Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Weekend Concerto in Gee...MAJOR!!!!

What a weekend THAT was...

It was a hectic weekend, a hellish weekend, a booked up and socked full weekend, a weekend to remember, a weekend never to be forgotten even if it wants to.

It was a weekend of music...and not much else!

The fun actually started months ago. Last spring I was invited once again to have the Flying Eggheads jazz big band participate in the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival, which was coming into its fourth year. At the time its scheduled date, November 24, was wide open. The only other important music-related event even close to that day was the district small ensemble contest, but it was scheduled for the 17th, one week earlier. That was no problem, so I went ahead and gave my approval. As always, the KSJ Friends (the official supporters' group for the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival) didn't waste any time. By the time summer ended they already had the concert billing publicized and were already selling tickets. In other words, our participation was set in stone.

In late September it was announced that the ensemble contest had been delayed one week. That put it on the same day as the Festival. That posed a dilemma. You see, the ensemble contest is one of the more important events of the year. It was a given that several members of the Flying Eggheads wanted to compete, and failure to do so could reflect very badly on our music department. That meant we had to do both events somehow.

Another problem was rehearsal time. Between the orchestra's preparations for the All-Japan Selected Youth Orchestra Festival in December, preparations on the part of most of our string section to help with the Kashima Philharmonic concert in December, a select group practicing for the Amateur Chamber music Festival in November, a few students practicing for a solo contest, and various other small performances here and there, it was hard for the kids to squeeze in practice time for their ensembles, let alone rehearse with the Flying Eggheads. It was a planning and logistical nightmare. To make matters worse, the week before the 24th was dead week (i.e. the week before an exam period). That meant all afterschool club activities were suspended. I managed to get special permission to practice, but the administration only agreed to let us have two hours that week for the entire music department, i.e. both the Flying Eggheads and the ensembles had to share those same two hours. Considering many if not most of the ensemble members were also Eggheads, it meant we had a serious problem.

Friday the 23rd was a national holiday, but it was NOT a holiday. One of those two allowed rehearsal hours was that morning, so I rehearsed with the Eggheads for half an hour and gave the kids the other half for their ensembles. Then, in the afternoon, I had to run across the street to the new Kashima City Cultural Center to rehearse with the Kashima Philharmonic for almost five hours. Our pro guest conductor wasn't there that day, so I had to conduct those five hours. Believe me, I was wiped out.

