Friday, May 25, 2007

Offing the Jolly Old Elf

"Mommy. I'm thinking that I want a drum set." Reno's eyes flash up to meet mine. I am out on the sun porch hanging up some laundry.

"Really? I don't think that will be possible. We don't have room for one anyway--you'd have no where to put it. " I say quickly as I stop in the middle of hanging up socks to make direct eye contact with her. I want to put an end to this pipe dream quickly.

"Hmmm. . . . Asuka-chyan has one and it doesn't take up that much room." My daughter has now wandered all the way out on to the sun porch with me. She is pressing the palms of her hands against the side glass wall and gazing out at the back yard; this will leave two clear smudgy hand prints on the windows.

"Well, don't forget, you also want a bunk bed and a new bicycle. You can't have everything!" I resolutely clip a pair of her socks up on the line. She continues her leisurely turn around the parameters of the sun porch, trailing her fingers across all three large glass walls as she does so. (Later I make her clean the sun porch windows and on Mother's Day I receive a card that lists thanks for, among other things, "cleaning windows for me.")

She pauses to look over her shoulder at me. "That's okay." My stomach clenches as I wait, already knowing what she is about to say. "Santa will get it for me."

Damn that fat jolly elf.

"Reno, you know. . . " and my voice veers up and off in a squeaky kind of self-strangulation. "Never mind Mommy. I'll just ask Santa!" and she quickly pivots on her heels and bounces off the sun porch, back into the house probably to go decide where she will put her new drum set.
In the past five months (it is now May, and she started on the new "Letter to Santa" in January.) Reno has declared an intense need for: a new pair of roller shoes, a new pair of roller blades, a skateboard, a new bicycle, a bunk bed, a scooter, new software for her Nintendo DS lite player, a flute, and now a drum set. I'm sure I have forgotten at least twenty other toys that have flitted into her line of vision that she has espoused lust for but I am hoping that she too has forgotten them.

My nine-year-old is one of the staunchest believers in Kriss Kringle in the entire world. She has successfully debated the existence of Santa Claus with her father since the tender age of three. She can deflect and answer any question directed to her regarding the magical old gentleman and the very existence of "non believers" leaves her with an incredulous look on her face as she sadly laments "how can they not? That's so sad!"

Her father certainly has not had any hand in helping to nurture the magic of Christmas in our household. Being a Japanese business man he is at work on the 25th of December every year and he doesn't get involved in our Christmas decorations and carrying ons, unless it is to poke fun at them. (He particularly enjoys taunting the girls on Christmas Eves that he'll punch out Santa just like he would any other dorobou (thief) that comes calling at our house to which they wail back in unison, "but he isn't stealing things! He's bringing us TOOOOOYYYYSSSS!")

Growing up, my father wrote us long delightful letters from Santa. He faithfully ate all the cookies (and the fresh vegetables that were left for the reindeer) and drank up all the milk. In marrying into another culture, one in which my Buddhist husband has never shown an ounce of enthusiasm for Old Saint Nick impersonations, I have ironically taken over my father's role. I'm sure there must be single moms over there in the U.S. who have also found themselves impersonating an overweight jolly old elf--the hidden roles of motherhood revealed: chauffeur, dietician, personal hygiene consultant, human body pillow (if you co-sleep with your kids), and every December, the North Pole's most famous resident: fat Nick.

I have sat up late every Christmas eve and stuffed myself full of the reindeer's carrot sticks and Santa's sugar cookies, making sure to leave one with a big bite mark in it on the plate. . . quaffed the milk and written letters to the girls. Not to mention done all the gift wrapping, the stocking stuffing and the month's worth of Christmas carol singing, nativity scene viewing, advent wreath lightings and readings . . . can you tell that I am determined to share my cultural/familial traditions with my children?

Our American Christmas in Japan is an odd sort of quilt patched together of my American family's customs and Christian traditions with Japanese substitutes and inspired rifts on a Christmas theme. Often the traditional Christmas dinner fair has to be a bit forged. . . chicken instead of a turkey, potato salad instead of mashed potatoes and since fudge is too sweet for my Japanese raised children's taste the famous light and fluffy (sponge cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries) Japanese Christmas cake! However, I did willfully expend too much money on purchasing imported Candy canes and subjecting my children to them for a good two years before they finally developed a taste for them--Some things I have just been unable to compromise on.

The tree on which we hang our assortment of ornaments (true ornaments gratefully received from family back home mixed with the little free key chain\bag accessories that Japanese drink companies like to give away when you buy a bottle of their tea/soda.) is not a real tree like the kind I grew up with. But it has grown anyway. Frustrated by the knee high imitation trees commonly available here (our first year in Japan) I demanded a four foot tree from the local home goods center (third year in Japan) and finally I went and picked up a six foot artificial tree from Costco when they opened a store in Osaka (our sixth year in Japan).

