Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Week 5, Day 5

This is getting to be ridiculous.

I went to Rousai Hospital again for the latest update on my progress. Basically, what they found was this:


Well, not really "nothing" in the "nothing" sense. My body fluids came up perfectly clean. On the other hand, both the X-ray and the ultrasound scanner showed nothing but a baffling shadow. Just a patch of thin, white fuzz in a very suspicious place. In other words, it seemed like something was there, or at least should be there, possibly something big, possibly not, but it was impossible to tell for sure. It was like looking at a dark-colored smudge on a photograph and saying, "That could be a flea running across the lens, or it could be a rhinoceros beetle flying by a few meters away, or it could be the photographer's finger."

At one point, the doctor grinned, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "In all honesty, I'm stumped."

However, I was still showing symptoms of a kidney stone. The little bugger had to be in there somewhere.

Sighing, the doctor got on the phone and immediately squeezed me in between two other patients for a quick CT (cat) scan, my third in five weeks (which is a bit more frequent than they tend to prefer). However, that turned out to be the clincher. The little bastard showed up clear as a bell. It's not as big as the doctor had feared. (It's about the size and shape of two BBs glued together.) It has also moved a considerable distance and is probably on the verge of being ejected.

Of course, the doctor said something like that last time...

Anyway, it seems I'm not totally out of the wilderness yet. I'll be staying on the gut-bloating medicine for another few weeks and then going in yet again. What the hey. It's still better than surgery...or a catheter...

Monday, September 19, 2005

Not Alone

They say that good things come in small packages. Sometimes they go out in them, as well.

I’ve already talked at length about the newest and fuzziest member of my family, that lovable, little calico named Mint. Early last May she just showed up at our doorstep, a spunky ball of fluff not more than a few months old, after having followed our in-law’s cat, Aka, home. She was as affectionate as she was playful, far more interested in cuddling than eating, and she made it clear that she was not going to be vacating our premises anytime soon.

That fact that she bore an uncanny resemblance to Mi, the in-laws’ old mother cat who had died not long before, did much to convince us to take her in. Her bizarre habit of sleeping right in front of Mi’s grave helped strengthen the conviction, held by my wife and in-laws, that that little bundle of energy was, in fact, Mi’s soul returned to us.

Caring for her wasn’t easy at first. She was already housebroken, but she had a bad habit of pooping on people’s beds if she didn’t get her way. She wound up being barred from the house, but only for a little while, and after that she was good as gold. It was clear that Mint hated to be alone, so she quickly mended any erroneous ways that got her tossed out. She also had an extraordinary talent for imitating actions she saw people carrying out, such as operating buttons and switches on toys. It was clear that she was a smart, little thing.

However, Mint had one worrying problem. She had a persistent runny nose and a nagging cough. They were the main reason we hadn’t taken her in immediately, as a sick kitten is definitely a risk. We were also worried for the in-laws’ cat, Aka. That massive, lovable, orange tabby was getting on in years himself, and it wouldn’t do to have him catching any bugs. However, Mint seemed to get better as soon as we started feeding her, so we didn’t worry about it too much even though her sniffles and coughs continued to a degree.

After about a month Mint’s condition suddenly became much worse. Her nose was clogged shut, she could barely open her eyes, and she looked positively languid. A trip to the vet revealed that she had a very high fever. However, after receiving a shot, she recovered very quickly. It wasn’t long before she was tearing and purring her way around the house again even more energetically than before.

There were other problems, too. She got a bad case of fleas, which quickly led to my daughter having horrible boils on her legs, but that problem was easily solved. The fact of her femininity wasn’t. Heat was not something she took gracefully. She rolled around on the floor and moaned pitifully, and she became really aggressive, but I was determined not to let her outside. As any cat owner can tell you, trying to keep a cat in heat indoors is a losing battle, and she eventually made it out. However, to our amazement, she seemed to accept as her mate none other than Aka despite his having been neutered years before. (Once I saw him grab her by the neck and try to assume a mating position, but he stopped mid-course, released her, and then looked very puzzled for a minute or two before trudging gloomily away with her in pursuit.) The next time she went into heat, she just stayed close to Aka whenever she could and slept in his bed and ate his food whenever she couldn’t. As there was rarely a sign of the few neighborhood cats (and Aka quickly drove them away whenever there was), we just went along with it.

Even so, it wouldn’t do to have an unspayed female cat around, so I took her to the vet to get her “fixed” as soon as I was able to make the time. Once again, her persistent illness was a stumbling block. Her sniffling was probably less noticeable than my own, and her coughing now occurred only rarely, but the vet was adamant. Swollen lymph nodes meant no surgery, period. He gave us two kinds of medicine to try and asked us to come again later. We did so, but there was no change, so we tried two different kinds of medicine, than two more. Every time we tried a new medicine she seemed to become healthier, but she was never cured. All our hopes would be dashed by yet another messy sneeze. Plus, those lymph nodes just would not shrink. It was beginning to look like spaying was an impossibility, and I was beginning to imagine life with kittens.

