Monday, January 31, 2005

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

Via Orac, at Respectful Insolence, here are The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.

I laughed and nodded and cringed all the way through this. Laughed because it is funny. Nodded because it's funny because it's true. Cringed because I kept thinking, Is that me? Am I stupid? After all, the first basic law is: Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

The means that one of the number of stupid individuals you've underestimated could be yourself, right?


Today The Man and I went on a shopping expedition. We wanted to buy a saucepan, a fluorescent light tube, and something for dinner. We came home with the makings for curry and a wind-up cow.

We cycled further than usual because not many places sell saucepans around here, and when they do there isn't much choice. But when we got to the big store that used to have kitchen things on the fourth floor, we discovered they'd turned that entire floor into yet another ¥100 shop. Naturally we had to investigate, and that was when I spotted the cow.

A while ago I found a wind-up ninja on horseback in a ¥100 shop, and gave it to a friend in NZ. It was very successful present. It was utterly absurd. It bucked dementedly and made strange whirring noises, and everybody wanted one. When I came back to Japan I tried to get a couple more, but they'd stopped selling them. The cow is almost as good. It has a slightly drunken, head-nodding walk.

After we got home we went out again instantly after trying to turn on the light in the hallway.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

My bowels are just fine, thank you

A few days ago I got the feeling I was catching a cold. You know the feeling - you have a sort of almost sinus headache, and your nose doesn't feel quite right, and your throat is a tiny bit scratchy. There's a funny taste in your mouth and it's almost but not quite like you've got a cold. You don't have a cold. You have a pre-cold.

Since then I've been eating mikans (mandarin oranges) until my skin has turned yellow. I've also been cleaning out my sinuses twice a day, and taking a kind of Kampo medicine that often helps, helping myself to large doses of Vitamin C, and indulging in more than the usual spoonfuls of Manuka honey, because it's good for everything (and besides, it tastes heavenly).

So far my assault on this impending cold seems to be working. Today I feel fine. But earlier I was reading over some old blog entries - I've been blogging for a year! (I deleted some of the earliest archives, but really, it's been a year!) and wondered if perhaps I shouldn't fight this pre-cold quite so determinedly. If I actually get a cold, I will have an excuse to visit the obliging Dr Sanada again, and get some more of his wonderful medicine. It was thanks to Dr Sanada that I had my first ever flying dream, and I haven't had one since.

Also, it's a long time since anybody asked me how my bowels were.

Dear Soup

Friday, January 28, 2005

Thought for the day

We're all the same age until we die.

Good for the soul

Being a part-time language instructor at Japanese universities can be nerve-wracking. You have no job security, no contract beyond one year, no medical plan, no pension, and very little support from the individual universities. Every year around November/December you go through hell as you try to juggle next year's schedule. You never know what your income will be from one year to the next. (There are advantages too, of course, but that's not what I'm writing about today so I'm not going to mention them.)

I work at three places. Two are fairly well organised, which makes my life easier. One, in particular, is wonderfully reliable. I've had the same four classes there for at least eight years now, always on the same day. Another always gives me the same number of classes on the same two days, although occasionally the schedule and types of classes will change.

If I only had those two jobs I'd be able to survive, although I wouldn't be able to save money, and this is why I leave two days open for the other university, where the scheduling system (if you can call it a 'system') is a horrible mess. This university is a 10 minute bicycle ride from my house, and this is the only reason I still bother working there at all. I can be flexible. They use my flexibility. They bend me until I almost snap, on a regular basis.

At this university the new person in charge of hiring approached me apologetically and told me (last November, early for them) that I would only have one class next academic year. I made a fuss, but not a very loud one. They told me the same thing last year and I ended up with six, which was far too many. Three is ideal. I can manage with one.

A few weeks later I was asked urgently if I could do one more. I accepted. That made two.

At the end of December I received the paperwork (syllabi, course book selections, etc) for three classes. I put it aside, ignoring the 'due by' dates. I was pretty sure it wasn't over yet. (The other universities' scheduling was finished back in late November, kinks ironed out by mid-December.) There was no indication of when these classes would be, but I hoped they had remembered which two days I was available.

Today I received the paperwork for yet another class, along with the schedule. There was no 'could you possibly do one more class? consultation. The paperwork came out of the blue. Four, eh? I thought. I suppose I can manage that. Thanks for asking. I giggled hysterically to myself.

The problem is that I happen to know that another teacher there, who was hired last year FOR ONE YEAR ONLY, YOU MUST UNDERSTAND THAT IT IS FOR ONE YEAR ONLY, WE ARE EXPECTING THE TEACHER YOU ARE REPLACING TO BE HERE NEXT YEAR has also received paperwork, for the same classes he had last year, but has already accepted classes at different places because he thought his job was FOR ONE YEAR ONLY YOU MUST UNDERSTAND IT IS FOR ONE YEAR ONLY and nobody had approached him to ask if he could do another year after all. He hasn't told them yet that he isn't available. Well, he has told somebody, but it is the wrong somebody, and at that place information is guarded jealously. It doesn't get around.

I do not want to be overworked again next year, but I just know they are going to ask me to take over at least one of his classes.

One year, at this school, they were three weeks into the first semester before one lone student thought to inform the office that her class had no teacher. Thirty or so students had been turning up for class for three weeks, and when no teacher turned up they ... went to the office and complained bitterly? Protested because they had paid good money for their education and there was no teacher? No. They went home again!

Heads rolled over that one. I'm wondering how many heads will roll this year. It's shaping up nicely.

