Mr. Lehrer, Meet Mr. Zimmerman

June 27, 2011

A thousand years ago (okay, maybe a bit of an exaggeration) there was a lounge singer by the name of Tom Lehrer. He was, by most measures, too clever by half, and his songs are still revered by a certain sort of music geek, of which I am most definitely one. He retired from performing in the early 1970s, and went on to a distinguished career in academia, teaching math at MIT and at the University of California. His last lecture, in 2001, on the topic of infinity, was said to have gone on forever. But I am getting a bit ahead of myself. What we want to concentrate on here is his musical career, particularly the lyrical aspect, couplets from which equal or surpass anything penned by Cole Porter, Gilbert/Sullivan, or Lennon/McCartney (assuming that you have a humorous bent that drags you well off center, and especially to the left). For Lehrer, no topic was verboten: the Catholic Church, as depicted in “The Vatican Rag” (“First you get down on your knees, fiddle with your rosaries, bow your heads with great respect, and genuflect, genuflect, genuflect…”); the tensions among the races, from “National Brotherhood Week” (“But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week, It’s National Smile-at-one-another-hood Week, Be nice to people who are inferior to you, It’s only for a week so have no fear, be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!”); and sexual peccadilloes, from “The Masochism Tango” (“I ache for the touch of your lips, dear, but much more for the touch of your whips, dear…”). Happily, although he is retired both from showbiz and academia, Tom Lehrer is still among us (he might say, “as unkillable as a fungus”).

But who is ready to step up to the plate and carry on where Lehrer left off, you might well ask? The answer: Roy Zimmerman, who tortures rhymes at every turn, delighting left-leaning audiences with such gems as “Our attorney general is Alberto Gonzales, a man who believes in the rule of law, uber alles…” or how about “Iraq is the front in the war against terror, might be because we invited them there or, perhaps there’s some terrible clerical error, maybe a faulty equation, like ‘911 = US invasion’…”. Zimmerman opines on the issues of the day (“Every time we think about same-sex marriage, it makes us sick to our guts, I mean, two people who want to commit to a stable monogamous life-long relationship, what are they, nuts?”), science (“They put a telescope in outer space, so Mother Earth could look about her space, and what she saw was rather shocking, it was Stephen Hawking, and he was talking, about expanding universal understanding…”), and the ongoing battles between the non-religious and the fundamentalists (“Creation Science 101, in the beginning it begun, and you are just beginning to educate yourself when you shun, evolution…”).

In another tongue-in-cheek moment, Zimmerman envisions a world where everyone is getting along, playing well with one another, and celebrating the midwinter holiday of “Christma-Hanu-Rama-Ka-Dona-Kwanzaa” together. Somehow, I think Tom Lehrer would find a lot to like in that sentiment.

By the way, both Zimmerman’s and Lehrer’s tunes can be found all over the internet, especially on YouTube. Don’t miss Tom Lehrer’s “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” and “In Old Mexico”, and Roy Zimmerman’s “What If the Beatles Were Irish?”

Playing Catch-up

June 27, 2011

An acquaintance of mine, addicted to the art form of the pun, once made the observation that “playing catch-up didn’t cut the mustard” with him. It elicited a collective groan from all within earshot, and naturally I committed it to memory, ready to be trotted out any (and every) time someone mentioned “playing catch-up” in passing conversation. Now it is my turn to play catch-up, as I have not been online for a couple of weeks, due to my semi-annual semi-global transit, this time from Tokyo to Prince Edward Island.

The house and cottage survived the winter, I am glad to say, and shrubs that I have been assured are rhododendrons are in glorious bloom outside the front doors of both edifices.

I’ve been back for a few days, most of which have been chilly and overcast, although I have to say that even that is a pleasure after June in Tokyo, when the temperatures soar well into the nineties (only to be superseded by the humidity and the general atmosphere of unalloyed grouchiness at the prospect of sharing a morning train stuffed with sweaty salarymen). Yesterday the sun poked through for several hours in the afternoon, and my friend Frank Boothroyd called an impromptu meeting of FOG (which I believe is an acronym for Frank’s Old Garage), a loosely-knit association of English car owners from Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. He wasn’t entirely sure that I passed muster, given that my Mini is made by BMW, a distinctly non-Brit outfit. I assured him that the car was indeed made in England, showed him the underhood manufacturer’s plate, and was thereby granted access to the festivities. Other cars in attendance were a supercharged Jaguar sedan, a Triumph TR-4, an MG-B, a much earlier (and tinier) Mini Cooper, and a sublime fifties’ Austin Healey with a decidedly non-standard Ford V-8 under the hood (sorry, the “bonnet”…). Passersby tooted their horns and waved at the eclectic collection of cars (and owners) gathered in Frank’s side yard, in front of the aforementioned “Old Garage” (in which is housed a vintage Triumph Spitfire in the process of being converted from a 4-cylinder to a 6-cylinder engine, a project that got sidelined while Frank went to El Salvador to teach for a year).

Sometime during the proceedings, my sister Laurie asked me to give her a lift home, and one of the other attendees (also named Laurie, but a male, Laurie being a not-uncommon name up here for members of either sex) offered me the use of his Jag for the ride. As we proceeded back along the rural roads to her house, I turned to her and said “I know you have had this burning question on your mind, one that you were not entirely comfortable in asking me: if one were to floor the go-pedal on a supercharged Jaguar on a country road, how fast could one expect to be going after, say, five seconds?” She gave me a look which suggested that that thought had not been anywhere near the forefront of her mind, and that I must be mistaken, if not outright delusional. With that, I used my right foot to inject a two-dollar splash of high-test gasoline into the willing V-8, and found myself going about 120 (kilometers per hour) down the twisty two-lane in no time. This, I am happy to report, was quite good fun, and accomplished in all of the comfort and style for which Jags are world reknowned.

