Thursday, March 31, 2011

Snacks-of-the-Month for March

Both my appetite and my reading addiction disappeared in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake but after bidding a temporary farewell to many good friends I've made up for lost time by crawling into bed every night with an assortment of snacks and one or two books. Few of the books were noteworthy -- I blame that on my general mood and not the authors' shortcomings -- but the snacks were a different matter entirely.

Beard Papa's offered three cream puff fillings this month: custard, strawberry, and banana. Delicious does not begin to describe those banana cream puffs dipped in chocolate. The assortment boxes whispering "Taste test!" appealed to my inner scientist which I did not even know existed prior to the earthquake, proving the existence of that proverbial silver lining for the umpteenth time.

Fujiya introduced several fun new packages to celebrate Girls Day on March 3. The box above contained the usual mixture of hard candies and chocolates, long ago deemed not worth the calories, but the furoshiki (traditional wrapping cloth) featuring a cheerful Peko-chan Cherry Blossom print insisted I part with a few yen. Katherine Hepburn opted for turtlenecks to hide her neck wrinkles as she aged so why can't I conceal my wrinkles in Peko-chans?

The Meiji Corporation had us racing from one convenience store to the next in March. They introduced macadamia and almond bamboo shoot cookies, crunchy honey mushroom-shaped cookies, and cheesecake-flavored bamboo shoot cookies in little snack-size bags. The latter taste more like cheese than cake, meaning not so good, meaning we're glad we only had to polish off the contents of that tiny bag instead of our normal big box portion.

Not pictured and not personally sampled are waffle cookies imported from Holland. I spotted them in the fancy grocery store on the first floor of Sakaiya and picked up both the plain and caramel varieties for Kate and James because their father is three-quarters Dutch and I thought the windmills on the packages would make them smile. Kate doesn't have much of a sweet tooth, go figure, so her unsolicited rave review caught me by surprise. When I asked James which treats he favored in the March shipment, he barely hesitated before ranking the waffle cookies at the top of his list. Now Matt and I are feeling a bit left out, so I'll be marching back to Sakaiya to rectify that little problem the first chance I get.

Which won't be today because I have a date with Misa and Toyoko, two of the original Shonan ladies. By "original" I mean "they remember World War II." I'll be the only person in the car under the age of seventy-five and I'll be in the back seat. I'm a bit nervous about that.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Kama, Kama, Kama, Kama, Kama Camellias

Cherry blossoms are starting to unfurl on the younger trees around the base and our sources have spotted blossoms around Tokyo in the past few days. The experts forecast peak viewing times will begin next Monday in Tokyo, hit Yokohama by Wednesday, and reach every nook and cranny in Kanazawa Prefecture by the following week. We have some busy days ahead of us.

As we wait somewhat impatiently for those papery pale pink clouds to appear overhead, we can feast our eyes on camellias at Daigyo-ji, the nearest shrine to Kamakura station.

Some look just like half the camellias in the backyard of our old house on Magnolia Avenue in Norfolk. Thirty-five mature camellia bushes lined two sides of that yard when we bought the house. I heard that the current owners cut all those bushes down. What a shame.
A variety commonly seen in Tidewater, Virginia.  Ho, hum.
Hmm.  Speckles.  A bit more interesting.

Good gracious!  White stamens?  Rather striking.

Simple yet elegant.  I like this one.

Positively stunning.  Those blossoms are taking their time to unfold.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Three Bookateers in Kamakura

Kyoko, Tsuneko, and I meet every two months to trade opinions on a book I've selected. In February we discussed Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and I assigned The Girl in the Blue Dress for April. As I was distributing the books, one of them -- Tsuneko, I think -- noted that we never run out of things to talk about in our three hours together. She proposed getting together in March for lunch and a leisurely discussion of non-literary matters. Calendars were whipped out and a date was set: March 29.

At the time, of course, I had no way of knowing how important this appointment would be in the wake of the March 11 earthquake. Yet I used a pen to mark the date in my calendar. I never, ever let a pen anywhere near my calendar.  I have no idea why I made an exception in this case.

Every other commitment in my calendar is written in pencil, which is fortunate since I had to take an eraser to most of March and April and part of May right after the earthquake, but lunch with Kyoko and Tsuneko is incredibly indelibly blue. Our date was the North Star by which I set my compass in the sad days of bidding so many American friends sayonara and mata ne.

We had lunch at Arkadas, a Turkish restaurant on the third floor of a building overlooking the Kamakura train station. None of us had been there before but I knew it must be good since both the Seventh Fleet officer spouses and the Oakleaf Lunch Bunch crowd went there last fall. We ate shish-kabobs - beef, chicken, and lamb - and Kyoko insisted the occasion merited dessert so we scarfed down sweet pastries that I'm calling baklava although they were shaped like tubes rather than squares. I simply had to try Turkish coffee because who knows when I'll have another chance. (When I mentioned this to Dr. T, he said, "It tasted like mud, right?" "Pretty much.")  Kyoko, who has actually visited Turkey, pronounced the food authentic.

We exchanged earthquake stories, of course. Tsuneko and her husband were in their car, driving to the nursing home where they installed her mother-in-law a few months ago. Their car was positioned between a large truck and a tall building when the earthquake hit. The tall building began to sway. "We were so frightened," Tsuneko confessed, "We were so worried that the building would crush our car, that we . . . we reached . . . we reached for each other and held hands until the earthquake stopped!" Tsuneko was blushing. Public displays of affection are unusual in Japan, particularly for Tsuneko's generation (she will be 70 this year). I am pretty sure that Kyoko will still be teasing Tsuneko about the "romantic earthquake" long after I have left Japan.

After lunch they took me to the shrine where they had prayed for easy labor many years ago when they were young pregnant ladies.  I thought the straw sculptures scattered around the temple grounds were quite interesting.  "Do they represent pregnant ladies?"  No.  Kyoko laughed as she poked her finger through several of layers of straw to reveal a peony bush.  The straw protects them from cold temperatures.  That rock star topknot is sheer whimsy on the part of the temple gardener.

I knew this picture would not turn out very well when the Turkish restaurant owner insisted on posing us in front of the red crescent flag displayed in his window. He also gave each of us little trinkets dangling from safety pins to attach to our lapels. I pinned mine to my backpack instead because these days my lapel is reserved for my Japanese-American friendship pin.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Out and About: Fashioning a "New Normal"

My life here started to feel normal again late last week thanks to a series of encounters with my Japanese friends.

It seems the "new normal" will require a bit more physical exertion than the "old normal" did.  The escalator leading up to the Yokosukachuo train station at the end of Blue Street was not moving when I set off to visit Dr. T on Wednesday afternoon.  That was my first clue.  Did I sigh dramatically before dragging my bones up that stationary staircase?  Heck no.  There is more than one way to skin a cat.  I simply marched around the corner and entered the station at ground level.  Maybe a tiny smirk flitted across my mouth.

Thankfully, the escalator at the Kanazawa-hakkei Seaside Line station was working; that's an elevated train line with an entrance three stories above the ground.  The medical school was a different matter.  Dr. T's office is on the top floor, the sixth floor, of the medical school.  Nothing happened when I pressed the button to call the elevator on the left.  A sign taped between the elevator doors caught my eye.  I was pretty sure it said "Please use the stairs.  The electricity has been diverted from the elevators to operate life-sustaining equipment in the hospital."

