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All-consuming school clubs worry foreign parents

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

When a friend or neighbor’s child starts junior or senior high school, after offering their congratulations, Japanese will invariably ask, “So, which school club did he/she join?”

Teenagers and club activities, commonly known as bukatsu or kurabu, go together as naturally in Japan as sushi and wasabi. Indeed, many members of today’s older generations look back on their club activities with nostalgia.

However, something that most Japanese parents accept as a normal and desirable rite of passage in their child’s development can leave foreign parents quaking in their boots at what lies ahead.

Twenty-eight foreign parents with children in Japanese junior or senior high schools participated in a written survey for this article, sharing their family’s experiences. Almost all reported some degree of anxiety about bukatsu when their oldest child entered junior high, with the effect on family time and the level of commitment being the most frequently cited concerns.

Heather from Australia had mixed feelings when her daughter entered junior high school last April and joined the kendo club.

“I think bukatsu has the potential to teach children a lot of things, but a lot of this is lost in over-practice, the desire for perfection and in power relationships,” she says.

Sports clubs typically demand five or six days of practice a week, after school and on weekends and sometimes even before school. Jas from India, one of a handful of fathers in the survey, laments the fact that he barely sees his eighth-grade daughter since she joined her junior high school tennis club.

“Weekends had been our time to hang out as a family,” he says, “but she’s out the door with practices and tournaments even on Sundays. I miss her!”

A mother of three teenagers, bukatsu veteran Catherine from the United States was shocked at the devious tactics employed by junior high sports coaches to extend practice time.

“They would simply call it something different, like ‘community practice,’ and this way the kids could practice for longer periods than the school rules allowed,” she explains.

Foreign parents used to taking their children back to their home countries on vacation face a difficult decision from junior high, when club practices extend into long vacations. Some schools even plan summer gasshuku, or camps, when the whole club and the coaches go away for a few days.

Last year Mich only managed a scant week’s trip back to Canada due to her younger son’s practice sessions for the soft tennis club.

“The coach said it was fine to take time off for family events, but he was only in seventh grade then,” Mich says. “We won’t be taking any overseas vacations this summer because he doesn’t want to miss any bukatsu.”

Renee has a son the same age that also plays soft tennis. While initially very anxious about the impact of bukatsu on annual trips to see her family in the U.S., she was pleasantly surprised.

“We took a trip last summer and will do so again this year,” she says. “The school has been very understanding and my son has not been teased for missing practices.”

In general, junior high schools expect children to pick a club upon entering the school and stick with it. Those with no interest in sports, or who want a more relaxed schedule, typically choose a cultural club like art, science or cooking, that doesn’t meet as often.

Quitting your club is usually frowned upon and is rather sardonically referred to as kitaku-bu (going home club). Parents in the survey whose children quit club altogether reported having to jump through hoops to have the move sanctioned. Tiiu from the U.S. and her husband had to endure several meetings with the coach when her older daughter decided to quit her junior high school volleyball team after growing weary of being bossed around by older teammates.

There seems to be something about girl’s volleyball. Another American mother, Ruth, reports having to fill out a pile of papers in order to have one of her twin daughters quit the junior-high team after developing chronic knee pain from over-strenuous practices.

“It was also sad to see how those who remained in the club gave her the cold shoulder and sort of rejected her for quitting,” Ruth recalls.

While foreign parents generally want to see shorter practices, less time spent on each activity and more flexibility in allowing students to combine multiple activities during their teenage years, many have also developed an appreciation of the merits of bukatsu.

“When my kids were younger, I was totally against it, but now I’m not,” says Rachel, a New Zealander. “In my experience, teenagers seems to spend most of their down time staring at a screen of one kind or another, so bukatsu is definitely good for their health and socialization. Junior high school clubs also keep kids off the streets at a very vulnerable time in their lives.”

In a similar vein, Atsushi Nakazawa, assistant professor at Hitotsubashi University’s Graduate School of Social Sciences, notes that during the late 1970s and 1980s, Japanese schools started seeing sports bukatsu as a useful tool to prevent student delinquency. Nakazawa has done extensive research on the history of Japanese sporting bukatsu and has published books on the topic.

