Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Too Much Thought on my Hands

There's a semi (Japanese cicada) outside noisily screaming at the sun. Right now it is the only sound to be heard even though I'm here in a classroom with forty-one 9th grade students. It is the second day of classes since Summer Vacation turned into a pumpkin, and the kids are taking exams to demonstrate whether they actually did their summer homework or not. I'm taking my turn at proctor duty.


No, no, no...that's a proct-OLOGIST!!! Come on!!! I mean PROCTOR!!! You know, the guy that looks over the shoulders of the test-takers to make sure none of them are using cheat-sheets (and to annoy the heck out of them so their scores wind up lower than they should be). It's a very important duty, but it's also one of the most boring a teacher ever has to suffer.

This is especially true in my case right now. The current exam subject is Japanese language. The kids have a full, fifty-minute period in which to take it. Naturally, all of them finished after the first fifteen. Either the Japanese instructors sadly underestimated the students' abilities or they were really lazy when they put the exam together. It's nothing unusual; this sort of thing tends to happen a lot. That means we have thirty-five minutes of absolutely nothing to do, but the strict silence rule still applies. A few studious (or very worried) individuals are quadruple-checking their answers. Others are staring blankly into space. Most have their heads down on their desks, sound asleep. Me? While keeping one eye open for cheaters, I'm taking advantage of this wonderful opportunity to do some hard-core thinking.

Outside, the semi goes right on screaming at the sun with its eerie, loud, metallic-sounding rasp.

Recently the Western news media has been obsessed with that guy that didn't kill JonBenet Ramsay. Here in Japan, in addition to the normal fright about atomic goings-on in Iran and North Korea, we're mainly hearing about that Japanese fishing boat that "strayed" into Russian-controlled waters around the disputed Northern Territories, which Russia calls the Kuril Islands and has held since the end of WWII. The story goes that the boat tried to go into an area near one of the islands that is currently restricted (for environmental reasons, or so Russia claims) but still has very bountiful fish and crab stocks. Apparently Japanese fishing boats are quite fond of sneaking into that particular spot, and Russia is getting annoyed with it. Well, apparently a Russian patrol boat spotted the Japanese craft, ordered it to stop, gave chase when it didn't, and then fired on it, killing one of its crew. The boat was then captured, and its captain and two surviving crew were taken into custody.

I think the only reason they're making such a fuss about it is because it happened among the Northern Territories/Kuril Islands. That's still a very sensitive issue among the Japanese, who have been negotiating like crazy to try to get at least one or two of the islands returned. (Russia can't seem to make up its mind on the matter, first saying they'll return one island, then none, then two, then just getting mad...) The Japanese reaction almost suggests that they feel the fishing boat was the victim of an unprovoked attack within Japanese territory. Well, considering the Russians have been complaining about such incursions for some time...and gave this particular boat plenty of warning before shooting at it...somehow I just don't think so. Still, it's an issue of both nationalism and patriotism, and those always tend to be rather chaotic in the Land of the Rising Sun. The issue of Prime Minister Koizumi's visits to the ultra-nationalistic Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to all Japanese killed in war including several class A war criminals, is much the same. Patriotism is supposed to be taboo here, or at least the rest of Asia seems to think so, but it is still very much in the hearts and minds of a lot of the people.

Mr. N, who made this exam, pops into the classroom to see if there are any questions and to give a few warnings. It seems totally superfluous; the students don't acknowledge his presence at all. Total blank. Perhaps they have come close to finding the perfect Zen state. Zen and the Art of Spacing Out...

One of the students raises his hand. He has knocked his test problem sheet onto the floor, out of reach, and the rules say he's not allowed to get up to pick it up. I have to do it for him. At least I have something to do.

Speaking of teachers getting harshly removed from their posts, my wife is now no longer the coach of her tennis club. She quit voluntarily, but she was under a lot of pressure to do so. A little over a month ago her 9th grade members reached their mandatory "retirement" and dropped out. The remaining 7th and 8th graders then elected a new captain and vice-captain from among their ranks. My wife wasn't happy with their choice, because the new captain wound up being an immature, unreliable punk who basically did what he wanted when he wanted, never listened to a word he was told, and threw a tantrum if he was criticized in any way. In other words, he was useless, and the vice-captain wasn't much better. After the first summer tournament event under the new leadership my wife was so stressed out she was about ready to shatter on the spot. By the time the team had finished three such events, my wife was so fed up with the punk that she said, "Look, if you can't do your job any better than that, why don't you quit?"

Well, the punk did just that. He quit. Then he bawled to his parents. Well, his soccer mom (tennis mom?) and politically ambitious dad immediately went ballistic and noisily demanded that my wife resign. When she didn't, they started a smear campaign, got the parents of all the remaining tennis club boys together, made all kinds of outrageous accusations, formed an alliance to press their cause, and delivered what more or less amounted to a threat to the principal to do something or else. Very much to their credit, when the recently-retired 9th graders heard what had happened, they got the word out to a whole bunch of tennis club alumni, who then came to my wife's defense. They said that she had been strict with them, sure, but she had always been right. She had also taken an utterly hopeless team of losers and taken them all the way to the regional championship. The principal apparently suggested to the new alliance of tennis moms that they take that into account, but they wouldn't be placated. Instead, they countered that my wife was "arrogant" and guilty of what they called "verbal corporal punishment(??)". They also threatened to take their case to the school board, which would have very bad implications for the principal. As a compromise, he put the assistant coach in "temporary charge" and said he would take a poll of the remaining tennis club boys to find out what they thought. (Considering most if not all of them are mama's boys, there probably wasn't much point, but anyway...) In the end, it never came to that. My wife decided to resign voluntarily. In the end, she actually seems happier for it. That damned club had been driving her nuts, anyway.

Now the alliance of tennis moms is threatening to go to the school board anyway. They think my wife should be completely removed from the school, even as a teacher. (She is well known and respected at the school board, but you never know...) At the same time, the principal is getting quite fed up, and he's threatening to disband the tennis club altogether.

It's amazing how life tends to resemble TV dramas...

Fifteen more minutes. Can't we just declare this damned thing over and end it here?

Tooners just put a wonderfully heated rant on her own blog, but it was like an old friend. Living as an American in Bahrain, she is fed up with being stared at, having people cut in front of her in line, and being totally ignored by people she's trying to talk to. These are things I've always had to deal with here, but yet they don't seem to bother me as much these days. So, have I gotten used to it, or is it actually decreasing? I know that people, especially 50+ year olds, still seem to feel entitled to barge in in front of lines wherever they go, but I don't seem to be getting fixed by hard stares nearly as much as I used to. It has also been a while since I tried to talk to someone and got no reaction whatsoever (though I have had people simply turn and walk away in annoyed silence..).

