Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Santa Buddha Baby



Wii-Shmii...all I wanted for Christmas was this little guy. Two Japanese parents got to the Super Kawaii Kidstore first. Dang.

He wouldn't let the scary white woman hold him, either. But at least I got a pic of Mr. IAMSOHOTINTHISSTUPIDSANTASUIT. What a sweetie.

The Month That Seemed Like a Day

Gasp. Will someone please stop this crazy ride for a few minutes? I need to catch my breath...

So much has happened in the past month that it's going to take me a while to catch up. Since the beginning of December, we have not traveled to Thailand, visited Singapore in lieu, attended numerous Christmas parties (one at the Japanese school I teach at), survived several Christmas Cooking Disasters and celebrated the holiday with Japanese and German friends. Stay tuned in the next few weeks...details will be forthcoming. But not in any particular order.

Oh, yeah. The girls would like me to mention that we have finally, after months of intense and heated negotiation, become a part of the Wii generation. The campaign/trial started in earnest last summer. We were accused by the two plaintiffs of being supremely "uncool" for not having a video game platform. NO ONE wanted to spend the night at our house. It was apparently too boring due to the lack of expensive electronics.

Although the "boring" label stung a bit, their case was not furthered by pointing out that extra children, other people's children, did NOT want to come to our house on the weekend. Awww, that's so very sad....No buying $50 worth of snacks. No listening to the Neverending Giggle Fest. No vacuuming up $10 worth of said snacks from under the couch the next day.

That reality nearly broke my heart. I searched my true feelings, explored my heart, looked in my darling angels' sweet eyes and said: Nope. Never gonna happen.

(After all, the best part of being a parent is that, when being beaten down as a defendant, you suddenly realize, Hey, I'm the judge, too. Totally sweet.)

Nonetheless, they persisted for weeks, relentlessly, like Chinese water torture, all the while pointing out the amazing health benefits of the Wii and how the whole family could enjoy it. Finally, I snapped and shouted: I'll think about thinking of letting you ask Santa for one IF you write me an essay detailing the many life changing qualities of The Wii and why you deserve one! They had 6 weeks of summer to accomplish 2 paragraphs each.

Fast forward to the beginning of November and the debut of the faux goodness season. Much to my surprise, no essays had yet been completed. Claire decided to jump the chain of command and ask God directly for one. If that didn't work, there was still the benevolent grandparents.

Lily got busy and typed up a report...all of which was directly plagiarized from the Wii official website. I called her on it and she let out a plaintative yet defensive Whaaat?! that might have moved anyone but a Lit Crit major. Honey, I know the ole cut and paste strategy.

Fast forward to a week before Christmas. Every morning at breakfast, Claire details her actual dreams about waking up and finding a Wii on Christmas morning. She feels indescribable joy but then wakes up to cold, hard reality. Lily listens attentively and nods her head in sober solidarity.

So imagine their ecstatic elation on Christmas morning (we made it to 6:30 this year) when they rushed in to find that Santa had delivered a bonafide Christmas miracle. Tim and I couldn't believe the Big Guy would undermine us in such a brazen manner. What a softy wuss.

The Wii is, however, actually fun for the whole family. Imagine that.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Have Yourself A Merry Little Kurisumasu




The picture above illustrates the love born of this season and the essence of what our family wishes for you and yours during this most miraculous time of year. May the peace of the Lord be always with you, now and forever, wherever in the world you may be. Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Good News


Introducing Miss Mary Katherine Whitten Harrison, first daughter of my nephew and his wife. Newborn babies are a miracle but especially so this time of year. For unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given...And she is perfect.

Monday, December 8, 2008

This Haiku Will Change Your Life

Claire has been diligently working on her Japanese poems as of late. Haiku, in the very likely case you slept through 7th grade English, is a short poem composed of three metrical lines of 5, 7 and again 5 syllables. The verses do not rhyme. I never used to be a fan of The Haiku--it seemed too short and simple to express the vast depth of human longing.

But that was until Claire wrote the most profound poem I have ever read. Now, I am determined to defend this medium to the death. Witness this piece of poetic perfection that changed my mind forever and helped articulate one of life's most ardent passions:

The smell greets me now
Coffee is like paradise
I will never leave

So true. So true.

Before you call DHS for hooking a 13 year old on a cup of Joe...really stop and think about the pared down beauty of this petite poem. Can't you just feel the calm, yet impassioned commitment? The quiet, yet enduring love? The heavenly bliss?

I can. And I don't know about you, but I ain't leaving either.




Sunday, December 7, 2008

Kristi Yamaguchi's Worst Nightmare



As seen recently in a Japanese antiques stall at a local bazaar...

Buy these and falling through the ice is probably the least of your worries.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

WWJD?

I just finished reading an article in the New York Times asking for readers' opinions about how lavish the inaugural cermony and parties ought to be. Glancing through the 250 responses, it seems like the majority of people favor a subdued affair in these sober times.

Of course, my mind wandered to the age-0ld question, WWJD? Not, What Would Jesus Do...that's obvious. But What Would the Japanese Do?

They would do absolutely nothing, that's what.

The Japanese political system is a cousin of ours (we helped set it up after WWII) but with some very odd genes from the other side of the family. The Congress (or Diet) is bi-cameral and elected by popular vote just like in the United States. However,there is a slight difference in protocol: the Congress chooses the Prime Minister. The Japanese do not popularly elect a president, which I personally consider to be liberating and bewildering at the same time; Liberating because this society skips two years of tedious, I-Want-to-Put-My-Head-In-An-Oven campaigning. Bewildering because you never know who is steering this mighty ship.

Since living in Japan the last 3 years, we have witnessed three different Prime Ministers. One morning you wake up and flip on the Japanese news and there is a swarm of reporters around the capitol building. Hmmm. Perhaps a momentous law has been passed?

No. No. That's not it. The leader of the second largest economy in the world has just decided to quit because of his "nerves". This has happened twice. Two different guys with "nerve" issues have folded in under a year of leading this great nation. The third man, Mr. Aso, seems sturdy enough but I won't be surprised if he decides, "to hell with it", and runs away to Bermuda.

Obviously, one never knows the real, devious inner-workings of politics. It seems logical that these poor men might have been sacrificial lambs for their political parties, but still...

Can you imagine the President of the United States calling a press conference to state, "Nevermind. This office is entirely too stressful. I quit."

When this happens here, the Japanese seem irritated but kind of shrug their shoulders like What can you do?

Well, might I suggest two plus years of dirty, expensive campaigning that drives the common folk to drink, followed by plenty of over-the-top, lavish parties celebrating the winner and all the rich folk to whom he is now indebted?

If that won't steady those frightful nerves, I don't know what will.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Have a Wabi-sabi Thanksgiving!

Wabi-sabi.

This sounds like a new dance craze ("Come on everybody and do the wabi-sabi!"). Or perhaps an annoying Star Wars character that you want to kill two minutes into the movie. Or baby talk for the word wasabi ("Does widdle Jimmy want a widdle bit of wabi-sabi on his sushi-wushi?").




It's none of the above. In reality, wabi-sabi happens to be THE over-arching aesthetic and religious principle in Japan. You might be slightly disappointed it's not something more cutesy...but let me explain.



Before our chankopalooza last weekend (see previous post), our friends led Tim and I on a two-hour hike up a mountain and back down to a local temple. Hiranosan warned us that the hike would be "dangerous". We thought he was kidding. Perhaps he had chosen the wrong word?


No such luck.


Overcast and drizzly, I about broke my neck a dozen times sliding on the thick carpet of wet leaves covering the trail. As we descended the treacherous side of the mountain, we wandered upon a more discernible, stone path. On the left side of it was a craggy rock face covered in moss. Trees in autumn garb, with their branches arching over the path, lined the other side.

Hiranosan stopped and gazed at the scene around him. He announced that the quiet scene of rock, trees and moss leading up to a sacred place was "the center of the Japanese heart", otherwise known as wabi-sabi.


Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), wabi-sabi has no direct translation. The best I can come up with is "harmony in nature, perfect in its imperfection, transitory yet timeless". Someone smarter than myself described it more simply: "nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."

Interesting. Nothing lasts. Nothing is finished. Nothing is perfect.

Generally, we westerners tend to think that everything good must last...that the mission is accomplished...that perfection is attainable with the "right" ingredients and superior methodology. Both mental constructs (Eastern and Western thought) have their pros and cons and work for and against the cultures to which they belong. I could go on about that forever.

But I have a challenge for you today--this most wonderful holiday of Thanksgiving.

In addition to being thankful for your beautiful families, the roof over your head and the plentiful food on your table, consider being thankful that nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect.

Although unsettling, getting older is an amazing process. It's astounding what new views you can see through the bare branches, after the beautiful leaves have fallen to the ground.

Although that rock face was carved out a millenia ago, it's not "finished". The emerald moss covering it will degrade the surface over time. The change might be imperceptible to us, but another thousand years from now, the path will look much different to those who follow us. They will be in awe of it, nonetheless.

Although manicured, symmetrical gardens are gorgeous, the tangled chaos of nature is ever so much more. Striving to be/do better is desirable but not if we forget that we are imperfect beings in our original design. Imperfections remind us that we are limited and not always in control. This makes us human. And to quote Martha Stewart, the grand poohbah of perfection: "It's a good thing."

On the subject of good things, I hope you all enjoy plenty of traditional turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie this holiday...with a little bit of wabi-sabi on the side. I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Big Foot in Japan?

I had a fascinating conversation in my seniors' class this week. Our book's chapter had been discussing tabloids and some of the spectacular stories found therein. I told my students that American culture generally has two types of tabloid "reporting": gossip and fantastical.



They regarded me with a somewhat quizzical look. I explained that by "fantastical", I meant stories about aliens, women giving birth to aliens and redneck Big Foot sightings. (And redneck women giving birth to little Big Foots. And those sightings.)



