Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Pill Woman Is Back

In my former blog, I posted about a student I taught about 2 years ago who was christened "magic English pill woman." I posted about my difficulties dealing with her and with her eventual departure. I was glad when she was gone, but unfortunately, she may be back for a brief session of 4 lessons this month.

I got a call from the referral agency today and was asked if I'd take her back for a temporary stint. This put me in an unfortunate position because they said things like, "You just dropped her because of the schedule, right? It's not that you personally disliked her, right?" The truth is that I didn't personally dislike her, but I found teaching her like herding cats. She was impossible to keep on track or to get to teach in any reasonable way. It was either me trying to bully her into doing something resembling a lesson, or allowing her to speak a hodge-podge of Japanese and English that wasted both of our time.

With the agency pretty much putting me in a corner, I had to decide if I'd take one for my reputation as a teacher and keep in good graces with the agency or if I'd do what I really wanted to do and just refuse. The situation is not too dissimilar from attending one of those awful drinking parties after work because one must be seen as part of the group to be viewed favorably by the company. You don't want to do it, but you bite the bullet and just handle it.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do with her. She's supposed to have some purpose in studying this time around, but she didn't have one last time. I told the agency to find our why she wants to take the lessons so I can structure something this time. I did mention to them that one of the issues I had with her before was that her attitude made it difficult to teach her. They said they believed they knew what I meant because they detected something about her when speaking with her on the phone in Japanese. They didn't say clearly what they meant, but they said, "she can't help it."

I'm going to approach her behavior as if she were a person with a serious learning disability who cannot focus or actually learn anything. I'm wary of succeeding too well with any type of lesson with her because I don't want to keep teaching her after her 4 lessons are up, but I also don't want to bang my head against the wall trying to push her to learn.

Perhaps I'll get really lucky and she'll change her mind about being my student again. After all, she complained about me last time so I'm not even sure why she's come back around my way this time. There is the very real possibility that other teachers had her before and categorically refused to teach her this time. I wouldn't find that the least bit difficult to believe.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


This evening I was helping a student with her work doing subtitles for a television program. She told me that they didn't give her a full script for the show and had two pieces of paper. One had blank spots indicated by stars and the other was a script of the narration, but not all of the dialogue between the narration. I assumed that the company had sent both documents and, as we went through it, I remarked that one bit of transcribing was badly done.

Later, as we continued and I saw the two different scripts, I realized my student had done the transcribing herself. That is, I had called her work "bad". When I realized this, I wanted to cringe because I didn't mean to insult her efforts. The dialog was fast and hard to understand and I don't blame her for having issues with it. I do blame a company whose business it is to offer the scripts for not giving her a better one. My comment was essentially saying that, "if this is the type of work they get paid to do, then they did a poor job." My student isn't paid to transcribe. She's paid to do the subtitles so her work was above and beyond and I so very much didn't meant to put down her work.

My husband had a similar experience in the past. He had a student who said she'd lie to her husband if it meant she wouldn't get hassled by him. He joked that he was glad he wasn't married to her in that case. She laughed, but he hasn't taught her since then. He meant not offense, but, in retrospect, it's possible that she took the joke poorly. He doesn't cringe about it though as he's a bit more easygoing than me.

These are the types of mistakes you sometimes make accidentally as a teacher which you would like to take back, but you really can't make up for it or apologize after the fact. Doing so just makes it worse by emphasizing the gaff. I'm sure I'm not the only teacher to unintentionally mess up like this. I'm also sure this won't be the last time I do this nor that I notice every time I do it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fun at the Bank

Yesterday, the CH and I decided the time was ripe to pull the trigger on sending money back to the States. We're attempting to build a nest egg for when we're old and gray and the interest rates in Japan aren't doing much for anyone. If you've never had a Japanese savings account, I'll let you in on the fact that the rates are close to zero.

The way in which we return money is by wiring it home to our credit union. For the privilege, you pay 8,000 yen ($85) and get to park your fanny in the bank for 40 minutes or more. This was the 5th time in 6 years that we did this, though it actually has been about 2.3 years since the last time. Each time, the process changes a little. In fact, each time it has become more troublesome.

The last time we did this, we were quizzed a little about why we were sending the money back. This time, we were interviewed extensively about:
  • where the money came from
  • why the money was being sent back
  • who the money was paid to
  • our relationship and history with the bank we were sending the money to
Toward this end, we were asked to produce documents proving we held an account at the receiving bank and had an ongoing relationship with them and proof that we were employed by the companies who paid us. The bank asked us to show a bank book for our credit union account which had both the CH's and my names on it and asked for a business card from his company that indicated he worked there. The problem was that we don't have a bank book from back home as we deal with them through an on-line account and receive no printed information. Also, my husband doesn't have a card, though he did show them his gaijin card which fortunately listed his company on the back of it.

They also asked to riffle through the history of transfers we just so happened to bring with us. That is, they wanted to look at the 4 previous wire transfers documentation. This was weird because they have copies of all of those papers, too, but we gamely went along with it. Even after seeing that every other time we wired the money it was to the exact same account and the exact same bank, they kept scrutinizing the information as if there were something missing.

After much fussing and questioning, we were sent off to sit and wait. No doubt they were performing forensic tests on microscopic residue we had left on the documents or some such. It's interesting to note that we don't have a Japanese ink stamp (hanko) and we were chastised for this when I couldn't recall precisely how I signed my name when I opend my account about 15 years ago. The bank lady said that you don't have to worry about remembering how you signed your name if you have a hanko. We didn't want to sass her, but after we retreated to the waiting area, I mentioned to the CH that, while I couldn't recall precisely how I signed my name, at least no one could steal my signature like they could a hanko. Also, only in Japan am I forced to sign my name different ways. In the U.S., I can sign (first name + last name) all the time so I don't have to remember how I did it as I always do it the same way. In Japan, they keep forcing me to write it in various permutations of (last + first)or (last + first + middle) or (first + middle + last).

At any rate, as we sat there, we noticed a few things. For one, the door to the safe, which is about a foot thick and has one of those big wheel handles you always see in safe cracker scense in movies, was hanging wide open with notices for the staff attached to it with magnets. The fact that this is the area where things are supposed to be secured for their bank patrons and it's just left hanging wide open as an ad hoc notice board doesn't exactly inspire confidence in their security. The other thing we noticed was that all of the women had to wear ugly grey polyester suits with fuschia blouses while the men were just wearing regular suits. Also, the women were in the front and had to deal with customers and the men were all in the back. I'm guessing the men spend their valuable time frowning at important paperwork.

The reason for all of the scrutiny and interrogating is that the banks have to comply with (police's? government'?) requests to keep an eye open for potential money launderers. I've read that this applies if you send back more than the equivalent of 5,000,000 yen or more, though I've heard that some people have been grilled for sending back as little as 10,000 yen when they've attempted to do it through the post office. I can't say for sure, but the banks can't really help having to put you through so much as it's not really their choice. Also, it's not personal nor does it apply to foreigners only, though foreigners are more likely to be affected by it since few Japanese are wiring money to foreign banks.

My advice if you want to send money home is to make sure you print e-statements from the bank you're wiring your money to if you don't have an old-fashioned passbook. Also, take your working contract, business card, or a pay statement that proves your relationship with your company. You also have to have your gaijin card. If you're married and operating from an account with your spouse's name on it, then you also need to take your spouse along. This time we were lucky that the CH just happened to take a folder with some extra documents which they accepted as sufficient proof our our relationship with our credit union. I don't expect that we'll be sending money again any time soon as we pretty much tapped ourselves out this time, but I'm going to go a bit better armed next time.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Business of Medicine

Things are always more complicated than they appear to be. In the past, I was always very much behind the idea of socialized medicine, but learning a few things about medical care in Japan have cooled my ardor for it over the past year or so. I still think it's better than the situation with private insurance in the U.S., but I think a lot of care should be taken when developing a universal health care system given some of the problems I've been made aware of.

