Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Just In Case Anyone's Still Interested...

I've posted some sample tracks from a few more of my homegrown albums on my Minstrel's Muse site. I've now covered the full period from late '93 till now. Enjoy...or not.

Continuing the tradition of fruit or vegetables with funny-sounding names, I give you rhubarb :

Red stalks full of puckering zest
Help a pie or a sauce taste its best.
Use the stalks, but do not eat the rest
Because it is not good to digest.
An Asian medicine
Reaming the intestine,
But to us it's a food in the West.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Different Strains

I'm in pain.
I mean, I'm in serious pain.

Usually my weekend schedule looks something like this:
Saturday - Sleep in till ten, catch up on a few things around the house, go to Ye Olde AcademyTM to work with the music club, do some shopping in town, come home, make a serious effort to do absolutely nothing except perhaps write or practice one or more musical instruments.
Sunday - Sleep till nine, split the weekly housecleaning with the wife and kids, spend the afternoon at a shopping mall somewhere, eat out, come home, do some writing and/or practice one or more musical instruments.

And now for something completely different: a weekend while construction is in progress on my house. I'm referring to the weekend that just ended. I spent all day Saturday and all day Sunday helping with our "little" home improvement project.

Last year we got the foundation laid. (Alright, knock it off!) Now the actual building is taking place. The man in charge is one of my wife's uncles, a carpenter who lives in Hokkaido. He will be staying over at the in-laws' place until either the work is finished or summer arrives, whichever comes first. Another uncle, who lives in Iwate Prefecture, has also come down to help. All last week the two of them plus my father-in-law and a neighbor or two worked on it, but I had no idea what they were doing as I was away at Ye Olde Academy all day every day. I could only look at the results when I came home each evening. The work was definitely progressing, but I had no idea how much or how quickly.

Well, I finally got one full weekend free, so I was able to help out a bit. It was actually kind of a masochistic sort of way. I mainly just hauled things around, leveled a small hill, and dug out part of the garden. Ceramic roof tiles can be heavy, especially after lugging several dozen of them. Small trees are MUCH heavier. As someone whose daily exercise consists of running up and down stairs, I wasn't exactly accustomed to doing hard, physical labor. It wasn't really so bad at the time, but on Sunday morning my legs (ironically) were already complaining after Saturday's workout. Sunday's was much harder, so you can pretty much guess what condition I'm in right now (Monday morning). Half the muscles from the neck down are saying, "Damn you! Damn you to HELL!!!"

I only wish I could do it every day. I definitely need the workout, and I'm enjoying it.

Watching my uncle-in-law in action was interesting. I don't know if the big construction companies use the same techniques he does (probably not judging from their reputation), but he certainly puts some serious craftsmanship into it. American carpenters I watched in my school days generally just nailed everything together, quite often assembling a wall frame on the ground and raising it into position. My uncle-in-law actually cuts pegs and notches into the main 6" x 6" beams so that they fit together like Tinkertoys, attaches them together, and bolts them so that there's just a tiny bit of give...apparently an earthquake-proofing measure.

Most of the wood my uncle-in-law is using is high-quality hardwood that was cut from the woods on the old family homestead up in Iwate. As the siding and roofing on the front of the house have been cleared away, the old beams and frame have revealed themselves to be the same kind of wood, and they still look beautiful. It's definitely better than the cheap lumber the large companies tend to use.

Even with my extra two arms, the project proceeds at a leisurely pace. It's not that the others work slowly; far from it. It mainly has to do with the traditional Japanese work ethic. The Japanese are known to be industrious. However, a study conducted in the '90s by a Japanese university showed that American workers are actually a lot more productive on average within the same time period. It all comes down to the difference in work ethic. In Western culture we would consider an "ideal worker" to be one that produced good results quickly and efficiently. The Japanese, on the other hand, would (and do) consider such a person a jerk. They tend to judge the quality of a worker based on his loyalty rather than his productivity. Even a person who wastes a lot of time and gets very little accomplished can be considered an ideal employee as long as he gives his time and effort to his work group. I saw this tradition in action over the weekend, particularly since my father-in-law seems to take it more seriously than most. We'd work for scarcely an hour before he'd start saying, "Time for tea! Time for tea! Enough work! Time for tea!" Then we'd retire to the rest station set up in the greenhouse and spend at least half an hour drinking tea, eating snacks, and talking. After that we'd work for another hour, and father-in-law would start saying, "Time for lunch! Time for lunch! Enough work! Time for lunch!" We'd spend an hour eating lunch, and then they'd take an hour "meal break" (i.e. a nap) before we'd start again. In other words, they spent almost as much time resting as they did working.