Redneck? Big Foot? Their eyes seemed to wander the classroom, trying to connect with their fellow confused countrymen. I tested the waters: What? You all aren't familiar with the big scary ape guy who runs around the world's ancient forests leaving no trace except huge footprints? None of your people have recorded a grainy, out-of-focus picture of said creature?


Nope. Nothing. No recognition.


Gosh. What's the point in living without this belief system? One of my greatest childhood thrills came from watching a 1970's Big Foot "Special" that showed a re-enactment of Big Foot breaking through a log cabin's picture window and kidnapping some blond chick innocently snoozing on a couch. I couldn't sleep in my suburban second-story bedroom for weeks. I was certain that Sasquatch was going to come flying through the 2x2 window any second. (After all, I was blond and innocent. It was only a matter of time.)

Upon further discussion, I discovered that the Japanese don't really have hairy, scary beasts in their forests. They do have magical creatures, and although difficult to find, they are neither destructive nor frightening. Instead, they have long Pinocchio noses and bring good fortune from the gods.

I've decided that Japan is not a hospitable habitat for Big Foot. There's really no purpose for such a creature in this culture. If a chance encounter with him doesn't supply a dose of good luck, what's the point of having a humongous being roaming the woods, rudely taking up much needed space? It's not enough to have a mystery here--there has to be a compelling reason for the mystery to exist.

However, I suspect the largest obstacle to Big Foot's existence in Japan is more basic. This culture just has an appalling lack of rednecks and innocent blonds.



Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I Guess It's Hereditary


















Here are two pictures I found of Lily after a night "camping" (see previous post) in the Japanese ryokans. Being so young, she didn't even have the pleasure of experiencing The Noodle Effect.
Can't you just feel her pain?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Let's Try Chanko Nabe!

Chanko nabe...sounds substantial, doesn't it? For me, it evokes images of chubby thighs and blubbery bottoms, basically all things....chunky.

It's indeed a protein rich stew (uh huh, it's chunky) eaten twice daily by Sumo wrestlers to "build strength". Although the chicken dashi, or broth, is light, everything but the kitchen sink is added to this dish--shellfish, fish, chicken, several types of mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves (?!?, but delicious), Japanese radishes, and a few other mystery root vegetables.

Last weekend, our retired Japanese friends invited us over to partake of this cultural favorite. Their invitation cheerily demanded: "Let's try chanko nabe!"

Yes, let's!

(Contrary to popular opinion, we do fix our own food. Often. Okay, sometimes.)




We arrived at their house to find a gas hot plate on the table. The dashi is cooked beforehand and then heated to boiling in a giant crock pot at the table. We tossed the veggies and fish in to simmer while enjoying assorted rice crackers, homemade pickles and cold beer.

Japanese cooking, at least when guests are involved, is communal. I have learned so much about food preparation here because it usually happens right before my eyes--it's like dinner AND a movie. What a spectacular experience for the disfunctionally illiterate!

At first I thought, it's just lean protein and vegetables. Calorie-wise, this meal is quite light. Four servings later, I got religion... but apparently I was still not devout enough. Once the chunky bits are all consumed, rice is added to the leftover broth with eggs, green onions and soy sauce. I felt adequately Sumo-Sized after eating my first-ever Japanese Risotto. The scale confirmed my fear the next day.

Sumo wrestlers eat 4-5 bowls of rice with these meals, hence their legendary girth. After each meal, they immediately go to sleep so they can become "stronger". Some of the younger wrestlers find it a challenge to eat so much and then rest. (Truly, chanko nabe is an X-game in the sport of eating. Thanksgiving? Ppppffft. Totally for amateurs.)

I feel for these poor guys. After tossing and turning all night, I couldn't even think about food until the following afternoon.

Tim slept like a baby and ate his normal breakfast. I think he missed his calling.







Thursday, November 13, 2008

Engrishisms

"Engrish", in case you don't know, is/are the charming English mistranslations by Asians, usually in the attempt to sell something. Check out the link on the side of my blog, Engrish.com. One of my favorite entries is a Thai menu offering "crap/crap in red sauce/steamed crap". The intent was to serve carp. Two little letters...transversed. Doh!

One of our favorite "engrish" sayings has become part of our family repetoire. The first week we arrived in Okinawa, we discovered the 100 yen stores (dollar stores). Most of the products are Made in China so the lost in translation moments are hilariously relentless. I actually guffawed when I saw a small pad of paper displaying a cute cartoon character with overly large hands extended out towards the viewer. It said, "You can't contain the tastiness in two hands."

Well, of course you can't. That seems like a no-brainer but I am glad it was pointed out to me, nonetheless.

Our family picked up this catchy little phrase, but we constantly change out the "tastiness" to fit our mood. In our house, you can't contain the cuteness/cheesiness/dorkiness/lameness/etc. in two hands, either.

The other day, Tim was attempting to explain the periodic table to two nonplussed girls. Those of you who know my husband also know that he has an astounding ability to recollect millions of facts about practically any subject. To stop the conversation from spiralling out of control (he can go on for awhile), Claire declared him a total dork. He exclaimed that, in fact, there was no possible way to contain "his coolness in two hands".

Lily retorted, "Of course not, Daddy. I've always been able to contain it in one."

Ouch. That smarts.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I Love Not Camping

What a fabulous weekend. Tim and I left the girls at a friend's house (the O'Connors rock!) and headed out for the New Sanno in Tokyo. The New Sanno is the Armed Services hotel for Japan. Anyone in the military, retired or active duty, and their families and friends are eligible to stay at this 4 star hotel for about $60 a night. The bar serves up a fair drink, the restaurants are top-notch and the rooms are comfortable and modern. I dream of being an adult Eloise and living permanently at the New Sanno.

Since most Japanese hotels charge per person (the cheap ones are about $100 a person in Tokyo), a family of four could go broke trying to see Nippon without this amazing perk. We have paid upwards of $350 for the "Ryokan (small traditional inn) experience". We "experienced" the hidden thrill of sleeping on 2 inch thick cotton futons on rock hard tatami mats in a 4x4 room with peeling wallpaper. On account of the hot mineral baths and free-flowing sake (aka, The Noodle Effect), you actually sleep really well for the first hour. Then the cartilege in your joints starts to break down.

To add insult to injury (literally), breakfast consists of some sort of cold, bony fish, rice and vegetables.

I complained to my Japanese class about bunking on the floor and they laughed at me. Not with me. At me. Apparently, we Americans are "too soft". Hmmmph. They also informed me that the really amazing Hyatt-type Ryokans have gourmet meals and super plush robes and better sake. Unbenownst to us (because we are illiterate and poor), we were frequenting the Best-Western style Ryokans. Oops. Mistakes were made.

Nonetheless, super swanky or not, the cold hard fact remains that you have to sleep on the floor. I will try most things in a foreign environment once. We have tried the Ryokans twice.

So the moral to this story is: Never pay $350 to camp. And never, never pay $350 twice to camp.

Friday, November 7, 2008

All Hallow's Eve--Redux

Tim and I have hosted some of my Japanese friends a couple times in the past few weeks--first for a birthday meal at Chilis (three of us had birthdays in October) and again for Halloween.

Chilis provided many American cultural "firsts" for them: chips and salsa (perplexed by dipping the chips, but loved the salsa), flour tortillas (tried to put the cinnamon apples in them), guacamole (what's that green stuff?), eating ribs with one's hands (attempted to eat barbeque with a knife and fork), and American-sized portions (about 4 times the amount of food than in Japanese restaurants).

Their favorite food seemed to be the ribs, mashed potatoes and fajitas. The mashed potatoes were such a hit that I might package up a few portions for Christmas presents.

They looked a bit overwhelmed at the end of the meal but I had arranged for the embarrassing hand-clapping Chilis birthday song, accompanied by two enormous pieces of cheesecake. As the faux-enthusiastic merriment started in the back of the restaurant, my tablemates looked unaffected. As the waiters got closer and closer, they seemed slightly alarmed but still unaware that all the pomp was coming for them.

I learned that the Restaurant Birthday Clapping Behavioral Test for Introverted/Extroverted Tendencies is cross-cultural. Once the waiters arrived at the table with the cake, my short, excitable friend jumped up to join in the clapping with a huge cheshire grin. His more zen friend was smiling, but it was definitely tinged with an OMG, where's the nearest exit? look.

Upon leaving, they declared that they would like to return to Chilis "every three months".

Okey-dokey.

But we weren't done with them that week--they returned for Halloween several days later. Intensely curious about this "American festival", they arrived more excited than the kids. We served chili and cornbread which they looked at suspiciously (there is absolutely no equivalent in Japanese cuisine), then devoured entirely.

Once the girls got dressed up in their "goth" outfits, my Japanese friends were totally stoked. We hit the streets where, like paparazzi, they took millions of pictures of tots in various costumes, sometimes befuddling their parents by detaining and posing the little witches and ninjas for a more professional shot.

After two blocks, they tired of the festival fun. We returned home for pumpkin pie and candy sorting/swapping. This ritual delighted them more than the costumes. Towards the end, they were pouncing on the reject candy in the middle.

No doubt about it, Japanese retired folk are quick learners.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Me, Too?

I saw this little guy in the museum I blogged about in the previous post. He looks so serene and contemplative with his tiny froggy hands posed just so and his eyes gazing into the unknown.

Keiko informed me that the writing above him translates as, I am always naked.

Double meaning or straight-up buddhist comedy? You decide.

This Moment

Yesterday, my friend Keiko guided me on a hike to some of the smaller shrines and temples in Kamakura, the ancient village turned artist community near where we live. We started at her house outside of town and meandered through the hills, stopping to visit various shrines and temples along the way. There may be no greater pleasure on earth than hiking through the woods on a perfectly crisp Fall day. When no one else is present, emerging from the dark wooded paths and tunnels, glimpsing the outline of a temple, it feels like you have happened upon a long lost treasure, hidden from modern day knowledge.

