Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thankful this Thanksgiving for Skype

I just got off the "phone" (conference call via Skype between my two brothers' homes and mine) with my American family. We had a lovely hour-plus talk including two nieces, two sisters-in-law, my mom, my brothers and me. In my mind's eye, I could see every one of their faces as though we were in the same room. I heard myself laughing here and there and swore it was my dad's presence, because I found myself acting like him in a typical family call, holding back and doing more listening than talking and chuckling in all the appropriate places. (That part was a little spooky, because at least three different times my own laughter sounded like Daddy's.)

I had been peevish and off-color for the past three or four days, miffed that I couldn't enjoy feasting with the family, or eating turkey in any capacity as it is still rare in Japan and not found on restaurant menus (and I can't afford to cook one just for ME, at home). I had had to initiate a lot of correspondence to coordinate the time of the call, which would be acceptable to the three different time zones we occupy. I spent a lot of time with Skype turned on, sitting in front of my computer, hoping someone would think of me and want to call. As time went on and everyone's Skype icon was still set to 'offline' I began to feel more and more sorry for myself, making me even more peevish when I broke down and called my son to complain of the holiday lonelies.

But today I was so happy to finally hear all their voices and laughter, descriptions of wonderful dishes added to the Thanksgiving Day feasts they shared, have questions asked and answered about Christmas gift ideas and other family-related issues we discussed...the hour flew by in a flash, and I was left happy and satisfied, as full of love and contentment as I would have been to share the holiday with them in person.

All that satisfaction, and it didn't cost a cent--thanks to the wonderful men who invented Skype in the first place and put it out there for all to use. This year I am indeed grateful to you, sirs! May God bless you richly, as your generous invention has blessed my family and me!

Taken at Thanksgiving, 2005, the last time we could spend it all together

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


I just finished rewatching a video I have of the film, Spanglish. Directed by James L. Brooks (who directed As Good As It Gets), this movie stars Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni, Paz Vega and Cloris Leachman, and all of them gave really excellent performances.

My son is an Adam Sandler fan, so we have seen just about all that man has ever made. His comedies, which span the continuum from graphically gross to side-splittingly hilarious, are not well known for being subtle or overly sensitive. But his performance in Spanglish is top rate, and totally believable. My respect for him as an actor deepened significantly after seeing this film.

Another surprise was Téa Leoni's contribution as Sandler's wife, who borders on psychotic at times, she is so driven. I've seen Leoni in a lot of films in the past, too, and have never seen her own a role more than this one. Her character was absolutely pitiful, which of course, was the whole point.

As I grew up on Mary Tyler Moore sitcoms, I saw a lot of Cloris Leachman on TV as a child. But she was usually in one kind of role, and not a very lovable one, I'm afraid. But in Spanglish (as Leoni's mom), you feel for her character while simultaneously admiring her. She's topnotch in this film.

The Spanish actress, Paz Vega, was the greatest discovery for me in this movie. She's a beauty along the lines of Penelope Cruz (I checked her biography and there wasn't any mention of them being relatives, although they could be cousins as far as I'm concerned), and hers was a very compelling performance.

The basic story is Paz and daughter emigrate from Mexico to LA and she begins to work for Adam and Téa's family. The wife is always interfering with Paz's daughter, undermining the strong values being taught by Paz. Téa's character is also alienating to her own daughter, particularly, despite her everpresent "good intentions." Adam's character is a top chef with a celebrated restaurant of his own, devoted to his kids and wife, in spite of her dysfunctional quirks, but a sense of discontent is increasing around the time Paz joins the family as household "help." Her inability to speak English doesn't distance her from the family; rather, her warmth and vitality as a person breaks the language barrier. Adam grows steadily attracted to her, and she to his sensitivity as a man (in direct contrast to the typical Mexican macho type). But this movie isn't as much about growing romantic feelings as it is about family relationships, and the boundaries set by responsibity to them.

This movie was meaningful to me on a personal note, as well. While raising my son in Japan, I often felt as though the trends of pop culture and crumbling family values evident in Japanese society were competing with the basic tenets of morality, faith and common sense I was trying to instill to my son. Just as Paz and her daughter spoke Spanish between them, my son and I spoke English at home and in public, to keep a sense of privacy. Whenever we went to the states, we spoke in Japanese, for the same purpose. Classmates had exorbitant allowances and the latest game software or gadgets frequently bought for them, which I had no intention of imitating with my son. People tend to indulge and spoil kids here, and I felt I was always fighting that. So I identified with Paz's character's position.

The film was made in 2004 and came out in theaters that December. The critics' response ran the gambit, but it made 46 million in the box office. As it didn't turn out to be Oscar-winning material, Spanglish didn't make as big a wave as it deserved, but this is a must-see, in my opinion, just the same. It's available on DVD, and I highly recommend you checking it out at your neighborhood rental shop.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rest in Peace, Papa

My mom called tonight with the news that my father has passed away. He died the night of his 86th birthday, after fighting Alzheimer's Disease for over ten years (though it is difficult to pin down exactly when that affliction began). He was the greatest man I ever knew, and with his death an era has ended.

I was a shameless Daddy's Girl. My pop made me feel special and worthy of spoiling. I have two older brothers who always shared a room. From their perspective, I must have seemed the lucky one, getting a room to myself. But I often felt lonely and wished for a sister or a playmate. Thanks to my dad's attention and affection (liberally bestowed upon me, despite the restrictions of a college professor's busy schedule) I had a built-in comrade at home; someone to harmonize with when singing old standards in the car, a fellow Cubs fan to watch televised games and drink bottled Tab with on hot summer afternoons, a diehard supporter of my musical and artistic efforts, my own personal Candyman, generous to a fault.

