Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ain't No Cure for the Back to School Blues

Yesterday Beloved pulled me aside after dinner was done to say that Makoto's teacher is a bit worried about him. Apparently he's been a bit difficult at school; not completing his work unless told multiple times, wanting to constantly be with people, including when going to the toilet, and has started sucking on his arm when he sleeps. Her theory is that Makoto is feeling stressed at home for some reason and this is showing up as loneliness and behavior issues.

Beloved's theory is that I'm being too rough on Makoto when it comes to learning to read (To be fair, there's something there, I do think I need to dial back a bit). Makoto himself says that his problem is, well, not making friends at swim class, having a friend of his moving soon, and having a brother bother him in the morning.

Me, personally, I think this sounds more like a case of the back to school blues. That curse that seems to strike all students when they suddenly come face to face with the fact that summer is over and after a month of being the center of attention, we're back to being in a class and instead of non-stop play time, we're being asked to do things that we might not like to do.

I have a whole school full of students who are more or less in the same boat and while they don't burst into tears the way Makoto did last night, they tend to be a bit more prickly about things for the first week and a half until the gears have fully changed.

To be honest of course, teachers get the back to school blues too. I mean, yeah, summer for us is mostly prepping for the next term (In Japan, the school year ends in March and starts in April, summer's just a break), but we're off the bell system and we can be a bit more flexible on what we're doing and when we want to do it. It usually takes me a good week and a half to get back into gear and stop grumbling about waking up to drag myself into school and start throwing parts of English around and beaning students silly with them.

But it does leave an interesting issue with me. Now, as a teacher, I tend to ignore the Back to School Blues in my students. It takes a week or so, but inevitably, they'll get it back and buckle down (At least until the last test, after that...), but as a father, my heart aches for my son and it hurts to see him crying and not being his normal cheerful self.

So what's a father to do to beat the back to school blues? And what should a teacher do when his student/son seems to be having said problems in his class?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Repeat After Me

An AET (Assistant English Teacher)'s life is repeating. Many AETs will wax quite a bit about how a great deal of their teaching duties consists of being a human tape recorder.

This is true. I spend a great deal of class time trying various ways to get grumpy, disengaged, junior high school students to chorus repeat and drill various words and sentences out of a desperately bland and uninteresting textbook. I yell, I scream, I do funny voices, I change tempo and stress, I do everything but stand on my head and spit nickles in an effort to get my students to repeat "Would you like some more?" over and over again.

And yes, I don't like it most of the time. It's not particularly interesting for me and I know it's mostly dull for the students, most of whom just tune it out. I will say one thing about it though, it has been great training for life as a father.

If an AET's life is repeating, a father's whole fricken universe is repeating.

"Eat your dinner. No, I said eat your dinner. No, put the train down and eat your dinner. No, put that train down, sit down and eat your dinner. I said, put the train down, get out of your bother's chair, sit down in your seat and eat your dinner!"

If I had some flash cards, I'm not too sure I could tell the difference between trying to wrangle a toddler into his chair for dinner and teaching junior high school students English!

Of course there are other similarities as well. Both groups get pronunciation drills (Say "Apple" Hikaru! Can you say "Apple"?) and both groups will proceed to deliberately mess it up because it's fun to annoy Sensei/Daddy.

Of course, it's not fair because the first group are students and I'm not supposed to yell at them and the second is just too damn cute so I can't yell at him either.

There are some differences of course. One group is shorter than the other, but the first tends to be more energetic about English lessons. The crying from both groups when they don't get their way is the same however.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


Hikaru: Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!

Me: What?

Hikaru: TV!

(Times this by 20,000 while at home, in a car where there's no TV for miles, when I'm on the toilet, taking a shower, walking out the door, walking in the door, in bed, etc.)

Guys' Day Out

A recent post over at Planting Pennies was talking about how Mom needs 5 minutes, and boy do how true do those words ring.

Beloved needs a day off as well from time to time. She is the primary caretaker after all (Before I get yelled at, it's her choice. She wanted to stay home with the boys while they are young and so while I am, and try to be an involved father, there's just only so much I can do with work) and so while I have times when I can leave the classroom and be fairly sure that my students won't follow me home (It has happened), Beloved lives with her work and they never really leave her alone.

The considerate (and wise) husband learns to read the danger signs in terms of wifely behavior and knows when it's time to suggest a day off. The signs include looking tired and a bit more worn than usual, sighs, and demands to get those kids out of her sight before she kills them and me with them while brandishing a kitchen knife. Given that she's both armed and the one who cooks dinner, it's time for a day off.

Thankfully, Nagano comes well equipped with places to take two small boys for a day off. In exchange for a day off, we get as many rice balls that can hopefully stuff two kids and off we go to Azumino Alps Park(s). These two parks are considered quasi-national parks and are run by Japan's central government. I have no idea just what a quasi-national park is or how it's any different from the national park up the mountain from us, but what I do know is that we are damned lucky to have them within easy access.

The parks are a great place to be a kid. The provide various events all year long spaced out with the usual on-going bits of crafts, cooking, and just play areas all set within as natural an environment that they can manage (And given that they are up in the hills leading into the Japan Alps, they manage really well.

The best way I can put it is that for a really cheap entrance fee (About $4 for me, the kids are free right now), we can easily spend the day just letting the boys run, and run, and run, and even better; run in nature as opposed to some hard dirt yard.

No matter what time of year we've gone, we have yet to be disappointed in the park or the day and the boys give it two enthusiastic snores (They always crash on the way home, another bonus).

The last day off was pretty much par for the course. The last day of the summer program, the boys got to met beetles up close and personal, catch a rainbow trout barehanded and then cook and eat him, climb through a 3D maze, bounce on a bounce dome, swim a pond, paddle a boat, play with some balls, and run through a sunflower maze.

And then were sound asleep about 5 minutes after we left the park. Daddy ended up feeling like a slice of beef jerky, true, but it was worth it. The boys were happy and Beloved got some much needed time off to get things done and relax sans noisy boys (Both the child and adult kind).

