Sunday, April 29, 2007

What makes them so sure it was accidental?

2 deer accidentally open door, visit Pennsylvania retirement home

NEW OXFORD, Pennsylvania -- A pair of deer took a quick tour of a retirement home after one accidentally triggered an automatic door.

The animals were wandering near the home Wednesday when one stepped on a mat that triggered a clear sliding door, according to staff members and surveillance tapes.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


Today there was no earthquake, but there was an earthquake-equivalent. I walked into my first, one-student class, and he was not there. His bag was, though.

I guessed (correctly, it turned out) that he had gone to the lavatory, so I sat down and unpacked the Scrabble and another activity I'd brought with me. He had demonstrated some enthusiasm for Scrabble last week (i.e. he sort of nodded when I asked if he liked it), and I had decided to give him the choice to play it again if he wanted to. I still don't know whether this class will be continued or not. I have some ideas of what to do if it is continued, but next week Friday is a public holiday, so I figured that if I was going to start 'proper' teaching, I'd make a fresh start after that when (I hope) I'll know what is happening.

The official class rolls arrived in my mailbox at the university this morning, and there is definitely only the one student registered in this class. The boss told me that generally what happens is that the university contacts the student to find out whether there is a class they can join at a different time, and if there isn't, the class continues. I THINK this means the class will continue, since the other repeater class for his faculty on that day has nobody registered, last I heard. But there may be classes on other days. I didn't have time to check.

After a few minutes the student walked into the room, and I greeted him cheerfully, as I always do.

"Hello!" I said. "How are you today?"

That was when the earthquake-equivalent happened. He looked directly at me, smiled shyly, and stammered,

"Ha, aha, I'm fine, thank you."

I didn't make a run for the stairs, or react (externally) in any way abnormally, but it was a near thing. That was the first time he has answered my greeting, the first time he has looked directly at me aside from a frightened glance on the first day, and the first time he has smiled. And it happened all at once!

He has a lovely smile. He only used it once again during the lesson, but he did look directly at me occasionally after that when I spoke, and I got a few more monosyllabic replies than usual as I was chatting during the game. I asked him if he had felt the earthquake yesterday (he hadn't) and we discussed (or I discussed) what we would do if there was one during our class, and I managed to elicit from him that he remembered the big one here (he was 8, and that made me feel old) and that his house was half destroyed but nobody in his family was hurt. Although I did most of the talking it WAS a conversation, of sorts, at least far more so than last week or the week before. He chose to play Scrabble again, and that helped. It took the focus off him. He did not sweat or shake this week. He frowned at his tiles a lot, but that's normal. So did I, as I tried to avoid putting my Z on a triple letter score or something similarly tactless.

I also had a pack of cards in my bag, and to end the class I showed him my one magic trick, which made his mouth drop open before he barked a little almost-laugh. He then showed me his one card trick, and did it REALLY WELL, and my response made him smile for the second time. Then he showed me how he did it, which he shouldn't have, so I showed him how I did mine, which I also shouldn't have. But first I made him promise not to tell anybody. He seemed to think that was an odd thing to have to promise. I expect it was, really, as I don't think he has any friends to tell.

But I hope one day he makes some friends, and can show his new trick, and will remember that he isn't allowed to explain the trick because he promised his favourite (only) English teacher that it would remain a mystery to everybody except me and him.

I'm feeling a lot more positive now about the prospect of this class possibly continuing. A little feedback is a wonderful thing (especially when it is so unexpected), and I'm already working on the next step in my dastardly plan to turn my little wannabe-dropout into an ENGLISH SPEAKING wannabe-dropout.

In my class of third year students, I had several new students AGAIN (when will they finish shopping around so I can start on something like an actual syllabus?) so I got them practicing conversations, and after that we did a quiz. The quiz was one I found floating around in my bag (there's a lot of rubbish in there, but some useful stuff as well), and is a general knowledge quiz I've used before a lot, partly because it's always so successful (the students love it, for reasons I can never quite understand, given how bad they are at it and how much they mock each other for their wrong answers) and partly because the answers are always so entertaining.

Today's most entertaining answer was the one to the question:

"Who was the leader of Russia during the Second World War?"

The group that got that question huddled together for a while and came to a decision. Then they turned to me and answered, confidently,


(I got to feel old and surprised a LOT today.)

In my last, very large class, I have discovered that the levels are wildly mixed. They shouldn't be, as the students were supposed to have a level check at the beginning of semester, which usually works quite well. I suspect that a few of the students somehow missed the level check and just got dumped in my class. It is supposed to be a low-level class, but some can speak quite well and others can barely understand anything. The book is low level, which will bore the higher level students, I thought, so I decided to focus a lot of pronunciation, which benefits everyone.

In pursuit of this plan, after we did the (very easy) first unit in the textbook today I taught the class how to say the. That was pretty funny, because they thought I was mad. You could see it on their faces when I wrote the on the board and told them what we were going to do. But once they'd done my little repeat-after-me exercise and said the three sentences;

Cat eats mouse.
The cat eats the mouse,

The cat has eaten the mouse,

and used the same three beats (with me hitting time on the podium) to say them, the higher level students were sitting up in their chairs with surprised expressions and paying attention. You could see them suddenly realizing that English had a different rhythm from Japanese. (English is stress-based; Japanese is syllable-based, broadly speaking.) They tend to pronounce the as a clear and separate word, and it sounds wrong.

Then I taught them the children's chant:

Who took the cookie from the cookie jar?

I wrote it on the board first, and some of them read it aloud as I was writing.

"Who - took - the - cookie - from - the - cookie - jar?" they said, and frowned. Why was I writing something so silly?

Then I called for silence, and they went quiet. (This class is obedient, bless their cotton socks. I don't know how I'd cope if they weren't.) I faced them, frowned ferociously, and then suddenly started chanting accusingly, hitting the podium and clapping rhythmically,

"WHO took the COOkie from the COOkie JAR?"

That made a few jaws drop.

I did the whole thing. Then I got them to repeat it after me, only slower.

After a couple of times (when they had finished laughing) I pointed out what they were having to do to the to make it fit the chant. The higher level students sat up straight again when they realized. I made them all repeat a few other nouns after me, with a very unstressed the and a daDA rhythm.

The STUdent.
"The BOOK.
The BAG.
The TEAcher!

Then we did The COOkie jar chant again, all hitting the desks and clapping in time, and I sped them up faster and faster until they reached critical speed and classroom collapse. When forty-four students collapse, it's messy, hilarious, and very, very loud.

But it was, I felt, a perfect and happy note to finish the day on.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Emergency lesson plan

This morning there was an earthquake, felt in this area as a 3 on the Shindo scale, but not by me. I was on a train. I started from second period today, not first. A colleague told me, however, that she was on the 10th floor at the time, teaching. She felt it very strongly up there, and got quite frightened.

