Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Happy New Year, everybody!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Stop being saintly

One of the other reasons I didn't blog much for a while is that the Saturday after catching that cold I woke up with another attack of hand eczema. This time I did not wake up with bleeding palms. I woke up itching severely, but not actually bleeding. That was a relief. Perhaps my sleeping brain had remembered the horror story two friends told me separately a few weeks ago, after reading it in the New Yorker. (I just discovered the story is online, here, but I still have not read it. I know enough, from what my friends told me.)

In this story there is something about a woman whose head was so itchy, and she scratched so much (STOP READING THIS PARAGRAPH NOW IF YOU ARE SQUEAMISH) she scratched her way all the way through her skull and to her brain.

Can you imagine being that itchy?

I can, unfortunately. This hand eczema thing is, I hope, the nearest I'll get to that, and wasn't that bad but still, it was quite bad enough. When I woke up I was afraid to look. I thought I might find that I had scratched through to bone. And then THROUGH bone. "Look Ma! No hands!" took on a whole new meaning, suddenly, and I wished my friends had not told me about that article.

My hands were still intact, however. They were just itchy. And when I say 'just' itchy, I mean 'REALLY, REALLY ITCHY, I-AM-GOING-INSANE ITCHY, SOMEBODY-PLEASE-CUT-OFF-MY-HANDS ITCHY.'

Like I said, it was a Saturday, and I could not go to the doctor. I suppose I could have gone to an emergency hospital, and if I was in NZ I might have, but red tape is always harder in another language and I didn't think I could cope with red tape and itchy hands both at once. It was taking all my will power already not to scratch. Actually, it was taking all my will power and a pair of cotton gloves.

In fact, that was all I ended up treating it with. Greasy, non-smelly hand cream, and cotton gloves, as I learned last time. I did the hand cream/cotton gloves thing and itched for three days, then the itching went away magically while I was sitting in the skin doctor's waiting room on Monday evening. My hands still did not look good, and the doctor prescribed steroid cream, but I only used it twice. I do not like using steroid cream on my hands anyway. I am afraid I will forget and accidentally get some on my face, or in my eyes.

So my advice to anybody who got here looking for remedies for hand eczema is to use greasy, non-smelly hand cream, avoid soaps and detergents – and indeed, water – as much as you possibly can, and wear cotton gloves at night but also during the day when you can. It is fantastically inconvenient, especially for a chronic hand-washer like me, and it makes typing a little difficult and clumsy, but it can be done. Both times I have had this problem the itch has stopped sometime in the third day. The marks take a little longer to go away, but even those have mostly gone now, too.

Actually, when I was thinking about the bleeding palms thing, I realized that it is highly likely that I did not have hand eczema at all. I had stigmata, caused by being too saintly.

So here is my other remedy, which I also used. Follow the advice above, just in case. But also, swear and shout at your hands. Curse them loudly. Irritate everybody around you by complaining about the itch all the time. Wave your hands in the air and scream blasphemously.

Stop being saintly, in other words.

That's what I did, and it worked for me.

Friday, December 26, 2008

A very bad Christmas pun

It has been a while, hasn't it? I have not stopped blogging, however. I have been blogging like mad. The only problem is that the blogging is happening inside my head, and hasn't made it to the screen for a while. Something happens and I think, "Oh, I'll write about that when I get home." If I am already home, I think, "Oh, I'll write about that later."

'Later' comes, and I sit here wondering what it on earth I thought was worth writing about. Was I going to tell you the brilliant idea of wearing a surgical mask at night when you have a cold in the winter, so that the air around your nose and mouth doesn't get so dry? This does work well, I've found (at least in Japan, where the air is ridiculously dry in winter), except for the morning I woke up and the mask had slipped up over my eyes. I thought for a panicky moment I had gone blind. It was an odd sort of blindness, though. My world had not gone black; it had gone white. Freaky!

But that wasn't really worth writing about. There were some work incidents, but classes finished on Monday and it's Thursday now, which means I have had time to forget almost everything.

Was I going to write about Christmas? But Christmas was today (well, yesterday, now), and I didn't go to the flea market like I usually do. The cold I caught is dragging on and on (it's been almost two weeks) and I didn't have the energy. Also, it was raining, and I thought the market would probably be cancelled anyway. It wasn't, but by the time the sun came out it was too late to change my mind.

In the evening I met a friend at the Hilton for the Christmas buffet. That was lovely. There was only the two of us this year, and it was a chance to catch up while stuffing our faces. The Man did not come, but a small piece of stollen accidentally dropped into my bag while I was eating dessert, and I decided to take it home for him. He likes stollen.

That means that this Christmas I have launched a new career as a criminal, and in the process turned The Man into a receiver of stollen goods.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 19, 2008


Yesterday was my last working Friday of the year, and I was testing students all day again. Speaking tests are always a little difficult, for reasons I have gone into before. These reasons were multiplied this time because I have a cold and was taking cold medicine, which made me sleepy.

While I was doing these tests in another room, I had to have the students who were not being tested doing something else back in the classroom as they waited their turn. Because of this cold (at least that's my excuse) I was not thinking clearly and for some reason got the idea that I had already prepared something last week.

Ten minutes before class, I discovered that what I had prepared last week was a large, red message to myself in my notebook which said,

Prepare something for next week!!!!!!!

Why did I not open my notebook earlier? And why didn't I care more, when I finally did? How much codeine is in that cold medicine the doctor gave me?

Anyway, I did not panic. Instead, I asked around the teachers' room and someone came up with a Christmas puzzle, which I was able to copy. I used that.

At the end of the puzzle was a sentence the students had to finish. This was the only 'creative' part of the handout, and I found the answers immensely amusing, all day. I thought you might enjoy some of them, too. (If you don't, take some codeine and try again.)

The sentence they had to finish was this:

This Christmas I want . . .

Here are some of the things my second year students wrote. Some of them were evidently feeling tired:

This Christmas I want to rest.
This Christmas I want to sleep well.

Some were tired AND hungry:

This Christmas I want to sleep all day and to eat cakes.

And one was only hungry. Very, very hungry.

This Christmas I want to eat many chickens.

Others had different things on their minds:

This Christmas I want girlfriends.
This Christmas I want to kiss a girl.
This Christmas I want a girlfriend. And I want to play with her.
This Christmas I want to get money. And I want to play with boy.

(These were all written by guys. I had to remind myself that 'play' in Japanese (asobu) is used QUITE differently from the way it is used in English. Direct translations can be disastrous.)

A few students were touchingly optimistic.

This Christmas I want to meet Santa.
This Christmas I want world peace

And one student had a very specific want:

This Christmas I want a collapsible bicycle.

There was one lout. Why is there always a lout? And why does he have to be the one who is the most likely to get what he wants for Christmas?

This Christmas I want to drink too much.

The speaking tests went well, or at least I think they went well. I do not remember much about them. That does not matter, as I was grading them as they happened. (Probably far too high.) I didn't really expect speaking tests to go well with cold medicine, but they did.

In fact, that was so much less stressful than usual I might try it again next semester.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The mask

Last Sunday I caught a cold. It was a sudden and vicious sort of cold, the kind where you go to bed feeling perfectly all right and wake up feeling as if someone has been stuffing your sinuses with cotton wool all night and shoving bits of broken glass down your throat. I thought I would never recover.

On Monday I was feeling quite a bit better already, but to make sure I didn't pass on my germs to the students, and also because the air is so dry, I wore one of those surgical mask thingies that are commonly worn here in this season. I would not do that in NZ, but I can do it here, because everybody else does.

As it turned out, it was a very clever thing to do. Sometimes I am clever without meaning to be, and Monday was one of those times. My afternoon classes on Mondays are usually very difficult ones. The students are noisy and full of energy but uninterested in learning English, and generally by the time the final bell rings my ears are ringing along with it. We often have fun, but it is exhausting fun.

On Monday, when I went into my first afternoon class wearing my mask, the students all shrieked loudly and demanded to know whether I had a cold.

"No," I croaked. "I have the Ebola virus." Naturally, they were not listening, so did not hear me. This is often the case. I can say what I like.

Monday's task for these students was to prepare for the oral test I'm supposed to give them in January. I had prepared a list of questions for them, and from those I told them I would be choosing four, but they should prepare for all of them. I told them to write their answers, and I would check what they wrote, so that they could practice correct answers over the New Year break. (Most of them won't, of course.)

I told the students sitting nearest the front that I did not have the energy to go around the class checking what they wrote, so they would have to bring it to me when they finished. They nodded wisely and spread the news around the room. (I also reassured the one good student who actually listens that I did not in fact have the Ebola virus.)

