Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, October 29, 2005

I'm "It".

There seems to be a sudden rash of blog tags going around. I couldn't respond adequately to the first one because I didn't know enough bloggers not already included in the tag list. Now a couple of bloggers I know have directly invited everyone except me to participate in a different one, but they were both thoughtful enough to leave one slot open for "anyone who wants to volunteer/is bored". Okay, I'll bite. I was originally thinking of posting this over on the snabulus blog in order to keep this blog purely focused on my life in Japan, but I decided it would probably be better to keep it here. After all, not only is this site more centrally located for my personal blog community, but it does, after all deal with my personal life, and that's what this site is all about. Anyway:

7 things I plan to do before I die
1. Visit Dresden, Berlin, Hanoi, and Nagasaki as a matter of moral obligation.
2. Visit as many parts of the world as possible, especially home countries of all the good people I've met.
3. Be able to play a major scale on every instrument used in a symphony orchestra (but why stop there?)
4. Become fluent in at least one more language, maybe two. No, three! Three langua...four! Four languages...
5. Get acquainted with someone from at least 80% of the nations of the world, particularly those whose people I, as an American, am not supposed to regard as human.
6. Become better in touch with my own soul.
7. Compose music that people can really enjoy.

7 things I can do
1. play music in various genre on various instruments (but not necessarily well...)
2. write, compose, and draw (but not necessarily well...)
3. speak three languages fluently
4. gripe
5. turn a simple task into a giant project without even trying
6. argue about just about anything
7. eagerly make a total fool of myself on stage (and sometimes offstage, too)

7 things I cannot do
1. ride a motorcycle (never tried)
2. play sports well
3. make a long-range plan and carry it out as intended
4. pretend to like, believe, or agree with something I don't
5. suffer fools gladly
6. hold my tongue when someone says something ridiculous or offensive
7. go along with a group just for the sake of going along with a group

7 things that attract me to another person
1. Depth
2. A real spark of life
3. A good balance of physical, spiritual, and psychological beauty
4. Compassion
5. Open-mindedness
6. Creative
7. Warmth

7 things that I say the most
1. 'kay
2. Hontou-ni? ("Oh, really?" in Japanese)
3. [nasal voice] Ohhhhh...
4. Stop that!
5. Nan da yo! ("What's up with that?" in Japanese)
6. You SUCK! You suck so MUCH!! (especially while driving)
7. Um...

7 people I want to do this
1. Don Snabulus from Oregon (but I know he won't)
2. Ladybug from Oregon (but I know she won't)
3. Dewkid from California (originally from Oregon)(Won't.)
4. Kami from Washington (originally from Prague...then Oregon...)(Nope!)
5. Phillipa Scratch from Oregon (Not gonna do't...)
6. Vulgarius from Oregon (Like, as if!)
7. Pa've from Oregon (I mean, really!)

Okay, anyway...

Friday, October 28, 2005

My "Main Squeeze"

I have come to play (and own) a variety of musical instruments in the course of my life. I originally started on piano, first by playing TV show themes and commercial jingles by ear when I was four, then by learning my friends' practice etudes faster than they did, and finally taking formal lessons when I was five. Unfortunately, while I had plenty of interest in playing, I had basically no interest in practicing. I continued to perform TV show themes proficiently, but I didn't make very good progress in my piano lesson books. My parents tried two different teachers, both of whom yelled at me a lot, before they finally gave up and terminated my formal instruction permanently. After that I didn't give much serious attention to music until I was ten years old, whereupon I took up a whole new animal, the clarinet.

I'm not sure exactly why I chose that instrument. It probably had partly to do with one of those child toys called "See & Say", in which you turned a dial to point its arrow at a picture and then pulled a string, whereupon it would play the recording for that picture. I had one that was for musical instruments, and the clarinet recording was my favorite (though I always thought the picture for it was kind of stupid). It probably also had to do with the fact that my clarinet teacher, who was also a clarinetist himself, was a friend of the family. I'm sure there were other reasons, too. Whatever they all were, I picked up the licorice stick and took to it like a flash. I was in the beginning ensemble for only two weeks before I was placed directly in the advanced band (whereas my best friend, who had also taken up the clarinet with me, stayed in it all year and didn't make a whole lot of progress. That started the rift between us).

Needless to say, I have been very active in music over the past thirty years, taking up guitar, bass, saxophone, flute, and several other instruments along the way. However, clarinet has continued to be my "main squeeze" despite the fact that it is something of a controversial instrument. In fact, it always has been. Its status in musical culture doesn't seem to have ever been clearly defined. In Dixieland and traditional jazz, particularly during the swing era ('20s to '40s), the "licorice stick" has played an important role, particularly after Glen Miller broke convention and used it as the lead melody instrument instead of trumpet in his "big band". Back then, clarinetists were like lead guitarists today, i.e. they were sex symbols who were loved by the women and envied by the men. In this era, however, I have had to suffer through a college band director who referred to all clarinet players by default as "ladies" and more than one moron with a macho inferiority complex telling me that "only fags play clarinet". However, even though clarinet is a French instrument, I refuse to surrender.

