Sunday, April 30, 2006


Anybody know what these flowers are called? They're bulbs, very small, and like little stars.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

1068, and counting...


(Via Lynn.)

Mystery memo

On Wednesday one of the Japanese teachers approached me in the teachers' room.

"I have a question about English," he said. "It's just a quick one, won't take long. Do you have time?"

"Of course," I said. "What's is it?"

"I'm wondering how to translate this into English," he said, showing me a memo we'd all received a few days ago.

I stared at the memo. It looked vaguely familiar.

I remembered we'd got a bunch of stuff in our mailboxes, and rather than struggle through them I'd taken my usual easy way out by asking the lovely secretary, and chucking away the ones that weren't important. I seemed to remember that this was one of the 'not important' bits of paper. But I couldn't understand anything on the memo, and felt stupid.

"Which one is that?" I asked, staring at it and struggling to understand even a few words that might give me a clue.

The teacher stared at it, too. "It's about ... it's about ... Well, that's the problem. I don't know how to say it in English."

"How about in Japanese?" I asked. "What's the main topic of the memo?"

He hesitated, looking embarrassed.

"Well, actually, I don't know that, either," he said, finally. "That's why I was asking you. I thought maybe you could make it clearer by putting it in English."

What a sneaky man! He didn't want to admit that he couldn't understand a memo written in his own language, so he asked me to translate it into English so that I would feel stupid instead!

"That must have been one of the ones I threw away," I told him. "Let's ask some of the other teachers."

He really didn't want to, but I insisted. By now I was curious and didn't care whether his feelings would be hurt.

We both stopped feeling stupid when it turned out that nobody understood the memo, including the secretary. Her response to it was to laugh and say,

"Don't worry about it."

Nobody could even begin to explain the TOPIC of the memo, in ANY language.

We decided that if the memo turned out to be important, our lack of response would inspire somebody to write another, clearer memo, and if it wasn't, it didn't really matter.

But now I really want a copy, so The Man can have a go at translating it. I'll have to see if I can get one from another teacher next week. This is the problem, not having adequate Japanese - gems drop in my lap and I don't even notice. That memo must have been a positive MARVEL of obfuscatory prose.


I have discovered podcasts. I know they've been around for a while, and I'd heard of them and may have even listened to a couple, but I've just found out how much variety is out there.

Yesterday on my commute I listened to a podcast about English language teaching, and the speaker (presenter? what do you call a podcasting person? A podcaster? A podder? A pod person?) read an email he'd got from a teacher in Thailand, who wanted advice about his classes. His classes all contained fifty students or so, met once a week, and he had 19 different classes.

The podcaster said something like, "Well, I don't work in a situation like that, but my first reaction is that it's hopeless. You can't expect to accomplish much, or even anything, with such large classes meeting so infrequently."

Then he went on to say that the maximum class size he taught himself was fifteen, and he had to get special permission when one extra student turned up and he had sixteen. He meets his students three times a week.

I almost fainted from envy.

Then I went into work and spent my first class having to yell to be heard over the voices of thirty-two students who don't want to learn. At one point I stared at my the class of giggling, gossiping students, who had apparently forgotten I was there, and thought to myself,

Fifteen students! Fifteen MOTIVATED students. What would I DO with them?

And suddenly I felt better, because I didn't have a clue what I'd do with them. I knew what to do with my lot, though.

"DICTATION!" I bellowed happily, and my students jumped and noticed my existence. Then they started hunting for pencils and paper. They love dictation, and I've been trying a new (to me) dictation method that works wonderfully for all kinds of things.

Today, instead of a work related podcast, I listened to some stories on my commute, downloaded from Miette's Bedtime Stories. She is a wonderful story reader, and has chosen some great stories. I particularly recommend this story, my favourite so far. It is short, and the sudden ending surprised me until I realized it didn't need to go any further. I had already constructed the rest of the story myself as I was listening. I think I'd have missed how perfectly this was done if I were reading it rather than listening.

I listened to two more stories on my way home. I think I have a new addiction.

Just now as I was typing a wave of tiredness swept over me so strongly I felt dizzy. I had more to write, but it is time for bed. I'll catch up over the weekend, maybe.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Two pictures

The weather was beautiful yesterday and I took a few photos. Here are two. The first one is of a flower, which perhaps someone can name for me. The second one is of a bulbul (I think) that was sitting in a tree nearby as a colleague and I had lunch in the little park next to the university.

Middle-age spread

Yesterday morning I made the mistake of expressing my horror to The Man about the spare tyre I am developing around my middle.

"I've never had this before," I said, grabbing a handful to show him.

He stared, aghast. Then he kindly pointed out that it is the beginning of semester, and I always lose weight as semester goes on. This is true, but still, I don't like it much. Is this middle-age spread?

Last night, after I came home, he teased me about it, patting my tummy.

"You've been eating too many hy- hybo- hybocar- ..."

"HYBOCARDRATES!" I shouted gleefully, and had to duck.

