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From The New York Times: U.S. Warship Misses Thanksgiving in Hong Kong

[By the way, the heroine of the following story is not I. I spent Thanksgiving watching rented DVDs, surfing the Net, and ignoring the Sisyphean pile of laundry that could suffocate me if I inadvertently slipped and fell into it.]

Imagine you are a young Navy wife stationed in Yokosuka, Japan. You have never been out of the US before, and your tour in Japan has been filled with new experiences. But the truth is you haven’t done as many things as you would have liked to because your kids have school and various activities on base, your husband has been gone much of the time, and travel in Japan is somewhat expensive and exhausting becasue you don’t know the language. You know there are people who go on trips alone, but somehow you just haven’t done it. You also know your husband’s ship, the USS Kitty Hawk, is scheduled to be decommissioned next year. So, news of one of her last major port calls, Thanksgiving in Hong Kong(!), seems a perfect excuse to meet the ship, see a famous city (everyone says the shopping is great), and enjoy Thanksgiving together. Everyone says last year’s visit was fantastic, and they give you endless advice on which tailors to visit, which restaurants are the best, what to buy, what to see. It all sounds so tempting.

You make a reservation at a hotel that costs a lot more than you feel comfortable spending (two hotel rooms, you’ve got the kids with you, and you don’t want to miss out on deployment sex) and buy plane tickets. You read your guide books, arrange for someone to watch the dog, and away you go! You arrive in Hong Kong, check in at the hotel. Your heart is racing. You are very excited to see your husband. As usual, he was deployed this year May through early October, and then he left again late October. It was long spring and summer, and just when you were used to having him home again in October, he was gone. You look out the window of your room, you think of how much fun you are going to have, and you check your email…

You have messages from the CO’s wife and many fellow spouses who have come to Hong Kong. They are all veiled references to “the upcoming visit” stating that it may be canceled. You make lots of phone calls, again, speaking in code about what could be happening with the ship. You try not to freak out. You go to lunch with some friends, but you have a sick feeling the whole time that you have wasted a lot of money on this trip. A few annoyingly upbeat wives are saying, “Hey, these things happen, the ship gets caught in bad weather, there’s some emergency. Port visits get delayed and canceled all the time. Hell, one year there was a typhoon and we were all trapped in the hotel rooms. At least this time the weather is good.” This advice from older Navy wives does not, of course, make you feel much better, because in this case there is no emergency except China is jerking us around out of spite.

You imagine your husband on the ship. You know he’s feeling stressed out, upset he is missing a port call, doing lots of work as the ship circles about, and he’s worried about you. He knows you can handle things, but he’s worried just the same, and angry at the Chinese officials that have denied the ship’s visit. You feel sad that he might have to miss out on the fun, and feel guilty when you have a moment of pleasure walking along Hollywood Road.

You spend the first night agitated and sleepless. Thanksgiving Day dawns and you think you had better just make the best of it: the info from the CO’s wife is that the ship isn’t coming. You do your best to stay cheery and optimistic, and take the kids around town. After all, worse things could happen. He could be in Iraq; instead, he’s floating, safe, just outside the harbor.

What will happen now? Will they go into port? Our poor heroine, at least she got a knock-off Chanel purse and some dim sum…

[I’m sorry, Kitty Hawk and friends, that you missed your port visit. See you back in Japan. We’ll spend the $32 million you would have spent on Cantonese food and bespoke clothes on sake and sushi instead.]


Saturday, 29 September: I had sent an email out to everyone I could think of that Marc Broussard was coming to play a free show on base. The show was supposed to be outside, but it rained all day, so they moved it to the movie theater. We were practically skipping towards the theater at 4:45, worried we wouldn’t get a good seat. Some MWR organizers were milling about outside and greeted us a little too enthusiastically, “Hey! You folks here for the show?”