I will be on the 11th floor of the same building tomorrow morning at that time, with my lone, very difficult student. I am hoping there will be another small earthquake at the same time tomorrow, because if there is I will insist that we evacuate, using the stairs. It will probably take us a good twenty minutes or so to get down (especially if I trip a couple of times, and perhaps have to stop for a rest), and then we will have to wait around a bit to make sure it is safe. Then we can go back to the classroom and finish early because we're too traumatized to study.

That sounds like a lesson plan to me.

(Note that I am hoping for a SMALL earthquake. I do not want a big one, especially not while I'm up there.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Oh, dear

Today was only the second week at one of the places I work, which started later than the others. For homework last week, I asked the students to write a self-introduction. Usually I ask them to do this in class, because I watch them doing it and can get an idea of their level. But this time I already had an idea from the activities I'd done first in class, and I could see it would take time, so it seemed better to get them to do it for homework so they could spend time on it.

I explained to them that I wanted to put their self-introductions into a folder, so asked them to use B5 looseleaf paper with holes, and showed them the sort of folder I had. They all have similar folders, so I wasn't asking them for anything unusual. But I explained that every year, when I ask for this, someone always gives me the wrong sized paper, or writes on the wrong side, or gives me paper without holes, and it's REALLY ANNOYING. They laughed, and nodded patronizingly. They weren't stupid, their expressions said.

"I'm serious!" I said. "There's always a few people who get it wrong. Please, please, please, get it right. It's not a big thing, but it makes an impression. It shows you paid a little attention, and keeps my folder tidy."

Oh, they weren't going to make any stupid mistakes like that, their expressions said. They weren't dumb. Why was I going on and on about something so silly? It was OBVIOUS. I wanted them to do their homework the normal, expected way. Why would they stupidly write on the wrong side of the page, or use the wrong sized paper?

That was the reaction I got in all four of my classes last week.

Today when I collected the homework, one student, the one who had written the most and obviously worked the hardest, had written half a page on A4 paper with no holes. In all four classes, at least two had written on the back of the page instead of the front, and when I pointed it out to them they smacked themselves on the forehead and their friends laughed at them. And several had used paper with no holes at all. In fact three or four had written on pages from notebooks and then ripped them out, giving me what looked like leftover scraps of paper with scribbles on them.

I brandished these and shouted, "SEE? I told you! This ALWAYS happens!" I brandished the folder as well. "How am I supposed to put these in here?" I asked dramatically.

The offending students looked embarrassed, AND SO THEY SHOULD HAVE. I told them to do it again, and bring it next week. We all had a good laugh. None of this was nasty. I was being melodramatic and everybody understood that. They thought it was funny.

But at the same time I felt a little twinge of despair.

One of the offending students (and a reason why I did not make a serious fuss, just a funny fuss) was a little guy who is the most utterly gormless creature you can imagine. He doesn't seem to quite know what is going on in his life. I don't know who he thinks is in charge, but it's not him. He squints at the board, squints at me, his mouth hangs open, and he looks anxious and lost. Today he turned up twenty minutes before the end of class, rushing in panting, in a total panic, apologizing for being late. He had a P.E. class that had just finished, he told me (in Japanese) and I told him to sit down and catch his breath and not to worry. There was something funny going on if he had a P.E. class scheduled for the same time as one of his required classes.

Once I got the rest of the class busy (so they wouldn't stare at him and make him even more nervous) I took the class list over to him and asked his name. He told me. His name wasn't there. Then he told me he was not in second period, he was in third.

"Third period starts at one, after lunch," I told him. "This is second period."

(How come he turned up at the right time last week?)

He looked relieved, and then panicked again.

"What should I do?" he asked me. "Should I leave?"

I did not laugh, although I wanted to.

"You can choose," I said. "If you want to sit here and relax and watch, you can. We've almost finished, actually. Or you can go and have an early lunch."

He chose to stay. He sat at the back of the room and watched the class that wasn't his. He looked extremely puzzled, and I wanted to pat his head and tell him life would probably become less confusing soon, except that I had a horrible feeling it probably wasn't true. I suspected his life had always been confusing, and would probably stay that way.

He was there again in third period, and I took care to give him a smile but not to draw attention to him. I didn't think he'd like too much attention. Then I collected the homework. As I was going around and collecting it, I picked out bits and pieces that caught my eye, so that students would feel noticed.

"Oh, you have goldfish!" I said to one. "I had goldfish too, once, until they committed suicide."

"Eh?" he said, which was pretty much the reaction to everything I said, although usually someone translated after I'd passed. The student I was talking to was generally too stunned by the sudden attention to understand anything I said, but everybody around listened carefully.

When I got to my special little friend and glanced at his homework, the first sentence to jump out at me was,

I don't have any friends.

Oh, dear. Oh dear oh dear ohdearohdear.

"Lots of group and pair work in this class," I told him. "You'll meet a lot of people."

"Eh?" he said.

But it is true. With very few exceptions, even the least likely students end up making friends in my classes. The most common positive comment I get in my student evaluations is, The best thing about this class was that I could make a lot of friends. (I am never sure whether to be proud of this or not. Isn't the best thing about my class supposed to be how much they learned due to my fabulous teaching?)

I smiled. He smiled rather uncertainly back. I don't think he believed me, and I have to admit I was feeling a little doubtful myself. Maybe he would manage to be one of the exceptions. I hoped not.

He had written his homework on a B5 paper, but it had no holes. He also had a packet of B5 paper with holes on his desk beside his notebook. I remember he had it last week, too, because I held it up as an example of what I wanted when I was explaining the homework to the class. I can't imagine what made him decide to use something else. He was devastated when he realized his mistake.

"Don't worry," I said. "You don't lose points the first time. Just bring it next week."

For some reason, at that moment I was reminded of a rather interesting typo that turned up in my syllabus at another university one year. At that place there were typos every third word or so when the syllabus was printed, and it was always good for a cheap laugh. On this particular occasion I had written that the class included a lot of pair work, which the printers had rendered as,

"This course includes a lot of pain work."

Don't you just hate it when the typo is more accurate than the original?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Blood and battlefields

Today on my way to work I stopped at the little park next to the river, where some of the orange poppies were out. I love those orange poppies. Wild field poppies, they're called, and Cheryl once told me they grow on battlefields because they seed on turned soil.

I know Amagasaki was bombed extensively during WWII. An old guy I met one time at this same park told me all about it, telling me that the school right behind the park was his old school, and it was closed for the duration, and the roads were full of bomb craters and everything was burned and blackened. But the bombing was 60 years ago, so I don't know if that counts.

In any case, the poppies are all over the place, and they are lovely.

On Saturday evening I had lamb for dinner. It is unusual for a local supermarket to sell lamb, so when I found it I snapped it up.

