Friday, May 31, 2013

A lack of cultural trips for me means a 7-year-old guest blogger...

It's been over a week since I blogged and I do apologize. My life has been consumed with the launch of a photography business, and sports that require bats and gloves. The spouse had a team entered in the base's Memorial Day weekend softball tournament, so three of the four days he and the kids were off were consumed by games. The good news is that his team, The Reapers, did, in fact, win the tournament. Here's a shot I got of them:

This was also the last week of the boys' baseball season. Will's team was in the championship game last night.. and won. The Ligers are now the 10- to 12-year-old baseball champs on base... a very hard-won victory in a game that was often tied. They ended up winning 12-10.

Xan had his last game last night and made two outs at first base. Of course, no one keeps score at the 7- to 9-year-old level, so there wasn't any season standings. Xan, however, assured me that they won by a large margin last night.

I have not been on any culture trips the past two weeks and I am itching to get out and around Japan. The spouse assures me that Saturday afternoon is all mine to drag the family out to do some sight-seeing, so hopefully I will have something fun and interesting to blog about.

In lieu of my blogging, I had a volunteer blogger offer his services. Xan took my 5-year-old iPhone 3GS that is now his iPod on his class field trip to the aquarium on Miyajima. Here is a photo of the guest blogger on the trip today:

Xan had a tough time knowing what to write as he blogged, so we settled for an interview format as we went through the pictures that he snapped.

Me: What is this?

Xan: I don't know, but I found it interesting.

Me: Interesting, huh?

Xan: Yep.

Me: What about these guys?

Xan: I don't know. I guess they were interesting, too.

Xan: This is where you went in to the aquarium. See those penguins? Those are penguins.

Xan: These are the puffy things that stick to the wall and slurp up all the gross stuff. I got to pet a penguin.

Xan: Oh, no, wait. That's the slurpy thing. Those other ones are just little fish.

Me: Are these the penguins you got to pet?

Xan: Well, yeah, one of them. I think it was this one (pointing to the very back penguin under the spotlight). They told me his name.

Me: What was his name?

Xan: I forgot, but it started with a "Yo."

Me: What did the penguin feel like?

Xan: Um, what did the penguin feel like? You mean when I pet it?

Me: Yes

Xan: Well, it was calm, and very soft, and it felt like after you take a shower and your hair is comb-y.

Xan: Those are the penguins from when I shot like this (pretending to take a photo above his head.) They were above my head.

 Xan: That's a seal. That wasn't part of the seal show.

Me: How was the seal show?

Xan: The seal did lots of tricks and whenever it came out it came out of the curtain things that are hanging up. So, it was pretty cool.

Me: What kind of tricks did it do?

Xan: It flipped through a hoop and it touched red balls that were hanging. It was pretty cool.

Xan: That is a baby seal in a cage. It was cute, too. I got to see it.

Me: Did you get to pet it?

Xan: No, but I did get to pet one of the seals in the seal show.

Me: And how was that?

Xan: It was cool.

Me: What did it feel like?

Xan: It was squeaking, but I didn't now what it felt like.

Me: It was making noise?

Xan: Yeah, it was barking, or going "erk-erk" so that was cool, too.

Xan: Those are sharks. I don't know what kind of sharks, but those are sharks.

Xan: That was a barracuda.

Me: Did you get to pet it?

Xan: Noooo... that was in water.

Xan: That's a ray and goldfish.

Me: Was the ray eating the goldfish?

Xan: No. If they are in the same tank then they don't eat them. The sharks had fish that they didn't eat, too.

Me: What is this a picture of?

Xan: A dolphin. You can't really tell that, but it is one.

Me: What's that black dot.

Xan: I don't know what the black dot is, but I am pretty sure it is a drain.

Xan: That is a picture of a dolphin skull. A dolphin body, basically.

Me: You mean a skeleton?

Xan: Yeah. And a kid got in my way.

Me: Did you like the skeleton?

Xan: Yes. Because I have never seen a dolphin skeleton and I am glad that I saw it now.

Xan: That's not an octopus, but a squid. A squid and fish.