We were the first ones there. To my mounting panic, there were never more than 27 of us. I kept cursing the entire base for being a bunch of morons and not coming out to see Marc Broussard. You know why, of course: I was afraid Marc wouldn’t feel much like putting all his energy into a show for 27 people. Later we figured out that, of the 27, about half of the people were Navy Musician Mates. Some were family members of Braddigan’s band (including a baby so cute it made my cheeks ache, and who had little foamy ear plugs put in before the show). There were as many sound guys and assorted crew as there were audience members. We had convinced another couple, new friends, to come, and thus we settled in for Braddigan.

Braddigan played for 90 minutes, a fusion jazz, Latin, beach music, surfer song, yodelling mish mash, which was bizarre minstelry, but somehow it all held together. He’s new age earnest and gave us a full report on his charitable activities in Latin America and how he is bringing his “melody and light” to the people. One song, “Ileana,” was from his new album, The Captive. He wrote it about a 13-year-old, HIV-positive, drug-addicted prostitute who he met in a shanty town built in a garbage dump, and who, according to Braddigan, had “eyes as bright as stars.” His old band was Dispatch, which was clearly successful enough to fund lots of trips to Ecuador and Brazil. I’m being a bit glib; it was a great set and he was really a warm person when we were able to chat him up. After the show, he gave out lots of free DVDs about his charity work, and he was eager to demonstrate his Spanish skills to my bemused Latino husband.

At one moment during the show, after he had been playing for more than an hour straight, and clearly no one was guiding the flow of the show, Braddigan shielded his eyes from the stage lights and looked into the audience, “Hey, anyone out there going to tell me when to stop? I’ll just keep playing music forever.”

And then a few minutes later I caught Marc Broussard peeking out at the audience…

Yea, well, oh holy hell, Marc sauntered on stage, looked over the sad little crowd dispersed among the seats, and said, “Y’all are going to have to get your asses out of those seats. I’ve been doing a lot of these shows, and you gotta trust me, get up here. It’ll be boring for you and boring for us if you sit there. Git yourselves up here.” So all 27 of us came up, leaned against the front of the stage, and he seriously freaked us with a cover of Donny Hathaway’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” (his version of this song is reason enough to get his new album, S.O.S.: Save Our Soul). As he was making the hair raise on the back of my neck, I turned to my friend, who looked kind of stunned, and she mouthed, “Wow.”

And on it went: he and the band gave us more than an hour of Southern rock, funk, and soul jams, mixing in his own songs, “Come Around,” “Rocksteady,” “The Wanderer,” “Gavin’s Song,” with covers of Morris Day’s “The Bird,” Bobby Womack’s “Harry Hippie” (which he introduced as “one of my favorite songs”), Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Happening Brother,” Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” and Stevie Wonder’s “You Met Your Match.” There were a few other jams thrown in, but my notes were spotty in places. He finished up with his own song, “Home” (our video below).

A free concert on a rainy night for 27 people and he gave us a full serving of goodness. Then he hung around after the show, and handed out free CDs of the show they just did in Okinawa.

Marc told us where he was going next (to play on some ships), and was genial, real, charming, and self-depreciating. We thanked the band profusely for coming and left, humming and babbling with happiness. Go see him, and git yer asses out of your seats!

It’s still hot and muggy here on Ye Olde Kanto Plain, although this evening, finally, we had a break and a breeze. His Royal Highness and Naval Officer (pro tempore), Prince Charles Julius of Minatogaoka is home from sea for a short while, but had to spend all last weekend on the ship either on duty or giving tours for “Friends and Family Day.” I am probably the only spouse that skips this 6 am to 6 pm, day-long cruise, including wandering around the smelly ship, oohing and aahing over weaponry and fire extinguishers. I could barely make myself interested in ship engineering and weapon systems when I was a midshipman in college and I was being tested on it; it’s impossible for me to fathom a day on that ship now. Maybe if I could hang with the cook who, my husband reports, once made his grandmother’s jambalaya recipe for the XO’s dinner, now that would be a day out.

