Saturday, October 31, 2009
By the time I got around to buying candy - that would be the day before yesterday - the seasonal aisle in the Navy Exchange was filled with Christmas ornaments and there were only four bags of Snickers to be found at the Commissary. Undaunted, I headed into town for Japanese treats.
This turned out to be a good move since I calculate my procrastination saved us roughly $75 and the ones Matt and I sampled tasted so awful that next year I probably won't have to spend a penny. Children will warn their friends to avoid the house with the nasty-tasting stuff.
"Here's the plan, Matt. We'll give Japanese treats to the American kids and Snickers to the Japanese kids."
"Your plan reeks of racism, Mother. Count me out."
"We need to review the difference between racism and cross-cultural experiences before you take the SAT next week. In the meantime, go ahead and call me a hairist because I intend to off all these rice crackers on the fair-haired goblins."
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Per Diana's instructions, I hopped on a local train toward Yokohama and 12 minutes later hopped off at the Kanazawa-Hakkei station where I spotted her right outside the turnstile. She led me to another train station serving the Seaside Line while I took careful notes (left at bakery, down an alley to the right, up a metal staircase). The Seaside Line offers a splendid view of Tokyo Bay and deposited us right at the entrance to the hospital.
I took copious notes once we entered the hospital: right at the elevator, through a pair of ominous unmarked metal doors, down a long hallway connecting the hospital with the medical school, left at a pair of pharmaceutical reps who look an awful lot like Secret Service agents (and, according to Diana, are permanent fixtures at this intersection), down another hallway, turn right, veer left, take the elevator to the sixth floor, turn right and then left to Dr. T's office.
These detailed directions are so Matt can rescue me if I get buried under one of the myriad towers of file folders and loose paper teetering precariously from floor to ceiling and door to window in Dr. T's office. His is the messiest workspace I've glimpsed since turning in the keys to my own office a couple of days before Matt was born.
Dr. T is a professor and department chairman at the medical school. He speaks in a whisper. He speaks so softly I could not understand a single word he said.
This will be a problem when I run out of monologues so I am already assuming I will be finding another "teacher" for him after three or four sessions which I will measure in trips to that intriguing bakery marking my first turn outside the train station.
(Note to Matt: Check the bakery before going all the way to Dr. T's office if I don't make it home next Tuesday.)
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Our return trip to Japan was a surreal experience from beginning to end. My old friend Elaine and her husband, Larry, were on our flight from Detroit to Chicago; the man sitting in front of us out of Chicago made three calls on his cell phone after the captain advised us to turn off our phones (a "teachable moment" as in "Matt, wheedling in a needy, self-deprecating tone of voice is not the best way to ask a girl for a date"); and the local time was always somewhere between 11:00 am and 2:00 pm for 12 straight hours. We have now mastered the bureaucratic intricacies of the free shuttle bus service between the base and Narita airport which is a great way to travel if you don't mind twiddling your thumbs in an airport for three hours after a 12-hour flight.
Today Matt is catching up on schoolwork and gearing up for his last football game. I spent two hours this morning deciphering a cryptic calendar entry - 12:30 Diana - and am off to meet my old friend Diana at the Kanazawa Hakkei train station. She will escort me to a hospital in Yokohama where she will introduce me to a doctor who wants to practice his English by chatting with me for a couple of hours every week. This job would suit me as well as my brother Jerry's post-retirement job at the driving range if I could just figure out how to talk and read at the same time.
I estimate it will take me about six hours to relate the highpoints of David and Erin's wedding weekend to this doctor, so the first three sessions will be a breeze. After that, he can carry the conversational ball while I glance surreptiously at my Kindle.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Today is the third Saturday of the month so we explored the monthly flea market at Yamato train station 36 miles west of Yokosuka. In Japan it takes about an hour to drive 36 miles.
We left the base at 6:30 am with me behind the wheel of a rental van. How's that for a scary thought? But it was either rent a van or remove all those bags marked "thrift shop" from the trunk of my car. I chose the path of least resistance.
