Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Doldrums That Come From Work

This is the first full week of work we’ve had this term and its nearly destroying us.

A former colleague once described working at the school where I work as being “semi-retired”. I prefer to think of it as being “pretty damned spoiled”.

There are lots of days off–except in June–and lots of partial days. That’s especially true this term because we have entrance exams. During entrance exams we are, technically, not supposed to go to the school. In fact, last year, I had to go to school the night before entrance exams started and was met by barricades saying “keep the hell out”.

I snuck past the barricades and entered the old English department office. As soon as the door opened, one of the teachers immediately rushed over and watched me until I left. (Which only took about a minute). Instead, we stay home and prepare our end-of-year exams.

The problem with this school is that when work happens, especially this term we that 1) it’s all confusing and 2) we’ve stopped caring. The confusing part happens because different grades end at different times and different exams have different due dates and we end up teaching at the same time we are marking exams. For example, 10th and 11th grade end on February 23rd; 9th graders end on the 25th and 7th and 8th graders finish March 3rd.

Seniors finished in December but had to attend a couple classes in January and will graduate on March 14th. Confused? Welcome to my world.

Because of all of this, it’s very unusual to have a full week of work during the Winter term. The trouble is, we’ve become spoiled and are struggling through the week. It doesn’t help that we’ve got lots of extra work to do as we prepare exams and record listening.

It’s also hard because our students, in their heads, have already entered exam mode and couldn’t care less about our classes. They start reviewing other classes and finishing homework from other classes. The only good thing about this is I get to participate in my favorite sport: taking homework and giving it back a week later.

 

Bigfoot, The Pen Detective, and the Knife Store

Perhaps the oddest thing the internet has done to me is turn me into a pen detective.

This happened because I listen to a podcast about pens, paper and ink. Yes, there really is such a thing. There is also a website about it, too. (No, I don’t have a problem. I can quit anytime I want. It’s just now is not the time to quit. Something like that.)

Last week, Brad Dowdy, the founder of The Pen Addict website retweeted a photo of a pen. The pen was an orange version of a Pilot Vanishing Point (or Capless) fountain pen (the crack cocaine/gateway drug of fountain pens). The problem was, because of the photo’s lighting and the placement of the product, the pen appeared to be glossy orange and black rather than metallic orange and black. This prompted a great deal of discussion on the podcast and I said I’d go check it out. They immediately dubbed the pen “Bigfoot” because although there was a picture, it probably didn’t actually exist.

Keep in mind, I did not do this detective work because I’m a good person, I did it because 1) the shop where Bigfoot allegedly lived is an awesome place for pen addicts to visit; 2) it is near a famous knife shop; and 3) it is only three stops from one of the few places that sells size 13 (US) shoes for less than the cost of a small car. Three birds. One trip. That’s what I call efficiency.

I went to the pen shop first, found the pen and took a few pictures to prove it was the metallic version and not a mythical beast that doesn’t exist. Well, sort of. More on that later.

(Note to Pilot Pens: if that pen were to suddenly exist, it would sell like crazy. Call me. We’ll talk.)

I then went across the street to The Edge knife shop to look at a couple knives. (I ended up buying one and can’t recommend it enough for people looking for an inexpensive small knife.)

After that, I went down to Gotanda for big shoes. I came home to find the house had been flooded.

It was a great way to get out of the house and it earned me a small shout out on Pen Addict 142.

The funny part is, in the end, the only Bigfoot was me.

Crime and Crime Again

I committed my first crime when I was in elementary school. I learned that, if you have to go to jail, steal more than a couple Life Savers. The people inside aren’t real impressed by that.

In my defense 1) the package of Lifesavers was already open; 2) there was no evidence it belonged to the store–it could have been left behind by someone by accident; and 3) I was just a kid so it all made sense.

I helped myself to a couple and my “friend” whose name I’ve long forgotten, reported me to my mom who reported me to the manager of the store. I remember feeling ashamed but I don’t remember anything I was told by anyone at that point. I also don’t remember where it happened.

Then, in high school, I robbed a CD shop. In my defense, the store manager was in on it. I was editor of the high school paper and, in a fit of madness, I thought it would be interesting if we robbed a store as a group and then wrote about it. I was then informed by the school newspaper adviser that it would probably be best if we arranged such things with the store manager in advance.

I still disagree with that conclusion, but went ahead and arranged it.