I like working there. There is never any shortage of drama and entertainment, and a little uncertainty is good for the soul.


The Man just told me that when he was at school he learned that in proper English you couldn't use the relative pronoun who with a plural subject. In other words, it is ungrammatical to say, for example, People who wear too much perfume should be forced through a sheep dip before getting on the rush hour train.

I told him I'd never heard such nonsense, and asked him what he was told to use instead. He couldn't remember. He thought it might have been which.

"People which wear ...?" I said. "I don't think so!"

"OK, so maybe it wasn't which," he replied, but couldn't come up with a feasible alternative. It wasn't that. He remembered that much.

He wondered whether it was an old rule, since many of the English grammar rules taught at Japanese schools back in the Dark Ages, when he was at school, were already at least 100 years out of date even then. (These days they're 140 years out of date.)

I don't think so, though. Have you ever heard of this one? Which ancient grammar rule could his teacher have been invoking when he got this one wrong?

Incidentally, besides having to memorise a lot of arcane, useless, and frequently wrong grammatical rules, The Man's English education also included various disconnected bits of literature, most of which were meaningless to him at the time. Imperfectly remembered snippets stuck, though, so that I cannot start a sentence, "I wonder ..." without him feeling compelled to interrupt, "Lonely as a cloud." These days I do it too, and annoy my friends.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

How to use it

How to use the Beauty Smile Trainer:

Beauty Smile Trainer

Daryl Sng has inspired me again. He's posted about Japanese devices to give you double eyelids or longer noses.

And that reminded me that I have here, in my desk drawer, a very low-tech Japanese device, designed to give you a more beautiful smile.

That's right - it's a bit of plastic.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Bend over

Everybody has seen what can happen to the English language in Japan. It's famous. Less well known is that when English words are abbreviated here they can sometimes get cut off in odd places. This can have unexpected results.

Yesterday a friend told me that when she was coming through customs recently, back to Japan after a lovely holiday elsewhere, one of the questions the customs officer asked her was, "What are you doing in Japan?" (This sort of question should be struck from the list of questions to ask long-term residents as it is likely to bring on an existential crisis if you actually start to think about it.)

My friend was tired. It had been a long flight. She pointed to her passport and replied, "It's written on my visa. I'm an Ass Professor."

The customs officer waved her through.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


Who says toilets can't be pretty?

Monday, January 24, 2005

Schrödinger's Turtles

At the flea market last Friday I was hoping to get a better photo of the turtles, but they weren't there. I didn't remember them ever not being there before, and it felt as though the world had gone askew. There are always turtles at ShiTennoji.

But no. The Man tells me that the turtles have either been moved into quarantine, or died, from the Koi Herpes Virus that has been sweeping Japan for the past couple of years. "Well, which is it?" I asked. "Died, or quarantined? There is a difference, you know."

But he can't remember, useless man. He just remembers reading something about it. I have given him strict instructions to find out what happened to them EXACTLY. None of this waffly business. They are either dead or they're not. They're not Schrödinger's Cats. Or even Schrödinger's Turtles. (For a serious explanation of Schrödinger's Cat, try here, but that first link is much more entertaining.)

In any case, the turtles are gone. I hope they come back. I miss them. I miss throwing food in the pond for them to ignore.

Instead of turtles in the pond, there was just one lone bird, so I took a photo of that instead.


Daryl Sng mentions a seriously powerful pogo stick, the Flybar. I clicked the link and had a look. When I was a kid we had a pogo stick, and I thought a seriously powerful pogo stick sounded like it could be fun.

Daryl didn't mention the best bit, though: the reviews. They are a revelation, and after reading them through I decided that this is the sort of fun I can do without.

Here's an example.

This dude down the street got one and made us all so jealous. I had to try it. After a few minuets I got up about 3 feet and then I came down and the bar rammed up into my jaw which is broken in 2 places, and got wired shut until last week.


Sunday, January 23, 2005

Super beautiful

The Man and I went to Uniqlo again today (cheap shirts!), and while we were wandering around the store a couple of kids went running by, a very small boy and a slightly larger girl. When the boy saw me he skidded to a stop, and held out his toy kaleidoscope.

"Look at this!" he said. "It's super beautiful!"

He handed it to me, and I looked through it obligingly.

"You're right," I said, handing it back. "It is beautiful."

He nodded matter-of-factly and ran off, leaving his older sister still hiding behind a rack of sweatshirts and peering out at me with horrified fascination. When I smiled at her she looked frightened. She was old enough to know better than to approach a foreigner. What a dummy! you could see her thinking. Doesn't he know that gaijins eat small Japanese children for breakfast?

Goings-on at the flea market

I think it must be a rule of flea markets in Japan that there must be a skull. Yesterday's skull had a rib cage as well, and was listening to music. Its expression was fiercely angry. I think it was listening to heavy metal, or possibly to rap with unpleasant lyrics.

And speaking of music, I spotted James Brown, and pushed his buttons. This caused him to sing, loudly and rather tinnily, I GOT YOU (I FEEL GOOD) while swaying from side to side and shaking his head.

The owls and tanuki listened carefully...

...except for two, which had gone for a walk, got lost, and ended up in the wrong stall.

It is not surprising they got lost. So did we, as usual. The map didn't really help because it wasn't portable. It only told us where we were when we entered and already knew where we were. When we were lost the map was back at the entrance, and we didn't know how to get there. And when we eventually did get there, we knew where we were again and didn't need the map.

