Three-day weekends are such a wonderful thing. They come so rarely, and when they do they are like a boon from Heaven. An oasis in the desert of the usual work routine. An eye in the storm. Sugar in stale coffee. A green
M&M. An actual music video played on MTV.
At least they’re supposed
to be that way. It’s funny how events can often seem to conspire against you. Take this weekend, for instance. Saturday was Open School day at Ye Olde AcademyTM
and also preparation for the STEP (Standardized Test of English Proficiency), which the academy was to host on Sunday. That meant no extracurricular activities Saturday afternoon or Sunday. After that, Monday was Kenmin no Hi
(県民の日 – lit. Prefecture Citizens’ Day), a holiday only for the people here in Ibaraki Prefecture. That meant that, except for the lesson I was scheduled to give as part of the Open School, the weekend was wide open, at least on paper. I was looking forward to some welcome R&R starting with The Party on Friday night…Part One – The Party
The Grade 9 staff decided to have a dinner/drinking party Friday night to celebrate our successful conclusion of the school trip. Still a little miffed over certain things that had happened during said trip, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go or not, but in the end I did. It took place at a nice, little traditional Japanese restaurant, still relatively new, that I had passed by every day on my way to and from work but had never really noticed. (Naturally, the directions they gave me were impossibly vague, the place wasn’t listed in my car’s navigation system, and its phone number put it in totally the wrong district. I finally decided to rely on good, old fashioned intuition, and I found the place almost by sheer luck.) As it was, my wife had come down with some sort of bug, so I planned to stay only for the first hour or so and then bug out. That would please the greatest number of people, particularly me.
Naturally, the party started with the traditional kampai
(乾杯 – toast), so I decided to follow my usual habit of drinking just one celebratory glass of beer and then spending the rest of the time drinking tea and chowing down to help purge that insignificant amount of alcohol from my system. That’s the routine I have followed ever since getting my Japanese driver’s license, and thus far it has worked quite well.
As it turned out, bugging out of the party early wasn’t a good idea, because the restaurant was the sort that provides a full party course, i.e. instead of giving you all your food in one go they bring it to you little by little spread out over the entire two-and-a-half-hour period. If I had left after the first hour I would have missed more than half the meal including the “main course”. Therefore, I stuck it out till the end, knowing full well that I could expect either a blast of frost or a rabid flaming from the wife once I got home.
Actually, for what it’s worth, things were rather pleasant. We were all relaxed and happy, and we chatted enthusiastically about all kinds of things. At least we did until Mr. O decided to be The Yet-Unsung Hero of the Oppressed Masses
(totally forgettable fanfare) once again.
“Excuse me, everyone,” he said in his “I love you all like a brother/father” tone of voice (that really
makes me want to start lobbing crockery at him, but anyway), “but we are wasting a wonderful opportunity here! We are all breaking up into different conversations now, but since we’re all here together, we should share
the experience! Let’s all discuss a common topic as a group!”
This grandiose overture, as expected, brought any and all conversation to a dead stop, and we all did nothing but sit and look at each other uncomfortably for several minutes.
“Well,” said Mr. O sweetly, rubbing his hands with glee, “I see we have nothing to talk about. Well, a minute ago the principal was saying something that I thought was brilliant, so I’d like to invite all of you to listen. Please, Mr. principal…”
The (somewhat red-nosed) principal perked right up and launched into a wonderful (and hard to follow) idealistic speech that just went on and on and on. And on. Meanwhile, members began dropping off to sleep one by one by one. By one. (Nice going, Mr. O…) My eyes stayed open (regrettably) only because I’d put away so much tea. That meant that, at the end, I had to help wake the others up to inform them that the party was over. That was embarrassing enough. When the principal informed me that I had to have a substitute driver drive me home because I had drunk one, little glass of beer three hours before, I felt positively humiliated.
That’s one of the many paradoxes that exist in modern Japanese society. It is very
hard not to drink, particularly if you’re male. However, not only are the drunk driving laws among the strictest I’ve ever heard of (zero tolerance in terms of blood alcohol content, automatic loss of driver’s license and employment if caught), but every other year yet another glory-seeking bureaucrat tacks on another inconvenient and totally meaningless stipulation. The dumbest by far has to be the “eight-hour rule”.
