Monthly Archives: November 2015

Sometimes They Try to Con You

Note: WordPress was having issues yesterday and I was unable to post this. Here it is now. I hope.

Yesterday, as I was on my way to my last class, a student stopped me and handed me a piece of paper. The piece of paper was an official note challenging an absence I’d given him earlier in the term.

Unfortunately he’d chosen an excuse that was impossible for me to believe.

First you have to understand that in the school where I work it is possible to fail, at least in high school. One of the guaranteed ways to fail is to miss one-third of the classes for the year. From this there is no salvation. If students fail based on low scores, they can take make-up exams and get passing scores.

This particular student has never been a particularly good student. When I had him in class last year he was bad and this year he just started skipping every other class. At his point, with three classes left in the term, he’s already failed the term because of absences. He can only afford four (possibly five, long story) more absences or he fails the entire year.

Because of this, he approached me with the challenge note and explained that he’d actually been present in September on a day I’d marked him absent. He said he’d been in class, but had merely been in the wrong chair.

Now, there’s a lot that’s wrong with this excuse. First, he’s not the quiet type. If he were in the class, I’d have noticed and told him to get back to his seat or get out. If he were in the USA he’d have been put on drugs years ago. In Japan he refuses to sit still and inevitably walks around and talks to his friends.

I’d do that because, Second, the classroom is small and the only seats he could sit in besides his own would be in front of me.

Third, I can count and would notice the class was full. I would also call out his name if his chair was absent and at least seven people would have pointed him out to me and I’d have told him to get in his seat or get out.

Fourth, he chose a day when I was handing out the official “textbook” pages. (Long story.) If I’d thought he was absent, I would have set aside a paper with his name on it and given it to him the next time he was present. The odds of him having that paper with my handwriting on it are very high.

I conferred with his homeroom teacher and explained my argument and he said. “it’s up to you.” I rejected the challenge and don’t expect much follow up.

The funny part is, because he’s late a lot, if he’d said I’d marked him absent because he was “in the toilet” for 20 minutes I might have believed him. Instead he chose poorly.

That Place I Do Not Go Except When I Am Here

Am I a hypocrite, desperate or simply practical?

I only ask because it seems that the only place I don’t have standards is the middle of Tokyo.

It often surprises my Japanese students that 1) I never eat at McDonald’s when I’m in the USA and 2) that I never go to Starbucks for a coffee.

I explain there are much better options for both fast food and coffee in the USA. Most Starbucks in the USA full of caffeinated writers plugging away at computers, abusing the free Wi-Fi and taking up all the seats. Someone merely sitting and having a coffee is either waiting for someone or ran out of battery in one or more electronic devices.

I say that, and mock that, yet, here I am in a Starbucks in Tokyo. I’m fully caffeinated, plugging away at a computer, abusing the free Wi-Fi and taking up one of the seats.

In my defense, because Japan for the most part by-passed portable computers and cellphone users got used to high data plan bills, it has precious little free Wi-Fi. Finding a place where you can plug in a computer and do some work without worrying about your battery dying. (re. this updated review) is difficult. About the only places you can do this consistently are McDonald’s (if you have a Nintendo DS); 7-11 stores and Starbucks. Even my cellphone provider has a “free Wi-Fi” service for which they charge a monthly fee. (No, I’m not making that up. I think in this case “free” means “you are free to use it at your leisure after you pay us.)

Luckily, right now this Starbucks is nearly empty. That’s a nice surprise as this store is usually the second busiest in the world after the Starbucks at the CIA headquarters.

That said, even if it fills up, as long as I have a comfortable chair at the table with the outlets, I usually don’t feel too guilty about taking up space.

Am I a hypocrite, desperate or simply practical?


Finding and Making Fellow Travelers

Yesterday, in my evening class, I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever done: lend one of my better fountain pens to a student so she could try it. I then watched as she passed it to another student to try.

Oddly, and I’m as surprised as everybody else, I didn’t hurt anyone.

This all started with a discussion of notebooks. I pointed out that, with a few exceptions, I prefer Japanese notebooks. The student was impressed, especially when I mentioned Tomoe River paper and how good it was for fountain pens.

That prompted one of my younger students to ask why I carried so many pens and I was like “because”. She then asked to see one and, because she will eventually fill out evaluations about me, I thought I should lend her one. The problem is, I didn’t have any crap ones to lend her and she wanted only the best.