We bought buttons, spindles, spools, a wooden box, an obi, and a reversible indigo jacket. The bakery adjacent to the train station offered a tempting assortment of snacks.
We were home by noon. Even though I left the directions on the kitchen counter for the second time in a week, we did not get lost. There seems to be a kernel of truth in that kinetic memory concept I fabulated the other day.
If you are thinking of visiting us while we're living in Japan, try to schedule your trip to overlap a third Saturday of the month so we can take you to the Yamato flea market.
Friday, October 16, 2009
We gathered at the Ikego campground on the Navy's satellite housing area in Zushi, about 20 minutes from Yokosuka. Our hostesses, wearing red bandanas, distributed blue, green, and yellow bandanas to divide us into groups.
We made friendship bracelets and introduced our Japanese friends to games like horseshoes, croquet, bocce, and basketball. We pelted each other with water balloons. We explored every corner of the campground on a quest to find six flags in our team's color.
We filled our bellies with burgers, baked beans, and pasta salad and then we toasted marshmallows for s'mores.
Just before saying goodbye until next month, we sang camp songs. Only one American knew the tune to "Happy Trails" (thanks to her brothers) but, sadly could not carry that tune past the first verse.
One of the organizers, pictured here accepting a thank you gift from the Japanese ladies, is a fellow Michigander. She is probably why people in Japan think people from Michigan are slightly eccentric.
It was another good day for international diplomacy.
Dragging young American military spouses to Ikebana programs is one of my many hobbies. Yesterday it was Jane, who finds my definition of "young" laughable since she is just a year younger than my brother Jimmy.
"Hey! I've been here before," said I. "The Japanese-American Friendship Society brought us here on a bus on St. Patrick's Day in 2007. There's a Starving Buddha statue in one of these buildings."
"Ah, there it is." (Finding this statue boosted my credibility immensely with the other American ladies, especially the ones who were on that ill-fated trip to Kamakura two weeks back when the waffle restaurant was closed and the "fabulous" fabric store was nowhere to be found.)
The Ikebana program was held in the main hall behind the temple. We stashed our shoes in little cubbies and padded around on stockinged feet (Note to Self: invest in some new socks).
Fortunately we arrived at the main hall ahead of the pack and nabbed bench seats. Those flat black pillows offer a great view but only if you can see straight after kneeling for 60-90 minutes.
The program was a demonstration by a third-generation flower arranger from Kyoto, Tenshin Nakano, who is the most emaciated young man I have ever seen outside the pages of a Japanese comic book (manga). His objective is to attract younger people to flower arranging. He tells his students to approach this art as if they were trying to assemble a fashionable outfit from the clothes hanging in their closet.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The first course circled the table on a lazy susan: cold chicken with sauce, some clear brown noodles that might have been seaweed, and each of those little spoons held a couple of cubes of jello that tasted like egg drop soup.
The second course was a ball of chicken floating in a clear broth. Three white cubes in the bottom of the bowl looked like potatoes but were not. The ball of chicken tasted exactly like Gerber's chicken dinner.
This is a side view of the squid/cuttlefish just to stress how incredibly mature I was at lunch today.
We turned into one lane after another, each narrower than the one before, until we spotted Kim waiting at an intersection on her bicycle. She led us the final mile to the restaurant, uphill all the way. (Kim is in much better shape than most of the ladies in the car.)
Before entering the restaurant, we walked down the road and up some steep stone steps to Zuisenji Temple.
Our first view of the temple:
Kim (left) lives in Kamakura and knows all sorts of interesting information. Robin (right) was my guest today. It turns out they know each other through serving on the Ikebana board of directors.
The flowers and trees surrounding the temple are not the temple garden. The original garden is behind the temple and not open to visitors. It was laid out in 1327 in a style called wabi-sabi which, loosely translated, means "naturally imperfect." I intend to incorporate this word into my vocabulary, as in "I do not need a comb because I prefer to wear my hair wabi-sabi style" or "Sometimes I wear mascara but usually my face is wabi-sabi."
