December 28, 2009

More Rock n' Roll

About the rock…
In December 2009, at age 40, I became a rock star (in my own mind).
Backstory: I occasionally sing along to songs that are playing on my iPod as I stroll into the office, chipper-early-morning-guy that I am. Several months ago, a colleague, having heard my classic rock warblings, asked me to sing a few classic rock songs at the division’s year-end party with an ad-hoc band, called SKY-B, comprised of my workplace co-workers. I snapped
that invite up before he could finish his sentence, already channeling my inner Elvis Costello.

Long story short, on December 18, I sang "Let It Be", "Summertime Blues" (The Who’s “Live at Leeds” version) and "Jumping Jack Flash", thoroughly relishing the experience. I’m not sure if the audience enjoyed the spectacle, but nobody threw fruit at me. And since I have no shame, here’s the picture:
...and the roll:
The Rising Family is thinking about buying a bigger car next summer. To test drive a likely candidate, we rented a Mazda3 compact for a half-day’s family fandango in the countryside outside Hiroshima. And that was a great idea, because Naomi, Elena and I all fell in love with the car. Comparing the Mazda3 to our current set of wheels, our beloved 660 cc Mazda Laputa minicar, is like the difference between a cheeseburger and a slice of white bread. The bread does everything it is supposed to do—plain, dependable and economical. But a cheeseburger is irresistible, savory and always satisfies even though you know it is bad for you. The Mazda3 is a double cheeseburger in the fun-to-drive category and has the cabin space we will need soon. I was excited and frequently grinning during the drive, and my lovely passengers were equally enthusiastic in their praise for the car.

We drove out into the countryside beyond Hiroshima, first heading up Highway 30 via Hatsukaichi to Yoshiwa. In city traffic, the 3 was good, if predictable. Soon there were was fewer cars clogging up the country roads in the rural hinterlands close to the Mominoki Forest Park. I could allow the 1.5L engine to growl a little more out here, and force the tires to grip the road a little tighter on the twisties that carved the way to the top of the small mountains.
It was gratifying to spend time in a car where the metal’s performance meets the glowing rhetoric. Specifically, I can say without hesitation that the Mazda3 is truly a fun-to-drive vehicle. On the return leg into the city, the ladies both fell asleep and I could thoroughly indulge myself, just grooving to the Doors’ “L.A. Woman”, a great driving album/CD of thrumming blues songs to match the highway motion. And, my friends, there is nothing like hugging the winding roads on a warm December day with the strains of Morrison crowding your thoughts and commanding your fingertips on the steering wheel.

video

It’s been a great winter vacation so far!

December 25, 2009

Classic Christmas

I think this year we firmly embedded some Rising Family Christmas™ traditions. We simply had a wonderful, family-centered day filled with laughter and the yuletide spirit.

Elena, fast approaching three years old, recognizes the importance of Christmas and Santa Claus. (You can’t escape it—in Hiroshima the merciless marketing starts in stores after Halloween). To give her exposure to the spiritual side of Christmas, we went to church on Christmas Eve. I also pitched December 25 as Jesus’ birthday, which seemed to work.

By early morn, presents had mysteriously appeared under the handsomely decorated mini-tree. We did a little shopping during the day, followed by a Christmas dinner feast. Nota bene: it isn’t easy getting gravy mix in Japan. In other words, I did my best to recreate the happy atmosphere I remember from my childhood in the Great White North. And recapture the excitement, warmth and some of the spirituality of Christmas for the Rising Daughter.

Morning: groggy-but-game Evening: ready for more opening action

And in the St. Nick of time (groan), my Mom and Dad’s HUGE package arrived on the evening of December 25. Talk about great timing! Thank you folks for your thoughtful gifts. Notice that the package (9.7 kgs) is only a bit lighter and smaller than Lady E. herself.

Merry Christmas to you all.

###

November 29, 2009

Seven-Five-Three

Shichi-Go-San,which means “seven, five and three” in Japanese, is a traditional rite of passage in Japan for three and seven year-old girls and three and five year-old boys. It is held annually on November 15 (or observed on the closest weekend) and marked by families visiting Buddhist shrines to pray for the healthy growth of their children. Boys wear hakama jackets and traditional rigid pants, while girls dress up in beautiful kimono. Many kids apparently wear Western clothes, too. The shrine visit is intended to drive out evil spirits and pray for a long and healthy life. Many, many photos are taken. Here are two of ours.

One of Naomi’s relatives gave us this gorgeous kimono for Elena, who is fast approaching her third birthday.

Naomi and her Mom got the Rising Daughter all dressed up in her “Sunday best” and they went to our favorite local shrine. I really like this photo of her strolling under the torii gates. On another note...
Another holiday went by last week--Japan’s Labor Thanksgiving Day (November 23). So this public holiday fell around the same as American Thanksgiving. It got me to thinking: why hasn’t US-style Thanksgiving taken root in Japan? Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s Day have become popular as secular events here. Why not Thanksgiving? The official Japanese version of the holiday marks an ancient rice harvest festival, so the basic idea is the same, i.e. giving thanks for a successful harvest and expressions of gratitude. But this national holiday seems to have been put no real contemporary use beyond taking a day off work. Hmm.

Then, the reason hit me: kitchen ovens. Most Japanese kitchens do not have enough space for an oven large enough to cook turkeys. And no such cooking tradition came about because there are no native fowl that Japanese people like to eat.