In just about every industrialized country that allows alcohol, people are taught that, if they drink x
amount of alcohol, they have to wait y
amount of time for it to be cleared from their system. I had that rule hammered into me repeatedly in my own school days. Here in Japan, however, the universal rule is eight hours
. You guzzled down a liter of shochu
(grain liquor) in less than thirty minutes? You wait eight hours. You had one, little glass of red wine with your meal? You wait eight hours. In my case, only three hours had passed since I had drunk that measley, little glass of beer. Therefore, I had to wait another five before I could safely drive again. Never mind that my eyes were bugging out of my head and I was bouncing off the walls from all that tea I’d drunk. One glass of beer three hours ago? Five more hours.
Now, before any of you decide to get on a high horse and start getting all righteous on me, understand that my own elder sister was killed by a drunk driver twenty years ago.
Yes, drunk driving laws should be strict, and they should be strictly enforced. However, there is a very big difference between 0.2% blood alcohol content (as in the driver that killed my sister) and less than 0.01%. There is also a difference between caution and meaningless idealism. I can understand being told to wait two hours and eat a significant amount of food after having that one glass of beer. Eight hours? That’s just preposterous, and everyone with a gram of sense knows it. However, with classic Japanese stoicism (which can be a VERY good thing, believe me!), they simply accept it as a fact of life. The trouble is that there are too many people like Mr. O in positions of power: people that live in an idealistic fantasy rather than reality, people that want everybody to see them as benign heroes of the masses and sing their praises, people that aren’t satisfied unless they are personally correcting everyone else so they can feel good about themselves.
Please…all that tea is already turning my stomach…
In the end I had to pay someone (a lot) to drive my BLUE RAV4
home for me. The principal said the academy would reimburse me, but I’ve been told that before…and they didn’t.Part Two – Open Sores
Ye Olde AcademyTM
started holding Open School five years ago, and it is now a twice-annual tradition. One the first such occasion I was asked to give a lesson, so I hosted one that taught some simple English through singing and simple games. A lot of children entered my class, it got very good reviews, and (most importantly) it provided an excellent photo op. I was then asked to give that lesson every time. Things went well for the first few years, but after that there was a noticeable change. For one thing, minimal English education became a required part of the elementary school curriculum. For another, kids in general showed a declining interest in both singing and music in general. Not surprisingly, the number of children selecting my class as a first choice began dropping rapidly. During this year’s first Open School, which took place last June, the number of applicants was zero
. After that I decided enough was enough and requested my lesson be dropped from the roster, but the administration was adamant that I remain. Not only was it still too great a photo op to miss, but a great many children had said in the exit poll that they wanted to take my class during the following Open School. Well, that was last Saturday, and the number of applicants was ZERO once again.
I still held the lesson, of course, as a “B-side” to a science game. That brought nine children into my class that clearly didn’t want to be there, but we still managed to have a good time. For what it’s worth, they gave my lesson good reviews in the exit poll. Also, not surprisingly, there was also another round of kids saying they wanted to take my class “next time”, which means I’ll probably be asked to do it again. The academy is never one to miss out on a good photo op.
I went to the English office immediately afterward to gather my stuff and bolt. However, I was intercepted by the chief of the English department, Mr. U, who promptly informed me that I was on the team responsible for preparing for Sunday’s STEP test. Now, as far as I knew, the department staff was divided into examiners and prep crew, and I was most definitely an examiner. Not only that, but my turn as such had ended during the previous STEP test, which had been the summer before. No such luck. Mr. U kindly informed me that examiners were supposed to help with prep, and since I hadn’t helped the time before, I had to help this time. I didn’t want to rock the boat, so I went along with it.
The funny thing was that the teacher in charge of STEP, Mr. K, was surprised and baffled by my presence, but he wasn’t about to let me go, either. I therefore became part of the STEP prep team for the day, which consisted mainly of teachers who, like me, had never done it before and weren’t really sure what to do. That didn’t stop Mr. K from suddenly disappearing, leaving the whole load in our hands. (The other teacher in charge, Mr. S, claimed he had to talk to someone and never showed up.)
The instructions we’d been given were hopelessly vague (as usual), so we mainly just set things up the way we remembered. We put up the room labels and guide signs on the walls. We set up chairs in designated places in the hallways to act as barricades and signboards. We then moved all the desks and chairs in the designated classrooms out of the way and set up the examination tables, by far the biggest chore of all.