Three of us went into the store and looked around and, in the end, because I was technically an experienced criminal, I was the only one who actually took something. The others chickened out (which also became part of the story). I then left the store and was chased down by some young lass who caught me in a different store and ripped my jacket open. The moment of panic when she didn’t see the stolen CD remains a priceless memory. She popped another button and found the purloined CD.

(Note to people under a certain age: music used to be sold on small discs from actual stores. This way singers and bands could sell a bunch of crap along with a few good songs to make you think you’d bought something special.)

The brave employee took me to the manager who then described what would have happened to me if I’d actually been caught shoplifting. (The description was similar to things that would eventually happen to characters in Sons of Anarchy.) He also praised his employee for doing her job perfectly. Later, after she’d calmed down, I went back and interviewed her.

It all made an for an interesting experience but I’m still trying to remember if I gave the CD back or not.

Lower and Lower and Worser and Worser

Yesterday I mentioned that She Who Must Be Obeyed was going to use a minor flood from upstairs to try to get our rent lowered. I do not doubt her powers because she’s actually done this before.

First some background: when we first moved to Tokyo we lived in a tiny apartment above the storage garage of a flower shop. The rent was decent for Tokyo, especially as it came with an air conditioner, but it was still expensive and tended to shake when trucks drove by. The only good thing about it was its location. There was a store across the street, a convenience store down the street, and it was practically walking distance from Tokyo Disney Resorts.

Then both stores closed and I got assigned to the school where I work which meant I had an hour and forty-five minute commute on three different train lines. We, therefore, decided to move closer to the school.

We chose our current apartment because it was more apartment for what we were paying in Tokyo, got lots of sunlight as it was next to a large field and was about a 10 minute walk from the closest train station. It also had a little play area for kids and was far enough from the main road that we didn’t get much noise even in the few times it got busy. Granted, there was nothing nearby except one grocery store we used to call The Green Pork Supermarket because they sold us green pork (as in chemical green, not moldy green). Also, I wanted the third floor apartment not the first floor because we could leave our windows open at night without passerby’s getting to peek in, but SWMBO insisted we get the first floor as it would be easier for her to bring our youngest up a few stairs than all the way to the third floor.

Although it was out of the way and we got some dust from the field, the apartment was nice. It also had a parking area and we ended up buying a car and renting a parking place. (Yes, in Japan parking places don’t come with the apartment, they are separate fee.)

Then a bunch of things happened. First, the owner of the field sold it to a developer which meant we suddenly had houses 15 or 20 feet from our back window. This blocked most of our sunlight. SWMBO complained for a while–oddly, I refrained from reminding her which floor I’d wanted to live on–and then called the management company and got our rent lowered. Keep in mind, the Japanese take sunlight very seriously. Tall buildings often have to be built at odd angles to allow a certain amount of light past them.

A few years later, SWMBO heard that other tenants were paying substantially less than we were and managed to get rent lowered again.

In fact, if she weren’t so good at that, we’d have probably moved a long time ago. Now, though, there are other issues. Besides the flood from above, our parking area tends to fill with water prompting us to move our car every time there’s a heavy rain. There’s also bad drainage in front of our apartment and every time it rains we have a lovely mosquito maternity hospital right below our front balcony.

Now, SWMBO is going to call again. I’ll bet she gets our rent lowered. That said, I’m not sure I want her to, as that’s a good excuse to move.

The Flood and the Anger

Today I got to see She Who Must Be Obeyed get really angry. Surprisingly, it wasn’t at me.

I had to go down to Tokyo today to do some running and buy some shoes at one of the few shoe stores in Japan that specializes in shoes for big feet. While I was away, the girls were all working on making chocolate for Valentine’s day. (As I’ve written before, in Japan the women give the chocolate to the men.) It’s actually good for me to be away when this is going on because 1) I sample and 2) there’s always some arguing going on between the chefs.

I would save my sampling until I got back from Tokyo.

However, when I returned, I walked into the aftermath of a flood. The washing machine drain in the apartment directly above us had apparently stopped up and water had flooded the apartment. She Who Must Be Obeyed discovered this when she heard water dripping on our ceiling. Then water began dripping FROM our ceiling.

When I arrived home at 2:30 or so, the management company still hadn’t arrived even though the flood had occurred at 11:00. The candy factory had been stowed in the living room and there was a pot of leftover curry on my desk. There were also buckets on the floor in the kitchen.

