Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Day I Became a Dad

Well I suppose that was nine months ago but until it happens then it hasn't happened. Just as until the fat lady sings or the whistle blows the game is not won or lost.

It's a good place to start time. Having a baby in Japan is confusing for foreigners. I've recently concluded that the real religion of the Japanese is not Buddhism or Shinto but Japaneseness. As with all national identities it is partly social engineering and partly true cultural reflection. One of the tenants of Japaneseness is that they recognize only their own version of time. Not only do they count the years since their pathetic Emperor ascended to the throne instead of counting the years since the birth of that pathetic Jew, Jesus; but even more objectionably they insist a baby gestates and is born in 10 months and 10 days. When I flatly denied this to one of my classes they seemed quite put out. After all an attack on one’s religion is a serious matter.

It took the smartest (and youngest) of the old ladies to realize that 10 months and 10 days refers to a lunar calendar. Despite all of the women in the class being a mother only one seemed to recall that they did not carry their children in their womb for 10 months and 10 days.

My wife carried our off-spring for 9 months and one week. She was overdue.

They don't like this in Japan. Babies and trains should be on time. Only big cheese bosses are allowed to be late.

So my wife was given her orders and told to check into the hospital and start induction.

Now I remember induction from my university days. That was the first week when we didn't have any lectures so we could dedicate our time to spending our grants down the bar and hopefully get some baby making practice in.

No such luck for my wife. She was rigged up to a drip and told off for encouraging tardiness.

That was Thursday. My wife went to hospital and I stayed in our flat and continued my job. There was no hurry. The doctor had said induction would last three days so I settled back into bachelor life and discontinued the regimen of washing clothes every day.

On Friday morning I taught my last class of the week and duly checked my emails at 10.20am before going back to bed. I had just put down my book and was anticipating an excellently long snooze when I got a phone call from my mother-in-law. When was I going to the hospital? Later I replied. The doctor said the induction would go on for 3 days so I figured that there was nothing wrong with a bit of sleep since nothing was happening. She phoned off. Having my pre-sleep routine interrupted I went back to my book for a further 10 minutes to get back in the mood. Again as Morpheus gently whispered into my ear to follow the blasted phone went again. It was my snotty eyed juku boss wanting to know what hours I had worked that month. For Pete's sake! I curtly told her I would get back to her.

In the end I got 2 or 3 hours decent kip before the phone went again. It was my wife. It seemed that she and the doctors had decided that the induction wasn't going as planned and that now the big C-section was planned to commence at 4.30pm. Fuck. I put the phone down and immediately the mother-in-law phoned and told me to get to the hospital.

I had a hasty coffee packed a bag full of records and my computer and cycled to the station.

For some reason the downstairs reception area of the hospital was chocka with women. Every bench was taken. Standing room only. None of them looked pregnant. If they needed any help with that I could donate some seed, I thought. Proven product after all.

I pushed through the crowd and found the door to the hospital.

My wife was in a narrow room. There was a Winnie the Pooh clock on the wall, a tiny TV in the corner and a dirty patch on the floor where a mat had escaped its mooring. Mrs. Trippy Traveller was in good spirits despite being hooked up to a machine that constantly made a thumping noise which competed with some obligatory ersatz ‘calming music’ coming from a CD player on the dirty floor. She told me that the doctor had decided to cut her open to extract our daughter. She seemed to think it was a good idea since the drugs weren’t working. Was this immunity due to our former frequent forays into recreational altered states of consciousness I wondered. Next door we could hear the clink of metal as they prepared to operate.

We chatted for a while. Her mother turned up and then it was time. They were late. It turned out that the vast gaggle of women downstairs was delaying kick off.

I kissed my wife and told her it would all be all right.

We waited in the corridor. We saw the doctor in his green surgical kit walk past us. He bowed and went into the operation room.

I had no idea how long it was going to take. The sofa was comfortable and so I pulled out my book thinking perhaps I could do a few pages of Anathem and drift off. Just as I was getting heavy-eyed my mother-in-law got all excited. Sporadic cries came from the operating room. I could hear my wife's voice. Thank God. Both my girls were alive.

We waited an anxious 15 minutes before a nurse bought out the baby for me to hold. It was covered in wrinkles. Its tiny hands and feet were ashen grey. The face looked like an old man. I was reminded of Gollum. Oh well. Emotion welled up in me. My precious.

The doctor came out and tarried briefly to receive our thanks. Then he miraculously came out again and told us that the baby’s leg had got tangled in the umbilical cord. Odd. Why hadn’t he mentioned that 30 seconds ago when we met him in the corridor?

The nurse took the baby away from me and placed it in a plastic box in a room with a big viewing window. There were two other babies in the room. One was born just a few hours before. It had hairs on its back and constantly oscillated between crying and sleeping. I stepped over and looked at the fruit of my loins. Slightly less ashen now but she looked so unhappy. It struck me that being born is the first big injustice done upon us. Torn from warmth, nourishment and protection and forced into a world of plastic. I could see her arms flailing, looking for the walls of the womb. This was the start of psychology: the beginning of the hang ups, disappointments and confusion.

It was also the start of my mother-in-law and her obsession with the baby's weight. 3,294 grams (they can't say 3.3 kg in Japan for some reason) was written on a card placed above the Perspex box. My mother-in-law was on her phone immediately texting and phoning her friends to tell them the baby’s weight. Had they held some type of raffle in secret?

Eventually we were allowed to see the mother. She was fine only she couldn't feel her feet. They moved her into a better room that was 27 degrees Celsius. On the table was a knobbly bit of bloodied umbilical cord. A fat nurse in white crocks came and gave my smiling wife some more drugs and changed the water looking drip for a piss coloured drip solution.

My wife and I chatted about our ugly baby and about the fact that two doctors had performed the operation. They were twins. That explained the corridor encounters. I thought it was a good trippy touch too.

The mother-in-law reappeared with her husband. He had just got back from work. His broad grin showed his ill-fitting dentures. My mother-in-law went off on the topic of the weight. Claiming her first was much heavier. I thought 3 kg was a fair effort - nearly twice as heavy as hairy back boy in the plastic box next to my Sophia. It seemed 3kg was nothing. She must have squeezed out a mountain.

And so it continued in the car to the local bar, in the bar to the locals and on the mobile phone to the other witches in the neighbourhood: the story of how much heavier her baby had been. If I hadn't known my brother-in-law (a superlative consumer and average PE teacher) I might have formed the impression that she had given birth to a black hole.

I ate too much katsu curry, drank two beers and phoned a couple of mates. They weren’t in to going out on the lash so I ended up staying at home and writing this.

Goodnight, Sophia. And may flights of angels protect you from exaggeration.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Local Elections in Japan

"Information is the currency of democracy." Thomas Jefferson

As I write I'm caught in the cross fire of a local election. I've been trying to get my students to talk about this. The majority of them have been reluctant to engage in public political debate. It is a bit like trying to get a discussion going about the pros and cons of incest.

The election is for the local city assembly. There are 21 posts up for grabs and there are 22 candidates running. Already alarm bells are ringing. Only one person doesn't get a job. I like those odds. I'm now considering applying for a Japanese passport so I too can run in such an election.

The campaigns are curious. The candidates don't spend much money on their campaigns. As a result they have three outlets for their electioneering to avoid last spot. The first is a poster which can only be put in designated spots. These spots are billboards with numbers. Each number gets a B4 sized slot.

Every one puts a picture of themselves with their name below and a few words. As is sadly true world-wide image has overtaken content. Spin trumps substance. Psychology prevails over policy. Some candidates have gone for patriotic symbolism – namely Mount Fuji in the background, one has gone for the ‘family-man’ image, and all of them look like business men or women.

The second tool for promotion is the local meeting. The serious candidates set up bases around the city from which to mastermind their election campaigns. People can drop in and meet the star of the show and perhaps get a cup of tea and a nice nibble. I suspect the quality of the nibbles in itself could guarantee avoiding the ignominy of last place.