Then came the 24th, and the schedule went something like this:
  • 8:00 a.m. - Mr. Ogawa and Mr. Karatsu arrived at the Kamisu Culture Center (henceforth KCC), venue for the district small ensemble contest, together with some students who were to be working as staff there.
  • 8:30 a.m. - Mr. Ogawa returned to Ye Olde Academy just as I arrived there.
  • 9:00 a.m. - I borrowed one of the school vans. Together with Mr. Ogawa in his van, we transported three ensembles to the KCC for the district small ensemble contest. On the way, however, I took a detour to the Kashima Workers' Culture Hall (henceforth KWCH), venue for the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival, to drop off a couple of the Eggheads members. I wound up being delayed there, and the ensemble I was transporting arrived at the KCC slightly late for their entry.
  • 10:00 a.m. - Arriving back at Ye Olde Academy, I set to work hauling the band's gear to the KWCH. At first I had no help at all. Then, on the second trip, I had one student helping me. Then there were more. Finally, I switched from hauling gear to hauling personnel. Around this time Mr. Ogawa returned and shared the busing load.
  • 12:00 a.m. - After a quick lunch and a little warming up, I set out for the KCC to pick up some students and bring them back to Kashima. I was about halfway there when I got a phone message telling me to return to the KWCH at once. Apparently the district small ensemble contest was running late, meaning our students there were going to be delayed, so Mr. Karatsu was going to run them back instead of me.
  • 12:50 a.m. - The students coming back from Kamisu arrived at the KWCH. We changed, prepped, and started warming up.
  • 1:30 p.m. - The Flying Eggheads were called to standby backstage. Fortunately, the stage manager and crew were professionals who really knew their stuff. Setup went smoothly and quickly. Downbeat started right on time at 1:50. We were forced to perform cold (i.e. no sound check), but the sound was fine. The kids were nervous at first, and many if not most of the soloists that day weren't really in the groove, but the band itself turned in a fairly solid performance. (I say "fairly solid" because I know we could have done better, but considering where we were and what we were doing, the kids were responding well to the pressure. I was only disappointed with some of the solos.) We had been given a 40-minute performance slot, but for a whole bunch of reasons I trimmed it down to about 20 minutes worth of performance coupled with around ten minutes of me gabbing. The audience response was great, so I guess it was alright. After our performance was over, I was given the obligatory interview (and I hammed it up, of course). Then we dashed out as fast as we could go.
  • 2:30 p.m. - Mr. Ogawa loaded the Flying Eggheads members who were in the brass ensemble into his van and dashed off to KCC. Actually, we were very lucky; the HQ of the district small ensemble contest had decided in all their generosity to swap out their time slot. Otherwise they never would have made it. Even so, I was really worried. The kids looked both worn out and stressed out. Meanwhile, I got started shuttling back and forth between the KWCH and Ye Olde Academy hauling the band's gear and members.
  • 4:30 p.m. - Once the gear and most of the students were back, I loaded up the members of the saxophone ensemble (all Eggheads, of course) and took them back to KCC so they could catch the final awards assembly for the district small ensemble contest. I decided to stay and watch it myself to show my support for the kids that had given so much time and effort to both events.
  • 5:45 p.m. - The awards assembly started 15-minutes behind schedule, but the results were wonderful. All three of our senior high ensembles not only got top-rank awards but were selected to represent our district in the Prefectural Championship next month. The same was true of two of our three junior high ensembles. If that third JH ensemble (ironically the most senior of the three) hadn't flopped it would have been a sweep for our school. I was especially happy because ALL of the ensembles including Flying Eggheads members made it. Those kids are truly amazing.
  • 6:30 p.m. - I made it back to the KWCH for the closing ceremony of the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival. Those are always fun because the supporters' club always puts together some kind of impromptu final performance. Every year they have asked me to perform, twice playing clarinet solos in the tune "Sing, Sing, Sing" and once playing a clarinet duet with a professional Dixieland performer (a wonderful if humbling experience!). This year I hadn't heard anything, but I had brought my alto sax just in case. So when they said they wanted me to join the performance and I agreed...I was handed a cowbell and asked to dance. You see, this year's theme was "Latin & Jazz", so we did a samba number with everyone shaking or clanking something while dancing and carrying on. The only problem was that they had only three wind players playing the actual tune, and all that excited percussion wiped them out. It was a delightful bit of noisy chaos right up until the curtain dropped. That's when they started saying, "[Moody], you should have played your sax!" Well, hey....
  • 8:00 p.m. - I returned the school van after having clocked more than 100 km on its odometer,but the evening wasn't over yet. You see, I had received a surprising invitation a week or two before. Some musician friends of mine whom I hadn't seen in over a year were playing a blues gig at a local jazz pub and asked me to join them. I couldn't resist. (It also justified my having brought my sax along.) What a brilliant way to cap off the day! It was my first such gig in over a year, and it just felt great to be playing again! I barely knew (and sometimes didn't know at all) the tunes we did, but I listened, caught the key and the pattern, faked it, and went total balls-out on my solo breaks, often trading fours with one of the most awesome guitarists I've ever had the pleasure of working with. That coupled with the fact that I was remaking old acquaintances and making new ones while drinking draft Guinness (and me being someone who doesn't get out very often) made for one unforgettable evening! We jammed from 9:00 till 1:00 a.m.. I'd promised my wife I'd be home by 10:30. Needless to say, I wasn't. Fortunately, she was rather understanding.
That was Saturday the 24th. Sunday was easier in that I only had my conducting lesson, but it was a tough one (i.e. the final exam for that particular practice piece). Still, carried by all the good vibes of the day before, I really felt into it, and I got a compliment from the teacher, something I don't get very often.

Midterm exams at Ye Olde Academy started today...


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Customer Servile

I steel myself as I walk into the back corner of the Yamada Denki (Yamada Electric) outlet in Kashima. I was fortunate to be able to leave Ye Olde Academy early today so I can take care of a few errands, and this is something I've been wanting to do for some time. However, it is making me very uncomfortable. It's not my first visit to the computer corner here; I've been here quite a few times. However, this time I know I'll have to deal with customer service (obscenely dark-sounding diminished 7th chord).

I wouldn't be surprised if customer service in the high-tech industry were a form of Biblical plague. I have had particularly bad luck with them here in Japan. The biggest problem goes back to basic commercial ethics here in the Land of the Rising Sun. Rule Number One is that businesses do not cater to the customer; rather, they inform the customer of what he is supposed to want unless he really sucks. Ask for something other than the latest fad and you get lots of air sucked through teeth and not much else...except in the high-tech field. There you can expect to be insulted. Thus far my track record with high-tech customer service here has run as follows:

