Thursday, August 23, 2007

"K" is for "Kitchen"

My mother's kitchen is huge. It has unparalleled counter space. It has two sinks--one in the counter and one in the isle counter--a convection oven and a conventional oven. She has an assortment of cutting boards (two built into the kitchen counters others that I remember from my child hood moving house to house with us.) Cooking in my mother's kitchen is a delight, because it is a social event. My last trip home, four years ago when my daughters were 5 and 1, one of my closest girl friends flew with her 5-year-old daughter to spend Thanksgiving at my parents home with me. To try to offset the burden of extra company for Thanksgiving, my friend and I volunteered to cook up the entire feast. Mom insisted on doing the turkey herself, but apart from my parents sneaking in in the early morning to pop the bird in to the oven, the rest of the day was spent with five-year old girls grating, peeling and washing things at the two separate sinks while my girlfriend tutored me in the art of preparing mouth watering dishes.

My girlfriend is a real cook. She is in her element in a kitchen.

I am not. I am not a real cook that is. I am a recipe cook. I select the recipe, I study it, I consider it, I study it some more and then I follow it, painstakingly down to the last detail. My food tastes pretty much like one would expect, edible but not memorable.

Despite my complete lack of cooking finesse, I enjoy a good kitchen. I love my mother's kitchen because it is HUGE. On that Thanksgiving day five years ago, my one-year-old sat at the end of the kitchen isle unloading pots and pans from a cupboard underneath the isle, my five-year-old viciously and cheerfully frisked and scrubbed vegetables at the isle sink. My friend's five-year-old painstakingly grated huge mounds of cheddar cheese next to her mother by the stove top. My friend was busy teaching me the art of creating a light and flaky pie crust.

And I brewed and poured coffee into our earthenware coffee mugs. (I love my mother's plates, dishes, cups and bowls--so many local pottery pieces). I leaned on the kitchen counter and laughed and gossiped and talked and talked and talked. In the moments when we got the girls out of the kitchen and to the dinning room table to color in turkeys and fall leaves, we dissected our lives and our marriages over our cups of coffee. But all afternoon the kitchen never sat in silence.

My mother's kitchen, the 2 sink, middle isle one is not the kitchen I grew up with. That kitchen was in the house in the foothills of California. It had only one sink, no center isle and only one cutting board. But it had an attached breakfast bar, where in fact my family ate most of our meals.

While one person was cooking or cleaning up in the kitchen, another could sit at the breakfast bar and do what I like to do best in a kitchen: talk.

In fact, should you ever find me at all reticent, drag me into the nearest kitchen and I'll open up.

I don't recall a single conversation of importance with my mother that didn't take place in the kitchen.

Even guests seemed to intuit the conversational pull of the kitchen and despite seating arrangements or name placards the best conversations always erupted in the kitchen.

When I was 9 and I was helping my mother by offering guests tea or coffee I remember how out in the living room the adults would receive a tea cup with formal thank yous but how they would later walk into the kitchen and leaning against the kitchen counter start real conversations with me. Sometimes they told me about their own childhoods or something about their own children. Often they gave me advice or offered insights that made no sense to me at the time, at that age. Just this morning, as I sat staring at Saki (4 years old) who was whacking a large empty cardboard box with a stick (loud, but still not as loud as last week's obsession which was dumping marbles in a metal bowl and then swishing them around and around and around) I heard again, Mrs. Rudemyer confessing in my mother's kitchen, "Oh Laura I can't wait until my Amy is your age! And can talk about something! I can't wait to have interesting conversations with her! Talking with you is so fun, you have opinions and ideas! Young children can be so repetitive and . . . . boring. It's a challenge." As Saki continued to enthusiastically whip the box with her stick the 40 year old me smiled at Mrs. Rudemyer and thought "how true."

And yet, I want that little box whipping child in my kitchen! In fact, I try to lure both girls into the kitchen with me whenever I can. Unfortunately, our kitchen here in Japan is basically a thin rectangle. There is no room for anything, certainly not for more than one person at a time. I worry that the cat will eventually show signs of brain damage I end up stepping on her and booting her about so frequently in the kitchen as she tries to wind her way past or through my legs to her food dish at the end of the kitchen. One side of our kitchen is lined with the refrigerator, the sink and the stove top. The other side is lined with the dish cupboard, a standing plug in isle (wooden table with outlets built in it) pushed up against the wall that holds the rice cooker and coffee pot and the small convection oven. The convection oven is a BIG domestic triumph and it took me five years to get it. But now I can bake American style and it can even fit a small turkey. Then at the very end there is a tiny space for the cats bowls. They have to eat shoulder to shoulder. Counter space I create by laying cutting boards across the sink.

And yet, here I am still trying to coax my daughters into the kitchen to talk with me. I am never so desperate for conversation as when I am in that tiny kitchen.

Our first apartment here in Japan had an even tinier kitchen. It was only one side of the wall and that was the wall that was also part of the family room. I enthusiastically bought a huge wooden table to plunk down opposite the wall with the kitchen on it. The table was so big that you could barely squeeze past it. In fact, Reno usually just danced up on and down the bench rather than try to squirm around it. It looked like I had put Barbie furniture in a traditional sized doll house--very out of proportion. And still no one stayed to talk to me. Reno and her father usually sat in front of the T.V. at the end of that room. We ended up calling it the "overpriced cutting board."

When we moved into our mansion in Osaka I was enthusiastic over the kitchen. It was marginally larger, but the part I loved was that the sink had dual facets in it (although after living there for four years I only remember one occasion on which I actually had a friend there to use one facet while I used the other.) and that there was an open counter looking out into the dinning room. Where I of course placed the monstrous dinning table. My family however, continually drifted towards the end of the dinning/family room, pulled by the force of the T.V. and my big homey table became a kind of "side bar". I could look out that kitchen window at that empty table as much as I wanted to. The hoards stayed firmly encrusted on the sofa, opposite the table, out of my range of view, in front of the T.V.

Of course at meal times I could force them to sit at the table. But where was the epicenter for conversation in our family? In Osaka, it ended up being in the ofuro. Which is fine for family, but you can't exactly drag company in to the family bath, ask them to disrobe and get chatty now can you?