And the final way to get your message across is to drive around in a car with a PA system attached to the roof. Naturally, the candidates are too busy being lions of commerce or scaling Mount Fuji or sleeping with their nieces to actually do this in person. Instead they hire armies of very irritating women to (wo)man the speakers. And what do these surrogates say?

“Vote for Pol – he promises to subsidize rice prices.” No.
“Vote for Adolf – he will make the streets safe.” No.
“Vote for Vladimir – he will seize the means of production from the autocracy of the corporations.” No.
“Vote for Tony – He doesn’t believe in anything, but he likes the idea of fair play.” No.

They say 2 things and 2 things only. One is “Thank you.” (I suppose the notion of fait accompli has a certain psychological power – or else they are admitting that the election is organized on a Robert Mugabe rubric). The other thing they say is a masterpiece of contradiction: “We are sorry for making so much noise.”

The rules state that the moving tannoy systems can only operate between 8am and 8pm; and that they cannot bring their noise pollution near hospitals and other places where people need quiet. Both rules are broken. I live opposite a big hospital and I hear the wail of thank you's and sorry's quite clearly as I'm sure do the patients on the other side of the road. Furthermore, PA birds cannot help getting a bit of cheeky 8.10pm off-side announcements in.

I've been asking my students about their political choices. Having neither the interest nor the intellectual framework to simply state their positions, I break it down for them. I give my students a list of p’s: policy, personality, previous record and party. Which of these inform your decisions, I ask?

I've questioned half a dozen classes so far and the students have unanimously avoided ‘policy’. Either the political aspirants don't have any policies or the electorate doesn't think policies are important. I feel this could be a chicken and the egg scenario. Which came first the brainwashers or the brainwashing? Several of my old ladies went for personality. When pushed on this, they all respond – I will vote for him because he looks honest. I presume there were those who thought the same thing about Richard Nixon.

The most interesting response has come from my students who are employed by Toyota. They are simply told by their union (unions here don't fight for pay raises or better working conditions) where they should (a ‘should’ is a ‘have to’ in Japan) place their crosses. I study the faces of these students carefully. There appears to be no signs of discomfort or mental coercion. They see nothing wrong in this. I pressed one of my Toyota workers on this point and he stated that he wanted to see more public facilities built. What facilities? I asked. Roads and traffic signals he replied. If they had any more traffic signals in this city it could end up resembling a rave or a near death experience.

What the students failed to realize or care about is that politicians and big business are totally in bed with each other in Japan. The politicians waste tax payers money on big construction projects that are tendered out to a wide range of companies (namely one) and after a glittering political career of avoiding all policy other than the policy of covering Japan in concrete and cars they step gracefully down from heaven into a sweet high paying job in a construction company.

Where I live is car town. A number of big car companies have factories here. A green candidate here is as rare as a true black orchid. Incest must be much more common.

Before I go on to introduce you to some of the star candidates from this year's election I would just like to do the rare thing for me, and that is bring in some balance to my otherwise lopsided invective. There has recently been a groundswell of opposition in Japan to such obvious bullshit politics. Hundreds of thousands of signatures have been gathered in certain areas of Japan protesting against a number of perceived flaws in the current political landscape. The three stand out points being:

1)    A disgust that so many politicians are needed in the first place. This is a very good point. My town has a population of only 50,000 people and yet needs over 20 local representatives to sit in meetings to decide nothing. After all such things as crime and immigration are just not issues. They already have a hospital every square kilometer and a traffic signal every 10 meters. What is there to do?

2)    A profound revulsion at the amount of money these under-worked representatives get for following orders from car companies. Some regions dole out over $8,000 a month to each elected representative. Needless to say nothing is stopping local councilors from having other jobs.

3)    An intense distrust of big public works programs. Many people feel the days when you could just build another bridge or dam or road to nowhere to give people jobs and pump money into the local economy (I mean local concrete corporation) are judged by many clear-sighted Japanese to be in the past. As the population gets  older there is less tax money coming in for environmentally destructive policies. At the same time a growing number of people are calling for a separation of politicians from big business and the ending of the amakudari (descent from heaven) system.

These instances of real democracy – namely democracy truly inspired from the people designed to change what are widely perceived as abuses of power – have met with mixed success. Of course politicians get to vote on the issue of their own pay cuts, and a major can only do so much to address the people's grievances because the major depends on the support of his or her local government. Nevertheless, some areas have managed to cut the number of politicians and the size of their wages.

Those Brahmins who control society in Japan must be very upset at this. They have spent a lot of effort since the end of the war to robotize the electorate. They have already banned ideas from the national curriculum, but I guess just being a democracy carries certain systemic threats to control.

And now that is out the way let's meet this year's hopefuls.
  This man is in pole position and so guaranteed a place. He is clearly saying "I like fisting."
This man has a radioactive glow or is that charisma pouring off him.

I prefer to sneer for the camera.
 Vote for me because I sleep with a foreigner. A very risque political ploy.
 My toupee has slept with over 100 women.

Somebody doesn't like me. Here is real democracy.
 A vote for me is a vote for floppy hair and bushy eyebrows.

The vampire candidate - campaigning for night voting.

I'm against eyebrows but you might sleep with me if you were really drunk.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Pictures of a Cram School in Japan

Japan is proud of its education system. It is a system that has virtually eliminated illiteracy and free thought from the islands.

It is also big business. Really big business. Because competition is fierce for places at the best universities (which have also successfully removed original thought from the syllabus), it is imperative for middle class families to spend a high proportion of their income on extra tuition for their children. What do they get for all this extra money? Well look at the pictures below to see what state of the art facilities are available for those children sent to cram schools to study after regular school.

My wages are as crappy as my surroundings. I try to adjust my effort accordingly, but I feel just turning up on time is giving the shit company who organizes this cram school more than they deserve. This is especially true since I discovered that every month they deduct 500 yen (about $5) from my wages without telling me and for no appreciable reason. (Well I wouldn't appreciate any reason for cheating me out of my slovenly-earned yen).

To read more about the fascinating cultural phenomenon that is juku teaching read:

The Day I Failed To Lose My Job

Cram Schools 


 Teaching resources

State of the art information technology

Hygienic conditions

Always spotlessly clean

Excellent marketing and advertising

In all honesty, when I taught in provincial mainland China in the late 1990s the rooms were cleaner and the equipment was better. And that used to cost students $30 a term.

The only positive in all this, is that it means I can't give a fuck about this job. I have already sworn at my supervisor, not bothered turning up and never do more than 30 seconds in teaching preparation. It is kind of liberating not caring at all. Perhaps this is a modern form of Buddhism in the workplace.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Sora Aki the Kindle Killer Part Two

'Comfort women' being taught how to shoot.
 Gorou and Sora became an item. Officially they were labeled together. Where once other students saw two disparate individuals, they now saw one couple. They were a couple who reflected each other and who magnified the qualities of the other. Both being bright, they were together somehow ‘geniuses. Both being reclusive, they were now no longer anonymous lonely hearts but instead secretive lovers. They were something that was more than the sum of its parts. Their separateness was now seen as something positive. It was because they conformed to romantic norms that the group was keen to re-evaluate the two, to bring them back into the fold.

Gorou saw his relationship with Sora in terms of paradox. He loved dwelling on the topic of how his one and Sora’s one made more than two. How this extra something was a quality and how quality was so hard to define mathematically. Sora enjoyed these discussions because she had just finished Robert Pirsig’s Lila, the follow up to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which dealt with the same issue. She saw quality not as a mathematical oddity but as the heart of humanism: following quality is what drove progress. Deciding what had value and what didn’t was the way and the essential benchmark for happiness. And for her, being with Gorou felt right and must be something that increased the quality of her life.

