Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Another Year, Another Bon Festival. Or Was It...?

Another year, another Bon Festival.
Or was it...? 
  Yesterday, as usual, we started out by tending the family graves.  My job, as always, was getting the incense ready for everybody, and just when I finished lighting the last bunch (for myself), my lighter (a jet type and a veteran of five Bon Festivals) literally exploded, though luckily there was no fireball...and I had a backup.
  After coming home from that, the next item on the agenda was the traditional ritual of building a little fire to guide the spirits of our deceased family members home.  Eagle Scout though I am, I could not get the damned thing to ignite (what with the still rain-dampened ground, humidity-dampened paper and kindling, and cardboard apparently designed to smolder rather than burn), and I had both my son and my FIL try to take over.  I fought them off rabidly and eventually got the damned thing burning.  I hope the dead relatives enjoy their %$& visit...
  After that, my wife and I went around to pay our respects to families on our list (i.e. who my FIL knows) who had someone pass away within the past year, a task we always split with my FIL.  That meant navigating our way around those often insanely narrow country roads trying to find homes we didn't know together with many dozens of (mostly elderly and often obnoxious) other people all trying to do the same thing.  One fringe benefit was that it got my wife and I away from everyone else, so we were able to enjoy a brief afternoon date.
  Today we visited relatives to pay our respects.  We rather coldly hurried in and out again, avoiding the obligatory tea and conversation, so we could go back, have a quick lunch, and...
  ...clean FIL's house so it would look a bit less like a bombed-out ruin in the event of visitors.  He insisted no one would come and griped the whole time.  We ignored him and made his place a bit more presentable.  I was just finishing up vacuuming when the first guest showed up...
  After that, I went outside to work a bit at cleaning up MIL's rather neglected, little garden.  FIL had taken a grass cutter (weed eater?) to it, but it was still a mess of weed stubble, so I attacked it with a vengeance just as the rain started.  Seasoned Oregonian that I am, I refused to let precipitation stop me (while FIL kept insisting I pack it up and go back inside).  So it started pouring down...HARD.  Seasoned Oregonian that I am, I felt frustrated as hell for letting precipitation stop me...but not until I had at least worked to a reasonable stopping place.  I was pretty soaked and muddy when I finally went in.  Not surprisingly, within twenty minutes the rain had stopped and the sun was peeking through the clouds.
  Tomorrow my son is going to Tokyo to meet with his percussion clinician and buy his own set of tympani mallets at the Japan Percussion Center.  (At least it will cost a lot less than my clarinets and tenor sax cost MY parents.)  My wife and I are going on a much-needed extended date together.  My bank account can just wail and gnash its teeth.
Happy Bon, everyone!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Short Adventure, But Oh, So Meaningful

Part One - Departure

"Excuse me," said the guy at the entrance to the Delta Airlines check-in area, singling me out from the group.  "What is your destination?"  He looked worried, and something told me it wasn't just lack of confidence in his English abilities.

I decided to make it easier on him anyway.  In Japanese, I replied, "I'm taking the direct flight to Portland."

Yes, a flight to Portland, and in May, to boot!  That had never happened before, and it shouldn't really have been happening then, either.  Circumstances were anything but ordinary.  My Aunt Judy had passed away earlier in the month.  I had heard the date of her memorial service less than a week before.  Normally I have to book a flight home more than a month in advance if I'm to stand any chance of getting a seat.  I knew I was battling impossible odds, but I decided to try for it anyway.  I arranged for time off from Ye Olde Academy (who were VERY understanding) and went to my usual travel agency just two days before I needed to depart.  Amazingly, they were able to book my flights without any trouble.

"There's no hurry," the travel agent had said. "There are still plenty of seats available on those flights."

Actually, that turned out to be the problem.  There were too many seats left on that flight, most of them due to last-minute cancellations.

Switching to Japanese (but not relaxing much), the airport worker said, "I'm terribly sorry, but I'm afraid your flight has been cancelled.  Please go to the check-in window over there and see what can be done."

I think I was still too high on the fact that I was flying Stateside for it really to sink in.  It didn't really hit me until I got to the counter, and a very distraught-looking, young Delta Airlines clerk was once again saying to me (in very fluent English) that my direct flight to Portland was canceled.  Canceled!  CANCELED!?!?!  "And that flight is only once a day," she was saying through my fog, "so we can't get it until tomorrow.  You can't wait, can you?"  I think I replied with a monosyllabic grunt.

So the clerk set to work.  And I mean...she REALLY set to work.  She was running all around the Delta Airlines check-in area like she was on the verge of spontaneous human combustion, talking to other clerks, picking up phones, apologizing to me and barely keeping her composure when her computer crashed, going around and trying other clerks' computers, and looking on the verge of tears as the list of bad news kept growing:  "All flights to Seattle are overbooked.  San Francisco, too.  Los Angeles is out.  Houston is out.  Chicago is out.  If you could just...wait...till...tomorrow..."

"I don't care if you fly me around the world the other direction for twenty hours," I said as gently as possible with a smile on.  "Please, just get me there as soon as you can."

Finally the clerk's computer came back to life, and her face brightened a bit.  Then, after she'd clicked around, it brightened even more.  "There's one option here," she said, "but it doesn't leave until later this evening.  We can get you into Portland Thursday evening instead of Thursday morning...about ten hours later than the direct flight..."  She looked up at me.  "...if we fly you through Honolulu."

I smiled wide.  "That sounds good.  I'll take it!"

So I got my revised itinerary, boarding pass, and a barrage of apologies (while I did my best to reassure the poor woman all was well, and I still had faith in Delta Airlines' service, because she really did look at the end of her rope), and headed out of the check-in area.  The first item on the agenda was calling Stateside to let my parents know I'd be arriving a little late, so I found a good corner over in the airport mall and got out my smartphone.  As it turned out, as I'd feared, my parents had already left; when I fly home, my parents usually stay a night at a motel near the airport so they can pick me up in the morning without having to worry about getting up extra early.  Luckily, my sister was home, so I gave her the update and was assured she'd try to find a way to let them know.

That left me with about four hours to kill at New Tokyo International Airport.  I debated heading out for a bit to do some shopping in Narita (a favorite haunt of mine), but I was worried I might wind up with extra baggage (such as a pedal or a mandolin), so I just bought a few magazines, went to the Tully's coffee shop overlooking the departure lobby, and relaxed with a grande-size cappuccino and National Geographic.  I was feeling pretty relaxed by the time I boarded the very new-looking Airbus and headed into the hazy sky en route to Honolulu.  I slept for almost the entire seven-hour flight...but that rough, hard-braking landing definitely woke me up!

Part Two - Hawaiian Layover

I couldn't help but notice the extreme irony of my unexpected Honolulu detour; the last time I had been in that airport had been almost exactly thirty years before.  At that time, I'd been there on a tour with my college jazz band, and for me the trip had been a complete disaster.  This time I was just confined to the airport for a few hours, but it didn't seem like it had changed...at least as far as I could remember.  (I've tried very hard to remember as little of that trip from hell as possible.)  I began to remember why I haven't felt any desire to visit Hawaii whatsoever since the mid '80s.  Still...it is definitely a very beautiful place with a vibe all its own.

Since I was originally supposed to have been arriving in the morning in Portland (i.e. probably a little chilly), I was wearing a lightweight coat, button-up shirt, and jeans.  Naturally, all the tropical travelers around me were in shorts, short sleeves, and sandals, and I drew stares.  Ignoring them, I wandered like a lost soul in purgatory along the meandering (and poorly marked) route from the shuttle bus stop to the departure lobby.  My connecting flight was with Alaska Airlines, but I arrived to find no one at the check-in counter and no sign of my gate number anywhere...including on my revised itinerary.  After more wandering (and more stares...especially from very suspicious security guards) I found the Alaska Airlines baggage check-in and asked them for help.  I had only my one carry-on bag, but they were still able to check me in and give me my gate number.  However, I was informed that I'd been put on a stand-by list.  I'd have to get my seat number from the counter at the gate...IF one was available.