I actually had a problem with that. Once I get into the groove I hate to stop, because then it's hard to find the pace again afterward. I also can't stand sitting around wasting time when there's something left unfinished. I wound up working by myself through the "meal break" yesterday, which meant more got done...and I got less rest than everybody else. (The others reacted by shaking their heads and sharing a knowing grin. My muscles are still giving me their reaction! Small trees are MUCH heavier than they look...)

When all the work is done our house will be about two meters longer. My son will have a bedroom of his own, and both the kitchen and bathroom will be bigger. The living room will be more than twice as big as before, and it will have both a skylight and a big picture window facing the garden (which now, sadly, is a bit smaller than before...because I dug it out...ouch...). We'll have our own utility room and a real front door (with a genkan) for the first time ever. In other words, it'll be a much nicer place to live...but getting there will probably take a bit. Hopefully it'll all go without a hitch...or serious family problems...

By the way, on a totally unrelated note, did you know that in the U.K. the rutabaga is known as a "swede"?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Going Through the Motions

*knock knock*


The door opens a crack, and a timid, teenage, feminine voice says in heavily-accented English, "May I come in?"

"Sure! Come on in!" (Like, as if I would say no...)

The door opens all the way, and a 9th grade girl student comes in. She's wearing her uniform with the bow hanging a bit loose (in keeping with current trends), a big smile, and eyes that look like they could jump out of their sockets and run away in fright at any minute. Her movements are stiff as a doll as she seats herself. She is here to take her final English Oral Communication Interview Test, something the 9th graders have to endure twice during the school year. The first such exam, which happens in September, is fairly short and simple...more like an initiation than anything else. The second semester test is longer, more complex, and much, much more brutal.

"What's new?" I ask, my eyebrows arcing into Diabolical level II position with well-practiced indifference.

Her face looks panic-stricken for almost a full second. Then she smiles even wider. "Nothing special," she replies with a giggle.

"Okay." A coffin-lid grin spreads across my face as I reach for the question cards.

Those are actually something new...a welcome break from the routine, if a bit of a hassle. When I first started doing these interview tests back in 1999 it was entirely up to me. I actually went through it five times a year back then, and I did it all by myself without any complaint. When my grade 9 classes became team-taught from 2001, however, my working mates immediately started griping about the interview test. They were enthusiastic about it in principle, but not in practice. They weren't about to let me do it on my own, but they also insisted that four or five times a year was too much. Instead, we reduced it to twice a year, replacing the other occasions with English speech presentations (or, as we tried this year for the first time, English skits). Then they started griping about the security issue, i.e. students taking the test and then relaying the content back to their fellows. It was something I'd thought about, but it hadn't seemed to have much impact on the scores, so I hadn't bothered with it. My work mates were adamant, though, so in 2003 I started making multiple versions of each test. That seemed to work fine, but it wasn't enough for Ms. Y, my current teammate. She wanted a completely different set of tests for each class (but never offered any assistance with preparation). That sounded like a serious pain in the aft-shaft, so I did what I usually do: I came up with something even worse. Instead of making different versions of the test, I made a whole stack of question cards. Each examinee would get three of them, drawn at random. That way no two tests would be alike. It makes it all a bit interesting, too.

I draw the first card, glance at it, write its number on the student's score sheet, and ask, "What subject do you have third period on Monday?"

"I have...math!" the girl calls back.

"How do you like it?"

Her nose wrinkles. "'s very terrible!" She's starting to enjoy it. Most of them do after they get over the initial jitters.

This girl is actually overflow. We have as many students as possible take the interview test during their regular Oral Communication class period, and then we pick up the rest by appointment. The first test, back in September, is always short and simple, so there aren't many left over. The second test, however, is muuuuch longer, and well...

Second card. "Have you ever been to Kashima Shrine?"

The girl's brows furrow. It seems like a stupid question. Almost everyone within a radius of 100 kilometers if not more has been to Kashima Shrine at least once if not regularly. I half expect (hope for?) her to reply by saying, "DUH!" Instead, I get a polite, "Yes, I have."

"How long did it take to get there from your house?"