The problem was what to do with it. As I've mentioned before I am not a very good cook. However, we have a rosemary bush in the garden (it grows and grows, despite not being cared for at all), and I decided to have lamb with rosemary. Then I thought no, with ginger would be nice, and then I couldn't decide, rosemary or ginger? So I had it with both. I made a soy sauce marinade with rosemary and ginger, then grilled the lamb. It was unexpectedly good. I didn't really know whether ginger and rosemary would work together, but they did.

Tonight I had the rest of the lamb. In fact I decided to have a meal of some favourite things, whether they went together or not.

When I took the big knife from the draining board I sliced my finger, and while it was not a bad or even painful cut, it bled profusely, and I did most of the preparation with a bleeding finger. I made a salad from baby leaf, mashed avocado on toast with salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon (ouch), steamed broccoli, and grilled green pepper and tomato with the lamb.

This time I decided not to bother with the ginger (mostly because I couldn't be bothered grating it), and instead marinated the lamb in soy sauce with rosemary, a dash of red wine and a few drops of human blood.

I didn't really expect it to taste very good - was the red wine a mistake? - but it did. I must remember how I did it, for next time.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Further spider adventures

Last night when The Man came home I was ready for him at the door. I do not usually greet him at the door, but I wanted to warn him about the spider. The last time he got a surprise was last week when I came up the stairs and he hadn't heard me come home. He was just leaving our room, and thought he was alone in the house. I saw him, but he was looking down as he put on his slippers and didn't see me. When I said hello his scream almost sent me flying back down the stairs. It took a little while for us to forgive each other after that.

I did not want another incident like that one.

So I told him about the spider, and we discussed what to do. Eventually we decided to ask it politely to leave and hope it would be gone in the morning. Sometimes this works.

This time it didn't.

This morning I told The Man the spider was still there, but he somehow managed to momentarily forget and give himself (and me) a fright when he spotted it a bit later. It was clear that something had to be done. He had to go into Osaka today, so I told him not to worry, I would take care of it.

"When you come home it will be gone," I promised, somewhat rashly.

But before you commend me for my courage, let me tell you that I weighed up this decision very carefully. If I get rid of a spider, it involves a gentle removal possibly highlighted by a couple of surprises. If he does it, it's a Dramatic Incident highlighted by heart-stopping screams, shouts, curses and probable failure, and it's highly likely I would end up being blamed for the whole fiasco. There are some dramas a woman can easily omit from her life without missing them at all. That was an easy promise to make.

I went to the supermarket first, though.

When I came back the spider was still there, which was a disappointment. I had been hoping it would go away by itself and I could take the credit.

I prepared myself. I had decided to use the milk carton trick again, but discovered that all our empty milk cartons had already been cut open ready for recycling. So I decided to use a cut-open milk carton and a plastic bag. The idea was to slide the milk carton under the spider, then drop it into the plastic bag and take it outside. The spider had already proved itself to be not very active or responsive, and I didn't think it would do its bolting up the wall trick. I suspected it was sick anyway.

So I slid the milk carton gently towards the spider. It didn't react at first. Then the edge of the carton touched its legs, and it started to climb the wall slowly. This was a problem. How could I get it to go down onto the carton instead of up the wall? I looked around, and saw a bookmark sticking out of a book on the shelf behind me. I took the bookmark, and used it to gently push the spider onto the carton.

Success! But only for a moment, because the spider didn't like the carton, and walked off it before I had a chance to shake it into the plastic bag. I tried again. This time, since it had moved so slowly, I decided to make a run for it.

I ran for the stairs, holding the carton flat in front of me and moving it so the spider stayed in the middle. The spider did not like this. It ran for the front of the carton and dropped off the edge, spinning out a thread. Now I was halfway down the stairs and the spider was hanging from the carton, getting lower and lower. I held the carton up higher and higher and had made it to the bottom when I realized the spider had disappeared.

Even sick, slow spiders spin their threads VERY QUICKLY.

I looked for the spider and could not find it.

On my way back up the stairs I had a horrible thought. Was the spider stuck to my slipper? Had I stepped on it when it dropped to the stairs?

I hadn't.

I came back up, and inspected the one photograph I had taken before beginning my spider-removal job. It was hopelessly unfocussed.

But where was the spider? I was worried now. I could tell The Man that it had 'gone,' which would be a little bit true (it was gone from the basin), but what if it reappeared? Could my nerves cope with a sudden reappearance witnessed by The Man? I went back downstairs and hunted some more. I checked under the edge of the entry step. I checked in all the shoes. I checked under the shoe cupboard. I checked the walls and ceiling. No spider.

I decided it was time for a cup of tea, and went to the kitchen.

On my way up the stairs, carrying my cup of tea, I was very calm and did not spill the tea when I spotted the spider sitting on a riser. In fact I walked right over it and up to my room before my head exploded. It was a sort of delayed shock thing. I put the tea down carefully, and although there was nobody there to hear me, I shouted,


This was technically true, because although I could not have ACTUALLY stepped on it, not being a wall climber myself, it was entirely possible to ALMOST step on it.

I grabbed my camera and went downstairs again. Going downstairs made me feel funny because I knew the spider was there but could not see it. At the bottom of the stairs was the milk carton, the plastic bag, and the bookmark. I was ready to try again, but not without taking some pictures first.

In the first picture you can see two steps, and the spider sitting on the riser between them. From one step to the next it is 22 centimetres. I checked. So you can see this is not a monster spider. It is, however, rather large.

I think there is something wrong with that back leg. And where are its fangs? I cannot see any fangs. Spiders are supposed to have fangs, aren't they?

But you can see what I meant about it being furry. Those are odd little extra long hairs it has, though. What's that all about?

And look! You can see the thread, the tricky little devil. That is the escape line.

After taking the photos I got my spider removal project underway again, putting the carton, the bookmark, and the plastic bag into action. This time I was successful. The spider went into the plastic bag. I closed the bag. I went outside.

In the garden, I opened the bag ... and there was no spider inside.

HOW DID THAT HAPPEN? I SAW the spider in there. I was LOOKING at it when I closed the top of the bag!

On close inspection I noticed a very small hole in the bag. I can only guess it escaped through the hole, although the hole is less than a centimetre across.

Back inside, a search of the entry revealed no spider. It was not on the stairs, the walls, or the ceiling.

Poor spider. I hope it's not feeling too ill after all the adventures I imposed on it this afternoon. It must be hard, being a sick spider and having people shriek at you when all you really want is an aspirin. I tried to be gentle, but I don't think it understood.

I hope it is well-hidden, wherever it is.

New housemate

Last night when I got home the first thing I did, as always, was to wash my hands. I was pretty well sleepwalking by that point. It was Friday. (My Friday schedule is a tiring one, as I have probably mentioned before, and probably not only once.)

However, when I sleepwalked to the basin in the hallway I was galvanized to one hundred percent alertness by the large furry spider sitting on the wall right behind the tap. It was not a very fun way to find out that my reflexes keep working quite well even when I'm tired.

