Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, November 29, 2009

At You: Zen and the Art of Sneezing

The Sneeze.

It is such a simple thing, so basic, and yet so enigmatic. Sounding as innocently absurd as the name of a Dr. Seuss creature, the word nevertheless conjures up all kinds of dreadful images of blustery embarrassment and flying bodily fluids. The term "olfactory orgasm" probably wouldn't have quite the same nuance.

This topic came to mind mainly because there is so much of it happening all around me these days. I've noticed that Japanese tend to sneeze in volleys. Indeed, the fact that I usually fire off one loud power sneeze instead of a barrage of shorts is yet another thing that sets me apart from the locals. Believe me, I've been doing my share.

The traditional English sound effect for a sneeze is "Achoo," or perhaps "Kerchoo!" The Japanese word is "Hakushon!" Frankly, I don't think either term is accurate. I rarely hear sneezes that sound anything like them. Most of the time it's only either a "Choo," or an "Atch!" There are also some pretty bizarre noises issuing from the nasal passages of some individuals:

  • I've always been both intrigued and irritated by people whose sneeze is a little, voiceless squeak, especially if it tends to follow a loud, passionate build-up. "Ah...AH...AHHH...AHHHHHH...chirp*" (Talk about anticlimactic!)
  • However, I prefer that to the person I knew in my university days whose sneeze was a high-pitched shriek. That was just plain disturbing (not to mention loud, nerve-grating, etc...).
  • When I first met my wife, she had a cute sort of, "Wash! Wash! " After we got married, however, it suddenly turned into a loud, sustained, "PFFFFFFFFFFT!" Now it's something like, "CHA-HA!" uttered at piercing volume. Never a dull moment!
  • Maybe interesting sneezes are an educator's thing. My father, who was also a teacher, has always had a sneeze that sounds like, "WOLvedasha," or something of the sort.
  • Then there was the respected teacher I used to work with at Kashima High School whose sneeze was, "Ba-SHEG! Ba-SHEG! "
  • Even that doesn't compare with my 6th grade reading teacher, whose standard sneeze routine was an entertaining, "Hup! Hup! Hup! Chiiiing! " (the last part of which had a nice vibrato).
  • Then of course we can't forget those comedic sorts who are fond of turning their sneezes into expletives. "Ah, S**T," is the obvious favorite (and rather satisfying, when you think about it). The Japanese, "Chiku-sho," (perhaps best translated as, "Damn it") also works well. However, I just can't get a handle on one ex-pat friend's habit of saying, "Ah, WHORE," when he sneezes. It just doesn't have the right level of explosiveness.
Whatever. As with certain other bodily functions, sneezing tends to feel pleasant and satisfying, yet we try very hard not to do it. Speaking of which, where did I put the Contac...?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tanka Truck, pt. II

Most everyone that still visits this blog already knows this, but for the rest of my rapidly-declining readership, the significance of the tanka poems in the last post is that they are actually lyrics for my latest song, entitled (wait for it...) "Tanka Truck".

While I'm at it, I guess I never posted any announcement of my other recent work, an optimistic instrumental called "The Glowing Zone".

More info on these and other tunes can be found on my Minstrel's Muse site. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Tanka Truck

I was in the mood to write some tanka, which are a form of traditional Japanese poetry. As with haiku, they usually follow a regular syllable pattern, but whereas haiku has the structure 5-7-5, tanka is a thirty-one syllable form that usually follows the pattern 5-7-5-7-7. Both haiku and tanka normally contain a kigō, or season word. In this case, the ones I used represent autumn, particularly in October and November.


Momoji kara
Tsumetaku ochiru
Ame no mizu
Tsumoru tokoro wa
Boku no ashiato

Rainwater falling coldly from red autumn leaves;
Where it collects is in my footprints.


Meigetsu no
Akarui hikari
Mizu no ue
Futatsu ni natte
Hansha shite iru

The bright light of the harvest moon
Becomes two reflecting on the water.