Trapped in Honolulu Airport exactly thirty years after my last, punishing visit?  That would be ironic!

I made my way through the eerily-deserted airport mall and got to my gate a little over two hours before departure.  There were only a few people waiting there and no one at the counter.  Figuring there was nothing to be gained from sitting and stewing there, I went back to the mall and grabbed a quick Reese's Peanut Butter Cup (a rare luxury in Japan) and some breath mints. Then I spotted a Starbucks and went in.

There were only two customers there including myself, but the Hawaiian staff were cheerfully bantering among themselves in their native tongue.  That's not to say they weren't eager to chat in English; the woman at the register not only started talking with me as if I were an old friend, but started making fun of the other customer.  (Apparently he'd demanded more milk in his coffee, half and half if possible, and they thought that was really silly.)  Taking myself and my iced caramel macchiato to a table near the window, I took in the spectacular view.  An impressively ominous bank of clouds was oozing over and down the mountains like a head on an overflowing beer glass.  Below that, I could see part of Honolulu, and I recalled how beautiful it had been back in the '80s.  I remembered the fabled beach resort of Waikiki...that ghastly clot of overcrowded, overpriced, superficial, pretty, plastic dementia that my bandmates had made the sole reason for their existence for the few days we'd been on that tragically soul-stripped island.  That visit, cursed from the beginning, had laid bare a lot of facts about myself...and about the folly of an introvert trying to be part of the crowd...especially the wrong crowd...especially at the urging of people trying to "fix" me...but I digress.  I think I whispered, "Still...it's so beautiful," to myself as I gathered myself up to leave.

The stainless steel chute where you dump your ice in most Starbucks (at least in Japan) was full of paper garbage.  I asked one of the employees where I could dump my ice, and she looked at me like I was the biggest idiot in the world before saying, "You can...just dump de whole ting in de garbage, man!"  So I did.  I said thank you, but I just got a quizzical stare in return.  I was almost first in line at the check-in counter at the gate, so getting a seat on the plane was no problem.  Soon that little 737, filled to capacity, was airborne and on its way to Oregon.

Alaska Airlines is a budget airline, so food and booze cost extra.  I splurged a bit on Washington wine and various munchies from both Oregon and Washington.  I was a very happy camper.

Yep, Honolulu.  Short, but better than last time.  Still...it's so beautiful.

Part Three - Finally Home


The nice thing about arriving in Portland via a domestic flight with no checked luggage was that I was able to walk out of the plane, through the gate, and right into the lobby where my folks were waiting.  My sister had alerted them to the change of plans, so they'd spent the day running around in Portland before picking me up.  They were perfectly happy, and so was I.  I also felt quite relaxed and rested.

At least I was until they warned me that it was getting dark, and they weren't good at driving in the dark.  Especially since they had a new car.  I won't go into detail about the drive to the coast (for various reasons) but suffice to say it was more of an adventure than it probably needed to be.  We arrived at my parents' house somewhere around 10 p.m..  I hadn't had any dinner, but I contented myself with getting acquainted with their new cats before hitting the sack.  I was pretty much exhausted.

The next day was Friday, the only free day I had to play with during the entire trip.  Unfortunately, the weather remembered it was the Oregon Coast (i.e. rain), so my hoped-for hike or beach visit was out.  Instead, I just chilled out through the morning, and in the afternoon I went shopping with my mother and sister before giving in and taking my father up on an interesting invitation.

When I visited there during winter vacation last year, my father invited me to sit in with a local acoustic circle.  Once a week, at a community center in town, people get together for an open acoustic jam session.  Anyone with an instrument or singing voice is welcome.  My father has been a regular participant.  I declined last year, partly because I wasn't sure I'd be up to it, and partly because...well...group.  (Introvert.)  This time I gave it a shot.  There were four guys with acoustic guitars there including my dad, one old guy who occasionally plonked around on a piano, and one woman singing.  I came in with my dad's other guitar (Guild!) and a tinwhistle, and took right to it.  It was a blast!  Each person took a turn choosing the song, and the others would just follow as best they could.  I did a couple of well-known folk songs, a Beatles tune, a Neil Young number, and something I chose at random from my dad's fake book.  It was serious fun.  However, I couldn't help noticing that I was having trouble remembering the lyrics of songs I tend to perform on a regular basis.

In fact, I noticed that my memory of things in general from my life in Japan was oddly sluggish, as if that whole volume had been temporarily compressed and archived.  I supposed there had to be a reason for it, so I just got on with it.

Part Four - The Reason for the Journey


My Aunt Judy was not a gentle person.  Neither was she easy-going.  She could be very difficult.  However, if you could say one thing about her, it was that she was always very passionate.  She did everything with an eagerness not often seen in people.  Like most in that side of my family, she was also quite musical.

In fact, I will even go so far as to say that her talent on the piano, especially playing the genres of gospel, ragtime, and dixieland, had a huge influence on my own musicality.  When I play jazz, I often hear the memory of her playing inside my head.  That's something that will always be very important to me.

And of course, she is family.  You can't put a price tag on that.

During all the time I was growing up, Aunt Judy and her family lived in the rural area in the vicinity of Turner, Oregon.  It was a totally different world from the suburbs where I did most of my growing up, and I always looked forward to visiting there.  Together with my two cousins who lived there, I experienced a lot of things I wouldn't have otherwise, including such things as riding a motorcycle on the country roads, driving a small tractor, milking a goat, and operating an old player piano (i.e. the type that play automatically using tunes encoded on rolls of paper).  When my cousins eventually grew up and left the nest, and one of them had kids of her own, my aunt and uncle moved to the city of Salem to be closer to their grandkids.  That was after I'd relocated to Japan, so my contact during that time was limited.  However, the old memories of the days they lived near Turner are still very much a part of what I am, so it was only fitting that I be there to say goodbye.

And how fitting that the memorial service was at the newly rebuilt version of their old church in Turner!

I've long since become accustomed to Japanese funerals, and American ones are completely different.  I remember how weird it all felt during my grandmother's memorial service a decade ago.  This was more or less the same thing.  It was all so laid back.  Japanese funerals are flamboyant but grim affairs with lots of ritual and expense.  This memorial service, like my grandmother's, involved such things as casual comments and even jokes from the minister, invitations for people to share their memories, singing hymns in a very laid-back manner, and an atmosphere that was more one of love, sentiment, fellowship, and even joy rather than the somber obligation and usherings into the afterlife that are common in Japan.  It was a celebration of life rather than an observance of death.  It was...very nice.  It was also great seeing so many of my relatives from that side of my family.  My mother's side was always a very close-knit group...something I always loved about them...and it was great to see that they still are, even though we've all but lost the generation that tied it all together.

Nobody expected me to be there.  I hadn't expected me to be there.  But I was very happy and thankful to be there...even if I made someone cry.  (Sorry, Nancy!)  ;-)

On the way back to the coast, we decided to have something a little special for dinner, so we made a little detour and another supermarket stop.  Later, while the cooking was in process, my other aunt and uncle from that side of the family stopped by with a couple of new fake books for my dad...and an insistence that we should play.  I gave in, got out the Guild guitar and tinwhistle again, and joined my dad for perhaps the first joint jam session we've EVER had at home.  I didn't know half the songs we played, but did I let that stop me?  :-)

By the way, Rogue mocha porter is awesome.  So is Deschutes River Brewery's River Ale.  So are my parents' new cats (but not for drinking).