(In case you're wondering, I used the word furry after some consideration. I had written hairy, but I have seen hairy spiders, and this one is not hairy. It is furry. And although it is quite large, it is not as large as some of the huntsman spiders I've seen here, so I got the impression that it is a bit of a baby still, with baby fluff, although it could be a fully grown spider with tucked-in legs and a problem with unwanted hair.)

I informed the spider that if it stayed there it was going to get splashed. It didn't seem to mind that idea, so very carefully, without taking my eyes off it, I reached out and turned the tap, not making any sudden movements. I lathered up thoroughly, and then rinsed. The spider got splashed so I said, "See? I told you so." It tucked one leg in a bit, but otherwise didn't respond.

"Stay there," I told it. I was feeling a little more comfortable with my new companion now. "I want to take your picture."

But when I went back with the camera it had gone.

I was a little worried. Where did it go? I don't mind sharing the house with a large spider, especially with the mosquito season coming up (they eat cockroaches, too!), but only as long as it doesn't give me surprises. These spiders are really good at providing surprises. They have two main ways of doing this. One is when the spider sits somewhere absolutely still, looking fascinating, You lean in to get a closer look (because it's SO still you think maybe it's dead. Is that a REAL spider? you think, because surely they don't get THAT big) and then it suddenly moves, at incredibly high speed. They don't seem to have a setting anywhere between motionless and lightning fast, and since by then you have convinced yourself it is dead it's a bit like the effect you'd get if you were at a funeral and the corpse sat up briskly and said, "Hi!"

The other way these spiders provide surprises is when you think you're alone, sitting peacefully typing an email, and suddenly this huge thing sprints vertically up the side of the bookcase beside you. It's too fast for your eye to follow properly, so you just get a glimpse of something shockingly large shooting up the bookcase. The last time that happened to me I sat here for a good five minutes afterwards, unable to move at all, breathing heavily.

When either of these things happen you learn what 'startled out of your wits' really means. You and your wits part company so thoroughly you're not sure whether a reunion is even possible.

You may wonder why I tolerate these things in the house (besides the mosquito and cockroach thing, I mean). There are two reasons for my wonderful tolerance and hospitality. One is that I don't see them very often - maybe once or twice a year, and most of the time it's possible to forget they're here. They are shy creatures, and I suspect our odd encounters upset them as much as they do me.

But the other reason is that really, what is the alternative? Small spiders can be helped out the window if you want them to leave, but these are not the kind of spiders that it is possible to help in that way. And while I would never hit a spider with a slipper anyway (unless I were in Australia, perhaps - I've heard things about Australian spiders), these are not the sort of spider you want to do that to. Even supposing you were fast enough (which I doubt), the resulting mess would be too horrible to contemplate. You would probably have to move out afterwards.

I did try to catch one, once, in the bathroom, where it was decorating a tile. I approached it very slowly and sneakily with an opened (empty) milk carton, hoping to sweep it into the bottom of the carton and take it outside. It was completely motionless. I swooped in and thought I'd succeeded, but when I turned around triumphantly holding the carton up high and ready to run for the door, I came face to face with the spider, which had miraculously relocated itself on the other wall. It then shot up to the ceiling and I screamed and dropped the carton. The carton was, of course, empty, but as is usual in these situations my wits were elsewhere, and anyway I was so sure that I'd caught the spider I got the idea that there were two. I did a panicked little shuffly dance away from the carton, fully expecting the other spider to jump out, and terrified that I would step on it with my bare feet. It did not help that I'd dumped a pile of washing on the floor and there wasn't much space to move. Picking up the washing to put it in the machine later on was a bit hair-raising, too, even though by then I was pretty sure there had only been one spider. A part of me still didn't really believe that I'd missed.

I don't think either of us enjoyed that particular episode, and since then the spiders and I have maintained a respectful distance, aside from the occasional accidental encounter.

It is now Saturday morning. I just went to check, and the spider is now sitting half under the soap dish. I am not sure that it is a healthy spider. When I approached the basin it did not move. I prodded one leg (with the edge of the dish) very gently, and it twitched but did not do anything surprising, although I have to admit that I was so braced for the more usual bolt up the wall that I jumped when it didn't.

What to do? What to do?

Updates will follow.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


I am tired. Today was a very long day. Tomorrow will be an even longer one.

Actually my classes went well. I could write about them, but it would take too long and I have to get some paperwork done before an early(ish) night. So instead I will tell you the sentence that stuck from the podcasts I listened to on my commute. One of the podcasts was an interview with a cloud scientist, who commented, at one point:

Clouds often weigh 10,000 tons.

I don't know whether to ponder more on that amazing bit of information or on the discovery that there is such an occupation as cloud scientist. Maybe the proper name for the job is geophysicist, or something like that, but that's not the point. If someone had told me when I was a child that it was possible to be a cloud scientist, my life might have turned out very differently.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

It was theriouth

Yesterday on my way to work I listened to a very interesting radio podcast about sustainability. The scientists interviewed were good. They were clear and easy to follow, and talked a lot of sense. The journalist was good, too. He asked sensible questions, and didn't interrupt in the middle of explanations.

But there's more than one reason I appreciated the journalist letting the scientists do the talking. I think I would have found his slight lisp a wee bit distracting. He didn't QUITE say the ithue of thusthtainability, but it was very, very close, and it would have been hard to concentrate if he'd said it too often. And it wasn't supposed to be a funny podcast.

(I'm not linking to it because I can't. It was an old one, and is no longer on the RNZ podcast page.)

Monday, April 16, 2007

What I saw today

Today on my way to work I cycled past the little river. The cherry blossoms have held on for a long time this year, but they are almost finished.

I saw a cormorant, but it was very busy, fishing. I took a lot of pictures, mostly of bubbles. This is the only one that included some cormorant.

I also saw the Grey Heron, who was standing very still, perhaps washing his feet.

The Little Egret was there too, talking to himself.

I saw some carp, including one that appears to be albino. I don't think I've ever seen a white one before.

And last but not least, I got a rare glimpse of the amazing Umbrella Bird in its natural habitat.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Black Friday

Last Friday I thought that Fridays weren't going to be too bad this year. There was the difficult first student, yes, but that class might be cancelled anyway (I am quietly hoping) and the other classes seemed pretty good. The second class of the day was a high level non-credit course, with about five students who want to talk, the third was a third-year elective 'discussion' class to which twenty-seven students turned up, not a bad number (although they proved themselves incapable of 'discussion,' but that's nothing new), and the last was a first year required class of arts majors, who are always fun. That class was a little large, with thirty-three students, but still manageable. The limit is supposed to be thirty, but if there are scheduling hiccups we're supposed to accept up to thirty-five.

It looked like being a good year. If the first class was cancelled, which I hoped it would be, I would have a good end to a long week. The last class seemed like a particularly fun bunch.

Yesterday was Black Friday, the second Friday of semester. Perhaps I should have been warned when I noticed the date.

