Monday, March 31, 2008

Stuff for Other Classes

A couple of students have asked me to look at work they've done for other classes. I'm uncomfortable about the idea. So far, it's two students, and I'm considerably more uncomfortable about one than the other.

S/he says s/he wants to revise for the practice, so s/he can do better. That's laudable.

But I don't want to get put in the position of criticizing another faculty member, especially without seeing the assignment information.

And I don't want to do grammar editing, because I suck at and hate grammar editing.

I was considerably more fretful about this half an hour ago, but my office hour is half over, and neither student has come to see me.

(And even though blogger SAYS it's Monday, it's really Tuesday here, and I'm not playing any April's Fools jokes.)

The Kyushu Trip: Nagasaki and Opera

[Statue of Giacomo Puccini, Glover Garden, Nagasaki]

Nagasaki was one of those places that got me thinking, and I love places like that.

I went to Glover Garden, an area which had been owned by Thomas Glover, the guy who started Kirin brewery. There's a display in one of the western style buildings about the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly.

I have to confess, I know Madame Butterfly primarily through teaching M. Butterfly. The basic idea of M. Butterfly is that it rethinks the ways that westerners (especially western men) conceive Asians as a feminized other. In the play (set in the 50s and forward) the western protagonist, Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat, has an affair with the Asian protagonist, Song Liling, a star in the Chinese Opera. But Song is really male (and playing a female in a cross-dressed role as was traditional), and a spy, and leads Gallimard to misinterpreting what's happening in China and Vietnam. As a result, he's recalled to France. Song, being no longer useful as a spy, is tortured by the Chinese government for homosexual behavior.

[Statue of Tamaki Miura, remembering her service and her playing of the role of Madame Butterfly]

Throughout, the play rethinks the opera, which involves an American officer in 19th century Nagasaki, who has an affair with a Japanese woman, Cio-Cio-San, "marries" her, but then leaves and since the marriage isn't recognized in the US, marries a US woman. Cio-Cio-San has a light-haired baby. He returns to Japan with his new American wife, and Cio-Cio-San realizes that she's been abandoned and kills herself.

Glover Garden has a big display, including a statue of Puccini. There's also a stature of the famous Japanese opera diva, Tamaki Miura, best known (according to the signage) for singing the part of Madame Butterfly. There's obvious pride in the opera connection here.

I'm fascinated. What does it mean that at least some people in Nagasaki see the opera as something worth celebrating while David Henry Hwang (and many other critics) sees it as a racist, stereotyping work?

The opera really focuses on a woman's story. The play takes that story, rethinks it, and makes it all about men.

While I was in Nagasaki, reading the signage, I was sort of under the impression that Puccini had written the part for Tamaki Miura, but she didn't make her operatic debut until about ten years after the opera opened, so I guess not. That would have added an interesting wrinkle, wouldn't it?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Burning Question?

How many cannibals could YOU feed? Me?

How many cannibals could your body feed?
Created by OnePlusYou - Free Online Dating

Okay, so how many other people started counting dinner guests at Titus Andronicus' party? Of course, he's serving pasties, so maybe that changes things? I mean, do you use just certain parts? Or does making pasties stretch the ingredients out?

Remember, readers, don't try this at home! Prion diseases are nasty!

Sakura Season

Cherry trees are blossoming early this year, this week in fact, which seems to mean that everyone needs to go out and enjoy the view. Really, sometimes, seeing a bunch of trees all in blossom is spectacular. But I'm going to have to accept that I really don't get the whole cherry blossom viewing thing. (Sakura means cherry blossom.)

I've tried, really. This is Osaka Castle in the background, with cherry trees in blossom and a lot of food stall things in the foreground.

I have two issues with the whole cherry blossom viewing thing. Every once in a while, you get a really beautiful view of blossoms. But mostly, you really have to exercise selective vision to see the beauty of the blossoms despite the electric wires, signs, buildings, and crowds. Wow at the crowds. I'm not one of those people who really likes the roar of a crowd anyway; I don't especially like pushing and shoving on trains or trying to get through a crowded street. But cherry blossoms bring out lots of people, so I dealt.

I usually love to try new foods, but I tried the "octopus balls" and didn't like them much at all. They're a bunch of dough around a small piece of octopus, deep fried but not long enough to seem really cooked, and then with some bonito flakes and mayonaise over them. (This morning, I was comforted to learn that another person who generally likes all sorts of foods doesn't like them either.)

On the other hand, today while out on the way to Toji, I picked up what looked like a doubled pancake. Turns out to be basically a bit sweeter, and with a chunk of margarine and some maple syrup inside. It wasn't bad, but I bet it would have been even better heated up. (I'll have to try that.)

I think I've got a touch of culture shock, or maybe it's just that I'm slowly getting over the cold and tired from not sleeping, but I felt really frustrated yesterday, mostly by the crowds, but also the food, my inability with the language, and just impatience at myself and everything.

I've been pretty much coughing for 6 days, and more at night, though it's dropping off a lot yesterday and today. I would get into bed, and just cough all night. Maybe I'd sleep for an hour and a half or so, and then the coughing would start and wouldn't stop. I finally figured out that I could stop the coughing by getting vertical for at least an hour, and set up some of the sitting pillows in the tatami room so I could jam myself into a corner with the duvet. I actually slept for a couple hours that way with minimal coughing, but then I woke up all cramped from sitting up. (There's really no other way I could figure out how to be comfortable enough to sleep and be more or less vertical.)

The stupid thing is, I met with students pretty much all day during the week. They had a paper due, and if I didn't meet with them, the papers are likely to be a lot weaker, and they'll learn less. And you can't turn over paper conferences to someone else because it's my assignment and I'll be grading it.

To be honest, though, it wasn't like I was going to get over a cold any faster by trying to sleep and coughing at it all day, right? (I do hope I didn't share it!)

Friday, March 28, 2008

Cross-Cultural Connections

I went out for dinner with another faculty member tonight; we were talking about teaching stuff (pretty racy, I know!); he's taught here a while, and also teaches something only tangentially related to English, so I was really curious about how he handled things, and what sorts of things he taught.

He started explaining an exercise he does to get students to think about their values. In the exercise, he tells a story:
There's a woman who's about to get married, but in order to get married, she has to cross a river to meet her husband-to-be. The river is FULL of crocodiles. So she asks a boatman to take her across the river in a boat. He says he will, but only if she'll have sex with him first. So she goes to a friend to ask advice, and he says, "it's not my problem, you decide." So she has sex with the boatman and he takes her across the river. The night before her wedding, she tells her husband about the problem and deal, and he throws her out, telling her that he wouldn't marry her if she were the last woman on earth. Another friend offers to marry her, even though she's used goods, because she'll probably be grateful and make a loyal wife.

You're supposed to then ask the students to decide how they feel about the different characters, and think about what values they bring to those decisions.
Well, golly, I thought (about three sentences in), this sounds familiar, just like the story we discussed in the English discussion group. That one went like this:
There's a shipwreck, but two small boats survive. On one boat, a woman about to be married, an old man, and a sailor. On the other, the woman's fiance [pretend I got the spelling and accent mark right] and his best friend. The small boats get separated in the night, and the boat with the woman, old man, and sailor end up on an island. The woman is worried, but in the distance, she spots another island. Hoping her fiance is there, she asks the sailor to take her. He says he'll take her if she'll have sex with him first. She asks the old man for advice, and the old man says that she should do whatever her heart tells her. So she has sex with the sailor, and then the sailor takes her to the other island. There, she finds her fiance and his friend. She decides to tell the fiance about the deal, and he rejects her. The friend offers to keep her warm until the fiance changes his mind.