Part Five - Back Again So Soon


That was the end of the trip.  The next morning, we were making the journey back to Portland International Airport.  Fortunately, the direct flight home and my flight reservation were both okay.  Check-in, never fun, was made even more annoying by a demand that I show proof of my Japanese visa.  (The clerk kept insisting that my permanent residence visa had expired, offering the approval date as "proof".  I asked her why "permanent" residency would have an expiration date.  She said, "Good point," and sent me on my way.)  After a final, relaxing lunch with my parents and a very brief visit to the Made in Oregon shop for obligatory souvenirs, I got in line at the security gate...and encountered a guard whose obnoxious sense of humor made my wait even more needlessly long.  When I finally arrived at my flight's gate, boarding was already in progress, so I simply walked onto the plane.

The 767-300 was half empty.  I had a row of seats to myself, so I stretched out, snoozed when I could, and meditated when I couldn't.  It was smooth flying until we started our descent into Japan, when we hit a weather front, and the plane started bucking like a bull on steroids.  From there we kept rocking and rolling in entirely the wrong way clear up until touchdown on the runway...which was ironically smooth and easy.  That description also applies to my trip through immigration and customs, when an ignorant, young employee insisted I wait in the wrong line, but when I asked a more experienced one who passed by, I got put in the correct line...which was NO line.  From there, I just walked through, pausing briefly to submit forms along the way.

My parking bill was more than a hundred bucks at the current exchange rate.  I think I parked in the wrong lot...  Anyway, guess where I went after leaving the airport.  That's right!  YE OLDE ACADEMY!!!!!!  I had to finish making a midterm exam, since I'd forgotten to work on it while in Oregon.  A teacher's work is never done...

THE END!!!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Days Like These...

Saturday, February 15th, was the date of this year's Japan Amateur Chambermusic Festival (ACF) in Yokohama.  The ACF is a fairly prestigious annual event which features about a dozen ensembles selected from many hundreds of applicants from all over the country.  All of the performances are more or less of the classical genre, and there are no stipulations as to age or background.  As it happened, the 11th grade string players at Ye Olde Academy auditioned and were selected to be one of the performing groups.  They were to be the only high schoolers on the program; all the others were either college students or older.  It was really quite an honor.

The fact that my own daughter was included made it even better.

Anyway, there were only 7 members in the 11th grade string ensemble, but the music club chartered a full-sized bus so that there would be plenty of room for supporters.  Since I was both a co-director and a parent, room was made for both me and my wife.  The bus was scheduled to leave Ye Olde Academy at noon that day, after my lessons were done, and we would be arriving at the Minatomirai Hall several hours before the performance.  That meant we'd have lots of extra time to play with in Yokohama...meaning it would be a welcome date with the wife free of the usual expressway and parking fees.  It looked to be a nice, easy, and enjoyable day.

Except that it wasn't.

You see, that nasty storm that dumped so much gale-driven rain mixed with snow on us from Friday evening until Saturday morning wound up leaving a full foot of snow on the normally snowless Tokyo Metropolitan Area.  That sent everything into a chain reaction of fail.

First it was announced that, because of the snow, the chartered bus would be leaving the Academy two hours early.  Unfortunately, that conflicted with a special demo lesson I was scheduled to teach for the kids who had passed our senior high entrance exam.  The administration made it clear that that lesson had priority, so I was forced to stay behind.

Not one to give up easily, I met up with my wife as soon as that lesson was finished, and I drove us to Yokohama myself.  I'd made the trip there plenty of times in the past, so it shouldn't have been a problem.  The temperature was in the teens centigrade (40-50 Fahrenheit), but there was still lots of snow on the ground in the Tokyo-Yokohama area.  Luckily, the expressway had been well plowed, so it was mainly just wet.  However, as we raced along those narrow elevated expressways between Tokyo and Yokohama, the snow bank on the side of the road was close enough to reach out and scoop...with big trucks in the other lane.  It was pretty scary.  When we got off the expressway in the Minatomirai area of Yokohama, there was plenty of snow on the streets, but traffic had long since carved ruts on the busier routes.  Nevertheless, the space in between the ruts was still deep enough for my car's airdam to scrape it.  The less-trafficked roads had some packed slush, but I just practiced my snow driving, made good use of my manual shift paddles, and got us into the underground parking garage without any trouble.

The last time my wife and I had visited Yokohama had been several years before, and it was great to be back.  The shopping malls in the Minatomirai area had plenty to keep us occupied, and my daughter had told us that their performance was scheduled to begin around 5 p.m..  That gave us a lot of time to spare, so we just took it easy and enjoyed ourselves.  We decided to go to the hall an hour before the performance to get our tickets and get settled in.  Thus, we arrived in the lobby just outside the hall with tickets and programs in hand just a few minutes after 4 p.m., looked at the monitor screen there...and saw our group already performing!  My daughter had given us the wrong time!  Shocked, we watched the rest of the performance on the monitor screen and then entered the hall as soon as the doors opened.

We stayed to watch a few more groups perform (mainly to justify our having made the trip there and paid for the tickets, but they really were quite good).  Then we left to make the journey home...which turned out to be a lot more difficult.  It was now after dark, not to mention rush hour, and I followed my navi-system to the expressway entrance, turned into it...and stopped dead in front of a barricade reading "Closed due to snow".  Naturally, that lane had been devoid of traffic, so I found myself trapped in the deep, partly-refrozen snow...but only briefly.  Punching out of there, I wandered about (making a couple of illegal abrupt lane changes) until I found an open on-ramp.  Unfortunately, it put me on a different expressway, so I wound up looping around on a rather roundabout route with a lot more traffic than before...and rapidly-melting snow forming all kinds of waterfalls and mini-avalanches along the way.  By the time we finally reached the welcome, wide expressway in Tokyo, our hearts were in our mouths.

Right about the time we got home, my daughter sent us a message saying her bus was on its way.  I nodded off before they arrived at Ye Olde Academy, though, and my wife was merciful enough to let me sleep.  In fact, I got more sleep that night than I had in a long time...which I suppose counts as one more blessing to weigh against all the karmic fail of the day.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Don't Believe Everything you Click.

