Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rising Star, Fallen Star

Teachers in public junior high schools here in the Land of the Rising Sun have what seems like an impossible task. They are stuck in often stiflingly bureaucratic institutions that are badly understaffed and underfunded, given a ridiculous workload, and faced with both troublesome students and often even more troublesome parents. Unsurprisingly, many of them either buckle under the pressure or simply try to avoid it by hiding behind a wall of denial and excuses. That quite often means that those teachers that really do care about their work wind up taking care of students above and beyond the call of duty.

So it was when, a number of years ago, my wife found herself looking after a student that was not one of her own, one which had both unique talents and unique problems. The girl, who I shall refer to henceforth as "N", was certainly a difficult case. She was not only spoiled but introverted and antisocial almost to the point of being autistic. Fond of goth fashion, she tended to push the school uniform codes to their limit, and as a result she wound up facing the wrath of unforgiving teen girl conformity. Her isolation led her to withdraw from her classmates and then from the school itself. On one occasion, she apparently tried to withdraw from life. All the while, N's homeroom teacher, who would normally be responsible for her, simply ducked the issue; his way of dealing with N was to declare her a "lost cause" and insult her over the phone on infrequent occasions. As it turned out, however, N had come to trust my wife after having been in her English lessons, so she gave my wife a hesitant plea for help. True to form, my wife wouldn't turn her down.

Dealing with N was never an easy matter, but my wife refused to give up. She did her best to encourage the girl in different ways and finally got her to come back to school. Unfortunately, when N's homeroom teacher got wind of what was going on, he immediately made a case out of it, getting both the grade chief and the principal to order my wife to stop "interfering". My wife, however, was determined not to give up. Her options were now riskier and more limited, so she decided to try something totally different.

N, as it turned out, had considerable talent in different things. She not only played the piano quite well, but was also a gifted singer. She was also fond of writing poetry, of which she had already produced a huge amount. That gave my wife an idea. She asked N to choose (or make) some poems that could be used as song lyrics. These were then turned over to me. Using my home studio, I composed and arranged music for some of the poems and recorded a demo disk which was then given to N. We then suggested that she replace my vocal tracks with her own, essentially making them her songs. We chose a few tunes which we thought were the most doable, I rented a studio in Kashima (so we couldn't be accused of breaking the principal's orders), and we got to work. It was all a totally new experience for N, like something out of a dream, and she was really excited about it. As it turned out, we finished one song and got about halfway done with another when first the homeroom teacher, then conflicting schedules, and finally her graduation became obstacles. N thanked us for our help and went off to Tokyo to start the next chapter in her life.

Fast forward to today.

N had sent letters to my wife at intervals over the years but hadn't given us much in the way of detail. She had said that, inspired by me, she was learning guitar and, against all odds and advice to the contrary, was hoping to do something with her music. Apparently she succeeded. Today we received a copy of her debut CD, a professional, commercial release on an established label. It is seriously awesome. It came together with a letter thanking my wife and me for our help and inspiration.

It's certainly a far, far better thing to see a new star rising into the sky instead of dropping unseen into the abyss. It also feels good knowing that we helped it happen even when others tried to stop us.

How ironic, then, that also today, the very day that I got the CD and thank-you letter from N, I received the tragic news that one of my longtime buddies had suddenly died. That particular friend was the very one that had first introduced me to studio recording. In fact, I could probably say that he's the one that really got my music-making going in the first place back when we were teenagers. Thanks in part to his boost to me, I had the ability to give a boost to N.

I guess it wasn't in vain, after all. Now maybe I can do something with MY music...

Saturday, September 18, 2010


I have to admit Facebook has brought a lot of things into my life. But other than increased cynicism, a higher risk of identity theft or virus infection, netgame addiction, and a tremendous amount of wasted time, there have been some unexpected good things, too. For one thing, I've both reconnected with a lot of names from way back and, thanks mainly to my netgame socializing, gotten acquainted with some very interesting people. That has led to some other unexpected fringe benefits.

Take for example a "conversation" I had with a member of my netgame family/army a few months ago. We were talking about music, specifically the Native American-themed Sacred Spirit project (which is actually led by a German artist, but anyway...), and the topic of Native American flutes came up. My netfriend, who lives in Colorado, mentioned that she had just gotten a traditional red cedar flute and was starting to learn how to play it. I asked her where she'd gotten it, and she replied that she had ordered it from the Oregon Flute Store.

Oregon Flute Store? There was an Oregon Flute Store?

My netfriend kindly provided me with a link to their website, and when I opened it, my jaw just about hit the ground. For someone like me, who has long been interested in both traditional and handmade musical instruments of ANY kind, let alone Native American (an increasing passion of mine), a website like that should probably qualify as a controlled substance. Needless to say, it got my thoughts and heart working.

The problem was that, after having been exposed to another dangerous website (specifically PedalGeek), I had already been thinking about getting one or two new boutique effect pedals for my guitar. Boutique pedals are not cheap. Neither are handmade flutes that are actually meant to be played. I fussed and fumed about it for weeks before finally deciding on a flute. However, when I went the the website to order the one I'd chosen, I found that it had been sold out. I went back to fussing and fuming.