So I trudged up six flights of stairs.  The first five flights were not exactly a breeze but I paced myself and pasted a cheerful expression on my face for the benefit of all the nimble medical students scampering up and down the stairs to get to class on time.  That sixth flight required a bit of an effort.  "Bit" in this case means gripping the handrail and using a hand-over-hand technique to drag my body up the last sixty steps.  Exiting the stairwell, I stumbled past the usual assortment of somber young pharmaceutical representives lined up in the corridor.  Their applause was louder than my gasps.

Dr. T was appalled that I took the stairs.  He says I am to use the elevator on the right next time.  I think I heard him say I am qualified to use that elevator on the basis of age.  I am not sure that makes me happy but I'm pretty sure I'll opt for the elevator when I visit him again next week.

Seeing Dr. T again fills me with delight.  Has it only been two weeks since our last lesson?  We spend a lot of time grinning and laughing.  I had forgotten that he's been using crutches for the past six weeks on account of a bad knee.  He tells me that knee made descending twelve flights of stairs after the earthquake "excruciating".  His use of the word "excruciating" tickles me.  I think he has consulted his Japanese-English dictionary since last we met.

Thursday three of us headed to Kamakura for an Ikebana board meeting.  We were a bit early so we ducked into a coffee shop outside the station.  Otsuka-san, knowing our habits, was sitting in the coffee shop waiting for us.  We had not expected to see her because she lives in Tokyo and we think it is not so easy to travel between Tokyo and Kamakura these days.  We are all so happy to see each other that we exchange hugs, wipe tears from our eyes, and amuse the baristas with our un-Japanese carryings on.  You would think we were survivors of a major calamity!  Oh . . . I guess we are.

We see many more friends at the board meeting -- Kaji-san, Nagasaki-san, Midori-san, Sayuri-san, Haneda-san, to name a few.  Tia has gone to the United States, Watanabe-san is still recovering from breast cancer surgery, and Junko-san is not at the meeting for reasons that escape me.  We vote to cancel the April and May programs because we cannot count on gasoline to take our members to Mount Takao or electricity to light the hotel where we are scheduled to meet.  We defer a decision on the June program.  Perhaps we can hold the June program on the Navy base.  Our Japanese friends are surprised to hear that the Navy base has not been experiencing the rolling blackouts the government has instituted in our prefecture.  I feel somewhat embarrassed and ashamed about this.  I want to do more to help Japan right now than buy underwear for the people in Sendai.

Weather, Evelyn, and I visited Matsuzaki-san and her son Yutaka at their shop near the Kamakura station and then shared five orders of waffles between the three of us before returning to Yokosuka.  The trains ran on time and the waffles were as delectable as always.  The waitress double-checked her order pad.  Three customers and five orders?  We told her we want to help rebuild Japan's economy.  It's a tough job, but someone has to do it. 

Friday, finally, I get to see Ishii-san.  She endures my hug with a smile and great stoicism.  We stroll to the cafe above the Yokosuka Products shop to have some Admiral Jamie Kelly Cheesecake but, once there, opt for Meiji-Era Curry instead.  I, of course, was hoping to have both.  Ishii-san is very sensible.  A retired teacher, she regales me with anecdotes of the disaster training Japanese teachers receive.  I think we should send our base teachers to the Japanese disaster training classes.  I wish we would acknowledge that Americans are not the experts on everything.

Today I will see many of my Japanese friends again.  Eight of the JAW ladies, including Otsuka-san, Kaji-san, and Shinagawa-san, will visit the base to say farewell to Teresa who will be leaving Japan tomorrow for her husband's next duty station in California.  We are going to have lunch at the Officers' Club.

The "new normal" is nothing to complain about so far.  I feel so much more sane eating in the company of others than munching on mushroom-shaped cookies in my bed.  I've just been brushing crumbs toward the Ancient Mariner's side of the bed but I suppose I'll have to change the sheets when and if the USS Blue Ridge ever heads back toward Yokosuka.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Reflections on Hoarding

My friends who visited the Commissary (military base grocery store) in the days immediately following March 11 told me there was a shocking amount of hoarding in progress. I had to rely on their accounts because, as a general rule, I don't shop for groceries more than once a month. These are trustworthy ladies who aren't prone to spreading idle gossip and rumors. (Which makes one sort of wonder what we have in common...).

How can a family of four possibly consume 18 gallons of milk and 23 loaves of bread before their expiration dates? (Note to Ishii-san: the previous sentence is called hyperbole, ie, extravagant exaggeration.)

Figuring you might want some more information on this topic, but not wanting to incite mass panic among the Commissary cashiers by showing up twice in one month, I opted to duck into the Autoport mini-mart the day I investigated gas rationing. This was after the earthquake and tsunami but before the mass exodus.

Emma was behind the till. I haven't seen Emma in ages, since she switched from the night shift to the day shift. We are a mutual admiration society. She rushed around the counter to give me a big hug. (All those non-military middle-aged men standing in line to pay for their five gallons of gasoline appreciated that I'm sure.)

Emma's presence gave me license to whip out my camera and snap a few pictures for you. Had she not been there, I would still have taken pictures, just a bit more furtively.

The smokers don't seem to be guilty of hoarding. That's a little surprising. I guess they're not all the scum of the earth after all.  Maybe I should nominate them for Department of Defense Good Citizen awards.

Certain brands of crackers and cookies are noticeably absent.  Not to worry.  I can survive on pressured faux cheese for months. There's an ample supply of low-cal Triscuits left to sustain the Ancient Mariner upon his return, reinforcing my belief that he's the only person on earth who actually finds them edible.

Looks like the marathon crowd has decimated the power bar shelves. Perhaps they're planning to outrun radiation.

What have we here? Not any canned tuna, that's for sure. How am I supposed to make tuna-noodle casserole on Friday nights in Lent without the main ingredient?

Suddenly this exercise is not quite so amusing. I approach the freezer section with trepidation.

Hallelujah! Apparently the gluttons have not yet discovered the pleasure to be found in a pint of Hagen Daz Dulce de Leche ice cream. The reflection off the glass door makes the first picture I snap less than satisfactory. I open the freezer door to get a clearer picture for you. In light of current energy concerns, I feel guilty about opening that freezer door just to take a picture so I grab a couple of pints.

But just two. Because I would never, ever stoop to hoarding. I simply do not understand that mentality. And I can't help but wonder how much milk was left to sour in refrigerators around the base when the first wave of volunteers departed for the U.S.

P.S. Yesterday I stopped by the Commissary and found the shelves overflowing with all of life's necessities except bottled water. I nabbed the last case of one brand but left three cases of another brand for the next customers.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Haru Ichiban: A Breath of Fresh Air

The windows started rattling late Monday night. Another aftershock? When the metal glider in the yard tumbled backwards seconds later, her eyes quickly calculated the distance between the patio chair and the earthquake shelter beneath the dining room table. Maya Angelou has known for years why the caged bird sings; our heroine learned two weeks ago why Olympic high jumpers take such care in starting off on the right foot. What benefit might she obtain from gaining the shelter if she smacks her forehead on the table edge and suffers a concussion enroute?

