Thursday, September 30, 2004

A gift

The only time I ever learned to do a card trick that required skill was when I was very sick and in horrible pain, after getting an unpleasantly painful head injury in an accident, and couldn't move. I was sitting all day, and all I could do was read. The Man bought me books by the dozen, from second-hand bookshops, and I read all the time. English books in second-hand bookshops here tend to be few and far between, as well as rather eclectic. (I read a lot of stuff about early religions, hundreds of old mysteries, philosophy books, linguistics books, history books, reread loads of classics - the list goes on. I collected a ridiculous range of books and eventually donated most of them to the Seamen's Mission in Kobe.)

Anyway, one of these books he found was a book of card magic, and I spent weeks secretly learning to do one especially tricky and complicated trick. It was one of those tricks where you have to make two or three or four cards look like one, and it had a whole story that went with it which you had to tell as you were quickly arranging and rearranging the cards, and a lot of counting as you were doing this, and so on and so forth. It was amazingly complicated. But it was something I could do while only moving my hands, and so it didn't cause me pain. Concentrating for a long time did, though, so I learned it a bit at a time, practicing and practicing when nobody was looking.

When I felt confident I could do it perfectly, I told The Man I had something to show him. He sat down and watched and listened as I went through this very long trick, telling the story in a whisper because I couldn't speak (my voice vibrating inside my head made me pass out). He had to lean forward to hear me, his eyes on the cards as I was doing my thing. He was totally focused and concentrated; an ideal audience of one. When I reached the end, and all the cards fell into a beautiful, perfect and apparently impossible pattern, his face opened up with astonishment and delight and he stared at me with a huge big grin on his face.

I never did that trick again - I knew I would never be able to do it twice - and now I've forgotten how it went. The book disappeared years ago. But it doesn't matter. The Man had been looking after me wonderfully, and I wasn't a very easy patient. I felt bad about how I was using up his life. I felt bad about the months and months he'd already spent taking care of me all the time. I felt useless and unrewarding and didn't seem to be getting any better, and wanted to do something for him. I knew he loved magic, and that's why I learned the trick. It was a gift for him, all I could manage.

One trick, perfectly executed, once.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

More Weather

We are having a very inconvenient typhoon. It's not a big one. (On TV they keep calling it a 'big typhoon', but I've learned that they call every typhoon a big one if it hits Japan.) It's almost a tropical storm, it's so weak. It is, however, bringing lots and lots of rain.

This is inconvenient because at every place I work they only cancel classes for an official high wind warning. They do not cancel classes for official heavy rain or flood warnings any more. They used to, but in Japan we get too many official heavy rain and flood warnings, and I guess too many classes were being cancelled. (Too many for whom, I'm not quite sure. I've never heard a student complain about it, and certainly not a teacher.) We just get wet, and a lot of students don't bother to come to class because they're not that motivated to begin with, and if it means getting soggy they won't bother. This means teaching a lesson that won't matter too much if half the students miss it - you don't want to do something that will continue in the next lesson.

On Wednesdays I cycle to work. I could have taken a taxi today, I suppose, but I had some grocery shopping I wanted to do on my way home, and while I could have come home and then gone out again, I hate doing that. After teaching all day, when I walk in the door all the bounce goes out of me and I don't want to go out again. So I cycled even though it was pissing down and had been since last last night - it has rained a lot in the last 24 hours, and is still raining heavily. I got wet. I took a skirt to change into because I don't have a proper raincoat. I only have a rain jacket, so only my top half stayed dry, except my hair. I took a towel as well, and was glad I did.

Coming home it stopped raining at exactly the right time. Well, actually it stopped raining earlier than the right time, but I told my last class to go home quickly before it started again, and finished early. I managed to get to the supermarket and home after that without needing to put on the raincoat, and felt pleased with myself. I'm sure my students were pleased with me, too. Those who actually turned up, that is.

Now that it's too late to do me any good an official strong wind warning has been issued. I'm hoping that it will still be in force at 6 am, because if it is, tomorrow's morning classes will be cancelled. But I'm not counting on it. The wind isn't strong at all, and the typhoon is moving too quickly over us. It will probably be work as usual tomorrow morning, only wetter than usual. Like I said, the timing is awful.

However, it has just occurred to me that if it rains like this for much longer I won't be able to get to work anyway unless I swim. It's raining the sort of rain you usually associate with brief downpours, except that it isn't brief. I've starting to wonder about building an ark.

And having written that I just stepped outside to see what the road looked like, and discovered that it has developed a current.

Oh, well. I suppose I'd better prepare for classes anyway. I've been here for long enough that I know you can never count on the weather being bad when you want it to be.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Epimenides speaks

"All Cretans are liars."
- Epimenides the Cretan: 6th century BC

According to this story:

MSNBC has just conducted a poll in which it asked people if they thought opinion polls accurately reflected actual opinions. The network informs us that 88 percent of those polled answered "no."

My head is spinning.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Funny shaped cloud (A short play, but longer than one page)

(Note: This play started out as a grim and depressing post full of grim and depressing links. I thought there was more than enough gloom and doom about so I changed it. The links are still depressing, though, except the WOOT one.)

Dear Leader (DL)
Minister of (Dis)Information (MOI)
MOI's Flunkey (FLUNKEY)
State Electrician (SE)

DL: All right. What's all this blowing up business then? Eh? Who gave you permission?
MOI: Blowing up? Er... (Aside to Flunkey) Did I fart?
FLUNKEY: Er... when?
MOI: I'm not sure to which blowing up you refer, Dear Leader. When?
DL: Yesterday.
MOI: (Aside to Flunkey) Yesterday. Did I fart yesterday? Quick!
FLUNKEY: Well yes, several times actually. It was those Libyan dates, I think.
MOI: Nonsense! You're just jealous because I didn't give you one.
DL: What are you muttering about? I want to know what's behind this mushroom cloud!
MOI: Mushroom cloud?! The dates weren't that bad, were they?
FLUNKEY: Mushroom? (Stomach rumbles)
DL: Well? What was it all about?
MOI: I'll get onto it right away, sir.

DL: (Petulantly) The only person allowed to make mushroom clouds is me, and I didn't push any buttons yesterday. (Mumbles to self) Unless... Hold on... I had to rewire my Game Boy to the emergency system yesterday after that power cut, and... CALL THE GLORIOUS STATE ELECTRICIAN!
FLUNKEY: Yes, sir!

SE: Everything is fine, sir.
DL: Well, of course it is. Your Dear Leader doesn't make mistakes.
SE: Yes sir! No sir! Before I go, sir, do you still want Guam to explode when you turn on your electric nose hair clipper?
DL: Eh?
SE: Er, your electric nose hair clipper is wired to...
SE: Yes, sir. Of course, sir.
DL: Not a bad idea, though. Make it Libya. Those dates were horrible. I didn't think much of the advice, either.

MOI: Has he gone?
FLUNKEY: He's having a bath.
MOI: I can't find any information about a mushroom cloud. What am I going to tell him? How am I supposed to get information when the phones aren't working and nobody answers my email and the power keeps going off?
FLUNKEY: I don't know, sir.
MOI: Why doesn't anyone ever answer my emails, anyway?
FLUNKEY: I don't think one computer is enough, sir. The State needs to buy another one.
MOI: You tell him.
FLUNKEY: Yes, sir. I mean, NO, SIR! I mean, I'd rather not, sir, if you don't mind.

(Both men think)

(Offstage) WOOT!
MOI: (Alarmed) What was that?
DL: (Offstage) BOMB AMERICA! Oh, bugger. My hair!
FLUNKEY: He slipped in the hot tub again, sir.

(Both men sigh)

MOI: Oh, well, I suppose we'll just have to use our usual sources, then.
FLUNKEY: The BBC, you mean? And the wind-up generator?
MOI: Yeah. But we'll need something to keep everyone quiet while we compile our reports.

(Both men think)

FLUNKEY: I know! The hydroelectric dam construction - I bet they have some big explosions!
MOI: Yes! You're a genius! It's the perfect source for a mushroom cloud!
FLUNKEY: I wish you wouldn't keep talking about sauce and mushrooms, sir. I haven't eaten since August.
MOI: (Excited) We'll tell them we were blowing up a mountain looking for truffles and found a big one. Ha ha ha!
FLUNKEY: (Stomach rumbles)

MOI: Bloody hell. It was two miles across!
FLUNKEY: What was, sir?
MOI: The mushroom cloud. From the explosion.
FLUNKEY: (Stomach rumbles) They're not going to believe the dam story, sir.
MOI: They don't, except Russia. They're saying it was probably an accident at a missile base.
FLUNKEY: What missile base, sir?
MOI: The one the Americans say we have.
FLUNKEY: And was it?
MOI: Was it what?
FLUNKEY: An exploding missile base.
MOI: How would I know? The phones are working now, but every time I try to dial out I get some guy who wants to know where to put the toxic chemicals.
FLUNKEY: What flavour are they?
MOI: What?
FLUNKEY: The toxic chemicals.
MOI: Pineapple, I think.
FLUNKEY: Damn. I hate pineapple. (Stomach rumbles)
MOI: What are we going to do now?

(Both men think)

MOI: How about we send some foreign diplomats to see the dam site?
FLUNKEY: Is it safe?
MOI: I don't know. But at least it'll shut them up for a while.