She Who Must Be Obeyed ranted to me about the situation and then called the management company, who suddenly started acting like a cable company. (Someone will be there. They will do something. No details to follow. You will see them when you see them.)

Eventually, the Japanese equivalent of the Roto-Rooter man cleaned out the drain upstairs and started to leave. She Who Must Be Obeyed grabbed him and made him clean our drain, too, and quizzed him about what was going to happen next. He grudgingly did the work and told us the water would eventually stop dripping.

That’s when I got mad and pointed out that just because it wasn’t dripping, didn’t mean there wasn’t still water on our ceiling. Then there was the mold and mildew problem that would occur if it was still wet. He said–in a very polite Japanese way–that he wasn’t there to do anymore than than he’d already done. Then he left.

The water did eventually stop dripping down our walls but we are still worried about what is still up there. SWMBO is already planning her argument for why we should get our rent lowered again. (Long story.)

On top of all of it, I didn’t get any chocolate.

Bad Things Come in Phones for Knives

Today was Friday the Thirteenth and it produced a horror story. The horror story, as many horror stories do, involved the post office.

First, you have to understand, the day started well. It’s “marathon” day at the school which means there wasn’t much for me to do other than finish preparing a final exam. That part went well. Once that was over, I set out to pursue a number of simple tasks.

My first task was to get money (today was payday) and deposit part of it in the rent account. That went surprisingly smoothly, which should have been a warning for what happened next.

My second task was to mail a knife to its manufacturer in the USA for a warranty repair. I didn’t have to wait long, which was good, and then presented my parcel to the lady behind the counter. She asked what was in it, I said a knife going to the USA for repair.

There was the sound of teeth sucking. She then asked what kind of knife it was. I said it was a small folding knife and repeated that it was going to the USA for repair. More teeth were sucked and she consulted another clerk. Bringing someone else into the situation meant the situation had escalated to Wakarimasen Dekimasen and I was probably in trouble. The other clerk, who had helped me send parcels a few times, eventually told me that I’d have to wait for a while.

I frowned but remained calm (since I was carrying a knife this was a good idea, which is why I’m surprised I did it). A few minutes later, I saw the first clerk was talking to someone on the phone. I swore to myself and put the box back in my bag and waited. As rule, nothing good ever comes from a Japanese consulting someone on the phone.

Sure enough, ten minutes later, I was informed that the post office couldn’t ship small folding knives to the USA because DEAD PEOPLE!¬†but if it was a 10 inch butcher knife that would have been okay. I asked if her if she knew what the word “Bullshit” meant. She didn’t.

Once again, I didn’t argue very long. I was already packed so I just left and went about the rest of my tasks for the day. I was, of course, carrying a knife the entire time.

When I got home, I consulted a YouTube friend of mine who is the only Japanese gun owner and knife enthusiast I know. In fact, the knife I was sending in for repair I got from him. (The problems were not his fault.)

He explained that he’d had this trouble and that it seemed to stem from a misreading of a bulletin sent by the post office about the dangers of knives and hijackings and a general Japanese paranoia of knives. He said he’d had to prove that several Japanese knife companies use the post office to ship their products to the USA and that since then he hadn’t had much trouble.

The funny part is, when I got home, there was a knife waiting for me. It had been shipped from the USA and delivered via the Japanese Post office. I guess that’s safer than shipping things the other way.

Side Note: If you’re interested in my friend’s videos and Japanese hunting, you can check out his English language videos here. Be warned, though, that some are pretty bloody and you will be appalled at how much meat he leaves behind. In his defense, he gets dozens of deer a year.

Training with Red Flags and Scheming and Shouting

I once had a trainee talk about cheating on his wife and then yell at his fellow trainees. I had another trainee decide to skip part of the training.

This all happened because about ten years ago I started helping out with training in my company. Basically, my company recruits, or at least it used to (more on that later) from two locations. Inside Japan and outside of Japan. (This outside the box thinking tells you a lot about my company.)

After the new hires arrive, they are put through four or five days of training. They get basic TEFL teaching instruction, company policy explanations and tips on not snapping mentally and then beating your colleagues with a textbook; and they also get medical checks and, on occasion, go visit their employer.

Along the way, trainers and training assistants are watching them for any and all warning signs that they may cause trouble. We would listen for obvious red flags such as racist and sexist comments; people who didn’t seem to work well as part of a team; and any comments that indicated a too eager interest in being near junior high and high school girls.