(Scene:  one of the workrooms at Ye Olde Academy.  I walk in the door near where one of my co-workers is busy at the computer on his desk.)
My Co-Worker:  "Excuse me!  Can you help me with this thing?"
Me:  (Thinking, "Again?!!?")  "Sure!  What is it?"
CW:  "It's this software I bought."  (Shows me a sales voucher)  "I just installed it, but I can't get it to work right."
Me:  (Leaning in for a closer look)  "Ah.  Registry editor and system optimizer.  I've used those.  What's the problem?"
CW:  "Well, I don't know.  Like I said, I installed it, but now it just flashes error messages at me and doesn't do anything."
Me:  "Let me have a look."  (He stands and I sit)  "Well, part of the problem is that you have other programs trying to do stuff.  The registry editor is saying to close all open applications.  There's other stuff running.  What's this 'cloud back-up service'?"
CW:  "Yeah...I need to set that up, too."
Me:  "It's asking you to create an account.  You need to do that for it to work."
CW:  "Okay, here..."  (Leans over and puts in the required information)
Me:  "Okay, that took care of that.  Now it's....what the...?  It's just a trial version!  Only 40 files unless you pay?  That's just..."
CW:  "Oh, well.  I don't really need it, anyway."
Me:  "What...?"
CW:  "I don't even know where it came from.  All these other programs, too."  (Points at various icons)  "They just appeared after I installed the one I bought."
Me:  "Bundled, eh?  You probably don't need them.  I'll just shut them all for now.  Still not working!  But the only open apps are Spybot and your virus scanner, and I won't...well, I'll close Spybot for now.  Okay, I guess that did it, but...ah!  You need to register the program you bought.  There's probably a key..."  (Looks around)  "Right, there it is.  But they still want you to register.  You need to put your info here."
CW:  "Okay..."  (Puts in the required information)  "Did that do it?"
Me:  "There it goes!  Now it's cleaning up your registry!  But what's with all these ads trying to get you to download or buy stuff?  None of the system editors I've used had all this crap!"
CW:  "I don't know.  I really have no idea about any of this."
Me:  (After a little while) "Okay, it's done.  It's going to do a system reboot now.  Okay, so far so good but...what the...?  This program is really kind of obnoxious, isn't it...and these others...what in the world?  They're ALL limited trial versions that give you just enough to make you want to buy the full version!  What is this?"
CW:  "No idea.  Like I said, they just appeared."
Me:  (Looking around)  "I don't like it.  This really stinks.  Hey, I know I installed Malwarebytes and Spybot on your computer last spring, and Spybot is running!  But where are the icons?"
CW:  "What?"
Me:  "Never mind."  (Finds the executable file for Malwarebytes, starts it, and initiates a scan.  Meanwhile, does a Google search.)  "Hmm.  Okay, there's the program you bought.  The forums and reviewers are saying it is a legitimate program from a legitimate company, but..."  (But the program is second rate and the company's reputation is spotty to say the least.  Meanwhile, every time a new web page is accessed, Spybot blocks an unidentified "suspicious cookie")  "It's probably best not to click on anything it puts up that says 'download' or 'buy'.  The manufacturer is into hard sales."
CW:  "Really?"
Me:  "Okay, here's...wow!  243 malware files!"  (Including ALL the recently installed applications, even the one he bought.)  (Tells Malwarebytes to remove everything except the purchased software, lets it reboot the system, and has Spybot do a follow-up scan.  Spybot finds some hidden garbage from those evil apps that either Malwarebytes missed or something replaced.  Once again, tells Spybot to remove everything except the purchased program)  "Okay, that should be alright, but again, don't 'download' or 'purchase' anything from that system editor!"
CW:  (A little crestfallen)  "Got it."
Me:  "By the way, I'm curious.  Where did you buy this program?"
CW:  "I got it direct from the computer."
Me:  "You mean online?"
CW:  "I guess so.  Yes."
Me:  "What do you mean?  What led you to get it?"
CW:  "Well, I was just doing some work here, and suddenly this window appears telling me that my computer isn't running right and telling me to do a scan.  I did the scan, and it told me the system was messed up and I had to buy the program to fix it.  So I did.  I mean, it said Microsoft on it.  You mean it wasn't part of Windows?"
Me:  "Uh, no...it wasn't."

Oh, well.  I guess there's one born every minute.  Unfortunately.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

For the Love of Violence

Teen thug dramas are definitely a phenomenon here in the Land of the Rising Sun.  They have been around for at least a few decades, and they are still extremely popular here.  Most if not all of them started out as manga series and then moved to the TV and/or big screen.  Amazingly, they seem to have appeal throughout the Japanese social spectrum; even people who you'd think would be the last to enjoy extreme violence and gore (such as my wife) just thrive on these things.

Though the names and settings vary, the basic premise of teen thug dramas tends to be more or less the same:

  1. The focus is on teens (usually boys, but sometimes girls) with really bad attitudes and some serious issues.
  2. The thugs usually have really obnoxious hairstyles but otherwise wear their school uniforms as if it were their gang symbol...and quite often the war for dominance centers on their school (or between rival schools).
  3. The whole point is to see who can be the "big men/women" by beating the shyte out of everyone else.
  4. Most of the time there really are no "good guys"; pretty much everyone is a hopeless lowlife, though the protagonists usually aren't quite as evil as the opposition.
  5. Pretty much everything is decided through violence...sometimes quite extreme violence involving deadly weapons.
  6. Violent confrontations of some kind happen in just about every scene.
  7. It's not uncommon for characters to get horribly beaten - or even stabbed - to the point that gore flies all over the place and/or they're left looking disfigured, but yet they're usually right back in the action again after a short hospital stay.  It's only rarely that a character dies, and even then it's usually only when that character's death is an important part of the story, i.e. it gives cause for revenge.
  8. Authority of any kind is rare if not absent.  You have the ubiquitous police sirens that bring a particular battle to a halt and send everyone scattering (except those unconscious on the ground), but you almost never see actual policemen.  Even if a punk winds up in the hospital after being beaten half to death with baseball bats, there's never any investigation.  And when things happen on a school campus, you almost never see teachers, and there's almost never any action taken even if thugs rampage through the school smashing things.  In fact, when you do see teachers, they usually just to try to cover everything up and pretend it never happened.  At any rate, no one ever gets caught or punished...except by other gangs.
  9. There never seem to be any parents, either.  Even if a punk winds up in the hospital nearly dead, the only people who show up to visit are his/her friends or girlfriend.
  10. It's also not uncommon for thugs to ambush one character and either beat him unconscious or kill him in broad daylight in front of dozens of witnesses who completely ignore the whole thing.  The sight of a character weeping next to a comatose if not dying friend or lover while the city crowds walk obliviously by is all too common in these dramas.
I'm generally against censorship, but I have to wonder whether these things are really a good idea.  Considering their popularity, considering how impressionable young people tend to be, and considering the tendency of Japanese teens to mimic their idols (real or fiction), how can the companies that produce them not think that kids might wind up emulating them?  And how can they not be required to take responsibility for it?



One of the earliest teen thug dramas I know of is "Be-Bop High School", which started as a manga in the 1980's and later became an animated TV show followed by a live-action miniseries and at least one movie.  When I first started teaching in Japan, I saw lots of boys who seemed to be trying to emulate the James Dean-esque style, the bad attitude, and the violent tendencies of the lead characters.  But that was nothing.  "Be-Bop High School" is actually tame by today's standards, and the apparent effect of the more graphic modern dramas is far worse.

During the last decade, there have been several incidents around the country where a teen gang lured or forced someone into a secluded area and proceeded to beat them to death with baseball bats or other blunt objects.  In almost every case, arrests were made.  Tellingly, the perpetrators in every case were said to be shocked, not only that they were actually caught and punished for their deeds, but that their victim died.  Apparently they thought that their target would be up and about again after a few days in the hospital, just like in their favorite teen thug dramas.  I'm sure the authors and publishers of the latter would say something like, "Dramas don't kill people, people kill people," but is it responsible even to allow it to happen?



One notable exception is "Rookies", a recent and staggeringly popular teen thug drama which has also been made into a live-action TV soap opera and movie.  Unlike most thug dramas, "Rookies" focuses on the reform of a gang of hopeless lowlifes by a teacher's determined efforts to shape them into a school baseball team.  Although there is still plenty of intense and very graphic violence, the whole point is that the "good guy" punks are given a better goal to work toward and, in the process, come to learn to believe in themselves...and to trust each other.  It's a very positive message, especially when we come to learn that the steadfast teacher is actually a reformed gangster himself...with plenty of fighting savvy despite his eternally positive demeanor.  Even so, even "Rookies" has a scene where, while a rival gang rampages through the school smashing windows, doors, and passers-by with baseball bats as they chase the protagonists down with openly murderous intent, a teacher who tries to call the police is told to stop by his colleagues...lest he humiliate the other students !  Even a teen thug drama with such a very good theme still winds up sending another very bad message:  that bad guys will always get away with it.

Is that really a lesson we want kids to learn?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Exploring the Other End of the Scale

(Good lord, he's talking about pedals again...)

I've mentioned this before, but my pedal passion in recent years has been following two separate courses.  While I've mainly been interested in handmade boutique pedals (especially ones that are more reasonably priced), I've also enjoyed looking at brands that are cheap but good.  I intended to halt my pedal purchasing after last year's massive haul, but once again my curiosity has been piqued, this time by a couple of inexpensive, new Chinese brands.

For some time now, German budget gear-maker Behringer has had quite a bit of popularity thanks to its line of ultra-cheap guitar pedals that are clones of well-known Boss, MXR, EHX, and Line 6 models.  More or less the same electronics are built into toy-like, all-plastic enclosures with very crude controls.  One look will tell you that they're not made to last, or to take much punishment, but they sound pretty much as good as the real thing.  I've bought a few Behringer pedals to try them out, and they don't sound anywhere as cheap as they look.  In fact, the RV600 Reverb Machine, modeled after a famous Line 6 pedal, has become one of my most used boxes!  Despite all the inevitable controversy (and snobbery), Behringer pedals have still proved to be popular among guitarists on a budget.  Now, however, they've been given a new challenge.