After the first excitement they settled down and behaved like angels. They worked hard, frequently stopped to ask me how I was, and looked concerned every time I coughed or sneezed. When they had finished writing their answers they brought them to me for checking, and lined up quietly instead of mobbing me and yelling insults at each other. When there was still half an hour of class time left most had finished, and only three or four were still working away. Their friends crowded around them to help, and I heard one saying,

"Hurry up! Teacher is sick! She needs to rest!"

The slow students hurried up, and class finished early. As they were leaving, all the students told me to take care of myself.

I was touched. They had managed to refrain from shrieking for nearly eighty minutes. They really cared!

The last class of the day was almost identical, and I got home early.

I have come to the conclusion that I should go to those classes masked every week.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Exploding duck

...waving goodbye.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

My favourite ever pronunciation mistake

(My apologies for the quality of the illustration. If I had known my future career would require a talent for stick drawings, I would have paid more attention in art classes at school.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


On Tuesday one of my students gave me a note at the beginning of class. It was from another student, who was writing to explain why he would be absent. It went like this:

Dear Bald Ant (obviously not exactly this, but a similar mangling of my name),

I'm gonna absent, cuz I have to go work. I'll explane that next week. I'm sorry I should have told you immeditary.

It was sweet of him to let me know in advance that he would be absent. Many of my students don't seem to even notice whether they're in class or not. They are surprised when I fail them for missing half the classes.

It was also sweet of him to give me a giggle in the middle of a long day.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The great shrink

Today I was checking homework, and discovered that one of my students had visited the Yasaka Shrink.

There must be something about that place that causes students' brains to become muddled.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

How was your day?

Today I was fantastically well-organized. I woke up fifteen minutes before the alarm was due to go off, feeling alert and refreshed. I had time to take things easy this morning. I organized my bag nicely, and made sure all that marked homework was in there and that I hadn't forgotten a single thing. I'd marked and prepared a lot last weekend, and it was all in there. Then I managed to catch an earlier train than usual, and at work had time to relax and chat with colleagues, safe in the knowledge that everything was ready in my bag.

You are waiting for the other shoe to drop, aren't you. HOW DID YOU KNOW?

When I organized my bag nicely and made sure I had everything I needed and hadn't forgotten a single thing, I did a fantastic job – for my Friday classes. And, in case it has escaped your notice (as it did mine), today was not Friday. Today was Thursday.

I do not want to write about how the rest of my day went. I do not even want to think about it. I prefer to focus on the positive. For this reason, I have decided to remember only those blissful couple of hours before my first class started, and to erase the rest from my memory.

I had a lovely day. Thank you for asking.

Monday, December 01, 2008


I got lucky today. Just as I got to the little river, before my classes started, these two arrived as well. They were having a very serious and somewhat heated discussion about something.

Then they left again.

Although these birds are called Common Kingfishers, they are not very common around here. Today was only the second time I've seen any.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Today I started reading a rather wonderful book called Curries and Bugles: A Memoir and Cookbook of the British Raj, about life at the end of the British Raj and the food that went with it. It is full of information about colonial India, reminiscences, recipes, and information about the spices that are such an important part of Indian cuisine. I am learning a lot, and enjoying it very much.

For example, I have learned some things about peppercorns. Peppercorns grow on an evergreen vine. That surprised me. I'm not quite sure why it was surprising. I had never thought about it before and had no idea how peppercorns grew. It just wasn't like that, I suppose.

Also, did you know the difference between black and white pepper? I didn't, but now I do. Black peppercorns are picked when they are unripe and then dried in the sun until the skin turns black. White peppercorns are picked when they are ripe, soaked, and rubbed to remove the skins. Then they are dried in the sun until they are bleached white. In other words, they are the same thing, only different.

Whenever I read about something like that, I wonder who thought of it first, way back in the mists of early culinary history. Who was the first person to think, Hey, I wonder what will happen if I pick these before they are ripe, and dry them in the sun without removing the skin? What made them even think of it? Or did it happen by mistake? Maybe there was a big storm one day and the peppercorns were blown from the vine before they were ripe, and then there was a series of hot, dry days, and then someone, um, accidentally ate a peppercorn? Or what? What would make someone even consider picking up that black, wrinkled little hard thing and tasting it?

It's just as well they did. My favourite spaghetti recipe just wouldn't be the same without the black pepper.

I have also learned some things about nutmeg (and mace). Nutmegs look a bit like apricots when they are growing on the tree. Also, they are not nuts. Actually, I didn't think they were, but I was a bit surprised to find out that they are fruit. At least I suppose they are, although it is the seed of the fruit that is used, not the flesh. Did you know that the nutmeg tree only grows in a very limited area? Because of this, nutmeg has caused wars.

The biggest thing I am learning from this book so far, really, is that I am extremely ignorant about spices. The book is a fun way to remedy this, and I can heartily recommend it.

At least I can heartily recommend chapter one. I haven't started the second chapter yet.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Spider dreams

This morning when I stepped outside I noticed the spider that was silhouetted against the pale morning sky, hanging between the honeysuckle and the power line where it has been for the past couple of weeks. It is a large spider, and its web is enormous. The web is getting a bit messy with bits of leaf and other rubbish stuck in it, and I wondered if spiders ever did housework.

The spider did not move. I have never seen it move, and I wondered if it was awake yet. Then I wondered if spiders actually sleep. Do they close their eyes? Do they even have eyelids? Do they dream? And if they dream, do they dream in colour, or in black and white? What do they dream about? Do they ever have nightmares? What are their nightmares about? Brooms?

I have to go to work now, so I'll leave my readers to answer these questions for me.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Yesterday I wore my favourite hat to work. I think it makes me look like a spy from a WWII movie. When I wear it I feel all mysterious and glamorous. I was enjoying crossing campus in my hat, with my coat collar pulled up around my ears against the chilly wind and the hat brim pulled down.

Then, in the staffroom, one of the other teachers told me that my hat made me look like Mary Poppins. My self-image was rudely shattered, and my ego deflated like an old balloon.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why things are unravelling

Yesterday I received an email from a friend, rather upset about a letter he had received in response to a letter he had sent. In his letter he had asked two questions, only one of which was (insufficiently) answered in the letter he received in reply. He assumed that this meant the sender was not interested in his second query. These were business letters.

I started composing an email in reply to my friend's email, which got longer and longer as I developed a theory that has been lurking in the back of my mind for quite some time. As I was writing, the theory developed further, and it had become almost fully fledged when I accidentally deleted it.

Thus the world came very close to losing yet another of my wonderful theories.

But then I thought that perhaps I could try again, and this time explain it to a wider audience. So, here it is: an almost but not quite complete explanation for the world's current economic crisis.

The short version of my theory goes like this: IT'S ALL BECAUSE OF FEMINISM AND COMPUTERS.

The long version is . . . well, longer. Sit back and prepare to be enlightened.

Once upon a time, back in the early days of the modern business world, women were considered (by men) to be suitable only for breeding and for menial secretarial work. This meant that they either stayed at home and spent their time raising boys to become businessmen and girls to become secretaries or housewives, or they went to secretarial school and learned, ostensibly, how to type and do shorthand. I say ostensibly, because in fact what they were learning was how to be the severely underpaid brains of a business organization while taking none of the credit when things went right and all of the blame if things went wrong. Managers did not need to have brains, or to know what they were doing. That was what secretaries were for. In reality, managers were just decoration. Managers had long lunches with one another while secretaries ran the business world. Managers mumbled drunkenly into dictaphones after their long lunches, and secretaries read the mail and composed sensible replies for the managers to sign. Secretaries from different organizations met in tearooms after work and discussed who pinched whose bottom at the latest office party and the finer details of running the business world without anybody else noticing. Everything worked smoothly, and babies had warm feet.

With me so far?

Then feminism came along, as indeed it needed to, and women said, hey, why am we doing all the work and getting none of the credit (or, more importantly, the money)? So they stopped learning how to be secretaries. At around the same time, computers also came along. Unfortunately, since everybody (men, actually) thought that all secretaries did was to sit around filing their nails or knitting baby booties, and since secretaries were paid peanuts, nobody rushed in to fill the sudden void in the brains department of business organizations. Women started to do other things instead, for which they could actually get real money and even some respect. And men were not interested in becoming secretaries because what self-respecting man cared what his nails looked like, or knew how to knit? Also, computers could do the job just as well, right?