One of my students is married to a doctor and occasionally she offers me some insights into the business of practicing medicine in Japan. For instance, when I mentioned the recent news that yet another pregnant woman was turned away at multiple hospitals, she told me that part of the problem in Japan is that being a specialist, as opposed to a general practitioner (GP) isn't profitable. It costs more to become one and you get less business.

This particular student's mother and husband are both doctors and her mother ran a clinic as a GP which her husband later took over. Running such a clinic allows her husband to operate fast food medicine for people who want their coughs checked and their stomachaches medicated. He spends about 2-5 minutes with each patient and gets a cut of the sales of the prescriptions he makes. For the record, if you visit a Japanese doctor, you will (almost) always be given at least 3 kinds of medicine and one will always be a powder.

The average Japanese person goes to the doctor 14.4 times a year. Most of these visits are with GPs. The only way a person will visit a specialist is if that person is deemed to have a serious enough illness to require added care. This is why being a specialist in a particular area of medicine is less profitable than being a GP. My student further told me that being an obstetrician is the least desirable specialty. If you consider that the birth rate in Japan is low, this also makes sense. Not only are you a specialist, but your client base has been eroding for quite some time. This is one of the reasons why pregnant ladies are finding "no room at the inn" signs up when they are taken to the hospital.

This all relates to socialized medicine because the prices for services are fixed. The only way for a doctor to make more money is through volume rather than quality of care. Being a specialist not only limits your customer base, but it also increases the time you may have to spend with each patient because it's easier and faster to take a temperature and look at a throat then prescribe medicine for coughs than it is to deal with cancer.

A lot of people praise the health care system in Japan and there are good points to it for certain. It is better on the whole than the U.S. system, but it certainly is not perfect. The benefit is that people with common problems who want to be checked regularly can get what they need and health maintenance is affordable. The down side though is that emergency treatment and quality of care are vastly inferior to that in the U.S. Also, the system is certainly overused and abused by people who could just as easily wait out a cold, a headache, or a sore throat and get better on their own, but they don't hesitate to run to the doctor because costs are so low.

If you don't believe the latter statement, I can tell you something that my student wrote in a sociology paper she did for a recently completed college course which surprised me. This particular paper was comparing universal health care to a private system where medical care is treated as a commodity (the current U.S. model). She wrote that if she has a headache, the cost of buying aspirin is higher than going to a doctor so it is more economical to go to the doctor than to buy a bottle of aspirin over the counter. If this sounds absurd to you, then you've never bought a box of aspirin in Japan. Typically, a small box with 10-20 tablets will cost about $6-$8. A visit to the doctor, because only 30% of the tab is paid by the person and the other 70% is picked up by the taxpayers, may cost between $2-$3 with a small additional cost for the prescription. If you're retired, the cost to you is only 10% with the other 90% of the bill being covered by insurance.

The main problem is that the system should somehow reward people for not overusing the system for minor problems or at the very least fail to make it more economical to go to the doctor for every pimple and stubbed toe rather than buying and popping an OTC pill or buying some zit cream. The trick is to not penalize people for regular check-ups and for going when it is necessary such that they stop using the system as it is intended for health maintenance. Right now, Japan doesn't ration health care at all, but I have to believe that there should be some sort of limit on casual visits. Going to the doctor on average more than once a month per capita seems like far more than what is required for health maintenance for an average person.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Reality is just a concept

Recently, I've been reading a book called "Walking Through Walls" by Philip Smith. Like the book I previously mentioned by Adam Nimoy, this book is another memoir from a son about his father. The difference is that this book is well-written, compelling, and detailed. In both books, it is clear either covertly or overtly that the sons are daunted by their father's success. However, Philip Smith's father was not a famous actor. He was an interior designer. He was also a psychic and capable of healing people by touch. This is not something the younger Smith was entirely pleased about when he was growing up and the book is written from his perspective of having had such a freak as a father.

I've read a large smattering of books about people who discuss metaphysical issues including past life remembrance, channeling, and the nature of existence. If you've read any of my past prattling on this topic, you may conclude that I eat this stuff up like sweet, sweet candy. That would be a reasonable, but incorrect, conclusion. The truth is that I approach each and every book (not that there have been more than what can be counted on my fingers) and concept with skepticism. In fact, I cannot even say at this very moment that I have a solid belief that any of what I read is true. That being said, I also do not have a solid belief that it is false.

I've pondered the motives behind writing some of the books which have had a great influence on me. The first of such books was Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss. Weiss is a psychiatrist with a strong medical background who initially approached the larger questions in life from the same hard-edged view as many with lives deeply steeped in science until he encountered a patient, a nurse, who seemed to remember her past lives under hypnosis and was able to tell him things no one should have known about an infant son who had died.

While reading his books and others like it, I always find myself asking the same questions. They are:
  • Are these books lies and fabrications to gain notoriety and money? Do the writers really gain more from the books relative to the professional losses incurred by putting forth such views?
In the case of some of the books, the answer about the loss is that there is far more risk to their careers in printing the books than not doing so. For Dr. Weiss, who was (and may still be) a successful mental health practitioner, writing such books could have ended his career and made him a laughing stock. The same could be said of Philip Smith, though as a former editor of GQ and an artist, the risk would be far less. For others, who seemingly built careers around their books rather than adding writing them to their activities, the answer would seem to be that they mainly have potential personal costs rather than professional ones.
  • Are the writers of these books delusional? Warped? Mentally ill? Are they really experiencing what they think they are seeing or are they hallucinating?
As someone who studied psychology and experienced the absolutely firm belief in distorted perceptions of reality of mentally unstable people firsthand, this is a serious question. The answer is that it is absolutely possible that people who channel or commune with spirits in any fashion are essentially hearing and responding to voices. Some of those voices would undoubtedly be brilliant and offer incredibly intricate and unusual perspectives, but that doesn't mean they aren't a manifestation of a controlled psychosis.

In some cases though, there would have to be collusion in order to validate some of the statements that have been made. For instance, in one of the Seth books, Jane Roberts, her husband Robert Butts, and another witness claim that the entity they call Seth made her fingers grow longer and fatter in front of them to prove his existence and ability to manipulate reality. This "parlor trick" was done to prove to them that he was not a delusion of Jane's, but an external force communicating through her. Obviously, either Mr. Butts and the other witness would have to lie in support of Jane's delusions, or they actually believed to have seen a change in her hands because of a form of contagious belief, hypnotism, or shared psychosis.
  • Are the writers of such books bending facts to conform to their mindset? Is there anything objective proving what they have stated?
This is another definite possibility, though it mainly applies to writers like Dr. Weiss who, for the most part, report the actions and statements of others. We all bend events and statements at times to give our perspective a little more credibility. If you want to believe something badly enough, evidence is everywhere.

That being said, it's important to bear in mind that many of the less pie-in-the-sky writers of these types of books are just as skeptical as non-believers. They need validation as much as those who have never had their experiences. The best example of someone who tried as hard as possible to objectively verify her experiences was Jenny Cockell. She sought out children of a past life and talked to them about her memories. She didn't do this to prove to everyone else that her beliefs were credible. She did it to convince herself.
  • Am I being persuaded by rational-sounding voices because I want to believe what they're saying?
Of course. If anyone answers this question in the negative, they're deluding themselves. No one is capable of being utterly objective. Even science is subjective by seeking to interpret data as is most desired and by choosing to measure only that which supports the proposed theory. If science were a perfect, objective system, scientists wouldn't disagree with one another.

In the end, it's difficult to know for sure what is true when it comes to the metaphysical claims unless you personally experience something profound. Even then though, you can't know for sure that you're not the one having some sort of hallucination, losing touch with reality, or just had one bizarre moment when your mind told you something that didn't really happen. Mother Theresa rather famously had a religious experience early in her life which motivated her to become a nun then never had such an experience again. She mentioned later in life that she was frustrated and sometimes disillusioned that she had never been reassured in such a fashion again about the path she'd taken in life. I'm sure she reached a point where she doubted that the original experience was real at all. She admitted her faith wavered because the experience did not repeat itself.

