Monthly Archives: September 2014

I Partied With Lawyers and the Booze Won

When I was in Albania, I would hang out with lawyers. Surprisingly, they were actually a lot of fun.

In order to reengineer itself after communism, Albania, through various sources, imported a bunch of US lawyers to help write the new constitution and advise the development of something resembling a justice system (insert joke about starting at home first).

Because I was in the capital, and English speaking people in misery love the company of other miserable English speaking people, I fell in with some of them even though we had nothing in common other than location.

The interesting thing about lawyers is 1) they like to argue 2) they like to drink and 3) they like to talk. As result I found myself sitting quietly–I was as surprised as everyone else–while they debated various random things triggered by fact number 2.

A few of the interesting things I learned:
–If  you want to get a police officer’s undivided attention, make eye contact with one and then run away. Police are programmed to chase after you. This is more effective than calling for help.
–If you run from a police officer and dump something in the trash as you’re running, they need to jump through legal hurdles to access what you threw away because the cop made you do it. If you see a cop, dump something in the trash and then run, they can use what you threw away because you did it yourself.
–The jury system is the worst system ever.
–Lawyers don’t really give perfectly spoken summations, especially ones that don’t actually refer to the case.
–Shooting a corpse you know is a corpse is not a crime (unless you made the corpse a corpse in which case the situation becomes problematic). If you shoot a corpse because you thought it was a sleeping person, that is a crime.
–It is remarkable that I am not in jail.

(disclaimer: this information is 20 years old. Consult local authorities and laws before staking your future on any information given in this blog.)

My favorite moment in the 1)2)3) talks happened when the topic, for some reason, turned to Turkey and the movie Midnight Express. The prosecutor from Brooklyn immediately went into a small rant about how the protagonist deserved everything that happened to him after he got caught smuggling hashish. Her strong rant horrified the handful of defense attorneys in the group. They didn’t try to defend it. I pointed out that Turkey changing the type of crime and the length of sentence as his sentence came to an end was the problem, because even though I’m not a lawyer, I’d had enough to drink to play one.

Her reaction, well, let’s just say it convinced me to never, ever get in trouble in Brooklyn.



The Best Lack all Control the Worst are Full of Cacaphonous Energy

In all the years I’ve been teaching I’ve only been broken by a class once.

That happened last year, but first let me explain some background.

The school where I work is top tier private boys school with a Christian leaning (more on that later). However, as declining birthrates take their toll, the school has begun to lower its standards for admission from “future leader of Japan” to “Japanese and breathing”.

The first taste of this came several years ago when when had a class of junior high first years that were almost to a person bad. They weren’t just rowdy in a large group of teenaged boys kind of way, they were bad in a hostile, don’t give a shit kind of way. They were so bad that when we had a chance to meet their elementary school teachers, we asked them “what the hell happened? What did you do?” They said it was just a bad class but the next class would be better. This was mostly true and I ended up dubbing that group of students the “Demon Seed Class”.

The school also has a relaxed discipline style that allows the students a lot more leeway. The result is the least Christian Christian school imaginable. For example, if I enter a homeroom class two minutes before the bell, no students acknowledge me. They continue playing until the bell rings and then they get settled.The Demon Seed Class wouldn’t even settle in then, until I started giving homework if they took longer than two minutes to get settled.

The Demon Seeds were the worst class I’d taught until last year, when I had the perfect storm of bad in one third year junior high class. They’d been minor Demon Seeds for two years, then I seemed to get all the worst students.

To make matters worse, I was working four nights a week and not getting home until 11 and then going to bed well after midnight only to get up around 5:30. I was exhausted and couldn’t focus and became afraid to go to the bad junior high class, even though I only met them one a week. They smelled the fear and their behavior got worse.

Eventually, the evening classes finished and I got my bearings back but the class was pretty much lost. By the end of the year I divided them into two groups: the “study room” for students who actually wanted to study and the “play room” at the back for students who wanted to play. (I can’t legally throw them out of class.)

A few of those students were barred from entering high school, but I now have several students from that bad class. Luckily, I can now throw them out and fail them. Interestingly enough, now that I can do that, I haven’t had to.


Broadswords and Moving Nuns

A couple times back when I was in graduate school I decided to freak out my students and try to drive my roommate insane.

For reasons I still don’t understand, a friend from my fraternity acquired a large Norman broadsword. It wasn’t sharpened and was probably intended for use with the Society for Creative Anachronism. My friend, of course, was not a member of SCA which made the sword’s presence even more mysterious.

