Friday, September 24, 2010

…And Dribble Out of My Ears - June 2010

We had our last few Japanese lessons at the beginning of June. I wish they’d gone on longer, or been held closer to our departure date. We only had time to cover some basic functions and vocabulary, and I imagine that by the time we actually arrive in Japan, I’ll have forgotten most of it anyway. Most of the others in the class were beginners like me, although a few do speak some Japanese and have even lived in Japan before. I was glad I’d done even a minimal amount of Japanese study before the class; I think it helped me to get more out of it.

Later in the month we had a Japanese cooking class. I really appreciated it, as Japanese cooking is quite a bit different from Canadian cooking: no ovens for one thing, a lot more emphasis on rice, and a lot less cheese. They introduced some Japanese snacks, such as mochi, candied chestnuts, wasabi peas, and edamame. They also taught us some useful recipes, including onigiri (rice balls), wakame salad, and cold somen noodles. They were all good. I’m especially keen on the onigiri, which seems to be a kind of Japanese equivalent to the sandwich.

This month I also learned my placement. I’ll be working in a chugakko (junior high school) in a city called Sendai. I’ve never heard of it before, but apparently it is a relatively major city. It’s in the northern part of Honshu, about five hours north of Tokyo by car (or two hours by bullet train), and has a population of about one million (similar to that of Ottawa). I wanted a high school placement, and was hoping to be put in a slightly more central location, but over-all it looks pretty good.

The first weekend of the month I went to an event called Doors Open Ottawa. Apparently it occurs every year, but this was the first time I’d heard of or attended it. For one weekend, many of the major buildings around Ottawa open their doors and welcome visitors in. Since we often neglect to do touristy things in our own cities, and since I’ll be going away soon, I figured it would be a good opportunity to learn a bit more about Ottawa history. I visited several locations, including the drill hall, City Hall, Rideau Hall, and a couple of churches. I even went to my old high school and snapped a picture of the plaque with my name on it! The most interesting location was Laurier House, former residence of both Sir Wilfred Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King. The rooms had all been preserved in a period style, and there were guides around to provide anecdotes about the former prime ministers. There was even a corner dedicated to Lester B. Pearson; don’t ask me why. The other location I was very glad to visit was the Conference Centre, formerly Ottawa Union Station. You might not guess it today, but the railroad used to run right up to downtown Ottawa, and terminate in the building across from the Château Laurier. It still looks like a railway station, and I rather regret that it doesn’t get used for that purpose any more, and that our current train station is a rather utilitarian affair in the east end. Still, I guess the downtown wouldn’t be as picturesque as it is if it had trains running through it.

Work ended for me this month. I’ve only had one student for the past couple of months, and now that her contract has come to an end, I don’t expect to get any more. On the plus side I have lots of free time to prepare for my departure. Mostly, though, I’ve been watching movies and T.V. and reading books – not even challenging books, but fast, light, juvenile books. I guess you could say I’m cramming in as much reading and viewing as possible while I still have the chance, recklessly letting my brain turn into mush…

In the news this month, Israel boarded an aid ship bound for Gaza while it was still in international waters, killing nine people. It seems like an idiotic move to me, but as usual the situation is complicated, and we’ll probably never entirely understand exactly what happened. In national news, the G20 held a summit in Toronto. As tends to happen with these events, security was ridiculously tight, and still didn’t stop people from smashing shop windows and torching cop cars. No one comes out of this incident looking good, and the ones who come off worst are probably the Canadian people as a whole.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

The Haunted Castle – Silent German expressionist film, by the director of Nosferatu. Not my favourite silent German expressionist film, but I do love the genre! (Three stars)

Fifty Dead Men Walking – Gritty thriller about one man’s career as an I.R.A. informant. It’s a pretty interesting story, though depressing. Poor Ireland: such a screwed-over country! (Three and a half stars)

Gideon's Trumpet – Low-key dramatisation of a landmark U.S. legal case. I love this kind of movie: it takes an interesting subject and makes it comprehensible without sensationalising it. (Three and a half stars)

The Good Earth – Old black and white U.S. movie about a family of peasants in pre-revolutionary China. Surprisingly good, considering when it was made, with a reasonably interesting story and some beautiful cinematography. The fact that the two leads are played by white actors is a bit weird, but I was actually more impressed with the number of honest-to-goodness Asians in the cast. (Three stars)