I'm not quite cynical enough to believe that there are so many people out there who are calculating enough to swindle people with their stories, though I am cynical enough to believe it happens sometimes. In the case of Philip Smith, I do believe he's telling the truth about his father and what he recalls of his life with him. I can't say that the truth he recalls was the reality that occurred, but I don't think he's making it all up. I also have to believe that, given how many people his father helped, it would be very easy for one of them to come forth and call the son a liar if he made so much up.

Everyone lives a different reality and I think you can't experience something if you don't want to or if you rule it out as a possibility. Your perspective defines your world as much as your world shapes your beliefs. You accept what fits your worldview and reject what doesn't. I believe the writers of some of the books I've read about the nature of existence happen to believe things many people do not and that's OK with me. It doesn't make them liars, and it doesn't make the people who doubt them correct.

I've come to learn, thanks to a random article on the front page of Wikipedia about a half year ago, that the way in which I approach such issues is in line with one of the things Jainists believe. While I don't believe their dogma, I do share the belief that truth is dependent upon your point of view. I also embrace the idea that we're all a little wrong, but leave open the idea that we're all a little right.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Knowing Some Things Scares Me

Back when my husband and I first arrived in Japan, we enjoyed playing Trivial Pursuit. We had the original version before it had been dumbed down as well as a couple of expansions. Though we liked playing it, there were a few problems. One was that I was seriously handicapped when it came to sports categories. I don't like sports and I don't know anything about them.

My cluelessness about sports inspired a running joke that is still going to this day. Any time a question about sports came up and I had no decent guess, I'd always say "Pete Rose". It didn't matter what sport the question was about, hockey, horse racing, football, I'd pause and think hard then answer "Pete Rose." Even now, if a sport comes up, I'll ask my husband something like, 'you know who is the highest scoring basketball player in history is?' And he'll reply with, "Pete Rose?"

Besides my sports ignorance making it damn near impossible for me to win a game (I'd spend half the game getting the last wedge), we also had problems playing with our friends because the game was so America-centric. The friends we attempted to play the game with were from England and Australia and there was no way they would or should know all of the pop culture, historical, and sports facts. We tried playing in teams to balance this, but it really wasn't much fun for our friends who didn't know silly things like who played Frank Burns on M*A*S*H. I'm guessing the British editions must include things like who played General Melchett on Black Adder. These are examples of the types of questions that are easy for those in the culture, but nearly impossible for those outside of it.

There is a web site called Mental Floss which has a lot of different articles, quizzes, etc. I've actually known about Mental Floss for quite some time as their articles were often featured on blogcritics (which I used to write for, but it's rather fallen by the wayside since my old blog passed away). Recently, I came across some pop culture quizzes through Mental Floss which reminded me of playing Trivial Pursuit. The first quiz I tried was about Milhouse on the Simpsons and I did very badly despite watching the show a fair amount. I guess I just don't pay attention to Milhouse, though I suspect that's part of his overall problem in life. (I hope that I retain some of my Simpsons credibility though when I say that I got 100% on the Troy McClure Film or Actual Terrible Movie quiz.)

One of the other quizzes is the "George Costanza Candy Identification Quiz". This one shows you various candy bars without their wrappers and you're supposed to try and identify the bars by their external appearance alone. They aren't bitten into or cut apart so you cannot see the interior of the bars. I was rather spooked to see that I got 100%. I didn't realize I was that into candy bars when I was a kid, but I guess I must have eaten more than I recall. I'm going to blame Halloween and trick or treating literally for hours. I guess getting so much candy that we had to empty out our bags into shopping bags in the car so they weren't too heavy to carry meant we got an awful lot of candy experience.

My husband did a few of the quizzes as well. He scored perfectly on things like naming all of the Democratic and Republican candidates who took part in the first presidential debates for the current election. He also was able to name all of the current supreme court justices and did very well on a quiz about what happened to a variety of presidents after they left office. Given that I knew all the candy bars and fake movies made by a character on the Simpsons and he knew all this political stuff, there was almost certainly more between me and victory at Trivial Pursuit than just a sports wedge.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Whole Wheat Pumpkin Scones

I've been meaning for quite some time to start making whole wheat bread, but I had to wait for summer to end before buying a 10 lb. bag of whole wheat flour. I could buy a smaller bag, but it costs a great deal more. In fact, it can cost the same size for 5 lbs. as for 10, depending on what you buy and where you buy it. However, I don't have a refrigerator big enough to hold 10 lbs. of flour. Hell, I don't have a refrigerator big enough to hold 10 of anything except maybe grapes or pine nuts. I also didn't want to leave a paper sack full of flour in the summer humidity and heat so I held off until this week.

Now, I've got a ton of whole wheat flour to use and I decided I'd start with trying to use it in some scones. Whole wheat can be pretty tricky because it doesn't hold together as well as white flour. For pastries, it's hard to get a tender, light texture when using whole wheat, particular when it's not pastry flour. Keeping this in mind, I ran the WW flour through the food processor to make it finer before making these scones. I'm not sure if it helped, but I can say that the results really pleased me.

The main benefit of whole wheat flour over regular flour is that it's supposed to be less likely to cause blood sugar spikes. Of course, when you're talking about a recipe with sugar it in, being worried about that seems a bit silly. Beyond it being a little healtheir, it also adds a heartier, earthier flavor to baked goods. Many people don't like the taste, but I do.

The scone recipe I made is a modification of several different recipes. I wanted to make the recipe a little sweeter so the scones could be eaten plain and so my husband would like them. If they seem too sweet for your tastes, you can just skip the brown sugar topping. I'm sure they'd be good without it. The texture was surprisingly light and satisfying.

  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. cloves
  • 6 tbsp. cold butter
  • 1/2 cup canned pumpkin
  • 1.5 tbsp. heavy cream
  • 1.5 tbsp. milk
  • 1 egg
  • a little extra cream or milk for brushing the tops
Brown sugar topping:
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 /4 cup flour
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp. cold butter
Making the scones: Blitz the whole wheat flour in your food processor for about a minute to make it finer. Thoroughly mix all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients. It should resemble little flaky crumbs and appear rather rough, but with no balls or globs of butter or large amounts of completely dry mix. Whisk all of the wet ingredients in a separate bowl until completely mixed. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and carefully moisten everything using a spoon or spatula but do not mix anymore than necessary or stir things up. It will seem that there is very little liquid for the amount of dry ingredients but that is okay. The dough will have bits of dry flour and seem not to want to hold together once everything is roughly moistened. Pat the dough together with your hands working it as little as possible to get it mixed together and formed into a long rectangle which looks like a flattened log. Don't worry if there are some cracks in it. Set the bowl aside and allow the dough to rest for about 10 minutes or so (longer is okay). Make the brown sugar topping (below).

Place the dough on a clean surface. The dough will not be sticky so you don't need to use flour. I prepared mine on a plastic cutting board.

guide for cutting triangular scones.

Finish shaping the dough into a long, thin rectangle. Cut the rectangle in half, then cut each half into thirds. Diagonally cut through each square to make a triangular scone. Place the scones on a cookie sheet (not greased) leaving enough room for them to increase in size by 50-70%. Brush the tops only with cream. Pile on the brown sugar topping (the scones are very tiny, but will grow as they bake so you need to liberally cover the tops so that there is a good cover of topping when they rise and spread).

Bake at 425 degrees F./220 degrees C. for 20 minutes. The scones will not brown much because they are whole wheat. Allow to cool until comfortably warm to the touch before eating. The texture will be a bit clumpy if you eat them hot, but they will be light and tender if you let them cool awhile.

Making the brown sugar topping:
Mix together the brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon. Mix the butter in with a fork or pastry cutter until you get little oddly-shaped balls.

