Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Grand Champion, or Grand Illusion?

(With apologies to Styx...)

Sumo is probably the only major spectator sport that is still considered uniquely Japanese. It was first established as an official institution by the Imperial Court during the Nara Period in the 8th century, but its origins are much older. It dates back at least to the 5th century, when it was known as "sumai" and was a Shinto ritual carried out by local shrines. Back then it bore little resemblance to what it is today. Until the Nara Period there were few rules; it was essentially unarmed combat, often to the death, fought as a form of ceremonial entertainment for the Shinto deities.

The Wikipedia entry about Sumo, which doesn't cite adequate background sources, makes a claim that the sport actually originated in China and was introduced to Japan in the 5th century by visiting Han Dynasty dignitaries. Not even the official Sumo website verifies this. It only mentions that, according to legend, the fate of the Japanese people was decided by a Sumo-like match fought between a deity and the leader of a rival tribe (though it does concur on the likely 5th century origin). I really wonder how most Japanese would react to hearing that their uniquely Japanese sport might not be Japanese after all.

In fact, along those same lines, I wonder how most Japanese feel about the fact that three of the last five Yokozuna (Grand Champion), including the current one, are non-Japanese! (In fact, I couldn't help but notice that detailed info on past Yokozuna on the official site ends with Asahifuji, the last one before Hawaiian Akebono was promoted to the rank in 1993!)

Now we are faced with a new controversy. Flash back to my first paragraph, in which I concluded by saying that Sumo was originally a form of ceremonial entertainment for the Shinto deities. It has long been said that politics play as much a role in Sumo as fighting skill. Well, according to a popular gossip tabloid, an insider claims that it's worse than that. Apparently Sumo is no more genuine a sport than so-called pro wrestling. Most people would probably say, "Gossip tabloid? Hah!" But a lot of people are taking this very seriously...enough for the Sumo Association to launch an official investigation.

The main complaint centers around current (Mongolian) Yokozuna, Asashoryu, who has seemed least till now. The insider claims that during the November 2006 Kyushu basho (tournament) only four of Asashoryu's fifteen bouts were on the level. The rest were "obviously" fixed. That is certainly a matter of opinion, but one can't help but wonder how Asashoryu has been able to maintain such an invincible winning record. The fact is that he almost never trains between competitions anymore. Instead, he usually goes back to Mongolia to see to his rapidly-growing business empire, funded by his enormous Sumo winnings. In this vein, the bloated sums he is said to be using to buy off his opponents amount to only a very small and well-calculated business investment.

Interestingly, right after the investigation began, Asashoryu appeared in the most recent basho...and lost his first two matches in succession, the first time that has ever happened in his entire career. Even worse, trailing the winning rikishi by one victory till the end, Asashoryu won his last regular bout by pulling a cheap shot that Yokozuna are never supposed to use. Skilled strategy or a sneaky act of desperation? Well, the audience and judges were shocked by his apparent mockery of the honor that is supposed to accompany the Yokozuna rank. I'm sure many saw it as poetic justice when his opponent used a very similar low blow to defeat him in the playoff match. (In fact, the smile on Asashoryu's face would seem to indicate he felt the same way.)


It gets better though. It seems to be widely accepted here that match-fixing has always occurred in Sumo, but not to the extent of which Asashoryu is accused. As I've said before, politics has always played a role in the sport, but most still believe that most matches are on the level. The insider making the accusation doesn't seem to agree. He claims that a number of rikishi have been rigging the majority of their matches since entering the top divisions. Interestingly, many if not most of the rikishi on his "black list" are the non-Japanese ones.

Ever since Akebono became the first non-Japanese Yokozuna in 1993 a lot of people have whined that gaijin should be banned from the upper ranks if not from the upper division (if not from the sport!). Now a guy has just come out and given a "concrete"(?) reason for such a restriction. After all, if all the foreigners are winning by means of wealth rather than skill, they should be eliminated to preserve the integrity of the sport, right?

Makes sense to me!

So...are the Shinto deities entertained by all this?

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Future's So Bright...I Gotta Wear Shades

Well, it's that time of year again; time for me to be a doting band director again. Today was the day of the music club's Big Annual Concert (impressive fanfare), the event which caps off the school year and serves as a farewell to the 11th grade members. We followed more or less the same pattern as last year, holding a two-and-a-half-hour concert three days after the official last day of classes at Ye Olde Academy. Unfortunately, that also meant we had two and a half days of intensive rehearsal leading up to the performance, though this time we did everything we could (short of stun guns or chloroform) to try to get the kids to save their chops for the stage.

This year's 11th graders were definitely a unique bunch. To be honest, we were pretty worried about them when they first joined the music club as 7th graders. The fact that they were members of a problem class (the one that later drove me to throw a desk) pretty much said it all. They were terribly immature, excitable, spastic, noisy, out of control...annoying... They had a habit of neither listening nor doing what they were supposed to. In fact, if they did anything at all they tended to do it in a really half-hearted manner with lots of giggling. Yes, they were a frustrating and tiresome bunch, but Mr. Ogawa, Mr. Karatsu, and I still sensed potential in them. We did our best to engage them rather than dismiss them. We pushed them, gave them responsibilities and goals, and encouraged them to work together as a team. It wasn't easy to do. In fact, it was damned aggravating at times, but today we got to see the results of all our efforts.

Late in the afternoon on the day before the concert it started to rain. On the day of the concert we found ourselves with a raging storm. We were worried that the suddenly awful weather was going to torpedo our audience, but there really wasn't much to do about it. When the stage lights came on and the show started, the hall looked to be about half full...or half empty depending on how you look at it.

(That still isn't bad, but considering the Kashima Philharmonic has been playing to a packed house every time for the past three years...Mr. Ogawa and I have gotten a bit spoiled.)

Last year's Big Annual Concert (D major chord, A bass) kicked off with a brass fanfare. This year it was the strings' turn. A select senior high string ensemble mainly made up of the 11th grade string members marched out onto the dimly-lit stage and played J.S. Bach's "Praeludium pro Organ BWV552,1". Then they marched off again, I went on, and it was time for the Seishin Flying Eggheads (really funky fanfare). They were there to bring to a close what had undoubtedly been their most eventful year to date, and I'm not just talking about the busier-than-ever performance schedule!

