A Suggestion

When I was at immigration the other day, I felt the call and went to the ladies’ room. I don’t know what happens in the gents’, but in the ladies’, we generally nod or half smile as one of us exits a stall and another enters. It’s a kind of ‘the coast is clear’ message and it seems to be universal. Proceed with caution of if a woman avoids eye contact and resolutely studies her shoes as she exits.

When I got to the front of the line, a lady came out of a stall and I had my half-smile at the ready. But as the corners of my lips lifted, she reached out and clasped my arm.

“What sort of ladies’ room oddness is this?” I wondered. We may acknowledge each other’s existence; we do not touch.

“I’m so sorry!” she said.

Slightly alarmed, I thought, “Whatever mess you made in there, lady, I don’t really want to know, but thanks for the heads-up.”

She persisted. “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the toilet.”

She was around my own age. Judging from her coloring and accent I would guess she was from India. The genuinely distressed expression on her face told me her story in a flash: “I do not want anyone, not even a total stranger, to think I am some sort of third world yokel hayseed who doesn’t know that you’re supposed to flush the toilet.”

Kudos to her for her courage. She could have studied her shoes and walked away.

I peered into the stall and saw the flushing mechanism. It had seen that kind before, possibly on my last visit to immigration. It was a button on the wall with a lever covering it. You press the lever which in turn presses the button, which I did. Whoosh! The woman smiled and heaved a sigh of relief as she walked away, head held high.

I think the whole thing made an impression because Japan is so very fond of rules. Just yesterday, I used the ladies’ at a public library. The walls of the stall were carpeted with reams of instructions on how and when to use the toilet, including DO NOT FLUSH DIAPERS, MAGAZINES OR CELL PHONES.

I kid you not.

Japan takes toilet technology very seriously. I have found myself standing in the stall, scratching my chin and wondering how to flush. And more than once other distressed ladies have asked for my help finding the elusive flush button.

Therefore, in consideration of my current visa conundrum, I propose the creation of a new visa category: Toilet Flush Advisory Specialist. I am clearly qualified as well as willing and able to share my expertise. I have extensive experience with all manner of stalls, from spiffy hotels with glistening fixtures to nasty holes in the floor covered with footprints and other unpleasantness. [These are nostalgically referred to as KKK–Kusai (smelly), Kitanai (dirty), Kurai (dark). See? I know my stuff.] On pain of deportation, I promise I will always clean up my own messes and never steal the toilet paper.

Now could someone help me find the Suggestions box?

Toothpaste

The mouse finds herself still on the bigger island. Apologies that this post has nothing to do with the Big Island except that the mouse really misses it and hopes to get back soon.

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When Jane and Michael Banks asked Mary Poppins about her plans, she said, “I shall stay until the wind changes.”

That line has been running through my head over the seven weeks we’ve been back in Japan, punctuated by the purchase of a tube of toothpaste. I’d packed a travel size, thinking we wouldn’t be here long, but it was gone quicker than you can say Good Oral Hygiene. So I went to a drug store, and when I reached for a tube of toothpaste, I swear I saw a chorus of Merry-go-round horses and animated penguins flit past singing, “I shall stay until the toothpaste is gone,” with just a bit of and English accent.

I lost my permanent residence status because we were gone for more than a year, so I had to enter Japan on a tourist visa, which will expire on December 30. So yesterday, we girded our loins and faced the horror that is Tokyo Immigration. It’s an awful building, woefully understaffed and strategically placed a 20 minute bus ride away from Southeast Nowhere, nestled among ghostly warehouses on a piece of barren landfill. It is a charming reminder of how much Japan loves foreigners.

The delightful Omotenashi you may experience in a hotel or a Hato bus tour is a thousand hemispheres away from the bland face of bureaucracy that greets the growing sub-population of foreigners who shuffle through the doors of the immigration building. Don’t let the hordes of adorable toddlers you see in Tokyo fool you; Japan is dying and desperately needs an infusion of fresh blood, while it stubbornly ignores both that need and the population itself.

But I digress.

Information told us to go to counter D. Counter D sent us to Counter C. Counter C sent us to Counter B. The staff were sympathetic but all said the same thing. “We understand that you lived here for three decades, dutifully paying taxes and now you’re here with a sick husband who has no other family. That’s sad, but we have no visa category for it. So bug off. Rules is rules.”

Before I turn back into a pumpkin, I have to get out of Dodge. (A classic example of the mixed metaphor, Jane and Michael, in case you were wondering.) So I made a tentative airline reservation for mid-December and, this morning, I forced the very last bit of paste out of our new tube of toothpaste. I wonder if, along with her floor lamp and goldfish bowl, Mary Poppins’ magic carpet bag also contains a new tube of Aquafresh…and tuppence to feed the pigeons outside the immigration building.