I wonder if that question could be considered an invasion of privacy. The personal information laws that came into effect in Japan a few years ago are draconian to the point of absurdity. If your ex-spouse decides to ignore custody rulings, abducts your children, and moves, you aren't allowed to try to track them down because that would be invading their privacy. Hospitals are not allowed to provide paramedics with a person's medical records unless that person submits a signed request lest his right to privacy be violated (meaning he's screwed if he's unconscious in the back of an ambulance!). Examiners in the Standardized Test of English Proficiency (STEP) are no longer permitted to ask examinees anything other than "How are you?" because questions like "Do you enjoy your school life?" are officially regarded as personal affronts. And here I am asking a student to reveal how close she lives to Kashima Shrine, which is right next to Ye Olde AcademyTM.

"It took only about ten minutes," she volunteers. "My family lives very close to the shrine." Obviously this girl doesn't feel her rights have been violated. I don't know whether the state would feel violated for her, however.

I draw a third card. "What did you do last winter vacation?" Uh, oh. That is definitely a high-risk question! I should demand extra compensation!

"I went to my grandparents' house," she replies without hesitation.

"How was it?"

"It was very enjoy!"

Oops...a grammar slip, but it's a very common one. The Japanese word is "tanoshii" (楽しい), which is actually an adjective meaning "enjoyable", but Japanese English textbooks always translate it as simply "enjoy", hence the confusion. Oh, well. At least this girl seems to have a life beyond PlayStation and comic books.

Speaking of video games, I finally managed to locate a Nintendo DS Lite...for myself. I've been using it for "adult brain training" and Japanese kanji practice, and I'm loving it (between headaches). I won't let my poor kids touch it.

"Okay," I say as I scribble on the girl's score sheet. "Now I'd like you to look at this map." So begins the main part of the test: giving and receiving directions. This year's 9th graders have been a wonderful bunch to work with, and they've been very well prepared this time. This girl is obviously ready to go, and she does very well with the map. I only have to ding her a point for missing one preposition.

"Okay," I say, "that's it. You're finished. Thank you very much! You can go now."

The girl smiles, heaves a heavy sigh, and jumps to her feet. She gives me an English "Goodbye, Mr. [Moody]!" followed by a Japanese bow. Then she scampers happily out of the room. What a pleasant bundle of youthful energy...not yet corrupted by the cynical swamp that bubbles outside the walls of the campus.

"Next!" I bellow. The next examinee opens the door a crack, peeks in, and then musters up the courage to move her whole body through. It's time to repeat the routine once again. It's okay. There's only about a dozen left to go today...and more than forty tomorrow...

So it goes, and for no apparent reason I'll end this post with a kumquat:

Blogger's Note: The first kumquat image I posted indeed turned into something, but it definitely wasn't a cabbage! I apologize from the bottom of my heart to anyone that ended up having to see that, and I wouldn't mind if whoever pulled that stunt on me winds up suffering something similar...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Fuzz Interlude

My father-in-law recently got a new cell phone, his third in as many years (but STILL hasn't told us his number...). As usual, he passed his old phone on to my kids so they can play with it. Of course, the phone function is deactivated and useless, but it still comes with preinstalled video games. Even better: this one has a camera. Needless to say, my kids immediately went on a mad photo binge, filling up the SD memory card in only a couple of days. Then their mother showed them how to delete pictures they didn't want so they could take even more. That camera is getting quite a workout!

Not surprisingly, the majority of the photos still on the card center on our cat, Tora. Since last May, when the kids brought him home as a tiny, blue-eyed orphan someone abandoned at their school, he has grown into something of a loverboy...or even a playboy...and very much the center of attention in our house (even despite the ongoing remodeling and expansion). Since I haven't posted much recently...and don't really have much of interest to post at the moment, I thought I'd share some. So...I bring you...KITTY SHOTS FROM JAPAN!!! (Don't all cheer at once...)

Poor Tora. He leads such a tortured life. Can't you see it written all over his face? I think that's an "M" on his forehead..."M" for...what?

There are times when Tora seems really intelligent. Then there are the other times...

"Commence finger-biting in 5...4...3..." Incidentally, that's me wearing my BLUE Japanese hanten (a short coat, usually tied in front, that is worn inside the house when it's cold).


Now on my daughter's desk...trying to look innocent...

"Okay...we'll allow ourselves one 'respectable' pose..."

Alright. I got the post-Valentine's Day cuteness thing out of my system.

P.S. Sympathy and best wishes to Tooners' sister Jahooni, whose beloved, gray, feline baby recently died in an accident. Losing a pet is never easy, and it shouldn't be.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

One for the Music, Two for the Show...

I just set up a new blog page to host the sample mp3s of my music. The ones already on this site are included as well as ones from the 1996-2002 period (what I call the "Purple Era"). I'll gradually add more earlier material (or even later...we'll see...) as I go. Check it out if you like, ignore it if you don't.