Here in Akita, I find that the kids open up and want to talk to me at bed time. No matter how long the day has been or how late the bed time hour, they sit up, suddenly perky and willing to divulge all kind of fascinating details about their day or they are inspired at the precise moment that I say, "now lay down and go to sleep" to ask questions that are deep and significant.

Growing up, I was inspired to explore and plumb the depths of the universal truths by the site of a peeler in my mother's hands. My kids seem to get inspiration from the lines etched in my face from fatigue.

For me, a kitchen is a place for creation and communion. If there is someone in there that can cook too than not only my soul but my palate will be satisfied as well. But my main concern in the kitchen is the feeding of my soul. Japan's skinny kitchens have put that aspect of life on a strict regimented diet. No one wants to squeeze in there with me!

So I am trying to perfect the art of meditation in a kitchen. Using recipes as mantras, stirring and whisking and chopping up the events of the day, preserving memories and striving to balance my soul while I attempt to put something edible on the plates at the big table.

Oh, and if you ever have the desire to call and chat during the pre-dinner hour (from 5 to 6p.m. Japan time) please feel free to ring me! My cordless phone works perfectly well in the kitchen!

Monday, August 20, 2007

"j" is for . . . .

"J" is for Japan! I first came to Japan as an exchange student in 1988. I didn't eat sushi, I couldn't stomach natto (fermented soy beans) and I disliked even ramen! I lost a lot of weight and looked fabulous when I returned to the states. I also seriously fell completely in love with my husband. Although we had met the year before in Oregon at my university, being an exchange student here in Japan just made the love affair all the more intense. I still remember how he looked when he would crawl through my window at the seminar house (where all the exchange students stayed) late at night. He was working at a juku (cram school), so it would be maybe 11, or midnight, he would be in suit and tie, his crisp white shirt loose, half unbuttoned, his tie stuffed in a pocket. I loved watching him concentrate on levering himself up and then the moment our eyes would meet and he would freeze there on the threshold to my room. It was a hot and humid summer and I didn't care. I couldn't get enough of him. I cried ceaselessly for days after returning home. Still have no idea how I was able to get on a plane and put all that distance in between us. I felt like I had ripped my heart out and left it on a bench in Narita (large international airport in Tokyo)!

Japan. The country I live in now. It is hot and humid and my husband asks me why I sweat so much. Oh how twenty years can turn lust on its head.

Japan. Eating with ohashi (chopsticks), cooking with ohashi (I was chagrined to find myself dropping the stirring spoon in the pot, fumbling with the cooking utensils I grew up with on my last trip home. Actually thinking, "Good lord, what I wouldn't give for two fine long and straight sticks!"), gohan (RICE. Not the rice of my childhood, overdone and mushy. Not the long grain rice I grew up eating in Thai food or Chinese food in California but short grain Japanese rice, cooked in a rice cooker, rinsed and drained and soaked and steamed in our state of the art rice cooker.) My daughters bringing home a dirt covered diakon (large Japanese radish), a dirt covered sweet potato, a dirt covered potato from ensoku (field trips). I love the enthusiasm with which Saki and Reno have dragged home their vegetable trophies. The kids excitement over beetles. The Onsen--even with two children who have to be reminded again and again "this is not a pool! It is a hot spring! RELAX and stop JUMPING." DS lite software, digital cameras, plasma screen t.v.s --I can wander an electrical store here for hours, happy. Onigiri, nori (dried sea weed) on salted white rice wrapped up like an edible softball, still warm. The smell of incense lingering over the tatami in the room that houses the butsudan (Buddhist anscetstoral alter) at MIL's house.

Japan in the summer--sofuto kurimu (soft cream ice cream)kakigori (shaved ice), uchiwa (hand held fan) and mugichya (roasted barley tea). My bell crickets ringing on a hot August day, the kind of day when you step outside and feel the moisture in the air settle on your skin and roll off of your face as you wipe at it with a handkerchief. It is cold somen (thin wheat) noodles, cold soba (buckwheat) noodles, cold ramen noodles and chilled cucumber strips for dinner. It is the bags of gold fish that my daughters gleefully bring home from local matsuris (festivals), along with brilliant (very breakable) electrical swords that they brandish at one another and squeal with delight as they draw on the night sky with them. (They've already broken the light toys that we bought for them at the big Kanto matsuri this year.) It is the hanabi (fireworks) that light up the sky overhead and the senko hanabi (sparkler) gripped in your four-year-old's hand, sparkling and showing her sandaled feet on the grass poking out from underneath her colorful yukata.

The shrill cry of the early summertime semi (cicada), the dragonflies that hang on the autumn breeze, suspended over the rice fields on invisible strings, the hawk as it glides and circles close enough for me to yearn to raise up an arm and stroke it's cocoa brown chest (I would forget about those talons and beak until they sank into me--Hawks mesmerize me, I love them).

The preying mantis the size of my forefinger that defends the bush at the front of our house. First difficult to spot as she sits on a green leaf but by early October striking in her contrast with the by then bright red leaf underneath her. The fact that she eats her husband? Plucky. I like that in an insect.

The first day of winter when the vending machines switch over to "hot" drinks and I can make my favorite fall dish--butajiru (miso based soup with daikon, gobo/burdock root, tofu, carrot and konnyaku and fatty pork) with grilled sanma (Pacific saury)and a wedge of saduchi lime. As the weather chills and the temperature drops deciding that it is too cold to eat anything but nabe(one pot dishes)--Kimchee nabe, kiritanpo nabe, seafood nabe. Until January arrives and you can start to lay the slabs of homemade omochi ( pounded glutenous rice cakes that MIL sends every year) on the stove and watch them puff up. Drizzle a little shyoyu (soy sauce) on top and warn the girls for the billionth time--small bites and chew well!

The change of the seasons themselves, reflected in local decorations, culinary dishes, even the snack foods offered at the local convenience store--in the spring time, snack on ume (plum flavored) potato chips, in the fall snack on yakiimo (baked sweet potato flavored) chips. This summer I enjoyed my first Cucumber Pepsi--a Summer time seasonal drink. So popular it sold out locally within two weeks of being introduced. The seasons reflected everywhere because in Japan the four seasons are distinct. There is no such thing as an autumn like winter night or a summer like fall evening. The change in the season ("Today is the first day of spring!") is announced on T.V. not because it is fanciful to do so, but because it is a fact.

