Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Safety Check

It was September final exam week. That naturally meant it was also time for the annual company health exam.

Since Ye Olde Academy is a private school owned (along with at least 80% of the city) by the local steel company, we were always bussed to the health center over at the main plant. It was actually kind of fun; we just went from station to station, most of which involved using some kind of automated machine. We'd stick our ID card in a slot, push a button, and get poked, prodded, or scanned. It all went very quickly, and we usually had only the bandage from the blood test to show for it.

(Of course, the angry letter some of us would receive from the doctors a couple of weeks later was quite another story...)

Things were different this year. Instead of bringing us to the health center, they brought the health center to us. Specifically, they had a big van that was a mobile X-ray room. They set up the equipment for the various tests among the conference rooms of the administrative building. Things went more or less the same as before, but we all noticed that many if not most of the tests were shorter and simpler than before. I'm not really complaining about that, but it was definitely weird having a needle jabbed in my arm while sitting in the main meeting room.

Then again, maybe it isn't...

I don't know the results of my blood and urine tests yet, but my blood pressure is nice and low, and my weight is down to boot. That's a hopeful sign...though last time I managed to get my cholesterol back down into the green they suddenly started measuring a different kind of cholesterol, which put me back in the yellow again (and got me another insulting letter from the doctor). I'm sure they'll probably find something else to complain about.


In other news, I'm now fully up and running on a brand-new desktop computer. I'd been tempted to replace my veteran Vaio for months, especially as it had been starting to show signs of its age (I bought it in 2002!) more and more. Finally, while checking out a new shopping mall over in Tsuchiura, I bought a copy of Sonar 8 Producer Edition recording software and decided to get a whole new machine to run it.

A new Besia Electric had opened in my "city" earlier this month, and they were selling computers for really cheap. That provided the perfect opportunity. As it turned out, though, the K's Electric over in a neighboring city apparently retaliated by holding a special sale of their own. They had the same machines for even cheaper. I went ahead and got a machine that was near but not at the low end of the price scale. It's a Gateway. A lot of its low price no doubt came from its simplicity; while offering a lot of hardware features that I really appreciate (Built-in multi-card reader? Nine USB ports?), it had very little software onboard, which I actually consider a plus. It also didn't come with a display, though I already had a good one. I had it up, running, and connected to the internet in a matter of minutes. Transferring my data and preferred software setup has taken longer, but I have definitely developed a healthy respect for external hard drives.

I really liked my old Vaio (which lacked the analness of the Vaio laptop I bought last year to use in my studio), but it's nice to have three times the processor power and about seven times as much RAM. And since I have the option of a free upgrade to Windows 7...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Flood o' Fuzz

I've said so before, but our place seems to have an uncanny tendency to attract abandoned cats. It has been suggested that maybe word has gotten out through the grapevine that we're like some sort of volunteer humane society or something. It may also be something psychic, sorcerous, or spiritual. I don't know, but we seem to get more than our fair share of furry refugees. For as long as I've lived here, every cat kept by our nuclear and/or extended family was someone else's cast off. A number have come and gone over the twelve years that I've lived here, but this past year in particular has been something of a spike. The fuzzy faces that have graced(?) us during that period include:


Tora 9-2009

Tora has been with us for two years now. He was first dumped off as a kitten together with one sibling and his mother at my kids' school. The mother was promptly hit by a car and killed, but the two kittens were cared for by the students until it was decided that they should be given a home. My kids begged us to take him in. He has been our resident fuzz ever since, and he's still everyone's best buddy. His recent de-nuggeting has mellowed him a lot, but he still has a lot of mixed feelings about all the other felines showing up in his realm. (Read on...)


I never did get a picture of this lovable fellow. His name is meant to be a play on the French word "gateau" (confection) and the Spanish "gato" (cat). He suddenly showed up about a year ago and made himself at home in my father-in-law's greenhouse. A roly-poly black cat with a quick smile (Sorry..."slow blink") and even quicker purr, he was such a friendly sort and had such an agreeable personality that we more or less took him in, though he was never let in the house. Mild-mannered to a fault, he never started fights with any other cats that came by, but he was big and strong enough to finish them, as Tora found out the hard way before finally learning to leave the big, black lug alone. Gateau stayed in and around the greenhouse all summer and early fall, but by late fall he started doing what male cats do best: wander off. He would disappear for days before coming back, sometimes with reports coming later of his having taken up temporary residence at someone else's house. He settled down again during the winter, where he continued to greet us pleasantly every time we hung up our laundry in the greenhouse on rainy or snowy days. However, in the spring he started wandering off again, and eventually he never came back. We have no idea what happened to him.