Of course, even though it was her day off, it didn't keep her from checking Facebook for pictures that I posed and emailing me from time to time.

Some people just can't leave their work at work.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Brotherly Love

Yes, this is a short "awww" post.

One of the stated reasons for having Hikaru was our fear of only-childhoodness for Makoto. Simply put, Makoto is a people person. This kid makes friends without even thinking and tends to become rather despondent if he doesn't have someone, anyone, to play with. Yes, he can play by himself, but he is so much happier when there's someone to play with.

Now this wasn't the only reason for having another child, but both Beloved and I did view the notion of a playmate for Makoto as being a plus for the debate. And slowly it has become so. As with most big brothers, Makoto wasn't exactly thrilled with his younger sibling. At first Hikaru couldn't do anything interesting, he cried, he was smelly, he couldn't even move. As time goes on however and Hikaru leaves babyhood for toddlerhood, Makoto and Hikaru have started to play, loudly, together.

This is what we hoped for after all, but we weren't really ready for just how much Hikaru has come to love his brother. Yes, he's still very much attached to Daddy and Mommy, but he also follows 'Kakoto' around the house and they two of them have taken to going upstairs together to very loudly giggle and play (Followed by the inevitable fights of course). Pretty much any time the kids are together, the house is filled with shrieks, giggles, yelling, screaming, and loud thumps as the two roughhouse their way around the house.

Beloved has given up keeping them separate as Hikaru will stand at the bottom of the stairs and howl if Makoto has gone upstairs without him and Makoto has figured out how to open the baby gate and let him up anyway. Bed time has also changed with both boys sharing (And migrating around in circles on) the same futon. Beloved complains that she no longer can sleep with her baby as her baby has tossed her over for his brother.

But, noisy as it is, there's something special seeing two brothers like this.

Now if Hikaru could just get it through his head that while Makoto does love him, he doesn't exactly love him first thing in the morning and running into the bedroom yelling "Kakoto! Kakoto!" isn't going to endear him to his brother...

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Garbage Disposal

We don't have one.

Seriously, one of the things I found out coming to Japan is a lack of garbage disposals in kitchen sinks throughout the country. Instead, Beloved has a disposable bag made of a very fine mesh that the tosses kitchen scraps into, presses the water out of, wraps in paper, says the last rites over, and then tosses into the burnable garbage (Garbage is an interesting process in Japan).

The drain itself has a fine wire mess to catch anything that she misses so it can be dutifully returned to the bag.

The more I thought about it; however, the better this deal seems. I can't recall how many times we had to deal with the rise of the 'Smell' back in my childhood. Mysteriously appearing one day, this all pervasive Smell would drive even the dogs out of the kitchen, pawing at their noses. That was usually the sign for my mother to work some magic with various potions (cleaners) and with a lot of muttered spells (Usually of the @!'"%"$"!!! kind) and flicking of switches, she would manage to kick the garbage disposal back into working order and vanquish the Smell. Then came the ritual of the Lecture about NOT scrapping everything into the kitchen sink in the hopes that the disposal would eat it.

My sister and I of course would nod and promise to never again do so, but we did anyway and once again the Smell would return. In college, I discovered my own brand of magic potions and spells to exorcise the Smells that came from being a house shared by 5 college males who had a rather aggressive indifference to cleaning.

There were other tricks that the garbage disposal would perform. One was the swallowing of forks, or other utensils. One never knew just when this would happen until a flick of the switch made it sound as if we had a rock polisher under the sink instead of a garbage disposal. A good chunk of my childhood was spent eating with knives, forks, and spoons that looked as if some kind of overly enthusiastic, if not too bright, dog had suddenly had a craving for stainless steel. Retrieval of said object of course meant that some brave soul would have to reach into the disposal and fetch whatever it had just eaten. Not only was this just gross in terms of what your hand might encounter, especially if we were on a build up to a Smell, but possibly dangerous as well.

Mom, in an effort to keep her kids from playing with the disposal, was full of horror stories about children who placed a hand into the lion's mouth and earned a nickname of 'Stumpy', or just got their hand caught in the drain meaning the firemen would have to come with the Jaws of Life to get you out. Of course, then your hand by that point in time would have turned green and would need to be cut off. To this day, I am still slightly nervous when needing to reach into a disposal, thus is character built.

Now jokes aside, it was actually a bit dangerous as our old disposal developed a mechanical 'tick' one time (Possibly a nervous breakdown brought on by repeated Smells and their exorcisms) and turned on by itself, randomly. We would be eating dinner when one of us would suddenly ask, "Hey, what's that weird 'whirring' sound?" to note that the damn thing had managed to turn itself on again. Of course, a few times it was "What's that weird sound that's like a rock polisher?" as the disposal managed to combine both eating a fork and turning itself on.

Replacement of the unit took some time and quite a bit of money. The only reason I'm wandering off into the trails of my childhood is to relate that, while at first I was a bit miffed at not having a garbage disposal in Japan, meaning we had to deal with the kitchen sink bag and the screen, I have to admit that we haven't had any of the problems I have had with them. In fact, these past 8 years have been nicely garbage disposal free living here in Japan.

Until we had the boys of course. Once the boys started on solids, I discovered that we did indeed have a garbage disposal and I was it. Evidently it is a father's job to consume any foods that the kids don't want and that their mother isn't interested in; especially if said mother thinks such food would add to her waistline.

It should be mentioned of course that Beloved has me on a diet for my health and I too am supposed to be watching what I eat (And if I don't, she is more than happy to do so for me), but it doesn't come into play in terms of disposal duty.

Now, I think I would take it a bit more philosophically if it wasn't for the fact that Makoto is a very slow eater. Normally the kid takes about a half hour longer than just about everyone else at the table to either finish, or decide that he's actually full. I, of course, am a rather fast eater. It's a bad habit, but hey, I'm busy or at least trying to eat quickly in order to switch with Beloved so she can eat while I feed Hikaru. But this does mean that after I am done eating and in fact, feeling nice and full, I start seeing food lobbed onto my plate by a flashing pair of chopsticks.