I like looking up into the night sky in Japan and seeing the rabbit in the moon. And although I have taught my children to find the man in the moon as well, we all agree that we prefer the nocturnal quiet of that bunny to the face of that man looking down on us.

Japan is a feeling, a way of being, an undertone a nuance. I love my American sense of independence and I absolutely love small talk when I return home. But for a few minutes in the airport I miss for a fraction of a second the invisible veil that I have in Japan. The space between me and those around me is suddenly consumed in the noise and the vigour of the American crowd around me. And when I am absolutely dead tired, jet lagged on my feet, I even miss the anonymity of never being expected to say more than, "Good afternoon. This please. Thank you." at the register. Reaching out to receive a gift with both hands, bowing on the phone, unwrapping the furoshiki, greeting the delivery man in the genkan (traditional Japanese entranceway) who brings you your ochugen gift (summer time gift, one of several seasonal gifts traditionally exchanged during the Japanese year) of chilled mikans (Japanese tangarines sent by MIL).

The chorus of aisatsu (greetings) that encircle life here and bind us to one another:

Inviting someone into your house : aggatte kudasai (please come in)

Entering someone's house: ojamashimasu (I'm sorry to bother you)/shitsureishimasu (I'm sorry to intrude/be rude)

Leaving someone's house: ojamashimashita (I'm sorry to have troubled you.)

Morning greeting: ohayogozaimasu

Afternoon greeting: konnichiwa

Evening greeting: konbanwa

Good night: oyasumiyasai

Before eating (when serving food) : meishi agatte kudasai (please eat) douzo (here you are)

Before eating : itadakimasu

After eating: gochisosama deshita

Excuse me (used a LOT more than in English for nearly every situation imaginable, asking a clerk to ring up a sale, after bumping into someone, when trying to get past another person, etc.): suimasen

Please: onegaishimasu (used when asking a favor)

Thanking others for their hard work: otsukare sama deshita (for instance, when you leave work to your co-workers)

Goodbye: sayonara or matta ne (the later is more informal)

Thank you for everything: oseiwa ni narimashita (I have to write this at the beginning of each note to my girls' teachers, a kind of acknowledgment for all that they do for my children and therefore for me.)

Take care: genki de ne

Get well: odaijini

Apologies: mo shiwake arimasen (kind of an "there is no excuse, I am sorry"
gomenasai (a more literal, "sorry")

Excuse me for leaving before you (when there are people still at the office working, for example) = o-sakini shitsureishimasu For letting someone go ahead of you = douzo osaki ni

Pleased to meet you: hajimemashite, yoroshiku onegaishimasu

"J" is for Japan: the country where I say "Tadaima!" (I'm home) and my children and husband answer, "Okaerinasai" (welcome home).

Friday, August 17, 2007

"I" is for Identity

Which is what? What is my identity? I am. . . American? An expatriate? A foreign wife? A Gaijin? Do I qualify as international?

Am I over-the-hill, old, an obaasan--a mother, a wife, a footnote to my former self?

If identity is in part based on origins, mine lay in the mid-west of America. My father's family is all from Illinois and I was born in Kentucky. We lived in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Illinois from the time of my birth until I was in the second grade. I remember bits of Pennsylvania (we lived in Hershey, Pennsylvania--who can forget the smell of chocolate after rain? The street lights shaped like silver wrapped Hershey kisses?) and all of our time in Illinois.
My mother's family also comes from the Midwest--Pennsylvania and Michigan. But my parent's marriage was a kind of shining-knight-rescues-damsel-in-distress deal so I grew up in the knight's compound and didn't really mix much with the clan from whence my mother was taken.
But my father re-located our Midwestern family to California in 1976 when I was nine-years-old. In California we had only our nuclear family which means that I was raised in the universe of my parents. It was a fascinating sociology experiment. A bit like the movie "Mosquito Coast" just tamed down and camouflaged. And my parents remained there for the next two decades. They relocated back to the Midwest, to Indiana, after my father's retirement from teaching.

So all my pre-teen (tween as it is now fashionably called) years and teen years were carried out under the optimistic strong glare of the Californian sun--tattoos, liberalism, fresh oranges a buck a crate, the smell of suntan lotion and burning asphalt and the glorious rebirth of the foothills in a brief baptism of green until spring runs away and summer lays her golden mantel over the Sierra Nevadas. But somewhere in my background is the tenacity and the humility of farmers who settled in the plains of the Midwest--humidity, home grown tomatoes, lightening bugs, real green grass lawns, front porches, lightening storms and hail the size of baseballs--Midwestern reserve and Bible belt morals.

My educational background, another element in forming identity, was a small private liberal arts college in Oregon, followed by graduate school at a California State University and then my formal education ended in Reno, Nevada where I was working on a Ph.D. in English literature. That I never completed. And I feel it so keenly that I am convinced that any doctor to perform an autopsy on me would be able to cut me open and point out, "Ah, and see here? This is where she was unable to complete her doctorate program."

And really, now that I have metaphorically got myself up on the slab, cut open for inspection, we get closer to how I feel about my identity: Bits and pieces. Bits and pieces that for a time here and there are able to form enough cohesiveness to pass for "me."

Most of the bits and pieces of me have reached the shores of Nihon, the land I call home and the home of my children. They don't all fit in here though, although I can't say for sure that they fit perfectly in the U.S. either. Being Gaijin here helps the western immigrant keep a tight perspective on their cultural heritage. I will never be Japanese and so I can unburden myself of the albatross of cultural assimilation. I learn the customs and the ins and the outs of living in Japan, but I don't have to remold my soul to fit anything at all here. I am fundamentally foreign and safe to remain so.

Does this make the American me more American? In the beginning, I realized that living outside of America did highlight for me what it meant to be American. Ironically I won the sixth grade speech contest, "Why I am Proud to be an American." It's ironic, because I can't remember why I was proud at that point in life. And ironic because I realized that I had no clue what it meant to be American until I left America years later.