I didn’t have long to wait, but it wasn’t Mint’s fault. The kids showed up with yet another furball, this time a tiny, little kitten whose eyes had obviously only just opened. Someone had dumped it off at my daughter’s school, and my kids, ever the animal lovers, had immediately scooped it up. It was an adorable, little ball of white, but it could barely walk, and we had trouble getting it to drink milk. I couldn’t see how we could possibly take care of it. I was also worried about Mint’s reaction to it.

Actually, Mint’s first response was to give the kitten a good sniffing and then start washing it. After a while, though, I caught her batting at it and biting it on the neck, but not aggressively. Apparently she only wanted to play, but I didn’t think it a good idea to let her continue, so I drove her off and moved the kitten’s basket into the kid’s room. She seemed pretty depressed after that, so the kids finally relented and let her into their room, where she quickly jumped into the kitten’s basket, gave it a good washing, and then curled up to sleep with it.

Later that day, Mint suddenly bolted out of the house like a flash of calico lightning when someone left the front door open. Not long afterward, there was a chorus of wails from the kids’ room. The little, white kitten had died. It didn’t appear to have been injured in any way, but it did look somehow flattened. It was very likely that Mint had inadvertently lain on top of it and smothered it. My wife and in-laws weren’t surprised. After all, Mi had done exactly the same thing to her first two kittens.

There was no sign of Mint for two full days after that. Then my daughter and I stumbled upon her in the greenhouse, where she’d apparently been hiding, and we were horrified. Mint’s appearance was ghastly to say the least. Her sickness had come back full force again. Her face was a mask of congealed mucous and filth, and her eyes and nose were stuck shut. She seemed delirious, and she could barely walk. I took her inside and cleaned her face up as best I could, which seemed to bring her around. After a bit we managed to get her to drink some water, and then she ate a little food, but she was clearly feverish. She also didn’t want to stay with us. As soon as we let her go, she immediately wanted back outside, whereupon she went and hid in the greenhouse again.

It was obvious that we needed to take her to a vet, but the calendar was against us. It was Saturday evening on a three-day weekend. The vets would be closed on both Sunday and Monday. We’d have to try to get her through till Tuesday. I was wondering how we could do that with her hidden in the junk-filled greenhouse, but she finally came back on her own. However, on coming in the house, she sniffed her food without eating it, and then she went straight upstairs and hid under my bed, where she remained until Sunday morning (except for a couple of dirt box stops during the night). Then she went and hid under the kids’ bed for a while, but she eventually came out and started staying near people as much as possible. We did our best to keep her clean and comfortable, and she did start to look happier, but we couldn’t get her to eat or drink anything. Her nose also continued running like a faucet, and she coughed frequently. On Sunday night she followed me upstairs and slept under my bed again, where her raspy breathing didn’t give me much peace.

Monday arrived. Just one more day. It was a national holiday, but not really a holiday. We had too much to do. We kept ourselves busy. Mint, meanwhile, came downstairs and parked herself under my desk, where she could keep an eye on everybody without being pestered. She still hadn’t touched a morsel or drunk a drop. As the day progressed, she came out a couple of times to go and be in the same room with everyone else, but she looked like she was having trouble walking. She also made no attempt to avoid my son’s torments, which was definitely unusual. We all hoped and prayed that she would last at least until the following morning, when we could get her to the vet, but I warned the kids that it didn’t look good.

I had a couple of errands to run about town that evening, and when I came back I found Mint back under my desk. Her breathing sounded awful. I crawled under the desk and stroked her a little, which elicited a thin, weak attempt at purring. That was too much for me. I had to at least try something. I remembered that we had a sort of squeeze ball suction device for clearing a baby’s stuffed-up nose. I was going to try using that and then try to force-feed her, since she was clearly too weak to eat on her own. Slowly but firmly, I slid her out from under the desk, prying her claws out of the carpet as she feebly tried to resist. Once she was clear, I gently picked her up, and she laid her head on my shoulder.

Before I’d taken two steps, her eyes suddenly bugged out and she let out a hideous, blood-curdling shriek. Then she started to struggle, but she wasn’t trying to attack me. Figuring that she was either frightened or in pain, I quickly laid her down on her nearby tower, her favorite perch, but she continued to thrash about, her limbs flailing wildly into empty air. All along, her eyes remained fixed wide open and her mouth agape. Then she began to piss uncontrollably.

Very bad.

I quickly lifted her convulsing body and placed it in a box-bed that my daughter had made for her only that morning. For several seconds, she continued to thrash about violently, but the grotesque angle of her head, the nightmarish expression on her face, and the empty gleam of her fixed-dilated eyes pretty much answered any questions. For a second she turned that horrifying death mask toward me, bulging, lifeless eyes leveled on me glowing with a demonic, golden light as if to accuse me. After that, she turned on her side, assumed a peaceful-looking position, and went silent, as she would remain forever.

The kids had already gone to bed, and they didn’t find out about it till the next morning. My daughter actually took it rather well, as she had been warned and had understood. My son, still rather small, was far more distraught. Ironically, the one that was the most upset was my wife, who had opposed taking Mint in from the beginning. However, as she’d always believed Mint to be the reincarnation of Mi, it was like she’d lost the same, beloved cat twice.