After hiking, we stopped in a small museum/tea shop. (Keiko was born and raised in Kamakura and is a resident expert of All Things Off The Beaten Path. I would have never found this place by myself. ) The museum only displayed a few pieces of antique pottery and calligraphy but one scroll caught my eye--a few simple brushstrokes illustrating a buddhist monk and some sublimely constructed kanji above it. Keiko stopped and told me its message: I am thankful for this moment.

Buddhists strive to live in the present. There is no guaranteed future and the past is...well, past.

What better time to ruminate about the moment than on this historic election night? Our past is definitely past and we cannot magically undo what has been done. Our future remains wildly unsure--will this articulate, passionate and inexperienced man lead us to better or, God forbid, worse times?

I don't know. But I do know something for certain about the present moment. I am thankful for free elections with record voter turnouts. I am thankful for governmental change with no violence or military intervention. I am thankful for the candidate we didn't elect, who was so utterly gracious and humble in defeat. And I am thankful that we dared elect a person who could only be brought to power in the United States of America. (I love Japan but there is no way in hell they would ever elect a man whose father was Chinese, mother was Japanese, who grew up in Korea and was born poor to boot. )

You don't get ahead by working harder in most countries in the world. You get ahead by being born ahead in the first place. Although I admire the beauty and wisdom of ancient cultures, their traditions have the tendency to create intricate, perfectly formed knots. Being a young nation, and free of the cultural restraints that sometimes hold back other nations of the world, we Americans are free to hope for a better life, whatever that means to each individual. With some hard work and determination, we are free to change what we deem changeable. Our knots are not so perfectly formed. Yet.

So today, I feel as if I have left the dark woods and am standing in front of all the great monuments of my own society...recently obscured by the mistakes of our past and the worries for our future. Today, our unique structures stand in plain view for all to see:

Life. Liberty. The Pursuit of Happiness. The Audacity to Hope.

I am thankful for this moment.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

From Japan, With Mochi Love...


Aren't these exquisitely beautiful? They're mochi cakes--a sticky, rice flour exterior with a sweet azuki bean filling. My student Onosan brought them to me as a gift because I told him that I loved them. I'm starting an Onosan Fan Club soonly (my new favorite Engrish word). Once I convince him to pose for a picture, I'll have posters and mugs available for sale.


He was very surprised that I fancied this Japanese treat since most Americans avoid them at all costs. I think this is mainly due to the fact that every single one of us, the first week in Japan, thought the brown "cream filling" in the middle was chocolate. Oh, yeah. That is sooooo not chocolate.


Nevertheless, once I got over the initial shock, I became very fond of this cultural oddity. I have never had anything like it in all my travels. Shaped into leaves, flowers, and other seasonal themes, they taste exceptionally fine paired with a cup of green tea. The bitterness of the tea provides an exact balance to the sweet beans. Yummy.


Right now you might be thinking something along the lines of, Ain't no way, no how I'm eating beans with sugar, stuffed in a glutinous rice dough ball. I understand. Really, I do. Your brain just won't let you wander too far down that path...Japanese people think the same thing about pumpkin pie. When you explain the concept, they kind of tilt their heads as if to say, You smash up a stringy squash with sugar and cinnamon and put it in a crust made with animal fat and flour? What is wrong with you people?

Nothing, nothing, nothing is wrong with either folk, of course. We humans love what we love. We just don't realize how strange our own preferences are until we view them through a different lens. Based on my past few years' experience in this foreign and wonderful land, I highly recommend borrowing somebody else's binoculars and looking at the small things in your own world...really closely. It's amazing what jumps out at you.

Or, if you aren't feeling particularly introspective, another fun pastime is to blindly jump on the "other guy's bandwagon". I must say, it's a total blast getting in line with a hundred Japanese people, even if I have no idea what we are queueing for. Sure, sometimes I get to the end of the line and have to buy some weird looking seaweed or bizarre vegetable/shellfish...but other times I am rewarded with a delicious Japanese cream puff or fabulous seasonal chestnut cake.

Life can be so sweet.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Little Naked Guppy on the Prairie

I must admit it. I miss my Prairie Joy...otherwise known as "Frank". Last night, I was reminded of this driving home from teaching Engrish when I pulled up behind a small yellow Latte. (Mmmm. A Latte.) Which was behind a smaller blue Naked. Which was beside an even eensier car called the Guppy.


Since this country likes to recycle all its available resources, I'm pretty sure that lunatics are not sent to asylums in Japan. Their talents are put to work naming Japanese vehicles.

I always thought that it would be a great job to just name things like cars and lipstick and nail polish. Maybe I could start a dream career working for a Japanese cosmetics company. My very first nail polish color could be "Hi, Acetone!" or perhaps "Led Hot Rovers" (Red Hot Lovers to you and me). If you have any brilliant ideas, please send them along. I'll start putting together a portfolio.



But back to Frank, the Joy of the Tokyo Prairie...Our new car is so much more wonderful on so many levels (odor, usable windows, cleanliness), that I am left wondering why my thoughts keep turning to the ol' wreck. I think it's because our new ride embodies its name--The Mark IV.

Yawn. Sure, it's not embarrassing and all, but where's the romance, the intrigue, the sheer prairie joy? (Reality check: It has probably been chopped up into bits and cannibalized by some other car.)

Now, life has just become mundane, sweet-smelling boredom. I am starting to feel like I have sold out. I have never been a fan of cosmetic surgery because more often than not, it robs the recipient of her character. We have become a nation of Mark IVs with our perfect breasts, flawless skin and impossibly straight, white teeth.

Come on people...embrace your Frankness! Cellulite on your tailgate? Wrinkles on your windshield? Duct tape holding up your boobs? IT'S OKAY! Do the best you can with what you have, because that's what makes you, well, YOU. Revel in the knowledge that your flawed bodywork still allows you to get from point A to point B. So your vehicle is not as shiny as the one parked next to you...so what? You've got character, baby.

So the moral to this little story is that even though Frankenstein is physically gone, he will always be ALIVE in my mental universe...he'll always be my lovable, memorable little freak.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On Bananas and Toilet Seats

I have been perplexed for weeks. Every time I go to the Japanese supermarkets, they are cleaned out of bananas. There are miles of other staples, like pickled seaweed, miso, sake and bonito (dried fish flakes), but no beautifully ordinary, run-of-the-mill bananas. Oh stop your whining, you might say. Just buy them at the commissary!

You should know that military bananas, once they have been toted across the Pacific, look like they have been used to pry open the box they were sent in. Or, if they are still intact, they are dark green. You take them home and two days later...Voila! They are brown and mushy. Defying all logical banana methodology, they just skip the yellow stage.

Woefully, bananas are only the beginning of my story. Don't even get me started on the garlic!

Okay, I'm started...so here it goes. For 2 months running, it has been wet and rotten, yet is selling for $6.59 a pound. (You don't need to adjust your bifocals, you read that correctly the first time.) Shocking, non? Mais si! I know you have to be insanely curious: Can one actually sell rotten garlic for $6.59 a pound?

Why, yes. Anything is possible in the same magical contracting world that billed the government (and received) $1000 for one toilet seat. Someone, somewhere, somehow thinks it's completely okay to contract for inferior produce, transport it, unpack it, smell its rankness and then display it under an obscene dollar amount. I am assuming, though, that in regard to the toilet seat fiasco, the product didn't stink and had no price tag hanging from it when unpacked. Given the choice, I would definitely waste my money on the toilet seat every time. It just seems like the better deal.

But I digress. After pondering the whereabouts of all the Japanese (delightfully tasty and yellow) bananas for several weeks, I finally unlocked the mystery and apprehended the cultural culprit...

It's the Banana and Warm Water Diet!

A Japanese actress lost 20 pounds on said "diet" and now the NBC (National Banana Consumption) has risen by 40 percent. All you have to do is eat a banana for breakfast and in the evening, accompanied by a glass of warm water. The weight just falls off, apparently.

The medical community is torn about the science involved in such a miraculous claim. Is there really something in bananas and warm water that breaks down fat and facilitates weight loss? It happened for one actress, who I am positive is not concerned with self promotion, therefore it must be true! And Lord knows that this size 2 nation needs to drop a few pounds...they used to be a size 0, so, whatever it takes.

I can't help thinking, though, that the real tragedy in all this is twofold. Not only do I not have bananas for my cereal, but the Japanese public has also been distracted from discovering the only medically proven, appetite suppressant/weight loss program in the world: Shopping at your local military grocery store.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Oh, Happy Day

Today was My Birthday Observed. Tim prepared an amazingly delicious champagne brunch--two kinds of quiche, a lovely salad and homemade sour cream coffee cake. We polished off a whole bottle of champagne between the two of us. The talented chef is now snoozing soundly in front of the History Channel.

Since he is having a good little nap, I think I have time to poke a little fun at him. I feel a bit guilty considering he went out of his way to make such a delicious feast. But guilt takes all the fun out of life...

My wonderful family got me some nice gifts: a super-kawaii Snoopy mug, Halloween socks, etc. But the best was the perfume Tim got me. He said he really liked it in the store. I sprayed it on and it was indeed...different. I liked it but couldn't quite put my finger on the predominent scent. It was subtly masculine.

Well, that's because it was. In small words at the bottom, it said Pour Homme (For Man). Ah, that fine print will get you everytime. I absolutely love these kind of gifts because they just keep on giving for years to come.

The perfume was almost as good as a Christmas present I received from him years ago. I asked for a small locket to put a picture in. But as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. I should have known that something was amiss because the box was not exactly delicate. I opened it up and lifted out a heavy faux-gold ghetto chain (the width of my little finger) with a "locket" the size of a saucer. Think Run DMC. Wow.

