Sunday, December 6, 2009

Money For Nothing and the Chicks For Free

Tiger Woods is indeed in dire straits.

After years of slumming through the refuse piles of human mind waste that call themselves celebrity “news” outlets, you would think I would be immune to shocking stories of marital betrayal. (Friends, I have a confession. I have not been true to my values and the behavior my family deserves. I regret my past and ongoing transgressions. I read People Magazine Online. Twice daily.)

This current fiasco surprised me greatly…but not because a sports figure was discovered hiking the proverbial Appalachian Trail. I mean, who can take another story about a married, powerful man who is worshipped like a golden calf and then publicly humiliated for not staying true to his stunning and charming wife? (Yawn.)

No, I think it’s the magical thinking swirling around his “transgressions” that befuddles me the most. This fantasy world, where most celebrities live, allows its inhabitants to think that they can actually get something for nothing. All they have to do is walk a red carpet, play a game well and show up to make commercials for junk no one actually needs. In return, they receive obscene amounts of money and endless public adoration (sexual and otherwise). That ain't working.

So when they have to give something valuable back, like their privacy, they just can’t understand why people are so demanding. It’s not “right” to expect people to have no private life. However, it’s also not right that anyone is paid that much to play a game while cancer remains uncured and people are starving. But, as they say in the real world, it is what it is.

The evasion of the inevitable and the whining about the way things are irritates the common folk, like me. If you want true privacy, stop selling yourself. Conversely, if you want to sell yourself, brace for the crash when the siren calls of wealth, privilege and adulation inevitably trick you into running into the rocks.

In the end, we all have choices. For better and (especially) for worse, we should be responsible for them.

And if we aren't, we should prepare for those straits to not only be dire, but downright ugly.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Turning 40: On Not Teaching a New Dog Old Tricks

So today is my fortieth birthday. As I was falling asleep last night, my dear but annoying husband asked me if I had been pondering the significance of the occasion. I quickly mumbled "no" (had a mini-breakdown), rolled over and started to enjoy my 7 hours of mindless bliss.

I woke up to homemade cards and frozen waffles charmingly cut into the shapes of a four and zero. My card from the eldest said, "40 at last!", like I had been waiting for this momentous occasion my whole life. Oooh, if I were only 40, then I could really enjoy all those adult privileges like paying taxes and helping my kid learn her times tables. Yes, at last, I can start (most probably) the last half of my existence!

At last.

Chuckling, I thought about this statement while driving to teach English this morning. As I passed the tollbooth that asked me to "Please Take a Ticket!" in a rather snippy tone, I pondered what idiom I would review with my group today. Perhaps I would revisit the classic adage: "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." For some reason, this phrase always cracks my Japanese students up. Not only is it pertinent to their time in life (they are all retirees) but unfortunately, it now seemed to fit my situation as well.

I don't feel like an old dog, though.

I want to learn new tricks, like surfing and getting lost in places where I can't read the signs and serving others before myself. For the first time in my life, I feel comfortable in my skin, so much so that the vellum wrapping my bones actually seems new and different.

I'm also fairly tired of the old tricks. I'm not interested in keeping up with the Joneses and their premium vehicles. I don't care if their child learned her times tables in first grade and mine is still struggling to get it in the fifth. At least at this point, I'm against fake boobs, fake tans and cosmetic surgery for myself. This is me, lumps, white wrinkles and all. Take it or leave it.

I am literally exhausted of fearing life and other people's judgment about my choices and my body. Those are old tricks to keep the younguns in line and they are losing their persuasive power in my world. Frankly, I don't care what religion people follow or what their exterior life looks like. If fear informs their faith or their actions, I've decided to politely agree with whatever the person is saying/doing and move along to greener pastures. I literally don't have time to waste on nurturing relationships with people who are convinced that their way is perfect, or even worse, the only path to follow.

Don't get me wrong. In the end, I have no desire to go back to being "young", either in mind or body. Sure, it's important to stay in shape in my later years but it's not okay for me to obsess about my every body part. I am also still trying to shed those last vestiges of thinking I know everything...of thinking that my opinion actually affects anyone besides myself and my kids (for a few more years).

After much pondering, I've decided that I don't want to be a puppy.

I just want to be a new who loves to attempt novel things and fails often. And one who, at last, no longer gives credence to the old tricks that have kept her from growing up.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Very Strange Things, Indeed

Last Tuesday, I went to Zushi to teach my class of retirees like I always do. Things progressed fairly normally--we talked about the Japanese elections, completed a vocabulary drill on strange jobs (it's really difficult for the Japanese to say "hypnotherapist") and took a small break. Afterwards, the students usually each take 5 minutes to tell about their week. Topics usually cover mundane and safe events like grandchildren visiting and places people have just toured.

But this week's discussion went into uncharted territory:
  • One woman's deceased mother-in-law visited her during Obon (the Japanese holiday honoring dead anscestors, so that makes sense). In the middle of the night, she heard her MIL approach her bedroom door and then felt her "eyebeams" staring at her through the wood. As she is accenting her vocabulary choice by making motions with her fingers from her eyes to across the room, I felt perplexed. "Eyebeams" didn't seem like the best word but I couldn't figure out a superior one, so "eyebeams" rested as is. However, now I have a vision of a laser-eyed decrepid Japanese grandma taking out my friend in her sleep. She swears she "felt no fear" but I really can't say the same.

  • Her husband, the ghost's son, slept through the whole thing.