My dad was bigger than life. A tireless volunteer, he selflessly gave his heart, soul, sweat and time to the YMCA; he served them first as a camp counselor and then as a Y executive, later as a professor in a university training Y staff people and as an International Y's Man. He organized countless fund raisers for Y World Service, and annually helped organize and walk in "Miles For Mankind" sponsored walkathons. He worked hard in our church, too. Both he and my mom were always on this committee or that, and his was one of the loudest voices urging us to support foreign missions.

My father always used to say he would rather wear out than rust out. He would never have chosen Alzheimer's as the way to die. He liked to feel useful, to help others. This was always his motivation behind the zillions of volunteer activities I saw him commit his time to through the years. Even in his retirement village, he was constantly lending a hand, visiting shut-ins, pushing a broom in the Alzheimer's Ward -- even after becoming a patient there! It was hard to just sit still. He wanted to earn his keep in life.

He had his share of quirks, Lord knows. And he passed on to his kids many of them: I'm a bundle of them, myself! But when all is said and done, I'm so very proud he was my dad. I'm grateful to God that he passed rather peacefully in the end. Mom said she could visit him daily at the end there...each time saying her goodbyes as though they were the last. Someone once called Alzheimer's Disease "the long goodbye" or something like that. Mom found that to be true. She's been gradually saying goodbye for the past year or more. And I have, too, I guess.

My dad will be remembered by many, I know. Rest in peace, Papa. I love you!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Joys of Reading

I am a big fan of reading book series. I got hooked on this concept as a girl, reading stories about the Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables; the Little House books, Perry Mason mysteries, Agatha Christie mysteries (starring both Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple), the Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, etc. I read all of the Boxcar Children books to my son. And in adult years I've read all of James Clavell's works, Jan Karon's Mitford series, the Left Behind books, the Harry Potter series, all of James Herriot's tales, and have reread countless times most of the beloved series of my youth.

I love getting to know the characters and hearing how they grow and change over an extended period of time. They become friends with whom I am eager to continue a relationship. I'm a sucker for sequels in the movies, too, although I'm often disappointed in the long run with cinematic Part Twos and Threes.

In the summer of 2007, while visiting my folks back in the states, my mom gave me a paperback she had finished reading called The Cat Who Went into the Closet by Lilian Jackson Braun. Presto! I was hooked on yet another wonderful series of stories, all about one Chicago journalist, his pet Siamese cats and the mysteries they solve first in Chicagoland, and later while living up in a forested area "400 miles north of everywhere" in the boondocks (probably of Minnesota, Wisconsin or Michigan--it is never entirely clear which state).

The story my mother had was smack dab in the middle of the series, so I decided to slowly order all the rest from, and have spent the last 15 mos. reading them all in chronological order. They're wonderful; comical, intriguing, and very entertaining! L.J.Braun cranks out a new one every few months and I've enjoyed them all. If you love cats and/or mysteries, I heartily recommend The Cat Who... series!

Does anyone out there have a book series they recommend??

Monday, November 3, 2008

Correspondence, Simplified

My folks and I have always shared a wonderful relationship via the postal system. My dad was a great one for supporting the local post office by taking out a post box annually and having most of his business and personal correspondence go to that address. He always wanted me to write him via his post box number.

Then I would write my mom separate letters to their street address, and I would write letters to the two of them to that address, too, which meant I always needed to lay in a supply of postage stamps. When a branch PO opened a few doors up the street, I was thrilled! It made keeping in touch via snailmail all that much easier.

My dad has Alzheimer's Disease, so for years his letters (which bless his heart, still came in the mail pretty often) were often written clearly showing by their content he had no idea who I was, or continued to say the same basic thing over and over. Every once in a while the letter would be lucid and obviously written when he had a grasp of who I was and could remember the jist of his (once extensive) vocabulary. These letters are now like treasures to me, never to be discarded. Because my father can not write me a letter anymore. He is in a wheel chair, slowly slipping away from this life, caught in the snare of a disease that has locked away his cognitive ability.

Now I write to my mom a couple of times a week, or once every five days or so. My letters are only reporting what my days have been like, or throwing in commentary on the weather or my students, etc. Nothing too earth shattering, I can tell you. But my mom is so happy to hear from me, it inspires me to pull out my stationery and airmail envelopes at the drop of a hat! I think of her so often, I might as well tell her so!

My parents used to call every three weeks or so, and although my mom and I did most of the talking, with my dad a silent listener in the background, he frequently would remind us of his presence by saying in a low, comical voice, "This call is being monitored!" or "Let's not rake up the national debt on this call, ladies." These days my mom calls me once a week and talks as long as an hour or an hour and a half. Though she often tells me something I've heard before, I am glad to be an audience for her detailed reports of visits to my dad at his nursing care facility, or to help brainstorm ideas for things to do with him. She always seems relieved to have heard my voice, so I'm glad it is therapeutic for her. And I'm always happy to hear her say how much she loves my letters!

I am so thankful for her letters to me, too, as now they are often the only ones I ever get in my mailbox anymore (save the occasional card from my son or brother's family). E-mail is a wonderful invention, but knowing it is always there does mean the art of sitting down and composing a letter by hand and mailing it through the postal system is gradually being lost from our society. My mom and her mother also wrote weekly letters to each other in the final decades of my grandmother's life. I'm happy to continue on with this tradition!