have every reason to think that wrestling should be included on my list of failures in life, but it’s not. It’s one of my fondest memories. Wrestling was good for me not only as a sport, but as a lifestyle. Because of wrestling I never smoke, drank, or did drugs in high school, (probably correctly) fearing that it would hurt my performance. It helped me establish good habits for when I struck out on my own.

So shouldn’t I have learned something from these two activities? I should have, but I didn’t - at least not at the time. I only realized that I thought like this in the past year or so. Only recently did I slow down and tell myself that it is OK not to be the best at something, that it is OK to just do something because you enjoy doing it. I picked a guitar to learn it twice - once in high school and once after high school. But I didn’t actually want to learn how to play the guitar. I wanted people to think I was cool because I was good at guitar. I was willfully ignorant that becoming good at guitar took years of practice, and I didn’t really want to take then time to learn basic music theory AND guitar at the same time. I just thought that playing guitar was the ticket to being cool. The guitar path to coolness ended up being too hard, so I dropped it. I actually learned from that experience, and every time I entertain the thought of picking up guitar again I remind myself that I already tried that. That lesson has helped in other areas of my life as well.

It’s taken me a long time to even begin to feel comfortable in my own skin, and it hasn’t been easy. But I take it day by day, and, so far, things seem to work themselves out alright. I am becoming a better judge of what I actually enjoy doing and what I think I want to do but actually don’t. I guess this is part of what being an adult means? Well, whatever it is, I think I’m OK with it.


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Ketchup - A Brief History of The World's Greatest Asset

Ketchup is possibly the greatest invention of modern, pre-modern, and post-modern times. The lovely red pasty stuff that you squirt on your burger and fries has been at the forefront of the advance of modern civilization and general morality, but chances are that you are not aware of it! For shame! But have no fear; for this article will follow the history of the condiment known as ketchup and use brilliant anecdotal evidence to prove how ketchup is the source of everything good in the modern universe. Read on, soon-to-be ketchup lover!

Pre-Early 1600 - Ketchup is only known in China. It is unsurprising, therefore, that up until this time there has been war, strife, feudalism, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Cortez committing genocide in Mexico, and many other atrocities in Europe and the New World.

Early 1600s - The Dutch bring back ketchup from China, resulting the the financial success of the Dutch East India Company. Unsurprisingly, in China, the Ming Dynasty that has been dominant since the 1300s fails in the next forty years, eventually ending in 1644. They should not have shared their ketchup.

1700s - It takes a while for Europe to get into the swing of things, but soon the Enlightenment period begins, thanks to the effects of ketchup in increasing human mental capacity.

1727 - Britain has ketchup, and the first recipe for ketchup is printed in Britain. The Spanish want the recipe, but Britain won’t give it to them, so they war for it, sparking the Anglo-Spanish War. Nobody wins, the status quo is unaffected, and Spain goes home without ketchup. British minister John Wesley invents Methodism in celebration. Ketchup actually goes on to fuel much of England’s dominance in the next fifty years or so.

1801 - Benedict Arnold, the American traitor, dies, and the first recipe for ketchup is printed in America. This is not a coincidence. While Britain and France were warring it out in Europe (Britain was mad that the Americans stole their ketchup, and Napoleon was mad because he wasn’t British), America is a budding new country full of promise and smart people like Thomas Jefferson, who came into presidential office that year.

1812 - A better recipe for ketchup was published in America, causing the British, still sore, to try and war against America. America, fortified in large part by ketchup jars passed out in their troops’ rations, beats the Brits back.

1830 - Ketchup starts being sold in bottles, and Emily Dickinson is born. She goes on to write many poems praising the many benefits of ketchup, but these are collected in a tome that has yet to be discovered.

1837 - A man named Jonas Yerkes, a Michigonian, starts selling ketchup in quart and pint-sized bottles. The bigwigs in Washington DC are totally impressed, and unanimously vote to let Michigan become the 26th state of the Union. They need some way to tell Michigan this, so they commission a Mr. Samuel B. Morse to do something about it. The telegraph is invented. Michigan needs a commercial hub out of which to ship their ketchup, so they decide to create a sleepy little township nearby, call it Chicago, and ship ketchup from there.