Then he looked horrified as it dawned on him that he had just said something bloggable and the whole world would get to hear it and laugh. (Well, at least the fraction of the whole world that reads this.) Also, he will never be able to tease me about my tummy again, because whenever he does I will promise solemnly not to eat so many hybocardrates.

We're even.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


The other day I witnessed a conversion.

I was early for work, and cycled up the river admiring the cherry blossoms. They were lovely.

Further up, where a small canal flowed into the river, I spotted a heron.

The heron didn't see me. I went up on the bridge to get a better view, and from there I overheard EVERYTHING. This heron talked to himself a lot.

"Oooh, baby..." I heard him say.

"Heeeeere fishyfishyfishyfishyfishy!"

"GOOOOOD little fishy... come to me ... you know you really want to ... Nirvana awaaaaits you ... "


"They don't call me the Fish Whisperer for nothing. HA HA HA HA HA! "

"Let's see if there are any more over here..."


"Bloody karma! I KNEW I shouldn't have become a Buddhist!"

"Maybe it's time to get born again. Being forgiven for everything is SO convenient."

"I suppose I could become a Freethinker, but who wants to THINK? Faith is easier. Besides, everybody knows there really is a Big Bird in the Sky. There must be. I'm irreducibly complex."

"Aha! There you are. HEEEEEERE... fishyfishyfishyfishyfishy ... Goooood little fishy ... Heaven awaaaaaaits you... "

I cycled to work, shocked. I'd thought the heron was deeply spiritual, but apparently he was just lazy. Also, he was into fish deception AND used bad language when he thought nobody was listening.

How appalling.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Weather report

The weather is messing around with my head, I think. I had a hideous headache all day (overcome with medication when I got home) and I've been feeling sluggish. It is typical spring weather, totally unpredictable. Tonight the 'low' is 16C, and tomorrow the 'high' will be 14C. How confusing is that? To make matters worse the yellow dust is back. Also, as usual at the beginning of semester, work is overwhelming me. It always takes a while to get into the swing of things. I haven't had time for my usual blog reading, and feel hopelessly out of touch with the world.

As I was cycling home I noticed that the cherry blossoms were almost finished. There was a stiff breeze, and the petals were falling like snow.

I looked up at the trees and something caught my eye. There was something on top of the power pole.

I used the zoom to get a closer look.

What was the egret doing up there?

I may not be able to keep an eye on the birds these days, what with work and all, but it appears they are keeping an eye on me.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Cuddles, colonoscopies, and committees

After my second class finished today, as I was packing up to go downstairs, some of the students using the room for the next class started trickling in. One was my Vietnamese student from the class of foreign students I had last year. Her face lit up when she saw me and she rushed over to fling her arms around me. I got my SECOND cuddle of the year from a student there. I don't usually get any! But at least this time I knew what it was for. It was because she misses me. I miss her, too, and hugged her back, wholeheartedly. We clung to each other like limpets. Sometimes it's HARD to let old students go.

She told me she wanted to take another of my classes, but I wasn't teaching any more courses that students of her major could take. I was sorry about that, too. I told her to come early to her class every week if she could, and not to wait if my class hadn't finished - just come in and chat with my new students and me. I'll always be happy to see her, and I know the effect she has on other students. She makes them happy, and inspires them. She won't be disruptive.

In another class, one of the students came to see me afterwards to tell me that she wouldn't be able to come next week, because she - and here she fished out a bit of paper where she'd written it down - had to go to hospital to have a 'bowel camera grind.'

I frowned at the paper, thinking, and pulled out my dictionary.

"Do you mean a colonoscopy?" I asked, and showed her the entry in the dictionary.

She looked at the translation.


I wondered where the grinding came in, but didn't have time to ask, nor to ask which particular dictionary she had used to get that awful translation. I had another class starting soon and had to get down to the teachers' room. All my classes there are in different classrooms, and I needed to drop off some books and papers and collect the ones for the next class. At least they're all in the same building, or next door, and I can get to them all in a minute or two from the teachers' room AND have a break. It's a small school.

I will not get six classes there next year, unfortunately. Mrs Hatayama came in again today and said that she had been informed that part-time teachers were not allowed to do more than four classes a week. She was angry about this, she said, and I have to admit I was a little annoyed, too. I had hoped I could drop a couple of classes elsewhere, and spend more time at the place where the commute is a short bicycle ride. Funny how this four-class rule could be broken in an emergency, like a couple of years ago when a teacher suddenly wasn't able to teach after all. That year I took on extra and had five or six classes (I forget which) because they couldn't find anyone else quickly. The rules can be waived quickly when they don't work for the school, apparently.

Only FOUR? I want my six classes! But it looks like I can't have them even though the person writing the curriculum also wants me to have them. She may be a professor, but she has to stick to the rules.