  • When I tried to buy my first computer back in January of 1995 I went to a famous shop in Tokyo's Akihabara Electric City. I told them the model I wanted, and everything was fine until I asked if I could special-order an English user's manual. Then the sales clerk suddenly called over their apparent official gaijin handler, who kept trying to tell me in painfully slow, awkward, mangled English that they couldn't sell me the machine for some unfathomable reason. I kept trying to ask the sales clerk (in Japanese) to explain what the problem was, finally to the point that I was angrily demanding at the top of my lungs that he stop hiding behind his English-(non)-speaking lackey and speak to me. After several minutes of this he finally told me that they couldn't sell me the computer because, as a gaijin, I clearly couldn't use a Japanese keyboard. I tried to tell him that the keyboard was not the issue, and he just waved me off and went to a different customer.
  • Instead, in March of 1995 I bought a computer at a new electronics store that had just opened close to home. I chose the model that was their "most recommended buy" at the time: an IBM (cr)Aptiva that had the most powerful processor and the largest hard drive I had ever seen up till then (a 486DX4/100, 730 megabytes). It was also preinstalled with the OS/2 Warp operating system, which I had long been interested in thanks to Snabulus (who was a big OS/2 fan at the time). Later that year, in the midst of the all-new Windows 95 hype, I went to that shop's service counter to ask for advice on setting up an internet connection. They told me that they didn't support OS/2 and insisted their store had never sold that model of computer. I offered to show them the receipt and warranty certificate as proof, and they just waved me off.
  • I asked the local Canon service center for an OS/2 driver for my printer and was told bluntly, "We don't support OS/2. Most people use DOS, Windows, or Macintosh, so we would recommend you switch to one of those." After that I sent a whiny e-mail to Snabulus back in Oregon, who then sent an e-mail to Canon U.S.A. explaining my situation, and they made me a driver! (Gotta love that American business ethic!)
  • When I moved to my current house in 1997 the phone company told me I had no choice but to switch to a digital phone line and an ISDN internet connection. (I now know that to be pure BS, as I switched to analog when I went broadband last year, but anyway...) The phone company rep said to me, [southern accent]"Don't worry, we support both operating systems, Windows and Macintosh!"[/southern accent] I said that I used OS/2, and she replied, "Well, most people use Windows or Macintosh, so I'd recommend switching to one of those." I then called tech support at IBM, makers of OS/2, for advice, and they said, "Well, most people use Windows, so I'd recommend switching to it." (Geeze...don't you guys support your own product?) Then, when all hope seemed lost, I got a call from the phone company. It turned out that they used to be hard-core OS/2 users and had an OS/2 expert on hand with nothing to do. He not only made me a driver for my terminal adapter but came to my house and set me all up free of charge! (Gotta love that Japanese courtesy!)
  • Back in 2004 my wife was using my old work laptop, which had Windows 2000 on it. I tried to put a USB 2.0 card in it, but it required the service pack updates. That machine was never connected to the internet, and when I tried plugging it in and logging on to try the online update the machine was immediately bombarded with worms and crashed. I tried to order the CD ROM update from Microsoft Japan online, but their order form wouldn't accept my non-Japanese name. I then went to Laox, a well-known electronics outlet. I went to the computer service counter, explained the situation, and asked if they could order the CD ROM update. The arrogant geek on duty at the time huffed, chortled, and became both very patronizing and very condescending before terminating the conversation while I was mid-sentence and moving to a different customer. I said, "Um, excuse me..," and he waved me off with a laugh and a, "Don't bother!" (I haven't been back to Laox since.)

Now you can see why I'm a bit uncomfortable about having to deal with customer service in the computer section of Yamada Denki today. I'm especially leery because of my reasons for being here. You see, I bought this Sony Vaio back in 2002. It has always served my modest needs very well, and I have never had any trouble with it (except one case of software glitch and/or pilot error which led to a total reinstall a few years ago). I don't play video games on this thing, and its measly 1.0 gHz processor has always been more than enough for the little bit of movie watching I do. However, I have been noticing it has been running a bit slow lately. A lot of it no doubt has to do with the fact that web sites are becoming increasingly laden with animation and other embedded media, but the fact is that I looked at the machine's performance specs and noticed that, after all the running processes, there was only about 40 mb of available RAM left. No wonder. The machine came with a base 128 mb of RAM which I doubled to 256 mb on purchase. That is clearly not enough anymore. So today I'm finally going to give it some more oomph. It's a sensible purchase from a practical standpoint, but from the eyes of the IT world I might as well be installing an electronic fuel-injection system in a '73 Ford Impala. I can still see that Laox buffoon in my mind waving me off with a smug grin and a "Don't bother!"

I arrive at the computer corner, and someone ahead of me is there for the same reason. I don't hear what make and model of computer he's buying RAM for, but the service rep seems intrigued. However, he seems perfectly polite and reasonable as he makes a number of recommendations. I relax a bit. Then my turn comes up. I tell the service rep the model of my computer, and he starts digging through his guidebook. He turns page after page, eyebrows furrowing deeper, until he finally finds it. He calls off the model number, and I verify it.

His eyebrows furrow further. "Here," he says, pointing at a pile of boxes in a locked display case. "128 megabyte standard."

My heart sinks. "Can't I get anything bigger than that?"

He gives me a look that says "Whathef***?" loud and clear. Then he replies in the affirmative and points to some other boxes. I tell him I want the most powerful type available for my machine there, a 512 mb module. (It's more expensive than some of the 1 gb models there, but they're all for more modern machines, unfortunately.) He takes it over to the register, puts my point card in the reader, and rings up my purchase.

