Saturday, September 24, 2011

I eat a hand grenade for lunch

When I left Sapporo at the end of July, Odori Park was in the midst of a summer beer festival. When I returned in September, it had moved onto an autumn food festival. Me and this city were bonding.

On Friday lunchtime (a public holiday before you accuse me of skiving off) the festival stalls were bursting with different foods; crab was being cooked in its shell, skewers of chicken, beef and golden potato dumplings lay on a grill, deep fried balls of octopus sat in rows along with corn on the cob, pots of chowder, curry with giant naan breads, oysters in the half-shell...

... and spiny black balls that looked like hand grenades.

I did a double take as someone passed me with two balanced on a plastic plate. Was this a military training exercise or a snack with extra punch? Should I wrestle the man to the floor and call the police or... watch while he cracks one of the demonic spheres open and probes it with chopsticks. I tried to take a photo so I could demand answers from a safer distance but black spines on a black ball had stealth bomber properties for my phone camera. Short of propping my handset on the guy's shoulder (... no), I wasn't going to get a decent shot.

I had to find out where these came from.

I pushed back through the crowd, searching for people with similar platters of terminator snack food or the location of a high security military camp; one of the two. Eventually, I came across a grill that was advertising food from Rebun, an island off the northern coast of Japan. Judging from the map, it would indeed be the perfect place for a biological warfare unit.

I joined the queue.

Then something rather miraculous happened: my Japanese came through. Two places in front of me, I distinctly heard the woman order 'uni' meaning 'sea urchin'. I had eaten sea urchin before; it was a luminous orange, salty semi-liquid of a sea food. I'd had it with a rice bowl and on sushi but never ... well, in a sea urchin.

I tried to squint through the cracks of the grilling hand grenades to see if I could recognize the interior flesh. Different colours unhelpfully met my eyes. Still, since we seemed to be on a linguistic role, there was another option:

"Sore wa uni desuka," I inquired as I reached the counter.
Is that sea urchin?

The woman gave me a cheery smile, "Uni desuyo."
Yes, it is.

Comprehension AND communication! I was on fire.

"Ichi." I held up one finger.

In Japanese, numbers are usually followed by counters; words that indicate the type of object being enumerated. However, I had no idea what the counter for black-spiky-sea-urchin-bomb would be, so the request for 'one' was all she got.

I scuttled off to the corner of the lawn with my prize and pried it open with my chopsticks. Inside, there was the familiar orange strips that I had previously eaten, surrounded by green goop. What was the edibility factor for the green goop? Where a score '10' sees you ordering more and a '1' means that it is served at your funeral for company in the afterlife? Unfortunately, I had run away from the other urchin-bomb customers so I had no one close to compare eating habits to. In the end, I concluded that if anything green had to be definitely avoided, this would be one dangerous little number to serve up at a festival. Since no one seemed to be in charge of carrying off dozens of corpses, I ate all the orange, some of the green (I'll give it a '7') and decided that was enough excitement for one meal time.

Later, I looked up 'sea urchin' on wikipedia. Apparently, the orange delicacies are actually the sexual organs. Not all knowledge is good.

Friday, September 23, 2011

One size fits all

There are times when I feel that automatic emails could benefit from some tailoring. This evening I received an email with the subject:

Itinerary Change - Important Information from Virgin Atlantic

This raised alarm bells since the only pending Virgin Atlantic flight I had was my trip from India to the UK on December 23rd. Needless to say, I was cutting it rather fine for spending Christmas at home with my family and a delay could be bad. The start of the email was not encouraging:

We regret to advise there has been a time change...

The heavily serious tone was more reminiscent of a funeral than a flight alteration. It suggested that I would be spending Christmas in an airport in Europe, having been deposited there after all transportation services had stopped running for the season. Since it was a flight booked with my airmiles, I doubt I could change the date easily. My festive turkey was looking likely to be a chocolate bar out of a vending machine. Assuming I had change.

The flight is now departing Delhi on 23DEC at 1350.

The original time of departure had been .... 1345. I looked at the arrival time in London. That hadn't even shifted by 5 minutes.