Despite its importance in classical music, the clarinet is actually the youngest of all the "orchestral" instruments. Its predecessor, the chalumeau, was a very limited (and oft maligned) party instrument that appeared in France in the 1600s. It was considered laughably unsuitable for "real" music until 1700, when a German from Nuremburg named Muller developed it in such a way as to give it a much wider range. Even so, it wasn't until the late 18th century that the clarinet began to be taken seriously, particularly by progressive composers such as that Mozart character. The clarinet became even more widespread in the early 19th century with the adoption of the so-called Boehm key system, actually adapted from the flute, which is far easier to play than Muller's system (which had notes missing, requiring lip-bending or half-holing to play a complete scale!) and is still the standard to this day. Other "modern" key systems, such as the Albert and Oehler (Auler) systems popular in Germany, also exist, but while they offer certain advantages in tonality, they are more complicated and therefore more difficult to play than the Boehm system.

German-made Oehler-system A/Bb clarinets

Many varieties of clarinet have been developed over the years, but the Bb "soprano" clarinet is the general standard. Orchestral clarinetists (such as myself) generally also have an A soprano, which is often used in 19th century classical works. Other common types include the little Eb "sopranino", the alto-sax-sized Eb "alto", the Bb "bass", the Eb "contralto", and the Bb "contrabass". There is also an interesting variant called the "basset horn", which is keyed in F and thus pitched slightly higher than the "alto" but is longer with more keys and thus a wider range. Mozart liked the basset horn's unique, mellow tone a lot and used it quite a bit, but now it is quite rare. I have seen only one in my lifetime, which was at the music club training camp in 2004 (and the teacher let me play it! THAT was fun!). Other types of clarinet exist, such as the Eb "piccolo" and C "marching-band soprano" (not to mention A and C "bass" models), but they are rarely seen and rarely used.

So there you have it, folks. I may strum, plunk, and squawk here and there and everywhere, but my old #1 has been and may well always be ye olde licorice stick, the made-in-France-but-with-German-improvements clarinet. Often enigmatic, often controversial, both loved and scorned with equal passion, I still find it a joy to play.

(But I still think Moussorgsky was trying to bully his clarinetists...)

November? What's That?

The fifth sentence of my 23rd posting on this site is "Oh, and also cuteness", but I don't know enough other bloggers to carry on the tag. I guess I really suck. So there. Go bite. Zark off.

Anyway, it turns out that I may have spoken too soon. This week I had my 9th graders do an assignment in which they had to plan an imaginary surprise party for someone, invite their classmates, and explain what they planned to give the birthday boy/girl as a present and why (in English, of course). Almost a fifth of the kids planned their parties for Hiroshi. None of them did it for Hard Gay. (However, several kids said they planned to invite Hard Gay to parties they planned for classmates.)

Those 9th grade Oral Communication classes are fun. This year's 9th grade class seem like angels compared with those we had to suffer through the last two years in a row. We're also using a new textbook and approach now that are much better than before, and we're getting much better results even in standardized achievement testing. I guess the "team from purgatory" of myself and Mr. O, with whom I've been coerced obligated to team-teach these classes for the past three years (despite my protests and our occasional screaming fights) is finally producing concrete results. (Of course, I won't bother mentioning all the lesson time lost due to software problems, system crashes, and computer pilot error thanks to Mr. O's irrational obsession with technology as an end-all solution. Oops...did I just mention that? Never mind. I didn't say anything.)

Speaking of arrogant fools obligations, I just finished writing up my schedule for the following month to give to my in-laws. I realize that doing so is almost totally pointless, because they:

a. only look at it once and then stash it in a drawer somewhere and forget about it
b. will do whatever they want whenever they want anyway, citing their "duty to the community as exemplary citizens" (i.e. they are obligated to sit and drink tea with the neighbors until they're satisfied the conversation is over), and if that winds up totally screwing up my schedule, they'll somehow find a way to insist that it's my fault.

Even so, I write the schedule up every month to give my father-in-law one less way to blame me for his own arrogance business.

Okay, anyway...

I tallied up all those marks on the schedule for the month of November, and I found there are no more than twelve days that don't have some special activity planned (i.e. work doesn't count). The Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra (new motto: "We can finally say that we don't suck anymore, which means we'll work even harder") accounts for a full eight days including our regular 2-hour Monday night rehearsals and special weekend sessions (which tend to eat up a full day). Our annual classics concert is coming up in early December, so we're starting to pick up the pace. Add to that the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival (my school jazz band appears), two other music club events, and the 9th grade class' four-day field trip to Hiroshima and Kyoto, and I'm not left with much time to recover my wits.

I just hope I emerge without a nervous tic and a habitual drool. I'm happy that I'm working the mold and rust out of my fingers again and am finally able to play all those complicated turns and tricks on my clarinet in Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, but I do like to have a life sometimes...

Just to prevent this from ending on a negative, "gripe & bitch" note (hey, I am moody, right?), here's a picture of Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto with some of its famous autumn leaves. I'll be going there yet again (my 7th time) on the upcoming field trip, but I never get sick of the sight!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Well, it seems that Hiroshi's moment of fame was like a camera flash in the dark. He's still around, now appearing on TV commercials (always accompanied by somber violins), but his popularity among young people has quickly faded to oblivion. Now there's a new, much more exotic, and totally enigmatic flavor of the month. Feast your eyes on wrestler-turned-comedian Razor Ramon Sumitani:

Perhaps not surprisingly, his working stage name is "Hard Gay", and he is just that. Blatantly homosexual and oozingly proud of it.