Right after I pay for the RAM module the man shakes his head, clicks his tongue, smirks, and says sheepily, "That really is an old machine, isn't it?"

"Five years old, yes," I reply evenly. "I figure I'll get a new computer someday, but as long as the Vaio runs well I'll keep using it." I hold up the RAM module. "And with this it'll run even better."

The service rep nods briskly, turns on his heel, and walks off. As he passes one of his coworkers I overhear him saying, "Can you believe that?"

Oh, well. At least I didn't get insulted to my face this time...or told I couldn't buy the item because the buttons are in the wrong place...

For what it's worth: I'd forgotten how much "fun" it was installing the RAM module when I first bought this machine back in 2002. Inside accessibility is definitely NOT one of this Vaio's strong points. I basically had to open the main component, remove both the hard drive and the power pack, and disconnect several cables and wires before I could even access the RAM ports, which were still in a very narrow space. Taking out one of the old modules was easy. Getting the new one in was hard. It was a tight fit with little clearance. It took time, effort, patience, and creative use of a waribashi (disposable chopstick). I did get it in though, obviously, and yes, there has been a marked improvement in this machine's performance.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Tonpan no Mi-okori

And speaking of convoluted messes of time and fate that still somehow work out...

I was surprised to hear that Swinebread was going to be coming to Japan. As he said in his own blog, he came because of a family emergency, so there wasn't much time for pleasure-seeking on his part. However, I was even more surprised to hear that he would be heading back to Portland via Narita Airport today (Nov. 18). Narita Airport really isn't far from home for me at all, so it seemed like a unique opportunity for us to meet face-to-face for the first time.

Not that the winds of fate were about to make it easy. (Ha! Ya think?) Today was the last chance I had for a full-scale rehearsal with the Flying Eggheads to prepare for next Saturday's Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival (brassy fanfare, Latin beat). The kids are doing a good job, as always, but they're still not quite at the level needed for a performance of this caliber. They apparently bit off a bit more than they could chew with the tunes they selected this time, so we're really down to the wire. I couldn't simply cancel the rehearsal. However, I could trim it back a bit to give me time to shoot on down to Narita, so that's what I planned to do. Just a little past 11:30 I gave Swinebread a call on my cellphone to let him know I was on my way (cutting him off in conversation a bit abruptly since I was rushed for time...sorry!) and hopped in my (dusty) BLUE RAV4.

Then a wrench got thrown into the works. I got a call on my cellphone from my daughter saying my wife was bringing them my way and would be arriving at Ye Olde Academy soon. Apparently my wife had been called in to do some work at her school, and she had decided not to foist the kids on my sick mother-in-law. Instead, she was dumping them off on me. That meant I had to wait for them. It wasn't a long wait, mind you, but I was well aware Swinebread was on a bit of a tight schedule, so every minute counted. I was thankful when we were finally shooting across Lake Kitaura on the New Jingu Bridge.

Traffic was light, so we were on the expressway in only about five minutes. The drive to the airport went really quickly, too. Getting through the security checkpoint, finding a place to park, and making our way to the departure lobby also went smoothly and quickly. Then I had only to find Swinebread, whom I'd never seen before in his secret identity mode. I made my way to the area near the Northwest Airlines check-in counter, which was where he said he'd be and then started looking around for likely candidates. Sitting on some nearby chairs was a group whose composition matched the description he'd given me, so I moved closer to investigate. That's when I overheard my name being mentioned. Bingo!

(Wouldn't you know it...I'd brought my camera, but since I've never been any kind of shutterbug I never managed to get it out and use it! Oh, well...Swinebread doesn't seem to want his face posted online without a mask on it, so maybe it's for the better.)

We didn't have much time, but we were able to have lunch together, and it was great. It turns out that it's a remarkably small world. He and I both grew up in the same town back home in Oregon. Two of his best friends were cousins of Don Snabulus, which is how they got acquainted. That's how he had come to introduce Don to his sister, and the rest is history! It gets even better. He was at the airport together with his Japanese SO and some relatives of hers who happen to live in Kashima. In fact, the daughter they'd brought with them knew me because she had attended one of my demo lessons for grade school kids!

Speaking of kids, my kids were a bit of a touchy issue, as always. My daughter is generally okay meeting people, but my son, ever the clown in any case, always gets bashful in the face of strangers and becomes even sillier than usual. Sometimes that can be cute, but it can also be embarrassing, especially when my daughter decides to start mothering him. At least she and the daughter of the relatives from Kashima hit it off well...and the drinking glass my son sent flying managed miraculously not to break.

It was a nice visit but sadly short. We had less than an hour before Swinebread had to get into the line to go through the hell of security and immigration, and it went quickly. (Hopefully I didn't monopolize the conversation too much...chronic chatterbox that I am...) I was still happy and grateful to have had the opportunity. We finished lunch, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways, him on his way to Oregon, his wife and her relatives off to the airport shopping mall, and me and my kids off to...Toys R Us.

