Monthly Archives: September 2015

Losing Theirs and Blaming it on Me

Part of my day is best summed up by rephrasing Rudyard Kipling:

If you can keep your head when all about you 
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
You will be a teacher.

Today, in my worse class (not my worst) my students were supposed to go up to the front and practice their speech contest speeches. They were not required to memorize them–unless they wanted bonus points–and it wasn’t necessary for them to bring the “show” part of “show and tell”. The day was mostly for me to see 1) that everyone was finished 2) check the times of the speeches and 3) see who had a loud speaking voice as the voices usually disappear when students give their final performance.

I reminded them that it was speech practice day and my reminder triggered a wave of excuses with the most common being “I forgot my speech paper.” If I didn’t have a copy of it (because they’d neglected to make a copy for me–long story) I told them “Congratulations! That means you’re going to get bonus points!”

(Note: this level of cruelty/sarcasm/snark is the only time I speak with cheerful exclamation points.)

This triggered a wave of panic. Students quickly rushed to find their speech paper or to quickly write a new one. This meant I had to field a wave of students asking me to check hastily written “speeches” of barely more than a few lines.

Some students were in such a state of panic they asked me to look at their hastily written speeches whilst other students were up front reading. I’d chase them away and get dirty looks as if I didn’t care about them.

Eventually, everyone read something–often with the caveat “my speech paper at home is better” which is roughly the equivalent of “my other wife is a supermodel” (or something like that).

I reminded that next week will be the final performance and they won’t be allowed to use their scripts. They will also have to bring their “show” items or draw pictures of them.

If they were panicked today, next week should be  a lot of fun.

Give it Back, Way Back

At the school where I work we are fond of saying “that’s 50 minutes of my life I’ll never get back” to describe a particularly bad class. In an odd spin on that, I made enough silly mistakes today that I should give the entire back.

Despite a couple silly accidents this morning I thought it would be a good day. I should have taken those accidents as the omens they were.

My mistake in my first period class was handing out the wrong lesson for the next phase of the class. I was supposed to give out a lesson on superpowers as a way to start the “Superhero Adventures” curriculum we are trying out this term, but instead I jumped straight to Superheroes. I kicked myself a few times then decided to roll with it. The changed order is now officially classified as a “pedagogical experiment”.

After kicking myself I went to my worst class. My mistakes in this class were 1) not asking the homeroom teacher to remind the students to be ready for their speeches and 2) actually showing up to class. They are always bad but were in rare form today, leaving me with two lunch dates who both stood me up but who I will find.

Then, after lunch, I went to a high school first year class and started teaching a lesson when they were prepared to give presentations. I made a joke about it being a joke and then watched them do their presentations.

In my last class, I started calling names and realized I had the wrong roll sheet. I did a quick warm up and then went to get the correct roll sheet and folder. Once the folder was in hand I realized I was once again starting the wrong unit.

All this, I suspect, started because I didn’t bother to double check the folders I make for each class. If I had I wouldn’t have made a mistake in that class which led me to mope rather than double check which created a cascading series of mistakes

All that could have been avoided and I wouldn’t have been left wondering if it was possible to give the day back to the world. (No pay, for the record, just the day gets given back.)

My worst class still would have sucked, but at least the others would have been good.

Plays Cause Panic

Today, in my class with one student, that one student started panicking. I don’t blame him, but I hope he doesn’t reach the wrong conclusions.

At this time of year in the course I introduce a short play called “The Box” by Rich Smolen. The students are supposed to decide what motivates the three characters and then block the play. After a couple classes of practice, they are supposed to put on a staged reading of the play.

This poses some interesting problems for my student: 1) he has to play three parts even when they fight; 2) he has to give each a different way of speaking and different mannerisms 3) he has to interpret the play, which reminds me a lot of a Samuel Beckett play, and (spoiler) decide what’s in the box at the end; 4) he has to do all this by himself.