Lacking legs, the floozie's alternative heads couldn't wander off and get lost. They waited, dreaming impatiently of what they would do when it was their turn with the body. "That bit of hair has been tickling my nose for weeks, and it's driving me up the wall," I heard one say as I went past. "I WANT HANDS! I WANT TO SCRATCH!"

Saturday, January 22, 2005


Remember the clock guy at the flea market? Well, my friend and I went to the same flea market again today, and when we got to his stall he wasn't there. He'd gone off somewhere, leaving his new floozie in charge. Typical man, expecting the woman to do all the work.

She got her revenge, though. She sulked, refused to respond to potential customers, and didn't sell a thing.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

How not to learn English

Yesterday I wrote an enormously long blog entry about my students, which I then deleted because it was too cynical and nasty. I should not blame them for being demoralised and unmotivated. It is not their fault, and it is not mine, either. If they choose to watch TV all night and then fall asleep IN THE MIDDLE OF A TEST and then fail the test, that is because they don't think their education is worth anything. And it isn't, most of the time.

(Of course it is worth something in my class, but they don't know that.)

The students at that particular university are demoralised for good reason. When I have first year students there, I always notice how excited they are about entering university. They're ready to learn, and they're a delight.

Then, sometime around May or early June, they lose it, just like that. All the sparkle goes out of them. One week I have an enthusiastic and fun class, ready to try anything I ask them to do, greedy to learn, and the next week I walk in and greet them and they ignore me. This happens every year, and I used to think it was me. I would go into a panic, trying to remember what on earth I did last week to turn them against me like that. I would go over my notebook, trying to find clues, but I could never figure it out. Reading over my old teaching notebooks I find things like, lively, fun, exciting class, they're really into it, must reinforce with more activities using this language soon, they're getting it! one week and the next week it's, five students sleeping, seven absent, nobody wants to study, they're all talking loudly in Japanese and refusing to listen to me... WHAT AM I DOING WRONG?

Then I learned of the term Gogatsubyou, which translates literally as May illness. It refers to the fact that new things tend to start in April here (jobs, the academic year), and by May people are ... disillusioned. I think that's the best word.

I got an idea of why this happens one year early in my university teaching career, when I finished a class a few minutes early sometime in late May and a couple of students stayed behind to study for another class they had after lunch. I looked over their shoulders to see what they were studying, and found that they were poring over huge long photocopied lists of English words along with their phonetic transcriptions. I was surprised by this, as I didn't know they were familiar with the phonetic alphabet. I was also excited. I thought maybe I could use it in my classes occasionally, incorporated in the little mini-pronunciation lessons I throw in now and again.

For fun I started reading down the list, sounding out the phonetic transcriptions. I wanted to know what kind of accent their teacher had. Three or four words down I came to a word that had been transcribed wrongly. It was not the kind of mistake you get when you don't know how to pronounce a word, but the kind you get when you make a typo. It was nonsense. I pointed it out to the students, and started to correct it, but they got agitated and stopped me, panic written all over their faces.

"No no no no no!" they cried, and added, in Japanese, "We have to learn it exactly like that."

"But it's wrong," I told them. "This isn't how the word is pronounced. It isn't even close!"

They stared at me, flustered, but adamant that I shouldn't change it. Going through more of the list I found that there were a lot more of these kind of mistakes. It was ludicrous. I asked them to explain.

It took a little while to figure out what was going on, but eventually I learned from the students that:

(a) This word list was one they had to memorise for a test for their English pronunciation class. They had these tests every two or three weeks, with about fifty to a hundred words every time.
(b) The students didn't know what the phonetic symbols meant. Not only did they not know the sounds each symbol represented, they were only vaguely aware that they represented sounds at all. All they were sure of was that they had to memorise them for the test.
(c) The students didn't know what the words themselves meant. The words weren't in any kind of context, and the students weren't required to know the meanings.
(d) Their English pronunciation class was taught by a Japanese professor who taught the class entirely in Japanese. They weren't sure if he could speak English.
(e) The list was the professor's list. If I changed it and they wrote the right symbols, he would mark it wrong. They were sure of that, and certainly weren't about to challenge their professor just because a part-time foreign instructor said he was wrong. The idea horrified them. They were also worried about hurting my feelings, and I'd put them in a nasty spot by telling them about the mistakes. They didn't want to insult me, but he was more important. He was a tenured professor, a real academic, and I wasn't. Besides, I was just a foreigner. They liked me, but I was not to be taken seriously. (They did not say this, but I got it.)
(f) The students did not want me to teach them the pronunciation of the phonetic symbols. They felt it would just confuse them and make it harder for them to pass their tests. (They were probably right.)

After this encounter I went back to the teachers' room in a daze. I now understood several things. I understood why my students' pronunciation did not improve when they took pronunciation classes. I understood why they became demoralised by their 'study' of English, and why I found it so hard to keep them interested. They had several other English classes a week, and only one with me. I was teaching them the sorts of things their other professors were probably then telling them were wrong and would fail them for.

I understood that Gogatsubyou was not my fault.

At another, 'better' university last week, something similar happened when I finished the last class early. Several students instantly took out textbooks for their next class, to study for a test. Naturally I asked to see the books, and asked about their other class. The textbook was a reading text and looked pretty interesting to me.

I was surprised by how much of the textbook they'd gone through in one semester, though. It was a fat book, with a lot of native-level reading in it. But then I noticed that every chapter (about five closely printed pages) ended with a 'chapter summary' of one short paragraph, and that one paragraph was the only one covered with student notes - tiny translations of almost every word written between the lines. I asked the students what they did in their reading class.