Sadly, a business world without secretaries does not work well at all, and gradually, as the last properly trained secretaries began to retire and leave the workforce, everything began to unravel, rather like a half-finished baby bootie that has slipped off its needles. Recently this unravelling has been more dramatic. It seems likely that there was a 'secretary-boom' at some point in the past which has resulted in a recent mass retirement of secretaries and a sudden catastrophic loss of brains in financial circles. Secretaries were the only ones who actually knew what was going on, and now that most of them have gone nobody has a clue.

Even more sadly, nobody saw this coming. Even now, hardly anybody has figured it out. (Except me, of course.) Managers thought that with the advent of computers you could hire any school-leaver with fingers and put him or her in charge of answering letters and faxes (and, later, emails), and things would be just fine. After all, it's just secretarial work, right? Women used to do it all the time, and still managed to look pretty and have nice nails and/or knit booties for babies. It MUST be easy. Who needs training?

Who needs secretaries?

WE ALL DO. That's who. Feminism is not a bad thing. What is a bad thing is that nobody noticed women were ALREADY doing an extremely valuable job, but were not being valued or respected for what they were doing. And who wants to stay in a job where they are not valued or respected?

I told my friend, in the long email I accidentally deleted (because I do not have a properly trained secretary to take care of these things for me) that his mistake was that he asked two questions in one letter. Asking two questions in one letter was far too much for any organization that does not have a secretary and therefore has no brain. The rule these days is ONE QUESTION PER QUERY, AND KEEP IT SIMPLE. I have learned this from many years of occasionally writing business letters and emails in English for Japanese business people. If the Japanese person has two questions they wish to ask, I need to send two emails, and the second one should not be sent until the first is answered. Most people who are in charge of answering these things cannot cope with more than one question at a time. You need a properly trained secretary for that.

My most memorable experience with the dire results of the world's secretary shortage was the time I foolishly asked THREE questions in one email. It was rash, I know, but I honestly thought that since they were easy questions, it might work if I numbered them clearly. I numbered them clearly.

It did not work, of course. It took exactly fifty-three additional emails (I keep these in a special folder as a reminder to myself) and nearly three months to sort out the resulting confusion, and my Japanese client ended up with the impression that all foreigners are idiots.

So there you have it. If you need fifty-three emails and three months to achieve one small business transaction, imagine how unwieldy really large transactions must have become, and how long they must take! No wonder the world is falling apart!

Everybody has a theory about what has caused the world's current economic crisis, but my theory is the only one that makes sense. If there were still properly trained secretaries, this would not have happened.

Also, there would be fewer babies with cold feet.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bad timing

On Tuesday (I am behind, aren't I? I seem to have so little time to blog I am just now getting around to Tuesday) I had one of those dreadful experiences at work that you hope will never happen to you. I bumped into one of my bosses in the corridor.

Now, I know you probably think that is not all THAT dreadful, but you have to understand that this is not a particularly nice boss, that I generally see him about once every two years or so, and that I happen to know that he thinks English teachers are a waste of space. He thinks the university would be better off outsourcing our jobs to backpackers, through an outsourcing company. (Which he used to work for. Kickbacks, anybody?) He is the second-in-command of our department. I do not think I have ever met the Big Boss of our department, and from what I have heard, I don't want to.

Anyway, on Tuesday I bumped into this boss in the corridor, in MOST unfortunate circumstances.

It happened like this.

I had given the students homework. From that homework, I selected ten sentences that had common errors in them. I wrote those ten sentences on the board. Then I handed the yellow chalk to the naughtiest student in the class, told him (or her) that he (or she) was in charge, and issued a 'class challenge.' I said that I would leave the classroom for five minutes, and their challenge was to have all the mistakes fixed when I came back.

Then I left the room.

This worked very well in the first class. They used the five minutes well, and most of the mistakes were fixed. I was peeking through the little window in the door at the back of the room (of course), and noticed that they were all very, very serious about it, and quietly concentrating.

In my second class, when I did the same thing, a riot apparently erupted the moment I stepped out of the room. I closed the door, wondering whether I had misjudged the class. But when I peeked in, they had overcome their surprise at their teacher suddenly abandoning them, and were working on the problems. They were VERY argumentative about it, and the temporary 'teacher' was having a grand time ordering them around and telling them to speak one at the time.

I was dithering in the corridor when the door opposite opened and my boss came out. He smiled and said hello. He used my name, which was a bit freaky. How come he remembered my name? He has hardly ever laid eyes on me!

That was the first worrying moment. I realized that I have been teaching right opposite my boss all semester (all year, possibly) and never noticed before.

The five minutes were up, so I opened the door to my classroom. A student immediately rushed up and closed it again in my face. Then he opened it a crack.

"Five more minutes!" he said. "We need five more minutes!"

I shrugged and went back to dithering in the corridor. I looked at my phone, to check the time, and noticed that there was a message. I opened my phone, and started reading the message.

And of course THAT was when the boss came back up the stairs, and saw me again. This time he did not say a word. He ignored me. Pointedly.

That had to be the worst timing EVER.

(The students got all the sentences right, though, and were very proud of themselves.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fair dinkum

Today as I was just about to leave work, one of the Japanese English teachers stopped me to ask a question I found myself completely unable to answer. I hate it when they do that. Sometimes I wonder if they're doing it on purpose.

Today's awkward question was this:

"What is a dinkum, and why is it fair?"

To which my answer was, intelligently,

"Er. Um."

I felt less stupid after coming home and looking it up. Apparently I am not the only one without a clue.

In other news, the weather has become cooler, and the leaves have started to turn.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Today my students were having a very hard time with wh- questions. They always have a hard time with wh- questions, but the worksheet I had prepared for them didn't seem to be helping. I realized after the first couple of classes that I needed to have more exercises for all the question words they'd been practicing, and also that I needed to make the who questions clearer. They always get confused about how to ask such questions as Who called Michael? and Who did Jennifer call? when the original statement was Jennifer called Michael.

In fact Michael and Jennifer ended up having quite an adventure today. The original scenario I had given the students in my worksheet was that Jennifer called Michael. But when I wanted them to ask who Jennifer called, they tended to ask who MICHAEL called. I tried telling them that Michael didn't call anybody – he was called – but that only confused things further.

In my last class I drew a little picture on the board, trying to make it clearer. I changed the sentence to Jennifer kissed Michael. This rapidly confused things even more, because not only was my picture very, very unclear (who was doing what to whom?), anybody can kiss anybody, so it still wasn't clear to them who was the subject and who was the object.

So I drew another picture. This picture had stick-figure Jennifer standing over the prone stick-figure body of Michael, holding a dripping knife. (I even had red chalk, which helped.) Then I wrote under the stick figures,


I thought that would make the subject-object distinction clearer, and it did. It was perfectly obvious which was the stabber and which the stabbee, and this time the students wrote the two questions exactly right.

I overheard a couple of the girls talking about it.

""It's a suspense story," one of them said, shuddering as she stared at the gruesome stick-figures. "Jennifer called Michael, then she kissed him, and then she stabbed him."

"Yes, but ... WHY?" asked the other.

I did not tell them why, but I can tell you. It was because it was the end of the day and I had become tired of thinking up new names for my stick figures.

Monday, November 03, 2008


Yesterday I said to The Man,

"Stop yawning me!"

And then I corrected myself.

"I mean, stop making me yawn!"

But actually, it seems to me that yawn SHOULD be a transitive verb. After all, yawns are transitive, aren't they?

Friday, October 31, 2008


On Wednesday I went to the laundrette, to use the driers. Twice, actually. I had one of those cleaning fits that start off with, "It's time to wash the sheets," and progress to "And that underblanket thingy," then "And the duvet covers and that bedspread that has been in a cupboard for five years," and then suddenly the curtains look dirty. Not that we have curtains, but you know what I mean. Our bedding is now totally clean. I have aired and beaten the crap out of the duvets and the pillows, and I have also beaten the mattress. I don't think beating mattresses actually does anything helpful, but I was in a beating mood by then and didn't want to stop. Also, I had a feeling it was all the mattress's fault.

That wasn't what was I going to tell you about, though. I was going to tell you about the very old lady I encountered at the laundrette.

When I went there the first time, she was sitting on a low stool in front of a washing machine, leaning forward and peering in, her nose almost touching the glass as her washing went round and round and round. She stayed in that position the whole time I was there, apparently hypnotized.

The second time, about two hours later, she was sitting beside a drier, nose up to the glass, watching her laundry going round and round.

I went away, and half an hour later when I came back again to pick up my dried washing she was still there, apparently on to her second load. (She had several piles of laundry sitting around her, in large bags.) I started hauling my things out of the drier, and I guess there was something acrylic in there because I got zapped rather dramatically. I yelped.