In one training session, after I’d had a lot of experience, I was assigned a group of Bulgarian women (long story) and a couple random Englishmen. Near the end of the training, each trainee was assigned a 20 minute demo lessons. Each demo lesson had to have a warm up; introduce a grammar point; and then show a variety of lesson and the trainees ability to transition from one activity to another. They had a couple hours to plan and make materials and be ready to teach. I would also assign at least one trainee to play the part of “obnoxious little shit” (a technical term) to see how the trainees handled bad students.

One of the Englishmen got up and announced that he couldn’t think of a warm up and skipped to the first activity. He passed out a work sheet and then spent five minutes quietly walking around and “observing”. He then repeated that with the next part of the lesson. He finished after 10 minutes and the students had barely spoken. I told him he had to do it again and that he should probably figure out a way to do it right.

My favorite incident, though, happened in one of my first solo training sessions, I had a group of about 20 and most of them seemed to play nice with each other. One guy was dressed a bit casually (suits and ties were expected, at least at the time, even in summer) but he seemed to be working well with the others, although he did tend to go out of his way to partner with women.

During a smoke break, I was talking with him and a group of the ladies and somehow and for some reason he started talking about his wife throwing a remote control at him. He said she did it because he’d told her “if you don’t give me what I want I’ll just go out and find it myself”.

Red flags started popping up all over the place.

Later, I put everyone in pairs for the 20 minute demo lessons (at the time they were a pair activity). I made the mistake of pairing him with one of the quietest women in the group which let him dominate the planning.

When it was their turn, he took charge of the warm up. He then started shouting:

(points at random students) LISTEN! THINK! LISTEN! THINK! (points at own mouth) YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND THE WORDS COMING OF MY MOUTH BECAUSE YOU CAN’T SPEAK ENGLISH! LISTEN! THINK! LISTEN! THINK!

That went on for three minutes. Once the rest of the class were suitably scared to death–even the designated “bad student” was too freaked out to know what to do–he stopped shouting and turned the lesson over to his partner.

I made several notes as red flags clouded my vision. Luckily the other trainees made most of the comments I was going to make, leaving me to only interject that I was glad he gave the response he did because I wasn’t sure if he was serious or just trying to piss me off.

I never saw him again, although he did become a big part of my training as I imitated the shouting to demonstrate a key “thou shalt not”.

I don’t know what happened to him, but I heard things didn’t go very well.

A Story of the Flouting Flautist

Today we bought our oldest a flute and I started having flashbacks.

About 800 years ago (plus or minus a few years), when I was starting junior high school in Hayden, Colorado (or maybe it was before that when my helicopter was taking rocket fire from the knights in the Third Crusade; it all runs together) I remember being taken to a large room where some guy tried to sell us musical instruments. Although I expressed a brief interest in the saxophone, I ended up with a trumpet.

All I remember about that was the trumpet was made by F. E. Olds, who pretty much closed up shop right after my parents brought the trumpet. I also have the number $250 stuck in my head ($815 now) and that may have been the price of the thing. I played all through junior high and high school and then finally gave up the trumpet.

After delaying almost two years, and with the promise that she’ll keep using it in high school (long story involving getting recommendations is involved there) we finally decided it was time to retire the old school flute and buy her a flute of her own.

First, She Who Must Be Obeyed and I had a consult on our acceptable price range and SWMBO surprised me with number much higher than I expected her to say. After treating me with an AED we went to a local shop and began choosing flutes. This involved our oldest practicing with different flutes (and actually impressing the sales lady).

Although our oldest knew what the approximate price range was–for the record, it was not my idea to tell her–or perhaps because she knew it, she managed to play the more expensive flutes better than the cheaper flutes. I was ready to do a blind test to see if she was just messing with us, but I know from experience a better made instrument sounds better than a cheap instrument.

In the end, she’d narrowed her choice down to the Damned Expensive One and the Freaking Expensive One (not actual brand names), and seemed to be favoring the Damned Expensive One. However, She Who Must Be Obeyed kept saying to get the Freaking Expensive One and I kept looking for an AED to use on her in lieu of professional shock therapy.

In the end, our oldest chose the Freaking Expensive One and has agreed, although she doesn’t know it yet, to wash dishes for 20 years (or until she’s 20, something like that). All we, the parents, got was a bottle of cheap Bordeaux.

