Thursday, January 31, 2008

High standards

This is an interesting little news item, at least to me.

The education ministry has decided to craft curriculum guidelines for undergraduate programs setting minimum knowledge and techniques required for graduation, with the aim of maintaining the quality of education at universities, ministry sources said Tuesday.

It all sounds so enlightened and progressive! But I know what happened the last time the ministry tightened up on their guidelines. Their idea of quality education is more time spent in classrooms, which meant that they suddenly decided that there had to be fifteen weeks of classes per semester and no fewer. They came down very hard on this at one place I work (the women's university), and the result was that suddenly our semesters got longer and all the teachers had to dream up something to fill an extra class or two. Also, the teachers could not have sick days any more, unless they made up the classes later.

But the best bit was that when the Ministry inspected the university and discovered that semesters had not been fifteen weeks the year before, they insisted that school nurses or kindergarten teachers, who had ALREADY GRADUATED and HAD JOBS, had to come back and sit through one more lecture, to make up the shortfall, otherwise they would lose their licenses. I was lucky, as my courses were not relevant for this requirement. Other teachers were not so lucky, and had to come in during their holidays to teach one more class. I do not know how many of these graduates actually attended, but I would not be surprised if there was a high level of absenteeism. Probably not on paper, though. I am sure that on paper this worked perfectly, and kept the standard of education (according to the Min. of Ed.) really, really high.

So the end result of the last attempt to improve education by the Ministry was completely ineffectual as far as education was concerned, but extremely annoying for teachers. At the women's university, since there is now an unofficial rule that we cannot fail the students (I am fairly sure the Min. of Ed. does not know about that one), and attending two thirds of the classes is the only requirement for passing, what it has meant is that the only requirement for graduation is that students keep seats warm for ten out of fifteen classes instead of nine out of fourteen, for four years.

(Incidentally, at that university, when I told a student that listening to music on her portable music player was not acceptable during my classes, she got all hurt and indignant. "But everybody does it!" she told me. "None of the other teachers mind. Why is this class any different? Why are you picking on me?")

On paper, these students are getting their quality education, as prescribed by the Ministry of Education.

I predict that the new curriculum guidelines and evaluation standards will also be followed faithfully, on paper. Dozing students will be lectured at on any number of fabulous things, and the tests (which everybody will, of course, pass) will look much harder.

The really interesting bit of this article, however, is right at the end:

The move also reflects Japan's apparent bid to streamline university education evaluation standards since the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is considering launching a study to assess university educational outcomes using the world's standardized criteria and Japan is set to take part in the study.

It will be very interesting to see how the Min. of Ed. gets out of this one. Will they cherry-pick the universities and students to take part in this study? I cannot see any other way they can avoid an ABSOLUTE DEBACLE.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ring phlegm

I don't want a new mobile phone, but if I did, I know which one I want. I want the ring phlegm one. How could anybody resist a ring phlegm phone that also has an easy-to-use, one-touch shortening button?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Faces and fry pans

Yesterday I gave a class a speaking test. Before I started the test, one of the students approached me, looking funny.

"Can I have my test first?" she asked. "I have to go to the hospital."

I stared at her, trying to figure out why she looked funny, and decided that she probably had toothache and couldn't think of the word for 'dentist.'

"Oh, that's no good," I said. "Are you all right? We can do your test next week, if you like."

"No, I can do it today," she said. "It's my face. One side doesn't move."

"Is it a tooth problem?" I asked.

"No," she said. "My face. One side can't move."

I called her first, for testing.

When she came through to the other room, where I was doing the tests, I was still worrying about her.

"Are you SURE you're all right with this?" I asked.

"Yes," she said.

"Do you know what caused it?" I asked. "Are you sure it's not a tooth?"

"No, it's my face," she said. "It's stress. I had it before."

"Well, that's not very nice for you," I said. "Let's get this done so you can get to a hospital quickly."

"Thank you," she said.

"And don't get stressed about the test," I said. "You've passed, actually. You've already spoken quite a lot, and I've asked you some questions, and you've answered perfectly!"

She looked startled, then relieved, and then she grinned, and that was when I could see that it was definitely not a tooth, because only one side of her face grinned. The other side stayed perfectly still.

What a strange thing to happen.


In other news, The Man has fixed the fry pan. It has a new handle, and new screws holding the handle on, and it is PERFECT. Not only that, he fixed it using materials he bought from the ¥100 shop.

My hero!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Daring escapes!!! Captures!!!

Right now I am reading The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by G.W. Dahlquist. It is a rollicking read. I can think of no other way to describe it. From the very first of the 700-odd pages you are plunged into the story. The heroine is dumped unceremoniously by her fiance for no apparent reason. She follows him to find out the real reason for his sudden change of heart, and almost immediately there is a mystery night train, a masked ball, sinister characters with clearly evil intentions, foreign agents, a cabal, a hired killer, a kind-hearted but slightly clueless doctor, beautiful, cruel, unscrupulous women, foreign royalty, alchemy, mysterious soul-sucking and dangerous sciences, strange and dangerous machinery, coincidence piled upon coincidence, naughty bits, and a roller coaster of capture!!! Daring escape!! Capture!!! Daring escape!!! Capture!!! Daring escape!!! for all three of the main characters. And a dirigible, even! (I love it that there is a dirigible, complete with man hanging off it by a rope.)

In fact I haven't come across so many captures!!! and daring escapes!!! since my childhood immersions into Enid Blyton. This book is like an x-rated Famous Five, except there are three protagonists, not five, and (so far at least) no dog.

I am having a FABULOUS time, reading it.

One of the reviewers on Amazon, I just noticed, complained about the excruciating detail in which Miss Temple is described having afternoon tea in one scene. I read that scene a couple of days ago, and my response to it was entirely different. I read it and then had to put the book down for a moment, because while I was reading a great big belly laugh rolled up from my stomach and I got tears in my eyes. I just couldn't help it. I had to stick the bookmark in the page, close the book, lean back in my chair, and laugh and laugh and laugh. And then laugh some more. I don't know quite why this scene tickled my funny bone so much, but it did.

