Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Rolling in the Music

This definitely has to be a new record for me. Over the past two weeks I've arranged three tunes (one for the Flying Eggheads jazz band, one for the orchestra, and one for a brass ensemble) to be performed at this Saturday's Big Regular Concert (rather overwrought fanfare). Couple that with one new original tune finished last week (Floral Aura) and two others currently in the works (plus at least two others in mind ready to go), and you have a serious workout for my muse.

I guess it's making up for all those weeks of sitting idle.

Maybe I should also mention all the time I spent at the end of February and beginning of this month writing out all the individual parts for the "Throne Room March" from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope so we could perform it at our graduation ceremony. (We had a purchased copy of the score, but no sheet music.) The kids did an excellent job with it, and it really was an effective entry march.

Kudos to Sibelius.

This is definitely turning out to be a musical spring...not counting the sneezes...


Thursday, March 18, 2010

This Song Is Over

And so it ends...

The 2009-2010 school year at Ye Olde Academy wasn't the toughest for me by any stretch. It probably wasn't even the second toughest. However, it was probably by far the most eventful, for better or for worse.

It started out ominously enough; two of the three grades I was to be teaching were notorious ones with far more than their share of problems. Both had an unusually high percentage of kids that were proud underachievers, mouthy, spoiled thugs for whom class time was play time and naught else, and unfortunately they had enough popularity to have a negative effect on their classmates as a whole. It didn't help my spirits any to find that the new 7th graders were sometimes openly disrespectful; on the very first day several students were more apt to make fun of what their new teachers (especially me, the gaijin) said than listen to it. My own homeroom seemed particularly bad in this regard. The rehearsal for the entrance ceremony was a disaster, and I feared it was just a portent of things to come.

Even so, the death of one of my new students in a freak accident on campus less than three weeks later was something I never could have foreseen. It was hard enough even without all the self-righteous finger pointing and "you should have" speeches coming from people who just didn't have a clue. Then there were all the problems with the boy's sadly dysfunctional family, problems which led to our having to take precautions that seemed horribly out of place in a school like ours in a city like ours. It was like a nightmare that just kept getting worse.

But things got better as the year progressed. The notorious problem grades turned out to be not so bad, at least for me. My classes generally went well. My homeroom in particular seemed to be pulling itself together well after its unfortunate start. There were signs of promise all around.

It was supposed to be an off year for the music club, too, and yet they seemed to make it work. The 11th grade student leaders had their share of problems, to be sure, but they still were able to deliver when they needed to. The rough-edged string and woodwind sections struggled, but the orchestra performances were reasonable. The Flying Eggheads jazz big band came in with a rhythm section that was inexperienced and of questionable competence, and yet the band turned in among our best showings both on and off campus. To top it all off, the concert band, usually our weakest and least utilized element, managed to take #1 in the prefecture in the All-Japan Band Contest (and an upper-middle rank in the Kanto Region Championship).

The July visit by just under two dozen students from our sister-school in Australia was without a doubt the smoothest to date, and my 9th grade students responded to them very favorably. All in all, things were looking very positive.

Then, with the coming of the second semester, things started falling apart. It seemed that, in all the grades I taught, the good students were doing fantastically well while the weaker ones were simply giving up. I didn't have any of the totally out-of-control classes I've had to deal with on occasion in the past, thank God, but I did have classes that were pretty much post mortem. My upper-level 11th grade class did phenomenally well on a very tough course and brutal final exam, but my middle-level one finished the year unable to figure out that the sentence, "I like both," means that the speaker likes both. In my 9th grade classes, the upper-level students put so much effort into their English speech presentations that it was almost too good, and it took a long time for all of them to finish (not that I minded). The lower-level students, on the other hand, were probably the worst I'd ever seen, to the point that a significant percentage couldn't even read their own speeches, let alone manage the obligatory visuals, gestures, or eye contact. And as for my 7th grade students, a record high number scored over 90% on my final exam, and yet the combined class average wasn't very high on account of the sad number of students that aren't even trying to comprehend the basics. Overall, it seemed that a lot of students were doing extremely well, but their promising spark was being overshadowed by the ones that seem to take pride in being hopeless. There were also increased problems of bullying and truancy all around, not to mention faculty in-fighting. Things weren't looking good at all after winter vacation.

And yet there were still unexpected bright spots. As my homeroom was preparing for the junior high class choral contest in November, I angrily washed my hands of the whole thing in response to the kids' openly disrespectful attitude toward me only to have almost the entire class come to my office en masse, apologize, and ask for my help. I worked with them as best I could in the little time we had left, and even though the music teacher had said my class was one of the most hopeless, we still managed to come away with an award (second place overall out of ten classes). The kids certainly did a lot of growing up.