His schtick is basically to flirt with male celebrities in an obnoxious and harassing manner, always punctuated with his characteristic "WOOOOOOOH" howl. When he's not doing that, he's getting laughs (for some incomprehensible reason) by rapidly thrusting his tight-leather-clad pelvis at either a fellow performer or the camera until he sports an obvious erection.

Normally I would shake my head, sigh, and wait till this fad passes, as they all do. However, at my school, not only can that damned "WOOOOOH" be heard just about everywhere you go at all times of the day, but now gay definitely seems to be "in". It's unbelievable the (increasing) number of boys who are not only loudly boasting of their newly revised sexual orientation, but make a very obnoxious display of it any time they are able.

I remember in my own school days, for a guy, being called a "fag" was one of the worst insults imaginable. I had one classmate in high school who was openly gay (and totally harmless...actually a very cool and likable guy, if eccentric), and he was treated with horrible cruelty by the macho-obsessed boys around him.

Even Japan has always been a very macho-centric culture, maybe even more than the U.S.. At least among people in their late 20s and up, the rule is still "men are men, and therefore belch and fart as loudly and frequently as possible, and women are women, and therefore clean up after men's bodily functions while never showing any of their own." When I started work at my school back in '96, I very nearly beat the tar out of a 10th-grade punk who told his friends he refused to greet me as a teacher, saying, "I don't talk to homos" (apparently since I didn't belch and fart loudly in public). The way you dressed, walked, and talked immediately marked you as either sufficiently masculine or swishy.

Well, now swishy is "in". In fact, it is very noisily and obnoxiously "in".

I've always been a firm believer in freedom of choice and non-interference in people's private lives (hence the fact that I've had admittedly gay friends over the years without any stigma attached). This, however, goes beyond any lines of sensibility. To call it overkill would be an understatement. In fact, I'm starting to get sick to death of that damned howl...and if any of those kids turns his "horny gay boy" theatrics on me, I'm liable to do a comedian impersonation of my own, in this case, "Boot to the Head".

So This Is Life in the City...

I have now officially been a "city slicker" for almost two months. That's about how long it has been since my quiet, country town of Aso (motto: "Everyone is from here, but nobody lives here") merged with the towns of Tamatsukuri and Kitaura to become Namegata City. Actually, not much has changed.

Come to think of it, what has changed? They didn't waste any time changing every single sign in the area that mentioned the names of the three towns. Aso city hall is now "Namegate City Hall, Aso Branch". The local community center is the "Namegata-Aso Community Center", which means the much, much better hall over in former Kitaura (motto: "If you blink, you'll miss everything but our BITCHIN' culture hall!") is now probably "Namegata-Kitaura Culture Center". (Hmm...does that mean I can use it at a discount now that I'm a local?) Other than that, and the snap mayoral election with only a month's notice, the only other noticeable change has been our tap water, which now has a distinctive smell of sulfur that wasn't there before. Apparently Aso's water supply has been switched from the excellent treatment center in Sawara to the much more iffy one in Tamatsukuri, since it is now "local" (i.e. the government saves money).

There hasn't been any noticeable change in the water rates, though, and that's actually a good thing. When Itako absorbed Ushibori to become Itako City a few years ago, people living in Ushibori suddenly had their water rates go up 30%. There are definitely dangers that lie in this incorporation fever that's sweeping the area, as this case clearly shows. It also shows how such joining of towns can be very one-sided when one has more influence than the other. In this case, Ushibori was simply no match for Itako, which was larger, richer, and had both a long history and a nationally-famous name. There was never any doubt in anyone's mind that Itako would simply swallow Ushibori and spit out the bones later, just as Kashima did when it assimilated Ono village and became Kashima City.

The same thing happened when Kamisu and Hasaki finally ended their tumultuous, decades-long courtship (which was originally supposed to include Kashima) and merged earlier this year. Hasaki's long history and unique dialect just simply couldn't win out over Kamisu's big bucks, swelling upper-middle-class population, and arrogant, pushy attitude. Like an ambitious yuppie couple moving into an old neighborhood, sweet-talking everyone into selling them their property, and then becoming the local bullies, Kamisu simply conquered and annexed its venerable neighbor, made the whole lot Kamisu City, and proceeded to treat Hasaki like a bramble-filled backyard it would rather forget. The people living in former Hasaki are definitely not happy about it (especially the town government and educational workers that are in serious danger of having their jobs twisted apart if not replaced altogether by Kamisu's unbelievably cavalier attitude toward the merger). Now there is even talk that a beautiful new, high-tech city hall is going to be the former Kamisu administration...on the side of the city bordering Kashima, i.e. on the opposite side from Hasaki. That clever bit of urban development pretty much carves in stone precisely the attitude the new Dark Overlords have toward the Hasaki element of their subjects.

Because of these problems, everyone is wondering what is going to happen when the last three towns in the Rokko District of Ibaraki Prefecture, Hokota, Taiyo, and Asahi, join together to become Hokota City. Hokota is the largest, oldest, and most populous of the three, hence the use of its name, but Taiyo (which has lots of popular beach resorts) and Asahi (one of Japan's #1 watermelon producers if not #1) both have far more bucks. There are already rumors circulating that the people of Taiyo and Asahi are screaming bloody murder since the new city is planning on imposing Hokota's more expensive and much more draconian garbage laws on everyone. It's doubtful Hokota's well-meaning but underfunded (though quite corrupt), rural administration would be able to stand up to determined opposition from either of its two new, wealthier provinces.