Come December my house fills with the holiday aromas of fresh pine (essential oil) cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg (a delightful Yankee candle), cranberry and holly (again, Yankee candles) and after five years of living in Japan without an oven the microwave finally died and I was able to get a small convection oven--finally the true scent of freshly baked cookies. The DVD player whirls away and fills our family room with Frosty the Snow Man, the Grinch who Stole Christmas and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.

While my zeal for preserving/re-creating the holiday spirit for my children comes from the best intentions, I admit it, I have gone overboard. As my nine-year-old struts past me, wondering aloud if she ought to ask Santa for the new Tamagochi DS software or for the Nintendo T.V. taiko drum game I have to admit--I am the person who made Santa what he is.

My own parents kept that jolly old elf right where he belonged. He was one of the most magical parts of Christmas in my childhood but he wasn't IT. He definitely took a back seat to that kid that Mary had. Santa kept a list, he checked it twice, and he apparently checked with my parents before putting anything in his bag for me. My parents kind of "okayed" his thoughtfulness if you know what I mean. "Okay Santa. She's been fairly well behaved. We guess a little something would be okay if you're sure you want to give her something." So Santa always left a small something for me under the tree. A small something. And only ONE thing. I, however, apparently totally whacked out on expatriate mothering hormones allowed the old gent to literally shower Reno with gifts each December the 25th. In fact, in my crazed frenzy I reversed the whole affair and now it was Mom and Dad who left only one small gift under the tree--everything else came from Santa or grandparents, aunts and uncles. Even, gulp, the stockings came from Santa: Everything comes from Santa. (I learned later that in a lot of families, it is traditionally only the stockings that Santa fills up.)

So now, although we weren't burdened with getting gifts for anyone else (I only send Christmas gifts to about five people--mostly my family in the States) December became an incredibly expensive month for us. My Santa liked to give BIG gifts, and my Santa liked to give MANY gifts. And if only I had realized what kind of a monster I was creating I still could have scaled back when Reno was small. . . but then she was an only child until the age of four and I foolishly felt as though we could afford to have a big Christmas each year. . . Then we had child number two. Even that first Christmas when Saki was still not even sitting up on her own and thus, not in the way of needing very many toys, I started to feel the financial pinch. When I went over budget buying them "the matching Christmas outfits" I realized we were in trouble.

Now. How to extricate ourselves from this Holiday tinsel trap? Of course, no one wants to tell their five-year-old that Santa doesn't exist. . . well, okay, maybe I did sorta kinda wanna tell her. . . but I didn't. Instead I thought back to my childhood and remembered that it was in first grade when my friends who had stopped believing started to work on me. "It's your Mom and Dad you know. There is no Santa." The chilling testimonies, "So I snuck downstairs and it was just my Dad and Mom putting stuff in our stockings!" That was the way out! Let her friends at school disillusion her! So I sent Reno off to first grade smugly thinking that by the end of that year we'd be waving bye bye Santa.

Guess what? In Japan, most kids don't believe in Santa to begin with. Guess what else? Since Santa is sort of like a "gaijin" (foreigner) himself, apparently, when Saki told them that he did too exit and that he came to her house every year and left her lots of presents and a stocking--they believed her! In fact, she created a kind of urban legend in our Japanese neighborhood. If you are a gaijin kid, or if you are a hafu (part Japanese/part foreigner) then you get stuff from the gaijin Santa on Christmas. Even now, at the age of nine, her friends kind of step back and shake their head in awe, "ii na? yappari hafu wa lucky desu yo ne!" (cool, yup, hafu's are lucky.)

This last Christmas it just spiraled completely out of control. Reno kept heaping request upon request into Santa's sleigh and it was overloaded, spinning downwards, headed into a nose first collision with the reality of our family finances. The thing that topped it was, "I want a piano. A REAL one."

I tried a couple of different methods to undermine the request: Santa's sleigh couldn't carry such a large object. His magic shrinks things. Santa has so many children world-wide that he has to give gifts to that he has started to limit what he can give to each child. Okay. Then Reno and Saki would accept the piano as a gift for both of them.

One friend suggested that I simply disappoint the girls and on Christmas morning tell them that they must have been on the naughty list.

I entertained the idea.

Then my husband gave in and agreed to get them the piano. But again, we had been talking the entire fall about Santa giving them a piano for Christmas. Now my husband had purchased a piano and arranged for it to be delivered on the 24th. How was I supposed to preserve the childhood magic of their beloved Santa Claus and yet explain the appearance of delivery men on the 24th, from the local music store, with their piano, on the day before Christmas.