This caused the old lady to look up at me, surprised.

"What was that?" she asked.

"Static electricity," I told her.

"Is that dangerous?" she asked, looking worried. "Maybe we should phone the laundrette people. The number's over there."

"No, no," I said. "It was just static electricity. It always happens. It's not dangerous."

"Will it happen to me?" she asked, looking at her drier suspiciously.

"It might," I said. "But don't worry. It won't hurt you. It just gives you a surprise sometimes."

"Oh," she said, looking doubtful. Then she brightened up, "This is the first time I've come here. Isn't it amazing!"

It turned out that someone had suggested the laundrette when she complained about how hard it was to do her washing properly, so she had decided to try it out.

"At first I thought it was a bit expensive," she said, "Three hundred yen for one load of washing, but . . ."

"Well, yes," I said, "But it's a lot easier, and you can do the big things."

"Yes! And the washing is so clean! Isn't it wonderful? I'm going to use it again! I didn't even know this kind of place existed!"

She was wonderstruck by the laundrette. The machines! Those magical machines that cleaned her clothes so well! And then dried them, too! I don't know what she had been using at home before, but I guess it must have been fairly primitive.

We chatted a little more while I folded the rest of my washing. Then I said goodbye, and she went back to watching her laundry go round and round.

I told a friend about this encounter today. She said,

"I wonder if there's something out there for us like that? Something we didn't know existed, that would magically transform our lives the way her discovery of the laundrette has done for her? Something that other people take for granted and we just somehow missed finding out about. . . "

We tried to imagine what that might be, and failed.

(But if there is something fantastically convenient in your life that seems not to be in mine, you will tell me, won't you?)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A lovely woman

Yesterday at lunchtime I went down to the river. I missed getting a picture of the large snake swimming across the river, because I didn't have the camera ready and it was too fast for me. I think it might have seen me coming. That was probably the snake I kicked a few weeks ago. That was probably why it was in such a hurry to cross the river.

I got a picture of the egret, though, who was fishing.

And a butterfly. There were a lot of these butterflies.

Also, there was a cormorant, trying to run on water.

And I took a picture of a duck. There are always ducks. If there were no ducks, it would feel wrong.

In the afternoon after I'd finished work, I was walking out to the bicycle parking lot when I heard some students calling to me from across campus. They were some of my students from last year.

"BADAUNT!" they screeched, excitedly.

"HELLO!" I shouted back. "HOW ARE YOU TODAY?"

They had forgotten how to answer that one. Instead, they bellowed, surprisingly,


"Er ... um ... THANK YOU!" I replied. I wondered where they had learned that one, and felt rather embarrassed. Why couldn't they just greet me in a normal way?

Then I thought, But of course! It's because I AM a lovely woman! Why wouldn't they want to say so?

And then I blew myself a huge raspberry.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Yesterday in one of my better but rather noisy classes, one of the girls started beating up the rather cute guy sitting next to her. I was shocked, and said so.

"What did you do that for?" I asked, as the cute guy picked himself off the floor. She grabbed a handful of his shirt and hauled him back onto his chair, where he eyed her doubtfully.

"I am hard-boiled!" she told me, and started to dust him down vigorously.

"Hard-boiled?" I asked.

"Yes, she is hard-boiled," nodded her victim, with feeling. "She is VERY hard-boiled."

She laughed and dusted him a little more vigorously. He winced and covered his head.

I don't know where they picked up the word, but apparently that's what hard-boiled girls do. They beat up the cute guys.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

How to ...

Years ago (three years ago, in fact) I wrote here about the instructional posters in my local bank that used to scare me. Last Friday I was in a bank near the university, with a friend, and saw to my horror that now a similar poster has appeared there.

I took a photo, this time. Unfortunately I took it with my phone, and the quality is horrible. (The phone camera doesn't work very well in artificial light.) Still, you can see what I was talking about.

At least this one has only one picture. The old ones in my local bank had little comic strips showing exactly how to rob an ATM customer, step by step. I suppose this is an improvement, of sorts. Having to read to get the finer details might put off the less intellectually elevated types.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A giant butt with a head

What an unkind thing to call an innocent baby.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Saturday, October 18, 2008


Today I did some dictation in all of my classes. I have been doing that a lot recently, because my students are so very, very bad at understanding even the simplest English they hear if it is spoken at anything approaching normal speed. I do not dictate word at a time. I dictate sentence at a time, and read each sentence twice. At the end, I read it all again so they can check once more, and then I tell them to go through and make notes where they think they must have misheard something because it does not make sense. I ask them to guess what they think I might have said, judging this time by the meaning rather than what they heard. I am trying to get them to make intelligent guesses.

They are not very good at it, but some of them are getting better.

Today one of the dictations I did was of a conversation. In it, a man is booking a hotel room. He says:

"I'd like to book a room for tonight."

Most of the students missed the for, which was not such a big problem. But I was surprised at how many of them missed book a room, and how bad they were at guessing what it could be, considering that we have just finished an entire chapter in the text about hotels and holidays.

One student had written,

"I'd like a blue moon tonight."

He didn't seem to think there was anything particularly odd about that, even though the man was then asked whether he'd prefer a single or a double. Perhaps he thought I was dictating some sort of weirdly romantic science fiction thing at them.

Another student, as I wandered past and looked over his shoulder, was staring at his paper, pencil hovering, and frowning. He had written,

"I'd like to boom tonight."

I snorted.

"What do you think that means?" I asked.

He looked at me, puzzled.

"I don't know," he confessed.

"Maybe he's a terrorist," I said. "A suicide bomber. You know, he wants to BOOM!"

He looked doubtful.

"No, probably not," I said. "But what do people USUALLY want when they go into a hotel?"

He stared at his paper again, then his face cleared.

"Oh!" he said. He crossed out boom, and wrote, room.

But actually, I think his version was more interesting.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


I will post again soon. I've been busy, and when I haven't been busy, uninspired. And when I was inspired, it was about something I couldn't post here because it wasn't my story to tell.

But I'll be back!

(Just not tonight. It's bedtime.)

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

I am going to be intelligent

I was going to tell you about tits and petty one-upmanship, wasn't I? Well, here goes.

Remember the cysts I grow, on my boobs and wrist? Well, I grew another one. When I found it, in my left boob, I was a little puzzled.

"What side was my biggest cyst?" I asked The Man.

"The right side," he told me.

I checked the other side, and discovered that the biggest one was still there, except it wasn't the biggest one any more. My new one on the left side is the biggest one. How did it grow so quickly without my noticing? Of course it is possible that I did notice it before, but just thought it was the old one because I forgot which side it was on.

It would be inaccurate to say that this new cyst hurts. 'Hurt' is the wrong word. It is, however, uncomfortable.

Now I am going to tell you another story, and not a particularly flattering one to myself.

At one of the places I work there is a woman who also works there part-time, but has a full-time position somewhere else. I do not know her very well, even though she has been working there for years. I see her now and again, but she always looks terribly serious and busy and academic, and is often in the boss's office, having terribly serious and academic discussions with him. I don't think I have ever seen her smile, at least not in a spontaneous way. She sometime gives a strained sort of forced smile when somebody greets her, but she doesn't come across as very friendly. She is always far too busy and serious for small talk.

I find this woman slightly intimidating. I don't know whether she intends to make me feel frivolous and silly, but that is the effect she has on me. She makes me feel as though I am not a serious and academic person, and I should not be teaching in a university. Whereas she, on the other hand, is academic and serious and deserves to have tenure.

I know this is ridiculous. I know I am a reasonably good teacher, and that quite frequently my teaching is most successful is when I am being frivolous and silly. I am probably as knowledgeable as she is about the academic side of teaching, and a part of what I have learned from my study and experience is that frivolous and silly is useful in the classroom. I will use whatever works. Sometimes my frivolity and silliness leaks into the breaks between classes, but who cares? Just because I do not have serious discussions about curriculum design with my boss (who cannot design his way out of a paper bag) does not mean that I know nothing about it.

See how I'm defending myself? Why does that woman have this effect on me? Why do I need to defend myself? Am I really so insecure? Besides, she has never said anything to confirm the impression I've managed to get from her. It is entirely possible that she is a perfectly nice person who just happens to not smile very much or be very sociable. Maybe she is not critical of my frivolity and silliness at all. Maybe she thinks I am terrifically intelligent. Her criticism of me is, I will freely admit, all in my head. But I do always feel that she looks down on me.


The only conversation I have ever had with this woman was shortly after my boob cysts were diagnosed. It was a very short conversation. I was telling someone else about my cysts, and she happened to be passing and overheard us, and said something about how she had some too, and how annoying they were.