Shiro (The White Cat)

This was another stray tomcat that showed up and took up residence in the greenhouse. He arrived right at the tail end of summer just before Gateau started wandering off, though the two cats got along with each other so well - and had certain similarities in appearance - that we wondered if they might be siblings. However, as his name suggests, Shiro was white as opposed to Gateau's black. Also, though he was a similarly quiet and even-tempered cat, he wasn't anywhere near as friendly as Gateau. In fact, it took weeks before he would let anyone come closer than three meters except to feed him. After a while he warmed up enough to let my father-in-law pet him, but he always had a degree of skittishness. My father-in-law fell totally in love with Shiro, mainly because he was so unobtrusive, but though Shiro stayed with us through the winter and spring, in summer he started being intimidated by the other cats that were showing up, and he disappeared. He has started coming back again recently, but only infrequently, and basically only to eat before taking off again.


Hana fuzz 1

(I'll post a better picture if and when she holds still long enough for me to take one...)
In early summer we found ourselves with yet another visitor. This time it was a female kitten. It just suddenly turned up hanging around in the various bushes and gardens around our house crying almost constantly. Clearly accustomed to human companionship, it would immediately run out to anyone who came near, crying if not planting itself between their feet. My daughter said it looked just like a small kitten she and her friends had been feeding at the elementary school (just like Tora) a couple of months earlier but had disappeared. If so, it must have followed one of my kids home. At first the kitten was a horribly scrawny, scraggly-looking thing, and both my wife and my father-in-law insisted that we should just drive it away, but once my daughter started feeding it it filled out nicely and became quite the charmer. My daughter fell hopelessly in love with it, buying it its own special food and a collar with her own allowance money. My wife was totally against the idea of keeping another cat beyond simply placing food out in the greenhouse, but since the kitten had already pretty much won over everyone else in the family, it was perhaps inevitable. By the end of August it had moved inside, becoming house cat #2.

My daughter named her Hana (flower), and she really does have the run of the household. Now clean and healthy, she looks completely different from the pathetic thing that wandered into our yard a few months ago. She still has a broken squeaker, though; unless she really tries hard to say something, most of the time all that comes out is either a sort of cracked "Myah-ah" or "Ow", or else just a hoarse whisper. What's amazing is how remarkably patient Tora has been with her; at first his most aggressive act was a low "MWOWWWW" when Hana pounced on his tail. Now he'll cuff her if she pushes him too far, so she tends to keep her distance. However, she's a cheeky little thing. One of her favorite games is to charge Tora, stop halfway there, arch her back and puff out her tail, and then dance around a bit before going back and doing it again. (Tora usually just sits and watches her impassively.) However, if she ever catches Tora with his back turned, it's pretty much a given that she'll pounce on him. Sometimes he'll respond with a single, irritable swat that sends her skittering off; at other times he'll run, the little upstart hot on his heels. Although he's generally being a good boy, it's safe to say that Tora is rather less than amused, and he is tending to spend most of his time sleeping either upstairs (where Hana doesn't usually go) or over at my father-in-law's house. It's hard for Hana to sneak up on him in any case. The collar my daughter bought for her has a bell on it, and that cheerful jingling is a dead giveaway.