I would welcome this nation embracing Thanksgiving, with all the gustatory trimmings, if only to postpone Christmas decorations going up in malls in early November. And picture this:
“More gravy for your sushi?”
“Please pass the wasabi for my mashed potatoes.”

I really enjoy this whole cross-cultural fusion thing we’ve got going over here!

November 8, 2009

World Series Chumps

Damn Yankees
My apologies in advance for this post. I simply cannot contain my rage and, in the face of an oncoming tidal wave of New York Yankees propaganda that I’ll have to endure until spring training next March, I must vent. Stop reading now if you aren’t a part of the baseball Borg.
"The Yankees won. The world is right again," team president Randy Levine said after the Yankees clinched their 27th World Series victory over the Phillies a couple of days ago. What a boatload of dung. There are countless reasons to hate the Yankees, and that quote encapsulates why so many baseball fans have a natural enmity for pinstripes. There’s plenty more to be found in the fawning praise from the New York Times here. The world has been just fine since 2000, the last time the Evil Empire won.

The Yankees: Storied history and home team to celebrated players….blah blah blah—it’s all crap. The Yankees polarize baseball fans because they attempt to buy the #1 spot every year through obscene player salaries and smothering marketing. Unfortunately, they tend to succeed using that strategy. Most people can respect their healthy desire to be the best team, but there is an ingrained sense of entitlement wafting around that team that just repels me. Something stinks in the Bronx, even with a shiny new $1.5 billion stadium.

The problem is I cannot escape the Yankees mindshare onslaught even here in Japan. Hideki Matsui, who left the Japanese pro league to play for the Yanks in 2003, was the 2009 World Series MVP, with an admirable performance of six RBIs and many clutch hits. His public persona is that of a pleasant guy, ever polite and humble, attributes which resonate well with the Japanese character. He made his homeland proud with his tremendous play during the 2009 World Series and by becoming the first Japanese player to win the MVP.
But you know what? He’s still a bum because he wears pinstripes.

Damn Giants
The Yomiuri Giants are just as heinous as the Yankees. They are owned by a large media conglomerate; are ubiquitous throughout the country; use the same questionable business tactics to try and stay on top; and invoke the same binary love/hate gut reaction in baseball fans. The Giants are regarded as the natural cousins to the Yankees due to their dominance of Japanese baseball over the years, and even have been dubbed “Japan’s Team.” They may have won 21 Japan pro baseball championships (the last one in 2002), but they make me want to barf just as much as their Bronx-based elitist cousins.

And they just made my disagreeable situation —the Yankees as world champs— intolerable because they won the 2009 Japan series, winning in six games over the Nippon Ham Fighters.

What’s the link here? Matsui! First a Yomiuri Giant, then a NY Yankee, and both teams become league champions the same year, within days of each other. Coincidence, I think not.
A billboard featuring Matsui, shilling for canned coffee: “Strong body.”

I have no choice but to blame Hideki Matsui, one of the more talented and agreeable players in pro ball and a national hero, for this awful state of affairs. And now I have to endure the long, cold winter until spring training, when there will be renewed hope for more likable champions—on both sides of the Pacific.

October 30, 2009

My Sensei Achieves Her Dream

I call her The Great Enabler. Kyoko-sensei has been my Japanese teacher for well over 12 years. She has praised, cajoled, and expertly shamed me into studying enough Japanese such that I can live and work in this society. In that sense, she has been a tremendous influence on my ability to thrive here by giving me the means with which I have found the most important elements of my life in Japan. And I am still learning from her. So, half of this post is an homage to Kyoko-sensei, who is an excellent teacher and a truly warm and gracious lady. The other half is about achieving dreams.

During one of our recent lessons, one dream that Kyoko-sensei revealed to me was that she had always wanted to visit Vienna, the city of music, and wear one of her formal kimonos to the opera. What an amazing image, I thought: a Japanese cultural symbol to be proudly worn right in the epicenter of classical music in Europe. She knew that I had lived in Vienna when I was a junior high school student because, over the course of our lessons together, I had shared still-vivid memories of my time there. “We are both foreigners in Vienna, sensei,” I teased her, as I mentioned the heurigers in the 18th district, the lovely walk from Karlsplatz to the Stephansdom, famous coffee houses I knew of but had never visited, and other enchanting spots. Naturally, she corrected my sloppy grammar and questionable logic during these rambling conversations with patience and care, as she always does.


Japanese is a high-context language, meaning that it is formal and indirect, where one word can convey lots of information and much is left unsaid. This ambiguity happens because most Japanese people already know what to think and how to respond from years of cultural interaction with each other.

But I find that, occasionally, there is a certain beauty in being direct. I am pleased to tell you that my sensei made her dream a reality. She attended a concert at the Vienna Opera in a gorgeous formal kimono. Later, she enthusiastically conveyed her impressions of Vienna and the places she’d seen in a graceful, flowing monologue that made me happy because it was clear she had enjoyed herself tremendously. Thank you, Kyoko-sensei, for the gift of language you have given me. It is gratifying to see my wonderful teacher so satisfied for having achieved one of her life’s dreams.
###

October 6, 2009

The Bud Factor

I enjoy being a father 97 percent of the time. The remaining three percent is when I want to make a run for it: fake my own death or head out for the open road like David Carradine in Kung Fu. Just wandering around, only concerned about fighting for justice—anything to avoid my lifelong duty to my wife and child.

