Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmases Past

My mom is so awesome!  She sent us this awesome Christmas box, which made me want to reminisce about Christmases past.  Or, as they say in the Christmas carol "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," I want to tell tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago...

Budleadoo~ budleadoo~ budleadoo~

Christmas in my house has always been big.  I'm talkin', you can't reach the Christmas tree 'cause there's too many presents in your way.  Word has it that this year is no different.  All of us, my mom's children, that is, are in our 30's, I'm not home and one of my brothers is going to Maryland with his wife, and there are still presents overtaking the living room.  Growing up, it would look like there was an avalanche of presents spewing from under the tree, if you could see the bottom half of the tree.  On Christmas Eve night I would beg to open one present and we would fight about the tradition;  Did we or did we not open one present on Christmas Eve night?  I believe we did.  On Christmas morning, I would usually wake up first, being the youngest, to find my stocking outside my door or next to my bed, and I would run and knock on my brother's doors to tell them to get up and open their stockings.  My mom reminded me the other night that when we were young, before my grandma Mary passed on, we couldn't open our presents until she got there around 9am, and she was settled into her red leather arm chair.  

Every year, I'm always surprised by how much stuff my mom gets into our stockings.  Our stockings were always stuffed with more than a stocking looks like it can hold.  Our Christmas stockings usually produce socks, candy, lottery scratch offs, maybe a stuffed animal, in the old days- tapes- more recently- CDs, little games, small electronics, soaps, and almost always a manicure kit.  I can hardly think of all of the things I have gotten in my stockings over the years.  That's what is so amazing about them;  They contain so many things that you didn't know you wanted, but are really happy to get.  Occasionally, there would also be a gift card in there.  Sometime after stocking discovery, we would make our way out to the living room to open presents.  My brother, Ted, would hop out in his sleeping bag, zipped completely up around his head, so just his eyes could peer out and he could stay as close to a state of sleep as possible until he had to free his hands to rip wrapping paper.  My brother Timmy joined this tradition as he got older.  The sleeping bag people and I would open presents together with my mom and grandma every Christmas morning.  Was Jason there, too?  I can't remember if Jason, a family friend and honorary member of the family, in my opinion, got there for presents, or a little later.

Every Christmas was perfect, except that one year when I was 13 and Timmy and Ted seemed to get everything they wanted and I got lots of things, but I didn't get the one thing I asked for, a certain watch.  I cried and acted like a brat.  That leads me to think of other Christmas mishaps, like the year that we picked out a Christmas tree that just happened to have a crooked trunk, and my mom, after spending hours trying to get it to sit up straight in the stand, threw it out the front door while screaming at whoever happened to be around. 

Probably the most expensive Christmas mishap happened one year when my brothers both got skateboards.  Christmas night, we were all in the family room, playing with our new stuff and watching TV.  This room was a converted garage, so it was pretty big, and Timmy was rolling around and balancing on his new skateboard, when it flew out from under him and right through the glass door! 

One year, when Peter and I lived in LA, we bought a Christmas tree only a few days before Christmas.  We got a great fake tree at Home Depot for 50% off, and when I took it to the register, they took an additional 50% off, which I pointed out, but they didn't care, so I got a 7' tree for $15, which we still have and is up in my mom's house as I type.  Anyway, when I bought this tree, the entire county of Los Angeles was sold out of tree stands, so we had to basically hang it from the ceiling with wire and hooks, while the post rested on the floor.  We didn't hang it upside down or anything, but I still kind of felt like an anarchist, for some reason.  You couldn't even tell once a few presents were placed around the base!  That year our dog, an Italian Greyhound named Ralphy, knew what one of our presents was before we did, and we came home to a dog who had ripped open a package and eaten a lot of chocolate.  He died.  Just kidding!  He was ok. 