It's nothing like it used to be in the early 90s, when people would point at me and say, "Hey, look! A foreigner!" Mothers would often whisper, "They're dangerous," to their children and quickly scoop them out of my way. If I sat down in a bank, hospital, or train station, all the adults within three meters would immediately relocate further away. Teens, young adults, and the middle aged would make their stares surreptitious, looking away nonchalantly if I glanced in their direction. Children and old people, on the other hand, would fix me with hard, glassy-eyed stares, which I would often return just to amuse myself. Sometimes braver children (unaccompanied by parents) would try to play with me, which was always fun. Sometimes elderly would try to talk to me, and I couldn't understand a word they were saying in the strong dialects they almost always used. Most of the time, however, they'd freak out if I did anything other than stare back. If I tried to ask a question, quite often they'd run away in a panic, sometimes after barking, "I don't speak English," even though I was using Japanese. At other times they wouldn't react in any way at all. Those that did respond would often look panicky, acting like they couldn't understand me at all even if I was asking a very obvious, simple question that I knew I was saying correctly.

That was fifteen years ago. It doesn't seem to be like that at all anymore. Now, when I walk into a crowded supermarket, I sense all eyes on me for a few seconds, and then everyone goes about their business. If I ask a question, some idiots will stomp away in a huff without saying anything, but most will respond, and they don't find it incomprehensible for a gaijin to be speaking their own language. In fact, on occasion people will actually ask me for help or directions, which would have been unheard of a decade ago.

I guess Japan really has become more internationalized, at least in a cosmopolitan sense, which is the one that really matters. Their English ability doesn't seem to have improved very much, though. In that respect, I think Bahrain probably has the advantage.

Oh, good. This Japanese exam is finally over. Next is math, but the kids don't seem to care. As they hand their papers in, most of them are noisily whining about the upcoming English test. What was I saying about Japanese English ability a moment ago...?

I guess some things will never change, just like that semi still shrieking outside. No doubt they shrieked just like that a thousand years ago, when aristocratic priests sat bored drinking rice wine while waiting for their pupils to finish copying their poetry. No rice wine for me, but least now we have air conditioning.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Next to a White Room With No Curtains...

I don't know how the Seishin Flying Eggheads (funky fanfare...with one out-of-tune trumpet) managed to get so lucky this year. It seems like we're suddenly getting inundated with requests to perform. It's not that I'm complaining; it's always good to be appreciated, and the kids can definitely use the experience and the exposure. Also, considering what I talked about in the last post, I'm thankful that I actually have things to do.

During the four-month period leading up to Summer Vacation we had only two performances, the first thrice-annual Saturday Afternoon Concert of the year and the Rokko District High School Music Event in June. Both of those performances were short; we only played three tunes plus an encore. Considering how shaky we were sounding with all the power players recently lost to graduation, that was probably for the best. Now we don't have it quite so lucky. During the next three months we have four major performances. By "major" I mean at least a half-hour program. Only one of those is a school event, specifically the annual soryosai (創陵祭 - Foundation Festival) at ye olde academy. The other three are away missions to which we were invited.

The first, and perhaps most unlikely, of these events is today. I have to admit I had my doubts about this whole thing when we were first invited. The fact that a lot of the dealing took place via Mr. Ogawa and the Eggheads' student "top cat" while I was in Australia kind of made me feel a bit iffy about it. Apparently the Kashima City Chamber of Commerce decided to hold a little music festival in front of Kashima Jingu Station, the main train station in the city. They had already booked a couple of local jazz trios and an acoustic guitar duo to play. Somewhere along the line someone suggested us. After all, not only is Seishin Gakuen quite near the station, but we have the only jazz big band in town. (Besides, a jazz big band is a lot more mobile and a bit friendlier to outdoor performances than our symphony orchestra!)

The Kashima City Chamber of Commerce, which is near both the station and Kashima Shrine.

Kashima Jingu Station

I said I would do it, but I have to admit I had my doubts. Kashima Jingu Station may be the most important station in the area, but it's still neither big nor busy. Moreover, I didn't recall seeing any place there that was particularly suitable for performing. I had all kinds of nightmares of us going there to find a lot of confusion and no audience. The people in charge seemed pretty serious about it, though. They put quite an impressive ad for the event, featuring a picture of the Seishin Flying Eggheads from last March's big regular concert, in both Kashima's monthly newsletter and the Ibaraki Shimbun, a regional newspaper (insert) that comes out once a week. The two representatives that came and met with me two weeks before the event also seemed to have things well in hand. They told me they'd provide transportation and assured me they'd at least have electricity, chairs, and a mike available (something I'd worried about). That helped me relax a bit.

I wish I could say the same thing about the Eggheads themselves. We immediately ran into trouble. Actually, our current drummer, bassist, and two keyboardists are all very talented and doing an excellent job. The winds, however, have a few holes. Those were made even worse by the fact that all the 10th graders were scheduled to be away at "summer camp" (actually a free-for-all in Tokyo) on the day of the event, which eliminated our lead trombone player. That wasn't quite so bad; the 2nd trombonist is actually a better player, and she could fill in quite nicely. However, the camp also eliminated our new back-up 2nd alto sax player, and our regular 2nd alto was to be away on a family trip. That was a gap that wasn't easily filled. Up till summer I filled the missing 2nd tenor sax slot myself (till I gritted my teeth and put a 7th grade beginner in the position...once she was able to carry a tune), so my playing 2nd alto probably wouldn't be such a big deal. However, some of the tunes definitely needed directing. Moreover, the 2nd alto player had a lot of solos, and I didn't want to take those myself. That left me with the option of directing while holding my alto sax and then jumping into the 2nd alto chair when I was needed there. On top of that, there was some really weak solo playing coming from both our lead tenor sax player (who suffers from a chronic lack of confidence) and most of the trumpet section. Add to that the fact that I had four 7th graders (including the 2nd tenor) and one 8th grade beginner in the ranks due to a desperate personnel shortage. Needless to say, during the sadly few rehearsals things were looking pretty grim.

Cut to today, August 26th, the day of the event itself.

The Chamber of Commerce people told me they'd provide transportation, which is a good thing because both of the school vans are reserved. Even so, I have a bad feeling about it, so when I arrive at the school at around 1:30 p.m. the first thing I do is double-check the van bookings. Lo and behold, one of the reservations has been canceled. Another teacher has already scooped it up, but her reservation is scheduled to end well before our 3:00 p.m. departure. Just for good measure, I immediately jot down my name. Then I head up to see how the kids are doing.

The Eggheads' top cat told me a couple of days ago that she was worried about everyone being too tired to perform, so we decided to have no rehearsals today and to have all our gear packed up and ready to go by lunchtime. I go up to the auditorium to find most of the members practicing on their own...loudly...and none of the gear ready to go. I am a bit irritated, but the top cat is nowhere in sight. Apparently she hasn't come back from her summer seminar class yet. I tell the kids to pack up their stuff and get ready to go immediately. (Naturally, "immediately" translates as "in slow motion with lots of screwing around in between".) When the Chamber of Commerce people show up at about 2:45 the kids are still lugging stuff down the stairs to the rear entrance.

