Monday, January 29, 2007

Hug Rehabilitation

I don't hug. I went through a "don't touch me, stay away, noooooooo!" phase around the age of nine. My father thought it was great fun to chase me around the family room. It only increased the panicked feeling of being "caught" though. To clarify, my father was an extremely nice, good father: I just suddenly didn't want to be touched and the idea of anyone encircling me made my skin crawl.

Fast forward to my Sophomore year in college when I pledged a sorority. Oh the horror of sisterhood hugs. Especially once they discovered my sure fire hug escape tactic. Hugging me is like hugging jello--jello that can dodge. I will mystically bend, weave and end up just outside the circle of your arms that were moments ago grasping me in a hug. And I won't say anything, I'll just stand at arms length and look at you like a bemused newt. Somewhere between the age of 9 (when yes, impending puberty probably had a lot to do with the original huge aversion) and the age of 19 I developed a natural escape and recoil reaction. Sometimes my newt like eyes will focus and realizing my misstep in protocol I'll apologize.

I have to credit my sorority sisters with having great senses of humor and forgiving hearts. I kept escaping their hugs for the rest of my time in University as they, bless them, kept trying to give them to me.

Now that I have kids of course, I have mellowed quite a bit towards hugs. I certainly don't recoil from the outstretched arms of my daughters and I remember the overwhelming flooding joy of motherhood realized when my eldest was able to give me a real bear hug for the first time at the age of 10 months or so.

Even before becoming a mother though I astonished my friends and family by flinging myself at my graduate committee members on stage during my graduation ceremony for my Masters Degree. Actually I sort of desperately hurled myself towards them and grappled them: I might have even squeezed and levered them several cm. off the stage floor. I guess that after the months of being locked in my room wrestling with my masters thesis and weekly receiving their very detailed comments and suggestions regarding what was WRONG with said thesis or what was MISSING from said thesis or what should be BOOTED OUT or CLARIFIED in said thesis I felt like a hostage receiving her freedom. And I totally loved my captors for releasing me! Plus, AFTER it was all over, I realized what wonderful guidance I had received from them. But the first thing my best friend since high school said to me after I descended the stage, degree in hand was, "Laura, you HUGGED your professors!"

My Dad thinks it is hilarious that he caught the moment on film.

I made giant strides forward in my hug rehabilitation program when I accepted the position of head teacher at an international preschool in Osaka, Japan. Which is sort of ironic in that a.) when imaging Japan most Westerns won't think of Japan as being a very "huggy" country and b.) I had spent so much time and effort at ensuring that I would never have to teach anyone under the age of 18. Yet there I was, in a classroom with 20 children aged 1.5-4 years old.

The first week was rough. One of my students had to be carried out side the classroom for a "time out" and inexperienced me picked him up from the front. For a three year old he could really land a punch and his kicks were pretty impressive too. My supervisor discreetly took me aside and demonstrated different useful "holds".

But sometime later, as the children become more accustomed to me and I to them. . . maybe it was during story time? A little hand rested on my knee. Then a sleepy little head pressed into my shoulder. A little arm wrapped around my thigh as I stood in the middle of the classroom during art time. And the spontaneous hugs that I was given were the best benefit I have ever received from a job. Especially when the hugger would giggle or throw themselves at me. Although the pensive, rather measured and restrained hugger was to be appreciated as well. Up would swagger a two year old. He'd look in my eyes. I'd look in his eyes. He'd cock his head to the side. I'd wonder. . . "did I pass muster?" And then I'd get the hug and I never had the slightest desire to flee.

When you've had a bad day, a fight with your spouse, trouble with disciplining your children, or simply news overload--how many people can get hug therapy at the workplace?

And here is what my hug rehabilitation taught me in the end. Previously I had been looking at the custom of hugging in the light of . . . well, as an intricate ritual like some kind of folk dance only a student of dance is competent to perform. Who leans in first, where will there be physical contact and for how long? when is it "appropriate" to hug? etc. etc. but after receiving a multitude of hugs, some sticky, some wet, some bear like, some slow and sleepy I realized, a hug isn't a ritual: it is a crystallization of grace and warmth.