Definitely a day well spent, and a wonderful opportunity. If only the reasons for it had been happier. Now hopefully we can meet up again, hopefully also with the Snabulus family back home in green, wet Oregon!

Tomorrow is Monday...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Tanka for Today

One in English:
Have you had a day
When nothing went right at all,
And yet in the end
Everything worked out better
Than it probably would have?

One in Japanese:

ano yuri ha
totsuzen shinda
sono go deta
fushigi zassou
motto kirei da

That lily
Died suddenly.
The strange weeds
That came later
Are more beautiful.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Another Reason to Love Ibaraki

Oil prices have jumped up again. Gasoline at our local stations went up 8 yen a liter (about 25 cents a gallon) last week. Diesel now costs as much as gasoline did last year. Yes, it's a worldwide problem that looks to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. However, there is a speck of brightness in all of this.

Not long after the gas price jump, the news media did some investigating and comparing. Guess what: Ibaraki Prefecture currently has the lowest average gasoline prices in the entire country. I'm sure part of the reason stems from the fact of the Kashima Petrochemical Kombinat over in Kamisu having some of the largest refining facilities in Japan. However, the news interviewed some gas station workers and owners and found that many of them had conferred among themselves and agreed to keep prices to a minimum, even if it meant a loss of revenue, out of concern for their customers.

Evidence of cartelism? Probably. But I'm not going to complain. And this is here in Ibaraki, the prefecture which has perhaps the worst reputation for being ill mannered. Then again, that just might be the gruff-sounding local dialect. ;-)

(Image links to source page,

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

The True Native Tongue?

This evening I was flipping around the channels on the TV hoping to find something halfway watchable when I stumbled on an interesting program. Since I caught it in the middle and didn't see the whole thing, I don't know what it's called, but it's a sort of Japanese equivalent to the famous "Mythbusters" series. Basically they employ scientists to help either prove or debunk popular notions.

One of the experiments I saw had to do with the dominance of specific dialects of Japanese.

So-called "Hyojun" or standard Japanese, also known as "kyotsugo" ("common tongue"), which is what is found in textbooks and classrooms and spoken by most newscasters, isn't really spoken "natively" anywhere. It was originally the "proper" version of the Kanto area dialect, which includes Tokyo, but there are now many local variations. The language can change a lot more depending on where you go. I'm not just talking about the usual differences in vocabulary and pronunciation; quite often a local dialect is a more or less separate language with its own unique grammar rules. Put a sushi chef from Morioka (Tohoku region) with one from Fukuoka (Kyushu region), for example, and they probably won't understand each other at all. Their respective tongues differ from each other even more than Dutch differs from High German.

Pride in one's dialect also tends to vary from place to place. Ironically, both the largest cities and the smallest villages seem to maintain their local ways of speaking much more than medium-sized towns and small cities, whose often overly fashion-conscious populations tend to be ashamed of the "dasai" (uncool), "jiji-kusai" (old fart) traditional lingos. It's also true that people wanting to appear better cultured quite often stick to the Hyojun way of speaking regardless of location. This is by no means always the case, however. In fact, that was the point of the experiment I saw on TV.

It is often said among the Japanese that, although the proper form of the Tokyo dialect is officially labeled Hyojun (standard), the Kansai dialect, variations of which are spoken in Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, and the surrounding areas, is culturally stronger. In fact, people from the Kansai region are fond of bragging that, if you put people from all parts of Japan together for a while, they'll all eventually start speaking the Kansai way. To test this, scientists took eight-year-old boys from Fukuoka (Kyushu), Osaka (Kansai), Nagoya (Nagoya), Tokyo (Hyojun), and Morioka (Tohoku) and shut them together in a house full of toys for an eight-hour period. Then they observed the children's speech patterns carefully. Sure enough, after a while, first the boy from Nagoya started speaking in the Kansai style followed by the one from Fukuoka. The boy from Morioka followed not long afterward. By the time the eight-hour period was over, only the boy from Tokyo wasn't speaking Kansai! (Hmm...I guess some things never change!) Bottom line: the popular notion was proven accurate. Kansai dialect seems to be culturally stronger than Kanto "Hyojun".

Actually, the scientists said there may be a number of different reasons for this. Part of it is the fame of Kansai dialect, which is coupled with its historical significance. There is also the no small fact that a lot of well-known media personalities speak it with great pride. The variant of Osaka (arguably the "New York of Japan") in particular is also a naturally strong-sounding tongue, i.e. it sounds rough and therefore more macho, but at the same time it flows more easily than the somewhat clunkier Kanto dialect. Of course, there is also the no small fact that people from Kansai, Osaka in particular, are famously talkative. Even in the experiment it was the boy from Osaka who tended to get things rolling, so it was only natural that the other boys picked up his lingo.

