Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Little mysteries

I took the day off today. I was sent home early by my students in the last class yesterday and didn't want to risk it happening again today. They noticed that I was shivering while they were removing layers of clothing in the stifling classroom, and they worried about me. They told me that I should be in bed, and they were right.

I got home, called to cancel today's classes, and slept for 14 hours. When I woke up again I went back to wallowing in the misery that comes with blocked sinuses, a headache, noisal discharge, an elevated temperature, a hacking cough, and the almost continuous blaring of sound trucks. To this I added a little worrying about the missed classes I will have to make up on a Saturday sometime soon, which will mean a six-day week and extra tiredness and which at least half the students won't attend anyway. I also managed a little mulling over things that puzzle me. Here is one of these little mysteries.

Every week at the same time on Thursday morning I walk past a couple of lecture halls at one of my universities. In one lecture hall, a professor is lecturing and the room is full of students. The students in the front couple of rows are taking notes, and the students in the middle and back are talking on their cell phones, sleeping, or chatting. The professor addresses his lecture to the students in the front rows, naturally enough.

But it is the second lecture hall I pass that puzzles me. Through the first door I walk past, which is at the front of the hall, I can see the professor lecturing and writing on the board. When I walk past the second door, at the back of the hall, I see two or three students sprawled over their desks in the back row, sleeping soundly. Sometimes they are snoring. The rest of the lecture hall is always empty. The two or three students are always asleep. Every week.

This used to make me laugh. Now it makes me puzzled and anxious, because I realize how far I am from understanding the culture of Japanese higher education and what it's all about.

What does that second professor think he is actually doing on Thursday mornings? Why does he continue to speak and write on the board? What is going through his mind as he stands there and earnestly lectures the air, illustrating relevant points on the board? What is he doing it for?

The students puzzle me, too. What do they think they are achieving? When they get up on Thursday mornings to go to their lecture, what goes through their heads? Why do they bother? What do they think it's all about? Why are they there?

I don't get it.

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Monday, May 30, 2005

Noisal discharge

I went to the doctor this morning, on my way to work. I told him I had a cold and wanted something to keep me going. He checked all the obvious things and took a few notes. Then, just as I was thinking he had forgotten, he asked me how my bowels were. I told him my bowels were fine. He said that I shouldn't drink concentrated fruit juices, and I said I didn't usually and wouldn't start now.

I felt a little better after that. It doesn't feel like a proper doctor visit if he doesn't ask after my bowels.

He told me what medicine he'd give me.

"There's something for the noisal discharge," he said. "And something for the phlegm, and for your throat. And this one here is to increase your fever."

I stared at him.

"What's that last one again?" I asked.

"To increase your fever," he repeated, watching me intently to see if I understood.

I hesitated. " Er... why?" I asked.

"Your temperature is a little high," he said. "This medicine will bring it down."

"Oh!" I said. "To DEcrease the fever."

"Yes, yes, of course. DEcrease. That's it," he said, looking a little embarrassed. "Ha ha."

I decided not to mention the noisal discharge. Anyway, it sort of fit the way I was feeling. I'd just heard the first sound truck of the day going past. The Man thought they were finishing yesterday, but he was wrong, apparently, and anything that gets rid of noisal discharge is fine by me.

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Sunday, May 29, 2005


Yesterday I went on a shopping expedition with a friend. The aim was to buy summer clothes for me, for work. She had kindly offered to help, knowing how much I hate shopping. I extracted promises from her that we would have frequent stops for refreshments. (These promises were not difficult to extract, I should add.)

I woke up feeling a bit under the weather, and on the train to meet my friend my throat started feeling scratchy. When we met, I told her I was worried I was coming down with something, and asked her if she was ready for a coffee break yet.

She was, so we started our shopping expedition with a very long coffee break.

It was a fantastically successful day considering that I had the beginnings of a cold and wasn't feeling too good. I had a lovely time with my friend. It is true that I only bought one item of clothing, which may or may not be suitable for work, but who cares? We turned out to be excellent shoppers. At the end of the day we popped into a bookstore to see whether they had the new Jasper Fforde book in paperback yet, and they did. I then spotted books by Laurie R. King and Henning Mankell that I hadn't read yet. Realising that things could get out of hand I started to head for the checkout counter, but was snagged by non-fiction on the way. There I picked up Reading Lolita in Tehran, which has been recommended to me by several people, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, which hadn't but which looked irresistible, and Life Along the Silk Road, which I picked up, started reading at random, and was instantly lost in. At this point I had six books in my arms and hadn't been in the bookstore more than about five minutes. My friend was having similar difficulties, and we forced ourselves to leave.

After that we were tired, so we went home.

After I got home the cold took over, and has been dominating ever since.

Today has not been very good. I have not achieved anything, but neither have I slept as much as I wanted (and needed) to, because there is some kind of election happening shortly and sound trucks have been trolling past every ten minutes or so blasting politicians' names at high volume. You just start drifting off and you are jerked awake by

It is impossible to sleep, or even to wallow in misery when you are being aurally assaulted, which is why this bombarding with loudspeakers technique is more commonly used as a torture device. Instead of gently drowning in self-pity I have spent the day fighting off the urge to leap out of bed, run outside, and rip the heads off the people who are making sleep impossible. My wallowing has been thwarted. (I like saying that word. Thwarted. Thwarted. Thwarted.)

Is it really possible that this system of campaigning works? I have been feeling so enraged by the loudspeakers that if I were a voter I would make a point of NOT voting for the people who had disturbed my Sunday so rudely and violently. I would also write to the politicians concerned to tell them so.

So the upshot of all this is that while I had planned to wallow in misery and self-pity today, instead I spent most of it reading Jasper Fforde in between bouts of loudspeaker rage. As a method for getting over a cold this is not ideal. I don't think rage is a very healing emotion, and the more I enjoyed the book the angrier I was at the frequent interruptions.

But I even got angry at Fforde. I love his books, and normally would forgive any little mistakes. He is a competent writer with fantastic and hilarious ideas. I do not expect him to write literary gems. However, I DO expect him to know what belie means. I also get a little irate at sentence fragments. I know sentence fragments can be a style choice (not a style I'm particularly fond of), but they always make me wonder whether the writer was aware of making a choice, or whether he or she just blew it. In this case, I think he blew it.

Both of these problems appeared in the first two pages of the book (the sentence fragment was the second sentence), and I read them as a politician cruised past slowly, blaring something so loud it was distorted and I couldn't make it out. My head pounded. I felt the vein in my forehead swell. "BELIE MEANS CONTRADICT YOU BIG DUMMY!" I shouted, and almost threw the book out the window. Then I had a coughing fit.

But I stuck with the book, and I'm glad I did. I don't think Something Rotten is as good as the first three books in the series (although this judgement may be unfairly influenced by the sound trucks), but still, it is fun, and I am up to page 203. If there were any other mistakes I was too caught up in the story to notice.

After dinner (chicken soup) I got busy devising sick-teacher-friendly lesson plans for the week. My throat doesn't hurt as much as it did but I have developed a painful cough, and speaking hurts. This cold seems to be progressing through its various stages fairly quickly, which is probably a good thing, but I don't think tomorrow is going to be much fun.

I didn't get nearly as much wallowing done as I'd hoped to, today. I'll have to see if I can fit some in tomorrow, after work.

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Not grateful

I thought I'd escaped this time, but I didn't. I've caught a cold, finally. A mid-semester cold, just what I need to complement the mid-semester blues. It's not fair.

To make matters worse I collected about 150 homework assignments on Thursday and Friday, and was supposed to mark them this weekend. I won't, of course. In a few minutes I'm going to bed to wallow in misery and angst, and I will stay there until Monday morning. No point in wasting my energy trying to be cheerful and productive when it won't work anyway. Wallowing is the way to go, I've decided, and I intend to wallow properly, and put everything into it. I will moan and complain and grizzle and feel sorry for myself and be generally pathetic. If I'm going to be miserable anyway I might as well be really miserable, and use up my misery quotient for the rest of semester all at once.

I may throw in a little paranoia as well, just to vary things. I signed something on Wednesday at one of my universities that I couldn't be arsed reading first, and now I can't find it. What was it? WHAT KIND OF IDIOT SIGNS SOMETHING WITHOUT READING IT FIRST?

