Tuesday, November 29, 2005



We wish you all of the happiness of the season!

It’s not going to snow in this part of Japan. It may not even get very cold, as former Midwesterners understand cold. This makes it a little hard to believe that the holidays are bearing down on us like an overloaded sled. Last weekend, we spent an afternoon building sandcastles on the beach and trying to explain to our young natural scientists what coral is. Indiana doesn’t care what coral is --- she’s too busy becoming one with the beach. She eats the sand, enthusiastically, face first. She drinks the sea. She stands in the mild surf up to her chin: she’s a happy, beachy baby. Atanasia wants to know the origin of every seashell and coral bit, and examines algae and seaweed minutely. Sebastián spends his time experimenting to find the perfect level of sand dampness for constructing crumble-resistant towers. He also rescues hapless tiny clams and jointy hermit crabs who find themselves unwelcomely dry. Nobody ever wants to leave, although as we put on our shoes often the youngest young people find themselves completely unable to walk and must be carried home like the princesses they are.

Indiana has become convinced that being asked to share her Papi with other family members is deeply unreasonable. Apparently, we’re rubbing all of the affection off every time we touch him. So she defends her exclusive rights by yelling indignantly and swatting us with great vigor and accuracy any time any of us comes within arm’s reach. Fortunately she has other things she needs to do, besides being carried around by her Papi and keeping the rest of us love-stealers away, things like seeing how many small toys she can cram into the VCR, and hiding her brother’s toothbrush, and turning off the computer while her siblings are in the middle of a game. Indiana is absolute proof of my theory that you get the child you’re ready for, because if she’d come any earlier we wouldn’t have had time to develop these vast reserves of tolerance for the antics of bright, energetic children. Sebastián is, as always, the most thoughtful and best behaved young man any parent could hope for. Sebastián feels things very deeply, and we worried that this transition would be hard for him, but he’s doing so well! He’s got a great teacher, new friends, a huge playground for recess, and a whole lot fewer teeth than the last time you saw him. He’s even trying new food --- this week he actually said he liked the quiche (which, as any parent of a picky eater will understand, we sensibly renamed “cheese pie”). Beautiful, temperamental Atanasia is also busy being smart as a whip; we’ve been very fortunate with her school, as well. She didn’t want to move to the 4-year-olds’ class when the fall session started, so she’s stayed with the older kids and has already mastered the alphabet and counting to 100, and has moved on to phonics, human anatomy, and addition and subtraction. All three of them are becoming more themselves every day. What more could we wish for our children, or for ourselves?

Health and happiness to you and yours in this season and always!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Too Much Haiku

I'm trying to create Christmas cards. It didn't seem right, to send traditional snow-and-fireplace cards from Japan, and I can't find the Japanese equivalent of a box of Christmas cards. (I think they're bought individually here, like birthday cards, not sent en masse.) So I'm making my own --- we'll see how successful my attempt is. Similarly, I came up empty from a Google search for traditional Japanese poetry with a theme of happiness suitable for the inside of a holiday card, so I decided to try to write one of my own. Perhaps this was a mistake; haiku are, apparently, revoltingly easy to write badly, and I can see why. Suddenly, every stray thought suggests itself in 17 syllables ("Crumpled grocery list, I see you and I wonder: what did I forget?"). But, you know, I made these things, and misshapen or not they belong to me. And since this is the repository of all of my random writings, I think they go here. Oh --- haiku aren't supposed to be titled. It probably leads to cheating on the syllable count.

Grey sea meets grey sky,
the waves flash in long white rows:
winter elegance.

Small world, gem glowing
against the infinite dark ---
what is mere distance?

My child is singing ---
forget the cold rain, blue mood.
We embrace; she laughs.

Joy does not leap out
in a shower of fireworks.
It gathers, like fog.

Against the white wall
my friend's painting, luminous ---
a memory jewel.

Here it will not snow.
But breathe the joy of winter,
the wind from the sea.

Indiana shrieks
as if she sees the world's end.
I'm tired. I love her.