Every year, at the Big Annual Concert (Amaj7 chord, diminished 9th), I do my best to let the 11th grade Eggheads decide our repertoire. I rarely intervene or veto a student's choice unless it is clearly mistaken. This year it seemed two such mistakes had been made. Our lead trombonist wanted to play a really difficult trombone solo feature version of "Misty". Our baritone saxophonist wanted to do Charlie Mingus' "Moanin'" with herself as the featured soloist through the whole piece. I told them they had to be joking. We'd last performed "Misty" in 2004 and "Moanin'" in 2005. On both those occasions we'd had outstanding individual players to cover the solo spots, and even they had found the pieces very difficult. They'd also been backed up by bands which were generally stronger than this year's group. As far as I was concerned, "Misty" and "Moanin'" were out of their league, so I vetoed the choices.

Well, compared with their predecessors, what the kids lacked in individual playing power they more than made up for with team spirit, dedication, motivation, and, above all, sheer audacity. They did something I would never have expected from a Japanese school band. They took matters into their own hands. They got "Misty" and "Moanin'" out of the music library and started practicing them on their own. They'd get whoever was available in the morning, during lunchbreaks, or after rehearsals, and they'd jam on one or both of those pieces as best they could. (I could hear them doing it, of course, but I pretended not to know.) Then, after a while, they asked me if they could "try" the pieces during a regular rehearsal. "Moanin'" was already almost down. "Misty", while still quite rough (it's a VERY hard tune for kids to play), was still more than good enough to qualify. Chuckling with amazement, I told the student captain to go ahead and put both tunes on the list.

The kids' inventiveness and courage didn't stop there, however. If anything, I'd spurred it on. During the two days of rehearsals leading up to the performance the 11th grade Eggheads kept coming at me either to ask permission to do something they'd just thought of or simply to warn me about it. I was amazed. We'd had motivated Flying Eggheads in the past, but nothing like this!

Okay, it's time for me to give my annual kudos. At the risk of getting in trouble (or sued), I'll say f*** the initials and give credit where it is due.

In the past, the Seishin Flying Eggheads had always opened their program with a fairly easy number so they'd have time to get over the jitters and get into the groove. This time we decided to take a risk and start on a high note. We kicked off the program with the original Weather Report version of "Birdland", a regular favorite of ours. The trumpet section managed NOT to splat their first note (a curse they'd had all year), and the kids pulled it off really well.

Our first 11th grade kudo for 2007 goes to Yumiko Sato, our enthusiastic bassist this year, who bought a Fender Jazz bass just for the occasion. She pulled off the thumb-slapping Jaco Pastorius break in the middle of "Birdland" better than any bassist we've had to date. Another kudo, perhaps the most surprising, goes to percussionist Masashi Okuta for the awesome conga solo he threw in right after that bass break. Entering our school as a 10th grader last year, he was a capable classical percussionist but had little experience with drums. He entered the Flying Eggheads, played drums on one tune, blew it badly, and quit immediately afterward. Then he came back a few months later, apologized, and asked if he could play percussion rather than drums. I asked him to play congas. He did a good job, but he always looked so damned somber. As it happened, during the rehearsals before today's concert Mr. Sakuma (our part-time soundman, occasional stage manager, and full-time bulldog) finally blew up at him, saying what could perhaps be best translated as, "Oh, come on! You look dull as snot! Spice it up! Live a little!" Well, guess what...he did! He was all over those congas, muting with his elbow, spinning his hands around, smiling, banging his head, and definitely looking totally unlike himself. It was brilliant! (When we watched the video of the performance afterward the whole music club including all our visiting alumni gave him a rousing, whooping ovation.)

After "Birdland" came to its rather abrupt climax, I walked off the stage, and Chiaki Ohshima launched into an extended piano solo, an improvised venture she'd come up with (and informed me about) only the night before. We'll probably miss that girl more than anyone else in this year's 11th grade group. She's a talented flautist, but it's mainly as a pianist that she has earned her marks. From the time she entered as a 7th grader she immediately started serving as an accompanist for all kinds of soloists including Mr. Ogawa and myself. Always battling health issues (apparently due to exhaustion, but she would never let on or let up), she nevertheless would never hesitate to help out when asked, and she provided on-the-spot accompaniment for my sax solos on many an occasion. She was also the loyal rehearsal pianist for the Kashima Philharmonic...and actually outperformed at least two of the guest players (both professionals) she was supposed to be emulating! Obviously a gifted classical player, she had a bit of trouble getting used to jazz in the beginning (as is often the case); as a 9th grader she actually came to me in tears and apologized after playing her first ad-libbed solo, which I thought had sounded fine (inspiring the song "Why These Tears?" on my Open Halls album). This year she seemed much more comfortable, and the little hooks and fills she started sticking in the breaks became a regular feature of this year's Flying Eggheads. Well, now she was in the spotlight by her own choice playing a lovely, little cadenza as a lead-in to the next number, "My Heart Will Go On".

That soulful (if a bit hackneyed) ballad was originally an alto sax feature, but I rearranged it so that lead alto saxophonist and this year's Flying Eggheads captain Hiroko Yamamoto traded off with lead trumpet (and best smiler) Ayaka Karumi. Throughout the year a lot rested on those two. Both rather timid souls, they were nowhere near the best we've ever had at their respective instruments, but Ms. Yamamoto was definitely our strongest jazz player this year, and Ms. Karumi did a lot to make a struggling trumpet section a very credible one (not to mention she played with an unforgettable, warm tone that always reminded me of Miles Davis).

Yumiko put away her electric bass, picked up her wood bass, and we went into swing mode with "It's Only a Paper Moon". It was the only new tune on this year's roster. We opened up the middle to a few solos including Sachie Kitami on tuba. Originally a euphonium player, she picked up tuba this year when our existing tuba player (a bit of a loser) suddenly quit (to no regrets). Sachie took to it immediately. However, she actually seemed more comfortable playing it up the euphonium range! Unlike tuba players we've had in the past, she was totally comfortable standing up and playing a solo and really seemed to enjoy it, too.

Next was "Misty" (clench fists anxiously), featuring trombonist Chihiro Kubota (and a bit more of Chiaki on the piano). As a 7th grader, Chihiro was famous for the fact that she could never figure out her instrument. Even after having studied and practiced it for the better part of a year, she had to learn each piece one note at a time because she simply could not remember the slide positions. We were sure she'd give up and drop out. Not only did she stick with us till the end, but now she was playing a gorgeous and very difficult (and very high ) solo. She had enormous shoes to fill; in 2004 that tune was played by Hirohito Tanaka, by far the best lead trombonist ever to play in the Eggheads, while Chihiro played 3rd trombone. Now Tanaka was helping out backstage (his mouth hanging open with disbelief), and she was in the spotlight. No, she didn't play it quite as well as he had, but she still did an impressive job, more than enough to prove herself.

