Cancer – A Few Silver Linings

CMy husband Marc has taken the kids back to Tokyo to re-start their “real” lives.  Bailey is a freshman at The American School in Japan (ASIJ) and my daughter, Sydney, started middle school, grade six, at Nishimachi International School (NIS).  Both kids have been at their respective schools for a while and I couldn’t bear to take them out of their comfort zones, though I’d much rather have them here with me. (Look for a forthcoming post on the hardest thing I’ve ever done – I’m just not ready to write it yet.) They are for sure in the exact right places for them.

Though this whole cancer thing sucks, I have found a few silver linings to it, and I’m pleased to say that Marc has also found a few here and there. Case in point: the other day he said to me, “Sydney is really fun in the grocery store.”

This is something I knew already.  Sydney is very good at spotting items on the list.  She likes menu planning and then buying the planned ingredients.  She likes finding a new item to try and even feeling produce to check for ripeness.  She’s a good little shopper.  In addition, when we’re in Japan, she likes reading signs, figuring out what things are, and calculating weights and costs in grams and yen.  Her Japanese reading and speaking skills are coming along nicely and the grocery store is good practice.

Marc is also an excellent Japanese reader and speaker, so in addition to all of the fun things about Sydney in the store, he was able to show her certain Kanji symbols and discuss the language issues via food, Sydney’s favorite subject, which made everything more interesting for both of them.  Marc has always enjoyed the kids musical and sporting events, and he and Bailey can discuss fantasy football and other sporting events and issues ad nauseum. However, it has been harder to find things he has is common with our girly-girl and so the grocery experience was great in more ways than one. Marc has been a great dad from day one with our kids, but he has never been the primary caretaker of them; that has been my job, except for a few weekends or a week here or there when I’ve been away.  Now he has stepped up to do it in a big way while I stay in the U.S. for treatment – and is doing a great job of it so far.

So here’s the benefit: some serious dad and kid bonding. If I wasn’t sick, Marc would never have discovered Sydney’s talents in the grocery store. That very same day, the two of them went out to the ever-popular and crowded Azabu Juban festival near our house and had a blast together.  If I was there, I would have gone, and though I really miss being there, I am delighted that my daughter and her dad had the opportunity to experience it together differently from how it would have been if I was there.

We have such great friends in Tokyo that I know Marc is going to have a lot of help with the kids – homework, caretaking, meals, etc – in the next four months while I’m in the U.S. But I also know that he will do a great job with everything himself and he and the kids will forge a new, strong connection that they might otherwise not have done.  For that I am not sorry – it’s a little perk in a hailstorm of sorts. So in the end we will all emerge from the experience hopefully healthy, and in some ways be even better and stronger for it.

Storage: An Interesting Grocery Conundrum

harris teeterThis is the advertisement in the Wednesday “Food” section of The Washington Post from Harris Teeter, a local grocery store.  The point of it is that the store is looking out for the economic health of its customers and giving away items for free – albeit with a purchase.  If a customer was going to buy one box of triscuit crackers, why not buy two  – and then the store will GIVE him three more boxes for free.  As Americans we are all accustomed to this type of pitch.  There’s even an acronym for it in its purest form: BOGO – buy one; get one.  This however, goes over the top – B2G3?

As someone who has been living in Japan for quite a long time, it’s not just the health concern that gets me – as in, beyond having a party, who the heck is going to eat all of those hotdogs before their shelf (or freezer) life expires??  But it’s also the space.  Buy two CASES of Pepsi, each of which contains 12 cans of cola, and then get another three cases, 36 more cans, for free.  I can’t think of anyone I know in Japan who has storage for 60 cans of soda.  I guess many Americans do have that type of storage in closet or basement, but people in Japan, especially Tokyo, do not. Japanese kitchens are smaller in general, have smaller cabinets and significantly smaller refrigerators than American kitchens. It has become fascinating to me what people in the U.S. actually keep in their cupboards.  There’s a lot of “stuff” in there that people don’t even remember they have.

I do not mean to criticize – just remark. I can hardly criticize – I used to do it myself!  I’ve just gotten way away from it in the past 6+ years of living outside of the U.S.  If you can store all of that stuff, then you are lucky to have the space.  It’s just really interesting to this American girl who has moved away from it all.

What Can You Do With Leftover Frying Oil?