Xan: This was like a small tank and you get to take pictures behind it and my friends were, like, ducking down so that we could get out of the way. And that was a lot of fun, too.

Me: What kind of fish are those?

Xan: I don't remember but they looked like Nemo.

Me: Clown fish?

Xan: Yeah, clown fish.

 Xan: Those were a lot of fish. I don't know what they're called, but there were over 100 in there.

Xan: You get to see the fish that are under, but I took a picture of them, but on top it looked like it was a forest. And it was cool.

Xan: Those were a ray in water that had seaweed in it and there were fish in there, too, hanging on to the seaweed.

Me: So those aren't oysters?

Xan: No. I'm pretty sure that was seaweed.

Xan: This is a picture of my friend and me on a bench and we're by a tree and all that. And we were walking to the bus to get back to school.

Me: So, is that the Torii Gate behind you?

Xan: Yes. That is the Torii Gate

Me: So would you recommend this trip to other kids?

Xan: Yes, and I hope they have fun, too. My favorite thing was when the sharks didn't eat the fish and I was surprised that they didn't either.

Me: Anything else you would like to add?

Xan: No.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Embarking on a new career path...

A self-portrait I took in the mirror this morning.
Actually, it's kind of an old career path, but one I'm resurrecting. I've decided to become a "lifestyle" photographer while I am here in Iwakuni, fulfilling a need the community has for additional photographers. One of the most popular and respected photographers, Danielle Caceres is leaving the area. She's the one who did my pin-up photo session, so if you've seen those photos, you know how talented she is. She is moving out of the area (like all military spouses do eventually) and I had the chance to speak with her when I had my post-pinup photo session meeting with her a few weeks ago. Long story short, she inspired me to dust off my bachelor's degree in photojournalism and hone my Photoshop skills.

I have always had a passion for photography, (you can read about how that started here) which led to my passion for scrapbooking and memory projects. Of course, over the years "real" jobs, work towards a master's degree and family obligations limited the amount of time I had to devote to the craft that professional photography requires. But, with the 9-to-5 jobs dispensed of, and the master's degree earned, I have found that I have the time to do something about that latent passion.

I've discovered that photography skills are a lot like riding a bike... once you start up again, much of what you have learned comes rushing back to you. And, you also realize that you want to upgrade your bike... or camera, lenses, computers, etc. I already have a list going, much to the spouse's disbelief.

So, I invite you to "like" my Facebook page, and to check out my website, I'm still creating memory projects and teaching classes here... and I think "photographer" is a natural addition to my repertoire of activities in Japan. I am looking forward to working with the families here and helping them to capture the memories of their time in Japan.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mingling with the locals... from preschools to pachinkos

I have been pretty Japanese-y (I know that is not a word, but you know what I mean and it sounds fun) this week, really having a chance to experience the day-to-day culture in the local area.

On Tuesday morning a small group of us, guided by our fearless leader and Youth Cultural Program specialist Nami, headed off to the Wakaba Hoikuen in Yanai city, which is about an hour from Iwakuni by car, with 40-50 kph speed limits (25-30 mph) and traffic. A hoikuen is a Japanese daycare, which, like many American daycares, provides educational curriculum, like a preschool, as well. Part of the curriculum is learning English, such as the English alphabet, numbers and animal names. At this hoikuen, there were three classes/ages of children: 3-4, 4-5 and 5-6. The 5- to 6-year-olds knew better English than I do Japanese.

So, while we were politely told that we were going to teach English to these kids, it was really more like we were going to show off what Americans look like to kids who don't see too many foreign faces. And America was well represented for such a small group. We had an African American, a Hispanic, a Pacific Islander, a brunette Caucasian, and a blonde Caucasian (that's me.) Nami took care of the "Asian" ethnicity, even though she is not technically an American.

The 3- to 4-year-olds were the most shy, but the 5- to 6-year olds were ready to lead the pack of kids in giving us "high fives." A couple of little girls wanted to hold my hand while we played games, and I think they argued about it for a minute (I don't speak Japanese) until I showed them that I had two hands and offered each of them one. The African American gal in our group told a funny story about one of the kids touching her and then looking at his hand. Then he would touch her again and then look at his hand again, She wondered if he was trying to figure out if the "black" would come off of her and on to him. I wish I had seen that. Probably better that I hadn't. I think I would have laughed until tears rolled down my face and I'm not sure what that would have done for foreign relations.

