Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Arts Gratia Artis

I think I have rested from my weekend of high and low art. You can decide which is which. Thursday, which is the new Friday, My Sweet and some coworkers with a concert by my favorite local band, the Bottom Dwellers. Watching talented men having fun in their creative element is one of the few moments when we are reaching human potential.

Saturday was spent in San Francisco. There were three main goals: to eat some "real" Japanese food, watch the dancing at a Japanese festival, and to explore some area we haven't been to yet. The first was a given, and in Japan Town there was an Bon Odori celebration. This was a celebration put on mostly by people whose parents or grandparents were the ones who actually danced the real thing in Japan. About a third of the participants knew then steps and almost half were not of Asian descent. There were several college age guys with their blond hair banded in a ponytail. My Sweet kept laughing and saying, "We never do like this in my country!” But over all people were smiling and joining in all the festivities.

I have to say though, the sighing of the day happened while we were exploring a new park near the Presidio. Floating before us was a flock of people on Segues. Obviously they were renting from the same company because they were wearing helmets and neon green "Hey don't shoot me" safety vests. Or were they? Maybe they are the reincarnation of the 80's group DIVO. As I was searching for a good image, I found out I was not the only one struck with this idea.

The last day of my weekend was definitely the classiest. Whoops, sorry, I said I would let you decide which was classy and which wasn't. Refreshing Sunshine and I went with two other gals to high tea, Gershwin and Escher. There is a wonderful tea restaurant in Old Sacramento that served up a wicked high tea. The decor was very 30's art deco, and we feasted on many tasty treats including a cold cucumber, cantaloupe and, get this, jalapeño soup. Yes, you read me right, jalapeño. There was just enough kick to balance to coolness of the cucumber and melon. After the refreshments, we went to the Crocker Museum to refresh our spirits with a piano recital. We were too late to get chairs, but we went upstairs which turned out to be better because dimensions were added because I could listen to Rhapsody in Blue while staring at masterpieces of Yosemite and Lake Tahoe. Then I got to check out the geometric mindbenders of Escher. Some people's brains work so beyond me.

Anyway, it is time to be off and enjoy another weekend.

Joie de Vivre ~ A Hearty Joy of Living!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

My work place soul mate.

Finally, a teaching story that I can relate to! At least once a year I have to resist the urge to gather together all of those books and movies about how a teacher miraculously and single-handedly takes a rag tag group of young hoodlums and inspires them to reach inside themselves and turn their lives around - you know, ones like Dangerous Minds. I gather these stories of overly dedicated teachers together and then call on strength deep in my soul and somehow resist the temptation to chuck them all in the blender and puree the bajezus out of them. There are stories of perfect teachers, and I can not relate to them (check out the middle paragraph of this past column).

But I have found the greatest book called Teacher Man. This is the third book Frank McCourt has written about his life. The first was Angela's Ashes - one of the most touching book I have ever read. His descriptions of growing up in Irland had me in tears - on one page because it was truly horrid and on the next because I was laughing so hard. The second was about his journey to America, and was nothing to write home about. But so far this book has more than made up for the previous one.

In Teacher Man, McCourt talks about his experiences teaching. While most teacher memoirs talk about their successes, he shares his struggles and failures. This is a man I can relate to.

He was an English teacher, working with at risk - disinterested kids, and also wanted to write. It is encouraging to me that he got his first and huge book out at the age of 66. There is hope for me, even though I hope I do not have to wait that long.

I love the quote he uses in response to his late bloom as a writer:

I was teaching, that's what took me so long. Not in college or university, where you have all the time in the world for writing and other diversions, but in four different New York City public high schools...When you teach five high school classes a day, five days a week, you're not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom.

He shares his struggles, faults, mistakes. There was one example where he wanted to comfort some students but believed that he would only muddle it, so he didn't. I would like to say that I would never act this way, but to be honest, I am not sure.

Don't think that this is a downer book - quite the opposite. By the end of his career in the classroom, he does get better. Again, there is hope for me.

Joie de Vivre ~ A Hearty Joy of Living!

Monday, August 21, 2006

All's Faire

My Sweet, who is not a small town boy by any means, humored my by taking me to the county faire. Bless his heart! He was a good sport.

There is nothing like a county faire. It's an open house for the entire area. Not showy, like the nearby State Fair, but one where you go to check out which high schooler grew the biggest heirloom tomato, what place Aunt Mildred's double dutch chocolate pound cake got, and of course the corndogs!