They told me that in class the teacher read the chapter to them in Japanese, from his lecture notes, which were a translation of the English with his own annotations. For homework they had to translate the summary paragraph into Japanese as well.

I waited for more, but that was it. That was their 'reading' class. The test was for them to translate a couple of the summaries again. They weren't told which ones, so they were memorising them all. In Japanese, of course.

It's a miracle that my students do as well as they do in my classes, all things considered.


If the plural of goose is geese, what is the plural of moose?

Just wondering.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Twinkle twinkle

I've just been fooling around with Photoshop, removing a weird stain from a colleague's neck which does not exist in real life. I think it was a trick of the light. While I was about it, learning as I went, I added a tiny twinkle to another colleague's eyes in the same photo because I thought he was looking a little dull.

At least I thought I was adding a twinkle, but it turned out more like a gleam. He now looks ever so slightly devilish, although it's hard to see exactly why unless you know what I've done. It's amazing what a difference two pixels can make.

Nobody is safe from me now.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Office gossip

I just sent an email to a friend who will be working at one of the same places as me from the next academic year, and who attended the meeting/party last Saturday and met some of the other teachers there, plus the boss. She was a bit worried about doing anything to upset the boss. I wrote:

Regarding the Mad Man (aka 'Dear Leader') - he's very easy to manage as long as you flatter him now and again. His bark is much worse than his bite. He responds very well to the good cop-bad cop thing - treat him in a sort of motherly, kind way most of the time, but occasionally say something that displays how much better a teacher/academic you are than he is (without actually SAYING so, you understand - you have to say things that he doesn't know (easy!) but things he will be able to pretend to know because you act as if you assume he does), and now and then say something flattering about how hard he works (ha!) and how much he does for us. He'll be putty in your hands. These approaches cater to (a) his need to be loved and appreciated, (b) his deep-down worry that he's not actually worth it and only a mother could love him, and (c) his fears that his academic ability doesn't live up to his title but thank god nobody has noticed yet. He'll be delighted that you appreciate him and think that he works hard, hugely flattered that you like him (he'll try not to show it, and fail), and grateful that you've informed him of something he didn't know without noticing (apparently) that he didn't know it. This last one should be used sparingly - you don't want to make him feel TOO insecure. Once a year is enough to drop something about how, say, sequential development in second language acquisition is a fascinating area of research that should impact how we teach language, shouldn't it? (It won't matter if what you say is 20 years out of date, he won't know the difference.)

See? It's easy, really! (I recommend Google Scholar if you're not sure what to use for that last one. Look up "second language acquisition." You'll find plenty to go on with.)

Oh, and also, try to laugh at his jokes now and again.

The best thing about working at this place is the other teachers. You have an instant social life if you want one, and most of the people are interesting. Extremely interesting, many of them. If you really want to get to know what's going on (or at least a close, entertaining approximation), make a point of cultivating Mike, whose picture I'll attach here in case you don't remember which one he is. If there were an Oscar for Gossip, he'd get it. And he's a really lovely bloke. The best story I ever heard about him was from someone who happened to meet him in Hawaii one year, who said something like, "You don't want to go on holiday with Mike. The five minute walk from the hotel to the beach took a lifetime, because he stopped to talk with EVERYBODY. He approaches total strangers, comments on their beach towels, and the next thing you knew he's talking to them for half an hour, knows their life stories, your nose is burnt and you NEVER get that swim."

That's Mike all over. The friendliest bloke you ever met. He's a darling.

Everything I wrote is true. Dear Leader is a pain in the arse but easy to manage and likeable enough if you only see him once or twice a week. And Mike is impossible not to love even when gets up your nose by knowing things about you you thought were private. He knows everything about everybody, including you, so you might as well be friends with him. He'll love you even though he found out you pick your nose in the privacy of the bathroom. You thought you were safe, didn't you? Well you weren't, and you won't be as long as Mike exists on this planet. Be friends with him. It's easy. Not that he'd be a terrible enemy anyway - he's way too nice for that - but you might as well know what he's saying to everybody about you. Even better, you'll get to find out what's going on with everybody else.

Staying in the loop is important, and with friends like Mike it's also easy. Every workplace has a Mike, and we're lucky. If someone is, say, a drug-crazed and violent small animal torturer, Mike will make that person sound like an endearing drug-crazed and violent small animal torturer, an interesting person you'd quite like to meet despite their funny little quirks. Our Mike is friendly, tolerant, sympathetic, entertaining, interested in everything and everybody, and even his more unpleasant bits of gossip are laced with comments like, "Oh, but he's a good bloke, really, you can't blame him, he's just a bit mixed up, that's all... " - and what's more he really means it, and that takes the sting out of ... well, everything.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Trans-Tasman teasing

Warning: if you click on this link you will be taken to an advertisement. Also, if you are not a Kiwi or Aussie, you might not think it's very funny. You might not think this one is very funny either.

But they made me laugh.

Touched, moved and rocked

The meeting time yesterday was changed because the university was holding entrance examinations, and I guess they didn't want all these foreigners floating around the place laughing too loudly and scaring potential students. For this reason I intended to arrive early, so I could get a glimpse of the nervous examinees and see how they organized the whole thing, but in the end I didn't. I failed to wake up in time. In fact I was late for the meeting.

The meeting was a little disappointing because the Japanese head of department wasn't there and I was deprived of my primary source of amusement: watching him make dots in his notebook and cringe whenever anybody shouted. Now that I think of it that might be because our boss got a promotion last year. Perhaps they think he no longer needs supervision. Well, that's OK, because we're doing quite a good job of supervising him ourselves.