I guess, for these reasons, I should be thankful that Aso, Tamatsukuri, and Kitaura have been going out of their way to be equal partners in this new project called Namegata City. Still, it has been a chaotic mess so far, and the people are still wondering if anything is really getting done...other than quickly repainting all the signs.

Wow. It's hard to believe that, only a few years ago, the map of Ibaraki looked like this (look at the lower-right corner...the "legs", if you will...):

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Where Education Begins


Aw, phooey. It's not working. I still hate 'em. Having a group of parents standing either out in the hall or in the back of the classroom carefully scrutinizing my lesson (read "trying to stare me down") is about as much fun as a kidney stone. Well, maybe a bit more fun than a kidney stone, but still not much fun in general.

At least I can make a halfway decent attempt to ignore the parents.

Our school has these things two or three times a year, mainly because, as a "high-level" private academy, we tend to attract students whose parents are extremely concerned about their children's future (read "overprotective education maniacs"). In other words, many if not most of the parents like nothing better than to shove their noses into our business and tell us how to do our jobs.

After that disaster that was the orchestra's planned trip to Australia, parental meddling is very high on my list of "things to suffer if I ever decide to become a masochist". Unfortunately(?), I am not one.

Actually, not many parents tend to come to observe classes for grades 8-11. However, for some strange reason grades 7 and 12 tend to be pretty crowded. I guess parents are particularly concerned with how their kids' education begins and ends, but don't give much thought to what's in the middle. Unfortunately, I teach grades 7 and 12. I have already had parents of 12th graders complain to the principal about my "time-wasting" and "irrelevant" lesson content (before their kids managed to enter top universities...and personally thanked me). I have also had parents of 7th graders noisily comment on my lesson's "meaninglessness" while said lesson was in progress.

Part of the problem is that I do what most teachers are afraid to do: I just conduct a regular lesson instead of going to a lot of trouble to devise a special "showcase lesson". I pretend that there is no audience, and I just stick with my usual program. What the parents see is what I usually do. That is, after all, supposed to be the whole point, anyway, isn't it? What the parents get in most other classes is the educational equivalent of an election campaign. ("Yes, that's right! I spend ten hours preparing props and illustrations every day, and I always conduct my classes in this kind of animated manner!")("So why does my daughter always say your class is as bland as wasabi-less sashimi?")("Er, uh...") However, in this land of "appearances mean everything", my honesty can get me into trouble.

Actually, my honesty has gotten me into trouble before, such as when I was working at Toys R Us as (among many other things) a bike assembler/repairman/safety inspector one winter vacation during my college days, and I explained to one impatient customer quite honestly that it was taking me a long time to inspect and clear the bike she'd bought because the graveyard-shift crew had assembled all the bikes rather hurriedly the night before on account of the unusually large number. I said, "I wouldn't want you to put your kid on this bike unless I'd be sure enough to put my own on it first." I thought I was assuring her of our high standards of quality and safety. What she said (yelled, actually) to the manager right after that showed a very different sentiment. Later, the manager took me aside and said, "It's not really that we want you to lie, but..."

Apparently honesty is the best policy except in either education or toy stores. Nevertheless, I am what I am.

I seem to have digressed a bit.

Anyway, now we've come to my 7th grade classes today, both of which have a sizable gallery of observers. However, I notice something odd about them immediately. They're not saying a word, at least to me or each other. It's not that they're standing there quietly; on the contrary, they're pacing around in the back of the room if not going in and out. Some of them enter and exit the room several times, but never seem to do anything once they're out in the hall except turn around and come back in again. They seem oblivious to each other, and they don't even seem to be paying much attention to what's going on in the class. I see vacant expressions and blank stares. However, every time I call on a student whose mother is present, that mother immediately approaches and hovers over her child. Later, when I give the class a relay activity to work on, the parents scramble to look over their kids' shoulders and tell them what to do.

It's unbelievable. What's even more amazing is that I think I'm beginning to see a pattern here.

The first 7th graders I ever taught were this year's 12th graders. During the open classes, several parents expressed very loud, arrogant comments to each other that were often confusing, as if they hadn't really paid any attention to either my lesson's content or my explanations. Coincidentally, the students of that grade seem rather arrogant, but they also seem to have little or no idea of what's going on.

When this year's 10th graders were in grade 7, a LOT of parents came to the open classes. They chatted noisily during my lesson, disrupting it, hardly paying any attention to it at all, but after it was over they were quite warm and friendly with me and had nothing but compliments...and constructive comments. Coincidentally, the students of that grade (last year's 9th grade disaster class...the ones that drove me to throw a desk) are remarkably noisy, childish, and out-of-control, but they're also both very affectionate and very talented.

As for this year's 9th graders, in their 7th grade open classes their parents seemed serious, polite, and perceptive, but also kind of slow to figure things out (i.e. they kept asking the same questions over and over). You guessed it: their kids are exactly the same way.

