Going Green

After a mere seventeen months and a rather impressive stack of paperwork, Rochi finally got his green card. We were disappointed to find that it isn’t actually green, but let’s not quibble. The little card represents freedom for both of us. I no longer have to nag him to behave himself and he can get into as much trouble as he likes; I have the option to bail him out or let him stew. Either way he probably won’t get deported.

We had to go to Honolulu for his final interview, something neither of us wanted to do. It seems to me that the process should be more perfunctory for people who have been married as long as we have, but America is the Land of One Size Fits All Legislation (unless you’re very wealthy) so we both adopted a “Sir, yes, sir!” attitude toward the whole thing.

Two things I learned:

Judging by the limited bits of news I see, the official policy of the Tangerine-tinted Buffoon and His Propaganda Machine is that all foreigners including toddlers are highly suspect and America hates anyone who wasn’t born here unless she has very large breasts. But as it turns out, the official stance and the reality are different. The officer who did the interview was perfectly civil. Rochi didn’t have to sing God Bless America and I didn’t have to swear to what brand of toothpaste we use. The officer even showed some interest in us personally, which leads to the second thing I learned.

Japan has taken on some sort of mythical, mystical status here. Again and again, baffled faces have asked why we left Japan to move to Puna. My equally baffled answer has been that Tokyo is noisy and crowded and smelly; Puna is paradise. The immigration officer, of Okinawan descent by the way, went one step further, asking why we chose Puna instead of the razzle-dazzle of Honolulu. We both snorted, respectfully, saying, “Why not just stay in Tokyo? Last night, we went to sleep listening to Honolulu traffic. In Puna, we sleep to a chorus of coqui frogs. We were at the center of everything for years and years and both avoided the razzle-dazzle. Puna is exactly where we want to be.” I don’t think we convinced her, but if she drew the conclusion that we’re both a bit batty, she’s probably right.

I have developed a theory about the Hawaiian attitude toward Japan. In the late 19th century, waves of Japanese immigrants came to Hawaii to work the sugar cane fields. They thought they would make good money they could send back to their dirt poor families, eventually returning home themselves. The reality was that the guys were put to back-breaking labor for which they were paid pennies. But mostly they stayed, married and propagated, harboring memories of Japan as a sacred homeland where all men are equal and mice never raid the rice bin. Japan hovers just past the horizon, the gleaming ideal of all that is just and good. The bad things that happen here never happen in Japan. This is classic Japanese willful naivete, a cultural characteristic that hasn’t changed much to this day.

Vestiges of Japanese culture remain, mostly in food. By far the best supermarket in Hilo is KTA, started by a Japanese couple in 1916. It’s the best because it has a wide variety of food, American junk, of course, but also Asian and European and Hawaiian and almost any Japanese thing you could want, although it sometimes has a Hawaiian twist. They have kamaboko (steamed fish paste), for example, but it comes in a surreal shade of pink. (There are also sureally-colored hot dogs. Both make me a bit nervous.) There’s a nice selection of expensive European-style gourmet cheeses and meats in the deli section but in the dairy section, they have processed cheese and cheddar–only cheddar. This is just like KTA’s Tokyo counterparts, where most stores have processed cheese and Gouda–only Gouda. There’s also a Safeway in Hilo but it only offers bland Americana.

(I have discovered that Safeway has $5 Fridays. I was warned to stay away because of the terrible crowds. But being ornery, I had to see for myself, and when I did, I nearly wet myself with giggles. If that’s crowded, I’ll eat my flip-flops. Anyone who thinks $5 Fridays at Safeway are crowded has never been to a Tokyo supermarket in the final days leading up to the New Year holidays, when normally polite and gentle Japanese people turn into shopping maniacs foaming at the mouth as they fight over the last package of sweet beans or fossilized fish eggs. But I digress.)

I met a nice lady who works at Bank of Hawaii. I would guess she’s in her mid 60’s. She has a Japanese name but told me she’d never been to Japan and was very excited about her upcoming first visit. I returned to the bank a few months later and asked how the trip had gone. She sighed, disappointment written all over her face. “There was a lot of walking,” she said. I felt really sorry for her. Imagine the expectations she’d built up in her head, possibly based on stories heard at her grandmother’s knee, compared to the reality of modern Japan. A friend once said to me, “If you don’t have any expectations, you can’t be disappointed.” Wise words.