Oh, well. I suppose I shouldn't REALLY be wanting to be working with her, anyway. She is notoriously unreliable, and I've heard she has caused other part-timers trouble because she likes people and then suddenly decides she doesn't like them after all, and creates problems for them, spreading nasty rumours and so on. I don't really think that would happen to me, though. At another place I work there is someone who is notorious for the same sort of behaviour, and so far I've managed to stay in his good books for at least eight years. I'm GOOD at that. I am FANTASTICALLY good at dealing with horribly unpredictable and unstable people. I seem to have the ability to make mentally weird people feel normal, so that they LOVE me. I apparently have a tattoo emblazoned across my forehead saying TOTALLY HARMLESS which mentally unstable people find soothing and which nobody else can see. This is why people feel free to do mad things in my presence.

I don't think I should be bragging about this.

(The Man says The Sneeze (last post) was an example of my madness-attraction properties, but I don't think it had anything to do with me. That sneeze was a surprise to the guy who did it. Nobody knees himself on the chin on purpose.)

So there goes my perfect schedule. I could have had a PERFECT NEXT YEAR and they've ruined it. If I knew who 'they' were I'd try to do something about it, but I suspect they are the usual suspects - some committee, in which case nobody will take responsibility for anything. When committees decide something it's hard to get it undecided again. Nobody wants to stick their neck out.

Sod them all.

Tomorrow I have my last first day of the semester, at the third place I work. Another early start. Another bunch of new students.

Time for bed.

Friday, April 14, 2006


I am becoming very good at negotiating new classrooms. Today I moved the other afternoon one, so from next week I will teaching two consecutive classes in the same classroom. I'll be in heaven. I'll only have to cross that horrible road to the other campus twice, once each way, instead of four times, and I'll be in three different buildings instead of four.

The class I moved was one for a department that usually refuses to change classrooms, I was told, but today my room was unbearable. Not only is it too small, it is one of two rooms that used to be one larger room, and the wall they put up to divide them does not reach all the way across. There is a gap at each end. This means that everything that goes on in either classroom is clearly audible in the other.

There is another English language class going on next door. I don't know where it was last week, because I don't remember hearing anything, but it was definitely there this week. Either the teacher was very, very quiet last week (unlikely on a first day) or he was absent or in another classroom.

I discovered today that this teacher says,


Because I am an obedient person, every time he said, "LISTEN CAREFULLY!" I did. My whole class did. We heard, "LISTEN CAREFULLY!" and we all got listening expressions on our faces and went very quiet, stopping whatever we were doing. This meant we got through about half what I had planned because we spent so much of our time LISTENING CAREFULLY.

One time he said,

"THIS is important and THIS is important and THOSE are important," and was obviously pointing at something on the board, but my students looked baffled so I pointed silently at THE TEXTBOOK and ME and THE STUDENTS and mouthed his words, and my students all started laughing. Then the teacher next door went very quiet for a while, and I felt bad about it. I decided on the spot that there was too much potential for bad feeling and disturbed classes (on both sides), and at the end of a long week I am apparently not capable of reining in my worst impulses, so I would stay after work AS LONG AS IT TOOK and get something done about it. I've only met this teacher a couple of times - we used to work on different days - and I can't remember his name but he seems like a very nice man, and it wouldn't do for me to be sabotaging his class.

Or vice versa, for that matter. I think he got some revenge. At one point I had my students doing some pronunciation work repeating after me, and when I said,

"REPEAT AFTER ME!" I'm fairly sure that my students were not the only ones repeating after me. After the first couple of times they suddenly got a lot louder, and the students in the back row kept glancing back nervously and giggling. I would have asked him about it after class but he gave up before I did, finishing early, and was gone by the time I left. I will apologize next week, and tell him I won't be undermining his classes in the future.

I had spoken to my boss about the classroom situation earlier, and he said that the reason the faculties give for having the language classes in their faculty buildings instead of in the languages building is that it means the students aren't having to move around campus all the time. Instead of, say,10 teachers moving around, you would have 300 students moving around if it were the other way around, he said, and it was hard to argue with that (even though that is how it used to be, and there didn't seem to be any major problems). So I asked the students, to find out where their previous and next classes were, and discovered that only nine (out of thirty) had any classes at all in the periods before and after mine, and six of those were IN THE LANGUAGES BUILDING. (The other three were in a completely different building.)

Armed with that information, and with my entertaining but educationally distressing stories of what it was like trying to teach effectively with two teachers shouting competing instructions through the wall at each others' classes (unintentionally, for the most part), getting the class moved was a piece of cake. It still took almost an hour, though, because I had to go back to the main campus to find an empty classroom and get permission to use it, and then return to the other campus to get permission to move, repeating my story both times. I feel as though I have spent the entire day hiking, and mangling the Japanese language.

The other reason I will be happy not to use that classroom is that it is so cramped that I was squashed between the teacher's podium and the chalkboard, which means that I was forced to lean against the chalk ledge. This left chalk marks on my clothes. There is a chair for the teacher, but if I sat on it I disappeared from sight completely because the podium is so enormously high. (Not to mention wide - it blocks the lower half of the chalkboard and is totally immovable. WHO DESIGNS CLASSROOMS LIKE THIS?) So when I was standing up front I kept putting my hands back to hold myself away from the chalk ledge, and getting more and more chalk dust on my hands. At one point I moved down the narrow aisle to answer a student's question, stood for a while with my hands on my bum leaning over to talk with him, and when I walked back to the front caused great merriment because I'd left two white hand prints on my black skirt. I looked like I'd been groped. It was pretty funny, and I had to turn around slowly so the rest of the class could get a good look, but I'm glad it won't be happening every week.

