Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Masses Have Spoken

A couple of years ago Prime Minister Koizumi dissolved the Lower House (a.k.a. the House of Representatives) because the Diet was hampering his (inexplicably obsessive) plan to privatize the postal system. He based the subsequent campaign of his party, the ill-named "Liberal Democratic Party" (which is neither liberal, democratic, nor a party) on his claim that politicians in the government were inhibiting his plan to cut government spending so he could lower taxes to boost the economy. To drive his point home even further, he personally assisted in the campaigns of several very popular female candidates, fielded as rivals to members of his own party that had opposed him (the so-called "postal rebels").

The voters subsequently handed the LDP its greatest landslide victory ever.

Unfortunately, what happened next was far from what the public expected. The Koizumi government threatened to cut spending on some government programs that were actually popular. Meanwhile, word came out that, while they were planning on reducing the federal income tax, they were also planning on raising the consumption tax to make up for the difference in revenue if not bolster it. That undercut some of the public's trust.

Koizumi then retired and was replaced by Prime Minister Abe, whose popularity seemed largely based on his patriotism. Unashamedly nationalist, he began putting forward revisions in governmental and educational policy that were intended to give people a more active and positive view of their country and its role in world affairs. His efforts to revise the constitution to allow for a true military able to participate in global peacekeeping efforts (as well as face increased threats from certain nearby countries) were controversial but generally went over well with the public. However, the various scandals that came out involving cronyism and misuse of public funds among his cabinet officials did NOT sit well with the people. Neither did the stagnation of economic policy that happened on his watch.

The latest election is now over. The LDP has just suffered the second worst election defeat in its history. The opposition now has a clear majority in the Upper House (a.k.a. the House of Councillors). Abe refuses to resign, but he is now a minority prime minister. He is also resisting the demands of the victorious party, the DPJ (the centrist Democratic Party of Japan) to dissolve the Lower House. He's going to be hard pressed to get anything done except behind the scenes through the bureaucratic channels. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

My English-language Japanese newspaper has always had an unashamedly right-wing slant, and the editor is complaining that the people have just handed North Korea a resounding election victory. My reaction to that is, "SOUR GRAPES!!!!" It's hard to say who, if anyone, is really going to benefit from the current situation. More likely it's just going to be a lot more political confusion. I'll be surprised if anything really does change.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Letting Nature Take Its Course II

Man, what a day...

This morning I had to get up early, hop in my BLUE RAV4, and drive, first to Ye Olde Academy, and then all the way to the Hitachi Civic Center up north in the city of Hitachi (yes, home of Hitachi electronics) for the Ibaraki Prefectural Band Contest, North/Central/East Block (slightly out-of tune fanfare, euphonium slow on the attack). In the past it had always taken me about four hours to get there, but this time I tried a new route, and I arrived in only an hour and a half(!). Still, it was a long day, it was hot, (I got sunburned,) and helping unload and load all those percussion and low brass instruments off and on the truck was really hard work. Despite all the problems, though, the kids did a pretty good job. I was happy to have been able to be there for it even if I wasn't directing.

I wasn't able to stay till the final results were released, unfortunately. I had to shoot back to Ye Olde Academy as soon as the truck was reloaded because tonight was the night that the new conductor was coming to direct the Kashima Philharmonic for the first time. The new route once again got me back a lot quicker than I expected, which gave me time to practice and set up the rehearsal hall (all by myself) before the new Maestro made his appearance.

As it turned out, the new director seems like a great guy. He also knows his stuff very well, and he's obviously quite used to working with amateur orchestras that are still just getting it together. He actually seemed to enjoy ironing out the weak spots. He didn't make it easy on us, though; we played all four movements of Beethoven's 7th symphony up to tempo with no punches pulled. Full throttle from the get-go. It was amazing that we were able to get through it as well as we did. The new director seemed to think so, too. He said quite frankly that we were much further along than he'd expected, especially after only three rehearsals.

Considering I'd directed two of those rehearsals, I guess I was doing something right even with my very limited experience. We'll see how it goes from now now that I have a better understanding of the ground rules.

After it was over we found out that Ye Olde Academy's band placed second in this morning's contest and will be moving on to the Prefectural Championship.

It had been a long and bloody tiring day, but it had also been a good one. Then I came home to some bad news. My in-laws' cat, His Royal Redness, Aka, was in terrible condition and not expected to survive. Apparently he hadn't eaten a bite of food for two or three days. This morning he suddenly started coughing up blood, and he spent most of the day like he was in a coma. As I said a couple of posts ago, his health hadn't been all that great for at least a few years. Apparently it had finally given out. Not unexpected, but still sad.

After I finished my (late) dinner, I gathered up my things to go to the in-laws' house and take a bath. As I did so, I heard my father-in-law tromping around outside loudly calling Aka's name. Apparently the old cat had come to, pried open their screen door, snuck outside, and disappeared. It seemed like quite a feat considering his condition. But then I opened my front door and found Aka immediately. He was curled up on the welcome mat on my front porch. He looked terrible. He was even skinnier and bonier than he was when I took the picture I posted a few days ago. His face and front paws were caked with blood he'd apparently coughed up. He hardly moved a muscle even when my front door bumped him. When I stepped outside, however, he used his scant strength to curl himself around my leg...just as he'd always done.

When I petted him he purred louder than he had for at least the last five years or so. I stayed with him until my father-in-law came back and collected him to put him to bed for probably the last time.

Ironically, Aka was skittish and wouldn't let me near him when I first moved here about ten years ago, but he quickly became my buddy. For a while, even though father-in-law doted on him and even let him eat directly from his own dinner plate, he would still come a-running to me with his rich "MAAAAAAAU" if he saw me outside. He also kept trying to sneak into our house to visit...until Mint came along two years ago followed by Tora the year after that. Then he became more stand-offish, as if his pride had been injured, but he'd still make a beeline for me if he saw me either outside or in the in-laws' house. He made it clear that, no matter what, we were still buddies.

Just as he did tonight. I think he just said goodbye.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Letting Nature Take Its Course

Not so long ago I talked about the ambitious garden project that I started in the cleared-out area in front of my house. I described how my in-laws, who had insisted they'd had neither plans nor time to do anything in the area, had suddenly hijacked the project and taken it over. I also mentioned that the in-laws have always practiced "random gardening", i.e. there's little rhyme nor reason in their garden. For the most part they've always just left it to fate to see what seeds have blown in and taken root, digging out only the more troublesome ones. Anyway, I got a number of requests to show both "my" garden and the "random" garden, so now that I have a touch of good weather and some things worth photographing, allow me to give you a little tour.


