Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Intelligent Design

After work today as I was cycling home I stopped by the river to see what was going on. The Thingummy was there. I took some photos but they weren't very good. Sorry.

It was an enlightening visit anyway, despite the lack of good photographs.

The Thingummy saw me hanging over the railing of the bridge taking pictures, and called out.

"Hey, you!" he called.

"Me?" I asked.

"Yes, you!" he said. "You're the one who has been telling lies about me on your blog, aren't you? Your hair looks funny."

"I beg your pardon?" I said. "I didn't tell any lies!"

"Oh, yes, you did!" he said. "You said I was a Thingummy. I am not a Thingummy. I am a ... what was it again? One of your commenters got it right. I'm a ... a ... "

"A hog-nosed ratypus?" I asked.

"Yes. I'm a hog-nosed ratypus. You need to correct your story."

"Sorry," I said. "I will. But what did you say about my hair?"

"No, wait. That isn't right. I'm not a hog-nosed ratypus. It was something else ..."

"A coypu?"

"That's it! I'm a Coy ... what was it again?"


"Yeah, that's it. I'm a Coypu. And don't you forget it." He squinted at me. "You look like you stuck your finger in a light socket."

"My hair just has a bit more body than usual, because it rained," I said. I was getting a little anxious. "It doesn't look that bad, does it?"

"Yes. It does," he said. "And my name is not the only thing you got wrong. You also said I evolved from a fish."

"But you did!" I protested. "I saw you doing it! You evolved from a carp."

"I DID NOT," he said. "THAT'S A BLASPHEMOUS LIE. I did not evolve. I was Intelligently Designed."

"Oh, yeah?" I said. "How do you know?"

"I'm irreducibly complex, so I can't possibly have evolved," he said. "The Great Coy Pu in the Sky designed me, in His image. He told me so Himself."

"Oh," I said.

"You should put that in your blog too," he added. "It's your duty. The world should know about the great Coy Pu in the Sky. They have to believe, and have faith. Otherwise they might end up in that awful place where nobody eats roots and leaves, AND with hair like yours, if they're especially faithless."

"I see," I said, although I didn't, really. I also didn't think my hair looked THAT bad.

"Did you write it down?" asked the Coypu.

"Er... just a minute," I said, and took out my Palm. I started to write. "What was that last bit again? They might end up where?"

"Where nobody eats roots and leaves," said the Coypu.

"Where nobody eats ..."

"Roots ..."

"Roots ..."

"And leaves."

"And leaves."

"Hold on. Did you put any commas in there?" asked the Coypu, suspiciously.

"No. Why?"


"I said there weren't any," I said. "What's wrong with commas, anyway?"

"Er ... nothing," said the Coypu. "But there's a place for everything, and that sentence is not a place for commas."

"I see," I said, although I didn't.

"And until you have repented for your blasphemy against the Great Coy Pu in the Sky I'm not talking to you anymore," he added. "And none of your photos will be any good." He turned and disappeared into a hole in the riverbank.

I looked at the photo I had taken, and somewhat shaken, cycled off.

A little further down the river I stopped to say hello to the two big birds.

"You're looking rather frazzled," said one of them. "What's going on?"

"I've just been talking to the Thingummy, I mean the Coypu," I said. "He told me that he was Intelligently Designed by the Great Coy Pu in the Sky, and that he wouldn't talk to me anymore until I said so on my blog."

"What twaddle!" snapped the bird irritably. "He is always going on about that stupid Great Coy Pu nonsense. Intelligent Design, my foot. Did you see his teeth? Who in their right mind would design orange teeth? Utter rubbish!"

"It seemed kind of odd to me, too," I said.

"idiotic creature," scoffed the bird. "He evolved from a fish. You did, too."

"I'm glad to hear you say so," I said. "That's what I thought."

"And you were right," said the bird. "You poor thing. That's probably why your hair looks peculiar. If you'd been designed by the Great Egret in the Sky in His image, like us, your hair wouldn't look like that."

"Er, does it really look that bad?" I said.


We were silent for a moment. The birds meditated on the Great Egret in the Sky, and I meditated on my hair.

"Um, can I take a picture?" I asked, remembering my blog readers.

"Yes," said the bird. "But it won't be any good. The light is fading."

I took a picture, and it wasn't any good. If the bird was right about that, could she be right about the Great Egret in the Sky as well? And my hair?

I thought about it as I started to cycle further on down the river. Then I heard a voice from above.

"HEY, YOU!" it said, and I almost fell off my bike.

"Yes?" I said, and stopped. Was it the Great Egret in the Sky? Or the Great Coy Pu? And if it was the Great Coy Pu would it have orange teeth? I looked up.

It was neither.

"I heard you talking with those stupid white birds," said the crow. "Don't believe a word they say."

"You mean my hair looks all right?" I asked.

"Well, no," said the crow. "They were right about that. But that stuff they said about the Great Egret in the Sky? It's all nonsense."

"I did wonder about that," I said. "But it didn't seem polite to say anything."

"Never mind politeness," said the crow. "When they start talking rubbish (mmm, rubbish) you should just shout, "HA! NONSENSE!" and fly away.

"But I can't fly," I said.

"Oh, that's right," said the crow. "You can't. Too bad."

"It must be nice to be able to fly," I said.

"It is," said the crow. "What a shame you evolved from a fish, and weren't Intelligently Designed by the Great Crow in the Sky, like me."

He flew away.

When I got home The Man greeted me warmly.

"Hello, darling," he said. "What happened to your hair?"

As I said, today's river visit was an enlightening one. I learned two things.

1. I don't know how to take good photographs when the light is fading.
2. My hair is a strong argument against Intelligent Design.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Seamanship for love

Join the navy!

This commercial has been around for a while, and I might have written about it before but I can't remember. Never mind. It is worth seeing again. It makes me giggle every time I see it.

What were they THINKING?

Friday, January 27, 2006


Last night I went to a party. It was a party to thank (or something) the part-time teachers in a department I work for at one of the universities I work for, a small women's university. (No, I do not mean that it is a university for small women. You know what I mean, and I can't be bothered fixing that sentence.) I have been working for this university for seven or eight years now, but have never managed to make it to their yearly party before. I always want to go, but they usually hold it on a day when I can't. This year they changed the date.

It was very interesting for me to meet some of the other people who work in the department, especially the full-time professors who hired me in the first place. Most of them I had never met before. There was one I should have recognized but didn't. He told everybody that we already knew each other because he also teaches at another place I work, so we meet every Tuesday. I pretended to be completely familiar with this fact, but ... REALLY? I didn't recognize him at all. How long has he been working there? It's a good thing I send out general hellos whenever I walk into a teachers' room. He obviously thought I was greeting him.

But I am pleased that I have now met my colleagues. The problem now is that I'm afraid I have forgotten most of their names already. I have forgotten their faces, too, come to think of it. Never mind. I will greet every pompous old man I meet on campus as my special friend from now on, just in case. It was hard being the only foreign woman there. Everybody knew who I was, but I got them all mixed up.

