Since our arrival last week, we’ve been captives on base. The weather–warm, humid and stormy–makes walking long distances prohibitive. Without a vehicle and/or license, we are reliant upon others to go–well–anywhere other than down the street. Indeed, as of today we’ve been off base three times: (1) to go from Camp Foster to Kadena AFB; (2) to go to Johnny’s used car dealership; and, (3) to go to a local mall. It is odd–and a bit depressing–to have lived on an island for a week without having set foot on a beach.
Yesterday, we took our first proper trip off base to Aeon Mall Rycom Okinawa. The WestPac kindly offered us use of its shuttle and driver to take us to–and collect us from–the mall. We went to find screen protectors and cases for our iPhones, but we stayed for four and a half hours exploring. While I won’t bore you with details of a mall, this one is a behemoth boasting five floors, a glass elevator, carpeted walkways, a small aquarium, and an area called Gourmet World.
Yes, we saw impossibly thin women comfortably walking in sky-high heels and numerous people sporting face masks. Many goods for sale boasted labels indicating they were from New York, California or France. And clothing had English phrases stamped across them, including “Great day for a picnic” and “Montana lacrosse.” I could have explored Gourmet World–an area with tasty treats and sweets–for the entire day, were I allowed. Our first stop landed us at SoftBank, one of Japan’s mobile phone carriers, where we greeted the sales staff good morning in Japanese. Fortunately, the saleswoman spoke a bit of English and after a good bit of mutual gesticulating, we successfully purchased mobile phone accessories. We paid in yen and said thank you in Japanese.
By far, the highlight of the day was the food. On base we have our choice of Subway, Pizza Hut, Charlie’s (philly cheesesteaks), Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, Manchu Wok, and Macaroni Grill. Not my cup of tea. And one can eat only so many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. After taking a lap around the glistening food court, Russell headed straight for sushi; I continued to look. I walked to the counter as he was ordering and the woman taking his order turned to me and started speaking Japanese and stopped only after I explained, “I don’t speak Japanese.” It wasn’t the first time I’ve been mistaken for a native speaker since I’ve arrived. In fact, the only person who greeted me in Korean was the used car salesman. I find the mistaken ethnicity curious. Indeed, prior to a week ago I had been mistaken as Japanese once in my life.
What did I eat for lunch? Bibimbap, of course. I can’t resist the traditional Korean mix of vegetables and meat over rice, topped by an egg and mixed together with red pepper sauce. And my choice allowed [S] to try kimchi for the first time. She ate it as if she’s been eating it her whole life.
As we continued exploring, we found McDonald’s. And Cold Stone Creamery and Baskin Robbins. [S] ate matcha (green tea) ice cream, which is more savory than sweet, as if she had been raised on it. As we were leaving the mall, we stopped by the souvenir shop. We found a pastry gift featuring the purple Okinawan sweet potato, which a woman suggested I try. Did [S] like it? She loved it.
As a friend noted yesterday, “It’s a good thing you’re an adventurous eater.” Indeed, it’s a good thing we all are.
Well, that’s not exactly the saying. Cover your eyes children–stop reading here–and skip to the next paragraph. The saying is, “Even an a*@hole has 20/20 hindsight.” Indeed.
At 1315 yesterday, our sponsor collected the three of us and drove us outside the gate to Johnny’s, a used car dealer. It was midday and it was hot. Upon our return to the WestPac, I checked Weather Underground, the temperature read 93 degrees Fahrenheit, but noted that it felt like 113 degrees. Johnny’s lot is small by American standards, as are most things in Japan, including vehicles. We looked at cars unfamiliar to most Americans–think Toyota Raums and Toyota Corolla Runxs.
The lot was cramped with vehicles making it difficult to open car door to check out the odometer and impossible to drive. Most vehicles are imported from the mainland and are 10 to 15 years old, sent to Okinawa to die as island cars. Yes, island cars are their own breed, suffer from the unique effects of an abundance of sand, saltwater, sun and weather. Indeed, many vehicles are recycled for a few hundred dollars rather than resold at the end of a tour.