We were then asked to rate the characters based on how much we liked them, and discuss why.

They really sound familiar, don't they?

And, being who I am, I was reminded again of Chaucer's "Franklin's Tale" which sort of reverses things and goes like this (in VERY short form):
A man and woman (Arveragus and Dorigen) are married, and deeply in love. Arveragus is a knight, and has to go overseas to serve his lord. So he takes a boat and goes, while Dorigen stays at home. She's worried about some nasty black rocks that might get Arveragus' ship when he returns, and spends a lot of time fretting and worrying about his safe return. A young squire (Aurelius) has been in love with Dorigen for a long time, and he takes the opportunity of her loneliness to offer his company. She finally accepts, but only if he can make the rocks go away (and thus assure Arveragus' safe return). Aurelius is bummed, and pines (so you KNOW he's in love!) and basically wastes away until his brother becomes worried and inquires. They go off to find a magician, and offer to pay him some gold if he'll make the rocks disappear. The magician accepts the deal, and works some magic to make a really high tide so the rocks disappear. Arveragus returns home safely. Dorigen tells Arveragus about the deal, and he says that honor demands that she keep her part of the deal with Aurelius. So she tells Aurelius, and he says that he can at least keep up with a knight's generous behavior, and releases her from the contract. Then he goes to the magician, explains the situation, and admits that he can't pay the agreed money. The magician says that he can be as generous as the others, and releases Aurelius from the contract.

The Franklin (telling the tale within The Canterbury Tales then asks the audience to decide which of the characters is most "free" (a word in Middle English with connotations not only of freedom, but of liberty, generosity, legal capability, and so forth).

It's astounding how similar in some ways these stories are. The first two are, I think pretty clearly, the same story with slightly different details. The third reverses the problem on some level, but has a lot in common.

A story told by a US male professor who teaches international and Japanese students. A story told by a Japanese man in an English club for discussion practice. And a story told by a Franklin as part of a story-telling contest in the 14th century fiction of The Canterbury Tales and retold by a US female professor to the male professor.

You can argue all day about who's most rotten or most free, but all three make some deep assumptions across the cultural divides.

All three assume heteronormative marriage in which sole access to the females sexuality is an important component.

All three assume that access to female sexuality is a commodity.

In the first two, there's an "advisor" who doesn't question the the commodification of female sexuality; in the third, the brother and magician aren't advisors in quite the same way, but the brother seems to serve a similar function.

In all three, the female figure is substantially isolated from other women, and thus at "the mercy" of male characters. Male dominance comes through numbers in a really overt way.

Which is to say, all three stories assume patriarchal power in very deep ways. We could try to tell the storis by reversing the gender, but they wouldn't make much sense. Patriarchal assumptions make it really hard to question the basic judgments we're asked to make. The stories resist letting us question whether men want sex or whether male sexuality is primarily a matter of morals rather than desire.

So, yay me, I've discovered that patriarchy reaches across cultures. Isn't that surprising?

I'm also fascinated that each of the stories involves a problem of crossing potentially dangerous water. Without going all Jungian and telling me that water represents female sexuality and that females have to be initiated into sexualy by males, what do you make of the water problem?

(When I read Chaucer, I think that worrying about ships makes loads of sense. But does it make quite the same sense in a modern setting?)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Cross-Cultural Office Hours

I've been holding loads of appointments this week because my students are turning in an essay, and they need some extra help. I pass out an appointment sheet with 6+ slots per day (with a break here and there to keep myself from getting overwhelmed and to make students not wait too long if I get a bit behind). As in my US classes, I make sure there are more slots than students, and pass around the sheet so that students can sign up for a time that's convenient for them. As a result, I've noticed some things.

1) More of my students from this class miss appointments than in past classes. I'm not sure why, but it may have to do with students living futher from campus than US students, and so having more of a commute. Or it may have to do with different expectations about office hours. (I'm not sure how much of a tradition the office hour appointment is at this or other universities here.) Or I may not have communicated my expectations as well as I usually do. Or...

I try not to take missed appointments personally, because usually the student has overslept or forgotten something else s/he had to do, but it's still less than ideal to be sitting in the office waiting when I could be outside in the sunshine. And the number of people who've missed appointments has contributed to problem number 2.

2) I share an office here, and the officemate who's cubby is nearest the door likes to keep the door shut. When I'm alone, I keep it open, but from the door (which has a window), it's hard to see that I'm in because of the cubby dividers. And for some reason, a fair number of students here will stand outside the door and wait, rather than knocking to see if I'm in or not. And because students miss, I don't think to go outside and check to see if someone's hanging out in the hallway (which I can't see from behind the divider).

One thing that isn't different: a lot of students don't quite know how to get up and leave, or they seem to feel awkward. This is true in the US, too. Sometimes I feel like I'm sounding a little blunt, and I don't mean to, but I find I have to signal fairly strongly that our time is up once we're done. (I'm not talking about when a student has lots to say and we're doing useful work, but when we've done our work and the student doesn't have more to say but doesn't quite have a sense of how to leave.) (Some students, of course, have more social grace in their smallest toe than I ever will in toto.)

Final conclusion: most of my students are going to do sigificantly better on this essay than on the first. They're pushing development further, for the most part, and writing more full papers. I hope this means I've actually taught them something!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


I get irritated when someone just says, "Oh, Bardiac will do something" as if that binds me. For example (and this is made up), if a colleague told a student, "don't worry, you can overload into Bardiac's class. No problem." without actually consulting me, and then expected me to overload the student so that they wouldn't "look bad." There's always this part about not making the other person look bad by letting them impose.

Last semester, one of my colleagues (A) told a committee that we needed to do something a specific way (X) because another colleague (B) had told a third colleague (C) that we would. But, we told A, we have no intention of doing X, and in fact X is counter to what makes sense. A said, but you have say that you are doing X or B will look bad. In other words, A wanted us to basically mislead C further to keep B from looking bad. For a moment, we dithered, and then we actualy stood our ground and said basically that B would either have to look bad, or actually tell C that s/he'd been mistaken about X. And that's what happened, and the world didn't end for either B or C.

And it's happened again (with different players). And I'm irritated.

I think there's a combination of active misleading, wishful thinking, and just plain not thinking going on, and an unwillingness to be responsible for making the occasional error. (We all make honest errors on occasion, and at least in English departments, these usually result in minor problems. That's one of the advantages of working on people who've been dead for 400 years. They never sue!)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Kyushu Trip: Nagasaki--Signs and Wonders

My first day in Nagasaki, I dared the drizzly rain to go to the Peace Park. It was sad, as you'd expect, but somehow not as moving as Hiroshima.

Reading the signs, I learned that while the pilot intended to drop the bomp considerably more to the south, directed more against the harbor and shipbuilding area, it basically went off right above a local church. The sign noted that the targeting was ironic. Ironic because the church was a remnant of western Christian influence bombed by westerners? Ironic because the church is supposed to be under the protection of a benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent being, but the people confessing and working there were killed by the bomb?

I'm not quite sure the irony intended by the signage, but I couldn't help thinking, as I looked at the remnant statuary in the Park, that the whole protection thing didn't work out well.