This is the area directly in front of my newly-renovated house. Directly in front you can see the rock-encircled flowerbed that I made. I had intended to use it as either a rose or herb garden. The in-laws asked if they could put some lilies in it, and when I said yes they immediately filled it with all kinds of stuff. To the right you can see the decorative path I started to make with multi-colored gravel (more colorful than it looks in the picture). Further back you can see how I reinforced the bank with old, leftover roof tiles. (I had intended to work with that area, but the in-laws planted it up, too.) I had intended to line the right side of the path with rocks, bricks, a low decorative wall, or some kind of plant. As you can see, mom-in-law went ahead and set down a row of planter boxes instead. I was irritated at first, but I decided to go ahead and leave the planters there. I think I'm still going to do something with that side of the path, though. At least I need to get busy and weed it!


Move a little down the path, and this is what you see at the edge of the property line. I was originally going to have the path loop to the left and continue behind the little cypress tree through the space in that back garden, and eventually I was hoping to put some plants and decorative items (like a stone lantern or a small shrine) back there, but MIL had a fit, insisting most of the plants (weeds?) growing back there are "keepable". She says the same thing about all that growth on the bank, which is why I haven't weeded it. You can see that some of the lilies they planted there are in bloom, though.


Not well in focus, but still a "mood" shot. This is a closeup of the blooming lily in that rear garden, looking back toward the space I may still someday make into something a little more interesting, like a private, little shrine.


A much better closeup of another lily in the same area, this time looking back toward the in-laws' house. I'm amazed it turned out so clear. Right when I started trying to take these close-ups, a little breeze started blowing. Then a much stronger wind started coming from the air conditioner unit directly behind me (thanks to my kids). I guess I timed this one just right!


Moving back toward the front again, you can see yet another lily, this time blooming in the new, little flowerbed my FIL set up in front of the newly-cleared fishpond (which goes back under the azalea bush). As you can see, my FIL borrowed my idea of using leftover, old roof tiles to set off the flowerbed. He says he's planning on setting up a little table and some chairs nearby. I think that's a good idea...if you don't mind a few mosquitos.


Turn to the left, and this is what you see. Those plants had completely overgrown and taken over the area around those log stands and the place where a path used to loop around the azaleas back into the rear clearing (my "shrine"). I was going to dig them all out last spring, but MIL insisted they were "keepable". I guess she was right. They are a nice shade of purple...if perhaps a bit of overkill...


Move past the "purple invasion" and the outdoor washbasin and you start to come into the "jungle" (or maybe "swamp"). There's all kinds of stuff back here, and a lot of it is in bloom. I'm not sure what kind of bush this is, but the butterflies and honeybees sure seem to like it.


Continuing further back, you can see a small orange tree in bloom on the right. On the left is a chestnut tree bearing fruit, and the metal rack supports a natural canopy made by a kiwi fruit tree, which is a crawling vine. (My FIL raises bonsai trees back there.) Meanwhile, the bottom of the picture is dominated by...


...a massive overgrowth of blade-leafed plants which are actually a kind of scallion. My FIL uses them to make a type of (very strong-smelling) pickle he says is good for the health. There doesn't seem to have been any method to their planting; they are pretty much all over the place in that section of the garden. Still, you can find all kinds of small, flowering plants popping up in and among the jungle (swamp?) growth.


So far only one of the gladiolas has bloomed, though. Experts thought that, thanks to La Nina, our rainy season would be unusually short this year. Instead, it set a new length record. We almost didn't have July at all. I'm sure that's why the flowers are blooming late instead of early despite the predictions. Oh, well. Now we're getting some summer sun, and the world is filling with color once again!

[nasal voice]What color?[/nasal voice]

(You just knew I was going to say that, didn't you? I guess that, even with all that has happened lately, nothing has really changed.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Great Heat

I've heard that last Monday, July 23, was what is known as 大暑 on the Chinese calendar. I'm not sure how to read the word in any of the Chinese dialects, but in Japanese it's read "taisho". In both Chinese and Japanese it literally means "great heat", though my huge kanji dictionary translates it as "Midsummer Day". In China it is still believed to be the hottest day of the year. Japan, on the other hand, seems to have forgotten the tradition both figuratively and literally. Here in the Land of the Missing Sun July 23 was yet another gray, damp, and nasty day. Today, however, we had the first real summer day in ages. We were greeted in the morning by a brilliant sun shining in a glorious, sapphire-BLUE sky that remained with us all day. We also got some genuine summer heat minus the awful mugginess. Yes, it was a beautiful day. It was a birds and flowers day, a living day, a happy day. It was a day to feel good.

In fact, I feel so uplifted by the return of the summer sun that I'd like to offer a special hello and thank you to all the regular visitors to this blog. You really make it all work! I'd also like to extend a warm, fuzzy welcome to all the new visitors including the ones just passing through along their Google-search way. Hopefully we'll meet again sometime! Oh, and to the person (or persons) spying on this blog so they can report anything naughty to my superiors behind my back, I'll give you this nice, happy smile:


(Well, whatever. Probably better not to ask...)

(Warning: the following article contains subject matter that could be considered naughty and may not be suitable for people with virgin ears, but at least no workplace policies or privacy laws are being violated.)

(I'll go ahead and apologize in advance just in case.)

Speaking of naughty things, I was inspired by a recent post on Pandabonium's site talking about a fashion show featuring clothes made entirely from c-c-c-condoms. (*WHEW* I said it.) Not long ago my wife asked me if buying them (not the clothes, the...well, you know) made me feel embarrassed. Well, why should it? I mean, after all, I'm a healthy, adult human male, aren't I? I'm married to boot, and both sex and birth control are basic facts of life. I can clearly recall a speech given by a girl in my public speaking class at Oregon State in which she scolded people who felt squeamish about condoms. They are an important tool of public order, a valuable method of preventive hygiene, and a source of security. We shouldn't get all dizzy and weak-kneed at the sight or mention of a prophylactic! We should smile and say this...THIS is a key invention of human civilization!

So, do I feel embarrassed when I buy those little, rubber things? In a word, yes. As a rule, I only buy them at large, chain drugstores. I generally hang out in the vitamin and health food aisle until I'm sure no one's looking. Then I quickly duck around the corner, grab my usual brand from that particular endcap, and stuff it in among the other items in my shopping basket (mainly because older ladies there always examine the contents of my basket while I'm waiting in line at the register). Considering I have never, ever seen another guy (or gal, for that matter) anywhere near the "condom cap" tells me that most guys probably do the same thing. At least I'm not alone.