A flash of bright fins,
sleek golden scales, still water ---
joy reveals itself.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Food, Wealth, and Consumption

At the end of last week, I heard part of an NPR segment about a pair of photographers who have put together a book of pictures of families from all over the world, standing behind a table holding a week's worth of their groceries. I should go look up the transcript, because I missed parts of it, but the photographers commented about the ways that the food choices of families in less-developed countries differed from the tables of food spread before the families from wealthier countries. No surprise --- the family from Guatemala ate a rainbow of fresh fruit and vegetables in their week's worth of food, the table of the family from China contained only one processed and packaged food (beer), and the family from the U.S. candidly showed the pizza boxes, Burger King wrappers, and bags of chips that came into their house in a week.

That was the day that I did our grocery shopping for the week, and I was thinking about the NPR segment as I put away what I'd bought. Overall, I was proud of the amount of fresh produce we were going to eat in the next week, and suddenly aware again of how expensive fresh produce is here in Okinawa. There doesn't seem to be a lot of local farming outside of the sugarcane and pineapple cash crops, and a lot of what we buy must be shipped from outside the island. Tomatoes were about $1 each, and three (admittedly large) leeks rang up at $7.50. Even Japanese apples, beautiful giant Fujis and Worins, cost more than $1 each. But after I had finished tallying the cost of eating a healthier diet, I noticed that the only processed and packaged foods I'd bought (with the exception of frozen vegetables, and I don't think they count as dietary Trojan horses) were for the children. Fish sticks, hot dogs, frozen chicken nuggets, corn dogs, bologna --- I swear, I spend a lot of time in the grocery aisles reading the labels, trying to find the best alternatives. The hot dogs are mostly chicken, with about half the fat of the premium brand. I get the trans-fat-free chicken nuggets, the turkey bologna. And the apples were almost entirely for the children (green Worins for Sebastian, red Fujis for Atanasia, whatever she can grab from a sibling's plate for Indiana). But still, still . . . .

I told Ed about my train of thought, later that evening. We both know how it happened, and it seemed inevitable at the time. Sebastian, who is now 7 and our oldest, has always had an extremely delicate sense of what goes into his mouth. Only in direst instances do we insist that he swallow medicine, because even though he realizes that he needs it to get well, even though he's been persuaded to drink the dose from his own hand in his own time, even with the best effort on his part, most of the time it comes right back up because Sebastian can only eat a very, very few things. He's always been this way, from the time he started to eat solid food. He can go all day without eating, without complaint, if he's not offered one of the twelve things that make up the lexicon of acceptable foods. When he was 4 1/2 and started Montessori preschool, I eagerly waited to see the gastronomic expansion that I was sure would take place once he started to encounter very lovingly cooked school lunches in a situation involving at least implied peer pressure. Sebastian came home pale and tired and cranky, having quietly refused to eat a morsel of any of the food he was offered in a month's lunches. The same thing happened the following year in kindergarten --- his teacher finally sent a note home asking me to pack lunches for him because he wouldn't touch anything served at school. And so, in school lunches as at every meal at home since 1999, I've made separate "kid meals" out of the dozen things that Sebastian will eat. My joy was inexpressible the day he said, "Fish sticks? I like fish sticks!" When Atanasia, who is now 4 1/2, started eating solid food we offered her what we were eating, and for a while she ate it, but gradually she, too, settled into the tiny orbit around the dozen food items, and she, too, consumed nothing (but chocolate milk) at school for a month, and a long, tiring habit was started.

Every day for six years, I've made one set of meals for Ed and myself, and a second set for the children. Once Atanasia was old enough to have opinions, it soon turned out that she did not have the same acceptable-food list as Sebastian. She won't eat a fish stick if it's the last food for a day and a half, although she'll eat a peanut butter sandwich (but not the crust) where Sebastian not only doesn't eat peanut butter (has never consented to let it cross his lips) but won't eat a sandwich, not even one constructed solely of items on the edible list, not even by pulling the bologna, cheddar (and no other kind) cheese, and bread apart to eat it by constituent parts. If each thing is packaged individually in his lunch box, he can eat it, but folded together between two slices of bread it is beyond the pale. Sebastian will eat white rice, as long as no other food is touching it, while Atanasia consented to it for a while but for the last year or so can't let it touch her plate. Now that Indiana is feeding herself actual people food, the complications are enormous --- we don't usually eat out, as a family, by choice. It's a nerve-shattering affair that we resort to only when the hunger pangs in the back seat are too severe to endure until we can get home to the relative safety of hot dogs, cheddar cheese, and the apple variety of choice. Trying to find something that each of them will eat (something for each --- three somethings, at least) is not just a trial of ingenuity but sometimes an impossibility.