Later, walking by a river, I read the signage on a small shrine. It said that this shrine was for a local god who protected against floods. A bad flood (it said without irony) had hit the area in the 1990s (I think, maybe 80s?), and so the city had undertaken a large flood control project using the latest engineering knowledge to prevent floods in the future. And they'd recreated the shrine that had washed away in the last flood to protect the area against floods.

And I couldn't help thinking that the whole protection thing didn't work out well, but at least they had the sense to use engineering to deal with the problem rather than really relying on the shrine.

When I returned to Host City and saw some blogs, I was reminded that it's Easter week in many Christian countries. I hadn't noticed, and hadn't thought about it, and suddenly realized what an amazing thing it is to have my first ever spring without slaughterous overtones. As someone raised in a Christian church, I lost faith in my late teens because I realized that given the horrors of the world, I didn't think there was a god, and if there were a god, I didn't think it was benevolent, and if there were a non-benevolent god, then worshipping it didn't make any sense anyway.

But still, throughout the year I'm bombarded by Christianity, especially around the two big holy days. My state-run schoolyear is dictated by those holy days. My legal rights are limited because people want to follow rules made by a patriachal society thousands of years ago. And I'll admit that I resent the impositions. So it's been exceptionally nice to be free of them.

English Club

If you've been following along, you may remember from my post about Kinkakuji about meeting G, who was a volunteer guide there, and then going to lunch with her here in Host City. You may recall from that post that G invited me to visit her English speaking club one day. Today was the day.

We met in the big city, at a station, and then walked to a city library/facility, where we met in a room. There were 20-25 people there, from business folks to teachers and so on. They get together every couple of weeks to work on their English together. And evidently, there are a fair number of clubs like this around cities here. Imagine, people who aren't students getting together to work on a foreign language.

It was fun, too. They meet for several hours, and for each hour, one person is assigned to come up with an activity. The first activity involved a short reading about blood types and personality, which we discussed in small groups. From what I learned, some Japanese people believe(d) that blood types sort of determine personality type. So, according to the handout, type O folks are outgoing and social; type A are prefectionists and artistic. Type B are individualists and go their own way. And type AB are sort of splits between A and B groups.

Interesting, isn't it? I was in a group of four people, and the youngest man in the group told me quite insistently that no one in Japan really believes such things anymore, only to be told by the other two folks in the group (a man and a woman) that they believed they could tell what blood type someone was from their personality. The man said that he rather liked to guess what type someone would be.

So I asked if they knew the blood types of friends and co-workers, and they all owned up that they did, and that bosses were usually type A (apparently the most common blood type in Japan as well), and so forth.

I asked how they knew blood types, if they asked, or if it came up casually, and the one guy said that he often had conversations with someone he'd met a few times that would start with him guessing the person's blood type.

I know my blood type because I donate blood (so it's on the Red Cross card), and because we did blood typing in a biology class along the way at some point (wow, I bet they don't do THAT nowadays!), but I can't imagine it coming up in casual conversation among US folks I know.

See, I AM learning important stuff here!

The next two sessions involved discussing what spring activities we like best. (That gave me a great opportunity to ask about where I should visit--disclosing my nefarious plans to learn even more! Evil will out.) Then we did a pair off and introduce your partner to the whole group after a short conversation thing. I found it interesting, given that we do this sort of thing a lot as an "ice breaker" in first year college classes, how unusual they thought this was, and how difficult they found it to coordinate at first. (Because they hadn't gotten both people in the pair introduced or whatever.) And yes, I caused yet MORE problems because I asked the teacher I was paired with about some kanji, and he explained the "to" in Tokyo kanji, so now I understand and will be able to recognize it.

For the last session, we read a short story and talked about which of the characters we like best and least, sort of a reverse "Franklin's Tale." The discussion was fascinating because the different groups disagreed and explained their thinking really well. Fun to talk to adults about lit, even a fairly basic story.

Then those who wanted to went out to dinner (including G and I), and continued talking and eating some really good food. And I told the "Franklin's Tale" in an ultra-short redacted version, which they thought was good. (They had good taste in stories as well as food!)

I learned some more about kanji, lots more about the local area and the people in the club, and got to try some of the local favorite foods, including something that's a sort of stuffed pancake (but not sweet) and a sort of jello with ice cream desert. They were all great about speaking English and explaining things, and asked questions about my life and work, too, so I felt really welcome and not at all leach-like. Very nice.

They've invited me to their next meeting and to their cherry blossom viewing party. I've never been to a cherry blossom viewing party, but you have to try new adventures, right? (And the English language newspaper I picked up has a section on cherry blossom season. Evidently, blossoms are opening as far north as Tokyo now, very now!)

Pretty neat afternoon, and lots of fun!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Graduation: Kimono vs Regalia

Today was graduation day here at Host University. When I was planning my trip to Kyushu, S, who was helping me, encouraged me to come back so that I could experience graduation here. So I did. There's something to be said for encouragement. I've gone to lots of graduation ceremonies, and I'll admit they've come to seem "natural" to me, as if there's basically one way to do things. When things come to seem "natural," then it's often healthy to experience them in a different way. That's part of experiencing a different culture.

I went to the central area of campus about half an hour ahead of the ceremony and was rather charmed to see large crowds, and a generous mix of kimono among the black suits (on both men and women).

As at many universities, graduations pose logistical problems here. At my home university, we use a basketball gym thing with horrifically bad acoustics for graduation. It's shameful, really. You can hear steps on the wooden bleachers from across the hall, but can barely hear anything from the stage, even when amplified.

Here, they solve the logistical problem by having the ceremonial stuff with the students in an auditorium and live-broadcasting the whole thing to several large classrooms across campus where people are welcome to sit and watch. So that's where I went.

At the US graduations I've experienced, the faculty wears fancy, often colorful regalia, while students are pretty much dressed in black or some other dark color. Here, the faculty folks were in black suits, and students provided the splash of color.

There were differences in the ways things happened, too.

A typical US graduation ceremony looks something like this:

Processional: stage group, faculty, and students enter to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance." The National Anthem follows.

Speeches and Awards: Depending on the school and the moment, you get at least two speeches, a speaker (in my experience, often the head of the school) and a students speaker. If the speaker's a guest, sometimes there's an honorary doctorate involved.

The Moment: A school bigwig has the students stand and switch their tassles.

The Parade of Graduates: Each grad walks across the stage while his/her name is called; often s/he is handed a piece of paper certifying that s/he's participated in the ceremony.

Recessional: Everyone leaves, again to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance." You have to get people out, right?

Things get switched around here and there, but that's how the ceremonies I've seen have gone, basically.

Things here were very different. For one thing, I couldn't understand much, but I think I had a sense of what was happening, more or less. In fact, there might actually be an advantage to not understanding the speeches, you know?

The Host University band was playing outside before the graduation. Classical sounding music, but nothing I recognized (though I'm pretty ignorant). I went into one of the video feed rooms when folks started going into the main building. Inside, the video feed was showing a picture of a backdrop thing that turned out to be the stage curtain. When they raised it, there were two groups of men in black suits seated on the stage (and one guy--the president, I think--in western style regalia). There was a central podium on stage, in front of a big flower display.

A guy in a black suit stood to the side and spoke, and then a small group of singers came on stage and the band lined up in front of the stage, and there was a song. I'm guessing (and only guessing) the national anthem.

The guy to the side spoke again and a guy in a black suit got up from the stage seating to stand behind the central podium. Two students got up and went up to the stage. They first stood to the side and bowed to the audience, then went to the center and bowed first to the stage group on one side, then the other, and finally to the podium guy. The podium guy spoke a bit, and handed a big paper (or something) to one of the students, who bowed and then stepped back. And again, the podium guy spoke and handed a big paper to the second student, who bowed and stepped back. The two students bowed again to the podium, then to each stage group, and then stepped to the side and bowed to the audience.