Now that I have lived outside America for a decade I realize that I am unable to come up with the necessary cultural passwords. I use the Internet to try to fill in my American cultural gaps--I read about Britney and Hilton, about the political scandals and the homegrown backyard victories. I listen to the top ten and watch American Idol, spell bound.

But when I was home for a visit four years ago and sat in front of the evening news it hit me for the first time that I was an American living far from America. The first news that scrolled across the screen were the names of local soldiers who had died in action. We were at war. The next morning when I took my parents dog out for his morning walk my mother pointed out the homes of those who had loved ones over in Iraq. The yellow ribbons on the trees, I kept wondering, why hadn't I noticed all the yellow ribbons before?

In Japan, I knew we were at war, the U.S. and Iraq. I knew it, but I didn't feel it. Just like I know that my children are Japanese and American, not one nor the other but a combination of both--incomplete in some areas of each, but whole in the sum total. This is easier to see and accept on an intellectual level than witness in action. When we drove in from the airport to my folk's house in Indiana my children shrieked with delight, "A park! A park! Can we stop?" over and over again. They were pointing at backyards filled with climbing gyms and swing sets, something that they don't see here in Japan. Swing sets and slides are for public parks, not private homes here.

The disappointment that became palpable at meal times in my parents house when my children refused American favorites, pizza, jam, SpaghettiOs, macaroni and cheese, pumpkin pie. . . making it hard to swallow. The resignation when my mother offered up the rice cooker ( a gift we gave my folks years ago) and rice. The greed and glee with which my children danced around the steaming rice cooker, squealing with delight, "It dinged! it dinged! The rice is done!"

The distance that inevitably starts to fill the space between my American friends and I. Shared experiences no longer strong enough to build a bridge in certain areas of our lives. If I complain about the heat and the humidity to my friend who lives in an insulated, central air conditioned house. . . how can she understand mold that grows in the bathroom, on the window sills and behind the furniture on the wall? If I whine about household chores to my friend who uses a dishwasher, a dryer and an oven large enough to bake two trays of cookies at once how does she find a way to understand my frustration with hanging up laundry indoors to dry during the rainy season?

When I first came to Japan as a married woman, my Japanese mother-in-law suggested that my husband and I live tanshinfunin (a common practice in Japan where the husband lives in a different city or area of Japan from his wife and children for work purposes). I remember looking at her incredulously. I couldn't fathom the idea. When she asked me how to translate tanshinfunin into English I told her "separation" as in prior to "divorce". She looked at me incredulously.

A friend of mine is faced with a making a decision this spring. Her Japanese husband has decided on a job in a different prefecture from where they are currently living. They just bought a beautiful home in the area of Japan in which they are now. Her eldest child has started elementary school there. Her youngest is finally settled in a new day care there. I asked her if she had considered tanshinfunin? To me, it makes sense now.

There are a lot of things now that make sense to me. It doesn't bother me at all anymore when someone cancels plans or turns down an invitation just by saying, "I have plans/something came up." without offering any further details. I no longer give excuses. In fact, just saying, "chotto. . . " rolls right off my tongue. Chotto literally means, "a little", but in conversation it can kind of translate into "uhhhh . . . " and whereas it used to frustrate me to be "chotto'ed" by someone, now it doesn't offend. If feels right.

And I feel a little anxious until I know the exact age of the person to whom I am speaking. Then the ground levels out and I know exactly where I stand or where I should be standing in relation to them.

A foreign friend came to my house the other day and when she left I went outside and stood in the street and watched her car disappear down the road. When I could no longer see it I went back inside. I knew I probably didn't have to do that. She is American too. But I didn't seem to be able to stop myself from following her out the door. Waving at her. Bowing at her disappearing car.

Identity. I'm still searching for mine--the bit of me out in the street watching my friend's car vanish, the bit that has memorized all the Japanese nursery school songs and finger plays, the bit that got drunk off of Coors beer in the back of my boyfriend's car in high school in the California foot hills, the bit that hugged my professors fiercely when I received my MA degree, the bit that sang 9 Inch Nail songs at the top of my lungs, the bit that answers to the word "Mommy", the bit that wants to roll the windows down and feel the San Joaquin's heated breeze rush over my face. In the kaleidoscope of me, I sit watching the pieces fall into different patterns. Is this a constant act of reinvention? Or is it the process of being?

Identity: fractured, incomplete, incandescent, in motion, in memory, a figure in a life in progress.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"H" is for Homage

Which is what I would like to pay to Claire over to Sakura Family. Go on over and read Claire's post on raising biracial kids in Japan--this is the kind of writing that I live to read. It rocks. Because Claire writes what I feel, she expresses what I think and she feels it and says it so much better than I ever could.

Not to mention she is one of the coolest people I have had the great fortune to call friend during my lifetime. Just all around--go and read Claire's post (entitled, "Cool Water on a Hot Day"). You won't regret it.

Oh and a bonus for "H":

"H" is also for Hooray! Tomorrow I am taking my girls and we are getting on a train and going to the coast. And the most exciting thing about it is that we are going to meet up with another foreign wife (American) and her three kids and we are going to HAVE FUN.

So "I" is gonna have to idle for a while.

Monday, August 13, 2007

G is for "Ghosts"

When I was thirteen, my best friend and I began to play with the Ouija board, all-the-time. Don't have time to get into the whole story, but lets say that although it is a board game marketed by Parker Brothers I'll never play it again and it isn't because I am not a good sport it's because I have a soul and I want to keep it. Take a peek at the "Alleged consequences of usage " section from Wikipedia for a few reasons why I will never ever touch one again. So, anyway, during the summer and fall that we were into playing with dangerous mystical occult things we of course had experiences with ghosts. Then there was my friend a few years later who worked at a hotel famous for having ghosts. Her stories were riveting. Then there were the incidences of strangers walking up to me, proclaiming themselves to be sensitive to the "other world/s" and constantly telling me that I was basically a human lighting rod for ghosts. When my roommate my Freshman year at university confided in me that she hoped that the poltergeist from home hadn't followed her off to college I wasn't thrilled. When she woke me up one night with a terrified whisper of, "oh Laura, it's here. It's here!" I sat straight up in bed, and said loudly and firmly, "GET THE HELL OUT. WE ARE CLOSED." I have steadfastly remained closed and unopened to the "other world" since. I sincerely intend to remain as about as spiritually conducive as a large lump of granite.