Perhaps it was the sudden and surprising change of activity. The heroine is deliberately hurtling into a dangerous confrontation with the bad guys, and she is imagining what she will do, and you're all geared up for the confrontation – but the bad guys aren't there and she has to wait for them, so she stops to have a cup of tea. The compulsively detailed ordering and drinking of tea is almost painful, and is, basically, exquisitely described displacement activity. I found myself reading faster and worrying that she would miss the bad guys coming through the door while she was obsessing over exactly where the tea strainer was placed, and also understanding COMPLETELY why she was taking so much care over cutting her scones exactly in half and not having one half thicker than the other.

That was the most perfect description of an afternoon tea ritual that I have ever read, and the funniest. But it is much funnier in context than it would be if you read it alone. The situation is everything.

I am now up to page 527 (of 750-odd) and there have been another couple of daring escapes!!! and captures!!! since I started writing this, and it is all becoming, if I actually think about it seriously, rather off-the-wall ludicrous. But when I am reading it is not ludicrous at all. It all makes perfect sense, and is the most wonderful escapist nonsense I have read in years. From the first page I have felt like I'm being hurled forwards into the plot. It just never stops, so that whenever I pick up the book I wonder if I should be wearing a seat belt.

There are also some rather more serious themes underlying the daring escapes!!! and captures!!! (not to mention the naughty bits), but never mind those. I'll think about them later. Any moment now, I'm fairly sure, there is going to be another daring escape!!! and I have to read on to find out how it will happen this time.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The mirror

The other day I was in a coffee shop with a friend when a young woman came in, sat down at a table near us, and opened her bag. She was wearing so much makeup she didn't look human. Her face was a perfect, rather grotesque, mask, and her hair was dyed a sort of brown-orange and teased and moussed into what I think of as bath cleaner style.

From her bag she took a mirror. This was not the sort of mirror you imagine someone taking out of their bag. It was probably a bit bigger than a standard business letter, and it had a stand. She stood the mirror on the table, took out her mobile phone, and called someone. Then she chatted on the phone, loudly, while watching herself in the mirror.

She acted as though this was a perfectly normal thing to do.

And perhaps it is becoming normal. When I first came to Japan you would sometimes see women applying lipstick in public, discreetly. Then it became acceptable, suddenly, to apply makeup in public perfectly openly, and within a couple of years the trains were full of women applying their makeup on their way to work. They have full makeup kits in their bags, and mirrors. Then guys started carrying mirrors as well, so they could check that every strand of hair was in the right 'disheveled' place. I know this, because in my classes, if I get something in my eye I can ask the nearest student, male or female, if they have a mirror, and they always do. They're pretty big mirrors, too, probably to accommodate the big hair. I always find this a little disconcerting. The mirror in my bag is the one inside my contact lens case, and it is only big enough for one eye at a time.

But the woman in the cafe had a REALLY big mirror.

I have seen women with mirrors at cafe tables before, applying makeup. I find it rather revolting, actually. When I am relaxing with a coffee I do not want to feel as if I am in someone's bathroom. But that was the first time I have seen someone using a mirror just to look at herself in public. She didn't even pretend to apply or fix makeup, or check her hair. She just positioned the mirror so she could gaze at herself comfortably and chatted on the phone for a while. Then she put the phone down and drank her coffee. She never took her eyes off herself. The wall behind her was mirrored as well, so she might have been seeing herself endlessly reflected, although I'm not sure because I couldn't see if the angle was right for that.

My friend said it was not the first time she'd seen that sort of behaviour recently, but she thought it was fairly new. Is it the next big thing, I wonder? Will coffee shops here soon be full of young people staring at themselves? Is it only in Japan, or is it happening elsewhere as well?

The whole thing – the excessive makeup, the obsession with everything about the 'look' being perfect, the unwillingness to go out in public with no makeup at all (many women are like that, here) – seems to me to indicate something deeper than just vanity or narcissism. It seems to me that the whole idea of 'image' here has become so distortedly overblown it has become more important than anything else, so that if a person does not feel that they are being seen (or at least that their image is being seen) they do not feel real, somehow.

And what better way to ensure being seen than by looking at yourself?

Thursday, January 24, 2008


One thing that always amazes me about the place I worked yesterday is that the university is right next to that lovely little river, with all those birds and trees, and although it is only a one minute walk out the back gate I never see students down there. My students often tell me how much they enjoy cherry blossoms and autumn leaves and how they love 'nature.' But apparently they'd rather stay on the tiny campus at lunchtime or when they do not have classes than go down to the river, even when the cherry blossoms lining the river are in full bloom in spring, or the leaves are turning in autumn, and the weather is beautiful.

In one of my classes there I have only two students. This is because it is a second year elective class, and since the vast majority of students would rather not be learning English, I always get only a handful of students. (Unfortunately next year I will not have this class, which is one of my favourites.)

Yesterday during that class two cormorants suddenly flew past the window, startling us. We went over to the window to look down at the river, and there we saw another two, fishing busily. The students told me they had never seen a cormorant before and did not know what it was. I did not expect them to know the English name, but what astonished me was that when I told them the Japanese name they'd never heard of that either. This made me think I'd made a mistake, so I looked it up in my dictionary to check I'd got it right. I had. They hadn't even heard of ukai, which I found puzzling. I had heard of fishing using cormorants before I even came to Japan, and thought it was famous.

We could also see an egret from the window. They knew what that was, because I have taken them for a walk along the river twice, once in spring and once in autumn, as a part of a class project. We saw egrets then, and I taught them the name. They had never seen an egret before that, either.

