Sunday, July 31, 2005

Run like hell

You've got to love the pedestrian crossing lights in KL. There's the little green man, walking, and you think you can cross, and then suddenly the little green man starts running like hell.

What sadist dreamed that one up, I wonder? I mean, really, if you have any sense you're running like hell anyway, and never mind the little green man. You could grow old waiting for him.


I have with me two watches and one alarm clock. Just now, after I got back to my hotel room, they all told me completely different times, and I had no idea which one was right. I asked someone in the lift going down to the lobby, and discovered it was past nine o'clock. I thought it was around seven! No wonder I'm hungry.

And that is why this is a short one, and I'm off to eat. I'll respond to comments next time.

Tomorrow... LONDON!

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Day Two

Kuala Lumpur is a very noisy city. I always forget, and it takes me a day or two to adjust. I expect that by tomorrow I will have adjusted completely, and then I will be leaving on the next leg of my trip the day after that. How inconvenient.

It is a great relief to be sitting down in this dodgy Internet cafe. (I think a cockroach just ran up my ankle, but I kicked myself and it seems to have gone. Is this why they keep the lights dim?) (It was just a small one.) I have been walking all day, as I usually do when I'm on holiday. Well, I took the train as well, and the monorail, but mostly I walked. My legs ache.

Just now I went back to my hotel to put my feet up for a moment, and switched on the TV to see what was happening in the world. BBC World was showing ads for their next thing, so I switched to Vision Four, whatever that is, and - you WILL NOT BELIEVE THIS. I COULD NOT BELIEVE IT MYSELF - there was my BROTHER, picking a skull up off the ocean floor. On TV! In a hotel room! In Malaysia!

You see, my brother once turned up in a Discovery documentary about diving for sunken treasure. He was one of the divers, and he did NOT give his permission to be filmed. However, he turned up in the documentary twice, as I discovered when I watched it wondering if he was one of the divers on that particular job. He had not told me about the documentary, so actually it was a surprise when his face turned up for just a moment. Later he saw the documentary and told me that he was also the unidentifiable diver picking up the skull. (He was disappointed that they didn't keep the next bit the filmed, when he found the jawbone as well, and fitted the skull and jaw together and clanked them humorously. I can't IMAGINE why they cut that bit, can you?)

This is not a new documentary, and it is a long time since I saw it first. I have no idea why it should suddenly turn up in my hotel room when I just happened to turn on the TV. That was kind of weird. But it also reminds me that I didn't actually tell my brother I was going away. He doesn't have email, and I intended to call him, but forgot in the last minute rush. I emailed the brother who has email, but as I may have mentioned before he rarely bothers to actually read his email, so there is no guarantee that any of the family even knows I'm away.

It was all last minute rush, though. The time between booking the tickets and leaving was just over a week. I had meant to leave much later, but suddenly had a fit of disgust at the weather WHILE I WAS TALKING TO THE TRAVEL AGENT, which was why I ended up having to rush everything so badly and nothing seemed real. We finished the translating job just in time, and I left a few non-essential things undone. It was worth it, though - I have managed to give myself FIVE WEEKS.

I will try to answer people's comments when I have time and opportunity - and will try to post when I have time and opportunity - but can't guarantee that I will, always.

I am meeting a friend in London on Monday, and after that I'm not QUITE sure what is happening. We have made several conflicting plans so far, so it's anyone's guess.

Other news: I met an old acquaintance today. The last time I saw her was three years ago at her 16th birthday party. (Or was it 15th?) She is now working as a receptionist at a hotel, as I discovered when I chatted with her parents, who have a tea/food stall. It was fun to see her again. I found out that I have been getting her name wrong since she was about 12. When I asked her why she'd never corrected me she told me she thought it was funny.


So far I have discovered that the people here at this internet cafe will make a backup CD of my photo memory card. I think they'd probably also allow me to use the CD (or connect the camera directly) to post pictures, too, but I can't be bothered tonight. I'm too tired.

The Great Big Present

I'm feeling a little dislocated, and this is because I am. Just now I stepped out of my hotel and tried to cross the road. I made it to the traffic island, and ten minutes later I was still there as traffic whizzed around me. I finally made it over to my favourite restaurant, and accidentally took the table of a couple of guys who'd just gone to order. They came back, I apologized, and they told me I could stay. We chatted. They told me they were Liberians, and I thought they were talking about their star signs at first. I'd never met Liberians before, and they were very nice. I had teh tarik but nothing to eat because I wasn't hungry.

The hotel is the same as before except that it changed its name, and the numbers (and everything else) have worn off the remote control for the TV. You have to guess. But that's OK. I'm not here to watch TV.

The flight did NOT stop in Bangkok. My travel agent made a mistake. It stopped in KK, the same as it usually does. Five and a bit hours to there, an hour and a half in transit, then another two and a bit to here.

I'm here for three days, and then another flight, the one I'm dreading. Twelve or thirteen hours on a plane. That is the flight I got the pills for. My friendly doctor gave me a good supply, and I intend to use them. I will fly in more ways than one.

It is very dark in here, and I'm having trouble with the keyboard. More tomorrow, I hope - perhaps I'll be coherent by then.

I wonder if The Man is missing me yet? I wonder if I'll ever figure out how to post pictures from the road? I already have a couple of good ones.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Bikes, buses, and birds

I've just been out to the supermarket, on my trusty bicycle. I know some of you are curious about my bike, which looks a lot like Elizabeth's. Except, you'll notice, mine has all the trimmings - the extra back basket, the parasol holder, and the blue thing you see in the back basket is a folded up plastic covering for when it rains. I can carry things in the basket and they don't get wet.

Today it is not raining. It is very, VERY hot out there in the sun. But there is a nice breeze. This breeze almost caused me to take to the air. I had the parasol up as I was riding along. (The Man tells me I should sing the icecream song when I have the parasol up, and if I knew it I would.)

On my way home I did a little detour and discovered where the school buses are parked. Around here we have school buses that make kids WANT to go to school.

While I was photographing the bicycle I felt like I was being watched. I turned around and saw our friendly turtledove visitor. Since it was clearly posing, I took its picture, too.

Technorati Tags: ,


Spammers, take note!

MOSCOW — The director of an English language center and one of the country’s most notorious spammers was found beaten to death in his apartment in central Moscow, police said Monday.
The story later goes on to say that someone (I'm not quite sure how official he is) asserted that it was unlikely that he was beaten to death by an angry email user.

I don't know why he thinks it is unlikely. Spam makes a lot of people pretty damned angry.

Spam doesn't make me angry, though. I use death2spam and these days get almost no spam. (And no, I wasn't paid to tell you that.) I am sent a lot of spam I never see. Look at the statistics over the two years I've been using it:

Most of the misclassified mail is from the first few weeks, when I was training the filters. These days I get maybe one spam message a week, if that, coming into my mailbox, and I don't even remember the last misclassified good message.

Oh yes, I'm a happy customer, all right. I never get the urge to kill spammers, because I forget they exist. HA HA HA!


But not getting spam is not the only reason I am happy. I'm also happy because I am giving myself a great big present I promised myself two summers ago, and failed to achieve (because I hadn't finished my dissertation after all), and then promised myself again last year, and failed again (because of something else), and this year IT IS WORKING OUT! IT IS HAPPENING! I AM GETTING MY GREAT BIG PRESENT TO MYSELF!

I will tell you what it is the day after tomorrow, or possibly the day after that, depending on ... er ... things. It's all a bit messy, and anyway I don't quite believe it yet. What if it turns out I am dreaming, and in the real world the coriander didn't go missing and my Great Big Present never worked out? I mean, really, how likely is it that coriander could just go missing like that and never reappear, in the real world? The chances that I am dreaming are really quite high, if you think about it. It would be terribly disappointing if I blared the news of the Great Big Present To Myself to the world and then had to admit it was just a dream. I don't want to do that to you. Or to me, actually.

So just in case I am dreaming, I'll wait a couple more days to be absolutely sure.

Stand by.

Technorati Tags: ,

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Vending machines

I am not very good at taking pictures at night, but sometimes I try. I was out all day today, and then met a friend for drinks in the evening. As we walked back to the station I took some pictures of vending machines. There are a lot of vending machines in Japan. They're on every corner. (They also litter every so-called beauty spot in Japan - you'll even find them on Mt. Fuji, I'm told.) If you are giving directions to someone and tell them, "Turn left at the corner with the vending machines," it means that you want them to get lost.

There are five vending machines in a row on this little side street, but none of them sell my favourite drink. It's amazing how many different kinds of drink you can buy. Tea, coffee, juice, soda, yoghurt drink, sake, beer... anything you want is there. (Except for my favourite tea, in these machines anyway.)

A Japanese friend told me that when she visited the Disneyland in the U.S. she was shocked because she couldn't buy anything except sweet drinks. She doesn't like sweet drinks, but she was hot and tired and had no choice. Did she miss something? It seems absurd that there would be no plain tea, and my favourite vending machine tea here is made by Coca Cola, and is not sweet. Is it only made for the Japanese market?