So now, I actually frequently make mental notes to myself, opening a care package from a friend back home, "ooooooh, that's a hug!" rereading an e-mail that has left me giggling into my morning cup of coffee, "that's a hug!" and while I still won't partake in superficial social hugging I will hug the very dickens out a friend. I will hug the breath out of someone who has made me feel special, safe, appreciated and happy. I will pause at arms length. I might look you in the eyes. I might cock my head to one side and then--I'll hug, perhaps still a bit awkwardly, but sincerely.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Christmas 2007

Christmas dinner in my family growing up usually meant that we would dine with someone from a foreign country. My mother’s solution to living 1,000’s of miles away from relatives on either side of our family was to invite over International students from the University where my father taught as an Organic Chemistry professor.

Inviting foreigners into our home to initiate them into an “American Christmas Dinner” you’d think my mother would have spent all day slaving over traditional dishes. Instead I seem to recall that she experimented a lot. Oyster stews, Sea food chowders, fondues, rice dishes with wild rice and cranberries and chicken in it. . . as my brother and I got older we began to request the things we knew our friends had grown up with: a turkey, a ham, some kind of stuffing. I think by that time (we were post undergrads then and had learned about the real world of Christmas dinner from being invited during our college years to our friends’ traditional sit down Christmas dinners with their families) it was just easier for my mother to have Dad pick up a smoked ham so finally, in our twenties our family's Christmas dinner matched the neighbors’.

When I married my husband and we moved to Australia we followed what the Brisbane locals told us was the normal fare for December the 25th-- fried chicken, potato salad and a barbecue on Christmas day. We celebrated with a Japanese family working for the same international University that my husband was working for. We settled around the barbeque for Christmas dinner at a local park with the kookaburras calling in the trees and the kids tossing bits of bread off the bridge to the frilled neck lizards, ducks and turtles in the stream. It was a beautiful hot summer day: the only attire my one year old daughter was wearing at the time was a diaper and a Santa hat.

When we relocated to Osaka , Japan I ate dinner with my daughter alone most Christmases as the 25th of December was a normal work day for my husband. But when I had my second daughter I started to feel like I needed some sort of “family dinner” to mark Christmas properly. By the time my kids were two and five I had given up on ever having a Daddy at the Christmas dinner table with us and so, my first real Christmas dinner as an adult was born. The fact that I was 37 at the time is just an incidental.

That year, I decided to do Christmas dinner with a friend and her two boys (aged 1 and 4) at my apartment in Osaka , Japan . Her Japanese husband was a doctor and had an even more demanding work schedule than my husband did at the time. She would do the turkey and the Christmas Cake and I would do the dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, hors d'oeuvres and the stuffing. I called my mother for my Grandmother’s dinner roll recipe and a week later nearly attacked a clerk in a local grocery store when I saw him carrying an American sized bag of fresh cranberries. He was about to divvy them up into little 100g bags for sale. I walked triumphantly home with the whole bag.

My friend kept me updated on the well fare and keep of her Christmas cake. I was fascinated with the whole idea and concept of a British Christmas Cake. This was not the Japanese Christmas cake―a flat white sponge cake with whip cream for frosting and strawberries teetering among chocolate Santas and Happy X-mas plaques on top. This was a real traditional British Christmas Cake--it was already months and months old! Each time she fed it some brandy my excitement mounted.

Then, in the two weeks before Christmas DD#1 got Influenza B and DD#2 got Influenza A. The following week they swapped. I got both strains as well. The two things that my refrigerator become stocked with were: suppositories, 1 type for anti-nausea and the other for lowering temperatures.

When my friend phoned on Christmas Eve to check if Christmas dinner was still on I swung open the refrigerator door, rifled through the contents of the side shelf and grasping my adult sized anti-nausea suppository confirmed that we were “on”.

Although the dinner rolls failed to rise properly they were deemed to be good despite their flattish shapes. The kids flew through their plates of turkey and cranberry sauce, gravy and stuffing. My kids happily ate the rock hard icing off their slices of Christmas Cake while my friend’s boys spurned their icing in favor of the fruit cake underneath. We topped them off with a dab of ice cream each. The magic of turkey and brandy drenched Christmas cake created a mellow group of children and two satisfied adults. It was the best Christmas dinner I had ever eaten.

This year, my husband was in hospital on the 25th. But the girls and I sat down to a turkey dinner, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. A Japanese fluff and no substance Christmas cake had snuck its way onto our holiday table. As I cut it my American heart yearned for that British fruit cake. Weeks later, long after the last of the turkey had gone, the wish bone had dried and been broken (Miss 8 won) my British friend arrived for a visit with her two boys (now 3 and 6!) and as she opened her suitcase and pulled out a tupperware I started to hear Christmas carols, on January 11th!