But what's really funny is that the discomfort is not limited to buyers. Take, for example, what happened the last time I restocked my supply at the local drugstore. As it turned out, there was a free gift attached to the box. The label showed a cute, smiling cartoon seal whose shape could probably be labeled obscene. And then there was was wearing. It was definitely something you'd expect to find in a seedy shop in a dark alley (or a high-fashion shop in Shinjuku), not in a local drugstore! Anyway, after I noticed the thing, I decided against going back to the endcap to search for a different brand. Instead, I waited for the line at the register to clear itself of old ladies, and then I made a beeline for it.

I really felt sorry for the poor, teenage girl at the counter. She managed to act nonchalant for a while, but about two items after scanning The Box with the Extra Phallic Seal Gift (arr arr) it must have finally hit her what it was, because her face suddenly turned deep red. After that the episode went something like this:

"Um, 2000 yen..."
"150, excuse me. 1500 yen..."
"Um, 2 yen, 80 items...excuse me. 80 yen, 2 items..."
(notices I'm holding my point card)
"Um, I'll take your point card..."
(promptly drops point card)
"Excuse me..."
(takes deep breath, picks up point card, manages to insert point card into verifier after three misses)
"Excuse me..."
"700 yen..."
(drops item, knocking over a couple other items, exposing The Box)
"Ah, excuse me..."
"1-150 yen. Um, total with sales tax,864 yen."
(sighs, bites lip, yanks out a plastic bag and starts stuffing items into it as if her life depended on it, promptly tears bag)
(flashes a Japanese smile of deep embarrassment)
"Ahhh...excuse me!"
(pulls out a second bag, fumbles with it, and quickly puts the first bag inside it)
(makes eye contact with me for the first time that day...and it lasts almost a tenth of a second)
(remembers that I've placed my money on the counter)
"Ah! Out of 600...excuse me, 6000 yen...136 yen is your change!"
(digs change out of the register with great difficulty, puts the change and receipt into my hand as carefully as her shaking hands would allow, remembers she still has my point card, yanks it out of the verifier and pops it into my hand in what was probably a new speed record for her)
"Thank you very much! Please come again!"
(makes eye contact for the second time, smiles, and then turns to the lady who is next in line so quickly the lady is startled)

I never waste any time leaving the drugstore after I've bought condoms, but this time I think I hustled out a bit quicker than usual. I was deathly afraid I was going to burst out laughing, and I didn't want to embarrass that poor girl any more. For all I know she might have spontaneously combusted. I mean, that seal...

I hope your Midsummer Day was a bright and cheery one!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Family Day Out

Today was the day of our neighborhood kodomokai (子ども会 - "children's association") field trip. This is an annual event in which the parents with children in our neighborhood can get together and go somewhere fun and interesting for the day. Last year we went to Tokyo Disneyland (cute, happy fanfare), which is an understandable favorite (despite those insane crowds). This year they decided to do something different. We went to Tokyo Dome City (somewhat overblown electronic fanfare).

Tokyo Dome, also known as the "Big Egg", is a huge, enclosed sports arena and a famous Tokyo landmark. We didn't go there. Tokyo Dome City is an amusement park located next to it. We did go there. As urban amusement parks go, it's more or less what you'd expect. Ticket prices are almost as steep as its main roller coaster (as much as $5 a pop for the bigger attractions), but there is a varied repertoire that offers (or at least should offer) something for everyone. It's also a lot less crowded than Tokyo Disneyland, so no forty-minute waits to do anything.

The trip there wound up being a strange experience. Our bus stopped at the Makahari Parking Area (rest stop) for a rest room break only to find that the bus on one side of us was a PTA group from Itako High School (in our area) including one of my wife's old friends, and the one on the other side was carrying the rugby team from Ye Olde Academy (Bold, brassy fanfare) on their way to a match! Small world, eh? We had to wonder if our karma was trying to tell us something.

Once at the park, our group opted for the all-day passes, which were a very good idea. Basically, we were given paper bracelets with bar codes, and we had our wrists laser-scanned whenever we went on any of the rides or went into any of the attractions. Only the special shows cost extra. The all-day passes were definitely the cheaper way to go, especially for the die-hards that went on a whole lot of rides.

Once the passes were distributed, our group split up. My daughter immediately headed off with her friends, and there were no worries there. My son, however, we knew would be a problem. Now 7 years old, he likes his friends, but at the same time he's something of a loner and prone to wander off by himself without warning. At first he tried to latch onto a group of older boys, but within ten minutes we spotted him over in one of the giftshop corners dancing around in an imaginary swordfight by himself with no sign of the other boys. We promptly attached him to his sister and told her to stifle her griping.

That left my wife and I to share some long-awaited and much-needed quality time together. That kind of complicated things. You see, my wife is NOT the adventurous type. At least not in the sense of excitement. She'd be perfectly happy to fly out to Paris to see if she could find a good name-brand handbag, but even the suggestion that she ride either a Ferris wheel or a good-sized roller coaster is enough to send her into a fit. As it was, I managed to get her (read "sucker her") into going on a ride called the "Sky Flower". Basically, you stand in a very small cage (more like a basket) and get winched up to the top of a 61m (a little over 200ft.) tower and dropped again...twice. It's quite a view from up there. I admit that, especially during the second climb, vertigo made me feel a bit dizzy. My wife, on the other hand, was crumpled up in the bottom of the cage screaming for the duration of the ride (poor thing!). After that, the only rides she would go on were a very tame roller coaster that you pedaled yourself and a log waterslide ride. (That was fun...if wet.) I would have liked to go on the Dolphin Wave, (big, steely fanfare,) Tokyo Dome City's main attraction, a giant, looping and twisting roller coaster that literally encompasses the park and adjoining shopping mall, but...oh, well. Quality time. We definitely needed the quality time.

We rendezvoused with the kids and went out for lunch, settling on the Italian restaurant there in the park. (I would've liked to go in their English pub, but oh, well. Quality time...) I fully expected it to be a horrible tourist trap, but we were pleasantly surprised. The food was great, the portions were more than adequate, and the prices were quite reasonable, considering where we were and what we got. The only problem was that my salad came with BLEU cheese, which I love, but I had to listen to everyone else complain about the smell. I also made the mistake of choosing a semi-dry, medium-bodied red wine to go with my spaghetti. The wine was good, but it didn't match very well with the flavor of the spaghetti. It seemed like the two were competing with each other. Oh, well. It was still a good lunch.