Have I been learning the wrong Japanese all along? Then again, I live in Ibaraki, which has a notoriously unique dialect including bits of Tohoku, Kanto, and its own lovable craziness. Chigaube? ;-)

Some Endings Definitely Aren't Happy

You may recall that in my October 21st post I talked about how I took matters into my own hands with regard to my class' preparations for the CHORUS CONTEST (off-key fanfare, still sadly mumbled). I did so in response to desperate complaints from students, and I did so at the risk of damaging my professional relationship with the class' homeroom teacher, who I am supposed to assist. I also mentioned how, after she'd heard what I'd done, the homeroom teacher herself decided to take more direct action, even to the point of heading me off. Things still looked rather dark, but at least there was an important glimmer of hope.

The following week seemed to go rather well. I was asked to observe a few rehearsals (one such invitation ironically coming from the vocal music teacher), but for the most part the kids seemed to be confident they could work it out on their own. There was one all-7th-grade rehearsal on Thursday, when all five of the 7th grade classes took turns on the stage. My class was definitely overwhelmed in the volume department, but they still sounded good and in tune. The comments from the grade chief echoed that as well. There was really no reason why my class couldn't do well...if they could only put a bit more "oomph" into their singing. On Friday I observed another rehearsal, and I noticed the boys were starting to screw off again, but they knocked it off as soon as I came into the room. That unsettled me a bit, but I wasn't particularly worried. It was Friday, after all.

On Tuesday the 6th the homeroom teacher quite unexpectedly asked me to take care of the morning homeroom session. She seemed pretty bummed for some reason. I went up to find the kids rehearsing...or trying to, anyway. The boys were being uncooperative again. One word from me was all it took to shut them up and get them going, but it was clear their hearts weren't in it at all. After that I reported back to the homeroom teacher and was told about The Disaster. The day before, on Monday the 5th, the kids had had their last vocal music lesson before the CONTEST, which was now less than a week away. Unfortunately, many if not most of the boys had refused to sing no matter what the vocal music teacher had said. The teacher had then terminated the lesson and written a nasty letter to the homeroom teacher, who then responded by making the entire class write letters of apology. Worried, I used the excuse of a make-up test to grab one of the less motivated boys and have a little heart-to-heart chat. My fears were confirmed. The social atmosphere between the boys and the girls had gone from shaky to Arctic glacier. Including the Foundation Festival debacle that started this whole mess, the girls had been getting on the boys' case constantly since August. What's more, their attitude and manner of speaking had gotten steadily snottier. It was understandable, but it had gone way overboard, the boys were fed up, and whole endeavor was on the rocks.

Frankly, so were my feelings about the whole thing.

On Thursday the 8th there was another all-7th-grade rehearsal, the last before the CONTEST, and my class got their arses soundly whipped by the other 7th-grade classes. They knew it, too. The girls were upset, but the boys didn't seem to give a damn. The student leader (one of the girls, naturally) scheduled a rehearsal there in the auditorium afterward, but all of the boys immediately bolted. She and one of the conductors (one of the girls, naturally) came to me almost in hysterics and asked for my advice. Well, I started out by telling them a short story with a very obvious moral (which they got even before I finished). Then I gave them the following advice:

  • Try talking to the boys rather than at them. Let them know you are aware of their feelings in the matter and are concerned.

  • It will probably hurt, but you'd probably better apologize to them for having been so down on them so much for so long. Let them know that you really want them to cooperate as equal members of the team.

  • Talk to the boy part leaders beforehand and see what they think. If possible, see if you can get them to work with you as partners.

  • Get off your high horse, even if it probably seems justified.

There were a lot of curled lips and rolling eyes as I spoke, but the girls listened. After that they went off in search of the boy part leaders.

It seems they really did listen, too. The next day, Friday the 9th, they had another afterschool the boys' request. I didn't supervise, but apparently things went well. I talked to some of the boys later, and they seemed to have regained some of their enthusiasm.

Emphasize the "seemed". Basically, it was too little, too late.

Saturday the 10th was THE CONTEST (ugly-sounding, off-key pipe organ fanfare). It was painful to watch. The groups that preceded and followed them, both 8th grade classes, looked and sounded great. As for my class, there were some valiant efforts here and there (mainly but not only on the girls' side), but overall they looked sloppy when they walked onstage, looked positively half-assed when the conductor called them to attention, and looked like they were waiting to get a root canal while they sang. As for the singing, well...nope. It did sound better than it had a week before; the tone was beautiful, the intonation good, the blend and balance spot on. But it still sounded like they were singing in the next room. The pianists kept their levels low but still wiped them out. Even with all that blood, sweat, bruised/bloated egos, and tears, in the end nothing much had come of it all. They wound up dead last by a considerable margin, mainly on the "stage manner" and "volume" scores, and it was no surprise.

The homeroom teacher seemed pretty deflated. I really wonder what she's going to do now.

If you can't take pride in what you do, it's better not to do it at all. Hopefully they all learned that, but I wouldn't bet on it, especially after observing the kids at their cleaning duties after school today.