1848 - Unscrupulous bachelor ketchup bottlers in Wisconsin start adding coal tar to heighten the redness of their ketchup. This results in about 5,000 deaths in New York City. Legislators reprimand Wisconsin, which has yet to achieve statehood, and demand that they stop. Wisconsin agrees and turns their efforts to cheese-crafting, which so impresses lawmakers that they make Wisconsin the 30th US state. All is forgiven and the 5,000 avoidable deaths in NYC are blamed on “rampant and uncontrollable cholera.”

1876 - It’s a big year for ketchup. John’s Hopkins University is created to (indirectly) help sick people. A man named Alexander Graham Bell wants to tell his friend HJ Heinz about this, and devises the telephone. Heinz receives his telephone in the mail, and the two talk for hours on end about how they can help sick people for less money than it takes to found a fancy-schmancy university. Heinz decides that his new recipe for ketchup will make a world of difference, and launches Heinz Ketchup Co. to (directly) make people healthier. Also around this time, General George Armstrong Custer tries to make friends with nearby Indians in Montana but forgets to bring ketchup along. The Indians, incensed at his unbelievable lack of foresight, slaughter him and his group of friends.

1877-1981 - Ketchup starts being taken for granted and drops out of the public eye. Enter WWI, WWII, the Holocaust, and the Vietnam War.

1981 - Ronald Reagan, an actor/president, signs social reform legislation that results in severe problems for homeless people. He also introduces the “trickle-down effect”, which has yet to actually work in real life. Directly related to this is his mistaken idea that ketchup is vegetable suitable for school lunches. Ketchup is clearly a condiment, and an avid supporter of ketchup takes a few potshots at Ronald. Reagan emerges a national hero as the first president to survive an “assassination” attempt.

1992 - After an extended hiatus, A Prairie Home Companion returns to the American airwaves. Its Catchup Advisory Board short skits promote the myriad benefits of ketchup, and the show prospers.

October, 2000 - Heinz introduces ketchup in a variety of fun, colorful flavors. They also make contributions to George W Bush’s political campaign. In the years following, 9/11 happens, the Iraq War commences, and Dem. John Kerry does not become president. Heinz ends the colors in 2006, and two years later Barack Obama is elected the first black president of the United States. Progress!, and proof that ketchup needs to stay red.

Man, if that doesn’t prove how great ketchup is, I don’t know what does. If fact, if you still don’t believe that ketchup is awesome, I think you need to scroll up and read the timeline again. Ketchup is so awesome that I buy it in bulk. If the local Restaurant Depot ever has too much ketchup it’s because “that guy didn’t come in this week”. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go grocery shopping for things to eat with my ketchup.

Dann writes out of his home in Minnesota and owns every color of ketchup, but only for collector’s value.

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Updates From Random Corners in The Circle - 5/18/09

-I continue to have enough diabetic supplies. Yay!

-I continue to buy books faster than I can read them. This needs to stop.

-I recently completed a full spandex outfit that I can wear when I ride my bicycle. Yay?

-I signed up to take velodrome lessons in June. I can finally put my track bike to good use!

-I’m getting plenty of overtime at work. Yay!

-I recently purged my music library of all of my God Lives Underwater and Guns ‘N Roses albums, two bands that had a lot of influence in shaping my high school music tastes. I just don’t listen to them any more. Progress in my musical tastes?

-House and The Office both ended their fifth season. I think I will keep up with House, not sure about The Office. Pam’s obviously pregnant?

-Somehow I keep managing to find ideas out of which inspiration flows to make comics.

-My brother will be in Europe all summer. Yay!

-Rumor has it that Weezer and Blink 182 will be touring Minnesota this summer. How can I not attend these concerts!?

-This image still thoroughly angers me in ways I can't even begin to describe!

Pew Pew Pew!

Take THAT, Spirit of Christmas!


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