DL: Imperialist running dogs! They don't believe us!
MOI: Russia does, sir.
DL: It's a preposterous smear campaign!
MOI: Yes, sir.
DL: So what are you going to do about it? What was it, anyway?
MOI: What was what, sir?
DL: The explosion.
MOI: It was the dam, sir.
DL: Really?
MOI: I think it must have been, sir.
DL: What do you mean, you 'think'?
MOI: Well, I can't get through, sir.
DL: Did you try email?
MOI: Yes, sir, but, um...
DL: What?
MOI: Nothing, sir. I'll try again.
DL: Postpone the diplomats. Go out there yourself if you need to. Blow up a mountain if they haven't done it already.
MOI: Oh, hell. I mean, of course sir. Er... can I borrow a vehicle?
DL: What's wrong with yours?
MOI: The chain keeps coming off, sir. Also, the last time I went on a trip someone stole my lunch out of the basket.
DL: A foreign spy, no doubt. They're always trying to destabilise our glorious country.
MOI: Yes, sir.
DL: I hope you shot him.
MOI: I didn't need to, sir. He collapsed and died on his own.
DL: Typical puny foreigner!
MOI: Yes, sir. His family wasn't any better. Two teenaged toddlers and a dead baby.
DL: Pathetic! Makes you wonder what they'll stoop to next. Take the jeep.
MOI: Thank you, sir.

MOI: Success, sir! They've seen the site! We told them there were two blasts, not one. Now they're really confused.
DL: Good work, comrade! Well done! Have a date.
MOI: Er, can I take a doggie bag?
DL: I didn't know you had a dog.
MOI: I did, sir, but it went missing yesterday when Flunkey was taking it for a walk.
DL: Those dastardly foreign spies again, eh?
MOI: I have my suspicions, sir.

FLUNKEY: Bloody hell, sir! Have you seen this?
MOI: What?
FLUNKEY: Now they're saying it was just a funny shaped cloud! There was no blast! And we just proved to them that there was! And they say we took them to the wrong place anyway!
MOI: WHAT? Show me that!

(MOI Reads)

FLUNKEY: What are we going to tell the Dear Leader, sir?
MOI: I don't know! Jeez! I can't tell him I blew up that mountain for nothing! What made them think it was a mushroom cloud? Idiots!
FLUNKEY: (Stomach doesn't rumble.) We'll have to distract him, sir. Tell him America is planning to attack.
MOI: Didn't we tell him that last month?
FLUNKEY: Yes, but that's OK. He'll just threaten to blow up Japan again, and who's going to listen anyway? They're all too busy liberating Iraq and having elections.
MOI: Oh, that's right. Of course. What would I do without you? Here, have a date.
FLUNKEY: No, thanks.
MOI: (Glares at Flunkey suspiciously) Have a good dinner last night, eh?
(Offstage) WOOT!
DL: (Offstage) BOMB AMERICA!

Nuclear sea of fire


This is not comfortable just-before-bedtime reading.

Friday, September 24, 2004

The day Grandma laughed

TorryGirl's hilarious Woot! post (you need to scroll down to September 24th) made me laugh. It also reminded me of the first time I ever saw my grandma laugh.

I was always in awe of Grandma, who, I just realised, really was old when I was young. I was the late child of a late child, and Grandma was 70 years older than me. She was a very quiet woman with a stern face. I loved her dearly, but she almost never smiled, was very strict about proper behaviour, and was also severely religious. A word of praise from Grandma was worth a lot to me because it rarely happened, and while I adored Grandpa (the cuddly old thing) Grandma was something else. She was mysteriously special and different, and a bit scary. I wanted very much to please her.

Long ago, when I was a little girl, I was staying at my grandparents' place and I had a bath. In the bathroom I found a new addition since the last time I'd used their bath. It was a rubber mat with lots of little suckers on one side, hanging over the edge of the bath. I asked Grandma what it was, and she told me it was to place at the bottom of the bath so you didn't slip and hurt yourself. She told me I should use it.

I examined the mat carefully and decided that the little suckers should face up, since that way they would surely stick nicely and stop me from slipping. I placed the mat in the bath and sat on the suckers. They felt funny.

When I had finished my bath I emptied it while I was still in it, as I usually did, then climbed out carefully just before the last water swirled down the plughole. When I stood up, ready to make a run for it if I heard the Plughole Monster coming, the mat stuck to my bottom.

I thought this was pretty interesting. It just hung there, clinging to me suckily. I wondered if Grandma would think it was interesting, too. I wasn't sure. You could never tell with Grandma. She might just tell me off for being rude - she was a terrible stickler for manners - but I thought this was interesting enough to justify the risk. I walked carefully out of the bathroom and through to the living room, dripping wet and naked except for the rubber mat.

"Grandma?" I said, tentatively. "Look what happened! It stuck to me!"

Grandma looked up and got a strange expression on her face. I turned around so she could see the mat better. Then I farted loudly, and the mat fell off.

It was an astonishing moment. I'll never forget it. I had never seen Grandma laugh before. There I was, horrified because I'd farted in front of her, and she shocked me by laughing so hard she couldn't speak for several minutes. She put her head in her hands and laughed until she cried. And when she finally lifted her head and looked at my surprised face and started laughing again she was all gum, and her teeth were in her hands.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Beginnings and endings

I've just been reading Inside the ivory tower, an article in this week's Guardian, about academic blogging. This interests me. If I were to continue my studies (fat chance), I think I'd use blogging in a similar way to the way this woman, mentioned in the article, is using it - as a way of recording and organising her ideas.

Hers is a lovely blog, a fascinating read. WWI has always interested me, and even more so since I read Reginald Hill's The Wood Beyond, in which the writer explores the taboo subject of martial law as implemented during that war. I am always interested in how perceptions change, and how beliefs about events can be quite different from the events themselves. People believe what they want to believe. (I called my mother today, and was reminded forcefully of this.)

I remember my first ever history lecture for just this reason. The professor talked about how it seems to be a given that human beings will hark back to a 'Golden Age' when everything was better than it is now, and he talked about the myths that grow up around this. One of these myths is the myth of the family, he told us, and proceeded to describe the 'Golden Age' of family that governments and religious leaders like to use, to tweak our emotions. He then went on to discredit the myth comprehensively.

I came out of the lecture feeling as if my head had exploded into joyful bits. Education should always be like that. It isn't, but it should be.

My opinion now is that the longing for a Golden Age is connected with memories of childhood, when time moved slowly and we experienced things newly, clearly, and sharply, unencumbered by layers of memory and experience. I also think that in a similar way apocalyptic beliefs are connected with the fear of death. These myths are symbolically true for everybody. We are born, we are young for a few years, and then we age and understand we must die. The myths endure and are powerful because for each individual one of us, on some level, they are true.

They are our beginnings and our endings.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004


No work today. I was so surprised when I noticed that one of my universities doesn't start until next week. It was written in my diary, but I had forgotten what the date was. I thought they were starting this week.

When I got home last night there was a phone message for me. The bank called, and will call me back today, at noon. That's now, and they haven't called yet. I'm waiting.

What makes this odd is that it's not my bank here, but my bank in New Zealand. Why on earth are they calling me? They've never done that before. I have a little money in there on long-term deposit, and the deposit matures on October 1st, but I got the statement yesterday as well as the phone call, and it included my instructions. At the bottom the statement says, "There is no need for you to take action unless you would like to change these maturity instructions." I always just leave it, and the money is reinvested. Nothing is different this time, so why are they calling me? It's not as if it's a huge amount of money. It isn't. Certainly not enough to justify an international phone call.

I've think they must calling to tell me about the enormous amount of money some mysterious stranger has deposited into my account because they heard about what a wonderful and deserving person I am. The bank wants to know what to do with it. I've been sitting here all morning wondering what to tell them, and checking out various investment plans on the web. It's hard, being rich. The money is such a responsibility. And then all these other questions pop up. Should I quit my job, or not? Perhaps I'll get a new bicycle, one with gears. And should we get a new washing machine, that doesn't tie my clothes in knots?

Oh, these decisions are so tiring. I think I'll have a little nap while I'm waiting.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

A Vile Odour

One of my favourite blogs is this one, although I never comment on it. This is because it is almost entirely recipes, and I haven't actually tried any of them, so have nothing to say. I don't think drooling counts as a comment. After reading the recipes carefully (almost every day) I get the urge to eat rather than to comment.

I treat Indian recipe, Indian food recipe, Recipe articles rather like I treat my cookbooks. I read the recipes, dribble over the pictures, then ad lib dinner using whatever happens to be in the kitchen. But one of these days I'm going to try this potato curry.

I wonder if I can get asafoetida in Japan? I had to look it up to find out what it was, and found this fascinating description:

It is a gum that is from the sap of the roots and stem of the ferula species, a giant fennel that exudes a vile odour.


Flavour: on its own, extremely unpleasant, like concentrated rotten garlic.

Apparently the 'vile odour' dissipates when it is cooked. There is some historical background about asafoetida on the same page, all very readable, but the following especially interested me:

Asafoetida is used mostly in Indian vegetarian cooking, in which the strong onion-garlic flavour enhances many dishes, especially those of Brahmin and Jain castes where onions and garlic are prohibited.