We were just finishing up the last classroom when suddenly Mr. K came walking in and shouted, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WE DON’T TOUCH THE DESKS!” He then went on to explain (read "yell") that there was a hired team of STEP workers that was supposed to move the desks and set up the exam tables. We had only to clean them and double-check the number. One teacher in our team (not me, believe it or not) protested that we hadn’t been informed or given any explanation whatsoever. Mr. K retorted irritably that it had been that way for a number of years. (That was hardly relevant since none of us in the team had been doing the prep for a number of years, but I digress…)
“When Mr. O was department chief,” he growled, “he established the policy that, for the sake of fairness, we were only to do the minimum possible amount of prep and leave the rest to the STEP workers! That means we set up the signs, clean, verify the number of desks, and that’s it! Now go back and return all the desks to their original positions!”
As Mr. K said this, Mr. O walked in and leaned against the wall with that damned smug grin on his face. Yes, we were all fuming, but we managed to restrain ourselves as we went around and moved the desks back…a time-consuming chore that wound up turning a 45-minute work party into the better part of two hours.
That evening I had a rehearsal with the Blue Notes jazz big band. I’m a former member who is currently filling in as a substitute lead tenor saxophonist for the upcoming Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival. This was my second (and last) rehearsal with them. We had one rehearsal last month, and less than half the members showed up. This time there were only four absentees, but all of them were key members including the pianist, bassist, and guitarist (i.e. we had no rhythm section). That made the rehearsal of very little worth. Basically, all four of them have the attitude of, “Well, I can play it with no trouble, so I don’t need to practice,” which usually turns out to be mistaken…and is also a serious annoyance to the rest of us. Unfortunately, it’s standard procedure.
Now I remember why I left that band.
During the rehearsal, one member who is also in the Kashima Philharmonic mentioned that the latter was having a special rehearsal the following day. Usually they mail out notice postcards informing us of the monthly rehearsal schedule. This time no such notice had been forthcoming. I’d thought Sunday to be free and open, but it turned out the Kashima Philharmonic was going to take a five-hour bite out of it.
The wife and kids were definitely NOT happy to hear that.Part Three – Music to the Ears and Stomach
Actually, the Kashima Philharmonic rehearsal was useful, necessary, and enjoyable. It went well, and I’d say it was a good thing. I might also add that almost all the key members were present, and the one or two that weren’t had good excuses. Even better, it also knocked off way early.
After that I went home and started to do my share of the house cleaning, but my wife stopped me. She wanted to get out of the house, so we got the kids, loaded up in the car, and went to Wordsworth for dinner. (No, I didn’t have the natto spaghetti, but my wife did!) After that the wife and kids said they wanted to go out for karaoke. I protested, citing lack of time and interest, but I acquiesced to the will of the majority. As it turned out, it was a good thing. Our usual karaoke haunt’s English song roster had recently added four Jethro Tull songs…something I had never seen in any karaoke place in Japan for the past sixteen years. In between the kids’ impassioned singing(?) of Japanese pop tunes and the wife’s U2 and Bonnie Tyler I managed to squeeze in “Aqualung” (what else?) and “Teacher”. (They had “Locomotive Breath” and “Bungle in the Jungle”, too, but there wasn’t enough time.) In the end, we went home happy.Part Four – Kindly Volunteering To…
As I said, I didn’t know about the Sunday rehearsal. If I had, I wouldn’t have given in and volunteered to be a proctor for the voluntary achievement test held the following day. That’s right; Monday being a prefectural holiday, the academy still managed to find something to do to keep students and teachers busy. It was a volunteer effort, naturally, but since nearly all the Grade 9 staff had “important things” to do (e.g. washing their car, clearing out some aging beer in the fridge, etc.) and were unavailable, that left our grade chief, Mr. J, in a bind…and me feeling guilty. I volunteered to help out.
Being a proctor for achievement tests is easy. Unlike regular exams, these tests are meant to help students understand their own level of ability so they can plot their future course. In other words, it doesn’t really matter if they cheat, because they only wind up cheating themselves, and they know it. This is even truer if it’s a voluntary test. That means I don’t really have to pay much attention to the students at all. I don’t have to spend the excruciatingly long hours walking around watching the students with a baleful eye of suspicion. Instead, I can bring a laptop into the classroom, set it up, and spend the test period writing blog posts like this one, which is exactly what I’m doing right now (he he).
The Kashima Philharmonic is rehearsing again tonight, but I should have a few hours to play with in between. Maybe I’ll be really productive and take a nap…