It turns out that my having grabbed the school van was a very good thing. The Chamber of Commerce people have brought only one vehicle, an 8-seat minivan with little extra cargo space. This is for 22 students plus myself and all our gear. I tell the kids to load the heavy stuff in the school van and put themselves in the CoC van. It winds up being very slow going. The Seishin Gakuen music club has got to be the slowest-moving outfit in the Rokko district if not all of Ibaraki Prefecture (if not...whatever...). The problem is that they are so damned fastidious. In my own school daze days we always just tossed everything into the van, truck, or bus and went. If there was a spare corner somewhere we'd stuff something in it. We almost always managed to pull off any move in one go. Not the Seishin crew. They lay each item in the van carefully, making sure it's arranged so that nothing bumps into anything else, and there's no way in hell they'll stack things on top of each other! I mean, I can understand that our instruments are generally more expensive and of higher quality than what most schools use (another legacy of Mr. Ogawa), but when our departure time starts running way late, and the kids are standing there fussing over how to arrange the tom-toms and congas in the back of the van, I start to get irritated. I finally start stacking things up anyway, eliciting a chorus of gasps and complaints, and tell the kids to shut up and get in the van.

Our performance is scheduled to begin at 3:30. By the time we get everyone and everything there it is already almost 3:40. That's when they inform me that they've forgotten the bass drum kick-pedal. It's a damned good thing that the trip to the school and back takes less than five minutes. Even so, the "stage crew" is having some kind of trouble getting our digital piano rigged up through their sound system and balanced. In the end, they give up and use the amp they said I wouldn't need but I insisted on bringing anyway. (My intuition is really saving my neck today, innit?) Downbeat is at about 3:50, twenty minutes behind schedule.

In the picture of the station I've posted up above you can see a roofed bus/taxi loading area on the left side. That's where they set up the "stage" facing into the open plaza in the middle. (Just outside the picture on the left side is a small Chamber of Commerce booth, which is what they use as "home base" and the source of our electricity.) In this space they had set up a few event booths plus a number of chairs for guests. Amazingly enough, not only are all the chairs filled, but there is quite a standing crowd gathered! That in itself really helps get us pumped up!

We start our program with a couple of nice, safe "same old, same olds": Santana's "Oye Como Va" and Glenn Miller's "Tuxedo Junction". We've already performed those tunes dozens of times over the years, and there are no surprises...except for our plucky baritone sax player taking over the 2nd alto player's solo in "Tuxedo Junction"! We follow with a new addition to our repertoire, Glenn Miller's "Pennsylvania 6-5000". The still-growing crowd claps when I name the tune before starting it. It's a fun, upbeat number, but I'm worried. There are solos in it by our lead tenor and by far the weakest of our "senior" trumpet players. The tenor player struggles, but at least she doesn't stop. The trumpet player, however, by some miracle, pulls her solo off both strongly and confidently. (What...did someone hypnotize her or replace her with a clone?!?) We follow with another new one, a simple, beginner's version of Mancini's "Moon River" that I have spiced up a little bit. It's not as tight as it probably could be, but it still sounds good. There's also some very nice solo work (improvs around the written melody) done by our lead alto and trumpet players.

Not only is the crowd still growing, but bus and taxi drivers are starting to come around to check us out. There is also more than one journalist snapping away.

Picking the pace up again, we perform the shuffle-swing version of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" that we've already done this year. We manage to pull it off without the dragging and rushing that plagued us the last time we did it. The crowd is happy. The kids look happy. The 7th graders don't look quite so intimidated. So far so good.

We follow with another new piece, an interesting bossa nova arrangement of the classic "Lullabye of Birdland". Our lead alto player, who is top cat of the Eggheads this year and by far our strongest jazz player at present, takes the 2nd alto solo and does some pretty impressive improv. Unfortunately, the trumpet player who also has solo work there folds under the pressure and, while she was strong in rehearsal, comes across a bit weak this time. The drum & percussion breaks are hot. We follow that with a regular favorite of the Eggheads, the original Weather Report version of "Birdland". In this piece I get a serious workout jumping between the directing position and the 2nd alto chair. The piece is charged up, energetic, and goes very well with one unfortunate exception. Our bassist this year, Ms. ST, is really quite good, and she had that funky Jaco Pastorius thumb-slap solo break in the middle down better than any bass player in the Flying Eggheads' history EVAR. Unfortunately, today she used a different acoustic bass from before, a much less user-friendly one, on the swing tunes, and her right thumb and forefinger now sport large, bloody blisters. When that solo break comes, she grimaces in agony, leans into her History/Fender Jazz bass (her own...and I love that thing!), and gives it a damned good shot. It's funky, it's dirty, but it's too quiet, a bit out of control, and she's not happy about it. It's too bad. Otherwise it's a good show.

We close the thing with this year's regular encore (and apparently this year's theme for the Flying Eggheads), a rock tune called "Over The Edge". It's a short, fun tune that the kids love (and play any chance they get, with or without me), and it always goes well. It's interesting that none of the three solos are the same as before. The weak trumpet player takes the first...and does a great job again. (What's going on??!? No, damn it, DON'T TELL ME!!!) Our 8th grade bass trombonist, who has never played a solo in her life, takes the second and gives a fair accounting. As before, I take the third solo, the only indulgence I allow myself, but this time I'm on alto instead of tenor, and I keep my solo a bit reserved so I don't upstage the others too much (read "because I haven't played this thing for months, and I don't want to push my technique too much"). We're done. The crowd is cheering. The kids are pumped up and happy, especially the new members. Okay, I guess I can now officially say that the Seishin Flying Eggheads' 2006-2007 season has truly begun.

Now it's time for one of the trios to play, and they borrow our digital piano (and use it very well, I might add). As we're breaking our gear down and getting ready to roll (and receiving all kinds of nifty presents from the various booths) I'm suddenly approached by none other than Mr. Yamazaki, longtime professional jazz drummer and founder of the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival, which will be held for the third time this year. Of course the Seishin Flying Eggheads will be there. I mentioned that there were four major performances scheduled in three months. This event was the first. The KSJF will be the last.

"Excellent performance," crows Mr. Yamazaki, "as always! Truly excellent! You really had the crowd going!"

"Thank you," I reply, bowing modestly. "I have to admit I was worried, but I'm pretty happy."

"Oh, yes!" Mr. Yamazaki goes on. "I can't wait to see you guys at the Seaside Jazz Festival!" Then he frowns. "There's just one problem..."

My sheepish grin vanishes. "What...?"

"'Moon River'," he replies. "Your performance of it sounded soooo good, and since the theme of this year's festival is 'Jazz & Cinema'..."

"Er, th-that's why we're doing that piece," I retort anxiously. "That's why I ordered it!"