Oh, and at another university, on Tuesday, we were officially informed that we were not going to have our pay cut. We were supposed to be grateful, I think. As it is my lowest paying job, and in the eight or nine years I've been there I have never received a pay increase, I refuse to feel grateful. I think I will devote some of my wallowing time to not feeling grateful, too.

My plan seems to be on track. I am now completely miserable. My head hurts, my throat is on fire, my sinuses are aching, I am anxious about that thing I signed, and I am NOT GRATEFUL.

I am going to bed.

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Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Flatmate From Hell

I suspect Vile File's Mr M. may have ended up with my old Flatmate From Hell, from years ago when I was first a university student. I had forgotten about her, until reading Ms Vile's blog.

The Flatmate From Hell was a reasonably attractive young woman, in her early twenties. She made a good first impression. There were no clues. She seemed like a normal person the first time I met her. But after I moved in, and she decided I was her friend, it was pure hell. I had never met anybody who talked so much. I still haven't. She NEVER STOPPED. Her stream of consciousness was entirely externalised.

I quickly found that excusing myself and leaving the room did not work to escape her monologue, as she would follow, talking. She would follow me into my own room, and continue talking even after I'd stacked up all my books and papers and opened a book and started taking notes. If I asked her to stop, or to leave, she would sometimes apologize, sort of ("Oh, yes, I can see you're busy. I've been very busy today, too. Did I tell you about...?") and then continue, but more often she would just continue, as if she hadn't heard me.

She even followed me to the bathroom. The first time she did this my bowels refused to move while she was standing outside with her lips to the locked door, talking. She would not go away. When I politely explained that I was trying to take a dump she was very sympathetic and told me all about her own constipation. Every trivial thought that popped into her head came out of her mouth, in a compulsive neverending stream. It was like being inside the brain of a very boring person.

Boring is not a word I like to use about people, but when I think about it, 'boring' is the wrong word for her anyway. Boring is too passive a word. I was not bored. There is no single word for the way this woman made me feel. She made me feel uncomfortable and anxious and irritated and confused and sorry for her and as if I was losing my mind, all in one confused jumble of emotion. I was a polite and uncertain person, learning how to be normal, and not only did I not know how to get angry at her effectively, I was afraid if I let myself get angry I would go all the way and kill her, just to shut her up. I did not know how to deal with someone like her. Being polite wasn't working. Being blunt didn't work either, and I wasn't sure what the next step was.

One day I accidentally sucked up a leaf of one of her numerous plants while I was vacuuming. It was a huge plant, with hundreds of leaves. A MONSTER plant. Living in the same house with her was like living in a jungle, and she polished the leaves of her plants almost daily. She also talked to her plants, and they apparently enjoyed it because they grew to huge proportions. They were weird and nightmarish plants, impossibly healthy and vigourous. They made me uneasy after a while. She told me (in staggering detail) that they responded to her, and I think they did.

Anyway, while I was vacuuming around one of the monster plants, one small leaf near the bottom of the plant suddenly went WOOP! and vanished up the tube. It was just one leaf. I checked, and the plant was fine. I rearranged the bottom leaves and it wasn't even noticeable, I thought. It was still a monstrous, healthy plant.

But when she came home the first thing she noticed as she walked into the living room was the missing leaf. While I was still in shock from this miraculous feat, she proceeded to go apeshit. She talked and cried and raged at the awful thing that had happened to her plant while she was at work. I was horrified.

"Sorry, but, but, but, it was just one! ONE little leaf," I stammered. I felt disproportionately guilty and defensive.

"And you thought I wouldn't notice, didn't you?" she said accusingly, tears running down her face.

She polished the rest of the plant's leaves, talking soothingly to it and saying nasty things about me. Then she turned her attention back to me and talked and talked and talked about her plants, at first angrily, and then explaining why she had been angry. She was compelled to explain to me EXACTLY how important her plants were to her. Every tiny thought she'd ever had about a plant and her feelings about plants came out of her mouth the moment it entered her head, and she had a lot of tiny thoughts. Guilt made me listen for a while, but it was getting late and I had an early class.

I tried to go to bed, but she followed me into my room and continued talking. I started to undress. I told her I was going to shower and go to bed now, I was very sorry about her leaf but it was late and I needed to sleep. I kept undressing until I was naked, but she didn't appear to notice. She continued talking, her mouth opening and closing like a fish mouth as I stared at her, not hearing the words anymore. I wondered if I had tipped her over the edge. Then I thought no, she was over the edge already, and had been for some time. She followed me into the bathroom while I showered and cleaned my teeth. She followed me back to the bedroom and stood in the doorway, talking, while I climbed into bed, turned off the light, and closed my eyes. She carried on talking, talking, talking. It was incredibly disturbing. I thought there must be something I should do to help her, or at least to stop her, but whenever I tried to speak she talked over me. I lay there, hating her and feeling scared. Eventually I got up, told her I had to sleep now, and closed the door in her face. She carried on talking from behind the closed door, and eventually I fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion.

The Flatmate From Hell made me feel like a bad person, because from the moment I saw her in the mornings and her mouth opened I wanted to run screaming from the apartment, and keep running until I was out of earshot.

She was a very disturbed woman. So was I, after I had been living with her for a month. Shortly after the leaf incident I moved in with a friend who was living in a cramped basement bed-sitting room. Bless her. It was a tight fit, but oh, the relief!

I never heard what happened to the Flatmate From Hell, but it sounds like Mr M. has found her. I don't know whether Ms Vile's advice will work, but if it is the same woman, and he follows the advice, I would suggest that he wears earplugs.

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Thursday, May 26, 2005


How to be more beautiful

Keep your mirror in a dark corner, and never dust it. Have another very small mirror in the bathroom for the insertion and removal of contact lenses, and for putting on makeup if you wear it. Never look at your entire face at one time, unless it is in the dusty mirror. In the dusty mirror you will look staggeringly beautiful, which you are.

When you are ready to leave the house, ask a dear friend if you look acceptable. If he is the kind of friend you deserve, he will say,

"You look beautiful," and he will say it sincerely and with great feeling.

He will also warn you if you forgot to put on your skirt or anything else essential.

Ask him about your hair, too. Do not use a mirror for this. It will never satisfy you. He will tell you it looks great.

"Just smooth it down a bit at the side there, no, THERE - yes! Perfect! You look wonderful!"

Hold onto those words as you leave the house, and you will spend the day feeling elegant and assured.

If you do not have a convenient dear friend living with you, use a dusty, full-length mirror, poorly lit. Do not stand in front of it. Walk past it quickly and confidently, giving yourself a passing glance. Notice how wonderful you look (unless you forgot your skirt, in which case put it on and do another mirror pass).

Avoid all other mirrors during the day, especially the frighteningly clean ones with the harsh fluorescent lighting in the toilets at school.

Follow this advice and you will be a happier person. Nobody is as critical as you are. Stop that nonsense. Invest in a 40-watt bulb and let your mirror get dusty.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Time out

Today I cycled to work. We are having a series of utterly perfect days, rare for Japan. It is still dry, the sun shines, it is not too hot, and the nights are cool. Today the sky was as blue as I ever remember it being here. It was so dry that when I touched a student on the shoulder she jumped and turned pink. I am electric.

On my way home after work I stopped at a park opposite the river and sat for a while, watching the pigeons. I love this park, although it is tiny. It has a water feature. It is a very small one, but the pigeons appreciate it. They were having baths.

After they finished, they sat on the cobblestones to dry with their feathers fluffed out, looking fat. (I discovered that my camera does not work well on perfect days. Perhaps I should learn how to deal with this sort of thing, but never mind. This is good enough.)

I would have fed the pigeons and made them fatter, but all I had was a banana. I discovered that pigeons don't like bananas. They tried a bit, wiped their beaks, and looked at me reproachfully.

There was a lot of spring activity going on. I tried to get pictures of the male pigeons strutting around, and out of about ten photos only one came out. This pigeon looks like it's doing a goosestep march, but I guess it's a pigeonstep march.

The park also has a small playground for children. It is not a particularly interesting playground, but there is a yellow concrete hound for kids to sit on (and perhaps to fall off). One pigeon seemed to find the hound rather curious, and perhaps tasteless. So did I.

Even though it is a very small park, there is a very large sign explaining the rules. There are always rules, in Japan. This signboard of rules makes the park seem like a dangerous place. I suppose it could be, but nothing exploded while I was there.