The drive back home from the in-laws' was rather case in point. Stopping by a service area, Makoto decided he wanted the kid's meal, I got ramen. My ramen was slurped down fast and I was enjoying just relaxing while thinking about the remainder of the drive when I was informed that Makoto didn't want to finish his chicken.

"Here," said Beloved, "You eat this" as she proceeded to fling three or four pieces of fried chicken at me. Protests of diet and being full were met by "But it's a father's job... Hey, what's that weird 'whirring' sound?"

"Nevermind," I told her, "It's just the garbage disposal starting up again."

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Bag of Holding

Time was when I was the one who went overboard in terms of packing. I regularly walked around like a mini-MacGyver, going around campus with a Swiss Army knife, a Leatherman, and a mini-Maglite, and that was just the standard every day wear for me. Heading off the beaten path required me to take just about everything I could think of just in case (To be fair, a number of times some of those 'just in case's' actually happened and I was damn glad that I was prepared).   

For example, when packing for what was supposed to be a three day trip to the Bay Area in the early summer, I brought along 4 changes of clothes, plus some cold weather gear, just in case, and had a sleeping bag and a jug of water in the back of the car, just in case.

I've gotten better, I'm now able to go to the US for a week and a half with just the contents of a carry-on (Coming back is a different story, but that's shopping).

Now Beloved, back in the day, was pretty much the opposite. Where I had a rather large day pack as a backpack for school, she carried a small purse. Her luggage consisted of a rather small carry on bag meant for very small overheads on Japanese trains. Camping, where I would pack just about every bit of gear I owned, just in case, saw her with barely enough to cover her and that was about it.

I remember one trip to Yosemite where 97% of the stuff was mine, her's fit underneath her legs in the front seat.

Then we had the boys. It's amazing how much stuff kids need.

What's even more amazing is that somehow mothers get access to bags of holding. That is the ONLY thing I can come up with to describe the so called 'diaper' bags that mothers cart around with them. My wife carts this over the shoulder bag that looks somewhat like a large purse, but in reality seems to have the holding capacity of two or three pack mules. With just a bit of rummaging, she is able to produce at least 2 complete changes of clothes for both boys in proper sizes, 5 towels (When dealing with two small boys, one needs towels), a host of various medications for car sickness, bug bites, sun screen, or headaches, a make-up kit, various documentations for he boys to show what shots they have had and when as well as their current heights and weights, her wallet, the boy's wallet, a two day supply of food, cups, forks, spoons, and chopsticks for the boys, more beauty supplies, diapers, wipes, and hand sanitizers, and quite possibly the Crown Jewels of England and the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan. All of which still fit under her legs in the front seat of the car.

And I thought I was good at packing.

But it's not enough. Every trip we now take requires that the back of the minivan be stuffed full of more items: kid chairs, toys, books, food, water, more clothing, more towels, CDs, DVDs, and the Tokyo Opera Company (They keep the boys entertained on long drives).

Why, I ask my beautiful beloved wife, must we take all of this stuff on a simple over night trip?

Well, she replies, just in case...

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Beloved: Hey! You should come out and see this!

Me: What?

Beloved: Makoto's poop! It's HUGE!

Me: WHAT?! Why is he pooping outside?

Beloved: He said he wanted to pee so we let him, but then he went poop too.

Me: ...

Makoto: Daddy! Come here! I did a BIG stinky!

Me: ... I don't believe this. Ok, I'm coming.

Well, it WAS indeed, but still...

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Give Me Steam!

Beloved constantly complains that the boys are American. She claims that in terms of being argumentative, infatuated with sweets, and their inability to stay silent for any appreciable length of time is a product of them being half American (No, I don't know what other Japanese mothers use as an excuse). However, I can point to one thing as proof positive that my sons are indeed Japanese and like every other Japanese boy who lives in Japan.

They are in love with trains.

Now THIS is an engine!
Now don't get me wrong, I too like trains. As a child, I went through the period of being fascinated by these machines and I would beg for repeated trips to the Nevada State Railroad Museum in order to see my favorite steam engines of the Virginia and Truckee RR, the Queen of the Shortlines. For the longest time my bedroom door was decorated with stickers from the Union Pacific and I made a number of plans to ride Amtrak around America, or at least to Sacramento (It never happened) just to be on the rails so I can't really throw rocks here, but the Japanese...

Lord do they take things to extreme.

And it's every Japanese boy. I have yet to met a Japanese male of any age who either currently is, or at one time was, a train fanatic. I mean, in a way, it's easy to see why, trains are everywhere in Japan. In terms of public transportation, Japan has a very highly developed, very efficient rail system of both public, semi-public, and private networks. While the bullet trains are probably the most well known outside Japan, the reality is that local trains are everywhere and transport millions of people everyday. It's hard NOT to be a little boy and be impressed with these machines and dream of one day being that alpha male, a train driver on a JR (Japan Rail) Shinkansen.

Who wouldn't want to use these?
To that end though, there's train everything. One can eat with bullet train chopsticks, wear train socks, walk to school carrying a train lunch kit, play with train toys (From model trains to stuffed ones), and it doesn't stop! Some Japanese men never outgrow their love affair with the rail, many Japanese men have their cells set to go off with the station calls (When Japanese trains come to a station, a musical melody is played), one can find salarymen in their standard gray suits sporting neckties with various trains, some men wake up to an alarm that reproduces station calls on the famous Yamanote line in Tokyo (Think those pictures one sees of people being shoved into the train).

And those are the relatively normal ones. It gets even worse with hordes of Japanese men who spend their weekends camped out next to various train tracks to capture a perfect image of one train or another running down the rails. There are those who collect train memorabilia, as in there is a thriving trade for various JR uniforms and even ticket stubs. Even worse are those who will pay quite a bit of money to train in the same simulators that JR drivers use to learn how to drive a train (Why, I have no idea. No one is going to let them actually drive a real one), and then there are the true Train Geeks who make it their life's mission to ride every mile of rail on every line in Japan, all 16,944 miles of them.