“From 1945 through to the ’50s, club activities spread throughout schools and were promoted as a democratic symbol of freedom, in contrast to the militaristic approach of the war years,” he says. “Then, in the years leading up to the 1964 Olympics, schools focused on sports in which Japan was strong, resulting in limited opportunities for non-elite student athletes. The government readdressed the issue by expanding the range of sports offered after the Tokyo Olympics and encouraging all students to join in.”

Finally, as Japan became wealthier and the values of the younger generation shifted, the idea of “discipline though sports” became popular with educators in the late 1970s, and that mindset remains largely unchanged today.

According to Nakazawa, while some 70 percent of junior high school students choose a sport, by high school, sports club participation drops to about half.

“There are two main reasons,” says Nakazawa. “First, the level ramps up at high school and less-skilled students find it hard to make the team, so they naturally turn to nonsport clubs or outside activities, such as part-time jobs. Second, high schools tend to offer a wider variety of bukatsu, with the students often taking charge of activities themselves, with little guidance required from teachers.”

Helen from Britain has a son in the high school rock band. While he didn’t enjoy the petty rules that characterized his bukatsu experience in junior high school, he loves it now.

“He has a proper rock band with studio sessions and live shows in various places,” Helen explains. “It’s the most important thing in his life, he says!”

For some high school students, however, the club becomes so omnipresent that they are required to live away from home, in a school dormitory. Margarite from the Netherlands has seen two sons follow this route with their school’s highly competitive volleyball club. All the practice paid off for her older son, now at university, who became a national beach volleyball champion in 12th grade.

The flip side, says Margarite, is that such students can be slow to develop social skills when bukatsu takes up so much time. “They are a little late in developing a view of the world and understanding how you behave in society.”

Australian mother Melissa understands only too well how bukatsu can permeate into every spare waking moment of a teenager’s life. Her younger child is a member of the high school dance club and practices not only mornings and evenings, but even at lunchtime most days.

“Generally I think kids doing sport is good, but why can’t Japan get the hang of moderation?” asks Melissa. “Basically they are training them to be great salarymen — work 18-hour days without complaining and without having another life.”

In September last year, a cellphone video of a high school volleyball coach from Hamamatsu repeatedly slapping a boy went viral after being posted on YouTube. Corporal punishment has been illegal in Japan for 50 years, yet even as they celebrate Japan’s successful bid for the 2020 Olympics, officials seems at a loss to know how to deal with the sordid underbelly of this country’s sports culture, where coaches routinely expose elite athletes to verbal and physical abuse in the belief it spurs them to greater efforts.

Concerned about these trends, the Sports and Youth Bureau at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology formed a study group to look into improving the monitoring of club activities in the nation’s schools.

“We gathered a panel of experts in the educational, sporting and legal fields and produced a set of guidelines for schools and coaches in May last year, which have already been distributed to schools,” says Yutaka Takemura from the bureau’s Physical Education Department.

Spare a thought for the coaches, who are usually teachers at the school. While the PE teacher coaching the baseball team or the music teacher leading the brass band might be no-brainer choices, many of the teachers have little experience or even interest in the activities they might end up leading.

Typically, younger male teachers are expected to take on the most demanding clubs. Australian Kimmy’s husband is a high school science teacher but has charge of one of the school’s most popular sports clubs, leaving precious little time to spend with his wife and two small children. “The demands of coaching and attending tournaments don’t go hand in hand with family,” his wife says ruefully.

Ironically, by the time Kimmy’s husband moves up in seniority and hands over coaching chores to younger teachers, his own children will probably be teenagers busy with their own bukatsu.

Getting insider information on clubs can be difficult before a child actually starts at a school, but Elena from Italy highly recommends parents do this if they want to avoid nasty surprises later on. Elena’s eighth-grade daughter, a member of the dance club, attends a private girls’ school where the emphasis is more on studying and less on bukatsu.

“This impressed me and was actually one of the reasons we chose the school. (Her club) is as is should be: just for fun,” she says.

Whatever the pros and cons of bukatsu might be, it doesn’t last forever. Unless students are in an escalator school with guaranteed admission to the next step on the educational ladder, both junior and senior high school students usually quit in their third year to concentrate on entrance-exam preparations. Although the early-morning practices and mounds of dirty sports gear might seem endless, parents take heart: This too shall pass.

Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    If I had had to go to public school in Japan I would probably would have axed myself. My orientation to school was to do everything in my power to minimize the time spent there. I cared too much about learning to ever get too caught up with school and homework. I was in school at 8:05, out of school for lunch, always put my spare in 6th period so I could go home early at 2:10 and get the actual work of the day done.

    Bukatsu generally freaks me out. The Japanese obsession with kata fuels all this, and is viewed as virtuous even if no one’s skills actually improve. It’s like Western classical educations view of “character building” through pointless anki and drilling.

    Of course, the goal of bukatsu is not the cultivation of skills or education, the goal is indoctrinate and condition the student to expect to have a full schedule at all times. This is the supposed way to prepare kids for life, since apparently one should expect a life of duty, tiredness and busywork. And what is Japan getting from their adults…hmm…This also results in a saying that all foreigners who have lived in Japan have heard, often when questioned as to why they are doing something: “But I am Japanese, so….”

    This “You better fill up your schedule!” subconscious imperative comes from a culturally ingrained fear that individuals left to their own devices tend to self-destruct or harm others. The real reason that premise is ingrained however, historically speaking, is by rulers to maintain their power structure. That ensures order so no one has any time to question or doubt, only to accept and memorize.

    The old feudal ideas and culture of that time still carry over into today. For example, it is why public school teachers are moved endlessly around their prefecture; to not give them enough time to ever “get comfortable” — as that might lead to self-destruction and harming others by no longer caring about their job. This is a fear that those in power in old times were right to have, because people lacked much choice in their occupation, it should be normal to become disinterested. But in modern times this no longer applies, yet still the ideas persists.

    You know, people say, “Japanese kids need to learn how to write essays and think critically.” Well, in order to do that it would require large blocks of unscheduled time (which would be different from child to child) for the mind to draw its own conclusions and actually develop the curiosity to be interested in writing about these things. There is no time for that. And such unregulated thinking time could cause a whole host of problems for adults who wish to keep kids “in line”. As one Japanese teacher confessed to me when I asked why I saw her just standing by an escalator during working hours at the station, “The students were let out early today. I am watching for them. They have no liberty.”

    This view is also the reason there are make-work projects and seemingly useless jobs. For example, as mall parking assistants, crossing guards for roads that see about 2 cars an hour, or when 10 cleaners are employed to clean an office when only 4 are needed and where the employees themselves are “company team-building shamed” into cleaning anyway, so none of the cleaners are actually needed.

    While I am no fan of religion, the Christian Japanese that I have met are way more well-adjusted to value their own free time then those in the Shinto tradition. (Of course, that comes with its own problems too, with a lot of those Christian families taking on a super-conservative view of birth control and abortion leading them to have kids they don’t want, leading those kids to feel they are unloved accidents, or to parents taking out their frustration and their believed “duty” on their kids by abusing them)

    It is easy to see a better way. It is easy to formulate a healthier way of educating children and cultivate in them a respect for the value of their own time, via a respect for the value of their thinking mind. But what is not easy is finding a the way out of the status quo. What is not easy is undoing what has been ingrained so deeply that it is culturally normalized and only questioned by “outsiders”.

    • kyushuphil

      “twasn’t always so, you know.

      Japan used to have poets who, in themselves and in their verse, stood against the busyness, stood for just more attentive individual listening.

      Some poets took to the road, expressly with no particular destination — drop-outs from the busy, busy.

      Think Tanomura Chikuden, the great painter and poet of 200 years ago. So many of his scenes show friends just sitting, while all around them mountains tower, streams flow, forests thicken, wildlife abounds.

      Think Zen, which held out against all the lies of the world — held out “ways” to find freedom and surcease from all the lies.

      It’s mostly the mass consumerism from my own native country, America, that explains the poisoning done so widely and institutionally now in Japan.

      Sorry about that.

      But we can read the poets.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    The purpose or bukatsu seems to be less about fun sport and culture and more about creating unthinking mindless drones.

    • Gordon Graham

      To an outsider I suppose it would…

    • Steve Novosel

      Proudly racist, are we?

  • Firas Kraïem

    Just live by the words of Sir Winston Churchill : “No sports.”