But then a couple of unexpected things happened. First, the value of the dollar against the yen plummeted even further, and the Japanese government (over American protests) started talking about intervening to stop the yen's rapid appreciation. That meant it was as good a time as any to order things from the US. Also, the "featured items" page on the Oregon Flute Store website displayed a new type of flute that seemed to fit my needs (and budget) perfectly. I debated the issue for all of twenty seconds before I body-slammed my superego and placed the order. The rep at the OFS got back to me immediately (and very pleasantly), and soon my new instrument was on its way.

A package arrived on the very day I'd expected it. It was indeed from Oregon, and the customs declaration form did indeed say "flute". However, the address was that of my parents! Even more surprising, the customs declaration had a number "2" next to the "flute" entry! Puzzled, not to mention quivering with anticipation, I opened the box, and this is what I found:

Taiwanese flute

I'd completely forgotten about this Chinese bamboo flute. I bought it in Taiwan when I was there with my college symphonic band back in 1987. Unlike a Japanese shakuhachi (which I also have), it has five finger holes and a thumb hole, making it easier to play a Western-style scale. It also has a different sort of blowing edge which makes a slightly more nasally tone than a shakuhachi but is far easier to blow. (Interestingly, back in 1987 it was all I could do to coax a sound out of it, let alone a tune! Now I can actually play it.)

Red cedar flute

My mother says that she bought this flute at a local craft fair (a passion of hers) from the craftsman who made it. Apparently it was one of his less expensive ones (to say the least! As works of art, they can cost a pretty penny!). It is a genuine, hand-made, red cedar flute of the "medium" size class, tuned to F# minor. For the most part, it is what is now considered traditional style, with a round, tapered mouthpiece and a carved fetish block or "bird" (though this one is in the shape of a horse) to direct the airflow from the sound chamber into the tone chamber. Interestingly, this one has five holes arranged in a minor pentatonic scale instead of the customary flat six, a style that developed in the early to mid 20th century inspired by the Japanese shakuhachi. It is not a loud instrument, and it has a very gently, earthy tone.

I was happy enough with these two surprise acquisitions, but then I got another package from Oregon the very next day. It was the instrument that I'd ordered:

Hybrid Southern Plains warbling flute

It's a hybrid Southern Plains warbling flute of "high" size class, tuned to A minor. Its basic design is more or less traditional, having a similar shape and configuration to that of my cedar flute but with the classic flat six (i.e. six finger holes, all equidistant) layout. However, the Southern Plains warbling flute is uniquely designed so that, when you cover all the finger holes and blow at high pressure, it produces a warbling sound like a bird. (Here's a sample performance by the guy who made mine.) The "hybrid" designation comes from the fact that this instrument's air-diverting "bird" can also be adjusted to make it an ordinary, non-warbling type. Another key feature (and, for me, selling point) is that it is of simple, sturdy construction with a body of carved resin and a mouthpiece and bird of hardwood so as to make it rugged and durable. It was designed from the start to be portable, i.e. you can stuff it in your backpack and take it hiking without fear of it getting smashed. In my case, since I have needed a Native American flute for pub gigs in the past (but always wound up using an alto recorder as a substitute), it is nice to have an instrument that can give me the proper sound and nuance and yet be able to stand up to wear and tear if necessary.

All three of these flutes are most welcome additions to my "family", and I hope to give them a good home. Indeed, the hybrid Southern Plains warbling flute has already been used in my studio, having a significant role in my new song, "Real in Real Time". I'm sure the others will find their way into the action soon.

Incidentally, since the low dollar rate has made things so cheap, I went ahead and got a new effect pedal, too. It wasn't one of the higher ones on my list (which are STILL least if purchased in Japan), but I went ahead and got one, partly because it was so much cheaper than the ones I really wanted, and partly because it is currently a hot item in the US and tends to be quickly sold out. It's a Vox Satchurator distortion pedal, designed for and partly by Joe "Satch" Satriani. Again, it's not what I was really hoping to get, but it is still a cool box that produces some great sounds and opens some new possibilities. I used it in "Real in Real Time", too. (More details in my Minstrel's Muse site.)

And so new journeys have begun. Time to explore!

Monday, September 06, 2010

When We Get Older It Stops Making Sense

Okay, I give up.

Not that I haven't tried. I've been watching telecasts and videos, I've been reading all kinds of articles and comments both supportive and critical, I've been studying quotes, and I've been poring over analyses. I still don't get it. An awful lot of things happening in the US lately, and an awful lot of the things people are saying and doing about them seem just plain insane. Can someone please tell me when it all stopped making sense?