Hana fuzz 2

Urusai Neko (The Annoying Cat)

Urusai Neko 1

This gray molly showed up right at about the time we were starting the preparations for my mother-in-law's Shinbon last August. She (I mean the cat) is a serious pain in the arse. She's quite affectionate, but in an obnoxious way, i.e. she's the type that will purposefully plant herself in your path if not wrap herself around your feet to force you to stop. (I have already wound up stepping on her at least twice because of it, and she has tripped my father-in-law at least once.) She has an awful, piercing, nasally meow that is grating enough to hear once, let alone non-stop whenever she's hungry. However, worst of all is her aggressive pluck. Not only did she more or less drive Shiro, Hana, and (later described) Shiro-Kuro from the greenhouse food station, but during the Shinbon observances she had a nasty habit of sneaking into the house and grabbing food off the table. We also discovered that we had to be more careful about making sure the lids of the garbage cans were firmly locked down. She's still around, but is mainly to be found in the greenhouse in late afternoon and early evening, which is also when Shiro tends to come by. Father-in-law tries to drive her away while Shiro is eating, but she's a very persistent thing. It's also a given that she'll be back to eat Shiro's leftovers.

Shiro-Kuro (White & Black)

Shiro-Kuro 1

This was another cat that showed up during the Shinbon observances. At first it tended to keep itself hidden, such as under a car or a bush, and meowed constantly. As in all day and all night. Together with that nasally screech of Urusai Neko (above), it created quite an obnoxious cacophony while guests were arriving for Shinbon. Slowly but surely it started venturing out to plead to passing humans, but it would never let people approach closer than about two meters. At first we tried to drive it off (and so did Urusai Neko), but then we noticed that it had a badly-injured leg.

Trying to take care of it was difficult. Obviously in pain, it resisted all attempts to get close to it, and still tended to cry non-stop from hiding. Feeding it meant having to stand guard to keep Urusai Neko and Hana away. Urusai Neko in particular could be quite cruel to it if it came anywhere near the greenhouse. (On the other hand, I might add that I actually saw Tora come to its defense once!) Finally it just went away.

Recently it has come back, and my father-in-law has more or less taken it in, though not in the house. Its leg looks a lot better, but it still favors it. However, now that it is no longer in so much pain, it has become a lot friendlier. In fact, it is really quite a sweetheart of a cat. The merest scratch on its head causes it to double up in purry delight. The non-stop crying is also gone. Now it just meows politely when it's hungry...or gives a cheerful call when someone walks by the bed my father-in-law prepared for it in an old beer crate.

So why is it that all these cats find their way here? Moreover, what kind of cruel jackass has been dumping them off in the first place?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Shaking with the Music

This past month has certainly seen a lot of music-related activity, both good and bad, and its effect on me personally has also had its bright and dark sides.

Part One - The Kashima Philharmonic

The Ninth Regular Concert of the Kashima Philharmonic took place at the Kashima Workers' Culture Hall on August 30th. It was a strange performance for a number of reasons. First of all, up till then, the "regular concert" (i.e. the classical performance) was always in winter, whereas the "pops concert" was in summer. However, thanks to a monumental f***up on the part of our central committee events beyond our control, we were unable to book the KWCH for our regular pops date in June. August 30th was they earliest they could get it. That left us with a dilemma; while we had lots of time (January to August) to prepare for the summer event, we'd have only a few months after that to prepare for the subsequent winter one. Since the "regular concerts" have always been more difficult than the pops ones, I suggested reversing the schedule only for this year. Surprisingly, they took my advice.

However, they didn't take my advice with regard to the concert repertoire, and they wound up making the same mistake yet again. Three years ago, at the regular concert, we did Beethoven's 5th Symphony and pulled it off reasonably well (though only by the slimmest of margins). That apparently jacked up the egos of the committee, particularly the chairman, because they decided to do Beethoven's 7th, a more difficult work, the following year. That piece was clearly over our heads, but once again we somehow managed to pull it off with only a minimum of squeaks. That led our chief to decide to do Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, an even harder work, the year after that. Although most of the regular members of the K.P. seemed happy with the resulting performance, it showed our weaknesses all too clearly, and most of us with more experience were less than enthusiastic. Herr Maestro Ogawa had already resigned as our musical adviser, citing irreconcilable differences with the orchestra's management. I was asked for my opinion, since I had served as rehearsal conductor, and I responded by giving the committee a good flaming. I demanded that they stop insulting our members and our supporters by choosing tunes simply on the basis of their own personal preference. Yes, we could choose high-level works and give a C+ performance, especially if we stacked the orchestra with professional ringers, but we'd be making fools of ourselves. Besides, our more experienced regular members were already threatening to walk out if the committee didn't choose a more realistic repertoire.

