Sneak-Peek Sunday

My book, tentatively titled, Lost With Translation, contains signs that have lackluster English on them.  Here’s a little taste:

Oh that pesky R and L confusion!  Where do you go to get an “AFLO?”  And what about that DREAD? Can you get your “dread” coiffed here?  Personally my “dread” is best done at home.

Enjoy!!

Clarity and Focus

Of the blogs I read with some regularity, both The Writer Mama, Christina Katz and Women on Writing have referenced both Clarity and Focus within the past two weeks.  Spring is a tough time for writers – especially for writers with kids.  Kids take up time and pull focus away from writing.  Writing lacks clarity when the kids are around and asking for attention, which is their right to ask of a parent.  In the summer it only gets worse with kids out of school, vacations taken, and other various yet enjoyable distractions.

The writer has to regroup, re-focus and figure out priorities.  Writers sometimes need a little retreat from life to de-clutter not so much the activities or even the desk drawers, but the mind.  A writer’s brain becomes full of everyday life things like laundry, bills and kids.  Add to that making a living, selling work and marketing oneself.  And rattling around, sometimes creating the very largest distraction, are fictional characters.  My good friend Trish Wooldridge recently wrote a great post on all the characters in her head that push real life to the margins.  Sometimes it works like that, and sometimes it works the opposite way.  It’s a constant push-pull relationship.  So a retreat is necessary to de-clutter the brain – at least a little.

I am very lucky in that I have a generous husband who understands this issue well.  Once and often twice a year, I get to spend three or even four days alone in a hotel room, talking to no one, and doing nothing except writing, reading and watching a some mindless TV.  I don’t even go out of the hotel much – I just let my mind wander and chill.

So far, 2010 has been a good year as far as getting my writing house in order.  I’ve written more this year than I have in a while, and I’m beginning to learn to say “no” to outside activities in order to concentrate on my writing life.  Baby steps, as they say.

Clarity and Focus.  You can’t be a writer without them.  Thank you, my writing guides.

Construction!

One thing that I have learned in my multiple years in Japan, is that Japanese society, in general, is not litigious.  Certainly not in the way Americans are.  In fact, if an accident occurs, most often Japanese people pay actual damages, not pain and suffering compensation.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with regards to construction.  As you can see from the pictures here, I was very very close to an open construction site.  They are building that building before my very eyes.  I could walk within inches of the site and no one worried it.  In fact, yesterday I walked right past a big, open hole in the road through which new pipes were going to pass.  There was a garage with a car parked in it nearby and out of respect, they had covered the entire car with plastic for protection. When was the last time  your car was protected from the ravages of road work?

You see, if I fell into the hole, or hurt myself on the construction site, I’d get my medical bills paid for, but it would be something that would set me up for the rest of my life.  Not like in the U.S.

Liability is a whole other animal overseas.  Each country deals with it in different ways.  In Japan, people trust each other but also they know to be careful and they don’t step in holes in the street by accident or on purpose. 

They just don’t do it.

It’s a whole new world when you take liability out of the equation.  It makes life much simpler.

The Key, But Not The Answer

Last week, Trisha Wooldridge and I spent quite a while discussing freedom, safety, education and other assorted issues on our blogs.  Yesterday, she wrote a particularly thought-provoking short essay on questioning as a response to those conversations.  She said that of the ideas that we discussed, that was the one that stood out to her the most.  For me, the idea to which I kept returning was that of personal choice.

Adults – especially American adults – have the freedom of choice for everything in their lives.  They can go to college or not; they can have children or not; they can get a job or not.  So many people feel stuck in their lives.  If only I could save more money, they say.  If only I could go back to school.  If only, if only. I am just cynical enough to believe that people can choose to better their lives.

But that is a double-edged sword, most people would tell me.  The single mother on welfare doesn’t think that she has any choices.  But that’s not what I believe. She could work full time and take online courses toward a degree which would net her a better job. I balance my cynicism with a basic belief in the human spirit.  With hard work, all things are possible.  “Can I be president someday?” my young son asks me.  I assure him that if he works hard enough, it is indeed possible that he could be president.  Stay in school; don’t get pregnant; don’t do drugs.  These are the things I tell my kids.  They have to make smart choices – it is my job as their mother to help them make smart choices.

The problems lie within the education system.  We take education for granted in the U.S. and even here in Japan where the literacy rate is well over 90%.  Not all people have the access to schools the way we do.  There are millions of children across the globe who do not have the opportunity to attend school, whether it’s because they have to work to help the family or it’s to dangerous or even too far to get to a school.  We need to appreciate the gift of education – what education gives us in the long run.  Throwing money at the problem is not going to help.  What is going to help is people choosing to value that education.  Parents have to choose to support the schools not financially, but with volunteer hours and belief in the system.  Tell the kids to behave in school. Model good behavior.  These are choices that parents and children have to make in order to succeed.

As I pointed out in the conversation last week, there are no easy answers to any of these questions.  But it is important to ask the questions, search for the answers and ultimately to make good choices.  Sometimes the right choice isn’t the popular choice, but doing what is right should trump doing what is easy.  And that, my friends, takes hard work.  But that’s a conversation for another day.