Me being me, I immediately though it would be a good idea to take the sword to class.

I carried the sword unsheathed across campus–note to people under a certain age: there used to be time in the USA when people weren’t whiny chickenshits and you could carry swords across campus without attracting too many funny looks or a SWAT team.

Once in class, I set the sword across the front of my desk. I then taught class normally (well, in so far as anything I do is normal) and at the end of class I picked the sword up and carried it back to my friend.

It took a couple classes before one of my students got the nerve to ask me why I’d brought a sword to class. I responded by saying “That’s a good question. Take out a piece of paper and describe how you felt about that.” Several students groaned in a way that seemed to say “Can’t you just kill us with the sword instead?”

A year later, the friend with the broadsword would be my roommate. During a trip to England, at the Petticoat Lane Market, I found a rubber nun. The nun had a cloth habit and when you squeezed her, a pair of anatomically correct breasts inflated and poked out under the habit. It was childish, blasphemous, and profane. I knew my roommate, who happens to be a staunch Catholic, would love it.

Sure enough, it earned a prominent place on the shelf near our television and every now and then I’d pick it up and give it a squeeze and marvel at how silly it was. I always made sure to set it down slightly turned from where it was before, especially when I noticed my roommate studying it. If he set it facing forward, I would always move it slightly the next day.

I did that a few times until he asked me if I’d been moving it. I played dumb for a while until his Catholic belief in demons and the afterlife came to the fore and became early signs of panic and I felt guilty and suddenly remembered he owned a broadsword. I told him I’d been messing with him and we had a good laugh.


The Stranger in The White Van

Despite having seen a lot of splatter movies growing up, I once accepted a ride from a stranger driving a van.

I wasn’t actually hitchhiking, I was more of a target of opportunity, so to speak.

About a hundred years ago when I was living in Niigata, I got this sudden urge to travel during Golden Week (a period of time when four national holidays arrive at the same time. On a whim, I decided to go to Shikoku. This is roughly the equivalent of deciding to travel to Western Nebraska on a whim.

I arrived in Tokushima early evening and was turned away from several inns and ended up sleeping in a manger. (Sort of.) Actually, the fourth hotel called the fifth and arranged a room at a business hotel which is only one step above a capsule hotel and, quite frankly, not that much bigger than a manger.

The next day, it started raining which meant I couldn’t ride the cable cars and do other things Tokushima is famous for. That said, the food was good and I enjoyed the cultural center. (I think I still have a handkerchief I dyed while I was there.)

From there I went to Takamatsu and then to the Iya Valley where I decided not to pay 500 yen to cross Kazurabashi, a vine bridge 42 feet above rocky, watery death. The journey did not provide enlightenment, just fear, and the sides only came up to my waist, increasing the fear.

I did take some nice pictures, though.

After roaming around for a while. I sat down at an abandoned bus stop across from an abandoned restaurant to wait for the bus, even though I wasn’t actually sure when it would arrive.

That’s when the stranger in the van arrived. The van was full of other people’s clothes. The man offered to take me to the closest station where he assured me the members of his cult would cage me in a wicker man and burn me alive to ensure good harvest. Granted, I might have misunderstood him a bit as the Shikoku dialect doesn’t sound like any Japanese I’ve ever studied.

Eventually, I figured out he worked hauling clothes to clothing stores and that he recommended a certain brand of Shikoku sake. Also, since he earned his living driving, he talked about the fact that the road through the mountain was newly built and saved him a lot of time.

Eventually he deposited me at the station and I went to on to Kochi, which was okay, but nothing special. The van ride was actually the last interesting thing that happened on that trip.

They Who Will Not Obey Will Repeat or be Stunned

For a few minutes today, I kind of wished I had a stun gun to use on a student.

Every year, the school where I work puts on a couple speech contests. Junior high students get the assignment before the Summer break and high school get it before Winter break. Almost no one actually writes it during the holidays but at least the first year junior high students (7th grade) take it somewhat seriously.

The problems begin in second year (8th grade). By then, students already know, within reason, who is going to win the speech contest. They also know they can’t fail for doing badly on the speech. (Well, they can, sort of, but not until they try to go to high school.) Therefore the incentive to do a good job is somewhere just above zero percent for most students, especially if they are in a lower level class.

To get the speeches turned in we implement detentions and get the homeroom teachers involved. Then the problem becomes getting the students to put some energy into their speeches.

Unfortunately, today, in almost every class, we all had some kind of problem. Oddly, the problems tended to occur in the “higher” level classes.