We sang the Alphabet song, which most of the kids knew, but as a slightly different version. We also sang "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes," which they knew in their own language, so they got to hear how the body parts were said in English. We played "Rock Paper Scissors," only we had to change it to "Rock Scissors Paper," because that was the order the Japanese say it in and we didn't want to confuse the kids in to calling their paper "scissors." We read a book about animals (not just your regular lion-horse-chicken kind of animals, but whooping cranes, red wolves and macaroni penguins. I didn't even know there was a macaroni penguin.)

Here are some photos from the day. I'm sure you can find me... I'm the tall, pale one.

By the end of the hour, the kids were no longer shy with us and nearly everyone wanted a high-five. Being the sensible adult that I am, I really wanted some hand sanitizer. But, instead, the two head teachers presented us with coffee, water and cookies, and sat with us to talk for about a half hour. These two teachers had been teaching preschool for years, one of them for over 20 years. They said they learned English from watching TV and that their English wasn't very good. I will never believe another Japanese person who says their English is not very good. They were able to carry on a 30-minute conversation with five Americans without skipping a beat. And they were friendly, kind, gracious hosts. I hope to go back again soon.

Wednesday was a day out in Iwakuni with my friend Miho, a former Japanese national who has been married to a Marine for nearly two decades. She and her family are leaving to go back to the States in a couple of weeks, so she promised to take me out, show me some of the highlights of living out in Japan, and teach me how to shop for and make gyoza and yakisoba.

Like any good day on the town, we started with some gambling.

Now, gambling is technically illegal in Japan, so the casinos, or pachinko parlors, as they are called, have games where you can win prizes. These games look like slot machines, but, with the majority of the machines, you feed them small metal balls instead of coins. And I asked if I could take pictures (actually, Miho asked for me) ... and I was allowed to, which is different from most casinos I have been in in the States. So, I took pictures.

Each ball is worth one credit. If you like penny slots in the States, you'll like the 1 yen pachinko machines here. If you like the nickel slots, you'd want to go for the 4 yen machines. Quarters? 20 yen machines. The guy above was playing at a 4 yen machine, so each of those balls in the trays is worth 4 yen.

The first thing you notice when you walk in to the parlor is that it is VERY loud, slightly smokey and VERY bright. You are not in Vegas. You are in a video arcade. However loud you think Vegas is, this is worse, I promise. You cannot carry on a conversation. Miho hadn't ever played in a pachinko, either, so we had an employee helping us, but she couldn't understand what he said half the time. Here is a video that's only a few seconds long so you can appreciate how loud this place was: Pachinko video.

Here is the machine I chose to play:

It's basically a vertical pinball machine and you control how hard the balls are spit out and up in to the machine by turning the green dial low on the right clockwise. I put in 1,000 yen (about $10) and watched the screaming cartoon shown on the TV screen in the center. There was a spaceship and anime characters yelling. That's about all I could understand. Oh, and when the word CHANCE came up on the screen, hit the big white CHANCE button seen in the low center of the machine... a lot. I did that and hit a jackpot. Of course, I did not know this and thought the game was over and I had lost all my money. I got up to leave and, luckily, the employee "assigned" to us came around the corner and told me to go back. I played the jackpot round and ended up walking away with the equivalent credits for 1,700 yen. Sweet.

I "cashed out" and got a card with the credits on it, Now, because they were credits and not yen, I could not put it in another machine and play. I had to get out another 1,000 yen bill to try out the Western-looking slot machines... which did give you coin-like tokens instead of balls. The cool thing about these is that you are not at the mercy of the spinning canisters with the designs on them to stop on their own once you pull the handle. The three buttons on the front of this pachinko machine are what you push to stop the canisters individually, in whatever order you like. This machine, like the ones I remember so fondly in the States, ate my money A LOT faster than the traditional pachinko machine, and I did not hit a single confusing jackpot round, either.