The thing that bugs me more than anything is the number of desperate faces I saw at immigration, people who want to stay, need to stay, in a country that needs them but doesn’t want them, while I desperately want to leave, am forced to leave, but really shouldn’t. If there’s a lesson in there, I’d really like to know what it is.

The Case of the Three Rascals

While the mouse is back in Tokyo seemingly until the end of time, we are pleased and proud to welcome Leah and Mick for a bit of intrigue on the Big Island.

It was a dark and stormy night on quiet Kala Street.  In one quiet house, three lonely kitties were twiddling their paws.  Mom and dad were nowhere to be found and those other two folks had already left after some furious butt-smacks, chest cuddles and snack throwing. What’s a bored cat to do for entertainment?

These three fur balls knew just what to do. Working in stealth mode, they reconnoitered the guest room where rested an intriguing pile of boxes.

“Boxes!  We we LOVE boxes! Yeah! Let’s climb and roll and try to topple them.”

And they did, which meant that the very biggest box, the one that had come a mere day or two after mom and dad has left, was now exposed. It was a big box, a heavyish box.  And currently unopened. 

But not for long.

It’ll never be known whether it was a team effort or a solo pursuit, but eventually a bit of the tape was off.  Then some more.  The box had already been a bit crushed so eventually “some kitty” worked its way in. Could it be Twitch?  She’s small but mighty. George is the obvious culprit but he’s lots of meow and less action. Our bets are on Monkey-boy. Wiry, attentive. Who will know?

That other guy came in last night (his gal friend was at class so he was working solo) and saw that the box was more mashed in and more open. “All right, you rascally kitties, I’ll just close the door to this room,” he said, twisting his mustache in an I’m-the-boss-of-you fashion.

This morning that gal was at the house, too, and after curtains were moved and windows opened, butts-smacked, smelly cheese strip provided in teeny bits to Ms. Twitch and Monkey-boy fell off the couch yet again (much to his chagrin), she opened the guest room, knowing that Ms. Twitch likes to curl up on “her” chair in the afternoons. 

The box was open, mostly! Not wanting to snoop but thinking, “Lord what have they got into now?” She crept closer, lifted the lid, removed the mass of packing paper, and spied the evidence.  Suddenly the missed meals, the perplexity of why the cats weren’t eating was clear……

…… they were helping themselves, albeit just a little, to a large bag of cat food that mom must have ordered just before she left. A wee hole had been nibbled into the bag and the evidence of kibbley bits in the box was proof enough. The guy and gal decided that checking for paw prints or sniffing kitty breath wasn’t needed.  If not guilty by action they were all guilty by association. Fortunately the plastic container of treats had yet to be discovered, as we all know that a mere twisty lid and a cover won’t stop the treat-thief-trio!

Suffice to say that now empty box is in the garage. The bag with a hole in it has been taped and now lives with the other bag of cat food that arrived yesterday (yes, two big bags now!) AND now three containers of treats– these are all making a home for themselves on the dryer. 

The moral of this little story is when bored, a cat will find a way to amuse itself. 

Alex

The other day, we had lunch at Kitchen Alex, one of our favorite eateries in Sangenjaya. Alex is a long narrow establishment, maybe three yards across and ten long. There’s a curved counter flanked by a dozen stools serving as stalls where we can strap on the feedbag. It’s nothing fancy. Each day there are specials, A Lunch and B lunch, or you can order off the menu. Basically you get either the hot plate (three thick-cut French fries, a handful of wilted green beans and a small pile of ketchup spaghetti) or the cold plate (chopped cabbage, spaghetti salad and a thin slice of mikan) adorning your meat choice. Each meal comes with a plate of plain steamed rice and the best miso soup I’ve ever tasted.

Behind the counter, Mrs. Alex serves the rice and washes the dishes. The smaller of the two jumbo sized Alex Juniors (let’s call him A Junior) serves as sous chef, prepping the plates and adding dollops of ketchup or squirts of mayo as needed. At the end of the counter, Mr. Alex is lord of the six ring stove, surrounded by an array of grease-encrusted pots and pans he deftly maneuvers around the stove or piles on the rack above it. The even larger B Junior skirts behind us serving water and handing out plates and running the register. Over the years he has grown rounder and rounder; often he jostles us like a pinball against bumpers. He may have finally outsized the narrow space; this time there was a girl with a ponytail doing his job.

We had eaten there many times, maybe once a week or so for several years. Mrs. and Juniors both A and B had never spoken, but occasionally Mr. Alex would venture a comment:

“Off today?”
“Yep. It’s Sunday.”
“Yep, it is.”

But this time, when we sat down, he raised his eyebrows and said, “I thought the two of you had been murdered.”

Murdered? We laughed, pleased to have survived whatever hideous violence the poor man had imagined, more pleased that he had noticed our absence.