"Gee, Honey. Thaaaaanks." We were still engaged so I couldn't laugh. But after 15 years of marriage, this is no longer a limitation.

All joking aside, I have had a wonderful day. I think my thoughts can be best relayed by quoting a very wise saying I saw recently on a backpack in a Japanese store:

"The day passed by happily. full of happiness."

P.S. Tim approved of this post but wanted me to add that the print was really fine.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Friendly Snacks

Milk: Well, hello there...do I know you?

Japanese snacks are so welcoming. Though, I can't help but wonder if the other ingredients, like the cocoa solids and lecitin, feel a bit slighted.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Late Summer Chicken, Pondering

So my dear husband got me a birthday card with four sections on the front--one with a chicken in cold weather garb in the snow, one with a vista of just grass and flowers, another with a chicken in sunglasses in the sun and the last one with a chicken and falling leaves. The inside said: "No spring chicken? You noticed, too?"



Cruel and uncalled for, yes, but it got me to pondering: If I am no longer a spring chicken, what kind of chicken am I? (I realize that it's highly unusual to be philosophizing about poultry themed greeting cards, but just stay with me...at the very least, it could get weirder.)





So after much thought, I have determined that I am a In-the-Last-Few-Weeks of August Chicken. Next year, I most definitely enter Early Autumn Chickendom--still hot from time to time, maybe, but also looking forward to things finally cooling off. It's that time in life where you can start to wear comfortable clothes to cover up fatal flaws without having to make excuses. By the time I'm a Mid Winter Chicken, I plan on wearing a cashmere muumuu and ballet slippers 24/7. Age does impart some privilege.



To celebrate the passage of time, I went karaoking on Saturday night with 20 or so lovely lady friends to the mysteriously titled karaoke bar, "El Notes". Is it Spanish? Is it English? Is it singular? Is it plural? Sometimes a Masters Degree in French Literature makes you worry about things like that. Let's just call it a gift.



I had never been karaoking at a bar before and didn't know what to expect. (That's not true, exactly. In my mind's eye, I did visualize myself singing out of tune with a bunch of rowdy stay-at-home moms with PhDs. But I just didn't realize how out of tune it would be.) The tambourines were a surprise. As was the all-you-can-eat ice cream/tea bar. And the equally random scenes of the New York Subway System being played on the big screen behind the lyrics of Sweet Home Alabama.


Maybe the plum flavored Chu Hai (Japanese Everclear) I was swilling made objects seem more surreal than they appear in real life. In any case, I woke up the next morning with a killer headache that lasted all day.

I have definitely noticed that no spring chicken resides in this picture.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Aren't They Just the Cutest Little Things?




The above pic is of Lily and two little Japanese girls that I teach, Aimi and Shuri. They spent Saturday with us--making blueberry pancakes and bacon, playing in the girls' rooms and the park, bowling, shopping at the PX , fixing chocolate chip cookies and decorating the house for Halloween. We taught them American hand games and how to eat pizza without a fork and knife. (This country can be too civilized.) I dropped them off at the gate at 4PM. They looked like we feel after touring temples all day.

As much as I would have loved to have had the experience of raising a little boy, girls are just too adorable for words. (When they aren't being sneery or bossy, that is). For some reason they are even cuter when they are Japanese. Either it's the foreign factor or they are empirically sweeter.


I don't know how to adequately determine this, short of kidnapping one. I am ashamed to say that, on numerous occasions, I have seriously thought out several scenarios. Sadly, all imaginary plans terminate with me being arrested and thrown in a Japanese jail. Breakfast, lunch and dinner consists of stale rice and fish heads. They are not kind to their prisoners.


So like a crack addict hanging out on a street corner, I head to Costco and IKEA--Cute Kid Capitals of Japan--to get my fix. Just like in the states, these stores attract young couples with two adorable children under 8 years old, looking for a bargain. While Tim is pondering shelving units or exotic French wines, I am making the couple next to us nervous.


I stare at their little bundles of perfection with a goofy (the parents probably read it as maniacal) grin. "Oh, isn't she kawaii (cute)!", I proclaim too loudly and brightly. They most oftentimes nod at me politely with a steady, fixed smile suggesting, "I will be nice to the strange white lady because I and my ancestors have been taught to be nice to strange white ladies. Yet, I want to bolt."

In my defense, though, the same scenario plays out with old Japanese grandmas and young American couples with fat, blond babies. Complete strangers over the age of 65 will insist on holding american prodigeny. They will wait patiently for you to unstrap them from their strollers. If you balk, you elicit a hurt, then disdainful look which seems to say, "Your country bombed the hell out of us and all I want in return is to hold your chunky, blond baby." Grannies have the right-of-way here in ALL matters and you mess with them at your own risk.
Unfortunately, I haven't reached the magical age where I can do whatever I please and get away with it. I plan on returning here in my seventies. Those young Japanese couples better hand over their cuties so I can pinch their widdle cheeks and smooch their button noses. Or else.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

R.I.P., Frank




For thirty minutes, as I watched the Japanese bureaucrats enthusiastically stamp official vermilion stamps within official vermilion stamps on Frank's Death Certificate (Junking slip), I felt a surge of grief. But then, I smelled our new car. And I got over it.
In our defense for jettisoning the ugly (but lovable) monster, it would have cost us a lot more this time for the Japanese Insurance. That's why everyone has a brand spankin' new car here.
After 5 years, the cost to insure an older car just gets too prohibitive.
Which reminds me...we went to eat brunch at a hotel in Tokyo a few weekends ago for the first time in a long time. The lady glanced at Claire and asked her age. I told her and she informed us that she would be the adult price now, a whole ten dollars more. I guess that's fair because the girl can eat.
Lily looked at her sister and said, "Jeez Claire, you are getting really expensive. Maybe we
should junk you too."
In broad daylight, in front of God and country, she was smacked upside the head by her costly older sister. Karma is a killer.

The Pleasure of a Thousand Autumns










These colorul banners depict the names of the sumo wrestlers taking part in the Tokyo Sumo Tournament (Basho), held for two weeks every September. Tim and I had the good fortune to snag tickets for the last day of competition. We took a tour up to Tokyo BY OURSELVES, which made the trip quite peaceful. Not knowing how long the day would be or how much we would understand of the spectacle, we left the girls in the care of friends so as to escape the inevitable chorus of "I'm booooooored."






What a spectacle it turned out to be. Mesmerizing, zany, intensely suspenseful, solemn, rowdy--I have never experienced anything like it. Watching two obese guys go at it on TV just doesn't do the experience justice. It is so much more.






Sumo is an ancient sport, if you could call it that. It's origins, yes, you guessed it right, are Shinto. Because it originally was a contest between two wrestlers to predict whether good or bad spirits would control the harvest, each and every moment is dictated by ancient shinto beliefs and tradition. When the two wrestlers raise their legs up high and thunder them down on the ring, they are trying to stamp out evil spirits. Throwing handfuls of salt before the match helps purify the ring and protects the athletes from injury. They ceremonially rinse their mouths out with water before the match, which is still done as well in the tea ceremony and before people enter a shrine.









The actual matches oftentimes last only a few seconds or sometimes as much as a few minutes. The pageantry before is mesmerizing. By the time the contestants have finished stomping their feet, rinsing their mouths, and crouching and glaring at one another several times, the crowd is completely stoked. Everyone is on the edge of their seats, waiting. The wrestlers finally lunge at each other like two linebackers, with speed and dexterity belying their enormous size. Whoever forces his opponent first to touch the ground with anything besides his feet or forces the other to step outside the ring, is the winner.






The crowd reacts with gasps, moans and shouts of approval for each move. I had as much fun watching the people as I did the sumo wrestlers. They can go from shouting at the top of their lungs to complete Library Mandated Silence in a matter of seconds.






I had particular joy watching the PCFs (private crazy fans) sitting next to us. A gaggle of young Japanese girls were pouring over the wrestlers' glossy pix in a book. (It was like a scene out of Sex and the City except they were downing beers instead of martinis.) Everytime "their" man entered the ring, they started screaming, rock groupie style. Although I couldn't understand fully what they were saying, I heard the words OKI (Biiiiiiig!) and KAWAII (Cuuuuuuute!) quite a bit. "Big" I can relate to, but "cute" wouldn't be the word I would use to describe these gentleman, although I am sure it's an acquired taste. I am told that if a woman snags one of these guys, it is the ultimate female victory.






Strangely, or maybe not, a Fantasy Sumo League exists here. I think it's the "Fantasy" part that trips me up.






Like sports' enthusiasts in the states, people of all ages follow sumo like it's a religion....well...because it actually is a religion. I can not think of another sport on earth that is a fascinating blend of modern day hoopla and ancient solemn rituals. The tea ceremony, sumo and many martial arts are this country's Holy Communion. People do not go to "church" every Sunday to reenact holy rituals, they do it in their everyday lives, as a nation. Sumo is just one outward and visible sign of their inward and invisible faith.






The awards assembly at the end was pure modern hoopla, though. The Basho Champion not only receives a ridiculous amount of money, but each sponsor (about 50 in all) awards him a trophy or prize. Many of the trophies were life-sized. Sumo life-sized. The very diminutive Japanese Deputy Prime Minister tried to casually pick up one of these and walk it over to the champion, his back bowed from the effort. The champion took it from him and lifted it up as if he were bench pressing chopsticks. Hilarious.






The awards ceremony only happens on the last day of the basho. When we got home, I had some questions about some of the rituals so I did some research online. I discovered that the last day of the September basho is called senshuraku, or literally, the pleasure of a thousand autumns. As I have explained before, the Japanese are particulary fond of the changing seasons and the temporal joys found within them.






Not only did we get to experience something new on Sunday, which is always a pleasure, but it was also the first day that it felt like Fall in Tokyo--the heat and humidity seemed to be taking their final curtain call of the year. On the way to the sumo stadium, I saw the first leaves starting to turn pale yellow. Our morning glory has died back and left swollen seed pods on its red vines. Nature is preparing to close up shop. It's gently warning us that Winter is Coming.






