Friday, May 23, 2008

Taxis, the YMCA and Anticipation


Dandelion About to Be Blown

Her children woke up at 2 in the morning and then again at 5 – whispering, cawing, saying they were cold and wanted to get up. Her husband and she were sleeping on the other side of a discolored plastic accordion screen that divided one large dormitory room into two. Their apartment was actually through four other doors, practically in another building, but this seemed the best sleeping arrangement unless they all wanted to be sleeping on top of each other in the one bedroom. Probably 95% of previous visitors were single or retired men or men who traveled and worked, leaving their families at home, which is what they had encouraged her husband to do. They told him of the rainy season, about the cockroaches and centipedes and that there would not be enough space for them all. So far, not a drop of rain, no annoying pests yet and they had so many beds that three were being unused. Everything is sticky from underuse, bad cleaning and the humidity. She was surprised to find the laundry that she had left in the washing machine all dried and folded when they returned from their first adventure into the city. The maids had also put clothespins on the clothes she had hung out to dry, taken out the trash and had performed other generous surprises.

Her husband David got up with Guthrie at 5 and watched Rangers Rangers on the laptop. She and Harper slept until 7. They had a much better morning than the day before. David and Harper played tent and took a bath while she and Guthrie played cards – war. She let him win and he was so happy. They walked down the switchback road through Hijiyama Park, passing temples and arriving onto the busy road where they waited for a tram. It was hot and bright and they realized how lucky they were to be living in the middle of one of the only big parks in the city. The trolley was only one car and kids ride for free. They took the 2nd tram and got off where they thought they should to be close to the YMCA International Kindergarten. They walked the wrong way a couple of times and Harper fell out of the stroller when her mom hit a curb. They had expected it to take 20-30 minutes to get there but after an hour and a half, they were exhausted and frustrated – kids hungry and tired, sore feet, eyes tired of squinting. Finally, they found it. They had to wait for quite a while for the YMCA Assistant Principal to register them and give them a tour.

They took the elevator to the 2nd floor and had to take off their shoes. Everyone is barefoot on the soft wood floor. Harper’s classroom of 2-3 year olds was full of mostly Japanese children (others were from Siberia and India) decorating a picture of a D made out of a deer on paper with colored plastic squares – they use a special phonetic system consisting of the alphabet made up out of animals. They kids learn gestures and sounds. They were almost ready for lunch – kiwi and orange, miso soup and rice, chicken or fish and potatoes. They each have to have a lunch bag with a place mat and silverware inside. The parents take it home every night to wash it all. Each child also has a range of required uniforms and things: a special vinyl backpack; a perfectly measured towel with a loop stitched into it for hanging; a swim suit and bathing cap with a towel for another “swimming backpack”; white YMCA caps that must have elastic stitched in to go under the chin in case of wind; special outfits for field trips – to plant sweet potatoes, see a Japanese garden, visit the tree frogs; bike shorts, t-shirts and sneakers for every day and more formal shorts and jackets to arrive in. Their heads were spinning with all the formalities and procedures but they were amazed at how clean everything was and how well the kids spoke English. Except for the early morning and after 2pm hours, everything was done in English. Guthrie’s classroom was also nice – full of kids making paper badges and also getting ready for lunch. Every room has a piano – which all the Japanese teachers play – lots of books, supplies, play space, low sinks and long tables and chairs. Once a week they go to the pool for swim lessons and there is a big playground on the roof. Beginning in June they have wading pools and sprinklers up there. The kids were very excited about it all and can’t wait to start on Monday. The parents decided – at least for now –to take the kids to and from school by taxi. The hill is way to steep and dangerous for bikes – although everyone says that bicycles truly have the right of way here and they saw plenty of Japanese people biking up and down the hill. Renting a car would cost them his summer salary and she didn’t dare drive on the other side of the road in a foreign city where she wasn’t able to read the road signs.

They took their first taxi home. The drivers all wear white gloves and the seats are covered with white lace. They had tuna fish sandwiches, crackers and apples for lunch and the kids are supposed to be napping. Harper is out cold but Guthrie is fidgeting and fake coughing. She writes because she thinks she SHOULD –to remember everything, to share the experience with friends, to perhaps stumble on some ideas for art. So far she is only absorbing, getting settled, observing and finding her way. She needs to find an art supply store so she can get paper and ink or pencils to do rubbings. The first one she wants to do is of the big sign for RERF – in both Japanese and English – a Japanese-U.S. Cooperative Radiation Effects Research Foundation. They will think she is crazy and she may wait to do it until it is dark and most of the researchers have gone home. They were all quite amused when they saw the courtyard tarp pulled back at dusk the night before, revealing a tennis court upon which two couples played. The courtyard sits smack dab in the middle of the compound – a ring of white buildings that all look like half-circles sitting on the ground on their flat bottoms – like barracks or storage units. She also needs black and white 120 film for her Mamiya 6x7 camera so she can take what she plans to be haunting photographs. The kids love watching out for the wild cats – strays with bloody wounds on their necks, limps, various disfigurations or odd features – crazy fur, wild eyes, plump paws, skinny backs.

She wants to walk along the river and roads and buildings and neighborhoods and see it all, rub it all, photograph it all. She wants to get inside, to find the spoiled objects that will leak onto x-ray film – leaving ghostly explosions of light in the darkness, to place flowers on the little cyanotype paper she brought with her that will leave white shadows.

Howard Zinn’s wife died last week, Roz Zinn. She emails the famous and most kind historian she will ever meet to send her sympathies and love and is astonished that he emails back with love and joy that she is in Japan – a place that every time he was here he found it extraordinary.

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