I'm guessing these were some sort of student awards. There were more of the same, with mostly single people stepping forward.

After a while, a student gave a short speech. Then a couple of (faculty members?) read aloud letters in Spanish and English from universities with strong relationships with Host University, congratulating its graduates.

A student came forward with flowers and presented a short speech in English thanking the president (I think) at the podium for the educational opportunities at Host University, and handed him the flowers.

The band and singers came back, and played/sang what sounded like "Auld Lang Syne," but with Japanese words. (I looked it up later, and it's traditional to play it at Japanese graduations, as well as at other graduations around the world.)

The curtain thing came down, and I figured it was half-time or something, before the long reading of the graduates' names. But people around me started getting up and leaving. People in the auditorium on screen, though, were still seated, so I waited a bit. And then a guy came on stage and said a few words, and the auditorium audience got up and started to leave, too. So that was that. (Maybe they were waiting for the stage party, already hidden by the curtain, to leave?)

I don't know if it's typical here, but I missed the tassle moment. I didn't miss the parade of grads, which is really only fun if you know the students, and which gets long fast.

Outside again, folks milled around, going to tea and receptions, and looking pretty darned nice all dressed up. I think in general, the Japanese students look more comfortable dressed up (men, especially, seem more comfortable in suits than in the states) than my US students do, perhaps because they spend more time in suits (or school uniforms)?

The ceremony was short, even though I couldn't understand quite what was happening. And short, for ceremonies, is a good thing.

And I have to admit, the students in their kimonos looked a lot better than I ever do in my regalia. They looked a lot better than most faculty I've seen ever do in regalia.


(I have to add: that only goes if I'm not dressing up. If I had to wear a kimono, the effect would probably be fatal to me, so I vote no. I don't mind regalia too much.)

The Kyushu Trip: Bed Tales

I made it back from my trip to Kyushu. For those who forgot to take a course on Japanese geography, Kyushu is the large island just south of the main island of Honshu. Happily, I had a lot of help planning how to travel, where to stay, and what to see. Have I mentioned lately that the staff here is incredible?

My trip began with a bus/train/subway/tram ride to the port of Osaka. Along the way, I saw a tallish, heavyset guy in a kimono with a top knot. From what I've read, that's the basic outfit that sumo wrestlers are supposed to wear, even around town. And since there's a sumo tournament in Osaka, I'm willing to guess that I saw a sumo wrestler on the tram. Cool, eh?

Why the port you ask? Because that's where I caught an overnight ferry to Beppu, a city on the eastern coast of Kyushu. I was in economy class, which meant 32 futon things on the floor in a big room. There were numbers of rooms; happily, I was in an all women's room, and people were helpful and quiet.

The sleeping area is a slightly raised platform, with a folded futon, blanket, and plastic pillow for each numbered place. There were some empty spaces in our room, but not near me. It's weird to sleep closely with strangers, but that's what you do in economy class.

In the morning, people started stirring about 5 am, including me. I went out to the deck part and the fresh air made me realize how stale the air in the sleeping room had gotten. But the sunrise was beautiful, and we arrived at Kyushu pretty quickly, just before 7am.

At the other end of my sleeping experiences were the Japanese style inns, or ryokan. This is what my room in Beppu looked like when I checked in. Look, Ma, no bed! But a beautiful table, and a seat on the floor. As you can see, the room has tatami mats, which mean you wear only your socks or bare feet, no shoes or slippers, even. The tatami is smooth and cool.

Unfortunately, I didn't sleep much on the ferry, so I was ready for a nap when I checked in (about 4pm), so I found a problem with the room. No place to nap. I didn't care; I was so tired I just conked out right on the tatami, using my pack for a pillow, and slept for an hour. Then I asked at the desk and was directed to a small restaurant with some fantastically yummy (and HOT) tempura over rice.

When I got back, the room looked like this, with a futon on the floor and the table moved back out of the way. I slept VERY well that night, on a cozy futon with a lush duvet type cover.

From Beppu, I traveled to Kumamoto, my favorite city of the whole trip. It's one of those cities with a really good tram system, so I could figure out how to get here and there, and lots to see.

The next night's ryokan in Kumamoto was even more luxurious. Look, there's a sitting area there!

I really liked Kumamoto; I saw the most beautiful temple garden area (pictures of that another day), and also an absolutely incredible castle (which I only saw from the outside, because that's how the travel timing worked out; I had a choice of going to the castle in the morning, or going to see Mount Aso, and I chose the mountain).

They served me dinner in my room, and I have to say, it was one of the most beautiful dinners I've ever seen. (It tasted quite good, too.) But I'm uncomfortable being served in a one on one sort of way, especially by a woman who's significantly older than I am. It just feels awkward to me.

At breakfast the next morning, which was in a large room with individual tray stands, the food was just as lovely. Most people don't travel alone and stay in a ryokan, I gather. So my little tray area was alone, while most people were in pairs facing each other or in small groups of rows facing each other.

As I was eating, two women were seated near me, also eating. And as we finished up, they motioned to me, a message that I took to mean that I used hashi (chopsticks) well. Either that, or they were offering to cut my hair? (Finger movements, thumbs up, pointing at the tray where my hashi were resting on the little ceramic rest thing.) (More about these two women later, when I tell you about Mount Aso.)

I'm what I'll call an obvious westerner. No one would mistake me as having non-European ancestry. When I lived in South America, I stood out, and if the bus got stopped for a passenger check, I was inevitably motioned off to show my passport and fill out a form. I stand out just as much here. So the hashi thing was sort of weird. I'm sure they meant well, but normally, you wouldn't tell an adult how well they used a fork, right?

The evening before, I went up to the ryokan bath, which was split into a women's side and a men's side. (I went to the women's side, thanks to having asked how to recognize the kanji for woman!) The bath area has a row of shower seats against one wall, where you wash up, and then a big hot tub thing where you soak once you're good and clean. I've read a little bit, so I knew I was supposed to wash and rinse before getting into the tub, so I went over to one of the shower seats. And fiddled with the water knob thing trying to turn the shower on. After a moment, another woman came and showed me how to work it.

Nice, no? Yes, very nice. But also, it's sort of like they were watching me. I can't blame them. I'm VERY white, especially with no clothes. But still, weird to know I'm being watched in that way, when I'm washing up (or trying to wash up). (And because I'm just a tad self-conscious about my body.) But, she was kind and helpful, and smiled at me when I joined the tub crowd.

The last three nights, in Nagasaki and Hakata, I was in western style hotels. Practical and comfortable enough, but way less fun!

ps. No not that sort of bed tale!

I think I've caught myself another stupid cold. This time, complete with that "my throat feels like it's going to get sore thing." /whine off!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Evening Listening

In the States, I've long been in the habit of turning on the TV to some not-too-irritating show, or NPR, and having the sound on in the background. When I go to bed, I like to have a book on tape/cd on quietly; I listen to that and don't fret about things that can't be changed in the middle of the night. But it has to be the right book: good reader, a plot/narrative pattern I either know or can follow, and not so exciting that I can't fall asleep in the middle.

Here, once sumo's over for the evening (and that's something I've only discovered in the past couple days), it's either quiet, CNN on TV, or something on the computer. I can take CNN in small doses, but there's a certain point in the evening where they start in on either sports or celebrity stuff (I haven't paid close enough attention to figure out exactly when), and I turn it off.