As predicted, the wine was good at the party afterwards, and the food not so, with the expected results. Consequently what I can remember of the meeting is confined to the notes I took, all five lines of them. The only interesting bit is where I wrote what the boss said when he was explaining the new curriculum (our third curriculum in seven years): Everybody will not be happy with the changes. I think he meant to say, Not everybody will be happy, but I'm not entirely sure.

I also learned that all first year students take two other English classes a week, with Japanese teachers. This was a huge surprise to me. I knew some were, but didn't know it was compulsory. If they're getting three classes of English a week, surely they should be showing a bit more improvement by the second semester? And in their second year? But no, some of them - second year students especially - seem to actually get worse. What on earth are they doing in those other classes?

We also learned the average TOEIC score of students overall after their first semester, which was horrifyingly low. But apparently the Grand Poohbar of the university wants to improve student TOEIC scores (which are used as a yardstick by companies recruiting from universities), and this is why we have yet another curriculum change. We are supposed to coordinate with the Japanese teachers from next year. Ooh, what an interesting can of worms that will open! I must admit I'm rather looking forward to it. I wonder if the university will finally notice that some of their teachers of 'English communication' (tenured, no less) can not communicate in English?

I have one first-year student who is really, really good, and has shown enormous improvement. Of course he is taking private lessons, besides the classes he is taking at university, and he studies hard. (In other words I don't have much to do with his improvement.) On Friday I collected the last batch of homework from his class, and he provided a sentence that I fell in love with on the spot. He was writing about a restaurant, and this is what he wrote:

Most of the foods is not expensive, so that it is the good place for people who are kind of a little bit poor like me and have trouble in making ends meet (which means that expenditure exceeds income) to go to.

I don't quite know why I like this sentence so much. Perhaps it is the mixed registers (kind of a little bit doesn't quite go with expenditure exceeds income), or the sheer complexity of the sentence, but also, I think it is the contrast that got to me. I'd just finished reading the other students' homework, which was mostly sentences like,

I can't do cook.
I like first food.
I going to restaurant once a month.
I like hum.

My star student used to stay behind after class to chat with me, and always had lots of questions. He was a delight. He added this message at the end of his homework,

Thank you for helping me improve my ability for speaking English. You did contribute a lot for me. I'll be sure to keep your advice in mind so as not to forget. I appreciate you for telling me a lot of stories and listening to what I said. Did you feel that your heart was touched, moved, rocked or whatever for hearing my messages? Anyway, I enjoyed this class very much. Thank you.

My heart is touched, moved and rocked. Every teacher needs one success story every academic year, and he is mine.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Lend me your ear

One of my colleagues has found a solution to the inaudible student problem. We all have at least one inaudible student, who find it absolutely impossible to speak in English in anything above a whisper. It's just too embarrassing, or something.

Anyway, my colleague recently found a giant floppy plastic ear in a joke shop. He hides it in the palm of his hand, and when the Inaudible Student whispers inaudibly in response to a question he holds his hand to his ear, leans forward seriously, and says, "Pardon?" Then he opens his hand and a giant ear materialises.

I can testify from personal experience that it gives you quite a shock when life suddenly turns into a cartoon, and my colleague says the Inaudible Student generally becomes audible after that. I imagine it's less embarrassing to speak loudly in English than to wet your pants laughing.

Added to my shopping list: One giant plastic ear.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Staff meeting, foreign style

Just found out (because I just read the email, which arrived about a week ago) that our yearly teachers' meeting at one place is scheduled for THIS COMING SATURDAY, and is scheduled to last for THREE AND A HALF HOURS. (Which is actually better than the memorable five hour one a couple of years ago.)

Three and a half hours of sitting around a room of screaming, yelling, laughing foreigners, while the head of department, who is Japanese, sits there pretending to take notes but actually making nervous dots on his paper. (I know. I checked one year.) In Japanese staff meetings everybody politely falls asleep, and I think we frighten him.

I hope the food at the party afterwards is better this year. Last year I was forced to drink too much. They'd provided vast amounts of unexpectedly good wine, along with horrible food. Every bite you took compelled you to quickly drink something, to drown the taste. But then you forgot how bad it was and had another bit of greasy fried chicken (or whatever) because you were so damned hungry, and the next thing you knew your wine glass was empty but then somebody would instantly fill it up again. By the time I got home I couldn't remember what the meeting had been about.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Shaggy dog pictures

I really like this series of pictures. They're the visual equivalent of a shaggy dog joke.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

To the person in charge

Something is horribly wrong with the way things are arranged around here. I was designed to rise at the civilised hour of ten ay em. (Eleven, sometimes.) It is the way things are Meant To Be, and this has been perfectly obvious to me since I was a small child. If I was meant to get up at sparrowfart I WOULD HAVE BEEN BORN A SODDING SPARROW, ALL RIGHT?


Monday, January 10, 2005

Cat language preferences

LanguageLog (see links on left) are talking about some research that shows that rats can recognise (and develop preferences for) different human languages.

It is not news to me that animals can recognise human languages. My Japanese friend decided to learn Chinese, and bought some self-study tapes. But she had to give up the attempt because she couldn't play the tapes. Whenever she did, her cat went berserk. It bounced off the walls, singing loudly in cat language for as long as the tape was playing, and her apartment is not large enough to accommodate both a language learner and a berserk cat. It's hard to say whether the cat greatly dislikes Chinese or finds it too overwhelmingly wonderful.

My friend decided to learn a different language, one more soothing for her cat. I think she decided on Spanish in the end.