I wrote before about how I have to avoid onions and garlic because my body doesn't tolerate them although I love the taste. Indian food is a minefield for me. There is often onion or garlic hidden in it somewhere, and I only find out (and suffer) afterwards. But now I'll be keeping an eye out for a Brahmin or Jain cookbook.

Not that I'll actually cook, you understand. I'll just leave it lying around the kitchen and hope someone takes the hint.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Commercial break

When I passed the living room just now The Man was watching WOWOW TV. A woman with scraggly hair and dressed like a dominatrix was prancing around a stage singing badly with lots of electronic distortion to hide the fact that she was singing badly.

"What's that?" I asked. "That's not the kind of music you usually enjoy."

"That's Britney Spears," he told me. "Are you surprised? I've never seen her before."

"Did you know she has a magically changing boob size?" I asked. "I saw it on the web. There were pictures and everything. She goes from a 32B to a 38C, and back again. But I've never heard her sing before either. For a long time I thought she was a porn star."

"You can't hear her now," he said. "It's all electronics." He leaned forward, frowning.

"Look at that," he said, pointing. "Look at the audience. Nobody is enjoying the music. They're just watching her and sort of dancing. It's like it's not music, just something you watch and move around a little bit to the beat. Nobody is involved."

"Actually, maybe that was someone else with the magically changing boob size," I said. "I can't remember now."

"I must be getting old," said The Man, and changed the channel back to a boxing match.

The commercial break had finished.


A few days ago The Man and I went to Sofmap, a big computer store in Osaka, and bought a 160 gig external firewire hard drive and enclosure. All for me.

I spent most of yesterday trying to get my computer to recognise the drive. It didn't work. Everything I tried had the same result. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. I searched the web, installed things, uninstalled things, restarted, did a whole clean system install, and a whole bunch of other things I can't remember now. Nothing worked. My computer got rebooted more often yesterday than it usually does in a year. I generally don't turn it off. I leave it in sleep mode, and rebooting is rare.

The really annoying thing was that I had used The Man's firewire external drive to back up my hard drive a couple of weeks ago (it took 20 minutes - that's how small my drive is and how fast firewire is), and this is the same kind of enclosure and the same kind of drive, and it didn't work. So yesterday I tried his one again, and it didn't work either. But the only thing that had changed since then was a fairly minor system update, which I had to do so I could use my new printer. I reinstalled the old system on another partition, and tried to mount the new drive from that, but that didn't work either.

I went to bed last night feeling very tired, very frustrated, and not knowing what to do. I was flummoxed. I wondered if I'd somehow managed to fry both firewire ports.

This morning The Man had left a note for me. 'Try resetting the power manager and doing a cold boot.'

I've never done that before, but I tried it. The first result was that when I booted up I found I had slipped back in time to 1904. Fixed that. Plugged in and turned on the firewire drive - and there it was!

It was so easy!

Now I don't know what to do. I've been juggling with 6 gigs on my little Powerbook for so long that all this sudden new space makes me feel dizzy. What am I going to do with it? It's a big jump, from 6g to 160g. I'm kind of reluctant to sully my nice new drive by putting stuff on it. It's so clean and empty on there. It echoes with space.

But it's a bit like seeing crisp, clean new snow. A part of you wants to leave it as it is, pure and lovely, and another, naughtier part, wants to make footprints.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Lonely as a cloud

These one page plays are fun. I don't get many of them, but I enjoyed them anyway. I was inspired to write my own. I think Audie should write one page plays for her Friday blogging task. She wanted something different, and one-page plays can be anything. They're quick, they're odd and quirky, and they're a wee challenge.

Here's mine. (I know it's not Friday, but never mind.)

Lonely as a Cloud

Alice: I wonder...
Bob: Lonely as a cloud.
Alice: What?
Bob: Oh, nothing.
Alice: But what did you say?
Bob: Nothing!
Alice: It wasn't nothing! You said something!
Bob: Really, it was nothing. Sorry I interrupted. What were you saying?
Alice: But what did you say? You laughed.
Bob: It was just a stupid joke. Not funny. Sorry. Carry on. What were you saying?
Alice: (Thinks.) I can't remember now.
Bob: You said, "I wonder..."
Alice: No. I can't remember what it was now. You interrupted me.
Bob: Sorry.
Alice: Oh, go on. Tell me. What did you say? What was the joke?
Bob: I told you, it wasn't funny. Forget it.
Alice: So why did you laugh?
Bob: I'm stupid. It was dumb. I'm sorry I said anything. What were you wondering?
Alice: I can't remember! I don't care if it was dumb. Tell me what you said! I hate it when you do this!
Bob: It was silly, just a private joke, and not funny. It's not important.
Alice: Yes it is! You interrupted me! And now I can't remember what I was saying and it's your fault! Tell me!
Bob: All right! I said, 'Lonely as a cloud.'
Alice: What?
Bob: 'Lonely as a cloud.'
Alice: What does it mean? That's not funny. Why was it funny?
Bob: Well, you said 'I wonder,' so I said 'lonely as a cloud'.
Alice: What?
Bob: I told you it was dumb. It's not funny.
Alice: I don't get it.
Bob: Don't worry about it. I told you it wasn't funny.
Alice: So why did you laugh?


The last two classes I taught today were of mathematics majors and law majors. I used the same lesson plan I'd used for all my classes today, which are for the same required English course all first-year undergraduates have to take at this university. Because it was the first class of the semester, I included at the end a language game adapted to use some of the grammar forms they'd learned last semester, to remind them, after the long vacation.

This game was a variation on the 'Concentration' card game, where you have the cards face down and pick up two at a time, and try to remember where they are so you can match them up. In this case, though, I write a number grid on the board, from 1 to 42, and each number represents a question or answer. Students, in groups, choose two numbers, and I 'turn them over' by reading out the corresponding questions/answers. (Of course sometimes they get question/question or answer/answer. That's all part of the fun, figuring out which ones match.) They aren't allowed to write anything.

I enjoyed the game every time I played it, four times in a row. This was because of the way it was received so differently by the different classes. The mathematics and law majors, particularly, were a fascinating study in contrasts.

The mathematics students created a more-or-less continuous riot for the thirty minutes or so it took to finish the game. They shouted. They cackled. They roared with laughter when a rival team chose wrongly. They teased each other terribly. They applauded themselves wildly. They groaned spectacularly when they made a mistake. They made mad jokes about the spaghetti questions. (I had two. Food is always a popular topic - and they kept forgetting which they were and choosing those numbers again and again, and making inappropriate matches.) They were wildly uninhibited and funny, and my face ached from laughing when I came out of the classroom.

The law students, on the other hand, were profoundly silent between guesses. I would have thought they weren't enjoying it, but I kept going because they were totally focused, all leaning forwards slightly and staring at the numbers unwaveringly. I reasoned that even if they weren't having as much fun they were still learning something, or at least remembering something. I'll abandon any activity I think is going very badly, and this wasn't going badly. It was going differently. There was no teasing or yelling or standing on seats and cheering wildly. The students were subdued and concentrated.

But as the game progressed, and as I was wondering whether they were really enjoying this or not, a feeling of tension started to creep over me, and I realised, slowly, that it was coming from them, and that they were having a ball. I started to watch them more closely, and noticed that when the group before had chosen the wrong numbers but set them up for getting a point, the students in the lucky group would get a look of intense satisfaction, and sometimes minuscule little grins would leak over their faces after they'd stated the numbers firmly and got them right. And when the class finished, the feeling of release was quite remarkable. It was like they all breathed out and relaxed at once. Whoosh!

As they were leaving one student paused as he was passing me. He looked as though he wanted to say something but wasn't quite sure what. I asked him if he'd enjoyed the game. He nodded seriously and vigorously. "It was metcha funny," he told me. "See you next week."

Then he left.

I'd thought they were a serious lot, too serious for games, and had wondered whether to even bother trying this game with them. But I understood today that they just have a different way of showing their enjoyment.

Last year it was my law students who were the rowdy ones. It's funny how groups can have such different dynamics, depending on the personalities and how they combine. It's one of those things you can never predict. You just have to feel your way through.

Thursday, September 16, 2004


Starting back at work on my two busiest days (Thursday and Friday) is brutal. Not that things didn't go well - they did, really. But after six weeks, and with the weather still so muggy, it was physically hard. I'm wiped out.

There was a slight hiccough at the beginning of my first class. At this university the courses are one semester but usually the same students take the second semester course, with only one or two new faces in each class. So you can imagine how I felt when I walked into my classroom and couldn't recognise anybody. Well, I sort of recognised them, which was even more confusing. They looked familiar in the way new classes do after two or three classes.

But I knew I'd been teaching this lot for a whole semester, and it was disconcerting to not be able to name anybody, or to immediately place them in my mental classification list. ('Serious.' 'Tries hard.' 'Silly.' 'Shy.' 'Baffled.' 'Nervous wreck.' 'Watch that one.' 'Don't tease.' 'Tease.' etc.)

I couldn't figure it out, and stood there staring at them, questions whizzing round my head as I tried to stay calm. The students looked concerned, too, but I thought that was because I was standing there like an idiot and staring at them as if they were aliens. I started wondering whether I'd suffered a brain injury during the vacation and not noticed. Was that possible? Was this some kind of amnesia? Or did they all have radical haircuts? I looked closely, but even under the wild hairstyles I couldn't place the faces. What on earth was going on? Did I have a whole class of new students after all? That never happened! Someone should have warned me!