Unfortunately, because his English is excellent, he’s used to getting by with the bare minimum of effort. Already this year he’s done a monologue as a character who seemed suspiciously like him and improvised his way through a different monologue. (Improv is his way of NOT doing the required writing.) At no point has he tried to do anything resembling an actual “character”.

Today, after he got the assignment and was turned loose on the play, he panicked and said he didn’t understand. I told him a couple ways to interpret the play and the characters. He got a “Eureka” look and then stared at the paper, partly to waste time and partly to figure out what to do.

The problem is, for this assignment, he has to turn in a script book with all his blocking notes and his notes about the characters. If he doesn’t do that, his grade will suffer. I’m expecting him to try to improv the entire and thing, if I get anything resembling a script book, it will be a few scribbled notes.

Then again, I’ve already been surprised by students this term. Maybe he’ll surprise me, too.

Chemistry is Such a Lonely Word

A young woman showed up late to my class today  and I’m still not sure she was actually awake when she got there.

The look she gave me and my students when we said hello was one part WTF?; one part How the hell did I get here?; and one part BRRAAAAIIIINS. She never actually said hello; she just sat down.

It turned out there’d been a birthday party for one of the students and that half my class had gone to the party and had got only a half hour of sleep. Because of this, and because I kept having to tell them to leave the room if they wanted to sleep, I never developed any real chemistry with the class. (Nothing wins students over more than raising your voice to them and telling them to get out.)

I seemed to connect with a few, including zombie woman, and their group did all the required work and took time to develop their presentations. The other group, consisting of the rest of the zombie party survivors, did the bare minimum. They’d finish quickly and then sit and look bored while the rest of the class worked and took the assignment seriously.

The zombie party survivors would try to whisper in Japanese and I’d tell them they could leave which would result in more sulking. In their defense, the two guys had good English and the topic wasn’t that interesting, but I still expected them to do the work and do it correctly. I kept pointing out that when they got to the USA there’d be a lot more group work, a lot more discussions and lot more impatience than what I was expressing. Their reaction was to pretend to work for two minutes and then drift back to oblivion.

The woman grouped with the two guys seemed to sulk for the entire class and barely spoke to me. (She’d only speak to them.) I tried to mix the groups around, but they wouldn’t move. If I’d been more on my game (i.e. if I’d cared enough about them to actually give a crap) I’d have forced them to move. Instead I just let them sit.

At one point, I let them play grade school level games just to get some energy back in them. That lasted about half an hour.

In the end we were all counting the minutes to the end of class and I was kind of glad to show them my backside as I hurried out of class.

Wires and Readers and Silly Hats

A couple weeks ago our internet started taking small vacations. I was annoyed, our oldest was panicked because “NO TWITTER!” (ah, the humanity).

I contacted our service provider and they were like “not our problem, dude, call NTT”. I called NTT and they sent a guy out to check out our internet. The NTT guy blamed everything in our house that runs on electricity and an old phone cord for the problem.

I was skeptical, but I bought a new cord when I was out the other day and then spent today undoing what I’d done and doing something else.

Most older Japanese apartments have two fatal flaws: 1) they have only one electrical outlet in each room and 2) there’s only one phone jack in the entire apartment. In order to hide my desk in the variety room and connect my computer to the internet, I had to stretch a 10 meter long phone cord from behind the hutch in the kitchen to the far corner of the variety room. This involved running the cord along the baseboards, around corners, through the entry way and around more baseboard. I attached the original cord with U shaped nails that had plastic insulation along the curves (at least most of them did before I started hammering away on them).

The NTT guy gave a long list of why that set up was a bad idea but couldn’t explain why it worked until it didn’t. Just in case I tore it all out and replaced it with plastic hooks that stuck on the wall. To do this I had to wear a silly hat with a flashlight attached and had to clean up a shocking amount of dust.

The plan for the next part of the day was to set up a Kobo Touch eReader I bought recently. (It was used and $20 so I couldn’t resist.) Setting up such things usually involves copious amounts of swearing, but after an initial failure, the only swearing happened when I tried to read the f@#king manual which consisted of 1) a “congratulations you bought this device” pamphlet and 2) vague online instructions.