The long and short of all this rambling is that Rochi is finally legal. Ironically, this means he can visit Japan if he wants to, but he doesn’t want to and neither do I. Nor do we want to go back to Honolulu. Nor do we want to go anywhere, really. It’s just so darned nice here.

Maintenance Ms.

I had an appointment with my new PCP–that’s Primary Care Provider–who is a Nurse Practitioner. She’s very nice but I can’t figure out what to call her. She’s not Dr. Fields. Nurse Fields sounds condescending. I’d feel like I was back in high school if I called her Ms. Fields. The receptionist said I should call her by her first name, but I can’t do that, not after so many years of living in Japan. I really want to call her Sensei, which is a grand title: respectful, applies to anyone in a position of knowledge and you don’t have to remember an actual name. But If I call her Sensei, people will either think I’m showing off or that I’ve been watching too many Karate Kid movies. So I guess I will stick with mumbling.

At any rate, she gave me dire warnings about my A1c level. I am tempted to blame this on Hawaii and the enticing variety of colorful, sugar-laced delectables available here. To be honest, I have consumed more sugar in the past six months than I did in the previous three decades. Sweets were easier to avoid in Japan; they look pretty but don’t taste very good.

Alas, I have no one to blame but myself for the pickle I’m in, so I decided it was time to learn about food, to figure out the difference between fad diet miracle supplements and real food. I looked around locally, but this is Puna and all I found were Keto Paleo Earth Worship Vegetarians, which is all well and good but I refuse to be the sort of person who has to hide her Mac and Cheese mixes in the back of the closet.

Plan B: Check the Hilo Community College website, but all they offered was a medical nutrition course for nursing students. Plan C: Consult Mr. Google. What I found was what I already knew. Eat real food, food that comes from the earth, not from a can or a plastic package. Stick with the outside aisles of the supermarket. Don’t fall prey to shiny packages; if a color doesn’t exist in nature, it’s probably best not to eat it.

Along that journey of discovery, I came across an unexpected opportunity.

Well, fancy that.

I have always been a big fan of new experiences and the past few years have excelled in that department. Among many others, I bought a house. I’ve never owned a house before; I’ve never owned much of anything. Until now, when the toilet acted up, I called the landlord. Now I own the toilet, and a whole bunch of other stuff, and I should probably know a little about how these things work. So I pulled up my big girl underpants and registered.

At $75 for six weeks of instruction, 8 hours a week, the class is certainly a bargain. We have two evening lectures along with four hours in the shop on Saturdays. Our teacher is terrific. She has a lively wit and an interest in pretty much everything. She’s one of the only female construction workers in Hawaii, a licensed welder currently working in drywall. We will spend a few weeks on basic carpentry and then move on to plumbing and wiring.

The other students are there for the same reason as me: we all want to have more control over our living spaces, and thereby, more control over ourselves. Yesterday, in our first shop class, we started making a sawhorse. I used a circular saw for the first time, and it was way more of a thrill than I expected. Then I learned how to pound in industrial grade nails. I’m proud to say I only whacked my knuckle once.

My First Cut

I now own leather work gloves, safety glasses, and a pair of ever-so-cute canvas work shoes. I’m loving the class, soaking up new vocabulary and touching things I’ve never touched before. At Home Depot, unlike at the supermarket, my eyes would slide along the rows of shiny tools appreciating their aesthetic beauty but having no further interest. It’s a whole different kettle of nuts and bolts when you’re running a tool yourself. This is power, in every sense.

And you can call me Maintenance Ms.

Jammin’

Facebook reminds me that two years ago today, we went mulberry picking along the Tsurumi River under the brave leadership of the inestimable Rodger Sono.

Well, to be honest, Rochi went mulberry picking. I sat under a tree and rested, but when we got home, I made jam, some of the best jam I have ever tasted.

(Rodger later asked me if I’d taken the time to remove the stems. “Nah. Too much trouble. I just bunged the whole mess into the blender and it came out great.” Trade secret, that.)