That is not to say that she wasn’t without misgivings. What irked Sora was the threat to her individuality that coupledom imposed upon her. She sometimes felt that her relationship somehow co-opted her essential self. Suddenly people looked at her and saw not the odd-ball loner, but Gorou’s girl. She loved Gorou and felt pride in this status change, but at the same time she regretted a loss of control. It was as if she no longer had autonomy because she was attached to another person whose character and actions somehow partly defined her. Was it true the other way round she wondered? Do I now partly define Gorou? She hoped so.

From their first sex by the river, the couple never looked back. Everything seemed to happen so naturally. More sex, love, more commitment. By the end of their first year at college the two of them were already discussing the practicalities of sharing an apartment in Tokyo or in nearby Kanagawa. Neither of them came from rich families, and yet they hoped that with part-time jobs they could afford it.
Everything was going great until the summer holidays. The long break. The students had to vacate the dorms and find other accommodation. Most people went home. Neither Sora nor Gorou wanted to return home. Gorou was from a Prefecture in the North and Sora from one in the South. It wasn't distance that would separate them but money. High speed trains or airplanes were a luxury they couldn’t afford. The reality of having to go home and find a shitty job in a convenience store or in a cram school hung like a heavy cloud over their last few days of term. If it was just herself to consider, Sora would have made a decision quickly and would have pursued the matter with as much intelligence and resolve as she could muster. For her thought was wedded to action. But Gorou became entangled in ideas and looked so much before he leaped that in the end he never jumped. And so it was with the holiday problem – he over-thought the problem and ended up doing nothing, just going with the flow, resigning himself to going home to his family.

This led to their first row. Sora accused Gorou of deliberately sabotaging her plan for them to find a cheap apartment or even a shared apartment and to find jobs in the city to make ends meet. Gorou didn’t like the accusation and told Sora that she was being impractical, that she was being ‘too much of a girl’ by letting her emotions cloud her judgments. The row lasted two days. During that time they stopped meeting.

On the third day (and the day before the end of term), Gorou was waiting outside Sora’s lecture hall holding a wrapped present. He apologized and mumbled something about being in the wrong. The girls in her dorm had told Sora that she had to punish Gorou and that instant forgiveness and reconciliation was not playing the game. She should hint that she would take him back but that she should only properly forgive him after he had shown enough contriteness. Otherwise he wouldn't value her. As far as Sora could understand her dorm mates believed that it was obstacles that entangled a man. Obstacles to sex and obstacles to forgiveness convinced a man that a woman was worth chasing and keeping. Easy girls were not girls boys wanted to marry. To Sora this made zero sense. Delaying gratification why? Suffering made pleasure greater? Holding back was the way to get more? Weren't these all games based on bunk psychology? If you are hungry you should eat. If you want to have sex you should have sex. Why wait? And so Sora ignored the advice she was given and smiled at the sight of Gorou all wet-eyed and humble. She took the present.

“I missed you so much. I’m sorry I criticized you. It all seems so unimportant to me. What I want is you. What is this?” Sora asked as she pulled at the tape on the wrapping to open the gift without ripping the gift paper. It was a Kindle. Sora had never seen one before. She thought at first it was some type of over-sized cell phone until Gorou explained that it was a digital reader. He had downloaded 50 books onto the Kindle. Among the 50 were books by Mishima, Dazai, Kobo Abe, Oe, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Joyce, Kafka, Keats, Shakespeare, Yeats and Soseki. She loved it and at that moment she loved Gorou more.
“Am I forgiven, Sora? I don't want to fight with you, especially tonight. This is going to be our last night together for two months. I have a little money saved up. Let’s go to a love hotel and drink cold beer and..”

“Fuck. That's an excellent idea.” Sora loved shocking Gorou with vulgarity.

Ever since losing her virginity she felt liberated. Knowing your sexuality and unashamedly experiencing it was like discovering a secret that had been unfairly hidden for years. What had she been waiting for? Softball, tennis, basketball and all the other daft after-school clubs made no sense to her. They were a waste of physical effort; whereas, sex was another matter entirely. It was a thing worthy of supreme bouts of effort. Breaking the tape at the finishing line had a thunderous sublimity; it tore Sora into a closer connection with now. Nothing was more now than an orgasm.

And knowing that pleasure had layers of intensity, layers that blurred and ran through with a dark vein made Sora consider the excitement and the possibilities; the danger and the rewards; the privacy (even in public) and the intimacy, like being encapsulated in an oil stained bubble. These entire feelings and ideas made Sora feel complete - a woman, not a girl.

Gorou on the other hand saw lust as a dark collapse into animal pleasure, as a retreat from the intellect; as a force of creation but also destruction. Sora was liberated by sex, Gorou was imprisoned in passion. For Sora it was like swimming to the surface from a great depth. For Gorou it was like possession by a force that was stronger than his will. A will that was his but wasn’t his at the same time.

The two young people sensed this difference but neither had found the words or courage to address the issue.

So it was that they spent their last night together in the Triple 5 Hotel. They drank, tried new positions and had lots of baths. On their second bout of lovemaking Gorou pulled out two black silk scarves. He insisted they do it blind-folded and that he be passive. Sora loved the idea and within minutes she had straddled the young man and was using her vaginal muscles and hips to gallop with ferocity towards oblivion. She raised her head, faced the darkness and went at speed into the light. As Gorou could hold back no longer he screamed and submitted.
Images: birds and the bees from
Comfort women :

Catch up on Sora Aki's adventures:

Sora Aki the Kindle Killer Part One

Friday, 13 August 2010

Sora Aki the Kindle Killer Part One

“How oddly situated a man is apt to find himself at the age of thirty-eight! His youth belongs to the distant past. Yet the period of memory beginning with the end of youth and extending to the present has left him not a single vivid impression. And therefore he persists in feeling that nothing more than a fragile barrier separates him from his youth. He is forever hearing with the utmost clarity the sounds of this neighboring domain, but there is no way to penetrate the barrier.”
–Yukio Mishima

Sora Aki meant red sky. It was her nom de guerre as she liked to think of it. Nowadays you had to have a brand and push exposure of that brand hard if you were going to get any real fame or notoriety. It wasn't easy to stand out anymore what with the internet giving mediocrity such an accessible platform for comment. It seemed any real spark of genius was being lost in the deluge of trivia and plagiarism. Any shit head with nothing to say was saying it loud and long. This irritated Sora Aki. Here she was attempting something original and daring and instead of instantly standing out she had to line up behind cake recipes and product reviews in the all encompassing list that was the search engine result.

And then there were the super sluts and the suicides to compete with. What they did always garnered a certain cache amongst the feeble minded – and there were plenty of those in Japan to impress. Sleeping with E-list celebrities or just sleeping with someone else's boyfriend betrayed not only the prurient obsessions of her potential audience but how human weakness titillated. And what was weaker than killing yourself because the world misunderstood you? The feeble minded, to Sora's mind, seemed to rule the roost in Japan. They dominated cultures and sub-cultures with their fanatical autism that rebelled against the standards of the written word, the masterly composition, the flawless narrative, the crystallization of beauty in a picture, the sublime harmony; and instead delved ever deeper into the vacuous world of Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes. Outrageous suntans, dreary derivative pop, perverted cartoons; a lingua franca with adjectives pared down to gobsmackingly inane single figures. A thousand surfaces all vied for young people’s respect in Tokyo. If you wanted to be a 'something' on the scene of cool bars and street corners you had to accessorize your brain like your mobile phone with spangly paste; throw out the real stuff and just keep the fool's gold. 

It also helped if you were cute. Cute looks combined with cute attitudes got you a long way in Shibuya and Shinjuku. Get these cute assets mentored by an arbiter of cute and you could really see your stock rise.