  • Another woman, quite delicate and soft-spoken as well, launched into a story about an accidental run-in with her next door neighbor's son while walking her dog in the wee hours of the morning. After 29 years, he apparently has suddenly decided to start wearing women's clothes in public. She reported that he was wearing a "nice skirt" and "carrying a high quality handbag". People stopped examining their fingernails and started peppering her with questions. Although there are few American sexual/puritanical hangups in Japan, they love to hear about people behaving strangely.

  • Yet another lady exclaimed that she had nothing to offer that week but then described the juicy gossip surrounding Mr. Hatoyama, the new Prime Minister, and his wife. Not only was Miyuki Hatoyama married to a lowly sushi bar owner in the states many years ago, but horror of horrors, she divorced him to marry the prime minister. Divorce is a big no-no in Japanese politics.

  • ...and so is reporting extraterrestrial sightings. Mrs. Hatoyama, Japan's new First Lady, wrote a book twenty years ago called Very Strange Things I've Encountered, in which she swears her soul was transported to Venus via a "triangular-shaped UFO". This woman is Japanese and was raised in Japan. Did she miss the ubiquitous memo stating "the nail that sticks up is the first to get hammered down"?

Well, it's probably only a matter of time before it's revealed that the new Prime Minister is a cross-dresser and the collective cultural "eyebeams" zero in on his wife. When this story breaks in the main news outlets...please remember: You read it here first.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Second Spring

Motley crews probably shouldn't look so content with life...but these folk are a) retired Japanese b) full of barbequed sea creatures and c) completely wasted on Sam Adams beer.

Our Zushi friends invited Tim and me to a summer barbeque at the marina, partly in honor of his safe return from his seven month tour in Kuwait. A warm day in the sun by the sea with good friends is truly a slice of heaven on earth, especially if they feed you delicious japanese cuisine for three hours straight.

In this petite cultural exchange, both nationalities learned new phrases. During a conversational lull, my gaze wandered to the sun reflecting off the Zushi Bay, the light magically changing the water's surface to hammered beautifully faceted and dazzling, it momentarily mesmerized me. After I "came to" from my brief revery, I gave a deep sigh, took a swig of my cold green tea, turned to my friend Hiranosan and said, "THIS IS THE LIFE!"

A quizzical look followed. I explained that this English expression is something we say when we are completely comfortable and happy, without a care in the world. (Usually, alcohol and views of the ocean appear in this scenario. But not always.) He nodded enthusiastically, complete understanding lighting up his eyes. "Nancysan!", he exclaimed (Hiranosan exclaims everything), "This is the life of retirement! It is our second spring!"

A Second Spring. What a lovely thought. After the long, hard, hot work of summer comes another chance for refreshment and new growth.

For Japanese people, who generally wake at 6AM, jump on a train at 7AM, spend two hours commuting, 10-12 hours working, 2 hours enterataining clients in the bars after work, and then 2 more hours commuting home, retirement is a chance to live life freely for the first time since childhood. They sail, fish, play golf and tennis, take English lessons and generally enjoy life to the fullest.

I look forward to this carefree existence that hopefully awaits Tim and I in our "golden" years.

Until then, I will enjoy the mini second springs that life awards us along The Path--blessed reunions with my husband after anguishing months apart and joyous get-togethers with all our friends, near and far, who bring us spiritual refreshment, no matter how long it's been since we last enjoyed their company.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Turning Towards

Konnichiwa! It's been a while. I must thank those of you who have contacted me wondering when the next post would be's nice to be missed. I really don't have much of an excuse except to say that I just didn't feel like writing for the last month. And I love writing. For some reason, for the last few weeks, it was the last thing I wanted to do.

I miss home...not just the home in the states and its insane conveniences (underwear in my size, a vast array of non-fugly shoes, decent pizza) but also the home in my heart. I miss my family and friends in the U.S. But most of all, I miss my husband immensely.

Many of you know that he has been deployed to the Middle East for many months and has quite a few to go. In typical nancyb fashion, I was super organized the first few months of single parenthood. I planned out meals in advance, laundered clothes regularly, and filled the wipe-off activity board on the back of the front door with oodles of Best Laid Plans.

Five months teenager is reminding me to go to the grocery store in the same fashion I nag her to do her homework. I can barely open the door to my laundry room, it's so overstuffed with piles of dirty laundry. The blank activity board constantly reminds me that Entropy, the natural turning of order towards disorder, is not just a scientific theory.

Even though this may be a "natural" process, it still bothers me. This "turning towards" a new state of being can be adventuresome when it means shrugging off the expectations of a former way of life and discovering the pleasures of a new culture, a new way of living. I like getting lost from order because I am generally at ease with chaos. Afterall, this is one of the main reasons I love living in Japan.

Ah, but turning towards something invariably means you are turning away from something else. When chaos means a turning away from an ordered heart...that is a different story. My husband's love is like a well organized shelf in my heart. I know where his unending patience goes, his goofy humour, his amazing intellect, his undying commitment to me and the girls. Every day, I reach in there for more provisions and they are always in the same place--I can find them without even looking.

Some people may get caught up with creating immaculately stocked pantries or closets with rows and rows of designer handbags and shoes all displayed in picture perfect symmetry. Whatever. I know what true luxury is.