Her right foot is planted and her backside is wiggling (to build up momentum) when the wind starts howling through the bare branches of the enormous ginko trees. The wind is a Doberman, a Rottweiller, a ferocious German Shepard with fangs bared and saliva dripping from its bone-crushing jaw as it relentlessly chases its own tail around the circumference of the concrete-walled house.

Definitely not an earthquake, decides the expert-come-lately. Not a tsunami either. Hopefully not something nuclear (which she pronounces correctly in deference to her beloved sister-in-law). What's left? A typhoon? That would be the positively, absolutely, utterly, final, last straw.

When in doubt, consult an expert, in this case Weather Explorer, a meteorologist married to a meteorologist. Weather decrees the wind is a "good wind". The succint declaration is reminiscent of and as comforting as the tone St. John adopted in writing his Gospel. Which is to say: very comforting.

Waking to the pitter-patter of little raindrops after a semi-good night's sleep, the expert-come-lately realizes the remarkable windstorm of the previous evening was none other than Japan's annual Haru Ichiban, the spring wind, the wind that comes roaring from the east-southeast every year around the time of the Spring Equinox to remind us that cherry blossom season will follow closely on the heels of a brief cold snap.

It's almost time to break out the sake. Cherry blossom celebrations will be subdued this year, and rightly so, but each tiny blossom will hold grains of hope and optimism, commodities to be treasured and cherished always but especially now.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Exodus

Today marks the end of the second post-earthquake week. That's what my calendar tells me but how can this possibly be true? Was it really only a week ago that my American friends started leaving Japan?

Daffy was the first to go. She handed me the keys to her "throwaway BMW" and we laughed all the way to Haneda Airport because the BMW's controls are different from the controls in my Japanese car. When I meant to indicate a lane change, the windshield wipers would spring into action. When I needed to roll down my window to pay a toll, I invariably readjusted my sideview mirror instead. I have known Daffy for six months. She makes me laugh. I miss her.

Then Fearless and the twins left, and my neighbor Hoorah, and countless others who booked their own flights when the schools closed. They left the day after the high school vice-principal fled Japan, ignoring the terms of her contract.  I miss Fearless and Hoorah.  I'd like to assume the vice-principal is now unemployed.

Erin tried to hold out for a government-funded departure but by Saturday morning, between the schools closing and the base announcing the cancellation of all child-friendly activities, she was at the end of her rope.  She booked a Sunday flight out of Narita Airport. The base runs three free bus shuttles to Narita Airport every day but none early enough to get Erin and her boys to the airport in time for their flight. So they took a Saturday afternoon shuttle and camped out at the airport with other Navy families overnight.  One of Erin's fellow campers was a young lady from my hometown who was traveling with an infant. I shudder at the thought.

The Navy employs thousands of men and women whose primary task is planning. They would be well served to consult with a few young military spouses like Erin who could remind them that the "devil is in the detail".  Erin called a cab to transport four suitcases and three children from her apartment to the bus shuttle.  The cab did not arrive.  Erin loaded everything into her van, drove to the bus depot, unloaded her van, left her oldest son in charge of her youngest, tracked me down, and drove back to the bus depot where we loaded four very heavy suitcases into the bowels of the bus while several able-bodied sailors looked on, apparently admiring our biceps. 

I returned Erin's van to her designated parking space and strolled home after imparting some unsolicited advice.  Erin is about the same age as my nieces Amy, Jennifer, Ann, and Jessica so I tend to be a bit free with my unsolicited advice.  To her credit, she takes it in good humor and probably a grain or two of salt.  I suspect I will miss Erin a tiny bit more than she will miss me.

We were standing in the bus depot when I advised her to take a mental snapshot of her three boys, four large suitcases, and four incredibly heavy backpacks.  "Be sure you remember this moment, Erin, when they start begging you for a dog."

That was Saturday. Sunday the mass exodus commenced. That's when the Department of Defense started executing the order authorizing the voluntary departure of military dependents. Thousands of young military families, primarily young women with infants and small children and whose husbands are currently at sea providing humanitarian relief, might have been spared much pain and confusion if our government had only communicated clearly rather than indulging in hair-splitting bureaucratic-speak. How can we expect young military spouses to comprehend the difference between "authorized", "ordered", and "executed" when graduates of college journalism schools do not?

On Tuesday Artistic, her three teenagers, and their very large dog left Japan.  Two vehicles were required so Weather and I escorted them to Narita Airport.  I fastened my seatbelt and adjusted the mirrors before confessing that I had never actually driven to Narita before.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.  As for missing Artistic, I think longtime readers know that goes without saying.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Wedding That Wasn't: Another Earthquake Story

Amidst all the confusion in the days immediately following the earthquake, I missed my regularly-scheduled hair appointment with Kumi. When I ought to have been sitting in Kumi's chair having goop dabbed on my roots, I was at the base movie theater watching Rango with Fearless and her girls. At the time we had no way of knowing that a week later Fearless and the twins would be waking up in Novi, Michigan, enroute to Arlington, Virginia.

So I absolutely do not regret missing that hair appointment. And I also do not regret shelling out $3 to see Rango when only a few days later our movie theaters stopped charging admission.

But missing that hair appointment became increasingly troublesome as the week progressed. As fears of irradiation mounted, I realized that the sudden appearance of a white stripe across the top of my head could very well tip the balance on this base from low-grade panic to mass hysteria. I didn't want to be responsible for causing a run on potassium iodide that would make the hospital pharmacy look like the bank in It's A Wonderful Life. I needed to reschedule that appointment pronto.

Erin and her three little boys marched off to the Navy Exchange to make an appointment for me. (In my defense, she looked ready to wring their collective necks; the schools here closed with no warning, all child-friendly activities on base were cancelled, and they needed some sort of distraction. At least that's how I've decided to spin this.) Erin managed to get me the first appointment on Sunday morning. I believe my appointment was the only one on Kumi's schedule that day. Kumi normally has a month-long waiting list. This is what we call "a silver lining".

Kumi is always glad to see me -- our relationship has spanned three years at this point, which is about a year longer than my relationship with any other hairdresser in the past twenty years -- but she seemed genuinely delighted to see me this past Sunday. And I her. I was eager to hear her "earthquake story" so that I would have something interesting to share with you that did not involve military ineptitude. We all need a break from that.

Kumi was on her way to her niece's wedding in Tokyo when the earthquake happened. She was wearing a dress (remarkable enough for her to mention and remarkable enough for me to pass along) and riding a Keikyu train when the ground started shaking. The train came to a halt in the Kamiooka station, the home of Beard Papa's cream puffs and Takano fruit parfaits. If I had to choose a place to be stuck for nine hours, the Kamiooka station would be at the top of my list.

But Kumi wasn't thinking about sweets. She had a wedding to attend. So she and most of the other passengers stayed on the train for about a half hour until an announcement informed them that service had been halted for the day. She eventually managed to reach her sister and niece by cell phone (service was disrupted for about a half hour) and learned that the wedding party was unable to get to the ceremony site. The wedding would have to be postponed.

Kumi then joined a long line of stranded train passengers in the taxi queue. There were only two taxicabs serving the Kamiooka station. Kumi waited nine hours until it was her turn to climb into a cab that would take her home to Yokosuka.