In the first class, the lone student turned up again, surprisingly. There are still no more students to temper the effect of being stuck in an 11th floor classroom surrounded by empty rooms with a student whose normal response to anything I say is the occasional twitch. Nobody else is teaching on the 11th floor at that time. It was windy yesterday, and up there the wind makes horror movie noises at the least provocation. It howled yesterday, and I felt a little spooked in the long gaps between words when the building moaned. HOOOOOO!

The first ninety minutes were interminable. The decision to cancel the class (or not) will not happen for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime I cannot tell the student to buy a textbook, and I simply do not know what to do with him. He will do whatever I ask him to, in the sense that if I ask him to read something or repeat something he will do it, but his obedience is exact and frightening and it makes me feel cruel. He breaks out in a sweat, obeys me, and looks utterly terrified, staring at his hands or the desk. It is horrible. What can I do to make this kid relax? (I already know the answer to that one: I can disappear.)

The second class went well. Those non-credit classes are a dream to teach.

In the third class of third year students I did a quick head count and noticed that I still had twenty-seven students. This was strange, because there were some I was sure I would have remembered (because THEY were strange), but I didn't. How could I have forgotten that very tall, skinny bloke with dreadful acne and hair down to his waist held back with little butterfly clips? That wasn't like me. I may not remember names, but even after only one meeting I generally recognize the faces, in a blurry sort of way. They look familiar. The class did not look familiar.

Then light dawned.

"Who is here for the first time today?" I asked, and half the class put their hands up.

I had forgotten it was an elective class. They're still shopping around. Bugger. I did not have enough extra copies of the class guidelines, and certainly was not going to brave the excessively slow lift (I was back on the 11th floor) to run and make some. Besides, I'd only get dirty looks from the office staff for not ordering my copies the week before, and possibly a lecture. We're not supposed to make copies the same day we use them. We get lectured about it all the time.

I ad libbed the class (which went surprisingly well), making a note to order the extra copies for next week. At the end I asked how many had already registered and how many weren't sure yet. Most of them had already registered, so I think I'll be able to actually start teaching the syllabus next week. (As much as I ever do, I mean. It's a very optimistic syllabus, not written by me.)

When I walked over to the other campus for my last class I was feeling pleased that I would be finishing with a good class. It is important to end the week well, I find. If the last class goes well I feel like I've had a successful week. Last year I was lucky, too.

I walked into the room, greeted the class cheerily (and they greeted me back - they're lovely). Then I did a double-take.

"Good god, what happened?" I asked. "You have MULTIPLIED!"

I did a head count of the sadly squashed students (it's not a very big room) and discovered there were now forty-four students.

"Forty-four?" I said. "FORTY-FOUR? Are you sure you're in the right class?"

They were all sure. They thought my reaction was funny.

I went down to the office and asked to use the phone. I called my boss, over on the other campus.

"What happened to the limit of thirty-five?" I asked. "How the hell am I supposed to teach the same syllabus to forty-four students that I'm teaching to thirty in my other first year classes? It's impossible!"

The boss is terrifically proud of getting this limit accepted by the various faculties. The limit used to be forty, but we were regularly required to accept fifty or more. (I do not miss those days AT ALL.) But now that the students are all supposed to get the same oral English classes in their first year (the English classes used to be all elective) it is easier to enforce some sort of limit. You cannot realistically expect a forty- or fifty-student class to learn conversational English. Thirty is bad enough.

The boss said he was on his way over, and I put the phone down. The office staff wanted to know what was wrong, and I told them. I knew I wasn't supposed to complain to them. The boss is the buffer between us part-timers and the Japanese staff, and we're supposed to make nicey-nicey, because every time a teacher complains about anything to the administrative staff the boss gets the flak later when they complain about us complaining and being uppity gaijin and who do we think we are? He gets very upset if he is forced to defend us too often. But I couldn't resist the opportunity to convey the message that THEY HAD SCREWED UP. BADLY.

"My boss made a mistake," I said. "He has assigned me forty-four students, and the limit is supposed to be thirty-five. Ha ha ha! But I'm sure he will sort it out. Don't worry."

Several of the staff stopped in their tracks and stared at me, perturbed. Did I really not know that THEY assign the students? Did I really expect my boss to fix the problem? One of the big shots from the back of the office approached me tentatively.

"Er, sumimasesn, we got a lot more intake this year than we expected," he said. "Some of the classes might be a little bigger."

"Oh, but I'm sure you must have told the boss about it," I said. "He should have assigned extra teachers to take care of the overflow. It's really hard for the students to learn English in such large classes. How can they possibly get a chance to practice speaking in that situation? He should know better. It's cheating the students. Forty-four students in an oral English class? How ridiculous!" I burbled on and on, pretending not to notice the frozen lack of response. Then I added, conspiratorially, "But don't tell him I complained about him. I might get in trouble ... "

Perplexity reigned. Was I really so dim? People carefully avoided each other's eyes, and nobody seemed to know what to say.

"Yes, I think big classes must be difficult," said the big shot, nervously. "Er, sumimasen. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu..."

Then the boss arrived, and the office staff suddenly discovered they were busy. I went back to the classroom with him.

"I don't suppose there's anything you can do at this stage anyway," I said, "But I just made a wee stink in the office. I told them it's a ridiculous situation and the students are being cheated."

He frowned ferociously and opened his mouth, but I got in first.

"Don't worry!" I said, cheerfully. "I blamed you."

He shut his mouth. Then he opened it. Then he shut it again. Indecision crawled all over his face. Had I screwed up, or not? He did not like it that I'd smeared his reputation, but on the other hand, if I'd put the blame where it belonged, then ...

When we got to the classroom the jury was still out.

It turned out to be true that there was nothing he could do. Mine was not the only class grossly overloaded. Several others also had 40 or more, but the students could not be moved around to make a new class because some of them were different courses, and also because those that were in the same course had already bought their textbooks. We only have a very short list of texts we can choose from, but as luck would have it we had all chosen different ones. This means we are stuck with our ludicrously large classes.

The boss told me later (rather defensively) that the faculty of COURSE knew the classes would be overloaded, weeks ago at least. They should have split the first year students into more classes, and told him about it since he is responsible for providing teachers. But they didn't, which is why he only learned about it from the teachers in the second week. They were probably trying to save money.

I'm wondering now why those extra eleven students did not come to the first class. That is very unusual for first year students, and I am deeply suspicious. If the boss had known about this problem in the first week he still would have been able to do something, because we tell the students which textbook to buy the first week and it would have been possible to split the classes. But we ALL had at least ten missing students the first week. There is something decidedly fishy about the whole thing.

There was one good result, though. Halfway through class I went back to the office to ask for more photocopies, and they leaped at the chance to be helpful. They were fantastically polite. There were no lectures about ordering copies the week before, and I got yoroshikued and sumimasened several times.

THAT was a first.

I smilingly assured them that it was not their fault.