Thus was born my literary masterpiece: the Letter from Santa December 2006:

Dear Reno and Saki,
This letter comes special delivery (You should find it in your mail box on Saturday the 23rd, as it should arrive in your mail box via white snowy owl overnight—did you know that I also use White Snowy Owls for mail delivery? Not just Harry Potter!). It was entrusted to “Snow Flake” one of my best owls so I trust it will reach you safely.
I am writing to let you know that your Christmas gift will be arriving early this year. I see on the calendar, cross checking it with the International school calendars, that Reno will be going to school on December the 25th this year! So, I thought it would be nice if you got your gift early so that you could enjoy it over the weekend!
Your gift should be delivered by a local delivery company in Akita. The reindeer have recently asked that heavier items be delivered early by out source companies as they say that carrying such a heavy load on Christmas Eve is leaving them so tired that they are unable to enjoy their spring vacation! Your gift this year is particularly heavy so I have gone ahead and asked a local company there in Akita to deliver it to your home. Plus it would have been impossible to fit through the heating vent without probably causing such a ruckus that your neighbors would have woken up and phoned the police. Then when the police came I would have had to share my cookies with them and as I already have to share with all the Elves back at my workshop. . . well, your cookies in the past have been so delicious I just want to be sure I get a few to myself! You are planning on leaving out a plate of cookies again this year, aren’t you? Although your big gift will come early on Saturday the 23rd, I will still be leaving a little something under the tree for you to enjoy together on Christmas morning.
Have a Merry Christmas and don’t forget that I update the Naughty and Nice list all year round, so keep being good little girls!
Santa Claus

And thus Christmas and Santa were saved in 2006. Reno watched me like a hawk the entire time the piano delivery men were here and when they left I heard her triumphantly telling her little sister, "Mommy didn't give them any money, see! Santa is real! I knew it! He is, he is, he is, he is, he IS!" Saki exploded into little shrieks of delight as they whirled through the house joyfully dancing and jumping in a festive mood that carried us well through the New Year.

But it can't go on, can it? I mean, a teenager who still believed in Santa Claus would be asking for things like cars and trips to Europe, front row concert tickets in Tokyo. . . so the bloody task is left to me: I get to metaphorically speaking, stab Santa, kill Kringle, off the jolly old elf. Leaving the question simmering in my mind, "but how?" How do you dismantle your children's innocence? How do you break down their magical barricade and pour reality into their pure imaginations?

The question left me thinking again on why and how Santa had undergone the metamorphosis from fanciful symbol of Christmas spirit into a materialistic gift getting symbol of the holiday in our family. The answer has three main components:

1. MATERIAL: I overdid all the gifts/stockings in my enthusiasm for providing a bountiful holiday for my children.

2. FAMILIAL: Because we live far from our American family and friends we don't do the normal "Christmas shopping" thing. I remember finding the most beautiful scarf for Aunt Audrey with my mother one summer while on vacation in Monterey, California. And in Reno, Nevada finding the adorable plush Tigger rattles for my cousins' babies who were also born in the Chinese year of the Tiger like my eldest daughter. Back home, Christmas shopping was something that we did year round, and something that I was involved in from a very young age. Thinking about our friends and families, looking for a gift for each person to show them how much they meant to us, how special they were and how much they enriched our lives by being part of them. December didn't only herald the arrival of huge cardboard boxes packed with gifts from the relatives, it also meant trips to the P.O. with my parents to ship off our huge package stuffed boxes to Aunts, Uncles and cousins living in the Mid West. My mother and father annually stayed in the kitchen for one weekend every December making batches of fudge and cookies to wrap up in bows and distribute among the neighbors, our teachers (Sunday school, piano, school) the mail delivery guy, the garbage collections guys, the newspaper boy, the babysitter, our hairstylist.

We don't do any of that here. My Christmas shopping for relatives and friends back home is done on line. Or I buy things all on one day, at the shops here on New Year's day when Japan has it's best sales of the year. And my kids don't really know their U.S. relatives all that well. They have seen their American Grandparents less than five times each. In fact, Saki has only seen them once and she was only a year old at the time! My kids have missed out on perhaps the most important part of Christmas: giving.

3. SPIRITUAL: We don't go to Church. I try to read the Christmas story to them every year. We have a creche that we set out each year. We have gone to Church here in Japan a handful of times but it has been difficult. Now we live in an area where the closest Church is a forty dollar taxi ride away from our home. My husband is working even on Sundays so he is unable to drive us to the Church.

So. I have after much thought, decided that rather than an out right hit on the old guy, Santa will be better handled through a transformation process. I want to get rid of the guy in the sleigh lugging them booty and instead resurrect the spirit of Christmas giving.