Here are two of the machines. Sorry about the bad quality of the photos.

There were also some cigarette vending machines.

When I caught the train home I still had my camera out, and was checking the pictures I'd taken. I surreptitiously snapped a picture of the inside of the train as well. The Man tells me that one of these days I'll get into trouble doing this. Someone paranoid will object, and I'll be beaten up.

But today, at least, nobody noticed.

Technorati Tags: ,

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

More weather

I just watched the weather forecast on TV, and switched over to the English version. The woman was interpreting simultaneously, something I always enjoy. She was pretty good.

There is a typhoon on the way. It is not a very powerful typhoon, but it looks like it is going to make landfall in the Kanto area (Tokyo), which makes it big news. It is bringing large quantities of rain as well as wind, and the weatherman gave some advice about putting up shutters, bringing pot plants inside, preparing emergency supplies, and knowing where to escape to if flooding occurs. The translator then added,

"The Meteorological Agency has warned the public to watch out for weather."

Watch out for weather? I thought.

I waited. (Duck! Here comes some weather!)

"Updates," she added, after a long pause.

In this area we have been told to expect 300 - 350 mm of rain by tomorrow night.

Technorati Tags: ,

Monday, July 25, 2005

Women glow, men perspire, and horses sweat

I just found an Apparent Temperature table which explains why summer nights around here are so damned uncomfortable.

Tonight, for example, we are expecting to get a low of 27 degrees Celsius, with relative humidity at 85%. That means, according to the table, that the 'apparent temperature' will be 33 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, however, this level of so-called comfort will not be reached until six in the morning. From midnight until then the apparent temperature is around 37.

This is according to the weather forecast.

In the real world, however, which for me is this room (the coolest in the house), with the air conditioner on it is now 32 degrees Celsius. For some reason the temperature in here simply will not go lower than that. (I don't think our air conditioner is big enough for the two rooms we are using it to cool, but running two air conditioners would bankrupt us.) If the humidity is, say, 80% (I'm being conservative, I think), this makes the apparent temperature 41 degrees Celsius. That is 105.8 degrees Fahrenheit, in case you were wondering.

And this is why, ladies and gentlemen, at one o'clock in the morning, sitting quietly here at my computer and trying not to move too much, I seem to have acquired a certain equine quality.

Technorati Tags: ,

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Loss of face

On Thursday at work I had a conversation with one of the guys about the mental maps we have of our bodies. I can't remember how the topic came up, but I knew something about it from experience and tried to explain it to him.

"You carry a map of your body in your brain," I said. "When you feel any sensation in your body, the part of your brain that holds the corresponding part of the map is active."

"Uh-huh," he said, but he was looking at me funny. I think he thought this was leading up to a joke.

"That's why amputees feel phantom limbs," I said. "When a part of the body is amputated, the corresponding part of the map hangs around for quite a lot longer."

"Makes sense, I suppose," he said.

But then I tried to explain how it also works the other way.

"This also means that if you somehow damage the part of the brain that holds the part of the map for some part of your body, you can 'forget' you have that part," I said. "Sort of like a mental amputation without the physical amputation. People with that sort of brain damage can have some really weird symptoms."

He snorted. Perhaps he thought the punchline was getting closer.

"I'm not joking," I told him. "It happened to me. After I had a head injury my face started to disappear, sort of. It happened slowly. I mean, I knew it was there, but I kept forgetting for longer and longer periods. I was only aware of it because it happened slowly. It started around my hairline and moved in, so my face shrunk as I forgot the bits behind the line. But it wasn't really forgetting, because I knew it was there, theoretically. It was more like it became not really mine. Not a part of me. I'd move it - smile or something, and it hurt because everything hurt at that stage, but that particular pain wasn't important at all. It was the face's pain, and the face wasn't my face. It wasn't really anything to do with me. It just happened to be there, when I remembered, but it got so I didn't remember very often."

He wanted to know whether I was sure it was the accident. Wasn't I just having acid flashbacks or something?

I was indignant. "No!" I said. "I'd just dented a truck with my head, and anyway I'm pretty sure Tiger Oil doesn't work for acid flashbacks. That's how I dealt with it. I covered my face with Tiger Oil. I didn't actually care that I didn't have a face, but I knew I should care, and that something was wrong. I worried about what might happen next. So I used Tiger Oil to remind me that my face was there. The Tiger Oil didn't bother me, but I could feel it, and it reminded me that I had a face even though I didn't really care about not having one and not having one felt perfectly natural. But after a few days my face became mine again and the Tiger Oil started to be irritating. And then it got worse and felt like HELL. I couldn't stand it. I couldn't understand how I'd managed to cope with having Tiger Oil on my face in the first place. It was unbearable."

He stared at me.

"Well, would YOU slather Tiger Oil on a face if the face was yours?" I asked.

"Maybe, if I was having an acid flashback," he said.

I gave up.

I have never been able to explain this phenomenon clearly. Even the neurologist I was seeing looked at me sideways when I tried to explain how my face wasn't there anymore. When I closed my eyes and he touched my face I could feel it, and I could move it, and it was hard to explain what I was talking about. But if I didn't move or touch my face, it just wasn't there. Or rather, the idea of it wasn't there. It wasn't a loss, because it wasn't there to lose.

There are no words for the non-concern, the lack of regret, and the non-feeling of loss when your face disappears from your brain. It is a bizarrely non-eventful sort of event. I didn't understand it myself for quite a long time and was frustrated by my lack of ability to describe what it felt like (because it doesn't feel like anything, really), but then read about the body map thing somewhere and everything fell into place.

It might have been in the 2003 Reith Lectures that I first came across body maps, or I may have read it somewhere else first. I can't remember.

But wherever I read it first, I HIGHLY recommend that you read (or listen to) those lectures. (I think I may have recommended them before, actually, but they're good enough to read twice.) They are very long, but you will not want them to end. You will be fascinated, entertained, and provoked, I promise.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Last day (long)

Today was the last day of semester for me. I didn't just teach the last classes, I used them to tell the students what their grades were. After work I filled in the grading forms and submitted them. This means I have finished my teaching work until September, and it's about time, too. The air conditioning was really struggling today in the older classrooms.

The second class today was the lowest of eight classes at that time in the economics faculty. I spent most of the semester teaching them the simple present tense, but had to use the text as well, as it is required of us. The students were loud, naughty, and funny. (This is the class that includes Koji and Risa of the eyelash curling incident.) I have been bullying them all semester, because if I don't, things get out of control so fast I might as well just give up. They have been learning, though, and I realised today how much they'd improved.

But also, amazingly, NOBODY in that class failed. Some barely scraped through, but Risa got an A, and Koji, astonishingly (to him as well as to me) edged his way into getting a B by doing spectacularly well in the final test. (I've been telling him all semester he could do it, and he did, bless his cotton socks. He told me he will get an A in the second semester.)

Anyway, I told them at the beginning of class that according to my computer, which had eaten all their numbers (for class work, homework, tests, etc) and spat out results, almost everybody had passed, but there were a couple hovering on the edge of F and C, and quite a few between C and B, or B and A, and that if they used English ALL CLASS they might push themselves over that magic line.

I didn't tell them who was in this position.

They were brilliant. I wish I could use this tactic more often. I think they were all convinced they were the F/C students. Appallingly bad English (but not nearly as bad as it used to be) floated around the classroom at volumes ranging from loud to ear-splitting as they demonstrated just how much they deserved the extra few points. As they were doing the activity I'd given them I worked on the grades, adding on the points. After about an hour, during which they used English non-stop with great enthusiasm, I stopped them and announced that everybody had passed, and did they want me to read out the results to the whole class, or should I tell them privately as they left, one by one?

They opted for the public announcement. (I should have known.)

I prepared myself to shout, straightened my papers, and called the first student's name.

"You got B," I announced.

The class erupted into loud cheers and applause. The B student laughed happily and acknowledged his fans with an elaborate bow, and was whistled at.

Somewhat taken aback, I went on to the next student.

"C," I said. "You NEARLY failed, but you made up the points today."

More cheering, hoots and catcalls, and the student took a bow, grinning and wiping the metaphorical sweat from his brow.

The next student got an A, and shrieked with glee. The rest of the class applauded wildly and stamped their feet. Their enthusiasm was catching, so I elaborated a little.

"You got a perfect score on the last test," I told her. "Well done!"

Everybody applauded her again and she grinned from ear to ear.

It went on like that. One of the A students got booed laughingly by his friends, who assured me that he didn't deserve it, it should have been a B. I had to set them straight and tell them why it was an A.

"He did WONDERFUL homework," I said. "Did you see his homework? And didn't you notice how his English improved? You'll be left behind if you're not careful!""

The student in question stood up slowly, with enormous dignity. He looked down his nose at his friends, and took a deep breath. Then he threw his head back, shook his fist in the air, and shouted, "I'M THE GREATEST!"

His friends decided to applaud him after all, and everybody joined in.

And on it went.