And let's not get started on the various theme rooms in love hotels that are mocked up to look like the insides of various trains with uniforms to match.

Some Americans might be train fans, but I have yet to meet any who take it to the extremes of the Japanese.

But getting back to the boys, both Makoto and Hikaru fell in love with trains fairly early. We do have one running through our city and it's a common sight for us as we go about living in the countryside (Mainly because the track parallels the main road). Add in Thomas the Tank Engine and we have two budding train otaku. They have the toys, the have the clothing, they even have an American train whistle (I must have been out of my mind when I bought it). But like all young boys (and some men), trains are ranked in terms of interest.

Sure, the local line is fun and interesting, but it doesn't hold a candle to the limited express train. Those are worth lots of comments, but compared to a bullet train? Yeah, right. But there is a kind of train that stands at the peak of all train'dom, a train whose name inspires something close to religious awe in little Japanese boys, a styile of train whose whistle still echos from the past, whom deep in their souls they know even though these have long since stopped running regularly.

I talking of course about steam engines. SL in Japanese. Those glorious, vast, machines that hiss, squeak, and chug through a boy's dreams even though the last steam engine retired in 1975. Still, as in America where there are steam-ups, there are a number of SLs that make runs at various places in Japan, some quite long. And these, my friends, are what both boys are currently in love with, big time.

The train of the future...
A few days back, Jiji, Beloved's father, took all of us to the prefectural museum where they were celebrating railroading in the prefecture. The boys of course loved it, they liked seeing the model trains, they enjoyed the simulator, Makoto got to ride on a mock-up of the maglev train currently under construction, but the best part was... the SL. There's an engine outside of the museum and the boys flocked to it screaming "SL! SL! SL!" at the top of their respective lungs. This started the wheels in Jiji's head a-turning as Yamaguchi, where he lives, has a SL line that runs at various times of the year, summer being one of them. When Makoto was small, we took a ride from one end of the line to the other (Makoto spent the whole time pointing at the engine screaming "Percy! Percy! Percy!"), this time we would drive to the terminal station to take pictures of the train.

Or so I thought. Jiji's plans grew as we went along and we ended up with the boys, Jiji, and myself ridding the train (Hikaru spent the whole time pointing at the engine and screaming "Hiro! Hiro! Hiro!") back a few stations while Beloved and her mother drove the car back to meet us.

Admittedly, it's fun being on a steam train. The cars attached are not the modern coaches of the current JR fleet, but the old cars that ran before and after WWII, with some improvements like A/C. and of course the boys adored it. The sights, the sounds, the smells. Every tunnel we entered was first announced by a long blast on the whistle, much to the giggling approval of the boys.

But indeed they are Japanese boys because right now both boys are decked out in identical t-shirts with the stream engine they road on printed on it along with identical baseball caps with SL patches. They've gotten steamed.

Heck, even Daddy went back a bit into his boyhood and got a t-shirt of his own. Of course, this means Hikaru is currently following me around pointing at my chest and screaming "Hiro! Hiro! Hiro!"

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Lion Sleep Tonight

Right now Obon is finishing up in Japan. Now, technically, Obon is not an actual holiday, the Japanese government doesn't have it recognized, it's not a legal holiday, and yet for all of that, everyone takes it off and the whole nation migrates from the cities to the countryside to go back 'home'. While my work-a-holic father-in-law doesn't have to migrate (We're the ones doing the migration), he actually closes his hospital for a few days to take one of his very few vacations. Now Jiji, as he is called, was busy while the cousins were together helping the people of the city where he lives as their doctor, but now... well, he can forget the doctor and just be grandpa, and boy did he.

In the three days of break we went to a museum to see trains, a safari park, and then went to another prefecture to see MORE trains (A bit more on that later), but it was the second day that, for me, was fairly interesting.

I wasn't really kept informed as to the plans for the break (Who tells the taxi driver anything?) and instead when I woke up Wednesday morning I was informed that we were off to see lions and tigers and bears (Oh myyyyy). Now we had been there before, but Makoto was two-ish at the time and remembered nothing, so this time we felt that, while Hikaru might not remember anything, Makoto would.

Besides, it was Jiji's day off.

The park is laid out in a fairly standard BIG WIDE CIRCLE with large electric gates between the various 'countries' to keep the critters from molesting each other.

Actually, I thought that the gates gave the whole place a serious Jurassic Park feel to the whole thing. I kept wanting to mutter "Clever girl".

Pet, pet, pet
Our first problem was the horrible sounds emanating from nearby that caused us all to fear just what the animals might do or be doing, thankfully by the time we entered 'Canada' (Bears... just... bears. Because that's all that one can find in Canada apparently), we had Hikaru up and stopped the snoring. Once that major milestone was accomplished it was fairly smooth sailing for the most part. Both boys enjoyed seeing the animals (Daddy was a bit depressed, but that was mostly due to the conditions of said animals) and eventually we made it to the Kid's Safari (I.e. the petting zoo) where the boys got to get out and talk and pet some of the wild side critters (Namely goats, but they did have some kangaroos).

Through it all, Jiji was a happy grandfather. As said, he's a bit of a work-a-holic and doesn't get the chance to take a lot of time off and here he was, with his two grandsons and he wasn't going to miss a minute. Both boys very quickly picked up on this vibe by the way and figured out that Jiji was going to pay for just about anything as long as they turned on the puppydog eyes.

And then Makoto found the attached amusement part.

The park itself has seen better days, probably sometime around the Jurassic. It has a few sun faded rides, most of which want about $3 for a short, bumpy trip. Tokyo Disneyland this sure as hell wasn't, but, when you're 4 and 1... who cares? It's fun. It's fun to ride Thomas the Tank Engine again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and someone please drag these boys away from it!

The never ending Thomas!
It's fun to go up in a Ferris wheel for the very first time and then enjoy a sno-cone afterwards. It was fun to play in the bounce house, to ride the monorail, to see the video games. It was just fun and I'm honestly not knocking anything about the day, we had two very happy little boys who got to spend a great day in the sun with their grandparents.