I started in 2006. Even in the midst of my elaborate shenanigans to have Santa deliver them a piano, I began by making the weekly advent wreath readings a bigger feature in our holiday celebrations. I had the girls make the advent wreath with me and we made our own candle holders from paper clay and then they painted them themselves. Each week we had our own Advent service here at home. I would read them a bit from the Bible and then some readings for children during the advent season (that I found on line). Then we would take out the creche and set it up one piece at a time. As we took out each figurine we would talk about it. Each week I tried to approach the theme of giving from a different angle. The shepherds giving the Christ child gifts, God giving us the gift of his only son, made man. We looked for gifts that weren't obvious, like how useful the manger was--meant to feed horses and cows, transformed into a snug little bed for the baby Jesus!

We talked about how today we celebrate that spirit of giving at Christmas by giving gifts to one another, and by helping those in need. (Charities aren't big head liners here in Japan, but recently these days UNICEF donation boxes can be found in more and more department stores so I try to have the girls contribute whenever we see one.) Of course, I held up Santa as a heroic figure: of giving.

We ended our services by singing Christmas carols--very out of tune, off key and with great exuberance.

And just so no one thinks that I am anything other than the stumbling, rambling, unorganized and at best always half way prepared mommy I am--I'll admit it. Both girls got the biggest thrill out of singing "Happy Birthday" to baby Jesus and then blowing out the advent candles. Well, I don't remember that from any Advent services growing up, but if it keeps them happy and interested.

Of course, Reno obviously, is still pinning her hopes on a Santa that will deliver the goods. But I am hoping that if I continue to try to emphasis the areas in our lives where we are given the opportunity to give and if I just stop throwing kindling on the "Santa's a great guy, just ask Santa for it!" bon fire that the flames will naturally die down. I don't want to kill off Santa I just want Christmas to mean more than getting toys for my children. I also can't afford to keep subsidizing the old guy. These days when Reno asks questions about Santa I just throw them back at her, "what do you think?" She patches together pretty reasonable arguments to keep him going. . . but I'm encouraged by the fact that her questions keep coming and they are getting more artful. I'm encouraged that she is asking questions. While her friends have accepted the "only gaijin kids get lots of gifts from Santa" theories, I'm happy to see that she is dissatissfied with it. "If Santa really exists, then why wouldn't he bring more toys for Asuka-chyan? She is a really good girl! And Kaide -chyan said that she didn't get anything! Why would he do that?"

Of course, I don't want Reno to discover "the truth" and brutally disappate the pain of being disallusioned by disallusioning her little sister. (I can see this picture so clearly in my mind. Maybe because it was my brother who forced me to accept the fact that the Easter bunny was really only my father? I kept refusing to say it outloud, "there is no Easter Bunny" and my brother kept me there tears streaming down my face until I finally said it. ) But I think that if Santa isn't out right murdered and done away with Reno will be at peace with letting him arrive by reindeer drawn flying sleigh for her little sister for a few more years. Even is she does begin to realize that he lives more in our hearts and in childhood imagination than in the North Pole. And hopefully, that will free me from having to off the jolly old elf myself!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dignity's Down the Drain

This morning I woke up and drank a pot of coffee. While drinking the pot of coffee I got my eldest daughter out the door and down the road (actually I had to go with her for as far as four blocks) off to school. I also managed to convince her to "join in the trash fun" and drag a large bag of gomi (trash) to the collection point with me. While continuing to drink the pot of coffee I got the bento (boxed Japanese style lunch) ready for my youngest daughter and thought up at least ten good solid answers to "I don't want to go to youchien (pre school) today!" At 8:40 I held on tightly to the title of "the mum who waves the most vigorously and looks the most delighted as her child gets on the pre school bus and goes off for a day of fun: songs, arts and crafts at the dreaded pre school."

My husband was still present when I drained the final cup. Once he was out the door I sat at the computer and wrote for a while. Nothing extraordinary came of it so I gave up and decided to (dramatic pause) do some housework. While vacuuming I got to thinking about why I have to vacuum everyday. Kids and cats. The kids I can't do much about beyond my normal admonitions to please NOT crumble up the popcorn or senbei (Japanese rice crackers) before eating them no matter how much tastier the crumbs are and to please eat AT THE TABLE and not as they wander from room to room. The cats: I can brush 'em and bathe them.