It took over half an hour to get through the roll. I've never had that much fun announcing grades before. The very best was reserved for the last student, though. To understand why, I'll need to give you a little background.

Naoki is a very small guy. These are all 18-year-olds, and some of them are hulking great lads, and others look like children still. Naoki is one of the latter. He looks about 14.

When this class met for the first time, I put him down (mentally) as a nerd. He was very serious, and very nervous, and very shy. He had lots of questions for me and really, really wanted to do well. He sat alone, and didn't seem to know anybody in the class. Actually not many students do have friends at first - it's their first semester at university and they come from all over the place. In my classes I have students working together a lot, though. I assign them to random pairs or groups, and they make friends quickly.

The other distinguishing thing about Naoki, besides his small size and his nerdiness, is his voice. Naoki has an amazing voice. It is very penetrating, but it is falsetto. In fact he sounds exactly like Terry Jones as Brian's mum in Life of Brian. When I first heard him I thought it was nervousness making him squawk when he used English, and because he was a good student I didn't hear him use Japanese for a while so didn't realize that was his normal voice. When he's excited he flaps his hands around a bit, looks ever so slightly camp, and his squawk gets louder, higher, and shriller.

So you put all this together in one package, and you have the perfect bullying victim, right? That's what I thought, anyway, and decided to keep an eye on him. I have seen that sort of thing happen before.

But Naoki made one friend early on, a large, gentle, friendly guy who was struggling a bit with the class. Naoki helped him, and they stuck together. That was good. I didn't worry about him so much, although he still spent a lot of time looking anxious so I kept any eye on him. He's a very, very serious boy.

I had reckoned without his personality, though. This kid is remarkable. He has all these handicaps - the size, the voice, and general nerdiness and lack of cool - but he has a personality that is about ten sizes bigger than he is.

And Naoki loves to learn.

He doesn't just love to learn, he is PASSIONATE about learning. It overwhelms everything else as far as he's concerned. And he thinks that everybody is like that, and so if someone asks him to explain something he gets and they don't, he does, with care and concentration and total focus on imparting his understanding in the best way possible. His shyness vanishes, his enthusiasm is infectious, and the effect on his questioners is electric.

I saw this first in class, when he would explain to his partner (or group) something I'd said, and everybody would somehow go quiet (rare in this class) and his squawk would rise above the general chaos, and everybody would end up listening carefully. But whenever I noticed him doing it he would notice me watching, and stop, apologising for disturbing my class. Telling him to carry on didn't work, because he'd get embarrassed when he noticed he was taking over the teacher role. He has a very strict sense of what is proper, and in class I am the teacher, not him.

But by the second half of semester he had gathered a following. Our class is just before lunch, and I noticed that he was staying behind with his large friend to explain problems from their economics classes. Then a couple of guys who were late to leave one day noticed it too, and lingered, and listened, and asked questions, and by the next week they'd become a regular study group, which kept growing, until it was seven or eight guys. When everybody left after my class, this lot would start preparing for their lunchtime class with Naoki. They took out textbooks, notes and so on, and Naoki would hand out copies he'd made, find his whiteboard markers (he brings his own), and off he'd go, in his Brian's mum squawk, totally unselfconscious, totally in charge.

And the MOST amazing thing about this is that his loyal bunch of followers, aside from his large friend, are the most cool and intimidating in-crowd of the class. These guys are the ones who have piercings, dyed hair in the latest styles, wear sunglasses inside, slouch and sneer at everything, and are generally too cool to smile. These guys are the coolest dudes you could imagine, but when Naoki gets going, squawking enthusiastically about how to calculate GNP or whatever, they listen intently and respectfully, ask questions, smile, laugh, and generally forget to be cool. When their questions show they don't get it, he gets agitated and starts flapping his hands and squeaking, "No, NO! It's NOT like THAT, that's not right, you have to go back to here and see? It's like THIS..." - and when he does this, which in a Monty Python film would have you rolling in the aisles, the cool dudes listen carefully, nod, and ask respectful questions to make sure they've really understood. And when they get it right he sighs and looks happy and goes onto the next thing, and his voice goes back down an octave to its normal squawk.

I know all this because I find excuses to stay and watch, pretending to be sorting out my notes. It's FASCINATING. They ignore me completely.

And in case you were wondering, there is no patronising involved in the way these cool dudes treat Naoki. They have all caught the learning bug. You can see it. He is making their study exciting, and they love it. I have never seen anything like this at a university here. These students are REALLY LEARNING, and not just the week before exams like most of them do. These guys have been going half the semester and are hooked.

(I told some colleagues about Naoki, and one of them managed to contrive to 'just happen to pass' the classroom and peek in, unseen. This was not easy, as it is on the sixth floor and at the end of a corridor, but he wanted to see what I meant. When he came downstairs he said to me, amazed, "He sounds like he's been castrated!")

All clear now? Back to the grades announcement. (You thought I'd never get there, didn't you?)

So, by the end of semester Naoki had gathered this little group of fans, but he was still tense and anxious during class, and asked lots of questions, and studied really hard, and is still shy when he is not teaching. He has made amazing progress, so that his score was not just an A, it was the highest score in the class. And his name is at the end of the roll, so he'd been waiting a long time.

I called his name, and he looked as though he would jump out his skin from nerves.

"Last one," I said. "Naoki Tanaka!" I paused. "You got an A - " (he grinned and looked both relieved and pleased) " - AND it was the highest mark in class."

The class EXPLODED.

I'd thought the applause and cheering were loud before, but this was something else. It went on and on and ON. Then it evolved into a chant:


The whole class was ecstatic. They rose to their feet. They stamped and clapped their hands in time to the chant, which got louder and louder until Naoki finally stood up and took a bow, to thunderous applause. He stumbled and sat down again quickly, and made flappy brushing movements with his hands.

"Oh! oh! STOP it! Don't be silly!" he squeaked, and I've never heard his voice so high. He'd gone bright red and his eyes glistened.

But the applause continued. Everybody wanted to congratulate him. He sat there, looking stunned. He'd been happy to hear his results, but the reaction of the class overwhelmed him. Somehow, somewhere along the way, without him (or me) being aware of it, he had become the most popular and well-loved student in the class. It was the most uncomplicated, generous outburst of happiness you could imagine. Hell, I was almost in tears myself.

After I dismissed the class Naoki sat there for a bit longer, staring down at his desk. His large friend waited patiently beside him. Finally Naoki took a deep breath and raised his head to look around. His usual bunch were preparing their books and notes, and when he saw them he jumped into action, a little more jittery than usual. He grabbed his pens and went straight to the whiteboard, where he wrote up a complicated formula of some sort. Then he turned around and faltered for a moment when he saw all those cool dudes looking at him and waiting, their faces earnest and expectant. They had cheered louder than anybody, and he knew it.

One of them asked a question, perhaps to help him over his awkwardness.

"Oh!" he squeaked. "I almost forgot!" He darted to his bag and took out some papers. "I made some copies at the library. Here, these will help."

Koji and a couple of his friends were hovering in the doorway, halted on their way out. They frowned and listened. Nobody seemed to mind when they moved back into the room and slowly sat down, not taking their eyes off Naoki, still frowning with concentration and puzzlement.

Naoki handed out the copies, still talking. He saw the new guys and apologised for not having enough copies. They shook their heads dumbly, and Naoki continued with his explanation. As he talked, his voice descended the scale to the usual castrated squawk, and the new guys pulled out paper and pens and started taking notes.

By the time I left the room Naoki had relaxed into his familiar role. His audience was rapt. They were firing questions at him and making suggestions and arguing, and he was in heaven because they were all learning, and that's what it's all about, isn't it?

I wish my classes were like that.

Technorati Tags: ,

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The book quiz

Via Natalie at Philobiblion: The book quiz.

You're Catch-22!

by Joseph Heller

Incredibly witty and funny, you have a taste for irony in all that you see. It seems that life has put you in perpetually untenable situations, and your sense of humor is all that gets you through them. These experiences have also made you an ardent pacifist, though you present your message with tongue sewn into cheek. You could coin a phrase that replaces the word "paradox" for millions of people.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

I have some questions, though. If my life is a series of perpetually untenable situations, does that mean that each situation never resolves? Do they overlap, so that I have a growing number of situations, all untenable, none of which will end? Will I become more and more confused and ironic? Can't I just be sarcastic? I'm not very good at irony. It's too hard. Do I have no happy future to look forward to? Will sewing my tongue into my cheek hurt, do you think? Won't it make me talk funny? Also, I don't know how to coin a phrase, and I'm not feeling very funny or witty, and anyway if I only have a dozen or so readers how can I coin a phrase that is taken up by millions of people? Does this mean I am failing my life? And last but most importantly, can I be an ardent pacifist and still want to bang heads together?

Technorati Tags:

Beside the bed

I've been tagged by Norma over at Collecting my Thoughts. She wants to know what's on my nightstand.

That's easy. I don't have a nightstand!