Yes, that’s right, the store gave us a bottle of wine after the purchase to help us ease the pain.

Home and Go Away Again

I spent a surprising amount of my first year in Albania trying to find a permanent place to live.

I’ve written before about how I used to be a lousy house guest and how I eventually had to move out of my host family’s apartment. Granted, this was something I’d hoped to do in the long run but it happened all of a sudden. Unfortunately, it also happened when the dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages was out of the country–he had a list of places I could stay–and the only people available to help me were Peace Corps staff who had a lot of other volunteers to worry about.

I was originally told I’d be staying in an apartment owned by a widow. As I understood it, she’d move in with family and I’d get the apartment. It was an okay place, but kind of hidden in a maze of streets. When I arrived with my stuff, she was there and I was told I couldn’t move in then. I was basically homeless with all my stuff in boxes around me.

Luckily, a pair of fellow expatriates took me in “for a short time”. Unfortunately for them, both the Peace Corps and I dragged our feet to get me out. This was surprising because we weren’t, technically, supposed to live with fellow expats.

Eventually, right around the start of winter, at the suggestion of yet another fellow expat, I moved into a house with an older woman who never seemed to smile much, her daughter, who didn’t seem to talk much, and their other boarder, a cute young Albanian woman who was the only friendly one in the house. I lived there over the winter, which was a mixed blessing.

My room was one part cave, one part cold storage. I bought a little electric fan eater that took some of the edge off, but we lost power¬† a lot. The woman started cooking for me, which I hadn’t asked her to do, which would eventually lead to a money argument.

When my dean returned from overseas, he quickly found me a permanent place to stay. I found another boarder for the woman, which helped solve some of the money argument, especially as the person I found was paying more money than I could.

For a while I was fine, but about the time I got settled in and comfortable, my country director forced me to move cities. Luckily, I found a nice apartment quickly, but it was never quite home.

A Boss is Not a Booster But Rhymes With Rich

I once had a boss so bad that the women I worked with were encouraging me to hit her.Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, they weren’t discouraging me from doing so.

I’ve mentioned yesterday that I once spent a summer working in Kansas City, Kansas as part of a Peace Corps inspired project to help community development in Kansas. I also mentioned that our team was five brilliant women and me.

I never understood why such a large group was assigned to the project, but luckily we all got along well so we never spent our time pondering “How the hell did we get here?” (something like that). I think part of the reason we got along was we didn’t like our boss. Let’s call her Bad Betty (not her real name).

The trouble with Bad Betty started before we even technically worked for her. Part of the project involved spending the semester beforehand doing research on the community. This included visiting the community and conducting interviews and trying to figure out who the movers and shakers were. Somewhere along the way, we met Bad Betty, who was a social climbing government worker with a “vision”. All of us were put off by her–working with someone who is always right can be very tiring, as I’m sure my colleagues know.

Sometime during our eight weeks in Kansas City–or maybe, because our faculty adviser joined us, before as part of our preparation; the timeline has grown fuzzy–we joined a group of neighborhood kids on a trip to Worlds of Fun. We had a great time, met some great people, and emerged looking like, as one of the team put it “drowned rats”.

At the end of the day, we returned to the community center that would serve as our headquarters and stumbled into a meeting of VIPs from the community center and the community. We were exhausted, but one of the ladies explained what we were doing and the rest of us just grunted and nodded and went “grrto rmto gootagoo” (something like that). At least that’s how were were treated. About the time we were ready to suck down gallons of coffee and head back to Kansas State U and shower, we were instead asked to stay for a short meeting with Bad Betty.

Bad Betty then proceeded to lecture us about the importance of leadership and praised the person who spoke up and then berated all of us for not being ready for a meeting of VIPS we didn’t know was going on before we found out it was going on. We were all stunned speechless as we thought we’d done a pretty good job. Somehow, we all managed to stay quiet although I did have to whisper “Wait until we’re in the car. Wait until we’re in the car.” to a couple team members.

Yes, believe it or not, for a few moments, I was actually the one calling for reason and restraint while others were suggesting I slap my boss. Then we got in the car and I had to be restrained. Bob, our faculty adviser–and all around great guy–eventually intervened on our behalf which earned him the full wrath of Bad Betty and us little bits of snark.

I still wonder if we’d have been such an effective team as we turned out to be if Bad Betty hadn’t gone full bitchtard (a technical term) on us that day.