Sorry for any inconvenience caused.

Evidently they mean to my health from reading that email.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dance 100 billion stars

If you select the paper work type of lectures, you can limit number of students in your class and you will get a teaching assistant.

I was discussing the undergraduate course I would be teaching next semester with my head of group over email. The basic idea of the lecture series was to teach an introductory physics course in English, available to all students enrolled in the university. However, there were options concerning the structure of the course that I was struggling to understand, having not gone through the Japanese higher education system myself. I wrote back:

Could you please explain what a "paper work type of lecture" is?

My best guess at present was that there was a course type that shunned written material and presented information through interpretive dance. I wondered if I could get a student to leap through a wall in a demonstration for quantum mechanics. A few minutes later, I got my answer:

"Paper work type of lecture" means that in this lecture a professor spends his class time to make training of student's ability to write their papers, presentations or something.

.... whereas in the other type of lecture, the professor just sets up a game of hangman and doesn't bother with anything educational? This seemed implausible. I walked next door to see if I could extract a more complete explanation but failed. The joys of a language barrier!

Just when I'd resigned myself to showing my class how to play 'Portal' and leaving it at that, my head of group came back with a more complete explanation. It turned out that there two types of courses at Hokkaido University; the ones I would refer to as 'core' and were needed to graduate in a particular field and others that were more general interest and could be taken by students in any discipline. This second category (which was the one to which my course would belong) was again broken into two variations: courses where the professor stood at the front and delivered material to a passive class and another with a workshop competent that involved a level of audience participation. The course I had proposed included presentations from the students on different scientific topics and would therefore belong in this workshop or "paper work" type lecture.

So no computer games but no jumping through solid walls either. Perhaps it is for the best.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The sound of music

"Can I ask you a question?"

Evidently so, since you just did. Still, this particular Japanese passenger on the express train from New Chitose Airport to Sapporo was manoeuvring an intriguing large bag into which he'd managed to wedge a hard guitar case so the curiosity was mutual. I produced a smile that I hoped belied the fact I'd been travelling for over 24 hours and encouraged him to continue.

"What are you doing in Sapporo?"

He probably expected to hear something involving English teaching but instead received a far more unlikely tale consisting of an astrophysics appointment with a splattering of physics lecturing at the university.

"You're British!" he exclaimed. "Were we on the same plane?"

It turned out that my new friend had just arrived back from a year in London where he had been taking a graduate course. Prior to that, he had been teaching English in Taiwan. The guitar, I learned, was a British acquisition.

"I used to have a very expensive guitar," he told me wistfully. "But I sold it before I went to Taiwan and I didn't have one there. I really missed it. When I arrived in London, I went straight to the music shops!"

He looked like a musician too, if musicians can have certain looks. His black hair was shoulder length and he wore round glasses.

"Sapporo is a popular city to live in," he continued. "But few can because there aren't enough jobs in the area."


Wait no, that's the jet-lag talking. I re-phrased my instinctual response to say how much I had liked the city during my previous visits. He mentioned that he was particularly envious of me being at Hokkaido University since he would have liked to study there himself. I asked him where he had done his first degree.

"Ah, actually... not in Japan. I went to San Francisco." One hand dropped down to fondle the top of the guitar case. "I... didn't do all that well in High School so I couldn't get in. But in America you can study at community colleges to improve your grades and then transfer!"

It was a great system since school grades can go awry for many reasons. I glanced down to see my companion's hand was still hooked around the encased instrument. Of course, some instances of students under-performing perhaps had more obvious sources than others. It was interesting to note that apparently Japan did not have such a scheme for correcting the errors of a miss-spent youth.

"Yes... I really loved my music in school... perhaps too much."

Mmmhmm. Despite my amusement, it was impressive that this was now water under the bridge. Also, given the intense nature of the Japanese education system, it was rather reassuring to find that people have the same pitfalls the world over.

"The English was difficult in California." I was told after mentioning the musician's obvious linguistic skills as we pulled into Sapporo station. "The Japanese are very good at taking tests so we tend to get put in a high level language course. Then we struggle much more than other students with speech, but we catch up again with the essays."