They seemed to enjoy those walks. They had a lot of fun writing about them afterwards, too. I typed up their writing and made little 'books' for them, with photographs I'd taken on the walks. They spent ages rereading their books and poring over the photographs. And they loved feeding the gulls and ducks. They'd never done that before.

But they have never gone back to the river without me, even though it's just a step out the back gate. I know, because I asked today. This has been true for every group I've done this with at that school, in the last four or five years.

I'm not quite sure why I find that so shocking, but I do.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Today there were four cormorants down at the little river, and two had some white feathers on their heads and necks. (At first I thought one of the seagulls had had an 'accident' while flying overhead.)

I had never seen white-headed cormorants before, and wondered if these were a different type of cormorant.

When I looked it up, I discovered that cormorants change colour as they age, from brown to black, and during breeding time they have more white feathers. Also, they have white thigh patches that they show in courtship displays.

I could see the white thigh patches today, too, when they flew, but I wasn't able to get any pictures of them flying, only on the water.

There weren't any courtship displays, either, at least while I was watching. They were just fishing.

(Im)moral support

I found out today how my Monday/Wednesday university is going to prevent us nasty gaijin from failing students without actually ordering us not to. As usual, I got this information from the one Japanese teacher who treats me as a professional equal rather than as an English-speaking parrot. (Unfortunately she is also a part-timer.)

She told me that she had been told (by the loopy professor) that when the grades are being given for these classes (which are taught half by a foreign teacher and half by a Japanese teacher), the grade is to be calculated so that forty percent of the total comes from the foreign teacher and sixty percent from the Japanese teacher. This means that nobody gets the embarrassing task of explaining to the foreign teachers that the university has no academic standards. I can give a student zero points if I want to. The Japanese teacher will then give the student sixty points, and since sixty is a passing score the student will magically pass their English course.

This is, actually, a brilliant way around the problem of what to do with fussy gaijin who insist that at a university students should actually do something to earn a grade. Only a cunning, sneaky, underhanded person could have dreamed it up. I had no idea the loopy professor was so clever.

But it is also incredibly insulting to the foreign teachers. These classes are supposed to be for 'oral English.' I teach four of them, along with three Japanese teachers. (The loopy professor teaches two with me, and two part-time Japanese teachers teach the other two.) I am the only teacher out of the four of us who is actually qualified to teach the English language, and in particular, spoken language. (The loopy professor's PhD is, I discovered recently, in Japanese Studies, and the other Japanese teachers' qualifications are in English literature rather than language.) I am still deciding how insulted to be, however. If I protest too loudly I could end up with no classes at all there, and then where will I get all my bird pictures from? This is the university next to the little river.

I also found out today that most of the Japanese teachers' grades will come from a written test that they all have to use, put together by the loopy professor. This test is mostly in Japanese, and how it is supposed to assess spoken English is a mystery nobody dares to question. My part-time colleague is outraged. She wanted to use her own test, but she is also not protesting too loudly. (It was refusing to use this test that cost another part-timer her job.) She and I have decided to get together over the grades. We will collaborate to make sure that students who deserve a high grade actually get one, whatever their test scores. We may not be allowed to fail anyone, but at least we can be as fair as possible.

But that's only for one class, and I was still feeling pretty irate when I got home today. The Man was sympathetic when I told him what was going on. His helpful suggestion was that I should arrange for the loopy professor to slip on a banana peel at the top of a steep flight of stairs.

I found this idea curiously cheering. When things are not going so well at work it is extremely important to have moral support at home.

Or some sort of support, anyway.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The missing keys

On Wednesday down at the little river, a crow was in the water. It was behaving rather oddly.

"What are you looking for?" I asked.

"My keys," said the crow. "They were RIGHT HERE, or at least around here somewhere. I'm SURE of it."

"Oh," I said.

"I will not give up until I find them because I know I am not mistaken," said the crow. "I LEFT THEM RIGHT HERE SOMEWHERE AND DON'T TELL ME TO STOP BECAUSE I KNOW THEY ARE HERE AND IF I LOOK FOR LONG ENOUGH I WILL FIND THEM."

"Oh," I said, again. I didn't know what else to say. The crow sounded almost dangerously obsessive.

"Found them!" said the crow triumphantly.

"That doesn't look like keys to me," I said.

"They're stuck to this leaf," explained the crow.

He took his find over to a nearby rock and put it down.

He gargled.

"Watch very carefully," he said. "I'm going to wash the leaf off, and you will be a witness to the magical moment when my keys appear from underneath."

He picked up the clump carefully.

Then he dipped it in the river.

The leaf was washed away.

"Eh? This isn't my keys!" he said.

"Quite tasty, though," he added.

He went off to resume his hunt for the keys.

"All right, that wasn't them after all," he said. "BUT I KNOW THEY ARE AROUND HERE SOMEWHERE!"

He didn't seem to mind getting into quite deep water.

"I MIGHT have dropped them out here," he said. "I flew over here earlier today."

After a while another crow came along to help.

A gull came and asked them what they were looking for.

"Keys," said the first crow, shortly.

"Oh," said the gull. "I don't suppose you want this, then."

"Well, actually – " said the crow, but it was too late. The gull swallowed.

Another gull came came to see what was going on.

"Aren't you going to help?" asked the crows.

"No," said the gulls. "We'd rather watch."

It looked like it was going to be one of those stories that never end, so I went to work.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Mad, mad, mad

On Wednesday at work my loopy boss came to the part-time teachers' room and the room magically became emptier. It is amazing how many people suddenly find urgent business elsewhere when she turns up. Also, it's just as well there are two exits, because people leave so quickly they would jam in the doorway if they all tried to leave by the same route.

I was feeling stupidly complacent enough to stay. I should have known she had a message for me. She usually does.

"Oh, Badaunt-sensei!" she warbled. "I wanted to talk to you about the tests next week."