As for used car dealers, from my experience yesterday, it appears that they are the same in Japan as they are in the States. The stated prices are over inflated, the sell is hard, and the inventory is going fast. At Johnny’s, walking into the lot took $1,000 off of the asking price for any vehicle. We were able to negotiate an additional $400 off the asking price if we were to purchase two vehicles. That price includes the mandatory Japanese Compulsory Insurance (JCI) for two years, completed registration, base tags, and a one-year bumper-to-bumper warranty. Not bad given the accompanying piece of mind and convenience.
While no one could have predicted what our time here would entail, if the past five days is a predictor of the future, I now know what I should have learned prior to arriving in Japan. We know how to say good morning, good afternoon, thank you, and yes in Japanese. We also should have also learned how to say excuse me and please. But that is easy.
What I needed to know is the metric system. The map below shows the three countries in the world that do not use the Le Système International d’Unités—The International System of Units–in grey. The United States, along with Burma and Liberia, are hold-outs on use of the metric system. Yesterday, over dinner I questioned Russell, “Why doesn’t the United States teach the metric system.” He answered correctly, “It does.” Ah, yes, I recall our public schools doing so. But I also recall not needing to pay attention as it didn’t apply to us. That is the limited world view of an elementary school student. As I was trying to convert 118,000 km to miles or understand the local speed limits, I cursed my ignorance.
One thing I am certain of–I will return to the States smarter than I left.
I sit typing this post surrounded by a healthy sampling of children’s books, a box of Qtips, bagged tupperware containers, notebooks, newspapers, bottled water, and advertisements for used car dealers. I’m suffocating.
Nearly every space in our small suite is covered by something. A singing dog, a stacking ball, a drivers manual, a diaper bag, a roll of paper towels, a box of tissues. Yes, some things are necessary, such as my glasses case. But other things sit here because as a result of my inner voice asking, “What if we need . . .?” And its close kin, “I don’t want to waste . . . ” and “Just in case . . .” follow.
Ah, to be at Walden Pond with only a laptop would be liberating, indeed.
* * *
RE:PRINT (NEW YORK TIMES)
BATON ROUGE, La. — WITH household decluttering now a national obsession, maybe Americans should pause this Fourth of July and remember the nation’s original domestic minimalist, Henry David Thoreau.
He moved to a small cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, Mass., 170 years ago today, on July 4, 1845, intent on living as simply as he could. Thoreau fit everything he wanted into a dwelling the size of a tool shed.
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” he exhorted in “Walden,” the classic account of his two years at the pond. “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”
At the approach of the country’s great industrial age, which would bring more goods to more Americans more cheaply than ever before, Thoreau sensed a complication — namely, complication itself, the challenge of too much stuff.
Thoreau might not be surprised that more than a century and a half after he published “Walden,” decluttering is all the rage. “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” the Japanese author Marie Kondo’s guide to culling and organizing possessions, has topped the best-seller list for months.
In “Stuffocation,” another recent book, the British writer James Wallman declares that clutter “is the material equivalent of the obesity epidemic.” Websites and blogs about decluttering abound, and reality-TV shows broadcast the perils of hoarding. These days, Thoreau’s call for simplicity sounds eerily prescient.
He hinted that one good result of American independence from England should be the resolve to live more basically — and authentically — than our ancestors lived in the Old World. “I look upon England to-day as an old gentleman who is travelling with a great deal of baggage, trumpery which has accumulated from long housekeeping, which he has not the courage to burn,” he wrote in “Walden.”
Thoreau said it was a coincidence of the calendar that brought him to live at Walden on the nation’s birthday. But in beginning his experiment on the Fourth of July, Thoreau demonstrated that his country’s political independence had nurtured a hundred kinds of personal independence, too, including the latitude to be unconventional. His basic scheme — to live in a hut for a couple of years with no regular work and only the barest of essentials — isn’t a plan that many could or would follow, especially those of us with a spouse and children.