It wasn’t until late that evening, on January 11, 2007,with the children all finally asleep upstairs on their futons, that we sat down at my dinner table and over a slice of her Christmas Cake we talked and laughed and shared. Although it came on time, wrapped properly and cherished, met with joyous cries and squeals of excitement from my girls on the 25th, for me , it was on January 11th, late at night, with brandy soaked fruit cake sitting on a fork and a friend seated opposite me that Christmas arrived.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Pig Latin

So, in our home we speak mostly English although the kids speak Japanese to each other occasionally (this is happening more frequently as Miss 4's Japanese improves). I have to confess that my girls' vocabularies are heavily influenced by both me and my husband. He, I would feign to profess is the culprit behind their foul little mouths, and I am the one responsible for terrible phrases like, "Don't push my buttons!" and "Excuse me, I am NOT your slave." etc. wince and ouch. It is so hard to hear yourself played back like that. I think because of the condensed nature of our English universe that I perhaps see even more of myspeak in the language of my children. That and thanks to Cable T.V. a smattering of The Peanuts vernacular : Recently Miss 8 turned in a towering rage and screamed, "You block head!" at Miss 4.

But just the other day it occurred to me that beyond Japanese, beyond English, my children ought to learn Pig Latin. That way, when they pull out disturbingly inappropriate adjectives and expletives in front of their American Grandparents (worst case scenario) or even just in front of the other Native English speaker we run into on rare occasions here in the Tohoku Region of Japan (frighteningly likely) I could bark out things like, "on'tday ouyay areday aysay ethay fay ordway! " You know, cut them off quick. With out the benefits of a third language like Pig Latin I am left to look incredibly uncomfortable while murmuring, "Now girls, you know we don't use language like that." and of course everyone in earshot knows that we da. . .er, ahem, well do obviously!

Pig Latin? It's so easy to decipher some of you might scoff. Ah, but the key here would be the element of surprise. Everyone who knows us would be perking up their ears in the expectation of hearing either English or Japanese. Pig Latin would throw them off just enough to be a success I'm sure. Unless they happen to be in the third or fourth grade. Then it would be a totally useless effort and what's more they'd probably insist on conducting the rest of the conversation purely in Pig Latin.

However, beyond the reason sited above for teaching the girls pig Latin , is the real reason that I want them to learn it. Living with, in, between two languages, it is easy to find yourself in a world of code. So when you are at your child's Japanese youchien (preschool) and she starts to say something inappropriate, be it a curse word, an unkind truth (that lady's butt is sooooo big!) or something too straight and honest, "I don't wanna hold his hand because he picks his nose!" you can quickly pipe up in English and intercept it. Likewise, you can threaten and coerce and bribe your child on the sly to get the desired behavior you want. "If you don't cry and just sit and sing the song with the rest of your class I'll take you to Mr. Donuts today." Many uses.

Or say, you find yourselves at the American Grandparents' home and your kids are looking at the meal put in front of them with a decided mix of disgust and revulsion. A soothing stream of Japanese along the lines of "eat it, at least a bite of each dish and don't you dare make a face, spit or say you hate it." does wonders. You can also use the language gap to your benefit in situations where you just don't want others to know what your family is discussing. This was a decided advantage when Miss 8 was still nursing at the age of two plus and would occasionally ask for the breast when out in public.

But what happens when you have a friend over who speaks both Japanese and English? Or to make matters a little more strained, an acquaintance, more of a tentative perhaps-we-might-become-friends kind of friend?

This is what happened a few weeks ago at our house. I had invited a youchien classmate of Miss 4's over with his mother to make gingerbread man cookies. The mother is a really nice, intelligent woman with a great sense of humor who, as a bonus, also speaks some English. Everything was going excellently. The kids were not only having a great time with icing and decorating the cookies and themselves but I felt like the mother and I were having a relaxed, easy going cup of coffee and conversation in the midst of the bedlam. Miss 8 was even being extraordinary generous with her younger cohorts, not ordering them about and making them do whatever she wanted (she tends to see her younger sister as more of a subordinate drone often than a playmate) but actually helping them and playing together!

Then sometime during the third or forth batch of cookies Miss 4 pulled the piece of packing tape covering the hole in the hallway wall off.

I was so relaxed that I just instantly said, "put that back on!" and turned to the visiting mother and murmured something about "they" accidentally made a hole in the wall when "they" threw something." I can't remember which language I said it in. Maybe Japanese as you can sometimes even leave out your subject (they) when speaking in Japanese and my main priority was to be vague--as vague as I could be.