Nevertheless, we still ended the year on a less than bright note. Although I can't discuss the details, I'll say that something happened that brought up the issue of the dead student again. After all these months, it wound up causing an unexpected, complicated situation that led to conflict, an apology, and an unexpected confession. Hopefully the matter can now finally be laid to rest. The kids certainly learned a lot of very harsh lessons. I only hope for all our sakes that they remember.

I'm told that next year's 11th and 9th grade classes are very easy to work with and thus should be a cake walk. With the new 7th graders, however, we're having to deal with an entirely new situation, and it's anyone's guess how it's going to end up. Couple that with some new complications thrown at us by the government, and we find ourselves on totally uncertain ground. There's never a dull moment at Ye Olde Academy, even if I do seem to be repeating the same work routine year after year.

Now I just hope the music club's Big Regular Concert in two weeks goes well.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Over the Safety Net

"I'm not going! There's no f*****g reason why I should do this!"

I was livid, and my poor wife was getting an earful of my bile. I was already plenty fed up with those "open class" events at my kids' schools. It's bad enough that they always hold those things on weekdays, i.e. attending means taking time off from work. There are just so many things about them that can send the liver into overdrive, from the usual social bowlshyte to all those really rotten kids with even more rotten parents. I'd been to the one at my son's school only a week before and had come away with my guts twisted in a knot. Now it was my daughter's school. Normally it would be my wife's turn to go, but she was really busy, and I already had the day off for other reasons. I was perfectly (well, maybe not perfectly) content to grit my teeth and go so as not to disappoint my daughter (and not to get our quality as parents re-ranked by the PTA as "slightly worse than a praying mantis"). But then I was told something that instantly changed my whole perspective: It was NOT going to be an "open class" event. It was going to be a volleyball tournament between the kids and their parents.

As far as I was concerned, it might as well have been a mass mutual root canal session. To say I'm not athletically inclined would be an understatement. There was also the fact that I hadn't played volleyball for at least a decade. Top that off with the usual "gaijin in the crowd (of idiots)" crap, and you can see why I felt that a tour of duty in Afghanistan sounded much more attractive. I made my feelings on the matter painfully clear. I wanted nothing to do with it whatsoever.

Unfortunately, my daughter took my loud refusal personally, and her feelings were quite hurt. That in turn made me feel (and look) like a lower form of rat. There was only one way for me to reclaim my human status, and that was to go. That's exactly what I did. And I ran into annoying crap from the very start.

I found my poor, languishing sportswear without any trouble, but the only pair of gym shoes I had were old ones I'd retired from use at Ye Olde Academy two years before and had already worn outside. The Japanese tend to be anal about wearing "dirt shoes" inside any kind of facility. I didn't have much choice, though, so I just wore the old "tenny runners". Sure enough, there was a footwear-changing area just inside the gym entrance and a sign saying, "'Dirt shoes' strictly prohibited." There were slippers provided for those without dirtless footwear, but I wasn't about to try to play volleyball in those things. I therefore played the stupid gaijin game and walked right in. Nobody paid any attention. However, I then had to deal with the usual social bowlshyte. You can always tell where I am in any of these PTA events: either look for the gap in the crowd or see what direction the Japanese parents are all moving and go the other way. Part of me doesn't give a damn anymore, but part of me still gets really annoyed, especially since I've known so many of these parents for so long. Still, I had a few surprises in store.

The volleyball tournament got underway. The opening greetings were intoned, the rules were explained, the students were separated into their teams and sent to their courts, and the parents were asked to do the same. Nobody moved. Several of the mothers sat and yapped among themselves, totally oblivious to the event. Others just sat like statues. The teacher in charge of the event practically begged (between anxious giggles) for volunteers among the parents to come out to the courts. Still no motion. Finally, I said (in Japanese), "What is this? Don't you feel sorry for the students?" Then I headed out to one of the courts myself. After a few seconds of hesitation others followed. Finally we had all the positions covered, so play could begin.

That's when I really surprised myself. I and my body both still remembered how to play. Sure, it was "soft volleyball", i.e. we used big rubber balls instead of the real thing, but that just made it easier for me. I couldn't jump high enough to smash, let alone spike, but I could still receive, set, and serve. It was also possible for me to aim my shots at weak spots. I admit that I had a great time out there, though my body was seriously complaining when it was over. I also had bruises in various places from landing all wrong after making diving saves. I didn't care; I was having fun. (There was one other gaijin there, too. He was the school's native English-speaking teaching assistant, an Australian who said he'd never tried volleyball before. He seemed to be having a blast out there, too, though he came away with torn pants.)

Apparently I earned a bit of respect; after the first round was over I found myself being invited to join other groups. However, I wasn't chosen to join the "all-star team" for the exhibition match against the volleyball club members. (The club captains chose their own mothers, who then chose their friends.) That was fine. I put in my two bits, earned a few brownie points, and came away with my reputation elevated ever so slightly even despite my wearing "dirt shoes" in the gym. I can certainly live that...even with the bruises and sore muscles...