Then their real teacher walked in. "Are you going to teach my class for me?" she asked, and laughed.

"Oh, I was just keeping them amused while they were waiting for you," I said airily, and went next door to my own class.

At least that explained why the students looked a bit familiar. I pass her classroom every time I go to mine, and always look in. And we sometimes visit each other to ask questions about our different varieties of English.

A bit later I remembered that I had her classroom last year. I don't know why I thought it was still mine.

My classes went well, once I found them. But I'm ridiculously tired, and I have to do it all again tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Could be worse

Classes start tomorrow. Today I've been running around and trying to get ready. Six weeks of procrastinating to catch up on! But it's useless. It's still too hot to think. It's 9pm and still 30˚C in here. The air conditioner needs replacing, I think.

I know what I'm doing in my classes tomorrow, but next week's are still a mystery to me. I'll be working all weekend getting things ready. I hope it cools down a bit. The weather is being very unfair, this year. We've usually had a few days of cool by now. Or at least a few days below 30˚C. But the humidity is still right up there, and it hasn't become cooler at all.

Tomorrow's forecast is for 33˚C, with 90% humidity. The students won't feel like studying any more than I feel like teaching, and I don't blame them. Language games it is! (Plus the usual information about what is required to pass the class - but these are mostly returning students from the first semester so they know all this already, particularly the ones who failed last semester.)

I know that tomorrow I will walk into my first class and love my students, and hate myself for not being better prepared for them. Some famous person in second language acquisition once said something like, "Some teachers have twenty years experience. Others have one year of experience twenty times."

Right now I feel like that second, useless teacher. At the end of last semester I had a whole bunch of new ideas I wanted to think about over the summer, to try this semester. I haven't thought about them at all. I hope the weather cools down over the weekend so I can get some preparation done for the other first-day classes I have next week. Fortunately for me there are two public holidays next week, so I'll have a bit more time. But after that it's 5 day weeks.

It's back to work time.

Yesterday I vowed to myself that I would never, ever spend another summer in Japan if it was at all avoidable. After six weeks off I should be going back to work feeling refreshed and rested. Instead I feel drained and tired, and I'm not ready for this at all.

You can expect my blogging to decrease dramatically, at least until I get back into the swing of things. Working again is going to be a big shock. It always is.

Today I had lots of plans. I went to the supermarket to buy ingredients for my lunch tomorrow, so I'd be prepared. I'd planned to go to the bank, too, and to do another couple of urgent chores. But when I got to the supermarket I noticed my front tyre was flat, and discovered I had a puncture - a thumbtack was embedded in the front tyre. So I did my shopping, pushed/lifted the bicycle to the bicycle repair shop, and had to wait while two other people got their bicycles fixed. I was there for about forty minutes, sweating and thinking desperately about all the preparation I hadn't done, constructing lesson plans in my head and getting more and more worried. After the bicycle was fixed, I came home and got straight into class preparations, forgetting the other chores. They didn't get done. Now I'm feeling all disorganized.

But while I was sitting there waiting for my bicycle to be fixed, I heard manic barking. The barking boy! I thought, and peered outside.

But it was a different barking boy. He was younger and thinner than the original one, and he was with his father, who was gripping his backpack and trotting to keep up as the boy strode along, barking loudly and straining forward.

We have two barking boys in the neighbourhood! And this one barks more, and longer, and louder! How weird is that?

It was an inexplicably cheering discovery.

Results, and why I asked

The results from the atheist question are in. (I would have liked a reply from SatoriSam, but he's too hungover. Also, it's possible his net connection has been cut off since he lost all his money in Las Vegas and can't pay the bills).

I feel as though I opened a can of worms with my last post. From now on I will try to avoid the topic of religion. However, in terms of language, and how we use words, I found it very interesting. I hope you did, too, and that I'm not trampling on anybody's feelings.

Some of the results to my question come from my blogs, and some from friends I asked tonight when I met them. I forgot to ask the one German representative. (I was too busy beating her at 3D tic-tac-toe.)

I'll divide the results by country.

The question (condensed): What kind of person would you expect an atheist to be?

The answers (condensed - if I missed or mis-stated any, feel free to correct me):

1. An atheist is someone to be pitied.
2. An atheist is to be admired for their strength and independence.
3. My stupid hippy brother-in-law.
4. Anybody who identifies somebody else as atheist is most likely not atheist themselves. It's like identifying somebody else as 'black'.
5. Somebody with an air of smug superiority. A word that you whisper.

1. An atheist is to be admired for their strength and free thinking.
2. An atheist is to be pitied.
3. Whoever calls themselves an atheist is a bit sad. Still living in the Victorian age, when it was an issue. Who do they think they are, Oscar Wilde? Who cares?
4. Huh?

1. Huh?

Australia/New Zealand (except me, but my background is not typical)
1. Huh?

1. Huh?

1. A strong person, because everybody around them will be trying to convert them.
2. Opinionated and probably intelligent

India (I think)
1. Curious to meet such a person.

Out of interest (and because of the way some people defined atheist) I looked up the definition of atheist on the web, and discovered something interesting. I found a definition from Websters Dictionary, 1913, and this is what it said:

1. One who disbelieves or denies the existence of a God, or supreme intelligent Being.

2. A godless person. [Obs.] Syn. -- Infidel; unbeliever.

I then looked up the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a modern version, and it said:

One who believes that there is no deity

The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary, also modern, had this to say:

Someone who believes that God or gods do not exist

The modern and the old definitions come from different ways of thinking. The second definition of the old one (2. A godless person. [Obs.] Syn. -- Infidel; unbeliever) is clearly loaded - but can you spot the loading in the first definition? And the loading in the modern definitions is quite different, and equally revealing. (Actually I'm not sure whether 'loading' is the right word for these differences. They might simply show how the definition of the word has changed over time. I don't know if that's the same thing.)

Many people felt compelled to qualify their answers with statements of personal belief, even though I had specifically stated that I was not interested in that. But it was a very personal question, really, and I should have expected this response. I didn't really understand how personal a question it was, perhaps because I have been forced to distance myself from the culture I grew up in. For me, calling up my 'cultural' reaction to the word is academic. What I personally feel now and what I was brainwashed into feeling when I was young are two quite separate and different things. But for most people the line is not so clear, and there isn't so great a difference, and I should have known that. (It was brutal, that cutting-off line, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I tell myself I learned a lot from it and so it was all worth while. Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't. The jury is still out - there must have been an easier way, surely?)

In case you were wondering, the reason I starting thinking about this at all (aside from my interest in loaded language) was this article, in which the writer states,

As an atheist I am a member of the last minority group that is still subject to open and acceptable derision and discrimination.

I found this difficult to understand. Like my English friend, I thought atheism was an old and irrelevant issue. Who cared, these days? I have friends who are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, and humanist (or possibly atheist or agnostic, if you prefer). Nobody I know identifies with the label 'atheist', and many (possibly most) people I know have trouble coming up with any label for themselves - and indeed, do not see the need for a label. I also have friends whose religious (or non-religious) persuasions I have no idea of. I was under the impression that most people, like Torrygirl, would react to the idea of atheism with a resounding "Huh?" I was wrong about that. (This says more about me and my ignorance than than it does about the people who answered, I should add.)

My reaction to the word atheism comes from the upbringing I had. There is a split second when I recoil with horror. I cringe. I feel both alarm and pity.

And then I remember that the word world has pretty much the same effect on me, and I think about what atheist actually means. And then I guess my reaction is something like Torrygirl's.

So the word is loaded, for me, but the idea doesn't have power.

And isn't that funny?

Monday, September 13, 2004

A loaded word

When you hear the word atheist, what sort of image do you get?

Before you answer, I want you to know I am not asking to know your religious beliefs. I'm not interested in that. I am interested in how this word is 'loaded' - what sort of connotations it has for you, and what sort of connotations it had for you in the culture you grew up in; the culture of your family and the people around you.

I guess the best way to answer this question is to imagine that you are going to meet someone who you have been told is an atheist. This is the only thing you know about the person.

Will you have some image based on this label? What is it? The instant gut reaction, I mean, not the one you get after actually thinking about it.

I am very interested in the way words become loaded. The very closed culture I grew up in used ordinary words in different ways, so that after leaving it took me years to strip some perfectly innocent words of their additional loading. Daily language was a minefield. For example, the word meeting still calls up some very inappropriate images for me. There are many other words like this, for me. This is not a problem now, but for a long time it was disturbing how upon hearing some innocent remark I could suddenly lurch back in time and be overwhelmed with feelings of nostalgia, loss, guilt and fear.

So, like I said, I am not asking you to state your religious preferences. I don't want to know your reasoned reaction to the word, or your actual reaction to the actual, real atheists you know. I am just interested to know what feelings and implications you get from the word. What images has your culture loaded onto atheist?


Sometimes I wonder how I ended up living in a country where the weather is so determined to make my life uncomfortable. Why couldn't I have chosen a place with more congenial weather? I'm fretting over this today because classes start on Thursday, and we haven't yet had the few days of comfortable weather that usually precede the new semester, in which I rush around and get six weeks of procrastinated work done. It's still horribly humid, horribly hot, and impossible to sleep comfortably. And it's predicted to stay like this for the next week at least. If it does I'll be starting the new semester horribly unprepared. I'd intended to get started on organising things today, but it was just too damned hot and sticky to move.