But I was lucky to have a guide with me. My guide is someone I will call The Proper Scholar. She (HELLO! I know you're reading this!) is a new full-timer, who has studied abroad and has educational standards that make it rather difficult for her to fit in. Her shock at some of the things that go on makes me feel old and cynical. Professor S. 'helped' his students to fill in their teacher evaluation forms? How kind of him to suggest what they should write! We all know how hopeless they are. They probably NEEDED a little guidance, and after all, who knows better what a good teacher he is than the man himself? Anyway, I did the same thing, more or less. I told my students to give me high points. It's true that I didn't check what they wrote as I was collecting the forms and tell them to change it if they wrote something uncomplimentary, but that's just because I didn't think of it. Also, I'm fairly sure his students didn't laugh like mine did, which just proves that he is a real professor and I'm not. My students laugh at me all the time.

My friend the Proper Scholar sat (or stood, depending) beside me most of the time, giving me a highly entertaining running commentary on who everybody was. This was slightly handicapped by her not wearing her contact lenses, but it didn't really matter, since - honestly, and I'm not being racist here - most of the professors looked the same. Perhaps I'd be able to distinguish them if I spent more time with them, but you know how it is at parties when you meet too many people all at once. They were all wearing suits, which didn't help. I was able to recognize the Dean after he was first pointed out to me, though, because he was wearing a brown suit instead of dark blue, which was daring of him. I suppose you can get away with that sort of thing when you're Dean.

One professor who did make an impression, and whom I liked very much, sat beside me right at the beginning and introduced himself. He told me that he had heard a lot about me from his students, which gave me a horrible moment, especially since he didn't elaborate at first but just smiled reminiscently. Later the Proper Scholar managed to insert a plug for me, telling him how dedicated a teacher I was. She told him that I spent a lot of time preparing my lessons (ha) and so on. It was a little embarrassing, but he responded with, "Oh, so that's why they like you so much," and THAT was a relief. When he'd said he'd heard all about me the first thing to pop into my head was DIARRHEA! I was afraid they'd been telling him about it.

Well, maybe they had. But it didn't matter, because Prof. N was very sweet and invited me to visit him in the, the ... what was it called again? The cross-cultural studies room, or something like that. I asked him what happened in the cross-cultural studies room, which I quickly realized was a faux pas because he had a hard time answering. Turned out the answer was 'nothing much,' but we glossed over that, and I decided that I would follow up his invitation some time. When he talked to me I felt as though I was having a conversation rather than a Cross-Cultural Exchange! Look at me! I'm having a Cross-Cultural Exchange! and that was nice.

The Proper Scholar, however, tells me that although Prof. N. is a very nice man and is a Big Man in the university (and thus is a good person to be liked by) I have to be careful because he is near retirement age, and the up-and-coming man, my direct boss (at least I THINK he's my direct boss, but I've never managed to pin him down for long enough to find out) hates him - and HE is the next Big Man on campus. So I have to be careful not to favour one over the other. That proved to be difficult last night, since my maybe-boss disappeared shortly after the opening speeches, without greeting anybody. It is hard to butter up someone whom you only ever see the back of as he runs away. (And there is another awful sentence for someone to criticize. This must be Karma for my book posts.)

In fact my maybe-boss didn't look very happy in the brief time that he was there. While the president of the university and other bigwigs were giving their speeches (the only bit he was there for) he stood staring straight ahead with a pained expression, making no eye contact, and as far as I could see he didn't speak to anybody before doing his vanishing act. Perhaps it is the Proper Scholar's fault. She keeps trying to insist on academic standards, and it is upsetting his plans to pass every student regardless of whether or not they attend classes (let alone do the work). The department will close in three years, and what on earth are they going to do with their leftover students who never showed up for class? He wants them to do one TOEIC course in the spring vacation which is untested and will make up for every course they failed during the year, regardless of what the course was about. She compromised by agreeing, finally, that she would accept this for the English language courses they'd failed. However, that leaves all the other courses. Oh, dear. What can he do now? Enforce academic standards? Tell the students they'll have to transfer to a different department to graduate? Unthinkable. He'll have to come up with something else, but WHAT? No wonder he was looking as if he didn't have enough fibre in his diet.

It was a very Japanese party, in that there were speeches. And speeches. And more and more and more speeches. In fact EVERYBODY had to give a speech, and since there were about thirty people and only two hours, this meant that for most of the party someone was giving a speech, including me. I was one of the first to be called, and gave my speech in English. I kept it short and garbled. (The garbled part wasn't intentional. I wasn't prepared.) I can't remember what I said, but that was all right because nobody understood it anyway. They asked the Proper Scholar for a translation, which gave her a shock because she hadn't actually listened. She stood up, turned around and hissed at me,

"What did you say?" and I said,

"Anything's fine. Don't worry," which wasn't very kind of me (SORRY!) but I really couldn't remember. She greatly improved on the original by not skipping anything important that I should have said but hadn't. (Oh, dear. Another one. Go ahead and criticize.)

At some point somebody asked me where I was from. I said I was from New Zealand, and she said,

"Oh, I thought you were French," which confused me a little. Why would a French person be teaching English?

"Yes, she looks French," said another teacher, and I wondered what a French person looked like. Elegant and sophisticated? Oh, of course, that explained it! The jacket! I bought it in Paris.

"It's just my jacket that's French," I said, and everybody looked politely puzzled.

After the party there was a nijikai, a 'second party,' upstairs in a meeting room. This is a tradition here. You have a party, which is all stiff and formal and boring, then you go off and let your hair down elsewhere. I am convinced, however, that the real, secret nijikai was elsewhere, and involved only the top dogs, because we only had a couple of minor professors entertaining us and there was a conspicuous lack of hair. Some effort was made, with one professor going rather purple from excessive drink and confiding proudly that his research specialty was modern French philosophy. People started to name modern French philosophers, getting them spectacularly wrong, which led to a discussion on Nietzsche. It was a very short-lived discussion, however, because we exhausted our collective knowledge in about two minutes.

The French philosopher at some point commented that he hated Descartes (at least I think he was talking about Descartes) because Descartes was a Spiritualist. That was news to me, and I asked whether he was putting Descartes before da horse, a comment that went down like a lead balloon, and admittedly didn't make much sense, but I've always wanted to say it, and now I have. But it was the vehement announcement he made following this comment that I will remember most clearly about the party:


I must blog that! I thought, and now I have. I can't remember why I thought it was so funny, though.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


The Duck Olympics (here, and here) seem to be over, sadly. Today the cleanup crew was there, picking up the mess the audience had left behind. They'd almost finished by the time I turned up, but one poor guy was doing overtime. He had one last bag of rubbish to get to shore.

It was a hell of a job, but with only a minimum of swearing ...

... he got the job done.

The Duck Olympics may be over, but that doesn't mean it wasn't an interesting and informative day down at the river. Today I got to see evolution in action. That's right. I SAW IT HAPPEN.

It went like this.

I was watching some carp, and one of them came close to the edge of the river. I wasn't near enough, and the fence got in the way, but something looked a bit strange.