JOYO appeared a little over a year ago.  Their pedals are low-cost knock-offs of famous boutique boxes.  You can tell what they are modeled after just by looking at them; even their appearance is an emulation, though much simpler than the originals.  The sound, however, can be very close; indeed, certain models are virtually indistinguishable from their much more expensive counterparts in blind comparisons.  There are obvious differences in build quality, and at least one maker of a famous boutique pedal cloned by JOYO has gone on record saying it is a "close approximation" rather than an actual copy.  That hasn't prevented some American online shops from banning JOYO pedals for perceived copyright violations even though no charges are known to have been brought.  As for me, I don't own any JOYO pedals (yet), but I'm seriously thinking of getting one or more to try out just for the heck of it.  (And why not?  The price is very low!)

Mooer Audio is even more recent.  Their nifty line of ultra-compact pedals started appearing around last summer and has quickly expanded.  Now there are at least a couple of dozen models in their catalog.  Again, each one is modeled after either a famous boutique pedal, a classic vintage pedal, or an off-the-shelf model with a famous modification.  However, though the colors and graphics on the Mooer pedals echo the models they emulate, the enclosures are uniquely different; indeed, they have come up with their own, clever, little enclosure design with a really cool, miniaturized control layout.  That is really a selling point of the Mooers!  They are not quite as cheap as Behringer or JOYO, but they combine the emulation of famous pedals with a very convenient and useful design.  The build quality seems reasonably good, too.  If I have any complaint about the Mooer pedals, it is that their digital models have a huge current draw that is too much for most powered pedalboards or power distributors.  And since they are too small to use batteries, you pretty much have to plug each into its own AC adapter.  Overall, I think the Mooer line is really cool, so I grabbed a few of their analog models (which go into a powered board just fine).  I have the Black Secret (which emulates the RAT and TurboRAT distortion pedals), the Hustle Drive (apparently modeled on the famous Fulltone OCD overdrive/distortion), the Cruncher (modeled on the MI Audio Crunch Box distortion pedal) and the Orange Ninety (built on the MXR Phase 90 phaser, both modern and vintage).  They are REALLY cool, and blast to play with!  As inexpensive as they are, I'm liable to get a few more before I'm done.

Yes, I've heard the arguments about these cheap knock-offs stealing business (if not intellectual property) from the original brands.  I don't really agree.  For one thing, as I quoted above from one famous pedalmaker who got "JOYOed", these pedals are more approximations than copies.  There are definitely reasons to buy the original models.  And on that note, would I even buy the original models?  Considering I'm not a performing guitarist (though I am a recording one), would there be any reason for me to shell out a couple of hundred bucks for an OCD or a Crunch Box?  Actually, if I come to like these Mooer clones enough, I just might!  ;-)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Delivery Doldrums


This morning, just as I was getting ready to hurry off to work, the phone rang.  The middle-aged-sounding lady on the phone identified herself as being with a parcel delivery outfit, but it was one I'd never heard of.  She said she had a package for me from Soundhouse.  That didn't surprise me, as I'd ordered something from them.  In fact, I'd asked for it to be delivered the day before (i.e. the 16th, yesterday), and it hadn't arrived.  I was going to ask about that, but then the conversation took an unexpected turn:
Her:  What should we do?
Me:  (puzzled) What should you do?
Her:  Can you come here and get it?
Me:  Um, no...I can't!  I'm working today!  I'll be out all day!  Can you please deliver it?  (After all, isn't that what a DELIVERY company is supposed to do?)
Her:  But no one will be there.
Me:  Yes, there will.  My father-in-law should be there.
Her:  We tried to deliver it yesterday, but no one was there.
Me:  Really?  What time?
Her:  Sometime around noon or so.
Me:   I was there.  In fact, I was waiting for that package.
Her:  We pushed the doorbell again and again, but no one was there.
Me:  At which house?
Her:  What?
Me:  There are two houses on the property, mine and my father-in-law's.  (Every OTHER package delivery I'd had till then had had no problem finding its way to my door...)
Her:  We just went to the one on the road, the one that says (FIL's surname).
Me:  That's my father-in-law's house.
Her:  What, you have two houses?
Me:   (Gritting my teeth and looking at the clock)  My father in law lives in one house, and I live in the other.
Her:  So what should we do?
Me:  Please deliver it.
Her:  But if you're working, you won't be in your home!
Me:  My father-in-law should be there!
Her:  Oh, really?
Me:  Yes!  As far as I know, he should be there!
Her:  So should we take it to his house?
Me:  (No, take it to a random neighbor's house and tell them it's a gift from Kim Jong Un!)  Yes, please!
Her:  But what if he's not there?  Should I return the package?
Me:  If he's not there, please contact me again, and we'll work something out.
Her:  Okay.  We'll try delivering it today, and if no one's there, we'll call you again.
Me:  Thank you!

Luckily, I somehow managed to get to work in time without getting a speeding ticket.  Also, the package was delivered to my father-in-law and (after a bit of confusion) passed to me.  All's well that ends well, I guess.  Even so, next time I want to buy something from Soundhouse, I think I'll just make the trip and pick it up at the showroom.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Changing of the Gears

It has finally happened.  The service of my BLUE RAV4 has finally come to an end, and with it another chapter in my life.  When I bought that reliable machine largely on impulse on the eve of summer in 2000, I never expected it would be a faithful companion for almost 13 years.  Indeed, it was the first car I ever owned that I kept longer than a few years, and it was the first that I bought new.  (I might add that it was only the second car out of the four I'd owned that I wasn't forced to get rid of after it died a horrible death.)  It was also the first that wasn't a tiny, 3-cylinder "kei" car.  The BLUE RAV4 wasn't just a tool to be used; in many ways, it became part of my personality, a veritable knight's steed.  I had it for a full decade before it needed any kind of major repair, and if it weren't for the fact that it was starting to nickel and dime me to death with various, small problems, I might have kept it for another decade or more.

I'm surprised that I don't feel more regret at its passing.  In fact, when I left it at the car shop and drove home in my new Blue Wish, I didn't feel anything at all.  The BLUE RAV4 just vanished from my life and from my thoughts.  I suppose I was just excited at the prospect of having a new machine after so many years, but it was almost disturbing to me how utterly dispassionate I was about the whole thing.  Now that I've had the Blue Wish for a week, however, I'm going through the inevitable comparisons.  This is how they shape up:

The BLUE RAV4


Advantages:

  1. Since it was an SUV with big, sturdy wheels, I didn't have to worry about where I drove it.  I could take it on those torn-up, little country roads, or even on places where there really wasn't a road to speak of, without a second thought.  On the other hand, the Blue Wish has a lower ground clearance and airdams, which means I have to be more careful.
  2. It had lots of little pouches and compartments all over inside, which meant I could keep a supply of handy survival gear without it getting in the way.
  3. It had two additional 12v electric sockets besides the one for the cigarette lighter.  That was convenient for using the carvac.  It also helped when I had two teens with cell phones that always seemed to need recharging.
  4. Its turn radius was the tightest of any compact SUV on the market, which still probably wasn't saying much.  Even so, its steering was very responsive, meaning it could be quite maneuverable.  The RAV4 was reported to be too top heavy and to have a high risk of rolling, but I still managed to do a sort of bootlegger reverse in it once (an extremely stupid stunt I fortunately never tried again).  I also managed to bend the hell out of the steering mechanism, which was the second major repair it needed.
  5. Because it was heavy and well armored, it earned me an insurance discount.
  6. Its metallic blue paint was MY COLOR!!!!!!!!!!
Disadvantages:
  1. Its gas mileage wasn't quite as bad as that of a full-sized truck or SUV, but...
  2. Those big tires were awfully expensive.
  3. It was kind of noisy inside.
  4. Visibility could be rather limited, especially to the rear.  Backing up was always a problem.
  5. The extra mirror in the front was handy for seeing how close I was to the edge of a road or a rail, etc., but it was often a nuisance when I had to try to give my car a quick wash at a gas station.  A lot of automated car wash machines do NOT like those extra mirrors.
  6. The brakes had some kind of flaw that would sometimes make them go "k-k-k-k-" when engaged.  When that happened, the brake response became a little sluggish.  It came and went, and mechanics could never figure out what was causing it, so it never got fixed.
  7. It was really heavy, which could be a serious problem if I had to climb a hill that had lots of rainwater or a bit of snow on it.  The fact that I hadn't gotten the 4wd version made it worse.