Kuroi sora
Hoshi no kōshin
Ano hikari-michi
Mushi sarete iru

Black sky, the march of the stars.
The Milky Way, that path of light, is being ignored.


Mata sakuya
Nowaki no asobi
Niwa no naka
Ippon no kiku
Tsuchi no ue saku

Again last night, a windstorm's play.
In the garden a single chrysanthemum blooms on the soil.


Semai michi
Kewashiku kudaru
Koi kiri ni
Shita mirarenai
Me no mae kaki da

The narrow road descends steeply.
In the thick fog, I can't see down.
There are persimmons before my eyes.

(You'll understand some of the significance of these soon! :) )

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Few Updates: Problems Solved

The Flying Eggheads Jazz Bigband (i.e. the Ye Olde Academy stage band) did the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival after all! We had three members out with the H1N1 flu and one down with a broken ankle, but we were able to cover for them. The boy with the broken ankle was actually more of an extra-in-training than a regular member anyway, so it wasn't really a problem. Two of the ones out with the flu were percussionists, so we pulled in others from the percussion section to cover for them (which lowered the section's potential a bit, but they still did a good job). The only serious loss was the remaining student out with the flu; she is our lead tenor saxophonist. The solution? I played the part myself.

I got out that clunky, old Selmer mk VII tenor that my mother bought used (from West Linn High School, no less!) and gave me for my birthday during my second year of college. I miraculously stumbled on my long-lost Meier mouthpiece, invested in some more jazz-worthy reeds (since my last performance on it was "Bolero" with the Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra using a Selmer mouthpiece and regular VanDoren "blue-box" reeds), and divided the gig between playing and conducting. I shamelessly admit that I had a blast doing it, too, even though it was my first tenor sax performance of any kind in two years and my first jazz performance on it for much, much longer.

I would say that I wished the lead tenor sax player would get sick more often, but my conscience would never forgive me.


Speaking of music-related problems solved, the file-hosting service I've been using for the music files linked through my Minstrel's Muse website has finally fixed its server glitch. It was down "temporarily" for "maintenance" for several weeks. Now it's working again, which means the site is fully active and ready for more! Of course, the ReverbNation player in the margin here and on the Minstrel's Muse site as well as my Facebook profile is still the most convenient way to listen to my most recent works. Those wanting a broader sample of my compositions and recordings over the years, however, should really check out the Minstrel's Muse.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Standing in a Total Fog

Foggy watch 3

And now, once again, I'm on morning safety patrol duty. This is a chore that pops up about once every season at Ye Olde Academy. Each of us has to come in early once or twice during a one-week period and stand vigil at a designated location so that we can keep an eye on the students and make sure they're not being naughty. (So, naturally, the students stop being naughty during that one-week period...for the most part.) This time we're backed up by members of the PTA, so we only have to do it once.

The designated location for my group is divided between the main gate and the crosswalk a little bit down the hill from it. Two of the three assigned PTA members and the other two teachers are all gathered around the main gate, and the third PTA member is AWOL, so naturally I get stuck watching the crosswalk alone. Not that I mind that much. It's a good time to stand, think, and listen to the long as there are no kids or cars around.

Normally at this time of year I'd be wearing a moderately heavy coat and shivering in the chill wind. This time I'm wearing a very light "cool biz" jacket I bought last spring, and I'm sweating. It's well into November, and the weather demons apparently think it's still September. To make matters worse, we are socked in by a thick fog. When I take my post, I can't see the top or the bottom of the hill. Half the world around me has been erased. The fog also serves to deaden the sound, what little there is at this early hour. If it weren't for the birds singing in the trees behind me, it would be really eerie.