Just for fun, I'll end this post with a fruit known as "yuzu" in Japan ("Citron" in English). Basically it's a type of orange. Doesn't it look great? Actually, though, it's best known this season as something people sometimes put in their baths to make them smell good and feel warmer. My daughter can't stand them.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Another Selba Tag

Yes, folks, Selba has tagged me again. This time, however, it's short and to the point. Basically, I have to come up with the age I would most like to go back and revisit.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? It's not. It's bloody tough.

I wouldn't want to go back to my early childhood. Lack of responsibility was nice. Lack of freedom wasn't. Go back to life on a leash? No thanks.

I wouldn't want to go back to elementary school. I was proud to be years ahead of my classmates academically. In fact, it went straight to my head. I screwed around in class, read books intended for much older kids, made my teachers mad, got top marks on my report cards and top scores on my achievement tests, cavalierly demanded that my stories be read and my plays performed in the classroom, got praised a lot, and sighed at the ignorance of the other kids even while trying to play with them. A first grader can get away with that. A fifth grader can't. Go back to being a lab curiosity or a circus sideshow? Not bloody likely.

I wouldn't want to go back to junior high school. Junior high serves one purpose only: to humiliate kids in front of their peers. Go through having my ego trampled into the dust again? Only if I could meet myself and pound some sense into my skull.

I wouldn't want to go back to senior high school. There were some really good times and some really bad times. I had some successes, and I made some colossal blunders. Still, I almost hate to think what would happen if I had a second chance. There are some things I definitely would do differently now that I know better. However, changing things would make me turn out a very different person, and I'm not sure I'd like that. Muck with this turning point in my life? Not a good idea. As Captain Kirk said in Star Trek V (the only memorable line from that movie), "I NEED MY PAIN!"

I wouldn't want to go back to my early college days. It was kind of like mid elementary school all over again. I was doing well academically, and I generally got along with people in a superficial sense, but I realized I had nothing whatsoever in common with my peers. That brought my old arrogance to the surface again. I had grown up and entered society only to find that society was annoyingly shallow and trite. I looked around and saw nothing but cliches and stereotypes. Even worse, those stereotypes kept urging me to "get with it" and join them. Frankly, people in general were really starting to piss me off. I hunkered down with my circle of good friends and tried to ignore the rest of the world, but it didn't help. Go back to feeling bitter all the time? I'd rather have all my teeth pulled.

I wouldn't want to go back to my university days. As with high school, it was a major turning point, and it was one I got through after many hard knocks. There were some very good times, particularly during the last year or two. There were also a lot of occasions when I knew I should jump right but somehow jumped left anyway and wound up falling into a deep ditch. What I found in those ditches, however, had a strong influence on who I am and what path I came to follow in life. If I could go back, I know I would want to do some things very differently, but I know I would regret the outcome. I'd rather not deal with that. Strictly hands off.

I wouldn't want to go back to my early years in Japan. I did what I wanted to do, what I'd intended to do, what I thought was right, and I enjoyed some success. I then found out that that success had been totally meaningless. There's no point in doing it again...except maybe not to do it at all, but then what would I do?

The next few years after that are a toss-up. The main event was my meeting, courting, winning, and then marrying my wife. If I were forced to live part of my life over again, that would probably be it, but it was often a very stressful period. Even a good thing can give you ulcers. It's a precious time to me, but I'd rather it remained a good memory. I'm almost afraid that, if I went through it again, I might start finding fault with it.

That leaves just the time since my children came into my life. I really don't need to live through that again. I'm still living it now.


Amidrin wishes to go back to age 22 to correct back some mistakes in life.
Lemonjude wishes to go back to age 6 to enjoy kid’s life.
Hui Sia wishes to go back to age 16 to meet her first lover again.
Giddy Tiger wishes to go back to a childhood life with no worries in the world.
Rinnah wishes she could turn back time to the happiest days of her life.
Ehon doesn't wanna go anywhere.
Chen wanna go back to age 19 to take a different pathway in life.
Selba wishes to go back to the time where she could persuade her parents not to move to Indonesia.
The Moody Minstrel doesn't want to mess with the Tapestry of Fate.

There's probably not much point, but I'll tag:
Don Snabulus
Um Naief goes on!


Friday, November 02, 2007

Omedetou, Dragons!

The baseball season has finally come to an end. For Japan it has been quite a ride.

It was shot in the arm enough when the Boston Red Socks took the World Series. The BoSox had been Japan's current Major League darling thanks to the enrollment of Japanese star pitcher Daisuke ("Dice-K") Matsuzaka. Even better was the fact that he came out of a month-long slump to make a good accounting of himself in the series championship by both pitching and batting well.