Nothing had changed, not one whit, except us. Somehow we were different, but there was great comfort in the familiarity of the food, the same nicks and cracks in the counter, the scowl on Mrs. Alex’s face, the TV chattering in the background. We didn’t even try to explain that it was a momentous occasion for us. Rochi had been wanting to go there since we got off the plane five weeks ago but, until a few days ago, there was no way he could have swallowed even one wilted green bean. I won’t go into the details of the medical merry-go-round we’ve been riding for so long; that’s a story for another day. Let’s just say Rochi’s finally getting better and, fingers crossed, on the road to recovery. The food, in all its greasy simplicity, was delicious and a grand reward for what we’ve been through.

Lesson learned: You rarely notice how much something means to you until you don’t have it anymore; if you are wise you will value it twice as much when you get it back.

Also, I love the Big Island, but the Bigger Island is pretty great, too.

Insurance

Sometimes you find yourself wandering along a beach, marveling at the beauty all around you and then life comes at you with a whoosh and suddenly you find yourself standing on the opposite shore scratching your head and wondering how you got there.

Literally.

Rochi has had an ear problem for months now. We saw five different doctors in Hawaii and nobody could fix it. All along we’ve been paying cash for these services because we can’t even apply for insurance until open enrollment in November. That insurance doesn’t take effect until January, and when/if we finally do get it, the monthly premiums cost as much as our Tokyo rent used to cost except that rent did not also demand deductibles and co-pays and other fancy words that boil down to “shut up and do as you’re told.” Until then, I had been feeling smug that I had bought a house and, for the first time in my life, was not paying rent. Lesson learned.

The last doctor we saw said we’d done everything we could do at the clinic level. The next step would be a CT. Without insurance, the test alone would cost at least two months’ rent. She told us point blank that we’d be better off coming back to Japan.

So that’s what we did. We arrived on a Tuesday night. By Wednesday lunch time, he had insurance, we had seen doctors and been given medication. Total cost: about $50. A week later we spent a full day at the hospital, he had multiple examinations, two CT scans and prescription medications. Bill for the day: almost $200.

As we were riding the shiny new escalator toward the exit from the clean, modern hospital, we were both doing the math in our heads. In the States, that day alone would have cost us two trips to Japan, flying business class and staying in fancy hotels, maybe even a Rolex or two. Or about 2.5 years’ rent.

In the United States, people die, they DIE, because they’re afraid to go to the doctor. It’s not the pain that is so scary, it’s the bills that arrive weeks later, unexplained but final. Thou shalt pay. End of story. They even send email with the heading, “Great news! You have a new e-document.” I understand these documents are sent by computers but at some point, some actual semi-human organism must have written those words with that intended purpose. “Great news! You’re still sick and now you owe a bazillion dollars! Yay!” This is cruelty that borders on sadism. But the real irony, and the ultimate insult, is that there is nobody to explain and nobody to blame. You can call every number they give you, but everyone you speak to will tell you the same thing: “We don’t make the rules. We just send the bills.” I keep hearing voices in my head saying, “I’m not responsible. I was just following orders.” Where have we heard that before?

I have even sensed an undertone of, “You should be grateful you got to see a doctor at all.”

Really?

Are we talking about the same United States? The land of the free, where we have a right to the pursuit of happiness but not to basic healthcare? Is this the same home of flag-wavers who claim a love of God and equality for all but run for cover when we talk about universal health coverage? I thought we were talking about the United States where we have indoor plumbing and clean running water and safe food and cell phones and WiFi and Sunday football. But I guess these pleasures don’t extend to anyone who is running a temperature.

It seems fundamentally wrong that we have so many basic freedoms, things we take for granted, when millions of people around the world go without milk or shoes or education. We complain about slow Internet while people in our own country, maybe even next door, die of a simple infection they can not afford to treat.

We are lucky. We had the Japan option. But what happens to people who don’t? Not for the first time, I am ashamed of the country I represent.

Keonepoko

Kahakai Boulevard follows a straight line from Route 130, just past the traffic circle, until it drops into the ocean, except that there is a dogleg in the road about halfway down. The Hawaiian Shores subdivision, where we live, starts just after the dogleg. Nestled behind the dog’s knee is Keonepoko Elementary School. When we first got here, I could barely read the sign, much less remember the name.

Honestly, it seems like every other word in Hawaiian starts with a K. After all, there are only seven consonants in Hawaiian (H, K, L, M, N, P, W), so there was bound to be some doubling up. When people ask me what something is called or the name of a building, I say, “I’m not sure, but I think it starts with a K.” It’s gotten to be an inside joke I have with myself, and it makes me giggle every time. I’ve gotten used to the odd glances that earns me.

Giving directions to our house, I used to tell people just to stay on Kahakai Boulevard, past Ke…Ke…the elementary school.

