Friday, October 31, 2014

A rite of passage begins

Last weekend Marina participated in her first Sports Day as a kindergarden student. There were weeks of practice prior to the big day and we frequently heard hints of her anticipation and anxiety. Sports day is one of the highlights of the school year and M was clearly excited about it.

Sports day involves various races, events, games and dancing. The activities range from those for the hilariously uncoordinated newbies (first year students), who often seem a chaotic gaggle, and others for schoolmates in the upper grades.
Meanwhile, older siblings watch on the sidelines with a veteran’s gaze and chide the younger kids.
Sports Day is both a ritual and annual rite of passage for parents and children alike.

The grades in M’s kindergarden were divided into first, second, and third-year groups, then further divided into squads with Disney character names. (Here is where my innate skepticism noted branding’s insidious hold on society.) This being Japan, the event was organized with precision and the schedule held even with the packs of easily distracted kids roaming about, surrounded by a ring of camera-toting parents (myself included) and grandparents. The loudspeakers reminded everyone to meet here, take pictures there, teachers go here, teams go there, and so on. I am still astounded when I witness these school events; the pieces fit together like a Swiss clock each and every time.
Although she had practiced diligently and seemed eager before the event, on game day Marina feigned detachment, wasn’t really into posing for pictures, yet she gamely went through the motions: a team player to the end. Naomi was proud, and I remain bemused by the entire spectacle. I should note I have gotten used to it by now and obediently followed the audio prompts and took pictures when and where I was “encouraged” to do so. And, yeah, we were pleased and proud to see our youngest Rising Daughter take another step forward in her scholastic life.

Monday, October 20, 2014

American League Colostomy Series

We’re a few days away from the start of the 2014 World Series in Kansas City and I am a happy man.
Not because two wild card teams will meet in the fall classic.
Not because it is the KC Royals and SF Giants that are playing each other: nothing good or bad about either team. Cinderella stories both.

It’s because the Yankees didn’t make it into the playoffs and the Orioles got pummeled in the ALCS.
Source: The New Yorker

I have a Nixon-like vindictive streak and I was overjoyed when the Yankees didn’t get a wild card spot this year. Didn’t buy into the “Goodbye Jeter” merchandising of memories season either. I almost had heart palpitations from the joy of seeing the Orioles swept.
Yes, I am a sore loser.

Blue Jays’ Opening Day: such high hopes.
This season’s record of 83-79 was tolerable, but the Blue Birds didn’t live up to expectations. No revelation there. So they haven’t been in the playoffs since the back-to-back World Series wins in 1992-93 and now hold the title for the longest post-season absence bites…patience will pay off eventually. In short, this season’s bland ending doesn’t bite so hard because of the satisfaction I got from viewing the Stankees not advancing any further than the Jays did. It’s enough to get me through the winter.

Ah, I feel better now. if you bothered to read this far, thanks!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I Know What We Did Last Summer Pt.1

Anticipation was high. It was Aug. 6, and we arrived in Ottawa for our summer visit approximately the same time we’d left Japan. Family was tired but made the air journey intact. Flight connections and layovers were optimal; note that economy class aircraft seats in a Dreamliner 787 are not very dreamy. Lady E. had a seat armrest imprint on the side of her face while we were in the Toronto airport as we shuttled between lines. Immigration officials there are dressed in menacing black military-style uniforms and cargo pants. We feel slightly welcomed to Canada. Such are the times.

Exhilaration as we egress into the departure area. Canada! Grandpa warmly welcomes the girls, enveloping them with all that is good about coming home. That first night they sleep contented, but with a bewilderment fueled by jet lag and language disconnect.

The first week’s days pass quickly, spurred by shopping, park visits, riding around in the comfortable Nissan Rogue loaner (the curious magic of a sunroof) and so much delicious food. The Bulk Barn is a sugar-induced hit, shopping for Disney “Frozen” T-shirts and stickers high on the “must-do” list. Local parks are warm and tantalizingly free of mobs, all the better to acclimate to the space and the crisper temperature.
Naomi and I celebrate our anniversary downtown. This fete enabled by Grandpa’s new job as babysitter, putting my slightly nervous wife at ease so she can relax for about 18 hours. Parliament Hill’s façade at night becomes a canvas for the government to portray our idealized selves to foreign tourists, and I feel neither local nor a tourist. It’s a curious limbo, amplified by ample amounts of vino and the glow of a night out by ourselves.