Micmacs à tire-larigot – Silly French film about a man’s vendetta against the arms manufacturers whose weapons have ruined his life. The premise is a bit questionable, but I guess arms manufacturers make pretty unsympathetic targets, and I enjoyed the mix of oddball characters, particularly the contortionist. (Three stars)

Gentleman's Agreement – Think "Jewish, Like Me". A journalist goes looking for anti-Semitism, and finds it at every turn. Quite good and intelligent in places, despite its seemingly out-dated theme. (Three and a half stars)

An Education – Much better than you would expect from a “coming-of-age movie about a teenage girl’s relationship with an older man”. Despite its familiar premise, it manages to rise above the hopeless mess of clichés and tell a relatively insightful and positive story. (Four stars)

Tulpan – My first Kazakhstani film, about an aspiring shepherd and his search for a wife. It has a sweet story, but is as much about showcasing a way of life as about the characters. Slow-moving and featuring some very impressive long takes. (Three stars)

T.V. shows I’ve seen this month:

Jeeves & Wooster (Season 4) – Last time, I promise. This season wraps up the series, with its appeal still mostly lost on me. I wouldn't say I've become a fan of Hugh Laurie, or even of Bertie Wooster, but I've definitely become a fan of Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster. And while Stephen Fry isn't at all how I'd envision Jeeves, based on what I've read of the books, I enjoy the acerbic, passive-aggressive, gently flirtatious relationship the co-stars share. One can only imagine what they could have done with a decent plot. I guess if I want intelligent upper-class comedy I'll just have to stick with Frasier. By the way, if you're wondering why I'm still watching this show, it's because its four seasons amount to a grand total of twenty-three episodes.

Flash Forward (Season 1) – A new American sci-fi thriller starring an oddly large number of Brits. Chief among these is Joseph "Whatever-Happened-To…" Fiennes, sporting a Jack Bauer complex and an American accent so flawless it's easy to forget this is the same guy whose biggest claims to fame are playing Will Shakespeare and being Ralph Fiennes's younger brother. Meanwhile, the supporting cast looks like a cross-section of every T.V. show from the last decade. Hey, look, it's Courtney B. Vance from Law & Order: C.I.! Hey, it's Dominic Monaghan from Lost! And there's Alex Kingston from ER, and even Gina Torres from Firefly! Not to mention John Cho from the new Star Trek movie.

Anyway, the plot: Everyone in the world gets a glimpse of the future, and spends the next six months trying to realise the future they saw, avoid the future they saw, or figure out how any of this happened in the first place. It's definitely an interesting idea, and watching the various futures come together – or not, as the case may be – is certainly fun. The plot is equal parts goofy musings about the power of "destiny", the question of "free will", and the importance of "belief"; and relatively exciting crime-thriller-style investigations, chases, and showdowns. It reminds me of the first season of Heroes, in that it manages to be about half so-cheesy-it's-good, and half pretty decent. I'd certainly give the second season a chance if there were one.

Books I’ve read this month:

Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse – Another Jeeves novel, in which Bertie is more than usually obnoxious and everyone else more than usually cruel to him.

Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey – Fantasy/science-fiction novel from the Dragonriders of Pern series. The world the action takes place in is interesting enough, but the book only tells a fraction of a story, combined with what appear to be snippets of other plot-lines. I guess I need to read more from the series if I want to understand it.

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow – Touching on many of the same themes as Outliers, this book maintains that, due to the interference of random factors, results are not a reliable measure of potential, and we should never overlook the role of chance in our lives. Taken to an extreme, this may seem overly fatalistic, but, as the author points out, the empowering corollary is that people can increase their chances of good luck through sheer force of perseverance. I also found it a useful rebuttal to our pervasive tendency to idolise success and denigrate misfortune. My biggest complaint is that, although I appreciated the refresher math course that takes up the book's middle section, I think the author should have spent more time demonstrating his main thesis.

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett – Another Discworld book about a young “sourcerer” whose existence threatens the whole world. Not bad, but not as much fun as some of the books, and with a rather unsatisfying ending.

The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse – I have to admit, these books are beginning to grow on me. I'm getting quite into the narration style, and this one at least has a relatively gripping if very silly story-line. On the other hand, pretty much all the characters are selfish jerks who made my skin crawl. And, though quite funny in places, I wouldn’t say Wodehouse exactly has the sparkling wit of, say, Dickens. Which reminds me: gosh it's been a long time since I read Dickens!