Nine hours is a long time. It was about midnight by the time she got a cab. She was very hungry and had some food in her tote bag but there were many elderly people in that queue with her and she did not have enough food to share with everyone. So she pretended she didn't have any food and just went hungry along with everyone else.

Her sister and niece spent the past week in the Tokyo apartment the bride and groom had planned to live in as newlyweds. Her sister is from Mito in Ibaraki Prefecture (where we saw the plum blossoms last month) and she must return to work in Mito or risk losing her job. Bus service between Tokyo and Mito has been restored in the past couple of days but Kumi says her sister is very afraid to return to Mito since that would put her closer to the nuclear plants.

I don't know how this will all turn out but I made another appointment with Kumi for April 10 and I will get the next installment then. Simply being allowed to make another appointment filled me with an enormous sense of relief. It's interesting how we all have different priorities, isn't it?

One Way We Got to Where We Are, Wherever That Might Be

The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. ~Attributed to James A. Garfield

It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. ~Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia

My phone rang late yesterday afternoon.  A friend was calling around for volunteers to make and deliver finger food to the young Navy guys who've been working almost non-stop for the past 24 hours to book "voluntary evacuees" on airplanes.  I was the third person she called, but the first to answer the ringing telephone.  Whoever asked her to muster volunteer cooks -- and I'm pretty sure I know who instigated the errand of mercy -- had specifically asked that this request not be circulated via facebook.  What a shame.

I pondered that "Please do not post this on facebook" directive while frying up the lumpia I found tucked in the back of my freezer.  This was my first stab at making lumpia.  It took longer than I expected to achieve a golden brown color approximating the package illustration.  I had a lot of time to think.  If you're looking for a human interest post, maybe you should stop now and check back later today.

Authority changes hands fairly regularly in the Navy.  While it might not have been true yesterday and it may no longer be true tomorrow, right now the people who happen to hold positions of authority here seem fearful of what they refer to as "social media" and I know as "facebook".  These leaders have been quick to label facebook as "evil" and blamed facebook users for inciting widespread panic by sharing misinformation; they have been slow to see the potential benefits of using facebook to transmit accurate information.

What was the sticking point?  Did they simply have no "official information" to share?  Were they just unwilling to acknowledge the limits of their authority? 

In the absence of "official information", they circulated "worst-case scenarios" through the Ombudsmen.  An Ombudsman is a Navy spouse who volunteers to serve as the primary communication conduit between a Commanding Officer and the families of sailors who serve under that Commanding Officer.  This is not a paid position.  There are many ombudsmen here because there are many commands.  Each ship has its own Commanding Officer and there are also many shore commands, like the hospital, ship repair, legal services, and facilities.  Those are called tenant commands.  The base command, called CFAY, is the landlord and has its own ombudsman.

I have the utmost respect for Ombudsmen and am amazed that people, primarily women, actually volunteer for this mostly thankless job.  "Mostly" here is in deference to the dinner held in their honor every September and the fried chicken available in the back of the room during their obligatory 10-hour training session.  Like many current and former CO spouses, I am a graduate of Ombudsman Basic Training and I've provided some version of that fried chicken dinner for subsequent classes.

In the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami, the base leaders have met with the Ombudsmen at least daily and often more frequently.  Imagine these women trying to find babysitters on short notice while their phones are ringing off the hook and their e-mail boxes are overflowing with questions from 23-year old semi-hysterical mothers of infants and toddlers.  Then they dash off to the meeting, ask a lot of "what-if" questions, get a lot of "perhaps this, perhaps that" non-answers but nothing in writing, and are sent home to write up a summary of the discussion and distribute it to the families within their command.

If there are twenty Ombudsmen, there are twenty slightly different summaries.  This stands to reason.  The summaries are e-mailed to the families.  Sally in apt. 1 receives the USS George Washington summary, Mary in apt. 2 gets the summary from the hospital ombudsman, and Jill in apt. 3 sees the summary from the submarine ombudsman.  Do you see where I'm going with this? 

In the absence of "official information", neighbors and friends share those slightly different summaries.  People start getting confused.  They want clarification and the quickest way they know how to get it is to log into facebook.  Quick is important because they have two or three children underfoot.  They have two or three children underfoot because the school principals understood those "perhaps this, perhaps that" non-answers as Gospel Truth and cancelled school.

At a hastily-convened "town hall" meeting last Monday, the base commander blamed the Ombudsmen for spreading misinformation.  I had already left the meeting at that point (to help paint the stage set for the now-postponed production of Steel Magnolias), but I understand he was taken to task by one of the more senior Ombudsmen.  Bravo for her.

This all might have been averted if only someone on the CFAY staff, someone who actually gets paid to communicate say, had been tasked with preparing a written summary of each meeting that could have been distributed as a unified message by all the Ombudsmen via e-mail and facebook.

I, for one, would have appreciated seeing a refreshingly honest introductory statement, along the lines of:  Please remain calm.  We are doing everything in our power to assure your safety and well-being.  Unfortunately, and contrary to popular opinion, no Naval officer assigned to Japan has been delegated the budgetary authority to pay for the departure and subsequent return of those of you who no longer wish to be in Japan.  Please do not be overly concerned that our own spouses have departed the base.  They do not know anything that you don't know.  We have simply asked them to leave in order that we can focus on your needs without the distraction of our own families.      

The person I thought was responsible for instigating the errand of mercy posted something interesting on facebook late last night. She thanked two ladies for delivering cookies to those hardworking young sailors. I guess she didn't know about the lumpia. I guess "Please do not post this on facebook" did not apply to herself.

I am darn certain those kids would have received more food had I elected to disregard her directive.

Excuse me while I figure out how you "un-friend" someone.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Flailex is military jargon roughly translating to "exercise in flailing; walking in continuous circles."

The schools are closing here so most of my friends with school-age children are leaving Japan-yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  For the most part, they are taking commercial airlines and not planning to participate in the "voluntary evacuation" you might be hearing about on the media.  Flying commercial will be less stressful on their pets, their children, and their own psyches. 

About 24 hours ago we were told that instructions would be issued when and if a voluntary evacuation is announced.  A lot of instructions are flying around but a voluntary evacuation has not been announced.

My children are safe in the United States so I do not feel compelled to get in line "when and if" that voluntary evacuation is announced.  This afternoon I will be driving my friend and her sons to Haneda Airport.

It's a beautiful day here in Japan.  A difficult day for many dear, dear friends who do not want to leave Japan but cannot let their amazing children go uneducated.  My hearts go out to them.  Please keep them in their prayers, along with all those Japanese people shivering in the shelters in the disaster area.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

FTY, Part VI: Some Random Thoughts Between Aftershocks

Dad had just turned 19 when he arrived in Belgium a few weeks before the Battle of the Bulge erupted.  On Father's Day 1999, two months after Dad passed away, we found a box of letters he had written to his parents during the war.  Grandpa had saved those letters in a bank safety deposit box; Grandpa kept documents other people would consider valuable in a shirt box in his closet.

Reading those letters on a sunny Michigan day, surrounded by the laughter of nieces and nephews and their toddlers splashing in the backyard pool, I was struck by my father's lighthearted tone.  I checked and re-checked the dates of the letters to find the ones he wrote immediately after the battle.  Amazingly, incredibly lighthearted.