"I bet mine are bigger!" I said. (Frivolously, I have to admit.)

"Mine are ten centimeters," she said. "They're really painful."

"TEN?" I said. "You win!"

"It's not something I want to win," she said.

"Are they painful all the time, or just at certain times of the month?" I asked.

"All the time," she said, gloomily. (She is always a bit gloomy, come to think of it.)

"So why don't you get them aspirated, if they're so painful?" I asked.

She shuddered. "Let them stick needles in THERE?" she said. "I'd rather have the pain!"

"Oh, yeah, the needle thing," I said, thoughtfully. "I know what you mean."

We both dashed off to class.

But later, when I thought about it, I thought I did NOT know what she meant. If my cysts were painful all the time, I'd get them aspirated. I also have a horror of needles, but would rather pass out and make a fool of myself once than suffer pain all the time. (Is that why she is always gloomy?) Living with the pain because of a fear of needles is not intelligent at all.

I decided that if my cysts ever got that painful, I would get them aspirated. And that would make me a more intelligent person than Ms More-Academic-Than-Anybody-Else.


I cannot think of a sillier reason to get my cysts aspirated. It is highly likely that all of this is in my head and the woman does not look down on me as a frivolous and silly person. It's probably just her manner, with everybody. But since this new cyst has turned out to be often (but not always) uncomfortable, I have decided I will get it done anyway, to prove how intelligent I am.

I have informed The Man of my decision, and that makes it final. He will not let me change my mind. Well, he will, but if I change my mind he will not let me complain about how uncomfortable my boobs are, and basically that means I HAVE to get it done because I am not capable of suffering in silence. I am not in the least bit stoical about pain or discomfort. I like to whine and complain, so everybody knows how brave I am being.

Now I am worrying about the squeaking thing. One of my friends had a needle stuck in her boob once, and told me that it didn't hurt, really. But, she said, it sort of squeaked. Well, not squeaked, exactly, but felt as though it would squeak if you could hear it. It made the sort of squeak a needle would make if you stuck it into polystyrene. Her description was very graphic, and when I think about it my boobs want to crawl off my chest and go hide somewhere safe.

But I'm going to do it. Maybe next week, even. I'll let you know.

*I taught four brilliant classes yesterday, in which all my students learned how to use the word anyway. They loved it. I don't know why everything went so well. Perhaps it was because yesterday was only the second class meeting of the semester for my Tuesday classes, and they're still keen. I just hope it lasts. At the end of one of the classes, one of the students came up to me and thanked me.

"I could understand everything!" he said (in English!), sounding somewhat surprised. "It was interesting."

"That's good," I said, and smiled at him.

He smiled back. Then he sighed, and said,

"Anyway, I have to go. I have another class."

He started to leave, then turned back. "Was that right?" he asked.

"It was perfect," I assured him.

And it was.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Mother magic

i promised, didn't I?

I'll start with the mother-magic and dreams story. Some of the details (the butterfly, for instance) may not be what my friend originally said (actually she couldn't remember what it was), but the gist is the same.

My friend told me that her daughter started having recurring nightmares when she was about seven or eight. One night my friend was comforting the sobbing little girl, and said,

"You know, darling, you don't HAVE to have these dreams. They're YOUR dreams, in YOUR head. You can dream anything you like. The next time that nasty man is chasing you, you just turn around and turn him into a butterfly!"

"OK, Mom," said her daughter, tiredly.

The nightmares apparently stopped, and my friend didn't think about the incident again for many years.

Fast forward to this summer, and my friend was staying with her daughter, who is now a mother herself. The family were sitting around after dinner, and after a while my friend's daughter announced that she was going to bed.

"I think tonight I'll dream about ... hmm, let's see ... the cottage by the lake," she said as she got up to leave the room.

"What do you mean, you'll dream about the cottage?" said my friend. "You can't choose your dreams!"

"Yes, I can," said her daughter.

"Who taught you to do that?" asked my friend.

"You did!" said her daughter.

It turned out that ever since the nightmare incident my friend's daughter has been able to choose what to dream about.

And isn't that a brilliant bit of mother-magic?

Friday, October 03, 2008


Why can't I remember all the things I was going to write about?

Why was this week so long? Did someone insert an extra month or so when I wasn't looking?

Why is my last class of the week always my most troublesome one?

Why can't I ever get a humane, civilized work schedule for Thursdays/Fridays?

Oh, I've remembered two of the things I was going to write about. One is about dreams and mother-magic (not mine), and the other is about tits and petty one-upmanship (mine).


Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Today I popped into a little shop I sometimes visit on my way home from work on Tuesdays. It is the kind of shop that is hard to classify. It has costume jewellery and accessories. It has kitchenware, but usually kind of novelty kitchenware, the sort of kitchenware you'd have if you wanted a nice looking kitchen but didn't actually cook. It has baby accessories. It has chocolate, and cosmetics. It has stationary, but not usually very useful stationary. It is a fascinating little shop, and sometimes I buy something cheap there, like a notebook with a silly picture on it that will amuse my students when I am waving it around and being strict with them.

Anyway, while I was looking around tonight (it was a fly-by window shop to see if they had anything new and interesting), in the beauty products and cosmetics section I spotted something labelled, "CELLULITE PANTS."

I almost stopped to see what "cellulite pants" were, but hesitated. Then I carried on. I realized I did not actually want to know. In fact, I thought, I already had too much information. I did not want to know that something called "cellulite pants" even EXISTED in the world.

But now I can't stop wondering about it. What ARE cellulite pants? I am fairly sure they are not pants made out of cellulite (eek!), but I cannot imagine what they actually are. I don't REALLY want to Google them.

But talking about cellulite, here in Japan it seems that most women are, most of the time, on a diet. The latest fad is the banana diet, which was apparently on TV recently. According to whoever dreamed up this particular diet (probably a banana importer), if you eat two bananas for breakfast every morning, you will lose weight. The rest of the time you can eat what you like.

That, at least, is the version of the banana diet I heard from the loopy professor yesterday, when I was bemoaning the fact that all our local supermarkets seemed to have run out of bananas at the same time. I did not know that bananas were being snapped up by dieters. I always thought bananas were full of energy. That's how they work for me – they give me energy when I don't have time to eat properly. Bananas and yoghurt are my staple food at lunchtime when I'm working. If I have time for nothing else, at least I will have energy for the rest of the afternoon. Banana energy keeps going and going. I assumed they were full of calories, and it never occurred to me that they could be considered a diet food.

But on Sunday afternoon there were no bananas left at the supermarkets for my Monday lunch. Instead I had to have a couple of convenience store onigiri. They did not work nearly as well, and I ran out of energy halfway through the afternoon. I blame those stupid banana dieters, who I see have even made the news overseas.

How bloody annoying of them! Why don't they just get some cellulite pants, and leave my lunch alone? I'm sure they are just as effective.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


I had a forgetful sort of day today. First I forgot to take my lunch to work. Then, when I got to my first class over on the other campus (the university has two campuses across the road from each other) I discovered that I had left my class rolls in my locker over on the wrong campus. At this point it had started to rain, and class was about to start, and although my umbrella was one thing I had not forgotten I couldn't be bothered running back for the roll sheets. Instead I did an impromptu dictation exercise, collected it, and used that to check off the roll later. (Actually, the dictation was so successful I used it in all my other classes as well.)

Having forgotten two things before nine o'clock was bad enough, but then when I was going back to the main campus for lunch, or rather for lunchtime (because I'd forgotten my lunch) I forgot about the treacherous automatic flush toilet I encountered last week, and used it again. I only remembered when it was too late that I had sworn to myself to avoid it in future.

It is a very enthusiastic toilet, until you want it to be. You sit down, and FLUSH! Bum cheeks clench in shock, FLUSH! Adjust position very slightly, FLUSH! And so on. Then you stand up, and it doesn't flush. You have to wave various bits of your anatomy at it for five minutes before it will deign to flush again.

Most of the automatic flush toilets work more or less OK (although I never quite trust them, suspecting them to be secretly providing jobs for otherwise unemployably creepy little perverts behind peepholes with their finger on a FLUSH button), but that second floor end cubicle automatic flush toilet is a particularly untrustworthy specimen (or employs a particularly sadistic pervert). I have used it twice already this semester, which only started a week ago. Today I vowed (again) not to repeat my mistake, not matter how tired and forgetful I am.