I quickly parked my bicycle and ran over to take another photo. As I waited for the carp to appear I noticed that the big bird was watching, too. I wasn't the only one who thought something funny was going on.

Sure enough, when the carp turned up by the reeds, it looked ... different.

And that was because it WAS different. It no longer looked like a carp AT ALL.

As it emerged from the water I could see that it was evolving before our very eyes. It was turning into a ... a ... THINGUMMY!

The Thingummy climbed up onto dry land ...

... and the big bird levitated in shock.

I was rather surprised by the levitating, I must admit. I have never seen a bird levitate before. But as the bird explained to me later, it's not something I would see normally, because they don't do it very often.

"We have wings. Why would we need to levitate?" he said. "It's one of those useless talents we have."

"Oh," I said. "Er, really?"

"Yes, really," the bird said. "It's a redundant skill. Flying is easier. It's only in moments of extreme stress that we levitate, and generally by mistake."

I never knew that.

Another one...

I am not having much luck with my reading materials. Today I picked up another book I got from the big book sale, and this time I didn't even get past the first page. Can't people use English any more? I CAN'T READ THIS STUFF. I want to read something that is written well, or at least competently.

Have I turned into an elitist? Am I too picky? I don't remember having this problem so much before. Is it me, or has the quality of what gets into print plummeted? I thought everybody wanted to write a book, and it was difficult to get into print. If that is the case, why are the publishers not choosing books that are written WELL? Why are readers accosted by sentences like this one?

Like so many London girls, he thinks the woman is worryingly thin...

I'm not sure if this is a case of a hanging modifier (as per Berlin Bear's recent complaint) or, more simply, a missing comma after thinks. All I know is that it made me close the book and sigh deeply.

Besides that, the first eight pages are written in italics, and that annoyed me, too. Some italics are fine, but not eight pages of it. It makes me feel as though I'm reading in a whisper, and for some reason it is harder work. This is probably just me, and I accept that, but I am not prepared to work that hard if my reward is to be sentences like that one.

Another book to avoid: The Hidden Man, by Charles Cumming.

To be fair, I haven't read past the first page, and the rest could be a delightful read. But opening the book at random just now and hoping for something to tempt me I came across a sentence which began:

He was still hungry from not eating....


Monday, January 23, 2006

My name is Emily

Today in my very small class of five students, four Chinese and one Vietnamese, I asked them what they wanted to do in the last class, next week. They said they wanted to have a party.

I thought about it. I usually discourage the idea of having a party on the last day, because I have too many classes and having several parties every day for a week at the end of semester would be too tiring and chaotic.

But this is a very small class, and a special one. Partly this is because of our shared experience of being foreigners here. There is also a feeling of conspiracy in the classroom, because they are very aware that they are not like most of my other students, who don't really want to learn. This makes us like a secret cabal of learners in the stronghold of an institution dedicated to non-learning.

"Do your other students want to learn?" they often want to know, and are sure that they don't, no matter how much I fudge my answer. ("Well some of them do..." I say, which is true.) But mine is not their only class at the university, and they know what it's like. They know they are special. There used to be a sixth student in this class, also Chinese, who was absent a lot, and after several warnings I told her she would fail if she missed another class. The next week, when she failed to turn up, the other students told me,

"She is not serious. She does not want to learn. We want to learn," and looked SMUG. Only one of these five ever missed a class, and that was because her grandmother died.

I decided to have the party.

I didn't stop being teacher, though.

"If we have a party, you have to give farewell speeches," I told them. "Write them today. I'll check them, and then you can memorize them for next week."

Four of them thought this was a wonderful idea, but one was dismayed. She is the lowest level student, and also the youngest (at 21 or 22 - the others are in their late twenties). She had no English at all when she joined the class. She didn't even know the alphabet. The others have been helping her enormously, and two of them sit either side of her providing support when she doesn't understand and cuddling her when she gets discouraged. She has learned a lot, but of course her level is lower than the others (which is not high) and she feels inadequate. She was convinced she could not do a speech.

She sat huddled, staring at me with tragic eyes, with her two friends' arms over her shoulders. She looked like a chick blessed with two mother hens instead of one.

"You can do it," I said. "Just a SHORT speech."

"Yes, you can!" said the others encouragingly.

She picked up her pen and stared at her notebook. The others started writing. After a while, she did, too.

A speech, she wrote, and stared at the words. Then she added an question mark.

A speech?

She thought for a moment.

I can't do it, she wrote, painstakingly, and stared at the page with a forlorn expression. She put her pen down and sighed. She thought and thought and thought. Then she looked over at the writing of one of the others and read it slowly, frowning with concentration. When she got to the end her face lit up.

"I understand!" she said, and laughed in surprise. Her friend gave her a pat on the head and went back to writing.

She picked up her pen again.

But I can do it, she wrote. She grabbed her electronic dictionary and hunted for the right word. Copying from the screen, she wrote carefully,

It is a miracle.

She thought some more, and added something to the beginning,

I think in this class my English became good.

Then she got inspired. She remembered 'I like.'

I like English. I like this class. I like my teacher.

She stared at the ceiling, and down again at her paper, and continued,

I like coming here. I like my English name.

She nudged one of her friends and asked how to say something. Her friend whispered in her ear, and she wrote,

My teacher gave me my name.

She added,

I like my classmates' English names, too.

She paused and hummed a line from a song, and wrote it down,

I don't want to say goodbye.

She finally added,

I am happy.

She put her pen down.

"I did a speech!" she said triumphantly.

And she was right. She did. She spent the rest of class time practicing it. I am looking forward to hearing it (again) next week.

Here is her speech in its entirety:

I think in this class my English became good. A speech? I can't do a speech. But I can do a speech! It is a miracle.

I like English. I like this class. I like my teacher. I like coming here. I like my English name. My teacher gave me my name. I like my classmates' names, too. I don't want to say goodbye. I am happy.

The English names thing is interesting. I don't use English names with my Japanese students, although I know some teachers do. I don't want to force foreign names on them, and once read something written by a Japanese student who had been in a class where the students were all given English names, and who hated it. But when I started teaching Chinese students I discovered that they generally have English names already and want to use them - and if they don't have an English name, they want one.

Usually they choose movie star names, but the student in the above story wanted me to give her a name that suited her. I had to think very hard about this, as I didn't know her well at that time. I looked at her and wrote all the names I could think of, repeating each one, trying them out, and discarding most because they didn't seem right for her. In the end I gave her a short list. After repeating them all carefully to see how they sounded, she chose 'Emily.'

After that, every time someone called her Emily she would smile blissfully and murmur softly to herself, "Emily. My name is Emily." Then she would sit up straight and say, "Yes?" I don't know why her English name made her so happy, but it did. And sometimes, when she was finding things particularly difficult, I called her name just to see her smile, and to hear her say it:

"My name is Emily."

Sunday, January 22, 2006

He should have known better

I finished reading a novel today, and started on a new one while I was eating dinner. (The Man and I have a rule about civilized eating which is one word different from my father's rule about civilized eating. My father's rule was NO BOOKS AT THE TABLE, and ours is BOOKS AT THE TABLE.)