Mr. Yamazaki nods and bites his lip. "That's what I thought. Unfortunately, right after you guys are on, we're going to have something really special, a professional jazz chorus! Guess what their main piece is..."

I don't think I need to guess.

"Please," he says regretfully, "don't play 'Moon River'. Just stick with Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. That's what you're best at."

I only nod in reply, and he bows and excuses himself. Actually, I will delete "Moon River" from the program (arrrrggggghhhh), but I have no intention whatsoever of sticking with Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman...again. Maybe it's time to do some arranging...

But that's something for another day. Right now it's time to go home.

Friday, August 25, 2006

And Now That I'm Back Again...

The day after coming back from Down Under (August 4), I went to ye olde academy, picked up four of the girls that had also been in Australia, and drove us all to the music club's summer training camp in my BLUE RAV4. Mr. Ogawa had wanted us to depart first thing in the morning so we could be there in time for lunch. I knew that that would be taking a really stupid risk; as exhausted as I was, I needed a good night's sleep in order to be fully confident of my driving safety. As it was, with the help of my car navigation system (though I ignored it half the time in favor of alternate routes I knew would have less traffic and would therefore be faster), I was able to deliver myself and the four girls at about 2 p.m., just in time for the afternoon set of rehearsals.

Last year's training camp was held at a place in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, which is mainly famous as a ski resort but also has a lot to offer in terms of summertime entertainment. Unfortunately, it was bloody hot and miserable there last year. The teachers' quarters were like a sauna when we tried to sleep at night, especially since the air conditioner wasn't working properly, but we weren't about to keep the windows open. In some of the rehearsal rooms the students did keep the windows open, which meant we had a horrible problem with mosquitoes, hornets, and obnoxious, biting horseflies. In the end, we vowed never to go there again.

But we did. You see, both they and some of our alums that had recommended the place in the first place insisted that such weather was highly unusual. Therefore, we gave them the benefit of the doubt. Actually, things were much better this year. It was a lot cooler, and the air conditioners were working, so we kept the windows shut. There was less sweat and much, much fewer bugs. That allowed us to relax, enjoy ourselves, and just concentrate on what we were there to do (i.e. drink a lot).

It was a very good summer camp in other ways, too. This year's concert band is going through an off-year phase. We didn't even expect them to make the prefecture championships and were quite surprised when they did. However, no one had any illusions of our making it any further, so we just kind of relaxed and allowed ourselves to focus on other things. For the first time in years there were no gripes from any of the guest clinicians about my jazz band rehearsals (which they usually try to terminate, claiming they "burn the kids out"). On the contrary; I actually got a lot of helpful support. I should also point out that, unlike last year's disastrous group of new 7th graders, this year's rookies are showing amazing promise. Some of them are good enough that they've already been put in the regular concert band. (I also just put three of them in my jazz band, and one of them, a sax player, is almost outplaying some of her seniors even though she is a new beginner!) All in all, it was a very good summer camp, and I felt far less stress than usual.

I might also add that I played regular golf for only the second time in my life. The first time in my life was during last year's camp, and this year I did better (though I started out worse). In fact, on two holes I actually scored better than Mr. Ogawa...who is an experienced golfer. He was pretty amazed by that, and I felt pretty good about it.

However, at the same time, something happened that I didn't expect at all. In some ways it made me feel very good. In others, it has me a little worried about the direction things might take in the future.

You see, I still can't figure out Mr. Ogawa. Sometimes he gives me so much support, instruction, and encouragement, makes me a full part of the program, and makes sure that the students, parents, and everyone else recognize and respect me as such. However, at other times he seems to be trying to toss me in a closet and shut the door, getting dismissive if not openly irritated if I try to come back out again.

Ever since Mr. Karatsu joined the program four years ago, Mr. Ogawa has been enforcing with increasing strictness a fixed division of responsibility. Specifically, Mr. Karatsu is in charge of the concert band, I'm in charge of the jazz band, and Mr. Ogawa himself is in charge of the symphony orchestra, string ensemble, and, for the most part, the (temporary, mainly for training) junior high wind ensemble. Mssr. Maestro Ogawa is becoming less tolerant of any attempt to cross those boundaries. For the most part, though I would like to work more with the orchestra, I can respect such a setup. However, there are times when it just doesn't seem right. One of the biggest problems is that Mr. Karatsu gives only very little instruction. He is becoming a very able director, but his style is still very straightforward and simplistic. He doesn't even try to give coaching to the different parts or individual players. True, we bring in guest clinicians for that, but they can't come anywhere near often enough. But if Mr. Ogawa catches me giving individual coaching outside my jazz band, he quite often either makes snide comments, discouraging the students from listening to me, or interferes directly. I have confronted him on the issue in the past, and he has always replied, "Just concentrate on your jazz band. That's all you need to worry about."

Last year was the first year I kept my hands completely off the concert band, or would have, anyway. As it turned out, Mr. Karatsu asked me to fill in for him a couple of times when he wasnt available for rehearsals (and Mr. Ogawa seemed surprised he did it). I took that as tacit permission for me to give some coaching before the contest, and I did so...till Mr. Ogawa intervened and shut me down. Then I went back to my "hands off" policy. When our band took a gold medal in the prefectural championship and went on to the East Kanto Regional Championship, Mr. Karatsu asked me to come along. I wasn't able to hold my tongue very long, and I found myself runnning around during the rehearsals giving pointers here and there. Mr. Ogawa wasn't there to stop me, and I even managed to fix one nagging problem in the sax section that had been plaguing them till them. (Basically, the lead tenor player hadn't even been blowing right!) Though we didn't succeed in advancing to the next round, we still got a very good result, the best ever, and Mr. Karatsu thanked me for my assistance.

This year my "hands off" policy wound up going even deeper. Mr. Karatsu never even asked for my help. (On Mr. Ogawa's recommendation, he asked alums instead.) Clear up until this year's prefectural championship, I didn't even have any idea what the band was playing. I was completely disconnected from it. Apparently our guest clinicians didn't like that.

It was probably my biggest surprise of the past several years, let alone this year's summer camp. Some of the guest clinicians called me over one evening, sat me down, and asked me what I thought of this year's concert band. I replied quite truthfully that I had no idea. After all, I hadn't seen a single rehearsal. The clinicians were surprised. Some of them were irritated. One of them, our oboe instructor, went ballistic.

"What in the world is Mr. Ogawa thinking?" he railed. "Doesn't he care about this music club at all? I mean, no offense to Mr. Karatsu, but..."

I was surprised to be getting this kind of support from these noted professional musicians and conservatory instructors. At the same time, I was more or less aware of Mr. Ogawa's stated reasons for his policy. All I said was, "It's...complicated."