But what was the most amusing thing for me? Jiji. My father-in-law, the very respectable doctor who is in his early 70's, started out just as giddy as his grandsons. And every ride request was met by him, he rode Thomas, he took them up on the monorail, he stood-by as they drove various cars and what-not but little by little the giddiness left him.

Jiji hadn't been fully subjected to the perpetual motion machines that are two small boys. He's used to his granddaughter who has some very set limits as to just how much she'll do being konking out, or Makoto in days of old when he would go for a few hours and then crash. Keeping up with those kinds of kids, not a problem... But Makoto of today, and Hikaru when he gets worked up, they don't stop. They're like that damn rabbit, they just keep going and going and going. Jiji however...

I believe it was rather telling that the plaintive whining about wanting to go home didn't come from the younger set, but the older. The elder lion has found that the younger cubs can go as well as he can, and indeed, can go farther than he is particularly comfortable with.

Still, while the elderly lion might be a bit dismayed at this uncomfortable fact (That he's slowing down a bit while his grandsons are speeding up), this is not the end. Of course not, there is still many things they can share. He still is Jiji after all and his grandsons adore him (And not just because he's an easy mark), he has lived a long and extraordinary life and I will tell both my sons to pay attention to what he tells them, because chances are it's worth listening to. But there is still one further thing that he and the boys can share...

In pulling away from the safari park with the course set for the grandparents' house, first Hikaru, then Makoto, and finally Jiji nodded off.

And once again the car was filled with horrible noise as all three started to snore.
Hush my darling, don't fear my darling
The lion sleeps tonight

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cousins' Week- Japan

My aunt... must have been clinically insane. Loony, been around the bend one too many times, taken a space walk without her helmet, a few cards short of a full deck, not quite the top billing, a few too many monkeys in the banana plantation, just slightly mad.

And she does agree with this notion by the way.

For a span of years that, if I recall correctly, approach, if not pass, the decade mark, my aunt volunteered to take the cousins that lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, plus two stray Nevadans, for a week or two of fun. At the height, she had 7 kids ranging from 12'ish down to the youngest who was 2, and that doesn't count the various friends who attached themselves to this.

Housing them all at her house, a feat that meant double or triple bunking people, it was the highlight of my summer for as long as I can remember. Oh we hand camping, we had various visits down to the Bay Area to see our relatives, but Cousins' Week ah, Cousins' Week!

My heart still dances the light fantastic to recall the various trips around the Bay Area to the San Francisco Exploratorium, the California Academy of Sciences, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the Shadow Cliffs Water Slides, and the crème de la crème, Great America, the first real amusement park I went to. And all of those BIG trips were punctuated with hanging around my aunt's house and soaking up sun and fun in their pool, hot tub, and various adventures my older cousin would come up with, including trips to a local park, Baskin Robbins for a clown cone, and of course,   Winchell's Donuts with my uncle.

Looking back with older eyes, I can see the reasoning behind such an undertaking. By gathering all of the cousins together like this, she made sure that we grew up together. Years and fate have driven us across the globe; myself to Japan, my sister to the Pacific Northwest, one cousin to the Army and various others now involved with life, their families and children and so on, and yet... When on those rare occasions we DO get together, we are not strangers trying to bridge our lives together on the say so of just blood relationships, we are old friends and family who remember each other from the get-go.

Furthermore, such a gathering gave various parents time off. While my aunt was nutty enough to take all of us, her brother and two sisters-in-law had a break. For my mother, dealing with single motherhood, this was the longest one she would experience in the year, and probably the reason why she didn't drown my sister and I in the bathtub prior to us growing up. A week off gave her time enough to remember that she loved her children and actually start missing them.

But at the time, I didn't really get that. For myself, Cousins' Week was just fun. I loved my cousins and I loved seeing my grandmother (Who tagged along) and my aunts, uncles, and everyone else down in the Bay Area and I appreciated, a bit, my mother more when she would meet us at Jack-in-the-Box in Auburn for the pick up. It was during Cousins' Week that I learned the art of chicken catching, how to blast lemons and snails over the fence with an air compressor, the right way of sneaking up on a fort to scare the inhabitants, how to make a pepperoni, salami, baloney, and American cheese sandwich (And how to eat it), and why when a video store has an 18 curtain up, one should NOT wander in there!

Of course, that too provided a wee bit of education.

I wish that my sons could meet their California cousins. My cousins have produced children of their own and already there are rumblings of Cousins' Week: The Next Generation (Though my aunt has long since retired and has claimed the mantel of Grandma who gets to tag along but doesn't have to actually take care of us) from them.

Thankfully however, while their California Cousins have been sparse, they do have at least one cousin in Japan (More might be on the way soon) and this summer kicked off Cousins' Week- Japan. Ranging in age from 4 to 1 and 8 months, the three of them made a week long visit at Jiji and Baba's (Grandpa and Grandma's) house for a week of beach, park, and just hanging around the house and chasing each other while laughing like loons. Oh, and fireworks, which was also a Cousins' Week tradition. We had ice cream, admittedly not a clown cone, but ice cream just the same and I slipped into my uncle's role of minivan driver. Beloved's mother was more than happy to bring up the Grandma who gets to tag along but leaves most of the heavy lifting to the parents role as well.

The ONLY question was a matter of who was nutty enough to take over the role of my aunt, the head honcho of this operation. Beloved, who knows about Cousins' Week swears up and down that she will NOT be a party of any such endeavor. After hearing stories from my aunt, she, rightly, regards such an undertaking as a road to more gray hairs and yet... Well... she DID plan a great deal of the activities this week for the kids, wrangled them all together, got all the stuff, badgered her husband into driving...

Last fall when I went back home for my grandfather's final illness, my aunt, in hearing about how things stand in Japan, joked that she gratefully passed the baton to Beloved. I think she DID, no matter how much Beloved disagrees. Now all we need is for Cousins' Week Japan and Cousins' Week: The Next Generation to crossover...