Back in the real world, being a dad is a privilege and a lot of responsibility. That comes with the territory. Along with the responsibility comes peaks and valleys of fatigue and fun. Sometimes you feel the need to briefly get away from the work and parenting cycle and just blow off some steam through mindless male dumbass merriment. Ergo, buddy time is important. Taking a break to recharge one’s guy batteries is a tough thing because, as much as we love our wives/partners and wonderful kids, they do not understand that they are, y’know, not guys. It just can’t be explained eloquently and I am fully aware I’m not the first man to try and do so in negotiating for a few days away with his guy friends.

Over the past summer I had a few episodes where I could dabble in the three percent escapism mentioned above. In 2009, my Bud Factor began over many beers in late July with my friend Scott, and Andy, who was visiting Hiroshima with his family. That night only cost several hundred thousand brain cells.

Here is a nice shot of us with Lady E. the next day when our families all got together with some other friends for a respectable evening.
About a month later the stars aligned and it was possible for six of the boyz (Art, James, Matt, Mike, Ron, and me) to get together for two days that featured the twin pillars of a lads’ weekend: copious amounts of alcohol and immaturity.

Guess who just got back today?
Them wild-eyed boys that had been away
Haven't changed, haven't much to say
But man, I still think them cats are crazy
-Thin Lizzy, "The Boys Are Back in Town"

While we all became friends in Hiroshima, life paths have diverged, so the six of us came from disparate locations in Japan to meet up in the little beach town of Doigehama in Yamaguchi and raise a little bit of harmless hell. It being the first weekend in September – post-Obon vacation – the camping and swimming season was considered over in Japan so we had the beach view all to ourselves for the first night.
The Drinking: an indispensable element of this male bonding experience involved alcohol and barbecued meat. Art brought a SUV-load of steaks and beers from Costco, and we set upon this bounty like wolves. As for the drinks, non-tipplers are equally fine human beings, but it just so happens we are all cocktail enthusiasts. Before long, the suds flowed and the BS’ing ensued. I can tell you that as more alcohol was consumed, the discussion became more eloquent and aesthetic. One topic was the cultural differences between North American “shotgun” approach to beer guzzling versus the more effete British version. Unfortunately, this lowbrow debate turned monobrow: resorting to the gleeful use of force to settle the dispute. With complete disregard for common sense, fireworks were employed as one multinational force of drunken morons attacked the other force of inebriated imbeciles, as seen in the Kevin Costner/Judd Nelson classic movie, Fandango (1985). Despite these obvious lapses in judgment, we all still manage to get ourselves dressed every day and keep our jobs.

The Diving: I haven’t had a chance to go scuba diving since 2007, and I leaped at the opportunity the next day to hit the water at a location a short drive away from our camping spot. Mike and I were up early and, fortified with plenty of coffee, Tylenol and Costco gut buster muffins, we embraced the sea. Man, I love the taste of the ocean. Just diving into the silence, except for the gurgle of the rising air bubbles, was bliss.

The Baseball: Scott, bless that kid, secured outstanding seats for a Carp-Giants ballgame on Sept. 11. The date resonates in history for obvious reasons. But my blood was boiling that night not because of memories of 9-11; rather, it was due to my unbridled hatred of the Yomiuri Giants. They just remind me too much of the New York Yankees. Plus, they beat the Carp that night, adding further insult to another lackluster season. Nevertheless, it was my first game at the shiny new stadium and another opportunity to watch the greatest sport there is with some good friends, which included Mike (below).
Thus fortified with these brief chapters of escapism over the summer, I was once again ready to strap on the epaulets of "dad", "husband" and "worker bee." And you know what, the beauty part of the Bud Factor is that the time away spent on doing adolescent things really makes it easy to appreciate the blessings of a good job, a beautiful and understanding wife, and adorable daughter.

September 23, 2009

Silver Week

My co-worker said to me last Friday: “Hey, what are you doing for Silver Week?”
Me: “Huh? What’s Silver Week?”

Today was the last day of the so-called Silver Week, a new pseudo-English phrase that has gained acceptance in describing a set of extended holidays, five days long, from September 19 through 23, in Japan. The Japanese government designated an extra national holiday on September 22 so there would be five consecutive days off. It’s unusual to get these holidays, and I read that the next time the calendar will afford another Silver Week will be in five years.

Technically not quite a full week, the ‘silver’ half of the term is likely derived from the commonly used allusion to silver in connection with aged/elderly folks, given their gray hair. (September 21 is Respect for the Aged Day.)

Silver Week is also is a pun on Golden Week, Japan’s version of Spring Break, in May. Golden Week has four national holidays which fall within the space of one week, resulting in the longest vacation period of the year for many Japanese workers. So people can take an extended vacation at home or head abroad.

To my recollection, there hasn’t been a Silver Week since I arrived on these shores in 1996. I think it has come about for economic -- rather than altruistic -- reasons
, viz. granting the still-overworked Japanese another respite from the work grind so they can go out and spend, spend, spend. Think opportunism more than Utopianism.

Still, the vibe in my workplace is that any excuse for a few more days off is most welcome and rarely questioned in terms of ulterior government motives. Personally, I left skid marks on the floor when leaving the office on Friday afternoon.