I guess that's why I love Fall so much. Even though I know the cold and darkness are on their way...there are thousands of pleasures to experience yet.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Storm Warnings

What a crappy weekend, weather-wise. The whole base shut down Friday night for The Typhoon That Never Was. I swear, on the military's part, it's like the Boy Who Cried Wolf. All the restaurants shut down early and the front gate closed at 10PM, which meant no traffic coming on or off base. I went out in the pouring rain to get water and poptarts (more important than a flashlight) at the minimart in case the electricity went out and waited in line for 15 minutes with all the typhoon revelers buying booze. I cleared off our decks and brought everything inside. We hunkered down and then at 4AM it came in all it's glory...some gusty winds that rattled the doors. Whoooopeeee.

Thankfully, since the storm was brief and wimpy, we were able to go out for sushi with Onosan (see earlier post). Tim and I hit some of the antique stores around Yokosuka. So the weekend wasn't a complete wash.

Sunday brought pelting rain. We watched movies and cleaned house. Ah, boredom and hormonal pre-teens...The Perfect Storm. By 5PM, the girls were at each other's throats. Most of their fights progress as follows:

Claire bursts out of her room, head on fire.
Accuses Lily of going into her room without permission.
And messing with her stuff.
Lily protests vehemently.
But is ALWAYS guilty.
I have to intervene before neighbors call security.

So this is precisely what happened on Sunday except Claire comes screaming out of her room that Lily has been using "her" cell phone.

Lily can't protest because she and her friend have recorded little movies on it, "The Bob and Joe Show". Lily counterpoints that Claire gave her the phone. Claire rages indignantly that she said she could use "her" phone to call the friend's mom, not record video. I step in and remind Claire that the phone, in fact, is not hers. "Uh (eyes rolling), YES it is, Mom." Uh, Claire, did you pay for the phone? Uh, do you have the 35 dollars to pay for the phonecard?

She conceded that she did not. I then reminded Lily that she was only to use the phone to call, not record. They both silently retreated to their rooms.

Just as I'm sitting my behind back in my chair to read, Claire flies out of her room for Furious Fit, Part 2 (she's our family's own little weather system). "Not only did she record stuff without my permission, but she snuck in my room after her friend left!" Lily protests vehemently. Okay, Claire, how do you know that? She shoves the phone in my face. Well, there indeed is a video short of Lily's feet "having an argument" on Claire's bed. Lily smiles sheepishly and runs into her room.

Claire is so pissed. I am laughing too hard to mediate any further. Come on Claire, THAT was funny. She smiles slightly.

After I regain my composure, I lecture Lily about going into her sister's room without permission and promise Ultimate Doom if she does it again. I also make a mental note to get that kid a video camera for her birthday.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Paying it Forward

Hi Everyone,

I am so stuffed.


Today, my new student Onosan and his wife invited our whole family to an outstanding sushi bar in Miura, a small coastal town south of Yokosuka. Onosan is a gentleman in every sense of the word--modest, kind and generous. He opens doors for ladies, does his homework diligently and teaches me about sake. He is 75 years old but has the looks and gait of a man of sixty. He brings me or the girls a present, usually some Japanese sweet, every time he has a lesson. I would like to tell him to stop because I feel guilty but I think it would hurt his feelings. He just loves giving gifts. He was referred to me by Akiyamasan, my first student, whose self-professed hobbies are beer drinking and sleeping. I am thankful for having met both of them.


It took us about 45 minutes to follow Onosan by car to the sushi bar. At first glance, it didn't seem like much. You must know that most Japanese restaurants, especially those by the sea, look like dives. Usually I pull up to some dull concrete building with ancient water stains and two parking spaces and think, "I'm eating raw fish in that place?"



This bar had the prerequisite plastic food display outside. After oohing and aaaahing over the life-like sushi (Good God, that salmon should not be out in the sun all day!), we proceeded up the steps of the restaurant. On each side of the bottom step, there were two tiny hills of salt. Just like at the beginning of sumo matches when the wrestlers throw salt to purify the ring and protect themselves from injury, the salt outside restaurants welcomes guests by purifying and protecting the premises. Although I am not certain, I think this is a Shinto tradition. Odds are, if it's a bit wacky and totally charming, it's Shinto. Deeply meditative and serene? Probably Buddhist.

Upon entering, I wasn't too impressed with the atmosphere but I didn't expect to be since most Japanese restaurants tend to be shabby (but immaculate). Down one wall was a long sushi bar, bordered by glass cases full of sea creatures, with 6 chefs at work behind it. Five tatami rooms with large, square, sunken tables made up the other side. We all sat down at the bar and Onosan started ordering from the 2 chefs in front of us, releasing a veritable tsunami of food. First came 3 full plates of sashimi (raw fish, no rice), miso soup and an egg custard dish. Then came all kinds of sushi (raw fish on rice), tempura (fried vegetables and shrimp) and crab legs. And sake. And beer.

I quickly got impressed. I have had many types of sushi, in Japan and the states, and I thought I had tasted some primo quality fish. Nothing compared to this. The tuna was so fresh and tender, it practically melted in my mouth. I didn't even have to make the effort to chew. I try not to be snobby about this kind of stuff, but the sushi in the states compared to this place can best be described with this analogy: Dreaming about sex and actually having sex.

I looked down at Claire and Lily to see how they were doing. Lily, who loves sushi, was chowing down as fast as she could. Claire looked like the Speak-No-Evil Monkey in the picture above. Right in front of her, behind the glass case, was some sort of shell fish. The chef poked it and it faintly shuddered. (Lily said it did The Wave.) The scene was somewhat akin to watching a small child run into a sliding glass door. You know you ought to feel more empathy but it's just too darn funny.

On account of being invited by them, Onosan and his wife payed for everything, of course. This is Japanese traditional hospitality. After leaving the restaurant, we went next door to the fresh fish and vegetable market so Onosan's wife could do some shopping. I filled my basket with some rice, veggies and some snacks for the girls and Onosan offered to hold the basket. Next thing I know, he is insisting on buying my groceries! I protested vehemently but he wouldn't hear of it. At some point, you can't duke it out with a 75 year old Japanese man in public. "The sushi was my present, this is my wife's present," he said. I couldn't believe it. We brought them small presents for hosting us but it seemed so trivial. Is there any way for us to "repay" the incredible kindness we have witnessed here?

Good people, like good sushi, are hard to find sometimes. But I know in my heart that if I keep looking, there will be an opportunity to "pay forward" what I have been given. I just hope that I will recognize it when it happens and be as honorable in my intentions as my role models have been.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Aforementioned Monkeys

On a lighter note from the previous blog (geez, that wouldn't be hard)...

Doesn't the middle monkey, Mr. Speak-No-Evil, look like he's trying to be polite but is about to puke? Or maybe he's just seen a buddhist/shinto flasher. It's hard to tell.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hearing, Speaking and Seeing


Above is the familiar image of the See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil monkeys. These monkeys are etched above the stable of the Sacred White Horse at Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. Shrines are Shinto in origin. Shintos have always believed that horses belong to the gods and that monkeys are protective spirits. So the author of this beautiful carving obviously wanted to make sure that the gods' prized possession was carefully guarded. Even though this shrine was built in the 1600s, a Sacred White Horse still resides in the stable--a gift from New Zealand. I absolutely love how tradition lives here in Japan.

Toshogu shrine, although Shinto in origin, seamlessly melds both Shinto and Buddhist influences. Shintoism is the indigenous religion of the Japanese people. It is not a "written" religion with a sacred text, but rather a conglomeration of beliefs based on societal rules. Ancestral worship and a strong abhorrence of death are its chief characteristics. Buddhism came from India, via China and the Korean Peninsula. Buddhists view death as a natural part of life that must be shed along with other earthly bonds to achieve nirvana. The samurai developed Zen Buddhism, the uniquely Japanese sect of Buddhism, as their strict ethical code, religion and way of life. By the time Buddhism reached Japan, its sacred texts had been widely dispersed and it was a truly "organized" religion. It became a national religion as the shoguns wrestled power away from the traditionally Shinto Emperor.

Somehow, someway, though, these two very distinct and oftentimes oppositional belief systems became intertwined. They exist and have always existed completely at peace with one another in this country. Sometimes it is very difficult for an outsider to recognize where one ends and the other begins in their influence on the Japanese spirit and culture. Without forcing supremacy of one over the other, the Japanese have found a way to take the best of both religions and weave their teachings into their everyday existence. It's amazing.

I suppose all this came to my mind recently because I have been thinking of my own faith quite a bit. It has been a humbling week. Mostly because I have realized the teachings I thought were woven into my framework have come loose a bit.

Those of you who know me well, know how important religion is in my life. I am endlessly fascinated by what people believe (or don't) and why they believe it (or not). I absolutely love hearing what folks have to say about how faith influences their life or doesn't.To investigate the mystery of faith, I enjoy searching out the "clues" and following these spiritual footprints of faith back to their cultural sources. The grand impressions left by the national culture are usually obvious, but the more delicate and faint lines, the ones left behind by the personal-familial culture are ultimately more engaging. As with any relationship, one's relationship or lack thereof with God is complex. And complexity is compelling. Scary sometimes, but compelling. So, oftentimes when I go out into the world, I am on an awkward quest to try and "understand" this beautiful chaos called humanity.


Unfortunately, I have an Achilles heel that really lays me up sometimes. I just absolutely hate spiritual arrogance. You know, the My God is Better Than Your God mentality that pervades cultures. I find that the American culture is especially prone to this. As a self-professed "Christian Nation", we oftentimes try and make sense of the chaos by imposing our particular world view, our order, on it. Some believe that this order is best achieved by a literal approach. Frankly, I don't have a problem with someone being a Biblical Literalist. If somebody finds comfort in believing that the Bible was telepathically faxed to Mankind and then copied and pasted into the Greatest Word Document Ever (with no editing), more power to them. It's not provable, but that's what faith is about. It's belief in the unprovable.