"Yes . . . ?" I said, somewhat doubtful but smiling nicely. I always smile nicely at her, but I was fairly sure I would not like what was coming next.

A couple of weeks ago she had told me she needed to see both classes at once on the last day (we usually teach them alternate weeks), and could I do my tests the same day? I had planned to test the classes separately, but apparently she thought it would be perfectly feasible for me to test the speaking proficiency of forty-five or -six students in ninety minutes.

I agreed, of course (she hires me) and adjusted my tests accordingly, making them so short they are useless.

But of course I can manage. I perform miracles on a daily basis. Besides, I already know the speaking proficiency of most of my students, and their 'test grade' will reflect what they have done during semester rather than what they do in the 'test,' particularly because I am fairly sure it is the only grade the professor is going to accept from me. The test is PAPERWORK. I am doing it because she told me to. Preparing for the test is more valuable to the students than the actual test will be.

I could not imagine how she could make the situation worse than it was already, but she did.

"I'd like you to test them in groups of four or five," she told me. "They will have a discussion, and you should grade them on that. It's very important that they know how to have discussions."

I don't quite know how I managed not to hit her. Perhaps it's because I have extraordinary patience when I deal with crazy people, due to the phenomenal amount of practice I get. Or perhaps I was just too boggled by what she'd said. Whatever the reason, I just sat there, grinning at her. I opened my mouth. I shut my mouth. Then I opened it again. This went on for a few seconds as I wondered why she thought it was suddenly a good idea to test the students on something that wasn't in the syllabus or the textbook, that neither of us had taught them, and that they were incapable of anyway. Most of these students are the sort who, when you breeze into the class and say, cheerfully, "Hello! How are you today?" smile happily back at you, then turn to each other and say, "Eh? What did she say?" "I don't know. Did she change her hairstyle? I liked it better before."

I stopped wondering what the professor was thinking. You cannot read the mind of a crazy person. You can only respond as if they are sensible and did not mean exactly what they said. (And if they hire you, the best tactic is to agree with everything and hope you can wiggle out of it later.)

"Well," I said, diplomatically, hoping I hadn't stared at her for too long gaping like a demented fish, "I already told the students last week how the test will be conducted so that they could prepare for it. I can't really change it now, but . . . " I got thoughtful, mostly about the fact that she is notorious for suddenly turning on people she decides she doesn't like, and remembering that I had just heard that morning about the Japanese part-time teacher who is looking for new classes elsewhere next year because she got on the wrong side of this woman OVER THE ISSUE OF TESTING and suddenly found herself jobless.

I pretended to be thinking about her idea.

"Groups of four or five . . . groups of four or five . . . Actually, YES! It IS possible!" I said. "Groups of four or five will be no problem! It will be FINE! In fact, it should work out VERY WELL! What a GOOD IDEA!"

She beamed at me.

But it is NOT a good idea, so I will NOT test them in groups of four or five.

She will not know that, however. She will be testing them on whatever she has been teaching them (or, more likely, on something completely different), in the other room. She will send the students through to me in groups of four or five. I will then test them individually, the way I told them I would, and the way they have prepared for. They will sit in groups, so that if she pops her head around the door she will see that I am 'testing them in groups,' but I actually I will test them one by one on the test questions I gave them to prepare for last week BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT I TOLD THEM I WOULD DO, AND I WILL NOT SUDDENLY CHANGE THEIR TEST BECAUSE A MADWOMAN HAD A WHIM. What kind of teacher tests students on something they never learned?

But I understand that it will go down in the records that I tested them on 'discussion,' and that they passed. I have already learned – from another of my 'team teaching' teachers, a Japanese woman who is a part-timer like myself – that we are not allowed to fail students any more at this particular university. They are too afraid of losing students. The foreign teachers are not being told this, however. Instead, we are to give the grades for our half of the classes to the Japanese half of the team-teaching teams, who will fill in the actual grade sheets, and 'adjust' those grades that need adjusting because of the unreasonable gaijin who insist on failing students who sleep through classes. The other teacher told me about this because she thought I should know, and because she is concerned about the effect this will have on student motivation, which is already low. (I like this woman, a lot. She cares about the students.)

But this is the school where I have given up completely on the university ever doing anything sensible for the students' education. There I have learned to do my best for the students, and everything else has to go into the 'irrelevant' basket OR ELSE I WOULD GO CRAZY.

While the loopy professor was wittering on about what a wonderful teacher I am and how good my classes are for the students because they NEED to learn how to have 'discussions' in English (SLAP!) and how much the students enjoy their English classes and are learning such a lot with this marvelous team-teaching system (SLAP!), I decided I should warn her about how the students are using translation software for all their homework. I wrote about this before, and have been worrying about it ever since. I had already told the other teacher (the nice part-timer, who got it right away and was FURIOUS because she'd spent hours correcting machine English) and thought I should tell the professor as well. It didn't seem fair not to.

"It's a shame the students often use translation software to write their homework," I said.

"Yeees!" she cried, happily. "And that's why they need a native speaker like you to teach them! They only learn translation at high school, not real English!"

"Um, I mean, I've noticed that some of them don't use English AT ALL when they write their homework," I interrupted desperately. "They write it in Japanese and then use a computer to translate it."

"Yeeees, that's right!" she warbled. "They really want to learn! And it REALLY helps them to have a native English teacher! Otherwise they don't know how what real English is like! Their homework is VERY GOOD! I am very happy with the way this team-teaching is working out. We work so well together!"

After a couple more tries I gave up. The loopy professor can speak English very well but she has never learned how to listen, in any language.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Have you ever kept a diary? If so, why? How long did you last? What sort of things did you write in it? Did you write in it every day? Only when something interesting happened, or did you write EVERYTHING in it? How much did 'everything' include?

If you did (or do) keep a diary, how is keeping a diary different from blogging? (Aside from the public/private thing, of course – which is HUGE, I know.)