While we were eating, my daughter kept going on and on about how cool the indoor rides (haunted house, fun house, illusion theater) were, so my wife and I decided to check them out. Well, they were clever and kind of fun, good, clean family entertainment (if you don't mind a few severed limbs or a tad of motion sickness), but we were definitely glad we were using all-day passes instead of forking out for individual tickets. (I will say that I've encountered far, far worse tourist the U.S., I might add.) After that my wife challenged me to a game of air hockey, and I beat her twice, so she challenged me to a game of Taiko no Tatsujin (a video game based on traditional taiko drumming), and I beat her twice. I guess it just wasn't her day.

After that we spent the rest of the afternoon doing what she likes best: shopping (elevator music fanfare). Actually, the little mall there in the park had some cool shops, and we wound up coming out with more than a few bags. After that it was time for us to link up with the main group to get back on the bus.

Famous last words. My daughter and her friends showed up only three minutes late. There was no sign of my son. Apparently he'd been an enormous drag on his sister and her friends because, hopeless coward that he is, he'd been too scared to do anything. He'd stood by and waited, locked in mortal combat with invisible, swashbuckling pirates, as the others had gone on the rides they'd wanted. Finally he'd disappeared into the crowd, and his sister and his friends had just said, "Oh, well, good riddance," and moved on. Needless to say, we immediately mounted a search of the park to find the little nipper. He was found waiting in line to get on the one ride he'd finally mustered enough courage to try: the log waterslide. Apparently he was on his third at least his all-day pass hadn't been a total loss.

The ride back home was uneventful. The dinner party we all had at the local seafood restaurant was not, but we don't need to discuss all that.

Enjoy your week, everyone!

Labels: , ,

Friday, July 20, 2007

Blog Not Deleted

This blog has not...and will never be...deleted by the blog administrator.


I have already mentioned this issue briefly on a recent comment thread, but I wish to state it here clearly and publicly for a number of reasons.

"Life in the Land of the Rising Sun" started its life back in the late 90s as a sort of e-mail newsletter that I sent out to various friends and relatives whenever I felt I had something to write about. Since its readership was carefully controlled, I was able to express myself as poignantly or as caustically as I liked. I could wax poetic without fear of embarrassment, and I could vent my frustrations concerning certain individuals in a blunt, in-your-face manner without fear of reprisal. The switch to a much more public blog format was only natural, maybe even inevitable, but it meant I had to be more careful.

I have never pretended that this blog is secret. I have advertised its existence to many people, including several of my coworkers here at Ye Olde Academy, and I have always assumed that some of them have visited it at least once if not regularly. As with any (would-be) writer, I have actually felt flattered by my readership, and I have indulged myself for the sake of my audience just as I do when I'm speaking or playing music onstage. Unfortunately, there have been times when I have gotten caught up in the cathartic venting of stress, the self-entertainment of witty sarcasm, or simply my own delusions of literary grandeur, and I have written things that could only be called reckless. Sometimes I wondered if there might be a danger of reprisal while taking perhaps a bit too much comfort in the fact of its being in English and therefore not easily readable by the people around me.

Last year, at one of our staff meetings, one of our Head Teachers suddenly started talking about blogs, explaining the school's official policy with regard to the public use of names, faces, and facts connected with our school. At the time I honestly thought he was talking to me with regard to this blog, so I started making an even bigger effort to make sure that I used no names (at least not in full), posted no clearly-identifying photos, and publicized none of the school's secrets. I was confident that I was playing within the rules, and no one could possibly complain.

Well, somebody did, and it was someone I never would have expected.

Not long ago I suddenly got an explosion of hits on this blog coming from Australia. Nearly all of them were indicated as coming from near Brisbane, i.e. the general location of our sister-school. The fact that the rush had started the very day after the group of students and teachers from our sister-school had returned home from their visit here gave me some cause to worry. It told me two things:

  • The students and/or teachers from our sister-school had only just been tipped off as to the existence of this blog.
  • They had to have been told by someone here, meaning either faculty or (more likely) students here at Ye Olde Academy had given them that info.

Those facts were a little disturbing, but I didn't have cause for genuine concern until a few days later. I went into the administrative office (without warning) to ask the Vice Principal a question. There, on his desk, on a large stack of fresh-looking paper with new-looking print, was a printout of the entire contents of this blog. When I pointed at it and asked if he had anything to say to me about it, he would only reply that he'd "found" it. He then went on to point out a couple of minor issues with it, mainly related to a couple of the photos I'd posted. However, his manner showed all too plainly that I wasn't supposed to know that he'd "found" my blog. I was clearly still under investigation.

This morning I got a call from the Principal asking me to report to his office as soon as possible. I knew exactly what it was going to be about. Actually, the Principal is a very decent man, and he was far more decent, gracious, patient, and understanding with regard to the issue than he probably ought to have been. He explained exactly where the trouble had come from. He was also more than reasonable with his requests as to how I might correct it.

He had received a formal letter of complaint regarding this blog from none other than the Principal of our sister-school. There was nothing for our Principal to do but offer a formal apology in return. He was fully within his rights to discipline me, since I had clearly put the sister-school program at undue risk, but all he did was recommend that I apologize myself and edit the offending passages and photos in this blog.

The biggest concern was the recent post about the visit to our school by teachers and students from our sister-school. I had written some things about their chief Japanese teacher that I shouldn't have. My intent was partly to vent some frustration, I admit, but it was mainly to underscore the many difficulties that we'd faced...and overcome...both in pulling off the visit and in dealing with the complexities of inter-cultural relations. In the end, I had commended her on a wonderful job once we'd all gotten over the initial hump. However, when I went back and read the post again, I realized that I had made a horrible mistake. The first part of the post portrayed her in a very humiliating light, and someone reading it could very well form their impression of her only from that. If her students were to read it, it could very well trash her reputation as a teacher. It was never my intent, and I'd call it a terrible blunder on my part. She had every right to be offended, and her Principal was correct in being outraged. I have since edited the post, and the offensive parts have been removed. I only hope there'll be no further damage from that.

The Principal of our sister-school also says there are some issues with my series of posts about our visit there last year. However, after looking them over again, I admit I'm in the dark. I have found only very positive comments and nothing damning about the school or its faculty. I know our own Principal wants me to pull a couple of the pics (mostly the full-face group shots), but I can't see any other trouble. I'm hoping someone will give me some explanation here so that this issue can be cleared up and corrected before any more trouble is caused.

I'm very sorry if I've been reckless in my posting. It does tend to happen from time to time, since, as I've said, I can tend to get a little carried away, but now that I have a better idea of the ground rules, I'll try to be more careful.

Thank you.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Feline Piety?