Luckily, the internet and Calibre saved the precious ears of my precious girls and gave me a portable device with several books and a dictionary on it but no blinding back light and no quickly dying batteries.

I would have started reading right away, except that now that the internet is working better I have more distractions.

Making the Best of Bad Students

The company I work for has a lot of people who don’t actually teach. They try to justify their jobs by occasionally  watching me teach. They typically do this on the worst day possible. Today, there was a twist as it was a good day to observe but my students weren’t that good.

The plan was for the observer to watch my junior high students give their speech contest speeches. Class started well: I spoke English, students responded in English and I asked who had their “treasure”. That’s when problems started.

The speech topic is “show and tell” which, by definition, requires the students to bring something to class to show. If they don’t, they get to do the speech on speech day and then do it again the next class when they bring their treasures. (Note: the record is four do-overs.)

After I asked who had their treasure, only seven of 20 students raised their hands. After a few minutes of “no really, who has their treasure?” and “Stop fucking around, who has their treasure?” it became clear that I’d need a second class to finish speeches. The observer, lets call him Fascist Fred, watched me with a “what ya gonna do aboudit” look.

I went into improv mode and announced that since there were so many do-overs, today was a second practice day. Any one who brought their treasure would get extra points as would anyone who could do their speech with no paper. (Note: this class has lots of extra classes compared to other classes I teach, so I was looking for any excuse to burn an extra day/stall.)

I gave the students 15 minutes to practice and then we started the speeches. That got us through the class, but I was disappointed with the number of students who didn’t memorize, even in a higher level class.

In the end I think I looked professional enough, and the class seemed to go smoothly.  The few students brought their treasures did an excellent job on their speeches which means they won’t be punished if they forget their treasures next week.

It also means they’ll probably go to the school speech contest, which some of them consider punishment.

Noodler’s Konrad and Noodler’s Ahab–Long Term Review

Ten months ago I got a starter set of Noodler’s pens and ink from Massdrop. The pens have been a mixed blessing. One of them I like a lot; the other is crap. It’s telling that just a few days after I ordered its replacement, the crappy one died.

The Pair Together
I’ve heard that Noodler’s pens have a pretty nasty smell out of the box, however, this isn’t my problem.

The first problem I had with Noodler’s pens is that they are designed for people who like to tinker. They can be broken down into pieces and the owners can adjust the nibs to their pleasure. As such, the owner has a lot of responsibility for setting them up and tuning them which makes them much different than other pens. In my case, I rushed to ink them and quickly discovered (after bothering to do some reading) that the pens have to be thoroughly disassembled, cleaned and reassembled before use.

I then spent a while getting ink all over my hands and legs (long story involving personal stupidity) before I got the pens to my liking.

It’s a bit like buying a television that comes in parts with each part not only still dirty from the factory but actually coated in oil. You then have to scrub everything, dry it, put it back together and then adjust the parts until you get the picture looking the way you want. The entire time you’re doing this, the screen is squirting ink on you. (Because that’s how televisions make the picture, right? Ink? Right? Right? Anyone?)

The Konrad (bottom) and the Ahab (top).

The Konrad (bottom) and the Ahab (top). You can see the steel nib from Goulet Pens on the Ahab.

Creaky, Leaky, and Dead
The first pen is  the Noodler’s Konrad. I chose “Poseidon Pearl” which is somewhere on the purple end of blue and looks more like cheap plastic than the resin (celluloid derivative) it’s supposed to be made of. For this pen I managed to set the nib perfectly right away and enjoyed using the flex nib with Noodler’s Apache Sunset ink.

It was comfortable to use and I liked the flared section (more on that later). The flex nib was fun to play with and left Apache Sunset looking dark with touches of brown. I tried the ink in other pens but didn’t like it as much without the flex nib. (More on that in another post.)

Although I liked the ink and the nib, I didn’t like the pen’s piston filling mechanism which has a small twist nob that became increasingly difficult to turn over time, even after a couple cleanings. It would turn a few times and then suddenly catch and I’d have to force it to fill the pen.