At first I had to show her how to hold it. She started to use it with the feed up and I had to explain to put the pretty side up. I also explained, perhaps a bit to vehemently “don’t press, don’t press, for Goodness’ sake don’t press. Just let the weight of the pen do the work.” She wrote her name and passed it to another student. We repeated the same ritual and, out of the blue, another student began giving advice. Once he got the hang of writing with it, he couldn’t stop writing stuff.

I think he was especially impressed by the writing style from the stub nib. This led to the revelation that the student who’d offered advice was also a fountain pen fan, or at least familiar with them.

We then had a discussion about pens, including the Pilot Hi-Tec-C and a few others.

I hope to cultivate this interest in pens and fountain pens among my students. I’ll just have to remember to bring some pens I don’t mind lending out.

The problem is, I don’t actually have any of those.

Swiss Army Traveler–New is Not Always Better

I bought it because it was called a Traveler and I was dreamy and pretentious enough to believe that described me in the months before I went to Albania with the Peace Corps. At least, I think it’s called a traveler, it might be called something else, which says a lot about my mental state in those months before I went to the Peace Corps.

Whatever it’s called, and for the sake of today’s post, I’ll call it a Traveler, that Swiss Army Knife has been my constant companion in my travels and I like that old, 1991 or 1992 version better than the recent versions.

I won’t go into the specs except to say it has a large blade, small blade, scissors, flat head screwdriver, can opener, cork screw, leather punch and knobby hook thing. It also has a toothpick and a pair of tweezers.

I’ve used the blades a lot and the big blade is starting to get that over-sharpened/badly sharpened look old knives get, but I still use it and still carry it to the in-laws. I’ve also gotten lots of use out of the scissors, the leather punch, the screwdrivers and the corkscrew. I still have and use the original toothpick and someday may actually clean it. I like the Swiss Army Knives better than other multi-tools because the blade is usable. On others the blade is secondary to the pliers or the mess of screwdrivers (that’s a technical term).

However, after I moved to Tokyo, I couldn’t find the old Traveler. I was convinced it got thrown out during the move and eventually gave up looking for it and bought a more modern one. It had all the same tools, but came with an attached key ring that I found annoying as it gets in the way of using the blades. I’ve attached a lanyard to it mostly as a way to find it quickly in my emergency kit bag.

Several months after I bought the new one, I found the old one and I know it’s odd to befriend inanimate objects, but I did feel as if I’d renewed a friendship. The old knife has been around the world with me and together we survived Albania, Turkey and an interrogation in Greece.

Recently I’ve added another Swiss Army Knife to the holdings: a smaller blue Alox Cadet. It is thinner and only has four tools and because it has a shorter blade it MAY be legal to carry in Japan. (Note: I won’t carry it until I confirm that). I like it but it has that key ring thing, which I may just take off and be done with. I’ve kept the other knife 25 years (minus a few months where I couldn’t find it) and at no point did I wish it had a lanyard or a key ring.

I’ve actually used the knobby hook thing more than either of the key rings.

Family photo:

Family photo: The old Traveler is in the middle;the newer one is at the top; the new blue Alox Cadet is at the bottom.


Halfway There But Not Halfway Home

I may not get there. I’ve already juked the stats but it doesn’t look as if that will help.

Yesterday was day 15 of the 2015 National Novel Writing Month and I should be at 25,000 words. Instead, on day 16 I’m at 19,190 words. If I’d stuck with my plan of writing on the days off during October and swapping them out with days in November, I’d be in better shape.

Instead I spent a lot of time doing research and doing some basic world building.  That was useful, but didn’t produce many pages of text. (More on that later.)

After a good start, I hit last week. I was busy and I didn’t get much chance to sit down and write. Over the weekend I got a lot done and then sat down and recounted words. I’m putting down about 195 words per page on average and decided to bump my official word count per page. That helped a little, but not that much.

(Note: With those accounting skills I am available to help governments of all kinds with revenue and harvest predictions and five year plans.)

The coming weeks will be just as busy as last week.

I’ve finally got a plot and an ending and am forcing myself to slow down and overwrite. One of the problems with writing by hand is you feel as if you’ve written more than you have and you’re convinced the pages you’ve just written are wordy and boring. Then, when you enter them into a word processor, you realize they are only one page of typed text and that you’re actually rushing.