Hence, I dragged the grey cat into the ofuro first. The Japanese bath or ofuro, is incredibly useful when it comes to bathing small children and cats. Because you are allowed (you're supposed to actually) to do all your lathering and rinsing outside the tub standing on the floor. Water everywhere! No problem. Grey cat (christened Happy) came out of the ofuro clean but looking more like she should have been christened, "Pissed Off". Next I went and grabbed the calmer older cat, Melon. Scrubbed her like a dirty carrot and then deposited both unhappy felines on our sun porch to dry.
And I feel so incredibly satisfied. Later this afternoon I'll have two fluffy and squeaky clean kitties! At least all this shedded fur free floating around the house will be luxuriously soft and brilliant shiny (according to the pet shampoo bottle). I love watching the desperate self-grooming that results too. They look up occasionally to glare at me, whether it is for looking or for laughing I'm not sure. But cat bath days just put me in such a good mood. Sure, their dignity is down the drain for a bit, but by tomorrow with a little wet cat food, some loving brushing sessions and lots of praise they'll be back to thinking that they are better than all of us.
Feeling at a loss as to what to do today? Yearning for a sense of achievement? Wash a kitty.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Independent Emi: Dennis the Menace Japanese style

My first impression of this child was that she must be about five or six years old. Reasons for this assumption were: she was to be found at nearly any time of day, outside, in the streets, roaming the neighborhood on her own. She also towered over my three-year-old.

However, upon closer inspection I deduced that she was simply tall for her age. Reasons for the revision in my initial assumptions were: she spoke more like a three or four year old, she often was to be found without any shoes on and she didn't appear to dress according to the weather.

She also liked to come up and tell me in the park that she needed to pee. And she needed someone to push her on the swing set.

It was finally revealed after a chance encounter with her mother that this little girl was in fact younger than my daughter--by a good four months. She was about twice as heavy and a good foot taller, but she was my daughter's chronological junior. Her mother confided to me that Emi-chyan was the fourth of four children and a bit of a handful. Her mother and father both worked and she was often entrusted to the care of her eight-year-old brother or her older (High school and college aged) sisters. How hard her siblings worked to keep her in sight however was another matter. Her brother, with whom she was left most often, would basically circle back around the neighbor every few hours, find her and yell at her to go home. She never paid him any heed.

As fate would have it (or perhaps luck?) my daughter Saki ended up going to a different pre-school so for the first year here we managed to contain our interactions with independent Emi to the local park. Except for the time that she got into our back yard and got into the large inflatable swimming pool we had set up. And of course, after she discovered that we kept all the outside toys in the tool shed in the back yard I started to find the door left open and various toys strewn around our property. . . She was a definite presence, even with out being obviously present. She was almost a kind of physical manifestation of a poltergeist. When I would accuse the girls of forgetting to shut the gate to the back yard, or forgetting to put away all their toys in the shed they would answer with cries of "We didn't do it! Emi did!"

Then, after the spring thaw this year all that changed. Now an independent four-year-old--whose her mother confided to me one afternoon has them concerned as she has started to cross the nearby heavily trafficked roads and has been found as far as several traffic lights away--Emi has planted herself firmly, physically at our house. It started with the unexplained, mysterious ability of our two house cats to get outside.

At first I marveled at the cats' strength, dexterity and cunning. They must have found a way to open the sliding glass doors off the back sun porch! How? I bemused. Then Reno, my eldest daughter said, "I betchya Emi is letting them out." I scoffed. No, no, no. . . then one day I heard the pearl of our front door bell. Upon opening the door I saw Emi, a big smile on her face. She looked particularily pleased. "Emi-chyan? Saki isn't home from pre school yee.....t. Melon! Happy! Bad Cats!" and I took a flying leap off the front porch to try to tackle our two house cats who had just streaked by. After scaring both cats back inside I mused out loud, "how did they get out? " and out of the corner of my eye I saw Emi's grin radiating at me. "Emi-chyan. They are house cats and are not allowed outside." She beamed at me, waved at me and meandered back out into the road in her signature bare feet. Later that afternoon I discovered a pair of Emi's shoes carefully lined up in the back yard just outside our sun porch.

Next came the mail fiasco. For several weeks I kept finding a neighbor's mail in our mail box. Every day I would summon Reno and instruct her to deliver the mail to the correct address. When I asked if she found the right houses okay she always said, "Yeah. no problem." I figured that we must have a particularly ambitious mailman who was just going along on his scooter so fast that he was tossing some of the other neighbors' mail in with ours. . . until one day when I decided to take the mail to the correct addresses myself. Walking along our road, squinting at each door plaque trying to match the Chinese characters on the envelopes to the family names etched on the plaques I finally realized that all the mail belonged to Emi's family. Sure enough, when her mother opened the door and saw me there holding a bunch of letters she grimaced and said, "Oh, I'm so sorry. Emi likes to put our mail in other people's mail boxes! Emi?" a barefoot and muddy faced Emi appeared from their side yard. "Did you put these letters in Saki's mail box?" "uh-uh. " and she grinned expansively at both her mother and me. Her mother frowned. Then she turned and bowed very formally to me, "I am so sorry. Really I am."