There were several other things that happened today in classes that I was going to write about, but I can't remember what they were, now. I'm too tired. I do remember, however, an interesting thing that happened on the train platform this morning just before the train arrived. It was about 6.20, and the platform was not very crowded. It is quiet at that time, and I was in that sort of trance-like half-awake state that you get into when you're waiting for a train. I was standing at one of the boarding points, behind and to the side of a mild-looking man, when suddenly he sneezed so violently that his arms flung out, one leg flew up, and he kneed himself on the chin. I jumped so high I nearly went into orbit.

I have never seen anybody do that before. That guy sneezed WITH HIS ENTIRE BEING. Then he went back to looking mild and harmless, but I moved a couple of steps away. I was afraid if he did it again it would be my chin, next time.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


Today was the second week at one of the universities. I walked into my first class, of second-year students, and nobody took a blind bit of notice. They all slouched around chatting, and ignored me COMPLETELY. I had to yell to get their attention, just to call the roll.

Yesterday I was the star of the classroom. Today I had become invisible. There is nothing like teaching for keeping things real. How deflating.

(But by the end of class they were all sitting up straight and totally focused. Turns out they LOVE it when I get mad at their horrible pronunciation.)

Up again at five tomorrow...

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


I had another first day today. Only one class, and it is the same course as last year's DIARRHEA! class, all fresh-faced first-year students. I walked into the classroom and a classful of new faces looked at me expectantly. One of the students shouted,

"BADAUNT-SENSEI DESU KA?" and I said, warily,


And the entire class cheered wildly.

It was astonishing. I am FAMOUS! What a wonderful way to start a new class! That has never happened before. They were all on my side right from the start, and willing to try anything. It was brilliant.

Later, when I had them moving into groups, one of the students had to go past me, and when she came up behind me she HUGGED me and rested her cheek on my back. I patted her arms (the only bits I could reach, folded around my waist) and wondered what on earth was going on. Japanese students don't hug!

"I'm soooo happy!" she wailed from behind me.

This made me wonder what kind of reputation the OTHER teachers have. When I got back to the teachers' room I checked the syllabus to see who the other teachers of this particular course are. There are five classes, and the first year students are divided up and don't get a choice which teacher they get. I was not enlightened when I saw the other names (except one - I wouldn't want him for a teacher, either). Maybe I will ask the students later, when I know them better. It may turn out that they have heard that I teach naughty words and don't give very many tests (because I hate marking them).

One of the students is completely deaf, and I wish someone had warned me. I had a dictation exercise planned for the first lesson, which I abandoned on the spot and did something else instead because I didn't want her to feel left out on her first day. As it turns out she was sitting with a friend who knows Sign, and she can read lips, and her written English is no worse than the others', so it wasn't too bad. She is also an expert at Kendo, apparently, and my first impression of her is that she is a lovely person who will become a class favourite. Everybody was fascinated by her and some of them knew a little Sign, which was great, because she ended up teaching them. It wasn't English, but at least an atmosphere of learning has been established, and anyway I got the others telling me what the signs meant in English so at least SOME English was involved. And then her friend taught her the English words.

I learned the Japanese Sign for Konnichi wa (hello) from her (the whole class did), and will print out and learn a few English Sign words that might be useful in class, to teach her next week. After all, she is supposed to be learning 'English communication.' I don't know quite what the school expects of me, putting her in a class of twenty hearing students, but she doesn't have a choice (it's a required class) so I'll try not to let her down too badly. She and her friend were mostly communicating using Sign, writing, and lip reading. I don't know how much I'll be able to do with teaching her to speak English in the time available. I'm not trained in teaching deaf people to speak and know nothing about it, and don't know how much she can speak even in Japanese - she only used a little today. It is a ridiculous situation. She needs a teacher who knows what to do, and I am not it. I wish the university would be a little more clever about this sort of thing. It is not fair to her to be paying for an education she is not getting. And it was silly not to tell me. I was not prepared.

Professor Hatayama came to see me at lunchtime with her plans for next year's schedule. (She remembered!) She rambled on at great length about her plans for some fancy new curriculum, which include me, and I was very polite and helpful, agreed to everything, and took it all with a large dollop of salt. We shall see.

All in all it was another good day. Having only one class is good anyway (Wednesday is my favourite day at work because of this), but I have never been given a standing ovation by walking into a new class before and discovered that I like it. Of course I am now worried that I won't live up to their expectations - most classes take most of semester to decide that I'm acceptable as a teacher, which gives me the freedom to be a below-par teacher occasionally. But still, it felt good, and having them on my side from the start means that we'll be able to do more because I won't be spending the first few weeks persuading them that I'm not going to penalize them for making mistakes. They made PLENTY of mistakes today, and I was encouraging. But I hope I don't let them down.