We do, however, have a tatami floor, and on the floor next to the bed there is a lamp, an alarm clock, a notebook and pen, and the remote for the fan. Attached to the wall behind my head there is a flashlight. It has no on/off button. It is the sort that turns on automatically when you take it out of its cradle. This is the earthquake flashlight. The last time we had a big earthquake it took us ten minutes just to get out of the bedroom. The sliding doors were jammed, furniture had been thrown around, nothing was familiar, and it was pitch black. (Actually, for a wild moment I was convinced a UFO had crash-landed on our house, and I didn't WANT to go into the next room. There were aliens in there, I just knew it. It's interesting the way your half-asleep mind tries to explain things when nothing makes sense.) This experience ranks right up there at number one in the Not Good category and we decided that the next time the world ended we would have light, at least, and not just the weirdly coloured earthquake lightning, which ended when the earth stopped throwing us around.

(Must remember to check the batteries.)

The notebook is not for recording inspired thoughts (although I did once write a poem in it). It is for recording things I suddenly remember I need for work tomorrow but am too sleepy to get up to organize. I write it down instead, otherwise in the morning I'm likely to be halfway to work when I remember again.

However, I never actually read this notebook. Writing something down seems to be all that I need to remember it, and it's just as well, because I looked at the notebook just now and noticed that I never turn the page. All my notes are written on top of each other. I don't switch on the light when I remember something. I just grope around in the dark to find the notebook and pen, and write. My bedside notebook will last forever.

(I'm not tagging anybody because I have already tagged so many people recently I'm starting to feel like a bully. But tag yourself if you want to try this one - and let me know in comments if you do so I can come and read it.)

Technorati Tags:

And then my head fell off

Nothing is cooperating with me these days. Not only has the coriander not reappeared, but the phone disappeared for a while today. I went to make a phone call and it was not there. The cradle was empty. And I was the last person to use it.

I hunted and hunted and hunted, and finally, when it rang, located it on a bookshelf. Why was it on the bookshelf? I didn't even go NEAR the bookshelf.

Shortly after that I was cooking dinner. I put the asari (clams) into the saucepan, then picked up the big kitchen knife to chop some tomatoes. I picked up the knife by the handle, and as I did I felt a sharp stinging sensation on my hand. I dropped the knife, and looked at my hand. A drop of blood was welling. I had a small cut. BUT I HAD NOT TOUCHED THE KNIFE BLADE. I PICKED IT UP BY THE HANDLE.

It was a very small cut. I stared at it suspiciously. I wanted to blame somebody, but there was nobody around to blame.

I told The Man about it after he came home.

"There is something funny going on," I said. "I think we have poltergeists or something. First they moved the phone to the bookshelf and then they cut my hand. Look!"

The Man examined my hand. Then he picked up a magnifying glass and examined it again.

"It's a paper cut," he said. "You got a paper cut, but it was so small you didn't feel it. Then when you picked up the knife you moved your thumb and opened the cut, and that's when you noticed it."

I thought about it.

"Also," he added. "You put the phone on the bookshelf yourself. I saw you do it."

I was still thinking about the cut.

"You mean like when a knife is so sharp that someone chops off someone else's head and that person doesn't notice until they shake their head, and it falls off?" I asked.

He sighed.

"I think you need a holiday," he said.

I think I do, too. It's a good thing I'm going to get one soon.

(I marked 120 tests today. It took seven hours.)

Technorati Tags:

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Air conditioner wars

The air conditioner wars have started in earnest. I have been threatening to leave The Man on the grounds that he is a lizard.

"You're a lizard," I tell him.

"Air conditioning is unhealthy," he says. "You just haven't adjusted yet."

"So is prickly heat unhealthy," I reply. "You'll miss me when I'm gone."

Also, there are too many cicadas this year, and they are too loud. One got its feet stuck in the mosquito net over the window this morning. It made horrible angry noises and woke me up far too early.

Usually we get two or three big fat noisy cicadas in the garden. This year we have dozens. Where did they come from? Is this a plague?

The coriander powder is still missing.

Technorati Tags: ,

Monday, July 18, 2005

Missing coriander

The last few days, and nights (especially nights) have been very, very hot and humid. Everybody is tired and grumpy.


Last night I was preparing dinner for myself (The Man was out) and wanted to add some coriander powder to the curry. I reached up to the spice rack, expecting the coriander to be where I left it when I used it last. It wasn't there. All the other spices I use for curry were there, but not the coriander. I emptied the spice rack. While I was about it, I cleaned it and wiped the jars. There was no coriander powder.

I wondered where The Man could have put it, and searched other likely places. But I couldn't find it, and ended up making the curry without coriander powder.

When The Man came home I asked him where he'd put it.

"Coriander powder?" he said. "Do we have any left? I haven't used it for weeks."

"There's still half a jar," I said. "I know, because I used it on Wednesday."

"Well, I don't know," he said. "You must have put it back in the wrong place."

Annoyed, I searched the kitchen. I thought about the thing I do sometimes when I put the milk on the shelf and the sugar in the fridge. What else went into the curry? I checked all the places the other ingredients were kept, but there was no coriander powder.

The coriander powder had vanished.


Today I went to meet a friend, and later The Man went out grocery shopping. When I came home I found the door unlocked, and made a mental note to tell The Man. He has left the door unlocked several times recently.

I made myself a cup of tea. When I opened the fridge to get the milk I spotted something out of place, but it wasn't coriander powder so I ignored it.

I sat down to mark homework at the kitchen table. Every now and again I got up to search a spot I hadn't thought of before. The coriander powder was not in the freezer. Nor was it in the rubbish bin. How could it disappear like that?

A bit later The Man came home.

"You left the door unlocked when you went out," I told him. "That's the third time you've done that recently."

"No, I didn't," he said.

"Oh. It must have been a miracle, then," I said. "The door opened without the key. I hope it doesn't work that way for everybody."

He handed me a new jar of coriander, ignoring my sarcasm. Then he put the other groceries away and went to watch TV.

A while later he came back to the kitchen.

"I can't find my cigarettes," he said, irritably. "Did I leave them in here?"

I looked up from my papers.

"They're in the fridge, next to the watermelon," I told him.

He frowned and opened the fridge.

"You know," I said, "I've got a theory about this coriander business."

"I'm sick of hearing about the coriander," he said.

"No, listen. I've got it all worked out," I said. "You left the door unlocked but don't remember doing it. I used the coriander and now can't find it. Maybe the two things are related. I think there's a coriander thief in the neighbourhood who knows how to pick locks. He picked the lock, stole the coriander, and then left, but he didn't know how to lock the door again. Oh, and while he was here he put your cigarettes in the fridge."

The Man was still frowning. He looked down at the chilled cigarettes in his hand.

"Well, doesn't it explain everything nicely?" I asked.

"No," he said. "You just put the coriander somewhere weird."

He stomped back to the TV.

"The OTHER option is that we're both losing our minds!" I shouted after him.


Now it's nearly midnight and I've given up on homework marking for the day. It's too hot, and anyway I've done enough for one day. I just want to relax for a while before I shower and go to bed.

It's hard to relax, though. It's possible the heat is getting to us, but I still think there is something funny going on. And the coriander is still missing.

Technorati Tags:

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Disagreement meme

BerlinBear tagged me with a meme, a while ago, which I have been very slack in responding to. In this meme, I am supposed to name three people with whom I tend to disagree a lot and say something nice about them. This is a lot harder than I thought it would be, but I have finally come up with my three. Well, actually I've come up with two, and I'm hoping the third will come to me as I write.

The first person I disagree with is my boss at one of the universities I work at. He is unusual here in that he is a foreigner who has tenure and actual power in the organization of the university, although I don't know how much power he really has and how much of it is in his head. He must have some, though, because he sometimes gets what he wants (and sometimes even what we want).

Almost every time this man opens his mouth I disagree with him. His teaching methods are horrible, so that when he gives me advice about my classes I either end up having an argument with him or nodding and keeping my mouth firmly closed. (I have heard him teach.) I suspect his 'power' within the organization comes from being louder and more aggressive than any of the Japanese, and that is why his 'understanding' of Japanese culture works to get what he wants. He is loud and obnoxious, silly and vain, thinks we all need to hear his pronouncements on Japanese culture because he has an inside track and understands it better than us. He has to be the centre of attention of any room he is in, and is generally a pain in the arse.

However, he is not all bad. He tolerates disagreement (although he is louder at defending his views than anybody else cares to be). He may be a pain in the arse for us to work with, but I have no doubt he is a much greater pain in the arse for his Japanese tenured colleagues to work with, and this is a good thing. He fights for our program and often gets what he wants, which is also (on the whole) what we want. When we are slandered by Japanese tenured staff he finds out the truth behind the situation, whatever it is, and defends us. He keeps us in touch with what is going on, and tells us things about the workings of the universities that part-timers rarely get to hear about. He is on our side. On the whole, this makes him a good boss.