The new book is one I picked up at the book sale back in December. According to the blurb on the back, the Washington Post said this book is "better than The Da Vinci Code" (how difficult can THAT be? That should have told me something), and the Sunday Times said it was "richly enjoyable, sophisticated, and something else covered by the price sticker." There is more praise inside the front cover, including "beautifully structured," "a novel to savour," "a riveting tale," "adroit narrative," and so on. I was looking forward to it.

I read the first five pages, turned the page, and read this:

... Bobby announced that their annual vacation the coming spring would be in Italy. He hadn't even asked her opinion. Lianne was quietly hoping for Aruba. All the same, she demurred. It was the best thing to do, and, as it turned out, Rome hadn't been a bad choice. In fact, she was starting to like the place.

I closed the book and decided to read something else. I still have a lot of books from that sale. I don't need to read a book written by someone who doesn't know what his words mean.

It is the writer's seventh novel, according to his bio, and he has been a staff writer for newspapers for most of his working career.



I finished classes for the semester at one of the universities on Friday. I was incredibly efficient and also finished all the grading. (Yes, I marked homework in class.) After work a friend and I went out to dinner to celebrate.

We left a little later than we'd planned, though, because I had to hand in the grades. This university has an extraordinary number of office staff, as well as an extraordinary number of offices on campus. This is (partly, at least) because each department insists on having its own staff, its own equipment, its own office, its own EVERYTHING. They are jealous of sharing, and every year, it seems, everything becomes a little more decentralized. (The year the copying and lithograph services was decentralized was a black one in the lives of part-time teachers, since we get identical copies for classes from several different departments. Under the old system we got it done at one place, filling in a form saying how many were for which department. The new system means that we have to to traipse all over campus visiting all the offices and requesting copies for one class at a time. IN THEORY. In practice, we cheat like mad and get one department making copies for all departments, thus completely demolishing the reason for them taking over control in the first place. They thought other departments were using their photocopy budgets, and now they are.)

What was I saying? Oh, yes, the grades.

I went over to the law faculty offices to hand in the grades for the law students I'd had this semester, and when I walked in there was a ... bustle. That's the only word for it. Glances were shot my way, whispers were exchanged, and I heard my name mentioned. I waited until they'd finished their silent contest to see who was going to deal with the tricky gaijin, and told the woman who lost that I was just here to turn in my grades. She fluttered at me and told me there was something else, just wait a minute please, and hurried away again to the filing cupboards, where she was joined by two or three other staff members. They flung open the cupboards and started hunting, and I sighed inwardly. What had I done now?

The whole office had stopped work to watch the excitement, and I wondered again about what they actually DID all day. There are so many of them, and they seem to make everything so complicated. As I watched them hunting through the filing cupboards I got a clue, but it wasn't much of one. It is a chicken and egg sort of situation. I mean, do they have such a large number of staff because their filing system is so dreadful, or do they have a dreadful filing system because they have such a large number of staff and can't agree on something more efficient? I simply cannot imagine any good reason for this filing system. It BOGGLES MY MIND.

It goes like this:

The cupboards are full of boxes. The boxes contain grading sheets and so on, and I assume other paperwork relating to students, but the boxes I've seen inside have only been grading information. The grading information is sorted, if you can call it that, by keeping it in boxes according to when it was handed in. (You hand in your grades; they dump them in a box.) This means that if you have a query about the grades you need to tell them when you handed them in, because if you don't they'll have to go through ALL THE BOXES. And there are a lot of them. I don't know how many students are in each department (and they all use this system), but considering that each student has about fifteen classes a semester, and each different teacher hands in separate grading sheets, well, there are a LOT. Several cupboards full.

They didn't ask me about dates, so I assumed they didn't expect me to know. Instead, they started going through all the boxes, looking for whatever it was that I'd done that had caused them all this excitement. There were opened boxes all over the place, and it took a while.

(One amazing thing I discovered, when they finally located the bit of paper they were looking for, was that it was something from LAST semester. In other words, the chuck-things-in-a-box filing system is PERMANENT. I'd assumed they put them in boxes for sorting later, but they don't. The grades get entered in a computer, but then the papers go BACK INTO THE BOXES.)

The woman came back waving the bit of paper.

I looked at the paper, and saw that it was a grade correction I'd had to do last semester, when I made a mistake. I'd fixed it, and the student said all his records had been corrected. In the bit where it said Reason for change I'd written:

Grading error. (Oops. Sorry.) in English.

What was the problem? It had all been fixed, hadn't it? Was it the Oops? Did they want to know what it meant?

"We need your signature," she said.

I had signed the paper. I pointed this out to her.

"You need to sign the bottom copy," she said.

I lifted the top copy, and there was a carbon copy of my signature, perfectly clear, identical (of course) with the top copy. I pointed at it wonderingly.

"Isn't it clear enough?" I asked. It was, but I didn't know what else to say. "Are you blind?" didn't seem diplomatic.

"Oh, that's just a copy. We need an ORIGINAL signature," she said.

"But... but... Oh, never mind," I said. "Can I borrow your pen?"

As I signed I wondered at the fact that everybody in the office knew who I was, and knew about the paper I hadn't signed (which I had signed, but never mind), and at the general air of suppressed excitement at my appearance. What do they DO all day, that something like this could be so thrilling for them? Watch paint dry?

After I'd signed it, the bit of paper went back into the box, where it will no doubt languish forever.

They acted all forgiving, as though I'd made a mistake but never mind, all fixed now. But I didn't make a mistake, did I? It didn't make sense to sign it again, did it? It was absurd, wasn't it?

I think I've been here too long. I can't tell anymore.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Duck Olympics (cont)

Yesterday the duck Olympics were continuing. It was time for the fishing competition.

The big bird caught a particularly tasty long-armed shrimp.

"FOWL!" shouted the judge. "YOU ARE NOT A DUCK!"

"Oh, yes I am!" said the big bird. "I'm an albino duck with extremely long legs and I WANT MY MEDAL!"

Then a duck caught something. "Look! I've caught something!" he said. "It's a ... it's a ... blech! What is it?"

"I don't know," said his partner. "But you're not kissing me again until you've washed your beak AND gargled."

Even the judge was speechless.

But not for long. "TRY HARDER!" he shouted.

But the ducks were demoralized by the experience, and gave up. Anyway, it was nap time.

The extremely long-legged albino duck accidentally ate the evidence of his catch, so dropped out as well. "Waste of time," he muttered. "Nobody listens to me anyway."

The competition was abandoned.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

No test

In my one class today my students wanted to know if there would be a test. I was a bit surprised that they were asking. If there was going to be a test I would have told them weeks ago. Do their other teachers spring tests on them a week before the end of semester?

I've had it up to here with tests. I don't have to do them at this place, so I don't. And besides, with this particular class, what have they learned that I can test? I could ask them to make a sentence with the word diarrhea in it, I suppose, but they'd get the grammar wrong. (She is diarrhea. See here and here for previous posts about this class.)