My feelings about this have taught me something that is useless to me now but which might be useful for any students reading this. So TAKE NOTE, YOU STUDENT PEOPLE: if you applaud a teacher when she walks into your class for the first time, and act delighted to see her, and lead her to think you have heard she is marvellous, she will WANT to be marvellous and will make extra efforts for you. Plus she will adore you for making her feel good at her job when most of her experience tells her that her efforts are wasted. She will be unreasonably, disproportionately happy, and a happy teacher is a good teacher.

Also, a happy teacher gives better grades, so if you can keep it up your grades will probably be marvellous, too.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Another first day

Yesterday I had three new classes. I think they'll go well, aside from the everlasting student who I've already failed before. I think she's in her seventh year. She has a very hard time staying awake or attending class.

When I went back into the teachers' room after that class, I was chatting with some of the Japanese teachers. They asked me how my class went, and I told them about the everlasting student, naming her. Every teacher in the room started and looked up, horror written all over their faces.

"Her!" said one, and didn't need to say another word. We all knew what she meant.

I intend to treat the everlasting student as though this is a new beginning and as if she has never fallen asleep in my class before. At least I will from next week. Yesterday I went around chatting with each student and when I got to her she smiled pathetically at me and I couldn't resist asking if she was sleepy. That was naughty of me, but she was in one of my courses a few years ago and the only time I ever saw her awake was in the first class. After that she would stagger in at least half an hour late, apologize, sit down, and fall asleep so fast her head would hit the desk with an audible thud. The reason she gave for being so tired, when I asked, turned out to be that she watched TV until four or five in the morning. After five or six weeks she stopped coming to class altogether.

Word is, she is going to graduate, NO MATTER WHAT.

At lunchtime I was chatting with a foreign colleague and she told me that over the vacation she had read back over my blog.

"I recognized myself in there," she said, and I gulped. What had I written? I couldn't remember.

"I never use real names," I said, defensively, and she answered sternly,

"And you shouldn't! You've written stuff in there that ... that ... !"

Words failed her, but I knew how to end the sentence. I've written stuff in here that could get me fired.

It turned out that she didn't mind what I'd written. It was true that her class had made her happy.

"I can't stand the ones who just sit there like dummies," she said. "I MUCH prefer a noisy class," and I knew exactly what she meant.

In between classes, Professor Hatayama (or whatever her name is), one of the full-timers, bustled in and told me excitedly that she wanted to talk to me about next year's schedule. We've only just started THIS year. I think she's still stuck in November, which is when she told me she had me down for a first period Wednesday class because I was such a WONDERFUL, DEDICATED teacher. The funny thing about this was that she told someone else first about how WONDERFUL and DEDICATED I was, and such a CHARMING person, while I was sitting right there, unrecognized. Introducing myself was tricky when she'd just been talking loudly about me as if she knew me. I had never met her before and she didn't know who I was. Perhaps I wasn't being charming enough.

That Wednesday first period class never materialized, and she seems to have forgotten about it. Several OTHER classes materialized, instead, and not from her.

I told her I had a class about to start so couldn't talk about next year's schedule right now, and she said, smilingly,

"Oh, of course. We'll talk later."

She waffled around the room patronisingly, chatting randomly with various teachers. It was like having a visit from a celebrity.

After classes finished, I hung around for a while sorting papers and preparing things for Wednesday, along with a few of the Japanese teachers. I asked one of the teachers how her spring vacation went.

"I crashed my car," she informed me, grinning broadly

My mouth dropped open. She had done that before, and had to get punctuation.

"Oh, it was just a small crash," she added, waving her hand airily. "I drove it into a wall."

She seemed to think it was terrifically good news.

"Was anybody hurt?" I asked.

"No," she said, still grinning. "It was a low wall, and I was parking and didn't see it."


"Wait! Listen!" she said, looking positively gleeful. "My car was old anyway, so I decided to buy a new car! The insurance paid something, so that was good. I drove my new car for the first time today, to work - and it's my birthday!" She chortled. "My birthday present to myself is a new car!"

"Happy birthday," I said, weakly.

Professor Hatayama bustled in again just after we'd congratulated our colleague on her crash and her birthday, and I waited expectantly for her to tell me her latest bit of misinformation. But instead she rushed around opening cupboards, opening the copy machine cover, checking in drawers and rubbish bins, and muttering and laughing and grimacing and giggling about how SILLY it was to lose her glasses, where did she leave them? After a few minutes of chaos as we all halfheartedly looked for and failed to find her glasses, she left again, still waffling on and giggling.

In the sudden silence after the door closed we all looked at each other. One of the more proper teachers converted a snort into a cough, and I stared at her. Was it possible that I was not the only one who thought the professor was mad? She looked back innocently. In fact everybody looked innocent. Too innocent.

"I thought she wanted to talk to me," I said, finally.