The Blue Wish


Advantages:
  1. It's a newer model with more advanced equipment.  The engine in particular is more efficient, more powerful, and cleaner.
  2. As a sport model, it's built for speed.  It has a "sport mode" that increases the engine power and changes the gear ratio to optimize acceleration.  It also has a funky "manual mode" for its automatic transmission; I can shift gears manually (though with an autoclutch) using F1-style flippers on the steering wheel.  That can give me even better acceleration...or allow me to shift down quickly in response to the environment.
  3. On the other hand, when the engine is in "eco mode", which reduces the engine power and adjusts the automatic transmission for efficiency, the gas mileage becomes even better.
  4. The steering doesn't allow the same "cut and thrust" maneuvering I could get with the RAV4, but it has an active stabilizing system which gives smoother handling.  The body and bumpers also have an aerodynamic design which uses airflow to help improve control, especially at speed.  It also has a nice, low center of gravity.  I can corner much quicker with this machine.
  5. The GPS navigation/multimedia and ETC (electronic toll collection) systems are built in rather than added on, so the whole dashboard has a much neater look and arrangement.  (Plus, the navigation monitor doesn't block the air conditioning vents like it did on my RAV4.)
  6. The GPS navigation system can interface with my smartphone via Bluetooth.  That means I can program the destination directly from an internet search.  (It has an option for direct wireless internet using Toyota's G-Book service, but that would cost extra.)  It also allows hands-free phone use while I'm driving.
  7. LOVE that back guide monitor!!!!!
  8. I have a feeling I'm going to love the pollen shield in the ventilating system, too.
  9. It has better all-around visibility.
  10. The smart key system will take a bit of getting used to, but it is nice.
  11. I have scads of cargo space plus a folding extra seat in the back, which are both very good to have when having to transport gear and students for the music club!
Disadvantages:
  1. Although it's about the same width as the RAV4, it's at least a foot longer.  Maneuvering on those twisty, narrow country roads is more difficult.  So is parking.
  2. The sharply-sloping nose and protruding airdam in the front can't be seen from the driver's seat.  That means that figuring out how much space there is between me and an object in front of me is not easy.  It is taking a bit to get myself into parking spaces properly.
  3. The ground clearance is pretty low, especially because of the front and rear airdams.
  4. The interior design is nice and roomy, but stowage space is a bit lacking, especially in the back (middle?) seat.  I've had to buy and mount a number of holders to maintain the level of equipment I'm used to.
  5. The "blue" paint is what they call "metallic satin blue", and it's actually more of a pale purple.  It's NOT my color...though it looks pretty cool.  I just wish it were a bit less pale.  I'm not a pale sort.
Well, anyway...I've come into a new chapter, and it'll be exciting to figure it all out.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Literally Speaking...

I admit I've always found it entertaining to watch new arrivals to the Land of the Rising Sun wrestle with the local language.  It's especially amusing when a group of newbies debate the meaning of phrases among themselves.  In my own case, I'd already learned quite a bit of Japanese when I came here, so I was able to avoid some of the usual pitfalls.  Of course, that also put me in the ironic position of having to get it through the rookies' skulls that I really did understand what the words actually meant, and that their highly simplified phrasebooks couldn't always be trusted.

When learning any foreign language, one of the biggest dangers is assuming that the words in a particular phrase mean exactly the same thing as the functional equivalent in English.  This is particularly true when learning the language via the audio-lingual method or simply memorizing situation-based expressions rather than individual words.  Most newbies coming to live and work in Japan follow such an approach because it is quicker, easier, and more seductive.  However, while falling to the Dark Side of Language Learning can help one with basic living needs here in the Land of the Rising Sun, it can potentially lead to problems later.  Allow me to show you some examples:

"Ohayou gozaimasu."  (お早う御座います。)  Usual translation:  "Good morning."  Literal meaning:  "It's so early!" - Most people can probably get along just fine thinking that this expression really does mean, "Good morning," even if it they don't understand why the Japanese expression is normally used only before 10 a.m..  However, they're likely to get confused when they discover that stage performers of any kind in this country, as well as stage or studio crews, ALWAYS greet each other with "Ohayou gozaimasu" when they arrive at their performance/work place, even if it's late at night!  I've also heard construction workers and security guards greet each other the same way.  They are literally acknowledging the fact that they've shown up early for the job.

"Shitsurei shimasu."  (失礼します。)[alt. "Shitsurei shimashita."  (失礼しました。)]  Usual translation:  "Excuse me."  ["I'm sorry."]  Literal meaning:  "I'm rude."  ["I was rude."] - This one really tends to throw unwary Westerners.  The present tense "Shitsurei shimasu" is used by Japanese when they're excusing themselves from a gathering or politely acknowledging that they're entering someone else's space (such as when students enter the teachers' room).  The past tense "Shitsurei shimashita" is normally said after someone has done something that could be considered impolite or bad form (such as when students leave the teachers' room).  However, contrary to popular belief, it is NOT an apology; it is simply an admission of "wrongdoing".  "Shitsurei" is a noun which literally translates as "loss of manners", and "shimasu" is the polite form of a common verb meaning "to do".  Therefore, when someone says, "Shitsurei shimasu," before taking his leave of a meeting, or says, "Shitsurei shimashita," after mispronouncing someone's name, he is saying he understands his actions probably make him look bad, but he is NOT saying he feels bad about it.  Unfortunately, since phrasebooks ALWAYS translate this expression as "Excuse me", it can lead to all kinds of misunderstandings...such as the time when a Japanese teacher said, "Shitsurei ni iwanai yo!" ("Don't say rude things!") to an ex-pat who had made a nasty comment, but the uninformed sod was convinced she was telling him not to apologize!  (In fact, he insisted on it vehemently when I tried to set him straight.)  I don't know how many times I've argued with rookies about the meaning of this expression, but getting them to put away the phrasebook and look at a real dictionary is usually enough.

"Irasshaimase!"  (いらっしゃいませ!)  Usual translation:  "Welcome!"/"May I help you?"  Literal meaning:  "Honor us with your presence!" - It is actually hard to translate this word into English accurately.  In grammatical terms, it is the imperative form of the honorific verb meaning "to be" or "to come/go".  Therefore, it is kind of like, "Come here," but with more honor.  It is usually uttered by workers at any kind of business when a customer comes in.  However, it can also be called to people walking by a business, and that's where confusion sometimes arises.  I've heard a number of ex-pats get flustered when they walked along a sidewalk and waitresses or shop clerks called, "Irasshaimase," (or the more colloquial "Irasshai!") after them.  "Why are they saying, 'Welcome,' when I'm not going in?" they ask.  It's because they are politely telling you to go in; that's why!