Being so adamant about not being receptive to ghosts obviously tells you how firmly I believe in them. And the real reason that I am absolutely sold on them is due to my scientific, fervently Christian father. This is the man who used to read aloud from "Lives of a Cell" by Lewis Thomas at dinner. My father is by profession an organic chemistry professor. He also was nearly constantly a member of the church board at one church or another during my childhood and adolescence. We were so thoroughly inundated in theology and science that I felt like God surely was up in heaven combining DNA and whipping up black stars just like any diety who loves science would be.

So the day that my father told me a ghost story I was very, very skeptical and a little nervous, wondering what he was up to. Turns out that Dad had had a very difficult day at work. He had moved our family from Illinois out to California in order to take up an administrative job as Head of the Department of Health and Sciences at a university in the central valley. Aside from having a hard time adjusting to being taking out to eat at Mexican restaurants (a variety of food he had no previous experience with) and learning the new job, he found out he was expected to lower the axe on several tenured professors in his department. He became one of "them" after years of being on the other side. Then after several years of excelling on the "them team" (administration) he finally couldn't stomach any more football tail gate parties and took a big pay cut to go back to teaching organic chemistry. The problem of course was that all the other chemists in the department still considered him "one of them" and they reverted to nearly school boy level bullying and prank pulling. I mean, at the time I was only an 8 year-old little girl trying to find her Daddy's office. I walked into the department of Chemistry and there sat about six grown up men. When I asked for my father's office number they exchanged knowing looks and then several said at the same time, "you must be really lost little girl. There is no Prof. X in this department!" At that moment the department secretary stood up and took me by the hand. "I'll take you to your father's office." Just as we were going out the door she paused and threw back over her shoulder, "You should be ashamed of yourselves. She's just a little girl! Grown men!" and made a wonderful harrumph noise that must of certainly put them in their place.

Anyhow, after a particularly difficult day of dealing with his hostile colleagues, Dad came home in a down mood. The mood got worse when he and Mom had a bit of a spat about something or other--the usual. Probably the fact that California--does not have grass. No real leaves, nothing but mile after mile of scorched brown dirt and long weeds. Dangerous weeds, like foxtails that were forever burrowing into mother's beloved cockerspaniel and having to be surgically removed. Mom didn't transplant that well. It took about seventeen years before she kinda liked living on the West coast. So Dad retreated upstairs, carrying our ancient upright vacuum up the stairs with him and as he vacuumed and thought about the mean guys at work and the unhappy wife downstairs and the cut in pay he had taken and the loss of status he had taken with it he started thinking about his Grandmother. Dad grew up with his mother, father, his older sister (kinda. she was ten years older so she wasn't at home as long as Dad was) and his maternal Grandmother. Apparently Grandmother Cross was always there for my Dad as a young boy.

When he opened the barn doors to show off his FFA flock of sheep to his local FFA chapter and each and every single sheep was on its back, legs up in the air stiff, dead as a door nail, she would have been the primary comforter and pillar of strength that he turned to back at home. When the pony his dad bought for him kept scraping him off it's back by galloping into the barn when the double doors were open on the bottom but closed on the top . . . Grandmother Cross was there to dabble the home remedies on his cuts and bruises and her comforting words for his bruised pride.

Apparently Grandmother Cross always laid her hands on the back of his neck.

Apparently this is just what she did that day that he was vacuuming upstairs. He shrieked and ran downstairs completely white and visibly shaking. Then he didn't tell me about it for several months.

He reckoned that she was only trying to comfort him. But he told me about it at the same time that he cautioned me to stop messing around with the Ouija board.

I think that the opinion of my father on the matter of ghosts had a greater impact on me than even the multiple unexplainable highly eerier and frightening "Alleged consequences of usage" that I experienced.

So, there you have it. I believe in ghosts. But I definitely don't go looking for them. I have several times entered houses and immediately experienced intense discomfort and had overwhelming feelings of dread. These places have always later been revealed to have had some sort of supernatural connection. Did I go back? Did I even stay the first time? Good God no. Remember, "I'm closed to all supernatural forces."

And now I have the added benefit of living in a country where the ghosts will feel uncomfortable around me--you know, a "gaijin" and even if they bother to whisper threatening things at me chances are that I might not catch what they are saying. I can probably get off with looking confused and maybe even scare them off by answering back in English.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

"F" is for Flat out rude

Which is what I told the young couple sitting on the bench out front of the Michinoeki (a way station along a highway that usually sells local specialities of the area), that they were flat out rude. The young guy nudged his nubile, fashion-pop-idol-look-alike girl friend with a sneer splayed across his face and I instantly knew. He was going to point me out to her and then say something incredibly amusing--at my expense. So I turned my head towards them to see and sure enough she was scanning me from head to toe and a similar sneer was creeping across her face as she put one of her beautifully manicured hands up to her mouth to cover the "giggle." I stopped and said loudly in English, "That is just flat out rude." They both froze. Then the girl exploded in laughter. The boy grinned sheepishly and raised a hand in a kind of wave. I took two steps away. Two steps backwards. Then I did a kind of "talk to the hand" kind of thing and left.

I'm sure the overweight, aging gaijin glaring at them with mad piggy eyes and then growling gibberish (English) at them will be a funny anecdote they can share for years to come. "Remember that fat old gaijin baba? (shortened, slang form of "obasan" or "Aunt" which is used to address or refer to older women. An insult word.) Ha ha ha."

Why did I stop? Why did I do a crazy lady crab walk (forwards, backwards, forwards again) kind of frustrated skittle in front of them? Why in God's name did I do the "talk to the hand" gesture?

Well, obviously, this time the gawking and the I've-got-something-funny-to-say-about-the-gaijin thing got to me. It doesn't always get to me. I often purposely redirect my attention/route to avoid stupid comments or direct gawkers. But today was hot. REALLY hot and humid and I hate hot and humid. And my period had just started. And my family was headed for a day at the beach. Imagine my joy at the idea of sitting in the sun watching my family frolic in the ocean's waves while I sweated and menstruated away on the sand--beached by biology and circumstance. And of course I inherited the infamous PMS of my mother's family. We're talking PMS of epic proportions.