After I got tired of watching the pigeons and reading the rules I left the park and cycled up onto the bridge, and looked along the river. I watched the fish. The river is full of fish. There are very large grey carp, and some other small fish. I don't know what the small fish are, and my camera does not cope with water pictures, so I didn't photograph them.

These trees lining the river are cherry blossom trees. I posted pictures of them back in April, when they were blooming. Now they are green. There was almost no rubbish in the river.

Best of all, the turtles are back. I don't know where they went last year, but they're back now. All is well with the world.

Next Wednesday I will try to remember to take something to feed the pigeons, the carp, and the turtles. Maybe if they like me they will come closer. Cupboard love, I know, but I'm not proud, and I want to take better photos.

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Orderly is only pretending to be an adverb. Don't let it fool you.

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Monday, May 23, 2005

Not fair

On Saturday morning The Man woke me. "You have to go!" he said. "You're late!"

I sat up in bed, electrified, and consulted the clock. Eight am!

Then I remembered that it was Saturday. Did I have to go somewhere? I didn't remember, but I frequently don't remember things.

"Where am I supposed to go?" I asked him.

"Okinawa," he said, and turned over. That was when I noticed he was asleep.

It's not fair. He is not SUPPOSED to be coherent when he's asleep. He is supposed to say things that don't make sense, and that make me laugh, not things that wake me up so thoroughly I can't go back to sleep.

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Sunday, May 22, 2005

Film meme

Cheryl has tagged me with the film meme. Thank you, Cheryl. (I think.)

Total number of films I own on DVD/Video:

I can't tell you that because I don't know. I have at least a hundred, but I've probably seen about fifteen of them. I keep meaning to watch them and don't. Most of them are non-English films because I buy them when I'm out of Japan in order to be able to watch movies in languages other than English. Here they are not sold with English subtitles.

But I almost never watch films. Or TV, for that matter. It's just not something I've ended up doing. My friends have seen more of my movies than I have because I'm always lending them to people. This is also why I can't count them - I lend ten or fifteen at a time, and then can't remember who I lent them to or what they are or how many I've lent. But there are at least one hundred in the house right now.

The last film I bought:

I have a DVD of The Fabulous Baker Boys sitting right here in front of me, but I didn't buy it so I suppose that doesn't count. It was given to me on Friday by a colleague, who was given it by somebody else but then discovered he had a copy already. He said it's pretty good. It will probably join my collection of films I've never watched.

What did I buy last, though? I think that was probably Life of Brian, which I spotted on my last day in KL last year. I did watch that one (again). It was fun. But I bought several on that shopping spree. Looking at my folder of DVDs, I imagine the ones at the front are probably the ones I bought at the same time. There is A Tale of Two Sisters, which a Japanese friend tells me is very good. She wants me to watch it so I can explain the story to her properly. She said she couldn't watch it again by herself - she watched it with a friend the first time, but it is too scary to watch alone. Next is Whale Rider, which I'm ashamed to admit I still haven't seen. Then there is Madame Sata and The Lover. I haven't watched them, either.

The last film I watched:

One I actually watched? I guess that was A Slight Case of Murder. I enjoyed it a lot. William Macy is GOOD. The Man doesn't usually like the movies I buy, but when I asked him to make a VCR copy of this one for me (to give a friend, who doesn't have a DVD player) he did, and checked the copy very carefully, I discovered.

"Did it copy all right?" I asked him, and he said it did.

"The main character looks like your older brother," he told me. "But slightly better looking."

"Oh, you noticed that, too!" I said. "Didn't you love the way he keeps talking to the camera, sort of like he's telling you secrets...?"

"I didn't watch the whole thing," said The Man. "But he's not talking to the camera. He's talking to YOU."

"Well, yes," I said. "And you keep wanting to talk back when he's about to do something you just know won't work..."

"But it always SEEMS like it's going to work," said The Man. "And sometimes it does."

I stared at him.

"How much of the film did you actually watch?" I asked.

"Well, you know, I just checked it here and there to make sure it had taped all right," lied The Man, then added, more honestly, "It took longer than I expected."

After discussing the film a bit more I came to the conclusion that maybe he didn't lie. Maybe there was ten seconds or so somewhere that he didn't watch.

Five films that I watch a lot or that mean a lot to me:

Obviously I can't write about films I watch a lot because I don't watch films a lot.


A long time ago I saw a movie with my youngest brother, in NZ. It was a French film called Charles et Lucie. My brother was visiting me, and a bunch of friends invited us along to see it with them. I don't know how old my brother was at the time, but I seem to remember he had to lie about his age to get into the cinema. None of us knew anything about the film, and I was worried that it would not be my brother's cup of tea. When I hear 'French film' I think 'arty,' and it was being shown in an arty cinema. My brother is not the arty type. I was nervous about this. Actually, I worried that he would embarrass me in front of my friends. I was trying to be normal, if you remember, and I suspected that he was going to blow my cover.

So when my brother, who is possibly the most unsophisticated person you could ever meet, started giggling, a few minutes into the film, my anxiety increased. He was hushed furiously by a couple of sophisticated foreign film connoisseurs with tears in their eyes who were trying to get their fix of meaningful tragedy for the week, and there were angry glares from all over. It was embarrassing, all right. All my worst fears were confirmed. The whole terrible tragedy of this film was making my little brother crack up, and he couldn't stop. Every time something newly awful happened he moaned, "Oh nooooo..." and folded up with uncontrollable laughter.

But I had to admit (to myself) I was finding the film pretty funny myself. I squirmed with embarrassment as I tried to reconcile the fact that nobody else was laughing with the fact that the film was so damned hilarious. To me it was awful confirmation that my family was weird and deranged and wrong and we could never, never, never be normal, because we didn't see the way normal people saw, and other people's tragedies made us want to laugh uncontrollably. I was mortified in the way only a uptight and socially conscious prig can be.

But the wonderful thing about this whole experience was that my brother was practically rolling in the aisle already when everybody else in the audience started figuring out the film was SUPPOSED to be funny. Oh, the relief when the rest of the audience started joining in, and I could, too!

I don't remember the story of this film well, but it starts off with a middle-aged, endearing, and rather disreputable couple of junk sellers winning a lottery. They have the most fantastic luck, winning a flash car and a beautiful big house in the country. They look like they're heading for a lifestyle way beyond anything they've ever dreamed of.

They get rid of all their old, broken down possessions, have a farewell party, go off in their lovely new car, and this is where their luck turns. On the way to the new house they stop at a restaurant. While they are eating they see through the window that the police are checking out their new car. The car turns out to be a stolen car, and of course this makes them fairly sure that the house is not theirs, either. They decide to check it out anyway, just in case there was some mistake, and ... things go downhill from there. Their luck gets worse and worse, until they are dodging the police AND some shady underworld gang. Drugs come into it somewhere.

But when the film starts you think it's going to be a heartwarming story of people overcoming adversity. My brother was the only one to laugh after the second or third awful thing to happen. Tragedy is piled upon tragedy until it becomes funny. And then when you think things HAVE to improve now; they can hardly get any worse, the hapless couple somehow manage to lose even their clothes. In an army bombing range. During a practice bombing session. In the middle of the night. IN THE RAIN. My brother almost wet his pants he laughed so much, but by that stage he was no longer the only one laughing and nobody was hushing him.

I have no idea if this movie is as good as I remember it being, or whether it was just my brother's uninhibited and honest response to it (as opposed to my inhibited and dishonest response) that makes me remember it so fondly. I'm not even sure that I'm remembering the story correctly. I'd love to see it again, but maybe it would spoil the memory.

Another film I love is Local Hero. I've probably seen it five or six times, but I don't actually have it.

Also memorable is Bliss - another quite old one. It's a strange film. The book is wonderful, too. (Peter Carey.)

I also have a wonderful memory of Some Like it Hot, which I saw in a small theatre that showed only old films. I was SO surprised when the audience started saying the lines before the characters did. I think that was the first time I realised that there are fans and there are FAAAAANS.

Oh, and a neighbour, when I was living in Dunedin (NZ), had a fabulous collection of old silent films, and lent them to the local museum one time for an old-fashioned film night. It was a unique film viewing experience. There was a lot more interest than they'd expected, so the room they were using was packed. We sat on uncomfortable wooden chairs that felt like school chairs and possibly were. There was a friendly, intimate atmosphere, because the room was too small, and total strangers were chatting before the films even started. They had a piano player, dressed up for the occasion. They had an old projector that broke down several times. The audience was primed right from the beginning, and several people really did fall off their inadequate chairs, laughing too much. There was wild and enthusiastic applause after each film, and a lot of shouted commentary. The piano player wore her fingers out. We saw a lot of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd films and a whole bunch of other less well-known silent films. Nobody wanted to go home. It was brilliant.