So what about this year's 7th graders? I'm really glad you asked me! Actually, only this morning, while I was on seasonal traffic safety duty yet again (on the SAME DAY AS OPEN CLASSES???!?!?&#%$*), I and one of the cooler members of the faculty, a P.E. teacher who is also one of the school's guidance counselors, were just discussing that. This year's 7th graders are, on average, eerily cold and withdrawn. There's an unusually large number of individuals that are virtually incapable of interacting with their classmates at all. A troubling number of the students also seem to have great difficulty expressing themselves to even a very minimal extent. It's difficult if not impossible to get the students to be interested in or enthusiastic about anything. It's like they're just wandering around in a fog unable to do anything unless an adult comes over, takes their hand, and walks them through the steps. We've never seen anything like it, at least not to such an extent, before. Our faculty is becoming increasingly concerned, because it's like we're trying to deal with classes filled with semi-autistic 7-year-olds.

[cue Robin Leach voice] And now I think I know why.

In my country, the phrase, "Education begins at home," is considered an axiom, if a rather maligned one. Here in Japan, however, such a rule has never been publicly accepted. Schools are considered solely responsible for a child's upbringing. If a kid goes bad, all the blame is rested squarely on the shoulders of his or her teachers; in the public eye, the parents not only get off spot free, but society actually pities them. They're seen as having been victimized, forced to see their kids "ruined" by incompetent education.

Excuse me? I think the evidence to the contrary is clear as a bell. It's easy to see who these kids' chief role models are, because their character and behavior echo them so plainly. I might also point out that, since the parents insist on meddling in our work and compelling us (some, anyway) to do things we consider questionable anyway, it's rather hypocritical for teachers to have to take the whole rap for education's failings. We do what we have to do according to the limits what we're able and allowed to do. Even so, a child's first and most important educators are the ones that are right there at home. If the latter fail in their responsibility, as is so often the case here, it's a pretty ridiculously tall order to expect the schools to sort out the mess...especially since everything we do is so subject to scrutiny.

Whatever. Classes are over for the day. Time to have a cup of coffee and prepare the orchestral score for that The Sound of Music medley.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Week 7, Day 5

Well, that had to be one of the biggest wastes of time and money I've ever experienced!

I made the journey to Rousai Hospital again today for what the doctor had said would be the final consultation regarding that stubborn, little bastard of a stone slowly wending its way down the pipe. The drive there was a particularly irritating one. I managed to get out of the house a little late again (children...), so naturally traffic was clogged up and moving at a snail's pace all the way through the part of Kamisu City that used to be Kamisu Town (motto: "Who cares if this place sucks as long as it looks nice?"). I managed to hit almost every light red, and at one point I got trapped behind a pair of morons who had a minor bumper-thumper and decided to deal with it by simply clicking on their hazard lights and sitting in the middle of the lane while they waited for the police. (You'd think people would at least have the decency to pull over onto the nearest shoulder, but noooooo.....). By the time I rolled into the hospital parking lot, I was almost half an hour late for my appointment.

Fortunately, I only had to wait about twenty minutes before I was called in. I was told there would be no tests, no X-rays, and no CT scans. I just went straight in to see the doctor. The entire session went something like this:

Doctor: Are you still having any pain?
Me: No, not really, at least nothing much.
Doctor: Nothing that really bothers you?
Me: No.
Doctor: Everything is normal for the most part?
Me: For the most part, yeah. Well, there was a time when, because of my son's sports festival, I went a full day without taking the medicine, and I suddenly had cramping...mainly in my left kidney.
Doctor: The leftone??!? But there's no stone in that one!
Me: Yes, that's right. It really wasn't all that bad, but I've never had pain there before.
Doctor: Sports festival, eh? I'm going to assume it's a sore muscle.
Me: That's probably it.
Doctor: Anyway, you can probably do without the medicine. I'm sure the stone is close to passing, if it hasn't already. I'm going to write you a prescription for another two weeks' worth, but don't take it. Just hold onto it in case you need it later. I'd like you to come back next month so we can give you another CT scan to confirm whether or not the stone is still there.
Me: Okay.
Doctor: Take care. Goodbye.

And for that I had to pay almost $5 at the counter, meaning my insurance got billed even more.

I didn't bother filling the prescription, and I don't think I will. If the doctor says I don't need it, I'll take him at his word. Besides, I still have plenty left over from the last time that I don't need.

Let's see if next month's session lasts longer than a minute.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005



That is most definitely the word of the day, and it’s not just because today is my steel (i.e. 11th) wedding anniversary. Once again I am sitting in my school’s conference room, which I have recently come to dread. Once again I am sitting next to Mr. Ogawa, with Mr. Karatsu sitting on his opposite side. This time, however, we are not facing members of the Music Club Parents’ Association (motto: “What, hasn’t anyone decided on a motto yet?”). The other four sides of the rectangular collection of tables are occupied by the 11th grade committee of the music club. We have a lot to talk about, and almost all of them are sitting with their gaze averted. They look nervous as hell.

As for me, I’m just feeling all steely inside on my steel anniversary.

Sunday, steely Sunday.