Another Christmas mishap, which I really don't think anyone cared about except my mom, happened last Christmas, when I messed up the family drawing.  I thought I had my brother Ted, but I was actually supposed to get a gift for my brother Timmy, so Ted ended up with 2 presents while Timmy had none.  Well, I thought Timmy would like the gift as well as Ted would, so I just had him open it anyway, and he did like it, so it was fine.  However, my mom is still upset about it, almost 365 days later.  I'm sure there are many more stories, tragically lost by my memory.

Things that remembering Christmases past has made me think of...  The red and black carpet we used to have in our living room, the fireplace and the mantle I used to tap dance on as a little girl, the gold fireplace with a really cool wood bin that had a door to the outside so you could load it, and a door to the inside right next to the fireplace so you could use it, throwing wrapping paper into the fire to make red and green and blue flames, getting that silly brush that was so expensive that my mom wrapped it in gold and saved it for last, pictures of my nephew Josh opening presents as a kid, my grandma living with us and sitting on the side of the table closest to the TV room for Christmas dinner, Aunt Millie, wonderful cousin Ann, Jason and how happy he always is to get a big barrel of pretzels for Christmas, and thick socks, the fiber-optic spinning Christmas tree that played Oh, Christmas Tree and changed colors, the one gingerbread house I ever made with my family, and how Ted put an anarchy symbol on the roof in white frosting, angry parking at the mall, Ted testing out his new fishing pants on Christmas morning by wading into the pool with them on, my brothers trying to give us a white Christmas by spraying the lawn down with the hose and hoping it would frost overnight, fires in the fireplace, always, even if it was 70 degrees out, soy chai lattes in red and white cups, hot chocolate elitism, the year we had 2 trees - one regular with multicolored lights and all of our homemade ornaments and tinsel, and one with an Asian fan theme, new bikes and riding all day on Christmas, egg nog, quiet Christmases in LA, white elephant with 30 people on Peter's side of the family, making Christmas cookies and breads, and that one year, did I sleep on a borrowed single bed stuck behind the Christmas tree?

I kind of believed the talk about Americans having no culture.  Now I understand that I just couldn't see it because I was so engrossed in it.  I had never gotten any distance from it in order to be able to recognize it.  I love the culture of Christmas.  I love that every American knows that Santa lives at the North Pole.  I love that I know the reindeer's names and what the elves do.  I love that I've gotten to experience all of the books and movies (Home Alone!!) that have grown up in and around the holidays in America, and that I'm from such a creative and expressive country.  I never did before, but now I love that stores start selling Christmas stuff and playing Christmas music so far in advance of the holiday.  My dad always said, "Showing up is 50% of being successful," but never expounded upon it.  I like the holiday season because I feel that we are all participating in something positive and good-spirited, together, and I have come to believe that participation is a very important factor in living a healthy, happy life, and in contributing to those same factors in other people's lives.  Showing up really does make a difference, and I can tell by how much I miss this season that people do show up and participate, and that's why I have so much to miss, and that's awesome.

Marketing or no, the cards and the ribbons and the colors that adorn our lives from Thanksgiving to the new year create a penumbral phenomena of good energy that makes our holiday culture rich, warm, and lasting.  The more we do together, and the more details we pay attention to, the better are our experiences, and therefore our memories.  (Maybe I should leave this out of my warm, fuzzy Christmas reflection and commentary -although I have mentioned anarchy twice-, and I'm probably, HOPEFULLY, jumping the gun here, but it has occurred to me that at some point we will have more memories than we have life left, so let's make sure they are great -I suffer from the opposite of taking things for granted.  I don't know which is worse.)  Sometimes it seems like a pain and a waste of money, but I've decided that, for me, it's worth it to spend a little more time and a little more effort to make the moments great, and to enjoy and indulge in the wonderful culture that we are so blessed to have.

Thank you, Mom! for being instrumental in making this Christmas just as special.  You have outdone yourself again, even from the other side of the world.  But I'm sure, as usual, this is the last Christmas you will go all out.  Even though you never read my blog, I love you.

Merry Christmas!!!