So, once we were done losing, I still had 1,700 credits to cash out. We went to the front desk and I handed them the credit card-looking thing that the first pachinko machine had spit out at me. It was scanned and I had the option of either getting thick plastic cards or prizes. The prizes included all the fun things in life: cases of beer, packs of cigarettes, stuffed animals, headphones... but I chose the thick plastic card option. Miho told them I did not want the prize option and was handed eight thick, plastic cards... one yellow and seven white, neatly rubber banded together. We were told to go out to the parking lot and there would be a shack out there where I could trade the cards for cash. That is why the pachinkos are not considered gambling. Because they have money shacks in the parking lot that accept my thick plastic card "prizes."

Pictured below is the money shack. It is very "sketchy." All you see is a drawer... you do not see people. You put the plastic cards in the drawer, it slides in to the shack, and the drawer slides back out with cash. I thought about trying to put some other things in there, like a sunglasses case, a pack of gum, some Tylenol, to see what would come out, but, again, I did not want to mess with foreign relations.

After pachinko-ing, we stopped off at a small restaurant, B-Cafe, that did not have an English menu for lunch. That is how we Americans know if we are enjoying authentic Japan... no English menu. I couldn't have ordered without Miho, but now I know the gist of what's available, so I think I could go back. And just FYI, the Japanese rock at dessert presentation.

After lunch, Miho took me grocery shopping at one of her favorite stores, called "Big," and we shopped for the ingredients needed for yakisoba and gyoza. She also explained that on the 29th of each month, may grocery stores have discounts on meat because the words for "2" and "9," pronounced "nee" and "coo", are the same words used for meat, pronounced "neecoo." Good to know.

We went back to my house and made the dishes, me paying close attention so I could replicate the recipes, which did not include exact measurements. Two packages of this, about this many grams of meat, sprinkle this much powder, etc., so I couldn't begin to describe it here with much accuracy. But here is a photo of the yakisoba... it tasted great!

I'm going to miss you, Miho. You have been so helpful in getting me acclimated to Japan. Thank you.  I wish you and your family the best of luck on your new adventure.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The story behind the Pin up

If you're friends with me on Facbook, you've already seen the pin up pictures. But here's the story of how those pictures came to be. 

I have always wanted to do a pin up session... one of those vintage-style photo sessions that are reminiscent of a photo a World War II soldier might have kept in his helmet while he was on the battlefield. A fellow Marine Corps spouse and talented photographer Danielle Caceres is moving this month (thanks to her husband's military orders, of course) and her last photo shoot was a pin up shoot April 28. As soon as I heard about it, I emailed Danielle, paid in full immediately... a good thing since her session booked up in minutes. I also booked another soon-to-leave spouse, Casey, to do my hair and makeup for the shoot. 

My initial goal was to keep this a surprise for my husband, Rodney, for his birthday in June. He knew I was up to something because I requested a date night for April 28, which was a Sunday... not a typical date night day of the week. I figured, why waste a perfectly good hair and makeup session? Make the most of it! I arranged child care and told him he better come up with something fun and child un-friendly to do... at night out on the town, if you will. He had over a month to plan, but still had no idea what I was up to exactly. The month sped by like they always seem to do, and the week before the shoot arrived. Emails from Danielle, the photographer, went out with suggestions, directions to the location, etc., and a schedule of who was supposed to be on location at what time. This helpful email was actually the demise of my surprise.

Have I mentioned we live in a small community? The military members and families here call it "Mayberry" for a reason. I ran in to a fellow pin up session recipient in my building. While I was with my husband. And she started talking about how excited she was about the photo session, and wasn't I excited, too, she saw my name on the schedule. Crap. My husband heard all this, a conversation that lasted less than 30 seconds, but I was sure the damage was done. The rest of the afternoon I pretended the conversation never happened to see if he would say anything. He did not. Which was even worse... did he realize what was going on? Did he not? Why isn't he saying anything? There was a lot of maneuvering I was going to have to do to keep this shoot a surprise, and a wasted effort if he already figured it out. I am not a fan of wasted effort.