I mention this for a couple of reasons.  First, I am feeling particularly nostalgic tonight.  By the time I post this, it will be St. Patrick's Day in Japan.  My brother's birthday.  He is closest in age to me of all my siblings, born twenty months after me.  By now we have celebrated more of his birthdays apart than together, which is true for all my siblings but I feel it more acutely in his case, probably because of that St. Patrick's Day link which hints of green beer and a family gathering where stories are exchanged and childhood battles rehashed.  He is our family's primary storyteller, the son who most resembles his father, and the friend to whom most of my postings are directed.  What I mean to say is that there is an invisible "Dear Dave" at the top of this and many other pages.  In a way, he's like a conscience.  But a more forgiving conscience than the one inside my head so how can I not help liking him more than I like myself?

The other reason I'm mentioning my father's upbeat, whistling-in-the-dark attitude is my way of offering a backhanded apology/explanation to any reader who finds my recent posts insensitive to the current situation in my adopted nation.  Let me be clear:  the situation devastates me at every level.  But you can see all the terrible events unfold on television and read the uplifting stories and dire prognostications in the newspaper just as, albeit more vividly and real-time than, my grandparents could follow the Battle of the Bulge.  I am certainly not enduring the life-threatening horrors my father experienced in Belgium that cold December, but I want very much to follow his example and live up to his expectations (for once in my life at least) by focusing on the lighter side of things.  You don't need to worry about me and, more importantly, the Ancient Mariner does not need to worry about me.  He is working unbelievably long, mind-numbing hours to unravel logistical nightmares.  He can better concentrate his intellectual and emotional energies on the task at hand when he doesn't have to concern himself with meltdowns on the homefront.  When he is deployed like now, that invisible salutation is amended to read "Dear Mike and Dave".

So there you have it.

On the good news front, contact has been achieved with Suzuki-san, my dear book club friend who was born in Hiroshima in 1939 and had the good fortune to spend the month of August 1945 in the countryside.  She lives in Kamakura with her husband who is slipping into dementia.  She communicated with me by text-message so I felt compelled to frame my responses in the form of little telegrams.

To: Peevish
Sent: Mon, March 14, 2011 3:43:05 PM
Subject: Dont worry

Aside from general difficulties, I am OK.  I am well prepared with food, water, batteries, etc.  I am looking forward to reading all the books you gave me.

If you run out of books I will buy a bike and pedal some over to you.XOXOXO

So kind of you! I have more than enough already. Surprised by so many shoppers hoarding anything and everything!

Japanese shoppers hoarding? I don't believe it. Americans, on the other hand...

I saw rows of empty shelves in supermarkets.

Think deliveries are slow.

How are you and your family doing? Staying indoors as much as possible?

It's just me. He was in Singapore. Ship is now going to disaster area.

Wow! That was a big one. Hope it won't happen again tonight. Am exhausted from watching TV too much.

6.0 Shizuoka. Go to sleep, my friend.

Good night.

Good night to you as well.  And happy birthday, little brother.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Fear and Trembling in Yokosuka, Part V: Laughter and Gas Rationing

Last night was restless. An intensity 6 earthquake sent me stumbling toward the dining room table just as I was getting ready to power down the computer and trudge up the stairs to bed. That dining room table is suddenly my favorite piece of furniture; I'm going to stick a dust cloth and can of Pledge under there so I can polish up those legs on my next dive.  That table has treated me well.  It's time I started returning favors.

Between 11:00 pm last night and 7:00 am this morning there were 19 aftershocks.  I slept through most of them.  This will come as no surprise to my husband and children.  What might surprise them, however, is that I slept through most of those aftershocks because I was absolutely exhausted from laughing.  For that I am indebted to a cadre of friends and acquaintances around the globe who distracted me with their entertaining comments on facebook for the first two hours following the earthquake.  I experienced every type of laughter known to man and possibly invented a new version of 'borderline hysterical'.

What else can you do?

This morning I saw a message from the base commander that the gas tanks at the Autoport had been replenished and that each customer could purchase a maximum of ten (10) gallons.  The base commander encouraged us to avoid long lines by waiting until later in the day to collect our ration of gasoline.

"I wonder how THAT is going?" I asked myself mid-morning.  (There's a lot of "asking myself" going on here right now in the absence of anyone else to ask but, so far at least, I'm managing to do it without moving my lips.)  "Let's go investigate," I said to self.  "Great idea!" I congratulated self.  "Take precautions when you dress," I reminded self.  So I pulled on the Ancient Mariner's almost equally ancient U.S. Navy sweatshirt and tugged the hood over my tresses before marching out the door and briskly hiking the four or five blocks between my house and the Autoport.

By the time I reached the Autoport, the base commander had issued a new directive, further rationing gasoline to five (5) gallons per customer.  To put this in perspective for owners of those dinosaur SUVs, some Japanese automobiles have a 7-gallon capacity.

Autoport Manager directs customers into four orderly lines

While many car owners seem to have ignored the advice about waiting until later in the day, I have to give them credit for lining up in an orderly fashion. What struck me as odd was the number of non-military middle-aged men wearing lanyards around their necks behind the wheels of those cars. I say non-military because a) they were not in uniform, b) their hair was rather long, and c) they sported physiques that strongly suggested they had not passed a physical fitness test within the last six months (or even six years). Those neck lanyards made me suspect the men were civilians employed by various "military support" enterprises such as the Navy Exchange, MWR, Commissary, and schools.

My deeply-ingrained work ethic chimed, "Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!  You're supposed to be at work.  You would scream bloody murder if your doctor or dentist cancelled your appointment so they could dash off to the Autoport for their ration."

Oh, wait. There's more:
Turning around, I saw a line of cars stretching from here to the proverbial eternity.  The drivers, bless their hearts, were waiting patiently to be waved into one of those four orderly lines.

The Autoport serves all military personnel stationed here, not just those of us who live on the Main Base.  There are not enough houses and apartments on the Main Base to accommodate everyone who works here so many people live in satellite housing areas either near Yokohama or on the other side of the peninsula.  And there are also many people who live in Japanese rental houses scattered across the peninsula.

So far no one seems have thought of granting some sort of priority to the people who live outside the Main Base and have to use their cars to get to work.  Maybe they've thought of it, but just haven't worked out a reasonable system yet.  Let's hope that's the case.  Because I, for one, am more concerned that the emergency physician who lives twenty minutes from the base has enough gasoline to get to work than the teacher who lives across the street from the school.

When it comes to mass hysteria, though, I am ashamed to admit that I'm no more immune than those people waiting patiently in line at the Autoport.  Walking home, it dawned on me that perhaps I should see how much gas was in the tank of my car.  The Ancient Mariner, dream husband that he is, topped off the tank in late January before abandoning me to my own devices.  Six weeks.  Hmmm.  That's a pretty long time.

Whew!  My fuel gauge assures me the tank is still half full.  (I know.  Incredible, isn't it?)

How many gallons do you suppose that is?  How much do you suppose a car-addicted person would be willing to pay for a gallon of gas?  How much do you suppose one of those siphon things costs?

Just kidding, of course.  I would happily give it away free to any physician who needs it.   