We appear to be in the third wave of swine flu at Ye Olde Academy. Just when the second wave, which hit in October, seemed to be done and gone for good, we suddenly got nuked again. Three of the five 7th grade and two of the five 10th grade classes were immediately sent home under quarantine. The 9th graders came back from their 4-day field trip to Okinawa only to have three of their four classes quarantined the very next day. Half our junior high rugby team was wiped out after coming back from a tournament. Meanwhile, individual cases are starting to pop up again in virtually every class of every grade. As a school, we are close to being totally paralyzed.

I'm now also facing the horrible prospect of having the Flying Eggheads Jazz Bigband withdraw from the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival, which is happening this Saturday. It's one of our biggest and best-loved events every year, but things look bleak. Half the grades have been slapped with universal bans on afterschool activities whether the individual classes are quarantined or not, meaning we might not be able to rehearse. That ban may be extended to include scheduled outings, too. I've also been warned that the administration may prevent us from participating in any case. Dropping out of the event could potentially land us in legal trouble, since we've been on the event posters for months and tickets have been sold, but I have little choice. I refuse to go on stage with an ill-prepared skeleton crew.

A train of the Oarai-Kashima Line clatters by on the ridge overlooking the lower parking lot. It was once my lifeline, but I haven't ridden it in over a decade. It's a small, diesel-driven train with only two cars. Even so, I've always thought it sounds heavier and clunkier than the electric trains, which almost seem to float on their tracks. Come to think of it, I haven't ridden on an electric train in a while, either. I need to get out more often!

Speaking of music events being wiped out by the flu, my wife's school spent months preparing for an appearance at the local district's Grade School Music Festival. All the 4th and 5th graders were formed into an ensemble playing whatever they could find in the music closet (mainly a hodge-podge of recorders, melodicas, and percussion instruments). I arranged a version of Glenn Miller's "American Patrol" for them, and they put a great deal of effort into practicing it. The entire faculty of the school worked hard helping the kids, particularly the music teacher and my wife. (I might add, at the risk of sounding almost as vain as I really am, that my wife took three kids who had never touched a trumpet in their lives and had them playing their part correctly within three weeks.) The result? The music festival was canceled on account of the flu epidemic.

Not wanting all that hard work to go down the shaft, the school decided to host its own performance for the parents. The ensemble was directed by a teacher who had been away almost all summer and thus had very little to do with the preparation
. Naturally, he received a bouquet, a thank-you speech from the students, lavish praise from the parents and administrators, and pretty much all the credit for the effort. What did my wife get for all her trouble? Chewed out. You see, she tried to get the students to make public statements thanking ALL the teachers that had helped rather than just the director (who really hadn't done much). She was told she's totally misguided and therefore a poor teacher, even though she was probably personally responsible for at least half of the work involved in pulling it off. I guess the kids were supposed to learn that appearance counts more than effort, and they were given quite a lesson.

Finally some students come. They're high schoolers on bicycles. They call a cheerful, "Ohayou gozaimasu," to me as they completely ignore both the crosswalk and the railed bike lane and shoot right up the foggy street...slaloming around cars as they go. I could say something, I suppose, but there hardly seems to be any point.

Not long after that, a taxi drives by with a student in the back. Such a hard life...

Foggy watch 1
This is the road the students normally take when they walk from the train station to the school, viewed from my watch station. There are houses further down, but it's awfully remote...and narrow...

After a little while, the rush begins. Suddenly, from out of the fog, a whole tsunami of students comes plowing inexorably down the little back road from the direction of the station. No walking in line for this bunch; they are spread out all over the narrow road and are effectively blocking it. Most of them call a hearty greeting to me and are good about staying within the crosswalk and railed pedestrian lane once they cross the street, but I can't help feeling sorry for the (fortunately few) cars trying to pass along that little road. The students have claimed it for themselves and are defying all comers.