Aka walking

Aka, my in-laws' cat, is definitely getting to be an old man. He is at least fifteen years old, which more than puts him in the "venerable" category as cats are concerned. He has aged a lot particularly during the past year. Though he is still a lovable wad of red fluff, he is getting to be a bag of bones. It's no wonder, too, since his teeth are mostly gone, and my in-laws have a hard time getting him to eat anything. His once-resonant meow is now a barely-audible croak, and his purr is little more than a slight hiss. The tip of his nose has grown down over his nostrils, partly blocking them and giving him a permanent case of the sniffles. Affectionate as ever, he still makes a beeline for anyone he can see nearby, wrapping himself around their legs to enforce his mandatory petting rule. Now, however, that beeline is rather slow and stiff, so he has to rely on the cooperation of his "victims".

Even so, he is still the Great Red Master of His Domain, and Tora, our own cat, still clearly respects that.

I once described how, when Tora was a kitten, Aka would not tolerate his being in a higher position. If Tora climbed up into a tree or onto a chunk of wood, His Royal Redness would immediately follow after the young upstart and jostle him off. Guess what? Somehow he still does. In fact, on those rare occasions when my in-laws let Aka outside, if he sees Tora he'll quite often stride purposefully toward him, cuff him one on the head, and then swagger away, waving his tail like a flag of victory.

You have to understand that Tora is MUCH younger and fitter than Aka. He moves fast, and while he is very affectionate, he can also be extremely aggressive. A skilled hunter, he has already bagged a good many mice as well as a few birds (not to mention untold numbers of bugs, which are hard to count since they usually end up swallowed). He is also more than capable of holding his own against the unneutered male cats in our neighborhood. However, while he has no problem with going into Aka's domain and swiping his food, he still shows no resistance whatsoever to his adoptive older brother. When His Royal Redness comes trudging slowly and stiffly toward him to give him his customary swat on the head, Tora simply squats down and takes it, offering nothing in reply but an irritated twitching of the ears.

It's kind of touching, actually. Aka and Tora are displaying the Japanese traditions of knowing one's place and respecting one's elders. These are customs which seem to be fading fast in modern Japan. It used to be that one's elders were treated with worshipful respect. Unfortunately, many if not most of the grandparents of Japan, determined to give their grandchildren a happier life than they had themselves as children in the bleak aftermath of the war, are confusing love with indulgence and thus sowing disaster. It's little wonder that a lot of young people nowadays view their elders as walking expense accounts at best and damned nuisances at worst. Not among the feline members of our family, however. Creaky, old furbag though he is, Aka still demands respect, and Tora gives it to him.

Tora by the door
Tora, the "good adoptive younger brother"?

(Now, don't even start on my relationship with my in-laws!)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Moody's Believe It or Not pt. V - chapter two

(Continued from chapter one, below)

It was getting to the point where I was almost afraid to go to bed at night, and it wasn't just because of those footsteps on the stairs, self-opening windows, and screams coming from my daughter's room. That Native American shaman that kept turning up in my dreams and glaring at me was seriously starting to bother me, especially since I had no idea who he was.

Eventually, however, in my dreams I was somehow given a name to go with the face: Tlaloc.

At first I mistook the identity, confusing the names "Tlaloc" and "Tlesca". I thought that perhaps my imagination was conjuring up an image of Tlesca jealous of my devotion to his woman (Wahluna). Considering how obsessed with her and her story I had become as a result of the composition, it only made sense. That thought actually brought me some comfort. It was clear now that my own mind was playing tricks on me.

Then, one night, I had a dream that was both very vivid and very troubling. I was walking through a town that seemed like a confused mish-mash of Kashima, Corvallis (my college town), and...something much more fantastic. The buildings, the people, and the streets were as if someone had taken those three places and combined them at random. Meanwhile, over at the lake/river(?), a huge bridge was under construction. I went to a nearby tourist information center for information, and the Japanese-looking woman at the desk glared at me and said, "It's about time you made it here! Do you have any idea what's happening?"
"Um, no," I replied. "That's why I came here!"
"Hasn't Tlaloc spoken to you yet?" asked a calm-looking caucasian woman standing nearby. She gestured at the bridge. "You're the one building that!"
"Don't you see?" railed the Japanese woman. "It's not supposed to be there! You've brought the worlds too close together, and now they've joined!" She gestured at the town. "Bad enough that you can't decide between your old home and your new one! Now you've brought another world into the mess! This has to stop!"
"What should I do?" I asked, still not sure I understood.
"Tlaloc will tell you," replied the Japanese woman, her eyes boring holes into me.
"Tlaloc will come to you," continued the caucasian woman with a gentle smile, "and he will tell you everything!"
"Tlaloc...Wahluna's husband?" I asked.
The Japanese woman sighed irritably and rolled her eyes, and the caucasian woman giggled.
"No, that's Tlesca!" spat the Japanese woman. "Better hope Tlaloc gets to you first!"
"Tlaloc is the one who knows the way of bridges," added the caucasian woman. "He's coming now! Talk to him, and do what he says for all our sakes!"
"For all our sakes," hissed the Japanese woman.

Then I woke up, or at least I thought I did. It was kind of hard to tell. In many ways it was like that experience I described in the "Family Ties" story. There was that same eerie light, that same almost liquid quality to the air...the fact that I couldn't move anything but my eyes...

The old Native American shaman standing at the foot of my bed was definitely different, though. I could only figure that Tlaloc had arrived.

I must have dozed off again (if I had ever woken up in the first place), because next thing I knew I was sitting on a log next to a campfire...still in my underwear...and Tlaloc was facing me from the other side.

"You put all of your heart and all of your soul into your music," said the old shaman. "This is good...if it is in the right measure."
I couldn't help noticing that his mouth didn't move as he spoke.
"Did I go too far?" I asked, feeling strangely calm.
Tlaloc set his jaw. Then he replied, "You still don't know what you can do. In the passion of your muse you called out to Wahluna, and she answered you. She was moved by your devotion, and she came across the bridge you made."
"Is she the one causing the trouble?" I asked.
"To your wife, yes," he went on. "You brought her to your side, and now her jealousy makes her attack your wife."
"But what about..." I started.
Tlaloc smiled for the first time. "By winning Wahluna's heart, you've won the wrath of another. He, too, is moved by jealousy."
"Yes. He is not an evil man, and he wishes you no harm. But you have wounded his pride. We have two spirits brought here by love and torn by jealousy. You've upset the balance."
I guess it did make a twisted sort of way. "What should I do?"
Tlaloc's smile faded again. "Tlesca is a very proud man, even vain. Honor him as you have honored Wahluna, and they will both be at peace again."