"No," I said. "No test."

They cheered wildly, and I held up the forms for the teacher evaluation survey.

"AND THAT MEANS YOU SHOULD GIVE ME TOP MARKS FOR THESE!" I shouted over the general happy uproar.

"YES! YES!" they shouted back joyfully.

And they did. Oh, dear. That was unethical of me.

One of the students wrote,

I hated English. Now I like English. (A little.)

I liked that a little. It was honest. And if I'm going to be honest, I only feel a little guilty about the teacher evaluation thing. Mostly I think it's a big joke, because no matter how well I do on those evaluations, I will never be offered a better job at that university. I will always be a part-timer, on one year contracts. I happen to know that it is their (unwritten) policy to never give permanent positions to foreigners.

In fact it is terribly hard to take the university seriously as employers or as a university. They have done nothing to deserve it. But I do take the students seriously, and I enjoy them. They are ripped off royally in terms of getting the education they are paying for, but at least in our classes we have some fun. And I hope they learn something, even if it is only that learning doesn't have to be all drudgery and memorization.

After they had done the evaluations and put them in an envelope I told the class, very seriously, that now we were going to sing a song.

"Carpenters?" asked one student, and I said, "NO." (Why do they always think I'll give them Carpenters songs? I have never given them Carpenters songs. I hate Carpenters songs.)


"No," I said. "Listen to me, and join in."

"But maybe we don't know it," they said.

"Don't worry. You know it. Ready?"*


I pointed at one of the students, took a deep breath, and bellowed tunelessly,


Heads swivelled to see who it was as they all joined in enthusiastically.


Dear Tomoko blushed and squirmed and couldn't wipe the grin off her face for at least ten minutes after we'd stopped cheering.

(She'd written her birthdate on the self-introduction thing I had them doing back in April last year, and I'd just noticed it was today.)

*Please note that everything I say in this class is in English, and everything the students say is in Japanese except when they're doing something from the textbook or using the word diarrhea. That's how it has worked out, I'm afraid, despite my best efforts.

Four things meme

Bobciz has hit me with a meme. This is the Four Things meme. I don't really like memes much, but I'll do this one.

I am supposed to tell you about four jobs I've had, four movies I could watch over and over, four places I've lived, four TV shows I live to watch, four places I've vacationed, four websites I visit daily, four favorite foods, four places I would rather be, four albums I could listen to over and over, and four people to pass this along to. However, since I never watch TV, rarely watch movies, and don't particularly want to be anywhere except here right now, I'll skip those ones.

Four jobs:

My first job was as a fruit picker and packer. I worked for my father, every day of the summer holidays. It was sometimes fun, and sometimes just hard work. It was very badly paid. I was child labour.

My next job was in an office, and I started that one when I was fifteen. I was promoted three weeks after I started work, and I'm still quite proud of that. (I am less proud of inadvertently firing one of the juniors a year or so later.)

While I was a student I had various jobs. The briefest lasted two hours, and that was the only time I've ever been fired. I was working in a very posh restaurant (washing dishes), and the cook fired me for laughing. This was his fault, however. His frypan was on fire. When I pointed it out to him he told me angrily that it was meant to be flaming, was I an idiot? and when I said I didn't think it was supposed to be flaming that much, with the flames shooting up through the extractor fan, he shouted at me that I was a stupid know-nothing, and when I shrieked and jumped up and down and pointed he finally turned around. When he saw the flames he went into hysterics and started dancing around the kitchen, shrieking, eventually picking the frypan up and throwing it in the general direction of the sink. That's when I started laughing. And he fired me.

(You would have laughed, too.)

How many is that? Three... all right. Another holiday job I had for six weeks was in the quality control section of a canning factory. I was in the complaints office. That was fun. Most of the complaints came from pensioners worried that their can of baked beans wasn't quite full, or concerned about hard bits they found in the cat food. (Fish eyes.) Then they'd go on for pages, in faint, quavering handwriting, extending their complaint to include the state of the world in general and how things had changed since they were young. I enjoyed responding to these lonely but often interesting letters, adding my bit to the form replies.

One memorable letter was from a woman who had discovered two cans of beetroot in the back of a cupboard when she was moving house. She was not complaining. She said she knew the cans were at least ten years old, and hadn't expected the beetroot to be edible. But she had opened one to see how well it had lasted, and the resulting explosion had taken out her kitchen window. Nobody was injured, fortunately, but the other can was now sitting in the middle of her lawn, nobody would go near it, and the dog refused to come out from under the bed while it was there. Could we please send a bomb disposal unit?

It was a very funny letter. (We sent a rep.)


Four places I've lived

I lived in four different houses in one year, once. All were in Wellington, and I didn't want to move, particularly, from any of them. But I was renting, and I kept moving into places where the owner would then decide to sell. One time the house had new owners when we moved in, so we thought we were safe, but they suddenly got into financial difficulty and we were told we had to move a week after we'd moved in. There were three of us, and we had just unpacked.

The advantage of this constant moving was that every time I moved I got rid of more stuff. The last time I moved (the fifth time) was to Japan, and I was down to one suitcase, which contained almost all my worldly possessions. All I'd had to sell was a bed, and I left a few books and things at my brother's house. The disadvantage of moving (besides the general hassle) was that every time we moved the cat went missing for two days. We would lock him in for a day, but he'd be bouncing off the walls and refusing to eat so we'd let him out, and he'd disappear. But he always found his way back to the new place. I think he was going back to the (last) old place to make sure he hadn't left anything behind.

He also ended up with ragged ears, from having to defend new territory so often.


Four places I've vacationed

Malaysia (several times, and I'll be back), Europe (last year), China, India. Other places too, but I'm sticking to four.

The best one was Malaysia, and particularly the first time. I wanted to go to the beach. I'd been very ill from an accident, and was still in pain. The Man didn't like islands (resorts, touristy, etc), but I wanted sand between my toes. We got lucky. I've never been back to this particular island, but The Man has, and tells me that it is now spoiled. But when we arrived, on the ferry, we were blown away by the beauty of it. It was exactly how you imagine a tropical paradise to be. Also, I stepped off the boat and onto the beach and THE PAIN DISAPPEARED. It was a miracle. I had not been pain-free for two years. I had forgotten what it felt like to be without pain, and hadn't thought that it would ever be possible again.

I had a pain-free week populated by lovely (and not very many) people, funny policemen in the village (who forced us to eat durian, which I will not do again thank you very much), children, goats, and cats. It was HEAVEN. And even though the pain returned when we got back to the mainland a week later, the island had given me hope. One day I will be normal again, I thought. It is possible.

So that will always be a special place for me.


Four websites I visit daily

Bloglines, for my blog reading (so I don't have to insult anybody by choosing only four); GoogleNews, for my news fix; Yahoo Japan weather for the weather report for my area; and ... I don't think I have four that I read daily, aside from blogs. Most days I check my Yahoo mail, but not always.