Miss 4 and Miss 8 however instantly took offense. They view "the hole in the wall" with respect and profound sincerity. I had fibbed about one of their most revered objects in the house. Miss 4 instantly piped up, "Daddy did it!" and Miss 8 froze where she was and in very loud and clear Japanese gave more details, "Daddy made the hole in the wall when he was mad." The visiting mother's lower jaw dropped slightly and she hastily grabbed for her coffee cup as I tried to hush up my children. They wouldn't be hushed. Miss 4 continued, "Daddy did it! He was MAD" Miss 8 decided to show Daddy's "form" and started to imitate a big league pitcher. The visiting mother took a long sip of coffee. My mind raced. She lowered the cup. I smiled. She smiled.

I suggested that Miss 8 might want to help Miss 4 and her guest choose a video to put in to watch.

Well, the woman deserved some sort of explanation and one of my eternal curses is that when directly confronted I can not lie. "My husband got angry and threw a persimmons at the wall. It broke the wall and made a hole!" I laughed weakly.

She murmured something, I'm not sure what and then thank goodness the kids were back from the T.V. unit waving videos and DVDs in our faces.

The only thought that was on my mind? PIG LATIN. I need to teach these kids PIG LATIN.

Our afternoon continued on very pleasantly and when our guests left there were expressions of desire to get together again on both sides. Of course I haven't heard from the visiting mother since. . . I keep going back to that moment, right after the tape was ripped off leaving a hole in our afternoon. . . if only I had had the forethought to teach them Pig Latin. I could have done an instant patch job just by murmuring "on'tday aysay ouryay atherfay ademay ethay olehay inway ethay allway."

Thursday, January 4, 2007

2007 New Year's Resolution

I usually don't make any resolutions because my track record as far as keeping them, well, basically sucks. In fact, just the idea that there is some kind of moral mandate over my head for stopping or starting certain behaviors usually just results in me spinning out of control and throwing myself head first into committing the very acts I am supposed to be refraining from or creatively finding reasons for not doing what I am supposed to be doing. But this year I had a good resolution and it is one that I can keep.

I used to be a heavy smoker (talking over two packs a day and I was one of those pathetic smokers who often turned to my ashtray to tap the ashes off the cigarette I was holding only to discover I had another one already burning!) and finally quit for good (or I thought so at the time) in April of 2001. I went smoke free, completely (and that is the key for me, it's gotta be like a recovering alcoholic, not a gram of tobacco for me!) for five years. Then this past year, after a move and different stresses in life I found myself belligerently lighting up outside in our drive way one evening. I was caught in a moment of extreme childish selfishness. I was tired of being "the responsible adult." I am my girls' primary care giver, as in I am on duty 24/7 and my husband helps out a few hours on the weekends. My husband has some health issues, which since we discovered them have left me feeling like I have to somehow manage to be hale and hearty for four--him, me, and the girls! Actually, I have some health issues of my own--a weight problem for starters. Well, maybe for start and finish. I went and had a nigen dokku (complete physical) 2 years ago and the doctor himself, looking over all my test results mused that I was an incredibly healthy and fit fat woman. But that was 2 years ago and I think that being as heavy as I am has and is taking its toll on my health.

So the responsible adult standing out in the driveway said, "Look. You ought to start working out and really dieting! NOT lighting a cigarette!"
and the belligerent angry brat in me snapped back "Go rot." and proceeded to light up.

Now, that one cigarette (and it was supposed to be just one) ended up turning into a cigarette snuck in just before DD#2 (dear daughter #2) Miss 4's preschool bus pulled up every afternoon and then another one snuck in after dinner/before bed time. It was tricky going. More cigarrettes kept sneaking in daily and I didn't want the girls to discover their mother's dark little secret. So. It probably has entertained the neighbors quite a bit. "Look, there's the Gaijin (foreign) woman outside her house smoking in the driveway again." But not just the bizarre appearance of me in the driveway but also the constant banging open of the front door and Miss 8 or Miss 4 hollering, "Mommy? What're you doing?" and me panic stricken strategically stepping on lit cigarettes telling them to "get back inside! I'll be right in!"

Mother of the year hands down.

Now, when Christmas vacation came upon us my "deception" fell around my ears and my children, having learned my secret, started to thrill to opening windows and caroling, "Mommy's smoking!" to all and sundry. I am sure my neighbors who before may have been entertained are now thoroughly disgusted. They'll expect to see me chugging beers out back next.

So. Enter my New Year's resolution for 2007. No more smoking, ever again, absolutely, never.