"If only the boss had done something sooner!" I sighed. When their expressions turned tragically confused (she STILL doesn't get it?) I told them not to worry, I would manage somehow. "It's a real shame for the students," I said, "It will be very difficult for them, but I'll do my best." Then I rushed off, trailed by more yoroshikus and sumimasens.

And it's true. I will do my best for the students, and it is a shameful way to treat them. They are a lovely bunch, which might make it a little easier, but really, there are just too damned many of them.

It is going to be an interesting year.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


Right. That's it. I'm not going back to NZ until I have an explanation for all this nonsense. It's become too weird, and I'm afraid of what I might encounter.

Remember the story about the man who went tramping in his gumboots? Well, now there's a new story about another person going out on an expedition inadequately dressed. At least this guy was wearing undies, but still, I find the whole thing baffling. It just doesn't make sense.

What is going ON? Why are people suddenly feeling the urge to remove clothing and go out into the bush? Is this some sort of evolution in reverse? Am I going to go home one day and find everybody hanging from trees, hooting?

More importantly, is it contagious? Because if so, I'm beginning to understand the logic of walking around with tissues stuffed up your nose. You don't want to risk breathing in something like that.

(And speaking of undies ... Lippy! Lippy? Are you all right? One hoot for yes, two for no.)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Charged up

I've had a week of new classes, and unusually for me I hope the weather gets a little damper tomorrow. I hate humidity, but today it was so hideously dry I was getting shocks all day, which doesn't usually happen at the place I work on Thursdays and Fridays. The buildings are older and perhaps less conductive, or something, and I don't remember really having a problem there before at all. But I got a series of little shocks all day today - from the blackboard, the blackboard ledge, the doorknobs, and so on, and after work I went out to dinner with some colleagues at a nearby Indian restaurant and when I was paying shocked the Indian bloke speechless. REALLY speechless, I mean - he stared at the money in his hand, stared at me, stared at his hand, and couldn't speak for a couple of minutes. We just stood there, staring at each other. Finally he stammered,

"How ... how ... how did you DO that?" - like he thought I'd done it on purpose.

It was embarrassing, and funny, but also quite painful. I was so shocked myself that I answered like an idiot,

"Did you feel that?"

The answer was a resounding "YES!" He pointed accusingly at the end of his finger, and I knew how he felt. My own finger was still tingling.

But sometimes the other person doesn't feel it, so it wasn't a totally stupid question, and the answer was reassuring. You feel even more stupid when you hand over money and scream for apparently no reason at all. At least he knew why. (If I hadn't been shocked senseless myself I would have told him I HAD done it on purpose, and that it was a way of discouraging people from taking money from me.)

The other university yesterday was even worse, although at least there I've learned to expect it. At one point I was carefully NOT touching the blackboard (they're metal) when I was pointing to something a student was writing, because the time before I'd shrieked and jumped and embarrassed myself (and had to explain - my students there already all know static electricity even though half of them can't greet me in English yet). But even when I just pointed without touching the board a big spark jumped the gap. The very cool student who'd been writing was impressed enough to lose her cool. She stared, pointed, and whirled round and screamed at the rest of the class,


I'm sure it's all terrifically exciting for them, but my new students are finding me astonishing for all the wrong reasons. I'm hoping that tomorrow I'll be a little less charged up.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Yellow sand

A week ago there was a horrible episode of kosa (yellow sand), blown over from China, and I saw the strangest and most hideous sunset I have ever seen. The sun was a grey-white disc low in the murky sky, and I could look directly at it without any problem. In fact thought I was looking at the moon at first. It was grim. (There are some videos here, but none of them show the sunset.)

The kosa has been getting worse in recent years. When I first came here, I don't remember ever seeing it like that. I was told about it, but never really noticed. But in the last few years it has been clearly visible. It leaves surfaces gritty, turns the sky a sickly colour, and for many people it causes allergy problems.

Kosa is getting worse because of desertification in China, and the sand picks up various unpleasant elements as it is carried over rapidly industrializing areas before descending on cities in China, Korea and Japan. It contains some nasty stuff.

But the real reason for this post is that I was talking about the sand the other day with my friend, and we discovered that neither of us know how to pronounce the word desertification. Both the options we tried sounded wrong. One sounded like China was losing a certificate, and the other sounded like we were talking about the phenomenon of land in China turning into ice cream.

Where do you put the stress?

(Addendum of interest for Japan and Korea residents: I just found this U.S. army site showing the yellow sand levels in various parts of Korea. Yongsan is in Seoul. If it is high there, I imagine we can expect something similar a day or two later here in Japan, and it is probably a good idea to stock up on face masks. I know I was totally unprepared last week.)

Monday, April 09, 2007

Two stories

I have just been at GoogleNews New Zealand reading a couple of interesting stories.

The first story didn't start out all that interesting. It was about a couple of guys who got lost in the bush, in New Zealand, and then were rescued after two days. It was supposed to be a one day tramp (hike to you Americans), and they were not prepared for nights in the bush, according to the detective in charge of the search and rescue operation:

"I don't think they were very well-equipped. As far as I'm aware they didn't have much in the way of suitable clothing with them," Mr Wingfield said.

The story continues (they were able to use the dying batteries of their cellphone to send one last text message, which saved them), and then goes back to explaining how unprepared they were.

I read:

One of the men had been wearing only gumboots,

and sat up straight in my chair.

You'd think THAT would have been the headline, wouldn't you? I mean, the cellphone-saved-their-lives story is NOTHING compared to the idea of some guy going tramping wearing only gumboots.

The other story that caught my attention was one about a Japanese family who died in a house fire in Christchurch, New Zealand. It is a sad story, but one detail has stuck in my mind and I just can't get it out. The family is described as kind, polite, generous people who were always smiling and impeccably dressed.

Much later in the story, people describe their impression of the elderly mother of the family, and I read that those who lived nearby recall her as a very short woman who often walked the streets with tissue paper stuffed in her nostrils.

That is the detail that has stuck.

On the one hand I find it a little distressing that after twenty years in New Zealand this is what she is remembered for. But on the other hand, I find the idea of this tiny, smiling 80-year-old woman walking around dressed impeccably and with tissue paper sticking out of her nostrils irresistibly charming.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Loudspeaker rage

I don't know if I've mentioned the noise problem in Japan before. It is such a ubiquitous part of life here that I probably haven't said much, because my irritation is at a low-grade simmer most of the time rather than erupting in aggrieved outbursts. (Although it does happen occasionally). But if you live in Japan, one of the things you have to get used to is public announcements. Constant public announcements, and noises that function as announcements.

For example, four or five times a week the rubbish truck will go past, and as it trawls the neighbourhood it plays an irritating song, VERY LOUDLY. It is a short song, but a repetitive one, and you can hear it coming from several blocks away. When it passes the house, if I am listening to music or to a podcast I have to pause it, because for a few minutes I can't hear anything but the rubbish truck.