In my case, a third of the students showed up without the “show” part of their “show and tell” speech. This means they have to do the speech twice. Other students feigned surprise that they had to memorize the speech. (Two days of practice and constant reminders to memorize it apparently didn’t register. For the record, I have a teenage kid, so I kind of understand that.)

Instead of listening, some students were talking and making lots of noise. One student was especially loud and I was trying to figure out if I needed to be closer for the stun gun probes to be effective. He dragged a second student into it.

When the second student almost started a fight with a third student, I ended up having to enact a rule I usually don’t have to use in higher level classes: IYANYAN (If You Are Noisy, You Are Next). This rule applies even if you’ve already finished your speech. (The record is three times.) I called up the second student and made him do his speech again. Then I made the first loud student do his speech.

Things were a bit quieter after that, but I think a stun gun would have been faster and more impressive.

The Long Road to Form Groups Against the Groups

I once spent 20 minutes of a 50 minute class trying to get Japanese students into groups. This only happened because I refused to accept the groups they already had.

My plan, simple as it seemed, involved putting the students into one of four groups. To do that, I implemented a simple system of assigning numbers: You’re 1; You’re 2; You’re 3; You’re 4; etc. I encouraged the students not to forget their numbers. After everyone had a number, I pointed to various corners of the room and said “Ones here; Twos here; threes here; fours here.” and stood back with my arms crossed a sense of smugness.

Twenty minutes later I had no fours; three ones, four threes, and everyone else was a two.

The Japanese teacher working with me translated into Japanese and after another five minutes we had something resembling groups but little time to do the activity.

My mistake was misunderstanding the importance of pre-made groups. Basically, all Japanese Junior high classrooms, especially in public school, are organized in alternating rows of boys and girls. With various magic words, the teacher can quickly organize the room into pairs (Anál nathrach); groups of three (orth’ bháis’s bethad) and groups of six (do chél dénmha). Something like that. (Bonus points if you are old enough to recognize the spell and know what movie it came from. Don’t tell your parents you watched it when they were asleep, though.)

I also misunderstood the managed teenaged politics involved with the groups. This month Maki doesn’t like Koji and will never be in a group with him but she does like Ami but Ami doesn’t like her but also won’t be in a group with Akiko. Next month all that will change and everyone will hate Ami.

When I used basic randomness to assign groups I was putting people in groups who refused to be together.

The best part is, because I didn’t use the activity, I already had the next class planned.

All Your Homework Are Belong to Me

Today I let other students vote on the fate of one of their classmates. It didn’t go well for him.

The class I teach comes under various names depending on what grade I’m teaching but it all amounts to “English Conversation”. Basically the school where I work took regular English classes and split them into a grammar/government approved textbook part and a spoken English part.

Because my classes typically only meet once or twice a week, it’s common for my students to take them lightly and work on other homework.

This week there must be a test in Japanese because many of my students arrived in class with my textbook and a Japanese textbook. I gave a blanket warning reminding them of the rules and then let them get to work on the day’s project.

My rule regarding homework from other classes is quite simple: Strike One: I tell you to put it away and you lose a lot of points. Strike Two: You lose a lot more points, I take the homework and promise to give it back next week. There is no Strike Three. However, I also allow students who finish their work early to study other classes while everyone else finishes the project.

Today I seized a book within the first ten minutes of class. The student made up for it by eventually working and attempting to get bonus points for the project.

At the end of class I held up the seized textbook and put the students’ fate up to a vote. The question was “Should Mr. Lively be nice (for once)” Yes or No.

I took a vote and of the students who were actually listening to what I was saying, two, including the man whose fate was in question, voted Yes for be nice. Five voted for No for not nice.

This created a small crisis, though, when one student apparently realized I’d seized the book he’d lent to his friend. He complained he didn’t get to vote and/or had hanging chads and I held a second vote. The second time the Yes be nice vote won.

I gave him “his” book back and told him I wouldn’t be nice again.

Earnestly Important Follows the Disappointment

One of the first things I did when I started teaching British literature in Albania was disappoint my students.

I think they had expected me to arrive with boxes of books that they hadn’t read before. (The boxes would eventually arrive, but it took some time.) Instead, I had to try to put a different spin on the “approved” texts that survived from the Communist era. (Lots of George Bernard Shaw.)

At one point I was invited to a radio interview program and encouraged to read a couple poems. I chose Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” (I don’t remember why but I’m sure the reason seemed pithy and wise at the time) and William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” because I felt it described the state Albania was in at the time as the old rules fell away and new rules came into existence: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” and later “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

The broadcast was well received and I found myself making copies of the Yeats poem for several students.

