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Arab Strap’s Philophobia, a musical compulsion of mine when I’m feeling sweaty on a summer evening, is a slow march of dreamy humid angst. Tonight I’m not quite lonely, more alone, and through the open windows an inefficient breeze sometimes cools me. Think I’ll strip down to avoid using the air conditioning. A/C is for the weak and wasteful. And this heat is nothing compared to what will come in August.

I roamed the streets of my suburban neighborhood this evening and watched the neighbors sweep the parking spaces in front of and beside their houses. Even the road is clean, barely a speck. One family jauntily displays a concrete slab on the side of their foundation with the whole family’s hand impressions, baby, children, and parents. It strikes me as radical and stands out among the sameness of the fake siding on all the houses.

Certain plants of mine are making it in the heat, but my blue such and such (low, tufted, with tiny light blue flowers, anyone out there a gardener?) has turned brown-yellow and must be plucked for aesthetic reasons. My neighbors’ gardens are fantasies of flower and foliage. One house has a full English garden arch festooned with ivy and beside it, baroque tufts of perennial color. Another yard is a minimalist’s dream of rocks and silvery leaves and tight purple swards of flowers. I am not a gardener, but I can see the order, the mismatched effort here as I pass house after suburban house. One house has a front porch, like some dream of Alabama, but the porch is unloved and sterile. It is a mockery of a porch, a porch that serves no purpose.

Down the hill in a much less affluent neighborhood is my favorite house, the rotting wreck of a once-beautiful traditional Japanese house. Its wood alone, its organic life, makes me feel my blood as I walk by. It’s abandoned and dying and so lovely I want to caress it. I am so safe in my neighborhood and my house is clean and tidy. I can’t quite hate it, but I don’t love it either. I never feel my heart skip with emotion up on the hill with the bourgeoisie. Next time, next time, we always say, we’ll pick a more edgy neighborhood, a neighborhood where we’ll be more involved in life, but in the end, we move into yet another safe and clean place and unpack the cocktail glasses. The eight Vietnamese monks with gold leaf faces and hands in our lacquer painting from Hanoi look down and pray for me.

A friend tells me long-distance to be less careful, let myself flow, and I wonder where to put my energies. This morning every kanji I carefully copied out—words like succeed, fail, attend, return—seemed to disappear moments after I made the shapes. My mind could not hold them. Kanji are beautiful love songs from Japan that slip past my memory and make kissing noises beside my cheeks. I try not to feel the futility of my efforts.

Today I packed a care package for my man. This involved wandering around a Japanese supermaket for dried miso soup mixes and tubes of wasabi and Japanese mustard and things to sprinkle over rice, and Men’s Pocky (the dark chocolate version). Anything to make the ship food more palatable. Then I went to base and raided the Navy Exchange and the Commissary: exfoliating face mask (the air on ship is full of fuel and general ship skank), new toothbrushes (seriously, go out today and replace your toothbrush, soft bristles, bacteria-free, you’ll see), and other signs of peaceful civilization.

I switch to Hayward Williams. He sings “Hold, hold me down, baby you’re only being cautious…” I will let myself sweat and not try to avoid the heat. I want to face the flowers that don’t grow under my care. Everything has been so careful that I like to feel a little perspiration soak my bra. I want to feel the summer grow in my skin.


The Japanese government has declared the baiu (summer monsoon) is officially on. And we did indeed have some rain the last two or three days. I find rain so cleansing and comforting that when I lived in a city with little rainfall I felt an ever-growing sense of inquietude and filth, as if the world was not getting a good cleansing. I was glad to leave that place where everyone told me the weather was perfect (72 degrees everyday) because the weather was just too fucking monotonous. I like my weather to riff a bit, to surprise me with a scat and a groove.

I had a dinner party on Saturday night. I invited four other temporarily manless (unmanned? man-free? murihito?) women and served them Moroccan food: salad with romaine hearts and oranges and cinnamon, whole-wheat bread with caraway seeds, stuffed meatballs cooked in a ras el hanout spiced date and onion sauce, and for dessert, mint tea, sesame cookies, and slices of watermelon. The recipes were from Cooking at the Kasbah by Kitty Morse. My father gave me the cookbook. It’s signed to me by the author, so my dad must have met her somewhere. I thought I’d give this new addition to my cookbook collection a test drive. It’s a pretty decent cookbook: lovely photos, some good background, recipes for staples like spice mixes and preserved lemons.

I just received some thank you emails for the dinner and the theme seems to be that I make entertaining look easy. I’m not sure why, but I suspect it has something to do with how I prepare. I chop everything that can be chopped, cook everything that can be cooked ahead of time. I lay out every utensil, every bowl, anything I may need. This seems logical and natural to me, and indeed makes everything easy. This kind of easy is deceptive because I must do the work of thinking of everything that will be needed and laying it all out.

There’s something else, though, in “easy.” For me, the kneading of the bread, the chopping of vegetables, the forming the spiced ground beef around wedges of hardboiled egg to make stuffed meatballs, all this is fun to me. I enjoy making my own food almost more than eating it because I taste and smell it for several hours, and by the end I am almost immune to it. Making food for me is about discovery and creation. I feel alive and connected to the world when bread rises, when rice steams, meat browns, onions melt down and caramelize, when a teaspoon of cardamom or cumin or a pinch of saffron perfumes the kitchen and the dish. I feel a connection to the place that the food comes from, even if I am cooking Moroccan in Japan. It may be an indulgent illusion to think oneself connected to other places through food, but I know of no other instantaneous way to sample a culture. Language and art require some study. Food is one way (along with music) one can spontaneously enter another culture. So, if it looks easy, perhaps it is because I’m having such a lovely time.

Still, even with food and music, familiarity makes for deeper appreciation and ease. So, I can whip up a Moroccan-style meal in a couple of hours because I have cooked similar dishes before. I have used the whole range of spices, and I am past having to be careful as I add ingredients. Perhaps I have a feeling before I even read the recipe what the recipe will include; I just rely on the measurements as a guide. I often change ingredients or amounts knowing I like extra this or that. I often pull out several cookbooks and then make a meta-recipe from several versions of the same dish. I have tasted enough in restaurants and home cooking in many countries, through many different cookbooks to understand what I am going for. When you have tasted only a few things in life, the new can seem frightening and overwhelming. For me, experience only deepens my appreciation and makes the work light. The difference between a jaded palate and an epicure’s delight is all in one’s spiritual attitude.

All this shows that easy is relative. Easy is hidden behind experience. A musician makes a performance look easy because he has done it hundreds and hundreds of times before. He can add or subtract at will, change up the recipe because he knows exactly how to adjust the musical ingredients. So, what I read in my thank you notes is I have become smoother at the performance, not that the effort is inherently easy.

I washed the dishes, put things away, and spent today in a meditative mood as the rain lightly showered and cleaned everything. I listened to a little Van Morrison; I watched too much TV, and ate some leftovers. I missed my husband and thought of what we’d be doing if he were home. (We’d be laughing.) Having weathered many such deployments, I know how to help myself get through the long months of feeling physical yearning, self-pity, boredom, annoyance, depression, transference to an obsession to help pass the time, and occasional moments of joyous transcendence. Making dinner can be a deeply healing activity. Being a Navy wife is difficult, I suppose, but I’m pretty sure from the outside I make it look easy.

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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