The good news is that all my classes went very well indeed despite all my forgettery. In the case of the difficult second period class it may have been because nine of the guys were absent, so I had a manageably-sized class for a change. I'm not sure why so many were absent. It could have been because after the first class back last week they suddenly remembered how close they had come to failing my class last semester, and decided to quit, but I suspect it is more likely because it was raining and they were worried about their hairstyles.

Then a student in fourth period made my day by telling his friend that during the summer vacation he had visited the Yasaka Shrink, thus demonstrating, once again, the dangers of learning words in alphabetical order. Funny how the two most memorable examples of this I have encountered both involved the same place.

The last class went well, too, for a change. That one is particularly large and boisterous, and usually my biggest problem is getting the students to shut up for long enough to actually hear what I'm saying. Starting off with the short dictation thing sorted that out wonderfully. I have done dictations before, of course, but generally towards the end of class. Doing it at the beginning had interesting results. The students went utterly silent during the dictation, and remained unusually well-behaved and attentive for the rest of class.

I might have to give that class surprise dictations at the beginning of class every week. (I realize that it doesn't seem to make sense to call it a 'surprise' after the first three or four weeks, but I gave mini-tests in most of my classes all last semester, and telling the students that there would be a test AND telling them the questions and answers in advance did not seem to prevent it from being a weekly surprise test. I don't see why dictation would be any different.)

Oh, and I did get some lunch. I had a cheese sandwich from one of the university cafes. It wasn't wonderful, but it kept me going.

All in all, it wasn't such a bad ending to the week.

Friday, September 26, 2008

My thoughts on the new P.M.

My thoughts on the new Prime Minister of Japan can be stated very simply:

"What, another one?"

My thoughts on the new Prime Minister's NAME, however, might cause me to watch BBC news on cable TV more often (or at least once) for the sheer entertainment of watching newscasters trying to prevent themselves from calling him "Prime Minister Arsehole."


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

General loopiness

Today was my first day back at work with the loopy professor. I was prepared. I had a flexible lesson plan and all the materials I needed to teach either just my own class or both our classes combined. She has sprung that surprise on me before, apparently thinking that genius gaijin teachers like myself can instantly come up with a lesson plan suitable for forty students after preparing to teach twenty. And while I will admit to occasional genius moments in the classroom, I certainly cannot produce them on demand. (Also, I have fairly frequent dumb moments, too, although I advertise those less widely.)

So today I was ready for anything. Or at least I THOUGHT I was ready for anything. I should have remembered that it is not just my boss at that place who is loopy. The entire bloody place is loopy.

It started when the loopy professor appeared in the teachers' room and welcomed me back. I gave her the little present I'd bought for her in Malaysia. I had bought this because every time she goes to some conference abroad she brings me something useless, and I thought I should reciprocate. I should probably explain how this happens, so that you can get an idea of how surprised I was when I gave her the present.

It usually goes like this. She wafts into the teachers' room, and tells me what a marvelous time she had at her conference, and all about the Very Important People she met, and then hands over her present. She tells me to open it. I do, and thank her. She assures me it is nothing at all, and gazes at me expectantly, so I thank her again and comment on how wonderful the present is. She looks delighted at my pleasure at receiving this unique and interesting key ring (or whatever it is), and continues to gaze expectantly, so I gush a bit longer about how thoughtful she is and it's just what I needed and how beautiful it is and how did she know? After a few minutes of this she leaves, satisfied.

Today, when she asked me about my vacation, I told her I'd been to Malaysia, and gave her the little present. I told her, the way you're supposed to, that it was nothing really, just a little thing.

"Thank you," she said, taking it and instantly dropping it into her voluminous bag. It vanished from sight. She had barely glanced at it.

While I was still gaping and wondering if that was the most unsatisfactory gift-giving experience I'd ever had, and also wondering if she would come across my carefully chosen gift one day a few years from now and wonder what it was and where it came from, she told me, sadly,

"One of our students has retired."

Apparently our 'retiring' student was the only thing that would fit in her mind at that moment.

But that was not what I started out to tell you. I was not going to tell you about the loopy professor. I was going to tell you about the loopy office.

When the loopy professor had finally finished telling me about the student (who had quit university rather than been blessed with an unusually early retirement, perhaps after a moment of clear thinking), I was five minutes late for class. (But that was all right, because so was my boss.) I hurried up to the classroom, and discovered that not only were my students waiting for me, so were hers, outside my classroom.

"Sensei! Sensei!" they called excitedly as I approached down the corridor. "Are we all together again today?"

"I don't think so," I said. "Er ... did Professor Loopy tell you to come here?"

"No," they said. "She isn't there. There's another class in our classroom, with a different teacher."

"Oh," I said. "Um ... come in, sit down, and I'll find out what's going on."

I went back to the other classroom and peeked through the door. Sure enough, there was a different professor in there, lecturing a bunch of bored-looking students. There was no sign of the loopy professor.

I went back to the elevator and waited. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later the doors opened and she stepped out.

I told her what had happened.

"Eh?" she said.

The upshot was that I had both classes for the first forty minutes while she went over to the office to find out what had happened and to get another classroom assigned. Then her students went off to the new classroom, and I had only my class for the last fifty minutes.

Remember my wonderful lesson plan, flexible enough to cope with either twenty students or forty? Having to suddenly adapt it to use for half a class period with forty students and the other half with twenty was an interesting (and not very successful) experience.

(It turned out that the office had mysteriously decided to assign one of our classrooms to a different teacher, and neglected to inform either us or our students.)

After that it was lunchtime. I went down to the river to relax a little and have my lunch. After eating, while I was wandering along the little path following a butterfly, I accidentally kicked a rather large snake. It was one of those sorts of days, possibly for the snake as well, which seemed more surprised than I was.

I had two more classes after lunch. The first one held no surprises aside from the ear-splitting screams of happy welcome when I walked in the door. I have no idea why that class likes me so much. It is my most difficult and tiring class of the week, and I can't say I'm particularly fond of them. They never listen. They never shut up, although they usually apologize (and immediately start screeching again) whenever I cringe and cover my ears, which is often. They never show any inclination to learn anything. I end every class with my ears ringing from the noise, and have had to cultivate a zombie-like calm to deal with them. Nothing else works. (Actually the zombie thing doesn't work either, but at least it prevents me from being climbing the walls or resorting to drugs.)

In other words, everything went normally in the only class I would have liked to have been a little different for a change. My lesson plan did not work very well, but it worked as well as anything ever does with that lot.

Before the last class, the teacher who has the other half of it told me that she had finally been given the official class lists for our two groups of students, and discovered that the way we'd split the class into two was different from the way the office had done it. Previously, they had only given us one list, and we had split the class ourselves, the most logical way – straight down the middle with nineteen in each group. But the way they did it was apparently random, with twenty-one students in one group and seventeen in the other, and not in the same order as the original list.

And, she told me, they insisted that we had to do it their way in the second semester. We had been doing it WRONG. This meant that five students from one class had to move to the other, and seven had to go the other way. Also, the lists I had so carefully typed up for each class on my spreadsheet program, the attendance and grading sheets from these I printed out over the weekend, AND the name cards which I'd numbered according to where the students were on those lists, all have to be changed.

It also meant that we spent the first twenty minutes or so of the last class moving students around and generally having a messy and annoying time trying to sort out where everybody was supposed to be. Some students did not want to move. They had made friends in the first semester, and we were separating them. Waaaah! Normally fairly cooperative and sweet, they became a little sulky, blaming us. But apparently it is more convenient for the office to move students around unnecessarily, disrupt classes, create paperwork for teachers, destroy trees, and generally be illogical, than to go into their computer and change their lists to something more sensible (or to give us the 'correct' lists at the beginning of the year).

And, of course, my lesson plan was too long. I had not prepared for sixty minutes. I had prepared for ninety.

Unfortunately, today's experiences have not taught me anything useful about how to prepare for first day classes at that place. The only thing I learned was that no matter how many contingencies I prepare for, I will be confronted with something completely different. I also learned that if you kick a snake on a day like today, it somehow doesn't feel quite as surprising as it normally would.

When I came home The Man had a question for me.

"When dogs pees on a lamppost, do you say they are addressing the lamppost?" he asked.

"Pardon?" I said. "Do you mean when they mark their territory?"

"Yes," he said. "Can you say they are 'addressing' their territory?"

"No," I said. "At least, I don't think so, anyway. Why?"

He looked disappointed.

"Oh, no reason, really," he said. "I just thought maybe you could call it an IP address."

That probably shouldn't have cheered me up as much as it did.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

When you wish upon a . . .

Yesterday I met a friend in the afternoon for coffee, which stretched to dinner, and by the time we parted it was dark. When we came out of the restaurant she looked up at the sky.