Tag five people and have them put this in their journal:

I tag Ms Mac, Pimme, Ms Vile File, Paula, and SheWeevil (in the hopes that it will take her mind off her Finger Trouble, at least temporarily).


Question: How do the really prolific bloggers manage to write so much?

Answer: Maybe they don't.

(Via Crooked Timber.)

Saturday, May 21, 2005


The other day in class the students were concentrating on something when the silence was broken by the sound of a kitten crying. It was a small, sad sound, like the kitten was stuck in a ventilation shaft or in the ceiling. We all looked around, but we couldn't see any kitten. It mewed weakly a couple more times and then stopped.

We sat there staring at each other for a minute, waiting for the kitten to start again so we could locate it. There were not many places in the classroom where a kitten could hide, or be stuck. I checked outside the door and windows.

"Does somebody have a kitten in their bag?" I asked, and the students smiled but looked anxious. It did not sound like a happy kitten.

"Perhaps we are being haunted by a lost kitten?" I suggested, and then had to teach them what haunt meant. It was a hard one to explain, but once they got it a couple of students shivered and told me they had chicken skin.

"Goosebumps," I corrected them. I should have remembered they tend to be superstitious.

A very shy student came back from the toilets just as the mewing started again. She heard it, dived for her bag, and switched off her mobile phone. The mewing stopped. Everybody started laughing, and she looked up, blushing.

"Sorry," she said.

"Please tell your kitten not to call you again during class," I told her.

I noticed after class the she had suddenly become very popular. I predict a chorus of kittens next week, but at least next time I'll know where they're coming from.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Mystery train

Yesterday one of the teachers was making a dash down the stairs for a train that was standing at the platform with its doors just about to close, and she made it onto the train just in time. This was unfortunate, because it was the wrong train. She had caught the rapid express. It was supposed to be a local at that time, but the trains were running a few minutes late.

The train went a looooong way before it made its next stop, carrying a bunch of relaxed long-distance travellers and one increasingly despairing teacher. Station after station whizzed by. It was a very rapid express. It didn't stop at any of the stations the normal express trains stopped at, and as it left the city area behind, and she watched the urban sprawl turn to paddy fields and mountains, she wondered if perhaps she should get a mobile phone after all. She was on a mystery train, and didn't know when or where it was going to stop. Nobody knew where she was.

When the train finally pulled into a station she'd never heard of before, she headed straight for a public phone and called our boss. Her first class was due to start in five minutes, and I happened to overhear his end of the conversation. I started laughing. I probably shouldn't have laughed, but I was SO pleased it wasn't me. I'm not at my best in the mornings either.

I made a mental note that when I make that closely timed connection at the same station, I must always check the sign on the train before jumping on. I do that run down the stairs twice a week, and it never occurred to me there could be an express waiting instead of a local. Usually I run onto the train and ten seconds later the doors close. Henceforth I will use five of those seconds to double check.

I volunteered to take charge of her students until she turned up. This turned out to be a very good idea. Only six of mine came anyway (out of nine - I have a sparsely populated first period class on Thursdays. The school seems to have messed up class assignations for all second year required classes this year - some teachers were assigned fifty and I was assigned twelve, of which nine actually came at all). They are generally a dozy lot. I seem to have ended up with a bunch of night owls in a morning class, and it takes a while for them to get going.

My colleague's ten students, on the other hand, were galvanised when I told them what their teacher had done and why she would be late. They thought it was hilarious. I told them they would be joining my class until she arrived, and wrote on her blackboard:

"I have your students. Come and get them."

Then I turned to her students and asked, "Do you think I should ask for a ransom? How much do you think she'd pay for you?"

That made them laugh harder.

"Oh, but she loves your class," I told them. "She told me so." (This was true.)

Their laughter turned thoughtful as they followed me through to my classroom. They looked happy.

We had a lovely time. Her students woke up my students. My colleague was fifty minutes late, and had seen a little more of Japan than any of us by the time she arrived. None of us had even HEARD of the station she'd ended up at.

(I did get my ransom in the end. She paid for my dinner last night. Her students are worth at least a curry and a beer.)

But I'm thinking perhaps she and I should teach alternate weeks. The dynamic of both classes combined was really good, and surely they don't need two teachers? It would be nice to have a lie in every other week. It's not only my students who have a hard time waking up in the mornings.

Thursday, May 19, 2005


We had a little excitement at the university I was at today. One of my colleagues was teaching a language class - a SPOKEN language class - and had his thirty-plus students in pairs, speaking English with each other. They were on task. They were using English. They were learning.

Then the Japanese teacher of French from the next classroom stormed into his room, red-faced and shouting angrily in Japanese. My colleague's class was MAKING TOO MUCH NOISE. He should be more CONSIDERATE of the class next door. They were DISTURBED by the noise. He ranted at my colleague for a while, then stormed out again, slamming the door.

My colleague stared, amazed. What sort of teacher barges into another teacher's classroom and shouts at him in front of his students? The students were amazed, too, and stopped their practice to watch the drama. After the angry teacher had gone, they waited to see what my colleague would do.

My colleague, still not over his amazement, looked at his students, shrugged, and told them to carry on. He told them they were doing a good job, and not to worry about it. He was FURIOUS, but he didn't show it. He knows he's 'just' a part-timer, and will get no backing from anybody.

They carried on.

Guess who has to move classrooms? Not the Japanese teacher, who has tenure. But we suspect that the REAL reason this guy was mad was that in that next door classroom he had one student. One, lonely, student. In his elective class. And my colleague had thirty-plus students.

Actually, I'm starting to wonder whether there is some sort of campaign going on against the part-time foreign teachers at this university, with all the complaining that is going on. Last week I thought it was the office staff who were complaining about noise, but it turns out it was Japanese tenured professors (of languages) whose offices are near the classrooms in building ten. This week it is a Japanese teacher of French. The week before there was some Japanese professor of German at a faculty meeting, apparently, who complained about a foreign teacher leaving his classroom too early. All foreign teachers should be punished for this by having their teaching hours cut, he said, angrily.

It turned out that this particular foreign teacher had only two students in his class (the office stuffed up - it was NOT an elective class) and neither of them had turned up that day. So he'd left a note on the board in case either of them came late, telling them where to find him, and went back to the teachers' room to get some paperwork done. He'd waited 40 minutes, and was bored in the classroom by himself.

I'm also wondering whether this campaign (if it is a campaign) is happening because last semester's results of the student evaluations of their teachers and courses were sent out to all teaching staff at the beginning of this semester. Unfortunately the results breakdown included some comparative results - not individual comparisons, but the English teachers were all lumped together. We made everybody else look very bad indeed.

I don't think this is making us very popular.

The teacher who has the room next to mine today has a WONDERFUL voice. You can hear her halfway across campus when she really gets going, and her normal speaking voice is perfectly audible from my room. She asked me last week whether she was too loud, and should she try to tone it down a bit. (I'm not convinced that she can. She doesn't shout. She just has a beautiful, clear, CARRYING voice.)

I was able to reassure her.

"I don't mind at all," I said. "My students love your classes."

"Oh, good," she said, and then did a double-take when she noticed what I'd said. "Did you say YOUR students?" she asked, and started laughing. "Oh, very funny!"

But it is true. When my students are doing something quiet, writing or whatever, we sometimes hear her voice ringing out and I see them raise their heads and try to listen to what she is saying. They look fascinated. Every word is crystal clear and they know they might be able to understand it, if only they could listen to it for long enough, and if only they concentrate instead of having this stupid writing task. She makes them WANT to understand English, and I've been wondering how I can use this.

I was thinking today that perhaps sometime I'll get them to tiptoe under the windows of her classroom and squat there and listen, and then report back to me. My students are useless at taking notes. It would be good for them. It might also be funny.

Funny is good. Funny helps us to learn. Funny is why the students like our classes. Learning a language is difficult enough. It doesn't have to be dull as well.

(For those who might have noticed, the first part of this post has been edited out.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Specific time

People who use this 'Pacific time' nonsense are really annoying me. The Pacific is a large ocean. New Zealand is in the Pacific. So is Japan. So are a lot of other countries. There is more Pacific out there than just the bit next to the US. Why do people use US-centric time expressions when they're writing for an international readership? Do they think nobody uses the Internet outside the US?