The week before our family came down with the influenza this spring, I found Emi at the park wearing only nylons and a t-shirt in 6 degree Celsius weather. By now, smart to her ways, I looked around the expansive park quickly and saw, tucked under a tree at the far end what looked like a small brown bundle. "Emi? Where are your pants?" She shrugged her shoulders and gave me an expansive smile. "Are those your pants under that tree over there?" She looked down at her by now very, very dirty nylon covered toes. "Let's go put them on, shall we?" It was to be our last day in the park with Independent Emi for a week or so as just a few days later my husband came home with the flu which he gave to Reno which she in turn gave to her little sister Saki. No one gave it to me so that I could stay inside and take care of them all.

That's when the assault began. Starting as soon as she was home from pre school and then on the weekends from about 9 a.m. in the morning, Emi began appearing at the front door asking if my girls could come out to play. "No. Not today. They have the flu." Emi's eyes never left my face. "Can I come in then? I want to see what's inside." "No Emi-chyan, sorry. Goodbye."

She would wait anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour in between ringing the bell but she kept it up all day, every day until darkness fell. Sometimes she would vary her request changing the plea for human play mates to, "Can I take one of your cats outside?" At first I went to the front door every time. Then I started to just pick up the interphone and say, "Kyou asobanai. Byoki dakara" (They can't play today, they are sick.) and finally, I found myself, a full grown 40 year-old woman, a wife and a mother. . . turning down the volume of the front bell as far down as it would go and turning up the T.V. volume.

Then, at the beginning of this week she got in. Everyone was back up and running so Saki had just returned home from pre-school and I was busy making her a snack in the kitchen when I heard giggling. Coming out of the kitchen I found Saki and Emi sitting on the floor with a cat in between them giggling. The cat looked a little nervous and green snot was trailing out of Emi's nose so I handed her a tissue and said, "Remember to be gentle with the cat!" She took the proffered Kleenex and tossed it on the ground behind her. I picked it up and held it up to her nose. "Blow." She blew and then looked up at me. "I want a snack."

And so it began. That afternoon, after I had had Reno escort Emi-chyan home a total of no less than 5 times, it was already 6 o'clock by the time our household was Emi-free.
Today, I swear to God, that child must not have even stepped foot in her house after hopping off her pre school bus and she was pounding on the front door and leaning on the door bell (although I've turned the volume down as low as it can go, we can, unfortunately, still hear it).

I was behind in making prep for dinner so I let her in and she and Saki played up stairs for a while. . . which was OKAY, until I found them jumping all over the futons (after they had been expressly forbidden entrance to the bed room to begin with!) so then they moved downstairs where I had to tell Emi every 5 minutes or less to stop teasing and tormenting the cats. When cautioned that they would bite and scratch her, she pulled herself up to her full height and declared, "But I won't cry ." So I said, "Okay. But you will bleed so stop it."

Then she decided to try to climb up on our stove top provoking a rather loud and stern "Dame!" (NO) from me. Then she filched my house keys! I only noticed by accident--lucky that!--and again told her DAME. In fact, I looked deeply into big wide brown eyes and said in a low, even and deadly serious tone of voice, "Zetai ni dame" (absolutely NO!). She blinked which I took to be a sign that my authority was starting to be recognized.

The next time she entered the kitchen it was with her eyes focused on the bottle of syrup sitting on the kitchen counter. She demanded rather authoritatively that I make her pancakes. I laughed and said "no." Then she leaned dramatically against the kitchen cupboards, sighed and said, "Boy would pancakes taste good. I could really go for some pancakes about now." I pretended not to hear. But I did offer her some Nabisco chocolate chip cookies and a vegetable/fruit drink. It's what my four-year-old drinks. She accepted both and then promptly pronounced the juice "yucky" and went and pulled open our refrigerator door and attempted to climb in. Japanese refrigerators are a little different than typical American refrigerators. Our refrigerator for example has a large cool box on the bottom for vegetables, then two small freezer drawers and then the upper half is normal refrigerator. For a four-year-old, this makes sneaking things from the fridge a bit of a height challenge. When I realized that she had pulled out the vegetable drawer to climb up on it I intercepted her and poured out a glass of milk. She continued to open every refrigerator drawer she could reach however, her curiosity apparently having been piqued by the glimpse of our vegetables.

