Sunday, June 29, 2014

In Which We Go To A Funeral and Learn About Life

Unbelievably, tomorrow is our 28th and last day in Japan. For the most part, all has gone as expected. The kids have been insane approximately 80% of the time due to diet and schedule inconsistencies and the general unpredictability of life on the road. Ten different cities, eight different hotel rooms, and at least six different bullet trains in the course of a month is hard for anyone, much less for our kids who react strongly to change. Despite my success in getting my work done, I have to admit that more than once I found myself thinking I'd made a huge mistake spending thousands of dollars to drag my loud and cantankerous brood all over Japan.

But, then a week ago Monday, we got news that convinced me we were all right where we needed to be. That morning, on his way to work, less than 100 feet from his front door, Ren's younger (and only) brother was killed instantly when a distracted driver swerved onto the sidewalk and crushed him against the wall of his building. It was his birthday. He was wearing new shoes and pants. The massage chair he'd selected as a birthday present was due to arrive that afternoon.

The number of things that had to go wrong in order for Ren's brother to die blow my mind. That we happened to be in Japan as a family for the first time in five years and that we were also already headed toward where his family lives when we got the news astonishes me even more. Ren and his brother weren't especially close in recent years as their lives had taken very different directions. If we'd been in the States, I doubt Ren could have gone to the funeral (last-minute flights to Japan can be hard to come by and astronomically expensive), and missing his brother's funeral would have led to the kind of regret that changes a life forever.

Things being what they were, though, the whole family ended up attending the funeral. We made the trip from Kyoto to Tokyo on an early morning bullet train and got to the funeral just as they were preparing to send Uncle to the crematorium. The kids helped as we covered Uncle's body with flowers while a Buddhist monk recited a particularly mournful chant. Sky wondered aloud if the somber chanting of the monks was intended to make people cry because suddenly he couldn't find a happy thought. Stow wanted to know if Uncle was sleeping and why he was so cold. Pink hated that he looked a little too much like Ren. Watching my three usually boisterous kids take in the scene before them, I was amazed at how much they suddenly seemed to understand. But, as I saw Ren gently pat his brother's head, memories of the past and thoughts of a lost future reflected in his tear-filled eyes, my heart broke all over again. Ren's brother would never meet his youngest nephew, never get to know his sweet niece or discuss trains with his curious nephew. He would never sit in his massage chair or see his younger daughter marry. He would never meet his grandchildren.

It was a long, hard day.

After seeing Uncle to the cremation chamber, we sat down for lunch. What does a person talk about over a fancy boxed lunch while a loved one is being turned from flesh to ashes downstairs? Suddenly, I was relieved to have the chance to ride up and down the escalator with Stow. Keeping him entertained was much easier than the awkward conversations we left behind. Two hours later, our lunches barely touched, we returned to the chamber to welcome Uncle's ashes out of the fire, and together, chopstick to chopstick, we placed his ashes and bones into the urn. After final prayers, Uncle's remains were prepared to go home for the 49 days of mourning. From the end of lunch until the end of prayers, no one spoke, and aside from the constant chanting of the monk and the occasional clicking of prayer beads, there was no sound at all.

Watching these Japanese relatives, some close, some distant, somberly carry out the task of ushering their loved one out of this world and into the next, I was struck by the sheer determination with which they faced this grim and heartbreaking task. Buddhists talk about the suffering that comes from not realizing the impermanence of all things and from being too attached to that which is, by nature, passing. I can't imagine a more searing lesson in this than watching a man go from human form to dust over the course of an afternoon.

If you read this blog regularly, you know I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help my ASD kid make sense of this crazy world and meet the unexpected with flexibility and determination. Burying a brother who was so full of life one day and so completely gone the next, I realized that I've been going about this all wrong. My real task isn't to help make life easier for my children; it's to help them understand that sometimes life isn't fair. And, it certainly isn't predictable. But there is a distinct beauty to be found in the chaos and the suffering and, most of all, in the dogged perseverance some days require.

I wrote about this again HERE.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Dispatches from the Road: Great Bad English

Last week, while visiting Ren's family in Kyushu, I had the chance to go to my favorite store:

Who can resist a cute bunny?
Nishimatsuya. Sure there's a cute bunny on the sign and the prices are low, but I love it because it has some of the best bad English around. In fact, there are so many examples of exquisitely bad English, that it's hard to choose.

Here are just a few of my recent finds:

First, the overly suggestive--maybe it's just me, but these seem full of innuendo...

The power of a blow? Bliss point? Nine lives? Happiness bring? Can it get much more suggestive?
Why yes, yes it can. Your funny face is so alluring...Hmmm...

