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February 2004

a rubbish weekend

February 22, 2004

Well, I don’t know about you, but I just had a really shit weekend.

I was meant to be going for a 24 hour holiday with some of the other teachers to the next island, which I see every day but have never been to. We would have visited caves, climbed one of the small mountains, eaten good food, drunk some booze, and played cards and pool. It would have been fun, and I’d been looking forward to going for several weeks. However… at 6 o’clock on Saturday morning, I woke up ill with what, although it eventually turned out to be a stomach virus, I assumed (as I generally do with any illness that isn’t the common cold) was probably something terminal. By the mid-morning I’d recovered enough to leave the house in search of a doctor, and since I didn’t know whether my island’s doctor speaks English (and I couldn’t face trying to explain in Japanese and mime), I made a dash for the plane to get to the big city. The plane, though, was full, which meant that I had to spend three hours travelling by boat, taxi, and bus, to get to a hospital that I knew had English-speaking doctors. I was told it was probably a virus, given powders to swallow, and told to come back in a week if I wasn’t better.

So, having left the hospital, I went back to a town near my port to look for a hotel, since by this time it was evening, and the last ferry to my island leaves mid-afternoon. I could have called another English teacher, but it was already 9ish, and I wanted to find somewhere where I could just curl up and groan myself to sleep. The rain was getting harder, and so I ran back to a grotty-looking hotel that I’d walked past a few minutes before. It turned out, after I’d paid for a night (the lobby didn’t look that bad…) to be the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in. By which I don’t mean “the claret was at the wrong temperature and the waiter was rude”. No, what I mean is “the once-red carpet had long-since turned black, where it had not been entirely worn away, and the walls of my room were not just damp-stained, but looked like someone had actually thrown some kind of brown fluid, from a bucket, at them.” In fact, there was one particular splash-shaped stain on the wall with an unstained shadow in the middle, which looked exactly as if someone had thrown a bucket of dirty water at a startled cat.

But the hotel was not just grotty. Oh no! It was weird as well. When I ran out at night to get a bottle of mineral water from a convenience store (since even if I had trusted the hotel’s water, I wouldn’t have wanted to drink it from the thirty-year-old cracked blue plastic cup in my room), the man at the reception desk struck up a conversation with me. So, I was a teacher, right? Yes, I said. On 無名 Island, right? Yes, that’s right (I’d filled in my address when I checked in). So, I’m American, right? No, British. Oh, British – is that so? Yes. So, and in Britain did I teach English? No. I didn’t. I did teach a little bit, but it was psychology, not English. Aha! Is that so? And I’m definitely British, am I? I’m definitely not American? No, British. Ah, is that so, is that so?

At this point, as he was saying “Is that so? Is that so?”, the man jotted something down on a scrap of paper in front of him, and put a ring round it, and I suddenly realised that there was something deeply, profoundly wrong with the conversation I was having, that there was something going on that I didn’t understand, and that I really didn’t want to talk any more about who I was, what I did, or where I was from. It’s very difficult to explain precisely what was wrong – none of the questions he asked me were particularly unreasonable – but just as the inflection and timing of what someone is saying can tell you all sorts of things – that they are using a computer as they’re talking to you, or skim-reading a newspaper, or that they don’t believe a word you’re saying, or that they find you unnervingly attractive – that wouldn’t be perceptible to someone reading a written transcription of the words spoken, there was something about this superficially normal conversation that was not normal. He was seeing relationships between my answers that I couldn’t see. There was something going on.

It occurred to me afterwards that the conversation had focussed on things like what sports are popular in Britain? and American and British English are quite different, are they not? After I walked off, I realised that actually everything we’d just been talking about was about the differences between Britain and America – in other words, exactly the kind of topics of conversation you would choose if you were trying to trick an American who claimed to be British into making some slip that would reveal his true nationality. Of course, they’re also things you might ask about if you were a Japanese person interested in the differences between Britain and America. But this man wasn’t. He was up to something.

So that was my weekend. Here are the statistics:

  • time spent travelling to/from hospital: 6 hours
  • time in hospital: 2 hours
  • total cost of travel, medicine, accommodation: 15,000yen approx. (= £74 at current exch. rate)
  • how much it would have cost to go on holiday to the next island: 8,500yen approx. (= £42 at current exch. rate)

Oh, yes. I forgot to say that having checked in to my hotel, I felt I should eat something, so I went out to look for a restaurant. About 200m down the road, it started to absolutely piss it down. I got soaked to the skin.

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too many clocks

February 19, 2004

thousands of clocks

I just made a ‘telling the time’ game to play with the elementary school kids, which involved throwing forty-eight paper clocks on the floor and shouting a time which the kids then have to grab. The reason I’m telling you this is just because of the interesting and unanticipated psychological effect I experienced when I spread the cut-out clocks out on the floor. I looked down at all the clocks, all looking almost identical, but telling different times, and it freaked my mind out (to use a technical term). “Ooh, this is a difficult game,” I groaned, involuntarily. “No, no – I think it’ll be ok,” said the teacher. But I didn’t mean ‘this will be too difficult for the kids’. I meant ‘argh, too many clocks, too many clocks! Limitless, incomprehensible space and time stretching away from us in all directions!’