Based on what I’ve seen on the news, this super long-weekend, together with discounted expressway toll prices, has mostly resulted in another round of 40-plus kilometer traffic jams in the major urban areas—a road-rage inducing, chaotic mess. When I discussed this turn of events with my aunt-in-law (sic?), she said the crazy traffic jams on the expressways have made them an oxymoron—more democratic (i.e. cheaper) tolls have reduced their utility because taking the expressway during any extended holiday period is now is an exercise in futility.

Nonetheless, I had an outstanding Silver Week here in the Hiroshima area with the Rising Family. Leave it to the Japanese to coin another catchy term for a new social phenomenon…I am expecting a Bronze Week to arrive any time now with a corny slogan and inevitable animated character: “Let’s all vacation to happily revitalize the economy.” And why not? I am always ready to take a day off for the greater good.

September 10, 2009

The Anatomy of August: Part 2

Doctor Fish
Have you ever had fish nibble the calluses off your feet instead of a pedicure?
I thought not.
I’ve never actually had a pedicure, so the thought of schools of little fish literally sucking the dead skin from my tired and rather gross feet seemed just plain nutty. This is precisely why I went ahead and did it. I was only slightly crazed from the summer heat, and it only cost 500 yen.


I tentatively dangled my feet into the shallow pool and the fish lunged for them like tiny piranhas. The sensation was initially very odd, certainly out of my comfort zone, but not painful. I squirmed in my seat while my dear wife looked at me with challenging eyes: what kind of wussy-man are ya?
The foot cleaning takes about 10 minutes. You gradually get used to the sensation of a few hundred little fish feasting on your feet. After the first few minutes, a certain numbness creeps in, and the tickling sensation soon feels more like tingling. Its akin to the acute pins-and-needles tingling one feels when the blood returns after your legs or feet fall asleep.

While the Doctor Fish practice seems to have originated in Turkey, it has spread throughout Japan, the rest of Asia and North America. I recommend it, even just for a lark. More information available at: http://hubpages.com/hub/doctorfishpedicure

Miyajima Fireworks
As I noted the previous post, late July to early August is the season of fireworks in Japan. The annual Miyajima fireworks festival is one of the most famous in old Nippon and attracts over 300,000 visitors.
In years past, Naomi and I were usually motorcycle touring in mid-August and had few chances to attend the Miyajima fiesta of explosives. With the addition of Lady E., we now had the opportunity to view the fireworks and give her a thrill. Having seen them before once or twice, I can say with confidence the Miyajima fireworks really are spectacular.
Unfortunately, a great public event also means hordes of spectators and unimaginable traffic gridlock. We left our apartment hours before the fireworks were scheduled to begin, but were still ensnared by the flow of humanity. After significant teeth-gnashing we opted to divert to a park some distance from the main venue. That vantage point was not as impressive— no gut-shaking booms and brilliant streaks overhead like the spectators on Miyajima island experienced, but Lady E. seemed to enjoy the night anyway.

Obon Holiday=Visiting the Homestead & Avoiding Traffic Jams
We visited the family homestead in the countryside outside Hiroshima, which is the traditional custom for Japanese families during Obon. It’s nice to evade the heat and humidity of the city and catch up with members of Naomi’s family. By staying in the Hiroshima region, we also avoided the long Obon holiday traffic jams that result from virtually everyone in Japan taking their long vacations at the same time.

Lady E. at the local shrine near Naomi's place in the countryside

Time slows down when we visit there and I unplug from the matrix for a few days. Elena now has decent leg coordination and she can lope around the old farmhouse and surrounding gardens and rice fields without incident. She has the run of the place and everyone is so happy to see her, which makes us happy, too. And we get watermelon….lots and lots of watermelon!

Election Aftermath
On August 30, the general election was held for control of the House of Representatives in the Japanese Diet. The Democratic Party of Japan won the right to govern Japan.
“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?” Time will tell.

And that was our August.

August 29, 2009

The Anatomy of August: Part I

Summer in Japan means festivals, Obon holidays, swimming at the beach, watermelons, intense sunshine and heat, and sipping cold beer in frosty mugs while the cicadas are chirping noisily—all fantastic things. I am pretty much always in a great mood during this season: a walking, talking, and annoyingly cheerful Beach Boys song. So it’s not a startling revelation to state that I love summer, revel in it, can’t get enough of the sun and the warmth. August has passed incredibly quickly and I prefer to be outside rather than at the keyboard. Still, here are some of the reasons why summer is the greatest season:

Family Pools
The easiest way for the Rising Family to escape the heat is to head out to a community pool. These facilities usually feature a waterslide, a wading pool for the wee kiddies, and a long, narrow one-directional ‘lazy river’ pool with high pressure water jets to keep the water – and throngs of people – going round and round. During the school summer holidays from late July they are usually really crowded, even on weekdays. I’ve had a lot of time off work due to reduced working hours this year, so we have used that time to explore new recreation places. It’s easy and relatively cheap to spend a full day at these waterparks. During August we visited four of them in the city and surrounding region.


Fireworks
What’s summertime without some fiery streaks of light, tremendous booms, and colorful barrages of color that assault the eye? We went to see the Ujina fireworks (in the south end of Hiroshima city) at the end of July with some of my co-workers. Lady E. enjoyed the spectacle with her friend from pre-kindergarten class.

Watermelon
Naomi’s dad is a gentleman farmer, and as a result we are the grateful recipients of a steady supply of fresh vegetables and rice from the family farm. In August, this equates to a lot of truly delicious watermelons that are so big we have a hard time fitting them in our fridge. As you can see, Lady E. is big fan. Watermelon is our official Taste of Summer®.

