Chapter 27

Everything Changes yet Remains the Same

Likely the single most important development over the summer was Socks’ acquisition of a car. When one of the raft of outgoing ALTs left, she bequeathed her ancient little K-car unto him, and it has completely altered where we go and whom we see.


On one of our first big trips, we headed out meet Thistle and Dixie, two Numazu ALTs, and went out for a second shot at Fuji-Q Highland.


Unfortunately, we chose to go on the Sunday of a long weekend. On Saturdays, a lot of people still work in Japan, and most students have club practice. Everybody’s free on Sunday.


Our bus was stuck in a literal column of cars all the way to the park, and when we finally arrived an hour and a half behind schedule, even the rides you could normally walk right onto had an hour’s wait. By the time we checked out the Doh-don-pah—the crazy 172 km/h air-launched coaster I’d sworn I would ride this time or die trying—there was a guy with a megaphone telling people not to line up because the park would close before any new arrivals could get on. It was a five-hour wait.


We got on a total of three rides before we had to go.


The last ride we tried was one of those things that lifts you way up a big column and then drops you straight down for a few seconds before the hydraulics kick in.


By this point we’d almost forgotten that we had any other objective than standing around and waiting in line, and we were entertaining ourselves with a movie game. One person named an actor and a movie, then the next had to name another actor from the same movie and give a different movie that actor was in.


This didn’t go particularly well. The girls usually came up with 80s chick flicks featuring a well-known actor and some girl who disappeared never to be seen again, while any action flicks Socks and I came up with were immediately vetoed. But right before we got on the ride, we hit a good cycle.


Be aware that Thistle has a strong Scottish brogue.


Socks, who usually needed a fair bit of help with actors’ names, proudly came up with “Richard Gere, Primal Fear” and set me up quite nicely.


I quickly replied with “Edward Norton, Fight Club.”


With a deep grunt of salacious satisfaction and the words, “OCH!! BRAD PITT!!” Thistle sent us halfway to the ground clutching our stomachs in laughter. I don’t even remember what movie she named, but it was about two minutes before we were able to pull ourselves back together and continue—but not for very long.


Socks: “Kevin Costner, Waterworld.”


Me:      “Dennis Hopper, Speed.”


Thistle: “OCH!! KEANU REEVES!!”


And everything fell apart again.


By this point Socks had noted that just about everybody in line was watching us. They all waved to us as we got on the ride. We put on a good show for them.


Thistle and Dixie tried to time the interval before the drop in bananas and Mississippis, respectively, but they were both fast by about two seconds. My voice went up an octave as the seat dropped out after a moment of horrifying anticipation. Socks screamed profanity. As we left, everyone in line waved goodbye.


Socks’ new car has also been appropriated for my own evil designs. While I’d spent my first six months with only a heated sitting table (“kotatsu”) and a single cushion to furnish my apartment, thanks in part to Socks’ semi-willing assistance I now have a couch, a table, a desk, a carpet, a 29” TV, shelves, a stereo, a Playstation 2, and two cushions. Ironically, the only place the kotatsu now fits is in the closet.

10,000 Words of Death and Destruction

Although the car was convenient, its concomitant jet-setting lifestyle only added to my compounding list of headaches for the month of September. Socks had started taking Japanese lessons in P. Rock, about 45 minutes east of The Village, and as there was also an advanced lesson, I thought I’d give it a shot myself.


After the lessons, which ran back-to-back from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m., we usually met up with Alicia and E, two of the P. Rock ALTs, and E’s boyfriend Bugsy, who teaches at a local private school. Between one thing and another, we usually ended up spending the night, with the end result that I lost most of my weekend.


This wouldn’t have been a problem if not for the speech I had to write.


Back in June, Mr. Kurtz, the senior English teacher at The Village Junior High, had asked me to give a speech to cover the judging time at an English speech contest in P. Rock on September 26th. He estimated that the judges might deliberate for up to 30 or 40 minutes.


At the time, September had seemed a long way off, and 30 to 40 minutes had seemed a manageable amount of time if I were to give the same speech twice in English and Japanese. In September, my perceptions changed a little.


On my first day back at Monday Elementary, despite protestations that my total musical experience consisted of playing one-finger Christmas carols on the keyboard when I was ten, I was invited to play the wooden flute at the school sports day on September 29th.


Although it sounded fun, I would only be at Monday Elementary one day all month due to public holidays, and I had no choice but to go there after school every Friday to practice. The first time out, it took me an hour and a half just to get the damn stick to make a sound.


I also made the mistake of going to observe a single session of iaido, the Japanese art of drawing and killing with a brief sequence of sword strikes, and I got roped into going to practices every Tuesday and Thursday. I acquired a very nice blunt katana, but I lost a lot of time out of two evenings every week.


So I had my weekends gone, Tuesdays and Thursdays bitten into by iai, Fridays drained by flute practice, and all my regular lessons to plan in addition to writing this interminable speech. I even lost one of my Saturday mornings to soccer practice again. As school got underway, I was spending every single night until about 1:00 a.m. writing.


All this time I was dreading the re-emergence of my adult English lessons. I knew the guys at the board of education wanted me to start another class in the fall, but I wasn’t sure when. If they wanted me to start before the end of the month, my goose was roasted. Planning those things alone had driven me half-mad and taken up three out of seven nights every week.