I’m still puzzled as to just what happened. Internet searching has revealed that cats with persistent coughs tend to be afflicted with heart disease, so Mint may have suffered a fatal heart attack right there in my arms. Feverish and delirious, she might have panicked and died from the shock. It could be that she choked on her own phlegm, but the loud shriek would seem to rule that out. It’s also possible that she had been suffering from a virus which had finally gotten to her nervous system, and I just happened to be there just at the right time. At any rate, even though cats generally prefer to die alone, Mint didn’t. It’s just as well. Fear of being alone is what brought her to us in the first place, and she died just the way she apparently hoped to live, with people that cared for her.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Saying G'day and Goodbye

Let’s all sing:
But it’s all…over now.
Yes it’s all…over now.

(Hmm…whose song is that?)

It has only been four days since those twenty students and five adults from Pacific Lutheran College, our new sister-school in Caloundra, Australia arrived in Kashima, (and they spent one of them at Disneyland,) but it has been one heck of a ride. They were the first such contingent, so this has been very much a test run. That’s one of the reasons their visit was kept rather short. We’re hoping the next group will be able to stay longer, but for now we’re satisfied with what we’ve had…and are gasping for breath as we prepare to say goodbye.

Because we had such little idea what to expect, our little international committee really put everything into it. Plans were made, checked, rechecked, revised, re-revised, lost, rewritten, etc. to the point of insanity. We built up a pool of potential host families, selected the most likely candidates, and then drove them nuts with a withering battery of meetings and questionnaires. We also plastered our school’s halls and newsletters with info about our new sister-school and the students that would be coming to visit us. After our group of teachers visited their school back in late July we made even further revisions to our plans. And all along, despite being quietly pushed out of the leadership position and often left out of the decision-making loop altogether, I was the interpreter, the principal go-between, the principal information resource, and the one that came up with most of the ideas. Perhaps I should also mention that I was the one that got the sister-school relationship going in the first place.

Well, anyway, that was then. When the contingent finally arrived a little before noon on the 13th of September, we were poised at our stations and ready for action despite the hideously hot and muggy, typhoon-driven weather. From there everything seemed to be going according to plan. During the first meeting and introductions I and “Sachi” Yoshikawa (chief of the international committee and my partner in crime for this event) freaked the kids out by identifying each of them by name. I explained that, considering we’d been looking at their photos and profiles for months, it felt like we already knew them all. Actually, that was incorrect. It was one thing to know their faces, hobbies, and food preferences. Getting in touch with their everyday, human side, however, was something altogether different. As it turned out, they were a great group of kids.

Once the first meeting was out of the way, we had a bit of lunch in the cafeteria and then left for a brief tour of Kashima. The whole thing had been my idea from the start, and I was put in charge of it. Lots of people wanted a piece of the pie, and there were numerous hijacking attempts, but I was adamant. I had an agenda, and I wasn’t about to let things like schedule anxiety and “shock and awe” get in the way. My theme was simple and concrete: Kashima in the past, present, and future. There was a lot to tell about each.

Naturally, we started out at Kashima Shrine, the historical heart of the whole region. Our principal had arranged for the high priest himself to give us an informative tour…while I did my best to interpret. Although I’d lived in the area for 15 years and knew quite a bit about the shrine, I still learned a lot about both it and the Shinto religion itself (some of which was pretty surprising). The high priest would gladly have lectured at us all day if we’d let him, but we didn’t have that kind of time, so I cut the tour short at the inner shrine (the much older of the two main shrine buildings) and steered the group back out. As we went along, and the high priest continued to chat animatedly with me, the sacred deer in the inner enclosure suddenly started mewing at us loudly as if to say goodbye. In 15 years of visiting Kashima Shrine, I had never seen anything like it before. The high priest seemed surprised, too. Next we went to Kashima Port, the largest man-made deep-sea harbor in the world, which is in turn surrounded by some of the largest industrial facilities in the world (including Sumitomo Steel, my school’s owner). I only intended for it to be a quick stop with a brief explanation, but the man at the ticket counter for the view tower offered to give us a discount. Next thing I knew, we were standing at the top of the tower, and the kids (some of whom were dizzy with vertigo) were peppering me with questions. I hadn’t been up there for a while, and I’d forgotten just how spectacular the view really is. Once we got everything down from there, the final leg of the tour was a brief photo stop in front of Kashima Soccer Stadium, the massive structure that single-handedly resulted in the face of Kashima being completely changed as a result of the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Japanese pro soccer was born in Kashima, and the sport still has a tremendous influence on the city.