But Thoreau mentioned on the first page of “Walden” that he didn’t mean his method as a model for everyone else, urging readers to merely “accept such portions as apply to them.” Like any adventurer, he was testing the limits of possibility to more clearly understand what the limits were.
What Thoreau learned over the course of his life — and what his admirers often forget — is that progress and possessions aren’t necessarily bad things. He grumbled about the intrusions of the railroad, but knew that the train made it easier for him to borrow books from Harvard’s library in nearby Cambridge.
In a journal entry, he wondered how grand it would be to have a library’s bounty out in the woods, predicting the age of easily accessible reading we now have with the Internet. If Thoreau moved to Walden today, it’s possible — if not likely — that he would bring a laptop with him. His struggles to square civilization with serenity are still very much our own.
Thoreau sought a decluttered life because he thought it would lead to a decluttered mind. The abiding lesson of “Walden” is that only in occasionally standing offstage from our daily routines can we grasp what is really important to ourselves, our family, our country. Thoreau saw solitude and citizenship as mutually sustaining, not mutually exclusive.
Being alone might seem like an odd gesture on the Fourth of July, a national holiday meant to affirm our collective strength. But in a quiet hour away from fireworks, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we can still, like Thoreau, connect with the brightest gift of our republic — the freedom to follow a thought wherever it might lead us. He believed “that a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind.”
* * *
As a family we are adjusting to the change in time well, considering. [S] is taking a two hour nap during the day and is rubbing her eyes and yawning at 6:30 p.m. Russell and I get sleepy during the day, but are hold outs on napping, preferring to head to bed after [S] falls asleep. And [S] is sleeping as poorly as she did in the States–waking up two to three times a night.
I am tired. (Indeed, perhaps I’m exhausted. But even were that the case, there are not enough hours in the day to succumb to such a needy feeling.) So imagine my dismay when I awoke at 3 a.m.–for the second night in a row–and my brain refused to quiet down to allow me to drift back to sleep.
Years ago I experienced a period of prolonged insomnia, which left me sleepwalking during the day. Then, I was uncertain as to what was on my mind. I tried wooing sleep with a mixture of therapy and Ambien, to no avail. Ultimately, it was the panacea of time that cured what ailed me.
This time is different. I’m able to articulate the reason for my restlessness–the unknown. Will we live on or off Base? (We should learn more on Tuesday.) What kind of vehicle should we purchase and from whom? (We go vehicle shopping tomorrow at used car dealerships. While we won’t be able to test drive a car purchased from a dealer, the vehicle will come with a limited warranty. We could purchase a vehicle from a private party leaving the Island, but we would not have a warranty and would be required to complete the registration ourselves.) Should we continue to try to expand our family? (Maybe we are destined to be a family of three; maybe a family of four merely is a temporarily unrealized dream.) Will I work again? (I certainly hope so. But when and in what capacity, I have no idea.) What kind of mobile telephone and data package should we purchase? (The mobile phone industry is a racket around the world. Our newly purchased iPhones don’t work in Japan despite assures to the contrary from Verizon representatives. Should we wish to stay with iPhones, our sole option is between the iPhone 6 or the iPhone 6 Plus. Regardless of our choice, phones purchased here will not work in the States.) Will I be able to pass the drivers license test? (I hope so, but I haven’t had time to read the manual.) Should we leave [S] in day care for seven hours during orientation? (Sigh. I just don’t know.)
Admittedly, I like to be in control of my circumstances. I research relevant people, places and things because I know knowledge to be power. But at the moment, I am powerless. In a recent post I wrote of embracing my ignorance of the future. Today, I can reassure readers that ignorance is not bliss, at least not for me.
Oddly, I find myself comforted by Queen Elsa’s words:
It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all.
Perhaps, sleep will come if I just Let It Go.