Then I woke up, and this time I was CERTAIN I was awake. I also knew exactly what I had to do. The next day I immediately got to work on a composition called, not surprisingly, "Tlesca". Instead of a classical piece, I made it modern, using guitars and lots of different synthesizers. It was a very complex work, but I finished it far more quickly than I had "Wahluna". Soon I had it recorded and burned onto a CD.

I guess that did the trick. Even despite the minor screw-up in the opening acoustic guitar passage (not to mention crappy sound quality because my studio gear was still not working right), after I finished "Tlesca" all of the weird goings-on came to an abrupt halt. The footsteps, the self-opening windows, the disappearing items, the malfunctioning appliances, the attacks on my wife, even my daughter's nightmares stopped completely. Soon life was back to normal, or at least what normally passes for it.

So now I have to wonder...was it just a lot of imagination and strange coincidences (probably), or was there really something to all that? Oh, well. At least I got some good composition work out of it.

Epilogue#1: After I finished "Wahluna" and delivered all the sheet music to Mr. Ogawa, he had the school orchestra try it. I wasn't there at the time, so I never heard it. He said it started out really well, but then it went right over the kids' heads. It was clearly too difficult for the kids to play without a lot of rehearsal, so he shelved it until further notice. He hasn't touched it since. Recently he has suggested that I use the Sibelius program to make a revised version, but I told him I'm probably better off not touching it.

Epilogue#2: "Tlesca", on the other hand, has had much better success. Not only has it gotten a lot of favorable comments (Some have called it my best work...even despite that acoustic guitar at the beginning) but it has apparently even gotten both some airplay and some regular use by at least one club DJ thanks to friends of mine. I guess Tlesca has no more reason to be jealous.

Epilogue#3: Then again, I could be wrong. There was one last bizarre encounter. "Tlesca" was the last tune on the album I was working on at the time and remained that way for about a month. Then I decided I had enough space for a couple more tunes, so I got to work recording a mainly acoustic number called "Dizzy Dreamer". I stayed up really late working on it on a Saturday night. Then, while I was mastering it, my multitrack recorder and stereo suddenly started acting goofy again. It took a while, but I eventually got the tune finished and burned onto the CD.

It was almost 3 a.m. when I finally started up the stairs to go to bed. Suddenly I heard my daughter shriek from her bedroom. Then I heard what sounded like muffled footsteps heading quickly across the bedroom carpet in my direction.

Right when I got to the top of the stairs something bumped into me. How can I describe it? There was nothing there, at least nothing physical. It was like I was jostled by a chill draft that was a bit denser than the surrounding air. It knocked me slightly off balance, and as I regained my footing I could hear the stairs creaking like someone was going down. I immediately turned and headed off in pursuit.

I got as far as the living room, which was lit only dimly by the feeble moonlight coming in from outside, and it was then that my better judgment gave me a kick in the crotch. I stopped and wondered what the HELL I was doing. Just then I heard a loud CRASH from my studio. That was enough for me. I ran back upstairs, shut all the doors, crawled into bed, and failed to sleep.

The next morning I ran to my studio to investigate. The guitar that I'd used to record "Dizzy Dreamer" was on the floor on the opposite side of the room from its stand. It looked as if it had been kicked or flung there. I guess that was Tlesca's last spurt of jealousy, his parting shot so to speak, because there have been no strange phenomena like that anymore. Apparently neither he nor Wahluna have been back since.

Epilogue#4: Incidentally, I did a bit of research to see if I could find anything on the name "Tlaloc". It turns out that he's the Aztec god of rain and fertility. Apparently created by other gods to fill a gap in their ranks, he was ruler of the 4th level of Heaven. He was also a scary-looking and ill-tempered buggar known for bringing droughts and floods. The Aztecs lived in fear of him and used to sacrifice children to keep his temper down. I'm sure it's probably a coincidence, but if it is the same Tlaloc we're talking about, is that saying something about my Western Oregon (i.e. scads of rain) roots? At any rate, I haven't seen "Tlaloc" since, either.

Monday, July 16, 2007

For all concerned...

A strong earthquake struck at a little after 10 a.m. this morning just off the coast of Kashiwazaki in Niigata Prefecture. It caused a lot of damage, and apparently there were some deaths as well.

Fortunately for myself, my family, and my various friends and acquaintances in this area (including Pandabonium), the earthquake was fairly far away, and the effects here were minimal. In fact, I was brushing my teeth at the time, and I suddenly felt a strange sensation. I thought to myself, "Either I'm dizzy, or that was one of the strangest, little earthquakes I've ever felt!" My daughter, who was also brushing her teeth at the time, apparently didn't notice it at all.

We're alright. No worries for us. I wish I could say the same for the people of Niigata. They've been getting quite a number of serious earthquakes over the past few years. I hope the tectonic plates here calm down soon.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Moody's Believe It or Not pt. V - chapter one

I'm not sure what it was that inspired me to write this post now, as it is probably better left for the upcoming Bon festival. Maybe it's the typhoon that just skidded past us today. (Typhoons always invoke paranormal-related thoughts in me, and I don't know why.) Maybe it's the wave of weird and possibly prophetic dreams I've been having lately. (Don't ask me for details. They're not hinting at anything that big, but it is a personal issue.) Maybe it's because I recently told the students of my 12th grade advanced writing course about the "Family Ties" story I mentioned in this post. Maybe it's just because I originally intended to write this post last Halloween but wound up missing it. I'm taking the plunge and writing it now.

As I've said before, I've had some pretty bizarre experiences in my life. As someone who grew up believing mainly in science, it's all a bit hard to take. Skeptics would probably have little trouble coming up with possible explanations, and I do my best to think of them myself. However, in all cases I still have more than a little cause to wonder just what the real truth is. Particularly since the late 80s I've encountered possible evidence of psychic phenomena, witchcraft, demonstrations of occult power, possible ghost/spirit encounters, and even a possible UFO sighting (although that was one of the least significant). These experiences have ranged from "wait, did you see that?" to bone-chilling fright. Last October I told some of the strangest stories I have to tell from my own diary. Now let me tell the strangest.