Recently, I have found that distance does nothing to diminish or rearrange the space this type of extravagance creates in the human heart. But distance does seem to change how to access it...I get so caught up in keeping up with the girls and dinner and work and volunteer projects, that I sometimes forget to go there. Without hugs and face to face contact, I am not as easily reminded to enter that space and take what I need. I start to rely on my own stores of strength, in my own private rooms. That feels empowering--for a little while.

Then suddenly, life just seems chaotic and out of control. Nothing makes much sense.

So now I am faced with making sense of it...turning away from the chaos and towards the inherent order within it. Military life can be hard but the personal hardships it creates force me to seek what is rock solid in my real life. The laundry might take over, the dinner might not be home cooked, but at least I know that I can depend on my husband no matter what. He is always there even when he is not. I cherish that dependence and I literally ache for its return...

And, hopefully, when it does return, it will want to throw a load in and whip up a gourmet meal.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Japan: Even Our Undead are Cute

I have almost finished reading the Twilight series. Perhaps now I can return to my regularly scheduled programming, i.e. life in general.

As with most topics these days, I wonder if and how Eastern thinking differs from the west concerning mythical creatures like vampires. I figured that if Big Foot doesn't exist in these parts, then vampires probably don't hold too much sway, either. (See my earlier blog entry, Big Foot in Japan?:

Some interesting "facts" foraged from the internet:

  • Vampirism didn't exist in Japanese folklore prior to 1930ish when Bram Stoker's Dracula was translated into Japanese...

  • ...except for some weird ancient river creature that would slip out of the water and steal farmers' horses and cows and suck their blood through their (egads!) anuses. Disturbed, I promptly quit reading about that myth.

  • Oh yeah, there is also an old story about a vampiric cat that is bent on revenge against some samurai who raped and killed a woman.

So, as you can see, a rich folklore concerning vampires does not reside in the Land of the Rising Sun. Recently, however, the vampire theme has infiltrated Japan by means of their anime (animated movies) and manga (comic books), both enormously popular with young people. Many of the tried and true western vampire themes have been incorporated into these media.

However, whereas American/European bloodsuckers are inhumanly sexy, the anime Japanese vampires are...really cute. Sure, they will drink your blood in a split second, but they will do so with huge, puppy dog eyes and light purple hair. That's just how the undead roll here.

I suppose that appropriate terror is evoked through the anime/manga writing because, afterall, the Japanese are creative and compelling story tellers. But jeez, if something with girly cow eyes and pastel hair comes near me with little bitty sharp teeth and a school girl skirt, I'm not going to flee in terror. I'm probably more likely to pat it on the head and give it a cookie.

This, of course, might be my ultimate undoing AND the most effective mode of world domination...

The Cute Shall Inherit the Earth.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Claire de Lune--Under the Sakura

Spring is here in Japan. It's signature scent, a combination of warm earth and water and baby green life, has returned.

The long-awaited sun and warm breezes have finally encouraged the sakura (cherry blossoms) to reach their pinnacle of loveliness. The girls and I spent Sunday celebrating their arrival with our Japanese buddies. We joined the throngs of people drinking beer and munching on snacks with their friends under the trees. I enjoyed the conversation at our gathering...yet, closing my eyes, I became even more content listening to the soft laughter drifting through the park. It is a joy to listen and watch people just be together in such a simple way.

As stunning as the sakura are in daylight, they are completely mesmerizing in the moonlight--so luminous, they glow. This evening, I walked home alone after eating out with some girlfriends--they were still game for some raucous karaoke but I was feeling quiet and introspective. I usually take a cab back to base but something compelled me to carry on by foot. The walk back to our apartment takes about 30 minutes. This evening, it magically seemed like three because my path led me underneath the sakura.

Gazing up at the moon through the resplendent blossoming branches, I felt completely at peace.

Although I wish I could have shared this joy with all of you I know and love, at the same time, I am completely aware that being alone in such moments is also a great gift.

Life can be sublimely strange.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Twilighting in Japan

I have a good excuse for not having written in a long time.

My teenaged girl has forced me, kicking and screaming, into reading the Twilight series. For those of you with no connection to all things adolescent (or perhaps, to anything involving popular culture), Twilight is the immensely popular vampire saga that has overtaken the teen literary world.

First, let me explain myself: I have not a gothic bone in my body except for a penchant to dress in black. Being a practical sort, I am mostly uninterested in vampires, werewolves, aliens and ghosts. Most of the stories bore me to tears. How many times can you read the cliches about the undead without thinking, I would rather be rearranging my sock drawer than taking in this drivel?

So, imagine my surprise when I became instantly hooked. I am on book four of four lengthy novels and I started the series a couple of weeks ago. Prosewise, the writing is fairly lame...and full of repetitious cliches that inspire a lit crit major to want to flee screaming into the dark (whether it's full of blood sucking creatures or not).

However, the author has a true talent constructing witty dialogue and engaging suspense. Plus, it reminds me of that long dormant part of me that witnessed unbridled passion, heartbreak and romantic redemption. It's pleasurable to feel those dangerous passions again without having to actually go through the heartbreak.

Claire, of course, is thrilled that I am addicted. I have been delighted to discuss plot, theme and characters with my daughter as well as the real life issues of sexuality, self esteem and true love. These themes are tricky now in her life and will continue to amp up in severity as she enters high school. I am thankful that we have a "safe" place to discuss them. Her finely calibrated "this is a teaching moment" radar doesn't engage while discussing hot vampires and werewolves.