Well, the Japan Series has just ended, too, and it is definitely one for the books. The Chunichi Dragons won game five of the championship series 1-0 to take the pennant for the first time in fifty-three years! Yes, the Japan Series does tend to seem like reruns a lot of the time, so it's always good to see one of the lesser names win for a change, but for the Dragons, long a perennial "also-ran" ball club, to come out on top is nothing short of spectacular. They earned it, too; both Dragons pitcher Daisuke Yamai and Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Yu Darvish put on strong showings, but Dragons batter Ryosuke Hirata finally punched one through to win. The Dragons worked hard for this win, and I say bravo!

(source: The Japan Times Online)

Congratulations, Dragons! Now...what can we expect next year?

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Hollow Mass (a.k.a. the Samhain of Silence)

And so Halloween arrived.

Actually, it wound up coming early this year. I make it a yearly bout of masochism tradition at Ye Olde Academy to let the students come "trick or treating" at the English department office. It can be quite a chore; last year I had virtually the entire 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th grade classes show up during lunchbreak on Halloween Day (if there is such a thing). They had the corridor plugged up solid, and the fact that some kids were coming back to see if they could weasel me out of a second or third helping didn't make things any easier. This year things were a bit different. For one thing, the 9th graders had already left for the first-ever school trip to Okinawa (wouldn't you know it...the one year that I'm not assigned to grade 9...), making it a lot quieter. For another, Chuck decided to give in and start letting kids come begging "trick or treating" early. That meant three days of dealing with the sugar-starved feeding frenzy, but it did help keep the numbers down at any given time. Actually, Halloween itself wound up being quieter than usual.

On the other hand, we did have a bit more fun. Chuck and I were hoping to get some of the faculty involved and organize a costume dress-up for Halloween. The suggestion that we adopt a Hogwarts theme was pondered, discussed, planned, and forgotten. We also had our schedules wiped out by a whole slew (as opposed to a slough) of make-up tests and other unexpected headaches. The result was far less ambitious than originally planned, but at least Chuck and I were able to spice things up a bit. He went all out for decorating the English department office and came to school on the 31st all dressed in orange and black with a Jack o' lantern cap. As for me, I finally put on the BLUE samurai costume that someone gave me for my birthday as a gag gift several years ago. (My wife borrowed that costume for her students to use at her school last year, resulting in the tragic disappearance of the wig, but at least the main part was okay.) I also borrowed one of my son's toy swords, and I dabbed some fake blood on it just for effect.

I wore the costume during lunchbreak while handing out candy to the "trick or treating" hordes. Then I peeled it off so I could drive to the bus terminal and pick up a visiting clinician. (I didn't think she'd be thrilled to be met by a BLUE samurai driving a BLUE RAV4...) I still had a free period, so I hauled my still-uncarved third pumpkin over to the home ec room, borrowed some utensils, and produced another work of art...the first time since coming to Japan that I've ever made three Jack o' lanterns for one Halloween. Then I put the costume back on and had some fun parading around the school.

It really was fun, too. I got lots of attention, and lots of compliments, though most students just stopped in their tracks and stared at me with shouts of "Eh...?" In fact, I went up to the auditorium, where the 7th graders were practicing for the upcoming Chorus Contest (same fanfare as before, though slightly louder and better in tune), the entire class erupted into one, big "EH...??"

Things spiced up a bit when I went over to the 8th grade floor, where the students were killing time after having finished their own choral practice. One of the more smart-assed daring boys slipped up behind me and made a grab for my sword. I caught the sword, but next thing I knew the boy was taking off at a full sprint with my sheath in hand. I roared off in pursuit, chased him down, caught him, tackled him, retrieved the sheath, and, with an air of bushido dignity, restored the blood-encrusted, soft-plastic blade. Two minutes later, thanks to a clever diversion, the same boy was running down the hall again with my sheath in his hand. This time he ducked into a classroom and wove around the desks to throw me off his trail, but I surprised everyone (especially myself) by looping around, cutting him off, and taking him down with a flying tackle. The only casualty was one poor girl's pencase, which was sent flying with its contents spewing, but the boy and I gathered it all up for her, and she didn't seem to mind. (Actually, she mostly just stood staring at me with her mouth open. I guess not many teachers my age would chase down and tackle a student...twice...let alone dress like a samurai!) He never gave me any more trouble after that, but now several boys were determined to grab my sword. I made sure they didn't succeed, made my escape, and returned to the auditorium...the back entrance this time...and watched the rest of the 7th grade rehearsal.

After that I was told by some 7th graders that a samurai always wipes the blood off the blade of his sword immediately after using it. Otherwise, the ghost of the victim might come back and curse him. I figured that, since it was Halloween, that would be par for the course. Besides, since it was only fake blood on my sword, did that mean I could expect a fake curse?

A few more trick or treaters showed up at the office after that, but the seasonal rush was pretty much over. Wiped out, I left the school early, picked up the kids, and rendezvoused with my wife for a low-key dinner date. It was a nice, relaxing end to a festive occasion that usually drains me dry. Now I just hope those three Jack o' lanterns don't start rotting too early.

Blue Samurai3

Happy Halloween, all!