"If I wasn't hard, I wouldn't be alive. If I couldn't ever be gentle, I wouldn't deserve to be alive. I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying."

Oh that we could all be Lucky Enough.
Second comes the random shirts of inspiration: 

The most beautiful thing in the world, is of course, the world itself.

"Jocund" -- you don't see that word on a t-shirt very often.

As long as you're rational.
Stow was particularly thrilled with this find. Tomy car (Tomica) shoes. Suddenly he's all about getting his on shoes on and off by himself. Score!

****For other great bad English shirts, follow the Strange English label at the bottom of this post.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Squid, Anyone?

Ren's hometown, like many towns in Japan, is near the sea. He grew up eating great seafood and has never been thrilled with the unidentifiable selection of frozen fish at our local Midwestern supermarket. One of his life goals is to make sure the kids grow up with an appreciation for decent fish--which is how we found ourselves in a fresh squid restaurant on the coast of northern Kyushu yesterday. 

When Japanese people say something is fresh, they tend to mean it. Squid isn't completely fresh unless you are sitting on a boat and looking at it swimming mere minutes before you are eating it. Truly fresh fish is still moving (from residual nerve reflexes) on the plate in front of you.

Let me pause here to say that I am not particularly a fan of fresh fish. I prefer my fish to be of the freezer-burned block variety. I don't actually want to be reminded of what my meat looked like before it became my dinner; its dinner-plate form should in no way resemble its swimming-in-the-ocean form. But that's just me, and we ARE trying to raise bicultural kids, so occasionally I need to defer to Ren on these things.

So, I agreed to go seemingly willingly to the famous squid restaurant Ren suggested on our way back from a museum jaunt. As you might imagine, fresh squid is NOT on  my Top Ten Favorite Foods list.

Ren's Fresh Squid course that included a VERY fresh squid.
The kids loved the restaurant because,


it was on a boat, with big fish-tank like windows all over the place. I mean, what's not to love? Of course, the kids couldn't eat 75% of the kids' lunch due to allergy restrictions. 

So, we ordered ika don-- rice with fresh squid on seaweed with a raw egg on top for them. My hope was that somehow the freshness of the squid combined with their penchant for liking foods most kids their age don't would be enough to get them through the ika don.

It wasn't. Instead, all three kids refused to eat. This might have been one of the times I would let them get by with eating a few bites of white rice, but Ren saw this as an essential learning opportunity. We weren't going to leave until a majority of the ika don had been consumed. So, of course, there were tears. Followed by bribery.

In the end, Sky earned five bonus snacks for eating 15 bites of his. Pink earned one. If I was in the running, I would've earned three snacks of my own for my valiant attempt to get Pink P to swallow her three bites. It took close to two hours. The extra snacks led to extra bad behavior which led to possibly the worst Shichi-go-san (7-5-3 click here for link) photo shoot on the history of the planet. (But that's another story, one I may never find the courage to tell...)

Maybe one day I will figure out how to balance three kids' need for structure with their need for a 100% strict diet and our desire to have them experience as much of their two cultures as possible. But, yesterday was not that day. I guess at least now they can brag to their friends about the barely dead squid with raw egg they ate that time in Japan, so there's that.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Rainy Season

We made the bad good decision of coming to Japan during the month of June.** June is rainy season in Japan. You might think you know what that means, but if you've never experienced it, you don't. My first rainy season back when I came to Japan as a junior high English teacher, everything molded. My clothes, my shoes, and even my books. Soon enough, I learned to run my AC non-stop and to buy little plastic boxes full of water-absorbing material to help suck the water out of the air.

The next rainy season, and all rainy seasons after, nothing else molded, but I never quite figured out how not to get so wet. This was especially true of the rainy season we lived in Tokyo. Sky and I made the trek to his preschool at 8 a.m. each morning. On days when it didn't rain, we traveled by bicycle. On the days when it rained, however, we walked. I refused to be like the other moms who wore fashionable galoshes (as if there is such a thing), and instead opted for water-resistant hiking shoes. The shoes actually kept my feet pretty dry under normal circumstances, but they could do nothing to prevent  the dousing of my lower extremities with the giant splashes Sky made in every puddle between our house and school. They also didn't help much with the water he consistently dumped from his umbrella into my shoes. By the time I got Sky to school after our 7-10 minute walk (the time varied based on the number of tempting puddles), I was always thoroughly drenched.

Needless to say, I've never been a fan of rainy season, which makes the timing of this trip somewhat ironic. I did what I could to be prepared for it. I made sure all the kids' clothes were light-weight and quick drying. I packed a pair of Crocs for each of them to wear on the days we'd be traipsing around in the pouring down rain. I brought umbrellas and light rain jackets. I packed waterproof, quick-drying shoes. Still, nothing can quite prepare you for three kids carrying umbrellas making their way down a crowded Tokyo sidewalk. Really.