Many of our discussions boil down to the age old question for women of all ages: Would you rather give yourself to the safe, dependable guy who allows you to be yourself or the exciting, "perfect", mysterious one who tempts you to change the essence of who you are? Can you have both?

Hmmmm. I wonder. Can you have the best of both worlds: human and eternal? Can you be simultaneously safe and passionate? Can you love both states of being equally and not ultimately have to make a choice between them? A part of me would like to think that it is possible to continuously live in that magical period between day and night...

What do you think?

Friday, March 13, 2009

What's in a Name?

I have blogged in the past about Japanese car names like the Latte, the Naked, the Guppy and the one closest to my heart--The Prairie Joy. Before coming to Japan, I had never thought of the prairie as a joyful place. But now I know.

Here are some recently spied additions to the WTF Car Parade in Yokosuka:

The Turbo Joy Pop (Was it as good for you as it was for me? I need a cigarette...)

The Scrum (It's okay if the rugby players bleed on the carpet. Because there is no carpet.)

The Royal Saloon (This is a fancy saloon. Not just anyone can come in.)

The Sunny Super Saloon (This is the saloon for the peasant masses who like to be pleasantly medicated.)

And my new personal favorite...The Dingo. (I swear officer, before I knew what had happened, this mangy little hatchback came out of nowhere and snatched my child.)

Automobile nomenclature aside, the Japanese take driving seriously. They are generally conscientious motorists. Turn signals are de rigeur. No one blasts music from open windows. I rarely hear car horns, even in a megatropolis like Tokyo. It is extremely rude to use them unless an accident is imminent. In fact, in almost 4 years in this land, I have never seen anyone even gesture rudely. (Attention New Yorkers and Italians: offensive driving need not be a lifestyle.)

Perhaps you might consider such civilized driving unstimulating. Where's the action? Where's the human drama?

Never fear. The Japanese have zero parking for their businesses. So, just as you are being lulled into a false sense of serenity, some joker will suddenly halt and park his car in the road to run into 7-eleven for a drink/smoke/porn magazine.

Yes, IN the road. I would tell you they pull off to the side of it but that would be a lie because Japanese roads have no side (unless you count the 4 inches from the lane line to the curb). Speed limits are notoriously low here, about 50 kph (35 mph)--TOPS.

Intense frustration sets in when, finally reaching the maximum speed of a fast moving bicycle, one is forced to stop on a dime every 15 seconds. Then, of course, you also have to pay attention to the multitude of motorbikes and scooters weaving indiscriminantly through traffic. They have the right of way in all traffic situations as well as the oblivious pedestrians obsessively texting on their phones. As foreigners, every accident is our fault so we have to be super vigilant while on the roads.

I am fairly certain that if it weren't for the hilarious car names and No Porking signs, swearing and honking of horns would be way more prevalent in this culture.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Don't Believe the Hype

Bus tours are the Hamburger Helper of travel.

Hamburger Helper is deceptively convenient. Everything is already contained in the box (just add meat!) except a few essential ingredients...namely flavor and nutrition. Yet, at 5PM, in a crowded grocery store, with no discernible plan for dinner (and rapidly losing the will to live, much less cook), one's decision process can potentially become "compromised". One might just forget about the nauseating effects of dried, prepackaged food.

This phenomenon also happens when you suddenly become a single parent. Two months in to this glamorous lifestyle, travel in a box (just add YEN for souvenirs and lunch!) starts to look...well...palatable.

Thus, my neighbor and I decided to take the kids on a military bus tour to see the "legendary" snow monkeys in Nagano (site of the 1998 Winter Olympics). I had seen numerous charming pictures of these little creatures, relaxing zen-style in the mineral hot springs, little tufts of snow piling up on their furry heads. The girls were excited to see cute animals instead of those immensely BORING temples and shrines. I liked the fact that someone who was not illiterate in Japanese would be driving.

The bus left the base at 5AM and immediately got stuck in stop-and-go ski traffic outside of Tokyo.

The lovely tour guide warned us that the bus toilet could be flushed only 50 times, "so be velly calefur."

Six hours later, we arrived in Nagano where we had a half an hour to view the monkeys, after a thirty minute muddy hike in each direction.

In a dirty little canyon at the end of the trail, a billion (I counted) monkeys obsessively/compulsively foraged for seeds in the snow and hot springs. Those that weren't foraging were either fighting or engaging in hot monkey love. This unappetizing scene looked nothing like the picture on the front of the box. There were no monkeys kicking back zen style in the hot springs with little piles of snow on their heads. Plus, there was lots of poo. Everywhere.

Next we enjoyed a leisurely 25 minute lunch at a rest stop before moving on to historic Matsumoto Castle, a world heritage site. We only had an hour to tour this gorgeous wooden structure surrounded by a moat before returning to the smelly bus. The 50 flush threshhold was rapidly approaching.

The tour guide treated us to her own Japanese soprano singing on the 5 hour trip home.

Just as I felt my very last nerve snapping, we pulled into the gate at 9:30 PM.

I didn't have to scrape the whole meal down the drain, though. I took some interesting pictures and the girls had a blast playing 11 hours (!) of DS games with their friends while eating Japanese junk food. However, if in the future it even looks like I'm heading for the Hamburger Helper aisle at the travel agency, do me a favor and trip me. That might actually be helpful.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Is Your Beer a Little Off?