Most of the trees surrounding the temple have limbs propped up by mallets.
Victoria, 26, posing here with Mimi, is a welcome addition to the group. She arrived in Japan in July, just a few weeks after her wedding. Next I'll show you what we ate (well, what we were served) for lunch at the Chinese restaurant.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
There are 60 women in this group. Fifty-nine of the cards were embellished with colorful graphics and some were even three-dimensional. Then there was mine . . .
In the afternoon I went to Kamakura with Jane who was keen on seeing a textile exhibit. Jane specialized in a Japanese fabric-dyeing technique called shibori at her studio in Norfolk. I, of course, was a natural choice to accompany Jane on her adventure having once spent an afternoon dissolving Ritz dye in plastic buckets so a half dozen fifth-grade girls could tie-dye t-shirts.
Since there is nothing like gazing at three walls draped with fabric dyed in various shades of indigo to work up a healthy appetite, we headed over to Cafe Dimanche Vivement and found it open for business. What a relief after our disappointing visit two weeks ago. We had waffles - banana for me and apple for Jane (the fruit seemed a healthy touch) - and memorable coffee served in two little pitchers, one holding espresso and the other filled with hot foamy milk. Yes, I will take you there when you visit Japan. I am already hoping to go back there with Reiko at the end of the month.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Kyoko and Tsuneko had a lot to say about The Help - they both liked Minny, the sassy maid character, best - and I had worried needlessly that they would not be able to cope with all the Southern dialect in the book. Kyoko filled us in on her expenses-paid trip to Beijing with the other four ladies who are translating a book about an American doctor who spent most of his life in China. Tsuneko continues to worry that her German-Japanese granddaughter (11) is losing her Japanese language skills. Tsuneko's other daughter is married to a Jewish man from New York City; they live in Thailand these days. I, of course, shared happy memories of my Aunt Chris who was about the same age as Kyoko. They especially liked the Stuck on Ganson Hill story and I am indebted to Sandy for reminding me of it.
Pleading homework (snort), Matt declined to ride with me to deliver a chicken pie to a young Seventh Fleet family that lives in a residential neighborhood in Zushi, about 20 minutes from the base. I left the house in a slight huff. Halfway to the gate I realized the directions and telephone number were sitting on the kitchen counter. Double back? Not in my genetic code. Fortunately, I tapped into my kinetic memory gene and pieced together the directions by recalling how the ink flowed from my pen when I transcribed key words from the computer to an index card.
The fact that I made it there and back without incident has a lot more to do with the general politeness of Japanese drivers than any particular skill on my part. Stuck behind a bus? Flick that blinker and drivers in the other lane miraculously let you merge. I also credit my mantra ("You are not home YET") which I chanted aloud to drown out the potentially unlucky "so far, so good" my subconscious simply would not stop whispering.
The trick to driving in Japan -- you'll want to write this down because I am now an expert -- is to remain centered in your lane. My only two close calls happened when a motorcycle zipped past me on the left, in the centimeter of concrete between my car and the curb. To make room for any subsequent curb-hugging motorcycles, I started edging my wheels to the right just as a motorcycle came zooming around my right rear bumper. After this happened twice in less than three blocks, staying centered in my lane seemed the best plan.
If Mimi can guarantee me three passengers willing to harmonize "You are not home YET," I told her she can count on me to help ferry lunch bunchers to the Chinese restaurant in Kamakura the day after tomorrow.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
I'd been floating along on the assumption Matt is keeping a fairly low profile at school. The new principal who arrived last year after we left Japan surely would not connect Matt's name to Matt's face - and, more importantly, to my face -until after Christmas at the soonest. This translates in my personal language to a license to fire off pithy missives to the school administration on a fairly regular basis, imagining the principal scratching his head and wondering, "Who is this brilliant woman with all these incredibly constructive suggestions?"
This Walter Cronkite gig put the brakes on that little hobby. Apparently I am not as insensitive as you first suspected.