The other clinicians chuckled and shook their heads knowingly. They were also aware of Mr. Ogawa's stated reasons. After all, two years before, when Mssr. Maestro thought I couldn't hear him, he told them all those reasons quite bluntly...and loudly. (More like "rabidly"...) Some of them did make sense. Others didn't. Some seemed positively daft...if not outright bullshit, and attempts to defend me just made him frothier. At any rate, Mr. Ogawa had made it abundantly clear that, for whatever reason, he didn't want me to be in charge of the kids. Not in any "serious" musical capacity, at least. I was to be in charge of the jazz band only, and that was that.

"I think we all know the real reasons here," said our bassoon instructor. "It's not going to change, either."

The oboe instructor was seething. "Well, someone needs to pound some sense into Mr. Ogawa. I mean, putting his ego ahead of the club's welfare like that..."

I really wasn't sure what to say, but I was getting worried. A confrontation wouldn't help things at all. "Please, sir, it's probably better not to push it."

The oboe instructor looked at me very intently and said, "Well, anyway, [Moody], just remember that you have fans here."

I was speechless, and I was thankful I had a good supply of beer at hand. As I said, I never expected such support from these high-ranked musicians...let alone respect...

The next day, when Mr. Ogawa and I wound up alone in the teachers' quarters, I very carefully, gently, and indirectly brought up the matter. As expected, Mr. Ogawa immediately raised his hackles.

"I always do my best to give you tasks that suit your abilities," he said. Then, glaring at me, he added, "Besides, how would you like it if I started coming into your jazz band rehearsals and telling the kids what to do?"

"Actually," I said, "I would probably appreciate it, to a point. I believe there is a big difference between mutual support and interference. As long as you don't make me look bad, I think your coaching would be a very good thing."

He didn't seem quite sure how to respond to that, but he said, "Right now the guest clinicians are making Mr. Karatsu look bad. Very bad, actually. We pay them for it, so it's okay for them to do it." I took his point, and that ended the discussion.

Mr. Karatsu invited me to come along to the prefectural championship. I wound up bowing out. I just didn't feel up to it.

After we came back from summer camp and the Bon holidays, Mr. Ogawa once again seemed to be determined to keep me as far away from everything except my own jazz band as possible. However, when I asked him if he was interested in playing a clarinet duet at the upcoming culture festival he seemed both very surprised and very delighted. The piece he suggested was one we attempted nine years ago but weren't able to perform because, well, it was simply too difficult for me. It was way over my head, so we finally wound up giving up. This time I surprised myself (and probably him, as well) by pulling it off on the first reading. I guess my clarinet playing has progressed quite a bit since I've come to ye olde academy, particularly since I've started playing with the Kashima Philharmonic.

And why shouldn't it? After all, I work with Keiji Ogawa, one of the best clarinet instructors around.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Under and Back Again - Pt. VIII

August 2, 2006
Here it is at last: the Final Morning (rather dead-sounding fanfare).
In fact, it is &%$#* 5:30 in the &#%$* morning. That's when the #%$&* wake-up call rings. That's to give us enough time to throw our luggage together, have a nice (%#$&*) early breakfast, haul all our (%$&#*) gear down to the bus, and head off to the last chapter of our Australia adventure.

We have been warned that it is going to be cold. Sydney itself has been a bit on the chilly side, but now we are heading for the BLUE Mountains. At this time of year it's not uncommon for it to get down close to freezing up there. Yes, we have been warned of this fact repeatedly. That's why most of our kids are in light coats and more than one is wearing shorts. (Death before non-fashion, right?)

The drive up to the BLUE Mountains is nice and scenic. The urbanness of Sydney gradually gives way to lovely harbor towns and then becomes something more like those sleepy villages one finds around the Coast Mountains in Oregon. However, the BLUE Mountains are a very different animal from that. For one thing, they aren't really mountains at all. Rather, it is a great network of canyons carved into a high plateau. Millennia of erosion (and DON'T try to tell me it was only 6,000 years!) has given rise to wide, winding valleys and gorges filled with flat-topped monoliths that remind me of Zion Canyon in Utah, only much, much bigger and much, much greener. In fact, it's large enough that it's actually divided into five separate national parks.

So...why is it called the BLUE Mountains? I'm glad you asked, but you'll have to wait. I'll tell you later. (hehehehehe)

Our first stop is the Wentworth Falls campus of the Western Sydney Institute - Blue Mountains College, which is part of the TAFE (Technical And Further Education) NSW program. (The building is bigger than it looks in the photo.) It's essentially a technical and vocational college offering courses in a wide range of subjects, from IT to aromatherapy. It is also a major center for research and management of the BLUE Mountains. Anyway, we have come here for an informative lecture. No, it's not as boring as you no doubt think. Actually, it is quite interesting.

Our lecturer is a (very tall) bloke named Andy. He explains why the BLUE Mountains were named a World Heritage Site by the U.N. just a few years ago. A lot of it has to do with the fact that the many valleys and canyons that make up the BLUE Mountains are protected wilderness areas that are home to a great many species of plant and animal life, most of which are unique to Australia, many of which are unique to the area. The lecture includes not only pictures, but a lot of actual hands-on study of the many different varieties of tree (most of them various types of eucalyptus, but only two of which are edible by koala) and fern.

But that's not all.

You see, back in the mid '90s a group of researchers happened upon a very surprising stand of trees in an isolated ravine. It turned out that they were a very primitive variety of pine. In fact, not only were they a living fossil, but they were one experts claim dates from the time Australia was still attached to Africa. We're talking tens of millions (no, NOT 6,000) of years old! This is the so-called Wollemi Pine. There are only about a hundred of them left in the wild, but now it is apparently now available (in limited numbers) for commercial planting.

In fact, to commemorate our visit, the college has purchased a Wollemi Pine seedling, which one of our students is then asked to plant.

Here it is! A fair dinkum baby version of a living fossil all ready for planting!

Our group stands shivering ready for the planting in the Western Sydney Institute (TAFE) garden. (Hey, it's not like you weren't warned it would be cold, by crikey!!!)

Andy gives Mr. K a Certificate of Authenticity for the Wollemi Pine we are about to plant. His assistant, Colin, looks on.

"David" is volunteered for the job. Such touching international cooperation!

And finally the first watering. Well done, David!

After that, Colin places a commemorative plaque explaining that the tree was planted by students and faculty of our school on today's date. We have made history, and each of us is given a personalized copy of a certificate describing and authenticating the event. Well, not all of us are. My name is strangely missing in the pile.

"Sorry," says Andy. "We saw the Western name and assumed you were a guide or something. We didn't make you one."

No problem. Being discriminated against yet again for being a white, Anglo-Celtic, native English speaker doesn't bother me at all! I'm not bitter! No, really, I'm not!

Back on the bus again, we head to our next stop in the BLUE Mountains, which is theater??!?

Actually, it is a panoramic theater. It does show regular movies, but its main attraction is, well, panoramic movies...the kind that screw up your sense of balance so you either fall over, get seasick, or both. In our case, we are there to watch a special feature documenting the discovery of the Wollemi Pine. It's a special showing which is in Korean (which explains why we're inundated with Korean-speaking tour groups!), but we are given headsets that provide a Japanese translation.