So when I hear someone state as fact that which is unprovable, it literally drives me crazy. When I hear the statement from a girlfriend that it's "so sad that the poor Buddhists will never know what it's like to spend Eternity with the Lord" or when a person uses scripture as a weapon to intimidate others into believing what he believes, I can't think straight. That type of arrogance MAKES ME NUTS. Using fear (whether subtle or overt) to bully others into being "saved" is so contrary to what I know in my soul that I instantly get angry at the offense.


So to make a long story short(er), I got in a theological, ahem, "discussion" with one of these folk on an online forum discussing a recent bestselling work of fiction. He felt the book was "demonic" because it didn't follow the Bible to the letter. Trying to convince another person on the site that his interpretation was The Truth, he pulled out all the Biblical scripture standards as "proof" of his superior view. I called him on his arrogance. He responded that I didn't love God's word. I called him a Bible Bully. He assured me that I would perish in the Lakes of Fire. I told him I wasn't scared of him and his lakes of fire--my relationship with God was based on love and compassion. Other people chimed in and staked their ground.


But then, he said something that stopped me in my tracks. A total stranger told me that he knew he had The Truth on his side because he had been "kicked out" of his family for his views. I got the distinct impression that even though he saw himself as a modern day Christian martyr, he hadn't chosen to leave his family. Rather, his family left him.




Kicked out of his family because of what he believed.

Shunned by those who should love you most in this world, because of your relationship to God. Can you imagine? In an instant, everything I held dear about my own demented but loving family rushed over me. And I could imagine the absence of that love...and it broke my heart.



Of course he was a bully. Because he had been bullied. And my girlfriend, the one who felt sorry for the "poor Buddhists", she broke our friendship because my beliefs "deeply disturbed" her and she felt I wasn't the Christian I ought to be. But she had been through hell this past year and was only trying to define her own chaotic world, a world that had lost all its definable borders. I believe now that it was a matter of necessity for her to define her world the best she could so the chaos wouldn't overtake it again, so she could be comforted in a time of trouble.

Maybe it's not the Chaos we should fear, though, but our attempts to order it at all costs...Usually I love getting lost in the chaos, it's one of the reasons I enjoy traveling so much. I enjoy witnessing how my understanding of the world is pretty small. Traveling has a way of rearranging a personal sense of order: On a small scale, I have eaten rice and fish for breakfast. On The Grand Scale, I am seeing how two "opposed" religions are united in their love of what is good...but distinctly different in their approach of how to live out this goodness in this world.

Which brings us back to the monkeys. This image got me to thinking. Most of the time, I can abstain from hearing, speaking and seeing Evil. It's difficult, but as far as these three senses go, I can control them. Yes, not always successfully, but at least somewhat consistently. But what about that pride, that anger that rises up when I think my own beliefs and sense of order are being assailed? What about that hypocrisy that dwells in my heart? I define my relationship with God by love and compassion and an absence of fear--the Order in the Chaos. Yet, I still walk down that road of pride and anger all the time, without even THINKING about it. With strangers or loved ones, I still seek out what is different rather than what is unifying.



Perhaps the creator of these monkeys was as blind as I am. Perhaps there should have been, in fact should be, a fourth monkey, carefully covering his heart:


Feel No Evil.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Proof That I Don't Make This Stuff Up






Here's the picture I was talking about in the Festival and Fireflowers post....It was taken at the airport in Taiwan a few years ago on our way to Bangkok. The restaurant sign above the girls says, "Beef, Noodles, Gruel & Dishes".


Um, I would like a large order of Beef, a small Noodles, one of your Dishes and...Is your gruel really that good? Okay, a large order of Gruel then...Wait a minute. What, darling? Oh, hey, can I super-size my gruel order? Great! Uh huh, that's all....oh, sorry, wait just a second... Now what? I'm so sorry! My daughter would like to change her small Noodles to a McGruel Meal. Alright, baby, I'll ask. Does she have a choice between the Medieval Emaciated Prisoner and Dickens' Destitute Orphan doll toys? Oh perfect, thank you so much!



The best part of it all was that, after you got your Gruel to Go, you could mozey next door and get a "Foots Massage".


No kidding.






Thursday, September 4, 2008

Livin' la Style Free Vida

A sad, but inevitable piece of news from Japan: Frank is not long for this world. His JCI (Japanese Insurance Tax Thingy) is due in November and I'm pretty sure with the two windows that won't roll up (unless you count the duct tape intervention), he won't pass inspection. They are bound to notice a few things.

Also, no way, no how I'm shelling out $800 to keep an embarrassing car, even if by some miracle, he passes. To add insult to injury, with the warm weather and humidity, a formerly subtle odour (did someone pass wind, maybe?) has now become a quite rude stench (what frickin died in here?). It's bad enough that the car is hideous on the outside, but as passengers, hey, gazing at Frank isn't OUR problem. But now we are constantly reminded that he is an unmitigable disaster with no redeeming qualities. How did we not see this all along? We were so blind. And greedy.

To add to the case of junking Frank, our neighbor, who is moving soon, offered us a nicer, newer, and get this, FREE CAR. I know what you are thinking: We could be God's Chosen People and He is rewarding us with Vehicular Manna from Heaven. But Caveat Emptor. Just like the real manna, this stuff gets the job done but isn't too palatable. You just have to throw out all preconceived ideas of taste, close your eyes and gulp it down.


Which reminds me of a funny ad I saw the other day. I'm in my zoning-on-the-train mode, when I look up and see a beer ad, mostly in indecipherable Kanji, but some English: "New Asahi Beer--Style Free!"


Huh, wha? Is this a selling point? Did they mean, no style at all? Refreshingly free of style? No style has been added? Oh sweet mystery of life...


In any case, it pertains to our car "purchases" in Japan. Our new car, which we get at the end of the month, only has one giant scratch that is oozing rusty goo. No problem. Although I am not sure about the smell, at least the doors are all the same color. BOOOOONUS! In any case, we are used to living the style-free life over here...it frees up money for travel and to waste on kooky snacks and drinks (Jello Juice, anyone?).


We are so committed to this way of life that we have formulated a pledge: We will hereby continue to be 1oo% Style Free. No unnecessary style will be added to our product. We will actively promote all things style-less and generally lacking of said style whilst in Japan.


We hope this message inspires everyone, everywhere, to become style-free in the very near future.

So we won't look so dang ridiculous.

Back to Reality, For Better or Worse

Hello Friends and Family, (and Friends of Family--thanks for fowarding my blog, Leen!)

It has been a busy, "confusing" week here in Japan. Note: One of my students, who runs a hotel, when asked how his week went, always responds, "Velly confusing". He means "hectic". But I like confusing better. It fits so well with having two kids, working two jobs and navigating the lunacy of military life. I so get what he's saying.

Anywho, school is in, of course. My blissful, zen existence of the first day was brief and fleeting...as zen experiences tend to be. I am back as a substitute teacher and working pretty regularly. I have also added on another private student, as well as begun teaching two classes at a Japanese school. I really adore my new student. He is 75 years old but looks and acts like he's 60. He reminds me of my dad--robust, snow white hair, super kind and enjoys his grandkids. Living on a military base, you just don't see a lot of "old" people. I love being around Japanese seniors--they are just like their american counterparts in so many ways. They have "seen it all" and "done it all", but don't pretend to "know it all". Refreshing.

My first week back at subbing reminded me why I love that job. First, I get paid more than many of the full time aides. Second, the kids are hilarious.

My first gig was with the Special Ed preschoolers. Normally, this is a special rung in Dante's hell. However, as luck would have it, only TWO kids showed up the first morning. Most of the children are autistic, which means they are stubborn as hell, but easily distracted. As we were swinging on the playground during some well earned "distraction" time, one little girl started freaking out about some flame-colored dragonflies that were swooping over our heads. I explained to her that dragonflies were not bees, they did not sting and there was nothing to be afraid of. "They are friendly," I said. "They love to play," I said. "They are lucky," I said.

Next thing I know, she is chasing after one with her arms spread wide to the sky, yelling, "Come here Mr. Dragonfly, I want to hug youuuuuuuuu!" Then, she ran after another one making kissing noises (mwah, mwah, mwah, I love you Mr. Dragonfly!) across the expanse of playground. She and the little boy sprinted after them for 15 minutes, calling for the dragonflies to "come back" when they disappeared over the fence. They obliged. Which sent the two shrieking and giggling in another direction. (There was no end to the dragonflies...apparently these bright orange ones are a harbringer of Fall, according to my friend Keiko, and they just happened to pop out for the first week of school).

After 15 minutes of wind sprints and general hilarity, I look over and the little boy is face down on the cement with his arms and legs splayed out in all directions. He looked like preschool roadkill. I asked him if he was all right. He replied, "I'm hot." And didn't move. It's amazing how we don't notice discomfort when we are really enjoying the Joy Luck Club called life.

Yes, dragonflies are very lucky, I think.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

PCFs

Hey Everyone,

Yes, indeed, there is an official Japanese term for those people chanting at baseball games en masse. Contrary to popular (okay, my) opinion, even though they seem too organized to be otherwise, these folks are neither hired nor supported by teams. When I quizzed my seniors' group about this phenomenon, one woman shook her head emphatically and said, "They are not hired by the team, they are....aaaaahhhh (searching for the correct words)....Private Crazy Fans."

I think this may be my new favorite saying. I mean really, who hasn't known, or hasn't been a PCF at some point in his or her life? Those lovable goofballs who buy $100,000 RVs, pack them full of team toilet seat covers and toasters and then spend their existence (at least 6 months of it) following college or professional football teams from place to place? Yep, PCFs.