After "Misty" came to its final, major chord conclusion, I walked over behind the rhythm section. Baritone saxophonist Suzuka Narui immediately stood up and launched into the opening riff of "Moanin'". There was a bit of an uproar from the audience because all of the members (including me) had suddenly put on sunglasses! (It was Narui's idea...another surprise sprung on me the day before the concert!) Like most of Charlie Mingus' works, "Moanin'" is very artsy and hard to play effectively. It is essentially the art of noise, the sound of someone being overcome with either frustration or passion (or both). It starts out with that bluesy bari sax riff all alone. When it comes around again, a trombone and tuba play a quiet but bluesy countermelody. Then two saxes come in improvising together over it. Then two more instruments come in, then two more, and finally the original melody is buried in what can only be called total chaos...which suddenly resolves itself again. Not only does almost every member of the band have to ad-lib, but they have to make it thematic (i.e. melodic) improvisation which starts out solemn and gradually turns into frantic screaming. We first tried "Moanin'" as an encore back in 2001, and since the band had very little in the way of improv power we only played the first half, and I wrote solos for all the members. (It sucked!) In 2002 we tried the whole piece, mainly because I wanted to feature our excellent lead tenor saxophonist at the time, Yuka Okada. We pulled it off mainly thanks to her considerable soloing strength, but the band as a whole still sounded uninspired and kind of iffy. Things were quite a bit better when we tried it again in 2005 because we had several strong jazz players including, once again, our lead tenor saxophonist at the time, Kentaro Shiiki. That was an impressive performance. Once again Shiiki stole the show with his long solo and open break, but unlike Okada he didn't do it all himself. He actually gave part of the solo to our baritone saxophonist, who was none other than Suzuka Narui, then a 9th grader. Now cut to 2007, and Suzuka was going the full ten yards on her own. As I mentioned before, the other members had been practicing their ad-libbed parts on their own for quite some time, so they sounded great...perhaps the best ever. They were just so into it! As for Ms. Narui's long solo and open cadenza,'s hard to compare. In 2002 Okada took a blues approach and wailed. In 2005 Shiiki went the be-bop route and was more technical. As for Narui in 2007, well...she was interesting. Her solo was inventive, expressive, and...interesting. It didn't sound like blues or be-bop so much as avantegard...or even modern classical. I kept expecting her to launch into something by Debussy or even Stravinsky. But it worked really well, and went she started up the main riff again she didn't play it square. She improvised around it, something no other Egghead had ever tried. It was really something, and after we ended the piece with a raucous mass of noise as all the members improvised (squawked?) together (another last-minute item they'd come up with!) we were rewarded with hoots and cries of "bravo" from the audience!

I was sure the brass would be wiped out by now, but they only sounded a little bit tired when we launched into our oft-performed, up-tempo medley of "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and "Sing, Sing, Sing". A number of players soloed, but the one who really stole the show was our talented drummer, Ms. IT. That girl has always been amazing, and she just keeps getting better. Best of all is the fact that she's only a 9th grader (which is why I used her initials rather than her name)! Unlike the others I've mentioned here, she WON'T be saying goodbye yet (I hope)! We followed that with a rather predictable encore, "In The Mood", but the crowd always likes it.

And that, my friends, was the end of the 2006-2007 Seishin Flying Eggheads.

Next up was the concert band under Mr. Karatsu's baton. They had a pretty good selection of tunes...and some entertaining costumes and actions...but unfortunately the trumpets were blown out and the clarinets were out of tune. It was undoubtedly the weakest segment of the concert, but it was still well worth seeing, and the audience clearly appreciated it.

As always, the show was capped off by the orchestra directed by Mssr. Maestro Ogawa. First they played Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess" followed by Saint-Saens' "Danse Macabre" featuring a violin solo by our regular violin clinician (and concertmistress of the Kashima Philharmonic), Sugiko Ishikawa. Ms. Ishikawa, whose sister Shizuka is a world-famous violinist, is herself a well-established pro (not to mention a very interesting individual). Needless to say, her solo was wonderful. After that the orchestra played "The Sorceror's Apprentice". It wasn't a bad performance, but the winds generally sounded worn out and didn't have a whole lot of energy. Luckily the strings were in good form.

For the encore they again used my arrangement combining "Time to Say Goodbye" with Ravel's "Bolero" entitled (wait for it...) "Time to Say Goodbye-Lero". I'd given the tune quite a makeover, mainly to provide solos for this year's departing 11th graders, and this time Mr. Ogawa used the intro that he cut last year. The piece opened with Ms. Yamamoto on alto sax and Ms. Narui on bari sax trading solos with a beautiful duet in the middle, accompanied by the orchestra, before the Bolero part began. Appropriately, Chiaki Ohshima played the first melody, that of "Time to Say Goodbye", on the flute, and her face was streaked with tears as she did so. There was a lot more of that going on all around. Frankly, I was worried that some of the kids wouldn't be able to play, but the piece went beautifully, even better than last year, and it made me feel really proud both because it was my own work and because the kids were honoring me with such an outstanding performance of it. The applause and "bravos" went on for a long time afterward. Almost all of the 11th graders and even some of the younger members had very soggy faces. It was a dramatic and emotional moment, a fitting end to a dramatic and emotional year...or was that five years? Anyway, it really was time to say goodbye. Not just another performance, but another era had come to an we won't soon forget.

19th concert program
(This is the front cover of the concert program. The same pic was used for the promo poster. Don't ask me to explain it. The kids that made it couldn't tell me anything that made sense.)

Another year, another Big Annual Concert. Never a dull moment in this music club.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Paying Respects and Construction Bills

These days it seems like my posts are getting to be fewer and further between. I have to wonder whether it is due to a lack of inspiration, too much time spent reading and commenting on other people’s blogs, too many matters of everyday life on my mind, end of the school year blues, spring fever, or a combination of the above. My musical composition seems to be suffering a similar fate; the Telecaster my wife gave me for my birthday is still sitting on its stand, inert and forlorn. Actually, there is no lack of ideas; I have things running through my mind all the time. It’s just that most of them seem too trite or bland to bother with, and the rest are only slightly better, making it all seem hardly worth the effort.

Maybe I’m trying to set my standards too high. In the past I’ve often had my biggest musical or literary successes when I said “screw perfect” and just went with whatever came to mind. Perhaps the moral of this story is, “Don’t try so damned hard,” but I have yet to learn my lesson.