When it came time to vote, I was instructed to report to the Keonepoko Elemenatary school cafeteria, and when a friend asked me where I’d voted, I said, “Ke…Ke…the elementary school in the neighborhood.”

But I’m making progress. Each year, KTA supermarket does a school donations program. If you buy certain products, the store makes a donation to the school of your choice.

When this happened last year, the cashier asked me which school I wanted my donation to go to. I searched my memory for the name of the elementary school but all I could come up with is that it started with K. So I giggled and said, “You choose.”

Yesterday at KTA, the cashier scanned my hunk of cheddar and jar of mayonnaise and asked, “Which school do you want your donation to go to?”

“Keonpoko,” I said, without skipping a beat, and the cashier nodded like that was the most natural thing in the world.

She’ll never know what a stellar moment that was for me.

Subdivision

I have always sworn that I would never live in anything called a ‘unit’. The whole idea gives me the willies. It evokes images of a Bladerunner world where robots live in beehive cells, all mindlessly doing the same jobs and eating the same food and pooping the same color. So it came as a great surprise when I found myself living in Hawaiian Shores Recreational Estates, which is the name of our subdivision, another term that makes the tiny hairs on my knuckles stand on end. But everything around here is a subdivision; most of them are called ‘estates’. Next to us is Nanawale Estates and just down the road is Leilani Estates. You may have heard of that. It was in the news a bit last year.

I would prefer to call these developments ‘neighborhoods’ but that, alas, is not how it’s done. Fortunately, the ‘estates’ part is just a marketing ploy. There are no estates, just ordinary plots of land topped with ordinary houses. Lawns are optional; we have crushed lava rock. Not one house on our street looks like ours and we have the only white picket fence in the whole…neighborhood…development…division…area.

It’s nice in Hawaiian Shores. We have a community association that has laid out rules for peaceful neighborly coexistence, including a ban on farm animals and rusting vehicles in the front yard. We get home mail service, clean water, road maintenance and access to community facilities. The association office is in a park just a few blocks away. There are tennis courts, a baseball field, a playground, barbecue facilities and a pool. Nice, right?

Having lived here for a year already, I was also surprised to discover that there’s another park a few blocks in the opposite direction. It has a smoothly mown lawn and palm trees but is otherwise deserted. The story goes that 30 years ago, this area was being developed by none other than Pan Am, who thought it would be nice to have two community centers, one with a small pool for kids and another with a larger one for grown-ups. But before they could get all that done, the company went belly-up and the grown-up facilities never officially opened. They sat there, nearly finished, while the tennis nets rotted away to nothing and a papaya tree took root in the empty pool. The impressive wooden structure one assumes is a picnic area is now suffering the ravages of hungry termites. The metal light fixtures that may once have held fluorescent bulbs are rusted away, hardly distinguishable from the wood they’re mounted on. Abandoned bird’s nests peek out from the rafters.

But as serendipity goes, this leaves us with a rather delightful space for an exercise class. I’ve been a few times now. It’s all retired people. (Who else has time for such things at 10:00 on a weekday?) One gentle spirit peers out from her wrinkled face as she does the exercises seated in a folding lawn chair; she told me she was with the occupation forces in Japan in 1947.

I know from many years of experience at gyms and the dojo that a great deal of community spirit can be generated among strangers by sweating together. We roll out our mats and the indomitable Suzan Thompson puts us through our paces. With 25 years of experience teaching fitness at a YMCA, she is a combination of drill sergeant and caring elementary school gym teacher with a smile that can bounce you right into next Thursday. Her occasional off-color jokes motivate us to keep moving as we struggle against our middle aged flab. Today she had us doing glute exercises designed to ‘turn those flapjacks back into juicy orbs’.

Years ago we used to joke that Hawaii was the 48th prefecture, so we have often wondered why there aren’t more Japanese people around here. Susan mentioned that there used to be quite a few Japanese in the class but they’re all gone. They had bought their Hawaiian homes in the 80’s, back when Japan had more money than it knew what to do with, and had since ‘aged out’, gotten too tired to shuttle back and forth, too tired to tend their gardens. I read just recently that Japan doesn’t have the immigration problems the US is dealing with so poorly, mostly because Japan is dying, both literally and figuratively it would seem.

I looked at the slowly disintegrating, never-quite-happened community center and wonder what might have been. Images flitted through my head: A balding Japanese man in an aloha shirt grilling tiny strips of meat, lanky Pan Am stewardesses draped over lounge chairs sipping martinis through red painted lips. And then a fly nibbled at my calf, dragging me back to the present, the pulsing music, my sweaty classmates, Susan’s voice thundering over a background of twittering birds and swaying palm trees. As the aloha shirt and painted lips fade into a past long forgotten, I realize I am glad to be where I am, and who I am, and living in the here and now, even if it is a subdivision.