My favourite bits (so far)

Here are my two favourite bits (so far) from the Michael Innes book I'm reading at the moment. I'm reading it sloooowly, because it's my last one.

The nethermost of Bultitudes's chins contrived a caressing movement across his chest. It held the negative significance which a physically more reckless man would have achieved by shaking his head. (p. 84)

The Provost reached for a decanter. 'I attribute the still comparatively unclouded state of my faculties to the observance of one single rule. I have taken to nothing but solitary drinking. Drink does no harm if you are in a position to give your mind to it. Moreover the habit is very inexpensive. Two glasses of brown sherry - or, for a change, of light hunting port - consumed slowly between 11 a.m. and noon: I do all my work on it.' (p. 193)

The other thing I'm loving about this book is the characters' names. I keep having to look them up in the dictionary, and sometimes they're not quite there, but almost. The main character (for the first part of the book) is called Routh. There is, of course, Bultitude (which is a real name, but sounds like a mix of multitude and beatitude). Then there is the Marquis of Horologe, who is related to Adrian Chronogramme. Not to mention Geoffrey's aunt (Geoffrey is a major character who hasn't appeared yet, three quarters of the way though), Clepsydra, who is related to almost all of the aforementioned.

And so on.

I'm having a very good time not doing any work. Tomorrow I will be very busy indeed. I finally got around to sorting out exactly what needs to be done, and discovered a whole other pile of homework that hasn't been marked yet. I thought I did it on my last day at work, but I didn't. I probably thought, Ah, what the hell. I have two weeks. Why kill myself doing it all now?

Why indeed? I've had a lovely two weeks of not thinking about work and sleeping half the day every day. What's one day of hellish panic after that? I've earned it!

At least ... well, yes. I have, haven't I?

Sunday, January 09, 2005

More old photos

Here are some more of the old negatives from the flea market. I don't know how old these are, but I'm not proving very successful when it comes to scanning them. I did another thirty or forty (there were over a hundred altogether) and these were the only ones that really worked, and even then not very well. Some of them I could see fairly clearly when I held them up to the light but when I scanned them it didn't work. I probably need a scanner that does negatives, which mine supposedly doesn't. Of course I could just take them in to a shop for developing, but that would be too easy. Besides, it would detract from their procrastination value.

Anyway, here they are.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Electric jacket

Today The Man and I went shopping for a jacket for me. I wanted one that would be good for wearing to work on my bicycle in winter - a waterproof windbreaker type that was also warm. They had a sale above the local supermarket so we went to look at them together. They were men's jackets, but I always buy men's ones here. On the women's jackets the sleeves are always too short.

I tried on several. Every time I thought I'd found one I liked The Man would find another one that might be better, and would insist that I tried it on. I'm happy with the one I ended up with. I'm particularly happy with the large and numerous pockets. I like pockets.

But you know how these jackets are often made of nylon or other artificial materials? And how those materials are very good for building up static? And remember what I said earlier about having a problem with static shocks in winter? Well, one thing I didn't say is that The Man has never been particularly sympathetic to this problem. He wasn't unsympathetic exactly; he just didn't take it very seriously. When I complained about it he sort of brushed it off, as if I were making too big a deal out of it.

Well, he takes it more seriously now, I can tell you. When I was taking off a particularly slippery nylon (or whatever) jacket, he reached over to help me, our fingers touched, and BZZZT! I gave us both a huge jolt. It was a good one. It made a nice loud crackling sound, too, and we leaped like jack-in-a-boxes. It was as good as the ones I get from the door handle at my Monday/Wednesday job (which, incidentally, has been giving me a very hard time since the weather got drier).

The expression on The Man's face was priceless. He looked shocked and indignant, as if I'd done it on purpose. You know how when you get an electric shock your immediate impulse is to fight back? Well, for a moment I thought he was going to hit me. He looked that mad. Then he stared at his hand disbelievingly.

I finished taking off the jacket, laughing and saying "See? That's what I've been telling you about!" and he reached out to take it, saying something about how he didn't realize it could be quite that powerful, that was a big one, eh - and as our fingers brushed it happened again. He was stunned into silence, and got that indignant face again. Then he started laughing, too.

We decided that that jacket probably wasn't a suitable one for me.

But I'm not sure whether the one I got is any better. I couldn't test it, because when I tried it on and reached out my hand to him he backed off as if my finger had turned into an electric cattle prod. Perhaps I'll just have to wear it to class one day, and test it on a student.

What was I saying?

These two weeks off have been very good for me. I've been sleeping - painlessly! - for 9 or 10 hours every night, resting a lot, eating a lot, and generally recharging my batteries. On the other hand, I now have to think about classes, which start again next week, and which then finish quite soon afterwards. The first week I start and finish my Tuesday and Friday classes, and the second week I finish my Thursday classes, and then the Monday and Wednesday classes drag on for another two weeks after that. It's all very confusing.

It also means that all the terribly important paperwork that I've been putting off for two weeks, or in some cases two months, cannot wait any longer. It must be finished before the last classes. That was one of the things I was supposed to do during this break, and I have three days left.

The terribly cruel joke about Japanese weather is that when it is exhaustingly hot and humid in the summer, when I'm not working, I can't sleep well because my neck plays up and I'm in pain all the time. Then when the humidity goes and with it the pain, it's so damned cold I don't want to get out of bed in the morning, but I have to, because I'm working. These two weeks have been heaven. I've been making up a sleep deficit going back six months.