The Japanese are incredibly hospitable. Not only will they quite literally go out of their way to help a person in need but they also package alcohol in handy, drink-on-the-fly, shot-size containers. The above photo depicts the "Adult Juice Box" size beer can for bentos or lunch boxes. (The neighboring glass is indeed a 2 ounce shot glass.)

You don't need to wonder...OF COURSE sake comes in this size, too.

Sadly, according to recent local news articles, beer no longer retains bragging rights as the Most Consumed Alcoholic Beverage in Japan. The new generation of young professionals can't afford sake or premium liquor and find beer too heavy. So they drink Shochu--a clear alcohol of dubious origins along the same esteemed lineage of the college classic, Everclear. Like its American cousin, shochu mixes with any flavor and then goes instantly stealth. (You never saw it coming until it dropped its payload, right?)

But, I am aware that slight differences do exist. For example, overconsumption of Everclear can lead to people from Norman waking up under Laundromat tables in Stillwater, Oklahoma without any recollection of being transported to such a humble locale. Shochu, on the other hand, creates a hallowed space for the high Japanese art form known as "karaoke".

(pregnant pause)

In any case, this trend to shochu worries Japanese beer manufacturers to no end. They have started to heavily market their product with all sorts of zany catch phrases. A few months ago, I blogged about an ad I saw on the train selling "Style-free Beer". (See the Sept 2008 post: )

I was still pondering the imponderable of showcasing a "style free" product when I spied a new advertisement this week selling a beer called OFF. Is it a bargain? Is it meant to repel the approach of ugly people at the bar? Could it be referring to one's garments after consumption or one's weight upon switching to it? Does it contain DEET?

Good Lord, what could it mean?

Like most cultural mysteries here in Japan, I am not sure I'll ever fully "understand". Although this can be sad, it's still comforting to know that should I be having an "off" day...Adult Juice Boxes, in a wide variety of flavors (and with itty bitty straws), are available at my local Japanese supermarket.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What a Doll

March 3 is Girls' Day or Hinamatsuri in Japan. Japanese households with female children display dolls on a crimson, tiered platform. The top level is reserved for the Emperor and Emperess and then descends to the ladies in waiting, court musicians, samurai and court furniture. Elaborate and expensive, families pass these heirlooms down to their daughters or sometimes to a son's wife. Special prayers are said for the protection and honor of all "princesses", young and old!

This week I was invited to a couple's house to celebrate. Pictured above in the blog title is the lunch they graciously served me. I almost couldn't eat it--it was so insanely kawaii (cute). Obviously, much care had been taken to prepare it. Nori, or seaweed, provides the Emperor's kimono. The Empress' kimono is actually a thin egg omelet. Their bodies are stuffed with rice and their diminutive heads are quail eggs--the charming faces and traditional hairstyles comprised of Nori as well.

I enjoyed these onigiri (rice balls wrapped in seaweed) with some new friends in their house. This couple lives in a traditional Japanese home with only wood burning stoves to heat the space. They do not own a TV--only an old-fashioned cabinet radio. Weathered, antique wooden beams, taken from the original house, grace the vaulted ceilings.

Behind the sweet-faced onigiri, you might be able to view an ancient Japanese iron tea pot, supended on a long metal rod above a miniature fire pit. Every year, when the weather turns cold, the family rebuilds the fire area and the small table surrounding it. Some say that the best green tea is made from water heated in an iron pot above this sort of traditional fire.

As a beginner in this ancient culture, I can't say for sure whether this statement is true or not. But I can tell you one fact for certain--I have never been cozier in my life.

That's truth enough for me.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Noodle Museum Insights

What I learned at the Ramen Museum in Yokohama: Perhaps there is not enough to say about noodles to fill an entire museum.

For your viewing pleasure: Lily is reacting to the scintillatingly history of Cup O' Noodles behind her--the styrofoam packages lovingly encased in glass because of their obvious cultural preciosity. If you peer to the left of her and squint just so, you can view the life and times of instant Ramen packets, carefully stuck to the wall. In another 2X3 room, visitors are treated to a multitude of drawers, that when slid open, reveal real plastic replicas of Noodle Meals From Bygone Eras.

We finished this museum in under 5 minutes.

It took me a couple of months to post this "experience" because someone was an eensy bit cranky that his outing didn't wow the pants off of everyone. (A little emotional distance was called for. ) At the heart of this matter, Mr. LBS (low blood sugar) was starving and nobody else was hungry. A bit o' wounded pride mixed with an unreasonable mood swing made for a fabulous family outing.

However, in all fairness, he didn't make too much fun of me last summer after I insisted that everyone truck an hour out of Kyoto, on a metro and then a trolley bus (and then a small hike), to view the cormorant fishing along the Oi River. Cormorants, if you don't already know (because you somehow missed reading the children's classic Ping), are diving birds that have been fitted with rings around their slender necks. They can catch fish for their owners but not eat them.

Frommer's Japan declared that "there's no more romantic way to spend a summer's evening than drifting down the river in a wooden boat decorated with paper lanterns, watching the fishermen and their cormorants at work. It's simply magical."

I beg to differ.

But only because reality supplied a dose of, well...harsh reality: There were wooden boats--about 50 of them jammed together, packed to the gills with gullible tourists who had all shelled out 25 bucks each to watch "fishermen" on a canoe herd a gaggle of birds down one side of the strung-together boats and up the other. The dreamy smell of diesel filled the air--supplied by the outboard "snack boat" selling romantic offerings like beer and ice cream.