One relatively high-end car eases its way gingerly through the teen tide, turns out of the back road onto the lane in front of me heading uphill, and stops on the crosswalk. A window drops, and a very angry woman says, "Make them walk on the edge of the road!" At first I don't really understand her; she uses a word that I don't know (but later looked up) plus a verb form that takes a second or two of thinking on my part to work out. While I'm pondering that, she repeats herself even more vehemently before driving on up the hill. It's enough for me to get the gist of it. Okay, I guess I got my complaint for the day. Maybe I'll actually write a report this time.

I'm having a great time on Facebook these days, and I'm making a whole lot of new friends. I would consider that a very good thing except for the fact that it now seems to be monopolizing everything. "Let's do this for ten minutes" quite often winds up eating up my entire break period. "Oh, I have two more hours before I need to go to bed," quite often winds up morphing into, "Oops...I should have been in bed an hour ago." It's bizarre, and it's also costing me. My average sleep time has dropped, and other projects aren't getting done. So why don't I just get off the damned thing? Because it's too much fun! (Dumb question...)

In the distance I can hear the Westminster Quarters (in the key of F rather than E) announcing the start of morning homeroom. That means my safety patrol detail is over. It's time to walk back to the sprawling campus. The fog is melting away quickly now, revealing a hazy blue sky and an autumn sun...but it's still way too hot for this time of year. I make my way back into Ye Olde Academy thankful for the abundant nature both within and around its perimeter. The change of the seasons is quite vivid here in the Land of the Rising Sun, and the Japanese do their best to cherish it (when they're not tossing trash all over it). Half my classes are canceled today thanks to the flu. It should be an easy run. Maybe I'll even run up the hill; I can certainly use some exercise.

Foggy watch 2

Monday, November 02, 2009

Life Is Like an Afterschool Special, part whatever

The Junior High Choral Contest (well-intentioned but horribly off-key fanfare) at Ye Olde Academy has a bad habit of sneaking up on me every year. The 7th and 8th grade classes pick their songs in mid September, figure out who is going to do what during the first part of October, and then spend the next few weeks rehearsing like crazy. With a bit of luck, hard work, and a few miracles here and there, maybe they get their act together by the time the event takes place during the second week of November.

It's a time when my musical experience is actually acknowledged outside the music club, for better or worse. In the past, when I was first based in the senior high school and then assigned to the grade 9 staff every year, I was always asked to be a judge (since grade 9 doesn't participate). However, when I started getting stuck to grade 7 every year from a few years ago, I could no longer be considered impartial, so my role changed completely. It also became a lot more complicated. Since I'm an assistant homeroom teacher every year, it would be only logical to assume that I help my own class each time. That assumption would be correct, but it's not quite that simple. You see, preparation for the choral competition is traditionally the responsibility of the music teachers and each class's homeroom teacher, and they tend to be possessive with regard to their turf. The assistant homeroom teacher rarely even enters the picture. The degree and content of my participation, therefore, tends to be something of a dilemma.

The first time I was attached to a 7th grade class, the homeroom teacher invited my participation almost from the beginning. Not a very assertive person, he mainly wanted me to help keep the kids in line. There were a few screw-offs (Boys are rarely very enthusiastic about it), but for the most part the kids did what I asked and got a reasonably good result. That was very different from two years ago, when the homeroom teacher apparently kept me out on purpose because she knew I would take the event seriously. (She only wanted the kids to enjoy themselves.) I was only brought in as a last resort, but by then there was a simmering feud between the boys and the girls, the boys had more or less gone on strike, and the homeroom teacher had pretty much given up. The whole thing was dropped in my lap. It seemed like trying to beat a dead horse, but I somehow managed to brush them up enough to keep them from getting last place. Last year was almost the exact opposite; we had a very cooperative class, and the (P.E. department) homeroom teacher drove them like a sports trainer. I was brought in two weeks before the contest to tune up some nagging rough spots as well as train the student directors. The kids did an outstanding job, the class got second place overall, the director I trained the hardest got an award, and I got absolutely no credit or thanks whatsoever. (The homeroom teacher got a touching thank-you speech at the contest and a gift. What did I get? An apology from the homeroom teacher. Oh, well. At least we were successful.) And as for this year...