The other problem is that resting well and feeling ten years younger feels so ... right. I obviously ended up with the wrong family. Somebody switched me with another baby at the hospital, and my real family is fantastically rich. Somewhere out there is a poor little rich girl who doesn't need to work but who feels compelled to, for reasons she can't understand. She goes out and works because she feels unfulfilled if she doesn't have a job. This is because she was not supposed to be born rich. I was.

It was all a terrible mistake. She has my life, and I have hers. I don't feel in the least bit unfulfilled when I'm not working. (Note to poor little rich girl: If you're reading this, I WANT MY LIFE BACK.)

However, I think I may have solved my procrastination problem. From now on, I am going to use the Common Civil Calendar. This will give me an extra day to get all this stuff done before classes start again. I have been told I have to be back in the classroom on January 11th, and according to my (newly adopted) calendar, January 11th is Wednesday. I'll do my paperwork on Tuesday.

And, talking about calendars (well I'm talking about calendars now, OK?) a while ago, well, earlier this year actually but let's pretend it was a few years ago so I don't seem quite so forgetful, I read a book called The Calendar, or maybe not, but anyway it was about the history of the calendar and was written by a guy whose name I can't remember but it might have been Peter somebody. This book has now disappeared into the black hole that is the teachers' room at my Thursday/Friday job, where someone is likely to see you reading something and say, "Oh, that looks interesting! Can I read that after you? I'll bring it back, promise." The book then vanishes forever, and you can't remember who 'borrowed' it, and nor can you remember the name of the book.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. This book had a wonderful bit, well, a huge chunk if I remember rightly, which I might not, about the Gregorian calendar reform of 1582, when ten days were extracted from October. In some countries, that is. Others waited, not quite sure if this was a good idea. Like the dentistry of the time, this was not a painless extraction. It was all very confusing. There were riots, even. Some people believed they had had ten days stolen from them.

I feel as though I've had ten days stolen from me. I think it happened sometime at the beginning of the semester when I wasn't looking. If someone would just give me back those ten days I'll be able to catch up.

I wish I could remember what I started out wanting to say, but I can't, so I'll stop now.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Not the intended effect

A friend's father is a sumo fan, and thinks I'm one too. (I am, but only sometimes.) He is a friend of one of the judges, and every year he gives my friend, to give to me (the weird gaijin friend of his daughter), a sumo calendar.

The calendar is always wonderful, if occasionally overwhelming. Sometimes I hang it up. Sometimes I send it to a friend (it makes a good gift). I do appreciate getting it. I know they are not common. I probably should keep them - maybe one day they'll be worth something.

This year the sumo calendar is particularly interesting, for two reasons. The first reason is the cover. It is a wonderful cover, but I don't think they expected it to be quite so appropriate. There's something a bit spooky about them getting it so horribly right.

The second reason is funnier, and my friend pointed it out to me inadvertently. She turned to the September/October page. "My father's friend is on this page," she said.

It was embarrassing the way I hooted. Not elegant at all, but she had taken me by surprise.

She stared at me. I pointed, laughing so much I couldn't speak.

She looked where I was looking, and I'm very pleased to report that she folded up with laughter, too. If she hadn't I might have wondered if it was one of those perverted gaijin things.

For language teachers

There is one thing I can now stop feeling guilty about. I had promised myself (a while ago) to put up some links for language teachers who found my blog while searching for teaching materials for present simple. Every time Statcounter told me that a teacher had found me instead of something useful I felt bad about it.

Today I put some links together. They're down on the left in the sidebar, and there aren't many, but they are all ones I have used (except the last one, which I only found today and which looks good for the people who end up here), and they all link to others. Once you're in the ESL Internet world you can easily lose a few hours following links and trying to find anything remotely useful.

The first two sites give actual, usable lesson plans. I put those at the beginning because I know how terrible it can be when you have a couple of hours before a lesson and an empty head. I've been there often enough. The first one is particularly good for this. Humanising Language Teaching is at the other end of the spectrum. It is good for a lift when you're feeling tired and useless. Lots of good reading, lots of inspiration. After reading a few articles and browsing the teaching ideas you'll suddenly find yourself perfectly capable of coming up with a good lesson plan yourself. If you have time.

Also, if you are looking for something specific, you could try leaving me a note in the comments. Maybe I can help. (Comments are emailed to my usual address - using the yahoo address in my profile might not get to me so quickly as I don't often check it.) I have loads of teaching materials on my hard drive, collected over the years, and while I can't guarantee to be here or to have anything helpful for your specific situation, if I am here and have something I'll be happy to pass it on.


"When's the pool boy due, dear? This is getting ridiculous."

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Cultural ambassador

Tonight I had too much to say, so I made good use of the 'delete' button (for which you should be grateful). I've decided that another picture will will do nicely instead.

Also, I thought you'd be happy to know that superior western culture has penetrated even the exotic world of Japanese flea markets.

Monday, January 03, 2005

New Year ritual

Our New Year ritual has become the same over the last few years. We used to go to a bigger shrine,but we got too old to want to deal with the crowds. Sometimes, recently, we've gone somewhere on the second or third, but not for a couple of years, and probably not this year either. We've become comfortable and boring.

In the afternoon of the 31st, as I mentioned before, we headed off to Okaasan's place. On the way I took a picture of another manhole cover. This is the one for her area of Nishinomiya, which is famous for the Koshien baseball stadium. The manhole cover has the stadium featured on it.