And let me tell you, the true goober time to go is Saturday early afternoon. The cool kids won't bring their dates there until after dinner, so it is mostly young families, senior citizens, and every FFA member in the entire county. I mean WoW! We watched a bit of the auction going on, and I do not understand how the auctioneers keep their lips from bursting into flames. I was a bit nervous in case I had to itch my nose nose - I may have ended up spending three hundred buck on a goat.

But the real action was the main stage. At two o'clock we got to watch performances from Miss Whaterdoozit's school of dance. Six-year olds tap dancing their little hearts out! Gotta love it. My Sweet was a little disparaging about it, but when our kids are up there, he is the one who will be there with the latest of recording devices to capture every moment.

So, if you haven't made it out to your county fair yet, go out and enjoy where you come from. And have a corndog on me.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Some Tid Bits

Things have been very busy and quite jet lag-ish for me. So here are only a few things I have time to write about.

1.My husband has always bragged about the superiority of Japanese firework displays. The festival we went to ended in fireworks, and let me just say this. They aren't all that - if you are comparing them to fireworks co-produced by Donald Trump and Sir Elton John!

2.Frank McCourt is my teaching hero. There will be a later column on that.

Have a great weekend.


Joie de Vivre ~ A Hearty Joy of Living!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

A Few Final Impressions

I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on a few more things about Japan.

The food:
The food here is not only delicious but also beautiful. However, it is not for the faint of heart. I have lived in Africa, Eastern Europe, and had roommates from the Deep South. I have to be honest and say that Japanese food is by far the strangest. I’ve had fish every way imaginable – broiled, dried, braised in sauces I can not begin to explain, and of course raw. Then there are the sea foods that My Sweet doesn’t know how to translate but says, “Eat it, it is good for you.
There is a lot of calcium in it.” Every day he asks, “If your mom comes, do you think she will like this?” It all depends on how adventurous she is that day.

For older ladies, hats are in. It is a hat shaped much like the crushable had of Gilligan.

For young people the bronzed look is in. They somehow achieve an unnatural copper tone. Add to that sparkly heels and bleached hair and you are ready for the clubbing scene of Tokyo. On the other hand, several young ladies are harkening back to the traditional yukata (cotton kimono). It reminds me of the resurgence of prairie dresses in the 80’s. (Yes, I wore them to a dance or two, and looked pretty darn cute, thank you very much!)

For every one little lapdogs are the in thing. This from a country that does not allow much room for pet or strays. But now it is in to have a cute little shi-shi dog that will fit in your tote bag. My mother-in-law, who coos over her friends’ dogs, says she would not get one because she would never be able to go anywhere. When I suggested leaving the dog outside, she said someone would steal him. They cost $1500-$1700! Jeese Louise, they are beautiful, but a dog should never cost more than a house payment.

The Japanese language uses at least three different alphabets, and all in the same sentence! The freaks! I have spent the last two weeks being totally illiterate, and it has frustrated me to the point of wanting to stick a chopstick in My Sweet’s eye! When I lived in other countries where I didn’t understand the language, I could at least sound out words and look them up in dictionaries.

Now it is back to the craziness of the US.

Joie de Vivre ~ A Hearty Joy of Living!

Worth a Thousand Words

Here are a few pictures to help show what I have been talking about.

Here is my mother-in-law’s toilet. After being naked with her, I didn’t fear hitting a panic button, so I did try them all. No music, but I did have the cleanest bum ever.

Here are the Jumping in Dancers.
“Jump, jump, to the top of the sky!
The sweat spatters, a joy rises up from inside
And our energy explodes.
A fierce surge of excitement…
And them comes the surge of sublimination.”

Joie de Vivre ~ A Hearty Joy of Living!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

What a Time for a Festival

My Sweet’s hometown hosts a yearly grand festival, the Nebuta Festival. This is a celebration of ancient legends gathered from Japan, China and India. Heroes are celebrated for fighting in battle against evil – be it a demon or human enemy. People sacrifice themselves for their friends, deities are able to strangle monsters, and loyal animals fight along side their masters to save humankind.

People from all over the country descend on the city for eight days of parades and fireworks. Months are spent creating floats, or Nabutas, that represent a key scene from one of the legends. They are fierce, intricate, and are illuminated during the night parades. They are also not motorized. Twenty or more men maneuver the floats, making it look like the mighty warriors are jumping and ready to attack the evil around you. The Nabutas are accompanied by massive drums and battalion of pipers and symbolists. During the two-hour parade the musicians do not stop; if a drummer gets tired, there is waiting to take his or her place. As impressive as this is, the best part is the dancing. These are people overjoyed with the idea of conquered evil, and they can not help but jump and sing. They simply jump in the parade wherever they like; My Sweet says they are aptly called Jumping In Dancers. Anyone can join in the dancing as long as they are wearing traditional clothes, which include bells pinned all around the body to add to the cacophony of music.