Yesterday was the Vernal Equinox, called shunbun no hi (春分の日) in Japanese. It’s one of the occasions of the year when the family goes to the ancestors’ graves to clean them and leave flowers and incense. Actually, the number of graves we have to attend to is small. It used to be MUCH greater, but not long after I got married some of my mother-in-law’s relatives got together and, without telling anyone else, decided to remodel the gravesite into a very fancy one. Essentially, they constructed a high-class clan memorial…but only for the patriarchal line (i.e. the line of first-born sons and their families). Several small, solitary graves of ancestors with no heirs were simply covered over and forgotten. Room was made nearby to accommodate most of the other relatives, but alas, (or should I say “conveniently”) there was no space left for our branch. That meant the graves of my wife’s three deceased maternal grandparents (my mother-in-law’s birth father and both her adoptive parents, who were related…long story…) had to be relocated to a new site further down the hill. I shouldn’t complain too much; there are fewer graves to tend and fewer steps to climb to get to them. However, to this day I still seriously wonder whether I was the reason it happened, since it meant my mother-in-law’s line was more or less kicked out of the clan soon after I entered it.

Our family graves are unique for another reason. My mother-in-law’s birth father and adoptive mother were both cremated, as usual. There are only urns in the little vaults beneath their stones. However, my wife’s beloved grandfather, my mother-in-law’s adoptive father, was buried directly rather than cremated. Since the burial plots are really shallow, there is a very noticeable mound over the remains. That grandfather was apparently the old man I saw when we first brought our baby daughter home from the hospital (see "Chapter Five" in this post). Not only that, but when we neglected to tend the family graves on the Vernal Equinox two years later, our household suffered a rash of strange malfunctions (my computer, my studio equipment, the TV, the video player, the washing machine, and the refrigerator) which all suddenly corrected themselves when we made a quick visit to the graveyard. Needless to say, my wife and I always give that mound extra special attention!

Speaking of which, I hope our visit this time was sufficient to keep the grandparents happy till the Bon festival in August. Now we’re doing our best to keep certain living relatives happy, specifically the two uncles that are still working on our house. The construction is proceeding nicely (one might say TOO nicely…since Uncle Shigeru the carpenter and his high standards keep leading us to decide on ever more expensive additions to the list) though not quite as quickly as I’d hoped (which is probably a good thing, actually, though pretty damned inconvenient when you’re trying to live in a half-built house). When my wife and I aren’t at work we do our best to help out. For the most part that means my wife provides tea breaks and meals, and I carry and clean things. Anything to help keep it all running smoothly…and quickly.

Besides, I’m getting lots of exercise.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Should Old Fireflies Be Forg...Wait, What?

PTA daffodil1

The gentle sky has changed its mind,
And we wake to rain,
Thankful nonetheless;
The snow they warned of has not appeared.
‘Tis a good day for saying goodbye.

Four minutes late I leave my half-unbuilt house
At a full sprint,
My bloated bag, like an anvil in one hand,
My light, spring suit like feathers in the other.
Rush (Roll The Bones) jump-starts my mood,
But the farm truck at the head of the line
Is definitely not in any “rush”,
And I roll into Ye Olde Academy
Seven minutes too late.

PTA daffodil3

After the meeting
I duck into a darkened space to change.
My suit pants have an 81cm waist,
But, alas, my gut is now 85.
The jacket hides the jutting handles,
But only just.

All the teachers are in black;
In these islands,
The color of ceremony,
In my mind,
The color of ending.
But today is a new beginning,
Not an end,
For the ones saying goodbye.
The dawn of a new life,
A SPRING life.
Thus am I dressed in GREEN
As I do every year
(Even if it’s f*****g painful!)

The announcement is given,
The fanfare is played,
I give the signal to the guide as rehearsed,
But no one moves,
And the guide only gazes at me
With vacant eyes.
The signal is repeated more violently,
And the line at last heaves forward.
The 12th graders enter the auditorium
Bathed in wonderfully…torpid…applause.

PTA flowerbed3

Count the miniskirts and orange hair.
T’was something of a problem class,
Particularly the girls,
Many of them troubled,
Some even violent,
But most of them made it,
And now it’s time to say goodbye.

There are many former members
Of the music club in the line,
But they casually avoid my gaze,
As they do every year,
And as always I'm not sure why.

After the anthems of nation and school,
The orchestra flows away to its chambers.
Rushing downstairs, I open my pants
And heave a big sigh
As my handles deflate.
The speeches will take at least an hour;
Till then I’ll rest in comfort.

grad memorial2
Congratulatory messages sent to the graduates by elementary schools, businesses, politicians, etc.

Fifteen minutes before the mark
I squeeze my clothes shut again,
Sneak into a foyer,
Incline my ear,
And panic!
Running, I rally the troops.
The speech-givers, you see, were merciful this year,
And we are fully ten minutes
Ahead of schedule!

The kids find their places
And their chops.
We are ready when the announcement comes,
And we play “Aogeba Toutoshi” (仰げば尊し - “Revere those you look up to”),
The traditional song of parting
Twixt teacher and student,
And the tears begin to flow.
Then we start “Hotaru no Hikari” (蛍の光 – “The Light of Fireflies”,
Aka “Auld Lang Syne”),
And the seniors march away.
Their final task at Ye Olde Academy is done,
And their strange, new journey has just begun.

(Three years in a row I ended the tune
As the last soul left the gate,
But this year the timing was naught to be,
And we finished…five measures too late.
Better luck next year!)
(Now it’s time to chisel off this damned suit!)

The end of the road is the beginning: After the graduation ceremony, the seniors have the customary farewell gathering in the roundabout in front of the campus.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

On-The-Job Training

The students of Year 9 A-Grade were still trickling into the English classroom for what would be their last Oral Communication lesson. As always, they were a bundle of energy; after plopping their books and bags on their desks, they immediately headed off for their respective groups for a bit of fun and banter before the bell rang. HM was possibly the most extreme example. However, as usual, he first came running up to the front of the class to greet Ms. Y and me with his characteristic spastic joviality. The kid is a live wire, but at least he is both a very smart and a very friendly live wire.

Then Ms. Y remembered something. Last month, when the 9th graders had their work study day, HM and two other boys visited one of the local elementary schools and tried their hand at conducting an English lesson. Apparently they did so well that the principal of the school wrote a letter not only to us, but also to both the Mayor of Kashima and the Prefecture Board of Education letting them know how impressed he'd been at the students' ability and enthusiasm.

Wrinkling her nose impishly, Ms. Y asked, "How would you like to teach today's lesson, Mr. HM?"