In other news, I have a new tune to share, an instrumental called "Floral Aura". You can listen to it in the player in the right-hand margin (or after I get it linked directly). Details can be found on my Minstrel's Muse site.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Keeping Down with the Joneses

It's safe to say that conformity is an issue in just about any culture. From our early childhood we're told that we have to "fit in". We're advised not to trust the "outsider". We're bombarded with sayings such as, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," or, "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down."® There is certainly some common sense in this; after all, you can hardly form a community out of people who are all going in separate directions. It's also human nature to be wary of that which is different. But where do we draw the line? When does conformity cease to be a social benefit and start becoming an annoyance?

The issue of fitting in tends to come up a lot in my household because my father-in-law considers it a moral obligation. In fact, his determination to be just like the neighbors borders on obsession, and sometimes it crosses the line into the absurd. Take for example his habit of throwing most of the leftover bath water onto the street every evening. There is really no practical reason whatever why he should do so, and during the winter it sometimes means we are left with a sheet of ice at the top of our driveway. When I confronted him with the issue (after the frozen driveway had made my departure to work a maddening comedy of spinning wheels), his response was, "What choice do I have? The old man across the street has done it every day for at least the past forty years!" All discussion ended there. As far as he was concerned it was just a matter of course that he had to imitate whatever the neighbors did, even if it didn't make a damned bit of sense.

What if the effort to conform winds up throwing a wrench into your very way of life? Take for example the issue of our circuit breaker. When we moved into the second house on my in-laws' property, the two homes had a shared breaker which was by no means big enough. My father-in-law invested in a larger air conditioner/heating unit for his house, and during the seasons when it came into heavy use (i.e. the hottest part of summer and coldest part of winter) we kept having problems with the breaker tripping, leaving both houses without power. (It usually happened every time my FIL microwaved a glass of milk while his AC was switched on. Naturally, he kept insisting it was our fault.) Because of that, when we had the renovations done on our house a few years ago, one of the first things we asked for was a larger, separate breaker. The man in charge of the construction agreed; he said it was simple common sense for families living separate lives to have separate connections (especially since we were also getting a larger AC/heater ourselves as part of the package). I thought it was a done deal until I came home from work one day just as the electrician was connecting our new, larger breaker to the one in FIL's house (basically reducing our capacity from 30A to 20A, not to mention a total of 40A for both houses). I immediately confronted FIL over the matter, and his response was just to say, "We CAN'T have separate breakers! What would the neighbors think? Look around! ALL of those family groups have shared breakers! And the reason is that no one can afford more than that!" I couldn't see what relevance our neighbors' budgets could possibly have on our home life, but he wouldn't budge on the issue. Consequently, though we don't have problems most of the time, whenever a guest comes to stay at FIL's house during the summer or winter (which does happen fairly regularly) and uses the guest room, we have to put up with the breaker tripping as much as two or three times a day even with us living by candlelight with our AC/heater kept off. (Our last guest was the uncle who had been in charge of our renovation work, and he was pretty pissed off about it.)

There are also times when excessive zeal for conformity can ironically be a form of conceit. Take the last "Clean Operation" (kuriin sakusen - クリーン作戦), for example. The "Clean Operation" is a seasonal, city-wide campaign to clean up trash and weeds along the roadsides. Each neighborhood takes care of itself, organizing and providing its own work team, and each household is expected to send at least one member to participate. The last such Operation was scheduled for March 7th, and it turned out to be a very cold and stormy day. Not surprisingly, at 6:10 a.m. there was a public service announcement on the city PA saying that the Clean Operation had been CANCELED on account of the weather. I gratefully went back to bed only to be awakened a couple of hours later by my FIL throwing a screaming fit downstairs. It turned out that the leader of our local clean-up group had decided to do it anyway. We looked out the window and saw just a few brave (or hopelessly insane) souls in rain parkas out there in the whistling wind and mixed rain and sleet gathering up the tiny smattering of litter on the roadside. That was enough. We HAD to participate. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of the neighborhood was smart enough to obey the public announcement (not to mention common sense) and stay indoors; as an exalted pillar of the community (or so he claims), my FIL is OBLIGATED to involve himself in neighborhood events, which usually means my wife and I are OBLIGATED to involve ourselves as his proxy. (Actually, this time I put my foot down and bowed out, partly because I had a bad cough, and partly because I had to get ready to go to work. My wife therefore made an appearance...for all of ten minutes.) At times like this I have to wonder whether this "selfless service to the community" is really just a "more dedicated than thou" attitude in disguise, which then makes me wonder why we can't be "more gifted with amperage than thou" at the same time.

Oh, well. What do I know? I'm just a barbarian gaijin.