"Maybe she couldn't see you without her glasses," said the proper teacher, solemnly, and we all nodded wisely and went back to our work. But thought balloons appeared over all our heads at the same time:


It was a pretty good first day back.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Flowers, dust, and birds

Today as I was cycling to meet a friend I took some pictures of cherry blossoms in the little parks I passed. Unfortunately the sky was not blue today. It was not blue yesterday either. It was a mucky yellow. It is the famous yellow dust, blowing in from China, and has been awful the last couple of days. Even buildings quite near our house looked hazy. It made me feel as though I needed to clean my contact lenses.

I thought this was just desert dust, but I found an editorial in The Korea Times that says that this dust has been found to contain dioxin and heavy metals. Perhaps we should all be wearing masks. Yesterday it was so bad you could taste it.

Anyway, this meant that taking pictures of gorgeous cherry blossoms against a clear blue sky was out of the question. There is no clear blue sky. There is a revolting haze. However, I noticed that cherry blossoms have a charming way of growing, sometimes, directly out of the tree trunk, so I took photos of that, instead.

As I was cycling along I saw something else rather amazing that I was unable to photograph. I actually had the camera hanging around my neck at the time, but it happened too quickly, and besides, I was too busy gaping. It was a crow, flying across the road to land on someone's roof. It was a flat roof, and I couldn't see what it did when it got there. But what made me gape was that the crow had a wire coat hanger dangling from its beak. It looked really odd. When it landed on the roof I couldn't see it anymore, but I heard it drop the coat hanger, then clatter around a bit adjusting the position of the hanger, and then it appeared on the edge of the roof looking purposeful and flew off again, presumably to look for another coat hanger.

Crows use coat hangers to make nests. I can't imagine they are very comfortable nests, but apparently crows do not agree with me. Here is a picture of a coat hanger nest, from the Japan Times. (The accompanying story requires registration (free), but you can see the picture without registering. I suggest using Bugmenot if you don't want to register but do want to read the story.)

Coat-hanger-carrying crows can't be that unusual a sight, but I had never seen one before. I wish I'd been quicker with the camera.

I did, later, get a picture of a sparrow which appeared to be eating cherry blossoms. I don't suppose it really was eating cherry blossoms, but it was very enthusiastic about whatever it had found.

The other pictures I took today were of the erica tree/bush (I thought it was a bush, but it seems to be growing into a tree, oops) in our garden. I used the macro lens for this photo, and it looks unfamiliar so close up.

Tomorrow I meet another bunch of new students. This is at the place I cycle to, and the forecast is for rain. I hope they don't mind a slightly soggy teacher.

Time for bed!

Sunday, April 09, 2006


The first two days back at work are over, and the schedule is about as grim as I thought it would be. The students seem good, though. I'm already fond of the one who turned up on his first day wearing a shirt that said, in large letters,


I asked him why he was wearing it and he said, "Eh?" He didn't know what it meant. I grinned and told him to look it up, which he did. I could tell the exact moment he found 'stupidity' in the dictionary because he went pink suddenly. Then he started giggling.

Also, I have partly fixed the classroom problem.

When I wrote about it before, I said that I had to go from the third floor of one building to the 11th floor of another, on the other campus ver the road, in ten minutes. I was wrong. It was the other way around. The problem was the same, however. The lifts are small and slow, and there are about two hundred students trying to use them at the same time, and it's a long way to walk lugging loads of paper and books.

Yesterday I went to see the (foreign) full-timer who did the schedules and allocated the classrooms, and showed him my schedule.

"I can't do this," I said. "Not if I'm supposed to teach full 90-minute classes. I can't go from - "

He held up his hands and backed off.

"DON'T TELL ME ABOUT IT!" he said, looking very, very defensive. "I KNOW. I TRIED. BELIEVE ME. I CAN'T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT."

Then he explained. He had allocated classrooms as best he could to make them as convenient as possible. Each faculty then changed the rooms to the ones THEY wanted. Most language classes used to be taught in the language department building, which is where the language teachers' room is, and all the language teaching materials, and our lockers, and classrooms set up for language teaching. In the last couple of years, however, for reasons known only to themselves, the faculties have been insisting that we teach the language classes in their own buildings. It started with the economics department, and one by one the others started doing it too. Were they jealous? Is it a power thing? I know the various faculties are barely on speaking terms and there are a lot of power games going on. Maybe they're afraid to let their students leave their faculty building in case another faculty tries to steal them.

Our scheduler told me that he'd tried to get the rooms changed back, but came up against an enormous amount of bureaucratic bullshit and ended up with a lot of people getting annoyed with him. He said that they won't even talk to him about it anymore, he's been bugging them so much. It is always ANOTHER faculty's fault. They tell him to get THEM to change their rooms, and come up with all sorts of bullshit reasons why it is impossible for them to change themselves. He had given up.

"If you want to change your room you'll have to try to do it yourself," he said. "They won't listen to me. But make sure there is a room available first, otherwise they'll just tell you there isn't any option."

He stomped off, looking back over his shoulder to add, morosely, "Good luck," and snort cynically.