It wasn't because Sora lacked cuteness that she became a serial killer. She didn't have killer looks but she was definitely cute. She knew that boys fancied her. And it didn't need her Mensa IQ to fathom why boys looked at her in that way. She had the basics. Thin legs, a little nose and chin, big eyes and a broomstick body were all hers for the flaunting. What's more she possessed the absences that were just as important in Japan. She lacked the facial birthmarks and moles that blighted many a potentially cute face. She escaped the slitty eyes that ruined people’s manga versions of beauty. She also was fortunate to avoid the coffee cup handle ears that did nothing for facial aesthetics. Perhaps she could have been cuter. Her nose could have been more button-like, her face more oval, her bust more generous; but all in all she was a package worth opening.

Sora felt her worth sharply. From an early age she had made the startling realization that women in Japan were retarded. In the metaphorical sense that society from an early age encouraged women to repulse anything approaching serious thought on society, morals, science, philosophy, religion, literature, economics, history; anything and everything academic or theoretical; any play of ideas; any meta-notions were to be repelled. These were manly spheres of thought. A woman should model herself on a child. She should walk pigeon-toed like a child, she should remain 'cutely' petulant, she should play house, worship the power in men and remain endearingly stupid. Just as somethings were fire retardant so women were raised to be idea retardant. Only the whims of consumerism and the concerns of duty and motherhood were the substances allowed to pass the mental barrier erected by social conditioning. She saw how her mother, her aunts, her cousins, her female teachers, her friends and just about every woman that she encountered and who could be considered a role model for the young school going Sora was a victim of stunted mental growth. They had made the basic mistake of letting notions of femininity take control of their critical faculties.

Sora had come to realize this from an early age. At school she was disgusted with her teachers. They never said it openly but their attitudes made it more than apparent that society expected the future’s doctors, lawyers, engineers and industrialists to come from the ranks of the boys at school. Nothing much except fecundity was expected of the girls.

So she studied hard. She despised club activities and sport. All propaganda for sacrificing to the group, all non-think. She did the minimal and often cried off sick so she could plunge into the world of books. Books were her saviour, her lifebuoy keeping her afloat.

Sora remembered finishing the Alex Haley biography of Malcolm X late one night and suddenly grasping why John Lennon said 'woman is the nigger of the world'. At fifteen Sora understood the notion of cultural slavery and the power of fighting back. She saw the innate rightness of defending your rights and in not adopting Buddhist indifference, Confucian acceptance or Christian sacrifice.

Sora was stuck. Shortly after puberty she knew that she wasn't a lesbian and anything like transsexual. She simply fancied boys and conformity to certain rules seemed the only way to get a boy friend. She had her limits though and it wasn't until she got to university that she met a boy who not only liked her but who also was acceptable to her, who didn't patronize, who didn't attempt to put her down, put her in her place; a man with a modicum of free thought. His name was Gorou. He was the fifth son and it seemed to Sora that his birth position was somehow relevant in understanding why Gorou was different to other boys.

Sora met Gorou one evening when both of them had gone to sit by the small river near the university dormitories. Sora had gone there to escape the summer heat and giggling lunacy of her dorm mates. Gorou was sitting on the concrete steps leading down to the river by himself drinking beer.

Sora approached the solitary figure. As she came closer she could make out his features in the twilight. He had a straight high nose, almost foreign and a matching high forehead. Long tousled hair hung over half his face. He had thick, generous lips and as he turned to look at Sora, she saw fragility in his eyes.

“What do you want?” He asked. His words were preemptory but he spoke softly. The tension between form and content intrigued Sora.

“Nothing. Maybe one of your beers.” He pulled one of the cans from the six pack. It was a silver bullet, an Asahi Dry. He passed it to Sora. She sat down next to him, cracked the beer and joined him staring at the slow moving dark water and the distant high rise city scape.

“You know Mishima wrote in one of his novels that murder would be easy on a beautiful late afternoon. I've been sitting here watching the sunset every day this week and I'm beginning to understand what he means. It's a feeling of dying with the end of a beautiful day.” Gorou spoke the words without bothering to look at Sora.

Sora didn't answer immediately. She was considering what the man sitting next to her had said.

“You're not another one of those morons who want to kill themselves are you?”

Gorou laughed.

“So perhaps you want to kill someone then. For aesthetic purposes. I always thought Mishima was partly in love with his own death because he wanted a beautiful corpse. I gather he was a bit of a weakling at school. No doubt the bookish type that everyone picked on. Shame. Just goes to show.”

“What does it show?” Gorou's interest was piqued. He'd never heard a girl speak like this before. And he couldn’t help notice that despite the all-black clothes and lack of make-up this girl was kind of cute.

“It shows that art somehow transcends the pathetically human. You know: the artist can be flawed but can somehow produce the flawless. Mishima's words captured the world's attention but his action of trying to incite a revolution fell nearly entirely on deaf ears.”

“Hey what's your name?”

And so it began. Sora and Gorou met repeatedly by the river at the end of the day and talked and drank beer. Sora revealed her thoughts about how difficult it was to relate to other Japanese women. Her disappointment that so few people took their university studies seriously. The lack of passion she detected in her lecturers. And Gorou agreed with her. He spoke at length about maths. How it was the only pure language, the only language without paradox or ambiguity. A zero could never be a one. And from this basis maths could be made to describe nearly any process. How mathematics was behind every great leap in scientific understanding. How math was what really drove human evolution.

Gorou also spent time dwelling on the dark side of mathematics. How maths also demonstrated uncertainty. How what we thought was the world of solidity dissolved into probability. How at the heart of everything was the chaos of unpredictable sub-atomic particles. Gorou also started talking about how mathematics could demonstrate paradox. For example Cantor’s theorem which threw up the contradictory notion that infinities could be different sizes. Infinity, uncertainty, chaos and paradox were mathematical for Gorou whereas for Sora these mighty ideas were the stuff of art. 

On another occasion Gorou returned to the subject of Cantor and his attempt to quantify infinities. He spoke with grim relish about how Cantor had driven himself schizophrenic with his obsession to find a proof for his theorem. Sora wasn't sure if Gorou was showing off or whether madness, chaos and death appealed to the young man. It was as if the discipline of maths was made profound by the darkness that surrounded the clarity of numbers, symbols and equations.

Sora felt herself drop her guards as she listened night after night to the pale loner by the river cast the world afresh for her in a matrix of numbers and formula, algebra and logic. How he explained the motive force of history in terms of the genius of new theories and proofs that could be understood by anyone with a brain from the Aztecs to the Martians. Maths was the real language of the universe.

The young virgin Sora Aki's field was the arts – literature, visual art, sociology, philosophy; and to hear the beauty of the world and the mind described in the completely new terms of numbers and symbols of numbers intrigued her. She grasped at an intuitive level the shared purpose of all real knowledge. And at the same time she gasped at the realization that she was falling for Gorou. His mind was like a beacon illuminating his body. As she saw the worth of his mind so she began to feel his physical presence.

In short she wanted him but felt the virgin's frustration in not knowing how to proceed or deal with her desire. What she wanted was the next stage. That was Gorou penetrating her, being in her. She became to dream about coupling with the pale boy by the river. She couldn't understand why he just sat there night after night talking about certainty and uncertainty, evolution and madness, insight and paradox.

In an attempt to move things along Sora broke her rules of not pandering to the idiocy of female vanity and borrowed a short skirt from a dorm mate and a tiny top. She even painted her lips blood red. She had read that painted lips suggested swollen labia. She looked in the mirror to check herself out and even stooped to ask the other girls what they thought. They cooed and clucked and Sora took that as a good sign.

When she went down to the river that night Gorou did indeed spend an extra moment looking at Sora as she drew near their trysting spot. But the interest seemed only momentary because he soon cast his eyes back to the dark river and started asking her about the writer Dazai.

“Look Gorou. Fuck Dazai. Are you gay?”

Gorou dragged his eyes from the river and looked again at Sora. He smiled a warm clear smile and Sora lunged for his lips.