Then there is the guy who drives slowly around the neighbourhood once or twice a week offering to take away old refrigerators, scooters, videos, televisions, and so on (for a fee, which he doesn't mention unless you ask). His truck blares an announcement about what he will take away. It plays at high volume, and he drives very slowly.

Then there is the paper recycling truck, which does the same thing, and the guy who sells kerosene for heaters, and the guy selling ramen, and the sweet potato vendor ... and ... well, you get the picture.

The trains are the worst, though. On the trains there are neverending announcements. You always know where you are on a train, because the train's destination and next stop are announced at least twice for every stop. If you are on a local train that stops every two minutes, that can be a lot of announcements. There are also announcements to tell you what side of the train the doors will open at the next stop, and to mind the door, and not to forget anything when you get off, and if it's raining not to leave your umbrella behind. These announcements are often very loud, the exception being that on the rare occasion you actually want to know something they will be an inaudible mumble. (This does not happen very often.) Most trains also have large electronic signs giving the exact same information, so redundancy runs high. So does irritation, at least mine.

At the train stations the announcements are even louder and more repetitive. The ones that always make me want to throttle someone happen when the automatic announcement is interrupted in the middle by some guy in a uniform on the platform with a loudspeaker who cuts in to urgently bellow the EXACT SAME INFORMATION YOU JUST HEARD, only louder. If you are at a large station, like Osaka, quite frequently the announcements overlap each other, so you are being bombarded by a jumble of noise and words and it becomes hard to sort out what any of them are saying. It is easier to read the electronic signboards, which are on every platform, and which give the exact same information except for the bit telling people to stand behind the yellow line. That information is written on the platform itself.

The train announcements are the reason I use noise-canceling earphones on the trains. It's that or shove the officious little uniformed prick with a loudspeaker off the platform. Those announcements are frequently so loud they actually hurt your ears. Noise-canceling earphones are pretty much a necessity if you want to preserve your hearing.

Incidentally, a couple of years ago they added a new announcement on my local train platform. Instead of announcing the train that is arriving now and the one that is standing at the platform, they also decided to fill in the lovely silence in between trains to tell you which train will be next and when and how many cars it is and which numbers to stand next to on the platform in order to board it. Since this information is also displayed right above our heads on the electronic signboard, this is simply another way of getting rid of the few moments of blessed silence we used to have. It serves no other purpose. I can only guess that silence is not a desirable condition. Maybe 'they' don't want us to start THINKING.

Oh, and let's not forget the loudspeaker announcements that come from helicopters. Occasionally the city government will decide that it would be a good idea to warn people about bag-snatchers, or about keeping the city clean, or whatever, and they send up a helicopter with an announcement to that effect. The helicopter will circle around, making sure to cover EVERY SQUARE METRE of the city, braying the announcement at such high volume the message is almost completely distorted and garbled. You have to listen very carefully to figure out what it is saying, which is not, I suspect, a normal reaction, at least not for me (and as everybody knows, I am a completely normal person). The normal reaction is to curse and cover your ears, which does not lend itself to comprehension.

But the worst announcements of all happen at election time, and these are the reason for this post. Local elections are today, I think (or tomorrow? I haven't been paying attention. I have been deliberately NOT listening) and for the last couple of weeks our eardrums have been assaulted with election campaigns, which consist of loudspeaker cars trawling the neighbourhood and bellowing the names of the candidates, or people standing around the train stations handing out leaflets and bombarding commuters with political speeches over loudspeakers with the candidate's name repeated every ten seconds in case people forget. The idea of repeating the candidates' names so often is that when people go to the polls they frequently don't have a clue who any of the names on the list are, so they are more likely to choose one they recognize. That's the theory, anyway. It is a good thing for them that I am not allowed to vote, because I would choose the name I had never heard before, on the grounds that this person, at least, had not rudely woken me up on a Sunday morning.

This morning I was woken by a helicopter announcement reminding people to vote. At least that's what I hope it was, because if it was, that means we will have relative peace for a while, or at least until the next election. (The rubbish trucks, newspaper recycling truck, train announcements and so on will, of course, continue.) I woke, waited and waited for it to go away so I could go back to sleep, and finally gave in and got up. It appeared to be circling the house. I was being targeted. AND I CAN'T EVEN VOTE.

As I was sipping my tea I had a brilliant idea which I do not expect anybody to pay any attention to. I think Japan should have an announcement-free week, just to see what happens. Trains should go silent. Train STATIONS should go silent. No rubbish truck songs. No newspaper recycling truck songs. Nothing. We should have a week of silence.

What I think would happen is that people would panic on the first day. They would run around on the train platform asking each other when the train is coming and from which platform, although it is written in large, bright letters right above their heads. They would worry about forgetting their possessions on the train because the familiar announcement did not happen. They would worry about being on the right train even though it is the exact same train they have been taking for twenty years. There would be letters to the editor, letters to train companies, and complaints at City Hall. People would worry about when rubbish day is even though they have the regular newsletter from City Hall informing them of the days stuck to the fridge.

By the third day people's brains might have started to work in the unaccustomed silence. (For many I suspect this will be an unfamiliar sensation.) They will stop leaving so many personal possessions on the trains, because with nobody telling them DON'T FORGET YOUR PERSONAL POSSESSIONS! DON'T FORGET YOUR PERSONAL POSSESSIONS! multiple times on every commute they would be worried that they'd forget, and actually remember, instead of sinking into an infantalized passivity. People would not take the wrong train so often because they would actually have to check the signs, instead of listening to the announcement coming from the wrong platform. They would read election pamphlets instead of doing their best to ignore the shrieking loudspeakers, and vote intelligently (which is probably why this week of silence will never happen).

I suspect that the biggest problem that would emerge from the silence would be an overwhelming rush to doctors because of the epidemic of previously undiagnosed tinnitus. However, I am sure that the plummeting crime rate due to the decrease in (also previously undiagnosed) loudspeaker rage would make it all worthwhile.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


It was my first day back at work yesterday.

You may have noticed (or do I mean not noticed?) how I have not been writing about the looming first semester in my usual way. I think this might be because this time I did not panic. I would like to say that this is because I have become a mature and grownup person and was perfectly prepared for the sudden onslaught of work, but I'm afraid it's more because I have become such an efficient procrastinator that I have learned to procrastinate panic itself.

I'll panic tomorrow, I kept telling myself.

Fortunately a colleague (one I have never met, or perhaps I have at a meeting but meetings are once a year so I don't remember meeting him) emailed me a couple of weeks ago, wanting advice about his classes. He was in the throes of panic himself, and asked another colleague for ideas, and she'd given him a few but then told him all her good ideas came from me and gave him my email address. (She passed the buck, in other words.) But his request for help was so flattering, and his enthusiasm so inspiring, it galvanized me into actually thinking about teaching, and I got all interested and went over my usual plans and started amending them. We spent hours on the phone and in email discussing various issues. Whether this will help or not is another question. After yesterday, I'm not quite sure about some of my classes.