I would really appreciate time information I can look up on a standard international time zone converter.

Bloglines was down until 10pm Pacific time the other day. Yes, I know looking it up is easy, but it annoyed me that I had to look it up twice, once to find out what Pacific time was, and then again to find out what time that was in Japan. (Normally I love Bloglines. Only sometimes they got up my nose.) I'd almost recovered from that irritation when Blogger announced today that there would be a 20 minute downtime tomorrow at 4pm (Pacific Time). Is that Wednesday or Thursday? Buggered if I know.

Thang you!

Yesterday I met my Vietnamese student again, the one with problems pronouncing the th sound. We had a busy class, working on various things in the textbook, and I didn't have time to concentrate on her particular problem. I had been intending to do some more minimal pairs with her, but the other students kept me on my toes.

At the end of class as everyone was leaving, they all called, "See you next week!" She did, too. And then she turned back and added, "And THHHHANG YOU!"

We stared at each other, and she laughed delightedly at the expression on my face. Her th was PERFECT. (The k was entirely absent, however.)

"You've been practicing, haven't you!" I said.

"Yes," she said. "On the train." She held her hand up in front of her mouth, the way I'd shown her. "The thin tin man," she said.

Now all we have to do is to work on her final stops. We'll do that next week. A student like this one can accomplish ANYTHING. Or ANYTHINK, for that matter.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Things I almost but not quite want

I often check out what's new at My Best Gadgets. Some strange and wonderful inventions turn up there. Two have turned up recently that I rather like, although I won't be buying either of them. The first is the umbrella fan, which I think would be a wonderful thing on really hot days (i.e. all the days from June to November, in Japan). The problem is that using it would make you uncool at the same time as it made you cool, and how confusing is that?

The other is the cushion for troubled travellers. Or, perhaps, the cushion for the companions of troubled travellers.

I particularly like the customer review for the second item:

WOW! Never in my life have I farted for so long and with such complete comfort.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


My brother sent me a newspaper in which his three-year-old, my nephew, appeared on the front cover. Granted it was only a freebie local newspaper, but still. He's FAMOUS!

In the photo my nephew is blurred, but the real reason for the photo is in sharp focus. It is a large Golden Orb spider, which apparently parachuted from Australia to New Zealand when it was a spiderling and landed in my brother's garden, where it grew and grew and grew and now has an 11 cm leg span. They can grow to 24 cm, but when they turn up in NZ they generally die when winter comes along. Also, the only ones to survive the flight seem to be female, so they do not establish breeding populations.

The web of the spider in my brother's garden is two meters across, and is golden in sunlight.

My brother and nephew are now feeding bugs to the spider (although my nephew's first reaction was, "Let's spray it, Daddy!"), and my brother told me that he intends to try to keep the spider alive over the winter. He will provide it with heated accommodation.

How long do spiders live? In a few years, is my nephew going to be famous at school as the kid with the giant pet spider? Will he be able to ward off bullies by siccing his spider on them?

Also, did you know that baby spiders are called spiderlings? I didn't. My spell checker didn't, either, but I looked it up, and it's true.

They're alive!

I keep my students very quiet the first three weeks of semester, promising them they are going to be speaking English VERY SOON. (They frequently perceive this as a threat rather than a promise, but never mind.) I explain how they are going to do it. I make them take notes and listen to a lot of me. I use the chalkboard a lot.

I've found this a very effective method in my classes, where students are so reluctant to speak English and possibly make fools of themselves. They don't usually see the point. They can chat in Japanese and actually understand each other and make sense. Why use English?

I give them a point. When I finally uncork them, even the most disbelieving I can never speak English because I'm Japanese and therefore no good at learning languages, everybody knows that student is so relieved that for once they don't have to listen to me and write endless stuff in their notebooks that they'll jump at any alternative. They quickly learn that as long as they're speaking English I'm not harassing them, mainly because I can't make myself heard. The point is, it shuts the teacher up.

But I've been having a rather difficult last class on Fridays. It isn't difficult because the students are badly behaved, but because they are too well behaved. For the first three weeks (i.e. three classes - we meet once a week) I'd been feeling like I was teaching a room full of zombies. Usually I can make my students laugh. The other classes never fail to hoot when I trip over an extension cord or walk into a desk and yelp "OUCH!" (I do not do these things on purpose) but this class just stares at me expressionlessly. When I explain something to them and ask them if they understand, they stare at me expressionlessly. When I tell them that they will HAVE to speak English or else they'll fail my class, they stare at me expressionlessly.

I gave this class some puzzles at the end of the second class, because I'd gone through my lesson plan so fast (when there are no questions and no response at all you tend to gallop through stuff). These puzzles, which ALWAYS get an enthusiastic response, got answers (eventually) but no apparent enthusiasm. There was none of the self-congratulation or wild cheering the mathematics class reacted with. None of the head-scratching and "Bloody hell this is difficult - AH! I GET IT! AH! AH! AH!" I get from engineering students. No, these law students stared at the board politely and expressionlessly for a while, told me the answers, and then left, politely and expressionlessly. As far as I could tell they didn't even talk to each other. I've never had such a silent, non-interactive class.

So yesterday I was a bit anxious. I'd spent the week uncorking class after class and getting the expected uproar as the students burst into appalling English, and then I faced my last class, of polite and expressionless law students, who I worried were going to respond to being uncorked by politely and expressionlessly staring at each other in pairs instead of at me en masse.

I needn't have worried. They were great. When I gave them permission to speak, they did. They chatted away in English as if they'd been doing it for years. They weren't as animated as the mathematics majors, and their English wasn't particularly wonderful, but they were able to communicate and seemed to be enjoying themselves. They certainly didn't have any trouble finding things to talk about. They suddenly looked and behaved like normal people instead of zombies.

The really interesting bit, though, came after their five two-minute conversations with five different partners. I told them to stop, and they did, in their usual disconcertingly obedient way. They stared at me politely and expressionlessly, as per usual, waiting for whatever I was going to spring on them next. I stared back at them and thought, Oh, help, they're at it again. Did I dream all that or did they really just burst into English for ten minutes?

Then I mentally shrugged and carried on. I said they were great; they'd done very well. I told them that they'd be doing the five conversations/random partners thing every week from now on, at the beginning of every class, and that it might increase to three or four minutes depending on how they coped. I hoped they'd use this opportunity to try out the English they were learning, and to get used to using English as a communicative language rather than as an academic subject. I would help them when the occasion arose, but mostly this was their time for playing with the language and using it as much as they could without worrying about mistakes. They don't get much chance to do that here.

They stared at me expressionlessly. I stared back.

Finally I asked them if they understood. One student's left eyebrow twitched, so I took that as a yes and turned to the board to write up the next thing we'd be doing.

But as soon as I turned my back there was a sudden weird sound of sharply indrawn breath from thirty-four students all at once, then muted giggles and excited whispers. It was the sort of noise I get from classes when nobody wants to be the one to tell me I have just rubbed my nose with the same hand that had been holding a leaky pen, but I hadn't been using a leaky pen and nor had I rubbed my nose. I wondered if my skirt had suddenly fallen down and looked down quickly. Nothing looked wrong, so I turned around and looked at the class.

For a change they weren't looking at me. They were looking at each other. Their eyes were shining and they were looking exhilarated. I caught some of the disbelieving, excited whispers.

"Is that really what she said? Every week?"


"Sugoi! Every week! We're going to do that every week!"

They were practically HUGGING themselves.

I stared in consternation. It wouldn't sink in. I stood there dumbly, chalk raised ready to write, head spinning. I CANNOT READ THESE STUDENTS. I'd had NO IDEA they'd enjoyed the activity so much. It was as if they'd suddenly come alive and turned into actual human beings - but the trigger for it was something so bizarre (here, at least) that I couldn't get my head around it. The idea of chatting to their classmates in a foreign language, instead of filling them with panic, apparently filled them with such excitement that they couldn't contain themselves. But I'd never even heard them chatting amongst themselves in Japanese! What was going on?

As they were leaving, they started chatting to each other, again disconcerting me. I overheard some of them talking about how this was the most interesting class they'd ever had. It was metcha omoshiroi, they told each other excitedly. What a shame it was only once a week. They wished all their classes were like this one.