The past couple months, it’s suffered from severe nib creep that left ink all over the section and wasted ink quickly. The past couple weeks it seems to have been leaking from around the ink window. Even after wiping it down for use, I’ve ended up with ink on my fingers.

This led me to order its replacement a few days ago.

Then, just a couple hours ago, I made one last effort to save it. I took it apart, washed everything and tried to put it back together. As I was doing so, the piston jammed in the twist mechanism and I can’t move it even with pliers.

Goodbye Konrad. So long and no thanks for all the mess. (I will be keeping your nib though.)

Okay Then Good
The second pen is the Noodler’s Ahab. For this one I chose “Ivory Darkness” which is a mix of black, blue and ivory resin (aka celluloid derivative). I tried this one with the flex nib but could never seem to get it the way I wanted it. At one point I pulled the nib and feed out completely because brain damage, and spilled a fair bit of Noodler’s Midway Blue ink in my lap.

I also removed a tube that helps fill even the handle of the piston/plunger. Doing that improved ink flow but I still had trouble with the flex nib. It didn’t help that the pen has a tapered section with nothing to catch your fingers. If you’re not careful, you end up holding the nib. I got used to this but never got the flex nib working as well as on the Konrad.

In the end, I ordered a replacement polished steel M nib from Goulet Pens. This turned it into a more conventional pen and also made it one of my favorite pens to write with. It has a little nib creep, but not as bad as the Konrad. I also like that it’s a lot thicker than the Konrad. The Konrad is only 2 millimeters shorter than the Ahab, but it feels like a tiny, delicate pen.

I’ve ordered a second Ahab and plan to use it with a flex nib. I hope I can get it working without inking my lap in the process.

The Ahab with the original flex nib.

The Ahab with the original flex nib. You can see how the section seem to disappear at the nib.

Once More into the Awesome With Strangers

Tokyo, during the season of Awesome, is an excellent place to walk around with a perfect stranger. In my case, the stranger was imported.

A guy I know only through social media and bulletin boards involving pens and paper, managed to manipulate his way into getting to work in Japan for a couple weeks. Since I had the day off, I volunteered to show him places he could spend his money whilst using the “I’m totally just being a good Samaritan, dear, and totally no going to buy anything” excuse with She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Her response was “I know you’re not going to buy anything” and then she gave me instructions to buy something. (Note: She meant “you’re not going to buy anything fun”.)

I met the stranger, lets call him Pen Master Dan, at his hotel, which is conveniently located across the street from the Pilot Pen Station (link in Japanese) which was inconveniently closed for Silver Week. His hotel is also conveniently located down the street from Ginza and the vintage pen shop Euro Box (link in Japanese), which is inconveniently closed on Wednesdays.

I did get him to the fountain pen floors of Ito-ya and through a quick tour of the new Ito-Ya building where we played a game of “You can play with mine if I can play with yours” with fountains pens at the notebook testing table.

I then took him to Loft to try out a few more notebooks.

The entire time we were traveling, Pen Master Dan was giving me a master class on pens and notebooks. (I didn’t know how little I actually knew until we started chatting about various pens.) Luckily I had several pens and notebooks and could take notes.

After that I took him to Shinjuku and one of the most dangerous place in Tokyo for pen addicts: Kingdom Note (link in Japanese) which is especially dangerous as they were having a sale on used pens.  Once there we encountered a friendly pen addict from Hong Kong who told us the exclusive inks had already sold out. This was a bad start to this part of the trip as Kingdom Note doesn’t sell its custom inks on line. It also meant the only inks on sale were inks Pen Master Dan could get anywhere and that’s not what he wanted.

The devil took me and enabled my enabler powers and I pointed Pen Master Dan to a set of Kingdom Note exclusive pens. The devil suddenly took him and he asked to see one.

I had to play translator at that point, which was a questionable decision as the handful of questions I asked the clerk  resulted in Pen Master Dan being forced to buy the pen. (Something like that.)