Once again I'm assisting a homeroom teacher from the P.E. department, though he's a rather different sort of person. The class itself consists of kids who are generally pretty good but extremely childish. The sudden, tragic death of one of their classmates at the beginning of the school year, and all the complications it brought, probably had some effect on them, as well. I knew they had started rehearsing for the contest, but I wasn't told anything until I asked. (The homeroom teacher explained that he'd thought I'd been too busy to help.) I was finally asked to observe a rehearsal and give some pointers a little more than a week before the contest. It was kind of rough, but I wasn't really concerned (yet). The students then asked me to work with them after school. A lot more girls showed up than boys, and getting the boys to do anything was a bit of a chore, but we spent a good hour and a half training. I thought we accomplished a lot.

Jump to two days later (October 31st...Halloween). It was now exactly one week before the contest. The homeroom teacher was away, and so was one of the regular lesson teachers for that day, so I was asked to work with the kids. It was a disaster. The boys in particular wasted an extraordinary amount of time getting into formation, and even then they were clearly more interested in poking each other than practicing. When the first student director started the compulsory song, there was still a lot of laughing and chattering going on even despite my urgings. Once the song got going, however, it turned out that most of the boys didn't even know the tune! The elective song, which I had focused on before, was only marginally better; the entrances were weak, the intonation was painfully hideous, the basses kept singing the soprano part instead of their own (albeit an octave lower), and the harmony kept falling apart because of rushing. Needless to say, it sounded awful.

I was stunned.

First I turned my attention to the student director for the elective song. I had worked with her a lot getting her to direct in such a way that the singers knew clearly when to come in. But now she was directing as she had before, just swinging her arms around in a way that made no sense. "Don't you remember what we worked on before?" I asked. "Show the singers the entrance!" The girl, normally a shy, serious sort, responded by looking askance at me and replying dismissively, "The chief music teacher told me that this way is better." "She's right!" added the accompanist. "He really did! I heard him!"

That couldn't possibly be right. I work closely with the chief music teacher, and he has given me a lot of personal instruction in conducting. (We even took conducting lessons from the same specialist!) I know he would never approve of that kind of "directing", and I said so, but those two students adamantly refused to follow my advice. I then turned my attention to trying to fix the problems in the chorus, particularly the sloppy entrances, but the overwhelming majority of the students seemed to be treating the whole thing as a joke. Not only was there a lot of giggling and screwing around instead of listening to my instruction and doing the drills, but some of the students (one of them the bass part leader) were spending the whole time mocking my American pronunciation of Japanese. Finally I said, "Okay, I guess I'm done. Fix it yourselves!" I then planted myself in a chair.

The class went silent, but the students still didn't seem to be taking any of it very seriously. The student director of the compulsory song came back and started that tune, but it was so pathetic that I couldn't stand it any longer. Halfway through the tune I stood up and yelled, "STOP!"

The kids in that class are used to me being firm but still basically a nice guy, which may be part of the problem. Now the nice guy was on strike, and they knew it. They stood dumbstruck as I railed, "Just what the hell is this? Do you know when the contest is? Are you even close to being ready? Are you even trying to do a good job, or are you content with getting up in front of several hundred people and making total asses of yourselves?" Now that I had everyone's undivided attention, I repeated the drills I had attempted earlier, this time in the manner of a drill sergeant. The kids responded, but I totally hated doing it, and there wasn't much time to do anything anyway. It just seemed like an exercise in stress-inducing futility. I didn't see any more of the class that day, and I was glad of it.

I was also thankful for the Halloween BBQ party my family shared with another family in our neighborhood that evening. Good food, s'mores, and copious amounts of red wine prevented me from being stressed out that night. Sunday night, however, was another story. I was still upset, and I didn't get much sleep that night.