This afternoon I went to Nojima Park near my house for a BBQ given by the one of Yokohama’s International Lounges (my Japanese teacher volunteers there). I met a fairly interesting mix of ex-pats from Bulgaria, Switzerland, Canada, and the US—all men married to Japanese women and who had moved back to Japan. Oh, and a bunch of Japanese people, super nice, kind of embarassingly nice, the kind of nice that makes me want to run screaming, you know, nice. The Japanese volunteers grilled up some yakisoba, sliced beef, weiners, squid, and assorted veges. Against my better judgment, I impetuously ate some grilled squid, to which, tragically, over the past few years, I have developed a terrible allergy…but that’s another gastro-intestinal story. Back to the BBQ:

The Bulgarian and I talked about Kotooshu (the Bulgarian Ozeki) after we did the normal “Hey, you’re not Japanese!” ex-pat convo, which goes like this:

Hello, I am [insert random non-Japanese name, point at name tag]. How do you do? Where are you from? How long have you been here? Where do you live now? In a van down by the river, how interesting! Do you like it? Is it a quiet neighborhood? Do you have children? You sold them into slavery? Do you know where I can score some H? How about a decent baguette?

Small talk makes adrenalin pulse through my body. I’ve always suspected that everyone wants to skip the first five minutes anyway, so I usually do. My standard mode is to attack on the food angle. In this case, it was easy. I asked him if he knew of a place to get good yogurt, because the Japanese yogurt brands were too sweet, even when they were supposedly “plain.” That did it.

“Well, that’s difficult, because even the brand they call ‘Bulgarian’ here is no good, too sweet, what do they put in it? Like a kind of corn syrup or starch or something. Anyway, try the Co-op brand and perhaps the Meg Milk one. It’s all about getting a mixture of the Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus Bifidus…”

No lie, the dude could talk yogurt. I even scored a recipe for Tarator, the Bulgarian summer soup made of yogurt, cucumber, garlic (“if you like”), dill, some oil and water, and walnuts “to make it rich.” Here’s a recipe that seems to match what he told me. He says some people grate the cucumber, but he prefers a small dice on the cukes so they retain some crisp texture (“shredding makes it too soft and mushy”).

His wife was a very charming Japanese woman with whom I was enjoying a long conversation. But then she said a sentence which caused my conscious brain to stop functioning for a moment. In response to the question,”What was your favorite meal when you were a child?” she responded, “Well, when I was a kid, I was never interested in food.” I stared at the hyper-petite woman while my ravenous inner child cracked open a lobster and dipped it in butter, scraped a leaf of artichoke with her teeth, took a bite of orange poundcake, had a sip of overly gooey onion soup, and mentally ate enough for the two of us…plus a guest.

I’ve been reading Enduring Identities: The Guise of Shinto in Contemporary Japan by John K. Nelson. After some dry academic apologetics, he gets down to business and discusses sexual imagery in the important Kamigamo shrine in Kyoto. The Kamigamo priests are well aware of, and in fact are required to master, the meanings of all the religious symbols in the shrine, but the shrine does not advertise the sexual symbols in the official literature or on the public signs. According to Nelson, mostly the general Japanese public is not aware of the meanings of the symbols and the priests do not push it on what they feel would be a somewhat prudish, middle-class public. (This claim by Nelson surprises me as the Japanese are seemingly so open about sex in general, with their mangas and love hotels. In fact, they celebrate some pretty bawdy festivals which include giant phallases drunkenly paraded down the street. Perhaps Japanese attitudes towards sex are as convoluted as our own American hypocrisies.)

One of the sexual symbols is the aoi (hollyhock) motif, which appears throughout the shrine, carved into beams, printed on curtains, and designed as part of lanterns. The aoi consists of “two leaves at the base of a single, long stem with a slightly reddish, bell-shaped flower.” The architectural design (called an aoi layout) of the site includes a long, straight pathway flanked by the two main shrine buildings, all of which point directly at a sacred mountain. The official signs at Kamigamo also do not explain the founding myth of the shrine: a goddess finds an arrow in a river, puts the arrow under her “pillow,” and then becomes pregnant with the god of the shrine. My interest in Japanese shrines reinvigorated, I also come across the term imi, which is a temporary period of abstinence that Shinto priests (who are allowed to be married) observe to purify themselves before certain religious events.