I could see this so clearly that I had a feeling this was about to become the byline for my life.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Chipmunks and pudding

"You're scared because you're not from Yorkshire!"

No, I'm pretty sure it's because I've been physically strapped to a chair and now an IV drip is being fitted to my free hand. It was like the final scene in a death row movie where they administer the lethal injection.

But but but I only stole my Mum's sausage rolls once when I was 7 and I promise never everevertodoitagain!!

There were multiple reasons why I was about to make the heart monitor they'd attached to my chest leap off the scale:

Firstly, there was really very little to enjoy in the prospect of being heavily sedated so your impacted back teeth could be cut out of your mouth. It was like the problem with the potentially painful typhoid vaccination: how do you prepare to be ill? People's accounts regarding their wisdom teeth varied from mild discomfort to rolling around in agony on the sofa for weeks and there was no way of knowing which way this cookie was going to crumble.  

Secondly, I'd arrived (as per my orders) with a friend who also happened to be a respiratory therapist (never hurts to have a back-up plan). This was not the problem. The problem was that she had brought along her five year old daughter. This little poppet showed me she had lost two teeth of her own recently but assured me they would grow back.

... whatever I might know logically about the situation with baby versus wisdom teeth, it was still like being told I'd have to repeat all this next year.

I was sent out by a rather brisk receptionist to use the restroom; not a particularly easy task since I hadn't been allowed to drink anything since midnight the night before. When I returned, I found mother and daughter reading together. I hoped this would be a nice calming story about fluffy bunny rabbits I could listen in on. But no. Out of ALL THE MATERIAL in the waiting room, this demonic child had selected a leaflet on wisdom teeth to read. By the time I joined them, they had reached the page on 'possible complications after surgery'. With pictures.

My friend took one look at my face. "You know, let's read this page after El's gone in," she suggested to her little girl, who shortly afterwards demanded to know if she could watch the procedure.

Finally, the dental nurse had come out to give my friend some instructions regarding my aftercare. Her voice was a low, calming pitch which DID NOT HELP AT ALL. It sounded like the kind of voice you might use when discussing something very very serious and terrible. What I really needed was for someone to clonk me over the head with that rolled up leaflet on wisdom teeth and tell me to get in there because it'd be over in about forty minutes. Instead, she talked about pain and swelling and passed over a prescription. I whimpered.

"I'll give you two some time alone," she said as she went back behind the door.


"That is not the voice you use when you're telling someone that you have to switch off a ventilator machine," my RT friend told me firmly. "Trust me. Now go in."

There we go.

I inched through the door and crept towards a room full of IV bags. One positive thing the wisdom teeth leaflet had shown was examples of the different problems that occurred with these late arrivals. Two of the pictures matched my own issues; one tooth on its side and decayed and the other stuck under the jaw bone. They really did have to be removed.

Two nurses helped me to get set up and they were super nice. They assured me that everyone was nervous and told me at frequent intervals that I was doing really well. Given the reading on the heart monitor, I think the standard for this comment was that I hadn't yet bolted from the room. There was a blood pressure cuff on my right arm which is why that wrist was attached to the chair (very gently, I could have pulled it free). Then the dentist came in to fit the IV drip to my left hand, after complaining I wasn't a Yorkshireman. He then started slapping my hand really hard.

"Owch!" I complained indignantly.

"It's your fault," he told me. "You've gone and made yourself all nervous and now your big veins are hiding."

I was still in the chair. I think he should be grateful for what he had.

Despite the fact this did make me laugh, I started to feel sick and dizzy. I attempted to call one of the nurses 'Mum' but it didn't really help. I was assured this was just nerves and indeed, a few minutes later everything eased. I suspect some cheating was going on here and an anti-nausea agent was added to my drip. Either way, I started to feel a hell of a lot better and relaxed. An oxygen mask was fitted over my nose which ten minutes before would have made me think:


but now I thought:

Bet that looks funny.

.... Then I was being guided into the recovery room and looking up at a five year old peering curiously at me and mercifully not reading a leaflet on wisdom teeth.