That leaves either quiet or the computer. I'm not much of a music downloader. I got out of the habit of buying much music when I went off to the Peace Corps, and then again when I went to grad school and was just getting by, and I really haven't gotten back to the music thing. I don't like things in my ears, so i-pods and such don't seem appealing. And I really like to hear what's around, and that makes such things even less appealing.

But I really like to listen to a good story. A couple weeks ago, I found a UC Berkeley webcast site, and I've been listening to a first year History lecture class, The Making of Modern Europe, by Margaret Lavinia Anderson.

She's a really good lecturer, and puts together the story with a good narrative, simplifying, but not too much, and questioning and crossing geographic boundaries to provoke some thought. I'm no historian, but I know enough European history that I've probably read most of the readings (well, the early ones, anyway), and can follow. I did find myself looking up the pictures of Napolean she talked about so that I could see them, but other than that, the lectures themselves are just great, and I've been enjoying them.

What I'm really enjoying is that she puts things together that I just haven't put together. It makes me realize how focused my historical knowledge is on a very small period and mostly in London/theaters. The process is fascinating; I really liked the lecture on Cromwell's England and then bringing Cromwell in to make some comparisons during the Napolean lecture.

It seems to me that there are real limits to what works for me to listen to. A history lecture about an area/period where I have a few clues is perfect. A history lecture where I knew less would be harder to follow. I don't think I'd really enjoy lectures where there was a lot of stuff happening on the board, physics or math, though maybe a lower level lecture class would work really well?

On the other hand, I would hate for my classes to end up on a webcast. I don't lecture much; usually I try to introduce an issue or text, and then take questions, and then ask students to think about different passages, with the aim of pulling things together so that a couple threads emerge, with the students doing some of the brainwork to get there. It's not a format that works in a large lecture class, but then I don't teach in large lecture classes these days, so that's okay. (I also don't have a small army of grad students leading discussion sections and grading, so it's just as well!)

It's been a real pleasure listening to the lectures as I relax in the evening and wind down.

Anyone know some other lectures that might be interesting and are well done?

ps. I'm heading out tomorrow for spring break in Kyushu! (and not taking my computer!)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Politics as Usual

Sometimes, political stuff in departments and colleges just sucks. I suck at politics. I don't keep a straight face well, and I have a tendency to say things out loud in front of important people, things that wiser people only say in the privacy of their showers or something.

I'd like to think there's a certain level of responsibility that comes with tenure, and part of that involves speaking your mind, hopefully I do it thoughtfully, reasonably, and respectfully.

I think I realized at some point that I wasn't good at the "good daughter/wife/supportive woman" thing, and so the patriarchal folks (including women who benefit from the patriarchy) aren't going out of their way to reward me anyway. And that made me a bit more outspoken. Or a bitch, depending on who you ask.

But I have mixed feelings about my attitude. I should just hunker down and get my work done. Or, I should try to stand up for what I think is right, even if that doesn't gain me friends. I feel manipulated at times, like someone who's not willing to take a stand will sort of prod me to be a bit louder about my stand. (That's different from knowing that people without tenure or long term contracts can't afford to take a stand politically. It's not my place to speak for those people, but it is my place--as someone with tenure--to try to be aware of how difficult our system makes it for them, and how relatively protected I am.)

I hate the sexist crap. I hate the heteronormative, racist, classist crap, too. (I hate the racism, sexism, and classism I fight in myself as I'm aware of it.)

There's also the whole "what if I'm totally wrong?" thing. Ugh.

Spectator Sports

I thought about going to see a day of sumo today, but decided against it. Evidently there's a tournament/championship in Osaka right now; one of my colleagues told me about it. Another colleague told me I could also watch on TV, so I tried that for a bit yesterday.

From what little I've seen, sumo reminds me of two things. The first is watching baseball. You know, there's a pitcher, and a batter, and a bunch of guys standing around. And the pitcher looks, and the batter looks, and then the pitcher gets a signal and shakes his head. And then he straightens up, and the batter steps back out of the box. Then they both get set again, and then the batter wiggles his bum, and the pitcher shakes his head, and the batter steps out of the box again, and ten minutes later (what?), the pitcher pitches and either it's a strike/ball, and they start over again, the bat hits the ball and it's something else, the action of which lasts maybe 40 seconds.

Except in baseball, the same pitcher stares at maybe 15 guys during a few innings, before he's replaced by another pitcher. So maybe a baseball game is more like a whole sumo tournament.

Both involve a whole lot of male posturing and a little bit of action.

Meanwhile, on TV at least, there are two guys talking quite seriously in the background. This isn't John Madden going "boom" or something, but very serious sounding. They could, of course, be channeling John Madden, but they sound serious. Every so often, I pick up a word. "Neh" usually, which usually seems to be like the "no" use to request affirmation at the end of a statement. ("Heck of a hot day, no?") For all I know, they could be discussing Shakespeare. (I can always hope!)

I sort of managed to follow the action a little today by looking at the schedule (this is the schedule for tomorrow's action) and trying to match up the kanji on the tv with the ones for each wrestler.

In both sports, there seems to be a lot of ritual. In sumo, they have bowing, and dances and salt. In baseball, they scratch and reposition their balls, and sing during the seventh inning stretch. Come to think of it, the sumo guys walk as if their belt things are a little uncomfortable, don't they? Maybe if they were allowed to reposition things, they'd frown less?

As baseball pitchers have specialties, sumo wrestlers have moves they're known for, and they record the winning moves with the "box scores" each day. (If you click on the schedule and click on individual wrestler pages, you can see what moves he's known for using. The site explains the moves and such, too.)

It felt very springlike today, and I missed my bike. I'm not much of a sports spectator. I'd be happy throwing a ball around, or biking, or even playing baseball, but watching doesn't really do much for me these days.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Buttons and Irony

I got an email from X today. It was one of those emails where X unwittingly (I think) pushes some of those buttons we all have.

The irony is that the button has to do with privacy, and my desire for more than X thinks is necessary. So by telling you about X's email, I've done pretty much precisely the thing that X does that drives me crazy.

I don't know how to respond. I can comply, which really wouldn't make the world come to an end, but would bother me.

I can tell X no. That could result in anything from hurt feelings to a minor blow up. The blow up would be all about how horribly secretive I am, and how I never communicate about anything. And that's all basically true. I don't communicate with X about a lot of things because I know that X will use any and all information against me and/or X will tell everyone about anything and everything.

Or I can just let it slide by and not do it. That's sort of passive aggressive, maybe, certainly non-confrontational. It's also how I've tended to handle things. I don't tell X that I'm not telling X something important. I simply don't give even a hint that there might be something to tell.

Ups and Downs

There's some discussion in my home department about teaching writing. So I decided to write a short email note in response to another about the topic. I hope I struck a balanced, decent tone in explaining my position, and didn't hurt someone's feelings unnecessarily. It's sort of a downer start to the morning, worrying that I'm stirring up things I shouldn't be or something, or in ways I wouldn't if I were there talking to people. But I also think it's an important discussion.

Office hours today to help students prepare for the next essay. Some good, a no show, one not so good.

Then I had a delightful lunch with a couple of the staff members here. One had offered to advise me about going to Kyushu over spring break, and she invited the other as a friend and because she'd been to Kyushu. It was GREAT! They helped me figure out where to go and how long to spend in different places. And at the end of lunch, one took the paper and said she'd talk to the travel agency on campus about it.