Four favorite foods

That's a hard one. I like eating, as long as I'm not cooking. (I think The Man feels the same way. He also likes eating as long as I'm not cooking.) I'll do meals I've had, instead:

Breakfast in Kuala Lumpur: Roti chanai, dahl, and teh talek.
Lunch in an outdoor cafe in Prague: Cheese and meat platter with lots of different kinds of bread and a glass of wine.
New Year food in Japan: Zouni, Tai, Gomame, etc
Christmas dinner at the Hilton. (Especially the Christmas pudding. With brandy sauce.)


Four places I would rather be

I'm happy where I am right now, but when summer comes around ask me again and I'll say ANYWHERE EXCEPT HERE. Summer in Japan is not reasonable.


Four albums I could listen to over and over

I don't listen to music except when I'm commuting, and then I tend to listen to Tom Waits (any of various albums); Rickie Lee Jones (any of various albums, but the early ones rather than the later ones (except The Evening of my Best Day, which is her latest studio release, I think)); Kate Bush (particularly Ariel (warning: annoyingly slow-loading website; go to Amazon for a quicker look at the album)); some Bob Geldof; and some classical music downloaded from BBC. What else do I have on my iPod? Some other music, but not a hell of a lot because the CD player in my computer is now not working properly so I can't add anything new. I'm limited to what I already have and what I can download. (But will sort that something out with the CD player SOON. I'm getting tired of the same things all the time.)

That last paragraph got infected with parentheses. It must be time to stop.


Four people to pass this along to

Anybody who wants it.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Duck Olympics

Today I happened to pass the river as the Duck Olympics were starting. I didn't have much time, unfortunately, but managed to catch the synchronised swimming championship.

It was a disaster. First, one duck started before her partner was ready.

And then, when they got their act together, the judges were looking the other way. They were gossiping and had forgotten what they were there for.

"Bugger!" said one of the ducks. "I did a perfect headstand, too! Did you see that?"

"Of course not, stupid," her partner said. "My head was underwater."

"I'll show you!" she said, and did it again.

But her partner wasn't looking, and the judges were still gossiping. (I overheard something about an illegitimate duckling.) It was a terrible waste of a great headstand.

Next was the big duck race. The audience shuffled, eagerly anticipating a tight finish. Some were so excited they had to sit down.

The ducks set off in great form.

Coming up to the second rock the umpire (dressed in orange) was waiting, and had to tell one of the racers to go to the RIGHT of the rock, not the left.

After this they were supposed to round the rock and head back to the first rock, where the winner would be declared. Unfortunately, shortly after the above photograph was taken the competitors forgot what they were doing, and started wondering when dinner would be ready. The umpire waited and waited...

...but only one racer came back. He was declared the winner by default, but was subsequently disqualified for returning via the wrong side of the rock.

The audience went home.

And I went to work.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Friday 13th

Today I had to test a few students who'd missed testing last month for various reasons. I thought I'd finished them all, but I hadn't. It was all very messy, and I had a hectic sort of day. When you test some students you have to do something with the other students who are not being tested, and it's like trying to teach two classes at the same time. It's very stressful. On top of that, the bad students all suddenly decided it was time to start worrying about their grades, and mobbed me at the end of each class, demanding to know if they could pass and what they needed to do, or what they needed to do to get a better grade. I tell them (repeatedly) it is too late at the end of semester, but they just don't get it. Their JAPANESE professors respond to begging and apologies. How come I won't do it? Well, I won't, that's all. Hasn't my reputation preceded me?

They used up my precious ten minutes between classes with this nonsense, and I got particularly snarly when another lot also used up half my lunchtime. I need time to recover between classes, and wasn't getting it, and was reaching the end of my rope. I sometimes wonder how many non-teachers realize how full-on teaching is? I've had a lot of different jobs, and the only one that came anywhere near it was the bone clinic of a hospital on scoliosis day. (But I'll tell you that particular nightmare another time.)

The problems in the class before lunchtime were, I'll admit, partly my own fault. Remember the homework that had been copied? Well, I wasn't entirely sure about two or three of them, and tried to find out, in my tricky teacher way, whether those particular guys had also copied the bulk of what they'd written. They hadn't written much, and it was so awful it was hard to tell.

So I announced in class that I was terribly disappointed with most of the homework. I'd had to give very low grades, I said, because so many of them were copied, or had been done so badly I couldn't give them good points. I watched the reactions of the suspect students to this announcement, hoping to catch the guilty exchanged glances (or not) but to my horror most of the class jumped guiltily. Then they started accusing each other of being stupid because they'd SAID I would notice; gaijin teachers ALWAYS check the homework, they'd SAID they should have done it properly and not in a great hurry and cheating and so on. It was ALL YOUR FAULT, they told each other, and NO, IT WASN'T, IT WAS YOURS, and various arguments started. (This particular class still hasn't figured out that I can understand Japanese.)

It was a riot. It was also extremely annoying, because then I got mobbed by pleading, panicking students, worried about their grades and wanting a second chance. They wanted to be given more homework, which they promised faithfully they would do properly this time.

But the whole point of making the last homework assignment due by the last class in December is to avoid marking homework after classes have finished. I want to tell them their final grades in the last class, and I can't do that easily if they're all handing in homework on the last day. I weakened, to my regret, and made up another homework assignment on the spot, telling them sternly that they had to do it well this time. I would be checking carefully and there were no more chances after that.

I then stomped off to my severely curtailed lunch feeling extremely disgruntled, and plotted my revenge while eating. I decided that next week I will give them something to do while I mark the homework during class. Then I'll tell them their final grades at the end of the class. No fun and games in the last class for THAT lot. Ha!

But no fun for me, either.

The students in my first class after lunch are a lovely bunch, and higher level, but I had to give them a test. This was because their faculty suddenly sprang a student evaluation on me late last year, on the day I'd planned for testing, and I had to reschedule everything. By the time I went into the classroom after my truncated lunch I was dreading these tests. I was still too grumpy, and was afraid I could not be fair.

However, the first pair to be tested gifted me with a miracle cure for my black mood. They were a couple of very likeable lads who I knew would do well, which is why I'd called them first, to cheer me up. They were terribly nervous, though, and started off by introducing themselves to each other and shaking hands (which I hadn't required, but it was a nice touch). Then they both bent forward at the same time to pull their chairs up, but I'd placed the chairs a bit too close together so that when they did this there was a sharp crack as they banged heads, hard.

I would have preferred this to happen to the students who had given me such a hard time in the morning, but still, it was strangely satisfying.

Even more satisfying was the way they reacted. They clutched their heads, staring at each other, and you could see the Japanese "ITAI!" almost flying out of their mouths (and the stars floating around their heads), but they remembered THIS IS A TEST AND WE ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO USE JAPANESE. After a long, painful, suppressed silence one of them remembered the English word and said it, with deep feeling:


The other guy's face lit up and he responded, with equal sincerity,

"Yes. VERY ouch."