Things were not looking good. It was time to get sneaky.

I went to see the lovely Ms Yamashita, the full-time language department secretary in our building. She is not actually our secretary. She is the secretary in the faculty lounge for the full-time language professors. We are not supposed to use the faculty lounge, or the secretary. But we know that she will do stuff for us if she can. We are careful not to overuse her (we could easily overwhelm her and/or get her into trouble, because she never says no to a request for help) but it is good to know that there is at least one administrative person on campus who actually likes us and treats us like normal human beings.

I explained the problem, and asked her whether there were any rooms available in the building for the period I wanted. There was one on the second floor, and she double-checked with the main office and reserved it for me, although I hadn't asked her to. I told her that I wasn't sure if I would be allowed to change yet, but she said it was better to make sure it was still available, in case my request for a change took some time.

I then visited the law faculty, who had insisted that I be put in that impossible 11th floor classroom. I put on my best anxious and apologetic face, and told the office lady that I had come to let them know, in case the students complained, that I would not be able to teach a full ninety minute class because I had anther class on the other campus right after theirs so would have to finish early in order to get to that one on time. I burbled on that I was terribly sorry, I knew I should do the full ninety minutes but it was shigata ga nai (couldn't be helped). I would try to hurry, but I thought I'd probably have to cut 10 minutes or so off the end of the class. I was worried about this, and I wanted them to know I was doing my best. I always start classes on time, I said earnestly, but for some classes I would have to leave earlier in order to start the next one on time, and unfortunately theirs was one I would have to finish particularly early because of it being on the 11th floor and across campus...

I carried on explaining and apologizing at the office lady, who was staring at me like a stunned mullet and nodding dumbly (possibly because of my hideous Japanese), but I must have been speaking too loudly (oops!) because suddenly one of the Big Nobs at the back of the office (where the power is) leaped up and hurried over, butting in rudely.

"You can't finish classes early!" he said abruptly. "Where is your next class? Can't you move it?"

I told him.

"Oh, the arts department," he said. "That's the other campus." He frowned.

"Yes," I said. "It takes time to get over there. Sorry."

The office lady informed him that the arts department would NEVER change their classroom.

Stalemate for a moment. He stared at me, perplexed.

"It's possible that there might be a room available in the languages building," I said, tentatively. "I could probably get to the other campus from there in ten minutes, if I hurried..."

"CALL YAMASHITA-SAN!" he barked at the office lady.

She did, and there was a prolonged and tense silence during which Ms Yamashita excused herself to check classroom availability. (Must remember to take a little something for her next week.) Then she came back to the phone and... what a surprise! There was a classroom available!

The Big Nob ordered the office lady to organize the change, and went back to his desk to pick his nose, satisfied that he had foiled the problematic gaijin who was trying to slack off.

I thanked the office lady, and went back to the teachers' room and told our scheduler that I had changed classrooms.

"How the hell did you manage that?" he asked.

"I didn't," I said, smugly. "I just apologized because I would have to finish classes early and told them I would do my best. Changing classrooms was their idea."

I'm thinking now I might try the same trick on the arts faculty next week. Two consecutive classes in the same building would be lovely.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Why? WHY?

Why can't I be on holiday all the time? I'm GOOD at being on holiday.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Work. Virus. Ping!

Today was spent, as I predicted, in frantic preparation for classes, which start tomorrow. I was happy (and somewhat surprised) to find that I had done quite a lot already in the couple of weeks after last semester finished. At least that's when I suppose I did it, unless I have been working in my sleep.

I was less happy to go over my classroom assignments. I only glanced at them when they were sent to me, recoiling with horror and filing them away quickly. Unfortunately this did not make them go away. I am working all day tomorrow and the next day at the same university, but only two classes are in the same classroom. The rest are all over the place, in different buildings. Some are not even on the same campus. The other campus is just over the road, but when you have traffic lights to contend with (and these ones are very slow to change, and there is a lot of traffic) plus you have to go from the 3rd floor of one building to the 11th floor of the next building, which is a five minute walk away (not counting the traffic light wait), and the 11th floor building has two, very slow elevators, one of which is usually out of order, and about two hundred students waiting to get up there as well, perhaps you can see my problem. We have been told very sternly that we must start and finish classes on time. Ha ha. I don't think the ten minutes between classes is QUITE enough. They should install flying foxes to take us from one building to the next if they want us to get to class on time. (Seriously, I think that would be great. Making a dramatic entrance through the window would be a brilliant way to catch the students' attention, particularly if the window turned out to be closed.)

I am letting my gym membership lapse, since I found last year I did not have the time (or energy) to use it during semester. It was a waste of money, and they do not have an option to join for two months, which is how long I ended up using it in a year. The shortest option is a year. However, I can now feel confident that I will get enough exercise anyway. Not only will I be running around during classes, as usual, I will be running around BETWEEN classes as well. Last year I used a step counter to find out how much walking I was doing on a normal work day (including getting to and from work). Fridays were the most active, with about 25,000 steps. This year that number will increase dramatically. Who needs a gym? I can collapse from overexertion without the help of a gym, and get paid for it.