Maybe tomorrow, but I doubt it. I'll need total panic to get me going in this weather, which means Wednesday will be a nightmare.

This is happening partly because this is a particularly nasty summer, partly because one of my universities is starting back a week earlier than it used to and earlier than any of the others, and partly because of the same changing climate patterns that are causing the ridiculous number of typhoons coming our way this year. But I don't care what causes it. All I know is that the weather here is not suitable for normal human beings like me.

In summer I suffer from prickly heat because of the heat and humidity. In winter I get static shocks off everything because it's so dry. There is one particular doorknob at one place I work which I cannot avoid, and which I regard with dread whenever I approach it, winter or summer. It has given me such huge jolts that I have dropped everything I'm carrying, screaming, and has made me permanently wary. I have amazed colleagues with the huge spark that leaps from the doorknob to me (or is it vice versa? I'm always too shocked to notice) when I touch this doorknob. They've never seen anything like it.

The static shock thing can be embarrassing in the classroom, as well as very inconvenient. It gets tiring trying to explain to students that you didn't just throw the chalk into the air because of a sudden attack of joyfulness: it was the chalk ledge, giving you a large and sudden zap. I used to go through a lot of chalk like that until I learned the trick of picking it up delicately, in my fingernails. But still, I sometimes forget, and yet another nice new piece of chalk flies through the air, shatters on the floor, and the students giggle nervously.

I've decided to get a new hard drive for my Powerbook. The one I have my eye on is a 60 gig Hitachi drive, 7200 rpm - the fastest and biggest my little computer will handle, I think. (I have only 6 gig now, so it will feel like real luxury.) But The Man will be swapping out the drive for me. I'm not risking frying the computer with my static buildup, even in this humidity. I've never met anybody who gets shocks like I do. I think I have a built-in static electricity generator.

I may be offline for a day or two while this job is being done. I don't know how long it will take, but I want to get it finished before Thursday.

A long time ago I did a job for a large electronics company here, an intensive English language course for an employee who was going to be working abroad. You would know the name of the company - it's a big one. The guy I was teaching five days a week/three hours a day turned out to be both intelligent and funny, for which I was grateful (you can get some dull ones who make the 15 hours a week feel like 15 painful years). He was an electronics engineer, and he was amazed by my ability to build up static. He told me I would be banned from the factory where they manufacture electronic parts. The workers in there have to wear a static strip to drain static from their bodies, but he reckoned I would be a risk even with the strip. He knew a lot about electricity but found me puzzling, and kept asking me questions about what my clothes were made from and what I ate and so on. Everyone wore slippers in the company building, so shoes weren't the problem. He'd make me take the slippers off and then walk over and touch the coffee machine. Or he'd ask me to stand still for a while then touch something. And then walk five paces and touch it again, and yelp. He was fascinated by my electric properties. I could work up a blue spark in five paces, and he thought it was hilarious.

I mostly found it irritating. I wanted him to tell me how to stop it from happening. But he didn't know.

But at least he did teach me how to get a coffee from the machine without getting a jolt that sent me reeling across the room, and I've been using his method ever since.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Nonsense at bedtime

Last night as I was drifting off to sleep I was trying to remember Michael Leunig's version of 'Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep'. I couldn't get past the second line (Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the lord my soul to sweep...), and I was too sleepy to get up and hunt it down.

So I made up my own version, instead:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the lord my soul to steep
Steep it like a pot of tea
Until it's strong enough for me.
Soul tea, to get me through the night
And face the morning clear and bright.

(A drop of milk I would prefer
Then add a little sugar. Stir.)

I woke up enough to write it down, then fell asleep almost instantly. This morning it made as little sense as it did last night.


A young woman was murdered in our town a couple of days ago. She was stabbed in or near a place I usually ride through if there is still daylight when I ride over to the pool. If it's dark I go by road instead of taking the cycle track alongside the river. She was murdered down by the river.

The Man, who left the house before I got home, left a note for me informing me of the murder. "Please be careful," he wrote. "Keep some distance from people, especially at night, and if something strange happens go the other way fast."

He worries about me a lot.

When I got to the pool today (I went by the road, not the river) I was very glad he wasn't with me because it would have confirmed all his worst fears. There was blood all over the place - more than it seemed one person could hold inside their skin, and it was all over the floor next to the pool.

Of course it looked worse because it was mixed with water. The source of the blood was quickly revealed to be a very small boy with a bleeding nose. The pool guys were dealing with it by holding a cold can of green tea to the bridge of his nose, handing him a seemingly endless supply of tissues, and occasionally pouring buckets of pool water over him to wash the blood off. He was streaming red all down his wet skinny body and it was spreading all over the place because of the water diluting it. It was a very colourful start to my swim. As far as I could see there was no blood in the pool itself, and I decided not to think about it and jumped in.

For the first half hour of my swim the boy sat there, bleeding copiously and extravagantly, but calmly. Meanwhile, at a different side of the pool, two young swimmers were being lectured by a swimming teacher. I couldn't catch what he was saying to them but I suspected they were somehow responsible for the lavishly bleeding nose. They stood sheepishly and were talked at sternly for as long as the boy bled. Every time I came up for air they were still being lectured and the boy was still bleeding, so much so that I kept expecting to see him collapse into a little puddle of bleached skin and bone. But he didn't. Eventually he stopped bleeding, the floor was washed down and he was sent off to change. He didn't want to. He wanted to get back in the water. I was glad they didn't let him. I didn't really fancy a pink swim.

When I got home I cooked dinner for myself and had a glass of wine with it, which looked rather like blood to my attuned eye. I drank it anyway. A bit later I remembered that The Man had told me to watch TV at 10 pm, but I'd forgotten why. It was already 10.30 pm. I turned on the TV and sat down to watch but didn't know which channel I was supposed to be watching. After flipping channels a few times I came across a documentary about outsourcing. Most of the program was about outsourcing companies in Bangalore, and I remembered that he had mentioned recently that he'd like to visit south India next vacation. So I watched that, although I'm pretty sure it wasn't what he'd meant.

I wonder if we'll visit Bangalore next February? That would be an interesting change.

I'm currently in the middle of reading The Time of Our Singing, and loving it. (Where the reviewer says the writing is 'frankly mawkish' I get frankly weepy. Richard Powers is brilliant and can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned.)

I'm learning a lot about the 'colour problem' in the U.S. from this book, but I don't think I'll ever really get it.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Name change

I didn't like Theic so much. I don't feel like Theic, although I do drink far too much tea. So I tried again to change my name to Badaunt, to match my other blog, and which suits me much better. And lo! It worked! When I signed up I was told Badaunt was unavailable, so I can only imagine that since then someone has decided to become a Goodaunt. More power to you. And good luck! You have a hard road ahead of you.

I'm thinking, also, of installing the Haloscan commenting system. But I thought I'd ask my regular commenters first (all two of you). What do you think? (For an example of Haloscan comments, check out their news page, where they use it.)

Perhaps I should also do something about the way my picture faces the wrong way at the top of this page, too. Right now it looks as though I'll finish writing, get up, and fall right off the page.

Oh, yes. Things are happening around here. Just as soon as I get around to them.

Technology envy

I can't remember if I bragged about my new toy here before, but a couple of weeks ago I bought a new all-in-one printer/scanner/copier. It also reads memory cards from digital cameras. I instantly scanned a couple of photos I had lying around (there's one of me here)(and another here, from my dirt-eating days), and since then haven't used it. But I will. When I need to. I just don't need to right now.

I told a friend about it and she asked me to take her to the place I bought it, which has good prices and good support. We went today and after some time considering the options, looking around at all the wonderful other toys, and a lot of interesting cross-language cross-cultural exchanges with store clerks (2 hours, to be precise), she bought a better model. I'm envious. Of course mine was quite a lot cheaper, and does everything I want it to do and I'd never use the extra functions anyway, but still. Hers is cooler than mine. I'm suffering from technology envy. It happens every time I go to any electronics store.

I suffered even more after we had dinner and were walking back to the subway station and accidently passed this store, newly opened.

Actually, I didn't even notice it - I was thinking as we walked along, and was not really seeing anything. But the moment she alerted me and suggested going in, I stopped thinking and jumped at the idea.

Big mistake. I am now suffering from multiple technology envy.

Thursday, September 09, 2004


One of the disadvantages of having baskets on your bicycle is that people mistake them for rubbish bins. You'd think it was fairly obvious that a bicycle basket is not a rubbish bin, but no, I can tell you right now that to some people it is not obvious at all. They see a basket, and they dump their rubbish in it.

I've always wanted to catch someone doing this to my bicycle basket, and today I did.

I went for a swim, and on the way back, as usual, decided that I was too wiped out to cook so I'd eat out. I went to the usual almost-but-not-quite fast food family restaurant that is the only halfway decent restaurant between the pool and home. There is a large bicycle parking section next to the carpark outside the restaurant.

When I came out, feeling satisfied and somewhat sleepy from eating too much, I couldn't find my bicycle at first because some kind person had tidied up the bicycles and moved mine to a different section. When I spotted it, there was a woman standing next to it. Her bicycle was the one next to mine. She was going through her bag and dumping all the sweet wrappers, used gum, and other rubbish she could find into the basket of my bicycle.