Gorou gave Sora her answer. His hands squeezed her small breasts and his tongue flickered in her mouth. When he reached up her skirt she was shocked to realize that her panties were sodden with desire. Gorou didn't need any more of an invite. He got up and rearranged his jeans to accommodate his hardness and then took Sora's hand. They walked quickly down the steps to the river and then along the concrete path to a concrete structure that had something to do with sewage or water level control. The one side was half hidden by bushes and tall pampas grass. When they reached the hidden alcove they stripped and lay their clothes on the rough concrete and with a lack of gentleness Gorou forced open Sora. It was like stabbing. She uttered a noise that was half scream and half groan. Gorou muffled the outcry with kisses.

It lasted only a few minutes but for those few minutes Sora had been transfixed and transformed. Her body had already intimated to her the pleasure that lay behind the pain.

When they had finished and the ardor had drained from the moment they dressed and smoked.

“Am I your girlfriend now?”

Gorou looked beautiful in the shadows of the dying day. “Forever.”

And so it began. They fucked by the river, they fucked in karaoke boxes; they sometimes splashed the cash and fucked in love hotels. They fucked where ever and whenever they could and it seemed to Sora that it was getting better and better.

One night pressed to the side of a quiet local shrine Gorou took Sora from behind and without expecting it what Sora had been longing for happened. Her first orgasm. The sensation ripped through her body and left her twitching with bodily joy. And with that orgasm came her first conviction of love. For the first time in her life she wanted to belong to a man. Her intellectual independence was brushed aside by her physical and emotional need for Gorou. She no longer wanted to stand separate and scornfully judgmental of university life. She now felt connected through the man in her life. She even began to catch herself listening to her dorm mates’ never-ending boy sagas. Intricate and ineptly told stories of ups and downs, delights and disappointments. It struck Sora that these women were all trying to train their men to be good partners but that they invariably failed. And yet because of ‘love’ they often excused what seemed to Sora the inexcusable and continued with the relationship. Love was a drug that it was social suicide to reject. Sora's newfound connection with her dorm mates hadn't stopped her despising their shallow outlooks and limited vocabulary. She could empathize with the true meaning of relationship – coital satisfaction and shining admiration, but she just couldn't bring herself to feel even pity for the girls when they spoke in terms of handbags and hairdos, fancy restaurants and expensive presents or worst of all infidelity and begrudging forgiveness.

Sora told herself that Gorou was different. He would never betray her. Theirs was a higher, truer, purer love. A meeting of minds as well as bodies.  The stuff of poetry and maths.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Mr. Happy Things

Otis Redding called himself Mr. Pitiful and in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy there was Marvin the Paranoid Android. Both these cultural icons fire synaptic connections every Monday morning when I teach Mr. T. Somehow these cultural connections blend with my image of a medieval Benedictine monk who has inflicted upon himself a vow of misery and hardship which entails spending interminable hours in a Spartan cell contemplating this vale of tears.

Mr. T. is the only man in the class. The other students are middle-aged housewives who are intent on filling their days with happy sacrifices for their family, shopping and afternoon chats over a long lunch. Every week they have some pleasant tale of food, shopping, travelling or family to share with the class. Mr. T. is the only member of the class with any professed religious beliefs. He is a Catholic and has an austere haircut with a centre parting that no doubt contributes to my mental image of him as a penitential monk struggling with an uneasy conscience. It is not the case, however, that Mr. T. is perpetually depressed like Marvin the Android. It is rather that he seems to only enjoy the dour and morose aspects of his existence. He takes a certain stoical relish in recounting the bleak. It is tinged with maudlin in the sense not of tears but of sentimentality. How he reminds me of Marvin is in two ways – firstly he is very well educated with nearly flawless English. His brain is not the size of a planet but in comparison to the other students it does seem elephantine. And secondly, just as Marvin's rampant depression produces moments of inspired comedy so does Mr. T's bleak outlook create a jovial atmosphere amongst the twittering ladies of the class. It is as if he has sucked out all the sadness from the air and jealousy hordes it. With no sadness to go round we all have to feast on gaiety instead. 

Every week I ask a similar question to Mr. T. And it goes something like this:

“Do you have anything happy to tell us today, Mr. T?”

And now it is a running joke for the class. Mr. T. is a touch too pompous to notice that I am taking the piss, but the ladies immediately get my sarcasm and snigger with guilty delight. And like the miserable fool that he is, he runs straight into my trap and without fail manages to recite in his bumbling way a tale of woe. A tale lacking in sound and fury that habitually signifies nothing other than he should have spent his youth getting high and chasing poontang.

Below I will recount some of Mr. T's more memorable happy reflections.

Tale 1

“Anything happy for us today, Mr. T?”

“Yes, last Saturday my wife and I took the train to Aomori Prefecture to lay to final rest the ashes of my father-in-law. It was very hot. They were very busy in Aomori Prefecture because they are extending the shinkansen line to increase tourism.”

Masterful little prose poem this combining with a poet’s lightness of touch the disparate elements of death, tourism and high speed train travel.

Tale 2

“Do you have something happy for us today, Mr.T?”

“Yes, I want to speak about an experience a friend told me recently. My friend is a taxi driver. There was a JAL plane crash. The plane crashed into Mount Takamagahara in 1985. The plane crash killed 500 people. There were only 4 survivors. My friend was a taxi driver. He had to go to the memorial service for the victims. There are no trains on the mountain. No public transport. After the memorial service it was too late to move the dead bodies so they were stored in the local community centre. There were no hotel rooms available so my friend and many other taxi drivers slept with the dead bodies in the community centre. The next morning he drove one of the dead bodies back to its home. Every victim was taken back home by taxi. The most expensive taxi journey was 350,000 yen. JAL paid for the taxis for the dead bodies.”

“And why did you tell us this Mr. T?”

“Because my friend was one of the taxi drivers.”

Mr. T’s account of the plane crash, memorial service and sleeping with corpses was actually much more protracted than my rendition of his speech. Mr. T. squeezed the tale for all the time that he could by filling the classroom with circumlocutions and repetitions. His tone was not one of horror at the awful accident or even of anger for the incompetence of Japan Airlines. Rather it was admiration for how everyone pitched in to deal with the logistics of shifting so many dead bodies and how marvelous that JAL chucked millions of yen away on taxi fares. My only question was why didn't they rent cars and drivers? That would have been much cheaper than going on the meter. And I did mention that I would have slept outside rather than in a hall with 500 coffins.

Tale 3

“Tell us something cheerful, Mr. T. I don't want any more stories about dead people.”

“Yes, OK. Recently I have the feeling that I don't have much longer to live. My life is running out. Now the time is limited. Only a few more times can I see the colour of autumn leaves. There is so much that I cannot do before I die.”

“I see. And what is it that you want to do before you die?”

“I want to plant more fig trees in my garden. Insects ate my last tree. It was an Israeli fig tree.”

We all tried and failed to keep a straight face when Mr. T. delivered this gem of nonsense.

Tale 4

“So Mr. T. please let's have something uplifting today. I know. What did you do at the weekend?”

I was crossing my fingers and praying that it wasn't the anniversary of some awful massacre or natural disaster somewhere and sometime in Japan (it was obvious Mr. T. took no pleasure in the pain of foreigners and indeed felt that only Japanese and only himself in particular could really appreciate suffering and devastation). Mr. T. really excelled himself with this one. We all thought he was going to play a brave and cheerful melody. The first few carefree notes lulled us into a brief moment of hope before he tore apart the illusion of happiness with a series of thunderous chords of pathos.

“I went to a school reunion on Saturday to see my old school friends. The reunion was in Z Prefecture. I grew up in Z Prefecture. I was really looking forward to meeting my classmates, especially one girl that I really loved.

“But she wasn't there. Emiko didn't come to the reunion. I was very sad. She was the girl that I should have married. I loved her at school but after college I moved away and married my wife. That was a mistake. I really wanted to see Emiko.”