She took the glass of milk and promptly spilled about a 1/4 of it on the floor. And then stuck her feet out and smeared it across the wooden floor in an attempt to hide it. I commented that the milk had spilled and bent down with a cleaning cloth to wipe it up. Then I guided her to a chair at the table and told her the eating and drinking rule again: only at the table.

She was up and out of the chair, cookie in hand within seconds. I pretended not to notice as I was actually quite relieved to have her further from the kitchen no matter how many crumbs I'd discover around the family room later.

Then, the rice finally having binged and the ingredients for dinner all chopped up and waiting for a quick cook up later I announced that Saki and Emi should clean up before leaving with me to the park. Emi loudly announced that she would wait for us in the genkan. So I asked her if she had played with the toys? Yes, she had. "Then you are going to clean them up with us." But she bolted down the stairs where she put on a pair of high heels (taken from the genkan-front entrance) and proceeded to stomp about the house in them scratching the wood floor in two areas where she slipped in them! I wanted to. . . . grrrrrrr. . . .but I just dragged her back up stairs and said flatly, "if you don't pick up after playing here than you won't play here again." For which I earned two blinks and one doll put in the toy chest.

Then it was off to the park! Reprieve! Much less stressful. Until it was time to head home. She followed us although I said clearly and directly: "Saki-chyan wa ima kaerimasu yo. Kyou mo asobanai. Mata ashita ne? BYE BYE." ("Saki has to go home now she can't play anymore. See you tomorrow. Good bye.") I got to say the same thing and variations on it about 5 times. . . then luckily her mother appeared and ushered her home. About 5 minutes later I found her in our genkan (front entrance area). When I told her that we were having dinner and she had to leave she looked up and said, "Okashii chyoudai!" ("Give me snacks please!") I told her that soon her mother would be serving her dinner too so I would not give her any snacks just before dinner. Then I took her by the arm and put her out the front door. And put the chain on.

She struck next at the back of our house--pounding on the glass and opening the doors to the sun porch. I went out on the porch and told her it was time for her to go home. Shut and locked the doors, explaining that the cats are indoor cats and can not be let outside. She kept pounding on the glass windows/doors. I popped my head out and told her "Dame, go home." and shut the curtains.

She finally went home. But this afternoon I am sure she will be back.

And having gotten this all out of my system it reminds me to prey fiercely just before bed tonight that no local Japanese mother is blogging about, has ever blogged about or will ever blog about one of my children. And I just know that they have inevitably done some things that'd make them good blogging material. . . a little worrisome actually. It also has raised the specter of my own precocious childhood and reintroduced me to the four-year-old me that used to ask to use people's bathrooms so I could look through all their cupboards and take off my underpants. I hated wearing underpants. And I had a habit of publicly and loudly announcing to people who didn't like children that they didn't like children. It has made me thankful that I have learned over the years how to better control my own impulses.

Even though Reno continues to roll her eyes at the very mention of Emi-chyan (for the older girls on the block she is seen as the quintessential tag-along irritating "little kid") and asks me, "You don't really like her, do you Mommy?" I have to grin at her expansively and confess, "No, you know, I really do like her! She's a sweet little girl." She's just as sticky as gum on hot asphalt and as stubborn as an 80 year-old-man! but I don't say that part out loud, because really, I do like her.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Cry Baby

You will never see me cry. Unless you kick me really hard in the shin. Or poke me in the eye. Or slam my hand in your car door.

In this regard I closely resemble "Donkey" from the movie Shrek II. Sold for beans, used as a pinata even as Donkey recounts the horrible emotional traumas he has been put through not so much as a glitter of a tear appears in his eye: it is only when Puss in Boots the cat scratches him that the tear falls. At least, I used to be like Donkey.

Then I had children. Actually it only took the first pregnancy to throw my signature stoic nature out of whack. Disturbingly, for some reason pregnancy has left me with a strange tear imbalance. While it was somewhat distressing, crying at T.V. commercials was just part of the side effects of the state of things when I was pregnant but now, far past pregnancy (my last one is now four-years-old) why am I still getting all choked up by things like Animal Planet? I was watching a show on real live animal rescues with my daughters the other week and a segment came on about the gorilla who saved the little boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure at a zoo. I steeled myself. I've gotten all watery eyed over that one too many times not to put my guard up. But then they followed it with a clip in which a man jumped into a moat at a zoo and rescued a chimpanzee who had been knocked unconscious and fallen into it. Watery eyes, squeaky voice--yup, all choked up.

I also frequently find myself blinking back tears over even less emotionally significant things. When I was teaching Communicative English at University here in Japan, I often found that a correct student response took on the heroic hues of key moments in scenes from movies like "Glory", "Brave Heart" and "The Last of the Mohican's." If a student voluntarily added a follow up comment . . . well, I took in a mug of coffee to each class with me so I could hold it up in front of my face in emergencies.