I made a lot and froze all but 2. I think it's important to freeze them while fresh. For breakfast, I wrap a frozen scone in foil and put in in the toaster oven on high for 5 minutes. After the timer goes off, I usually let the scone rest in the toaster for another 5 minutes then have it with coffee. This brings back some of the fresh crispy exterior and makes the interior very light and tender.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Almost Made It

Despite living in a major city known for summer infestations of roaches, my husband and I have not suffered much from these adrenaline inducing creatures. In our worst summer, we saw three. In our best ones (in about our first 10 years here), we saw none at all. This year, I had been hoping that we'd have a repeat our best.

I'm sorry to say that a summer spent unsullied by scurrying creatures was ruined the night before last when I saw the first roach of the year high up on our living room wall. It's usually safe by this time of year because it gets colder the roaches head south for the winter, but one just managed to squeak in and spoil our record.

The reason I had high hopes for not getting any cockroaches this year was that I figured out that the way to keep them at bay was both to keep trash (especially stinky, food scrap-filled trash) under wraps, keep things clean, and keep all points of entry screened off. The latter is rather tricky since most Japanese apartments have a lot of little holes through which insects can crawl in. I blocked off our kitchen ventilation fan's gaping hole to the outside last year and that helped a lot. I later figured out that the shower room vent (which is frozen open from rust) and the drain were the other major points of entry and keeping the shower door closed in the risky months discouraged roaches from coming in for a stay if they wandered in because they had no access to food. I guess they could eat our soap or much on hair in the drain, but that's likely less tasty (even from a roach's point of view) than stray kitchen crumbs that don't get vacuumed up.

Since I went to such pains to plug up all the gaps, I wasn't quite sure how the one that got in the other day made its way in, but I have a suspicion. A few days ago when I was pulling laundry off the line in the evening (after dark), and I thought I saw something large and dark on a light-colored shirt that I brought in. At first, I thought it was a moth and that I'd trapped it between the clothes when I tossed them in a pile, but no moth presented itself as I folded and put everything away. I believe now that the roach piggy-backed on a shirt and scurried away when I wasn't looking. Later, it resurfaced on the wall of the room in which the clothes had rested in their unfolded state.

I don't like killing anything, insects included, but roaches (and mosquitoes) require capital punishment for their incursions. The lone roach that made his way into our place this year got gassed to death. My husband carried out the sentence and the accused fell behind the T.V. to quietly expire. I feel kind of bad about it. I wish it had just stayed outside where it could have lived its disgusting existence out in peace.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Peeper is Back

When the weather changes from stifling, humid and hot to cool and dry, my windows go open for a few months and stay open until it gets unbearably cold. That means that my privacy becomes an issue as there are four windows in my apartment and three of them can be clearly looked into by neighbors or their visitors. If I'm cooking at the gas table, I'm literally standing next to (less than 3 feet from) anyone who rings the doorbell of my neighbor's apartment.

In fact, yesterday morning, my peeper was back for another peek through the kitchen window. This time, I happened to be in the kitchen as she stood out there and gawked intently. When she saw that I was about to see her, she scampered away. That being said, I realized that this was not a person who was simply trying to invade my privacy. In fact, it was not my privacy that she wished to invade at all. Before she started peering into my kitchen, she had been ringing the neighbor's doorbell.

Said neighbor is the one who is in and out of his apartment day and night at the strangest times. He is certainly not your typical "salary man". The peeper was trying to contact my neighbor and, given the proximity of my window to his door, I believe she erroneously believed the room she was trying to look into to be his and didn't know it was connected to another apartment. I think she was trying to see if he was home and not answering his door. Given the fright I gave her (and the fact that my front door is not more than 2 feet from the window she was looking in), I hope she'll work out that this is the apartment next to his and stop sticking her nose into my business.

Privacy has also been on my mind as of late for another reason which is rather removed from my personal experience. I've been reading a memoir written by Leonard Nimoy's son, Adam. Any time a celebrity or psuedo-celebrity writes a book, you might expect some juicy bits of gossip or at least some amusing observations or anecdotes. Wil Wheaton's "Just a Geek" is a good example of one such book. And, no, not every memoir I read relates to Star Trek.

The reason Adam Nimoy's book brings privacy to mind is that it fails largely because of what I believe was an attempt to keep too much private. The book reads like a decent blog which keeps any really deep and intriguing information or serious introspection or emotional response under wraps. In terms of his family and particularly his father's privacy, I admire the restraint he shows. However, he didn't really even reveal much about himself or any sort of profound self-discovery about his life as a result of growing up with a silver spoon, succeeding, and then failing as a result of being a drug addict. As a reader, I found the book very shallow as a result.

The lesson I learned from reading his memoirs is that it's okay to protect everyone's privacy and to keep your deeper thoughts and demons to yourself. However, you can't write a very interesting book if you keep such things out of the view of prying eyes. There is no having your cake and eating it too when it comes to privacy. You can either sell yourself and your story and jeopardize your privacy and those around you who are inevitably revealed, or you can keep yourself off the auction block and work as, oh, say an accountant. You can't write a good memoir though if you restrict yourself to talking about the bland facts.

All good writing involves putting yourself at risk. Even when you don't display your deepest, darkest secrets or feelings, good writing will ultimately betray your character to attentive readers. In both fiction and non-fiction work, you can always see the needs, fears, and ego of the writer embedded in the stories and perspectives.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Old Baticide

I have to remember never to go shopping mid-month. The 15th is apparently the day on which many old folks receive their government pension. Great hordes of shriveled old crones descend upon the cheapest shopping spots at this time and linger about the shops because they have nothing better to do with their time except try and avoid their retired husbands. For many an old grandma, their husbands have now outlived their usefulness and are just big piles of useless garbage ("sodai gomi") sitting around the house to their wives who have long since lost interest in them.

Today, I had one of those not atypical (though not incredibly frequent) experiences where I just wanted to pound some old bones to dust. I was making my way through a massively congested, small green grocer-type store and generally trying to balance patiently waiting for the ancient creatures to move along of their own accord and judiciously and politely say "excuse me" to get the ones that lingered overly long to move aside. One gnarled specimen, who was dressed as if she were going to the theater rather than shopping at a cut-rate market, was the lone blockage between me and sweet escape from the store so I said in a low but audible voice, "sumimasen". She looked up and loudly launched into speaking and rudely about me and my gaijin appearance to her withered companion who did what the Japanese always do when one person in a pair or group notices the gaijin and starts yammering about her. She slowly turned her head to catch a glimpse of the freak and I was right there at the moment of contact to look her right in the eye. This always makes them look away as it's harder to be rude when the gaijin understood what was said and is now also responding to your companion's rude Japanese. Once I locked eyes with the companion, the main old bat went back to doing her detailed inspection of the fish at the end of the aisle because she, too, realized I understood Japanese enough to know what she was up to.

One of the things I've realized about this behavior is that it happens only when I'm alone and it happens far less to my husband. It also is far, far more likely to occur when Japanese people are with companions or groups. They tend to behave themselves when they're alone (though now always). I think that a male presence is generally intimidating so having the CH along tends to quash this sort of overt rudeness. Unfortunately, if I had to have him accompany me on all shopping sojourns to keep the old bats in check, we'd starve to death.

I've noticed that this type of bad behavior has increased in the last few years among old people, particularly women. I recently read that crimes among the elderly in Japan have increased nearly four-fold in the last decade. Somewhere on the order of 42,000 old folks have broken the law this year. The feeling among many people who try to understand what is happening is that there has been a marked increase in what they call "angry old people". These are people who are mad and act out because they feel insecure about their future, live alone, or don't have much contact with their families. From a social viewpoint, being estranged from your family or alone in Japan is probably more stressful than being so in the U.S. where culturally it's expected that your kids won't be there for you when you get older.