Sunday, August 12, 2012

6 Years

No, I haven't been doing this for 6 years, but today marks 6 years that I have been married to Beloved. Now, this should give one pause. I've had 6 years with an amazing woman (The most amazing one on the planet, truth be known, though I do admit a slight bias).

Consider, she speaks both English and Japanese, she has lived in three different continents, visited four, and has plans to see the rest someday. She has attended university level schools in the UK, the US, and Japan (None of which are considered slouches in terms of academic rigor). In a country that values form over function and places the husband as the 'face' of the family, even if the power for the house resides with the wife, she has taken on both roles and performed them both with grace and excellence. She has given birth to two very bratty sons who, unfortunately, are also cute as puppies and thus are able to get away with being brats and has retained her sanity (more or less), and of course she has managed to put up with ME for 6 years and THAT takes some doing.

Seriously, I'm an overly large brat of an English teacher who thinks he's funny and I'm not nearly as cute as my sons to get away with it.

To give you a sense of this woman's strength, let me relate to you a story. Shortly before we were married, my Beloved decided that she wanted to climb up Mt. Okuhotaka in the Japan Alps, Japan's third highest mountain. To make a long story short, we started up in a rain storm that grew into a blizzard and I found out that my rain gear, wasn't (I should have had my mountain man card revoked for that one). Soaked through to the skin and freezing, not sure as to where the mountain hut was ahead of us, I set up out tent, wrapped myself in the emergency blanket, and sent my (then) fiancee for help.

Alone, in a snowstorm, on the third highest mountain in Japan, she ran up the mountain, up the snow steps, to the mountain hut and then came to a screeching halt outside the door to compose herself so not to panic people. She gave the rescue squad directions to where I was and waited until they hauled my sorry rear into the hut.

And then spent the night apologizing to me and asking me to punch her for almost getting me killed when it was my mistake.

Beloved told me when I returned from America that 10 days as a single mother about killed her and she doesn't know where my mother found the strength to keep on going alone for so many years after my father's death. Personally I think that should, God forbid, something happen to me, she would not only survive, she would thrive.

Now I ain't saying she's perfect. She has her faults, like smacking her husband when Team USA wins, and she has this unreasoning prejudice against root beer and cinnamon, plus we have had to have words about her habit of treating the top of the dresser as the dresser when it comes to her clothes (I don't object to my wife's underwear per se, and sometimes it's fun to see it mixed in with my clothing, but not when trying to fish out a tie to get to work on time), but all in all...

Wow... just wow... I might tease her about the legendary strength and stubbornness of Choshu Women (It's said that the Lords of Choshu were unafraid to wander off to battle with all of the samurai leaving the castle manned by the city's women because they knew no one in their right mind would dare attack the place during that time), but I have married a very brave, very strong woman and I'm still not sure just what I did to deserve such a beautiful creature to call my own.

So Beloved, here's to 6 years, and hopefully many, many more.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Beating the Heat

So for the dog days of summer, we've come down from the mountains to the southern end of Japan's largest island.

We should have stayed up there I think.

Part of this is no doubt due to me having just been back to Nevada (Humidity 16%) recently so it's a bit of a shock to the system to end up in an area that's currently running at 60+ percent humidity. Part of this is also due to the power saving restrictions in place for this area. With most of Japan's nuclear reactors out of commission, people, including my in-laws, are skimping more on the A/C and are turning back to the ways of their fore-bearers to deal with the hot, humid, sticky, and just miserable Japanese summers.

Now there's a number of ways to go about this, right now Japanese houses are doing their best with sun screens (either plastic, traditional straw mats, or green curtains grown from something vine'y), but there's other ways to deal with the hot summer sun.

Yukata fashion
You can wear a yukata, a traditional Japanese cotton summer robe. You see these things around festival time, but I've got to admit, they are comfortable and cooler than a t-shirt and shorts. There's problems with finding them in tall, fat, foreigner sizes, and of course you get a little self-conscious when wandering around in naught but a thin robe and yer drawers, but you do stay cool.

Hit the beach, if you happen to have one handy. Swimming in the sea is a very Japanese way to cool off during the summer. If you happen to have some friends along, you can bury yourself in the damp sand to cool off. The only problem with this method, besides having to find a beach, is that the Japanese have this notion that once O-bon has passed (Mid August), one should NOT go swimming in the sea. Doing so invites some nasty beasties to come and take you out to sea, or jellyfish. I've gotten two different stories. All I do know is that a few years ago, after scoffing at the notion, I went to the beach and what was packed the day before was absolutely deserted the day after and returned to hordes of crabs. Also got a lot of "Look at the weird foreigner swimming after O-bon" looks.
Apparently the Sea of Japan leans left
But if you're not scared of ghosts, you can at least get a spot.

Splish, splash
Visit a water park, not talking about the slide thingies here, Japan has a number of parks with fountains and wading pools meant to help cool you off during the summer months. True, they are meant for children, but if you happen to be chasing said child and get wet... Just be careful of the fountains, they're set to change what's spraying where and how much at different time intervals and what you THOUGHT was dry ground...

Best in the world

Chomp the watermelon, and other summer foods. Japan still has a host of summer only foods, and one of them is watermelon. We're so NOT talking those green footballs that get sold in the US. Japanese watermelons are round, and the ones in our area are sweet, really sweet, as in Beloved may be right to conclude that the farmers sneak around at night adding sugar to the soil (Actually, it's the volcanic soil combined with a 20 degree (F) difference between night and day time temps). Ours are the best in Japan and highly prized. To give you a hint how much, we brought down some watermelons for Beloved's family. For two 3L size (Say about a quarter again better than a basketball), we paid about $30. Last summer when I was in Tokyo, a local supermarket had watermelon from our part of Nagano, a 2L (Slightly bigger than a volleyball) selling for over $40 a piece, and they were almost out of them. 

I scream, you scream...