Or what about the ones who strip naked from the waist up in sub-zero weather and paint themselves team colors? Obviously PCFs. Or how about those folk at the Republican National Convention who are swearing their undying love and admiration for some woman they have "known" for less than a week....Oh my God, they are so PCF!

Sorry, I couldn't help it.

But seriously, if you think about it in an existential type way, we are all private crazy fans about something. We all chant, if not in unison, at least in duty to something in our lives. So my question to you is...when and how have you gone PCF in your life? Come on, post your nutball obsession out there...dare to comment. Inquiring minds want to know.





Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Sound of Silence

Sigh. Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are over--yesterday was The First Day of School. Always a bittersweet day for moms, I think. On the one hand, you are all wistful that they are one year older, one year farther away from ruffled dresses and Barbie Doll lunchboxes and holding your hand in line...

But on the other, if that's the price of freedom, I'm paying. My First Day of Solitude was absolutely grand. No one complained of boredom nor did anyone slam a door right after the ear splitting shriek GET OUT OF MY ROOM or MOOOOOOOMMMM, MAKE HER STOP WHISTLING/SINGING/EXISTING NEAR ME. The first day of school is like having a Zen temple right in your own house. It's pure, unadulterated bliss.

To make my nirvana state complete, I witnessed a bonafide miracle before the girls left for school. T. had been on duty the night before and was sleeping in. As I entered the kitchen, grumbling about having to make "nutritious" lunches again, I noticed that the coffee maker was askew. I went closer. It was HOT. I thought, well my husband is kick-ass but not even he would get up and make coffee at 6AM when he just went to bed 3 hours earlier. I poured a cup....strong but not too strong. In fact, it was....perfect. I was still sitting there staring at the machine in wonder when C. said, "Can I have a cup of the coffee I made?"

Wow. I get all choked up thinking about it. All the whining, sneering, screeching of the last few pre-adolescent years just all of a sudden made perfect sense. Yes. I made this child. She has survived to 12 years old. And she can make a great cup of coffee without prompting.

You hear a lot about the first teeth, steps, words, day of kindergarten but really, folks, nothing compares to this. I want to make up a bumper sticker that says HONOR STUDENTS ARE ALL FINE AND GOOD BUT MY CHILD MAKES ME COFFEE IN THE MORNING. HOW BOUT THEM APPLES?

I am not sure that will fit on Frank, though.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game (Buy Me Some Edamame and Octopus Balls)

Hi everyone,
Well, my life is complete. I have finally experienced the Great American Pastime in Japan. That's right, Baseball in the Land of the Rising Sun. My good friend Hirano-san managed to procure 4 free tickets for our family to the Yokohama Baystars versus the Somebody-or-Other Dragons. We took the train up to Yokohama and wandered around the stadium trying to get in the right entrance. We wandered mightily...life is damn hard when you are illiterate. But it was a gorgeous summer night, the sky was clear, a warm breeze blowing, so we didn't mind looking like idiots too much.

We ended up in the away team's section, although it took us two innings to figure that out. But I guess it doesn't matter since we are technically the Really Away Team. Although it might have annoyed those around us, we had a fabulous time cheering both teams on. The Japanese take cheering to a whole new level. Practically everyone has these long, hollow, plastic batons that they hit together in rhythm with a dozen memorized chants. Each time their team is up to bat, the cheering section stands up and chants IN UNISON (even the preschoolers) until the next team is up. If their team is at bat for an hour, they chant for an hour.

It was interesting to watch the different styles of team chants--one was accompanied by a horn section and giant flags (imagine an Asian oompah band if you will, indeed if you can), and the other went acapella but with a more intricate rhythm. It is possible that they were only saying, You Guys Suck, Our Team Rules, but it all seemed like such civilized fun. Nobody got up in our section and screamed at the referees or threw peanuts (no goobers!!). They calmly drank their beer and ate their bentos in between cheering gigs.

Unfortunately, our fun came to an abrupt end. One minute the weather was perfect--salary men were coming in late from work to meet their wives and ecstatic kids, loosening their ties and hailing down the beer ladies--the next, a cloud covered the sky with the speed and impenetrable darkness of octopus ink. In a matter of minutes, Japanese folk were huddling under umbrellas and putting on rain jackets. Not the cheering section, however. They kept up the beat in the pelting rain until their team was done at bat.

Oh yeah, not us either. Guess who forgot to bring rain gear...I mean, besides the two slacker Japanese teens next to us? I swear to God, these people are like Uber Boyscouts with special divinity skills. They pulled rain stuff out of thin air! Unprepared, as usual, we scurried to the train and on home.

Even though we didn't get to experience the seventh inning stretch (apparently they sing Take Me Out To The Ballgame in Japanese, interesting since there are no peanuts and crackerjack), we still had a fab time. I just love this culture, stealth rainclouds and all.

Living in Japan is somewhat akin to watching a silent film. Oftentimes, it is more effort than I want to expend trying to understand something...you really have to pay attention to how people act, their reactions and their faces instead of extracting meaning from what they are saying. You are not quite sure of where the characters come from, why they do what they do. It can be hard work. Really frustrating. But like a great silent picture, life in Japan has allowed my imagination to take flight outside the confines of dialogue. With just a few visual clues, I am free to fill in the blanks, for right or for wrong, myself.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Festivals and Fireflowers


Hello everyone,
It's been awhile since our last update. So much has happened since March, but as is its frequent habit, life got in the way of me writing it all down. Between herding kids at the elementary school (tasers would be useful), keeping up with the girls, teaching english and planning a huge Fiesta party for the hospital, something had to give. This spring, it was linear thought.

Goodness. I really wish that I had written down all that I have experienced in the last 5 months...Cherry blossom viewing, summer noodles at my friends' houses, our first Japanese BBQ, the Hospital Fiesta (and the befuddled Japanese kids staring at the wanton violence as American children gleefully beat down a papier-mache donkey filled with treats...), our trip to Nikko with our pal Steph. Alas, five months of memories can disappear as quickly as the sakura blossoms...One minute they are there, so amazingly beautiful and alive, and the next thing you know, they are fluttering to the ground...

I have plans to start a blog so that I can be more disciplined and regular in my writing. Plus, I can add pictures. I really wish I had snapped one of the two signs I saw recently: "Schnauzerland" (for all your schnauzer needs) and "Goo World" (for ???). Unfortunately, those were seen from the car on our way somewhere. But I think I can access the "Noodles and Gruel" picture we took in the airport in Taiwan last year. Geez, I know you think I am doing so, but it's really humanly impossible to make this stuff up.

Well, rainy season finally left a few weeks ago and we are finally in full-on summer. T.'s parents came to visit a few weeks ago and we had a lovely time visiting Kyoto, except for the incredible heat and humidity. All my Japanese friends warned me. Each and every one of them looked pitiful when I told them (all excitedly) that we were going to Kyoto to see the Gion Festival, the oldest festival in Japan. "Ahhhh, it's very HOT." I thought they were just being Tokyo Weenies. But, Oh. My. God. It. Was. So. Freakin. Hot.

Kyoto is in a valley, thus no breeze in the summer. The temples and shrines are magnificent--Kyoto is an ancient home of the Emperor and former capital of Japan as well as being the birthplace of Japanese Buddhism. There are over 1500 temples and shrines in the area. One day, we visited 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sights in about 6 hours and were lucky enough to see a Maiko, an apprentice geisha, on her way to an appointment in the old town. She looked exquisite. We, on the other hand, looked like we had been "rode hard and put up wet", which is literally what had happened after touring all day in the sticky heat (minus the horse). Our guide took a liking to us and wanted to take our picture at the end of the day to put on his website. I am not sure that snapshot will drum up much business for him.

Tim's parents were troopers...they ate everything we introduced them to except the Barbequed Squid-on-a-stick at the Gion Festival. (Yes, the little blackened tentacles veer off in wild directions from the stick...) They tried yakitori, octopus balls, pancake thingies on a stick, fried spaghetti, sweet potato fries and Japanese shaved ice at the night fair. The festival itself centers around a large parade of 26 "floats", which are actually portable shrines and very tall wagons decorated with elaborate tapestries and paintings, many of which are National Treasures, telling various Japanese folk stories. They do not actually "float" but are pulled laboriously with rope by about thirty young men in the insane heat. Oh, and they don't have brakes or axles. Turning corners is quite hairy, as the musicians perched on top of these things look like they are going to toppel off at any minute, while a billion little guys are running around trying to coax the structures around the turns on bamboo slats. One wrong move, and the whole thing goes over. I know you can't picture this scene in your mind. I am having a hard time believing I saw it.

Unlike American parades, tens of thousands of people are all orderly and pretty quiet except for some restrained clapping when something exciting happens, like the insane turns. BIZARRE. Instead of throwing candy, some of the dudes accompanying the floats gave out fans. Very useful since I don't think people had any saliva left to suck on candy. In any case, there are no shriners in mini cars, no shrill horns, no marching bands, no Bozo the Clown bouncing down the sidelines. I didn't hear one person whistle through his fingers. Like most things Japanese, it was sublimely, strangely sedate.

All in all, it was a wonderful and unforgettable trip. We hope to go back in the cooler weather to see the 1489 temples we didn't get to see the first time.

The rest of the summer has been filled with fireworks, which the Japanese call Hanabi, or Fireflowers. Isn't that a poetic name? We caught a display in Zushi with our friend Hirano-san and his wife. They were the best Fireflowers I have seen since the Statue of Liberty Celebration in 1986. The Grand Finale filled up the entire sky over the ocean with falling gold sparks and a relentless drumbeat of explosions...I thought my heart was going to come out of my chest.

And then it was over. I am learning from my Japanese Experience, that the best things in life are fleeting. The present moment is the best time to experience life's joys, because just moments later, the Fireflowers wilt and dissapate and the cherry blossoms let go and blow away in the breeze, to God knows where.