Shimonoseki & Doigehama
Another rite of summer is a trip to the beach. As I have noted our other aquatic adventures in various posts in this blog, it’s no surprise to ya’ll that we went to the beach a few times. One of our favorite places is a place called Doigehama. It’s a small but clean beach about 150 kilometers west of Hiroshima, facing the Japan Sea. We spent one day there. Lady E seemed to enjoy herself in the water with us, flopping around with water wings on. Also, for the first time she took an interest in building something in the sand.

We also spent a day exploring Shimonoseki, a small city in Yamaguchi Prefecture not too far from Hiroshima. The Shimonoseki Kaikyo Yume Tower dominates the Shimonoseki skyline. It’s a nice weekend destination, and the fresh seafood at the open market is outstanding. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shimonoseki for more information if you’re inclined.


###

August 19, 2009

Election Kickoff

As a huge fan of democracy – but not eligible to vote here – I take a detached, apolitical joy in observing the Japanese democratic process in action. Yesterday was the “official” start to Japan’s House of Representatives election, slated for August 30th. That means the quasi-campaigning and posturing is over, and prospective legislators can legally give their campaign speeches in the most heavily trafficked public spaces. By law, political hopefuls running for the lower house have exactly fifteen days to campaign, so we are at the outset of this election amid the scorching summer heat and humidity.

Last night, TV programs were laser-focused on the election kickoff and each party’s platform, which I frankly found to be a little nebulous. Billboards and candidate posters immediately went up in my neighborhood with colorful, and occasionally amusing, headshots of the local candidates for the respective parties.
My favorite English translation of a political party’s name is the Happiness Realization Party. They will not win a seat, but would win my vote, just because it feels like there is Ken Kesey-like character running the show for them. Alas, there are no apparent Merry Pranksters in Japan.
Most pundits project that the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will defeat the ruling coalition (Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and New Komeito Party), ending the LDP’s nearly 55 years of mostly-uninterrupted control of government. For my fellow Canadians, imagine 55 years of Liberal governments and you can get a feel for the political climate. Uhh…"maybe we can."

Some of the lighter elements of Japanese elections include a few things that North Americans might not be familiar with, such as:
- The aforementioned candidate, standing on a corner in a predictable dark suit, with a silk sash hung over the shoulder emblazoned with his or her name, bowing and waving maniacally at drivers while simultaneously bellowing out his/her campaign messages. This can’t be fun in 90-degree heat.
- Impeccably clean vans filled with the candidate’s supporters, who wave at passers by with white-gloved hands. They cruise my neighborhood, blaring a canned greeting, the merits of the candidate and how hard they will work for the community, through huge loudspeakers . They screech the candidate’s name many, many times so you can’t forget it.
Interestingly, TV advertising, door-to-door canvassing and direct e-mailing to sway a person’s vote is not allowed. This is a nice element to offset the added noise pollution.

This entire exercise in public affairs coupled with glaring public disturbance is amazingly out of character for a society that favors privacy, self-restraint and decorum. I still am juggling the complex array of social norms that keep Japanese society functioning smoothly, but when it comes to election noise, there is no escaping the invasive public noise and the inevitable hot air. In the end, though, a few weeks of noise pollution is the price Japanese people, and those of us who live here, abide with to live in a free and democratic society. Plus, for me, it’s quite entertaining.

July 25, 2009

One Year Ago: Home on Hell Airlines

July 25-26, 2008: Inspired by distant recollections of D.B. Cooper, I imagine myself purposefully marching six rows up and resolutely pushing up the long red lever to open the emergency door. In so doing, my body would be sucked out of the aircraft and into the soundless sky over British Columbia. Peace at last.

Exactly one year ago aboard an Air Canada flight from Ottawa to Vancouver, this was what I seriously contemplated doing, if only for a second. It was the first leg of our 18-hour return to Japan from Ottawa. I would have done almost anything to end the existential hell created by the incessant, high-decibel wailing emanating from my beautiful daughter, despite her small body.
I’m sure I’m not alone.
You read magazines stories on how to deal with children on airplanes, as the parent or as the passenger sitting close to them. You laugh at the jokes made by comedians on late-night TV about kids and air travel. You hear the stories of flying with children from your peers who have rugrats and think, “not me.” But when you’re experiencing it for real…

We had an absolutely awful experience. First, there was the early morning emotional toll of getting to the airport on time and saying goodbye to my folks. Lady E. was docile, sleepy, compliant…at first.

We’d already had the experience of coming over on the long haul from Japan, and we did our recon—baby websites, baby books, talking with friends and relatives, scouring the Internet for information on how to travel semi-comfortably with a small kid in a cramped titanium tube with 300–odd other people at 35,000 feet for hours and hours. We had an array of carefully selected toys to distract and disrupt. We had the snacks and the beverages. We had abundant patience on tap. But in the end we had…nothing.

As we crossed the skies over western Canada, Elena became more animated, then bored, then outraged at her confinement in my lap and arms. Too young to be enthralled by the TV monitor embedded in the seat two inches ahead, too pissed off to be placated by Mommy three inches to our left, she soon transformed into a roiling, slippery eel with wave after wave of rock concert-level screeching. I’m not talking about your usual toddler’s crying. I’m saying it was a deep-from-the-diaphragm, full-bore, maximum-volume keening that was amplified by the tight space and sound-friendly conical shape of the plane’s fuselage.