One of the ladies couldn't help interrupting. She asked: “Does your wife know about Emiko? About your love for Emiko?”

“Yes, I have told her.”

Silence poured down upon us that moment. I thought yes of course he's going to tell his wife about it. Surely his wife bears the brunt of this Marvin misery nonsense. This man really does want to be called “Mr. Pitiful”. If I were her I would have long ago killed Mr. T. by over salting his food or I would have fled the house in the middle of the night. Not however, before I had hacked to death his fig trees from Israel.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The Three Note Principle or How 'Wa' Works in Japan

The Japanese are such pussies; and such spineless pussies to boot. And I guess the more they display their spinelessness so the more facetious I become. This is all about the abhorrence with which Japanese people living in Japan (I believe many of them escape both the country and the collective conscious) have with direct confrontation.

Let me step back a bit and give you the adumbrated series of events leading up to my current bafflement and anger.

Three months ago I started a new job which came with a flat above the teaching room. In most ways a sweet gig with few hours, no fucking Saturday morning lessons (if you have done it then you know why that last ‘fucking’ was the most necessary adjective in this whole piece), and no fucking kids' speech contests (ditto). The genius of the job is compounded by the fact that my predecessors have nearly all been complete rookie teachers. A washed-out and badly groomed hippy veteran giving 10% is more effective than a charismatic sophomore giving the job 50%. The same sort of rule applies in armies I believe.

Anyway the school caters mainly for old ladies and the odd white collar victim looking to learn a bit of English. It is run by a committee who meet a few times a year to talk about the weather. There is a secretary who has that very modern sickness of thinking that anything not involving two programs on her computer is outside of her remit. Hence her 'zone' is surrounded by piles of old newspapers, broken equipment and mountains of other unnoticed trash that sadly excel doesn't have a button to deal with.

The secretary is aided in her paid duties by unpaid volunteers who calculate my wages after tax and buy bits and pieces for the classroom. I have always wondered why they don't get rid of the paid secretary and replace her with some well meaning sucker who will work for free; if it can be described as work. I would be happy to share the saved revenue with the school.

To return to my story, three months ago I moved into the flat upstairs. This was difficult because although the last teacher was gone nothing else had been removed. The small apartment was full of the detritus of several years of teachers. Stacks of useless teaching books and magazines, as well as broken pens, irritating fluffy toys, used chip fat and a half bottle of deodorant (that might have been a message) were all squeezed into the few storage spaces which were supposed to be at my disposal.

It was very nice of these previous teachers and the several non-executive school helpers to provide me with a full quota of pointless junk. Perhaps they thought it would allay any feelings of homesickness. However, being odd as I am, I kind of wanted some executing done to make some space for my own personal junk.

Not wishing to make waves before I started the job I begrudgingly took the responsibility for others' crap. Rather than confront my new employers with exhortations to action, I sought to cunningly shift some of the rubbish around.

The weekend before my first lesson I let myself into the classroom. I was in search of a shelf or cupboard in need of a crap top-up. I looked for ten minutes. The teaching room had photos, souvenirs, teaching books, broken equipment, flash cards, pencil stubs, magazines, cassettes and half finished arts and craft projects dating back to the 70s. Was this a time capsule waiting for civilized chimps one million years from now to dig  up and discover that there was a thing called ‘Australia’ which was possibly an odd cult involving bad hair cuts, sea festivals and making faces out of paper plates? A cult that valued glitter, broken scissors and ‘English conversation’?

Ah my kingdom not for a horse (where would I put it) but just half an empty cupboard. In the end I found a metal locker that had been overlooked. The thing was only loosely packed. What a find! Like that bloke in The Road finding a can of coke for his post-apocalyptic kid. I quickly grabbed a handful of books about entertaining kids with paper plates from my flat and squeezed them into the lucky locker. Now I too had contributed to chimp archaeology one million years in the future.

Sadly, my ruse wasn't to go unnoticed for a million years. It only lasted three months. If the chimps have records of Trippy Traveller in the future then I do sincerely apologize for this, but if you look in the flat next door to mine you will find a broken washing machine and all kinds of other goodies.

After three months the first of the notes arrived. It was an email from a volunteer helper. She had spoken to the Japanese teacher who gives lessons on Sunday mornings to South Americans keen to learn enough of the local lingo to avoid being sent back to the Andes or the Amazon. The Japanese teacher complained that I had used ‘her CD player’ and done something with her ‘text’.

I got this cryptic email on Sunday night. It was made all the more confusing by a preamble about late nights watching football games on TV. This need to start messages with the inane I find insinuating. Was she suggesting that football was making me interfere with other's equipment and ‘text’? I focused on the intelligible and pointed out in my reply email that there were two CD players in the classroom, only one of which worked. I had no idea that there were any restrictions on the use of the one CD player that worked. After all, it had been left out for 3 months.

On Monday morning I began to suspect something odd and Japanese was afoot. The only functioning player had been hidden. I took a quick look around the classroom but I didn't want to open any cupboard or locker doors for fear of being drowned in shit that the chimps might be needing in the future.

The mystery was cleared up after the lesson. My wife ran into one of the unpaid helpers who explained that the CD player belonged to the Japanese class and I wasn’t to use it. That's why the sad bitch had hidden it. For 3 months (and possibly a year before that) she had left it out and only now was she deciding to get all ‘mine mine’ on me.

A message was relayed via my wife that the other CD player didn't work and I hadn't touched her precious fucking player and that she should take a prize winning Japanese radish and spend a good hour fucking herself. I think a lot of that might have been lost in translation. Instead the unpaid helper went out and bought a new player. For over a year they had had no idea that the last English teacher had no means of playing CDs or tapes (other than gasp shock horror using the Japanese teacher's player). Either the previous English teacher had been so charismatic that he hadn't done a listening exercise or he too should have been made to feel the shame of wrongfully using the Japanese teacher's player.

But that was not the end of it. That evening a pile of books and magazines appeared on a chair along with a note in Japanese attached to the chair back. The writing was in big characters for all to read. All I knew was that it said my name and the name of the secretary. My evening students blithely ignored the note and encroaching rubbish. The Japanese are masters at not seeing things if it affects their ‘wa’ or harmony.

I took a leaf out of their book and did the same. After the lesson I turned off the light and went upstairs to drink beer and watch the footie.

The next afternoon the third note arrived. I had gone into the classroom early evening to prepare a lesson for a couple of middle school girls. Attached to the white board was a note from the secretary. It accused me of putting the books and magazines in the Japanese teacher's locker and that I should either give the books to my students or put the rubbish out to be recycled. Thus, the mystery of the ‘text’ was cleared up. After three months the Japanese teacher had noticed that her locker contained lots of unwanted stuff. It seems her ‘wa’ had prevented her noticing this for 3 months or she rarely used her locker. I guess the latter explanation was the case. She probably used it to store crap she would never use again and just resented someone nicking her trash space. Or she was creating her own unique message for the chimp excavators of the future, and had just let the project slide for 3 months. Anyway I tied up the offending articles this morning and took them to the recycling point.

So with one email shrouded in some unfathomable connection between CD players and football, one note in Japanese and one note in English the buck had been passed until it finally reached me the foreigner. No direct confrontation was required and the ‘wa’ could flow unimpeded again.

Now I'm plotting my revenge. I'm thinking of murdering the secretary and chopping her scrawny body up into pieces. These pieces I'll put in air-tight bags and stash them in the most inaccessible regions of the classroom where only the chimps will find them and conclude that the ‘Australians’ had pharaonic tendencies.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Another Four Years to Add to the Hurt

I don't know the final score. I expect some smug git will tell me. I wish I could kill the messenger and get away with it. My guts are twisted in bile. Venom is pouring from heart. A venom that turns to self pity in the time it takes Germany to score their fourth.