"Look!" she said. "Is that a star?"

"It looks like one," I replied.

"I hope it is," she said. "Because I really don't want to wish upon a satellite."

I am lovely

At least one of my students was pleased to see me on Thursday. He was not on task when I set the first activity, but I didn't worry too much because he was studying his dictionary. As I went past him in my meanderings around the class, he read, carefully,

"It has been a long time since we met!"

I stopped. He had discovered that his dictionary offered phrases as well as definitions. I was pleased. Many of my students have electronic dictionaries, but don't know how to use them properly.

"Yes, it has," I agreed, and carried on.

"What did you say?" asked his friends, and he told them the Japanese.

The next time I wandered past he was still studying his dictionary, and read,

"Oh! You are lovely!"

Then he looked up and blushed, and I laughed.

"That and an envelope full of money will get you an A," I told him.

"Eh?" he said.

"Never mind," I said. "Thank you."

"What did you say?" his friends asked, and he told them.

They teased him so mercilessly he spent the rest of the class on task. In fact, classes went pretty smoothly all round. It was a good start to the semester.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

First day back, and eyelashes

Work starts tomorrow. I am not ready, and should be panicking, but I can't be bothered. I think I must be turning into a calm person. I am going to print out the class lists, make sure everything is in my bag, and have a good night's sleep. Tomorrow I will ad lib my classes.

The first day back is always a bit of a mess, anyway. Every time I make proper lesson plans for a first day back they get sabotaged by unexpected paperwork or sudden requirements or last minute changes to the curriculum, and I have to adjust them. I will take my last year's plan and adapt it to whatever happens.

So instead of making fantastic new lesson plans, I have spent the day looking at more pictures from our holiday. Here is one to go on with, from the bird park. It is not a great photo (focus in the wrong place, dammit), but it is rather charming, despite the dirty face and sticky beak. And look at those eyelashes! I don't think I ever noticed eyelashes on a bird before.

Do all birds have eyelashes?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

More hornbills

Every morning the hornbills flew down from the forest to these trees.

From there they flew across in front of our balcony.

They landed in this tree and some others like it, and gossiped for a while.

Then they came down to the feeding platform.

After they'd eaten, they hung around the trees for a while longer. Then some of them flew back across in front of our balcony.

Not all of them, though. Some stayed for a while, to admire the sunset.

Or to join us in the restaurant.

"Isn't anybody going to bring me a menu?"

From the sublime to the ridiculous

We got back to Japan last night. It has been cloudy and humid today, but not too hot. In fact the weather is much like it was for a lot of our time in Malaysia. It was a rainy sort of trip.

This did not matter all that much, though, even at the beach. There it rained most days, but not for long, and the sun was out for long enough to swim and go for walks and so on. Also, we had lovely accommodation with a great view from the balcony of our fourth floor room (that's fifth floor if you're American). And of course there were the hornbills, which made everything fine and funny.

On the second morning on the island, for instance, we woke up to rain. I made myself a cup of tea and took it out onto the balcony, which had a roof. As I sipped my tea, the rain stopped, and this was what I saw.

A little while later my tea was almost finished, the rainbow had gone, the first hornbill flew past the balcony on its way to the feeding platform – and life suddenly turned into a cartoon.

What more could you ask for from a holiday?

Friday, September 12, 2008

K.L. Bird Park

We went to the bird park today, and it was WONDERFUL. I have taken a lot of pictures and will post some after getting back to Japan, but for now let me just say that K.L.'s bird park is definitely worth a visit if you're ever in the area. I could have spent the whole day there. At the restaurant in the park, we sat outside and were entertained by a couple of hornbills and three smaller birds that said Ne! a lot, making us laugh every time they did it. They also whistled and made other noises. I don't know what they were, but they were very friendly. I got the impression that if they REALLY wanted to, they would talk.

Also, a ground hornbill played grandmother's footsteps with us. At least I think that's what it was doing. It followed us along a path, and whenever we turned around, it stopped and tried to look innocent.

Other birds we saw: eagles, owls, pelicans, flamengos, egrets, emus, storks, ibises ... and I'm sure I could list a lot more but it's been a long and hot day and I'm ready for a shower.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The third cup

After we had eaten our dinner at our favourite Chinese restaurant tonight, and were sipping tea, I reflected on things I have learned this visit. One of the things I learned was what the extra tea cup is for. When we order a pot of Chinese tea for the two of us, what is brought to our table is always the pot, and three little cups in a bowl of very hot water. We always wondered what or who the third cup was for, since there are only two of us.

This trip, The Man asked, and we learned that the third cup is for me.

Well, the third cup is for the person who cannot drink very hot tea, so wants to wait for it to cool a little. I fill two cups for me, and by the time I have finished drinking the first, very hot cup (in delicate little sips), I can refill that and then move onto the second one, which is now cool enough for me to gulp down if I want to. The Man, on the other hand, likes to drink his tea at a temperature that would remove the skin from my lips, so doesn't need a second cup. (I think that if there are two people who don't like to scald themselves, they are supposed to pour the tea from the third cup to their own cup, and drink in relay.)

It is nice to have these things cleared up.

I am sure I have learned other things this trip, but right now I am too full and happy to remember what they are.

Saturday, September 06, 2008


We are leaving Penang tomorrow, after a week of rain. It is AMAZINGLY wet, and especially today. Today the rain alternated between heavy, very heavy, and torrential. Penang is usually hot. We were unprepared for feeling slightly chilly most of the time. How strange.

Today we went to Little India again, for breakfast (while the rain was merely just getting started), and although I kept an eye out, I did not spot Grandma again. We took several books with us to sell at one of the second-hand bookstores on our way back, but accidentally popped into a different (new) bookstore as well, and ended up buying more than we sold.

One of the books I bought is called "Learn Tamil in 30 days." I am fascinated by the written language, which looks totally impossible and also somehow manages to look like how it sounds. Buying this book does not mean that I will actually study Tamil, you understand. It just means that if I suddenly get an irresistible urge to do so, I will already have a book. One should always be prepared for these things.

The book was written in 1967. Unfortunately the pronunciation guide is almost useless (why don't these books ever use the phonetic alphabet?) offering such hints as. . . well, I don't have the book with me right now, but an example would be something like an explanation telling you that one 'a' sound sounds like the 'a' in 'father' and another like the 'a' in 'about.' To make things even more confusing, there are (if I remember correctly) 12 vowels and 18 consonants, but 247 letters.

I decided I will need a better pronunciation guide if I ever want to learn the sounds of Tamil, but never mind. The phrases and words in the book might be useful one day. You never know when I might need to say, for example,

"Yonder! I see an elephant standing!"

In fact, inspired by this book, I am thinking of incorporating the word 'yonder' into my daily vocabulary. So even if I do not learn any Tamil, at least my English will have been enhanced.

And now it is time to wade back to our hotel.

Friday, September 05, 2008


Today I was sitting in a restaurant in Little India, drinking teh tarik, watching the hustle and bustle around the restaurant, and waiting for The Man, when two women came to the restaurant and ordered sugar cane juice to take out - and I almost choked on my teh tarik because the older woman was MY GRANDMA.

My grandma died almost twenty years ago, but there she was, transformed into a tiny Indian woman in a blue sari.

It was a shocking experience. I imagined introducing myself to her. "Hello, I'm your granddaughter. Remember me?" I wanted to say, but didn't, because she still had that intimidating frown line between her eyes, and was glaring at the guy preparing the sugar cane as if she suspected that he was trying to cheat her. Grandma always looked like that. It was her default expression, even though underneath that frown she was a terrible softy. (I didn't find that out until quite late, unfortunately.)

There were only two differences between this woman and my Grandma. One was the skin colour, and the other was that the woman I saw today had more teeth. Two, in fact. Grandma didn't have any, at least none of her own.

I'm still feeling a little overwhelmed by this encounter. My grandma was the last person I expected to encounter in Little India.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

People, food, a dog, rain, a thank you

Here in Penang we keep bumping into people again and again. I suppose this is not really surprising, since it isn't a very big place really, but still, it was particularly surprising to bump into that Japanese guy again after we had already bumped into him twice, and the second time we said goodbye because he was leaving for Thailand today. Turned out the trains weren't running. I thought I'd read that transportation was back to normal, but when I read the paper carefully I saw that trains were running again everywhere EXCEPT in the south of the country. Oh.

He didn't seem too worried about it, though.