Class. Well, class stunk. I think they hadn't all done the reading. Okay, to be honest, I think not a single person had done the reading. Grrr. Today was the first day of talking about using other people's words and ideas in our own writing. To prepare, they were each supposed to find a relevant piece of information (from the internet was fine) about the problem they're writing about. Most had done this part.

But I felt like I was starting from total scratch talking about introducing sources and such. I'm pretty sure they've been exposed to such material in earlier English classes, and probably in other classes? At any rate, and for whatever myriad reasons, class just didn't work today.

I had another office hour after class, and got a call from my lunch pal. After the office hour, I went down and met with the travel agency person, who had come with all sorts of amazing plans for me to choose amongst! I'm going to Kyushu! And I'm taking an overnigth ferry to get there!

For several of the nights, I'll be staying in traditional Japanese style inns (called ryokan), but for the last nights, I'll be in western style hotels. (The travel agent told me that it's often difficult to book rooms for a single woman because at some point when a woman was about to kill herself, she'd book a room in a ryokan. So they traditionally think a single woman is up to bad things. I am, but not suicide any time soon, I don't think.)

I'll be traveling in all sorts of ways: ferry, bus, train, bullet train. It's pretty darned amazing, all the planning!

I paid for most of the reservations today, but will have to pay for at least one ryokan along the way, and several trains. So that's great news.

As I was walking back to my apartment, I saw a couple faculty folks tossing a football around, and asked if I could join. They invited me to, and so I had fun throwing a football for a bit, and then we switched to frisbee. I've never been as good at flipping a frisbee as at throwing a ball, but it was still fun to run around a bit and try. And they were good in that way people can quietly be helpful, moving a step closer so I don't have to throw as far, that sort of thing. So I really enjoyed it.

And then I got a little cramp in my leg, and a little pull in a shoulder (from trying to jump to catch a frisbee, of course), and reminded myself that I'm not a kid. Alas. So now, a hot bath is in my future, and probably some hot cocoa (because that's just the sort of wild thing I am these days!).

Mostly ups, and a few downs today.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Where Would You (Not) Go?

Interesting discussion with some faculty folks here today. The others have taught way more outside the US in recent years than in, sounds like, though in different countries.

One, let's call him Ken, talked about working in an Arab country in recent years, and now coming here to work. Ken talked about some of the difficulties you might easily imagine. But Ken also talked about the changing and varied culture.

Afterwards, another woman who I know a bit better and I talked about our unwillingness to consider teaching in that country, or in other countries with similar laws. But laws go beyond sexism.

Here, another US person told me about reading the back of a standard rental agreement form at a realtor's, and seeing standard check-off boxes for unacceptable tenants--retired people, foreigners, pets. Standard practice, the person told me; it's very difficult for retired people to find apartments. (There's also a standard retirement age, someone else said. But there's a grace period.) Ken talked about how he's gotten to the point where he just asks if his age (over 50) will be a problem or not when he applies for a job. He said he's been told straight out that it is by some places he's asked.

It got me thinking. There's no perfect place, no place where everyone consistently treats everyone with respect, no place with only good laws on the books. But we're used to the stuff that goes without saying in our culture. I know there are and have been places in the US where realtors wouldn't sell or rent to blacks and such. But it's been a while since it's been against the law; on the other hand, I can't say with certainty that urban landlords of apartments where I lived didn't look at me and think "yay, white woman, no kids, rent to her."

The fact that I can't easily avoid white privilege in at least some cases doesn't mean that I'm not complicit in the maintenance of white privilege. I know I'm given leeway in some situations because I'm female, or white, or of a certain age, class. And I'm willing to guess that I don't even recognize some situations where I'm given privilege.

But, are there places I simply wouldn't go because I think so badly of the ways they oppress some part of their populations? Would I have gone to South Africa during apartheid? Would I go to China? Saudi Arabia?

Is there a difference between being willing to go visit somewhere as a tourist and being willing to teach there for a semester or longer?

Imagine, for a moment, that I had an opportunity to go to Country X for a semester. Would I choose not to go because I would be subject to sexist laws? Or would I choose not to go somewhere because the country at large was oppressive, though not to me personally?

Is there some ethical or other standard that would make you decide not to go somewhere? Tourist or teaching/working?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Tagging Along

I tagged along with a class field trip today. It was incredible to get to hear about the things we were seeing, to get more historical background. It was also fun to talk to the international students, to get a sense of how their studies are going and what they're learning.

There's a certain amount of partying in this international program; I've heard that's pretty typical or programs for students studying abroad. Of course, it's not unheard of for students to party at home, either. (I had one post-study abroad student do a presentation for a class once who sounded like she'd spent most of her semester drunk. I've met others who became involved in local community improvement efforts, or tutored English for local school kids in addition to getting straight As.)

It's fascinating to hear how students talk about their home schools. My sense is that most students feel a great affection for their college/university. But they can also be pretty critical.

A couple of the students today were, indeed, pretty critical of one aspect of their school. And yet, it sounded like they hadn't even considered transferring (and I didn't suggest it; I simply don't know them that well and they didn't ask my opinion). But here's the thing: if I signed up for SLAC NotAnIvy so that I could study in its Underwater Basketweaving program, and really wanted to do Underwater Basketweaving enough to major in it, but found that I hated the one Underwater Basketweaving instructor, I would sure as heck take my tuition dollars elsewhere.

But I'm in a way different position than these students. First, I realize that there are tradeoffs to going to SLAC NotAnIvy, and that those tradeoffs include few professors in a given field, but usually opportunities for small classes and such. It's just that if there's only one instructor in my chosen field, and I really don't think s/he's any good, then even one on one tutorial instruction isn't going to satisfy me. And if my chosen field is fairly uncommon and specialized, then aiming to a larger university after two years would probably make a lot of sense to me.

But again, I'm in a way different position, and I know that.

In addition, these students may be right or wrong about their complaint, or more or less serious (vs being sort of braggy about not being challenged in their classes enough). I mean, these may be the very best students the school has, or not, and I have no way of judging that.

My hot bath just called. G'night.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Local History

If you've been following along, you may remember my post about visiting Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavillion, and having a wonderful volunteer guide while I was there. The guide and I had a lovely chat that day, and exchanged cards, promising to email. G (as I'll call her here) is originally from Host City, and so we talked about having lunch together sometime when she comes back to visit her family.

Today was the day we arranged. We met at the local station (I even found the right exit!). I'd brought along a couple of discount tickets for a restaurant near the station that another teacher had shown me, in case we wanted to eat close and G didn't have other ideas. But G had other ideas!

G had looked into a local museum, and since she'd never been, asked if I were interested in going and then having lunch. It sounded good to me, so off we went. The museum was a few minutes walk from the station, over near the river, but on the south side (I've walked along the north side before).

The museum is a building that used to be a famous inn and stopping place during the Edo period (and into the Meiji period, I think, from the pictures). As you'll recall from your Japanese history class (yeah, right :), the Edo period was from the early 17th to the mid/late 19th century (1603-1868, according to Wikipedia), during which time Japan was basically ruled by a Shogun (a military ruler) who held power in Edo (while the Emperor was in Kyoto, still). (I'm sort of confused, by my sense is that the Emperor was a figurehead, and that the Shogun ran things day to day and really controlled what was happening.) (Don't forget, Edo later gets called Tokyo.)