Frankly, though, I'm worried all this newfound self-restraint is going to give me an ulcer. You don't want that to happen so I'm going to blow off a little steam here by sharing my thoughts on Columbus Day. I had plenty of time to accumulate these thoughts and build up a head of steam while producing my 60 photo cards for the JAW conversation group, a little assignment I managed to complete in just under 39 hours. Mimi says this might be a new record. (This would be the same Mimi who has been banned from the base print shop for life after last year's card-making fiasco.)
Why is Columbus Day a Federal holiday still? Why do Department of Defense schools close on Columbus Day when many other school districts remain open? Our nation was crawling out from under a Great Depression when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a Federal holiday back in 1934. Were Federal employees paid for not working on holidays in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s? Maybe a Federal holiday in 1934 was a euphemism for shutting down our national government for 24 hours in order to save the taxpayers a chunk of money, like the steel industry and automakers used to shut down factories for a week or two and call it Deer Season.
Let's tell Congress we can no longer afford Columbus Day. Why should Federal employees get eleven (11) paid holidays when the people paying for those holidays - the taxpayers those Federal employees are there to serve, let's not forget - might get as many as seven (7) paid holidays but more often get none and consider themselves fortunate to have a job? If Congress doesn't have the backbone to eliminate just one questionable holiday, I say we let them foot the bill out of their own personal pockets.
I feel the same about our military personnel not showing up for work on Columbus Day, especially when I consider all the soldiers, sailors, marines, and the couple of dozen pilots on hazardous duty in Afghanistan or Iraq or floating around on and under the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Those kids who are protecting our interests for days, weeks, and months on end are the ones who deserve a three-day weekend but they won't be getting one soon.
How many civilian doctors and dentists do you know who don't schedule patients on Columbus Day, or Presidents' Day, or Martin Luther King Day? That's when Dr. Baker used to schedule my kids' dental checkups (Dr. Baker also worked on rainy days but that's another issue for another day).
Native Americans despise Columbus Day, the Italian-Americans can get over "losing" a paid holiday they no more deserve than the Irish-, Polish-, Mexican-, and Nigerian-Americans, and the last I knew Catholics were no longer being singled out for persecution by the Ku Klux Klan, so let's get rid of Columbus Day. We don't need it and we can't afford it. I don't know about you, but I don't want my precious future grandchildren to have to spend half their lives paying interest on the money we'll have to borrow from China to pay Mike not to work tomorrow.
And that's the way it is.
(Before you leap for that comment button like a returning champion on Jeopardy, Mike, be assured we all know that you personally work 24/7, in sunshine/snow/hurricanes/typhoons, and personify service in its most glorious and noble connotations.)
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Aunt Chris died the day before yesterday. She was our young aunt, a 12-year old junior bridesmaid at my parents' wedding and just 16 when I arrived on Planet Earth. Chris never let me touch her Perry Como and Elvis albums, but I loved her anyway.
Poor Chris was stuck with the not-so-plum assignment of tending a steadily growing brood of nephews and nieces every Saturday morning while Mom and Grandma played competive Scrabble and gossiped about grownup topics in the kitchen. There were significant attractions in that kitchen -- a parakeet, an enormous and mysterious pressure cooker, and a glass bottle of chocolate milk in the refrigerator -- but Chris usually managed to keep us distracted in the living room and backyard. She was just as afraid of my mother's wrath as I was. We chuckled about this mutual fear at a party when Chris was 45 and I was almost 30, but Chris' laughter had a nervous edge to it and she kept glancing over her shoulder to make sure her big sister was out of earshot.