Somehow, I managed to acquire some copies of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” which I like to count as being the first blatantly non-political satirical play taught in Albania. (Can you prove it didn’t happen?)

I had to walk the students through some of the jokes, but was impressed at how many they got.

Then, the woman who ran the British Council library at the time (which was just down the hall from my classrooms) suggested I have my students perform a staged reading of excerpts from the play. I agreed and it grew to a reasonably well attended event.

The students rocked. They read with energy and had good timing on the jokes. One woman even managed to pull off Lady Bracknell’s “A hand-bag?” line with the proper amount of horror and contempt.

I didn’t yet realize that I wasn’t technically supposed to be helping out Britain–I didn’t yet realize the extent of the rivalry between TESOL and the British Council–but I heard about it soon after that. Then again, my entire Peace Corps experience was full of little political pitfalls such as that and I tended to walk right into them.

That night, however, was awesome.

A Library Unto Myself of Books Not My Own

I once had a book company give me a lot of books. I then had to figure out how to give them away and keep them safe.

Back when I was in Albania, I sent a letter to Norton Publishing in the UK asking if I could get a couple sample copies of one or two of their anthologies. This was a tactic often used by university students to acquire books back when university textbooks only cost an arm and a leg.

I was surprised, then, when Some Big Shot at Norton (not his real name) offered to send me dozens of books if I could pay part of the shipping. Despite my bad relations with our country director Bitchy Punt, I somehow managed to convince her to pay the portion of the shipping (only the equivalent of fifty dollars or so) and the books arrived at my apartment.

I then had to figure out how to distribute them. I gave a stack of them to the library at the Foreign Language faculty in Tirana, and also presented a set of anthologies to the library director as a, well, incentive/kickback to keep the rest of the books safe and in the library and, more importantly sometimes in Albania, to actually let them out of storage. I was then able to send my students to the library to borrow the anthologies for use in class. I also had my students write letters to the Big Shot at Norton thanking him and his staff for their generosity. (Occasionally, I do learn a few things about working with other people.)

Unfortunately, I was also living in Elbasan and, after giving away another huge chunk of books to the excellent library there, I still had five boxes of books in my apartment. Now if I’d been smart (shutup) I would have immediately taken them to the black market and set up shop. However, since I’d already told my students I’d do book checks and fail anyone without a book if I saw any of the books in the black market, I figured it was a bad idea to go sell them.

In the end, because I left the Peace Corps under angry terms, I donated more books to the libraries and told my students they could keep the ones they had. The rest ended up at the Peace Corps office and I don’t know what happened to them.

A Small Burden of Duty with Pajamas

Today I ended up being seen but ended up not doing very much except change clothes.

Today was the Capital Region Junior Karate Contest for my karate style. The competitors are as young as fourth grade elementary school and as old as high school seniors. Earlier this year I committed to attending and serving as a judge. In fact, I marked it on my calendar way back in April or May and have been reminded of it several times, including last week at practice.

I didn’t really feel like going, and almost called to cancel four different times this past week. With the girls away, I thought a couple days to just relax and be alone would be more interesting. However, given all the reminders I’d been given, I thought I’d better go. I packed up my dogi and caught a 7:15 train and went down to Tokyo. I decided, though, I would use the girls’ absence as my excuse to abscond as early as possible. To offset this, I arrived early and helped set up–which mostly involved moving and setting up chairs and tables.

Imagine my surprise then, when I discovered I wasn’t scheduled to judge any events.

I don’t fully understand why this happened. No one in our dojo was scheduled to be judge, including sensei. Despite this, I put on my dogi and sat down to watch.

Because this is the largest junior contest, there seems to be a certain amount of politics involved, especially for those of us with black dogis. Sensei once explained that once you’re an official sixth level black belt, karate becomes more like a job. (I’m still not official.) Also, unlike lower levels, it’s also possible to lose a degree and have to retest. This is mostly a big deal if you want to have an official dojo and train adults.

Being seen at the contest is therefore a big deal. Those who haven’t played the politics well can find their dojos unable to officially train adults. (This happened for a brief time to my old dojo in Itoigawa a few years ago when they didn’t play the game well enough.)

I played spectator for a while. The high school kids were especially good, even impressing my sensei.

At lunch time I changed clothes and ran away. I don’t know how politically savvy that was, but it was more fun than playing spectator whilst dressed in black pajamas.