The second person I disagree with is my mother. I disagree with my mother profoundly about practically everything important. She belongs to a cult that kicked her out (along with her husband) ripping her family apart, doing untold damage and causing her endless grief. Then almost as soon my father died she went back to the cult, having never questioned or doubted that they were the sole repository of the only true Christian religion. She sees blind faith as a virtue. She has had almost no contact with me or her other children outside the cult for nearly twenty years. She believes as she has been told to believe: that we have been corrupted and she has to separate herself from us, although she is too kind to say so. In fact she blames herself for this situation. She is very good at inducing guilt.

However, it is not hard to say something nice about my mother. She is one of the most lovable people I know. Nobody who meets her can hate her. In the brief period while she was out of the cult, she met one of my ex-boyfriends (he was ex at the time, but we were still friends) and because he was the first male friend of mine she had met I was worried about how she would react, and about what he would think of her. I need not have worried. I went for a walk, and when I came back they were sitting on the verandah talking and drinking tea and looking happy. I went for another walk and when I came back they were still sitting on the verandah talking and drinking tea and looking happy. I went inside and they stayed out on the verandah, talking, laughing, and having long companionable silences. Steve LOVED my mother. He wanted to adopt her. She is funny and intelligent (except about religion) and compassionate and wise (except about religion) and generally a wonderful person to talk to (except about religion). She makes people feel comfortable in their skin, as long as they are not talking about religion, in which case she turns into somebody else. But she doesn't talk about religion much. She just accepts the hogwash and follows the rules, because she is 'only a woman' and therefore not qualified to judge.

(There has been a slight relaxation in the rules of the cult recently, and last year I was able to meet my mother. She is still wonderful. These rules may have changed again, but I don't know. Along with my mother I had to meet a whole bunch of other people I didn't want to meet. I had to see her through them. Communication with the others, which was becoming insistent, was too much for me and I told them to back off. I had not heard from her at all except through them so this means communication has been cut off again. I will go to see her unannounced the next time I am in NZ, and I guess at that time I'll discover whether or not she's allowed to talk to me still.)

The third person I disagree with is... er... anybody who goes on about the wonderful Japanese education system. The Japanese education does not teach students how to think, and there is very little wonderful about students who know how to memorise but cannot apply what they have memorised. (And the university system is a joke, but that's not generally what they are talking about.)

As for saying something nice about these people, well, these are people who are looking for something good. They have ideals, and are wanting to improve the quality of education in their own countries. This is a good thing. It is just a shame they are looking in the wrong place.

I am supposed to tag three people, but I think I'll leave it up to you. Leave a comment and tag yourself. Go on, I dare you. It's not an easy meme, but it is an interesting one.

Technorati Tags: ,

Friday, July 15, 2005

Something I didn't know

I collected a lot of homework today, and will be busy for the next few days checking it. I had set this homework hoping for some interesting results, and it seems to have worked. What I asked for was some research into customs from other countries. "Tell me something I don't know," I told them, and asked them to follow the format in the textbook, which had explained different greeting customs in several different countries. I told them they could choose any customs they wanted, as long as they were different from the way things are done in Japan.

A glance through the homework tells me that I've certainly been been told some things I didn't know.

Students don't seem to learn how to cite here, at least at the undergraduate level, and teaching them how takes time. They find the concept baffling. But I wish now I'd taken the trouble, even though I am supposed to be teaching spoken rather than written language to these particular classes. I'm really curious to know where they find this stuff.

Here is my favourite so far:

When a baby (male) borned, people (clergyman) cut his "penis" half length in the mosque. This is why protect the baby from the demon! Israel people still believe in their tradition.

How does one respond intelligently to this, I wonder? (Would diagrams help, do you think?) And if they're all like this, or if even half are like this, how will I find the TIME to respond intelligently? I have about 200 of these things to go through, and six days to do it in.

I'm not sure that I'll use this homework idea again. Quite aside from the disturbing results it's far too much work for me.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Not impressed

No blog tonight, I thought. Someone seems to have hung bricks from my eyelids. Just a quick shower and that's it. I'm going to bed.

But now I want to know what the HELL that giant earwig was doing in the bathroom. I'm suddenly awake after all, especially after also spotting a tiny baby earwig. I'm fairly sure earwigs are not produced one at a time. How many more are there waiting for the next unsuspecting bare foot? And what's the attraction of our bathroom anyway? Why do these things keep coming in?

Both earwigs were dispatched using dishwashing detergent, kept in the bathroom for cockroach emergencies. (Yes, we get the occasional cockroach as well.) Dishwashing detergent works well on cockroaches, and now I know it works for earwigs as well.

I suppose I should be grateful it wasn't a leech. Last summer it was long skinny pale leeches coming up the plughole, looking like anemic earthworms with suckers on the end.

Summer in Japan is like plague season. Things that are supposed to be outside keep trying to move in. I don't like it.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The book

Andaloo has posted a picture of a postcard he bought, which showed up differently when he scanned it, which is odd. But this photograph reminds me of a book of Brassai photographs I bought second-hand many years ago, and whenever I think of that book I feel regret. I don't often feel regret.

At the time I bought this book, I was about three weeks into a relationship that I knew was not going to work out. The guy in question, let's call him John, looked like a young Harrison Ford. Everything had gone wonderfully for the first couple of weeks but then he had revealed a side to him that I hadn't seen before. He was insanely jealous.

I'd never been with anybody who got jealous before, and didn't recognise it at first. It was ugly. And it was a shame, because aside from that he was lovely. He was interesting, intelligent, funny, considerate, loving, enormously charming, and all the other things you want in a man (plus of course he looked like a young Harrison Ford). But then one day he turned into a horrible, sulking, nasty, vindictive and virulent arsehole because I spent some time with another man. And by 'spending time', I mean I sat around with about fifteen people after work one day, having a drink and chatting with one guy in particular. The guy I chatted with was happily married with five children, famously, madly in love with his wife, and was interesting and interested and fun to talk with. Later I made the mistake of telling John how much I'd enjoyed talking to him, and what an interesting character he was.

John immediately went peculiar. It took me a while to figure out why, because at first he wouldn't speak to me, and it took even longer for us to sort things out once he started shouting and throwing furniture around, because he wouldn't tell me what he was so angry about.

The results of that evening convinced me that it would be better to end the relationship before it went any further. I didn't want to spend three days out of every five for the rest of my life trying to talk John out of the sulks, and enduring his jealous rage. One episode was enough, and I discovered from people who knew him that John had had this problem before, and frequently. I wasn't under the illusion that I could change him, and I certainly wasn't going to put up with that sort of behaviour. He might have reverted to being the fabulous and perfect boyfriend, and everything in the garden was rosy, but it wasn't going to last. It was better to end it now.

One day soon after that I was in downtown Wellington doing a little shopping, and worrying about the problem of how to end it, and decided that today was the day. I was going to break off the relationship today. I knew it was going to be difficult, and had been trying to work up the courage to go to his house and have The Talk. I made the decision. Today. Now.

But before I went, I popped into my favourite second-hand bookstore and had a quick browse around, and while I was browsing I came across a book of photography by Brassai. (The i is supposed to have two little dots over it but I don't know how to put them in. You'll just have to imagine them there.)

The book was amazing. The photographs grabbed my attention. When I found myself going back to look at some of them again and again I decided that this was a book I wanted to have. I checked the price tag, and found to my relief and surprise that it was very, very cheap. I took it to the counter.

The young guy behind the counter took one look at the book and shouted,


"What?" I asked, startled.

"I meant to put that one aside for me," he said. "The owner underpriced it, I saw him doing it, and then he shelved it. I meant to hunt it down and get it myself. But then I got busy... OH, CRAP!"

"Oh..." I hesitated. Normally I'm not all that attached to books on photography, and my first impulse was to tell him to take it, it didn't really matter. But the words wouldn't come out.

"Don't even think of it," he said, reading my mind. "It's yours. Finders keepers - I was too slow. Congratulations - and well spotted!"

He wrapped it very, very carefully, using nice paper instead of the usual brown paper bag.

I left with my book, clutching it under my arm and feeling pleased with myself. I decided that after I'd had The Talk with John I'd go home and have a proper look through it. It would be my present to myself for going through with a scene I'd been dreading. It gave me courage.

I climbed the hill to John's place. I hadn't told him I was coming because I hadn't known myself.

John had shown himself to be an unpredictable character, and as I walked I started wondering if he would get violent. I really wasn't sure. He could certainly yell violently, and kick over chairs and so on. But he hadn't hit me or thrown anything at me. Could I trust him not to do that now? He was so very wonderful when he was sane, but jealousy turned him into a monster. Could I trust him to be reasonable?

I knocked on his door and waited. The walk up the hill had given me enough time to get really anxious.

He opened the door and I regarded him nervously. He looked at me, and then at the beautifully wrapped parcel under my arm. His face lit up in a huge and devastating smile.

"Oh, what a wonderful surprise!" he exclaimed. "How did you find out it was my birthday? You even got me a present? You are so... This is so... so..."

He ran out of words. He had tears in his eyes, and I was enveloped in a great big loving bear hug.

I was speechless, too. All the words I'd been rehearsing on my way up the hill had vanished. This wasn't quite working out the way it was supposed to. Someone had fooled with the script and I was in the wrong movie.