Actually, the day didn’t get off to such a bad start. My wife and I had hoped to get up early and go play in Yokohama all day. Unfortunately, her tennis club managed to wreck that, as it has managed to wreck just about all our plans for the past three years. We’re in the middle of our district’s Combined Junior High Sports Meet (plastic, off-the-shelf fanfare), a twice-annual, three-day event which excites the kids and adds yet another scheduling nightmare to the curriculum. Well, thanks to yet another wandering typhoon out over the Pacific, last Friday’s matches got rained out, and the weather was even worse on Saturday. Public school sports knows no Sabbath and considers days of rest a Western abomination. Presto! No trip to Yokohama. The wife was off bright and early again this morning and definitely not happy about it. She was happy, however, when the rain returned and everything got postponed yet again. She was back home by noon, and we were at our favorite shopping/entertainment complex in Narita half an hour later. I managed to get my anniversary presents purchased in time, she got some long overdue shopping done, and the kids found a suitable distraction that didn’t involve injury or destruction. Things worked out just fine.

The only problem was that I had to be back in time for this meeting. The Mrs. wasn’t very happy about it, but I didn’t think missing it would be a good idea. I gave her the keys to my car so she and the kids could go play in Kashima till I was done, gave her a kiss, and tromped into the mostly-darkened school to make the student leaders of the music club face some serious music. STEELY music, and I don’t mean Dan.

So now here we are.

The student chairperson starts the meeting properly with a big, stoic smile on her face. She has already endured the blast, so she knows what’s coming, but she is trying very hard not to show it.

Mr. Ogawa starts his talk, and he doesn’t let anyone else get a word in edgewise for a long time. He has a lot to say. He always does, even when he doesn’t. He addresses a lot of issues, mainly centering on the ones that came up as a result of that ill-fated Australia tour, directly or not. There’s a lot to be concerned about, and he’s spelling it out as clearly as possible.

Recent events have made it clear that we have a bad case of factionalism within the music club. Those of us in charge have no idea how long this has been going on; it had clearly been festering underground for some time, kind of like a mushroom, before the Australia tour disaster caused it to throw up a stem all at once. The string and wind/percussion sections have always been rather cliquish with regard to one another, but now it has become a lot more complicated. There’s a veritable cold war being fought between those in the “dance team” and those not, those that want to do more and those that want to do less, those that want a more rigid outfit and those that want more freedom, and those that want to work closely with the directors and those that want it all to be strictly in their own hands. It’s mainly the 11th graders that are guilty, but the roots of the problem have spread throughout the club and may even have been the cause for the sudden, mysterious dropping out of a few junior high members.

Mr. Ogawa is being firm, but I notice he’s also being very careful. His tone remains measured, and there’s no trace of bile. I realize that we’re facing a number of delicate situations, but I still wonder whether he’s treading lightly or leaving the grease to me. I guess I finally get my answer almost an hour later, when he suddenly turns to me with a wry grin and says, “Is there anything you’d like to say?”

Ha! Is there anything I’d like to say? No, I wouldn’t really like to say it, but I’m going to say it anyway. That’s exactly what I tell them before I start snorting flames.

Actually, though, the fire doesn’t respond as readily as I expected. As with my meeting with (flaming of?) the chairperson a few days ago, I feel more tired than angry. I’m just burned out. I probably sound more depressed than furious as I nevertheless let fly with a frank and sometimes caustic tirade. My beef is not so much the bizarre torpedoing of the Australia tour itself as the way the students went about it. The sneakiness, the two-faced deception, the politics, the twisted priorities, the factional peer pressure bordering on coercion, the dodging of responsibility, the clear lack of trust of their directors, and the indecisiveness all get slammed onto the table and pounded with the Moody Minstrel’s spiritual (steel) hammer. When I finally bring it to an end, every face is aimed downward. Many if not most of them are reddened. Several are tear-stained.

For a few minutes the room remains in dead silence. Then the lead bassoonist, who is also the ringleader of the “dance team”, (not to mention the inspiration for my song “In Your Ranks”,) speaks up. “I want you to understand,” she says frankly, “that none of us asked our mothers to say or decide anything on our behalf. Anything my mother said or did, it was all on her own.” My response to that is rather curt (“Yes, I see.”), but at least it gets the ball rolling. Gradually, timidly, comments start to come forth from the other students.

Finally, the concertmistress of the orchestra says a bit emotionally, “I’m the one who wrote the letter saying I was afraid to tell you what I was thinking. So, what am I supposed to do, anyway? Make myself a target?”

That manages to bring my pilot light up a bit higher, and I finally ignite. “What in the world do you think we’re here for, anyway?” I rail, rising in my seat and gesturing angrily at Mr. Ogawa and Mr. Karatsu. “Is it so difficult for you to trust us? We’re the ones that have to keep this club running without any problems! We also have to solve any problems that do pop up! That’s our responsibility! On the other hand, your responsibility is to let us know where those problems are! That’s why we have meetings like this! Is it so difficult to see that? We do our best to make this organization work well for everybody, but we can’t do a thing for you if you keep it all hushed up! If something’s wrong, tell us, and we will uphold our responsibility! Don’t you dare run away from yours!”

There is another round of dead silence, but I see a lot of thoughtful nods. Then a serious but very outspoken clarinetist asks Mr. Ogawa what he thinks of what I’ve just said. “I can’t say it quite so directly,” he replies, “but he is absolutely right.”

Thank you, Maestro!