My mouth was entirely numb and there was a couple of rolls of gauze tucked in the back but I felt fine. It would turn out the local aesthetic was quite powerful since it didn't wear off until the early evening. The current side affect was that I couldn't talk.

"We can leave when you're ready," my friend told me brightly.

I sat up. "Mumble wumble dumble!"

"OK, we can leave when the nurse says you're ready," came the slight amendment. 

Damn small print. Still, it was only a few more minutes and I was finally free to flee the dental surgery ... the sort of fleeing that requires you to be propped up by one adult and one child.

I was tag teamed over to a second friend (this one a minister who could potentially forgive me for the sausage roll incident and send me in the right direction if all my original suspicions had proved to be founded. Never let be said I did not think this through) since the sedative meant I had to be supervised for the next 24 hours. The only real challenge was that I had to drink two glasses of water without being able to feel my mouth. In the end, I used my hand to pull my lower lip over the glass' rim and tipped. I also had a few tablets to swallow. I put one on my tongue and tried to swallow except...

"Did you loose it?" my friend asked with a grin.

It was somewhere in my mouth but where .... I felt it reach my throat. Gotcha!

We watched a movie and some lie was spun to me about it being several hours long. I was there and it was 10 minutes, tops. As was the second one. But by the time the evening rolled around I was de-numbed and feeling right as rain. I really wanted a cheeseburger but was offered an apple puree pudding instead. It's possible the next few days will still see me looking like a chipmunk but I'll take that look and make it awesome.

Then future cheeseburgers; they will be mine.

(Plus my friends are awesome. They can share the cheeseburgers.)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Pin cushion

After being randomly accosted in the streets of Sapporo by a man telling me to go to India, there was really nothing left to do but book my flight. Since I was circumnavigating the globe at the end of the year to go home for Christmas and then onto Canada before returning to Japan, I thought it would be practically rude not to stop off in Delhi.

In terms of flight paths, this actually makes no sense whatsoever but let's just pretend the Earth is flat and carry on with the story. Besides, the difference in cost was pretty small.

The only downside to this plan-of-awesomeness was that India is home to more exciting diseases that those found in your average Toronto suburb and requires an arm full of vaccinations. Canada deals with such things through specialised travel clinics where the only difficulty is finding one open during the summer since they tend to be populated by doctors who go to tropical parts for their vacation rather than Niagara Falls like everyone else.

"Which vaccinations have you had?" The nurse clicked through her computer system, bringing up the list of inoculations needed for India. The page seemed rather long.


The problem with moving around so much is that it's hard to keep a consistent record. I rattled off the few I remembered with their dates and the nurse ran a pen down the screen.

"How about tetanus?"

"Maybe 2007."

I'd found a slip of paper while sorting out my apartment before the movers came that suggested such an event. Since it came from the USA, it was naturally a bill. Oddly though, I had no memory of the proceeding at all.

"... maybe 1995."

That was the last one I was certain about. The nurse lifted an eyebrow and pulled out the appropriate medicine vile.

"How about hepatitis A, B, typhoid or polio?"

I shook my head and the viles stacked up. She swizzled me around on the chair so my right arm was facing her and loaded up three syringes.

"You don't have a problem with needles, right?"

My mind flashed back to my school days; to standing in the queue for my measles booster, becoming so completely scared that I refused it point blank and felt sick all day with guilt and the huge unused adrenaline rush. To anyone who knew me then.... I can hear your laughter.

"Nah, it's no problem."

I am all about denial. Besides, it was probably true; eight years ago I took a course of prozac for a boat of clinical depression. Not only did it have the desired affect of re-balancing all to where it should be but it removed my fear of needles. The only (non-medical, entirely guessed) explanation I have, is the antidepressant suppressed the overwhelming adrenaline rush, allowing me to stay in control. I still don't like injections but then, if I actively enjoyed being shot in the arm with a needle that would also be of slight mental concern.

We did the first two and then I asked for a break. The dual hepatitus A & B vaccine is double the size of a normal shot and makes your arm ache. It wasn't painful but you couldn't ignore it was happening either. The nurse plonked me on the floor for good measure.

