Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Houseboy and the Mother-in-Law

I recently finished reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which included the wonderful character Ugwu, a boy from the bush who becomes houseboy for a Nigerian professor. From day one, Ugwu greatly admires his boss (his "Master") and tries to anticipate his every need. At one point, he irons the master's socks. They wind up getting stuck to the iron and the master calls him an ignoramus, but the kid was only trying to be helpful. Ugwu also sometimes listens at doors. Although I loved him as a character in a novel, I was reminded of why I don't think I could ever deal with household help. I like (no, LOVE) my privacy, what little I have of it, and even a once-a-week housekeeper would intrude.

At times, the one person Ugwu most reminded me of was my mother-in-law. In theory, my mother-in-law has her own chores and her own life, but she has taken it upon herself to do my laundry (even though I've asked her not to, even though at one point she told my husband she was exhausted from hanging out and taking down our laundry).  My husband said that she just wants to help us. A week or so ago, I didn't do the laundry and she was very agitated when I came home and asked me do it then (at 5PM) so that she could hang it out. This morning, I didn't get around to doing my laundry, but when I came home it was hung out on the poles. My mother-in-law told me, in a mildly chiding voice, that she had done the laundry. She came into our quarters and unloaded the laundry basket, in which hand-washables are sort of mixed with machine washables. My bathing suit was ruined in the wash. Oh, well. She was just trying to help.

I've decided that I've got enough material by now to write a short story with a laundry motif. I think it'll be entitled, "The Laundry Wars."


Sunday, May 27, 2007

My Animal, My Son

It must be one of Murphy's Law of parenting that children tend to get sick in the middle of the night, on weekends, or long holidays when the only option for treatment is a clinic way on the other side of town.

Saturday night, while my husband was getting ready to take his mother to the bus for her night tour to Ise Shrine, I noticed that my son had a hideous rash. He'd had a high fever and a sore throat since the evening before, but I thought it was just tonsillitis, which he tends to get. But he'd had the rash thing before, too, and I recognized it as scarlet fever.

Scarlet fever is sort of like strep throat, and ever since I heard that Jim Henson died of strep throat, I get kind of freaked out by related diseases. I told my husband that we had to get Jio treated right away. He wanted to wait till morning, but I insisted.

Later, after he left with his mother, he called me from the road. He said that he could get antibiotics from his friend, S.

"But he's an animal doctor!" I said.

I refused the offer and told him that I would take Jio to the doctor myself. He wound up driving to the clinic across town, where my diagnosis was confirmed.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Movie of the Week - from the Archives

It's come to my attention that a true-crime book about the murder of Shari Smith has just been published. Several years ago, I wrote this little essay. I've never been able to find a place for it, but I realized, hey, I can post it on my blog!

Movie of the Week

In the made for television movie, William Devane stars as the sheriff. The other actors – the ones who play Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Shari, her sister, the townspeople – are not so well known. Watching the movie on video, I think that the young actress who has taken the part of Shari Smith is not as pretty as the original.

The movie is called “Nightmare in Columbia County” – an unfortunate title. For one thing, there is no Columbia County in South Carolina. The events took place in Lexington, County, just outside the capital of Columbia. For another, the title makes it sound like a horror flick. Then again, I guess it is.

I did not know Shari Smith. Not personally. Not well. To me, she was one of those big-haired girls who flitted through the halls of my new high school. Beautiful, popular, and outgoing, she was bursting with confidence. I was an outsider – a Northerner – with the wrong clothes, the wrong hair (short and spiky, not big) and the wrong ancestors. At lunch in the cafeteria, people still talked about how the Yankees had made off with their great-great grandmothers’ silverware.

I had a crush on Shari’s boyfriend,a blue-eyed, All-American guy in my homeroom, and I was jealous of her. On top of everything else, she could sing the angels out of the sky. I learned this one day when she soloed during lunch in the cafeteria. It had something to do with graduation. I was a senior, so I guess she was singing for me.

She was a junior then. I had already spent a year at a small Midwestern college when she was kidnapped on the verge of her own graduation. When I heard the news, I regretted every bad thought I’d ever had about her.