As part of the process of gaining/keeping control, there were daimyo, feudal lords, who were responsible for keeping power in their areas. So, in a way, for me, it sounds a bit like feudal Europe, or even England in some ways, with local peers controlling large areas, training troops in their area and such. And as with, say, Elizabeth in England, the Shogun was concerned that his (always his) feudal lords not gain too much wealth or power.

One of Elizabeth's strategies (or the strategy of her court, anyway), was to go on progress. Elizabeth and her court would leave London and visit some really important nobleman. What an honor! And then the nobleman would basically have to use a lot of his local resources to feed, house, and entertain the royal court. A few weeks later, Elizabeth would move on to a new nobleman's place, and the last guy would get back to rebuilding his fortune. The nobleman got an honor (a royal visit), and Elizabeth got her court fed, housed, and entertained, and the nobleman had a little less money to toss around to buy off people, raise an army, and so on. (There are some pretty cool records of the entertainments and such for Elizabethan progresses; note that progresses had other, WAY more official justifications and such, but economics are in the background.)

Same basic principle, but reverse the practice. In Japan, the daimyo were expected to make a big trip to Edo once every year or so to pay respects to the Shogun. Meanwhile, their wives were expected to live in Edo, sort of as friendly hostages of the Shogun. Yet another ingenious way to keep folks in line.

Back to my main story. The museum we went to today was a famous inn during the period (for several hundred years, it sounded like), because it was on the major road that went from Osaka to Edo, AND it's on a river that was a major trade route for moving goods. So, a lot of people came and went from the Inn, and it's pretty darned neat. I learned a lot, thanks to G helping me understand the woman at the museum who showed us around.

I love the folks at local museums. It's the same in the US. You usually get someone who just loves local history, is friendly, likes to tell a story, and off you go. This woman sang and did the working calls of people on the boats (both the people who pulled barges up and down, and the people who went out on smaller boats to sell food and goods to people on the larger boats). She told us about the dancing and entertainment that the inn had during the period.

When you go to a town or city, one of the interesting things is to figure out why the town is there, and why there and not, say, 10 miles down the road. Where I live in the Northwoods, along a bike path, there's a sign that talks about a town that once stood there and then got depopulated when trade patterns changed. So it was really fascinating for me to learn that Host City got started as a trade center and travel stop in this period, and was evidently quite a great place to do business. And now, though the reasons for its great growth in that period are long gone (no more daimyo traveling to and from Edo, and not much shipping traffic up and down the river that I've seen), all the other things that made it a city have helped it survive and become a modern city with lots of people and businesses.

I grew up along what had once been an important trade and travel route, so it's interesting to me that there are similar ways of dealing with some of the difficulties of travel. Where I grew up, at one time there was a system of stopping places about a day's travel from one another. And along the major road from Osaka to Edo, according to what I learned today, there was a system of stopping places about a day's travel from one another, and my Host City was part of that. (I grew up between the old time stopping areas, but you can still find evidence of them if you try.)

While we were talking to the woman at the museum, she had to take off for lunch (this I learned later), but G had asked her about a good restaurant in the area. So after we left the museum, we went to the restaurant she suggested. Here's what's amazing. The museum woman had talked to the people in the restaurant, and told them we were coming, so even though we came AFTER they'd finished their lunch hours and while they were prepping for dinner hours, they served us. G told me when we arrived, that the museum woman had asked them to expect us, and so they were happy to see us.

We had a wonderful lunch of sashimi, with soup and salad. It was really good, but... I have to laugh at myself. G was explaining what we were eating, and she started with the salad, which was a vinagared salad with baby eels. And the woman at the restaurant was so proud of the eels! Evidently they're quite the local seasonal specialty.

And yes, once I took a (surreptitious) close look, I could see the eyes of the baby eels (okay, little dark spots on the thicker end; I didn't get out a microscope or anything!). The eels were like thick threads, two or so inches long, light buff/grey in color. And at that moment, I just thought, okay, well, eels it is. And then G told me about the next dish, and it was (fried, I think) baby eels; the same thing, prepared differently. It's the thought of eels that just doesn't appeal to me, I'm sorry to say, but I sure as heck wasn't going to say that about the local seasonal delicacy!

And once I got my brain around eating eels (it's food, doesn't take me long to get to eating it!), they were fine; I liked the ones I think were fried more than the others (I don't want to think that they were raw, but... it was a sashimi place!). There were also traditional pickles, soup (but not miso, I was surprised to learn), three different kinds of fish (very nice!), and of course, rice. (I got a card from the restaurant, and hope I can find it again.)

Then we went for a walk along the river and G had me try the local sweet (I think every Japanese town has a local sweet!), which was a sort of pancake with (sweet) azuki bean (red bean) paste and a chestnut. Very nice!

G has invited me to come to her English speaking group, so I'm looking forward to that. All in all, a lovely day with lots of chatting, a very good lunch, and some learning thrown in for good measure!

Tomorrow, I'm going to tag along with one of the art history classes on a field trip; I'm expecting to enjoy myself and even learn some stuff along the way. I have to say, the folks teaching cultural stuff to the international students here really put together some great field trip programming!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Things to Make Me Smile

E Gary Gygax died. That doesn't make me smile. But, one of my friends who is still in touch with the old college D&D gang sent out an email to us all, using the old avatar names. And my old college pals have been hitting reply all and talking about specific incidents we remember, and how much fun we had.

I have to say, I gamed with mostly men, and by golly, they were good guys. Not perfect, but good guys. I've heard about some nightmare games where female characters were virtually raped and stuff. But it didn't happen in our world(s). We tended to trade off DM duties, and different people tried different stuff, but by and large we were decent to each other. We all drank, but I don't remember anyone being drunk much (well, one guy on the rare occasion).

Almost every adventure started at an inn. Chocolate kisses will always be orcs. Always.

And X, who was pretty much always invisible, his motto was he's "gotta be good looking 'cause I'm so hard to see."

Gygax's work made my college life a whole lot more fun than it would have been because of the people I hung out with. But it probably didn't help my grades!

Elsewhere on the web, I read a women populated-forum for bikers fairly regularly, and recently someone posted about getting some jewelry. I sort of shrugged mentally, since jewelry doesn't do much for me, but the post had a paperclip on it, which indicates a picture, so I took a look. The "jewelry"? A beautiful derailer and stuff. Bright and shiny and looking very nice.

What makes me smile, though, are the other responses, all of which really get into admiring the "jewelry" and talking about what fun it is to get it dirty and clean it off, making jokes about their own "jewelry."

I don't know any of these people, but the forum makes me laugh most days, in a very good way. People post pictures of their bikes to much admiration, talk about their rides to great encouragement, and ask questions about ingrown hairs and saddle sores that have helped me avoid some serious problems.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Vocabulary Building

I went to the store the other day to get sugar. Yes, I know, evil and all, still, with my insta-coffee in the morning, I like sugar. I'd had lunch in the cafeteria before, and asked one of my students how to say "sugar" (sato) so I was reasonably well prepared. The thing is, while I may be able to SAY sugar, I can't recognize it in the packaging. There are several sorts of small white crystals in plastic bags in an aisle, and unlike milk cartons, there's no picture of a cow or something equally helpful to help me know between, say, milk and sake (which can also come in a carton that size, though it's usually in a different aisle of the store).

Happily, a store worker was working on the aisle, so I excused myself and asked her, in my best, though lame, Japanese, where the sugar is (because I don't have the vocabulary to ask which of the packages is sugar). She gave a smile, and showed me, and then said, beautifully in English, "sugar."