Personally, given the behavior of some of the old people I've encountered including the old bitty today (and the line of old bitties and jerks who are members of the same rude club as she) and the old bastard who nearly shoved me off my bike earlier this year, I can see why their families don't want to live with them. Though I don't have personal experience with it (thank whatever entity runs the universe, if indeed anyone is in charge), everything I've read about mother-in-laws also fuels the idea that you just don't want to be living with such pushy old people.

I guess I'd better do my best to avoid the shops around pension day from now on to mitigate the chances that this sort of encounter will happen again, or at least go at night or when it rains. Darkness and water appear to spook the elderly types a bit. If not, I'll be at some risk of committing old baticide in the future. While it may be understandable, I'm guessing the Japanese police wouldn't be willing to look the other way.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Nothing I Really Want

Living in a major city means people are constantly targeting you with advertising. When you walk down the street, people offer you flyers which you can either take out of pity and then throw away at your earliest convenience or they offer you tissues with ads stuck in them which you take because they're actually useful. That being said, people who offer tissue packets as a way of advertising will sometimes not offer them to foreigners. I'm not sure if they do this because they think we can't read the advertising or if they think we're like wild bears that might bite off the entire hand if offered a treat.

One of the other types of advertising is ads for various services crammed in your mailbox. Most of them are a collection of papers hawking (legit) massage places, gyms, cleaning services, offers to haul away unwanted items for a fee and menus from local restaurants. More often than not, I put the whole sheaf into the paper recycling bin, but occasionally, I check the menus out.

The problem with the menus are that the food that is offered is pretty much the same old thing with the occasional modest variation or seasonal add. The bento, sushi, and Chinese shops rarely vary their offers and everything is over-priced and not of particularly great quality. The pizza places are also pretty much the same old stuff with one or another disgusting new combination pizza being offered on the front of the new menu. Even if I don't feel like cooking or am so tired of my own cooking style that I don't want to eat it, the monotony of what is on the menus with so few variations bores me back into the kitchen to just do something myself.

Screenshot from the Mac Buyer's Guide

The experience of looking at the menu and not finding anything I really want is one that came to mind today when Apple released new notebooks. I've been waiting for a long overdue update on a low end (headless - that is, no built-in display) desktop model for a bit now. In fact, Apple hasn't released a new Mini for around 14 months. Instead of offering something new that I'd happily hand over the cash for right now, they offered moderately altered notebook models with slightly better specs, a new trackpad, and a new design. Now, MacBooks look like my husband's $800 Acer Aspire (silver case, black keys, glass screen). Woo-frigging-hoo. Notebook Macs were updated 8 months ago so I can't understand why they prioritized this over something which hasn't been refreshed in such a long time. If the comments on Lifehacker and Engadget are any indication, I'm not the only one who is less than thrilled by the new announcements.

Apple is very much like the local restaurants. I want to buy, but they keep offering the same thing which I'm not really interested in. I'll just get by with what I already have until Apple decides it wants my money badly enough to expand its menu.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Guests and Gifts

Because of serious back pain, it's hard for me to get out and visit people in their homes. I can do it, but it's something I have to plan out carefully to minimize walking and ensure rest stops as well as mentally prepare myself for the pain and the stress that comes along with the experience. People who can just walk out their front door and go anywhere they choose have no idea how liberated they are compared to the likes of me nor can they understand how I envy what they can take for granted.

Since it is so difficult for me to get around, I invite my friends to come to me and I really appreciate it when they make the effort. I know that it is time consuming and tiring to go to someone's house relative to having them come to you. Of course, there is preparation for guests coming to my place as well like cleaning and at least some food preparation, but I'm more than happy to do that as it's something I don't mind and I can operate in controlled circumstances which allow me to manage my pain.

Getting back to my kind guests though, because I appreciate their coming to me, I like to try and prepare a little something for them to take home with them when I have the time and energy to do it. Last time I had guests, I sent them home with some homemade brownies. Darryl (my former boss) came by yesterday and I decided to go for something a bit less sweet for him. He's not so into the overwhelmingly sugary stuff, I believe, though he is a fan of my peanut butter cookies. ;-)

I decided to revisit my sweet potato scones recipe after a very long absence so I could send Darryl off with a few of them (and toss some in the freezer for future breakfasts for me!). These are definitely the kind of thing that I can't make often because they are labor-intensive and require both boiling and baking. The hardest part of making them is forcing the cooked potatoes through a mesh sieve to make the mashed potato fluffy and airy. It's very difficult and messy, but I tried to make scones from sweet potatoes by just mashing them the quick way using a mixer and it produced scones with a less than desirable texture.

Sweet potato put through the mesh strainer looks like small bits of saffron rice but is very light.

I had two large potatoes which I steamed and peeled and forced through the mesh. My hand really hurt afterward, but it was actually enough potato for 3 batches worth of scones so I tossed the rest in the freezer for future goodness without the hand cramps. One lesson I did learn though was that it's a lot easier to mush up warm cooked sweet potatoes than cold ones.

I decided to modify the recipe I linked to because Darryl doesn't do artificial sweeteners. I upped the brown sugar to a half cup and I also decided to apply an egg wash this time so that the top wouldn't rise and would be shinier. The results were excellent with a crispy outside and a tender interior when they were fresh. Tiny bits of sweet potato are interspersed throughout the scones adding moisture and a good distribution of sweet potato flavor.

Unfortunately, the crispy top disappeared overnight as is often the case with baked goods, but the crispness may be revived by wrapping the scones in foil and giving them a little run in the toaster oven.

Darryl one-upped me (unintentionally and in the spirit of pure generosity) on the baking front though by bringing along 6 delicious and moist banana blueberry muffins. The CH was especially taken by them and I hope that Darryl will share the recipe with everyone on his cooking blog (drop by and leave him a message to encourage him to post it... this is my way of forcing his hand and getting him to blog as I already have the recipe in my in box). I was compelled to order some whole wheat flour from Tengu Natural Foods so that I could attempt to reproduce his fantastic muffins.

The visit was just like old times for us. Even though I quit 3 years ago, it's just comfortable with the three of us sitting around gossiping about things back at work and catching up. I only miss my former job when I think about how much I enjoyed working with Darryl as he's a jewel of a person and an ideal boss for the gaijin in Japan. I'm hoping we can manage to synchronize our schedules and get together more often in the future.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Failure to Communicate

Math is supposed to be a somewhat universal language, at least among people who have had some modest level of formal education. Conceptualizing money isn't something that requires specific vocabulary. It only requires the ability to know a bit about numbers.

This morning, I visited a local convenience store for a quick round of milk and bread shopping. An older gentleman in front of me struggled with his change purse and paid for his purchase. Since he seemed to have difficulties manipulating his change because of shakiness, I assumed he didn't offer up the proper change when the cashier handed back several of his coins and then gave him other change.

When my turn came along, the bill was 812 yen. I didn't want to get back a pile of coins so I put down 312 yen and a 1000 yen note. This would get me back just one 500 yen coin. The cashier gave me a sympathetic look which conveyed that she thought I didn't understand Japanese money or numbers and tried to hand me back my change. I had to insist she take the change and give me back a 500 yen coin. After this little exchange, I figured that the older man probably tried to do the same thing and she didn't understand what he wanted either, but he didn't push it.

My students love to go on about "joshiki" or "common sense" and this sort of way of conceptualizing money falls into that category in Western culture. In Japanese culture, the umbrella meaning of common sense also encompasses common knowledge in addition to common logical concepts. The vast majority of people I've encountered in Japan seem to possess both, but this morning I came across one who was lacking in at least one of those. I can only imagine how quickly she's going to run the shop out of small change if she doesn't get a clue.

One Timer

In a previous post, I mentioned that I was trying to mollify myself about a student possibly defecting to another teacher and school. I don't know yet how successful I was at making a much needed psychological adjustment, but I got a message from that student today asking for another lesson. So, it appears that she only defected this one time.