The poor Asian gentleman sitting to my right. There are no words to describe his patient suffering for that last hour during our descent into Vancouver International.

It was though Elena was merely inhaling the necessary oxygen that would enable her to blast out her revulsion over this mode of travel by screaming with such volume and resonance it was utterly soul-scorching. It did not stop. It grew worse as we started descending and the air pressure dropped. She couldn’t equalize the air pressure in her ears and refused to drink anything, thereby guaranteeing the dropping pressure would cause her further discomfort.

As Naomi and I both scrambled to do anything, ANYTHING to stop the pain, like reality TV show participants, we began to squabble amongst ourselves.

We would definitely have been voted off the plane. The eyes of those passengers sitting around us seared their hatred of our family like a tattoo on our faces. Elena’s red and violently twisting head was a beacon for attention. I was oblivious, repeatedly popping up and out of the seat, walking the aisle when I could, avoiding the air attendants, who, having seen this many times before, kept their distance lest I proffer our child to them in a desperate attempt for help.

When we finally touched down, Naomi and I had absolutely no semblance of civility as we stood up once the seatbelt sign went off. We wanted to escape the aircraft. We shouldered our carry-on bags and strapped on our kid, and as soon as we detected forward movement, began the relentless march to the exit, elbowing older people, kids, the infirm and the unlucky in a desperate dash for open space. Elena did not stop her screaming until we reached the terminal.

Is this form of torture worse than waterboarding? Of course not. But I think that it is perhaps a perfectly legal substitute. Something for people in the intelligence community to think about.

July 21, 2009

San Francisco Blues - 40th Chorus

And when my head gets dizzy
And friends all laugh
And money pours
from my pocket
And gold from my ears
And silver flies out
and rubies explode
I'll up & eat
And sing another song
And drop another grape
In my belly down

Cause you know
What Omar Khayyam said
Better be happy
With the happy grape
As make long faces
And groan all night
In search of fruit
That don't exist.
-Jack Kerouac

July 16, 2009

Back From Bangkok Virus Free

That title caught your eye, didn't it? Get yer mind out of the gutter!

I’m not an H1N1 virus carrier (right now)…and I have the official documentation to prove it!
I was handed this swine flu symptom reminder yesterday when I exited the plane and passed through quarantine booths with an intimidating array of thermographic cameras at Kansai International Airport. The cameras measure your ambient body temperature and, if you’re above the norm, you’re politely pulled aside and questioned, perhaps quarantined.

Lacking a feverish temperature, it seems I did not carry the dreaded H1N1 flu back with me from a business trip to Thailand. The Japanese government has taken measures to prevent the further spread of the pandemic since the early spring. So I half-expected to see these folks enter the plane:

Courtesy of The Japan Times

In fact, the Japanese government gave up and halted quarantine inspections on flights in May because the H1N1 virus was already present in Japan.

In between washing my hands and gargling incessantly – the preferred preventative measures – when there was some downtime on the flight home I collected my thoughts about what I’d read about the H1N1 outbreak.

One thing I noted was that despite the facts about the recent bout of swine flu sweeping the globe and government agencies doing their best to educate people, people are still irrational. In Thailand, they were pulling kids out of school for about a week and banning them from getting together at malls and game centers. In Japan, people are wearing Dr. Lecter masks more than usual despite the dubious prevention qualities.

In other words, people put on masks and governments put out official notices in a fruitless effort to place a guise of control on something that is inherently uncontrollable. Thus, perception of control becomes reality and the need for visible examples which demonstrate that some action is being taken, even if it is ineffective.

I had planned to bring along a copy of Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ to read on the airplane and get my picture taken with the health inspectors, in their white contamination suits or soothing sterile greens, should they board our aircraft. But King's opus was too heavy, the joke not that funny, and the irony not worth the effort.

I got through my event in Thailand unscathed, and so far I still feel comparatively healthy. So why does everyone look at me with suspicion whenever I sneeze?

June 23, 2009

No Such Luck?

Engaging in the fantasy of instant wealth is an attractive intoxicant for the average person. The temporary thrill of spending a few dollars in an attempt to realize the dream of being able to quit ‘the job’ and buy ‘the thing’ – whatever the thing may be – is a form of social morphine that helps us get through the workday.

My life here in Japan is a good one. But that doesn’t mean I don't occasionally indulge in lotteries. Whether it’s the 6/49 when at home in the Great White North, or the Japanese national lottery called “Takarakuji” now, whenever I get the craving I buy about ten dollars’ worth of tickets. Random numbers, random tickets. The universe is indiscriminate in so many ways, so I believe if I ride the random wavelength, sooner or later I’m gonna hit the jackpot.

So far…no such luck.

Here are some scans of my favorite Japanese lotteries.
This one is called the Million Dream, which costs about C$3.50 per ticket. It only pays out one million yen (C$12K), but to 1,000 people. That’s a very democratic version of luck.


The one below, the Dream Jumbo, is garishly inviting due to its Las Vegas-inspired colorful block letters in English, which always lends a little marketing cachet here in ‘ol Nippon. For C$3.50 per ticket, you really get the illusion of wealth. It’s crack on paper, baby! The kicker is that only one person gets the big dream jumbo prize, which is about C$240K. Not too shabby. Its sales point is the mirage of exclusivity as well as wealth. Anyway, the Dream Jumbo is not enough to retire on, but winning it could be a splendid start to making Freedom 55 more reality than pipe dream. Err…lottery dream.