Our tour guide looks at me, remembers with dismay the fact of my gaijin-ness, and also recalls that she has forgotten to ask for an English set for me. (Damned package tours!) We go to the front counter to remedy the situation, and the rather cold bitch young lady at the counter says dismissively, "There's no chance of my preparing another set, no." Fine. I make do with the Japanese translation. I've just been discriminated against because I speak the local language, but I'm not bitter. No, not at all.

Halfway through the movie the film hangs and melts. We're left sitting in the dark for about fifteen minutes before they get the thing going again. During that time there's a lot of muttering and yelling in Korean going on all around me. Actually, I'm feeling a sense of poetic justice, though I have to admit that the movie is interesting.

After that we have a buffet-style lunch in the cafeteria there in the theater. A lot of the Koreans are drinking, so they're getting a bit noisy. As for me, I get chatted up by our bus driver, who turns out to be a very friendly bloke. We're both wishing we could join the Koreans. After all, the place has XXXX Gold on tap (but no Foster's Lager). Nope. We're both working.

Now it's time for the biggest event: the BLUE Mountains bushwalk. We go up to the park that is the trailhead for the famous Katoomba Falls hike. There we are met by our ranger guide, who is a very interesting (and very vocal) woman with blond dreadlocks.

(Those things you see in the tree are like pine cones, only different.) When we start the bushwalk, it is pretty flat and easy. Our ranger guide focuses mainly on the plant and animal life to be found in the area. Then we come to the very edge of the cliff, and the view starts to get interesting...

Here you can see the tramway that goes across the canyon...which we will not be taking...

From the viewpoint at the very lip of the canyon, this is the view to the left. It is Katoomba Falls, which are very low this year thanks to the drought that is gripping most of the country.

This is the view to the right. Believe it or not, this is only one of five sections of the BLUE Mountains.

And right in the middle you can see the famous Three Sisters rock formation...if you look past our astonished-looking group. I will tell you why they are called the BLUE Mountains. The overwhelming majority of the trees you see down in the canyons are gum trees (i.e. eucalyptus). Gum trees actually shed eucalyptus oil into the surrounding air, and it forms a layer of very thin mist close to the ground. This mist reflects blue light, giving the mountains in the distance a ghostly, bluish quality (that isn't so clear in these photos, unfortunately).

Once we're done at the viewpoint, we start our descent...down a narrow, twisting path and a great many staircases that eventually level out on what seems like the bottom but is really a ledge about halfway down. (We never do make it all the way to the bottom even after going down over a thousand steps. Yes, a couple of our students did count them...rather noisily...all the way along.)

This is what it looks like down in the canyon even though we're not all the way down. Hold me closer, Ed; i-it's gettin' dark...

Here's a view of the Three Sisters. Actually, the three local Aborigine tribes call them the "Seven Sisters". No one knows why, but it has been theorized that either they include face-like features in the surrounding rock or there used to be additional pillars which have collapsed over time.

Here's a better view of Katoomba Falls. Unfortunately, you can't really make out the flock of wild cockatoos in the trees on the bottom left side of the picture...

(To be fair, I have only included pictures which I took myself. Both Ms. Y and Mr. I had some really good ones from inside the canyon, and they gave me copies, but I don't want to have to bother with credits and all that.)(Actually, I left them at the school, and I'm too impatient to wait until I can go and get them...)

The trail continues to wind and go down narrow, steep staircases. We find places where patches of clay of different colors emerge from the cliff face, and our guide explains that the Aborigines used them as face and body paint. (Just for good measure, she puts some white stripes on her face.) Further down the path actually goes back under the cliff face in places where water has eroded out soft layers of sandstone. The Aborigines apparently used such places as temporary lodgings in their nomadic wanderings through their respective territories.

Along the way we keep hearing really loud and obnoxious-sounding squawking, obviously from some kind of bird. When the trees clear we see the source: a large flock of some kind of white bird. Then one of them lights in a nearby tree and cheekily puffs out the bright yellow crest on its head. I'd always heard there were wild cockatoos in Australia, but this is the first time for me to see them first hand. Accustomed as I am to seeing them in cages, it's a bizarre experience...

Eventually we come to the obvious end of the hike, though we're still not yet to the bottom. We are at the entrances of the old mines, the reason the trails down the cliff face were made in the first place about a hundred years before. The main entrance is big enough to walk through. The others are flooded crawlways with rusted rail tracks coming out. We appear to have found civilization. It is crowded here, and we soon find out why. We are given a choice. We can either take more stairs going back up a ways and then take the tram back or we can ride right back up the cliff face using what is billed as the steepest railway in the world. We decide on the latter.

Railway, my foot! When it moves (with us sitting backward), it goes straight for only a very short distance before shooting upward at a 52 degree angle, the last part of which is through a very low and narrow tunnel. They warned us about losing our belongings (which is why my camera stayed buttoned in my coat pocket), but for a while I was seriously worried I was going to topple out! Fortunately, we arrive safely at the station at the top.

We disembark from the train, our guide checks in at the gate counter, and then she leads us through the group exit. I'm almost right behind her, but just as I'm passing through, the woman at the counter suddenly yells angrily, "Hey, you!! Excuse me!! Where is your ticket?!?" Trying not to sigh too loudly, I reply, "I'm a member of this school group." Probably after noting the Yank accent, the woman lets me pass, but the wary gaze under deeply furrowed brows tells me she's not convinced.

(Note for future reference: next time a group from Ye Olde Academy comes to Sydney, consider cosmetic surgery to look Japanese and use of a Japanese alias in order to lessen the discrimination...)

We come out of the 19th-century mining installation (or what's made to look like one) and emerge into the parking lot of a very impressive, modern-looking facility including a museum, conference and exhibit halls, and a bus station. Near the main entrance is a very eye-catching work of art consisting of life-size, (and quite life-like,) black-painted bronze statues of six Aborigines, specifically four women and two men, engaged in a lively dance. All six are stark naked. A group of very amused Korean tourists are taking turns having their pictures taken standing next to the statues, guffawing loudly as they do so. Nearby, a trio of Indochinese-looking women in hajib and abayah are sitting quietly on a bench surveying the scene with looks of bewilderment on their faces. Finally, when the Koreans start grabbing certain parts of the statues' quite correct anatomies and making silly noises, the three Muslim women quietly stand up and hurry away.

Talk about culture clash...