Something I just read (in a passed-on New Yorker) has got me thinking about this.

Monday, January 14, 2008


I am reading (not finished yet) The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers. To find that link I went to Amazon, and while I was there I checked out the reviews, to see what other people think of it. I was amazed. A lot of people seem to be reading a completely different book, or else to have missed the point. Or perhaps I am missing the point? But for me this has been (so far) the easiest read of any Richard Powers book, and also one of the most interesting in its subject matter. I am loving it.

Perhaps you have to have had a head injury to appreciate it? After getting hit on the head by a truck, I worried that pain was not my only problem and read a lot of books about brain injury. (I could not get an MRI until six months after the accident, because pain and nausea prevented me from lying down long enough for the scan. As it turned out, my brain was fine. Apparently I have a strong skull, and can dent a truck without killing myself.)

One of the things I learned from my reading was that with certain types of injury, the victim does not notice the change, and makes compensations for behaving totally weirdly. This lead me to think a lot about the brain and self (and to worry about my strange behaviour that the people around me were too kind to mention and my clever brain was hiding from me). If my brain has changed (and hence my behaviour) and I do not know it, am I still me? What is 'me,' anyway? Who is the 'I' that does not notice? How big a change does it have to be for my 'self' to be altered? If I hated cauliflower before and now I love it, is that a change in my 'self'? If my behaviour changes in small ways and I do not know, or I behave differently to the people around me, or feel differently towards them from the way I felt before the injury (but don't notice this change), am I still the person I was before? If I DO know, then there is some continuity in the sense of self (the self that notices the discrepancy), but if I don't, the problem becomes a different one. The narrative is gone.

And that is what I think the book is about – how we (or our brains) create narratives for our lives, and how we change the narrative to fit our changing sense of self, and what happens when we notice ourselves doing this.

Anyway, perhaps because I read so much about the brain, and had the worry of possible brain injury, I am perhaps more receptive to this book than some of the reviewers on Amazon are. I am finding the characters' struggles to come to grips with a shifting sense of self absolutely riveting, and thought-provoking.

Quite aside from that, it's a good story. And it includes birds.

I like birds, as you may have noticed.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A lovely bloke

Sir Edmund Hillary died yesterday.

I know he will be remembered as the man who 'conquered' Mt. Everest, but I think he should be remembered equally for what he gave back to the people and environment of the area.

He devoted all of his life to helping the Sherpa people of Nepal through the Himalayan trust, which he founded and to which he had given much of his time and energy. Through his efforts he had succeeded in building many schools and hospitals in this remote region of the Himalayas. He was the Honorary President of the American Himalayan Foundation, a United States non-profit body that helps improve the ecology and living conditions in the Himalayas.

There's an excellent interview with him here, from 1991.

I actually met him briefly, about twenty years ago, just long enough to shake hands and exchange a few words of greeting in passing. I didn't know who it was at first, and my first impression of him was that he was a good, kind person. What a lovely bloke, I thought. Then I realized who it was – NEW ZEALAND'S GREATEST HERO, AND I'D JUST SHAKEN HANDS WITH HIM – and amended my impression to a good, kind hero, and a lovely bloke.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

New Year Resolution

I do not usually make New Year resolutions. I do not like setting myself up for failure. But this year I thought of a good one. I thought, I can actually DO that! What a good idea! I'll even enjoy it!

I went around feeling smug about it for a few days, because I had actually made a New Year resolution I knew I would be able to keep.

This evening at dinner after work, one of the guys told us that his New Year resolution was to cut sugar out of his diet. As he has a very sweet tooth I do not expect him to last very long, but I was impressed to hear that so far he has managed. Ten days is a long time without sugar for a person with a sweet tooth.

This success story inspired me to tell everybody about my New Year Resolution, so that I, too, could be recognized as a ridiculously self-disciplined person who succeeds at keeping New Year resolutions. But just as I opened my mouth to speak I realized I had forgotten what it was.

I closed my mouth again and stared at my curry.

I thought it was just a temporary glitch, a brain fart brought on by a long day at work. I listened to music on the train on the way home, relaxing and hoping it would come back to me, but it didn't. After I got home I sat here for a while staring at the computer trying to think of something to blog about today, and thought, rather sadly, that my New Year resolution would have been a good topic.

But I still can't remember what it was.

You have no idea how irritating this is.

(On the bright side, however, it is entirely possible that forgetting my New Year resolution is the most interesting thing that could have happened to it.)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Today I was looking for the McGurk effect video I found a while ago, to send to a friend. I was trying to convince her that sound is is something that our brains construct, not something that is 'out there.' (Vibrating waves are 'out there,' but sound isn't. The waves hit our ears and we construct the sound inside our heads.)

She was not convinced. She wanted to believe that sound must be something objective.

I found the McGurk effect video I was looking for (listen while watching, then listen with your eyes shut. What is different?), plus a few others demonstrating the same thing, and in doing so I also came across this page, which I am finding nicely complements the book I am reading about music.

But I also discovered that my ears are younger than I am. I eventually found myself on the page where you can listen to pink noise (you didn't know there was such a thing as pink noise, did you? Neither did I), and clicked on the various frequencies. Then I got to the one that said,

"Pink noise 16,000 (if you are in your 30s, you might have problems hearing this. If you are older, you might even have problems with 10kHz or 12.5 KhZ)."

Apparently my ears are not yet in their 30s, even if the rest of me is racing towards decrepitude. Also, I am sure there is some species of cicada that makes noises at 16,000 Hz here in Japan, because the first thing that popped into my head when I heard that was, Somebody kill that bug before it drives me up the wall!

It is a REALLY ANNOYING sound.

I cannot hear the 20,000 Hz one, though. You could probably upset your dog with that.