My entire family used to just hunker down and walk quietly for the duration of my mother's bouts of PMS each month. My father was the only one who would breech the lines and venture into my mother's room (which was their bedroom). She would stay up there with her faithful cockerspaniel and only come out to fix us with a look and then announce, "we are all, each and every one of us in the process of dying. The moment of birth is the beginning of the journey to the grave."

When I read Jane Eyre, it wasn't hard at all for me to imagine living in a house with a mad woman in the attic.

Unfortunately that mad woman moved into my attic when I entered my late thirties.

So, the picture perfect young lovers today decided to mock the mad woman. Mistake. Not that I made them pay for it, remember, instead I did the weird "argh! you, you, you, . . . look at the hand." dance which probably actually really amused them.

Now that my moment is gone, I have gone over different scenarios in my head again and again thinking of different things I could have said and done. I could have ignored them. I could have turned to them and asked, "What is it about me that you find so amusing? That I'm fat? Old? Or foreign? Or is it just the overwhelming thrill of finding all three in one person?" but my Japanese isn't good enough to say all that. So I could have ranted at them in English and then paused and looked thoughtfully at them and said in Japanese, "oh, but I'm sorry, you can't understand what I said, can you? You studied English for what, six years? Oh, maybe not huh? No high school probably?"

But I didn't and it's too late now and the other thing that got me so frustrated and angry was that I am tired of running these scenarios through my head. I miss living in a country where I don't have to think up good come backs. I miss living in a country where if someone approached me and asked me what kind of food I ate, or if I could sleep on a futon, or how long I had been living there I knew in an instant, "nutter" and I could cut and run. And how many people used to wait until I had walked by and then started to scream "hello! Heeeellllooooooo!" at my back when I was living outside of Japan?

Common sense in dealing with others apparently doesn't apply to dealing with foreigners here in Japan. But the most frustrating bit of it all is that there is a large number of individuals (or I am just really fucked by fate and just happen to have encountered nearly every member of the minority of individuals) here for whom the idea that they might actually be being just flat out rude in their relations with gaijin is unattainable. These are the ones who just flat out don't get it.

Good example: pregnant gaijin woman meets group of neighborhood Japanese women.
JW (Japanese women): Oh! Your baby is going to be soooo kawaii (cute)!
PG(Pregnant Gaijin): Uh, thank you but we'll have to wait to see.
JW: Oh! no no! Hafus (plural of Half, short for half and half, indicating a biracial child usually half Japanese and half Western ) are so kawaii!
PG: All babies are kawaii!
JW: Hafus have such big eyes! Oh, your baby is going to be so kawaii!"
PG: Excuse me, but saying that my baby is going to be kawaii just because it is going to be a hafu is kind of rude isn't it? I mean, what about Nakagawa-san's baby? Won't her baby be kawaii as well? Even if it isn't a hafu?
JW: (blink) (blink) (blink) Oh no. Everyone knows that hafu babies are kawaii!

And Nakagawa-san is one of the blinkers. Some people just flat-out-don't-get-it.

Have you ever tried to teach a cat to heel? It is just an exercise in frustration and exasperation and ultimately disappointment if you really had any kind of vested interested in training the cat to heel. That is how I felt about the young couple sitting on the bench publicly mocking me today. I just wish that they had huge fur balls that they had to spit up later today--and dirty filthy litter boxes and cheap nasty tasting dry food.

So I think my hand went up to push my internal dialog away from myself. A kind of self-exorcism if you will. All the legitimate reasons to reprimand /confront them--pushed away.

I retreated to my family and then I worried for the remainder of our time there that the cm ( Japanese English for commercial) perfect couple would spot us and mock my kids too. Although actually, my kids act as a nice shield for me, instead of mocking the aging fatty with the two cute kids, people tend to focus their energies on squealing over the sheer kawaii force a hafu packs when they see my two. Which is gratifying to the parent and child until one or the other realizes that the reaction they are evoking in people is similar to the reaction that cute animals in the zoo evoke in them.

In fact, the sheer absurd underside of taking a biracial child to the zoo here is ponderously heavily. There stands Reno gazing at the baby monkeys in the monkey pit, she keeps telling me enthusiastically how cute these small furry babies are. Behind her stands a local Japanese mother, directing her own 9 year old daughter's attention towards my daughter---"ooooohhhhh look! A hafu! She's so cuuuuuute!"

So today, I decided to leave the zoo and with a freedom that those baby monkeys can only dream of, I walked away from the couple and back to my own family and on to the beach where we had a fantastic time and we met several fantastically friendly people and families (these are all words that begin with "f" as well.) and one boy even showed me a beautiful rock he had found on the shore and then gave it me.

So for the rest of the afternoon I didn't give the glamor shots duo a thought, until we were driving home after the unbelievably beautiful sunset and then, as I felt the weight of my thoughts crushing down on me I did a mental talk to the hand to myself and thought, "Fuck them. I'd rather focus on having fun with my family." Which we did. We went out for sushi and home for a family communal shower where we rinsed the salt out of each other's hair and my beautiful little daughters are happily sound asleep, exhausted and dreaming of all the wonders of the sea and the Earth.

Friday, August 10, 2007

"E" is for Envy

Which is something that I seem to experience on a day-t0-day basis.

You know, I envy my neighbor her husband who gets up early, goes to work early and is home by 9 p.m. He also gets up on the weekends and seems to adore doing lawn work. She confided to me at the neighborhood festival this year that he also cleans the ofuro (Japanese style bath) every day. I envy her her husband.

Or the foreign women here in the Land of the Rising Sun who have Japanese husbands who participate in child rearing activities. Or friends who travel to English speaking countries frequently. Or the majority of the female population of Japan for whom shoe shopping is fun (I can't even find my size here--unless it is in the men's section.). I envy women who breast feed and lose every ounce of pregnancy weight.

I envy friends who's kids are academically gifted, eat vegetables and are naturally helpful and outgoing. And who go to bed regularly, every night before 7:00 p.m. I envy all the families I see out and about with Dad's who can pick up the kids and swing them around, throw them up in the air and catch them.