I hope that you enjoy the remaining, fleeting days of summer, no matter where you are in the world. Life is good.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Save Frank!

Dear Friends and Family,
It has been a long time since I've updated you all...but it's been a long couple of months. I really appreciate all the kind words and wishes you sent my way after hearing of my mother's passing. It meant the world to me to hear from you. To know that people are thinking of you during a sad time just makes the burden so much easier to bear. Thank you.

Fortunately, I returned home before catching The Flu From Hell Which Warped into Seasonal Allergies. I have spent the last week on the couch feeling like all the energy had been sucked out of me, but I am on the mend, finally. Unfortunately, Frank is not faring as well...(cue the haunting, forlorn strains from the string section)...

It all started when I took him through the car wash for the first time since we acquired him (maybe his whole life?). I wouldn't have even gone to the trouble, except that some green dust cloud (apparently a mixture of Gobi desert sand and industrial pollution blown in from China--woohoo it's Spring in Japan) deposited a smeary layer of gook all over the car. Since I can't be bothered to buy windshield wiper fluid, and I couldn't see out, the car wash seemed inevitable. I was in awe watching the nifty Japanese machine do its magic, the giant purple strips whipping the dirt off the mangled sides...when Frank became alarmed. There, on the instrument panel, was a cry for help: a simple exclamation point surrounded by a bright red circle.

He sounded kinda wheezy a couple of months ago when we started him up, and that light came on, but we just ignored it. Eventually he gave up his pathetic quest for attention. Our lofty goal is to spend no money on him...at all...ever. This time, though, the shock of being clean must have have created some PTSD reflex, because Frank refuses to become un-alarmed. Maybe it's because, now that the filth is gone, his scars are painfully shiny and noticeable. Maybe he found out we will be buying a "new" car at the end of the month...it's hard to tell. Regardless, unless some concerned celebrity puts together a "Save Frank" campaign, replete with a rock concert and t-shirt sales, I'm afraid it's the end of an era.

Besides dealing with vehicular guilt, not much has been happening around here. I did go up to Tokyo awhile back with a friend to fetch some money her daughter had earned for modeling. We stopped into "Bagel and Bagel", well, for A BAGEL and a cup of coffee and were shocked to find out that they sell gourmet muffins, too. You would think that they would have mentioned that in the title, but apparently the bagels are that good. Nevertheless, they offered a muffin (not a bagel) cookbook, called "She Loves Muffin". We were still scratching our heads about that one, when we wandered by a "Nail Museum". Ewwwwww. Surely, they meant "Nail Boutique", but my bagel and bagel was on its way back up after just imagining what might be on display in that place.

I teach my senior's group tomorrow so I am sure I will have an interesting discussion about call girls and politicians. I can't wait to hear their take on this one. Strangely, we broached the subject of female entertainers while talking about geisha a couple of weeks ago. Geisha still exist today in Kyoto and parts of Tokyo. As has always been, there are different levels of Geisha. High class Geisha are schooled in the arts: calligraphy, tea ceremony, poetry, an instrument, etc. They do not provide "sexual entertainment". Servicemen from WWII experienced lower class geisha (prostitutes) and brought home an inaccurate view of what constitutes a true geisha. Most probably never met the highest class geisha since they are only hired by extremely wealthy patrons to provide artistic entertainment for important dignitaries and business clients. Once a high class geisha has become renowned for her art, and her art only, she might become a wealthy man's "kept woman". Nowadays, it is no longer acceptable for a politician or wealthy businessman to have a geisha. The men seemed kind of wistful about this and the women seemed ambivalent--on the one hand, they admire the artistic tradition but seem bothered that geisha still entertain only men. I am curious to hear what Japanese men and women think about the whole Spitzer fiasco.

Well, hopefully Spring is on the way wherever you may live...the cherry blossoms should be out here very soon. We have a couple of trips planned for the next few weeks so we'll keep you updated about our (mis) adventures as they pop up.

Monday, January 14, 2008

I dontoyaki, don't you?


Dear Family and Friends,
It has been a busy, but amazing week. I finally feel like I am making some inroads into this culture, mainly because of the wonderful hospitality I have experienced the last few days. The seniors' group that I teach on Tuesdays has been a blessing...all of them are retired and enjoying the "good" life for the first time since they were in college. Although they are glad to have some personal freedom from work and parental duties, the transition to retirement is mentally difficult for them as well. The men oftentimes talk about their relationship travails in class, mostly the inevitable conflicts that come from a more than full time worker (if they work in a company, they are usually gone from the house from 8AM to at least 10 PM, 6 days a week) transitioning to being a full time husband. Their wives, having essentially been single parents for more than 20 years, are having NO MORE of the cooking/cleaning thing. Many want to work part-time jobs and to pass the housekeeping duties onto their (very!) unwilling husbands. Recently, one couple bought a puppy so they would have something to concentrate on instead of fighting with one another. "At least we have something nice to say to one another, now, even if it's only about how cute the puppy is," explained one of my students. EEEEEEK. I hate to break it to Tim, but he doesn't get to retire....ever.

One benefit of all this freetime, however, is that several of them have invited me to attend cultural events and meals at their homes. That "private good time" I spoke of in my last letter mercifully turned out to be an innocuous lunch invitation. Whew.

This last Monday was the last day of their New Year celebrations, a day where the "Dontoyaki" is performed. Traditionally, Japanese people hang pine branches, a special straw rope and bamboo decorations to welcome the good spirits/good luck into the home for the year. On the last day, they bring all these things to their local Shinto shrine to burn along with prayers from the year before, written out on small pieces of wood. Symbolically, the bonfire returns these offerings to the gods. My friend and his wife and another couple brought me to their favorite shrine by the beach on a delightfully cold day. The warmth of the bonfire was all encompassing, I could have taken off my jacket and scarf and been perfectly warm. It was a peaceful, thoughtful event.

There is something about fire that causes people to become focused and introspective--I have had the same feeling at bonfires the Saturday night before Easter. In a way the two are deeply connected. After a long season of concentrating on our human failings, the Easter fire signifies to me that a great light is coming to us again. There is hope that what is good in us will be resurrected and burn eternally bright for all to see...I think the Dontoyaki celebration speaks to the same hope in our souls. We have examined our past year, turned over our failings in our minds and determined to start a new year with renewed heart and soul. We burn what is earthly and of the past with hope that our prayers take flight and reach our gods. I couldn't stop watching the little bits of charred paper and wood float up into the air, to be tumbled about by the wind and carried out of sight...it was a cathartic experience.

After the Dontoyaki fire, we went back to my friend's house for lunch, which was delicious as always. Both couples taught me how to print my name in Kanji and how to fold an origami crane. Kanji is a deeply poetic form of writing. To write a western name, you must match the syllables of your name to a japanese sound and then find the Kanji character to match. "Nan" and "cy" come close to "Na" and "shi". Each Kanji character might have several different meanings so I am either "Quiet Poem", "South Sea" or disturbingly...."Quiet Death", or perhaps, mysteriously, "South Death"....I, of course, like the warm, calming sound of South Sea. So peaceful, so inviting. I can almost feel the turquoise waters lapping at my toes. T. and the girls, however, are reluctant to agree. When crossed, apparently I am much closer to (Not So) Quiet Death...or perhaps South(west) Death....(Death from the Southwest?)

Yesterday, my friend Keiko, from the same class, invited me for a tour of Kamakura--an ancient Samurai/Shogun capital with hundreds of temples and shrines. She introduced me to 3 Zen temples, all of which were indescribably beautiful and serene. One had its own bamboo garden. The leaves stay verdant all year long and they are the most lovely, vibrant shade of green--truly a color in and of itself, unique in the dead of winter. The trunks are tall, strong and impossibly straight. Being such a cold day, the temple was practically empty. The garden was soulless except for us. The bamboo leaves blowing in the wind made the most intoxicating shushing sound...it makes me calm just thinking about it. The gravel gardens had been exquisitely raked into undulating patterns broken up by small islands of rocks and green plants. The whole place was so.....well....Zen, for a lack of a better word. Oh, the wonderful zenniness of Zen. I wish you could buy it and give it away by the armful.

Keiko picked me up at the train station, toted me all over and taught me new things. She refused to let me pay for anything, including the green tea and sweets and entrance fees into the temples. She introduced me to a small, delightful noodle restaurant where the chef prepares the buckwheat noodles right in front of you. I wanted to pay for lunch since she had already gone above and beyond the call of duty, but she would not let me. She then told me the most wonderful thing I have heard in all my travels...By hosting me, she wanted to thank all my "ancestors" (countrymen) for being so kind to her and her family while she was living in the states. "We were young, had 2 small children in New York City and not a lot of money. People from the local church were so nice to us. They showed us the sights and treated us to meals. Americans are so very kind."

I wanted you all to know that you make a difference by being kind to foreigners in the US, no matter what their nationality. From experience, I can tell you that it is uncomfortable not knowing how to read the signs or menus in a foreign environment. It is downright scary to not know the customs and fear offending someone. It is exciting to be abroad but also sad to be so far away from your family and friends who know you (and magically still love you). So please know that whenever you host a foreign student or invite a foreigner over for a holiday or show her a sight or let him into traffic or give your seat up in a public place or smile at her at WalMart or pay for him to get into a movie, you are literally DOING THE WORLD A FAVOR. You may not reap the rewards at that very moment of kindness, but somewhere out there, that act of hospitality will circumnavigate the world and manifest itself as a perfect day for an addled, middle-aged mother of two who needs a bit of serenity.

Thank you for being "kind Americans". And for listening to/encouraging my rantings. Hope your year is off to a good start,

Take care and God bless,

Love the South Sea Quiet Poetess Who Brings Death from the South

(I am getting that name copyrighted, so don't even think about stealing it.)