I’ll keep working on the book. I have a couple weekends yet to go, including one three day weekend, and I could manage my time after school and before my evening class better. I could also, hypothetically, work on bits of it during class. Hypothetically, of course.

The last ditch plan will involve incorporating the research I’ve done. It’s not very much, though, and I’ll have to get a lot closer to 50,000 for those notes to help. I’ve already dropped a couple days of writing anyway, so I won’t feel too bad about adding them to the total.

I will also need to find a place to hide and write when I’m at work.

Eating the Whole Thing and Then Some

My unofficial weigh-in this morning was 85.3 kilograms/188.05. This means I’ve lost about 28 pounds since I started this lifestyle change 98 days ago.

That will almost certainly not stand after tonight.

Because I’ll be working Tuesday, my actual birthday, the girls decided to have my birthday dinner tonight. I have generally avoided cheat days, although I couldn’t resist sampling the resurrected meatball sandwich at Subway here in Japan. (The return of the meatball sandwich means Subway is no longer dead to me.)

She Who Must Be Obeyed asked me what kind of cake I wanted “tiramasu or chocolate cake” and my first reaction was “yes” but my second reaction was “chocolate cake”.

The result was a chocolate cake made from 60% cocoa chocolate topped with frosting made from the same. SWMBO got a good glaze over the cake, but didn’t like the top and covered it with cocoa powder.

The reaction to this was a debate between the devils over my left and right shoulders:

Right Devil: He’s almost reached his weight goal he shouldn’t mess it up now.
Left Devil: But chocolate cake.
Right Devil: He can eat a little but not too much.

In the end I decided to do my weekly weigh-in a day early and  go easy during the day so I could go for it at night.

The main course was a 10 ounce sirloin served “freshly stabbed’, a couple steak fries, some bread and cheese, a couple fried oysters, and a lettuce/cucumber salad with olive oil and a little lemon juice as dressing. Oh, and there was wine, too.

I did eat less than I normally do on occasions like this. I only ate a couple steak fries. I cut back the bread and cheese and the slice of cake was a third smaller than usual (although it was still pretty big). I did drink the usual amount of wine, though.

Tomorrow’s weigh-in will be interesting to see.



Rest and Recovery Days Gone Bad

Today was supposed to be a lazy day. The plan was for a do nothing but write–“write” being loosely defined as “any act that occurs at my desk, including game playing”–day. Unfortunately, although it kind of worked out that way, there was a twist.

Things started out well, more or less. I woke up later than usual, but after some coffee I got right to work. I wrote for a couple hours then took a break for breakfast and wrote some more.

After that I took a break to play a game and then was supposed to start making lunch. The twist was I got my migraine spot followed quickly by a migraine. I made lunch and then worked and, ahem, played through the migraine, but having a dull ache in the side of your head tends to steal away the rest and the recovery part of rest and recovery day. It’s one thing to be lazy and have a shameless good time doing it, it’s another to be lazy because someone is grinding a sharpened icicle  into your right temple and you don’t feel like doing much.

Even after taking medication and drinking more coffee, I still felt kind of blah, even though I didn’t get the full pain, just a hint of it. I got some of my pages done and played a little, but mostly I just sat around and pondered how awesome it would be to do something productive while my head went “as if”.

Now it’s bed time and tomorrow I’ll face the migraine hangover, which is a bit like walking through the day partly asleep. You know something happened that’s now over. Although  you don’t feel sick, you lack energy.

By the time I get my energy back on Monday, I’ll be back at work, which isn’t fun at all.



Choosing is Half the Fun

If you can’t experiment on your students, there isn’t much fun in teaching.

Every now and then I have a class that has a lot of extra classes. Normally, if I have three classes, they tend to meet the same number of times. For example, Class One might meet 22 times, Class Two 22 times and Class Three 24 times. Class Three gets some extra English, which they don’t always appreciate, but a couple classes isn’t that difficult to manage.

However, once every few years the timing of holidays and school function days result in a larger difference in classes. For example, a couple years ago, I had a class that met 7 times during the winter term and another in the same grade that met 13 times. This meant the second class got almost twice as much English as the first class.