The Cursed Suite

In 1998 I had my first-ever experience arranging a tune for a symphony orchestra. Ye Olde Academy was celebrating its 20th anniversary. Mr. Ogawa had asked me (mainly as a joke) if I would mind making a new arrangement of the school anthem. I said I would love to do it. I then cranked out the arrangement which is now known affectionately as the "Star Wars version". It turned out to be a surprising success. When our orchestra performed it at the 20th anniversary celebration it was awarded a standing ovation. Afterward, several teachers and PTA officials told me that it had moved them to tears. Needless to say, Mr. Ogawa was impressed, and he told me he would welcome any new arrangement I came up with. (Indeed, I have come up with a number of them over the past ten years, but none have been quite so successful as "the Star Wars version".)

I decided to take things even further. I asked Mr. Ogawa if I could try an original composition (fortissimo quarter note A, not too short). He was surprised at the question, but he encouraged me to do so, promising me that they would perform anything I created. Indeed, I already had several ideas in mind. In the end, strangely, I wound up rejecting them all, starting instead from scratch with an all-new theme:

Princess Wahluna.

There are actually different versions of the tragic tale of Princess Wahluna of the "Nez Perce" tribe (true name Nimi'ipuu), her lover, the warrior Tlesca (or Tlescaoe) of the "Blackfoot" tribe (true name Piikani), and the Wallowa Lake Monster. All of the versions agree on these points:

  • Wahluna's branch of the Nez Perce and Tlesca's branch of the Blackfeet were at war.
  • The war was going badly for Wahluna's tribe, and soon there were no warriors left that were able to fight.
  • Wahluna secretly left her camp, snuck into the Blackfoot camp, and appealed to Red Wolf, the Blackfoot chief, to spare her people.
  • Red Wolf declared the Nez Perce "dogs" and ordered his braves to kill Wahluna, but his son Tlesca put his robe on her and spoke favorably of her and her people. Red Wolf then decided to spare her.
  • Thus began the secret love between Wahluna and Tlesca, which continued for a while until it was finally discovered.
  • Wahluna and Tlesca ended up paddling a canoe together on Wallowa Lake with other canoes following them. (Here is where the stories differ. Some say they were being pursued and were trying to escape. In the story I'm most familiar with, however, it was their wedding celebration!)
  • The Wallowa Lake Monster suddenly appeared and killed everybody.
  • Both the Nez Perce and the Blackfeet thought the monster was sent as punishment for a Nez Perce and a Blackfoot joining together in love rather than war.

Wallowa Lake, Oregon, where Wahluna and Tlesca became the first "reported" victims of the Wallowa Lake Monster.

I had only just finished telling the story of Wahluna to one of my advanced classes, and it was still very much on my mind. I decided to use it as my inspiration. Thus began my work on the orchestral suite entitled "Wahluna".

Nowadays I use the professional music-writing software suite Sibelius for all my composing and arranging. Back then I didn't have it so easy. I did everything by hand, writing scores and individual part music sheets painstakingly in pencil. "Wahluna" turned out to be quite a large work, and I launched myself into it like nothing before. I became quite passionate, even obsessed with it. I was spending as much time with it as I could muster, often skipping meetings or sneaking out early so I could get back into it again. It got to the point where my eyes could barely focus, and my hands were so cramped that I could barely hold the pencil, but still I kept at it. All the while, I kept the image and the story of Wahluna going through my mind over and over again until I began to feel as if I knew her personally. In fact, it got to the point where I began to imagine that I was Tlesca.

I was a little more than a third of the way through the score when strange things started happening. First my daughter, who was a little more than two at the time, started having screaming nightmares every night and sometimes talked of the "angry man" that was coming into her room. Not long after that my wife and I both began to hear what sounded like someone walking up our stairs at right around 8:30 every evening and someone going back down again at around 3:30 a.m. (usually right after my daughter screamed, waking us up). (Yes, we did go and check. No, we never saw anybody. Yes, we do know what the stairs normally sound like when they creak because of temperature change. This was different.) That was just the beginning.

The strange phenomena escalated quickly. After a while we kept getting up in the morning to find windows open even though we were making a point of shutting and latching them (and locking the doors) before going to bed. Items (mainly my wife's) started disappearing and turning up in strange places. Then we were plagued by all kinds of appliance malfunctions; various lights, our microwave oven, our phone, our TV, and even the computer and printer I was using at the time started acting goofy, not working properly or having the same part repeatedly break as soon as it was replaced.

Hidden items were not the only inconvenience my wife suffered. She actually seemed to fall under attack. On more than one occasion she woke up to find scratches on herself that hadn't been there before (and we didn't have a cat at the time). It became an almost daily occurrence for her to go out to her car in the morning to find it still locked but the contents of her glove box and school bag tossed about (if not torn). On a few occasions she found one or more of the dashboard knobs or switches on the floor. She was also greeted by a flat tire twice in two weeks. One thing was clear, someone had it out for her.

As for me, I didn't suffer any direct harm (not that I would have noticed anyway since I was so obsessed with my composing), but I was starting to get a little worried about all the things that were happening. I also couldn't help but notice that my dreams were getting stranger. For one thing, I kept seeing what looked like an elderly native American man, a shaman judging by his dress, standing off to the side staring at me. No matter what my dream was about or where it took place, he'd often pop up somewhere.

He did NOT look happy. In fact, he looked angry enough to frighten me.

He also seemed to be getting closer with each successive appearance.

(To be continued...)

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Pleading the 5th, But Taking the 7th

A page from Beethoven's original manuscript of his 7th symphony.

It is as I feared expected. As of tonight I am now the official rehearsal conductor for the Kashima Philharmonic (fanfare not as bad as I'd expected).

At last week's rehearsal, our first attempt at Beethoven's 7th Symphony, our lead oboe player conducted. He spent the whole time griping since the very important lead oboe part was missing (his part, and he understandably wanted to play it). He asked me if I would do it, and I flat out declined, saying that I had no business trying to conduct that piece. However, after the rehearsal ended he suggested I start taking a good look at it so I could be ready to raise the baton when and if I was needed.

I did just that. Over the past week I listened to/watched several different performances of the 7th by different orchestras under different conductors. I spent hours with my nose buried in the score, and I tried conducting along with a video in the music office (which amused the students no end). I also had Mr. Ogawa give me some very important instruction in orchestra conducting technique, since my style still showed a very obvious jazz influence. I got myself all ready just in case the unthinkable happened.

Tonight's rehearsal had a lot of people missing including the lead oboe player. The principal players that were there started getting all fussy and frustrated at the lack of a conductor, so I asked them if they wanted me to do it. Their reaction showed that they'd been hoping I'd ask that. Needless to say, they were happy.