When I got a message from the BOE to come by after school one Friday, I was very close to telling them in frank terms what I thought of running any more English lessons. I had to go straight from the BOE meeting to practice flute at Monday Elementary as it was.


As it turned out, some of the students from my previous class just wanted to take me out to dinner. To this day, I haven’t heard a peep about new adult classes.


The week before the speech, I was sitting at the junior high with the low-level English teacher (S-sensei) until about 7:00 every night converting my best-guess Japanese translation into something people could actually understand. I was also helping our own speech contestant during lunch and after school. Then I got e-mailed a lovely 11-hour slide presentation job to do—with a requested completion date three days before the contest.


Since arriving in Japan I had yet to catch any of my seasonal sniffles, and I’d assumed that the Japanese cold was of a weak and inferior breed. But it may only have been that I’d actually been sleeping properly for the first time in nearly a decade. Naturally, with all the late nights I’d been pulling, I contracted a lovely nose-dripper just as I finished off the slide presentation, and right before I had to stand in front of a room full of people and talk for forty minutes.


Things got a little tense in the last week, and I got into a bit of trouble for sending my boss a hyperbole-enhanced e-mail updating her on my situation. Note that it is generally unwise to describe any work-related situation as having been “inflicted” upon you.


With a grand total of sixteen pages and 10,000 words, I was only able to stop writing and start practicing two nights before the contest. Then I learned the second problem with writing a 40-minute speech: it takes 40 bloody minutes to practice. By the time I got a lift to P. Rock with the principal of Thursday Elementary, I’d only read the thing straight through twice, and I’d just rewritten the conclusion that morning. S-sensei deserved a medal for all the after-school help he’d given me, but I was still tripping over half the sentences he’d reconstructed.


At the contest, I listened to a bunch of junior high school students speak painful English for about two hours as I tried desperately to think of constructive comments to write on the little marking cards I’d been given. Most of them just suffered from a lack of intonation, but some decided they’d put emphasis on every second word, resulting in very trippy-sounding English.


Picture some fourteen-year-old telling you about Martin Luther King with the words, “AAAi heba dwEEEM. Weh zese wuHHHHHHds, Mahtin rUUsa kiiin…”


Then, of course, I got to throw the exact same inflectional nightmare right back at them. I just prayed that my nose would stop dripping long enough for me to do it.


My speech was about some of the language barriers I’d walked into face-first when I came to Japan, and I’d worked it out so that the English and Japanese sometimes translated one another, and other times simply flowed together. I stood behind a podium in front of a mid-sized conference room full of about twenty students and an equal number each of teachers and parents, all of them watching as I awkwardly held a microphone in one hand and flipped through my completely unmemorized speech with the other. At least I’d been able to cut a few pages—the judging time had been estimated down to only 20 or 25 minutes.


After I got a few laughs, things smoothed out pretty well. Of course, some of my jokes were suffocated in noxious clouds of bad pronunciation and muddled delivery, but otherwise it wasn’t bad. And in twenty minutes, it was all over.


It was strange: a month of stress and agonizing, all rendered meaningless in twenty minutes. Then again, I suppose it was exactly what the students had done themselves. And at least I hadn’t sniffled.


The kids who ended up winning had actually sounded pretty good. They’d talked like they knew what they were saying and, more importantly, they’d sounded interested.


Much to my surprise, when it was all over I got ¥5000 for my trouble.

Renaissance Man

Three days later, I was scheduled to play the flute at Monday Elementary’s sports day. The sports day had been cancelled on Saturday due to rain, but I had to make sure I got back to The Village after my Japanese lesson in case the skies cleared on Sunday.


I got the call at 6:30 on Sunday morning. We were on.


Japanese schoolyards don’t really have grass; they’re basically just made of sand. So when I arrived at Monday Elementary on Sunday morning, I was looking at a gigantic field of mud on which we were supposed to run a day of athletic events. The principal was already hauling fully-laden wheelbarrows out to the track from the sand pit, and I offered to take over from him.


The Japanese ability for spontaneous self-organization astounds me. Nobody gave a single order, but the instant students, teachers and parents arrived, they all started grabbing shovels and wheelbarrows to join in the effort. Even the grade ones and twos were in the sand pit with shovels and spades, eagerly waiting to fill me up with another load.


The teachers encouraged me to take part in some of the events, and I ended up joining a team of seven or so returning junior high kids for the big relay at the end of the day.


I’m not exactly a star athlete, but it normally isn’t necessary for me to go all-out with elementary school kids. I usually just take it easy and run a little ahead of them like a pace car. But this time out, although one of the junior high school students was even faster than me, we were actually down half a lap by the time it was my turn to run. I decided there was no way I could let us get beaten by a bunch of elementary schoolers.


I blasted out of the gate with the absolute determination that I would overtake the little grade two kid loping halfway around the loop, willing my legs to move faster than I’d ever believed possible. I caught up with the kid right as we reached the hand-off point, putting us back in the running. I was told afterward that I stunned people in the audience. I don’t think I’ve ever run a better hundred metres in my life.


I quickly became the favourite of all the grandmothers who’d come out to watch. They even mentioned me in the comment sheets they wrote for the school, and the teachers insisted that I have to participate if I’m still around next year.


I made a total mess of the flute thing, though. We played while all the kids did this traditional group dance, and while I could hit most of the notes well enough, I wasn’t sure which segment was played when, so I usually came in three notes late.


Naturally, everyone still told me I’d done really well. In Japan, you never fail as long as you try your best.


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November 2002