Last night when we were eating dinner at a food park conveniently opposite where we are staying, we, or rather The Man, started chatting with the three men at the next table. They turned out to be an Indonesian, a Korean, and ... er, a Chinese? I forget. Anyway, the Korean was the only one who spoke some English, and he was reading a book about Hideyoshi, which led to he and The Man having a little discussion about that, and then forming a mini-UN and smoothing over Japan-Korea relations. When this discussion finally ended, and we were about to leave, The Man pointed out our hotel over the road, and it turned out they were staying there too.

So I suppose it isn't all that surprising that we bumped into them again.

Tonight we went to a rather good Chinese restaurant in Cinta Street, and ate until we almost burst. Walking back, we could hear music coming from somewhere, and then spotted a dog dancing all alone in the middle of the road, in time to the music. A moment later it was clear the dog was, in fact, trying to scratch a hole in the road, but the first impression was truly amazing.

Just as we got to the Internet cafe, it started to rain. Now it is raining VERY HARD so I will have to make this blog entry a little longer, to give it time to stop. It has rained a lot since we've been here, this year, and so has been much cooler than we were expecting. I don't think I have ever managed to sleep without air conditioning in Penang before, but so far we have turned off the air conditioner every night.

Yesterday when The Man came back from somewhere to pick me up at the hotel, he called me from the front desk rather than come up. He asked me to bring something for him, and before hanging up, thanked me. When he got off the phone everybody was staring at him.

"You THANKED her?" they asked, and told him that Chinese men never thank their wives. They were astonished at our politeness with each other. The Man told them that actually Japanese men don't usually thank their wives either. He is an exception.

When we were coming home in the evening I insisted that we should hold hands as we walked through the door, to give them something else to be surprised about. I am fairly sure they get pretty bored down there at the front desk. We have been staying at this hotel every time we're in Penang for the last ten years or so, and they have always treated us well. It's nice to think we can provide a little something in return, in the form of entertainment.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


The other day I heard an American newsreader on TV say the word chasm, and got a bit of a surprise. I thought the ch was pronounced as a k, but he pronounced it like the ch in chat.

Have I been pronouncing it wrong all these years? Also, if I have, how do you pronounce chaos?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Happy feet

That was possibly the funniest massage I've ever had. I had been wondering about it, and couldn't wait to try, to find out how it works. Do they cover your feet in fish food first? Why would the fish be so interested in feet?

Well, I can tell you now that no fish food is involved. You wash your feet, then plonk them in the water, and within a couple of seconds they are surrounded by little fish yelling, "I bags the toes!" The first nibble is a surprise even though you're expecting it. I squeaked. The girl laughed and said, "Never mind. Everybody does that. After a few minutes the tickle stops."

She was right. It tickles like crazy at first, but then you get used to it, and it becomes funny without being quite so giggle-and-squirm funny.

The really unexpected part, though, was the mole removal. I have, or rather had, a little mole on my left ankle, which has been no trouble at all except that now and again I nick it with a razor. I did that recently, but thought it had healed. Apparently it had not completely finished healing, though, because the fish, which were removing dead skin (Keera was right), apparently found a little scab on my mole. Since scabs are dead skin, they decided to remove it. They were VERY ENTHUSIASTIC about it, and after a couple of 'Ow!' moments I looked down and discovered that they had not only removed the dead skin, they had removed the mole altogether, and were now attempting to remove bits of skin from around it.

That was NOT dead skin, the little piranhas!

I called the girl over and she brought a bandaid. She said that if you have a scratch or scab it is always best to cover it. In fact she had asked me, but I hadn't realized I had one.

I haven't taken the bandaid off yet, but I am looking forward to seeing how good a job the fish did of mole removal. Maybe I have discovered a new, cheaper way to remove moles.

My final verdict is that fish pedicures are hilarious, feel great, are very relaxing, and leave your feet feeling wonderful. Remember to cover those scabs if you want to keep your toes, though.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Something unusual, and a lion dance

Today The Man and I went to various places, one of which was the New World Food Park (I think that is the name) where we spotted something called a 'fish spa.' That sounded a little unusual. Why would fish need a spa, we wondered? We got up closer and noticed some fish in the window, swimming around in a large tank on the floor, up to about mid-thigh height. Then we saw the feet.

At the fish spa ("Happy Feet," RM28 for 40 minutes), you can immerse your feet in the fish tank and have your toes nibbled by little fish. According to the blurb on the handout I got, The fish nibbling effect creates tiny electrical jolts, activating your nerve endings, while the micro massaging stimulate better blood circulation. It also gives you a good night sleep and healthier looking feet! There is, I just found, a video of this here.

I want to try this at some point. The Man didn't want to, and I didn't like to ask him to hang around for 40 minutes while I got my feet nibbled, so I will go back sometime when he is doing something else.

For dinner we went to the Red Garden Food Park, where they were starting a beer festival thing. We were not interested in the beer, but they had a few performances of various kinds scheduled as well. The first one was a lion dance. It was wonderfully dramatic. The second one was billed as a 'cabaret,' so we hung around to see the beginning of that as well. That was a bit of a surprise after the very professional lion dance, but entertaining all the same. I am fairly sure the humourous effect was unintentional, however. Their singing was good, but I think the lion was a better dancer. Also, I am still wondering why one of the women was wearing red stilettos and the other low-heeled soft white boots.

We didn't stay for the whole show. We had finished our char ho fun anyway, and were ready for a walk.

It rained again today. It has been raining a lot since we've been here, and the thunderstorms have been quite dramatic. Malaysia does GREAT thunderstorms.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Very miscellaneous

Just arrived in Penang today after four nights of blissful island resort and HORNBILLS HORNBILLS HORNBILLS! I have some fabulous photos. Or at least I think I have. You never can really tell until you get them on the computer, can you? I might have a bunch of blurry birds.

But that's all right because we had a lovely time. I ate far too much (those buffet breakfasts and dinners were irresistible) and swam every day in the sea, and The Man had a good rest. We are ready to tackle the rest of our trip.

This afternoon I headbutted The Man accidentally while we were riding on a very bouncy bus. This bus had squeaky springs, took the long way to Penang, and a lot of the road was quite bumpy. The bus rocked, easily, squeakily and extravagantly, and at one point when I leaned over affectionately towards The Man and we went over a bump at the same time, the inevitable happened. He was not hurt, however, although he did yelp a bit. He seems a little accident prone today, come to think of it. In our hotel the lift door closed on him and almost squashed him flat. We have stayed in this hotel before, and we are generally very wary of that lift. It is old, so you think it's going to be slow and creaky, but instead it is fast and has powerful doors that close quite suddenly without warning. You have to get on FAST. But having just arrived, we forgot. Now we will remember.

Also today, we witnessed a spectacular thunderstorm through the bus window. Malaysia does brilliant thunderstorms.

And now I think it is time for a cup of teh tarik.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


We are now comfortably installed in our new hotel, and liking it very much. It is one we have stayed in before, just after it opened, and things have actually improved since then. It is a budget hotel, and at that time it was lacking such essential features as places to hang things, and also, as I think I mentioned, the water pressure was awful. I don't know whether the plumbing has been fixed or whether it's just that we're on a lower floor, but the water pressure is now fine. Well, not exactly STRONG, but fine. And it's generally clean and convenient.

We have not been doing much, but that is what we're here for. The Man doesn't have the energy he usually has, which means that instead of galloping all over KL we are taking things easy. This is, as far as I'm concerned, a good thing. I am perfectly happy to be lazy. That's what holidays are FOR.

I am determined, however, to pay a visit to the bird park at some point. I'm not sure when yet, but either before Tuesday (when we're planning to leave for the beach) or at the end of the holiday when we're back in KL. I am ashamed of myself. I have been to KL many times but have never visited the bird park.

The island resort we are going to next week has hornbills. I am looking forward to the hornbills.

I didn't realize quite how much I had acclimatized to the weather in Japan. When we left the temperatures in Japan were around 33 - 35C in the daytime and 27 - 28C at night, and it had been like that for several weeks. Here it is 31C in the daytime and a chilly 24C at night. It is also less humid. Right now it is about 8.30 pm and I am wearing long sleeves and feeling perfectly comfortable. I don't get it. I am nearer the equator here than I was in Japan. Shouldn't I be sweatily hot and complaining about it?

Something exciting is happening right now outside the Internet cafe, down on the street. There are sirens and police shouting through megaphones. I cannot see outside the tinted windows, but it all sounds terrifically dramatic. I expect that when we go out and back into Chinatown all the sellers of pirated movies will have disappeared.

How inconvenient.

Can you believe I have not taken a single picture yet? Nor can I. I don't know what's wrong with me. Perhaps I am feeling too comfortable and relaxed to bother.