I thanked her, apologized again, and smiled back.

My illiteracy scares me. (Would "illiteracy" be the right word with kanji, even?)

Salt, as I learned after, is "shio."

I remember when I was fairly new in the Peace Corps, going to a dry goods store and explaining that I needed the thing to gives light from electricity because I didn't know how to say "lightbulb." No one teaches you to say "lightbulb" in your intro class, but that's a word you really need! ("Foco" was how the shopkeeper said it, though I understand "bombilla" is used more widely.)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Newsflash: An Uncomfortable Truth

Grading is no more enticing in a foreign country than it is at home.

I saw this interesting article (a computer site) with supposedly really helpful free downloads. Some ARE great (Zonealarm, for example). But I stupidly did a virus check one, and stupidly clicked yes without looking carefully at the add on things. My computer didn't have a virus. But suddenly, any time I opened up a new internet tab, it made this clunking sound. A really irritating clunking sound.

So I did a reset. Yep. The clunking sound was THAT irritating. Seriously, what nincompoop adds a clunking sound to a program s/he's putting together without thinking, "you know, after three of four times, that will be really irritating, and even someone as ludditic as Bardiac will do the reset thing to get rid of it." (Am I all that unusual? If I want sounds from my computer, then I'll play something myself. But I HATE going to a blog and having it play some stupidly loud music. Grrrr. /rant done)

So, the clunking sounds are gone. Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And my internet looks a little cleaner, which is sort of nice. I may re-add the add on that I basically liked, but other than that, I sort of like having more room to actually see the internet.

(So, back in the day, I remember when it was just so bleeping cool that I could put sounds on my Amiga so that when I put in a floppy disk, it made chewing sounds and stuff. A few times, though, and even the delights of those toys got irritating, especially if they slowed the computing part down each time.)

Monday, March 03, 2008


I read the news today, oh boy.* Troops in Columbia and Ecuador are gathering on the border with Venezuela after what may have been an incursion onto Ecuadorian territory (and airspace) by Venezuela going after a rebel group. I have a soft spot in my heart for Ecuador. It's not that I idealize Ecuador or something, but part of my heart is there. I hope, somehow, cooler minds prevail and the countries can work things out for greater peace.

I was talking today with a friend here, about my experience in Hiroshima, and showing her my pictures. She told me her parents were from the area, and saw the burning on August 6, 1945, but were far enough away not to be immediately affected. And then she said how amazing it is that we two are here, sitting together and talking. It does give me hope in the possibility of peace, though the conflict between Japan and the US in WWII was relatively short-lived compared to the historical/ethnic/religious conflicts in so many areas, and I'm guessing that helped the two nations make peace, and helps us today. Every so often, as I pass someone who looks pretty old on the street, and I smile and give a nod/bow, I wonder how they feel, and wish my Japanese was good enough to say something more than "good afternoon." (Not that asking how someone feels about the end of WWII would be a conversation starter, in any case.)

The speaker I heard on Saturday talked about what she'd been doing the day of the bombing. I gather that middle school children had been set the task of preparing fire-breaks in various cities, and so she was working in Hiroshima, helping to demolish buildings and carting away that bricks. Her mother was working in a factory fairly far from the blast, and was inside, and pretty safe. A sister was in school, and injured by some glass. A brother was in the military, stationed outside Hiroshima, and so suffered secondary effects when he entered the blast zone to try to find family and such.

One of the oddly practical, and all the more horrific for being so practical, aspects of the bombing is that the US military had set out several cities as potential A-bomb targets, and avoided bombing those cities with conventional bombs, at least in part so that they'd have a really good idea just how damaging the two atomic bombs were. So to add to the horror, school children were making firebreaks in anticipation of bombings because the cities hadn't been bombed or burned before.

My high school had this weird black box thing sitting on top of the building during the war; it was a room where all day, one or another teacher took turns sitting up there with binoculars, looking for bombers coming from the sea. The bombers never came, and the stories I heard from a teacher who'd been just starting her career during that era, was that a certain female teacher used the time and privacy to smoke cigars. Such was the war at my high school.

As I learned at the memorial, Hiroshima was both a military city and an important port and rail city. I imagine it was like San Francisco in some ways, and as appealing a target, a busy bustling city.

But the school kids working on demolition suggests a civilian populace contributing mightily to the war effort. And apparently not only civilians, but forced laborers, Koreans and Chinese, were working in numbers in Hiroshima in August, 1945.

I worry about the current war, especially in Iraq. I didn't choose to go to war; but I haven't gone to jail or anything for protesting it, either. I don't, sadly, even see the point in protesting; I feel powerless against the way my country thinks now. There's a level at which I'm complicit in what my government does, even if I don't like it. Maybe especially if I don't like it. (Let's be clear, though. Even if I protested a ton, I don't think the US government would punish me in the way that Japanese pacifists. That gives me even less excuse.)

*Lennon and McCartney, "A Day in the Life" from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

The bird is a Common Pochard (Aythya ferina) (I think!), photographed in the moat around the Hiroshima Castle.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Weekend Trip

Hiroshima in the background behind the o-torii of the Itsukushima shrine (from above the town of Miyajima).

For whatever reason, I didn't expect to find myself deeply affected by seeing the A-bomb dome and Peace Park at Hiroshima. I was wrong.

I found my way to the epicenter area from the tram line. There are signs in English, so it's not hard. And along the way to the park, you come first to the A-bomb dome. The dome is what's left of a commerce exhibit building.

I don't know how to describe my feelings; there's something about knowing what happened here, even abstractly, but I was overwhelmed and nearly in tears as I walked closer to the dome. I understand concrete grief, grieving for someone I've known. But this feeling is different; I've come closest to it seeing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but I expected to feel overwhelmed by that, since I know people who served and wore a POW/MIA bracelet for several years.

One of the faculty here arranges this trip for students in hir class, and allows others to go if there's room; I had to make my own travel arrangements, but I did get to join the class to see and hear a speaker, a Hiroshima a-bomb survivor (Hibakusha). She was a superb speaker, and told her story compellingly; I don't know how to explain, but she was, she said, deeply bitter, and yet she seemed not angry. (It wasn't just the bomb, of course; from what she said, the Japanese government didn't start helping the Hibakusha for some years, and didn't really acknowledge the Korean and other non-Japanese Hibakusha, much less help them, until the 70s.)

In the museum was a display of narratives and art by survivors remembering the people left behind when they fled (from the fires which engulfed much of the area) because they couldn't get them out of buildings or help them escape. I can only imagine how that would feel; the survivor who spoke to us talked about her friend Michiko, who she found and tried to escape with, and had to leave behind because Michiko couldn't walk any further.

There are also displays of items donated by survivors or their families; for some reason, the blond Shirley Temple doll remains in my mind's eye.

Late in the afternoon, overwhelmed and tired, I walked through the grounds of the Hiroshima Castle; now there's only a rebuilt tower, but the grounds are beautiful, inside a restored moat where I saw some ducks (Common Polchard and Tufted Duck, since you asked). There's a Eucalyptus tree there that survived the bomb (as well as some nearer the epicenter in the Peace Park which are marked as well).

And today I went to Miyajima, and spent a beautiful day wandering around temples and shrines, walking quiet walks to and from parks, visiting a historical museum, and mostly being quiet with myself. I needed a quiet day.

And now I'm home again, tired. I don't know how to say this, but I have no desire to go back to Hiroshima again, and yet I'm not glad, but let's say I have a sense of obligation that I went.