Then they sat down, carefully, and I snorted. I just couldn't help it. That set them off, and all three of us laughed uproariously for a minute or two. Then we calmed down and they carried on with the test, and did very well indeed. I told them so, and they were happy, and the rest of my day went much, much better.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Today's lesson

I am too tired to write today. However, for homework my second year university students wrote about how they spent New Year, so I'm stealing bits from their writing instead. These snippets were all written by different students, but I think they go together rather well. There is a theme, and even a moral at the end. What more could you ask for?

I gave a new year party in a bar with my friends. We made a hullabaloo. We enjoyed very much!

I went to the bar with my high school friends. We talked about mutual recently life while we eat and drink. I ate a rare food at the bar. It was a frog. I ate it without hesitation because I got drunk. The taste like a chicken. It was not bad, but I prefer chicken to it.

The night about 50 people came the party. I drank too much. I got drunk as one expected. Some people warned me to stop drinking, other people urged me to drink more. After all, I was hung over the next day. Now, I regret my behaviour in the day.

I drank at new years end party with my friend. I drank oneself insensible. I vomit. I became a hangover.

I spent with my family for the first time in a long time. My father injured his a liver so he couldn't drink alcohol. But he seemed to want to drink alcohol. I laughed at him.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Work started again today, at one place, after the New Year break. It also finished, which is absurd, but never mind. At the two other places I work we also start this week, with some classes meeting only once, others twice, and a few for three more weeks. It's the raggedy-arse end of semester.

In my classes today I had the students filling in feedback forms for me, telling me what they liked and didn't like about the course, what they found useful, or not useful, and so on. I told the students that this survey was for me, and was not official. I had already done the grades (in fact I was filling in the grading forms while they were writing) and they could write honestly. I often find these surveys helpful when I plan the next semester.

Some of the students took this seriously, and others didn't. It didn't really matter. I just wanted a general idea, anyway.

In my favourite class there, the one with the higher level student who has spent some time in the U.S. (learning naughty words), the students took the survey very seriously indeed. They were in groups, and helping each other with words and expressions they weren't sure about. The higher level student was being very helpful, I noticed, offering suggestions and so on. He read aloud something one of the other guys wrote, and told him the English was wrong. The student told him what he wanted to say in Japanese and erased the incorrect part. Then the higher level student dictated the correct English to him, with great seriousness. This took a long time, because the student was a slow writer.

"Because of your class ..."

"Because... of... your ... class..." muttered the student, gripping his pencil and writing with great care,

"... my English has improved."

"... my ... English ... has ... improved..."

"Thank you very much."

"Thank ... you ... very ... much ..."

"I can use many words I didn't know before."

"Too fast! Again?"

"I can use ..."

"I ... can ... use ..."

"... many words ..."

"... many ... words ..."

"I didn't know ..."

"I ... didn't ... know ..."

"... before."

"... before."

"For example ..."

"For ... example ..."

"... now I know ..."

"... now ... I ... know ..."

"... the meaning of ..."

"... the ... meaning ... of ..."

"... handjob."

"... hand ... job."

The writing student frowned and read the last bit again. His classmate watched patiently, waiting for the penny to drop. It was a very slow penny, but worth waiting for.

"Hand...? nani...? CHOTTO MATTE!"

When that particular paper was finally handed in to me, a part of it was almost worn through from violent erasing.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Proper dog posture

Today when The Man and I went out on our bicycles I took the camera especially so that I could get a picture of a dog we often see. It is usually sitting bolt upright, as if it had a father like mine, who would shout, "SHOULDERS BACK!" periodically at dinner time, in between, "ELBOWS OFF THE TABLE!" and "DON'T LICK YOUR KNIFE!" My father was worried that we'd all end up with bad posture and worse manners.

This dog has perfect posture. "I was brought up properly," it seems to be saying. "When I sit, I sit neatly, with my back straight and my paws just so."

Today, however, it was lying down. But it even lies down neatly, back paws tidily together, front legs elegantly crossed, tail curled around just right. It is a perfect model of dog posture. I'm sure it would never even dream of putting its elbows on the table.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

How to win a blog award

I won an award!

I didn't know it would be so easy. I thought you had to actually do something worth awarding first, and have lots of readers and be fantastically popular and all that. But no! It was much easier than that.

What happened was that I was innocently reading Gran's on Bran, and noticed that Doris had won an award. She had even dressed up for it. So I clicked on the link to the 1st ANNUAL POOKIE'S CHOICE AWARDS and read all about it.

Then I got insulted. I threw a hissy fit in comments, complaining because I didn't get an award. Amazingly, this worked! Pookie amended his awards list and INCLUDED ME!

So there you go. How To Get An Award. Throw a tantrum until somebody gives you one.

My award is for having "You GO girl" moxy & a great name." I think this refers to my hissy fit, and that somewhere in Pookie's life lurks a frightening aunt.

Saturday, January 07, 2006


I spent today marking homework. Streaming really works, I've found. I found myself giving the high level classes very high marks, and the low level classes very low marks. This is because the high level students made an effort to do a good job, and it showed. (That is, of course, how they ended up in the high level classes in the first place.) They wanted to learn something, and did.

My low level students, however, clearly didn't put much time or effort into their homework, and often didn't even copy things accurately. When they were supposed to write something partly copied from the textbook they'd add spelling mistakes, and miss or add letters or words. There were exceptions, of course. There were a few who obviously spent some time on their homework, and they scored high.

The most annoying thing is when I get the same awful homework several times from students in the same class, who have obviously 'helped' each other. Generally this is not good work to start with, but then mistakes get copied and multiplied and you frequently end up with something that make no sense at all. In one spectacular series of copied-from-each-other homework assignments I checked today the word clean started off as crean, morphed into crern, then cleart, and finally cteart. What did they think they were writing, I wonder?

Reading this kind of homework takes me on a roller coaster of hilarity and despair. Despair from words like cteart, and hilarity from sentences like this one, my favourite of today's lot:

Jeff would like to have a big dong but he can't, because he lives in a small apartment.

Friday, January 06, 2006


Today The Man and I went into Osaka, and had dinner at an Indian restaurant. It was the same Indian restaurant I went to with my colleagues on the last day of classes last year, and as we went through the door of the restaurant we were sucked into a time warp and landed two weeks ago. I know this because my colleagues were there, sitting at the counter. Nothing had changed. It was all rather surprising, and at the same time felt completely normal. Time travel is like that.

They left soon after, however, and The Man and I ate heartily and well, and after eating there were no other customers so The Man showed the staff (three Indian blokes) how he could take a lighted cigarette and shove it into a handkerchief and then open the handkerchief and the lighted cigarette was GONE! They were amazed. Then he showed them another one with a ring and a chain, which also amazed them. He gave them the ring and chain and they tried to do it as well, and couldn't. It was all very exciting, especially when they asked him to do the cigarette and handkerchief one again and he did, and set fire to the handkerchief. There was a terrific amount of smoke and a nasty smell, and he quickly unwrapped the handkerchief, shouting and carrying on, and extracted the still burning cigarette. He showed them the charred hole in the handkerchief and put it away, shrugging and apologizing for his failure. Then he smoked the rest of his crumpled and bent cigarette.

