What I’ve been up to

It’s astonishing how quickly time has gone by. I originally started drafting this post a month ago, though it feels like just the other day. Time just takes on a different property here; the first 3 days felt like a week, yet the last 3 weeks feel like a blur… Next thing I know, I’ve got 2 weeks left in my tour of duty.

A week or so after I got here, I started leading teams on “gutting” projects. I wrote fairly extensively on the topic over on the official All Hands blog, if you’re interested. Basically, we’re helping speed up the recovery process by doing relatively simple work that, under ordinary circumstances, would be done by carpenters, who are currently simply overwhelmed and stretched too thinly. It’s fairly delicate work, especially in individual homes that were built by master carpenters, but it’s nothing most people can’t learn to do with a bit of guidance. It’s also quite gratifying to see a “gutted” home that’s been stripped of damaged materials, and cleaned down to its skeletal structure. When the job’s well done, gutted homes look less like tsunami-damaged homes, and more like homes that are simply under construction.

At a personal level, it’s also been very rewarding to work closely with carpenters, and to be able to see these homes up close. The work we’re doing gives us a great deal of insight into how the homes are built. Having worked on at least a dozen homes by now, I’ve come across a variety of building materials and construction methods, and am even starting to get some idea into what works and what doesn’t. As we remove wall panels (usually gypsum boards or a native cement wall that’s applied), we can see the posts, studs and braces that are normally hidden away. I’ve seen a few different floor systems, some of which have faired well, and some of which have collapsed. I’ve also become intimately familiar with the few different methods used in traditional ceilings, and have had the chance to study the beams and joinery hidden above them. It’s been quite inspiring to say the least, and though what little I’ve learned of Japanese building methods barely scratches the surface of all there is to know, I’m looking forward to going back to my property to reinforce my cabin, and build another structure or two employing methods I’ve seen here.

About 10 days ago, I got sent off on a “satellite” project in another community called Yamada, located about an hour and a half’s drive from our main base in Ofunato. Yamada is a much smaller town, but was hit hard by the tsunami and fires that raged on for 24 hours after the waves struck. Over half the homes in the town were damaged or destroyed, and the main part of town has been washed away or burnt out, leaving behind a ghost town. Curretly, our project there consists of two job sites: one is a beach-side shrine, and the other is the shaman’s home. The latter site also serves as our base, where we’re camping out in tents. Other than spring water that comes out of a faucet, there’s no infrastructure there, but fortunately I’m quite used to being in such environments. The other volunteers rotate in and out on 4 day shifts, but as the team leader, I spent two full rotations there, and will be going back up with a 3rd rotation.

Between leading gutting teams in Ofunato and leading the satellite project, I’ve been taking on leadership roles for most of the time here, which is somewhat ironic seeing how I was living a life of solitude until I came to Japan. Leading teams isn’t anything new to me since I’ve somehow found myself in such roles on numerous occasions ever since I was a kid, but it still doesn’t feel natural to me either. I’m not particularly assertive, or dominant, or decisive, or intimidating, or strong, or hard working, or skilled, or possess any of the other traits one may associate with the alpha dog. So I’m genuinely baffled whenever I’m asked to lead, but it keeps happening, which probably means I’ve got whatever is being demanded. Here, though, leading teams has been easy because everybody works hard, and many of the volunteers are far more skilled than I am. In reality, I don’t feel like I’m actually “leading” as much as I’m coordinating. All I do is understand the job, know the team, decide how to apply the team to the tasks, then let them go at it and do whatever I can to support and assist them. On one day during the satellite project when I had 8 people working in the house in 3 sub-teams, everything was humming along at around 3pm, so I decided that the best way to make myself useful was to cook the crew dinner (while occasionally answering questions from the kitchen) so that hot chow would be ready the minute they finished for the day. A lot got done that day, and everybody seemed reasonably happy even though I’d worked them an hour longer than usual. I guess what I lack for in innate leadership qualities, I make up for with what I’ve learned from bosses and managers I’ve had in the past. In short, I try not to replicate behavior I didn’t like about my ex-bosses, and that seems to work okay, even if I can’t exactly explain what it is that I do do.

To be brutally honest, though, I do miss the quiet and carefree solitary life in the woods. The weight of command is burdensome, even if I’m willing to serve that role for a while when asked…

Photo by Eric Zdenek for All Hands Volunteers