That's when I turned off the TV. I'm not going to watch another game of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. What is the point? Fuck off to the irritating vuvuzelas (which I've been selling) and fuck off to the shitty plastic Jabulani ball (which I thinking about trying to sell). A ball not stitched but glued. Fewer parts and less possibility for spin. The cheeky Japanese have been using in it the J-league for a number of months prior to the Finals. No wonder Honda and the other Japanese dude were the only ones so far to get it up and down from a free kick. A shit World Cup with a shit sound track and a shit Adidas ball to compound it all.

There’s nothing sadder than impotent anger and I have it in spades. This is so English of me. I rail against injustice and cry for fair play, when what I really want is for my sodding team to beat the Germans. It is going to happen in a tournament eventually. Surely in my life time. That will be a sweet day. England’s chavish populace will go wild. And me too. Publicans will make a killing. The street cleaners will have to put in over-time the following day. Let me dwell on the vision of future victories in this dark hour of despair. Here I am punching at the keys of my laptop trying furiously to work this out of my system. Outside it is raining. After that nightmarish vision of some Polish or Turkish expletive scoring the fourth I went out in the rain in my shorts and crooks without an umbrella in search of alcohol and the promise of oblivion.

I get back and the flat is deafeningly quiet. My wife watches another channel with the sound down low. She knows that I’m looking to burst out in rage at the smallest provocation. I feel like a twat for behaving this way. But how can you turn off your feelings. I seethe at our defence. I rage at the ref for disallowing Fat Frank's goal in the first half. I curse Capello for being just as unimaginative as every other coach we’ve had for the last 15 years. I also hold it against James for not being able to save three goals that shot straight past his body only inches away.

My only solace is the thing I always tell my students when the subject of sport comes up. I tell them (I fear they don't understand despite me laboring the point) it is not your achievement. It is the competitor's or competitors' achievement. It is really nothing you can take credit for. It is a con. A joke. Designed to distract you from the shittiness of your life. These sports people that you love are having a laugh. You invest your hard-earned emotion on them and they get paid anyway. They live in luxury because you imagine stupidly that their achievements are somehow yours. That is the great lie of patriotism. As the war poet Wilfred Owen pointed out the clarion call to sacrifice spouted by Horace of: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori, is complete and utter shit. There is nothing noble and sweet about dying for your country. There is nothing sweet in cheering for your country. For the average person what they have got is what they have earned. They have paid their taxes to Caesar and owe nothing more to him. Don't worship your keeper and certainly don't step in front of a bullet for a vacuous ideal. Football is the ultimate in vacuous ideals. The world game is just escapism from a world where the 1% own 90%. Do you imagine that for a moment the 1% care less whether Frank’s goal was disallowed?

Oh well. Better this pointless stabbing at ideology then brooding on another disappointing World Cup.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Baby Lecture and Playing Heskey Up Front

Even Heskey is puzzled at the insistence that he throw on an English jersey.

On a drunk and stoned night somewhere in South America I convinced myself that it was a good idea to try and get my wife pregnant. Inspiration and impaired reasoning seem to have an uncanny resemblance at such moments. The cold morning light rationalist in me wisely counseled me that there were already too many people in the world and that when oil started running out nature would effect a horrific cull on the mammalian species that had attacked the planet like a virus. Opposed to this calm voice was the bacchanalian prophet screaming in my ear about the genius of creation, the possibility of bringing forth greatness into the world.

As I sat in the lecture for fathers who wanted to attend the birth of their children on a Saturday afternoon I began to wonder why I had listened to that drunken nut job of an internal voice. The woman lecturing us had psychotic red lipstick and scarily big teeth. She poured forth a torrent of polysyllabic advice, continually using the question form but not stopping for answers. I was trying my best to ignore her. Would Capello play Heskey? I wondered. Would we go with the standard and predictable 4-4-2 formation or would the new manager surprise everyone and play Rooney as the loner striker with a hungry Gerrard lurking just behind the front man? These were key points to consider, but made difficult to mentally pin down by the rhetorical madness of the woman in front of me. The middle aged government food specialist informed the mothers and fathers present that pot noodles were not healthy food. Yes, yes, but what about Joe Cole? Was his football guile being sacrificed for the work rate of Milner?

My wife had told me well in advance that I had to attend this one lecture as a minimum requirement for being at the birth of my daughter. It seemed like a distant elephant at the time. Now it was coming back to haunt me. After only 10 minutes of being there I was beginning to feel that the whole experience had a similar boredom quotient to cram school teaching. The minutes ticked by slowly in complete contrast to the manic fast rantings coming from the mouth with the massive front teeth. She reminded me of those fake nurses who used to do the rounds of hospital beds in Africa persuading mothers to switch from breast milk to Nestle powered milk. Only Bugs Bunny in front of me was pushing Beanstalk products like a motherfucker. She stopped her verbal assault only to hand out freebie Beanstalk powdered milk and yoghurt. Telling us how it contained extra iron. She pulled out this huge plastic bin and extolled the virtues of the Beanstalk bottle sterilizer.

Would Ledley King last the full ninety minutes? Would Jamie Carragher do one of his dodgy tackles and concede a penalty? God I had two hours of this lecture to last.

Finally, Big Teeth seemed to run out of frighteningly obvious things to tell us and freebies to hand out and let us take a short break. I immediately shot out the building and around the corner to have a crafty fag. How was I going to stay sober enough to focus on a game that started at 3.30am? Where should I watch the game? Would it be off-side as a husband to not watch the England match with my wife? All key considerations.

Being a good citizen I picked up my fag butt and slipped it down the side of the plastic wrapping of my fag packet and walked slowly and reluctantly back to the lecture room.

Back in the small room I noticed a couple of mothers had already scarpered. My wife pulled a face at me when she smelled the cigarette smoke on my clothes.

For Part Two a taller middle aged woman wearing a Winnie the Pooh apron took the floor. My wife liked her, but to me she seemed madder than the last old bird. This one suddenly lapsed into bizarre voice impersonations. I suspected that she had spent so long talking to babies that she couldn’t help modulating her tones and babbling Telly Tubby Japanese. She seemed to be talking about ‘image training’. Was that something similar to what Posh had done to Becks? I pondered. And so I fell back into fretting over Capello’s short-sightedness of playing Heskey who had only scored 3 Premiership goals all season. There was a scary pattern with Emile Heskey. He managed to convince managers of his worth as a non-scoring striker by providing a few neat lay-offs for the scoring striker.

Cartoon voice woman dimmed the lights and started up a CD with image training. It was like one of those self-hypnotism tracks that turn you from a timid under-achiever to a master of the universe in 90 minutes. I looked around the room. Several women had their heads down pretending to concentrate but probably just dozing or perhaps secretly fearing that South Korea would do the business tonight and make Japan look really second rate when they got around to playing. I took the opportunity to pull out my book and read a few pages of God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. Anything to get my mind off the Heskey problem. Would Crouch be any better? Well he was taller, but not particularly good at heading the ball. Stuff about the Catholic Church supporting Fascism in Italy mingled with the problem of playing Fat Frank and Stevie Me together in midfield. The soothing music did some good in calming my nerves. Surely we were good enough to see off America with their sprinkling of Fulham and Everton players. The image training worked. By the time the lights went back up I was solidly confident that it would all come good on the night for the Three Lions. It was a piss easy group and besides the conventional wisdom is that you should build in form during a tournament. It was no good scoring a plethora of goals against the lesser sides and then hitting a dry spell in the knock out stages when it counted.

Salma Hayek breast feeding a baby in Africa because her mother had run out of milk. That's got to be better than Nestle

The lecture was over. Winnie the Poh plugged the image training CD and concluded the presentation. As the CD finished I was reminded for no reason of the constant bee hum of the South African vuvuzela. Humongous Canines was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps she had an appointment in Africa where the Beanstalk brand had a very poor market share. Anyway, nearly everyone bolted to the front to get their baby book stamped to prove that they had suffered the indoctrination and were thus entitled to use the hospital to give birth.