Having not only made such a momentous decision but also having survived the first two days cold turkey I sat at our dinner table with the girls and said, "Mommy made a New Year's resolution. I have quit a bad habit. Do you know what it was?"

Both Miss 4 and Miss 8 got very quite and looked very thoughtful--which is rare in two children who generally fit the description of living whirling dervishes. "You're not going to scream at us anymore." Said Miss 4. "You're not going to be grouchy anymore." said Miss 8.

"Err, no, I quit a HABIT. Something I do that is BAD for me." I tried to say this very calmly while inside me all kinds of maternal panic buttons were going off. Screaming? Grouchy? What kind of a mother am I?

"You're not going to turn into a monster?" said Miss 4.

I tell ya, MOTHER OF THE YEAR. . .

So. I am smoke free in 2007 but I think my girls have given me another New Years Resolution or two to strive to achieve and it appears to be something along the lines of a "calmer parenting style." No more screaming please.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The Kitties

The striped grey and black cat curled up on "her" blanket on the top of the sofa is Melon, our American Short Hair and the senpai cat in the house. Her name started out as "Mary" because I thought it would be fun to have an inside pun going on her name. No one else has ever thought this was clever but here is the idea: American short hair pronounced in Japanese is: Ah-meh-ree-etc. etc. so: Meh-ree, Mary? Get it? It's okay, don't pretend if you don't. I've already faced the truth that my attempt at punning failed. Anyway, DD#1 (dear daughter #1) Miss 8, started off calling the cat "Mary" about 20% of the time and "Baron" (which was our Obachyan's /Japanese Grandma's cat's name at the time) 20% of the time and then the other 60% of the time she was calling her "Melon". So Melon is the name senpai/senior cat goes by. I tell people it is because she is stripy like a Water Melon. Get it? They look at me with pity.
The grey cat kicking back on the futons is the first and youngest of our kitties. She is kouhai/underling to Melon's senpai status but she kicks Melon's butt on a daily basis regardless. They have never and will never like one another. Melon spent the first two weeks hissing at her kouhai and that was when her kouhai was only the size of a tennis ball! Grey cat was rescued from a large group of shyogakko and youchien kids at our mansion in Osaka. But she's a dead ringer for a Russian Blue. She was only the size of the palm of my hand when she came to live with us. We named her, "Happy" because she was!

A bit of Osoji

Hhmmmm. . . .to be honest we didn't really do any Osoji this year (or any past year that I recall. . . ). Osoji is "big cleaning" that is usually done on New Year's Eve. Saw some of the neighbors hard at work doing Osoji. Husbands in the genkans scrubbing the windows which is quite a job here in Akita where most houses have a mostly glass genkan in front of their actual genkan (with a dividing door in between that they can lock)! Our neighbor's across the road have a genkan with a glass roof, glass walls, all glass! It is for the heavy winters here so that delivery people can enter a dry space to make their deliveries and neighbors stopping by can come in in snow boots and snow gear out of the snow and wind and yet not far enough into the house to make a big puddle! Our house however, just has a regular genkan, with a wooden door and walls, a few windows but not like the neighbors! It goes directly into our main room downstairs and the dividing door has no lock so I think the delivery people are often quite put out when they go to open the front door and find it is locked!

Back to topic. So while we haven't done any "big cleaning" I did decide that it was time to tackle the kitty litter boxes. We have two kitties so we have two litter boxes. There is nothing more disgusting than cleaning out litter boxes! Except. . . having a cheering section narrate the action out loud to you: "Poop!" "Poop!" "There's more POOP!" Then when the cheering section spots a fresh hair ball that has been chucked up in the corner next to the litter box, "BARF!" and climbs up on your back so that they can get a better look at the wet little pile of stomach bile and hair. . . "BARF!" My cheering section this afternoon was my four year old daughter, who inspired by the sight of the upchucked hairball decided to do her best puss-n-boots (via Shrek II) hacking up a hair ball imitation and actually triggered her own gag reflex so well that she nearly lost her lunch all over me!

Finally got both boxes cleaned out, the hair ball removed and the cats have fresh boxes which they have both eagerly jumped in and re-christianed. I think the hair ball was revenge for being a day late in cleaning out the boxes.

The cheering section is just my karma coming back at me.

Hello First Post

So. . . this is my first post. I think I'll share my all time favorite quote: "I thought it. I said it. I wrote it. I read it. It's fact." from my best friend in college. Listed in her footnotes to her English term research paper.