I envy people who have to ask, "What is 'RA'?"

I envy people for small petty things too. Like women who seem to be able to keep their hair style perfectly arranged despite intense humidity or high winds. Or women who can cook a meal and carry on a conversation at the same time (I am in the kitchen with phrases like "One tablespoon of soy sauce" thundering through my head until I actually get the Tbs. of soy sauce into the dish. . . If I ever try to multitask while cooking. . . alas, the final product will prove to be inedible.

Oh! And I envy everyone who can drive (long story short, yes I know how, but no I haven't got a valid license here in Japan). I envy other foreign wives who can read and write in Japanese (big irony in my life, the English literature major who flew off and went to live as an illiterate mother of two in a foreign country). I envy writers who have the confidence to attempt to publish their work.

I envy people who have fat, lazy, soft and fuzzy cats which never even contemplating scratching the interior of their owner's homes down to the dry wall. I envy women whose husbands tell them that they are pretty and that they love them--more than every few years. I envy people who can go out side without ever catching someone staring and pointing at them. I envy people who are really good natured about being stared at and pointed out.

I envy people who seem to be able to appreciate abilities, qualities and even admire possessions that others have and say, "Wow, that is nice." and it leaves them feeling good. They are pleased to find something right in the world. They don't become inward focused, resentful or bitter. In fact, seeing something good happen to someone else, or finding good in someone else builds them up, makes them stronger, increases the faith. You know, the faith that happiness is out there so it is attainable?

I want to join those people. I really do. And I'm working on it. I'm trying my best to strangle that little sarcastic voice of bitter resentment that likes to respond to others' good fortunes or situations by spot lighting the corresponding deficiencies in my life. I am trying to swing that spot light back to where it should be. I'm telling that voice to just go sod off. I mean, what good has it ever done me?

So, while I can't say that I have won the battle with my personal demon (Envy) yet, I can say that I've gotten pretty good at bobbing and weaving and escaping Envy's punches. And its left me feeling light on my feet, eyes wide open, facing forwards, even a bit eager for whatever might be coming up next. Because I have a hunch you see that I might even win the next round. Envious?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

"D" is for Daughters

Of which I have two. Doll-loving, doll-toting, dainty, delicate daughters with a flare for dress-ups, dancing and drama. Danger-loving, daring, Daddy's little girls who are difficult, determined, devious, dirt-lovin, and delightful. That render me dog-tired by the end of each day! Which I am today. So that is it for "D", I'm "done!"

"C" is for Cancer and Cut It Out

"C" is for Cancer. Which in Japanese is "gan" which is the word that I was focusing all my powers of attention and concentration on trying to pick up in conversation at the hospital this morning. My husband Masa went in this morning to get the results of his blood test from a week ago. A week ago I was at home with the girls (who were right on schedule in their morning bickering and shrieking at each other) when the phone rang and Masa was on the other end telling me that "It's all over. I'm over. Take good care of the girls." and he wouldn't tell me much of anything else. He had gone in to get the results from a battery of tests that he had undergone two days previously as screening to qualify for the new biological therapy meds they are using for RA. So I knew that one of those tests had found something.

I could go on to tell you all about my frantic ride in a taxi (with bickering children), our ungainly entrance into the large prefectural university hospital and our harried search through all the different departments until we found Masa but it wouldn't begin to adequately depict the tsunami of panic that was crashing over us. What the tests had shown was a spot on one of Masa's lungs. The first doctor proclaimed it "cancer." The second wasn't so sure so he ordered blood tests to look for cancer markers. Then he sent us home to wait a week for the results, our free pass to hell.

Finally, after sitting in the flames, spinning over different scenarios of death, separation and despair we graduated to hell proper--the doctor's waiting room this a.m. And then the clouds parted and a drop of grace fell and quenched our twisted souls. The cancer marker test came back negative.

Which leads me to my second word for the letter "c". Cut it out. Okay. Phrasal verb and not a word, but the first word in it starts with a "c". I say this phrase a lot, "Cut it out." is one of my on automatic mommy phrases, along with, "stop it. I said stop it. I mean it. Stop it. Stop it now." and other classic selections like the count down: "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, . . ."

However, I'm smuggling in the whole set of words (all three) not as a phrasal verb here but for their actual literal meaning, cut-it-out. Which is what I immediately wanted to ask the doctor at the hospital to do. Cut it out. Out spot! Out damn spot!

Sitting in the corridor outside the oncologists office I turned and asked Masa if he didn't mind just waiting and seeing what happened with the spot. How did he feel about cutting it out?


"Well, couldn't they just go in and take it out?"

Turns out that they could but they would have to go in on the side of his rib cage, cutting through a rib or two and remove a chunk of him, not just the spot. If we understood the doctor correctly. Pretty serious surgery and thus the doctor is recommending that we just sit back and see what spot will do. Will spot grow bigger? Shrink? Turn into cancer?

We sat silently for a few minutes and then Masa stood up and went back into the office. When he came out he sat down. I continued watching the line of elderly patients line up to use the free blood pressure cuff in the reception area. You could tell who had good results and who's blood pressure was too high from studying their faces as they retrieved and read the bit of paper that the machine would spit out after taking their blood pressure. The winners would kind of wave their result strip in the air or share it with a friend. The losers crumpled theirs into tiny little balls that they heaved angrily into the waste bin at the side of the machine. It seemed like a kind of lotto for the elderly.

After a bit my mind wandered back to the issues I had been trying to keep it from pondering. A mental image of my husband laying on a surgery table like a parody of Adam while the surgeon-God carefully extracts a bit of rib began to form when Masa broke the silence and announced:

"I made an appointment to find out more about the surgery."

"Isn't it too risky?"

"I want it out. If they can I want them to cut it out."

And I said nothing. Because I want it out too. I want it out.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

"B" is for Bastard

It is one of my favorite swear words. "You bastard." It is such a cutting two word sentence--precise and penetrating.

Although in my family swearing of any sort was strictly forbidden I grew up to be a foul-mouthed-baboon (as my father would say). Foul-mouthed-baboon is strong speaking for my father.