Fortunately, several days into our stay, we headed north to Akita where the rainy season hadn't started yet. We managed to squeeze in four glorious, rain-free days before it caught back up with us. Once it did, though, Ren and the kids were stuck inside our fairly tiny apartment*** while I taught my class. The only thing worse than wrangling three kids carrying umbrellas through the pouring rain is doing it with a bad back (or so I assume).

The first day, we were all optimistic that books on the Kindle, origami, and plenty of drawing paper and pens would keep the kids busy. That lasted for about seven minutes. Soon, we had this:

The problem with this, however, as Sky pointed out, is that there is only so much kid-appropriate TV one can access (at least without a pretty decent cable package) on Japanese television, so soon the kids were forced to break free from the screen and think outside the box (or inside, depending on your preferences):

Eventually, you run out of boxes, though. And, then, there is only becoming one with the environment--giving into the weather and going with the flow (of water down your back from one of the kids' mishandled umbrella). Hopefully, at least, you can do it in style and maybe even channel Totoro in the process:

A neko bus would TOTALLY make everything better, rainy season or not.

**Flying to Japan in early June is at least $400/person cheaper than it is in July. There are five of us. The math for going to Japan later in the summer is not in our favor.

***To be fair, the apartment was actually pretty huge by Japanese standards, but we were still 5 people in three rooms (if you include the bathroom) for eight days.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Coming Full Circle

A few months after Sky turned three, we moved to Tokyo for an 18-month research stint. At the time, he'd been staying home with Ren after a failed attempt at a Parents' Day Out program. This was years before he was diagnosed with ASD, and all we could figure was the program didn't like rambunctious boys. It was heartbreaking to take him out of his very first attempt at group education, even though it was clearly the best choice.

Once in Tokyo, we knew that it would be a challenge for Ren to care for infant Pink in our 50 square meter apartment unless we could put Sky in preschool at least a few days a week. At three, Sky was old enough to start Japanese preschool, so we canvassed the community for nearby options. In the end, we looked at two. One was a typical community preschool with a free schedule, rough and tumble kids, and a general feeling of chaos. It was also a hefty bike ride from our apartment. The other school, a Montessori Catholic school, with uniformed, rule-abiding kids, was just around the corner. Looking back, it seems funny that this was a difficult decision, but it took us awhile to decide that the closer school was the way to go.

This might have been one of the best decisions we've ever made.

Sky formally started school with an entrance ceremony on April 1. The following day, he managed to lock the entire school out during recess. Most days during his first weeks at the school, he spent much of his time running. At recess, he ran in large circles around the playground pretending to be a train. During class time, he ran from room to room. I didn't realize how much he ran until one day, when I went to pick him up, and his teacher, Koyama-sensei, said, "He didn't run today, Mom." That's when I knew I was really going to like Koyama-sensei. It was week four, and he had finally managed to stay in his own classroom, and not once during those four weeks did she let on that she was exasperated.

During the year and a half Sky was at the school, Koyama-sensei was never anything but positive. When he broke a tea cup or hit another child or knocked over someone's meticulously-built tower, I heard about it, but only as a way to explain to me how he was growing, learning, and figuring out how to be part of the community of friends Koyama-sensei was helping to build. To her, each kid had a place in the group, and it was her job to help him/her figure out what it was. It wasn't easy for Sky to make friends. He was loud and rough and he didn't speak much Japanese, but Koyama-sensei saw Sky in a way no one had before. And she helped the other kids in the class see him, too. 

Leaving Tokyo in May of 2009, the hardest part was saying goodbye to this preschool. For the first time ever, Sky was accepted and loved just as he was, and he experienced an explosion in confidence and maturity as a result. Equally important, though, Sky's Japanese preschool and his teacher Koyama-sensei helped me recover some of my own lost confidence after years of being told that Sky was too impulsive, too difficult, too different. That year in Tokyo was, in many ways, the beginning of helping me figure out how to parent Sky.

Last week, we had the chance to see Koyama-sensei and all the other teachers at Sky's old preschool again. This time Stow was the one running around like a train, playing just a little too rough, and keeping everyone on their toes. I was a mortified, of course, especially when Stow managed to dump the water out of the crayfish's cage and break a beaker. Koyama-sensei just laughed, though, and gave him a huge hug before patiently directing him to the next activity.

Sky's last day of school.

Telling the director all about his upcoming international flight as Koyama-sensei looks on.

Friday, June 6, 2014

And, We're Off?