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fear and Trembling in Yokosuka, Part IV: Low-level Radiation and Pinball Expertise

Well, I didn't travel to Yokohama to chat with Dr. T about his miserable experience after all.  I spotted this message on facebook when I was checking today's train schedules.

by Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka on Tuesday, March 15, 2011 at 10:44am

At approximately 0700 local (Japan) time, 15 March 2011, sensitive instrumentation on USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (CVN 73) pier-side in Yokosuka, detected low levels of radioactivity from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant. While there is no danger to the public, Commander, Naval Forces Japan is recommending limited precautionary measures for personnel on Fleet Activities Yokosuka and Naval Air Facility Atsugi, including:
A. Limiting outdoor activities.
B. Securing external ventilation systems as much as practical.

These measures are strictly precautionary in nature. We do not expect that any United States Federal radiation exposure limits will be exceeded even if no precautionary measures are taken. We are continuing to analyze the situation and will update you as we learn more.

The reaction here ranged from "Uh-oh" and "Don't panic" to "What about our schoolchildren?"  The credit for that question goes to my next-door neighbor, a commanding officer and father of two small children.  Thanks to him, the message was subsequently amended to let us know that the children would remain indoors, school would end at the usual time, and school will be held tomorrow.  I'm glad that someone like Curt has the ear of the base leadership.  I wish they were smart enough to run their messages past him before posting them on facebook.

Right now my brain feels like a pinball machine right after the first ball hits the sweet spot and releases all those bonus balls.  There are so many thoughts pinging around in my head.  I hope I can capture at least a few of them in words.  I won't take it personally if you don't have the energy to process my efforts.  I just need to talk right now and you're there while I'm way over here.  Which has some distinct advantages, of course.  Mainly you can walk away in the middle of our 'conversation' and I won't think you're rude because I won't even know.  And if some sort of worst-case scenario unfolds, you can always come back and read this at a later date.  Don't feel guilty if that happens.  Don't ever, ever, ever feel guilty about anything you have ever said or not said to me, or any attention you have paid or not paid to me.

Here are my first three thoughts:

1.  I'm not worried.
2.  Don't feel guilty.
3.  Do not ever assume someone in a position of authority is half as smart as you.

Fear and Trembling in Yokosuka, Part III: My Japanese Friends

Within a few hours of the earthquake, I succeeded in contacting each of my children.  Simply hearing their voices nudged a surreal day back toward normal, emphasis on "toward" since I suspect it will be weeks and perhaps months before life here feels normal again.

The Ancient Mariner called to verify my continued existence.  This is the first time we have spoken to each other by telephone during a deployment since December 24, 1998.  Most people find my moratorium on telephone calls odd but I have never been able to bear saying goodbye to him over and over and over again.  He humors my quirks, bless his heart, but was forced to break the moratorium thanks to lessons the Navy learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when they were unable to account for the whereabouts of countless family members.  It was a job-related telephone call so I'm not counting it against him.  And I must admit it was reassuring to hear his voice.  Emergency physicians tend to have the sort of voices people like to hear during disasters.

Then began the long process of checking on the well-being of my friends in Japan.  Most of the Americans had posted on Facebook within a few minutes of the earthquake so I knew they were okay.  A couple of them made me laugh, especially Sherri who was driving to her off-base hilltop house when the earthquake hit and simply assumed something was wrong with her car.  A couple of them were borderline hysterical.  I didn't know what to do about that.

My Japanese friends took longer to surface.  They suffered power outages to which those of us fortunate enough to live on an American military base were immune.  Eventually their stories began to dribble in.  I'm sharing a few because I think you have come to care about these people almost as much as I do.

Nagasaki lives in Hayama.  Her grandchildren were riding the train home from school when the earthquake happened.  Their train was halted at the Kita-Kamakura station, about 15 minutes from Nagasaki's house.  It was 7:00 pm by the time she learned of their predicament.  It took Nagasaki and her husband two hours to reach their grandchildren due to traffic jams and power outages (no traffic lights).  They loaded their grandchildren and as many other children that could fit in their car and drove them home.  They did not arrive back at their house in Hayama until 4:00 am.

My friend Sayuri is married to a retired Navy Master Chief Petty Officer who now holds a civilian job on base.  Sayuri manages a building owned by her elderly parents.  She lost electricity, water, gas, internet, and telephone service for most of the day following the earthquake.  Since cell phone service was also down immediately after the earthquake, she felt compelled to drive to her parents' home and building to make sure they were okay.  She says, "It was the most dangerous drive I’ve ever made because almost all the traffic lights are off and no cops were controlling the traffic.  On top of that, it was the time for lots of kids to go home after school.  Running across the disordered traffic roads.  I really hope those kids got home safely.  Even though I had a lot of flashlights, candles, and emergency food in the house, no water was not know, no flushing."  Sayuri has concluded that we might be too dependent on electricity.  "My parents who are survivors of the Tokyo bombing handled this situation much better, I think. Well, it was not their first rodeo, you know!"  I forgot to mention that Sayuri's husband is a Texan...

Yoshiko was the Ancient Mariner's secretary when was Commanding Officer of US Naval Hospital Yokosuka.  She retired in December 2007 and moved across Tokyo Bay to Chiba Prefecture with her husband, Kaz, and his father.  They lost telephone service on March 11 but neither they nor any of their neighbors suffered damage from the earthquake.  She was scared once the sun went down.  They live pretty close to the Isumi river and are watching the water level closely.  The river rose by more than three meters during the tsunami and almost all the floating piers were washed away.  She tells me not to worry about them because they have a local cable broadcasting system and will be able to act quickly to evacuate if any emergency situation comes up.

My friend Kazumi called Saturday afternoon to tell me there had been an explosion in a nuclear plant in the disaster area.  She instructed me to close my doors and windows and to turn off any fans.  If I absolutely had to leave my house, she told me to cover myself completely.  She emphasized wearing a hat.  She also told me to not to even think about leaving the house the next time it rains because those raindrops will likely contain residue from the chemical plant that exploded in Chiba during the earthquake.  That was the fire we saw across Tokyo Bay throughout the night following the earthquake.  Kazumi's Japanese husband, a civilian helicopter pilot, was summoned to the disaster area Friday night but was unable to obtain information on where to land.  Kazumi thinks this is because too many media helicopters are in that area.  He came home to sleep and returned to the disaster area the following day.

Everyone in Ishii's family is fine (especially her brother who they were surprised to learn was in Memphis, Tennessee, on a business trip when the earthquake occurred).  Ishii's son-in-law is going to the earthquake area to help one of his company's branch offices so Ishii has headed up to Tokyo to help her daughter and little granddaughter until he gets back.  Before she left, Ishii clued me in on planned power outages that will roll from one area to another so that as much power as necessary can be diverted to hospitals.  She also warned me to expect train service to be disrupted.  I will miss Ishii.  We'll surely share a few chuckles about that brother of hers the next time we meet.

And then there's our friend, Dr. T:

My wife, I and everyone else who matters to me did not suffer from the earthquake and tsunami.
Of course, 15 medical doctors including me and three stuff members who attended to the meeting at 21st floor of a high and new building near the Shinagawa station were frightened during the earthquake. After the terrible meeting (Editor's Note: Dr. T loathes meetings) we could not use an elevator and went to the 1st floor using emergency steps.  I slept on a cardboard like a homeless in the Shinagawa station because I could not catch a train and a taxi to Yokohama.