The Man tells me that sometimes a failed magic trick is as much fun than a success, and I can see how that can work. His audience certainly got a thrill out of that one. I bet they'd never seen anything like it before.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A normal sort of day

Today The Man and I went shopping, to get some bit for the toilet, which is leaking again, and a towelling bath robe for me, since my old one was chucked out in the Great Cleanup The Man did recently. This was not his fault. I had a brain fart. Apparently he held up the robe and said, "What shall I do with this?" and I looked at it and said, blithely, "Chuck it out." I don't know what I thought he was talking about. That bath robe was an old favourite.

Anyway, on the way over to the store where you can buy bathrobes and toilet bits (two stores actually), we saw some gulls alongside a little river. They were all in a row on the fence, and looked very decorative.

I like the way gulls are colour coordinated, with their red beaks and matching legs.

We also saw some ducks. The ducks didn't look real. They looked like decoys.

But when I clicked the shutter again, I timed it just as the decoy duck came alive and dived into the water. I thought I'd caught its tail, but I didn't, so you'll just have to take my word for it. This is a diving duck.

We got the toilet bit, and the bath robe, and also a mouse for my computer. Now all I have to do is clear my desk enough so that there is a flat space to put it on.

After we got home The Man talked on the phone with Okaasan. She informed him that there was something she'd forgotten to tell him when she saw him and now she's remembered to tell him but has forgotten what it is. She'll call again as soon as she remembers.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

New Year

New Year was lovely, as usual. In fact it was pretty much like New Year last year. We have grown old and set in our ways. We do the same thing every year. We go to Okaasan's place and watch TV, visit the local shrine, and eat too much.

I showed Okaasan my new toy (the Palm with wireless keyboard) and she was fascinated as well as utterly confused. She drew a picture on it for me, of a cat-like dog, because it is the Year of the Dog. (Or perhaps the year of the Cat-like Dog.) I showed her how the wireless keyboard worked, and she tried to use it. The Palm does not have Japanese fonts installed so she had to type in English. This was a problem because she doesn't know any English, so she got the New Year's card I'd given her and copied from that.

It took her a good ten minutes to type "hhhhhaaaaaapppppyyyyyynnnnneeeeeewwwwwwyyyyyyyeeeeeeaaaaaar," hunting for each letter and holding the key down firmly. She thought it was funny that it didn't turn out looking quite right, and didn't quite get the point of having the letters all over the place like that so you had to hunt for them. I demonstrated for her how much faster it is to type than to write.

She was astonished. She put her nose right down to my fingers as I typed away, and watched them like a hawk, as if she thought they were going to suddenly fly off my hands. She stayed down there for so long I started to wonder if she'd inadvertently fallen asleep. She hadn't. I typed:

"I'm showing Okaasan how to type. She is hypnotised by my fingers. She is staring at at them as if they're magic, amazed by the whole thing. I don't think she has ever seen anybody touch type before.I can't stop now! This is a pen. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. Help! When is she going to stop staring at my fingers?"

When I stopped she stared at the screen of the Palm, marvelling and wanted to know if what I had typed was actually words. I assured her that they were, and pointed to the bit that said, This is a pen.

"Zis... is... a ... pen!" she read, and gazed at me, all astonished delight. Then she frowned and looked at her fingers, and looked up at me hopefully.

"But if I did that, like you," she said, wagging her fingers, "It wouldn't be words, would it," she asked. I agreed that it probably wouldn't be, and she sighed and looked disappointed. Okaasan has great faith in the power of technology, and I think for a wild moment she had believed that maybe, just maybe, my magic machine would cause her to write in English if she tapped the keys at random fast enough.

After we had watched Kohaku (terrible, as usual) we watched the countdown and then The Man and I went for a walk to the local shrine. We don't usually go quite so early, and when we got there we discovered crowds of people lined up waiting to get in. Usually there is only a handful of people when we get there later.

There are some trees outside the shrine, and when I looked up I saw this:

"What's that?" I asked, and we stared. At first I thought it was fortune papers, which people tie to trees in the shrine grounds after reading them. How did they get up so high? And why were they coloured? But they turned out to be balloons. The shrine is just behind a stadium, and in the stadium they sometimes blow up balloons and then let them go all at once, and they fly all over the place. I guess a lot of balloons must have been let off on a windy day recently. The trees looked festive.

Rather than standing in line the Man and I headed off to find a coffee shop so we could wait until the crowds had gone. We knew we wouldn't be able to find a coffee shop open, because we do this every year (usually after our shrine visit), but we went anyway. It's a part of our tradition.

We walked and walked and walked. No coffee shops were open.

Eventually we came back to the shrine, and there was still a line. I suggested going up the road the other way, where there used to be a coffee shop open at this time. It hadn't been open for a few years now, but you never know.

We went, and it WAS OPEN!

Inside, the middle-aged woman snoozing at the counter greeted us, and we ordered coffee. We chatted a bit. The Man said we hadn't expected the shop to be open, and asked what her hours were. She said she opened at nine in the morning. I said,

"When are you open until?" and she replied,

"Oh, I'm very healthy. I'll keep going for a long time yet."

It was just like talking to Okaasan.

The coffee, freshly made, was truly horrible. How is it possible to make a fresh cup of coffee taste so bad? But at least we got to sit down for a while.

Back at the shrine the crowds had gone and we were now too late for the shrine maidens. I'd wanted to take a picture of them like I did last year, to see if it was the same people. But they were packing up already, although one of them kindly rushed off to get me some sake. "Just a little," I said, and he almost filled the cup. The rest of the shrine visit went just like last year's. I took a picture of the dog, since it is the Year of the Dog.

And then we walked back to Okaasan's house. I was giggling most of the way. The Man said it was the sake, but it wasn't. It was natural high spirits. Also, he is very funny. Sometimes just looking at him makes me laugh.

We got back at around four, and after watching some more TV went to bed.

In the morning, well, afternoon, we had the traditional New Year food, which Okaasan had prepared.

It wasn't just fish. I took a picture of what I thought was the whole spread, but then Okaasan kept remembering things she'd forgotten, and we'd already started eating, so you'll just have to imagine the rest. In fact she kept bringing out more and more food, some of it totally unsuitable, and we had to stave her off. She can be very persistent when it comes to food.

In the afternoon we came home, and since no New Year would be complete without some funny English, here it is.

A pachinko parlour:

And a place for foodies to din:

Happy New Year!

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Caption contest winner

It was not just laziness that delayed the announcement of the winner of the bird captions. It was also the difficulty of choosing the best one. Every time I looked at them I made a different choice.

What decided me in the end was that only one really captured the feeling of the purposeful yet bizarre posture of the bird in photograph seven (you might need to enlarge it to see what I mean) and could figure out what it was saying so urgently in picture eight. Editter has demonstrated that she is in tune with the birds. Congratulations, Editter! And a Happy New Year to you all.

... 99, 100!


bet you're round this corner...

or on top of the rock?

OK, ya found me!

your turn to hide

off you go!

82, 83, shit shit, gotta find a rock soon!!!