Curses...Tagged Again...

Selba did it to me again. I got tagged, this time to show what my desktop currently looks like:


There it is. Windows XP sp2, Japanese version. Nope, nothing pink or cute. Nothing musical, either. I use the Webshots Desktop, which rotates the wallpaper image from a collection of images I'm always downloading off their site. I tend toward nature scenes, as you can probably guess.

Let's see....probably meaningless, but I think I'll tag:
Don Snabulus

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Art of Comedic Page-Turning

I’d been told by Mr. Ogawa that I needed to transport four senior high students to a solo contest on Sunday the 11th, and I wasn’t happy about it. After all, that was the day my wife’s uncle was scheduled to come down and start work enlarging our house. There would be a lot of hard work to prepare for that. Then on Thursday the 8th I was told that there’d been a change of plans. I’d be taking two junior high students to the contest on Saturday the 10th. That was a relief, if a small one.

On Friday the 9th I was told that I would also have to serve as page turner for the accompanist. Luckily, I had the foresight to ask for at least one practice session. When the accompanist came into the music room and plopped her music down on the piano I just about had a heart attack. It wasn’t a book but rather a whole bunch of individual sheets taped together into one, long ribbon. Even worse was the fact that the accompanist insisted that I display four of the sheets at a time. I couldn’t see how I could possibly turn pages with that mess!

As I feared, it seemed like a hopeless task. Usually the page turner sits to the pianist’s left and reaches across the music over the pianist’s head to turn the pages. The ribbon of music was much too wide for that. I couldn’t reach all the way across without getting in the pianist’s way, and that made an already big problem much bigger. No matter what I tried, the whole wad of music wound up flopping down onto the keyboard every time. Just when I really started getting frustrated, however, I finally figured out a solution. What I did was start out on the left side, carefully turning the first four sheets into the next four. Then I moved to the right side and, holding the sheets fast with one hand, I turned the last few pages with the other. It seemed totally nuts, but it was the only thing that worked.

The trip to the contest venue seemed easy enough. Mr. Ogawa had told me with a big smile, “It’s the same place that you screwed up going to the ensemble contest last fall.” He just had to remind me of that. You see, in the incorporation fever recently gripping Ibaraki Prefecture the towns of Ogawa, Minori, and Tamari had all joined together to become the city of Omitama. (O-, Mi-, and Tama-…isn’t that clever?) The problem is that the new city now has more than one performance hall, and all of them now bear its name. Since the city is new, information is scant and rather mixed up. During the ensemble contest I’d tried using their website to find where to go, and I’d wound up going to the wrong hall. I’d finally delivered the kids to the right place in the nick of time, but only after some very maniacal, offensive driving. This time there’d be none of that. Based on what Mr. Ogawa had said, I simply drove the two girls to the same venue as before.

I think you can probably guess what happened. We arrived to find a whole lot of little kids there for a nursery school event and no solo contest. I’d understood Mr. Ogawa’s words in reverse. The solo contest was at the other hall, the one I’d gone to by mistake during the ensemble contest. Luckily, I’d given myself a lot of extra time just in case something like that happened. We arrived at the right hall right on schedule.

The fact that our group was so small was a bit of a convenience. Unlike the other school groups, who had supporters able to hold and watch things, we had only the three of us, meaning we had to lug all our gear with us as we went. That wasn’t such a bad thing, but it made moving around a bit more of a hassle. Naturally, I got a lot of suspicious looks as I followed the girls around through the sequence of warm-up, rehearsal, and tuning rooms before going on standby backstage. The fact that I seemed to be the only page turner in the whole event (the other accompanists all played by heart) didn’t help.

Then it was our turn to take the stage. The flautist took her position in front, and I followed the accompanist to the piano. As we did so I heard my name mentioned a great many times among the members of the audience. I guess I’m a pretty well-known (notorious?) figure in these parts. That didn’t really bother me, but I wasn’t sure what to do about the chair that someone placed behind me. I had always stood during practice, but I figured that wouldn’t look very elegant, so I seated myself…and discovered that the piano was higher than our own and the chair way too low. Still, all I could do was just make do.

The performance started. The accompanist, a student who normally plays trumpet, did a fantastic job. The flautist, unfortunately, clammed up a bit under pressure, and the gorgeous musical expression she displayed in rehearsal all but flattened out. Still, she did her job reasonably well. Meanwhile, I did the page turning exactly as I’d done in practice, carefully changing the first four pages into the next four. Then I moved around to the other side. Just for good measure, I took the chair with me. Wouldn’t you know it; it was a very loose but poorly oiled folding chair. When I lifted it the first thing it did was to slam shut with a loud squeak and clack…while the flautist was playing a soft, delicate passage.
The audience was laughing.