I think about the ritual of Navy life: the ship’s deployment when the tangled sheets of the marriage bed are replaced by a kind of shrouded mourning, in body and in spirit. I no longer receive many words of support from friends or family during this time as everyone assumes one “gets used to” deployment, but what I find is each time the imi of deployment—when my husband gets to go do real Navy things on the rusty, stinky Navy ship, that bitch—is more and more difficult as the years pass. I resent it more than I did in the first years of marriage, when, quite frankly, we weren’t fused into a knowing look and an inside joke, the unified self that gradually emerged after these 14 years of marriage. I always “function” (go to work, keep the house, see friends, pay the bills), but something in me turns off, as if the electricity in the my brain were cut, and I must rely on candles which sputter and glow. I feel like I am sleepwalking, and joy and moments of laughter, when they come, seem surprising to me. I hear myself laughing, and wonder at the sound of it.

I don’t wonder at my laughter at his emails, in which he starts writing these Noel Coward jibes at pretty much everyone, except me, or during our phone calls when the ship pulls into a port, when he can mock me more gently and with the emotional audio content which he could not transmit via email. Then we enjoy the meandering, endless scramble of conversational subjects of a couple that has all the time in the world to tell each other everything. It’s the shorthand and intimacy of our years, so that a movie line is a whole paragraph and the name of a city is a metaphorical photo album.

We communicate now via email as often as possible (as opposed to 14 years ago when one had to write a real letter to the ship), but this paperless communication is sterile as one loses the touch of paper and handwriting and enclosed flowers and perfumed paper. The email has allowed us to write the small things, but somehow the larger themes can get lost in his requests for hot sauce and his preferred brand of deodorant.

For last year’s deployment I employed a distraction technique in which I became obsessed with Taylor Hicks. I wrote an email to the family about this last summer (2006) and continued with my calm, excellent descent into madness. Ask me anything about Taylor Hicks. No, don’t. This summer I purposely denied myself the comfort of an obsession for this relatively short four-month deployment to see how I could fly without it. I was numb and I tried to fill it with sake and pizza and udon and TV. You know: Plush velvet sometimes, sometimes just pretzels and beer, but I’m here.

When my husband comes home, we usually need a day to warily circle each other, feeling the vivid presence of our best friend who, for some reason, seems strange and new. We usually sit talking and eating, and I pour all my relief and skittish energy on him like holy water—until he chokes on it.

Then, when we’ve finished circling and come to rest, the imi will officially end, and I will be as impure and perfectly serene and spiritually realized as I can humanly be. The god will be back in place at the shrine.

Happy Independence Day!

Today I taught some Japanese ladies how to say “ell” (it was a bit pornish watching everyone touch the tip of their tongues to their upper front teeth). I got involved with Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds from 1934. Hardcore silent action. Then a second throw with commentary by Donald Ritchie. Yummy. I might get up the energy to say more about it later.

I heard sounds outside, opened the window and realized I was missing the fireworks on the Navy base, 3 miles away. Damn! I love fireworks. Good old America, I miss you.

I miss the Bolivian and Vietnamese restaurants in Washington, D.C., my grandmother’s house in Maine near the Lobstermen’s Co-op, the Night and Day Cafe in Coronado, CA, Sophia’s BBQ in Montgomery, AL, and I miss diners. Oh, diners, diners, diners. And pizza, foldy, floppy pizza. I miss the weight of the Sunday New York Times and the smell of bagels. I miss my friends and family and the home I don’t own yet.

I miss my gorgeous, immigrant, all-American, naval officer husband out there at sea. (Hey, baby, enjoy your time off the ship in some foreign port.)

I miss the horse I had when I was 13, on which I rode one day into an alfalfa field and interrupted a couple naked and screwing. I miss that one July 4th when we were in Leavenworth, KS in 100-degree weather watching some historical battle reenactment and I thought I was in hell. I miss my apartment with the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. I miss New Orleans, especially the time when things got a little out of hand, but we were ok enough to drive home the next day listening to that Cajun radio station. I miss Ithaca, NY and NYC and Memphis and San Francisco and Santa Fe.

Do I miss America or do I miss my life? America, you give me a headache, but baby, you’re the keeper of the flame, and you burn so bright.


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