Outside I told my wife that we should buy plenty of food with iron in to avoid the necessity of getting Beanstalk products. I then walked with my loved one to the station where she was going to be picked up by my mother-in-law. I was off home for a quick nap before the footie started.

It all fell out pretty much as I had feared. Heskey did one decent reverse pass to Gerrard that set up the goal. Capello was now doomed to make the same mistake as Gerrard Houllier and persist with the non-scoring striker. American Fulham put up a spirited fight but it was the ineptitude of our keeper that threw away the three points. I hadn’t even remembered about the English drought of competent goalies such was my concerns over playing Heskey up front.

Robert Green let us down. Not Heskey.

Monday, 10 May 2010

The Power of Dreams

I have been teaching English to non-native speakers for years. It's not a bad job. I meet new people all the time and often I have a laugh with my students. One thing I've noticed over the years is how people from different countries have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning English. For example, South Americans tend to be great communicators but less than fastidious with their grammar. Asians in contrast often fear verbal communication but have an awesome capacity for memorizing complicated grammatical structures.

At the moment I'm teaching mostly middle-aged and middle-class house wives in a small rural town. Today I tackled the difficult subject of the present perfect. My students were three house wives – Nani-ki, Naninani-ko and Nani-ko. They've all had some type of tertiary education. They've all been studying English for years. The present perfect could not feasibly be new for them. Yet I knew before I started it would be a taxing lesson so I simplified my lesson plan (in my head) and just focused on the present perfect to describe experience. The context was world travel. The activity was a board game. The students had to roll a dice and move around the world collecting experiences. Then after 20 minutes of playing the game they have to report back to the class about where they have been and what they have done. For example, 'I have visited the lost city of Petra in Jordan', or 'I have crossed the Sahara Desert on a camel', or 'I have eaten cakes in Vienna' or 'I have seen the pyramids of Egypt'. In all there are 25 possible places and activities to tick off.

The first thing I noticed about Nani-ki, Naninani-ko and Nani-ko is that none of them knew their way around a map of the world. I'm aware that the Japanese have adopted the Chinese map (what haven't they borrowed from China?) but still once you adjust to the fact that Europe not China is the centre of the world it should be a cinch to find Antarctica or India or Brazil. After all, the countries all stay in the same place relative to their neighbouring countries. But no, I labored with the Nani sisters. They looked for Australia in South America and they puzzled over Siberia looking for Rio de Janeiro.

Not one to be easily deterred from an impromptu lesson plan I gritted my teeth and tried to keep the frustration out of my voice and we saw the game through to the bitter end. I got the Nani sisters to make sentences in the present perfect to describe where they had been and what they had done. I wrote out a lot of prompts on the board to help them. We really zeroed into the grammatical form and when to use it. It was just a pity that a game that should be fun and interesting was so protracted and punctuated with corrections and geographical ignorance that it lost most of its inherent fascination.

Oh well, I thought as the final 5 minutes of the 90 minute class came round. I tried and something of the lesson must stick. I risked my neck for the final moment of the class.

“So, you have a list in front of you of many places in the world and the activities you can do in these places. Tell me where would you like to go and what you would like to do?”

It was chancing it throwing a second conditional question at the Nani clan but I'd done something similar in numerous other classes in Japan. The context should have made the question overwhelming clear. And indeed, Nani-ki and Naninani-ko did grasp the meaning of my final question.

The oldest, Nani-ki, said after a brief brain storm, “Drink coffee in Istanbul.” The grammar was wrong but full marks for understanding the question and getting out an appropriate response.

Next up was Naninani-ko, the youngest and smartest: “I would like to see the pyramids in Egypto.” Other than that irritating “to” spot on.

And for the grand finale, I asked Nani-ko whom I had deliberately left to last because she was the weakest student. Every lesson she arrives 30 minutes late despite having got up at 5am - exactly 5 hours before the class begins. She lives just a few clicks from the school. Not my favourite. I asked the question again:

“Where would you like to go?”

I was kinda hoping in my own whimsical manner for something shocking and left field like, “I'd like to try a spot of sex tourism in Africa” or “I'd love to visit an opium den in Laos” or even “I wouldn't mind clubbing seals in Greenland.” What did I get?

“Driving in Chiba.”

If I had had a gun at that point I might have emptied four bullets into her barely functioning brain. I'm not sure about the exact ramifications of such an act but I think it could have resulted in a net gain for humanity.

Instead, I implored Nani-ko to try again. The other two Nanis coached her in Japanese so there could be no doubt about what was required from her.

“Eat sushi in Tokyo.” Four more imaginary dum dum bullets left a smoking gooey mess where her face used to be.

“You have already eaten sushi in Tokyo. It has to be a new experience. Something you really want to do.” She had a handout in front of her with 25 suggestions. She had the benefit of a Japanese explanation from her fellow students. She had been submersed in world travel destinations for 55 minutes. There was little more I or the other students could do. Even Pankun the performing TV chimp might have proved up to the task if he had been allowed to point to a picture.

We waited.

Nani-ko gave me the thousand yard stare.

It's a wise man who knows when to cut his losses; when to walk away from the table. I did just that.

“OK. That's all for today. Thank you very much. I'll see you next week.”

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The Day I Failed To Lose My Job

The mobile phone rang three times and then went silent. My wife and I were in our flat in Japan. We did the usual routine of hurriedly checking all the obvious places where the phone could be. We soon located it, but the caller had already hung up.

It was the manager of the cram school where I'm working part time at the moment. I was slightly irritated that the old woman with the puss weeping eyes always did this – namely phone and hang up after three calls. And I always phoned back, and often she wouldn't pick up. Irritation like ants in my ear or under my skin flushed through my central nervous system.

I phoned back. Just an answering machine costing me money. I left it ten minutes and phoned back again.

I barely held my annoyance in check as I spoke: “Yes, Meiwaku. What is it?”

The dithering thin voice of the over-weight, middle-aged snot eyed woman began: “You didn't come to your lesson today.”

“You said Wednesday, not Monday.”

“No, I said Monday.”

“I don't think so. We had this same problem last week. I write down the day and time as soon as we arrange a lesson.”

“No, I said Monday because I know you can't make Wednesday.” She got me there because I did say I was too busy on Wednesdays. But on this occasion, the timing was convenient to let me get between my regular job and the filthy cram school classroom. The mountain needed to explain all this seemed to be beyond me.

“Fuck, this is not working out, Meiwaku.”

Silence at the other end of the phone so I continued.

“You won't use email. You cannot remember when I'm supposed to teach. I don't want to work for you anymore. When am I going to get paid? I've had enough. “

“Can you come in to teach on Friday? 4.30 to 6.30?” The witchy nut job voice asked.

“Why is it that you only ring three times and then hang up?”


My wife had to go to work and as she walked out the door, this final calming influence left my vicinity. I started shouting.

“Why the fuck do you hang up after three rings? Answer me.”

This elicited an answer: “Because I'm busy.”

“Well I'm fucking busy too. When am I getting paid?”

“You get paid next month on the 26th.”

I groaned like a wild beast in a trap. That was ages away. “OK. On Friday I'll meet you to give you my time sheet. I quit. You are weird. You won’t use email. You hang up after three rings. This isn't working.”

“I am taking a rest on Friday. Can you teach Ryusei and Shohei on Friday?”

This was going nowhere. I wondered if she was having a conversation with a polite me from a parallel universe. I had sworn at the woman. I had interrogated the woman. I had a complete break-down in politeness. How was it that I wasn't getting through? Why was I not being fired?

“OK I'll teach Ryusei and Shohei on Friday from 4.30 to 6.30.” I resigned. I just couldn't get fired over the phone.