The fishermen made three passes by the lantern-lit boats--they looked like some ridiculous Greek god spurning on a tethered flock of choking, squawking, pencil-necked fowl, a giant torch leading the whole surreal procession. The torch light served the dual purpose of attracting the little fishies cormorants crave while also illuminating the bug-eyed splendor of the majestic cormorant "at work".

"It was simply...horrifying."--Nancy's Guide to Kyoto.

Then we had to hike back to the trolly, take the metro for another hour and schlep back to the hotel. I was glared at several times. Traveling/adventuring can be quite humbling. Sometimes you accidently blunder into off-the-beaten-path experiences that mesmerize you not only for a moment, but an entire lifetime.

And sometimes you follow a reputable guide right into a Cormorant Calamity/Noodle Hell on Earth.

That's life in a nutshell, if you ask me.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Demons Out...Luck In

The plum (ume) blossoms pictured above have arrived in Japan, heralding the start of spring. I know, it seems a bit early to be thinking of the end of winter...but February 3 is the official start of spring in Japan. I'm just a guest, so if the indigenous folk say winter is over...GREAT. It's done. Finished in my mind. I am sooo past that winter thing.

February 3 in Japan is Setsubun, a celebration that marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. People scatter roasted soybeans around houses, shrines and temples to bring good luck. They also pelt the Oni (red or blue devils) with the beans to get rid of the evil winter spirits. Traditionally, the male head of the household has the honor of mamemaki (bean scattering) but nowadays children oftentimes go to their grandparents' house to act out this ritual.

A family member wanders around the house saying, "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!"(Demons out! Luck in!), while somebody dressed as the Oni tries to evade the bean lashing. Of course, he fails miserably. Then each person has to eat the same number of beans as their age, PLUS one. (I guess we all could use a little extra luck.)

(Quiz time: Is this wacky tradition Shinto or Buddhist in origin? The first three correct answers will receive one free, slightly opened packet of roasted soybeans. Hurry while supplies last.)

Somewhere in this crazy ritual, a benevolent fat lady figures in as well as the need to eat giant sushi rolls (Maki sushi) while pointing towards this year's lucky compass direction. My class informed me that it's ENE this year. So for crying out loud, don't screw this up at home by pointing WSW...

My eyebrows must have asked, Huh?, because my class shrugged their shoulders, basically indicating, just cuz. Alrighty then. Just cuz works for me. I find, after all, that it's best not to subject shy ancient traditions to the bright, withering glare of logic. (Try explaining Groundhog Day to a foreigner. )

Afterall, a little mystery makes life so much more fun.

P.S. I knew I had a sleep number but I was completely unaware I might have a lucky compass direction. I think mine is NSW. Which explains everything.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Teaching and Learning

I love teaching. Usually, I learn more from my students (to include my Japanese students as well as the middleschoolers and special ed preschoolers) than they do from me. I am quite fond of this arrangement.

Yesterday, while teaching my Zushi group (1o retired Japanese men and women), I was struck once again by how educated other countries are about American politics and culture. Half the class showed up with a copy of President Obama's inaugural speech. The Japanese newspapers printed it in English with a translation to one side. My students had underlined their favorite parts with questions scratched in the margins. With help from their media, they had thoroughly dissected his tone and meaning. Their unique cultural perspective really made me stop and think about this speech and its impact on American society. Wow.

Granted, this level of knowledge might not be the norm here. The majority of Japanese folk my age and younger probably aren't as studious, but have you recently read an American publication with a translated text of a foreign head of state's address?

Yeah. Me, neither.

Overall, the Japanese response to the inaugural address mirrored my own. It surprised/disappointed us. We expected a speech along the lines of "Ask not what your country can do for you..." , but we received: "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." My students and I are were a bit disappointed that the speech was not more inspiring (i.e. uplifting). However, its direct and insistent call to individual and collective responsibility surprised us--not pleasantly, mind you, but at least memorably.

It goes without saying that 1960's America was a radically different time and place than the present, thus JFK's speech was given to a distantly related people--think of them perhaps as cousins twice removed. Exiting the 1950's, a time of great prosperity, much like the last 10 years, our family wasn't yet mired in an impossible foreign war. Our great modern leaders had not been assassinated. We had just started to wear "the greatest nation" mantle comfortably (and arrogantly). Kennedy's call to service made sense to a generation who was not yet accustomed to being serviced in every conceivable aspect of life.

Time travel forward to 2009--we are mired in not one, but three wars. Two are on the ground and one is against a phantom menace across the globe. Our economy has been, for all intents and purposes, assassinated, along with our idealism after 9/11. All of our people, especially the young but also the old, cannot ask what we can do for our country because our mouths are too busy complaining about what we are owed or praising our self-worth. We simply have had it all too fast and too easy and with too many accolades. I am not sure our personal or national egos need any more "uplifting".

I don't think President Obama can call this generation to service in the same manner as President Kennedy. Most of us don't really understand the full meaning of the word. We tend to think of it as something to be done to help remedy a broken world, which is noble. But service is more than that. It's duty--humbly done without complaint because it simply needs to be done. The recent Miracle on the Hudson put this theory into action. The pilot and crew, dutifully trained and skilled, were ready. They didn't run around "saving lives". They simply did their jobs, without complaint or expectation of praise. How many of us can say the same? I know I can't. (I kvetch about the "effort" of placing our abundance of clothes in a machine that does all the work for me. Jeesh.)