So today I am in recovery, having sat up long after the FOG gathering dissipated, discussing weighty matters with my sister until the wee small hours of the morning, having brought to resolution such issues as worldwide religious strife, the role of family in modern society, and the elusive nature of romantic love. I drank only Coca-Cola, while she plowed through whatever beer was in the house, and then, for good measure, the better part of a bottle of Chardonnay (a correction: after reading this she emailed me to let me know it was Pinot Grigio; sumimasen deshita). It is not every day, one must remember, that one’s favorite adversary drops by for a powwow. By and large, I think I won the argument, by judgement if not by an outright knockout, but I suspect she thinks that she did (addendum number two, notice how I did not refer to this as a “correction”; as I suspected, she thinks she won, which she let me know in no uncertain terms in the aforementioned email; she is mistaken). Funny how that works.

Tokyo, Once Again the Most Expensive City in the World, Sorta

June 11, 2011

Once again, Tokyo has crowned the list of expensive places for expats to live, edging out such perennial list-toppers as Oslo, Geneva, Zurich, and (oddly), Luanda, the capital of Angola, according to ECA International, a global human resources firm quoted by Business Week yesterday. It was noted in the article that a movie in Tokyo would set one back some $24, a quickie lunch would come in a bit north of twenty bucks, and a beer in a bar would run a whopping $11! As we say in Japan, “Yikes-u”!

Another website,, concurs with ECA’s assessment, noting that an unfurnished two-bedroom apartment runs in the neighborhood of $4500, a cup of coffee comes in at $5, and a cheap meal will cost between $17 and $35. Scary, eh? Especially if it were true.

Okay, I suppose it is technically possible to spend $4500 on a luxury apartment in Tokyo, but that would be true in lots of places in the US as well. San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles jump to mind. By contrast, I pay 72000 yen, about $900, for a small (450 square feet) three-room apaato. It is in the burbs, true enough, but a sixteen-minute three-dollar ride by train gets me into the heart of Tokyo, so not that far into the burbs. That price, by the way, includes internet connection and basic cable. Granted, the apartment is small by American standards, but close to twice the size of an average single-person dwelling here, and suitable for my simple expat needs. Utilities run about $50 a month, all in (heat, electricity, a/c, water, gas for the stove and water heating, the whole megilla).

Last weekend, I went out with a couple of friends to a well-known fish restaurant in Ikebukuro, a West Tokyo high-rise center. We all had supper, feasting on sushi, sashimi and a variety of cooked fish until we were too stuffed to jump. I had a couple of beers, the girls had soft drinks. The bill: $60 for the three of us, tax included (as it always is, so the price on the menu is the price you pay), and there is no tipping in Japan. Coffee and beignets at Café Du Monde (the Japanese outlet of the world-famous New Orleans French Market restaurant) set us back an additional $15 or so, a delectably calorie-laden finish to a lovely evening. A far cry from the mid-range $33-$75 per person suggested by (and that didn’t even include the drinks!).

The Economist periodically reviews its Big Mac Index, which compares the prices of McDonald’s iconic double patty burger around the world. Tokyo was about on par with the US last time out, both in terms of actual dollars, and in the number of minutes’ work required to purchase the Mac. Those figures, incidentally, ranked Tokyo among the lowest-priced cities in the world in which to indulge at the sign of the Golden Arches.

When I came here first, I had to load up on all the stuff necessary for setting up an apartment, so I got a pretty good idea of what a wide variety of items would cost: dishes ($20 for nice Japanese stoneware, service for four), rice cooker (National, the local name for products of Panasonic, $40), DVD player (LG, $50), oven (Sharp Healsio steam oven, very cool, bought lightly used for $150), a bit of furniture (sumptuous leather reclining love seat from Shinjuku design center, demo model $350; real Stickley morris chair from antique shop, $300) bedding (futon with cover, down comforter, sheets ($200 and change), and so on. Fairly cheap, I would say.

As to transportation, the train runs about $3 into town, and local buses are a bit over $2 for anything up to a half-hour ride. My Honda 50cc scooter, new in 2009, ran about $1200, or $1500 if you count all the taxes and a couple of years’ insurance. A used 2007 Honda Civic, not unlike the one I drive in Canada, can be had in Japan for slightly more than half the US price ($7500 vs. $13500), and it will likely have fewer than 25000 miles on it.

There are some things that are through-the-roof expensive in Tokyo (and, for that matter, all over Japan): canteloupes ($60, compared to perhaps $3 in the US); Mosquito Magnet ($2200, compared to $800 or less stateside); Krispy Kreme donuts, which are not only double the price, but you have to wait in an endless queue for the privilege of purchasing them; and that bit about $24 movies—sadly, that’s a fact. That said, those things tend to be items one can manage without, not daily necessities.

So, once again, statistics don’t necessarily give you the whole story, and should be taken with enough grains of salt to send one’s blood pressure into the stratosphere. Mostly, though, don’t be scared off about coming to Tokyo based on what you read. You can eat well here (at restaurants, of course) for $30 a day, no problem; there are perfectly acceptable business hotels available for around $60 a night, and day-long subway passes are about $8. Most museums, parks, and temples are free (or very cheap), and you can entertain yourself for next to no outlay, if necessity (or your nature) demands it. Just avoid the $24 movies…