I don't get it. I've never had students like this before, and I've been teaching for a long time. I've had zombie students before (although not a whole class of them), but they generally turn out to be zombie all the way through. I've had students who, once they get to know each other, won't shut up. Unfortunately they usually won't shut up during class, and don't use English much. But when I told this class to talk to each other in English about whatever they wanted to talk about, they found it exciting.

These students seem to have decided that my class needs all their concentration, so much so that they forget to put expressions on their faces. It's spooky to find out they've been paying attention all along. I'd thought they were bored, and being polite about it. I'd even wondered if they hated each other, there was so little interaction.

We've only had four classes so far, though, and now I'm all anxious about letting them down. Will my classes continue to fascinate them for an entire year? And if their responses are so alien to me that I can't even tell the difference between WE'RE FASCINATED! and WE'RE BORED OUT OF OUR SKULLS! - how will I know?

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Look

You know how when a cat gets into the litter box and digs a little hole and squats, it then goes very still and gets an intensely concentrated, focused look, staring straight ahead but not seeing what it's looking at?

Sometimes people get that look when you tell them something that makes them think. I've been noticing it recently.

What do they think we're doing?

At the university I worked (and worked, and worked) at today some people have to teach in an unpopular building. It is unpopular because the classrooms are on the twelfth floor, and the lifts are slow and inadequate. It is also unpopular because the windows only open a crack (I imagine there are fears that a despairing student - or teacher - might jump), the classrooms too small for the numbers of students using them, and the air conditioning is centrally controlled and not on yet.

I am lucky. I do not have to work in that building.

The indignation of teachers having to use these rooms reached new heights this week. They arrived at their horrible twelfth floor classrooms to find that notices had been pinned up explaining that teachers are now required to close the doors to the classrooms when classes are in session, and to keep the noise down. Apparently workers in the offices on the same floor are being disturbed by the amount of 'oral English' coming out of the 'oral English' classes.

We wondered what the administrative staff thought the purpose of the university was, and the purpose of our classes. We often wonder this, actually. I mean, if you really wanted students to learn a language, would you offer them language classes that met once a week for ninety minutes and upwards of thirty students per class? (Some teachers have fifty students. I have been lucky this year - the largest class I have is thirty-five or six.) I listened sympathetically as my colleagues launched into bitter speechlets (no time for full speeches in the breaks between classes) about education in Japanese universities.

It's a good thing I'm not up there on the twelfth floor. My mathematics majors today almost deafened me. I couldn't tell them to shut up because I'd asked them to speak English, in pairs, and that's what they were doing, loudly and uproariously. When they'd finished I told them they'd done very well, and they looked pleased with themselves. Then I added that they'd done so well that next week I was going to bring ear plugs.

We are hired in order to get the students speaking English, and I did such a good job today that it has given me a headache. If I was in one of those twelfth floor classrooms and got that sort of appreciation for my efforts I know what I'd be tempted to do with their stupid notices.

Thursday, May 12, 2005


A short, sharp note to those of you who think that incase means in case:


Incase is a transitive verb meaning To inclose in a case; to inclose; to cover or surround with something solid.

In case, on the other hand, means if there happens to be a need. Whether you call it an adverb, an idiom or a prepositional phrase depends on what brand of grammar you're using to classify it, but it is NOT a transitive verb and you cannot replace it with a transitive verb. If you do, you stop making sense.

When you wrote, Just incase you were worried..., you stopped making sense with the second word you typed. ARE YOU TRYING TO SET A NEW RECORD?

I suspect the people who write incase for in case are the same people who write alot.


Oh, and for those of you who take this idiocy a step further and write encase when you mean in case, I don't even want to talk to you. Go and stand in the corner.

And don't just stand there. REPENT.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Trophy hunters

Rose has photographic evidence that there are parts of NZ that don't quite live up to its reputation as a safe tourist destination. I thought we'd kept our less delightful customs well hidden from the rest of the world, but some Kiwis are obviously becoming more brash about their nasty little habits and are even putting up warning signs.

Or perhaps someone felt they should give the tourists a sporting chance.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Three things, nearly

Tonight I met some friends after work for a drink (or two), and I learned three things I didn't know before.

The first thing I learned was how to pronounce automaton. The stress is on the second syllable! I didn't know that, and have been pronouncing it wrong for years. (Pronouncing it wrong mentally, that is. I don't think I've ever had occasion to say it out loud before.)

The second thing I learned was that Japanese colour photocopy machines, even the cheapest and oldest models at the school where one friend works, will not copy money, even money covered with protective plastic. Even Canadian money. She tried to photocopy some Canadian money to show some students, who are going to Canada to study for three months. She wanted to familiarize them with the various notes. But the machine stuck its nose in the air and refused to function. It told her, prissily, "This is not appropriate material to photocopy," or words to that effect in Japanese.

Another friend told us that something similar happens with official documents (marriage certificates and so on) which you usually have to pay for at City Hall. If you need a copy for your bank, say, and go to a convenience store to photocopy the original, the original comes out with a COPY watermark all over it. It's still readable, and acceptable as a copy, but you certainly couldn't pass it off as an original.

Isn't that amazing? I'm amazed, anyway. How do the machines KNOW?

The third thing I learned was... the third thing was... oh, sod it, I've forgotten. It was something else amazing. Perhaps it will come back to me the next time I have a glass or three of wine.

Oh, but I do remember that the friend who has taught pronunciation a lot told me that minimal pairs are the way to go with my Vietnamese student's th problem. You have to hear a sound before you can pronounce it, she says, and the ear can be trained. It takes time and effort but it's worth doing.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The thin tin man

Today I had my class of foreign students. There are only five; four Chinese and one Vietnamese. They are all women, and all lovely. They are beginner English language learners, although their Japanese is very good.

The Vietnamese woman probably has more English than the others, but her pronunciation is the worst. She is determined to improve it, though, and today she decided to work on her th sound. She just couldn't get it right. She always pronounces it as a t.

I decided to show her the difference. I showed her how to use her tongue was used for the th sound. She watched my mouth carefully. She stuck her tongue out, pulled it back in quickly, and said tin. She could not say thin.

After some more of this, with me trying to explain and show the difference, and my student not getting it, we were both becoming frustrated at the lack of progress. Finally I wrote tin, thin, and sin on the board, numbered them 1, 2 and 3, and asked her to tell me which one I was saying. I discovered that she couldn't actually HEAR the difference between t and th. She could hear sin, but the other two were the same for her. When I said, "The thin tin man," she thought I was repeating myself.

I realised that she was not going to be able to pronounce th until she could hear it, and wondered how I could help her to hear it. We had tried listening and looking, and they weren't working. I wondered if she would be able to feel the difference. I gazed at her and thought about this. I didn't want to ask her to touch my tongue, and anyway, I wouldn't be able to say anything if she had her fingers in my mouth.

Then I remembered something I'd read a long time ago for teaching the difference between voiced and unvoiced plosives, and wondered if it worked for the difference between t and th as well. I put my hand in front of my mouth, close but not touching, and made a t sound. Then I made a th sound. I could feel the difference.

I told her to hold her hand up in front of my mouth, and did it again. First I did the th sound. I drew it out. "Thhhhhhhhin," I said.

Then I did a short, sharp, "Tin!"

The look on her face was priceless when the little explosion of air hit her hand. She was SO surprised. I did them both again. Then one of the other students asked me a question, and I went to answer it.

When I turned back, my Vietnamese student had her hand in front of her mouth and an intensely concentrated expression on her face, so I left her to it and carried on with the other students.

About twenty minutes later her hand shot into the air, and she shouted, "I CAN DO IT!"

We all turned to her. She was wearing a huge triumphant smile, and had to wipe it off twice before she could demonstrate her new mastery.

"Tin!" she said, and took a deep breath. Then she yelled, "THIN!"

Well, she ALMOST yelled thin. It was very, very close, but not QUITE thin. It wasn't quite tin, either. I hadn't known before that there was a sound between th and t, but there is, and my student has found it.

We all applauded, and she grinned tiredly. She told us that she would practice some more and next week would be perfect.

But I think I'm doing something wrong, or at least I'm missing something right. I still think she needs to hear it, and I'm not really sure if this is the best way.

Do any language teachers out there who are familiar with this problem know of anything else I should try? With my usual Japanese students the problem isn't so much how to make the th sound but when to use it, and I haven't had to teach the pronunciation from scratch before. Minimal pairs? Intensive listening? What works?