"Er, happy birthday," I said, thoroughly confused, and handed over the parcel.

(I handed over MY parcel.)

We went inside, and I watched him open it, head spinning, wondering how this had happened.

I had never seen anybody react like that to a gift before. He LOVED the book. He took one look at the cover and leaped to his feet, laughing.

"YOU DARLING!" he shouted. "I'VE BEEN LOOKING FOR THIS BOOK! HOW DID YOU KNOW? THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!" He grabbed me and spun me in a little dance around the living room. He was overwhelmed with happiness that I'd thought of him, and brought him something so perfect for his birthday. He was incandescent with joy. It was intoxicating.

He was, amongst other things, a very good photographer, and passionate about it. I couldn't have chosen a better gift if I'd tried.

I felt horribly guilty, but if a young Harrison Ford had looked at you the way John looked at me that day, you would have waited another couple of weeks to break up with him, too.

And at least the book went to someone who appreciated it.

Technorati Tags: ,

Paula tagged me...

Paula has tagged me with a meme. I am behind on my memes. I have another one I'm working on, too, which is harder. (Thank you Berlin Bear.)

What I was doing ten years ago:

Let me see... 1995... I was on the way to recovery from a head injury I'd got a couple of years earlier, and had started working again and we were digging our way out of debt (to family and friends - the banks would never lend money to deadbeats like us, don't be silly) when the earthquake did me out of a job. So I went back in NZ for a few months to study, instead. I had no money but landed dramatically on my feet, winding up living in the lap of luxury in an architecturally designed house on the hill just down from the university, with spectacular views of Wellington harbour. It was odd to live in such surroundings and have to pinch pennies.

Mid-year The Man came to visit, and came down with food poisoning the moment he stepped off the plane. We had been apart for four months, and it was supposed to be a romantic reunion. (Let me remind you here that it is rude to laugh at the misfortunes of others.) The Man lay on the big double bed near the picture window, which looked out on a view very much like this, and moaned, with frequent trips to my lovely en suite bathroom. I, however, spent a lot of time sitting on a chair beside the window and gazing at the view.

5 years ago:

I was doing pretty much what I'm doing now - teaching my last few classes of semester and wondering how come years get shorter as I get older but semesters get longer.

1 year ago:

See above, except the weather was worse. This year the heat hasn't been all that bad yet.


See yesterday's blog entry.

5 snacks I enjoy:

A spoonful (or two) of Manuka honey, the only honey I like. I'm addicted to it.
Aside from that I don't really snack. I drink tea instead. Black tea with sugar and milk, or green tea with neither. In summer, sometimes I switch to cold genmai tea.

5 songs I know all the words to:

I don't know all the words to any songs. I know half the words to a lot of songs, but not all the words. Not only that, I switch songs halfway through when I run out of words. This annoys The Man when he starts humming innocently, I join in, and then suddenly we're singing something entirely different, something that HE DOESN'T EVEN LIKE. Quite often it's something I don't like either.

5 Things I would do with $100 million:

*Buy a decent house for Okaasan (my mother-in-law), which she would refuse to move into, saying that the inadequate prefab box she lives in that passes for a house in Japan is JUST FINE. (It isn't.)

*Buy a house for ourselves not too far from her but not too close either.

*Invest enough to live comfortably off the interest, and give the rest away, probably. I don't really know what to do with money, but I'm sure I'd think of something.

5 locations I would like to run away to:

I don't really want to run away, but as long as it's a temporary running away...

*A particular coffee shop in Kuantan (Malaysia) that I've forgotten the name of but which made me happy. It was such a beautiful and comfortable space that I wanted to move in.
*United Coffee House in Connaught Place (New Delhi), which also made me happy but for different reasons.
(Hmm. I sense a theme emerging...)
*The Himalayas. Just to see them, not to climb them. (I'm not that energetic.) Is there a good coffee shop somewhere I can see them from?
*A coffee shop on a beach somewhere.
*A coffee shop somewhere in Europe.

5 bad habits I have:

*I procrastinate going to bed, which is silly when I have to get up early.
*I write long letters and forget to post them, find them months or years later, add more, and forget to send them again. I have sent letters that are five years out of date.
*I am extremely untidy.
*I read while eating, quite frequently WITH MY ELBOWS ON THE TABLE. (My father is rolling in his grave.)
*I promise myself I will mark homework the moment I get home, but when I get home I never do it. I end up marking homework all weekend. I also forget to give it back, and by the time I do the students have forgotten writing it. (I have been carrying a hundred students' homework to and from one place once a week for a month now, and it is breaking my back. I keep forgetting I've brought it with me. I am stupid.)

5 things I like doing:

*Sitting in coffee shops in foreign countries. Actually any country will do, as long as the coffee shop is not a franchise. It must be local.
*Waking up naturally (i.e. not needing the alarm clock; i.e. university vacations!)
*Handing in grades early.

5 things I would never wear:
*Anything frilly. I hate frilly.
*A bikini
*Shoes that hurt my feet
*Pale yellow or grey (both colours make me look at death's door)
*A miniskirt

5 TV shows I like:
I don't watch TV

5 Biggest joys of the moment:
Summer vacation! Summer vacation! Summer vacation! Summer vacation! Summer vacation!
(Starting from the week after next, but the joy has started already.)

5 Favorite toys:
Electronic dictionary
Digital camera
Mini iPod

I don't seem to have more than four, unless you count bath toys. (A wind-up fish and a wind-up swimmer. I can reenact Jaws in the bath.)

I tag...


Technorati Tags:

Monday, July 11, 2005


Today, in my higher-level class, I showed a movie. I had intended to show a different movie - something light - but yesterday I started to watch Kandahar, which I've had for at least a year, but only had time to see the first ten minutes or so. I wanted to see the rest, and decided that since the class had only five students, one of whom wants to be a journalist and another an aid worker, it might work.

It did. They were riveted. I felt a little guilty because a lot of the movie was not in English, but the subtitles were in English, and were not too fast for them so it was still 'English class,' sort of. And I stopped the movie now and again when students had questions.

I would be very interested to hear what others who have seen the film think of the boy, Khak. Did he deliberately mess up his recital at the religious school, so that he would be kicked out, or was he just a bad student? And was he really untrustworthy? I wasn't sure, and neither were the students.

Kandahar is a stunningly beautiful film, and has scenes in it that made us all think. The students were particularly impressed by the woman who applied her lipstick under her burka. You do not get to see her face, as she would not (or could not) uncover it, but she was determined to wear the lipstick anyway. My students wondered about the strange contradiction this involved. The whole point of lipstick is that it is seen, but this lipstick would never be seen, so why was she wearing it? What did it mean?

I've been thinking about this tonight, and I think the lipstick was for the woman herself, not for others. It was an act of self-definition. It was a way for her to remind herself, Inside my prison I may not be seen, but I am still a human being. I am not faceless. I am not invisible. I am a woman.

There are other images from this film that will stick with me for a long time (the amputees chasing down the parachuted artificial legs!), but I think the most lasting impression, for me, will be of the invisible women.

Technorati Tags: ,

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Bad child

Doris has written about being sent to the headmaster's office when she was eight.

I was sent to the headmaster's office when I was eight, too, or perhaps seven, but apparently lacked Doris' inner resources because I remember it vividly. I was sent there by the headmaster himself, who was in the classroom talking to the teacher when the bell rang after lunch and I raced my friend back there. I burst in laughing and shouting "I WON!"

When I saw the headmaster I stopped short in surprise. He had never been in our classroom before, and I had never seen him so close up. To my surprise he glared at me as if he knew me, and became very angry. The next thing I knew he'd told me to go over to his office to await my punishment.

I was devastated. I didn't know what I'd done wrong, and the headmaster was a frightening character with enormous bushy black eyebrows. Also, I didn't know where his office was. Afraid to ask, I hovered until he bellowed at me to GO. I left the classroom and wandered around the school, looking for a door marked HEADMASTER. Eventually I gathered the courage to ask some adult who took pity on me and pointed me in the right direction. She also asked me why I was going there, and I told her I was going to be punished. She asked me what I'd done, and I had to reply that I didn't know. It was humiliating. I was fairly sure that not knowing what I'd done wrong meant that I was so wicked I didn't know the difference between right and wrong behaviour. (Oh, the joys of a religious upbringing.)

I found the office, which was locked, and stood outside in the corridor to wait.

I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

When the bell rang for the short mid-afternoon break the headmaster still hadn't come. I could hear the sound of kids playing and shouting out in the playground. After a while the bell rang again and everything went quiet.

I continued to wait.

I have never known an afternoon so long, before or since. Imaginings of the punishment awaiting me grew more terrifying as I stood there, until I was paralysed with fright. A punishment you had to wait for this long had to be something horrible, and I must have been very wicked to deserve it. Had I done something I couldn't remember? I wanted to run away, but I was sure that I would die if I did, or that someone would catch me because they would see right away that I was bad. There was no place to hide, and anyway I was an obedient child and defying authority was not something I did easily. Now and again a teacher or other staff member passed in the corridor and smiled sympathetically at me. I thought this meant they knew what was going to happen, and were sorry that I had been so bad. If they thought I didn't deserve it they would help me, surely. They didn't want me to be punished so badly, but they knew I'd deserved it so they couldn't do anything.