Yesterday morning was touch and go. We awoke at 5:30 a.m., ate breakfast, and left for LAX at 7:20 a.m. for an 11:45 a.m. flight. The airport was less than one mile from our hotel, but felt a world away as a result the size of the airport and the heavy traffic congestion. Once we pull curbside in our rental vehicle, Russell undertook the heavy lifting. He emptied the vehicle of nine pieces of luggage to be checked, the stroller and car seat, three carry-on pieces, and two personal items. Overwhelmed by the chaos, I asked a Sky Cap if we could use a luggage dolly. He responded that we could not and that they could not assist us for an international flight; he stated that we should rent a couple of the handcarts and proceed inside. I stared at him, wondering whether anything I said would change his response.
I explained that we were moving overseas. And that it was “virtually impossible” to do what he suggested, noting my Husband couldn’t leave the vehicle unattended and that I was holding a 14-month in my arms. He stared back at me, unwavering, and said, “No, it’s not virtually impossible. Nothing is.” With a heavy sigh, he continued, “But I’ll help you out anyway.” And when he did, he was all business–gruff, direct and unapologetically brusque. He shepherded me to the odd baggage line, weighed each bag, placed them behind the attendant, and left.
Russell waited in our vehicle as I stood in line with [S] awaiting check-in. We planned that I would check the two of us in and then he would check-in separately before returning the rental. (Miraculously, he managed to obtain special dispensation from the parking police to stay curbside with our vehicle.) Our line–the line for people checking-in pets and odd pieces of luggage in number, size, shape or weight–didn’t move for 40 minutes. But once we were up, the attendant was helpful and efficient, allowing our entire family to check-in despite only two of us being present.
On the flight to Narita (Tokyo), [S] fared better than we expected. She slept for two hours. She watched movies. She walked up and down aisles. She played peek-a-boo with any willing participant and some unwilling participants. Although, mostly, she wanted to be held by her Mother. To be certain, I was flattered, but it was trying as putting her down or passing her to Russell resulted in instantaneous crying. And I am paying the price today with a sore neck, shoulder, arm and hand. This morning, I listened to her whimpers and wondered whether we’ve been too indulgent of her throughout the past few weeks. She’s been falling asleep in our arms, sharing our bed in the middle of the night, and eating on our laps. Then I began counting. In the past two weeks, she’s stayed in four hotels, traveled to four cities, moved to another country, and taken her longest flight yet (10 hours and change). It was then I picked her up, wiped off her tears, and placed her in bed next to me for her morning nap.
Yesterday was the day I needed it to be. I witnessed great kindness towards our family in both the United States and Japan. An ANA employee pushed one of our two overstuffed luggage carts to the ANA window in Narita; a mother of two left the restroom where I was awaiting use of the stall with a changing station and returned a few minutes later to show me the family changing station next door without ever exchanging a word; flight attendants were indulgent of our requests for milk and extra customs forms; and, our sponsors were there to greet and meet us and generously stocked our refrigerator with [S]-friendly snacks and plenty of bottled water.
Yesterday was a day during which I heard messages I needed reaffirmed. After we deplaned in Naha and were awaiting our luggage, [S] and I ventured over to a family of four with two cats on a luggage cart. As I began speaking with the wife of a Marine and mother of two, she explained that one of her cats, despite having been cut off from food early on, had an accident on the flight to Narita, leaving him quite grumpy. I spoke of Blue, commenting that I couldn’t imagine how he would have fared on this trip.
We had our moments yesterday. [S] wouldn’t stop crying after we arrived in the waiting area for our flight to Naha and we quickly became the objects of much unwanted attention. I ended up with Corn Flakes in my hair, Cheerios down my shirt, and cheese all over my top. And [S] required lots of soothing. But the day we had was better than the day I envisioned. Indeed, weeks ago I struggled to envision how we would move to Okinawa; today I look back knowing that we have. As the Sky Cap said, nothing is virtually impossible.
Let’s win it in regulation time, Team U.S.A.