The kids were ready to go back to the school after that. After all, the school had air conditioning, and it was a bloody hot day. Besides, the next item on the agenda was introducing them to their host families. That was a lot of fun. It was also the first of what was to become several formal events in which I played interpreter for the principals of both schools. Both of them gave very profound speeches (i.e. tough to translate), but I think my own principal was definitely the crueler of the two. PLC’s principal was kind enough to say one sentence at a time and then wait for my translation. My principal spouted out his entire three-minute speech in one go and then, with an impish grin, looked at me and said, “Dōzo” (“go ahead”). The audience got a reasonable paraphrasing with a lot of artistic license thrown in. (Somehow, I resisted the temptation to color things up a bit more…) Then we sent them all on their way and took the adults from PLC over to the dorm, where they’d be staying for the duration. And of course, there was the obligatory reception after that.

The next day, September 14th, started out with a morning assembly in the school’s inner court. The Australians were paraded out in front of the entire student body. They seemed a bit intimidated by the thousand-odd Japanese teenagers staring at them, but everything went okay, and I only had to use a little artistic license in my interpreting. After that, the Australians were assigned “shadow students” and divided up among various classes. I and the five Australian adults walked around keeping quiet tabs on what was going on, and from what we could see everyone was having a total blast. In the afternoon a group of us including three Australian student representatives went to City Hall to meet the Mayor. That was kind of fun, too. (The Mayor paused at convenient intervals for my translation. Once again, our principal didn’t…and he seemed to be pretty amused with himself, too.) After school, the kendo (Japanese fencing) club gave us a special demonstration and lesson. I think I got an even bigger kick out of that than the Australians did, but everyone had a good time. At first Mr. Abe, the chief kendo instructor, was irritatingly reluctant to have me as an interpreter because he was worried his vocabulary might be over my head (and he was right), but when I listened carefully to his whole talk I realized that I had heard much of it before, so I was able to provide an adequate translation. After that, I watched the training for a while and then finally picked up a practice sword and joined in the fun. (Mr. Abe said I looked surprisingly natural at it, and he doesn’t usually give compliments.) We had a hard time prying the kids away from the dojo when it was done, but they knew they had a long day the next day. That didn’t stop a small group of Aussies and Japanese from gathering in the Home Base room for a language party (i.e. taking turns asking me how to say different phrases in Japanese or English). That was fun, too, and we all went home happy.

The 15th was a welcome reprieve because the Australians went to Tokyo Disneyland for the day. That left me to deal with my regular classes. The 16th, however, was another full-day visit with the Australian students split up among their assigned classes. I did my best to keep the day open and just wandered about helping out where I was needed (which sometimes turned out to be a very good thing). In the afternoon, the Australians were given a special shodo (Japanese calligraphy) lesson. After that, the Tea Ceremony club took advantage of a wonderful opportunity to strut their stuff by performing the ceremony for our guests, complete with explanations by a couple of students that had done homestays abroad and had remarkable English ability. As it turned out, the Tea Ceremony wound up finishing a little early, so I led the group over to the auditorium, where Mr. Ogawa was conducting an orchestra rehearsal. We gave them an impromptu performance of Benjamin Britten’s “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”, with me doing the narration. The Australians were impressed by the performance, but they were even more thrilled when I told them we just might be playing it in Australia next year…if people can get their acts together (a hint that wasn’t lost on PLC’s principal. She promised to get on their band director’s case to get back to us about it).

That night our principal hosted a dinner party for PLC’s principal. I attended together with a couple other English teachers from our school. The dinner was held at a really nice sushi restaurant in Itako that I’d never heard of before. I went ahead and indulged myself along with everyone else. I’d been avoiding drinking because of el kidneystono, but I think I deserved a reprieve. Besides, the principal had already reserved a substitute driver for me (which he said the school would pay for, but they haven’t yet). It was a good end to a good week.

On the way home, with me feeling bizarre at sitting in the passenger seat of my own, BLUE car, I got a phone call. It was from the student captain of the jazz band. There was going to be a morning assembly the next day to say farewell to the audience. She wanted to know if she and the other 11th graders in the music club could perform “a song”. I figured why not, since so many of them had served as host sisters. Without thinking too much about it, I went ahead and said yes.

That brought me to this morning, the 17th, when I realized I had to talk to the Powers that Be (muffled, minor pentatonic fanfare) about the planned morning assembly. It was more or less a given that they expected it to be a somber, serious event, and I just knew the 11th grade music club girls were going to be anything BUT serious.

In fact, when I thought about it bit more, it began to seem a bit fishy. That same group of girls had already performed several times over the past year…all dances. So were they planning a dance or a song? I hurried up to the music club room to find them practicing a dance, just as I’d expected. They informed me that they’d be singing while doing the dance, so there really hadn’t been a miscommunication. However, I was a bit hard pressed to get the (exceptionally hard-assed) master of ceremonies to work it into the program schedule.