I remember enduring lectures for saying "I'm pissed off." Pissed off is a toilet-potty-mouth phrase. Despite it being a phrasal verb which means "to be angry" it contains the word "piss" which obviously if used in speech indicates your lack of respect for the listener to the point that you are verbally peeing upon them.

I went off to Girl Scout Camp in Kings Sequoia National Park at the tender age of 9. I had never uttered a curse word before in my life. I was a gosh!-oh my!-gee whiz!-Oh Man!-kind of gal. Till Girl Scout Camp. When my cabin mates discovered just how uncomfortable swearing made me they kept at me relentlessly.

"Say fuck. Go on. Say it. Fuck."

It only took a few days to progress from hesitant barely audible whispered obscenities to swearing like a trooper. "Damn! What the fuck! Where's my. . . you bitch, give me back my towel!" By then, the other girls were still encouraging me to swear because I could do it with such amazing gusto and my delivery skills were something others coveted--the way I could coat my words with scathing sarcasm, irony, or real rage.

When I got off the bus and my Mother asked me how camp was I promptly responded, "Fucking great!"

Which was pretty much the last curse word I uttered until I went off to college.

Now I'm having to face the consequences of speaking strongly--the potty mouth's ultimate curse. My own 9 year old looked me in the face and said, her voice dripping with disdain, "Fuck Off."

"WHAT DID YOU SAY?" I roared at her ( I even called her "young lady") .
"You are not to use the "F" word. Not to anyone and certainly not to your mother!"
She smiled demurely then she said "FFFFFFFFFFFFFFish."

I had to choke back the spontaneous "you smart ass" that rose in my throat and instead sputtered out a strangled, "don't be flippant with me young lady." and was left standing there like an ineffectual baboon.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Encyclopedia of Me

I've been working on a couple of different pieces but I am far too close to the issues that they discuss to achieve the amount of objectivity I need in order to avoid them sounding ominously a bit like my collection of "Poems to Die By" penned during my teenage years.

Yet I need to keep my writing practice up and going. So, I was reading over at Purple Kappa the other day and came across her "Encyclopedia of Me" meme which she had found over at Bella Dia. After reading what both bloggers are doing with the idea I felt inspired and have decided to give it a go.

So, beginning with the letter "a".

Albatross. Not the bird, but the metaphorical one inspired by Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I loved that poem the very first time I read it and I think it is because there was so much in it to identify with. You'd think that I came out of utero with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck I have such an affinity for having some sort of restriction or encumbrance in my life or metaphorically speaking, hanging around my neck.

Oh albatross, albatross, I've had so many different ones over the years. But to be sure that I don't cloud the category and heave in insecurities, fears and every thing else under the sun lets look at a definition. From the Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary
I found the following definition:

2 a : something that causes persistent deep concern or anxiety b : something that greatly hinders accomplishment : ENCUMBRANCE

So, if I stay within the framework of the above definition, my current Albatross would have to be a double headed bird. One head is for my overwhelming debt. I actually have nightmares of having a bounty put on my head by the American Department of Education. Not because I am not making my regular payments towards my student loan debt, but just because they are there, hanging around my neck for years to come and what happens if one month I can't? The fact that I am paying off on college loans that were used for my graduate school studies in my PH.D. program that I never finished just seems to have packed a few extra kilos of anxiety onto that bird.

The other albatross head would be the albatross of poor health. I have been spending a lot of time in the past few years with my marriage vows echoing through my head: To have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health ,to love and to cherish, till death us do part. They were the traditional sort. When I stood up and said them it was like the final opening night after all the childhood rehearsals. I said them enthusiastically and with tremendous conviction. But I hadn't really weighted the words beforehand. Now they are very heavy words.

On the one hand I am happy to realize that I did mean them and do mean them. So I wasn't completely just playing a part in my wedding. But it is hard to know exactly when I began to really mean them, to really understand them, to honestly bear the weight of my wedding pledges. I looked the pledge about "for richer or poorer" in the face when we were the proud new parents of a baby living at the poverty line in Australia without any health insurance. I collected my husband's pocket change and horded it until I had enough to go to the local toy store and buy something for the baby. Each toy that Reno had for the first two years of her life took me about three months to save up for.

Other vows have become significantly more weighty in recent years. At the girl's swimming school the other day I sat up in the second floor viewing area during their lessons. In between waving at my four-and-a-half-year old and flashing the thumbs up sign at my nine-year-old I noticed that one of the athletic clubs coaches was pretty old. He had that "old man" body so that although he still had a decent build and lean muscles, his thighs seemed too thin, his stomach a bit paunchy and his back and shoulders slightly curved. I lusted after that body. Not after that coach, but after that body. I want an old man body in my future. I want to see my husband's body at that age. I want to actually really grow old with him. I don't want to stop having and holding, not so early, not so soon.

RA is not just an encumbrance in that it affects what my husband can do and can't do on a day to day basis, but it qualifies as an albatross on many other levels. Being an auto immune disease and fatal it pretty much can trump just about any tentative plans one shakily tries to scrawl on the future.

And now he is having other health complications on top of the RA. All I want, all I really want right now is to know that I can have a little old man body in my future. I want the Ancient Mariner, not the albatross.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Sites Everyone Should Have Bookmarked

(My poor cat Melon, who lacking the skills necessary to get on the internet just has to immitate a fuzzy pillow on the sofa during the long hot summer days)
That summer lethargy has settled in big time. Take the girl out of the comfort of hot dry heat and stick her into a humid sticky, my God you sweat like a frog country like Japan in August and you basically kill all initiative and desire for anything other than the spot directly in front of the fan.

So I pulled the fan over to the computer. Here are some good sites to whittle away the afternoons and still too hot and sticky evenings:

I Am Bored This is a great site for finding amusing, interesting and entertaining things and news.
Fund Free Mammograms Because even when you are bored you can still do some good.
Skrt A great place to find great stuff. Which is what you need when you are apathetic and bored, you need stimulating great stuff--check it out.

And finally, drum roll please and those of you who laugh are automatically invited to click on a link and get outta here: Because Mother Nature is gripping and it might help you make plans for real life in the real world. And it freaks people out on international calls when you casually drop in the conversation, "so what are you doing stuck inside with all the rain today?"