Most of these floats are massive and sponsored by major companies. Impressive to say the least.
But there are also neighborhood or school built ones called Children’s Nabuta. They are maneuvered by kids and their dads, and also have clowns and the like running around. In fact one of the brightest moments was when a “pirate” twisted a balloon sword and gave it to a 4 year old, whose little face simply radiated joy.

Loyalty, bravery, defeated evil, and a gift from Jack Sparrow, what more do you need to jump in and celebrate?

Joie de Vivre ~ A Hearty Joy of Living!

Friday, August 04, 2006


There are a few things that I think pretty much cross cultural boundaries.

* In one respect, my mother in law is much like Marie from Everyone Loves Raymond. Marie’s greeting was, “Hello dear, can I get you something to eat?” I have learned every variation of “Aren’t you hungry,” to fill an entire phrase book on this theme alone. And if My Sweet’s father were still alive I am sure he would be asking how the car is running and slipping him a bit of money every time we went out – for “emergencies”.

* Soap operas have a magnetic appeal. Right now my mother-in-law is drawn to some that come from Korea. Even though I understand neither Korean nor Japanese, I knew that Baby-Face guy loved both Doe-Eyed girl and All-Business gal, and struggled to know where his heart was. And it took no interpreter to understand what DE’s mother was saying when she thought BF had spent the night with her daughter (don’t worry, they had fallen asleep studying).

* Kids are cute. They just are, no matter where you go. The kids here are not too shy to look at the tall, blond, plus size foreigner. When I say hello to them, they usually hide behind their mother. But sometimes they will introduce themselves to me, being brave enough to shake my hand (or bow). Each time My Sweet whispers in my ear, “Aren’t you going to eat them?” He’s a bit strange sometimes.

* Though the amount expected to be spent differs, gift giving is important in society. And, it is usually left up to the women to take care of it. My Sweet says he doesn’t care, but I see him considering what we should bring from California for people. (FYI CA wine can be found here. We had gotten a bottle of Ironstone Wine and she already had a bottle. So much for hoping that a $10 bottle would be mistaken for something much more expensive. Yet another lesson in humility.)

Joie de Vivre ~ A Hearty Joy of Living!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

You Wash My Back and I’ll Wash Yours

This weekend my mother-in-law took me to my favorite place – the hot spa! My Sweet’s hometown is not very exciting, but it is known for two things: a festival I will talk about later, and being next to one of Japan’s best mineral hot spas. The water comes pure from the towering Iwaki Mountain. Here are a few things that stand out for me here:

* There is nothing like being naked with your mother-in-law to banish any inhibitions you may have. When you tenderly wash each other’s back to help you feel like the language barrier may prevent acceptance.

* It was great to be in a place where women were letting it all hang out with imperfections, even on the idealized models.

* Many women, including yours truly, have unnatural creases at their waste. What does that say about fashion and fascism?

* Going around the resort in a yukata (more than a bathrobe and less than a kimono) is fabulous. Very free. I can understand why Hugh does it – Heffner that is, not Jackman. But it is not clothing for taking great strides in. Instead I learned to do a kind of shuffle where you don’t separate your knees very much.

* Being au natural out in nature is for many reasons a very spiritual. You have fewer defenses to hide behind. And not being able to speak gives me more time to focus on our Creator.

* Besides the relaxation that comes from soaking in a hot mineral bath, there is a peace here and I think it comes from the search for spiritual truth. People can take a hike starting from the temple behind the resort and climb Iwaki. During this walk they get in touch with nature and the supernatural. Not as in spooky things jumping out of the underbrush, but that which is beyond the nature we can see.
Mother Theresa was once asked why she allowed Buddhists and other non-Christians to work for her organization. She said that she encourages Buddhists to be the best Buddhists, Muslims to be the best Muslims, and so on. By seeking the truth and fully looking into what they believe, people have to come to see the truth about God. I am glad God is in this place.