You know what I forgot to include in the social story? This:

Oh. My. Gosh. That travel experience might have been enough to put me off of family trips until Stow is old enough to drive. I'm pretty sure I aged by about three years.

We left the house at our planned 4 am ETD, and we were checked in and through security with an hour to spare. After some initial renegotiations, everyone settled into a seat for the four-hour flight to LA. I had my misgivings about not flying direct, but given the price difference per ticket and given the fact it would do everyone some good to stretch their legs before the international flight, it seemed like the best choice. Since ren was traveling by wheelchair, we figured it wouldn't be too hard to make the connection. But then the plane pulled away from the gate and stopped. When the pilot announced a computer glitch 20 minutes later, I knew we were in trouble, and fifteen minutes after that, when they announced we were returning to the gate, I knew all hope was lost. After considerable negotiation with the gate agent, I managed to avoid a 1:30 am connection in LA and get us onto an earlier direct flight leaving within the hour.

The beginning of the end for Stow is when we got on the plane and then got off it again. No amount of explaining can make that make sense to a little boy on his first big adventure (at least the first one he remembers). He could not get on board (pun totally intended) with the new plan and went kicking and screaming to the next gate and onto the next plane. Yes, we were those people, but believe me, I tried not to be.

You know how to demoralize this mom at the start of a long trip. Keep her up all night before a 4 am departure, put her on a plane with three small kids, discover, after much waiting, an electrical problem in the plane, make it impossible to make the connecting flight, reroute her through an entirely different airline, which may or may not get her bags in time and which didn't know in advance about the allergies and food restrictions, and then give her a three year old who can't sleep and who seems to have been slipped some Red Bull.

The child slept for thirty minutes right after we got on the plane, a power nap, it turns out. And he was wired for the next eight hours. He was also hungry. After eating everything I brought for him, Sky, and Pink, he also consumed three bananas provided by desperate flight attendants in an attempt to corral him. I might be exaggerating here, but not by much

I really thought I was prepared this time.  Each kid had a backpack full of his/her favorite things to do (some new, some old). They had earphones that worked well and fit. And I had made sure to check and double check that the airline had food for them. I also packed plenty of their favorite snacks for both the airport and the airplane.

To be fair, Sky and Pink did phenomenally. They adjusted to the sudden change in schedule and seat arrangement. They were good sports about not being able to eat half of the food, and they kept themselves busy and quiet, even when receiving the wrath of Stow. Bless their hearts, both kids even took time to write in their travel journals.

So, it wasn't a total failure, I guess, but it was traumatic enough I'm considering alternative ways home.  What do you guys think about hover crafts?

****BTW, yes, I see all the typos. My iPad isn't being terribly user-friendly with edits, so I decided to leave them. Get over it. I know I'm trying to...

Sunday, June 1, 2014

How to Write a Social Story, Revisited

Remember back when I couldn't write a social story to save my life? Well, Sky's third-grade IEP team wrote social stories for him to use when riding the bus, when unsure of what to do on classwork, when he has to take a standardized test, when someone is mean to him, when he's on a field trip, in preparation for the school concert, and for the transition to summer vacation. In other words, we've read and discussed a lot of social stories this year, and thanks to them, I think I finally understand what goes into one. You know what else I'm slowly starting to figure out? That it's pretty important to think ahead and write these stories BEFORE they are actually needed.

One of Sky's social stories from school.
This week, I've had the chance to put these new-found skills to work as we prepare to fly to Japan (I'll save the saga of finding a house-sitter and buying tickets and hotel rooms for a family of five visiting Japan for a later post). If I've learned anything incredibly slowly over the past three years (since Sky's diagnosis and the early intervention therapies for Sky), it's that preparing them for new situations helps a lot.

As I was thinking through all the things that needed to get done before we leave, I remembered this app, Stories2Learn. With it, you can use pre-made stories or create your own by taking your own pictures, downloading images from the internet, or pulling from your photo stream. Below is the social story I made using this app to help prepare the kids for flying. (All pictures are not my own and were taken from the internet.)

Did you notice how many times I included the words "quiet" and "patient"? A mom can hope, can't she?Another important thing I've realized is that these stories are a form of positive imaging. They not only help the kids understand what will happen, but they also give them positive and useful ways to handle new and sometimes scary situations.  

The downsides to this app are that it costs a whopping $13.99 (outrageously expensive as far as apps go), and it is not as flexible as I would like. Once you make a page, you can't easily edit it, and if you try to add pages into the middle of the story later, it leads to random ordering that can only be fixed by deleting the whole story and starting from scratch. That said, it's great for making social stories. The kids love that I can include realistic and appropriate pictures. Here's hoping it helps!