I must say, this makes me happy. :-)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Whey Au Gratin Potatoes

When I posted about making my own cottage cheese, Tess mentioned that I should save the whey for other purposes as it can be used for things like soup stock. Given that whey has attractive nutritional properties, and smells like cheese (and that is always good), I threw the whey from my paneer-making session into the freezer with the idea of making good use of it rather than tossing it down the drain. I didn't have a concrete plan for using it, but considered that I might try substituting it for chicken stock next time I made au gratin potatoes.

Given that cheese is getting more and more expensive, I wanted to add more of a cheese flavor without upping the amount of actual cheese. I also wasn't happy about buying a liter of milk, extracting the curds, and tossing out the rest. However, before I was willing to pour whey all over expensive cheese and potatoes which I took the time to peel and slice, I had to make sure the whey wasn't going to taste funky and almost certainly ruin the dish.

For those of you who didn't look back at the cottage cheese making post, I've re-posted my picture of the collected whey. It doesn't exactly look appetizing, does it? It's not the kind of thing you are just itching to start spooning into your mouth, especially when it's stone cold. Never let it be said that I won't be adventurous in the name of food research. I tasted the whey and "it passed the first test, I didn't go blind" (that line is for the geeky sorts out there who recognize it). It tasted like it smelled, like cheese water. It wasn't something I'd knock back on a hot day, but I couldn't see how it'd spoil my precious potato dish.

The end result was very tasty. I couldn't tell if it was significantly cheesier tasting than usual, but it was certainly good and I'm hoping the protein and blood sugar maintenance benefits of the whey remained intact through the cooking process. I think I used too much whey though as it took 2.5 hours to cook properly. However, I'm not sure that that is necessarily a big drawback. The result was tender potatoes in a creamy cheese sauce. Here's the recipe:

Whey Au Gratin Potatoes
  • 4 very large potatoes peeled and sliced
  • 2 cups grated cheese (I used a mix of Gouda and cheddar)
  • 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • **whey extracted from 1 liter of milk (about 3 cups)
  • 4 tbsp. cream (or milk if you don't want to make it too rich)
  • thyme to taste
  • salt & pepper to taste
Toss the flour with the grated cheese. I usually use blocks of cheese which I cube and pulse in the food processor until it's like tiny pebbles. I toss the flour in while processing the cheese. This gives a very even distribution of flour which then thickens the sauce.

Place one layer of potatoes in a lightly-greased baking dish. I recommend glass because it's easier to clean. Sprinkle with cheese, thyme and salt and pepper. Repeat for two more layers. I recommend going light on the seasoning, especially the thyme. You don't want to overwhelm the dish.

Whisk the cream with the whey and pour over the potatoes. Bake at 350 degrees F./175 degrees C. uncovered for 2.5 hours until the potatoes are tender and the sauce is thickened.

**While this is what I used, I think it might be better to reduce the amount of whey to 2 cups. This will significantly shorten the baking time as the water won't need to be reduced so much or take so long to heat up and cook the potatoes. Next time, I plan to use less whey.

I would have preferred to make more at once and freeze the remainder, but my baking dish is on the small side (as is my oven). If you want to scale this up, you can just add 1/2 cup of grated cheese (not packed down), 1/2 tbsp. of flour, and a 1/2 cup of whey for every extra large potato you add. I think 6 potatoes and 3 cups of whey might be better than my 4 potatoes and 3 cups.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Tales From a Japanese Office — Bad Smells Follow Me

Earlier this week, I made paneer butter masala (from homemade paneer no less) at around 3:00 pm in the afternoon. The idea was to complete it between a few lessons and throw it in the refrigerator for dinner later. Indian food always tastes better to me when it sits in its sauce and the flavor develops for several hours (or a day). If you're in the mood for some vegetarian curry which is cheap and tasty, I recommend you give it a try. It's delicious, though I'm going to cut back on the chili next time.

Getting back to the point though, 4 hours had passed since I'd put the curry in the refrigerator, but the apartment still smelled like an Indian restaurant when a student showed up. It smelled good, but I apologized to my student because I'd been told that Japanese people are sensitive to food smells and are upset when they're subjected to intense ones. My student said that she wasn't troubled at all and liked curry. I didn't know if she was being polite or sincere, but I was glad she didn't get worked up about it.

The notion that Japanese folks get worked up about food smells was instilled in me by the president of my former company. He carried on quite often about any food-related odors that were caused by the foreign employees heating their lunches in the office. In fact, he got on my boss's back about heating dishes made with garlic and carrying them from the kitchen to his booth to eat. My boss was pretty irritated by this, particularly since he said the Japanese staff had dishes made with various Japanese pickles in them which, in his opinion, filled the office with a funky flatulence-like odor.

Since bugging the foreigners over trivial matters was one of the president's main tasks for the day (and I'm pretty sure it was a job he relished), I didn't think much about the food odor issue at first. My main response was to develop a near compulsion about keeping the kitchen door closed and the kitchen window open when I heated my food and to keep a lid on any food as I carried it from kitchen to cubicle. Even though customers did not come in to the office, the president acted as though one of the rudest things we could do was subject the Japanese to our disgusting gaijin food vapors.

The building the company occupied had a convenience store on the first floor when I first started working there. Times grew lean for the store when a 7-11 opened up not too far from it so they changed their business from convenience store to cheap bento shop. This is when the intensity of the president's dislike of food odors really showed itself. It turned out that it wasn't just foreign food that got his undies bunched, but all food.

We were working in an old building with a relatively small floor space just off of Ome Kaido Avenue in Shinjuku. Given the age, size and location, I'm sure that it wasn't as expensive as Shinjuku locales can get. In fact, I'd guess it was 700,000 yen a month for that office, possibly a bit less. Once the bento place started doing business, the president went ape about the cooking smells wafting up to our office. All windows had to be kept shut at all time. This made the small, cramped space incredibly stuffy. His solution was to turn on the fan function of the ancient air conditioning. This circulated warm, vaguely musty air around. When the president found that he couldn't use his personal air conditioner to more effectively cool his area without sucking in cooking odors, he decided to move the office to a different building.

We moved to a larger, newer office right on Ome Kaido. It was actually just around the corner from the old office, but the cost was a million yen a month. The first floor was a tiny tea shop that did not brew tea and some sort of real estate agency which occupied most of the massive first floor. Before the move, the president filled his days drawing up office plans to give him a bigger office, stick all the foreigners on the side with no windows just outside of his office where he could keep an eye on us, give his wife a massive amount of space for the few hours a week she showed up at the office, and draw up diagrams of islands of desks for the salesmen and Japanese support staff. His second favorite activity after harrassing the gaijin workers about minutae was to rearrange the office furniture. Moving gave him a whole new level of pleasure at moving his employees around like dolls in his own personal dollhouse.

Several months after we moved to the new building, the real estate company that occupied the vast majority of the first floor announced that they were moving. The word came that the vacant space would be occupied by a Chinese restaurant. The president was not a happy camper and I'm sure he nagged the owners of the builder about what was to come. They assured him that our spot on the 4th floor and the location of their kitchen exhaust would make it such that he wouldn't be in the path of any objectionable odors.

When the restaurant was built, only the slightest bit of smell leaked our way but the president was still seriously put out. After all, he hadn't wasted all that money to escape cooking odors only to be faced with them again. In the end, the owners of the building (who ran the first floor tea shop) had to build an exhaust pipe all the way up the side of the nine story building to placate the president. He still wasn't happy, but he had no choice but to accept it.

Shortly after word arrived that the new office would be faced with yet another restaurant on the first floor, my husband, who was working as a temporary worker at my office at the time, remarked on the president's bad luck. The president responded by saying, "bad smells follow me" (in English). Given how much crap he put us through during the time when I was employed there and under his neurotic eye, I felt this was a bit of karma paying back some of the misery he put us through on a regular basis as a result of his distrust and idiosyncrasies. I hope bad smells continue to follow him.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Every government lies to its people. Generally, fresh lies are hard to detect, but as history marches on, the lies tend to reveal themselves for what they are. In most cases, egregious lies are easier to spot and invalidate. Recently, I was exposed to one of the most outrageous lies I've heard in quite some time, but it didn't really surprise me that such a lie is floating around out there.