Sunday, May 08, 2005

What I learned last week

The other day The Man went to a wake, as I mentioned previously (wearing very old shoes). It was for the father of the guy who was his best friend at university, many years ago. I think he had only seen this guy once since they graduated, and we practicing greeting somebody in a restrained way before he left. He was afraid he'd see his old friend and be overcome with joy and break out into cheerful, rude greetings without thinking, and that would be inappropriate at a wake. (He told me later his behaviour was impeccable but his attire somewhat inadequate.)

As he was getting ready I asked him how much money he needed to take. You always take money to wakes and funerals in Japan.

He told me. I checked the envelope containing cash he'd just got paid for a job, and said,

"Well, how about that for good timing! There are some nice new bills in here."

"NO!" he said. "No new bills!"

"Eh?" I said.

I thought that in Japan you always had to give new bills. I'd been all ready to start ironing if we didn't have any.

"Not for a wake," he said. "For funerals and weddings, yes, but you shouldn't give new bills at a wake. It makes it look like you were ready for it."

So that was what I learned last week. There are occasions in Japan when giving crisp new bills is a bad thing.

Supersize me

I bought a new swimsuit today. My old one was probably all right, but I was getting a little nervous. I don't know if you've ever had a swimsuit collapse on you, but it is an embarrassing experience. I am still traumatised by the time a few years ago I climbed out of the pool and my swimsuit decided it would like to stay behind. It had drooped almost to my knees before I noticed, hitched up the sagging folds and made a dash for it. It was a surprising experience, and not a nice surprise, either, because the swimsuit didn't just droop alarmingly, it turned transparent. I didn't know a swimsuit could die so spectacularly. I thought it was more of a gradual thing.

So while my current swimsuit seems all right, in my hypersensitive alertness to swimsuit collapse I had noticed - or thought I noticed - a slight loss of elasticity around the legs. This coincided with a sale of swimsuits at the gym, so I checked out the racks and tried a few on.

In the end I decided on a two-piece thing with long shorts. (I tried to find a picture of something similar on the web, but either this is a fantastically unfashionable style or I don't know what to call it, because I couldn't find anything remotely like it.)

I tried on the L size and it was too small for me.

I then tried on the 2L size, and it was a little tight under the arms but not unacceptably so, so I bought it. It was cheap. They didn't have anything larger anyway, and the price was right. It was less than 4000 yen. The original price was 12,000 yen.

After my usual cycling and machines workout, I had a swim. The new swimsuit feels lovely and safe. I am no longer nervous about the old men eyeing me from the Jacuzzi as I climb out of the pool.

I weighed myself before my swim, because the scales were beside the door between the changing room and the pool. I discovered that supersize me weighs fifty one point two kilos.

What I would do

When I came home from work last night I found that Paula had tagged me. Just what I needed - another procrastination project.

"The following is a list of occupations. Of this list, I must choose five of them and elaborate what I would do should I be enjoying this occupation. At the end, I may add some to the list and so can you, should you be chosen as my victim. And I get to choose three victims..."

If I could be a scientist...
If I could be a farmer...
If I could be a musician...
If I could be a doctor...
If I could be a painter...
If I could be a gardener...
If I could be a missionary...
If I could be a chef...
If I could be an architect...
If I could be a linguist...
If I could be a psychologist...
If I could be a librarian...
If I could be an athlete...
If I could be a lawyer...
If I could be an innkeeper...
If I could be a professor...
If I could be a writer...
If I could be a backup dancer...
If I could be a llama-rider...
If I could be a bonnie pirate...
If I could be a midget stripper...
If I could be a proctologist...
If I could be a TV-Talk Show host...
If I could be an actor...
If I could be a judge...
If I could be a Jedi...
If I could be a mob boss...
If I could be a backup singer...
If I could be a CEO...
If I could be a movie reviewer...
If I could be a filmmaker...
If I could be a sherpa...
If I could be a ninja...
If I could be a cab driver...
If I could be a frosting tester...
If I could be a swimsuit manufacturer...
If I could be an astronaut...
If I could be a dictator...
If I could be an acrobat...
If I could be an inventor...

All right. Here we go:

If I could be a frosting tester I would get to lick the bowl.
If I could be a cab driver I would take everybody for a ride.
If I could be a missionary, I would preach that we are all living in our own fairy tales so we might as well choose good ones.
If I could be a painter, I'd probably paint myself into a corner.
If I could be a midget stripper, I would be small but perfectly formed.

I tag: Susan, who will have fun with it, Wiccachicky, who is good at everything she does, and Ms Vile File, who I suspect has already been everything on the list.

Friday, May 06, 2005


Kay asked me whether I had posted something about Japanese train announcements, and I told her I hadn't. But then I did a search, and Google came through for us. I love Google.

I have bookmarked the Sound of Station page, although none of the JR West sounds seem to be working. This is the railway we use. I wonder if they've been taken down because of the accident? It might not be that, though, because a few of the other links are broken, too. (As far as I could tell, none of the Other Sound links seem to be working, unfortunately. Most of the Sound of Private Railway sounds are, though.)

I intend to give The Man a surprise at some quiet moment. I will turn my speakers up and play this. This is the railway nearest to where his mother lives, and it is the sound he grew up with whenever he took the train. I wonder if it will make him jump and look behind him?


Thursday, May 05, 2005


The Man went to a wake today, for the father of a friend.

Getting ready was a real trial. First he had to find his black suit. Then, when he found it, he discovered that the moths had found it, too. After patching the jacket inexpertly, he tried to put the pants on, and they refused to button.

"Fatty!" I said, laughing, and he looked aghast. Then his face cleared. "I've had this suit for twenty five years," he informed me. This did not surprise me as much as it should have.

(He is a beanpole, but he used to be an even skinnier beanpole.)

He had to find another pair of black trousers, and found some he hadn't worn in a while that did fit, but they didn't match the jacket. In the end we decided that he could carry a non-matching black jacket over his arm and nobody would notice (or at least they'd be polite enough not to mention it), and he fished out his black belt and his 100-yen black tie. I assured him he looked acceptable. (He didn't really, but there wasn't much point in telling him so when he'd run out of options.) Then we had the problem of shoes.

The Man has big feet, and I mean REALLY big feet, especially for Japan. Here you measure shoe size in centimetres, and his are 29-30 cm. Most shoe shops only go up to 26 cm. Some have 27 cm, or even 28. But finding comfortable shoes that are 29 or 30 cm is almost impossible.

This means that The Man wears any shoes he has until they are worn out. As he walks a lot, this means that he has a perennial problem with shoes. About a year ago, after he'd been walking around in leaking shoes for a few months, he found one pair of size 29 cm brown shoes in a department store. These have been his shoes for the last year or so, aside from a pair of sneakers.

The problem is that you can't wear brown shoes with black trousers.

We went downstairs and checked the shoe cupboard. The Man very rarely throws shoes out even if they're leaking, just in case. We found an old black pair, and since it isn't raining today decided they'd be all right. He polished them up, put them on, I pronounced them acceptable (just), and he left.

Two minutes later he was back, laughing himself witless. His shoes were flapping around and shedding bits all over the place. He flapped back through in the front gate leaving a trail of shoe parts behind him. By the time he got into the house he was walking on his socks. Only the uppers were intact.

I have never SEEN anything so silly.


I collected all the shoe bits off the road (and took the photo) while The Man started hunting around in the shoe cupboard in case there was another pair. He found some, a bit ratty looking, but they polished up well enough that they'll pass. (Well, not really, but there wasn't any choice.)

The Man needs a new black suit, and black shoes. Wakes and funerals don't generally give you enough warning to go out and acquire the necessary outfit, and the black outfit is compulsory for every formal occasion in Japan. But in this country of short people with short limbs and small feet The Man is a freak and a shopping nightmare. He has long arms, long legs, and MONSTER feet. I'm hoping that the current embarrassment will be motivation enough to to renew his shoe hunting efforts, and to get him out there and measured up for a suit. But he hates shopping for clothes (as do I) and particularly hates wearing formal clothes, so somehow I doubt it.

I expect the next formal occasion to be even more embarrassing.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Creative writing

Fallensnow pointed me to another site similar to the confessions site: Post Secret. At this one, you have to mail in your secret on a handmade postcard. There are some great postcards on there.