Once again we arrived at the school courtyard to be confronted by the thousand-strong student body. The principal gave a long, profound speech without pauses (but I translated it quietly to PLC’s principal in the shadows as he went along, so it didn’t matter). Then one of our 12th graders, a boy who had done a homestay in New Zealand, gave a fantastic speech in English that left the Aussies (and me) feeling totally blown away. This was followed by gifts for them presented by our student council, who were supposed to give a short speech but just dropped off the gifts and ran. Then it was time for the dance/song, but the girls were nowhere in sight. The master of ceremonies looked like he was about to blow a gasket. He looked like he was about to blow several other parts as well when the 11th graders of the music club finally DID appear…wearing cheerleader costumes. They then performed an adorable routine to “Hey, Rickey” as they and the Aussie kids sang together! (They later explained that several of them, Seishin and PLC students together, had sung that song at a karaoke party the night before, and they’d already had the dance routine ready, so it only seemed appropriate. I heartily agreed, though I doubt the suit-and-tie members of the power group were exactly thrilled.) When it was all done, the students left to attend two final classes. Then it was time for the Big Farewell.

Which brings us to now. Sachi and the adults in the Australian entourage hoped to board their chartered bus immediately and head over to Kashima Jingu Station to catch their train. Famous last words. Both the kids and PLC’s principal insisted on one last photo shoot in front of the giant banner saying “Welcome Pacific Lutheran College & Seishin Gakuen” that the school had put up just outside the front gate. The trouble is that all the PLC students and their host brother/sisters and “shadows” amount to a sizeable crowd that’s far more interested in their own private good-byes than any kind of organized activity, train schedules notwithstanding! We finally do manage to get them all squeezed in front of the banner so we can take pictures of them with something like a dozen different cameras. Some of them are already in tears. When the photo shoot ends and we start trying to herd the PLC students onto their bus (where’s a sheepdog when you need one?), the tears are flowing freely. It was a very short visit, but it has affected the kids of both our schools very deeply.

Sachi and I follow the bus to the station in one of the school vans. Then we give them a final parting gift: lunches that we have prepared for them. Then we start to help them through the gate…just as the whole massive entourage from the school starts rolling in. You see, the host sister/brothers were invited to come along with the PLC students on the bus so they could say a proper goodbye, but the shadow students and friends went ahead and walked to the station (a less than ten minute walk from the school) so they could join the party. Nearly all of them have monthly rail passes anyway, but the stationmaster gives up checking and just lets them all through. In the end, there’s a massive crowd gathered up on the platform. I know I probably should go up there, too, but for some reason I decide not to. Maybe my usual dislike of large, noisy crowds is kicking in. Maybe I’m just feeling blue now that all that effort and stress is finally coming to a sweet end. Maybe it’s just that I have never really liked saying goodbye. Maybe I’m just being a reclusive asshole like I have tended to be off and on through most of my life. Maybe it’s a combination thereof. I don’t know, but I make do with seeing them off with a wave from the ground as the rain roars off down the elevated platform, a crowd of boys in hot pursuit. Then Sachi and I are on our way back to ye olde academy, heaving heavy sighs.

Yes, the first round has been a big success so far. Now on to the next chapter…

Friday, September 09, 2005

Where Band Contests and Chinese Cuisine Collide

It’s such a calm day…appropriately, as it is the calm between storms.

The calm between many storms, actually, including the one in my lower, right abdomen, but even that is being good today. It is a nice, easy-going sort of day, perfect for embarking on an adventure.

This is the third year in a row that our school’s concert band has made it through the prefectural championship and gone on to the East Kanto Regional Championship (brassy fanfare in really complex harmony, perfectly executed except for one 10th grade horn player who will be caned later). We’re all happy as can be to be going, to be sure, but the timing probably couldn’t be worse. The day of the contest also happens to be the first day of our school’s grand Anniversary Festival (really cute synth fanfare). That presents a severe dilemma for our music club’s traditional event, the La Bohéme live-music tea room. The club will be critically short of personnel on opening day. They will also be lacking both their chief supervisor (me) and the assistant supervisor (Mr. Karatsu, who directs the concert band). They’ll be running with a skeleton crew under the substitute supervision of Mr. Ogawa, our chief director (motto: “I studied in Paris for two years! Do you really think I care about your problems?”). Things could get ugly.

Still, to their credit, the group of students putting on La Bohéme this year have been doing a fantastic job so far. As always, it is our current crop of 10th graders, who carry out the project as a sort of trial run for their becoming the leaders of the music club next year. This years 10th graders were in the 9th grade class that I griped about so much last year. As junior high punks kids, they seemed pretty hopeless. Now, however, they are showing remarkable initiative, teamwork, innovation, leadership, resourcefulness, and creativity. In order to deal with the problems that have popped up virtually every year, they have more or less reinvented the whole system from scratch, something I have never seen before. The artistic design is also among the best I’ve seen if not the best. So far I am impressed. It’s too bad that I’ll be absent during the first half of the thing.

This year’s contest is being held in the delightful city of Utsunomiya. In addition to its being a major transport hub for the whole region, Utsunomiya is famous for gyoza, night life, gyoza, a quarry that produces a type of stone not found anywhere else, a super-abundance of ancient shrines and temples, gyoza, many colorful festivals throughout the year, traffic jams, hit-and-run traffic accidents, gyoza, seedy night club districts, underworld activities, gyoza, and gyoza. (The reason the word “gyoza” keeps popping up so much is that Utsunomiya is famous for that wonderful, Chinese delicacy. Every time someone heard I was going there, they immediately cooed, “Oh, you have to eat gyoza!” I was getting pretty sick of the stuff without having taken a single bite!) Anyway, Utsunomiya is a bit of a drive from Kashima, and since our band is scheduled to be on stage in the morning, they decided to make a night of it. They loaded up a single bus with the 30-odd members of the concert band plus a handful of staff, a couple of band mothers, and Mr. Karatsu.