The lie in question was offered by one of my students. She said that she has read and had been taught that 30% of Japanese Americans died in internment camps during the (up to) 4 years in which they were held in such camps during World War II. The fact that the internment camps were a terrible thing and that people were held unfairly is something that the United States has acknowledged and at least some reparations (millions of dollars) have been paid to those harmed by the unjustified imprisonment at the camp. There has no hiding that what happened was a disgrace. There's been no attempt to hide it.

Somewhere in the vicinity of 120,000 people were held in such camps. If 30% of them had died, that would mean that there were 36,000 deaths. There is no way that the United States could hide that great a number of deaths, particularly when the people held in the camps have had the chance to freely tell their tale and report any deaths for decades after the fact. It is inconceivable that the number of deaths my student read about is anything but grossly inaccurate. The best estimate is that around 200 people may have died in those camps. Those deaths were due to a lack of medical care for the most part and a few were guards shooting detainees and not due to torture, wanton murder, or executions. The only way 1/3 of them could have died would have been through more boldly malicious acts than what actually occurred. I can only guess what lie about how people died is told to explain the other lie about how many people died.

I've heard for years that the Japanese are taught a highly distorted version of what happened during World War II, particularly in regards to softening the bad things they did and enhancing the bad things that happened to them. I've never looked into the precise content of these lies. The lie I was told recently was the first time I was faced by just how outrageous and baseless those lies can be. One of my older students (he's around 62) told me that he believes that the distortions have become so grotesque that many young people now believe that America attacked Japan first. I guess that the government will do whatever it takes to promote the idea that the Japanese were heavily victimized in World War II while undermining their destructive acts. No wonder China and Korea are still angry.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


The first time you experience certain things is often meaningful so you might think that they're carved in memory like words on old Roman ruins. These days, mine feel more like pencil fading on old yellowed paper. So, I'm going to make a list of "firsts" in the hopes of retaining those memories as well as to hopefully amuse my readers. If that doesn't work, at the very least, I hope to encourage you to make your own list of important first experiences and share it with me on your blog or in comments.

1. first movie at a movie theater: Snow White and the Three Stooges

I have the vaguest recollection of one of my aunts taking me (and possibly my sister, too) to a theater to see this movie as part of a low rent matinee. This particular aunt was the only one in the bunch (I have 5) who didn't have kids and didn't view them as an incredible burden. I don't remember anything about the movie, though I'm sure it was chosen mainly for being very cheap as a movie made 2 years before I was born and would have been at least 7 years old when I saw it.

2. first movie at a drive-in: A biker movie with lots of violence

Some things you remember because they were so good that the memory lasts forever. Some things are just so awful that you can't get rid of the memory even if you want to do so. In this case, I remember my parents having my sister and I crouch down and hide in the back of their car so they could go to some R-rated movie at a drive-in. The movie they watched was one of those movies in the early 70's (or late 60's, possibly) which showcased roving gangs of criminally-inclined cycle enthusiasts who had nothing better to do than terrorize normal folks. I remember that one part of the movie was some woman was running from the gang and her sister put on a wig and pretended to be her. There was a scene where she was somehow set on fire and ran out of her trailer screaming. This scene traumatized me for years and I can still recall the visceral fear response.

Another old family photo which got badly-damaged. My sister is holding a gift for a kid whose party we were going to attend. I think the gift may have been a kite-making kit. Our front yard led into actual woods.

3. first party: A birthday party at one of my sister's classmates home

My memory of most of the details from my childhood are vague and sketchy, but I do remember this for some reason. The picture above shows my mother thought it was a good idea to dress my sister (who is two years older than I) alike for the party. I remember that we had fun and that I was especially enamored of some party favors we were given. My sister is the keeper of the vault when it comes to such things so she may remember better than I, but I think the birthday child was a girl named Karen C. who grew up and eventually got engaged to my best (male) friend in high school. She turned out to be a possessive bitch and my friend didn't marry her (much to his eternal relief, I'm sure).

In Japan, they made you buy the album then remove the paper cover from the front to see what the members of the band looked like without their make-up. You can see their legs peaking out from under the paper cover.

4. first concert: KISS in 1983 or '84 (Lick It Up tour)

Despite having been a KISS fan since 1978, I never had the chance to see them in their glory with make-up. I wasn't old enough or brave enough to make my way to Pittsburgh (the closest major city to my tiny rural hometown) to see them until I was in college. I put up a notice on a bulletin board at college and asked if anyone wanted to go with me and got together with a young woman named Staci who I became friends with after going to the show with her. I was far more excited about it than her. In fact, I wonder if all the screaming and carrying on I did (which was certainly not out of line for an arena full of KISS fans at that time) embarrassed her. Later shows that I attended were never nearly as good. Part of the reason for that was that KISS followed the same patterns and shtick all the time. They also were exceptionally lazy in terms of the show length. They do 90 minutes, then leave and do a planned encore of the same songs all the time. They essentially planned the encore into the total time of the show. By the third time I saw them, I grew actively annoyed at this pattern and slack-ass approach. Incidentally, the second time I saw KISS was in Tokyo. The timing just worked out such that they were playing during the month I took a vacation here in 1988.

5. First album purchased as an adult (of my own volition and with my own cash): KISS Rock and Roll Over

The strange thing about this purchase was that I bought this record when I didn't have a record player. I adored the design on the cover and I was infatuated with the idea of the band rather than its music. To actually listen to it, I took it to a friend's house (her name was Denise) and listened on her cheap kid's phonograph. You know the type of player I mean. They were the kind made of plastic with horrible little speakers. I think I was more excited by the really cool sticker that came inside the album that replicated the cover art in segments than the music itself. In the end, however, this did turn into one of my favorite albums and is certainly one of KISS's more creative efforts in their long and undistinguished musical career.

The first album I recall owning as a child was the soundtrack to Mary Poppins or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I remember obnoxious songs (especially some awful chimney sweep song by Dick Van Dyke) from each of them playing repeatedly, but I don't remember choosing the records. I think my mother probably picked them up at yard sales for u s when we were children. The fact that these movies were old even when I was a kid means that they weren't new releases that were bought for my sister and I.

I could go on for ages with this sort of post, but I think I'll put these up in pieces when the desire strikes me. Besides, I think this is long enough for now. ;-)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Would Like to Be a Human Being

Yesterday I was doing a few telephone English tests for my former company. During most of each 10-minute test, I'm asking all of the questions to gauge the student's grammatical accuracy, listening skill, pronunciation, vocabulary and overall competence as a speaker. I assign the student a score from 1-10 (10 being a native speaker) based on how they deal with the questions. Most students score in the 4-6 range, though there are occasional scores of 2, 3, 7, and 8.

Usually, the students are pretty terrified at the beginning and then settle down as the test goes on. I always start off with the most basic of questions phrased very simply and ramp up the difficulty if they appear to be capable of coping with harder questions. By the end of the test, the student is about as relaxed as he's going to get and I always end with, "do you have any questions for me?" I wait until the end because the student just had 8 minutes of my questions as examples.

About half the time, the students won't ask anything. Most of the rest of the time, they ask some bland question about my hobbies. Often the men will ask if I'm married. On occasion they will ask my age. Both of these last two questions are taboo in Japanese culture when asked of a woman. There are subtle ways to ask them without being so blunt. These are the ways I ask such questions. I ask "when were you born", not "how old are you." This allows people to omit the year and just give the date if they are sensitive about their age. I say, "tell me about your family", not "are you married". This allows single people who are uncomfortable about their marital status to not discuss it as they can talk about their parents and siblings.