Of course, there's my favorite, get some ice cream. The GREAT thing about being at Beloved's parents' place for the dog days of summer is access to the natsumikan (Summer orange) flavored ice cream. But there's soft cream places all over Japan selling chocolate, vanilla, macha (Green tea, think President Obama), and usually a local flavor. Usually they ain't that expensive, except for the scolding one gets for breaking his diet and feeding his son an ice cream cone, but to beat the heat...

Alas, given the heat and not wanting to go out into it, there is one final way to deal with it that works great with young kids. When they take an afternoon nap, just join them.

Or better yet, don't even wait for them to start; they can get themselves into bed, right?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Boobs = Lunch, or World Breastfeeding Week

I missed it, which is sad. I wish I had known about it sooner in order to say something about it.

August 1st through 7th is World Breastfeeding Week. Now this is something that, normally, dads just aren't that involved with, for obvious reasons.

That said, I think that more dads need to come out more about it. We need to support our partners in this. Yes, there are medical reasons, personal reasons, a whole host of reasons, why a woman might choose to not breastfeed, or only do so for a short time (For the record, both boys breastfed for a year, right up until growing teeth made it more than a bit uncomfortable and even then they DID get formula), but if your mate chooses to breastfeed, we should damn well support them.

When Beloved was tired, she still breastfed. When she was hungry, she still breastfed. In public, who cares? It's time to pop the boob out and feed that baby. And thankfully, Japan understands this notion. Breasts do not always = fun sacks that guys can enjoy, they also mean lunch to a hungry baby. In Japan, we simply don't see the hang-ups in the US about OMG! NEKKID BOOBS! Kids don't have to eat under a blanket, they're not asked to dine while their mom sits on a toilet because someone might get a red, puffy, nipple flashed at them while the kid is attempting to get at the good stuff.

In fact, truth be known, the ONLY time we had an issue with it was when we visited the US with Makoto and he needed to nurse. Then we had to try and find an out of the way place for this while Makoto screamed because in his mind, he shouldn't have to be waiting for food.

So, guys, this is why I say we've got to step up. It's not a woman's thing, it's a guys thing. We've got to state, hey, that's MY mate and MY kid and damn it, she can nurse him anywhere and anywhen and no, it's NOT objectionable, obscene, or anything other than a hungry kid getting lunch. we've got to tell our bosses this, tell our friends this, and tell those who do object this.

Let's remind the world that while a lady's breasts might indeed be a secondary sex characteristic that evolved for reasons beyond being just mammary glands, their primary function is as mammary glands and said glands provide the best start for our children.

I'll do anything for my sons, my wife as well. That's nothing to be ashamed of, it's something to be celebrated.


Hikaru: Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!

Me: What, Hikaru?

Hikaru: あっかんべー

To be fair, this isn't exactly a Where Do They Come Up With This Stuff, I KNOW where Hikaru came up with this, he was taught by his big brother and since everything thinks it's adorable, he repeats it, constantly.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Fish Tale

Not that kind of fish tale.

While in America, my son was given pets. The first was a beetle. See, part of the rites of summer is that Japanese children catch and keep various species of beetles that show up in the summer. What Makoto got was a female rhino beetle. This does take a bit of explaining, during summer, one can find these damn things everywhere for sale in stores (Or even vending machines) and hordes of Japanese little boys roam the woodlands with nets in the hopes of catching one of their own. They carry them in cages to and from their schools and spend hours pouring over books about these things.

As a guy who grew up in an area where the only large beetle around was the stink beetle, I admit that the whole notion is a bit odd to me.

But Makoto, apparently, was the only boy in his class that didn't have a beetle. Two years prior, he did have two and last year he had a whole mess, but this year, nothing. So our neighbor, the farmer, having caught one, presented it to Makoto.

The other pets were goldfish, again given to him this time by members of the International Club who won them at the summer festival at the goldfish scooping stall.

Now, these were problematic. The year before last, Makoto took very good care of his beetles (Or, rather, his parents took good care of his beetles) and they lasted well into the fall, but that year we didn't make the migration down to Beloved's parents' house in the southern end of Japan. Last year however, Beloved and the boys did while I was in Tokyo taking a class. The result was a tank full of dead beetles when I returned.

I'm not against pets of course, I had a whole zoo full growing up, but I arrived home on July 31st, and we were to depart for the in-laws' on August 5, a 14 hour drive in the hot summer heat one we were planning on taking two days to complete. Obviously, taking the beetle and the fish was not going to work. The problem was what to do with them?

Makoto, as with all boys, would not hear of not taking his pets, but there were problems.

For one, Makoto decided that he had to take his beetle to school (I'm not too sure how this worked. He's not allowed to bring toys, shirts that have buttons, or knit sweaters, but beetles are ok). A short car trip in 90+ weather, even with the AC on, more or less parboiled the beetle to the point that both his parents went to work to convince him to release it back into the wild of the wood pile where it would be 'happier' (Given how the beetle was falling off of things and twitching, it was more to the point of let's get it out of here before Makoto discovers it on its back with its legs folded in).

As for the fish, we started off with 7 feeders, I arrived to 6 and the day before we left, we had 4. These were feeders, not very strong, but what to do with them?

Beloved's idea was that they should be released to the river and after a rather tearful goodbye and explanation to Makoto about how long car trips wouldn't be good for his fish, they were.

Before I get yelled at for introducing non-native species, I know that the shock from going from a fairly warm, placid, tank to a swift flowing river full of snow melt killed them more or less instantly. Thankfully, the current took them before Makoto could see this and he thought that the one fish we saw swimming in that frantic, stricken circle was just saying goodbye.

No, this is not funny, sorry. But for the life of me, I'm not sure what else we could have done with them. They were feeders and, like all children who have ever won feeder goldfish know, chances were they wouldn't have lasted the week. Taking them in the car would have meant a slow death by suffocation in the summer heat of the car and a very upset little boy and we didn't have someone to give them to take care of while we wandered off on vacation. I could blame the people who gave Makoto these animals without bothering to check with his parents to make sure that it would be ok because the timing was the worst possible time that they could have come up with, but I can't because all they wanted to do was make my son happy.