Neither of us expected for a moment that he would say yes, but he did. In fact, he was quite excited about it.

Year 9 at Ye Olde Academy is normally divided into four Rooms, but for their English lessons they are assigned to one of five grades which are affectionately known as A, B, C, D, and, of course, E. The latter three are hyojun (標準 - "standard") grades, i.e. their average ability level is thought to be more or less comparable to that of their public school counterparts. A and B, on the other hand, are joui (上位 - "advanced") classes for higher-ranked students. The standard and advanced grades are quite different from each other in terms of both ability and classroom atmosphere, as one would expect. The standard grades often tend to be more fun because they're not so damned serious. However, as it turns out, even the two advanced grades differ considerably from each other. B grade is clearly the more dedicated of the two, its members generally having a more serious attitude and doing their assigned work more diligently. Then there is A grade. The kids are every bit as smart as their friends in B grade. They just don't always show it. However, they can be more fun-loving, and that can make them more enjoyable to work with. We just never know quite what to expect...

HM came to the front of the class and assumed a comically authoritarian stance. When the bell rang, the students didn't think he was serious until he did a very convincing imitation of the way I'd always started the O.C. lessons. Then FM came into the classroom. It just so happened that FM had been one of HM's partners in the elementary school work study lesson. That gave HM a couple of perfect opportunities.

HM crossed his arms, glared, and asked (in English), "Why are you so late?"

(The class tried and failed to suppress a giggle. It was just too funny.)

FM looked at him sheepishly and replied (also in English), " was my mistake. I thought it was grammar class now..."

"Oh..." HM sighed and shook his head with mock disdain. "That's too bad! Now you have to stay! You have to help me! Come here!"

And so FM became the other teacher in charge of the lesson. The funny thing was that, shy as he is, he didn't really seem to mind.

HM seemed a bit confused at first. He said a few things that didn't really make sense and then just started screwing around. But then, after FM's prompting, he looked at me intently and held up his textbook. I quickly whispered the page number.

"Okay," said HM, turning back to the class and setting his jaw with an air of self-importance. "Okay, students. Please open your textbooks to page fifty-seven!"

One student promptly put his head down on his desk and tried to go to sleep (and I promptly dissuaded him from doing so), but other than that the class was very cooperative. HM and FM turned out to be an interesting team: FM clearly had the superior English ability of the two, but HM had both the eloquence and the audacity. In a nutshell, it was the Thinker and the Doer (or the Egghead and the Ham?), respectively. They ad-libbed around the textbook lesson the way Ms. Y and I usually did, but with their own unique take on it, and then they started the planned group activity.

Ms. Y and I had intended to take over from there, but HM would have none of that. He was on a roll, and he wanted to play it out to its conclusion. Even when the bell rang, rather than bolting off the stage like a couple of electrocuted rabbits, HM and FM insisted on staying long enough to finish the last activity to their satisfaction. After that they seemed a bit lost for a few seconds, but then they gathered their wits and closed the lesson properly. The class responded well, and our two young teacher trainees seemed very pleased with themselves.

And they damned well should be. Nothing like that had ever happened before in my almost seventeen years of teaching in Japan, and I welcome it. Sometimes it's good to have the courage to try being in the cockpit instead of the cabin. You learn more about life that way, and that, my friends, is education.

I only wish I'd been able to video it.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Pasuri, Seiji, Rozumari, an Taimu

On Friday my last-ever lesson with Room 5 of grade 7 came to a fine, if a bit sad, conclusion. This year's Room 5 was pretty much just the way Room 5s have been every year for the past five years: smart & spunky. I've often wondered if there's something about that particular classroom that tends to make them that way. At any rate, they've always been fun to work with, and it's always regrettable to say goodbye.

Fourth period was next, and I had it off. That gave me extra time to have my lunch and catch up on a few things, so I dropped off my classroom supplies in the junior high staffroom and made my way through the maze of Ye Olde Academy to the English Department office. When I arrived in the central building known as the Library Hall, however, I noticed a wonderful, musical sound filling the air from the direction of the main lobby. Then I remembered. The 10th grade music elective classes were always held during the third and fourth periods every Friday. This being the last Friday of the year, it was time for their final exam, a concert in the lobby.

I headed in that direction at once and joined the pathetically small audience. Unfortunately, I had already missed half of the show, but there was still plenty to see. There were a couple of solos, a (disastrous) ensemble, and then the full chorus (half the music elective students) gathered for its performance.

elective concert1

The 10th grade music elective chorus has a habit of sounding really bad, but this year I was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps I shouldn't have been; for the most part, these are students that sang the "Hallelujah Chorus" at their junior high graduation ceremony last year. (I even helped train them for that myself.) They pulled it off pretty well. The first song they sang was "Scarborough Fair", first in Japanese and then in English. The English pronunciation was laughable to say the least, but the singing was beautiful. Their second number, a Japanese tune I didn't know, was an off-key disaster, but they closed the set with another Japanese song that sounded great. To top it off, during the last chorus some of the boys came up to the vocal music director, Ms. M, put their arms around her, and sang swinging back and forth. It was hilarious, but it had a very serious intent. Ms. M is leaving after this month.

elective concert2

After that, the other half of the music elective students formed a recorder ensemble. Under Mr. Ogawa's baton, they played a couple of movements from Vivaldi's "Spring" and did a very good job. Many of them were members of our orchestra, but even then this year's 10th graders have more than the usual level of musical talent on average. It was an enjoyable show.

The concert wound up going overtime, meaning lunch wound up being a few minutes late instead of early, but oh well. The kids did a good job. Now...I wonder what next year's bunch is going to sound like.....


The construction on my house is progressing. We already have lots more space than we used to, but we can't use it yet. It all still looks like a slapped-together storage shed and has yet to be fleshed out. Worse than that is the fact that, since they're going to connect the new section with the old living room and refloor the whole lot as one, we had to move all our furniture out of the living room. Now we're eating our meals sitting on folding chairs in an empty if we'd just moved in. This will probably continue for a few more days. After we get the living room back we'll lose either the toilet or the kitchen followed by the other. It's a headache, but I'm looking forward to its completion...even though the new roof leaked today! (But it's good we found that out before the roof gets finished.)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

That's Right...Gang Up On Me Now...

And now I've been tagged by Hashim over in Bahrain! I'm sure some of you wonder why I even bother going along with these, but the answer is actually quite simple:

1. It's kind of fun,
2. These tags are all coming from good people,
3. Why not?

Okay. Anyway, the tag this time is to name my personal top ten music list. That is actually extremely difficult for me as my musical tastes are so broad (not to mention ever changing). Oh, well. I'll just pull ten names out of my pocket...ones that sound good.