Za Beach
As for more realistic escapism, the beach season started for the Rising Family last weekend. We escorted Lady E. to a local beach for an afternoon of fun. Here are a few pics of Elena sporting her new lime green sundress, which a colleague/friend in Thailand kindly sent us. (Thank you, K.T.)


Elena really enjoys the aquatic life, and I am looking forward to the day when she can swim.
While I have yet to win the lottery, days at the beach offer other kinds of treasures.
(Insert reader's groan here in response to that corny line.)

Sayonara for now.

June 6, 2009

To my Mom, the Happiest of Birthdays

On this special day, my dear mother
I would like to express in words,
so that anyone in the world can see
how important you are to me.

G.P., today you are 60 going on 40.

You’re old enough to know better,
yet young enough to revel.
Wonderful just the way you are.


Especially on your birthday
I hope you know how much I appreciate you
and how much you’re loved by us all.

I’ll spend this day being grateful for you.
(And thanks for bringing me into this world, too.)
Happy birthday!

Love Chris


Aliens singing Happy Birthday

To view this, click on the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yolLqx6k1OM

And now, a word from our sponsor:

May 30, 2009

What is a "Half"?

“She is so adorable. Half kids are always so cute.”
When we start a conversation with strangers, they frequently compliment Naomi and I on how cute Elena is and then refer to her in some way as a "half" child. Always intended as a positive comment, it is simply a banal way to begin a chat. People all over the world use trite words or phrases to greet other people they don’t know very well to break the ice. Still, this word "half" does echo Japan’s national psyche regarding its biracial children. A Japanese word – spelled and pronounced halfu in the English alphabet – has quickly gained currency. This is in large part due to the statistically small, but highly visible (sic) increase in the number of kids of mixed race in Japan. That said, Lady E. is a typical half kid. Does this label imply she is Eurasian, mixed, Canadian-Japanese, or Japanese-Canadian? Or does half mean only half-of-something, viz. not Japanese enough? It can be confusing trying to fathom the cultural intent.
For those people who are overly concerned with semantics, because I work in the auto industry, I suggest we refer to these multiracial wunderkinder as hybrids. Just kidding!

A stereotypical view of Japan is that it is a homogeneous nation. One people, one language, one history (and one time zone). Thus, you are either Japanese, or you are not. Such a binary view boils down to this: when it comes to race and identity, you can't really be partly Japanese or live two cultures at the same time. This concept was difficult for me to grasp the first few years I lived here because I hail from Canada, a young country that trumpets its multicultural makeup as one of its social attributes and a significant source of national pride. Viewed from the perspective of a society founded on the merits of the melting pot and/or multicultural mosaics, Japanese society’s relatively insular view of itself, and the new words such as half which are used to describe ongoing changes in its makeup, are hard to understand. But Japan isn’t the only country in the world where kids are of mixed parentage. So will her half status be a burden or a blessing for Lady E. down the line?

Allow me reduce this to a personal level with a few observations. My experience with mixed race or mixed nationality kids (i.e. have dual nationality, or kids who physically look Japanese but do not speak the language fluently, or were reared in a different culture, and thus find it hard to conform socially) is that they can have a hard time in a society that highly encourages fitting in. These children are different from the norm. Issues such as bullying in schools and discrimination (whether or overt or unconscious) are real. Also, factor in high expectations from both sides of the family to master two or more very difficult languages. Then include being singled out and treated differently, for better and for worse, every now and then. Finally, note that Japan does not recognize hyphenated names, and dual nationality kids must choose which country they want to identify with by the age of 22.
Yikes.

On the other hand, Japanese society is changing. Japan is beset by a low birthrate and is slowly but surely coming to realize it has to rethink some longstanding attitudes toward female roles in society and immigration policies. Plus, it has had decades of interaction with other cultures through internationalization efforts such that its parochial tendencies are ebbing. The impact of the Internet in bridging language and geographic barriers helps, too. Also, a wave of TV personalities who are of mixed parentage have become famous. In fact, the most popular female Japanese TV personality in 2008 was a young half woman named Becky, whose face is ubiquitous throughout Japanese media. Finally, two words: President Obama. If America can transform its thinking about race so dramatically, then there ought to be sprouts of optimism and hope worldwide for similar changes elsewhere.

So when I contemplate how we will prepare the Rising Daughter to navigate the various social obstacles and opportunities that she will come across in her life, I believe the answers lie in old chestnuts. Being a half kid brings with it the advantage of not being constrained to one choice. Being open-minded and tolerant will enable her to be the best she can be in a world that most likely will never be completely ethnically-neutral. Mental agility will allow Elena to express her identity in her own way. I am confident we will be able to impart these qualities to her in the years to come.

Learning from those who walked the same road before also yields some fresh perspectives. One of my co-workers, Michele, is half Japanese, half American, and she is an amazing source of practical wisdom for Lady E. One of these nuggets is: “As a senpai of your daughter, I want to tell her... although it may be tough, I believe that one of our responsibilities is to spread the good part of the other culture...” Very cool. Dale Carnegie mixed with a dose of the United Nations.

So I have concluded that what I will say when people ask what I think a half really is: a half is a lot more than one.
###

May 23, 2009

A Tale of Two-Wheeled Woe

This one is just a rant. Because I can.