Please come to see me tomorrow afternoon. I will tell you my miserable experience in the clutter room. (Editor's Note: Just last week I teased Dr. T that his office is so messy it could not possibly look any worse after an earthquake.)

The trains aren't running so I hope I can find a taxi driver willing to take me to Yokohama this afternoon.  I am desperate to hear the details of his miserable experience.  I am desperate to get back to Japan after four straight days on this base.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Fear and Trembling in Yokosuka, Part II: Emergency Contact System

After crawling out from under the table, I checked my watch and calculated six or seven hours would pass before my children would wake up on the other side of the world, learn of the earthquake, and suffer through simultaneous thoughts of "Is Mom okay?" and "Did she leave me anything?"  In six or seven hours I might be able to master a calm and soothing tone of voice and polish off that darn book.

Then I glanced at my computer.  Facebook was on the screen and my youngest child had just posted a message to his buddies.

College Boy: Man, that earthquake was crazy. Wish I was there to experience it.(Johnathon Bures and 3 others like this.)

"What is he doing up in the middle of a Virginia night?" I fumed just as the first aftershock sent me racing back to the table's shelter.  That aftershock was almost as interminable as the earthquake.  By the time the ground stopped shuddering, my thoughts had been transformed into "Thank God he inherited my Grandpa Sykes's nightowl gene.  There's an inexplicable comfort to be derived from sharing this experience with a loved one who is not at risk of suffering bodily injury from said experience."  I stumbled back to the computer.

Peevish: I am so glad you are NOT here because it is very, very scary. Much as I don't want to die alone, I would really prefer that you outlive me by at least 50 years. (no one liked this; I hate it when that happens.)

College Boy: Call me! (Johnathon Bures likes this.)

Summoning up the calmest and most soothing tone of voice available to me under the circumstances, I placed the call.  I wanted to make him laugh.  My memory is a bit muddled, but I believe I succeeded. 

As it turns out, he's on Spring Break from classes right now.  So it was okay he was up so late.  Not that he isn't up just as late when he's not on Spring Break.

Golden Girl and Texas Star subsequently informed me that College Boy took it upon himself to alert all six of his siblings, including the one he's met only twice in his 18 years on earth, that I had survived a natural disaster which none of them knew had occurred.

The Ancient Mariner and I derive great comfort from knowing there is a communication mechanism in place to spread the news when one of us eventually kicks the bucket.  We are quite shocked, however, to find that the child who didn't even know how to pick up a telephone until two years ago would actually know how to activate that system.  I certainly would not have known how to reach all seven kids as quickly as he did.

I decided to leave that book to my sister.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Fear and Trembling in Yokosuka, Part I

My living room couch is angled against a north-facing window. The location of the two plump pillows shifts with the sun. In the morning and early afternoon those pillows lean against the eastern arm so I can read by natural light. The pillows move to the other end, near the lamp, when daylight starts to fade.

Natural light was plentiful last Friday. I've noticed I spend less and less time gazing at the sky these days, something I blame on years living in or near major metropolitan areas where stars can no longer be seen, but the sky was quite remarkable Friday morning. Could that color be described as cobalt? I wondered when I sauntered out to the patio with my first cup of coffee that morning. Not cobalt, I decided, but nevertheless a breathtakingly dramatic shade of blue. I admired the sky and then laughed at myself for admiring the sky.

My plan for the afternoon had me delivering a second load of contributions to the submarine wives for their Saturday yard sale. That morning I dropped off the first load then piled more contributions on the kitchen counter before stretching out on the couch with John Hart's The Last Child. One chapter led to another just as one chapter has led to another since the dawn of the printing press and it was 2:45 pm when I finally managed to exercise enough self-control to close the book and think about loading up the car.

The book landed on the coffee table just as the house started shaking. "Ick," I thought. ("Ick" is what I think whenever I feel the ground shake. I am not proud of thinking "ick". I would much prefer to have thoughts demanding a more refined vocabulary like "seismic event" or "techtonic plate shift" but I want to accurately and honestly record my memories of this historical event so "ick" it is.)

In my limited experience of earthquakes - mind you, I never felt a single tremor for the first two years we lived in Japan - they last for two or three seconds. Until now, the basic procedure has been: ground shakes, Peevish mutters "ick", ground stops shaking.

Except this time the ground did not stop shaking. The Anshinkan Disaster Simulation kicked in. I sprang around the coffee table and dove headfirst under the dining room table, gripping one of those claw-and-ball feet for dear life. Life did strike me as being ever so dear at that moment. How could I have taken it for granted?

"Lulu!" I have a houseguest but had no idea if she was in the house. She's been sleeping in Matt's room for the past month and our paths have crossed about seven times for a sum total of 12 minutes. "Lulu!"

The floor continued to shake. From under the table, I watched in horror as the dining room chairs danced around the room. My life started flashing before my eyes. The vertical blinds had started to sway like a hypnotist's pocketwatch by the time my early training kicked in. Those Hail Marys poured out of my mouth but, truth be told, it was the Our Father that stopped the earthquake. That surprised me. I'll have to spend some time pondering that one. At the time, I was merely grateful.

The blinds continued to swing long after the earth stopped trembling. Then I crawled out from under the table to assess the damage. There was none I could see. The spice jars on the little ledge above the sink were still lined up in alphabetical order. The laptop computer on the back porch was still connected to the internet.

I gazed at the computer in astonishment. While I was praying for my life and gripping that table leg, my youngest son had posted on Facebook: Earthquake in Japan!

I shot him a quick return message just as Lulu appeared in the living room in a state of semi-shock. She was stepping out of the shower when the earthquake started. That was pretty funny (glad it wasn't me kind of funny) and we were sharing a chuckle when the first aftershock hit.

We both dove under the dining room table. I grabbed my book as I passed the coffee table. What in the world was I thinking? That I was going to read rather than pray? That I would actually be able to concentrate on the plot in the midst of a 7.something intensity earthquake? Maybe I was simply trying to exude calm for the benefit of my 24-year old guest. Maybe I was thinking my children would appreciate knowing I died with a book in my hand.

This was 200 miles from the epicenter. I cannot begin to imagine the horror those people in Sendai experienced.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Earthquake: JAW-dropping Irony

The Lord works in mysterious ways.

On Tuesday, March 8, the Japanese and American Wives (JAW) visited Anshinkan, the Yokosuka Municipal Disaster Prevention Center. We saw an informative video about how our host city handles large-scale disasters and then we entered the Disaster Simulation Zone where we tested our skills against an intensity 7 earthquake.

Three days later, on Friday, March 11, we experienced from a distance of about 200 miles Japan's most powerful earthquake in 140 years. That was close enough for me. I don't think I've ever felt as terrified, I know I've never felt so alone, but I certainly felt prepared. 

The Anshinkan staff taught us how to operate fire extinguishers. They reminded me of airline stewardesses except I paid closer attention to them since I knew I was going to be tested. Maybe airline stewardesses should actually press the button to drop those oxygen masks now and then so we can practice covering our faces before assisting the small child sitting next to us.