I know that, as an ex-pat marooned on planet Japan, there's probably a lot that doesn't reach my ears, but even so, what is up with:
  1. The "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy. First of all, if one actually looks at a map, one can easily see that it's not being built at "Ground Zero" at all. The site is two blocks away on the blind side of a group of skyscrapers, i.e. Ground Zero probably won't be visible from it, and vice versa. Second, the term "mosque" is inaccurate; it's an interfaith religious center which is planned to contain a Jewish synagogue and Christian chapel in addition to a Muslim mosque. The whole (stated) point is to bring all the "People of the Book" (i.e. worshipers of the God of Abraham and Moses) under one roof. Frankly, I find it ironic that so many Christians and Jews are so frothingly opposed to that. I also find it disturbing that so many people are making this a patriotic issue, especially since the Constitution we cherish specifically states that government shall not infringe upon freedom of religion.
  2. The "Obamacare" controversy. Here I admit that I'm mostly in agreement with the conservatives. Mostly. Definitely not completely. I'd long hoped to see medical care reform in the US, but not like that. Tying doctors to a centralized government bureaucracy (Can you say, "Red tape?") is just a bad idea, pure and simple. The health care system in the UK shows it all too clearly. The problem is that, like so many educators, a lot of politicians tend to see only the ideals of a situation but not the reality. They look at the system in the UK and they say, "Look! No fuss, no mess, no worries!" Unfortunately, they tend not to notice the, "No care, either," bit. The new US system also includes that weird insurance thing, which seems poised to cause more harm than good. All in all, it makes about as much sense as the invasion of Iraq did. That having been said, I find all this blathering by right-wingers about "death panels" or comparing Obama to Hitler to make even LESS sense.
  3. The "Restoring Honor" rally. Okay, let me get this straight. A firebrand conservative Fox News commentator who is famously anti-Obama and has even called the President a "racist" on the air organizes a massive rally (Estimates of attendance tend to vary with political alignment) at the Lincoln Memorial...on Martin Luther King, jr. Day, no less...and insists that it has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with God. Indeed, the word "God" gets tossed about almost as much as the word "America", with calls to put Our Heavenly Father back at the center of everything, including schools (despite the Constitution's clear separation of church and state). Other oft-repeated words are, "America must move forward," and, "We must restore America's honor," but it's never really said what we should move forward from (or to, for that matter) or how our country's honor got sullied in the first place. There's a lot of grandiose talking, but not much is really said...or at least a lot is left to the imagination, which basically means people are left to their preconceived notions. Regardless of Mr. Beck's evangelical claims, however, pretty much every attendee I saw interviewed was quick to talk about issues of politics (i.e. complaining about Obama). Those few statements I heard related to religion were mainly criticism of the "Ground Zero Mosque" if not Islam in general. Posts and comments on the internet tended to reflect similar thinking. Obviously most people didn't think it had everything (or even anything) to do with God. I also have to wonder about the martial tone that kept popping up, such as when Sarah Palin said, "Don't retreat, reload!" So just what WAS the real point of this rally, anyway?
  4. The Free Speech issue. One thing I've often heard connected with the "Restoring Honor" rally is the fact that people's voices MUST be heard. The Obama administration keeps getting accused of trying to limit free speech, and these Tea Party demonstrations as well as Glenn Beck's rally are partly intended to challenge that. The ironic thing is that, only a few years ago, Liberals were saying and doing pretty much the same thing against the Bush administration...and the same Conservatives who are now crying "free speech" were saying that it was "treason" to criticize the President during wartime. Well, people, as far as I know, the war ain't over. So what's the excuse for this 180° flip-flop? And why aren't the Liberals returning the favor by calling them "traitors"?
  5. Illegal immigration. This has ALWAYS been a problem. At least it has been as long as I've been alive. Why is it suddenly such a huge and heated (and politicized) issue?
  6. Bottom-scrapingly paranoid propaganda. My Facebook friend list includes quite a number of conservatives, some passionately so, and thus my news feed gets a steady supply of anti-Obama and anti-Islam postings. Some of them have been very significant and thought-provoking. There are, after all, some very legitimate gripes. However, there is an awful lot that merits little more than a facepalm. Less than a month into his presidency, before he'd really done anything, Obama was already getting hammered mercilessly on the intertubes for everything from his "true" nationality and religious leanings to his "tyrannical, communist agenda" (actual quote). (Of course, race had absolutely nothing to do with it. Gosh, no!) Now it seems people are trying to outdo each other in how they try to portray the President as a Constitution-trampling, racist, radical Marxist Muslim from Kenya (if not hell), and a lot of these accusations are really scraping through the bottom of the barrel and into the manure beneath. Islam has been faring little better. I don't know how many articles and videos I've had slogged my way that claim to show the "true face" of Islam by focusing on the fringe elements rather than the mainstream or by showing or quoting things way out of context. When a website which claims to be dispelling misconceptions tries to do so by providing misconceptions of its own if not outright falsehoods, I feel like I should be amused, but I'm not laughing. The comment threads of these videos and articles show that an awful lot of people are buying into this stuff, and the level of ignorance, paranoia, and irrational hate is as pathetic as the spelling and grammar one tends to find in such threads. I can only hope that cooler minds will prevail, lest society come to treat wisdom as a punishable offense.
*WHARRRRGARBL* It just doesn't make any sense!!!!!!!

Time for some Talking Heads...