Next, our lead trumpeter asks Mr. Karatsu for his opinions. Mr. Karatsu (who STILL reminds me of Dewkid…but without the meaty sense of humor) replies, “I’m not as emotional as [the Moody Minstrel], (obviously,) but what I think is almost exactly the same.” He then launches into a blunt tirade of his own, the main gist of which is that the kids should think carefully before making a decision in the first place and then both stick with that decision and take responsibility for it.

Responsibility. That really is what this whole thing is boiling down to, whether I end my sentence with a preposition or not. This year’s 11th graders seemed very responsible at the beginning of the school year, but recently they’ve been getting flakier, (cue Robin Leach voice) and I don’t know why!

More silence, and then the bassoonist pipes in again, suggesting that they all find out what the younger members are thinking and then have a good, serious talk to determine the club’s direction. That girl is definitely an enigma (and sometimes even a mild dilemma), but she’s good at getting things moving (or preventing them from moving…like her mother). The mood in the conference room gradually changes from steely silence to thoughtful discussion as more and more members offer their contributions. There are no earth-shattering revelations, no sermons, no profound, gospel truths, no testaments at all, but a new covenant appears to be in the works. (Sorry, Pa’ve.) The members of the different factions are talking, and I see a glimmer of hope somewhere among the lotus leaves. Out of the chaos, a…ah, forget it. Anyway, the kids are thinking, and they’re talking.

Still, I can’t help noticing that the chairperson herself has been quietly taking notes the whole time, speaking only to moderate the discussion. She hasn’t offered a single opinion. Ironically, I see that as proof she’s doing her job. Instead of taking matters into her own hands and ruling by decree, as many chairpersons before her have tried (and usually failed miserably), she is letting the committee do its work. She may seem like an adorable, little airhead on the surface, but her sense of duty is rock solid.

Or should I say steel solid?

Uh, oh…speaking of steel, it’s now past seven o’ clock, and my loving wiffee is probably sitting in my BLUE car somewhere ready to chew nails as the kids in the backseat drive her nuts. The committee is already dwindling, as individual kids step out to meet their rides or catch their trains. I go ahead and take my leave, too. My part has already been played, after all.

When I inform the kids of my reason for leaving, I’m given a starry-eyed “Ooohhhh!” followed by a hearty round of applause. I guess some things are harder than steel…or maybe I should say softer. My heart has already started to melt, that’s for sure.

Monday, October 03, 2005

A Question of Priorities...

...or how quickly dreams turn to dust.

During the 2002-2003 school year the Seishin Gakuen symphony orchestra (fanfare played by whoever happens to be available at the moment) tried to go on a concert tour in Austria. The orchestra was playing at a peak level then, and Mr. Ogawa thought it was a perfect time to show our stuff elsewhere. Unfortunately, that plan wound up being shot down in flames by the Music Club Parents’ Association (er…somebody cue a fanfare…what fanfare…ANY fanfare…no, not that one…yes, that one…NO, NOT THAT ONE…let’s have tea instead…lovely). A lot of reasons were cited by the parents for their lack of support: the young average age of the orchestra members, SARS, Al-Qaeda, the fact that only the orchestra would be going, loss of valuable study time, etc, etc, etc. However, what it really boiled down to was a massive smear campaign on the part of the (thankfully gone) “parent-from-hell” (stupid but very precise fanfare), who opposed anything that was neither his idea nor featured his daughter. Needless to say, there were a lot of hard feelings, and the kids were pretty disappointed.

Cut to the here and now.

The orchestra has undergone a good-sized shift, but it actually turned out to be largely for the better. Even before the new school year started in April, Mr. Ogawa looked at his available personnel, thought about it for a while, and realized that our current group might even be better overall than the 2002-2003 one.

We also had a wonderful, new opportunity: our new sister-school in Australia.

Our international committee had spent lots of time fussing and fuming over our First Exchange. I had insisted on sending a delegation of teachers as the first step (which happened; see the posting “Going Down Under”), but the problem was that Pacific Lutheran College, our sister-school, was already planning on sending nearly two dozen students our way in mid-September (which also happened; see the posting “Saying G’day and Goodbye”, below). According to the terms of our original agreement we were supposed to send our return exchange the following March. However, trying to recruit students for the event seemed like a hopeless task. We couldn’t see how we could pull it off.

That’s when Mr. Ogawa suggested sending the orchestra.

We got enthusiastic responses all around. Our principal thought it was a wonderful idea. The deputy principal felt it took a welcome load off his shoulders. Pacific Lutheran College panicked at first, but when we explained that we didn’t expect them to provide home-stays for all 98 members they became ecstatic about the prospect (especially when they heard us perform while their students were here!). And the kids…well…they were pretty much bouncing off the walls with excitement.

We were planning to go during the subsequent spring vacation, which meant we had to try to throw this whole tour thing together in less than a year. We knew it would be a brutal task. However, we had plenty of support. Thanks to the failed Austria trip, we were already in contact with a German international travel agency specializing in youth music events. Since they already knew all about us, it streamlined things a lot. The music director at P.L.C. was being a typical music director (i.e. hopelessly wrapped up in his own affairs), but he did do quite a bit of searching around to get us needed logistical support, such as percussion instruments and transportation. We were also invited to come a little ways south, to Gold Coast, to visit and play at Trinity Lutheran College, another private school on the same network as P.L.C. which already has a sister-club exchange with Seishin’s rugby team.