I'm not sensitive about my age or marital status. I don't mind being asked about either and take no offense when asked this question despite knowing these are considered rude questions for women. However, I do mind being asked in a manner which shows that the student is intentionally breaking with cultural norms because I'm a foreigner and he doesn't mind treating me disrespectfully. Yesterday, my last student of the testing session asked, "how old are you," and immediately started laughing uproariously like a deranged hyena. When I told him I was 44, he guffawed heartily at me again.

A lot of the Uncle Tom foreigners will defend this behavior by saying that he is "nervous". I've dealt with nervous laughter before and that's not what this is. People who are nervous laugh at the start of the test (and as time passes, they may continue to do so) because they are uncomfortable during the entire process. They don't suddenly start loudly bursting into laughter at the end when they ask a question they know to be considered rude in their culture.

I've also lived in Japan long enough to know that one Japanese person would not do this to another who was essentially a stranger to him or her on the phone. They might joke with friends, particularly if they were younger, but the idiot student who did this yesterday was in his 30's so he has no good excuse. Also, keep in mind that this is a business English test done as a requirement of the student's company, not some volitional, casual bit of conversation. The point of the test is for placement in business classes. The point of the classes is to prepare people for doing international business communication. They should be demonstrating some level of poise and professionalism if they can possibly manage it, not carrying on like a school kid.

Most of the time, I try and brush off this sort of behavior. It happens so often that I'd go crazy if I didn't. Yesterday, it really got on my nerves for some reason. As I recently remarked to another blogger in an e-mail message, sometimes I get tired of being a gaijin and would just like to be a human being again.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Forming a Bond With Your Farmer

In one of my posts on the Japanese Snack Reviews blog, I noted that the Japanese tend to put the faces of ordinary people on products in a way which I don't recall happening back home. In the U.S., we put fake figureheads (Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima), famous people (Paul Newman), or company figureheads (Mrs. Fields) on packaging, but we don't tend to see average Joe Smith.

I generally don't buy fruit or vegetables at the local market because they're more expensive, but tomatoes have been expensive at the green grocer and they were more reasonable at the supermarket. The package of 6 small tomatoes above cost just a little under $3, and yes, that was pretty cheap. There were a wide range of choices in choosing similarly-priced trays. Some had three large tomatoes, others had four medium ones, etc. All of them had little pinkish slips of paper with the pictures and names of the farmers who were offering us their bounty.

As near as I can tell, this sort of information is included with peppers or tomatoes sold by members of the Marukyo agricultural group. On its web site, this group has all the normal fluff you see surrounding Japanese food companies about producing healthy, attractive food which is cultivated in peace and harmony with the earth, but it also claims to try and do all of this at a reasonable cost. Given the cost of red and yellow peppers in Tokyo, I'm not inclined to believe the cost part, but I'm sure they do their best. Chances are they are more about fixing prices than about keeping them low, but I may not know of what I speak.

The farmer and his wife on my slip are supposed to be conveying a message to the customer. I have had different farmers pictured on other tomatoes I've bought in the past, but I never paid attention to the messages. Therefore, I don't know if the phrases are all the same. Given the vague, bland and oh-so-Japanese message on this (' we do our best to earn the customers' trust...we work hard...we take great care...blah, blah, blah'), I'm guessing that it doesn't matter if the phrasing is different on these messages. I'm guessing the content is essentially the same.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Cinnamon Rolls (reposted from my former blog)

This is recipe from my former blog which I'm reposting at Lulu's request. I hope others give it a try and post their results on their blogs!

Dough for Rolls:

1 T. dry yeast softened in 1/4 cup lukewarm water for 5-15 minutes
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup butter cut into small pieces
1/4 cup scalded milk + 2 T. cold milk
1 large egg
3/4 t. salt
2 cups all-purpose flour

In a mixing bowl, whisk sugar, butter, salt and scalded milk. Cool then add egg, 2 T. cold milk and yeast mixture. Gradually add the flour until it forms a stiff dough. You may need a little more or less than 2 cups. Knead the dough on a floured surface until it is smooth and satiny (about 3-5 minutes). Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise for about an hour in a warm place. The dough should double in size.

After it has risen, divide the dough in half (use a knife to cut it). Roll out thinly (about the thickness of a tortilla) into a long rectangular shape. Spread filling (see below) over the dough. Roll up lengthwise and cut into pinwheels slightly smaller than the height of the pan you'll be baking in.

Place the about 9 pinwheels in a 9" square pan or 12 in a 9" x 12" pan. There should be about 1-2 inches between each. Cover each pan with plastic wrap and allow to rise again for an hour or two. The dough should rise enough such that the rolls nearly touch each other in the pan. You can let it rise for longer than a few hours if you like (I just let them sit when I'm too busy to deal with them right away).

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. or 175 degrees C. Remove the plastic wrap from the rolls and bake for between 20 and 30 minutes until the tops are golden. Be careful not to overbake them or the filling will get hard and the bread will dry out. Baking time is affected by the size and type of pan. Shallow, thinner pans need less time than deeper, thicker pans. Glaze if desired.

Cinnamon Filling:

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
4 T. cinnamon

Cream the ingredients together and set aside. Soften the butter if necessary to make it spreadable but do not melt it!


1 cup powdered sugar
1/4 tsp. of vanilla
~4 tbsp. whole milk

Scald the milk (heat to near boiling) then stir in the sugar and vanilla until smooth. Drizzle over the cooled cinnamon rolls. You can use less milk and make a thicker frosting rather than a glaze. Usually, I just add in sugar until the glaze reaches the consistency I want.

This recipe makes rolls that are very light and tender. They are much less heavy and bread-like than most cinnamon rolls. They also have a very strong cinnamon element so you may want to reduce the amount of cinnamon in the filling if you like a more subdued flavor.

The rolls also freeze well though it's better if you freeze them without icing and glaze them after they've thawed. Usually, I end up freezing at least half of them since my husband can't eat them quickly enough.

The basic dough can be used for endless varieties of rolls. You can fill them with any sort of thing you like.

Crispy Around the Edges

I haven't posted for 3 days. For some people, that's par for the course. For me, it's quite a long absence. It's not that I have nothing to say nor that I have no time necessarily to say it, it's just that I'm just a little burnt out from various tasks and find it hard to collect my thoughts and get them to flow into post form. I think that's okay though. I really believe that posting less often may be better than posting too much anyway.

Before the weather changed, I had a lot of tasks in mind that I wanted to do once it snapped off from oppressively warm and muggy to crisp and cool. Now that that has actually happened, I'm getting to those tasks. Mainly, they include repairs and little home improvement projects that I'd get too sweaty doing in the summer, but also there is a lot of cooking I avoid in the summer. In particular, there are dishes that require use of the oven. Being in the kitchen at all in summer is hard enough without super heating the kitchen to levels that would melt butter to a liquid state just by leaving it on the counter.

Pale bits of dough full of lively and happy yeast about to fry to death in the oven. Oh, the humanity!

Yesterday, I squeezed in some cinnamon roll making between lessons. This is a recipe that I wrote about in my former blog which I make as a very rare treat for my husband. I'm happy to say the freezer is now full of pumpkin cake, brownies, and cinnamon rolls so I won't be baking again for awhile.

Iced rolls... the glaze looks vaguely pornographic in nature. Prudish types and diabetics may want to avert their eyes.

Besides the cooking and household odds and ends, I've been doing 3 or 4 lessons a week with the same student on top of the regular students. She's taking a sociology course and the lessons with her are essentially tutoring sessions. When she writes a paper, I'm essentially writing a paper. When she takes a class, I'm taking the same class with her. It's a bit of a brain drain really as I have to skim the book quickly, organize the contents at light speed in my mind, then spit it all back out for her to record the lecture and use it to go home and write up essays from. It's like mental calisthenics. I enjoy it, mind you, because it's much more stimulating and challenging than practicing verb tenses or prepositions, but it is a bit intense.

Anyway, this is just a brief verbal nod and a wave, and a reminder to myself about why I skipped several days at this point in my personal history.