Ode de la Toilet

It has been a very interesting couple of days. In Tokyo My Sweet and I spent time visiting an old friend as well as my sister-in-law. Our friend took us out for the real deal sushi, not the “California knock-off” version. He took us to an all you can eat place, for which I was terribly underdressed, that made everything fresh right when you order the next round. I know for many of you all-you-can-eat-sushi will mean an empty plate, but trust me when I say it was delicious. Our friend then accommodated my whim and took me to the place where they filmed part of a great reality show - the Amazing Race.

I know this is indelicate, but I must talk about something that everyone must deal with eventually on their journey to Japan. That, my friends, is the high tech toilet. In America I feel like I am in the shadow of Bill Gates if the toilet flushes automatically. That is a child’s elementary science project here. Not only do the toilets shoot up warm water to wash you backwards and forwards, but they also can blow you dry. There are ones that even have a button to push for a running water sound – thus being able to mask the business you were doing.

At the sushi restaurant, I ventured into the ladies’ room to do my business. After sitting down I spend some time reading the directions by the toilet paper. By reading I mean staring at the characters and pictures hoping something will magically come to me. Once in a while, this being an international metropolis, they’ll throw me an English bone. There could be a line like “Please wipe seat” next to some tissue and a picture of a well manicured hand wiping down the seat, and of course a cute little cherub hovering by it. The next picture is the cherub next to another facet (located near the paper) and the word “Push” with motion lines showing something (probably disinfectant) shooting out to the tissue held by Ms. Manicure. However, the cupid is positioned in a way that the product looks like Cupid’s fart. Now I do not know if it explains it or not, but I have a relatively important question: do I wipe the seat before or after I am done?
There are many other signs and buttons, some of which probably do the cool water sounds, or heck maybe even bird calls or Bing Crosby, but I was too nervous to try them for fear of accidentally hitting some kind of panic button that would send an assistant or manager in to see what was wrong.
Well, I finished what I had to do, got up and then panicked a bit – no automatic flush! Looking around I saw no visible handle to push! Oh my gosh – I did not want the next patron to have to see the business I had done! What to do? Well, out of some deduction and a lot of desperation, I pushed a button and was quite relieved to hear the toilet actually flush. There goes my business down the drain.

What adventure will tomorrow bring?

Joie de Vivre ~ A Hearty Joy of Living!

Random observations about Japan

Right now I am sitting at Starbucks (pronounced Starbuksu) enjoying a green tea frapiccino, and I want to share a few things I have noticed so far.

* The Japanese have customer service down to an art form. While in line for the aforementioned frapiccino, the clerk came out from behind the counter and with elegance of an accomplished dancer, presented us with the day’s menu. In other restaurants the waitresses kneel down as they place fine bone china in front of you.

* Japanese love good food. One sign of this is that a vast majority of their game and morning shows consist of people being shown food and eating it. I’m not talking about Fear Factor grossness. The contestants, usually TV personalities, compete in order to be able to partake in the delectables. And if they do not win, they put on quite the melodrama about the torture of watching the others eat.

* Recycling is paramount. When you live on an island nation, there is not a lot of room for landfill. So you must be very careful where you put your trash. It would be OK if there were pictures at the trash receptacles with a can or paper, but no they are marked in Japanese with images that look like squatting men with their hands in front of their eyes. I usually slip my garbage in My Sweet’s pocket and let him deal with it. When I was waiting for customs, I saw a young man being lead to an imposing looking back room. I bet it was because he threw his empty sake bottle in the wrong can!

* I got to ride the infamous Bullet Train. The take off was so smooth that it was like gliding through butter. Because of this lack of friction, you never know how fast you are going.

* Everything is a lush green, a huge benefit of the tropical humidity. And also every bit space is compactly used. Even the nooks and crannies are usually filled with a plant, which is good given that most people have no yard.

* I constantly feel like everything is just an inch or two too short – chairs, bus seats, sinks, etc. My thighs ache the first few days here because they are stretched when my knees are higher than usual (and often jammed against the seat in front of me).

* This high tech country has public telephones that talk. And not “Please deposit 60 cents,” but it actually thanks you for using it. My mother-in-law has one that calls out “You have a call” while it is ringing, which I think is a bit redundant. Now if it said, “You have a call coming in, and it is not from a telemarketer but from that cute guy you met at the market,” that would be pretty darn amazing. And I saw on TV that they have a stove that will talk to you. It reminds you that it is still on, or that something is about to burn. Pretty cool, especially considering my ability to get distracted during dinner prep.

What’ll they think of next? A milk carton that warns when it's expired?
Pens that signal a siren when it is about to leak or run out of ink? Who knows.

Joie de Vivre ~ A Hearty Joy of Living!