    • Gordon Graham

      Just cigars and jelly doughnuts

  • Max Erimo

    Bukatsu is the breeding ground for bullying and the creation of people who cannot use free time if they ever manage to have any, hence creating people who are willing to slave for the company until they die.
    Teachers who put their children into day care of a weekend to take part in bukatsu are not parents. The wife is a junior high school teacher who conducts the school band, the husband is an elementary school teacher who does nothing on the weekend. The three year old son goes to day care. Disgusting.
    Japanese parents like bukatsu because it means they don’t have to deal with their children.
    If the teachers put as much time in to preparation for and teaching the classes and the children spent as much time studying as they do at bukatsu, Japan’s low education level problem (学力低下) would be solved.
    Not an uninformed foreigner but a person who has been working in the education system for long enough to know what really goes on.

    • Gordon Graham

      Working in the education system as a dancing clown doesn’t really count, Max

      • Max Erimo

        I work as T1, alone without any interference from the JLT so there is no dancing clown.

    • kyushuphil

      Low education level isn’t a problem, Max. Its a boon to authoritarianism.

      So long as group conformity remains the number one goal, all the doddering old men in power will forever be deferred to. TEPCO can lie and cover up about the safety of nukes. Shopping malls and highways can continue to replace good farm land. All women on TV commercials will continue to speak in baby voices. Mindlessness will continue to rule, following all the worst of American consumerism mindlessness.

      Japanese could, contrarily, in schools stress more essay writing and individual observation of others. They could. Figures from older Japanese culture excelled in this. But this great, older culture is apparently now lost on Japanese being taught only to be mindlessly busy, busy in group busyness.

      • Gordon Graham

        You’re right about one thing, Phil. Low education level isn’t a problem.

    • Gordon Graham

      Japan is currently ranked 5th in the world in terms of literacy, maths and science behind only Finland, South Korea, Canada and New Zealand. What was that about Japan’s low education level problem, Max?

      • Max Erimo

        I bow to your superiority.
        I notice that you shy off a topic if you have no acid remarks to make. But as I can’t reach your heights, I won’t lower my standards to try.
        I will no longer reply to your posts. Been a buss while it lasted.

      • Gordon Graham

        I think you meant “I’ve noticed that…”, Max. Perhaps your students would be better served if they had a JLT in the room to ensure such errors weren’t picked up on and repeated.

      • kyushuphil

        Japan doesn’t even rank in the top 100 countries in the world in English education. It is dead last among all Asian countries.

        In opportunities for women, Japan ranks 106th in the world.

        Try competing in the world when most Japanese can’t speak the world’s international language, and at home all institutions atrophy under patriarchal privilege to the most incompetent, who keep their power simply by rule of habit, and by schools all agreed that no one ever learn to ask any questions, or probe any issue by any essaying.

      • Gordon Graham

        While it’s dead last among Asian countries in English it’s first in terms of standard of living. I guess English isn’t as important as some would have us believe.

      • kyushuphil

        You guess? You guess English isn’t so important?

        Do you guess out of your conceits for your own cleverness, or out of evidence for the numbers of international conferences — in all professions — not conducted in English?

        Even a dumb hockey lout should know that in almost all sports of the world, training and training facilities are conducted in English.

        Do you think Japan is going to maintain its standard of living automatically? The population is aging — more and more elderly require support from a labor base that is shrinking, not growing. More and more youth are committing suicide — nearly triple the U.S. rate among youth. Are you, in your insular cushion, so insensitive to these realities? More hundreds of thousands become hikikomori — they don’t believe in the automatic glory of high standard of living, as you do. They see and feel some emptiness there. You don’t know this?

        Thanks for being an entertaining buffoon. But those of us seeing the realities can’t so easily ignore them as ignorant louts can.

      • Gordon Graham

        The sky is falling!!! The sky is falling!!!

      • kyushuphil

        Detroit had its share of fine poets and writers.

        These gifts enriched many — I know — I lived there as a boy in the late 1940s, and in nearby suburbs through the ’50s and into the early ’60s.

        Counter to the good, however, was, first, the federal home loan programs of the era. They excluded any repairs to or renovation of older, inner city housing stock. This drove white flight into the newly-emerging, federally-subsidized sprawlville.