I walked over, wondering how to react to this. Was I going to go apeshit? Was I going to berate her? What was I going to do? I wasn't sure. But as I walked over I started wanting to laugh. I knew this was not the appropriate reaction so I stifled it. Instead, I unlocked the bicycle.

In my peripheral vision I could see she had frozen with shock. She hadn't expected that the only other person to come into the bicycle parking lot would be the one with the bicycle next to hers, which she was so blithely using as a tip. I imagine it was particularly appalling that this person was a foreigner.

After unlocking the bike I gathered all the rubbish out of the basket, sloooowly, and took it over to the rubbish bin, which was about three meters away. Then I came back and looked her in the eye in a friendly way. She cringed and bowed her head.

"Is that all?" I asked politely. "Is there anything else?"

She shook her head, still with her head down. She looked as though she wanted the proverbial hole in the ground to open and swallow her up.

"Oh, good," I said cheerfully. "I'm off, now. Osaki ni!" (This is the polite thing to say when you leave before other people do.)

She didn't answer. She just stood there with her head bowed.

I rode off, feeling rather pleased. I've always wondered what I'd do to anyone I caught using my bicycle basket as a rubbish bin. Finally I'd had the opportunity to find out, and it was wonderful. I didn't need to do anything except be excruciatingly polite and nice.

I don't think I've ever seen anybody looking quite so ashamed of themselves.

Mad decision

Today a very nice man from one of my universities phoned to ask me if I could teach an extra class on Mondays. This is a 'community class', not a credited university class. A lot of universities are now offering these sort of adult learning classes because with the falling student-age population they are afraid they will go out of business. Universities are, when it comes down to it, businesses.

At this particular university they offer two options for 'mature learners'. One is that they join the mainstream classes and study for a degree, and the other is that they join these community classes and study for personal satisfaction. In Japan this is still a fairly new thing. Adult university students are rare. The vast majority of university students are 18 - 22 years old.

This very nice man has asked me to do these classes twice before, and both times I turned him down. There are two reasons for this. One is that I have too many classes anyway, and the other is that these classes don't pay very well. They are paid per class, not per month, so holidays are unpaid. This makes the pay average out to about half what we get for the normal classes.

The students make up for this, however, by being totally motivated and a joy to teach. Also, of course, you don't have to give grades or tests. I used to do one at another place, and loved it. But this year I am far too busy. I messed up my schedule and already have two classes more than is compatible with sanity maintenance.

But I accepted. I said I'd do it. At first I said no, but then I remembered my tax accountant and said yes.

I accepted because I am afraid of my tax accountant.

These classes are paid differently. They are categorised as 'business income' instead of 'salary', and this means that I can claim expenses on them. This year, so far, I have no business income. I have spent a lot of money on teaching materials, none of which the universities will reimburse (because part-timers don't get perks like that), and if I don't take this job I will have no income to set it off against and my tax accountant will bellow at me. He is a scary man who always gets me fantastic tax refunds.

The very nice man from the university was very happy that I accepted, and this makes it a little easier to cope with my stupid decision. He has helped me enormously in the past. He is a tactful, practical and intelligent person. Last year I had a terrible problem with a middle-aged student who frightened me and the other students with her behaviour, in a mainstream writing class. I didn't know what to do about this woman. I couldn't just ignore the situation, which appeared to be escalating, but I was worried about discussing it with administration because I thought that I would be ignored, or even blamed. I'm a foreigner. Everybody knows foreigners are different and tricky and complain about things too much, and often that's as far as it goes. It gets filed in the 'too hard' basket. I had never had a problem at this university before, and didn't know how they'd deal with it.

But I talked to this man in the end. He is in charge of the shakaijin (loose translation = adult) students, and had a friendly face. After a bizarre fist-shaking incident I was afraid the student would turn up to class next time with a knife, and decided I'd better at least make sure my concern was on record. I explained my worries to him, both about the student and about the possible smear on my reputation for reporting the problem. He understood completely, on both counts. He told me not to worry, and that my attitude showed that I was a good and responsible teacher. He talked to her, and reported back to me that she was 'a difficult person' and that he could understand my worry. It wasn't my fault. He didn't tell her I'd reported her behaviour, just asked how her studies were going and then casually inserted a query about my particular class. (I thought 'difficult person' was extraordinarily tactful of him. She was clearly mad.)

He didn't tell me what she said. He tried, and hinted at it, but I could see it was difficult for him to use his customary delicacy and tact. In the end he told me it was not my problem, it was hers, don't worry. He didn't think she'd do anything terrible, not now that she'd told him how she felt. He said she looked embarrassed, afterwards, and tried to retract some of what she'd said. And he said he'd be keeping an eye on her.

She didn't come back to my class.

A few weeks later he called to offer me one of these community classes. I refused, explaining that I was really too busy to do a good job. He called again at the beginning of the next semester, too. This is the third time. I have deeply appreciated it every time he calls. It shows more clearly than words could that he trusts me. He wants me to teach these classes. I always feel bad about refusing, especially because I know it's hard to find suitable teachers at such short notice.

So this mad decision has some benefits. My tax accountant won't bellow so much, and I will be helping out someone whom I respect and admire very much.

But this semester will be a very long one.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Earthquake drills

We have never had earthquake drills at any of the places I work now, and I hope some bright spark isn't inspired by the recent quakes (we had another little one last night) to make the suggestion that we should. The only thing they are good for is using up half an hour of class time. Of course, this can be a good thing if my lesson plan isn't working out, but mostly it's a waste of time.

At one place I used to work, we had earthquake drills now and again. In an earthquake, we were told, we had to shepherd our students out of the building to a prearranged spot, which was an open space on campus. I asked what the drill was in the classroom itself, and was told there wasn't any. I should get them out of the classroom and to the prearranged spot as quickly as possible.

There were three things that made this a really, really dumb idea.

1. My classrooms were on the sixth floor.
2. I had about 30 students per class.
3. An earthquake lasts about a minute, often less.

Apparently I was supposed to somehow shepherd 30 students down six flights of stairs and outside to the prearranged spot, during an earthquake, and I had about one minute to do it in.

Do the people who invent these drills actually think about what happens during an earthquake? Let's say there was a biggish one - say a lower five on the Japanese scale. On the sixth floor, this would be very scary indeed, as the building would sway and possibly windows would crack. The students would be freaking out, and the teacher (me), would be, too. Most likely I'd be paralysed with shock for the first few seconds at least. I'm no hero.

Say the earthquake went on for a minute, and I actually had time to herd the students out into the corridor (if they could stand up, that is) and into the stairwell (shooing them back from the lift - they always want to use the lift, I discovered in the drills) can you imagine the mess if there was a nasty jolt as they started down the stairs? Earthquakes do that sort of thing. Sway, sway, sway, BUMP! sway.

Taking them to the stairs in the middle of an earthquake would be the most stupid thing I could do. The only practical way of getting them out of the building in the time available would be to throw them out the window, and while it might seem like an attractive idea to their teacher on some days I don't think the university administration would be very impressed with their condition upon arrival.

I told my students, when we had those drills, that if there was a real earthquake they were to take shelter under the desks as far from the window as possible. After the shaking stopped they should head for the stairs, carefully, and hold hands, because that really does help you to feel steadier. I told them that while the worst would probably be over by then, they should be aware that aftershocks might follow, and that things might be in a mess. They should take their time and watch out for broken glass and other dangers, and take care of each other because their teacher was a certified chicken and might not be much help.

I asked them to imagine the building was swaying sickeningly. "Earthquake!" I shrieked, and froze, gripping my desk and staring at them with my mouth open, looking stupidly horrified.

"See?" I said. "What if I reacted like that? You need to know in advance what you should do."

They thought this was pretty funny, but even the dimmest bulb in the class could see the sense in being prepared for teacher meltdown during a crisis.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Excitement overload

I've discovered it is possible to have so much excitement you end up not taking it seriously. This morning there was another earthquake. I woke up, waited for it to finish (rock, creak, sway, bump bump) and listened to the wind outside, which was starting to pick up. "This really is Japan," I thought. "Earthquakes, typhoons... I wonder if there's a tsunami this time...?"

And then, when it stopped, I mumbled, "Oh, that one was only about a 3" - and went back to sleep. The Man, meanwhile, ran downstairs to check the TV, and came back to report that it was a 3 and had the same epicentre as the last one. He was a bit surprised when my only reply to this information was a tiny and ladylike snore. (All my snores are tiny and ladylike. Don't believe anything you hear otherwise.)

At midday The Man told me he was going out to stock up on basics at the supermarket. "If I wait any longer I won't be able to go out at all," he told me.

The shutters are up again. I hadn't slid them back all the way after the last one. We knew there was another one coming. (And there's another one after this, too, but a much smaller one, so far at least.) The wind is making cartoon noises. Wheeeeeeeeee! it says. Hooooooooooooo!

We're stuck inside. The Man said that going to the supermarket he didn't need to pedal the bicycle at all, but coming back was tricky because his eyes kept getting blown shut and pedalling was hard. He walked most of the way because it was easier.

This means I won't be able to go for a swim today. Damn. I suppose at least it's a good opportunity to get some housework done.

Gods on the beach

I learned to swim when I was in my 20s. I've always loved swimming in the sea, and in rivers, but had never learned to swim properly, in a pool.