So what did our chairman decide? The overtures and one aria each from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" and "The Magic Flute". Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" and "1812 Overture". They're all excellent and very popular tunes, but they require an average level of musicianship that we simply don't have. Our professional concertmistress/violin trainer immediately resigned, and several of our most talented and experienced members went on "extended leave" (and are not expected to return). We were left with a skeleton crew.

I won't bother going into too much detail about the preparation, but suffice to say that, on those times I wound up conducting rehearsals, I was extremely frustrated. The string section, though made up largely of beginners and inexperienced hobbyists, made a valiant effort, and I appreciated them the most. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the wind section. Some of the most experienced members simply didn't seem to give a damn, so week after week they kept making the same mistakes heedless of my or the professional director's instruction. Months passed with virtually no progress. Two weeks before the performance our condition could still only be described as sorry.

As for the concert itself, it wasn't as bad as I feared it would be, but since our ranks consisted of about 50% ringers, college level if not professional, I supposed it made sense. The 1812 Overture in particular went quite well, if you overlooked a couple of bad entrances and one brief train wreck. Still, I wasn't really satisfied, and I also had a new problem to deal with.

Part Two - A Nervous Wreck or Wrecked Nerves?

Back in 2004 or so I was carrying a heavy amplifier (not mine) from a studio to a car parked several blocks away. About two-thirds of the way there, my left hand suddenly gave out on me, and I wound up dropping the amp. (Luckily it wasn't damaged.) After that I started having problems with weakness, shaking, and numbness in the thumb and first two fingers of my left hand. I went to the hospital and had some tests done, with the resulting diagnosis being that I had carpal tunnel syndrome. I was given medicine, a combination of B-vitamins and steroids, and it seemed to work. The problem eased, though it never went completely away. During the years that followed, my left hand would sometimes become slightly tingly and shaky if I worked it too much, though never as badly as in the beginning.

That all changed during the full rehearsal the day before the Kashima Philharmonic concert. About two hours into the practice the thumb and first two fingers of my left hand suddenly felt as if they'd been numbed by cold. They also shook violently, and I could not get them to move properly. That also threw off the balance with my other hand, the result being that I pretty much couldn't play, though as principal clarinetist I had no choice but to keep going. The problem continued to the next day, and my playing was disastrous during the dress rehearsal. I put everything I had into the concert itself, and I was able to do my job reasonably well, but once we got to the encores my control was completely gone, and my solo in Tchaikowsky's "Flower Waltz" (our first encore) was clunky and awkward (and after that my playing was pretty much a comedy of errors...a very BAD comedy...). Depressed and demoralized, I was about ready to throw in the towel right there and then.

The following weekend was the annual two-day Anniversary Festival at my school, and as always the music club conducted the "La Boheme" live-music tea room. As always, I was asked on the spot to fill in a couple of gaps in the program. First I was requested to do a sax solo, so I got my languishing alto out, found a pianist to accompany me, and quickly worked up a rendition of "My Funny Valentine". I was also asked to be ready to do some guitar performances, so I got my acoustic guitar out and spent some time practicing it. I wound up not doing the guitar slot, which was probably a good thing. I did do the sax slot, and it went really well, which was both a joy and a complete miracle, because by then my left hand was almost completely numb, and when I ended my performance and got set up to direct the jazz band my hand was shaking violently. The thumb was almost frozen, and the first two fingers moved only very slowly. I was sure I was finished.

That was on Saturday, September 5th. The problem ebbed, but it didn't go away. The tingling, stiffness, and weakness right up to today (the 7th).

Part Three - The Cure?

(Cue the opening strain of The Cure's "Lullaby")

I've spent some time reading up on how to deal with CTS, and I have learned a few things. For one thing, the problem is due to swelling rather than damage to the nerve itself, so ordinary aspirin or ibuprofen can relieve the symptoms (which I've already discovered works). However, Kellie, one of my Facebook friends, suggested that I try yoga. Specifically, she mentioned something called a "taffy pull". No explanation was given, but I used my imagination. I tried gripping my left wrist and pulling my arms against each other.