Maybe this is why his speech made me a bit uncomfortable...we are being asked to be of service to one another in a different way than giving time and money to a worthy cause. We are being asked/reminded that the "time has come to put aside our childish ways". We need to become an adult nation--one that is not consumed with doing the right thing to please others (while simultaneously showering confetti down on our exalted heads).

Rather, we are urged to be a mature nation--one that fulfills its duty to itself and to others by accomplishing what needs to be done with no thought to our personal inconvenience or hardship. And without the narcissistic need to be praised or adored for it. The Japanese have many faults, but due to their Buddhist history, they completely understand duty, service and sacrifice. These ideals still permeate every human interaction in this culture, every day.

Our Christian heritage demands duty, service and sacrifice, too, modeled by the Son's willingness to do what had to be done without thought of His own hardship. America can resurrect this integral part of her character. We can do it.

Yes, we can. Humbly. Quietly. Cheerfully.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

That's Mr. Dustzilla to You, Pal

This three day weekend, while trapped inside with a sick kid, I became aware of an ever increasing problem: the dust bunny invasion in our uncarpeted apartment. Shy and timid creatures by nature, they usually cower predictably behind the furniture and flee in all directions if I have to move a chair to retrieve an errant slipper or tv remote. But lately, they have become emboldened, quite large and embarassing. I am pretty sure they wait for the door bell to ring and then lumber out to announce their oafish pride.

Perhaps not. Perhaps I am imagining things. But one thing is not debatable...there is no doubt in my mind that my dust bunnies have mutated. I just can't figure out what the tipping point might have been. It's winter so the windows are usually closed. I rarely turn on the heat. We live on the eighth floor so most dirt and dust gets conveniently knocked off in the elevator on the way up. What gives?

It's getting kind of scary. I vacuum up the little suckers and then, I kid you not, ten minutes later, like a scene out of Terminator 2, tiny bits of fuzz start collecting on the floor. Then the individual strands start moving towards each other by means of some irresistible force, slowly coalescing right before my eyes. By the time I wake up in the morning, they are fully mobile and rummaging through my produce drawer. (There is even dust in my refrigerator drawers. I don't get it.)

I guess I could do what many Japanese do in such inexplicable, mysterious situations: Blame the Chinese. Perhaps the toxic byproducts from their burdgeoning consumer driven society are making their way to our appartment via the air currents. Last spring, a giant, green dust cloud (not light and fluffy, but rather thick and menacing) attacked Tokyo, leaving a slimy goo everywhere. I'm no scientist but maybe, just maybe, this is the source of my Dustzillas.

What do you think? Is it possible to vanquish these freakish creatures and how do you do it without pissing them off?

Screwing Up Royally

Most of you who know me also know that I am a bit scatterbrained. I've hit the point in my life where if I don't write something down TWICE, I forget it. Not only do I have a family calendar on the fridge but I also have a dry erase schedule on the back of the front door. Somehow, I still miss 5% of my life's obligations.

Reiko, the woman who runs the English school I teach at, likes for me to remember the kids' birthdays. I warned her that I can barely remember my own children's special day. If it weren't for Lily updating me weekly about the new and improved plans for her birthday party (starting 9 months in advance), I might actually overlook it.

One of my 10-year-old students, who speaks fabulous English, reminded me two weeks ago that we had missed celebrating her birthday because of the Christmas/New Year holidays. I told her I would bring cupcakes to the next class. The following lesson time, as I was saying goodbye, she said, "My birthday?" Oh, Lord. I told her I was very sorry and would bring TWO cupcakes for her next week.

I didn't write that down. Big mistake.

The following class did not take place in Reiko's home as usual. The flu has hit hard in Japan and two of her children were out for the count. Since she didn't want to expose everyone to those germs, we met instead at a local community center. The first thing out of my student's mouth as she entered the room was, "My birthday?"

NOOOOOOOOOOO! I can't believe I forgot again!

I apologized profusely. Her eyes filled up with tears as she looked down at her feet, trying to compose herself. I felt like...well...have you ever disappointed an adorable Japanese kid to the point of tears? That depth of lowliness can't quite be expressed fully in the English language.

I started the lesson but I couldn't concentrate because my conscience was still busy cussing me out. All of a sudden, I thought of an option...THE DRINK MACHINE. Every Japanese gathering place has a drink machine with 30 choices of water, tea, soft drinks, jello juice, coffee (cold and hot), hot chocolate, corn soup (?) and assorted vile vitamin shots.

I broke out of my calendar review and shouted, "Birthday drinks from the machine!" The birthday girl looked shocked and excited. She jumped up and everyone stampeded for the machine. At first they thought the birthday girl would be the only one getting treated. When it dawned on them that everybody was included, you would have thought that Nancy Sensei was the Japanese Messiah. Hallelujah, free beverages!

I gathered from their level of excitement that Japanese kids do not get treated like this on a regular basis. They were so stoked to pick their own drink and enjoy it in class that the smiles did not come off their faces for the rest of the hour. The birthday girl was ecstatic. To add to my triumph, I even mangaged to weave the impromptu drink celebration into our lesson on the five senses (How does your drink taste/feel/smell?). Oh yeah, I'm a weaver. I weave. That's what I do.