(Perhaps I could when I was younger. When I was a high school student, I remember our science teacher playing sounds on a machine while we all stood up, and we had to sit down when we couldn't hear them any more. After a while I was the only one standing, and the teacher scoffed and told me only dogs could hear that, don't be silly. Then he turned the sound off and on and off and on and had me popping up and down from my chair until I started feeling dizzy. That was a bit irritating. Especially when he turned it on again, later in the lesson, and I popped out of my chair like a well-trained dog and yelled at him to STOP DOING THAT, PLEASE? IT HURTS MY EARS! I don't think I'd ever yelled at a teacher before. I was usually a well-behaved child.)

Anyway, all of this means that tonight I did not get the work done I was supposed to get done, and I will have to do it tomorrow evening instead, after work.

Incidentally, I finished work at my Tuesday university today, including getting the grades done and handed in. All the students had a chance to challenge the grade I was giving them, and only one did. (It was my mistake – I'd missed adding in one of his homework assignments, and I'm glad he spotted it.) I am feeling terrifically efficient.

At least I WAS feeling terrifically efficient, until I got distracted by the interestingness of sound.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Music and brains

Right now I am reading This is Your Brain on Music: the science of a human obsession, by Daniel J. Levitin. It is fabulously informative, interesting, and readable, and my only complaint is that it does not come with a CD. When he refers to some bit of music I am not familiar with, and writes something like, Dum dum dum da DA! this does not inform ENOUGH unless you have the music in your head. And while most of the music he refers to is music I know, not all of it is.

Oh, and I have another complaint about the book, or rather about one sentence in it. The writer knows a great deal about music but less about language, so that when he writes about a 'malformed sentence' and uses something like, The angry grape echoed insensitively (that was not the sentence he used, but it was something similarly nonsensical) as an example, he was wrong. That sentence he used was not malformed. It was formed perfectly, even though it did not make sense. It was semantically odd, but grammatically perfect. I would not have called it malformed.

He could have easily obtained a malformed sentence from me, if he had only asked. My students produce them all the time.

That is a minor quibble, however, and does not detract at all from the book overall. I am enjoying it enormously. Everybody who likes music should read it. (Is there anybody who does not like music of some description?)

What I have learned so far: If a tree falls in a forest and there is no living thing around to hear it, it does NOT make a sound.

You thought that was one of those great unanswered questions, didn't you? So did I, but apparently it is not. It has been answered. The answer is perfectly logical and has nothing to do with philosophy. If you want an explanation, read the book.

Oh, and I have also learned that our brains have a unique relationship with music. If you stick electrodes in your brain and play a pure note of, say, 440 Hz into your ears, your auditory cortex will fire neurons at exactly that frequency, causing the electrodes to emit electrical activity at 440 Hz. This means that if I couldn't hear what note you were listening to, but could read the electrical activity coming from the elctrodes, I would know what note you were hearing. I would be able to READ YOUR MIND.

Isn't that amazing?

I do not recommend that you try this at home, however.

Eggbeaters and fry-pans

On that short shopping expedition yesterday we were all looking for different things. I was pretty sure the two things I wanted would not be available, but I am not often in that area so it was worth checking, just in case.

The two things I was looking for are extremely domesticated and ordinary, and not at all urgent. They are just things that I want to get AT SOME POINT, and now and again I get a bee in my bonnet about it because I cannot believe that in this country where you can buy ANYTHING you cannot easily find –

1) An eggbeater. And no, I do not mean an electric eggbeater. I mean an ordinary eggbeater. And no, I do not mean a whisk, either. We HAVE a whisk. We also have an eggbeater, actually, but it is not a good one. Sometimes it jams. I bought that eggbeater here, and the shop where I bought it has since closed and I CANNOT FIND ANOTHER EGGBEATER. How do Japanese people beat eggs? How do they make custard?

2) A fry-pan that is NOT coated with that horrible non-stick stuff. I hate those things, and refuse to use them. We have a wok that is non-non-stick, but that is too big, and our old wonderful little fry-pan, which had become utterly perfect from years of use, has an irrevocably broken handle. The bit where the handle fits in is broken as well. It has been mended countless times, and it has given up the ghost.

I am prepared to admit that my aversion to non-stick fry-pans is not entirely rational. It has very little to do with the various rumours and reports questioning the safety of the coatings and more to do with the built-in obsolescence (at least when I use them). I resent having to replace a fry-pan every couple of years. It makes me get all stroppy. WHY SHOULD I? Fry-pans should last twenty years, AT LEAST.

Yesterday I found two non-non-stick fry-pans, and the prices made me gasp. I was prepared to buy one anyway, but the big one was too big and the small one was too small. I want a fry-pan that is exactly the right size, and not coated with that non-stick rubbish.

Why is it that what used to be an ordinary fry-pan in the good old days has become so damned expensive? How come the non-stick stuff wears off the non-stick fry-pans? Where does that stuff go? Do we eat it? I do not want to eat non-stick stuff. I do not want to buy a new fry-pan every time the old one starts looking grotty. I want an ordinary fry-pan that will last twenty years and be nice to cook with. Not that I'm a good cook, but I was USED to our old fry-pan. Things very rarely stuck, and when they did, they could be removed without too much trouble.

Actually, The Man tells me it is easy to find an non-non-stick fry-pan. You just have to go to the right, specialized part of town where they sell equipment for restaurants, because professional chefs use non-non-stick fry-pans. That's where he got the old one, about twenty years ago.

Before you tell me about the wonders of online shopping, yes, I know that I can probably get both of these things online. But that would be too easy. Buying these things IN JAPAN has become a sort of challenge I have set myself, mostly because it annoys me so much. And anyway, as I said, these are not urgent necessities. I just look when I happen to be in an area where there are shops that might have them. It gives me something to get irate about.

Yesterday I got irate, in a very enjoyable way. I also amazed my friends, who had not realized that egg-beaters were so hard to find.