And so it went. I directed a piece I probably had no business directing for an orchestra that probably had no business playing it, but it was still strangely satisfying. We put in a good rehearsal. Even while holding up my own self-confidence by the scruff of its neck, I gave them lots of training and advice, and they responded to it well. After a while the first movement was actually sounding like we could pull it off. Then I decided to grit my teeth and try the second movement...the one that's technically easy but so brutally hard musically. I have to say...after going over it for a while they were actually giving it a pretty good shot. Still a very flawed gem half-buried in the dirt, but they were following me, they were getting it, and they were playing the piece.

When the rehearsal ended, the chairman of the executive committee asked me if I could continue conducting rehearsals from now on, at least until the professional conductor they hired showed up. I said I would, and they all applauded. I guess I have an important, new job with this outfit. It's an interesting challenge, to be sure.

There are a couple of problems, though. Conducting the orchestra means I won't be able to rehearse my own part. I'll probably have to step out and let one of the other clarinetists take over my position. There's also the fact that, since the professional conductor can only come once a month, I'll be bearing most of the rehearsal load but won't be appearing onstage. That's a rather frustrating prospect, as it'll be an extremely thankless job.

Oh, well. If the music comes out sounding even halfway right, we'll all have reason to be proud.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Let's Talk About Flowers

Have my recent posts been negative or what? Well, let me take a break by showing some more pleasant views of Ye Olde Academy:


Roses are red...


Hydrangeas are blue...


I just hope these monster lilies
Don't eat you!

Have a good day, everyone!

Labels: ,

Friday, July 06, 2007

The 7th of WHO??!?!??

With preemptive apologies to Ludwig...

Well, I've just found out what the oh-so-wise executive committee of the Kashima Philharmonic (um...fanfare?) has decided for us to do now that Mr. Ogawa is no longer our conductor.

Starting tonight, we are going to be working on Beethoven's 7th Symphony.

Beethoven's 7th doesn't enjoy the ready, household familiarity of his 5th, 6th, or 9th symphonies. However, it is a favorite among die-hard fans of the classical genre. It is also a wonderful work of music. It was composed while Beethoven was at a spa resort for the sake of his health, and most of it is very upbeat and optimistic. The main theme of the first movement is as catchy as catchy can get and makes one want to whistle it while skipping down the hall. The second movement, the only slow and dark piece, is so profoundly emotional, so naturally tear-jerking that it was long used by the Philadelphia Philharmonic as a memorial performed every time a current or former member died. If you haven't been picked up and carried away by the third movement, the fourth will definitely get you out of your seat. It ROCKS!

I really like the 7th. It is one of my personal favorites and one I've always wanted to try.

It just irritates me to DEATH that the Kashima Philharmonic is going to be doing it.

Yes, you read that right.

The thing is that the 7th, like most of Beethoven's works, isn't technically difficult at all. If you only talk about the written notes, most junior high school concert bands could have it down after only a few practices. But that's precisely what makes it so tough. Since the written notes are easy, the music is brutally hard. You can plop the sheet music on your stand, crank it out perfectly as written, and make an utter, bloody ass of yourself. It's not MEANT to be played that way! The notes alone are not enough! It takes a very deep and mature sense of style...musicality, if you will...and the ability to put emotion into the notes. If you can't do that, you have no business whatsoever even attempting the thing!!!!

I was fairly impressed with the Kashima Philharmonic's performance of Beethoven's 5th and his Egmont Overture last December, but it was a lot of hard work even getting ourselves to that level. On the other hand, the less than impressive performance of "Peter and the Wolf" at last month's POPS concert showed just how far we still have to go as a group. The 7th? Do the morons members of the executive committee really think we have anywhere near the musical maturity needed to pull it off without making total fools of ourselves?

Needless to say, Mr. Ogawa is laughing. But I'm not.
We'll see how tonight's rehearsal goes...if it goes at all.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The 4th of WHAT?

Well, another 4th of July came and went. Here in the Land of the Rising Missing Sun it was kind of like the proverbial war which was held, but no one came. American Independence Day got lots of media attention, but it simply didn't enter into the picture once the TV was turned off.

How unlike the 4th back in 2002, when feelings were still BLUE-hot. 9/11 had happened less than a year before, my country was at war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and passions were already heating up over Iraq. Even the Japanese were watching the U.S. very carefully, and no one was surprised at the flags and things I propped up on my desks at Ye Olde Academy.

The 4th in 2003 was a bit different in tone but no less patriotic. The President had declared "Mission accomplished" from the deck of the carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln two months before, and a sense of pride was thick in the air even over here. In 2004, however, we were still in Iraq, the end of the war was nowhere in sight, things were starting to darken, and my attitude toward the whole thing was even blacker.

In 2005 the 4th got completely eclipsed by the visit from the Garfield High School Orchestra the day before and the preparations for our first (teachers only) visit to our new sister school in Caloundra a few weeks later. Perhaps the soon-to-occur first trip with students in 2006 also led to the 4th being all but forgotten, but at the time I seemed more interested in my cats, anyway.

So now we cut to the present. (Ahhh...) How did I spend the 4th? Thankfully getting the &%$# away from an open class event (i.e. parents spying on my lessons) so I could be a judge for an English Interactive Forum competition (i.e. an English conversation contest). Swapping out my classes was a pain in the behindermost, but it was worth it to get out of there. Besides, I judge that event every year, and it's usually kind of fun. The only problem is that I invariably end up with my wife furious at me because one or more of her students hasn't succeeded to the regional championship. This year was no different. It'll probably take her a day or two to cool down. I still stand by my judgment, however.

No parades. No barbecue. No fireworks. No "Stars and Stripes Forever" or "1812 Overture" blaring from the stereo. It was raining outside most of the day. Dinner came in a shrink-wrapped styrofoam tray compliments of the deli section of the local supermarket. (I was able to enjoy a good Australian cabernet sauvignon, however, so all was not lost.) (That's "claret" to you, m'lady!) Nothing fancy. Nothing unusual.

I did, however, celebrate by remembering everyone I know, particularly those of the Yankee persuasion, and wishing them all a very happy 4th of July. I remembered people I know who served their country with the armed forces in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and I recalled at least one who still is. We all express our love for our country in different and even contradictory ways. One person's "patriotism" may very well be another's "aid and comfort to the enemy". You may struggle to defend your country only to be branded "anti-american" by people who feel they are doing the same. Even so, even in this age of barbed wire-enclosed "free speech zones" and institutionalized harassment of public dissenters, I'm still happy that people are able to express contradictory opinions without fear of being dragged off to forced labor or a "reeducation camp". After all, our country was born in hopes that it would be a symbol of freedom, human rights, and human dignity for the entire world.

Let's hope it remembers to stay that way.

Happy 4th, people.