The first class yesterday was a particular problem. For some insane reason known only to Those in Charge, a repeaters' class has been scheduled for the first period of the day. Considering that the main reason most students failed a course in the first place is because they could not get up in time for class, this was a brilliant stroke more or less guaranteed to ensure that they will fail again. I was not very optimistic about this class, and I was right not to be.

I arrived to find one lonely and frightened student waiting for me.

This student, it took me ninety minutes to find out, failed all his classes last year because he had 'hesitated' to come to university at all. I asked him what made him change his mind this year, and he told me his parents said he had to come.

The poor lad. He really didn't want to be there. I could tell. Not only was he having to leave the house and interact with people, the first person he had to interact with was me, a horrible scary gaijin. He sat hunched and sweating in the cold room, rarely raising his head, while against all the evidence I treated him like a normal person. I was kind. I did not push him. I tried every trick in my repertoire to get him to at least say a few words. It took him fifteen minutes to put together an ungrammatical three-word sentence, but I was patient. Every time he said a word he blushed and sweated and looked down and froze. I was encouraging. When he used Japanese I pulled out my dictionary and looked up the Japanese words, spelling them wrongly so he would correct me. (Any kind of interaction is better than none, right?) I was as unintimidating as I know how to be. I spent a lot of time rifling through my copious papers and pretending to look for things so he would have time to recover from the last word he'd uttered. The boy was so tense he would have fainted if I'd said BOO! I carefully refrained from saying BOO!

If there are fewer than five students enrolled in a class, the class is cancelled and I am not paid. I am not too worried about this, though. Repeater classes are notorious for students enrolling and never turning up. We do not get the official register until next month sometime, and anyway it's entirely possible that next week there will be thirty students waiting for me (or more likely trickling in throughout the ninety minutes) who didn't realize that classes had started the week before. But even if the class is cancelled, I don't mind very much. I took on extra classes this year at another place (by mistake, really) and have too many for an entirely comfortable life.

I will not tell my boss that I don't mind losing the class, though. If it is cancelled, I will be massively distraught and upset at the loss of income. Eventually I will accept the inevitable and take on a long-suffering martyred air, and he will feel guilty every time he sees me, which will be twice a week. I will bravely bear the hardship of having to sleep a little longer on Friday mornings.

And he will OWE me.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

They're watching me

I discovered today that the first wire hanger crow's nest I spotted (and wrote about here) is in fact not abandoned, as I'd thought. Today I spotted a couple of crows hanging around the area. They did not like it that I was looking at the nest, and did not fly to it directly. One of them tried to distract me by flapping around conspicuously in a different tree while the other tried to fly to the nest without me noticing. When I turned to see it flying into the tree, the other one joined it and then they both flew off a short distance. Finally I pretended to cycle away, stopped further down the road, and then came back just in time to see one of them flying up to the nest. I was not in time to get a photo of it actually flying in there, but did get a shot of its tail once it was in.

I suspect that at least one of the other nests down the road from there is in use, too, because I also spotted a couple of birds hanging around and pretending they had nothing to do with them. It is interesting to watch them doing this. They start doing weird things that attract your attention to themselves and away from the nests.

I noticed the same behaviour in the carrion crow (in the hippie nest), when the crow flew back but I was sitting too close to the tree and looking at the nest. The crow started flapping around foolishly on the power lines and pecking at the wires. If I looked away, the crow flew to the tree, but when I looked back it flew back to the power line.

Finally I went off a short distance to the bench I ususally watch from, which is a bit further away, and the crow instantly flew back the nest. That was when I first realized that the strange behaviour on the power line was caused by me. The crow did not like being watched from so close.

But the other day when I was at a safe distance (at least according to the crow) photographing that carrion crow returning to its nest, there was a man sitting right under the tree, reading a newspaper. The crow apparently did not see him as a threat and did not pay any attention to him at all. Crows seem to be quite good at interpreting human behaviour.

I have heard that crows remember faces, and that they can get quite aggressive when their babies hatch. I suppose I will have to be careful.

I think they know that I'm watching them.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The less cerebral pleasures of life

I've been catching up with some podcasts. One I heard today I enjoyed enormously. I would link to it, but I have not been keeping up and it was old enough to have disappeared from the Radio New Zealand podcast page. I will have to tell you about it instead.

The story I enjoyed so much was about a tuatara named Henry. Henry is a late developer. He is 110 years old and has just started to show an interest in girls. Previously, when any female showed interest in him, he responded by getting confrontational and biting off her tail. He was a cantankerous and bad-tempered tuatara, and had to live in solitary confinement for quite a long time because of his antisocial habits. This is disappointing behaviour in an endangered species, so it was heartwarming to learn that Henry has finally become less stubborn about holding onto his virginity.

It is possible that poor Henry had a good reason to be cantankerous, though. He had what was discovered to be some kind of cancer in his bottom. (Bottom was the word used on the podcast, by the way. I am not being coy.) It is only since the cancer was removed (in 2001) that he has recovered his equilibrium (slowly, as is the way of tuataras), had a change of heart, and has now begun his slow courtship of the young and lovely Juliet. Juliet is only 20. I hope her mother knows she's out.

I have seen a tuatara, in a zoo when I was a small child. I thought at the time it was a stuffed tuatara because it did not appear to be breathing. But I was informed that tuataras can hold their breath for as much as an hour, and that the one I was watching was indeed alive, just having a quiet moment of contemplation. In a tuatara a quiet moment of contemplation can last for a considerable time, I discovered. My tuatara blinked once, and I got momentarily excited, but although I continued to watch closely for quite a long time it did not blink again, and eventually I got bored and moved on. There is only so much motionless tuatara-watching one small girl can tolerate. The fascination wears off.

The man interviewed on the podcast explained that tuataras have, basically, three speeds; motionless, slow, and pretty damned fast but only for about two seconds. On reflection I am glad the tuatara did not use its fast mode while I was watching it so closely. (Although come to think of it, that would be an interesting way of dealing with potential predators. Is there such a thing as terminal surprise?)

Anyway, Henry (whose story I have discovered is online here) is now embarked on his courtship. It is true that ninety years is rather a large age difference and could be considered controversial, but on the other hand 110 years is a long time to save yourself for that someone special, and I think he deserves to succeed in his new pursuit of the less cerebral pleasures of life.

He has a lot of catching up to do.

Monday, April 02, 2007

They should come with a warning for the easily surprised

When they sell shrimps at the supermarket in white plastic trays with clear plastic wrapping, and you bring them home and put them in the fridge, and then a while later take them out, unwrap them, and poke at them tentatively, the shrimps should NOT jump off the tray.

That's all I want to say.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

He's reading my lips!

I didn't realize my computer even had a microphone until I loaded up this, clicked 'allow,' and started talking.

That was pretty funny.