I hated that summer. The air was hot and still and shrill with cicadas. I had fallen in love for the first time and had my heart broken, and now I was working the salad bar at Shoney’s. I spent twelve hours a day on my feet doing drudge work – chopping lettuce and tomatoes, wiping the breath marks from the protective glass. I tried to rest my feet in stolen moments by standing flamingo-style while leaning against the stainless steel counter. My hair always smelled like grease. I had no previous work experience other than babysitting and blueberry picking, no qualifications for waiting tables. My co-workers were convicts on a work-release program.

It was a summer of fear. Neighbors tied yellow ribbons around their mail boxes. I read the newspaper every day, desperate for news. Was she still alive? Had they found her yet? And then they did.

Shari Smith was dead.

Cora, the tall African-American woman who was doing time for bad checks, had a scoop. She and I worked the salad bar together. While we refilled the dressing, she said, “I know someone on the police force. He said they found her in the woods wrapped in plastic.”

None of this made it into the newspapers. Twelve years alter, I watch the made-for-TV movie and find that it was true. Shari, who’d been a diabetic, had died that very first day for lack of medicine. Her abductor had dumped her in the forest. From the movie I learn that he had been calling the Smith family for weeks and telling them that their daughter was okay. He called on the phone and said that he was in love with Dawn, Shari’s sister, a local pageant winner who’d one day be runner up to Miss America.

I was nineteen years old. I went out at night, went dancing, and hung out with my friends at the Capitol Café, eating brains and grits. I went home at three a.m. People told me stories about escaped convicts creeping into the houses of innocents. The night janitor at Shoney’s was a murderer.

I’d spent most of my life in Grand Haven, a tourist town on the shores of Lake Michigan. The entire time I’d lived there, only one local murder made the headlines. It was a domestic squabble, or a crime of passion – nothing that affected my sense of safety.

A boy I’d known in elementary school died in a freak snowmobile accident. Another died of cancer. But I’d never known a murder victim, not even remotely. Shari’s death was a shock I couldn’t absorb.

I went for walks – long walks to clear my mind, along the tree-lined country road. It’s all tract housing now, but then the pines were thick all the way to Scrub Oak Farm, where the cows grazed on an embankment. There was corn across the road. The only jarring part of the walk was a house mid-way with a yard full of dogs. Whenever I walked past, the dogs started barking, lurching, straining at their chains. I crossed to the other side of the road when I went by and tried not to wince.

I heard a lot of rumors that summer. I heard that the man who lived in the house with the dogs was a suspect in the murder of Shari Smith. I heard that the murderer had chosen his next victim, and that she was blonde and blue-eyed. Well, so was I. I stopped taking walks.
The second victim was a little girl who lived in a trailer park. She was found a few days later, and then Larry Gene Bell, an electrician, was arrested.

The man was clearly insane. During his trial, a year later, I was working at the local newspaper. Accounts of Bell’s courtroom antics filled pages of print. When asked a question, he’d say, “Silence is golden.” Once, he stood up and proposed marriage to Dawn Smith, who sat horrified in the courtroom. Someone on staff at the newspaper said that the murders had been good for business. I couldn’t tell if he was being cynical or not.

By the time I watch the made-for-television movie, Larry Gene Bell is about to be executed. I am living in Japan, which boasts one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world. I am past the age of victims favored by serial killers.

At the end of the movie, a photo of Shari Smith flashes on screen. It’s the photo that appears in my high school yearbook. How out of date that Farrah hairstyle looks, I think. And no one would wear blue eye shadow like that anymore. It happened all so long ago. It is dark outside and I am alone in the house.


Friday, May 25, 2007


Yesterday I skipped the arduous pool cleaning session at my son's school in order to attend a lecture at the Deaf School. It was given by a young deaf woman who works at the school's dormitory. Her talk was directed toward the junior and senior high school students, but there were many teachers and mothers in attendance.

Her story was a familiar one: Deaf child is integrated into regular schools. Child doesn't understand everything that's going on, but manages to get by. Child goes to college and at last meets deaf peers. Child finds tribe! Child (now young adult) learns sign language. Child wholeheartedly enters Deaf culture. Hearing her speak reinforced my conviction that the School for the Deaf is the best place for my daughter. I can understand parents wanting their children to learn to live in the hearing world, but as a non-native speaker of Japanese, I know how stressful it is to not be able to understand half of what is going on. I am most at ease when I am with my foreign English-speaking friends, just as Lilia is most at ease when she is around people who can use sign language.

