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On Japanese TV. I was flipping through the channels and happened upon a show about “eco housing.” The show featured a young lady showing two young men around a test village with eco adjustments like organic farming, using a French press to make coffee (to save paper filters), and an outdoor oil drum used as a bath. I’m not sure why an oil-drum bath is “eco” (I couldn’t see how the water was heated) but one of the young men immediately stripped naked right on camera (there was a modesty block on his family jewels), lowered himself into the steaming vat, and pronounced it “good.” There was also the normal Japanese TV show picture-in-picture feature that showed the panel of semi-famous, in-studio people watching and reacting to the show. I don’t know why the Japanese love to see other people watching the same show they are watching. Perhaps the audience members feel reassured when some pop singer looks confused/sad/amused about that which they too feel confused/sad/amused. After the eco demonstration, again, per normal, the show cut to the in-studio panel for discussion.

When the young woman took the men (sporting green jackets with embroidered “ECO” logos) into the organic greenhouse, she pulled up a turnip. She wiped it carefully on her pants leg and handed it to the comedian of the pair. Comedy-san took a bite of the raw turnip and thought about it for a moment. She asked, “Well, how does it taste?” And he deadpanned, “Like dirt. [Pause] 100% dirt.”

The three of them cracked up in the greenhouse (as did the studio audience and the panel). I sat very satisfied with myself that I had understood lame humor in Japanese. I’m giving myself small prizes for tiny victories: last night I gave myself a pizza. Then I watched my cooking show where I learned how to make a cold cream of fava and shiso soup. It was a full evening.

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I was in my hair salon to get my roots touched up, and a vision of old Japan walked in for a complicated upswept hairdo. She was wearing a single woman’s kimono, which has long “sleeves” (the part that hangs down under the forearm). Miss Japan’s kimono was white with springtime colors, shades of pinks and blues on the design at the bottom of the hem. She came to the salon before a special meeting with her future in-laws, a pre-wedding ceremony. After she had her hair done, I watched her chit-chat with the staff and have her photo taken while I waited with my rejuvenating hair well-secured in plastic wrap.

The one male staff member came over and asked if I wanted something to drink. I tried my old-fashioned word on him: Ohiya o kudasai. (Please give me cold water.) [See here for previous discussion of ohiya.] His face went blank, he looked like he wanted to say something, and then went away. Miss Japan was getting wrapped up in her light summer overcoat, which had many internal and external strings to tie in bow knots. She was beaming under her hairdo piled up and decorated with pins and flowers. Then, as she shuffled off in her zori (traditional sandals), I noticed the background music was Ne-Yo’s “Because of You.” I looked up to read a little Japlish on a sign next to the mirror: “Ruche 2007 Birth Hair Campaign.” This sign means to encourage Japanese women to get a new hairstyle or color; it’s not a suggestion to recreate the natural, je m’en fou fuzz one sports when emerging from the womb. I was suddenly aware that we were having an international hair salon moment brought to us by American R&B and the fine folks at Ruche.

Then my guy came back. He had cold hojicha (roasted green tea). Ah, yes, hiya means “cold,” so he had decided that I must have meant cold tea. I sat looking at the glass for a while, wondering if I should say something. Instead, he asked me if I wanted a shoulder and head massage.

Head and shoulder massage come free with a cut in Japanese salons. This is no perfunctory trapezius pinch performed by an untrained shampoo girl. No, in my experience the massage is an extended shiatsu session with a lovely thumb walk down my upper spine’s pressure points, a vigorous clapping on the shoulders, and full head squeeze. Of course, this comes after the shampoo girl has completed her work: she washes and rinses my hair, places a hot, wet, rolled towel under the back of my bent neck and the same on my forehead, and then rubs my temples for a moment. After that she drapes a dry towel over my head, and rubs out my ears, a soft little exploration of the folds of my pinea. It is only after I am returned to the styling chair that I am ready for the shoulder and head massage. With all this extra attention, having my roots refreshed and a haircut in my salon takes quite a long time. This is a medium-priced salon in a medium-sized city. It’s a lot of work being a Japanese hairdresser.

My stylist, Junko, was ready to start cutting my hair. As she combed my wet hair with her fingers, I asked her about ohiya: “Does it mean ‘cold water’?” She smiled and pulled a chunk of hair out horizontally and snipped it. “Yes, but it’s an old word that no one uses anymore. It’s an old lady word, a 50-year-old word.” I nodded, “That’s about right. My teacher is older than that.” She smiled indulgently at me through her terribly hip rectangular eyeglass frames and looked back at my hair. What Junko doesn’t know is I’ve decided I enjoy the startled look on the faces of young waitresses and hairdressers when they hear old words come out of my foreigner mouth.