        It was large-scale policy that more than anything sank Detroit, or began its descent.

        No need to belittle poets and writers — or does the fool do this at home, too?

        Remember, the originating column here was about parents dealing with educational programs. Thus the fool make fun of books and learning to his own children?

      • Gordon Graham

        The article is about “bukatsu”. I read it. The main thrust being sports are time consuming and as such infringe on family time. To which someone replied with some diatribe about poetry and essay writing. There is nothing about curriculum in the article.

      • kyushuphil

        The article described the time-consuming effects of clubs.

        It described clubs — not only for sports, but all activities — as continuing the regimentation from the regular curriculum.

        There are alternatives to regimentation and time-consuming group regimens. Japanese teachers cannot imagine alternatives. Being busy — mindlessly busy — suits them fine. But there are others who know how wonderfully well kids could grow if also given alternatives which the status quo now excludes.

      • Gordon Graham

        Try avoiding run on sentences with obscure predicates if you wish to achieve clarity and coherence. I find it deliciously ironic that someone with such atrocious English criticises the Japanese for their lack of English ability.

      • lasolitaria

        Those numbers certainly have not as much as to do with education level as literacy, maths and science.

        As for essaying, having an opinion is not a particularly stellar achievement. Granted, it will undoubtedly give you a huge advantage on the respectable field of internet forum discussions.

      • kyushuphil

        Forget essaying as a form of ego enhancement.

        Take it, instead, as a set of skills to see others better — to respect the individuality and contexts of others.

        Look at the world. Russian-Ukrainians and pro-western Ukrainians. Sunni and Shia. Palestinian and Jew. Even Japanese and Chinese, or Japanese and Korean. There is so much ignorance in all these hostilities, So much hostility based largely on stale thinking.

        Essaying could bring back respect for others, up comfort levels for other cultures.

        The boobs, louts, and buffoons can have the Internet.

      • lasolitaria

        As a person who, like almost anybody who was in high school (not only in the West, mind you), is familiar with essaying, I believe you are giving it too much credit.Unless you mean something other than what is commonly understood as “essaying”.

      • kyushuphil

        True. Yes.

        I not only want to give it more credit, I want it to earn that credit.

        I want to see teachers teaching students to quote more widely — to see and reference more widely. I want students to quote from others in the room. I want them to quote from their own culture. And from actual humans, peers, really, in other cultures.

        These other cultures could be — should be — indeed the ones in the headlines that are apparently only at each other’s throats.

        So, yes, I want more than the status quo. Much more. Those of us who are teachers owe it to our students and our communities to give much more, certainly much more than the deadly status quo currently strangling all. .

    • Gordon Graham

      Wow! The English in the post is just atrocious! I have an idea on how to raise the level of education in Japan. Fire incompetent teachers.

  • shortpoppy

    Sounds like rep hockey in canada

    • Gordon Graham

      I guess that’s why they’re number one in the world.

  • Jay

    Interesting topic. I like the idea that clubs keep kids offline and physically and mentally active in more productive ways. I also think clubs in Japan, even with their over-do it attitudes, are preferable to the rock-and-drugs culture that attracted so many teenagers of my generation in Canada.

  • kyushuphil

    Thank you — yes — the problem yet hugely looms.

    It kills, too. Japan has a suicide rate nearly triple that of youth in the U.S. — the Japanese just don’t really know how the engage the mass of lies, the wash of consumerism. Every female voice in every TV commercial is that of a baby — as if being forever infantile were women’s greatest wish. That’s a lie. The girls all must know it at some level — but no schools help them engage these lies.

    So thanks for writing. So much to do, as you aptly say.

    • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

      At this point it is important to differentiate between the suicide rate for men, and the suicide rate for women.

      • 6810

        Sigh, Japan has an abundance of creative people and a massive creative industry. That is, if you read, write and speak Japanese.

        It seems so easy to continually say “This happens in Japan because there is this”. But the reality, much like everything in life is far more complex.

        @GetIronic:disqus if “critical thinking” is doing so well in “The West” (which is where and what exactly?) please explain why there are such large discrepancies of wealth, education and skills in those countries. It may be the case that Japanese suicide rates are higher… but then again deaths resulting from poverty (drugs, murder) are far lower.