I was also going to write about what terrible shoppers those particular friends are, and how I discovered why they are always complaining about being short of money, but now I find I can't be bothered. Apparently I can only get irate about two things at a time, and right now eggbeaters and fry-pans are it.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Social whirl

Considering what my usual social life is like (drinks after work, mostly), yesterday was exceptional. I think I managed to get most of my social life for 2008 squeezed into one day.

Actually, it also made me remember why I prefer a quiet life. If 'having a social life' means getting up at six a.m. (SIX AY EM! ON A DAY OFF!!!) in order to get into Osaka to have a buffet breakfast at the Ritz Carlton, then I think once a year is quite enough.

I could swear I remember saying something like,

"Ooh! The Ritz Carlton for breakfast! What a good idea!"

Was I drunk?

It was lovely, though. For a morning we pretended to be rich. Eight people, some of us dressed up (representing the nouveau riche) and some of us not (representing old money). (Only the nouveau riche would dress up for breakfast.) I was dressed up, in that I was wearing a new (to me) top with roses and glittery black sequins on it (not as glittery as you might think – actually I could wear it to work) and a designer skirt (found massively marked down in a wonderful little shop a year or so ago). The top was given to me by someone it didn't fit any more, but it is DESIGNER, so who cares?

There were eight of us. One, who arrived late, decided that since this was a sort of New Year breakfast we should have champagne. That was probably the most decadent breakfast I have ever had.

Breakfast was from seven to ten-thirty, and by ten-twenty my stomach was, rather inconveniently, starting to wake up. I cannot say I made the most of the buffet, but I did manage to eat a LOT more than I usually do for breakfast.

After breakfast we went our separate ways, and two of us decided to continue the rich act by having a look around the shops around the Ritz, which are mostly designer stores. There were a lot of sales on. At one point I checked out a rack marked as 70% reduced, held up a little red beaded and sparkly embroidered top and said to my friend,

"Does this suit me?"

Then I looked at the price, and discovered that the marked down price was ¥45,000.

The rich really ARE different.

At one in the afternoon I had agreed to go to another party, in Namba, with a completely different bunch of people. This was a margarita party, and I had been to that particular person's parties before, and knew them to be rather dangerous. I couldn't imagine why I had agreed to go again, but apparently I had. (What was thinking in the last couple of weeks of 2007?)

I went anyway, and it turned out to be rather fun. This time it was seven people, only three of whom seemed determined to get drunk. Somehow the other four of us managed to extricate ourselves and go off for coffee without being rude before the party moved on from the eating and drinking and exchanging gossip stage to the 'let's get smashed' stage. We found a good coffee shop, and I think we were there for about two hours, chatting and catching up. These are all colleagues, and at work we never get enough time to talk. That particular university is my longest commute, so I'm not inclined to hang around afterwards for long because it's such a long way home.

Eventually we trickled off, one to go home (she lived near) and the other three of us to check out a couple of shops before heading off ourselves.

But that shopping expedition does not belong in the same post as champagne breakfasts and margarita parties, which is why a post about eggbeaters, frypans, and bad shoppers will be coming your way soon.

But not yet. I have a lot of work to do before classes start again on Monday.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year

As usual at New Year, The Man and I went to visit Okaasan. She does not live far away (only one train stop, and then a short bus ride), but we don't get there very often, or at least I don't. The Man occasionally pops in to check on things, but I am generally too busy with work. So is she. Her house is a sort of day-care centre for old people. She has been doing this for decades, and now most of the 'old people' she is paid to take care of are quite a lot younger than she is. (The payment comes from the city government, and it is peanuts. However it also includes some nice perks, like her big new flat screen TV.) This job keeps her busy six days a week, and she enjoys it enormously.

We got there after a slight detour to buy a saucepan. Why Okaasan suddenly urgently needed a saucepan on New Year's Eve I don't know. We didn't ask. Or, rather, The Man did ask, when he was talking to her on the phone, but when I asked him he said he hadn't quite understood her explanation.

It was lovely to see Okaasan, but in her way too small and uncomfortable house we felt rather cramped, as we always do. Okaasan is a tiny woman, and doesn't seem to mind the tiny house, but it always makes us feel squashed. This squashed feeling spread inward as Okaasan plied us with food, mostly things she had been given for New Year by her various friends and the old people. We ate far too many cakes and snacks and other assorted rubbish, but apparently not enough because she kept opening new boxes and telling us that THIS was delicious! We should try some! And look at THIS! It's famous in (insert obscure Japanese town here) until finally we told her we were ready for our soba noodles, the traditional New Year's Eve meal. The Man prepared that, and having us obviously busy with food in front of us kept her off our backs for half an hour or so. Okaasan seems to think that we are starving to death if we are not constantly stuffing our faces.

After we had eaten our noodles Okaasan told me about her teeth. She has four new front teeth. I was surprised. I hadn't heard about this, or noticed. The new teeth look exactly like the old ones did, and I had thought all her teeth were her own.

"They were, until earlier this year," she told me. "But then I had the eye operation and my teeth fell out."

I nodded sympathetically and assumed I had misunderstood. Okaasan frequently makes me doubt my ability to understand Japanese, but asking her to explain never works. She just tells me again, only faster. (I am not complaining about this. It was in the days when I was seeing her more frequently that I made the most progress with Japanese. I was forced to, in self-defense.)

The eye operation was for cataracts. Okaasan can now see clearly again. This doesn't seem to have helped her to put on her eyebrows straight, but I didn't really think it would. If Okaasan's eyebrows looked normal I might start to worry.