Yessiree, my self esteem continued to skyrocket...until I tried to act out the meaning of the word "relax". I sat down in a chair and put my feet up on a desk, while letting out a long, theatrical "AHHHHHH". The entire class gasped in absolute horror. For a moment, I had completely forgotten that showing the soles of your feet/shoes to others is a deplorable, defiling insult in Japanese culture. Nothing is dirtier or lowlier than the bottom of one's foot. (It is also a terrible faux pas to point to anything with it.)

So after a second round of saying gomenasai (sorry!), there I was, back at square one...feeling lower than, well...the soles of my unfortunate feet.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More New Year Thoughts...From Someone Else

“I am not afraid of tomorrow, for I have seen yesterday and I love today.”
William Allen White

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Daruma Dreaming

Nothing says New Year in Nihon like the ubiquitous daruma doll (the little red guy engulfed in flames above). Mustachioed and a little fierce looking, he is modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism in Japan. These miniature fellows are usually hollow, red for good luck and lacking in appendages and eyes. The owner, while making a wish, colors in one eye (usually the left). If the wish comes true during the year, the other eye is filled in.

Dontoyaki follows closely behind the JItalicapanese New Year, usually around the second week of January. It is a solemn ritual centered around the burning of all the religious New Year's decorations and any other items associated with that year's god, to include charms, tokens and darumas. The Dontoyaki experience is both serenely magical and immensely cathartic. I became completely mesmerized watching the flames consume the remains of the past year.

(For a more detailed description of the event, please see my post from January 2008.)

The purpose of the dontoyaki fire is two-fold. Things are either returned to last year's god in gratitude...or to make humble peace with his disfavor. Burning "unlucky" items, like the daruma pictured above, symbolically destroys the unfavorable and sends it back from whence it came. The soul, released from its negative past, is then ready to fully hope for better times with the new year's god.

Those of you who know me and my family are aware that it has been a rough year, and, for different reasons, will continue to be for some time. But my dear friend Kim gifted me with my very own daruma this new year. I carefully colored in one eye a few weeks ago. Mr. Daruma now rests patiently in my cabinet...waiting for the day he can fully see...for the day my happiness is completely envisioned.

I know this is extremely late--but Happy New Year to you all. I hope that if the events of last year left you blind, that you now may see...great happiness and love throughout the coming year.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dear Santa...

The Japanese school I teach at had an American-style holiday program right before Christmas. All the classes performed a Christmas song and showed off some of their English phrases. I have two classes; one performed The Twelve Days of Christmas and the other Jingle Bell Rock. My kids, some of them shown above, also spoke about why they love Christmas (based on the 5 senses we have been studying)...i.e. I love Christmas because I smell cookies baking, hear bells ringing, etc. They did an outstanding job.

Every class was adorable. The little ones sang I'm a Little Snowman (to the tune of I'm a Little Teapot), a class of rascally boys sang O Christmas Tree, and a class of sweet girls performed a Hawaiian Christmas dance in hula skirts.

My favorite part, though, was a class who read Letters to Santa. Ninety-nine percent of them wanted a DS game or a bicycle. One little 7-year-old girl got up and boldly read,

Dear Santa,
My name is Maiko. I have been good. I want a diamond necklace for Christmas.

Love Maiko

Maiko's dad set down his Nikon for a moment and buried his head in his hands. Some things are truly cross-cultural.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Into the Wild

The Thai people inconveniently decided to take a stand (once again) against their government two weeks before our December beach vacation to Phuket. We decided to skip the pleasure of getting stuck in the exotic Bangkok airport and go to Singapore instead. Singapore is wonderfully strange. It's kind of an Asian Orlando--brand spanking new, full of shopping and obsessively manicured.

The butterfly above is from the Singapore Zoo. He alighted on my head in the zoo's outstanding rain forest exhibit. Protected by soaring nets, all sorts of little fauna roamed free inside. We observed mice deer meekly foraging for food, sloths and tree kangaroos slumbering in the tropical growth, fruit bats swooping overhead and lemurs lounging like bored teenagers on electrical boxes. All of these creatures were no more than a foot away from our path. I haven't been this delighted, this lost in wonder, in such a long time.

There were dozens of butterfly species I had never seen before, all floating about in that aimlessly predestined manner of butterflies. This dark and handsome fellow wafted over and perched on my head. I calmly turned my head to look at Lily, Holy Moly, can you believe I have a butterfly on my head? Her brown eyes, the size of rice bowls, seemed appropriately amazed. The butterfly slowly flit, flit, flitted over and landed on her arm.

She shrieked like she had been assaulted by a venomous creature, convulsed wildly, turned tail and ran screaming with arms above her head, cartoon style, completely out of sight...completely out of the exhibit.

I laughed so hard I cried. I laughed so hard my sides hurt. (When was the last time I laughed until my sides hurt? I can't remember.) Family vacations always remind me that kids are truly amazing creatures themselves. They are so much fun to watch outside of their normal environment.

Of course, Claire, the benevolent older sister, commenced ridiculing her younger sister, until not one hour later, Claire freaked out when she saw a tiny spider hanging from my umbrella, near her head. These girls can do weird food. They can travel like pros. They can expertly navigate any city's metro/airport system. Just don't ask them to convene intimately with nature.

Perhaps high rise apartment living and no backyard has cut them off from their truly "wild" side. Perhaps they inherited the willies from a family member (see the post: I Love Not Camping). Who knows? In any case, I am seriously considering packing some Xanax on future zoo forays. I shudder to think of the mental health bills we will have to pay if we fail to preempt another traumatic episode of When Butterflies Attack.