From Japan,

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Disorganized Thoughts About Differences

Things happen here that I never would have thought about if I didn't experience it here and now, doing this job.  For instance, when you learn Japanese writing, you learn the stroke order.  Stroke order tells you which line should be drawn first and in which direction it should be drawn.  Like this:

The numbers tell you which line comes first and the arrows tell you in which direction to write.  Well, I always thought this was unique to Japanese when compared with English, but you watch a Japanese student write an 'a' like they are writing a '2' or write an 'e' from the bottom up, and you will think differently.

Stroke order is confusing for me sometimes because many hiragana have a similar look or shape, but are written differently.  This morning I was at a friend's home learning Japanese, and I was self conscious writing hiragana in front of her.  She got out a stroke order chart from one of her child's books for learning, and we looked it over together.  I showed her that 'ma' and 'mo' look similar, but have different orders.  Also, I consider the longest line, or the most central line, "the base" of the character.  For 'mo' you write the base first, but for 'ma' you don't.



My friend was surprised at the way I looked at them and the words I used to describe them.  Having grown up with them, she saw katakana through the filter of a completely different life.

This experience helps me feel some satisfaction with more complex differences I experience with people, such as when talking endlessly in the US about politics.  I find it very difficult to understand, truly baffling for me to understand why someone would choose to support a certain platform or person.  Though the topics are so different, having this hiragana experience with a Japanese person helped me to see that two people's differences may be root deep; too deep to be even of their own choosing, but rather unconscious, cultural truths of their lives.  With inflammatory topics like religion or abortion people generally respond with their emotions, which manifest through blame and accusations.  But I have witnessed that differences, and the reasons for the differences, can sometimes be more innocent than I generally imagine, especially when I see harm being done out of a lack of empathy or understanding.  Truths, contrary to the desires of my dwindling youthful idealism, are as subjective as everything else.      

When learning hiragana in college, I developed ideas about them, as one is wont to do about anything - we have to form judgements around things so that we have a place to put them in our minds.  Then I came face to face with a native Japanese speaker who didn't exactly explain how she sees them, but she showed interest in the way I perceive them.  With hiragana, I didn't have to think twice; she was the expert, and I deferred to her perception. Not that my POV lacks value, but if one of us has to be right, as a native speaker and writer, she wins.

In politics, we are all touting our opinions and passions with equal ignorance, and the complexity of the subject compounds the difficulty.  Even brilliant people with degrees and titles sound like they are full of crap, and they act that way, too, on the news and in interviews.  How are we to make intelligent, informed decisions when everyone is lying and cheating, including the people you are desperately defending and voting for, and the rules are changing everyday?    

In politics, it's so complicated that people stop thinking and, honestly, don't have the time to really dissect the issues, as convoluted as they are, and they end up just resting on the idea that the other person is an idiot.  Don't tell me you haven't done it.  When people are debating about the national budget, and health care, and the solution seems so simple to you, it's tiresome, and you quit, and you go on thinking you are right and they are wrong.  We rarely have a really enlightening, foundation shaking experience, and even if it were available to you, would you be open to it? 

I am.  The roots of these problems matter to me.  I don't want to go about my trip to buy a pair of shoes and cooking dinner and getting sleep for work tomorrow.  I want to know WHAT is going on.  WHY it is going on.  I want to think about it, write about it, ponder and discuss it.  I wish someone would pay me to do that.

We have to be born somewhere, and that somewhere forms the foundation of our points of view.  When it comes to American politics, we basically have two lots to choose from, and if our parents get us started on lot A, we oftentimes stay on lot A.  It's deeper than facts and trends.  Our stances rest on deep foundations nurtured for decades, and might even rely on nature.  Perhaps you are republican because generations of your family hail from the north and have been republican since the party's inception.  Two people can dissect the same line of dialogue from a play and write completely different papers about it.  I heard that people who grow up in Asian countries actually have a different brain structure than people who grow up in Western countries.  And two people from different countries can look at a couple of hiragana and see two different worlds of cultural history.  So we want to draw the lines differently.  Regardless of the topic, it probably matters less than we imagine, since eventually, it'll all be dust.

From Japan,

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Oh, I don't know.

The title to this installment is the answer to the question, "What should I write about?"

How about chemicals leaching into our drinks?  That sounds like fun.

The reason I bring it up, is this: Here in the grand ole' country of Japan we have vending machines.  There are so many that I am going to go ahead and say they are a part of the culture.  I am disturbed by one quality the vending machines possess.  They possess the ability to sell you HOT drinks.  Slap a 100¥coin into the slot and you can have your favorite summertime cold drink in the hot variety.  I find it disturbing that I can purchase a hot drink in the same plastic bottle or can, or lined box, that I can buy cold.  Is the plastic in Japan different than the plastic in the US?  Are cans not lined? 

Maybe I only care because I'm half way down the road to hippiehood, but one can't deny that chemicals leached into food and beverages cause problems.  There are news stories about it and companies like Sigg and Kleen Canteen build entire marketing campaigns about it.  (Yes, Sigg has been thrown out of the non-leaching clean world.  Their products apparently don't leach, but the chemicals are still present in their liners.)

Do people not care, or do they just not know?

On to another topic...

How about Holidayitis?  It's kinda like Senioritis.  Here's how you can tell if you have it:
-Calling a word search with Christmas words a "cultural lesson."
-Thanking your version of god for the Emperor of Japan being born close to Christmas, and that it's a national holiday so at least you get to stay home for something.
-Feelings that you should be consuming mass quantities of chocolate Santa Clauses and pies.

I know I have it.  I think the only treatment is to just wait it out.

And finally, just because three topics seem right, I'll talk about my wellness.  I have been sick since mid-October.  A couple of weeks ago I went to the doctor because I was coughing uncontrollably, and he gave me antibiotics, which I refused to take.  When I woke up a couple of days later, after feeling a definite upturn, with sore tonsils, I began to take every pill I had in the house, including the antibiotics, but I was so sick on Tuesday morning that I stayed home from school and slept ALL DAY (hence my last really depressing post).  And guess what?  I feel better than I have in months.  I'm not convinced that the Doctor had a good reason for giving me the antibiotics, but it turns out I needed them.  He didn't even look in my ears or nose.  I feel pretty good.

Oh, ok, one more...  I ordered a bunch of stuff off of today and I can't wait to get it!!  Cleaning time at school.  Gotta go.

From Japan,

Monday, December 13, 2010


One of the beautiful changing scenes from our window

"Experience is a grindstone; and it is lucky for us, if we can get brightened by it, and not ground." 

-Josh Billings

I know in time I will reflect the benefit of today, but right now I feel pretty raw.

From Japan,

Thursday, December 9, 2010

How Stuff Gets/Stays Warm

So!  Here we meet again.  Hello.

A Proper picture of the Kotatsu Table

The heating elements in Japan are strange and fascinating.  Heat everything?  Never!  You must be cold when going from place to place, and only warm when you settle in one place!... if you are lucky.  Bake?  Not in my house.  We are not blessed with an oven, convection or otherwise.  That's what J & M are for.  We'll see you soon, J & M.  Here are the different heating devices we have come to know and love:

The Kotatsu

I scoffed at the kotatsu, resisted its powers, but now we are in love.  The kotatsu poses as a regular, not especially attractive-looking coffee table, but she has hidden warming powers.  The kotatsu has a heater underneath.  You need one of these floor chairs that adjusts to different levels like a patio chair.  They look uncomfortable, but they are heaven in disguise.  Plug the kotatsu in, toss a blanket over the whole mix, and snuggle in for a sedentary night of Facebooking, Megavideo watching, reading, studying Japanese, or letter writing.  In these pictures I have tossed the blanket over the whole table, but you are supposed to take the table top off and pin the blanket between the top and the base.  In this way, you maintain your regular table top while trapping the toasty goodness in underneath.  We put the blanket away the day before for a party, and when I was ready to sit down to make CDs the next night, I just wanted to get warmified as quickly as possible.

A Peek Under the Kotatsu

In The Bedroom
We have a wall heater in the bedroom with a really awesome little remote control.  This thing is also an air conditioner.  It works pretty well, but Japanese homes have zero insulation, so we really have to pump it for the room to stay warm.

        In The Bathroom                        
Our tub is pretty awesome.  Japanese bathrooms are pretty awesome.  This is our shower room.  The whole room is for taking a shower and/or bath.  In Japanese fashion, you would fill the tub and cover it- You can just see the 3 covers in the left of the frame -then the whole family washes by taking a shower.  Everyone being clean, you can share the tub water and each take a nice soak.  We perform every configuration of bathing in here; showers, baths, both, and family bath/shower combos.  Check out that little box above the tub in the middle of the picture.  The black part is a screen that has a digital read out of the temperature, the tub fill line, the time, etc.  The top left button is green and gets pushed when you go in to do anything.  That button turns the heater on.  It's gas.  The top right button is pink.  This magical button fills the tub.  So you just decide that you want to take a bath, go in and touch the green and then the pink, and 20 minutes later you have a full tub, filled to the level of your choosing, at a hot tub temperature.  The water for this comes out of the round metal thing down in the tub.  You can change the temp, too, which I need to do because I always need to take a couple of minutes to add some cold water so I can get in.  The button on the bottom right is yellow.  That is the button you push if you need to rewarm the water.  Maybe you forgot about your bath, or unexpectedly had to leave your bath, or someone took a bath at five and someone else wants to take a bath at 7, you just use the covers for the tub and push yellow when you need to rewarm.  The water gets sucked into the round metal thing and pushed back out, but warm.  I don't know what the button on the bottom left does.  This Japanese dude who came over told us not to touch it.

In The Kitchen
This is our water heater for the kitchen.  I love the push button turn on.  It's really convenient for turning the water on when your hands are messy and for managing the water and a rasculin' baby at the same time.  We turn the gas on and off as we use it for the tub, the stove, and the water heater.  You turn the dial for desired level of hotness, and that's it.  You can also use it without the gas being on for cold water, or you can use the faucet.

This is our toaster oven.  It's way up in the cabinet in this picture. 
We put it away for counter space.  It works pretty well, but it's not big enough to make cookies or anything.
Then we have the stove with two burners where we do most of our cooking, and the kettle.  We just got this new kettle.  It's so powerful that it throws the breaker all the time.  It beats our old one that did not have an auto shut off.  I won this one playing Bingo at my school's Bounen kai (end of year party).   I love it!

And finally, we have the oil heater.  This bad boy has a tiny little notch representing every quarter of an hour throughout the day.  You push them up for off and down for on, so it pops on and off just when you want it to, all day.  It's the least scary of room heater options available, aside from installing another wall heater, which would cost us close to $300, I think.  We bought this one from eco-town, a recycle shop, or second hand store, down the road from us.  We inherited a kerosene heater, but Peter refused to consider it because of the fumes.  I'm very proud of him for that, actually, since he rarely adheres to any principle, which drives me batty.  I know now from experience in my office that kerosene heaters give off potent gas fumes that I don't notice until I leave and reenter the office.  Then I realise that they are really strong, and not very healthy.

                                                                The Oil Heater                                                       

I guess that's it.  Kind of a funny topic, but it's a big part of life, staying warm.  Happy Holidays!!

From Japan,

PS:  The formatting on Blogger is a nightmare.  Yeah?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Usuki: A Photo Blog

Here are some random pictures from the Bamboo Lantern Festival we went to in Usuki a few weeks ago, and of Knox.  I usually write at school, but my pictures are on my computer at home, so they aren't always synced up.
Knox and friends at his Friday play group
Peter, Tiffany, and Knox Illuminated by Bamboo Candles

A Beautiful Array of Bamboo Candles

Bamboo Dragon

They Can Do Really Cool Things with Bamboo and Light

A really awesome picture
From Japan,