My Personal Top 10 Music List
1. "Jacob's Ladder" by Rush - Rush's musical style has progressed a lot over the years, starting out very obviously rooted in Led Zeppelin and then going through several phases. "Jacob's Ladder", on the Permanent Waves album (1980) came out during their stadium rock period, but it was a long, convoluted, multi-movement work that was reminiscent of their late '70s art rock period. It has to be one of the dreamiest yet rockingest descriptions of a storm I've ever heard.

2. "Minstrel in the Gallery" by Jethro Tull - Tull is another group that has many, many faces. Generally speaking, I tend to prefer their lighter, more acoustic numbers to their rocking ones, but "Minstrel in the Gallery" is definitely an exception. It is a very driving number, at times almost hard rock, but it still has both the musical artistry and lyrical wit for which Ian Anderson, Martin Barre, and crew are famous. I especially like the theme: a minstrel playing at a party and, at the same time, performing a social commentary on the people attending it! The album version starts out with the minstrels being introduced to the hosts of the party, followed by a solo acoustic rendition of the first verse, followed by some intense instrumental work by the band before the actual song starts.

3. "Black Blade" by Blue Oyster Cult - This wildly artful and totally cool song is about Elric, the albino Melnibonean sorceror who is the "hero" of the Stormbringer series of novels. Incidentally, this song was produced by none other than the author of the Stormbringer books himself, Michael Moorcock!

4. "Water Shows the Hidden Heart" by Enya - It's really a toss-up as to which Enya song I like best. This tune, the last on the Amarantine album, is a very simple, heartfelt tune sung in the Loxian language (an alien tongue created by Enya's lyricist, Roma Ryan). I don't know why, but it has always affected me very deeply. When it comes up on my car navigation system's HDD player I tend to keep hitting the repeat button...

5. Soundtrack from LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring by Howard Shore/Enya - Okay! I found a way to cheat! The music to all three of the LOTR movies is AWESOME, but the first one has a special place in my heart (though I really like that tear-jerking Rohan theme violin solo in...ah, never mind). I especially like both the main theme song, "May It Be" (sung by Enya) and Arwen's theme, "Anorin" (also sung by Enya). Both of those tunes have brought tears to my eyes. My sister and I both envisioned (with anticipation of many tears flowing) the final movie ending with the gray ship sailing off into the sun accompanied by "May It Be", and it was actually a little disappointing when they used that Annie Lennox song instead.

6. "My Heart Will Go On" by James Horner - Alright, alright...I know. I can see a lot of you cringing. To tell you the truth, I don't really care about Celine Dion's version, and the movie doesn't have to be relevant here, either. I really liked James Horner's soundtracks for the second and third Star Trek movies, but I was a bit disappointed that his Titanic soundtrack was so clearly ripped off from Enya in so many places. This song, however, was not. Yes, it is rather syrupy, but it is also beautiful and has many possibilities. I've also had wonderful experiences performing it myself. I will never forget playing it as an Irish tinwhistle solo accompanied by a harp and a humming vocalist together with the Kashima Philharmonic. A few weeks ago I played it as an alto sax solo, accompanied by a piano, at a shopping mall, and I really went crazy and improvised all over sound reverberating all over that mall like nothing I've ever done before! (After I was done a musician I've worked with a lot over the past 15 years came up to me wide-eyed and open-mouthed and said, "I never knew you could play like that!" Frankly, neither did I.)

7. "Logos" by Tangerine Dream - This is actually a long work consisting of several distinct movements, but on the CD it is a single track. It was first performed at the Dominion Theatre in London in 1982, where it was recorded to become the (wait for it...) Logos - Live album. It is probably the best album for introducing oneself to Tangerine Dream, being a good compromise between their earlier exploration and later refinement, and it is also an excellent example of the Froese/Franke/Schmoelling lineup.

8. "Oxygene" (all 6 parts) by Jean-Michele Jarre - When Jean-Michele Jarre put out his first self-produced/self-performed album, Oxygene, in 1976, electronic music was still a relatively undeveloped phenomenon. Certainly, Tangerine Dream had pioneered the concept of sequencer-based rhythm with the album Phaedra in 1973, and Walter/Wendy Carlos had put out the first solo synthesizer album, Switched-On Bach, as far back as 1968, but no solo artist had ever made anything quite like Jarre's spacey dreamscape. The entire work was recorded at his home using an 8-track analog tape deck, a modified electric organ, and a rack full of analog synths and drum machines that now seem laughably primitive. Still, the album has a timeless quality that makes it good "zoning out" music even today.

I might also add that, when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980, clips of it shown on TV were always accompanied by excerpts from Oxygene.

9. "Pictures at an Exhibition" by Modest Mussorgsky - I've always loved this grand classical work, perhaps the greatest tribute to friendship ever made. Mussorgsky's friend, the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann, had died at the tender age of 39. His works were being displayed in a special memorial exhibition, and Mussorgsky was so moved by it that he composed a ten-part piano work, each based on either one of the works or his procession through the exhibition and his changing emotions as he did so. The piece was later arranged for orchestra. I had the honor of performing it with the Kashima Philharmonic a couple of years ago. That was a headrush!

10. "1812 Overture" by Pyotr Tchaikovsky - (Hmm...what is it with all these Russian composers?) Any and all Americans should be well familiar with this tune, since it is (ironically) always used to celebrate American Independence Day! However, I have to wonder if most Americans are aware of what this tune is really about. It is meant to describe Napolean's devastating sweep across Russia only to be turned back at Moscow. It is a piece loaded with energy, patriotic pride, and pain, but that ending! Oh, man, that ending! Not just the grand spectacle of the music, the bells, and the cannonfire, but what they represent! Imagine if you will: Moscow has been burned to ashes because its own citizens put it to the torch. The people have destroyed their own homes, and all that is left of their beloved city is the blackened stone towers of the churches. But yet, in those towers the bells are ringing out, and people are dancing in the rubble-filled streets shouting with joy. They have nothing left; their homes, their livelihood, everything is gone. But they are happy, and their hearts are filled with pride, and with good reason! Napolean may have defeated the Russian army, but the Muscovites have personally stolen his hard-won victory right out from under his tight, little arse and sent the bastard packing! Ultimate sacrifice, ultimate victory...and the last laugh is the loudest a glorious, major key!

Who cannot be moved by this?

Uh, I have to stop here? Can't I include a few...ah, forget it.