As the afternoon wore on I was worn down. There was nothing to do, nothing to read, nothing to distract me except my increasingly wild speculations of what was going to happen when that terrifying man finally turned up. (One of the approved books in our house was the illustrated Foxes' Book of Martyrs, and there was plenty there to feed my imagination. I was ghoulishly fascinated by that book, mostly because I was secretly convinced that it proved that I was wicked. If someone tied me to a bonfire and lit it I knew I would never sing a hymn with so loud and cheerful a voice that I'd be heard through all the cracklings of the combustibles, and the noise of the multitude. I knew I would become an instant atheist in exchange for a bucket of water.)

As an afternoon of eternity passed I became more and more convinced of my sinfulness, and more and more confused about it. What had I done? How could I undo it? How could I become good? What was going to happen to me?

The final bell rang, and again I heard the joyous yelling and clatter of children - the good children - erupting from classrooms. The noise died away gradually until I knew I was the only child left at school. The others had gone home, and now there was only me, the bad child. I was sorrier than I'd ever been in my life.

Then the headmaster arrived.

He walked straight past me and had started to unlock his office when he noticed me. He asked what I wanted. I told him, in a very small voice, tight with pent up tears, that he had told me to come to his office and here I was.

He paused, and there was a long silence as he opened his door and stood there, looking into his office. Then he turned.

"You can go home now," he said, and wagged his finger at me sternly. "I can see you are sorry for what you did. But let this be a lesson to you, and don't do it again!"

"What did I do, sir?" I asked. I was terrified, but had to know.

"NONE OF YOUR CHEEK! GO HOME BEFORE I CHANGE MY MIND!" he thundered, and disappeared into his office, shutting the door firmly.

It was devastating. How come adults were allowed to behave so unjustly? How come he didn't have to explain? Why couldn't he tell me what I did wrong? It was UNFAIR. If I had to be so wicked I wanted to know WHY. I had spent the entire afternoon standing outside his door, a petrified and unwilling martyr, and HE HAD FORGOTTEN I EXISTED. The whole thing was outrageously unjust.

I went home, confused, angry, and laden with a terrible burden of unpunished sin.

If I could remember how this story ended I would tell you, but I'm afraid the memory ends there.

Technorati Tags:

Friday, July 08, 2005


Today I ended up on the train with three colleagues on our way home. I had to get off first, to change to another line, and just before the train started slowing down for my station one of my colleagues suddenly remembered a bit of essential gossip she thought we might not have heard yet. She told it quickly so I would not be left out of the loop, and I appreciate it deeply. I now know a little more (but not nearly enough) about a very strange professor who used to invade my classes.

He WAS a tenured professor at the university (my students had told me so, and I thought they must have made a mistake), but nobody is quite sure if he'd actually been given any classes. He certainly didn't seem very professional when I met him. I thought he was a homeless person who had somehow wandered onto campus and into my class in an alcoholic fantasy. But he claimed to be from Tokyo University, or to have graduated from Tokyo University, or to be on a transfer from Tokyo University, or something like that. Whatever it was, I was supposed to be impressed. He spoke English, but it was a strangely garbled and very fast version of English that never made sense, quite. He was full of confidence and this worried me.

I deeply resented him walking into my classes like that, but put up with it because you never quite know who it might be, and you don't want to make enemies of tenured professors if you are a lowly part-timer. Everybody knows we part-timers are not real academics, and not real teachers. We're just replaceable bits of equipment. Tenured professors, on the other hand, are living treasures whose every word is sacred and who might get you fired. You learn to be careful.

This guy stopped invading my classroom after I frightened him one day. I did it very nicely. He had wandered into the room, as he was wont to do, while I was in the middle of erasing something from the board in order to write something new up. The students were working on something but looked up at the interruption. I asked if I could help him, and he said no, but then sat down next to a student, pointed at the mostly erased board, and asked interestedly and loudly what it meant. He wanted attention, and was getting it. My students had stopped even pretending to work.

What was on the board didn't mean anything, of course. It was mostly erased. It said something like:

page 44 th
s a sele
ne and de
hich fo
te a par
u thi

I was getting a bit tired of this guy. It was the fourth or fifth time he had interrupted this one particular class of engineering majors, and I was starting to feel picked on. He would sometimes just sit down and stare at me, grinning, or other times start chatting to a student, in Japanese, or to me, in English. He was disturbing and creepy and disruptive and I didn't know what he was doing there, and when I asked what I could do for him he would brush me off by telling me not to worry, he was just checking things out, just carry on, carry on. The first time, after he'd gone, I asked the students if they knew who he was, and they said he was a professor. They didn't know what he was a professor of. (I only found that out today - he was a P.E. professor. I didn't know it was possible to be a P.E. professor. Perhaps I misheard.) I asked the students if they thought he was a little strange, and they had to think about it. This was the wrong question. To students, professors are strange by default, here. To expect a professor to not be strange was too novel an idea for them to comprehend.

So when he asked me to explain something that didn't make sense, and when I overheard one of the students whispering to another about how good his English was, and he obviously overheard it too because he looked all smug and twitchy and expectant, I decided this guy had been getting up my nose for long enough. I decided that if he wanted an explanation of something that had nothing to do with him, I would give him one.

So I told him, in English, at great speed, all about a journal article I'd been reading on the train that morning. It had nothing to do with what was on the board. It was about memory and cognition, was heavily scientific, and was written by a neuroscientist. I had only understand it vaguely myself, but that didn't stop me. I fixed him with a manic eye and speed-babbled with enthusiasm, waving my arms around and using all the really big words I could remember from the article whether I could pronounce them or not. I interrupted myself several times to ask him, confidentially, as a fellow teacher, if he didn't also think it was an astonishing bit of research and wasn't it relevant for us all, as educators? We should be taking it into account when we teach our students, I said. Didn't he think so? I waved vaguely at the garbage on the board and told him that this was what I was trying to do here, and what did he think?

He was lost from the first sentence, and all he could do was sit there nodding dazedly and agreeing with me. I burbled on happily, asking him for his agreement every couple of sentences. He didn't want to admit in front of my fascinated students that he didn't understand a word I was saying, so he tried to look intelligent, but the panic in his eyes grew. This inspired me to greater flights of pseudo-scientific fancy, and I carried on as he stood up and came to the front of the class, turning his back to the students so they couldn't see his face and the growing alarm all over it. When I finally stopped for breath, beaming at him expectantly, he pulled himself together, shook my hand damply, said, "Yes, yes, yes, very good," a lot, told me I was doing a great job, and left.

There was silence, and the students stared in awe. One of them asked me what we had been talking about. It sounded so very intellectual, and he hadn't understood a word.

"Sugoi," he said. "His English is very good." Then he added somewhat wistfully, "My English will never be good like that."

"Yes, it will," I said. "It will be better, if you study a little. He didn't understand anything I said."

The students gaped.

"I didn't understand it either," I added. "But it sounded good, didn't it?"

I laughed happily (he'd gone!), and they gaped some more. Some of them started laughing as they understood what I had done, but they were a little shocked, too.

"Never mind," I said. "Let's get back to work. I don't think he will be back."

I was right. He never did come back.

That was a couple of years ago, and I had forgotten about him until today. But when my colleague was telling us about a professor who had been arrested for drunkenly attempting to kidnap a woman and her child at a train station at nine o'clock in the morning, something rang a bell.

"Gawd. He sounds like that guy from Tokyo University who used to interrupt my classes," I said. "He was nuts. Kidnapping? What happened?"

"It WAS him!" said one of my other colleagues. "I heard about it, too, and there was something about him being from Tokyo University. Oh, so you've met him! I heard he speaks English really well..."

The doors of the train opened and I had to run for it.

I hate it when that happens. KIDNAPPING? I'll have to call my colleague tomorrow.

I love gossip, and Japanese universities have the best and most bizarre gossip ON THE PLANET.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Thursday, July 07, 2005


Today I was giving conversation 'tests.' These are more to satisfy my students' need to be studying for something rather than to satisfy me. It also keeps the universities happy if I show I have tested students. I make the tests worth 15% of their grade, and grade them all high because basically, they've all learned to communicate a little in English, and that was what I was aiming for.

The students get very nervous about this test and tend to overdo things a bit. One student today, having apparently swallowed whole the notion that r is the most difficult sound for Japanese learners of English (it isn't, really), decided to rhoticize his entire output. He put an r into every single word whether it was originally there or not. His partner had a hard time understanding the strangulated sounds that emerged, but I have to admit it was fascinating. He has learned the American r perfectly. He does a better r than I do.

He added two to wow.

"Wrorw!" he said, in an amazed tone, in response to something his partner said.