The only good thing to come out of this mess was that Makoto very bravely swallowed his wants and released his pets to be 'happy', I just wish that his father didn't feel like such a heel for knowing that the happy life would be very short.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Faster, Harder, Stronger, The Games of the XXX Olympiad

I didn't know when I proposed to her. Oh sure, there was a few hints, comments about how she wanted to go onto the field and bite the opposing players' arms after a football game, a note that she was somewhat of a hockey fan, but nothing to really tell me that this beautiful Japanese woman was actually a sports fanatic.

And then came the games of the Athens Olympics in 2004, and there Team USA defeated Team Japan in softball. Now, I'm not a sport's follower. Oh sure, I root for the San Francisco Giants as my 'local' team, I follow the Oakland Raiders (I.e. I check the online news about them to know if I should mention them to my step-father or not), and for college sports, I get a bit worked up about it, but usually my feelings can be summed up as my two favorite teams are Nevada and whomever is playing UNLV, but even I had to grin at Team USA's victory and let out a small, "USA!". Not gloating you understand, just enjoying the win...


I got hit, hard, by my 'delicate' Japanese wife (Then fiancee).

Beloved is a follower of sports, and one with the normal Japanese reaction of tossing her heart and soul into the teams that she supports. Normally it's not so much of an issue, we both support the Nevada Wolf Pack and I can usually take or leave the various Japanese pro teams, but every two years...

And even then it's not so bad, I can cheer on Japan, though I do refuse to chant "Nippon! Cha! Cha! Cha!", as long as they are competing against other countries, but there will always be a time when it's Japan vs America and thus is WWII refought.

And yes, it gets bad. When Japan beat the US in the World Baseball Classic two out of two, Beloved gloated for two solid weeks. Last year during the Woman's World Cup, I ended up with a text message at 5:30 am while camping from an ecstatic wife that Nadeshiko Japan (It should be noted that the women's soccer team is called Beautiful Ladies and the guys Samurai Blue, kinda tells you all about Japan), beat the United States to hoist the cup.

But come the Olympics when Team USA wins...

'WHAP!' Every victory comes with a faster, harder, and stronger smack as she expresses her displeasure by taking it out on the nearest American on general principle, even if said American happens to be her husband.

I've thought about claiming domestic violence, except that I'm fairly sure that the Japanese police are just as nationalistic sports nuts as my wife.

Of course, what gets worse is adding our sons to the mix. Hikaru is too young to get into it (Though he will point at the TV and exclaim "London! London!" to get the Olympics on), but Makoto is old enough to enjoy setting his parents off and wanders around the house chanting "USA! USA! USA! YEAH!" to get cries of enragement from his mother and "Nippon! Cha! Cha! Cha!" shouted in return loud enough that I am sure some of Team Japan in London looked up suddenly to find out what the racket was.

Then Makoto announced that he wanted to go the Olympics as an Olympian (For the record, he plans to compete in swimming, Judo, soccer, and badminton). Now, being the wise father and knowing that doing so requires him to pick a team (and indeed a nation) I asked him what team he wanted to be on. "Team USA" earned me a glare that toasted my bread quite nicely. Stating to Makoto that to be an Olympian would require him to practice every day before he can stand on that podium and hear the Star Spangled Banner got me another that re-heated my coffee quite nicely.

Really, I don't think it looks that bad
Of course, I can't just let this all slide, even though, again, sports fan is not my name (Geek, yes, Trekkie, yeah, otaku, sure, but not sport's fan). So when I was in America I managed to pick up a car magnet for Team USA. I slipped it onto our minivan, just wondering, more or less, when Beloved would actually notice it.

She did, immediately. More so, I was treated to three days of ranting about how this was unfair that it was on HER car and how she was getting asked uncomfortable questions by other Japanese about why her car has a sticker supporting Team USA and not Team Japan. What drove her nuts was that she couldn't find a Japanese equivalent of that car magnet, no matter how she scoured the Internet. It finally came down to her forgiving me once I made her one out of some printable magnetic paper, a "Gambare! Nippon! logo she found, and a water sealant.

God help me if that sealant doesn't hold and the ink starts to run.

Of course, right now I am living in some apprehension as both Team USA and Nadeshiko Japan are in the quarter finals and expected to advance to the final round. When Team USA takes the gold, I expect that my wife will attempt for a gold of her own by targeting her husband's arm, faster, harder, and stronger.
Fair is fair, I suppose...

Thursday, August 2, 2012

And we're back

Not just after these messages.

As previously mentioned, I had to return to the US for a family emergency, namely the final illness of my grandmother. This comes less than a year after rocketing to the US for the exact same reason, that time for my grandfather.

This is one of the things about an international marriage that you don't really think about. I mean, when standing at the alter and seeing your beautiful bride coming down the aisle, you don't really give consideration to the problem of family, especially those members who might not be long for the world.

The thing with needing to return home is that an international flight does not come either cheaply, or quickly (My last minute flight cost the proverbial arm and a leg and ended up with me having to head to Korea first and then fly to the US), and so I got to spend a few days in Japan waiting and hoping that I would be on time, that I wouldn't get off the plane to find out that it was too late.

It's not a fun situation, but it is one that I have freely chosen. I'm not claiming that I have any regrets about deciding with Beloved to stay in Japan and raise our kids here, while the death of my grandmother hurts, I'm content with my choices. Not to mention that if it wasn't me, it would be Beloved when the time comes who would be jetting across the Pacific in the hopes of making it in time for the final illness of one of her family members.

This is the cost of going international, but I just had to look at the faces of my sons and embrace my wife to know it was a cost well worth paying for.

Besides, I did make it on time and my grandmother knew that I was there at the very end and her passing was a peaceful one, nothing else can really be hoped for.

So, yes, I'm back behind the keyboard and will be starting to write again. I'm sure we can get the funny going tomorrow as I describe the joys and trials of the Olympics. But at least I'm back home, in Japan.