Looking back through old Facebook entries trying to find that picture brought back a lot of memories, some nice and some not so nice. It’s funny how we can forget the things we don’t want to remember and focus on the good. At least, I hope that’s where 2017 left me. My PT in Tokyo, Dr. Joey, said he’d seen two types of cancer survivors. Some are bitter and angry and just waiting for recurrence. Others are like me: Let it go. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Not everything is small stuff, but even the big stuff is only as big as you let it be, unless it’s a Mack truck about to run you over. That’s pretty big. But don’t waste your time worrying about Mack trucks either.

I watched an old episode of Cheers last night. A guy asks Coach the classic question: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a noise? And Coach asks: If nobody is there to hear it, how do you know it fell?

Precisely. Why worry about something that doesn’t matter?

Yesterday I made jam again, my first since that day in 2017. This time it’s cranberry rhubarb, made with cranberries from a friend who had to empty out her freezer and fresh rhubarb from KTA supermarket, a rare treat I only found once in all my years in Tokyo. I jazzed it up with ginger and lemon zest and cardamom and cloves because it deserved no less.

I didn’t deserve to get cancer any more than I deserved to survive it, but I look at those two photos of jars of jam, different jars, different contents, different kitchen windows; so very different and yet so very much alike. And I look at me and the two years that passed between those two batches of jam and I wonder. Am I the same? Did the pain and strain and stress and damage make me a better person, a stronger person?

I really hope so.

Plate Lunch

One cannot survive on papayas and pineapple alone so we have been exploring food options. We’d both been jonesing for teishoku, the standard Japanese meal of rice, miso soup, pickled vegetables and a main dish, usually grilled fish or meat, maybe a small salad. There was a tiny place in our old neighborhood called Take (Bamboo) run by a husband/wife team. It was top class without being expensive. We miss it.

We had been advised that a fine way to feed oneself in this land of high prices and junk food is the plate lunch. In most cases, they take the form of some sort of meat, a scoop of macaroni salad and a scoop or two of rice, all for a reasonable price. Most restaurants offer them but we have found our comfort zone is best served by drive-ins. For one thing, they’re self-service so tipping is optional and tipping drives Rochi nuts. Also, large quantities of rice are always on tap, enough to fill his hollow Asian legs.

Our current favorite is Blane’s Drive Inn. For one thing, it’s on Waianuenue Avenue, which I am now proud to be able to both pronounce and spell. For another, it’s just down the street from the Hilo Public Library, one of the most comfortable I’ve ever seen, an oasis in the middle of…paradise. OK, that’s an oxymoron but it’s still a very nice library.

Blane’s has good sandwiches, burgers, bentos and of course, plate lunches, all at very reasonable prices. The seating is outdoors, covered and reasonably quiet. Rochi is always pleased with fried eggs and Portuguese sausage. The kalua (pulled) pork is bounteous. The grilled cheese is hot and crisp. (I dare you to find a grilled cheese sandwich in Tokyo.) The fries are first rate.

Just don’t expect too much. And don’t expect any vegetables–you don’t go to MacDonald’s and order filet Mignon. The last time we went there, I tried papaya chicken and discovered that you can’t cook papaya; it turns into flavorless globs of watery kindergarten paste. And the miso soup is awful–more watery kindergarten paste, and my teacher told me not to eat that.

So a plate lunch is filling, reasonably priced and pretty close to home cooking. It just isn’t teishoku. No matter how many times you look at a papaya and say ‘banana’, it will still be a papaya. So the lessons learned are 1) the very best food you can possibly have is the food you cook yourself but 2) don’t cook papaya, 3) if you accept things as they are without expectations, you can’t really be disappointed and 4) ice cream can clear away the memory of just about any culinary disaster.

What’s Ahead

When I got off the plane at Narita airport in 1986 it suddenly struck me that despite my college education I was deaf, dumb and illiterate. I spoke not a word of Japanese and therefore understood even less. Reading was a total mystery. In time I learned to communicate pretty well, but never got beyond the reading level of a second grader. So part of the ongoing euphoria of life in my new home is being able to read. I still can’t do a “quick run” to the store because I have to dawdle in the aisles, reveling in my ability to read. The irony there is that I still don’t know what a lot of the stuff is. I recognize Stove Top and Pop Tarts and Kraft Mac and Cheese, but I have no clue about the Portuguese and Philippine stuff. The kiddie cereals and sugary drinks are just scary, although I do wax nostalgic at times. “Ah, Froot Loops. Never tried them; never will.”