The clerk then tortured us with samples of the ink we couldn’t buy (unless we camp out early in the morning on Saturday when the next batch is more or less scheduled to arrive). She did give Pen Master Dan a converter full of one of the inks with specific instructions to finish it before he got on the plane lest he or his luggage end up decorated with it.

Finally, I took Pen Master Dan to Yodobashi Camera where I had to buy the item I’d been instructed to buy and Pen Master Dan bought a part for his camera.

At this point, there was a near disaster. It ended happily, though, and left us both with the lesson, “If you love something, don’t freaking set it down in the middle of the store and then walk off.”

Messes, Frustration, and Fun on Maintenance Day

I spent the day making and cleaning messes and making things both better and worse. That’s what Maintenance Day is all about.

I started with knives. Although I do some basic, regular maintenance on our kitchen knives, every few months I break out the Bar Keeper’s Friend, the stones and the strops to do serious maintenance.

First I scrub the knives clean and then I remove the edge and all the damaged metal and then start, in theory, resetting the apex. This step in the process involves swearing, frustration and the eventual admittance that the low grit stone I own is crap and (and concave) and is keeping me from forming the apex. I quickly move to a higher grit stone and eventually form an apex that actually cuts. I then strop it lightly a few times and call it done.

This leaves it clean and sharp until the next time I do all this.

If I did this more often I’d be better at it, but knife sharpening is one of those things I’m glad to have done but don’t always enjoy doing. This time there was an added twist: even though I don’t do this level of maintenance very often, I can see the cheap blade is starting to wear down to the point that it needs to be replaced and I totally didn’t do this on purpose and this totally isn’t an excuse to go knife shopping. No. Really. It isn’t.

Fountain Pens:
I also used today to do maintenance on various fountain pens. This involves washing them out and, if I want to change ink, soaking the nib and feed. Today, though, all I did was refill pens, which is a lot easier. I still managed to make a mess, though.

First, one of the pens has an odd leak around the ink window that is about to see it relegated to Garbage Reserve after its replacement arrives. (And after I review it on this blog.) This meant I had ink on my hands before I’d actually started refilling pens.

This turned out to be an omen I should have heeded:

I refilled five pens, and managed to get five different shades of ink on my fingers and, oddly, on the back of my hand. I look like a guy who got the ultimate drunken tattoo. I told the tattoo artist “Make it say LOVE and HATE on my” (drunken belch) “fingers.” The next day I discover the tattoo artist was also drunk and wrote the words JAKE and ELWOOD on my finger tips with a permanent marker and he is now passed out on my couch.

This is part of the fun of fountain pens, and part of their curse. You wear the ink as much as you use it even when you’re trying to be careful.

And I still can’t figure out how the tattoo artist found my apartment.

We Two, We Sickly Two

I had plans for entertaining our youngest today, but then our youngest got sick. And then I decided to join her.

It is a tradition I have that I start feeling sick the night before the start of a long holiday. This time, though, I put that off a couple days because I was actually working one day during the holiday. As soon as that was over, though, things started to change.

I’m not sure what causes it. Some of it is disruption of routine. I usually don’t sleep late on weekends so it’s not a change in sleep patterns, but I’m also not doing my usual walk to the station and back. Also, all the stress of work builds up and then gets released which increases blood flow to the brain which triggers a migraine, which is exactly what I got today.

Oliver Sacks, in his book Migraine, referred to migraines as “nerve storms” (or he quoted someone as calling them that, I don’t remember) and that’s as good a description as any.  They start suddenly and can disappear just as quickly but they always leave a small bit of mess that clears away over time. Even today’s, although it was reasonably mild, has left me with random flashes of pain and nausea to remind me that it’s still here.

Throw in the changing weather and autumn pollen and that’s a big mess of nerve storms waiting to happen. Our youngest seems to have a mix of autumn allergies and a cold which had her napping most of the day. I’ll be watching her again tomorrow and I hope she’s feeling better so we can go out and get some sunlight.

Luckily, it appears as if tomorrow will be bright and sunny. However, if I have a migraine, that’s the worse possible thing it could be.