When frying in oil, the question of what to do with the leftover frying oil is always a problem.  It can’t be just thrown down the sink without dire consequences to the plumbing.  It also can’t be thrown in the trash because of it soaking through everything and hurting the garbage process.  A lot of people bag the oil and freeze it to throw away later, which works, whether in the sink or the trash.  But then one has old oil in the freezer until remembering to throw it away.

The Japanese have a great product they use after frying, however.  It’s called katameru tenpuru. Here’s a picture of it in the box.

cooking oil 2It’s little crystals that you sprinkle on the pan with the oil still in it – and slightly hot.  You wait a little while – less than an hour – and the whole thing is solidified.  I used a spatula to take it out of the pan and simply flip it, pancake style – into the trash, where it’s completely safe.

Perhaps they have this product in other places and cooking oil 1I just haven’t seen it.  I think this is completely ingenious, and it makes frying a breeze.  I don’t do a ton of frying, but the Japanese have some terrific and light recipes for a fast fry that require oil.  I’ve tried a few and been frustrated afterward with the cleanup of the experience even though the food came out just great.  No more frustration with this product around!

How I Found The Spirit of “DanShaRi” – My New, Favorite Japanese Word

dansharipicMy acupuncturist worked her magic on me but kept muttering over and over about how tense I was compared to my session just two weeks prior.  Finally, after the session I told her that we were about to move to a new apartment in Tokyo, and it was just plain stressful.  Adding to the stress was the fact that this would be our first move without babies.  When we moved into our house six years ago, we had small kids – ages 5 and 8.  We had an entire room in the house stuffed with their toys and books.  Being a writer and writing teacher myself, I get very attached to books.  In addition, my mother, a career kindergarten teacher, calls herself Grandma Book, and when she closed her classroom in the U.S. and moved south, she sent five packing cartons full of children’s books.

But fast forward six years with kids ages 11 and 14, and most of the books and toys had to go.  I spent a lot of time on the floor one weekend in early May just going through a lot of books and remembering them.  Crying. Feeling. Mourning a little, even. Some special books, the ones my kids really remembered and loved, they wanted to save and keep on their shelves, and I certainly allowed that.  In the end we had at least ten trash bags of toys to give away and five suitcases full of books to donate.  In my heart, I knew that other kids would be able to love the books and toys as much as my babies and I had loved them, but letting go of them was tough.

That’s when the acupuncturist, listening to my tale of woe, taught me a new Japanese word.  “Dan-sha-ri” she told me.  “That’s what you’re doing: Dan-Sha-Ri”.

She wrote out the Kanji for me, and it’s really three Kanji put together to make up the very connotative word.

Dan the first Kanji, means to refuse.  People are supposed to refuse to collect more THINGS in their life, or refuse to block the flow of their lives with stuff.  Sha means to throw away things – get rid of unnecessary items in the home.  And Ri means to separate – separate what’s actually valuable from your possessions – your stuff is not your life; you and your memories and the people you love are your life.

When put together, the word DanShaRi means to let go of possessions, but also to free yourself from them; to poetically purge what’s cluttering your life and let go of it gracefully.  The result is intended to be a lighter and free-er person.

Yes, I spent some serious time on the floor stressing and crying over my children’s bygone childhood, but I admit now, three weeks later, that I do feel lighter for the exercise of it.  My children are growing into such fine young adults, that I find I don’t need their baby stuff anymore.  I can carry the memory of their babyhood in my head and in a few photo albums without having to carry the actual, physical trappings of that babyhood – which also means that I can fully enjoy the present.

I am grateful to my acupuncturist at Theracua for treating the whole person a few weeks ago, and not just my joints and muscles.  She made the process of DanShaRi in my life a whole lot less stressful and more of a thankful experience.

Sometimes the connotative, on-the-fly nature of Japanese has just the right word for the situation.

blog matsuri pic

I Can Practice Zen Meditation – They Call It “Practice” for a Reason

The Japanese garden outside sojiji.

The Japanese garden outside sojiji.

Recently I had the fortune to visit Soji-ji, the Head Monastery for the Soto Zen Sect of Buddhist Monks and experience Zen Meditation.  Called Zazen in Japanese, this ancient art is about much more than sitting still; it incorporates awareness of the inner and outer world of each person who practices the art.