We get back on the bus, and since we are a little ahead of schedule (and our bus driver manages to skirt the worst of the traffic), we pop into the Sydney Olympic Park, the scaled-down remnant of the Sydney Olympic venue. It's quite impressive and very well thought out. The structures were built from the start with permanent and temporary sections, so rescaling them was a cinch. The various buildings are not only interconnected in various ways, but there is a looped underground tram system circling under the whole area, with multiple access tunnels from each arena. It is said that, during the Sydney Olympics, they could clear out an entire stadium, with a capacity of many thousands, in only about ten minutes. This forms an enormous (and, when you think about it, humiliating) contrast with the disastrous Atlanta Olympics, in which all transportation was by hired local buses, and traffic before and after each event often wound up snarled for over an hour. Perhaps I should add that all of the lights in the Olympic Park are independently solar powered.

Oh, come on! Not another group shot! It's bloody freezing!!!

Finally, we go down to the famous waterfront at Darling Harbour, where we have our last meal in Australia.

Darling Harbour. Will you guys hold still?!?

The convention centre and the restaurant where we have dinner. Only Mr. K isn't blurry in this long-exposure shot. Go figure...

While we're waiting for our reservation, I walk around the waterfront wildly fumbling with my camera's flash and exposure settings and snapping pictures (most of which wind up either too dark or blurry). Then I go into the mall, where I find a shop of Aborigine crafts. I go in there and chat for a while with the shopkeeper, who is apparently half Aborigine. He says he's happy for the company; it's off-season, and he's bored. A couple of students, obviously out looking for me, pop in and inform me that dinner is ready. I leave, but not before I grab a colorful (BLUE) boomerang I have been eyeballing. I tell him that, as a musician, I'd much rather get one of those cool-looking didgeridoos, but I know that getting it home would be a pain. The shopkeeper suggests I get one next time I come. I tell him that gives me another good reason to come back.

Dinner is good, but we're all feeling rather burned out...or maybe even bummed out. We know the dream is coming to an end.

Next thing we know we're at Sydney Airport checking in. All our luggage is heavier than before, and the check-in staff lectures us as they slap on a whole bunch of "heavy" tags. After that it's just the short-but-oh-so-long walk to the security gates. Things are feeling pretty dark.

"Do we really have to leave now?"

We have a couple of hiccups at the security gate. We've forgotten that Australia is stricter than Japan, and a couple of students get nailed with banned items in their carry-on bags, leading to full examinations and friskings. No strip-searches or interrogations, though. The duty-free check-out desk goes much more smoothly. Soon we are at the gate. There aren't so many people there. It doesn't look like it's going to be a full flight.

Actually, I don't remember much about the flight itself except the two occasions I woke up and stumbled in the dark to the rest room. I don't even remember very well what we ate. What I do remember is getting off the plane in Narita out on the tarmac to board shuttle buses...and getting hit by that awful blast of hot, humid weather. It's summer in Japan. Yep...we've come home.

Tomorrow I have to drive four of the kids out to the music club summer training camp, which actually started today.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Under and Back Again - Pt. VII

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

I'm kicked rudely out of a confusing but entertaining dream by a cold, inorganic warbling. It's the ringing of my phone, my 6:00 a.m. wake-up call. I welcome it the same way I would welcome a crowbar hitting my scalp. The students and their eager socializing made sure that I got very little sleep during the night. The other three (Japanese) teachers all got rooms off on the isolated, peaceful other end of the hall. I got stuck right in the middle of student country (more discrimination?), so I bore the full brunt of it. It wasn't talking or merriment that kept waking me up; no, they were very careful to avoid that. However, they made no effort to lessen the banging of their self-closing doors as they shunted themselves from room to room. Every time Mr. Sandman hit the mark I'd be roused by another bang. This went on till the wee small hours.

And now it is 6:00 a.m..

I drag myself out of bed by the neck and in my foggy-minded state try to figure out what to wear. The hours of the hotel's coin laundry were apparently designed for maximum inconvenience, and my wardrobe situation is now desperate. The vitals are all covered (I brought plenty of extras), but it looks like the outer layer might end up being either very casual or kind of smelly. Fortunately, I have one dress shirt that I only wore for half a day, so there's not enough of a pong to matter, especially with my trusty Speed Stick.

(You have to understand: the Japanese are very particular about hygiene. Not only do they always bathe at least once a day if not more, but they tend to have very mild body odor compared with us Westerners. No matter how much I wash or how much deodorant I use, by the end of the day it's not uncommon for me to see wrinkled noses and overhear low moans of "Kusai..." ["stinks"] in my vicinity. Frankly, I don't see how so many Japanese businessmen can get away with wearing the same outfit for an entire week with impunity, especially since they don't usually use deodorant!)

Through tremendous force of will, I finally get myself cleaned up and dressed. I leave my room and get on the elevator up to the top floor restaurant only to remember that I've forgotten my meal ticket. The journey to my room and back takes a bit of time as there are only two operable elevators that the entire, crowded hotel clientele wants to use at the same moment, and no stairway in sight. By the time I make it up to the restaurant my group is already well into breakfast. It doesn't matter; the kids look to be in even worse condition than I am. Breakfast is pretty good, and the view of the harbor in early morning is wonderful.

After eating, I brush my teeth and head downstairs to where our group is massing in the lobby. Then we board the bus for our first visit of the day. Where are we going? I'm glad you asked! We're off to the Frank Vickery Care Centre, which is a care center(re)(er)(re)(Я)(?) for the elderly. Perhaps you are wondering why we are visiting a care centЯ. Well, it wasn't entirely our choice. You see, from the beginning Mr. K determined that this should be a "study trip". This fact was referred to our travel agents, who in turn referred it to the Australian Embassy. The Australian Embassy responded by sending us some really nifty study aids including Japanese/English workbooks for the kids. These workbooks centЯ mainly on the differences between Japanese and Australian society. Care of the elderly is one of the issues. Therefore, a visit to this care centrereЯ facility was placed in the itinerary.

At first glance it definitely does not look like any old folks' home I've ever seen. Actually, it is divided into different sections depending on the level of care needed. This is explained to us in detail at the very beginning of our visit, when the (very tall) chief administrator gives us an informative lecture (while our Japanese tour guide translates. Actually, she makes a few errors and leaves a few things out, so I risk looking like a total asshole by correcting her on a couple of occasions when my patience simply runs dry). This particular facility includes bona fide condominiums that are specially equipped to facilitate the needs of the elderly while at the same time encouraging them to live as independently as possible. The other side of the compound is a "hostel" which is a little more like a traditional care center, i.e. staff are right there all the time. If more intensive care is required, subjects are then moved on to a convalescent care cent/e/r/e/ located outside the compound and staffed by actual doctors.

After the lecture, we're allowed to take morning tea there together with some of the residents including the ones that made the cakes we're given. (The kids don't complain...and after a while some of them muster the courage to chat with those wonderful, old ladies.) Then we're taken on a grand tour of the condominium section. That turns out to be fun.