That night Rodney and I had a chat. He claims he had no idea what was going on. Of course, he is also a smart man who has figured out in our 13 years of togetherness, how to stay out of the doghouse (most of the time.) Well, after that conversation, he knew what was happening, a pin up session for Jessica. After explaining what a pin up session was and the difference between those pictures and the ones shown in Playboy or Penthouse, his question was so typically male: "How much does all this cost?" My answer: "Nunya. It's a birthday present." Next question: "You'e not going to post these on Facebook are you?" My answer: "Some of them, yes." We then began negotiations on what I could and could not post of Facebook. I let him think that he got to do some deciding, but since we are pretty compatible with the amount of conservatism we each have, I didn't change any of my social media plan. My kind of negotiation!

But it was actually helpful to have Rodney in on the secret. He helped me decide on what to wear, and when the photos came in, I was stuck on one, whether I liked it or not. After all, we are our own worst critics, right? Especially when it comes to our thighs. He loved it, so the decision was made to keep it. Of the nine photographs I kept, he has only seen six of them. The other three are the surprise for his birthday... so the surprise wasn't completely ruined! 

Here are some photos before and during the shoot:

Casey teasing my hair. You need to start with big hair to ultimately get to pin up hair.
Lots of eyeliner and red lipstick. Not my usual look, but neither is a bow in my hair.
And the talented Danielle did a great job of making me look good. I'm sure Photoshop was heavily involved. But that's OK... every supermodel's picture has been Photoshopped, too. I might as well have my 15 minutes if Photoshop. I think every woman should.

This shoot was a lot of fun, even at a 14 dress size. I think I will look back on these pictures and remember how happy and healthy I was in this time of my life, living in Japan with my happy, healthy family, while teaching and scrapbooking for a living. I highly encourage everyone to have something like this the archives of life.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Warning: There is a Life Lesson here...

Usually I use this blog as an opportunity to share my experiences in life, most recently, my living in Japan. I try to keep it positive, informative, and even when something crappy happens, address it with humor and humility.

But this time, in fair warning to you, the reader, there is something that has been weighing on my mind that I feel the need to write about, and it’s not positive or funny. But it IS important.

This week I have had two events that really made me stop and think. One, my husband was addressed by the sergeant major of the base… and not in a good way.  Two, a third of my college students earned a D or F in my class this semester. And I have come to realize that these two things are indeed related.

Let me start with point number one. This goes back to a 7- to 9-year-old league baseball game a little over a week ago. Xan’s team had a baseball game at 8 a.m. on a Saturday. A ridiculous time for a little league game, in my opinion, being a night owl and all, but that is what the schedule said, so we were there at 7:45 a.m…. with only the coaches in sight. Five minutes later, we had two more players. At game time half the team was there. The good news was that 1) the other team only had half of its members there, too, and 2), at this level the score is not officially kept because everyone is a winner, so no worries about forfeits. I could spend a whole other blog post refuting the “everyone is a winner” philosophy, but I won’t take up your time with that now…

At 8:15 a.m., a quarter of the way in to the game, we finally had a full field of players. Only three children had had any chance to warm up, which is SO critical. Kids who warm up properly prior to playing sports are less prone to injury. Not to mention that learning to be on time and committed to things is a life skill… but I will address this later.

Now, my husband is not the official coach for the team. He advises the official coach who is young enough to be my son (if I had been on a Teen Mom show in the 1990’s) and has never coached before. Rodney also works with the kids on the team with their batting, some of which have never connected bat to ball. At the end of the following the game, on Thursday, Rodney addressed the parents. I was not there to hear it because I was rushing Will across the base to his game… trying to make sure he would be on time to warm up. Essentially, Rodney told the parents to have their kids at games on time… for the kids’ own safety and to set a good example for timeliness… an important life skill. Now, how he said this, or the tone he used, I cannot say, since I wasn’t there, but there was no cussing, nothing that should have shocked anyone… except maybe that he was being honest and direct.

Yesterday, Saturday, Xan had a game at 9 a.m. And the base sergeant major and some sort of entourage was there to greet Rodney. Again, I was not there, but the gist of the brief meeting was that Rodney received four complaints from team parents, he should not be “condescending” to the team parents, and he needs to realize he is not coaching a major league team. Of course he is not coaching a major league team. Major league players who show up late to games are fined thousands of dollars.