She told me that she is fantastically healthy. Her cholesterol levels are fine, and so is everything else, except her teeth. She seems to go to the doctor a lot, but I suspect this is more for the social occasion than anything else, like a lot of old people in Japan. She told me what her doctor had told her – that she has nothing wrong, no complicated medicines to take, her heart is fine, and she's in very good health overall. She was very proud of this. I guess the fact that she seems to have shrunk a little every time I see her is normal considering her age. After all, she is eighty, even if she doesn't look it. She looks about sixty-five. (She also looks rather like a bag lady, but The Man gets a little touchy if I mention that.)

Speaking of doctors, my friend and I were talking the other day about this custom of elderly Japanese people treating doctor visits as social occasions. Whenever you have to visit a hospital here there are always large numbers of elderly people sitting around in the waiting area, gossiping happily. My friend told me about an incident when she and her husband were waiting to see a doctor at a hospital, and her husband suddenly started laughing. When she asked him why, he told her that he had just overhead some of the conversation coming from a bunch of old people who were also waiting. The conversation went something like this:

"Where's Honda-san today? She's usually here on Fridays."

"No, she's not here, is she? She must be sick!"

It's good that Okaasan is healthy, though. It's one less worry for us, although at some point we'll have to think about how we're going to care for her. Not yet, though. She scoffs at the idea that she might need help, and seems to be doing very well. At one point she told us that she had been up since 2am, and when The Man scolded her for not sleeping enough, she added that she had gone to bed at eight, and (she counted on her fingers) six hours is quite enough at her age.

"But didn't you nap in the daytime?" The Man asked.

"No!" she said, and laughed at the very idea. Who needs naps when they're fantastically healthy, like her?

The Man told her that her back was looking curved, so she obviously had stiff shoulders. He gave her a shoulder massage. For a while all we heard from her was,

"Itai! Itai! Itai!" ("Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!")

After a bit she trailed off into mumblings, then she went silent and her head drooped forward, and she went as limp as a rag doll. I did not notice this because I was watching TV, but then I heard The Man's asking something quietly. I turned around.

"Is she all right?" he asked, smiling worriedly. He was still working on a knot in her upper back with one hand, while the other was holding her shoulder to prevent her from collapsing completely.

She was sitting on a cushion, her legs encased in bright orange long felt boot-slippers (I am slightly ashamed to admit that I gave these to her, as if she didn't look eccentric enough) sticking out in front of her, and drooped over so far it looked like her head was about to hit her knees. I put my own head down and looked up at her face. Her eyes were closed.

"I think she's dead," I informed The Man.

"Don't say that!" he said, laughing but looking alarmed. "That's what it feels like!" He continued with the massage, and Okaasan's head jerked up briefly.

"Hmm? Hee hee! Itai!" she said, and her head drooped forward again.

When she finally woke up again her back was much straighter than it had been. We sent her to bed before midnight, and she wasn't as reluctant as she pretended to be. After she'd gone, The Man and I looked at each other.

"I bet she naps ALL THE TIME," I said. "She couldn't possibly have stayed awake that long."

"She just doesn't remember," he agreed.

After midnight The Man and I walked to the nearest little shrine for our traditional New Year visit. We usually go later when the crowds have thinned a bit, but last night we were both feeling a bit sleepy ourselves (probably from all the food), and anyway this is such a small shrine that it's never all that crowded anyway.

The cold air woke us up fairly quickly, and by the time we got to the shrine we were ready to spend some time in front of the fire pit.

I tried to take a picture of the line of people waiting to pray at the shrine, but forgot to use the flash for the first picture. As it turned out, I like this picture better than the one where I did use the flash, though.

At a counter they were selling Omikuji (fortunes) and Hamaya (arrows that are supposed to ward off evil, but are really treated more as decorative). People bring back their old Hamaya from last year, to be burned in the fire pit. Then they buy new ones.

Here is the barrel for returning last year's talismans, Hamaya and so on.

There is also a place to hang your Ema. These are basically written prayers, or wishes. People ask for things like good health, good exam results, success in finding a job, and so on.

The beautiful shrine maidens were there again, serving sake from a barrel. I think they were the same shrine maidens as last year, and the year before, and the year before that. (Actually I did see one actual shrine maiden, but she looked about 95 years old and I missed taking her picture.)

Before you go in to pray at the shrine, you are supposed to wash (i.e. purify) your hands and rinse out your mouth at this trough. Not many people did. It was too cold.

We did, and that was when we decided that standing around the fire for a while would be a good idea.

There were lanterns hanging everywhere.

After the shrine visit we walked back to Okaasan's place and warmed up under the kotatsu before going to bed, where we discovered that Okaasan had forgotten to turn on the electric blankets and all our carefully stored-up heat vanished into the chilly beds.

In the morning we had the traditional New Year meal, which was, as usual, neverending. Okaasan kept remembering more and more dishes she'd forgotten to put out, and we kept telling her that we had ENOUGH, thank you, we CAN'T EAT ANY MORE. She seemed rather disappointed with us, and pointed out later, as she was clearing the table, that it looked like nobody had eaten anything. She was right, but that was not because we had not eaten. It was because there was enough food there for about twenty people and we'd only managed to eat enough for six.

When we were leaving Okaasan came out to the gate with us, and that was when I noticed that her hair has gone a rather strange shade of pink, mostly (but not only) at the ends. It hadn't shown under the artificial lighting. I did not mention this, however. I was still trying to get my head around the teeth explanation, and didn't need another one. Instead, I gave her a big hug, which made her giggle and get all flustered.

I asked The Man about the teeth as we were walking towards the main road.

"She didn't really say that, did she?" I asked. "I must have heard it wrong. What was the real story?"

"No, you heard right. That is what she said," said The Man.

"Oh," I said, and felt simultaneously cleverer and more stupid. "How can eye surgery make your teeth fall out?"

"I didn't ask," said The Man.

I love Okaasan, and I'm always happy to see her. She injects mystery and wonder into our lives.

But the occasional one day visit is enough. If we had stayed very much longer I think I would have expired from a combination of overeating and terminal confusion.