As for me, I’m driving the van. That’s about 70% of the reason for my being asked to go along. I am the Keeper of the Double Basses (deep, rumbling fanfare). Oh, well. At least I can listen to the radio.

My lone traveling companion/navigator/communications officer is Ms. Namaizawa, a 12th grader who retired from the music club at the end of the last school year. She makes a fair amount of the usual small talk on boarding the van, but she sits quietly for the most part as we roll out of Kashima. When we make it as far as Mito about an hour later, I suggest turning on the radio, and she immediately complies. Bay FM, the most popular radio station among young people. Bay FM’s DJs are mostly foreigners with very fluent Japanese ability, and they can keep up an amazing onslaught of bilingual drivel. In fact, that’s about all it is. One three-minute pop song is played, followed by seven or eight minutes of drivel. Then, after a commercial or two, they launch into some kind of really stupid canned program. Then they play another three-minute pop song and start the whole cycle again. After about twenty minutes of this, I am totally driveled out, so I apologize and switch it over to U.S. Armed Forces Network. The DJ sounds like a hopeless airhead (your tax dollars at work), but at least there is a more favorable drivel-to-music ratio. At least there is until the news comes on.

Ms. Namaizawa hasn’t been able to understand a word of the DJ’s babbling, but she does pick up the word “New Orleans” from the news announcement. Then she makes the mistake of asking me what I think about it. By the time I stop frothing at the mouth we are already coming into the outskirts of Utsunomiya. It isn’t long before bile gives way to sheer panic.

Utsunomiya is notorious for her heavy traffic and baffling array of streets. It can be spooky enough trying to pick your way through on your own. In my case, I am desperately determined to stay right behind the bus, since I have no idea where we’re going and my navigator is trying to figure out which page of the map book we’re even on. The problem is that buses in Japan tend to consider themselves exempt from traffic rules. They also don’t bother paying attention to the other vehicles on the road. They just go where they want, when they want, and expect everyone just to get out of their way. Driving the school van, I don’t have that luxury. I’m not afraid to do some cut-and-thrust counteroffensive driving in the city, as some of my friends can attest, but slaloming through traffic, screaming around corners, shooting between oncoming cars, using a turn lane to whip around the car in front of me and run the red light he has just stopped at, and so on are a lot more harrowing when one is driving a gutless, top-heavy van with a school logo clearly emblazoned on its side. By the time we arrive at our immediate destination, Sakushin Academy, my heart is in my mouth. I don’t even want to speculate what Ms. Namaizawa is feeling, though at least she now knows very well what the expression “hang on” means.

Sakushin Academy is a large, private boarding school, K-12. Apparently their chief music director is an old acquaintance of Mr. Kuboki, our school’s regular house-calling music salesman, and the school has graciously allowed us to use their band room for rehearsal. The first thing we notice on arrival (other than Mr. Kuboki’s smiling face at the door) is that they are a very well-disciplined group. As our students ooze into the building, members of Sakushin’s band immediately leap into action, some of them forming up to help transport our instruments while others help us with our shoes and guide us to the band room. All the while, their manners and honorific-laden speech are impeccable, and our own students are looking a bit egg-faced at their own comparably unrefined behavior. Mr. Kuboki, Mr. Karatsu, and I are led into a little office, where we are served ice coffee and snacks by girls whose movements look almost as practiced and precise as someone performing the Tea Ceremony. Yep, clearly a very different outfit from our own.

The rehearsal sounds pretty rough, and I can’t help shaking my head. Actually, to be honest, I didn’t think we sounded all that good at the prefectural championship, and I was a little surprised that we were able to proceed. As it was, we barely squeaked by in 4th place. Now we’re sounding even worse. Most of it is because the kids are simply worn out by the punishing schedule we’ve put them through over the past couple of months. This isn’t good. I’ve maintained a strict “hands-off” policy with the concert band ever since Mr. Karatsu was put in charge of it two years ago (particularly after he got them to the Eastern Kanto Regional Championship, the first time ever, in his first year in that position). Now I can bear it no longer. As the rehearsal progresses, and Mr. Karatsu starts getting visibly flustered, I start darting around the room addressing individual trouble spots. Some of them I am able to fix, others not. At least the kids are apparently listening to what I say, which is a bit of a change over past years (another reason for my “hands-off” policy). The last run-through does sound measurably better, but the kids are wiped out. Some of them look like they’re in agony. At any rate, they’re thankful to be heading to the hotel for the night.