A Writer Friend indeed!

Today I have a guest blog spot on my friend Trish’s blog, A Novel Friend. Trish is a writer who has most notably a story in the award-winning collection Bad-A$$ Faeries: Just Plain Bad.  She writes regularly for several magazines and she is a tutor-extraordinaire for Smarthinking.com.  She is a great writer friend to have because she knows exactly when to push me with my writing and just when to let me be and hang back.

Last year we co-authored a short story that has yet to find placement, but it was a terrific experience for me.

Every writer has not only his or her own style, but also his or her own inner life that leads them to write in the first place.  The meshing of two worlds, I learned, can have some interesting results.  Our story was a mixture of fantasy, which is Trish’s specialty, and the mundane, which is more my speed.  We negotiated issues of form, character, detail and direction.  We had to talk through the editing process and figure out what sentences we could easily alter and which ones we needed to hang on to.  I learned about putting aside my ego when Trish edited my parts of scenes – she was looking at my work with her critical eye, not at me!

The best part, though, was learning how to craft the story in a way that was pleasing to both of us.  The details of the story became less and less important as we looked at the bigger picture of how we wanted her two characters to interact with my two characters.

I learned things about myself as a writer, too.  I learned that I do have the tough skin that I have been working to cultivate.  I learned that I am sometimes to wordy and descriptive when fewer, well-chosen words would be easier for the story to support.  And I learned that I like co-authoring.  Talking through the story with a friend who is as invested in the work as I am was a unique experience.

So thanks, Trish, for being a friend and co-writer.  I look forward to doing it again!

Toilets

No bathroom humor, please. In Japan, toilets are serious business (no pun intended).

Much of the ethos surrounding bathrooms, bathroom etiquette, and toilets in general stems from the strong Japanese ethos regarding cleanliness.  According to some research, the earliest Westerners, mostly from Europe, in Japan in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could not get over how clean the cities were. Europeans tended to throw their bodily wastes into the streets, not only creating filth and odor, but also a breeding ground for disease.  The Japanese, however, had toileting habits that involved waste disposal as early as the Nara Period in 710 AD.  Even in that time they built holes make-shift outhouses over holes in the ground or over a stream.

These days there are two types of toilets in Japan – Japanese and Western styles.

The Japanese style is still a hole in the floor – only now it’s porcelain instead of dirt.  In most places, the shape of

Courtesy of Wikipedia, the Typical Squat Toilet

it resembles a urinal laying down.  Users straddle the toilet and squat down to do their business.  Squatting in this way is a real art. Asians are accustomed to these positions and can easily keep their heels on the floor while squatting, keeping themselves neat if they are able to get their pants down completely below their knees. Westerners often have to strip down completely in the stall and hang their clothes on a hook, which many stalls have these days. In addition, the toilet often has a bar for someone to hold on to, or else their is a pipe for the plumbing, which can be grabbed.  These provide obvious stability.

Just because they are in the floor, make no mistake: these toilets flush – the waste is carried away into the sewers like any other toilet.  They are very sanitary. They easier to clean and they use less water than other types of toilets.  Some Japanese people believe that there are health benefits to these squat type of toilets.  The waste exits the body more efficiently, which some believe to reduce the risk of colon cancer, and the position strengthens the hips and knees.  For a woman, apparently there are benefits to the pelvic floor involved in squatting to release waste from the body.  Of course, whether it is true or not, people also believe it is more hygienic to squat since there is no worry about germs spreading from toilet seats.

The Washlet in my bathroom!

In my house, however, we use Western style toilets.  Of course, the Japanese being the Japanese, they have taken even Western toilets to new heights.  These toilets have functionality.  They wash, they cleanse, they dry and of course, they have an “automatic erase smell” button on them.  Users control the temperature of the water and the pressure of it as it works its magic.  We have a pretty basic model in the house, but in some places the toilet raises and lowers its own lid, has “small” flush and “big” flush options, and even plays music.  The music or running water function is to create privacy.  A number of years ago, the TOTO toilet company found that women in particular were flushing the toilet to create a sound while they did their business in a public restroom, lest anyone know precisely what they were doing in that stall.  The amount of water wasted by these extra two to three flushes was astronomical.  So many public restrooms contain either a button on the toilet to create a flushing or running water sound, or even have a small, separate machine on the wall of a stall to make the sounds covering the bodily functions.

Of course then there’s my absolute all-time favorite part of the toilet: the heated seat.  My husband and I have continual debates over the temperature of our toilet seat.  He sits so seldom though, that I win.  The toilet seat is extra toasty at all times for me.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this all week is because of our ski trip: outside of Tokyo it is harder and harder to find Western toilets! People in the countryside of Tokyo much prefer the squat type!

The function arm of my Washlet

Like many things in Japan, toileting is one of the aspects of the culture that people take seriously, much more seriously than most Westerners.  Even in the bathrooms of the country, there’s never a dull moment.

Mornings in the City

Tokyo at sunrise

Three times a week, I take a long walk with a friend 5:45am.  We cover five kilometers in about 45 minutes, and while that is not race-worthy, it feels good.  Mostly it feels good to be outside, to be doing something good for our bodies, and to chat so that we never notice we’re actually exercising.