Our group had arranged for a special lesson and tour in English, and we were met by two Monk trainees, one who spoke mostly Japanese and the other who translated to us.

Zazen has many small rituals associated with it and it is indeed the small rituals that are repeated over and over again that make the entire form come alive as an art and practice.  For

The meditation room - the monks eat, sleep, pray, meditate and live here.

The meditation room – the monks eat, sleep, pray, meditate and live here.

example, we had to fold our hands for walking down the long corridors of the monastery in a particular position – left hand in a fist facing sideways, with the thumb tucked in, and the right hand covering the left.  The monks held their elbows out, and the Westerners tried to follow suit, but often let their elbows drop toward their sides.

Once we entered one of the small meditation rooms, called Sodo, we had to be silent.  Each person stood in front of one pillow, called a Zafu.  The Zafu sat precisely in the center of one tatami mat on a raised platform.  What I didn’t know at the time was that I was sitting in a place of many purposed.  There is a wooden edging around the tatami, about 6 inches wide, and that’s where the monks eat.  They sleep on that tatami mat.  They do their

The Hall of Shining Lights where special ceremonies take place.

The Hall of Shining Lights where special ceremonies take place.

meditation on that tatami mat.  They keep their personal items in two drawers against the wall on that tatami mat.  Everything they own, use or need is in that space – the space of one tatami mat, which is a standard measure in Japan, usually around 1.8 meters x .9 meters (6 feet by 1 foot, approximately). It brings a whole new meaning to simplicity and paring down a life.

Our practice began with turning the Zafu so the words stitched on it faced the

This is one of many long hallways. The monks in training clean the floors by hand without chemicals twice daily as part of their ritual.

This is one of many long hallways. The monks in training clean the floors by hand without chemicals twice daily as part of their ritual.

wall.  Then we bowed to the wall, we bowed to the outside, and then, without putting our feet (remember, you’re barefoot for EVERYTHING in Japan) on the wooden edging, we had to get our bottoms on the Zafu and fold our legs.  No easy feat.  We were taught to fold our legs in a few ways while sitting on the Zafu.  Those wearing a skirt were recommended to sit on their knees, the Zafu placed discreetly under them for a minimum of comfort of those knees.

We then had to turn clockwise to face the wall, keeping the Zafu under us.  We had to fold our hands so the left hand sat in the right hand, thumbs lightly touching, forming a small oval. The monks said a few words about breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth – very very deeply. We were told to sway slightly to find our center of gravity, then make ourselves still. The gong rang three times and that was it – we were meditating.

My first thought was on the fact that my foot was asleep and felt like a small elephant attached to my ankle.  But recently I had been told that I use my shoulders to breathe instead of my stomach, and I concentrated on making my stomach go in and out.

zen kitchen god

Originally from India, this is the Kitchen God, Daikoku Sonten, who is the first to welcome visitors to the monastery.

There was one bit of flagellation in which I did not participate.  The monk called it a hand of Buddha, and there is one monk assigned to walk up and down the row with a stick, tapping and then making a smack on the shoulder of any person who is falling asleep or otherwise not fully engaged.  One can ask for the hand of Buddha to strike by folding ones hands as if in prayer for a moment, if feeling unengaged, and the person next to me did it twice, causing me to jump with the loud smacking sound.  She said it did not hurt, but I didn’t feel the need to ask for this practice.

Within 15 minutes the gong sounded again and we were done with the first round.  We were told to get up very slowly, and we practiced a bit of walking Zazen, hands folded in walking position, walking in a small square taking only half-steps.  We did that for a moment, then followed the whole procedure a second time for a second round of regular Zazen.

The second time was easier – and shorter – than the first.  My feet stayed firmly awake and my mind stayed fully on the breath.

The monks took us on a full tour after the Zazen practice (pictures abound).  There are so many more things to the monastery – the beautiful rooms of the head abbot, the house of Buddha, which we could not enter, and the gongs sounding for the ceremony of bells that we got to witness for just a moment after being told we were very lucky at that moment – most people don’t get to see it.  We just glimpsed it and got a feel of the heavy ritual that imbues Buddhist worship.  I really feel that we saw a lot, but still just touched the tip of the iceberg of what actually goes on and what there is to see.