Her name was Christine but we called her Chris (and sometimes Kickipoo because she hated that nickname and teasing is how my siblings and I expressed love). Her friends called her Teeny because that's what she was, amazingly petite, like her her mother and unlike her two big sisters. She was our measuring stick -- "He's taller than Aunt Chris and he's only nine years old!" -- and our first and best audience. When I was spending the night at Grandma's house, Chris rousted me out of bed and begged me to perform the Rawhide theme song for her friends. It was years, decades to be honest, before I realized my passionate rendition of "Head 'em up, move 'em out" with dramatic arm gestures and little dance moves was not my first stop on the road to Hollywood but simply a comic interlude for a gaggle of schnockered twentysomethings. One of the nice things about Aunt Chris is that she never disabused me of the notion that I might be the next Ethel Merman.
She was a blessing in my life. May she rest in peace with her parents and sisters.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Six hours ago the meteorologists said the typhoon would hit at 9:00 am tomorrow. School and other base closures were announced. Now it's once again looking like the storm will blow through while we're sleeping tonight. I'd stay up and watch it if I could connect with those wild and crazy weather guys. "Hi, you can call me Venus. Where do you want me to stash these six-packs?"
Prognosticators tend to be light on their feet I've noticed, wafting with the breeze so to speak, so the predictions will probably change at least a dozen times before we go to bed tomorrow night.
If you click on this map to enlarge it a little and compare it to yesterday's map, you'll see the forecast has already been toned down a notch. Yokosuka is on the Miura Peninsula, the south shore of Tokyo Bay, on Japan's east coast.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Let's talk about something more interesting than the weather. Pictured at left is a Mooncake, a Chinese pastry traditionally eaten during the Zhongqiu (Mid-Autumn) Festival.
This festival is one of the three most important Chinese holidays. I think the date fluctuates every year to correspond with the Autumn Equinox. This year it happened to fall on October 3 when I was sitting at Berkey Field gazing at the moon with the other football moms. My friend and neighbor Kathy Tai, who made this mooncake, says a billion or so Chinese people were all admiring the moon that very same evening. Kathy celebrates Chinese holidays because she was born in Taiwan. Not that she needs an excuse, of course. Lots of people celebrate Cinco de Mayo who weren't born in Mexico and don't get me started on St. Patrick's Day.
Kathy handed me what looked like three balls of raw dough and told me to bake them in a 300 degree oven. She was halfway down the sidewalk when she apparently remembered what a moron I am because she turned around and came back to the house to explain the importance of pre-heating the oven. Which I was quite happy to do since, frankly, I was in no rush to put something called a mooncake in my mouth.
While the oven was pre-heating, I did some research on mooncakes. They are to the Mid-Autumn Festival what turkey is to Thanksgiving: indispensable (unless, of course, you're my mother). Friends and relatives offer them to each other as they admire the harvest moon. They are about the size of a Burger King single hamburger and are usually eaten in small wedges accompanied by Chinese tea. A thin crust surrounds a thick filling -- traditionally made from lotus seed paste but Kathy made a lemon-colored yellow bean paste.
My salivary glands did not react positively to the expression "yellow bean paste" but the oven was still pre-heating so I read on. Mooncakes are considered a delicacy; production is labor-intensive and few people make them at home (emphasis mine). Most mooncakes are bought at Asian markets and bakeries. The price of mooncakes usually ranges from $10 to $50 (in US dollars) for a box of four although cheaper and more expensive mooncakes can also be found.
Since sweet Kathy had gone to all that trouble, of course I had to eat at least one of those mooncakes. The flaky crust melted in my mouth and that bean paste was pretty darn tasty. Matt had one for breakfast and eschewed the dainty wedge approach. We'll split the third one at the height of Super Typhoon Melor, but maybe you'd better not mention this to Matt in case it goes missing between now and then.
Monday, October 5, 2009
Saturday, October 3, 2009
The diehard fans - that would be four mothers along with any father whose ship happens to be in port this weekend - inclined toward giddiness as the clock ticked down. Was it simply reluctance to separate themselves from the glow of their sons' first gridiron triumph which caused them to linger in the bleachers and admire the full moon's reflection in Tokyo Bay? Surely they were not trying to avoid all the traffic associated with the Navy Ball or wondering why the base scheduled that event during a Seventh Fleet deployment.