There was an abrupt CRACK, and all of the tingling, shaking, and weakness immediately ceased. I mean if someone just flipped a switch. Suddenly I had full strength and sensation in my hand. The swelling around my thumb was still there, but it seemed to start going down. Not long afterward, I started getting cramps in my hand as if long-unused muscles were suddenly being exercised. Even now my left hand feels overworked but not numb or weak. However, as I type this, I still feel a bit of the swelling around my thumb and wrist acting like a bit of a brake. There is also a very mild tingling in the lower palm, which could be due to either the remaining swelling or continued pressure on the nerve. At any rate, I know now that this is something I can deal with, and I don't have to worry about giving up instrumental music just yet! :)

Part Four - Impulse Buying

I'll end this post by talking about CDs. I bought a number of them for various reasons over the past couple of months. Some of them were simply additions to collections (i.e. Rush or Tangerine Dream). Others were either recommendations or simply things picked up because they happened to catch my eye (i.e. they were on sale). Perhaps the most notable ones were:

Superfly (Superfly) - I haven't bought many CDs by Japanese artists simply because so few have caught my attention. However, the blatantly '60s-esque, psychedelic cover of new group Superfly's debut LP had me wondering. Then, spurred on by recommendations given to me by students, I popped into a used CD store one day and grabbed a few albums to try. All of them but one fell into the "not bad but not special" category. That lone exception was Superfly. Contrary to popular belief, "Superfly" is the name of a duo, not the very visible (and solely pictured) lead vocalist, Shiho Ochi (though now apparently Superfly does consist only of Ochi). Guitarist Koichi Tabo also has a lot to do with the group's success, but the charismatic Ochi definitely steals the show. Both her appearance and her vocal style are modeled to a considerable extent after Janis Joplin, though the music shows a variety of '60s influences including Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones. It's sometimes very cliche '60s retro, but it's very entertaining to listen to. Tabo's guitar work is excellent. Moreover, I appreciate Ochi's singing voice, which is strong rather than cute and is also...thank god...ON KEY! The CD itself is made to look like a miniature 45 record. That pretty much sums it up.

Absolution (Muse) - Olivia has often gone on about Muse on her blog, and I liked a couple of songs she linked, so when HMV Japan announced it was having a 30% off sale on import CDs I decided to add this album to the pile to give them a try. I believe my first impression on listening to it was, "What is this, 'Queen does OK Computer'?" Seriously. The melodic progressions and overall mood show a very strong Radiohead influence, but the vocalist's voice and style say Freddie Mercury loud and clear (and some of the guitar riffs say Brian May just as loudly). However, there is an intensity to the music that goes far beyond Radiohead as well as progressive inventiveness that goes beyond Queen. You can't predict what this band is going to do next; just when you think you've got them figured out, you're suddenly hit with a piano break compliments of vocalist/lead guitarist/pianist Matthew Bellamy that shows a firm grounding in Debussy or Rachmaninoff...and then you're carried off by creative synth work. Frankly, this band is huge. Their music is huge. I feel drained (in a good way) listening to it, meaning it's not something to leave looping on and on in the car stereo! I definitely intend to check Muse out some more!

Viva la Vida (Coldplay) - Coldplay is one of those groups that apparently a lot of people love to hate despite or even because of their popularity. They get a lot of vitriol directed at them on blog or forum sites like Fark. However, I've noticed that Fark's shyte list tends to include artists I like (e.g. Mannheim Steamroller and Jethro Tull among others). I'm sure many if not most Americans are probably sick of Coldplay, judging from their apparent ubiquitousness, but thanks to my being marooned on the planet Japan, I'd never heard them! That led me to grab this CD purely on an impulse buy. I had to see what they were all about. What can I say? Who do they remind me of? U2? Definitely. The Moody Blues? Absolutely. My Bloody Valentine? In the guitar work, yes. REM? Old Pink Floyd? Yeah, I hear them. And those are all groups I like. But this is still Coldplay. Like Muse, they are anything but predictable, though they are on a completely different line of the spectrum. This is good chilling-out music, and I find it both very pleasant and very listenable. The Farkers can spew and drool about Coldplay all they like. This one is staying in my car stereo for a while.

Now...I think it's high time I worked on a new composition...