UPDATE: Speaking of forgetting, I forgot that I was supposed to tag somebody. Okay...I tag anyone that likes music that hasn't already done this tag yet.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Why Do I Do It??!?!?!??!?!?!?!???!?!??


Was that...yes, it was! Oh, no!!!

Once again I have been marked by the vicious Indonesian/German tagger, Selba! This time I'm required to name the top five reasons why I blog. Okay, that sounds harmless enough, so here goes:

1. Chronic Ceativity - You could probably say that any kind of artist is an exhibitionist at heart. We want people to see what we create, and we want them to appreciate us for it. "Life in the Land of the Rising Sun" started out as an "e-blog", i.e. I used to write the articles and e-mail them to all the people on my mailing list. Switching to the blog format was just the logical progression from that.

2. The Umbilical Cord of Sentiment - As I mentioned in my profile, I came to Japan for what was only supposed to be a two-year experience, after which I planned to return to Oregon and complete a couple more college degrees. Then I got a real life here in Japan and wound up settling here. However, as much as I like living in Japan (much more than my griping would make you think), Oregon is still my spiritual home. This blog is a way for me to maintain that link, as I have relatives and friends from over there that appear and comment here regularly.

3. The Cosmopolitan Call - I started using ICQ some years ago, and without even trying I wound up with a very interesting and very international circle of friends. It became very much a part of my life, and I valued those contacts greatly. I finally gave up on ICQ when I realized the majority of the messages I was getting were coming from webcam and online porn sites. However, though I eventually lost touch with most of my ICQ "family", I was able to reestablish contact with a few of them by creating my blog site. I've also managed to develop a new, even bigger and better cosmopolitan circle of friends thanks to this site.

4. Peer Pressure - The fact is that people had been pressing me to develop my own web site for years. I had always thought about it, but had simply never gotten around to it. Blogger made the job much easier. Now I not only have this site, but I have given into still more peer pressure and created the Minstrel's Muse blog to showcase my music, something else people have bugged me about for years. Maybe I'll make a more serious site of my own in the future, but for now Blogger serves me well.

5. Terminal Eloquence - Face it: I've always been a blabbermouth. My first grade teacher referred to me as a "chatterbox". My second grade teacher said I was "noisily creative". My third grade teacher called me "motormouth". My fifth grade teacher warned me either to learn to shut up or risk becoming an outcast. My eighth grade English teacher told me never to stop expressing myself. My favorite English teacher in high school said she looked forward to reading me when I finally got published (but she has already passed away, sadly enough). During my Eagle Court of Honor my old scoutmaster (Don Snabulus' dad) described me as "someone who loves to communicate" (which drew much applause). My Writing 101 teacher in college said I should be writing for a magazine. My technical report writing teacher at Oregon State said I belonged writing novels, not technical reports (which was why he gave me a D). My 400-level German Literature teacher at OSU said I had "a knack for expression with impact." All of those pretty much hit the nail on the head. I've always been fond of sending letters-to-the-editor to newspapers and magazines (and I've been published many times...even receiving payment for it on more than one occasion). Spewing on other people's blogs is pretty much a given, so I figured it was only fair to have my own blog both so I could spout and other people could spout back at me.

Okay...I guess that pretty much does it.

I tag everyone who doesn't read this. The offer is still open to the rest of you, however.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Evens and Beginnings

Since its birth in 1997, the Seishin Flying Eggheads has seen its schedule fill up more and more. Of course, there are the annual concerts. Those are always good. However, even better are the invitations we're getting more and more often to play at local events. In other words, we've managed to establish a reputation, and that has led to increased demand. I'd call that a sign that we're doing something right.

Last Saturday was such an occasion. The Eggheads were asked be the main attraction at a PTA "cultural appreciation" event at a local elementary school. It was the first time we'd ever been asked to do such a thing. We received the invitation to play it just over a month ago, and since it wound up falling at a really bad time (the day after final exam week, i.e. two weeks without rehearsal) we weren't sure we could pull it off, but we went for it anyway. It just seemed too good to pass up! Then the 11th grade members of the band asked me to leave the planning up to them. I admit I had my misgivings, but they managed to come up with an interesting program.

Fortunately, last Saturday was an "off day" for the students, which helped a lot. The nearness of the elementary school meant that transportation could be kept to a minimum, which also helped. We had to perform in the gym, as expected, but it had a pretty good stage and risers, so we could set up in staggered levels like we usually do. They also had wireless mikes and a decent-sounding PA system...a surprise considering the kind of budget most public elementary schools (don't) have. Unfortunately, I had completely forgotten to prepare a concert program to hand out to the audience, so I had to whip one up on a computer in the main office. Good enough for government work...and the government is my audience rather than my employer!

The parents came in first, and they greeted us with cold stares. Ye Olde Academy has a bit of a mixed reputation in these parts. Yes, we are the only elite private junior/senior high school in the area, and, yes, we do have reputable academic, cultural, and sports programs. However, we are also known as being something of a haven for rich brats. People see the name of the school, and quite often the first thing that pops into their heads is the word "snob". The fact that the director of this band is a gaijin didn't help, either. The children, however, were excited when they come in, and they entertained us with their amusing banter (and cute attempts to read my name on the program). My only worry was that the first graders were sitting so close to where I'd be directing...with my back to them.

We performed some tunes the 11th graders pulled out of our performance folder, all of which (amazingly) were old swing standards. The 11th graders also formed a combo and performed a Basie-style swing version of "Winnie the Pooh" arranged by yours truly. However, the most entertaining part of the program, amazingly enough, was the little quiz program the 11th graders put on. At the first sight of the word "quiz" on the program I was worried our grade-school audience would quickly fall apart, but our kids managed to keep them entertained till the end. The high point had to have been when they suddenly formed a recorder ensemble (including piccolo, sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass recorders...most of which the grade schoolers had never heard of before, let alone seen), played a "mystery tune", and then asked the audience to "name that tune". I then gave them the correct answer and kicked off the Glenn Miller version of the same song: "Little Brown Jug". We closed with a fast-tempo medley of "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and "Sing, Sing, Sing" followed by an encore of "In The Mood". Those tunes have been appearing on the TV a lot recently for various reasons, and the children loved it.

In fact, a lot of them hung around and waved at us (with lots of giggling, of course) as we were breaking down our gear to leave (and none of them attacked me, thank God). All and all, it was a lot of fun, and I hope we can do this sort of of thing again soon!