There was never a time that Sebastian would eat the meals that Ed and I shared, and while there probably was a moment when Atanasia could have been persuaded to do so, by then we were already used to the separate-meals routine, and the children were already accustomed to eating at least an hour earlier than Ed and I did. Atanasia would often be interested in what was on our plates, and would eat some herself, but by then she'd already had a meal, and Atanasia has never, ever consented to eat leftovers, even if it's the same food that she ate from her Papi's plate the night before. Even more challenging, Atanasia won't eat non-kid food if it's offered separately from the adults' meals. If we have spaghetti, she enjoys it, but if I make her her own fresh (not left over) plate of spaghetti at her regular dinner time and we're not eating the same thing at the same time, she'll have nothing to do with it.

So, over the years, we've just become accustomed to making not only separate meals for the adults and the children, but separate meals for each of the children, as well. Last weekend, for example, I made 20 different meals --- three different breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for the children plus one meal a day that Ed and I shared. Of course, this is frustrating and time-consuming. By the time I'm on my 9th and 10th lunchbox lunch of the week, I feel resentful and imaginatively exhausted. But it was really looking at the things that I was buying for my children, the score of things that they had preferred themselves into eating, that I realized that by trying to do what was best for my children I've probably done them a greater disservice than if I'd been inattentive to their refusals to eat. From time to time, I'd take the hard line, tell them that this was the food I'd made for them and anyone who had suddenly discovered an aversion to things they'd eaten for the last three years could be hungry, that no new meal would be prepared. And neither Ed nor I could stand firm against the 10:00 sobs of "I'm hungry" coming from the beds of children who are strong-willed enough to refuse to eat something that doesn't appeal to them. Did we do something wrong? I mean, obviously, other people's children are eating foie gras on toasted rounds of baguette right now and you're thinking to yourselves what a fool I am. Other people have given their children scrambled eggs and strawberry yoghurt for breakfast since they were old enough to swallow, and I envy you and I swear, I made the eggs, I offered the yoghurt. I breastfed; I steamed and pureed fresh baby food; I offer new foods regularly and repeatedly; I purposely enrolled them for school lunches and kept exposing them to the foods that every other kid their age found perfectly acceptable for a meal. They never capitulated; they were never hungrier than their convictions. In suffragettes, we find this admirable.

So I told Ed about my disappointment that I was offering my children food that floundered on the shameful end of the food quality scale when healthy, whole foods are an issue of importance to me. And as we talked I realized that, of course, by this age every other child we know has been (as we ourselves were) eating a family meal, that we'd carried the "kids' meal" tradition several years too far. Maybe because Sebastian was our first, we just missed the transition point where kids begin to eat the same food that adults do, and so we didn't know where to look for that point with his younger sisters. Tonight was our first attempt at a family meal. Snacks were handed out to tide the early eaters over, dinner started cooking an hour earlier than usual, and everybody helped set the table (finally cleared of crafts projects). Surprisingly, Sebastian was more easily convinced than Atanasia to take a taste of a single grain of wild rice, a single dice of ham, a bite of chicken that hadn't been breaded and oven-baked in imitation of deep-frying. While Indiana displayed commendable enthusiasm and unexpected accuracy with her "spork" for a 19-month-old, and cheerfully ate (and occasionally wore) a little of everything, Atanasia found the idea of chicken cordon bleu (modified for kid presentation) and petite green beans with butter sharing a plate with the only thing she liked (a biscuit) so offensive that she rushed to her room in tears. She was eventually enticed into eating a dozen green beans when we let her add extra butter (well, really fat-free margarine) and promised another biscuit if she'd finish five more beans. And Sebastian, whom we thought would be most resistant, actually tried a bite of everything, even foods that were touching each other before he separated them for taste-testing. No doubt everyone except omnivorous Indiana will wake up very, very hungry in the morning, and Ed ate nothing but what the children left, while I have indigestion that I doubt just one little purple pill can handle, but overall it was one of the best meals I've ever had. I hope to have another one just like it tomorrow.