Because of that extra time, I decided to experiment on the longer class by having them make a TV commercial. They had to create a new product, a visual aid and a 60 second commercial. It was a bit of mad scientist experimentation but it turned out well enough that I ended up stealing the idea for higher grade a couple years later.

This year, in my first year high school class (US 10th grade) a couple of the classes are meeting four times more than the third class. I’ve therefore decided to put on my mad scientist hat and experiment on them.

This term, the plan is for them to make a two minute commercial advertising a lesser known prefecture (the Japanese version of a state). They have to research the prefecture and make a poster/advertisement for it.

The most fun happened at the beginning: after they formed pairs, each pair sent a student to draw a prefecture. When the first pair got a prefecture that isn’t very interesting there was a lot of excitement for every drawing after that. It was mostly interesting to see which prefectures where considered cool and which ones were considered horrible.

Unfortunately, that’s probably the end of the fun, but that’s part of the experiment.


Unconnecting the Connected Ears

Lately I haven’t had the patience to listen to my iPod Touch.

I do not know why that is. As I’ve written before, I don’t listen to music on it very often but I do like to use it to listen to podcasts.

The problem  with podcasts, especially the few that are published every day, is I find myself getting bored with their formats and, in some cases, with the voices of the hosts.

For example, I used to listen to The Candid Frame. It is a photography podcast hosted by photographer Ibarionex Perello. He’s got a great voice, one of the best names on the planet, and brought on a great variety of different types of photographers. I binge listened at first, but one day I just got tired of his format. I still recommend him, and might one day go back and check him out, but I find podcasts are a bit like beer, booze or snacks: they are fun at first, but once you’ve had too much, it’s hard to go back and have just a little. Even days later.

In a couple cases I got tired of the hosts’ voices. They are either too nasal or too booming or too German. Those I can still listen to sometimes, but I don’t.

This time, though, I think I’ve just grown tired of having voices in my ears when I’m walking around. For a while, my routine was listen to a podcast until I got to the station, then leave the headphones in and read my Kobo Reader while on the train. I’ve increased my reading, but am not enjoying the podcasts.

Instead, I listen to a handful of regular podcasts when I’m at home on the computer. I still listen to the Pen Addict, Write For Your Life, and a few others, mostly because they have enough variety that I haven’t grown tired of them, but I listen to them at home.

I don’t know how long this will last. Some day I may put the voices back in my ears, or I may start listening to music again. That mood won’t last long, but it will come eventually.

Self-Defeating Logic of the Teenage Kind

One of my students today had a hard time finding a partner. He wandered around trying to find one and, because the class has an odd number of students, ended up by himself. When I finally assigned him a group, everyone laughed at the student who would be his partner.

I also may have made a mistake.

What’s odd about what happened today is that I had just explained that 1) this was a major project and 2) because it was major everyone needed to choose their partner carefully because 3) both partners would receive the same score. If one was good and one was bad, they’d both get the bad score.

What’s really odd is that the guy who couldn’t get a partner is one of my best students. Usually, it’s the bad students who can’t get partners and they end up in pairs with other bad students or made to participate in forced partnerships at my request/angry insistence.

This student is also a hard worker and it will be easy for his partners to be lazy whilst they only pretend to be busy. He also tends to dominate the speaking parts, which also makes it easier for his partners. Also, with three partners, each partner has less to memorize.

The rest of the class was unimpressed.

Part of the problem, and I realize this is ugly, is that the good student has an air of “kick me” about him. He is skinny and has slightly bushy hair and he reminds me of a fellow student who used to get bullied back in my Hayden, Colorado days. That student also gave off a “kick me” vibe that many people were more than happy to exploit.

I’m hoping that the problem really is that this student tends to volunteer to go first when I ask for volunteers. This usually produces angry reactions from his partners, even when I point out they get bonus points for going early.

My mistake, though, may have been choosing the pair at random and then letting randomness make the choice. The good student is now with one of my worst students–who 1) plays American style football; 2) happens to be almost as tall as I am and 3) is one of a handful of students I believe should never have been allowed into the high school. He’s never going to take the assignment seriously (he tends to try to improvise by putting on a comedy routine) and I’m afraid the last laugh will be on my good student.

In the end, I’ll probably have to let the good student work by himself and watch the other guy and his partner fail. That said, the third partner was absent today. I’ll have to see his reaction before I make any decisions.