On Monday morning I confronted the chief music teacher about the conducting issue and was told that that student had either misunderstood him or fed me rubbish (as I'd thought). I then went to the homeroom teacher, told him the whole story, and told him not to ask for any more help from me because I wanted nothing more to do with it. I then lost myself in my morning lessons.

During lunchbreak, two girls from my class came padding into the English Department office, where I am most of the time. I was busily rearranging my furniture in YoVille when they came up to me hesitantly, corrected their posture, intoned a very polite apology, and asked me to continue giving them instruction. I told them quite frankly that, while I appreciated the apology, I didn't think it very meaningful. I was far more interested in actions than words, and it was clear the class as a whole wasn't taking any of it seriously enough to matter.

"Besides," I said, "I don't really have any complaints against you two. You seem to be doing your best."

One of the two, who actually does have a few, small attitude issues, immediately started tearing up and said, "No, sensei, we're just as guilty! We've been playing instead of practicing, too!"

You know, I really hate it when girls cry. Guys seem to be naturally wired to crumble when female tears flow (and females know it!). Steeling myself, I said, "Then you need to think about what you should do instead of apologizing. You now have less than a week. Besides, there are many others in the class who should be here apologizing far more than you!"

As I was saying this, there was a bit of a commotion outside the office door, and next thing I knew all of the girls in the class (16 counting the first two) were crowding their way into the narrow aisle leading to my desk.

"Well this is..." I stammered. Then I kicked my resolve back under me and said, "I really appreciate this, but I don't think this really matters that much! Besides, I still think the boys owe me an even bigger apology than you do!"

As I was saying this, the boys started coming in. Not all of them did; some of them apparently stayed out in the hall if they showed up at all. The biggest troublemakers were ushered to the front of the group, where they gave me a very sincere-sounding apology and similar request for me to continue working with them.

By this time I was starting to be at a loss as to what I should do, so for better or worse I gave A (probably rather cliche) Speech (not sure which fanfare I should use), the gist of which was basically:
  1. It's not about me, it's about you; only you can make it happen.
  2. Think about what you really want.
  3. Success takes effort.
  4. Time is precious; waste it, and it doesn't come back.
  5. Like a sports team, we're only as strong as our weakest member.
  6. We either do this together or not at all.
There were some tears, especially among the girls, but everyone was listening earnestly. It was a very heart-melting moment (Damn those feminine tears!), so I closed by pointing out that none of them had come to my Halloween trick-or-treat event on Saturday. I then handed out some of the leftover candy. That brought immediate smiles.

I didn't plan to go to their rehearsal that afternoon. However, as it turned out, as I was making my way back to my office after the 5th period class, one of the boys in my homeroom suddenly intercepted me in the hallway and asked me where his classmates were. He said he had gone to the restroom and returned to find the classroom empty. I didn't know where they were either, but I agreed to help him search. We went around to all the usual practice spots, but our class was nowhere to be seen. Just when I was about ready to give up, I had an idea. The homeroom teacher is a P.E. teacher. What's a large, empty area that only a P.E. teacher would consider using for choral practice?

Once we arrived at Gym no. 1, the boy went and joined his classmates. I turned around intending to head back to my office. But then I felt The Pang. Returning as far as the doorway, I stood there behind the formation content to listen to them practice as the homeroom teacher gave them strict instruction (though you know I was tempted as hell to step in and throw in my two cents' worth!). After a bit, the girl directing the compulsory song suddenly came running up to me with some questions about conducting style. While I was working with her, the leader of the bass section came and told me they needed help. I wound up working with them.

I worked with them a little bit today, too. There are still some problems, but they have improved a lot. And best of all, they actually seem to be trying now.

I can't really call this a happy ending, though. The contest is scheduled for this Saturday, but as of an hour ago three of the five 7th grade classes are under one-week quarantine for the H1N1 flu. The junior high staff want to postpone the contest, but the administration is threatening to terminate it altogether. I just hope it wasn't all for nothing.