Undaunted, I unfolded the chair and set it down as gently as possible on the pianist’s right side, assumed my position, and completed the page turning. The two student musicians went on like nothing happened. After the tune finished, the accompanist stood up to take her bow, so I quickly scooted back to the left side of the piano, where I’d be out of the way.

We got a good round of applause, but the audience was buzzing. I’d definitely made their day.

After that I stayed out in the lobby guarding the students’ bags. That nasty cough of mine was starting to come back, and I didn’t really feel like going into the hall anyway. I just listened via the monitor they’d kindly set up there in the lobby. There were a grand total of seventy solos in the junior high division that day, and our own was number fifty eight. It seemed like it took forever for the event to finish, which makes me wonder how the judges felt.

Then it was awards time. Our flautist earned a silver medal (meaning she scored somewhere in the middle twenty…though for reasons of PC or something equally retarded they won’t tell us her actual score rank…lest they hurt someone’s feelings…). However, our pianist took the top accompanist medal, something none of us had expected. They gave out all kinds of special awards for this, that, and the other thing, but, sadly, I didn’t get any recognition at all for having provided the day’s comic relief.

[jabberjaw]No respect![/jabberjaw]

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

When Air Becomes More Precious Than Gold...

For the past week or more our house has sounded something like a dog pound. More than one member of the family has had minor respiratory problems for quite some time, but all of a sudden a nasty, persistent cough has hit everyone except my wife. I think I was the first, as my usual raw throat trouble started to be supplemented with occasional bursts of deep, chesty coughing about two weeks ago. My son, who has mild asthma, followed soon after. My daughter, who usually has no trouble at all, came last. My wife also has raw throat trouble, but thus far she seems to have been spared (and I really have to wonder why).

As usual, I stubbornly refused to see a doctor despite my wife's constant urging. I tend to shy away from hospitals and clinics unless absolutely necessary (which still means I tend to wind up visiting them at least twice a year), and a mere cough didn't qualify. After my kids' coughing lasted more than a week my wife finally took both of them to the hospital (last Monday). As is typical in this country, the doctor gave no explanation at all; he just wrote up a massive prescription for both kids and sent them on their way. Three days and several packs of medicine later, neither of the kids was showing any sign of improvement. I didn't bother saying, "I told you so," even though I seemed to be getting better.

At least that's what I thought.

At about 3:00 a.m. this morning I suddenly woke up and was immediately hit by an explosive fit of coughing. That wasn't so bad. When I finally stopped coughing, my throat seized up, cutting off my airway as if I were being strangled. In other words, I was unable to breathe. I've had this sort of thing happen before, but only for an instant, usually followed by another cough which clears it up. Well, another cough didn't come, and my throat stayed constricted. I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs, spots starting to play in my vision as I kept on desperately trying to draw a breath. My wife, who had fallen asleep downstairs in the middle of grading papers, woke up and had no idea what was going on. She thought I was trying not to puke, and all she did was fetch a large bowl from the kitchen and hold it under my mouth for me to heave in. I was totally unable to tell her that I was choking to death, and it simply didn't occur to her.

Ironically enough, I was apparently saved by a gas bubble. In my struggle to breathe I wound up coaxing out a belch, and that somehow opened my airway just enough for me to draw a quick breath and get out a few words before my throat seized up again. That was enough to let my wife know what was going on. She had already bought some face masks containing a decongestant for the kids. She slapped one of those over my mouth, and it did the trick. My throat quickly started opening again.

My wife was going to call an ambulance, but I refused. Instead, I left the mask on and went back to bed. Thankfully, I was able to sleep without incident. This morning both my wife and I took the day off from work, and she took me to the hospital. After a three-hour wait (ain't socialized medicine wonderful...and it's really only semi-socialized) I finally got to see a doctor. After checking me out, he said he was worried it might be either a mycoplasma infection (which is apparently going around now) or an onset of pneumonia, so I was sent to get an X-ray and a blood test. Then we had to wait more than an hour (during which time we had lunch), after which the doctor said he found no sign of anything particularly serious. Still, he was concerned that a bacteria (or mycoplasmal) infection might be possible, so he wrote me up a prescription and sent me on my merry way.

Well, I had a good rest at home, which I'm sure did me some good, but it also seriously screwed up my schedule at work. Oh, well. I'd say oxygen is far more crucial to me than my students' test scores...

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