While I was browsing the site I came across this card, which made me laugh at first. But then I stopped laughing and wondered whether what you really want in a creative writing teacher might be a good reader.

What do you think? I have never taken a creative writing course and probably never will,1 but I'd love to hear from any of you who have. How was your teacher? Did the course help you? How did it help?

1. I'm not quite sure what creative writing is, to tell the truth. Isn't all writing creative? And if it means fiction writing, why isn't it called fiction writing?

Paperwork in spring

Tha lantana is flowering despite the lack of care we have given it. We have a white and a pink in the same pot, hanging from the wall.


The lantana is being visited frequently by butterflies. Does anybody know what this type of butterfly is called?


Yesterday, after I'd taken this picture, another butterfly appeared and the two of them flew up into the blue, blue sky, dancing around each other in the air.

We are having gorgeous weather for the week of public holidays. It rained once, but since then it has been wonderful. I wish I'd done all my paperwork on the rainy day, but I didn't. I am trying to finish it today so I can have tomorrow off, but every five minutes I just have to go outside and see what's happening in the garden.

We have a magical frog, which has the power to baffle my camera. I took five photos of it, and all of them are green blurs. I guess that's what happens when a little green frog sits in a sea of green leaves which are moving in the breeze. Nothing will focus. When I asked it to move, it jumped and vanished completely. A miracle!

Perhaps I'll try again later. In the meantime, back to the paperwork.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


I was reading Susan's blog yesterday and she mentioned Not Proud, a site where you can confess anonymously to the sins of pride, envy, sloth, gluttony, greed, lust, anger, and misc. This site has been around for a long time. Am I the last person to have found it?

Reading the confessions is curiously compelling. People confess to the strangest things.

I enjoyed some of the sloth confessions. They made me feel less slothful than I really am, and some of them are pretty surprising. (I've had two years to write an essay, its now due in 36 hours and I still haven't started.) Lust is the least interesting, to me anyway. There are almost no surprises.

I was wondering what a misc sin was, and clicked on it just now to find out. This is what came up:

I cry at the thought of my own funeral.

Then I hit the 'random' button, and got this:

The sight of a whale's tail gives me the creeps.

You never know what will pop up next.

Monday, May 02, 2005


Today I had to go to the bank. Apparently, when I filled out the form at the gym when I was applying for membership, which would also get me a credit card (due to some odd tie-in), I didn't sign my name exactly the same as I did at my bank, where the credit card company sent the form for approval. They are not used to dealing with signatures here. You're supposed to use a hanko, but when I opened my bank account the week I arrived in Japan, I didn't have a hanko, so I've always used my signature. Sometimes this causes trouble, but changing it over would be even more trouble, so I've never bothered.

The letter from the bank arrived when I was at work, a couple of weeks ago, and The Man called the bank for me. He spoke with a woman called Yokota-san, and explained that if my signature had been exactly the same it would probably mean it was forged. Nobody signs EXACTLY the same way every time. She agreed, apologised, and said that it was because that the bank was not used to dealing with this sort of thing, as I was their only customer who used a signature. She said if I came in and asked for her she would sort it all out for me.

The Man was happy when he reported this conversation to me. That was a first for him. Usually when he talks to the bank about anything at all he ends up shouting at them because of their stupidity. He told me it was the first intelligent conversation he'd ever had with a member of the bank staff. He emphasised that when I went in to get this sorted out, I MUST ask for Yokota-san. Then I could be sure the job would be done properly.

Today I finally had a chance to go in. I went directly to a security guard and told him I wanted to speak to Yokota-san. I knew I was supposed to take a number, but figured that maybe he'd get me seen quicker. The bank was very crowded, as the next three days are public holidays.

This tactic did not work. He went around the back of the counter, spoke to somebody, came back, and told me to take a number. He wrote a note on the envelope I had and said that when my number was called I should show the teller the note.

My number was 577. The number up on the display when I took it was 534.

I was determined to be patient. After all, I knew I was going to be taken care of by the most intelligent bank worker at our branch.

Thirty minutes later my patience was wearing thin. I knew this was normal. I was not in a hurry - I had put aside enough time to take all afternoon if necessary. I could see they were very busy. But all the same, impatience was creeping up on me. My limit, I have found, is thirty minutes. When I have to wait more than thirty minutes I start getting mad. It doesn't matter what I tell myself, or how busy they are, or how much time I have. After thirty minutes I start to steam.

The last ten numbers were called very quickly, as the customers with those numbers had obviously got tired of waiting and were no longer there, and suddenly it was my turn. I went to the counter and explained that I needed to see Yokota-san. The woman disappeared into the maze of desks and cabinets behind the counter for a while, came back, and told me to take a seat in the waiting area; Yokota-san would be with me soon. She called the next number.

I sat down. The minutes ticked by, and I felt a sharp pain start to develop behind my eyes. I had now been in the bank for forty-five minutes, and I couldn't stop myself from wanting to know WHY DID I HAVE TO TAKE A NUMBER SO THAT I COULD ASK THE TELLER FOR YOKOTA-SAN WHEN I HAD ALREADY ASKED FOR YOKOTA-SAN? I knew this was a stupid question and I shouldn't ask it as it would only make me mad, but when I tried to calm myself down and stop being irritated at the stupid bank behaving the way it always does (stupidly) the pain behind my eyes only got worse. What did you expect? I asked myself sternly. Did you think that just because they have one intelligent person working there the whole bank would suddenly reform and start behaving logically? Who's being stupid now? Eh?

Finally Yokota-san appeared. Her desk was out of sight from my side of the counter, obviously, because I hadn't seen her before. And I would have known, because SHE WAS ONE OF MY OLD STUDENTS!

The pain behind my eyes vanished the moment she greeted me. I hadn't remembered her name, but I remembered her face perfectly. She was a student at a place where I don't work anymore, a place where the majority of students were ... let's just say they were not very good. She was one of the good ones. She was a DARLING. And she had actually learned something.

She sorted out the problem in record time. I had been asked, in the letter, to bring in identification. I handed over my passport, and she handed it back without looking at it. "No need!" she said. "I know you!" (And that was proof of her good sense and intelligence right there - I've had to 'prove' my identity to bank clerks I have been chatting with for years in that place because whatever form I'm filling in 'requires' it.)

It turned out that the reason my signature had been sent to the bank for verification was that on the form I had forgotten to write my PIN number under my signature. I had signed in three places, and in two of them I had written my PIN number, as requested, but in the third I hadn't.

"But I wrote it here!" I said, pointing. "And there!"

"Yes," she sighed. "They are very... careful."

"If they're so careful, why do they want me to reveal my 'secret' bank PIN number to the people at the gym, the credit card company, and anybody else who happens to see the form?" I asked.

"Yes, it is very strange. Sorry," she said.

"Oh, it's not your fault," I said. "It's the credit card company. And the bank."

I told her that The Man was impressed with her intelligence and good sense. "He told me that you are the first intelligent person he has ever spoken to at this bank," I said. "Usually he comes in and shouts at people."

She lit up with a huge grin. "Metcha ureshii!" she said, and I wasn't sure whether she was happy about the compliment or at the shouting. Both, probably.

I was feeling happy when I left the bank, and that was a first for me. Yokota-san's English was wonderful (our conversation was half in English and half in Japanese, which was fun), and that made me feel like a successful teacher. Plus she is sensible and intelligent, and I'm taking credit for that, too. I taught her to use her good sense and intelligence. There is no other explanation.

And I now have a friend at the bank, which should make my life easier the next time they screw up.

I went to have a coffee after that, to celebrate. Outside the coffee shop there was a bicycle parked with a dog in the basket. The dog was a fluffy white thing with flappy ears, and I petted it, which it seemed to appreciate. Its ears had been dyed bright pink.

That made me happy, too.

Sunday, May 01, 2005


We have a plant in the garden which I bought a few years ago. I have long since forgotten what it's called. (Maybe a reader can enlighten me?) It has beautiful cascading white flowers at this time of year, and when I am out in the garden in the evening, when it is almost dark, it appears to glow luminously. The effect is stunning.

When I took this picture the flash didn't work for some reason, so it turned out unexpectedly well.


When I came home yesterday afternoon I got the feeling I was being watched. I looked around nervously. There was nobody in sight. The painters over at the house next door had finished for the day, and there was nobody up on the scaffolding, but the feeling persisted.

Then I looked up into the tree, and saw that I was right. I was being watched.