I’m inexpert and semi-illiterate here, so I must learn language and culture like a child, through play and exploration. I often take a walk in the old neighborhood down the hill from my modern suburban development. I pass an old dilapidated traditional Japanese house. It rests alone, boarded up, but it was once a modest, but beautiful home. The front entrance has an expensive cedar pole under the eaves of the entrance, and next to the house is a huge craggy boulder to adorn the garden. These two details and the bare bones of the expensive but dead plants in the garden tell me that someone once spent money on and gave love to this house. My husband and I fantasize about buying it, restoring it, and sitting in the garden drinking sake while we gaze at the moon. Of course, we don’t live in an old Japanese house. We live up the hill in a 5-year-old house that has insulation, underfloor heating, and a computerized bathtub that I can program for some future hour to be filled and kept hot. I’m comfortable in my house, but I keep looking down the hill at the old house, wondering why its owners are letting it rot.

My Japanese teacher has promised to teach me more old words. I like the idea of her waging a one-woman war against linguistic obsolescence. It’s a losing battle against the natural progression of language. Yet, older Japanese people tell me these changes are happening very quickly. This is no progression of idiom: the Japanese language is losing words that describe their culture.

I am aware, however, that Miss Japan with the fancy hair and the white kimono will have to be obsessive about keeping the kimono clean and about wearing it properly. She will go home after her meeting with her future in-laws, undress and carefully pack away the kimono. A kimono is sent to the dry cleaners rarely, if ever, because it would harm the fabric and the process would be so expensive that it wouldn’t be worth the effort. So, kimono are worn like one would wear a piece of art. They are passed down in families and grow in value with age. Once she’s packed away the kimono like a museum curator, she will gratefully pull on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. She’ll text her best friend that she got through the big meeting okay without messing up too much on the etiquette. Maybe she’ll order a pizza because she doesn’t feel like cooking. It’s a lot of work being a Japanese bride.

I can throw ohiya around like a child because I don’t have to get dressed in the language or do the work of maintaining it. I wonder what other words I can try on.

My Memorial Day is well-nigh done, 8 pm in Japan, but the day is just starting for Americans ready to barbeque and shop and make speeches. I’m listening to Lina Sastri and drinking an Asahi Super Dry and missing my husband, who is deployed on a U.S. Navy ship. My Japanese teacher asked me this afternoon where he was and all I could say was umi ni (in the sea). I’m not sure if that’s grammatical. Perhaps it sounded a bit ominous and Jules Verne-ish. She didn’t correct me. She tends to take pity on me by the end of class, allowing me to chat in horrid Japanese, crashing around in her language while drinking green tea and eating traditional snacks that she picks out in order to offer me something new each week. She’s lovely.

I love her most for teaching me words that make Japanese people laugh at me. Recently she taught me the proper word for cold water, ohiya, and I tried it out in a restaurant. The waitress looked at me and politely giggled, but she did bring me cold water. I asked my teacher about this at the next class, and she explained that many Japanese people don’t use that word anymore and just say omizu (the general term for water). She admitted that a waitress hearing a gaikokujin using a somewhat overpolite and old-fashioned word might feel a bit amused and disconcerted. The fact that my teacher sends me out into the world with words to disconcert her fellow Japanese is delightful and makes me adore her. Why learn current Japanese when you can sound like a courteous old fart?

But I digress…

Lina Sastri is a hot, throaty singer who reinterprets Neapolitan songs. Go get her album Maruzzella and play it out the window as you sit outside—at dusk, drinking wine—with a lover. Lina is singing for me today because my husband and I were once stationed in Naples. I’m remembering my man in our favorite local restaurant, the one where they no longer bothered to bring us the menu. We’d just tell them if we were extra hungry or normal hungry and they would make us up whatever was best that day. Perhaps we would eat mixed vegetable contorni, a light pasta, and a whole grilled orata. Sometimes we would look up, olive oil glossing our lips, and grin at each other recognizing our ridiculous good luck.

For tonight, Asahi Super Dry, in a portion-controlled can, will have to do. If I open a bottle of wine I will finish it, if you know what I mean. My husband has been gone for a week and won’t be back for months. The seventh day is hard because my mind and body finally wake up to the fact that he’s just not coming home any time soon.

It sucks that he’s gone, but he’s not in Iraq. That’s how military spouses cope: “Well, at least he isn’t…”. There are levels of danger and anxiety. Currently, I’m only allowed a low 3 or 4 out of 10 on the spouse anxiety whining. He’s on a ship, which is dangerous in the sense that a floating factory filled with explosives is dangerous. Besides the obvious things like industrial accidents and the fatty food they serve in the mess, there’s the crazy fact that people tend to fall off ships. People fall off for many reasons, sometimes on purpose. Their shipmates try to find them, but sometimes they don’t. Still, my husband is not in Iraq. Spouses of Marines or Army infantry in Iraq get the big 10 anxiety ticket. And for those in the big 10, I send my thoughts out to you, and I hope you have a drug that works for you: wine, Ding Dongs, devoting yourself to your children, surfing the Web, exercise, shopping, whatever gets you by.

I don’t care to pontificate about Memorial Day itself except to say, remember. Please do your best to remember those who have done and are doing the hard work of war, whether or not you like the work being done. Plus, it’s good to be reminded that little worries, like getting a good parking space at the mall or conjugating Japanese verbs, should be savored. To worry is to be alive.

Baby, don’t stand too close to the rails.

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