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creatures of the deep

February 15, 2004

scuba divers

In the middle of last week, the weather turned mild and sunny, so this weekend I did another two scuba dives. This time they were proper dives – down to six metres, which is not very deep, but deep enough that you have to go down slowly and allow your ears to adjust to prevent them from bursting. Due to some sort of blockage inside my head – probably the remnant of a bad cold last weekend – I had big problems adjusting the pressure in my ears, so it took me a long time to get down to the bottom. The problem with my ears made me very aware of the pressure differences (for the scientifically-inclined, at six metres down the pressure is 1.6 atmospheres): when you scuba-dive, you’re breathing compressed air that comes out of the tank at whatever pressure the water, and consequently you, are at, so if you go up too fast, then the air inside you is suddenly at higher pressure than the air or water around you. From six meters, that would make your ears hurt very badly. From deeper, worse things would happen. I was thinking about pressure when N-san, the diving instructor, pointed out a small, delicate, multicoloured creature called a ‘sea cow’ (in Japanese) on a rock. It looks a little like a slug, but a rainbow-coloured one, with lots of feathery little fronds coming off it. I thought to myself how strange it is that this delicate-looking little thing is actually at high pressure, and how if you took it up to the surface it would EXPLODE, and then I remembered that actually we were only six metres down, and not at the bottom of some ridiculous ocean trench, and that actually things at six metres down are not at such high pressure that they would do anything like exploding if you carried them up to the surface*. Still, when I went back up to the surface, I once again had trouble adjusting ear-pressure, and so had to go up slowly (maybe four or five minutes to cover six metres), and this time I realised that when you scuba-dive, you actually do become a creature of the deep: that even though you can see the surface up there – the place you’re from – you can’t just go straight back there, because the conditions there – the conditions that for 99.9% of the time support your life – would hurt you. It seems natural that going to an alien world should take time, that you should need to adjust, but it’s a strange feeling that the return must also take time, not because of the distance you have to cover, but rather because of what you’ve become in the meantime…

* Actually, now I think about it more scientifically, the sea-cow would also be much less affected by changes in depth than a diver, because of the crucial difference that the diver has a lung-and-headful of compressed air, whereas the sea-cow doesn’t. Since water isn’t really compressible, but air is, changes in depth will affect a diver much more than a fish. This doesn’t mean, though, that a fish brought up from enormous depths very fast would not explode. It might do.

That’s me in the yellow, by the way. I’ve cropped the picture at shoulder-height partly because I have an anonymity policy, but mainly just out of fear that if you saw both my lithe, wetsuit-clad body and my manly face at the same time, it would prove too much for you and you might swoon and smack your forehead on the keyboard in front of you. That’s Emiko in the pink, and N-san is in the black.

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rabble-rousing and reckless driving

February 10, 2004

A kid just came into the staff-room, came up to me, and said “暴走族”, and nodded at my computer, meaning “look that one up in the dictionary, then”. The definition of this word, quoted word-for-word from my dictionary, is a ‘club of rabble-rousing reckless-driving delinquents‘. The fact that there is a single word for that makes me like Japanese a lot.

Kim tells me that actually 暴走族 just means ‘motorcycle gang’, which is much less interesting, and makes my dictionary seem a bit eccentric.

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other people’s music

February 7, 2004

May I draw your attention to the fact that Other People’s Music, the debut album from The Unrecorded is now available for listening and purchase at moontune? [these days it’s at – 2006/05/02]

“Other People’s Music” is the fruit of four years’ simmering inside the mind and computer of Mr. Andrew H, and features the unprecedented, searing voice of Jess Bryant sweeping like a helicopter floodlight over the rain-swept streets of Andrew’s music in search of crackly, out-of focus fugitives.

I’m not recommending it just because they happen to be two of my favourite people: even if I found them both extremely objectionable in numerous ways and also, frankly, slightly unpleasant-smelling, I would still have to admit that they had made an album of indisputable, shimmeringly splendid splendidness. As it is, I can assure you that they are also two of the nicest, most fragrant people you could meet.

If you were to want to know what Other People’s Music sounds like, I could say words like “grainy” and “dusty, crackling hammond organs“, and “the whispering voices of the electromagnetic waves“, but you would do better to go to moontune seatunes yourself and have a listen to the extracts there – One Second, for example, or This Is Mine, or Other People’s Music – and then if your heart isn’t immediately seized by the violent urge to purchase and own the album and listen to it over and over, then I’ll eat… let’s see… this pamphlet about dangerous Okinawan marine life. Ok? Good.

The more observant and suspicious-minded of you might see my name mentioned in the credits of this record, and think “hold on just a second here – what are you up to?”. I would like to put you at your ease by saying that my contribution consisted of recording Jess’s vocals and supplying a few samples. I’m not part of ‘The Unrecorded’, and I’m not getting any of the money. So this is a recommendation, not some kind of ‘infomercial’, for goodness’ sakes. Sheesh.

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in cars

February 3, 2004

a tv in a car

When I got back to Okinawa from Osaka, on arriving in the airport I almost immediately ran into a bloke from my island, and thereby managed to get a lift all the way to the port (saving me nearly three hours of bus and taxi rides). After Osaka’s breath-condensing chilliness, it was strange to see clear blue skies and people walking round in t-shirts. In the car was a gadget that is not only extremely Japanese but also probably one of the worst ideas of all time: a car tv, set into the dashboard, and presumably intended for the driver to watch. I’d heard about these things, but I always assumed that they were behind the driver, for passengers. But no – right there, in the middle of the dashboard, above the car radio. We watched game shows for a fair chunk of the ride home, and somehow managed to avoid causing any major traffic incidents.

Kim tells me that actually the ‘dashboard’ is the bit directly behind the steering wheel, and that the bit to the left, despite being continuous with the dashboard, is not in fact the dashboard proper. I stand corrected, and I would like to apologise for my misleading and confusing use of language in the above entry.

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