When I left the university to teach at a preschool--and it came time to hold the first parent-teacher conferences. . . Well really. How could anyone, even someone whose crying mechanism hasn't been all screwed up keep their voice from squeaking and cracking, their eyes misting over with un-shed tears, their hands shaking as they described the accomplishments of fiercely free, exuberant and unshakably confident small children? At least parent-teacher conferences always coincided with the hay fever seasons. . . so I could blame my watery eyes on either cedar or ragweed pollen in the air. Oh, and I sometimes had to pause during story time because valiant tales like "The Little Engine Who Could" had the propensity to choke me up.

But back now to slamming my hand in your car door. Here's the weirdest part of this tear imbalance. While trivial moments in daily life can trigger tears, I still don't cry over the big things. Evidence: I've been married ten years and dated the poor man for ten years before we wed and he has only seen me cry. . . once. And that was when I was having an emotional breakdown from sleep deprivation due to the fact that my first born NEVER slept for the first year of her life. Otherwise, all arguments have been conducted tear free.

Even when my husband let it slip early in our relationship how relieved he was that I wasn't one of those girls who "cried" to get her way as he couldn't withstand a woman's tears. . . I still couldn't work up to tears even during our most intense disputes. I mean, the man gave me a "pass go, collect 200 dollars" card and I still couldn't bring myself to use it!

Of course I do cry. But no one ever sees me do it. When something of crying magnitude occurs I first seemingly shut down. Hence, my signature "stoic" nature. And by the way, thank you Dean of Student Affairs at my undergraduate university for officially giving me this title by including it in your report. I did a Freshman type thing and got blindingly drunk one weekend. However, I made the mistake of telling my RA that she was a "whore" when I was found puking in the dormitory lavatories. . . I woke up with the notice of being written up (put on report) practically taped to my forehead. My roommate was the one who faithfully recounted my verbal abuse of the RA to me as I had no recollection of either that or the previous 24 hours for the most part. (The verbal abuse was completely out of character by the way and the RA was the farthest thing from a whore. My drunken mind mirrored Othello's in transforming me into a beast.) Interestingly enough, despite being an English literature major, when the report from the Deans office arrived in my on campus mail box and I read, "student appeared stoic and showed no remorse for her actions." I had no idea what "stoic" meant. After consulting a dictionary I walked around for the rest of the day in a daze, repeating over and over again, "I wasn't stoic, I was scared!" But being too afraid of the Dean of Students I never went and explained my emotionless, frozen countenance to him. So stoic stuck on my student records.

I do remember being a little cry baby when I was very young. I remember crying over the nightly news a lot. When I was in the fourth grade I remember bursting into tears in the back seat of the family car--hysterical. When my father pulled the car over to investigate why I was crying and it came out that I was heartbroken over my older brother's intentionally callous treatment of my parents (he was giving them some "attitude" that morning on the way to church as going to church on that Sunday morning was the last thing that my then Junior High school aged brother wanted to do), I still remember the look of confusion on Dad's face. "whaaa?" Then Mom's confused face popped up over the back of her seat. "Honey. . . "

When I read parenting books about the difficulties of raising highly sensitive children I see those two befuddled faces peering at me over the back of the car seat on that Sunday morning.

I remember shortly after that, or maybe it was even at that moment, deciding NOT to cry over everything anymore. Apparently I succeeded, but at the same time I seem to have jammed the tear gate a bit. Pregnancy seems to have gone in and fiddled with it. So what do we have left? A 40 year old woman who still must be completely isolated in order to cry but who gets all choked up about. . . the two ravens who are trying to build a nest in the power cables in front of our house? (It is really sad to watch, no matter how many times the winds knock their efforts down they persist in trying to build the thing. Then last week when they had enough sticks up there to stay in place even during high winds the people next door called the utility people who came out and ruthlessly knocked the toaster sized stack of sticks down.)

I've taken to renting out right tear jerkers. Like the "Joy Luck Club" and "Steel Magnolias." Catharsis, catharsis, catharsis--I figure that if I can siphon off enough of these sentimental feelings maybe I can find my equilibrium again. Or do pregnancy hormones usually mess with women for this long? It couldn't be menopause could it? I recall acquaintances I knew who were menopausal sweating and fanning their faces in the dead of winter but I don't recall them breaking into squeaky voices and blinking back tears. . .

If this is a "female" thing than I'm going to add it to my list of things to do to punish bad male politicians: number 21--hormone shots. That will go right below number 20--forcing them to live together with political opponents and share the cooking and household duties between them. Which is just below number 19--attending Japanese PTA meetings with a cranky toddler in tow.