The hotel is one of the many, little tourist stops stuck in various street corners all over town. It looks like it was classy once upon a time, but its 50s-ish façade and fixtures are faded and yellowing. My single room is barely big enough for me to turn sideways, but it least it has a shower and, more importantly, a comfy bed. I camp out with my Bill Wyman autobiography and am on the verge of nodding off when the phone rings, a nice, shrill, electronic warble. Mr. Kuboki and Mr. Karatsu are heading out to grab some grub. Bill goes back into my bag, and soon the three of us are walking through Utsunomiya’s fabled night scene.

Despite its thriving tourist industry, Utsunomiya is one of those cities where everything shuts down at 5 p.m.. We stroll along a sidewalk framed by frowning, darkened shop fronts. As we get closer to the station, however, the neon starts to pick up. So does the sleaze factor. A lot of those shops look more than a little suspicious. Some of them make no pretense as to what they’re all about. We walk past one glittery “estee sports massage” outfit, and a pleasant-looking woman in a fancy dress asks us if the three of us would like to go in together. We ignore her and press on. Once we’re on the main drag directly in front of the station, we’re suddenly surrounded by a truly bizarre mixture of people. Suited businessmen trot by enclosed in their private, cell-phone worlds. Groups of young or middle-aged people in typical travel wear plod about, chatting casually with anxiously-darting eyes. Members of the local hip scene swagger by, their easy conversation sounding like a string of insults. A few young loners, often porting bags or musical instruments, weave their way through the crowd as they sprint by. Attractive, gum-chewing young women in almost nauseatingly gaudy dress, many if not most of them clearly not Japanese, saunter about or lean against corners or lamp posts, their eyes pitifully vacant. A few guffawing, heavy-bodied drunks plow their way by. Yes, most of Utsunomiya is shut down for the night, but the main drag is alive and well.

Any guesses on what we have for dinner? I’ll give you a hint: it starts with a g.

Next morning we’re up at the crack of dawn and on our way back to Sakushin Academy for another, quick rehearsal. This time I maintain my “hands-off” policy and hang out in the office, where those polite girls just keep bringing me new glasses of iced coffee. By the time we’re ready to roll, my hands are shaking and I can’t sit still. The trip to the contest location is quick and easy, but Ms. Namaizawa flees into the bus before I can say anything. I drive there accompanied by Ms. Nakagawa, our current student leader, instead.

Unloading the vehicles is a bit of a challenge because they’re being so anal about parking. We’re only supposed to have a bus and a truck. My van is a forbidden luxury, and at first they try to refuse me admittance. I inform them that I have double basses in back and roll by anyway, whereupon they shout at me to park in the guest parking area (far away) after I’ve unloaded. That is precisely what I do, but then I’m faced with a new problem. By the time I make it back to the concert hall my group has already proceeded somewhere inside, and I can’t find them. Unfortunately, just about every passage is barred; you have to have permission and/or a guide to walk to the other side of the hall and blow your nose. Naturally, when I ask the group of “guides” at the main entrance where I can go to find my group, they are at a total loss. They have a lengthy, muffled argument and conclude by ignoring me completely. By then I have already spotted a couple of our members in a window, and I just simply walk in ignoring the signs and guards.

We go through the usual routine. First we are led to a practice room, where we tune up and rehearse for a bit (and, since I’m right there in the room, I wind up running around addressing trouble spots again). Then we are led to a “tuning room”, where the kids blat about doing everything but tune. Finally, we are led backstage, where I’m finally given my other main reason for being there. I’m the official bearer of the bass clarinetist’s elevating chair. I had hoped to go into the hall and watch the performance from the guest seats, but apparently they’re being anal about that, too; each group has only been allotted a small number of tickets, and all of ours went to the alumni helpers. At least I get to chat with the kids backstage, and it turns out to be kind of fun. The members of the flute and oboe sections get into a sort of contest to see who can outdo the others in English proficiency. Then a couple of them surprise me by asking why I don’t help out with the concert band more often. I could probably go on and on about past members of the band greeting my “help” with frost, glaring at me, turning their backs, section leaders sometimes whispering to younger members to disregard everything I said, sometimes openly and pointedly asking me to leave, sometimes just ignoring me completely. Sure, those were the days when Mr. Ogawa was in charge of the band. He commanded tremendous respect, almost like a personality cult, and I was simply his comical sidekick. Even if the kids respected my performance abilities or got along with me as a person, as a music director I was nothing more to them than an unworthy pretender. Mr. Ogawa didn’t exactly try to change that view, either. When I was holding the baton, as I always did for half of the year, I was accepted (though sometimes grudgingly). Otherwise, the kids wanted me just to shut up and stay out of Maestro’s way. And when Mr. Ogawa finally told me that he was putting Mr. Karatsu in sole charge of the concert band, I decided to do just that. I’ve stayed completely out of the way ever since.

Yes, I could go on and on about that, but I don’t. Bad vibes before a performance are a bad thing. Instead, I just reply that it’s Mr. Karatsu’s baby, and I’d rather not interfere. That is actually the truth, though a very small portion of it, and the kids seem satisfied.