So, essentially, the complaining parents were embarrassed about being called out publicly and decided to take their embarrassment as far as they could… in the form of an “official warning” to my husband who volunteers his time to help their kids. I really wish these parents would have been mature adults and addressed Rodney directly about their concerns. But that would have taken integrity and courage. It’s much easier to anonymously submit a complaint. Well, I hope these parents got what they wanted. Rodney will probably not be assisting on Xan’s team any more. This is unfortunate for those kids who were finally starting to actually hit the ball pitched to them. It is also unfortunate for Xan, who loves having his Dad working with the team.

And shame on the system that allows something like this to happen. Clearly, there wasn’t an investigation conducted. Supposedly there were four separate complaints, but after talking to the parents I know on the team, they were just as surprised and appalled as I was (or they are really good actors). Also, I personally could easily submit four separate complaints anonymously by using my home computer, my work computer and two computers at the library… but that’s not my point, so I will move on…

Point two: My failing students. I am an instructor who actually cares about my students’ future success. I really believe that college should prepare you to enter the workforce and teach you life skills, not just give you a degree at the end of four years, and a varying amount of random knowledge.  I also have high standards and I hold students accountable - that's part of the "life skills." You have to follow the assignment directions and you have to turn your work in on time (barring any emergency, such as a hurricane, an illness, or death in the family). A third of my 50 students could not do these things this semester. It killed me. It seemed so simple, but there was every excuse in the book, despite my warnings in the syllabus, lectures and written description of the assignments. “I forgot...,” “I had to work…,” “I have three other classes,” and the most common and my personal favorite since I am teaching an online class, “My computer/internet broke.” My answer: If you commit to something, don’t procrastinate and keep a calendar. That’s what successful people do.

I asked for feedback on the class at the end of the semester, and I actually had a student write: “I am a senior this semester and every single class so far has allowed me to submit assignments late. But this class had no such policy which caught me unaware when I tried to submit something a day late.” I really hope this is not true, that all of her other instructors didn’t adhere to deadlines. What is the point of a deadline, then? A responding student said, “It would have been nice to get at least partial credit for submitting something late. Maybe a 12-24 hour window?” Yeah, as far as I am concerned, that window is called ‘planning to have your paper finished a day or two early.’ My sympathy goes out to these graduating students’ unsuspecting future employers. Hopefully they, nor their clients, care about deadlines.

But after the baseball team issue this week, I can start to see where the problem lies… with the parents who signed their kids up for the baseball team, but can’t commit enough to show up on time. It sounds a lot like my students who register for the course, but can’t turn their work in on time. And then wonder why “I gave them an F.” No, honey, you earned that F. I had nothing to do with it. But, I bet your parents didn’t think it was important for you to show up at your baseball games on time. Blame them for you missing deadlines and getting an F. Or, better yet, you’re an adult… blame yourself. And have the integrity and courage to do it.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Finally made it to Kintai Castle...

Rodney's squadron commanding officer and his wife, Rebecca, came from Okinawa to Iwakuni for a short visit. I played tour guide this afternoon, showing Rebecca around the Kintai Bridge area, and finally got to see the Kintai Castle (pictured on the top of the hill, overlooking the bridge) up close and personal. Spring is the perfect time to go; the weather was gorgeous and the foliage and flowers even more so...

We got a quick picture with Joe. Joe is a Japanese national who was eager to talk with us. He worked aboard MCAS Iwakuni for 40 years and is now retired. He said  he doesn't have an opportunity to practice his English, so he talked with us for about 10 minutes, practicing. I've experienced this a lot, Japanese people wanting to practice their English, but Rebecca said this is not common in Okinawa at all.

There is a hiking trail up to the castle, but we chose the faster, and easier, ropeway.

The view from the top of the castle... the tallest white structure is the air traffic control tower aboard the air station. Closer to the castle slightly, and to the left, you can see my midrise, slightly hidden by the midrise behind ours.

If nothing else, the cost of the ride up and castle entry fee is worth the amazing view of the area. Just make sure to go on a clear day!