Here’s what I learned: the whole rigmarole of getting ready for the practice, from folding the hands to enter the room, to making sure the stitching of the Zafu is in the right direction, is part of the practice, and forces one to begin the process of emptying the mind.  If you are focused on very small details, there’s

The main building and entry point of the monastery, Koshakudai. It is build completely of Japanese Cyprus wood.

The main building and entry point of the monastery, Koshakudai. It is build completely of Japanese Cyprus wood.

no room for other thoughts.  Action begets thought.  It’s not about completely emptying the mind; it’s about complete awareness of the mind.  An entering thought should be examined before it’s abandoned.  Concentrate on that throbbing foot.  Thinking about nothing else might make the pain ease.  Then pick another part of the body on which to concentrate.  Relax that part of the body.  Really feel it. Get into it.  Whether it’s your pinky toe or your left hip, actually feeling your body will lead to understanding it.

It’s not perfect, that’s why it’s called practice.  Your mind wanders; your attention deviates.  That’s why it’s called practice – because improvement of mind, body and spirit comes only through practice.

 

 

Blogging Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum – My Interview on Expats Blog

I have been interviewed by the blogging site ExpatsBlog!  You can read the interview and see my opinions on life in Japan HERE.

Recently I’ve been connected with other bloggers through Expat blogging sites.  These sites are wonderful clearinghouses for bloggers like me, but also for the expats who live abroad and are looking for multiple viewpoints/experiences to guide them on their journeys abroad.

One of my favorites is Expats Blog.  They have such a breadth of different writers in different countries, all writing about their varied lives in their countries of residence.  It’s so helpful for me to read the pieces and get a feel for how other bloggers relate to their audiences.

Enjoy!

 

Oven Mania in a New Apartment

oven originalIf you are reading this post in the U.S., go look at your oven.  I bet it’s about 60cm (24 inches, approximately) wide.  My oven in our very Western house was about that size up until last week, too.  However, last week, we moved house (into a more Japanese apartment) and our oven experience has been the most interesting part.

We’ve known for a while that due to circumstances beyond our control, we would have to move before mid-June, but it took us a while to find the perfect place.  In fact, when we first saw the place that we eventually took, I rejected it out of hand on the basis of the oven.  The oven when we looked at the apartment, a mere ten minute walk from our old house, was only 20cm wide.  Think about it.  That is just under 8 inches.  There’s no way I was going to cook in an oven that’s only 8 inches wide.  I’m an American, for heaven’s sake – there are lots of ooey gooey birthday cakes to be made, and roasts to be cooked and veggies to be roasted.  I cook a lot!

That being said, the oven was state-of-the art Japanese.  It had a control panel

The huge control panel on the original oven took up half the space!

The huge control panel on the original oven took up half the space!

that came out at you when you touched the door of the oven.  It had every button possible (not that I could read them all, but still.)  It just wasn’t good for the type of cooking that I want to do.  Japanese people generally don’t bake, and they don’t roast.  Most Japanese cooking is done on the stove top – or in a rice-cooker.

My husband Marc, however, is  a pretty smart guy.  He knew that the apartment would be perfect for us, but also that it had been empty for a while, and he told our leasing agent that we would be willing to move in very quickly if they changed the oven to something a bit more reasonable.  At first they thought we needed a Western oven and they wanted to charge us a few thousand dollars to cut the cabinet to fit it.  But we didn’t need a full-on European or American model – we needed better than was currently there.  Marc measured my largest few roasting pans and found that they were mostly just under 40 cm wide.  The good ones any way.  Then he went to the Internet and found a Japanese model oven that was around 40cm wide (almost 16 inches) and emailed our agent, who in turn, emailed the apartment owner.

My new oven!

My new oven!

Within a week the owner of the apartment had agreed to change out the oven and put in the one Marc recommended if we would move in prior to May 18th.  I’m not sure why that day was so urgent to him, but it doesn’t matter.  We now have a wonderful gas  oven that is 40cm wide.

The whole piece – oven, stove-top, fish grill – is state-of-the-art.  It has a sensor for pots so the gas can’t be left on too long, or cuts off in an earthquake.  It has true control of fire – and get this – battery backup in case of loss of power.

The battery backup!

The battery backup!

I can’t use my very largest roasting pan, and I can’t make a huge Thanksgiving turkey in this oven.  But beyond that, I can do everything I want to, and so far, it is pretty darn great.  I think we’re going to have a wonderful new life here – and now we’re really cooking!!