We meet family after two years’ respite. Laugh and catch up, marvel as we note the extended family has transformed into a more Benetton-esque global version.
We remember my Mom and her legacy, evidenced by family members all around thinking of her and basking in each other’s company. Elena and Marina meet their distant cousin(s) and chase each other around the backyard before the grand feast of BBQ and kind words.
Pulse was raised the next day at the Aviation Museum. E & M are perplexed why we are there and the various vintage airplanes and fighter planes fail to captivate them. Sunshine had reigned the last few days, but the turbulence created by a sudden rainsquall only deepens the “spirit of adventure” felt by Stephen in an open-cockpit aircraft. He joined Dad in a triumphant flyover of downtown Ottawa. Watching this produced my own earthly high!
I hang out with my brother. We catch up. He spends ample amounts of time with his nieces, chasing them around outside and they defy the grey skies and unexpectedly cool temperatures. Cheap water pistols from the Dollarama (our store of choice) enable this gaiety.
The neighbors enjoy the girls, too. A little extreme youth brings smiles to faces with chalk faces and hopscotch boxes drawn on the driveway. Little girls’ bikes thoughtfully purchased by Grandpa offer speed and parental admonishments to “slow down!” and “use the pedal brake.” Ignored with glee. They survive the bike rides nevertheless. We reluctantly see Steve-o off to home courtesy of Via Rail. Hopefully not another two years before we all get together again.
Dad takes the girls so my wife and I can shop without distraction at WalMart. This is a truly a treat for us, now a ritual we perform for capitalism when we visit home. Naomi shows her appreciation by preparing Japanese-style curry that evening. This mild curry evening marks the mid-way point of our trip.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Crafty Catch-up / Reality Avoidance Therapy

The horrors we have seen in the news every day over the past month are disheartening: more shootings and racial unrest in the US; plane crashes in Mali and elsewhere; Russian cross-border attacks on Ukraine; the grim aftermath of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17; Israelis and Palestinians at each other’s throats again in Gaza, ad nauseam. August is supposed to be the peak of the silly season! More than ever, world affairs are enough to drive a man to drink. There is a collective snap and hiss of beers opening around the globe whenever CNN is on the screen. 

So, during a visit to Ottawa last month, I decided that if the world is in flames, I’d prefer to douse them with suds imbibed in company of old friends. One evening, still somewhat jetlagged and therefore pliable, I thoroughly enjoyed an evening at a local tavern with “G” and “M”, of which details still remain rather fuzzy—but a pleasant fuzziness.

Then two other compadres, “M” and “L”, informed me that the National Capital Craft Beer Festival would be held during my stay…and did I want to go? Since I do partake of the occasional social I forced myself (only for old time’s sake, of course) to go. I mean, they had to drag me there, kicking and screaming.
As it turned out, the weather was less than good, but the variety and plethora of beers made up for that. 30 craft brewers plying their wares...hmm. Plus, a crowd of Ottawans drinking…means “polite” trouble.

Being responsible young-middle-aged pillars of society, we caroused just the right amount, kept our wits about us, and avoided any interaction with our esteemed law enforcement officers.
And thus did a night of many mini-beers take my mind away from the troubles of the world. Thanks, boyz.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Beat Goes On

Our youngest has been temporarily nicknamed Raising Hell Daughter due to her ongoing temper tantrums. While the War Between the Sisters has reached a kind of détente (Elena punches back defensively now), the conflict has morphed into emotional guerrilla warfare on the family. M’s blowups sneak up and hit you at your weakest point, when you least expect it, and there is never any intel indicating one is coming.

Example 1: it is sunny and hot. Everyone is happy and we are having fun. Reward: ice cream!
M’s reaction: “my ice cream is melting.”
Us: “OK, lick it quickly. Yummy. See how?”
Reaction: “No! You fix it. Fix it. Fix it. FIX IT. FIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIXXXXXIIIIIIIIIT you f#%!xxxg a---holes!

You get the picture--shrieks, rage, little girl-style punches and kicks directed at closest family member…not good.

We think it is a reaction to her displeasure in being compelled to go to kindergarten since April. But, honestly, we are not sure what has brought this on. We have asked her directly, but she communicates nothing back that pinpoints a specific cause, and the school says she is fine in the classroom. We are trying everything to prevent these fights or fits: rewards, strict orders rather than offering choices; giving control over little things when possible; advanced distraction techniques (and even giving in to the ultimate eye candy -- videos); avoiding boredom; trying to establish structure and routine.

I even created visuals to work on the root issue:
EZ Two-Step Parenting Business Strategy™
It’s difficult to manage M’s tempests once they erupt. I use my Toastmasters-honed motivational speaker voice to command her attention.
Eye content: check.
Deliberate body language: check.
Use of visuals: check.
Careful, slow explanation: check.
- “Hey, at the top E. and M. fight, creating unhappy sisters. This equals an unhappy day for everyone.”
- “Yowza, lookit that. E. and M. don’t fight. Peace is good. Happy face and reward. YEA!”
- "So, you have a choice now. What choice will it be?"

Then if that doesn’t work, we separate them.
Similar to those I make in my workplace, I use visuals to cut through the clutter and render understanding. I have repeated this pep talk a few times with the girls—repetition builds awareness, and awareness is at the top of the purchase funnel, even for kids.
But they ain’t buyin’ what I am selling right now. Especially M.