        I think perhaps you’ve spent a little too much time poring over old anthropology books and not enough time engaging with the local people in your neighborhood and developing meaningful relationships. What’s around you is far more complex and rich and once you discover that it’s not all about “me vs them” and get over the culture shock aspect of “We think critically, they don’t” (notice anything strange about that?) life is generally more pleasant, diverse and enjoyable.

        As for your comment on Christian Japanese – could it be that since being Christian their values framework is more familiar to you? Because I have had the opposite experience (which doesn’t of course negate yours) – many Japanese Christians I have met tend to be downtrodden, conform to alien cultural expectations and are somewhat odd.

        Finally, as for bukatsu – the point of the article… It’s part of school life. Some kids love it and thrive in it. Others don’t. There are a variety of different clubs as the article points out. Frankly, since I have children of my own, I am thankful for bukatsu. Why?

        Ever been a teenager? Free time = boredom. Boredom = mischief. Not always, but frequently. Giving young adults something to do and a social context in which to do it is worthy of as much praise as critique.

        I can’t stop – the cleaning and shaming. Really? In the west, cleaning is relegated to a punishment in school. Janitors are considered low class, low skilled.Their job is important but they hardly have status. Enter cleaning time in Japan. Everyone pulls their weight and gets the job done. Some don’t. Some love it. Some hate it. But it has an important social function.

        Again, get away from the outdated anthropology, get fluent, meet people and talk in ways that aren’t “me vs you”. Chances are there’s a lot to be learned.

      • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

        “if “critical thinking” is doing so well in “The West”"

        When did I mention the West? When did I claim what is going on “there” is good by comparison?

        “…many Japanese Christians I have met tend to be downtrodden, conform to alien cultural expectations and are somewhat odd.”

        I don’t disagree. Those are indeed some of the trade-offs I mentioned.

        “Ever been a teenager? Free time = boredom. Boredom = mischief. Not always, but frequently.”

        Well, this is exactly the point I made. The issue is a philosophical difference about the nature of human beings.

        What you are communicating is a belief about the likelihood of some outcome. But its likelihood is determined by the student’s environment (which we control) and is not inevitable. People choose this belief, consciously or not. Applied consistently, the concrete result is bukatsu or its equivalent, in this context.

        “Giving young adults something to do and a social context in which to do it is worthy of as much praise as critique.”

        Observe the language you are using: “giving them something to do”. If you have to constantly “give them something to do”, in the sense of their after-school affairs, then what you have been doing is already failing.

        Cultivating self-motivated valuers with the skills to make decisions, with a growing capacity to see benefit from harm, to survive and flourish — to manage their own lives, is the goal of education. You don’t need to give kids who are raised on those premises “something to do” very often, because they have learned what it means to care for something, firstly their own mind, and once they have that, cultivate and grow more particular interests. Kids like that actually have a self to offer to other people, and are actually prepared and for social relationships.

        However, if we put the cart before the horse, if this capacity to value and to act on those values and interests is replaced by an educational premise of “social development” or “fitting in” or “what am I going to contribute to the world”, what we are cultivating en masse is duty and resentment — if the premises are even taken seriously by the students. And if these are the goals, no one wonder teenagers are bored. Even if those premises were appropriate, they have no meaning or application to children and adolescents as they simply don’t have the intellectual capacity to concretize them yet. There is no benefit to them, so they will rarely find “something to do”, they have frame of reference that makes sense to them for e-value-ating their world in a self-motivated way, so, you will have to forcefeed them.

        We reap what we sow.

      • Mark Garrett

        “Ever been a teenager? Free time = boredom. Boredom = mischief. Not always, but frequently.”

        As I recall, as a teenager I was never bored or prone to mischief at 5am. All I wanted to do was continue sleeping.

        I understand your point though. It’s just waaay too overboard here. Joining a club activity and learning teamwork, communication, discipline, etc, is great. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most of the lessons I learned while playing sports have benefitted me far more along my life’s road than Trigonometry or any of the other classes I suffered through.

        Moderation is the key. Moderation and diversification.

        As a parent I feel it’s part of my duty to expose my child to as many different experiences as I can to give him options and let him discover his talents and interests. Tying him down with one club activity that leaves him asleep at his school desk and starved for free time is not the answer for me.