Mine was the first foursome to enter the Disaster Simulation Zone. Being first meant we wouldn't have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others. This made me nervous. And a bit bossy. "Psst! Weather Explorer! You're in charge of turning off the gas on that stove after the earthquake!" "Say what?" "You heard me."

We did not know we were being videotaped. 

The room started shaking. We dove under the table.  The shaking went on far longer than I expected, but not as long as the real earthquake three days later.

The shaking stopped.  Weather turned off the gas.  We shouted "Fire!" to alert our pretend neighbors and then we scampered into the next room.

The 'fire' is on a screen across the room from us

Here's what the fire looks like when it's nearly extinguished. Blue laser beams assured us we were pointing our fire extinguishers in the proper direction.

Once the fire was extinguished, we exited the Disaster Simulation Zone through a back door and scurried through a warren of passages while keeping low to the ground and covering our noses and mouths. Yet another reason, I suppose, that Japanese men always carry towels in their back pockets.

We viewed displays of firefighter apparel and disaster kit items. The photo above shows items recommended for inclusion in a secondary disaster kit. I had been looking for an excuse to invest in one of those gas burners (bottom, far right). "Be careful what you ask for" springs to mind.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Nippori Textile Town: Second or Third Encore

A Christmas Tree Skirt...someday
Weather will be leaving Japan in just a few months and Artistic might, or might not, be right behind her. Neither had experienced Tokyo's fabric district. This was a situation begging to be fixed.

Last week we grabbed a couple of other textile fans and hopped an early train bound for Nippori. Shinagawa-san, our talented quilting friend, joined our party. She was surprised and delighted to learn that Tokyo boasts a fabric district. I just love those rare moments when I get to introduce my Japanese friends to some of the more delightful aspects of their native land.

What an American military spouse can't find a use for two meters of red-and-white striped fabric for $4?  Then again, ask me in two or three years what I've done with this fabric, and I'll probably have to dig through five big plastic bins to find it looking exactly as it does in this picture.

I spotted bolts of green corduroy and pale blue striped damask (I think it's damask) in the Tomato bargain store for 100 yen a meter. Why don't people use corduroy for tablecloths? I wondered and then promptly bought 12 meters of the stuff and all the damask, about ten meters, they had to offer. Sooner or later I'll find out why people never use corduroy for tablecloths I suppose.

So far all I've managed to learn is that 22 meters of fabric is very, very heavy. Fortunately we spotted a vacant locker in the Asakusabashi station on our brief detour to the paper district so I could check out the washi paper and craft supplies without feeling and looking like a camel.

Weather, "Ouiser", and Shinagawa-san at Sakurahorikiri craft shop

Sunday, March 6, 2011

JAW Celebrates Hina Matsuri

Ah, here we go! The desktop computer has been resurrected and we're back in business.

We celebrated Hina Matsuri with the Japanese ladies at Tadodai House a few days early. Donning slippers, we padded upstairs to the tatami room for a koto performance by a talented trio led by a former JAW member. Two ladies plucked 13 strings but the musician in the rear (pictured above) worked a 17-string koto.  Can you see the picks she's wearing on her fingers?

More than two dozen Japanese ladies sang the first number - a traditional Japanese melody - in unison, producing a lovely sound that sent shivers up and down my spine. After two or three instrumental pieces and a rousing take on "Yankee Doodle", the performance ended with "The Navy Hymn".

Otsuka-san rolls sushi
Then it was back downstairs to the dining room for a sushi-rolling lesson. We rolled crabmeat, strips of cucumber and baked eggs, and some sort of pickled vegetable into rice wrapped in seaweed.  Then we sealed the roll along with the bamboo rolling device into a cute plastic bag to take home.  I now own three of those bamboo rolling devices so I'm all set to open a sushi school when we get back to the States.

One of our hostesses rolled sushi in the shape of cherry blossoms and roses.

The tatami room was transformed while we were busy rolling sushi. When we padded back upstairs, there were dozens of cute mobiles hanging from the rafters and the ladies' doll collections lining the walls.

American JAW members admire an elaborate doll display

While I was waiting for my friends to arrange themselves around that doll display, I noticed a scroll and flower arrangement in a nook to my left. "Psst, Mimi! Look at this pretty flower arrangement. Someone went to a lot of trouble but we are so busy admiring the dolls that I'm afraid no one will notice these camellias."

Later, over lunch, I asked Otsuka-san which Japanese member had been in charge of coordinating the wonderful party.  She told me Reiko deserved the credit so I grabbed a little bag of sakura cookies and went in search of Reiko.  Those little cherry blossom cookies caught my eye when I was wandering through a department store last week and I wanted to share them with a deserving friend.  Reiko seemed to fit the profile perfectly.  

Reiko, in typical Japanese fashion, could not bear to receive a gift without giving one in return. It turned out that she was responsible for the camellia arrangement in the tatami room and she insisted I take it home with me. Do I lead a charmed existence or what? Just don't tell Mimi.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

What Comes After Middle Age?

The Ancient Mariner hasn't mentioned that his birthday box showed up in Borneo so I'm thinking it probably won't reach him until the USS Blue Ridge hits the next port a few days from now.

This is a milestone birthday for the love of my life. He's eligible for Medicare. He's in good company, too: Steven Spielberg, Patty Duke, Hayley Mills, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Liza Minnelli, John Woo, Oliver Stone, Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Susan Sarandon, Donald Trump, Connie Chung, Cher, Tommy Lee Jones, and Laura Bush. (Did you know that Tommy Lee and Laura attended the same high school?)

Freddie Mercury was also born in 1946 but, alas, is no longer with us.

Happy birthday, Mike. Maybe next year I'll make you a cake.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Happy Girls' Day: A Day Late and a Computer Short

Yesterday was Hina Matsuri, the day Japan celebrates girls and the day I intended to share highlights from last Friday's JAW Hina Matsuri party.

But all the pictures of the koto trio and my Japanese friends' doll collections are on my desktop computer which stopped speaking to the internet two days ago so all I have to share is a picture of my latest Fujiya find, a box of Peko-chan sweets wrapped in a Hina Matsuri scarf.

And yes, Ancient Mariner, I have unplugged that cord and counted to ten.  Slowly.  Twice.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Trying to Reach Closure

So far this week the biggest decision I've had to make was which of my half dozen umbrellas to grab on the way out the door for my weekly monologue with Dr. T. The skies have poured rain for the past two days. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. Those cherry trees can probably use a little nourishment before they start unfurling blossoms in another few weeks.

There's nothing like curling up with a good book on a rainy day unless it's knitting but I just can't seem to motivate myself to finish those purple socks, the magenta mittens, or the cardigan sweater I started last fall. Reaching closure has been a problem for me as far back as I can remember. My children noticed years ago that I never completed a video game; I would battle my way to the last dungeon in Zelda or the last ogre on Yoshi's Island and then put down the controller, turn off the game, and find something else to do.

Lately I've noticed that I'm not the only one suffering from this closure problem. A sign in the Navy Hospital the other day had me wondering what ever happened to the staggered lunch concept enforced by every company that ever employed me. This sign made me frown.

Then I spotted a closure sign next to a cash register at a Japanese electronics store. This sign made me smile.

"I really don't know how to apologize to you.  Please move to other cash registers."


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