I learned to swim because I was having back problems, here in Japan. I was told that swimming would help. After I was given this advice I promptly went and paid out a huge amount in 'joining fees' and 'membership fees' and 'monthly fees' for a health club near where I worked. I figured that if I was paying so much I'd learn to swim out of sheer irritation at them taking so much money from me. I didn't take lessons. I'd never had any luck with lessons. I decided to just do it. I'd pretend I could swim, and then I would.

This actually worked.

I would occasionally write to my brother to ask for advice. He is a good swimmer - he used to be a surf lifesaver. His advice was sometimes helpful, sometimes not. It was usually terse, as he is not an enthusiastic writer. For example, when I asked him about kicking, he replied:

Keep your legs pretty much straight & relax your ankles. DO NOT TRY THIS STANDING UP.

My brother learned to swim when he was about ten. I still remember the day he decided he was going to take swimming lessons. We were at the beach. (We spent a lot of time at the beach.) We'd been playing around in the water for hours, and were sitting on the sand, steadily working our way through the mountains of food my mother had prepared for us. Little brother was watching the surf lifesavers, who were all great hairy teenaged hunks and were surrounded by beach bunnies. After a while he announced, thoughtfully,

"I'm going to be a surf lifesaver one day."

We all choked, and one of us needed a huge thump on the back to dislodge a piece of sandwich that had gone down the wrong way. When we got ourselves under control again I said,

"But you can't even swim!"

This was true. He was famous for it. He couldn't even float. It was like throwing a sack of bones into the water and expecting it to float. That boy had no fat on him at all. You could count his ribs from 100 meters.

But he was serious. "I'll learn to swim first," he said.

We hooted. But he was the sort of kid who really didn't notice stuff like that. He just grinned good-naturedly and was pleased with himself for having entertained us all so effectively. Then he went ahead and started swimming lessons.

One day about a year later, at dinner, he grinned happily and told us,

"I swam 100 meters today!"

We all stared. "You can swim?" we asked. He'd actually been going to lessons! We'd all forgotten about it, and assumed he had, too. He normally had a short attention span for his grand dreams. This one had stuck, and we were amazed.

Our next reaction was, "It took you a year to learn to swim 100 meters?"

We were still derisive, in the way siblings are. We teased him mercilessly. He ignored it except when he was joining in. He thought he was funny, too.

He started running as well, and I think he might have done some weight training too, or perhaps it was just that he was getting older and filling out a bit. Anyway, the next thing we knew he was 17 years old and had become a surf lifesaver.

I had left home in the meantime, and one day, having forgotten all this, I was back in town and paid him a visit.

While we were chatting in the kitchen a van drove up, and what seemed like several dozen beautiful blonde beach bunnies wearing bikinis tumbled out and came prancing up onto the verandah calling for him. "Are you ready to go?" they were shouting.

He opened the door for them. "Just a minute," he said. "I'll just get changed and get my stuff." Then to me, "Sorry, I forgot I was going to the beach today. Do you want to come?"

"No, not today," I told him. I didn't tell him that I was suddenly feeling way too old.

The girls came into the kitchen where we'd been sitting, and I introduced myself. There was tanned golden skin all over the place. I suggested that they sit down and make themselves comfortable, and would they like a drink? My experience with my youngest brother told me that his 'minute' could be anything up to an hour.

But they weren't very interested in me. I saw them classify me as 'boring adult' very quickly, and cringed. They went through to the living room, clearly very much at home, and I eavesdropped on their conversations. I realised that there were five of them. It only seemed like more. None of them looked much older than seventeen.

"Do you think he likes me?" one of them asked.

"Nah. I reckon he likes Bridget," said another. "I thought he liked you for a while, but now I think he likes Bridget."

"We talked for ages last weekend, though. Don't you think he likes me a little bit?"

"But he talks to everybody. That's why he's so cool. You can talk to him about anything."

"Yeah. And he really listens. I don't think he especially likes Bridget, though. He's friendly with everybody, not just her."

And so on. I wondered who they were talking about, and then the penny dropped. They were talking about my brother! My weedy little brother! Of course he wasn't all that weedy any more, but still... my little brother? The weird little kid with the sticking out ears? The one who has been living in a little dream world most of his life? I wanted to tell them, "He's not listening! He's on another planet when he gets that serious, thoughtful look on his face. If you asked him to repeat what you said he wouldn't know! He does that all the time, and always has!"

But I didn't. I had another cup of tea and wished he had something stronger in the house.

After about 20 minutes - a record for him - he yelled from the bedroom,

"I'm almost ready! Can you guys chuck my board in the van?"

The beach bunnies pranced out to the shed, all glistening tans and bouncing bits. My brother came through to the kitchen.

"Who's Bridget?" I asked him. "Is she your girlfriend?"

"Bridget?" he said, and laughed, looking surprised. "Nah, she's just one of the guys."

"So which one is your girlfriend?" I asked, gesturing to the window and wondering if I could tell them apart.

"Girlfriend?" he said, looking at me as if I was mad. "They're my mates! I haven't got a girlfriend."

"Well, I think they like you," I said. "I heard them talking about you in the other room."

"I like them, too," he said indignantly. "They're my mates!" Then he laughed. He seemed to think I had suddenly become a bit slow.

He was 18. I guess some of his hormones were a bit slow kicking in.

He had only one girlfriend before he met his wife, a few years later. His wife told me she had to make the first move. It didn't seem to occur to him, and she didn't want to wait forever. But I think that's why those girls liked him so much. They were thinking of the whole girlfriend/boyfriend thing, but he was genuinely oblivious and just talked to them as if they were his 'mates'. He treated them like real people, and they thought he was just great. Confusing, but great. They didn't seem to mind that 'a minute' to him could be an hour, or that he could go through to another room to get something, get distracted by something else, and forget they were there for a couple of hours. None of that mattered. He didn't play games with them. It was all real. Weird, but real.

That was the only explanation I could come up with, anyway. Of course it could have been the whole surf lifesaver mystique, too. It doesn't really matter what a surf lifesaver is like. They're all gods on the beach.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Too exciting for me

A few minutes ago we had another earthquake, just as big as the first one.

They're issuing tsunami warnings for the Wakayama Prefecture coast, where the quake was a 5 on the Japanese scale. Here it was a 4. The warning area stops before it reaches Osaka Bay, so I guess we're all right to stay where we are and don't need to make a run for the supermarket. (I wonder if they would open it and let us in if it happened at night?)

I don't think I'll be sleeping very well tonight. Perhaps I'll just sit up and blog all night. My exaggerated startle reflex is starting to play up.

Both of these earthquakes lasted about a minute. Funny how a minute can feel like so much longer. I had time to feel a bit seasick as the world slipped and rocked.

The light has stopped swinging now. I think I'll have a cup of tea.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Multiple excitement

I don't know how much of this excitement I can take. We just had a huge thunderstorm, and then, as the last thunder rolled away in the distance, an earthquake.

The earthquake measured 4 on the Japanese scale. At that level,

Many people are frightened. Some people try to escape from danger.


I sat on the bed (the safest place - it's soft and we have taken care that there are no heavy things around it to fall from high places, and besides, all the furniture is still nailed to the walls from last time), and did a little quaking myself. The house creaked alarmingly. It went on and on and on. And on. The lights swung and a few books fell to the floor. I think that was the biggest one we've had since the Big One.

Thunderstorms, earthquakes, typhoons... what am I doing in this mad place?

At least for a 4 we aren't supposed to get a tsunami as well. Very much bigger and we'd all be heading off for the third floor of the supermarket.


Today wasn't very interesting, so I'll post some old stuff. The following is an email exchange I had with my brother last summer. The most annoying thing about this exchange is that his reply was so incomplete. He couldn't remember the first part of the incident at all. Of course he was about 4 years old at the time, so that might have something to do with it, but I'd still like to know how that dog got in there in the first place.

Badaunt to youngest brother

Hello, you slacker.

Yesterday the high was 38.4C and last night the temperature went barely below 30C (I refuse to call it a 'low') and so it's been hard to sleep. Instead I lie awake and mull over past injustices, and last night I'm afraid the topic of my mulling was you.

Do you remember one day I came home from school and found you in the back yard hiding behind the tree in the corner, with the pet sheep behind you, and a very ugly strange dog in front of the tree preventing you from escaping? And I, being brave and concerned for the safety of my little brother, told you that I'd distract the dog while you made a dash for it?

Well, I did just that, and you made the required dash (closely followed by the sheep), and the dog came after me instead. You raced out the gate, slammed it, and I was left running round and round in circles with that snarling, menacing dog after me, dripping froth and saliva. I yelled at you to get help, and you ran off.

But what I don't remember is you coming back, or anybody else, for that matter. Where did you go? All I remember is running and running, with that stupid dog at my heels, around and around and around until I was ready to drop. I couldn't make it to the gate and open it and get through without the dog catching up, so I didn't have any option but to keep running. It was a slow dog, but if I ran too fast it cut across and caught up with me, so I had to run slowly, in wide circles. It was nerve-wracking.

So what happened, eh? I want an explanation. Did you FORGET??? Did it slip your mind that your big, brave sister just happened to be running in circles in the back yard with a rabid dog snapping at her heels? Did you get distracted by something more interesting than the possibility of your sister being torn limb from limb? WHAT?