"People are really heavy when they faint," she told me matter-of-factly.

Still, there was only typhoid left and it was the normal quantity. I started to sit up again.

"This one feels like you've been punched!"

... I lay back down.

"I always believe in honesty. Some people don't feel a thing but one of the other nurses here said it was like being kicked by a horse!"

So, for the record, this is a situation where I DO NOT BELIEVE IN HONESTY. I totally support telling me it'll be totally fine and I won't feel a thing and then adding in the correction after its done. I don't actually have a low tollerance to pain, but the prospect of pain? I don't do it well. My imagination is good and Dante's inferno becomes a scorching likelihood in less than a second per circle of Hell.

"You need a second shot for your hepatitis next week, so we could do it then," the nurse suggested kindly.

I considered it but the wisdom teeth were next week. There's only so much I felt I could sign my future self up for.

"It's fine," I muttered, sitting up and looking away.

The nurse administered the shot and I lay straight back down again.

It was totally fine and I didn't feel a thing.

The nurse waggled a finger at me. "Stay there. You're green."

There's no accounting for what you can do to yourself.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Tell them a Yorkshire man did it to yer!

"This is a lot harder now you're older. Really, 28 should be the maximum age for this procedure. Some people say over 30 is a problem, but I say 28."

28? 30? We were only talking about two years and more to the point...

"I was 31 last month. How can it make that much of a difference?"

"Oh, it does." I was assured. "The 40s are the same. 40 is always fine but 41... same with 50 and 51...."

Picture the most unamused expression imaginable and crank it up by a factor of ten. That was a fraction of the look I shot the dentist who was examining an x-ray of my bottom wisdom teeth. It was true that by North American standards, I was late to have these problematic calcified numbers removed. The logic goes that the teeth become progressively more difficult to extract as the patient ages and the roots cement more firmly to the bone. In the UK, the premise is that not everyone has issues with their wisdom teeth and if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Regardless of the right or wrong of the matter, I had to have mine out next week. And I was being teased which was mean.

My dentist was a cheerful Yorkshire man who acknowledged our kindred roots by declaring that there were two types of people in the world; those from Yorkshire and those who wished they were from Yorkshire. He took unashamed delight in first describing the process in detail to me and then the after-care.

"You'll have holes in your mouth like the Grand Canyon! They'll be so big that ... "

I blanched. "Um, is it necessary to describe it so vividly?"

"Yes! Because the most common emergency call I receive on a Sunday afternoon is from people panicking they have holes where I took out teeth!"

Well, I guess that would annoy you. Apparently, the holes take four to six weeks to heal and they must be washed out to prevent food settling in there. I thought that sounded pretty disgusting.

"Oh, you wait till you see what comes out!"

I started to regret eating lunch. The swelling, I learnt, is likely to appear two or three days after the surgery and there were some who claimed they could see the inflammation come up in real time while watching in the mirror.

"... they don't really have very much to do," the dentist conceded after a moment's consideration.

I was also a little nervous about the recommended aesthetic, since the normal procedure involved an extremely heavy sedative. Then the dentist told me he couldn't really freeze with a local injection that deep in the mouth. Suddenly, I was all about sedation.

"Just don't make any important decisions that day," he recommended. "Could you be pregnant?"

"Hell, no!" I exclaimed in surprise.

"That's the answer I wanted to hear!"

Oddly, I was also told not to wear nail varnish the day of my appointment. It acts as a barrier for the pulse reader they clip on the end of your finger.

"Any other questions?" the dentist concluded.

I tried to think of something cool and calculating. Something to demonstrate that I had processed the information and was now calmly prepared to undergo this trifling event. "How long will it take?"

"The actual procedure, about forty minutes."

I felt relieved; forty minutes sounded short and manageable.

The dentist grinned as he left the room. "Good job we took your blood pressure before I came in," he said in way of a parting farewell. "Or it'd be through the roof!"

... Perhaps not so cool and calculating.

"Just tell them a Yorkshire man did it to yer!"

Everybody wish me luck for Tuesday.