I am a morning person, so that hour never bothers me.  In fact, I quite like it.  In the winter months, it can be difficult to get up and dressed in the dark, but being out in the city at sunrise is a treat like no other.  I never fail to appreciate Tokyo at this time.

The city seems to awaken before our eyes.  The streetlights flicker, dim, and then darken as the sun makes its ascent in the sky. The Tokyo Tower, which is akin to the Eiffel Tower, is still lit when we start, but dark when we’re through. The air is clear, without the smog and humidity that characterize the summer months.   The rays of the sun are barely reaching out and stretching toward the tops of the buildings as we walk.  The horizon pinks up nicely. We see a few more lights in apartment windows. Tokyo, in most places, is not a tall city; earthquakes and a sense of neighborhood have kept it traditionally low.  In some places we can see the beginnings of stirs of families as they begin their morning routines.  The lights are always on at our favorite bakery.  The scrumptious Italian coffee shop already has smells emanating from it that make me crave my morning java.

The Japanese are particularly purposeful when they walk.  They look neither left or right, but somehow magically avoid crashing into one another.  I feel like I am constantly weaving and bobbing to stay afloat in the sea of bodies that characterizes most major streets.  But before 6am, the streets are blissfully empty, devoid of the foot traffic that will flood them in only an hour’s time.  My friend and I walk two-abreast for the entirety of the route, somthing that is not  usually possible.  In fact, there are times when there are literally lines of people that move at the pace of the line-leader and I feel like I need a signal light on my body to indicate that I will be moving out of “traffic” to pass the person or people in front of me.  I have broken into a light jog at mid-day in dress shoes just to get out of and away from, the throng of people.

In the mornings, before 6am, the auto and truck traffic is light, but increasing along with the oncoming light of day.  However, it is early enough to smell the wafts of flowers that are omnipresent in the city.  Japanese people, when they can’t live in nature, bring nature in.  In the spring and fall we smell the new growth and life-affirming buds. We can tell the seasons with the aromas in the air. In the winter, their air is cold, but not frigid – dry but not icy.  Most mornings, even now in January, we walk bare-headed.

As the light comes up, the shop-keepers and mama-sans come out to sweep in front of their buildings lest dirt be tracked inside.  Even the streets and sidewalks are always clean.  Leaves from the few trees in the area never stay on the ground long before being swept and bagged and curbed.  These industrious dawn-workers seem determined to get their day started with their rhythmic sweep sweep sweeps.

The day gets off to just the right start with my morning walks.  I feel rejuvinated and ready for the challenges that I face.  And each morning I fall in love with Tokyo just a little bit more.

Thursdays are for Writing: My Journal

This morning I had breakfast with a group of girlfriends.  We are all expats in Tokyo – three Americans, two Canadians and a Korean and our kids attend the same school.  We started the most fascinating discussion about history, war and perspective.  One woman told a story about having a guide in a museum in Tokyo where she was looking at an exhibit on the bombing in Hiroshima. She apologized to the guide for the U.S. dropping that bomb.  But the Japanese guy turned around and apologized for bombing Pearl Harbor.  The Korean woman at the table pointed out that the Koreans were grateful to the Americans for ending the war and putting the Japanese in their place – even before the Second World War, the Japanese had been ruling Korea for thirty six years – having invaded the Peninsula before 1910.  One of the American women at the table said that gave her pause – she had never thought about it that way before.  The talk at the table turned to Asians and overt types of racism.  Asians often have problems with each other.  The Chinese don’t like the Japanese, the Japanese don’t like the Koreans and the Koreans don’t like the Japanese either.

This is where I took out my journal.

I scribbled notes on the conversation as it continued.  The women debated the merits of overt racism versus the Political Correctness toward which Americans strive and neve r achieve.  At least, some of the women rationalized, if one person does not like the culture of another person, perhaps it’s better to just get it out there instead of hiding feelings.  Hidden feelings lead to explosions later, perhaps.

One of the women interrupted her train of thought and looked at me. “What are you writing?”

“Oh, Aimee always has her journal out,” another woman, who has known me longer, explained, “She records everything.”

“For what?” another woman wanted to know.

“Sometimes for the blog. Sometimes for a story idea.  Sometimes for nothing,” I answered.

The other women nodded and went back to their fascinating discussion.  There were no real conclusions and nothing was resolved, but it was the talk of women: honest, sharing, and diverse.

One thing that I always do is write to make sense of my world.  I write in order to think.  I write in order to come to realizations – conclusions.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to participate in the discussion nad it wasn’t that I had a particular purpose in mind as I scribbled my notes while the others talked.  When I felt the need to interject, I did, and then went right back to my pen and paper.  Will I write a full blog post on racism in Asia? Perhaps.  Maybe I’ll write about the language of women.  Maybe six women having breakfast together will make its way into one of my stories.  I never know how I’m going to use some things I’ve written and noted, but if I didn’t write and make notes, then I would be losing some of my personality.  Writing is not just what I do, it’s who I am.  And that’s why my journal is out on the table at mealtime.  I write because it’s who I am.