In the evening, after our little trip to the new shopping centre, we sat around at Okaasan's place. I drank green tea. I drank a lot of green tea, because Okaasan kept filling up my cup when I wasn't looking and if it's there I drink it. I also ate far too much before dinner, mostly Japanese sweets that people had given Okaasan.

I showed Okaasan my camera, and she was amazed. (She is always amazed by technology. She was amazed by the new phone we gave her several years ago, too. We got it for her because it had a wireless extension, so she wouldn't have to run downstairs every time the phone rang. Several months later when we visited we discovered she was keeping it in a cupboard for emergencies, and was still using her old monstrous black rotary dial thing.)

I showed her how the camera worked by taking a picture of The Man, who was reading a Shogi magazine at the time.

Okaasan then tried it out, and took a picture of her finger.

Quite late, we ate soba noodles in soup, the traditional New Year's Eve meal, and after watching the countdown on TV (Okaasan giggled but participated enthusiastically when I hugged her at New Year), and after more tea, The Man and I headed off in the cold for the local shrine. It took about twenty minutes to walk there along the quiet streets. It was a beautiful night, clear and crisp. We'd had snow in the morning but it was washed away by rain in the afternoon and by evening the sky was clear.

There were not very many people at the shrine, which is a very small one. It had a cosy, intimate feeling. People greeted each other, and the atmosphere was friendly and welcoming.

We went up to the shrine to throw some coins, jangle the bells, and pray. This picture is not of us.

After that we got our fortunes. Mine is on the right. It is a 'small luck' fortune, which says that only if I am good I will have a lucky year. But I must behave myself. I'm not too sure if I can manage that, but I will try.

The Man got one that said it is a good year for him to travel. Well, that is one of the things it said. He was delighted.

After reading our fortunes, we folded them carefully and tied them to the fence provided especially for that.

We were then given sake by the beautiful shrine maidens. (Well, the sake part is true, anyway)...

...and took it to the big fire pit to drink while we warmed our hands, which were by now turning blue. People bring their talismans from last year to burn in the pit, and they also burn wood from the annual trimming of the shrine trees. Boy Scouts tend the fire.

It was a windy evening, and every time a Boy Scout threw another log in the pit sparks flew up and somebody caught fire. This is also a New Year tradition. What would the Boy Scouts do all night if they weren't rushing around brushing sparks off people every five minutes? One time I brushed sparks off a Boy Scout, and the balance of the universe was disturbed.

On the way home I noticed a shabby little house where someone had hung New Year decorations inside the front door, creating an unexpectedly beautiful effect with the frosted glass and the light behind it. I took a picture.

We got home at about 3.30 am, and after some more tea, went to bed.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Photo puzzle

Today I started scanning the other negatives I got from the flea market. These are not so old, but they are a puzzle. I can't figure out what kind of person took these photos. It doesn't help that out of the twenty negatives I scanned today, only about six are viewable. The rest come up blank. I'm not sure if this is my scanner or the negatives - my scanner is not set up to scan negatives. I think you need special hardware for that. On the other hand, the plates turned out pretty well. Perhaps it's just me. I don't really know what I'm doing.

Anyway, this photographer either went abroad or found gaijin children here in Japan to photograph. The house also doesn't look particularly Japanese, but then many Japanese houses don't, so that doesn't mean much.

Here are four of the photos. First is the house. I've included this because I rather like the photograph. After that is the children. Do you recognize anybody? Next, what appears to be a family photo, except that everybody in it is male. And finally, a bunch of men sharing a naughty joke. Well, they're sharing some sort of joke, and since they're men, it's probably naughty.

Wild English

On the 31st we went to Okaasan's place. First we dropped off some shopping we'd done for her, and then went for a walk. We wanted to check out a huge new shopping centre that had opened quite near her place. Not near enough to be convenient for her, unfortunately, but it was a nice walk for us in the crisp afternoon air.

The inconvenience of the location turned out too be not much of a drawback for Okaasan, as we couldn't see anything much in there to interest her. It is a shopping centre for young people with too much money and not enough sense. Also, for young people with cars - I've never seen such a large parking space at a shopping centre here. It's all very modern and fancy, and most things are grossly overpriced.

I took my camera, and pretty soon a theme started to emerge in the pictures I was taking. They had made extensive use of English in this mall. This first shot is from outside a very expensive cake shop. One slice of cake (which looked very nice, I must admit) cost ¥700. I don't know why they wanted us to take it away in a jewel case, though.

Although it is true I am a human woman, this shop was too overpriced for me, and besides, everything in it was the same size. I do not have a 63 cm waist.

We decided that while juice might be a good idea, kissing was reserved for those closest to us. We do not want kisses from juice stand part-timers. What an unhygienic idea.

We got tempted by glorious food next, but Okaasan had a lot of even more glorious food waiting for us at her place, so we decided to give this one a pass, too.

The window on the other side of the door of that particular restaurant had even more English on it. Someone put a lot of work into this.

This bakery had overpriced bread that looked the same as any other bakery's bread. However, their advertising was in English, which made it 'international' - a very important selling point.

There was a branch of Asahiya book store in the shopping centre, and I got momentarily excited at the idea of English books in such a local area. Usually I have to go to Osaka if I want English books. The Asahiya in Osaka has a good selection.

Unfortunately the only English at this branch of their store was on the walls.

On our way home, we passed a hairdressing salon, and I had to get my camera out again. I thought I'd finished, but I hadn't.

In case you can't read the writing, here it is close up:

I have decided to call this blog entry 'wild English' because it consists mostly of English as it is seen in the wild, in Japan. It has been captured, wrestled with, pinned down, and forced into service, but it has not been tamed.