Is this a power struggle?
Little kids are constantly looking for ways to have more control, so I’m not surprised that if we let Marina have veto power, she’ll exercise it. We love our little dickens and are just going to wait out this storm as best we can.
Off to Canada soon for a visit. Earnestly hoping the long trip, jet lag, new location, patient grandpa, and the fun that is planned will jar us out of this tough stretch.

###

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Motorvatin’

Or, how the DMV has given me hope when recent global events have only served to depress me.

I rarely stray into world politics in this blog but resurgent violence in the Gaza and the despicable downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine gave me a renewed bout of non-enthusiasm about the ways of this world. Then, unexpectedly, I thought about my experience when I renewed my driver’s license, and a flicker of hope emerged in my heart. Howzat?

I grudgingly slogged out to the Licensing Center in Yokohama recently to re-up my license. But the numbingly dehumanizing experience actually gave me hope for world peace!

Namely, wherever I go to get something official from a government organization, I view numerous opaque rules, long lines, and the sight of hordes of stunned-looking people waiting like docile cattle.
We are shepherded from one line to the next. Everyone has a name yet is without individual identity. We are all in the same boat. It doesn’t what the reason is—licenses, passports, immigration lines, currency exchange…name it.
In this case, I was seeking a piece of plastic that gives me the privilege of driving.
But, in retrospect, the universal reaction of the people around me was oddly reassuring. I have realized that the general attitude of folks waiting in line seem the same the world over. This means we share the same human reaction, antipathy, to unavoidable encounters that rob us of our identity and uniqueness as homo sapiens.
Therefore, I believe we should bureaucratize our way to world peace. Bore us into accepting peace and a better world! Are you listening, United Nations? Instead of peacekeeping and peacemaking actions, balance of power realpolitik, or other means, simply have every participant to the world’s conflicts stand in line for a few hours at a large government office building. Then watch as we collectively glide into the new Era of Worldwide Peace.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Sibling Squabbles vs. Scorched Earth Parenting Policy

“I’m going to throw this crayon right through your skull,” thought Elena as she released it and watched its sizzling trajectory and impact on Marina’s forehead. Mission accomplished: squeal of surprise, visible pain, and sobs. Did I see a satisfied smirk on the perp’s face? Oh yessir, I sure did.
I witnessed this Nolan Ryanesque feat of velocity and accuracy, and had to deal the aftermath: wailing younger daughter with welt on forehead, distraught/concerned wife, and my own worries of what would be next in the saga of sibling rivalry we are facing lately.
Credit: Warner Bros.
Teasing, sparring, taunts and myriad mind games—if you have more than one kid in your house, chances are they fight using these tactics. We have seen a rising tempo of sister-fights that spiral out of control. These tend to be tiffs over who has the biggest piece of cake, who got more watermelon, who stuck out her tongue first, or who gets the preferred futon, ad nauseam. This leads to faces made, punches thrown, and parents going nuts due to relentless mental siege.
Are these brawls a sign of competing for parental attention?
Is there resentment due to different ages/different abilities?
Are the girls simply bored?
Are we parents inconsistent in how we are raising them?

To be honest, I don’t give a damn about the causes, because the cacophony of kid conflict is driving us loony and too often my temper is like magma about to erupt.
Some other examples that demonstrate we are not a perfect family:
- One daughter tossed a tea bottle at the other over the choice of TV program. This was akin to the USS Maddox firing at North Vietnamese torpedo boats during the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The action provoked a type of mental guerrilla warfare between Marina and Elena for an entire weekend (thus ruining ours).

- Just last week I nearly crammed a boiled egg into the head of my eldest rising daughter, both of our faces contorted by rage, after she threw it to the ground. She did this to emphasize her protest over a breakfast flap with her sister. The Egg Incident was the tipping point for me after several months of strained sibling relationships, constant bitching and moaning about perceived slights or infractions, and ceaseless quarreling.

- Inevitable punches and screaming in the back seat any time we spend more than 2.5 minutes in the car. I have timed it.

The mental toll has been hard. As parents, we know that as the girls get older and start to form their own distinct personalities and opinions, there will be conflict. Managing the conflict is our job. I guess we are, ahem, “not succeeding.”
Hence a change in parental policy from “three strikes” to “scorched earth.” I have gone from “I’m OK, You’re Not So O.K.” tolerance to Gen. Patton-style discipline, viz.:
Problem: Signs of hostile intent at breakfast.
Action: Zero tolerance—move one to another table. Outcome is usually blessed silence.

Problem: Back seat squabbles inside car that become louder than Marilyn Manson concerts and ruin day trips.
Action: Erect quasi Berlin Wall to keep belligerents apart.
(By the way, my informal experiments really work.)
So, when I hear unspoken words flying between my daughters like “Take my puzzle and I’ll cut you, bitch,”  I take solace that at least we are taking action against our warring youngsters and leading them to a brighter future where peace shall reign o’er the Earth…and between them.