Yesterday I managed to catch a virus. I was just sitting here innocently, and suddenly my computer sneezed at me. It turned out to be RadioactiveJam's fault. He had sent me ... The Indie Virus! I was infected!

It was terrifying. I didn't know what to do. Was there an antidote?

I tracked down the beginnings of the Indie Virus, and found it at Personified. There is a tutorial about it at IrishWonder.

I learned that the best thing to do if you are infected with the Indie Virus is to pass it on. This is what I am doing, and I am feeling better already. You will notice that every time I link the Indie Virus it goes to a different place. These are all good places to visit, and I have chosen posts that I like.

While I was trying to figure out what to do about this virus, I suddenly realized that at some point in the last year or so I managed to break the code for trackbacks on my blog. How long have I not had trackbacks? I remember installing it and feeling terrifically clever. I even figured out how to use it, and Lippy and I pinged each other incessantly for a few days. We had a lovely time. Then, somewhere along the way, I both uninstalled it AND forgot how to use it.

I have now reinstalled it. Ping! Ping! Ping!

Monday, April 03, 2006


Down at the river a couple of days ago I noticed that one of the cormorants had still not quite conquered the sinking problem.

That wasn't the most interesting thing I saw, though. The ducks were behaving oddly.

"Are you ready?" I heard one say as I cycled past.

"Yes," said the other.

"QUACK!" said the first duck. It sounded strangely flat.

The other duck stuck its head under the water. Then the first duck ducked, too.

I wondered what they were doing.

A little further down the river, some more ducks were doing the same thing.

"QUACK!" said a duck, flatly.

And they ducked.

One duck climbed out of the water, so I stopped to ask what was going on.

"What are you guys doing?" I asked.

"Well," said the duck. "You've heard of bird 'flu, right?"

"Yes," I said.

"So have we," said the duck. "We don't really understand why it's so dangerous, but it is clear from what we've heard that flying isn't safe anymore."

"Er, I think - " I said.

"Don't interrupt!" said the duck, sternly. "Do you want to know, or not?

"Sorry," I said. "Carry on."

"We only overheard snippets, but it was enough," said the duck. "You must have heard it too. Bird... flew ... dead... - that sort of thing. So we formed a committee to study the problem, and have decided that we will no longer fly. We will walk on water."

"Really?" I said.

"Yes. We have decided to reduce our dependence on wings, since it is obvious that wings have something to do with the problem," said the duck. "The logic is inescapable."

"Er... I can see why you might think so," I said. "But - "

"LOOK!" said the duck. "OVER THERE!"

I looked.

"He's doing quite well," said the duck, approvingly. "Note the use of tippy-toe. It's very important to tippy-toe on water."

I was impressed, and said so.

"Unfortunately he is still relying a little too much on his wings," said the duck. "And we know how dangerous that is. He needs to absorb more quack echo."

"Quack echo?" I asked.

"That's the scientific part," said the duck. "It's difficult to explain to an unscientific person like yourself, but... well, let me see if I can simplify it a little. You know that you can't hear quack echoes, right?"

"Er..." I said. "I thought that had been disproved."

"Only in controlled experiments," said the duck. "We don't let everybody know what we can do when we're out of control."

"So what happens to the echoes?" I asked, puzzled.

"Well, you know that sound is made up of waves, right?" said the duck. "A QUACK! echo has a special wave form that vibrates at a particular intensity - if we want it to."

"Er, really?" I said.

"Yes. We direct the echo underwater, where you can't hear it," said the duck. "Then we duck for it, and absorb it, and when we have enough quack echoes accumulated we release them at a predetermined rate using our Quack Echo Distributor. If we get it just right, it becomes possible for us to walk on water. The quack echo waves keep us elevated."

"Quack Echo Distributor?" I said.

"Q.E.D.," said the duck. "Look! There goes another one. HOPELESS! Too much wing. He's lost control."

"I've never heard of anything like this before," I said.

"Well, you wouldn't have," said the duck. "We don't tell just anybody."

"Thank you for telling me," I said. "I'm honoured that you trust me."

"I can tell you because it doesn't matter," said the duck. "Nobody believes anything you say anyway."

"Oh," I said.

"I have to practice now," said the duck. "I'm better at Quackery than any of the others, but still, walking on water isn't easy."

"I see," I said. The duck looked at me skeptically.

"I'm not sure that you do," he said. "But you're not trained to the highest levels of Quack Science, like us, so it can't be helped."

"Probably not," I agreed.

He waddled back to the water and swam off to join his friends.

As I cycled away I heard his voice.

"QUACK!" he said, flatly, and I looked back just in time.

He was, indeed, a master of the art of Quackery.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Blossom, early or late

I said before that The Man and I had finally learned how to tell the difference between cherry and plum blossoms. It turns out I was wrong. Neither of us can decide what this one is. It is either an early cherry or a late plum.

But who cares? The blossoms are just coming out, and they're lovely. (Click to enlarge.)