Even better: when the international travel agency got in touch with youth music organizations in Australia and told them all about us, we were given an opportunity that seemed nothing short of a miracle. We were invited to perform as part of an international youth music festival at the Sydney Opera House.

Yes, that’s right. Wow.

The next step was the Parent’s Association, but this time things were quite different. There were some misgivings, to be sure, but since the principal had already given his full support (and, more importantly, the parent-from-hell was long gone), we didn’t have much trouble getting their approval. We took a vote, and over 80% said yes. The motion was carried, and the plan was officially set into motion.

We all understood that it would be a huge undertaking, rather intimidating for our poor (overprotected) kids, so we told them that participation would be strictly voluntary. We had a formal discussion just before our summer training camp last July and then asked the kids to submit a form telling us whether or not they would be going to Australia with us. In the end, more than 80% said they would. That was more than enough for a viable orchestra. Everything was go for launch, and the orchestra immediately started rehearsing tunes they would be playing on the tour.

September saw the school’s overwhelming Anniversary Festival followed immediately by the arrival of the first contingent from P.L.C.. It all went beautifully, but something didn’t seem quite right about the 11th graders in the music club, who form its central committee. They seemed oddly dark, even evasive, all of a sudden, and some of them started asking me really strange questions about the possibility of them going to Australia the following summer as exchange students. It was true that most of the host families during the recent P.L.C. visit had been members of the music club, mainly 10th and 11th graders, and I thought the orchestra tour would give them a convenient opportunity to be with their new friends again. With that in mind, their questions didn’t seem to make sense. Things were starting to seem a bit too odd for my liking.

Mr. Ogawa also clearly looked troubled, and when I asked him what was up he told me that several of the orchestra members, mainly 10th and 11th graders, had suddenly changed their minds and bowed out of the tour. We still had all the parts adequately covered, so it wasn’t such a big deal, but it was still kind of unsettling.

We had a meeting with several of the mothers of the 11th grade members at about this time. They indicated that they were still willing to support us if (underline IF) we were still determined to go through with it. However, they seemed just as dark and evasive all of a sudden as the 11th grade students themselves. They offered their apparently grudging support with grim faces and low voices. It didn’t seem to trouble Mr. Ogawa. He took the positive answer, noted it, and went with it.

Right after the meeting, the very vocal mother of our lead bassoonist cornered me and asked, “Mr. Kevin, don’t you think it sad that going to Australia will make the 11th graders miss out on preparing for the Sports Festival?” I was totally puzzled not only by the question, but the mother’s tone of voice. The question felt very loaded. I replied frankly that, when I had been a team supervisor for the Sports Festival in the past, the amount of preparation done during spring vacation had been minimal. Moreover, the Sports Festival wasn’t until the end of April, so there would be at least a full month in between. Therefore, the Australia tour shouldn’t be a problem in any case. The mother didn’t seem convinced. She said ominously, “I really don’t think the girls will be happy about it. They’re really looking forward to the dance competition.”

That set off a warning bell immediately. The Sports Festival dance competition! The woman’s daughter entered our music club as a 10th grader last year after transferring from another school. Within a few months, she went from a reclusive wall flower to our club’s official cheerleader/dance team captain. Multitalented, the girl seems especially fond of dance, as the various (usually surprise) group performances she has choreographed over the past year have shown. I guess it’s only natural that she should be hoping to be in charge of a team’s dance event during the contest in the Sports Festival. (In fact, she might even rescue the event from the hideous morass of cliché dullness it has been foundering in for the past four or five years.) However, considering the fact that she had become something of a ringleader among the 10th and 11th graders, things didn’t look well.

The week following that meeting was final exams, so all club-related activities were off. When it was all over, we were to proceed to the next step, which was a meeting with the 11th grade central committee to hammer out our final plans for the tour.

However, when Mr. Ogawa, Mr. Karatsu, and I went to the conference room, we found not the 11th grade committee members, but their mothers. The student leader of the music club came in the room just long enough to drop off a couple of bottles of iced coffee, and then she bolted out of the room as fast as she could go.

Then the mothers gave us the Manifesto.

I don’t know what else to call it. It was a whole pile of anonymous letters composed and compiled jointly by all the 11th graders and their mothers. The contents were unbelievable. In a nutshell, they all more or less read: “I wanted to go at first, but then I realized that the dance competition is much more important to me. Besides, as a new 12th grader, I’ll really need my study time, and I can’t really spare the six days for the tour. I can’t tell you myself, because I’m afraid you’ll get angry and single me out. I’m very sorry, but I won’t be going.”

In other words, that stupid dance competition is far more important to the whole lot of them than playing a once-in-a-lifetime (never in most lifetimes!) performance at one of the world’s most prestigious venues! Well, whether their reasons were justified or not, they left us with a sorely hamstrung orchestra minus almost all of its key players. There was no way in hell we would be even tempted to bring such a group to Australia.

In other words, game over. Killed by the f***ing Sports Festival. And I have to try to explain that to both our sister-school and the other places that were eagerly hoping to host us.

I also have to try to figure out how I’m ever going to trust that group of cowardly she-assassins again since we still have so many events coming up. Dodging an issue and hitting me with it from behind to avoid my wrath only earns greater wrath, I’m afraid, even if I sympathize with the reasons (and this time I most definitely do NOT). Forgive me for being an American, but being backstabbed is something I don’t take gracefully.