Road signs are a source of glee. Tootling along the roadways in my little Honda, I challenge myself to interpret their meaning. I love ‘Mowing ahead’ (a guy on his John Deere, butt crack showing, anticipating a cold brewsky at end of day) and ‘Caution: Tree trimming’ (Mrs. Claus and the elves hard at work with tinsel and twinkly lights).

Sometimes, my own silliness overwhelms me with giggles.

Just around the bend there is a hill, waving a broomstick in the air, unable to make contact with an elusive pinata.

A driveway crouches by the roadside, its sweaty palms pressed against its eyes, thinking ‘They can’t see me so I’m safe,’ much like George hiding under the covers on our bed whenever someone comes to visit.

Sweet

For many years, I had believed that pineapple comes in identical rings packed in heavy syrup in cans. But today we found this prickly looking thing in the garden and inside it turned out to be as sweet and juicy as a baby’s bottom. Further, we learned that we should plunk the top back into the garden and in six months or so should have another. Apparently, this is normal. Things grow in the dirt, you eat the parts you like, chuck the rest back in the dirt and Mother Nature gives you more. Wow. If that’s not unconditional love, I will swallow my own flip-flops.

But in a moment of reflection, questions and concerns started to percolate like the coffee in the pot on my grandma’s stove. Was my understanding of order in the universe based on cotton candy spun across a chasm of false assumptions?

I spent some time with Mr. Google and discovered that meat doesn’t come into existence neatly wrapped in plastic and displayed under flattering light at the supermarket. Chocolate milk doesn’t come from chocolate cows. Processed cheese doesn’t have any actual cheese in it and calling it ‘food’ is playing fast and loose with Noah Webster’s patience.

The veils of innocence have been swept away. As my wondering eyes slowly open onto a new and exotic world, I am full of wonder. Does Santa have an actual bowlful of jelly? Are visions of sugarplums actually dancing prunes? Does the Easter bunny really lay eggs? Do leprechauns not drink green beer? Do unicorns not poop jelly beans? Are Peeps actually birds? And if so, are the birds hopping around in my garden also stuffed with marshmallow?


With all of those tantalizing thoughts doing the fandango inside my head, I remember that my doctor has told me not to eat sweet fruit like bananas and pineapples.

Pineapples.

PINEAPPLES!

Where medical instructions go, I tend to be pretty obedient. I mean, doctors go to school for about a bazillion years so probably know what they’re talking about. But Mother Nature has seen fit to provide me with a golden gift conjured from mere sunshine and lava dust, and I dare not scoff at unconditional love. So thank you, Dr. Sara, you seem caring and dedicated and I deeply appreciate your concern for my health, but I am going to eat that pineapple, and others like it, and I am going to enjoy it.

The Almighty O

The air is thick with tension in the secret, soundproof room in the basement of the White House. The men seated around the polished wooden table are dressed in suits with thin, black ties or uniforms festooned with ribbons and metals. A hush falls as the loudest one speaks.

“Gentlemen, can’t we call this quits? I think we’ve wasted enough time here and I’m sick of listening to everyone blowing smoke. As we all know, I already know everything there is to know and nobody’s opinion but mine matters anyway. And here’s what I think. I’m tired of the little man with the bad haircut trying to push us around. We have more power than anyone else in the universe and I know from hard experience that the only way to get ahead is to ignore everyone and take what you want. It’s the Bull in the China Shop Theory and it never fails. So I’m going to open this alligator skin designer briefcase and push the button so we can wipe the little man off the face of the earth and I can get back to saying inane things on Twitter.”

And that’s just what happens. He places the briefcase on the table and snaps the fasteners open. Inside, though, he finds not one but two buttons. One is labeled “Nuclear War”. The other says “Nucular War”. The first will unleash several tons of horrific destruction and leave most of the Earth uninhabitable for generations to come, perhaps for all eternity. The second will unleash several tons of SpaghettiOs onto the head of the person who pushes it.

The future of humanity rests on this moment.

The man reaches out, hesitates, takes a deep breath and…

SPLAT!

Boys and girls, that is why we owe our souls to the Almighty O.