After going through the common facilities, such as the gaming room, hair salon, and common dining hall, we separate into groups. My group first goes into a flat owned by a really charming couple who have plenty of anecdotes to tell. They're surprised to notice that one of our boys is wearing a cross and are disappointed to find out that he does it for reasons of (heavy metal) fashion rather than religion. (The woman says, "I really wish I could sit that, all of 'em, down with a Bible and teach 'em a thing or two!") After we leave that flat, we are told that we are now going to visit the home of a "very interesting" woman named Vye(? Vai? Veigh? I vie for the spelling of her name!!!!). We are also warned that her flat is, well, unique. That turns out to be a bit of an understatement.

(Sorry...I don't have a picture of it! Ms. Y took a couple, though. I'll see if I can get one from her...)

Her flat is more like a museum. It is literally packed in every corner with various knick-knacks and items of sentimental value, every one of which clearly has a story behind it (and she is more than happy to tell them if asked). It is obvious that the woman is both very sentimental and a collector of things. She also likes music boxes, particularly if they move in unique ways. The woman is an absolute kick, and it's hard for us to get the kids back out of her flat to continue the tour!

After it's all done, we load up on the bus again and head out to Sydney University, which is an interesting combination of old and new. The famous, old quad building is over a hundred years old and has both a carillon (dedicated to Australia's war dead) and a fascinating museum of ancient civilizations (which we don't have anywhere near enough time to see!). As we walk around, we see sleepy-looking, ivy-covered brick buildings standing next to fancy, modern structures. There is also plenty of construction going on. The beginning and end of the tour is the student union building, a multi-story, stainless-steel-looking structure that includes two floors of multi-ethnic dining facilities (where we have lunch among all those students) and a bona fide shopping mall that makes Oregon State's Memorial Union building look like a little mom & pop store.

Screwing around in front of the Quad at Sydney University.

Looking into the Quad.

Looking toward downtown Sydney from the Quad.

South(?) gate and bus terminal, Sydney University.

Entrance to the (Wentworth) Student Union building.

I'm particularly impressed with the cosmopolitan nature of the university. Yes, Oregon State had its share of foreign students. (I know because I worked with them a lot...which is the main reason I wound up in Japan.) However, Sydney University's student body is far more polyethnic. Apparently a very large number of students come here from such countries as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India, and Lebanon. (I know I see far more women in Islamic dress here than I've probably ever seen anywhere in my life! I'm also hearing an amazing array of languages being spoken all around me!) As I mentioned, the dining facilities in the student union building are multi-ethnic and quite interesting. As for me, I settle for fish & chips (which are more like what I had in London than what I had in Oregon), and I experience having my chips with gravy for the first time in my life. (Okay, my Canadian friends can stop laughing now!) Mr. K has Indian curry. Ms. Y has some kind of sandwich. Mr. I has something that looks Asian, but I can't identify it. We eat at a table in front of a Turkish/Lebanese lunch counter that advertises all its products as being halal (i.e. prepared in accordance with Islamic law). The atmosphere around us is noisy but very cordial, and students don't appear annoyed when I ask them a question about the cafeteria facilities; on the contrary, they're quite friendly. (Beats the hell out of the OSU students I least the non-Oregonian ones...especially the ones from Southern Calif...never mind.)

I might also add that, during the university tour, on more than one occasion I am approached by students here who ask me, as the obvious native English speaker in the group (even despite my chronic Americanishness), what we're all about. Again, Sydney University is a very large, famous, and very busy university, but the atmosphere here seems amazingly friendly!

Maybe I should see if I can complete those other two degrees here...or maybe not. It's just a thought. So is buying a Paul Reed Smith guitar, building my own fully-equipped studio, getting a BLUE Dodge Viper...

The tour ends well ahead of schedule. Both Mr. I and I (I and Mr. I? Mr. I, I and?) are happy, because it means we'll have time to get some much-needed laundry done. Ha ha ha ha ha. I can be so funny sometimes. No, the tour guide remembers that there is one more low-price and duty-free gift shop in Sydney that caters especially to Japanese travelers. My and Mr. I's protests that we're all shopped out and would rather go back to the hotel are simply ignored. The students don't seem very thrilled about it, either, but when we arrive they still find the shopping gumption to come out with one or two more bagfuls each.

I and the other teachers push things a bit, and we somehow manage to get back to the hotel with about an hour to go before we go out for dinner, and the coin laundry is still open. I hurry there and arrive at the same time as Mr. I to find only one washer and one dryer, no change machine, and no detergent in the vending machine. I know the rush will be starting soon, so I run to catch the elevator and find both of them in use quite far from my floor (and the third elevator is down for maintenance). Looking desperately for a stairway, I see a door marked "exit", run to it, and open it. Sure enough, there is a stairway, so I head down to what should be the ground floor find no door. I start to go further down the stairs, but there is a sign that says: "WARNING - Proceeding past this point will cause alarm to sound".

Uh, oh.

I run back up to the first floor (U.S. second), but the door is locked. Cursing under my breath, I hustle up to the third floor (U.S. fourth), where the coin laundry is located, just as Mr. I is closing the door behind him.

"Is everything alright?" he asks innocently.

"Um...I think we're f****d," I reply.

We both try the door. It's most definitely locked.

"We're most definitely f****d," I say anxiously.

After a hasty conference, we run up the stairs to the ninth floor (U.S. tenth), where all our rooms are, and start pounding on the door and shouting. After a few minutes, a couple of our girls open the door...and burst out laughing.

You see, on every floor EXCEPT the one with the coin laundry the doors are marked: "Emergency exit only: door will lock behind you". I have to wonder if they set it up that way on purpose...

Anyway, Mr. I and I take the elevator down to the ground floor, go to the lobby, and get our change and laundry soap. As we do so, a whole group of staff, all bearing flashlights and keys, emerges from a nearby door. When the duty manager comes out from behind the desk, one of them says, "We didn't see anyone in there."

The manager, pointing at them in turn, says, "You two check the other stairway. You two go around to the back exit. As for you, go back up that stairway and see if maybe you can figure out how and where they got out."

The staff separates and heads off in its respective directions like a bunch of white-armored stormtroopers, only in black suits. Mr. I and I quietly go back to the laundry room, do our laundry, and return to our rooms, sighing with relief all the way.

It is now evening, and the scenery is unbelievably beautiful. We are taken out to a famous Chinese restaurant (the Imperial?) which is located in The Rocks on the waterfront almost right under the Harbor Bridge and across the bay from the Opera House, which is all lit up. Unfortunately, I don't have my camera. It's a pity. It's gorgeous. As for the meal at the restaurant, well, the portions aren't as big as we always got in Caloundra and Brisbane, and the service is sometimes a bit inattentive (read "rude"), but the food is excellent. It's definitely a pleasant evening.

I'm tempted to go up to the top-floor lounge for a cocktail tonight, but I don't. Instead, I concentrate on getting my things together for tomorrow's trip, getting myself cleaned up, and finishing Kafka on the Shore. Just for good measure, I bribe the kids in the nearest rooms with some of my leftover munchies from Caloundra. At least they're being quiet tonight.