"Okaerinasai!"  (お帰りなさい!)  Usual translation:  "Welcome back!"  Literal meaning:  "Come back!" - This is a similar case to "Irasshaimase!" (see above).  It is usually spoken to someone who has just returned, either to his home or to his workplace, etc., after having gone out.  Grammatically speaking, it is the polite imperative form of the verb kaeru (帰る)meaning "to return" with an honorific attached.  Therefore, when spoken, it literally means something like, "Get in here!" only with more honor.  The usual translation can thus lead to confusion if the uninformed is told something like, "Hayaku kaerinasai!" (Come back at once!)

"Tadaima!" (ただいま!)  Usual translation:  "I'm back!"  Literal meaning:  "Just now!" - If the Japanese equivalent of "Welcome back" (above) can be confusing to foreigners, what usually precedes it is even worse.  "Tadaima!" is usually called out by someone when coming in the door after an outing.  Most phrasebooks translate it as, "I'm home!" or, "I'm back!"  That can lead to all kinds of confusion, since the term "tadaima" literally means, "just now," and is used as such in a lot of other situations.  The problem is that this is an example of an abbreviated expression; it used to be something much longer, such as, "Tadaima kaerimashita yo!" ("I've just gotten back!")  The Japanese have long been fond of finding creative ways to get things done with less effort, including communication.  Thus, there are many expressions like this one which don't make much sense by themselves but do if you know the original, full sentence.  Another example of this phenomenon is the common greeting, "Konnichiwa" (今日は), which is usually translated as "Good afternoon" or "Good day" but means simply, "As for today, ..."  Perhaps it used to be, "Konnichiwa ii deshou ne" ("Today's a good day, isn't it?") or, "Konnichiwa dou desu ka?" ("How are things today?") but the Japanese at some point decided to ditch all the value judgment baggage and simply acknowledge that it is, in fact, today.

Isn't language fun?  Sometimes I wonder how we can communicate at all...

Friday, March 08, 2013

Why Does It Freak People Out to Be Diversified?

The fusion/R&B musicians I work with tend to freak out when I tell them I play with a symphony orchestra.
The classical musicians I work with tend to freak out when I tell them I play with a blues/classic rock band.
The blues/classic rock musicians I work with tend to freak out when I tell them I play with a jazz big band.
The jazz musicians I work with tend to freak out when I tell them I LOVE FUZZ!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, March 07, 2013

The End of the Year of the Box

It's March, and the 2012-2013 fiscal/school year is drawing to a close.  Although there has been nothing like the tectonic apocalypse that marked the end of the 2010-2011 school year (at least so far), this has indeed been a very eventful one.  Actually, during the New Year celebrations last year, my omikuji (fortune drawn at a shrine or temple) said that 2012 would start out very badly but then get a lot better.  It also told me that God (or the gods, depending on your point of view) had my back.  I'd say it was very accurate.  For both good and bad reasons, I will remember 2012-2013 as the Year of the Box.

Pt. I  The Bad?

I'm sure my more loyal readers will remember that, a year ago, I was in a state of near panic.  Ye Olde Academy was undergoing a number of program changes for the upcoming new school year, all in accordance with the school's new vision, and it looked like I'd become a casualty.  Almost all of my most important roles, ones I'd worked hard at for years, had been either eliminated, given to someone else without prior warning, or stripped down and marginalized.   On the other hand, I'd also (again without much prior warning) been assigned to new roles I didn't really feel suited for...and I wasn't made to feel very welcome in them.  For all practical purposes, it seemed like I'd been "boxed" (to borrow a term from the rebooted Battlestar Galactica even though I've never seen it).  Even more troubling was the sudden news that they were hiring another, "highly recommended" American teacher, and that he was to train in all my former roles...including the ones I was still doing!  (He wound up not taking the job.)

As the year went on, there were even more aggravating developments.  The powers that be took every opportunity to talk publicly about the "revolutionary" year 7 English program.  However, a lot of the things taht were being boasted about as "new" were actually things I'd already been doing in my 7th grade course for the better part of a decade.  In short, my contribution had been completely ignored, and now its reincarnated form was being advertised as someone else's brilliant idea.  As if that weren't bad enough, there were a few occasions during the year when something was suddenly dumped on me with little or no warning, and I found myself having to juggle something that already seemed doomed to fail while everyone else bolted, leaving me holding the wreckage...and the blame.  I have to admit I was seriously wondering if I were being set up by people intentionally trying to wreck my reputation.

And yet, amazingly enough, everything worked out okay.  Wait...no, it didn't.  It worked out EXCELLENTLY.  Although some situations have yet to be fully resolved, at least enough has happened to make me feel not quite so depressed.  For another thing, the new and not very promising year 8 course I was asked to make this year wound up being a surprising success...one that even earned praise from outside the school.  Even better, although I wasn't able to solve all of those disasters that had been suddenly dumped at my feet, much if not most of the time I was somehow able to pull a rabbit out of my hat in the nick of time and come away with something unexpectedly good.  If people really were trying to humiliate me and destroy my image, they wound up doing quite the opposite; the box they tried to put me in apparently wasn't big enough.

Yes, the year started out bleak, but it got a whole lot better...just like the omikuji said.  I guess someone up there really does have my back.

Incidentally, my omikuji for this year said more or less the same thing...and I'm bracing for it.

Pt. II:  The Good?

Speaking of boxes, I bought a lot of them last year.  It seems to have been the peak of the recent overhaul of my music rig.  By the time December of 2012 was done, I had added to my collection 1 guitar, (an Epiphone Dot Studio hollowbody electric, purchased used,) a few good guitar cables, a few analog amp emulators, all manner of reeds and picks, and of course pedals.  LOTS of pedals.  I think I must have picked up around two dozen of them last year.  That included used pedals as well as new, and cheap off-the-shelf pedals as well as slightly pricey boutique types.  I won't try to talk about all of them here, but here are some highlights:

Most Valuable Pedal for Rhythm Guitar - That would probably be the Devi Ever Hyperion fuzz (a limited-edition Japanese design the Sorceress of Fuzz actually consulted my opinion on before selling). It's a damned good Muff-style fuzz with a lot of character despite its low cost and simplicity.  I've mainly been using it for rhythm and incidental work, though it can be used convincingly for lead, too.
Most Valuable Pedal for Lead Guitar -  I bought my Barber Trifecta fuzz specifically for lead work in April of last year.  I'd been eyeballing it for some time, and it does not disappoint.  Later in the year I finally broke down and bought an Earthquaker Devices Dream Crusher germanium fuzz to give me a kinder and gentler alternative.  Both of these fuzzes are very musical.
Most Valuable Pedal for Making Cool Noises - That would be the Earthquaker Devices Organizer.  It combines octave, delay, and chorus effects to produce a pipe-organ sound when everything is activated.  Of course, those individual effects can also be used separately to some extent.  When I first saw a demo video for this, I knew I had to have one, and I've used it in a number of different ways.
Most Valuable Pedal That Has Changed the Way I Do Things - My old Boss CS-2 compression/sustainer began to show its age, so I set out to get a new compressor pedal.  I wound up being torn between the versatile coolness that is the Guytone STm5 and the vintage goodness of the MXR Dyna Comp...so I bought both.  Compressors were another class of effect I didn't use much before even though I had that very capable CS-2.  These things just add a whole new dimension.
Most Surprising Pedal Purchase - Behringer pedals are so cheap and toylike that they get plenty of scorn thrown their way.  Actually, all of them are clones of famous brand-name items, so even despite the cheap plastic boxes and iffy controls, there's nothing at all wrong with the electronics inside.  I grabbed a Behringer RV600 Reverb Machine for pocket change just out of sheer impulse...and it has proven extremely useful.  It is apparently a clone of the Line 6 Verbzilla that gives you pretty much all of the latter's capabilities for about one sixth the price.  Who cares if it's made of plastic?
Most Iffy Pedal Purchase - In one of the local second-hand stores, I stumbled on an Albit Cranetortoise HM-1 "Hebi Metaru"(The name is a play on "heavy metal" and the Japanese word for snake, hebi.)  Albit is a Japanese boutique pedal maker, and the pedal's graphics were extremely cool, so I went ahead and got it.  It had velcro attached to its bottom, so it was obviously part of someone's pedal board.  I wasn't sure what to make of it.  If its 2-position gain range switch is set to "crunch" mode (or heavy metal "off"), it has a very clean and transparent sound with only a little, Tubescreamer-like overdrive at high settings.  In "heavy metal" mode, the pedal sounds like a cross between a high-gain distortion and a fuzz box.  It's unique...and kind of strange.  I intend to play with it more and hopefully get to know it better, but for now I'm just not sure.