My uncle-in-law takes his carpentry work very seriously, and his attitude shows it. for one thing, he doesn't scrimp when it comes to his tools. My father-in-law, on the other hand, believes that cheapness is next to godliness, so his tool cabinet is naturally stocked with bargain-bin fare. That drives my uncle-in-law bananas, and he has been doing a lot of griping about the "cheap junk" he has to use to work on our house. He has also been making frequent trips to the local hardware stores to replace things when his patience runs out.

Yesterday (Sunday) dad-in-law was out, so my uncle-in-law asked me to run him down to the big Honda Home Center in Itako. Apparently the 12-volt impact driver he'd borrowed from dad-in-law just wasn't cutting the mustard (or the cement, as it turned out), so he wanted to get a much better, 14.4-volt model. As soon as we walked into the tool section at HHC the clerk there took one look at us and froze. My uncle-in-law is already a well-known and much-feared figure there. He is a very demanding customer. However, the clerk responded promptly to my uncle-in-law's authoritative wave.

12-volt impact drivers are not so expensive. 14.4-volt ones are. Very. The most reasonably-priced one we saw there was a Bosch model in the sale aisle for 22,000 yen (about $200). My uncle-in-law insisted on seeing more, so the clerk led us to the main power tool aisle. The Mitsubishi and Hitachi power drivers there were 36,000 yen and up. What really bugged me wasn't so much the price as the style of the things. I mean, I've heard of heavy metal tools, but this was ridiculous! Those power drivers were all either bright pink, orange, or yellow and were tricked out with fancy silver and gray ornamentation that I could only call Gothic. They looked like ray guns from a children's sci-fi Power Rangers or Gundam or something. In fact, I'm sure that's what they were meant to look like. I'd understand if it were a toy, but...a $300 power drill? Or was the look the reason for the price?

Needless to say, my uncle-in-law bought the plain, European-green Bosch, and it seems to work just fine.


Today I was looking out the window of the junior high staff room at Ye Olde Academy when I saw a frightening sight. There was a strong wind gusting outside, and I was watching the sugi trees around the parking lot dance when suddenly two or three of them erupted into a thick cloud of smoke. I thought for sure they were on fire until I realized that the "smoke" had a greenish tint. It was a blast of pure pollen. We just hit the peak of the pollen season. I'm thankful for that strong wind helping get rid of it all in one go. I'm also thankful I'm inside.


No vegetables today, but I will say with happiness that my 7th grade students did really, really well on their final exam for my class. Considering their dismal performance last term and on the last midterm, it's nothing short of miraculous, especially considering this last exam was longer and far more difficult than any test I'd given them before. I mean, we're talking a jump in average score from fifty-something percent to eighty percent. So what happened? It's hard to say. Maybe the weekly review quizzes I started after last September's disastrous final paid off. Maybe the longer time they had to take my test (fifty minutes instead of fifteen) helped. Maybe they just finally woke up and smelled the tea. I don't know. It's probably better not to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I'll end the discussion here.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Ending Not With a Bang, But With a Sniffle

*sniff sniff*

It's like an interesting sort of chorus, and most of the students are participating. So am I. Actually, it's final exam week at Ye Olde Academy, and the kids are bent over their last exams of the school year. However, it's also hay fever season.

*sniff sniffle snort*

I've mentioned before on this blog that hay fever in Japan has nothing whatever to do with hay. The main culprit is the sugi, or Japanese cedar, and to a lesser extent the hinoki, or Japanese cypress. In early spring they dump their bloated magazine loads of pollen into the wind, which carries that insidious, yellow-green dust far and wide. That means weeks of sniffles and burning eyes (if not worse) for more than half the population. I'm aware that it's not spring yet, but the unusually warm winter (the warmest in 167 years, I've read) has caused everything to come bursting out well ahead of schedule. Even with the recent (belated?) return of the frost, there are blossoms all over the place that shouldn't be there yet. And late last week I noticed all the sugi and hinoki were already turning a very dark brown...the sign of imminent doom.

The "haze" and "smoke" in this picture of a sugi forest is all that evil pollen.


I'd say, "Bless you," or, "Gesundheit," but we're in the middle of an exam. A sneeze can't be stifled. Traditional superstition can.

Speaking of blossoms being where and when they shouldn't, there is actually one Blossom that hasn't been where it should. Neither has Buttercup or Bubbles. With the ongoing construction work on our house, my uncle-in-law had to remove our satellite antenna and hang it up somewhere else. It has yet to be realigned, which means Cartoon Network and all those music, movie, and Japanese soap opera rerun channels we usually watch are down for the count. Not being much of a TV fan myself, I don't really care all that much, but my wife and kids are suffering from withdrawal.

*sniffle sigh*
shakka shakka shakka (the sound of my failing to resist rubbing my eyes)

We're coming to the end of the current school year, and it's really starting to hit me just how much of a joy this 9th grade class has been to work with. They haven't always been. Last year, as 8th graders, they started out as a problem class, but then they suddenly started getting better. By the time they finished their 8th grade year people seriously wondered whether it was really the same group of kids. They really improved a lot...and grew up fast.

Unfortunately, the current 8th grade class started out as a problem and turned into a disaster. I was asked to be a substitute homeroom teacher for an 8th grade classroom yesterday, and I was shocked at just how rotten it had become compared with last year. It wasn't really noisy or threatening as some classes in the distant past have been, but it was just so negative. There was a general atmosphere of, "I don't know, and I don't give a f***. Look...if you're not going to entertain me, just shut up and piss off!" Either they talked trash or they didn't talk at all. Many of them just looked the other way and didn't respond when I spoke to them. Several of the boys tried to ignore me and have a (surprisingly quiet) group discussion during my announcements, and when I made it clear I wouldn't allow that they all promptly put their heads on their desks and took a nap. The girls weren't much better; they didn't cause trouble during the homeroom session, but when the afterclass cleaning session started most of them promptly bolted out the door and disappeared, leaving a huge mess which most of the few that remained refused to touch. I felt sorry for the five well-behaved souls (one-seventh of the class) that actually did their jobs AND everyone else's. Being a one-shot substitute, I wouldn't care so much except that I'll probably be assigned to this clutch of spoiled cretins next month when they become 9th graders. This is not looking to be a good year. Hopefully I won't have to throw another desk.

All I can do is enjoy the current 9th graders as much as possible during the last few weeks we have left together.

Oh, and sniff and sneeze a lot.

*sniff sniff*

That might actually have been a tear.

Good luck on your exams, kids! And thanks for the memories!

On a completely different note (C# or Bb?), do you pronounce it "broccolee" or "broccolai"? I say "broccoli," and it is a very special vegetable for a number of reasons...not just because it has a funny-sounding name!