Backstage is not a good place to listen to a performance, but that’s where I am. And from here, the performance sounds pretty good. I grit my teeth waiting for the disaster spots that plagued our rehearsals, and they don’t happen. I hear a couple of wobbles, but they are trivial. It is definitely a much better performance than the one at the prefectural championship. I’m generally pleased. Two years ago, when we came to the East Kanto Regional Championship for the first time, we staggered away with a bronze medal (i.e. we were in the bottom third…second from the bottom, actually). Last year we got a bronze, too, but we were only one slot away from a silver. This year I think we might actually get a silver. That would be nice. Graduation is going to hamstring us this year, and it may be a long time before we make it this way again.

After the obligatory photo session, we quickly make our way to the bus. Mr. Karatsu and the two student leaders are going to stay for the awards ceremony, but I and the rest of the band are to head back immediately. It is the school’s Anniversary Festival, after all, and we have a lot to do. Besides, we’re all beat. I give Mr. Karatsu the keys to the van, wish him luck, and board the bus.

Utsunomiya is so much nicer when you don’t have to drive…but home is nicer still.

Actually, not only did we get a silver medal, but we were the top silver medal…only a few points from a gold. None of the other bands from Ibaraki were even close. We have never done this well before…and probably won’t again for a long time if ever. It’s a remarkable achievement, especially considering our band’s current rag-tag composition, and it does much to legitimize a music program which has come under lots of fire for not being a “proper”, contest-oriented band.

On the other hand, La Bohéme looked better, sounded better, and was far more trouble-free than at any time in its history, but we also wound up losing money for the first time ever. A lot, actually. We always raked in massive profits before, and that allowed us to get away with a lot. Now I can hear our detractors sharpening their claws…

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Week Three, Day 5

Well, today was the day: the "final checkup" in which they'd decide whether I needed to have surgery or not.

It was kind of a troubled morning. A huge typhoon was slowly crawling up the Japan Sea side of the country, lobbing alternating bouts of sauna-like weather and raging downpours. During the one-hour drive to Rousai Hospital, I experienced plenty of both. I actually allowed myself a bit of extra time to allow for unexpected squalls and the odd flash-flood, but I still managed to make good time. My scheduled appointment was for 9:30 with a couple of quick tests during the preceding half hour. I arrived with plenty of time to spare.

After my experience last time, I was leery of putting my card in the "repeat visit" reception machine. This time, however, it worked perfectly. A cute, animated image of a nurse bowed to me and asked me to touch the square on the screen confirming my appointment. I did so, and a ticket emerged saying my appointment was for 9:00 with tests during the preceding half hour.

I thought, WHAT???!?
I double-checked the appointment card I had been given before. Yep, 9:30. But the reception ticket most definitely said 9:00. What happened to that extra half hour? Was it a time-tax deduction?


I didn't have to wait long before being sent upstairs to the lab to pee in a cup and to the "radiation" section to get zapped yet again. This time it was an ordinary x-ray, and the machine looked kind of like an industrial lasercutter. It didn't help my spirits much.

The x-ray technician was one of those sorts that says everything in set, stock phrases and gets all flustered if you don't get what he means. When I lied down on the table, he said something that I later learned would probably best be translated, "Please release the strength in your legs." At the time, I didn't know the word he'd used for "release" (it was one of those fancy kanji constructions that aren't normally used in everyday discourse), so I didn't respond immediately. When he kept repeating the phrase, I tried raising my knees. He continued repeating the phrase, so I took the opposite tack and relaxed my legs. It turned out to be the correct response, as he stopped uttering the phrase, smiled, and pulled me into position by my ankles. He then proceeded to instruct me on how to hold my breath and release it using speech and mannerisms one normally uses with a preschooler. I figured being uncooperative wouldn't get me anywhere, so I just went along with it.

I went into the doctor's office less than half an hour after the X-ray (I LOVE appointments!). The doctor had all my various x-rays and CaT scans over the past three weeks hung up for comparison.

He was shaking his head.

"The good news is that your kidneys are back to normal and you're no longer passing blood," he said, biting his lip.

And the bad news?

"The stone is clearly still in there, but it has moved, and we can no longer see it at all."

Ack. So what do we do next?

The doctor smiled and wheeled over his ultrasound scanner. I think he just likes to play with that thing, but at least it's painless and doesn't pose a cancer risk.

He probed around the area for a while, like he did the time before, but then he nodded and uttered a very definite, "Ah..." Then he turned the monitor around so I could see it.

Yep, there it was. A nice, ugly, white blotch. It had indeed moved...almost all the way down. It was very likely that it would be preparing for launch soon.

The thing was so f***ing BIG...
No wonder it hurt like an SOB that day!
But wait a minute...did that mean I would be trying to pass that thing...?

The doctor told me happily that I most definitely didn't need either surgery, a catheter-mounted ultrasound blaster, or an injected solvent. It was clear that El Calcio Uglioso would eventually be coming out on its own one way or the other. He gave me a refill prescription for the medicine I've been taking to bloat my abdomen (not fun, I can tell you) and scheduled an appointment for me to come in after another two weeks.

In other words, it's not done yet. But at least I won't be cut open or have anything jammed into very unpleasant places anytime soon.