Here's a link to the NPR segment on food:


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Along the Seawall

I've been walking. A Japanese woman told me, right after we moved, that if I wanted to meet Japanese people I should walk along the seawall. People walk their dogs, their children, themselves along the seawall that runs from the breakwater in front of our building for five kilometers north, past Araha Beach, past the wind turbine and the Justco shopping complex, to Sunset Beach. It's a good walk. You only have to venture into the street once, to cross a somewhat-less-than-two-lane bridge, and you can see the full spectrum of Okinawan life in those few kilometers.

In fact, once Indiana and I are past the narrow bridge, the first place we pass is a place its graffiti labels "Wadi Street." This is one of Wadi Street's few commercial establishments.You can tell it's a bar by the beer sign. Look at what it's built from.

The house on the corner has devoted years and all of its yard space to an Escher array of scrap metal, for no immediately obvious reason. Once we turn the corner, we're on the street where they fix cars. It's a street you can find from Appalachia to Amman, Ireland to India --- women with not quite all of their teeth watching the legs of boyfriends in oil-dark army surplus sticking out from under cars.

We cross a bridge and start down the Chatan Town beach walkway (in the middle east, they'd call this the corniche) --- it's wide, well maintained, paved with mosaic bricks instead of pitted concrete, lined with decorative plantings. I think this is the fruit a Japanese lady gave me at dance class; she told me it was called "Buddha's head" fruit (because it's bumpy all over, like the traditional representation of Buddha's hair).

At each sidewalk's entrance, a pair of lion dogs stands guard.

The owners of real dogs, however, are admonished by signs every 100 meters that it is their responsibility to pick up and take away any droppings of their pets.

Especially at low tide, we pass a lot of fishermen on this part of our walk. They aren't, of course, commercial fishermen (who were out in their boats at the first grey of the morning); I think that most of them are older men, probably retired, who spend some comfortable hours a day surf fishing or net casting for the fish lured toward the estuaries by the outgoing tide, which brings delectable strands of algae from the island's interior tumbling downstream.

Native Okinawans, unlike Asian tourists or short-term American transplants, have a very serious approach to sun protection. We've been here four months, and have gone through several bottles of SPF 50 sunscreen, and we're all (well, obviously some more than others, but yes even I am) noticeably browned. A lifetime of this is
clearly risking skin cancers and eye damage, not to mention that particular leathery aged quality that used to be the purview of peasants and farmers but is now apparent on aging American beach bunnies and tennis and golf enthusiasts. Okinawans approach this problem by swathing themselves from head to toe every time they leave the house. Women, in particular, are vigilant; I have seen women walking on the sidewalks in the grinding heat of summer wearing huge hats, cotton sweaters, and opaque tights. Women drivers wear opera gloves or cut-off shirt sleeves to keep the sun off of their right arms. If I were likely to look like a polished walnut by the time I was 50 from half a century under this sun, I'd be doing the same thing.

As we near the turn-around point of our walk, we pass Araha Beach. It's technically closed to swimming for the season now, and a bicycle policeman with a brass whistle patrols the seawall walkway, tweeting vigorously at the waders who have been tempted by the still-mild sea into reclining for only a moment in its embrace. On the weekends, though, even the most conscientious public guardian has to give way to the inevitable; he stops patrolling, and we all, in return, wear shorts instead of bathing suits and pretend that we're only wading. A Japanese friend told me that the cost of living in Okinawa is high, and that women in Okinawa can't usually afford to stop working and stay at home with children. In fact, when I see young children during our walks they're almost always with a grandparent. So these bathers (who are certainly not swimming, despite appearances) represent the wealthier few who can afford to spend their days at the shore with their children. Plus some grandmothers willing to sacrifice their skin condition for the amusement of restless children, and a few American women like me, unmoored from our regular lives, watching the tide.