The young woman also told the students that they need to speak up when there's a problem, and explain to hearing people what they feel and how they can be helped. I thought this was sage advice, and also interesting because Japanese culture teaches people to be patient and silent in enduring hardship - gaman.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

State of the Art

So Yoshi went out and bought some mouse traps and this is what they look like. Simple, huh? It looks like something a pre-schooler could come up with. The inside is sticky, so I guess the idea is that the mosue ventures inside and then can't get out.

Yoshi placed a couple in strategic positions, mused about putting some cheese in as bait, and then didn't. The next morning, the traps were empty. But after school, I was getting started on dinner and I heard a squeaking noise. It was mixed in with the feedback from Lilia's hearing aid (a loud, screeching noise produced whenever it isn't nestled snugly in her ear or when she leans on it). I paused in my vegetable-chopping, and sure enough, the sound seemed to be coming from the cardboard tunnel. It sounded like a creature in distress! Being a wimp, I didn't want to peer too closely, so I sent Jio (who is actually even wimpier) to have a look. "There's a mouse!" he confirmed, and ran away. I grabbed a broom and swatted the trap out the door, praying that I wouldn't somehow dislodge the thing and set it free. I felt kind of bad though, as it was squeaking all the while.

Then I called Yoshi and told him that we'd caught a mouse. When he came home, I asked him what he was going to do with it.

"On the box, it said to throw it in the garbage," he said.

He told me that he'd seen the traditional mouse traps with the spring action at the store, but thought this kind was better.

Hmmm. Long slow death, or immediate execution? Which is more humane? I have to admit, however, that I don't want to personally deal with either kind of trap. I'm glad the mouse is gone.


Losing Kei at Amazon

My first novel, Losing Kei, is now available for pre-order at Amazon.com (and Amazon.co.jp). How cool is that?!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mother's Day, Schmother's Day

So here is how I've spent my special day (ha ha ha): I nagged Lilia throughout the morning about her homework. Then we went to the mall, and Lilia kept wheeling away and disappearing, in spite of my talk about strangers. For the nearly the past eight years, the kid hasn't been responsible for her own safety, and doesn't know the importance of sticking close to Mommy in a crowded shopping center or of watching out for cars. At one point, while I was standing at a cash register, she took off out the door and went into the parking lot. Dangerous! We will have to have a talk about traffic safety, in addition to a reinforcement of the talk about strangers.

I've decided that I'm not cooking dinner, as it's My Special Day. If we have go to McDonald's or order pizza, then so be it.

This evening, my husband is taking his mother to see "Tokyo Tower," an undoubtedly schmaltzy Japanese movie. I will be staying home with the kids. If I can get them to bed early enough, I'll have a glass of wine and watch "Le Divorce" on DVD. (There is no hidden meaning in my viewing choice; I'm just in the mood for Paris.)


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The House of Mouse

This morning I went downstairs to make breakfast and a little gray mouse scurried across the floor. Eek! Unfortunately, it wasn't the first time. After eighteen years of seeing nary a nezumi in this country, we've suddenly had four in the past couple of weeks (or maybe it's the same mouse four times). The first time, I heard a rustling over by the rice. It sounded like a behemoth rodent - a foot-long gutter rat. The children and I huddled on the sofa until Yoshi came home. He managed to trap the mouse without hurting it - what a man! - and took it outside. It was a cute little baby mouse, but it made me think of rabies or the bubonic plague.

Last time we went shopping, Jio lingered near the vermin poison and suggested darkly that we get something to kill the mice with. But why, when we have such a great mouse-catcher in the house? He's caught three so far! And besides, I can't decide which is worse - finding a dead mouse and having to dispose of it, or having to wait until my husband comes home to trap the little bugger.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Lilia's Abilities

Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day (or something like that). In honor of the occasion, here are ten things that my seven-year-old daughter can do:

1. She can write the Chinese characters for "spring wind."
2. She can do a somersault.
3. She can throw a baseball hard and straight.
4. She can write her name in English and Japanese and can also finger-spell it.
5. She can take photos and make movies with my cell phone (and also other functions that I haven't figured out yet.)
6. She can break an egg into a bowl without getting any shell in.
7. She can tie her shoes.
8. She can use chopsticks well and has been able to since she was about three.
9. She can remember all of her lines from her school play a year and a half ago.
10. She can give me directions to her aunt's house.