He had apparently also heard that foreigners use gestures more than Japanese people do, so there was a lot of hand-flapping added for good measure. But he couldn't quite bring himself to flap any higher than the elbow, and the effect, while appealingly earnest, was also rather disturbingly camp.

I scored him high, of course. It is not his fault that the Japanese English education system has never quite come to grips with the blindingly obvious fact that the first place to start when you are learning a new language is with the sound system. That he is making this much effort on his own is a credit to him. I find it hard to teach much pronunciation in the time I have and with the syllabus I am supposed to be following. Good for him, I say. He is willing to make foreign noises, and that's a huge step in the right direction. And once you got used to the odd sounds he was making, and the hand-flapping, his communicative skills were actually pretty good.

He was happy with his grade, and told me so, twisting his hands eloquently.

"Ire'm verrry harrrpy," he said. "Ire warrs verry nerrvourrs."

"But I can tell you've studied hard," I replied. "You deserve a good grade."

He looked pleased. "Yerrs, Ir sturrdierd verrry harrrd," he said. "Ir thirnk Ir've irmprroverd."

I've decided to add a little more pronunciation practice to next semester's classes.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


Adachi-san just turned up at our door. Adachi-san is the local independent builder. We recommend him to everybody because he doesn't rip you off like the big construction companies do here, as a matter of course. He is a lovely man, forty-something, and has missing teeth. Builders in Japan always have missing teeth. It's a Japanese tradition.

He yelled outside for a while, knowing that our doorbell is broken. Eventually I realized the yelling was for us, and yelled back from upstairs. (The broken doorbell has never been fixed - since the earthquake - because we discovered we LIKED not having door-to-door salespeople ringing it daily. The people who know us yell our names.)

I went downstairs.

Adachi-san was there, grinning from ear to ear and carrying a box.

"I know The Man isn't here," he said, "But tell him the kids are really happy. This is for you both. Thank you!"

(Or maybe he said 'the kid' - there is no plural in Japanese.)

I took the box, sagging a little and somewhat dazed by his gapped-tooth grin and his total obliviousness to the unfortunate fact that my Japanese isn't up to his speed or his level of street talk. He burbled on for a while more, cheerfully, and I missed most of what he said except that the kids are REALLY happy, and please thank The Man.

I promised I would thank him, and Adachi-san left, still laughing. He slammed the gate. He always slams the gate. His natural exuberance demands it.

In the box were a couple of melons. I don't know what melons cost right now, but they're never cheap.

What has The Man been up to? He left the house about half an hour before Adachi-san arrived and didn't say anything to me. What has he done? Has he been doing magic tricks for Adachi-san's kids? Has he been telling them tall stories? Giving them presents? (Do they still think he is Turkish or Pakistani? Will he go to hell for telling lies to children to explain why he doesn't seem quite Japanese enough to them?)

I don't have the foggiest idea what's going on, but I do appreciate the melons.

Technorati Tags: , ,


The usual bunch and a couple of extras met at the bar tonight to drink to our absent friend. The owner of the bar, who is also our regular waiter, had heard the news of her death, and gave us two extra carafes of wine. This means we all ended up well over our usual limits.

When we were leaving he also gave me a hug. The others had gone down the stairs, and I was delayed because I'd been collecting rubber bands from all over the floor. I answered his question about what had happened, as he only knew the barest outline.

I told him the details, stumbling over the Japanese. He looked distressed, and hugged me. It was a chaste shoulder hug, and infinitely comforting.

"Taihen, desu ne," he said. He had tears in his eyes.

Japanese people NEVER hug like that. This is not a hugging culture. I'm guessing he has picked up on our habits. We arrive at the bar one by one, every week, and as each person arrives it's hugs all around. We've been going there for a couple of years now, and he has been there and we always chat with him briefly as we arrive and again as we go. Perhaps he has been watching us. His hug was friendly and sympathetic, natural, and not at all awkward.

But it was a testament to our friend that even the waiter at her once-a-week bar felt so bereft at her untimely death. She was the kind of person who always noticed wait staff. If she was talking when a waiter brought her order she would interrupt herself to smile and thank him or her, and it was never perfunctory. It was always a full eye-contact smile and genuine thank you, from the heart. This was second nature to her. Everybody deserved to be acknowledged.

When I got down the stairs I told the others why I'd been delayed.

"Oh, it's good you talked with him," one of them said. "Of course, he knew her, and deserved to know what happened. He'll miss her, too."

We stood silently on the pavement for a moment.

"You know, that was really kind of him," someone said. "The wine and the hug and all that. What a special guy." Then she added thoughtfully, "He's kind of cute, too, isn't he?"

We all agreed that hmm, yes, come to think of it, he was, wasn't he?

And as we were being so woefully distracted I could almost see our absent friend rocking with laughter at the turn the conversation had taken. A woman who turned irreverence into an art form, at that moment she was RIGHT THERE.

Technorati Tags:

Monday, July 04, 2005


Early this morning I remembered that I'd promised my students I'd bring a Beatles song for them to learn. All our Beatles videos are on DVD, and the school only has VHS, so I'd planned to tape one this weekend. I told The Man about it.

"I'll have to do it next week instead," I said.

The Man responded, as I'd hoped,

"If you have ten minutes, I'll do it now."

He recorded the song while I was getting ready for work. What a sweetie.

In my small class of foreign students (four Chinese and one Vietnamese), I flourished the key to the video cabinet.

"I've got the Beatles video!" I said, and they cheered. They're sick of the textbook.

I opened the cabinet.

But when I got everything apparently working, the sound was crap. It had sounded fine at home, but on the system at school we had the sound turned up to the max and could only hear the music very faintly. That was no good.

I wondered if The Man had recorded the sound on the audio sub-channel, used for bilingual recording, and tried to figure out how to get the sound output from the sub-channel. There didn't seem to be any setting for that. I tried adjusting the tracking. That didn't work either. I fiddled with various mysterious buttons and settings, and nothing worked.

While I was bent over the cabinet getting more and more frustrated, one of the students said something that sounded rather rude.

"Pardon?" I asked. I turned around, flustered.

"You're thick," she repeated, grinning.

"Thick?" I said. "It's not me! It's the video! It isn't working!"

"No, no, no" she said, shaking her head. "Not the video. You are - " she paused and arranged her tongue - "THHHICK."

I stared at her. She was usually a nice person. I thought she liked me. Why was she being so insulting suddenly?

She stared back. Then she grabbed her dictionary, looking exasperated. After a minute she looked up again.

"THIN!" she exclaimed, happily. "You're THIN!"

In the end we moved to another classroom, used a different video player, and the video played perfectly. My students sang,

You say yes, I say no
You say stop and I say go go go, oh no
You say goodbye and I say hello
Hello hello
I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello
Hello hello
I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello

And so on. It was fun. The lowest level student, who had trouble with the alphabet at the beginning of semester and sometimes feels a bit left out, was in heaven because she could understand all the words. By the third repeat of the song she was singing her heart out.

We all were.

Technorati Tags: , ,


For a while now I've been carrying a supply of rubber bands wherever I go. I am practicing a bit of magic that involves one rubber band passing through another one, and I want to get it just right, so that I can do it without looking at my hands and without fumbling. I want it to look casual, as if something impossible just happened accidentally while I was fiddling with a couple of rubber bands.

The reason I am trying to learn this trick is that in one of my Friday classes I have a student who has been disconcerting me all semester with his sleight of hand. He loves magic, and I can tell he practices a lot. You don't get to be that good without practicing a lot. He does not disrupt the class with his magic - he doesn't overdo it - but now and again when the students are on task and I'm checking the room to see where help is needed I'll be distracted by a suddenly vanishing coin, or a coin miraculously leaping UP from the desk to his hand, or by him apologetically reaching out and removing a marble from his partner's ear. He'll do something like this maybe two or three times a class, and he doesn't stop his study to do it. He does it while he is doing whatever it is he is supposed to be doing: casually, as if he didn't mean to. When the students around him demand to know how he did that, he gently steers them back on task. Then he glances at me, to see if I noticed. I smile and give nothing away. It is very funny.

But I want to get a little revenge for all the times he has surprised me. I want to surprise HIM. For this I will have to be able to do my trick smoothly and casually, just as he does. I have been practicing like mad, and for the last few days every time I sit down somewhere I start fiddling with my rubber bands. This means that as I am talking to whoever I am talking to, a series of rubber bands goes flying into the air (except when they hit me in the face). I keep losing the bloody things. Obviously, this is not supposed to happen. The trick is supposed to require two rubber bands, not twenty, and they are not supposed to end up all over the room.

I am apparently getting better at my trick, though. Yesterday I met a Japanese friend, and while we were sitting having coffee and chatting I was fooling with my rubber bands. One went flying, but as she was saying something to me and I was paying careful attention, I noticed her eyes going down to my hands. I casually did my trick, not taking my eyes off her face, and her startled double take was exactly what I have been aiming for. She actually jumped, and forgot what she had been saying.

But I don't get it right every time, yet. I'm hoping to be proficient by next Friday. If not, then the Friday after next.

Technorati Tags: