Wednesday, October 17, 2007

My latest gig

Since I got back from Japan in June, I have joined the ranks for the unemployed -- hanging around the Employment Commission office, getting alerts from CareerBuilder, Indeed and, cranking out resumes, dreaming up cover letters, dashing off to the occasional interview, trying not to wait for the phone to ring. Getting my hopes up and finding myself crashing down with each rejection.

While waiting for the real thing to come along, I have started “babysitting” (eldersitting?) a couple in their 90s two nights/week. There is not a lot to do besides helping Mrs. C get ready for bed and turning Mr. C once in the night. He is bedridden with dementia (possibly Alzheimer’s) and has bedsores so he can’t stay in one position long. She is in a wheelchair. Basically, the family (who are friends of mine) want someone there in the night in case something happens. I’m not a nurse – far from it! In fact, this is so far outside my comfort zone, it’s not even on the same planet, but it’s good for me. My idealistic self is satisfied that I’m helping someone and I think it’s good for one to make sacrifices for their elders.

Last night I was working on my computer when Mrs. C asked me to kill a spider in the other room. Now people, I am deathly afraid of bugs! I can actually kill a daddy longlegs – no matter how big – because they curl up and get really small when you kill them. But this was one of those large, hairy, brown spiders. That is the kiss of death for me!

To really understand this, you’ve got to know that Mrs. C is not your typical sweet old lady. She is a rather patrician, autocratic 91-year old Southern lady who was born right after the turn of the century when there was still a huge separation in the classes in the south. Make no mistake about it – she is the lady of the house and I am the paid help. She can put you in your place with her silence and while her body is frail, her will has only become tempered through the years.

Last night, after giving Mr. C his meds, I asked Mrs. C if I could sit in the living room while she did her work in the study.

“Of course,” she said graciously.

So I settled into the armchair Mr. C used to sit in when he was able to sit up. I pull out my laptop and start playing a game with the sound off. In a few minutes, I see her traveling around the house, inspecting locks, checking that the dishes are done, making notes about what the day help will do tomorrow. I know she is up to something because she rarely moves around so much, even in her chair. I watch from the corner of my eye while playing the game. She will let me know in her own good time.

Sure enough, she finally speaks from the doorway separating the kitchen and dining room: “There’s a spider in here.”

“OK,” I call back, hoping she is going to kill it herself.

No such luck.

“Can you come kill it?”

“NO,” I think. “I’ll try,” I say.

I walk cautiously to the doorway, asking in a trembling voice where it is.

“In there,” she says with this cranky old lady tone that indicates I am an imbecile for not knowing. She points through the kitchen doorway to the dining room.

I move her wheelchair back and cautiously walk in. I spot a brown shape about the size of a flattened golf ball, gleaming, motionless on the cream carpet. Even from a distance of several feet, I can see that this is not one of the gray, spindly-legged insects we used to kill when we were kids. This creature is plump -- and it has hair.

“How am I going to kill it?” I ask in a shaky voice.

She tells me there’s a fly swatter in the kitchen. A fly swatter! For that huge animal! You’ve got to be kidding! I grab the fly swatter, warn Mrs. C that I’m afraid of spiders and march into the dining room. I call to Jesus for help (seriously!) and SWAT the plastic waffled square smack in the middle of the target. The spider jumps up about two feet in the air. I can feel the motion through the handle of the flyswatter and I squeek.

Mrs. C moves her wheelchair back out of the doorway and smiles. “Don’t have a heart attack,” she says sarcastically.

I quickly smack the monster again. Another jump. Another squeal.

It looks like it’s flat, but you can’t be sure. I know these rascals have a way of curling up and pretending to be dead, but as soon as your back is turned they unfurrow themselves and slither off into the darkness. All that smacking, jumping and squeeling for nothing? I think not.

“Now what do I do?” It’s a rhetorical question, but Mrs. C has an answer. “Step on it and make sure it’s dead.”

“Eeeeewwwah!” I step back. NO way!. I can just imagine me stepping on the spider with my athletic shoe, feeling his body through the rubber bottom and then looking at the squished carcass. Not happening.

Mrs. C snickers and I realize that she is having a great time.

I get an idea.

“Maybe you can run it over with your wheelchair?” ! I get a picture of stern Mrs. C resolutely pushing the wheels with her hands toward the spider, running it over with single-minded purpose.

She knows I’m kidding and offers a different solution. “Get a paper towel and squish it up so you know it’s dead,” she suggests.

Are you kidding me? Then I would really feel the shape of the body as it squished beneath my paper-towel protected hands. In fact, just thinking about it, I sense a phantom body disintegrating beneath my fingertips. I feel nauseated.

“I don’t think so, “ I say weakly.

She backs her wheelchair up and travels around the living room, waiting for me to figure it out.
I finally get a tall plastic kids’ toy – probably something she has around for the grandchildren to play with – and set it down near the flattened brown body.

Mrs. C silently rolls the chair back to the doorway. She is not about to miss this show.

With the flyswatter, I nudge the creature into the can, bracing myself for it to come to life and scamper away, or worse – jump again. No movement. Good sign. With my feet as far from the can as possible, I lean over and look inside the can – the spider is halfway on the lip, but half of the body is still on the carpet. If I pick up the can now, it will probably fall out and I’ll have to start all over again. I nudge a few more times, lean again and see that it is ¾ of the way inside the can. I grab the paper towel that Mrs. C had so helpfully offered earlier and pick up the edge of the can, holding it out in front of me like a snake handler with a basket of poisonous asps. Mrs. C watches casually from her chair, parked so she can see everything.

“Eww, Eww, Eww,” I say in time to my quick-step run to the bathroom. I look resolutely NOT into the can and pray to God and Jesus that the spider is really dead and won’t crawl out of the can onto my hand. As I reach the open toilet, I realize that I will have to move my hand to the bottom of the can.

Eeeeewwah, that means that a mere ¼ inch of plastic will be separating my exposed skin from the grotesque body inside the can. But I have to do it. Mrs. C is watching.

I maneuver my hand to the bottom of the can, still holding the paper towel to add a 16th of an inch more protection between my hand and the spider. I can literally feel the hairy legs invading the sensitive skin of my hand as I imagine the spider crawling, bouncing or sliding out. I dump it in the toilet and make myself look to be sure it is truly disposed of. I flush – twice -- and breath a sigh of triumph!

“All done,” I call casually to Mrs. C as I exit the bathroom.

“Thank you,” she says regally as she wheels back to her study.

As if nothing had happened.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Look what we missed

Logged onto Yahoo today and found out that people all over Japan are finding millions of yen in their mailboxes. Sure, right after we leave Japan. Why couldn't they have started this a few month earlier?

According to a report on Yahoo news, residents of a Tokyo apartment building found unsealed plain envelopes in their mailboxes with cash inside. The total was more than $15,000.

And that's not all. A woman in Kobe, just a mere 40 minutes from us by bullet train, found a million yen in her mailbox. One hundred yen equals about $1.20 so you do the math. I know it's crazy, but I'm thinking that I lived near Kobe. I have a friend in Kobe. If I had been in Japan, it coulda been me! :)

On top of that, someone has been leaving money in men's restrooms asking people to do good deeds. Hey, I know some men. With six degrees of separation between me and everyone in the world, it could have been someone who knew someone I know!

If only we had stayed in Japan. We might have been the beneficiaries of some of the following yen from heaven:

  • Bills worth 960,000 yen were inexplicably seen "falling" in front of a convenience store.

  • A 67-year-old woman who found an envelope containing 10 million yen of stacked bills in her mailbox.

  • A woman walking on a bridge over Tokyo's Sumida River told officers that she saw bills falling at her feet from an elevated expressway above on July 6.

No one knows who is flinging around all this money in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Too bad they couldn't have taken some of it, flown to someplace that really needs it and tossed it around there. But my cynicism is taking over. Pardon me.

In typical Japanese fashion, those who found the money took it to police. Although the woman on the Tokyo bridge did say she saw some deviants pocketing the cash. For shame.

Dutifully, police are holding most of the money in case the rightful owner eventually decides to reveal his/her identity. Never mind the fact that the person obviously want to remain anonymous. Protocol must be followed. After one year, the people who found it can claim it. Meanwhile, those who were not so law-abiding will be enjoying the nefarious fruits of their evil greed.

I'm sorry to say that if I had been in Japan and the money had come in MY mailbox, it never would have crossed my mind to turn it in. And if I had seen money flying around outside a convenience store, I would have assumed that God was having a chuckle as He skipped the middleman to get us the money we needed. I wouldn't have even felt a twinge of guilt as I pocketed the yen from heaven. How about you?

If you're interested in the details, here's the link to the news story:

Sunday, May 27, 2007


Yep, we're going home.
Our wild and wacky year in Japan is almost over -- and not a moment too soon.
The past few months have been very difficult for both of us, as numerous blog posts have indicated. A few weeks ago when my daughter tearfully told me she wanted to go back to American by herself even if I didn't come with her, I knew it was time to go. The odd thing is that at the beginning of this month, I was planning to sign a contract for another year. But my daughter surprised me with the depth of her homesickness.
Around the same time, the managers at work told me that the higher ups thought it was inappropriate for my daughter to hang around at the school when I was working. That was a shock and disappointment. After all, one of the major attractions of this job -- and the only reason I ever consented to working five nights a week -- was the fact that my daughter could come to the school with me. She wasn't just a kid getting in everyone's way, but she had endeared herself to my adult students, was a playmate for the grade school kids and actually assisted me with the pre-schoolers. I wasn't sure if I even wanted to try to convince them she was an asset.
Then about a week later I became physically ill from all the stress. When you put it all together, it was a clear indication to me that our time here was over -- for now.
So now begins, for the second time in my life, the "last times":
  • the last time we will see the cherry blossoms in spring (How prophetic that cherry blossom/Easter post with Wayne's translation of "life is fleeting")
  • the last time I will dress Bonnie in her navy blue uniform, button up the huge round buttons, help her with the way-too-heavy backpack and say goodbye as she joins the kids next-door to meet the neighborhood "han" as they walk to school
  • the last time we will go to the 24-hour grocery store next to our apartment (Hallows) and 10 p.m. and get milk for the next morning

  • the last time I will go to the window during our break and watch the taxi drivers polish their cars or sit around smoking, talking and drinking coffee out of vending machine cans (see picture)
  • the last time I will see some of the students who have captured my heart this year

  • the last time I will muddle through some important communication concerning my daughter's education, broken heart, physical condition, etc in Japanese
  • the last time I will drive the adorable mini car belonging to my company
  • the last time I will go to Karaoke with Wayne and my students, listening to them sing in English and entertaining them with my Japanese repertoire
  • the last time I will take my shoes off at the genkan
  • the last time I will smell tatami mats when I come home at night
  • the last time Bonnie and I will cut through the park near our house on our way home from the train station and I'll watch her run ahead so she can slide down the slide before I catch up to her
  • the last time I will take a Shinkansen to Kobe and catch sight of my best friend, Kaori, waiting for us on the other side of the ticket gate (this one makes me cry as I write it)
  • the last time I will watch a kid seriously take out an eraser and carefully fix the mistakes on his homework after I have corrected it
  • the last time I'll see my daughter's artwork on the whiteboard at school. (We were singing a song about the letters "N-S-X", don't you know?)
  • the last time I will be able to make a pun in Japanese and see if my students "get" it

My daughter is so happy to be going home, I'm afraid she will miss all these chances for a last time. Poor dear, she has no idea what she is going to miss in a few months. But I do. It occurs to me that I never expected to come back to Japan when I left it forever in 2001. So I can't take this "sayonara" too seriously.

In Japanese "sayonara" is something you say when you're going to be gone for a long time. "Jya, mata, ne?" is what you say when you expect to see the person again soon. Life is too strange and unpredictable for me to believe this is really "sayonara." So, as I am drinking in all these "last times," there is a small part of me that is thinking, "Jya, mata, ne?"

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Only in Japan

What is it? A hamster? A mushroom? No! It's a stuffed tofu!

Only in Japan.

My friend just left from a two-week visit to Japan and before she left, she told me all the things she found unique about the wild and wacky world of the rising sun.
  • Calpis Soda -- the name of a very popular softdrink. In fact, it's my daughter's favorite.
  • Lunch tickets at the rest stop -- we took a short drive on the freeway (which cost a LOT of yen) and stopped at a scenic rest area for lunch. I guess they don't get many foreigners on the road because there was no English whatsoever. This wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that to get lunch, you have to decide what you want from a menu with no pictures -- just Japanese writing -- and push the appropriate buttons. Then the machine spits out tickets for what you bought, which you present to the cooks who cook it and call out your number. Luckily for me, most menu items are written in "katakana," which is the phonetic alphabet for foreign words, so I could figure most of it out -- chi-key-n, ra-mah-n, ka-ray-rah-ee-su and so on.
  • tofu pillow -- Where else on the planet could you get a child's stuffed toy in the shape of tofu?
  • curry cheese fries - We stopped at Wendy's for some good old fashioned American food and had this with our singles.
  • grocery carts -- instead of pushing a huge cart, you get a basket, which most people then set on the cart -- or you can just carry it around. My friend thought this was most handy.
  • vending -- There is literally a machine on every corner for drinks. You can also find just about anything else, from soup to porn magazines, but, for some strange reason you never see snacks.
  • set meals -- Something you can find at most fast food places in the U.S. comes at most restaurants. You order the main dish that you want and for a few dollars more you can get the "set" which usually includes bread or rice, soup and/or a salad, and a drink. At one Italian restaurant it even included your choice of red or white wine!
  • business hotels -- And we MEAN "business." The hotel we stayed at in Kobe refused to let my child stay with us -- at any price. These are cheap (by Japanese standards) and spartan -- usually a bed and a TV. Ours didn't even have a window!

Coming Up Next . . .

More of

Wild and Wacky


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Time of our lives

Who would've thought? In the midst of our first bowling excursion the other week, Bonnie turns to me and says, "Mommy, we're having the time of our lives, aren't we?"
On the left you can see her standing in front of the alley while her ball goes straight down the middle, heading to pick up a spare. Of course, it didn't hurt that the alley the kids were using had a "fence" on it to keep the balls out of the gutter. On the right of her is my ball heading not so neatly down the middle of the lane, veering into no man's land.
Later, we tried out the conraption in the next picure, which is for even younger children to use. I love the way Wayne is pointing like the hero of Moby Dick spotting the great white whale in the distance. This ball rolled every so slowly to its final destination, knocking over seven pins in slow motion. The kids were delighted. The little boy, Koken, is the son of our manager. He is a year behind Bonnie in school, but they are great friends. Bonnie has seen soaring castles, ghost-faced geisha, eaten feasts, dressed in summer kimono and flown on a farris wheel here in Japan, but BOWLING earned the description, "time of our lives." I wonder if that had anything to do with the fact that she beat me. Next time I'm bowling on the kids' lane!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Hippety Hoppety

Easter in Japan. Hmm . . .

Well, Easter in Japan is even more bereft of Christ than Christmas was. At least then we had a tree and a cake and some presents. But Easter is completely unrecognized. So we had to make our own.

About a month ago I got online and basically begged some of our friends to send us some Easter stuff and boy, did they come through! Here is a picture of Bonnie (blurry cuz I took it with my cell phone -- I was out of film at the time) with the Easter basket full of stuff that people sent! Note the pink plastic Ariel basket that we got free when we bought six cans of Grape Fanta last summer. Oh well, she didn't care!

Since several people sent us egg-dying kits, we decided to educate some of the kids I teach at the English school here. The little boy is Yuki, a kindergartener who was fascinated with the “magic” crayon (made of white wax). I made a sample egg first and they couldn't believe how the wax design was preserved in white while the rest of the egg turned into candy colors. Next is Yuka , another Kg-er looking duly thrilled while dipping her egg. Thanks for that Kodak moment, Yuka! Kids had a chance to practice their English while asking, “Whose egg is that?” “I like blue,” etc. They each made three or four eggs and took them home. They didn't believe me when I told them they could eat them.

And what do you think we did on Easter Sunday? No, nothing as mundane as, say, going to church! No way! We had a cherry-blossom viewing party with our students.

This party is called "ohanami" in Japanese. "o" is an honorific added to words to give them special significance. It is like saying, "honorable cherry blossom viewing party." The word "hana" means "flower" and "mi" comes from "mimasu," whish means "see." So, there you have it: O-hana-mi: Cherry blossom viewing party.

Originally I wanted to have the party near the end of the month when my friend will be visiting from the U.S., but as my students watched the cherry blossom forecast (yes, there is such a thing here - you can even get updates sent to your cell phone and Yahoo Japan has a special weather page for the forecast), they informed me that it would be far too late if we waited until then. So we pushed it forward to April 1st. However, there weren't any blossoms in our part of the country that week so we changed it to April 8th. I completely forgot it was Easter Sunday. When I realized what I had done, I briefly considered changing the date, but then thought it might be a fun way to spend the day. And it really was.

Bonnie and I met our manager, Yuri and her son Koken, along with the other English teacher, Wayne, and drove to the local Buddhist temple (or is it a Shinto Shrine? I forget). Anyway, we skipped the pagan part and went to the park next door which was overflowing with pink, cottony cherry trees in full blossom. One by one, our students found us (we had told them simply to come to the park at 1 p.m. and look for the two gaijin -- and it worked!) and helped us get the grill going (Wayne carried it up to the top of the hill!) with a little help from some other picnickers who actually had matches (oops!).

Everyone had brought packs of meat to grill and share, along with dipping sauce, rice balls, salad and chips. Yuri had been carrying what looked like a large, blue plastic briefcase, which stunningly transformed into a picnic table -- complete with benches. To the right is an actual picture of our actual students (Hiromi, Aya and Hatsue) at our actual party! After we ate, the kids (Wayne, Bonnie, Kouken and some of my students) found some old cardboard boxes, smashed them flat and used them to slide down the very steep hill next to us.

I sat on another hill overlooking the city, the rows of cherry trees laid out like pastel clouds below me, thinking of how the ohanami is viewed in Japanese culture. Since the cherry blossoms are only around for a short time every year, they are especially venerated. To see them at their peak takes good timing and good luck. Almost everyone in Japan tries to find some time to sit and enjoy the cherry blossoms before they are gone.

Wayne said it reminded him of a famous Japanese proverb he had just learned:

ichi go, ichi e


which he translated into English:

“Cherish every encounter, for it will never recur."