There were quite a few others, too, and I've been using them all.  These boxes of joy have certainly helped me when I thought I was being forced into a box of obsolescence.

Let's see what 2013 has in store!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Looking a Gift Printer in the Driver

Every year, as we get closer to the Big Regular Concert at the end of the school year, the parents of the soon-to-be-departing 11th grade members of the Ye Olde Academy music club always get some kind of thank you gift for the club.  That's GOOD.

Trying to come up with an idea for the gift tends to be a pain in the behindermost.  That's BAD.

This year I suggested that they replace the dying scanner/printer in the music office, and they thought it was a great idea.  That's GOOD.

They asked me to go around to the various electronics shops and find a suitable model.  That's BAD.

In the end, Herr Maestro Ogawa and I went to Yamada Denki together, and after consulting with a service rep, we settled on a nice one.  That's GOOD.

The thing came in an enormous box and was a serious pain in the butt (and back) to lug up the stairs to the music room.  That's BAD.

The scanner/printer itself, however, turned out to fit on the shelf perfectly, as if it had been made for it.  That's GOOD.

I got it all set up and hooked up, but when I tried to install the printer driver on the music club's aging Macintosh, it wouldn't work.  It turned out that it was compatible with OS X 10.4.11 or later, but our machine had 10.3 installed.  That's BAD.

Apple Computers still had online support for OS X 10.4 including the necessary updates (to 10.4.11).  That's GOOD.

However, I had to buy the 10.4 upgrade DVD separately...out of my own pocket.  That's BAD.

I ordered one (used) from Amazon and asked for an overnight rush order.  That's GOOD.

The 10.4 upgrade DVD arrived right on schedule...and was a scratched-up mess.  That's BAD.

However, it ran okay, and the upgrade went without a hitch.  So did the online updates.  That's GOOD.

One of the updates was a Mac firmware upgrade, and it wouldn't install right.  It kept asking me to restart the machine again and again.  That's BAD.

After the third try, I gave up and deleted the firmware upgrade.  Everything ran fine after that.  That's GOOD.

I finally got the driver installed and the new scanner/printer running.  Now everything is hunky dory.  Plus, the OS upgrade gave some other improvements to boot.  That's AWESOME.

Just another chapter in the Life in the Land of the Rising Sun..

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Value of Courage

(So here I am again after another long absence.  Damn all these distractions [read "Facebook"]!  And to make matters worse, I'm starting out with something rather political...)

North Korea has followed through with its threat and set off a third nuclear device.  This one is particularly ominous because it hints that "Best Korea" (as they apparently call themselves) now have the ability to make enriched uranium warheads that are small and light enough to fit in one of their missiles.  Of course, their track record with long-range ballistic missiles is anything but impressive, but the point is that they now apparently have the capability of building bona fide ICBMs.

Not surprisingly, the nuclear test was followed by an announcement in the North Korean news that was ridiculously theatrical impassioned and filled with all kinds of powerful adjectives praising the might of "Best Korea" and its great response to the "outrageous hostility" of the United States.  However, what WAS surprising was the showing of an "in the street" report.  The camera showed a vast city square, most likely in Pyongyang, that was ringed by huge TV screens showing the news announcement.  This was naturally greeted by cheering by the gathered throng...which numbered in the thousands hundreds dozens ones.  Actually, they showed an elderly woman and her grandchildren clapping with about as much enthusiasm as students doing morning calisthenics.  And then they interviewed the woman (translated from the Japanese subtitles):

"If we say we will do something, we will do it.  Our nation has a thousand times the courage of the West."

That's good.  No, really.  It's a good thing that North Korea has that much courage, because other than weapons, they don't seem to have much else.

I've long had a very cosmopolitan outlook.  Even before I came to Japan, I occasionally won myself enemies (or at least started some really pointless arguments) by insisting that there are human beings in every nation of the world, even in the most "evil" of empires.  I have long held that, no matter how much we might dislike a country and/or disagree with its rulers, if most of its people support their leaders, we have no choice but to respect them.  "Best Korea" is one very, very notable exception.  To me, that country is a joke that just keeps getting worse.  After all:

  • They are a "classless society" which has a wealthy elite and a hereditary god-king.
  • They are a "people's democracy" in which the people know almost nothing about their leaders and are held in so much thrall by their god-king that they greet his death with far more weeping and wailing than they would give their own parents.
  • They constructed an entire city (Pyongyang) and various resort complexes designed to be as impressive as possible to prove to foreign visitors and their own tiny urban elite how superior "Best Korea" really is...but don't even think about going outside to see how the majority of the people live, lest you be shot by a brainwashed teenager (as at least one South Korean tourist discovered the hard way).  
  • They are so superior to the USA that they have to rip off American video games for their propaganda videos.
  • They have the need to feed their people a steady diet of some of the most absurd bullshit imaginable (e.g. "Dear Leader Kong Jong-Il played golf for the first time and naturally scored 11 holes in one...") to keep them in line.
  • They spend gobs of money keeping both their military and their god-king bloated while the majority of the population is half starved. 
  • Because of their dire situation, they beg (or extort) food aid from the world.  Thus far the USA, Japan, and South Korea (among other nations) have provided such aid to the tune of thousands of tons.  "Best Korea" showed its gratitude by telling their people it was all a "gift" from their god-king...and continued to bite the hand that fed them.
  • Their number one goal is still the reunification of Korea, by force if necessary, and they still (at least claim to) believe that invading South Korea and bringing them into the same pit of brainwashed malnutrition as themselves is somehow doing them a favor.
North Korea considers it cruel and unfair that the rest of the world has greeted their satellite launches with anger while applauding the recent launch carried out by South Korea.  Yes, it does seem like quite a double standard; even I thought so.  On the other hand, South Korea doesn't keep vowing to reduce other countries' cities to ashes as part of its national policy.  North Korea has been known to do that.  Even more troubling, even many people who have fled the dire circumstances of "Best Korea" and relocated to China still continue to insist that their home country is "superior" and that they will one day destroy America.

Whatever.  I suppose if that "thousand times the courage of the West" is all they have going for them, they might as well have it.  Meanwhile, as long as "Best Korea" still insists on bluster and provocation instead of any meaningful steps toward peace, maybe we should just shut the door and let them destroy themselves...and be prepared to answer their threat with a thousand times the throw-weight.

I just wish they weren't so damned close...

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Painful Mega-Mysteries

This morning I had a megadream.  It was the first time in years.

For those new to this blog or who have forgotten, I use the term "megadream" to refer to a dream that is vivid and profound to the point of being sensory overload.  I wake up from them with a splitting headache and feel weak and shaky as if totally drained of energy.  In the past they have tended to come in waves with long intervals in between.  Thus far, I have been unable to identify any cause or pattern.  They happen when they happen.

I take such dreams very seriously.  The reason is because they have almost always been enlightening if not prophetic.  While rarely if ever true in a literal sense, they usually contain elements that reveal facts I don't know yet or events that haven't happened yet.  Cryptic symbolism and metaphor are common.  I have also seen people in such dreams before meeting them in real life. 

Make no mistake; I take such dreams very seriously.

Some of the symbolism in this one was pretty obvious, I'd say...but the way it ended is leaving me mystified.  And then there was the person I didn't know who looked right at me at the end.  Who was it?

I still feel drained...