I’ve been driving motorcycles since I was 20. I love the damn things even though I’m well aware of the dangers involved. For me, the fun-to-drive factor outweighs the risk. As an incurable motorcycle enthusiast, it pains me to reveal my dark secret to you: I am now a shell of a man, a mere fraction of what I once was, for I now drive a scooter.

I reported on the passing of my beloved Kawasaki Eliminator due to a road mishap in a prior post:
http://risingdaughter.blogspot.com/2008/08/sayonara-two-wheeled-friend.html. Since then, I’ve been driving my beautiful wife’s not-so-attractive “Suzuki Let’s II CA1PA” 50 cc scooter to work and around the city. Why no brawny replacement for the Kawi? The global economic meltdown has contracted my economy.

Aligned with this drawdown, I had to “reprioritize” my finances, which meant my wheels shrank from this proud stallion...

...to this overgrown skateboard-with-a-motor.

(The add-on rear hard case trunk was my idea. If I am compelled to ride a moped, I want to ramp up the geek factor to the maximum.)

Is “engine displacement” still a measure of a man?
You bet your sweet ass it is.

Younger men, with their decorative girlfriends or wives riding on the back of their bikes, snicker and point at me now during my commute home in the evening. They rev their engines tauntingly. And as a Dad, erstwhile pillar of society and responsible head of a nuclear family unit, I have to eat it. But my inner thug cries out to go well over the speed limit on twisty roads and hang it out a tad. I think I deserve to rev it up a little--
don’t we all? Also, thinking long-term, when the Rising Daughter has risen and is off on her own life adventure, I want to take Naomi out again for the occasional touring foray into the pavement jungle.

The solution to this sorry state of mobility affairs?
a) wait for the lottery tickets to hit the big one. “Hello BMW salesman!”
b) B-A-I-L-O-U-T
c) your donations are welcome (please send me your contact points through the comments feed) :)

C’mon, folks, let’s extend a leather-gloved helping hand.

April 30, 2009

What’s Goin’ On

1. Visit to Iwakuni
My last post was about Lady E’s auspicious start to the school year. We were so proud of her poise and delightful smiles throughout the morning at her new pre-K class. To celebrate Lady E.’s official debut and take a break from our everyday life in Hiroshima, we opted to spend that afternoon in Iwakuni. The nice weather that day was absolutely stunning…Spring, baby, spring!

Iwakuni is about 50 kilometers southwest of Hiroshima. Its most famous tourist attraction is the Kintai bridge, which is a steep-looking bridge with five arches that spans a rocky riverbed. First constructed in the late 1600s, it has since been rebuilt a few times. The grove of cherry trees surrounding the nearby riverbank also makes the park area a major draw when the cherry blossoms bloom in late April.

We’ve been to the Kintai bridge and park a few times this time of year because the cherry blossoms bring with them a festive air, it’s an easy day trip and generally a lot of fun for Elena. We strolled around the Nikko Park and went to the Iwakuni Castle. Check out the view!

The warmer weather has wrought much activity. The Rising Family is busy…I am presently enjoying the “Golden Week” spring vacation from work, which affords more free time to spend with the ladies in my life! Meaning Lady E and my darling wife, of course.

2. Bitter Bob -- 'Run, Chris, Run'
I am slightly bitter about one thing. Having allowed myself to slide into rotten, pear-shaped complacency over the past year, I decided in early February to get back into shape. Since then, I diligently restarted my jogging regimen and entered the Kintai half marathon (21K), held every year at the USMC Air Station at Iwakuni in the third weekend of April. I’ve done three full marathons and three half marathons there since I began living in Hiroshima.

This year, I followed a careful and deliberate training regimen. I was all ready to go, but about three days before the run, I caught an awful chest cold. I attempted the run anyway, but did not finish (DNF). Aaarrrrgggghhh %$#(&**#! Turns out I had a bronchial infection, but no excuses. I am a little disappointed about this still, but looking forward to another race this year to exact my revenge.

3. Thinking positively. Still learning.
The visits to the hospital to heal my chest infection reminded me how positive my experience with the Japanese medical system has been. Many expats bitch and moan about medical care here, mostly due to language barriers and differences in treatment methods, but my visits to Hiroshima’s health facilities have always been first-rate.

To address my chest ailment, I got the same diagnosis and treatment as any other outpatient at a local hospital, but the docs took extra care to explain to me in very simple Japanese what was wrong with me, and what they were doing to restore my health. The prescribed treatment was effective and I am feeling much better. The few times we’ve had to bring the Rising Daughter to a hospital or local clinic have been equally effective. Plus, the ongoing health care we’ve received since she was an infant has been great. We’re lucky to have access to this health care system.

Still learning: On a whim, we went to Miyajima this past weekend. I’ve been to Miyajima many times for personal and work purposes since my arrival in Hiroshima. During this most recent tour we went to the Daishoin Temple (http://www.japan-guide.com/tss/miyajima/m02daishoin.html) which, for whatever reason, I had never visited before nor really had much interest.

So we went to the temple and I really enjoyed the experience—something new and really quite remarkable. Lady E. was an excited little blur, running around the temple structures and the main courtyard, tossing coin offerings, and ringing the bells at the foot of the altars before cutely clapping her hands in front of the figures of Buddha. It was a great family day. We also found a stone carving of Anpanman, Lady E.’s favorite TV, DVD and book character. A very cute pic resulted!

The moral of this post: you may think you know everything about something, but it's quite likely you don't, and you'll miss out if you don't keep an open mind.

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