I want to know.

I remember what happened with the dog in the end, but WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU? I was expecting, at least, the entire family to come to my rescue, and hoping for the fire department and a few handsome police officers.

But no, I had to rescue myself.


You never explained how the dog got in there in the first place. In fact you were suspiciously evasive on that point.

Please explain, or I won't be able to sleep tonight either.

Youngest brother to Badaunt

I honestly don't remember anything except you running around screaming your head off, and this big boxer lugging around behind with foam & saliva dripping from its saggy lips. I must have come back if I remember you screaming. There see, I'm not so bad.

I don't remember the first bit though. I always thought it was just a little thing between you and the dog. And oh, yeah I remember the end bit! You stopped, turned around and told it to SIT!! and it did! And then you both collapsed with exhaustion.

But hey thanks for saving my life! I'm sure I could have drowned in its saliva.

Your grateful little brother

Badaunt to youngest brother

How DARE you forget! Oh, the injustice. I'm hurt and astonished that you could forget something that had such a formative effect on my character. Thanks to you I'm still running around in circles.

But wait... if you saw the ending, that means you were there all the time! You didn't run to get help! I'm aghast. Horrified. You... you... you wanted to see me torn limb from limb?

How disappointing for you that my cunning strategy worked, and the dog sat. Ha! Serves you right for letting me down like that.

Actually, I think the dog was relieved. It was pretty tired by that point, and after I got the address from the tags on its collar I took it home. About halfway home (it was just around the block) it sat down, wheezing, and refused to go any further. It was knackered. It had been running in circles for a good twenty minutes at least, and wasn't a slim dog to begin with. I was knackered too, but I had to carry the damned thing. It was heavy. The alternative was to drag it home, and I worried about having to explain to the owners why I was returning their dog with a bleeding bum.

But how did the dog get in there in the first place? It was definitely your doing, not mine. I just got back from school and there you were, cornered by an apparently rabid dog.

Please try to remember. I want to sleep tonight.

Youngest brother to Badaunt

Sorry. My mind is a blank.

Badaunt to Youngest Brother

I knew that.

Friday, September 03, 2004


I had the urge to eat something sweet, and we had some bread in the house for a change, so I decided to have some bread with something sweet on it. Jam seemed like a good idea. I looked in the fridge, and found two jars of jam tucked away. I checked the use-by dates on the jars. One said September 1998, and the other said May 2002.

Disappointed, I put them back. And then I realised that this was what I had been doing for the past six years, at least. I'd been putting them back. The fridge does get cleaned out occasionally, and I always put them back. The Man cleans the fridge sometimes, too. Obviously he also puts them back.

Why do we do this? Do we think that the jam will get younger if we just leave it for a while?

(As you may have guessed by now, we don't eat much jam.)

I ended up having toast with the only kind of honey I like. (Never mind the health benefits; it tastes divine.) This is the only food I order especially from home. I didn't think of it at first because I've never bothered with the toast before. I usually eat it with a spoon.

It was good on toast. I think I'll have another one. Perhaps I'll clean out those jam jars, too.

Relative communication

It had been several years since I met Uncle. The last time I saw him my Japanese wasn't good enough to communicate very well. Now it has improved, so I'd been looking forward to chatting with him.

Today I discovered that he has gone rather deaf. This just happened in the last couple of years, apparently.

Sample conversation:

"Does your mother miss you? Where does she live?"


"Finland? What's she doing there? Isn't it cold?"

I did, however, manage to communicate quite well with his children and grandchildren. The younger girls (his granddaughters) were a bit nervous of me until I said something insulting to The Man in bad Japanese. After that they relaxed and stopped doing the 'best behaviour' thing.

What are they to me, anyway? My cousins-in-law? I'm never sure about these things. In fact, earlier this year I suddenly realised, from some things he told me about his family, that a man who works in the office at a university where I teach is my ex-step-brother-in-law. This is, of course, a completely meaningless relationship, so I didn't say anything. As far as I know he isn't even aware of the connection. We chat quite often and I think he would have mentioned it if he knew.

It's interesting the words we have and don't have for various relationships. We don't have a word for 'uncle's wife' that will distinguish her from 'parent's sister'. They're both 'aunt', even though one is a blood relationship and the other isn't. Same for uncle. I wonder why that is? And if your blood-uncle divorces his wife and marries again, is his ex-wife your ex-aunt, or is she still your aunt?

Actually, I did communicate with Uncle (Uncle-in-law?) quite well, as long as I let him do most of the talking. The Man, who has a louder voice than me, clarified when things went awry. I nodded and waved my arms around a lot.

We drank lots of green tea.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Nervous in Nagahama

Tomorrow The Man and I are going to Nagahama. Family business. I don't really need to be there, but I decided that I might as well get one little trip in before the vacation ends and I'm back at work and can't go anywhere.

There's not a lot to see in Nagahama, despite the various attractions listed on its web site. It's historical, sure, but so is practically every place in Japan. Amagasaki is historical, for goodness' sakes. (Truly. Before we became the armpit of the universe we were famous for growing sweet potatoes, apparently.) Nagahama has an ancient (built in 1983) castle, and some very nice temples and shrines.

Anyway, I like Nagahama. It makes me nervous, but I like it.

One of the reasons I like it is that it is an old town, and although they've spruced it up for tourists it still has that inaka (small town, rural, old-country) feeling. Also, there are some interesting antique shops, which I intend to insist on visiting tomorrow while The Man protests loudly.

I will, however, get nervous when we visit his uncle's house. This is The Man's family's ancestral home. (His father was the oldest son, but an iconoclast, the black sheep of the family, and didn't take over the family business. It went to a younger brother instead.) I met Uncle, who is 80-ish but looks about fifty, for the first time shortly after I met The Man. This was before I knew about his sense of humour. Yes, I know it's silly, but I fell in love with a man who didn't, as far as I knew, have much of a sense of humour. This bothered me, too, enormously. I hadn't yet figured out that my judgement was not entirely deficient - The Man did in fact have a sense of humour but it was not quite getting through the language barrier. Also, he tended to be funny in ways I wasn't getting yet because he never explained. When I didn't get it (because I put it down to language problems) he just let it go, probably thinking that I didn't have a sense of humour. Boy, we were in for some surprises.

Anyway, the first time we met this uncle he was immensely curious about me but didn't speak a word of English and I had no Japanese yet. He is a very sweet man, very inaka (this word has multiple applications that do not translate well), and expected The Man to translate all his questions. When we got to the house, we were taken to the special room, the one with the tokonoma, and given tea and fruit and sweets, and we sat there for hours being polite as The Man's uncle asked me endless questions, expecting The Man to translate. Which he did, until he got tired of it, at which point he turned to me and said, after yet another question from Uncle,

"Wha blit bohtantka shimputma adahlti camalt und bullshit?"

Or something like that. (You don't expect me to actually remember a made-up language, do you?)

I stared at him.

"Just say something," he said, completely seriously and looking at me intently. "Anything will do."

I glanced at Uncle, who was watching our exchange with alert and friendly interest.

"But what did he say?" I asked.

"Never mind," said The Man. "I'm tired of translating, and it was nothing anyway. I'll make up an answer."

"That's not fair" I said. "I don't think I can do this. You'll have to tell me."

"Gumtok is prossing," he said, and turned to Uncle. He explained my 'answer' at great length. Uncle nodded seriously and responded with another question. The Man turned back to me.

"Umgh gotocho shimanting dis naked waffles?" he asked.

"Will you stop doing that?" I said, smiling for Uncle's benefit and trying not to spit green tea out my nose. Uncle was watching me closely. "What did he say?"

"Combluckted bunfunk!" said The Man.

"Just stop it, OK?" I said.

The Man turned back to Uncle and 'translated'. Another question followed.

"Depristed unk crumpet?"

"You horrible little yellow Nip," I said smilingly, and watched The Man's face twitch as he almost lost it. "Tell me what he said, dammit!"

And so on.

This went on for what felt like forever, with it getting harder and harder for me to keep a straight face. When we finally left I felt like I was holding an unexploded bomb, and as soon as we were out of earshot I erupted.

"What was that naked waffles bullshit?" I demanded. "Why didn't you translate?"

"Well, you have to admit it was funny," said The Man, dodging nimbly. "You should have seen your face when I did it the first time!" He hooted, remembering.

"I was trying to make a good impression!" I said, somewhat alarmed. "Did it show that much?"

"Only to me," he said, and laughed harder.

Then he added, more seriously, "It's tiring, translating, and the questions were all rubbish anyway. 'Do you have four seasons in New Zealand? Can you use chopsticks? Do you like Japanese food?' You know, the usual thing. If it was something important I would have told you."

I had to laugh, but I was still mad. Even when he told me how impressed he was by how I managed to keep my face straight and look as though I was answering the questions I didn't quite forgive him.

Well, would you? There I was, trying so hard to make a good impression at my first meeting with his family (aside from Okaasan), and he sabotaged me with mad gibberish. And he chose the worst moment - while dear old Uncle, consumed with curiosity about this weird new foreign girlfriend of the eldest son of the eldest son, was watching me like a hawk. It was a mean trick. Funny, but mean.

At least I got him with the horrible little yellow Nip answer. I never told him how impressed I was by how he kept his cool over that.

I'm not going to, either.